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The secret invaders 







Copyright 1958 by "Bill Strutton and Michael Pearson 



the men who manned the vrajr cane 

Cockleshell Heroes. 


Beach reconnaissance what does this phrase conjure up 
to the average man? I think very little; and yet in the last war, 
under the deliberately misleading title of Combined Opera- 
tions Pilotage Parties (COPPs) numbers of very gallant men 
set out on surveys of the actual beaches on which we subse- 
quently made our landings. None of the great amphibious 
operations of the last war could have been carried out, with 
such efficiency and skill, without the vital information that 
the COPPs provided. 

The Secret Invaders is the story of how the COPPs were 
trained, and how they carried out the reconnaissance of enemy 
beaches on which we wished to land, which were normally 
actively held by the enemy, making the task extremely hazar- 
dous. It tells, in particular, the story of Nigel Willmott (now a 
Captain Royal Navy with the D.S.O., D.S.C, and bar and at 
present a member of the naval staff in the Admiralty) who 
originated the idea, and organised, trained and led many of 
these very gallant parties. 

During the last four years of the war in Combined Opera- 
tions, and in South East Asia I had unrivalled knowledge of the 
COPP parties and I developed a deep admiration for their 
particular form of courage 'in cold blood*. 

The work of the COPPs was always kept completely secret 
in the war; and I am therefore delighted that their unobtrusive 
valour has at last been set down in a book, to which I am 
honoured to write this short foreword as a small tribute to so 
many gallant officers and men. 

| W 





IV THE GIANT ...... 62 

V FEET OF CLAY ...... 73 







xii "AND i AM NOT THERE. . . ." . . . 198 







1 Lieutenant- Commander Nigel Willmott, 

D.S.O., D.S.C., R.N. 64 

2 Manhandling a canoe through the fore 

hatch of a submarine 65 

3 The canoes are finally tailormade for COPP So 

4 The COPP suit 81 

Pictures acknowledged Crozon 

Copyright are reproduced with 

the permission of the Controller 

of H. M. Stationery Office. 



i North Africa: the Assault 66 

a Sicily: the death-trap coastline 96 

3 Normandy: the toughest job of all 166 

4 The Fight in the Far East 220 



THAT early in the morning the swimming pool at Cairo Club 
Baths was always deserted. Its emptiness amplified the flap- 
flap of Willmott's sandals when he came out of his cubicle. 

Lieutenant-Commander Willmott was always first to appear 
at the pool in the morning. He was straight, raw-boned, 
a little ungainly in his stride. He had dreamy grey eyes. The 
water awaited him, still and pristine as a square of freshly 
polished glass. He brooded solemnly over it while he put 
his feet together on the board, then tensed his pale body and 
plunged. The bubbles trailed from his stretched arms and he 
broke the surface with a snort. 

Then he threw back a drenched lick of brown hair and 
started his twenty-five laps. For a few laps he went at it in 
his dogged overarm and then, puffing a bit, rolled on to his 
back and took it easy while his legs threshed up a foam. 

Eventually, he thought, I'll be able to swim for miles like 
this, on my back. Well, maybe not miles not in heavy 
clothing, hung about like a Christmas tree with a pistol and 
a knife and a torch and a couple of purses of odds and ends. 

He would think out all the details of his idea, and all the 
snags, on his morning swim, because now he was close to 
the problem. Was this the best way to come into a beach- 
on his back, throwing a peep over his shoulder now and then 
to see where he was going? Or breast-stroking his way in? 

He rolled over again and started breast-stroking. The end 
of the baths is the shore. Ifs dark and there's no moon, and 
please God I shan't sound as noisy as this. There'll be a lap of 
waves, however slight, and at least some breeze. The main thing 
mil be how to move, if they aren't to spot me. 

At the other end of the pool an Arab boy crossed slowly, 
trailing a broom. He let it drop with a hollow clatter, dug in 
the folds of his galabeah, and squatted, winding up a clock- 
work doll. He set the doll down and watched it goose-step 



drunkenly while it whirred and clicked on the floor. It was 
a toy soldier. He wound it again and sat back on his haunches, 
gracefully bowed with his hands in his lap and his brown 
feet peeping from under his robe, absorbed in the wonder 
of it. 

It is dark, Willmott thought; this is a sentry, and I can't 
see him yet, though now and then I might hear him. Above 
all, he is not to see me. Carefully he thrust out his arms 
under the water, scissored his legs, jerking forward with 
each stroke, not watching the boy so much as observing 
critically his own approach. To be quiet he went very slowly. 
The end of the pool and the boy squatting there loomed 
closer; the small frizzy head was bent dreamily over the doll, 
now motionless, alert in a stupid toy-like way and seemingly 
ready to bring its tiny gun down from shoulder-arms to 
challenge the swimmer's approach. Willmott slid closer 
through the water till his outstretched finger-tips were almost 
touching the tiles. Suddenly the boy scrambled to his feet 
and stared wildly about him before his eyes met Willmott's 
staring steadily up at him from out of the water. 

The child's mouth quivered uncertainly before it broke 
into a grin. "Sa'ida!" 


Willmott's faint smile appeared. He turned and swam 
away. It might have been the sudden quietness, and the 
sense that this was wrong, that had startled the boy. But 
not bad, he thought. Not bad. He dipped his head, drowned 
his faint smile under the water, and struck out again. 

There was usually a handful of officers in the pool by the 
time Willmott finished his practice. He let himself go for 
the last few laps just to show he had it in him, and his air of 
purpose as he drove grimly through the others now bobbing 
about in the water was comic. 

Finally he stroked over to the steps, gripped the rails, and 
hauled himself out. Two officers he knew vaguely were 
dabbling their feet there; they eyed him up and down, 
amused and knowing as though they had been talking about 


One of them spoke up dryly. "The race finished two hours 
ago, old boy. Didn't anybody tell you?" The other grinned 


a little apologetically at him for this. Willmott never knew 
how to turn back this sort of wisecrack. Between heaving 
breaths he just nodded and smiled. He pinched the water 
from his nostrils and padded wetly back to his cubicle. 

He felt wonderful afterwards, lying stretched out in his 
dressing-gown and sipping coffee; lazy, glowing. It was nice 
of the war to allow him to winter in Egypt. And with those 
twenty-five laps a day, he was beginning to feel like a 

Then he began to think about work, and the shores of 
Rhodes, and what it was going to be like, landing an invasion 
force there when they knew damn-all about the state of those 
beaches. And whether, for want of decent charts, his calcula- 
tions might slaughter battalions, 

All the old spectres materialised over his coffee. He saw 
the landing craft, grounded and helpless on hidden shoals 
off the invasion beaches, and the shells ripping them open 
like scavengers tearing at a carcase. He saw the men floundering 
out in their battle equipment towards the shore, stumbling 
suddenly into deeper water, and drowning or dying under the 
machine guns. He saw the infantry corralled and stampeding 
in the cliff-enclosed beaches, hunting vainly about for the 
exits inland while the earth burst all around them. He saw 
young snotties with little more navigational experience than 
a Brownie, aiming their boats for a supposed beach that was 
in reality somewhere else cursing the chairborne idiots 
whose fumbling had wasted their training and screwed-up 
valour on the rocks around Rhodes in a great balls-up called 
Operation Cordite. 

These were the bogies that awoke again and visited' Willmott 
one by one, darkening his golden Egyptian morning, while 
he lay in his dressing-gown and sipped his coffee and got 
his wind back from his morning swim. 

The shabby apartment house in Cairo where Willmott 
turned in from the street was not the place to bring anybody 
with a reverence for sleek organisation and proper equipment 
for the task. It was not far from the Semiramis Hotel. At 


the end of the street, where two granite lions sat primly at 
attention, guarding a bridge, flowed the Nile. 

Inside, the house had been converted to military use by 
gutting it of furniture. Thus stricken and delivered to a 
profane tenancy, it was dilapidating fast. In every room, 
officers in motley uniforms worked at trestle tables. Charts 
and manuals littered the bare floor about their feet. 

Lieutenant-Commander Willmott's room was like the others. 
He, too, fished up his charts from the floor, swept the table 
clear of its litter, and pondered over their dubious hydro- 
graphical data on the island of Rhodes. You could describe 
the table as Current, the floor as Pending. There didn't 
seem to be a cupboard for anyone under the rank of admiral. 
It was January 1941, and still a ramshackle war. 

Christmas was just over. WavelTs spectacular advance in 
the desert had been everybody's present. It tingled in the 
veins still. 

There were more than 300,000 Italians behind barbed 
wire, the communiques said; the only sign of war in Libya 
hung in the skies, where a few newly arrived Messerschmidts 
wheeled and came diving down on Army convoys. 

And now there was Rhodes. It offered itself as temptingly 
to Allied enterprise as a peach drooping over a fence. Far 
from the Italian homeland, it lay nudging the coast of Turkey. 
From it, Italian bombers were mining the Suez and attacking 
convoys into Greece. The first German planes were landing 
on its airfield at Maritsa like seagulls heralding a storm. 

This apartment house in Cairo near the Kasr-el-Nil bridge 
was the Planning Headquarters for the first full-scale Allied 
invasion of the war. The staff officers in these bare and squalid 
rooms were labouring over the battle technique required to 
capture Rhodes. 

They did not perhaps think much about it then, but they 
were pioneering a way of making war that was to culminate 
in the most tremendous sea invasion in history. 

Nigel Willmott was the only man who had seen the beaches 
around Rhodes. He was just back from prowling round its 


hostile shore-line in a sluggish minelaying submarine. They 
had sidled in to the shallows for a close look, their dark 
cigar shape naked to the sky for any cruising enemy pilot 
to see. For three eye-searing days while they crawled at 
i knots among the islands of the Dodecanese Willmott 
had stood at the periscope and traversed it to con the enemy 
batteries, the emplacements, the frowning cliffs which reared 
hugely over him at maximum magnification. 

It had all convinced him only of one thing: somebody 
would have to explore those beaches more closely than from 
a reconnaissance plane or even from a periscope. 

From all the careful half-minute peeps from the submarine 
he had culled some useful intelligence of gun positions, 
beach exits, evidence of mining, and general enemy activity. 

But it was not anywhere near enough. Had it told him 
where the sandbanks were offshore which might maroon 
a flotilla of landing craft? Had it said what the shallows 
were like for beaching? And could they commit all the vehicles 
of a modern assault to those beaches not knowing whether 
they would sink to their axles in the sand? Were they beaches 
at all or just impassable ledges of sand-rock? 

Willmott was Navigating Officer to the Force. It was up to 
him to put the whole landings safely ashore in the right places. 

And that put thousands of lives in his hands. 

The evenings tinkled with gharry bells. Blue-shaded lights 
stippled the Cairo dusk. Lieutenant-Commander Nigel Will- 
mott walked in it and listened to another's woes. Robertson, 
the Signals Officer, was being sardonic about the conditions in 
which they had to hatch out the assault plan. 

He listened in his grave donnish way, with the smile 
hovering behind it, and said, "You know what I found out 

"No," Robertson said. 

"Two of my charts varied at one point by as much as a 

"A mile? You're joking! A mleV The Signals Officer was 


"A mile. After all, charts are supposed to keep people 
off beaches not guide them on to them. But how the hell 
can you plan to get craft into a beach when it may be a mile 
further along the coast, for all you know? Especially when 
you consider they've got to leave the carrier ships eight miles 
out at sea to stay out of the radar screen. It'd be damn near 
impossible even if the officers were experienced navigators 
but in fact, what are they ?" 

" I know. Bank clerks, advertising agents, bookmakers. 
It's a war and a half." 

Willmott was doing a lot of overtime on Rhodes, and 
so were his spectres. It wasn't like the days in the Norway 
fiords. He had served in a "Q" ship up there, and though 
it had been tough at times, it had all been a bit of a rag. Their 
naval guerilla duties had included landing commandos, 
harrying advancing enemy troops, making a nuisance of 
themselves between the islands and the mainland, cutting 
supply lines. It had been gay and it had dash. They had clad 
their ship in neutral merchant innocence and placed painted, 
skirted sailors on the poop to wave and blow kisses at any 
German aircraft that came out of the sky and circled them. 

It was this somewhat crude early experience* that landed 
him the job of Navigator to the Force now pknning to attack 
Rhodes. There was a shortage of navigators. He was thirty, 
a very junior lieutenant-commander. 

Now they were planning to throw, not a small raiding 
party, but an army out into the darkness. Few of the assault 
craft would have so much as a compass with which to find 
their way in. 

"I've never drowned a division before," Willmott said, 
"So I can't call myself an old salt." 

"You'll have to signal them in," Robertson said gaily, 
"Drop ruddy flares. Light a bonfire. To hell with surprising 

Willmott smiled at him suddenly. "You know, it's an idea," 
he said, 

"Quite! We can get the Eyeries to help us!" 

* In the fighting that had raged in Narvik's fiords, Willmott had seen 
no less than half their shipping casualties caused, not by enemy guns, but by 
rocks, shoals and other "navigational perils". 


But Willmott was not joking. He was off, stalking the 
idea. After a while he said in his quiet drawl, "At Gallipoli, 
an officer swam ashore before the attack. On the beach he 
held up a lighted beacon for the boats to see the way in. 
Properly done, it's not so silly." 

Robertson halted. The evening Babel of the Sharia Kamel 
flowed around them. He was a little awed. "You'll have 
a hell of a time trying out an idea like that on the old man, 
after Castelorizzo." 

A few weeks before, a Commando party had tried to land 
on Castelorizzo, a small island in the Eastern Mediterranean. 
They had been thrown off within twenty-four hours. Since 
then a certain sober orthodoxy had reigned at General Staff. 
It was not a time for anybody to put up his hand with any 
harum-scarum ideas. 

"At Castelorizzo," Willmott said, "The Commandos were 
landed on the wrong beach. I don't imagine that helped." 

Then he looked at Robertson, a vague profile in the dusk, 
and said it out loud. He said, "Somebody has got to go in 
first, and have a look round." They were stopped in the light 
pouring from a cafe interior where the backgammon clicked 
amid its vocal uproar. 

"God Almighty!" Robertson said, "Any volunteers?" 

"Otherwise," Willmott went on deliberately, "there's likely 
to be a massacre." 

He was worked up now, having said it. He brandished 
a rolled newspaper with a strange vehemence and whacked 
it against a lamp post. "What if the boats do manage to hit 
the right beach from eight miles out what sort of a beach 
is it going to be? Does our air reconnaissance or some dud 
charts or even the periscope sketches I've made tell us where 
it shelves nicely, where to dodge sandbars, inshore rocks, 
soft beaches? And this is to be a full-scale landing! I tell 
you, we'll have to take a damned sight closer look than that!" 

For a moment Robertson walked on with him in silence. 
Then he said, "Not like catching a train, you know. How 
would you get ashore?" 

"Or back?" Willmott said. "Well, something nice and 
unobtrusive again. How about a submarine?" 


Landing himself on Rhodes at night to explore its hazards 
was a wild idea to lay just then before the Force Commanders. 

Rear-Admiral Baillie-Grohman listened to Willmott with 
his hands clasped behind his back, surveying the tattered, 
creaking palms below his window. "Bee-Gee" was a spare, 
craggy, greying man, Austrian-born. He had inherited 
a game leg from World War I which gave him hell. And 
the worries that went with a new way of making war by 
big amphibious landings were all his. 

"How do you propose to get ashore on this reconnaissance 
of yours?" 

"Dinghy, sir, from the submarine. During the dark period 
I reckon I can get to within four hundred yards of the shore 
without being spotted. Then I'd swim in." 

"Don't be idiotic," Bee-Gee snorted. "You can't calmly 
swim into a beach that's actively manned by sentries! If 
they caught you, with all you know, the whole operation 
would be utterly compromised!" 

"I think I can dodge the sentries. But if I'm wrong, Intelli- 
gence could dose me with a good cover story." 

Bee-Gee halted on his nervous beat around the desk, 
looked at Willmott, and suddenly grinned. Then he shook 
his head. 

"No," he said. "Too risky," 

"With all respect, sir, the Army is going to be very unhappy 
if we ground on shoals and drop their men into ten feet 
of water. Couldn't you take it up with the Commander-in- 

Baillie-Grohman smiled but kept shaking his head. "Not 
unless I can see it myself. Sorry. No." He turned to his chart 

And that was that. 

In the afternoon Nigel Willmott went back to his Cairo 
lodgings in a side street behind the Headquarters. After 
lunch he laid siege to his landlady, a stout and amiable 
Frenchwoman who mothered a mixed brood of Service 
officers and blandished her into going shopping with him. 

First, they negotiated for a waterproof watch. Then he 
bought a torch which he thought could be seaproofed with 
rubber some sort of thin sheath which would envelop 


the torch, but through which he could still work the button. 
An odd idea struck him, and he grinned: Naval issue contra- 
ceptives could hardly be more suitable. Though his landlady 
was proving a masterly spokeswoman, that was something 
he could organise. 

Loaded up with purchases, Willmott went back to the 
office and wheedled a compass out of an Army staff officer. 
He smeared this thickly with periscope grease and spent an 
afternoon dangling the compass and his new torch, suitably 
sheathed, in a jar of water. 

When it came to the point, no commander was going to 
dump his troops ashore under enemy guns on the sort of 
information that could be garnered through a periscope. 
At the last moment, when they came to look really close 
at the landing technique involved, they would be yelling 
for an inshore reconnaissance first. He -might as well be ready 
for the panic when it came. 

The next morning Willmott put a special energy into 
his twenty-five laps of the Baths. He clambered out, blowing, 
towelled himself, and had a wonderful breakfast. 

The panic started earlier than he had predicted. An hour 
later a call came through for him from Baillie-Grohman. 
He was hardly inside the Admiral's office before Bee-Gee 
looked up at him and rumbled, "Could you be ready to go 
on this, ah, mission of yours on March seventeenth? I mean, 
assuming permission is given, of course?" 

That gave him a bare four days to prepare. He'd had 
no real chance to test his equipment, or practise ways of 
approaching an enemy beach, or settle how they were to 
carry a dinghy in a submarine, or even to get fit enough for 
a long, gruelling swim. He might be three or four hours in 
the water. 

"Well?" the Admiral said. 

The operation was scheduled for early June. His recce 
might well produce facts that would call for big changes in 
the planning. They'd have to hurry. The dark period was 
coming to an end. 

"It'll be a bit of a rush, sir." 

Next day they flew to Alexandria. While Baillie-Grohman 
went to see Admiral Cunningham, Willmott called on Captain 


Sam Raw*, commander of the ist Submarine Flotilla. Beefy 
and calm, Raw listened to Willmott without a flicker of 
surprise. Once or twice his solemnity threatened to crack into 
a smile. 

Far from defending his precious submarines from Willmott's 
obvious designs on one of them, he was interested. Sam 
Raw thought for a moment and said, "A dinghy's not much 
use won't go down the hatch. How about a collapsible 
canoe? You could stow it inboard.' 1 

He looked at Willmott, musing, and his sly smile showed. 
"Layforce have just the man to help you with that. He used 
to hunt African big game in a canoe. Fellow called Courtney." 

Courtney was a Commando officer with Layforce, the 
division marked down for the invasion of Rhodes. It was 
under canvas down at Kabrit, on the Great Bitter Lake. 
As soon as Willmott landed back in Cairo he got into a car 
and drove up there. His four days' notice to go had been 
lengthened, mercifully, to a fortnight. 

Courtney was a massive man. He unbent from pondering 
over the framework of a canvas canoe and eyed Willmott. 
He had heavy shoulders, thick muscular arms, a red, weather- 
beaten face, and a great bull-roar of a laugh. He was a hunter- 
explorer. This was the Courtney who had canoed the Nile 
from Victoria Falls to Cairo, and shot lions from his boat. 
In war he was a Commando. 

He came out of his tent, wiping his hands on his trousers, 
and followed Willmott docilely enough. They walked till 
they were clear of the camp. 

Willmott said, "We want to take a look at some enemy 
coasts. Fd like to ask you about your canoes " 

At the end of an hour he had, not only his canoe, but a 
paddler to go with it. Courtney did not take long to catch 
fire, "Listen/* he said earnestly, "I've paddled so close to 

* Recently Fourth Sea Lord. 


rhino in one of these, I could spit on 'em. And they're a 
hell of a lot more wide-awake than any sentry. Come on!" 

That afternoon they paddled out on the lake in one of 
his canvas canoes. By nightfall Nigel Willmott had already 
succeeded, if clumsily, in getting back into an empty canoe 
by hoisting himself over the stern. And then with Courtney 
aboard to give it balance, he learned to vault astride it, Western- 
style, as if he were mounting a wild horse. Even in the still 
water of the lake on a calm, gulden evening, with the palms 
cutting black silhouettes against a saffron sky, the canoe's 
silence as they cut through the water was impressive. 

When they had dressed, Willmott pitched away a cigarette. 
He said, "The only problem is how will it stand up to 
weather? An open canoe like this'd be swamped in any sort 
of a sea." 

Courtney grinned. "You'll get ulcers if you worry like 
that," he said easily. "What's a little wetting? It'll be fine 
on the night. You'll see." 

He wished he had Courtney's lusty optimism. It wasn't 
the first time he had been accused of being over-anxious, 
and it wouldn't be the last. 

"Someone has to worry," he said. 

Even Willmott didn't know then with what good reason 
he was worrying. Later, sea and bad weather were to wreak 
more havoc among the recce teams than the enemy. And 
things like ulcers were to become the badge of the veteran. 

But he had found the best thing to take him in to an enemy 
shore. And he had found his first paddler, a mighty, noisy, 
blood-and-guts Commando. "I go with the boat," Roger 
Courtney threatened him. "You're not going without me." 

That was the start of two weeks' hectic preparation. 
Courtney and Willmott travelled straight to Alexandria. 
The Commander-in- Chief had still to bless their enterprise; 
they had to gamble on that and work like fury. 

First, they had to work up a completely novel drill for 
landing, then meeting up again "homing", they called 
it and rendezvous-ing with their submarine. They had 
to seaproof torches, watches, and compasses to withstand 
a pressure test in five feet of water. They had to devise a 
means of sketching in water. There was the matter of what 


sort of clothing they should wear, to be able to stay in the 
water up to four hours. Willmott finally settled on a white 
sweater and long woollen underpants, all soaked in grease, 
plus a waistcoat-type lifebelt. It was clumsy and heavy. 
After floundering about in the sea in this outfit for long, 
they still got terribly cold. 

Under the hunter's schooling, he began to learn stalking. 
Every night they went out on exercises on the beaches near 
Alexandria. Luckily it was winter. Apart from stray courting 
couples there were few people to patronise the small beaches 
which scalloped the Mediterranean coast here. They would 
have been treated to an odd sight: a massive, shadowy figure 
in long underwear standing near the water's edge, motionless; 
suddenly stooping to pick up a pebble and throw it at some- 
thing humped in the shallows another apparition, strangely 
clad, who stood up and splashed out, grumbling. It would 
be Roger Courtney and Nigel Willmott playing hide-and- 

Towards the end of their fortnight's hard work Willmott 
found he could come swimming in, crawl up the beach in 
the dark and get around behind Courtney in his sentry's 
position almost twice as often as he was spotted. If he stayed 
still in the water, Courtney could even come down and shine 
his torch into the sea without seeing him. 

Their torches, waterproofed and shaded, were to be 
used for signalling seaward Willmott from the shallows 
to the canoe, and from the canoe when flashing up the 

"I trust," said Courtney, "that the material with which 
you choose to cover these is as durable as its makers claim. 
And I don't mean for the sake of any girl in trouble." 

If Willmott had had his way and if the easy, confident 
Courtney had not rebelled they would have worked twenty- 
four hours a day on their training for that trip ashore on 

As it was, Courtney grumbled that he felt as stuffed full 
of training as a circus horse, when the day at last came to 
clamber on to the casing of the submarine Triumph at her 
moorings in Alexandria Harbour. They watched the ratings 
manhandle their folded canoe down through the forehatch. 


The laconic Sam Raw leaned on a rail and watched them 


"Let go both springs! Let go for'ard! Let go aft!" The 
wires clanged on the casing. "Starboard thirty! Slow astern 
port!" They edged away and turned for the sea. 

There was a strong nor*-westerly ruffling the harbour 
water, which was a little ominous. 

It blew up harder as they drew out and set their course. 
Below they could hear the waves slapping the casing. But 
as night came the weather grew strangely calm. Each night, 
soon after they came to the surface, the weather would calm 
and they would plough through a lightened swell under the 
stars. And every morning, as daylight broke and Triumph 
prepared to dive, they would see the weather coming up once 
more, turning the wave-tops white. 

Willmott and Courtney put in a lot of the time below 
going over their drill. Too much, Courtney grumbled. They 
were an oddly contrasting pair. Willmott, scholarly, leaning 
to erudite jokes, a "book man", was the kind who liked to 
take notes on everything and leave absolutely nothing to 
chance. Courtney, bluff and ruddy, careless of detail, almost 
wanted one suspects to leave a certain sporting share 
of the venture to chance. Always it was Willmott who insisted 
they rehearse their drill just once more. He had to put 
up with a lot of badinage from Courtney for that, but he 
was imperturbably insistent. 

Their grease-soaked woollen clothing had proved its in- 
effectiveness against a sustained spell in the cold, late-winter 
sea by sending Courtney down with a bad chill. It had held 
up their training, the last few days before embarking, and 
this worried Willmott a little. 

"Look, Nigel!" Courtney protested, "I can do the whole 
job in my sleep now!" 

On the last night while the submarine steamed quietly 
on surface, slipping between the dark outer island shapes 
of the Dodecanese, Willmott came silently to Courtney's 
bunk and said, suddenly loud in his ear, "What were you 
doing on this beach?" 

Courtney groaned. He rolled his enormous bulk over. 
Out of the darkness came a sigh and the sound of a waking 


man champing his jaws. He said with infinite weariness, 
"We hit one of your mines. We were in a Motor Torpedo 
Boat and we'd been sent out to raid a port on your south- 
east coast. Now for Christ's sake, Nigel, go to sleep!" 

"It's time to get up," Willmott said. 

The submarine took on a tilt and began planing upward. 
It was midnight when they broke the surface and trimmed 
down and began charging the batteries. They were about 
eight miles off Rhodes. When dawn came they dived again 
to move in closer and take a look at the first beach through the 

It was just like the beach he remembered as a young 
midshipman, coming to Rhodes when there was no thought 
of war. He saw the specks of fishing boats, moored in the 
harbour. He remembered the colourful native caiques lying 
alongside the jetty at Rhodes, and the crumbling castle 
of the Knights Hospitallers mellow in the sun, and the 
scent of flowers which hung over the island wherever he 

It looked peaceful and unchanged. Now those careless 
years had rolled into a sunlit past. Now their hostile eyes 
were conning it for an invasion. 

He was thinking this, maybe mesmerised by the peaceful- 
ness, when three bombers swept up from behind the low 
hills at the back of the town and came heading straight 
towards them. They were skimming the water now, only 
fifty feet above it. They had biplane wings. 

"Down periscope!" he snapped and slapped up the handles. 
"Capronis!" Already the submarine commander was barking 
out, ''Dive-Dive-Dive!" 

The planesman spun his wheels and they tilted down. 
Willmott hung on to a stanchion. "I don't think they've 
seen us," he said. 

Woods, the commander, was taking no chances. They 
were on their way down to the sixty feet that was de rigueur 
for submarines in these clear waters. 

No bombs escorted them down. But throughout the day, 
edging about to get a look at their beaches, they had to 
dive continuously at the sudden sight of bombers. There 
were two airfields. Planes were swarming to and from the 


nearest at Maritsa, north-west of them, in their shuttle- 
raids on Allied convoys. Between these alarms they studied 
the landing beaches. 

The first was a small bay. It lay around a promontory 
from the harbour a steep shingle beach. A road hugging 
the bay curled to it from the half-hidden town. Above the 
beach a hotel shone bleached white in the sun: the Hotel 
des Roses, once the resort of the richer tourist now the 
Axis Headquarters. Lawns sloped down to the shingle from 
terraces dripping with bougainvillea. Willmott picked out 
the figures of soldiers strolling up the lawns. In the sun 
one of the figures winked fire and startled him; a watch- 
glass, or a ring. He squinted through the periscope and said 
to Woods, "Behold a really cushy billet." 

They sidled slowly south to con the harbour. From a 
high white mole, outflung like a protecting arm, a boom 
jutted across the harbour entrance. Inside it was packed 
with fishing craft, and here and there were the squat shapes 
of the E-boats. 

"Right," Willmott said, "That's enough. We lay up till 
tonight." They sank down into the protecting green depths 
and turned out to sea. 

An hour after sunset the Triumph broke surface and began 
to charge the batteries. The thrumming made an enormous 
racket in the quiet night. It was a nuisance, because it lost 
them precious hours of darkness that Willmott was desperately 
anxious to spend on the actual reconnaissance of the beaches. 

But they were to be three days here. He knew the Triumph 
couldn't risk diving under attack with low batteries. 

It also meant that there was no question of then* being 
late back at the rendezvous. It would be very near daylight. 

A rating poked his head into their compartment. "Captain's 
compliments, sir. He's ready to go hi now." The throb of 
the charging had stopped. There was only the hum of the 

Though he should have been used to their fancy dress 
by now, Willmott had to grin at the sight of Courtney. Roger 


had just paused in the process of applying tan boot polish 
to his face with the elaborate attentiveness of a girl at her 
make-up. He stood there in his greased woollen sweater 
and long underwear with the torch and a pistol and other 
bits of equipment dangling from him on lanyards. His mouth 
gaped pinkly like a nigger minstrel's, and his eyes rolled. 
His teeth shone pearly; he was laughing too, at Willmott. 
Courtney lifted an enamel mug and bowed. "Cheers/* he said, 
and swallowed a couple of benzedrines. He bowed again 
and gestured with his palm. "After you." 

As they hauled themselves up the rungs to the conning 
tower the voice of Woods came to them out of the night sky 
above their heads. "Half ahead both. Port fifteen. . . ." The 
answer croaked from below: "Both engines half ahead. Fifteen 
o'port wheel on, sir." 

It was a fine night. A slight swell slapped the bows. They 
purred forward into the darkness on the electric motors. 
"Steer three-three-nine," Woods said, into the voice-pipe. 
His silhouette was crisp in the clear night. He looked snug 
in his cap and reefer. "Open the forehatch." It was so dark 
that Willmott could just see the burly outline of Courtney 
below them helping the ratings lift the canoe up from the 
Torpedo Compartment onto the casing. They got it out and 
moved around it, assembling it. 

"Here we come," Woods said, and nodded ahead. The 
shadow of Rhodes, like a gigantic whale, rose slowly out 
of the darkness before them. 

Four miles offshore, they slowed and began to trim down. 
Gently, a couple of inches at a time as they moved closer 
in, the Triumph eased down into the water until the casing 
was almost awash, and they were as low in the water as they 
could manage for launching the canoe. 

Rhodes was a little cluster of lights. The blackout in the 
civilian quarter was poor. The swish of their bow wave 
was fainter now, at this creeping pace, and there was only 
the purring of the motors. Beside him, Woods was graven 
and motionless, his eyes fixed dead ahead on the town. It 
must have been bad for Woods, with sixty-odd lives in his 
hands and the Triumph sitting starkly on the surface with 
men out on her casing and both hatches open, opposite an 


enemy harbour. It would be too bad for them if the shore 
radar picked them out and they found the E-boats roaring 
suddenly upon them out of the night, probing the sea with 
their searchlights. It would be worst of all for Woods. The 
Captain stirred and leaned forward. He murmured, "Stop 
engines! Switch off fans! No talking!" That was all. He 
leaned back again and the purring ceased. With the stillness 
that enveloped them came a strange loneliness. It was so 
unreal, up there on the bridge, watching with an odd dis- 
belief what they were preparing to do. Even the men below 
their feet in the control room, performing normal and familiar 
functions, seemed cut off from them. 

"Good luck," Woods said. 

Willmott clambered over the side of the bridge and down 
the ladder past the gun platform on to the casing. There 
the two ratings manning the four-inch stood like statues, 
taut, unmoving, unseeing, as he passed. 

Courtney turned as Willmott came up. Two seamen 
slithered off the casing and lay full length out on the hydro- 
plane fins. While they lay a wave patted the side, washed 
over and buried them, and sucked away. 

The other dim forms picked up the canoe and, swinging 
together, heaved it mightily clear of the submarine's rotund 

It hit the water with a great splash that made them wince 
and look at each other. 

The men out on the planes were having a bad time trying 
to keep the canoe steady with their outstretched arms. It 
yawed and bobbed, one moment far below them, the next 
level with them as a wave lifted it and drenched them in a 
smother of foam. 

Willmott went first. He jumped as the sea lifted the canoe 
and let his feet give under him the moment he felt them 
touch. As he sat heavily down, the canoe wobbled crazily 
and the rating near him clawed outward to help steady it. 
The man's face was a pale gasping blob which rose and 
fell beside him. The sea lifted them again and Courtney's 
great bulk came down behind him with a whack; again the 
canoe bucked and yawed under them and they rode it like 
a startled horse. A seaman handed down the double-bladed 


paddles, then their binoculars; the thermoses, food, the infra- 
red signal boxes, the grenades and Tommy-gun were already 

They cast off. Farewell whispers floated after them from 
up on the casing, but Willmott didn't hear what they said. 
They dug their double-bladed paddles into the swell and 
slipped away. They heard the Triumph start her electric 
motors and their sound receded till it was lost under the 
liquid noise of their paddling, and Courtney's heavy breath 
behind him. 

The exercises had never seemed as quiet as this. They 
worked easily together, paddling this-side, that-side, in 
the long, swinging rhythm they had developed into an im- 
maculate drill off Alexandria. They moved into a patch of 
heavy swell and the canoe corkscrewed, slithering sideways 
into the hollows with the waves clapping against the canvas 
sides and blowing cold spray over them. 

There was the black mass of the port now, its vague building 
shapes sprawling and thinning as the eye travelled along 
the coast road. A car moved along it, lights dimmed. Near 
the faint shadowy cube of the Hotel des Roses it stopped, 
turned, and disappeared. 

By this time they were both sweating inside their greased 
woollens. The sweat trickled down Willmott's spine with 
each lift of his shoulders. He raised his hand and they stopped, 
drifting silently with their paddles across the gunwales while 
he unhooked his masked torch. He held it low down in the 
bottom of the canoe and shone it over the silhouette sketches 
he had made earlier that day through their periscope. 

There was the sound of a bomber from behind them and 
it grew steadily louder until it was a great roar in their ears. 
It swept low over them and faded towards the north-west 
and Maritsa. Almost immediately they heard other aircraft 
noises in the distance. The airfields were still busy. 

Now they could see the harbour clearly, flanked by its 
high white mole and the dark rocks of the point. There 
were the square port buildings and the long, low outlines 
of the warehouses. The port itself was as quiet as a cemetery. 
There were no patrol boats and it showed not a chink of 
light. The ghosts of fishing boats swayed at their moorings, 


their masts rocking dimly. There were buoys on the channel, 
but it was not even marked for night traffic. 

They slid their paddles gently through the water now 
to stir up no phosphorescence. They came right up to the 
boom and went along it, staring in at the silent harbour. 
It was eerily void of life, as if die living had fled from its 
darkness and only the houses and the boats remained. 

They turned away and stroked quietly on to the bay. If 
everything was as quiet as this, Willmott thought, Courtney 
could wait for him in the bay itself, instead of moving out 
to a safer distance. There didn't seem to be much fear of 
being spotted by surface craft. 

They were opposite the promontory, silently riding the 
swell, a mere hundred yards out. Willmott unslotted his 
paddle blades and shipped them. He would go in to explore 
the point first. They would want to land tanks early in the 
coming assault, and it was here that they might be able 
to put them ashore if the shingle presented no danger to 
tank tracks, and the beach was neither too steep nor too 
rocky. He held his watch to his ear, checked his time with 
Courtney's, and tested his torch beam on the floor of the 

Then, gingerly, he lifted his legs, swivelled sideways and 
put his feet in the water, leaning far back inboard to avoid 
capsizing them. He gave a swift twist about and lay across 
the canoe on his stomach. Then while Courtney leaned his 
own bulk the other way to steady them, he slithered down 
into the water, slowly, then falling uncontrolled. 

It was impossible to avoid a splash. But more shocking 
than the noise he made was the sudden icy embrace of the 
sea, which engulfed him through the woollen clothing and 
took his breath away. He had plunged in hot from the paddling, 
and it froze him; he hung grimly to the canoe, gasping, getting 
his breath. 

"All right?" Courtney whispered. 


Willmott held the canoe's bow with both hands while 
Courtney climbed forward to a steadier seat. 

"See you later." He let go and turned, kicked away with 
his feet and began breast-stroking slowly towards the tumble 


of dark rocks on the promontory. Below them he could see, 
now and then, a faint curving cord of white where the water 
met the beach. It lapped and hissed distantly on the shingle. 

He let his feet sink, feeling for submerged rocks, and 
paddled on with his hands. Then his toes touched in the 
shallows and as he looked around him he had his first answer. 
The land on the point reared far too sharply above him. 
Great jagged rocks strewed the shore closely enough to 
forbid tanks. But it might make a landing-place for Com- 

While he wallowed in the shallows below the rocks he 
took his first close view of the beach which curved away 
around the bay to the unseen hotel headquarters on the 
far side. The beach was narrow but it rose sharply to a wall 
edging the coastal road. A faint wavy line of shingle piled 
along the wall reached nearly to the top. 

Willmott backed into the water on his hands. Offshore 
he swam away from the point in a slow, wide sweep until 
he was well out in the bay and he could turn and approach 
the beach from seawards along a line from which the landing 
craft would be coming. He took it very carefully now, probing 
for the bottom with his feet; when they touched sand he 
began estimating the depth under him and how evenly it 
shelved as he worked quietly towards the water's edge. 

At the bottom of the beach he lay still, with the waves 
crumbling gently over him. Then, for the first time, he 
heard sentries. A man hawked and spat and grumbled some- 
thing with a sad German cadence. Willmott's chin lay on 
the pebbles, his eyes staring. He saw them then two helmeted 
figures standing up on the road beyond the wall, their short 
rifles slung. 

He kept his eyes glued on them, hardly daring to blink, 
while he listened for the water sounds behind him. There 
was the hiss of pebbles running back with the water, then a 
suspense, a hush. A wavelet was gathering, and as it broke 
he slithered forward. He worked his way up the shingle in 
jerks, moving only as a wave slapped the beach. 

This was the part they'd said was crazy impossible. 
Only he and Courtney, who had tried it out against each 
other, knew it could be done. 


He was halfway up the shingle, lying like a beached seal, 
when one of the sentries turned and looked at him. The 
man's face was shadowed by his helmet, but Willmott felt 
rather than saw his eyes. He clenched his fists and hung 
on desperately to the memory of how Courtney's vast bulk 
had looked to him on the beach at Alexandria. As long as 
he lay still, it just looked like a rock. The image steadied 
him a little. Better not roll my eyes, he thought, and was 
immediately threatened by a vast giggle that welled in him 
with hysterical force. He clamped his teeth and lay rigidly 

The sentry turned away and wandered down the road. 
Slowly, still moving with the wave-break, he went on crawling 
till he was near the top of the beach. A breeze rose and swept 
the beach in gusts which cut through his sodden clothing 
and froze him. His skin seemed to shrink and tighten and 
he clenched his teeth till his jaws ached in the effort to stop 
their chattering. 

Then he came suddenly to barbed wire. It lined the top 
of the beach in long snaky coils. To get under it he rolled 
quietly on his back and lifted it, delicately, a strand at a 
time, over his head, until he had wormed his way through. 
In the shadow of the wall he raised himself up and peered 
round a pile of stones. The sentries were a bare ten yards 
away from him, on the other side of the road. They were 
muttering gently to each other and the taller one laughed 
suddenly and stamped his feet. He said, so precisely clear 
that even Willmott understood, "Ach ja, du. . . ." The rest 
died off in mumbling German. Then there was the noise of 
a truck engine. It grew louder and rumbled past him, empty, 
clanking, and faded into the distance. Faintly he heard it 
stop at the gates to the hotel grounds. As he looked after 
it Willmott spotted two more figures patrolling the road. 
Sentries were posted about every hundred and fifty yards. 

He back-pedalled towards the sea again, and once more 
the breeze gusted through him till he was numb and shaking 
like a man in a fit. His aching jaws could no longer suppress 
his chattering and he dug his face into the shingle to smother 
it. Ifs all right, he kept telling himself. Nobody more than 
a few yards away will hear it. He paused and let the trembling 


have its way for a while and retreated on his elbows towards 
the water. 

That was another kind of cold, when his already chilled 
body slid into the water and the pain seeped into his bone 
joints till it was an agony to move. He was shivering terribly 
now and an interior voice was chiding him a little desperately 
to muster his will against it. Behind him a structure reared 
out of the water. It looked like an advanced gun position 
and he swam towards it. That helped to ease die cold but 
when he got to it he found a diving platform. 

He went back inshore and began the real drudgery of his 
reconnaissance, checking the evenness of the beach gradient 
by wading crouched into the shallows and out again. In 
this way, he tacked in and out from the water's edge along 
the bay. 

Then he found a shoal. It was about fifteen yards offshore, 
where the water suddenly shallowed to less than two feet. 
If any landing craft grounded on this, the first tanks to drive 
off would founder and drown in four or five feet of water. 
The remaining vehicles would hold back and be doomed, 
too sitting in the boats stuck helplessly offshore on a sand- 

He thought grimly, that's a story to tell them next time 
they ask what in hell's the use of an inshore recce. He waded 
along the shoal till it tapered off into deeper water, and he 
stared landward to fix where it ended. The assault waves 
could be led around its northern end and landed further up 
the beach. 

His next trip in was to the hotel. It loomed before him, 
grey and square in the night against the pinpricks of stars. 
Intelligence had it that the Hotel des Roses was the German- 
Italian Headquarters for the island. The sentries were bound 
to be a bit thicker around here. He came inching up the 
beach again under the billowing wire, over the wall, and 
onto the hotel lawn. He lay on his belly on the grass. It 
smelled sweet and it mufHed his movements. It would also 
muffle the boots of an approaching sentry. 

Willmott slipped among the tamarisks lining the wall, 
looking for camouflaged gun positions. A chill wind soughed 
in the trees. Above it he could hear boots scraping on gravel, 


over near the hotel drive. The sentries were posted in close 
to the building. He heard a muttering from the direction 
of the lobby and a sudden yawn from a balcony, but other- 
wise the hotel slept. All that concentrated braid, he thought; 
it would be nice to throw a ring of Commandos around it 
now. The idea of their vulnerability cheered him as he slipped 
like a shadow from bush to bush, and probed the dark with 
his stare for gun emplacements, barbed wire, traps. He saw 
only the shadow of a sentry who moved out from the hotel 
wall and came swaggering to the edge of the lawn. He paused, 
rifle still slung, and there was a liquid sound as he watered 
the herbaceous border. 

It was a strange place to get an idea but as Willmott lay 
there on the springy turf he realised that next time he should 
bring a really waterproof bag with him. A large oilskin pouch. 
He could take away turf samples, beach samples, anything 
in that. He contented himself for now with thrusting a hand- 
ful of shingle down inside his pullover. He was so frozen 
that he could hardly feel the pebbles rubbing his stomach 
as he slid back towards the sea. 

Courtney's robust optimism began to play him false as 
he strained his eyes after Willmott, watching him bob and 
fade in the darkness. Occasionally he heard a ripple where 
the swimmer had vanished. But it might have been a wave 
breaking gently ashore. 

He was alone. The land was an amorphous blob against 
the night sky boding, silent. You felt it to be full of shrewd 
eyes ,that watched, knowing before the star shells that 
would rocket up, and turn the sea into dazzling day, and 
the guns started. He strained his ears but he could hear 
nothing from the beach. His luminous watch, when he un- 
capped it, mocked him. Willmott had only been gone five 
minutes. He still had three hours to wait. 

One thing you could never train for was the waiting off 
the enemy coast, the not-knowing for three hours what 
was happening until at last you saw the glow of his shielded 
torch. Three hours, sitting there, while strange visions crept 


through your mind. And of course he still wasn't right after 
that week in bed with influenza. Which would account for 
this strange nausea he felt. 

He took up his paddle, quietly turned the boat away, and 
glided out to a more discreet distance from the beach. He 
could give himself half an hour to find their rendezvous 
again, and that would help to while away the time. 

The silence from the island was almost total. Once he 
heard the rattle of a lorry echo to him faintly from the low 
hills. A night bird cried indistinctly. Curiously, the weak 
glimmer of the lights which wobbled in the darkness near 
the port was comforting in its indifference to him. 

He began to hiss a tune between his teeth, but it was no 
use kidding himself that this was very like the times he had 
boated up the Nile and shot for game. The grunts and animal 
sounds, the jungle smells, all that had been companionable. 
And every small risk he had taken then was something he 
could freely elect to do because he was totally on his own 
and he committed no one else to the consequences. 

But here, his heart was beating for Willmott, whom he 
liked for his shy, holy intentness on his job; who was so 
different from himself, and whom he consequently feared 
for here a pale, learned fellow whose every physical aptness 
was a surprise, and who had the cheek to suppose himself 
capable for this sort of lark. A man who had looked at him 
once, for a brief strange moment, down in the submarine, 
and said, "If the waiting bothers you try praying." And 
meant it. 

He must have held on like that for a tormented hour, 
listening to the drip of his paddles and straining for any 
noise from the distant beach, before his anxious stomach 
finally erupted and he vomited. 

The nausea welled and swamped him again and again, and 
he heard the vile spasms echo across the water. 

When finally Willmott looked again at his watch and took 
to the sea to meet Courtney, he had been to the top of the 
beach four times* The recce had taken him a full three hours. 


The benzedrine he had taken was beginning to wear off. 
In spite of the cold, he found himself beginning to flounder 
drowsily and once or twice his arms broke the surface and 
splashed carelessly. It alarmed and alerted him to keep fighting 
the fatigue. He was really terribly tired. It was so damned 
quiet. About two hundred yards off the beach he unhooked 
his torch and started flashing a Morse "R" to seaward, over 
a wide arc, holding the torch in his upstretched arm. After 
about five minutes of this, changing grips, both arms were 
aching intolerably. The simple act of pressing the torch 
button at this unnatural angle, with fingers now entirely 
numbed, seemed to demand every ounce of his failing con- 

After ten minutes, a cold anxiety seeped through his tired- 
ness. He wondered if Courtney had drifted too far out of 
position, had somehow crossed him and was inside him, 
nearer the beach. It seemed hardly possible that an enemy 
patrol boat had got him; if that had happened, he would 
have heard some sort of commotion out to sea. 

He decided to stick it out with his signals for another 
five minutes, and hope that no incoming enemy boat would 
spot his flashes. If at the end of it Courtney still hadn't "homed" 
to him, he would try and get across the bay to the alternative 
rendezvous they had fixed. 

For the first time, he began to wonder dully whether he 
was going to make it. The cold exhaustion had seeped through 
him from his feet upward, robbing his limbs slowly of any 
power, till even his lids were drooping. He blinked them 
severely and summoned a great effort up into pressing the 
torch he held aloft. 

Then he heard the stealthy paddling. He turned towards 
the sound of it with the torch and kept flashing. He seemed 
to do that for a long while, with the paddling getting no 
louder. But suddenly there was Courtney's beefy torso and 
a whirling paddle, bearing down on him in the morning 

Heavily, with a last great effort, Willmott heaved himself 
over the stern and lay down. After a while he pulled himself 
properly into his seat and grasped the whisky flask that 
Courtney passed back to him. He drank and it stung his 


mouth a bit but he was so cold that he didn't even feel it 
going down. Then he swilled some coffee out of the thermos. 
That was better. It was hot and laced with brandy. He felt 
the glow spread inside him. 

He was shaky and desperately tired. And there were two 
more days of this ahead of them, with little or no sleep. 

They had just started to paddle out to sea to meet the 
submarine when the mist began to settle around them. It 
had come imperceptibly and now it moved in trailing wisps 
across the water, spreading down from the mountains beyond 
the town till it met the sea and rolled its blanket wide. The 
wind had dropped entirely. The water they stroked through 
was flat calm and the haze was clammy on their faces. 

As it thickened they began to wonder about their chances 
of contacting the submarine. They quickened their paddling. 
Through the mist Willmott could still make out the North 
Star. They drove through belts of mist, thick as cloud, when 
even the star winked and faded and the island was blanketed 
from them. Several times a bank of it suddenly surrounded 
them, drawing a thick smoky screen down on the whole 
world, leaving only the dim shape of their canoe, and a gurgle 
of water, and the awed voice of Courtney, paddling in the front 
seat now and muttering, "J esus !" 

Then it thinned. They were suddenly clear of the island 
and its early morning skirt of mist. The stars were bright 
over their heads. 

Willmott reached for the flask again and uncapped it. 
"I wonder," he said in his musing, scholarly drawl, "what 
would have happened if that mist had come up while I was 
still ashore?" 

Courtney grunted. "I'd be drinking all the whisky," he 

By the time they got to their rendezvous position out at 
sea, it seemed they could see for miles. 

Courtney pulled out their infra-red gear and started to 
flash the recovery signal. His transmitter was a simple gadget, 
like an Aldis lamp with an infra-red screen. Behind him 
Willmott trained the receiver, shaped like a box camera, 
to his eye, and moved it over the sea, watching for the Triumph's 
signal to appear as a green light on its screen. The stars 


speckled the receiver screen with little steady green pin- 
points. After five minutes' sweeping the horizon like that, 
a flashing spot appeared and passed across the screen. 
"Got it!" he said. "Flash a bit farther to port, Roger/' 
They heard the quiet slow wash of the submarine coming 
towards them over the still water. Then they saw the tower 
of the Triumph growing larger in the sea. 



ON their last night it was Roger Courtney who ventured 
ashore on Rhodes, on behalf of the Army, at a beach twenty 
miles further south. 

After he had lowered his vast frame into the dark glassy sea 
and swum off, Willmott whiled away the waiting by producing 
a line which he dropped over the side at intervals as he paddled, 
taking depth soundings and marking them on his map pad with 
compass bearings. After a time it was boring work. 

It was deathly calm, and too clear for comfort. To one 
side he saw and heard a splash. It was a fish jumping, and 
it must have been a hundred yards away. 

The night before, he had had his first taste of hallucinations 
on a wide beach south of Rhodes town. A treacherous 
beach; he had found a line of rock just under the low water 
mark which would have ripped jagged holes in the landing 
craft. At the top of the beach he had slithered under a cactus 
to dodge a sentry. Then Willmott had turned and seen a 
huge aircraft hangar.' Beside it, a reservoir glimmered. So 
much for Intelligence maps, he had thought sarcastically. 

But as he moved towards it, the reservoir had vanished. 
It had become a strip of road. It was a night mirage. 

And the big hangar, when he moved another step or two 
closer, had turned out to be the wall of a small shed standing 
only a few paces away. 

Then, on the way back, just as he was striking out for 
the canoe, the torches had started flashing ashore. The sentries 
had clustered at the water's edge, shining their torches to 
and fro on the beach and in the shallows. The torches probed 
an occasional flash seawards. 

On this third and last night Willmott doubted if he would 
have had enough strength left for the long swim in and the 
hours of exploring the beach and behind it on his stomach. 
It would have been risking more than himself to have tried. 



The whole surprise of the invasion depended on their not 
being caught, or seen, or even leaving a trace. 

This was to become, he could see even now, the most 
important rule for a pre-invasion reconnaissance. Never to 
be seen, never to be heard. 

And certainly, never to be caught. 

It was a crystal night. By 3.15 in the morning the time 
they'd agreed for their rendezvous Willmott was paddling 
about half a mile offshore, waiting for Courtney's signal. 
There were no rumbling trucks to relieve the monotony, 
no country sounds, no lights. Not even a house to engage 
the eye. Just a barren shore receding into open country. 
Willmott kept checking his drift delicately with the paddle 
and held the canoe head-on to land to reduce its silhouette. 
Even without a moon it was much clearer than he cared 
for. The stars swarmed brilliantly overhead. 

The minutes went by without a peep of light from the 
shore. Willmott couldn't check the impulse which kept him 
glancing at his watch as if that would help. 

Ten minutes. He realised that despite the benzedrine, 
he was very tired. The last three days, with so much tension, 
so little sleep, were telling. A lot of perfectly ordinary obstacles 
could have delayed Courtney's return to the sea. 

A quarter of an hour. 

Twenty minutes. 

It was so damned still. 

Suddenly, a dog barked. A terrier, shrill, outraged, insistent. 

The noise was startlingly clear over the water. Its furious 
yapping came from the beach, and it was almost certainly 
Courtney who was the cause. With his ears following the 
sound Willmott could practically see the dog dancing excitedly 
among the bushes at the top of the beach, announcing to the 
sentries where the man lay still in the water. 

The barking stopped. His canoe lay as still in the now 
pregnant darkness as a boat on a pond, without a ripple to 
rock it. He kept his eyes steadily ahead for the torch signal. 
None came. 

A long while later, it seemed, he heard the whistle. Its 
sound made him stiffen suddenly, alert; a flush coursed through 
him and set the hair prickling on his neck. 


It was the sort of whistle a porter uses, hailing a taxi, but 

Willmott sat very still, hearing only the pounding of his 
heart, every sense questing tautly to detect what lay behind it. 

