Authors: Tim Binding
Tags: #1939-1945, #Guernsey (Channel Islands), #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General, #World War
It is 1943, the German army has been defeated at Stalingrad, and the tide is beginning to turn. But on occupied Guernsey, the reality of war seems a lifetime away. Recreating life on the occupied island, this novel asks questions about collaboration and the nature of war.
he Battle was over. Fortress Stalingrad was no more. What remained of the great army huddled broken, like its commander General Paulus, bereft of speech, squatting in cellars or flooded foxholes, unable to comprehend the savagery of their downfall and the enormity of their betrayal. Flying to the island with the plane’s mid-afternoon shadow racing over the deep green waters of the Channel, it was hard for Lentsch to believe that at the other end of the continent men that he had known, men who were so used to victory, men who knew the worth of themselves and the army in which they served, had been left to die in the frozen ruins of their invincible dream. It was not simply the totality of their defeat but the manner of it. Travelling back from his leave Lentsch was returning with tales more terrible, more desolate, than any he had heard before, tales that he was afraid to impart to anyone else, lest they infect the island with an ineradicable melancholy.
The encirclement had come in November, from a Slavic enemy whose numbers seemed unimaginable. Where had they sprung from, these winter blooms, appearing from the east with names He had believed to be long extinct? As each division had been identified and marked on His map they were stared and marvelled at as a botanist might gaze at some unidentified flower, half unbelieving that such plants could resurrect themselves so quickly from such poisoned wastes. Surely that division had perished at Kiev, this one annihilated north-west of Kalatch? But along the banks of the Don and the Volga they had risen again, springing up in numbers undreamed of, strangling those who had thought to clear the ground of their despised vegetation with fresh shoots of implacable strength. And thus had His army been surrounded and ordered by Him to hold fast, even though common sense dictated that it escape, push the growing entanglement aside and reach safety. Generals had flown out and pleaded with Him to let them attempt a breakout, but His answer was always the same. He must not leave the Volga, He could not leave the Volga, He shall not leave the Volga. To leave the Volga would be a humiliation, to leave the Volga would be a disgrace, not solely for Him but for the whole of Germany. The Sixth Army must hold fast. And now they were gone and the world in which they had lived had gone with them. One hundred and forty-five thousand dead and ninety-one thousand captured, a catastrophe of biblical proportions. And here was Major Lentsch, flying to another of His obsessions, another Fortress in the making.
All through that winter men had been pouring in onto the island: engineers from Belgium, skilled construction workers from France, men laden with theodolites and drills who bored holes and tapped rocks and drew their indelible marks in the sand. There seemed no end to them. Down in St Peter Port the harbour was jammed with trawlers and tugs and great floating cranes, their necks bent double in search of their prey; metal rods, barbed wire, timber, and cement—always cement, the essential dust of His creation, cement in the flat-bottomed barges which wallowed their way from Cherbourg, cement stacked twelve feet high on St Julian’s Pier, cement hauled round the island on the narrow-gauge railway built for its exclusive use, to be mixed and poured and moulded into the fertile shapes of war. A military chastity belt of His design had been fitted around the island’s most tender regions, so that like a jealous lord He could prevent any violation of His fresh, plump property. But still He wanted more: more concrete, more guns, more men. In all of Western Europe there was nothing that glittered in His mind’s eye more brightly than the Channel Islands.
, they called it. Island Madness.
