Henry sat astride the Indian trying to make sense of the controls, the hot engine ticking as it contracted in the cold wind. Left hand twist throttle, but no gear change mechanism there. So the clutch had to be the left side rocking foot pedal. Right, he knew where the throttle was, where the brakes were, where the clutch was: the only minor point left unresolved was how to change gears on this strange contraption. He patted the handlebars, the tank, felt around with his right foot for another pedal. Nothing: Christ, there had to be something. Then his knuckles brushed against a lever a few inches out from the right side of the petrol tank. He depressed the clutch and waggled the lever, feeling it click over. A column change gear lever on a motor cycle! Trust the Yanks to do things differently.
"Back on the road with it, quick."
The Indian was rolled onto the roadway again, the passengers then arranging themselves on it. Cordery took the pillion seat with the carbine, McCaughan got in the side car gripping a cross bow, Julie sat on the nose of the car holding a knife and torch, knees and legs tightly pressed against the streamlined shape with the poise of an experienced horsewoman.
"Have you dealt with the girl?" Henry asked her somberly. It was a stupid question: he'd heard the impact of the bullet.
"Yes. A bad business. But there was no other choice, was there?"
No, there wasn't. He had nobody he could spare to guard a prisoner and he was taking enough chances with his men's lives already without the risk of having some trollop running around screaming to the Jerries about the Commandos at the bottom of their garden.
"OK, Corporal Cutforth, get your people moving up behind us at the trot. If you hear shooting you just keep on coming. It's neck or nothing now, understand?"
Cutforth was another unlikely Commando, an handsome would-be actor from Norwich who had been accepted by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art just before the war. With a chance like that spoiled it no wonder he had a personal grudge against Hitler. At least he was now going to get a chance to make the most dramatic entrance of his life. The corporal made a mock bow.
"After you, Claude." Cutforth's imitation of one of the favourite ITMA catch phrases was perfect, bringing grim chuckles from the rest of the men, their teeth quite literally bared in their darkened faces, like terriers scratching at a rat hole.
Henry had heard of this phenomenon but never seen it before, British infantry closing to bayonet distance of the enemy with their blood lust running hot. It wasn't a factor which alone could guarantee winning an engagement, though it had done so times without number. At any event, the converse was certain. Without soldiers eagerly seeking close quarter fighting all the guns and tanks and planes in the world couldn't win the battle for you.
Henry turned the headlight switch off, flicked over the ignition keys, took a deep breath and threw his weight down onto the kick start. The impact through his canvas sole as the big engine fired felt like a stroke from a bastinado. Thank God the bloody thing was still warm. It rumbled away underneath him as if he was sitting astride a lorry's bonnet. The thing must have at least a thousand cc's of cylinder capacity, certainly a lot more than his own 250 cc Velocette, a toy in comparison.
Left foot down, right hand forward, ease the clutch in gently, pick up some revs and away . . . we go. The Indian rolled along in bottom gear with the same sort of stately grace as a Rolls Royce pulling away from the kerb outside the Dorchester. Henry felt a genuine pang of regret that he would never have the chance to try it out properly. A hot summer's day, the open road leading to some friendly village pubs, this monster belting along and a laughing girl in the side car -- ah well -- perhaps not, not with the memories this machine had for him.
Now he could see the wall around the chateau, glimpse the tree tops above it, even hear the music above the noise of the Indian. What the hell was the RAF doing that the Huns could be so totally relaxed around these bloody airfields?
All right, he could understand the sentries being slack; Air Force men, not real soldiers, in a country which seemed totally subdued, while the only enemy forces which hadn't yet formally surrendered were cowering in bomb shelters on the other side of the sea. The Luftwaffe guards were doing their duty conscientiously, though without any expectation of real trouble. But there should be trouble, at least from the air. RAF aircraft should be attacking these bomber bases every night instead of farting around over the Channel ports. Not even Hitler was audacious enough to launch an invasion across the English Channel in converted Rhine barges in October -- the RAF were killing themselves attacking the wrong targets, as usual.
