Out Now – Splashdown in the Pacific

You know what’s good? Pictures. You know what’s even better? Words. You know what’s best of all? Shoving them together to make comics.

Which is my way of saying that I have a new comic out – an issue of Commando titled Splashdown in the Pacific, it’s the story of an American reconnaissance pilot who’s enjoying the quiet of the early Pacific campaign until he meets an Australian officer with a taste for adventure. When they set out on a mission to look for the Japanese fleet, things go downhill fast. There’s a dogfight, a shark attack, a jungle trek, and more.

This story was originally inspired by a photo Commando shared on their Twitter feed, showing the crew escaping from a plane that had been shot down over the ocean. That got me thinking about what that crew might encounter and especially what could make the situation worse. Pretty much everything that crossed my mind is thrown in here, from the aforementioned sharks to Japanese patrols and deadly snakes.

The early stages of the Pacific war were a tense time. After Pearl Harbor and the Japanese seizure of European colonies in the Pacific, it was clear that they were going to head south for an invasion of Australia. The Allies knew that they were coming, but not when and where.

There, as elsewhere in the war, aerial reconnaissance was vital. As Ralph Bennett explains in his book Behind the Battle, there had been a mad scramble to rebuild military intelligence services internationally due to their neglect between the wars. Aerial reconnaissance was a vital part of this work, especially in the wide expanse of the Pacific. A story about two guys taking photos wouldn’t be very exciting, but by putting them in peril, I’ve found a way to make the action centre on them.

As is often the case in war stories, the conflict doesn’t just come from facing the enemy. Being on the same side can trap people together and exacerbate their differences, creating huge tensions. It’s why Richard Sharpe is constantly arguing with the officers on his own side. Stories get dull if everybody’s working well together.

Which is where Mike Anderson comes in. Mike is one of the characters I’ve most enjoyed writing over the past year, and not just because I had fun throwing in Australian dialect. He’s confident, entertaining, and outspoken, which comes across as annoying and abrasive to someone who’s stressed out and just wants a chance to think. Can you see where this is going?

Like most Commando comics, Splashdown in the Pacific is a pulpy action adventure. But like all the best pulp adventures, it’s not the sharks and the snakes and the crashes that make it – it’s the characters and how they relate.

***

If you like Splashdown in the Pacific then you might also enjoy my collection of history and alternate history stories…

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Gremlin in the Gears – a flash fantasy story

“Get your bally plane into the fight, Houghton!”

A Spitfire in flight

Squadron Leader Royce’s voice rattled from the radio of Arthur Houghton’s Spitfire. The air ahead was full of planes, twisting and tumbling through the late summer sky. The squadron were fighting for their lives and Houghton was stuck, his plane refusing to accelerate to full speed or to make more than the slowest of climbs.

“I’m trying, sir,” Houghton replied over the roar of the engine. “I swear, there are gremlins in my gears.”

“Stop blaming your machine and get stuck in.”

Houghton gritted his teeth as he wrestled with the trembling controls. Why was it always his plane that failed? No wonder the others whispered about cowardice just on the edge of his hearing.

He tilted his head and peered out of the cockpit. A green head with bulbous eyes stared back at him. Something was peeling back the housing of his engine, something with jagged teeth, an oil-stained arm, and a fistful of frayed wires.

“It can’t be.” Houghton stared wide-eyed at the creature. “It’s a gremlin. An honest to goodness gremlin.”

“I swear to God, Houghton, I’m going to have you on a charge,” Royce snarled.

Houghton yanked the stick, turning the Spitfire into a sudden roll. The gremlin swung loose, hung for a moment by one hand, and then vanished from view.

Grinning, Houghton straightened out and accelerated towards the fight.

“I’m on my way, sir.”

A Messerschmitt 109 loomed in the sky ahead of him. He pressed the trigger on his guns and bullets tore through the air, missing the enemy by inches. The 109 started to turn. Houghton followed, lining up his guns, almost ready…

A green face plastered itself across his view. He yelled in alarm as the gremlin gnashed its teeth.

