Burning burning burning burning –
Behead me or hang me
That will never fear me
I’ll burn Auchindoon
Ere my life leave me
Ormaie is still on fire in my head. But I am in England.
I am back in England.
You know – perhaps I will be court-martialled. Perhaps I will be tried for murder and hanged. But all I feel is relief – relief – as though I’ve been underwater and breathing through a straw for the last two months, and now I have my head in the air again. Gulping in long, sweet lungfuls of it, cold, damp, December air, smelling of petrol and coal smoke and freedom.
The irony is, I’m not free. I am under house arrest here in The Cottage at the Moon Squadron aerodrome. I am locked in my usual bedroom, the one I used to share with Julie, and I have a guard beneath my window too. Don’t care – feels like freedom. If they hang me they will do it cleanly, break my neck instantly, and I will deserve it. They won’t make me betray anyone. They won’t make me watch it happening to anyone else. They won’t incinerate my body and turn it into soap. They’ll make sure Granddad knows what happened.
Julie’s Bloody Machiavellian Intelligence Officer has been sent for so he can interview me. I trust he will do it without resorting to a soldering iron and ice water and pins. Cups of tea, perhaps. I dread my interrogation for a number of reasons, but I’m not afraid of it.
Can’t believe how safe I feel here. Don’t care if I am a prisoner. Just feel so safe.
Incident Report No 2
Successful sabotage and destruction of Gestapo Headquarters, Château de Bordeaux Building, Ormaie, France – 11 Dec. 1943
My reports are so rubbish.
I know the Allied Forces are planning a proper invasion of Occupied Europe with tanks and planes and gliders full of commandos, but when I think of France being liberated I picture an avenging army arriving on bicycles. That is how we all came into Ormaie on Saturday night, all of us from different directions, all with our baskets and panniers crammed with home-made bombs. The sirens didn’t go till after curfew and we all did a lot of nervous skulking – I bet there was an explosive bicycle behind every single newspaper kiosk in Ormaie – I myself lay underneath a lorry for at least two hours with one of Mitraillette’s mates. Thank goodness for Jamie’s boots.
We had to blow the back gate open – bit of a risk, but there was no one about once the air raid was under way, and of course we had the key to let ourselves in after that. It was the blasted dogs I was dreading coming face to face with more than anything else. Poor old dogs, not really their fault. I needn’t have worried, as Mitraillette was merciless.
I feel like I should write in objective detail. But there’s not much to report. We were fast and efficient, we knew exactly where to go – we operated in teams of 2 or 3 and each team had its own specific section and assignment – shoot the dogs, unlock the doors, corral the prisoners, unload the bombs. Get the hell out. I’d say we were in and out in half an hour. Certainly no more than three-quarters of an hour – not too many prisoners to release, as it’s not technically a prison – 17 in all. No women. But –
I did this on purpose, I assigned myself and my partner to free whoever was in Julie’s cell. I hadn’t really thought about what it would mean to have to walk through that interrogation room it is attached to –
Thankfully there was no one there, but oh – I can hardly bear to think about it. How it stank. It makes me retch just remembering. We walked in and it hit us in the face and for a moment I couldn’t do anything except gasp and try not to be sick, and the French lad with me staggered a bit and grabbed me to support himself. Of course we were operating by the light of electric torches, so we couldn’t really see anything – dim outlines of institutional furniture, steel chairs and tables and a couple of cabinets, nothing obviously sinister, but oh, it was the most sick-making, hellish stench I’ve ever breathed – like a full privy, but also ammonia and rotten meat and burnt hair and vomit and – no, it was indescribable and it’s making me want to throw up again writing about it. It wasn’t till afterwards that I even thought about Julie having to live with that smell for eight weeks – no wonder they scrubbed her up before letting her meet Penn – anyway we didn’t think about anything but getting out of there as fast as we could without suffocating. Pulled our coats up over our noses and got to work on the door of Julie’s cell, and we dragged its bewildered inhabitant out with us through that horrible room and into the corridor.
The man we’d rescued didn’t understand when we talked to him in French. He turned out to be Jamaican – a rear gunner in the RAF, shot down last week – perhaps they’d been hoping to get Allied invasion plans out of him? He’s in good shape, they hadn’t got to work on him yet, and though he’d barely eaten for a week he managed to carry out a lad whose knees had been broken –
He is a lovely man, the Jamaican, and he is here. Well, I don’t think he’s here in The Cottage, I think he’s been sent off to the proper RAF aerodrome, but I mean that he flew back to England with me. Hid with me too, in the Thibauts’ barn. He is from Kingston and has three kiddies, all girls. He followed me at a trot down the grand staircase of that dreadful, ruined hotel, with the silent, suffering boy whose legs were broken clinging to his back – me with an electric torch in one hand and Paul’s Colt .32 in the other, navigating by a memorised map as usual.
