By midday on the 8th of March 1942 it was all over. Rangoon was finally occupied and those members of the Burma Rifles foolish enough to stay and fight when the evacuating column had slipped out through the Japanese encirclement were either dead or defeated. But mostly they were dead. And they were still dying.
When the actual fighting stopped, certain of the surviving Burmese civil servants had hidden themselves behind the doors of their offices in the Jubilee Hall to await their fate. Whilst some of these people were to bitterly regret what was to them an act of patriotism, others, whose decision had been prompted by other considerations, were to rejoice in it.
By mid-afternoon the first Japanese soldier entered the main square. He was followed by hundreds - thousands - more, converging on the square in droves; laughing, kicking out at the populace of the tortured town who had been unable to find holes to hide in, looting and burning. Whilst the civil servants, most of them numb from the weeks of bombardment, and sick at heart over the weakness of the British to repulse the onslaught, waited in their offices for the end.
By six-thirty the officer commanding the victors entered the square in an open car, cheered wildly by his rampaging men. He signalled his driver to stop outside Jubilee Hall, its corridors as yet untrodden by even a single Japanese boot, dictated a short note to his aide, who in turn passed the paper to the nearest soldier with a few well-chosen words. The soldier saluted smartly and ran up the steps of the hall.
At six-forty, one of the waiting Burmese who, unlike the others, had been closely following events outside the hail, was handed the note, saluted, then left in peace to read the Japanese commander’s words. The soldier left the building as he had been instructed and, outside, the rampaging continued. Jubilee Hall was then left in total, unbelievable, calm.
The note was a request from the Japanese commander; it asked that the most senior remaining official of the town of Rangoon be present at the mansion of the ex-mayor, at three o’clock the following afternoon, when the Japanese commander would be pleased to receive him. The reason for the meeting was not given. But the Burmese, already in possession of certain facts regarding the Japanese officer’s treatment of the civilian officials of the towns and cities he had overrun to date, was able to arrive at his decision; a decision that required little or no consideration. He took the note straight up to a man called Khadim Silchar, a man whom he knew to be weak, greedy, and corruptible.
The office of the ex-mayor was vast and beautifully appointed. The gilded armchairs glistened with gold thread woven into flowery patterns and pictures. The heavily ornate fireplace framed a basket of artificial fruit and leaves and its mantel held a large French-action clock with a cut- glass cover, flanked by stuffed animals. The walls were of carved mahogany panels. The pictures, of some bygone age of peace and tranquillity, each had a shaded electric bulb above it.
Major-General Tohutaro Sakurai sat in an armchair by the fireplace. Opposite him and sitting on a straight-backed chair was his aide. It was two-fifteen. The Major-General uwafted at the occasional impudent fly with his cane. For a full half-hour the two men sat. Neither said a word.
By Japanese standards Sakurai was a tall man. And he was wealthy by any standards. His bearing, in everything he did - whether he was sitting down, standing, walking or laying: he never ran - showed that he was a man used to being obeyed without question. Not once in his entire military career had he had to buckle on his own sword or tie his own bootlace. And he would have considered it odd if he had had to speak in anything above a whisper in order to attract someone’s attention; there was always someone at his elbow. This person, for the most part, was his aide, Kio Matzo, who was a diminutive figure even by Japanese standards. The two of them sat now silently, listening to the ticking of the clock on the mantle shelf.
Later, with the wisp-like hands of the clock at two-forty six Sakurai said a single word.
His aide was on his feet and bowing himself out of the room before the echo of the single word had died. He had been expecting just such an order. He was back inside five minutes with the tray. He bowed himself up to the officer and carefully poured a measure into a tiny, handle-less cup. The officer sipped gently until the cup was empty then held it out to his waiting aide. The cup was refilled. After another long silence Sakurai said, meditatively:
‘Three o’clock ...‘
The clock on the mantel showed that there were still several minutes to go before that time.
‘Yes, Excellency,’ said his aide, smiling slightly.
Sakurai looked thoughtful. Then he said: ‘Will the pattern repeat itself yet again, Kio?’
His aide forwent his normal look of complete inscrutability for a mask of astonishment. ‘Things are always as you plan them, Excellency.’
Sakurai smiled a secret sort of smile. He nodded slowly. ‘Yes, Kio, it would appear so.’
They both glanced up at the clock. It was precisely three o’clock. There was a soft rap on the door. The two men looked at each other and they both smiled, each for his own, different, reasons. Kio Matzo reverently whispered:
‘The pattern will repeat itself to the end of the earth, Excellency. As you command it to...‘ He placed the tray on the table and walked, in reverse, careful not to present his back to his overlord, to the door and swung it open. A Burmese man entered and the aide stepped out, closing the door on both victor and vanquished.
Sakurai looked long and hard into the face of the man who stood with his back against the closed door. The man was obviously frightened almost witless; his fingers were shaking uncontrollably. Sakurai might have warmed to the man, knowing that it must have taken a certain degree of courage for him to have come at all, except that there was something in his face; something that showed through the fear. Sakurai did not take the time to try to dissect the fact, he would do that later, when the meeting was over.
‘You are on the mayor’s staff?’ he asked in faultless Burmese.
The man looked even more shaken to hear his own tongue coming from the mouth of his tormentor. ‘No - no, sir.’ he stuttered, ‘I am not.’
‘A policeman, then?’
‘No, sir. I am the Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce.’
‘I see. And what of the mayor’s staff? Are there none here?’
‘I see…‘ Sakurai said again; that was always a good phrase to employ. If delivered in the correct manner it could mean nothing, and it could mean everything. ‘Then where is the mayor himself?’
The man’s face blanched, his mouth opened slightly but no sound came out. Sakurai smiled kindly. He was not a cruel man. Hard, yes. Terribly efficient, yes. But not cruel just for the sake of cruelty. Like all the other times, he just needed a clear picture of the situation. ‘It is all right. There is no reason for you to be afraid. We will have to work very closely together, you and I. Now, where is the mayor?’
‘He is gone, sir,’ blurted the man, still scared half to death.
Sakurai nodded slowly. ‘With the British?’
The man’s voice trembled as he answered, as if he could hardly dare admit to even the existence of such a race of people ‘Yes, sir,‘ he managed at last. ‘With the British.’ The last word was hardly audible.
‘And you stayed? Very commendable. What is your name?’
‘Silchar, sir. Khadim Silchar.’ He knew that if he allowed his legs their way he would fall to the floor.
Sakurai rose from the depths of the chair. ‘Well, then, Khadim,’ he said, extending his hand, ‘I am pleased to meet you.’
Slichar looked aghast at the hand as if it were a bomb.
Sakurai did not allow his amusement to reach his face. He knew exactly how the Burmese must be feeling.
Slowly, almost mesmerised by what he was doing, Silchar took the proffered hand. He held it limply for an Instant. Then Sakurai allowed him to withdraw his hand.
‘Sit down, Khadim, and we will talk.’
Silchar very nearly collapsed into the straight-backedchair. Sakurai remained standing. Then he began to pace, slowly and deliberately, back and forth. ‘There are difficult times ahead of us, Khadim.’
Silchar had regained a little of his wind. ‘Yes, sir,’ he said, not really knowing what it was he was agreeing to.
‘And so, ‘ Sakurai went on, ‘it is our task to see that these times are not made any harder. Wouldn’t you agree?’ Sakurai paused in his step and looked at Silchar, man to man. Silchar spluttered something that could only have been abject agreement. Sakurai nodded momentarily, then resumed his pacing. ‘The first thing we must look to is the safety and well being of your townfolk. Their safety, and their security. This, I think, we can best achieve by making sure that my soldiers are housed in some degree of comfort. This way they do not become bad-tempered. Bad-tempered soldiers are very hard to control, are they not?’ Sakurai immediately waved aside his own question. ‘But I am sure that you know this.’
