|My late father’s life through his own words, tales and stories|
|Brian Matier – 03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018|
|I once read, or was told, the following piece of wisdom. ‘The man who never made a mistake, never made anything.’ When I worked for Mobil, a delightful young Seychelloise called Giselle, asked me if she could borrow this pearl, and change ‘man’ to ‘woman,’ when she booked me to Genoa when I wanted to go to Geneva. But then, she was very young and probably did not know the rules. I have found that women rarely do other than follow the maxim, ‘never explain, never apologise.’ They do make mistakes, but usually manage to find a man to blame.|
My biggest mistake was perpetrated by me about seven years ago, and I would like to tell you about it. I would like to, but I can’t, as the pain is still too vivid, the wounds too raw to probe. One day, maybe.
So I will do something where subjectivity and sensitivity are not required. I will cheat, and tell you about other peoples’ mistakes, which is always more refreshing. And, to avoid cross-examination and possible litigation, I will pick on the dead. So, here we go, with great military mistakes. There have been many, but I will restrict myself to three, related, in Miss World style, in reverse order.
In third place, we have Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt in 1967. He decided that as Egypt had had two good hidings in 1948 and 1956 it was time for a victory over the hated Israelis. He blockaded the Israeli Red Sea port of Eilat and moved tens of thousands of troops to the Israeli border. He persuaded Jordan and Syria to mobilise and do the same and received more men from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, plus verbal support from the usual crowd of Arab nations. Nasser was banking on the USA, heavily engaged in Vietnam, not becoming involved. Daily the stream of Arab propaganda spewed out from Cairo radio, threatening to liquidate the hated Zionists and throw them into the sea. To the outside world little Israel looked like a tiny lamb surrounded by salivating wolves. The British and American Intelligence services knew differently. The lamb struck first.
On day one the Air Forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria were destroyed, mostly on the ground. and Israeli armour poured into the Sinai Desert, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. East Jerusalem and the Old City were taken on Day Three and very soon Israeli soldiers dipped their toes in the river Jordan and the Suez Canal. They also prayed at Judaism’s holiest place, the Wailing Wall, having first removed a urinal built against the Wall by the Jordanians. It was all over in six matchless days. Yitzhak Rabin, Chief of the Israeli Staff, and later twice Israeli Prime Minister was asked how long the training had taken. “Nineteen years” was the curt reply, a reference to the 1948 War at the time of his nation’s difficult birth.
Number two on our all time greats is the Emperor Napoleon. He won many battles but had a fatal flaw of losing those that mattered. In June 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia in expectation of an easy victory. The Russians had other ideas. They retreated before the French, stretching the enemy’s supply lines. They burned Moscow and the French entered a smoking empty ruin. The Russians declined to fight and finally Napoleon, his starving men wearing summer uniforms, began their long retreat through the bitter Russian winter, harassed on all sides by the Tsar’s armies. The Emperor went in with 600,000 men and came out with 50,000.
Bonaparte also dismissed advice from his generals before Waterloo about Wellington and the British infantry. To Marshal Soult and General Foy he said, “You are frightened of the English because they beat you in Spain. I tell you the English are poor soldiers and Wellington is only a Sepoy general. Beating them will be no more trouble than having breakfast.” It proved to be a meal Napoleon could not digest, and it cost him his throne. He was by no means the first, or last, Frenchman to misjudge the neighbours across the Channel.
But number one on our list has just got to be Adolf Hitler. We must never forget that Hitler was democratically elected and then became a dictator, perhaps like others you can think of. In 1941, Nazi Germany controlled Europe from the North Cape in Norway to the tip of the Italian boot, plus large tracts of North Africa held by their vassal, Vichy France. The USA, isolationist and disinclined to involve itself in a European war, was, as usual, planning to arrive late, if at all. Britain and the British Empire remained fighting, but only in North Africa. Hitler remarked that he “will wring England’s neck, like a chicken.” Mr Churchill responded “Some chicken, some neck.” Perhaps Adolf was planning to have chicken for breakfast.
Hitler made many mistakes, but two are worth mentioning. He declared war on the United Sates just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He capped that by invading Russia in June 1941. Hitler, failing to read his history books, went in on 22nd June, Napoleon having waited two days longer. The result was the same, though it took longer in the case of the little corporal. Germany was utterly defeated in May 1945, and nine out of every ten German military deaths occurred on the Russian front. The World then changed forever.
I do feel better talking of other people’s mistakes; they make mine seem insignificant, if no less
|The rain drizzled in a fine mist from weeping grey skies, the sort of rain which never properly started and never properly stopped. I was soaked through, from my thinning hair to my expensive Italian hiking boots. The water had even penetrated inside the pockets of my rain jacket. We had come to this village, a place so desolate that I could not believe that it was occupied, although I had been assured that it was. A small bridge of stepping stones, reputedly Roman, crossed the dingy stream on the west of the village.|
Most of the buildings were of stone, irregular stones, fitted together like dry stone walls in the north of England or Scotland. The one route which served as the main street was of beaten earth, now slick and coffee coloured with rain. The side streets, if they could be so described, were a maze of winding tracks, with grass and weeds at the sides growing to a foot in height. No houses fronted onto the streets, but cowered behind eight-foot high walls, broken occasionally by doors of wood planking. This was a dreadful place, hiding some dark secret, whatever spirit it may once have possessed now dead. This was Fuentes de Onoro, Fountains of Honour in English. I saw neither man, woman, child, animal or vehicle of any kind. I saw no fountains either. I stood beside the village church, its stones tuned black by the rain, and deeply pockmarked by bullet holes.
It was a desperate time for Britain. Almost all of Europe lay under the heel of a fanatical dictator, her Army had been expelled in rags from the Continent, and the country was in danger of invasion. There were those who wanted to make peace with the enemy. In her hour of need, the country produced a saviour, someone whose fame and courage would spread far beyond these shores. The year was 1809, the man was Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington.
In 1808 Napoleon imposed a Continental embargo against trade with Britain, and threatened war on any nation which defied him. The Portuguese, as Britain’s oldest ally, did defy him, and consequently were invaded, with the collusion of their neighbours and oldest enemies, the Spanish, whose thanks came in being in turn occupied by the French Emperor. The following year, in response to a request from the King and Government of Portugal, in exile in Brazil, Britain sent a small army under Sir Arthur, to liberate the Portuguese.
He started by retaking the town of Porto, and by May 1811 had almost succeeded in pushing the French back into Spain. The small British Army had grown and had incorporated many Portuguese units, trained, equipped, paid and officered by the British. The Allies were outnumbered perhaps by five to one by the French. The Duke could not afford to lose even a single battle. The French, by their brutality towards civilians, and desecration of church and clergy, had aroused most of the Spanish and Portuguese peasantry against them and Napoleon’s soldiers were frequently tortured and murdered by these irregular troops. The word ‘guerrilla’ was first used at this time.
There were only two routes linking Spain and Portugal, two routes along which an Army could march. The Southern route was by way of Badajoz, held by the French, and Elvas, an Allied held frontier fortress. The northern road passed through the French held Spanish bastion of Ciudad Rodrigo, and the mirror image Portuguese stronghold of Almeida. Unfortunately, Almeida was also held by the French, under the command of the clever and brave General Brennier.
Wellington, a Tory aristocrat, was under severe pressure from Whig critics at home, and from deep discontent in many of his own senior officers in Portugal. He had to take Almeida and consequently laid siege. The French immediately sent an army of nearly 50,000 under Marshal Massena to relieve the town. Opposing him were some 37,000 Allies of which 23,000 were British. They met in the small medieval village of Fuentes de Onoro, lying astride the Almeida road, high in the hills. The bitter battle raged for two days, the place changing hands half a dozen times. Finally, with the village clogged by the dead of both sides, and the streets slippery with blood, the French retreated, as torrential rain started, turning the small Das Casas River red.
Wellington subsequently asked the British Government for monies to rebuild the village, observing, “it has been the scene of a recent battle, an event by which it has not been much improved.”
Almeida could not be relieved, so Massena sent orders to Brennier to give up the town and break out. Wellington had anticipated this however and sent written orders to General Sir William Erskine, the divisional commander, to send a regiment to secure the bridge over the River Turones. Erskine received his orders at 4 p.m., read them, and placed the paper in his pocket. It was 10 p.m. before he remembered it again, when he sent it to Lt Col Charles Bevan, in command of the 4th Regiment of foot. Bevan, receiving the orders at midnight, decided not to act immediately, but to wait until the morning. When he did get going, he was too late, and only managed to catch the French rearguard, the great majority of Brennier’s men escaping to Spain.
The Duke was reported as being angrier than anyone could ever remember, describing the failure as ‘the most disgraceful military event.’ The unfortunate Bevan was paraded before Wellington, who told him in no uncertain terms that ‘there was no excuse for what you have done’. Bevan was ordered to be court martialed.
Wellington was powerless to discipline Erskine, who reportedly had ‘friends in high places’ and had been appointed against Wellington’s express wishes. The Duke had protested that Erskine was mad, and was informed by the Horseguards, today’s MOD, that “He is undoubtedly mad, but when sane, is a personable fellow.”
The story has a sad ending. Marshal Massena was relieved of his command by Napoleon and never saw active service again. He declared for Napoleon in 1815 and was sacked on the restoration of King Louis XVIII. He died in Paris, in disgrace, two years later. In 1812 Erskine, at the age of 43, was declared insane and cashiered. Later in the year he committed suicide by jumping from an upper floor window. Lt Col Charles Bevan, late Commanding Officer of His Majesty’s fourth Regiment of Foot, blew his brains out with his own pistol on 9th July 1811.
