By Phineas Redux
Summary:— This story is set in Great Britain in 1944. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker—lovers, members of ATA, Air Transport Auxiliary, and the top secret SOE, Special Operations Executive,—are ordered to take charge of a Home Guard unit, and a beach Pill-Box.
Note:— For dramatic purposes I have located a Martello Tower on Hemsby Beach, where in reality none were ever built.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
The small school-room in the seaside village of Hemsby Beach, Norfolk, smelt of wood varnish, chalk, old books, pencils and ancient dried ink. The several desks had been mauled about by generations of those roughest of wild beasts, small children; but now these culprits had all gone home for the day, leaving the low single-storey building to the lighter touch of the local Home Guard, whose HQ it was on most evenings. On this particular balmy example, of Tuesday 7th March 1944, there was something of a slight change in the otherwise routine activities of the unit. At present it consisted of thirty-five men; all either too young to join up, too old to do so, or medically excused. However, within the last couple of days their officer-in-charge, Captain Belling, had succumbed to an attack of flu and was now laid on his beam-ends in bed at home under the watchful eye of his wife, Isobel. As a result of certain urgent military needs, of a somewhat shadowy nature, he had been temporarily replaced; the new commanders being two female Flying-Officers from an RAF base some way west of the tiny village. The bemused part-time soldiers were just now being let into the secret reasons for this change of command, and what it would mean for them in the near future.
"I'm Flying-Officer Mathews, and this here's Flying-Officer Parker." Claire stood at the end of the long room, facing the unit standing at attention, giving them the heads-up. "We've been sent over specially by the big-wigs, to take charge while Captain Belling's out of action. And for a very cogent reason. Flying-Officer Parker'll clarify exactly what's about t'break in this area, so listen up. Stand easy, by the way."
Gabrielle stood at ease herself beside her dark-haired lover, though of course giving no sign of this in public. She had a couple of files containing highly restricted documents which now lay on a desk-top by her side.
"Right, it's like this," She looked at the group of disparate men with a straight green gaze, unfazed by this new situation. "Captain Belling was to lead your unit in tonight's activities; but now it'll be my fellow officer and I. You've all seen the chits, from on high at the jolly old WD, giving us command, so let's get down t'brass tacks. First, take a look at this large-scale local map, on the wall, of this part of the county. As you know we here, at Hemsby Beach, are more or less equidistant between Caister-on-Sea to the south, and Winterton-on-Sea to the north. A mile and a half each way, approximately. The whole coastline hereabouts is a long line of sandy beaches, with the usual military adjuncts of tank-traps, barbed wire, and mines—on some beaches, as well as out to sea. Not a good idea t'go for a stroll on the beach at present, I expect?"
"Some silly ass got himself blown-up, just exactly that way, ma-am." An elderly grey-haired man in the ranks nodded knowingly. "Last October, supposed to have been walking his dog on the sandy shore—not much left of either, so I was led t'understand."
"Hummph." Gabrielle considered this tragic tale for a moment; pondered how much truth lay in it, then dismissed it from her mind. "OK then, what you haven't been told yet, but which Flying-Officer Mathews and I are about to tell you now, is that tonight is going to be something of a real true military operation. Miss Mathews has the gen, so listen up."
Claire shuffled her own notes into order, then raked the closely packed ranks of uniformed men with a steely gaze.
"Tonight you're all going to be part of a large widespread action which is set to take place all along this part of the coast." She frowned slightly, then continued in a low but strong tone. "Somewhere along the sandy beaches hereabouts we have information that an E-boat, perhaps two, are going to turn up in the small hours and off-load some spies and perhaps a party of commandos; or what pass for such in the German military. It's goin' t'be our—you're—job to make sure this doesn't happen."
A low hiss of interest passed through the ranks of amateur soldiers; they all visibly perking-up, as if at the receipt of good news. Claire continued her lecture.
"There's a unit of our own MTB's, somewhere a coupl'a miles out t'sea off this part of the coast." She hunched her shoulders under her military jacket. "I've been told they're goin' t'try'n stay out'ta sight from the E-boats; whether they'll do so is anybody's guess. But I'm supposin' that, if the E-boats don't bump in'ta our boys, they'll hit land somewhere very close to Hemsby. Not right outside the front-door, o'course, but a mile or so either way along the coast."
There was more shuffling and low chatter, as the soldiers assimilated this information; then another old boy piped up with a question or two.
"Sergeant Anderson, ma'am." He was of medium height, thick grey hair, and had the wrinkled features of someone who had seen life. "How much time is this, er, operation going to take?"
"Wholly depends on circumstances, and the way the thing pans out." Gabrielle interjected here. "Could all be over in five minutes; or could take hours, an' a running battle—either on the beach, or sea, or both. Anyway, you won't be doing your ordinary four-hour shifts; it'll be an all-night job, till the operation's over, one way or the other."
This answer caused a further stir in the ranks, but Sergeant Anderson went on with another question.
"There's, what, thirty-five of us in the platoon, ma'am?" He glanced round at his mates. "How're we goin' t'be put to use? I mean, are we going to carry on with our usual dispositions?"
"I'm just coming to that, Sergeant." Claire nodded, consulting one of the documents at her elbow. "You're usual main armament is one Lewis gun and one old Vickers gun—is that right?"
"Yes, ma'am." Anderson nodded in his turn. "We generally only bring one or t'other out for maneouvres; the rest of the platoon bein' given various rifles."
Claire nodded once again, happy to have a surprise up her sleeve.
"That's all very well—and they'll both be bein' put t'use tonight—but we've, Miss Parker an' I, brought presents for you. To wit, six Bren guns."
This news sharpened the platoon's wits no end; a whole raucous barrage of chit-chat breaking out.
"Quiet, quiet." Gabrielle took over at this point, grinning widely herself. "Sergeant Anderson, take three men an' go outside t'where our Tilly's parked. Here're the keys. The artillery's in the back; and there're also some extra's, so go canny. A coupl'a boxes of grenades; six new rifles; a box of plastic explosive; and ten Service revolvers—Webley .45's. There's also four large torches, an' three big Morse Code lamps. How many of you can do Morse?"