The gate posts reared up ahead of him, a large stone decorative ball perched on top of each one. Henry nosed the Indian between them and stopped, revving up the engine with the clutch out. He flicked his torch to the left while Julie scanned to the right. Nothing, not a soul, no sign of any guards, save for an ominous white line painted at waist height on the crumbling brickwork of the wall, probably for the benefit of foot patrols. Certainly there must be some good reason for it because a lot of ivy had been chopped away to make sure the line was continuous. Anyway, if there were such patrols, and it was highly likely there were, none of them were to be seen. The single iron gate, eight feet high to match the wall, was not only open, it looked as if it had been standing open since Napoleon had been a new recruit.
As Henry eased off the throttle, Julie spoke: "What do you think, Captain?"
"I think they have the outer posts we've already passed, an inner set of sentries around the moat, and rover patrols in between. There's no use in mounting a guard at a gate in a wall that's probably full of gaps. We'll find the next lot of Jerries at the stables. Get ready, this is the last lap."
He waited until Cutforth's men were alongside again, then the bike's motor rumbled throatily as they moved off again, the trees on either side of the pathway looking as close grown and impenetrable as the forest surrounding the sleeping beauty's palace. But the only important kisses tonight were going to be kisses of death.
An open space on the right, a rectangular yard covered in more pale coloured gravel, a long handled pump next to a stone trough, a tiled roof above it on carved timber beams. The watering place for the horses, combined with typical French economy into the laundry house for the servants. Henry stopped alongside it while the Patrol Leader flashed her red beam underneath the roof. A pale faced young man in a helmet that looked a size too big for him stared at them in puzzlement, his rifle still slung over his shoulder.
The bolt from the crossbow hit the sentry on the left side of his stomach just below the rib cage, hardly ideal placement. Once again the De Lisle saved the situation with a shot to the heart. The enemy soldier went down onto the gravel with the unwitting grace of the totally dead. God, these huge .45 rounds were absolute man killers at close range, just as they were supposed to be. The Americans had designed the round specifically to stop berserker native rebels in the Philippines. A hot cartridge case hit him on the side of the neck as Cordery reloaded.
Henry let the clutch in again. On the other side of the yard was the stable building, although it looked more like a house, with a steeply sloping roof and two small turrets with pagoda styled tops. Cracks of light appeared at a door at the top of a small flight of steps. Julie suddenly reached out and turned down the throttle.
"Switch it off!"
Henry turned off the ignition, and found that the Patrol Leader and Cordery were already moving towards the light. He shrugged and followed them, McCaughan in his turn following him. Instead of heading directly for the door Julie ducked around the corner of the stables. Then she stopped them and whispered her instructions fiercely. In the background they could hear the band whipping through 'Pennsylvania 6500' with great gusto.
"I think that's the guardroom. I'm going to try out my Gestapo identification and see if it holds water. Captain Winfield and Cordery, you pretend to be German paratroopers, so get rid of those jackets. Sergeant, get your people into firing positions."
"Yes, ma'm." McCaughan turned and headed back towards the Indian.
This was all happening too fast for Henry's liking. On the other hand he had no better ideas. He discarded the ground crew jacket and re-positioned his captured fore and aft cap, wondering whether it was Luftwaffe custom to wear it centrally or tipped onto one side of the head.
"How long have we got left before the bombing starts?" she asked.
Henry looked at the luminous hands of his watch. "Less than ten minutes."
"Right. Cordery, you're now a Fallschirmjagern Hauptmann. And you, Captain, are now a very dumb private who will keep his mouth shut. Let's have a look at you."
Julie inspected him quickly but thoroughly with her torch heavily shielded. "The camouflage on your face is acceptable, but the blood on your right hand and cuff is probably a touch too dramatic for the circumstances."
Henry stood in amazed silence as she took a handkerchief out of her handbag, spat on it and wiped his hands, then rolled up his cuffs. She then checked Cordery's appearance before they did the same for her, although it was hardly necessary. She seemed as smartly turned out as when she had stepped out of the Hotspur. Henry took the De Lisle from Cordery and they were ready.
"Let's start, then," Julie said firmly, like a nanny dealing with a couple of nervous children. As far as Henry was concerned she had the truth of it, because his guts were about ready to squirt out through his arsehole.
"Tell me, Henry, what will you do with your life if you survive this?"
It was a good question for the time and place. "I'm going to give Adolf Hitler a huge kick in the balls with the help of some military engineers who served in the Roman Army in 106 AD."
The woman started as if he'd bitten her on the neck but her lack of understanding didn't matter. A sealed envelope with his initial research for operation 'STOP TAP' was already in Crampton's possession.
