Tag Archives: Alan Hebden

Nazi Nightmare (1991)

Nazi Nightmare (1991)

Published: Commando #2480 (June 1991)

Artist: Gordon Checkley Livingstone

Writer: Alan Hebden

For World Holocaust Memorial Day we present this Commando, with comparison to Jinty’s Holocaust story, “Song of the Fir Tree”.

Plot

In the closing days of World War II, Nazi Germany is being fast invaded by the Allies from the West and the Russians from the East. However, in between are territories still under German control and lingering pockets of Nazi evil that intend to survive one way or other. Among them is the Secret Research Centre at Badfelden, run by the “hardened” S.S. Colonel Hartmann and “merciless” (but “abject coward”) nuclear physicist Bernhard (or Hans on the back cover) Gruber, and slave labour consisting of concentration camp prisoners and Airman Carlo Fabrizzi, an Italian who defected to the Allies and then got captured. As well as the usual Belsen-style treatment, the prisoners suffer an additional cruelty that adds to the high death toll: being forced to handle radioactive material without protection. 

Gruber and Hartmann been trying to develop an A-bomb to score victory for the Reich, but Gruber hasn’t had much success, and now they’re out of time with enemy closing in so fast on Badfelden. So they activate “Plan Cuckoo”. As part of this plan, Gruber is to immediately head south and surrender to the approaching Allies. But they left an office window open, and it’s right next to where the prisoners are working, so Fabrizzi overhears them. Dummköpfe! Didn’t they ever read the posters? Vorsicht bei Gesprächen! Feind hört mit! [Careful when talking! Enemy is listening!]. 

Realising Gruber and Hartmann plan to dispose of the prisoners and the sinking ship before the Allies arrive, Fabrizzi organises the prisoners into a revolt against the guards, which takes Badfelden by storm. However, after the initial surprise, the guards are quick to recover, and they are soon on the verge of crushing the revolt. Fortunately, the Allies arrive in the nick of time, and Badfelden is liberated. However, Hartmann has already fled, and there is still the matter of Gruber and Plan Cuckoo.

Fabrizzi informs the Allied Commander, Ken Horton, about Gruber and his heading south to surrender to the Allies. Horton says Gruber is more likely to bump into the Russians, who are in between, and they are in a very nasty mood against Germans. They head off together to find Gruber and bring him to justice. Gruber is cornered by the Russians and, being the coward he is, starts snivelling, blubbering and grovelling for the Russians to spare his life. He is saved by Fabrizzi and Horton, who persuade the Russians to let them take him into custody. The mystery of Plan Cuckoo still puzzles Fabrizzi, but it looks like Plan Cuckoo is a dead duck now that Gruber is all set to stand trial.

Unfortunately, the Americans have other ideas. They are secretly recruiting scientists, engineers and technicians from the former Third Reich for employment, to gain advantage in the Space Race and Cold War (Operation Paperclip). They want Gruber for their own A-bomb development. Under pretext of wanting him for special interrogation, they smuggle him to the US. Under a new name (Smith), Gruber is soon working for the Manhattan Project. The Americans put up a false report in the press that Gruber killed himself in American custody. Horton is surprised to read it, as he thought Gruber was too gutless to commit suicide. 

Meanwhile, the Americans don’t realise their actions have unwittingly put Plan Cuckoo back on course. Gruber is cribbing as much top secret information from the Manhattan Project as he can for Plan Cuckoo to succeed. As soon as he is ready, Gruber makes a call to Germany, and a car is sent for him. He nearly gets caught, as he is carrying an implosion trigger and suspicious guards want a search, but then his car arrives. His helpers whisk him away to Nazi haven Argentina and an old friend, shooting the guards as they do so. 

Two years later, Fabrizzi summons Horton to Argentina, where he is running an air freight business. At Buenos Aires airport, Horton sadly reads about the growing Cold War in the paper, and now the Soviets have the A-bomb. Then he is surprised to spot Gruber, whom he thought was dead. Gruber boards a private plane. In exchange for a nice sum of money, a mechanic tells Horton the plane is bound for San Miguel, Patagonia, Southern Argentina.