‘Of course, sir,’ nodded Silchar enthusiastically. It was slowly dawning on him that his life had not come to an end after all. Could it be that his friend, Ahmed Khan, was right? In a sudden attack of boldness, he said: ‘I’ll have some of my staff see to it right away…‘ He paused for a second to catch Sakurai’s reaction to his words, and he felt his spirits soar to see the Japanese commander smile lightly. Silchar hurried on, hardly daring to believe the turn events were taking. Ahmed had been right. ‘There are many places,’ he said, ‘nice clean places for your brave soldiers. Warehouses. Hotels. They can have all the hotels. And if this is not enough I will personally turn people out of their houses and give- ‘
Sakurai interrupted with a wave of his hand. ‘Now, now, Khadim,’ he said, friendliness and understanding personified. ‘I am sure that there will be no need for that at the moment. As I told you, it is their safety and comfort we must look to, as well as that of my soldiers.’
‘Of course, sir. Of course! As you say, sir….‘
Sakurai was silent for a moment. Then, with an apologetic shrug, he said: ‘Khadim, so that we do not offend my staff, and to keep my aide from hounding me…’He smiled ingratiatingly, ‘It is better that you address me as “Excellency”. It is protocol. You understand, I’m sure.’
Silchar’s face blanched again as he epostulated: ‘Of course, sir. I mean, Excellency! Of course I understand. Forgive me. I- ‘
Sakurai waved away further apologies. ‘Good. Good. Now then, where were we? Ah, yes. Well, I am sure that I can leave the housing of my soldiers to your good offices. My staff will be pleased to assist you. And, of course, there will no doubt be those of your own people whose aid you will like to enlist.‘
Silchar nodded happily. He could feel the promise of a fine future welling up inside his chest, and he thanked his gods that he had not fled like so many of the others. Now he would be mayor! Think - mayor! And as he congratulated himself he remembered his friend, to whom he owed his newfound future. He would place Ahmed Khan at his right hand. Surely, as an adviser, there could be no equal!
Sakurai again extended his hand. ‘And now I must resume my duties. And I am sure that you yourself will have much to do.‘
This time, as he rose from the chair, Silchar grasped the hand firmly. And he bowed from the waist as he knew Japanese people did in the presence of someone of rank. Sakurai walked with him to the door and held it.
‘Perhaps you will be good enough to come and see me tomorrow at the same time. Three o’clock. We will have more to discuss.’
Silchar murmured a reverent ‘Thank you, Excellency’ and he left, hardly able to comprehend his amazing good fortune.
Sakurai left the door ajar and turned towards the fire place. He spoke immediately, knowing without thought that his aide would now be at his elbow.
‘It was a good meeting, Kio. He will work well for us.’
Kio Matzo waited until his master was seated then he took his place in the straight-backed chair. ‘It is as Your Excellency has planned. It will be so for ever.’
Sakurai hesitated a moment before he answered. ‘It is as the gods have planned, Kio,’ he corrected, ‘Remember that.’
His aide, still seated, bowed from the waist his abject acceptance of the reprimand. Sakurai could do, or say, no wrong.
‘There is much to do, Kio,’ said Sakurai, ‘but, first, have my furniture brought to me, and dispose of all this…‘ He waved an arm around the room. As an afterthought he said, ‘But you can leave this chair. I am happy with it.’ Then his eye caught the slowly revolving pendulum of the clock. ‘The clock too, I think.‘
‘At once, Your Excellency.’ Kio rose up and walked to the door. With his hand on the knob he hesitated. ‘Forgive me, Excellence, I almost forgot. Colonel Hiro desires an audience. He says it is a matter of some importance.’
Sakurai sighed deeply. ‘Then show him in, Kio. And you stay here too, would you? You can attend to the other matter afterwards.’
Kio opened the door and spoke to the guard. No more than five seconds later Colonel Hiro entered. After bowing deeply he produced a slip of paper from his richly braided tunic pocket.
‘Excellence. We have just received this message from Tokyo. I thought that you would wish to see it Immediately.’
Kio took the paper from him and handed it to Sakurai. Sakurai read it through once, frowned, then read it again, the frown deepening. At last he looked up.
‘What devilment is this?’
Hiro stiffened his backbone, but he did not speak. He would not do so, in fact, until Sakurai bade him to. And Sakurai’s words had obviously been little more than a general reaction. Sakurai turned to Kio.
‘Kio, my friend,’ he said, smiling stiffly, ‘what would you say if I were to tell you that the British have sent an assassin to me?’
Kio’s face wrinkled. ‘An assassin, Excellency?’
Sakurai nodded, lifting the paper. ‘Just so, Kio. An agent of the secret police has sent word to Tokyo that such a man I now awaiting transport in Ceylon.’ He turned to Hiro. ‘That is so, is it not, Colonel? Or is this merely a joke?’
Colonel Hiro’s backbone, if it were possible, straightened up even more. ‘It is no joke, Excellency. That signal was sent with the very highest priority. I fear that it is very much true!’
Sakurai laughed aloud to see the expression on the colonel’s moon-like face. ‘You fear, Colonel? Does the news frighten you?’
Hiro shook his head vehemently. ‘I mean that I fear for you, Excellence. If such a – ‘
Sakurai’s face set hard. ‘Do you admit then,‘ he cut in, ‘that our security is such that a British murderer could penetrate it? Is that what you are saying, Colonel?’
Hiro blustered, trying to find the correct words to right the situation. But Sakurai waved an angry hand. ‘Well, I fear something, Colonel! I fear for you! Because if this man were to penetrate it to within ten miles of Rangoon, then you may consider your head already parted from your body! Now, go! And do not return until it is to tell me that there is no longer an assassin!’
Hiro, face scarlet, bowed very low indeed as he reached behind him for the door knob.
When they were alone Sakurai stood for several moments as the anger subsided. Then he turned to Kio. ‘Obviously Colonel Hiro is tired, Kio.‘ Then, suddenly, his face softened, and he nodded gently to himself. ‘I should not be too hard on him, Kio. It has been a long and a hard campaign. Our soldiers have come a long way.’
Kio had at first been staggered to hear that anyone, any one at all, should contemplate murdering his master. But then he realised the futility of such a thing. Sakurai was immortal. Certainly it was not his destiny to be killed by an assassin’s bullet. He smiled, the thought already forgotten. ‘Under your guidance, Excellence, your soldiers will encircle the earth!’
Sakurai raised an eyebrow. He glanced briefly down at the paper in his hand, then he crumpled it in his palm an tossed it into the basket. Then he remembered Kio’s words. He smiled grimly.
‘My guidance did not help them ensnare the British in the trap, Kio.’
This smattering of self-doubt was lost on his aide, who said, ‘Perhaps Your Excellency is destined to sweep them away, and not snare them. For they would have been many mouths to eat the rice of our soldiers.’
Sakurai smiled. This was one of those times when he found his aide’s blind faith uplifting. ‘Your philosophy is sound, Kio. But your understanding of the warlords is not sound! They have expressed the desire for strong prisoners, to make the roads and railways that will carry our armies westward.’
Kio Matzo was silent.
And Sakurai sighed. ‘They rush to their destinies as if it will not wait. And they push the world around with the power of their blades, unaware that it turns of its own strength.‘
Kio’s eyes lit up in an expression of awe for his master’s words. ‘Your Excellency’s writings on such matters are reed in many houses. They are on many lips.‘
Sakurai looked into his aide’s face. Then he appeared to shake himself mentally and his voice hardened perceptibly.
‘Writings do not win campaigns, Kio! Enough of this talk! I will inspect my staff now.‘ Then he added: ‘And tike the chair also. I grow soft to sit in it!’
