Read Corporal Cotton's Little War Online

Authors: John Harris

Tags: #fiction

Corporal Cotton's Little War (9 page)

As they approached, the water shelved so that they could peer into water, only a few fathoms deep, that was teeming with fish in the blue-green light. The sea clattered against the rocks and the breeze came through a gap in the hills towards them.

‘Keep your eyes skinned,’ Patullo warned.

They edged in closer, their eyes on the sky, Patullo studying the bay with his glasses. It was narrow, the shore overhung by trees; from the narrow beach fringed with rocks, the coast rose steeply in a slab-sided hill covered with boulders and foliage to a high ridge.

Then Shaw spoke. ‘By God, there she is!’ he said.

He cut the engines while they were still a long way out, but it was just possible to see the shape of a boat lying bow-on to a beach under the cliffs at the eastern side of the bay. She looked as if she’d been badly hurt, and was blackened and charred as if she’d been on fire. Her mast was down and there were holes in the hull and the wheelhouse windows, and ropes hung loosely over the side.

Cotton stared at her, his heart thudding suddenly in his throat. Shaw’s voice, quiet and unafraid, made him jump.

‘I think we’ll go in there and have a look at her,’ he said and, as Howard edged the throttles forward,
Claudia
began to move ahead again.

Even before they had entered the inlet, the sound of the engines running at low revs began to reverberate from the surrounding cliffs. Xiloparissia Bay was narrow -- indeed the whole coast of Aeos just here was full of long tapering bays cut off from each other by high cliffs and half hidden by trees that grew down to the water’s edge. The popple of the engines grew louder as the bay bounced the sound back and they were all busily staring at the shore when Cotton lifted his head. The engine note seemed to have changed, as if it were echoing off the cliff more noisily than before. It seemed to grow louder even as he listened, and suddenly he knew why.

‘Aircraft!’ he yelled, and dived for the 20 mm.

Coward was already on the starboard Lewis, swinging it quickly, while Patullo took the wheel to let Howard leap across the wheelhouse for the port gun.

The aircraft were Messerschmitts and they came over the cliffs at full speed, howling overhead and heading south. At first, it seemed as if they’d missed
Claudia,
but then, when they were about a mile out to sea, Cotton saw them swing in a wide arc and begin to come back. Remembering how much petrol they were carrying in drums on the deck, he found himself cataloguing and analysing his thoughts as he waited in grim fatalism. One shell into their deck cargo and there’d be such a bloody bang they’d all have wings.

‘They’ve seen us!’ Shaw yelled. ‘Get a message off, operator, that we’re being attacked!’

As Patullo opened the throttles,
Claudia’s
bow lifted and she seemed to leap across the water, rolling alarmingly on her beam ends as he dragged at the wheel. The wake trailed behind like an enormous paying-off pennant, white across the dark waters, then they had swung round and were hurtling out of Xiloparissia Bay. The Messerschmitts were heading directly towards them now, low over the water, and Cotton saw the snaking lines of tracer sliding over the masthead and heard bangs behind him.

It was hopeless running for the open sea. They would have been destroyed in no time, and Shaw decided to make for the shelter of the cliffs again. In one of the narrow bays, it would be almost impossible to hit them.

‘Take her in there,’ he yelled, pointing, and as Patullo swung the wheel,
Claudia
heeled over once more.

The Messerschmitts were coming round again now and Cotton felt the padded rests of the 20 mm shudder against his shoulders almost without being aware of pressing the trigger.

‘Docherty!’ he screamed.

Even as the gun stopped, the drum empty, he saw a piece fly off the leading Messerschmitt, then a puff of smoke, and he realized he’d hit it.

As the Messerschmitt swung away, losing height, to disappear over the cliffs, he became aware of Gully, the carpenter, his cap over one ear, scrambling out of sight beneath the platform that had been built for the 20 mm. The Lewises were going and Shaw, his head out of the wheelhouse hatch, was yelling at Patullo.

‘Take her into Kharasso,’ he was roaring. ‘Take her in!’

