When Major Charles Davenport is evacuated to England to recuperate from a battle wound received at Tobruk, a letter is awaiting him from his wife in London, informing him that she's in love with another man and wants a divorce. Mary Kennedy is a young Irish-American who has moved to her grandparents' cottage in Ireland to mourn the loss of her husband and infant daughter. Participating in a Red Cross morale-building effort, she corresponds with a young British soldier, but his letters cease abrubtly following the fall of Tobruk. Determined to learn what has become of him she makes her way to the army hospital in Sussex where his commanding officer, Major Davenport, kindly explains the young soldier's fate. Thus begins a love story, carried out almost entirely by letter, crystallized by distance and heightened by the intimacy of the private written word set against the dramatic events of WWII and culminating in the landings on D-Day at Sword Beach.
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|Publisher:||Hale, Robert Limited|
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By John Kerr
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2014 John Kerr
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The major quietly placed one boot on the fire-step, eased to the top of the parapet, and elbows on the ledge, raised the binoculars to the black sky. The stars shone brilliantly and, after a moment, an almost incandescent object filled the lens, hanging just above the horizon like a yellow lamplight. Venus, he thought. Aurora, goddess of the dawn. He rested the glasses on the sandbag and gazed past the double line of wire at the faint sliver of the moon. The familiar verses came to mind. With what sad steps O moon thou climbst the skies, how silently and with how wan a face. Stepping down, he peered at the luminous dial of his watch. Within the half-hour, the first pale pink should appear on the eastern horizon. Shivering, he pulled the khaki jacket tightly around himself and leaned his head against the sandbags, closing his eyes, trying to detect any sound in the distance.
Despite the pre-dawn desert chill, tiny rivulets of perspiration slid down Major Charles Davenport's back. He was acutely aware of the peril facing his men. The 25,000 troops of the British garrison, South Africans for the most part, were hemmed in with their backs to the sea. For days Rommel had relentlessly pounded the fortifications in preparation for the final armoured assault on Tobruk. Davenport's company was holding the outer perimeter of the British line, guarding the one escape route. He understood the untenable nature of their position and appreciated the strength and determination of the Afrika Korps troops. Many would die this day, he reflected, as surely as the rising of the sun.
'Excuse me, sir.'
Davenport opened his eyes and stood erect. 'Yes, Corporal,' he said softly.
'Your tea, sir.' A young corporal held out a thermos.
'Thanks.' Davenport took the thermos, unscrewed the lid and said, 'Send for Mr Jameson and the sar-major.'
'Right away, sir.'
Davenport poured a piping hot cup of tea and let the vapours warm his face. After a moment, he took a swallow and savoured the sweetness and warmth. Two dim shapes appeared in the narrow trench, their faces obscured by the brim of their steel helmets. Lieutenant Jameson saluted and stood silently before the major.
'I'm almost certain they're coming,' said Davenport.
'I'm afraid you're right,' said Jameson quietly.
'Have all the dispositions been made?' asked Davenport.
'Yes, sir,' answered the sergeant gruffly. 'Believe me, sir, the boys are ready.'
Davenport took another swallow of tea, and then said, 'Our artillery won't be much help. They're short of ammo, and we'll be lucky if they fire a few rounds. And so, if the Jerries come in force — and if I know Rommel they will — the best we'll be able to do is delay their advance.' Davenport paused. 'Understood?' Both men nodded. Davenport detected a faint lightening of the sky and glanced at his watch. 'Well, gentlemen,' he said slowly. 'If it appears our line is going to be broken, I'll give the order to fall back. There.' He pointed into the blackness to the right and rear. 'Take the company to the second line, toward battalion HQ. There's a way out there, toward the only open road. Leave one squad as a rear-guard. Is that clear?'
'Yes, sir,' both men answered in unison.
'Good luck, then.' Davenport watched them disappear down the trench. He climbed back up on the fire-step and stretched his tall frame to the top. Straining to make out any sound in the distance, he watched the eastern sky slowly begin to glow. Dawn in the desert was a time of utter silence. The wind flinging the sand from the rim of the dunes, the constant buzzing of the black flies, would begin with the sun and the oven-heat. Davenport reached into his pocket for a small leather case. In the faint light he opened it and peered at the faded photograph of a pretty woman with stylishly curled hair. Goodbye, darling, he thought, this time it may really be goodbye. He closed his eyes, concentrating on her face, and offered a silent prayer. Davenport noted the time: ten to six. Suddenly he heard the droning of aircraft. A line of Stuka dive-bombers banked high in the pale sky and commenced a near vertical dive. The brilliant flash of high explosives coincided with a deafening roar, sending a pillar of smoke and ash from the centre of the garrison. Davenport turned back to the darkness and in the next instant detected a metallic clank.
