Read Corporal Cotton's Little War Online

Authors: John Harris

Tags: #fiction

Corporal Cotton's Little War (8 page)

They had cheese that was strong enough to remove the roofs of their mouths and washed it down with cherry brandy at a penny a glass, so that they returned on board feeling mellow and ready for anything. Later in the afternoon, they lay the boat alongside the mole and took on water. Then they slept in the heat, with only Cotton on deck, watching the sky. He didn’t feel like sleeping and had offered to do aircraft look-out. Uneasily he felt that something was stirring in him that was spiritually connected with this island, as if the place was calling to him; and he realized that when the old man had been talking about Greek courage and bravery, he had even felt a certain amount of pride. It was disturbing, because all his life he’d tried to believe he was entirely British.

As the sun sank, people filled the cafe, drinking cocoa and wine, and music from a couple of fiddles and a bouzouki started. The sun was setting and the evening was one of beaten gold when the lone Heinkel came over. As it flew off towards the west, they smiled with relief.

‘He’s missed us,’ Patullo said.

But the aircraft returned a few minutes later, grey-green and sleekly streamlined, and circled the harbour about two thousand feet up. Everybody on the wall stared upwards, watching it, men, women and children, holding their donkeys and their fish baskets and their shopping. Then, as the aircraft came overhead again, Cotton noticed that the bomb doors were open.

‘He’s going to bomb!’ he yelled, and they all ducked behind the wheelhouse.

The black crow-like shapes of the women started to run and the wail that went up could be heard over the noise of the engines. Then the yelling was drowned in an iron howling as the aeroplane swept overhead and they saw the bombs drop away. At first they thought they were intended for
but they passed in a descending curve over the boats and landed in the town. Lifting their heads, they saw the explosions puff up in four mushrooms of brown smoke that contained twisting tiles and pieces of wood. Then the aeroplane swept over the town and out to sea towards the north.

‘Come on!’ Patullo said, and they started to run down the harbour wall.

The bombs had fallen among the huddled white houses. Two had gone wide and done no more than dig holes of fresh, pulverized smoking earth in a plot of gardens, but the other two had flung down two of the houses and the Greeks were just dragging out a woman and a child. A donkey lay dead nearby, its blood soaking the earth in a huge sticky pool, and the priest, his face agonized, his hands red, was standing among the rubble muttering a prayer.

As they lifted the child clear, ominously still, the woman wrenched herself free, her face, her clothes, her hair, white with plaster dust. As she flung herself on the child, wailing, the aircraft passed over the harbour again and released a cloud of pamphlets which showered down to litter the streets.

Patullo caught one as it fluttered past. ‘ “To the Greek islanders,” ‘ he read aloud so they could all hear. ‘ “Be warned! The Greek government on the mainland, having directed hostile actions against the Greater German Reich and her allies, the Führer, Adolf Hitler, has decided the time has come when the Greek people must be taught a lesson. They have the choice of being ruled by their own decadent and corrupt government, or accepting the German army of occupation - “ ‘

‘Same bloody stuff they dropped on France,’ Shaw said sourly.

The anger of the islanders seemed to have knotted into a bitterness that was directed not against the aeroplane but against the British, and they saw a crowd gather near the end of the mole. The corpse of the child was lying on a slab, the mother still wailing over it. The rest of the village, led by the priest, drew together and began to march towards them.

‘I think we’d better go,’ Shaw said. ‘Start her up, Chief.’

As the engines crashed to life, the crowd stopped dead and only the old man who had talked to Cotton was on the mole to see them off. He seemed to know where they were going and seemed to feel no resentment towards them because there were tears in his eyes as he made the sign of the Cross over them.

‘May God go with you,’ he said. ‘May God in his open-handedness bless you with a fine night.’

Cotton replied automatically as he’d heard his mother call after departing guests. ‘Thank you. Perhaps God will assist us.’

Staring back, he frowned, uncertain and worried. He’ll need to, he decided.


In the headquarters he had set up in the Hotel Potomakis in Kalani, Major Baldamus sat back and considered his position.

