Commander Graham Martineau was awarded the Victoria Cross for pressing home an attack against impossible odds. Few survived, and crimson ribbon remains a haunting symbol of the sacrifice of ship and men.
Now, as captain of the crack Tribal Class destroyer H.M.S. Hakka, Martineau must once again call from ordinary seamen the ultimate in courage, and prepare to defend to the death vital convoys to Russia. There is no hiding place in these bitter Arctic seas, where a pitiless enemy awaits a fatal rendezvous. All are heroes, and no man and no ship is immortal.
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By Douglas Reeman
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 2001 Bolitho Maritime Productions
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Is Anything Impossible?
Anyone who had known the small Essex port of Harwich on England's east coast might remember it as a haven for coasters, and occasional ferries to and from the Continent. Now, after three years of war, it was equally hard to imagine it as anything but the bustling, overcrowded and vital naval base which necessity had made it, where two rivers, Stour and Orwell, embraced, and where swift currents and unhelpful tides could make pilotage and coming alongside a nightmare for the inexperienced or the overconfident.
This bitter December afternoon was much like any other, hard and bright, but without the usual raw wind from the North Sea.
Here there were vessels of every kind, hard-worked escorts, hulls dented and scraped from East Coast convoys, when columns of obedient merchantmen sometimes grid-ironed through another convoy passing on the opposite course, every Skipper very aware of the narrowness of the swept channel, and the lurking minefields often on either beam. Under normal conditions it was bad enough, with ships depending on good lookouts and skilled seamanship; in poor weather and under cover of darkness it required nerves of steel. There were minesweepers, many of them fishing craft before the war; some were paddle steamers, which had once carried children and carefree holidaymakers on day trips. Under a coat of grey paint, and armed only with Lewis guns, they had become men-of-war overnight.
And destroyers, perhaps the most versatile of them all. The new, smaller ships of the Hunt Class had been designed as fast escorts, and denied the formidable array of torpedoes which had become part of a destroyer's legend, her life-blood. They looked neat and at odds with the thin-funnelled veterans of the Kaiser's war, the old V&W Class destroyers, outdated in appearance, but without which the war at sea would already have been lost.
Three long years of it. Mounting losses of ships and men and military defeats: Dunkirk and Norway, Greece and Crete, Singapore and Hong Kong, and only the English Channel between us and them. And yet here, forged out of their own kind of war, seamen could still turn and stare at a newcomer, or at something unusual. The navy, they said, was like a family; it took care of its own. When yet another ship was reported lost or missing on the news bulletins few sailors would comment. They had built a shell around themselves, if only to withstand the glib explanations by "experts" on the wireless or in the press who spoke of strategic withdrawals or tactical deployments, rather than use the cold, correct term: retreat.
But it was there, all the same. When one of their ships had returned from patrol to this same harbour, her plating scarred and pitted after an engagement with a German E-boat or destroyer, and a line of covered corpses laid on her quarterdeck, there had been only a silence which spoke more than words. The family.
On this day, though, it was something different.
The destroyer had entered harbour just before sunset the previous evening, and had moored fore-and-aft to allocated buoys. The light had been almost gone by the time the cable had been secured.
In her new dazzle paint she seemed to shine against the backdrop of the Harwich Force. The older hands were familiar with these now famous Tribal Class destroyers; the youngsters often dreamed of the chance of joining one. Or commanding one.
Perhaps the Tribals represented better than most the change from peace to war. A rare example of foresight, they had been laid down and launched as the clouds had gathered over Europe, and were in action within weeks of Chamberlain's grim and inevitable announcement.
Ordinary people had been brought up to accept the Royal Navy as an invincible power, the sure shield; it had become over the years something both familiar and proud. Setbacks, defeats and evacuations had changed all that. Names so well known even to those who never saw the sea were gone like chalk sponged from a blackboard. Royal Oak, Prince of Wales, Repulse, Barham, Ark Royal. Gone.
It seemed now that wherever the war at sea was at its toughest the Tribals would be a part of it. Like this one, HMS Hakka, her pendant number, G-44, freshly painted on her side before she had quit the Tyne, where she had been laid down and had first tasted salt water.
She seemed to tower over the other destroyers around her. In fact she was some fifty feet longer than most of them, and broader in the beam, with a superbly flared forecastle and a raked bow to add to the immediate impression of strength and speed.
Only a more experienced eye would pick out the scars and gashes beneath the dazzle paint. It had happened in the Mediterranean, when Hakka had been supporting the Eighth Army as it fell back under the unstoppable weight of Rommel's Afrika Korps. But she had survived, and after some makeshift repairs at Gibraltar she had returned with a convoy to England, back to her birthplace on the Tyne.
A small motor boat surged in a tight arc, the bowman ready to hook on to the accommodation ladder, above which the duty quartermaster and sentry stood watching with interest. The "bowman" was in fact a girl, a Wren, who executed the task with obvious indifference to her audience. The coxswain, another Wren, waved a gloved hand, and loosened the chin-stay keeping her cap from being blown away.
She was used to the stares, the suggestive glances. You had to be, or you went under.