Then the creature turned and ran down the front of the engine. Somehow, the speed of the plane and turbulence of the air didn’t shake it off. It bent open the engine housing and thrust a hand inside.

The engine sputtered and failed. Houghton found himself drifting into a terrifying glide with no power and little control. He hammered at the started, but got only the most fleeting of growls.

The 109 had completed its turn and was hurtling towards him. Bullets tore through Houghton’s wingtip, then crept closer as the pilot narrowed his aim.

The 109 was nearly on top of Houghton. The gremlin stood by the open engine panel, grinning as it stuffed something oil-covered into its mouth, then came running back along the plane to jump up and down on top of the cockpit, smearing Houghton’s view with its oily feet.

In desperation, he punched the instrument panel. Something shook loose and the engine gave a strained growl.

Seizing on that brief moment of power, Houghton flew up into the path of the 109. The German turned to avoid a collision. Houghton spun his plane and pushed the stick. For a moment, the underbelly of the enemy was inches from the top of his cockpit.

There was a thud, a shriek, and the two planes peeled away from each other. When Houghton looked back, he saw something green clinging to the front of the 109. Smoke was streaming from the 109’s engine.

He pressed his starter. The engine roared into life – not healthy, but working.

He reached for the radio, about to tell the others what he’d seen, to prove that he wasn’t a coward. Then he realised how it would sound.

“Sorry, Squadron Leader,” he said as he turned to join the dogfight. “Lost my nerve for a minute there, but I’m with you now.”

***

The myth of gremlins, malicious creatures that stop machines working, originated with the Royal Air Force in the 1920s and ’30s. By the Second World War, it had become common to blame unexplained mechanical failures on gremlins, a better way of venting frustrations than blaming colleagues in the heat of war. Roald Dahl popularised the idea beyond Britain, and so a legend was born.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Closing In On The Details

When you’re evoking a different world, whether it’s a fiction or the past, details matter. Details make it surprising. Details make it real.

I’ve been reading a book called Freedom’s Battle, Volume 2. It’s a collection of first-hand accounts of the air war in World War Two, mostly from the British point of view. As you can guess from the title, it’s not the most balanced perspective on the war, perhaps not surprising for a book that came out in the 1960s, when the memory of that conflict was still raw for many people. But for all its faults, this is a fascinating book.

There are so many details I could never have imagined for myself. The reality of what it’s like to be in a plane as it’s shredded by gunfire. The horrors of being adrift on the Atlantic without supplies following a crash. The crude songs to keep spirits up. The articles written by airmen, spoofing life in service. What it’s like trying to spot enemy aircraft at night.

Secondary sources, those history books analysing what happened and why, are great for a broad perspective and to understand cause and effect. But to understand what events feel like, to get a sense of the reality of lived experience, nothing beats firsthand accounts. All those strange, unimaginable little details make the world come alive.

The Power Plant Paradox – a flash scifi story

By the light of a small torch, Claudine set her explosives against the base of the generator. She glanced around but there was no sign of the power plant’s guards, only Philippe staring vacantly at the machines.

She shook her head and pulled out a fuse. If they relied on Philippe, then France would be occupied by the Nazis forever. But the British agents who supplied their explosives expected to talk to a man, and so…

A light flickered and she looked up in alarm. A man in denim trousers and a t-shirt stood beside her, behind him a bearded figure wearing chainmail and carrying an axe. The one in the t-shirt touched her shoulder, there was a flash, and the world spun away.

Suddenly, it was daylight. The three of them were in a jungle clearing, the air thick with the smell of flowers and the calls of birds. Claudine dropped her fuse and leapt to her feet.

“What the hell?” she asked, staring at the two men.

“Hi.” The one in the t-shirt waved a hand. “My name’s Joel. I’m from the future. This is Durwin. I borrowed him from Kent in 1064.”

