Read Corporal Cotton's Little War Online

Authors: John Harris

Tags: #fiction

Corporal Cotton's Little War (3 page)

No, by Christ, Cotton thought, they weren’t. Crete had made a vast difference to the Royal Navy but it had proved a mixed blessing in the end, because the Stukas had already knocked the living daylight out of two cruisers and an aircraft carrier, and Cotton was under no delusions that worse was to come.

Ponsonby looked up again and Cotton decided he didn’t like him very much.

‘You’re Greek, Corporal,’ Ponsonby said.

Cotton jumped, and decided abruptly that he didn’t like Ponsonby at all.

‘Not me, sir,’ he said indignantly. To Cotton, Greece was as foreign as Tibet. He knew his mother received postcards occasionally at Christmas from Athens and that he had an Aunt Chrysoula and two cousins, Despina and Eleftheria, who, judging by the photographs, were a bit of all right in the manner of Maltese girls, but he’d never been to Athens to meet them and didn’t expect to go.

Ponsonby was staring at him suspiciously. ‘You speak Greek,’ he accused.

This was something Cotton couldn’t deny, though under the circumstances he’d have liked to.

‘A bit, sir,’ he admitted cautiously.

‘Your mother was Greek.’

‘Until she married my Old Man, sir. After that, she considered herself an Englishwoman.’

‘But your father was Greek, too, wasn’t he?’

‘My Old Man was English,’ Cotton said sharply. ‘His family went to London fifty-odd years ago.’

‘His name’s Cotonou.’

Cotton wondered where the hell Ponsonby had found out because he’d deliberately changed his name when he’d enlisted; he’d been called ‘dago’ and ‘wop’ too often in civvy street for him to want it to follow him into the service. He realized Patullo was the culprit and gave him an aggrieved look.

Ponsonby was staring at a sheet of paper in front of him and he lifted his head to peer accusingly at Cotton. ‘You know Greece?’ he asked.

‘No, sir, though I’ve got relatives there, I believe. I reckon they’re still there. They weren’t millionaires, sir.’

Kennard looked up. He was smiling as if he were trying to take the heat out of the interview. ‘One thing you are, without any doubt,’ he said. ‘And that’s a Royal Marine.’

‘Yes, sir.’ That, at least, was undeniable. In fact, Cotton had always thought it stuck out all over him in large lumps. Joeys were Joeys and couldn’t be anything else.

The commander smiled as if he were reading Cotton’s thoughts. ‘ “
‘E sleeps in an ‘ammick instead of a cot,” ‘
he quoted,
’ “an’ ‘e drills with the deck on a slew. An’ ‘e sweats like a Jolly -- ‘Er Majesty’s Jolly - soldier an’ sailor, too!”
Kipling,’ he ended. ‘You know Kipling’s Marine, Corporal?’

‘Yes, sir,’ Cotton said stolidly, giving nothing away in the matter of encouragement.

There was a moment’s silence, then Ponsonby drew a deep breath and looked up at Cotton. ‘It’s absolutely essential that what
Loukia
was carrying is brought away, Corporal,’ he said.

Cotton was beginning to fight a rearguard action now. ‘Suppose it can’t, sir?’

‘From the reports we have, it can. In addition, we’d rather like to know what the Germans’ next move is to be and it’s just possible
Loukia’s
money might be used to help. Aeos is a large island not so far from the mainland.’

There was another silence then Kennard spoke again. ‘We shall be sending
Loukia’s
sister ship
Claudia,’
he said. ‘She’ll carry a carpenter-boat builder - from, the Merchant Navy, because he’s the only one spare - in case we can patch
Loukia
up. There’ll be an ERA to take a look at her engines, and a crew of eight under Lieutenant Shaw, of ML137. We have several volunteers already: Two RASC men from military lighters, some sailors, and one airman who speaks German. They’re a mixed bag but we couldn’t just help ourselves where we fancied. They’ll be issued with Greek money and their orders will be to pick up
Loukia’s
survivors and the arms and money. If it’s possible, they will also effect repairs on
Loukia,
tow her off and bring her back, too, because we’re badly in need of boats. Since they may have to inspect her hull, there will be a diving suit on board. Do you know anything about diving, Corporal?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Well, it’s a shallow-water closed-circuit re-breather type and there’ll be a man aboard who can use it.’

Cotton knew what was coming next. ‘Who’s in charge of the show, sir?’ he asked.

Patullo gave a small embarrassed smile. ‘Me, Cotton. I was conscripted into offering my name.’

Cotton knew exactly what he meant: ‘Three volunteers. You you and you!’