Just before they left the room Sakurai glanced down into the wastepaper-basket that was empty but for the single, crumpled piece of paper. Somehow he had the feeling that the business could not be discarded as easily as the piece of paper. He had to admit, if only to himself, that he possessed a strange feeling about it. That there was a single man, some where in the world, whose sole task it was to end Sakurai’s life, he found strangely more menacing than the enmity that existed between the two nations.
‘And, Kio?’ he said, as they stepped out into the corridor.
‘Keep me informed as to Colonel Hiro’s progress, would you?’
Kio Matzo, for totally the wrong reason, smiled. ‘Of course, Excellency.’
The slight breeze had dissipated in the night and the sea had become glassy. HM submarine Victor lay inert on the surface. The deck watch, doubled in those dangerous minutes of dawn, scanned the scarcely visible minutely. The first tender rays began to paint the bowl of the sky a lighter colour. The rays gradually took the form of flaming arrows that pierced the darkness directly overhead. The wispy clouds, invisible until that moment, caught fire and, suddenly, everything was changed.
Seconds later the sky muddied again as the false dawn lost its grip on the sky, and the silken threads disappeared.
The gulls left their night-stop on the long deck and circled the conning tower, their plaintive cries echoing over the still water. Then, lacking only the martial music that should have accompanied the occasion, the sun thrust its fiery edge over the horizon and the sky was wiped clean.
As if motivated by a single force the watching men clamped their glasses tighter to their eyes and turned slowly round in a full circle. At the completion of the circle they all appeared to relax slightly. The invisible, yet tangible, force that had bound their movement dissipated as they began to quarter their own allotted segments of the seascape.
The executive officer was studying the distant strip of land to the north. And as he looked he sang softly to him self. It was a calm and beautiful morning and that land might have been some balmy South Sea island. The tip of the iceberg that had been Singapore seemed an age away. He lowered his glasses and rubbed his eyes and thought about the coffee that was due any minute.
The officer looked around. One of the men had his arm extended on a line below his glasses. The executive officer crossed the tower and leant his body on the coaming for support as he raised his glasses to his eyes to follow the direction of the man’s arm. By now one of the other men had come over to that side of the tower to look also.
‘Back to your station,‘ said the officer patiently, without lowering the glasses.
The man shuffled off obediently.
At first the officer could see nothing to break the gentle curve of the horizon. ‘What do you see, Edwards?’
The man clucked his tongue softly as he squinted through the binoculars. ‘Dunno, sir. Not for sure. Looked like a mast there for a second. Can’t see... yes, I can! It’s there all right, sir!’
The officer removed the glasses just far enough from his eyes to recap on the direction of the seaman’s arm. He looked again. Then he saw it. It looked like a twig sticking up out of the water. Except that at that distance it could not hive been a twig. He studied it for a few moments. It was definitely a mast of some kind. But it could have belonged to anything. Then he saw a smudge of smoke against the lighter colour of the sky. There was no reason to wait any longer.
‘Secure the bridge and get below!’ he called to the men. Then, as they clattered down the ladder, he lifted the telephone. ‘Captain? Mast on horizon! ‘ He did not wait for the acknowledgement. He unplugged the telephone and handed it to the seaman down the hatch who was waiting to receive it. Then he swung his legs down the ladder, pulling the hatch cover after him until it clanged shut.
The captain was in the control room, his face a mask of clinical concern. ‘Range?’ he asked.
‘About ten miles, sir. Could be anything. The super structure is still well below the horizon. But it’s diesel, I’m sure.’
The captain nodded. ‘Very good, Number One. Take us down to periscope depth, if you please.‘
Captain Peter Lockhart lay on his bunk in his underclothes. He was doing just what his orders had dictated; he was waiting for final instructions from Ceylon. His sleep had been deep and untroubled and dreamless. He was wide awake now. But since there was absolutely nothing to be gained by rousing himself he was content to remain where he was. Besides which he was finding it refreshing to be free, if only for a short time, of the openly hostile glares accorded him by the entire crew of the submarine. Not that Lockhart cared what the men thought of him, but the animosity, forty-eight hours of it, was beginning to get on his nerves. The captain, in particular, seemed to have brought the business down to a personal level. However, irritating though it was, it was typical of Lockhart that he bore the men no ill-will because of it. HM submarine Victor had, he knew, been through the mill recently, both during the collapse of Singapore and, perhaps more significantly, after it.
After running the gauntlet of the swarms of Japanese dive-bombers infesting the skies over Singapore, the ship had been forced, due to a badly damaged battery compartment, to run on the surface for the Andaman Islands, where it was hoped it would be left alone to repair the damage. The work had hardly begun when the Zeros had again located the submarine. The ensuing engagement had cost the captain five of his crew and the loss of the three-inch deck-gun. Then had followed a month-long hide-and-run sojourn among the heavily wooded inlets and bays of the Islands, punctuated periodically by more visits from the dive bombers, before the captain had decided to risk the five-knot surface limp across the Bay of Bengal to Trincomalee.
It was at Trincomalee that Lockhart had been waiting, not specifically for Victor, but for anything that could get him over the sea to the southern coast of Burma - there not being a single aircraft that was not engaged in the desperate battle to retain some kind of air superiority over the advancing Japanese armies. With some measure of difficulty Navy HQ in Ceylon had been persuaded to risk the near-defenceless submarine for what was supposed to have been a one-way transportation trip back to Burma, pending successful repairs which would at least allow the submarine to submerge. The repairs finally complete, Lockhart, the necessary orders in his hand, had boarded Victor as the last of the dockyard engineers had come ashore, with the captain and crew as yet unaware that they were being sent back into those lethally hostile waters.
The change in the throb of the engines, as the submarine went down to periscope depth, caught Lockhart’s attention. He felt the tiny cabin tilt and he heard the hiss of escaping air. But they had been up and down like a yo-yo for the past twenty-four hours. Then the cabin righted itself and the electric motors took up their steady hum. As had the first officer a few minutes before Lockhart thought about coffee. But the thought was as far as it went. He felt too lazy and too comfortable to make the effort. He reached up to the shelf above his head for his cigarettes, lit up, and watched the prohibited smoke drift up and into the air circulation vent. Suddenly the klaxon blared and the tannoy came to life.
‘Dive stations! Dive stations!’
This was something new. Lockhart had his trousers on almost before his feet touched the deck. He grabbed shirt and threw it over his head hurriedly. The passage was filled with running figures and the klaxon blared on. Now the deck was tilting steeply. Lockhart pushed out into the stream of seamen shouldered his way to the control-room ladder. As pulled himself up he could hear the jumble of voices.
‘Depth a hundred feet!’
‘Full ahead both!’
‘Full dive! Dive! Dive!’
‘Hold on to her, Peters!’
‘Planes at full dive, sir!’ ‘Very well ...‘
Lockhart emerged into the control room. The captain stood, holding on to the periscope shaft. The other dozen or so men were hunched over their instruments controls. The captain saw Lockhart.
‘I’d rather stay here, if you don’t mind, sir…‘ Lockhart made certain that he delivered the word ‘sir’ correctly, concluding that this simple expedient, which cost nothing, got better results. And Peter Lockhart was not a proud man.
The captain shrugged. ‘Well, get over there out of way!’ He indicated a space between two banks of levers and wheels. Lockhart did as he was bidden.
They were still diving. The engineer had his eyes glued to the depth indicator. The needle crept smoothly around the dial. Then the engineer gave his wheel a couple of turns and the grating shuddered underfoot.
‘Levelling at one hundred and sixty feet, sir.’
The captain turned back to Lockhart. He managed a half-smile. ‘Destroyer...‘ he said, by way of explanation.
