Read Kleber's Convoy Online

Authors: Antony Trew

Kleber's Convoy

Kleber's Convoy

Antony Trew

1. The characters in this story, the ships, U-boats, aircraft and events are entirely fictitious. Where authorities, such as Captain (D) Greenock, are referred to their incumbents are fictitious though the appointments did exist.

There were not, as far as I know, a Nineteenth Cruiser Squadron, a Fifty-Seventh or an Eighty-Third Escort Group, nor any ships in service in World War II of the names I have used. If there were it is an inadvertence on my part for they had nothing to do with this story. It is possible that those who served with me in HMS
Walker
– what a fine ship's company they were – may look for characters they knew in that ship but they will do so in vain, for
Vengeful
and her company are figments of the imagination and any resemblance can only be coincidental.

 

2.
Page
141 – Recent British research suggests that U-47, commanded by Guenther Prien, was sunk by the corvettes
Arbutus
and
Camelia
, and that
Wolver
ine
's
kill after a long stern chase was in fact U-70.

 

‘The Russian convoys are a northern saga of heroism, bravery and endurance. This saga will live for ever, not only in the hearts of your people, but also in the hearts of the Soviet people, who rightly see in it one of the most striking expressions of collaboration between Allied governments
without
which our common Victory would have been impossible.'

Ivan Maisky

Soviet Ambassador in London during World War II

It was wet and cold and the wind from the south-west came gusting and eddying across the loch, bringing the rain and the smell of peat and rotting heather.

In the sternsheets the big man hunched his shoulders, seeking protection under the canvas hood of the motor boat. He was dark and angular with shadows under eyes which regarded stonily the ships at anchor, so many that they faded in the distance until the farthest were lost in the mist. Thirty-seven, he recalled, with twenty-six escorts by the time they'd passed the Faeroes. Pity it hadn't always been like that. He thumped his chest hoping to stop the wheeziness and thought of the specialist at the RN hospital at Bridge-of-Weir.

‘Any previous history of respiratory trouble?'

‘What sort of trouble?'

‘Difficulty in breathing. Frequent attacks of bronchitis. Asthma?'

He'd shaken his head.

‘Nothing like that?' persisted the specialist, a wartime surgeon-commander.

‘When I was about six I had some sort of breathing trouble. It lasted for about two years.'

‘Do you remember what sort?'

‘Just that I found it difficult to breathe and then I'd panic and it'd get worse.'

‘Were there any pressures on you at the time? Can you remember? You know. Being pushed hard at school. Trouble at home?'

He wondered what the specialist was driving at.

‘I wasn't at school. My mother died when I was five. My father remarried a year later.'

‘I see. Now let's get those things off. We'll have a look at your chest.' He'd seen the surgeon looking at his fingers. ‘No,' he said, ‘I don't smoke and haven't for years.'

‘Good.'

And so the examination had proceeded.

The big man's thoughts were interrupted by the
leading-seaman's
order, ‘Stop engines.' The boat lost way and drifted in towards the landing stage at Aultbea, waiting for a berth. Other boats moved off and it went alongside. The big man stepped on to the wooden jetty. ‘Lay off, Harvey,' he said. ‘Make room for the others. We'll be about an hour.'

The leading-seaman saluted. ‘Aye, aye, sir.'

The gaunt figure of the captain joined others on the path and strode up through the rain towards the Nissen hut. ‘Fine bloody day to be starting one of these,' said Harvey to the stoker tending the motor boat's engine.

‘Don't worry,' said the stoker. ‘There'll be worse to come.'

The boat went astern from the landing stage. The badges on her bows showed, beneath a naval crown and the name
Vengeful
, a mailed fist holding the hilt of a sword.

 

The big man reached the door of the old hall. The sentry saluted. The big man returned the salute. ‘Captain of
Vengeful,'
he said.

The chief petty officer next to the sentry looked at his list and ticked off a name. ‘Lieutenant-Commander Redman, sir?'

He said, ‘Yes,' and went into the hall. It was old and dingy and smelt of long ago. A low platform confronted rows of wooden seats reminiscent of church gatherings and school concerts. Redman looked round. He was in good time. Half of them were there already. He nodded to those he knew, mostly captains of
Vengeful
's escort group, the Fifty-Seventh, spoke briefly to one of them, and sat down.

He wondered if those near him could hear his wheeziness and was mildly ashamed. He felt through the raincoat into the pocket of his reefer, found a lozenge and slipped it into his mouth. It's will-power, he told himself. Goes if you try hard enough. But it didn't and he swore under his breath.