Durwin’s mouth hung open as he watched a pair of parrots fly past.

“Take me back,” Claudine demanded. “I have a mission.”

“It’s OK,” Joel said. He looked down at a gadget in his hand and started playing with its dials. “I just need you for a few hours for my art installation. Once I’m done, I’ll take you back to the moment I borrowed you from. You won’t even remember any of this.”

“My country has been occupied by the Nazis.” Claudine grabbed Joel by the scruff of his neck. “I don’t have time for your damned art project.”

“It’s OK.” Joel smiled and put on a calming voice, like he was trying to sooth a toddler. “I couldn’t have picked you out of the time stream if your actions mattered. All the records show that Philippe Blanc destroys the power plant at Grandville.”

“The only thing that pretty boy could destroy is a baguette. Now take me back!”

“I just need to pick up one more-”

Durwin tapped Joel on the shoulder and said something Claudine couldn’t understand.

“Seriously,” Joel said, looking back and forth between them. “Neither of you matters to history. This is your chance to contribute to the world of art.”

“To hell with art.”

Claudine snatched the device out of Joel’s hands. It had clearly been adapted, with electronic components spilling out of its original casing. Joel stared at her aghast.

“Give that back.” He grabbed the device but Claudine wouldn’t let go. They tussled over it while Durwin’s protests grew in volume. Joel twisted, jerked, and wrenched the device from Claudine’s grip, leaving her with a handful of loose components.

“Oh fu-” Joel began, staring in horror at the dangling wires.

The world seemed to ripple around them. One minute they were standing in the jungle, the next on a snowy mountainside overlooking a herd of mammoths. More ripples and they were in a city of glass and chrome, a sandstone fortress, a cluster of tents in a desert oasis. Claudine’s stomach churned. Durwin stared, mouth hanging open again.

“Shit shit shit.” Joel worked frantically at the device, twisting wires together, clipping components onto each other, prodding at buttons. At last the world went still, leaving them on a hillside at night, listening to the rumble of traffic on a multi-lane road below.

Claudine wanted to scream for a dozen different reasons. Instead, she held her wonder and her frustration inside, as she always had to.

“Send me home,” she said, fighting to keep her voice steady.

“Fine.” Joel rolled his eyes. “But you could have been part of something special.”

“I already am.”

Durwin spoke, the sounds low and guttural.

“Yes yes, you’re part of something special too,” Joel said, patting the baffled looking warrior on his shoulder.

Joel pulled a card from his pocket, slid it into the side of the device, and turned a dial. Suddenly they were back in the factory, right where Claudine had been planting her bomb.

She glanced around. Still no guards or soldiers. Down the machine hall, Philippe was frowning as he pushed too many wires into his bomb.

“Happy now?” Joel whispered.

“Piss of now,” Claudine replied. “I have work to do.”

“Your loss,” Joel said. “Not that you’ll remember.”

The world rippled and Joel and Durwin were gone.

Claudine looked down at the bomb she had been planting. Why was she standing up? And why hadn’t she put the fuse in yet? Time was of the essence. If the Nazis caught them it would mean disaster.

She opened her hand, revealing a fistful of electrical components she didn’t recognise. No fuse.

Well, she would just have to improvise. With a few of these wires, her watch, and the batteries from the torch, she could make something work. There was still time before the guards came round again. Just enough time.

* * *

Over on Twitter, I often talk about what I’m writing today. Sometimes this leads to weird combinations that leave you wondering what sort of story they’d make, and sometimes friends challenge me to write that story. Which is how I ended up with a time travel story involving a Saxon warrior, a 20th-century saboteur, and a jungle trek (alright, I left out most of the trekking, but I think this still counts). I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, please share it with friends and maybe sign up to my mailing list to receive weekly bursts of fiction.