On the other hand, Brennier survived the war, despite being severely wounded, and became a long serving minister in successive French governments, dying in 1838. The Duke of Wellington, on 18th June 1815 won immortality at the Battle of Waterloo, and became Prime Minister in 1828.
|A fussy, enquiring wind whipped in over the sand dunes, bringing a North Atlantic chill to the little huddle of spectators gathered on a small hill, causing the men to shuffle deeper into their overcoats and to pull their collars around their necks. About fifty yards away, a smaller gaggle of men in overalls tended to a strange machine, a contraption of wires, wood and canvas. At last they declared themselves ready and one attempted to start the engine by hand. Several attempts were needed but eventually it fired, shrouding the machine and its attendants in blue smoke.|
A ragged cheer from the hill struggled against the rising wind from the ocean; the watchers having witnessed the failure of this event too often this cold day to be truly excited. This time was different. The machine lumbered forward over the rough ground, lifted into the air, crashed down again and finally became airborne and stayed that way. The flight lasted a staggering twelve seconds and covered 120 feet. History had been made, and the world would never ever quite be the same. This was Kitty Hawk Springs in North Carolina and the date was 17th December 1903.
Orville Wright, a 32 year old cycle engineer from Dayton, Ohio, had been at the controls of the first powered flight in a machine designed by Orville and his 36 year old brother, Wilbur, his partner in the cycle business. The Wright brothers could not know the enormous power for both good and evil that their invention would unleash.
Man had long dreamed of emulating the birds by flying in the air, untethered by the restrictions of gravity. From the Icarus of legend, through the prolific, multi-faceted Leonardo da Vinci to the balloonists of France in the 18th and 19th centuries, the dream had been cherished. The Wrights were not the only people working on heavier than air flight; others in France, Germany, England and other parts of the United States were only months behind them.
It did not take very long for Governments to decide that the new toy could have a military application. British military history was well established, the Royal Engineers having operated balloons since 1863. In 1911 they took delivery of their first aircraft and the following year received their Royal Warrant as the Royal Flying Corps. The age of relative innocence, which was the Edwardian era, was soon to die in the bloodbath of the Great War.
By the time of the opening of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916, Britain had nearly 500 aircraft in action in France, a number to increase several times over by the end of the War. The British, French, Germans and Austrians, and later the Americans all became deeply involved in the skies about the slaughterhouses of France, the pilots behaving with an almost medieval chivalry to their enemies. Seven Victoria Crosses were awarded to British and Empire pilots. My own particular here is Major James Byford McCuddon who had 57 victories and who died in 1918 having been awarded the VC, DSO and Bar, MC and Bar, the MM and the Croix de Guerre. He was only 23 at the time of his death. McCuddon just had time to serve in the Royal Air Force, the first independent air force in the world, but not time to exchange either his military rank, or Army uniform before he crashed to his death in Picardy.
Warfare, as it usually does, had improved immeasurably the effectiveness of the aeroplane. It also, in 1918 released thousands of young men into civilian life, young men incurably smitten by a virus, the virus of flying. There was not sufficient employment in the infant airline industry to accommodate these men, and increasingly women, who wanted to fly. And so, for a period of less than twenty years, they created their own jobs, in a circus, a flying circus, or more accurately, a series of circuses throughout the world. The phenomenon was primarily an American one; the huge, often unexplored country lending itself to aviation. Apart from the airlines, the US Post Office employed aircraft to deliver the mail. In the early days the pilots followed a road map, looking out for features such as railways, towns and rivers. Fog often meant a lonely death.
Over the high Rockies ice formed on the wings of their craft and the pilots perished.
The circus developed with ‘hoppers’, people who paid two dollars for trips around the airfields in rickety, dangerous ex Great War machines, and frequently the passengers arrived back on Terra Firma earlier than anticipated. In time, this became safer and blasé and the customers demanded more. Pilots began to perform stunts, spiralling the aircraft towards the ground only to pull up into level flight just in time. And sometimes they didn’t pull up in time. They also buzzed the airfield, doing rolls and loops as close to the ground as safely permitted and sometimes safety did not permit.
Mock dogfights were re enacted, with Sopwiths, Bristols, Spads and Fokkers reliving the days of chivalry, this time in American skies. As the parachute developed, professionals and sometimes thrill seekers jumped from perfectly airworthy machines, a practice which to this day is regarded as very strange by Air Force personnel. Wing walking was popular for a time, with stunt men and girls standing and later walking on the wings of aircraft in flight. The girls were generally very pretty, bare legged, and wearing a wide smile and flimsy clothing. I wish I had seen it. The flying circuses were much-loved features of events like State Fairs.
At the same time the infant industry was growing up and pilots turned their skills to bush flying, delivering supplies to Arctic stations in Canada and Alaska, or fighting fires in the Californian hills. The Flying Doctor Service in the Australian outback brought succour to sick people and sheep stations did the round up in their flimsy aircraft and not solely from the back of a horse.
Alcock and Brown had flown the Atlantic in 1919 in a wartime Vimy bomber, and Charles Lindbergh, a strange and tortured man, crossed it on his own. Amy Johnston ands Amelia Earhart proved that women could also perform feats of endurance. As the thirties stretched towards the forties the popularity of the circus paled. It would soon be extinguished by the Second World War when aircraft were used to bring destruction to cities and death to the citizens.
As the RAF destroyed Dresden and the USAF devastated Nagasaki and Hiroshima, it must have been difficult to recall the carefree, innocent and frankly dangerous days of the Flying Circuses, gleaming from the past like a dimly remembered glimpses of Camelot.
Bunch of Old Keys
|It was a grey, overcast dawn on 14th July 1789, the heavy clouds threatening rain before the day was out. The Marquis de Launay stood at the parapet of one the Bastille’s eight towers and sniffed the air. He could smell the rain, but much more besides, he could smell trouble. He surveyed his command, the 400 year old prison in the heart of the City, its walls eighty feet high and fifteen feet thick. De Launay had eighty-two retired French soldiers and thirty-two Swiss mercenaries as his garrison, together with eighteen eight-pound cannon and twelve smaller guns. In addition he had two hundred and fifty barrels of gunpowder.|
From his vantage point he viewed the city. Even at this early hour, it was alive with noise and movements, the erection of barricades, the shouting of people and the discharging of firearms. The acrid smell of black powder irritated his nostrils. His orders were to hold the fortress, whatever the cost. It was a stupid order, he thought, as plans were well in hand, before the present unrest had erupted, to pull the building down as redundant.
As the day progressed great swirling masses of flag waving people came and went, bound on some urgent business unknown to de Launay. Many carried muskets. He went to breakfast and while thus engaged was informed that a mob had arrived at the gates, headed by a delegation of citizens.
The Governor was gracious. “Show them in, we will breakfast together.”
The delegates demanded that the cannon be unloaded and pulled back from the fortress walls. De Launay readily agreed and was pleased that such a cordial atmosphere prevailed. Before the meal was over a second mob of people, several times larger than the first, arrived, led by a lawyer. He demanded the handing over of the Bastille to the people.
“I cannot do that, m’sieur. I take my orders from the King.”
Both delegations withdrew for discussions, but their followers, impatient for action, swarmed across the moat and smashed their way into the outer courtyard, breaking into buildings and seizing axes and sledge hammers to attack the wooden drawbridges. Some in the crowd had firearms, taken from the storming of the Invalides earlier in the day. It is not known who fired the first shot, but soon a gun battle was raging, with casualties on both sides. The attackers set fire to the wagons and dragged them against the drawbridges leading to the inner court, the Swiss replying with cannon fire.
At two in the afternoon, a truce was arranged but it quickly broke down under the weight of the attackers’ demand that the Governor be executed. One of the leaders of the attackers was a m’sieur Flesselles, who was beaten by the mob for truthfully telling them there was no more ammunition. From somewhere two cannon were found and lined up facing the Bastille’s drawbridges. This drew a furious response from the garrison and more attackers fell. De Launay, however, saw that the position was hopeless, knowing as he did that no help could be expected from the Royal Army where soldiers would no longer obey their officers. His own retired French Army men were on the point of mutiny and only the professional Swiss soldiers remained as a fighting unit. He wrote a note offering to capitulate and this was pushed through a crack in the wooden drawbridge.
Lieutenant Hulin, of the Militia, with the note held above his head, and accompanied by Lieutenant Elie, entered through a small door in the drawbridge and accepted de Launay’s sword of surrender. The Governor, at the point of his own sword was marched into his little room.
“The keys, citizen,” demeaned Hulin. De Launay opened a small drawer and indicated wordlessly.
“Is that it?” demanded the lieutenant, “Just that old bunch of keys?”
The last Governor of the Bastille nodded. “There is nothing else.”
Hulin threw the keys to his companion. “Release all the prisoners.”
“It won’t take long” remarked de Launay dryly.
He was led outside with the remaining members of the garrison, through the masses of screaming Parisians, their faces distorted, their feet and fists raining blows on the captured men. De Launay was knocked to the ground, kicked and beaten and stabbed. Finally he was decapitated with a butcher’s knife, as was the unfortunate Flesselles, whose only crime was to speak honestly. Their bodies were torn to pieces, some of the mob decorating their faces with the dead men’s blood.
The Bastille had been stormed. Today, the date, 14th July, is celebrated in France as a Public Holiday, and the foundation of the Republic and mother of those Republican virtues of Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood. Since 1789 France has enjoyed five republics, two empires and four monarchs, five if you count the unfortunate son of the murdered King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette, whom monarchists call Louis XVII. The Bastille was knocked down under orders from the people by the same contractor who had successfully bid for the job from the King.