Several hands shot up, relieving both womens' worries at this good news.
"Right, let's get down t'brass tacks." Claire looked over the eager faces of the men in their drab uniforms crowded into the small class-room. "My partner an' I have seen the maps, an' know the general lie of the land, but what we need is a clear description of the whole area—what's where, what there is in the way of defensive placements, how everything's set out to defend against any attack, and so forth. How's about you, private? Let's hear what this place's like."
The man addressed, colouring a little at being pinpointed so suddenly as the source of all knowledge, coughed hastily, shrugged his shoulders, glanced around in embarassment, and bravely engaged head-on with the situation.
"Private Dearing, ma'am." He spoke in a soft voice, stood some five feet eight in his boots, with greying hair and seemed to be in his early fifties. "Well, hereabouts, arrm. Right, first the beach—by the way, ma'am, have you ever seen the beaches round these parts at all?"
"No, neither of us have ever been here before." Gabrielle answered this question, with an encouraging smile. "Something interesting is there, private?"
"Umm, depends what you mean by interesting, ma'am." Dearing shrugged, then set-to his lecture on the lay-out of the general area. "There's miles of wide sandy beaches all along the coast in this region; say about forty yards of flat sand between the dunes and the sea itself—"
"How high are the dunes, Dearing, and how far do they stretch?" This from Claire, pencil hovering over her notebook.
"Gen'rally around thirty feet high, an' maybe twenty yards deep." These details were ancient history to the local man. "Quite steep facing the sea, not the kind you can stroll up at your leisure; takes a fair bit of effort to reach the top of the dunes that way, ma'am. Anyway, at various places along the whole line of the beaches there are a variety of concrete defences; mostly what I'm told are known as tank-traps, just lines of flat-topped close-packed concrete squares, say around four feet high an' bedded in the sand. Then there are a few concrete pill-boxes; though only a couple in our section, ma'am, you'll see one easy enough when you go down on the sand. Then there's the Martello Tower, some few hundred yards to the west along the beach.—"
"Martello Tower, what's that?" Here Claire showed her New Zealand roots.
"They're an old form of fortress defence, Claire." Gabrielle broke in, au fait with this esoteric by-way of local history. "First used in the early nineteenth century as barriers against Napoleon. They're circular, made of brick and heavy stone faced with thick concrete, windowless, and around forty feet high by the same wide. They acted as observation points as well as having cannon on their flat tops. Pretty impenetrable in their day."
"And some survive even now?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle nodded in agreement. "They were all built so strongly a lot still remain. They formed a line all along the South Coast and round up into Suffolk and Norfolk. If you go to the South Coast you can still see them sitting on or near the beaches, sometimes only a few hundred yards between individual examples."
"Sounds as if they could be of some use still."
"Yes, ma'am," Here Dearing took up the theme again. "Not so many in these parts, but we have one down on Hemsby Beach, all the same. The WD boyos came along last year an' placed a bloody big anti-aircraft gun on top of it. We, our platoon here, have been taught how to operate the dam' thing. You can lower the barrel so it lines up horizontal, lettin' you shoot out t'sea like a normal naval gun, ma'am."
"Can you indeed." Claire perked up brightly at this piece of news. "Well, well, well. I wouldn't say but we might not find something useful for it to fire at over the next coupl'a nights, Dearing."
The private's broad grin was echoed by the rest of the platoon as they finally began to realise they were on the verge of real action for the first time in their military careers. At this point Sergeant Anderson returned, loaded down with equipment to the joy of the part-time soldiers.
"Right, let's get sorted out here." Gabrielle, her managerial side coming to the fore, took command of the situation. "Sergeant Anderson, the Bren guns over here on the table. The hand-guns on the other desk there; and all the other stuff wherever you can find space. OK, here's what we mean t'do, listen-up—"
"Jaysus, that's big, right enough." Claire stood alongside her partner on the level sand of the beach, after walking the few hundred yards down from the village of Hemsby proper. "Dam' sight larger than I expected; it'd take a bloody naval shell or a dam' five–hundred-pounder bomb t'shake that place."
Private Dearing stood by the womens' side, the light of proprietorship gleaming in his pale blue eyes—after all, if you couldn't feel pride in the ownership of a Martello Tower what could you feel proud about?
"Built in eighteen o' eight, or so our local historian says, ma'am." Dearing couldn't keep the satisfaction from his voice. "An' still as tight as a beer barrel. Y'll no doubt have noticed the bloody great gun on the top—?"
"Not easy to miss, Dearing." Gabrielle let a smidgin of humour echo in her voice.
"A full load o'shells, an' all the other equipment to keep it in order, ma'am." Dearing nodded knowingly. "We fire it quite often, too. Lots of Jerry planes come smoochin' over, at regular intervals, so we just has a jolly old pop at 'em, as an' when, as it were, ma'am."
"That must be fun." Claire nodded absently, as she took in the general area, and the view out to sea, in the soft evening light. "Hit anything much, do ya?"
"Well, actually, not all that much; not so's you'd notice, ma'am." Dearing's voice here took on the pained tone of someone hard done by. "Not fer lack o'tryin', ma'am, but it ain't all that easy t'hit a plane above ten thousand feet with only one gun—an' dam' near impossible if it flits over at anythin' under five thousand. But we try t'give 'em a right fright, all the same."
At this juncture the three were facing south-east, looking at the Martello Tower some 200 yards distant. Now they swiveled to gaze along the sandy beach in the opposite, north-westerly, direction.
"Y'said something about a pill-box, Dearing." Gabrielle shaded her eyes with a hand as she took in the vast line of sand and high dunes disappearing into the distance. "So, where's it at?"
"Just about half a mile along, set about midway between the dunes and the high-water mark, ma'am." Dearing pointed with his right arm. "See, way along there, just where the small sandy promontory juts out into the sea?"
"Nah, can't see anything."
"Neither can I." Claire frowned from below furrowed brows. "Y'sure it's over there? All I see is bloody sand."
"Oh, it's there, right enough." Dearing smiled widely. "Happen because it's built o'concrete an' sort'a sand-coloured it's got what y'might call natural camouflage."