‘Docherty!’ Cotton shouted furiously. ‘Bring us another drum!*

But Docherty seemed to have disappeared and it was Bisset who appeared alongside him with the fresh ammunition. As he reached for it, Cotton saw a line of small explosions coming across the sea as the second Messerschimitt’s cannon shells struck the surface. He was quite certain he was in the direct line of fire but they struck the boat forward of where he was standing. He was still struggling with the fresh drum when there was a crash behind him and, as he turned, he saw splinters fly from the wheelhouse roof. The radio direction finder jumped from the deckhead as if it had been ejected by a spring, and lifted up into the air in a clean arc to fall astern.

For a moment, the atmosphere seemed to be full of dust and flying fragments and he saw Shaw disappear through the hatch. The Messerschmitt’s nose lifted and a fresh line of explosions jumped across the wheelhouse roof. Coward, who was aiming the starboard Lewis at the aeroplane, fell backwards. His head had gone and his body formed a curving arc through the air as it dropped into the sea alongside. Then Cotton saw it tumbling and rolling in the reddened foam of the wash as they swept past.

Claudia
was heading into the bay at full speed and it was as the Messerschmitts disappeared and he lifted his head that Cotton realized the wheelhouse was full of gaping holes.

‘Christ!’ he said.

Gully was still crouching under the 20 mm, his face grey, yelling with fright. Docherty appeared at last through the engine-room door. He seemed to be staggering as if he were blind and was covered with blood, and it suddenly dawned on Cotton that the boat was out of control. It was pounding over the ripple of the sea in a series of small leaps and, with the wheelhouse roof reduced to splintered matchwood, it was more than likely that Shaw had been hit, and probably Patullo.

He couldn’t see Howard at the port gun, and acting on an impulse, since there seemed to be no more Messerschmitts, he jumped from the 20 mm platform, crossed the well deck at a bound and was running across the engine-room deckhead without being aware how he got there.

Claudia
was still heading into the bay in a wide curve that confirmed his belief that no one was in control. He had a brief impression of a steep cliff which seemed to run the whole length of this end of the island and had towered above Xiloparissia Bay, lifting high above them - even out of sight. Then they were heading for a small clump of jagged rocks that protruded from the sea, at a speed that took his breath away, and he saw trees on the shore to his right and a sharply shelving rocky beach just ahead. He almost fell into the wheelhouse, stumbling over something that brought him to his knees.

Scrambling to his feet, he wrenched at the wheel. The boat passed the rocks so close the bow wave covered them with a sheet of water, then as he dragged the throttles back and put the telegraphs to neutral, the engines died, and
Claudia’s
bow, high out of the water with her speed, dropped so that she halted like a charging wild animal brought to a stop by a heavy bullet and began to wallow as the following wake lifted her stern. As the bow wave slopped on to her deck, Cotton put her full astern, but he was already too late and the boat seemed to leap into the air as she touched the rocks fringing the shore. He heard the crashing and splintering of timber and the thunderous clangour of disturbed petrol drums; then things seemed to start jumping off the wheel-house all round him. He was flung forward against the wheel, then to starboard. As the boat finally came to rest on her port side, the wheelhouse glass, broken by the shells from the aircraft and wrenched out of true, fell out of the windows on top of him, and a gout of water, which had shot up alongside, came down on the deck, drenching him as it slopped through the empty frames. The Packards Were still screaming, the din coming through the open engine-room door like a wild animal in pain. Gasping, dazed, uncertain what had happened, he heard them die abruptly and realized that someone in addition to himself was alive enough to have cut them.

As everything became still, he dragged himself upright and, looking through the broken windscreen, saw that
Claudia
was lying motionless at an angle of forty-five degrees with her nose on the western end of the beach close to the trees. The tip of the mast with the torn ensign on it was among the lower branches and the wheelhouse seemed to be littered with broken glass and splintered wood.

Staring round him angrily, he turned to look for help and for the first time realized that the wheelhouse was full of blood. Shaw was lying head-down on the steps that lifted to the port door and hatch, and he remembered stumbling and realized he must have tripped over him. Patullo was tumbled in a heap just behind him where he’d been flung, and, as he turned, Cotton saw a pair of feet through the window, on a level with his eye and realized they must belong to Howard.

‘Christ,’ he breathed in awed tones, shocked by the fury of all the killing. ‘Jesus Christ Almighty!’

Part Two: Preparation

The shock that Cotton was feeling in Kharasso Bay was reflected on Lieutenant-Commander Kennard’s face in Retimo.

