Air Bridge by Hammond Innes (1951)

The man was desperate. It showed in his eyes, in the way he talked. He hadn’t given up hope. I think that was what made the atmosphere so frightening. He wasn’t quite sane. A sane man would see that the thing was impossible. But he wouldn’t. He was still thinking in terms of getting those engines into the air. It was incredible – incredible and frightening. No man should be driven by such violent singleness of purpose. (p.105)

Air Bridge is set during the Berlin Airlift, which lasted from June 1948 to May 1949.

It is a first-person narrative by another of Innes’s ‘everybloke’ figures. Here it is Neil Fraser, who flew bombers during the War till he was shot down and captured and spent 18 months in a German prisoner of war camp. He escaped, stole a plane and flew back to Blighty, causing quite a stir at the time.

But, like so many wartime heroes, he finds himself unemployed after the War and drifts into a racket flying old planes illegally out of Blighty to France, to be traded on to Palestine. However, his most recent flight is intercepted before it takes off, he legs it, nicks a police car, dumps it and stumbles through woods to a proper airstrip, where he comes across a couple arguing in the old hangar, the man gives chase, they fight in the woods and the man knocks him out.

This opening is probably intended to be mysterious and gripping but I found it confusing. It does establish the narrator as a crook liable to arrest by the police (like numerous previous Innes heroes) and therefore vulnerable to blackmail.

When I learned this novel was about the Berlin Airlift I was excited because I like fictions which tackle historical subjects and, although there are countless novels about the War, there are not so many about the murky post-War period. However, Air Bridge has a relatively small set of characters and the story is intensely personal, not political or historical.

The plot 1 – Membury

Despite their unconventional introduction Fraser ends up becoming friendly with the puncher, Bill Saeton (pronounced Satan), who offers him a job helping to build new-specification diesel plane engines. The plan is to attach these to the plane in the hangar so it will be ready to join the Berlin Airlifts soon after Christmas 1948. However, it slowly emerges that:

  • Saeton looted the design for the new diesel engines from Germany at the end of the War; though he claims the looted design didn’t work and needed extensive adapting by…
  • His colleague Tubby Carter, a quiet honest man who gets on with his job of building the parts for the second engine. His wife, Diana, cooks for the boys while they work but, in a couple of tense scenes, it becomes clear she fancies Saeton like mad (forcing herself into his arms, telling him to rip her dress off etc) which eventually leads Tubby to send her away.
  • The Displaced person Else Langan, who’s living at the nearby manor house, turns out to be none other than the daughter of the German engineer who designed the new engines (before he was hauled off to Dachau for having a remote connection to the Hitler assassination plot). She has travelled across Europe and England to spy on the development of the engines and, if possible, to smuggle out their design to a German company, Rauch Motoren.

This first part of the novel focuses very much on the complex and tense relationships between this cast of five. The infidelity scenes are electric; there is also a series of scenes where Fraser tries to seduce Else, at a local dance, then on a walk through the woods. The frustration Fraser feels when these fail and the bitter, mixed feelings of the orphan daughter German emigrée, Else, are memorably captured.

Plot 2 – the crash

Part one climaxes when the three men take the old Tudor aircraft into the air using the two new engines they’ve built and she flies like a dream. However, in an ironic twist, as they return to the base they find the undercarriage won’t come down, no matter what they do. Saeton makes Fraser and Tubby bale out then crash lands the plane, just about surviving – but the plane is a write-off.

Tubby announces he is leaving. A contact has got him a job as flight officer on the Airlift. A day or two after leaving he phones the airfield to say he’s got Fraser a job, too. It is now that Saeton springs his ‘satanic’ plan. He tells Fraser: Go and sign up, fly Airlift planes. Then one time when you’re flying over the Soviet sector, pretend the plane is going to crash, get the crew to bail out, fly back here to Membury, we’ll swap the engines for our new diesel engines, then volunteer for the Airlift, then return with this plane, but I’ll change all the serial numbers, no-one will know it’s the old one, and we’ll get to publicise our new engine design, and on the back of that fame set up an international charter firm and become millionaires!

Fraser points out every possible flaw in the plan, starting with the iniquity of dumping innocent men out into the Soviet sector but Saeton turns nasty and threatens to turn Fraser in to the police. Does he fancy another stint in prison? This is where there’s some very characteristic Innes writing, describing the pure fear, the claustrophobia, the horror of imprisonment which the hero feels, which breaks him out in a cold panic sweat. No. Not that again.