‘Now we need one more,’ Patullo went on. ‘Greek-speaking.’

‘Me, sir?’

Patullo smiled. ‘I thought of you at once, Cotton.’

Cotton decided he was about to volunteer for something without even opening his mouth. And volunteering was something an old Joey -- or an old anything else, for that matter -- just didn’t do. It could get you into trouble. A friend of his in the Royal Scots had volunteered for a driving course and had ended up as a cook in Singapore. All that seemed to be missing was a bed of nails and a couple of hair shirts.

‘We have a lot to do,’ Patullo explained, ‘and not much time to do it in. It was decided under the circumstances that more than one Greek speaker would be an advantage. That’s where you come in.’

With an effort, Cotton managed a slightly bitter smile.

‘I thought it might be, sir,’ he said.

2

Unfortunately for Corporal Cotton, Lieutenant Patullo, Commander Kennard, and Mr George Ponsonby, of the Foreign Office they were not the only people who had an eye on Aeos.

From Belgrade in Yugoslavia, Wehrmacht Field Marshal Wilhelm List, who was in command of the over-all operation for the subduing of the Balkans,- had sent out instructions to General Johann-Helmuth Ritsicz, of the German 12th Army, who had set up his headquarters in Sofia, Bulgaria, a mere hundred-odd miles from the great Macedonian plain. Well placed for communications with the valleys of the Danube and the Struma, Sofia was a curious mixture of Thracian, Roman and Turkish civilizations and at that very moment, in a room near the Buzuk Dzamija Mosque, a certain Major Renatus von Boenigk Baldamus - until wounded in the invasion of France the previous year, part of the 346th Panzer Grenadiers - was just being informed of the part he was to play.

Ritsicz’s headquarters were in the Balgarija Hotel near the Narodnq Sabranie and, with the city already subdued, General Ritsicz was walking confidently up and down as he talked. His thick legs breeched with the red stripe of the General Staff, he stumped heavily backwards and forwards between the window and the door. Major Baldamus listened in silence; a smooth-faced man, young for his rank but intelligent, clear-headed and - despite the air of insouciance he affected as part of his stock-in-trade -decisive when necessary. From where he sat, he could see the Russian Church of St Nicholas and, beyond the Narodno Sabranie, the towers of the Alexandar Nevski Cathedral. After his light-hearted fashion, he had come to the conclusion that they provided a much more impressive vista than General Ritsicz who had the heavy jowls of a man who liked his food. Son of a wealthy Ruhr manufacturer, Major Baldamus was never inclined to drop on one knee before his superiors, and, while he was shrewd enough to see the advantages Hitler had gained for Germany, he was not even a Nazi.

For the tenth time General Ritsicz turned by the window and faced him. ‘Your orders,’ he said, ‘which have come direct from Field Marshal List, are to land on Aeos and take possession of it. There must be no mistake, and nothing half-hearted about it. You will
be
in possession.’

You will advance to the right in threes, Major Baldamus thought cynically. You will keep your barrack room tidy. You will engage in a football match. You will capture London, shoot Churchill and take the King of England prisoner. All part of the scheme. The army never suggested that you might not. You will, it said, and that didn’t mean, you will have a go. It meant, quite simply what it said: You will.

But though Major Baldamus was under no illusions, he also had no personal doubts. ‘What opposition can we expect, sir?’ he asked politely.

Ritsicz stopped and turned to face him again. ‘None,’ he said. ‘There will be none. Intelligence states quite categorically that there is no organization for opposition. There are no troops on the island, except perhaps a few in the capital in the north, attached for Customs duties and things like that. There may also be a few sailors attached for harbour service, but there are no naval ships in the harbour, and there are no aeroplanes.’

‘There’s an airstrip, sir.’

‘Civil.’ Ritsicz gestured airily. ‘Chiefly used by wealthy Greeks from the Piraeus flying in to their island homes. Spiro Panyioti for example. He built it and he was the major user. He has a home at Xinthos nearby, where he went when the cares of business became too pressing.’

‘Poor chap!’

The general’s expression didn’t slip. ‘It’s supposed to be a country house,’ he explained. ‘But, in fact, it’s more like a palace. You will keep an eye on it.’

‘Perhaps I can billet myself there,’ Baldamus smiled.

‘You can
not
billet yourself there,’ the general said sharply, beginning to wonder if Baldamus’ light-heartedness was an indication of a flippant nature. He had heard that Baldamus had done well in France, but so far he hadn’t given much indication of any ability. ‘There will be no troops in Panyioti’s place,’ he went on. ‘For the simple reason that it may well be needed later for something else. I had not failed to notice its existence or its value. But it’s been earmarked for a special purpose and you will do no more than look it over and keep an eye on it. You will be informed by signal when to use it, and when you are informed you will immediately realize why.’

