"They did get it out of the barn then," Kolawaski said happily as he peered into the night ahead of us and began to slow the car.
The aeroplane stood on a sandy track as we pulled alongside it. It faced westward, away from Peenemünde and Poland -- into the short field that led to the promontory from which I had seen von Kys' rocket fly only that afternoon.
We couldn't take off that way, I told myself as I sat in the back of the car. There was little more than a couple of hundred yards to the promontory where I'd watched the rocket's test flight. There wasn't enough room to get off the ground before the bloody aeroplane would be bouncing along under water.
I realised suddenly that the entire success of the mission I'd been given rested squarely on the next few minutes. It also rested squarely on me. I alone was going to have to get these people out of Germany and into Poland. My heart threatened to become a permanent resident of my throat.
I was going to have four passengers on the aeroplane -- von Kys' two scientists, Jorsten, and the Polish agent, Kolawaski -- and the boy. And myself. Our lives would be dependent upon me. This in an aeroplane designed to hold a total of four people comfortably. Reality began to seep through the euphoria I felt at still being alive and actually beside the aeroplane that would make my -- our -- escape possible.
So there were now five of us adults -- not four -- and young Willi von Kys. Firstly, that meant a more prolonged take-off space than I was likely to have. I cringed. Or a far more pronounced angle of climb than would be wise. But not too pronounced, I instantly reminded myself. Too steep a climb would mean a stall. I did not want to stall out and come crashing back to German soil just as I was finally clear of it.
I started to turn and young Willi grumbled against my chest in his sleep at the change of position. I had intended to look out the rear window along the track, away from the promontory.
"Jorsten." He turned to face me across the seat of the car. "Come around to the side of the car and take the boy from me." I glanced over to Kolawaski and smiled. "Let's get this thing started," I told him. "I suspect we would all like to have a nice rest tonight."
I passed the sleeping boy to Jorsten and climbed out of the car. In the darkness, I stared down the track towards the east and studied the dark woods. I turned to the Pole who had come to stand beside me in the middle of the dirt track. "How far is it down to the first trees?" I asked, conscious to sound unperturbed.
"Five hundred and fifty -- six hundred -- meters, Herr Baron." He glanced over at me as I attempted to translate that into feet and yards. "Is there something wrong?"
He was telling me there was seventeen hundred and two thousand feet between where we stood and the stand of trees I could only make out as a dark barrier rising out of the ground. I suspected I would need everyone of the two thousand feet, and more. I groaned.
"But the track continues, Herr Baron. There is but a long curve around that copse of woods."
I counted to ten. I did so again. Blood still pounded in my ears. "We may all die in one fiery crash, Kolawaski," I grumbled through clinched teeth. Didn't the arse understand that an aeroplane could not turn and follow a curve in the road as a motor car did? Once the propellers were turning and we were committed to a take-off, we could roll only in a straight line forward. There could be no curves. There would only be us on the straight track until we were airborne or we were crashed into those trees that jutted into the track.
"We shall all die individually with a German bullet in our brain if we do not soon leave," Kolawaski answered with no trace of feeling in his voice. "You shall be able to do it, Herr Baron. I have faith in you. Graf von Kys had faith in you too, or he would not have planned for you to fly us out -- or give his son to you to raise for him."
I shut my eyes then and forced my breathing back to a normal rhythm. I had five people, counting myself -- six, counting young Willi -- whose lives were going to be in my hands. I owed it to each of them to stop looking for problems and to get them safely away. "Come on," I told the Polish agent as I turned and started to walk back to the aeroplane.
I was going to fly us to Poland. I was doing this; no-one but me. I who had never flown at night. If I didn't, these people would soon be dead -- because of my failure. Such failure had to be impossible for a Petersholme.
Jorsten with young Willie in his arms stood with the scientists watching me as I quickly went through a ground check. "All right, lads," I told them, "we're going to have to turn this thing around."
"You choose to face Peenemünde, Herr Baron?" Jorsten asked as Kolawaski and the others moved to the tail of the aeroplane.
"Most definitely. We need that wind for lift." I turned to the Polish agent. "We'll need to remove those rear seats to lower our weight." He nodded his agreement.
The two scientists and Kolawaski lifted the tail and swung the Dragonfly around whilst I climbed out on the wing and felt the fabric covering for tears.
* * *
I relaxed considerably once I was in front of the instrument panel. It wasn't that our situation had improved; I had not realised how nervous I had become at the thought of attempting to fly an aeroplane with controls I didn't know. Now, I could see they were similar to what I had known with the bi-planes I had learnt to fly when I was a student. I continued to study them, however, while Kolawaski and one of the scientists managed to get the two rear seats unbolted and out of the aeroplane.