Though the north of Guernsey is blessed with longer, sandier beaches, it is the tiny bays of the south, hidden by steep paths and high ferns, that form the island’s sparkling garland. Flying towards Jerbourg Point, Lentsch could see the coves in which he had bathed so often, Corbiere, La Jonnet, Petit Bot Bay, and then, as the plane banked north, came the long gabled roof of the Villa Pascal that looked down on the most delightful of them all, Saints Bay. As they passed over the house Lentsch noticed that the French windows had been thrown open while above, in Continental fashion, the bedding hung out of the bedroom windows, even Albert’s. The house looked as still and as perfect as ever, but for the first time Lentsch saw it all in blocks of colour: the shining white of the stone, the patchy greens of the lawn, the red-ochre cliffs spattered with a dark fuzz of olive and beneath it all the burning blue of the swollen sea. He imagined the brush strokes he would be unable to accomplish, the skill that had guided Cézanne’s hand. It was true what he had painted, what others had seized upon. He had always believed that it must be, despite the strident arguments which were now ranged against him and his kind. Now, unexpectedly, Lentsch had seen a glimmer of it for himself. From this plane, of all places! He said nothing to his companion, but raised the roll of canvas to his lips, as if in silent homage. These few acres had held him in their captive embrace for over two years, and every inch bore memories: the grass where they held their comic games of polo, with him and Zep as the horses and Molly’s straw hat as the prize; the jetty where first he had taught Isobel to dive; the rocky path down which they had all skipped encumbered in fancy dress; the ledge underneath the old tower where he would sit and paint. How fortunate it was that there should have been a war strong enough to carry him this far. On one rare occasion, when he had been invited to dinner at Isobel’s house, he had told them that when it was all over he would like to live here. She had looked at her father quickly, but neither had said anything. There was no need. They both knew what was meant. He was not the enemy. He was a soldier, that was all.
Though the sky above was still clear, clouds were banking up to the north-east, promising an evening of rain and harsh wind.
Lentsch had felt the beginnings of it tugging at the wings of the plane ever since they had taken off. He had not expected to arrive this way, but had bumped into Ernst in Granville market while haggling over the price of an under-the-counter round of cheese. Lentsch had stuffed it into his greatcoat pocket hoping that Ernst hadn’t noticed, but there was nothing to worry about. Ernst was returning from one of his frequent conferences at Cherbourg. Speer had been there! Speer, Reichsminister for Armaments and Muni-tions, Directer of the Organisation! Ernst could hardly contain his excitement. In an uncharacteristic display of generosity he offered Lentsch a ride in his plane—a Focke-Wulf 189.
“It’s not right, Major,” he had said, clasping Lentsch in a boastful embrace, squashing the illicit purchase in the process. “Surely a man of your position can persuade von Schmettow to place an aircraft at your disposal. We’ll radio ahead for your car.”
His startled owl-like features flickered in self-congratulation. Lentsch had given him the weakest of smiles in return. It was not Ernst’s charm that cut the ice with the Military Government over in St Germain. However, as Guernsey’s head of the Organisation Todt, the ever-expanding construction arm of the Wehrmacht, he had a greater authority to call upon. Civilians might laugh at the sight of the State Labour Service parading up and down the Esplanade, gleaming shovels at the ready, but the truth was that Ernst could have anything he liked. On the few times he had been invited to the Villa, Lentsch had noticed him looking over the house with a nakedly acquisitive eye. Though his headquarters were to be found in one of the grandest house of them all, Saumarez Park (and making a pig of the grounds according to Albert, a much greater crime in his book than any vandalism committed on the building), he himself lived in a rather modest bungalow at the back of the town. Still Lentsch was grateful for the lift. A six-hour crossing from St Malo in choppy waters with sullen members of the Wehrmacht brooding over the latest news was not what he had wanted. Better to listen to Ernst and his miraculous feats of engineering.
Ernst leant over and tapped him on the knee, pointing down to where Albert held his daily battle with the moles.
“By the way,” he shouted over the noise of the engine. “Some artillery fellows will be coming over to your place in the next couple of days. To take a look at the lawns.”
Lentsch felt a tug of unease. “The lawns?”
“Yes. There is a feeling that we require another battery post in that area. The bay in general is not sufficiently protected.”
Lentsch looked back to the wide sweep of Moulin Huet. It was empty save for a lone fishing boat making its weekly licensed lobster trawl along the coast. It might be one of the most secluded parts of the island, suitable perhaps for a reconnaissance landing of two or three, but it would be suïcide to attempt anything on a larger scale.
“Protected from what?” he shouted back. “Nothing of any size could land there. The coves are too small, the paths too narrow. Besides we have one gun emplacement on the other side.”
Ernst nodded in agreement.
“Precisely. If on that side why not yours? We don’t want any gaps to be found when…” He stopped and looked at Lentsch hard.
“When the invasion comes?” Lentsch suggested. Ernst shook his head at the impossibility of the thought.
“When it’s finished,” he offered lamely.
