It's 1945 and the war has ended in Europe but the hate and devastation linger on. Lt. Vere Marriott of the Royal Navy and men are moored in Kiel harbor, witness to the disintegration of the once mighty German Navy. For them the fighting's over; now they have a chance to make a tidy profit--and to take bitter revenge.
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The White Guns
By Douglas Reeman
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1989 Highseas Authors Ltd.
All rights reserved.
The Confined Waters of the Baltic Sea have moods and hazards as varied as the countries which enclose it, from Finland in the north to the gentler shores of Denmark and the turbulent currents of the Kattegat which divides it from Sweden.
This particular morning, with May just a few days old, was no exception; if anything, the air, chilling and heavy with damp, was hostile, as if it knew the reason for this day being different from any other.
The early sunlight was masked by low clouds, and when it touched the sea's face it was hard and metallic, so that the water looked like burnished pewter. When the sun was hidden, the same sea appeared darker, the colour of lead.
The small flotilla of vessels moving slowly south towards the approaches to Kiel Bay kept station close together, as if they too sensed the air of menace and uncertainty. Their engines, throttled down to hold the group in visual company at all times, rumbled across the water, and as an occasional glimpse of land loomed up to starboard the crews who stood to their action stations could hear the echoes thrown back from the shore.
It was a place very few had been before, and only those old enough to have recalled the days of peace might have remembered or recognised the names on the chart.
For this was May 1945, and after nearly six years of war British ships were penetrating the Baltic, where none but a handful of reckless submariners had been able to grope their way to carry their particular skills to the enemy's coastal convoys.
This group of vessels was small but no less deadly. A pair of lithe motor gunboats, butting through the choppy water as if they resented being reined down from their spectacular thirty knots — more with a following wind as some claimed. A trio of motor launches, very similar in design with their low bridges and raked bows, but lacking the MGBs' formidable armament, followed by a long-funnelled salvage vessel. Dull grey like the clouds, all the hulls glistening in spray, guns manned as if expecting to be challenged.
The leading MGB, her number 801 painted on either bow, might appear to any landsman to be as smart as the day she had first tasted salt water in 1942. But the old scars were still visible despite the paint. Three years of war at close quarters. Seeking out the enemy, E-Boats and other such vessels, whose crews were just as dedicated and determined to win, or simply to survive. From Iceland to the Med, the English Channel and up to the North Sea, manned for the most part by hostilities-only officers and ratings, schoolboys and clerks, milk roundsmen and taxi drivers, they had proved in blood that they were more than able to adapt to the demands of war, despite the cost which had hit them harder than most.
Lieutenant Vere Marriott, the commanding officer of MGB 801, rested his elbows on the screen and levelled his powerful binoculars on a spur of land; as he had done countless times, so many that they were beyond measure. He was twenty-six years old, and apart from getting the "feel" of the navy in an elderly V & W class destroyer had spent all his time in Light Coastal Forces, in both MTBs and gunboats like this one. Covering the desert army in retreat along the North African coast, then turning to share the unbelievable change of fortune when the battered, bloodied veterans of the Eighth Army had stood firm at a place called El Alamein, a name which had previously been barely worth noting on any map or chart. After years of setbacks, both naval and military, their luck had changed. Rommel's crack Afrika Korps had been driven back. It never stopped until the German divisions were out of Africa and across to Sicily and Italy, harried all the way by craft like this one.
Marriott half-listened to the muffled growl of the four great Packard engines and watched some bobbing wreckage drift slowly abeam.
His had been a different command then. Once again he felt his stomach muscles contract as if anticipating a blow, his jaw tightening while he tried to push the memory from his mind.
This should have been a different day. Eleven months since the great Allied invasion of Normandy, and now they were here, following the German coastline, heading for Kiel. A place often mentioned in news bulletins, being bombed around the clock but still able to hit back, to build and offer sanctuary to the U-Boats which for the second time in a generation had almost brought Britain to starvation and defeat.
To most, Kiel was more legend than reality. Marriott recalled seeing a film before the war called The Spy in Black, with Conrad Veidt playing the Kaiser's U-Boat captain who had been chosen to penetrate Scapa Flow and attack the Grand Fleet. It was just a coincidence, perhaps, that Günther Prien had done exactly that in this war in U-47, and had torpedoed the battleship Royal Oak, and laid her on the bottom with great loss of life.
He heard seaboots clattering up from the chart-room, which was hunched just forward of the square, open bridge.
Sub-Lieutenant Mike Fairfax RNVR, second-in-command of MGB 801 but still weeks away from his twenty-first birthday, watched him gravely before saying, "It feels different."
"Yes, Number One." Marriott wanted to shake his hand, to laugh, even cry, but could find no proper emotion. All those faces, wiped away but not forgotten, the months and the years, the elation and the stark terror which tore at your guts like claws. It was over, they said. All but the actual signatures and the flag-waving.
