He goes directly from headquarters to the airport, his car passing swiftly through the streets of the darkened capital, escorted by two motorcycle outriders. They are not really necessary, in the late cool hours of an autumn evening there is hardly anyone around. The light aircraft is waiting for him as they had said it would be, its engine already turning. The pilot is busy with the last of his pre-flight checks; he looks tired, exhausted in fact but salutes when he sees the Colonel’s uniform.
The Colonel makes himself as comfortable as he can in the cramped interior of the aircraft. As they climb into the night the little plane shakes and rocks in turbulence, the sound of its engine changing as it reaches altitude. His eyes probe the starless darkness outside the window but find nothing to alight on there and come to rest on the tense features of the pilot beside him, his face lit by the green glow of the instruments.
The Colonel’s hands rest on the box in his lap, they did not tell him what was in it and, professional that he is, he did not ask. His mission is a simple one; deliver it in person to the General at the beachhead. He wonders what it could contain. It isn’t heavy, wrapped in brown paper, tied with string, about sixty centimetres long and twelve centimetres square. Not papers, not maps, but what?
They had called him at eight o’clock, he had been working late. In the conference room, maps of the beachhead were laid out on the tables; he had seen at once that the situation was grave. The General Staff had looked drawn, resigned, when one of them had handed him the box he had held it reverently as if it contained something precious but the look in his eye was serious, gloomy, full of misgiving.
He might have felt annoyance at being treated as a delivery boy, but he is also glad to be going to the front, he feels the old thrill of excitement and fear, he has not seen action for a very long time. Uncomfortable in the silence he says to the pilot, “You look tired.” The pilot turns toward him, as if noticing him for the first time.
“Yes Colonel I am pretty tired.” The pilot smiles self–consciously, a rictus grin without a trace of humour. “I don’t think I’ve had more than three hours sleep in the last four days, my squadron has been flying supplies to the beachhead.”
“In this little plane?” the Colonel asks. He means it as a joke but the pilot’s smile is again mechanical, joyless.
“Yes in this little plane. We’ve got every aircraft that can carry a load dropping supplies, they’ve even attached panniers to the fighters. All they’ve told us is that the situation is critical and our soldiers need every gram we can drop them.” He hesitates for a moment as if wondering if he should continue before he says; “Our losses have been bad, we’ve lost half the squadron, I’ll be honest with you Colonel I’m quite happy to be flying this mission tonight, after we land I’ll have to go straight back.” The Colonel does not reply.
The first flush of a grey dawn is lightening the eastern sky as he picks his way swiftly along the quay. The dock is in chaos, crates of food, munitions and medical supplies are stacked everywhere, the shouts of soldiers and dock workers, the noise of cranes moving the crates onto vessels of all shapes and sizes. From one of them, a procession of orderlies brings men on stretchers, some of them whimpering in pain even as the cranes move nets filled with supplies over their heads.
He finds the quartermaster’s office, it is crowded, blazing with light that spills out onto the dock despite the blackout. Men hurry in and out clutching manifests, harassed, panicky; above the hubbub of voices two are raised in argument.
“Do you not understand? Is it not clear? The medical circumstance is beyond desperate over there; we must send these medical supplies immediately!”
“I’m sorry doctor but my orders are explicit; munitions first, food second, medicine third.”
The Colonel interrupts; “Who is in charge here?”
“I am,” says the second man. The Colonel tells him his name.
“Ah, you are here Colonel, good; your transport is waiting for you.”
It is a motor torpedo boat, roughly thirty metres in length, two torpedo tubes either side of the open bridge, two twin 20 mm gun mounts, one before the bridge and one aft, its engines throb and it sits in a reeking cloud of diesel smoke. As he walks down the companionway he sees that the crew are lashing crates and boxes to the deck.
The captain, a Second Lieutenant, is on the bridge, a cigarette dangles from his lip. He salutes and asks if the Colonel is ready. They cast off and as the boat noses its way past the mole the note of its engine changes from a steady throb to a thundering scream. As the throttles open the Lieutenant flicks his cigarette over the side, a tiny orange spark spiralling towards the sea as the boat leaps forward into the grey morning.
