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The Enigma Game
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#1 New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Wein delivers an exhilarating, unmissable thriller that finds three very different young adults united to decode a secret that could turn the tide of World War II
Facing a seemingly endless war, fifteen-year-old Louisa Adair wants to fight back, make a difference, do something–anything to escape the Blitz and the ghosts of her parents, who were killed by enemy action. But when she accepts a position caring for an elderly German woman in the small village of Windyedge, Scotland, it hardly seems like a meaningful contribution. Still, the war feels closer than ever in Windyedge, where Ellen McEwen, a volunteer driver with the Royal Air Force, and Jamie Beaufort-Stuart, a flight leader for the 648 Squadron, are facing a barrage of unbreakable code and enemy attacks they can't anticipate.
Flight Lieutenant James G. Beaufort-Stuart:
The night of 6–7 November 1940—how many of us dead in that raid?
I don’t know.
I know nine men in 648 Squadron’s A-Flight were killed that night just because of weather. Two planes collided in fog just before landing, and one came down heavy with ice. But I don’t know how many in A-Flight fell to enemy fire.
How many in B-Flight, then? My own lads… I ought to know that, at least.
But I don’t. Not offhand. I’d have to sit and count. I probably made a note in my logbook. That night wasn’t the first time we took a heavy loss, and it wasn’t the last time. Buckets of blood. It wasn’t as many as last time. Anyway it’s hard to remember all the losses, which for Bristol Blenheim bomber crews was just about every mission, and I get some of the dead men muddled when I try to count. The Royal Air Force isn’t going to win the war flying Bristol Blenheims.
I’d argued with Wing Commander Talbot Cromwell before we took off on that mission. That wasn’t the first time, either. I knew he didn’t like me, and I risked an official reprimand, or worse, a demotion, every time I challenged him. We didn’t see eye to eye on anything.
“We’ll never find German warships if we’re flying at twenty thousand feet!” I told my commanding officer. I didn’t even try to hide my anger. “There’s no hope in hell of a Blenheim hitting anything from that height anyway. The bomb doors don’t always open when you want them to, and up there you can’t tell whether a speck out the window is an enemy destroyer or a bit of runway mud stuck on the Perspex!”
“Are you quite finished, Flight Lieutenant Beaufort-Stuart?” said Cromwell, lowering his eyebrows like barrier gates. “You’ll fly at twenty thousand feet, and so will all your men. Orders are orders. That’s where Coastal Command wants you to fly. I take my instructions from headquarters and you take yours from me.”
Cromwell and I had been at each other since the day we first came together about two weeks earlier.
He got transferred to us in October when we moved to Shetland as the Battle of Britain came to an end. Our squadron patrolled the North Sea for the Royal Air Force, the RAF, just as we’d done at other bases all through the summer of 1940. But Cromwell’s role with 648 Squadron was new. Before he got lumbered with us, he’d commanded a squadron of speedy new Spitfire fighters. In August and September, while we were flying Blenheims under cover of cloud on low-level bombing raids targeting German ships, he’d been sending fighter pilots into soaring dogfights in the sun.
None of our experiences matched up. He couldn’t manage twin engines and didn’t join us when we flew. And he didn’t like it that at nineteen years old I was half his age, shorter and slighter than most of the other lads and barely needing a shave, yet I talked back. He didn’t like that all of B-Flight were on my side because they were Blenheim airmen too; maybe I looked like a schoolboy, but they knew I wasn’t. I’d been their flight leader since August.
And sending us on a bombing raid with only a half-moon to light us, above cloud at twenty thousand feet? I was reckless with frustration.
“It’s stupid, stupid—everyone knows it. The men are complaining. You know it’s stupid. Above the cloud? We won’t be able to see the sea, let alone ships in the dark! And the air’s too thin up there for a Blenheim to operate efficiently. It’s not like flying a Spitfire! We cruise best at fifteen thousand feet, and when we’re in combat we take it as low as we can, it helps camouflage us. And the Jerries—the German fighters all know they can go higher and faster, and they circle like vultures, waiting—”
“None of my Spitfire pilots complained about danger,” Cromwell said coldly. “I expect more of a young man of your caliber, Beaufort-Stuart. This sounds like lack of moral fiber.”