With the faint smile still on his face the captain turned to the helmsman. ‘Bring her round to one-two-zero.’
The man repeated the order then juggled with his wheel. The deck tilted as the submarine rode her hydroplanes in a tight turn. Then the helmsman allowed the wheel to right itself.
‘Very well. Range?’
The sonar operator inclined his head towards the captain. ‘Two thousand yards, sir. Bearing green, eight- zero.’
‘Very well. Port stop. Dead slow starboard.’
‘Contact bearing away, sir,’ said the sound man. ‘Range Increasing.’
‘Very well.‘ The captain frowned slightly as he attacked the situation in his mind. ‘What d’you think, Number One?’
The First Officer raised his eyebrows. ‘Hard to say, sir. It didn’t spot us, I’m certain of that. It was still hull-down when we dived. It would have taken Jesus Christ to have seen us from his masthead.’
The captain h’md thoughtfully. ‘Range now?’
‘Two thousand, three hundred, sir. A little over.’
The sound man piped up. ‘Screw sounds dying, sir.’
The captain sighed deeply and drummed his fingers softly on the periscope tube. The control room was absolutely silent for a good three minutes. A tinkle sounded from somewhere deep in the bowels of the ship. No one moved. For another sixty seconds there was nothing to be heard but the steady drip of the condensation building on the pressure hull and an occasional gurgle from outside. Then the sound man, his headphones clamped to his inclined his head slightly. Softly, he said, ‘Contact gone, sir.’
One of the men cleared his throat as if he had waiting for just those words. There was a hiss as the engine transferred some air between the tanks to maintain the trim. The captain’s frown deepened.
‘You’re sure they couldn’t have seen the tower, number One?’
‘Positive, sir!’ The First Officer was adamant.
‘Very well. Mitchell? Any sonar from him?’
‘Not that I could make out, sir. Certainly none now. There’s nothing, sir.’
The captain thought for a while. ‘Then what the devil is he playing at?’ This was to no one in particular.
The control room waited for a further five minutes. Most of that time all eyes were on the captain. At last, with a minute shake of his head, the captain said, ‘Right, Number One. I’ll take your word for it. We’ll have a look. Bring her up to periscope depth. Slowly! And don’t use air, bring her up on the planes. And if we break surface someone will pay dearly!’
It took a long time for the submarine to claw its way to the required depth. At last the engineer spoke.
‘Periscope depth, sir.’
‘Very well. Any sonar yet?’
The sound man creased his eyes as he listened. He shook his head. ‘No, sir. All quiet.’
The captain nodded. He looked long and hard at the executive officer. The officer caught the unspoken question. He said, ‘I’m positive, sir!’
The captain nodded again and with a resigned sigh he ordered, ‘All stop.’
When the ship had ceased its forward motion he said, ‘Watch the trim now. Up periscope!’
The slick metal shaft rose with a hiss of compressed air. The captain flipped down the rubber-handled grips and pressed an eye to the visor. He pivoted around to the right bearing. The hands gripped the handles tighter.
‘He’s there! Just sitting there, for God’s sake! Number One, I’ll…Hell! Down scope! All ahead full, group up!’ He stepped back as the periscope slid back down into its well. The control room came alive with movement. He called, ‘Come right to one-eight-oh! Emergency dive! Dive! Dive! ‘ He turned to the first officer, who looked appalled.
‘He must have seen us! The whole bloody ship was sitting there in the water waiting for us to come up again!’ His voice held more than a trace of disgust.
‘But…‘ began the officer.
The captain waved a hand. ‘Too late now! He’s making a run!’
Lockhart was startled to see the concern on all their faces. He silently cursed the First Officer. And he cursed the captain for not waiting longer before exposing the periscope. This was just what he did not want. An attack, whether it was successful or not, would scrub the mission before he had even been landed.
The deck was tilting heavily now. Everyone was grabbing on to something to keep from sliding down the grating. The sound man’s pencil dropped from the table and rolled into a corner. In another compartment something crashed and broke. Lockhart watched, strangely fascinated, as the sound man’s pencil was jerked out of the corner to disappear down through the grating. It was almost impossible to remain upright now as the deck heeled further and further over.
‘Diving fast!’ called the engineer hoarsely,‘Three hundred and fifty feet, sir! …Three hundred and sixty ...‘
The captain was busy estimating the time it would take for the destroyer to close on them. ‘Keep her going!’
Things were crashing and banging all over the ship now. Men cursed, fell, and cursed some more. Still the engineer droned out the depth readings, his voice rising a tone in pitch at each call.
‘Five hundred feet!’
‘Five hundred and thirty feet!
‘Five hundred and fifty feet!’
‘Five hundred and eighty feet, sir!’ The last was almost an entreaty.
At last the captain called a halt. ‘All right, engineer. Don’t wet your pants! Level off!’
The engineer yanked on the wheel. The First Officer, the rebuke forgotten for the moment, called: ‘Not too bloody hard, man! You’ll have the planes off!’
‘Yes, sir. Levelling off, sir. Sorry, sir…‘ Then: ‘Level at five hundred and ninety feet, sir. I’m afraid I pulled her up a bit.’
The captain shook his head disgustedly. ‘Very well. Stop engines. Pass the word for a silent ship. Silent, d’you under stand, Number One? Get the fans off. Everything!’
The hum of the engines died. All sounds throughout the submarine faded away to nothing. Then they all heard it. Like an angry wasp at first. And growing by the second. The noise swelled until it sounded as if someone were hammering the hull with a power drill.
Lockhart sensed the electrical atmosphere. It was like nothing he had ever experienced before in his life. And he was surprised - no, he was aghast - to realise that he was afraid. He had never credited himself with the capacity for real fear; the sort of fear that freezes the insides and literally raises the hair on the back of the neck. He looked at the hull and could visualise the crush of water pressing in on them. He could hear the blood pounding through his veins and he knew that despite the clammy-cold air he was sweating.
For an instant he felt relief as the hammering subsided. The destroyer had passed directly over them. But the relief lasted for no more than that instant; until he saw that the other men in the control room appeared not the slightest bit relieved. Their faces were turned upwards and they were staring at the metal hull, waiting.
Then Lockhart knew what they were waiting for. He could see the engineer soundlessly counting off the seconds as his hands sought purchase on the rim of the table. They were waiting for the depth charges to explode. Lockhart reached out and grabbed the corner of a panel, and he himself looked upwards. Now he could see - close enough to the literal to make no difference - the canisters sinking slowly through the black water towards the ship, leaving their spiral trails of bubbles behind them.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
Lockhart felt the vibrations run through the submarine. But that was all. Someone’s voice came quietly, reverently:
‘He’s missed us.’
‘Shut up! ‘hissed the First Officer.
The buzzing noise returned. Growing and growing. Lockhart swallowed. He felt his hands grip the panel tighter. His knees felt suddenly woolly. His imagination worked again and he saw the metal sides of the submarine crashing inwards, and the rush of white water that would follow. The sound overhead attacked his ears again. Vibration everywhere.
The engineer began another litany, silent, but deadly, counting off the final seconds. ‘Shut up!’ mouthed Lockhart. ‘Shut up!’ But he could not drag his eyes from the moving lips.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
The fourth explosion was like a thunderclap. The control room blurred. Lockhart saw what looked like a great cloud of dust puff inwards off the pressure hull. That’s it, he thought, calmer in that millisecond now that it was all over.
