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The Most Famous Christmas Mystery You’ve Never Read

Find out how a little white lie turned into England's favorite holiday tale.

As author Frederick Forsyth explains, "The Shepherd is quite a simple story: A young pilot, flying home Christmas Eve 1957, [...] experiences a catastrophic electrical failure that knocks out all his equipment.” Written in a single sitting on Christmas Eve, the author of this bestselling Christmas story confides, “The last line is the twist in the tale.”

Although The Shepherd is rarely mentioned in the United States, it is one of the most beloved holiday traditions in England and Canada. Since 1979, a broadcast of the tale has been aired on CBC Radio One, and two adaptations have been performed in Britain within the last five years.

Why—and for whom—did he write the inspirational novella? Discover the back story of The Shepherd by watching the interview below. Afterwards, read an excerpt from the tale in which an unexpected (and, as it turns out, highly unusual) savior rescues the seemingly doomed pilot.

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The Shepherd

By Frederick Forsyth

The Shepherd

By Frederick Forsyth

Down below the wing tip, against the sheen of the fog bank, up-moon of me, a black shadow crossed the whiteness. For a second I thought it was my own shadow, but with the moon up there, my own shadow would be behind me. It was another aircraft, low against the fog bank, keeping station with me through my turn, a mile down through the sky toward the fog.

The other aircraft being below me, I kept turning, wing down, to keep it in sight. The other aircraft also kept turning, until the two of us had done one complete circle. Only then did I realize why it was so far below me, why he did not climb to my height and take up station on my wing tip. He was flying slower than I; he could not keep up if he tried to fly beside me. Trying hard not to believe he was just another aircraft, moving on his way, about to disappear forever into the fog bank, I eased the throttle back and began to slip down toward him. He kept turning; so did I. At 5,000 feet I knew I was still going too fast for him. I could not reduce power any more for fear of stalling the Vampire and plunging down out of control. To slow up even more, I put out the air brakes. The Vampire shuddered as the brakes swung into the slipstream, slowing the Vampire down to 280 knots.

And then he came up toward me, swinging in toward my left-hand wing tip. I could make out the black bulk of him against the dim white sheet of fog below; then he was with me, a hundred feet off my wing tip, and we straightened out together, rocking as we tried to keep formation. The moon was to my right, and my own shadow masked his shape and form; but even so, I could make out the shimmer of two propellers whirling through the sky ahead of him. Of course, he could not fly at my speed; I was in a jet fighter, he in a piston-engined aircraft of an earlier generation.

He held station alongside me for a few seconds, down-moon of me, half invisible, then banked gently to the left. I followed, keeping formation with him, for he was obviously the shepherd sent up to bring me down, and he had the compass and the radio, not I. He swung through 180 degrees, then straightened up, flying straight and level, the moon behind him. From the position of the dying moon I knew we were heading back toward the Norfolk coast, and for the first time I could see him well. To my surprise, my shepherd was a De Havilland Mosquito, a fighter bomber of Second World War vintage.

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Then I remembered that the Meteorological Squadron at Gloucester used Mosquitoes, the last ones flying, to take samples of the upper atmosphere to help in the preparation of weather forecasts. I had seen them at Battle of Britain displays, flying their Mosquitoes in the flypasts, attracting gasps from the crowd and a few nostalgic shakes of the head from the older men, such as they always reserved on September 15 for the Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters.

Inside the cockpit of the Mosquito I could make out, against the light of the moon, the muffled head of its pilot and the twin circles of his goggles as he looked out the side window toward me. Carefully, he raised his right hand till I could see it in the window, fingers straight, palm downward. He jabbed the fingers forward and down, meaning, “We are going to descend; formate on me.”

I nodded and quickly brought up my own left hand so he could see it, pointing forward to my own control panel with one forefinger, then holding up five splayed fingers. Finally, I drew my hand across my throat. By common agreement this sign means I have only five minutes’ fuel left, then my engine cuts out. I saw the muffled, goggled, oxygen-masked head nod in understanding, then we were heading downward toward the sheet of fog. His speed increased and I brought the air brakes back in. The Vampire stopped trembling and plunged ahead of the Mosquito. I pulled back on the throttle, hearing the engine die to a low whistle, and the shepherd was back beside me. We were diving straight toward the shrouded land of Norfolk. I glanced at my altimeter: 2,000 feet, still diving.

To my surprise, my shepherd was a De Havilland Mosquito, a fighter bomber of Second World War vintage.