"O'course, it ain't exactly big, neither, ma'am." Dearing here felt the necessity for absolute truthfulness. "It being one o'they small affairs; just a tight little entrance at the back, sand dune, side; an' a narrow machine-gun slit t'seaward. Whole thing only stands about five foot five high an' about twelve feet wide, ma'am. Y'don't really know it's there till you dam' near fall over it."
"Ah." Gabrielle nodded knowingly, as if well used to such devious entrenchments. "Well, I'm sure it'll come in useful; nothing like having all available capabilities to hand, eh?"
"We could set one of our Bren guns there, ready for tonight's show."
"Great idea, Claire." Gabrielle nodded enthusiastically. "Here comes Sergeant Anderson now; it'll give him and his lads something t'get their teeth into."
Eschewing the solidity of the high Martello Tower Claire and Gabrielle took to the beach; walking out some three-quarters of a mile north-westerly along the flat level sand, passing the small pill-box on their way.
"Dearing was right, not much t'look at, at all." Gabrielle paused to examine the flat-topped structure sitting four-square in the middle of the beach. "One small door, protected by a concrete baffle, wide flat top, and a long thin firing-slit to look out to sea through."
"Every little helps, dear." Claire shrugged as they passed on. "There's a war on, remember."
"And don't forget the lines of tank-traps; we clambered over one just a hundred yards back and look, there's another a few hundred yards further on."
"Yeah, yeah, Claire, I know." Gabrielle was in an obstreperous mood. "By the by, what did Sergeant Anderson say about minefields on the beach? Are we anywhere near the area now?"
"Nah, further along, maybe another mile." Claire shook her head, her cap restraining her long black hair. "Would I be sauntering along like it was Brighton beach if I thought there was any chance of stepping on a bloody mine?"
"Well, now you ask, I don't rightly know—"
"Idiot. Come on, this way, here's a break in the dunes an' I hope we can reach the top from here. You first."
The plan for the whole operation had been gone over, back in the schoolroom, in minute detail. Everyone involved had been briefed on where they must take up their positions; what was expected of them; when the whole thing was likely to go off; and what to do when the fireworks started.
A Bren gun had been placed in the small pill-box; another on the top of the Martello Tower, keeping the big anti-aircraft gun, now swiveled level to the horizon, company. The other Brens had been distributed to two squads at positions along the beach; the remainder of the platoon being divided between the various forces spreading for a mile on either side of Hemsby beach and the Martello Tower. The two airwomen had chosen to take up position some hundred yards or so north-west of the pill-box, with a wide panoramic view out over the North Sea. It was a moonlit night, reflecting off an almost completely calm sea-surface.
"God, nearly eleven an' you can see t'the horizon like it was daylight." Claire smirked quietly under her breath. "If those dam' E-boats appear we'll see 'em miles off. Is your walkie-talkie workin'?"
Gabrielle, now wearing a flat-rimmed steel helmet, pushed it to one side and put the earphone-cum-speaker of the SCR-300 radio, like the handset of an ordinary telephone, to her ear. This mobile, American designed, radio-transceiver came in the form of a block-like 35 pound metal case strapped to the recipient's back by means of a webbing harness: at the moment she had it sitting on the sand by her left shoulder so that she could operate the switches on the top, under the hinged protective flap, which fine-tuned the equipment. She was now fiddling with knobs and switches on the unwieldy box-like machine, baring her teeth in concentration the while. There had been some discussion about using the far lighter hand-held SCR-536; but its range of one mile or slightly more was deemed too short compared to the 3 miles plus of the heavier backpack unit.
"Workin'? Well, if you count static it's workin' fine." The blonde pilot sneered comprehensively, furiously twiddling more knobs. "Wait a mo', yeah, there's somethin'. Hello, hello, Plover to HQ, over. Plover to HQ, over."
A long quiet pause garnered the realisation that there was not going to be a reply, HQ being Sergeant Anderson in the Martello Tower; Gabrielle growled like a panther with a mis-spent youth behind it, and squirmed around uncomfortably in her prone position on top of the high sand dune overlooking the sea.
"Plover to HQ, come in. Plover to H—oh, right, company at last—"
"What're they sayin'?"
"Shush, I'm listenin'."
Another pause ensued, while Gabrielle fiddled with various switches again, the better to hear incoming transmissions.
"OK, Plover out."
"Sergeant Anderson reports all well; everything's in position; everyone knows their orders; no reports yet of any activity out to sea; and all we can do now is wait."
When the E-boats came it was in rather larger numbers than anyone had anticipated; there seeming to be a whole fleet of the fast ships appearing hull up over the far horizon, still clearly illuminated by a full moon.
"God, there's scores of the dam' things." Gabrielle, the heavy radio now courtesy of Claire strapped to her back, was first to spot the approaching menace through her naval night glasses. "Are they launching an invasion, or what?"
"Nah, nah, keep y're shirt on, baby." Claire gazed intently through her own binoculars. "Four, five, —God, six, —Jesuus, seven, —aaa-nd that's it."
"Seven? Bloody seven?"
"Will ya stop sayin' that, an' get on the blower to HQ, in the Martello." Claire dropped her glasses to shake her head at her partner, where they were still lying full-length on top of the high sand dune behind the beach. "Wake 'em up at least, if they haven't noticed already."
Over the next five minutes the radio waves were agog with instructions, warnings, decisions, orders, and general bucking-up to all and sundry from Claire and Gabrielle to their widespread troops.
"How's it stand now?"
"Wait, lem'me finish—Plover to Pill-box, stay on the alert, an' let fly with the Bren whenever y'see the whites of their eyes as they come up out'ta the water, or any other part o'them, for that matter. Out." Gabrielle twisted her left arm to clip the telephone-like receiver to the side of the radio backpack, before attending to her partner once more. "What was that, lover?"
"What's happenin'? Who's where? Doin' what? an' what about the enemy?"
