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Under the Radar, страница 1

 

Under the Radar
 


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Under the Radar


  Under the Radar

  Under the Radar

  A Novel

  james hamilton-paterson

  For Len Deighton

  Acknowledgements

  Grateful thanks to: Nigel Baldwin, Neil Belton, Richard Bentham, Tony Blackman, John Farley, Jeremy Greaves, John Grindrod, Andrew Hewson, Ray Humphrey, Jeff Jefford, Mike Pearson, Robert Pleming, Brian Rivas, Robby Robinson, Chris Royle, Clive Rustin, Patrick Scrivenor, Michael Somers, The National Archives, Edward Wilson.

  Restraint? Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards. At the end of the war if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win.

  General Thomas Power, Commander-in-Chief Strategic Air Command, 1957–64, in reply to a suggestion that SAC might hold back from bombing Soviet cities in the early stages of a war

  This is a work of fiction. All the characters, together with Wearsby airfield, its squadrons and aircraft serial numbers, are the author’s inventions.

  1961

  1

  ‘You have control,’ said the voice in his headphones.

  ‘I have control,’ Amos acknowledged.

  ‘And if you screw up your landing at Kindley I shall be really quite vexed. Not that you will, of course. Still, must put on a good show for the Yanks.’

  Amos smiled into his oxygen mask as he let the Vulcan climb out of Goose Bay, Labrador towards their planned ceiling of fifty thousand feet. Typical Muffin, he thought, glancing almost affectionately at the man beside him in the left-hand seat who was so close their shoulders were touching. Wing Commander ‘Muffin’ Mewell DFC and bar was thirty-eight, which to Amos made him old enough to have seen the ice sheets retreat from Guildford and mammoths wander the South Downs. In fact, in RAF terms he was even more venerable. Mewell had actually flown with 617 Squadron on the Dams raid in 1943 as a twenty-year-old navigator and soon afterwards had applied to be retrained as a pilot. He had eventually been shot down and remained a PoW until the war’s end. Now, sixteen years later, the Vulcan’s captain was leaning back in his seat with his eyes closed.

  Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the cramped compartment immediately behind the cockpit were the three crewmen. For this trip a fourth man had been added: the aircraft’s crew chief. Strapped uncomfortably into his ad hoc seat on the floor, he would be responsible for supervising refuelling and any maintenance on the trip but would not be allowed on the actual exercise. Now Viv, the nav plotter, came on the intercom with a course correction that would take them slightly east of Halifax with a clear run over yet more empty ocean almost due south to Bermuda: some twelve hundred nautical miles. He added that the other three Vulcans in their flight were airborne and following. Amos confirmed the correction and tilted the great white delta a few points to port as it climbed. Once they had levelled off well above any transatlantic commercial aircraft he could go to autopilot, although he was too keyed up to relax much. He had snatched an hour’s sleep on the five-hour first leg out from Scampton to Labrador while ‘Muffin’ was flying and now here he was, a mere stripling of twenty-four, in charge of one of Britain’s most potent and charismatic nuclear bombers for as long as the captain slept. This was not a time to make an ass of himself.

  Amos could still hardly believe his luck in having been swept up in a chain of events that had begun several months ago, and about which he had known nothing until almost the last moment. Like so much else currently affecting Bomber Command the chain had begun with a NATO panic. Half a dozen years ago, with the Cold War getting colder by the week, Canada and the United States had suddenly realised how vulnerable they would be to attack by nuclear-armed Soviet bombers flying directly in over the Arctic. The decision was taken to build lines of radar installations stretching across the North American continent to provide advance warning. Together these electronic barriers constituted North American Air Defense Command, or NORAD. In theory, the system would have afforded some three hours’ warning of an attack. In practice, it had to be tested. Hence this exercise, Operation Skyshield, the second of its kind, and this time the RAF had been invited. The RAF decided it could spare eight Vulcans. Skyshield II had been planned for mid-October 1961 and by September all eight aircraft had begun intensive training in the area around the Orkneys. They flew up almost daily from Lincolnshire to practise co-ordinating their electronic countermeasures and determining the exact extent to which their radar defences interfered with each other and at what heights and ranges.

