"Unofficial" - a 1939 Wartime Story by Jan Gordon

The Sketch of Wednesday 18 October 1939 carried the following "Tale with a Sting" by Jan Gordon, called "Unofficial." here it is:


THERE were half-a-dozen of us. I suppose you'd call us old buffers, though we'd all done our bits, more or less, in the other war, and that young Flight Lieutenant was our meat.

I mean, whatever way you look at it, this war has turned out to be a beastly news-less war, and the whisper that this young chap had had something to do with the pamphleteering of Germany from the air had us all on our toes. Hush-hush and all that sort of thing agreed to, of course, but all the same a little bit of something with a genuine personal touch to it does bring a bit of glamour into the rather dismal business of reading what happens to slip out from a crack in the Ministry of Information to the Press, or hearing what amounts to the same thing over and over again on the wireless, interspersed with selections by Shamus McOrgan.

So, judiciously, we tried to pump him a bit.

"Tried" is the right word, but I am not so sure about "judiciously." Some of the chaps were a bit heavy-handed and you could almost hear the pumps suck half-way across the room. And for quite a time we pumped without much success. He was an attractive young fellow, with straight, candid eyes and a mouth that had little pockets of humour at the corners. Clam might have been his second name, but at last, perhaps he was influenced by the insistent pressure, perhaps he took pity on our avuncular enthusiasm, perhaps, really by nature abstemious, the one or two whiskies we had forced upon him began to loosen his tongue, or perhaps it was merely an often curious breakdown of reserve that happens, sometimes, in an atmosphere of sincere and envious admiration at all events, he began to open out.

"All right," he said "if you chaps really want to know something as much as all that, I might. Well, the thing is really odd and it happened to me the other day, and there's nothing particularly secret about it. All the same, I don't want you to go bandying it about, or even mentioning my name in connection with it ... see?"

We murmured unanimous acquiescence. If the Ministry of Info hadn't just let out a few of the details, about how the job is actually done and so on, I couldn't have told you the yarn at all in fact, I don't mind telling you that you are actually the first who have been told. By me, at all events. I can't answer for the rest of the crew, of course.

"And, of course, I can't tell you, from a practical point of view any thing more than the Ministry of Info have let out already. You've read the proclamation pamphlets in the papers, and you must have about an idea of their size." He gestured vaguely in the air.

"And they've told you how the night-mail stuff is done up in packets and that when we get to the proper spot we take aim through the bombing-hatch, calculate the speed and windage and so on, and just pitch them through. And they've told you, too, how some of us have flown pretty deep into German territory and have simply plastered towns way back behind the lines, and how some of us have had turns-up with Fritz, and have come off best. O.K.

'Still, I can't tell you what sort of machine we were using, nor the date, nor the numbers of the crew nor where we were bound for; you just have to take my word for all that. But we had a pretty good gang and a pretty good bus and a pretty good load of the stuff that Goebbels doesn't know where to put, and so we crossed the Rhineo.

'The weather here in England 's been pretty good since war was declared, but it 's often different over there. On the night in question it was patchy. We were flying pretty high, naturally, and kept on striking areas of clear and areas of cloud and drizzle, which we cussed heartily, not knowing what it was going to do for us in the end. Things went well till we got about over well, quite a ways into Germany, anyhow. Then, while we were in the middle of a broad, clear patch, out of a distant cloud suddenly shoots a Hun 'plane, coming straight for us.

'Brother Hun was a small two-seater fighting 'plane, and I tell you, his first appearance gave me a bit of a squiggle in the spine. Until you've had a fight in the air you have no idea of what it is really going to be like. You don't know what your responses will be, or how your nerves will answer your intentions. I mean, you are just damn well up in the air, and that 's where you are.

'After that quick little first shock, you know, I felt quite all right, and was, as a matter of fact, quite astonished to find that I did feel all right. I simply felt madly curious, that 's all.

'A chap we call Jimmy had the stick and he turned out pretty good. He slipped under the Hun's first dive and made for the cloud-belt. Brother Hun turned out to be just a bit faster than we were, but we managed to fight him off without damage till we reached the thick bits again. We thought that with a bit of luck we would lose him in the thick, but luck was out. Or, no, I '11 give the German his due, he was a sticker. No matter what Jimmy could think up, the blighter kept on our tracks, and when we got into the clear again, there he was, after us once more.

