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By Katherine Kurtz
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Katherine Kurtz
All rights reserved.
Oakwood Manor, 2030 hours, 28 May 1940
The elderly man in the uniform of long-ago wars would have been at home in any elite London club. He was equally at home in the Earl of Selwyn's library, placidly smoking an expensive pipe as he lounged on the arm of an overstuffed chair. The rows of medals on his chest and the brigadier's insignia at each shoulder reflected gold off the cheery flames in the Tudor fireplace across the room. The firelight was the room's only source of illumination.
Only the man's hands betrayed his restlessness, stroking the smooth burl of the pipe's bowl with a thumb and fiddling with it distractedly every time it went out. The hands told the story — and the jaws, clenching and unclenching on the pipe stem and sometimes even chewing, setting the steel-grey mustaches trembling. The crackle of the fire and the drum of rain beyond the curtained French doors, soothing under most circumstances, did nothing to ease the visible tension in the room.
Nor was Brigadier Ellis its sole contributor, though his three companions revealed their nervousness in different ways. Beside him, in the overstuffed chair whose arm he had claimed off and on for the past hour, his granddaughter Audrey sat with eyes closed and head leaned languidly in the angle of one of the chair's wings, apparently at ease — until one noticed the stockinged toe tapping almost imperceptibly against the carpet. Though she, too, wore a uniform, dark blue instead of brown, she had shaken loose her long auburn hair when she came in from duty at nearby Hawkinge. From time to time, the brigadier leaned across to stroke her hair in reassurance, but the tapping of the toe would only pause, to resume almost immediately when he withdrew.
Far more difficult to read was the countess, settled demurely in a Chippendale chair a few yards across from them, her back to the fire. Before the Great War, when she and Audrey's mother were schoolgirls together, the Honourable Alexandra Deville had been a great beauty. Her wartime marriage to the dashing Viscount Jordan, heir of Selwyn, had been a profound love match as well as the social event of a war-lean season. Two sons and a quarter century later, she had not lost the ability to turn heads when she walked into a room.
Tonight, however, even Alix was showing the strain. Working at a knitting project, she looked almost matronly in her sensible Welsh tweeds, dark blonde hair tucked into a neat roll at the nape of her neck and rimless reading glasses perched precariously on her nose. The stiff, oiled wool had already shaped itself into a pair of sleeves as the result of the night's work; the rest of the garment formed a pool of navy blue on the edge of the Persian carpet at her feet. In the center of that carpet lay the fourth of their number, Sir John Cathal Graham.
He lay on his back, nearer the large chair than the countess's, apparently asleep. The pale face was handsome in a ruggedly Celtic way — the closed eyelids slanted at the corners, the jaw slightly pointed and shadowed with a day's stubble of beard. The hands lay motionless along his sides. He appeared far younger than his forty-two years, for the dark hair was untouched by grey; the body, lean and hard.
He wore a black polo sweater that came close around his neck and made his face seem oddly disjointed in the semi-darkness, with loose-fitting trousers of a nondescript khaki drill that had become all too familiar since the war. Something in the very line of his body, even in repose, conjured up images of finely tempered steel, innocuous and even forgettable while safely sheathed but potentially deadly.
The minutes passed. Only the crackle of the fire, Graham's shallow breathing, and the occasional chomp of the brigadier's teeth on pipe stem intruded on the steady lull of the rain. When the countess glanced up from her knitting over the top of her little glasses, the brigadier raised one eyebrow in question. Alix shook her head.
"Nothing yet," she murmured.
With a sigh, the brigadier sucked at his pipe and frowned, then began worrying at the tobacco with a pipe tool.
"Bloody inefficient navy!" he muttered under his breath.
The man on the floor slept on, oblivious.
Dunkirk, Malo-les-Bains, 2045 hours, 28 May 1940
His true name was Michael Jordan, but for this mission they had given him the code name Leo. He thought it ironic from the start. The legendary courage of the beast was the farthest thing from his mind as another shell screamed in close over his head and he dove for cover.
Around him, others were hitting the wet sand and tumbling into trenches even as the explosion rocked the beach. Unspeakable debris rained down on and all around him, but the concussion mercifully dulled his perception of the cries of the newly wounded, at least for a few seconds. As his ears recovered and he slowly raised his head, he began to hear their agonized screams and moans — at least the ones who still could cry out.
He screwed his eyes tightly shut and shivered in the rain, remembering men less randomly slain — had it been only yesterday?
