The thrilling and authentic Nicholas Everard naval thriller
On St George’s Day 1918 the Royal Navy launch a desperate assault on the German base of Zeebrugge. In the sixty minutes from touchdown to withdrawal, eleven VCs were won and hundreds lay dead or wounded.
Churchill said the raid ‘may well rank as the finest feat of arms of the Great War’.
Sub-lieutenant Nicholas Everard finds himself in the thick of it: working on minelaying operations, manning coastal patrols and, above all, fighting in savage clashes with enemy destroyers. He must not only fight his skilled opponents: he must fight the odds...
For readers of Philip McCutchan and Douglas Reeman, Alexander Fullerton’s outstanding ability to recreate the war as it was felt and lived bursts from every line of this extraordinary novel, the second in the Nicholas Everard series.The Nicholas Everard Naval Thrillers
- The Blooding of the Guns
- Sixty Minutes for St. George
- Patrol to the Golden Horn
- Storm Force to Narvik
- Last Lift from Crete
- All the Drowning Seas
- A Share of Honour
- The Torch Bearers
- The Gatecrashers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Sixty Minutes for St George
By Alexander Fullerton
Copyright © 1977 Alexander Fullerton.
All rights reserved.
Out of the confusion of ice-cold wind and broken sea Nick Everard caught the yelled report, high and weather-cutting as a seagull's shriek: 'Clear anchor!' He glanced round towards the port fore corner of the bridge where until a moment ago his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Commander Wyatt, had been standing hunched, heavy-shouldered, muttering with impatience while the cable's rhythmic clanking had seemed to be going on and on with no end to it, the destroyer still tethered by her nose to the sand of Dunkirk Roads. The visual memory of an outbreak of gunfire to seaward, westward, six of eight minutes ago tugged at all of them felt as if it pulled even at Mackerel herself like the most powerful of magnets. Behind Nick now, Wyatt's voice was an explosion of relief: 'Half ahead together! Starboard ten!'
'Starboard ten, sir.' The coxswain, Bellamy, was at the wheel, a shorter, slimmer figure with Wyatt's bulk looming close to it. Bellamy was leaning slightly forward across the wheel's spokes and peering into the dimly-lit binnacle, waiting to be given a course to steer. The engine-room telegraphs double-clinked and the ship began to tremble as her turbines drove her forward, rudder swinging her to port across wind and sea. From the dark triangle of foc'sl at which Nick was looking down across a gull's-eye view of the for'ard four-inch gun he heard the thud of the anchor slamming home into its hawsepipe and Cockcroft's simultaneous shout telling the stoker at the capstan to 'vast heaving. Then a clatter of heavy metal, the cable party working fast to get the slips on the cable and lash them down. They had to finish and clear the foc'sl before the ship gathered much way seaward, because in a matter of minutes there could be green seas bursting on that steel deck and sweeping aft; to be still on it wouldn't be just uncomfortable, it would be almost suicidal, and Wyatt wasn't waiting on anyone's convenience, not with a Hun destroyer raid in progress. There'd be precisely one aim, Nick knew, in his commanding officer's mind, and it matched the urge in his own: to get Mackerel out there on the raider's line of retreat, cut them off from their Belgian bases.
Proceed vicinity No. 9 buoy, the signal had ordered. Rendezvous with Moloch and Musician. No. 9 buoy was about halfway out along the net barrage that zigzagged between the Goodwins and Gravelines. Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon's pride and joy, that net-line with its electrically-detonated mines; and he was hanging on to it, still patrolling over it with drifters, in spite of the Admiralty committee's view that it wasn't stopping any U-boats.
'What course, pilot?'
Pym, Mackerel's navigator, told the captain, 'West-nor'-west to clear Snow Bank, sir, then north eighty west when Middle Dyck's abeam.'
'Midships, sir.' The rate of turning slowed; wind came like a whip now, cracking across the bridge. In the Dover straits in December, warmth was hardly a commodity one could look for. You set your teeth, tried not to think about it. Wyatt had told the coxswain, 'Meet her. Steer west-nor'-west.' Compass variation in this year 1917 was slightly more than thirteen degrees west, so their next course of north eighty degrees west would be a true one of just south of west. The wheel span through Chief Petty Officer Bellamy's practised hands, and Wyatt snapped perhaps deciding that if the foc'sl hadn't been cleared by now a wetting might teach the cable party a lesson 'Six-fifty revolutions!'
He'd make it seven hundred in a minute, when he'd allowed them some time to work her up. At her trials in 1915 Mackerel had clocked up thirty-six knots at seven-fifty revolutions per minute of her twin screws; but now, after two years of hard steaming, she'd be straining every nut and bolt to squeeze out thirty-three. Less, even, seeing that she was overdue for a bottom-scrape; and that wouldn't be enough to catch the modern thirty-four-knot German destroyers, whose object in their sneak raids was to create some havoc and get home fast, intact, avoiding action with anything like equal forces. To bring them to action you had to trap them, take them by surprise and then slam into them with everything you had just as Broke and Swift had done so sensationally earlier in the year.