But it was not over. The hull remained intact. It was black now. Someone called for a light. The room turned red. The buzzing returned, swelled, and died.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
The deck kicked beneath Lockhart’s legs. He sank to his knees. A loud ‘CRACK’ sounded from somewhere in the ship. And a cry. Then a louder noise. A frantic hissing. Suddenly people were yelling and shouting. The din drowning the destroyer’s next pass. And now Lockhart could taste the moisture in the air as new explosions kicked the deck beneath him.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
As the deck heaved, Lockhart was thrown bodily across the room. He fetched up hard against a bulkhead and felt someone fall across his legs. As the heaving subsided he pushed the inert figure from him and tried to pull himself to his feet. Minor explosions sounded all around him. The bulbs were blowing in the emergency system. In seconds a black, suffocating darkness had closed in around him; a darkness that seemed to possess a malevolent power all of its own. He heard the captain’s voice, ludicrously calm, above the hubbub.
‘A light! I need a light. Number One?’
‘I’ve got one here, sir.’ That sounded like the engineer’s voice.
‘Well, put the bloody thing on, then, can’t you!’
A pitifully weak glow appeared somewhere on the other side of the cabin. ‘Right,’ said the captain. ‘Someone get aft and see where the hell that water breach is! NUMBER ONE!’
The voice came from behind Lockhart. That must have been who fell on him. Lockhart allowed himself to sink back to the grating. He hardly knew what was happening to him.
‘Get someone down to the forward torpedo room. The comm is out. Get them to jettison oil. Lots of it! We’ll try the old dodge. Jerry’s swallowed it enough times. And tell them to get a chair into the tube if they can. Anything that’ll float.‘
The First Officer yelled a name into the blackness. Then someone else called:
‘It’s coming in again!’
The captain cursed. ‘Blow all tanks! Let’s try for a different depth.‘
But there was no time. Again the shattering explosions smashed into the submarine and the world was turned upside down. Lockhart felt himself lifted into the air and, from somewhere far off, he heard the captain’s words:
‘Anything that’ll float…‘ The words echoed around inside his mind. Someone else had said those same words to him not long ago at Trincomalee. The sibilant sound of the last ‘t’ bounced back and forth across his addled brain. Then, suddenly, there was nothing.
‘Anything that’ll float…‘ Colonel Miles Ballard had said, ‘is well spoken for. Irretrievably so, I’m afraid. Short, that is, of a couple of MTBs that I can lay my hands on. And perhaps an air-sea rescue launch. Totally unsuited to the kind of operation outlined here, of course.’ He indicated Lockhart’s warrant papers on his desk. ‘But if you think you can use them, you’re quite welcome.’ He waved a hand at the wide sweep of the harbour that was just visible over the rooftops of the dockyard workshops and warehouses. ‘You can see for yourself the situation.‘
Lockhart eased his spine away from the chair back. It didn’t help. His sweat-sodden shirt remained glued to his skin. It was unbelievably hot and humid in Ballard’s office, despite the frantically whirling fan on the ceiling. Lockhart found it incredible that Ballard could find the strength to think, let alone speak.
‘And you’ve absolutely nothing in the air?’ he asked.
Ballard stepped over to the window and stood, hands clasped behind his back, surveying the scene. He shook his head. ‘Nothing. That I can commandeer, that is. Under normal circumstances I might just agree to steal something for you. But these are not normal circumstances. I think London must be labouring under some kind of a misconception. We’re on the verge of a crippling defeat here in the Far East. God knows where it’ll end. Singapore has gone. Now Burma. How long before the Japs are here, I ask myself.‘ He turned to face Lockhart, as if he were expecting him to tender an opinion.
Lockhart did not even contemplate the question. ‘Colonel,’ he began, fingering his collar away from his neck, ‘I don’t want to appear overly dramatic, but you do realise that my warrant - ‘
Ballard knew what was coming and he lifted a hand. ‘I do fully appreciate that you have the highest clearance, and that I am expected to give you everything I’ve got.‘ He lifted both arms in a helpless gesture. ‘But I have nothing. We have nothing! We don’t even know what is happening over there at the moment. And as for engineering a clandestine, two-way trip across the sea to Rangoon, well, that would require the intervention of the Almighty!’ Ballard returned to his desk and sat heavily in the chair behind it. He lifted a cigarette box and offered it over to Lockhart. Lockhart declined with a shake of his head; it was far too hot to even contemplate smoking. Ballard lit one up for himself. Then he lifted the warrant papers and flipped through them.
‘Having said all that,’ he said, coming to the last page and, glancing at it, shaking his head, ‘I have to add that if this gave some inkling as to the nature of your mission, something tangible that I could shove under the C.-in-C‘s nose, well, I might just be able to persuade him to…‘
Ballard stopped mid-sentence as he caught Lockhart’s sigh of long-suffering.
‘That page you are looking at,’ Lockhart said patiently, ‘bears the signature and seal of Sir Donald Oakfield, who, as you must know, is Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet voice. If not for the fact that Churchill was in North Africa at the time, that page would carry his signature and seal. What the hell else does the Commander-in-Chief need to impress him!’
Ballard gave a deep sigh of his own. ‘I know, I know. Believe me! But when it comes to any hardware that can carry a bomb, or a ship that can fire a shell, then the C in C. wouldn’t budge even if this paper carried the signature and seal of the King himself! The situation is that bad, captain; catastrophic, almost…‘ He paused then, and leant forward across the desk. ‘But if I could only – ‘
Lockhart cut in: ‘That’s impossible, Colonel. And I think you know it.’
Ballard sat back into the chair and pulled a hand tiredly over his face. ‘Then we have an impasse.’
Lockhart stood up. He was bone-weary from the four days of plane-hopping from London and he could feel him self becoming more and more irritated at the colonel’s seemingly negative attitude. He walked to the centre of the room to stand directly under the fan. After a moment’s silence he said, ‘Then ! think we’re going to have to resort to the other method you mentioned.’
Ballard looked up at him, his brow furrowed uncomprehendingly.
‘You’re going to have to steal a seaplane,’ Lockhart prompted.
Ballard gave a half-amused laugh. Then he saw that Lockhart was not smiling at all. ‘You’re not serious?’ he said, attempting to retain some kind of a smile on his face.
Lockhart nodded. ‘I’m afraid I am, Colonel! Whatever it takes, I need transport to get me over to Rangoon. And I‘ll need that transport to be waiting for me when I’ve finished what ! have to do! My warrant calls for a seaplane, and this is a seaplane base. And I know that there are such things out there! I want one. And I don’t give a damn what you have to do to get it!’ Before Ballard could react one way or the other, Lockhart hurried on:
‘However, what you have been telling me has not fallen on totally deaf ears. You can forget about organising the personnel back-up. I’ll do the job on my own; in fact, I prefer it that way. I’m going now to catch up on a little sleep. I’ll be in the room your ADC has fixed for me. When you have something to tell me, call me. And if you need to make a call to London in the meantime, then by all means feel free…‘ He walked to the door. The colonel, his mouth open, stared after him. At the door Lockhart turned. ‘! suggest you make your call person-to-person to Churchill himself, he’s back in London by now. And you might like to have your reticent Commander-in-Chief with you when you do it!’
Three hours later Ballard’s ADC woke Lockhart out of a deep sleep with the news that the colonel needed to speak with him right away. Lockhart dressed hurriedly, not bothering to wash, or shave his three-day-old beard, and he allowed himself to be bustled out to the waiting staff car.
It was a broadly smiling Ballard that greeted him in his office.
‘I think I have something for you,’ he said, motioning Lockhart to a chair. ‘Can I get you a coffee, or something. You look awful!’
‘Thanks,’ nodded Lockhart. ‘I’ll take a coffee.’
Ballard lifted his phone and spoke briefly to his secretary, then he turned to Lockhart. ‘A stroke of luck, really. Heard about it an hour ago.’
‘You’ve unearthed a plane?’
‘Ah, no,‘ said Ballard, a shade uncomfortably. Then he brightened. ‘But I think I can offer you the next best thing. A submarine.’