He had worn a German uniform then. He had stripped it off a dead body, the same way he had gotten the British battle-dress he wore now. He had come upon the scene of calculated carnage as the perpetrators were pulling out. They were seasoned troops of the SS Totenkopf Division, with Death's heads on their collars and murder in their hands — men whom even the German army detested and feared. The chatter of their machine guns echoed off the shell of the burned-out farmstead, punctuated by the occasional sharp report of an officer's pistol, long after the white flag of surrender fluttered out of sight behind a half-demolished wall.
He had thought himself inured to the necessity of death on the battlefield, but the cold-blooded execution of a surrendering opponent was outside the code he had always been taught. Beyond the shelter of the farmstead wall, herded together like so many sheep led to the slaughter, he found the bullet-riddled bodies of scores of the Royal Norfolks, their major still clutching the bloody remnants of the white flag. He recognized a few. Many of the men had been shot at close range. Some had not died right away. One died in his arms, too far gone to notice the uniform he wore. He had wept at the unfairness of it all.
Another shell exploded even closer than the last, jarring Michael harshly back to the present even as he tried instinctively to burrow deeper in the sand. Simultaneously, searing pain in his left arm convulsed him into a tight, fetal ball, all other thought or memory temporarily shattered in the stunned recognition that he was hit.
In those first pain-laced seconds, he wheezed with the effort even breathing cost, knowing he must make himself move and head for safer ground or else die right there. His mind knew, but the pain in his arm dominated nearly everything. Feebly, he began the laborious process of getting his feet under him, forcing protesting muscles to move as he willed. One of the men nearby mouthed something at him, but only the urgency came through. He could not make out the words.
Then two men grabbed his arms from either side, and he was running with them — half dragged at first, then staggering and stumbling, miraculously supported, finally tumbling into yet another trench to flatten himself again. He panted with the pain and the exertion as he huddled with his rescuers, ducking in blind reflex as more shells whistled overhead. Though explosions continued to chop up the strip of beach they had just vacated, their new position seemed to be inside the big guns' range. He was no longer cold, but he began to shake again. This time he suspected he was going into shock.
Above the sound of shelling, the murmur of voices and the curt orders of the officers as they prepared to move the men out again gradually broke into his awareness. He thought he could feel blood running down his arm and pictured it steaming where it met the cold, steady rain. But when he tried to look, all he could see in the flare-lit night was a slightly darker shadow staining his already wet sleeve from shoulder to elbow. He knew an instant's panic as he fumbled at his belt for the pouch whose contents were the reason he was in this place of madness, but it seemed to be intact.
His benefactors tugged him to his feet, and they ran again, pain throbbing up his arm and along every, nerve with each jarring step and pulse beat. Closer now, he saw, silhouetted against the burning town of Dunkirk, the ships moored along a thin, fragile-looking mole that stretched into the sea. Long, winding queues of battle-worn soldiers extended back from the mole and all along the beach, slowly funneling men onto the narrow walkway toward the ships and safety.
He and his companions joined one of these queues. As he caught his breath and held his wound, trying to stop his bleeding and block the pain as he'd been taught, he wondered what had gone wrong here — never mind the series of disasters that had plagued his own mission.
Could it be that the war was lost already? The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was leaving France in an orderly but humbling retreat, abandoning weapons, equipment — everything but men. If the Germans pressed their advantage now, an invasion might well succeed. Even if Michael got back with his dearly gained information, would it all be for nothing?
Naval Headquarters, Dover, 2100 hours, 28 May 1940
Vice Adm. Sir Bertram Ramsay, the flag officer ultimately responsible for the Dunkirk evacuation, stood beside the window of his darkened office high in the Dover cliffs and stared into the night.
He could not see far — a mile, at most. A fierce downpour had opened up late in the afternoon, and a drizzle continued to obscure the twenty-two-mile stretch of Channel before him. On a clear night before the war, he easily would have been able to see the lights of Calais, Boulogne, and even Dunkirk itself. Tonight, the blank void beyond the shatter-proof glass gave back only an oddly welcome numbness. Ramsay was very, very tired.
Operation Dynamo — as one of his staff had dubbed the evacuation during its planning stages — had been conceived in the chamber adjacent to Ramsay's office called the Dynamo Room: a deep gallery carved in the white cliffs a century and a half before, when another continental dictator named Bonaparte had threatened an invasion of Britain. During a more recent war — the one that was supposed to have ended all of them — the chamber had housed an electrical generating plant for Dover Naval Command.