In the gathering light the Colonel sees that the vessel has suffered damage, there are hastily patched holes from bullets or splinters in the sides of the bridge and on her deck, the men too look exhausted; they are unshaven, their clothing rumpled and stained as if they have not changed for many days. The water is choppy now and the boat bounces from wave to wave, he holds on to the cockpit coaming as the deck pitches beneath his feet. Instinctively he hunches into his jacket and pulls his peaked cap down further as the wind of their slipstream blows strong and cold into his face. On the horizon – the enemy coast – a great dark column of smoke rises into the clouds, it looks like a funeral pyre or an omen. They are steering straight for it.
The cloud is beginning to break up, shafts of sunlight stream through its tattered edges from the dawn behind them and suddenly one of the gunners is shouting, “Enemy aircraft, seven o’clock!”
Three fighters in a loose V formation have dropped out of the low cloud and are turning toward them. The formation splits, one aircraft banks away to the port side of the boat, the other two to starboard. The Lieutenant is giving orders to the helmsman, they turn towards the two aircraft, shortening the distance between them, giving the greater threat the smaller amount of time to bring their guns to bear. They know even as they turn that the enemy fighters are herding them, for while they steer straight towards the guns of the two fighters now in front of them, the third aircraft is angling in behind and their relative speeds mean that the pilot of the third aircraft will have a much longer period of time in which to aim.
The aft guns open up and suddenly the two fighters in front of them break right and left, but the Colonel looks over their stern to the third fighter, the great disc of its propeller seems to float inches above the water, its wings catch a flash of sunlight as they rock, then a ripple of fire spreads along their length and the bullets come whistling around them. The Lieutenant shouts an order and the helmsman slams the throttle back and turns the boat broadside into the enemy fire. The Colonel loses his footing as the boat heels over, he falls to the cockpit floor as water comes foaming white over the gunwales but it is too late, the boat seems to stagger under the thud of bullets striking home and suddenly someone is screaming as the fighter roars overhead seemingly inches from the top of the bridge.
The Colonel scrambles to his feet as the boat rocks from side to side but he slips and falls heavily back to the deck. He has slipped on the helmsman’s blood. His body lies crumpled on the deck, one hand still grips the wheel. The side of his face is smashed open. The Colonel can see broken teeth and the white of bone through the ragged hole in his cheek. Pinkish grey brain matter oozes from the helmet that still somehow remains on what is left of the man’s head.
Again the Colonel gets to his feet, more carefully this time. He fights down a desire to vomit. He has not seen violent death close–up for more than twenty years. The box has slipped from his hands and fallen into a corner of the bridge. He scrambles to retrieve it, but when he holds it again, the corner of the wrapping is soggy with blood. The Lieutenant is shouting orders and takes the wheel himself but lets it go suddenly, his hands come away bloody. He wipes them quickly on the dark material of his jacket. Another sailor pulls the helmsman’s body out of the bridge.
One by one the crew report back, the damage is light but the aft gunner has been injured, he sobs in pain, a bubbling cry of agony and despair. No one speaks, as slowly the boat moves forward again, picking up speed towards the dark column of smoke. The body is wrapped in canvas and laid out next to one of the torpedo tubes.
Another crewman takes the wheel, the engines open up and the boat once more surges forward. The Colonel fights to bring his mind back under control, he lights a cigarette with trembling hands. ‘Try not to think about the dead man, remember your mission…’ For him it has been many years since war was more than just an exercise in command and control, an abstract problem. He is a staff officer, he isn’t used to this anymore; but then, no one ever gets used to it, not really.
They are close to the enemy shoreline now and the Lieutenant is giving him instructions, he holds up a map and is pointing to one of the beaches on which the landings had been made four days previously.
“We can’t get too close to the beach – there are too many obstructions in the water – including mines and booby traps, it hasn’t been cleared.” He looks at his watch. “It’s now low tide, we will stay about a hundred metres out, you’ll take the dingy...”
The Colonel interrupts him. “But we captured the port on the second day; I was told you could take me right to the dock.”
The lieutenant shakes his head; “No Colonel, our HQ is six kilometres east of the port and the harbour is closed, air attacks have been constant, there are several hulks blocking the entrance to the harbour, we can’t get in – and if we could there is no transport. Everything has to go over the beach including you.”