Again the whistle sounded, Low, conspiratorial. 

Courtney's torch might have failed. 

Or had they caught him? Was this a ruse to tempt him in, 
to catch him alive too? 

He took up the Tommy-gun, cocked the bolt, and laid it 
across his knees. He could see no one. The upper beach was 
in shadow* . . . 

Risking the trap was risking the invasion. 

But $ it were Courtney, and he left him standing there. . . . 

A canoe, bows-on, would be a hard target for them. If 
it were a trap, there was a good chance of backing and shooting 
his way out. Or so he told himself, with the image of Courtney 
Standing with a flooded torch, counting on him. 

And it would be a while before the surface craft came 
tearing up. 

He began to paddle towards the beach. 

Suddenly the dog started barking again. As he came closer 
in, he was certain of being watched. And he couldn't see 
anything not even the dog, insisting so shrilly that something 
was wrong. At any moment he expected the searchlights 
to snap on and blind him, hear the abrupt rattle of machine 
guns and see the tracer come reaching out towards him. 
Never, even in Norway, had a beach held all this meaning. 
As he came in close he stopped paddling and let the canoe 
glide. He was maybe fifty yards from the beach. He lifted 
the Tommy-gun, curling his finger around the trigger. 

There was the whistle again. Quieter, this time. Whoever 
it was could see him, and felt sure of him. He trained his 
Tommy-gun in the direction of the sound, and then the 
tricky part of it began. He had to nurse the gun with his 
right arm, keep it pointing steadily ahead, and wield the 
double-bladed paddle, steering the boat, with his left. Awk- 
wardly, he drifted the canoe towards the dim sound. 

He saw a figure standing in the shallows. The shadow 
stood motionless, crouched and ape-like. He dared not call 
to it, not even whisper, "Courtney?" 


The gentle sea wafted him in. 

Then the figure saw him. It staggered forward, and he 
could hear it now panting loudly. It zoos Courtney, in a mess. 
He fell and floundered to the canoe, and there was a terrible 
moment after he got to it while he paused, summoned an 
immense effort, came thrusting up out of the water over the 
stern with his mouth agape and agonised, and fell helplessly 
back in a flurry of water. On his second try, a gasping, super- 
human try, he made it. He lay there heaving behind Willmott. 
The noise seemed to fill their whole world. 

"Cramp!" he gasped. "Damn near did for me! Sodding 

"Quiet." Willmott murmured it gently. He dared not 
take his eyes off the beach. 

But still the shore ignored them. He kept his stare fixed 
on the dim bulk of the guard post on the beach. The barking 
of the dog rose and took on a note of despair as they backed 

The next day Willmott examined their last beach through 
the periscope. Overnight they had received a radio signal 
from Alexandria pressing them to return quickly. 

They lay about a mile offshore. At each end of the shore 
stood a fort, housing what looked like an 88-millimetre battery. 

They had worked around to the southern tip of the beach 
when the submarine suddenly jarred. They scraped loudly 
over a shoal, lurched hard, broke suddenly free of it, zoomed 
upward, and broke the surface. The Triumph came out of 
the sea with water streaming from her tower, into the brightness 
of day, right under the southern fort. 

It seemed impossible that in broad daylight they would 
not be spotted. And in such shallow water there was no escape. 
The cannon in the tower had only to traverse a few degrees 
to blow them out of the water. 

"Full ahead both! Thirty feet!" 

Astonishingly there was not a movement from the fort 
above them. With the submariners looking at each other 
they dived fast and, heedless of shore detection, scuttled for 
the sea. 


Was it possible that the lookouts had taken it for one of 
their own submarines, refusing to believe it could be anything 

To whatever miracle they owed the escape, it was the 
last straw for Sam Woods, the Triumph's captain. He looked 
at Willmott and said briefly, "That's the lot. We've pressed 
our luck about far enough." 

The Triumph headed back for Alexandria. 

When Lieutenant-Commander Willmott reached Cairo 
he went straight to Planning Headquarters, displayed himself 
alive and intact to the Admiral, then tucked his legs under 
his office chair and fell to work on his reports. During the 
nights that followed his was the only light which flooded 
out from the smoke-hazed room into the dark corridors. He 
had come back with piles of Intelligence. He had justified 
his idea, not least of all to himself, and its vindication was 
wholly sweet. 

Then one of those terrible things happened, one of the 
many examples of war's immeasurable extravagance. 

The invasion of Rhodes was cancelled. 

The news, when the Admiral broke it to Willmott, piled 
all that effort and argument and sweat and risk and fear of 
the last couple of months into the waste bin and casually set 
it alight. It would be a good story to tell against himself, one 
day, with that absurd twist in the tail. 

He had to laugh. 

The bright auguries that decorated the New Year of 1941 
had vanished. They had been swept away in a few dramatic 
weeks by the appearance of Rommel in the desert. By mid- 
April his columns had driven right through to Sollum, isolating 
Tobruk. Another victorious German lunge through Yugoslavia 
was toppling the Allies from their last foothold in Europe. 

And the Navy was assembling its few landing craft, not 
for its fond project to invade Rhodes, but to evacuate Greece. 

Courtney was thunderstruck at all this. "Christ! And me 
heaving into the sea!" 

This was a confession that brought Willmott's head round 


from studying a chart. He looked at the bluff Courtney, 
smiled, and had his revenge for the man's lazy insouciance 
during their training together. 

"Well, well," he said mockingly. "You'll end up with 
ulcers if you worry like that." 

His principal souvenir of Rhodes was a blue ribbon edged 
with red the D.S.O. With this pat on the back, the Navy 
appeared to dismiss his bold reconnaissance ideas; or at least, 
to shelve them. 

Instead, for the next twelve months, Willmott was doomed 
by his rare expertise in navigation to be hired out to whichever 
Middle East unit clamoured most effectively for the service 
of an odd-jobbing guide. 

Courtney was luckier. He, too, was decorated for Rhodes 
with the Military Cross. His work also found favour with 
the Army, who thought the idea of scouting beaches good. 
It was troops who suffered most from messed-up landings. 
And so not long after the burly Courtney was putting up a 
third pip and busying himself to form a new Commando 
unit. It had one of those deliberately stodgy names the 
Special Boat Section but it was destined to earn a romantic 
renown of its own. The S.B.S. was to use canoes for sabotage, 
for cloak-and-dagger swoops on enemy shores, and for recon- 
noitring landings for heavier raids. 

Only a couple of sharper sorties enlivened Willmott's 
odd-jobbing as a navigator. One of these was a raid on the 
tiny island of Kupho near the south-eastern tip of Crete, 
where the Germans had celebrated their victory by planting 
a radar station. The object of the raid was to wreck the radar 
station and capture its code books. This would give them 
the key to much of the mysterious enemy radio chatter that 
the Allied monitor sets had plucked from the air waves and 
logged in these last few months. 

While they were planning this raid, Naval Intelligence 
in Alexandria produced, from among the hundreds of refugees 
from Crete, a native of the very island they were to attack. 

He was stocky, dark, voluble, this Cretan, and given to 


beating his chest. With his swagger and his sunny smile 
and his noisy boastfulness he presented, to the book-loving 
Willmott, an image of Tartarin. His name was Antonopoulo. 

Antonopoulo clumped his heels together with fancied 
military punctilio, bowed at the same time, and assured 
Willmott with a thump of his fist on his chest that he was 
indeed from Kupho. He gestured with his palm, and traced 
a horny finger over it. "Kupho I know it, the beaches, the 
hills, the tides, the rocks, like this hand! Every pebble, every 
inlet, every current I know " 

It became clear when Antonopoulo took breath that he 
would have to be restrained from telling the story of his 
life. It boded ill for the security of a raid like this. If they 
engaged him as their guide, the news would be all over Alex- 
andria within a few hours. 

No sooner had Antonopoulo been enrolled and received 
his first piastres as a Commando than a couple of police bore 
down on him out of nowhere and dragged him, yelling at the 
outrage of it, off to the lock-up. A charge had been trumped 
up against him a wretched saga of drunkenness and cafe- 
wrecking to keep him muzzled, under arrest, until they 

At the last hour Lieutenant-Commander Willmott appeared 
at his cell door in a towering rage against the idiots who 
had imprisoned his guide. He commanded his instant release. 
Antonopoulo came ranting and triumphant out of prison, 
spreading a wake of farewells and invective behind him. 

They sailed for Kupho that night. 

There were two destroyers, each carrying a Marine platoon. 
The idea was that Willmott and their native guide should 
go ashore in a dinghy, spy out a good landing place, and 
flash in the cutters containing the troops. 

They stood off Kupho on a quiet, velvety night. The dinghy 
moved slowly with muffled oars away from the destroyer's 
dark bulk. A rating rowed for them. For once Antonopoulo 
needed no injunction from Willmott to be silent. He huddled 
motionless in the stern and Willmott could hear his quick 

"We're getting close," Willmott whispered. Out of the 
blackness the darker outline of the island rose ahead of them. 


When its silhouette began looming clearer he leaned back, 
feeling with his arm to jog the fisherman. He whispered, 
"There it is. How do we steer?" 

There was no answer. Willmott waited, and then asked 

After a while, between quick gasps, a voice faltered, "Me 
no know. No know!" 

Willmott whirled round. The gasping had quickened and 
grown into a loud blubbering. "Me no know!" Antonopoulo 
wailed. "Never be here before!" He was huddled in the 
bottom of the boat. "Please! we go home?" 

The startled rating lost an oar and grappled for it. The 
boat rocked as Willmott grabbed at the little Greek and 
sought to gag him with his hand. "We'll get you home!" he 
hissed. "Just shut up!" Then he said to the oarsman: "Carry 
on!" He would have to rely on his memory-study of the 

They crept in close. Willmott fancied he saw sand beyond 
a faint surf line. He slipped overboard, leaving the sailor to 
guard the sobbing Greek. 

The beach seemed all right as he came wading in to it. 
It was hemmed in by low cliffs, but he slithered up to them 
over the sand and found a couple of fairly easy tracks out. 
He went back into the water and waded out, crouched double, 
till he was clear enough of the horseshoe of cliff to fish out 
his torch and flash it seawards. 

The guns opened up just after he heard the splash of 
muffled oars and saw the cutters looming towards him. The 
chatter of the machine guns crackled into life in unison, 
abruptly. They came from the cliffs, and he heard the bullets 
sough about him and hiss in the sea as gently, it seemed, as 
handfuls of flung pebbles. The boats swished past him, oars 
sweeping furiously, and grounded. The figures leaped from 
them and fanned across the beach with a deadly professional 
quiet, like shadows in a fast-moving shadow play. On the 
cliffs, first from one point, then another, he saw the tongues 
of flame. Machine guns would be traversing now and searching 
out the invaders as they came scrambling up the cliffs. At any 
moment he expected the Verys to blaze and light up the whole 
beach but none came. 


The firing grew sporadic after the figures had cleared 
the beach. There were odd bursts of fire, and a distant shout, 
then some grenade explosions and, in a few minutes longer, 
a total and eerie silence. 

Out of the silence came the last eruption which was the 
kill. A great flame lit the hill, showed the whole island in 
its stark flash and mirrored itself for a second in the sea as 
the radar station went up. 

Before long they were back, manhandling a safe. They 
heaved it with a vast amount of panting into one of the boats 
and pushed off. A man in the stern sheets patted it fondly, 
wiped his forehead on his sleeve, turned and gave Willmott 
the thumbs-up sign. Teeth gleamed in a grimy face. 

The congratulation was premature. 

Out at sea, where the destroyers waited like hounds in 
their traps, too eager for the race home to begin, the falls 
securing one of the returning cutters carried away as they 
hauled her inboard. The boat tipped, dangling stern down, 
and ploughed the water as the destroyer gathered way. The 
safe in the stern sheets rolled out, whacked the water, and 

A circle of foam in the dark water marked where the sea 
had taken custody of the precious Axis codes. 

Back in Alexandria, a somewhat garbled version of Antono- 
poulo's hand hi the raid spread among the refugee community. 

It seemed it was he who blew up the radar station. 



IT was well over a year after Willmott and Roger Courtney, 
his Army colleague, had pointfessly risked their necks ashore 
on the beaches of Rhodes that the next big challenge came. 
By this time Willmott had imagined his pet ideas on scouting 
enemy beaches to be dead and haunting some forgotten 

In May 1942, an order came through to Cairo summoning 
him back home. The last of Egypt beyond the wake of his 
ship was a cluster of earth huts veiled in heat shimmer, the 
plodding specks of a fellah astride his donkey followed on 
foot by a woman, then a dhow curveting on the ribbed sea 
like a lost note of music. 

He landed in an England swarming with khaki, warm 
under the midsummer sun, her tender blue skies now almost 
unchallenged since the Baedeker raids in the spring. 

He was to join the staff of the newly created Chief of 
Combined Operations. 

The first task of the new staff reared a monster's shape 
in the drawing board. It had a name "Operation Torch". 
The plan would involve an Anglo-American armada. 

It was for the invasion of North Africa, 

He came to a big conference at Force Headquarters in 
St. James's, as nervous and alight with zeal as a gospeller. 
There was a lot of gold braid around him at the meeting. 
Lord Louis Mountbatten presided briskly. When Willmott 
got up to say his piece he startled them. They were a little 
taken aback at the strangely nervous vehemence of this pale, 
erect young officer who stood there reiterating his message 
about the awful dangers in landing troops on unknown enemy 
shores. The quiet grey eyes in the saddish face looked round 
at the Navy and Army chiefs. "It doesn't matter how many 
compasses you give them. They won't find the beaches unless 
somebody guides them in." 



He paused and then said delicately, eyeing no one, remem- 
bering Rhodes, "Charts are not always right. To fight an 
offensive war and land on the enemy's beaches, we're bound 
to need a permanent reconnaissance organisation, with expertly 
trained officers, and a lot of special gear. In the new amphibious 
war, something like that is inevitable. ..." 

He could see it all so clearly. He wondered why the others, 

There was a bit of slow nodding and harrumphing and 
leaning together of heads and looking back at him when he 
sat down. 

That shook them. Perhaps now they'd take some notice. 

The plans for the invasion went serenely ahead; equipment 
and boats were massing, sorties were flying, delicate timings 
were being worked out and scheduled, liaisons rehearsed and 
cemented, the jigsaw of troop movements timed. Only one 
salient detail, the problem of how to accomplish the actual 
landing of this enormous and complex fighting machine 
without drowning it or betraying it, seemed to be steadily 
ignored, Willmott was asked to submit a memo on the opera- 
tion's "navigational requirements". He wrote it in a quietly 
desperate style, and watched it sink without trace into the 
official morass of paper planning. 

One morning three months after he had landed back in 
London from Egypt, the rush suddenly started. His phone 
rang. A voice announced the speaker to be Lieutenant-Com- 
mander R. T. C. Russell. He had just taken over as a staff 
navigator to "Operation Torch". Willmott's warning, thin 
and plaintive among the wilderness of reports now piled in 
Combined Operations Headquarters, had reached him. And 
Russell was calling for help. 

Over a club lunch the man who had the job of navigating 
an invading army into a safe landing picked up his knife and 
fork and ate and listened, grim-faced, while Willmott told 
him about Rhodes about the sandbars, the underwater 
rock shelves, the dud charts, the beaches without exits, the 
sand that was treacherous enough to bog down everything 
on wheels, and the makeshift equipment he and Courtney had 
had to use to explore all these snags. 

Willmott said in his reflective drawl with its hint of a lisp, 


"We got away with it because the weather was good and 
we were bloody well trained but our gear was shocking. 
It must have used up all our beginners' luck." 

"Can you put a scheme down on paper? Something for 
the Chief of Staff? Shall we say, first thing tomorrow?" 

Willmott snorted. After all his pleading and lobbying, 
they wanted it tomorrow. Then he had to grin. "Well" he 
downed his coffee "it makes a change to be rushed." 

He worked all that night. Next morning, soon after his 
ideas were in, Russell called him. He said, "We want you 
this afternoon Royal Command* You're to see 'Frothy'. 
Shall we say three?" And hung up. 

Captain "Frothy" Faulkner bore the genuine stamp of the 
senior naval officer. He was tall and spare and he served 
up a palatable kind of toughness mixed with geniality. What 
he had to say was framed in a slight stutter hence the nick- 
name, which he bore with fatalism, even dignity. Faulkner 
was Chief of Staff to Rear-Admiral Ramsay, Commander of 
the Expeditionary Force that was now massing under the 
name of "Operation Torch". 

Faulkner swung his benign glare on Willmott. "If-if we 
p-push your idea through, ah, could you build a recce team 
in time?" 

Now that it had come, Willmott steadied himself and 
thought. Faulkner, his Navigator, and Commander Ken 
Collins, the Force Hydrographer, watched him. 

Why did the Planners always leave it so late? 

"You can t-take it that it'll be around mid-November," 
Faulkner said, in his hesitant way. 

Besides the Chief of Staff and Russell and Collins, there 
was also a desk calendar staring at Willmott. It said 8th 
September. He would only have two months in which to 
design equipment, plan their tactics, hand-pick and train 
enough good men in the delicate concept of combing enemy 
beaches without betraying the slightest whiff of the coming 
invasion; and of course, marking the beaches for the assault 
waves. Only two months. 

Faulkner and the Hydrographer drew him over to the 
chart table. The Captain tapped with his knuckles at the 
cluster of data which marked Oran and Algiers. He said 


gently, "Here we are. Five assaults, around these two ports. 
There's to be another attack at Casablanca, but that's an 
all-American effort." 

To launch in safety an invasion of this magnitude, the 
marking of these beaches for the incoming boats was going to 
be as important as the reconnaissances themselves. 

He mused over the beaches. "I'll need some submarines, 


u H-how many?" 

"Two for the reconnaissance, at least. And three just before 
the troops go in, to help my chaps mark the way." An uneasi- 
ness prickled him at what they were risking, to do it in a 
hurry like this. He said, "It'll be a pretty makeshift outfit, 

Faulkner measured him, considered this, and said, "Put 
up the whole plan. If we get it through, you'll have top 
priority." The Chief of Staff shoved his hands in his jacket 
pockets, frowning, and turned back to the charts. 

That night Willmott put in another of his marathon 
stints of paper work, slaving at his plans. He asked for 
three navigators and a Commando officer from the Special 
Boat Section preferably its founder, Courtney himself to 
fly out together to Gibraltar. There they would load their 
canoes and special gear into submarines and creep across the 
Western Mediterranean to reconnoitre the North African 
invasion beaches. 

Willmott would train up a larger team of mixed soldiers 
and sailors, headed by ten officers, to follow his spearhead 
of "beachcombers". They would be his "human buoys". 
Their job would be to light in the assault troops. Though 
Willmott dressed his plan in austere Navy language, he 
couldn't resist trailing a bit of a cloak. His tongue showed in 
his cheek. He wrote, "More than a year has passed since it 
was first suggested that an amphibious invasion would be 
impossible without proper reconnaissance organisation." That 
was an impertinence, perhaps. But for all his reticent, gentle 
air Willmott was a forthright speaker. It had been an embar- 
rassment in his naval career, and it was to get him into a deal 
of trouble in years to come. 

For his all-important navigators, he asked for two colleagues 


in Combined Operations McHarg, a quiet rubber-faced 
Cumberland man, not obviously die rugged outdoor sort, 
but reliable as rock; and Ponsonby, a dark-haired exquisite 
with a penchant for poetry. 

He also bid for a Staff Officer, one Moorhouse. Once 
an actor, Moorhouse had brought the florid and exclamatory 
manner of the theatre with him into the Navy. He was, rather 
astonishingly, a first-class administrator. 

Willmott's raid on valuable staff led to a summons from 
Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations. Lord Louis 
leaned back from his imposing desk, laced his hands together, 
and surveyed him. The handsome brows contracted* 

"What do you mean by suggesting my officers for 'Operation 
Torch'? It's all I can do to get staff, without you re-distributing 
them throughout the Navy." 

"I'm very sorry, sir. Navigators are hard to come by." 
He paused. "And I wanted good ones." 

Mountbatten tapped on his desk with a pencil and thought 
it over. He looked up abruptly, and he was smiling. "All 
right. Good luck to you." 

He was to be a great ally in the bad days to come. 

It took five more precious days out of his two months 
to approve Willmott's plan days in which he appeared 
before one senior staff officer of the Force after another, 
each as impassive and non-committal as the last, each shooting 
his own special questions and frowning, hostile-seeming, 
over the answers. 

It was on a warm September Sunday morning that the go- 
ahead came to Willmott as he sat with an Intelligence officer 
working out cover stories for his beach reconnaissance teams 
against the contingency of anyone's falling into enemy hands. 
His men were to be rehearsed thoroughly with a fancy set 
of lies designed to lull any enemy suspicion of a coming 

Just the same, falling foul of beach sentries was not to 
be encouraged. Anybody who did would be expected to fight 
his way out of trouble or die in the attempt, 

It was the Hydrographer, Collins, who brought in their 
lordships' approval for Willmott. He also brought with him 
a changed invasion plan. It provided for several more landings, 


and, to meet it, Willmott had to double everything he had 
asked for canoes, gear, submarines, specialised officers. 

The days that followed were fevered and exhausting. 
Willmott slaved like a demon a pale, set-faced, unrelenting 
demon. He had to embark on a one-man recruiting campaign 
throughout the Navy for likely officers. He had to brandish 
his Top Priority under a host of sceptical noses before his 
threats and plans netted him a single item of stores. He had 
to prise the most likely volunteers loose from the possessive 
clasp of their commanders by feats of cajolery. 

With time so short and the invasion rolling inexorably 
closer, he sometimes paused in the middle of work and felt 
the strange chill of having lives to spend in his hands. It 
was a consciousness when you were working against the 
clock, pioneering something new which had to be right, 
that shadowed you even to your bed and was there while 
you slept. It was a bigger fear than sitting in a canoe off an 
enemy shore in the lonely silence, tensed for the instant 
of discovery, dreading the sudden throb of an E-boat round 
a point and expecting at any moment to be lit up like a public 
monument in the glare of a searchlight. That sort of fear 
had a term to it. It ended near dawn when you saw your 
submarine's answering blips on the infra-red screen and 
you waited with a sudden surge of elation for its shape to 
come heaving out of the night towards you. 

This other fear just went on and on, this terribly sober 
dread for the lives you were committing to your plan. It 
seemed incredible that those lives were also at the mercy 
of the Quartermaster who inspected your Top Priority and 
shrugged; it was at times like this that Willmott began to 
feel homicidal. He had never worked so hard nor worried so 

He asked for five submarines nearly half the operational 
strength of the Western Mediterranean. For his canoes and 
military officers, Willmott went to his old Army confederate, 
Roger Courtney. 

The Courtney he met once more was even more piratical 
than the man with whom he had planned the Rhodes sortie 
eighteen months before. A deep scar stretching from his 
ear to his mouth weighted his grin. It conjured images of a 


desperate brush with the shore defences of some lonely beach. 
Courtney scowled at his interest. "Fell down a basement in 
the blackout," he said shortly. 

He listened with sly interest while Willmott detailed his 
needs, got heavily to his feet, gestured around him, and 
said, "Help yourself. I'm no bloody Quartermaster.** Courtney 
knew what it was all about. 

Willmott helped himself happily to ten Commando canoes, 
five officers, five corporals. Roger nominated himself at their 
head. He delivered some fearful blasphemies when an injunc- 
tion came through forbidding him to go. He said with a doomed 
air, "Well that's me. A bloody chair-polisher now. Too 
precious to risk, old boy." He smiled in a crestfallen way. 

Instead, his younger brother "Gruff" Courtney came. 
Gruff too was burly, florid, full of fight and with the same 
rip-roaring confidence. He spoke in a kind of clipped short- 

The first men to be drafted into Willmott's organisation 
converged on H.M.S. Dolphin, in Portsmouth. The main sub- 
marine base for the Home Fleet, Dolphin was situated in the 
famous Fort Blockhouse at the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour. 

When Willmott arrived there from London with his two 
Navigators, five other young officers had already turned up 
there and were waiting for him. 

These five were to become the permanent nucleus of 
Willmott's organisation. Three of them were navigators, 
too. Their names were Teacher, Amer, and Lyne. The other 
two Sinclair and Hastings were young officers who had 
volunteered for hazardous operations. Young Nick Hastings 
threw him a raffish salute and grinned. He was a handsome 
fellow, the son of Sir Patrick Hastings, K.C., a bit of a dandy 
and infectiously gay. 

Willmott looked them over when they filed into his cabin. 
He only knew Hastings and the lanky, humorous two-striper 
lounging against the bulkhead Norman Teacher, navigator 
of a destroyer. They had met last in Singapore. The world 
was their wardroom. 

He passed around the cigarettes, aware of their intent 
gaze, and said, "We're going to take part in the biggest invasion 
in history. Our job will be to make sure that the assaults 


are made in the right places. First we've got to find out what 
the beaches are like. There's only one way to do that." He 
looked them over one by one. Nobody said anything. Most 
of them looked wooden as newcomers do. 

"We've got to land on them for a good look round. I've 
done it, and I'm going to teach you how to do it and how to 
get away, not only with a whole skin, but with an appraisal 
of its use for landing troops and armour." 

He let them digest this first. 

"And after that, we've got to guide assault craft into those 
beaches. The navigators will pilot the first waves in onto 
markers. Now the markers will be others of you, sitting in 
canoes close offshore, with lights or some sort of beacon." 

He paused and then said in his gentle voice, "I'm afraid 
it's all rather bad for the nerves. Sitting in a canoe off an 
enemy beach when you're really tired as you will be isn't 
much fun. Apart from the risk, it's just one of a lot of uncom- 
fortable jobs. You'll be squatting there long enough to have 
all sorts of weird thoughts. And you'll be in possession of 
information that the enemy would give anything to get hold 
of. It will be inadvisable for you to be captured." 

Willmott watched it all sink in. "It's not the job for everyone. 
If any of you don't feel cut out for it, I shall understand." 

They just eyed him stonily. Then Hastings stirred. "And a 
very fine set of marker buoys they made!" he said, briskly. 
Willmott had to laugh. Hastings was a little outrageous. He 
might have to be restrained. 

The next day, they started work. Ponsonby, one of the 
staff men who had come down with him, was now moping over 
peremptory orders from C.O.H.Q. that he was not to be 
spared for the actual operation. He was given the job of 
organising the mess. Willmott promoted the quiet Cumbrian, 
McHarg, to First Lieutenant and made him responsible for 
all training. The tall Teacher was Personnel Officer. Lyne 
became Navigator to the team and so inherited all the head- 
aches of their complex special gear; Sinclair, Stores; Hastings, 
Armaments Officer. 

It was the start of a long and bitter battle with the Admiralty 
and Dockyards Stores Departments. Even today, Willmott 
has a thin, disillusioned smile for the words Top Priority. 


The magic they worked in the middle of the war was not 
impressive. The words seemed to mean nothing down at 
Stores. He could not explain that if one of them were picked 
up off any enemy beach, it could prejudice the whole future 
of the war. Issues too big to comtemplate hung on seeing his 
men properly fitted out for their task. He had to choke back 
the rage that rose in him whenever a stores rating promised 
cheerfully that their R.G. gear or even the wax pencils for 
sketching in water "shouldn't take longer than a week." 
He would muster a desperate calm and keep cajoling and 
imploring when really he felt like throttling. (Later, when 
the casualties began to mount up, he abandoned all diplomacy 
and became a demon at the faintest whiff of obstruction. 
He was to grow into a white and angry table-thumper, a 
man driven desperate by officialdom, fighting like a madman 
for the welfare of his teams and the operations to which his 
ideas had committed them.) 

It took him a terrible week to assemble enough stores to 
begin training his first team in earnest The time remaining 
was now absurdly short. Willmott would be leaving for Gib- 
raltar with the first part of his team the beach reconnaissance 
party in a fortnight. Though he tried desperately to have 
the rest flown out to the Mediterranean so that precious 
training time would not be lost, his second team was doomed 
by orders to crawl out a month later to Gibraltar in a slow 

There wasn't much sleep for anyone in the new team in the 
weeks that followed. In Fort Blockhouse they were in the 
right place, at least, to pounce on available submarines for 
training. They loaded their canoes aboard these, took them 
out- to Spithead, and spent hours practising the delicate drill 
of jumping into their boats from the submarines* casing. 
More often than not in the first few days the canoes capsized 
immediately and tipped them into the sea. They learned to 
wait until the canoe rose on a swell; jumped, squatted at 
once and rode the craft as she lurched and corkscrewed under 
the impact. 

They swam long distances every day in all weathers. They 
practised throwing grenades and using Tommy-guns from a 
sitting position till it seemed quite natural. They spent hours 


examining the coasts of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight by 
periscope. The orders "Up Periscope! Down periscope!" 
for those thirty second peeps at the coast-line ran like a 
monotonous threnody even through their brief sleeping 

At night there was little respite. After dark came the cul- 
minating drill the thing that demanded more skill, more 
sustained alertness and endurance than any other of the new 
routines: the drill of beach scouting itself. And standing at 
the head of the beach was their implacable task master, Will- 
mott. It became easy to imagine him as a hostile sentry. He 
drove them with unrelenting sternness. The drills became 
robot-drills and the hours slave-hours, but he kept them at it. 

Some of them grumbled. Willmott heard the mutterings 
with his infallible ear and said nothing. 

Out of it all came a polished and springy routine or the 
beginnings of it in record short time. 

One night they decided to try a reconnaissance on Fort 
Blockhouse itself from the sea, with the immaculate Nick 
Hastings leading. There was still no challenge when, em- 
boldened by the absence of sentries, they rose to their hands 
and knees and crept inside. 

The only casualty occurred when an invader poked his 
blackened face into the galley where a sentry raised his eyes 
over a steaming cup of cocoa, gulped and scalded himself. 
They had captured Blockhouse without a shot. 

Security was tightened up right from the start. In the 
draft of ratings came a lawless fellow who broke out of bar- 
racks on his second night, went carousing abroad in the town, 
and boasted of his doings to a pub full of interested civilians. 
Their code name was changed thereafter several times. Finally, 
the planners baptised them "Party Inhuman'*. Everybody 
smiled at that. 

The Navigator to the team was Geoffrey Lyne promptly 
nicknamed "Thin-Red". Thin Red Lyne had the job of 
waterproofing all the equipment they were to use on recon- 
naissance. When he finally emerged from the stores, brandish- 
ing six watertight compasses, he set happily about testing 
them by leaving them in a basin of water all night. Next 
morning, only three were working. He had the same head- 


ache with torches. These he smeared thickly with periscope 
grease and left them suspended in six feet of water. Even at 
that depth, they failed. Finally, he solved it in what was to 
become a time-honoured way with them. He indented for a 
large supply of contraceptives extra strong. To this day, 
the manufacturers do not perhaps realise to what versatile 
and war-winning purposes their humble product was put. 

To make their canoes more serviceable in the open sea 
Willmott and his men devised a rough canvas canopy that 
buttoned round the paddlers. Nick Hastings and "Daddy" 
Amer, one of the navigators, paddled the canoe out into the 
Solent in a heavy wind and invited the waves to break over 
them. Through the mist and spume the watchers saw them go 
right under waves and then emerge streaming, shaking their 
drenched heads, carving ahead with their paddles. They 
shipped a lot of water but by careful baling they found they 
could often survive even the heavier waves. 

It seemed incredible that a bare ten days had passed since 
Willmott had sent out the first telegrams to his prospective 
officers. The date was September 23rd, and the hour, the 
inky graveyard hour before dawn, when the first leg of the 
team destined to plot the North African landings the beach- 
combers climbed into a truck for the aircraft that was to 
take them to Gibraltar. 

The auguries could not have been worse. The world light- 
ened on a yellow, choking dawn. When it cleared a precious 
day later they took off into a bleak sky. 

The last signals Willmott had received showed clearly that 
the naval staff at Gibraltar thoroughly disagreed with their 
whole plan. The Flag Officer commanding the North Atlantic 
was flatly opposed to it. 

If they wanted any more hostile omens, it was raining as 
none of them had ever seen it rain when they touched down 
at Gibraltar. , 



THE atmosphere that surrounded Willmott and his canoeists 
as they climbed out of their aircraft at Gibraltar was palpably 

Instead of being taken aboard the Maidstone, the submarine 
Depot ship, they were all lodged in the Grand Hotel "Perfect/* 
Willmott said bitterly, "for security. Just perfect. With a little 
ingenuity even the chambermaid could get a fair idea of what 
was cooking.** 

He had trouble getting an interview with Captain Voelker, 
commanding the 8th Submarine Flotilla, Gibraltar. 

Voelker listened frigidly as Willmott outlined their plan to 
comb the invasion beaches around Algiers and Oran for likely 
landing spots and possible snags. 

Gradually the submarine commander's frown cleared. As 
his story sank in, Willmott could see that he was winning a 
reluctant listener. He hurried on, stumbling over details of 
technique, what gear they would need, how they manoeuvred 
with the submarines. 

When he came to a halt, Voelker passed a hand over his 
forehead dazedly and said: "This is not the story we heard. 
We thought that about thirty of you proposed to land, beat up 
the countryside and frighten old ladies in their beds. This 
is quite different!" 

At that, Willmott and his navigators moved down from the 
Grand Hotel to the Depot ship. 

They had to work up and perfect their night drills in the 
waters round Gibraltar, and for the first time as a team they 
had a taste of near- warfare conditions. 

With all the mysterious portents that swarmed in the van 
of the coming invasion there was an electric expectancy about 
the Rock. More and more ships arrived daily. The harbour 
defences were acutely sensitive, too, to the threats of limpet- 
minelaying and torpedo attacks by Italian frogmen. Through- 



out these nights Gibraltar echoed to the thump of depth 
charges as the MLs fussed about detonating them. The 
beach sentries were more than usually trigger-happy. On their 
second night out they rapped out a challenge to Willmott's 
deputy, McHarg, who was out canoeing on an infra-red test. 
Their torches dazzled him and they waded in and hauled him 
ashore. Willmott had to rescue him from a military jail. 

Four days after arriving, they were due to leave on their 
submarine sortie to scout the invasion beaches. There were 
two submarines one to work the Oran beaches, the other 
carrying Willmott and Lieutenant "Daddy" Amer, for landing 
places around Algiers. 

Willmott went to bed fairly early. He knew he would need 
the rest. He was awoken by a hand shaking him. It was Captain 
Voekler. He had an Admiralty signal in his hand and he didn't 
look happy. 

The Admiralty was standing fast on its orders issued a 
week before at Gibraltar's request, forbidding Willmott and 
his men actually to land and explore the Torch beaches. 

Willmott pulled on his boots. "Periscopes only, eh," he 
said grimly. "And what we don't see from the periscopes, 
we'll leave the poor bloody infantry to find out." He pulled 
out a signal pad and scribbled off a curt message to the Ad- 
miralty. It said that he could no longer guarantee the landing 

Voelker was sympathetic. He said, "If it had been left to 
me, I'd have said: Have a go" 

"I know," Willmott said. 

It was a different feeling, nearing the long North African 
coast-line in a submarine, from the one he had had the first 
time he had circled Rhodes. Here was no island bastion, 
bristling and conscious of its isolation, but only long sweeps 
of shore, the cluster of a village, a calm monotony relieved by 
the occasional appearance of fishing craft which danced dis- 
tantly in a blue sea, or the brief smudge of a destroyer on the 

As far as they could see, the scheduled beaches outside 


Algiers and Oran looked harmless enough except one. It 
was backed by tall cliffs, with no exits for transport or tanks. 
On this beach, plans had cheerfully been made to land a 
motorised Division. So the periscope reconnaissance was of 
some use. 

The stooging about and the cautious hand-sketching of 
enemy beaches from periscope distance took them nearly a 
fortnight. When it was done, and they returned to Gibraltar, 
Willmott and his three fellow-navigators set to work making 
beach maps and silhouettes for reproduction to every landing 
craft flotilla officer. 

On the same afternoon as they got back to their depot ship 
in Gibraltar, the rest of their team arrived on the Rock by 
slow convoy from England. They had had a rough trip and 
were in poor shape. The sight of his dishevelled fledgelings 
roused a fanatic horror in Willmott. They had fourteen days 
left to get fit before the invasion, and he set them to work 
like oxen. 

Every night he ordered them out on exercises. First thing 
every morning, he had the whole team out to climb the steep 
hill to the top of the Rock and back again at the double. It 
was a gruelling, hour-long round trip, and some of them got 
back bordering on collapse. By the end of the week, however, 
they were doing it with more dash. Willmott noted this with 
wordless satisfaction then ordered full packs to be carried. 

Some of the team complained of blisters. He concluded 
their feet had softened from wearing light shoes. Out came 
another Willmott order boots would be worn at all times. 
There were loud groans. Even Moorhouse, Willmott's admin, 
deputy, was driven to complain in their official diary, "The 
only time we could take them off was in bed. If Willmott had 
had his way, we'd have slept in them." 

After a week of this, some of his crew came very close to 
mutiny. The strain of driving them and himself as well was 
beginning to tell on their Commander. He was haggard and 
dark-eyed. When the Mediterranean "Levanter" blew up, 
he took them with him out of harbour to ride out the rough 
seas, with the waves whirling the frail boats about and tumbling 
over their roughly tailored canopies. 

It was his insistence on meticulous maintenance of their 

Lieutenant-Commander (now Captain) Nigel Willmott, D.S.O., D.S.C., R.N. 
Founder and first commander of COPP. 

Crown Copyright 

Robin Harbud (in background) and Sergeant Cook manhandle a canoe through the 
fore hatch of a submarine. The first canoes, unwieldy civilian jobs, had to be collapsed 
before being passed through the hatch and assembled on the casing opposite enemy shores. 


gear ainid all this that the team really loathed, and which 
brought them so perilously near to revolt. They had volun- 
teered for trouble. They were blithe, careless, hating drudgery. 
And it was because they were happy-go-lucky that the train- 
ing was mercilessly thorough. Willmott still remembered 
Courtney's staggering to him from that dark beach on Rhodes, 
half-dead. Don't worry ^ Nigel. If II be all right on the night. 

It was only the fact that Willmott joined in everything they 
did and then went off to slave over sheafs of paper work 
that preserved their reluctant respect. Even relaxing at the 
Yacht Club, he would implore his boisterous team to drink 
olive oil before starting out on a night's revelling so that no 
hangover would upset their training. They came to look upon 
him as a kill-joy. If the knowledge worried him, he didn't 
show it. 

Only when they were about to sail did Willmott relax the 
almost-savage stiffness he had worn about him since they had 
reached Gibraltar. He did it without a smile, facing his men. 
He said, "The last two weeks have been fairly hectic." 

There was a bit of nudging in the ranks at that. 

"Well, before you get back, some of you may have reason to 
be glad. Good luck don't let the side down." 

He turned on his heel. 

The talk was over. 

Even on this last night, his cabin light was burning till four 
in the morning. He was working on a report for Admiral 
Cunningham, now Commander-in-Chief. 

Next morning the submarine pathfinders for "Operation 
Torch" nosed their way one by one out of Gibraltar Harbour 
through a curtain of rain which pitted the heavy Mediterranean 
swell. They were the scouts in a gigantic operation which was 
to involve nearly four hundred ships. To cover the invasion, 
the Atlantic convoys had been stripped to minimum escorts. 
Every fighting ship that could be spared from other sectors 
had either arrived or was on its way to the Mediterranean. 
Among them were six capital vessels Renown^ Rodney^ 
Duke of York, Fttrious, Formidable, Victorious. As they set 
course for Algiers, six invasion convoys were ploughing through 
the Bay of Biscay towards Gibraltar. Ten submarines of the 
loth Flotilla lay in wait off the Italian coast, poised to attack 


any enemy units that came steaming out of port Three sub- 
marines of 8th Flotilla hovered off Toulon for the same reason. 
More than six hundred planes had been mustered for air 
cover, not counting those of the Fleet Air Arm. From ports as 
wide apart as Plymouth and Baltimore, the clean white bow 
waves of a vast Anglo-American fleet were converging across 
the Atlantic on to the Gibraltar Straits and the beaches that 
lay beyond them. "Operation Torch" had started. 

As they neared the African coast the submarines went 
looking for their own beaches. They "fixed" them through 
their periscopes, and dived to await the darkness. At night they 
surfaced and released canoes. Each canoe carried a Navigator 
and a marker. 

The idea was this: The Navigators took the markers in and 
showed them the positions they should later take up, close off 
the dark-silhouetted coast, on D-night. From here, when 
zero hour came, they would begin flashing their torches to sea. 

The submarines would withdraw to a start-line eight miles 
to sea and hoist beacons. Around their lights the whole 
approaching invasion armada would rally, and lower the 
assault boats. 

Willmott's Navigators would transfer to landing craft and 
lead the assault on the long journey in. As they neared the 
shore they would pick up their markers* lights in their bobbing 
canoes. Right ahead of these lay the landing beaches. 

Two nights before the assault "Thin Red" Lyne paddled 
away from one of the submarines on a preliminary visit to 
show a marker, Thomas, his beach sector. 

As soon as they cleared the submarine they felt the long 
heavy swell underneath them. At first they rode it easily 
enough. The submarine's hum faded seawards. That always 
marked the onset of the loneliness. Their solid base ship was 
gone. Finding her again was always fraught with hazards. 
Until then they were alone in a flimsy canvas craft with the 
enemy coast drawing an inky outline hemmed with faint 
whiteness ahead of them. 

The storm came up suddenly, as often happens in the 
Mediterranean. First there was a slight quickening of the 


wind. Sharp warning gusts caught and twisted the paddles 
in their hands. Spray whipped off the swell. Then suddenly 
the storm was on them: a black pall of clouds, inking out 
the shadow of coast and rising over them. A huge wind fun- 
nelled down into the sea from the plateau east of Castiglioni 
and blew in their faces. It wasn't like a sea wind, but a great 
lunatic breath which, twisted by the land contours, veered 
crazily, lashing up great foaming banks of water which crumbled 
and broke over them first from this quarter, then that. Steering 
became a matter of wild premonition about the next wave. 
And through their flimsy canopy they were shipping water 

"Faster . . . dammit!" Lyne yelled. The wind spun his 
words away into nothing. "Don't . . . swing . . . Christ's 
sake or we've had it!" They paddled frenziedly and battled 
to keep their blades thin-edge-on to the wind. A great wave 
slid past, foaming, and broke astern, heaving them round. 
The canoe twisted underneath and slithered steeply sideways 
down a cliff of water into the trough. 

"... bows-on! . . . with your port, man! . . . bows-on!" 
The words were only vague sounds on the wind. Neither of 
them needed to be told what would happen if a wave broke 
over them beam-on. If they did emerge from it, they would 
probably be smashed, and waterlogged, and doomed. 

They were lucky, and got the canoe around in time to take 
the next big wave. Even so, as they saw it rising in front of 
them it seemed impossible that they could ride it. It broke 
short. The canvas bows disappeared in front of them. They sat 
in a flurry of foam and water, their paddles smothered and 
twisting in their hands and then the breaker was past. They 
were still afloat, the water streaming off their faces. 

Now they paddled in spurts between the onrushing waves, 
fighting round to meet them as they reared suddenly out of 
the blackness. Every time a wave crashed they paddled like 
madmen, guessing and correcting with their blades as they 
screwed wildly down into the troughs. Inside the canoe an 
ominous weight of water swilled leadenly over them. It was 
the pitching that Lyne feared, for then it "rolled forward, 
weighting their bows as they dived before a slow-oncoming 
wave, rising and threatening to bury them. 


For an instant a huge wave whirled them so high on its 
crest that they could see the lights of Castiglioni and the 
flash of a lighthouse. In slow motion they spilled off down 
a gentle slope which pulled them forward, leisurely at first, 
then gathering speed, to meet a bank of water that built up 
in front of them with vast and unflurried malignance. It grew 
towards them till it was like a castle wall, crenellated with 
foam, poised to crumble over them. At that moment Lyne 
felt them swinging. 

"With your left! . , . your left ... God's sake!" 

Frantically they dug their port blades in to face it, and 
sluggishly came about just as the wall broke. Then they were 
atop it with foam cascading along their canopies and once 
again the lights of the North African coast threw long pale 
spears at their salt-stung eyes. 

The first lull came after an age, and they were both heaving 
for breath. Lyne tore at the buttons of the canopy and whipped 
it off. He flicked water out of his eyes and panted, "Bale like 
hell! . . . It'll be up again in a minute!" 

They unhooked the mugs and scooped fast. The water in 
the canoe nearly covered their thighs. The half-pint mugs 
seemed like thimbles for the job, but slowly the level washing 
about their buttocks receded. They pitched the Tommy-gun 
overboard with a splash. They jettisoned the infra-red gear 
too, and their supply of grenades. That left their compasses, 
binoculars, revolvers, and the torch. Thomas turned to feel 
the woodwork aft. "Seems okay/' he said, scarcely believing it. 

But it didn't look good. Lyne took a bearing on Castiglioni 
and the shore landmarks; the squall must have blown them 
half a mile out to sea. They were now abeam of Castiglioni 
instead of well east of it. The storm and the current were 
bearing them strongly west. 

Lyne peered at his watch. Only an hour remained for them 
to battle back through the storm to their meeting place with 
the submarine. 

The wind came again. This time it blew harder. Under 
its lash the waves came herding back to the attack, and again 
they were diving and slithering down the great slopes, paddling 
in furious spurts to keep bows-on to the sea. There was a 
steely ache in their forearms and the spindrift tormented them 


as they peered into the darkness to judge the waves bearing 
down. They had forgotten the dryness of fear and all other 
sensation in the battle to survive. A desperate instinct kept 
Lyne steering against the current bearing them westward as 
they fought to face the waves. 

After a terrible half-hour of this renewed savagery they 
emerged, slumped and failing, into a lull, to find the battle 
had locked their fingers round the paddles like dead claws, 
Both had to summon great will to unclasp them. 

In the momentary calm, they looked and saw the fight back 
to their rendezvous was lost. The wind was beating them, 
scooping them steadily seaward. They were still abeam of 
Castiglioni's lights, about two miles offshore, wallowing water- 
logged. They used the lull to bale like mad. There was no time 
to paddle and to make up the ground they'd lost. 

One of the lulls was just long enough for them to whip 
the canopy off, and bale. Then maliciously the wind came 
racing across the sea as if spotting its chance, and caught 
them while they wrestled in sudden dismay to get the canopy 
back. The gusts swung them beam-on to a giant, hovering 
wave which curled high over their heads and blanketed them 
in a wall of water. As it crashed they felt the canoe heeling 
madly beneath them. A moment later they were through it. 
Their canoe was still crazily afloat, as barely as sodden drift- 
wood, and they sat in it dazed and soaked. One of the wooden 
stringers had snapped. They were full of water now and 
they had missed their rendezvous with the submarine. While 
Lyne paddled, the other man, Thomas, held their torch 
desperately aloft and flashed it over a wide arc. During the 
lulls Lyne baled and took it in turns with Thomas to signal. 

It was hopeless but they kept at it. The submarine would 
be far away to the east. It could never sight their flash from 
such a distance in a sea like this. One of the myriad sounds 
borne on the wind was a humming, an aural mirage, and they 
paddled furiously towards it. 

They knew now they were lost. The thing that Willmott 
had harped on in his endless exercises and fitness drills had 
actually happened. They had failed to "home". With the 
fading of hope came exhaustion. Their arms and shoulders 
were one terrible ache, their hands raw as steaks. The wind, 


cutting through sodden clothing, seared and shook them. A 
forlorn habit kept Thomas at the signalling. He still held the 
torch up now and then and flashed it until Lyne put their 
despair into words, 

"Better pack it up. We've had the rendezvous." He scooped 
out water with his mug. Throughout the night the storm bore 
them fighting, away from the coast, till they only caught the 
intermittent blink of far-away lights from the port. Surviving 
had now become a leaden and automatic summoning of 
effort from an inner reserve whose stock still held. A wave 
smashed the other wooden stringer and yet they still managed 
to keep paddling and baling. The sting of salt, the tiredness, 
weighted their eyelids and coaxed them to give up. 

And through it, they saw the dawn break grey over the sea. 

The wind dropped. Soon what had been a nightmare of 
foam-crested rollers breaking this way and that upon them 
subsided into a long easy swell that lifted them with increasing 
gentleness as the day lightened. For the first time they just 
sat with humped shoulders and rode it. They were now about 
eight miles off land. 

The canoe couldn't last for ever. Lyne was reasoning to himself 
that if they had a shot now to get ashore, they might, with luck 
colossal luck make it in to a deserted beach, and manage 
to hide up till the invasion overtook them in two days' time. 

Another gust of wind whipping at their paddles put an end 
to this weary speculation. It was now broad day. Unbelievingly, 
Lyne and Thomas stared about them out of reddened eyes. 
The squall clouds were gathering yet again. It closed on them, 
churning the swell into great cliffs and hollows while they sat 
feebly battling with the canopy and then clamping lacerated 
hands about the paddles to fight anew. Lyne watched with a 
tired wonder his arms that moved without feeling now; robot- 
like, they dipped the blade first right, then left, as they curveted 
to confront the rising waves. The canoe rose till they were on 
a grey-green, foam-spilling crest, and then they saw the trawler, 

It was about half a mile away and heading seawards across 
their stern. In that moment, too, the trawler saw them. As 
they watched, it slowly swung. The sea smacked it abeam and 
spumed over it. It wallowed and kept turning. 

There was nothing more they could do. Now it was plough- 


ing towards them. They could make out a gathering of sailors 
on her port gunwale as, against the yellowish sky with its 
wind-ripped tatters of cloud, the trawler loomed closer. 

They could hardly put up a fight. Their Tommy-gun had 
gone overboard the night before. "Better get rid of the canoe, 
anyway," Lyne said. He pulled out his knife and ripped 
tiredly at the air bladders of the battered canoe. 

It was sinking under them as the trawler came alongside, 
guns trained on them, and the lines came flying over. They 
still had strength in their arms to grip them and be half- 
hauled, half-manhandled aboard. They lay on its heaving 
deck, heads shaking, unable to get to their feet, paralysed 
from the waist down. 

That evening French bluejackets escorted them into Algiers' 
naval prison. At intervals over the next three days their guards 
hauled them out for interrogation before a succession of staff 

Lyne and Thomas yielded their cover story bit by bit 
that they had been bearing a letter for a de Gaullist agent 
east of Castiglioni, and that, as soon as capture became certain, 
they had eaten it. 

The guards' vigilance over them was not all that good, and 
Lyne fooled them by singing a message for Thomas. 

Back from the adjoining solitary cell came a hoarse baritone 
intoning Roll out the Barrel. But the words were horrifying. 
You said you swallowed the message, Thomas sang. I said I 
swallowed it too. Da-da, dee turn-turn, we've got the blues on the 
run. . . . 

All the time they were fed banquet-sized meals, with wine 
and brandy. The prison Commandant was a civilised fellow 
who invited Lyne to share dinner with him and pumped him. 

It was on their third night. Lyne gestured to the armed 
guards who had replaced their sentries. 

"Why have you given them arms?" 

The Commandant sipped his wine. "It is the habit, when 
a big convoy is passing," he said airily. 

It was the invasion convoy. 



THE ragged edges of the storm that overwhelmed "Thin Red" 
Lyne and his paddler, Thomas, caught and battered the others, 

"Daddy" Amer, a bald-headed veteran navigator, battled 
through it with the debonair Nick Hastings to a point off- 
shore from their landing sector where, fighting to breast 
occasional wild waves and threshing with their paddles, they 
picked out their landmarks through the gloom and fixed 
Hastings' invasion marking point. 

Beyond the naked port lights of Algiers on its other side 
Willmott himself was out, carving grimly over wind-licked 
crests and down into foam-mottled troughs, bearing with him 
a somewhat startled young sub-lieutenant, Cooper, on a hair- 
raising voyage of introduction to his sector. 

Over two hundred miles to the west of them, at Oran, 
two other teams were spearing inshore at separate points from 
their submarines, and gliding through a total, eerie calm. 
They stroked delicately with their eyes questing this way and 
that in the dark, tensed and listening for the other sorts of 
danger that hung in such a stillness. 

With a luminous scatter of water a school of porpoises 
suddenly broke the surface and frolicked in the liquid darkness 
around the canoe of Edwards and Magnall. It startled them 
off their stroke for a moment. The sea chuckled with the 
quiet wash and flurry of their antics. In front, a porpoise 
arched a slick body and blew a hoarse, misty greeting. It 
was like saying BOO to them out of the night. The bowman 
had to master an impulse to lunge forward with his paddle 
and bat it. 

Instead, they whispered furtive obscenities at their visitors 
curving and thrusting out of the water all around them. They 
stopped paddling and waited, oars shipped, till the porpoises 
tired of the canoeists' churlish response and abandoned them 
with a sudden shrugging of water. They groped for their 



paddles again, and paused as another pinpoint of sound 
pierced the curtain of silence about them. It grew into the 
throbbing of a motor boat. As the sound rose it declared itself 
on their starboard bow. Then a shape, blacker than the dark- 
ness, loomed towards and across them. It looked to be about 
a thirty-footer, with a deckhouse aft. 

Her shadow stopped. She swung, heading round, and came 
on steadily at a ten-knot towards them. The canoeists kept 
their paddle blades underwater. With a quiet desperation 
they manoeuvred to swing stern-on and present their smallest 
silhouette to the oncoming launch. Edwards leaned forward 
and groped under the canopy for the Tommy-gun. Magnall 
undid his holster. They both froze at the ready as the boat 
bore down on them. The gap was closing now: a hundred 
yards; seventy-five; fifty. She must have spotted them now. 