‘I see, sir.’ Baldamus rose. ‘I think that covers everything.’

‘You have your men?’

‘I have, sir. Engineers, pioneers and lines-of-supply troops. I think there will be more than enough.’

The general eyed him shrewdly. For the first time Baldamus was beginning to behave like a commander.

‘I have also a good second-in-command,’ Baldamus continued. ‘He was with me through France and I can trust him implicitly.’

‘Can he keep his mouth shut?’

‘Like an oyster, sir.’ Baldamus paused near the door. ‘When do we leave, sir?’

‘At once.’

‘Embarking where, sir?’

The general indicated the envelope Baldamus held. ‘It’s all in there,’ he said shortly. ‘It will be made clear as soon as you read your orders.’

‘Of course, sir. I was merely thinking of earmarking the ship.’

The general smiled. ‘You will not be going by ship,’ he said.

Baldamus’ eyebrows rose in surprise and Ritsicz smiled at his expression. There was something engaging, he saw now, about this young man when he allowed it to emerge, and he began to feel reassured. ‘You will be going by air. Everything has been laid on at the Italian airfield of Lushnje in the plain west of Tirana in Albania. Aircraft of
Fliegerkorps IX
are awaiting you and your men there at this very moment.’

‘Let’s hope the Italians haven’t been driven out of it before we arrive,’ Baldamus said mildly. ‘After all, it’s only about a hundred and fifty kilometres from the Greek frontier and the way the Greeks behave to them they might well.’

Ritsicz’s smile widened. ‘I think the Greeks are a spent force,’ he said, ‘and this time the Italians will not give way. Indeed, they had better not or the Fuhrer will want to know why. The Junkers 52s you will use have a range of 900 kilometres - though I believe wise pilots prefer to regard it as considerably less - which gives you plenty spare to reach Aeos. Our friends on the island have provided fuel for the return journey.’

‘It should be interesting,’ Baldamus observed mildly.

‘It should certainly be quicker,’ Ritsicz said.

Quite unaware of Major Baldamus and what he had been instructed to do, Corporal Cotton stood staring at
Claudia
lying alongside a sleeper-built jetty in Suda Bay. The water round her was dark, oil-slicked and drab, and on the slipway nearby scum and rubbish had collected in the form of sticks, bits of paper and orange peel. The smell was one of brine, oil and rotting wood.

Across the water, the harbour was almost empty, with only a few odd destroyers and oilers and one charred wreck nearly out of sight. It was a mellow evening and Crete looked superb. The mountains inland shone with a soft lustre as the setting sun caught each succeeding ridge. On the slopes were scrub bushes and grass, and a few flowers. In the rifts, there were cypress and olive trees and little cultivated patches, and occasionally an almond tree in full blossom.

Claudia
was a handsome-looking boat. Freshly painted in the pale blue-grey of the Mediterranean fleet, she had sweet, clean lines running from a yacht-like bow down to a blunt square stern.

‘Seventy-three feet long, nineteen-foot beam, fifty tons displacement, double diagonal ma’ogany planing hull, with hard chine.’ Duff, the chief engine-room artificer who’d been sent from the motor launch flotilla to accompany them, was a long lean, gloomy individual with a laconic manner. ‘They’re adapting ‘em as MTBs for the navy at home, with three Packard V12 supercharged 1250-horse engines. We’ve only got two - millionaire’s bloody meanness, I suppose. That’s how they get to be millionaires. It gives us less power, but as we don’t carry as much all-up weight as a fully-armed torpedo boat, the maximum speed ends up roughly the same - thirty-five to forty knots.’

Cotton nodded and continued his inspection. The foredeck, complete with a small hand winch, was broad and swept back to a large varnished wheelhouse, with doors on either side opening like hatches. Inside the wheelhouse was the bridge, the commanding officer’s cabin once occupied by Panyioti himself lush with civilian blankets and even curtains; and opposite another cabin once occupied by the boat’s skipper but now filled with radio equipment. Beyond that, still under the wheelhouse deckhead, was the engine room containing the two huge Packard engines. From this a door opened on to a large well-deck, part of which had been built over just forward of the after hatch and mounted with the captured 20 mm Italian cannon. On either side of the wheelhouse, almost jamming up the gangway, was a Lewis gun on a stand, and at the rear end of the well there was a canister containing chloro-sulphonic acid for making smoke, below it the tanks containing the 100-octane petrol that gave the boat a range of around one hundred and forty miles at a speed of twenty-five knots.

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