The Kronstadt Fleet Air Arm
There was frantic activity at the Naval airstrip on Hessle foreshore. Within the suite of offices that occupied the upper floor of a concrete blockhouse, beneath the concrete control tower, an operator rushed from the radio shack to the desk of his Comrade-Squadron-Leader. Seconds later an adjutant ran along the corridor, down the stairs and out into a surprisingly sunny Indian Summer to ring urgently on a large brass bell whilst shouting, “Scramble!”
Boiler suited engineers were already removing the protective quilted jackets from the engine cowlings of three Polikarpov I-16 fighters parked expectantly on the tarmac as the Comrade-Pilots pulled sheepskin flying-jackets over their telnyashkas and clasped their parachute harnesses into place. Each clambered over the wing of his aircraft and into the cockpit. There was an irregular chuck, chuck, chuck as the Shvetsov M-63 9-cylinder (900hp) supercharged air-cooled radial engines fired up and soon settled into an even drone. Props twirled faster and faster. The three planes sang in unison, Comrade-Pilots waved, “Chocks away, tovarisch.” Gathering speed in single file down the runway, they lifted, banked and, forming up wing-tip-to-wing-tip, headed out to sea.
The radioed call for assistance had also reached Consuella Starcluster at the Cirque des Absurdités in The Land of Green Ginger and she immediately headed for the docks, riding pillion behind Snowdrop on her unicycle and with two of the Kittens of Chaos crammed into the sidecar. Now they were standing on the quayside looking at ninety metres of what could be taken for a gigantic flying boat were it not for the wholly inadequate stubby wings. Its white paint was pealing and the red star on its tail was faded. There were two formidable rows of missile launchers along its back. A Kronstadt Starshina stood beside them holding a large cardboard box.
“The finest ekranoplan ever to take to the air. We bought her on e-bay from a scrap metal dealer in Kaspiysk. He had her deconstructed and shipped flat-pack on an IKEA container vessel bound for Immingham Docks. We’ve followed the instructions to the letter putting her back together, but we’ve got this box of bits left over and some of them look as if they might be important.”
“¿No iba a estar listos para el combate de cualquier momento pronto, entonces?” (It will not to be combat-ready any time soon, then?) sighed Consuella.
“Oh, but…” from two very disappointed Kittens, “…we wanna go in the big planey thing!”
“With the rockets!”
The Petty Officer smiled down on the pair as if they were cherubs, in their battered straw boaters, micro skirts and laddered black stockings, “Not today, little ones. For now, she goes nowhere.”
Snowdrop had wandered over to another large cardboard box sitting on the quay close to a stocky cast-iron bollard. From it she had selected three suitable yet random items of an aeronautical nature and was honing her juggling skills.
Consuella looked concerned, “Joost how many ‘beets’ do hyou haav left oveer, Comrade-Starsheenarrr?”
“Er… quite a lot.”
“Hand what exactly does work on thees wonderfool vessel of yoors?”
The Lady Æthelflæda was struggling to gain height. The crew of the Belgian trawler observed the hot-airship preparing for action and disappeared off the deck. Pouring smoke from its funnel the fishing vessel quickly made its best speed away from the area. As the dirigible banked, a young rating, who must have lied about his age, manned the port waist gun and opened fire towards the Chats Souterrains’ Ducks. They were not yet within range, but were closing fast.
Ferdy turned to his comrades; his wide, pale eyes flashed cold resignation and a small muscle on his right temple twitched. “She’s sluggish. That flack must have done more damage than we thought. It’s ruptured a gas cell.”
“Dump the ballast, Phoebles.” Boz spoke quietly but with dark determination, “Ferdy… just get us above those fighters.”
The Gruman J2Fs came in, broke away left and right, and circled the wallowing dirigible like wolves around an abandoned biryani takeaway.
With the aggressors closing in, Ginsbergbear puffed and wheezed his way up the spiral staircase that climbed through the belly of the airship, eventually reaching an open machine gun turret just aft of the funnel. He clung to the sides for a while, gulping air, back bent and shoulders drooping while his breathing steadied and heartbeat returned to normal. He cocked the four 0.303 Browning machine guns, tested the swivel mount and pressed the throat mic to his larynx.
“Dorsal gunner ready. Nothing to see up here. Wait…” Something was diving out of the sun.
He took aim at the lead aircraft, saw there were three of them, and then recognized the silhouettes. He quickly panned the guns off the target. “The Ratas have arrived. We might be alright after all.”
As the Polikarpovs roared overhead they opened fire towards the corsair fighters with 20mm ShKAS wing mounted cannons. The crimson fuselage of the lead aircraft flashed in the sunlight and as it banked Ginsbergbear could make out a red star outlined in white on the tail and a scarlet winged anchor on a blue rimmed white roundel below the cockpit. All much more flamboyant than was usual for the chromatically conservative Kronstadt sailors who regarded a plain red star against a complementary green ground amply adventurous. Through her gun-sights the pilot of the lead Rata could make out a rear gunner in one of the Ducks speaking urgently to his pilot and then standing up, gilded pickelhaube glinting, waving to the other seaplane and pointing into the sun. Shells exploded around him. The floatplanes veered away, looped and corkscrewed; the Ratas rushed in. Planes waltzed together in ever tightening circles. The ensuing dogfights were short – the Polikarpov Ratas were faster and more manoeuvrable. But once the J2Fs of Les Chats Souterrains broke off, their rear facing machine guns kept the pursuers at bay.