He pulled out at three hundred feet; the fog was still below us. Probably the fog bank was only from the ground to one hundred feet up, but that was more than enough to prevent a plane from landing without a GCA. I could imagine the stream of instructions coming from the radar hut into the earphones of the man flying beside me, eighty feet away through two panes of Perspex and the wind-stream of icy air moving between us at 280 knots. I kept my eyes on him, formating as closely as possible, afraid of losing sight for an instant, watching for his every hand signal. Against the white fog, even as the moon sank, I had to marvel at the beauty of his aircraft; the short nose and bubble cockpit, the blister of Perspex right in the nose itself, the long, lean, underslung engine pods, each housing a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, a masterpiece of craftsmanship, snarling through the night toward home. Two minutes later he held up his clenched left fist in the window, then opened the fist to splay all five fingers against the glass. “Please lower your undercarriage.” I moved the lever downward and felt the dull thunk as all three wheels went down, happily powered by hydraulic pressure and not dependent on the failed electrical system.

The pilot of the shepherd aircraft pointed down again, for another descent, and as he jinked in the moonlight I caught sight of the nose of the Mosquito. It had the letters JK painted on it, large and black. Probably for call sign Jig King. Then we were descending again, more gently this time. He leveled out just above the fog layer, so low the tendrils of candy floss were lashing at our fuselages, and we went into a steady circular turn. I managed to flick a glance at my fuel gauge; it was on zero, flickering feebly. For God’s sake, hurry up, I prayed, for if my fuel failed me now, there would be no time to climb to the minimum seven hundred feet needed for bailing out. A jet fighter at one hundred feet without an engine is a death trap with no chance for survival.

For two or three minutes he seemed content to hold his slow circular turn, while the sweat broke out behind my neck and began to run in streams down my back, gumming the light nylon flying suit to my skin, HURRY UP, MAN, HURRY.

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Quite suddenly he straightened out, so fast I almost lost him by continuing to turn. I caught him a second later and saw his left hand flash the “dive” signal to me. Then he dipped toward the fog bank; I followed, and we were in it, a shallow, flat descent, but a descent nevertheless, and from a mere hundred feet, toward nothing.

To pass out of even dimly lit sky into cloud or fog is like passing into a bath of gray cotton wool. Suddenly there is nothing but the gray, whirling strands, a million tendrils reaching out to trap and strangle you, each one touching the cockpit cover with a quick caress, then disappearing back into nothingness. The visibility was down to near zero, no shape, no size, no form, no substance. Except that off my left wing tip, now only forty feet away, was the form of a Mosquito flying with absolute certainty toward something I could not see. Only then did I realize he was flying without lights. For a second I was amazed, horrified by my discovery; then I realized the wisdom of the man. Lights in fog are treacherous, hallucinatory, mesmeric. You can get attracted to them, not knowing whether they are forty or a hundred feet away from you. The tendency is to move toward them; for two aircraft in the fog, one flying formation on the other, that could spell disaster. The man was right.

Keeping formation with him, I knew he was slowing down, for I, too, was easing back the throttle, dropping and slowing. In a fraction of a second I flashed a glance at the two instruments I needed; the altimeter was reading zero, so was the fuel gauge, and neither was even flickering. The air-speed indicator, which I had also seen, read 120 knots—and this damn coffin was going to fall out of the sky at 95.

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  • Photo Credit: Open Road Media

Without warning the shepherd pointed a single forefinger at me, then forward through the windscreen. It meant, “There you are, fly on and land.” I stared forward through the now streaming windshield. Nothing. Then, yes, something. A blur to the left, another to the right, then two, one on each side. Ringed with haze, there were lights on either side of me, in pairs, flashing past. I forced my eyes to see what lay between them. Nothing, blackness. Then a streak of paint running under my feet. The center line. Frantically I closed down the power and held her steady, praying for the Vampire to settle.

The lights were rising now, almost at eye level, and still she would not settle. Bang. We touched, we touched the flaming deck. Bang-bang. Another touch, she was drifting again, inches above the wet black runway. Bam-bam-bam-babam-rumble. She was down; the main wheels had stuck and held.

