Burmese Coast, 1944. The conflict in Southeast Asia, however, has reached new heights of savagery. The Special Operations mission off the Burmese coast requires volunteers. Men with nothing to live for, or men with everything to lose. Men like Lieutenant James Ross, awarded the Victoria Cross for his work in underwater sabotage, or the desperate amateur Charles Villiers, heir to a fortune now controlled by the Japanese. The two-man torpedo — The Chariot — is the their ultimate weapon in a high-risk war. Cast loose into the shadows before an eastern dawn, the heroes or madmen who guide it will strike terror into the heart of an invulnerable enemy, or pay the ultimate price for failure.
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A Dawn Like Thunder
By Douglas Reeman
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1996 Douglas Reeman
All rights reserved.
Waiting was the worst part. Everybody said so.
He sat awkwardly in a corner of the submarine's control-room, his thick rubber diving-suit making his whole body pour with sweat. Around him the men on watch stood or sat at their diving stations, barely moving, so tense was their concentration in the oily warmth. In the muted glow of reddish-orange lights, their faces were like parts of an intricate tapestry; only the clicking, purring instruments and dials were alive.
He eased his limbs slightly and saw a young stoker by the lowered periscopes glance at him, but only briefly. Probably wondering why he was risking his life in such dangerous work; more likely seeing the diving-suit as a very real liability, a threat to his own survival and that of his messmates.
The submarine's skipper leaned against the plot-table, his eyes ever watchful. He too would be thinking of the risks to his boat and his men.
The submarine was in shallow water, a good place to conceal the target, not so good for a quick dive. There would be no chance to escape if they were suddenly pinned down by aircraft or a patrol vessel.
He plucked at the tough, narrow rubber cuffs of the suit. In the water it was another thing, supple, protective and familiar after all the hours of training and the wild elation of actual operations against the enemy. Even pushing your head into the tight-fitting hood was painful, and the man who was helping was usually concerned more with haste than comfort.
He glanced at the control-room clock. Dawn was still an hour away. He tried to picture the coastline ahead of the boat's slow-moving bows. Sicily. He had studied the plans and the maps, the charts and the Intelligence folios until he felt as if he had already been there.
He turned his head and saw the bridge lookouts lounging by the conning tower ladder. They all wore dark glasses, to prepare their eyes for total darkness if necessary, and in the orange glow they looked like an assembly of blind men.
The boat's first lieutenant was fiddling with his slide rule. One of his duties was to maintain the trim under every condition, pumping water from aft to forward when torpedoes were fired, or in difficult stretches of sea where perhaps the density varied violently when fresh water surged into salt from a nearby estuary. In moments of stress it was not unknown for the trim to be lost, and a submarine's bows to break surface in the middle of an attack.
The boat's commander was probably about his own age, twenty-six, but he looked ten years older. There were dark stains on the long submariner's jersey where he habitually wiped his hands, perhaps to offset his private anxieties. At least in his work he could retain a sense of independence from the greater backdrop of war. Submarines made you like that.
The young commander saw his passenger's brief smile, and walked across the control-room. They had not had much time to chat or become acquainted on this secret mission. He put his hand on the shoulder of the rubber suit and said, "Sorry it's such a drag, Jamie, but I'll have you away before full daylight."
"Thanks. I never doubted it." Something took the commander's attention and he strode back to the compass-repeater. The diving-suit squeaked and another trickle of sweat ran down his spine, like a leak.
One more operation then. Would it really make any difference in the end? Four years of war: retreats and disasters on land, and at sea the mounting losses in an intensified and ruthless U-Boat campaign had almost brought the country down. Almost. Somebody dropped a mug on the deck and several men swung round, their eyes angry, nervous. Almost. It made you cynical, frightened to hope too much. He tried to assemble his thoughts in order. One thought predominated. Last month the unbeatable German Afrika Korps had been driven out of North Africa when, but for the Eighth Army's last stand at a place named El Alamein, they would have smashed on to Cairo, Suez and the final goal, India: Hitler's dream.
Nobody said anything definite, of course, but everyone believed that the next step would be to go on the offensive, to force landings on the Continent and tip the scales as the fighter pilots had done in the Battle of Britain.
He saw the navigating officer tapping the chart with his dividers, his eyes crinkling as he shared a joke with his skipper. Friends ...
He felt the sweat chill on his spine. Was it possible that this attack on some little-known inlet on the northwest tip of Sicily was a part of that offensive, albeit a small one?
The target at first glance seemed an unlikely one, compared with the great German warships that had sheltered in the icy Norwegian fjords. But this vessel had been reported by Intelligence as being packed from keel to deckhead with new mines, the type created for use on beaches where enemy forces might be expected to land.
