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Authors: Alan Evans

Thunder at Dawn

BOOK: Thunder at Dawn
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© Alan Evans 1978

 

Alan Evans has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 2001, to be identified as the author of this work.

 

First published in 1978 by Hodder and Stoughton Limited

 

This edition published in 2013 by Endeavour Press Ltd

 

 

 

To my father, who was ‘old Navy’

 

 

 

I

 

Black as the hob of hell.

First of June 1916.

Off Jutland.

A wheeling darkness cut by the white wings of
Sabre’s
bow-wave. The Coxswain seemed to float like a wraith on the little open bridge as he shouted wide-mouthed at Smith. “Black as the hob o’ hell, sir! But there’s summat out there!”

Smith grinned at him, cool. Cold. They were not good enough at this night-fighting and a destroyer was a fragile craft. They’d had a taste of it an hour before, been hit and hurt and fired all their torpedoes. They raced on through the night, trailing the pin-point of red that marked
Swordsman
ahead, and ahead of her was the flotilla leader,
Sentinel
. While outside in the darkness …

Young Gillies, the Sub, yelled, “Ship! Red four-five! Challenge, sir?”

Smith heard himself answer, “No!” He saw the looming black bulk of two big cruisers and just from that glimpse he knew them. But
Sentinel
challenged, signal-lamp blinking, only to be washed in the converging cones of searchlight beams and smashed as the cruisers’ guns opened up. The little ships,
Swordsman
and
Sentintel
, exploded in flame.

Sabre
could try to run, or she could draw the fire.

Smith heard his voice crack as he yelled at the gun’s crew forward. “Fire at the lights!” The quickfirer broke into its barking. It was the only weapon they had. “Hard aport!”
Sabre
swerved and plunged at the cruisers and the lights burst on him, blinding him, revealing all of them on the little bridge as in the light of day, their sole protection the canvas dodger that barely kept off the spray. They were under fire from both cruisers so that
Sabre
ran through a forest of water-spouts like towering, white-topped trees.

The near-misses hurled the sea inboard, the hit aft heeled
Sabre
over. The blast from another threw Smith to the deck and the gun had gone, leaving a crater that belched flame.
Sabre
rolled under him and Gillies fell on him, his serious young face blank and eyes wide.

The lights snuffed out,
Sabre
capsized and Smith fell into the reaching dark, the sea wrapping cold around him.

*

He woke, sweat cold on his skin, threshing in the big bed. The woman, still sleeping, mumbled and reached out for him but he slid away from the hand, out of the bed. He stumbled, groping, across the dark room to the window, twitched back one curtain and stared out at the day. It was barely light, a winter’s dawn come grey under the hanging pall of London’s smoke. The street lay quiet between the high, handsome faces of the houses of the wealthy. Only one old man shuffled along, shoving a barrow, collecting the piles of horse manure with brush and shovel.

Smith, shivered, standing naked at the window, the body seeming frail, ribs standing out under the taut-stretched skin, scarred. The dream came only rarely now but still real as the real nightmare had been. He wondered if he would ever be quit of it. He stared out at the street. It was a strange place and he was still a stranger here. He turned from the window, restless, found his clothes and dressed quickly. He spared one glance for the bed, the room in half-light now from the crack he had left in the curtains. The woman sprawled, full body loose, breasts spilling from the silk of the nightgown, the lips slack in exhausted sleep.

Last night, last week, last —

It was time he was gone.

He moved quietly down through the house, silent but for the slow-ticking clock in the hall and let himself out into the morning.

He must see the doctors again, and surely they would pass him fit this time.

He walked quickly, a middle-sized, slight figure in the dark blue of the Royal Navy with the three gold rings of a Commander. A very young man for that rank. A thin face, sharp-featured under the cap, with pale blue eyes. Not handsome. He walked quickly and it was not because of the cold. There was an urgency about him.

Time he was gone.

*

Later that day they talked of him at the Admiralty. It was close to noon but London was still shrouded in that dirty, grey light. In the Admiralty the lights burned yellow and a fire crackled in the grate.

The Captain read from the folder: “David Cochrane Smith.” He paused, then: “Unusual background.” He looked across at the Admiral curiously.

Who answered shortly, “A village boy from a village shop. For an officer it’s extraordinary.” He stared coldly at the Captain. “Take the advice that was given to me: Mind your own business.”

