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-by John Urie-
A Spontoon Island Story
By John Urie
On Your Marks...
Even though her response was somewhat disappointing, the Major wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“If you really want the truth,” Captain Catherine ‘Katie’ MacArran, China Air Force Femme’s Auxiliary, was saying, as she poured another cup of tea, “it was pure, dumb luck more than anything else. That Me-109 pilot just kind of blundered right into my sights.”
That might not have been what the average reader of Smilin’ Jack, Captain Easy, or Sky Shark comics might wish to hear, but it was exactly the kind of unvarnished account Major Jack Finlayson was looking for. He wanted insights on pursuit plane design, not thrilling air stories.
It was something he never would have expected on first introducing himself to the pinto mare -- and that had been only ten minutes previously.
He had found her in a small but tidy bungalow, about a mile from the airstrip where he’d first met Colonel Chennault. When he’d knocked on the door, it had been answered not by Katie or even her housemaid, but by a monstrous, black-maned lion who had regarded the raccoon as if he had just crawled out of a hole in the floor. When Finlayson had introduced himself, the big cat had been not the slightest bit impressed, coldly instructing him, “You wait here.” and then disappearing back inside, closing and locking the door behind him.
When it was yanked open, a moment later, there was Katie MacArran, clad in a silken Chinese tunic and gushing over him the way schoolkits usually did. “Oh my God... Oh, my GAWD.”
Jack Finlayson’s eyes had rolled almost into the top of his skull. THIS was what was supposed build the squadron of misfits who’d cracked all those planes up into an effective fighting unit? He came that close to just paying his quick respects and hurrying off to his next stop.
Why he didn’t would always be a mystery to the raccoon...but he would later be very glad for the choice he made.
Not right away, however. First, Katie MacArran took him by the paw and practically dragged him inside the bungalow, insisting that he join her for a dim-sum lunch. Finlayson almost begged off until she explained, this time without a trace of girlish ardor, “In China, business is always discussed after sharing a meal, Major... and it’s gotten to be something of a habit of mine as well; I always talk better over food.” Here, she’d grinned in mild embarrassment, “Besides that, I skipped breakfast.”
In the course of their meal, (which was excellent) Jack Finlayson was surprised to discover that he and Katie MacArran shared a much more similar background than he had realized. The pinto mare might have been foaled into a family of British nobles, but she had come of age in the mining town of Boulder, Colorado under the care of her grandfather, a one-time prospector. As for Jack Finlayson, when he had been a kit, his father had kept a saloon in the gold-rush town of Nome, Alaska. He knew the language, and the life, of the gold seeker. (E.g, at the age of five he understood that you never backed down when challenged.) In fact, the raccoon had been studying to be a mining engineer before switching to aviation... and though he would never own up to it now, he had once flirted with the idea of a career with Combs Mining Equipment.
“So you just found that ME-109 in your sights and pulled the trigger?” he said, spearing a shu-mai dumpling with the fork Her Grace had thoughtfully provided for his use.
“That’s pretty much it.” Katie replied, deftly tweezing a har gow with the chopsticks she was using, “though I was also pretty damned lucky the 109's got such a dinky little canopy. If it hadn’t been for that, the other pilot would most likely have seen me before it was too late. It’s probably the Me-109's biggest design flaw.”
Jack Finlayson felt his ears rising. Ah, so maybe this mare DID have some wisdom to impart after all. He immediately went into the devil’s advocate role which had served him so well thus far.
“But how is a plane supposed to perform without a small canopy?” he said.
Katie set down her chopsticks and snorted.
“Yeah, that’s what conventional wisdom says, Major...the smaller the canopy, the better it’s aerodynamics.” She wrinkled her nose. “Well, you know what I say? I say that’s spinach and I say the Hell with it.” She leaned forward, gesturing with her hooves as she spoke, “Look, it’s pretty much an established fact that larger wheel-pants are more aerodynamic than small ones... if they’re built right. Same thing with wing-floats on seaplanes. So, why shouldn’t the same principle apply to canopies? That’s the trouble with the way planes are built today; nobody ever questions the rules, much less puts ‘em to the test.”
Jack Finlayson said nothing to this. He was too busy making careful notes. First Colonel Marshall had said it, then Colonel Kenney had said it, then Colonel Chennault had said it, and now Captain MacArran was saying it: If you want to build a pursuit plane that can beat the Luftwaffe, stop being so damned hidebound in your thinking.
“What would you say is the one most important quality missing in our current crop of pursuit planes, Major?” he asked her. To his considerable amazement, the pinto mare snuffled and shook her head.
“Major, I can’t answer that question...because there IS no answer. There’s no one, single feature that’ll give Uncle Sam a pursuit plane to beat the pants off Goering’s boys. That’s another problem with the way combat planes are built these days... everyone’s always looking for the magic bullet. It just doesn’t work that way.”
“All right,” said Finlayson, “Let’s talk in terms of overall performance... what would you like to see the next generation of American pursuit planes be able to do?”
Katie MacArran smiled, “Now THAT, I can help you with. Okay, now if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years Major, it’s that air-combat doesn’t work at long range. I can count on one finger the number of pilots who have both the sharpshooting and the flying skills to hit an enemy aircraft at a range of 1000 yards or more... present company very much included. That’s why you want a pursuit plane capable of closing with fast with the enemy and slugging it out toe-to-toe.”
“And what are some of the things your plane would need towards that end?” asked the raccoon.
Most of what Her Grace told him, he’d already heard elsewhere... except for one thing.
“You’d also need it to be quick off the throttle, Major... not fast, quick. When you push the throttle forward, your plane should want to move ten seconds ago.” ( What she did not add, and what he would not find out until later, was that she had just described the NA-50's single, best attribute. )
“Tell me.” she asked, picking up her chopsticks again, “Have you talked to anyone over at Supermarine yet? Or are you planning to? If you really want to know where the US should go in pursuit plane development, there’s the folks to see.”