Germany had collapsed. The impossible dream was still as hard to face, let alone accept, as the fact of their own survival.
Of course there was always Japan, the other theatre in the Pacific. Errol Flynn's war. But that was later. This was here and now.
He glanced over the screen at the forecastle, the power-operated six-pounder with Leading Seaman Townsend testing the sights, the slender muzzle moving very slightly from bow to bow. Was that how he felt?
Like other MGBs of her class she carried a company of thirty officers and ratings. The boat had served them well and was paying for it. The hull had been holed and patched many times. Exploding bombs from the aircraft nobody had spotted in time. Enemy tracer, cannon fire and white-hot splinters which could rip a man apart. The thick pusser's paint covered a multitude of sins. But her engines were good and she could still respond when roused. Stronger than anything faster. Faster than anything stronger. That combination had saved their bacon many times. For her size she was heavily armed. Along her one hundred and fifteen feet she mounted two 6-pounders, the slender-barrelled Oerlikons and a selection of machine guns both heavy and light, as well as a few unlawful ones which they had "come by" along the way.
Fairfax gauged his mood with practised care. He had joined the boat just before last Christmas after serving as third-hand in a smaller Vosper boat at Felixstowe. He could still recall his dismay when he had been told who his next skipper was to be.
Lieutenant Vere Marriott, holder of the DSC and Bar, had been one of the legends in Coastal Forces. But that had been earlier, before D-Day and the Normandy invasion. In these boats life was fast and furious. When they had nothing more interesting to write about, the newspapers would sometimes describe these young veterans as heroes. It usually brought derision from Fairfax's companions. In their kind of warfare there were only two sorts. The quick and the dead.
Marriott had been twenty-six. That had seemed incredibly old to Fairfax. His friends had suggested that Marriott might be over the hill. It had not helped.
But, in the months since then, Fairfax had come to feel something for his grave-eyed skipper which was closer to love than mere respect. The latter seemed insignificant when he had seen what Marriott had done to weld a mixed collection of characters into a team, into one company. Many of the hands had come from other boats. Men who had seen their comrades drown or die in a dozen different ways. Those who had trod water and had watched their boats take that last dive. In their small, compact world each man relied on the other. He had to. There was nobody else when the flak started to fly.
Marriott had spared nobody, least of all his first lieutenant. The real test had been when they had encountered E-Boats off the Hook of Holland. They had been sent to cover an attack by MTBs on a small enemy convoy. With day and night air raids reducing Germany's railways and roads to a shambles, such convoys had become doubly important. It had been a quick, savage embrace, with two E-Boats and one MTB blasted apart, lighting up the night sky in their death agony before darkness closed in again, and friend and foe alike ran like assassins for their bases at full throttle.
Marriott's behaviour then had taught Fairfax much about his commander. He had handled the boat like a thoroughbred, not one which had almost come to the end of her useful life.
Marriott felt he was being watched and thought he knew what Fairfax was thinking. He liked Fairfax. He was bright, cheerful, and good at his job. In action he behaved like a veteran, but he succeeded in looking like a hurt schoolboy when Marriott had torn him off a strip. Schoolboy. He had been just that when he had joined up for the duration.
Marriott had sworn he would never allow himself to get too close to anyone else again. Not after ... He slammed the door on his thoughts and said, "I wonder how Cuff is getting on back there?"
Lieutenant Leo Glazebrook, known as "Cuff," commanded another of the MGBs which had been detached earlier to investigate a W/T report of small craft moving along the coast.
Cuff was one of the originals of the flotilla. Marriott had bumped into him several times during his service. In the Channel, then out to the Med where he had been sent to run guns to Tito's partisans in Yugoslavia who were fully stretched fighting their own war against the German and Italian occupation forces.
Then Normandy. Cuff was always around. Marriott bit his lip. So what was it, envy? Because Cuff was ending the war in his own boat, one he had commanded for over two years — a lifetime in this regiment?
Marriott glanced at the men around him, taut and tense, watching the sea, the sky, everything.
Why could he not accept this boat as his own? He looked at the coxswain as he stood swaying slightly behind the wheel. A one-badge petty officer named Robert Evans, or so it said in his paybook. Another mystery. A bloody good coxswain, always the vital link between officers and ratings. He had dark hair and a swarthy skin, a firm mouth, and eyes which were very steady, unnerving sometimes when he looked at a defaulter or some skate who had overstayed his run ashore. Like black olives. Originally Welsh, but one who had lived for much of his life in the Channel Islands.