He leapt from the parapet and, crouching on one knee, shuddered with the ear-splitting explosions of the artillery barrage. The darkness suddenly filled with bright light, and amid the hellish din his rational mind reasoned that the shells were falling harmlessly between the two sections of British lines. Rommel's short on ammunition too, Davenport thought, as he was rocked again by explosions. In the interval between the exploding shells he could hear the shouts of the sergeants, cursing the men to stay down and ready themselves. As quickly as the barrage began it was over. The first rays of the sun streamed from the eastern horizon. Davenport jumped to his feet and scaled the parapet. A thousand yards beyond the dannert wire he could just make out the silhouettes of moving objects and hear the deep roar of diesels and clang of wheels and treads. Tanks, perhaps as many as thirty in his estimate. As the black objects slowly advanced, the leading edge of the sun rose, illuminating the battlefield with faint, orange light. Raising the binoculars, he could distinguish clumps of infantrymen sheltering in the lee of the panzers, advancing slowly in a forward crouch. Davenport felt oddly detached, watching the advancing men and machines with a strange fascination. He counted slowly to ten and then shouted, 'Fire at will!'
The anti-tank gunners immediately responded with a loud blast, sending up balls of flame and smoke in the midst of the German line. One tank was hit, erupting into an orange fireball, 'brewing up' as the Tommies called it, and then another. What sounded like a flying train roared overhead and a heavy artillery shell crashed into the enemy line, sending up an enormous plume of smoke and debris. Amid the guns and scream of shells, the men raised themselves on the sandbag ledge and opened a steady rifle and machine gun fire into the advancing Germans. Another round tore a large gap in the enemy line and a second burning tank bathed the desert with a lurid glow. For a moment it seemed that the German infantrymen were falling back under the relentless pounding. But the brief British artillery fire had ceased, and Davenport watched as the German tankers ranged their cannons on the British line. Flames erupted from the cannons' muzzles, and rounds slammed into the sandbagged trench, throwing up clouds of sand and debris, filling the trench with dense black smoke. Amid the screams of the wounded, he could hear the harsh shouts of the sar-major: 'Keep up the fire, boys! Pour it on the bastards!'
Another round from an advancing tank struck not ten yards from Davenport, knocking him to the ground. He reckoned that the first line of tanks would reach the ditch at any moment and climbed back to the top of the parapet just as the lead panzer dipped into it. Turning to the young soldier at his left, he yelled, 'Send for Mr Jameson!' The soldier disappeared into the choking dust and returned after a brief moment.
'Sorry sir,' he cried. 'The lieutenant's dead! But the sergeant's coming!' The sar-major shortly appeared with a bloody bandage around one arm and saluted.
'Take the men out,' Davenport ordered calmly, ducking at another shell-burst. 'Leave one squad behind for cover.'
'Yes sir,' said the sergeant in a loud voice and turned on his heel.
After another moment the boyish-looking corporal who had brought Davenport his tea raced past carrying a 9-millimete sten machine carbine. As he clambered up the fire-step he turned to Davenport and said, 'Don't worry, sir. We'll hold them off.'
'Right,' said Davenport as he jumped down. The corporal lowered the sten to his shoulder and loosed a burst of automatic fire. Davenport made his way in a crouch down the trench, littered with wounded and dying men. As he neared the end of the trench, he reached to the top and vaulted over. With a quick glance to assess the position of the Germans, Davenport strode rapidly toward the knot of men half-running in a crouch behind the lead of the sergeant. All at once Davenport felt a terrific impact. He sprawled on his back in the hot sand, staring up into the blue sky, watching wisps of smoke float past, the stench of cordite filling his nostrils. Taking a deep breath, he raised himself on one elbow and tried to stand but found, to his surprise, he was unable to move his right leg. Gasping from a bolt of searing pain, he clutched his thigh and felt the warm, sticky blood spreading through the khaki. Oh my God, he thought, collapsing on his back. Within seconds a medical corpsman was kneeling at his side with a morphine syrette, which he jabbed in Davenport's thigh. As the din of battle faded, he felt himself being lifted, a sensation almost like floating, and the dirty blue sky dissolved into blackness.
Davenport awakened in the casualty clearing station. The morphine was wearing off, and the slightest movement of his leg brought more blinding pain. He stared at the canvas overhead and listened to the rumble of lorries. A nurse wearing a khaki blouse and bloodstained shorts appeared at his side and checked his pulse. 'How bad is it?' asked Davenport.
'You're a lucky man,' she said, casting an appraising look over the length of her patient. 'You've taken a 50-calibre machine-gun round through the thigh. But clean through. Missed the bone and artery.' She smiled briefly. 'But it will be quite a while, Major, before you're walking again.' She poured water from a carafe into a cup and lowered it to his lips.
'From the sound of it,' said Davenport after swallowing, 'what's left of the army's moving out.'
The nurse looked out the tent flap at the column of lorries. 'A bloody disaster,' she said with an exhausted sigh. 'Jerry's overrun our lines and trapped the entire garrison. The only ones getting out are the battalion HQ and what's left of your company. It was a miracle you were able to escape.'
Listening uneasily to the heavy firing, Davenport said, 'What about us?'