Lack of moral fiber—that wonderful euphemism for cowardice.
I couldn’t let him accuse me, or worse, my 648 Squadron airmen, of being cowards.
I said stiffly, “Sir. I’m leading B-Flight on a mission tonight. I want the best for them.”
“When you go in at low level, you get shot up by enemy antiaircraft guns,” Cromwell told me, as if I didn’t know. “We need to change our tactics.”
It was true that most of our losses came from guns on the ground or at sea level. I couldn’t argue with that. But I felt sure that a raid at twenty thousand feet would end in the same tears for different reasons, or at best, be completely pointless because we wouldn’t hit anything. It wasn’t the first time Coastal Command had tried it.
However, with no winning counterargument, off we went, hoping a few of us would make it back safely in five hours or so. Following orders.
The Blenheims were like a herd of shadowy brontosauri waiting on the airfield in the dark beneath the high cloud.
“Come on, Scotty, buck up,” said David Silvermont, my navigator, as we lowered ourselves in our bulky flight suits through the forward hatch of that night’s plane. Being the only Scot in the squadron meant that I mostly hadn’t been called Jamie for the past year or so, except on leave. “We can’t have you in a funk—it brings everybody down. The lads take your moods very seriously.”
“Wing Commander Cromwell bloody well doesn’t,” I retorted. “I wish he’d have a go at you sometime instead of me.”
“No chance, as you’re the officer in charge. Anyway I am much bigger and older than you, and better looking too and probably smarter, so he doesn’t dare.”
“And you have a bigger head than me!” I laughed.
Most of those things were true, as David Silvermont was two years my senior and had been halfway through a medical degree when the war started. But he was also my best friend. He was easy to like and smooth with girls, with the brooding dark looks of a film star, and was good at breaking up fights and at making me laugh. Silver read poetry before he went to bed; he played Mozart on the cracked fiddle he’d found in the officers’ lounge when we were off duty; but those highbrow occupations didn’t stop him plotting a course by dead reckoning, or spotting enemy convoys, or having a sense of humor.
He was a wizard navigator.
“What’s up?” called our air gunner and wireless operator, Colin Oldham, from his place in the back of the Blenheim.
“Just the usual scrapping with Cromwell,” I grumbled. “Accused me of ‘lack of moral fiber.’”
“Rubbish! He’s not flying tonight, is he!” Colin exclaimed.
“I expect he doesn’t like your poncey double-barreled surname,” Silver teased me. “It reminds the old Roundhead that your dad’s the Earl of Craigie, and then he wants to start the Civil War over again. Can’t have teenage toffs telling him what to do.”
Colin howled. “‘The Old Roundhead!’ Suits him!”
“I don’t tell him what to do,” I protested, checking the instruments and controls while Silver and Colin belted their harnesses in place. “I make polite suggestions about what not to do. And being the youngest of five sons doesn’t mean a thing. They ran out of titles before they got to me.”
“It’s your classical education he doesn’t like,” put in Colin.
“I’ll make a list, shall I? Perhaps if I were taller or bigger or grew a mustache—”
“He doesn’t like me much, either,” Silver said with sympathy.
“You both make him feel inferior,” said Colin. “All that heady talk in the officers’ lounge comparing hydraulics to blood pressure. He can’t keep up.”
“Hydraulics and blood pressure are endlessly fascinating,” said Silver. He spread his chart on his knees, holding his electric torch ready in his gauntleted hand. He declared with satisfaction, “From tonight I shall always think of him as the Old Roundhead.”
My B-Flight aircrews knew what we were doing that night—three planes in my own Pimms Section and three in Madeira Section, with three men in each plane. In a few minutes I’d be in the sky in the dark in charge of eighteen men, counting myself, and in a few hours half of them would be dead.
I didn’t know then what the full toll of that night would be, and I tried to lighten the tone as we set out. I called over the radio to Pimms and Madeira as we took off. “Setting course for target and climbing to twenty thousand feet, as per orders from the Old Roundhead.”