Oh, yes, seven prisoners were released from the Bastille, none of them political. Four were forgers, one was a sex offender and two were mad. One of the madmen was an Irishman who believed himself to be God, or, on other occasions, Julius Caesar. He didn’t want to leave his cell, which he liked, and had to be dragged screaming and shouting into the world of liberty, equality and brotherhood.
Cherchez Le Saint Graal
|“Français et Françaises”, Frenchmen and Frenchwomen, so began the famous BBC radio broadcast of 18th June 1940 by General Charles de Gaulle. He continued, “France has lost a battle, France has not lost the war.” It was an inauspicious way to commence his quest for the Holy Grail, as the BBC did not rate the broadcast as sufficiently important to record, few people in France heard it, and almost no one acted upon it. Nevertheless, in later years, this speech as with many other French myths, was transformed, this time into the rallying call which set France alight. At the time, it was nothing of the kind, and it wasn’t even true.|
De Gaulle had been born in Lille in 1890, and became a devout, right wing, Roman Catholic. He joined the Army and was a captain at the start of the Great War in August 1914. He was wounded and captured at Verdun in May 1915, some time before the struggle for the town and fortress became symbolic as the struggle for France. The remaining three and a half years were spent as a guest of the Kaiser, thinking about the future.
After the War he became a devoted admirer of Marshal Petain, France’s saviour and hero. In a series of staff positions he rose rapidly and was in command of an armoured division in Alsace when Hitler’s War began. In May 1940, the Germans stormed through Belgium and Holland and defeated the British and French in Northern France. De Gaulle who had little part in the fighting was invited into the Government and sent on a mission to Britain, where he was when France surrendered. For the third time in seventy years, France had been overrun by the Germans, and in 1940 was forced into a humiliating so called Armistice. Petain, who had accepted the German surrender in 1918 in a railway carriage at Compeigne, was forced to go the same carriage to bow his head to Hitler.
Despite the appeals of Churchill, the British Prime Minister, and his offer of joint citizenship with France, the French Government believed that if their one million men had not been able to stop Hitler, lesAnglais would not be able to do either, and in two or three weeks would sue for peace. As so often with the French, they miscalculated, a fault going back to Crecy, through Agincourt and Blenheim to Waterloo. The British character is different from the French, and besides, Churchill could not even spell defeat.
So the Fascist, collaborationist Government of Marshal Pertain was formed. De Gaulle’s old hero ordered Charles to return, and when he refused, he was tried for treason and condemned to death.
Charles de Gaulle had long nursed a vision of France as the most important, most sacred country in the world, and in June 1940, he went in search of his Grail. To use an old Irish saying, “I wouldn’t start from here, if I were you.” His beloved homeland had been occupied in the north, west and east by the Germans, who also seized Alsace and Lorraine. In the south the Italians, arriving after France had been defeated, took Savoie and the Riviera. The Government of Marshal Petain controlled the centre part from Vichy.
In addition the French showed no stomach for fighting on. As an example, some 2917 pilots flew in the Battle of Britain. 2334 were British, and 290 from the British Empire. From the occupied countries came 145 fanatically brave Poles, 88 Czechs and 29 Belgians. France supplied 13, slightly more than the neutral USA, 11, and Ireland, 10.
De Gaulle had 5000 soldiers, clothed, fed, armed and transported by the British. Things did not improve easily, as he tried to wrest French colonies from Vichy. He was rebuffed at Daker, and Philippe Leclerc began his march from Chad with 17 men to conquer Africa in de Gaulle’s name. He emerged in 1942 in Algeria as a general with 20,000. The British and Free French invaded Syria and Lebanon to prevent these lands being handed over to the Germans. A young Australian lieutenant, Roden Cutler, later Governor of NSW, gained the Victoria Cross and lost his right leg fighting against men who had been allies only a year before. The 30,000 Vichy soldiers refused to surrender to the Free French, insisting they gave themselves up to the British.
De Gaulle was a shrewd politician. After Germany invaded Russia, he sent a mission to the French Communists offering to work together towards the common goal. The USSR recognised him as the leader of the French Government in exile, which Britain had already done. Eventually Roosevelt reluctantly came to the same conclusion. De Gaulle was haughty, arrogant and self-centred. Churchill once remarked, “Of all the crosses I have to bear, the Cross of Lorraine is the heaviest.”
De Gaulle was a long way from the Grail but was at least moving in the right direction. His next great leap was not of his making. The Americans and British invaded French North Africa in November 1942, and with Monty sweeping west across the desert after his stunning victory at El Alamein, the soft underbelly of France was threatened. Hitler occupied the unoccupied zone of France, and all the apples tumbled in General de Gaulle’s basket. France really was in flames now, and the Resistance movement gathered strength as Vichy’s troops flocked to the Free French
In August 1944, the French and Americans invaded the Riviera and eventually linked up with the Allies from Normandy. General Patton held back to let the heroic Leclerc to liberate Paris. The following day de Gaulle walked up the Champs Elysee to the Arc de Triomphe with German gunfire still rolling around the City, and Wehrmacht snipers everywhere. The General was about 6’6” tall, an easy target. He did not lack personal courage.
The French invaded Germany with the Allies, and France became one of the occupying Powers. De Gaulle became leader of the French Government, but resigned in disgust in 1946 as the pre war squabbles continued. He sat at Colombey les Deux Eglises in a sulk until 1958 when he answered the nation’s call and became the first President of the Fifth Republic, a role he held for ten years.
De Gaulle was still as prickly, arrogant and unbending in his seventies as he had been during the War, but he had reached his Grail. France was supreme. He died in 1970.
Recently I had lunch at a restaurant in Hertfordshire, where the Maitre d’ was from Bordeaux. He said, on being complimented on his English, “If you don’t speak English, you can’t go anywhere in the world.” English is now the first foreign language in every country in Europe, including France. The old General might reflect that the Grail is illusionary, as he turned in his grave.
|They walked in single file across the padi, the green shoots breaking cautiously out of the water and into the light. Away to the right, alongside the rubber plantation, and perhaps 200 yards distant, were the long palm thatched wooden huts, built by the Australians to win hearts and minds, and outside their homes stood perhaps fifty sullen watchful villagers with their baggy sexless black trousers and shapeless jackets. Maddy, walking backwards in the post position, stared back at the Vietnamese.|
“Didn’t win your bloody hearts and minds, you bastards.” It was eleven months now in this God forsaken, lice infested, stinking, loathsome hellhole. Any thoughts Neil Maddy had had of defending freedom had long ago slipped away, lost forever in the mud that was Long Tan. No, it was eleven months and thirteen days. In just twelve days he would be back in Australia, back to the blue waters of Queensland, to the amber delights of Castlemaine XXXX, and most of all to the round eyed, white skinned delights of his wife, Rosa, and the rediscovery of his fifteen month old daughter Emily.
Maddy looked left and right, his rifle at the ready with the safety off. There were no reported VC around here, but the bastards could be anywhere, even in that dammed village. He had stopped believing any of these people were on the same side as he was. They were all thieving bastards who would knife you or give you the pox. “Bastards” he said again as his rear position was taken up by Corporal Jack Moroney.
“Stop talking to yourself, Neil.”
“Piss off, Corp.”
“And you, mate.” There was no resentment in Moroney’s tone. Everyone in number three platoon had the same shared objective; to do their time and get home, alive for preference.
The platoon slipped into the jungle, with as little noise as they could manage. Lives might depend on their ability to move unseen, unheard and unsmelt in this dark green world. Off to their flanks were the other platoons in Delta Company, equally scared, equally concerned at controlling their bodily functions. Further still was the rest of 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment.
The jungle closed in, thick, dripping with moisture and wet and muddy underfoot. The soldiers spread out a little more, just in case they were attacked. They never had been, but sod’s law insisted if it had to happen, it would happen with eleven days to go. Maddy had never seen so much greenery, from the dripping leaves to the moss embracing the trees, or so much water. He looked up, and here and there he caught glimpses of a blue sky that seemed totally divorced form his own private green world. The sweat trickled down his face, soaking his bandanna, and moving on in steady streams down his body, turning into little rivulets from under his armpits, soaking his fatigues, and making him itch.
“Come on Jesus, get me out of this. I want to go home to Rosa and Emily. Just get me through another eleven days.”
In front of him about ten yards away, he picked out the stocky figure of Bluey Elwood, his ginger hair a beacon despite his jungle hat. A dark sweat stain spread across Bluey’s back, discolouring his fatigues to the same colour as the ground.
They heard the Lieutenant’s scream just before they heard the sharp crackle of gunfire. “Take cover.” Maddy was on the ground his face pressed hard against the dark brown earth of Vietnam, his hands over his head. He was petrified.
Moroney’s voice came from behind him. “Return fire, you drongos. Elwood, Maddy, three o’clock, to your right.”
Neil Maddy looked up, carefully, but could see nothing but trees. He fired a long burst, followed by two short ones, splintering the trees and sending white slivers of wood in all directions. Ahead of him a grenade exploded, filling his ears with sound and his eyes and mouth with black earth. To his rear there was the muffled crump of a mortar, the explosion lifting him off the ground. What in Christ was he firing at? He could see nothing, not even his mates. “Corp, where are you Corp?”
“Shut your face Maddy, just keep firing.”
Ahead he thought he saw a shadowy figure flit between the trees about twenty yards away. He gave the figure a three-second burst, and it slid from sight. “Mother of God, Mother of God.”
Somewhere he heard the radio operator intoning calmly. “Romeo Alpha 2, to Big Momma, Romeo Alpha 2 to big Momma. We are under fire from about a dozen Victor Charlies.”
“Big Momma to Romeo Alpha 2, Roger that, Aussie. State your co ordinates, Hueys on the way.”