  Then within days a flu epidemic struck, affecting RAF personnel all over eastern Britain, including the crews practising for Skyshield II. Replacements were quickly drafted in from other squadrons. As a qualified Vulcan co-pilot Flight Lieutenant Amos McKenna had suddenly found himself ordered to report to RAF Scampton on temporary secondment. And so it was that a bare month later he was sitting in the right-hand seat of XJ786 heading for Kindley Air Force Base in Bermuda from where, in a couple of days’ time, he would be taking part in a mock attack against New York.

  The plan was for four of the Vulcans to approach North American airspace from the south and the other four to do so from the north, in rough mimicry of what Soviet bombers might do from Cuba as well as from their Arctic bases in the Kola Peninsula near Murmansk. His own flight had left Scampton in advance, having that much further to go. The other four aircraft, having first deployed to Lossiemouth, were due out next day. They, too, would fly to Goose Bay, from where they would launch their own attack the day after that. Amos had never been to Bermuda but ‘Yourshout’ Maybury had told him to pack a pair of swimming trunks in case he got the chance of a quick dip: one of the perks of having struck lucky. None of his mates destined for Labrador in mid-October was thinking of swimming.

  This leg was a mere three hours of monotonous flying and he had to make an effort not to emulate his senior officer slumped and dozing in the seat next to him. Amos had long discovered that he was susceptible to crossing time zones. On the morning’s flight across the Atlantic from Scampton to Goose they had gained four hours: taking off at 10:30, the four Vulcans in his group had landed at noon in time for lunch and a rest while the aircraft were refuelled. He had made sure to limit his liquid intake, first-rate bladder control being a prerequisite for V-bomber pilots; but the food had been generous and he felt a certain drowsiness descending. The time was now 15:20 local, getting on for half-past seven in the evening according to his body clock. He scanned the instruments in front of him, an automatic check as unconscious as a tic. They were now at their planned altitude, as Viv suddenly confirmed over the intercom. He reached down by his left thigh to the autopilot control panel between the seats and found it hidden beneath the sleeve of Muffin’s flying suit. Once, on an exercise to an air base in Nebraska, he had flown in one of Strategic Air Command’s huge B-52 bombers whose cockpit (Amos recalled wistfully) was the size of a tennis court compared with that of the Vulcan. He brushed his superior’s sleeve aside and set the autopilot, trimming for level flight at a cruising speed of Mach .85.

  Somehow the hours passed. The trouble with flying so high was that there was nothing to see, a lack of visual interest that was anyway not helped by the cockpit’s restricted vision. After an interminable period the headphones in his cloth helmet at last clicked and ‘Bunny’ Carmichael, the air electronics officer (or AEO) sitting a few feet behind him, announced that he had made radio contact with Kindley. Immediately afterwards Viv gave Amos a slight course correction and told him to begin his descent. As they lost height the sun, seen through an increasing thickness of atmosphere, became a deeper orange and seemed to sink. It was getting on for 18:00 hours local on 12 October: even in Bermuda the nights were beginning to draw in. He found himself looking forward to dinn
er. Kindley AFB was, of course, an American base on a British island and the Yanks usually did themselves remarkably well when it came to eating; indeed, both the food and the quarters were generally a good deal cushier than their equivalents back home.

  As he altered course to bring them in from the east he suddenly glimpsed the islands out of the porthole window beside his head: a little green archipelago set in an otherwise unbroken expanse of wrinkled gold.

  ‘I presume that means there’s an evening breeze blowing down there,’ said Muffin unexpectedly at his side. Had the canny old bugger actually dozed off at all? Amos wondered. ‘I’ve flown into Kindley five or six times now, and on a couple of occasions they brought us in from the west. It doesn’t much matter to us because we’ve got nearly ten thousand feet of runway to play with. Did I ever tell you I once landed and stopped a Vulcan in two thousand feet?’

  ‘Is that a challenge?’

