The sequel to Alistair MacLean’s
Force 10 from Navarone
To David Burnett
The radar operator said, ‘Contact. Three bloody contacts. Jesus.’
The Liberator dipped a wing, bucking heavily as it carved through one of the squalls of cloud streaming over the Atlantic towards Cabo Ortegal, at the top left-hand corner of Spain. ‘Language,’ said the pilot mildly. ‘Bomb-aimer?’
Down in the nose the bomb-aimer said, ‘Ready.’ The pilot’s leather-gloved hand went to the throttles. The note of the four Pratt and Whitney engines climbed to a tooth-rattling roar. The pilot eased the yoke forward. Girders creaking, the Liberator bounced down into the clouds.
Vapour streamed past the bomb-aimer’s Perspex window, thick and grey as coal smoke. At five hundred feet it became patchy. There was sea down there: grey sea, laced with nets of foam.
The bomb-aimer’s mouth was dry. Just looking at the heave of that sea made you feel sick. But there was something else: a wide, smooth road across those rough-backed swells, as if they had been ironed -
‘See them yet?’ said the pilot.
The bomb-aimer could hear his heart beat, even above the crackle of the intercom and the roar of the engines. ‘See them,’ he said.
At the end of the smooth road three long, low hulls were tearing chevrons of foam from the sea. The hulls were slim and grey, with streamlined conning towers. Slim, grey sitting ducks.
‘They’re bloody enormous,’ said the radar operator, peering over the pilot’s shoulder. ‘What the hell are they?’
They were submarines, but submarines twice the size of any British or German craft the pilot had seen in four years of long flights over weary seas that had made him an expert on submarines. They were indeed bloody enormous.
The pilot frowned at the foam-crested waves of their wakes. Hard to tell, of course, but they looked as if they were making at least thirty-five knots. If they were theirs, thought the pilot, they could really do some damage. Hope they’re ours -
Glowing red balls rose lazily from the conning towers and flicked past the cockpit canopy.
‘Theirs,’ said the pilot, slamming the plane into a tight 180° turn. The tracers had stripped him of his mildness. ‘Commencing run.’
There was a lot of tracer now, pouring past the Liberator’s cockpit, mixed with the black puffs of heavier flak. The Liberator bucked, its rivets groaning in the heat-wrenched sky. The bomb-aimer tried not to think about his unprotected belly, and closed his mind to the bad-egg fumes of the shell bursts and the yammer of the nose-gunner’s Brownings above his head.
‘Funny,’ said the pilot. ‘Why aren’t they diving?’
The bomb-aimer stared into his sight. ‘Bomb doors open,’ he said. He felt the new tremor of the airframe as the doors spoilt the streamlining. The sight filled with grey and wrinkled sea. The submarines swam in V-formation down the stepladder markings towards the release point, innocent as three trout in a stream, except for the lazy red bubbles of the tracer.
The bomb-aimer frowned, pressing his face into the eyepiece of the sight. There was something wrong with the submarine in the middle. The deck forward of the conning tower looked twisted and bent. Christ, thought the bomb-aimer, someone’s rammed her. Nearly cut her in half. That’s why she’s not diving. She’s damaged -
Something burst with a clang out on the port side. Icy air was suddenly howling at the bomb-aimer’s neck. The little submarines in the bomb-sight drifted off to starboard. ‘Right a bit,’ said the bomb-aimer, calmly, over the hammer of his heart. ‘Right a bit.’ The three grey fish slid back onto the line. ‘Steady.’ His leather thumb found the release button. The tracer was horrible now, thick as a blizzard. The bomb-aimer concentrated on hoping that Pearl in the mess wouldn’t overcook his bloody egg again, like cement it was yesterday -
‘Steady,’ he said. The grey triangle was half an inch from the release point. ‘Going,’ he said. ‘Going-’
A giant hammer smashed into the fuselage somewhere behind him. He felt a terrible agony in his left leg. Hit, he thought. Bastard hit us. His hand clenched on the bomb-release button. He felt the upward bound of the aircraft as the depth charges dropped free.
Too early, he thought.
Then there was no more thinking, because his face was full of smoke and his head was full of the agony of a leg broken in four places, and someone was howling like a dog, and as the grey clouds reached down and closed their hands round the Liberator, he realised that the person making all that racket was him.
Ten minutes later the radar operator finished the dressing and threw the morphine syrette out of one of the rents torn in the fuselage by the shell. He thought the bomb-aimer looked bloody awful, but then compound fractures are not guaranteed to bring a smile to the lips. To cheer him up, the radar operator gave him the thumbs up and mouthed, ‘Got one!’ Through pink clouds of morphine the bomb-aimer saw his lips move, and tried to look interested.