Some Upcoming History Films

I love historical films. I blame my dad for that. He raised me on a diet of westerns and World War Two movies, in between the sci-fi. It’s part of why I do what I do today, including writing scripts for Commando comics and articles for War History Online.

But there’s a bit of a problem with historical film-making. A lot of the time, it covers stories people already know well. Like superhero remakes, those stories are safer box office options, as the studios know that people will be interested. It’s great that we had a movie about Dunkirk, but that’s an incident that’s already gone down in legend. What about the important stories we forget?

That’s why I’m excited about a couple of upcoming films.

First, there’s Hurricane, the story of Polish pilots flying for the RAF during the Second World War. It’s a reminder that no nation ever stands alone, and therefore important to busting some jingoistic myths. Even without that, I’d want to see the story of men who crossed a continent to keep fighting against the Nazis, who faced prejudice and confusion in a strange land, and who were part of one of history’s greatest conflicts.

The second trailer makes it look a lot better than the first one did, which is a relief. Plus it’s got Iwan Rheon, who was fantastic in Misfits and Game of Thrones.

Then there’s Peterloo, an incredibly timely piece of film-making from Mike Leigh. It’s about the Peterloo Massacre of  1819, in which peaceful protestors were attacked and killed in Manchester.

The Peterloo Massacre has incredible symbolic importance as a reminder of the power of protest and how the powerful treat dissent. It highlights the connections between social, political, and economic factors in reinforcing existing power structures. And sadly most people aren’t aware of it even in the UK. At a time of growing inequality, protest, and political turmoil, it’s a story we could all do with learning again.

Historical films have power. They keep the past alive in our imaginations and so help us understand the present. I can’t wait to see these less familiar stories on the big screen.

When the Nightingales Return – a flash historical story

“The nightingales have stopped singing.” It was the first thing Olga said when she arrived home from the war. Not “Hello.” Not “I’ve missed you.” No tears on seeing her family again. Just the nightingales.

I looked my older sister up and down. If the war had gone on another year, I might have ended up like her. Hair cut short, dressed in a fraying uniform designed for a man.

“The birds flew away during the fighting,” our mother said. “Never came back.”

She didn’t mention the others who never came back. Whole villages that had been burned to the ground. Jewish neighbours dragged off by the Nazis.

“I missed the nightingales,” Olga said.

She said little else for the first few weeks. She helped readily enough with the work around the farm, but it was as if some part of her wasn’t really there. She would stare off into the distance, lost to us. All those times I had imagined her return, it had been nothing like this.

I tried to find the sister I had known. I shared gossip about our remaining neighbours, anecdotes about the dogs, stories where the cat fought animals twice its size. None of it drew a response.

“The nightingales will be back soon,” I said one day, as I saw Olga gazing into the treetops.

“Really?” Her face showed its old brightness for the first time since the war.

“Of course,” I said. “This is their home.”

I had thought that answer would cheer her further, but instead she looked away sadly.

“Home changes.” She tapped her chest. “In here.”

That night I couldn’t sleep. The thought of her face in that moment, of those words and what they might mean, left me sobbing quietly in the dark.

In the days that followed, I became even more determined to lift Olga out of the darkness. I didn’t mention home again, but I talked often about the nightingales’ return. I brought her presents – bunches of flowers, interesting stones, models I whittled from scraps of wood. A collection grew on top of her chest of drawers, a cluttered tribute to my failure. Each one earned me a “Thank you,” but never a smile.

The pain of rejection grew within my heart. Every moment around her was a fresh wound, but I couldn’t stay away. Olga had done so much for us. I had to do this for her. I had to make things better.

“What am I doing wrong?” I finally blurted out one day, as she sadly added another of my gifts to the heap. “What can I do to make you happy?”

“Tatiana, please,” she said. “Stop.”

“No. I won’t stop. I can’t stop. Not while you’re so miserable! What can I do?”