A stream of bullets ripped into the tress above and around Maddy, and he fired back blindly. This clatter continued for ten minutes, the blue grey gunsmoke rising wraith like among the trees. At last the blessed clatter of the choppers was heard, and the firing died away. Stiff with fear the Australians shakily rose to their feet, and answered the roll call from Corporal Moroney.
“Elwood? Elwood? Where the hell are you, Bluey?”
Maddy walked across to the prone body, his ginger hair easy to pick even in the drifting grey smoke. Gently he turned him over, and saw the great crimson stain spreading across Bluey’s chest. He reached down and held him, but knew he was dead. “I think he’s dead, Corp.”
The American Rangers took up the pursuit and the dead and wounded lifted out in the Hueys. Elsewhere the battle would continue for six hours. Maddy sat down on a fallen tree and pulled a Marlborough from his pocket. He lit the cigarette with trembling fingers and saw with horror that his hands and the cigarette were stained with Elwood’s blood. Lieutenant Hughes sat beside him.
Maddy nodded. “Yes sir.”
Hughes looked round at the remnants of his platoon. “A black day, Neil.”
Maddy looked at his hands. For him the day was red, blood red.
On 18th August 1966, D Company 6 Royal Australian Regiment met a strong Viet Cong force at Long Tan, Republic of Vietnam. The Australians lost 17 dead and 24 wounded. Viet Cong bodies counted were 245, but losses were probably much higher. Between 1946 and 2002 only eleven Victoria Crosses have been awarded. Four were won by Australians in Vietnam, two posthumously.
Sit Down Doctor
|It was cold in the small salon, the wind outside moaning low as it sought cracks in the ill fitting windows and ruffled the half closed drapes. The room was damp with patches of fungus on the wallpaper, its smell assailing my nostrils. Eventually de Montholon showed me into the dining room where Napoleon sat, slumped would be a better description, in a chair. |
He did not rise. “Sit down, doctor.” I did so, after a short bow towards the seated man. I was struck at once by the physical appearance of the Emperor, balding, pallid white skin, yellowing eyes, and excessively fat. His breathing was somewhat laboured and he bore little resemblance to the fine figure I had so often seen depicted on paintings. He looked ill, and without the benefit of an examination, I would have suggested some disorder of the liver as a possible reason.
A servant poured two glasses of wine, and backed from the room. Napoleon raised his glass, and I sipped the wine. It tasted musty, as if the damp had also intruded into the bottle.
The conversation we had was conducted entirely in French, assisted when required by Mr Balcombe. Napoleon’s French was very bad, with a harshness about it I did not expect from someone apparently so loved by the French people.
“So, you are a friend of Wellington?”
“No, sire, not at all. I do know our great duke, have spoken with him on many occasions, and dined in his company less often, but no, we are not friends.”
“I am told you were at the battle of Mont Saint Jean?”
“I was indeed at Waterloo, your majesty.”
“Were you behind the lines, doctor, or did you see any of the action?”
“I was in the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte until it was taken by your forces late in the afternoon.”
He leaned forward with interest. “Tell me about it.”
As best I could, with my imperfect French, I gave him an account of the fighting, and he displayed much interest.
“Brave fellows, those Germans.”
“And the French?” Perhaps he was testing me.
“Also brave men, as were all the other men who fought and died on that dreadful field. I would like to meet the Frenchman who wounded me, to congratulate him on his poor marksmanship.”
Napoleon smiled, giving me a small glimpse of the charm for which he was noted. His mood changed suddenly. “I could have won. Grouchy and Ney failed me. They failed France. I should have died on that field at the head of my Guard.”
I said nothing. I could have reminded the Emperor that HE had failed France, that HE had deserted his Army after Egypt, after Moscow and after Waterloo. It seemed appropriate that I should do nothing of the sort, and he carried on with his tirade. This continued for around fifteen minutes, and I quite quickly understood that my function was simply to listen, and not to interject. This I willingly did, because it is not often that one such as I can listen to one such as Napoleon. Finally he got on to Wellington, and described him as a bad commander, and one who had made many mistakes. At this point I could take no more.
“Perhaps what you say is true, sire, but you must accept that no one on the French side was able to profit from these mistakes and, in the end, Wellington won.”
“Huh! He won because of the Prussians arriving in time, and because Grouchy and his 30,000 were at Wavre.”
“Where you sent them, your majesty.”
“Grouchy should have followed the sound of the guns. Grouchy lost France, he lost France and lost me my crown.”
I was silent. There seemed to be nothing I could say, and it was fascinating to hear this great man, for such I believed him to be, allocating blame to everyone but himself. He carried on with more of the same. Eventually he said. “Wellington chose a very bad position. He was lucky that Blucher arrived when he did.”
“No, sire. He had told Blucher he would stand where he did, if the Prussians would come to his aid. Blucher said he would come. There was no more to be said. Each had given his hand. They each knew the other would keep his promise.”
Napoleon glared at me from his puffy face. “You sound like Soult and Foy. They were full of praise for Wellington. You seem to share their sentiments, my dear doctor.”
“Indeed so, sire. I have named my sons John Wellington and Arthur Wellesley in honour of the greatest man my country has produced.” I nearly said ‘the world has produced’, but I feared he would have terminated our meeting.
He smiled again, an action that transformed his face. “Very well, doctor. Let us discuss medical matters. Have you ever met Larrey?”
“Indeed I have, a fine surgeon and a brave man. I met him in Brussels after he had been wounded and captured by the Prussians. I was recuperating in the city myself at the time. I understood that but for the intervention of Prince Blucher, the Prussians would have put him in front of a firing squad. I last heard of him in Paris, where he is in difficult circumstances, I understand.”
“Those dammed Bourbons, they forget nothing and forgive nothing.”
We talked for a few more minutes, but it was obvious that he was tiring. Napoleon raised his hand, and I noticed the short podgy fingers. “Enough, doctor. I must rest.”
I rose, while he remained seated.
“You have two sons you say?”
I nodded. “Indeed so, sire, five and three.”
“Come here, doctor.” He took up his purse and fumbled inside, drawing out two gold coins. “Here, these are gold Napoleons. Give one to each of your boys in memory of Napoleon. I have a son too, you know. He is a little older than your boys.” He indicated with his hand that I should leave. I bowed and did so.
Balcombe walked with me to my carriage and I thanked him. “Mr Balcombe, I have just spoken to a God. An evil and perverted God, but a God nonetheless.”
|It was unseasonably cold for Brussels in June, but the rain was entirely predictable. It sheeted down from the night sky, blowing almost horizontally against the unshuttered windows of the ballroom, causing the light from within to shimmer on the wet pools in the roadway. The music mingled with the murmur of voices and peals of laughter to challenge the bleakness outside.|
A tall man stood at the end of the room, facing the orchestra. He was simply, but elegantly dressed in a plain blue coat and white breeches. His eyes, and the long angular nose, suggested an authority which was confirmed by the orders and decorations worn on his dress. The Star of the Garter hung at his throat. The woman at his side was no longer young, but from her upswept golden hair, to her dancing shoes, her charm and still evident beauty radiated.
“Will there be a war, Arthur?” She spoke anxiously.
He did not look at her, but continued to acknowledge the respects of the guests, the officers stiffening in salute, the ladies curtseying. “I fear so, Charlotte.”
“You will be careful, will you not? England needs you.”
“Fear not for me, my dear Lady, the finger of Providence has protected me these past twenty years. And as for England, I fear for her. Horseguards did not see fit to provide me with the tools for the job they require of me. It is a wretched little army. I fear that many of your young ladies, Charlotte, will remain virgins, or will become widows before this business is settled.”
She laid her hand on his forearm. “Virginity is a temporary situation, Arthur, and one simply rectified. Widowhood is a more permanent condition.” He turned to her, and covered her hand with his, and would have spoken, but she interrupted him.
“Arthur, who is that man?”
A very large man, in a black uniform, stumbled across the dance floor towards them, his shako in his hand. His hair was plastered against his skull, the rain, or sweat running down his face, which was streaked with blood from a long cut on his forehead. His boots were muddied, and his hussar’s jacket flecked with horse saliva. He was a man who had ridden hard. The music faltered, and then stopped.
Wellington broke away from her. “Duchess, I would be most obliged to you if you could ensure those idiots continue with their playing.” He strode across the floor and took the officer by the arm. “My dear General Muffling, you look exhausted. Please, come with me.” As they walked, Wellington spoke to a young British officer who had hurried to his side. “Somerset, my compliments to the Prince of Orange, and the Earl of Uxbridge. I require their instant attendance. And Sir William de Lancey, also, if you can tear him away from his bride.”
Wellington caught the eyes of Sir Thomas Picton, and General Gordon, and nodded.
They entered a small anteroom, where officers hurried in behind them. “Somerset, a glass of claret for the general. Now, General, please sit down, and tell me what has happened.”
Muffling’s chest heaved. “My Lord, the French have crossed the Sambre and are in Charleroi. They have driven in our pickets.”
“And Prince Blucher, what of him?”
“He advances even now from Wavre to meet them, my lord.”
“Lord Hay, that map in the corner, if you please, sir.”
The map was spread on a small table, and the men gathered around. Wellington tapped the map. “Here, Muffling, here at Mont St Jean, I will stand here and yield no further, if the Field Marshal will send me one corps.”
“You have the Prince’s word on that, my lord.”
“Very well then, that will suffice for me. Here we will meet them.” He pencilled a circle around a small village on the map. “And here, at Waterloo, I will make my headquarters.”
He turned to his officers. “To your duties, gentlemen, and may God go with you.”
