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Authors: John Harris

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Corporal Cotton's Little War

Corporal Cotton’s Little War

A novel of the Aegean campaign 1941

John Harris

First published 1979 ©John Harris 1979

ISBN 0 09 136250 4

Author’s Note

For the benefit of those who don’t know, perhaps it would be an advantage to explain what was happening in Europe in the spring of 1941, when this book begins. At that period of World War II, when Britain’s fortunes had reached their nadir and the German swastika fluttered confidently over the capitals of Europe, the Mediterranean suddenly blazed into action.

In late 1940, eager to emulate the German successes in France, Norway, Denmark and Holland and half-expecting it to fall into his lap like a ripe plum, Mussolini had attacked Greece from Albania, which he had occupied before the war. Immediately, the Greeks asked the British government to stand by a promise made in 1939 that Britain would go to her help in the event of invasion. Unfortunately, while this idea had been fine in 1939, in 1940, with the British in North Africa already conducting half a dozen campaigns at once, there were too many commitments elsewhere and, apart from a few dozen aircraft, a British mission and a token force of troops, there was precious little assistance Britain could afford to give.

Nevertheless, there was one big strategic prize to be snatched from under the noses of the Italian invaders. Crete, with its fine natural harbour of Suda Bay, afforded a valuable advanced fuelling base for naval operations in the central Mediterranean, and at the invitation of the Greek government it was occupied by British forces just three days after the Italian attack. As a result, Admiral Cunningham, C-in-C, Mediterranean, was able to establish a much wider sphere of control, and almost immediately took advantage of his new base by attacking with carrier-borne aircraft the Italian fleet at Taranto.

It also happened that the Greeks ran rings round the Italian invaders and tossed them smartly back into Albania. But then, in the spring of 1941, a new threat appeared. Concerned with the Italian navy’s failures and the Italian army’s lack of success in North Africa, which seemed likely to impede the German war effort, Hitler despatched to their assistance units of the Luftwaffe - a very different proposition from the Italian Regia Aeronautica - and, immediately, Stuka dive bombers closed the Mediterranean to through convoys. With seaborne supplies threatened, there was a great need for land bases for aircraft and, with the threat of a German invasion of Greece through the Balkans, a British army was put ashore in that country.

One month later the long-expected German attack came via Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Rumania. Outnumbered on the ground and in the air and deprived of supplies by the needs of North Africa, the British and the Greeks were immediately in trouble, and almost from the outset were fighting for their very survival.

Maps

Prologue

Crete lay like a basking lizard in the spring sunshine. The warm waters of the Aegean lapped at the brown rugged inlets that scarred the sides of the rocky outcrop which ran like the lizard’s scaly backbone the whole length of the island.

The slopes of the coastal plain were covered with scrub and brown grass, with here and there small areas of cultivated terraces among the olives and cypresses and the acres of flowers that softened the arid harshness of the land. Masses of small white irises and big daisies grew among the oleander, tamarisk, poppies and flowering thistles, and the valleys hid bright birds and gorgeous butterflies. It was easy to see why the land had been so beloved of Byron and Rupert Brooke.

Staring from the window of a hut beneath a tamarisk tree near Retimo, Lieutenant-Commander Henry Kennard studied the light-grey shapes of naval vessels across the harbour and the groups of men marching through the dusty sunshine, passed and re-passed by lorries towing guns or carrying ammunition along the gritty tracks. Kennard was a man in his forties, greying and with a face wrinkled like a walnut, a reservist who had served throughout the other war and had found himself recalled to fill a vital job ashore so that a younger man could go to sea. As he stared through the dusty glass, he heard the cheep-cheep of the wireless operator’s set behind him and turned.

‘Sir! Signal! It’s
Loukia
!’

A short square pipe sticking from his sun-reddened face like the muzzle of a gun, Kennard stood behind the operator as he wrote.

‘Loukia to Scylla. ETA 1315.'

Kennard read the signal as the operator set it down. Then, picking it up and slanting it down on to his desk, turned to the civilian sitting in a deckchair alongside.

‘Estimated time of arrival just after lunch,’ he said. ‘They’re almost there, Ponsonby.’

He glanced through the window. A destroyer group was just entering the harbour and he could see the signal flags moving up to the yard-arm in bright splashes of colour. The sun caught the glass below the bridge and picked out the smooth barrels of the guns, and he could make out white-clad men forming up on the foredeck. The ships looked sleek and deadly, but Kennard knew how vulnerable they were to German dive-bombers.

‘I think those bastards back in England have landed us properly in the dog’s dinner this time,’ he said. ‘They can’t have had the slightest idea what they’re expecting us to do, chucking the pongos into Greece like that. All that bloody talk about keeping faith. Was your office behind it?’

Ponsonby gave him a cold stare and was just about to reply when the radio cheeped again.

‘Sir!
Loukia
again!’

‘She’s not arrived, surely?’

Kennard reached for the message, read it and passed it to Ponsonby.
‘Blenheim bomber landed in sea to east. Investigating survivors.’