When Horton meets Fabrizzi, he is shocked to see him in a wasted state. Fabrizzi says it’s radiation sickness from being forced to handle radioactive material unprotected in Badfelden. He won’t last much longer and has summoned Horton to carry on his work after he dies. No, not the air freight service – Nazi hunting. Gruber is at the top of the list. There’ve been other sightings of Gruber, and US contacts have told him what happened. But Horton’s lead is the first to link Gruber to San Miguel. Fabrizzi is still able to fly despite his illness, so they fly to San Miguel.

They arrive at San Miguel, but there is no sign of Gruber’s plane at the airport. They soon learn that many ranches have private planes and airstrips, and they file a flight plan for the airport for the sake of convenience. To find the plane, Fabrizzi and Horton have to do some aerial reconnaissance around the area. But at the airport, a Nazi spy spots them, recognises Fabrizzi, and reports them to the boss. He then plants a bomb on their plane. The explosion has the plane crash on a ranch belonging to Rhys Griffith and his son Manuel, who save the men from the crash.

The Griffiths tell Horton and Fabrizzi about a landowner named Alfonse Klein, a dangerous man of suspected German origin, who arrived straight after the war with a group of thugs. Klein forces his neighbours into selling their ranches to him by threatening to set them on fire. When Horton and Fabrizzi investigate Klein, they discover he is Colonel Hartmann from Badfelden.

Everything fits now, and the answer to Plan Cuckoo must be on Klein’s ranch. But when Horton, Fabrizzi and Manuel Griffith try to infiltrate the ranch, they discover it is fortified to the teeth and booby-trapped to set off any intruder alarms. When they try to cut through the wire fence, they discover it’s electrified and rigged to set off an alarm, which alerts Klein’s thugs. They manage to shake off the thugs, but they take revenge by setting fire to the Griffith ranch, killing Rhys. 

The men take refuge at a ruin and decide they need reinforcements. No problem – Klein has made more than enough enemies for that. Manuel calls in his father’s friends and the local people who fell foul of Klein. Fabrizzi calls up his fellow ex-prisoners from Badfelden, and his airline flies them in. The black market supplies weapons and explosives.

Alerted to the booby traps, Horton and Manuel take a team of gauchos on a more planned infiltration of the ranch. This time they get past the fence and come in distance of the ranch, where they see barracks and Gruber’s plane. They decide to withdraw, but one of the gauchos trips an alarm, alerting Klein and his heavies. Only Horton and Manuel escape the slaughter. Manuel is dispatched to get help while Horton draws Klein off. He is captured, and Klein, instead of finishing him off quickly, decides to take him alive and show off his little Nazi operation to him. 

Yes, Gruber and Klein have a cosy Nazi shrine/bunker set up in the cellar for building the A-bomb they had failed to construct at Badfelden. They had known from German intelligence how advanced the Americans were in developing the A-bomb and their being on the lookout for German scientists to help them. Hence Plan Cuckoo: plant Gruber “like a cuckoo’s egg” to learn their secrets and then fly him to their secret base to develop their own A-bombs. Now their first test bomb is ready. Their plan is to take advantage of the growing Cold War by using their A-bombs to trick the Soviets and the West into an atomic war so “the three wartime Allies will be laid waste”. Then they will move in with their new Nazi order. “It sounds crazy enough to work,” Horton thinks. 

Klein then tells Horton that in the morning that he and his heavies will make sport of him in a great manhunt – they will give him 15 minutes and then chase after him. Yes, when he could have just finished Horton with a bullet there and then…and it’s given Horton one advantage – more time for his rescuers to organise themselves.