Having decided to ignore him, Julie tapped the other soldier's arm and nodded towards the guardroom. Cordery drew himself up, marched around the corner and towards the door. When he reached it he pounded on the thick wood with his fist and bellowed out an order in a way which probably caused consternation amongst Cutforth's approaching party.
The reaction on the other side of the door was certainly swift enough, boots stamping around and the sound of a raised voice snapping out orders. Then the door swung open, revealing the outline of a man inside a white washed corridor, the only light coming from a room on the right hand side. Cordery broke into a sharp conversation which caused the man to stiffen to attention and salute, a gesture Cordery promptly returned. Then the man turned and led them down the passage to the lighted room. Because the room was small and already crowded Henry stopped outside looking in.
It seemed very much like every improvised guard room used by all rear area troops. A table covered in a grey blanket, a log book lying opened on it, a field telephone next to a pressure lamp, four stretcher beds along one wall, a packing case against another wall with a small paraffin stove on top, its red mica window glowing comfortably beneath a billycan giving off a fine smell of coffee.
The man who had led them into the room turned up the lamp and stared at his visitors, too surprised by the sight of Julie to spare Cordery or Henry more than a cursory glance. He was tall and skinny, wearing the scarlet tabs of the Flak Artillery and the rank badges of an Hauptfeldwebel. Two fully dressed privates, also wearing Flak insignia, were standing to attention with their rifles held stiffly to their sides and their hair tousled because of the abrupt rousing from their beds. But their sleepy eyes opened like owls as Julie took an oval identity disc out of her handbag and showed it to the Hauptfeldwebel. "Die polizistin Schuld, Geheime staats polizei." Then she leaned forward and questioned him sharply.
Henry couldn't follow it, except for one bit: "Herzog Paul -- Der Grossen Herzog Paul?"
Even without any knowledge of German, the answer was plain as the NCO nodded and pointed towards the chateau. Julie spoke again, tapping the telephone. Henry picked out the word 'offizier'. It sounded to him as if she was talking about the orderly officer. She used the word 'chateau' as well, as if it were a question. For his money, she was asking the Jerry if the orderly officer was in the chateau and could he speak to him on the telephone?
The Hauptfeldwebel looked unhappy, but seemed to be reluctantly agreeing that it was possible to do as she wanted. Henry could sympathise with him. If he was a guard commander at an RAF base and an MI5 security officer and a paratroop captain knocked on his guardroom door without any of his sentries first alerting him about their presence he wouldn't want to talk to any of his officers about the matter either.
Julie snapped at him, throwing down the pay books taken from Henry's prisoners. The Hauptfeldwebel stared at them, then at Cordery as the Jew spoke, apparently urging him to get a move on unless he wanted to join the list of those under arrest. Cordery pointed to the telephone "Fernsprecher!". The handle on the metal box whirred as the guard commander spun it around before began speaking urgently into the mouthpiece.
It would be a neat trick if it worked. But this bluff wasn't going to last much longer. The two privates weren't being distracted like their NCO was, they were waking up and noticing things. They were looking at the strange cut of Cordery's battle uniform, the canvas shoes on his feet, the lack of rank badges on his sleeves. Most of all, there was something about the way Henry was standing at the doorway with the carbine across his chest which was making them very nervous. If the guard commander picked up their mood he might have enough sense and courage to shout a warning down the phone.
For the moment the Hauptfeldwebel was still intent on his conversation, apparently having some trouble in explaining the situation to the person on the other end of the line. Something about 'die polizistin' seemed to cause a minor explosion in response. Then Cordery took the handpiece from the guard commander and snarled into it, the guttural words tumbling out. Henry picked out 'Hauptman Placke', 'Luftflottehauptquartier', and 'Gestapo',which suggested that Cordery was bringing out the big guns in order to get some action. There was certainly another mention of 'Herzog Paul, bitte." Then Cordery said, in apparent satisfaction, "Danke sehr, Leutnant" before replacing the the handpiece.
Everybody looked at one another. Tension seemed to building up inside the room with almost palpable force. Henry tried to decide when Julie should give the signal for the killing to start: would she wait for the Duke to arrive or not? Somebody was going to make a move here soon one way or another. But her next action astonished him.