At thirty yards off, the black mass of the launch stopped. 
She lay there, drifting. The current bore them both as they 
lay pointing at each other across the short stretch of sea. 
Then, to port, they heard faintly the engines of another launch. 
It, too, was coming towards them. 

The two men sat motionless, not risking even a movement 
of their heads to look back at the launch squatting just astern 
of them with its exhaust bubbling idly. They only had a huge, 
hideous mental image of its dwelling on them there, delaying 
for an inscrutable reason the moment of blowing them out 
of the water. 

The other boat drew nearer on their port side. It grew loud 
until they expected its shape to break from the wall of darkness 
in front of them and bear down, but as its throbbing reached 
a crescendo it swung suddenly away. They heard it fade 
towards the coast. 

The sea was beginning to swing them round. At that, 
Magnall risked a peep at the launch behind them. In the 
wheelhouse astern a match flared. He slipped his paddle into 
the water to swing their canoe back. Every movement he made 
was as self-conscious as if they were bathed in the glare of 
a searchlight. It was impossible that they could not be seen 
and yet he groped for the comfort of recollecting how hard it 
had been, in the exercises off Gibraltar, to spot a canoe at 
night when it lay end-on to the watchers. 


At last Edwards decided to make a move. He touched 
Magnall and very gently, so as to stir no phosphorescence, 
they caressed the water with their paddle blades. 

Every agonising second as they slid forward they expected 
the roar of the launch, throttling up to follow them. There 
was no sound except for its idling throb-and-gurgle. It was 
like turning your back on a shark and breast-stroking away. 

The launch stayed where it was, taking its ease on the 
quiet sea well out from its harbour, obviously on watch and 
yet, incredibly, unseeing. And gradually the sound of it faded 
behind them. 

When they got back to their submarine one of their own 
navigators, Teacher, grinned a welcome as they clambered 
down inside. 

"I was taking bets about seeing you again. Bay's so full of 
motor boats, it's like a bloody regatta/' 

Another canoe team working inshore west of Oran from 
the submarine Ursula got into the same kind of trouble. 
Before they got to their marking point a small fleet of fishing 
smacks appeared out of the gloom and bore down upon them 
under sail like nocturnal gulls. 

McHarg summed it up promptly. "Too risky," he snapped 
over his shoulder, "Better get out. Swing her round/' He 
pulled hard on the port side and his partner backpaddled. 
They threshed for the open sea, angling their stern to the 
fishing fleet. Glancing back as they worked, he saw that the 
smacks had changed tack and looked to be following them out 
The canoe lunged forward under them with rapid strokes 
and cut a small bow wave. They were early back at their 
submarine, feeling sheepish and thwarted. 

On November yth, 1942, heralded by this fumbling for 
marking points in the stormy gloom, and by a discreet covering 
of the landing beaches through periscopes, the invasion of 
North Africa started. 

The armada was suddenly there on a moonless night, its 
convoys materialising out of nowhere and swarming like a 
plague of great black moths towards the beacons of tie sub- 


marines. These lay strung out to welcome them on to their 
start points, eight miles off-coast. It was here that the boats, 
crammed with assault troops, would be lowered into the sea; 
where the tank landing craft and the boats packed with vehicles 
and guns would form up for the run in to the beach. 

Both off Oran and Algiers, the weather had worsened till it 
had reached the extreme for canoes. Some of these were 
swamped by green seas as soon as they pulled out of the lee 
of their submarines to make for the points close offshore 
where they were to flash in the assault waves. One team solved 
this by jettisoning most of their gear, pulling for the shelter 
of a small island on the way in, and there baling furiously 
before paddling on to their mark. The others battled to keep 
their marking positions while they alternately baled, and 
fought the weather, and finally started flashing their signals 

Out at sea, an LCV came rolling heavily alongside Willmott's 
submarine and summoned him for a last minute conference 
aboard the U.S.S. Samuel Chase. They roared on an erratic 
course through the convoy to the Headquarters ship, and he 
clambered aboard. The threat of a coming shambles hung 
plainly in the conference room which he entered. At this last 
moment the American Senior Naval Officer Landings was pro- 
posing not to release craft from their mother ships until 
fifteen minutes before they were due to land. Fifteen minutes 
to travel eight miles! Now the landings would be hours late. 

While they argued over changes of plan, the whole invasion 
convoy kept drifting past its landing sectors. 

By the time the assault was finally launched it had drifted 
four miles out of its position, and most Landing Craft officers 
had no idea where they were. 

Willmott scrambled down the net into the wallowing LCV 
with which he was to lead the first wave into his beach. He 
spent a nightmare three-quarters of an hour threading her 
through a confused swarm of lost boats, hailing and rounding 
up the craft for his sector. There was no usable compass 
aboard. He seemed to have the only pair of binoculars in the 

When he'd got all the boats he could find he cocked his eye 
at the North Star blinking astern of them and set a rough 


course inshore. In the dark they had to keep stopping for 
stragglers, right the way in. 

On the last lap, with the faintly plaintive signals of the 
canoe markers blinking for them, the invasion was approaching 
North Africa at the majestic rate of four knots, and ploughing 
into a land fog. 

Shore searchlights were sweeping the water. Here and there 
the low coast-line spat fire. 

But through it, thanks to the North Star and a couple of 
markers who had fought a hazardous rodeo in their bucking 
craft to flash them in, Willmot and his mixed cohort of Rangers 
and Commandos grated on the right beach. From a swamped 
canoe as they passed it, the torch of their soldier marker, 
Basil Eckhard, still flashed gallantly seaward. As the troops 
leaped from the boats and dashed for the cliffs, the guns of the 
French fort above them opened up. 

A grey dawn broke and revealed the utter chaos along the 
North African shore. 

No less than forty assorted craft were lying broached-to 
and wallowing beam on to the landing beaches. The waves 
spilled and played catspaw with them. 

Ammunition for troops at Blue Beach was landed up to 
Red Beach. There, tanks had churned the sand into an im- 
passable mess for the wheeled trucks following them in. 

Even now in broad daylight flotillas of landing craft were 
pouring into the wrong beaches. At Blue Beach, LCVs dis- 
gorged hundreds of trucks onto a shore with no way out. The 
trucks jammed and milled helplessly in the cove at the 
mercy of the first enemy barrage that opened up, or the first 

Towards his sector on the other side of Algiers, a beach- 
master forged grimly ahead, disdaining to pick up the navi- 
gator assigned to him. He had elected to guide in the craft 
himself. He landed them eight miles out of position. 

"Daddy" Amer, the navigator thus scorned, hailed and rescued 
another assault wave which was veering hopelessly off course 
in a strong current. He got them to their beach or nearly. 
No amount of reconnoitring by periscope offshore would have 
uncovered its hidden treachery sandbars. The boats grounded 
on them, groaning as though they knew what had happened. 


Heavily kitted, the troops leaped off and floundered into water 
up to their necks. They waded painfully on with their weapons 
high above their heads. With little but their tin hats and guns 
showing, they looked like a squadron of strangely-laden 
turtles bobbing towards land. A couple of well-sited machine 
guns would have wiped them out. 

But mercifully the shores here were deserted. 

Over at Oran, all went well with the landings, the markers 
assisting. The only flaws were a cock-eyed timetable and the 
arrest of a couple of Willmott's men when they stood non- 
plussed on a beach, surrounded by Americans yelling "Heigh- 
ho, Silver!" Nobody had equipped them with the answer to 
the password. 

It was around Algiers that all the confusion reigned. 

On Willmott's beach, where they were minus ammunition, 
the first air attacks started soon after dawn. Junkers dive- 
bombed the offshore transports, troops on the beaches, and 
made a meal of the helplessly wallowing landing craft. 

In between the air attacks, Arabs appeared out of the hills 
and helped themselves busily to unguarded stores, carting 
them away up the cliffs. WiUmott stationed himself on top. 
He let them come staggering up the cliff paths under their 
huge illicit burdens of food, ammunition, typewriters, vehicle 
parts. As each one appeared panting over the rim of cliff, 
he bade him put his load down, and occasionally hastened 
the persuasion by unclipping his revolver holster. It was a 
grand way of getting stores shifted up off the beach. 

During the day the weather worsened. No more assault 
craft came ploughing in. The landings had stopped. The 
first waves ashore were on their own. 

Yet there was only sporadic small arms fire here and there 
inland, and almost no beach resistance except at the em- 
battled Fort, still blazing away. The Junkers, sharking up and 
down the shores, plummeted on the pitching fleet amid a 
tumult of wind-whipped ack-ack puffs. 

Willmott walked into a villa, perched on the cliff. It was 
crammed like a museum with pretentious antiques and vulgar 
bric-i-brac. Gaudy carpets strewed the floor. The walls were 
studded thickly with bad oil-paintings. 

The owner appeared hastily at his entrance. He was a 


well-fed, prosperous little Frenchman, his brown eyes agitated 
and his hands a-tremble. When Willmott convinced him 
that they were the liberating English, his two daughters 
climbed out from under a bed and joined them with doubtful 
dark-eyed smiles. 

From the terrace he watched a geyser shoot up from the 
Leedstown's waterline and saw the torpedo bombers, lightened 
of their loads, rise and wheel away. She was hit. Smoke rolled 
from her and she began to settle. 

Inland it was eerily calm. 

The villa's terrace was a god's-eye view of the chaos. The 
whole coast-line was a mess of wrecks along the water's edge. 

Many units were still scattered or lost, and the support 
troops had yet to come in when the seas abated. 

What a lot they had to learn about landing armies 1 

They had been saved by a providence almost as momentous 
as Dunkirk's. There was a case for getting down on their 
knees and thanking God the landings had been practically 

Any semblance of defence from these North African cliffs 
and dunes would have meant a massacre. 

It would not be like this, he knew, when the time came for 
the Allies to get back their foothold on Europe. 

Further along the shore he found some of his own des- 
peradoes had established themselves very comfortably in a 
villa. "Got it for two tins of sardines from a pongo," Hastings 

They had also acquired something else from the Army 
without negotiating. A small fleet of trucks. They were busy 
plastering mud over the plates and identity marks. 

Willmott shook his head reprovingly and ordered them to 
wipe the mud off. "It's not fair," he explained. Some of them 
gaped, but to him it was a breach of the etiquette of robbery. 

Two days later, Algiers fell or rather, gave itself up. 



THE ramshackle landings in North Africa had plainly chastened 
those who planned it. 

This was clear when Willmott landed back in England by 
air. Wherever he went in Whitehall he had only to open his 
mouth about beach reconnaissance to find senior naval 
officers paying him sober attention. 

A few days later a Staff Navigating Officer, Lieutenant- 
Commander Stephenson, hustled him along a corridor in 
Combined Operations Headquarters to a full-dress con- 
ference. There was an air of mystery and importance among 
those waiting to go in. 

"It's about reconnaissance," Stephenson said. 

Willmott walked into a palpably changed atmosphere. There 
were all the Combined Ops. chiefs of staff, flanked by related 
tiers of Admiralty and War Office high-ups. They heard him 
out in a total silence. Some took notes. For two hours after 
that he answered a stream of questions fired from all corners 
of the conference room few of them hostile, all on the 

At the end of it all he walked dazedly outside. Ever since 
he had crawled ashore at Rhodes, alone, he had known in his 
heart they would all one day come upon this truth that 
enemy-manned beaches must be explored by scouts before 
committing whole armies to them. 

But now he wondered if they had suddenly gone crazy. 
The conference had decided on the formation of a new unit 
to be called Combined Operations Pilotage Parties. It was 
destined to be known as COPP. Now, with the enthusiasm 
of converts, they were suddenly talking about forming fifty 
teams. Fifty! Really, it was absurd. 

But everybody who mattered, those who had listened to 
him politely for wearisome months and then shelved his 
plaintive reports, were now all with him. 


The canoes, finally tailormade for COPP more seaworthy but they still gave a rough ride. 

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His victory was summed in a letter from Mountbatten's 
Chief of Staff to the Secretary of the Admiralty on December 
i2th, 1942: 

"Be pleased to represent to Their Lordships that as a result 
of the experience gained during the North African Operations, 
it is clear that if Beach Intelligence requirements for future 
operations are to be met promptly and efficiently it is necessary 
that personnel should be trained and equipment provided 
before the requirement arises." 

Right away Willmott began organising a hunt for a hideout 
in England where he could train his new "beach pilotage 
parties". It would have to be near enough to London so that 
he could come up and pound tables when the need threatened 
and yet isolated enough not to have a grandstand of curious 
observers for their training antics. 

One of his new officers in the newly-baptised COPP found 
the ideal place the Yacht Club on Hayling Island. A modern 
rectangular block silhouetted on a lonely spit of land not far 
from Chichester Harbour, it looked like the control tower of 
some small aerodrome. 

The man who found it was a slim, wiry, fair-haired youngster 
called Geoff Galwey, who was to become one of Willmott's 
chief henchmen. In his light blue eyes shone an unholy light 
of fun. Gal way had lied to a medical board about his health; 
before the war he had been discharged from the Navy with 
a weak heart, the heritage of rheumatic fever, and when he 
re-enlisted as a rating his knowledge of naval matters so 
baffled his superiors that in no time he had shot up to Petty 

Galwey had drive and he was ruthless with chair-polishers. 
His way of dealing for furniture with an obstinate stores de- 
partment was to take a lorry on a tour of neighbouring bases 
till he found one that was temporarily vacant. His squad 
swarmed in and stripped it of all they wanted beds, tables, 
chairs, mattresses and staggered out laden. As the lorry 
sped out of the empty camp they saluted the untenanted 
sentry box with a solemn eyes-left. In the cab, Galwey yelled, 


"Stop!" The truck halted. He got out and hoisted the sentry 
box aboard, too. 

Nobody worried about the wholesale pillaging of a camp 
but hell broke loose on Hayling at the loss of the sentry box. 
Search parties combed the island for it before they came upon 
it standing brazenly outside the Yacht Club. When questioned 
Galwey's men looked wise and invoked the secrecy of their 
identity. An officer supervised its loading back and drove off, 
furious, balked of a culprit. 

Now that Willmott was getting something of his own way, 
building his own outfit from scratch was a heady, exciting 
business. That is, when it wasn't exhausting and deeply 

Willmott's biggest early trouble was to get his Navigators. 
He had an interview with Commander "Bloggs" Biggs, a tall 
cheerful warrior with a long nose and bright eyes. "Bloggs" 
fought this part of the war in a dirty and tattered blue blazer. 
As soon as he got to his office "Bloggs" Biggs would take off 
his uniform jacket, drape it carefully on a hanger, shrug on 
his blazer and square up to his day. Thus clad, he braved the 
disapproving frowns of his superiors with sunny good humour. 
He had playful names for everything. Navigators were "Alli- 

"Alligators are breaking up, Nigel," he said, striding up 
and down his office overlooking Whitehall. "Breaking up. 
Know what are our greatest casualties are among Alligators? 
Ulcers! Nervous collapses! Seriously! And we can't get enough 
of 'em for the big ships. Still, do what I can." 

And Willmott got his Navigators. 

Among those who drifted back to him were "Thin Red" Lyne, 
who had been freed from the Algiers jail where he and his 
paddler were waiting to be shot as spies. 

Lyne was one of several Navigators Willmott sorted out, 
each to command his own COPP party. 

Their new boathouse Headquarters at Hayling hummed 
now with plans and daily new arrivals. It was a perfect place 
to train lapped on three sides by water, with excellent sand 
and shingle beaches all around. The notice board was always 
thick with fresh orders. It was exhilarating, but one thing 
loomed threateningly in their routine and inspired a shudder. 


It was mid-winter. And one of the biggest items in their 
curriculum was swimming nude. "Hardening," it was called. 

The late arrivals shivered at that and speculated that the 
C.O. probably wouldn't make them go in if it was really cold. 
One or two older hands who heard that turned away, smiling 
at each other. 

The first thing which startled newcomers to the lectures 
was the blackboard. On it was written in large chalk: 

People would rather die than think. 'Many of them do. 

Suitably abashed, they sat down. Then Lieutenant-Com- 
mander Nigel Willmott appeared and started the lecture. That 
Shaw quotation was his favourite to start them thinking. It 
does not take men long to size up their leaders, but Willmott 
was always to remain a bit of a mystery to them. The man who 
stood before them was hard, just, and then, with a suspicion 
of a smile, faintly benign. Very Navy, religious he quoted 
the Bible, but did not throw it at them. Very much the CO. 
They didn't work with him, but for him, and he set an awful 
pace from the beginning. He seemed totally indifferent to 

They were surprised when he let them lark about a lot 
off duty. His volunteers were always running into one scrape 
or another. If he wasn't rescuing them from the clutches of 
the local police, he was defending them against the wrath of 
neighbouring units. The Engineer Commander of the island 
took it upon himself to ring Willmott to report a van of his 
outside the Maypole Inn at ten o'clock. Was he aware that 
naval transport was not for going carousing? 

Willmott told him bluntly to mind his own business; if he 
wanted the van there, he would have it there. Then he turned 
to his officers. "Look here," he said. "Next time you go to the 
Maypole for God's sake put the van around the back!" 

He was tolerant, this earnest Christian warrior; he escaped 
being a prig. But earnest was the word for his war. On Sundays 
he used to make them double the two miles from the Yacht 
Club to church. All part of the hardening ritual. If a low- 
flying plane came over, Willmott would bellow for them to 
take cover. This convulsed the inhabitants of Hayling and 
infuriated the men, who would emerge from the ditches 
blushing, their Sunday dress caked with filth. 


Already the signs were in the air that the first parties would 
be in action long before spring. Winter seas even in the 
Mediterranean would be too much for any unprotected 
swimmer after more than a couple of hours. While Willmott 
juggled with all sorts of designs for the special gear his teams 
would need, his first and biggest worry was to fit them out 
with some protective waterproof clothing. For the time being 
he had to settle for charioteers' suits the heavy rubber suits 
worn by human torpedomen. These were cumbersome, 
designed for wearers who "rode" to their targets and used 
oxygen containers. They were hardly the thing for tumbling 
about in surf, or vaulting in and out of canoes. 

At the same time Willmott was conferring with experts 
about their other gear. They evolved plans for a special COPP 
canoe, collapsible and more seaworthy. 

Out of his sessions with experts came night compasses, 
better waterproofing for watches and torches, and a device 
for measuring the beach gradients underwater. It consisted 
of a thin fishing line, beaded every ten yards, wound on a 
reel which was worn on the swimmer's waist. This equipment 
was to figure in one of their most vital jobs systematically 
sounding the shallows off enemy beaches and noting their 
gradients on plastic pads they wore on their arms. It was 
delicate, tedious, exhausting and dangerous. The lines tended 
to tangle around the swimmers' legs, already hampered in 
their clumsy suits. It was nearly to cost one of the newcomers, 
Geoffrey Hall, his life in a reconnaissance off Sumatra. 

Knowing all that lay ahead of him Willmott tried to snatch 
some leave to get himself in trim for it. He was pretty care- 
worn from paper battles and working round the clock and the 
whole harrying, panic-and-make-do saga of their birth as a unit 
He felt as though he was beginning to twitch here and there. 

He managed to snatch a week on a duck farm in Hampshire. 
He made one sortie from its rustic peace, deep-hidden from 
war, to come up for his investiture at Buckingham Palace with 
the D.S.O. He had topped this off with a boisterous lunch 
at the Ritz with Nick Hastings and his wife, Connie, and was 
barely back among the concerted quacking of the ducks 
peopling his retreat when his deputy, Gaffer Moorhouse, 
found him with a shrill buzz of the phone. 


Combined Operations were yelling for him already. They 
wanted two COPP teams, They were to leave for the Mediter- 
ranean at the beginning of January in a little over a month. 

The senior Staff Officer he came up to see at C.O.H.Q., 
Captain Selby, glanced at the calendar. He said, "I may be 
able to give you an extra week, but certainly no more." 

The one thing Willmott had dreaded was having to send 
out his teams before he was satisfied with their training. 
Lyne and Thomas had been caught at "Torch" because they 
had been half-trained and poorly equipped. In this work, 
training and equipment were everything. 

"It's impossible, sir." How it hurt a man like him to say 
that. He, who had fought to be given just such orders as he 
was getting now. Captain Selby grimaced. He understood, 
but he said, "You don't have to convince me. We've just got 
to do it, that's all" 

On Christmas Eve of that year of 1942 a wry grin appeared 
around Willmott's door in his boatshed office on Hayling 
Island and the tall frame of Norman Teacher stalked into view. 

"I said I'd be back!" he grinned. 

Teacher had been with him in their first sortie in North 
Africa; he was delighted with his transfer from the cruiser 
Uganda for some more of the same. 

It was Teacher whom Willmott put in charge of the two 
COPP teams to be trained and rushed to the Mediterranean 
for the next big seaborne operation. 

He was a magnificent type intelligent, daring, full of good 
fun, a terrific worker. Teacher was going to need all that. 

The Eighth Army, lunging out from El Alamein, driving 
Rommel's forces out of Egypt and clear across Libya, was 
nearing the border of Tunisia. The end of North Africa was 
in sight. The next big landing on the board was Sardinia? 
Sicily? Italy itself? 

While the guessing was going on, Teacher proudly led 
his two teams called COPP 3 and COPP 4 out to train. 
They climbed into their cumbersome charioteers' suits, legs 
first, via a hole in the middle which they zipped up after them. 


Their heads emerged out of the top aperture which fitted 
tightly around their face and chin. They looked puffed and 
cumbrous as Michelin men. Rubber bands sealed them at the 
wrists against the freezing water of the Solent. They started on 
the business of measuring inshore slopes staking out their 
beaded fishing lines at the water's edge, running them out to 
sea; at the marked intervals along this they dropped their 
second line which sounded bottom. It was clumsy enough 
work in this frigid, choppy water, even in daylight. And their 
suits weren't all that waterproof. The sea trickled coldly in 
underneath their face bands and through their wrist seals till 
their underclothing was wretchedly soaked. 

They would have to develop a much slicker drill before 
qualifying happily to run lines of soundings and perform a 
half-dozen other intelligence chores besides, on a heavily 
guarded enemy beach on a moonless night. 

Willmott divided his energies between getting his young 
teams ready and doing battle for the promotion of his recce 
officers. The work demanded the nerve, stamina and the all- 
round fitness of young lions. It had meant picking youthful, and 
therefore junior officers. Yet, as the scouts of any big amphibi- 
ous force, these youngsters should have direct and urgent 
access to the invasion chiefs. Battle plans made at top level 
might have to be altered on their word in a hurry or even 

Apart from the physical guts they would need for these 
always-awesome inshore "recces", the strain of so much 
responsibility on young men in their twenties, sizing up 
invasion beaches and getting top Force Commanders to act on 
their counsel, was to be enormous. 

Combined Operations Headquarters saw Willmott's point. 
A signal went out urging on all concerned the vital need for 
the young leaders of the new COPP parties to have close 
communication with the Force Commanders. But it was 
another matter to count on senior officers paying grave heed 
to the words of brash two-stripers who had gone fooling 
around inshore, and wanted suddenly to change their invasion 

Less than a fortnight after Teacher had started coaching 
his two COPP teams a mixed brood of naval volunteers and 


army commandos a somewhat grim-faced Lieutenant-Com- 
mander Willmott drove in a small naval saloon down to Havant 
station behind a couple of warbling vanloads of men. 

They were off to the Mediterranean for immediate service. 
There had been no time to fit them out with remotely decent 
equipment. They had the same ill-adapted folbot-type canoes 
they had had to make do with off North Africa, Gear on which 
their lives depended torches for signalling, compasses to 
guide them back to their submarines, watches to give them 
their rendezvous times were still poorly waterproofed. They 
had had about a tenth of the minimum training essential to 
survive swimming an enemy-held beach. 

Norman Teacher surveyed his chattering and waving brood 
on Havant station and beamed. He wore an extra half-stripe 
and he thrust out his hand to Willmott. 

"Goodbye, sir. I'll bet nothing's ready for us." It was a 
cheerful cynicism. 

"Good luck, Norman." 

The train drew slowly out, and the links of chaffing and 
waving with the watchers on the platform stretched and 

A bleakness settled about Willmott, and it wasn't only the 
strange depression of goodbyes on grey railway stations. War 
never let you choose exactly how you were to fight it. To him 
it had always been a scramble for the sudden battle. To answer 
the latest call he was sending off a carriage-load of youngsters 
with a ton of guts and very little else. 

The coldness still gripped him long after they got back to 
Hayling Island. It was a chill like the winter sea itself, racing 
with the tide past Sandy Point. Inside him a number of un- 
easinesses compounded into an intuition that he was to see 
few of them again. 

He and Gaffer Moorhouse, the grey haired actor with the 
florid gestures and the tenacious efficiency, turned back to 
grapple with officials of Dockyard stores who refused to be- 
lieve they needed as many as fifteen pairs of binoculars. It was 
this fuss, temporising, idiocy, welded into a score of battles a 


day, that made creating a new unit like COPP a nightmare. 
The Third Sea Lord joined in the wrangling when he 
personally objected to brass anchors for the canoes; he thought 
a lump of concrete would be just as suitable. Willmott had a 
respectful tussle with his lordship. The amount of brass in 
a canoe anchor was about the same as in one four-inch shell- 
case. And for want of such a modest item, a marking canoe 
could drag out of position and misdirect an invasion. 

At an Admiralty conference to decide the fabric of the new 
COPP canoes, a senior civilian proudly unrolled before them 
some canvas which was as thin as balloon fabric. He pooh- 
poohed Willmott' s objections that it was too fragile. 

Willmott jumped angrily to his feet. He had had just about 
enough of idiots. "Do you want to know what would happen 
with this stuff, if the canoe touched a rock?" He pulled out a 
penknife and slashed lightly at the fabric. It parted like chiffon. 
"There! And there would be another couple of highly- 
trained lives chucked away!" 

The civvy leaned back with lips pressed into a severe line. 
His look conveyed that the Lieutenant-Commander was 
being melodramatic. In subsequent meetings, through thick 
and thin, he would still pull out the same cloth and make a 
dogged nuisance of himself. 

By the end of January the contracting firm had produced 
a first special sample rubber suit specially for COPP swimmers. 
Willmott climbed into it on a freezing, leaden January day 
and waded out into the waters off the Yacht Club. It weighed 
him down like lead, and it proved to leak badly. But it would 
have to do till they could design something lighter. He sent 
signals off to Algiers asking for the measurements of Teacher 
and his operational officers; when these came back by cable, 
the staff of Siebe, Gorman and Co. worked long into the 
winter nights producing their suits. It was a victory which 
shone in the obstruction all around them, to get his men their 
suits poor though these first ones were and pack them 
aboard a plane for Algiers before they were actually ordered 
into submarines for their first hazardous reconnaissance. 

The other big priority, good canoes, was a simple-seeming 
problem that defied them. Willmott and two of his officers, 
Moorhouse and Hastings, made a house-to-house search of all 


the boat companies lining the Thames and found no likely 
canoes. Work on the new canvas canoe designs, being an odd, 
special job, was going ahead with the thoroughness and 
majesty usually reserved for laying the keel of a revolutionary 
new battleship. 

"It'd be simpler to get a couple of heavy cruisers," Hastings 
joked. It was literally true. 

They laid out the carpet for one visitor from the Directorate 
of Naval Construction to Hayling Island. Willmott and Moor- 
house spent an earnest day showing him the problems that 
COPP men had to face, and the kind of canoes they would 
need. They swam. They paddled for him. They lectured him 
earnestly, at great length. 

Late in the afternoon they discovered that their visitor, 
while maintaining his smiling and vigorous-nodding interest, 
was almost stone deaf. 

He hadn't heard a word all day. 

When the Yacht Club was finally ready to take all the 
volunteers drafting into COPP, they were ready to start real 
training, from a real base. The new Army and Navy arrivals 
were collared and flung into a training schedule that staggered 

A daily swim was de rigueur in all weathers. At seven 
o'clock the C.O. himself arrived and led his naked tribe into 
the sea. As soon as his whole Depot came floundering, numbed 
and gasping, out of the stinging-cold February sea into the 
teeth of a freezing wind, an instructor bellowed them on to 
their physical training. 

After breakfast their real training began: long canoe trips, 
in the worst permissible weather. But the greatest torment 
was working the winter surf in their clumsy rubber suits with 
the tangling sounding gear, manipulating with bone-frozen 
fingers lines that danced and billowed, disappearing and 
knotting in the waves like cobwebs. 

There was no laying off at night. Either the C.O. or one of his 
staffies would be at the top of a beach with his stop-watch 
while they flipflopped towards him like seals in the dark, 
and the watcher clicked his watch and made notes. Post- 
mortems told them the moment during the "recce" that the 
swimmers had been spotted. 


On other nights the teams would be bundled into "blind" 
lorries which roared off into the countryside to drop them 
in remote parts of Hampshire and Sussex with orders to 
find their way back. The incidence of suspicious strangers 
hovering near hamlets to pick up their bearings and setting 
watchdogs in a fury as they flitted through farmyards rose 
sharply. The Home Guard and the police reaped a mild 
harvest of vagrants who couldn't explain themselves, but only 
referred them, with obvious reluctance, to a Lieutenant- 
Commander Willmott; who, when phoned, allayed their 
suspicions, if not their curiosity. He treated them to a bogus 
tale of Commando-training, and his shamefaced charges were 
mailed back. 

There were four frenzied weeks of this. And then the blow 
fell the first big blow that took the breath away and was to 
show, with its terrible and lonely story, that he had not been a 
fanatic for nothing. 

The first operation of his two parties in the Mediterranean 
was launched. 

The first Willmott heard about it was when he walked into 
his office at Combined Operations in London. His Staff 
Officer, Gaffer Moorhouse, sat white of face at his desk. He 
gripped a slip of paper and said stiifly: "Afraid I've got bad 
news for you." 

Willmott took the paper. It was a signal from the Captain 
of the loth Submarine Flotilla at Malta. 

In mauve teleprinter-type it said: 


To: Admiralty. 
(R) C. in C. Med. etc. From: 

Naval Cypher (X) by W/T. 

Regret the following are missing from Party 3. 

Acting Lieut. Comdr. Norman Joseph Macdonald Teacher, 
D.S.O., R.N., Lieut. Noel Wilson Cooper, R.N.V.R., Acting 
Captain George Wheelock Burbridge, Royal Canadian En- 


Here it was. 

Suddenly he remembered that he couldn't even go out there 
himself to find out how it happened. He had six teams now at 
Hayling to see through their training. 

He put the signal down and half-turned away. "Gaffer," 
he said. He might have sounded curt. "Better go out there. 
Find out what happened." 



WHEN the tall, good-humoured Norman Teacher landed in 
Algiers at the head of his two teams COPP 3 and COPP 4 
the naval H.Q. to which they reported stared upon them 
with blank disfavour, and washed its hands of them. The 
fact that they were hybrids dressed strangely in khaki battle- 
dress with naval caps and shoulder straps made them perfect 
material for buck-passing. 

Yet he and his "Coppists" had jumped into a gruelling 
training schedule, had slept hardly at all during the last fort- 
night, and had forgone their embarkation leave to respond 
to the urgent signals for them from the Commander-in-Chief. 
They had been rushed out here to Algiers to find, on landing, 
that nobody knew about them, nor cared. 

"Now I know we're on active service," one of the ratings 
said loudly. 

Finally, they were admitted aboard the submarine Depot 
ship and given a shack on a nearby beach for their secret gear. 
This concession didn't stretch to supplying guards to shoo 
away the inquisitive Arabs who came wandering around it at 
night, or hovered beyond the range of their curses, devouring 
every detail of the work on their strange equipment. 

Teacher soon tired of this. The beaches around the harbour 
were unsuitable for exercises and the water was slimy with 
oil. He came back from scouting afield, collected his men and 
took them in a body across the bay to an empty villa, which he 
commandeered. It was a tight fit packing his nineteen charges 
into it with their gear, but it buzzed like a hive as they launched 
into earnest training for the coming landings. 

A couple of senile donkeys came tottering past the villa and 
were grabbed. Thereafter, every time Teacher called a halt, 
to training, they belted about in hilarious rodeos on the beach. 

Things changed vastly when Lord Louis Mountbatten 
arrived in Algiers to confer on the coming operation. He sent 



for Norman Teacher and his second-in-command, McHarg. 

"You'll have to drive with me to the airport," Mountbatten 
warned them. "It's the only time I've got." 

In the car he said briskly, "Well? Any problems?" 

They unloaded a few of their groans: obstructive and 
ignorant staff officers with particular reference to the Princi- 
pal Obstructor. 

The Chief of Combined Operations smiled. "I'll see if I 
can have a word with him." 

It must have been more than a word. After he had gone the 
naval staff in Algiers sprang to attention and broke out in a 
rash of smiles for them. They were suddenly all personal 
interest and co-operation. 

A week later a signal came in ordering COPP 3 Teacher's 
own team across to Malta. They left McHarg and COPP 4 
in charge of the villa and the donkeys. 

Their battle-grimed Dakota touched down on Luka Airport 
and the men of COPP 3 climbed out into blinding sunshine. 
This time there was a reception committee awaiting them. A 
squad of hospital orderlies stepped forward and bundled them 
into closed trucks. While Teacher raved against this new out- 
break of official idiocy the convoy rumbled off to Bigi Hospital. 

There they were unloaded and escorted into a ward. Teacher 
yelled for the Surgeon-Commander who listened vaguely to 
the tirade of protest, then said, "I have a signal from Algiers. 
You are all classed as suspected smallpox carriers. Something 
to do with the plane you travelled on, perhaps. Sony. Get 
your men to roll up their sleeves." 

Teacher begged in vain to be quarantined in some isolated 
corner of the island where they could get on with the urgent 
business of training for the action that lay in store. They 
were prisoners. All they could do was work, grumbling, over 
their gear in the hospital courtyard. 

There was a wheelchair in the ward and they vented their 
thirst for action on that. While one of them held a stop-watch 
the others took it in turns to see who could do the fastest lap 
of the ward. Captain Burbridge, a burly Canadian, achieved 
the greatest distinction. As he sped with heedless fury past an 
open door he collected the Surgeon-Commander, coining in* 
and swept him off his feet across the finish line. 


The hospital and the COPP team parted company with 
marked relief. 

This time, Teacher found two villas on a lonely part of the 
island's coast near Ghaintuffieha. The villas, covered with 
rambling bougainvillea, overlooked a small sandy beach that 
was perfect for training. They unshipped the canoes and 
pitched straight in to work. The gear they were most anxious 
to try out was the new rubber suits that had arrived by plane 
from COPP depot in England. 

The first tests they made in these sobered them. Teacher 
himself came lumbering out of the sea like an overgrown seal 
awkward, glistening, sombre of face. He pinched the drops 
from his nose. 

"Christ, I don't think much of these," he said, and sat down 
heavily. The suits still leaked. His arms were wet inside and 
water trickled down his chest. "It's going to be fun if we get 

The next day, training from his canoe, one of the team, 
Cooper, did get waterlogged in a really badly-leaking suit and 
had to be fished out of the sea by his paddler. It didn't look 
good at all. 

After they had been at Ghaintuffieha a few days two lorries 
arrived outside the villas and drew up in a cloud of dust. 
Naval officers and men began clambering out and unloading 
their gear. A slim, fair, young Naval lieutenant came over 
looking inquiringly for Teacher. 

"My name's Smith. Just flown in with my party from Cairo. 
I've orders to join you." He saluted and shook hands. 

Teacher took his limply and the others stared. They were a 
big outfit seven Naval officers; they had trained in canoes in 
Egypt, a unit flowering from the training seed which Willmott 
had planted there after Rhodes. 

The meeting here of Smith's and Teacher's teams was a 
mutual surprise. The new Middle East party had limited and 
primitive gear mostly bought in the Cairo markets. They 
were very impressed by the new COPP rubber suits, clumsy as 
they were. Their own training had been pretty scrappy, but 
they were brown and glowingly fit. Their leader Lieutenant 
Smith was soon to demonstrate this in a dramatic way. 


Time was short after that. In a few days Teacher received 
a summons to Valetta from the Commander of the zoth 
Submarine Flotilla. 

"We need all three of your teams for the next dark period. 
Have you everything ready?" 

"As ready as it can be, sir." 

"It's for Sicily. The Force Commander wants reports 
of three sectors. They cover a lot of the south coast." 

For their combined reconnaissance-onslaught on the under- 
belly of Sicily they were to have three submarines United, 
Unrivalled and Unbending. 

From their old villa near Algiers McHarg and his men of 
COPP 4 were coming across to join in the operation in the 
submarine Safari. They were marked down to tackle the 
beaches along the north-east corner of Sicily, from Trapani 
up and around beyond Palermo to Cape Zaffarano. Teacher 
and his own crew were to explore the western half of the south 
coast, from the mouth of the River Belice eastward to Sciaccia. 
From there to the southern tip of Sicily, Smith and his two 
teams of Middle East COPPs would be at work, one team 
exploring the Gulf of Gela, the other reconnoitring the island's 
southerly cape. 

First of all Teacher and Smith divided all their equipment, 
dubious as it was. There weren't enough rubber suits for all 
of them. 

For the next few nights all of COPP 3 were busy showing 
these new parties their beach-scouting tricks, the ones Willmott 
had designed. The Middle East newcomers caught on to 
their methods smartly, but there wasn't nearly enough time. 
Everybody knew this wasn't going to be an easy do like North 
Africa. Here, off the compact coast of Sicily, the enemy this 
time was waiting for them. It was still winter; chances were 
that the weather would be bad. They were going to need a 
lot of luck. " ' 

When the lorries called for them at the villas on February 
zyth, it was a signal for the lanky Teacher to hoist his battle 
colours. He came out wearing his special serge beret over one 
ear, and climbed aboard with his team. Their submarines lay 
in Sliema Creek. The evening was balmy for February, and 


At dusk the first two submarines slipped hawsers, moved 
out like shadows across the tranquil breast of Grand Harbour, 
and set course for Sicily. 

Ahead of them lay a coastline bristling with an alert, ex- 
pectant enemy. 

Right from the start, the hazards bared their teeth at them. 

With a roar as her tanks emptied, the submarine Unbending 
planed towards the surface. The First Lieutenant watching 
the depth gauge was intoning, "Twenty feet, sir ... fifteen 
feet. . . ." 

The Captain in the conning tower reached up, knocked 
the clips away, and swung open the hatch. A stream of cold 
air flooded in. He gripped the ladder and climbed up onto 
the bridge. Teacher, clumsy in his rubber suit, followed hm? 
up into the freshness and the starlight. 

The south coast of Sicily lay about four miles ahead. It 
stretched flatly away on either side in a thin curving strip of 
sand broken far to the left by the mouth of the Belice river. 
Beyond the beach rose the dim serrations of mountains against 
a dark velvet sky. 

"Steer owe-one-six." 

The Coxswain repeated it. 

West of the river and the broken surf line blinked the 
lights of a fishing village. 

"Blackout's not so hot. Marinetta, isn't it?" 

"Captain, sir." The First Lieutenant's voice croaked oft 
the voice-pipe. "Permission to open the forehatch?" 

"Carry on, Number One." 

Then the Captain and Teacher were silent as the sub- 
marine nosed close in. They could make out the contours of 
the houses over in Marinetta. Quite a swell was running. 
Every now and then a wave slapped the bows and shot a spray 
cloud over the casing. 

The canoe was coming up out of the forehatch on to the 
casing when the starboard lookout saw the ship astern of them. 
He yelled, "Green owe six owe, sir! Looks like a trawler!" 
The Captain swung around, brought up his night glasses and 
saw her. 


There was little doubt that they had been spotted. The 
trawler was swinging around towards them. Already it would 
be alerting the naval bases around them. 

"Clear the bridge!" The Captain leaped for the voice pipe. 
" Stand by for emergency dive! Get the men off the casing! 
Secure the forehatch!" The diving klaxon rang and they 
clattered down the conning tower ladder. Through the fore- 
hatch the fragile canoe came hurtling bodily down into the 
Torpedo Compartment and the men on the casing scrambled 
in after her. The hatches slammed and were clipped. 

"Dive! Dive! Dive!" 

In the Control Room the First Lieutenant said, "Take her 
down to sixty feet!" 

A few minutes later the Hydrophone Operator's voice 
reported, "Hydrophone effect, four hundred yards, sir, 

"Stand by for depth charging, Number One." 

After a few seconds: "H.E. approaching two hundred 
yards, sir." 

After that they didn't need reports. The sound of the 
trawler's engines began to throb and swell in their ears, grow- 
ing louder. They waited, until the sound of the trawler filled 
their taut-listening world, for the first shattering detonations. 

But there were no depth charges. 

Almost overhead, the trawler stopped. 

Was she roosting on them? Marking them for the E-boats? 

Then her engines throbbed into life. Slowly they grew 

Fifteen minutes later the Captain decided to go up to peri- 
scope depth and venture a look. The whole bay was flood- 
lit. As he rotated the periscope he picked up a glitter low in 
the sky. It was gone, as elusive as the underbelly of a fish, 
beyond the lights. An aircraft. It would be quartering the bay, 
hunting for them. Then a spark lit in the sky and burst into 
brilliant light as the plane dropped a flare. 

"Sixty feet!" Captain Stanley turned to Teacher and 
grinned at his expectant look. "I'm afraid we're here for a 

For the next two hours Teacher and his men sat around 
with their elbows on their knees and heads drooped, waiting, 


\vhile the submarine lay quietly at sixty feet, for the hunt to 
die down. They had keyed themselves up for this moment 
and there \vas no letting go now. 

Near midnight they took another cautious peep by peri- 
scope. All seemed quiet. They surfaced and made slowly for 
their canoe-release position, two miles off the mouth of the 
Belice River. The shore was like a dead world now. Not a 
light shone. There wasn't even the glimmer of a truck moving 
along the coast road. After the searchlights the beach was 
almost ominously quiet. 

"All right," Teacher said, and adjusted his beloved beret. 
"Let's go!" 

Their canoe hit the water. He and his paddler, Cooper, 
jumped in turn as it rose on the dark swell. They pushed off 
quietly. The hum of the submarine's dynamos faded behind 
them as she withdrew to sea. 

It was a battle from the start. Quite soon they heard the 
pounding of the surf on the beach ahead. A strong wind had 
risen, blowing onshore, and the swell which chased them in 
and lifted them high was getting nasty. It grew till the waves 
broke over them from astern and they started filling. They had 
to ship paddles and bale with their mugs. Cooper found him- 
self puffing already, and their work just starting. He was 
drenched and his teeth chattered between deep breaths. 

The surf ahead was now a thick white line, lashed by the 
south-east wind. They fought closer inshore, watching ahead 
of them intently. The few lights that had once flashed from 
Marinetta were nowhere to be seen. The port was a dark 
cluster of house shapes. The darkness was playing them tricks. 
Their eyes lingered suspiciously on shadows dotting the sand, 
seeming to move. 

"A sentry, isn't it?'* Cooper whispered 


They waited. It was too far off to tell. They had trouble keep- 
ing bow-on to the shore. But then it was rough enough to 
make themselves hard to see. 

About two hundred yards off the shore Teacher tapped 
Cooper on the shoulder, *T11 go in here," he whispered. 
While the paddler rode out the swell Teacher pulled on the 
top half of his rubber suit. Only his blackened face remained 


uncovered above the faceband. His eyes rolled. "Nightie- 
nightie," he grunted. He lay across the boat, and let himself 
slither down into the water. 

In a few seconds Cooper could not see him any more. He 
stayed there battling the waves and staring inshore. About 
half an hour later he thought he caught a glimpse of him in the 
surf. It was probably a rock, or a shadow, or his imagination. 
The darkness had infinite resources for the tricks it 

Nearly three hours later, towards their rendezvous time, the 
submarine Unbending came purring in through a lively sea 
that showed some white crests. 

On the bridge two ratings operated the RG infra-red homing 
gear. While one flashed it in a wide arc, the other scanned the 
receiver screen for the green spots that would suddenly flicker 
on it, revealing the canoe. Above the wind and the waves the 
transmitter clicked their morse signal. The Captain murmured 
orders into the voice pipe, checking their drift. 

It was getting late. Soon the moon would rise. After a 
while the Captain said, "No sign?" 

"Not a glimmer, sir." 

"Try a wider sweep. Take her right fore and aft." 

"Aye, aye, sir." 

There were other COPP men out on the bridge with him. 
There was Burbridge, the erstwhile bathchair champion who 
had bowled over that Surgeon-Commander back in Malta. 
The Captain turned to him. "I'll give them another half an 
hour. Then we'll go the outer rendezvous," 

That was an alternative meeting-place six miles out at 
sea. They had agreed to this in case submarine and canoe 
"crossed" each other inshore. 

"I think I've got them, sir! Fine on the port bow, Nobby!" 

Then "Getting them clearly now!" 

"Slow ahead both. Steer three-four-two. Stand by to 
recover the folbot." 

The recovery party came clambering up out of the fore- 
hatch. Burbridge climbed down the conning tower onto the 
casing to join them. Nobody spoke as the submarine cut 
through the water towards the unseen canoe. Their senses 
were so strained that they could hear the surf pounding the 


beach two miles away, above the dynamo purr and the wave 

At last they saw the fragile grey shape bob and vanish and 
reappear out of the darkness on the heaving sea. 

"Christ, sir only one of them!" one of the A.B.S said. 

Cooper was sitting alone in the forward paddling seat. 
They had to haul him aboard. He was spent and wordless and 
they manhandled him down into the Torpedo Compartment 
like a sack of potatoes. 

The diving klaxon rang out. After a while they got Cooper 
into the wardroom. He was still heaving for breath and shud- 
dering. His hair was matted, streaming; he took the brandy, 
swallowed it, and looked mournfully into vacancy. "I never 
saw the old man again," he said. "Not from the moment he 
left the canoe. Not a sign. I went in as close to the surf as I 
could it wasn't any good." 

"Hear anything ashore?" Burbridge asked. 

Cooper shook his head tiredly. "Not a thing," he said. 
"Not a bloody thing." 

On the second night, after they had conned the coast all 
day for a sign of their leader, Teacher's deputy, Burbridge, the 
hefty red-haired Canadian Army Captain, went in to look for 

It was a forlorn try. He returned empty-handed. He and 
the others of COPP 3 went on with the job of surveying their 
sector along the south-west coast of Sicily. Bad weather 
knocked them about but they managed to get a sounding line 
ashore from the canoe on one beach, staked it in the wet sand, 
and back-pedalled into the sea, sounding the beach incline 
till they were two hundred yards out. They did it in a rough 
sea, hemmed on either side by rocky promontories. 

And all the time, while they swam backward, sounded, noted 
on their underwater tablets, they kept their eyes glued on the 
moving shapes ashore. 

The coast was alive with sentries. They were spaced about 
every fifty to seventy-five yards. 

Burbridge wormed his bulky frame through the inshore 


surf to stake their line. It seemed he could almost have spouted 
the sea water he gulped over a guard who paced the water's 
edge, rifle slung, wheeling and retracing his steps, muttering 

On March 4th, a windy night, but with a sea no longer wild 
enough to daunt them, Burbridge took Lieutenant Cooper, 
who had paddled the gay and ill-starred Teacher on their 
first sortie ashore. He and Cooper were to scout a beach near 
the port of Sciaccia. By now the strain of it was beginning to 
tell on both Coppists and submariners. They were tired, 
yellow-looking, leaden. For five days there had been little 
sleep for them by day or by night. 

Burbridge and Cooper vanished into the wind-whipped 
night, and they were never seen again. 

When the submarine returned to their rendezvous, the 
coast gave them back nothing but the howl of the wind and the 
distant mutter of surf. There was no flicker of life from the 
shore, only that eerie sense of its watchfulness. 

They signalled and scanned the infra-red screen for the 
canoe's answering green blips until Burbridge and Cooper 
were almost an hour overdue. Then the submarine withdrew 
to the outer rendezvous to wait for them there. 

But at dawn they had not arrived, and Unbending had to 
dive. All that day they scanned the coast through the periscope 
for a clue to what had happened. The canoe, too, had vanished. 

COPP 3 had now lost all its officers. They had gone out 
into the loneliness, leaving their image, their last jokes, the 
strangely treacherous reassurance of personality which lulls 
one into believing that if they did not come back, they could 
not possibly be dead. Not so quickly, while their image still 
smiled at you. 

But it was their destiny that if they died, their end was as 
lonely to themselves and as mysterious to others as eternity. 
Their three leaders had gone, and nobody would ever know 

And so Unbending turned back for Malta. 

North-west of Teacher's sector, there was a sigh in the 


night, and another submarine surfaced. It was the Safari. 
She had come directly from Algiers bearing the men of COPP 
4, led by the veteran McHarg, to tackle their apportioned 
slice of Sicily coast from Trapani at its western tip, along a 
third of the north coast to beyond Palermo. 

They came up in the big horseshoe Gulf of Castellamare, 
dead in the centre of their sector. The submarine trimmed 
down in the dark. Huddling low in the water helped with 
launching the canoe, but it also drenched the launching party 
working around the forehatch as the waves washed across the 

McHarg jumped aboard, and his paddler, Sinclair, leaped 
after him. The little leader of COPP 4 was a strange man to be 
in an outfit like this. He didn't have dash. He was staid, short 
in stature, precise, conscientious almost to a fault. He didn't 
particularly like the job he found himself doing. But Willmott, 
who knew his tremendous value, had pleaded with him to 
stay, and McHarg's dour sense of duty was stronger than his 
yearning for a sedate and more orthodox war. Because of this 
McHarg was more of a hero than most of them. He paddled 
away from Safari through the rough water with Sinclair. 

Almost immediately they were in trouble. The fading hum 
of the submarine blended with a new note. It \vas a chugging, 
and they stopped paddling and sat with ears cocked A fishing 
boat's shape crossed them in the gloom ahead, barely visible 
and heading in. Out of the night came another chugging. 
This time it was behind them. They swung round to face it 
head on as it came closer, loomed across their starboard bow, 
and vanished with the canoe's bow pointing it round in an 
alert magnetised dread. 

It happened again. Another boat passed them just beyond 
the limit of vision in the encircling darkness, its engines loud 
in their ears. The bay was alive with boats. 

McHarg knew from the Intelligence reports they had digested 
that the fishing boats which swarmed about Sicily doubled as 
patrol vessels; almost every one carried a German soldier. 
It was scarcely a heartening thought to whip them on towards 
the shore. They began to paddle again, threading their way 
cautiously between the sounds of the boats, until the surf 
ruled a pale line in the darkness and they heard its muttering. 


They were only about three hundred yards offshore now 
with the beach and its contours growing crisp and almost 
startlingly clear when the paddler's blade caught in some- 
thing and he fired a curse over his shoulder. 

"Sardine nets!" 

The cork floats stretched in an unbroken line on either side 
of them. They turned to port and paddled along, searching 
for the break. 

They never found the break. They had been feeling along 
its length for some while when it became apparent that they 
weren't the only Service paying a visit to Castellamare. 

Overhead a drone grew out of nothing and became the sound 
of many bombers, and the first flashes illuminated the shore 
like summer lightning. The R.A.F. was bombing the port. 

Then the flares dropped out of the sky. They lit up the 
beleaguered town, and glowed rosily on the houses that by day 
were a tumbling bleached-white cluster. The flares paled the 
bomb flashes and the questing searchlights. Then a fresh 
string of flares turned the beach into ruddy daylight, which 
glowed suddenly on their faces like the sun. The cork floats 
and their own bobbing shape in the water cast dramatically 
sharp shadows. By a common accord both men plied their 
paddles, swung about, and drove desperately for the open sea. 

It was rather like waking in daylight to find yourself staring 
into the face of a somnolent tiger, and turning your back on 
it and walking carefully away, knowing that every step you 
took might be the one that caught and held its interest. You 
dared not look back. 

But there was something else to worry them. In this brilliant 
light their submarine could hardly remain surfaced, waiting 
for them. It would be perfectly silhouetted, a sitting shot. 
And the submarine's safety came first. 

Homing to a rendezvous at any time was always tricky. 
But paddling six miles out to an alternative rendezvous to 
grope there in the moonless dark for each other was a night- 
marish thought to canoeists. It multiplied all the risks. Neither 
liked to confess the dread that flickered in him at the idea. 

Safari had the same doubts about committing them on a 
sea now almost as bright as day to another meeting place. 

And the submarine was there for them a stark silhouette 


to seaward against the shore glow. McHarg and his paddler 
could have fallen on the Captain's neck and kissed him. 

They lay doggo all the next day and surfaced at night in 
the same place. They rose into a turbulent sea. McHarg and 
Sinclair launched their canoe and took off, but it was hope- 
less. They had hardly made a do2en strokes before they were 
nearly swamped. They fought the sea for a while until McHarg 
saw he would never have enough strength left for the swim- 
ming. They turned and beat their way back to the submarine. 

The next night it was the turn of two others under McHarg's 
command to take a canoe in: an Army R.E. officer, Captain 
Edward Parsons, and a seaman, Irvine, his paddler. 

The bad auguries crowded in from the moment Safari 
surfaced. Time was getting short, and they had still accom- 
plished nothing in their sector. The launchers dropped the 
canoe into a nasty swell. Parsons jumped for her, misjudged, 
and fell into the sea. They fished him out with a line ; he and 
his paddler set off, battling the tiny craft over sizeable rollers, 
making straight for the shore. 