As the room emptied, he turned again to the map, and tapped it with the pencil. “Napoleon has stolen 24 hours on me. By God, he has humbugged me.”
|Parcels, like love, come in all shapes and sizes and, like love, sometimes the shapes fit, and sometimes they do not. In the early 1990’s in the uncertain aftermath of the death, in 1980, of Josef Broz Tito, a parcel of land formed around the small town of Knin in eastern Croatia. |
It probably would have happened without Knin, but this particular parcel of land would ignite and bring down the whole ramshackle Republic of Yugoslavia with the consequent deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly innocents and many of them women and children.
In 1914, the First World War was triggered by the assassination of the Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in modern day Bosnia. At the start of the War, there were six great empires in the world, all European or semi European. These were the Turkish, the Russian, the German, the Austro Hungarian, the French and the British. By 1918, when the War ended, the first four had vanished.
It was in the messy aftermath to the War that the seeds of the future parcel of Knin were germinated. After the defeat of the so called Central Powers in 1918, the winning Allies, France, Britain and the United States set about reforming Europe from the debris.
In the Balkans large parts of the former Austro Hungarian and the Turkish Empires were bundled together into what became in 1921 the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. In 1929 the country was officially renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia under King Alexander I. It was not a match made in heaven, as in particular, the Croats, largely Roman Catholic, and the Serbs, exclusively Orthodox, were not natural bedfellows. They had, even at that time, history.
In October 1934, while on a state visit to Marseilles in France, King Alexander was assassinated apparently by a Bulgarian nationalist. He was succeeded by his eleven year old son, King Peter.
In 1941, during the Second World War, Yugoslavia was invaded by the Germans who overran the country, but not without meeting stiff resistance. Hitler did not have an easy time in Yugoslavia, particularly from the Serbs who created many resistance groups who fought the invader from the mountains. They were supplied with arms and training by the British. Leader of the main group was Josef Broz Tito, a Croat, who outfought and out thought the Germans, and who became in 1945 the leader of the new Yugoslav Republic.
During the same period the Germans created Croatia as a separate Fascist state and Croatian security forces, in support of the Germans, were guilty of the murder of tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Serbs.
It was not an easy task that Marshal Tito took on in guiding his Communist republican state through the turbulent post war years, taking a path between the capitalist West and the Stalinist Soviet Union. He, by and large, succeeded, as much by State repression as by his own heroic status. In particular he suppressed the nationalist elements in the country.
Tito turned his country into a successful state and one which became popular as a tourist destination for the British. He died in 1980 and without his iron hand Yugoslavia began its slow descent into anarchy and disintegration.
There were six republics in the federal state and three autonomous regions. The strongest of the republics was Serbia, the biggest republic in terms of area and population. In addition, Serbia was generally supported by Montenegro and Macedonia and by all three of the autonomous regions. This meant that in the Federal, or Yugoslav, Parliament, it constantly outvoted the republics of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
These tensions, exacerbated by the rise of nationalism across the republics burst into flame in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Slovenia, in the north of the country and more central European than Balkan in its outlook and culture, declared itself as seceding from Yugoslavia. An eleven day war with the Federal Government and Yugoslav Peoples’ Army followed leaving the Slovenes as victors.
Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina soon followed but found it a very much more difficult task; the wars there going on for four years.
It will be remembered that, contrary to the present day agenda, the American Civil War was fought to prevent the southern states seceding from the Union.
It was then that the parcel of land around Knin was formed. Knin was a largely Serb town and militant Serbs drove the non-Serbs from the town and declared themselves no longer subject to the control of the Croatian state. They then spread out adding other villages to their parcel driving out and murdering non Serb populations. Many of the villages they occupied were inhabited by Croatians who were murdered or driven away as refugees. The deserted villages were razed to the ground. The Knin leaders then declared themselves as the Autonomous Serbian Republic of Krajina.
Throughout Croatia and Bosnia local Serbs followed the same programme and in response Croats took over Croatian inhabited areas of Bosnia. About 50% of the population of Bosnia was Muslim, a legacy of the Ottoman occupation by the Turks. Neither Serbia nor Croatia recognised the Muslims as a separate ethnic grouping, maintaining they were either Serb or Croat with a different religion.
From here the war escalated and the fledging European Community proved ineffective in restoring peace. The involvement of the United Nations was just as much a failure with insufficient numbers of Blue Helmets on the ground to have any deterrent effect,
The war which lasted for nearly five years was horrific and introduced a new concept to the English language, ethnic cleansing. Memories are still in the minds of many people of the wholesale murders by Serb forces of about 10,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in Bosnia. These unfortunate victims were marched past grim faced Dutch troops of the United Nations before being butchered. Twenty years later the decomposed remains are still being identified and returned to their families for burial.
In the end, it was necessary for US and NATO forces using overwhelming air power to bring the war to an end amid the ruins of the former Yugoslavia.
So who were the good guys and who were the bad guys? There were really no good guys, apart perhaps from the innocent civilians, men, women and children. All three sides, Serbs, Croats and Muslims carried out massacres.
This Federation failed, destroyed by the competing interests of its constituent communities. The Soviet Union also failed for the same reasons. It leads to the question as to whether the European Union will, in the end, succeed.
As the fighting ceased the Croatian Army moved in on the Autonomous Serbian Republic of Krajina. It took thirty six hours to regain complete control of the breakaway parcel. After four years the parcel was finally delivered to where it belonged, Croatia.
|They called him The Gypsy. He was a tall man, over six feet in height in an age when not many other men were. His physique was superb, broad across the chest and narrow at the waist. His hands were larger than average and his strength legendary. Tom Richardson’s black curly hair tumbled over his forehead and around his neck, framing a swarthy face, splendidly decorated with a large moustache, which in later times would be described as of the handlebar variety. His black eyes seemed permanently to twinkle, as though sharing a secret joke with himself. His ears appeared ideal for the wearing of gold earrings, but, in deference to the times in which he lived, they went unadorned.|
His appearance did not belie his Romany links, as Tom had been born in a gypsy caravan in Byfleet in August 1870. One would be hard pressed today to find such a caravan in Byfleet, let alone a child making its noisy entry into the world inside the painted home.
As he grew to a simple and honest manhood, Tom Richardson developed a love of cricket, and played with prodigious success for Mitcham Cricket Club, gracing what is now perhaps the most historic and evocative club ground in London. Before long, his magnificent fast bowling talents were spotted by Surrey, and the gypsy boy became a regular in the county side.
A quiet beginning in 1892 was followed by a full season in 1893, when Tom took 174 wickets, and, just after his twenty third birthday, an invitation to play for England at Old Trafford. Against the old enemy, the Australians, on his debut, he took five wickets in each innings to help England win the series. More success followed, and in 1894 he captured 196 wickets at 10.32. The Gypsy had become the Lion of Surrey, and would soon become the Lion of England.
That winter he went on tour to Australia, capturing 32 wickets in the five games, as England took the series 3-2. Tom Richardson, a noted rabbit with the bat, even scored 12 not out in the second Test, which England won by a mere 10 runs. Although this was in the days before the immortal Victor Trumper, and the superlative Bradman, beating Australia is never easy, and in England, even Queen Victoria was enthralled.
In the following three years, Tom Richardson reached the pinnacle of his splendid career, often bowling unchanged on the hottest of days on the unhelpful Oval wickets. In the years 1895 to 1897, he took 290, 246 and 273 wickets, against the likes of Grace in his Indian Summer, and Ranji and C B Fry in their entrancing spring.
In 1896 the Australians again visited England and again lost the series 3-2. This time Richardson took thirty wickets, including thirteen at Old Trafford for a losing side. On the last afternoon he bowled unchanged for 44.3 overs to take 6-76 as the colonials edged to 125 –7. At the end, the Lion of England had to be led off the ground, a drained and exhausted man. It is said that Tom then drank two pints of beer in just over a minute.
He toured Australia again in 1897 and took 22 wickets as England were crushed 4-1. At the Sydney Cricket Ground the magnificent Richardson returned his best Test analysis of 8-94 in what turned out to be his last test match. In all, he took 88 Australian wickets in only fourteen games.
The strain of Tom Richardson’s workload was starting to tell, and his time with Surrey ended in 1903, when he was just past 33 years of age. He had enormous problems with his weight, and was tortured by rheumatism. The magnificent lion was deteriorating fast, and his simple soul was beset by worries in making a living and supporting his family. He became a publican, but serving beer was small consolation to a man who had once been the toast of all England. In 1912, at the age of 41, while on holiday in France, Tom Richardson, the gypsy from Byfleet, for five years the fastest bowler in the world, slipped over a cliff and was killed. Some say it was the despairing act of a broken unhappy man; others believe that the huge heart, stressed by the years of hard work, simply gave out. I prefer to believe the latter.
Tom Richardson was buried in Richmond, Surrey, his funeral watched respectfully by thousands, the men and boys removing hats and caps as the cortege passed. At the Oval, Tom’s spiritual home, the Gentlemen versus Players match was abandoned for the day, as a mark of respect. It had been a remarkable journey for a gypsy boy from Byfleet.
|Dawn was gently etching her first silver brushstrokes on the dark canvas of night as Sam walked along the wooden jetty, his footsteps mingling with the soft lapping of the water against the hulls of the boats. He glanced at the sky. The weather forecast on the TV had predicted a very hot day, with offshore winds. “Could be perfect mate,” he said aloud. He came to his boat, Chardonnay, moving sensuously against her moorings, the securing rope pulling at the mooring point.|
“G’day, sweetheart; what do you think, a good day for it?” He stopped for a few seconds to admire the sleek, elegant but functional lines of his 45 foot yacht. She was a beauty, from her polished wood deck to her six foot keel. “Can we do it? Should we do it?” Sam jumped lightly onto the deck, the movement making the vessel dip skittishly. He fumbled with his keys and opened the hatch door leading to the cabin, ducking his head without even knowing he had done so. He put the kettle on and sat down while it boiled.