She walked over to one of the beds picked up a magazine lying on it and lifted it up to the light. Large black and white photographs, two on each page, showed a very buxom young girl sitting on the end of a table, her ankles secured with elaborate leather restraints to the legs of the table. Three men were taking advantage of her helpless state to remove various items of her clothing. Julie chuckled, slowly leafing through the pages and studying every detail as the girl was subjected to several further indignities of a very physical nature.
Then she turned her head and spoke to the fresh faced young soldiers in a tone of mock censure. It threw them completely off balance, totally unsure of how to react to this sophisticated woman whom had identified herself as a secret police officer, yet who enjoyed sharing a joke about dirty pictures with a couple of young soldiers. When she eventually dropped the magazine back on the bed she winked at the two of them and said "Beften dank im voraus, soldaten!".
The two soldiers both seemed to be on the verge of laughing, before their discipline reasserted itself. But they appeared to be reassured in a way they had not been before. Julie had settled them down with wonderful deftness. She began talking to the Hauptfeldwebel in an easy conversational manner which was rather spoilt by a blast of sub-machine gun fire outside, immediately answered by the heavier bark of at least two Thompson guns.
Julie was still smiling as she drove the heel of her palm into the Hauptfeldwebel's nose, collapsing his body over the table. Henry swung the De Lisle down and fired into one of the soldiers at point blank range. As he fell down the lamp on the table was knocked onto the floor and promptly extinguished itself in a cloud of paraffin stinking smoke. Henry frantically worked the bolt of the carbine, stepping aside at the same time as he heard the other German matching his movements with the the action of his own rifle. Henry fired first -- the response was a shower of sparks in the darkness and a spray of small stone fragments as the Mauser's bullet went through the wall near his head.
Henry dropped flat and worked his bolt again, while somebody over on his right opened up with a pistol, emptying the magazine as fast as possible. The low powered bullets bounced around the room, whining like high powered mosquitoes as somebody screamed in fear: Henry had an idea it might be him. There wasn't time to think about it because a door further down in the passageway was flung open and a man with earphones on his head burst out into the pool of light from the doorway, a Schmeisser at his hip. Henry rolled over on his side and fired while the other man was still unsure of whether he was facing a friend or foe. The German was hit in the stomach and doubled up with the breath literally knocked out of his body by the impact.
A torch beam flickered through the room, picking out the soldier inside. He was bleeding from the neck and chest, though still trying to lift his rifle up. Henry shot him as another couple of pistol rounds were fired from the right, at least one of them hitting the German again. Henry used his own torch and saw Julie and Cordery getting up off the floor, both holding smoking pistols. Cordery was white faced with pain, clutching with his other hand at his thigh, blood dribbling past his fingers. It looked as if he'd been hit by one of their own ricocheting pistol bullets. Another rifle boomed out further down the passage. Henry took a 36 grenade from his pocket, tugged out the pin with his right hand and lobbed the grenade with his left around the side of the door and along the passage.
"Get ready to run!"
Noise smashed against Henry's ears and met the vibration coming up from his soles, great pieces of whitewash fluttered off the walls like giant butterflies, a hundred years' collection of dust and chaff came boiling up between the floor planks into the torch beams.
Cordery and Julie dived past him into the passage, Henry at their heels and screaming in frustration at the stumbling pace of Cordery. He pushed the wounded man out through the opened door, sending him sprawling, then leapt to one side before throwing another grenade back into the stables. As soon as it detonated Henry swung around to see one of the most beautiful buildings he'd ever beheld in his life illuminated by a flash of lightning directly above its turrets and window casements. He was standing about eighty yards away from the chateau and somebody had just bounced a mortar bomb off its roof.
Almost as soon as the light had died away there was a smaller flash in the same area, like a giant spark, immediately followed by another explosion which smeared an image across his eyes of tiles starting to cascade off the forty five degree angled roof. At least both the mortars were in action, even if they pitching their shots too short and the bouncing bombs were landing on the roof. The Thompson fire had stopped, although there was plenty of shooting going on inside the chateau, muzzle flashes at several windows and bullets droning across the gravelled yard, though without the mind numbing velocity of high powered rounds. Mostly pistol or sub-machine gun 9 millimetre parabellum, Henry guessed.
Then there was another noise, a sullen boom as the Smith gun was fired. The low velocity bomb thumped past and Henry stared after it, his heart in his mouth. There was a micro second of harsh light, apparently from behind a large window on the bottom floor, then fragments of all sizes were flying out to splash into the previously calm surface of the moat.
