The orders from the Admiralty to the Captain were explicit. He was to take his ship to the small island of Santu, which lay under threat of invasion from the Communist mainland of China, and evacuate the British colony there. The ship, however, was the flat-bottomed, antiquated River gunboat H. M. S. Wagtail, waiting in a Hong Kong harbor for the disgrace of the breaker's hammer to overtake her. Her captain, Justin Rolfe, embittered by the verdict of a court-martial, knew that the assignment offered more than escape from misery and humiliation—it was a reprieve for himself and his ship.
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Send a Gunboat
By Douglas Reeman
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1960 Douglas Reeman
All rights reserved.
Another long summer was beginning, but even the dry, heavy breath which fanned the glittering water of Hong Kong's main anchorage, failed to quell the normal air of feverish activity and mounting noise, which surged back and forth in a weird ever-changing and confusing pattern.
The hard, unblinking sun fixed the white buildings around the harbour in a swimming heat-haze, making the windows glitter and twist, as if in pain. Even the mean, squalid little streets, crammed with their surging streams of colourful humanity, could not escape, although the shopfronts crouched in permanent semi-darkness. Only the uneven tops of the smart new skyscrapers, and the distant roofs of the sleepy hill-property seemed free from the stifling pressure of noise and dirt.
From the harbour these buildings made a pleasant backdrop, distance helping to mould them into a live and vital picture for the newcomer. Old mixed with new. The great temple, overshadowed by the giant building of the Communist China Bank, and the neat white bungalows of the civil servants, lumped almost alongside the peeling tin roof of a canning factory.
The contrast was apparent too on the water. It was never quite still, as in any other harbour. It was always jammed with its countless beetle-like craft, from bobbing ungainly sampans, and the battered water-taxis, to the tall, ancient junks, which glided like great bats amongst the other craft with unerring accuracy and calm.
A P&O liner, her derricks clanking and jerking, lay alongside the main quay, her rails jammed with excited faces, and gay dresses, and two wharves away, the squat, eagle-crested ferry steamer sidled slowly out into the stream, about to start on yet another journey across the blue water to Macao.
Clear of the main waterway, and aloof from the bustling life of the harbour, the cruiser towered like a giant pale-grey rock, the soft wavelets shimmering and reflecting against her lofty sides. As she pulled gently at her mooring buoys, the dancing lights flickered from the brass fittings about the spotless decks, while the long taut awnings flung back the hard glare to the clear skies above.
Few figures moved about the decks, for apart from the heat, and the obvious boredom of looking at the same view, it was Sunday, and the ship's company at least showed no desire to follow the example of the busy people around them.
A marine sentry paced stolidly at the head of the accommodation ladder, his red face shadowed by the wide sweep of his tropical helmet, the gleaming rifle already hot in his grasp.
The Officer-of-the-Day, immaculate in white drill, tucked the long telescope under his arm, and licked his lips, savouring the taste of gin, and trying to remember what he had just had for lunch. Occasionally he glanced carefully at the shaded skylight in the middle of the cruiser's wide quarterdeck, as if expecting a sign to tell him of the movements of the Admiral beneath it. For this was the Flagship, and as the thought crossed his sweating mind, the officer squinted aloft to the limp flag at the masthead. The flag of Admiral Commanding the China Inshore Squadron.
He stepped back gratefully under the awning, his eyes resting momentarily on the two American destroyers which were moored side-by-side about half a mile away. Even from here he could clearly discern the wild blare of jazz which poured unceasingly from their deck loudspeakers to join the other discordant noises around them.
A police boat slid quietly between two moored junks, and prowled uneasily alongside one of the fishing yawls. The puppet-like figures waved and nodded in the age-old game of question and answer, until the launch, apparently satisfied, continued on its way.
The officer stiffened, as the Engineering Officer and the Doctor, in rumpled civilian clothes, clattered down the accommodation ladder to a waiting boat, their golf clubs rattling behind them. He envied them their freedom, but not to play golf. He whistled softly, watching the boat scud away for the shore, his mind toying dreamily with the little Malayan girl from the "Seven Seas" Club.
"Signal, sir!" The voice shattered his thoughts.
The young signalman waited respectfully while his superior collected his wits.
"Well?" The Malayan girl vanished.
"Government House, sir, just signalled to say that Mr Gore-Lister an' his assistant are comin' over to see the Admiral."
"Is that all?" His eyes scanned the brief flimsy.
He tugged his jacket straight, and started towards the screen door.
"Oh, Quartermaster," he snapped. "Two Government House men will be aboard shortly. Call me when you sight the launch!"
He stepped gingerly over the high coaming, cursing these damned civil servants who thought it necessary to do their business on a Sunday.
Vice-Admiral Sir Ralph Meadows tossed the signal carelessly on to his desk, and walked thoughtfully to the open scuttle overlooking the harbour. His pale, china-blue eyes surveyed the colourful panorama before him with apparent disinterest, but as usual, his quick brain was summing up all the possibilities for the unexpected visit from the representatives of Her Majesty's Government.