Sam scratched his unshaven chin, his fingers rasping against the greying bristles. People had called him Sailor Sam for so long that he reckoned it was time to grow a beard, like a real salt. Especially now, this was perhaps the time to start, or he would never do it. The kettle whistled its shrill advice that it had achieved its purpose and Sam got up and made a coffee. He looked around the cabin, as familiar as his own lounge room, maybe more so. He sipped the scalding coffee and went through the inventory, an exercise he had performed countless times before, and with the same result.
It was all there, the latest navigation equipment; a radio that could talk to anywhere in the bloody world, maps of the world’s oceans and sea, a few books, food and drink for months and even rolls and rolls of toilet paper. Next to one of the two single bunks were three photographs; one of Margaret, taken about five years back, on the deck of Chardonnay. She was wearing oilskins and smiling. And there were Colin and Fiona when they were in their teens. All that seemed a long time ago. Fiona was now a doctor in Sydney and Colin off doing something or other which Sam didn’t understand in the City of London. “Bedding a lot of Pommie girls if I’m any judge, the randy little bastard.”
The third photo was black and white, cracked in places and faded. It showed a man in uniform, looking straight at the camera and smiling. He wore Air Force uniform, with a half brevet on his left breast. AG was the insignia and a medal ribbon nestled underneath. Sam turned it over and read for the millionth time the message his father had written; ‘To Eleanor, my love, and Sam, my dear son, with all my love, Dolly.” Flt Sgt Oliver Gray, Royal Australian Air Force, DFM, the father Sam had never known. He had gone to England in 1942, leaving a pregnant wife, and had never come home. He had been called ‘Olly’ in Australia but in England that quickly became Dolly’, as in the First World War song, ‘Goodbye, Dolly Gray’. And Dolly Gray said ‘goodbye’ in November 1944 over Düsseldorf, when his Lancaster went down in flames. He had completed 58 missions, almost unheard of in Bomber Command.
“What would you do, Dad?” Sam thought he knew what Dolly would have done.
He looked at his watch; about thirty minutes till the tide was right; thirty minutes to make up his mind.
It had all seemed so settled at one time. Sam had never really enjoyed working for the Department of Defence. It had seemed a good option when the Air Force turned him down in 1960 because of defective hearing. No, ‘enjoyed’ was not the right word. He had never felt fulfilled, sending young men off to fight old men’s wars. Vietnam, two Gulf wars, East Timor and Afghanistan. He knew his work was important, but. There was always a but. Chardonnay had been his release, his safety valve. He had thrown his energies and his frustrations into the boat. Then retirement, and the plans he had for so long nurtured could be realised.
It didn’t happen. First there was his diabetes, then Fiona’s first baby, and then the operation for prostate cancer. He had managed the diabetes and overcome the cancer. The plans were rolled out again. Well they were until a couple of weeks ago, on his sixty fifth birthday. Fiona had come down from Sydney. She was pregnant again. Margaret would never shift now. Fiona trapped him in the kitchen. “I hope you won’t do anything silly,”
Sam laughed and kissed his daughter. “Me, old Safety Sam, don’t be daft. You know me, a devout coward.” He didn’t think that she believed him; he didn’t believe himself.
Sam looked at his watch again and heaved himself to his feet. The tide would be full now. “What would you do, Dad?” He knew what Dolly would have done; he would have seized life by the throat and shaken it to buggery, as he had in 1942. Sam went outside onto the deck and announced to the blameless Australian morning, “I’ve had enough. Things are changing around here. I’ll do the bloody thing on my own.”
Sam Gray slipped Chardonnay’s ropes and under power took her out into Port Phillip Bay. The voyage spread out before him; the Heads, the Gippsland coast, north to New South Wales. He could get a crew in Sydney; there were always restless young blokes looking for adventure. And then across the Tasman to Kiwiland. After that, who knows? Tahiti was a possibility, California, the Panama Canal and England. He’d stay with Colin, and perhaps, you never know, the pair of them could visit Dolly’s grave in Germany.
In Service of the Queen, Comrade
|David Millar, glanced at his watch, sighed, stretched and got up from his desk. “Dinner time, old boy,” he said aloud. He gathered up his paperwork and placed it into the security cabinet, which he locked carefully. He looked round the office for a final time as he donned his overcoat. All seemed secure, so he switched off the light and locked the door. At the front door of the embassy he stopped, fumbling in his coat pocket, searching for his piece of paper. “Good evening, Sergeant Harrison. I have borrowed some tools and the carpenter has given me a chitty.”|
“I’d better have a look, Captain, security, you know. Will you open the briefcase, please, sir?” The Military Policeman stared quizzically at the small collection of tools, a hammer, some screwdrivers and a large wrench. “Planning a little DIY at your hotel, sir?”
Millar smiled weakly. “Well, something like that. You know how difficult it is to get the Ruskis to do anything.” He closed the case and moved towards the door.
“Do you want a car, sir”
“No, thanks, sarge, too bloody easy to identify, those buggers. I could use the walk.”
“Very good, sir.” Harrison saluted. It was not a pukka military salute, but a casual acknowledgement that he and Millar were two brothers in arms, among a bunch of civilian plonkers. “Good night, sir.”
“Good night, Bill.” Captain Millar stepped out into the Maurice Thorez Embankment, stared briefly at the brooding menace of the Kremlin, on the other side of the grey waters of the Moskva River, jammed his shapka firmly on his head and turned right. He looked over his shoulder at the splendid 18th Century facade of the British Embassy, the official residence of His or Her Britannic Majesty’s ambassador to Russia since the Tsar’s day. “Careful, my boy, you’re amongst the enemy now.”
Security, Harrison had said. Well, Millar knew all about that, didn’t he? He had suffered a full week of briefings from MI6 before taking up his Military Attaché’s appointment. Bunch of tossers, they were. What did they know about it? His own Regiment, The Royal Green Jackets, had served under Wellington in the Peninsula and at Waterloo, and a lot of other bloody places since. He then reflected that the Duke had also created the modern Military Police, his ‘Bloody Provost’, and, on further reflection, a Military Intelligence unit, as well; Arty’s famous Gallopers.
The snow fell gently, melting on his face. The locals said the winter of 85/6 would be mild, but it was bloody cold enough for David Millar. The Volgas and Ladas drifted by, ghostlike in the grey swirling light. Not even a Zil to excite his imagination as to who the VIP passenger in the back seat might be. He crossed the bridge over the Moskva and walked past the onion domed St Basil’s, his boots crunching crisply on the freshly fallen snow. He glanced at the others scurrying past and wondered if he looked like a Muscovite in his heavy coat and shapka. Probably not.
Red Square was almost deserted and away to his left the red stars on the Kremlin walls glowed distantly, watching over the mausoleum of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The snow became heavier and he regretted his decision to leave the car. He couldn’t even see the Gom department store on the right hand side of Red Square. He turned right, past Marshal Zhukov’s statue. Poor bastard, thought Millar, Uncle Joe sorted you out once the War was won, didn’t he? The Hotel Metropole glowed its welcome through the gloom. Even in the muck and discomfort of a winter’s evening in Moscow he admired the beautifully restored hotel, where part of Doctor Zhivago had been filmed. He stamped his way to the bar, shaking off the snow as he went.
“Piva, proscha.” He thought that was right. The barman brought him a beer. “God bless Mr Gorbachev,” he said aloud.
A breathtaking lovely girl was suddenly at his elbow. “I’ll drink to that.”
My God, but she was a stunning creature, an olive face framed by shining brown hair, and eyes of liquid brown in which a man could drown. Her off the shoulder dress was a deep red and would have cost the average Russian woman perhaps three years wages. “Can I buy you a drink?” he asked, dazzled.
“Thank you.” She spoke in Russian to the barman who brought her something pink in a cocktail glass.
Careful, Davey boy, remember the honey trap, his brain warned him, even as other parts of his body gave a different message. She is probably a major in the KGB, although he had never met a major anywhere else in the world with breasts like those.
“You are English?” It was a statement rather than a question.
“I’m afraid so. Does it show?”
“I’m called Natasha, but my friends call me Asha. What is your name?”
“David.” He hoped to God that Maggie and the boys did arrive from Britain in ten days as was planned. This was more than flesh and blood can stand.
“What do you do, David?”
“I am in sales, wool”, he lied, .at the same time thinking ‘and I know what you are selling, babushka, and it ain’t wool.’
“Would you like company for the evening?”
“Love it” he lied, “but my wife will be arriving soon.” In certain circles ten days could be construed as soon.
She smiled, and raised her glass. “Have a nice evening, then, and thanks for the drink.” She wandered away, a shimmering vision in red and he exhaled.
David was still lost in those eyes when he got got to his bedroom, on the first floor just above the restaurant. Dinner had been OK, but now he had a job to do. He emptied the contents of his briefcase on the bed and then methodically began to check the entire room for electronic bugs. He unscrewed all the light fitting and power points, dismantled the telephone and had the back cover off the television. Nothing! There must be at least one bug somewhere; MI6 had said so. He removed all the paintings from the walls and inspected the rears. Still nothing.
David stood for a few moments staring around the room. Ah! The loose floorboard. He rolled back the huge rug and there it was, a very loose board which he prised up. He felt with his hand the length of the room and, yes, there was, something in the centre of the room. It was metal and apparently octagonal. Bastards! He placed the wrench and turned to the left. Whatever it was moved easily, at first, and he strained hard to free it again. It took him several minutes of hard work to get it moving again. At that moment there was a knock at his bedroom door. David stood stock-still, unable at first to move or think. The hot sweat which his exertions had caused, seemed suddenly ice cold water on his skin. Finally he croaked “Yes” in a voice he did not recognise.