My passengers seated themselves on the floor behind me and Kolawaski took the seat beside me. I moved the controls around to get a feel of its manoeuvrability. "The aeroplane, it is in good condition, Herr Baron?" the Polish agent asked.
"The rudder and aerolons move freely," I answered, testing the controls for each. "There seems to be enough air in the tyres. There aren't any tears in the fabric in the nose section, so I can hope we've not had mice gnawing at our cables."
He smiled. "It is in good condition then?"
I glanced over at him. "I would have preferred having a mechanic go over everything. Then I would be comfortable flying this thing."
He nodded. "You did not have a mechanic. We are here. And we must leave or we shall all be dead."
I decided there was nothing like the Polish way of summing up a situation. I was again as nervous as I had been when I gazed up the track and tried to guess at how far away the copse of trees were. I turned to the instrument panel, set for a rich fuel mix, and fired the left engine. There was a cough, our left side jerked slightly, and then I was watching through the windscreen as its propeller began to spin. I fired the other engine and allowed them to warm.
The oil pressure held even, the magnetos told me my sparkplugs were firing evenly, and the carburettor heat was normal. I stopped then as I read the fuel gauge of the first engine. My gaze instantly went to the gauge for the second engine. Its fuel gauge read the same as the left engine's. They were only half full.
"Kolawaski!" I growled. He looked over at me. Innocently. "Arse!" I hissed.
"The fuel gauges read only half full, man," I grumbled so the three adults behind me couldn't hear.
He shrugged. "It is only seventy kilometres to the border, as the bird flies. We shall be flying like the bird, no?"
"Good God, man!" I moaned softly. I closed my eyes and shuddered. "I cannot believe this. Perhaps I should set down on the border. You can get out on the German side."
He still studied me and his voice was calmer than mine when he spoke. "I do not understand your concern, Herr Baron. But there was no more petrol to be found on the estate. All was put into this aeroplane -- just as you told me to."
I sat back in my seat and stared at him. Half full tanks and perhaps more than two hundred too many pounds of weight. Seventy kilometres, he had said. We could make that -- as Barry would say -- with a couple of feathers left sticking out of our arse. More than a hundred kilometres we might make but only, again to use young Barry's term, by the skin of our teeth.
There were no Gestapo agents to run behind us, firing at the fabric-covered cabin. There would be no anti-aircraft guns firing at us as we rose in the air. I had lucked out. Everything was going to be easy. All we needed was to climb fast enough that I could miss the bloody trees ahead of me. And enough damned petrol.
I held the brakes and began to run the engines' revolutions up towards the danger limit. There was no possibility of our being able to leisurely stroll down the track. For us to have enough altitude to clear the trees at the end of the dirt track, we would need the engines at close to full power when I released the brakes. We lurched and I hit the brakes harder.
Kolawaski turned quickly and looked at me fearfully. "Is there something wrong, Herr Baron?" he asked as I watched the needle move towards the red area.
"Of course not, old boy. Just sit back and enjoy the flight."
The engines rose quickly to three/quarter speed and I could feel the whole craft shuddering to break away. I released the brakes and the aeroplane jumped forward along the track, riding each new bump higher and longer, yet mushing back down. Beyond the windscreen, the sea border of von Kys' estate rushed past us at a dizzying speed.
"Jesus Christus!" Kolawaski groaned and covered his face with his hands. Rushing at us at almost a hundred miles per hour was the copse of trees. I figured them at no more than seven hundred feet now.
"We aren't getting enough lift," I groaned as I pulled back on the controls and felt the wheels leave German soil below us for what I hoped would be the last time. I just hoped I could get the thirty to forty feet of altitude to clear the trees.
We climbed and I was mentally translating the altimeter into measurements I understood. Ten feet. We began to yawl left. I struggled to pull the wings straight again. We were close to stalling and I levelled out our ascent a little. Twenty feet. We were almost on the copse of trees sitting in the track before me. I couldn't climb any faster or I would risk a stall. Twenty-five feet. Thirty feet. I could see the moon through the top branches of the trees coming at me. Thirty-five feet.
A grinding crunch shook the aeroplane. Branches grabbed at the Dragonfly's wheels. I saw clear sky before us at the same time I heard a ripping sound beneath us. The Dragonfly continued to climb.
We were airborne. I quickly levelled us out completely to build up to flight speed.
Beside me, Kolawaski sighed his relief. At twenty meters, I began a slow turn inland, letting the wind lift us as I took us into a circle that brought us back over Schloß Kys before we would head out to sea.