Over the intercom I heard Colin behind me laughing again.
“The Old Roundhead might be keeping a listening watch,” Silver warned me.
“I don’t mind. I’ll get another damned reprimand. He already knows what I think of him.”
We flew obediently high, heading for a flotilla of German warships that was supposed to be cruising fifty miles off the Norwegian coast. After about an hour and a half, maybe we were over the ships we were supposed to hit and maybe we weren’t. The sky was clear and blue-black, but the half-moon lit the thin cloud below us like a sheet of milky Chinese silk. I could see the other B-Flight planes standing out in black silhouette like decals against that cloud.
So, too, could the German Messerschmitt 110 night fighters on patrol.
We didn’t have lights and neither did they, and we didn’t see them coming. They can fly a hundred miles an hour faster than we can. But Silver and I both saw the streaks of green flame as the tracers flew from the first rounds of their thundering guns. And we saw the explosion of golden fire as the bullets struck an engine on another Blenheim in our formation.
Silver opened the observer’s panel in the window next to his head and twisted around to stick his nose out so he could see behind us. “There’s one on our tail!” he cried. “Dive, dive—”
“Down, everybody get down!” I called to my lads over the radio. “Use the cloud! Get into it or below it where they can’t see you! Drop your bombs if you have to, lose the weight—”
I pushed my own plane into a nosedive. Our only hope against an Me-110 was to get away from it. Hide in cloud, camouflage yourself against the earth’s surface. For a moment, behind me, I could hear Colin’s gun rattling back at our attackers.
In a Blenheim, the air gunner has to sit with his head up out of the plane in a bubble of Perspex like a goldfish bowl on a windowsill. The gunner’s turret is often the first thing that goes when the Jerries are after you. And that’s exactly what happened that night, with a deafening bang that I felt more than heard. God. The wind in the cockpit, after our turret exploded, howling around us as we sped toward the black sea below. The mess of blood and bone that had been Colin, all over the inside of the plane and the back of Silver’s leather helmet.
That missed me, anyway—I was protected from Colin by the bulkhead between the pilot’s seat and the radio equipment.
The sky went small and gray. I was diving too fast—in another few seconds the increased gravity would knock us out.
I must have leveled up somehow.
I skimmed so low over the sea, when I reached it, that the poor Blenheim’s tail wheel snagged in a swell and snapped off.
In front of us, seawater erupted like a geyser as someone overhead got rid of their explosives, and I was too close to the surface to turn away from the pluming waterspout. I had to fly through it. We lost windowpanes in the front cockpit and Silver’s charts were soaked, but we were still flying on the other side.
We were being bombed by our own planes.
We saw two Blenheims go plummeting in flames into the water around us while we struggled away from the waves.
It was the morning of 7 November 1940, and I was so stunned and spent after I landed back at our base in Shetland that I couldn’t think. I shut down the engines, and Silver and I sat in silence. We didn’t even try to get out.
Then a couple of mechanics climbed on the wing to open the hatches, and Silver looked up. He put a hand on my shoulder and said softly, “Nice flying, Scotty, as per usual. Thanks for getting us home.”
He’d taken off his gloves to rescue the charts and to use the pencils and flight calculator on the way back. His hands must have been freezing. But he made the same cheesy joke every time we landed safely—he’d be able to play the violin again. He pulled the little box of rosin from his knee pocket, the lucky charm that went with him on every op, and held it between thumb and forefinger with both hands in front of his face.
“Look, everything still in one piece.”
He couldn’t not say it. He couldn’t not take the rosin with him. I had a charm too, in the breast pocket of my uniform beneath my flight suit, a perfectly round quartz pebble from the Iron Age hill fort on my father’s grouse moor.
“You’re welcome,” I croaked.
Our clothes were soaked with seawater and Colin Oldham’s blood. It was all over the cockpit, and we had to climb through it to get out the hatch.
Half an hour later I sat down in front of Flight Officer Phyllis Pennyworth, our brisk, chirpy robin of a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force interrogator who was in charge of grilling us after a mission—and I got so choked up I couldn’t talk. I sat for a while with my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands, and she just let me do that, didn’t say anything, knew what was coming—or guessed, anyway.