The Admiralty and the War Council must have weighed the possibilities carefully: the risk of warning the enemy about a selected invasion area, against the horrendous prospect of an attacking army being decimated by mines even as it pounded up the beaches. As a senior officer had explained, "They need a man who is experienced and determined, not some death-or-glory fanatic."
So it was decided. Lieutenant James Ross was to be that man.
He leaned his head against the steel covered with cork-filled white paint to minimize the discomfort of condensation, and tried to exclude the machinery and the men he would soon be leaving.
So here we are. Late June, 1943, in this tideless, fought-over sea, the bed of which was littered with the wrecks of vessels of every class and size, hunters and hunted alike. Summer in England. A beautiful time of year that even air-raids, bomb damage and rationing could not completely destroy, unless you were one of the victims, or a recipient of those feared and hated telegrams: The Secretary of the Admiralty regrets to inform you that your son, or husband or lover, et cetera, et cetera. It never ended.
He thought of his father, Big Andy as he was called, proud that his son was a naval officer and able to hide his fears and his own memories of that other war. A submariner himself, he had been thrown on the beach with all the thousands who had managed to survive the mines and torpedoes and the mud and wire of Flanders. But he had fought back when so many others had given in to despair, selling bootlaces and matches or playing mouth-organs and tin whistles, their proud medals prominently displayed, to gain sympathy and a few pence when all most people wanted was to forget.
Big Andy had been partly disabled at Zeebrugge in the latter stages of the Great War and had been quickly discharged. But he had been trained as a diver when serving in submarines and that, together with his experience as a stoker in the complex engine- and motor-rooms, had guided him into salvage. From small craft sunk or wrecked along the various coasts to the richer harvest of the scuttled German High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow, he had worked with a few friends without a break. Brass and bronze propellers were worth a small fortune at a time when industry was still faltering and employers reluctant to invest in new production when salvaged scrap was available from those willing to risk life and limb.
Ross smiled. When he had first learned to wear a diving-suit and, under his father's close supervision, had been allowed down into one of those rusting, unhappy wrecks where German soldiers had once yarned and written home like their British counterparts ...
He saw some of the watchkeepers stiffen and found himself staring up at the curved deckhead as some alien sound intruded above the gentle whirr of fans and the tremble of electric motors.
Thuds along the hull: a half-submerged boat, or cargo from a wreck. Not a mine's mooring wire dragging deadly horns against this slow-moving intruder.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the commander's hands rubbing against the stained jersey. This boat had been one of those attacking the retreating Afrika Korps: the cost had been high for both sides. In these waters, a submarine at periscope depth could sometimes easily be spotted by a keen-eyed bomber crew. That was all it took. Despite his outward calm the commander would be remembering, weighing the odds.
The sounds ceased, and he tried to relax. Instead, he found himself picturing the little craft that was attached snugly to the submarine's bulging saddle-tank, like a baby whale on its mother's flank. The two-man torpedo, or chariot, as it was officially known, was the ultimate weapon in a high-risk war, requiring men of courage, or recklessness or whatever you chose to call it. Volunteers only. Few even guessed what they were getting into until it was too late to withdraw: in the Navy they always said that a volunteer was a man who had misunderstood the question. But in the bitter Scottish lochs and during those first dangerous exercises at sea they had begun to learn, to accept what this new weapon could do. Curiously enough, the Italian Navy had been the first to use two-man torpedoes against British warships here in the Med. It had prompted Winston Churchill to stir up the War Council and the government to improve on the Italian efforts. The training had not been without incident. Drowning, convulsions and the bends when venturing below thirty feet, even brain damage; the risks were very real.
He found his mind drifting to that last attack in the fjord near Trondheim. Cold to the point of cruel pain, hampered by one obstacle after another, when air reconnaissance and the local Norwegian Resistance had reported the way clear to the target, a brand-new floating dock which had been intended for the German fleet base at Kiel. It had been their last chance. Once into the Baltic with all available air cover and patrol vessels close at hand, that opportunity would have been lost ...
He jumped as the commander touched his arm. He had not even seen him move.
Ross said, "Of course." It came out too sharply. Then he smiled. "Sorry. What is it?"
The other man looked at the clock. "I'm going up in ten minutes. Need anything else? I'll be a bit busy shortly, but if you want ..."
Ross shook his head and winced as the rubber tore at his ears. "I just want to get started."
Their eyes met. "I've sent word to your Number Two. He was playing cards with one of my sick ratings. He must be a pretty cool one."
Ross looked away. He had been there on that terrible day in the fjord. Completely dependable: brave was not the description. It went far beyond that.
He said, "Like a rock."
They both looked at the figures in the control-room, the coxswain on the wheel; the men working the hydroplanes, ever watchful, their eyes gleaming in the reflected dials; the stoker by the periscope wells, who looked about twelve years old in the subdued glow; the navigator and the first lieutenant. The team, the heart of any submarine.