The Captain flinched, swallowed then returned to the folder. “The doctors think he went back to sea too soon after that sinking at Jutland. Then to be carted ashore
again
with a wound —” He shook his head. “They say they will pass him fit but he must not return to the Grand Fleet; it’s too early for active duty of that kind.”

The Admiral snapped irritably, “
Active
duty? That’s the trouble. He’s been too damned active.”

“And she’d follow him to Scapa Flow.”

“She’d find it damned uncomfortable.”

“She’s a very wealthy woman. She could make it comfortable.”

“I doubt it. But she could make a nuisance of herself.
Blast
the woman! She’s like a bitch in heat!”

“Yes.” The Captain thought the simile apt. “But she’s an extraordinarily attractive woman to be panting over him. I wonder what she sees in him? And she’s not the first.”

The Admiral muttered under his breath, glaring into the fire.

“Sir?”

“I said,” the Admiral repeated distinctly, “what a bloody mess. On top of the woman there’s this rumour. He has to open his mouth at one of her parties and who does he open it to? A gas-bag! Who tells his tale all around town. ‘Enough men killed. The Navy ought to stay at home.’ Good
God
!” The near-bellow rumbled away and after a moment he went on, “They’ve labelled him as a defeatist. The story has even gone around the Fleet. Did you know that? I got a signal from Scapa asking me if it was true! We can’t send him back even if the doctors would allow it, not with that label around his neck. And there’d be questions in the House if we tried it. But I want him out of this, well clear of her and the newspapers. I don’t want him away for ever; just long enough for this to blow over, for the truth to be told and accepted; and quick enough to avoid another scandal with
her
. He’s a good officer.”

“He has a wild reputation.”

“That’s not the same as being wild. He’s a man who seizes action when the opportunity offers and he’s had plenty of offers. He’s a good officer.”

“But not indispensable?”

“No one is indispensable.” He added with grim sincerity, “Thank God.”

There was silence in the room while they mentally reviewed alternatives. The Admiral broke it. “I have it. A ship that returns to home waters in the summer at the end of her commission, and far enough away now.
And
she’s shorthanded.”

“Where? Which ship?”

The Admiral reached for his pen. “On the West coast of America.
Thunder
.”

 

II

 

March 1917.

The night was dark under an overcast sky. H.M.S.
Thunder
, a darkened ship, was a black speck on the black immensity of the Pacific. Her crew were tensed at their action stations and Commander David Cochrane Smith stood on her bridge gratings, peering with his hands clenched tight on the rail. Look-outs strained their eyes against the darkness. Somewhere to the east lay the coast of Peru but the enemy was close.

A look-out shouted, “Ship bearing green four-oh.” There was a rumble as the guns trained around and the searchlights on the wings of the bridge and up in the tops twisted in their mountings. They crackled into life, their beams stabbed out across the dark sea to light up the target on which the guns were lined. They lit up
Thunder’s
forty-foot steam pinnace with its stubby funnel, young Midshipman Manton at the wheel. Buckley, Mantor’s leading hand, lifted one arm, waving, the pinnace spun away into the sheltering dark, the searchlights snapped out. The exercise went on.

The exercises were almost a nightly event. Smith had started them as soon as he joined
Thunder
so they called them Smith’s game and referred to him as the Bat. They groused about the exercises as a matter of principle but secretly found the game a break in the deadly routine of work and drills. They had become expert.

Smith stood aloof on the bridge, his face grim. He had reason. He had come to
Thunder
certain that he was banished, his career virtually at an end. He had known other officers who had faded into obscurity after some minor scandal ashore. He joined her at Esquimalt in British Columbia where she had just had a refit. In the first hour, through a chance-heard conversation he learned his reputation had preceded him: he was a pacifist, his nerve gone; his affairs were the scandal of London and the Grand Fleet. He knew the crew were wary of him and pride would not let him explain.

He could have said that a drunken armchair tactician had been critical of the Navy’s inability to destroy an enemy who refused to come out to be destroyed. Smith had boiled over and replied that he had seen enough men killed at Jutland and
that
if
the
rest
of
the
country
were
like
the
drunk
the Navy would do well to stay at home. The story had been repeated but not the words in italics. He would not explain that and he could not explain the women.

But he had been in the Navy since he was twelve and lonely often enough. As a cadet at
Britannia
he had been an outsider, accepted but different. An orphan brought up by a retired Chief Petty Officer and his wife, his home a village shop; he had been different enough. They wondered how he had got into
Britannia
and so did Smith. Before he was old enough to try to find out the C.P.O. and his wife were dead and the Navy was his home and his family. But he wondered still.