She called, "One to be signed for! I'll come aboard!"
The boats with their Wren crews were as much a part of the harbour as the sea itself. Carrying mail, passengers, bags of coal, light stores nobody else wanted to deliver, they were everywhere.
The coxswain, her face pink from the bitter air, strode across the quarterdeck, pausing only to toss a salute before she unbuttoned her dripping oilskin and reached inside for the envelope.
She had seen him by the after lobby, above which a pair of four-point-seven guns had been trained abeam, probably for cleaning. There were two officers, and a civilian in a boiler suit who was jabbing at a large notebook. But she knew the one she wanted; she always did. That was something else she had found impossible to explain to her mother and father when she was on leave.
She saluted again. "Lieutenant-Commander Fairfax, sir?"
Both officers were wearing raincoats, without any markings of rank. But she knew, although she did not see the surprise in his eyes. The uncertainty.
She opened the envelope and took out a smaller one, then offered her little pad and studied him as he signed it.
Young, late twenties; his eyes were grey, what she had seen of them. Boyish even, except for the lines of strain around his mouth, a tenseness which she had come to recognise, especially in destroyers.
Lieutenant-Commander James Fairfax watched her hurry back to the ladder, and wondered briefly what she looked like without the bulging coat and seaboots.
She had called him by rank, and he had almost failed to respond to it. The new half-stripe had been advanced for him, and he was not used to it.
He glanced up at the forward funnel where some painters were examining their workmanship. A new stripe there too, for Hakka. He felt the bitterness welling up again, like a pain, a deep hurt. He was being stupid. He had heard himself reason it out, over and over again.
He sensed that the others were looking at him. The scruffy one in the boiler suit was an electrical engineer, who had come down from the Tyne with them. He would be leaving now, his part was done. Back to Newcastle, that place of noise and shipbuilding, and friendly people who always "shifted up" for a sailor.
He folded the brief signal and put it in his pocket.
He saw the painters lowering themselves to the deck, and said, "The new Captain is joining ship, day after tomorrow."
Maybe he had still hoped. It had all seemed so definite at the time. The half-stripe, then he had been told to stand by until repairs were completed and new orders made out. He gazed at the ship's name beside the lobby door. Hakka. The brass was gleaming despite the damp chill. He had been her first lieutenant for two years. In war that was a long time, a career.
And she was to have been his. He could have had some other command. The navy was always desperate for experienced Captains.
He said, "Tell the cox'n, will you, Pilot. We can discuss it at lunch."
The electrician grinned. "Says in th' paper today that Rommel is still fallin' back, from that plece, El Alame'n, worn't it?"
Fairfax looked up at the bridge, empty now but for the duty signalman. Where it had all happened. Zulu, another Tribal, had bought it that day off Tobruk.
Hakka had slowed down to pick up survivors from another ship which had been torpedoed by a submarine earlier. Maybe it had been wrong. God knew they had been forced to leave enough good men to perish, men they had known. Family ... Close the gaps. Don't stop. The signals never relented.
But they had. And he had gone down to the iron deck by the whaler where some seamen were ready with scrambling nets for those able to pull themselves aboard. The aircraft had come from nowhere. Out of the blue, as they always said. Like a bandsaw, cutting across the side and the bridge, smashing down an Oerlikon gunner even as he had slammed a new magazine into place. The yeoman of signals had been killed instantly on the bridge, his station; he had died without fuss, as he had lived. Others had also died that day, but all Fairfax could remember was the scene on the open bridge when he reached it, the blood, faces once so familiar to him ugly with agony and shock, and somebody screaming like a tortured animal in a trap.
And the Skipper. Huddled down in his bridge chair, his eyes filling his face as he clung to life, although the fight was already lost. The man Fairfax had served for two years, from Norway to the Med, standing watch-and-watch, coming to know him and be known with an intimacy few outside the navy could ever understand. Sharing a last pipeful of tobacco, or a quiet run ashore. Talking.
He had clung to Fairfax's jacket, his hand like a bloody claw as he had measured each word.
"I — want — you — to — have Hakka, Jamie. She — needs — you ..."
Then he had died.
Fairfax crushed the signal in his pocket into a tight ball.
" ... to receive Commander Graham Martineau, Victoria Cross, Royal Navy, in command."
Some seamen hurried past him, chased along by Pike, the chief boatswain's mate, the Buffer. New faces. Replacements for men killed or badly wounded in the attack, or others who had been sent away to attend advanced courses. New faces. The Captain would expect every one of them to be carefully listed and appointed to their proper parts of ship. It was a first lieutenant's job.
He touched the ship's name and heard the Wrens' motor boat spluttering away from the side.
Probably everybody in the base, in the whole fleet, knew by now.
Graham Martineau, who had been awarded the Victoria Cross by the King himself, was a true destroyer man if ever there was one. He had placed his own ship between a scattered convoy and a German cruiser. Out-gunned and out-ranged, he had pressed home the attack and had rammed the enemy.
He had lost his ship and to all accounts most of her company, but the enemy had broken off the action before reinforcements could arrive.