“Not yet,” the raccoon admitted, uneasy at being pressed on this point. The fewer furs who knew the full extent of his itinerary, the better. “But I hope to.” he added, taking a chance.
“Well then,” the pinto mare answered, “let me see if I can help you out with that.”
She reached for a small, silver bell on the table beside her and rang it twice. Presently a wrinkled Chinese pony mare appeared and bowed slightly to Katie.
“Hsing?” said Katie, plucking a tiny Hom Sui Gok from the common plate and dipping it in a bowl of reddish-brown sauce, “Can you do me a favor and fetch me a couple of sheets of the good parchment and my good writing pen...oh, and the thick envelopes and the sealing wax, too.” She popped the dumpling in her mouth and began to chew, “You know where everything is, right?”
“Yes, Grace.” said the pony, bowing once more, “At once.” She turned and disappeared through a beaded curtain.
“What do you have in mind?” asked Finlayson when she had gone.
“Gonna write you a letter of introduction to Reginald Mitchell, Supermarine’s former chief designer,” Katie told him, taking a spring roll with the chopsticks, “I worked for him on the S6 Schneider-Cup plane back in 1929 and he was one of my biggest advocates when I was trying to save the R100 -- or the Republic, as she’s known now.”
“Think he’ll remember you?” asked Finlayson, hopeful but wary. That particular Schneider had been almost nine years ago and the resurrection of the R-100 more than six.
“He will.” said Katie, dipping the roll in the sauce, “We’ve been corresponding off and on ever since I came back from New Guinea.” She winked, “AND I happen to own a rather substantial piece of stock in Supermarine’s parent company, Vickers...so, he’d better remember who I am.”
There was no denying that one.
When Jack Finlayson took his leave of Katie MacArran, she immediately morphed into an adoring filly once again... producing a schematic sketch of Gee Bee R-1 he had flown to victory in the Thompson Trophy and asking for his autograph.
Somehow, the Major managed to comply with a straight face, having not the slightest inkling that he would soon meet Katie MacArran again.
Nor could he possibly be aware that he would one day return to China at the controls of yet another aircraft built by her company. That plane, a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber would carry him to China by way of Tokyo... after lifting off from the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet.
On his return to the states, Finlayson began his tour of the aircraft factories producing American pursuit planes, Lockheed, Grumman, Curtiss, Seversky, and Bell. What he saw and heard there only reinforced the opinions voiced by George Marshall, George Kenney, Lee Claire Chennault, and Katie MacArran. The American pursuit plane builders WERE too orthodox in their thinking. Even the Lockheed XP-38, was in it’s own way a hymn to convention...an admission that it was impossible to build an affective pursuit plane UNLESS it was a eccentric design. Only Major Seversky, with his plans to improve the P-35 by running it in the Bendix Trophy seemed to have any degree of innovative thought. ( Unless you counted the Bell Airacobra, with it’s engine mounted behind the cockpit...and Jack Finlayson didn’t count that plane for much at all. )
It was in Queens, New York, checking out the design of Brewster Aeronautical Corporation’s new carrier based pursuit plane, the F42 Buffalo, that he caught up with Harry Hopkins. The antelope was just wrapping up his own tour of America’s aircraft plants, assessing their production capacity in the event of war. Later that evening, at a Manhattan watering hole, the two of them sat down to compare notes. Finlayson thought that the Buffalo was a decent enough design, though hardly the high performance pursuit plane FDR was looking for. Hopkins however, remained dubious.
“Brewster may have designed a good enough pursuit plane, Major,” he said, signaling the barkeep for a refill, “But their factory is about the most inefficient I’ve seen on my entire tour. Henry Ford would throw a fit if his assembly floor was even half that unproductive.”
“Well, you know why that is, Mr. Hopkins?” said the raccoon, unable to resist. Harry Hopkins regarded him with a wry, caustic smile.
“Yes, I know, Major,” he said, speaking as though answering a child for the Nth time, “It’s because Brewster was a CARRIAGE company before they started building airplanes. And from what I’ve seen, they still seem to think that’s what they’re making.” The barkeep arrived with his Bourbon and soda. He took a sip and continued. “But never mind about that...have you made any preliminary conclusions regarding what sort of pursuit planes America should be building?”
The raccoon had, and he related what he’d heard and seen on his travels thus far.
“There seem to be two schools of thought in America on how to build a better pursuit plane, Mr. Hopkins: Number one, keep putting bigger and bigger engines in the standard pursuit plane design. Number two, throw out that design altogether. In my opinion, and I’ve heard this from several furs I talked to, if we really want to build a pursuit aircraft than can beat the Luftwaffe at it’s own game, we need to get out of those ruts and fast.”
“And how do we do that, Major?” the antelope prompted.
Finlayson took a sip from his own drink.
“First of all, we need to see if we can find out how the Brits did it... and that’s where I’m off to next, Mr. Hopkins. I have letter of introduction to Reggie Mitchell, Supermarine’s chief designer from Duchess Catherine MacArran. She wrote it for me when I met her in China.”
Hopkins eyebrows pulled up into a pair of quizzical lines.
“Duchess Cath...Oh, do you mean KATIE MacArran?”
“The same.” said the raccoon, raising his glass as though offering a toast.
Harry Hopkins did not return it. Instead he frowned, skeptically.
“I-I-I-I-I don’t know how far you can trust her, Major. From what I’ve heard, that mare is more mercurial than a squadron of Wrong Way Corrigans. One minute she’s the heroine of the hour for making the Desula rescue...then the next thing you know she’s in Spain, flying for Andre Malraux.”
“Well, that may be sir,” said the Major taking a sip of his Scotch on the rocks, “But whatever her motivations, she knows her air combat. You want a plane that can clobber the Me-109? Well, Katie MacArran actually shot down of those birds... a lucky shot to be sure, but there it is.” Harry Hopkins made a rumbling sound and nodded, grudgingly .
“And anyway, if she can help get me in to see Reginald Mitchell... well, who cares what her politics are?”