Now he paced restlessly out to the wing of the bridge, aware of them watching him and stared out at
Thunder’s
shadowy bulk. He had found a ship run by Garrick, the First Lieutenant because the Captain, embittered at his backwater command, kept to his cabin and his gin. He looked now at that bulk, impressive in the darkness with the bristling guns and thought it was as well this man of war was a ship of peace. The nearest enemy was ten thousand miles away.

Thunder
was a four-funnelled armoured cruiser of twelve thousand tons. She had served on the Pacific seaboard, based at Esquimalt and cruising off the coast of South America, for two-and-a-half years since the outbreak of war, the sole representative of a Navy stretched thin by the concentration in European waters. Before the war she had been a unit of the Third Fleet, which meant she was laid up with a tiny caretaker crew. Her crew admitted the dockyard at Esquimalt sent her back to sea as nearly new as hard work and ingenuity could contrive, but it was only a relative term.

She was too old. Laid down when Victoria reigned, her designed speed had been lower than the later more modern cruisers and it was doubtful if she could attain that speed now, let alone maintain it for any length of time. Davies, her Chief Engineer, Lieutenant-Commander R.N.R. and recalled from the Merchant Service, swore that she could. But he always evaded putting it to the test and nobody believed him. She was slow. So on the mess-decks they said, “Had to call her
Thunder
, didn’t they? ’Cause it’s a bleeding certainty you couldn’t call her
Lightning
!”

Joke.

She had been built with some abortive idea of using her in the rivers and shallows of the China Station. It came to naught, but thus designed to cruise in shallow waters, in any kind of sea she was an uncomfortable ship. So they said, “Called her
Thunder
’cause she’s one long roll!”

Joke.

Plenty of jokes. In the wardroom that first night Aitkyne, the navigator, tall and elegant and watchful said, “We wondered if you’d arrive in time for resurrection day, sir.”

Smith, sweating coldly and stomach rebelling on what was also the first night at sea, clutching a glass of sherry he wanted like the plague, asked blankly, “Resurrection day?”

“Bringing the old girl back to life again, sir. Taking her to sea.” Laughter. Then Aitkyne added, “If she was a house, you’d expect to find bats and ghosts.”

Smith replied, “One carries one’s own ghosts around.” And told himself he had still to learn to keep his mouth shut. He had spoiled the joke and they looked at him oddly. The spectre at the feast, or rather the party. It was a party given to welcome Smith aboard but he had sensed the self-consciousness behind that welcome and knew the cause. They were all wary of him and that was a pity because he liked the look of them.

And
Thunder’s
wardroom was comfortable with a long table at which the officers ate, two sideboards, easy chairs, carpet on the deck and even a piano and a gramophone, though the last belonged to young Wakely, one of the midshipmen, and had been borrowed from the gunroom for the occasion. After two-and-a-half uneventful years on that station it was hardly surprising that they had discarded the spartan surroundings familiar to the Grand Fleet. Any fool could be uncomfortable.

But on the surface they made Smith welcome. A new face in the wardroom, a new face aboard
Thunder
, was an event. Her crew had served in her since the war started. The midshipmen had joined her not long ago as fifteen-year-old cadets to fill the gaps created by aging officers invalided out and one lost at sea in a gale. A score of young seamen and boys had accompanied the cadets. That had been
Thunder’s
first and only draft.

The crew of the fore-turret was a fair sample of
Thunder’s
crew, which consisted largely of reservists with that sprinkling of young seamen and boys. Farmer Bates was a grandfather, one of seven aboard. Gibb at seventeen was far and away the youngest in the turret but he had settled in.
Thunder’s
slowness and rolling, her old guns and short-handed crew did not worry him because she was his ship. His
first
ship. And because here in these waters those things did not matter anyway.

Thunder
carried a 9.2-inch gun in a turret forward and another aft. Of her twelve six-inch guns, in casemates like armoured steel pods bulging out from her hull, four were on the upper deck, one at each corner so to speak. The other eight were on the main deck below, four to a side. The guns were elderly and it was a notorious fact that in her class of ship the eight guns on the main deck could not be fired in bad weather because opening their ports would let in the sea. That did not matter in the case of
Thunder
because she sailed with a reduced complement. That is to say that, as she was not expected to fight in a Fleet action nor anything like it, she was not manned for the purpose. Half her crew of 600 were engineers or stokers because at her most economical speed she burned 100 tons of coal a day, every piece of which had to be shovelled from bunkers to fires. There were barely enough gunners for the turrets and the four upper deck six-inch.