Manuel has made it to airstrip where Fabrizzi’s Badfelden buddies have arrived. They are all like Fabrizzi: living skeletons dying from radiation sickness, out for Gruber’s hide, and have nothing to lose by joining a deadly fight. They call themselves The Society of the Living Dead. Fabrizzi flies them into the ranch by planes fitted with machine guns to quickly clear the area. They and their guns soon have the manhunt on the run and rescue Horton. 

They head for the cellar, where Gruber threatens to detonate the bomb if they come any closer. Knowing the cowardly Gruber has no real gumption for that, Horton calls his bluff and seizes him. 

There is now the question of what to do with the atomic arsenal, as they don’t trust the local authorities. Fabrizzi comes up with an idea, and as Horton wouldn’t agree, he has to apply strong arm tactics to get his way. He will give them 15 minutes to clear the area. Then he himself, who is already doomed anyway, will detonate the test bomb, taking himself and Gruber with it. Horton reluctantly respects Fabrizzi’s wishes. 

Most of the men clear the area by plane, but Manuel and Horton are trying to leave by jeep, where they run into Klein, who blocks their escape route. Their two jeeps head on a collision course with each other, in a crazed game of chicken, guns at the ready. Klein’s driver is the one to crack and swerve, giving Horton the scope to shoot Klein dead. It’s then a mad drive to get clear before the coming of the mushroom cloud and the fallout. 

The authorities never report the atomic explosion, so the world never learns what happened or how close things came to an atomic war. Fabrizzi dies an unsung hero.

Thoughts

It was a surprise to find a Commando that not only uses the Holocaust theme, an extremely rare thing in Commando, but also shares some parallels with Jinty’s “Song of the Fir Tree”. 

Both stories open in a concentration camp setting where its days are numbered because of the approaching Allied-Soviet advance into Nazi Germany. Although the concentration camp itself is swiftly liberated early in the story, it establishes the setup for the rest of the story. Its legacy casts casts a long shadow, which refuses to be dispelled until the final panels, and in both cases it is told against the backdrop of post-WW2 and its fallout. In Fir Tree, it’s a war-shattered Europe and the emergent Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In Nightmare, it’s the growing Cold War and its companion threat of nuclear war, and post-war obstacles in bringing down Nazi war criminals.

The setup for both stories are very similar. It’s Nazis vs their former victims, which takes the form of pursuit and conflict between them right up until the end of the story. The victims may have been liberated from their concentration camps, but there are lingering unresolved issues from the concentration camp because the Nazis responsible were not caught and punished. They escaped and are still on the loose, getting away with their crimes and committing even more. Justice has been denied for their former victims, but it’s not just the past that affects their lives – it’s also the present. In Fir Tree, the two liberated children from the camp have to run for their lives from the Nazi collaborator Grendelsen, who is out to silence them. In Nightmare, Fabrizzi and his friends have to live with radiation sickness from their Badfelden days. 

Though the setup of both stories is very similar, the two types of pursuit between the Nazis and their former victims are on opposite ends of the spectrum. In Fir Tree, Grendelsen is the pursuer and his former victims are the quarry. He wants to silence those meddling kids because they are the only ones who can identify him as a war criminal. In Nightmare, the former victims are the pursuers and the Nazis are the quarry, in a Nazi hunt. In both cases, the authorities can’t be trusted to help. In Fir Tree, it’s because they think Grendelsen is respectable and wouldn’t listen to stories that he is a Nazi collaborator. In Nightmare, it’s because they are helping the Nazi fugitives, out of connivance, greed, sympathies, or even fear. In both cases, the victims can only depend on each other, whatever help they manage to find, and strokes of luck. When it comes to dealing with the Nazis, in both cases it’s a final confrontation and fight with them. Conventional legal proceedings are of no use, but in both cases the Nazis receive poetic justice that satisfies all round. Grendelsen is killed by a falling fir tree just as he is about to kill his victims. Klein dies in conflict and Gruber by his own bomb, and their victims, both old and new, finally get the chance to settle the scores.