Job done, the red Polikarpov I-16 pealed away to fly over the Lady Æthelflæda, dipping its wings in salute, Wing-Comrade Polly Karpova, open cockpit, her strawberry blonde hair streaming in the wind, giving an OK sign with one raised hand. The remaining sea green Ratas followed the Ducks at a respectful distance. They only turned back when they reached the limit of their range, certain by then that the Ducks were heading for their base on the Tyne.
The dirigible turned to limp for home, leaving the abandoned gunboat and corsairs in the orange life rafts to sort out their own problems. A CPO, his sleeveless summer telnyashka exposing an impressive array of tattoos, appeared on the bridge.
“We have stemmed the leak, tovarisch, but we’ve lost a lot of helium…” The Aethelfleda was a composite airship, with gas bags fore and aft and a hot air chamber amidships. “…We should make it back OK – just.”
Phoebles slumped on the deck, his face blank and no hint of his customary inane smile. Ginsbergbear arrived at the bottom of the spiral staircase. Boz removed his eye patch and gripped the chart table with his one free paw.
“This is not an adventure any more, we just keep going ‘cos there is no alternative. Where will it end? When will it end?” He nodded towards the helmsman, still rigid at his post. “Ferdy is strung so tight something has to snap. He’s running on catnip and Red Bull. We’re making such little headway in this war, it’s just endless attrition.”
“I’m fine,” snapped the pilot.
“No you’re not.” Phoebles, wrinkling his brow, spoke almost in a whisper; “It was all so gentlemanly at the start. There were rules, unwritten rules, but everyone understood them. Somewhere it all changed and we barely noticed. We do what we have to, because we have to win.
“I wonder if we have lost sight of something. We try to prevent these pirate raids without considering what makes the Corsairs tick. We outwit them when we can. But have we stopped trying to understand them? Has anyone thought of making sandwiches? It’s been a long time since second breakfast.”
The Severn Seals
THE SEVERN SEALS
Kt – Q3 ch
It is a petty triumph, black plays
The long game.
Black Death tossing pawns into
The fray, pinning, forking.
Mein fahrer hat vom blitz getroffen.
Blitz und Donner, fork
Noir de la mort comme la nuit
Peste Noire and Quixote, silent, still
On the pebble strand.
Sea creatures, Kraken chicks
A high price to pay
“Is that you, darling?”
“No, it’s someone else.”
Dog Days’ vindictive caresses, sweating
Over dead Odysseus, drowning
In Leviathan’s aquatic grotto, rotting
Beleaguered White King scorns ransom.
The bowler hats and brollies, departed after…
High heeled, high hemmed, thrawen thighs (with thwongs attached) typing
Endlessly. “The copier’s out of ink.”
Had to get a proper job,
Down the Co-Op.
While the brazen Geordie,
“Careful Ducky!” holds:
He who fights monsters should beware
He does not become a monster too.
Gaze long enough into an abyss and
The abyss will gaze back into you.
Moonbeams and blue jeans,
Selkies gambolling off the sandy shore.
Feed me mooncakes and I’ll sing some more.
Boz wondered if he had ever been this depressed before. However, everyone’s mood lightened considerably when the poem ended and the flags and wind socks of the Kronstadt Fleet Air Arm aerodrome at last came into view. And the gang were bordering on cheerful once the Lady Æthelflæda was on her pylon and repair crews were swarming all over her. Larry’s personal runabout was tethered to a neighbouring pylon.
On the tarmac they bumped into Barrymore. She had been tinkering with one of the Porsche engines on Larry’s dirigible and was removing a tiny speck of oil from her bottle-green, crotch length chauffeur’s jacket.
“Hi boys,” she straightened the fur on the longest tortoise-shell legs this side of Paradise, “Larry’s waiting up stairs. He wants to discuss developments. I’ll just hang around down here, see if I can catch one of these delicious sailors.”
Larry had made himself comfortable at the Comrade-Squadron-Leader’s desk in the Comrade-Squadron-Leader’s chair, the Comrade-Squadron-Leader, tapping at his tin leg with a walking stick, was perched on the edge of his adjutant’s desk trying to look only slightly put out, and the adjutant was fetching teas and coffees. Kronstadt Fleet Air Arm Wing- Comrade Polly Karpova, in navy-blue flight suit and sheepskin flying jacket, goggles hung round her neck, was rolling a fag by the window.
Larry started talking before tedious formalities could delay him. He addressed Boz and waved a general indication towards any Kronstadt personnel within range, ‘I’m putting these boys in charge of trawler protection for a bit.’
Polly looked up, ‘boys?’
Larry ignored her, ‘Boz, a spot of R and R for you and your gang whilst The Lady’s in drydock. And we have another piccolo problema. No-one has heard from the Lord Ancaster since they radioed that they had arrived at the Antarctic ice shelf.’