Garrick was Gunnery Officer. The ship had engaged in practice firing shortly after leaving Esquimalt and the gunnery had been startlingly good, but Garrick was a gunnery fanatic and had trained and drilled these men for two-and-a-half years. The men were all right, but there weren’t enough of them and the ship and her guns were too old.

Smith shrugged; these things did not matter.
Thunder
would drag out her last days beating up and down this coast then return to home waters to become a depot-ship- back to the dockyard wall. What mattered was that he had his duty and he would do it. He heard a scrape of a boot on the ladder and saw the clinging figure scrambling unsteadily up to the bridge and thought these last days and weeks would be long ones. It was his sentence and there would be no reprieve.

He stepped forward as the Captain stumbled on to the bridge and fetched up against the rail. Before Smith could speak he growled, “Get on with it!”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

Now instead of tension there was an unease on the bridge. Smith saw Aitkyne’s mouth twisted with disgust and saw the navigator turning away to hide it. A look-out yelled, the guns trained, the lights blazed out at the pinnace then died and the darkness returned.

The Captain turned slowly on Smith and said thickly, “Waste of time.” And added an obscenity. Smith did not answer. The Captain pushed past him to the head of the ladder and fell head first to the deck below.

It sounded like a sack of coal hitting the deck.

Smith shouted, “The Captain’s fallen!” He dropped down the ladder and knelt by the Captain. The Captain’s cap still rolled on the deck till Smith set his hand on it. Aitkyne leaned over him. “I shouldn’t touch him, sir. Doctor’s on his way.”

Smith shook his head and fumbled in the pocket of his bridge coat for a torch.

*

Albrecht the surgeon came, breathing heavily and dropped to his knees beside the Captain. His examination was swift. When he gently and carefully lifted the Captain’s head in the light of Smith’s torch they all saw the terrible wound at the back of the skull where it hit the deck. A party gently carried the Captain down to the sick-bay and Smith waited there until Albrecht made his report. “Massive concussion. God knows what damage may have been done to the brain.”

“He has a chance of recovery?”

“I wouldn’t have been surprised if an injury like that had killed him instantly. Add to that the effects of shock and …” He did not need to finish; the gin reeked.

Smith went to his cabin. He managed to sleep only once and only then to jerk awake, running with sweat. He had not dreamed of the Captain, the fall and the sickening end of that falling. It was the old dream again of the two great ships growing huge out of the dark to hurl the fires of hell at him. He made his way forward through the sleeping ship to the sick-bay, and found Albrecht alone. Smith raised his eyebrows in enquiry and the Doctor shook his head. “No change.”

They stood in silence watching the Captain until Smith asked, it was more question than statement, “An unusual name, Albrecht.”

Albrecht’s lips twitched sardonically. “In this Navy, yes. My grandfather came over from Germany in ’forty-eight. He became British; I was born British. When this war started and the mobs threw bricks at shops with German names I thought I might change my name. But I didn’t
want
to. I wasn’t ashamed of it. And then it seemed if I had called myself Atkins they would still have chased me but with white feathers because I wasn’t in uniform. So I decided they could all go to hell and joined the Navy for the duration.” He smiled faintly. “The lower deck call me the ’orrible ’un.” The smile faded. “But I didn’t want anything to do with the war. I didn’t want to join the Navy, I just ran away to it. I think the war is stupid and ought to be stopped —” He broke off.

Smith said, “That’s a view that takes some courage with a name like Albrecht.”

The Doctor shrugged. “No. When you’re a ministering angel it’s different. If was a sea-officer —” Again he stopped but now embarrassed for Smith who smiled coldly.

“If you were and you had any sense you would keep your mouth shut.”

Albrecht stared at him. “You are not a pacifist?”

Smith said deliberately, “I think wars are better won than lost, better avoided than won. They’re not an excuse for stupidity and carelessness.”

Albrecht blinked. “That’s scarcely the philosophy of a fire-eater.”

Fire-eater. Smith knew he was not that. Someone must have described him thus to Albrecht, though God knew why.

“It’s the philosophy of a man who has been shot over.”

“More than once.”

“Yes.”

“And likely to be again.” Albrecht shook his head, baffled, intrigued.

“If you see a risk that has to be taken,
you
, Doctor, take it and cut away. So do I.”

Albrecht grinned. “But my patients don’t cut back.”

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