Commando often drew on historical events for inspiration and realism, and this story is no exception. Even Klein and Gruber’s secret atomic bunker was based on something real – the Huemul Project in Patagonia. Unlike Klein and Gruber, it is questionable as to whether the Huemul Project was even serious atomic research, much less producing a bomb. The threat of nuclear war makes the story even more intense although the Nazis’ plan to carry it out sounds more like television than reality.

Having Fabrizzi die an unsung hero when he deserved so much more seems so unfair and sad. Still, one of the strengths of Commando was that not all its heroes ended up with military honours. As with Fabrizzi, the only recognition they received was in the grateful hearts of their companions, and some Commando heroes did not achieve even that. Some died with their feats unknown, for security reasons, the authorities not knowing what happened, or whatever. Such a thing must happen so often in warfare. 

Blood Hostage [1993]

Blood Hostage cover

Published: Commando #2721 (1993)

Reprinted: Commando #5086 (2018)

Artist: Richardo Garijo (story); Ian Kennedy (cover)

Writer: Alan Hebden

Plot

Aboard a warship at Gibraltar, senior British officers are holding a top secret meeting. They are unaware a German spy is taking photographs of them doing it, so Berlin is alerted to the Allies planning something there, but they don’t know the details. Commodore Henry Dorning is one of the privileged few to know the officers were discussing plans for Operation Torch, the upcoming Allied invasion of North Africa.

Dorning has two additional problems, both of which have direct bearing on the story. The first is his nephew Ralph, who is trapped in the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands. The second is just being diagnosed with a heart murmur. Unfortunately the doctor cannot determine the severity of the murmur and advises a heart specialist. But there is no heart specialist in Gibraltar available for Dorning to consult.

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While Dorning is being flown home aboard a Mosquito a German plane shoots it down. Dorning manages to bail out, but unfortunately he unwittingly parachutes into the Channel Islands. By the time he realises this, he has been captured by German naval officers.

The shock turns Dorning’s heart murmur into a full-scale heart attack. His condition is so serious that the usual Gestapo interrogation methods are out of the question, much to the chagrin of Gestapo rep Joachim Stoltz. After exchanging notes with Berlin, Stoltz knows Dorning is carrying vital information about what was discussed aboard that warship, but has to find another way of getting it out of Dorning. Then, while sifting through Dorning’s belongings, Stoltz finds out about Ralph. Immediately he hits on the idea of using Ralph as a hostage to blackmail Dorning into giving the information.

Meanwhile, Ralph has been using his catapult to help Dimitri Solkhov, a Russian prisoner, escape Nazi slavery. The Nazis give Dimitri up for dead after he goes over a cliff, but arrest Ralph for helping him. Ralph is sentenced to death, but is rescued from the firing squad in the nick of time by Stoltz’s order to turn Ralph over to his custody.

Elsewhere, Dimitri survived long enough to be rescued by Flyn MacCreedy. Flyn is wheelchair-bound after being wounded in action, but despite this he is as strong as a bull. Flyn has managed to hide a boat, “Beauty”, from the Nazis. Unfortunately Beauty has no fuel and Flyn, being paraplegic, can’t go out and steal any from the Nazis. Dimitri enthusiastically offers to do the job.

Flyn directs Dimitri to a local airstrip as the best place to steal fuel. Dimitri is aided by the fact that the guards have grown slack with security because they find the Channel Islands Occupation one great big bore. (Even for Stoltz, it was Dullsville before Dorning came along!)

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After loading several stolen loads of fuel for Beauty, Dimitri sees Ralph being flown in to be delivered to Stoltz. Dimitri immediately recognises the boy who helped him escape and naturally wants to help him. Fortunately one of the escort guards stays behind because his just-about-had-it motorbike is acting up. Dimitri clobbers the guard and takes his uniform and motorbike.

At the hospital, Stoltz shows Dorning he has Ralph in his clutches. He informs him of the death sentence that hangs over Ralph and how it will be carried out if Dorning does not tell him what he wants to know by next morning.