‘You bastard!’ I screamed at him, suddenly finding my voice. I called him a lot of other names. I had got to my feet and I was trembling all over, the sweat breaking out in prickling patches across my scalp and trickling down my forehead. I was cold with fear and anger. And he just stood there, watching me, his shoulders hunched a little forward as though expecting me to charge him, a quiet confidential smile on his lips. (p.110)

And so, reluctantly, Fraser agrees to do it.

Plot 3 – the plane heist

Fraser travels to the airfield in Germany and is shown the ropes (all accurately described by Innes who went and researched the locations in person). He is allotted a couple of flight assistants but, to his horror, Tubby is his navigator. This makes the Heist scene very intense as, once they’re over the Soviet Zone, Fraser fiddles with the engines to cut them out, and persuades the other two to bale out. But Tubby, on the verge of joining them, comes back to the cockpit to give Fraser time to put on his own parachute – only to realise what Fraser’s up to and the two get into a fist fight which quickly escalates as Tubby grabs a wrench. In the heat of the moment Fraser punches Tubby who hits his head on the fuselage and then, to Fraser’s horror, slips unconscious out of the gaping open door in the side of the plane.

Fraser regains control of the plane and flies it back to Membury where there are some pretty heated scenes as Fraser and Saeton accuse each other of murdering Tubby. In angry silence they switch the engines on the Tudor, alter the serial numbers and make other changes. This takes a few days, time for Saeton to offer his services to the Airlift and get snapped up, so they both fly back to Germany.

Plot 4 – the final act

Saeton flies a guilt-stricken Fraser back to Germany and on to the exact location where Tubby’s body fell out. As luck would have it, it was near the abandoned airfield of Hollmind and Saeton lands there. They’ve barely begun searching for Tubby’s body before Saeton announces he’s flying to the Airlift airfield, Fraser can stay and search if he wants. Berlin is only 30 miles south-east, he can walk it. (In light of the intense security, the electrified barbed wire fences and border patrols which we associate with the Iron Curtain, it is fascinating to learn that at this early stage it was possible to walk across the various zones.)

So Fraser begins optimistically looking for Tubby but the snow is falling, it’s early January, and he quickly begins to suffer from the cold, exposure, hunger etc. Until he finds Tubby’s helmet – then shreds of parachute – so Tubby’s alive! Then Fraser stumbles onto a track through the woods and evidence of a cart having stopped for a while and the snow all mashed up. Maybe a peasant stopped and loaded Tubby onto his cart?

Fraser follows the track to an isolated farmhouse and there finds Tubby, badly injured (broken arm, fractured ribs) being looked after by a kindly German couple whose son, who fought in the Wehrmacht, has disappeared into Russia after the War. (This couple and the abandoned room of their son which they keep as a shrine to his memory, are just one of the many memorable vignettes in the novel.)

After himself being tended to and recovering, Fraser promises Tubby he’ll be back and makes his way partly on foot, partly hitch-hiking German lorries down to Berlin. Here he is able to walk through back streets from the Russian to the British sector. He arrives back at Wunstorf airfield almost delirious but determined to tell Diana, Tubby’s wife, that he’s alive.

Imagine his (and our) surprise when the airfield authorities tell him the Russians have confirmed they’ve found the plane wreckage and a body! Case closed. In his delirious exhausted state, the more Fraser rants about Saeton’s complicated scheme the less the authorities believe him, finally carting him off to hospital to be sedated.

Is the Russian report true? Is the body really Tubby’s? Did the Russians discover him hiding at the farm and murder him? Can Fraser persuade a distraught Diana that her husband is still alive? As Saeton walks into the mess triumphant with the success of his new engine, can Fraser persuade him to risk everything and fly him back to the abandoned airfield so they can rescue Tubby? Will Saeton be punished for his Machiavellian plots or convince everyone Fraser is delirious? Will Fraser’s part in the whole scam be uncovered? Will anybody believe him?

You’ll have to get hold of the book and find out for yourself.