He was a small man, built compactly and neatly. Everything about the Admiral was neat, from his thin, finely cut features, burned to a nut-brown by his years of service overseas, to his narrow shoulders, and delicately shaped hands. Many people in the past had mistaken his fragile appearance for weakness, a mistake which had cost them a great deal, in their own comfort and security.
His eyes were perhaps the real clue to his true identity, cold and clear, yet giving the impression of his great insight and farseeing intelligence.
At that moment, he was thinking more of his past, than of what might happen when the new crisis arose.
He had started his service as a young midshipman right here, in China, helping to patrol the great trade routes on the Yangtze, and trying to learn something about the vast, unfathomable peoples which thronged its banks. Pirates, dope smuggling, slavery, and minor wars had all made their mark on his young mind, and he had left the China Station with a true, if youthful regret. He had imagined that those experiences were to be the end of his contact with the country, but after a lifetime in other parts of the world, two world wars, and a steady climb up the uncertain ladder of promotion and appointment, he had returned, as Commander-in-Chief of the overworked Inshore Squadron.
And in a few more months, he would be leaving China, and the navy. This time for ever.
He watched the ferry steamer puffing past, the rows of faces upturned towards the British cruiser. He had changed a lot from the pink-faced midshipman, but China, he shrugged inwardly, she was still about the same. Pirates and dope smugglers still abounded. The minor wars had been replaced by something bigger, but basically it was the same.
He turned slowly, and surveyed his spacious stateroom, which ran the whole breadth of the ship. The green fitted carpets, the polished brass scuttles, and immaculate white paintwork, all gave an appearance of security and well-being. A selection of bell buttons and telephones connected him with his minions and his command, and a word from him could make or break any one of them. He found it a vaguely comforting thought.
The cabin was dominated by a giant coloured chart, which was fixed right across one bulkhead, and lighted by cunningly concealed sections of strip lighting. He was very proud of this chart, which he had had specially made. It clearly showed the vastness of his command, from the Gulf of Thailand in the South, to the lonely wastes of the Eastern Sea in the North, where the Yangtze poured its yellow waters into the mass of tiny, miserable islands about its mouth.
Here and there around the chart were small, pink flags, each bearing the name of a ship, each denoting the position of one of the Admiral's scattered chain of patrols, his ever-restless and hard-pressed fleet. To his visitors from Government House the names would be meaningless, or at best, a vague appreciation of the navy's control, but to him, each flag, and each name, conjured up a clear picture of the ship, its capabilities and job, as well as a very formidable understanding of her commanding officer and complement.
He nodded, smiling slightly, the chart would look well on the wall of his study in his converted farmhouse in far-off Sussex.
The door opened carefully, and his bespectacled secretary, a tall, gangling Lieutenant, poked his head round the edge.
"Mr Gore-Lister, sir, and er, his assistant," he announced.
The Admiral smiled thinly. "Right, let's get it over with!"
Gore-Lister, a plump, ruddy-faced man, in a neat, lightweight grey suit, was slow-speaking, and, or so the Admiral believed, equally slow-thinking, but he spent his whole life in Hong Kong, and was considered to be an authority on all matters pertaining to the Chinese "problem," as he called it.
The Admiral rarely agreed with his ideas, but for all that, they were good friends.
The other man was young and smooth-featured, with a permanently eager expression, and a new Eton tie, which might be a dangerous combination the Admiral decided, after a quick appraisal.
After the secretary had departed, Gore-Lister began to pace nervously up and down the carpet, while the Admiral sat back in his chair, his finger-tips pressed lightly together.
"Well, Paul?" he said at length. "Let's have it. What's on your mind this time?"
The other man halted reluctantly, and looked at the Admiral, who, in his white uniform with the gold encrusted shoulders, looked like a little carved figure.
"What d'you know about Santu Island?" His deep set eyes showed no expression.
The Admiral slid from his chair and moved across to the chart, and while he ran his hand swiftly across its surface, his brain was hard at work, calculating and planning. So it was Santu now. Another pinprick from the Communists. He sighed inwardly. It was inevitable after the recent Formosa trouble, of course. Thrust and counter-thrust. His finger halted at the top of the chart, by the thirtieth parallel. "Santu Island, here it is." His voice was flat and unemotional, as if he was talking to himself. "About thirty miles West of the Chusan Archipelago. In other words, just outside Chinese territorial waters."
He turned to the others, who were watching his hand with interest, "D'you want me to go on?" "Well, do you know the set-up there?" Gore-Lister's voice was thick.
The Admiral walked back to the desk, and perched himself on the edge, one neat shoe swinging slowly.
"Governed by some ex-general of the old regime, it's been overlooked or ignored by the Communists up to now." He raised his eyebrows questioningly. "It's almost part of that great mass of islands there, and most of them were independent less than fifty years ago. They used to be ruled by well-bred pirates, who preyed on shipping entering and leaving the Yangtze." He lifted his gaze back to the chart. "As you can see, it's about forty miles long, and fifteen wide, and not much use for anything." He turned his cold eyes on the others, "Now suppose you tell me what's going on?"
Gore-Lister sighed deeply, and lit a cigarette.
"Did you know that there are some British Nationals living there?"
