A novel about the Battle of the Atlantic, seen through both British and German eyes. Those who fought for and against the vital convoys learned respect for each other, but they were united by a common hatred. Under the pseudonym Alexander Kent, the author also wrote the "Richard Bolitho" novels.
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About the Author
Douglas Reeman has written more than 30 novels under his own name, including The Glory Boys, The Iron Pirate, Killing Ground, and Sunset, as well as the Richard Bolitho Novels series under the pseudonym Alexander Kent.
Read an Excerpt
By Douglas Reeman
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1991 Highseas Authors Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Any naval dockyard in the midst of a war was a confusing place for a stranger, and Rosyth, cringing to a blustery March wind, was no exception.
Every dock, basin and wharf seemed to be filled: ships being repaired, others so damaged by mine or bomb that they were only useful for their armament or fittings, all of which were in short supply.
Sub-Lieutenant Richard Ayres paused to stare down into one such basin at an elderly escort vessel, or what was left of it. She had once been a living ship, but now she was gutted down to and beyond the waterline. In the hard light Ayres could still see the blistered paintwork where men had once lived and hoped. From all the damage, it was a marvel anyone had still been alive to get her home.
Black shadows swayed and dipped over the battered hulk as gaunt cranes lifted pieces to be saved, and dropped the rest in rusty piles on the dockside. It was as if they were doing the destroying, he thought, like untidy prehistoric monsters with an abandoned carcass.
He turned up the collar of his blue raincoat and shivered in the biting wind, which came down from the northwest to change the face of the Forth into a miniature sea of white horses.
A dismal place to many perhaps, but to Sub-Lieutenant Ayres, who was nineteen years old and about to join his first ship, as an officer anyway, it was like the culmination of a dream he had once not dared to hope for.
His only time at sea had been spent in a tired, over-worked patrol vessel named Sanderling, for the compulsory three months all officer candidates had to complete before being handed over to HMS King Alfred. There, youthful hopefuls were expected to be turned into officers in a further crammed three months, before being dropped right into it and packed off to war. Except that the poor little Sanderling, with her solitary four-inch gun and a few anti-aircraft weapons, had been worked so hard she had spent much of Ayres's allotted time either having a boiler-clean or lying at a buoy, while harassed dockyard men tried to find what had broken down this time.
Ayres shivered again. He had been two days getting here from the south of England. Trains that never arrived, another held up for hours in an air raid — none of it helped.
He turned his back on the old ship and looked at the others looming from their moorings or peeping over the edge of a dock or wharf. Every kind, from powerful cruisers to the minesweeping trawlers which had once fished in these waters for herring and cod.
A coat of grey or dazzle-paint changed anything into a man-of-war; just as a building which had once been a swimming bath and pleasure centre in Hove had become a training depot where officers were manufactured overnight.
Boots grated on stone and he saw a tall chief petty officer in belt and gaiters pausing to stare at him as if unsure whether or not he should bother.
"Can I 'elp?" He cleared his throat and in those few seconds he took in all that there was to see. A brand-new cap and raincoat, the neat little suitcase; most of all, Ayres's pleasant open features. He added, "Sir?"
Ayres produced his piece of paper. You never moved in the Navy without that. It had been almost the first lesson he had learned while he had been groping his way towards his goal.
"I'm joining the Gladiator, Chief." He too was studying the other man. Old; probably retired when the war had erupted across Europe and their world had changed out of all recognition.
Gladiator. Just the name seemed to roll off his tongue like something familiar. Special.
The chief petty officer glanced at him again. "You're Mr Ayres, then. They was expectin' you yesterday." It sounded like an accusation.
Ayres flushed, something he still did far too easily. "Yes, but — she was supposed to be at Leith, and when I got there —"
The other man nodded. "Leith is full. They moved your ship here as soon as 'er overhaul was done." He made up his mind. "I'll call 'er up and get a boat sent over. She's out there with another of 'er class." He looked away. "'Bout the only two of 'em left now, I shouldn't wonder."
As he walked towards a little hut Ayres had not noticed before, he relented and stood facing the new officer, his white webbing gaiters squeaking on his boots. Why should it matter to this young subbie anyway? Nice as pie at the moment. But a little bit of gold on the sleeve, even a wavy stripe, could change a man; and not for the better. He said, "My son served in one, the Glowworm, durin' the Norwegian foul-up. They're fine ships — never mind me."
Ayres stared at him. It was like feeling a cold hand on the shoulder. Everyone had heard of the Glowworm. She had gone down with her guns blazing, and even then she had managed to ram the German heavy cruiser Hipper. It was like one of the stories he had read as a boy. Destroyers, greyhounds of the ocean, "eyes of the fleet" as they had always been romantically described.
He heard himself ask, "Did he — I mean, your son —"
The chief petty officer glared at the sparking rivet gun which spluttered from the nearby cruiser like a maniac signal. "No. He's down there with 'er." Then he was gone.
