Read Corporal Cotton's Little War Online

Authors: John Harris

Tags: #fiction

Corporal Cotton's Little War (4 page)

Cotton fingered the wheel. The boat had originally been fitted with hydraulic steering for fingertip control so that her millionaire owner would not have to exert himself too much when he wished to turn to port or starboard, but this had been replaced by the navy with a direct wire system. The deck seemed to be unbelievably cluttered up with drums of petrol and oil, ropes, water casks, guns, fenders, Carley float and crash nets. Lashed along the starboard side, where a small rubber-covered hand line was threaded through low lightweight stanchions, were planks. Heavier timbers were stuffed underneath the cannon platform and below deck were two rifles, a tommy-gun, and a large wooden box with two handles containing a closed-circuit re-breather diving equipment consisting of a flexible breathing bag, tube and canister of CO2 absorbent, a helmet vaguely like a gas-mask with goggles and mouthpiece, gas cylinders, weights and boots to which lead had been attached. It looked remarkably old-fashioned and well worn and Cotton wondered where in God’s name it had been dug up.

There was a thump of feet on the black wooden piles of the jetty as Patullo appeared with Lieutenant Shaw, a thin-faced dedicated-looking officer who didn’t seem to be relishing the job he’d been given. Like Cotton, like everybody else, he wore a white submarine sweater.

Patullo introduced Cotton with a smile. ‘This is our Ulysses,’ he said. ‘Corporal Cotton, Michael Anthony, Royal Marines. He speaks Greek as well as I do. Perhaps better. He ought to prove useful.’

Shaw’s eyes were bleak. ‘Let’s hope so,’ he said. ‘I gather the Germans have already reached Rhodes, which’ll make this place rotten uncomfortable if they use it for their Stukas. And I gather this bloody boat’s already had her share of bad luck. Old Panyioti’s brother-in-law was shot dead aboard her by his wife a couple of years back when she found him in bed with her maid. Panyioti’s money fixed the law, of course, but there was another bit of shooting, too, before they left the mainland. Several members of the family, who thought
ought to have a chance to leave as well, put their point a bit forcibly, and a man was killed and another wounded.’

He sounded disgusted and disillusioned by the whole business, and Cotton frowned. Like all seafaring men he was intensely superstitious. Women on boats, like death and sailing on a Friday, were bad, and this boat had seen more than its fair share of women and death, it seemed.

As the two officers disappeared into the wheelhouse, Cotton began to loosen the bow rope. One of the RASC men waited quietly by the stem.

There was a dull explosion as the engines leapt to life one after the other and
began to surge forward for a second at the creep of the propellers. Lieutenant Shaw reappeared, his head through the starboard hatch, his cap on the back of his head. He glanced round him and nodded.

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Let go springs.’

As the springs were taken in, he spoke to Patullo inside the cabin, then turned to the soldier on the stern.

‘Let go aft!’

‘All gone aft, sir!’

‘Let go forrard!’

‘All gone forrard.’

Standing alongside the winch, Cotton thrust gently at the wharf with his foot and
edged away and began to glide slowly across the basin towards the sea. From inside the radio cabin, the cheeps of the wireless set began abruptly.

The sun was already disappearing behind the mountains and the dark water looked like black silk. The crews of tugs, oilers, transports and naval vessels watched them in silence as they slipped past, the white ensign trailing limply from the mast. There was no cheering, no interest even. They were just a very small launch moving out on to the dark sea.

‘We should be well on our way before nightfall,’ Cotton heard Patullo say as
headed towards the entrance to the harbour. ‘We should be able to do most of the trip in darkness, and, one thing, there are plenty of islands and they’re not far apart. We ought to be able to slip from one to the other without being seen too much.’

He called to Cotton. ‘Get the crew’s names, Corporal,’ he said.

Cotton set about the job carefully. He regarded it as his right. He was senior man on board after the officers and Duff. He had a record sheet unstained by black marks and a good, if unimaginative character. He made out the list on canteen notepaper in his neat hand.

Lieutenant Shaw, in command.
Lieutenant Patullo, i/c operation.
Chief ERA Duff, engine room.
Corporal Cotton, Royal Marines.
Stoker Docherty.

