Episode 446: The Ninth Flying Cloud Christmas Special
They'd resupplied at Singapore so as not to strain the limited facilities at
Bhamo. Now the Flying Cloud was cruising southeast over the Java Sea
en route to Cairns. In the mess hall, Second Watch was enjoying a cup of tea
after their duty was over. Predictably, the topic of conversation was the
ship's recent guest.
"Do we have any idea who this Scott fellow was working for?" asked Iverson.
"What is this mysterious `Yard' of his?"
"He wouldn't reveal this information," said Everett. "It appears to be some
agency of the Crown, so well-connected that it can obtain carte blanche
authority from the First Lord, but so secret even Jenkins has never heard of
"How do they select their agents?" Sarah wondered. "They could hardly place
an advertisement in the papers."
"I'd imagine they subject candidates to some manner of test," said Jenkins.
"We had similar traditions at the Signals College."
The island girl seemed intrigued by the prospect. "Where is the Signals
College," she asked, "and how did these tests work?"
"The College is located in Portsmouth, at the grounds the old Royal Naval War
College maintained before the War. It was established in 1916 to address...
deficiencies... the Royal Navy identified after the Battle of Jutland. The
tests were many and varied, but I particularly recall the one involving the
annual Christmas Eve party."
"What's so special about a Christmas Eve party?" asked Sarah.
"At the Royal Navy Airship Service Signals College, the time and location of
the party are secret."
Sarah chuckled. "That must cut down on attendance!"
"It does allow the College to economize on expenses," Jenkins admitted. "It
also leads to a convivial atmosphere, though this may be accompanied by a
certain smugness among the attendees."
The signalman took a sip of tea. A smile passed across his face as he
Our challenge as cadets was to determine where and when the Christmas Eve
party would be held. During my first attempts, I tried to accomplish this
by following the organizers of the party as they went about their ways.
This proved futile, for quarry always has the advantage against a single
tail. Even when Pendleton, Clark, and I pooled our efforts, the men we
were tracking managed to eluded us, for their skills at the game were
greater than ours. Then we recalled the adage that amateurs talk
about tactics, but professionals study logistics -- this is attributed to
Napoleon, but one suspects it dates back to Ramses III. Instead of
following people, we would follow supplies, under the assumption that the
relevant suppliers might not possess the same skill at evasion as our
The immediate question was which supplies to follow. Food and drink seemed
too generic -- surely the organizers could procure these from any grocer.
We also rejected the idea of tracing Christmas ornaments. Items of that
sort were sufficiently out of the ordinary that we could expect purchasers
to be on the lookout for watchers. At last we decided to concentrate on
trees. These were mundane enough that wouldn't seem to demand special
precautions, but not the sort of thing one could lay one's hands on
easily. They were also comparatively bulky and difficult to conceal.
There proved to be quite a few purveyors of Christmas trees in Portsmouth,
but members of the Signal Corps are expected to rise to challenges like
these, and we visited each one to examine their books. Our cover story
was that we were representatives of a government office charged with
compiling an inventory of strategic materials -- this sort of thing seemed
quite plausible after the War. We quickly eliminated purchases by repeat
customers with verifiable addresses, deliveries to locations such as
private homes, schools, hospitals, and public locations, and trees that
seemed large or too small. We also eliminated trees purchased before a
certain date. The precise time of the party may have been a secret, but
it seemed reasonable to suppose that a Christmas Eve party would occur on
Christmas Eve, and they couldn't rent a suitable venue too far in advance.
These criteria still left us with a fair number of trees. We had to
investigate all their purchasers one by one. This was a substantial task,
and as the days passed, we began to develop some reservations about the
merits of our procedure. Then, as we were visiting a shop near the Milton
Common, the proprietor mentioned that he'd set aside one of his trees for
a `sspecial customer' that afternoon.
This sounded more promising than most of our leads, so we found hiding
places outside the shop, then concealed ourselves to wait. Shortly after
lunch, we saw the customer step into the shop. We knew at once that we
had our man. We didn't recognize him, of course, but his very
ordinariness proclaimed that he was in disguise. He emerged a few
minutes later carrying the fateful tree. We smiled at each other and
set off in pursuit.
This proved more difficult than we'd expected. You'd think it would be
easy to shadow a man carrying a tree, but as I noted earlier, the quarry
always has initiative, which gives him the advantage. He also benefited
from three escorts who seemed to be following him at a distance to warn
him of pursuers.
Hours passed as we trailed the fellows through the streets of Portsmouth,
up major thoroughfares, through narrow alleys, down rustic dirt lanes.
He almost lost us as we passed by the Gunwharf Quays. In the end, it was
tree that betrayed him. Pendleton spotted its branches vanishing around a
corner of the lane leading to the civil air station.
We reached the station in time to see him boarding a commercial flight to
Salisbury, Christmas tree and all. There was no chance to book passage
ourselves, so we dashed over to the naval field, where Clark dashed off
forged orders allowing us to take charge of a patrol blimp. Moments later,
we were airborne in pursuit -- to the extent that a blimp is capable of
A Coastal Class was not the vessel I'd have chosen to follow a fast modern
airship. I'm not even certain it's the vessel I'd have chose to follow a
man on a bicycle. Fortunately, the flight was sufficiently short that we
didn't fall too far behind. We didn't bother mooring when we reached
Salisbury, but just lept to the ground -- this also allowed our
pilot and crew to economize on ballast. Then we dashed over to the
commercial field to see what had become of our quarry.