Ayres picked up his case and walked over to stand by his other belongings, thinking about his new ship. A destroyer. He had been more afraid of getting sent to a big ship, or of going to a clapped-out veteran like Sanderling. All her officers had been regulars, and like the chief petty officer had probably been on the beach until they were needed to fill the growing gaps in men and ships. When he thought of Glowworm and her fate he was surprised and relieved that he still felt the same excitement.
It was almost noon by the time the destroyer's motor boat coughed alongside the jetty and her coxswain, a massive Scot in a shining oilskin, dashed up the stone stairs and began to gather up Ayres's luggage with a few quick comments.
"Mr Ayres?" He did not wait for an answer. "They were expecting you forenoon yesterday, sir."
"I know. I was sent to the wrong place."
The boat's coxswain did not hear. "The Cap'n don't like to be kept waitin', sir." He waited for him to clamber down into the cockpit and yelled, "Shove off, Nobby! I'm ready for ma tot!"
The bowman grinned and vanished beyond the canopy with the bowline and in seconds they were scudding across the lively white crests. Ayres looked astern and saw the elderly chief petty officer in his belt and gaiters watching him from the door of his little hut. Over the widening gap of frothing water he suddenly touched his cap in salute, and for some reason which Ayres was too young to understand, he was deeply moved. Ayres returned the salute and realised that it was the first mark of respect the old CPO had offered him.
That was something else you had to get used to. The sailors who went out of their way to throw up a salute, especially if you had your hands or arms full of things, and the others who would enter a shop if necessary to avoid it.
The coxswain studied him warily. "First time in destroyers, sir?"
Ayres shaded his eyes to stare at the impressive spread of the Forth Bridge which dwarfed all the ships which lay near it, or passed beneath the great span of angled iron which linked up with Queensferry in the south. If ever a single achievement proclaimed how man had tamed this part of Scotland, this bridge must be it.
The Germans had tried to destroy it, without success; in fact it was the first target on the British mainland to be bombed by the unstoppable Luftwaffe. There had been indignation and anger at the ease with which it had been done. Ayres doubted if anyone would even comment if it happened today. Too many battles lost, too many men and ships gone forever.
He started as he realised what the coxswain had asked. "In destroyers, yes."
The coxswain nodded, and when Ayres looked away he winked to his bowman. Green as grass. Just like all the others.
But for the bitter wind and the spray which leaped occasionally over the little boat's stem, it was a perfect day, a far cry from the time when Ayres had joined the little Sanderling as she lay in a filthy basin at Chatham Dockyard. Nowhere to sling his hammock, and not much of a welcome from the seamen who were to be his messmates for so short a time. He knew he had been tested to the full. The lower deck's usual brutal humour, reserved for any would-be officer; the foul language and jokes which made him blush; taunts because of his "posh accent"; contempt for an amateur — he took it all, and more.
Until that air attack on a ten-knot convoy up the East Coast. The scream of bombs and towering columns of spray and smoke. The old merchant ships keeping formation no matter what, with the minefield on one side of them and shallow water on the other. No room for manoeuvre, and if a ship was badly hit she was ordered to beach herself and keep the main channel open. There were mastheads a-plenty along that coast to show how many had been sunk in the process.
Ayres had been passing shells from the ready-use ammunition locker as fast as he could to the old four-inch gun while Sanderling and the mixed bag of escorts kept up a rapid fire on the diving bombers until the sky was pockmarked with shell-bursts, the filth of war.
A bomb had fallen too close to the ship's side and she had heeled over as the captain swung away from the explosion. Ayres had lost his footing and sprawled on the wet steel plates, his head striking a stanchion so hard that he almost lost consciousness.
A burly seaman, one of his worse tormentors on the messdeck, had leaped down to pull him from danger, and had shouted above the clatter of Oerlikons and the ceaseless beat of pompoms, "All right, Dick lad? One 'and fer th' King an' one fer yerself — just you remember that!" He had added awkwardly, "See me at tot-time. That'll take your fuckin' 'eadache away!"
But that one act of kindness had changed everything for Ayres.
He caught his breath as he gripped the top of the canopy with both hands. There she was, lying at a buoy alongside her twin, her fresh dazzle-paint gleaming in the arctic sunshine so that she seemed to glow. She was exactly what Ayres had expected, had hoped for while he had studied the mysteries of gunnery and navigation, signals and square-bashing, all in a space of time which had gone by in a flash.
Gladiator, and he knew she was the nearest one by the pendant number H-38 painted on below her forecastle, was every inch a destroyer, of the type built between the wars when the Royal Navy was paramount throughout the world, and the minds of planners still saw its role protecting the line of battle as in all other wars.
Dunkirk, Norway, Crete and the bloody campaigns in North Africa had changed all that.
"Our ship's over there, sir."
