The Stockholm Run, Excerpt Two: Dundas Castle
Margaret Forsyth knew she should have been grateful, but that was easy to forget. She'd been told that the year before, two guards up here on the top of the old tower had, on separate nights, suffered from frostbite. This had been her first winter in Scotland and everyone said how mild it had been compared to previous years but even now, in March, it didn't feel mild.
Her older sister Alice had it easy by comparison. She worked on permanent nights, helping build parts for Spitfires in an old motorcycle factory in their home city of Southampton. Alice at least enjoyed relative warmth while she worked and could go home to her own bed, even if her husband John would never again share it with her. Perhaps, Margaret thought, Alice didn't have it quite so easy after all.
Margaret tried to sink further down into the large turned up collar of her greatcoat, pulling her scarf tighter to help keep her ears warm. She looked up, admitting again to herself that the beauty of the night and the setting was some compensation for the cold. The full moon shone down from a nearly cloudless sky. She knew that if the moon hadn't been so bright, she'd have been able to see the arc of the Milky Way with total clarity. The absence of artificial light in the blackout brought with it many problems, but it was good for stargazing.
To keep her circulation going, Margaret stamped her feet as she walked round the top of the flat roof of the keep. Almost flat, anyway. The sloping roofed room that could have given shelter was locked, to prevent guards spending their nights there rather than keeping a lookout. She could have climbed up the narrow steps of the little circular turret that gave an extra ten feet or so of elevation, but the steps were narrow and uneven and at night that didn't seem a great idea. The view over the parapets was enough to lift her spirits anyway. The most outstanding feature in the view lay only a couple of miles to the north-east. In the moonlight the Forth Bridge, which she thought looked at its best from this angle, was strikingly prominent.
If you followed a rather convoluted train of logic, Margaret was only here because of the bridge. She'd been told that one of the first Luftwaffe air raids on Britain had been on the River Forth in October 1939. She'd heard different accounts of whether the target of the attack had been the bridge itself, or nearby warships in the river, or the dockyards at Rosyth. But whatever the reason for the Luftwaffe's visit that day, an immediate response had been to move a squadron of barrage balloons from England to help protect the area. Dundas Castle had been requisitioned to serve as the squadron's headquarters because, from this viewpoint, you could look out over the whole area that its two dozen balloons defended and gain an immediate impression of whether their teams of operators were doing their jobs or not.
Air raids were much fewer and further between these days, with the most recent Luftwaffe attack anywhere within miles of here having happened the previous August, over seven months earlier. But there had been an air raid on civilian targets up in the north-east a month before and they could be back here at any time. Everyone serving on 948 Squadron knew how important it was to maintain constant vigilance.
During the previous year, the men serving on barrage balloon squadrons across Britain had been increasingly replaced by women, on a supposedly scientific basis of fourteen women of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force taking the jobs of ten men of the Royal Air Force, who could then be deployed elsewhere. What this meant in practice was that even the squadron's headquarters had become an increasingly female establishment and that tended to make it a pleasant enough place to do your bit for the war effort. Until very recently, anyway.
The views were a little less spectacular in other directions, taking in woods or the farmland that now covered much of the parkland that she had been told existed before the war.
Immediately to the east, the view extended out over the dark roofs of the much later parts of Dundas Castle, built in the first half of the previous century. To the south of the old tower was the stable court with, beyond it, slightly rising and rather overgrown ground that would have been attractive if the grass had been tended over the preceding few years. Growing in from the right-hand side of the view, extending almost from the corner of the stable court until it became lost in the woodland to the south-west and more distantly to the south, was a mass of rhododendrons.
As she looked, Margaret though she saw movement on the slightly irregular edge formed where the rhododendrons met the overgrown parkland. She could see nothing through her binoculars and decided she must have imagined it. Then something moved again, and she realised she was looking at someone making their way very slowly towards the castle while trying to keep in the shelter afforded by the rhododendrons.
The squadron's sentries patrolling the grounds now always went in twos, a change deemed essential for their safety. Margaret had seen a pair to the north of the castle but couldn't see any to the south or west. She was sure that this was just one person, acting in a way that no sentry ever would. She walked rapidly over to the turret, which served as a head for the spiral stairs descending into the tower. Inside the door she picked up the phone mounted on the wall, desperately hoping that the orderly officer was awake and equally desperately hoping that it really was a person she had seen, rather than a fox or a badger.
It was just her luck that the orderly officer tonight was Flight Lieutenant Dean, a portly man in his late forties who, she assumed, had remained with 948 Squadron because anything more active, or overseas, was judged to be beyond his levels of fitness and commitment. She couldn't reach him on the phone, so ran down the full height of the steps in the old tower and then into the main castle buildings, a task made no easier by the encumbrance of her greatcoat and rifle. Dean wasn't in the duty office. It didn't take Margaret long to decide the next best place to look was in the kitchen, where she found him eating a sandwich. A 'mid-duty snack,' he called it.
He did at least take her report of a possible intruder in the grounds seriously. They met two of the recently arrived women on the squadron coming in from a patrol of the grounds through a rear entrance near the kitchen. The women said they'd seen nothing suspicious, but it turned out this was the pair Margaret had seen to the north of the castle, and her sighting had been on the opposite side. Both had Sten submachine guns and Dean ordered them to follow him and Margaret. He then led the way through the castle's main entrance hall, which Margaret always thought must have been a lovely place before the war, and out of the front door.
The area in front of the castle was used to park many of the squadron's vehicles so the view across to the rhododendrons was largely obscured.
'It was over that way, sir.' Margaret made her way between parked lorries and cars until she could see the edge between the overgrown parkland and the rhododendrons where she'd spotted the intruder. She couldn't see anyone now.
'Look!' One of the other women, Margaret thought her name was Harris, was pointing. 'Over there, by the edge of the bushes.'
Margaret looked and, in the moonlight, could see a dark figure, still partly in cover from the edge of the dense mass of rhododendrons, moving away from them towards the visible skyline.
'Halt! Stand still or we will fire!'
The volume of Dean's bellow surprised Margaret. She could see the figure had heard, for it paused, looked round as if to assess how far away they were, then set off for the skyline again, this time at a run.
'It's up to you, Forsyth,' said Dean. 'You're the only one here with a rifle. You've got to take the shot.'
'But it must be 200 yards sir.'
'And getting further every moment. Fire or I'll take your rifle off you and do it myself, which would be pointless as you're a better shot than I am. Remember what happened to Mallory. This must be the man who did it.'
Margaret dropped to the ground and raised the rifle to her shoulder. She'd put a round into the breech as they'd left the castle. She lined the primitive sights of the Lee Enfield on the figure, realising there was no time to adjust for range. She moved the safety catch to off, breathed out and squeezed the trigger.
She didn't see what happened next because of the effect of the muzzle flash on her night vision, but she heard Harris scream, 'You've got him!' Then, 'No, he's getting back up!'
'Take another shot, Forsyth,' said Flight Lieutenant Dean. 'No, too late, he's over the skyline. But you definitely got him. Well done, that was great shooting.'
Margaret wasn't sure how to feel, except perhaps pleased that she'd not seen her shot hit the figure. Then she remembered Barbara Mallory and felt a pang of regret that she'd not killed the intruder outright.