Now the room generated another kind of energy: desperation, in the attempt to lift nearly a quarter of a million men of the retreating BEF to safety before they could be overrun or pushed into the sea by the Germans. Allied lines from Nieuport to Ypres and along the Mardyck Canal to Cassel, west and south, were under increasing pressure, being forced into an ever-shrinking pocket whose only outlet was the sea. Ramsay was still stunned by the speed with which Hitler had moved, as was the rest of Europe.
Calais had fallen to Hitler's advancing infantry and panzer divisions two days before. Boulogne was lost. Of the three ports originally included in Ramsay's evacuation plan, Dunkirk alone remained open. And unless Dunkirk could be held long enough to rescue a sizable portion of the BEF, Britain's part in the war would soon be over.
Ramsay sighed and let his gaze drift downward to the harbor, rubbing his forehead and the bridge of his nose with a weary hand. The dark harbor offered little visual difference from the blank display across the Channel, but at least he could rest assured that all was proceeding with reasonable efficiency at this end of the operation. Though the lights of the port were dimmed to the absolute minimum — just in case the Luftwaffe dared a night bombing raid in such filthy weather — Ramsay knew that dozens of ships were going in and out of Dover Harbor, from destroyers and large passenger ferries down to minesweepers, drifters, torpedo boats, and a host of miscellaneous smaller craft. And each carried precious cargo — the rescued men.
The ships traveled close to ninety sea miles to reach their destination even though the French coast lay only a tantalizing twenty-odd miles away. To avoid the treacherous Goodwin and Ruytingen shallows and the even worse menace of the minefields and German-held shore batteries, it was necessary to divert north along a dog-leg course that twice doubled back on itself. An additional danger was the increasing number of German torpedo boats and submarines that had begun to prowl the more northerly regions of the Channel since the fall of Holland. If the trend continued, Ramsay feared his evacuation ships would soon have to abandon the longer but so-far safer Route Y and find another route. Already, he had lost so many men....
He sat down in the swivel chair behind his desk and put his feet up, wondering what it looked like for them — gathered on the beaches for rescue and under fire from the enemy. Not for the first time, he wondered whether he had thought of everything, whether he was doing enough, whether he had made the right decisions.
Dunkirk, 2230 hours, 28 May 1940
Michael Jordan had no quarrel with the decisions being made at Dover, though he would certainly have a few choice words for whoever had botched the rest of his mission. If someone had thought to tell the RAF that the Dornier making its way across the Channel to France carried a British prize crew, Michael might at this moment be having tea with his chief, prints of his precious film spread on the table before them while he debriefed.
But the Spitfires had been too efficient, and the intended pickup plane now lay at the bottom of the Channel with its crew. Its loss had left Michael the very awkward task of making his way back across most of Germany and France on his own, now ending in a long queue of British soldiers inching its way onto the narrow East Mole at Dunkirk, as the rescue ships ran the gauntlet of German shellfire. The journey had also included the dangerous and disturbing meeting with Dieter.
A shell burst flung up an enormous waterspout just astern of an approaching drifter, rocking the timber walkway atop the mole and nearly swamping the ship. Michael braced himself on wide-spraddled legs and swore softly, his good arm cradling his injured one. Another explosion farther out shattered the superstructure of a half-sunken minesweeper that had not been as fortunate as the drifter, showering the nearest section of the mole with deadly debris. Michael forced himself to put Dieter out of mind as he and his adopted unit continued doggedly onward.
At least he had gotten his wounds bandaged and stopped most of the bleeding, thanks to the man behind him. But pain lanced up and down his arm every time a movement shifted the shrapnel in his flesh, and he dared not accept morphine if he hoped to remain on his feet and functioning. He tried repeatedly to block the pain himself, but the concentration required was nearly impossible under the repeated shelling.
Resignedly, he shifted his attention to the men directing the loading operation and tried to think about something besides Dieter or his pain. An old destroyer was backing away from the mole. Someone had said they could cram six hundred men above and below decks. As the ship turned north, disappearing almost immediately in the rain, Michael found himself wondering what it was like below — trapped if the enemy should strike on the long run home. The thought was hardly more reassuring than his pain.
Somehow he endured the next hour. He and his companions were among the last to board a battered and battle-scarred destroyer of about the same vintage as the other he had seen — and somehow he managed to keep from getting shepherded below decks. The ribbon on one of the crew caps read H.M.S. Grafton — a ship whose record, as well as that of her captain, Michael knew. In happier times, his father had entertained such men at Oakwood.
Excerpted from Lammas Night by Katherine Kurtz. Copyright © 1983 Katherine Kurtz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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