They can see the shoreline clearly now, high cliffs, peaceful green countryside. The column of smoke is rising from the town behind the port. As the boat speeds closer they can see burning buildings. The Colonel pulls his field glasses from his pack, but there is little he can make out through the smoke. The beach is around the next promontory, their speed slows to a crawl. The smoke is thicker here and the choppy water filled with debris; pieces of wood, strips of metal, a life raft half deflated, the bloated body of a horse. A landing barge down at the bows, abandoned, her wheelhouse blazing. The upturned hull of another barge float in a slick of oil, the masts and superstructure of a larger ship jut from the sea.
With the engines throttled back they can hear the sound of gunfire clearly across the water, the rattle of small arms, the thud of exploding shells. It makes no sense. Their forces had struck more than thirty kilometres inland, they shouldn’t be able to hear the sound of battle at that distance; has the situation degenerated that far?
The Colonel’s eyes strain in the direction of the gunfire. The smoke clears in patches showing the beach, the sea wall and the buildings of the town behind it. Then he gasps, for a moment refusing to believe the evidence of his senses as the smoke clears some more to reveal the unmistakable shape of an enemy battleship.
The battleship died fighting and has been deliberately grounded. She has been driven up on the shingle, is listing to port and her prow is only a few metres from the low sea wall. Her ram bow is completely clear of the water and crumpled by the impact, waves break around her stern and there are two jagged overlapping holes beneath her exposed waterline, together they are nearly thirty metres in length.
The main deck is a shambles; the hull and superstructure bear the scars of fire and shell impacts, her guns all point in different directions and her battered tripod foremast, stark against the sky, looms over them like a gallows. The Lieutenant is speaking; there is weariness in his voice but also admiration. “That happened the day before yesterday, they timed it perfectly, came past the narrows and caught us at sunrise. It was chaos, they went right through the escort and slaughtered our transports. It was a massacre...” As his voice trails off he points to the battleship with his chin. “She took two torpedoes, she was finished but they beached her and it was nearly two hours before we could silence her guns. The crew didn’t surrender even when they had emptied their magazines, they fought on with small arms, I don’t know if any of them survived...”
His face darkens suddenly, as if his mind is straining to grasp at something that he cannot understand or does not quite believe. “After the torpedoes hit her, everything went quiet, her crew must have been thrown from their positions by the impacts and all our guns stopped firing as well. It was just a moment, not even five seconds I suppose, but… I thought I heard something, a sound from far away, I could barely hear it, as if I wasn’t hearing it so much as feeling it…”
The Colonel looks at him; “What? What did you hear?”
The lieutenant shakes his head. “I thought I heard a drum.”
“Yes, a drumbeat, regular and insistent like, like… I’m not sure, a heartbeat perhaps, or… I don’t know.” The Colonel looks at him dismissively. “You heard gunfire, or perhaps they had a band playing to keep the crews spirits up.”
The Lieutenant shakes his head; “No Colonel, it was something else.”
“You are fatigued, sometimes the mind plays tricks.”
“Perhaps Colonel, I don’t know.” The Lieutenant turns away, unwilling to continue the discussion, unconvinced by the Colonel’s rational explanation.
They can see the rest of the beach now; it is pitted with shell holes, crowded with the wrecks of smashed and upturned vehicles. Two transport barges are being unloaded even as shells explode around them sending towering columns of water into the sky.
The Lieutenant, straightens and shakes his head as if to clear his mind; “Colonel, it’s time.” As the boat comes to a stop and drifts for a moment, he again brings out the map, he points to a building behind the sea wall, and then to a point on the paper. “That house is here, the General’s Head Quarters are in this building here, three hundred metres east of this point. It’s a white hotel; we will hold our position for one hour…”
“No, my mission might take longer, you must wait for me.”
“One hour Colonel, I’m sorry.”
He rounds angrily on the Lieutenant, about to order him to stay until he returns but something in the man’s eyes tells him that it would be a waste of breath.
The streets of the town are deserted, some of the buildings are in ruins, most are pockmarked with bullet holes. On one road some burned–out cars seem to have been assembled into a barricade, an enemy tank with a thrown track blocks another, on a third sits one of his own side’s tanks, completely undamaged, its hatches open. The ammunition, hull machine gun and radio have been stripped. It has run out of fuel.