Which was the last the Safari saw of them. 

Towards four in the morning the seamen on the bridge were 
still vainly scanning the infra-red receivers for the canoeists* 
answering blips. They waited until a paleness spread in the 
sky and the shore silhouettes grew clearer. 

The Captain's order coming down the voice pipe shook 
them in the Control Room. In withdrawing they were to 
venture a discreet amount of diesel noise as a direction finder 
for the canoe. 

At last day broke, and they were forced to dive. 

Throughout the day, they scanned the coast through the 
periscope. Not a sign of the canoe. Late in the afternoon, 
Algiers came through on their radio with an ominous message. 
An enemy signal had been intercepted reporting a British 
submarine in the Gulf of Castellamare. 

Safarfs captain, Commander Ben Bryant rubbed his chin 
at that. "Now how would they know about us?" he asked 

"Our engines." 


"They've caught Parsons and Irvine, you think?" 


"Afraid it looks like it. And Parsons has spun them his 
cover story about landing from a submarine for sabotage." 

They were at periscope depth, still searching the shore. 
Bryant bent to take another look through it and rove the 

And there was an E-boat. She was coming into the bay 
from north-west, throwing up a white bow-wave. Above her 
buzzed a flying boat for company. 

The game of hide-and-seek began. Safari went down deep 
and slid quietly seawards, making a wide and respectful 
detour of the hunters as they began quartering the bay. Out 
at sea she lay quietly till the early hours of the next morning, 
then nosed inquisitively in again, still questing her lost canoeists. 

Instead she found the E-boat, looming out of a sea mist. 


They waited. Minutes ticked by. There were no depth 

"We've got to have some luck," Bryant said. He rubbed his 
eyes with the heels of his hands. He was very tired. 

At dawn he finally called off the search. Safari headed 
south for the other beaches. 

Commander Bryant and the COPP men left aboard her were 
right in guessing the fate of their canoeists. Captain Parsons, 
squirming up the beach with his gaze flickering round him 
in search of beach defences, had wriggled well but not too 
wisely. A sentry caught the movement, clapped his rifle bolt 
back, and babbled a challenge. The captain froze as the gun 
muzzle came unwaveringly forward, to stop a foot from his 
head; a boot stirred him and a torrent of excited Italian brought 
other feet running across the soft sand. 

Leading Seaman Irvine, nosing in too close with the canoe, 
was caught in the alarm that sounded. He and Captain Parsons, 
solemn and tired, were interrogated in a guard hut by a circle 
of intent Axis officers. Rubbing their chins and squinting 
innocently at their captors, they told more barefaced lies in 
the next twenty-four hours than they had told in their whole 
lives before. 

The nights wore on, and the disasters mounted. On the 


south side of Sicily, in the wide Gulf of Gela, the new Middle 
East Coppists were at work. These were the naval Com- 
mandos who had turned up out of the blue in Malta, poorly 
equipped but tough, to join the COPP teams. 

There were two parties of these newcomers. The first 
party was led by Bob Smith, a young naval lieutenant He 
and his paddler, Brand, had run into a long sandbar off an 
appointed landing beach near Gela. It could wreck a landing. 
They set about probing it thoroughly. 

During the next day they watched the shore and worked out 
plans to probe the sandbar thoroughly. It was far enough 
offshore to sound from the canoe, which wasn't anywhere 
near so strenuous as swimming in heavy gear in a rough sea; 
that could batter a man and sap him and drown him in a matter 
of minutes. 

The only danger about working with the canoe was that they 
would have to risk showing their full silhouette to shore as 
they paddled parallel to it. The beach, they had learned from 
their journey inshore the night before, was stiff with sentries. 

But as usual, their real enemy wasn't the quiet line of 
sentries strung out at fifty-yard intervals along the dark bench, 
their steps noiseless in the sand, breathing only an indefinable 
warning presence until a voice called and gave it quality, 
"Willi? Kommt es ein Geucitter, glaubst du?" 

No. The real enemy, again, was the weather. 

The swell lifting them as they paddled away from the lee 
of the submarine was scarcely worse than that of the night 
before. It was well within the limits for canoeing. But as 
they began their job of mapping the shoal, staring now and 
then cautiously shorewards, the weather began to worsen. 
They worked on in choppy water whipped by a stiff night 
wind. Three hours later, they were still palping and recording 
the hidden shoal in a now-heavy cross sea. While the paddler 
managed the bucketing canoe, swinging to keep her head-on 
to the weather, Smith kept doggedly at his soundings over the 
stern like a fisherman still determined to hook something 
before going home. 

By midnight the wind was getting up to gale force. At last 
they had mapped the sandbar and Smith took up his own 
paddle. They turned and headed out to sea for their rendezvous 


with United. As they emerged from the relative shelter of the 
bay into open sea the full force of the weather hit them. Waves 
that streamed spindrift towered and broke right over the canoe. 
A little aghast at the sudden force of it they began a battle 
against waterlogging. Every few seconds they swung despera- 
tely hard to counter a swamping wave heading beam-on for 
them. The sea buffeted and spun the frail craft while they strove 
to keep on course for their rendezvous. 

After almost half an hour of this Smith groped for the 
signalling gear, with one hand he held the RG sender aloft 
and flashed with it. With the other he pawed with a paddle 
and strove to help Brand control the wild corkscrewing canoe. 
It was the sort of rendezvous you had bad dreams about in 
training. Smith peered into the receiver screen through salt- 
stung eyes. There were odd green blips flashing across it all 
right but not the regular R...R...R... that they had 

He tried flashing again, and again. There was no answer. 

"Listen !" Brand said. "Is that thunder?" Above the wind 
and the waves they heard it again, a sporadic crumping. 
The horizon flashed, but it was not lightning. 

"Bloody air raid. That's what these blips are!" 

Smith tried flashing again. After half an hour he lowered 
an aching arm and took over the battle with the sea, yelling to 
Brand, "Chuck in one of the charges, David!" Brand hunted 
under the canopy, fetched up a SUE charge, pulled out the 
pin, and chucked it wide of them into the waves. They heard 
the thud as it detonated. Now, if the United was listening, 
it should have their direction. It would only have to train its 
RG signals on their line. 

But there was no sign of the submarine on the receiver. 
The screen was dead of blips. 

"We might be out of position. Let's go inshore and come 
out again on a proper bearing!" 

They turned in, checked their bearing on Casa Bittalemi, 
their landmark, and paddled out to sea again. The gale had 
worsened and the sea that now came pounding towards them 
was a sea to which even Willmott, at his most savagely testing 
and with all the apparatus of rescue standing by, would never 
have dreamed of committing them. Now they headed into it 


alone, bows lifting wildly upward to the stars, then diving 
almost vertically as they slid into a trough. The flimsy canopy 
shuddered and sagged as the waves crashed inboard. Smith 
and Brand kept yelling to each other as they fought. Now it 
was, "Bale! I'll hold her for a while!" Then, "Watch it, 
David! Left paddle quick, man!" 

Then a muttered, "Oh, Christ!" A wave, coming faster 
than they could thrash about to meet it, poised over their 
beam and curled as Brand screamed, "Starboard, Bob!" With 
their left blades they had heaved the canoe around almost 
bodily to take it. 

As the wave bore down, Brand's paddle snapped with a 
loud crack. The dismay of it vanished under an engulfing 
torrent of water. The wave had neared, waited as though 
inspecting them, and then, as on a sudden furious decision, 
dropped its liquid tonnage over them in a great smothering 
flurry. For what seemed ages they went through water. And 
then incredibly they were through it, gasping, sitting miracu- 
lously still afloat in a drunken log of a boat, with Brand blink- 
ing through stinging eyes at a broken paddle. He groped in- 
stinctively for the baling mug. 

There was no time for finesse now. They took the infra- 
red screen off the RG lamp and bared a naked white light to 
the open sea, flashing it in a desperate arc. They threw the 
remaining SUE charges overboard too, and heard them go off. 

But in the howling gloom around them, there was no sign of 
the United. 

Their only hope now was to paddle ten miles out to their 
alternative rendezvous. In the bow, Brand plied the one blade 
left on his broken paddle, first one side and then the other, 
like a man demented, while Smith drove behind. They fought 
and corkscrewed and dodged frantically on. Every time a lull 
came they grabbed their mugs and baled, and then spurted 
on again. 

A silver paleness announced the rising moon. It climbed 
and shone through ragged slate-and-gold clouds, lighting up 
an angry white-tumbling sea. A preservative desperation 
drove them on through the great rollers, paddling, checking, 
turning to fight a wave like automatons. 

In three hours, they were at the outer rendezvous. 


Dawn came. It was a grey, whining dawn, with no relenting 
sign. And though they conned the horizon each time the 
canoe rose on a high-lifting wave, there was no sign of their 

They were still baling like mad during the lulls. When the 
wind rose again Smith made a tired but schokrly appraisal 
of it and shouted to Brand, "About Force 5, I'd say!" That 
was the limit for Motor Torpedo Boats, let alone canoes. 
Sometimes a wave bore them high enough to glimpse the 

"The sub will never find us in this!" 

About eight o'clock in the morning they gave up. Smith 
straightened wearily. 

"Either we go inshore and give ourselves up," he said, "or 
we bloody well paddle for Malta." 

Once that had been a joke. If you don't find your sub- 
marine, you can always paddle back, they would say, and 
laugh grimly. 

"I'd rather paddle to hell than go in." 

"How far is it?" 

-What Malta?" 

There was a silence while in front Brand battled to meet a 
wave. Long seconds after it had passed he was silent. Then 
he yelled back, "About seventy. What do you say?" 

"Look what she's stood up to already." 

Brand was with him. "All right. Let's have a bash!" He 
dug in his broken paddle, steering with it, while Smith fished 
out the canvas escape map. Malta was about seventy-five 
miles away. They would have to add on a few more miles for 
drift, in this cross-sea. They took turns to fight the sea while 
one breakfasted on biscuits and chocolate. Then they took 
advantage of a momentary drop in the wind to peel off their 
kapok jackets and lash them to Brand's broken paddle for 
a sail. It didn't really work. In the troughs it refused to billow, 
and when they rose to a crest the wind's sudden furious blast 
would catch and flatten them, so that they all but capsized. 
They shipped their home-made sail, disgusted. 

Smith took a back-bearing on the distant cone of Mount 
Etna and worked out a course. They took turns with the whole 
paddle while the other baled. They thought of nothing but 


what they were fighting, and they only thought of that dimly, 
for they fought the sea in the flimsy boat by a succession of 
animal reflexes, devoted only and utterly to surviving from 
one moment to the next in a sea that was a malevolent dream. 
There were only the boiling waves, great watery hills that 
slewed this way and that and occasionally caught them abeam 
so that life was a matter of how fast they could work with a 
baling mug and a paddle. Some time during the morning they 
heard a plane's engines. It grew louder, swept unseen by in 
the grey sky, and faded. It returned soon after and passed, 
again unseen. An Italian patrol, probably. They heard it 
come and go and shrugged, and kept on working either with 
the paddle or the baling mug. Each man felt that once he 
stopped his aching muscles might seize up and refuse to obey 
him any more. 

By the middle of the afternoon, they were beginning to 
lose the automatic fight against exhaustion. For twenty hours 
they had been sitting with rigid legs and with the water wash- 
ing around their haunches. Both men's legs and stomachs were 
knotting agonisingly with cramp. Smith's arms were one huge 
ache. Brand had a hip wound, barely healed. It had chosen 
this crisis to declare itself. It had opened and the pain began 
searing him; he knew that if he unclenched his teeth, he would 
scream. The deep terrible pain began to sap his vestiges of 
strength. But there was to be no respite while the other manipu- 
lated their one whole paddle. The storm gathered again. The 
sun dipped slowly down in a murky sky and disappeared 
under the horizon, leaving them in a sea which was risen to a 
renewed fury. The merciful lulls had deserted it. There were 
only towering regiments of waves charging upon them out of 
another wind-shrieking night. The two men stared and faced 
blindly about them, stiff and angrily alert as beleaguered 
animals to parry each new torment as it thrust at them yet 
now so defenceless in the dark that many a time they took a 
great wave smack on the beam. The canoe corkscrewed wildly 
away down into the troughs with water breaking over them 
and washing about their waists. They baled like machines. 
Somehow they got enough water out each time to meet* the 
next swamping wave. The wind had veered with the shrewd 
and malign purpose of a living thing on to their quarter, as 


though toying were done with and here was the final manoeuvre 
to finish them off. 

And then about an hour after sunset a wave on the beam 
hit them an all-enveloping whack that tore a hole in the stern 
canopy. At that, fear and the hopelessness began to penetrate 
them. They fought it off by a renewed yelling to each other 
as they paddled to get to the tops of the waves, Smith using 
the broken-bladed paddle to steer with as they breasted it 
and rushed down the slope, swerving and side-slipping to 
avoid dipping the bows into the great walls of water that kept 
rising before them. 

It must have been about midnight when the first sequence 
in the nightmare began to fade. The wind began to drop until 
it was a low moaning about them in an abating fury of sea. 
Like spent creatures, the waves rose more tiredly about them 
out of the night, and in spite of their own feebleness they 
found the strength to meet them. They were the exhausted 

While one paddled now, the other could bale and then still 
find time to droop and rest a few minutes. It was a weary 
convalescence, this numbness in which the nightmare had 
faded, and it seemed endless as the night itself. The dream's 
violence had become only an interminable ache in which the 
mind's weariness was lit by flashes of wonder that they still 
survived and recollections that they had to keep on course; 
and the body's weariness was lit by flashes of agony. Brand's 
hip wound was master of him now. He could not move, except 
to bale feebly with his right hand. He sat hunched with his 
teeth clenched against the pain paralysing his left side, dipping 
the; mug beneath him and emptying it with the sparing gestures 
of an invalid. 

At last the dawn came. As it spread over the sea, Smith 
pointed, and blabbered something joyful, ringed with hysteria. 
"Look at that! Look at that!" 

And with it, they saw Malta. Its hills rose low out of the 
pale horizon ahead of them. Dead on course. 

All Brand could say, wondering, was: "Well my God!" 
And echo Smith's "Christ look at that!" 

They were empty of all else but a wild shouting joy bursting 
from them in senseless words. 


The sea had fallen to a long swell. All that day they paddled 
towards the silhouette of land. Early in the afternoon they 
spotted a Motor Torpedo Boat and steered to place the canoe 
across her path. Smith lugged out the Tommy-gun and fired 
a burst across her bows. Then he picked up the Aldis and 

She altered course and came streaking for them, throwing 
up a great V-shaped bow wave. 

There was a weird unreality about their return to Malta. 
Brand was a stretcher case, destined for weeks in hospital. 
But for Smith the elation of coming through safely unleashed 
such a sudden crazed strength that he insisted to the astounded 
M.T.B. crew which took them into Sliema Creek that he was 
perfectly fit to paddle the canoe on to the submarine base 
half a mile away. 

Their submarine, the United, had not itself returned to 
base. It was still operating off the storm-battered Sicilian 
coast, waiting for a weather break to reconnoitre more beaches. 

So that, as Lieutenant Bob Smith ignored his raw-blistered 
hands and plied the battered canoe with the slowness of a 
cripple across to the submarine base, he saw an astounded 
senior naval officer staring down at him, arms akimbo, from 
the jetty. 

"Good God, man!" said Captain Phillips, R.N., in com- 
mand of the loth Submarine Flotilla, "What have you done 
with the United?' 

He may well have asked. Back off the coast of Sicily, the 
dismal saga continued. Having lost their leaders, the next 
two Middle East Commando-canoeists aboard the United, 
Archie Hart and Eric Folder, paddled in to a beach east of 

Hart slipped over and swam inshore. The surf threw him 
about terribly, and as he tumbled and battled through it he 
felt the cold water come in, welling inside his suit. 

It was flooding. Soon it weighted him so leadenly that 


he could hardly lift his arms or logs in the struggle to keep 

He knew he had to get it out, or drown. Hart scrambled 
ashore sr.d struggled for the dunes at the top of the beach. 
Once among them, he would crouch and empty his suit out. 

He cair.c staggering up and ran straight into barbed wire. 
He thrashed about to free himself. In the dark the barbs stung 
him everywhere. His suit was impaled and the wire held him 
firmly hooked. While he pulled and ripped desperately he 
heard the sentry coming along it. There was an astonished 
shout. In seconds, a dozen Jerries were around him. 

When no torch shone at the appointed time Folder ven- 
tured right inshore with the canoe, looking for his swimmer. 
He stayed pointing at the shore, scanning it this way and that 
refusing to give him up and missed his rendezvous with 
United. At dawn he was paddling furiously to get away to sea 
when a fishing smack manned with two German sentries 
sighted him. He managed to sink his canoe with his knife 
before they got to him. 

And so the United, too, lost all her recce officers. 
For the Middle East newcomers to this beach scouting, 
the disaster was almost total. Soon their other submarine, 
Unrivalled, returned from the southernmost tip of Sicily, 
empty-handed. Her two leaders, Lieutenants de Kock and 
Crossley, went inshore and vanished. On the following even- 
ing their remaining officer, Lieutenant Davies, went in with a 
seaman, McGuire, to look for them. 
They never learned the fate of de Kock or Crossley. 
Davies was caught ashore. Again, an armed fishing boat 
sighted and pounced on his paddler, McGuire, at dawn. 

With only a few days to pick up the Coppists* beach tricks 
and the risky drill of homing, these Middle East newcomers 
thrown in to help to work the Sicily beaches had had even less 
chance than the others. 

Among the four submarines returning from these deadly 
shores, Safari carrying the remnants of COPP 4 was perhaps 
the luckiest. She had eluded a sub-chaser and hunting air- 
craft. She had lost only half her canoeists. On her last two 
nights she had been fit by shore searchlights, and depth- 
charged by the E-boats which came roaring out after her. The 


north-west corner of Sicily, her sector, had been alive with 
troops and lookouts of every kind. 

And her survivors, McHarg and Sinclair, were the only 
two canoeists out of the thirteen in the operation to return 
with their submarine. 

McHarg he who had no fondness for all this, preferring 
the chart table of a bigger ship, was to gather the remnants of 
the COPPs under his wing and sail grimly back in the teeth 
of these losses for another try. For that, they were to hand him 
nothing less than the Distinguished Service Order. 



THERE was a tall blonde Wren waiting outside Havant station 
for the train from London. A couple of pongos had been 
watching her, silently appreciative, for some time, but she 
strolled airily back and forth past them from her truck, her 
dreamy blue eyes fixed on a personal infinity. 

She heard the train come in and wheeled to watch the 
trickle of people come out through the gate. She pkked out 
among them the man with the two-and-a-half rings of a 
Lieutenant-Commander as he came through and gave up his 
green warrant slip. 

The sight of him shook her a little. She didn't know what 
sort of a man she expected to see, though they had armed her 
at the Depot with a formidable description* "Well, he's rather 
tall, fairish, sort of big-boned, quite good-looking. A bit of a 
Tartar, though. Been keeping the lads at it like slaves. So look 
out for yourself, duckie." 

This man was a surprise. He looked up briefly, sighted the 
van, and came walking towards it jerkily, urgently, as though 
on quick-manipulated wires. He was thin-lipped and white of 
face. In that swift first image of him she saw, smouldering 
behind the white face, an intensity of anger, urgency, despair? 

He was alight with it. Even to an insouciant creature such 
as she was, it made him terribly forbidding. 

She stepped into his path and saluted. "I'm Leading Wren 
Wright, sir. Your car's over here." 

He slowed down. Out of that haggard intensity there glim- 
mered a smile. It shone on her for only a second, faint but 
kind. He had nice eyes. He was human, whatever they said. 
Then he said briskly, "How do you do? I'll just get rid of 
this." He walked round the back of the van and slung in his 
suitcase. She held his door for him and he ducked his bony 
frame and got in. "Thanks." 

It was getting dark and starting to drizzle. She set the 



wipers going. As she drove she saw that he stared straight 
ahead but not at the road. In his low seat he was all legs; he 
balanced a battered attache case on top of his knees, and kept 
it there with a tense, white-knuckled grip. 

Lieutenant-Commander Willmott* sitting beside the new 
Wren driver, was going bitterly over what had happened in 
London this trip, itemising, savagely impotent, the other things 
he might have pounded into the heads of the men ordering 
these operations. How could he get it through to these over- 
worked men, schooled in classic naval warfare, what a murder- 
ous waste of guts and brains it was to send raw volunteers 
into action as gruelling and yet as hair-raisingly delicate as 
this? Bravery alone was useless. Worse than that, without 
first-class training, men doing this work were actually dangerous. 
They could mess up a whole invasion. 

Crawling around on enemy beaches that were stiff with 
defences and getting away with proper intelligence about 
them would only become workable with teams trained to a 
pitch of efficiency rarely known in war; men as fit and enduring 
as gods, and perfectly equipped for the job particularly 
with exactly the right sort of skin-suit to swim in. Above all, 
hasty planning must never again be allowed to commit them, 
in their nervously skittish little cockle-shells, to suicidal 
weather. The odds against them were already too heavy. 
A drowned man, an upturned canoe, with what enemy intelli- 
gence could read into their discovery, could change the 

"Well, how long do you need to train a COPP man?" Selby, 
at Combined Operations Headquarters had asked him this. 
There had been an exasperated edge to his voice. 

Willmott thought and answered, "If he's already a Navi- 
gator two to three months. If he's not, anything up to five 
months. Good navigating is more than half the battle." 

The Staff Officer eyed Willmott again, and repeated steadily, 
"Admiral Cunningham wants two COPP teams out in the 
Mediterranean -for the next dark period. What am I to tell 

Willmott read the incredible signal again. The Commander- 
in-Chief of the Mediterranean, once opposed to the idea of 
beach reconnaissance and despite the disaster to the last two 


teams on Sicily, was now briskly requesting two more parties 
to be supplied within a fortnight. Within a fortnight! 

He shrugged, laid the signal down, and said with despair, 
"Even if their gear is ready, they'll never be able to do it 
in anywhere near that time. It's quite impossible sir." It 
was the nearest he could get to a flat refusal. After all, one 
didn't throw back messages from Commanders-in-Chief and 
say, / refuse. Sorry, but I just can't do it. 

'"Perhaps we ought to try somebody else?" Selby suggested, 
and watched speculatively to see what the taunt might produce. 

"Look, sir, the two new COPP teams are putting in up to 
twenty hours a day training. If I made them train any harder 
I'd end up with two teams of wrecks. And their new canoes 
haven't even arrived yet. As for their other gear. . . ." He 
dropped his hands helplessly. 

"Twenty hours a day? You really think all that's necessary?" 
Selby was obviously taken aback. He frowned and muttered, 
fidgeted with the signal, and after a long and gloomy silence 
cleared his throat, "Hmm! here's what I'll do ... I'll report 
it's not possible to have two teams ready for the next dark 
period. That will give you a fortnight or so's breather. How- 
ever" his gaze measured Willmott "I must say I don't 
relish sending signals like this. We all know what it's like, 
being denied what we need to fight the war don't we?" 

Did he not! 

For instance, in despair of getting any understanding about 
fabrics for the canoes he had finally gone to the Ministry of 
Aircraft Production. It turned out to be an inspired move. 
For there he met a squadron leader, Peter Levy, who had 
been a cotton manufacturer in civilian life. Not only did 
Levy know all about fabrics, but he knew where to go to get 
what Willmott wanted. 

"Come down to Airwork with me," he said. "Harris Lebus 
will fix you up." Levy rubbed his hands. He was very keen 
on this handling a naval order. 

The Admiralty was distinctly reluctant to yield up its 
canoe drawings to the Ministry of Aircraft Production. But 
then objections of one sort or another were, after all, part 
of that long other battle in the war the battle of paper, 
opinions, personalities, that was waged wherever new schemes 


for prosecuting the war were laid. It went right down to the 
Admiralty stores officials who raised a fuss about Willmott's 
requirement of three paddles for each canoe. Two, surely, 
were ample. But the wear and tear on delicate paddle blades 
in the hands of clumsy trainees, often in rough water, was 

This was symptomatic of the whole battle to equip his new 

It often seemed that the brisk, debonair Lord Louis Mount- 
batten alone truly grasped the problems which beset them. 
It was under his aegis that COPP had been formed. Now he 
championed them with a request to the Chiefs of Staff that 
the word COPP itself should become a codeword signifying the 
highest priority of the war. 

Mountbatten wrote, "The reasons of security have made it 
impossible to tell all concerned why small demands for indi- 
vidual items are urgently necessary. It is therefore proposed 
that the CCO* should be authorised to use the word 'COPP' 
as a codeword to obtain the highest priority, and it is requested 
that the Service Ministries may be invited to accord the 
highest priority on demands prefixed by this codeword." 

Willmott looked at his Wren driver. She had golden hair. 
It rolled in a glossy fall from under her peaked driver's cap. 
Now that he was back in the present, he noted disapprovingly 
that she drove too damned fast. The drizzle had spread a 
greasy slick on the road. He felt the truck slide under them 
as they cornered. He said pleasantly enough, in his thoughtful 
drawl, "How do you like the new job?'* 

There was a pause while his words hung there, as though 
this sudden sign of life from him was startling. 

"Well, sir," Leading Wren Wright said airily, "I haven't 
really settled in yet. We were told we should eat in the Petty 
Officers* Mess, and they all turned out to be great hulking 
males. Suppose that's why it struck me as a bit of a shambles." 

Willmott laughed. At that moment they took a sharp bend, 
braked, and went into a skid. The Wren strove wildly with the 

* CCO Chief of Combined Operations. 


wheel and the night-darkened countryside revolved giddily 
before their windscreen. The van came pirouetting to a halt, 
pointing the other way. Willmott bent and groped among 
the pedals for his attache case. In the light under the dash 
he noted with a flicker of appreciation that whatever she was 
like as a driver, she had nice slim legs. 

He straightened up, grunting but otherwise severely silent. 
Leading Wren Wright tut-tutted, let in the clutch, backed 
up, turned, and set off more sedately. 

After a while Willmott said delicately, " a bit of a shambles, 
you were saying. . . ." 

By the time they reached the Yacht Club, lurching towards 
it over the crater-like potholes between desolate colonies of 
beach bungalows, it had grown completely dark. The wind was 
blowing hard across Sandy Point from the sea, whistling in the 
reedy grass that tufted the dunes about the club as they 
bumped towards it, and bearing on its whine the slap of the 
choppy wind-and-tide-tormented stretch of sea that lay 
between them and the mainland. 

It was a rough night. Willmott got out and fetched his 
suitcase from the back. There were sounds of merriment 
coining from the wardroom. He walked round the back of the 
club which reared its squat rectangles dimly against the 
sky, faintly luminous with cloud, and clattered up the wooden 
stairs. His steps thundered on the plank balcony that girdled 
the dub, and as he came into the smoke-thick wardroom he 
saw that almost every one of his officers was there. At his 
entrance they looked up like crowd players in a film who had 
been halted on a sudden command, gaping. 

Out of the crowd Geoff Galwey came forward with his 
ready, wicked grin. He said, "Hullo, sir have a drink?' 7 

Willmott hesitated. "All right," he said at last "Thanks." 
Then, when his drink came, he sipped at it nervously, looking 
around him, and said suddenly, "Have the new canoes arrived 

"Yes, sir. Came in this morning," Nick Hastings said. 
He grinned happily. 


Willmott drained his glass and put it down. "Well, that's 
something might as well get out in them. See what they're like." 

Gaiwey and Hastings stared at him. "What now, sir?" 

"Yes, now. Better start rounding the teams up right away." 
He consulted his watch. "Let's say in ... twenty minutes 
from now?" 

Outside the wind was howling. He could hear it because 
the wardroom was silent and they all seemed to be looking 
towards him. 

He turned to go. Out of the chilly silence he heard Gaiwey 
call after him. His voice was warm, conciliatory. He said, 
"Aren't you going to have anything to eat, sir?" 

Willmott paused, tempted for a moment to reasonableness. 
He'd had nothing since leaving London. But he couldn't really 
see any better way than tyranny, for himself and for them, for all 
they had to do and to learn with such desperate urgency. 

So he looked back, braving Galwey's friendly smile, and 
said coolly, "No, thanks." 

He closed the door on them and went to change. 

The ratings were muttering some fearful words as they 
got the canoes down from their slings in the yacht sheds on 
to the floor amid a tangle of legs and moving shapes. 

"Bleedin' liberty . . . night before last, we got back about 
three o'clock in the mornin'. Cor, wet as bloody sewer rats, 
foggin' near dead. Well, I said, his Bloody Nibs can't turn us 
out at seven for our swim, not to-bloody-morrow 'e can't! 
Can't 'e just? Seven o'clock, there goes the ruddy bugle, 
round comes the Cox'n, there's His Nibs waiting for us down 
the beach, In you go, chaps, that'll get your circulation going, 
double up there gar! . . ." 

They brought the canoes down to the water's edge, where 
the waves slapped angrily under the wind and spread ruffled, 
hissing fan shapes up to the shingle. Gaiwey stepped in behind 
Willmott to act as his paddler. 

They thrashed out into deeper water until they felt the pull 
of the tide, streaming out to sea between Sandy Point and the 
sandbars which lay like great lozenges off the island. They 


let the tide help them as they turned south into the whistling 
dullness, from which blew flecks of spume. The leading 
canoes began to nose and jump like nervous horses as the 
heavier waves reared at them. The further out they ploughed 
the worse it steadily became until, clear of the fending arms of 
land en either side of them, they met the full blast of wind and 
sea, and the wild, frightening bucking of the slender canoes 
began. A wave hit them green, sloshing around Willmott's 
shoulders. Behind him he heard Galwey gasp and say something 
with, a laugh. From over to port Willmott could hear snatches 
of ribaldry that the crews flung at each other above the wind. 
Then the wind whipped another sound across to him of a 
man retching, and with it, fragments of merciless laughter 
from somebody else. ". . . poor bloody pongol . . . back to ... 
Aldershot! . . ." 

Another big wave smacked, screwed them wildly sideways; 
Willmott flung out his paddle and clawed with it to counter 
the imminent capsizing. They got her round head-on again, 
responding delicately to their touch, but trembling as an alive 
thing, quivering and then rearing sharply away if they weren't 
quick to steady her into the weather, Galwey yelled into his 
ear, "Shouldn't we turn it up, sir?" 

"Why?" he shouted back. 

"Christ , . . it's near gale force . . . look at that bloody canoe 
over there . . . the chaps can't take this sort of sea! . . ." 

Right, Willmott thought. Now. He raised his voice and 
bellowed, "All right let go anchors!" He splashed his own 
anchor overboard and heard the rebellious groans float to him 
dewnwind. He blinked, salt out of his eyes and thought with 
a sort of cold satisfaction of the unpopularity all this was 
buying him, and how he was going to get his money's worth 
for it. This was the absolute weather-limit for any sort of 
canoe. They would come out of it knowing a lot more about 
their boats, and it was better to get this sort of baptism here 
rather than off an enemy coast. 

They were streaming head-on to the violent sea, breasting it, 
lifting sharply, swinging back obediently on the pull of the 
anchor line, when Willmott doubled up in his cockpit. He sat 
crouched there while the canoe lurched and bucketed. From 
behind him Galwey's voice came anxiously, "You all right, sir?" 


"Tummy-ache," he gasped. "Be all right in a minute." But 
he couldn't straighten up. There was an ache under his right 
shoulder, too. Galwey watched his curved back. "Don't you 
think we ought to turn back, sir?" 

Willmott mastered the pain and the irritation with himself 
and said in a desperately level voice, "It'll be all right, really" 
He was in a hole. Nothing on earth would induce him to turn 
about and head for the shore after ordering his officers out in 
this weather. But all he wanted to do was to lie down and close 
his eyes. 

Mercifully the pain began to ebb, returning in feebler 
spasms, until he could take up his paddle and relay his orders 
through Galwey to get on with the exercise. Off the southern 
tip of Hayling he sent one canoe in to sentry the beach. Then 
he sent the swimmers in. The exercise turned into a shdmbles. 
One canoe capsized as the swimmer got out. The rollers bore 
it swiftly in to shallow water, its two-man crew clinging feebly 
to the hull to keep themselves afloat. He shadowed them in, 
heard them cursing, and bellowed across, "Shut up! The 
exercise is not over when you fall out of your boat! If they spot 
you ashore, you'll have had it! Now get your canoe up!" Two 
of his swimmers got ashore. They flicked their torches from 
the top of the beach, showing they had got around the sentry. 
But when they came back into the heaving sea, they too, 
made a hash of getting back into their canoes. While the 
paddler forward strove to keep the canoe steady, the swimmers, 
trying to climb inboard, feU back with a clumsy whacking 
into the waves as though they had been tossed by bronchos. 
More yelling and splashing, smothered as Willmott cupped 
hands and bellowed a rebuke; they returned, grimly silent, to 
their nautical rodeo. The dark rollers blotted them occasionally 
as they strove to straddle the stern and stay perched there, 
like drowning beetles, till they had mastered the bucking and 
could inch forward to their seats. 

It was about three in the morning when the canoes re- 
appeared out of the filthy night and beached on the edge of 
the grey surf below the Yacht Club. The figures straggled 
heavily about, bringing the boats up to the sheds. Willmott 
saw them in and staggered off to his cabin. Slowly he lay back 
on his bunk, He was shaking and wet. After a while he 


summoned the strength to get his soaked clothing off. It 
seemed to take an age to get his pyjamas on and crawl between 
the blankets. 

But finally he was lying down in a bleak exhaustion, neither 
really awake nor really asleep. He just lay there staring into the 
darkness, and his mind whirled vaguely with all the things that 
needed to be done. Ridiculous trivialities of detail visited him, 
not pausing long enough to identify themselves, and vanished. 
He groped after them. They slipped from his tired grasp, to be 
replaced by other spectres, other problems of the morrow. 

As on many another night, he got his sleep at last some- 
where between a memory of the lightening sky and the voice 
of his steward, waking him and putting down his tea. 

It was Galwey who first noticed at mealtimes that the C.O. 
had begun taking piUs. After a while he ventured a warning. 

"Shouldn't take too many of those, sir- They won't keep 
you going for long." He thought they were benzedrine. 

"What these? Oh, they're for my tummy. Only way I can 
pacify the M.O. He wants me to take some leave." 

It was useless asking why don't youi There was so much to 
do. Besides which, Willmott always gave the impression that 
the war was between him and Hitler. 

"What else did the M.O. say?" 

"Well," Willmott was reluctant. "You see, ever since 1936 
I've had half an ulcer. Now it's playing up. It would choose now." 

Galwey thought of all their battles to get more teams decently 
ready for a fresh crack at Sicily. "I don't bloody well blame it," 
he said. 

It was the tall willowy blonde, Leading Wren Wright, who 
chauffered him to and from Havant in the truck as he shuttled 
back and forth to Combined Operations Headquarters in 
London. The van rumbled over the wooden toll bridge on to 
the island and he said, "Are you comfortable in the Wrennery?" 

"Um yes, sir. We're trying to think of a name for it. I 
mean, even the canoes have names." 

Willmott had helped to name most of them, over a pink gin 
and some rare laughter in the wardroom. His own favourite 


canoe was Henri, Grace A Dieu because, like the others, it was 
beautifully absurd, and yet lovely, and bore the additional 
incongruity of being named after the biggest ship ever built 
by a robust monarch, Henry VIII. There was some consolation, 
too, in the thought that if they ever lest the cance they hcd 
christened The Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History, 
German Intelligence might pass some sleepless nights asking 
themselves what British devilry was behind it all 

Uffa Fox, the celebrated yachtsman, had once come over to 
try out a sail for their canoes. Nick Hastings paddled out with 
him, but before they left he instructed a signal to be sent to 
C-in-C, Portsmouth, which read: "Regret the Right Very 
Reverend the Dean of Chickester last seen proceeding seaward 
with Eskimo Nell." 

He said, musingly, "A name for the Wrennery, eh?. . ^ " 
It was a tiny brick rest cabin for the four of them, specially 
built, one of several clustered under the Yacht Club's balcony- 
Wright was really pretty. She had a pert nose and a small, 
sweet face. She lounged back with her slim hands stretched to the 
wheel, and drove with casual skill. Really, she handled the van 
very well. He saw the signet ring that glistened on her finger. 

"What's that?" 

She kept her eyes on the road and lifted a languid hand for 
his inspection. The ring was engraved with a unicorn. 

4 That's rather funny," Willmott said. 

"What is, sir?" She brought the van to a stop under the 
lee of the club and jerked on the hand brake, 

Willmott showed his own hand with its heavy signet ring. 

It was engraved with a lion. 

He put his strong hand flat beside hers on the wheel, so 
that the lion faced the unicorn, and he smiled. 

To help him run the Depot while Gaffer Moorhouse was 
out in the Mediterranean investigating the debacle of the first 
Sicily reconnaissances, Willmott had three prize henchmen 
Nick Hastings, Geoff Galwey and Basil Eckhard. The same 
buccaneer streak had brought each enquiring his way, cheer- 
fully anticipating trouble, into COPP. 


Hastings was in charge of training. Galwey bore the title of 
Maintenance Officer. The duties that came piling upon them, 
however, soon overflowed these narrow prescriptions. But if 
anybody could survive the wracking pregnancy of COPP, 
these two could. 

Hastings, ruggedly handsome with a firm jaw and level 
brow, wore the heroic stamp. Until the war he had tinkered 
restlessly with several ideas for making a fortune, including 
running a newsagent's shop in Finchley Road, then a restaurant; 
he was hatching a desperate scheme to deliver hot breakfasts 
to the bachelor residents of Hampstead in his baby Austin 
when an Admiralty telegram arrived like a mercy, enlisting his 
enterprise for war. The only thing that had dekyed Willmott's 
recommending Hastings for his half-stripe (Lieutenant- 
Commander) was his youth. He was under thirty, and promo- 
tion in the Navy was still a stately business. 

It was true that, like Willmott himself, Nick had already 
been down with a slight case of overwork; but he had come 
bouncing back from hits sick bed as gaily as ever, ready for more 
slaughter among his favourite prey, Admiralty stores officials. 

Eckhard, in charge of soldiers and their commando training, 
had been an agent in Special Operations. He looked delicate but 
under his trim uniform he was muscular and tough. Among his 
decorations Basil had collected a Mention for keeping a 
swampea canoe on station while he flashed in the Assault 
waves in "Torch". 

Geoff Galwey had been lured into COPP when Hastings 
found him languishing in a sedentaiy job at C.O.H.Q. and 
editing the Combined Ops magazine, The Bulldozer. 

"WhatVe you been doing? 1 ' Galwey asked, wistfully, 

"Can't tell you," Hastings said "But I had a bloody good 
time." He looked maddeningly pleased with himself. "Come 
and have lunch." 

On the way out they had collected Willmott. He and Hastings 
hooked Geoff over sausages and mash at the club. 

It was Galwey who had plundered camps for miles around to 
stock the lonely Yacht Club, standing apart from the cluster 
of empty summer chalets on Hayling, with practically all its 
illicit equipment Down at Dockyard they winced at the mere 
mention of his name, let alone the sight of him rolling up in 


the COPP truck, The Grand Lama of Tibet, in search of more 

A new COPP midshipman remembers walking out of the 
Dockyard with a tachometer he had prised out of stores, when 
The Grand Lama ofJTibet pulled up alongside with a screech 
and there was Galwey grinning at him. 

"Want a lift, snotty?" 


They set off, heading for the gates. "WhatVe you got there?" 
Galwey said. 

"A tachometer." 

"Got a chit for it?" 

"Yes," the snotty said. 

"Marvellous!" Galwey said warmly. "I've got half a dozen 
beds in the back. Now Fll be able to get out of the gates." 

Geoff was too much the man of action to mess about with 
paper work. He scorned to keep copies of dockets. When a 
Paymaster Lieutenant was at last appointed to their bustling, 
blossoming Depot and he asked for the books, the records 
Galwey scratched up nearly gave him a fit. He never did find 
out where all their stuff had come from, what had been lost, 
nor where it had gone. 

These were the stalwarts who followed in Willmott's now 
stormy wake, trying to abate the growing legend of his rudeness 
to those in his way. The battle for gear was now deadly urgent, 

"He's not really like that, you know," Hastings would 
soothe an outraged chair-polisher, and give him a confidential, 
placatory wink. "Now . . . how soon do you think you can let us 
have some paddles. We are in an awful hole, you know. You 
wouldn't believe it, but we're down to our last paddle." It 
was almost as if, between decent chaps, he was embarrassed to 
mention it.* 

Galwey would clap storemen on the back and murmur, man 

* While trying to rush through the training of the desperately needed 
COPPs 5 and 6 for Sicily, the Depot was at one stage down to a single 
paddle. From over beyond Portsmouth Roger Courtney came to his rescue, 
Courtney's SBS commandos and Major Blondie Raster's "Cockleshell 
Heroes** were Willmott's great allies in the batde for gear. 


to man, "Isn't there anything we could, ah, get our hands on, 
while you looked the other way? Hmm?" 

The trouble was that more than half the quite-elaborate 
gear they were still evolving had to be specially made, which 
involved them not only in battles to get their requirements 
exactly right, but also in further agonising delays* Simple 
things like getting compass faces blackened to avoid detection 
at night became magnified into immense supply problems. 

But the main needs bothering them all boiled down to 
two a canoe properly tailored to COPP needs, and specially 
designed rubber suits for svrimmers. Suits which fitted well 
enough not to leak, and drown them. Lack of these, abetted 
by foul weather, had wrought havoc among his COPPs 3 and 4 
on Sicily. 

Willmott had a clear picture of that from the letters of his 
survivors, and a particularly clear picture of how Norman 
Teacher possibly Burbridge, too had died. He was convinced 
of this: that Teacher's suit had waterlogged. And when he had 
been unable to pick up his canoe, he had swum straight out to sea. 
"We'll never know," Hastings said. 

"Just the same, I'm sure," Willmott said. "I know Norman." 
Behind the tragedy of COPP 3*5 leader was the thing they 
were all up against. Teacher had been so loaded down with 
organisational work for his infant COPP that he had not had 
time for his personal needs. He knew his own suit did not fit, 
but he had no time to get it put right. 

Siebe-Gorman, the diving suit specialists, were now producing 
a new rubber suit designed in consultation with Willmott. 
They were trying out a quick-opening device in the front at 
the chest; the swimmers had to spend a long time in their 
suits and he was afraid that since their bodies were unable to 
respire through the skin pores, except at the hands and feet, 
they ran an additional medical risk of blacking out, or even 
of dying. 

To test the new suits and get used to them Willmott would 
come clumping down to breakfast dressed in one, and spend 
the whole day in it. His officers followed the lead. 

Canoe design was causing a mighty upheaval. Until recently 
his Coppists had been labouring through training and recon- 
naissance in the same tatty canoes used in peace-time for 


picnicking, whose design had not changed in years. The first 
batch of modified canoes he had received in the last fevr days 
was disappointingly unseaworthy. Their fabric was fiimsy. 
They were structurally weak, and would break up in any sort 
of a sea. They still needed a better canopy to protect them 
against rough-weather swamping. 

A memo Willrnott addressed to Mountbatten in March, 1943, 
about his teams* lamentable unreadiness betrayed the stormy 
desperation he was beginning to feel: 

". . development has been consistently strangled ... by 
outside naval authority . . . we have found ourselves spending 
nearly our whole time in overcoming minor objections to this 
and that point of equipment made by officers with no idea of 
the job, and have to approach every requirement apologeti- 
cally " 

And quite bluntly he charged opposition from the Admiralty 
and the C.-in-C., Mediterranean, with being basically respon- 
sible for their Sicily losses. While he battled with such bitter 
vehemence, reckless of his own skin, a mild revolt broke out 
among Willmott's own officers at the Depot. His inflexible 
hardening rituals in freezing weather did it. 

They lived on a lonely, biscuit-finger of land beset by water. 
It was a desolate world under a huge sky from which the wind 
blew with a vast, icy-reproving breath, piercing them and 
sometimes bearing with it whirls of sleet that blotted out the 
immensity of sky and muffled the eternal slap of choppy water 
off the point. 

One morning a cabal of officers cut P.T. It was a discreet, 
passive revolt. Willrnott sent for them. He dressed them down 
icily and retaliated by cutting their shore leave a token 
punishment (though somewhat offensive to high-mettled 
volunteers) since exercising in the ghastly cold sea took up 
most of the nights as well. One of the junior offenders, Mid- 
shipman Watson, was sent out, for his insolence, on a 1 2-mile 
run. At this a very military new arrival, a Captain Matterson, 
lodged a formal protest. Willrnott infuriated him by ignoring 
it. The captain did not like being ignored. 

The newly arrived captain also fell at immediate logger- 
heads with his own team leader, Lieutenant Stanbury, R.N. It 
was a clash of unpliable personalities with pronounced convic- 


::0ns. In the Army term, Matterson was "regimental". The 
bearded Stanbury was what the Navy called "pusser". Though 
they had to share a cabin, these two were soon not on speaking 
terms. When communication became imperative they passed 
each other chilly notes. It was a relationship which was later 
to thaw perforce in the warmth of action. 

Another Willmott edict which irked the unthinking was for 
spit-and-polish. The COPP uniform, a hybrid naval-military 
garb, soon had the individualists developing their own eccen- 
tricities sea boots, corduroys, scarves, and hideous little 
khaki woollen skull caps. Lieutenant-Commander Willmott 
cracked down hard on this, with good enough reason. Several 
admirals had come pottering around the base at Hayling, 
looking them over curiously. The Depot was their shop 
window. It was hard to take a scruffy outfit seriously and bad 
for their own morale. His whole battle these last few months 
had been for general recognition for COPP and the real 
personal help among the high-ups this would bring. 

Sometimes he took one of their two 15-cwt vans right up to 
London for one of his concentrated onslaughts on a number of 
Admiralty departments. Prue Wright usually drove him. 

She was waiting outside COHQ with their van when 
Mountbatten himself emerged with Willmott and conferred 
earnestly with him on the pavement. The Chief of Combined 
Operations cocked an eye at the name painted on the truck. 

"Why do you call it Tweedledum}" he asked Prue. 

Prue Wright paused and thought. "I imagine it's because 
the other one is called Tweedledee^ sir," she said. 

His Lordship was vastly pleased with that. 

On the way back to Hayling Willmott was his usual pre- 
occupied self. After a long while he roused himself and said 
suddenly, "For the Wrennery how about The Temple of 
Beautiful Thoughts'?' 

A look of startled amusement lit her face. When her calm 
was restored she allowed herself to say, offhandedly, "Jolly 
good, sir." 

"Hmm all right, 1*11 get a signwriter on to it. Everything 
else all right?" He knew jolly well it wasn't. Rumours of 
brushes between the four Wren drivers and the officers had 
reached him. Drivers in the WRNS considered themselves an 


Site* and they were touchy about doing any other work. One 
or two of the officers had chucked them socks end odd garments 
to mend, which had touched off some blistering exchanges of 

" Well," she shaped up to say something, and hesitated. 


"I was wondering, sir what would you think if we asked 
the officers to tea. Perhaps it would make " 

"I say," Willmott said, marvelling, "that's a splendid idea. 
Do you know, I " 

"It might help to sort of " 

"Oh, I quite agree!" Willmott said. 

When they got back to Hayling and he clattered up the 
steps to his office in the Yacht Club he sensed an oddness in 
the air. The ratings idled about the place as though something 
was brewing. He slapped down his case and said to Geoff 
Galwey, "Everything all right? How many drowned today?" 

"Everything's fine, sir only, there was nobody to hand 
over parade to me this morning." Galwey made it sound casual 
but it was plain he didn't like delivering trouble. 

"Where was the Coxswain?" 

"In his cabin, sir. Dead drunk." 

"Dear God," Willmott said wearily. 

The next day the Coxswain was brought before him. He 
was ushered in with the grave respect one reserves for a man 
about to be hanged at the yard arm. He wore an air of helpless 
doom a prime candidate for a Court Martial, With training 
and morale in the state it was, he couldn't expect anything 
less. Willmott's pale grey eyes raked the Petty Officer. "Can 
you give me any reason why I shouldn't put you in the Com- 
modore's Report at barracks?" 

"No, sir." 

He listened to the man's halting and wretched explanation. 
What made a man, in a few hours' heedlessness, chuck away all 
the splendid usefulness he had built up as a first-class cox- 
swain? In these grim days, the cost was a ruined careen 

And now he realised that he, a disciplinarian, couldn't make 
him pay that heavily. 

He reached for his pen, and said gently. "Well, 
you would be better back at sea. Don't you?" 



At \YilImott*s sign of dismissal he brought himself to 
bewildered attention, snapped a rigid salute, and clumped out. 
Everybody in the office relaxed. Galwey grinned and passed 
him over the training schedule that had been typed up, Will- 
mott rubbed his chin at it. The new COPPs 5, 6 and 7 would 
be lucky if they got through a third of it before they \vere 
whisked into action. 

**I wish / could get drunk," he said, testily. 

When the news came filtering through to them from COHQ 
that five men from the first Sicily operations were confirmed 
to have fallen into enemy hands, everybody was pretty shaken. 
Here it was, the grim reality that Willmott preached. Top 
training and gear, or an invasion compromised. 

There was no use now in saying / told you so. The only 
thing it did to Wiilmott was to strengthen his private, savage 
determination never to let any future COPP team go out that 

The fact that the missing men were prisoners suggested they 
had fallen into some trap, or been caught with a filled suit, or 
shot, or tangled in barbed wire. Whatever the way, it was 
unlikely that they had been able to get rid of their tell-tale 
sounding reels, tie sketch pads strapped on their wrists, or 
their weird assortment of bags for beach samples. 

That Sunday at Divisions he read prayers for the missing. 

In the afternoon Willmott ordered COPP 5 out on a 36-hour 
exercise into the roughest sea yet. This time he could not go 
himself. There was too much other work to be done. That 
night he sat in his office, working out a complex training rota 
for the new teams. He stopped, and heard the wind and the 
sea, and thought of the men working with the new canoes from 
a submarine in this weather. For the first time, not being out 
there himself, he began to feel afraid for them. 

The next night, when they came home and beached between 
the breakwater posts at Sandy Point, a third of the canoes 
were smashed and fit for the scrap-heap. But he breathed 
again, counting the tousled, salt-caked heads. They grinned 


at him from red-rimmed eyes. They had all come back. 

In the meantime COPP 6 had travelled north to Greencck, 
near the mouth of the Clyde, to start some intensive training 
on homing technique and periscope sketching with submarines 
under battle conditions. This COPP, under "Daddy" Amer, 
was the most advanced of the three now under training and 
was due to leave first for their next crack at Sicily. Up there 
they would at least have more elbow room in which to train, 
for the waters about Portsmouth bristled with shipping and 
every imaginable restriction. To sail a suspicious craft like a 
canoe required more signals than for moving a battleship 
through the area. 

A tight blanket of security surrounded them still. Notice 
boards staked all round their quarters on Hayling said BEWAKE 
OF THE PYRATHUTES. A local had devised this in peace- 
time to discourage holiday snoopers. It seemed to work, in 
war. Security guards would bob up mysteriously out of nowhere. 
One of them was ambushed by a COPP party out exercising 
and stood for a couple of hours with his back to a wall and a 
dagger at his throat before he established his bona fides. 

Geoff Galwey himself got a terrible bottle from O-in-C 
Portsmouth for talking. He got on the 'phone to order some 
kitchen equipment, explaining affably that they were doing 
secret work and so had to look after themselves, and that they 
were in the Yacht Club over on Hayling Island. The indiscre- 
tion was infallibly overheard and reported. At all the extra- 
Depot training courses on which they were sent, to bases all 
over Britain most of them dotted around the Clyde none 
of their instructors had any idea of their destination. They were 
fed with hints that the reconnaissances were to be for a landing 
in Greece. 

Among the bright new characters arriving at the COPP 
Depot now, there turned up one day at the station at Havant, 
in the full glory of his red Reserve-Midshipman's tabs and his 
nineteen years, one Robin Harbud, son of a Covent Garden 
fruit magnate. 

One of the Wren drivers, "Kitten" Cross, was sent with a 
leading seaman in a truck to collect him. She was petite and 
well, kittenish. The train came in and pulled out, and there was 
no sign of Midshipman Harbud. 


"Kitten" watched the train out and said, cynically, "I'll bet 
he's bloody well missed it." 

"He bloody well hasn't!" a voice piped from the other side 
of the truck. A handsome, terribly young face grinned at them 
scrcss the bonnet. When "Kitten" turned and faced him, his 
prin changed. She was pretty. 

"" "Want to sit in the front or back, sir?" the leading seaman 

"In the front Please*" Harbud said. He looked her over 
Vt'orshipfully as they set off for Sandy Point. 

It wasn't very long before he was proposing to her. "Kitten," 
ten years oMer than he, was indulgent but tickled. Of course, 
he was a boy and he was only kidding, she explained to the 
other Wrens, 

Young Harbud was bright, cheeky, and his charm was 
melting. He was appointed to the dizzying job of Officer of the 
Day when COPP 5 under Stanbury went out on a night 
exercise. Just for once it wasn't another of the endless homing 
tests, but a shore reconnaissance from canoes, with a briefing 
to penetrate inland, making sure nobody saw them. 

Late that evening the phone rang. The local police asked 
for the Officer in charge, Harbud drew himself up to his five- 
feet-four and took the phone. Was there a man called Stanbury 
on their Operation? a voice asked. They had caught a man 
who claimed to be theirs. 