"Oh, just trifles, then—"
"Well, Sergeant Anderson's with his squad in the Martello Tower, caressing that whacking great gun of his." Gabrielle squirmed round, getting as comfortable as she could, glancing cautiously out over the beach as she continued. "Private Dearing's in the pill-box down on the sand, what, a hundred yards east of us; and the rest of the platoon are safely ensconced at various places along the beach, up an' down. Everybody being armed t'the teeth, of course. God, this bloody radio weighs a bloody ton; it'll do my back in for sure, if I have t'run around these dam' dunes with it. The E-boats are nearly inshore, now, gal."
"Yeah, I noticed; an' kindly quit whinin'."
"Oh, wonderful. So, lem'me reprise the situation," Gabrielle, unseen in the darkness, frowned in concentration. "we wait till the E-boats send their passengers ashore in small dinghies; then what? We really gon'na open up out'ta the blue, an' take 'em down without any kind'a warning?"
Claire had been attending to the curved ammunition clip of an extra Bren gun she had kept back for personal use; now she stared into the pale oval of her partner's face with set lips.
"There's a war on, ducks; the kind'a war where gentlemanly conduct went out the window some time ago." She paused as a memory returned. "Remember what Captain Graham said, a few weeks back? Much the same thing. The enemy we're up against aren't the type who care about honour and politeness. They're the kind we get in our sights, take careful aim, and shoot t'kill. Right, baby?"
Gabrielle said nothing in reply, but wriggled her shoulders against the warm heavy weight of her radio, putting the handset to her ear once more as she did so.
"Just gim'me the nod before you open up with that thing, don't want my eardrums blown out."
In the event well-laid plans, as a Scots poet of some note once remarked, are oft liable to gang agley—which is exactly what happened some minutes later as the concealed defenders along the beach awaited the arrival of the approaching enemy boats.
The E-boats lay at rest in a line, some activity on their decks being faintly visible even at the range of five hundred yards or so out to sea. Then it became evident numerous rubber dinghies had been lowered and were filling with a surprising number of what could only be dark-uniformed commandos. After a bare few seconds these boats set out silently for the shore, rowed quietly by their well-trained inmates.
The Martello Tower; the pill-box; and the dispersed Home Guard, were all supposed to keep silence till the small boats with the German commandos hit the sandy beach; the point of absolute clarity in not shooting till the order was given by either Claire, or Sergeant Anderson ensconced in the Martello Tower, being of prime importance. But, Life generally living up to its reputation, all Hell suddenly broke loose far too early.
From somewhere to the east of the high dune on which Claire and Gabrielle lay a short burst of machine-gun fire stuttered across the pristine silence of the beach.
"Bitch, someone's opened up early."
Claire spat in contempt, then buckled down to business.
"Gabs, tell everyone t'fire at will—or, more exactly, at picked targets on those dinghies; never mind the dam' E-boats for the present."
Within seconds Gabrielle had relayed the order and, the same having obviously been echoed from the Martello Tower, the whole beach line between the two women on top of their dune and the distant Tower flickered with machine-gun and rifle fire; red and white muzzle-flashes sparkling like fireworks.
There was no return fire from the straggling group of small low-freeboard rubber dinghies and even Claire's sharp eyes, as she paused in firing her Bren out over the incoming low waves, could see no splashes or other visible effects from the massive assault of the British defence fire. Then it became apparent the dinghies had stopped heading for the beach, probably mulling over whether to return to their mother E-boats. At this point a secondary battle opened up—the E-boats' cannon springing to life, sending hissing lines of cannon and tracer shells across the exposed width of the long beach, kicking up sand in blinding waves and bursts as the shells exploded in what seemed a frenzy across the empty sand.
At the same time the Martello Tower's quick-firing 3.7inch anti-aircraft gun, lowered to the horizontal, not a position it was generally at ease in, burst into brilliant action with a howl of rage that split the eardrums even at half a mile.
Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang.
"Jesuus, my ears."
"Radio Dearing in the pill-box t'open up, he can reach those dinghies now with his Bren—don't know why he hasn't, already."
Gabrielle, ears still ringing, clamped the handset to her ear and yelled into the receiver.
"Plover t'PB, Plover t'PB, open up, fer Christ's sake, what's keepin' ya?"
A comforting rattle of sustained fire coming from just below them and slightly to the east indicated the pill-box had finally sprung to life.
Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang.
"Christ, the Tower's at it again—Holy shit—"
Both women wriggled backwards like electrified eels, trying to put the high ridge of the sand dune between them and the sudden hail of incoming cannon fire from the E-boats which had succeeded in ranging their position. The thump and shriek of shells exploding almost within arms-reach made them cringe into the sand as if attempting to bury themselves; then the broadside had passed, leaving the air thick with disturbed sand and earth along with the harsh smell of cordite wafting in waves around them like sea-mist.
"Bloody Hell, that was close."
"Goddam it, I've dropped the bloody Bren in the loose sand." Claire snarled viciously as she groped around by her boots. "Ah, got it. Bet the f-ckin' barrel's full'a sand now, just my luck."
They crawled warily up to the dunes' ridge-line again and carefully peered over, making sure not much more than their British standard steel helmets and their eyes broke the skyline.
The E-boats, obviously waiting for the likely return of their rubber dinghies and crews, remained on station but were now surrounded by high white columns of water whenever a shell from the Martello Tower hit close. The boats were also keeping up their defensive fire, sweeping the long barren beach with sustained cannon fire—though this could only be at random, as most of the Home Guard were well ensconced and all but invisible in trenches, dug-outs, or behind available low dunes.
The only hard targets on the stretch of open beach were the small pill-box and the tall bulky Martello Tower. The pill-box being more or less invisible in the dark night, most of the E-boats had decided to concentrate their return fire on the black silhouette of the Tower—but not to much avail.
"Christ, look at that?" Gabrielle put her hand up to shade her eyes as she gazed along the beach to her west. "Jerry's tryin' t'knock hell out'ta the Martello."
Claire, too, glanced across, furrowing her brows in an attempt to penetrate the half mile of dark night in the direction of the Tower. Although it was only visible as a harder blackness in the all-encompassing gloom she could see the enemy cannon shells exploding against the thick stone and brick redoubt in white and red flashes. The anti-aircraft gun on its roof was protected by a waist-high stone abutment circling the top of the round structure, so any incoming fire would need to fly high and drop down onto the gun; something the E-boats' cannon, at long range, seemed unable to effect.