Lockhart shrugged. The one was really as good as the other. And he was not at all ignorant of the trouble the colonel would have been going through. He smiled thinly. ‘You called London, then.‘ It was pure statement.
Ballard shook his head. ‘No, I didn’t. But I did speak again to the C-in-C.’
Lockhart’s face resumed its impassive set. ‘And?’
‘And,’ Ballard continued, ‘he informs me that navy I has heard from one of its submarines. It seems that they’d presumed it lost back in Singapore. But it’s turned up again.’
‘Not yet. But it’s on its way in. A trifle the worse for wear, apparently. But serviceable. Just.’
‘What does that mean, Colonel?’
Ballard shifted in his chair. ‘Just that, really. The C.-in C. tells me that it’s sustained considerable damage; too much damage for it to be placed at battle readiness for some considerable time. With some repair it will be able to put back to sea, but that will be about it. So, considering the signature on your warrant, he is willing to let you have it.‘ He shrugged here, ‘I have assured him that it will only be required for a one-way trip; a matter of two weeks at the most. But you know the old saying - possession is nine- tenths of the law etc. If you can browbeat its captain the way you’ve browbeaten me, well, who knows what you will achieve, eh?’ His smile showed a slight trace of nervousness.
Lockhart nodded. ‘Just so long as that captain knows that I, personally, hold the reins.’
Ballard unlocked one of his desk drawers and took out Lockhart’s warrant papers. He folded them neatly and handed them over. ‘The, ah, C.-in-C. is contacting London himself. If, ah, when, he gets the reaction I think he’ll get, he will issue the necessary orders to the captain. That point will be made clear in them.’
Lockhart slipped the papers into his jacket pocket. He was vaguely amused to realise that Ballard could not wait to be rid of him. Still, it was understandable. Ballard was a full colonel in the Intelligence Corps. And Lockhart was just a captain; but he was a captain with a clearance that Ballard could never hope to achieve - an uncomfortable situation for any rank.
There was a knock on the door and Ballard’s secretary, a tray in her hand, entered. She placed the tray on the desk and left wordlessly. Ballard poured Lockhart a cup and handed it over. Lockhart took a sip, nodded his thanks, then stood up.
‘I will need to use your radio, Colonel. If I’m to use a submarine certain events will need to be shuffled about a bit. When will it be ready to leave?’
Ballard stood up. ‘It’s due in tonight. The C.-in-C. estimates forty-eight hours to get it seaworthy.’ He held out his hand. ‘I’ll hand you over to Lieutenant Anderson, my communications number. I presume it’s London you wish to call?’
Lockhart shook the hand briefly. ‘It is. And, thank you, Colonel, for your co-operation.’
Ballard walked with him to the door. ‘Not at all, captain. I’m only sorry that I couldn’t do more. If you need anything else before you leave, then you know where I am.’
Lockhart lay with his eyes closed. He had been knocked out, he knew. How long he had been out, or what had happened during that time, he did not know. He was still in the control room and the deck was still shuddering at intervals. The exploding depth charges seemed more muffled; or was that just his imagination? And there was someone lying just beside him, he could feel the warmer pressure against his legs.
When he opened his eyes he could see the red glow. At least they had managed to replace some of the emergency lights. The room was alive with movement and voices.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
Was that slightly less ear-shattering, slightly less bone-jarring? It was, Lockhart concluded. Much less. The hissing sound still filled the air. He could hear the captain’s voice issuing orders.
‘Get someone else on that valve, Number One! Stop that water, Peters! Get back to the torpedo-room, take someone with you. Send up some more oil in case they come around for another look. And put some vegetables and the like in the tube this time.’
‘They’re still attacking, sir.’
‘I’m aware of that, Number One! But if he gets a blip from us he might think it’s just the wreckage coming up. So we’ll show him some wreckage. Get to it!’
‘Engineer, can we move yet?’
‘Probably, sir. But I can’t be sure how much control I’ll have. There’s quite a bit of damage on the lines.’
‘Three hundred feet, sir. We’re coming up all the time.’
‘Well, do something pretty damned quickly! If we break the surface…’
Lockhart reached over his head, grabbed the edge of a panel and heaved himself to his feet. He looked down. Two figures were laying on the grating beside him, and from the unnatural way they were sprawled they were either dead or very much unconscious.
‘So you’re still in one piece, Lockhart?’ It was the captain.
‘I think. How long was I out?’
‘How the hell should I know? We’ve had a battle on our hands here, in case you hadn’t noticed - ah, Peters, have you stopped that leak?’
‘Almost, sir. They’re working on it.’
‘Very well... Depth now?’
‘Still coming up, sir. Two hundred and sixty feet.’
‘Damn! Sonar, anything?’
‘I caught a blip...‘
The lights flickered once, then died.
‘Hellfire!’ cursed the captain. ‘Get those lights back on!’
‘We’re resetting, sir. Have them all in half a minute.’
‘Well, move, for God’s sake! It’s blacker than a whore’s armpit!’
‘It’s gone, sir.’
‘What the hell’s gone? The torpedo-room?’
‘No, sir. The decoy. They just sent word back.’
‘Very well. Now, let’s have a bit of quiet.’ The hissing sound was dying.
‘We’ve got it, sir! She’s tight!’ This was called from the next compartment.
‘Very well. Now, be quiet, everyone! Mitchell? Anything?’
‘Don’t think so, sir. Screw sounds. But I’m losing it. Very faint now, sir. Going away, sir.’
‘You’re sure this time?’
‘We’ll see. Number One?’
‘He went forrard, sir.’
‘Who’s that? Perkins?’
‘No, sir. It’s Meadowcroft. Engine-room.’
‘Then what the bloody hell are you doing up here?’
‘Runner, sir. The comm. is still out back there.’
.‘How long before that’s fixed? Perkins! Where the blazes are you?’
‘We need a light, sir.’
‘Then get a damned light! Meadowcroft? Are you still here?’
‘I’m here, sir.’
‘Any damage in the engine-room?’
‘No, sir. Some o’ that wogs’ weldin’ burst, sir. We lost a couple o’ batteries, an’ there’s quite a bit of acid about, sir, but we isolated it, sir.’
A light entered the control room, ghostly, as if floating on air. The captain said, ‘Give that light to the engineer and tell me the depth!’
The light drifted through the jumble of bodies, wobbled as it changed hands, then picked out the depth repeater. ‘Still rising, sir! Passed two hundred feet.’
‘Hell! This is no good! All right, Engineer, give it a try. We must stay down! Give me revolutions for five knots.’
The control room swayed drunkenly as the boat gathered way and the nose lifted. Suddenly they were bathed in light.
‘Thank the Lord for that! Hold her, damn you!’
‘I’m trying to…sir! A few more knots might do it. It doesn’t feel like there’s any pull on the planes.’
‘You can use the comm. now, sir.’
‘Well done, Sparks! Ah, there you are, Number One! Give me revolutions for eight knots.’
The room gave another pitch and a sickening roll. Everyone grabbed on to something for support. ‘Hold her, Engineer! Hold her! Depth?’
‘One hundred and thirty feet, sir.’
‘Nose down! Get the nose down!’
‘She won’t respond, sir!’
The captain spat, ‘Hell! Very well, flood all the tanks!’
Someone piped up, ‘The lines, sir! I don’t know! If we flood we may not - ‘
The captain came back, his voice flat, as if he had not heard. ‘Flood!’
The First Officer repeated, ‘Flood, sir. All tanks flooding!’
The noise, as the sea-water gushed back into the tanks under several tons of pressure, was very loud. Everyone gripped their handholds harder and stared at the back of the engineer’s head. It was half a minute before he spoke.
‘Levelling off, sir. Depth now one hundred feet!’
‘Blow tanks one and four!’
Now a hissing and bubbling noise came through the hull. The room was vibrating; loose nuts and equipment rattled madly.