Kolawaski grunted and I dipped our right wing so I could see whatever he had seen. Jorsten moaned from the cabin before I saw the flames below us.
A sudden gush of cold air invaded the cabin from the torn covering beneath the floorboards. I knew immediately what I was seeing, as both the Pole and Jorsten did. The stables and barn were both ablaze, the fire's flames seemingly rising to greet us. The square created by the placement of the outbuildings was lighted brightly as the fire moved to engulf the next building.
"He's burning it down!" Jorsten groaned. "It will soon be just one huge funeral pyre."
"It shall be a distraction for anyone on the ground all right," Kolawaski mumbled.
I could still see the spreading fire below us even as I completed our turn and we levelled out at due north. Poor von Kys! He had behaved responsibly, but at what cost? I suspected I did not have the strength to be the man he had proved to be.
"Jani..." Jorsten moaned and I looked behind me to see his hands covered his face. Von Kys deserved the boy's tears and the lad was enough of a man to shed them.
I pulled back on the stick and the aeroplane climbed as we started further out to sea. I reckoned at least three thousand feet to muffle the sound of our passage for any German who might be on patrol along the shore. Just as I reckoned something like twenty kilometres straight out over the Baltic would put us at least ten miles from anyone on patrol close to shore -- as well as place us over international waters. Not that I thought the German government would be especially observant of international law, of course, were they following us.
I levelled out at a thousand metres -- thirty-three hundred feet -- and glanced back at my passengers. My eyes met those of Dagold Jorsten watching me. "Give the boy to Alexis and see if you can find blankets," I told him. "It will become quite cold with air coming in from under the floor." I turned to the others. "We're going to be airborne for the next hour, gentlemen, I suggest you make yourselves comfortable until we reach Poland."
"Find the charts that are supposed to be here somewhere, and we'll plot us a course," I told Kolawaski over the roar of the engines. I took a deep breath and looked up then to gaze at a peaceful night sky ahead of us. I wasn't sure that I could take much more excitement and was thankful it was safely behind us.
I slowly became aware that we were becoming engulfed in a dark, pearly luminescence. I stared at it through the windscreen in shock until I finally accepted that I had somehow blundered into fog. My mind beginning to work again, I realised I still saw patches of the night sky and began to relax. If we were only on the outskirts of the muck, I could still plot our location.
I immediately went through everything I knew about fog and flying. It wasn't much, but I hoped it was enough. I had to stay on its periphery -- either above, below, or alongside it. If I took us into it, we were lost. There would be no sense of up or down. I cracked the carburettor on both engines, releasing heat out to warm the casings.
I smiled to myself. At least, I wasn't going to lose a damned engine to ice.
I pulled back on the controls and we climbed slowly up to fifteen hundred metres. The surrounding sky was almost clear there but the Dragonfly was straining at having to run at a mile of altitude. We were carrying too much weight for me to continue at this height for very long.
Still, we weren't much more than four miles from shore and I had wanted at least ten as I flew us past the German military. I reckoned I could get us past Peenemünde at least before I had to drop us back to a level the overloaded Dragonfly was comfortable at.
"Have you figured it out yet, Kolawaski?" I asked as I turned us eastward.
"I can read a land map, Herr Baron," he growled. "But an air atlas is meaningless to me."
My stomach lurched. I saw the outlines of the fog north of us rising far above us and guessed it was at least two miles high in that direction. Ahead of us, to the east, the fog was hugging the shore. We didn't know where we were or have an idea of how to reach where we were going. I couldn't pull myself from the controls to even begin to plot a course, not if I were supposed to fly the bloody aeroplane at the same time. I was going to have to try to maintain this altitude much longer than I wanted or I dropped down below it now.
My temples began to pound as I remembered I had lifted off with my tanks only half full. This was my first time flying at night as well, and I had hoped for some leeway. Now there was none. I gazed back out at the swirls of fog that now seemed like tendrils reaching out to take hold of us.
I wanted to scream; I dearly wanted to curse both von Kys and Kolawaski for including me in this scheme. Instead, I forced myself to remain calm. "Do either of you back there have any experience charting courses for that monster I saw fly today?" I called over my shoulder to the scientists.
The youngest of them reached up and took the atlas from the Polish agent. "I need a torch too," he told Kolawaski.
"Take mine," I told the man behind us, reaching into the curtained holder on my door for the second torch.
I found a clear space and started us in a slow, spiralling dive, my eyes on the altimeter. Three feet, three inches to the metre, I reminded myself over and over as we descended. Six hundred metres was nearly two thousand feet. Beyond us, the fog was a luminescent wall as I continued the spiral. Four hundred meters was thirteen hundred feet and I could see the fog breaking nearest us. I levelled out at two hundred metres and returned to our eastward journey through clear skies.