Fairfax looked up at the bridge again, hearing the scream of the aircraft, seeing the black shadow rip across the deck. She needs you ...
He straightened his cap on his unruly hair and sighed.
He thought suddenly of Hakka 's motto, Is anything impossible? It was as though she had shouted the words aloud.
The portly coxswain was waiting for him with his clipboard. Routine.
So be it. The first lieutenant.
Commander Graham Martineau declined the chair offered by a white-jacketed orderly and walked to one of the tall, narrow windows. There was not much to see, except another wing of the building and a haze of green Suffolk countryside beyond, and the splinter-proof net pasted on the glass in case of an air raid did little to help. A hotel in peacetime, like so many other establishments it had soon settled into its wartime role as a hospital.
After the cold air outside, the room, once part of the hotel lobby, seemed almost stuffy and humid; the old-fashioned radiators were too hot to touch. It even smelled like a hospital, something he hated. Everything painted white, magazines left unread by nervous visitors who probably dreaded each confrontation even more than those they had come to see.
He knew the duty staff nurse at the semicircular desk was watching him. She had been pleasant enough, but not effusive. It was a naval hospital now, like all those other places around the country. Holiday camps for car workers in the north and Midlands, turned within days into training establishments and bases, where the White Ensign, a few painted stones, discipline and a portion of imagination completed the transformation.
He saw his reflection in the window, the new greatcoat, the gold lace bright on either shoulder. He wanted to unbutton it, take it off, but the same reserve held him back. He should accept it if he could not fight it. Like the cap beneath his arm with the oak leaves on its peak. The step up. It was no longer a possibility, something in the hazy future; it was tomorrow. They had given him a comfortable billet in a small commandeered hotel just outside Ipswich, not much more than twenty miles from Harwich.
His mouth was dry and he wanted to move about, but in this quiet, watchful place it would not help.
Martineau was thirty-three years old and had been in the navy since boyhood. Over twenty years in uniform. It did not seem possible, especially now. Today. As if nothing else had existed before the war or until that day only a few months ago. He tried to relax, muscle by muscle. A lifetime ...
Most of his naval service had been in destroyers, in one capacity or another, showing the flag in the Far East, South Africa and in the Med. Naval reviews, fleet regattas, and then the Spanish Civil War and its grim aftermath.
If there had been any doubts or uncertainties they had remained dormant. He was doing what he wanted, what was expected of him; nothing else mattered. Must matter.
At the outbreak of war he had been serving in one of the navy's crack destroyer flotillas. Eight ships, ready for anything. When he had last heard, only one of them was still afloat.
Carefully he allowed his mind to explore the outline of his new command. Hakka, one of the famous Tribals. No officer could ask for a better ship, a finer recognition, if that was what it was.
Newer destroyers were coming off the stocks every week, but the Tribals were still part of the legend. He swung away from the misty window, angry with himself. Who was he trying to convince?
The nurse put down a telephone. Even they seemed soundless in this place.
"The P.M.O. says he will not be long, sir."
He nodded. The P.M.O. It must be bad.
He recalled the soldiers he had seen unloading something from their Bedford truck outside. In response to a question, one of them had jerked his head in the direction of the door.
"Where most of 'em step off, poor sods!"
Crude? Brutal? Unfeeling? But true.
Tomorrow, then. They always said, not to worry. They would be more nervous about their new lord and master. It would be a piece of cake ... Martineau had held two commands. It was simply not true. For me anyway.
Somewhere in the building he heard the clang of metal doors, the sudden purr of a lift, the murmur of voices. A new arrival, maybe, or one less fortunate, who had just "stepped off." Almost reluctantly he unbuttoned his greatcoat and laid it on the chair, the cap with the bright oak leaves on top. He wanted to yawn, the way men do when they are about to go into action. Not fear: there was never time for that.
He should not have come. Nobody would have blamed him. Not more than they already did.
Footsteps on that polished linoleum floor so beloved by hospitals, then the resonant tones of the P.M.O. and a woman's voice.
He turned towards the corridor and saw her, all in blue, a naval crown in diamonds glittering on one lapel. Alison always looked elegant and attractive no matter what she wore, and despite the war and the rationing. She had laughed at him when he had remarked on it, the laugh which could turn any man's head, and said, "This thing? I've had it for years! You never notice!"
Excerpted from For Valour by Douglas Reeman. Copyright © 2001 Bolitho Maritime Productions. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Reeman is able to make war at sea so real you almost feel you are on the ship. His character development is so good that you can easily empathize with each one and know how they think in just a few chapters. I think this is one of his best books ever.
Name: Valourpaw<br> Age: six moons<br> Rank: apprentise<br> Gender: &male<br> Mentour: Panther<br> Pelt: striped orange and grey with amber eyes<br> Kin: Sneakshadow and Fearfur-parents, Prismkit-sister and dead, Myntpaw-sister, Stealthpaw, Thunderkit, Strikingkit-brothers<br> Crush: none<br> History: res 1 still, I think. Left and returned to BloodClan<br> Favourite song: America/Deuce<br> Siggy: next res once I make it