"The Tower's safe enough." Claire growled low, with a hint of sarcasm. "Jerry can fire away all night—he won't have any luck against that stone monster—it'd take nothin' less than a five-hundred pound bomb, like I said earlier, t'have any appreciable effect on that Tower. Sergeant Anderson told me they were built t'take punishment from ship-of-the line broadsides, y'know."
"Well, Anderson and his cronies seem t'be havin' fun with the anti-aircraft gun, certainly." Gabrielle settled back on the sand again. "They're making a good hand of bombarding those E-boats, though they don't seem to have hit any yet."
"They'll get the range, eventually; 'specially as the boats are havin' t'wait immobile till an' when their dinghies return." Claire scrambled to her feet, crouching low still. "Come on, let's get down t'the pill-box; I wan'na direct that Bren gun, Private Dearing doesn't seem t'have much idea of battle tactics, or a good aim."
There was a pause as Gabrielle squirmed around on the sand, clambering to her hands and knees before finding the effort too much.
"God,—here, gim'me a hand-up—I'm carryin' a ton on my back—can't get up."
Claire bent to grab her lover's shoulder and with one, seemingly effortless, heave had the blonde on her feet and gasping for breath.
"Hey, not so fast, lem'me get accustomed t'the altitude, will you?" Gabrielle essayed a slight light-headedness. "Gosh, I can see for miles an' miles."
"Fool, come on, there's a war goin' on, if ya haven't noticed." Claire rolled her eyes unseen in the darkness. "Follow me, an' don't fall over as we go down the front of this dam' dune—Goddam, its bloody steep; can ya cope, gal?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm OK; I'll come down on my butt, safest that way—see you at the bottom."
In a wild flurry of sand, and a scattered gale of unrestricted language, the women slid down the thirty feet or so of the steep dune; arriving at the bottom with a thump as their RAF issue boots met the hard-packed surface of the beach proper.
"Aouwch, that hurt, think I broke my ankle."
"Oh God, what a woman, can't take ya anywhere." Claire quickly brushed her trousers down, laid the cumbersome Bren at her feet, and once more came to the aid of her compatriot. "Sure y're OK?"
"Aow, ouch, no, I'm dam' well not OK—sh-t, I really have broken the dam' thing. Aaah."
"Sh-t an' b-gg-ry."
Claire helped her injured friend to sit back down on the sand, then crouched by her side.
"No, don't try'n take your boot off, y'll never get it back on again." Claire pulled off her gloves and took the damaged right leg in gentle hands. "If it's really broken there's gon'na be some significant swellin'. Y'll hav'ta come in the pill-box an' sit there while the battle goes on—can't get ya help before."
"I'll be OK, just get me into the pill-box, then, an' get that Bren goin'." Gabrielle grimaced, white teeth showing in the darkness. "If you let me sit at the door I'll keep in radio contact with everyone. OK?"
"Yeah, yeah, OK. Come on, then, lean on my shoulder, an' don't scream too loudly." Claire was still somewhat hampered by her equipment though. "Hang on, lem'me grab my bloody Bren again—OK, let's go, what's keepin' ya?"
"Aarrgh, fool, Aoww, only half a ton of bloody radio equipment on my back, is all. No, no, keep goin', I'm only grandstandin', got'ta give the theatre audience their money's-worth, ain't I?"
"God, if ya were really on stage you'd go down a storm, believe me." Claire grunted with the effort as she more or less dragged her injured partner across the remaining yards of flat sand to the low heavy bulk of the pill-box. "Here at last, lean against the concrete baffle-wall while I bang on the bloody door."
Another minute, and a whispered conversation involving passwords and deep suspicion from inside the concrete bunker, finally ended with the door being cautiously opened and the long barrel of a .303 rifle aimed at the visitors. Then identity was clarified and the women crouched to enter the low-ceilinged pill-box.
Inside was a single room, blank concrete walls on every side except that facing the sea, where a long thin horizontal open slit, shoulder high, ran across the full length of that wall. Standing by this at the moment and seemingly having great fun, if not accomplishing anything much except for a lot of noise, Private Dearing was firing his Bren with its barrel supported by the edge of the firing slit.
"Give over, Dearing, fer God''s sake." Claire wasn't in the mood for taking prisoners. "What the hell d'ya think y're doin'?"
"Givin' Jerry Hell, ma'am. Ain't that the objec' o'the exercise?"
The bare concrete floor was cluttered with piles of dumped trench-coats, rifles, various pieces of unidentifiable equipment, and several long narrow wooden boxes. There were, apart from the new visitors, a total of five soldiers packing the small tight room; all standing with hunched shoulders because of the low roof.
"God, it ain't the Ritz, is it?"
"Nah, not by miles." Claire dumped her own Bren on the hard concrete of the floor and turned to helping Gabrielle relieve herself of the bulky heavy radio she still carried on her back. "Here, lem'me get those straps—there, easy now."
"I'll sit on one o'these boxes, Claire; ah, that's better." Gabrielle eased herself down cautiously, and released a breath of relief. "Still hurts like b-gg-ry, mind you. What' re all these boxes, by the way, Dearing?"
"Ammo, miss, fer this thirsty bloody Bren—eats bullets like they were caviar on toast, ma'am."
"Hrrph, happy memories. Anybody got any dressings or painkillers? My bloody foot's killin' me."
"Here y'are, miss." An anonymous middle-aged soldier came over with a red and white tin. "Let's see; yes, these tablets'll sort you out, ma'am. Real good pain-killers, so I'm told. Take one now, here's a water-bottle; then another in half an hour—but no more fer about five hours, hear me, miss?"
"Yeah, yeah, I got you. Just gim'me the dam' tablet. Thanks, how long before it kicks in?"
" 'bout quarter of an hour, ma'am."
"Oh God. Well, thanks anyway; I'll keep the packet beside me, OK? Right."
Claire, still pragmatic in the present situation, came to the point of the exercise with brutal mien.