He had done well in France and his promotion had been rapid, but he was also clever enough to have kept his nose clean without claiming that he was part of a master race. He hadn’t particularly wanted a war but, having got one, he was determined to get the best out of it; especially here on Aeos, where he felt he was ideally suited for the job he’d been given. He spoke excellent Greek, had spent a lot of time as an archaeological student in the islands during the thirties, and had used his money to make sure he did it with a certain amount of aplomb. He was, in fact, a German version of Lieutenant Patullo, whom, oddly enough, he had even once met in the Parthenon Hotel in Athens before the war.

A flight of Messerschmitts had just reached the island to support him and, to maintain them, two more transports loaded with fuel, spares, fitters and riggers. Every public office was already controlled by his men, under the efficient Captain Ehrhardt, and the mayor and the island officials were still under lock and key until he could decide what to do with them. Everything seemed highly satisfactory and he was happy that he had not been obliged to call on the bombers to break the islanders’ will.

He shifted in his chair and lit a cigar. Contemplating the blue smoke with a certain amount of satisfaction, he felt he had a right to be pleased with himself. It had been a bold stroke to take over Aeos so far in advance of the Wehrmacht. It had been captured entirely by airborne troops and, as General Ritsicz had said, could well be a pattern for the future. Because of the speed, with every hour that passed Baldamus’ position grew stronger, and there was no doubt in his mind that eventually the Germans would control the whole of the mainland and the Greek archipelago as well. From the outset of the Balkan campaign, the British and Greek troops had been falling back in the face of strong and determined attacks.

Belgrade and Skoplje were secure now, he’d heard, and the panzers were already pouring into Greece. The British would inevitably have to form a new line near Mount Olympus and the River Aliakman - and then only until the growing German flanking movement in the west compelled a further withdrawal. They hadn’t a chance. They were suffering intensely from bombing, because when Field Marshal List’s 12th Army with twelve first-class divisions and over 800 aircraft had started their advance, the RAF in Greece had possessed only eighty usable machines out of a strength of 150; the rest were already unserviceable on airfields all over the country. Once the panzers were completely through the passes and had seized the Salonika plain to establish fighter bases supported and maintained like his own by transports, there would not be a single British unit that could not come under intense and constant air attack, while in the rear every sector of military organization, ports and aerodromes could suffer incessant bombing.

Major Baldamus decided he didn’t have a lot to worry about. He had the island nicely wrapped up. The population chiefly lived in the north round Kalani and, since he controlled that and the airstrip at Yanitsa, it seemed his worries were over. Surely there could be only a few more days to hang on. The transports and Messerschmitts were merely the first of the supporting units to arrive and, with the build-up going well, he no longer had any fear of a rising against him because the rest of the island consisted of mere hamlets and groups of farms. Though he could hardly patrol them all, he preferred in any case to keep his people close together. It was one of the first principles of soldiering and, since Major Baldamus was rather out on a limb on Aeos, he considered it wiser to avoid trouble.

It was while he was in this euphoric state that Captain Ehrhardt appeared. Ehrhardt was a small man, with a brown wrinkled face. His uniform was dusty and his sleeves were rolled up to the elbows. Strapped and buckled like a carthorse in his equipment, he presented a perfect picture of a tough German fighting man. As he laid the signal he was carrying on Baldamus’ desk, he gave a slow grin at the reaction he knew it would produce.

Baldamus looked at the sheet of paper with a lazy eye, still full of thoughts on his own future. Then, as he read the words, he sat bolt upright and stared at his second-in-command with startled blue eyes, his handsome face full of consternation.

British launch?’ he said.

‘Yes, Herr Major.’

‘Like the one the Italians drove ashore near Cape Annoyia?’

‘Yes, Herr Major. It’s just reached Iros on its way north. It seems we have sympathizers there who have passed on the information.’

Baldamus stared again at the signal. ‘But heading north?’ He gazed at Captain Ehrhardt, frowning. ‘What are they after?’

‘Perhaps,’ Ehrhardt said, ‘they’re on their way to look for survivors from the other one. Though we’ve seen no sign of them. I gather the boat’s a total wreck - holed forward, engines wrecked, underwater gear buckled. The islanders seem to have been poking around it already because the dead have been buried and everything movable’s been pinched; Still - ‘ he shrugged ‘ -- perhaps the British
somebody escaped.’