“Why not lower down?” Lentsch argued. “You could dig into the cliff more. Up there you wouldn’t see so much. Besides,” he gave a wan smile, hoping to rekindle Ernst’s goodwill, “it would ruin the view.”
Ernst attempted an unconvincing look of sympathy.
“I can see that. But digging into the cliff would take more men, more materials. It would take longer. I have to balance these things.”
Lentsch looked out in dismay. It would not simply spoil the house, it would break the spell woven around it. Suddenly the plane’s engines cut out and in the silence he was standing by the French windows smoking a cigarette, listening to Isobel’s clear laughter rising up from the beach. With luck he would be seeing her tonight. He tried to think of what he might say to her, how eager he should appear. He’d had a good three days in Paris, washing away the hold of her in as many nightclubs as one man could take, but once back home he could not wait to return. He had listened to his mother and sister, feeling increasingly awkward and irritated, as if they had no right to tell him of their hardships, the rationing, the bombing raids, the barely articulated feeling of gloom. He felt strangely unaffected by it, as if it had nothing to do with him. The war might ebb and flow across continents, but it hardly seemed to matter. Only Guernsey existed. Guernsey was the best place in the world.
The plane coughed, as if to remind him of Ernst’s threat.
“Well, I shall put up a fight, I can promise you,” Lentsch told him vehemently. “There are plenty of other places to choose from. That’s if it’s necessary at all.”
Ernst tapped his briefcase as if he had the plans already under lock and key. “I understand how you feel, Major,” he said. “And if I lived there, I too would do everything in my power to keep it just so. But as it is…”
So that was it. Ernst was beginning to flex his muscles. This was going to be how it was from now on, the army pushed aside in favour of those who held everything but their own prejudices in contempt. Lentsch tried to hold his ground.
“As you say. Unfortunately there is no extra room.”
“In war,” he said simply, “people come and go.”
The plane slithered recklessly down the grass runway. For a moment Lentsch thought that they were going to crash into one of the Junkers parked at the far end. The brakes didn’t seem to have any effect at all. Ernst, catching his look of horror, affected a blithe indifference.
“Happens all the time,” he shrugged. “They have to mow the grass extra close because it grows so fast overnight. Once a month a plane crashes.”
Ernst jumped down and sped off without another word. Lentsch hauled his baggage out and followed. On the roof of the heavily sandbagged terminal stood a sentry, stuck there with legs apart, like a decoration on a wedding cake. Below, in front of the car, waited Albert. Though in his late fifties when he had first started to work for him, Albert had possessed the wiry strength of someone twenty years younger. Now he was beginning to look his age, but his skin still retained that depth of colour that only a man who has spent his working life outside can obtain. Lentsch promised himself that this month he would get up the nerve to ask Albert to sit for him. He was dressed as awkwardly as usual: baggy brown jacket, woollen waistcoat and a pair of dress-suit trousers with a velvet stripe down the outside leg that had once belonged to his former employer. His blue beret was draped over his head like a three-egg omelette. Most men were expected to show due deference to their German masters and lifting one’s cap, even raising it the slightest fraction, was considered a sufficient demonstration, but not Albert. Lentsch had never seen him without it, not even when he had roused him out of bed in the middle of the night. Zep was convinced the man was completely bald, but Lentsch wasn’t so sure. A bald pate would not worry Albert unduly. It was a definite state, a fact of life, a badge of hard-won honour. A thin straggle of something blowing across the top, however, he would not appreciate, for like many men who feign indifference to their appearance, Albert was vain. One had only to look at the shine of his shoes or the fussy knot of his tie to know that. And anyway, as Lentsch had pointed out to Zep, he went to the barber’s once a month.
Albert opened the door but made no attempt to help Lentsch with his luggage.
“I didn’t expect to see you here,” Lentsch told him, as he laid his bags carefully on to the back seat. “Where’s Wedel?”
Albert pointed to his stomach.
“The runs,” he said. “He went mushroom picking yesterday and came back with a basket of toadstools. I told him not to eat ‘em but would he listen? “At home we eat all sorts,” he boasted. He tried to get Mrs H. to have a few but I warned her off.” A smile of grim satisfaction crept over his face. “Been up all night. Bent double. He’s better now though. Except for the squits.”