"Hit anythin', with that gun yet, Dearing?"
"Not so's you'd notice, ma'am." Dearing, while enjoying himself, had no illusions about his capability. "Don't think I've hit a dam' thing yet."
"Right, you drag this radio-pack an' these couple of ammo boxes t'the door, an' get my partner comfortable on 'em; she's gon'na keep in radio contact with everyone." Claire turned to take a panoramic view of the interior of the pill-box as she made her plans. "OK, you lot, you're doin' no good in here. Get out on the sand, either side of the pill-box, an' use your weapons against those dinghies out on the water—they're still well within range o'your rifles an' there's not much chance of your bein' hit by any return fire. Here, you, what's yer name?"
"OK, Jenkins, take my Bren there, and some ammo clips; see what ya can do with it outside, against those dam' marauders."
"Well, thanks, ma'am; jest what I was hankerin' after." Jenkins grabbed the long-barreled gun from the riot of equipment on the floor in a flash. "What'd we do if Jerry returns fire, ma'am?"
"If a barrage o'cannon shells from the E-boats comes along drop t'the sand an' pray. If it's only return fire from the departing dinghies, keep your end up, an' aim at the gunflashes. Right? Go to it. You OK, Gabrielle?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle, now sitting in the open air just outside the narrow entrance, and protected by the side baffle-wall, fiddled with the switches of the radio clamped between her knees. "I'll get the others on the blower in a few seconds. Where'd I leave those pain-killin' tablets, by the way; I'm still hurtin' here. Throw 'em over, Claire, there's a pal. Thanks."
Private Dearing had stepped to one side, not at all unhappy to be relieved of responsibility for the Bren gun in the pill-box and was now taking potshots with his own .303 rifle, though at what no one could clearly tell. Claire picked up the still warm weapon, heaving the stock of the machine-gun to her shoulder; checked the curved ammo clip on the top, took a deep breath, and pulled the trigger.
She was surprised by the power of the fast-firing gun, being fired in this upright position, her whole body shuddering as the recoil washed through her arms and shoulders. Having some knowledge of this type of weapon she fired only short bursts, trying to get the range of the dinghies out at sea. At this point she discovered that, like Dearing before her, actually hitting anything or anyone was highly unlikely. The blackness of the night seemed to have deepened here, at sea-level; the Jerry dinghies, being as low in the water as it was humanly possible for anything to be, were virtually invisible, and her attempts at finding their range appeared to be meeting with no success at all.
"Goddam it all t'Hell." She paused to drop the used ammo clip on the concrete floor with a metallic rattle, and bent down to retrieve another from an open box by her feet. "This could go on all night, an' I still wouldn't have any chance o'hittin' anythin'. Goddam it."
This last exclamation came as the outside of the concrete pill-box shuddered to the impact of a cannon shell which had, either by professional competence or common luck, found its target. The walls seemed to vibrate visibly; pieces of plaster broke off, cluttering the already close atmosphere inside the bunker with clouds of dust, and the ears of the inmates were assaulted by the immense noise of the explosion as the exterior took the full impact.
"You alright, Dearing?"
"Yeah, ma'am; covered in bloody dust an' scratched my hand, but nuthin' else."
"I'm fine; that was bloody nasty though, you OK?"
"Yeah, just rattled about like a can o'beans in a hurricane." Claire shook herself, took a deep breath, and pulled the Bren up to fit its muzzle back through the narrow firing-slit again. "Right, let's get back t'business; an' now I'm angry."
Having got some idea of the range of the dinghies, which still seemed hesitant about either coming on to the beach or retreating, Claire took time to aim precisely, then let fly with a long burst; standing firm with her boots planted on the hard floor.
"Think I may have hit one o'the dinghies that time, maybe."
"Yippee." Gabrielle had the hand-set of her radio to her ear. "Hey, Claire, Sergeant Armstrong reports the Martello hit one of the E-boats. Went up in a plume of water an' smoke, he says, an' when it all settled there was nothin' there anymore, as far as he could tell."
"That's nice." Claire bared her teeth in an evil grin no-one in the cramped pill-box, happily, could see. "One E-boat down, six t'go. Alright, let's get this game goin', folks."
For the next two minutes the back and forth firing took on the nature of a side-show at a Fair. The British Home Guard, spread out at various locations either side of the Martello Tower, fired out to sea; while the German E-boats, still awaiting the return of their dinghy-ensconced commandos, returned a hail of cannon-fire at what must, to them, have been almost entirely invisible targets. Then things took a decidedly more dangerous turn, locally.
On the exterior of the western side of the pill-box came a clattering rattle, as if small boys were throwing stones, then a Home Guard nearly fell over Gabrielle as he appeared at the baffle-protected door.
"Machine-gun fire comin' from further along the beach t'the west, ma'am." The man, in his fifties, paused for breath. "Think at least one boat-load o'those dam' Jerries must'a succeeded in landin' there, ma'am. An' they seem t'have spotted us."
Claire stopped firing through the concrete slit, resting the stock of her gun against her now aching shoulder, then came to a decision.
"I'm doin' no real good here, there's no target t'pinpoint out t'sea." She grabbed her gun and stepped back to bring it free of the pill-box firing-slit. "OK, I'm gon'na come outside, an' give those Jerries some o'their own medicine. Maybe if they're strafed themselves it'll take some o'the grit out'ta them. Mind yer leg, Gabrielle, lem'me past."
"Watch yourself, lady."
"Don't worry, I'll be OK."
"I'll pass the message t'Sergeant Armstrong in the Martello Tower, about the landed Jerries; maybe he can bring his big gun t'bear on 'em."
"That'd be nice. OK, see ya later."
Claire gently stepped past her seated partner, Bren gun held at a slant to the left across her chest, took a deep breath of the clean cold salty air outside, and headed a few yards further along the sand away from the dark bulk of the low pill-box.
"Right, where're these dam' Jerries?" She glanced at the Home Guard crouching beside her. "What's your name, by the by?"