When I looked up, the pretty pink had faded a bit from her rosy cheeks. She loved us all very much. But in the debriefing room Pennyworth took care to be all business, and this time I was too broken and beat to do my job politely.
“Too many German planes to count,” I told her. “Bloody Jerries in their bloody Messerschmitt 110s. Those Luftwaffe night fighters. Like a swarm of hornets—they know where we’re coming from and what we’re after, and they’re a million miles an hour faster than us—”
“Not a million, Scotty,” Phyllis corrected gently. Using my nickname instead of my rank title the way most of my lads did, so that I knew she cared, but reminding me to be precise so she could make an accurate report. She was a stickler for rules herself, and she was scared of the Old Roundhead.
“Might as well be a million.” It came out as a sort of sob. “These old Blenheims we fly, these airborne buckets of bolts we’re in, these crates don’t have a chance against a Messerschmitt 110 night fighter!”
And I gave a real sob then, because of Colin.
I didn’t tell Phyllis Pennyworth about the mess. She’d seen our busted-up plane—half the glass in the front cockpit punched out, a furrow plowed in the airfield behind us by our tail because we’d lost the tail wheel, the gaping hole where the gunner’s turret used to be. She wasn’t stupid; she knew what had happened to Colin. She waited while I tried to pull myself together, and when I still didn’t say anything, she sighed and put down her pen and lit a cigarette for me.
I took it and my hands didn’t shake. I hadn’t lost my nerve—I was angry. Not just at the Germans, our enemy. I was angry at my commanding officer, at Wing Commander Talbot Cromwell, for being so blind to what we were up against, and at Coastal Command itself, whoever they were, making impossible rules in some comfortable headquarters in England while we bled our lives out in unforgiving sky and sea.
I tried to smoke. Phyllis passed me her ashtray. I was nearly angry at her, too, behaving herself and reporting to them. But she was good at her job, unlike Cromwell; she’d been with us since June and she knew us well.
“When we fly that high the mission is absolutely pointless, but when we come in at a low level to bomb the German ships, we get shot up by their antiaircraft guns,” I said bitterly. “I just want an advantage, you know? I want to know where their submarines are, or if there are night fighters about, before they’re on top of us. Some wee thing. One thing that we can do better than the Germans. One surprising smack in their faces.”
“We stopped the invasion,” Phyllis said. “You helped too, two months ago when we were fighting the Battle of Britain. We made them back off. That was a smack in their faces.”
“Now they’re bombing our cities to blazes—that’s not backing off!”
“We all want revenge,” Phyllis said softly.
That surprised me a little. I didn’t think of earnest, diligent Flight Officer Pennyworth as someone who had unwholesome emotions that might involve a thirst for blood. I glanced up at her, thinking she might be offering mechanical sympathy to another shot-down airman—or I suppose I should say shot up, not shot down, as I’d managed to bring the crate back and land it in one piece.
Her eyes were red and her mouth was set in a stubborn, steely pout. I guess Flight Officer Pennyworth got the job partly because she didn’t cry easily. Maybe she did want revenge.
“We’ll win,” Phyllis said firmly. “We’ll keep fighting, and someday we’ll win fair and square.”
I’d let my cigarette go out. I dumped it in the ashtray. What had Cromwell told me?
We need to change our tactics.
“I don’t want to win fair and square anymore,” I said through my teeth. “I want to cheat.”
Daddy said I lost my Jamaican accent in one year. One year at the rather posh London school where my mother taught music, and I had a polite accent I’d picked up from my schoolteachers. I didn’t even know it was happening. There wasn’t any other obvious way to blend in, with my light brown skin and springing dark brown hair, tamed into plaits by Mummy and then into tight rolls by me when I got older. “Me boonoonoonoos country gal is turning into a little English lady,” Daddy teased. But it stopped the other girls from teasing.
In November 1940, my polite English accent came in useful.