The convoy commodore came in, a time-wrinkled
white-haired
man with blue eyes in a pink face. Redman looked at him curiously. Wonder why they do it, he thought. Must have retired as a rear-admiral ten, fifteen years ago.
Volunteers
for this. Ought to have his feet in front of a fire
reading
the war news. Redman turned to the officer next to him. ‘Know him?'

The lieutenant-commander shook his head. ‘Incredible old
boys, aren't they?' he said. ‘Can't imagine a more bloody job.'

The commodore sat at the centre of the table on the platform flanked by several officers. One, a commander, Rory McLeod, was staff-officer operations to CS19, the Vice-Admiral commanding Nineteenth Cruiser Squadron; another commander, a lanky red-haired man with humorous eyes, Ginger Mountsey, was senior officer of escorts. Next to him sat the naval control service officer, beside him a second officer Wren with notebook and pencil. She was
looking
at the faces in front of her, the captains of escort vessels and merchant ships, with the polite but impersonal interest of a visitor at a school prize-giving.

When it was decided that everyone had turned up the commodore opened the proceedings. Rory McLeod
explained
that the Vice-Admiral would be flying his flag in the escort carrier
Fidelix.
He would join the convoy off the Faeroes, bringing with him from Scapa Flow the carrier, a heavy cruiser and a flotilla of Home Fleet Destroyers. The SOO explained briskly that the Vice-Admiral would be responsible for passing convoy JW137 through to Murmansk and, as CS19's orders emphasised, a prime purpose of the operation would be
to
seek
out
and
destroy
the
enemy.

Waste of time this, thought Redman, like reading the book after you've seen the picture. Damn this bronchitis or whatever it is. He leant forward trying to ease the
congestion
.

Ginger Mountsey was now saying his piece but Redman wasn't really listening. In a vague detached way he was looking at the convoy diagrams on the blackboards. They showed the station numbers of ships, distance apart of columns, disposition of escorts and covering forces. These things interested him but he was oblivious to the posters on the wall behind. Old now, torn and damp-stained: ‘Don't join the stragglers' club,' a lone merchant ship sinking, the balloon from the periscope in the foreground inscribed, ‘
Wunderbar!
Ein
verdammter
Straggler
'; another, ‘Careless Talk Costs Countless Lives', a sinister, emphatically Teutonic character listening in to a telephone conversation. And there were others, too familiar to make any impact. Vaguely, as if it were part of a long-distance telephone conversation on a bad line, he heard snatches of what Mountsey was
saying: formation of the convoy, disposition of escorts on close and outer screens, the carrier's procedure when flying off and recovering aircraft, communication arrangements, role of the rescue vessel, and the weather.

The weather, thought Redman, you can say that again. We can look after the rest but not the weather. Mountsey switched to enemy forces likely to be encountered.
The
enemy
, the words tumbled discordantly through Redman's mind – the
enemy.
That meant Germans. Every time he thought of Germans he saw not U-boats and swastikas but Marianne and Hans. Then he would apply a discipline practised over the years and get rid of the images. But it wasn't easy.

‘No stopping for survivors,' Mountsey was saying. ‘We can't afford to present sitting targets to U-boats. Throw floats and rafts to the chaps in the water. Leave the rest to the rescue vessel.'

Five to ten minutes, thought Redman, exceptionally fifteen. That was about the longest a man could survive in Arctic water. A picture formed in his mind of wet blackness, the winking of survivors' lights, the slap and wash of seas unseen but ice cold, the sound of Patterson's hoarse croaking in the darkness – ‘Are you all right, sir?' With a shiver of head and shoulders, Redman shook away the recollection.

The lieutenant-commander beside him looked up. ‘You all right?' he muttered.

‘Quite,' said Redman.

Ginger Mountsey was on to something else. U-boat  shadowing? ‘Weather permitting we should keep them down with air patrols and the ships on the outer screen,' he was saying. ‘But don't underestimate the difficulties which will confront the carrier's pilots. Almost continual darkness for the greater part of the journey, frequent gales and blizzards – and icing problems. They'll do everything possible. You can be sure of that.'

Redman remembered a row with some Fleet Air Arm sub-lieutenants a few days before. It was in the billiard-room of the officers' club at Greenock. They'd drunk too much and made a lot of noise, skylarking and upsetting a tankard of beer over the green baize cloth. He'd choked them off and they'd become suddenly silent and apologetic. Afterwards he remembered how dubious their chances of survival were and
felt ashamed. They flew mostly in darkness, in appalling weather, and even if they found the carrier on return a safe landing was often no more than an even chance.