He runs from cover to cover bent double, his service pistol drawn, the oblong box an awkward burden beneath his left arm. Shells are falling on the town and the sounds of battle seem very close. He rounds a corner and sees three paratroopers, a corporal and two privates, recognisable by their cut down helmets and camouflage smocks. With their weapons they are covering four men standing against a wall, they are prisoners, two are in enemy uniforms, but the others wear civilian clothes. It is a firing squad.
“Corporal, what is the meaning of this?”
The corporal salutes; he returns it. “Sir, these are enemy saboteurs.”
“Two of these men are in uniform.”
“I have orders to shoot all saboteurs in uniform or otherwise Sir, the order comes directly from High Command.”
He looks at the prisoners, each of them wears a different expression, one seems resigned, at peace, another meets the Colonel’s gaze with a look of curiosity, the third hangs his head fighting to control the sobs that are shaking his frame. As his eyes met those of the fourth, the man begins to shout in his own language; defiance, fury and contempt in every syllable and the Colonel suddenly realises that these are old men, the youngest is in his fifties. The uniforms are twenty five years old or more, they are from the last war – his war.
“Corporal two of these men are uniformed enemy combatants.”
“Sir, these men are saboteurs.”
“Shooting surrendered enemy combatants is a crime.”
“Sir, I have my orders.”
He looks very hard at the Corporal, but the man’s eyes cannot meet his, the muscle at the angle of his jaw works nervously, his expression wavers between repugnance and resolve.
The Corporal salutes, his gaze fixed somewhere over the Colonel’s left shoulder. The Colonel does not return the salute; the enemy prisoner is still shouting as he turns his back. He hears the Corporal say ‘Fire.’, the quick stammer of the machine guns, the unmistakable sound of bullets hitting flesh. The shouting stops.
He is just a few tens of metres from the white hotel now, every window in the building seems to be smashed, part of the roof is missing, the chimneys are toppled, the walls riddled with bullet holes. He walks through the open gate to find the garden full of wounded, they sit or lie on the ground, some are unconscious, a few moan in pain but most are eerily quiet. He bends down to ask one of them where the General is, the man salutes feebly and gestures towards the building’s interior. As he turns to go he hears the man ask weakly, “Colonel, please, do you have a cigarette?” He holsters his side arm, gives him the rest of the packet and goes inside.
The corridors too are crowded with wounded, on the stairs and in the passageways. The General is quite alone in what had been a dining room, some tables have been put together and on them a large map is unfolded. The General stands looking through the open French windows, out into what remains of the garden, a cigarette is held in his left hand. The crack of artillery fire seems very close. He turns as the Colonel enters.
“Who the hell are you?”
The Colonel salutes, the General returns the salute perfunctorily. His eyes are distant, dreamy, with a weariness beyond simple fatigue.
“General, I am Colonel Martin Weber, I have come directly from Head Quarters; I am instructed to give you this.” He holds the box out in front of him; the brown paper wrapping is scuffed and torn. The blood on it has dried.
“What is it?” the General asks.
“I don’t know Sir, I was told only to bring it to you and hand it over in person.”
The General sighs, stubs out his cigarette and places the box on top of the map on the table. He cuts the string, and tears open the brown paper. The box is made of dark wood, beautifully polished, on the lid a gold eagle with a wreathed swastika gripped in its claws.
“Ha!” An exclamation escapes the General, somewhere between surprise and disdain; “Of course…” But as he reaches for the clasp they hear the sudden snarl of aircraft engines very close. “Get down!” the General shouts and both men sprawl on the floor even as the bombs burst nearby and the room fills with choking dust. They lie there, coughing in the smoke, hearts pounding as the sound of rifle and machine gun fire grows louder under the fading noise of the motors.
They get up and pat down their uniforms in silence. The General brushes dust and masonry debris from the box, the gold eagle is dented. He undoes the clasp and opens the lid, inside is a blue Field Marshal’s baton, its shaft decorated with eagles and Maltese crosses, his name embossed at one end, black lettering on a white band. He holds it up and laughs.
“And they say the Fuhrer has no sense of humour.” He throws it back into the box angrily, as if the baton has soiled his hand.
The Colonel says; “General, I mean Field Marshal, Congratulations sir, but…”
“Congratulations? For what?”
“For your promotion sir.” The General looks at him with contempt and suddenly he is shouting.