'We're leaving as soon as the ambulance arrives.' She inserted a syringe into an ampoule, flicked it with her index finger, and injected his arm. 'You'll be needing this,' she said. 'The road to Cairo is a bumpy one.'
'One last thing,' said Davenport, feeling instantly woozy. 'Were they able to evacuate many of my men?'
She looked grimly into Davenport's searching eyes and said, 'No. Only a handful.'
'Was a young corporal, with reddish hair, among them?' The nurse merely shook her head.
'I see,' said Davenport, closing his eyes and succumbing to the narcotic sleep.
Standing at the precipice, Mary Malone Kennedy stared down at the angry sea on the rocks below. For a moment, buffeted by the wind, she imagined she was falling. Too many hopes washed away, too much pain, nothing to be gained by merely surviving day after day. And so she stood at the top of the cliffs, tempting fate. Backing away to safety, she wanted to scream into the whipping wind that she already knew the worst it could do, since the day, the hour, the very minute, her life had changed forever. The day they had explained that her tiny Anna's heart would never be strong enough to sustain her. Her baby was just over a year old, delicate like the finest porcelain. Mary had held her and held her, praying for miracles, but in the end her heart had simply stopped. At the time, Mary and David Kennedy, her husband of four years, were living on the outskirts of Boston, not far from her parents. She was born in Ireland but raised in Boston. David was a charming young Irishman, tall with curly, dark hair. His accent, his attitude, everything about him recommended him to her. David was in Boston on a visit to his American aunts when he decided to lengthen his stay. He had found work with Mary's father and that was how they met. A simple case of love at first sight led to the discovery that David's large family was scattered among the very same villages in County Wexford as Mary's own ancestors. Her father had fled Ireland in 1920 under the threat of assassination by the dreaded Black and Tans. He and her mother had found America to their liking, feeling almost as much at home in Boston as Dublin but with a new world of opportunity. Indeed her father had prospered, using the skills he'd acquired as a radical pamphleteer during the Rebellion to found an Irish-American weekly, which, through determination and hard work, he had turned into a daily.
Mary and David had walked and talked and worked at getting beyond the pain of the empty place where Anna ought to be. They had found a peace between them that neither imagined they would ever manage. Then God had another word with Mary and took David as well. 'A freak accident,' said the officers who appeared at her door. A head-on crash with a delivery truck rounding a curve on an icy January morning. There were no words for the strangeness or the pain. This time she would suffer it alone. Although an insurance settlement would provide a comfortable life, Mary would gladly have exchanged every penny for just one more day with David. She was suffocating under the weight of her family's steady outpourings of condolences. 'Poor Mary' echoed in her ears.
And so, despite the protests of her parents, she sailed for Ireland, which she'd left at the age of four, and moved to her late grandparents' stone and clapboard cottage at Kilmichael Point, a rocky promontory south of Dublin, overlooking the Irish Sea. Craving solitude, it was the perfect place, standing alone at the end of a rutted track some three miles from the nearest village. Surrounding her were farms, intersected with hedgerows and ancient stone walls, separating her from her neighbours, who, though polite, kept to themselves and afforded her the anonymity she wanted. And she had the good fortune that the cottage had electricity, one of the last in the area to be connected before the rural electrification programme was abruptly halted with the advent of the war, without which the kitchen stove would have been fuelled with wood, the well water pumped by hand, and she would have lacked a radio, her vital connection to the outside world.
When she first arrived the war seemed a distant thing, like far-off thunder, especially considering that Ireland clung to its neutrality. But in no time the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and the newspapers were filled with the battles raging in Russia and North Africa. Unlike her Irish neighbours, who professed indifference to the plight of the hated British, Mary loathed Hitler and the Nazis and had an intense interest in the war. Growing up in the newspaper business, it was news the family discussed across the dinner table each evening. Let her neighbours content themselves to believe that the Nazi threat could never reach their shores. Despite what they had done to her father, Mary desperately wanted the British to survive the German onslaught.
And thus a small notice in the London newspaper attracted her attention. The Red Cross was calling for volunteers on the home front to write to the boys of the British military. At first the inertia of her grief would not allow it. Then, in the end, she did write. It took several weeks, but she received a simple response from a young soldier by the name of Ian James Duthie. In no time, they began a steady correspondence. The homesickness of this 19-yearold from a Scottish village, and his constant fear of death fighting in the North African desert emerged from his crudely scrawled and misspelled letters. She was so much older at 26 that it seemed somehow inappropriate, but she knew the letters had nothing to do with romance, but only comforting a young soldier in a faraway place. Given the wartime postal situation, mail delivery was haphazard at best, though hardly a week passed without one if not several of the army envelopes waiting at the village post office. Caring for someone else, she eventually realized, was the perfect antidote for the pity — of her family, friends, but especially her self-pity — that for so long had trapped her on the edge of despair.
Excerpted from Cardigan Bay by John Kerr. Copyright © 2014 John Kerr. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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