Pte Howard, RASC.
Pte Coward, RASC.
LAC/WOp Bisset, RAF.
Mr Gully, carpenter--boat builder, civilian

Gully was a pink-faced, foul-mouthed man in his late thirties, fat and unhealthy from too much boozing, with greying hair that looked as though it had been cut by placing a basin on his head and snipping round it. He wore false teeth that looked as though they’d been rifled from a corpse, all dingy grey-green molars and bright-red vulcanite gums, and his jacket and trousers were of a standard of cleanliness that Cotton wouldn’t have been seen dead in. He carried a boxful of tools, a concertina and a brown-paper parcel containing his belongings. ‘One of these days,’ he had said as he climbed aboard, ‘I’ll make meself a kitbag.’ Over one ear he wore a cap with a broken peak, so that Cotton - his own cap top-dead-centre, like Cotton himself, straightforward, squared away and no nonsense - considered him the scruffiest thing he’d ever seen and felt he ought to identify him firmly on his list so that nobody could blame the navy.

He’d been carpenter on one of the Glen Line vessels which were being used as assault ships by the army and, at least, he didn’t appear to be put off by the nature of what he’d undertaken.

‘I hope you know what you’re in for,’ Cotton said.

‘Sure I do.’ Gully’s dreadful teeth flashed in a grin. ‘I’ve lived off burgoo and bloody Ticklers all me life.’

‘In case of emergency, naval discipline. Okay?’

‘Oh, Christ, hark at him.’ Gully grinned again. ‘I was too young to be in the last war, me old flower. I’m going to enjoy this one. I’m a bloody good chippy - best there is - and I ain’t got nothing to worry about.’

Only the Germans, Cotton thought.

Howard and Coward, the RASC men, were both young and -except for the position of the spots from which they both suffered - surprisingly alike even to their names. Anonymously blond, blue-eyed and with cheeks that looked bare of beard, they were like cherubs and were already known as the Heavenly Twins. Leading Aircraftman Bisset, of the RAF, was a Jerseyman, tall, thin-faced and intelligent-looking. Because of his accent, Cotton assumed he was a Hostilities Only and was startled to find he was a Regular like himself; a sort of gentleman-ranker out on the spree, he decided, and immediately jumped to the conclusion that he had a shady history and wouldn’t be much cop in a tight corner. He’d been working naval frequencies for a long time, however, and knew what to do, though his ability was largely hidden from view by a sleepy-eyed manner and a smile of enormous charm that only served to make Cotton, on the look-out for dodgers, all the more wary.

‘Jimmy Bisset,’ he’d introduced himself. ‘LAG/WOp, RAF. Sounds like a chemical formula, doesn’t it?’

Apart from the officers, Cotton had found them all living in an aeroplane packing case on the wooden wharf where
lay. They’d made themselves comfortable with a stolen stove to which they’d attached as a chimney an old cast-iron drain-pipe from God alone knew where, and Cotton didn’t expect any problems with any of them save Stoker Docherty.

In all ships, merchant service or Royal Navy, the black gang were considered to be tough guys and troublemakers, and it seemed Docherty’s ambition was to be the toughest and most troublesome of them all. Cotton suspected he’d been chivvied into the job because the ML flotilla he’d come from had had enough of him, but that he wasn’t half as tough as he liked to pretend, and was more than a little mad, with his slicked-down, greasy hair, crazy eyes, permanent grin and twisted sense of humour. His head was full of thoughts of women, singing and dancing, in that order, and he was irresponsible, uproarious, rebellious and noisy.. His arms tattooed with a tombstone bearing the legend ‘Mother’, clasped hands, and ‘Home Sweet Home’ on a length of ribbon, his reputation had arrived ahead of him through Chief ERA Duff, who knew him well.

‘Nickname’s “Rammer”,’ he said. ‘For obvious reasons. Only one bloody thought in his mind. He can’t keep it in his trousers. He’s supposed to have taken a diving course for inspecting underwater gear.’ He didn’t seem very impressed by Docherty.

The stoker had spent his first day aboard
pinning up the most salacious set of pin-up pictures Cotton had seen -- and in the navy Cotton had seen a few - all button-hard nipples and thrust-out rumps.

‘You sex-mad?’ Cotton asked.

‘Yeh.’ Docherty’s grin was unabashed. ‘It’s dead smashing. I’m a connoisseur of tits, legs and bums.’

He stacked up a row of what he called his ‘dirt books’, white-jacketed paperbacks each bearing a picture of an undressed girl in the last stages of torture or rape. Cooped up with him in a small boat seventy-three feet long, with a forecastle no more than fifteen feet across at its widest point, smelling of dust and old fag-ends, and shared with everybody else on board, Cotton wasn’t sure how they’d cope.