But as Stoltz and Ralph come out of the hospital, Dimitri catches up. He bowls down the Gestapo and tells Ralph to get on. It’s then a matter of fleeing through town while keeping ahead of the Gestapo with a double load and a sub-standard motorbike. They make it back to Flyn’s, but don’t realise the defective motorbike has left an oil trail, which the Nazis soon find.

After comparing notes they realise the Gestapo is trying to force vital information out of Dorning. As they can’t make their escape until dark anyway, they fill in time by hatching a plan to rescue Dorning. Ralph and Flyn put together their combined knowledge of the hospital for Dimitri and Ralph to get into Dorning’s ward and rescue him (they are further helped by carelessness from yet another bored guard).

Meanwhile, the oil trail has led Stoltz straight to Flyn. Despite his wheelchair, Flyn puts up quite a fight, including breaking Stoltz’s wrist. He then sends himself over the cliff, and Stoltz assumes he’s dead. In fact, Flyn had swum his way to Beauty.

However, Stoltz guesses what Ralph and Dimitri are up to. He arrives at the hospital just as they are about to make their getaway with Dorning in an ambulance. They put up enough fight to stall Stoltz and get in the ambulance. They head back to the wharf where Flyn and Beauty are waiting, but Stoltz is right behind.

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Stoltz commandeers the whole German flotilla on the island to go after the fugitives. The naval commander is furious at this because Stoltz is non-military, but knows it is no use protesting. Knowing the fugitives are heading north, Stoltz has the flotilla drive them west, where they will run out of fuel and be sitting ducks for recapture.

After being informed what the date is, Dorning persuades Flyn to play into their hands and do exactly what they want. When Beauty does run out of fuel in the western approaches it looks like Stoltz has won – but then he runs right smack into the first wave of Operation Torch crossing the Channel. Of course this was Dorning’s plan all along. The German flotilla disappears into the mist. Stoltz’s vessel turns the wrong way and gets dashed to bits against the approaching convoys. The convoys rescue the fugitives. They don’t yet know the fugitives saved them from “a hot reception” at the hands of the Germans (though it’s not clear on whether it was because they actually diverted the German flotilla at a critical moment or stopped Stoltz from forcing Operation Torch out of Dorning).

Thoughts

One of the most striking things is how the artwork makes Stoltz the star of the show in every panel he appears. In his first panel he looks like a dapper old man that could be taken for a clerk. But as his character develops he looks more like a weasel while the artwork still gives his face a dash of humour. And then there are brilliant panels where he looks truly sinister, such as where he stares down at where Flyn went over the cliff.

The Channel Islands occupation holds a particular horror about Nazi rule because it was the only British territory occupied by the Nazis and therefore a microcosm of what would have been if Hitler had conquered Britain. We certainly see horrors in the slave labour of the Russians and the Ralph, the meagre rations the islanders get, and Ralph, a mere boy, almost getting executed by firing squad.

Yet there is humour too, in the way the Germans are so bored stiff with an unexciting occupation that they have grown sloppy in their security. This has the bonus in that it is so easy to take advantage of. And so we get to see some of the resistance activity on the island. It begins with Ralph and then Flyn who by turns help Dimitri to escape. Both Ralph and Flyn show real courage in the face of their physical deficiencies against the Germans (Ralph being so young still and Flyn being wheelchair-bound). These acts of resistance turn into full-scale action when Dimitri rescues Ralph and then all three set out to rescue Dorning. The motorcycle and ambulance chases are real highlights. They would look really exciting on a movie screen, perhaps even more so than a battle scene. Putting the motorcycle chase on the cover is a master stroke. It immediately catches the reader’s eye and the angry German in the background is a hoot.