“What can you do?” Anger flared in her eyes. “Can you bring back my friends who died? The men I shot? The thirteen-year-old boy I stabbed to death on the streets of Berlin? Can you wash my soul clean?”

From the next room there came a crash of breaking china, followed by our mother’s sobs.

“I would do anything to mend your wounds,” I said through streaming tears.

“I do not need to be mended. This is who I am.”

That night, I curled up beside my mother in her bed, as I had when I was small, and we cried ourselves to sleep.

The next day, I went to work in the fields beside Olga. I offered no jokes, no anecdotes, no gifts. And over the days that followed, the weight upon my heart slowly lessened. It would not go, but at least now it could be borne.

“Look,” Olga said one day, pointing at the nearby treetops. “The nightingales have returned.”

* * *

 

This story was inspired by The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, a historical account of the experiences of female Russian soldiers in the Second World War. You can read more about it here.

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History, Emotion, and the Unwomanly Face of War

Human life is driven by emotion. Yet most history books show little feeling, focusing on facts over experiences. This is particularly true of military history, despite the intense emotions war evokes, from the exhilaration of combat to the depths of grief.

The Unwomanly Face of War breaks this pattern in extraordinary style.

A Powerful Read

The Unwomanly Face of War was researched and written by journalist Svetlana Alexievich. It details the experience of women serving in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. When it was first published in 1985, it was a groundbreaking work, revealing a side of the war that fitted poorly with the USSR’s official accounts. Extraordinarily, despite its huge significance and international impact, it only appeared in English last year, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Most of the book is filled with veterans’ own accounts of the war. These provide powerful testimonies to the experiences of these soldiers, sailors, pilots, and support staff. Their struggles, their traumas, their losses, their fleeting moments of joy, all are laid bare on the page. From saving lives by leaping upon burning tanks to losing a baby while hiding in a swamp, both the details and the way they are presented catch at the heart in a way that most military history doesn’t.

In this book, we read the human experience of war in a way seldom seen elsewhere.

The Author’s Shadow

Like any history book, this isn’t a simple presentation of facts, but their careful cultivation to prove a point. Alexievich is open about this, making her role explicit throughout. She describes finding and meeting these women, talking with them, and making difficult decisions about what to include.

Making the audience aware of the author can often create a sense of distance. In this case, it brings us closer to the story. Alexievich describes her own reactions and those of the women to being asked about their lives. The way the war still affects them decades later adds to the power of what these veterans have to say.

Another Side of Humanity

This book is important because it shows the underrepresented role of women in fighting the Second World War. It explores the extra challenges they faced and the way the war transformed their lives. It pays tribute to their courage, skill, and tenacity.

In doing so, it reveals how incomplete our view of military history is. These women struggle to express their stories, for a range of social, political, and personal reasons. Yet they are able to reveal aspects of war that few men could discuss, indoctrinated as we are to bury our feelings and hide our weaknesses. I have read dozens, probably hundreds of books based on men’s accounts of war, and never felt like I had a complete view of it as a human experience. The Unwomanly Face of War fills an important gap in that picture.

Reading these stories, it feels like an act of madness to have ignored them for so long. But perhaps that ignorance was protective, a way of hiding ourselves from the traumatic reality of conflict. Never having been a combatant, I’ll never truly know, and I’m grateful for that. But I’m also grateful to Svetlana Alexievich for revealing to me another face of war.

“Why We Fight” – Getting a Story’s Name Just Right

One of the hardest parts of writing a story is finding a good name. It should evoke atmosphere, draw attention, maybe even add something more to the meaning of the tale. I don’t find a title I like even half the times I write. So when a story does it really well, that’s worth looking at.

“Why We Fight”, the ninth episode of historical drama miniseries Band of Brothers, has one of the most perfectly chosen titles I’ve ever found. It evokes the tone of the episode, draws the audience into the characters’ minds, and adds nuance to the uncomfortable issues present.

