The mine is an impartial killer, and defusing it requires steady nerves, steady hands, and an intrepid flirtation with death. Haunted by the mine that destroyed his first command, H.M. Submarine Tornado, Lieutenant-Commander David Masters now defuses mines on land and teaches the same deadly science to others.
About the Author
Douglas Edward Reeman, who also writes under the name Alexander Kent, joined the British Navy at 16, serving on destroyers and small craft during World War II, eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant. He has taught navigation to yachtsmen and has served as a script adviser for television and films. As Alexander Kent, Reeman is the author of the best-selling Richard Bolitho Novels. His books have been translated into nearly two dozen languages.
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Twelve Seconds To Live
By Douglas Reeman
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 2002 Bolitho Maritime Production Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Code of Conduct
H.M.S. Vernon, the torpedo and experimental establishment and one of Portsmouth's many shore stations, was a navy within a navy. From the first days of creating and using this new and untrusted form of warfare, most of the work had been carried out here, in various hulks and even in an old ship of the line, which both mine and torpedo would soon turn into history.
Vernon was a new and well laid-out establishment, with its own dry dock and jetties, a fleet of small craft, and comfortable quarters by any naval standards. It even boasted its own squash and tennis courts, the envy of the peacetime navy. But that was then.
In the first months of war Vernon had seen and shared the worst of it, night after night of relentless bombing, hundreds of people killed or badly injured, thousands rendered homeless, and fires raging unchecked for days. The main dockyard had not escaped; a third of it was flattened, and one bomb had exploded in the very dock where Nelson's Victory lay. But the damage was minor, and when the smoke had finally thinned she seemed to shine through it like a symbol.
Many famous buildings were destroyed. The George Inn on the Point, where many great names had stayed before joining a ship or a fleet, where Nelson himself had paused when leaving for the last time in Victory. The cathedral, so isolated now, had escaped destruction by fire solely because of the courage of Vernon's night watch, who had clambered onto St. Thomas's roof at immense personal risk to extinguish the incendiaries.
With the ever increasing demands of war Vernon, like other establishments, had been forced to spread her resources in order to increase the training and satisfy the need for more and more men. And women. These incarnations varied from a former holiday camp on the windy east coast, once used by car workers from the Midlands, to Roedean, the exclusive girls' boarding school near Brighton. Determination and creativity worked wonders; fresh paint and the White Ensign did the rest.
But here in Vernon it was another ordered, disciplined day. Classes being marched from one instruction to another. Some men grouped around stripped torpedoes, or sliced-open models of moored or magnetic mines. Squads in diving gear flopping down to the dock like ungainly frogs, urged on by torpedo gunners' mates who were never short of rough encouragement.
In the main office section which adjoined two heavily protected bunkers, one door stood apart from all the others.
It was marked, UNDERWATER WEAPONS — PASSIVE.
That alone had caused some blunt and lurid outbursts from trainee and instructor alike.
There was one marked difference about this day. A flag officer was making an inspection. More to the point, it was The Admiral, as far as Vernon was concerned.
Rear-Admiral "Bumper" Fawcett was liable to appear at almost any time. At Vernon, or aboard a depot ship at some awkward moment to observe a diving exercise or demand explanations for any delay or incompetence. Fawcett had been retired from the service between the wars and living on a commander's half-pay; he had eagerly returned to the only life he cared about. Those who knew him either admired or hated him; there were no half-measures. It went for the man, too. A goer, they called him, a character: charming when he so intended, ruthless when he did not.
He had commanded a submarine in the Great War, one of the first ocean-going boats of around eight hundred tons. He had been lucky and successful until the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign and the eventual retreat from Gallipoli. Fawcett's command had attempted to penetrate the Turkish defences but had gone aground. Later, when he had managed to free himself and surface in safer waters, he had received a curt signal from his admiral. Where were you?
Just as curtly, Fawcett had responded, Bumping along the bottom!
The signal was never recorded. The nickname, however, had stuck.
But memories were long in the Royal Navy, and Fawcett's career had been cut short even as the clouds of war were becoming obvious.
The office was much like others in this administrative building. It faced Vernon Creek where smaller craft came and went daily, with a view beyond the little inlet to the heavier places of work, the machine shops and experimental sheds. Filing cases lined one side of the room, and there was a long rack hung with clips of signals above carefully labelled lockers. By the window was a large desk with trays of more signals, already sorted, and an updated duty board, so that the great man could see at a glance anything he needed to know.
On a clear day there was still a good view of the creek and the boats, but it had rained overnight and the window, like all the others, was almost encased in stacked and white-painted sandbags: this was Portsmouth, and the enemy was only an hour's flying time away. The deep crack in one wall had been repaired and painted over, but it was testimony enough.