Julie tugged at his sleeve and pointed to a figure running towards them, a bren gun hanging from one hand and two packs bulging with magazines dangling from the other. bren gun
"Sergeant! Over here!"
One of the small mortars and the Smith gun beat out a fast double beat, the mortar yapping like a terrier, the gun a deep growl. McCaughan crouched down beside them, shouting. Henry's ears felt as if they were stuffed with cotton wool after the grenade explosions.
"Two sentries came up as we were getting into position. We used the cross bows but only wounded one of them. Then the other one started shooting, so we had to finish them off."
Julie cut in: "Did you see anybody come out of the chateau before the shooting started?"
"I saw a some light when a door was opened about a minute beforehand."
"The Duke might still be on the bridge," she snapped at Henry.
"Aye, and he may stay there for me" was the first unbidden thought to come into Henry's mind.
He raised his head and stared at the chateau. In the glow of flames appearing inside the building he could see shattered windows and smoke starting to roll out of some of them. Another tremendous crash echoed as Cutforth used a high explosive bomb to blow out some more windows in the side of the chateau before firing white phosphorous rounds through the resulting gaps. The Germans were still shooting back as hard as they could, trying to disable the gun crew, though without any signs of success so far. With hardly any muzzle flash from the Smith gun they'd find it hard to pick their target. Both of the two inch mortars were firing hard, with brief flashes behind the chateau showing their bombs were now on target to seal off the other side of the building.
"Julie, you help the Sergeant. I'll look for the Duke."
He jumped up and ran across the yard, wondering whether he was more likely to be hit by an enemy bullet or a friendly bomb. What bullets came close he didn't know; somebody over by the Smith gun saw him because a voice bellowed "Get out of the fucking way!".
Whoever it was must have had his hand twitching on the firing lanyard because he cut loose again while Henry was still skipping across the line of fire like a startled rabbit. The wind blast from the bomb actually smacked him across the back of his knees.
Cursing with a madman's fervour Henry jumped onto the Indian, kick started it and headed for the bridge, the ornate virginal white balustrades on either side of the footpath across it shimmering in the growing firelight from the chateau. Henry aimed the Indian between them and opened the throttle. Screaming in low gear the motorbike combination lumbered onto the bridge and swayed along the path, a few inches clearance on either side. Henry crouched over the handlebars and stared along the thin beam of light coming from the slitted hood covering the headlamp. A bullet spat past his head, another bounced off the stone banister on his left, whining away.
Two bodies appeared in front of him crouched down below the stone handrails, one on either side of the bridge, a civilian on the left in a dinner suit, a Luftwaffe officer in dress uniform on the right. In the officer's hand was a pistol, aimed at Henry but not being fired. Apparently the officer knew the sound of the Indian and wasn't sure whether it was being ridden by friend or foe. The German lifted himself up, as if to get a better look. As his head and shoulders appeared over the handrail a burst of bren fire lashed within inches of his fair hair, making him duck down again. Sergeant McCaughan was giving a helping hand. Henry aimed the nose of the sidecar at the officer and tried to scrape him along the balustrades without hitting the civilian.
The German screamed as his head and shoulders vanished out of sight under the sidecar; he fired a pistol shot which went God only knew where, the sidecar snagged on the body or one of the posts, the Indian spun to the right and stalled, and Henry fell off, wondering if the wrench on the front wheel had broken his wrists. He lay on his back between the bike and the sidecar, looked up at the sparks and smoke drifting overhead and thought it would be nice to have a very long rest. But this wasn't a good time for it . . .
He rolled over, grabbed his carbine, saw the Luftwaffe officer trying to pull his legs out from underneath the sidecar and fired a round into him. The man's head drooped down like a dying rook shot on the nest as Henry turned to look at the Duke who was going down the side of the footpath on his hands and knees, fat arse up in the air and wriggling along at an excellent rate of speed. Then the bren opened up again, snap bursts, answered with Teutonic screams of rage from the chateau.
The Smith gun had stopped firing, probably because there was no need to carry on. The strong wind blowing through the shattered windows of the chateau was spreading and joining all the small fires inside the building into a single mass of roaring flames. The bottom floor already looked like a gateway to hell: Henry hoped it was.