Like all of Band of Brothers, “Why We Fight” follows Easy Company, an American paratroop unit taking part in the Second World WarThis episode focuses on Captain Lewis Nixon, while also showing the experiences of other characters.

It’s late in the war. The company are fighting their way across Germany. They’ve lost a lot of people and they’ve seen a lot of destruction. Most of them look battered and weary.

Nixon might be one of the weariest. He’s missed out on fighting thanks to a command liaison job, but has still seen the hellish side of war. Now he’s battling with the bottle and been booted back to a combat post. His wife writes to say that she’s leaving him. Nixon, who we first met as someone bright and charming, is falling apart. He fights with others because of the toll the war has taken on him.

Meanwhile, a new man joins the squad. He’s never seen combat. He’s eager to do his part and to see action while he still can. He wants to fight because it seems noble and heroic, while the men around him fight on because that’s their job. The innocence was long ago knocked out of them.

During the first half of the episode, this is how the question of “Why We Fight” is addressed. It’s all about individual motives and personalities.

Then comes the moment that changes everything, both for Easy Company and for the viewer. A group of soldiers stumble across a sight of such horror that they don’t have words for it. We seem them standing stunned, unable to comprehend what lies before them. A few minutes later, the truth is revealed to viewers, most of whom must already have guessed.

Easy Company have found a concentration camp.

Suddenly, the meaning of the episode is turned on its head. Now, when we ask “Why We Fight”, we’re talking about why these nations have gone to war, why the horrors of the Nazi regime had to be faced. “Aha!” thinks the viewer, myself included the first time around. “This is why they fight. To stop the Holocaust.”

But that reaction digs out a deeper, less comfortable truth.

The Holocaust was one of the defining features of the Second World War, a process of nearly unparalleled evil. Yet we’re on episode nine out of ten of Band of Brothers and it’s only just been mentioned. Why?

Because the Holocaust is not “Why We Fight”.

The Allies fought against Nazi Germany for many reasons. Out of self-interest. To protect friendly nations. To stop a relentlessly aggressive regime. But to stop the Holocaust? No.

When they entered the war, Allied leaders didn’t know how bad things were under the Nazis. They had no way of knowing how bad they would become as the war progressed. In 1942, when reports reached them through the Polish government in exile, they chose not to publicise the attrocities. They were afraid that no-one would believe them and that there would be a backlash against the extreme claims.

An argument can be made that the Allies fought to stop evil regimes. Their actions certainly had the effect of ending the Holocaust. But the death camps and the horrors they represented were not “Why We Fight”.

And so the name of this episode draws attention not just to the struggles of Easy Company, but to our own struggle with the past. The fact that the Allies ended something so evil lets us paint the Second World War in black and white. But just like the soldiers who stand stunned in the face of that concentration camp, our governments didn’t know what they were facing when they went to war. They didn’t fight to stop this. That they did so was a happy side effect, if the word “happy” can ever be used here.

This is why “Why We Fight” is the perfect name for this story. It gives us an angle from which to consider what the characters are going through. It provides a lever with which to open up our own perceptions, to face questions about the past and about how we view it.

Story titles don’t get more fitting than that.

Beneath Cloudy Skies – a historical flash story

Estelle stood in the darkness beneath the trees, watching the surrounding fields. Her heart was pounding from her frantic cycle ride and from the fear of being caught. But she had heard the bomber go by overhead and seen the flash as it crashed in the distance. If any of the crew had survived, they would have landed somewhere around here. If she was to save them from the Nazis, she had to act quickly.

It was a cloudy night, as it usually was when the British sent out a raid. It was almost impossible to make out shapes in the darkness. If she hadn’t been so familiar with these fields, she might never have noticed the movement by a hedgerow. As she peered more closely a shape emerged – a man, made bulky by his thick jacket, a bundle in his arms.

As she approached, the man dropped his burden, parachute silk tumbling across the stubble of this year’s corn. He pulled out a pistol and pointed it at her.