I was fifteen years old and both my parents were killed in a single month by German explosives, Mummy in an air raid and Daddy in a sea battle, thousands of miles apart. My school closed because of the Blitz even before Mummy was killed, but I was old enough I didn’t need to stay in school anyway. Now I was stuck by myself in Mummy’s rented attic room surrounded by falling bombs. Our elderly landladies looked in on me and made sure I didn’t starve, but all I did in the first shocked, horrible weeks after Mummy’s death was bury my nose in books whose orphaned heroines got happy endings.
I reread A Little Princess, Jane Eyre, and Anne of Green Gables, but my literary friends began to feel disappointing. They didn’t have to cope with air raids. Nobody was rude to them for being foreign. Sara Crewe was born in India and spoke Hindustani, but she still looked English. When people shooed her away it wasn’t because she was brown.
I had a bit more money than Sara Crewe or Jane Eyre or Anne Shirley, that was true. There was twenty-five pounds in Mummy’s post office account. But it wouldn’t last forever. I had to have something to do when it ran out, or I would end up living in an air-raid shelter on an Underground platform. The only person I could go to was Granny Adair, Daddy’s mother in Jamaica, and how was I going to get back to Jamaica, past the U-boats and destroyers? The City of Benares, full of evacuated children, was torpedoed by a German submarine in September!
I knew I couldn’t go back. We’d moved to England when I was twelve, and I knew, because of the dustbin of rubbish true facts in the back of my head, that I could not live with Granny Adair. I’d have to earn my keep there by picking up stones in her tiny field of sugarcane, or herding her goats. At best, taking in washing, which in the Jamaica bush means scrubbing sheets in the river and walking six miles with a laundry basket on your head. Three years in London had ruined me for such a life. No, if I am honest, it was Mummy’s fault, with music lessons and library books and her pretty tailored suits. Even in our Jamaican bungalow we’d had a piano and a veranda and a little garden of English roses. And we left Kingston because Mummy was afraid of the workers’ strikes and the Caribbean riots. Daddy grew up in the bush, but he went to sea when he was fifteen.
At fifteen! My age in November 1940. You can do that if you’re a boy—even a West Indian boy can do that. The rules won’t let any kind of girl do that. And I was a West Indian girl.
What can a West Indian girl do at fifteen?
A girl whose parents are both killed by enemy action and who burns, burns to fight back? A schoolgirl with no skills who stands in the street watching the vapor trails of the fighter planes and wants to be up there with them so badly that it hurts?
Some of those children on the City of Benares were rescued from the sea. They were the ones who hung on, who fought to stay awake in the cold water and who wouldn’t let go of the wreckage that kept them afloat.
I am like those children. Not the ones who sank. The ones who fought.
Rules are made to be broken, Mummy always told me. She believed that you can get away with breaking rules if you are polite about it, and underneath her cultured British charm my mother was the boldest of rule-breakers, a white Englishwoman who married a black Jamaican. But she was carefully polite. That’s how she got around our landladies in London, with harp music and flute music and smart, stylish hats. Mummy had always been there to protect me from the rules. Now I was going to have to break them on my own.
I had to find work. At my age it wasn’t going to be war work, but I had to pay rent and buy food. Sensible positions such as “sales girl in record shop” and “music teacher’s assistant” weren’t the answer because time and again people made it clear they didn’t want to hire someone with a tropical complexion, even a pale one—light brown, dark brown, it was all the same to the English. “The Caribbean sun makes people lazy,” explained one well-meaning person as she turned me away.
And Mummy had trained me so carefully to be polite that I thanked her as I left.
Afterward I sat on a bench by the Serpentine and cried.
But then I found Nancy Campbell’s notice in the newspaper. Her old aunt Jane needed someone to look after her. I had to ring a number in Scotland to ask about it. And that was perfect, because over the telephone I was able to get around the rules by invisibly using my most practical, useful skill—my polite English accent.
I was surprised at how quickly my plan worked. Nancy Campbell, whoever she was, seemed ready to snap me up straightaway.
“I want two references, and you must be tidy, and able to make travel arrangements by yourself,” she told me. “I’ll send rail fare if you’re willing.”