This earned another grunt from the antelope.
The next morning, Jack Finlayson boarded an Imperial Airways flying boat for his journey to London. Once there however, he was obliged to wait a week before being allowed to see Reginald Mitchell.
Not because the silver fox was aloof or suspicious.
Because he was dying of cancer.
In the meantime, Jack Finalyson picked up few nuggets about the Spitfire on his own; he learned that the Spit, as she was affectionately known to British aviators, had been designed and built by Reginald Mitchell entirely as a PV, or Private Venture, meaning without a single pence of government funding.
Which was just the way the vulpine had wanted it No government money also meant no government interference. Thus unfettered, Mitchell had been able to ignore almost every single Air Ministry directive on pursuit plane design... and in so doing, had built perhaps the most formidable fighter in the world.
In other words, he had done exactly what George Marshall, George Kenney, Lee Claire Chennault and Katie Mac Arran had all been advocating; in creating the Spitfire, he had refused to accept conventional wisdom, and it had paid off handsomely in the end.
Finlayson met Reginald Mitchell in the back garden of his modest brick house in Woolston; a place that seemed utterly tranquil, surrounded by roses and chirping birds
As he entered the garden, he spied the fox seated in a high-backed wicker chair and bundled up under a thick tartan, this despite the fact that it was close to the summer solstice.
“It’s the cancer,” the fox’s nurse, a plump cairn terrier named Bess, confided in a whisper, “makes him feel cold, even when it’s warm outside. And yer should also be aware Major that Mr. Mitchell’s had to be heavily dosed with morphine for the pain. He may be less than lucid, I’m afraid.”
Approaching the seated vulpine, Jack Finlayson’s first thought was to make a silent vow that if HE was ever diagnosed with incurable cancer, he would take up air-racing again. Better to go out in fiery crash than like this. Reginald Mitchell looked worse than skeletal. He reminded the raccoon of nothing so much as the Egyptian mummy he’s once seen on a visit to the Smithsonian; his eyes were sunken into his skull, his facial fur was completely gone, and his skin looked as if it would flake off and blow away if you touched it. As Finlayson came closer, he heard the fox making a sound that he would have instantly taken for snoring... except that he was clearly wide awake.
“Mr. Mitchell?” he said, removing his cap as he seated himself, “My name is Major Jack Finlayson, of the United States Army Air Corps.”
At once, the silver fox brightened.
“Finlayson?” he said, in voice that was little more than a dry rasping whisper, “Splendid... always good to meet a Schneider Trophy winner.” With no small effort he extended a bony paw, “A pleasure to make your acquaintance. That was an amazing performance of yours in the ‘25 Schneider. I’ve never forgotten it.”
With some trepidation, Finlayson took the paw. When he did, it felt as if it might crumble at any second. “Thank you, sir.” he said, not a little cautiously. Mitchell’s voice also sounded somewhat slurred and otherworldly.
Oh, well... at least he hadn’t brought up the Thompson.
“So, what can I do you Major.” said Mitchell, in that same rattling whisper, “May I assume it’s something to do with the Spitfire?”
Caught off guard, Jack Finlayson blinked. For someone who was supposed to be heavily medicated, this fox was showing himself to be very perceptive.
“Yes Mr. Mitchell.” he said, nodding, and to his considerable surprise, the vulpine made a face.
“Spitfire... silly name. Never liked it, you know. I wanted to call it the Supermarine Shrew... but the company directors wouldn’t hear of it.” He lapsed into a brooding silence, and Finlayson decided that now was as good a time as any to present his letter of introduction from Katie MacArran.
Finlayson was obliged to read the letter aloud for his host, but the effect on Reginald Mitchell was like a dose of tonic. He straightened up in his chair and his eyes actually seemed to take on some sparkle.
“Oh yes... how is Her Grace these days? Is she well?”
“She’s doing quite well, Mr. Mitchell.” Finlayson told him, and went on to recount his meeting with her in China... prudently leaving out the part about her sudden intrusion while he’d been talking to Colonel Chennault.
“Yes,” said Mitchell nodding... and continuing to nod many more times than was necessary, “she was probably the only thing Barnes Wallis and I ever agreed upon, you know. Oh yes... Vickers tried to assign him to Supermarine as a consulting designer after the British Airship Programme was canceled. Meself, I refused to work with him. Whenever he’d enter a room, I’d leave.” He made a sound that might have been either a chuckle or a rasping wheeze, “Finally, Vickers gave up and left me to my own devices.”
Jack Finlayson sighed inwardly and prepared himself for many more rambling reminiscences.
Which was why he was caught totally unprepared when Mitchell abruptly leaned forward in his chair with a gaze that was not just clear, but penetrating.
“But that’s neither here nor there, Major Finlayson.” he said, the rasp in his voice almost gone, replaced with a firm air of authority, “You still haven’t said what brings you here. What is it that I can do for you?”
A lesser ‘coon might have hesitated or balked... but Jack Finlayson had not come as far as he had without being made of stern stuff. In a move that would have horrified FDR or Harry Hopkins, he told Reginald Mitchell everything... not the cover story he’d been relating thus far, the real one. Except for the meeting in the Oval Office that had started the quest for a new American Pursuit plane, he held nothing back; not the lessons of Guernica, not the realization of how far the US had fallen behind both Britain and Axis in pursuit plane development, none of it.
Finlayson would later rationalize his decision based on the fact that Reginald Mitchell would soon be taking whatever secrets he learned to the grave. But the truth of the matter was that he opened up out of nothing more or less than pure, gut instinct. Something, somewhere told him that Supermarine’s former chief designer had the most important piece of information to impart of anyone he had seen so far.
When he had finished, Mitchell fell back in his chair again...not exhausted, merely thoughtful... steepling his fingers and pursing his lips as if he understood the breach Finlayson had just committed and why.
Then, he sat up once more.
“Major, I realize the risks you’re taken in telling me this. So first, permit me to remind you first of all that the Supermarine Spitfire is, in fact, the direct descendant of the Supermarine S6 Schneider Cup plane.”