A Wren third officer was sitting behind the desk, legs crossed, with a telephone to one ear, and another on the waiting switch. An unfinished cup of tea stood near her free hand, with a smudge of lipstick on the rim. She was tired, and had been here since dawn. She was used to it.
She glanced at her watch as the door opened and closed, the cold air swirling briefly around her ankles. Like herself, he must have been up and out early. Lieutenant-Commander David Masters tossed his cap onto a chair.
"Where is he, Sally?"
Masters walked to the steampipes and held his hands over them. He had come straight from his quarters near the main gate without stopping for breakfast in the mess, although he had scrounged some coffee from one of the stewards. He could still taste the bitterness. No wonder they called it "U-Boat oil."
He tried to clear his mind, to prepare for whatever new scheme or suggestion Bumper Fawcett might have dreamed up.
His eyes automatically scanned the clipboards and the lists of names, those on duty, those ashore. He did not see the girl watching him, as if she was trying to understand, to recognize something.
Masters was 29 years old, but had the authority and natural confidence of one much older. A keen, interesting face, with deep lines at the mouth, and a clenching of the jaw that told of that other man, the one which made the Wren officer frown as she answered the second call. The Beehive was a giant concrete bunker, which was separated from here by a long underground corridor. Brightly lit at every hour and built to withstand anything, it was the nerve centre for the most important and delicate tests and experiments.
Masters could remember Fawcett's first visit there. He had glanced around cheerfully at the staff and technicians, and said, "Well, if the worst happens, you'll all be safe enough down here, what?"
But he had been quick to learn; he never seemed to make the same mistake twice. The Beehive was in fact reinforced to protect the rest of the base if any explosion occurred. Those inside would be obliterated.
Masters walked to the other desk, his own. There was a miniature mine on it as a paperweight, which had been presented to somebody or other in 1940. There was not a face he did not know, or remember. They came and went, promoted, decorated, killed in action, missing. And I am still here.
He straightened his back and immediately checked himself. He did not need to test either his feelings or his memory. It would always be there.
The Wren said, "He's leaving the Ops Room, sir."
Masters glanced at the mirror which hung by the steel helmets and the notices about gas attacks and "careless talk costs lives." Someone had brought it back from a party aboard one of the sweepers.
In one corner there was a picture of a voluptuous, scantily clad girl, and the advertisement read, Try one of mine. The offer was unclear but a few suggestions had been scratched underneath.
He touched the pale, comma-shaped scar on his left cheek. It had been that close.
The door was opened by one of the lieutenants, and Rear-Admiral Bumper Fawcett, his cap with its double embellishment of gold oak leaves tilted at the familiar angle, embraced the room.
"Ah, Masters, glad to find you up an' about at least, what?"
He did not shake hands; he never did unless with some senior officer, when it was unavoidable. Masters had become used to these irregular and unorthodox visits. Resentment was pointless: it was just Fawcett's way.
He had in fact been shaving at five-thirty when the blare of Reveille had shattered the silence and sent the gulls screaming up from the parade ground and the roof of Vernon's little church. Across the harbour and the barracks bugles had sounded, and from hundreds of tannoys in ships of all classes and sizes quartermasters had added their own chorus to the squeal of boatswains' calls.
Wakey wakey, rise and shine! And the response of as many curses.
But the most remarkable thing about Fawcett was his appearance. Until a day ago he had been at the naval base in Portland; this morning he must have been driven straight down the Portsmouth Road either from his quarters in London or the Admiralty bunker itself. There was not a crease in his impeccable doeskin uniform, and his shoes shone as if they had just been polished, and as he laid his cap on the desk and flashed the Wren a smile his hair looked as if it had been recently trimmed; it always did. Not a tall man, and not prone to quick gestures, yet he gave the immediate impression of energy. Now in his fifties, he had an alert, mobile face dominated by clear blue eyes, as if the younger Fawcett were still looking out.
The door closed behind the harassed lieutenant and Fawcett said, "Your people are on their toes, I'm pleased to see. Too much over-confidence in some of the places I've been lately." Then, "Any tea going, Sally?"
He rarely got a name wrong, and never with women. She picked up another telephone and nodded. "Sir."
Masters had noticed the admiral's tan, and felt another unreasonable touch of envy. Fawcett had been sent to Sicily; the first thrust in the right direction, he had called it.