They had taken on the extra drums of petrol that afternoon so they could fill up before entering Xiloparissia Bay and be able to leave -- in a hurry if they had to -- with full tanks. Other odds and ends -- including a couple of unhappy-looking pigeons -- had also been loaded on board, together with extra ammunition for the 303s and the2O mm.

‘Which,’ Docherty said gaily, ‘will probably tear itself out of the fucking mounting when we fire it.’

Altogether, Cotton decided, Operation Long John Silver, which was the fancy code-name Ponsonby had thought up for the affair, looked like being a pretty dicey do. Although the navy was watching out towards the north, the Germans already seemed to hold almost everything in that direction and there was the possibility that the Italian fleet, despite the pounding it had suffered at Taranto, might also rouse itself sufficiently to join in.

Cotton climbed on to the gangway alongside the wheelhouse to remove the covers from the Lewises. Since he was supposed to be an expert on weaponry, it was his job to maintain them in sufficiently good order that the two pongos
who, being RASC, couldn’t be expected to know anything about guns - would only have to press the trigger and point them in the right direction if they were attacked. In action, it would be Cotton’s job to fire the 20 mm, with Stoker Docherty standing by with the full drums of ammunition.

As they edged along the coast of Crete and began to turn north past Canea, Cotton could see small vineyards, olive groves, paddocks and half-acre plots for oats, barley, lentils and broad beans. They could smell the land, the dry breath of rock, dust and rotting driftwood. There were two white caiques anchored just in front of them, which, but for the Italians and the Germans, would have been sponge-fishing deep inside the Adriatic. Otherwise, there seemed to be nothing else in sight, not a mast or a sail, just the spill of the wine-dark sea the wind was freshening into little waves, a brown-blue island on the horizon and a windmill just visible over the top of a small hill.

Cotton stared round him stolidly. He wasn’t afraid. In the past when people had dropped bombs on him he hadn’t panicked -- not even when
had been hit and temporarily put out of action. He’d always assumed this was because he wasn’t very well endowed with brains, but at least he was immovable and didn’t flap, and was sufficiently well trained to know what to do in emergencies. Besides, he was a dedicated serving soldier. He’d joined the Marines before the war because he’d watched his father return home every night, grey-faced and exhausted from his job as a waiter, to shout at his mother, who, short, fat and dark-eyed, had never ever answered back. ‘Yes, Cotonou,’ she’d said. ‘No, Cotonou. Three bags full, Cotonou.’ Unknowing in his youth the fears, the needs and the worries that held together two middle-aged people, no longer attractive to look at, when they seemed unable to be civil to each other, to Cotton she’d seemed to be everlastingly pliable and far from being the wife Cotton wanted when he finally got around to getting hitched himself.

Watching them, he’d sworn that
home wasn’t going to be like that; and that, although most of the London Greeks he knew ended up in restaurants,
wasn’t going to -- certainly not like his father, short of money and married to another wop with wop relatives and blessed with a brood of kids all yelling in a foreign language. He’d been halfway out of the cage even before he’d joined, in fact, because he’d become a Catholic, which was near enough to Greek Orthodox and seemed safer and better, and everybody at the bus depot where he’d worked as a clerk had called him ‘Mick’ and thought him an Ulsterman.

Briskly, efficiently, his mind devoid of doubts, he finished checking the guns, then went in search of the RASC men. He found Howard in the galley between the wheelhouse and the forecastle brewing tea.

‘I’ve fixed the guns,’ Cotton said stolidly. ‘It’s your job to make sure yours is kept all right.’

Howard looked round. ‘You an expert on guns, Corp?’ he asked.

‘A bit.’

Howard grinned. ‘I’m glad you’re on our side,’ he said. ‘I like to have the experts on my side. Giz a kiss, Royal.’

Cotton sniffed. Coward and Howard, he’d found already, were a bit too big for their boots for RASC wallahs. After all, the bloody RASC hadn’t got its knees brown yet, while the Marines had been founded in 1664 by Charles the Second when it was the Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot. Cotton had had the corps history drilled into him so much he didn’t even have to think. He knew every campaign through Belle Isle, Egypt, the Sudan, the Boxer Rising, Gallipoli, Jutland and Zeebrugge. The RASC existed only to keep better men supplied with beer and fags when they hadn’t time while holding off the king’s enemies to go and get them themselves. Besides, Coward and Howard didn’t look old enough to have been in more than a month or two, anyway, and were only there, he suspected, because better men were busy on the mainland repelling aggression with not much more than their teeth and bare hands.

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