Camouflage, a 1939 "Tale with a Sting" by Jan Gordon

The Sketch of Wednesday 25th October 1939 carried a "Tale with a Sting" called CAMOUFLAGE by Jan Gordon. Here it is:

MR. OSWALD IMPEY, R.O.I., was not tough. Definitely not. He was emaciated, he stooped, wore thick spectacles, had a wispy, straggly beard; and as for his hair, it was thin on the top, and what ought to have been up there seemed to be trying to crawl down between his neck and his open collar. He was an enthusiastic landscape-painter and, like very many other artists, had sent in his name for the camouflage corps, but had never had an answer. So on that October day, which had started out fine but had afterwards clouded over heavily, he was standing before his easel in a field in Norfolk, painting autumnal tints.

We are accustomed in these days to have all sorts of aeroplanes playing all sorts of pranks overhead, but we are also accustomed to their making a noise while doing so. In consequence, Mr. Oswald Impey had really a disturbing shock at the sudden and quite extraordinary sensation that something huge and ominous was threatening him from behind and above. Instinctively he ducked, and got a second shock as what seemed a positively monstrous aeroplane swooped silently, with nothing more than a thin rush of air, some thirty feet above his head, rose a little, missed the trees that he had been painting by what looked like inches, dived on the far side, and came to earth with a terrifying, tearing crash somewhere out of sight.

The shock was further emphasised by a vivid impression left upon his startled senses that the marks on the aeroplane were something quite different from the toxophilite circles of the Royal Air Force.

Air Raid Precautions tell us clearly that if unidentified aircraft land in our immediate vicinity we should be wise, leave such things severely alone and make a bee-line in the estimated direction of the nearest police post. But Mr. Impey, who was really interested in little but his painting and the detective-stories and thrillers with which he whiled away his leisure, had not read the Air Raid Precautions. Besides, from the noise of the crash, he felt sure that no man could possibly be still alive in the 'plane. Also, he thought what a marvellous thing it would be to get a drawing of the incident before the police came along. So, finding a thin spot in the hedge, he crawled through it into the next field.

This was large. On the far side, nose in the hedge, with air screw and undercarriage smashed, the aeroplane lay, flattened on the grass as though some god had pinned a gigantic hawk-moth down to a green collecting-board. So far as he could see, no signs of life were visible.

Half-way across the field Mr. Impey got a third and more startling shock. From behind the tail a man in flying kit suddenly stepped out. But not so much the man himself as a large and undoubtedly well-aimed automatic in the airman's fist concentrated Mr. Impey's attention most uncomfortably.

Until certain things happen you can never possibly guess what your reactions will be. Mr. Impey, to whom nothing serious had ever happened in life, would have said that on such an occasion he would certainly have been scared out of his wits. But, in fact, the opposite happened he was scared into his wits. His mind, instead of going blank, began to function rapidly.

For instance, as he stumbled forward under the command of that most insistent weapon, he suddenly realised that he was in very considerable danger. He remembered that after North Sea encounters German aeroplanes had come down in Holland and Denmark and elsewhere. This one had apparently come down in Norfolk, and he found himself acutely regretting that it was not Holland or Denmark. Oddly enough, he found himself wondering what a Dane would have said to the German.

"Hey, Englander!" shouted the German, "Vere to ve come?"

Mr. Impey shook his head.

"Vere to ve come, Herr Gott?" shouted the German. Still excited by the catastrophe from which he had escaped, he was incautiously loquacious and explanatory, "Compass smash, macheen go wrong. Vere to ve come? Dell me or I shoot...."

Nik versteh," said Mr. Impey, hoping that it might sound something like what a Dane speaking bad German would say.

"Not understand!" exclaimed the German incredulously. "Bot dees he is Inkland?"

"Danemark," said Mr. Impey. "Denmark?" ejaculated the German. "You lying. Et ees eempossible."

"Nik versteh Franch," said Mr. Impey.

The airman frowned at him in suspicion. Luckily, Mr. Impey. with his artist clothes and thin beard, did not look like what a German would think an Englishman ought to look like.

"Vich vay de Nort?" he suddenly shot out.

"Nort?" asked Mr. Impey. "Ja! Der Nort, Herr Gott."

Mr. Impey pointed south.

"Vich vay de sea?" snapped the German.

"Nik versteh," said Mr. Impey.

"Das Meer!" snapped the German.

Mr. Impey pointed east.

"Ja, that 's right," the German muttered in his own language. "Must have turned round in the clouds. Denmark; what a bit of luck Here, you," he dropped the muzzle of his pistol, come and help me get out a comrade. Then we'll fire the aeroplane and go for help."

There were two Germans lying in the cockpit of the 'plane. One was dead, the other wounded and unconscious. Mr. Impey and the airman, working under great difficulties for Mr. Impey was by no means muscular, managed to lift and slither the unconscious man from the 'plane to the ground and then drag him across the grass to a fair distance. By this time, what with the shock and his exertions, the German was showing some signs of fatigue.

"Now, then, you Dane," he growled, "stay here with Franz while I go over and fire the 'plane."

"But the other?" protested Mr. Impey, in broken German.

"It 's Valhalla for him," said the airman.

During the operations, however, Mr. Impey, greatly daring, had managed to loosen in its holster the wounded man's automatic. As the airman turned to walk towards the sprawling 'plane, Mr. Impey stooped, seized the automatic, thrust the muzzle into the German's back and croaked in German "Up the hands!"

The German, who in aiding his comrade had put his pistol back into its holster, hesitated.

"Up, up yelled Mr. Impey, or I shoot."

The German, who could recognise hysteria, slowly raised his hands.

"But look here, Dane," he protested, I must fire that machine.

"Not necessary," said Mr. Impey, possessing himself of the other's weapon. "Now, march!" From the thrillers he had read, he remembered not to get too close to his captive, in case the other tried to turn on him. Thus, in slow procession, he drove the German across the wide field and out on to the open road. No sooner had he reached it than, to his immense relief, round the corner raced a powerful black car. From it surged a number of armed policemen.

"Hey, what 's this cried an Inspector. Where did that aeroplane land?"

"Over there," gasped Mr. Impey. "It 's all right. I stopped him from burning it."

"You did?" exclaimed the Inspector in surprise, gazing at Mr. Impey's frail figure. "Good for you, Sir."

"And there are two men, one wounded and one dead."

"But, Herr Gott," shouted the German, recovering from his astonishment, "you are no Dane !"

"Oh, no," answered Mr. Impey, waving the automatic with airy gesticulation that that was a bit of camouflage, you know."

"Here," interposed the Inspector hurriedly, "you hand over that gun before you do any damage with it."

Mr. Impey meekly surrendered the weapon.

Then he received his fourth and last shock for the day.

"And," continued the Inspector, grinning broadly as he examined the strange pistol, "next time you go arresting Germans with a gun, you 'd better see that the safety-catch is off."


All the characters and incidents in this story are imaginary. 


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