  ‘Certainly not. You do your landing how you like. There’s plenty of space and a bit of a headwind. No point in wasting a chute. That’s the great thing about American runways: they’re so long one can practically run out of fuel just taxiing from one end to the other. Take your time. We’re the lead aircraft. The others will follow. You realise ‘Bing’ Cross will be lurking?’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Yes, God knows what he’s doing here. Apparently this exercise on Saturday is going to be a very brassy occasion. Just about everybody you can think of with scrambled eggs on his cap will be lurking. But you can bet Bing will be watching us arrive. So squadron’s honour at stake, and all that. Now, do you want me to call out some heights and speeds for you?’

  ‘Roger that.’ Amos put the presence of Bomber Command’s C-in-C to the back of his mind and concentrated on his circuit over the sea. Behind him, he knew, the other three Vulcans would be strung out with a three-quarter mile safety margin between each, setting up for their approach directly into the setting sun. With a little turbulence over the ocean and with gear down and air brakes out he was at 132 knots, just above the stipulated safe minimum speed, as the end of the runway slid beneath the aircraft. He held his breath as a hundred tons touched down like a marshmallow settling into custard. Jammy sod – he thought to himself – pulling off a greaser just when needed. Keeping half an eye on the edge of the speeding runway through the circular side window, Amos held XJ786 straight down its centre, nose high, using the huge delta wing to act as an air brake. In this attitude both pilots had no forward vision at all other than of the sky, but their attention was anyway fixed on the instruments. As the speed bled off Amos gently lowered the nose until the nose wheels touched and they rolled out towards the designated turn-off.

  ‘Well, I don’t know. Anyone might think you were getting the hang of it,’ Mewell observed as though he was an instructor in a Chipmunk and Amos a student doing his first circuits-and-bumps. Amos smiled into his mask, recognising this as praise.

  Soon, drawn up neatly on the flight line, the all-white Vulcans stood out among the American aircraft parked nearby. They looked particularly futuristic against a squadron of propeller-driven B-50 Superfortresses: basically Second World War-vintage aircraft now relegated to weather reconnaissance. As always, the British bombers excited attention. It was not only a matter of their looks: rumours of their fighter-like agility had preceded them. As the newly arrived airmen disembarked, crew buses were ready to meet them and take them off to their quarters.

  *

  Ninety minutes later, having showered and changed into the mess kit they had been ordered to bring with them, the Vulcans’ crews assembled in the officers’ mess. The base commandant and the redoubtable Bing Cross were already standing by the bar, drinks to hand. Air Marshal Sir Kenneth Cross had taken over from Sir Harry Broadhurst as head of Bomber Command a couple of years earlier, and like his predecessor had a brilliant war record as a pilot. With his greying moustache he looked every inch the popular image of an RAF veteran, but there was nothing old-fashioned about the Soviet threat he was facing. He had resolved to meet it by instilling an unprecedented degree of alertness in his men that was much appreciated by his American counterpart in SAC. The tension generated by his stern insistence on discipline and constant exercises had percolated to even the least willing corners of Bomber Command.

  Now, making his excuses to his American host, he marshalled the twenty RAF men into a quiet corner of the mess for a brief word before dinner.

  ‘You may be surprised to see me here,’ he said. ‘The astuter among you will deduce it’s a measure of how seriously we and our American and Canadian colleagues are taking this Skyshield exercise on Saturday. It’s obviously of vital importance for us to discover just how good NORAD’s radar defences really are. A sneak attack by the Soviets would be devastating. It could even be decisive. As you know, next year we will have that advance-warning radar system of our own at Fylingdales, which will join Thule and Cape Cod to give us longer warning. Even so, they will only buy us minutes. So what I want to say, chaps, is “Vigilamus” – which I gather is to be the motto of the Fylingdales station. For those of you who’ve forgotten their Latin, that means “We are watching”. And you can be damned sure we shall be on Saturday.

  ‘A word of warning. You are not to speak of this exercise off-base. From the Bermudans’ point of view your visit is just a routine mission, nothing special, all right? And as for my own presence here, it is, quite simply, denied. I am not here, gentlemen – is that clear?’ There were murmurs of assent. ‘Oh – and one final point. If it doesn’t seem an odd thing to say in the circumstances –’ the Air Marshal cast a glance over his shoulder and lowered his voice ‘– good luck on Saturday. May Bomber Command show our allies who’s boss when it comes to acting the part of the Soviet air force. OK then, enough of this. We should get back to our hosts.’