“Friend,” she said, trying to sound reassuring despite her fear. “You understand?”

He said something in English – she had no idea what – then put his pistol away.

Estelle grabbed the parachute and thrust it into the depths of a haystack.

“I’ll come back and bury it later,” she said. “You understand?”

The airman stood staring.

“Never mind,” Estelle said. “I can take you to-”

Engines roared through the silent countryside. Cars coming this way along the winding road, their lights just bright enough to see a few feet in front of them.

Only the occupiers and their pet authorities drove at this time of night.

She grabbed the airman’s arm and pulled him after her, running up the hill toward the trees. He stumbled, found his footing, and kept moving, even as one of the cars moved off the road and headed across the field, slowing as they bounced across rough ground.

The Germans must have seen a parachute coming down and come to look. She prayed that they were too busy driving to spot her in the darkness.

She flung herself behind one of the trees. The airman did the same. As Estelle peered out, she saw that the car had stopped less than two hundred yards away. Four flashlights blinked on, their bearers spreading out to scour the area. Two were heading this way.

She looked at the airman, barely visible in the shadows and the night. There was still time for her to get away on her own – to grab the bicycle and ride to safety. She had come out here to help this man, but if he was clumsy or stupid then he could get them both caught. For him, that would mean a prisoner of war camp, for her torture and death.

He didn’t try to look out from behind his tree. Instead he looked at her, waiting for her next move, trusting her to make their choices.

That was enough.

She moved deeper into the trees, going slowly and carefully to avoid making noise. She waved to the airman to follow. As he did, he seemed to imitate her movements, taking the path she had picked out, one that avoided dense undergrowth and places where she knew dead wood and dried leaves fell.

The beam of a torch flashed into the woods. Estelle scrambled beneath a thicket of dense, low-lying bushes. The airman followed her. As they lay in the darkness she could hear him breathing inches from her face.

The torch shone above their heads again. Footsteps approached, breaking twigs underfoot and crashing through the undergrowth. The man called out in German and someone replied.

He was less than twenty yards from them now and still coming closer. He held his torch in one hand, a light machine-gun in the other. All he had to do was look down and they would be caught. Taken away to a dank cell and a man who knew all about questions and about pain.

The airmen shifted beside Estelle. She heard the faint sound of something being drawn from a pouch at his belt. Then he reached out past her, moving with terrible slowness, pointing a pistol at the German.

Horror gripped Estelle. Was he mad? Didn’t he understand that there were other soldiers around, that they would close in the moment they heard the shot? What good was shooting this one man if it got them caught?

Silently, she placed her hand on the airman’s arm and pushed down. For a moment he resisted, but then he gave way, letting her lower his weapon.

The man with the torch kept walking, past them and away into the night.

They lay there until the Germans were long gone. Then Estelle led the airman out of the darkness and down the winding, narrow roads to her family’s farm.

Dawn was breaking as they entered the kitchen. Papa was up, cooking breakfast with his one good hand. He greeted the airman in broken English, and the airman responded in a rush of words, a smile of relief filling his face.

“I think he says to thank you,” Papa said. “For saving him from the Nazis.”

Estelle shrugged and sat down at the table, waiting for the eggs to be served. She was tired and needed the energy to help her think. Already she was considering when and where to contact the escape line, how they would get the airman to people who could start his journey home.

“Tell him he’s not safe yet,” she said. “His journey has only just begun.”

* * *

 

The work of the escape lines during World War Two was truly remarkable. Civilians risked their lives to get stranded airmen, soldiers, and spies out of Nazi-occupied Europe. Many lost their lives in the process or suffered imprisonment and interrogation at the hands of the Nazis’ brutal security services. If you want to know more, I recommend Ian Dear’s book Escape and Evasion, which also covers other escapes of the Second World War.

And if you’d like more historical fiction, check out my short story collection From a Foreign Shore or sign up to my mailing list for stories straight to your inbox every week.