Evans had worked with the Special Boat Squadron, the cloak-and-dagger brigade. He spoke fluent French, perhaps because of his time in the Channel Islands, but there was something more to him than his papers explained. How did he feel now? Jersey, his home, had been the only part of Britain to be overrun and occupied by the Germans. If he had family there he said nothing of them. A withdrawn, remote man, but one who was respected by the youthful company and even the hard men who had been no strangers to the navy's detention quarters.
Marriott's thoughts returned to the missing MGB. Cuff was taking his time. It was to be hoped he was being careful despite the alleged victory. Marriott recalled their arrival off Copenhagen. When was that? Yesterday? The day before? He bit back a yawn. None of them had slept much since leaving England.
But that was how he had imagined it might be. The wildly excited, often tearful Danes, hugging the begrimed, grinning Tommies as they had marched up from the harbour. The announcement from Field-Marshal Montgomery's HQ that all German resistance in Holland, North-West Germany and Denmark was at an end. Even Heligoland and the Friesian Islands had surrendered.
The MGBs had paused only to take on more fuel from an army supply column and had been instantly swamped by elated towns-people from that enchanting city. Hugs and kisses, hoarded aquavit and brandy — Marriott had had his hand pumped by so many people he had been dazed by their gratitude.
How long would it last, he wondered? As in France, the so-called patriots would soon be revealed as collaborators by the dedicated few of the real Resistance whose strength had been sustained over the years by hate, by seeing their friends captured and executed.
"Ship, sir! Port bow!"
"Stand to!" Marriott raised his glasses and felt his heart pumping against his ribs. Surely not now? There had been talk of some German commanders refusing to give in, of those who had scuttled their vessels rather than surrender them to their old enemies.
It had even been reported that the island of Bornholm was being reinforced by troops fleeing the Russian advance, and that the German commander was preparing to defend the town from anyone who came near.
Fairfax lowered his glasses and gave a quick, tight grin.
"It's Captain (D), sir."
A figure at the opposite corner of the bridge straightened his back.
Leading Signalman Silver, nicknamed Long John, needless to say, gave a grunt. "Here they come, bags of swagger — showin' off as usual!"
The big destroyer tore down on the slow-moving group, a huge moustache foaming from her bow-wave, the spray a dirty yellow in the strange glare. Beyond her would be other destroyers and some cruisers, support craft, and landing ships packed with soldiers.
Marriott watched the impressive display, the glint of filtered sunlight on the destroyer's glass screen, and those further away as they swung in obedience to their leader.
A light stabbed across the water like a diamond-bright eye.
"Signal from Captain (D), sir." Silver's lips moved soundlessly as he read it. "Take care. No one is completely on your side!"
Marriott thought of all the brittle but witty signals he had seen and heard even in the face of death. What was wrong now? Nobody laughed. He stiffened as a loud boom echoed through the haze and spray and felt the explosion sigh against the hull as if it had touched a sandbar. They looked at each other and then Silver added, "From Captain (D), sir."
Marriott faced him. "Well?"
Silver showed his teeth. "Re my last signal. Delete 'completely'."
"That's all we need!" Fairfax spoke with feeling.
But a few moments later they saw the ungainly salvage vessel signalling from astern.
Cuff was coming to rejoin them. The explosion must have been his.
Marriott thrust his hand into his oilskin's pocket and closed it around his pipe. Even that felt damp.
Perhaps they had all just been holding on and nothing else? And had no more to give?
"Signal, sir." Silver was studying him impassively. "Take station on me."
"Very well. Bring her round to port, Swain."
He turned to watch his men at their familiar stations, their white sweaters touched with grease from the guns, their eyes peering into the clouds and towards the hazy shoreline.
At Normandy it had been almost a frantic, last-ditch display. Best uniforms, cheers and madness even when the bombardment had engulfed the brave little ships. In the midst of it all, the blazing tanks as they were marked down within minutes of rumbling from the LSTs, the smoke and the roar of gunfire from the bombarding squadrons beyond the horizon; as men cursed and died, others had pressed forward; there was even that crazy soldier with the bagpipes. What would make a man act like that with death just yards away?
The men near him looked worn out, old before their time. Yet there were only six aboard who were over twenty-one. You would never have known. A grimy hand passed a signal flimsy up to the bridge from the W/T cabinet. Marriott read it carefully, then re-read it as his eyes blurred. He knew that the third-hand had joined them, as if he had guessed. SubLieutenant John Lowes was eighteen years old, with this his first proper appointment. For him at least it had to be right. Marriott tried to picture the others he had known as if he could feel them too. Watching, waiting for him to make it worthwhile even though they could never share it. Now.
He said quietly, "Pass the word. This is from the Admiralty. Official. All German armed forces have surrendered. The war is over." He looked at the youthful Lowes. "Put it in the log, Pilot. May the eighth 1945 is to be known as Victory in Europe Day."
Excerpted from The White Guns by Douglas Reeman. Copyright © 1989 Highseas Authors Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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