  *

  Saturday morning found the four Vulcans airborne once more, on a north-westerly heading for New York City. XJ786 was the designated lead aircraft, for no better reason than that Wing Commander Mewell was the ranking senior officer. Today he was flying and Amos sat attentively waiting for Bunny Carmichael to announce the first radar contact and possible hostile engagement. Although too seasoned in exercises of all kinds to feel particularly excited at the prospect, the Vulcan’s entire five-man complement was nevertheless tensely aware that both squadron and national honour demanded an exceptionally professional performance.

  The previous afternoon Amos and most of the other crewmen had managed to get their swim at Clearwater Beach. (‘See?’ said Yourshout. ‘Don’t tell me it wasn’t worth bringing your trunks. You owe me a pint.’) The rest of the day had been spent in getting the Operation Order off by heart, planning tactics and routes, and all with an eye to the forecast weather. The whole exercise might well have been top secret as far as the Bermudans were concerned, but on-base at Kindley even the mess cat would have sensed there was something major brewing. Apart from anything else all non-military aircraft along the American north-eastern seaboard would be grounded for twelve hours as from Saturday at 06:00. This included everything that could fly, from private planes to airliners. Such a drastic restriction was enough to make it internationally evident that a military exercise of unprecedented size and importance was taking place. Amos and his comrades were betting that the Soviets would be tipping off every agent and sleeper they had on the ground to go out and observe today.

  What this ban on civil flying meant was that any other aircraft the Vulcans might encounter would belong to either the American or the Canadian air force, which simplified things. However, the Vulcans were not alone in masquerading as Soviet bombers. Large numbers of Strategic Air Command’s B-47s and B-52s would be doing the same, though at lower altitudes. Altogether there would be hundreds of military aircraft in the air at every level, with the constant danger of collision. For that reason scrupulous altitude separation was vital. But that was not the sole reason why all civil aircraft had been grounded. The incoming bombers woul
d be using their full range of ECMs or electronic countermeasures equipment to try to block NORAD’s radars as well as that of the fighters sent up to intercept them. This would not only include powerful jamming signals but also ‘chaff’: strips of foil dropped from the bombers to confuse radar. For much of today, thousands of square miles of American and Canadian airspace would be crackling with electronic interference that risked swamping any civil airliner’s navigation and communications systems and sending it wildly off-course.

  Fourteen hundred miles to the north the other four Vulcans from 83 Squadron would be taking off from Goose Bay and flying for an hour eastwards out over the Labrador Sea. There they would rendezvous with SAC’s assembling armada of bombers before the whole lot turned westwards again as though they were Soviet intruders that had just crossed Greenland and were approaching Canadian airspace. The Vulcans were expected to continue south-westward at high level as though launching an attack on Montreal and Ottawa, then turn back to land at Loring in the very north-eastern corner of Maine, right on the Canadian border.

  For the Vulcans flying up from Bermuda, the course of XJ786 and its three companions was plotted to cross New York City, then to head north-eastwards over Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine, approaching Loring via Portland and Bangor. They were long sorties: both flights of Vulcans would be covering about two thousand five hundred miles each, more than five hours’ combat flying with all crews maintaining maximum alertness.

  The strange thing was, Amos thought, that although dropping nuclear bombs on people was the ultimate physical assault, the process involved was almost entirely electronic. They were about to run the gauntlet of every airborne defence the Americans and Canadians could muster, with real fighters trying to achieve radar lock-on to real bombers and ground-to-air missile batteries doing likewise. Thousands of tons of steel and alloy would be hurtling about the sky, all trying to intercept or avoid each other at supersonic closing speeds; yet nobody in the Vulcans was likely to see or hear a thing. They were up at fifty thousand feet or higher with lousy visibility from the cockpit and none whatever in the compartment behind, which was kept in darkness so the three backward-facing technicians could read their various cathode ray tubes and dials.

 
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