He seemed to have left one of his escorts behind in Portsmouth, but we
spotted the remaining two leaving the field ahead of us. Following them, we
caught up with the man at the train station, where he was boarding the first
class carriage of a train to Southampton. You'd think a railroad company
would object to someone bringing a tree along, but it seems first class has
its privileges. His escorts boarded the second class carriage, leaving us
no choice but to squeeze aboard the third, minutes before the train set off.
Our car was packed with members of the laboring class on holiday. The
atmosphere was almost certainly more convivial than it might have been for
members of the managerial and upper classes, but it was also more crowded,
which made it difficult to maintain a proper watch. Fortunately we were
able to find a bench by a window where we could see who disembarked at
each station. One of the escorts got off at Downton, perhaps to run some
errand or file a report. The other remained on board with his superior
until we reached Southampton.
Our arrival posed a new set of difficulties, for the platform was under
renovation, and only one car could unload at a time. Needless to say, our
car was last in the queue, which gave our quarry a significant head start.
By the time we'd disembarked, the man was nowhere in sight.
"What now?" asked Pendleton.
I had given this matter some thought as we waited. "There seems to have
been a theme involving the traditional elements," I noted. "We've done
earth, air, and fire. That leaves us with water. I'd suggest a visit to
We nipped down to the docks. Once again, our quarry was betrayed by his
tree, which we saw bobbing above the line of passengers boarding the ferry
to the Isle of Wight. The man's final escort stood between us and the
wharf -- apparently to prevent fellows from following him aboard. As we
watched, a whistle blew, the gangway was raised, and the vessel's screw
began to churn.
I glanced around, looking for some other means of transportation. At a
neighboring pier, I spotted a fisherman putting his boat to bed for the
night. "Crown business!" I told him. "Follow that ferry!"
"What type of Crown business?" he asked suspiciously.
"The type of business that's worth a quid," I said, passing him a pound
"For King and Country!" he replied as he leapt for the halyard. Moments
later, we'd made sail, and were following the ferry down the Solent
Fortunately the tide was with us. Otherwise the chase might have been
hopeless. Even so, by the time we reached Cowes, the ferry had docked,
her passengers had all disembarked, and our quarry was nowhere to be seen.
It was time to resort to one of the subtle expedients for which the Signal
Corps is known.
"Excuse me," I asked as I cornered a passerby. "Did you happen to see
man carrying a large Christmas tree pass this way?"
"Would that be the fellow with the furtive manner, who kept glancing over
his shoulder as if he thought someone might be following him?"
"That's the one."
"He's on his way to the Golf Club."
It seemed our quest was almost over, but the Cowes Golf Club posed one
final challenge. It was larger than we anticipated, with numerous lodges,
arbors, and pavilions for members of the gentry. We searched the grounds
as quickly as we could, but it soon became clear we couldn't finish this
task by nightfall. Then, as light was fading from the western sky, Clark
noticed a recent trail of pine needles, leading to a small club building.
Once again, our quarry had been betrayed by his unfaithful branches.
We hid next to the windows and listened. Curtains muffled the voices,
making then impossible to recognize, but it was clear from their
conversation that we'd found the right place.
"Did you have any trouble with this year's cadets?" asked one.
"Not in particular," answered a second. "Three tried to follow me, but I
lost one in Portsmouth, tricked the second into disembarking too early on
the train from Salisbury and lost the third in Southampton on the way to
Pendleton, Clark, and I exchanged glances. Had some of our classmates
also been following the man without our notice? This reflected badly on
our skills. Still, we'd found the place, and that's what mattered. We
could count this as a victory. We straightened our jackets, strode to
the door, and flung it open. Inside, as we expected, a group of men in
evening dress was putting final touches on decorations for a party.
"We've found you!" we announced.
One of the men turned. To our surprise, he was entirely unfamiliar.
"Found who?" he demanded.
"The secret Signal Corps Christmas Eve party!"
"This is the secret Signal Corps Christmas Eve party!" he replied.
"But who the devil are you?"
"If this is the Royal Navy Airship Service Signal Corps secret Christmas
Eve party, who the devil are you?"
"The Royal Navy Airship Service Signal Corps has a secret Christmas Eve
It took several moments to clear up the misunderstanding. Who would have
imagined that the Royal Army Signal Corps had a similar tradition? After
the surprise had worn off, they invited us to join them -- interservice
rivalry tends to be forgotten during the Yuletide season -- and it was late
the next day when Pendleton, Clark, and I finally made our way back to the
There was some disagreement among our professors regarding how our
accomplishment should be judged. One faction held that since we didn't
find the right party, we hadn't passed the test. Another held that we'd
scored something of an intelligence coup, and deserved to pass with flying
colours. Anticipating such a division, I'd appropriated several bottles of
Glenmorangie from our Army hosts. This evidence of foresight seems to have
tilted the judgment in our favor.
"What happened to the Royal Army Signal Corps cadets?" asked Sarah. "Did
they eventually find the Royal Naval Airship Service Signal Corps party?"
Now it was Jenkins' turn to chuckle. "That would have given the conclusion
a neat symmetry, but I believe they ended up at a celebration hosted by the
Royal Marines. The moral would seem to be that Christmas is a time to
reach out to others, and be grateful for all the gifts life brings."
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you from the crew of the
R-505! We hope your year was cause for celebration, and
your new year will be filled with happiness and joy!
The Flying Cloud will be on vacation for three weeks while
crucial members of the Royal Naval Airship Service are on leave.
Season Ten will begin on 8-Jan-2018. We look forward to