‘Hit one,’ said the radar operator. ‘Saw smoke. One was damaged already, looked like someone rammed it. And we hit at least one.’ But of course he might as well have been talking to himself because you couldn’t hear anything, what with the engines and a sodding great hole in the fuselage, and anyway, the bomb-aimer was asleep.
Bloody great U-boats, though, thought the radar operator. Never seen anything like them before. Not that big. Nor that fast.
The Liberator droned north and west across the Bay of Biscay, above the corrugated mat of cloud, towards the Coastal Command base at St-Just. There the crew, nervously preoccupied with the hardness of their eggs, were comprehensively debriefed.
Andrea stared at Jensen. The huge Greek’s face was horror-stricken. ‘Say again?’ he said.
‘A job,’ said Captain Jensen. He was standing in a shaft of Italian sun that gleamed on his sharp white teeth and the gold braid on the brim of his cap. ‘Just a tiny little job, really. And I thought, since the three of you were here anyway
As always, Jensen was dreadfully crisp, his uniform sparkling white, his stance upright and alert, the expression on his bearded face innocent but slightly piratical. The three men in the chairs looked the reverse of crisp. Their faces were hollow with exhaustion. They sat as if they had been dropped into their seats from a height. The visible parts of their bodies were laced with sticking plaster and red with Mercurochrome. They looked one step away from being stone-dead.
But Jensen knew better.
It had cost him considerable effort to assemble this team. There was Mallory, who before the war had been a mountaineer, world-famous for his Himalayan exploits, and conqueror of most of the unclimbed peaks in the Southern Alps of his native New Zealand. Mallory had spent eighteen months behind enemy lines in Crete with the man sitting next to him: Andrea. The gigantic Andrea, strong as a team of bulls, quiet as a shadow, a full colonel in the Greek army, and one of the deadliest irregular soldiers ever to knife a sentry. And then there was Corporal Dusty Miller from Chicago, member of the Long Range Desert Force, sometime deserter, goldminer, and bootlegger. If it existed, Miller could wreck it. Miller had a genius for sabotage equalled only by his genius for insubordination.
But Jensen valued soldiers for their fighting ability, not their standard of turnout. In Jensen’s view these men were very useful indeed.
The gleam of those carnivorous teeth hurt Andrea’s eyes. It does not take much to hurt your eyes, when you have not slept for the best part of a fortnight.
‘A tiny little job,’ said Mallory. His face was gaunt and pouchy. Like Andrea, he was by military standards badly in need of a shave. ‘Are you going to tell us about it?’
The grin widened. ‘I thought maybe you would be feeling a bit unreceptive.’
Corporal Dusty Miller had been almost horizontal in a leather-buttoned chair, staring with more than academic interest at the frescoed nudes on the ceiling of the villa Jensen had commandeered as his HQ. Now he spoke. That never stopped you before,’ he said.
Jensen’s bushy right eyebrow rose a millimetre. This was not the way that captains in the Royal Navy were accustomed to being addressed by ordinary corporals.
But Dusty Miller was not an ordinary corporal, in the same way that Captain Mallory was not an ordinary captain, or for that matter, Andrea was not an ordinary Greek Resistance fighter. Because of their lack of ordinariness, Jensen knew that he would have to treat them with a certain respect: the same sort of respect you would give three deadly weapons with which you wished to do damage to the enemy.
For in that room full of soldiers who were not ordinary soldiers, Jensen was not an ordinary naval captain. As an eighteen-year-old lieutenant, he had run a successful Q-ship, sinking eight U-boats in the final year of the 14-18 war. Between the wars he had been, frankly, a spy. He had led Shiite risings in Iraq; penetrated a scheme to block the Suez Canal; and as a marine surveyor employed by the Imperial Japanese Navy, perpetrated a set of alarmingly but intentionally inaccurate charts of the Sulu Sea. Now, in the fifth year of the war, he was Chief of Operations of the Subversive Operations Executive. Some said that Allied victory at El Alamein had been partly due to SOE’s clandestine substitution of a carborundum paste for grease in a fuel dump. And in the last month he had successfully planned the destruction of the impregnable battery of Navarone, and the diversionary raid in Yugoslavia that had led to the fall of the Gustav Line and the breakout from the Anzio beachhead.
But Jensen had only done the planning. These three men – Mallory, the New Zealander, a taciturn mountaineer, tough as a commando knife; the American Dusty Miller, an Einstein among saboteurs; and Andrea, the two-hundred-and-fifty-pound man-mountain with the quietness of a cat and the strength of a bear – were the weapons he had used.
If there were deadlier weapons in the world Jensen’s enquiries had failed to reveal them. And Jensen’s enquiries were notoriously very searching indeed.
‘So,’ he said. ‘Any of you gentlemen speak French?’
Mallory frowned. ‘German,’ he said. ‘Greek.’
Andrea yawned and covered his mouth with a gigantic hand, still covered in bandages from the abrasions he had sustained holding onto the iron rungs of a ladder under the flume of water from the bursting Zenitsa dam.