Nick reached for a handhold as he turned aft. She'd begun to pitch as well as roll, a jolting, corkscrew motion as she gathered speed with wind and sea buffeting her port bow. Wyatt shouted, 'Might be that swine Heinecke out there, eh?'
Chat from Edward Wyatt?
There were a couple of dozen destroyer COs in the Dover Patrol under whom it would have been a pleasure to serve. Nick had had the rotten luck to fall in with this one. And his future present, for that matter lay in Wyatt's hands.
'Let's hope it is, sir.'
Captain Heinecke led a flotilla of outsize destroyers which Germany had been building for Argentina and taken over when the war had begun. Intelligence had reported that he was bringing them down from the Bight to base them on Zeebrugge. Not long ago he'd destroyed a Norwegian convoy; he'd also sunk a number of neutral merchantmen and allowed their crews very small chances of escape. On top of which he had the un-endearing habit of crowing about his successes in wireless broadcasts, shouting his own name in tones of Teutonic glee.
Wyatt thumped his gloved hands together. 'God, give me Herr Heinecke!'
Bellamy muttered, 'Amen to that, sir'; and Pym, the navigating lieutenant, chimed in with 'Make a nice Christmas present, I must say!'
Five days to Christmas. In Dover the shops had sprigs of holly in their windows. And Mackerel, due for a boiler-clean; might have the luck to be enjoying her three-day stand-off period on the 25th. On the other hand she might have finished it, and be back at sea.
But thinking of Hun raiders: although there'd been no surface attack since Broke and Swift had carved up that raiding flotilla back in April, an attack hadn't been unexpected in this present dark period. The new floodlit minefields barring the straits from Folkestone through the Varne to Gris Nez had begun to catch and kill U-boats literally within hours of lighting up, and it was only logical to anticipate a reaction from the enemy. They needed to get their submarines through, rather than send them round the top of Scotland wasting time that could otherwise be spent sinking ships in the Atlantic; it would make sense to them now to send a surface force to break up the mob of drifters, trawlers, P-boats and 'oily wads' old, pre-war destroyers, known also as 'thirty-knotters' that was providing the illuminations.
Wyatt hadn't increased Mackerel's revolutions beyond six-fifty. Most likely he'd be keeping her a knot or two below her best speed so as not to show flames at the funnel-tops and thus advertise her arrival on the scene. And on a night like this, black as a cow's insides, thirty knots felt fast enough through the shoals, minefields, unlit and often explosive waters which it was the Dover Patrol's job to hold, use, deny to the enemy.
The Army in France and Belgium was manned, supplied and fed across this neck of water. Every single day transports, hospital ships, leave ships, supply convoys had to be escorted to and fro and the sea swept clear of mines ahead of them. The Front, the trench-line, met the sea at Nieuwpoort, a dozen miles east of Dunkirk, and looking shoreward now, eastward, you could see the sporadic outbursts of artillery fire, the intermittent burst and lingering glow of starshell. Closer still, on the bit of coast Mackerel was leaving, an air-raid was developing over Dunkirk.
Nick heard Cockcroft, the sub-lieutenant, arrive on the bridge and report to Wyatt.
'Foc'sl secured for sea, sir!' Mackerel plunged, a long slither before she lifted to the swell and began her roll to starboard. There was more of it, as she left the slight shelter provided by the bulge of the Pas de Calais. But this was nothing: only a little icy spray lashed the bridge from time to time, just enough to remind them that tonight the straits were letting them off lightly. Wyatt had his glasses up; he was sweeping the black horizon on the starboard bow. Nick waited, wanting to speak to Cockcroft but making sure the skipper had nothing to say to him first.
Wyatt spoke, but Iris bark wasn't addressed to Cockcroft.
From the after end of the bridge Leading Signalman Porter pitched his voice above the turbines' high whine and the roar of wind. Wyatt bellowed, 'What's the challenge?'
'Sure, are you?'
'How far to the Middle Dyck, pilot?'
Pym cleared his throat. 'Mile and a half bit less, sir.'
'Why can't I see it, then?'
Charlie Pym had his glasses up too, and he'd been searching for the lightship for several minutes. It wasn't lit, of course; but at less than three thousand yards, with high-powered binocularsand they'd all developed cats' eyes, by this stage ...
Nick called Cockcroft. 'Sub here a minute.'
Cockcroft came groping like some great insect along the bridge's starboard side, keeping both hands on the rail to steady his long, awkward uncoordinated might be the better word for it frame as he negotiated the eight or nine feet of heaving, jolting platform. Still gripping the rail above the splinter-mattresses that were lashed to the outside of it, he craned like a bent flagpole over his first lieutenant.
Wyatt interrupted: 'Number One!'
'Have small-arms been issued?'
'About to have it done, sir.'
'There!' Pym had picked up the lightship's meagre silhouette. Nick told Cockcroft, 'Go down and have pistols, cutlasses and rifles passed out. You know the drill.'
