Authors: Unknown Author
The Iron Pirate
The sea's face that morning rose and dipped in an endless formidable swell. There were no crests, and the deep troughs gleamed in the early light like molten glass. A heavy mist drifted above the water, broken here and there into clearings while close by it barely skimmed the surface.
In a few days it would be August, but in the Baltic the dawn air was already like a knife, a threat of the winter which would soon grope down from the Gulf of Finland to torment ships and sailors alike.
Occasionally scattered groups of gulls and other sea-birds lifted on the successive swells like broken wreaths, pale in the dull light, unimpressed by the steepness of the troughs which in happier times could hide one fishing boat from another even when they lay less than half a cable apart. From end to end the Baltic had been one of the busiest waterways in the world where fishermen and coasters, timber ships and colliers created their own patterns and trails. Now, apart from a few wary neutral Swedish vessels, the waters were the hunting ground, and a burial place for friend and foe alike.
It was 1944 and for many, the fifth year of war. The sea noises were muted or dampened by the mist; it was like a wilderness, an abandoned place for a while longer on this particular morning. The gulls which floated silently and waited to begin their search for food were as usual the first to sense they were no longer alone. To begin with it was more of a sensation than a sound, not close enough to be a beat or throb, just a tremor through the water which soon made the birds rise flapping and mewing, disturbed, anxious yet unwilling to quit their territory.
Had there been an onlooker he would have been startled by the suddenness of the ship's appearance. First a great shadow, and then with a contemptuous thrust of her high, raked bows she swept through the mist, parting it, and cleaving the steep swell with impressive ease. Although her three screws were throttled down to reduced speed she threw a sharp white moustache from her stem which spattered against her faded camouflage paintwork to give a hint of her true power. As she thrust across the grey water she grew in size and strength, but her four twin turrets and towering bridge structure did nothing to spoil the perfection of her lines. She was a heavy cruiser, one of the most powerful afloat, yet she retained all the dash and grace of a destroyer.
No figures explored her wet decks, and only occasional movements at gun mountings and on her bridge gave any sign of life. For a few moments she lay fully exposed in a clearing, like a graceful animal crossing a glade in a forest, and the reluctant dawn made her upperworks shine like glass and touched the flag, a solitary patch of scarlet with its black cross and swastika.
Before the mist closed in again the cruiser's secondary armament seemed to come to life, the slender muzzles in their separate mountings around the superstructure training and lifting as if to sniff out a possible enemy. Each gun crew was fully aware of the cost of carelessness, the lack of constant vigilance. In these contested waters there was rarely a second chance.
Closed up at their various action stations, as they had been for most of the night, there were some 950 officers and men scattered throughout her armoured hull. Separated by the needs of safety, and yet welded into a solitary team to fit the demands of their ship, the wishes of their commanding officer.
At the rear of the open bridge, alone for a few more precious minutes in his spartan sea-cabin, Kapitan zur See Dieter Hechler sat at his desk, outwardly relaxed from long practice, but with his mind recording each movement and untoward sound beyond his small refuge. He rarely visited his spacious quarters below except in harbour, for time taken in running to the bridge in any emergency was time lost. He rarely thought about it. This was his world, and had been for the eighteen turbulent months since he had been given the honour of this command, one of the remaining crack cruisers in the German navy.
In a moment or so, Viktor Theil, his second-in-command, would call him on the red handset above the sea-cabin's crumpled bunk. Then Hechler would get to his feet, take a quick look round to ensure he had forgotten nothing, and walk to the bridge.
They would greet him with varied feelings. Relief, doubt, dislike even, but all would accept him as their captain.
He sat back in the chair and stared unseeingly at the chart on his desk, the personal one he kept for his own guidance. When he joined the others of his team he would need to know everything, be ready to answer any question, even the stupidest one. He knew from hard experience that any man rebuked for asking something which in ail truth he should have known, would never dare to ask another question, perhaps when it was vital.
His jacket hung from a rail beside the bunk, the four gold stripes glinting dully in the light from the desk lamp. His cap, like the medal ribbons on the jacket, showed his authority and skill at a glance, but any casual visitor would see him now as the man, not the commander. The cap and jacket were necessary trappings, just as banners and flags identified the old sailing men-of-war in the height of battle in another century. But for now, in his favourite roll-necked fisherman's jersey in thick grey wool, and the extra pair of flannel trousers beneath his uniform ones, he looked at ease. Hechler was thirty-six, the youngest captain to command such a ship as the
and the responsibility was clear to see in the deep creases on either side of his firm mouth. His hair was dark and had remained unruly despite all the caustic comments of his superiors over the years. His strength, his qualities, the depth of the man himself showed mostly in his eyes. They were blue with the shadow of grey, like the sea itself.
In his youth he had discovered that his eyes had made him vulnerable. If they had showed his confidence, so too they had betrayed his doubts. He had taught himself to contain his inner emotions, and had seen the effectiveness of his control when he was dealing with his day-to-day life. A seaman to be punished, or to be promoted with a word of congratulation. A man to be told that his family had perished in an air raid. It was all part of his world, as was watching people die, sometimes horribly, knowing as he did that others would be looking at him to see his reactions if only to gauge their own fates,
Like last month when he had cleared the lower deck and had every officer and man assemble aft beneath the twin muzzles of Turret Dora, to tell them about the Allied invasion of Normandy. To most of
ship's company the other theatres of war had seemed remote and with little meaning. The Pacific, Italy, even the Atlantic, the bloodiest sea war of all, meant little. Their war had been here, or in the Arctic against the
Russians. Normandy had changed all that. The official news was optimistic, adamant that the British and their allies would soon be driven back into the sea and in turn leave England ripe for invasion. And anyway Normandy was a long, long way from the Fatherland.