"OK, Barker, where's yer mates—oh, here they are, right." She took in the group of four part-time soldiers lying full-length just in front of her. "OK, boys, we're gon'na form a rear-guard action; though it's gon'na be more in the shape of a forward-attacking ambush. You spread out wider on both sides o'me; when I open up with the Bren you let rip, too. Jenkins? Jenkins?"
"Over here, ma'am."
"Did ya hear me?"
"Got it all, ma'am."
"Good, well, you open up with your Bren when I fire mine. Maybe we can catch the b-gg-rs in a cross-fire." Claire took one last look up and down at her small defensive force. "We'll give whoever's out there a bloody broadside that'll tear 'em t'pieces, with any luck. Remember, it's probably only one dinghy's worth o'Jerries—six, maybe eight, enemy tops; we can take 'em, easy—so let's get to it, then, on my mark."
Deciding she would have a better chance of hitting her target standing Claire spread her feet apart, crunched her boots firmly into the soft sand, took another breath then, holding her weapon confidently, fired a long burst along the length of the virtually invisible beach in front of her. For an instant there was no reply, then a series of twinkling flashes could be seen about three hundred yards distant, followed by the evil whine of bullets passing far too close by. Gritting her teeth Claire threw the used magazine away, bent to grab another from the small handful she had brought with her and dropped at her feet, then returned fire once more. While she was thus engaged the Guards on either side, lying on the sand, opened up with their .303 rifles.
One thing about the members of the Home Guard was that, by the very nature of their business, they were well trained. They had, over the years, engaged in scores of hours of practice and were now experts with their weapons. Give them a target and they could be guaranteed to hit it. And after many uncomfortable night exercises all the present men needed was the faint gunflashes of the enemy in the distance. They could find the range almost unconsciously, and pin down their targets with a withering sustained fire; which actions they now proceeded to carry out with calm efficiency. This was their moment, and they meant to take full advantage.
Another Bren ammo-clip reloaded, a full 30 seconds of concentrated fire later, and Claire could see some change in the attitude of their unseen attackers.
"Not so many guns returning our fire." She raised her voice so the soldiers on either hand could hear. "Think you boys may have hit some o'them already. Good show."
"It was Archie here," An invisible Guard sniggered in the darkness. "he's got gimlet eyes, fer a young lad."
"Well, keep it up—"
What had taken their attention was the sudden explosion of a major shell on the sand, far bigger than the E-boats' cannon, just fifty yards to the west in front of them, along the beach between Claire's group and the German invaders. As Claire stood, ears ringing and wondering whether she ought to dive for cover, the barrage continued.
Crump, Crump, Crump,Crump.
Each further shell, now recognised by all as coming from the gun on top of the Martello Tower, ranged along the beach, going further away from the pill-box and nearer the German attack force. Then the bombardment stopped.
"Sergeant Anderson asks—was that any help, Claire?"
"Dam' fine show, Gabs." Claire stood four-square again, Bren at her shoulder. "Lem'me get another burst in, then we'll see what effect it's had. OK, boys fire at will—strafe the b-gg-rs."
Nothing loth the prone Guards let rip with a sustained fusillade, like a crowd of pheasant shooters gone mad. Their rifle-clips held five bullets apiece; but, through long practice, they could change these almost in the twinkling of an eye. Claire let the carnage go on for another half minute, then called a halt.
"Hold it, hold it,—you there, to my right, f-ckin' stop f-ckin' shootin', ya clown. Thank you."
There was a brief silence, only the salty smell of disturbed sand and old seaweed filling the nostrils of the defenders; then a faint twinkling far along the beach recommenced, while the sharp whine of passing bullets accompanied the return fire.
"I think there's only about four Jerries still active out there." Claire made a decision, turning to shout behind her. "Gab, ask Anderson t'give 'em another broadside—same range as the last shell he fired. Everybody, keep yer bloody heads down, a few may come in short."
"Got'cha, Ricky." Gabrielle relayed the message from her unseen partner, then sat back awaiting results.
Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang.
Sergeant Anderson obviously felt that his superior officer rated a second full burst from his well-loved anti-aircraft gun; the noise from the firing making the Guards at the pill-box hold their ears again, even at half a mile's range.
Crump,—Crump, Crump, Crump, Crump.
The first shell, as Claire had feared, came over rather short, bursting just forty yards ahead of the line of soldiers on the sand; dust and sand from the dark column thrown into the air by the explosion wafting over to settle on the uniforms of the soldiers and trickle into their already dry throats. The rest of the barrage fell much further along the beach, in a tight group of dark columns of blasted sand, falling to earth afterwards with an appreciably felt thump by the interested onlookers.
Claire made a motion with her hand for the Guards to hold their fire, then stood listening intently, after the last echoes of the explosions had faded.
"I'm gon'na try another burst, lads." She gazed from left to right at her mostly invisible cohorts. "If there's any return fire, try'n pinpoint it an' rake 'em fer all you're worth. Got that?"
"Dam' straight, ma'am."
"Jest gim'me the chance, ma'am."
She threw away her used ammo-clip, bent to retrieve a fresh one, fastened it in place with a sharp tap, then hoisted the long-barreled gun to her shoulder once more.
"God, this gets heavier every bloody minute ya use the dam' thing."
She paused to take a deep breath, looked sharply along the beach in the general direction of the still unseen attackers then, compressing her lips tightly, let fly with the Bren.
This time she emptied the full clip, the burring noise of the gun's firing thumping violently against her eardrums. Meanwhile, out at sea, the E-boats were once more concentrating their cannon-fire on the Martello Tower; they no doubt realising it was aiming at some of their commandos along the beach. This at least gave Claire and her troops beside the pill-box some relief, as the enemy weren't firing near where they thought their own soldiers were now dug in on the beach.
"Nothing." Claire called out to her group of Home Guard once more. "Seems that last barrage did fer Jerry completely. Jenkins, take a coupla men an' recce forward. Don't take any chances, go canny. Gabs?—"
"Yeah, I'm here."
"—get on the blower an' tell Sergeant Anderson well done, but no further barrages in our direction fer the present, OK?"