He lifted his head up over the top of the Indian. Groups of men were leaping out of the second storey windows above the small terrace at the back of the chateau and dropping into the clouds of smoke coming from the ground floor. Flames were starting to lick out of some of the upper windows as the fire swept up, no doubt helped by the draught from the hot air rising through the holes the bouncing mortar bombs had made in the roof. Henry wondered why the Germans were deliberately jumping down onto the bullet lashed terrace when they could have easily opted for softer landings in the moat instead.
He realised why when an officer, two waiters and a bandsman loomed out of the smoke about thirty yards away, screaming and running straight across the bridge. Only the officer was carrying a pistol, one of the waiters held a broken chair leg and the musician was waving a trumpet over his head, hobbling on an injured leg. There was nothing to laugh at though, this was the reason why German soldiers were so bloody good. Somebody had realised the only way out of the burning trap was to get across the bridge and counterattack, the word engraved on every German commander's heart. So the order had been given, the Luftwaffe boys were queuing up to jump down to the terrace and those that hadn't broken any bones doing it were forming up and charging. Even the bren wasn't stopping all of them, though it must be making the terrace a death trap.
Henry saw the frenzied faces coming towards him and knew there was no chance at all of holding them back with the carbine. He stared over the slewed around motor bike at the burning chateau at the end of the bridge and the yellow moon above it dropping towards the tops of the willow trees. In his head he could hear some lines of poetry being recited with strange clarity:
"There's a wheel on the Horns o' the Morning,
He pulled the last 36 grenade out of his map pocket, jerked out the pin and dropped the grenade into the sidecar. Then he turned and ran with paces which would have left Jesse Owens still crouched at the blocks.
"Thousand and one, thousand and two, thousand and fuck it!"
The fat Grand Duke was too inviting to go past. Henry hurled himself on top of him, crushing the Russian under his weight. Then the grenade exploded, like God's fist swinging down out of the sky and smashing everything flat.
Chunks of metal whined past, the Indian's petrol tank detonated into a huge fireball which licked around Henry's feet, the officer scrambling over the motor bike was blown twenty feet into the air and ignited like a log at the apex of his flight, the bren gun began chattering again in one hysterical continuous burst as if gloating over this new example of spectacular destruction. Henry jumped up, pulling the Duke with him by his collar. The wreckage of the Indian and its sidecar were the centre of a bonfire blocking the bridge, circles of scarlet ribbons chasing themselves around the wheel rims.
"Move, you bastard!"
Black rubbery smelling smoke was everywhere. There was an outburst of firing away over on the left somewhere. Bullets were flying in all directions and the two inch mortars were still tolling as regularly as funeral bells. Henry and his companion fled through it all, coughing, staggering, fleeing for their lives. As they neared the end of the bridge it shuddered underneath them as an underwater detonation slammed against the supports, wave tops slopping through the balustrades and streaking the white stone carvings with stinking mud.
Both of them ran out straight into a blast of concentrated machine gun fire. Fortunately, it wasn't aimed at them. McCaughan was lying underneath a bush near the stables, hammering away towards their left with the Bren, the barrel glowing cherry red. As soon as he saw Henry McCaughan shouted "Barrel change." Next to him, on her belly, on top of her discarded coat, Julie flicked open the quick release lock, whipped out the hot barrel by the carrying handle, replaced it with a spare barrel, closed the lock and clipped a new magazine to the gun. McCaughan recocked the working parts and opened fire again. Henry had never seen an immediate action on a weapon carried out any more smoothly by any gun crew.
He looked in the direction they were firing and saw muzzle flashes from the bushes opposite the eastern corner of the house. Near the corner, on the path surrounding the moat, was a body with a round rubber helmet on it. Turning to his left Henry ran without hesitating along the path towards his fallen soldier.
It wasn't a matter of thinking, it was a matter of feeling that this was a chance which was never going to be repeated. It was clear that McCaughan had sent out the men with the grenade launchers once the chateau was alight, and that the grenadier on the left flank must be OK judging by the underwater detonations which had rocked the bridge. It was also clear that the man sent out on this side had been shot down by a group of Germans in the undergrowth, probably a patrol of prowler guards brought running to the chateau by the shooting. But just now those Germans had suddenly been brought under accurate and fast machine gun fire, which should keep their heads down for a few few seconds. After all, it was probably their first taste of ground battle. So it was just possible that Henry might get close to them in the clouds of smoke coming from the chateau and survive long enough to finish the job the dead Commando had started.