But to many of the listening faces it seemed like a stab in the back, an enemy gnawing away at another front, which would make even greater demands on their own resolution and resources.
The deck gave an unexpected shudder and Hechler had to make himself relax again, muscle by muscle. Perhaps he was too tired. Maybe the war had pared away his resistance without his realising it. He smiled and ruffled his hair with his strong fingers. Then with a sigh he leaned forward and stared at the chart for the last time.
The coastline was familiar enough. It was useless to consider what might have been, to despair over the loss of ground in the past few months. Safe anchorages had come under constant air attack; now they lay in enemy hands. All the time, the Russian armies kept up their pressure along thousands of miles of savagely contested land. Up here in the North, the Finns, Germany's allies, were under terrible pressure and an entire German army was in danger of being cut off from retreat. Hechler's mouth moved in a wry smile.
as the news reports termed it. The heavy cruiser always seemed to be at an hour's notice to get under way even after the briefest respite in harbour. Now with her escort of two destroyers divided on either beam, she was back in the same fiercely contested waters where she had once been able to rest; where she had been like a symbol to the army ashore.
As he ran his eye along the chart, or checked a measurement with his dividers, Hechler could see the coast in his mind's eye like a painting, a watercolour. Abeam was the northern coast of Lithuania, the gateway to the Gulf of Riga. During the night they had slipped past the low, sandy point, Kolkasrags, with its wooded darkness beyond, and would soon begin to turn in a wide sweep towards the land once more.
South-east and deep into the Gulf of Riga, where they had been ordered to supply artillery support to the beleaguered German army. Riga was the only point from which the army could retreat if the worst happened, and there had been nothing in the regular signals to suggest that the Russians were losing steam in spite of their horrendous losses in men and tanks.
It was always a risk, a ship against sited shore batteries. Those who gave such orders saw only the overall strategy, the latest necessity, and rarely considered the danger.
It was a task which
had carried out many times. Originally she had provided covering fire for their own landings, had supported a victorious army through one advance to the next. If winter closed in early there might be some respite on this front at least. Hechler pitied the poor devils who endured the bitter cold and privation, who would face it yet again with the added knowledge that the Allies were nearer their homeland than they were.
Hechler glanced up at the framed picture of his ship. The glass shivered in the frame to the gentle vibration from several decks below his feet. It made it look as if the photograph was alive.
was a lucky ship, and had become something of a legend in the tight world of the navy. Bombardments, hurling aside air attacks, or matching gun-f or-gun with British cruisers of the North Cape, she had sustained only negligible damage, and had lost but two men killed. One of the latter had fallen overboard after slipping on an icy deck. Not a very proud death for his family to remember.
Hechler thought of other ships similar to his own.
another legend even in the enemy's navy,
which had been rammed in a hopeless attack by a British destroyer earl}? in the war - they were both fine ships. Another of the class, the
had gone to the bottom back in 1940, torpedoed by the Norwegians of all people. One more was still building.
seemed to lead a charmed life. Her launch, shortly after
end, had been delayed by several fierce air raids. They had played havoc with the Blohm & Voss yard in Hamburg where her keel had been laid. And yet despite the devastation all around her, she had survived waiting patiently for the smoke to clear and the work to continue.
Hechler had been serving in a small, elderly cruiser when she had been launched by the Fiihrer himself, her name chosen to cement Austrian friendship. He had seen her several times, and as his own advancement had progressed he had set his heart on her, this cherished command.
He stood up, his body balanced automatically to feel the strength of the ship beneath him. Fourteen thousand tons with the machinery to drive and sustain her every need, the weapons to fight anything faster or of equal size, she even carried three Arado float-planes, Hechler's eyes when he needed them.
Hechler was a tall man with broad shoulders, yet despite this he moved in the confined cabin with the ease of a cat as he slipped into his jacket and patted each pocket without really noticing this regular precaution.
He opened the drawer of his desk and placed the dividers and parallel rulers inside. As he did so he saw her face looking up at him from the worn leather case which he had always carried at sea. He sighed, his eyes distant.
He heard a steel door slam shut somewhere below the cabin. A last bolt-hole sealed for anyone whose nerve might waver?
The ship, this ship, had helped him to get over even that, he thought. He could look at her face now, even study it without the old surge of bitterness and despair. Inger was not smiling in the photograph. When he thought about it now he realised that she had never smiled very much.
The red handset buzzed above the bunk, like a trapped insect. Hechler smiled and lifted it. Relieved at the interruption, to be freed from the sudden shadow, the depression. He closed the drawer as he spoke. Shutting her away, until the next time.
It was Theil, as he had known it would be. A man so dependable that Hechler had once found himself searching for flaws and mistakes. He had been in the ship since she had first commissioned at Hamburg and had served under the one other captain before Hechler. A competent officer in every way, one that commanded most people's respect and liking, qualities which rarely w
ent hand-in-hand in a warship.