"Masterly storytelling of battles and war." —Sunday Times of London
Dust on the Seaby Douglas Reeman
The Mediterranean, 1943: At long last the British Army has won a victory, and Rommel's Afrika Korps is in retreat. Into this new phase of the war comes Captain Mike Blackwood, Royal Marine Commando. Already bloodied in the disastrous retreat from Burma, Blackwood goes to Alexandria as part of an elite unit, poised to strike the first blows against the Nazi
The Mediterranean, 1943: At long last the British Army has won a victory, and Rommel's Afrika Korps is in retreat. Into this new phase of the war comes Captain Mike Blackwood, Royal Marine Commando. Already bloodied in the disastrous retreat from Burma, Blackwood goes to Alexandria as part of an elite unit, poised to strike the first blows against the Nazi fortress of mainland Europe.
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Dust On The Sea
The Royal Marines Saga, No. 4
By Douglas Reeman
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 2000 Bolitho Maritime Productions Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Major-General Ralph Vaughan was a big man, in every sense of the word. He had served in the Royal Marines all his life and had a reputation for plain speaking, and a hot temper which had made him almost a legend in the corps. Even on this bitter November day, with his impressive figure perched somewhat incongruously on a frail-looking shooting stick, his feet planted wide apart in the wet gorse and heather, he looked the part. "A marine's marine," they said, something which never failed to please him. In his younger days he had been well known in the boxing ring, and had represented the corps in many interservice contests. A broken nose and a luminously ruddy complexion had won him great respect, and although he was generally admired by all ranks in the corps, nobody with any sense ever took his famous intolerance over training and efficiency lightly.
Scotland in November. What a bloody awful place, he thought grimly. Only the high command would ever dream up such a location. Achnacarry, barely marked on any map and dominated by two big lochs, Arkaig and Lochy, was rugged terrain where marines could learn the skills and pitfalls of hard training under all conditions, harried by seemingly tireless instructors, and very aware of the additional danger of live ammunition.
A bloody awful place. But it worked. These were no longer the old days of the peacetime Royal Navy, when the marines were called upon mainly for ceremonial and drill, with an occasional landing party to save the face of some unpopular British consul or to protect lives and property. These men had become professionals, and many of them had never served afloat except to be carried from one theatre of war to another. He frowned. And to cover retreats and setbacks on almost every front.
The year 1942 was drawing to a close, and perhaps for the first time in those three years of war there was a glimmer of hope that the balance might tip in favour of Britain and her allies. But a glimmer was all that it was, in the general's mind.
As a deputy chief of Special Operations, Vaughan made a point of dropping in on various units with little warning, or, like today, with none at all.
He turned his head to listen to some shots, muffled by mist and the occasional drizzle which had made his shoulders almost sodden. He wore no protective trench coat over his battledress, the left breast of which appeared to consist of a full rectangle of ribbons.
He considered the two matters which had brought him here by special flight from London. He was a blunt man, but not without emotion. It was a case of weighing priorities, even the smallest aspects of the overall pattern.
He heard his aide give a polite cough. "The first section is coming in, sir."
Vaughan replied, "Taking their bloody time about it!"
The aide, a tired-eyed major of marines, sighed. It was not always easy to serve Major-General Vaughan, D.S.O. and Bar, Croix de Guerre, and all the rest. Equally, he knew he could serve no other. Life with Vaughan was usually hectic, but never dull.
Two of the instructors were climbing up the wet, sloping ground. Both stared with amazement at the senior officer perched on his shooting stick.
They saluted in unison, and one exclaimed, "I should have been told, sir! I had no idea ..."
Vaughan said, "The first section is returning, right?"
The senior of the two, a lieutenant-colonel, nodded. "Do you wish to inspect them, sir?"
Vaughan felt the drizzle on his collar, and touched the silver flask in his pocket. He shook his head.
"No. I want to see Captain Blackwood."
The officer frowned. "Lieutenant Blackwood, sir?"
Vaughan relaxed slightly. "Captain."
The lieutenant-colonel sent the instructor away with a message, and waited uncertainly while Vaughan stood up and folded his stick before handing it to his aide.
"You will, of course, receive all the necessary bumf about it, but Captain Blackwood is required for Special Service. If he agrees, I shall try to hasten things along."
The lieutenant-colonel's face cleared. "He is an experienced officer, for one so young, sir."
Vaughan listened to the tramp of feet on wet ground. Tired men. It was a sound which never failed to move him in some way, despite the passing of years. The Somme, Passchendaele, a million men marching into oblivion.
"It's a young man's war. We'd do well not to forget that!"
He turned to watch as a single file of khaki figures came into view. Too much pride could be dangerous, as Vaughan knew from bitter experience, but he could not contain it at times like these. Not marines who had joined up as boys and young men because of some ideal, or because there had been no other employment available, but another generation, errand boys and bus conductors and clerks, and those straight out of school. Because they wanted to do it; because they were so desperately needed, and took little heed of what lay ahead.
He recognised the young Blackwood immediately, although they had not met for years. He was very like his father.