The commander murmured, "I wonder if anyone at home really knows what it's like." The mood left him and he said curtly, "Five minutes, Number One. Good listening watch, right?"
Routine maybe, but the essential link between him and the men throughout the boat, who had to trust his every decision, and depend on his skill to keep them alive.
The Intelligence folio had vanished from the chart table; it was already in the skipper's safe. The waiting was over. It was just another target, a small shallow-draught coaster named Galatea, commandeered by the Italian Navy for the duration. She had come from the big fleet base at Taranto, moving mostly at night to avoid detection. Her deadly cargo had changed her role and her value. Ross saw one of his helpers moving his breathing apparatus into an open space. Automatically he felt for his diver's knife.
He saw it all in a solitary flash, like a badly taken photograph: water suddenly changing from green to red, the man's eyes like marbles as he had driven the blade through his diving-suit and felt it jar against flesh and bone. Easy. Just as the instructors had described and demonstrated. Not even a whimper.
He had not heard the commander speak again, but he felt the air roaring into the saddle-tanks, the man in question crouching down to his knees even as the thin attack-periscope came hissing out of its well.
"Thirty feet, sir!"
"All quiet, sir."
The skipper was creeping round in his oil-stained boots, his forehead pressed to the periscope pad. He said, "Nothing. Still black as a boot." Then, "Stand by to surface." He slung his binoculars around his neck. "Open the lower lid. Gun's crew and deck handling party in position."
He strode to the men waiting by the conning tower ladder, touching Ross's shoulder briefly as he passed. The wit and the bravado had been lost somewhere in those four years of war, but to Ross, sweating in the uncomfortable rubber suit, that simple gesture meant everything. The team.
"Blow all main ballast! Surface!"
Further forward from the control-room, and separated from it by sealed watertight doors, was the petty officers' and leading hands' mess. Like the rest of the submarine, it was functional and cramped. Wires, pipes and dials, the arteries of every boat, filled most of the space, but here and there a full-breasted pinup or some newly darned seaboot stockings showed that men lived here, too.
Leading Seaman Mike Tucker was making his own last preparations before he was finally clamped firmly into his suit. He glanced around at the crowded world he had come to know so well, even before he had volunteered for Special Operations. Large nets containing cans of Spam and bully beef were slung in any small remaining space, and he wondered how men could live in such conditions, just as he knew they would never willingly change them. He smiled slightly as he remembered the youthful and enthusiastic lieutenant at the submarine base before the war: Portsmouth, that sailors' city, flattened now in many parts by persistent bombing. The lieutenant had been warming to his theme that submariners were not unlike the men of Nelson's Navy: men who lived, slept and ate their crude meals between the very guns they would be required to serve, to fight without question until the enemy's flag came down. Tucker had not seen the point at the time, but now he could. The submarine was a weapon first and foremost, but from the cramped discomfort was born a strength, a reliance on your mates that was hard to match elsewhere. Dangerous, demanding, it nevertheless produced a special kind of man for this Navy within a Navy.
He prepared himself unhurriedly: he had even managed to shave, and paused now to regard himself in someone's metal mirror. An open, homely face with eyes the colour of a clear blue sky. Tucker was twenty-five, or would be next month with any luck, and a regular with seven years' service behind him. All that time back, how they had pulled his leg about it at home. He had been born and raised in Winstanley Road in Battersea, South London, and home was a crowded house shared with three brothers and three sisters, not far from Clapham Junction where his father worked as an engine-driver on one of those funny little tank-engines that were used for shunting goods wagons, back and forth, day and night, clink clink clink, pushing the trucks into formation, long trains which would eventually head off into the smoke. His father was a firm man, but quiet with it. After a day shunting wagons, he would stroll down to the pub with his fireman on the way home, and once a week he would visit the British Legion. Like so many round there, he was a veteran of that other war, a survivor he had called it once when he had had a pint too many. Otherwise he said little about it, hoarded the memories and shared them only with a few, and certainly not with the kids.
Tucker had had a few days' leave before joining the submarine at Portsmouth. Nothing had changed. The house was shabbier, with a few slates missing, like the blind windows in other houses in the street where bomb-blast had damaged them. But the kettle was always on, and there was plenty to eat despite the rationing.
His mother, now seemingly old and tired, had asked him, "Do you still miss her, Mike? Not found another girl yet?"
His father had been sitting at the kitchen table, his driver's cap with the oilskin top and Southern Railway badge still on his head. "Leave it, Mother. So long as he's safe, that's the main thing."
They had exchanged glances: understanding, gratitude; many would describe it as love.
Excerpted from A Dawn Like Thunder by Douglas Reeman. Copyright © 1996 Douglas Reeman. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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