The ongoing battle had now reached a crescendo; the few German commandos who had made landfall had been summarily dealt with by the Home Guard and the Martello Tower's gun; the sustained fire from the entrenched British line of soldiers spread out along the beach had made the other commandos in their dinghies finally turn tail and head back to their mother E-boats; while the E-boats found themselves between Scylla and Charybdis; they couldn't run for the open sea and leave their commandos in their returning dinghies, but neither could they do anything much in defence of the soldiers or their own boats—the darkness covering the extended dug-in groups of Home Guard men successfully: while at the same time the E-boats were being attacked, and pretty badly hit, by the anti-aircraft gun mounted on the distant Martello Tower. And then their day, or night, turned even more belligerently against the E-boats.
"Ma'am, there's something funny happenin' out t'sea, by the Jerry boats."
"What, Barker? Where?" Claire coughed to free her throat of some of the sand she had inhaled, turning to sweep her eyes over the still moonlit sea. "What'd ya see?"
"The E-boats ain't firing their cannon at us, or the Tower, anymore." Barker had a hand up shading his eyes. "But they're still dam' well firing at somethin', on the seaward side o'them."
The answer hit Claire instantly, she allowing herself a broad grin which, of course, no-one could see.
"It's the British MTB's, they've finally decided to come along an' join the fun."
"Not dam' well before time." Gabrielle, still carefully nursing her broken ankle and just having taken another pain-killing tablet, was feeling a little morose. "Took 'em long enough."
Inside the confined space of the pill-box once more and feeling, if not particularly safe, at least more than ever like a sardine in its can, Claire peered through the long firing-slit out to sea. Flashes from the several remaining E-boats' cannon could easily be made out though, as Barker had surmised, they were engaged in concentrating their fire on targets out to sea. And now Claire clearly spotted return fire hitting the E-boats, causing brilliant explosions as British cannon shells found their targets with delightful frequency. Then another aspect made itself clear as the battle continued out on the dark sea.
"They're turning tail, runnin' for it." Claire almost yelled with glee, putting out a hand to steady Gabrielle, who had appeared, cursing quietly, at her shoulder. "How're y'doin', darlin'? Still in pain? Jerry's high-tailin' it back t'Krautland, abandoning the rest o'the commandos still bobbin' around on the briny in their dinghies. The MTB's'll take all those prisoner o'course, no problem."
Gabrielle, though hampered somewhat by feeling nauseous because of the pills she had taken earlier, deigned to glance out the gun-slit; though struggling to make a coherent reply—the world suddenly taking on a hazy purplish sort of aura to her unfocussed eyes.
"Oh, that's good." She made one last attempt at conscious thought. "Good ol' Jerry, where'd we be without good ol' Jerry. What? What?"
Claire glanced at her partner and diagnosed the trouble in a split second.
"God, ya didn't take more than two o'those dam' tablets from the First-Aid box, did ya? Christ, ya did, ya took three, didn't ya?"
"Three? Yeah, might'a taken three." Gabrielle was very obviously now on a downward spiral, like a crashing fighter plane, leaning all her weight on Claire's shoulder. "Needed three, didn't I. Three's good. Delicious,—delic,—Oh God, I'm gon'na throw up—"
Dumping her Bren gun unceremoniously amid the clutter on the floor of the pill-box Claire grabbed Gabrielle by the waist and dragged her, almost off her feet, out through the narrow door—and not before time, either, the blonde fulfilling her own prediction in fine style just after the two women staggered onto the loose sand outside, in the cold night air.
"Jaysuus, whatever did ya have fer dinner, Gabs—that's disgustin'."
Next morning the small school-room which usually catered to the Hemsby youth was full of tired, dusty, somewhat bedraggled Home Guard. Claire stood at the head of the classroom; with Gabrielle sitting on a chair at a table to her left hand, sporting a fine plaster encircling her right foot to well above the ankle, only her toes peeping out in front. She, nonetheless, regarded the assembled military ranks with a certain despondency; still suffering, as she undoubtedly was, from the overdose of pain-killing medicine she had irresponsibly taken earlier the preceding night. Claire, however, was full of righteous vim and verve.
"Between you lads, and the Navy's MTB's, we sank two E-boats and damaged two others." She gazed with a broad smile at the men standing in front of her. "Five dinghies were captured, with a total of thirty-six Jerry commandos, or what passes for Jerry such. All-in-all, a very decent night's work."
"My gun-crew did a fine bit o'business too, ma'am." Sergeant Anderson was singularly proud of the excellent showing his anti-aircraft gun, on the Martello Tower, had given during the course of the battle. "Last night was like somethin' out'ta a Rafael Sabatini novel, ma'am. Great fun."
"No doubt about that, Sergeant Anderson." Claire was, rightly, rousing in praise of this aspect of the night's work. "Couldn't have done it without ya, that's certain. So, that seems t'wrap the whole business up; till the next time, o'course. Don't go gettin' full'a yourselves because of this great victory, mind you. There's still a war on, an' there's some heavy fighting still t'come before we raise the Union Jack over the Unter den Linden. So let's keep a sharp eye out still, boys—and thank you one and all for a very fine effort indeed."
"So, here we are, home again, Claire?"
"Couldn't have put it more poetically myself, dear; even if, after all, it's just an ordinary bloody Nissen hut on a broken down RAF airfield in Norfolk."
"Home is where the heart is, Claire." Gabrielle, from her prone position on one of the low metal beds, gazed smilingly at her partner. "Looks like your nursing skills are gon'na have to come to the fore again, though. Me being somewhat hampered with only one operational leg, an' all that."
"Oh, that's no problem." The tall dark New Zealander having the answer to this minor difficulty to hand. "I'll just kiss your toes an' poor little ankle better, that's all—easy."
"Yeah? With my foot swathed in plaster?" Gabrielle giggled. "How're you gon'na accomplish that, then? You can only just see the tip of my toes on my right foot, after all."
"But your left toes an' foot are free an' available fer kissing, ain't they?" With a smirk Claire moved forward to slide along to the end of the bed. "So I just start with them, d'ya see?"
"Claire, you're a card an' no mista—aah, oh, that's nice,—slower,—yeah."
The next 'Mathews and Parker' story, will arrive shortly.