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The Vampire was rolling, at over ninety miles an hour, through a sea of gray fog. I touched the brakes and the nose slammed down onto the deck also. Slow pressure now, no skidding, hold her straight against the skid, more pressure on those brakes or we’ll run off the end. The lights moving past more leisurely now, slowing, slower, slower …

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The Vampire stopped. I found both of my hands clenched round the control column, squeezing the brake lever inward. I forget now how many seconds I held them there before I would believe we were stopped. Finally, I did believe it, put on the parking brake and released the main brake. Then I went to turn off the engine, for there was no use trying to taxi in this fog; they would have to tow the fighter back with a Land-Rover. There was no need to turn off the engine; it had finally run out of fuel as the Vampire careered down the runway. I shut off the remaining systems—fuel, hydraulics, electrics and pressurization—and slowly began to unstrap myself from the seat and parachute/dinghy pack. As I did so, a movement caught my eye. To my left, through the fog, no more than fifty feet away, low on the ground with wheels up, the Mosquito roared past me. I caught the flash of the pilot’s hand in the side window, then he was gone, up into the fog, before he could see my answering wave of acknowledgment. But I’d already decided to call up RAF Gloucester and thank him personally from the officers’ mess.

With the systems off, the cockpit was misting up fast, so I released the canopy and wound the hood backward by hand until it locked. Only then, as I stood up, did I realize how cold it was. Against my heated body, dressed in a light nylon flying suit, it was freezing. I expected the control tower truck to be alongside in seconds, for, with an emergency landing, even on Christmas Eve, the fire truck, ambulance and half a dozen other vehicles were always standing by. Nothing happened. At least not for ten minutes.

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  • Photo Credit: Open Road Media

By the time the two headlights came groping out of the mist, I felt frozen. The lights stopped twenty feet from the motionless Vampire, dwarfed by the fighter’s bulk. A voice called, “Hallo there.”

I stepped out of the cockpit, jumped from the wing to the tarmac, and ran toward the lights. They turned out to be the headlamps of a battered old Jowett Javelin. Not an Air Force identification mark in sight. At the wheel of the car was a puffed, beery face and a handlebar moustache. At least he wore an RAF officer’s cap. He stared at me as I loomed out of the fog.

“That yours?” He nodded toward the dim shape of the Vampire.

“Yes,” I said. “I just landed it.”

“’Straordinary,” he said, “quite ’straordinary. You’d better jump in. I’ll run you back to the mess.”

I was grateful for the warmth of the car, even more so to be alive.

Moving in bottom gear, he began to ease the old car back round the taxi track, evidently toward the control tower and, beyond it, the mess buildings. As we moved away from the Vampire, I saw that I had stopped twenty feet short of a plowed field at the very end of the runway.

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“You were damned lucky,” he said, or rather shouted, for the engine was roaring in first gear and he seemed to be having trouble with the foot controls. Judging by the smell of whisky on his breath, that was not surprising.

“Damned lucky,” I agreed. “I ran out of fuel just as I was landing. My radio and all the electrical systems failed nearly fifty minutes ago over the North Sea.”

He spent several minutes digesting the information carefully.

“’Straordinary,” he said at length. “No compass?”

“No compass. Flying in the approximate direction by the moon. As far as the coast, or where I judged it to be. After that …”

“No radio?”

“I was guided in . . . they sent up a shepherd aircraft to guide me down. No problem.”

“No radio,” I said. “A dead box on all channels.”

“Then how did you find this place?” he asked.

I was losing patience. The man was evidently one of those passed-over flight lieutenants, not terribly bright and probably not a flier, despite the handlebar moustache. A ground wallah. And drunk with it. Shouldn’t be on duty at all on an operational station at that hour of the night.

“I was guided in,” I explained patiently. The emergency procedures, having worked so well, now began to seem run-of-the-mill; such is the recuperation of youth. “I flew short, left-hand triangles, as per instructions, and they sent up a shepherd aircraft to guide me down. No problem.”

He shrugged, as if to say “If you insist.” Finally, he said: “Damned lucky, all the same. I’m surprised the other chap managed to find the place.”

“No problem there,” I said. “It was one of the weather aircraft from RAF Gloucester. Obviously, he had radio. So we came in here in formation, on a GCA. Then, when I saw the lights at the threshold of the runway, I landed myself.”

The man was obviously dense, as well as drunk.

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“’Straordinary,” he said, sucking a stray drop of moisture off his handlebar. “We don’t have GCA. We don’t have any navigational equipment at all, not even a beacon.”

Now it was my turn to let the information sink in.

“This isn’t RAF Merriam St. George?” I asked in a small voice.

He shook his head.

“Marham? Chicksands? Lakenheath?”

“No,” he said, “this is RAF Minton.”

“I’ve never heard of it,” I said at last.

“I’m not surprised. We’re not an operational station. Haven’t been for years. Minton’s a storage depot.”

Want to keep reading? Download The Shepherd, by Frederick Forsyth, today.

The Shepherd

By Frederick Forsyth

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Featured image: Fox Photos / Getty Images

Published on 18 Dec 2018

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