'We dog-fought across the sky, all the time trying to stop the Hun from getting on our tail and hoping that a lucky shot would put the blighter out. But he was the one who had the luck, and at last one of his bullets slammed into the works of our gun and that was about that. All the same, he didn't have all the luck, because, just at that moment, we struck another patch of thick stuff, into which Jimmy dodged to give us time to think things out a bit.

'I'll hand it to Jimmy, that lad 's got a brain.

'He yelled to me Can't put the blighter off with a smoke-screen, but what about a paper one Try slashing open as many of those packets of night-mail as you can, pile the loose paper on the bomb-hatch and we'll loose the lot off in his face. Then just when he 's got it, we'll dive from under and bolt.'

'You see what Jimmy was after. A snowstorm is pretty bad for visibility and we had simply thousands of those pamphlets. A sudden paper-storm might put Brother Hun right off his tracks for a moment or two and, in cases like this, travelling at the speed we were going, a moment or two is often enough.

'So we slashed away, by jingo, until the inside of that ship was simply stuffed with loose paper. It was pretty tricky work not to slash oneself badly, because Jimmy was playing all sorts of antics to keep Brother Hun out of striking range. And all the time, of course, as the Hun was the faster, he was succeeding in driving us lower and lower. He may have guessed by now that our gun was out of order, and I '11 bet a fiver he imagined he was going to ground us and take the gang prisoners and all that.

'And the lower we went the worse the weather got, or, rather, the wetter. At that speed, you know, you turn quite a modest drizzle into a slashing rain-storm, while at the speed we were keeping up it was now coming at us in torrents. And naturally there was less cloud.

'Can't drop any lower yelled Jimmy. Get ready, boys. I 'm going to let him sit right on my tail and when I suddenly zoom, wait a moment and then dump the lot slap on to his snout.'

'Brother Hun must have been tickled pink to slip down on to our tail, and he was probably just getting ready to turn us into a first-class sieve, when Jimmy pulls the stick. As soon as we felt the bus begin to rise we slung open the bombing-hatch and began to shovel out the stuff at full blast. One of our chaps who was observing said that that night- mail burst out of our belly as if we had been disembowelled.

'But what we hadn't made any allowance for was the effect of the rain. You see, our air-screw was collecting about all the wet that there was in the neighbourhood and was flinging it behind us, literally in torrents. These torrents of water struck that outgoing paper and, in a tick, wet it through and through. And these clouds of sodden stuff shot and broadened out behind us and hit Brother Hun slap in the face with all the effect of a real old genuine custard-pie in the movies.

'Our observer let out a yell, so that we thought that the Hun had started firing again and had got him.

'Because, you know what happens when wet paper blows against something wet. It sticks. I don't care a darn whether it 's going half a mile an hour or a hundred and fifty, it sticks all the same. And did those wads of wet paper stick to Brother Hun or did they not They plastered him. They stuck all over his windows, they stuck all over his gun, they stuck in his engine and probably gummed up the intake, they stuck to the leading edges of his wings and upset his control.

'And the last thing we saw of Brother Hun was a hurried and, it looked, rather precarious descent in the darkness towards the Fatherland. We don't know whether he managed to land or whether he simply crashed, but we do reckon that whichever did happen, Goebbels couldn't get that 'plane scraped clean by kids of under ten, and whoever scraped that 'plane surely got an eyeful of those proclamations."

'Well," ejaculated one of our members, that is what I call a really brilliant exploit, brains and courage. 'Pon my Sam, I think that you chaps ought to get herrumph some recognition for that." We chorused agreement.

'Oh, I don't know," answered our young man, with a twinkle in his eye, They aren't going to squander danglements round in this war like they did in the last, I'll inform the world. But I tell you what I think we might get. I've heard - it's only a rumour, mind you, so you'll keep it dark?

'Of course," we said hastily.

'They might be going to make the whole blooming crew Honorary Vice-Presidents of the Union of Bill-Stickers."

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