"Where are we?" the young scientist asked a moment later.
"Approximately seven kilometres north, northeast of Peenemünde," I told him without turning around. "We've just turned east and our airspeed is a little better than two hundred kilometres an hour." I saw that the fog was reaching further south as we flew east. If I tried to skirt it, I would be taking us almost back onto German soil.
"Baron Petersholme?" the Jew plotting our course asked a bit later.
I cocked my head to hear the scientist behind me.
"You have been flying due east these past fifteen minutes?"
"Continue heading due east another hour then. That should carry us past Danzig. Turn south and we will quickly be over the Lithuanian provinces of Poland. That far east we should be safe."
I thanked the man. I prayed he was right. And that we had enough petrol to get us that far.
* * *
I had been skirting the fogbank for nearly an hour, being continuously forced southward by it. I suspected we were damned close to the shore. The German shore still, more than likely.
I had not yet forgiven myself for doing what even a student pilot would never have done. I had lifted off with fuel tanks only half full. As I watched my instruments, I found them becoming increasingly emptier. Students, however, learnt under optimal conditions; mine had been far less than average.
What could I have done? Refused to fly?
Kolawaski had said there was no more fuel to be had. If we had stayed on the ground at Schloß Kys, we would have been waiting to be arrested by the Waffen-SS when they arrived on the estate to investigate the fire. And waiting for the Gestapo agents to whom we would have been turned over to kill us one by one at their leisure. Even if we did go down in the Baltic, we would die free, not condemned to the mercy of thugs. Von Kys had understood that surely and, yet, he had chosen to send young Willi with me.
A stutter in my left engine pulled me from the mental blankness that had moved to possess me as I grew accustomed to the chill of the cabin and the late hour. The fuel gauge before me told me what was happening. I was out of fuel.
I nosed the craft due south as the propeller revved higher, coughed twice, and stopped. I stared numbly out the window at it, my heart in my throat. And I knew I had at best scant minutes before the other engine died.
I nosed the aeroplane into a slow descent immediately. Instantly, I was fighting the controls to keep us level. "Bloody Hell!" I growled.
"What's the matter?" Kolawaski asked as we levelled out but with a distinct tilt to the left.
"We're out of petrol for the left engine!"
"I put every litre I could find at the farm into the aeroplane, Lord Petersholme."
"I'm dropping us down to twenty metres, Kolawaski," I told him, forcing myself to do so quietly so that none of the others heard us. "I'll try to level us out more. Start looking for land. Any damned land."
"Are we past German territory?" he asked pulling his pocket watch up to read it.
I glanced over at him and wondered what he would look like garrotted. "We either land ---- if there is any damned land -- or we swim, Kolawaski. Either way -- Polish or German -- we take whatever is closest."
"We have another ten minutes before we should turn south, Herr Baron," he told me as he looked at his watch.
I allowed myself to wonder if all Poles were as dull as this one seemed at the moment. For a man bright enough to be a successful spy, he was being particularly dense about what would happen to this aeroplane when it ran out of fuel -- and to us caught inside it.
I was definitely not a happy lad. I was minus one engine and was struggling to keep us level. I was flying through substantial wisps of the fog that had been with us ever since we had become airborne. And I had visions of flying right back into German territory. If I could even find land before we were out of fuel.
I found that I was overcompensating for the aeroplane's useless engine. The Dragonfly was unwieldy, of course; but it was not a constant strain. The wings stayed level. At least in the air, I could keep us level without a major effort on my part.
What had my undivided attention was the fuel gauge for the right engine. Without that propeller spinning we were quickly in for a swim. The Dragonfly was a bi-plane and that meant I could glide much further than I could in a single wing aircraft. But -- without land very soon, we would have to swim. I kept us at twenty metres and tried for a south, southeasterly course. I still wanted to get us as far east as possible, but I also wanted land under us once I ran out of fuel.
I glanced over at Kolawaski. My gaze landed on young Willi in his peaceful slumber.
"I see lights!"
"Lights?" I cried, hope springing to life in my breast. "Where?"
He pointed and I tilted the controls to the right that I could see below us. I craned to see into the dark beyond the windscreen.
"They appear to be little fireflies, Herr Baron, but..." He chuckled. "We do not have fireflies in Poland -- not in late September."
I saw them then. Four or five lights that were stationary. I brought us down to ten metres and did not even cringe at the thought of doing over seventy miles an hour only thirty feet off the ground. I saw the darker outline of land below us then and felt like shouting.