A Russian voice, speaking in broken English replied. “Mr Millar, it is Sergi, the Assistant Manager. There is a problem with your room. May I come in?”
David squeaked his response. “No, I am just going to have a shower. Please come back in fifteen minutes. OK?”
There was a disgruntled “Da” and David breathed a huge sigh of relief. Quickly he replaced everything he had disturbed, ran the shower, switched on the TV and tossed back the bed covers. He looked around his bedroom in a quickly rising panic. Already he could envisage the British Ambassador being called up to the Kremlin to get a dressing down. The offending captain would be dispatched in the wink of an eye back to UK, and a major’s crowns would never adorn David Millar’s shoulders.
Then he saw the tools he had borrowed spread out on the rug. “Christ Almighty!” The offending items were quickly gathered up and dumped in the bottom of the wardrobe.
He ran his head under the shower, put on a dressing gown and was busily drying his hair when Sergi returned. A man who seemed to be some kind of workman accompanied him. This man was carrying what looked like a tool bag.
“Mr Millar, we are sorry to disturb you, but was noticed that there is a water leak into the restaurant, below your room. We need to check the water pipes underneath your floorboards. All right?”
David mumbled something, nodded, and prayed.
They did so with David watching closely. He didn’t want the bastards sticking a bug down there, not under his eyes.
|“Where’s the bugger gone?” Feverishly he searched the horizon but there was no sign of the menacing shape with its sinister black crosses. He banked to the right and searched in his mirror, being temporarily blinded as the sun reflected back at him. Angrily he shook his head and moved into a left-hand turn. Suddenly he saw the German, in his mirror, closing on him from behind at perhaps 500 yards.|
“Christ Almighty, how did you get there?” Savagely he banked back to the right as he heard the rat a tat tat of the Meschersmitt’s guns. A searing pain burned into his back and right leg. Desperately he rolled the Spitfire, his body pressed hard against his seat as the earth and sky changed places. Now he was back straight and level and, glory to God, there he was, the bastard, 300 yards in front. He released a three-second burst from the Brownings and smiled grimly as pieces flew off the 109’s fuselage and a thin trail of black smoke came from its engine.
At almost the same time black smoke began pouring from his own engine, now knocking in a very alarming fashion. The aircraft’s windscreen was splattered and then covered with black oil, destroying all forward vision. “Oh, shit, Tom, it’s time to leave.” The sharp smell of glycol came to his nostrils and the black engine smoke was laced with orange flame. He reached above his head to release his canopy, but his right arm would not obey his brain’s command. He looked at it, hanging limply at his side, the lower sleeve of his blue uniform soaked with blood, sticky on his paralysed fingers.
“Bugger me, you’re in trouble, Tom old lad.” The flames were licking at his feet and several of the instruments exploded in front of his face. He was choking for breath. Frantically he tugged at the canopy release. Nothing. “I can handle dying, but Christ, I don’t want to burn.” The pedals were not responding and with his good hand he thrust the stick as far forward as it would go. Better to die in the sea than in this bloody cockpit. Holding the stick in position with his left knee, he grasped the canopy handle again with all his might. The Merlin screamed its protests, the smoke filled the cockpit and his flying boots were burning.
He was floating, the wind whistling quietly through the silk of his parachute. “How did I get here? I don’t remember pulling the ripcord.” Below he could see the Spitfire hurtling in flames towards the sea. Off to his right the 109 spiralled lazily in the same direction. There was no sign of a ‘chute. He glanced almost idly around the sky. Nothing! No one! Only a few minutes ago the same sky had been a writhing swamp of aircraft; Spits, Hurricanes, 88’s, 109’s. Where had they all gone? His right arm did not move, but it didn’t hurt either, nor did his right leg which he noticed with mild surprise no longer had its boot. He laughed. “Blimey, I’ll get indented for that.” The laughing hurt his back, but that was easing too. He wanted to sleep.
It was a large office, like an orderly room, with a desk and a RAF corporal sitting at it, papers scattered in front of him. A queue of eight or ten men shuffled forward. Tom noticed they were both RAF and Luftwaffe. The man in front of him was a big man who turned as Tom joined the end of the queue. He was holding a flying helmet in his left hand. He was very blonde and very blue eyed. Tom knew instinctively who he was.
“You were in the 109.” It was a statement, not a question. “Are we dead?”
The big man nodded. “I suppose we must be. This sure as hell isn’t the Berlin Opera House. And you are the pilot of the Spitfire. You fought very well.”
“You did well too. It’s a bit of a handful the 109.”
The German shook his head. “Ja, the Gustaf is OK, but not like the Spitfire. If we had Spitfires we would win the war.” He clicked his heels and gave a little bow. “Muller, Johannes Muller. They call me Hansie. Hauptmann, Luftwaffe.” He held out his hand.
Tom stared at the man he had killed. “Flying Officer Tom Graves, RAF.” He did not take the hand.
“You will not shake my hand, Tom?”
“You are my enemy, my country’s enemy.”
The German shrugged and kept his hand outstretched. “Napoleon once said, ‘In death there are no enemies, only soldiers’”
Tom stared at him and slowly took the hand. “Napoleon was right.”
They shuffled forward. It was Muller’s turn. The corporal was now wearing a German uniform. “Mein Herr. Ihren Namen, bitte.” He bowed slightly.
“Hauptmann Johannes Muller, Luftwaffe.”
The corporal checked his papers and made a tick. “Alles in Ordnung, Herr Hauptmann. Bitte gehen Sie durch.” He indicated with his hand and Muller walked past.
“I will wait for you, Tom. We will have some beers. Ja?”
Tom smiled and waved. The corporal was back in his RAF uniform. How did he do that? “Sir.”
“Flying Officer Graves, 65 Squadron at Hornchurch.”
The man bent to his papers. He looked up, puzzlement on his face. “Your service number, sir?”
Tom repeated the number. The corporal was still worried. “I’m sorry, sir, we have no posting advice for you. I can’t admit you without one. You need to go back to Hornchuch and await your posting.”
Muller had been listening. “Don’t worry, Tom. I will be here when you come back. I’ll wait for you.”
He was floating again, swinging easily from side to side on his parachute, only about 800 feet from a green field. Small brown figures were running across the wheat. They were soldiers. Tom laughed softly. They were British; Germans would have been running faster. He came down heavily, trying to roll in the approved manner. His body was on fire with pain and a deep moan escaped his lips, past the salty taste of blood.
An elderly Home Guard captain, red-faced and breathless levelled a Webley revolver at Tom’s head. “Don’t shoot, I’m British, RAF.”
The captain holstered the revolver. “Point those bloody things somewhere else,” he barked at his little gaggle of soldiers. “It’s all right, old chap, you’re safe now.”
“How’s the other pilot?”
“What other pilot? You were in the Spitfire, they only have one pilot.”
“Hansie, the German. How is he?”
The captain stared in sympathy. “Don’t worry, he’s dead. In the bloody Channel. Don’t worry about the bloody enemy.”
Tom was sinking into a sleep again as he lay in the wheat field. “No enemies in death. No enemies, only soldiers.”
The captain stared for a brief second before he bellowed. “Corporal Simmons, get that bloody ambulance to get a bleedin’ move on. This boy is worse than we think.”
|Leo was lost. He had had that feeling for some time now, but had refused to acknowledge it. Just keep going he had told himself, just go on a little further, you are sure to find a familiar sight. But he hadn’t. He had been walking since early in the morning, and he was now tired, his feet hurt, he was frightened and he was hungry. And now it was starting to rain and he knew that feeling, cold Welsh rain that soaked you to your skin.|
He looked around, eyes straining in the fading light, but there just seemed to be more and more Welsh hillside, dotted with black rocks and stunted gorse. The gorse was bad, catching you as you went past it. About an hour ago a broken branch had caught his face and cut his mouth, from which the blood still trickled. He ran his tongue over the wound, and the bleeding stopped temporarily.
Leo stood quite still, listening carefully. The only sound he heard was a low moaning from the wind through a small stand of pine trees over to his right. He raised his head and sniffed. What was that scent? It must be the sharp pungent smell of the pines, as their needles released from the trees. He couldn’t pick up any smoke, from house fires or burning off. He could see no sheep anywhere, which was unusual in Wales, normally they were everywhere, the stupid creatures. Now, there was none. Not that he really wanted to see sheep, but where there were sheep, there was normally human habitation fairly close by. Human habitation was what he needed most right now, and something to eat.
Leo made his way towards the pine trees. If he was forced to spend the night on the mountain, he would need some shelter. The trees were not much but they were better than being totally exposed, and at least most of the rain would not get through the thick branches. He sat down beside the black trunk of a tree, on the small carpet of pine needles. Not what he was used to, not by any means, and he was now angry as well.
The two people he regarded as parents, the two to whom he had given his love, had done this to him. He had been taken to an unfamiliar house, to people he didn’t know, and had been left there while they had gone off in the car. The strangers had put him in a small room, with a dirty bed, and had given him food that wasn’t fit for a dog. Leo wasn’t having that, and when they were asleep, he slipped out of an open window, to walk home. But now he was lost and didn’t know where home was, or even where the strangers’ place was. And he was cold, and wet, his feet ached and his mouth hurt. And he was hungry.
It was difficult sleeping, as he was afraid that animals like foxes might be around. He tried to keep one eye open for danger, curled up at the foot of the tree. Even his heavy coat failed to keep out the cold. He got up as the sun was rising on the other side of the mountain, and began his long walk and search again. He eventually found a small stream and had a long drink of the icy water. He followed it down stream, the waters noisily jumping over the rocks, frequently splashing him. But by now Leo was almost past caring.