It seemed too good to be true.
“But haven’t you other people applying as well?” I asked.
“I’ll accept the first suitable candidate who wants the position. I’ve lost count how many lasses have rung me, then changed their minds—oh, twenty, at least. No one wants to be seen with Aunt Jane, and that’s the truth.”
“Is she West Indian?” I blurted, before I could stop myself.
“No,” said the Scotswoman. “She’s German.”
“She’s suspected of being a risk to national security,” the woman on the phone continued grimly. “She has to be collected from an alien detainment camp on the Isle of Man.”
A risk to national security in an alien detainment camp!
Worrying I’d hang up on her, Mrs. Campbell rushed to give me more information. “My aunt’s what they call ‘category C,’ a low-risk prisoner. She broke her hip last summer, hill-walking at eighty-two, silly woman! She needs help getting about. Not heavy lifting, just minding… and keeping her out of my way, to be honest. I have the pub to manage, and I can’t look after an invalid. Aunt Jane is far too old to be locked up like a criminal anyway, though that’s her own fault for lying about her age—she told the policemen who arrested her that she was sixty! And how she pulled off such a devilish falsehood, I can’t tell you. I’ve a mind she wanted to be arrested—attention-seeking Jezebel! But the government’s releasing quite a few folk they detained earlier this year. Most of them are Jewish and not Nazis at all, and people aren’t happy about imprisoning folk the way the Germans do.”
Mrs. Campbell paused for breath.
“Why did they arrest her?” I asked cautiously. “Besides her being German?”
“She was a telegraphist. She worked five years in a wireless exchange in Berlin when she was a girl, sending Morse code, before she became an opera singer.” Mrs. Campbell added hastily, “But that was more than sixty years ago, in the 1870s. Before the telephone—plenty of young ladies did the same! It’s not as if she was Mata Hari, taking messages and spying in the Great War!”
A telegraphist and an opera singer! Morse code! I thought the old woman might turn out to be quite interesting. And I wasn’t scared of an old woman, even if she was German. I liked old women. I liked our landladies, who were kind to me when Mummy and Daddy were killed. I liked Granny Adair.
Mrs. Campbell elaborated, “Aunt Jane’s no blood relation, you understand. She’s my father’s brother’s wife. They lived a wicked bohemian life, Uncle John and Aunt Jane, in the last century—Berlin, Vienna, Paris. She was famous the world over, to hear her tell it. Her real name is Johanna von Arnim, though she’s Jane Warner now.”
“How is she? Can she walk?” I tried to think of any information I needed before the money for the phone call ran out. “Did she live alone before she broke her hip?”
“Yes, she had a flat in London,” said Mrs. Campbell. “Uncle John had a long lease on it that expired ten years ago, and afterward the landowner rented it to them year to year. But Uncle John’s dead now, and Aunt Jane’s let the flat go and has no place to live. At eighty-two
“Even if you’re not one for “war stories,” you’ll likely get caught up in the breathless thrill-ride of Wein’s newest World War II novel. …its twisty plot, multivoiced narration and poetic prose make it fly by. It’s an illuminating historical read and a realistic depiction of the costs of war.”—The New York Times Book Review
- * "gripping.... Readers will enjoy The Enigma Game as a standalone thriller or as a prequel to Wein's 2013 Printz Honor book Code Name Verity...The Enigma Game furthers Wein's streak of excellent historical fiction."—--BookPage, starred review
- * "this is historical fiction at its finest...another soaring success."—--Kirkus Reviews, starred review
* “compelling and emotionally taut…Wein's story of unexpected friendship and empowerment during wartime is intelligent, compassionate and thrilling."—Shelf Awareness, starred review
- * "a comprehensive, believable, and engaging page-turner that should not be missed."—--School Library Connection, starred review
- * "cleverly plotted...a rich work of historical fiction."—--The Horn Book, starred review
- "exhilarating and atmospheric.... Just the ticket for lovers of historical thrillers and Wein's many fans."—--School Library Journal
- "dramatic and informative"—--BCCB
- On Sale
- Nov 9, 2021
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
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