Jack Finlayson nodded patiently and said nothing. What the vulpine had just told him was only the most open of secrets. However, he sensed that there was more to follow, much more.
And there was.
“But I will tell you something else that isn’t so well known, Major.” Mitchell continued, trying to raise a finger, “Without the experience we gained from building the S6, we would still be at least three years behind the Germans in pursuit plane development. Simply couldn’t have come as far as we have without it.” His eyes took on that sparkle again, “So there’s your answer, Major. If your lot really wants a fighter that can beat the Luftwaffe, build it first as a race-plane prototype.”
When Jack Finlayson returned to his hotel in London, there was a message waiting for him at the front desk. It was from none other than Air Chief Marshall Sir George Gordon Ballory of the RAF. The raccoon was unconcerned. He had only parted company with Reginald Mitchell the previous afternoon. It was probably a request for a social meeting, nothing more. Mitchell COULDN’T have already let slip the details of their encounter already.
Oh yes, he could. No sooner was Jack Finlayson ushered into the brown bear’s office than the Air Chief Marshall recited for him the gist, if not the substance of his conversation with Reginald Mitchell. Finlayson said nothing as he listened...merely wondered if Leavenworth Military Prison was really as bad as he’d heard.
But then Chief Marshall Ballory smiled.
“The RAF are not angered by your mission, Major,” he said, in the deep profundo voice that had earn him the nickname “Bass-Drum” Ballory, “In fact, we rather wish to give you such assistance as is feasible for us.”
Jack Finlayson’s relief was palpable...but not his excitement at the offer. He’d been around the block a few too many times to just accept it out of paw.
“In exchange for...?” he asked, knowing full well Chief Marshal Ballory was not acting out of the goodness of his heart.
“In exchange for sharing with us the details of your study.” said Ballory, rising from his seat and going to the window, his paws clasped behind his back in that most British of all stances. “As good as the Spitfire is Major, sooner or later the Nazis will come up with a plane to better it. As a matter of fact, rumours are already flying about a new pursuit aircraft under development at the Focke-Wulf aircraft works in Bremen.” He turned around again, “And there will be no successor to the Spit, Major. As you know, Reginald Mitchell is dying. While the new design head at Supermarine is a decent enough chap, he’s no genius on the order of Mitchell himself. And there is another reason why the RAF would like to share in your project for a new pursuit plane. Britain simply does not have the fighter production capacity to match that of Germany.” A dash of bitters entered his voice as he added, “Mind, we could if the Treasury Bench were to give it their blessing, but that is not going to be forthcoming at any time in the near future.”
Jack Finlayson blinked, then goggled at the ursine as it slowly dawned on him; ‘Bass-Drum’ Ballory wasn’t acting within official channels any more than he himself had when he’d revealed his true mission to Reginald Mitchell.
“America, on the other paw, DOES have the capacity for large-scale aircraft production,” the bear was saying, “and as I understand it, your President Roosevelt is soon to call for the considerable expansion of the United States’ Military Air Arm... and that, towards that end, his closest advisor, Harry Hopkins has been sent on a tour of the various American aircraft plants.”
Jack Finlayson had to step on his tail to keep from laughing. He had heard that British Intelligence was first rate, but THIS good?
“Let me see if I understand what you have in mind, Marshall.” he said, leaning back slightly in his chair, “You know that the politicians won’t give you the green light to BUILD more and/or better pursuit planes, and in the event a war, it will be too late to increase production. So instead. you want to help America design and build a superior pursuit plane, one that will be readily available for you to BUY in the event Britain finds herself at war with Germany. Am I right?”
Ballory’s answer to this was a classic of English circumspection.
“Well, you chaps aren’t exactly averse to selling your products abroad, are you?” he said, “China, for example. Only at the moment, there’s very little you’ve got in the way of fighter planes that we’d be interested in having for our squadrons.”
Jack Finlayson could only marvel at Ballory’s ingenuity as well as his legendary ability to take the long view. In helping to create the RAF, the Air Chief Marshall had designed a command and control structure geared towards Britain eventually having a large and powerful Air Force; this despite the fact that no such force was envisioned by Whitehall. “I have built the foundations for a castle.” he’d said at the time, “If no one constructs anything larger than a cottage upon them, at least, it will be a very solid cottage.”
Then the Air Chief Marshall said something that made Finlayson’s ears prick up almost to the ceiling.
“As it so happens, I’ve been invited to an air meet in Berlin next week... by none other than Flugmarschall Hermann Goring himself. As I understand it, he intends to show off the latest in German aircraft development, trying to intimidate me, I shouldn’t wonder.” He paused, obviously enjoying his guest’s surprise. “Now, it also happens that a Mr. Charles Lindbergh will be also in attendance; for some reason, Goering’s been going out of his way of late to flatter your country’s most famous aviator. And being an American aviator of no small stature yourself, well if Goering were to acquire the notion that you also might be interested in attending...”
He left exactly where the Luftwaffe chief might get that idea unspoken... but Jack Finlayson immediately understood, and vigorously nodded his approval. That evening, he sent a cable to Washington saying that he would be postponing his return trip to America, explaining about the air-meet in Berlin and his hopes for an invitation from the Fliegerhaus. The next morning, when the raccoon came down to breakfast, there was another message waiting for him at the front desk.
This one came stamped with an embossed swastika.
When he arrived in Berlin however, Jack Finlayson immediately began to question the wisdom of accepting Chief Marshall Ballory’s suggestion. No sooner did he step off his plane at Tempelhof airport, than he was shaking paws with Herman Goering while flashbulbs popped in his face. Then it would only do for the orangutan to introduce him to Charles Lindbergh, while the photographers snapped another round of pictures. That was all it took for the raccoon to decide that he despised, no loathed Hermann Goering... and he was quickly coming around to the view that he didn’t care much for Charles Lindbergh either. The jackrabbit actually seemed to REVEL in his role as a Nazi stage-prop.