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The action scenes make a nice change from the battlefield scenes that appear in so many Commandos. In fact there are no battlefield scenes at all until where the flight on Beauty ends up. The escape on Beauty is not just a mere chase; Dorning actually turns it into part of Operation Torch itself and helping the operation to succeed. It is also turned into an ironic punishment for Stoltz where Dorning actually gives him what he wants to know – Operation Torch – but in a manner that causes Stoltz’s downfall.

Focke-Wulf Hi-jack [2012]

FW Hijack cover

Published: Commando #4543

Art: (story) Rezzonico; (cover) Janek Matysiak

Writer: Alan Hebden

Everyone seemed to like our last dip into Commando, so now we are having another. This Commando comes from when Commando was running credits.

Plot

Ever since 1941 the much-improved MkV Spitfire has given the RAF superiority over the skies and their confidence is running high. But then the Germans unleash their new addition to the Luftwaffe fleet: the Focke-Wulf 190 (Fw 190 for short). It is soon obvious that even the much-improved Spitfires are no match for the Fw 190, and it makes short work of them. By 1942 the Fw 190 is giving the Germans the superiority in the skies. Now it is the turn of squadron commander Major Armin von Richter to feel confident and triumphant from all the shot-down Spitfires he is chalking up with his Fw 190.

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The British have to find a way to counter the Fw 190 threat fast. But to do that they need to capture one so they can learn all about its design, strengths, and above all, its weaknesses. They barely know anything about it from the Fw 190 debris at crash sites. So they hatch a plan for a commando mission to raid an airfield in German-occupied France, hijack an Fw 190 and bring it to Britain. Even they realise it is a crazy idea, full of difficulties and has no guarantee of success, but they approve it anyway.

The pilot to fly the Fw 190 to Britain is one Tam McDermott. But first, Tam is sent to a commando camp for CO training. Tam is in for a shock when he discovers who is in charge of his CO training: Laurie Crawford. Laurie and Tam knew each other at school but never liked each other: Laurie looked down on Tam as a “swot” because he liked to read books, and pushed Tam into the school sports teams instead. Laurie was school captain, and a slave-driving fitness fanatic who showed no mercy with his team, no matter what the weather. He tolerated nothing that he regarded as shirking, especially in “Swot”. He kept driving Swot on and on until Swot was ready to collapse, and even then still keep pushing him.

Laurie still has the same old contempt for “Swot”, and he makes Tam’s commando training just as gruelling and relentless. Tam is pushed until he is ready to drop and then some. But then Tam notices the training is beginning to pay off for him and he is starting to earn respect from Laurie for the first time.

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Then Laurie makes a sarcastic comment that he thinks the pilot will have the easiest job in the mission in flying the plane to Britain. Tam is so angry that he has Laurie drive them to an airfield full of captured aircraft – at gunpoint. Actually, Laurie is really impressed with this because he now realises CO training has turned the diminutive swot he used to deride into a whole new tough and confident man. Tam realises that Laurie is right about that.

At the airfield, Tam shows Laurie just what will go into flying the Fw 190 to Britain. First, he will be flying a plane he barely knows anything about, and nobody on the Allied side has ever flown an Fw 190 before. Moreover, it is not just a matter of jumping into the cockpit and taking off. There are all the checks, fuelling, arming and so many other things that go into preparing a plane for takeoff, which they will have to allow the Germans to do for them. Plus there’s donning a flying suit, waiting for the engine to warm up, have a path cleared to taxi for takeoff, commandos to cover fire in case the Germans try to stop them…and so many other things he cuts down to bare essentials for the benefit of non-pilot Laurie. Once Laurie has a better understanding of the pilot’s point of view, he apologises to Tam. He now realises that Tam will be the one man they simply cannot afford to lose on the mission. Both men agree to forget the past and work together as friends. Laurie still calls Tam “Swot”, but now it’s a friendly nickname.