“Promotion?” The word hangs in the air between the two men, “Promotion? We have lost this battle Colonel Weber, do you understand that? We have lost it catastrophically; this will go down as one of the worst defeats in history – that fool Goering has ensured it with his meaningless promises and this…” He picked up the baton again, “…this is nothing but a bribe.”
Again the baton falls back into the box, the General turns and walks once more to the window. “They sent you too late, I’ve already given the order to withdraw, my staff are disposing of the papers as we speak.” He pauses, “If you have a way out I suggest you use it, we’re falling back on the beach near here, but we’ve no prepared positions, the Kreigsmarine was almost obliterated the day before yesterday, the Luftwaffe do not control the skies, we’re practically out of ammunition and some of my men haven’t eaten in days. Not many are going to get away…” his voice trails off.
When the Colonel speaks he weighs the words carefully; “You realise no German Field Marshal has ever been captured by an enemy?”
The General pauses for a moment; “Well then, I shall be the first.” He pauses again, his eyes look outward through the French doors and the clearing smoke. “So be it.”
For a moment the two men stand in silence. The Colonel salutes, clicking his heels together in the Prussian way but the General is lost in his own thoughts, looking out through the doors and does not seem to hear. The Colonel turns and walks quickly from the room.
CHAPTER 1: THE WASHINGTON NAVAL DISARMAMENT CONFERENCE
From ‘The The British Empire from 1914 to 1948’ by Ian Shaw, Longacre 2005
In November 1918, when the guns fell silent on the Western Front after more than four years of unprecedented bloodshed, it was as if the British Empire let out a collective sigh of relief. Victory, though victory at a fearsome cost, had been achieved. It seemed a moment to take stock, to re–appraise the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth and to set a new course into a future that all believed would be free of war. Yet the thirty years that followed that victory were to prove no less tumultuous and no less difficult.
The half decade after the armistice saw a cool, un–blinkered analysis of the Empire in peace and in conflict and the results were unsettling. Before 1914 it had been assumed that the strength of Britain was derived from its overseas territories with their multitudinous populations and vast wealth; yet the crucible of war had revealed a starkly different picture. In fact it was only a small fraction of that Empire that provided the manpower and the money required to defend it at the mother country’s hour of need. It had been assumed that British industry and finance could meet the challenges of war, yet as early as 1915 the conflict began to reveal its inadequacies and fissures. It had been assumed that international problems that affected the Empire directly could be resolved quickly and effectively by diplomacy and a show of resolution. Almost a million dead proved that this was not the case.
The British Empire and its Commonwealth was a union based upon trade and a shared system of values. It was the only global power of any real significance between 1918 and 1939. (France, Germany and Russia were devastated by the conflict. Japan and Italy were too weak. The United States was isolationist.) It was a middle aged polity whose strength grew in peace, and declined in war. What could utterly overthrow it was another war where it would again have no choice but to use up its accumulated capital and become the financial dependent of another power.
Yet Britain was not an Empire in terminal decline. In relative decline perhaps; poorer, yes; weaker, certainly. But still a vital entity, one that had to begin a process of re–invention, one ready to change and adapt its methods and its structures, one ready to grow and to thrive. But how was this to be accomplished?
How was the Empire to proceed? How was it to navigate the troubled waters of the unfolding future? How would it live? How would it defend itself and its peoples? How would it grow? The British Empire had to re–invent itself, to reconcile and consolidate what it had inherited from its past and become something new. That much was evident. The problem was; how was this to be done?
From ‘The Rule of the Waves’ by Michael Fanshaw, Twelvemonth 1963
The decisive British victory at The Battle of Jutland had a number of unforeseen consequences. Firstly it greatly enhanced the status of the capital ship in the eyes of public and political opinion. Until May 31st 1916, a conviction had been growing in British political circles that the vast resources poured out upon the Grand Fleet had been spent in vain because until that time, it had failed to accomplish its stated aim; the destruction of the German High Seas Fleet. There was a widespread belief before the war began, that a large naval battle would take place shortly after the outbreak of hostilities. But the enemy was reluctant to come to battle, victory proved elusive and several inconclusive engagements in the North Sea caused disquiet in a nation that looked eagerly to underscore its claim to ‘Rule the Waves’. The sinking of seven German capital ships and the rout of the High Seas Fleet quite put these arguments to rest...