Singapore, November, 1941 . . . They called it the "Gibraltar of the Far East"—a British rock that could not be taken. But suddenly, in a lightning blow, Singapore may be defeated. Call it incompetence or call it false pride—it doesn't really matter. Just as the warplanes of the Rising Sun take command of the skies. Lt. Ralph Trewin, who was a proud recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, arrives at Singapore as second-in-command of the gun boat HMS Porcupine. Is it too late to overcome the ignorance and blind optimism he finds in Singapore?
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The Pride and the Anguish
By Douglas Reeman
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1974 Douglas Reeman
All rights reserved.
The midday sun blazed relentlessly across Singapore's wide naval anchorage so that the lines of moored warships and auxiliaries seemed pinned to the sea's flat, glittering surface like models. Around and between the grey hulls there was an aimless but constant movement of other, stranger craft. Sampans and water-taxis, and tall weathered junks, reminders of another way of life which lay behind the haze-shrouded hills and the gleaming white buildings which crowded the waterfront.
The slow-moving taxi ground into bottom gear and climbed up a straight road away from the anchorage, its wheels spewing out yellow dust across the ever-changing procession of Malays, Chinese and Indians which grudgingly parted to allow the taxi through, and then closed ranks immediately in a seemingly endless throng of humanity.
The Sikh driver swung the wheel and jerked the taxi to a halt. "This is the place, sir." He stared incuriously at the square white building with its marine sentry and neat Malay policeman and reached out to open the door for his passenger.
Lieutenant Ralph Trewin winced as he stepped on to the road and felt the sun smash across his shoulders like an open furnace. He saw the helmeted marine watching him cautiously, and beneath his unblinking scrutiny he felt suddenly unclean and crumpled. He was wearing the same uniform in which he had stepped aboard the big troopship at Liverpool, and that too seemed to add to his sense of unreality. It was like part of the England he had left behind. The England of 1941, grey and grimly united at the end of a long summer of disasters and defeats.
He turned and shaded his eyes to peer down at the shimmering anchorage where some sturdy tugs were already nudging the same troopship into the fairway ready for her next trip. Out here, in the sunshine, surrounded by life and colour of another world, she looked alien, a reminder of the war Trewin had left behind. She was an old Shaw Savill liner, her tall sides shining in dazzle paint and streaked with rust and red lead from her new and harder usage. Trewin watched her backing between two anchored cruisers and then thrust her from his thoughts. That part of it was over. The long weeks in convoy, with each thrust of the screws carrying him further and further from the life and death he had come to understand so well. Even the stopping places seemed vague and distorted now. Through the Bay, with its high-crested rollers and the nerve-jarring crash of a torpedo in the night as a lagging freighter fell victim to one of the shadowing U-boats. Gibraltar, and a day of gaiety, the strange sights of well-lit shops, crowded streets, but hardly a woman to be seen. On and on, with ships joining and leaving the convoy like busy tradesmen. Freetown, where the battered little corvettes had handed over to an escort of lean destroyers. Simonstown, and, after a night of heavy drinking, on across the empty vastness of the Indian Ocean to Trincomalee, where the trooper had taken on another mass of soldiers en route for the final destination, Singapore.
Trewin paid the driver and turned hastily away as the taxi roared back down the hill, tooting noisily as it cleaved through the endless throng of people.
Trewin returned the marine's salute and walked through the gateway. There was a well-watered square of lawn upon which stood a painted signboard. It stated: "Rear-Admiral, East Coast Patrols." Beside it was a smaller board which said: "Tennis tournament tonight!"
He strode along a neat gravel drive, his uniform clinging to his body like another skin, his throat dry and craving for a drink. He still did not know what he was doing here. He had left England with a handful of other naval personnel, his orders clear and concise. He was to take command of an armed patrol launch, one of several which were being sent to Singapore to help in the work of preventing infiltration by saboteurs and arms-smugglers. But within a few minutes of the troopship's arrival he had been seized by a harassed lieutenant from naval headquarters and had been ordered here instead.
When he had pressed the officer for further details he had snapped, "Your launch never arrived, old boy. Nor did any of the others. The ship bringing them was torpedoed two days out of the U.K." He had smiled vaguely. "Curiously enough, their engines got here right on time in another ship." He had gone off, shaking his head, without a further word.
A marine orderly stepped from the shade and asked, "You'll be Mr. Trewin, sir?" His eye strayed to the wavy gold lace on his sleeve and his lips puckered slightly. "If you'll come this way, sir?"
Trewin followed the orderly through a long, cool corridor, past offices which for the most part seemed deserted and silent. He had not failed to note the expression on the marine's face. In point of fact, Trewin had already noticed how few reservists there seemed to be in Singapore. Like the war, they seemed apart and far away.
The marine opened a door and said curtly, "If you'll wait here."