When Midshipman Harbud arrived at the Police Station at 
Havant there was no sign of Stanbury. "Where is he?" he 

"Gawd we wouldn't have him in herel" the sergeant said. 
"We've locked him in the outhouse!" 

They took him outside and there was a fuming, filthy 
Stanbury. His hair and beard were matted and he stank to high 
heaven. He had fallen down a sewer. 

"He's ours, all right!" Harbud said. When a relieved 
Stanbury tried to climb in the front of the truck he barred the 

"Sorry," young Harbud said firmly. "Afraid 1*11 have to ask 
you to get in the back." 


Up at Greenock the first organised trailing course with 
submarines went off well enough, though it was here that 
circumstance was to lay the last straw on the back of an 
intolerably weighted camel, and Willmott at last rebelled. 

This was COPP 6, under "Daddy" Amer. A high-pressure 
training scheme was hammering them gradually into skilled 

In one of the full-dress night reconnaissance exercises 
COPP 6 issued forth into the Firth of Clyde in the submarine 
Seraph, and lost a canoe carrying Sake, a paddler. 

Next morning they swept the beaches with their glasses and 
at last made out a canoe and a forlorn figure sitting huddled on 
the shore. Sake, cold and very wretched, got up stiffly as the 
boat pulled in for him. He pointed wordlessly to the canoe. 
There was a rent in the fragile fabric. She had filled and they 
had just managed to get ashore. 

When news of this reached Willmott he heard it with a 
ghastly calm. A few moments before he had received the latest 
of the signals, now pitched on a querulous note, demanding 
fresh COPP teams immediately for the Mediterranean. He 
picked up the signal, stormed into COHQ, and plunged into 
a row about the canoes that they were getting. Weren't the 
risks enough, without being let down by rotten equipment 
thrown together by slapdash workmen? The ash was bad, the 
stringers shook, the plywood wasn't properly waterproofed, 
and you could almost poke your finger through the fabric 

Hastings and Galwey came casting a slick of oil on his 
turbulent wake with their grins and their placatory charm, 

But one thing they could not call back a signal Willmott 
had drafted to send off to the C-in-C, Mediterranean, saying 
bluntly that COPP 6 was not ready. Finally, politely edited, 
it went. 

While COPPs 6 and 5 (in that illogical order) were nearing 
a stage of competence at the risk of going into action exhausted, 
the first hints of their usefulness for the Far East were coming 
trickling through. The firm of Siebe-Gorman was experi- 
menting under Admiralty instructions with special lightweight 
suitings for swimming in tropical waters. A supply of copper 
acetate crystals arrived at the Depot. Willmott handed some 


out to Lieutenant Geoff Hall, leader of COPP 7. He said, 
"Something more to wear. Put it in vour pockets." 

"What's it for?" 

"To scare off sharks/' Willmott answered* 

Usually he liked to try everything out himself. There was 
the occasion when their first motor-bikes arrived. He had 
wangled one for each COPP, and now he insisted on testing it 
although he had never ridden one before. He kicked it over, 
took off with a rush, and drove it straight into the sea. He 
emerged from the water, called up his Chief Petty Officer, 
and said with his elaborate calm, "There's a motor-bike in the 
sea. Fetch it out and see what's wrong with it." And plodded 
wetly off. 

The volunteers turning up for COPP work at Hayling were 
a strange mixture of swashbucklers and dedicated men. One 
of the dedicated was a scholarly sapper called Bill Lucas, who 
read his Bible whenever he could, Lucas was strong and clumsy 
and endearing as a young draught horse. He took the war with 
a blundering gravity, always tangling and tripping over his 
own zeal. 

Geoff Galwey's introduction to Lucas came when Geoff 
walked into the upstairs bathroom and found a huge, rosy 
Lucas sitting there in the steaming tub, reading the Bible. 
When he thrashed his feet in the tub Galwey saw he was 
wearing a pair of enormous boots. 

Lucas thumbed the good book. "I'm breaking in a new pair," 
he explained. 

He was so keen that when his canoe neared the shore he 
would sometimes get up abruptly and step out into twenty feet 
of water. Since he usually left one of his big feet inside, the 
whole canoe would go over gear, paddler and all. A charac- 
teristic entry in Willmott's diary read, "COPP 7 got back from 
exercises and, of course, Bill Lucas had capsized." 

Later, when they went out East, Lucas went off to camp 
in a malaria-infested swamp for a month to harden himself 
thoroughly, he explained, to local conditions. When orders 
came through, summoning them to their first operation in 
Burma, Lucas could not go. He was in bed He had survived 


being chased all round his swamp by a water buffalo, but he had 

At Hayling, apart from fooling about in suicidal weather to 
get used to his canoe, and capsizing spectacularly, Bill Lucas 
experimented with explosives. He used to stride off to a remote 
stretch of shingle with a handful of jelly plasir.a bombs they 
had in store for use against underwater obstacles. Lucas would 
chuck a bomb, stand there soberly consulting his watch, then 
suddenly drop flat. Almost immediately the bomb would 
go up. 

Once the bomb exploded while he still stood there, counting 
off the seconds; jagged splinters screamed around him and he 
was spattered with stones. 

Lucas shook his head reprovingly. "A bit fast, that fuse/' 
he murmured. 

Towards the end of April 1943, Willmott finally yielded to 
the insistent pressure of signals now flocking in from the 
Mediterranean for more COPP teams. He sent off COPP 6, 
under the command of "Daddy" Donald Amer. A month 
later, on the 27th May, COPP 5 under Lieutenant Ralph 
Stanbury piled into trucks for Portsmouth and the destroyer 
which was to take them to Malta. 

Willmott drove down to Portsmouth and saw them off. He 
had fought to win them some time, and they were the first 
two teams who had passed out with anything like a reasonable 
training. Some of them stood and waved quietly; others jeered 
and made rude noises to friends on the quay as the ship pulled 
out, Willmott smiled and got into the van, 

Prue Wright started up and they wheeled and drove off. 
She kept her eyes fixed on the road, but after a while she 
said, "Won't you be able to take a rest now?" 

It startled him, this thinking about him, and it touched him. 
"I mean," a little lamely "relax a bit? . . ." 

A woman is a wonderful thing. She will mother you if you 
grow to ten feet high. 

"Perhaps I can," he said. Lately the pain and the tiredness 
had been driving him to bed for twenty-four hours and longer. 
He might be able to take his leave the doctor had orderedin 


a week's time, after he had cleared up a bit of paper work. It 
was now or never. 

Two days later, the first canoe ever to be designed uniquely 
for COPP work arrived at the Depot. It came from Harris 
Lebus and it was a corker. The fabric was tough. The frame 
members were top class ash, specially strengthened. It had a 
hew canopy which buttoned tightly around the paddlers and 
would keep out all but the heaviest "green water". Special 
quick-release clips enabled them to get the canopy off speedily. 

The new canoe Mark i** behaved like a thoroughbred in 
the rough water off Hayling. Four days later, at the Ministry 
of Aircraft Production, Squadron Leader Peter Levy rubbed 
his hands over the communication on the desk before him, 
and grinned at his helpers. They could get cracking now. 

"The Navy needs you," he said. "It's a contract for its 
canoes," It had had a rough passage, but here it was, at last 

a war canoe. 

* * * 

"Are you going anywhere nice, sir?" Prue Wright said. 

M I am going," Willmott mused, "to a farm. And then 
perhaps, on to Belfast, to see a landing craft they're building," 

The C.Q. had been away on leave less than a week when a 
letter arrived for Leading Wren P. Wright. It was in a stylish 
masculine hand. She opened it 

It said: 

"Dear Leading Wren, 

Would you please come and have dinner with me? 


Nigel Willmott." 



IN August, 1943, the Quebec Conference studied the rough 
plans spread out before it by Allied staff officers, and Churchill 
and Roosevelt agreed the date and place for the Allied invasion 
of Europe. 

The place finally earmarked for the grand assault was the 
strip of Normandy coast which fringed the Bay of the Seine 
westward of the foot of the Cherbourg peninsula, curling out 
into the English Channel. It was well chosen: within easy 
range of the Southern England fighter bases; its beaches were 
flat, sandy, and it seemed less heavily defended. As far as one 
could judge the beaches looked ideal above the waterline, at 
least for the rapid landing of men and vehicles. 

And by using the beaches, the Allies had a far better chance 
of taking the Germans by surprise. It was dear, by the way the 
whole Atlantic Wall defence system thickened into fortress 
concentrations around the port areas, that the Germans were 
assuming the Allies could not start a large-scale invasion of 
France without first capturing at least one large port 

So the whole strategy turned on this point the Allied 
decision to invade via the beaches, and swamp the lighter 
defences there. They would make do without a port in the first 
massive disgorging of force that would immediately follow. 

To succeed, they needed an armada of specially designed 
landing craft such as the world had never seen before. They 
would land on the right tide, at the right phase of the moon 
to bombard from air and sea, from water swept dear of mines. 

And for all this, they would need COPP as they had never 
needed them before. Only this time, any give-away of their 
special interest in the Bay of the Seine might prelude a disaster 
of historic dimensions. The men of COPP would have to come 
and go on these bristling beaches without so much as a whisper 
that they had been not even a suspicious foot-print 

While the landing craft were being built to carry a first- 



wave assault of five seaborne divisions, the signals began 
flying back and forth between Hayling Island and COHQ in 
Norfolk House like shuttles. The Coppists' pow-wows with 
experts about sand, topography, suits, cances, midget sub- 
marines and dozens of other questions multiplied dizzyingly. 
At the same time, Willmott tried to be in two main places at 
once at his staff desk up at Combined Ops, pushing the 
barrow for his cherished teams, or down at Hayling, simply 
pushing his cherished teams. That meant he had to be chauffered 
a lot. And so, in a curious delirium of work, he saw a lot of 

Work now was an agony and an ecstasy. There was this 
tremendous looming thrill of the Something Big in which he 
had become, by his own foresight and enterprise, a key figure. 
It was intoxicating and yet terrible, for it w T as still a daily 
fight to protect and nurture the vision he had of what lay there 
to be done from ruinous interference by others. 

It was lonely because being a leader was lonely. He could 
not tell Nick or Geoff, for instance, where they were to land 
to probe the beaches. The COPP teams now at the Depot 
Numbers i, 7, 8, 9 and 10 still hustled about their training in 
innocence of the invasion plan. One day Geoff Galwey, travel- 
ling up to another special course at Largs in Scotland with 
Willmott, opened the wrong briefcase by mistake, he says 
with his merry grin. It was stuffed full of charts of the Normandy 
beaches, and he shut it in a hurry. 

"Christ!" he thought. "So that's it, then!" 

It was an agony for Willmott because, at the moment when 
the triumphant thrill of all they were doing tingled in him, 
it was swamped by a great physical nausea. Now and then it 
all but quenched the grim energy within him; on some days 
it forced him to retreat to his cabin like. a sick dog to fight it 
The warnings his weakness sounded were many. 

And since hospital was unthinkable, there was nothing he 
could do about it. 

The strain of intense work, long hours, and rough training 
over many months had begun to take its heavy toll of his best 
officers, too. Many of them had already been told off to snatch 
some leave as the ominous signs of their exhaustion from 
overwork began to appear, but the respites had come too late. 


Basil Eckhard, his top Military Instructor and as durable 
a character as he had met, had fallen sick with stomach trouble. 
Eckhard was also Willmott's Number One soldier in COPP i, 
the team of veterans marked down to lead the reconnaissances 
ashore on the Normandy coast. The M.O. simply declared him 
to be "worn out". 

Gaffer Moorhouse, who represented COPP up at Combined 
Ops in London, was also in hospital with gastro-enteritis. 
Nick Hastings, back from a month's leave, was ailing, again. 
Geoff Galwey, who ploughed through most of the Depot's 
executive work, was still on his feet, but pale and ready to 
drop. There were many others. The M.O. took another look 
at Willmott and threatened him with six months* enforced 

The situation was now truly desperate. Every officer falling 
sick threw an extra burden on the remainder. Their working 
hours were from reveille till midnight. In addition they were 
finding it imperative to do from three to five night exercises 
a week, if they wanted to turn out decently trained. 

His staff had now reached the point where they counted 
themselves lucky if they had a decent sleep more than twice a 

Out of the welter of problems the stark outline of their 
true plight reared its shape. He was faced with the disagreeable 
task of confessing to the Chief of Combined Operations that 
his COPP Depot was at cracking point. 

He larded his stiff-lipped, bitter casualty reports with some 
strangely desperate language to address to an admiral: 

"I feel that I should now most respectfully make it clear that 
the bird that lays the eggs is well on the way to being killed before 
it can lay the next two. 

The eggs that lay in danger of never hatching were Copps 
9 and 10. 

It took Willmott's superiors at Combined Operations a 
fortnight to digest this. Then they reacted. Willmott was up at 
his staff desk at COHQ when Surgeon-Commander Murray 
Levick, a genial, venerable figure, walked in. Levick was a 
veteran of Scott's Antarctic Expedition, in which he had been 
Medical Officer and Zoologist, and he specialised in human 


The Surgeon-Commander gave him his fatherly smile. 
"Better come down and have a look at you all," he said. "Sa\v 
your report. You must be a pretty sight at Divisions, eh?" 

Even old Murray Levick's eyes popped at the sight of their 
training schedule. "I say!" he protested, leafing it through. 
"Can't you cut out any of this? What are they supposed to 
be supermen ?" 

"Well, they're wanted in such a damned hurry. And the 
trouble is, they need to learn a hell of a lot. They have to 
interchange jobs, too. Otherwise one casualty, and a whole 
team's knocked out/' 

With so much night exercising, the men of COPP lived 
largely on corned beef sandwiches. It was high summer now. 
The sea breath lifting the ensign on their sandy quarterdeck was 
languorous and warm. Yet even now the dark water at night 
seemed cold whenever Willmott slipped into it from his canoe. 

Murray Levick stayed and watched, then weighed in with 
his recommendations at a full-dress conference which the 
alarmed chiefs at COHQ had summoned specially to debate 
this sickness crisis. The Depot's rations, he said, were totally 
inadequate for men under such rugged training. He won them 
a real boon more and better food. More meat, more fresh 
vegetables, and better iron rations for their endless canoe 

At the same time a warlike newcomer loomed on the COPP 
scene and immediately shouldered a big whack of Willmott's 
burden. He stepped into the shoes of Eckhard, now broken 
in health. He was Major Logan Scott-Bowden, a sapper with a 
fierce moustache, an air of brusque authority, and a powerful 
will which was occasionally to clash with WiUinott's. 

But "Scottie" was a jewel. He had an astounding number 
of well-placed friends and knew everybody of military im- 
portance in COHQ. Through him, they forged a brisk and 
fruitful contact with the Army. 

"Scottie" cut a strange figure with his massive shoulders, 
ruddy complexion, bristling ginger moustache, and short legs. 
He had come into the world with tiny, stunted legs, and the 
doctor had spent a long time pulling them in the hope that 
some day he would be able to walk. He was top-heavy, but 
tough, and walked well enough on them. He hated both foot- 


slogging and canoes as means of locomotion. Out on exercises^ 
he would grumble, panting "God this is murder in thia 
mechanical age!*' 

The canoe they trained in was called Geoff's Fabulous Uncle 
Archie. It was named in honour of Galwey's uncle, a Ports- 
mouth ophthalmic surgeon who loved boats zr.d had taught Geoff 
everything he knew about sailing when he could snatch a free 
hour. Geoff used to paddle across to a pub on the mainland 
to have drinks with his Uncle Archie though everybody in 
COPP refused to believe such a sailorly paragon as the uncle 
he boasted about really existed. 

Shortly after the war his unde died. At the funeral Galwey 
was thunderstruck to see "Scottie" appear at the grave-side. He 
had seen the announcement in the papers. He remembered 
his legend and the canoe they had named after him, and had 
come down from London to salute his passing. 

One of their keenest visitors was Sir Malcolm Campbell,, 
the veteran speed ace. He brought along his own "beach 
tester." It was an enormous bar with a handle and foot pedaU 
You pushed it into the ground, then stepped on a trigger 
which tripped a clapper. Then you counted. The time its 
spike took to penetrate the sand determined its bearing capacity, 
Sir Malcolm had used it on Daytona Beach to test the sand 
for Bluebird. 

The Coppists called it "Campbell's Pogo Stick." They 
could hardly manipulate it standing upright on an enemy 
beach, so they tried it lying down. Usually it used to leap with 
a loud twang and smack them under the chin. Its clapper 
made a noise like thunder. Under the eyes and ears of the 
Germans, it would work like a burglar alarm but they didn't 
like to tell Sir Malcolm that. He was so boyishly eager to help. 

So Galwey ventured lamely that it was a rather hefty piece 
of gear for any swimmer to drag with him inshore, laden as he 
already was. 

"Don't worry I'll fix that," Sir Malcolm promised. In a. 
few days he was back with an enormous mandolin-shaped 
affair made of cork. He loaded one of his pogo sticks on thia 
and put a towing string in Geoff's hand. "There! You can 
pull it behind you!" 

Eventually, the resourceful Scott-Bowden devised a simpfe 


beach auger with which they scooped up the sand, decanting it 
Into one of their rubber sheaths. 

Great delicacy was exercised at the Depot to keep the 
blushful evidence of these stores hidden away from the Wrens, 
who had been handpicked for their ladylike qualities. It was 
not always easy. All this elaborate tactfulness was to go sud- 
denly overboard after an incident during the embarkation of 
two COPP teams for India, some time later. The sheaths were 
crated and marked with cryptic signs but first, each one had 
to be proofed against perishing in the tropics by dusting inside 
and out with talcum. It was a terrible job and they all went at 
it in dogged secret until one day an officer rounded a corner 
of the Yacht Club and saw three Wrens sitting in the sun amid 
the clouds of talc, proofing the sheaths at a furious rate with 
the help of broom handles. 

Not all the inventions they tested were to prove so spectacu- 
larly adaptable to Coppery. But now they were getting really 
professional gear, and the stuff arriving really gladdened the 
heart. Their suits were improving. The new canoes were ex- 
cellent. Their confidence in the machine at the back of them 
grew daily. 

And then COPP's 5 and 6 pulled off the first real victory. 

They successfully explored all the Sicily beaches, returning 
triumphant at last with a mass of Intelligence on the assault 

Then they had marked and piloted in the invasion, with 
spectacular success. 

The Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, though pro- 
fessedly now converted to the vital need for them, had still 
hesitated at first about sending swimmers right in to the 
beaches. He decided to try human torpedoes to probe the off- 
shore gradients instead. These "chariots" with pilots astride 
them could not get into shallow enough water to test its suita- 
bility for landing craft. They grounded first. 

It was only then that Admiral Cunningham allowed Stan- 
bury in with his canoes and swimmers. The weather smiled. 
They scouted all around under the heavy coastal guns of the 
Murro di Porco peninsula on the east coast below Syracuse, 
worked along the beaches south of it, right round Cape Cor- 
renti and on to the River Cassibile. 


Three days before the invasion of Sicily, an irate message 
from Stanbury claimed that the reconnaissance reports the 
Coppists had obtained after such terrible early losses were 
found, unread, in a staff officer's drawer. 

At that, the whole of COPP 5 resigned to a man. Their 
resignations, stiff and icily formal, came showering in to WiK- 
mott in England like snowfiakes. 

Of course, they could not throw in the sponge till they had 
marked and piloted in the attack. The armada descended on 
Sicily in pitch blackness and in a sea that had dwindled to a 
fairly gentle swell, over which the torches of their canoeists 
inshore blinked their morse steadily. Before dawn it unleashed 
its fury at nine points along the south and east coasts. Over- 
head the great bomber formations roared, and the glider 
fleets planed in like great noiseless bats over a sea alive with 

Late next day, with the assault boats ferrying busily back 
and forth from solidly-established beachheads, three CQPPs, 
4, 5 and 6, assembled and counted themselves, 

Only one man was missing Saice of COPP 6. The sub- 
lieutenant had gone in to mark a beach and simply dis- 
appeared without trace, probably run down by heedless 
landing craft. It was a common danger. 

Now that it was all brilliantly over, and his COPPs out in 
the Mediterranean were submitting to the official head-patting, 
Willmott was not so worried about the resignations. 

He lumped them into a tray and smiled at Galwey. "I don't 
think they'll press it," he said. 

Now the eyes turned to Fortress Europe and the place 
where they aimed to breach it. Normandy. 

It was a chilling prospect. 

Every inch of the coast across the short mine-sown stretch 
of Channel was heavily manned. The whole Atlantic wall was a 
vast, steady-staring eye, a huge, cocked ear, and behind this 
terrible alertness the gun emplacements and the infantry 

The responsibility they would carry with them while they 


wriggled their way inshore and around the springs of this 
gigantic military trap was almost too immense to conceive. A 
breath of it occasionally blew a gusty chill that stopped Will- 
rr:ott at his desk, late in the night, as though the curtains had 
billowed in to admit a presence- 
He was not the only one who was a little awed by what they 
had to do. When it was first mooted to General Montgomery, 
his staff shied at the idea like a pack of startled thoroughbreds. 
What! have scouts land and poke about on the beaches they 
had picked for the invasion? Supposing one of them just 
one was caught? Worse what if they unknowingly left some 
clue of their visit and its purpose? The Allied armies coiJd 
land right into the jaws of the trap. 

These were among the factors that decided the powers at 
COHQ to settle for reconnoitring the Normandy beaches 
many months in advance of the invasion. That carried its own 
risk, of course. A subsequent storm might throw up new 
underwater sandbars which could ground and maroon the 
landing craft well out, at the mercy of the enemy guns. But 
all in all, it was better to risk this, opposite those flat expanses 
of beach in the Bay of the Seine, than to leave the reconnais- 
sances and all that depended on them till just before D-Day. 

They would have to be ready to tackle Normandy by Christ- 
mas. It was a job for the veterans with \Villmott himself as 

Canoeing ashore from a submarine this time was unthink- 
able- It would be suicide. Apart from the mine danger, the 
sea off Normandy was too shallow for ordinary submarines. 

A Raider Landing Craft seemed the likeliest vessel to take 
them across here. It was fast and the engines were quiet. It 
would be easy enough to launch canoes from it, once they had 
properly practised the drill. 

But the big trouble with Landing Craft was that they 
could only come for one night at a time. They could not with- 
draw offshore at dawn, lie doggo, observe the coast activity 
by day, then come sneaking in for two or three nights on end 
till the probing of all the landing-beach pitfalls was complete. 

It was Nick Hastings who came up with the likeliest solu- 
tion. He slapped the table. "X-craft I" he said. Nick had worked 
with some picturesque desperadoes in his time among them, 


the men who had pioneered midget submarines "X-craft" 
which at that time were readying to attack the German battle- 
ship Tirpitz in Altenfjord. <% I warn you they're the mcst 
diabolical things a sailor ever sat in. If you can survive three 
days in an X-craft, you can survive anything. But they can get 
in shallow, and we could swim straight ashore off them. For 
the daytime we can pull out to sea a bit, dive, periscope the 
coast, sweat it out till nightfall, and come in again." 

Willmott thought about this, his grey eyes staring into a 
vacancy, picturing it. "I hope it's the Luftwaffe's day off," he 
said finally. "Otherwise they*!! spot us." 

Nick spread his hands and smiled. "Occupational risk," he 

"It'll be more than that when we corne up to periscope 
level," Willmott drawled, and reached for his matches. 

"Give it a go?" 

Nigel Willmott put a flame over his straight-stemmed pipe. 
It rose and fell as he sucked in great draughts of sweet smoke 
and looked steadily through it at Hastings.^ He blew the match 
out and considered its charred curl "Yes," he said. "Give it 
a go." 

The summer had gone. It was a splendid autumn, foil of 
still blue mists in the evening, the smell of leaf-smoke, and the 
majestic sadness of summer's dying. 

They had come up to Rothesay on the Island of Bute, 
girdled by the lovely winding straits which separated it from 
the hills of Argyllshire. The season was dying a gentler death 
here. Bute has fuchsias and strawberries in December, and its 
winter snows are fleeting. 

It was to this northern Madeira they came, but to no re- 
cuperation such as the lovely bays and lochs invited. This was 
the base for X-craft. Willmott and his veterans of COPP i 
had arrived to work up and perfect with the midget sub- 
marine crews a technique for beach landing and reconnais- 
sance, marking, pilotage the lot from them. 

They had only won the right to do this after a lot of stubborn 
rearguard fighting from those diehard individualists, the 
midget submarine commanders. These were a bit touchy about 


who was going to take over their boats, and for what purposes. 
At Invasion Force Headquarters the Flag Officer submarines 
had told Rear-Admiral Creasy flatly that midget submarine 
commanders would never surrender their own craft without 
crews. Willmott took a tube to Swiss Cottage, to the luxury 
block of flats which was Submarine Headquarters, and bearded 
Admiral Barrie. They hammered out an armistice with the 
submariners. Its terms allowed the Coppists to share a midget 
submarine with a reduced crew and train up together with 
them for Normandy. 

When Wiilmott arrived on board the Titania, the submarine 
Depot ship at Rothesay, Captain Willie Banks of the i2th 
Submarine Flotilla looked across his desk at him and smiled. 
He said, "You're going to be awfully squashed in these midgets 
with two extra aboard/' 

"I expect we'll get used to it, sir." 

"Well, watch it, there's a good chap. You know, these X- 
craft commanders are prima donnas too. Don't tread on their 
corns more than you can help." 

The X-craft turned out to be horror chambers tiny, steel 
cigars whose insides appeared more squalid to them than the worst 
hovel and ten times as crowded. A mass of wires and pipes 
led everywhere. The sanitary arrangement was the first to 
greet their amazed eyes as they squeezed down inside. It was 
situated welcomingly in the first compartment the "Wet 
and Dry" escape chamber. With three Coppists added to the 
reduced crew of two the skipper and his Number One they 
were puzzled to know where to stow their arms and legs, so 
cramped was the space. The tiny craft was now forty per cent 
over-manned. The air became foul soon after the hatch clanged 
closed, and as they submerged they suddenly became conscious 
of the simple act of breathing. 

The quick dwindling of air inside the midget submarine 
w r as dangerous for the hallucinations it produced. Sud- 
denly they would be making howling errors of judgment 
and remaining perfectly unaware that anything was wrong. 
The pilot of an R.A.F. bomber flying over Germany who 
began suffering from kck of oxygen is reported to have decided 
to land. He did, in fact, achieve a nice three-point landing on 
a patch of cloud. As the patch of cloud was at about 10,000 


feet there was time to rectify the mistake. But :f any siinilarly 
spectacular errors occurred ir: X-craft, nobody hsd yet sur- 
vived to tell of them. 

On one of their sorties Geoff Galwey who confesses his 
arithmetic is terrible was congratulating himself on having 
worked himself out a nice three-point fix for them on their 
chart, until they surfaced. He looked again, taking in deep 
breaths of fresh air which now flooded down through the open 
hatch, and found his figuring was absolute nonsense. 

But it was claustrophobia that caused their first casualty. 
Ironically, it affected the dashing Nick Hastings, Willmott's 
right-hand man in COPP i. It was Nick who had suggested 
the X-craft to Nigel. There was nothing he could do about it. 
It affected him so that he became as powerless as any corpse 
in a coffin to hoist in his signals and cany out the 

"Dammit!" he exploded that night when they got ashore. 
"It never happened before! I did my dives in th^t D.S.R.A. 
tank down at Dolphin all right." He was near to tears with 
rage at it all. 

For Willmott it was just another worry. "I don't know what 
I'm going to do for a Number One now," he said to Galwey. 

"How about me?" Geoff said. He grinned, bright with hope. 

Willmott looked at the merry, cherubic face with the crinkling 
eyes and the snub nose and the lines of tiredness and strain 
which had drawn their own marks too. He said, "You old 
villain. I know all about your ticker." 

"Ulcers to you, sir," Galwey said sunnily, "1*11 race you up 
the mountain tomorrow morning." 

"Fair enough. You're my A/COPP if you can." 

The morning walk up the mountain rising behind their base 
a mansion on the shore of Loch Striven Head was another 
of Willmott's toughening ceremonies. He smiled to himself 
as he saw Galwey's neat figure climbing eagerly up ahead of 

A derisive shout floated down to them. "Come ... on ... 
pack of ... bloody snails!" It was really rather rich. In his 
team of run-down crocks, wbo could tell anybody else he 
wasn't fit to go operational? He himself had been in and out 
of the cot for the best part of six months now. 


Major Scott-Bowden arrived at the top half an hour after 
the others. He had flatly refused Willmott's edict to climb 
straight, and followed a patient, winding path around the 
contours. He sat down unperturbed, a little redder than 
usual, with his back to the superb view of the loch and the wide 
blue-morning wash of the Clyde beyond, layered with shipping 
smoke. "On the beaches of Europe," Scott-Bowden observed, 
removing a boot, "there will be many ways of getting killed. 
I do not propose to add to the hazards by vaulting up a moun- 

Their worst struggle inside the midget submarine was to 
get in and out of a rubber suit while they sat as cramped as 
mummies in a tomb. It took two hours. Two hours! And all 
the while, the exertion of it drained the oxygen out of the 
foetid air around them and their efforts became feebler and 
more irritable. Everything about them grew damp. The walls 
dripped moisture, the stink of their bodies grew thicker, and 
the labels of the food cans fell off and floated in the bilge. 

They had some strange companions in their long, narrow 
loch. Bombers used to appear from around the crags and skim 
low over the water so low that the great breath of their 
passage spread ruffles across the calm surface. 

On their first training excursions in the midgets they used 
to watch through the periscope as the Lancasters came hop- 
ping over the hills and roared down upon them. 
"Blimey do they want to kill themselves?" 
Often at night the Lanes were at it. They did not know till 
later that it was the famous 617 Squadron the Dam Busters, 
who in May had wrecked the Moehne and Eider dams in 
Germany with an earthquake bomb from fifty feet. 

The Coppists learned to do the submariners* chores, taking 
their turn at the wheel, learning the surfacing and diving 
drills, charging the batteries, cooking on the little gluepot 
stove. The X-craft had been cleared of explosives and ancillary 
gear and navigators' aide stowed in their place. Remembering 
how that had been done still raised a grin in COPP i. 

A month before there had been a big meeting down at 
Norfolk House over the reconnaissances for "Overlord" 
the code name fixed for the landings in France. When they 
came to discuss converting the X-craft a civilian from the 


Directorate of Naval Construction stood up. He shook his 
head regretfully. 

"I'm terribly sorry, gentlemen* All these alterations to 
X-craft are quite impossible! They. . . ." 

Rear-Admiral Creasy swung his leonine head and fixed his 
cold grey eyes on the man. He said, "Supposing your wife 
would be made a widow and your house a dung heap if it was 
not done in a month what then? 1 ' 

The civilian never completed his sentence. His mouth hung 
open as he digested this form of reasoning, and slowly sat 
down. Finally, he cocked his head doubtfully and said, "Well 
I suppose " and managed a ghastly smile. 

They had been up at Loch Striven about a week when 
Willmott appeared at breakfast wearing mittens. He sat down 
and solemnly proceeded to demolish his sausages. Young 
Robin Harbud nudged Scott-Bowden and said in a loud, clear 
voice. "I wish / had somebody to knit me some mittens." 

"Hmm!" Scott-Bowden said, looking curiousiv at their 
leader, "Yes, indeed." 

"You might try Wren Cross," Hastings told Harbud. 

"Toucht, young Robin," Galwey said, and at that Willmott 
looked up and allowed himself the faintest smile. 

The mittens had come in a parcel with a note inside from 
Prue. The secret of their seeing each other off duty had been 
pretty well kept. Those few hours here and there had been 
islands of quiet in the delirium of work and planning. It was a 
communion by deeds as much as words the time, for in- 
stance, that he had lain in his cabin with the duodenal pain 
sapping him, and with it his feeling, as always, rather alone; 
the package had come. From Prue. It was a book of Russell 
Flint drawings, peopled with his savage, crisply splendid 
women. He felt spoiled by her remembering, from an idle word 
he had dropped, the things he liked, 

It had been Prue's twenty-first birthday a fortnight before, 
and he had taken her to the Embassy Club in London, He had 
before him a vision of her kcey blue dress, of the tilt of her 
golden head as she looked at him through the haze of cigarette 
smoke. She had smiled faintly, and said, "You know, it was I 
who suggested we should stand tea for the officers, and that 
you should invite us into the mess now and then." 


"And a jolly good scheme it was, too," he said, brazenly. 

"The idea, as I recall it, was to put an end to these clandes- 
tine meetings between the Wrens and odd males at the 
Depot? . . ." Her eyes mocked him. 

He grinned. "I r m not at the Depot," he said, "It's fair 
enough now. Besides. . , ." It was a sentence he did not com- 
plete. One day, perhaps, he would. 

So, when the mittens arrived, he wore them down to break- 

That November evening, Willmott and his new A/COPP 
Geoff Galwey squeezed down into the hideous bowel of the 
X-craft that was to take them around Bute to the other side 
of the island for their first serious "recce" ashore. They were 
to swim directly in from the midget submarine, explore the 
beach, flash up the X-craft, and return to it. The beach chosen 
was Etterick Bay, a wide sandy sweep which bit cleanly into 
the island's western coast where the sea flowed into the nar- 
rowing Kyles between Bute and the mainland hills of Argyll- 

Tossing somewhere over the waves in the darkness above 
them was a trawler, circling and mothering their progress. 

Already the air inside the submarine had grown foul and 
they were beginning to feel headachy. There was the usual 
panting struggle to get into their suits in a space so confined 
that it was impossible to perform a major movement with any 
limb. They cursed and fumbled and sometimes, in a desperate 
way, they had to laugh. "God," Galwey groaned, strapping 
on his waterproofed watch. "We've got another bloody hour 
of this!" 

At last they rose and broke surface in an uneasy swell. The 
skipper struggled into his oilskins, knocked back the clips of 
the Wet and Dry, took up a leather belt and climbed up and 
out into the night to lash himself to the casing and steer her in. 
Quietly on their batteries they crept inshore over the inky, 
heaving sea. Those below heard the waves whack the hull and 
cascade surf over it. Boots first, the skipper slithered down 
into sight again. His okilskins glistened and he brushed water 
from his brow. "Right, your turn." 

They stood quite dose inshore. Faintly, from the casing, 
Willmott and Galwey made out the low hills looming on either 


side of the beach ahead. Overhead it was pitch black. "Here we 
go," Willmott muttered; he slithered on feet first. His head 
faintly reappeared, bobbing, and he turned over ana began 
back-stroking towards shore. Gahvey followed him. 

Hitting the water after the foulness of the submarine was 
an exhilaration. It caressed and laved their face^ with a sensa- 
tion of fresh cleanliness that no bath could ever give. Gahvey 
was terribly tempted to rip open his suit and let ihe purifying 
sea flood in and wash away the combined stench of body and 
diesel and sewer, a taint that living sealed up in a midget 
submarine alone can impart. They used to come back from 
exercises smelling worse than goats. It was no wonder the 
Wrens ashore gave them a wide berth for a while. 

But gradually the water began to numb him. It was a freez- 
ing, moonless night with a remote powdering of stars. Both 
Willmott and Galwey swam a couple of lengths of soundings 
before crawling separately ashore. The sea was restless with 
a choppy swell, and they could hear it slapping the beach 
angrily. They felt rather than saw the great points of land 
which curled out past them, protecting the bay like giant 

They crawled silently up the beach and explored the hinter- 
land- Their feet touched grass and then Willmott tripped 
and caught his suit on a wire. He cleared himself, muttering. 
They found their reconnaissance objective the road leading 
across the island, and stopped. There was an hour to go before 
they flashed up the submarine and they carried out a stalk or 
two on each other. Galwey's teeth were chattering in the 
freezing wind. 

"What do you think?" Willmott said. 

"About the X-craft?" 


"Bloody murder," Geoff said shortly. "But if we don't 
suffocate or sink, it might do the job." 

When it was time to go they waded in, lunged forward, 
and struck out in the heaving, troughing blackness towards 
the position offshore where they had fixed to find the little 
X-craft. The water was no longer refreshing; it chilled to the 
bone. Some of it got under Galwey's chinpiece and leaked 
icily down his throat and chest. He lay over and took bearings 


on the landmarks they had fixed by periscope that day. They 
were nearly out at their rendezvous. Then dimly over the hiss 
and scream of the waves, as he trod water, he heard Willmott's 
faint cry. "Geoff!" 

"Here!" he yelled, and swam for the voice. 

"GEOFF!" The voice was louder to his right. 

He ploughed over to it till he could hear Wiilmott panting 
and thrashing in the darkness. Then a wave lifted him and he 
was on him. 

"Suit's holed!" Wiilmott gasped. "Filling up! ... tore it 
ashore, maybe . . . God, it's coldl" 

Their eyes strained about them as the waves lifted them. 
There was no sign of the X-craft. 

Galwey fished out his torch and held it high and started 
flashing again. "B-better come soon!" Wiilmott said be- 
tween his teeth. "Feels like a ton weight!" 

"Blow your Mae West up!" Galwey urged. 

"Can't get at it!" Wiilmott was battling hard enough with 
his arms to keep afloat. "Let me try!" Galwey felt and tore 
at the zip flap on Willrnott's suit. He groped inside for the 
Mae West tube. A wave doused them and he kicked strongly 
with his legs, gulping salt water, then got his mouth to the 
bkdder and blew. Several times the sea put him under and 
nearly tore his delicate pinching grip loose but he managed to 
get it blown up at the cost of a lot of breath and several mouth- 
fuls of salt water. 

He looked around. "Damn that bloody sub!" He had to 
leave Wiilmott to manage, stroking feebly against the weight 
and the terrible iciness engulfing him, while he fished in his 
pocket for their two-star reds.* He got one out and pulled the 
teat off but it hissed angrily as a wave took it under-water. 

Then Galwey felt the water coming into his own suit. The 
two-star red signal, exploding prematurely, had torn a hole in 
his sleeve. Hastily, he fished Ms arm out and held it clear of 
waves. Now they were in a mess. He could only swim with 
one arm now unless he wanted to flood, too. He, too, was 

Nigel had managed to get out one of his own two-star reds. 
He pulled the top off and it went up, coruscating like a Roman 

e Emergency signal cartridges. 


candle, casting a great dancing nimbus of rosy light around 
them on the waves. In it, Wiilmott's eyes shone spectrally out 
of his streaming blackened face. His Mae West was just keeping 
his head up above water, but Gahvey dared not think what the 
cold was doing to him. He stared around him anxiously but 
there was still no sign of the X-craft. 

He said desperately, "Can you make the beach, do you 

There was no answer. "VYillmott's head was lolling. The 
waves were going over him and though he still pawed feebly 
to fight the sea, he was nearly out. 

The cold had its savage grip on Gahvey, too, now. His 
drenched arm and shoulder were one terrible frozen pain. He 
knew that if they were left in this bitter sea much longer, 
Willmott would die. Now he was powerless to keep his own 
arm out of the water for long and he gave up trying. Geoff 
fumbled and managed to get his other two-star red out; tore 
the top off, and loosed it. Up shot the light It glared over an 
empty sea. 

And then, when he had almost given up hope, a light an- 
swered. Galwey summoned all his strength and shouted. 

There was the X-craft. 

Willmott came feebly to life as they got him on to the casing. 
Somehow they got him down into the tiny control rcom and 
poured brandy into him. He submitted, dazed, to being 
stripped and wrapped in blankets. They got him forward on 
to the acid-pitted mattress over the batteries, and he lay 
there, pallid and docile, just as they placed him. He was out 

Geoff Galwey took a wandering lead from the batteries, 
slipped in an inspection bulb, and tucked the bright-glowing 
lamp inside the blankets to help warm him. It was the only 
thing he could find, besides the brandy. 

They had been almost an hour in that freezing sea. 

"What a cock-up!" he said, disgustedly, and pulled his own 
blanket round him. "Imagine doing it off France!" Then he, 
too, passed out. 

In the early hours something woke him. He was terribly 
cold, and the right side of his body was still awfully numb. 
He sniffed suddenly. 


"Something's burning!" 

It was coming from forward, from the recumbent Willmott. 
He crawled forward and snatched aside the blanket covering 
hm. The electric bulb shone up at him, lighting Willmott's 
nakedness. Acrid wisps of smoke wreathed it, where it lay, 
sinking his stomach. Hastily Geoff Galwey plucked it out 
and wrapped him again. Willmott snored on. 

In the morning Geoff awoke again as the changing of the 
watch let in a guff of welcome fresh air through the hatch. 
They were all stirring, sorting themselves out from their snail- 
shell sleeping positions. Galwey remembers stretching and 
saying happily, "Well, I suppose now we'll beetle back gently 
to Rothesay for a bit of real sleep !" 

At that moment Lieutenant-Commander Willmott came to 
life in the forepeak. He stirred out of it, wiping a hand over 
his face, yawned, looked them all over, and said: 

*' Right, let's flash up the trawler, Maxie. We'll all go aboard 
her and have a post-mortem. Find out what went wrong/* 

Even Galwey, who knew him so well, was speechless. The 
man looked like death. The exhaustion lines were etched 
deeply down his cheeks and he was pallid as any ghost. Aloft, 
the watch-keeper began flashing the trawler. Soon she was 
alongside and they were climbing aboard, up into the sweet, 
cold, golden air. 

There was an officer aboard the trawler wearing the red 
stripe of a Surgeon-Lieutenant, and it was he who put a stop 
to any more of this nonsense. He listened to Galwey, took one 
look at the hollow-eyed Willmott, and said firmly, **You*re 
going to bed. Now." 

His flooded suit earned him a sharp three-day bout of 'flu. 
On the first day, his temperature raging around 103, Willmott 
improved the shining hour by consulting tide and moon 
tables, then sending a signal off to the Naval Commander, 
Expeditionary Force. 

His message suggested a date for the first Normandy recon- 
naissance the dark period in January of the New Year, 1944. 

Later that day a parcel arrived from Prue. She had a 
genius, it seemed, for sensing when he needed comfort. He 
lay back and unwrapped it. It was Lin Yutang's The Art of 


Gahvey came upon him turning over the psges. "HmrnI 
Good, I hear. Popular reading among those going cut to 

Various boffins were producing heating equipment to keep 
Coppists warm during their swims or for long canoe vigils in 
cold weather. There was a heating pad one s'ipped dov/r. 
inside one's suit, but the COPP swimmers found either that it 
did not work at all, or that it started a brisk frying process 
and had to be hastily fished out. Another heater produced 
was a tin designed to stand in on the floor of the canoe and 
warm the paddlers from below. One of these was shown to the 
Fourth Sea Lord. 

"Don't you think I've ever seen a tin of soup before?" 
snorted his lordship, and swept it aside. Ke was a busy man. 
Later one of his aides opened it up, found a wick inside, and 
decided to light it. He omitted the essential precaution of 
first punching a couple of holes. There was a terrible bang 
and the whole office was spattered with what looked like blood 
and guts. When the cleaners came in a rumour swept around 
the Admiralty that the Fourth Sea Lord had been blown up 
at his desk. 

Thanks to their training hours and the mid-winter swimming 
their sickness rate was still enormously high with rheumatism, 
colds, lumbago and ear trouble. 

In the middle of all this Willmott was confronted with 
trouble within his own ranks about using midget submarines. 
Although they were hellish boats to use for their work, he was 
beginning to perceive their excellence for certain special kinds 
of reconnaissance. By this time COPPs 5 and 6 had arrived back 
from the Mediterranean, where they had carried on from Sicily 
to reconnoitre the Anzio and Salerno landings. 

"Daddy" Amer, his veteran leader of COPP 5, flatly refused 
to work in X-craft. They had a fairly bitter argument which 
ended up with Amer saying with desperate calm, "Look 
I just think Landing Craft are better. What the hell does it 
matter if they do hear our engines. Our coastal patrols have 
been operating boats all along the French coast." 

Both he and Stanbury of COPP 5 had been pushed around a 
bit in the Mediterranean, and it had left them full of fight 
for their rights and beliefs. Willmott could not shift Amer, 


whose COPP 6 was to be assigned for "Operation Overlord." 
He would gladly swim the invasion beaches from Landing 
Craft but not from midgets. It was not a question of courage 
but of confidence and claustrophobia. 

Willmott had another letter from Prue. She knew he was 
working in midgets, and he had a fair idea she hated them too, 
and was anxious. But in her letter with its gentle intimacies 
there was nothing about that. 

As Christmas drew near the orders began flying thick and 
fast. It was getting colder every day, and they were still work- 
ing in Loch Striven with the X-craft. They were hard at 
it doing Beach Commando work, practising sentry evasion 
tricks, ways of killing quietly, learning photo-recce interpre- 
tation, studying stereoscopic pictures of the Normandy coast, 
taking in topographical lectures, and getting pep-talks on 
enemy psychology from M.I.9 officers. 

"Kitten" Cross came up to Scotland, driving COPP 9 and 
its stores to take their turn through the X-craft and the batch 
of other courses lined up for them around the Clyde. She 
came because Nigel had expressly asked Prue not to come along. 
Somehow, having her as a spectator of their grim preparations 
seemed no longer right. Their training for it had now reached a 
pitch of taut excellence. 

"Kitten" knew their secret She must have, because she 
saluted Willmott and said a little pointedly, "Prue was terribly 
disappointed, sir. Sends her . . . best wishes. I must say" 
her eyes danced "it's a nice trip for me." 

Of course. And for young Robin Harbud. Resplendent now 
in the uniform of a Sub-Lieutenant, he briskly renewed his 
siege of Wren Cross. He had lost his heart to her on the 
day he arrived at Havant Station to join COPP. 

"How is that going?" Willmott asked. 

"She's still saying no," Galwey reported. 

Willmott stretched and smiled. He said, "Getting one's 
first stripe is a big thing. I think we had better have a party for 

The celebration that followed in their mansion at the top 
of Loch Striven goes on record as the noisiest in the short and 
hectic history of COPP. Since the advent of Leading Wren 
Prue Wright and her zeal for reforming the Depot's social life, 


the C.O. had shown an increased taste for wardroom parties. 
He was finding time for unbending. 

This loch-side party for Robin was an ali-maile affair. It 
started off sedately enough with round games and one or two 
tentative baritones, and warmed up to a game of Tail End 
Charlie in which several of them were hoisted aloft in a setieir- 
aircraft, and there, with much snarling and chattering of guns, 
fought off attack by a gleeful rush of wing-flapping fighters. 

There was rugby in the wardroom after that and they 
watched their C.O. laying about him in the middle of this 
melee. "He lends tone to the place, don't you think?" Galwey 

Out of the scrum came a gaggle of officers whooping and 
roaring after Harbud, who clutched his trousers and ran for 
his life to escape the time-honoured de-bagging with which 
they sought to salute his promotion. He fought valiantly. 

Galwey's last recollection was of Sub-Lieutenant Robin 
Harbud sitting triumphantly on the C.O.'s head amid a certain 
amount of debris, and of himself thinking, "Shouldn't do 
that, you know. Lot of broken glass about." 

But that is not the last recollection others had of Galwey. 
His own favourite fetish at such COPP parties was to strip 
off and lead a party of officers with great hallooing straight 
down into the water for a midnight swim. In summer or freez- 
ing mid-winter, it was Galwey's infallible party ritual. He 
used to totter out, blue and pimpled, muttering, "M-my God,, 
th-this is just the thing for a hang-hangover!" 

There was confirmation of certain points in the epic struggle, 
next day. Lieutenant-Commander Nigel Willmott sat down 
somewhat gingerly to breakfast. He brushed aside innocent 
enquiries about his health. 

Half-way through his porridge he felt a strange pricking 
sensation, and plucked at his nose. Away came some colourless 

"Well, I'm damned," he said, interested. "I wonder where 
this glass came from?" 

A week before Christmas, with mounting pressure from the 


Allied Command to hurry the Normandy reconnaissance, 
COPP i finished its training in midget submarines and moved 
south by rail together with the first X-craft mounted on a 
fht car and shrouded from prying eyes into a well-fitted 
headquarters in Fort Blockhouse at the western entrance to 
Portsmouth Harbour. Blockhouse struck a grimly business- 
like contrast with the loch-side idyll they had left. 

Here, instead of a placid sheet of water reflecting the splendid, 
rich-hued folds of Argyllshire, their prospect was a litter of 
submarines and motor torpedo boats which nuzzled at the 
tangled quays like piglets at the paps of a slatternly mother. 
It was from here that they would push out into the Channel 
and cross in darkness to France. 

Suddenly, the world around them seemed to be full of 
admirals and high Army officers. There were hurried summons 
to high-level conferences in the big map-lined rooms over at 
Force Headquarters in Cowes where reigned the grim and 
electric figure of Rear-Admiral Sir Philip Vian, the sailor 
whose destroyer Cossack had earlier liberated 300 Britishers 
from the prison ship Altmark and who had come fresh from the 
Sicily and Salerno landings; and conferences at the head- 
quarters of the Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth. 

The sheer weight of Service brass surrounding Willmott 
and his little band as they bent over charts and tide tables 
at these meetings was overpowering. It marked the beginning 
of the most hectic and exhausting fortnight in Willmott's life. 
He was at the back of COHQ and Montgomery's 2ist 
Army Group in London, and Force Headquarters and the 
local command in Portsmouth. He whizzed between them till 
he was dizzy. 

It soon grew clear that Normandy was going to be even 
tougher than they had thought. 

The invasion planners had come face to face with their 
first big poser. They were clamouring for the answer to it. 
A cohort of scientists and staff Intelligence officers at 21 
Army Group had spotted it. 

Brigadier Williams, Montgomery's Chief Intelligence Officer, 
took Willmott over to the table where the great panorama air 
pictures showed the wide surf-laced stretch of the Bay of the 
Seine. He pointed the marks out with a finger. 


There it was a series of strange dark strips, fairly broad. 
In the big grainy enlargements they showed up as a deeper 

Bands of them stretched alone beach after beach. 

"What is it mud?" 

"Seems like it. The geologists say it might be. An archeolo- 
c;:^* has written to say his research sl:ows there were some old 
Roman peat workings around here. It means this could be" 
Williams measured it out "peat boe." 

"Oh, dear!" Willmott said. Everybody else was silent. 

"Everything except infantry will sink into it. We've had 
tests made on similar-looking formations in Norfolk. Either 
we have to evolve special methods to cross it, or change the 
whole plan." 

The tall donnish Brigadier straightened up and looked from 
Scott-Bowden to Willmott. He said deliberately, "We must 
get hold of detailed samples of that beach immediately. 
The whole build-up plan depends on it." 

Willmott thought very hard. They had trained and organised 
for the dark period starting in the third week of the New Year 
five w r eeks ahead. Even that was optimistic. Now they had to 
try and rush across in the next week or so. The tides and 
weather were bad for X-craft, too. . . . 

He reached for his cap. "Look here, I shan't go into all the 
snags now. I'll get them ironed out/' 

The tall young Brigadier Williams followed him to the door. 
With his fist on the handle he said, quietly, "If you only find 
out what those stripes mean nothing else it will be worth it." 



THREE days before Christmas, on one of his numberless trips 
to London, Willmott came out of a conference at Combined 
Operations and phoned Prue at the Foruin Club. She was up 
on leave. They had tea at Fortnum's, dinner at the Normandie, 
and danced at the 400 Club. There was a bottle of whisky on 
the table between them and as he looked at her he knew, from 
all the unspoken things, that it was only a question of when 
he should ask this girl returning his look so serenely to marry 
him. Now? Or after this trip over the Channel? The trip in 
which all that he and the others had done before would find its 
ultimate meaning and from which, one had to face it, more 
likely than the other times, he might not come back? 

He looked at the whisky bottle in front of him, then around 
him at the crowded tables and at the dance floor jammed with 

couples. "I never " he said, and halted. Prue lifted her 

brows inquiringly but he only smiled. 7 never propose in night 

But the image of her was with him when he consulted the 
tidal experts, or spent eye-aching mornings on photo-identi- 
fication of beaches till he, Geoff Galwey, Scott-Bowden and 
the sapper sergeant, Ogden Smith, knew every house, every 
dune, every tuft of grass on those hostile sweeps of sand. 

On Christmas Eve he came back to London, via a trip to 
Siebe-Gorman's in Surrey to try out the latest kind of swim- 
ming suit they had evolved. This time, when he called for 
Prue, it was with no intention of losing themselves in the hurly- 
burly of a night club. They walked from the Forum Club 
across the murky swirl of wartime traffic below Hyde Park 
Corner, down Constitution Hill, across to St. James's Park. 
This was better. 

It was cold and they had the place almost to themselves. 
A glint of water and the dark tracery of trees showed through 
the mist Perhaps she, too, had sensed that the something-big 



for which he had been preparing so furiously was close at hand. 
As quietly and directly as he was suddenly asking her to 
marry him, she answered. Serenely as always. Wrapped close 
by the fog, her face a pale-glowing oval. Yes. 
And then they were laughing. 

The Blockhouse seethed with excitement now. The fort- 
night of decision and counter-decision about when they should 
make their first foray across the Channel had worn tempers 
short and set up an electric tension in the place. 

By Boxing Day, Willmott was back in the thick of it. He 
had brought Prue home for Christmas to meet his family. 
It had been shyly festive and terribly brief. 

Now there was a difference guiding his hand and shep- 
herding his thoughts; at the back of it all, he had a deep, 
exultant sense of belonging. In the general panic, it made all 
the difference. 