It had once seemed unattainable. After the months, the years, of setbacks and disasters, Dunkirk, the constant bombings and the inability to hit back, the Atlantic and the U-Boats scattering and savaging desperately needed convoys, and even the gallant Eighth Army retreating to the very gates of Cairo. And now everything had changed. The Eighth Army, the Desert Rats as they were known to everyone who could read a newspaper or watch a newsreel, had turned at some unheard of place called El Alamein. Not only had they withstood the full might of the German Afrika Korps, under its equally formidable general Rommel, but they had broken the enemy and sent them into full retreat. Now the only Germans in North Africa were dead or prisoners of war. The invasion of Sicily had been the first step back into Europe. A combined force of British, American, and Canadian troops, supported by every available warship, had carried out the landings. It had been decided that July was the most favourable month in the Mediterranean, especially for men in landing craft attacking in deadly earnest for the first time. The weather had turned out to be the worst for that time of year anyone could remember, but in three weeks they had done it. Masters looked over at the admiral. He was leafing through the top file of signals, his rectangle of bright medal ribbons shining in the harsh overhead lighting.
It would be Italy next. And soon. And this time the enemy would be ready. It would take every skill in the book to win.
And I shall still be here.
Fawcett said casually, "I've been visiting the submariners too, y'know. First Sea Lord's idea. Wanted a frank report, for the P.M., actually." He paused, one neat hand separating the signals, as if expecting an answer. "We all laughed at the Italians when they started messing about with their two-man torpedoes and explosive motor boats, what? Until they sank the cruiser York a couple of years ago in Crete, and then penetrated Alexandria itself to fix mines to Valiant and Queen Elizabeth. A handful of determined men, and the whole fleet knocked sideways, just like that!"
There was a tap at the door and a small Wren entered with a tray of cups and saucers.
Masters saw the admiral's clear eyes move briefly to her. "You were a submariner yourself. You can't turn your back on it. D'you imagine I don't understand how you feel about this work you're doing?" The hand came up in an unhurried signal. "It has been my experience that courage and self-sacrifice are just as necessary, indeed vital, in the work of defence. As much, if not more, than the more heady individual acts."
Another tap at the door, a leading signalman this time, with a pot of tea. Masters breathed out slowly. What is the matter with me? Why today?
Were a submariner. That was it. Always lurking, like a wound, like guilt. Perhaps they were right, and he was more suited here, or in some other office. Lucky, some might say.
Were a submariner. Only words, and casually spoken. Or were they?
The memory was as sharp as yesterday.
There is no other moment like it. Any submarine commander knows it.
His first command. Putting to sea without the dockyard people and the staff officers watching and making criticisms and suggestions. And later, after the commanding officer's final course, "the perisher" as it was aptly termed, with the new boat and company. Tornado, a T-Class boat, had left harbour on a morning not unlike this, grey sky, the sea like heaving pewter, to most other craft just another submarine leaving port. Going to war.
But on that day nothing else had mattered. He knew Fawcett was talking to the leading signalman, bridging the gap. He always made a point of it.
He tried to push the memory away. But the moment remained. The first time ...
A glance around the open bridge. Feeling the excitement, sharing it with the two lookouts.
Then, as if prompted, "Clear the bridge!" He could see the last lookout's face as he jumped down through the oval hatch. Their eyes had met, just for a second, but Masters remembered it. He had been only a boy.
Still clear, incisive. Lowering his face to the voicepipe, picturing the features and the minds of the men beneath his feet.
"Dive! Dive! Dive!" The scream of the klaxon.
Instant and vital, the craft and the man as one. Just once he had stared over the grey steel screen, had held his breath as the sea had boiled up over the stem and along the casing to surge around the four-inch gun as Tornado went into her dive.
And there it was. Like a flaw in a photograph, a brief gleam as it twisted in the glare before it vanished under the hull, and exploded.
He had heard nothing, nor had he remembered what had happened. Only the aftermath. The pain. The sympathy. The inquiry. He had never heard the announcement; there were enough of them in those days, anyway.
The Secretary of the Admiralty regrets to announce the loss of His Majesty's Submarine Tornado. Next of kin have been informed.
There were no survivors. They lay with the shattered hull, all 58 of them, including the lookout with the excited grin.
He was coming out of it slowly. Were a submariner.
His first command. And his last.
He stared at the mirror again, imagining for a moment that Fawcett had asked him something and was expecting an answer. The admiral had not got up this early just to pass the time of day.
But it was not that. The leading signalman had gone, and the Wren Sally was covering the telephone with her fingers as she always did.
Fawcett was shaking his head. "I distinctly told them!" It must have upset what he had been about to say.
She did not give in. "Classified, sir."
Fawcett snapped, "Bloody hell!" and almost snatched the receiver from her. "I left instructions. Orders ..." He broke off and stepped away from the desk. "Where? When?" He reached down, removing the telephone flex from around the teapot; he did it with great care. Then he said quietly, "Took you long enough."
Masters waited. He could sense Fawcett's uncertainty, irresolution. Like discovering a secret about somebody you thought you knew as well as he would ever let you.
"You're certain, then? Critchley?" He nodded once. "Keep me posted." He handed the telephone to the Wren officer without expression.
Excerpted from Twelve Seconds To Live by Douglas Reeman. Copyright © 2002 Bolitho Maritime Production Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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