Towards the end of his third day he came to a cottage. It was on the other side of the water, and Leo jumped from rock to rock to cross. He slipped on the last stone and fell into the icy flow. Somehow he clambered out on the other side.
He inspected the cottage cautiously. He was dirty and bedraggled and was not sure of his reception. There were no windows or doors open. The garden was alive with flowers, waving gently in the light breeze. The smell of sweet peas was over powering. At least that was a welcoming smell. The stable doors were open and he entered slowly, his senses alert. Horses were very big and had been known to attack. The stables were empty. The bales of straw were inviting, and he lay down between them. In seconds Leo was asleep. It was there that the lady found him, dirty, cold and wet.
“You poor little fellow.” She took Leo inside the cottage and gave him milk and biscuits before putting him on her own bed, where he slept like the dead.
The following day she contacted the Cats’ Protection League and registered one grey male tabby on the missing cats’ register. The same afternoon, Leo was picked up by his distraught owners.
D Day Plus Eleven
“What’s the matter, Grandad?” The girl looked up from reading Le Monde.
“What’s French for boiling? This water is bloody tepid. Whatever else they do, the French can’t make tea.”
“It’s ‘bouillant’.” She picked up the pot. “I’ll see if I can find a waiter.”
“If it’s no trouble to them, of course. Si possible and merci and all that stuff.”
She got up from the table. “Thanks, I’ll remember.” She returned in a few moments minus the teapot. “It’s in hand.”
She scowled at him. “You really are a grouchy old bastard, you know.”
He nodded a gloomy agreement. “At my age it’s about the only option open to you.”
She laughed out loud, causing other diners in the hotel breakfast room to turn their heads towards them. “Not according to Mum; she thinks you’re an old rogue. She thinks you will lead me astray. Illegal substances, boozed out of my head, that sort of thing.”
He grinned. “She’s quite right of course, and if we weren’t related and I was forty years younger, lots of other things as well.”
Claudine leaned across the table and kissed his cheek. “And I would probably say ‘yes’. But you’re not an old rogue, more a old pussy cat.”
“Would you not rather be with your mother and father instead of an ageing feline?”
She shook her head. “No, I’ve seen the Tapestry before, with the school, and Mother takes just forever shopping. She drives Dad out of his tree.”
“OK, then, I thought we’d do Caen. That’s what you say these days, isn’t it?”
“Come on Granddad, let’s get the car, and get going. That’s what I say.”
They shared a companionable silence as the red XK 120, top down, purred it’s way through the narrow bocage lanes of Normandy, the wind flicking the girl’s blonde hair into a straight line behind her.
“It’s a good job you’re retired. What would your clients think of you flashing around in a vintage Jag?
He shrugged. “They’d probably think I’d ripped them off.” He turned and looked quizzically at her. “Not the image for a dull old retired country solicitor, is that what you’re saying?”
She nodded. “Something like that.”
He raised two fingers to where he imagined Sussex lay. “Balls to them.”
“Were you here, Granddad, in the war? In Normandy?”
Her eyes shone. “Did you come across the beach?”
“You have never shown any interest before, Claudine.”
She was dismissive. “That was before I had been here, to the beaches, and Pegasus Bridge and Ranville and”
“Whoa, stop. No, I didn’t come across the beach. That was for real soldiers. I dropped in on the end of a piece of silk.”
“Oh,” she breathed excitedly, “You were in the Airborne.”
He laughed again and shook his head. “No, they were the heroes, those chaps. They arrived on D-Day minus one. I got here on D-Day plus eleven. I was in the RAF.”
“Why was I in the RAF?”
“No, why did you bale out?”
“I think it was what you would call a no option situation. I didn’t think there was any flak around, but some Jerry caught me, and the engine stopped working. So, Plan B.”
“Tell me about it.” She added ‘Please’, as he seemed to hesitate.
“I was flying a Tiffie, a Typhoon, tankbusting and generally shooting up the Germans. They had good tanks, big, big beasts. Tigers and King Tigers. They were beating the living daylights out of our blokes. Anyway there I was, upside down and nothing on the altimeter but the maker’s name. So I jumped, unfortunately behind German lines.”
“Did you get captured?” She was completely gripped by the story.
He pulled the Jaguar to a halt outside Caen Cathedral. “I’d like to visit here. Do you mind?”
Playfully she punched his arm. “Of course I don’t bloody mind, but get on with the story, you old sod.”
“Easy,” he told her, “You’re my granddaughter, not my mother. OK, No, I wasn’t taken. A brave Norman farmer and his wife hid me in their farm until Monty and the boys punched their way through at the end of July. Then I went back to England, got another Tiffie and carried on until the end.”
“Granddad,” she said suspiciously. “You aren’t telling me everything, are you?”
“You are a very perceptive young lady.” He pushed open the door to the Cathedral.
“Never mind the flattery. Tell me.”
“The farmer had a daughter. She was seventeen, about your age, very beautiful, just like you my darling. We fell in love.”
“And did you come back for her after the War?”
“What was her name?”
“Claudine was her name. Are you getting the picture?”
The girl put her hand to her mouth and the man continued. “We were married in this church on this very day in 1946, and lived happily ever after, or till 1957 when my Claudine died, just after your mother was born.”
She flung her arms around him. “Granddad! That is so sad. I am so sorry for you.”
“Don’t be. Of course it was sad Claudine died, but we had eleven years of being in love. That’s a lot more than most people, and it is what I want to remember.”
“And you never found any other ladies in all these years?”
“Oh, yes, two of them, but it’s against the law to marry your daughter or granddaughter.”
Last Tango At Tescos
|Silvio was unhappy. Moodily he stared into his glass of blood red Sassella. It was a good wine but his mind was elsewhere.|
“Hey, Silvio. What’s your problem? You look as if you’d heard that the Prime Minister isn’t going to resign after all.”
Silvio looked at his friend of thirty years and gave a small painful shrug. “Luca, what can I say?”
Luca pulled up a chair and sat down next to his friend. He took the fork from Silvio’s hand and speared a mouthful of his lasagne. “Is it my food? You insult me, Silvio, by not eating. No the food is bellisimo, as usual. What bothers you, old friend?”
“It’s that bloody woman, Carmel. She’s driving me crazy. All my life she has never stopped nagging me. Let’s go and live in England, Silvio. Let’s go home to Italy, Silvio. No, we go back to England, Silvio. I tell you Luca, I could cut my own throat.”
Luca raised his hands and lifted his eyes to the heavens. “Silvio, Silvio, you were told, all those years ago. Don’t marry her. She is a foreigner.”
“She’s from Torino.”
“Si, exactly, the north of Italy, a bloody Austrian.”
“I wish she was dead, or I was dead.”
Luca poured himself a glass of the Sassella. “Hmm, not bad; I must order some more.” He put his hand on Silvio’s shoulder. “You really want her dead?”
“As God is my witness.”
“Don’t bring God into this, it makes me uncomfortable.”
“Well, he would forgive me, he knows what I go through.”
“The family could arrange it for you.”
“You mean your son, Carlo?”
“Carlo? Carlo? I don’t mean Carlo. He thinks he is an Englishman; hates Fiats and watches the cricket on the TV. No, the FAMILY, from the old country, Sicilia.”
“You know someone from Sicily, here in Epsom?”
Luca raised his finger to his lips. “SSSH.” He looked around the busy restaurant. “Sometimes the Chief Superintendent comes here. I give him free wine. Very useful if the English yobs want to smash the place. I know someone, Arturo Ballerini. Taking a rest from Palermo. The weather is too hot for him there, if you know what I mean.”
“Would he meet me?”
Luca shrugged, spreading wide his hands. “We’ll see. Tomorrow, nine o’clock. Be here.” Luca got up and finished the wine. “Ciao.”
The following evening, at the appointed hour, Silvio was seated at a dimly lit corner table. About 9.15 a tall, dark haired, unshaven man shuffled over to him and sat down. Silvio spoke. “Signor Ballerini?”
“Si. Arturo. The English call me Artie; you know how they shorten everything.”
“Luca tells me that you can do a job for me?”
“Si, si. I am what the English call a titman.”
“I think you mean hitman.”
“Ah, I always get that wrong. I kill people.”
“Have you killed many people?”
Artie spread his hands expansively. “Many many. The Swedish Prime Minister, that was me. And the nancy boy politico in Holland. Me too.”
“Will you shoot Carmel?”
Artie shook his head. “No I strangle, I think. Tell me about this she devil.”
And so it was arranged. Carmel went shopping every Sunday morning at Tesco’s. Artie took a photograph and tucked it into an inside pocket.
Silvio felt happier than he had in years. “How much will it cost?”
“Silvio, you are a friend of my friend, so, to you, almost nothing. But I am a professional, and, you know, I have a deputation in Sicily”
“You mean a reputation?”
“That’s right. So, signor, I must charge you, a small fee. Ballerinis don’t assinatatino, assasin….kill for nothing. So, one pound is my fee.”
“Si, si, only one pound. I don’t like euros.”
The following day Artie followed Carmel to Tesco’s at Leatherhead and while she was bending over examining the Polish tomatoes, he crept up and strangled her. An elderly woman shopper rushed to her assistance but the blood lust was on Arturo now, and he strangled her as well. The store manager suffered the same fate before the Police arrived and after a fierce struggle arrested Ballerini.
The following day the press was full of the terrible incident at Tesco’s. The headline on page one of the Daily Telegraph screamed
“Artie chokes three for a pound at Tesco’s.”