"Yes." It came out too sharply. "Thank you." But he did not want to share this meeting with anyone. He knew Gladiator's statistics as well as his own. Three hundred and twenty-three feet long; built at Vickers-Armstrong at Barrow in 1936. Four four-point-seven guns; torpedo tubes; she even had radar in a sort of giant jam-pot above her business-like, open bridge. Two funnels gave her a rakish, dashing appearance — Ayres had got to know her silhouette at school, when Gladiator had been a part of the crack First Mediterranean Flotilla.
Ayres tried to look calm as the boat tore towards the accommodation ladder, where two sailors were already watching their rapid approach. Closer to it was possible to see the many dents and scars along her exposed side. What a story they could tell — coming alongside some stricken ship in convoy, possibly in pitch darkness, or taking shell splinters after an encounter with an enemy blockade-runner.
"Hook on, Nobby!" The boat churned to full astern and then idled to rest against the ladder despite the strong pull of the tide.
Men appeared to pick up Ayres's bags. Weathered, tired faces, people whom he would know, really know, given half a chance.
The coxswain grimaced. "'Ere comes Jimmy-th'-One, Nobby — watch out for flak!"
Ayres ran up the ladder and threw up a smart salute aft where a bright new ensign stood out stiffly from its staff between the ranks of depth-charges. A tall, unsmiling officer, his hands grasped behind his back, leaned over the guardrail and called, "Wait for the mail-bag, Cox'n!"
The big man peered up at him from the pitching motor boat. "Permission to draw ma tot, sir?"
"Later." He turned to face Ayres like someone who had just dispensed with one pest and was about to deal with another.
"Come aboard to join, sir."
Ayres felt the man run his eyes over him from cap to shoes. An impassive, strong face, dominated by a large beaked nose.
"The Commanding Officer will want to see you. Right away."
"The Commanding Officer, sir?" He had only spoken to the little
Sanderling's captain once and that had probably been an accident.
The big nose trained round towards him like a gun. "Do you always repeat everything said to you?" He glared at some seamen who were dragging a new coil of mooring wire across the quarterdeck and shouted, "Watch that paintwork, you careless idiots!" He said in a controlled voice, "My name is Marrack. I'm the first lieutenant around here." Surprisingly he held out his hand and Ayres was further taken back by the two wavy stripes on his sleeve. A "temporary gentleman," like himself.
Ayres smiled. "Thank you, sir."
"And don't call me sir, except in the line of duty." He watched the men with the mooring wire and added, "Number One will suffice." He did not smile and Ayres guessed that, like the use of words, the smiles were strictly rationed. A strange man — what had Marrack done before the Navy, he wondered? In his late twenties at a guess, but he acted with the authority and experience of one much older.
As an afterthought Marrack said, "You will share a cabin with our other sub. At the moment anyway. I shall give you a list of duties, watch-keeping and the like, within the hour. But now go and see the Old Man." His tone sharpened as Ayres made to hurry off. "Not that way! His quarters are down aft, in harbour, that is." He glanced up at the box-like bridge. "At sea he's always there."
Then, without another glance, Marrack turned and strode along the iron deck towards the forecastle, pausing merely to glance up at the smoking galley funnel as if to sniff out the ingredients of the meal being served.
"This way, Mr Ayres." A wiry petty officer steward was watching him from the door of the quartermaster's lobby beneath X-Gun. "We was expectin' you yesterday."
Ayres gave a tired grin. "So I hear." He saw that his bags had been taken from the deck. He stepped over a high coaming and entered the white-painted lobby with its stand of Lee-Enfield rifles and a leading seaman, who was obviously the chief quartermaster, reading a magazine which was spread over the deck log. He did not even glance up as Ayres followed the petty officer steward down a steep ladder.
The new smells rose to greet him. Fresh paint, oil, people.
He removed his raincoat and the steward took it and folded it expertly over his arm while running his eye critically over his new charge.
He said, "I'm Vallance, sir. I'm in charge down aft, an' the Old Man is at the top of the list so to speak." He saw Ayres smile. "Sir?"
But Ayres shook his head, "Just a memory, um, Vallance." He was still thinking of Vallance's description. Down aft. In Sanderling they had always referred to the officers as "the pigs down aft."
He paused and stared at the closed door with the small brass plate. Captain. Well, now he was one of the pigs!
Vallance watched his uncertainty. Ayres seemed like a nice young chap, as far as you could tell. He didn't even need a shave after two days on a bloody train. God, they'd be coming aboard in their prams if the war lasted much longer.
The bright new wavy stripe, the schoolboy haircut; Ayres's youth made Vallance suddenly depressed.
"A word, sir." He watched, looking for any hint of arrogance. There was none. Encouraged by Ayres's obvious innocence, he added, "Just be natural with the Old Man, sir. He don't like flannel, not from nobody, not even Captain (D)."
Excerpted from Killing Ground by Douglas Reeman. Copyright © 1991 Highseas Authors Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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