But he stuck it out, and at a banquet and reception held that evening at the Luftwaffe’s palatial new headquarters, Der Fliegerhaus, Finlayson finally began to strike paydirt.
It didn’t start out well for him. Everyone else was resplendent in their either their finest dress uniforms or an impeccably tailored suit The Major, by comparison, had set out for Europe not anticipating any formal events, and he felt downright shabby in his plain, everyday khakis. Fortunately, Jack Finlayson’s reputation as America’s foremost air-race pilot, the only pilot ever to take the Schneider, the Bendix, AND the Thompson trophies, preceded him. The instant he came through the entrance, he was regaled like visiting royalty; Champagne? Kaviar? May I take your coat for you?
Shortly thereafter, he was introduced to Germany’s most famous air-race pilot, Flugkapitan Ilse Klentsch, fresh from her stunning victory in the 1937 Coupe Deutsch de Meurthe in Paris. This time, the raccoon was highly intrigued. The ebony furred she-wolf was not only a champion air-race pilot, but held several altitude and speed records as well...to say nothing of several aerobatic championships.
(And of course, the fact that Fraulein Klentsch was also a bombshell had NOTHING to do with the Major’s interest in her.)
“I should hope we can talk later about the Schneider-Cup Herr Flugmajor.” she told him with a smile, after letting him kiss her paw, “When this air-meet concludes, I will be off to Spontoon Island to prepare for the ‘37 Schneider...and I should be most grateful for any advise du can give me.”
Jack Finlayson promised to see what he could do... and this time Ilse’s knockout figure really did have nothing to do with it. The female vulpine was also one of the Luftwaffe’s pre-eminent test pilots. If there was anyone he might be able to pump for information about their latest pursuit plane developments, it was her.
(Of course it never occurred to the Major that Flugkapitan Klentsch might have similar designs on him.)
Then the atmosphere became cloying again as Finlayson was treated to another uninterrupted series of introductions, this time to the members of the Luftwaffe hierarchy; there was General Hugo Sperrle, a huge polar bear, face impassive behind his ever-present monocle. At the opposite end of the spectrum was the perpetually cheerful polecat, General Albert Kesselring. General Hans Jeschonneck, on the other paw, a red deer, was about the most morose individual Jack Finlayson had ever met, while General Ewald Shlag, a slightly popeyed boxer dog seemed to be constantly on the verge of a slow boil.
And then there was General Ernst Udet.
Germany’s second highest-scoring ace of the First World War, Udet had risen to become Goering’s second in command within the Luftwaffe... a promotion that had caused much bitter resentment amongst his brother officers, many of whom felt the badger had been elevated well above his level of competency. And from what the Major had heard, their assessment of him was most likely an accurate one. A bon-vivant, with a taste for the good life, Ernst Udet’s work habits were supposedly as erratic as they were indifferent. He would show up late for work, leave whenever he felt like it, and take lunch-breaks that were sometimes the longest part of his work-day. A talented caricaturist, the badger frequently amused himself by drawing satirical sketches of Goering’s other lieutenants, a habit that did nothing to endear him to his fellows. It was said that Erwin Schlag particularly loathed Udet, and did everything in his power to undermine his authority. The problem was, so the story went, if Udet had no talent as an administrator, he did have the most amazing ability to deflect Goering’s wrath every time the orangutan called him on the carpet. He would either draw his commander into reminiscing about their mutual experiences in the Great War or if that didn’t work, he’d invent a crisis that had to be dealt with macht schnell. Udet was also reportedly the officer behind the development of the Junkers Ju87 Stuka as the Luftwaffe’s front-line attack aircraft. ( Unlike a few other airfurs he could name, Jack Finlayson remained singularly unimpressed with the Stuka, which he considered a vastly overrated aircraft. )
The raccoon’s introduction to General Udet did nothing to dispel these pre-conceptions. When they met, the badger was holding a glass of champagne in his paws -- which he promptly chugged in one gulp after saying “guten tag.”
...in a voice that was already becoming slurred, less than one hour into the fete. Luckily, Hermann Goering was standing nearby and quickly ushered his deputy away from the Major..
Then came something that made Finlayson think that maybe coming here wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Air Chief Marshall Ballory came strolling in his direction in the company of an ascetic-looking dachshund, dressed even more plainly than himself.
“Ah, there you are, Major.” said the big bear, cheerily, “May I present someone whose name should not be unfamiliar to you, Herr Professor Wilhelm Messerschmitt? Herr Professor? Please allow me to introduce Major Jack Finlayson, the famous American air-race pilot.”
“Oh yes, truly an honor,” said the Major, offering a paw with barely concealed enthusiasm. This wasn’t just paydirt, it was the mother-lode.
“Danke,” said the canine, shaking his paw, “Und most pleasure to meet you, Herr Flugmajor. When Herr Flug-Marschall Ballory told me that you were attending this evening, I was most delighted at the prospect of getting to meet you.” His chest seemed to inflate slightly as he added, “We at Augsburg are preparing to begin construction of our first race-plane, you see...the Me-109R.”
Jack Finlayson was already aware of this, having carefully studied Professor Messerschmitt’s War Department and RAF dossiers before coming to Berlin. He also knew something the canine wasn’t telling him; the 109R was only the latest salvo in an ongoing feud between himself and Professor Ernst Heinkel.
When the Luftwaffe had sent the Condor Legion to assist Franco in the Spanish Civil War, the two aircraft designers taken it as an opportunity to promote their respective pursuit plane designs, with the aim of become the chief supplier of fighter aircraft to the Third Reich. Willy Messerchmitt had won that one; the Heinkel He-112 might have been faster than the Me-109, but thanks to a very low wing-load, it could neither out-turn, nor out-dive the Messerschmitt, and was further hampered by a complicated engine-cooling system. As if that weren’t enough, the He-112 was also far more vulnerable to enemy fire than was the Me-109. Even now, it was being phased out of production.