Three days after Christinas it was all settled. They would 
set out for France in the midget submarine X-ao to lay off the 
Normandy coast, and when the weather allowed, run in at 
night, some time between December 3Oth and January ist, 
to let the swimmers ashore for the first reconnaissance of the 
beaches under the Atlantic Wall. 

They were hustled into deciding this for inexorably, the 
precious dark period of December was running out. January 
ist was the last night they could dare risk a "recce" for three 
more weeks. 

Transcending all other needs now was the clamant anxiety 
of 2 ist Army Group to know the true import of those sinister 
dark strips of beach the alleged peat bog in which an army 
could founder. 

Willmott and his other swimmers made a very special trip 
to London. This time, they went to St. James's Square. Parked 
in the square was a big wheeled R.A.F. trailer. They dis- 
appeared up the steps inside this, and there changed into old 
clothes. Willmott donned a beret, wound on a filthy scarf. 
He posed fiercely before the photographer, and his picture 
went onto a bogus set of papers. He was a neutral seaman, 


and his cover story in case of need was that he was wrecked 
when his ship struck a mine in the Channel and he had managed 
to get ashore. 

It was all a bit thin, and since it had already been changed 
a couple of times, it was a strain on the memory of the most 
accomplished liar. The important thing, if malchance left 
them stranded ashore, was to sink or bury their gear, worm 
their way inland through the defences probably at some rocky 
point, and try and contact the Maquis. To smooth the way, 
once inland, they had Vichy passports. If they didn't make it 
well, the best they could hope for was to divert their inter- 
rogators' suspicions from the true nature of their mission. 

The burly Scott-Bowden and he kept at each other, testing 
their stories, in the seclusion of the railway compartment on 
the way back to Portsmouth. 

More studying, memorising, making notes on the air and 
sea-level pictures of that bleak shore. 

A day before they were to sail, the whole plan on which 
they had been slaving for months was changed. Those who 
argued against using X-craft for the first snap reconnaissance 
across the Channel, in peculiar tides and in an ungenerous 
period of darkness, had won. Some very Senior Naval Officers 
were having sober second thoughts. 

The Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, voiced them. Ad- 
miral Sir Charles Little an imposing man, heavily built, 
with a high forehead backed by a thin lick of hair; a veteran 
of Submarine Branch: 

"All that towage and operational effort for a short sortie 
it's not worth it. The tides and the moon period are against 
you. So is this " he tapped the chart. 

It was Calvados Reef, the ledge of rock off the Normandy 
village of Courseulles which stretched out to sea like a plateau 
under the water. At low tide the sea could ebb and leave the 
X-craft stranded helplessly on it. 

"All this makes the risk of compromise too high. If the 
sortie promised a bigger dividend, I might think differently. 
But why are we really hurrying? To get beach samples, at a 


typical spot, of this alleged peat bog formation. A one-night 
job, that's all. You don't even need X-craft, because you won't 
be staying. Why not use LCNs?" 

With forty hours to go, they scrapped everything else and 
fell to work on a fresh operational drill using the small 
cabin-enclosed navigational landing craft. 

Everybody was highly fed up with this, including the X- 
craft crews, robbed of an honour they had trained specially 
for four months to earn. 

"Don't be in such a rush to be sunk," Willmott told them. 
"The next dark period will be all yours." 

They grinned back at him glumly. It wasn't the same thing, 
and he knew it. 

One had to admit that the little LCNs awaiting them at 
their Cowes base had certain definite advantages for this 
first all-important snap dash across to France and back. With 
their flat bottoms they would skim over the shallows of the 
Calvados reef like skiers. They had quiet engines. Even though 
they presented a larger silhouette they were still small enough, 
they hoped, not to provide an arresting speck on the enemy's 
shore radar. The LCNs were specially designed for riding 
high up beaches on Commando raids. Up forward under the 
windscreen the coxswain operated the steering wheel which 
had direct control links with the engine under its hatch amid- 
ships. From the windscreens a canvas prop canopy was drawn 
over steel stanchions right aft, and lashed to the gunwales. 
The boat bristled with navigational aids echo sounder, 
G-screen radio navigator, and taut wire gear (a larger version 
of the Coppists' measured sounding reels). Motor gunboats 
would tow them across the Channel as far as the outer limit 
of the Germans radar and there release them. 

"It's going to be a hell of a mess, fishing about in the dark 
in a strange tub for our gear," Geoff Galwey said. "I could do it 
blindfolded in a canoe or an X-craft now. But not in one of 

They would just have to stack their stuff in and rely on 
memory to find it again in the dark, when the time came to 
swim in. It might not be fun with the Boche breathing down 
their necks. 


17-21 January 1 944 

OPERATION KJH - I Jh January 1944 







(No marking iubrrwrine* used) 






(Pllohs) (Pflofl friloh) 


It was a typical December day, bleak, with lowering cloud 
and a northerly wind. A lumpish swell rolled sullenly across 
their bows as the first motor gunboat headed out into the 
channel. Behind them were two other MGBs each towing a 
tiny landing craft. The heaving swell obliterated them every 
now and then. 

Somewhere in the leaden cloud above, their air cover fussed 
and circled. They could neither hear nor see it, but it was 
there. They had cast off at Cowes at eleven in the morning. 
Admiral Vian himself had seen them off with handshakes and 
his rather forbidding features creased in a grin. 

"Good luck, Willmott." 

Where they were crossing, the Channel was over a hundred 
miles wide. The going was slow. Once clear of the Isle of Wight, 
the westerly wind howled about them on the tiny bridge of the 
leading motor gunboat. They began pitching, but a look at the 
glass was reassuring. It was steady. Behind them the other two 
MGBs threw up graceful curls of foam as they nosed through 
the swell, but their tows behind them bucketed crazily. Sea 
moderate for big ships. For these, and particularly when they 
transferred to the LCNs, they would not want it any rougher, 
With him in the leading gunboat Willmott had his two Army 
stalwarts, Major Scott-Bowden and Sergeant Ogden Smith, a 
cheerful fellow with a taste for practical jokes. They worked 
out their sortie schedules during the afternoon while they 
ploughed on through the grey-green sea, now out of sight of 

Scottie and Ogden Smith were to do the swimming. Geoff 
Galwey would stand by in the other LCN in case of trouble. 
These craft had only one engine and always worked in pairs. 
He had also borrowed Lieutenant Peter Wild, a blond stalwart 
from COPP 6, as his Signals Officer. Wild had a crazy sense of 
fun and bags of guts. 

They were ploughing through the swept channel in the 
minefield north of Cap d'Antifer, approaching the French 
coast well west of their objective to fox any enemy watchers. 

The darkness closed slowly about them. The boats began 
flashing to each other and they hove to. Their LCN came 
alongside the leading escort and Willmott and his swimmers 
waved and jumped for its heaving deck. Galwey and a COPP 


rating transferred to the standby craft. The black shapes of the 
gunboats wheeled. Over the wind a "Good luck!" floated to 
them, and they were gone. 

Three hours to get there. If they were to use the darkness 
hours fully, they would have to be in position off the coast 
to release their swimmers by ten-thirty. 

The wind rose in gusts. The little LCN began to buck 
and reel at the thump of the swell. It was pitch black outside 
and they held on grimly to bulkheads. Weather and sea wors- 
ened steadily. The wind was west-nor'-westerly and rolling 
them sickeningly far, so that the gunwales ran through the 
water. The coxswain gripped the wheel and stared hard 
through the windscreen. Thick sheets of spray were sloshing 
it now so that while it drained they ploughed blind through the 
sea. One of the figures under the canopy reeled away and Will- 
mott heard the sound of retching. It was Ogden Smith. Beside 
him, Scott-Bowden groaned and swore. He was getting sea- 
sick too. They would not be in the best shape to go swimming 
by the time they arrived. 

That is, if they arrived. The sea was still rising and the wind 
drummed and whip-cracked on the canopy. It was no night 
for a shallow draught tub like theirs. He could see the palest 
outline of the faces under the canopy profiled by the dim light 
from the G-set; its green blips floated steadily across the 
screen. A survey officer, Glen, was working the dials of the 
radio navigation aid and they steered by it. 

At this point the C.O. of the landing craft chose? to touch 
him on the shoulder and unburden himself. 

"I'm afraid," he murmured, "We've lost our anchor and the 
sounding pole. They rolled out overboard." 

"Good God!" Willmott said. "Weren't they secured?" 

"Not properly. Must have worked loose with the weather. 
Both seamen are a bit green, you know." 

It was a fine time to learn that a few miles off the French 
coast in a sea so rough that it could pick their pockets for 
their anchor. 

Peter Wild, the Signals Officer said, "A green crew for 
the first recce of Normandy. Well, well!" 

Then the rain started. It cut down the visibility, and it 
blacked out the G-set. These radio aids were only reliable in 


clear weather. Now they would have to rely on dead reckoning, 
which would be pretty shaky in weather lake this. 

The sea was still mounting in fury, but as it did so, the wind 
backed till it was almost head-on. Though it made them pitch 
like porpoises it also promised shelter inshore. This headwind 
and the sea and the stops they had to make to check their 
reckoning by sounding were putting them well behind time. 
They would be approaching the Calvados reef soon. Willmott 
heard Scott-Bowden grunting and moaning and threshing 
about as he struggled into his suit and toppled with the 
pitching of the boat. 

Nothing was going right. It was far beyond the safety limit 
for COPP work even though they had practised enough in 
fairly heavy seas. Nor could they know their position with 
anything like the accuracy needed for his swimmers to touch 
down within fifty yards of the landing point they had picked. 
The foul visibility would never allow them to see such feature- 
less silhouettes as this flat, monotonous coastline would 
afford. And he didn't have much confidence in these LCNs 
in this weather. 

He would have to face the idea of turning back. Of giving 
up. But they had come a long way now. And he remembered 
too plainly for comfort the anxiety of 21 Army Group. 

If you can tell us what these stripes are, nothing else y it will 
be worth everything. 

And we must know now. 

Here goes, he thought. "Peter!" 

"Yes, sir?" Peter Wild said. 

"Hail the stahdby. Their G-set might be working better 
than ours. We'll try and transfer you." 

They hailed and the answer came back to them faintly. 
The dark low shape of the accompanying LCN turned in 
towards them till it was plunging alongsi4e like a maddened 
horse. Peter Wild stood crouched on the gunwale, poised, 
, reeling under the wave blows, recovering. Finally he leaped. 
There was a crash and his figure sprawled over the canopy, but 
he had made it. 

From the messages that floated over to them in the windy 
darkness, he was getting their set to function. 

"Well, that's something." Willmott felt the relief of it, 


but he dared not think too far ahead. If the weather were to 
change to a nor* -westerly blow, for instance, with the passing 
of the cold front. . . . 

These damned boats had neither the size nor the fuel 
capacity to butt back into a blow. It was a foreboding he found 
hard to shake off. 

Ten o'clock. The easterly tidal steam was weaker than they 
had allowed for. They turned south to run straight for the 

After ten more minutes of staring into the night the 
lookout on deck yelled, "Fine on the starboard bow, sir! 

Willmott scrambled up. So there was. The beam wheeled 
over a troubled sea, blotting out, glaring again. By the timing, 
it was Pointe de Ver. Then further east another faint light 
appeared on the horizon. That would be Ouistreham. 

It was mixed luck. "Must be on for a Hun convoy," Will- 
mott said, uneasily. "Keep your eyes peeled." 

"G-set working again," the survey officer called back. 

"Oh, good!" The R.A.F. were on the air to them. They had 
arranged for high-accuracy navigational transmissions to them 
to come on around this time. They hove to, and Wild came 
leaping back aboard. The other landing craft bobbing abreast 
of them let its anchor go. They would stand by on the outer 
edge of Calvados reef. A faint line of surf showed it dead 

Wallowing drunkenly in a sea that now surged at them 
beam-on, their LCN nosed ahead, feeling its way cautiously 
inshore over the jagged reef. Over its hidden mass the waves 
grew suddenly more violent. The echo-sounding machine had 
packed up now. A rating stood clutching the canopy and 
thrusting a boathook into the sea. It had a handkerchief fixed 
at the danger line. 

Now they were heading straight into the path of Pointe de 
Ver lighthouse. 

Willmott murmured in a drawl, full of soothing authority. 
"They won't see us not in this " 

They came slowly right in, till they were wallowing just 
short of the pounding surf. The light scythed around, a great 
dazzling highway along which the raindrops glinted; it swept 


turbulent sea, shining translucent in the wavetops, and lit 
them in its hot glare so that the windscreen was starred with 
wet, eye-searing jewels, and Willmott could suddenly see all 
the faces around him, ghastly and transfixed in the terrifying 
illuminant moment with a seemingly hypnotic dread. Then it 
was gone, burned down to a diamond's twinkle as it turned 
its gaze on the dark world on the other side of the point. 

Still they ploughed slowly in. Willmott sensed the fidgeting 
around him, the terrible uneasiness now gripping them. A 
rating said, in a voice in which cracks were beginning to 
appear a kind of desperately humorous shudder, tinged with 
the fear he was fighting, "Oh-h, Muwerlll 

"It's all right," he soothed. He sounded like a doctor pre- 
paring his patients for the part that was going to hurt. 

Now the shore was clearly visible. There was only five 
feet of water under them. The beach was so close that a good 
throw with a stone would hit dry sand; it was less than two 
hundred yards ahead. The huddle of houses to port that was 
the village of Ver was etched large and black against the sky 
until the light wheeled again, painting everything with a 
swathe of bright gold. He saw the eyes of Scott-Bowden and 
Ogden Smith or rather, their whites, shining out of their 
blackened faces. Bless them, they had risen out of their coma 
of seasickness and were at his elbow, waiting the word to 
go in. 

"Off you go." He whispered it. They slid over the side 
from the dancing boat and were almost immediately out of 

That damned light! It made it almost impossible to see 
inshore. They went astern, keeping head-on to the beach to 
reduce their silhouette and made painfully out to the agreed 
point offshore. The steep swell, often breaking, reared the 
stern high into the air and brought them with a whack into 
the following trough. They only backed out for two hundred 
yards, but it was a tense and nerve-racking series of plunges, 
in which each breaking roller threatened to poop them 
and overwhelm" their open sterns. Mercifully, the offshore 
wind and the rain would muffle their engines revving in 

At about five hundred yards offshore they let down their 



makeshift anchor. Now they might as well pray that the light 
stayed on. Already at this distance the landmarks were- fainter. 
In the strong tidal set, they would have little means of telling if 
they dragged several hundred yards, with no light to go on. They 
had had to improvise the anchor from a heavy reel of wire, 
backed by a very light sheet anchor. If it dragged any distance 
they would miss their swimmers when they went in to their 
rendezvous with them; they would "cross" unseen, during the 
recovery drill. 

They kept watching anxiously all round them. If radar or 
shore lookouts had tracked them, they might have someone 
around their necks any minute. There was always a chance of a 
coastal patrol boat sniffing around. Willmott had one man 
stationed at the anchor cable, ready to cut it at an instant's 
notice. They had worked out a death-or-glory drill if a patrol 
came nosing up. He had reasoned this way: a bigger boat would 
probably come right alongside anything as small as their little 
craft particularly this close inshore. They would most likely 
think it was some fisherman being stupid, rather than an enemy 
boat. This would give them a chance to toss a grenade into their 
wheelhouse, another into the engine room, hook her with 
grapnels and scramble aboard, raking her with Tommy-guns. 
It was a desperately piratical battle drill, but surprise was a 
great ally and well, what else was there to do? 

He still felt a bit nervous about the meaning of the burning 
lighthouse. If a convoy was in the offing, they might run into 
its escorts, on the way back. Here inside of Calvados reef, 
they were safe from that quarter, for the moment. It was 
going back that they would have to watch out. 

Let them think of that when the time came. Wasn't there 
enough for them, here? He saw the lookouts standing, swaying 
to the roll and staring about them, crouched like panther 
silhouettes on their plunging craft. 

"Well," he was cheerful and brisk "let's improve the 
shining hour. Take the tidal stream, shall we? And other 
menial, hydrographical chores?" When he was being humorous, 
he flirted with language like this. 

Then he saw the lights ashore. He peered into the night 
and made out the moving shapes walking along the embankment 
at the back of the beach. 


They were sentries. They had their torches out, and they 
were flashing them around on the beach. 

The tidal set was heavy, and it had swept the swimmers a 
hundred yards past the landing point they had marked They 
grounded in three feet of water and ploughed silently back to 
it where the main road out of Ver village turned dimly inland. 

Both of them felt weak from their vomiting, but with their 
watchfulness and the current and the sea it was already far in 
the past. There was only the pregnant instant that was now 
each second so full of living awareness of everything around 
them that it was like an hour or a day of any other time of 

While they lurked together in the shallows, scanning the 
beach and beyond it, Scott- Bowden moved his head close to his 
sergeant's. He breathed, "Don't forget . . . careful . . . may be 


"Let you know if I hit one," Ogden Smith murmured. He 
overdid the humour sometimes maddeningly. 

They reached the tumbling water's edge and felt for their 
reels. Both men staked lines into the sand, then came slowly 
up out of the water and began worming their way over the 
beach, paying out from the reels. They had no detectors and 
kept probing the sand for mines. 

They were well across the beach, their stares roving all 
around them, noting the shapes up on the embankment. One 
of the shapes moved. Sentries. Sergeant Ogden Smith reached 
forward and tapped the Major. "Hey!" he whispered. 

Scott-Bowden turned anxiously. "What?" 

"Happy New Year, sir!" 

"Scottie" bared his teeth at him and said something blister- 
ingly unprintable. " off!" 

They worked westward, measuring and sampling as they went. 
At every fifty yards over the long beach a bead on the line 
would slide through their fingers. They dug in with their 
beach augers and filled another sheath with sand. 

A torch flicked on. Both swimmers froze. It came from the 
sea wall above them. Its beam stabbed out over the beach and 


swept it. Further along the embankment, another light snapped 
on. It swung towards them. 

For a panic instant they thought they had been spotted. 
The first light wandered over the glistening sand and Ogden 
Smith felt it like a pain as it passed over his body. He winced 
and stayed deathly still. 

The lights went out, both together. 

The sound of the sentry's jackboots kept coming on, but 
leisurely; they heard him stop, wheel, recede. 

They went ahead quartering the beach. When they had 
filled their bandoliers with samples, Scott-Bowden whispered, 
"Come on. I'm going up to look for snags/' They wriggled 
further in towards the road, watching the nearest sentry like 
lynxes and timing their spurts of crawling with his pacing, 
each time the German wheeled and moved away. 

They reached the road, and crossed it. From there they 
raised their heads to stare at the contours, house shapes and 
concrete emplacements they knew by heart, noting every new- 
seeming silhouette and checking it with memory, then looking 
again to search out its secret and define it. 

At last, while Ogden Smith dropped his head to get the 
crick out of his neck, Scott-Bowden whispered, looking at his 
watch, "Time to go. Come on!" 

Just in time Ogden Smith shot out an arm and stayed him. 
They crouched in the shelter of the roadside. Footsteps grated 
suddenly loud in their ears. Their sentry had turned back 
noiselessly upon them, his boots muffled in a sand drift on 
the roadside, now loud and gritty. 

"Eh du! Komm mal her!" 

He was hailing his mate. A shadow joined him from along 
the road. Right opposite them, silhouetted against the sea, 
one of the figures unslung his tommy gun and grounded it with 
a clatter and a sigh. He stretched. They talked in growling 
undertones. Chuckled. 

Dammit they would miss their rendezvous. 

The other sentry followed suit with his gun. It seemed 
an age before they shouldered them and parted company. The 
Major and his Sergeant slipped back across the road and down 
onto the beach. 

"Have to wait till one-thirty now," Ogden Smith gasped. 


By now the paralysing mid- winter cold had seeped right through 
to their bones so that every movement was glass-brittle and 
strange and when Ogden Smith started to chatter and shudder 
there was neither will nor means to control the great spasms 
shaking him. They just crouched there and waited for the time to 
go by, and shook, and watched the damned lighthouse at Pointe 
de Ver turn its monotonous illuminant menace on the sea where 
the others waited. 

At last Scott-Bowden tapped him and they slid down into 
the water. Loaded down with samples and measuring gear as 
they were, and pads, torches, revolvers, it was hard going, 
The first big wave hit them and knocked them both spinning off 
their feet in shallow water, clutching their reels madly with a 
wild instinct to preserve them. A wind had risen the rollers 
were breaking too fiercely now to breast them. They had 
another try, crouched and butting into them, and again were 
swept helplessly inshore. And yet again. 

Both men were gasping heavily now and buckling with an 
awful exhaustion. They threshed desperately into another 
wave and this time they were through. The Major fished out 
his torch, held it up, and flashed. 

From the boat Willmott saw their dim torch signals and 
ordered the boat in towards them. But their makeshift anchor 
would not come up. Everybody lent a hand and heaved at the 
cable while the craft bucked in the wind-whipped sea. Far from 
drifting as they had feared, the heavy makeshift anchor had held 
only too well. Now they could not budge it, tautly wind-rode 
like this in a heavy boat. If they used their engines to get 
around it and pull from a different angle, the cable might wrap 
round the screws. 

"We must get it up," Willmott gasped. "Daren't cut it! 
They'd find it at low tide." All but the helmsman hauled with 
a concerted grunting. Finally it budged and came slowly 

They went in, see-sawing on the swell, engines pulsing 
quietly, and found the swimmers. They were done-in, and it 
was a tricky business getting them inboard over the high gun- 
wales. Both men' flopped and lay gasping. The little LCN 
reversed discreetly into the waves. With the shoreline growing 
fainter, they dared to turn about from the lowering silhouette of 


village and dunes and made out towards the reef for their 
rendezvous with the standby. Navigating was becoming a night- 
mare. Above them the sky was clearing ominously. Probing with 
boat hooks, they found the reef's edge. 

Wild began signalling with the Infra-Red while the boat 
turned and steamed along the reef. 

There was no answer on their RG screen. 

They turned and repeated the drill three times on the 
bearings arranged, and there was still no answer. 

Could her cable have parted and engine stalled? Was she 
adrift at sea or tide-rode into Havre, away to the east, or 
was she now being drifted ashore, right into the arms of the 

To make it worse, the tide was falling. The minutes were 
filled with rage and dread as the troubles came crowding in 
like jackals, one upon the other. 

"There she is!" Wild said. In desperation he had begun 
flashing all over the sea. 

"Christ! They're miles out!" 

The crew of the other LCN had turned out not only to be 
raw, but seasick. In their wretchedness they had failed to secure 
the inboard end of the cable when anchoring and the tidal 
stream, flowing fiercely, had torn it out of their grasp before 
they could belay. They had tried to ride by the light sheet 
anchor, but it had been little use in this weather. 

And they weren't out of trouble by a long way. Willmott 
didn't like the sky, clearing of its dim rags of cloud. He feared 
the nor'-westerly which followed these little secondary depres- 
sions. It looked as if their worst enemy lay ahead, not behind. 

The sleet came first, out of a pitch black night. It lashed their 
numbed faces like frozen peas out of a shooter, and then the 
squalls were on them. They came heralded by a rising screech, 
in great gusts laden with stinging rain and sleet. It blinded 
them. The LCN began to bump and tremble under blows from 
a giant hand. The seas broke green over the frail canopy. 
While the helmsman fought the wheel the LCN commander, 
Richards, kept altering the revolutions. He yelled in Willmott's 
ear, "Can't make more than seven knots against this!" He was 
afraid of a smashed bottom, with these great nor'-westerly 
whacks. The least they could expect, if they did not ease 


down, was to smash their wheelhouse windows and to have to 
heave to. 

"If we don't get to the MGBs by dawn, we may never,'* 
Willmott murmured. He was thinking of their two Vickers 
singles against Messerschmidts and E-boats. And like all the 
crew, who were lying about moaning and retching in the black 
recesses under the canopy, he was beginning to feel ill. Even 
wearing an Ursula suit, he was soaked and deathly cold from 
the water that had broken over them all. They were shipping 
so much sea now, he was afraid it would swamp the engine. 
The waves thundered over the canopy and sloshed in at the 

One of the surviving crew squinted out into the dark and 
said, "Lighthouses have switched off." 

"Good of them now we're going." He had not forgotten 
about the Hun convoy. Well, they wouldn't run into that. 

He stared out for a sight of the other LCN but she was 
hidden in darkness flecked with gouts of spray. His eyes began 
roving the sea anxiously until in quite the wrong quarter he 
glimpsed a flurry of foam and her dark, wave-tossed shape 
obviously steering as wildly as themselves. Now her squat 
little bulk would overrun them, then be trailing them so 
distantly that they would almost lose sight of her. 

Out of all this their most immediate fear became their own 
exhaustion. They had set watches to relieve this, but most of 
the crew were helplessly seasick. In the tormented, bucking 
LCN it was hard enough for the survivors to keep on their 
feet, let alone take their turn at the helm and fight a sea as 
contemptuously powerful as this. 

He only hoped their engine would hold. If it broke down, 
the standby LCN would be powerless to fish them all out of a sea 
like this. But still he looked across for the comfort of its shape, 

It was gone. 

This time, as he scanned the darkness all round them, it had 
really disappeared. 

There was a terrible silence among them in the LCN at this; 
the wind howled unabated and the hull and canopy shook and 
drummed as the waves broke. Through it, the engine throbbed 
steadily. They were all waiting for what he would do now, and 
nobody was saying anything. 



He murmured, "Right. Let's go back and look for them." 
As if to say, what else? He tried to sound as casually unper- 
turbed as that, but it was really the worst moment of all 
turning back, in this sea, with dawn an hour away. 

There were no protests. They wallowed and ploughed pain- 
fully back, everybody on their feet, clinging wretchedly and 
sweeping the sea for them. They must have gone a couple of 
miles like this, flashing their infra-red into the darkness all 
round them. There were no answering blips. 

"Try them on R/T," Willmott ordered. 

They tried calling them up on the R/T set but there was no 
joy. Either the standby's own radio was swamped, or they had 
no one spare to man it. 

They even fired Verys. They were out of sight of land but 

No reply. 

If they didn't make the rendezvous with those gunboats 
waiting in mid-Channel for them, they would not have the 
gas to get home and they would end up on the French 

They turned about and headed north, 

"Minefield/' Peter Wild said, interestedly, conning the 
chart, his shadow grotesque behind the shaded lamp. 

"Never mind. Be glad, for once, of a flat bottom." 

"What me?" said Lieutenant Wild. 

There was no longer any time for navigational finesse. Their 
one chance was to set course straight for their rendezvous, open 
up, and to hell with mines or smashed wheelhouses or stoved 

They cut through some terrible waves which bashed them 
hard enough to break their back, but it scarcely seemed to 
matter any more. Life had reduced itself to an incredibly simple 
focus which shut out the howling blackness, the malignance of 
the sea and the menaces that it contained; all he knew now, 
by a savage instinct, was that they must get back to those waiting 

At last they were through the minefield. It was late, but they 
were not many miles from the rendezvous. When the fix from 
the G-set showed they were coming closer, Willmott pulled out 
the wide-barrelled Very pistol, plugged in a shell, and fired. 
Its light bathed the wavetops in crimson and was gone. They 


swept the horizon anxiously; at intervals, Willmott kept firing. 

"There they are, sir! Red owe-four-five!" 

Far over to port, a white light hung in the sky. 

"Colour's wrong," Willmott snapped. Now they were in a 
fix. Was it a trap? 

Another light exploded. Green. Then a white one. This 
time they had the right colours. 

"Yippee," said the helmsman, solemnly toneless, and brought 
the wheel over. 

They were all thinking how glad they would be to get aboard 
that motor gunboat if they could somehow transfer, in this 
sea. For the comfort of it, after being hurled about like dice in 
this coffin. For simply not having to do anything more but just 
lie down wherever they happened to drop somewhere nicely 
out of the way, please. And above all for the comforting 
pugnacious shape of her, as the leading MGB reared out of the 
sea over which a dawn lightness was spreading to mirror the 
lightening of sky. 

There they were three tough little brutes now etched 
black against the horizon, their tiered oerlikons thumbing their 
noses skyward. 

They were almost abreast, trying to get a tow rope aboard 
in the boiling sea, when the lookout gave a yell. Willmott 
looked around and saw a green light burst low in the pale 
heavens astern. Again, the wrong colour. When the MGBs 
answered, it replied with a vehement salvo of green. 

"He can't have any other colour!" 

Slowly the craft came closer. Galwey in the other LCN! 
She had made it on her own. They hallooed and yelled and 
made rude noises, giddy with relief. 

It was lightening more every minute now, and they were 
thirty-five miles off the Calvados coast. Both LCNs had a 
hell of a job picking up the tow, but at last they were away, 
slapping through a sea that still drove wildly at them from the 

Nearer home, they hove to and wallowed in the heavy 
weather while the Coppists transferred like tree monkeys to 
the Senior MGB. All except the valiant Ogden Smith now 
so wretchedly seasick that they had to leave him with the 
LCN crew. 


He lay ghastly and prone, among their tangled gear on the 
wet bottom boards. The MGB went ahead to pick up Galwey's 

Geoff Galwey clambered wearily aboard. He was drenched 
and grey with fatigue. He gave a faint imitation of his merry, 
puckish smile and said, "I could a tale unfold " 

On the way back the nor'-westerly they had butted into 
bowled everybody in Galwey's LCN over like ninepins, 
one by one. They were all so hideously seasick that for the 
most of the trip back only Galwey and the Craft Officer were 
left on their feet to fight the storm, to steer a course and keep 
the engine going. 

In the time that their coxswain had leaned aside from the 
wheel to vomit into a bag hung conveniently for him, he had 
lost sight of Willmott's shaded stern blip of light for good. 

By a miracle which Galwey in those frenzied hours had 
been too busy to remember or define, they had made their 
rendezvous possibly by the same ruthless, all-simplifying 
instinct that had gripped Willmott to ignore every peril but 
the one of missing the waiting MGBs. They only had green 
Verys left when they arrived. The rest were awash, like most 
of the crew. 

With the wind now backing to the west, it was soon obvious 
that they would have to run for a nearer harbour, more to 
leeward than Portsmouth. The little flotilla altered course to 
run for Newhaven. 

It was far rougher going back than coming out, but with a 
wonderful difference. Thanks to their sappers, now helpless 
in the throes of seasickness, they had done it. You wouldn't 
think, looking at the pallid Scott-Bowden, quenched of his 
moustache-bristling fire and half-conscious on a bunk, or at 
Ogden Smith, inert, too weak to move under the LCNs 
streaming canopy, that you were looking at the first two men 
to land on the invasion beaches of Normandy. 

What really put their tails up when they got back to New- 
haven was to learn that the Coastal Forces MTBs, sent out 
to do a patrol not far from them off Le Havre, had turned back, 


deciding it was too rough. They had staggered back into port 
looking as though they had been through a hurricane. 

And because the Navy is unrelenting in such matters the 
Commander-in-Chief tore a terrible strip off them. They 
had to stand hangdog while he brandished the exploit of the 
LCNs far tinier and more vulnerable in such seas under 
their noses. What heightened the discomfiture was that this 
sort of thing got about. 

As soon as Willmott got back to Blockhouse at Portsmouth 
his phone rang. It was the Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth. 

"Well done," said Admiral Sir Charles Little warmly. 

But the best news of all came from 21 Army Group, from 
the scientists who took delivery of those sachets of sand from 
Scott-Bowden and his sergeant. 

That suspected peat bog was good hard rock. 



WHILE Willmott was reporting on the scrambled green phone 
to the Naval Commander, Force J, Galwey and Robin Harbud 
waited in an outer office with a typist and Cage, who did their 
maps, ready to tear into the reports. "He'll be out any minute 
now," Geoff said. 

Lieutenant-Commander Willmott came out with his coat on. 
He said, "I'm going ashore." 

Geoff and the others gaped after him. It was so unlike him. 
Galwey said, "Well, Scottie's delivered the beach samples. 
That's the important thing." He yawned. 

"I know where he's gone," Robin said. "Kitten" had kept 
him well posted. "Let's grab our popsies." 

All Geoff Galwey wanted to do was to sleep, but he bright- 
ened up at the idea of dinner at the Queens before he turned 

When they walked out into the hotel lounge afterwards and 
caught sight of their C.O,, both declared it was the first time 
they had ever seen him blush. Prue was sitting there with him. 
Haltingly he broke the news. Lieutenant Harbud protested 
his delirious surprise. 

Geoff Galwey's surprise was more genuine, and it put a 
slight stammer in his congratulations. Only a couple of weeks 
before, driving back from Loch Striven, he had announced 
loudly to Nick Hastings in the van which met him, "You know 
old Nigel's been getting impossible lately. He seems to have 
forgotten we're all human." 

Leading Wren Prue Wright at the wheel had, as usual, not 
turned a hair on her serene head. 

Almost the worst thing about an operation as rough and 
hazardous as the first sortie against the Normandy beaches 



was its hangover. It had been the kind in which the instinct 
to survive had ruthlessly conscripted every nerve fibre, every 
sinew, to beat the dangers of enemy beach and the wild dark 
sea. Once demobilised again, each fibre and sinew now felt 
it could safely afford to complain of the sacrifices it had made 
in the battle to get back alive. 

They all felt infinitely tired, some of them ill. Even the 
sturdily cheerful Galwey had to admit it He rolled at last 
into his bunk with a great groan, "Wake me up a week from 
now," he said, gave a bleary grin, and pulled the blanket over 
him. Galwey with his alleged weak heart had taken a major 
part in the other LCN's fight back through the squall, and 
had stood it better than most of them. 

Nigel Willmott was whacked too. Apart from the exhaustion 
there was a weariness of the spirit that washed in after shep- 
herding the tiny band through a sortie loaded with such 
gigantic uncertainties and where a fouled anchor, even a 
cough, could have been enough to compromise the whole 

As it was, they had left behind three clues to their visit 
two beach augers and a fighting knife all lost in that pounding 
surf. Willmott and Scott-Bowden considered the tally. 

Scottie said at length, "All lost well out in the water. By the 
time low tide comes they'll have sunk down hi the sand. I 
don't think the Hun will ever find them." 

Admiral Sir Philip Vian gave Willmott a royal welcome. 
When he ferried across to Cowes to pay his call, half the 
Admiral's staff was lined up there to receive him as they came 
ashore at the castle steps. 

When the verbal backslapping from all quarters had sub- 
sided and he had completed the long report about it, Nigel 
and Prue went househunting. 

The sight of her, trim in her Wren's uniform "en roitelet" 
they called it was better than any words. Frenchifying their 
phrases was part of Willmott's reverence for the absurd. He 
was almost lavishly whimsical with words. The vein of don- 
nish humour ran rich and deep in him, and emerged in his 
long drawl, with only the glimmer of a smile. The glimmer was 
always faint but always there. It speckled even his official 


Even in their painful genesis as a unit, when a crack from 
his driving whip would set his officers seething and muttering 
bitterly, he could suddenly endear himself to Galwey or 
Hastings with a gay turn of phrase collegiate, lunatic, brilliant 
as any smile. 

Nigel and Prue didn't find a flat that afternoon. One at 
Southsea was very tempting and they lingered there, peopling 
it with an imagined life of their own. But it was an old story. 
They were all too dear. 

Soon after he got back from Normandy, Willmott travelled 
up to London to nose around Combined Ops and contact 
Scottie, who had kept in close touch with Intelligence at 21 
Army Group over plans for the next reconnaissances of the 
Normandy shoreline. 

Now that the LCNs had done their job in getting them 
over Calvados reef, he wrote a detailed screed for their lord- 
ships championing the use of X-craft for all the sorties that 
still lay ahead of them. Whije it was true that the midget 
submarines were slower, particularly manoeuvring under- 
water, and so more at the mercy of the tidal currents, their 
great value lay in enabling a thorough reconnaissance of each 
sector over as much as three or four days as well as a very 
educational view of German preparations through the peri- 

They seemed terribly vunerable little craft, claustrophobic, 
foul-smelling, but now they would come back into their own. 

He thought it all over as he sat up in bed in his parents* 
tome in Earl's Court. "- 

The next dark period would be upon them in a few days 
now, and behind it loomed the immensity of their task across 
that strip of Channel. Twenty-thousand yards more than 
eleven miles of those dark, swarming beaches lay there for 
them to clamber over, measure, sketch, sound and assess in the 
coming days for the armies that were to follow. 

His mother brought him in a tray. It was an undreamed-of- 
luxury a bacon and egg breakfast in bed. Down at Hayling, 
Stanbury of COPP 5 had taken over the running of the Depot 
for him. 

"What are you going to do this morning?" his mother 


"I shall hunt," he said, "for a wedding ring." 
And in seven days from now, he would go again to Nor- 

On a calm morning in mid- January, 1943, the midget 
submarine X2O slipped from her moorings and slid out to 
sea through the East Gate in the Portsmouth boom. For the 
next three days five men aboard her were to crouch squeezed 
in attitudes hideously deformed by the shape of the gear all 
about them, in a space little larger than a stair cupboard. The 
special navigational gear stowed aboard blocked their efforts 
to stretch out and get any real rest; conditions, Willmott was 
pleased to note in one of his whimsical reports, resembled 
those of a Chinese slum. The men aboard were Willmott, 
Major Scott Bowden, Sergeant Ogden Smith, and the two 
X-craft officers, Lieutenant Ken Hudspeth, a dark, cool 
Australian, and Sub-Lieutenant Bruce Enzer. Both the sub- 
mariners were impressive men. 

Hudspeth handled the craft with a cool dexterity born of 
much usage. There was about him an undeniable air of 
strength; he was quiet, a thinker. Enzer, his Number One, 
was a cheerful, nuggety fellow who sprang to his work with 
the zest of an athlete. 

Outside Spithead the trawler Darihema with two motor 
launch escorts was waiting to take them in tow. The tow had 
a telephone connection, and when they were linked it broke 
down. It took an hour of fiddling about to repair before a 
voice from the trawler came croacking through the headpiece , 
and they were ready to set off. 

They were towed submerged, to make good speed and 
deceive the watchful sky. They might arrive a little bleary from 
lack of air, but there would be no seasick men on this trip. 

At ten o'clock that night, forty miles from the French coast, 
they rose into a cool dark world, slipped their tow, flashed 
goodbye to the trawler turning about in the blackness nearby, 
and headed south through the mine barrier channel at their 
full surface speed of just over six knots. In a little over two 
hours they had cleared the mine barrier, but the officer on 
watch aloft on the casing was having a bad time of it. 


There was no protective bridge on the tiny submarine. 
The watch conned the craft, stood on its tiny, wave-washed 
casing with a leather belt lashing him to the slender air in- 
duction mast which rose from its narrow platform amidships. 
He gripped a handlebar on the induction pipe fervently in 
both hands, and with the sea pouring heavily over the casing, 
he was swept now and then on turbulent water like a paper 
streamer, his legs thrashing and bumping agonisingly against 
the rail around the periscope. They were running late, but 
they had to reduce speed in the face of the rising sea in 
order, so Lieutenant-Commander Willmott explained dryly in 
a later report, "for the naval officer on watch on the casing to 
be able to lift his head above the water for breathing purposes." 

They sighted the Pointe de Ver light spearing the horizon 
shortly before five in the morning, away to the east of their 
sector. Above them the overcast sky shredded away. The moon 
came through and shone silver on them. As if in answer to 
this, the shore light switched off. A couple of hours later they 
were in sight of land, a dark pencil line that was unyielding 
of any detail except for the slight skyline dent of Port en 
Bessin which they thought to perceive breaking its hostile 
and featureless length. 

Out of the dark sea a black shape loomed and made the 
watch flinch before it declared itself. They almost scraped 
it; an uncharted, cone-like black buoy. The sky was lightening. 
Dawn. It was drizzling and hazy. Since the visibility was poor 
they decided to risk travelling in on the surface with their 
breathing pipe discreetly lowered, so as to reach the area they 
aimed to scan Les Moulins beach without the slow and 
energy-expending business of having to dive into it. If they 
wanted to look it over by periscope, have a proper rest, and go 
ashore that night, there was no time for crawling the rest of the 
way underwater, on the batteries. 

By soon after eight, however, the haze thinned out into a 
brightening day and forced them to dive opposite the dim 
smudge of land that was Moulins. The little submarine crawled 
forward to bottom on the 4i-fathom contour line off the beach. 
They munched some food and then lolled back for a con- 
serving sleep. 

Early in the afternoon the watch stirred them and they got 


under way again, slithering gently closer in the shallowing 
water. Five hundred yards from the shore the midget rose 
cautiously and poked its slim periscope out of a flat-calm sea 
to view the life on the beach. 

There it was Moulins-St. Laurent a cluster of houses 
fringing the shore. Willmott took a good look through the 
periscope. "Houses deserted," he said. The upper storeys 
gaped emptily. The windows had been knocked out for firing 
positions. The lower windows were shuttered. It was a dead 
village. Obviously the civilians had been evacuated. The 
place was gaunt and skeletal with demolitions along the sea- 
front. Then he saw why, for behind beach and village the 
ground sloped up to a ridge commanding the whole sector. 
There were earthworks on the ridge, and it bristled with em- 
placements. The houses were being knocked down to complete 
their murderous field of fire. There was no cover anywhere 
along the shore from them not even where the grey shingle 
piled up against the sea wall, which rose to no more than about 
six feet at its highest; just enough to provide good anti-tank 
defence, and no real shelter for the attackers. 

As he scanned it he noted paths zigzagging painfully up the 
ridge. These confirmed what they had suspected from the 
air photographs they had studied so closely. The paths led 
to pump-houses at the top. No vehicle, no tank, would ever 
get up those slopes. Only infantry, maybe with pack mules. 
Willmott kept popping up the periscope and quickly sweeping 
the area to read out bearings and describe the sights he saw 
along them. Thus magnified, the life there reared horribly 
close as though it had only to reach out a malignant hand to 
pulp their tiny craft. This close in it seemed a miracle that they 
could not be seen. Willmott had to grope for a comforting 
memory of the exercises they had done like this. 

Scottie also took a look. 

The submarine slithered still closer in. The periscope 
showed them to be 400 yards off the back of the beach when a 
grinding made them jump, and they grabbed for a hold. The 
craft lurched; the protracted, tortured s-c-r-r-ape of iron 
sounded uncannily loud. 

"Bottom," Hudspeth observed. They had crossed a sandbar 
that lay uncharted below the datum line. At 380 yards they 


stopped, Willmott sighted along a fresh bearing and saw that 
the main exit to the beach was blocked with piles of stone 
and shingle probably from weapon pit excavations. Below 
the ridge he spotted a handful of engineers and civilians 
toiling around an earthworks. The slope and the land beyond 
the beach were bare of any kind of cattle. Mined, probably. 

It was then that the firing opened up. It pinged and chir- 
rupped into the water all around them. Columns of spray 
reared in a snowy thicket around them. 

"Down periscope!'* Willmott said hastily. 

They looked at each other. 

"They're firing at us!" 

"Sounds like 20 em-em shells!" 

But the firing had a strange pattern. They listened for it 
intently, aware suddenly of the noise of breathing and the 
thumping of pulses. Through the hull came the sound again 
that strange pinging, some of it a long way off, but one or 
two startlingly close. 

"They wouldn't see our wash tidal stream's not strong 

Could they have been seen from up on the ridge? In this 
sand-churned water, with their camouflage? No, he decided; 
surely it was not high enough to spot their outline, with the 
hull eight feet under water. 

What about their periscope? They had only raised it six 
inches a foot at the most above the water, for a minute at 
a time. . . . 

"We'll soon know," Willmott said. "If they whistle up the 
Luftwaffe, or their E-boats " 

The firing went on, hazily now. 

Slowly they began to retreat before it, slithering back 
away, over the sandbar with a hideous grinding of keel, into 
deepening water. 

For ten minutes after they had lowered their periscope, 
small-calibre shots stung the water around them. Then the 
firing died away. When they ventured a peep through their top 
lens, the sky was empty of aircraft, and darkening now. The 
worsening visibility raised another problem. Should they 
retreat to sea and come in later to release their swimmers 
in which case they might miss their landmarks? Or stay bot- 


tomed opposite Les Moulins beach till it was completely dark 
and risk the vengeance of the Asdic surface craft that might 
turn up any minute and start hunting for them? 

Willmott decided to stay. 

It took the swimmers, Scott-Bowden and the prankish 
Ogden Smith, two hours of struggling and grunting and bump- 
ing into instruments in their confined space to get into their 
suits. Finally, they climbed out on to the casing, festooned with 
all the gear they needed for the beach: beach gradient reel and 
stake, .45 automatic, trowel, auger, torch, bandolier, shingle bag, 
emergency rations, brandy flask, sounding lead, underwater 
writing tablet, Chinagraph pencils, compass, watch. 

They crouched on the casing as the submarine moved 
quietly inshore and stared ahead till they had developed their 
night acuity and could see the coast silhouette with its familiar 
marks, very close. Willmott plied a long sounding pole, probing 
the depth. At nine feet he shipped it and touched them on the 

They slipped overboard. 

To allow for the westerly set he had released them almost 
half a mile east of the intended landing point a line of groynes 
running out like ribs to low water from the Moulins seawall. 
But the set proved weaker than they calculated, and it did not 
sweep them all the way to their objective. Their feet touched 

They crawled into the shallows to face, almost immedia- 
tely, the sudden glare of a torch which flickered on from the 
wall at the top of the beach. It shone out directly at them. 
Flat on their bellies at the water's edge, they froze. Suddenly 
another torch joined it. It was uncannily quiet. The sea lapped 
the sand gently, without surf. Any movement they made 
under this intent yellow stare from the wall might transform 
the Germans' suspicion into certainty and start the hell breaking 

After five minutes of this stillness, they began backing 
slowly into the sea, edging west till they were almost in front 
of the ribbed line of groynes, piled with sand, that sloped 
down to the water. The sea was so calm that they could pick 
up samples of sand underwater without trouble in their augers. 
But here, as they crawled up the beach to stake their sounding 


lines, they were at a worse disadvantage with the sentries. 
Usually they could count on seeing the Germans first. Visibi- 
lity along the beach itself was good; but as they stared up 
beyond the beach its background of dark ridge blotted out 
detail; they could not see much further than twenty yards, 
whereas they themselves were outlined to any watcher against 
sand and calm water. 

Hullo. Footprints on the beach. Ogden Smith found them, 
leading away at an angle towards the back of the beach. He 
noted them and was about to wriggle back when he felt rather 
than heard the soft thud of boots on sand. He reached quietly 
over and tapped the Major. 

There were two sentries and they came tramping across the 
beach. They came abreast of them; crouched close together, 
the sappers had just made out the two forms against the sullen 
background of the ridge when a boot struck something solid. 
There was a curse and one of the dim shapes went down with a 
danking of metal. At the same time Ogden Smith was aghast 
to feel the line in his hand tighten and go suddenly slack. 

While the other sentry halted the fallen man picked him- 
self up, muttering. He looked about him, grunted, brushed 
himself, hitched on his rifle and gas-mask cylinder, and they 
moved off. 

The two swimmers breathed again. The German had 
stumbled over Ogden Smith's steel sounding stake. They lay 
quiet for a while. One good thing with sentries traipsing 
about, and those other footprints, the beach was obviously not 
mined. As they dug their augers in they felt good, hard- 
compacted sand. It promised, from the feel of it, to carry any- 
thing up to the heaviest armour they could land. 

But it was not a beach to linger on in this pallid, treacherous 
stillness. They slithered back over runnels in which shallow 
sheets of water lay, left by the receding tide. Scott-Bowden 
felt the bottom and dug a sample. Even here the sand was 

Offshore, Willmott was scanning a sky which now threatened 
rain. Because of it they had decided to stay surfaced and to 
anchor for fear of losing their bearings. 

Once more he peered at the luminous dial of his watch. 
Twenty-past-nine. It was then that he spotted the dim torch 


flashes from the shore. His voice came crackling down the 
sound-powered telephone from the casing and he moved to 
haul up the anchor. 

It would not budge. He tugged again. It was stuck fast, 
probably in mud. He began heaving desperately at the cable 
and sweating. He didn't want his swimmers to be too long in 
this marrow-chilling water; by now they would be swimming 
out to the alternative recovery position. 

Hudspeth's dark bulk rose out of the hatch forward and 
joined him on the casing. He wrapped his hands quietly over 
the cable next to Willmott's and together they pulled. 

No good. 

It was terribly tempting to cut the cable; he wanted his 
sappers fit for the following night's sorties. But equally he 
would need the anchor. 

"All right," Hudspeth said calmly, "We'll steam her out," 

That took time and fuss, but finally the anchor dragged 
clear and came up thick and dripping slime. They moved 
quietly in towards the now plaintive torch signals, flashing 
dimly to port. 

Major Scott-Bowden and his sergeant were numbed and 
blowing pretty hard by the time the midget submarine reached 
them. They grabbed at the helping hands. Weighted down as 
they were, it was no night for the six-hundred-yard swim they 
had done and they flopped painfully across the casing like 
seals, gasping and getting up enough breath to crawl on down 

Ashore a couple of lights flickered where somebody opened 
doors and showed a chink in the blackout. 

They withdrew a little offshore to charge the batteries 
not far, for the slight offshore wind which had risen helped 
to blanket the noise of their charging, and it was simpler, for 
the work that lay ahead, to hug the dim, monotonous coast as 
closely as was safe. They took turns on watch, standing ready 
to cut the anchor cable in case of alarm, while the others 
below stripped their gear, and checked it, oiled and greased 
their guns, wrote up their recce notes, and concocted a kind 
of hot meal from tins emptied into their little gluepot stove. 

Then they bottomed and slept. 

Just before dawn they poked up the induction mast and 


ventilated the tiny submarine with a guff of air sucked down 
by the engines. It was the last fresh air laden with the stink 
of their diesels that they would get for ten hours. In a craft 
as small as this, the atmosphere inside the cramped hull would 
be really foul by nightfall particularly as they were going to 
exert themselves during the afternoon, doing another peri- 
scope reconnaissance of the shore. 

The beach immediately neighbouring, Colleville, now came 
under their careful scrutiny. They had to do a lot of manoeuvr- 
ing and trimming underwater and the X-craft scraped across 
another inshore sandbar before they reached the position 
fixed from which to scan and map the sector. With memories 
of the previous day's firing still puzzling them they were 
cautious with the periscope. 

The rest was routine- There was the same frowning ridge 
dotted with emplacements, the same wreckage of demolished 
houses, a bucket excavator leading up to an earthworks on the 
slope where soldiers and civilians toiled. The beginnings of 
concrete defences barred the exit to this lonelier-looking 
beach, empty of protective wire behind its barren length. 
There were no mine warning notices to be seen. In less than 
two hours Willmott had sketched it all, and they withdrew. 

By now the Coppists cramped in the smelly control room 
were beginning to feel groggy. Their heads ached violently 
from the combined lack of oxygen and the poisoning effect of 
air thick with carbon dioxide; one or two were doubled over 
with stomach pain. Concentration was a matter of savage will. 
Now that they felt these warnings, they knew it was the time 
to marshal thought and action with infinite care* Their work 
was only half over. In thirty minutes leaden minutes, waiting 
for yearned-for-relief, they came awash at last a mile and a 
half from the shore. It was night, clean-washed, full of sharply 
pristine smells of earth and sea. Hudspeth opened the hatch 
and a great cold gust of it rushed through. 

Its immediate effect was to make some of them sick. Major 
Scott-Bowden was vomiting. It was the impact of the fresh 
air after so long without it. He was already in his suit and he 
looked terrible. 

At about nine they came silently in to within a bare three 
hundred yards of the shore. Once out on the casing, and with the 


job ahead of them, both the swimmers perked up a little. They 
slipped in and were away. Night visibility was too good to 
allow the submarine to stay where it was, nosing cheekily at 
the shoreline. It slid out in calm water to stand off and wait 
for as long as moonrise to recover the shore party. . 

Scott-Bowden and Ogden Smith had come up out of the sea 
and had almost wriggled to the back of the beach when they 
heard voices. The sounds came from their left, where the 
dim shape of a bucket excavator reared, its cables looping 
upward to the ridge. They were French voices. 

Then the bombing started. The distant crumps shook the 
earth against their cheeks and lit the sky behind the ridge 
so that the grass waving gently on the bank above them stood 
out in sharp silhouette. The planes were probably bombing 
Caen. For a moment, as each glow stabbed the sky, the objects 
around stood out, suddenly solid, casting shadows. 

Before them sloped shingle great round lozenges like small 
boulders. They made an awful racket clambering over 
them, and they stopped as the voices came from their left 

Major Scott-Bowden checked Ogden Smith who was scrap- 
ing noisily over rock. His touch said, ihafs enough; this is as 
-far as we can go. The Major grabbed a rock sample and shoved 
it in his bag and back they wriggled towards the sea. 

The bombing was still going on sporadically. The beach 
trembled like a live thing under cheek and hands. 

Then Ogden Smith looked back and caught his breath. The 
beach and sea, paling for a split instant in the sky-reflected 
glow of the inland bombardment, faintly but unmistakably 
etched the slender hull and mast of the X-craft as she lay 
some distance off, stem-on to the tidal stream. The vision 
flitted across their sight, as brief but as positive as a whip- 
crack. Then it was gone. 

