The situation is dire for British forces in the Mediterranean, and Commander Nick Everard and his son Jack find themselves in the midst of chaos. Aboard separate ships, the Everards are part of a flotilla patrolling the Aegean. There they face the terrifying bomber attacks of German Stukas as they struggle to save as many of the evacuating troops as possible. But when the order comes for one last lift from Crete, the decimated flotilla must make a suicide runand only a miracle can save them!
About the Author
Alexander Fullerton served with distinction as a submarine officer in the British Royal Navy during WWII. One of the foremost authors of modern naval fiction, he has written many novels, including the six-volume Nicholas Everard WWII Saga.
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Last Lift from Crete
By Alexander Fullerton
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1980 Alexander Fullerton
All rights reserved.
A dark shape looming up ahead with the quarter-moon behind it was the rearmost enemy, tail-end Charlie of a convoy of transports almost at its destination and stupidly relaxed, feeling safe, waddling like a brood of ducks into the shelter of the land and keeping, Nick Everard deduced, a bloody awful look-out. Tuareg's turbines thrummed in the quiet Mediterranean night, her ventilator fans hoarsely sucking the cool air, her steel's vibration like the tremble of excitement in a thoroughbred as she stemmed white-swirled sea in Blackfoot's wake. Astern, Masai and Afghan followed, and in all four ships tin-hatted guns' crews and torpedomen stood by their weapons. The British destroyers had come down from the north, found the convoy exactly where they'd expected it to be, and sheered away to starboard to come up on it from astern with the moon where it would be most useful — as it was now, throwing the enemy ships into silhouette. At that first sighting, when the flotilla of Tribals had turned away westward, the Italian escort commander should have seen them: having failed to, he'd sealed his convoy's fate.
His own, too, with any luck. Tuareg's captain, Commander Sir Nicholas Everard, Bart., DSO, DSC, RN, felt almost sorry for him. Almost: and if there'd been time for sympathy ... Rocky Pratt, the destroyer's navigating officer, reported quietly, "Blackfoot's altering to port, sir."
Nick swung his glasses to the flotilla leader, saw her low stern sliding to the right, pushing round the mound of white wake seemingly glued to it. And from the director control tower's voicepipe another report came now: Harry Houston's emotionless tones informing him, "Two escorts in sight to port of the convoy, sir."
From the level of this bridge the Italian destroyers were not yet visible, but they'd have been spotted from Blackfoot half a minute ago and they'd be the reason for her swing to port. Nick stooped to the wheelhouse voicepipe: "Port ten." Bringing his ship round in Blackfoot's track. There were supposed to be three escorts shepherding this convoy — according to the report from a Fleet Air Arm reconnaissance flight — and as two of them were on the convoy's seaward side you could reasonably assume that the third, most likely the senior man, would be up front. He told the helmsman — CPO Habgood, Tuareg's coxswain and senior rating — "Midships and meet her."
"Midships and meet her, sir. Wheel's amidships ... Ten o' starboard —" "Steady!"
"Steady, sir. Oh-eight-three."
"Steer that." His voice and the coxswain's were both low, echoey in the metal tube, backed by the hum of the ventilator fans and engine noise, the ship's vibration, and the constant underlying rush of sea along her sides. He could see two of the transports quite clearly now as Blackfoot overhauled them and Tuareg followed her: farther ahead, upmoon, a less distinct huddle of blackness would be the other three. Five transports, the Walrus recce report had said: they'd been much farther west then, having crossed the Sicilian narrows and then hugged the coast around the Gulf of Sirte, and they'd be deep-laded with troops, weapons, ammunition, and stores for Rommel's eastward drive. Those stupid bastards must be blind ... The night air was cool with a hint of land-smell in it, the sweetish tang of the desert littoral. He told Houston through the voicepipe to the director, "Your first target is the nearest transport. Open fire when Blackfoot does. As we move up, shift to the next without waiting for my orders."
"Aye aye, sir."
"Be ready with torpedoes either side, Sub."
"Standing by, sir." That was Ashcourt, the RN sub-lieutenant, at the torpedo control panel. It probably hadn't been necessary to tell him he'd need to be looking both ways at once: the reminder had been precautionary, a warning to a young officer who hadn't seen all that much action yet — except against the Stukas, which was a different thing altogether — against becoming mesmerized by whatever might be happening in one particular direction ... It was extraordinary how familiar and how — could the word be "pleasurable"? — was this tension that bound them all, the silent ultra-tense expectancy, the careful hold on pre-action nerves. There was a thrill in it, a sense of arrival after long preparation, interminable waiting; he thought, his mind going back to take in another war as well as the first eighteen months of this one, It was always like this, probably always will be ... The flash and thunder of Blackfoot's guns came as a relief and brought a reek of cordite flying back over his own bridge: Blackfoot had engaged the Italian destroyer over her own port bow and Tuareg's guns flamed and roared now, one half-second later, to starboard, blinding light giving a photo-flash view of the ship's side and the smoking out-trained barrels of the twin four-sevens, then darkness utterly black for about a second before the salvo struck below the transport's bridge and in her waist. The guns had fired again and the pompoms were in it now, raking the already blazing ship with their streams of two-pounder shells. Explosions on her stern would be shell-bursts from Afghan or Masai or both: there was a constant din of firing and Tuareg's four-sevens had shifted their point of aim to the target's side, the waterline, while on her waist-deck you could see motor transport, jeep-like trucks, burning fiercely. There'd be some petrol there perhaps, to help things along. Glancing away to port Nick saw the Italian destroyer stopped and on fire, Blackfoot leaving her and engaging a new target somewhere ahead; he yelled up to Houston, "Shift to the next transport, don't waste time on that escort." And into the other pipe, "Steer five degrees to starboard." He told Ashcourt, "Enemy destroyer on red three-five. One fish into her" — Tuareg's guns fired, and he paused fractionally until he could almost hear his own voice again — "as we pass, Sub."