To recoup some of his lost prestige, Ernst Heinkel had begun the construction of a variant on the He-112 called the Heinkel He100d, an aircraft built to the specific purpose of setting a new world air-speed record. Now, it seemed Herr Professor Messerschmitt was not about to let Herr Professor’s Heinkel’s new air-race plane go unchallenged.
And therein, the raccoon realized, lay the key to Willy Messerschmitt; like many another aircraft designer Jack Finlayson had known, the dachshund’s massive ego was actually a facade behind which he kept his insecurities well-concealed.
“Well, if your racer is as fine an aircraft as your pursuit plane, Professor,” said the raccoon,
I wouldn’t be surprised to see it set a record that will stand for many years to come.”
As he spoke these words, Finlayson managed to catch the eye of Air Chief Marshall Ballory. Though he gave no overt signal, the bear nodded imperceptibly then looked at his watch and excused himself ‘for just a moment.’
In the meantime, Finlayson continued to heap praise upon the Me-109, calling it among other things ‘a great leap forward in pursuit plane design’, and ‘a stunning success’...while Professor Messerschmitt ate it up like a kit with his first ice-cream cone.
Then casually, almost too casually, the Major offered the opinion that the only plane he knew that could rival the Me-109 was the new British pursuit plane, the Spitfire.
The reaction to this was both predictable and everything Jack Finlayson could have hoped for; Professor Messerschmitt bristled like a hedgehog and launched into a disparaging critique of the Spitfire, comparing it unfavorably to the Me-109 at every turn. Most of what he had to say about his aircraft versus it’s British rival was both already known to Major Finlayson and highly exaggerated... except for one tidbit that the raccoon carefully filed away for future mental reference.
That was when both of them noticed General Erwin Schlag looking in their direction, a deep scowl on his face. Immediately, Professor Messerschmitt curtailed his tirade and excused himself on the pretext that he was expecting an important telephone call.
Jack Finlayson let him go and then went to find Air Chief Marshal Ballory again.
“One thing he told that I didn’t know is that the ME-109's engine won’t stall out on steep dives or tight turns, the way the Spitfire’s Merlin does sometimes.”
They were standing together on one of the balconies, outside and away from the crowd.
“Ah yes,” said the ursine, pursing his lips, “That is a bit of news, isn’t it?” He turned slightly and raised his glass to the raccoon in a small mock-toast, “Well done, Major. But, er... I supposed it would be a bit too much to hope for that he’d have told you WHY this might be so?”
“Maybe he would have,” Finlayson responded, sighing, “But right then, he spotted General Schlag looking at us and it shut him off as if someone had thrown a switch.”
Bass-Drum Ballory grunted and looked out over the balcony once more.
“Yes, well that’s hardly surprising, considering how much Herr Flug-General Erwin Schlag thoroughly hates Professor Messerschmitt. One of his best friends was killed in the crash of a Messerschmitt plane some years back you see, and he’s neither forgiven nor forgotten.”
“Then why is Professor Messerschmitt still working?” asked Finlayson, almost rhetorically. He had studied Erwin Schlag’s RAF dossier and what he’d seen there had been anything but pretty. Look at what had happened to Hugo Junkers.
“Two reasons.” said the RAF commander, taking a sip of his pink gin, “Number one, as you might imagine, the success of the ME-109, and number two, the professor happens to be a close, fursonal friend of Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess.”
“Oh, HO! ” crowed Finlayson, throwing back his head a little, then raising his own glass, “Say no more, Air Chief Marshal. I thoroughly understand.”
“Well, yes.” Air Chief Marshall Ballory raised his glass back, “But even Herr Hess won’t be able to shield Professor Messerschmitt if he’s caught revealing the Me-109's secrets to the representative of a foreign government.” He took another sip and smiled, a little sardonically, “And who would happier to see that happen than our own General Erwin Schlag, eh?”
“No one I can think of.” said Jack Finlayson, and then the two of them went back inside the hall.
As they strolled about the Fliegerhaus, the raccoon began to take notice of his surroundings for the first time. The place wasn’t just huge, it was cavernous; the main hall could almost have served as a B-17 hangar. And the level of opulence was nothing short of breathtaking...luxuriant carpeting on the floor, fine artwork on the walls, and crystal chandeliers overhead, all in the neo-gothic style for which the Nazis were well noted. Jack Finlayson found himself thinking of the US Army Air Corps’ headquarters by comparison; the USAAC HQ didn’t even have it’s own building, but was tucked away into a far corner of the War Department, a place of low ceilings, poor ventilation, creaky chairs, and dust.
And that, he realized, epitomized the differences in attitude towards air-power by the American and Nazi governments. All that was about to change, as Finlayson knew all too well; it was why he was here in the first place. But even so, would America be able to catch up to Germany in terms of pursuit plane design when Goering had not only a huge head start but practically a blank check?
The raccoon wasn’t so sure he wanted to know the answer to that question.
It was at about this time that a bevy of waiters, resplendent in white and black livery appeared at the doors to the reception hall to announce that dinner would shortly be served, and everyone promptly moved to the table.
The banquet was exactly the sort of gargantuan repast that Hermann Goering might have been expected to serve, five kinds of dumplings, four kinds of roast vegetables, three kinds of potatoes, roast goose for the main entree, and a different kind of liqueur with every course. By the time the waiters were serving dessert, a Viennesse torte of myriad layers, more than a few of the guests were becoming tipsy... including, Jack Finlayson was not pleased to note, Air Chief Marshall Ballory, who was sitting a good ten yards away, across the table and next to General Kesselring.
For his part, Jack Finlayson found himself seated between Giuseppe Casadonte, the famous Italian aircraft designer the near legendary chamois Claude Venzines, crew chief to the French team that won the ‘36 Thompson Trophy Race. He wondered for a moment if perhaps this was intentional -- if he wasn’t being kept at arm’s length in the wake of General Schlag having observed his conversation with Professor Messerschmitt. In any event, he had an excellent conversation with M. Venzines and Signor Casadonte about the subject of air-racing.