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The mission is set for late May and an airfield in Normandy is selected for the raid. It is going to be a double mission: a raid on a major radar installation as well as the airfield, and the former will also serve as a diversion for the latter. Tam also packs some indelible ink to mark the enemy plane as “friendly” and hopefully avoid another problem: being mistakenly shot down by his own side. A.A. Batteries on the coast have been ordered not to shoot at Fw 190s until further notice because of the mission, but there is the matter of fighter command.

Unfortunately, landing in occupied territory does not go smoothly because of those huge hedges the French call blocage. One of the two Allied gliders crashes into the hedge and there are several casualties. Laurie says this is why they bring twice as many men as they need (spares!). Resistance takes care of the casualties until they can be picked up. The remaining Commandos, including Laurie and Tam, set off for the airfield. The journey makes Tam realise the benefits of his CO training and why it had to be so gruelling. Tam’s training pays off further dividends when they run into a German patrol and there is a fight, though the skirmish shows Tam the full reality of combat and kill or be killed.

Further along, they see evidence that the radar mission is starting. Laurie is pleased to see it is indeed drawing the German forces from the airfield, so its security will be much reduced now. Silencers (a new invention at the time) enable them to shoot guards without raising the alarm, and help delay raising it being raised (it is a case of the later the better). They make their way to a hangar, where Tam selects Von Richter’s Fw 190 as the one to take: the Germans have it ready, and it will be the newest and best one in the squadron. They make their way in, and force the Germans to start the Fw 190 while Tam changes into a flying suit. Tam is relieved to see the controls and instruments are pretty much how the British experts have figured. The COs splash the ink on the wingtips.

But there is a delay because the engine has to warm up, which loses time for the COs. Now they have to deal with a lorry and car full of newly arrived pilots. The car gets away, so Laurie knows reinforcements will now be on the way. Von Richter happened to be in that car and, using his binoculars, realises what they are trying to do.

Laurie directs the COs to start blowing up the other planes. The plane is finally ready for Tam to take off. While he does so, he sees Laurie take a bullet in the arm. Moreover, an Fw 190 in another hangar is ready for immediate takeoff, so Von Richter is soon in hot pursuit of Tam, along with every other German fighter available. Tam manages to confuse the German fighters by waggling his wings to give the impression he is friendly. The fighters, having not been given the registration number of the stolen Fw 190, are fooled long enough for Tam to open fire on them. Tam encounters Spitfires too, and some also open fire until they recognise the friendly markings. Von Richter is still on Tam’s tail, and the gap is closing fast because Von Richter has far more experience than Tam in flying an Fw 190. Von Richter is getting close enough to open fire. To throw him off, Tam pulls a difficult manoeuvre called an Immelmann turn, which takes Von Richter completely by surprise. As Tam planned, this trick makes Von Richter to use up so much fuel that he has to turn back.

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It looks like Tam is home and dry now, with an Fw 190 for Britain. Unfortunately, although higher command told the coastal AA Batteries not to open fire on Fw 190s until the mission is concluded, they forgot to do so with the training units. So now a training unit opens fire on the Fw 190. Tam manages to eject, but the Fw 190 they worked so hard to steal for Britain is lost. Von Richter sees this, and he leaves with a parting remark to Tam that he won’t get another chance to steal an Fw 190 and their airfields will be made impregnable in future. Moreover, Tam later learns the COs were not able to retrieve Laurie and he is now MIA.

A few weeks later, Von Richter and his new Fw 190 are in another dogfight. This time he is having a hard time of it. So he pulls the trick he learned from Tam: the Immelmann turn. This turns the tables for Von Richter, but it also causes him to lose his bearings. Instead of flying south to German-occupied France, he unwittingly flies north and lands in Wales. By the time he realises his mistake, he and his Fw 190 have been captured. So the British get an Fw 190 after all. Tam is dispatched to collect the Fw 190 and bring it to the airfield for captured German planes. While doing so, he takes the opportunity to actually come face to face with Von Richter.