Baldamus stared at the signal again then he grinned. ‘If another of those boats
on its way,’ he said, ‘then we might as well collect that one too. We could have our own fleet. I’d like to be an admiral. Inform the Luftwaffe to look out for it.’

He smiled, sat back and drew on his cigar again. ‘As a matter of fact,’ he went on, ‘I understand there were originally
of these boats - all belonging to Spiro Panyioti. What a feather in our caps it would be if we had them
We could use them for evening drinks, Ehrhardt, and trips round the island. One for me, one for you, and one for the Luftwaffe. Since the war’s going our way, we might as well enjoy it.’

It was raining again as
turned north and Docherty stuck his head out of the engine room. ‘Roll on my twelve,’ he said. ‘I thought it was always bloody fine in the Med.’

They headed north all night, all of them quiet and depressed by the bombing of Iros. They still had a long way to
and Shaw wanted to cover it slowly to conserve fuel. There were so many islands, he had to pick his way between them in the dark, busy at the chart table all the way.

As daylight came the next morning, the islands multiplied, each bare hill and blue-grey cliff appearing from behind the last boulder-strewn headland. Beyond them were more leagues of ruffled sea the colour of delphiniums, and in the distance more green headlands, each hazier than the one in front. Despite the islands, however, the sea appeared blank and empty and vast. With the Germans on the march, the islanders were staying ashore for safety and there wasn’t a boat to be seen.

After Iros, Cotton was keenly aware of a sense of danger surrounding them. With every beat of the engines, every turn of the screws, they were getting closer to the Germans, and he took to studying himself to see if he was afraid. He was pleased to find he wasn’t.

The sky was free of clouds as the boat knifed across a sea that looked like a dark silk sheet. They had rounded Xiros and Kafoulos and were heading directly towards Aeos. To the north they could still occasionally hear the distant thud-thud of guns, even above the beat of the engines.

‘Army’s having itself its usual happy time,’ Patullo said.

‘Poor buggers,’ Shaw growled.

There was also the constant sound of aircraft, a low distant throbbing hum in the sky that they knew meant danger to the unprotected army, and disaster to themselves if it appeared overhead.

‘Aeroplanes,’ Shaw said.

‘They won’t be British,’ Patullo commented.


‘Better get the Flit gun ready.’

Then Patullo pointed towards a shadowy shape between two other islands.

‘That’s it,’ he said.

‘We’ll increase the revs,’ Shaw said. ‘Turn the wick up a bit, Howard. And let’s have a message off, operator, to say we’ve arrived.’

He turned to bend over the chart with Patullo. ‘Here we are,’ Patullo said, jabbing with his finger. ‘Approaching Cape Annoyia. Kharasso Bay’s on one side of it and Xiloparissia Bay’s on the other.’ He gestured ahead. ‘That’s Cape Asigonia, the easternmost tip of the island, and that - ‘ his arm moved again ‘ - that’s Cape Kastamanitsa, the southernmost tip.’

‘What about towns?’

‘Fishing village here, the other side of Xiloparissia Bay - Ay Yithion’s the name. There are two more
here and here -- Skoinia and Kaessos. The capital’s in the north across this plain. The air strip at Yanitsa’s just to the south of it.’

There was a pause then Patullo went on, sounding faintly depressed. ‘Let’s hope the islanders’ views are the same as ours,’ he said. ‘Greeks enjoy arguing, whether it’s about God, that part of Macedonia which used to be Greek, or their own eternal cunning, and they’re very sensitive about politics. Bodies are left about stabbed like colanders every time the prime minister makes a speech. Thank God nobody but us and Iros knows much about the bombing there.’

An hour later they were edging in to their landfall. To port, just beyond Cape Annoyia, they could see a small bay surrounded by houses and a curving stone wall lined with masts.

‘Is that it?’ Gully asked.

‘Yes,’ Cotton said.

They could see Shaw studying the island through his glasses. Then he bent and called down to Howard on the wheel.

‘Starboard,’ he said. ‘Let’s take a look at Xiloparissia Bay. If we can get straight in there, we might just as well.’

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