‘Still at one hundred feet, sir.’
The control room heaved a sigh of relief. ‘Bring her round to zero-one-zero.’ The deck tilted gently.
‘Very well. Sonar! Anything?’
They waited then as the submarine pushed through the water, away from the scene of the attack. Everyone’s eyes were on his instruments, checking and rechecking. Ears listened intently for any unusual sounds that would portent some failure or other.
Twenty minutes later the captain ordered, ‘All right, Number One. Stop engines! Damage reports to me right away. Let’s see what the score is…‘
Victor came up for air late that afternoon. As soon as the tower broke the surface the watch party pushed open the hatch and climbed the ladder to the bridge. Within seconds they were sweeping the horizon with their glasses. So quick in opening the hatch were they that ten gallons of sea-water found its way down into the control room.
But the sea was empty.
Lockhart climbed the ladder behind the watch party, he badly needed to feel fresh air on his face. He smoked a cigarette, the smoke tasting infinitely better than it had ever tasted before. He was disgusted with himself for the fear he had experienced during the attack.
The men with the binoculars did not relax their vigilance even for an instant; the memory of the morning was too fresh in their minds.
The fresh air circulators were turned on, creating a mini-hurricane that ripped through the ship. HM submarine Victor had come alive again. When it was absolutely certain that there were no hostile ships in the area the body of the only man to die in the attack was brought up and, with a few words spoken by the captain, was consigned to the Bay of Bengal. During, and for a short while after this short ceremony, Lockhart experienced an even greater degree of coolness from any of the crew he came into contact with. But he hardly noticed it. He was not feeling too pleased with himself, either.
Discounting Lockhart, the First Officer was not the captain’s most favourite person just at the moment. They were in the latter’s cabin and the First Officer was desperately trying to exonerate himself.
‘Sir! They could not possibly have spotted us! I only saw it with difficulty. And then it was only the masthead. Edwards will bear me out if you won’t take my word for it!’ The First Officer was getting angrier. ‘Damn it all, sir! As God’s my witness! All we could see was the very tip of its mast! Nothing else, sir. Absolutely nothing else!’
The captain had to admit that the officer was genuine in his affirmations. The man had been his First Officer since Victor had been commissioned. And he would not deliberately lie to him, even to save his skin. And yet there was no escaping the fact that the destroyer had come to their bit of the sea, and had waited for the ship to show itself. It had been no chance connection. They knew that Victor was there. And, that being the case, then they must have spotted her tower in the water.
‘Another thing, sir,’ went on the First Officer, his cheeks colouring, his face a mask of frustration, ‘why would they stop their engines if they knew we were here? That would be madness! They would come right in with sonar. Unless the captain was a fool!’
The captain shook his head. It was queer. To stop, dead, in the water, knowing that an enemy submarine was close by really would be sheer madness. Yet the destroyer had done so. And - this was the confusing part - they had been waiting for them. Or someone like them.
There was a rap on the bulkhead. Peter Lockhart poked his head around the curtain. He saw the First Officer.
‘Sorry, captain. Hope I’m not interrupting.’
‘What is it, Lockhart?’
‘It’s about this morning.’
The captain grinned, despite himself. He had known that this Intelligence Corps captain was scared. He had seen too many kinds of fear in men not to recognise the symptoms. ‘What about this morning?’
The First Officer rose up from the jump-seat. Lockhart waved him back down and stepped inside the cabin. ‘Just as well if you stay, since what I have to say will probably concern you.’
The officer glanced at the captain, who nodded. He had already given him the benefit of the very considerable doubt for the time being. ‘That’s all right, Number One. Let’s humour the captain, shall we?’
Lockhart was not in the mood to cross swords. He ignored the obvious jibe and came to his point. ‘I’ve been up on the bridge, and I couldn’t help overhearing the watch discussing the incident. Is it right that what happened was unusual?’
Lockhart’s expression told the captain that he was deadly serious. He also noticed the First Officer shift uncomfortably on the seat. ‘What do you mean by unusual?’ he asked, his eyes narrowing.
‘Not my words, captain. But if it needs explaining, I mean about that destroyer knowing where to look for us, when the odds were that he did not see us before we dived.’
The captain knew then that Lockhart did not want to discuss the possible shortcomings of his First Officer as he had first thought. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it was not the way one would have expected things to happen. But what – ‘
‘Then I have to tell you that your officer here was quite right. The destroyer did not see us - in the flesh.’
‘What the devil d’you mean?’ snapped the captain. He was both puzzled and angry to have a civilian - or, at least not a navy man - give an opinion on proceedings aboard his ship. Especially when that person had probably never seen the inside of a submarine in his life.
‘What I mean, captain,’ said Lockhart patiently, ‘is that that ship knew we were here, or would be here at some stage; that it knew even before it had slipped its mooring lines.’
The captain and the First Officer looked at each other blankly. Then the captain shook his head. ‘Not possible, Lockhart! I have had lookouts in the tower every second. There has not been an aircraft in the - ‘
‘And I don’t refer to a spotter plane. Nothing saw us, captain.’
‘Then,‘ began the captain, with a look on his face that would normally be reserved for dealing with the opinions of children and eccentrics, ‘I suggest that -’
‘No, captain! I suggest that we move even further from the scene of the crime. The people after us are not going to be satisfied with reports of bits of wood and a few gallons of oil floating to the surface! Not yet, anyway. Someone is going to be back. You can rely on it!’
Suddenly the captain saw what Lockhart was driving at. His eyes narrowed to little more than slits and his voice dropped menacingly. ‘It’s your damned death-or-glory brigade, is it? The cloak-and-dagger merchants who saw fit to send a crippled ship back into action! You’ve slipped up, and your precious secret society - or whatever the hell you call yourselves - has placed one of His Majesty’s submarines in unnecessary danger. And, be damned - ‘ He swelled up indignantly. ‘You’ve killed one of my crew!’
Lockhart could not argue with that. But a slanging match, no matter how justified, would get them nowhere. ‘Guilty,‘ he said bluntly. ‘But before you go off the deep end, we’re wasting time. I think you had better pass the word to get under way. We can – ‘
The captain was on his feet now. ‘You have never said a truer word!’ he exploded. ‘Not only am I going to take this ship to a different position, I am going to take it to a different blasted ocean! Number One! Lay on a course for Trincomalee!’
The First Officer squeezed between the two men and out into the passage. The captain turned to follow him but Lockhart grabbed him by the arm and held him. The First Officer saw the action and he hurried off, anxious not to witness what was bound to happen; to his certain knowledge no one had ever laid hands on the captain, either jokingly, or otherwise.
‘Let go of my arm, man! Are you mad?’
A rating passed the cabin. He, too, got off-side in a hurry. Lockhart, feeling that the time had come for something positive, clamped the arm tighter and dragged the captain, spluttering, back into the cabin. With his free hand he drew across the heavy curtain. The captain was almost purple with rage by this time. He wrenched his arm free and found himself staring down the business end of a .38 revolver. He stood there gaping, his mouth working, as he struggled to find words.
‘I’ll use this if I have to, captain, ‘ said Lockhart softly.
The captain could only look on, utterly dumbfounded.
‘I mean it, captain. By God, I do!’
At last the captain found his voice. ‘I’ll have you put in irons for this! How dare you threaten me with a gun!‘ And then, incredulously, ‘Do you know what you are doing? Have you the slightest idea of the gravity of placing me - me - under gunpoint?’
Lockhart was superbly calm. ‘I know exactly what I’m doing, captain. And I repeat, I’ll shoot you like a dog if you don’t sit down and listen!’
The captain sat heavily; more because he found it impossible to believe that this was happening to him than that he took the threat in any way seriously. ‘On my own ship,‘ he was muttering. ‘My own ship! Amongst my own men!’