Ponsonby frowned. ‘They haven’t time to investigate crashing bombers,’ he said. ‘We want; them in Antipalia.’

Kennard glanced quickly at him but Ponsonby was quite serious and Kennard reflected that he looked like the sort of man who took great care that his own survival was never likely to need investigation, the sort of man who would never be in a ditching Blenheim or swimming for his life to a rubber dinghy.

‘We’ll just have to wait and see,’ he said coldly.

It was a quarter of an hour before the next message came.

‘Observer and air-gunner picked up,’
Kennard read.
‘Names: PO Travers, Sergeant Kitcat. Pilot missing.’

‘Now get on your way.’ Ponsonby, who had read the message over Kennard’s shoulder, spoke quietly, urgently, as though trying by the force of his own will to drive the unseen men back to their task.

The day grew hotter as the sun moved further west, baking the dry earth on the sides of the Cretan cliffs and among the undergrowth in the inland ravines. The sky grew brassy with its heat, and, bored, Kennard went for a cup of tea to a small square white house down the road where a movement office had been set up. It boasted a kettle and an electric cooker, and had kept him in tea and gossip ever since he’d arrived. When he returned the radio was cheeping again, and the radio operator put the message into his outstretched hand without a word.
‘PO Travers died,’
he read.
‘ETA 1500.’

‘They’ve lost two hours,’ Ponsonby said.

‘They’re sailors,’ Kennard snapped angrily. ‘No sailor likes to see another man drown. It might be his turn next. Because that’s what happens, you know. They go down into the darkness, gurgling and blowing bubbles and trying to shout to their God, to their mother, to their friends, and unable to, because the salt sea water’s choking them. “Lost at sea” or “Lost with the ship” doesn’t really sum it up, you know. That’s newspaper stuff - something dreamed up by the hurrah departments - all a bit remote, even a bit romantic. Drowning’s what happens and
that’s
slow and agonizing.’

Ponsonby stared at him coldly and Kennard knew he had no idea what he was trying to say. How could he? Probably the most dangerous thing Ponsonby had ever done was climb up the gangway of the destroyer that had brought him to Crete.

The radio cheeped again, unexpectedly, and the operator’s voice cracked. ‘Sir!’

‘Loukia?’

‘Yes, sir. Trouble.’

‘Now what, for God’s sake?’ Ponsonby’s voice was fretful and angry, as though he resented the minor incidents of the war interfering with his carefully laid plans, and they leaned over the operator’s shoulder to watch as he wrote.

‘Am being attacked by MAS boats,’
the message read and the two men behind the operator stared at each other.

‘There’s another coming, sir.
‘Casualties. Damage. Am attempting to reach nearest land!’

Ponsonby turned away, his eyes angry. ‘It’s not the nearest land we want,’ he said. ‘It’s Antipalia.’

Kennard didn’t reply. This corner of the Mediterranean had become damned dangerous lately, he thought. A backwater from the mainstream of the war, it had just lately become a place where it was wiser not to linger long on a clear day. The time when the Royal Navy had lorded it over the place after the battles of Matapan and Taranto had gone.

‘Damn,’ he said quietly, his voice grieving and full of a serviceman’s bitterness against those who hazarded lives for politics, and ships for victories that would count in the press at home.

‘Damn,’ he said again. ‘Damn, damn, damn!’

Part One: Defeat

If it hadn’t been for the shopkeeper in Heraklion on the north side of Crete, Cotton might never have been involved.

The Cretan was obviously a student of the three-card trick and switched Cotton’s coins so fast it deceived the eyes of most of the people looking on. But Cotton had seen it done before in the Portobello Road in London and, grabbing the Cretan’s hand in his big fist, he wrenched the missing coins free and jammed them into his pocket. Then, lifting the slices of melon he’d bought, he glared into the Greek’s glittering charcoal eyes, his face red and angry.

‘A’fu ‘den to xri’azome,’
he snorted.
‘Oa tu to xa’riso.’
And shoved the ripe slices of melon in the Cretan’s face.

His features dripping with juice and dark with fury, the Greek reached for a knife. Cotton snatched it from him and flung it away and the two of them spat at each other in Greek until more Greeks arrived and things started to look nasty. That was when Patullo appeared.

‘You’d better hop it, Corporal,’ he said casually. ‘I’ll sort this out.’

Cotton didn’t argue. Lieutenant Leonidas John Patullo was well known aboard the six-inch cruiser
Caernarvon,
in which Corporal Cotton was an insignificant member of the Royal Marine detachment. Patullo was Wavy Navy, a languid ugly-handsome smiling man of enormous wealth who, despite his manner, had made his presence felt in no uncertain way, even among the stiff-necked regular denizens of the wardroom. Patullo was a nutter, an oddity. With umpteen degrees in Balkan languages, he’d been in the Piraeus, the seaport of Athens, when war had broken out in 1939, and had slipped out to Alexandria in the yacht of a wealthy Greek friend to enlist as an ordinary seaman in the navy.

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