“Ah hope you will not be offended,” the chamois told him, “if I say to you that your victory in Le Thompson becomes all the more remarkable when you consider the aircraft you were flying.”
“No offense taken.” said the Major, actually grateful to have an audience to whom he would not have to pull his punches in his assessment of the Gee-Bee, “You’re absolutely right. The Gee-Bee R-6 has to have been the most unstable race plane ever built. Flying it was like trying to balance an ice-cream cone on the tip of your finger.”
“Oui, Oui.” agreed Venzines, and then added with a gallic sign., “I was there in Detroit to see the crash of Monsieur Bayles in the Gee-Bee Model Zed. “He took a sip from his liqueur and then raised it slightly, “Quelle tragedie...a great loss to the world of air racing.”
“That it was,” said the Major, nodding somberly. Lowell Bayles had been the winner of the Thompson Trophy the year before Jack Finlayson had captured it. Five months later, while the coyote had been attempting to set a new air-speed record in his Model Z, a gas cap had worked loose and smashed through the windshield into his face. The violent crash that followed had killed him instantly.
“What I shall never understand,” the chamois was saying, “is how a Gee-Bee was ever able to win the Schneider Cup.”
“It was because of the wing floats.” said Guiseppe Casadonte, joining the discussion for the first time, “They had the same effect upon the Gee-Bee model S as the keel of a ship, so I have heard it.” He grinned, mischievously. “And perhaps, just perhaps, the fact that she was also racing unopposed.”
Jack Finlayson’s ears went up. Yes... it was so obvious. He would have loved to get the Ibiza hound in a private moment to discuss his views on pursuit plane development, but knew that he would not. In the wake of the Fascist conquest of Abyssinia, Signor Casadonte had become a dedicated pacifist; one who would sooner end up like Lowell Bayles than have anything to do with the construction of a warplane -- especially one that might be one day used against his homeland. Disenchanted though he might be with both Il Duce and Fascism, Giuseppe Casadonte still loved Italy with a passion.
And Jack Finlayson had to respect him for that.
Just then, Hermann Goering stood up, lightly banging a fork against his wine glass. Silence quickly spread throughout the room as the orangutan cleared his throat and began to speak.
“Ladies and gentlefurs, danke so much for coming tonight. The Reich is honored by your presence here this evening.”
There was a sprinkling of applause throughout the room. Goering waited for it to subside, then raised his paws.
“And to show our gratitude, the Luftwaffe has a special surprise for you. If you will be zo kind as to accompany me to the balconies, we have prepared a grand fireworks display for your enjoyment.”
Somehow, or perhaps it was by design, Jack Finlayson found himself sharing the same balcony as Hermann Goering and Bass Drum Ballory. He was about to make a comment to the RAF Commander, when the lights all went out and the pyrotechnics commenced.
As something of an American icon, Finlayson had attended many a Fourth of July fireworks display, but he had never seen anything like this one...or heard it. Midway through the explosions of incandescent colors, a new sound began to make it’s presence felt, a low and dull roar that grew louder and higher and pitch with every passing second. Soon, everyone on the balconies was turning around in confusion or looking over their shoulders. Jack Finlayson looked too...and saw that mounted above each of the balconies was a pair of oversized loudspeakers...and at that instant, the roar became a nerve shattering scream.
And that was when the raccoon finally realized what he was listening to. It was an over-amplified recording of Stuka dive bombers plummeting earthward with their sirens shrieking. He glanced over at Air Chief Marshall Ballory, who was shivering with indignation. Finlayson both understood and agreed with the ursine’s sentiments. Though both he and the RAF commander had known all along that Goering intended to use the air meet as an opportunity for intimidation, neither one of them had expected it to come in such a crude and melodramatic manner as this.
It was then that Hermann Goering noticed the Air Chief Marshall’s reaction, and made a serious misinterpretation. He leaned close to the ursine with a smile that was half jolly, half leering and shouted through cupped paws.
“That’s German might for you. I see you trembled.”
This was finally too much for George Gordon Ballory. He immediately stepped back and gave vent to the big voice which had earned him his nickname.
“You must be off your head! I warn you Goring, don’t underestimate the RAF!”
Then and there, Jack Finlayson decided that this particular balcony might not be the best place for him to be standing at the moment. As unobtrusively as he could manage, the raccoon slipped back into the hall again, and almost immediately backed into someone. When he turned around, he saw that it was Ilse Klentsch.
“Oh...excuse me.” he said, hurriedly tipping his officer’s cap.
“Oh, that’s quite all right Herr Flugmajor,” the she-wolf told him with a smile. She nodded over his shoulder towards the balcony. “You are not going to watch the rest of the fireworks?”
The raccoon decided to be honest.
“A little too loud for my tastes.” he said, and was gratified when Fraulein Klenstch just nodded, knowingly.
“Ja, for mein too, if you want the truth. When you have heard the sound of a Stuka siren from inside it’s cockpit, a replication becomes rather boring.” She made a face, and added, “and Mein Gott, did they have to play it THIS loud?”
“Well, perhaps if we could find some place a little quieter, I could tell you about my experiences in the Schneider Cup.” said the Major, figuring this was a good a time as any..
“Mmm,” said Ilse Kletnsch, her voice becoming a little sultry, and more than a little teasing, “Will
you promise to behave yourself, Herr Finlayson?”
“Absolutely, Fraulein,” said the raccoon, and meant it. Married since 1918, Jack Finlayson occasionally let his eyes wander, but always kept his paws to himself. If Ilse Klentsch intended to vamp him, she would not be the first femme to try it.
Only one of the most beautiful, the Major carefully reminded himself.
They met in a small conference room on the next floor below. And as soon as they sat down, Flugkapitan Klentsch began by saying, “As much as I admire your victory in the ‘25 Schneider, Herr Flugmajor...what I should really like to hear about is the 1931 Thompson Trophy race. However did you do it?”