Trewin walked to the window of the small waiting room and stared down across the square of green grass. He could see a few groups of white-uniformed officers walking away from the main building as if some silent signal had driven them from their hidden offices.
Another door opened, and a tall, tanned lieutenant in white drill gestured with a sheaf of papers. "In here, please." He waited until Trewin had followed him into the larger office and then said impatiently, "You're a bit late, Trewin, so I'll make it short." He leafed through some more papers and added, "You know about the change of orders, of course?"
"Only what I was told in the trooper. Does that mean I'll be going back to England now?"
The lieutenant stared at him. "Good Lord, no!" He glanced at his watch. "You've been passed on to us. A lot of our people have been sent away to other ships. We're getting a bit thin on the ground out here." He looked over Trewin's creased uniform. "Still, I expect you'll settle in all right." He handed Trewin a sealed envelope. "You're to report aboard the Porcupine immediately. It's all in the envelope, old boy." He reached under his desk and picked up a tennis racket. "Now I must dash. I've got to get in some practice."
Trewin stood his ground, feeling the tired anger throbbing behind his eyes like an old wound. "What is the Porcupine? And what am I supposed to do?"
The lieutenant glared. "You're to take over as first lieutenant." He walked deliberately to the door. "I'd have thought that as a reservist you'd have jumped at the job!"
Trewin had been carrying his raincoat across his shoulder, and very deliberately he let it fall across his arm. He saw the lieutenant's eye fall to the ribbon of the Distinguished Service Cross which had been hidden beneath the raincoat and then said calmly, "Thank you for telling me. Now don't let me detain you from your, er, duties." He walked past the officer and out into the sunlight.
The marine orderly was waiting for him. "I've laid on a car, sir. It'll take you straight down to the flagship right away."
Trewin turned guardedly. "Flagship?"
The marine nodded gravely. "Oh yes, sir. The Porcupine is the flagship of the squadron."
Trewin was still smarting from the lieutenant's rudeness and his own cheap revenge. "That'll make a change!"
He waited as the marine went to call the car's driver and then stared at himself in a tall mirror beside the entrance. Even if he had been dressed in a crisp drill uniform he guessed that he would never match the other officer's smartness. There was something rebellious, even wild, about himself, he thought vaguely. The grey eyes which stared back at him from the mirror were steady enough, but there was something else too. Hurt perhaps?
He was tall and well proportioned, but any smartness gained by the strong shoulders and the easy stance was lost immediately in the dark, unruly hair which curled up around the edges of his cap.
Almost nervously he moved his left shoulder and tried to gauge whether the stab of pain was really from his wounds or from their memories. He closed his mind to them immediately. They were behind him. This was now.
He saw the driver watching from the doorway. "Porcupine, sir?"
Trewin hitched his raincoat across his shoulder and picked up his case. He nodded firmly. "Porcupine," he said.
The little harbour launch wended its way casually between the busy traffic of native craft and service boats, a defiant plume of blue smoke trailing from its funnel. Trewin, the sole passenger, stood in the cockpit his arms resting on the canopy, his cap pulled forward to shield his eyes from the glare as he watched the anchored ships sliding past. How different they all seemed from those he had left behind, he thought. They looked clean and graceful, well painted and ready for an inspection. Taut awnings shaded their quarterdecks, and more than once he saw a raised telescope watching his slow progress.
Again he felt his mind drawn back to his last ship. Actually she could hardly be described as a ship. A Fairmile armed motor launch with a three-pounder, a couple of machine-guns and a crew of sixteen men. But she had been his command, and they had gone through a great deal together. It was easy to think back and see things more clearly than at the time. But Trewin was equally sure that commanding M.L. No. 99 was the first positive thing he had achieved in all his twenty-eight years of life.
They had been a happy little company in spite of the world around them. Doing any small job thrown their way, from escorting convoys to humping stores. From fighting off air attacks to open combat with E-boats in the Channel. They had wallowed amidst the pain and misery of Dunkirk, and when based at Harwich Trewin had learned to feel his way between the unlighted sandbars until he could do it blindfolded. Then with England alone against a victorious Germany he had been ordered to the Mediterranean, where with his companions he had watched the same pattern of retreats, the blind optimism of leaders made stale by the mentality of a peacetime service. On to Greece to help with yet one more withdrawal. More gasping, bitter soldiers to be pulled from the water under air attack, their eyes fixed with relief and emotion on the little, scarred M.L. which waited for them in spite of everything. The army had fallen back on Crete, and that was when M.L.99's luck ended.
Crammed with retreating troops Trewin's boat had been one of the last to leave. Hard wear and little maintenance had fouled the engines, and while the mechanics worked desperately in the tiny engine room Trewin and his men had watched the bare, bright sky and waited.