Henry had to cover about fifty yards to the body. If anybody was shooting at him he couldn't distinguish their bullets from the continual sonic cracks of the bren bullets drilling holes through the air close to him. Drawing fresh energy from somewhere for the sprint, he finally dropped down by the body, grabbed the rifle and grenade box, then slithered down into cover in the dead ground where the grass sloped down to the water. When he caught the downed soldier's leg and started dragging him off the path a sub-machine gun opened fire, the impacting rounds blowing chips of gravel into his face and hitting the fallen soldier again. Henry flattened himself, coughing as clouds of acrid smoke caught at his straining lungs. There was the familiar thumping noise of the Smith gun behind him and a three inch mortar bomb exploded in the tree line somewhere near the Germans: debris of all kinds came spattering down, blasted out from the core of liberated chemicals.
Henry's skull felt as though it had been hammered like a tent peg. Somewhere in the ringing caverns underneath it was an oak panelled Cambridge lecture room and his Director of Studies holding up a one inch blasting cartridge and telling his students that it contained 60,00 megawatts of energy -- more than the total power station capacity of the United Kingdom. But you had to get close to a few big bangs to understand how big they really were. Astonished he hadn't been sliced to ribbons, Henry jumped up and ran straight towards the nearest bushes, hoping for the second time that night he wasn't going to get shot by his own side. Again he was lucky, Sergeant McCaughan letting him cross over without killing him. Nor did the Smith gunner risk a second shot, an extremely wise decision in Henry's very biased opinion.
Once inside the trees Henry dodged around the drooping branches, peering out towards the moat until he got to where he wanted to be, at the corner of the chateau. The bren had settled down to firing short bursts of two or three rounds at a time, the bullets impacting somewhere further along the trees, where he could hear a voice shouting in German. Bugger the noisy bastards, what interested Henry was the side view of the chateau, burning from end to end now. It was like looking along the length of a sinking ocean liner, smoke clouds hanging above the black surface of the moat and figures dropping out of them to splash around in the water, many of them wearing fancy long dresses, men and women alike screaming and yelling blue murder in high German and low French.
Henry grinned wolfishly, took a grenade from the box, checked that the special base plug with the flat disc was screwed on tightly, and then dropped it into the rifle cup. When he pulled the pin out of the grenade the cup held the lever in place, preventing the spring loaded striker head slamming down and igniting the fuse. Then he worked the bolt, loading in a blank round from the magazine. When he fired the rifle from his hip the hot gases from the blank round hit the disc underneath the grenade, blowing it out out of the cup with the lever falling away. The Mills bomb vanished into the smoke, travelling at an angle which Henry hoped would bounce it down off the wall to sink among the thickest cluster of survivors. He already had another grenade ready to fire when the first one blew a column of water into the air like a miniature depth charge. All around the boiling white patch of foam bodies threshed among the water lilies as if they were gaffed tuna, bones shattered and muscles pounded to soft pulp. Henry screamed in exultation and punched the air in triumph.
"That's for Dunkirk, you bastards!"
Almost absent-mindedly he noticed the thump of another grenade going off on his right and another outburst of Germanic shouting. It sounded as if some silly bastard must have tried throwing a potato masher in his direction and landed it in a tree branch instead. Reluctantly, he knelt down and fired his second grenade through the undergrowth, trying to find a gap between the willow trunks. The grenade went off well away from him, somewhere near the Germans. After that he decided the Jerries could have him if they were lucky enough, as long as he didn't lose his chance in the moat first. In fact, he'd managed to fire off another four bombs into the water before he heard somebody crashing around close behind him. By then it looked as if there wasn't many people left in the water worth the effort; any men who were still alive would have crushed testicles from the shockwaves and the women would have experienced the sensation of a lifetime. Nobody was jumping now from the flame belching second story windows and the ones dropping out of the third floor seemed to be having trouble surfacing with their various assortment of broken bones.