‘I do,’ said Dusty Miller.
‘I had a job in Montreal once,’ said Miller, his eyes blue and innocent. ‘Doorman in a cathouse.’
‘Thank you, Corporal,’ said Jensen.
‘Il n’y a pas de quoi,’ said Miller, with old-world courtesy.
‘We’ve found you some interpreters,’ said Jensen.
Mallory sighed inwardly. He knew Jensen. When Jensen wanted you aboard, you were aboard, and the only thing to do was to check the location of the life jackets provided, and settle in for the ride. He said, ‘If you don’t mind me asking, sir, why do we need to speak French?’
Jensen grinned a grin that would have looked impressive on a hungry shark. He walked across the bronze carpet to the huge ormolu desk, bare except for two telephones, one red, one black. He said, ‘There is someone I want you to meet.’ He picked up the black telephone. ‘Sergeant,’ he said. ‘Please send in the gentlemen in the waiting room.’
Mallory gazed at the veining on a marble pillar. Aircraft were droning overhead, flying air support for the troops advancing north from the wreckage of the Gustav Line. He lit another cigarette, the taste of the last one still bitter in his mouth. He wanted to sleep for a week. Make that a month -
The door opened, and two men came in. One of them was a tall major with a Guards moustache. The other was shorter, stocky and bull-necked, with three pips on his epaulettes.
‘Major Dyas. Intelligence,’ said Jensen. ‘And Captain Killigrew. SAS.’
Major Dyas nodded. Captain Killigrew fixed each man in turn with a searching glare. His face was brick-red from the sun, and something that Mallory decided was anger. Mallory returned his salute. Andrea nodded and, being a foreigner, got away with it. Dusty Miller remained horizontal in his chair, acknowledging Killigrew by opening one eye and raising a bony hand.
Killigrew swelled like a toad. Jensen’s ice-blue eyes flicked between the two men. He said quickly, ‘Take a seat, Captain. Major, do your stuff.’
Killigrew lowered himself stiffly onto a hard chair, on which he sat bolt upright, not touching the backrest.
‘Yah,’ said Dyas. ‘You may smoke.’ Mallory and Miller were already smoking. Dyas ran his hand over his high, intellectual forehead. He could have been a doctor, or a professor of philosophy.
Jensen said, ‘Major Dyas has kindly agreed to brief you on the background to this … little job.’ Mallory leaned back in his chair. He was still tired, but soon there would be something to override the tiredness. The same something he remembered from huts in the Southern Alps, after a gruelling approach march, two hours’ sleep, and waking in the dark chill before dawn. Soon there would be no way to go but up and over. Climbing and fighting: plan your campaign, grit your teeth, do the job or die in the attempt. There were similarities.
‘Now then,’ said Dyas. ‘To start with. What you are about to hear is known to only seven men in the world, now ten, including you. Other people have the individual bits and pieces, but what counts is the … totality.’ He paused to stuff tobacco into a blackened pipe, and applied an oil well-sized Zippo. ‘June is going to be an important month of this war,’ he said from inside a rolling cloud of smoke. ‘Probably the most important yet.’ Miller’s eyes had opened. Andrea was sitting forward in his chair, massive forearms on his stained khaki knees. ‘We are going to take a gamble,’ said Dyas. ‘A big gamble. And we want you to adjust the odds for us.’
Miller said, ‘Trust Captain Jensen to run a crooked game.’
‘Sorry?’ said Dyas.
Mallory said, ‘The Corporal was expressing his enthusiasm.’
‘Ah.’ Another cloud of smoke.
Mallory could feel that jump of excitement in his stomach. ‘This gamble,’ he said. ‘A new front?’
Dyas said, ‘Put it like this. What we are going to need is complete control of the seas. We’re good in the air, we’re fine on the surface. But there’s a hitch.’ Killigrew’s face was darkening. Looks as if he’ll burst a blood vessel, thought Mallory. Wonder what he’s got to do with this.
‘Submarines,’ said Dyas. ‘U-boats. There has been an idea current that between airborne radar and asdic and huff-duff radio direction finding, we had ‘em licked.’ Another cloud of smoke. ‘An idea we all had. Until a couple of months ago.
‘In March we had a bit of trouble with some Atlantic convoys, and their escorts too. Basically, ships started to sink in a way we hadn’t seen ships sink for two years now.’ The professorial face was grim and hard. ‘And it was odd. You’d get a series of explosions in say a two-hundred-mile circle, and you’d think, same old thing, U-boats moving together, wolf pack. But it wasn’t a wolf pack, because there was no radio traffic, and the sinkings were too far apart. So then they thought it was possibly mines. But it didn’t seem to be mines either, because one day in late March HMS Frantic, an escort destroyer, picked up an echo seven hundred miles off Cape Finisterre. There had been two sinkings in the convoy. The destroyer went in pursuit, but lost it.’ He returned to his pipe.
