They landed two minutes ahead of the scheduled appointment, but to Priestman’s dismay, what looked like hundreds of Soviet troops were lined up beside the runway on parade. The Soviet soldiers stood in perfect lines; the only movement was caused by the wind. This was not Priestman’s notion of an “informal” visit.
As he rolled to a stop at the end of the runway, an American jeep with Soviet insignia rushed out to lead him around the taxiway to halt before the elegant terminal building. Red flags fluttered everywhere, and the troops remained rigidly at attention. Priestman looked over at Boyd chagrined. “This is not what I wanted or expected.”
“Nor I, sir,” Boyd answered embarrassed.
Priestman glanced over his shoulder at Corporal Borisenko and only then noticed she was bent over the airsickness bag. Feeling his gaze, she gave him a look of complete dismay. “This -- this was my first flight in an aeroplane, sir. I — I didn’t know I would be sick.”
“Don’t worry about it. Leave the bag on the floor and go down the stairs first so you can introduce me and Ft. Lt. Boyd.”
She gamely wiped her mouth clean with her handkerchief before descending from the Anson followed by Boyd, while Priestman collected himself. The spit-and-polish unnerved him. He had sincerely hoped to have an informal meeting with his counterpart during which he might have raised the issue of bouncing aircraft in the corridors. Any hopes of getting to know his Soviet counterpart, airman-to-airman, however, were shattered by this reception. Inspections like this were intended to impress and create distance rather than the opposite. Drawing a deep breath, he descended to the tarmac and saluted his reception committee.
The left breast of the senior officer meeting him was completely covered by dangling gold medals that danced in the wind, making Robin’s modest ribbons seem unimpressive by comparison. The Russian uniform with the upright collar, stiff shoulder boards with rank insignia, riding breeches and boots was similar to the Luftwaffe uniform in style but brown like the Americans’. The man’s face was squarish, with a blunt, short nose under pale blue eyes and red-blond hair cut very short.
Borisenko’s low-pitched yet nervous voice spoke from Priestman’s side, “Colonel Gregory Sergeyevich Kuznetsov welcomes you to Staaken, Wing Commander.”
As the other ended his salute, Priestman held out his hand. “A pleasure to meet you, Colonel. I certainly didn’t mean to cause so much trouble. I just wanted to introduce myself.”
As Corporal Borisenko translated and the Colonel answered, Priestman’s eyes took in the man standing two feet behind Kuznetsov. He was in a much simpler uniform without all the dangling medals, but he exuded hostility and self-assurance. His narrow face was abnormally pale, even for winter, and it was deeply lined, but his partially closed eyes were alert. He was not introduced, but Priestman glanced over at Boyd who nodded once. It was Volkov. He remained only two paces behind Kuznetsov throughout the ensuing ceremony.
Priestman first “inspected” the rows of soldiers. They looked very smart, with sparkling buttons and glowing leather. For the most part, they also looked older than the airmen he’d inspected over the years, which reminded him that many Russian troops stationed in Germany had fought throughout the war. The Russians had not demobilized to the same extent as the West. This, in turn, meant that many of these troops would have been here in the early months, participating in the plunder and rape. What an illusion military smartness was!
After the ground troops, came an inspection of the YAK fighters with their pilots standing at attention beside them in flying-kit. Priestman took the opportunity to get a close-up look at a Yak. The form reminded him most of a Mustang, but the Yak was noticeably smaller than the Spitfire — which explained why the Spitfire had more than twice the Yak’s range. Yet nothing he could see on the exterior explained why it had a ceiling 10,000 lower than the Spitfire and a substantially greater turning radius. The fighter was simply second-rate compared to his own.
He turned his attention to the pilots instead, wondering which pilots had been involved in Saturday’s little incident. None of them met his eyes, and as intended, they seemed interchangeable to an outsider.
The inspection over, Priestman was taken to the elegant top-floor dining room and led to a table on a raised platform bedecked with Soviet and British flags. The formal set-up was designed to quash the building of rapport. Women soldiers in tunics with brass buttons and leather boots under their straight skirts stiffly pulled out chairs for the guests, poured water and vodka, and served a meal. The stilted conversation did not extend beyond an exchange of wartime assignments and small talk about various aircraft. Priestman was relieved, however, that no reference was made to encounters in the corridors — recent or otherwise.
At the end of the meal, the Soviet Colonel got to his feet and read a prepared speech in a monotone voice while Volkov watched his every move, his every breath, and his every sip. Borisenko interpreted softly into Priestman’s ear providing a fluent simultaneous translation, the gist of which was a lengthy account of the wartime sufferings the Soviet Union before emerging victorious. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was not mentioned. The invasion of Finland was ignored. The invasion of Poland was forgotten. The Battle of Britain never happened. There had been no Allied strategic bombing offensive against Germany. Fifty-five thousand British airmen had not died hammering German cities to shatter German industrial production and break German morale. Nor had tens of thousands of Allied merchant seamen lost their lives bringing the Soviet Union tonnes of war material and humanitarian aid. Based on the Colonel’s remarks, the Soviet Union alone had won the war against Germany. It was understandable, therefore, that he wound up his remarks by professing perplexity about the British and American insistence on stationing troops and aircraft inside the Soviet Zone of occupation. He concluded by saying while he was pleased to greet a fellow airman and pilot, he remained puzzled about his distinguished visitor’s mission. Nevertheless, they should all drink to friendship among airmen! He raised his vodka glass.
Priestman stood, raised his glass and after clinking his tumbler with that of his Russian counterpart, he knocked the shot back just as deftly as his host. If nothing else, the RAF taught a man how to hold his liquor.
Colonel Kuznetsov sat down, but his eyes remained fixed on Priestman expectantly — along with that of all the other Russians in the echoing hall. A reciprocal speech was indeed expected. Priestman glanced at Borisenko and gave her a short nod to acknowledge she had been right. Then he drew a deep breath and addressed himself to his host.
“Thank you,” Priestman opened, noting that a Soviet lieutenant leaned over to translate his words to Volkov. “Your remarks were extremely educational. They have given me much food for thought. As for why I’m here, there is a simple answer. I am a soldier and I obey orders. His Majesty’s government sent me here to protect British interests in the capital of our mutual and defeated enemy — the enemy we fought for two long years while you were still drinking toasts to Herr Hitler. Let us drink again to friendship among airmen!” He lifted his glass.
Kuznetsov again got to his feet and raised his refilled vodka glass. They touched glasses, and for the first time, Priestman thought he caught a glimmer of emotion in the Soviet Colonel’s eyes. He thought it might have been a look of amusement bordering on respect. Or not.
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