‘Am being attacked by Messerschmitts – ‘

The message stopped abruptly and Kennard knew only too well what it meant. They had been receiving similar messages in Suda Bay all day from ships around the Piraeus and the Greek mainland.

He screwed the paper up and tossed it down alongside the operator who retrieved it, smoothed it out and began to copy it into his log book. Watching them, Ponsonby lit a cigarette and passed the packet to Kennard without a word. Kennard stared at him, then frowned at his own unhappy thoughts.

‘That,’ Ponsonby said, ‘seems to be that. We can say goodbye to our rifles and our money.’

Kennard looked at him bitterly. ‘To say nothing of a good ship and nine good men.’

Ponsonby nodded, as though from an afterthought. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Those too. I heard, by the way, that the Germans have reached Aeos. Perhaps we were too ambitious.’

Kennard scowled. ‘Perhaps we were,’ he agreed. ‘I wonder if they’ll manage to join up with the army. Perhaps it’s not as bad as it sounds.’

In fact, it was worse.

The heat from
Claudia’s
engines was drifting through the boat, making the stench of blood seem stronger. With it was mixed hot oil, petrol and the smell of burned wood.

Cotton stood in the lopsided wheelhouse, bracing himself against the tilt of the boat, one hand on the telegraphs, his feet wide apart, his head hanging, almost like a calf outside a slaughterhouse. He was shocked, bewildered and horrified by what had happened and his stomach heaved at the smell of death and the sight of the mutilated bodies lying about him. As he recovered his wits, he saw Bisset lifting his head above the splintered wheelhouse from the well deck. He looked as scared and bewildered as Cotton.

‘You all right?’ Cotton asked in an uneven voice.

‘Yes. You?’

‘Yes. Anybody else down there?’

Gully’s head appeared. The carpenter looked grey with fright. He had arrived on board pot-brave and had remained full of confidence during the trip to and from Iros because all had gone well. By sheer luck, up to that moment the war for Gully had been only the rub-dub of guns over the horizon, and the sudden shock of the disaster and the deaths of the men around him had changed his views in a second.

Then Docherty stumbled into view, his face covered with blood.

‘You hurt?’ Cotton asked.

Docherty shook his head, his eyes shocked. ‘It was Duff,’ he said. ‘I was standing beside him.’ He was just about to light a cigarette when Bisset put a hand on his arm.

‘I should leave that,’ he pointed out. ‘There are a lot of holes and a smell of petrol. We might all go up if you strike a match.’

‘Yeh.’ Docherty took the cigarette from his mouth. ‘Yeh.’ He stopped. ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God!’ he said in an awed voice.

For a while, they all stood in silence. It was Docherty who had cut the engines, and round the stern Cotton could see the water, stirred up by the propellers before they’d stopped, turning into a brown clouded whirlpool that was just beginning to settle in dying whorls. He glanced along the narrow deck on the port side of the wheelhouse. All he could see was the bottom of Howard’s feet. The boy was jammed against one of the stanchions that held the lifeline, and was hanging half over the side of the boat, one arm out, blood dripping steadily from the finger ends into the water.

The Messerschmitt had caught
Claudia
as Patullo had swung her to port and had raked her right across the beam. A shell from the first attack had struck the radio cabin cutting short Bisset’s message and starting a small fire. Bisset had survived by a miracle in a shower of shell splinters and shards of black Bakelite. A second shell had hit the side of the forecastle, tearing a great hole in it, and a third had severed a petrol pipe. Fortunately, the drums of petrol in the well deck were untouched, though the smashing of the hull on to the rocks had flung them in a heap round the after door of the engine room. Two other shells had hit the boat. One in the wheelhouse had killed Patullo, Shaw and Coward outright and one in the engine room had killed Duff and wrecked the port engine. Howard was not dead but his left leg was torn open from thigh to knee by a splinter and there was a small hole in his stomach and a third wound in his left shoulder. Bisset, his face serious, bent over him.

‘Is he going to die?’ Cotton asked.

Bisset shrugged. From the way his fingers moved gently over the injured boy, he seemed to know what to do.

‘Got any morphine?’ he asked.

‘We can have a look in the safe.’

‘We’d better get the keys.’

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