Lockhart moved the barrel of the gun until it was pointed directly at the captain’s chest. He spoke urgently then, realising that the man would not sit still for this for very long.
‘Captain, you cannot take this submarine anywhere other than where I tell you. If you attempt it - and you might succeed - you will be dealing your own side a blow in the belly from which it may never recover! Your own side, captain! The entire future of the Allies in this part of the world may be utterly dependent upon what we do here!’ Lockhart knew that only a direct appeal to the captain’s patriotism would get, and hold, his attention. And he knew that he would have to do it quickly, for it would only take one shout from the captain to have the entire crew down around his ears.
‘Do you understand, captain? If you pull out now you could be lengthening the war by God knows how long! Do you know how many lives that will cost?’
The captain looked up at him. His face was still twisted with rage and hate, but he was listening.
‘That’s right, captain. ‘Every word I’ve said is true.’
The captain growled, the words shaking with emotion, ‘I don’t believe you!’
But Lockhart could see that he had made an impression. Then the captain looked at the unwavering barrel of the gun.
‘I’ll have you court-martialled for this!’
Lockhart sat down on the bunk. ‘Maybe.‘ He lowered the gun, reached behind him, and slipped it back into the holster. ‘Sorry about that. But I had to make you listen.’
The captain’s bluster was only half-hearted. ‘Do you think that I am going to risk my ship and any more of my crew on the word of some blasted hooligan who thinks that a gun can settle anything?’
Lockhart smiled to himself. His pop-gun could never hope to kill as many men in a lifetime as the instrument of war under the captain’s command could despatch with just one of its lethal barrel’s slimline projectiles. He said, ‘We were both hired by the same government, captain. And in this case for the same job.’
The captain said nothing. He just looked at Lockhart with his eyes filled with loathing. Fifteen seconds passed. Thirty. At last he spoke.
‘I want you to know that your kind disgust me! Why in heaven’s name the government sees fit to employ scum like you, I’ll never know!’
Sticks and stones, thought Lockhart. He’d been insulted by experts in his time. He said, ‘This is a dirty war, captain. I believe you have already seen a little of the handiwork of our common enemy. To fight people like that requires a healthy smattering of people like me. It’s as simple and uncomplicated as that. Now then, captain, we know that we do not have the makings of a mutual admiration society here, so let’s get on, shall we?’
The captain eyed him steadily for a moment. Then he said, ‘Is that it?’
‘That’s it, captain. We - ’
The captain stood up sharply. ‘And you think that a lot of glib words can change my mind? You think that by the simple expedient of waving the red, white and blue at me I’m going to allow you to run us into more clashes with the enemy? You really must think I’m an imbecile, Lockhart! Nothing is changed. And don’t bother to wave your orders at me! As far as I’m concerned you can take your damned orders and feed them to the fishes.’
Lockhart realised that he had lost. So he came to an immediate decision, one that he was under specific instructions not to resort to. He reached out and held the captain’s shoulder.
‘OK, captain. You’ve forced this. I’m going to tell you exactly what it is I’m doing here!’
The captain had been on the verge of knocking the hand away, but something in Lockhart’s tone stopped him. He allowed himself to be eased on to the jump-seat. ‘Very well, Lockhart. I’ll give you another minute of my time. Persuade me…’
Lockhart, having reached his decision, gave no more thought to the rights and wrongs of it. The captain, after all, was in no position to let anything slip in the wrong place. He sat back on the bunk.
‘What do you know of a Japanese commander named General Tohutaro Sakurai?’
The captain raised his eyebrows. ‘Is this a game for children, Lockhart? Sakurai is C-in-C of the Japanese Fourteenth Army.’
Lockhart nodded. ‘The same man who masterminded Singapore, and the rest of the Malay campaign. The man who ran the Allies out of southern Burma, and the man who is, at this very moment, planning the advance into India.’
The captain’s eyebrows lifted still further. ‘I presume all this is relevant?’
Lockhart ignored the question. ‘Put simply and bluntly, captain, it is Sakurai who is winning the war right at the moment, not the Japanese army, per se. What do you think would happen if Sakurai was no longer there to lead, captain?’
The eyebrows fell, but there was no immediate comment. Lockhart went on, ‘Well, I’ll tell you. If Sakurai’s influence, and his strategy, were no longer there, the Japanese army would falter. Maybe it would not disintegrate, but it would falter. And what is it, captain, that the Allies need, above all else, right now? I’ll answer that one, too. Time, captain. Time to regroup. Time to re-equip and redeploy. Time to avoid what I’ve recently heard described as a catastrophic defeat!’
An odd look came over the captain’s face. ‘Are you telling me that you have been sent here to assassinate Sakurai?’
Lockhart nodded. ‘On the button, captain. Very shortly - within a matter of hours, perhaps - Sakurai will meet Admiral Yamamoto to discuss the Indian campaign. As yet I do not know the exact date and time of that meeting, but I do know the venue - the palace of Rangoon’s ex-mayor. I know something else, too. Sakurai has the habit of keeping his plans to himself until the last possible moment. Well, captain, that “last possible moment” must never arrive! Sakurai must be dead before his meeting with Yamamoto !‘ Lockhart took out his cigarettes and lit one up. Then he went on:
‘I’m no strategist, so I don’t know exactly how much disruption his death will cause, but the War Cabinet thinks that it will be significant. Significant enough to stem the tide until something can be got together.’
The captain had a new look on his face now. After a moment’s thought he said, ‘And there’s no better way of doing it? A bombing raid?’
Lockhart shook his head. ‘Quite apart from the fact the planes to carry the bombs are just not available, a bombing raid would be too chancy. Sakurai could survive. No, captain. Sakurai must die, and he must be seen to die. And that is my task, captain. Mine, and that collection of cloak-and-dagger merchants you mentioned earlier.’
A faint smile picked at the captain’s mouth. ‘Are you forgetting the destroyer?’
Lockhart sighed to himself. He had not forgotten the incident, and he was fully aware of the ramifications of it. But he was prepared to hear the captain’s opinion. ‘So?‘
‘So, Mister Lockhart, it seems that your cloak is not so watertight after all. If, as you pointed out, the Japanese knew our position, then they will be aware of your mission. Am I right?’
Lockhart nodded. ‘That is correct.’
The captain lifted a shoulder. ‘Then surely steps will be taken to avoid – ‘
Lockhart cut in. ‘That, captain, is a certainty! And that is why you are going to put me ashore almost immediately. In a couple of hours it will be dark. You’ll take your ship in as far as you can, anywhere on the delta will do, then you’ll stand off and wait for my return. I’ll - ‘
Now the captain cut in. ‘Lunacy! Certain suicide, in fact! If, as you seem to think, they were not fooled by our decoy, then they will be waiting for you. You don’t stand a chance!’
Lockhart grunted. ‘Maybe, maybe not. But that’s the difference between your job and mine. You’re expected to perform difficult and dangerous tasks. Myself, and men like me, are expected to perform impossible ones.‘ He ground the cigarette out in the ashtray. ‘Now, captain, I must ask you to countermand your order to your First Officer.‘
The captain rose slowly to his feet and reached for the intercom.
‘Yes, captain?’ came the tinny reply.
‘Number One? Belay that order. Standby!’
Lockhart said, ‘Thank you, captain.’
The captain ignored that. ‘Understand this, Lockhart, regardless of anything else, I’m going to place in my report the fact you had the gall to threaten me with a loaded firearm.’
Lockhart shrugged. ‘Fair enough, captain. With any degree of luck they might just fire me. I could do with the rest.’ He smiled. ‘I’ll just need to use your radio shack, if I may. I can think of a couple of people who might like to be brought up to date.’