"I did." He felt like adding "More fools they," but he refrained. "I believe they more or less run the tea and timber business on the island, while the old General gets on with his smuggling and piracy!"
The other man smiled bleakly, the humour not quite reaching his eyes. "That's as may be. The fact is that the Communists are believed to be going to take over the island. By force if necessary." He allowed the words to sink in.
"What d'you want me to do about it? Take my Marines up there first?" The Admiral's voice was sharp.
"No, sir, we thought you might be able to send a ship up there to feel out the facts of the matter." The young man had spoken for the first time, and the others stared at him, the Admiral with pity, and his chief with anger.
"You're here to listen, Mace," he snapped. "Sir Ralph and I are just sounding each other out! As we have done for the last three years," he added dryly.
The Admiral rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "The harbour's not much there. It's been allowed to silt up a good bit. Why can't you send one of your chaps? It'd be much cheaper!" he grinned.
"No, this is top secret stuff. If anyone got a sniff of what we're up to, there'd be hell to pay. Whereas, a visiting warship would be quite normal, surely?"
"Well, yes, we used to call there quite a lot, before the Americans began to swamp the area. It's not really necessary now, but it could be done."
"Good. I knew you'd help us out! What I want is this. Brief your captain to find out exactly what's happening. If it's alright, he can pull out. If it's bad, you'll have to give him carte-blanche to evacuate all the British residents at once. And I mean at once! He can contact the acting consul there, who'll be able to give him all the details."
"Why don't you ask the consul what's happening?"
Gore-Lister permitted himself a wide grin. "He's got a certain amount of money invested in the place, so he may be biased!" He leaned forward, pounding the desk with a beefy fist. "Whatever happens, this must be done quickly and quietly, we can't afford to have the Communists taking the place while our people are still there. They'd make a lot of unpleasantness and propaganda out of it!"
"You give me the word, and I'll take my Squadron up there in force," said the Admiral grimly. "There'll be no sea invasion then!"
"And we don't want another 'Amethyst' incident either!" Gore-Lister retorted quickly.
He leaned back tiredly. "You know the facts, Ralph. An island like this simply isn't worth making trouble over. With the Americans sitting in Formosa, and us in Hong Kong, we can afford to be generous. Or at least, careful."
The Admiral peered thoughtfully at his shoe, his head cocked on one side. China was like a tiger, he mused. A tiger who sleeps with one eye open. At any moment, a snatch of the claws in Formosa, or a flick of the tail in Hong Kong, and you had to be very quick on your feet.
He shook his head angrily, and concentrated on the task in hand.
"Right, leave it with me," he snapped, and pressed the bell for his secretary.
When the Lieutenant appeared, he started to issue his orders to set the wheels of command in motion. "Show these gentlemen to your hideout, and they'll help you to draft out orders for a new operation. They'll include a file on local details, and I want everything you hear to be treated as secret. For your ears alone. If I hear of just one leak!" He left the threat unfinished, but his secretary's face satisfied him well enough. "I want to see the Operations Officer at once, and I shall need a Readiness Report on the Wagtail."
The mystified looks on the three faces as they left his stateroom, were most satisfying.
When he explained the task to his Operations Officer, Commander Pearce, his subordinate bit his lip uneasily.
"Must you send the Wagtail, sir? She's pretty old, and her new commanding officer has only joined the Squadron this week, he's not even seen her yet!"
"Look, Pearce, it has to be Wagtail, and 1924 isn't old for a ship if she's been well built! She's one of the original China River Gunboats, and very handy in shallow water, just the ship for playing hide-and-seek in and out the islands. Secondly, she's been employed lately on the refugee traffic, searching junks and so on, so she's pretty well known. It wouldn't do to send a couple of ruddy great destroyers into Santu harbour," his voice was tinged with sarcasm. "In addition to which, there's only about five feet of water in the place." He tapped his chart complacently.
The Commander still looked uncomfortable.
"The new commanding officer, sir."
"Yes, I know." The Admiral jerked open a drawer in the desk, and pulled out a manila folder. "He's come here under a bit of a cloud, hasn't he? Is that what's worrying you?"
"Well, sir, in view of his record, and the importance of this operation, I thought," he faltered unhappily.
"I know what you thought, but you don't want to damn a man before you've had a look at the rest of the picture." He skimmed briefly through the folder. "He was in command of the frigate Sequin in the Mediterranean up until three months ago, when it was due to be paid off for a long refit. He ended the commission by ramming the dockyard wall at Malta, and damn near sinking the ship. Court-martial found him negligent, needless to say, but in view of his past record, they let him off with a severe reprimand, which is a nice way of condemning him to ruin in the Service! He comes out here to take command of a poor, flogged-out little gunboat, less than half the size of his frigate, which is due for the scrapheap anyway. And he must know that such a command means the finish of him. Unless," he paused, fixing the Operations Officer with a piercing stare. "Unless one particular Admiral shows a little trust in him. If he pulls this stunt off all right, it'll set his feet back on the old ladder of fame!"
Excerpted from Send a Gunboat by Douglas Reeman. Copyright © 1960 Douglas Reeman. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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