He had counted seven aircraft. But there might have been more. Like divine gulls the planes had swooped over the motionless craft, the air tearing apart with the sounds of their guns, the scream and crash of high explosive. The boat had caught fire and almost immediately had started to capsize.
Trewin had stayed afloat for eleven hours, supported by his lifejacket, his soul only just hanging on to life. It had been like a mad dream. A nightmare which he shared without really seeming to belong in it. He had heard his men crying and drowning. Had felt the savage ache of his flayed shoulder where the blazing fuel had sent him like a torch into the water. When a minesweeper had found them there had been only six alive. The others stayed with their comrades, bobbing in their life-jackets or floating face down in the sea amidst a few slivers of charred timber.
Perhaps that was really why he had been sent to Singapore. Maybe he had said or done something in the hospital which had ruled him unfit for further combat? Trewin stared with sudden anger at the moored warships. They reminded him of the lieutenant at the naval headquarters he had just left. Sleek and untried. What the hell did they know about war?
The harbour launch puffed round a big transport and headed towards the Malayan shoreline. In the far distance Trewin could see the big causeway which linked the mainland with Singapore Island and the lush green foliage of Johor Bahru abeam of the launch. He stared round with surprise. The last of the big ships were falling astern. Nothing lay across the launch's bows but a line of small, antiquated river gunboats. Trewin had seen pictures of them in the past, in the days when such little ships kept order and showed the flag along the miles of China's great rivers and waterways. With the Japanese playing havoc in China most of these gunboats had, of course, been withdrawn and sent either to Singapore or Hong Kong. A few had even managed to find their way to the Mediterranean to join the rest of that mixed assortment of craft which supplied and protected the flanks of the desert armies.
Now, in the unwinking sunlight, beneath their awnings, the little ships looked for all the world like a line of Thames houseboats, or the old Mississippi river steamers. There were five of them moored in a single line, the largest one being anchored nearest to the causeway.
Trewin craned his head to look down at the boat's coxswain, a bearded seaman with tattooed arms. "Where are we heading now?"
The coxswain showed his strong teeth. "There she is, sir!" He raised one arm and swung the brass wheel with the other. "At the head of the trot." He barked an order and the launch started to lose way. "The gunboat Porcupine!" He grinned broadly. "Flagship of the East Coast Patrols!"
Trewin stared at the approaching vessel. Now he could see the name in gilt across her flat stern where the white ensign hung motionless above the clear water. She was about two hundred feet long, and being designed for shallow-draught work had most of her accommodation above the main deck. There was a square, businesslike bridge, abaft which the main cabin section ran almost the full length of the deck. She had a single funnel, tall and thin, and two tapering masts which added to the first impression of past grandeur. Even her grey paint could not mask this effect. The paint was not the hasty, dull affair Trewin had come to recognise in home waters, but shone like polished glass, so that as the launch turned towards the varnished accommodation ladder he could pick out his own reflection.
The coxswain said, "Trim little ship, ain't she, sir? Wouldn't mind a billet in 'er meself." He snarled suddenly at the Chinese bowman, and as the launch nudged against the gangway he added, "I believe the discipline's a bit sharp, sir." He gave Trewin a hard stare and then dropped his eyes to his wavy stripes. "If you'll pardon the liberty, sir?"
Trewin nodded. "Thanks. I'll bear it in mind!"
He climbed up the short ladder and stepped on to the shaded sidedeck, saluting as he did so.
A very young sub-lieutenant in shirt and shorts saluted him in return and said, "Lieutenant Trewin, sir?"
"Yes. I understand I am to take over as number one from ..."
The young officer darted a quick glance at the idling launch and then sighed as it moved clear. "Oh yes, we had a signal about you. Your predecessor has already gone, I'm afraid." He pulled his mind away from the heavy launch and the obvious threat to the paintwork and said, "Welcome aboard. I'm Hammond. Colin Hammond."
He had a brusque, clipped way of speaking, but Trewin thought it was due more to nervousness than anything deeper. Hammond had an open, pleasant face with a rather sensitive mouth, and was at a guess about twenty.
Trewin glanced slowly around him, noting the spotless decks, the neatly flaked lines and the general air of disciplined perfection. Rather like a millionaire's yacht, he thought.
"And what do you do, Sub?"
Hammond tucked his telescope under his arm. "I was doing an interpreter's course out here, so they sent me aboard as boarding officer and general dogsbody." He smiled, so that he looked suddenly defenceless. "Shall I show you around first, Number One? Or would you rather go to your quarters?"
Trewin started. It was strange being addressed as Number One after having a command of his own. "A quick inspection, I think."
They fell in step and walked along the port sidedeck. Hammond said at length, "The captain's ashore, but left instructions that you were to stay on call for his return." He added, "How's England, sir?"
Excerpted from The Pride and the Anguish by Douglas Reeman. Copyright © 1974 Douglas Reeman. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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