Tag Archives: Alan Hebden

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.

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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.

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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.