The raccoon suppressed a sigh. The Gee Bee again...why did they ALWAYS want to discuss the Gee Bee?
Oh, well...at least she had picked a subject about which he could talk freely.
“Well, Fraulein Flugkapitan,” he said, “As I’m sure you’re aware, the Gee-Bee R-1 was incredibly powerful, but extremely touchy on the turns. The first time I took her around the practice pylons, I flew at 5000 feet instead of the normal racing altitude of 250 feet.” He allowed himself a grim, rueful smile, “And it’s a good thing I did. She did two snap rolls on me, before I could get her under control.”
In response to this, Ilse Klentsch’s expression became a feral grin, a somewhat disturbing change of features, given the fact that she was a wolf.
“Hmmm, rather a plane that would appeal to the Herzogin Katarina MacArran, I should think. You have heard, I take it, that she likes to perform snap rolls whenever she wins.”
There was an odd note of bitterness in the black-furred lupine’s voice as she said this, and Jack Finlayson wondered why. Katie MacArran was all but retired from air-racing, and as far as he was aware, she and Ilse Klentsch had never met.
“I suppose,” he said, laconically, “but getting back to the Thompson Trophy, what I did to win was jump off fast, grab the lead at the beginning, then fly wide on the pylons but keep the throttle wide open. In essence, I used the Gee-Bee’s speed to compensate for it’s instability.”
“Du gave her the gun, and she flew like a bullet,” said Ilse Klentsch, smiling as she repeated the raccoon’s most oft quoted line about the Thompson. Then her expression became more serious, “But this is actually quite useful to me, Herr Flugmajor. The race-plane in which I shall be competing in the ‘37 Schneider is also extremely powerful, if not quite zo touchy around the pylons.”
“What aircraft is that?” asked Finlayson, expecting to be told little is anything about the she-wolf’s race plane. When it came to secrecy, the Germans made Mario Castoldi look like a blabbermouth.
Instead, much to his amazement, Ilse Klentsch began to talk quite openly about her new racer.
“He’s the BD 232 ‘Blitzen’, built by Bugman und Dross AG. The 32 refers to his number of cylinders.”
Jack Finlayson let out a low whistle. The Macchi-Castoldi MC 72, which had set a mind-boggling new airspeed record of 440 mph only three years previously had sported only 24 cylinders.
“May I presume that she, excuse me...HE has more than one engine?” he asked.
“You may,” said the wolf femme with a short laugh, “he uses two engines, mounted one behind the other, each driving a contra-rotating propellor.”
Jack Finlayson was unable to resist.
“Aren’t you afraid that FIAT will accuse you of copying their engine design?” he teased. Ilse Klentsch just shrugged indifferently.
“Not me, Herr Flugmajor, I’m only the pilot. If Signor Zerbi wishes to lodge a complaint, he can take it up with Bayerische Motorwerke...and anyway, as I understand it, BMW’s new engine design includes a number of innovations not found on der MC 72; a new oil-cooling system for one thing, and the air scoop is under mounted under the cockpit instead of between the engines. He also has an engine system that will allow him to take the turns without losing power as did the MC 72.”
Jack Finlayson felt a prickle at the back of his neck. That was much too similar to what Willy Messerschmitt had been saying about the Me-109 versus the Spitfire. He thought for a second about inquiring for more details, but wisely chose not to do so. By all accounts, this she-wolf was nobody’s fool. It was very possible that she had let this detail slip by design...in order to prod him into revealing what he’d been told by the Professor after bringing up the Spitfire.
So, instead he asked her, “With a design like that, might I assume that you’re going to try to beat the MC 72's speed record when you get to Spontoon Island?”
“You may indeed, Herr Flugmajor,” Ilse Klentsch responded with a smile...and if there was any disappointment that he hadn’t taken the bait, it showed not at all on her face.
Later, when the reception broke up, the Major caught up with a sullen and slightly chagrined Air Chief Marshall Ballory and related the substance of his conversation with Flugkapitan Klentsch.
“Mmmm, perhaps it’s just as well you didn’t make any enquiries when she mention the Blitzen’s air-intake, old boy.” the bear responded with a grunt, “She WAS most likely trying to bait you, I daresay. According to what I’ve heard, she’s done a bit of intelligence work for the Abwehr here and there.”
“Uh-huh,” said the raccoon, his suspicions confirmed, “Even so, she was pretty indiscreet in her description of the Blitzen.”
Bass-Drum Ballory responded to this with a small chuckle. “Yes, well that was because she could afford to be, don’t you see? The Bugman und Dross BD 232 was built entirely as a race plane, and will never be developed into a combat aircraft. There’s almost nothing about her that would be of use to an enemy.”
That memory brought Jack Finlayson instantly back to the Spontoons and to the present, and he sat up with a fast jolt.
“Scuse me, sir..are you all right then?” asked the coxswain of the British Consulate’s motor launch, a river rat with mottled fur.
“Oh, just fine thanks.” the raccoon responded, “I er...just realized I was supposed to send a telegram to Washington as soon as I arrived.”
Even to him, it sounded weak...but the rodent just nodded in understanding.
“Not to worry, Major. Things is always a bit hectic round here for speed-week...an’ anyways, there’s a cable office on South Island, right on yer way to the Topotabo Hotel sir.”
“Oh?” said Finlayson, trying to sound relieved, “That’s excellent. Thank you, coxswain.”
“No problem, sir.” said the water rat, touching the brim of his cap.
Jack Finlayson settled back in his seat again, apparently in a state of sans souci... but inside, his mind was racing.
“Oh, my God. How did I EVER miss something so obvious?”
Ilse Klentsch is the intellectual property of Richard Bartrop. Giuseppe Casadonte is the intellectual property of Stuart McCarthy. Used here with permission.
Junkers Ju87 ‘Stuka’
Bugman und Dross ‘Blitzen’
(Scroll down )
And, of course...
The Supermarine Spitfire
The Messerschmitt ME-109