Henry pulled out the last five grenades from the box and began bowling them underarm underneath the branches, a manoeuvre easier to do with the Mills bombs than it was for the Germans with their stick grenades. Not that he was happy about doing it: the fragmentation range for a 36 grenade was supposed to be around ten yards, but the base plug usually flew off as a single piece of metal and could be lethal out to two hundred yards. A problem compounded on these ones because of the attached propelling discs. Not only did converted grenades leave a rifle quickly, the base plug flew away from the grenade explosion just as quickly. It was to be hoped the screaming scraps of steel were frightening the Germans as much as they were frightening him.
"For Gaud's sake, let's gan 'yam, sur."
Henry turned and gaped at Rosedale's face peering at him through the bushes. 'Let's go home.' What an excellent idea.
Then he ran towards him, out onto the path. Rosedale had a Thompson gun in his hands and held out another one with a drum magazine underneath to Henry. He grabbed it as he ran past, hearing Rosedale triggering off single shots into the trees. Thirty paces further on he turned, dropped down on his stomach, and began firing the same way himself. Rosedale immediately jumped to his feet and ran back. A rifle flashed among the trees and Henry put five rounds into the area as fast as he could pull the trigger. There wasn't much point in trying to fire bursts out of a Tommy, the muzzle always lifted straight up into the sky, whatever the gangsters in Chicago seemed to be able to do in the films. The rifle didn't fire again anyway, so the man using it was either hit or lying low.
Rosedale was firing again behind him, letting Henry run back another bound. Before he moved back he fired twice into the body of the British soldier sprawled on the path. Whoever he was he was almost certainly dead already, but the rule against no prisoners meant Henry had to be certain about it. Then he began running back, past Rosedale and getting into another covering position. One more flurry of shots at the trees and Rosedale was running past again and then a Smith bomb exploded in the same area Henry was aiming at, lighting up the bushes with a beautiful display of sparkling lights before the burning phosphorous smeared everything with smoke, enough smoke to protect them from any more aimed fire from that area. Both of them ran back into the Commandos' fire position by the stables.
The only man there was Sergeant McCaughan, crouched underneath the mushroom shaped nearside wheel of the Smith gun. He pushed another bomb and charge into the breech and swung the gun around smoothly on the stand which was its other wheel. Then he fired again, straight up the length of the footbridge. Another shower of twinkling phosphorous erupted in the smoke clouds. Henry grabbed the very pistol lying by the Sergeant's side and fired it into the air, sending up a brilliant green fireball. It was the signal for everybody to start running.
"Who was it who got hit on the path?"
"Cutforth. And Siddons was killed by a mortar bomb which went off just above his head -- a premature burst."
Siddons, one of Henry's few regular soldiers, a freckle faced Bernado's orphan, a cockney who had carried London's revenge against the Luftwaffe on his trigger finger and now dead because of a faulty fuse. One probably manufactured on a Monday morning by a idiot with an hangover.
McCaughan kept shouting. "Cordery can't walk. I've sent him back on a trolley with the Patrol Leader and that fat civvie."
Jennings came running up from the left flank, his rifle at the trail with the clumsy grenade launching cup making it wobble in his hand. A continuous roll of thunder drifted towards them on the fresh wind with the rolling smoke clouds. The ridge line to the north west was dimly silhouetted by flickering lights behind it and a vertical torrent of multi coloured anti-aircraft fire clawing at the sky.
Henry lifted up his watch and gaped at it. Surely to God it wasn't possible that everything could have happened so quickly? But the hands said 0020 and that must be the RAF starting to bomb the aerodrome.
Anyway, so much for his deception plan: half of Brittany must know by now that British troops had been shooting up KGR 100's dinner party. If that bridge over the Arguenon was still standing some very angry Germans were likely to be waiting at the top of the bridle path for them. In any case the race for the Commandos' lives was on. There was only one order to give.
"Right -- let's fuck off!"
They each grabbed a back pack from the last trolley. Each one contained the explosives and ammunition Henry expected his men might need to fight clear of the trap they'd made for themselves deep in enemy territory.
He took one final look at the chateau. A man in vest and underpants was diving headfirst out of one of the burning top windows, hands in front of his head like a champion coming off a high board, vanishing instantly out of sight into the smoke. Henry fervently hoped the German bastard would break his neck when he hit the water.
Henry's last memory of the scene was of Julie's fashionable fur coat still lying on the gravel with a littering of brass .303 cases scattered across the top of it. For some lunatic reason he picked the coat up and ran off with it clenched in his hand as though it were a trophy of the battle that he deserved to keep.