Sex

Innes writes honestly and candidly about male sexual desire, its all-consumingness and its banality. The scene where Fraser and Tubby accidentally eavesdrop on the latter’s wife drunkenly propositioning Saeton is powerful and convincing, as is Saeton’s contemptuous rejection of her. As is Tubby’s quiet, dignified decision to send her away from Membury but to stay on himself, to keep working on the engines, his one true love.

In a different way, Fraser’s relationship with Else is so peculiar and erratic that it carries a kind of conviction. She partners him to a dance, but spurns him, then lets him kiss her out in the woods, but then gets angry at the memory of her father, dragged off by the Gestapo and the way Saeton is exploiting his designs. Hot, then cold, then hot again. Confusing, like life.

Reunited in Berlin there is a stirring scene in her poky little flat where he watches her washing in freezing cold water, admiring her body while she watches him watching her. Somehow he controls his raging desire.

Without thinking I had turned towards her and then the future and Tubby was driven out of my mind by the sight of Else leaning over the basin washing herself. She was naked to the waist, and her firm breasts looked big and warm in the soft lamplight. (p.216)

A decade later Alistair Maclean and Desmond Bagley almost ignored female anatomy. Eric Ambler is too detached and urbane to do this kind of thing. Graham Greene discusses sexual activities but always with disgust. Innes stands out from the thriller writers I’m reading for his familiar and relaxed attitude to sex: it isn’t repressed or concealed in his texts, but it is there in a very male, very 1950s, very chaste interest in boobs – the curve of her breasts is a recurrent aspect of the Contessa in this book’s predecessor, The Angry Mountain, and the hero noticing the large bust and pert nipples of the heroine were one of the striking features of The Killer Mine, striking because that kind of candour is generally absent from most of the other thrillers I’ve read from this period. Two years after Air Bridge Ian Fleming would publish Casino Royale, the first of the Bond books, with their graphic descriptions of the hero’s rather sadisticic sexual tastes.

Innes stands clear of all these rivals in the thriller space. His candour about women’s physical characteristics and his male character’s lust for them seems to me clean and honest and is, I think, linked with Innes’ vivid descriptions of healthy physical exercise, the enjoyment of skiing and sailing which dominates several of his other books. While the main concern of the novels is with characters being nasty to each other, there is nonetheless a thread of pure physical enjoyment running through them which lights up his texts.

Anyway sex, or a pulpy soft porn ambience, tends, as the novels progress, to shed or left behind in favour of the ‘real thing’, the understanding a man and a woman reach when they are thrown together by adversity and suddenly see themselves facing a joint future together. The novels almost all have this trajectory from superficial sensual attraction between the male and female leads, to a ‘deeper’ understanding and optimistic sense of a shared future.

The future

Many of Innes’ novels close with an explicit reference to the future being bright.

His heroes are often worried, haunted, hunted men. The extremities of the plot often serve to ‘cure’ them, and leave them with a clearer sense of who they are and what they want. (These aren’t profound books; but this journey towards greater psychological certainty stirs something profound in the reader.)

Through the exigencies of the melodramatic plot the hero reaches a new level of confidence, about himself and about the future. And it is always connected to the relationship with the nubile female in the story clicking into place, often after a litany of misunderstandings and arguments.

This ‘future’ always means a) escaping from the complexity of the current situation b) hand in hand with a young woman the situation has brought him together with.

I wanted to say, ‘Damn the bloody engines!’ I wanted to tell them that they’d already cost the lives of two men. And then I looked up and saw Else watching me. There was excitement – a sort of longing in her eyes. And then I knew what the future was. (p.253)

Related links

This is a great evocative cover by the celebrated popular illustrator Al Rossi, but it is an idealised version of the text. Fraser is not a hero, he’s a crook. The girl in the story is by no means an adoring dolly bird but a tough ex-Nazi. And there are no men in the shadows pursuing him. The story implied by this heroic cover looks arguably more interesting than the actual Innes novel.

1953 Bantam paperback edition of Air Bridge (Cover Artist: Al Rossi)

1953 Bantam paperback edition of Air Bridge (Cover Artist: Al Rossi)

PS – Paradise Lost

The obligatory mention of Paradise Lost comes on page 114 from Field, the navigator who flew in bombers over Germany during the War, and has been involved in the Berlin Airlift for four months – ‘Ever read Milton’s Paradise Lost? Well, that’s Germany.’

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

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