All around him, the beach lay silent except for the quiet 
soughing of breeze upon the ear. Its January breath was 
terribly chill. They lost no time getting back, squirming over 
undulating runnels and digging up samples as they went. They 
flinched now as each fresh illumination fretted the sky so that 
the ridge commanding the coast stood out stark and menacing, 
with all below it hidden in its deep protective shadow. They 



reached the water and flashed the submarine. If they expected 
the recovery to be a simple affair of a few minutes tonight, they 
were mistaken, It was a matter of half an hour's swimming in 
a winter sea, of flashing out from an alternative position with a 
sinking heart, and of then turning despairingly to make back 
for their original point, fearful that they might have swum 
out beyond the submarine. They had just turned back to 
do this when the X-craft appeared. 

By this time Scottie was done in. His sample bag of rock 
slipped from his hand as he climbed aboard; it plopped in the 
sea and vanished. He cursed wearily. 

Down in the control room they restored themselves with 
sips from their brandy flasks, and the Major recovered enough 
stamina to begin mourning in round Elizabethan terms the 
loss of the precious rock samples. He could have kicked him- 
self; he added darkly that Intelligence probably would. 

Sergeant Ogden Smith let him carry on and enjoy the full 
measure of his grief. Then he fished into one of the inner 
zip compartments of his suit and brought something up into 
the light. 

"This what you're looking for, sir?" he inquired innocently. 

It was a piece of Colleville rock. 

"By the way/' Lieutenant Hudspeth said, "I guess we can 
conclude there are no underwater obstacles, either. I mean, 
we haven't hit any, have we? And we must have quartered 
every inch off Colleville and Moulins." 

He grinned round at the others. He was a good sort. He 
had lent himself and his cool skill willingly to a lot of dangerous 
messing about in shallow water, as vulnerable to both sky 
and shore as he could ever imagine being. 

It was the following afternoon. They were off Vierville, 
the next beach in their sector, scanning its strip of yellow 
sand with the sea wrack piled up against its wall. Willmott 
was searching in vain to spot and fix a patch of outcrop he 
had memorised from the air photographs. 

"Any girls going in for a swim, sir?" someone said hopefully. 

"No-o," Willmott murmured. Then sharply, "Hullo!" 


The water around them was stiff with cascades of spray. 

Again they all heard it through the hull, a staccato pinging, 
as though a row of wine glasses were being flicked by hasty, 
nervous fingers. 

He brought the periscope down and they just lay there, 
listening. Once again the pattern of fire was all around them, 
and then it slowly shifted. In this strained silence, listening, 
there were only two sounds: the restless pinging of shot, 
and the drip of water all around them, suddenly loud the 
familiar, eternal submarine wetness, welling from the dewed 
walls and sounding like a chorus of leaky taps. 

"That familiar Boer war sound," Willmott quoted delibera- 
tely. "The whipcrack of Mauser bullets." 

It broke the tension. 

"That's not shells. That's small arms. Rifles." 

"Do they mean us?" 

It was a weird feeling, knowing their periscope had been a 
target yet not knowing if the Germans recognised it for what 
it really was. They might have, and might be stupidly letting 
fly with small arms till something heavier arrived. The way 
the fall of shot wavered was reassuring. Either they were 
rotten shots, or they had transferred their attention to some 
new target in the water. 

"If they spotted our stick, they're keen." 

Again it was an uneasy wait for the bombers or the E-boat 
hunting that might ensue. It was late in the afternoon. Merci- 
fully there was only another hour to dusk. They had been 
down eleven hours without fresh air and the benzedrine tablets 
they had been taking were no longer enough to ward off the 
onset of exhaustion. This was their third day, still tense and 
strained, sidling up and down along the invasion beaches, 
with little sleep, and it had taken most of the stuffing out of 
them. They didn't want to start making mistakes. 

In trials with the X-craft they had found it essential to 
devote at least one night in three to recuperating. The lesson 
of those trials stared Willmott in the face now, daring him to 
defy it. 

The weather was deteriorating, too. The barometer was 
falling^ and it looked as if they were in for a blow. If in the 
teeth of it he sent his tired swimmers out tonight, they might 


fall into errors which could cost them all their lives and scupper 
the invasion plan. 

A good look round at his weary crew gave Willmott his 
answer. With so much at stake, he dared not risk staying 

He gave the X-craft Commander his course. 

"Steer three-four-eight degrees," said Hudspeth abruptly. 

Towards seven in the evening they surfaced. The wind was 
rising. They sought the gap in the minefield and steered due 
north through it. It was rough and drenching out on the 
casing, but not half so rough as it promised to be. Behind them 
flashed the lights of Pointe de Ver and La Heve. They had 
better keep a sharp lookout for Hun convoy escorts. 

By midnight the westerly swell was whacking them heavily 
abeam. It whooshed over the casing and clouted the officer 
clinging to the ventilating mast sometimes wresting his grip 
from the handlebars as they rolled wildly with it, so that time 
and again only his lashing saved him from being swept over- 
board. He clung like a drowning beetle to the swaying mast, 
braced against the lazy might of the Channel swell which rose, 
struck, smothered the deck with its great foaming blows and 
skittled him just as it willed. 

In another couple of hours of this they had cleared the lee 
of the French coast and met the full weather. It rolled the 
little craft so fiercely that they were forced to slacken speed. 
Below, a mild epidemic of seasickness had broken out. They 
had to stop to relieve decks a wretched and hazardous 
business which greeted the new watch with great gouts of 
water over the forehatch as he opened it, heaved his body up 
and out, and began the task of crawling for the relative safety 
of the grip on the mast. 

It was a long and frightening night. Daylight came at last 
and shone like a rescuing angel on the helpless log-shape 
of the midget, sea-tossed, sluggish, with the miserable human 
speck clinging to its mast. 

As the light spread they removed the watch from his wretched 
vigil and ploughed on through weather, still getting steadily 
worse, with just a periscope lookout. 

Since this operation, unsung till now, its salient details 
dredged from a morass of sailorly technicalities and sailorly 


reserve, represented in proud fact the climax of the long, 
rugged crusade of one man to be allowed to risk his own and 
others' lives in paving the way for the invasion, it might be 
signed off in Lieutenant-Commander Nigel Willmott's own 
light-hearted naval prose, taken from his report: 

1230/21: St. Katherine's Head fine on port bow as hoped 
for. Rendezvoused with Darthema and Motor 
Launches. Telephones flooded out and communi- 
cation with helmsmen and controls and casing 
officer (now restored to his perch) was sporadic 
and exciting. 

Escorted under own power to berth at Fort Blockhouse at 

The first scouts for the invasion of Europe were safely back 
with their story. 


"AND I AM NOT THERE. . . ." 

HE phoned Prue. That was the first thing. 

Then the storm of congratulations broke around Willmott. 
A pile of messages awaited them. There was a Well Done from 
Admiral Vian, Naval Commander of Force J; a sheaf of back- 
pats from the Chiefs of Staff; one from the Naval Commander 
of the Expeditionary Force; another from Commander-in- 
Chief, Portsmouth; more from a host of interested senior 
naval officers. 

Beach reconnaissance, the scheme once viewed with such 
distaste as too harebrained to spare a serious thought, was 
suddenly basking blushfully in honours. 

It had been a long and stormy course to this kind of vindi- 
cation; three years' struggling, and it had exhausted him. 
He spent a day in the Staff Office of Fort Blockhouse on the 
scrambled phone, calling up the headquarters concerned and 
feeding them verbally in advance of the beach reports. 

"Any trouble?" 21 Army Group Intelligence asked. 

"Not really. The blacks were a bit restive. The places seem 
suitable generally. Scottie's on his way with the samples/' 

At the other end of the line the Intelligence Officer's voice 
hesitated, signing off. 

"Ah bloody good show!" the voice said shyly, and hung 

Four days later Willmott was up at 21 Army Group. By 
this time the scientists had examined Scottie's samples and 
assembled the jigsaw details of their reports into a broad and 
comforting pattern of beaches whose natural conformations, 
at least, offered a relatively hospitable welcome to the assault 
craft. The sand was hard enough. The offshore gradients 
were suitable at the right tide level. These basic worries being 
settled, they could now concentrate on conquering the German 

The topographical experts had built up big sand-tray models 


"AND i AM NOT THERE. . . .** 199 

of the knding beaches. The Intelligence officers and Force 
staffies crowded around them, listening intently while Willmott 
and Scottie talked and pointed out the salient natural hazards. 
It was odd to see again in such form the beaches from which he 
had just returned. There they were, suddenly dwindled to 
Lilliputian size; not immaculate in their detail, perhaps, but 
closely enough related to his own image of the beaches that 
he had almost to shake his head, blink, re-focus his eyes. 
Pouring over them like this gave one an omniscience far removed 
from the feeling they had known sliding close inshore, so 
fragile and terribly vulnerable under those frowning ridges 
with their camouflaged heavy guns and the patches of red 
spoil around which German engineers toiled on fresh earth- 

The tall young Brigadier Williams listened carefully. He 
was pleased. The beaches had been chosen after all as typical, 
and they had proved good for the assault. But the shore vigi- 
lance was keen and die strange story of the firing was dis- 
turbing. He said at last, "Bit of luck, there. I don't think we 
ought to press it. We got away without compromising the 
show by the look of it. Broadly, now, we know most of what 
we want to know." 

He thought and tapped the table with his fingertips. At 
kst he lifted his head and said, "So I'm against any repeat 
dose. As far as my own recommendations go to General 
Montgomery, anyway." 

So that was that. It was over, the strange solitary war 
Willmott had waged, whose driving intensity at times had 
brought even his most loyal wingers dangerously close to 

It was over at least in the sense that it could be carried 
on without him now, if need be. He could afford at last to get 
himself patched up. He had been ill for a year now, and he 
knew he could not carry on much longer. 

The P.M.O. at Dolphin looked him over. After his examina- 
tion he said brusquely, "First take some leave. If the pains 
don't clear up, come and see me again. We shall take a look 
inside you." 

A few days later Willmott handed over the leadership of 
COPP i to Lieutenant-Commander Paul Clark, R.N. He kept 


on his staff job with Vian's Force J for the Normandy assault. 

But by March his failing health forced him to hand that 
over, too. 

At last he took a long leave. He and Prue were married a 
week later on March 27th, 1944. Their wedding was in London 
at Holy Trinity, Brompton Road, and the COPP depot flocked 
up in force from Hayling Island to ffete them. Unknown to 
their officers, the Depot lads had been busy in their spare 
hours making a special set of ropes for the wedding. When 
Nigel and Prue emerged from the church in the thin early 
spring sunlight and came on under the avenue of crossed 
swords, the sailors shackled the ropes onto their bridal car- 
riage an old taxi and with a bunch of Courtney's Com- 
mandos lending a hand, bore them with hilarious ceremony 
up Knightsbridge to the hotel reception. 

Photographers flocking in the wake of the wedding took all 
the usual poses at the door, at the gate, getting into the 
car and missed the one picture which made this wedding 

For it was a combined operation the first time both sailors 
and soldiers had combined to pull the carriage of a service 
bridal pair. 

There is always a lot of silverware at weddings. But the 
gift Willmott treasures most is a silver-plated Commando 
fighting knife in its sheath. 

It came from Roger Courtney. The inscription said whimsi- 
cally, Island of Roses, 

Meanwhile, preparations were rolling massively on for 
D-Day itself. All around them they could feel the mighty 
pulse of its machinery, its tempo steadily quickening. 

The plan for "Overlord" was that four COPP teams would be 
out in front of the immense D-Day armada, guiding the 
assault waves safely in to the chosen beaches. Some would scout 
ahead of the whole force in midget submarines, find their 
beach, and lie quietly there till the appointed hour came 
to surface. They would hoist a beacon which, flashing to 
seaward, would guide in the first waves of tank landing craft 

"AND i AM NOT THERE. . . ." 201 

from out of the darkness offshore where it teemed with the 
hosts of invading ships. In naval jargon, they would "mark 1 * 
the beaches at the edges of the British sectors. 

Other Coppists aboard navigational MLs would pilot their 
waves right into the beaches either by steering for the 
"markers' " signals or, in sectors where there were no markers, 
by piloting them straight to the enemy shore. 

Space and availability of X-craft had robbed Geoff Galwey, 
one of Willmott's right-handers, of a seat in the last mission 
to France. He was determined not to be left out of the next 
one. As Maintenance Officer of COPP i, however, it was 
primarily his job to equip the X-craft allotted them for the 
job. The idea was that, having done this, it would then thank- 
lessly sail and leave him behind. But Galwey was working on a 
private scheme for D-Day. In the meantime, he had the 
headache of working out a faultless marking technique for 
midget submarines. They would have to be more discreet off- 
shore in the hours preceding the opening salvoes of the in- 
vasion than ever. It would be midsummer. The hours of day- 
light would be long. And if a sight of them gave the defences 
only a few hours' warning, it could be disastrous. 

It was perhaps for this reason that the Americans refused 
the British offer of COPP markers for their sectors the 
beach areas labelled in the offensive plans at SHAEF as 
"Omaha" and "Utah". They stood firm on their refusal in 
spite of the mission which had taken Nick Hastings to the 
States to show off the advantages of "Copping" to Service 
chiefs there. The American Force Commanders of "Overlord" 
would only accept the British offer of pilots but not the human 
inshore markers. They feared a last-minute give-away. 

It was rather ironic. For the sector which Willmott had 
reconnoitred most thoroughly of all by midget submarine 
and swimmers was the Vierville-St. Laurent area, other- 
wise coded as "Omaha". The Allied strategic plan had 
allotted this, not to a British command, but to the American- 
commanded Naval Force "O" conveying the U.S. Fifth 
Corps w ho thus had the benefit of detailed data on landing 
conditions as well as an intimate, close-up account of the 
shore defences. 


It took Galwey and his fellow-Coppists all the spring of 
1944 to fit out the midget subs for their D-Day role. 

They devised a lot of the special gear they needed for this 
themselves. Of all their devices their greatest pride was the 
"Bong Stick", a primitive but brilliantly effective navigational 
aid listed more staidly as Rod Sounding Gear. 

It was a simple iron rod. You lowered it into the water, 
hit it with a hammer, and the noise could be picked up on 
sound detectors as far as twelve miles away. Luckily the first 
time they had put this simple idea to trial, they hit on exactly 
the right length of rod. They had also found the fishes' wave- 
length, for it attracted a school of sharks. Operated from a 
canoe, mufHed in water, the Bong Stick's sound waves gave 
the waiting, listening submarine the direction in which to 
head for its rendezvous with the signalling paddlers. It 
was much simpler and less liable to error than infra-red 

The greatest problem remained the simple one of breathing. 
To allow for any last-minute change of the D-Day plan, and 
to have a good look at the coast, the X-craft marking the 
assault were to proceed to France and lay off-shore for at least 
a whole day before the landings. To do this undetected 
meant remaining submerged for upwards of seventeen 
hours of midsummer daylight. Every minute over ten 
hours spent submerged in a midget submarine was horrible 
enough; it would be worse with one man over the normal 

A certain mercury medicament designed for curing the 
ills of the lusty and the careless proved to be the best 
grease-proofing for the little telescopic masts they set up on 
dinghies and submarines on which to hang their marking 
signals* Even when the masts were stowed in the bilges 
the mercury ointment clung with tenacious protectiveness 
to the mast joints. Finally, there was the problem of wire- 
less. This was not solved until a couple of weeks before 
The Day. 

In case D-Day were postponed at the last moment, arrange- 
ments had been made for the BBC to warn those waiting 
at their distant posts by a code message. It would be among 
those given out by the announcer after the news. 

AND I AM NOT THERE. . . . 203 

The tiny X-craft were not equipped with any kind of radio. 
They tried out a number of different sets, all of which proved 
unreliable. Finally, Xzo's First Lieutenant, Bruce Enzer, 
returned from a motor-bike trip to Lyme Bay, which was 
reckoned to be an equivalent distance to the Normandy coast 
from the BBC transmitters. He unstrapped their latest radio, 
beaming. "This one works," he announced. 

Nigel Willmott returned from his honeymoon, but the leave 
had given him no ease from the pains that had troubled him for 
more than a year. The P.M.O. fulfilled his threat and packed 
him off to hospital. 

Having possessed a guerilla ulcer since the mid-thirties had 
never reconciled Willmott to the diet this involved when it 
emerged on the rampage. 

"Milk!" he said to Nick Hastings when he visited him, 
"You've no idea what it tastes like after a fortnight! Just like 
sand! Literally!" Otherwise he did not complain; he was built 
in the stoic tradition. And he had made it easy for his ulcer to 
start something. 

Still, it was a wistful man who was let out of convalescent 
leave from hospital and who came down to Sussex with Prue 
to spend it at her mother's cottage. 

The air was rich and sweet with summer, its scents flurrying 
on a turbulent wind which quivered in the hedges and flattened 
the grass under the milky sky. It was early June. There was a 
sound, too, which slowly rose out of nothing on that wind as 
he walked across the fields with Prue, It brought him to a halt. 
It was a buzzing, ragged and breeze-whipped, that grew slowly 
into a great throbbing and expanded its sound from horizon 
to horizon. Now the whole world was filled with it. And 
through drifts of cloud he caught an occasional glimpse of a 
formation, or parts of it, shapes that flitted and vanished 

He listened, head alert, measuring the immense volume 
and depth of the sound. Prue was looking at him, stopped 
stock still there, thinking, anxious, his mind busy on wind 
and tide and likely sea. It would be within this week, any- 
way. He knew that already. At last he nodded. "I think this 
is it," he said. 

They walked on, and he stopped every now and then as if 


a message would come from the sky to tell him more. But 
there was no more that the sky could say. 


He did not say the other thing. 

And I am not there. 

On the evening of June 2nd two midget submarines slipped 
out of the East Gate in Portsmouth boom and steamed to 
their rendezvous with the waiting trawlers and ML escorts. 
Darkness closed around them before they reached their 
meeting-place east of Spithead. The sea was moderate 
that is, rough for the X-craft on surface and they both 
had trouble passing the tow in an awkward swell which had 
them fussing about and losing time for the best part of an 

The interiors of the midgets bristled with signalling gear and 
strange aids to marking. Right away, the phone connected to 
the towing trawlers broke down; and so, instead of diving for 
a comfortable tow under the restless Channel surface, both 
submarines stayed up top to remain in visual touch. Some of 
those on board swallowed hyocin tablets against seasickness. 
They were in for at least three uncomfortable days; it would 
not do to start them off as casualties. 

It was an uncomfortable night, but they made better time 
on the surface in spite of the sea. Just before first light the 
trawlers began bleating with shaded lights. The men on the 
wave-washed submarines' casings slipped the tows. The 
trawlers and escorts turned about. 

"G-o-o-d L-u-c-k," The messages flickered discreetly across 
the swell. Then the shadows were gone. 

The submarines kept company till dawn. As it spread its 
first bleak light they dived and headed south. For the whole of 
that Saturday they travelled submerged at the snail's pace 
of two knots. -23 paused only a couple of times to venture 
cautiously awash for a guff of air through the induction mast. 
It was a risky business. First, her tiny, trembling shadow 
showed, rising, growing blacker and clearer till the waves 
creamed over her hull. They had to keep a very careful trim 

"AND i AM NOT THERE. . . ." 205 

and depth, as well as an alert periscope eye on the surround- 
ing sea, while the induction mast went up into the air and 
the engine was run to draw a draught of air through the boat. 
Now and then a wave would hit the induction mouth and 
come splashing harmlessly down through the pipe into the 
bilges. The First Lieutenant and the E.R.A. kept hawk eyes 
on the depth-gauges; if they dropped, the induction pipe would 
drown, and almost immediately the engines, gasping now, 
would suck the air they breathed inboard and create a dangerous 
vacuum. She managed it without mishap and they completed 
the first day's travelling without resorting to their oxygen 
bottles. At meal times the E.R.A. passed around thick chunks 
of bread smeared with jam; it was all rather like a dormitory 
spread with them hunched around grinning and yarning, 
finishing off on chocolate biscuits and sweets. Somewhere near 
them the other X-craft was sliding on a parallel course in 
silent company. 

It was eleven o'clock that evening before either craft sur- 
faced to proceed on engines through the minefield which 
hemmed die coast of Normandy. Its web stretched vast and 
unseen across the Bay of the Seine, and through it the in- 
vasion fleet would stream in channels swept by outriding 
minesweepers. The X-craft counted on their shallow draught 
to slip safely over it; the feeling was akin to sliding over thin 
ice. The long run underwater had taken toll of the batteries 
and to replenish them both commanders put on a running 
charge. It nearly halved their speeds and would leave little 
time in hand against any emergency. 

But as sea and sky slowly lightened on their second day, 
there was the French coast. It lay across the horizon in a 
wide featureless smudge to port, dwindling away east across 
their bow. 

X23 dived and came in cautiously on its periscope till the 
COPP 9 Commander, Geoffrey "Thin Red" Lyne, could 
pick up the little villages west of the Orne River mouth the 
only positive coastal feature in this wide desolation of tidal 
flat and dune. 

There was Ouistreham Light. There, away to the west, 
was the village of St. Aubin. There was the spire of Langrune 
church. When they had run in, Lyne took cross-bearings on a 


half-dozen close landmarks to make completely certain of their 
position. Then he relaxed. His dead reckoning had brought 
them spot-on to their sector west of the River Orne. Here 
the left flank of the British assault would pour its armour and 
troops ashore for the drive on Caen; this was Sword Sector, 
a cheerless ruler-line whose coastal road ran in a straight 
ribbon through a duster of small villages from Luc to the 
wide river mouth. 

Five miles to the west of them the other midget submarine, 
Xso, was questing inshore. It had fixed almost immediately 
on a lighthouse and on the village landmarks of Courseulles. 
Paul Clark, the new leader of COPP i and a brilliant navi- 
gator, had also brought his craft dead opposite their allotted 
beach the same beach that Major Scott-Bowden and Sergeant 
Ogden Smith had swum last New Year's Eve from landing 
craft in a one-night dash across the Channel. 

Now Clark looked out upon a strange peacefulness. It was 
Sunday. He was taking bearings on a church whose bell 
would be tolling for early Mass. Within twenty-four hours, 
if weather did not deter the vast fleet now massing along the 
English south coast from all over Britain, this calm shore-line 
would erupt along its whole length under the torrent of shells 
and bombs which would announce the opening of the Second 
Front. It was unreal. The sea was in a gentle mood. A few 
fleeces of cloud floated in blue sky. It looked set fair for the 
invasion on the morrow. 

The beach was dotted with figures. Soldiers. Sunning them- 
selves, and watching. A lot of the beach, then, was not mined. 
Clark gave the order to dive and their tiny craft bottomed. 
There was nothing to do but wait, sleep, play cards and liar 
dice, and come awash after dark to hoist their whip aerial and 
tune in to the BBC for their message. 

It was odd to be sitting alone on the bottom under the 
enemy guns playing cards and waiting for the word which 
would tell them on which dawn to hoist their lamps and start 
blinking their welcome to the fleet. 

They had all been trained to take over the steering, operate 
the hydroplanes, work the electric motors, to relieve each 
other and take it in turn to stretch out on the slats over the 
batteries. Only Hudspeth would not leave his perch in the tiny 

"AND i AM NOT THERE. . . /* 207 

control room. He would doze there. He was awake now, and 
Robin Harbud winced as Hudspeth drew breath and started: 

"Tight as a drum, never been done, 
Queen of all the fairies . . ." 

That was all. He trailed off. There was a brief silence. That's 
as far as it would ever go. Then Hudspeth would draw breath 
again, and start with fresh gusto: "Tight as a drum, never been 
done. Ta-dee-ah-dee-ah-dee " 

"Lunch up, sir," said the E.R.A. hastily and passed him 
a chunk of bread-and-jam. They had all taken Hudspeth 
patiently through the words, but no amount of coaching had 
ever got him past the second line. 

They heard the pinging then, and at first thought it was 
fish. Clark decided to have a look. They came gently up to 
periscope depth and peered at the beach. Harbud squinted 
at the German soldiers ashore, windowed in the periscope, 
and remembered Willmott's experience with noise like this. 

"They're having some sort of firing practice." 

From then on it was a slow leaden wait for nightfall. In 
all, they would be submerged for seventeen or more hours 
before they could come up for air. Their oxygen bottles were 
at work and these, with the protosorb pads behind the fans, 
kept the air tolerable for most of the first day. Both at six 
o'clock and at nine that evening they tuned in the radio to 
the BBC news, but the set crackled in loud protest at this 
unfair demand on its performance underwater and the crop 
of messages which came after the news was totally indecipher- 
able for static. 

They came awash in darkness soon after eleven and there 
was the Ver Lighthouse flashing obligingly away to confirm 
their fix. The fresh air was giddying. They took it in twos 
to get a breath of air out on the casing while another fussed 
over the little stove in the Wet and Dry, cooking their first 
hot meal soup and some M, and V. The stove smell started 
a horrible reeking through the submarine worse than the 
foul air they had been breathing. It was hardly worth it for 
something warm. 

Midnight came. With the aerial hoisted up the BBC 
news came through quite clearly. After the news the announcer 


started on his crop of messages. At last he came to theirs. 

"For Padfoot. Unwell in Scarborough." 

They stared around at each other. Its meaning was hard to 

The invasion had been postponed for twenty-four hours. 

The day had been a lovely one. Nor did it seem likely, 
from the weather portents around them, that tomorrow would 
be any worse. But of course, their hoping had a lot to do with 
it, and anyway the outlook from the other side of the Channel 
a hundred miles north might be a lot different. 

But Robin Harbud was particularly disappointed. With the 
postponment of "Overlord", the alternative plan for the follow- 
ing day cancelled the somewhat spectacular role reserved for 
him. He was to have been put out in a dinghy on the other side 
of the bay; from it he would hoist a mast with a light on top, and 
do a single-handed job of beckoning in the first waves to land 
for the assault on Bernieres. With the improving light and the 
change in the H-hour, the submarine would now have no time 
to move back across the bay to take up its own position. 

The dawn came and mocked them with its serenity. This was 
to have been D-Day. The light broke upon a smooth sea. There 
was a gentle breeze. Whatever the Allied forecasters had tipped, 
today would have been ideal for the landings here. 

X2O checked her fix with great care, dropped anchor, and 
dived for the long uneasy wait. Submerging on their anchor 
was fine to ensure they did not drift from the precise mark 
onto which the central weight of the British assault was to be 
guided; but, once submerged, they were powerless to move 
until nightfall, for there was no means of hauling in the anchor 
except by surfacing, opening the lid, and getting out to pull it 
up. And if any emergency forced them awash under the nose 
of the Germans, they were as good as lost. 

By the end of the second day, after another stretch of more 
than seventeen hours sitting corked like pickles in a bottle on 
the ocean floor, both midget submarine crews were feeling pretty 


The worst moment came when they actually surfaced in the 

"AND i AM NOT THERE. . . ." 209 

cool summer darkness. The sweet alien purity which flooded 
past them as they climbed out onto the casing was as stunning 
as a blow from a sledgehammer. They stumbled blearily up into 
the worst hangover in the world. It enveloped them, and the 
pain rolled its weight wherever they turned their splitting heads. 
Coming up oxygen-starved into the clean air always brought 
nausea and headaches. They groped gingerly about their duties 
and waited for the aching to lift. Even the light flashing round 
upon them from the ever-busy Pointe de Ver lighthouse was 
hurtful to the eye, and sinister in its implication of a passing 
German convoy. But what made the night's greeting more than 
usually wretched was the sea. It had risen since morning and 
now surged powerfully across the casing, pitching the craft 
about and making those aloft in the fresh air grab hastily, 
slither, and lunge with sudden desperation for a handhold. 

They were in for a blow. It looked bad for the landings. 

Below, Clark, the new COPP Commander, tuned the set and 
broke into the BBC news. When that was over, the announcer 
had another message for Padfoot. Again, it was unexpected, 
now that the weather was blowing up. 

The landings would be taking place at dawn. 

Before five o'clock they had their signals rigged for the great 
host that should now be wallowing towards them somewhere 
out there in the whistling darkness. A shaded light shone from 
the top of the mast, and below it, the box-like shape of the little 
radar beacon now blipped a steady R-signaL Well forward of the 
hatch, Robin Harbud was sitting astride the casing and winding 
the mechanical hammer on the bong stick. On his heaving 
perch he was getting a frightful battering from the waves. 
They broke right over him in a flurry of foam and he would 
abandon winding to grab wildly for a hold. His body disap- 
peared. As the water drained away his upper half emerged and 
he bent again to working the bong stick. 

Ashore, the grey-black village chinked a light here and there. 
In the early- waking hour they were careless with the blackout. 
A match flared on the ridge and almost immediately faded 
probably in the cupped hands of a sentry. 

Then they heard the aircraft. The wind and sea had masked 
the sound of their approach, and now they were droning in an 
immense concert almost directly overhead, winging south. 


Inland the searchlights awoke and stretched pale fingers about 
the sky, roving under the cloud layers. 

In a few minutes the horizon over the shore-line flashed dimly, 
and having struck that preliminary chord of light, the whole sky 
behind the low beach shimmered with the aurora of the bomb- 
ing. Its multiple eruptions blew to them raggedly on the wind. 

Was it getting light? The sky was luminous with the bellies of 
cloud, or a prescience of them. Yes, the paleness was spreading. 
The wave-crests were white and wind-blown in a greying world. 

No sign of the assault boats. They were late. On the rearing 
casing of the tiny midget they felt awfully alone and exposed, 
waiting for them to appear, while the beach and the house 
shapes and the emplacements on the ridge ashore declared them- 
selves slowly in the growing day. Here they were sticking out of 
the turbulent sea under the Jerries' noses like a sore toe. 
Luckily they had the more immediate fury of half a gale to 
grapple with and keep them from brooding. 

And then the guns opened up. Their flashes pricked the 
fading wall of darkness and the great shells sighed and rustled 
over them in the windy sky to land in a distant thunder beyond 
the shore. They came again and again in a thickening crescendo 
of sound till the explosions drummed steadily from landward 
and a haze began to smear its growing silhouette. 

It was then that Robin Harbud grabbed too late for a hold 
against a crashing wave and it took him overboard. He dis- 
appeared in the smother of foam. Hudspeth, the midget's com- 
mander, had been cocking an eye for this while he helped Clark 
at the swaying signalling mast. He dived desperately forward, 
clutching with hands and skittering like a dancer along the 
casing. He stuck out a foot. Harbud's head appeared, bobbing a 
few yards off. He flailed back, rose and sank over a wave, then 
clawed up, grabbed it, and drew himself gasping back aboard. 

"Thanks!" he heaved, and groped for the bongle again, 
"Where in hell are those bloody boats?" 

They stared about them. 

And there they were at last. The gale had blanketed their 
engines, too, and now the lines of them were streaking in from 
the dim hulls of mother ships. They bounced and lifted alarm- 
ingly in the wild sea, and the leaders were practically abreast. 

"Hooray 1" Harbud screeched. "You bloody little beauties!" 

AND I AM NOT THERE. . . . 211 

The Coppists on the casing began to wave and yell 

Now they could see the helmeted infantry and the long LCTs, 
still loaded with the DD swimming tanks. It was too rough for 
the tanks to swim, and the landing craft were taking them all the 
way in. They were late on an awful sea and a rising tide. They 
would probably have to crash the beach obstacles. God, the 
beaching was going to be a chancy business in this! 

In the thunder that was now in the air, nobody could have 
heard their yells of profane encouragement as Harbud and 
Clark exulted on the perilous casing and clung to the 
crazily-bobbing mast. Nor was it likely that anybody saw 
them, with the grim prospect of the fire-swept shallows ahead. 
The first wave ploughed past them and on to the shore, now 
stained with murky puffs. 

It was Hudspeth's turn to go over. He slipped and toppled 
backwards, arms waving, over the stern. All they could see was a 
pale face among the waves wearing a beatific and uncaring 
smile as Ken Hudspeth struggled back. A strangely courteous 
wave lifted him on his way, contrite for the fury all about them, 
and Clark's hand hooked him and helped him flop inboard. 

Now it was sunrise. Around and beyond them to seaward the 
snowy geysers of the defending shells rose gravely in the air 
and shredded as the wind took them. They could see the wide 
array of the mother ships still letting down their boats. A wave 
brought them high and in the omniscient glimpse it gave they 
saw it all a restless grey-green sea; and spread on it, wide and 
teeming as the blocks and chimneys of some fabled city, a 
great endless scatter of shipping. The tiny landing craft 
churned up lanes between them like busy automobiles. 

The concourse stretched away to the great dim shapes of the 
capital ships on the horizon. The sea blotted it from view 
again. Just then a rocket ship coming astern loosed its great 
salvo over their heads at the shore. They felt the wind of it and 
cringed as the searing roar of them hurtled just over their mast. 
They stared a little indignantly back 

"Might have taken our bloody heads off!" 
It was a weak joke, but they all laughed loudly. It was such 
a wonderful day. 


Geoff Galwey was not to be left out of all this. He had 
organised a seat at the party not only for himself but also for 
two of his desperadoes, the chunky Petty Officer Briggs and his 
mate, Fish. Galwey had wangled himself on to the ML on the 
pretext that only he could tell them what sort of noise a rod 
sounder would make on their Asdic. 

As soon as they were under way with the fleet Petty Officer 
Briggs was clambering all over the ML, sizing up her armament 
with a professional eye. He stationed himself proudly at the 
boat's two-pounder gun. Briggs was a crack gunner. "Take me 
about ten minutes to get the hang of this one, sir." he said. 

The ML bristled, too, with navigational aids. That did 
not stop them from being misdirected into the wrong sea-lane. 

Halfway across in the rough sea the captain slouched down 
into the cabin, slumped in a seat, and offered, in answer to 
enquiries, that he was checker. 

"Why? Because I think we're in the wrong swept channel, 
that's why!" 

"So do I," Galwey said. 

"Well what do we do?" the Captain grumbled. 

"We stay in it," said Galwey, clearly and with emphasis, 
"until we come out the other ruddy end!" 

Just before dawn Galwey was called to the Asdic. 

"Sounds as though it's caught pimples, sir," said the rating. 

Galwey cocked his ear to the staccato pinging. It was Robin 
Harbud, winding away on the bongle, away to the south of 
them. They were nearing the gap in Calvados rocks. 

"That's our marker!" 

Soon they were getting the midget's radar blips, too. Then, 
after a longer while, its naked blue light shone faintly against a 
dark coast. He rather trembled for them, alone and exposed 
offshore with nothing between them and the enemy's guns. The 
local H-hour was later, so that the tide would lift the assault 
craft safely over the reef. But the long trip in from the mother 
ships through this sea had made them still later. All around 
him they ploughed, the stubby black silhouettes of the tank 
landing craft and the smaller infantry boats, all rearing like 
dismayed horses at the sea's white-angry buffeting. It was full 
day now, and quite a way to go. The landing craft commanders 
had taken a brave decision to freight the swimming tanks right 

"AND i AM NOT THERE. . . ." 213 

inshore and crash the underwater beach obstacles rather than 
let them down in this sea, where, whether the tanks were 
supposed to swim or not, they would certainly drown, 

Some of the infantry LCs were ahead of the tanks, and they 
touched down first on a beach boiling with heavy fire from a 
garrison that had seemingly survived the bombing intact. 

Galwey was suddenly conscious of Petty Officer Briggs at 
his elbow, bursting for a word. 

"Ten shells lined up by the two-pounder, sir. I could have 
'em off in a minute. Could you sort us out a target please?" 

Galwey lifted his glasses and scanned the shore. Hell, the 
tide was high! The swimming tanks were out now, their guns 
pounding away at the defences as they waddled out of the shal- 
lows up the beach towards the exits. The incoming tide had 
shrunk the foreshore to a narrow fire-pitted strip; unless the 
flails and engineer tanks got ashore soon to clear the way inland, 
the jam on the beach would be catastrophic. Smoke rolled along 
the sea-wall, obliterating half the houses. Some of the LCTs, 
pulling back through the beach obstacles after unloading, were 
hit. They were burning and broaching-to, cavorting in the 
waves like dying things. 

For an instant the smoke veiling the seafront parted raggedly 
and he saw the houses with their stark, empty upper floors. A 
couple of them burned fiercely. Another spat fire. 

That was the one. He tapped Briggs on the shoulder. 

Briggs picked it up from him and laid his two-pounder on it 
with the contemptuous polish he might reserve for demon- 
strating to cadets. The two-pounder banged three times and 
Galwey saw three explosions blossom at the upper floor window; 
its dark oblong patch huffed a gout of smoke and then the 
whole wall folded slowly inward, like rotten fabric shredding in 
a wind puff. 

"Any more, sir?" 

After that, Galwey could hardly refuse to keep him supplied. 
It was a couple of hours before they managed to thumb a lift 
ashore themselves. The beach was still unhealthy and they 
wandered about on it looking for work. By now the naval beach 
parties had taken over the marking for the succeeding waves and 
had set up their big ciphers on poles. The narrow strip of sand 
was choked with every kind of gun and vehicle and dotted, too, 


with bodies. Some of these still washed about in the water. A 
movement from a body in the shallows caught his eye. It 
waved, forlornly. An inshore wave rolled the body again, and 
once more the arm waved at him, feeble but imploring. A 
Canadian sergeant pulled Galwey round as he got to the water's 
edge. The man cast an eye at the body. He said, "I'd save it 
for the guys who're still breathing." 

They left the confusion of the beach and followed a file of 
infantrymen dodging over the seawall and across the smoking, 
littered front to the street beyond. They went on through the 
wrecked village, past a mortar with its dismembered crew lying 
around it in a red tangle of limbs and fleshy oddments. Then 
they saw a stretcher at work. They followed the bearers and 
carne to an orchard where the aid post was. 

Here was some work for them. Here, lying everywhere about 
them under the trees, were the ones who were still breathing. 

Further east, where the 3rd British Division was to land, the 
other midget submarine (X23) under "Thin Red" Lyne was 
shipping so much water from the rough sea through her fore- 
hatch that her pumps were working continuously. Her gyro 
compass had broken down and Lyne no longer had any means 
of checking his position because the landmarks were obscured 
by the smoke of the bombardment. Patiently they began to 
signal to seaward, using a green shade. As the sun rose over the 
bleak scene he ran up a flag in place of the lamp. 

The landing craft were suddenly swarming towards them, a 
dogged, wave-tossed swarm of water beetles faintly limned 
against the breaking day. 

At five minutes past seven the landing craft carrying the 
swimming tanks passed them a little over half a mile away, 
making good allowance for the westerly weather. 

Leading in two squadrons of swimming tanks of the I3th/i8th 
Hussars were the men of COPP 6, with Lieutenant-Commander 
"Daddy" Amer navigating one assault boat and the blond Peter 
Wild another. They had come through an uncomfortable night; 
a wretched crossing with engine breakdowns, parting tows, 
G-sets that went haywire, and chart tables drenched under 
the water they shipped. It was with relief that they homed on 

"AND i AM NOT THERE. . . ." 215 

to the blinking of the midget submarine X2fs mast light. 

There was Queen Beach, standing out suddenly clearly. 
There were the house marks, sharp and magically identical with 
the models they knew by heart. Amer's craft had a pole out, 
sounding. At half a mile from the shore he loud-hailed the 
bearing of the centre of the beach across to the squadron leader. 

But between the two squadrons of swimming tanks came the 
sapper officer of COPP 6, Mackenzie, leading in a flotilla of 
engineer tanks. The swimming tank craft were lagging slightly 
on time and before they knew what was happening his engineer 
LCTs were suddenly among them and going across their bows. 
To the screaming of shells and the inferno-sounds of the bom- 
bardment were added a couple of rending crashes as two of the 
DD tank landing craft were rammed. 

To add to the confusion, salvoes whistling from the rocket 
ships astern began falling short all among the tangled flotillas, 
throwing up columns of water and straddling the leading craft. 
By sheer luck there was not a single hit. 

Mackenzie's wave disentangled itself hurriedly by going 

It was just as well they had identified their beaches early, for 
now the fury of the support fire from the fleet enveloped the 
whole stretch of Queen sector from the village of Ouistreham to 
Lion-sur-Mer in a pall which thickened with sudden fresh 
blossomings of smoke. 

A couple of hundred yards from the shore the murky drifting 
curtain parted. At that, both Mackenzie and his sergeant had 
their Brens out and were blazing away at the houses which 
reared suddenly before them out of the billowing smoke. The 
craft hissed past the mine-laden tripods of the beach obstacles 
whose tips rose starkly out of the foaming shallows. 

The boat grounded and they leaped out with their Brens. All 
around them the infantry were breaking from their landing craft 
and going for the foreshore and the dunes. In spite of the near- 
disastrous tangle offshore more than three-quarters of the 
swimming tanks in their first wave were wading ashore, firing 
as they went, covering the troops. 

And in spite of wind and weather, tidal set and collisions, 
they had all landed dead on their marks. 


The same could not be said for that sector known as "Omaha". 
There, those stalwart veterans of beachcombing, Sergeant Ogden 
Smith and Major Scott-Bowden, had been assigned to the un- 
familiar role of pilots to guide in Naval Force "O", convoying in 
the 5th U.S. Corps. They were sappers; beaches, not naval 
pilotage, was their speciality. 

The Americans had declined the British offer to plant COPP 
.markers just off the "Omaha" and "Utah" beaches to flash them 
in to the right landing points. It was too risky, the U.S. 
commanders had said. They might alert the defences. 

They accepted the two engineers only as naval guides from 
the start point way out at sea, to take the assault in on to the 
landmarks which these two knew so well. Apart from having 
crawled over much of it the previous winter, Ogden Smith and 
Scottie had spent a lot of the last few months in memorising 
every detail of this coast. 

In the early hours of D-Day the dark mass of shipping 
comprising Naval Force "O" halted in heavy weather and began 
assembling twelve miles offshore. The mother craft started 
lowering their great brood of assault boats into an angry sea. 

Many were swamped almost immediately; in the remainder 
the G.I.s began baling like mad with their helmets to keep 
afloat. Some of the DD swimming tanks braved a launching into 
this sea from their LCTs. Most sank within a few yards. A 
few struggled on helplessly landward before the swamping 
waves finally overwhelmed them. Only two swimming tanks out 
of the whole proud force of amphibious armour designed to 
crack the beach crust for the following infantry actually reached 
shore. Without them, the troops came in through a murderous 
hail of fire that made the shallows boil. 

They could have done with that offer of markers. With no 
inshore signal to guide them, the whole assault force set its 
predetermined course for the unseen shore from its start point 
twelve miles out at sea. Immediately the weather and the 
powerful tidal set took hold of the mass of boats and swept 
them steadily, innocent and unknowing, to the east. By the 
time they came within sight of the shore they were too late and 
too far of! course to pick up their landmarks. In any case these 
were largely blotted out by smoke. It was a case of gritting their 
teeth and running blindly in. 

"AND i AM NOT THERE. . . ." 217 

The whole assault force on "Omaha" had slipped sideways, 
and it was surging straight for catastrophe. This was the most 
heavily defended sector of all. On Dog Green and Fox Green 
beaches the assault boats grounded, not opposite the lightly- 
held strips that had been chosen, but right under heavy German 
strong-points ; the guns of these blazed murderously away, fierce 
and unscathed, creating a carnage among the battalions as they 
landed and ran for the scanty cover of the shingle-piled sea-walls 
or backed, dismayed, into the illusory shelter of the water. 

Three hours later confusion still reigned along "Omaha" 
beach where the disorganised assault units were pinned down 
and dug into foxholes on the open sand or crouched chin-deep 
in the shallows. Without their armour they were helpless. They 
faced unfamiliar defences not only left intact by a bombardment 
that had miscarried but swarming with twice the number of 
Germans they had expected to find. 

Ironically this six-mile sector now ravaged by artillery and 
mortars and piled with dead was the strip which Wiilrnott, 
Scottie and Ogden Smith had reconnoitred with such enduring 
coolness a few months before. 

It was small comfort to be able to say that if the Americans 
had hearkened to the British offer of markers to beam them 
right in, all that hazardous prowling he and his Coppists had 
put in along this terrible shore in the middle of winter would 
have been worth it. 

And the story of D-Day on "Omaha" might have been very 

With three thousand lying dead and lucky it was not more 
who takes any real pleasure in saying / told you so? 

When they had seen the beaches thoroughly signposted, 
with the following waves safely ashore, and they had tired of 
watching the fireworks, the two X-craft turned and ploughed 
out to their Depot ship, and then went on to button up to the 
trawlers waiting to tow them back home. 

Picking up the tow in this sea was a hell of a job. It was still 
blowing half a gale. Hudspeth and Enzer had an awful job on 
the casing which heaved alarmingly while the stinging wet 


hawser yanked out of their hands, twanging like a live thing, 
before they finally got it shackled on. 

Then all five men lined up on the casing of the tiny sub- 
marine in which they had been cooped up for four days. They 
plunged gleefully into the water and swam for the boat that 
the trawler put out for them. 

A passage crew was waiting to take over their submarine for 
the trip back. Its captain, frustrated of a more glorious role 
dose in at those smoking beaches, chose a dashing way of 
crossing to the midget craft. He put a leg over the trawler's rail 
and slid down the tow rope. Halfway down his nerve deserted 
him. He clung wretchedly there, neither daring to climb back 
or go on, the sea lifting him high out of the water and then 
dumping him with a whack among the waves. 

Finally they managed to manoeuvre the whaler underneath 
him and he dropped clumsily into it, red and terribly foolish. 
He deserved marks for trying hard, but none for style. 

There were others who overdid it on this glorious day. 
Safely back in Portsmouth, the Coppists came drifting into 
Dolphin and swapping stories. 

Robin Harbud sipped at a pink gin. He said, "We had a 
wonderful mark for navigating a little lighthouse sticking out 
all on its own. Then some clot came along and blew the top off." 

"That was us," Galwey said. "They should have let Briggs 
and me ashore sooner. We had nothing left to shoot at." 

There was a very liquid reunion in the wardroom that night. 
It very nearly developed into a free-for-all when a couple of 
Coastal Forces officers turned up. Their boats, they said, had 
been the first craft off Normandy on the morning of the invasion. 

"What are you talking about?" Harbud snorted. "We had a 
pew for Mass there last Sunday!" A back pew some hundreds of 
yards off Courseulles Church, but nevertheless. . . . 

What clinched it for them all was the signal to the COPP 
teams at the Blockhouse which came from Admiral Sir Philip 
Vian, a man known to be somewhat sparing with kind words. 





MCKENZIE (Caprurd) 


GUTHRIE (Capfurd) 

JOHN5 (killed) 

CAMIDCL (Killed) 



BROWN (Captured) 

MAXWLLL (Executed) 

bROWNUt (Kilted) 

ATKINSON (Caphurd) 






HOOD (Stranded 
TURNER fcrranded 



IN the autumn of 1944 the Japanese announced over Tokyo 
radio that they had captured an "English war canoe". 

By this time the tide of war in the Far East was swinging 
quietly, steadily, in favour of the Allies. Mountbatten, who 
had taken over South East Asia Command full of plans to 
drive the Japanese out of Burma by a big amphibious operation 
aimed at Rangoon, had survived the monstrous disappointment 
of seeing all his promised equipment for the campaign with- 
drawngobbled up by the paramount needs of the European 

Any major combined operations in the East had to await the 
successful issue of the landings in Europe. In the meantime 
the Supremo turned his warlike gusto to other means of 
throwing the Japanese back: the long, hard way, over moun- 
tains, down rivers, through fever swamps and terrible jungle, 
supported by massively daring air lifts. 

Before D-Day, the I4th Army in the Arakan had already 
inflicted its first defeat on the Japanese. By the late summer of 
1944, while Europe celebrated the liberation of Paris, they had 
cleared the last Japanese out of Assam in India and sent them 
tumbling chaotically back into the jungle, scattered and 

The first COPP teams 7 and 8 had arrived in India a 
year before the Japanese made their capture of an "English 
war canoe". They had been stealthily at work in coastal 
operations along the Arakan. Together with other men of the 
Small Operations Group under which they worked, they had 
earned the nickname of "Mountbatten's Private Navy". Hall 
and McLean, Leader and Number One of COPP 7, had 
already collected D.S.C.s in these operations. 

This fiercely inhospitable country had already exacted its 
toll among them too. 

COPP 7 had come via Algiers where it had been dumped 



and abandoned until its Commander, Geoffrey Hall, appealed 
by cable to London for orders. 

The reply he received from the Admiralty was majestically 
vague. It simply said Proceed to India. That was all. 

Hall and his sapper, that eager and somewhat eccentric 
soldier, Lucas (he who used to sit in a hot bath with his boots 
on), packed their bags, thumbed a lift to Alexandria in the 
Valiant, and from there got a plane going to Delhi. They 
searched up and down India by plane for a site before setting up 
their first base in a house at Cocanada, on the east coast. 
Across the vast blue shimmer of the Bay of Bengal lay the 
rugged, delta' d Burma coast, along whose. shores and indented 
chaungs they would be scouting for landings. 

But large-scale landings did not -look like coming soon. For 
more than six months the COPP teams lay listless and perspiring 
in this oven-like port on the Godavari delta. This time, they 
literally rotted. A variety of Asian illnesses attacked them one 
by one. A combined force of rats, ants, cockroaches, maggots 
and weevils swarmed in and practically took over their stores. 
It was dismaying to lie inactive for weeks on end with no 
hint of the work to come. What they had all most feared about 
a remote base out East was coming inexorably true. You simply 
dropped over the horizon, out of sight, out of mind. You were 
left in a sweltering tropical hole and forgotten. The worry 
gnawed at Hall, COPP y's leader. How long, for how many 
operations, would they stay a crack unit in a place like this? A 
year? Four or five operations? To men of their restless spirit 
the climate, the sporadic tempo of action, the not-knowing 
whether they would ever be relieved, would soon sap morale 
below its high, imperative level. .Their enthusiasm would fall 
off, and in their decay they would grow useless for their kind 
of task when it came. 

Leaders like Willmott had already learned that several 
months of COPP operations were all that any man could take. 
After that, it was time to transfer him back to general service, 
if he were still to be of fighting use. 

The two COPPs filled in the torpid stretches between 
operations in these early months with night swimming and 
canoeing, practising jungle warfare, studying Jap habits, 
learning secrets of their vigilance and the character of the 


Burmese civilians in the coastal vilkges behind the lines. They 
picked up a host of tips from the local M.I.6. officers in 
Cocanada; these men sat at their desks pulling at those strands 
of the Intelligence web which controlled the operation of agents 
working in enemy territory right down through Burma, into 

Only a handful of highly placed officers in South East Asia 
Command knew the true nature of these first COPP parties. 
All identifying marks had been obliterated from their crates of 
gear. They were simply NAVAL PARTY 735 which was, if 
one looked closer, a naval police party engaged in a vague kind 
of counter-espionage. 

Geoffrey Hall, the COPP 7 leader, was tall, boyish, pink- 
complexioned ; he looked terribly young for this sort of responsi- 
bility. During a previous lull in his fighting career, Hall had 
volunteered for special operations. When no reply came he had 
shrugged and turned to a job as Surveyor to the i5th Mine- 
sweeping Flotilla. Then an officer came aboard his ship as it 
docked at Greenock and announced himself as Hall's relief. 

"You're not, you know," Hall said sturdily. He had sorted 
himself out a fairish job and he was not going to be talked out of 

"I am, you know," the new officer said. "What's more, I 
know where you're going. Let's take a little walk, shall we?" 

They did. Hall was converted in the space of a hundred 
yards. He became C.O. of COPP 7. 

While they were in Scotland for submarine training before 
going out East, Ruari McLean, his Number One, applied for 
leave in Greenock. Hall let him go, in spite of a wretchedly 
lame story about visiting an aunt. To cap that, McLean rang 
him when his forty-eight was nearly up and begged for an 
extension. Hall sighed. 

"She must be some Auntie," he said dryly, and gave it to 

When Ruari McLean came back he was engaged. He asked 
his C.O. to be best man. Hall duly inspected pictures of the 
bride and her family. Suddenly he stopped at one picture. 

"Here!" he said. "What about her sister? You're marrying 
the wrong one, man!" He kept coming back to ogle the picture 
on one excuse or another. 


"She's a stunner," he said. 

Almost immediately afterwards COPP 7 was posted abroad. 
It was a bit of a wrench for the newly betrothed; and as for 
Hall, he had been robbed of a chance of meeting the sister, so 
he wangled an introduction to her by mail. Now, in Cocanada, 
both the C.O. and his Number One were corresponding 
zealously with the sisters. In one of these letters, written under 
a moth-shadowed hurricane lamp, Hall in his turn proposed. 

In time the mails delivered him an answer. Yes. In a war 
which placed a world between the yearning, urgent young, how 
many found their sustenance in such a way as this? 

Another thing which worried men like Hall was the fear of 
betraying the Allied plans if they fell into Jap hands. They 
had heard horrible tales of Japanese torture methods. No man 
could honestly say whether he would hold out under it. 

An M.I.6 officer solved that for them. He unlocked a drawer 
in his desk, muttering, "Got something for that." He produced 
a box. 

Hall took it. The box was labelled INSTANT DEATH 

Below it was this warning To be taken with Discretion. 

At last the work for the COPP teams began to come in a 
gathering flood of it as the I4th Army began to hit back at 
the Japanese in Burma, Headquarters Staff began passing them 
a variety of risky and exciting sorties. In this strange new war 
the jobs were sometimes startlingly new. A few had not strictly 
much to do with COPP work if anybody cared to look at it 
that way. Nobody did. 