‘Nothing unusual about that,’ said Mallory.
Dyas nodded, mildly. ‘Except that the destroyer was steaming full speed ahead at the time, and the submarine just sailed away from her.’
‘Sorry?’ said Miller.
‘The destroyer was steaming at thirty-five knots,’ said Dyas. The U-boat was doing easily five knots better than that.’
Miller said, ‘Why is this guy telling us all this stuff?’
Mallory said, ‘I think Corporal Miller would like to know the significance of this fact.’
Jensen said, ‘Excuse me, Major Dyas.’ His face wore an expression of strained patience. ‘For your information, U-boats have to spend most of their time on the surface, running their diesels to make passage and charge their batteries. Submerged, their best speed has so far been under ten knots, and they can’t keep it up for long because of the limitations of their batteries.’ His face was cold and grim, its deep creases as if carved from stone. ‘So what we’re faced with is this: the English Channel full of the biggest fleet of ships ever assembled, and these U-boats – big U-boats – carrying a hundred torpedoes each, God knows they’re big enough – travelling at forty knots, under water. We know Jerry’s got at least three of them. That could mean three hundred ships sunk, and Lord knows how many men lost.’
Miller said, ‘So you get one quick echo. Not much of a basis for total panic stations. How fast do whales swim?’
Jensen snapped, ‘Try keeping your ears open and your mouth shut.’
It was only then that Mallory saw the strain the man was under. The Jensen he knew was relaxed, with that naval quarterdeck sang-froid. Piratical, yes; aggressive, yes. Those were his stock in trade. But always calm. As long as Mallory had known Jensen, he had never known him lose his temper – not even with Dusty Miller, who did not hold with officers. But this was a Jensen balanced on a razor-honed knife’s edge.
Mallory caught Miller’s eye, and frowned. Then he said, ‘Corporal Miller’s got a point, sir.’
‘Whales,’ said Dyas. ‘Actually, we thought of that. But one has been … adding up two and two.’ His mild voice was balm to the frazzled nerves under the frescoed ceiling. ‘Another escort reported ramming a large submarine. Then a Liberator got shot up bombing two U-boats escorting a third that bore signs of having been rammed. They were huge, these boats, steaming at thirty-odd knots on the surface. The Liberator reported them as damaged. But when we sent more aircraft out to search for them, they had vanished.
‘They were reckoned to be in no state to dive, so they were presumed sunk. Then there was a message picked up – doesn’t matter what sort of message, doesn’t matter where, but take it from me, it was a reliable message – to say that the Werwolf pack was refitting after damage caused by enemy action. Said refit to be complete by noon Wednesday of the second week in May.’
It was now Sunday of the second week in May.
The painted vaults of the ceiling filled with silence. Mallory said, ‘So these submarines. What are they?’
‘Hard to say,’ said Dyas, with an academic scrupulousness that would have irritated Mallory, if he had been the sort of man who got irritated about things. ‘The Kriegsmarine have maintained pretty good security, but we’ve been able to patch a couple of ideas together. We know they’ve got a new battery system for underwater running, which stores a lot of power. A lot of power. But there’ve been rumours about something else. We think it’s more likely to be something new. Development of an idea by a chap called Walter. They’ve been working on it since the thirties. An internal combustion engine that runs under water. Burns fuel oil.’
Miller’s eyes had opened now, and he was sitting in a position that for him was almost upright. He said, ‘What in?’
‘In?’ Dyas frowned.
‘You can’t burn fuel oil under water. You need oxygen.’
‘Ah. Yes. Quite. Good question.’ Miller did not look flattered. Engines were his business. He knew how to make them run. He knew even more about destroying them. ‘Nothing definite. But they think it’s probably something like hydrogen peroxide. On the surface, you’d aspirate your engine with air, of course. As you submerged, you’d have an automatic changeover, a float switch perhaps, that would close the air intake and start up a disintegrator that would get you oxygen out of something like hydrogen peroxide. So you’d get a carbon dioxide exhaust, which would dissolve in sea water. Or so the theory goes.’
Jensen stood up. ‘Theory or no theory,’ he said, ‘they’re refitting. They must be destroyed before they can go to sea again. And you’re going to do the destroying.’
Mallory said, ‘Where are they?’
Dyas unrolled a map that hung on the wall behind him. It showed France and Northern Spain, the brown corrugations of the Pyrenees marching from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and snaking down the spine of the mountains the scarlet track of the border. He said, They were bombed off Cabo Ortegal. They couldn’t dive, so they wouldn’t have gone north. We believe that they are here.’ He picked up a billiard cue and tapped the long, straight stretch of coast that ran from Bordeaux south through Biarritz and St-Jean-de-Luz to the Spanish border.