We all met to count up everyone in the courtyard where the guillotine is. Last one out turned the generator back on – we had attached a timer to it. Once it was on we had 20 minutes. A couple of Lancasters were still circling overhead, daring the searchlights, and the night was noisy with half-hearted flak – a lot of the anti-aircraft guns are manned by local lads, conscripted to beef up the Occupation army, and their hearts aren’t really in it when they fire at Allied planes. 20 minutes to get out of the Place des Hirondelles, and perhaps another hour to get into hiding before the all-clear.
Had to find someone close by to take the injured kid, Mitraillette managed that, and the rest of us scarpered on bicycles and on foot. Me and my Jamaican rear gunner took a tortuous route over a series of garden walls to avoid the checkpoint on the road. But we were outside Ormaie and cycling tandem, me standing on the bar at the back and him pedalling because he was so much heavier than me, when the explosion came.
It gave us such a shock we toppled over. We didn’t feel it – we were just startled witless by the bang. For a couple of minutes I sat in the road laughing like a maniac, full moon and fire lighting everything, and then my rescued rear gunner very gently made me get back on the bicycle and we set off again with Ormaie at our backs.
‘Which way, Miss Kittyhawk?’
‘Left at the fork. Just call me Kittyhawk.’
‘Is that your name?’
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘You are not French either.’
‘No, I’m English.’
‘What you doing in France, Kittyhawk?’
‘Same as you – I’m a shot-down airman.’
‘You are pulling my leg!’
‘I am not. I am a First Officer with the Air Transport Auxiliary. And I bet no one believes you either, when you tell them you’re a rear gunner in the Royal Air Force.’
‘You’re right about that, gal,’ he said with feeling. ‘It’s a white man’s world.’
I held on tight round his waist, and hoped he wasn’t as much of a lech as Paul or I would have to shoot him too, when we were stuck in the Thibauts’ barn together by ourselves.
‘What’s troubling you, Kittyhawk?’ he asked softly. ‘What’s making you cry so hard? Good riddance to that place.’
I was hanging on and leaning on his shoulder now, sobbing into his back. ‘They had my best friend in there – you were in her cell. She was there for two months.’
He pedalled silently, digesting this. At last he said, ‘She die there?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Not there. But she’s dead now anyway.’
Suddenly I could feel though his jacket that he was crying too, shaking a little with silent, muffled sobs, just like me.
‘My best mate’s dead too,’ he said softly. ‘He was our pilot. Flew that plane into the ground – kept it flying straight and level so the rest of us could bail out after we were hit.’
Oh – only now that I am writing it down, only now I see that’s exactly what I did too.
Funny – it seemed the most heroic thing in the world when he told me about his friend, dead amazing that anyone could be that brave and selfless. But I didn’t feel heroic when I did it – just too scared to jump.
We rode through the moonlight with the flames of Ormaie behind us, and neither one of us stopped crying until we put the bicycle away.
We slept back to back in that tiny loft space in the old half-timbered barn for two nights – well, one and a half nights really – played 21 for hours with a deck of dreadful obscene playing cards I’d nicked from one of Etienne Thibaut’s hidey holes. On Monday, yesterday, last night I mean, we got collected by the rose lady’s chauffeur and taken to collect the Rosalie for our trip to the pick-up airfield.
This was the third time the Thibauts all hugged and kissed me goodbye – Amélie creating a fuss, Maman trying to make a present of a dozen silver spoons – I just couldn’t! And Mitraillette with tears in her eyes, first I’ve ever seen her choked up like that over something that didn’t involve blood.
She didn’t come with us this time. I hope –
I wish I knew how to pray for them all. I just wish I knew.
The Rosalie was waiting for us in the driveway of the big house on the Poitou riverbank. It was still light when we got there, so as not to get the chauffeur in trouble, and while they were putting the other car away the old woman with the white hair like Julie’s took me by the hand, just as she’d done that first terrible day after, and led me without a word through her cold garden.
Down along the river was a pile of roses, a huge pile of Damask roses, the autumn-flowering ones. She’d cut every single rose left in her garden and piled them there.
‘They let us bury everyone at last,’ she told me. ‘Most are up there by the bridge. But I was so angry about those poor girls, those two lovely young girls left lying there in the dirt for four days with the rats and the crows at them! It’s not right. It is not natural. So when we buried the others I had the men bring the girls here –’
Julie is buried in her great-aunt’s rose garden, wrapped in her grandmother’s first communion veil and covered in a mound of Damask roses.
Of course that is the name of her circuit too – Damask.
I still don’t know her great-aunt’s name. How is that possible? I knew it was her quite suddenly, it just came to me in a flash – when she said that she’d used the veils that she and her sister had worn at their first communion I remembered that Julie’s grandmother was from Ormaie, and then I remembered the great-aunt story, and what she’d said to me about sharing a terrible burden, and it all clicked and I knew who she was.