Our right engine sputtered then and the aeroplane shuddered. I managed to turn us back towards where we had seen the lights as the engine drank the last of our petrol and coughed before it died.
"We're going in for a landing!" I called out in the sudden silence. "It won't be pleasant." I glanced back to Kolawaski. "Hold onto that lad, no matter what happens," I told him.
I was now committed for a straight-on landing. "Steady," I told myself through gritted teeth.
It was all I could do to hold the aeroplane level as we began to lose speed. The hardest part was keeping the nose up. I knew I had to do this right the first time, that there would be no second try.
The altimeter read five metres -- sixteen feet. I could make out the shingle of sand rising up to meet us. In the sudden silence, the wind of our passage was deafening as it buffeted us. My air speed read nearly a hundred kilometres an hour, almost seventy miles per hour. And we were losing speed rapidly.
Three metres. We were dancing like a kite -- only, at a speed of forty miles an hour. I braced myself. Two metres. Thirty miles an hour. I pulled the controls back, ensuring our backside would touch down first. The gear hit.
We jerked hard to the right and I saw whitecaps washing in towards us. I pulled the only controls I still had -- the aerolons and rudder -- sharply left. Instinctively, I also tapped the brakes.
I knew instantly that I had made a mistake. Even before the bottom left wing tipped. I released the brakes and pulled the controls right, trying desperately to level the aeroplane. But the wing hit sand at almost twenty miles an hour.
The Dragonfly seemed to spin lazily about in a near arc as the bottom wing crumbled. The left gear collapsed and the wing assembly buckled. I heard the cries from behind me as people smashed into each other. Willi cried out as he awoke; but a conscious, non-reactive part of my brain told me it sounded more fearful than it did from pain. I struggled to keep us from flipping as fabric tore from the frame.
The nose of the Dragonfly bucked forward and settled slowly into the sand as we continued to skid. I remembered to breathe when we were no longer moving.
"Are we all well?" I asked, turning to face my passengers. Adrenaline still pumped through my veins.
"Vati!" Willi screamed and struggled against Kolawaski's hold on him. The Pole groaned as the boy pulled free from him.
"Willi!" I growled, concentrating on grabbing the lad as he made his way off the man's lap and into the space between the two front seats. "Be still."
"Vati!" he screamed.
I grabbed him and pulled him to me. He kicked and beat at my face with his fists.
"Willi, der Graf will be most displeased," Alexis told him as his hand smacked the lad's bottom. "You will stop this now."
The boy was immediately still in my arms and I could feel his heart pounding against me. "It's all right, Willi," I told him. "We're safe now. It's over."
"Is it?" Kolawaski asked quietly. "We do not know yet where we have landed, Herr Baron."
That was not something I had wanted to hear. I had just survived an air crash, even bringing my passengers through without a mortal wound. I wanted to be bloody elated. I did not want to think of being shot to death within moments.
I heard men running towards us and shouts that were not German. "Those are Poles coming towards us," the Polish agent told me quietly. I looked at Kolawaski for the first time since we'd set down then.
"My God, man!" I groaned as I saw the blood covering his face. "What happened?"
"I protected your young ward with my head, Lord Petersholme." He chuckled. "You know the reputation we Poles have gained -- very thick-headed?" I simply stared at him. "We were bouncing around so much -- I was cushioning him as I would one of my own nephews." He nodded his head slowly. "I hit my head against the window. It is not something that is serious."
I was manoeuvring Willi through the door so that I could get out when three middle-aged men reached us. We stood in a close group as Kolawaski climbed out of the other side of the cabin. He explained our situation and asked for their help in reaching the police. Two younger men soon approached the Poles already facing us and I noticed they both carried shotguns.
Kolawaski turned to us. "We are at a small fishing village some twenty kilometres from the German border, my friends. You are all now safe in the Republic of Poland."
I stared at the Polish agent for long moments and did not hear his words about one of the men having a truck and driving us to the next, larger village where the police could call Warsaw to come to get us.
I had flown us to Poland. And I had made a dead-stick landing. We had all walked away from it. God above, I had damned well done it! And I well needed a drink. Several of them.
"Will these men take German money, Kolawaski?" I asked, interrupting him.
He studied me strangely. "Probably. But why? They will give us food before we drive to the next village."
"Bloody hell, man!" I growled at him. "I'll give them twenty Reichmarks right now for a litre of whatever they've got at home to drink."
He stared at me a moment longer and began to laugh. He turned back to the villagers and spoke hurriedly in Polish.
Kolawaski turned back to me and grinned. I have four litres of their home-made vodka for your twenty Reichmarks, my Lord. Will you share?"