Vaughan knew that all the men here today had been on their feet since five in the morning; he had made it his business to know; but the young officer in the mud-streaked battledress and camouflaged helmet, tilted to keep his eyes in shadow, was not even breathless. He was carrying a Sten gun loosely in one hand, a little too casually, some might think, but Vaughan's trained eye saw it very differently. This was a man who had seen action, a man who had been tested. A survivor.
Michael Blackwood was not quite 25 years old. Men younger than he were daily fighting in the skies over Britain, or flying long and perilous missions to Germany night after night. They were on the seas, too, and in the Western Desert, and that youth was mirrored here in this young officer. His was an intelligent face, and one which would interest any woman. And when he threw up his hand in salute and his helmet tilted slightly, Vaughan saw the eyes. Green, as his mother's had been. What would she have said about her son following the Blackwood tradition? The corps ...
Vaughan held out his hand, and said abruptly, "Sorry to drop in on you like this. But it's important."
The file of marines, and a second party coming up the slope, the lieutenant-colonel and his instructors, could all have been invisible.
"I have to tell you that your father, Colonel Blackwood, died yesterday. He was my friend, the finest man I ever met. I thought I owed him this, at least."
Blackwood asked quietly, "How did it happen, sir?"
"Plymouth. An air raid. He was there when a stick of bombs fell. He was trying to help some people." Vaughan shrugged. "He was killed." He touched his arm. "Walk with me."
They climbed the slope, their boots creaking in the wet heather.
Vaughan said, "As you know, I served under him in Flanders. I was there when he was wounded." He paused. "Again."
They turned as if to some unspoken signal and faced one another.
Vaughan said, "You would have been told today anyway. I needed to see you first. There's an appointment with Royal Marine Commando, Special Brigade. Others could do it, but I want you. For all kinds of reasons."
Blackwood tried to accept it. It happened in war; it was happening all the time. Only yesterday he had sent a corporal home to Liverpool, where his entire family had died in an air raid. His father had given everything to the corps, even his health; he had never fully recovered from his wounds. He had been retired prematurely, but when war had erupted once more across Europe he had been determined to serve again. Any bitterness at having been rejected by the life he had loved had remained hidden; he had never offered anything but support and encouragement to his son. And now, characteristically helping others, he was gone.
Vaughan said, "I can fix two weeks' leave for you. That's all. Arrange things ... I'm not doing this very well, am I?"
Blackwood looked across at the men with whom he had been working, recalling something he had once heard his father say. It's what we are. What we do.
"I think I knew, sir." He faced him. "We were always very close, even more so after my mother died." He smiled, and afterwards Vaughan thought he had looked exactly like Jonathan Blackwood in those distant, terrible days.
Another appointment, then. Some dangerous mission at the end of it, like all those others. Men following the tradition, and the family name. It was a lot to carry.
"I hope I can live up to your faith, sir." Vaughan had to turn away. He was not often moved, but Michael Blackwood had just unwittingly repeated that other young Blackwood's words, before the last great sacrifice on the Somme.
He said gruffly, "My aide'll hack through the red tape. You can fly south with me. I can give you a couple of hours."
Blackwood stared through the drizzle. The marines were relaxing now, trying to light their cigarettes.
"I shall be ready, sir."
So easily said. He saluted as the major-general strode away, followed by the lieutenant-colonel and his staff.
He peered at his watch, and saw the rain on his wrist. The skin was still tanned despite the months since he had returned from the smoke and flames of Rangoon, and the Japanese domination of Malaya and Burma.
He pushed the memories away and walked down to meet his sergeant.
What we are. What we do. It sounded like the perfect epitaph.
The sergeant's name was Tom Paget, and he had been with Blackwood when they had fired the oil storage tanks south of Rangoon to prevent their capture by the advancing Japanese. He had proved his worth time and time again, and should have got a medal for what he had done; perhaps they all should. He had been made up to sergeant, and looking at him now in the drizzle and biting air, it was hard to imagine him ever being anything else.
Blackwood said, "You can fall them out now. I'll be leaving you in charge until a replacement arrives." Then, "They did well today."
Paget watched him impassively. "I hear you've been promoted, sir. Good show! I've told the lads."
There was no point in asking how he knew. This was the corps, the family. There was rarely such a thing as a secret for long.
"I have to go south. My father has just died. An air raid." Short, dry sentences. It was as though his mind was still rejecting it. His father. Always interested when he went on leave, even though he must have ached to be back in the service himself. He thought suddenly of the bluff, outspoken major-general. Vaughan had been a frequent visitor to the rambling house at Hawks Hill. Blackwood had been in awe of him at first, but had come to view the friendship between him and Jonathan Blackwood as something very special, something which, in a way, he was part of. And then the visits had grown less frequent, and he thought he could understand why. Vaughan had served under Jonathan Blackwood and was perhaps embarrassed, even ashamed, that on every return he seemed to have gained some better appointment, or yet another promotion.
Paget was saying, "I'm very sorry, sir. I never knew him, of course, but they always spoke so well of him." He hesitated, the old training acting like a warning. "Afterwards, sir ..."