"Aye aye, sir!"
"Three-six-oh revs, sir!"
Ahead, it looked as if Blackfoot was now in action with two Italians: Reggie Marsh, Captain (D), might be in need of some assistance. Three-six-oh revs would give Tuareg 34 knots, about her maximum, even if she wouldn't have time in covering that short gap of sea to work up to such a speed. The second transport was burning: she'd swung away to starboard and Houston was pumping shells into her stern as they swept past her, vibration worse and noise increasing as revs built up: and now he'd shifted target to the next ship, the third in the line. Way back astern, tail-end Charlie was a blazing wreck, a firework display as minor explosions shook her apart. The burning and immobile destroyer was coming up to port and about to be given its comeuppance. Tuareg's guns were hard at it, with a fast rhythm to the firing now, pompoms just as busy and very noisy and the point-fives rattling away as well, arcing tracer traversing a seascape lit by gun-flashes, shell-bursts, burning ships. Dramatic, even beautiful, if you'd an eye for this sort of thing and time to take it in. Ashcourt had reported, "One torpedo fired to port, sir." Another salvo crashed out, guns trained abaft the beam now as they moved up to join the flotilla leader, leaving three ships now well on fire. Nick told Houston, "Shift target. Two enemy destroyers engaging Blackfoot ahead of us. Take the nearest." Masai and Afghan would be pushing on to round up the rest of the convoy: the ones astern could be finished off later if they were still afloat, but those which hadn't yet been attended to had — predictably — turned away to starboard, running for the beach. They wouldn't get there. Explosion to port: a vertical column of black water illuminated by the Italian destroyer's fires. Ashcourt exultant: "That fish hit, sir!" There'd have been answers called for if it hadn't. But Blackfoot had been hit too: Nick had had his glasses on her and seen a shell burst abreast her for'ard funnel: then Tuareg's "A" and "B" guns fired, at the nearer of the two Italian destroyers. It was coming this way, with its for'ard guns spurting flame: shells scrunched whistling overhead and some of Tuareg's burst shatteringly in the forefront of the Italian's bridge. He was swinging away to starboard, turning very slowly — for lack of steerage way, Nick thought. More hits blossoming amidships and one of his boats ablaze in its davits lighting his upperworks in flaring yellow. A shell clanged off Tuareg's foc'sl, hurtled away without exploding, and "X" and "Y" guns were in action now, trained about as far for'ard as they'd go, and the pompoms opening up again as well. Nick had been concerned not to expose his beam to enemy torpedoes, but the Italian's bridge was all flame now and the fires were spreading aft very quickly as he turned into the north-west wind; only one of his after guns was firing. Nick told Ashcourt, "I'm going to turn hard a-starboard. Give him one fish when your sight comes on."
"Aye aye, sir!"
Into the wheelhouse voicepipe: "Starboard —"
That last salvo from the four-sevens hit the Italian amidships, all four shells close together. With his face lowered to the voicepipe Nick saw, under the rim of his tin hat, the flash of one shell bursting on the torpedo tubes and then the eruption from inside as the others penetrated and exploded in the boiler-room. Deep, thunderous explosion: no flames, only a dark mushrooming cloud of smoke or steam or both billowing up, enfolding. From the outer pipe he heard Houston's flatlyspoken order to the guns, "Cease firing." He finished his own order to the coxswain in an amended form: "Starboard ten. Two hundred revolutions."
"Starboard ten, sir. Two hundred —"
"Belay that last order, Sub." No need for a torpedo now. Blackfoot's other opponent was done for, too: the Italian's stern was awash, bridge smashed, guns silent, flames dancing here and there. The sea would soon drown those flames. The flotilla leader was turning away, about fifteen hundred yards north-east of Tuareg, turning towards the continuing action eastward, inshore. Benghazi lay north-east and about six miles away: eastward there'd be about four miles of sea with deep water right up to the coast. Benghazi had been in British hands until only about a month ago: Wavell had flung the Italians out of it early in February, lost it to the new German drive two months later. The Germans were outside Tobruk now. Nick had his glasses on Blackfoot and he couldn't see anything wrong with her, any damage from that hit.
"Midships. Steer one-two-oh."