Time went on. The second officer Wren was making notes with, one hand, arranging her hair with the other. Now it was the naval control service officer giving advice to the merchant captains. Action to take if contact with the convoy was lost, the dangers of straggling, of showing lights … Redman sighed with tired boredom, Merchant captains who'd survived to the end of 1944 knew just about all there was to know about convoys. He wondered if the naval control service officer had spent much time at sea. Or was he one of those people at Greenock with a flat and a car, going steady with a Wren. He decided it was an unkind thought and disliked himself for it. After all, some people had to do the shore jobs, ships couldn't operate without them and many of them had done sea time. His laboured breathing irritated him. He cleared his throat, stifling the noise with a handkerchief. A few days in dry clothes, hot meals and plenty of undisturbed sleep. That'd put him right, he assured himself, knowing these were things he wasn't going to get.

Ginger Mountsey, still sounding far away, was addressing a final word to the escort captains. ‘Radio silence except for TBS.
1
Unless we know the convoy's sighted. If you find yourself carrying out a pounce attack on a submarine close to the convoy, switch on fighting lights if there's any danger of collision – not otherwise.'

For God's sake, thought Redman, let's get back to the ships. We know this stuff. He took his mind off what was going on by concentrating on the Wren. She looked a nice girl. Peaches and cream complexion. Beneath the table she showed good legs. He wondered about her. Was she a virgin? Highly improbable. He hoped not. Such a waste. Who did she belong to? Was she always as demure as that? Difficult to be demure in bed. The commodore was saying something. Telling the merchant captains what he expected of them and wishing them good luck. They need it, thought Redman, they're the targets. The commodore asked if there were any questions. There were several. When the old man had dealt
with them he said with genial finality, ‘Well, gentlemen, I think it's time we returned to our ships.'

Redman sighed with relief. Once the thing started the tension went. It was like waiting in your corner for the bell for the first round. Come to think of it, he decided, convoy conferences were rather like those preliminaries. Of course only one of the contestants was present, but the other was there by implication, and the injunctions to escort and merchant captains all sounded rather like, ‘
No
holding,
break
clean.
No
punching
on
the
break.
You
know
the
rules.
Now
go
to
your
corners
and
come
out
fighting
…'

 

Outside it was blowing harder and the wind drove the rain cold and prickling into his face as he went down the slope towards the landing stage. He was joined by two captains in his group and they chatted desultorily, their thoughts on other things. Up in the belly of Loch Ewe the wind snatched plumes of white steam from the funnels of the ships at anchor, and sea birds swooped and screeched for offal.

‘Hope we get this lot set up before darkness,' said a bearded lieutenant-commander, the captain of
Vectis.

‘My dear boy, you
are
an optimist,' said the other.

‘We won't,' said Redman. ‘But they'll be settled down by morning. They usually are.'

‘You sound hoarse.'

‘Bit wheezy,' said Redman. ‘It's nothing.'

‘What about the weather?' asked the bearded man.

‘Poor outlook. Haven't you see the forecast?'

‘It's wrong sometimes.'

‘Thank God for that.'

They reached the jetty and Redman beckoned his boat alongside. Down at the landing stage motor boats were coming and going. A busy scene: the noise of engines, shouted orders from coxswains and bowmen. It cheered Redman. Busy like … like what? He couldn't think of a simile. But it was good to see movement and things
happening
. It was when nothing happened, when you had time to think, that you felt depressed.
Vengeful
's boat came
alongside
, he climbed down into the sternsheets and they headed out into the anchorage. He was aware of the noise of the boat's engines, the slap of small waves and douches of spray, but though he was looking at the merchant ships, the destroyers,
the sloops, frigates and corvettes, he was thinking about his breathing. He hadn't told the surgeon-commander that the childhood attacks had recurred twice. Once after the ski accident, then after Paris. He always thought of that time as ‘after Paris'. He didn't like to put it into appropriate words. They were too stark, hurt too much. This time the attacks had started after the second Reykjavik trip. He wondered why. Then his mind emptied. It was part of his tiredness that his mind often switched off. The boat
approached
Vengeful
's starboard quarter and he saw a little group at the head of the side-ladder. The first-lieutenant, the officer-of-the-day, the coxswain, the chief boatswain's mate, a quartermaster and a sentry. They stood to attention and the thin treble of the boatswain's call cut through the curtain of rain. Redman climbed the ladder to more piping. On deck he exchanged salutes with the first-lieutenant. ‘We're sailing at fourteen hundred, Number One.'

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