Afterwards. It said it all. "I shall be taking a new posting. I think the Royal Marine Commandos are making a big impression higher up!"
The sergeant fell into step beside him. "I'd like to come along, if you need a good N.C.O., sir." He smiled, for the first time. "My old dad always said that an officer was only as good as his sergeant!"
They laughed, Blackwood rather surprised that he could.
All those years he had felt somehow guided, and secure. Perhaps that was why he had avoided the more usual seagoing appointments that fell to the Royals. In Burma he had stood alone, and had relied on his own skills and resources to survive, and to lead.
Afterwards. It would be a difficult two weeks, he thought.
They shook hands, and Blackwood said, "You'll be the first to know." Then they saluted, formally. It was what made them different. At sea or in the desert, or even here, in the bleak Scottish Highlands, they were Royal Marines.
Michael Blackwood walked across the high-ceilinged room and gazed out of the window. The house was huge, too large by modern standards, but it was the only home he had ever known. The rain had stopped, and he saw the familiar line of trees, leafless now, and beckoning to the high copse like black spectres.
Hawks Hill had been originally a fortified Tudor farmhouse, complete with moat, which had been altered and enlarged over the years since it was bought by Major-General Samuel Blackwood. He was always described in the old diaries as "the last soldier." After him, for no reason that Blackwood had ever discovered, all had entered the corps.
It was a house full of memories, fine paintings depicting battles ranging from The Saintes to Trafalgar, from the Crimea to Jutland. There were none portraying the Royal Marines at Gallipoli and Flanders. Like so many things in this house, he thought, too many painful reminders.
He could see the old moat in the distance, or what remained of it. Hawks Hill had been used as a hospital for officers in the Great War, and his mother, the daughter of a local doctor, had worked here, teaching young men who had been blinded to read with their fingers, and not to reject the world they had once believed in.
The moat had all but collapsed, but it was still a haven for geese and ducks, gulls, too, at this time of year. Hawks Hill estate was only twenty miles north of Portsmouth, and some seven miles from Winchester. The local village was Alresford; he had glimpsed it when he had arrived, and had been surprised to see so many uniforms in the narrow lanes where he had played as a child.
He touched the long blackout curtains beside the window. Cold and dusty, they seemed so alien in this peaceful countryside. But even here they could see the fires in the sky when Portsmouth was attacked night after night, and there was an antiaircraft battery in one of the fields.
Such a big house; it even sounded empty when he moved across to another window. Between the wars life had been difficult on the estate, so it seemed strange that things were picking up again. With severe rationing of almost everything, even the country's smallest cabbage patches were playing their part. His father's enthusiasm for the estate, short of young men though it was, had made a real difference. The thought touched him like the tip of a bayonet. The funeral was tomorrow, in Alresford. After that it would be up to the lawyers, although there had already been some mention of the Ministry of Food, which was keen to expand the growth of local farms and smallholdings, backed up, apparently, by extra labour from Italian prisoners of war. It was almost unnerving to accept that he might be sent to kill Italians, while their relatives were working here at Hawks Hill.
He heard steps outside the room and turned as the girl entered, and stood looking at him in silence. Perhaps she, too, needed to remember.
Diane Blackwood was 21 years old, with dark chestnut hair and eyes almost the same as his. Even a total stranger would know them to be brother and sister.
She wore a pair of jodhpurs and a thick sheepskin jacket. Despite the mud on her boots and her windblown hair she looked, as usual, in control. And beautiful. As their mother had looked, as she must have been when she had visited this house for the first time.
She walked over to him and touched his face. Her fingers were cold.
"Remembering, Mike?" She tossed the hair from her eyes, as he had seen her do a million times. "It's so good to have you here. That you could come. Otherwise ..."
"It always gets me. When I'm away I can't wait to see it ..."
"And now you're here, you can't wait to leave!" She smiled, but it only made her look sad. "Dear Mike. I worried about how you'd take the news. We all did. Aunt May came at once — she's been a real brick."
He said hesitantly, "There'll be a few of his old chums there tomorrow."
"I thought there would be. It's Armistice Day too, do you realise that? The war to end all wars." She spread her hands as if to embrace him and the whole house. "And here we are!"
He put his arm round her and felt her tremble. He had never thought of her like this, as an attractive, vulnerable woman, albeit a young one, who would soon have to cope alone. She was his sister, someone taken for granted. Like his father. Like this house.
Excerpted from Dust On The Sea by Douglas Reeman. Copyright © 2000 Bolitho Maritime Productions Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Douglas Edward Reeman, who also writes under the name Alexander Kent, joined the British Navy at 16, serving on destroyers and small craft during World War II, eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant. He has taught navigation to yachtsmen and has served as a script adviser for television and films. As Alexander Kent, Reeman is the author of the best-selling Richard Bolitho Novels. His books have been translated into nearly two dozen languages.
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Somewhat predictable and melodramatic, but nevertheless enjoyable. Emotionally evocative for folks who still appreciate courage and honor.
This is a fast-moving story with a great backdrop of WWII events. It follows the victories of North Africa and the invasion of Sicily. The battle descriptions are exciting, and spun in is a thread of romance. Excellent read.