It was an idea Wyatt had borrowed from Teddy Evans, late captain of the Broke and now Admiral Bacon's chief-of-staff. The object was to have weapons handy for repelling boarders if one's own ship were disabled, or more hopefully for boarding a maimed enemy. Loaded rifles with fixed bayonets at each gun, each pair of torpedo tubes and at the after searchlight; revolvers to all petty officers, and two spares loaded up here on the bridge. Cutlasses at various points around the upper deck where they could be snatched up quickly. Nick pushed his bunch of keys into the sub-lieutenant's fist. 'Here. And get a more on, eh?'
'Can I borrow Hatcher?'
Hatcher, invisible at the moment at the back of the bridge, was the wardroom steward. His action duty was to operate the Barr and Stroud transmitter by which Nick as gunnery control officer passed settings and orders to the guns.
'No. Take one of your after supply party. Then inspect all quarters and tell 'em what's going on. D'you know what's going on?'
'Well, not quite encyclopaedically, to tell you the absolute truth, but'
'There are Hun destroyers in the straits and we're steaming to join Moloch and Musician and head 'em off. Most likely they're having a crack at the lit minefield but they'll have to come back again ... Clear?'
'Topping!' Cockcroft had let go of the rail as he pocketed the keys. Mackerel leaned hard to port: he swayed, staggered, grabbed for a handhold and just made it. Nick added, 'Tell Mr Gladwish too, will you?'
'Aye aye!' Gladwish was the torpedo gunner. As Cockeroft began to grope towards the ladder he was a useful and a pleasant fellow, despite his verbosity and a tendency to fall about the coxswain was bringing Mackerel round to her new course. If the lightship was abeam already, Nick thought, it must have been a lot closer than two miles off when Pym spotted it. Well, this was about as dark a night as one could get ... An odd thing about Cockcroft was that despite his instability, top-heaviness; or whatever it was, he could run like a hare. As a midshipman up at Rosyth he'd won the squadron athletics championships over practically every distance. One could imagine him tumbling in a welter of his own tangled limbs each time he breasted the tape ... Nick heard Wyatt calling down the voice-pipe to the chartroom, which was immediately below this bridge.
'Chartroom, sir!' That was Midshipman William Grant's voice. Wyatt rather bullied young Grant, and he'd accused Nick recently of being too soft with him.
'He gets seasick, sir. Half the time we think he's being stupid he's just ill.'
Wyatt's eyebrows knitting as he scowled 'What are you his nanny?'
'Sir, I only'
'He needs toughening-up, not babying! Good God, man, Nelson used to get seasick and so do I and so do you!'
Nick had refrained from reminding Wyatt that Nelson, in his early days, had been undersized, a bit of a weakling, certainly not regarded as promising material. As to any toughening-up process, the sea would attend to that, and the rigorous day-and-night routines of the Patrol. Nineteen consecutive nights at sea, sometimes: in tin cockleshells and weather which in peacetime would have halted all cross-Channel traffic. They were all tough, hard as seaboots: they had to be, and if Midshipman Grant stayed with them long enough he'd soon become unrecognisable to the mother who had, probably, babied him.
'Grant have there been no signals at all since we weighed?'
The wireless office was immediately abaft the chartroom, with a connecting hatch. It was the midshipman's job to receive whatever messages the telegraphists passed through to him, decode them or otherwise make sense of them in relation to the chart, and pass the results up the voicepipe to the bridge.
'Nothing at all, sir.'
'Are they awake, in there?'
Wyatt had straightened from the tube. Grant's voice scratchy, still in the breaking process died away, and Wyatt swore as he raised his binoculars again. It was peculiar. If there were German surface forces in the straits, surely by now there'd have been a shout from someone? A sighting report, or a call for help? That gunfire half an hour ago someone had been in action or under attack, but nobody had said a word.... Until someone did it was all guesswork, blind man's buff, and all the advantage of the blindness was with the enemy. The Germans knew that any ship they met would be hostile to them: they wouldn't waste time challenging ... Nick, swaying to remain upright while Mackerel flung herself about, thought how much easier it must be for the intruder, the fox in the hen-run; and therefore how much more vital it was to see him first. He lifted his own glasses, adding his eyes to others already at work. Above the cloud-cap the last splinter of the old moon would be hanging; down here there was only the gleam of bow-wave spreading, curling away into a black shine streaked and laced with veins of duller white. Farther out the shine faded, the black became smudged, confused; only when a breaking wave gleamed, spread and faded again into the dark background could one tell roughly where the division came between sea and empty, salt-damp night. Empty or not empty suddenly, as the glasses swung their overlapping circles over it: imagination stretched the nerves, and it was a mistake to look at any one spot too hard. The thing was to keep the glasses moving, let the eye drift on. Mackerel shuddered, quivering as she smashed her bow through the lifting seas, and mixed with the turbines' whine was the thrumming of her hull, the sound the sea drew from her like fingers on a string, and the rush of wind and throaty intake of the ventilators, the roar of the stokehold fans. Rattlings: sounds that had always been there and could never be identified, and other sounds that could be like the creaking of the whaler against the griping-spar in that port-side davit. Someone touched Nick's arm: 'Number One?'
Excerpted from Sixty Minutes for St George by Alexander Fullerton. Copyright © 1977 by Alexander Fullerton. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.