The guns' crews were cheering, for some reason.
"Midships, sir. Wheel's amidships, sir. Two hundred revolutions passed and repeated."
"Our joker's sunk, sir."
Rocky Pratt was referring to the destroyer they'd been engaging, the one whose boilers had gone up: that explosion would almost certainly have blown her sides out too. Anyway, she'd disappeared, and it would account for those cheers from the gundecks. CPO Habgood's voice floated from the tube: "Course one-two-oh, sir."
Nick had his glasses on the transport which had been third from the rear — the centre ship of the convoy, in fact — and was now alone, with the first two burning and sinking a long way astern of her. This one's fires seemed to be dying down: she'd had less attention given to her, probably, because there'd been some urgency to push on quickly and prevent the escape of the other two. He saw now, as he inspected her through the binoculars, that she was getting under way, a white bowwave seeming to flicker in the dark as she began to move ahead.
"Starboard fifteen. Three-six-oh revolutions." Straightening from the voicepipe, hearing his coxswain's repetition of those orders, he saw that Blackfoot was calling him up by light. Beyond her, gunfire and the flashes of shell-bursts still broke the darkness. The moon was hidden at this moment: he heard the turbines' rising note, the slap of sea against his ship's side as she swung.
"Aye, sir!" A flash from the port-side Aldis proved that Tuareg's V/S department weren't asleep. Nick called down to Habgood, "Midships and meet her," and transferred quickly to the other voicepipe. "Bridge, director!" Houston answered, "Director," and he told him, "Target that steamer ahead of us. When we're closer I'll come round to port."
"I'll engage with 'A' and 'B' now, sir."
"A" and "B" were the two for'ard mountings; turning would allow the after ones, "X" and "Y," to bear as well. From Masai's and Afghan's area of operations the deep crump of an explosion and a single leap of flame was probably a torpedo ending one Italian's bid to escape — or to put his cargo on the beach where at least some of it might have been salvaged by the Wehrmacht.
"Steady as you go, Cox'n. One-four-oh revolutions."
No need for high speed now: 140 would produce about 12 knots. He heard the fire-gongs clang, down for'ard, a split second before the guns flamed and split his eardrums — that was how it felt — and in the ensuing, ringing silence before the shells smashed into their target, Yeoman Whiffen reported, "From Captain (D), sir:Your last bird was only winged, I see."
The explosion was magnificent. A great shoot of fire, vertical at first but starring outwards: orange and yellow with a shade of green — a delicate, chartreuse tint — in its centre. Black objects hurtling skyward, disappearing as they passed out of the multicoloured circle of illumination, reappearing in the form of splashes, some of them very large: that was a cargo of ammunition going up, ammunition that would not be thrown at Wavell's army. He saw a truck airborne, silhouetted against a sheet of copper-coloured fire: it seemed to rise slowly, turning end-for-end, and then begin to fall just as gradually, as if it wanted to stay up but couldn't quite make the effort: it fell into a bed of black smoke that was swelling now with the central fire contracting to an orange core inside it.
He ducked to the voicepipe: "Port twenty." Then to Houston in the tower, "You hit the jackpot that time." He didn't hear the ex-bank official's answer, only Petty Officer Whiffen's question, "Any reply to Captain (D), sir?"
Burning or burnt-out wrecks: sea loppy, broken up by the wind and patched with moonlight where it leaked through scudding clouds. There was one point of burning inshore but no gunfire now; the entire convoy must have been accounted for, and the flotilla would shortly be reforming. There'd be time, possibly, to scout around for survivors.
Nick told the yeoman, "No. No reply." That column of flame had been as much answer as Reggie Marsh could need. Marsh had been a fool of a man when Nick had been his senior — and had had to kick his arse for him, more than once — back in 1929; and he was still — Nick suspected, privately — not exactly bright ... But there were other things to think about, here and now — such as the fact that picking up survivors mightn't be all that easy. Tuareg had one of her two motorboats left, and its engine wasn't reliable; the other motorboat, the whaler, and the dinghy had been lost or smashed during the last fortnight while the Mediterranean Fleet had been struggling to get an army off the beaches of southern Greece. The other ships in this flotilla were about as badly off: Afghan didn't have a boat at all. There'd be replacements to be had from the dockyard in Alexandria, presumably, but this flotilla had come directly from Suda Bay in Crete and the odds were they'd be going straight back there now, to help in the final stages of the Greek evacuation. It wasn't anything to look forward to.
"From Captain (D), sir: Order One, executive."
"Right." Bending to the wheelhouse pipe, he ordered, "Midships the wheel." Straightening, hearing CPO Habgood's acknowledgement, he focused his glasses on Blackfoot, to estimate her speed: "Order One" meant line ahead, and he had to take Tuareg into station astern of her. Re-forming, and not bothering to look for survivors? It had been a clean sweep, anyway: five transports and three escorts reported, five plus three destroyed.
Excerpted from Last Lift from Crete by Alexander Fullerton. Copyright © 1980 Alexander Fullerton. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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it was okay. Not as good as the first book.