Laurie also returns. He had managed to elude capture despite his wound. The Resistance picked him up and made arrangements for him to be smuggled back to Britain. Laurie is delighted to hear that Tam has been assigned to the first squadron of the new Mark Nines. The Mark Nines have just been developed to match the Fw 190 after the British acquired Von Richter’s for comparison.

Thoughts

The details in this story sounded so authentic and well researched that I wondered if the story itself is based on true events. So I googled, and found this was indeed the case. The characters in the story are fictional of course, but the Fw 190 was such a threat for the RAF that they actually conceived a dangerous plan to capture one by hijacking one from German-occupied France. The operation was codenamed Operation Airthief, and it was inspired by an earlier Commando operation to steal a German radar installation (which succeeded). But on the very day Operation Airthief was to be submitted for approval, it suddenly became unnecessary and was never attempted. The reason? An Fw 190 pilot really did lose his bearings after a dogfight and landed in Wales by mistake. After the Fw 190 had been analysed and dissected, the British began to overcome the threat it posed. More information can be found here.

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Naturally, the question “What if Operation Airthief had gone ahead?” has caught popular imagination and spawned works of fiction such as Operation Airthief by Jerry Shively. Such is the case with this Commando, though it never actually uses the name “Operation Airthief”. Having it being a nearly successful operation, only to be whipped away at the last minute, is far more effective and compelling than having the operation beat the odds and being a complete success. But even though the operation itself fails, in an ironic way it does help to capture an Fw 190 in the end, so it was not a total loss.

Exciting and dangerous though the mission might be, the true power of the story comes from the incredible development of Tam McDermott, Laurie Crawford, and the relationship between them. Laurie is initially set up as the character you love to hate: a cruel slave driver and a bully as school captain, and not much nicer as captain of a CO training camp. (To be fair, CO training really was so dangerous that some people actually died on training.) But as Tam discovers, if you can earn Laurie’s respect, he’s pretty much all right. Once this is established, Laurie becomes a sympathetic character and he’s a hero, not an anti-hero.

The way in which Tam earns Laurie’s respect is absolutely priceless – pulling a gun on him to get him to listen! Tam taking Laurie on a tour of the captured enemy aircraft is an extremely clever way to incorporate essential information about what will be required for piloting the hijacked plane in a manner that informs not only Laurie but the reader as well. And it’s done in a manner that is showing, not telling with dry dialogue and text boxes. It also engages and delights the reader because it is teaching that hard case Laurie a lesson into the bargain. When the actual hijack comes, the reader is already well informed about what will be required in regard to preparing the plane for the hijack and what could go wrong, so the hijack scenes are even more intense.

FW Hijack 6

As for Tam, he would never have expected that old bullying, slave-driving school captain to be the one to teach him confidence. But once Laurie tells him that CO training has given him a whole new confidence, Tam realises Laurie is right, and for the first time in his life he feels he can move mountains. But it’s not just the CO training that’s done it – it’s also being stung by Laurie’s remark and still feeling the old resentments towards Laurie from their school days. Putting his CO training into practice gives Tam further confidence and toughens him further as he realises the benefits of the training, and then learning to confront the brutal realities of combat – something he never quite encountered as an RAF pilot although he must have shot down his share of enemy planes.

Even before the hijack, Von Richter is established as the nemesis of Tam McDermott, though the men do not know each other personally, and they do not even meet until the end of the story. For example, at the beginning of the story Von Richter leads the Fw 190 squadron against a Spitfire squadron that Tam is part of. Unlike Laurie, Von Richter is never developed as a character. He is not a cruel Nazi, but he is not portrayed as a sympathetic character either. He is a smug, arrogant enemy pilot whom we hope will get his comeuppance, which he does by becoming the disoriented Fw 190 pilot who mistakenly lands in Wales and unwittingly providing the much-needed Fw 190. Plus, it’s a really nasty twist for Von Richter that the man who comes to collect his new Fw 190 is none other than the man who stole his previous one! It’s no wonder he’s a bit upset (above) when he hears, but there is no doubt his threats of vengeance are in vain.