In addition to the dull work of sketching land silhouettes 
from an ML heaving on the soft dark sea off the North Burma 
coast, there were long trips to remote beaches along the 
Malayan coastline and on Sumatra, in which SEAC was 
showing a mysterious early interest. They usually embarked in 
a submarine for these, travelling on the surface in daytime at 
first, until they began penetrating enemy waters. 

COPP 8 worked with Hall's team on many of these sorties. 
It was in Sumatra that they tried to get into a Jap-manned 
harbour, sneaking in boldly at periscope depth. They paid for 
their cheek. The Japs spotted them and a destroyer came 
charging madly for them, hurling out depth charges which 


cracked fearsomely all around them. They skulked on the 
bottom, got away with it, and then scurried for the open sea. 

In one of these beach recces Hall fell victim to that old 
COPP danger in heavy surf getting the sounding line tangled 
round his legs and he all but drowned. Ruari McLean 
paddled in to look for him, and by a sheer stroke of luck 
found him drifting, semi-conscious, in the dark shallows. 

"Can't let the family drown," McLean said in the submarine 
when they got back and Hall was being revived. After all, they 
were potential brothers-in-law. 

The other COPP 8 was having its hair-raising moments, 
too. It was manned by a cheerful leader known to one and all as 
"Poker-face Poonby". His name was Ponsonby, and the sub- 
marine in which he travelled came up off the Arakan coast and 
settled down to watch and "time" the trains crossing a bridge 
which spanned the mouth of a river. Having spent some 
wearingly watchful hours scanning it across a brilliant sea, 
composing its timetable, they decided perversely to upset it 
by surfacing to blow up the bridge with shell&e. It was thus 
that they discovered a new item for Intelligence. The bridge 
was heavily defended by land emplacements on either side. 
These opened up with a roar of outrage and were soon 
straddling the submarine with great fountain-like explosions, 
accurate and bitterly intense. Drenched by this superior fire- 
power, the submarine called her gun crew in, closed the lid, 
and disappeared sedately below the waves. 

The two COPPs saw the last of Cocanada with some relief. 
They moved their camp south. They had found a base such as 
one dreamed of a remote beach on Ceylon like a vision of the 
South Seas, with palms leaning over its immaculate white 
beach, with tents cool among the tree groves. Green islands 
dotted the sea and a breeze softened the sun's power to a 
caress. It was called Hammanhiel. 

It was from here that COPP 8 sallied forth for its third 
operation. A destroyer took the team across to Chittagong 
with its three canoes aboard. From there they transferred to 
an ML. Their objective lay 120 miles to the south-east down the 
Burma coast. It was Elizabeth Island. Lying at the wide mouth 
of the Naaf River, its potentialities as a base for the coming 
Arakan offensive were plainly of interest. 


Before they sailed, one of their number, Captain Alec 
Colson, took a Beaufighter down and swooped over the island, 
having a good preliminary look at the beaches. There were 
two beaches on the north end and one on the south side to be 
reconnoitred for the landings that would come in the i4th 
Army's drive on the port of Akyab. 

The idea was that the ML would spend three days off the 
island, withdrawing to sea by day and taking its chances with 
enemy aircraft. It would come in and launch the canoeists at 
night towards the beaches. 

On the first night they ran into heavy surf on the beach and 
could not get through it. Ponsonby, the leader, stayed in his 
canoe plotting the rocks while the others beat about trying to 
take soundings in a big cross current. It was messy and not 
wholly successful. 

The next night they came canoeing round a headland into a 
U-shaped bay. There were three canoes, and leading them was 
Michael Peacock, COPP 8 J s Second-in-command, a quiet, 
determined youngster who was shaping brilliantly as a COPP 
officer. He had guts and he was efficient. 

But Peacock should not have come on this operation. He 
was ailing with dysentery, and it had weakened him. Before 
they left the ML to its task of drifting and measuring the 
tidal stream, one of the others popped a thermometer into his 
mouth. It showed a temperature of 101 degrees. 

"Don't tell Ponsonby," Peacock had pleaded, and struggled 
into his tropical swim suit. It had a kapok waistcoat and an 
inflatable lifebelt. 

He was so keen to lead this operation that the others kept 

When the three canoes were well into the bay Peacock 
stopped, raised his hand, and they drifted while the two 
canoes astern let off their swimmers. These men slipped in, 
ready to follow Peacock's canoe as it led them towards the 
beach. In the distance the fires of a fishing village burned on the 

Before they started off on their swim in, the military officer, 
Alec Colson, came swimming alongside Peacock's canoe. He 
whispered, "How do you feel?" 

"I'm all right honestly." 


"If you feel bad when you get to the beach, don't leave the 
canoe. It isn't worth it." 

Peacock paddled off and the swimmers followed him in. 
The previous night had been a bit of a flop. This time in a 
quiet bay with less surf, and with himself leading, he was not 
going to let personal frailty stop them from getting results. 
There was nothing worse than coming back empty handed. 

When he had delivered his three swimmers safely through 
the gentle surf he turned, headed back, put out his canoe 
anchor, and slipped overboard to swim inshore. It was the 
moment, sliding into the warm dark sea, that one always thought 
of a skulking shark, of a barracuda rare though they might 
be here. 

It was not long before his feet were touching and slipping 
over inshore rocks. When Peacock had nearly reached the 
beach and strained his eyes in the gloom he could distinctly 
see the form of Colson clambering over the sand at the back of 
it. There were sentry huts on the beach and he held his breath 
for the sudden spurts of fire which would announce his dis- 
covery. The Japs had a nasty habit of jumping out from hiding 
and blazing away. They never challenged or asked questions. 

No shot came, but that was the only piece of luck Peacock 
was conscious of. Everything else was going wrong. He had 
pegged his staple into the beach and run a line out into the 
water to take soundings, but the stake kept slipping out and he 
would have to wriggle wearily in to secure it again. Then the 
waterproof tablet on which he was noting broke. 

Events were conspiring with sickness to make him feel 
worse. His hands felt fevered and clumsy. His sounding line 
tangled and broke. The next thing he noticed in dismay was a 
glow around him in the water. His torch in his pocket was 
flashing on and off. He wrapped a hasty hand around it in his 
pocket as though he would strangle it. There was still no sign 
of recognition from the narrow beach with its thick line of 
trees crowding right down to its strip of sand. 

His legs now felt like the water itself as he turned to struggle 
out to the rendezvous. It was easily marked a large rock 
rising from the sea. All the swimmers had to do was to stay 
within their own depth and flash their torches out to the canoes. 
These would come in to their lights, and pick them up. 


When he reached the rock Peacock was mildly surprised to 
find no other swimmer standing in the water around him, 
waiting. He fished out his own fractious torch and started 
flashing out. The last thing he could remember was standing 
in the water, pressing the button of his torch and showing it to 

Then he fainted. 

When he came to, he was floating in the water pulled by a 
strong tide. He could not have been unconscious for long. To 
his fever-blurred gaze the dim land silhouettes had grown 
strange. He had drifted way over the other side of the beach 
and was being pulled seaward by the combined tide and cross 
current in the bay. Already, he thought confusedly, he was 
probably further out than the canoes, for he was drifting along 
the outer rim of the bay's U-shape. Startled into desperate 
effort, he shook himself to life, and peered about for the canoes. 
He could not pick them up across the dark, quiet water with 
its distant slap of surf. 

At the rate he was being swept he would soon be well out 
of the bay and in the open sea. Mike Peacock began to beat out 
feebly against it. But in this fast-ebbing tropical sea it was all 
he could do to keep up his speed against the pull of it, let alone 
make any headway. A despairing fierceness took hold of him. 
He struck out like a madman, dredging up every ounce of guts 
within him, fighting the tide like a living, malign thing and 
then, at last, with the ultimate crazy lunge, feeling his tired 
feet touch sand. 

Peacock dragged himself slowly ashore and fell sprawling on 
the beach, face down. He smothered his gasping and felt his 
heart thump against the sand. After a while he uncapped his 
watch and looked at it. It was already four o'clock. He got 
somehow to his feet and began staggering along the heacjland, 
making for the beach around it on which they had all been 
working. At long last he came stumbling onto it. It was here 
that the canoes would be looking for him. He came to it as 
cautiously as he could manage, flopped, and stared seaward. 
After a while he ventured to his knees and flashed with his 
shielded torch. Then he waited. 

There was no sign of the canoes. The sea was empty. It 
gave back only a gentle exclamation of foam, a hiss, silence. 


It was growing faintly light. 

He would have to get under cover and lay up for the day. 
And come to the beach again the following night in the hope 
that the canoes would come back for him. 

The outlines of the beach hut were growing clearer every 
minute. Peacock crept back to the forest edge. He remembered 
that the spit of land around which they had turned to come into 
the bay was thickly wooded. He began working his way around 
towards it through the trees. 

Even in his daze, lurching and stumbling, he remembered 
to keep well clear of the native huts on the way. He must have 
been about half-way round to the little headland when he 
halted, his numbed senses pricked into brief awareness of 
muffled noises other than his own. They came from behind him, 
and when he looked over his shoulder his heart gave a great 
shivering jump as he saw the glow of a torch questing about 
through the thicket. 

It was following him. 

He was tempted to break into a run, but before the numb- 
ness closed down again over his thinking he had smothered 
the lunatic impulse; and by a better primal instinct he kept 
going as quietly as he could, dodging sideways, sometimes 
halting to listen. 

Whoever it was was still on his track. He could see the torch 
dancing not far behind, and the quiet swish and trample of 

He dodged again and lurched off on a zig-zag course for the 
spit. It was dawn when he saw the sea through the wood on 
both sides of him, and he could go no further. 

The jungle behind him was silent. There was no sign, now, 
of his pursuer. He slithered to the ground and lay with his 
back against a tree. That way, the bastard can't stab me in the 
back, he thought. It was that, strangely, he feared most of all. 
He sat all day like that so that, in case he fell asleep, they 
could not stab him in the back. Some time during the day he 
pulled out his float rations and chewed them. Through his 
delirium he realised a growing and terrible thirst. It was hot. 
Finally it brought him dizzily to his feet to look for something 
to drink. There was no water that he could see around him 
anywhere on the spit. 


In the bay through the trees he could see the natives fishing 
with their big nets from the shore. Of the Japs who manned 
the distant beach garrison he saw no sign. 

When twilight came Peacock ventured out of the trees onto 
the sand to hunt for a boat. All he came across was a derelict 
sampan, half-embedded. When he finally got it into the water 
it filled and sank. He got his breath back from lugging it, 
picked himself up, and started to make his way stealthily round 
the headland to the beach. The night had closed in long before 
he reached it. He slid down over the sand past the guard hut 
into the water and waded out to the rock. All night he stood 
there in the sea and flashed his torch. But there was no answer. 

Before dawn he retreated out to his hiding place on the spit. 
As the sun rose on his second day his thirst grew maddening. 
His throat was raw and he was crazily obsessed with the need 
for a drink. And helpless. The foliage at the top of those palms 
probably concealed clusters of coconuts, but he was too weak 
to climb them. Anyway, he did not know how. He could only 
stare at them, and think of what they might hold. 

He was hungry, too, though it was just another ache some- 
where underneath this passionate thirst. A family of monkeys 
in the treetops around him had set up a dreadful chatter which 
echoed through the wood and mingled with the bird calls. He 
spotted one of the monkeys. It had come to rest in the high 
fork of a tree and was sitting there putting food into its mouth, 
swivelling its little hairy head suddenly here and there, alert 
and guilty at its meal. 

At the sight of it Peacock's own instinct for food overwhelmed 
him. He forgot all about caution and pulled his gun out of its 
rubber envelope. With desperate care he sighted at the small 
hunched body, and fired. 

The gun simply clicked. The water had got into it. 

By the afternoon he was frantic with thirst. It drove him to 
his feet, determined to risk anything to get it. He blundered 
through the thicket towards the clump of huts which marked 
a tiny fishing village on the edge of the bay, skirted it, and at 
last came to a paddy field. He went along the forest edge 
scanning the paddy for signs of life. 

It was the dry season, but there was water lying in it in 
stagnant runnels. He broke through the forest edge for it, 


threw himself down, and scooped it into his mouth. It was only 
when he had drunk enough and he was back lying up in the 
jungle that he allowed himself the luxury of caring about how 
diseased the water lying in a paddy field would be. 

The monkey chatter filled the jungle again. He was gkd his 
gun had misfired. Monkeys, he now remembered someone 
telling him, cried like babies. It would have made him feel 
like a cannibal. 

That night he repeated his drill of wading out and flashing 
with his torch. Nobody came. It was the last night they were 
likely to try. 

There was no future in hiding up forever on the spit, till 
he died of hunger or disease or thirst or dysentery. 

In his pocket, wrapped in waterproofing, he had a bunch of 
letters addressed to the natives in several dialects. They offered 
rewards for helping him and added, of course, that the Japs 
would be thrown out very soon. 

With these in his hand he trekked around to the village and 
looked it over from behind the foliage at the edge of the 

It was just after dawn. 

There were several children playing between the huts. He 
waited. No Japs, by the look of the place. Just a cluster of 
bamboo fishing huts, still somnolent in the quietness of breaking 
day. Hardly any of the men were abroad yet. 

A woman was preparing a meal of rice. From inside one of 
the huts a baby howled. 

Peacock stepped boldly out into the clearing, making a 
thrashing bushy sound, and caught the lifted head and startled 
stare of the woman. He made an appealing mime with his 
hands and open mouth to say he was hungry. She gave a little 
screech, then began clucking for the playing children. They 
came running fearfully and she herded them inside. 

The other natives had got to their feet and wandered forward, 
gaping. At his dumb show one nodded, walked off, and began 
shinning up a palm. From the top he began knocking coconuts 

The first native gestured towards the hut and Peacock and 
the other villagers followed him in. He grabbed at the first 
coconut and gulped. God, it was good! They squatted around 


him, awed but seemingly friendly, and while he drank at the 
coconut milk they chattered at him and mimed their questions. 

Had he come by air? He was tempted to say he had. Then 
he remembered that the reconnaissance Beaufighter had shot 
up boats in the bay to cover up the real purpose of the trip. The 
fact that they had made sure to miss would hardly help. 

He pointed to the sea. 

There was some coming and going among the natives in the 
hut. It made him uneasy, in spite of their smiles. He should 
perhaps have got to his feet and found some way of thanking 
them and taken to his heels there and then. But their friendli- 
ness seemed genuine. 

After about an hour of this winning manual dialogue with 
which he solicited their confidence and tried to learn something 
about the island and the boats, three of the Burmese villagers 
came in again and by their grave mien and the solemn way 
they beckoned to him, Peacock sensed with a strange tugging 
inside him that his bid was over. 

His revolver was no good, and there was really nothing he 
could do but follow them out. 

The whole village crowded after him as he walked with the 
guides along the embanked walls of the paddy fields. After 
about half a mile of marching they turned abruptly off the 
field. They were slanting down towards the same beach he and 
the others had been reconnoitring. There was the sentry hut. 

And in front of him, as they turned again on the path, were 
three Japanese, with levelled bayonets. 

On board the ML Ponsonby listened to each one of the 
returned swimmers. It was clear that they all thought Peacock 
had drowned most likely by slipping on the slimy rocks, 
bashing his head, and drowning. His body must have drifted 
away with the tide. From the thorough way they had combed 
the beach and the shallows, they were all certain he was not on 

They returned to their forward base at Tek Naaf. 

Two days later, however, they came back to the island with 
orders to raid it, capture a Jap prisoner from the beach lookout 


post, interrogate local fishermen and try to find out for certain 
what had happened to Peacock. 

The COPPs' leader, Ponsonby, took the raiding party under 
Colonel Young D.S.O., M.C., right into the shore opposite the 
fishing village. They scrambled out, filtering through the trees 
till they reached the clearing of huts. They circled it, closed 
in, quietly roused the natives out of their beds, and began 
interrogating them. The answers were frightened, conflicting, 
and it took some time for them to sort out the truth. In this 
time several of the Burmese managed to scuttle out of the village 
past the guards they had posted. If they had gone to warn the 
beach guards, the Japs would be waiting. Their questioning 
elicited that there was a platoon of them at the lookout hut. 

The troop set off for it with native guides to show the way. 
They arrived on the beach which Cokon, the military officer, 
recognised from their first trip and had to approach the hut 
awkwardly in single file, for the narrowness of the beach and 
the lack of further cover made deployment impossible. 

About three hundred yards from the silent hut two shots 
shattered the silence among them. One of the Tommy-guns 
had gone off by mistake. 

There was nothing like arriving announced. The Japs were 
ready for them. At fifty yards' range they opened fire from the 
thick jungle at the top of the beach. The flames from light 
automatics and rifles spat from the blackness of the trees, and 
their own party flattened out and began firing back. As they 
opened up a Jap broke from the cover of the hut and ran for 
the trees. A Tommy-gun burst brought him down. Immediately 
after, another Jap broke cover and started running, for some 
reason, down to the sea. In the space of a few yards another 
Tommy-gun brought him kicking down and a sergeant stood 
up and finished him with his Bren, firing from his hip. 

Behind the trees the Japs were screeching as they blazed 
away, but their firing was bad. Now that the British party 
had lost the advantage of surprise, there was nothing to do 
but get out. It was hardly worth while putting in a bayonet 
charge across the beach to the Japs hidden behind those trees 
supposing any of them survived it in the forlorn hope of 
bagging a prisoner alive. They had counted on surprise. 

They retired and moved swiftly back to the waiting LCP 


It was no fun, when they tried to start, to find the landing 
craft had got her 4-inch kedge anchor rope around her screw. 
The boat officer dived under and made a superhuman series 
of attacks on it with a hacksaw, while the others looked back 
uneasily at the shore they had just stirred into a hornet's nest. 

At last the rope was free and they were away with a roar. 
There was only one man missing. 

At least they had achieved one of their objects: to find out 
about Peacock. 

He was alive. The Japs had marched him away. 

Peacock's guards were relatively pleasant. Word had evi- 
dently spread that he was an important person, since the 
British had come searching for him. He was taken by slow 
and tortuous stages to Rangoon jail, with halts and inter- 
rogations at a number of points along the way. 

The journey became a fevered nightmare. He was deathly 
weak from dysentery, and his bare feet were soon lacerated 
from the jungle tracks. 

By the time he reached Rangoon malaria was upon him. 

The medical orderly in the jail issued sporadic doses of 
quinine, but usually these were too late. No sooner was the 
worst of the malaria over than its natural sequel, beri-beri, 
set in. 

He was interrogated constantly, mostly by two Jap Intelli- 
gence officers who spoke ludicrously perfect American. Their 
most frequent and puzzling question was, "Say, what did 
Mountbatten say to you, last time you had dinner?" Finally, 
he learned about the Marines' attack on Elizabeth Island soon 
after he had been caught, and realised that they were taking 
him for a V.I.P. or an agent. 

In March 1945, Mandalay fell, enveloped by Slim's forces 
which had poured out onto the North Burma plain. 

As two divisions came racing south towards Rangoon, the 
Japs roused the 600 barely living British and American sur- 
vivors of the jail from their cells and turned them out on the 
march with a handful of guards for the long retreat into Siam. 
In this long line of barefoot scarecrows was Michael Peacock. 


They marched only at night, but even then the Allied 
fighters came wheeling down out of the moonlit sky to strafe 
their column. After two days without food or water, and with 
the sick falling by the wayside every hour, the column was a 
reeling, tottering shambles. 

At dawn on the third day Peacock lay down with the others 
in a copse and abandoned himself at last to the dull wait for 

Suddenly he heard a hysterical babble of shouts. 

The Jap guards were leaving them. They were free. 

Peacock's memory of liberation is the stricken wonder in 
the face of a youngster in the East Yorks who brought them 
their first meal, and saw their feet, after they had made the 
last short lap to a waiting Allied convoy. 

By the time Peacock was nearing recovery in a hospital 
in Kandy his own COPP 8 was back in England. 

It was in hospital that he learned the story of that recon- 
naissance operation they had made ashore on Elizabeth Island. 
It was just another of the countless ironies. 

After all that, the plan for landing there had been scrapped. 



WHILE Michael Peacock lay in Rangoon jail more COPP units 
arrived in India. Back in England the COPP Depot at Hayling 
Island, operating at full blast, had turned out a total of ten 
fully-trained teams. The terrible race against time belonged 
to its pioneering past. It was at last in the position to airmail 
teams to any war theatre in the world at short notice. 

Following the success of the D-Day landings, Montgomery 
had even called on COPPs to reconnoitre the river crossings 
at the Rhine and the Elbe. Others had already scouted and 
"marked" the Anzio landings. They had piloted Commando 
raiding and assault forces ashore up and down the Italian 
coast, helped to land partisans behind the German lines, 
taken part in ambushing German patrols, and on one occasion 
even ran a 25-pounder battery ashore off ramped cargo lighters 
to bombard two enemy-held Italian towns. COPP 10 operated 
in blitz shore raids and landings right up the Adriatic, and later 
the Aegean. They led assaults on the Yugoslav mainland. In 
the autumn of 1944 they were in the van of the Commandos 
who landed at a number of points in Greece from Kalamata 
in the south where they arranged the surrender of the port 
to Salonika in the north, in whose vermin-ridden barracks 
thousands of Allied prisoners of war from Crete had been 
starved to skeletons before their long cattle-truck trip into 

There was plenty of work waiting for the four new teams 
which arrived in India to replace COPPs 7 and 8. While in 
North Burma the British i4th Army was slogging unrelent- 
ingly after the retreating Japanese through a nightmare of 
mud and jungle, on the coastal front the i5th Corps was 
crouched behind the streaming curtain of the monsoon, 
poised for the attack on Akyab as soon as the weather cleared. 

The new arrivals COPPs i, 3, 4 and 9 would be in the 
thick of this coming coastal offensive. Once the town of Akyab 



a few miles away to the south-east was in Allied hands, the 
whole battle for Burma could be supplied through its port 
and the airfields which lay alongside it. The Army, 
massing now to sweep down the central Burma plain through 
Mandalay to Rangoon, would be nurtured by the greatest 
airlift of the war. 

The monsoon thinned and was gone. The fine weather shone. 
And with it, the thrust down along the steaming, tangled 
littoral was on. 

To get to Akyab and drive beyond it to Rangoon the troops 
of the 1 5th Corps had to leapfrog through a maze of swamp, 
river and jungle. At almost every step the advance was barred 
by water a creek, a tributary, a river but so rapidly did the 
drive develop that to keep pace with it all four new COPP 
teams were brought in to work like beavers, scouting up these 
Arakan chaungs almost nightly in search of the next crossing- 
places for the armour and infantry. 

Penetrating deep up these narrow jungle rivers from the sea, 
under their high, thickly-grown banks, often lined by waiting 
Japs, was not only eerie, but headachy to navigate. Much of 
this river lacework fringing the coast was uncharted. The 
canoes would wander and be lost in back streams and mangrove 

Usually they came boldly into the mouths of these chaungs 
from the open sea by ML or assault craft. The entrances were 
enormously difficult to find from the sea. It was hard enough in 
moonlight, let alone in darkness. After probing for the en- 
trance the mother craft would feel its way slowly with muffled 
engines up the narrowing waterway to within a couple of miles 
of their objective. Then the canoes were lowered. The paddlers 
glided away into the inkiness upstream, keeping under cover 
of the banks. No Coppist liked to operate in this eastern 
climate in his flappy swimming suit, particularly in these steamy 
jungle chaungs. The drill was to take the canoes right up to 
the spot to be reconnoitred, and beach it on the mud to let 
the scouts off inland. 

The silence here was their enemy. Sometimes the forest 
reaching overhead across the banks touched and interwined. 
Though they paddled up these water tunnels in total blackness 
beneath the high banks, the gurgle and drip of their paddles 


and the knowledge that the Japs were alert and listening still 
made it a goose-pimply business. The moonlight filtering sud- 
denly through the jungle would flash on their paddles. They 
matt-surfaced these with silver sand, and though this helped 
blanket the paddles' flashing, it heightened the dripping from 
the blades. 

All along the banks as they slid up-river, they could hear 
the twigs cracking. It was just as though someone was fol- 
lowing them along the water's edge. The only other sound was 
the croaking of bullfrogs, an obscene burping that often came 
from hideously close at hand, and cracked the stillness open in 
a way that made them jump. Never was any other silence as 
pregnant with leering mystery as this; nothing in the work 
out in the clean, open sea was like it, not even on the calmest 

These chaungs*were additionally sinister for the reptiles 
lurking in their depths crocodiles, and the deadly krite snake 
which infests the Arakan. Some of the Coppists caught snakes 
and used their skins for hatbands. A somewhat blase Intelli- 
gence officer assured them the crocodiles were not all that 
numerous, anyway. One night a canoe of COPP i, acting as 
host to a venturesome Army officer, carried three aboard her 
for a recce into the jungle recesses of a chaung. John Stewart 
sat astride her with his feet trailing in the water. 

All of a sudden he whispered, "Oh, mother there's a 
crocodile following me!" 

"Well, pull your legs in!" 

"I can't!" Stewart hissed. "I've got cramp!" 

That put a certain verve into their paddling, till they were 
well ahead of the scaly black shape in the water. 

The Japs also patrolled these waterways in motor sampans. 
Often at night the canoeists would stiffen as the slow chug 
of their diesels approached, growing louder. It seemed that 
the sampan was coming right down their own chaung, yet 
often it passed them as much as a mile away, its sound rising 
and falling as it throbbed by down another creek. 

But not always. 

On one of these nights Peter Wild, the new leader of COPP 
i, was trapped in his chaung by an approaching sampan. He 
and his paddler hugged the river bank, frozen into stillness, 


cringing from the searchlight which might light them any 
moment as the sampan came round a bend in the creek, hoping 
they would look like one of the mango logs which floated 
downstream and sometimes came close to upsetting them. 
The sampan's chugging grew immense in their ears. It was 
almost upon them when it halted. Then, mysteriously and 
abruptly, it swung about and travelled away. 

Wild was to become the chief of all the Coppists in this 
new theatre a kind of Eastern Willmott. He was handsome 
in a Nordic way, and cool. He knew his job. With him was the 
exuberant young Robin Harbud, also a veteran of the D-Day 

Sometimes the crossing-places they had to reconnoitre were 
thick with enemy water traffic Burmese and Japs, plying to 
and fro in wooden native canoes. One night, Robin Harbud 
recalls, he was following Peter Wild's canoe up a chaung when 
he heard his leader collide in midstrteam ahead with a canoe- 
full of Japs. There was an outburst of yelling and swearing in 
the darkness; Wild and his paddler plied grimly on, not choos- 
ing to answer. Harbud's canoe shied away from the commotion. 
He and his paddler groped forward cautiously, to be sure to 
avoid them. The next thing they knew was that they, too, 
had bumped a wooden dugout. More yelling burst about their 
ears and in the blackness they brushed and scraped past three 
angry silhouettes, so closely that they could have leaned over 
and bitten them. 

They kept on going. Their luck travelled with them. The 
Japs* grumbling faded into the night behind them. Apparently 
they took the Coppists for clumsy natives. 

The Japs did not always make this mistake. On another 
night in the Myebon area Peter Wild was probing into a 
tributary of the Kanbyin river called Dalet Chaung, looking 
for a channel into it from the sea for assault craft, when they 
crossed two Japs in a canoe which passed about twenty yards 
ahead of them. They saw the Japs* heads, plainly silhouetted, 
turn towards them; there was an exclamation, then a murmur 
of voices in the other boat. Wild and his paddler went quietly 
on and drew into the cover of the chaung bank to watch them. 
It was light enough for them to see the Japs beach their canoe 
on the north side of the chaung> a hundred yards away, and 


stay there. The canoeists waited in the shadow, staring across 
at them. The Japs waited, staring back. After three minutes of 
this the Japs suddenly hopped into their canoe and moved off 
fast downstream. 

Soon afterwards a sampan's chugging came towards them 
in Dalet Chaung; surprisingly, from upstream. It must have 
been alerted by radio. It came down the chaung y flashing 
lights all over the place, with the Japs aboard screeching their 
heads off. Wild's canoe slipped and dodged seaward as it 
bore down on them. They hid and darted through a mesh of 
waterways which luckily criss-crossed the coast here. This 
deadly hide-and-seek lasted a couple of hours before they won 
their way clear. The noisy, baffled flashing faded and they 
were safely away, lifting on the slight sea swell towards their 
rendezvous with the MTB. 

Nor were the Japanese always as noisy as this. Ian Mor- 
rison, commander of the newly arrived COPP 9, led a recce 
up an inlet to examine the usefulness of a jetty inside the 
mouth. They had found it, crawled all over it, reckoned it to 
be good, and were pulling away when Morrison's paddler 
touched him and whispered, "Look, sir!" The enemy bank 
was swarming with Japs, and by the way they were scuttling 
about and manning a couple of light machine guns they had 
quite obviously spotted them. There must have been forty 
of them. 

They dug their paddles in and glided closer to their bank 
till they hugged it. In this way they would make a harder 
target. At any moment they expected the water to rip and 
spout all about them as the machine guns crackled into life, 
but nothing came. They held their breaths and kept stroking 
quietly downstream. They did not breathe till the opposite 
shore had slowly wheeled away from them and they were out 
of sight. 

They owed their lives to an excess of Japanese cunning. 
Those machine guns were waiting to catch them half-way 
across, in open water, or perhaps even with an expected follow- 
ing of assault boats. 

In two months of this slithery, tortuous warfare, fed often 
from the sea, they had reached Akyab. It fell to the 15* 
Corps on January 3rd, 1945. Without resting, the Army and 


its amphibious supporters plunged onward through the maze 
of islands and waterways around the Myebon Peninsula with 
their eyes now on the ultimate prize lying beyond them down- 
coast Rangoon. 

What added to the hazards which teemed up these coastal 
chaungs was the unpredictability of the Japs who were being 
fought back step by step and whose natural defences were the 
creek banks. The COPP patrols could count on some of these 
creeks being alive with them; but no two Japs, at least in this 
strange seaboard war, could be relied on to react in the same 
way to any situation. Hughes' COPP made a long, hazardous 
approach up an enemy river of unknown depth in a motor 
launch attended by an assault boat. They knew this same river 
was a main Japanese supply route. Having no charts, the 
ML grounded twice. The second time it ran aground it 
stuck so firmly that they had to leave it and transfer to the 
assault landing boat, which continued on. Sure enough, down 
the chaung came an armed Japanese sampan. The assault 
boat tried to get out of its way under cover of the bank, but 
the stream was narrow and the Japs looming in their sampan 
out of the darkness did not spot the LCA until they were 
fifty yards away. 

There was a commotion and the sampan went hard over to 
starboard, but they were not quick enough and in the narrow 
waterway there was a rending crash as the British assault 
boat rammed her on the port quarter. They scraped and 
bumped clear with the Japs hurling insults at them. These 
were received in humble silence. Then, miraculously, they 
were parted, floating away from each other. It had not occurred 
to the Japs that anybody other than Japs would have the gall 
to be chugging noisily up their own supply stream. 

COPP 4 managed to get away with the same kind of boldness 
when it came in to the mouth of the Myebon river and 
anchored there in the light of fading day under the nose of a 
Japanese 75 mm. battery which dominated the entrance. 
There they sat, gathering tidal data only obtainable at this 
time of the day, and desperately looking as un-British as 

But this jittery work told on the nerves, and not all of them 
proved equal to the continued strain of sorties like this night 


after night. One officer, Brownlow*, had to reinforce his reso- 
lution with whisky. It was the twig-cracking that accompanied 
them stealthily from the bank which finally got him down, 
and he wanted to shoot at it. 

Then one night they were cornered in a chaung, fortunately, 
fairly wide. The motor launch had let off the canoeist who was 
making for the opposite shore when a Jap sampan swung 
around the bend, starting, its engine suddenly, and came on 
up the river. The canoeist was in midstream. Brownlow passed 
an instruction around the ML which stunned them. 

"When the sampan comes abreast," he whispered hoarsely, 
"I'm giving the order to fife!" 

With the launch crouched in the shadow of the bank and 
the canoe shadowy as a log in midstream the sampan came into 
sight and chugged abreast of them, beyond the canoe. 

"Fire!" Brownlow ordered. 

There were six clicks from the Bren guns lining the launch. 
The sampan passed on unseeing, and its noise faded into the 

The little Indian Navy officer passed the Bren ammuni- 
nition clips back to his gunners. When he had heard of Brown- 
low's intention, he had walked round and calmly whipped them 
off the guns. The paddlers, caught between the two boats in 
the battle, would have been cut to bits. And the ML would 
almost certainly never have got out of the river with its in- 
telligence report for the land forces. 

"You can put them on again now," the Indian whispered. 

His teeth shone in the dark. 

Robin Harbud was badly sighted for a COPP officer. He had 
passed his sight test by reading the chart twice with his left 
eye to-an absent-minded doctor. Robin used to protest, "All 
objects are just a blur in the dark, anyway. And I can see a blur 
as plainly as the next man!" 

One night Harbud and the doughty Petty Officer Briggs 
came crawling back through the jungle where they had been 
hunting for a clearing for an Auster spotting aircraft to find 

* Name changed. After this incident the officer was posted home. 


two blurs standing around their beached canoe and chattering 

"Christ Japs!" Harbud whispered. They inched forward to 
within a few yards, then leaped to their feet with levelled guns. 
The Japs were stunned and stood quietly obedient while 
Harbud looked around and found their dugout canoe. He 
motioned them into it, got in with them, and with Briggs 
following with a sten gun across his knees, directed them down 
the chaung to the waiting LCA. 

He and Briggs felt pretty pleased with themselves, coming 
back with two live Jap prisoners. They were hard to get. It 
was some time later downstream before they could safely 
show a light and take a look at them. When they did, everybody 
including the helmsman laughed so much they nearly ran 

Their prisoners were two of the weediest, most frightened 
Burmese they had ever seen. 

Sometimes on these river reconnaissances from the sea they 
did not even resort to canoes, but relied on their speed to get 
them out of trouble if they ran into it, and provided they 
could be sure their back door, the sea outlet, remained open. 
For the whole of the advance they worked under Army direction, 
and the assault boats often poured in from the sea, through 
channels Coppists had found, to support and ferry the Army 

With so many crossings to make, Army units sometimes 
probed across the water on their own account. It was on one of 
these crossings, executed on the spur of the moment by a 
military party to get urgent information about the other side, 
that the Japs opened up and wiped out the whole patrol. 

General Lomax, commanding the i6th Indian Division, sent 
for Peter Wild, the senior COPP officer. The General pointed 
to the map and said, "I'm asking you to do this in moonlight 
because we cannot wait." His finger was pointing to the 
Maichaung. The Japs, they knew, lined it in force. The killing 
of the whole patrol of a few nights before told its own story. 

Wild took two MLs with him because their engines were 


quieter than landing craft and because they could cope better 
with enemy sampans. Intelligence gained from captured 
enemy patrols said there was a lot of traffic in the Maichaung, 
and it was likely that the MLs would be seen though the 
canoes, launched further upstream and gliding under the 
shadowed banks under the tall trees, might get away with it. 

They came probing in from the sea, looking for the chaung 
entrance. They found it fairly easily in the moonlight a wide 
indentation in the low tree-etched black land line, and went in. 

They were hardly inside and forging ahead up the narrowing 
river when a machine gun opened up from the opposite bank, 
and the bullets kicked up spray showers around them. Chips 
flew off the superstructure. They ducked but declined to 
answer, in case it began an epidemic of shooting along the river 
front; there was a chance that quietness might stop its spread- 
ing. The Japs might conclude them to be friendly, or harmless, 
and calm down. 

They kept on going. There was a lot of shouting along the 
banks, and from time to time they spotted a fair amount of 
activity ashore. The ML halted and released its canoes. These 
shot away further upstream on their search for beaches. They 
found them happily free of heavy Jap concentrations. 

On the way back the shore was still alive with movement 
and voices. Near the mouth they passed the nest that had fired 
on them. This time it lay sullenly quiet, unseeing or un- 
believing. Their chugging sounded like thunder to their own 
ears as they groped gingerly past it. But all else was silence as 
they lit out for the open sea. 

When they got back to their base they were fending for 
themselves in a dry-weather camp set up on a beach General 
Lomax sent for COPP i again. This time he asked for the 
whole team. 

They went in separately. The general wanted to talk to 
each man, one at a time, and thank him in person. 

The stalwarts of COPP 9 under Lieutenant Ian Morrison, a 
slim, curly-haired youngster with bright blue eyes, put up with 
a lot of Jap shelling and general incivility before swallowing the 


book of rules and answering back. In March 1945, they came 
up a chaung in an assault boat just as the moon was setting and 
proceeded to take soundings. Even the dogs lined the banks and 
barked at them that night. This brought a sentry flashing his 
torch towards them from the shore. There were shouts. They 
were lowering a canoe at the time the nearest thing to being 
caught with their pants down and the Japs opened up with 
rifles and automatics. The LCA party replied with every arm 
they had, and hauled the canoe hastily inboard with bullets 
zipping all around it and smacking into the hulL They with- 
drew seawards, still blazing away at the garrison, until out of 

A few nights later, sounding a steamer route up to an inland 
jetty in a small landing craft, they had to run for it again after 
sneaking close inshore to investigate six figures they saw 
moving about on top of a hill. It looked a likely gun position. 

It was. 

The Japs opened up suddenly at short range and the water 
leaped alive around them. To escape they went into a wild 
zigzag, lurching from bank to bank and sidling along them 
like hunted fish, seeking what cover they could find. At last 
they lunged madly for freedom and made full out for the bend 

They made it. Having wriggled desperately free of that 
frothy clutch of fire now ripping up the water behind them, 
they felt themselves all over and marvelled. 

On the last recorded operation up these chaungs the tempta- 
tion to answer back at last overwhelmed them. Early in April, 
with two British columns streaming down from the north to 
converge with them on Rangoon, Morrison's COPP came 
inshore from Rat Island with a couple of native guides aboard 
to hunt for a waterway in to the town of Sandoway. 

While they were snooping inquiringly up an inlet their two 
Burmese came back full of local news of a Jap observation post 
nearby, along the bank. At that they beached, hopped ashore, 
and filtered silently into the jungle after their guides. They 
came round behind the Japanese post through the trees, 
opened up on them with their Stens at point blank range, and 
melted away into the forest again, leaving three bodies lying 
around a derelict lookout. 


On their way back they ran into another Jap nest and 
surprised them with their blazing Stens. Two more fell riddled, 
and as the third broke for cover they grabbed and held him. 

A prisoner! What on earth should they do with a prisoner? 

They bundled him into the boat. Considering their role as 
Coppists, it was the guiltiest trophy they ever brought back 
from an operation. 



RANGOON fell, not to the British divisions racing down from 
the north, but to an attack by the i5th Corps from the sea. It 
toppled lite a dead tree. The Japanese had sidled out to avoid 
encirclement. Theirs was a wretched retreat, splashing through 
the first rains of the monsoon. It had come too kte to save them. 

The war in Burma was virtually over. 

Scouting for this coastal force had brought the COPP men 
leapfrogging in advance of it clear down 600 miles of coastline 
to the country's ultimate bastion. There had never been time 
for delicacy in dealing with the mass of urgent missions the 
Army had showered on them. They had taken enormous 
nightly risks with little chance to ponder them. 

Yet they had arrived with hardly a loss among their own 
men. It was a miracle. 

Now the SEAC planners were swarming like ants around the 
design for the next giant leap down the Malay Peninsula to 
Singapore itself. It would be launched in the kte summer. For 
this they would need airfields, advance bases, harbours, and 
good landing beaches on the way. COPP parties would bring 
back the news of these for the Mountbatten Amphibious 
Specials that would go swarming in from the sea. 

Before the actual end in Burma the staff planners were 
already looking ahead, and COPP 3 came in for some missions. 
On the information they brought back would depend the future 

Apart from a certain hesitation soldiers have about lighting 
three off a match, the number three is held by superstition to be 
lucky. But if any, COPP 3 was the one with a jinx. The whole 
team had been wiped out on the shores of Sicily. It had re- 
formed with a complete new team and had since enjoyed its 
share of the fantastic luck which had travelled this far with the 
Far Eastern COPPs. Now its turn was to come again. 

Puket Island was the objective; a large Siamese island 



which hugged the narrow peninsula joining Siam to Malaya. 
It was held by a mixed force of Siamese (nominally at war with 
the Allies) stiffened by a Jap garrison. With its potential air- 
fields, harbours and beaches, it offered an almost ideal sea-girt 
base to seize for the leap onward to Singapore. 

But first it was imperative to get a closer look at Puket 
Island. The planners marked it down for a giant-sized "recce". 
COPP 3 was to go in and work over its beaches, sound the 
inshore gradients from their canoes, draw night silhouettes, 
and come back with a plan for the landing craft. 

Two RAF officers were to go ashore with them and hunt 
around inland for likely airstrips. The whole party was put 
under the charge of Major Ian Mackenzie, now the Senior 
COPP Military Officer in the Far East. Mackenzie had piloted 
the Hussars' tanks in on D-Day.. A Royal Marine detachment 
was added to lend a hand in the scouting ashore. 

At Trincomalee in Ceylon they went aboard the submarines 
Torbay and Thrasher and slipped out of harbour for the 1,200- 
mile voyage clear across the Indian Ocean to the enemy 
peninsula. It was a long, calm crossing in a richly blue world 
broken only here and there with a fleck of white cloud. From 
time to time flying fish, driven by a hungry prowler below, 
broke the surface and skittered along in escort. The sky was 
only a little paler than the sea. Inside the submarines the men 
were tightly caged, and towards the end their gear-choked 
space had become as sordid and smelly as a hen crate. 

The shore landing parties were to concentrate on two main 
beach areas on Puket Island and look over the possible 
airstrips beyond them, inland. They were all relieved when 
the Tannoy plopped. A voice drew breath over it, making 
them sit suddenly alert, and the commander announced their 

The two submarines separated to prowl along offshore and 
mark their objectives. 

The Torbay, carrying Lieutenant Alec Hughes of COPP 3 
and his party, sighted their beach in the afternoon and came 
in for a good look at it through the periscope. It was a long 
curving strip of sand fringed by coconut palms and a few 
casuarines. At intervals along its wide tree-fringed sweep they 
could see groups of tents and some hutments. 


The Japs were camped there right on the spot they wanted 
to explore. 

It was not going to be easy. They came to the surface after 
dark, with the three canoe teams working feverishly below to get 
their gear ready, and began the run in. There were lots of 
lights showing on the beach ahead, and numbers of fires. That 
meant the Japs were staying on the beach in force. They would 
have to change their original plan, by which they had hoped to 
hide their canoes ashore for three days and roam about through 
the jungle, peering through it at the proposed airfields. There 
were too many Japanese about for that. They would have to 
come back to the submarine each night. 

At a little over two miles offshore the three canoes slid away 
from the Torbay y with Lieutenant Hughes in the lead. The 
third canoe in the party had been converted to carry three men 
a sapper captain, Johns, and his sergeant, Camidge, as well 
as Flight-Lieutenant Guthrie, the RAF officer who was going 
to reconnoitre the airstrips. 

After half an hour the three-man canoe, lagging, had lost 
touch with the leaders in the dark. 

Hughes waited, stroking back and forth in the gloom across 
their line of approach, hoping to intercept them that way. 
His second canoe, also searching, was out of sight now. Each 
would have to work on his own. 

Hughes gave up his vigil, turned for the shore, slid from his 
canoe and crawled carefully up onto the beach, noting and 
marking the activity and the fires. Several times he had to 
dodge in a hurry out of the path of Jap sentries who padded 
past him on the beach. 

At midnight Hughes flashed up his paddler, climbed inboard, 
and then stroked quietly about offshore for another hour in the 
warm silky-calm sea. There was still no sign of the third canoe. 
They had to give it up and turned for their rendezvous with the 
submarine. The Canadian officer, Alcock, in the second canoe, 
was waiting for him ; he had got back a few minutes before. 

The submarine waited. 

At last the brilliance of the rising moon, throwing a wide 
silver wash across the water and lighting the pallid faces of the 
men on the bridge of Torbay^ forced them to start up their 
engines and retreat out to sea. 


On the next night the two canoes came questing in for their 
lost comrades, and their reception was sinister. The whole 
shore-line of huts and tents was now blacked out totally. The 
darkened camp was plainly roused to a hushed alertness. 
Hughes and Alcock came slowly in, looking about with infinite 
care. To finish their examination of the beach they crawled 
ashore and scanned the dark tree verge for signs of fortifi- 
cations. They tested the beach underfoot for firmness. 

The shore tonight was alive with patrols. They had to 
wriggle hard to dodge them. The sentries no longer flashed 
their torches to announce their approach. They just came 
thudding softly across the sand, so that Hughes and his partner 
had to keep swivelling their heads in every direction, like 
animals surrounded and trapped. 

Even the nearby Papra Channel, which had been floodlit 
the night before with arc lamps and searchlights, now lay 
dark and ominously silent across the water. 

The third canoe had lost contact with its leaders because it 
was not designed to hold three and in their clumsy manoeuvring 
to catch up with the others their frail, dangerously rocking 
craft had suddenly turned turtle. Captain Johns and the others 
floundered about, gasping, and after a concerted heave managed 
to right the boat in the still sea. 

The canoe was almost waterlogged. They tried to empty 
her but they were out of their depth and had to give up. 

Cautiously, they called into the night about them for the 
otker canoes. But there was no reply. 

At last Camidge gasped, "It'll only hold one. Will you hop 
in and paddle, sir? We'll hang on." 

They had a hell of a job getting the canoe to move at all. 
Johns paddled like mad but the waterlogged craft drifted ahead 
with an awful sluggishness and they were a long way from the 
shore. The swimmers struck out, alternately pushing with a 
free arm and then swimming free alongside to lighten the 
paddler's progress. 

"Better try flashing for the submarine," Johns said. 

But they knew that even if Torbay saw it, the submarine 


would have trouble interpreting the message flashed while they 
clung there. In desperation Johns even turned the torch to 
flash inshore, where he thought the others would be. They 
dared not leave the canoe. For one thing, it was still a long way 
from shore, and they were all tiring. And if they did abandon it, 
it would give the whole game away when the sun rose. They 
would have to sink it and try to swim in, or stay with it till they 
reached shore, and hide it. 

The night and the struggle seemed to go on for ever, and 
the sky was paling when they reached the shallows and floundered 
for the beach, lugging the canoe with them. Between them they 
lifted it and staggered for the grove at the top of the beach. 
They had just put it down and shoved it wearily under the 
cover of the bushes when Guthrie, the RAF officer, looking 
around him, saw that they had been spotted. 

Two natives Thais stood there, stock still and staring at 
them from the top of the beach near the tree fringe. When the 
Englishmen looked back they turned abruptly and scuttled 

The canoeists pushed on a little way into the trees and then 
had to flop. All three of them were completely done in. In their 
dulled, exhausted state they slid to the ground remembering 
hopefully that some of the Thais were thought to be friendly. 

It was while they lay there panting, trying to keep awake 
and aware, that the undergrowth around them rustled. Camidge 
jumped up. 

"They're back! Looks like police with them!" 

"Make for the jungle!" 

There was a burst of fire. 

In that brief but terribly clear instant Guthrie saw Captain 
Johns scramble to his feet and immediately spin and fall dead. 
He and Camidge tore for the bushes together and turned like 
animals at bay from their cover to face their ambushers. The 
forest spat fire. They replied with their own guns now, Camidge 
with his sten, Guthrie with a revolver. They saw two of the 
Thai police fall. 

Then Sergeant Camidge himself reeled and pitched forward. 

Guthrie ran, dodging as he went. He reached thicker jungle 
by luck unscathed and kept on going. He staggered deep into 
the forest until the noise of the hunt had grown faint and 


vanished, and he could go no further. He waited, heaving, 
getting his breath back, and stumbled on again. 

That evening, dazed and spent and thirsting, Flight- 
Lieutenant Guthrie blundered into a Thai village and was 
grabbed. He was the only one of his party left alive, and he was 
a prisoner. 

# # # 

From the other submarine, Thrasher, three more canoes 
went inshore at Bangtau Bay to scout for airfields. Both 
prospective fields were fairly far inland, so they had decided 
to hide their canoes ashore when day came. 

The plan was this: Major Mackenzie (the Royal Engineer 
COPP officer in charge of the party) with Flight-Lieutenant 
Brown, the RAF officer, would go on through the jungle 
with a sergeant, Smith, making for the airfields. The other 
four men would wait in reserve, guarding the canoes. They 
would keep rendezvous two nights later with the submarine or 
failing that, on later days at hours they had fixed. 

All three canoes came in and beached safely enough. The 
men hopped out and pulled the boats in under cover of the 
trees. The beach seemed deserted. 

The burly Major Mackenzie collected the Marine sergeant 
and the RAF officer and they plunged on deeper into the 
jungle. By dawn they had worked up the thickly-covered hill 
which overlooked the first proposed airfield for the coming 

When day broke they climbed trees and took pictures of 
the field below, over the waving tops of the jungle. 

"Let's take a closer look," Mackenzie said. They slithered 
from the lookout tree, came down the hill through the forest, 
ploughed through a swamp, and emerged into the alluvial 
tin saltings, a marshy place crossed by banked roads and 

Here they had suddenly to flatten beside a humped embank- 
ment in the open as a Jap patrol came marching by on the other 
side. Almost immediately after that they crouched unmoving 
and horrified as a Thai patrol came along the high-banked road 
itself. There was nothing they could do but flatten against the 
road wall. 


The squad tramped by unseeingly almost stepping on their 

It was slow going, getting out of the saltings and through 
sparser cover to the field, for the land was alive with peasants 
and coolie labour. It was all heart-in-mouth dodging and 
drawing back, till they had reached the bush near the airstrip. 
They peered at it through the bushes, counting up ho\v many 
coconut trees the bulldozers would have to knock down to 
make it usable. 

"Seems all right," Brown, the RAF officer, murmured. 
"Let's have a look round the other side." 

They picked their way around, making a wide detour along 
the coast with the sea glinting between the trees. While they 
were filtering past a field a native yelled and pointed at them. 
The others in the field looked up. The three Englishmen 
skipped on into the jungle fast. On the beach side of the forest 
they spotted the Jap bunker positions facing the sea; they 
brought out their cameras and crawled up to photograph these. 
And from this shelter, they had a good look at their bay in 

Dusk was slow in coming. When it did, the three men came 
out on to the edge of the airstrip and dug up some soil samples. 
They tried to nose further round on the big clearing, but were 
driven back by the sudden angry commotion of barking dogs 
and another flitting Jap patrol. This area was thick with troops. 
Huts dotted the strip all guarded vociferously by dogs and 
made it impossible to see more. They turned and ploughed 
painfully back through the forest to their canoe-guarding party. 
It was dawn before they reached it. 

"We've been spotted too," Major Maxwell told Mackenzie. 
Maxwell was the Royal Marine officer. "Four fishermen 
came across our canoes. Native on the beach saw us too. 
Seems friendly, though. We'll just have to keep watching 
him." They posted a guard and Mackenzie and his party 
turned in wearily among the bushes and slept. 

It seemed that the Major had only just closed his eyes when 
somebody was shaking him awake* It was the sentry. 

"ML coming into the beach, sir! Straight for us!" 

He looked out. It was jammed with armed men. 

"Stand to!" 


They rushed for their weapons and stood to, watching the 
approaching launch. It beached and the Thais police leaped 
out and came fanning up the beach. They dropped to the sand. 
Both sides opened fire at once. 

"Hold it!" Major Maxwell yelled. 

He held up a Union Jack, stepped out, and began walking 
down to the Thais, waving the flag. He was risking himself 
for all of them on the strength of what Intelligence had told 
them that the Siamese were friendly-disposed. 

When he got there the others from their cover saw a strange 
pantomime take place. Then Maxwell, protesting, began to 
remove his clothing. The Thai officer was ordering him to 
strip, making gestures towards the trees at the same time which 
showed he was insisting on the surrender of the others. Then 
bewilderingly, one of the Thai police opened up on the group 
crouched on the forest fringe at the top of the beach. 

"Fire!*' snapped Mackenzie. They opened up again and at 
that the Major broke from the group of Thais and legged it 
back for the thicket, hopping stark naked over the sand. In 
the confusion he made it. He dropped among them gasping. 
"Run for it!" 

Someone threw him a khaki comforter. He wrapped the 
scarf around his loins as they all rushed through the trees 
towards the jungle-covered hills. 

The pursuit was fierce. The Thai police were right behind 
them, and every now and then the bullets would whistle and 
thud through the forest about their heads. Sergeant Smith 
cursed and chucked away his Tommy-gun disgustedly. It had 
jammed. They pulled up, turned and slung back grenades at the 
scurrying figures of their pursuers. The explosions echoed among 
the high trees and scattered the birds with a scandalised 

Finally, dodging and crashing desperately on, they shook 
them off. The jungle was thick now and the going was awful. 
They had to fight creeper aside and it closed immediately 
behind them. 

Major Mackenzie was bleeding from a scalp graze, but that 
was all. They made a wide, straggling detour of the coast and 
slowly worked down through the jungle to the fringe of the 
next bay. They would have to keep near the sea. That way 


lay their rendezvous with the submarine, and escape. They 
slept behind the jungle-fringed beach. At first light the watch 
moved round, waking them, and they set off south to a spot 
overlooking their emergency rendezvous. 

It may have been that local natives had heard them, or 
kept a watch and reported their progress. Just as they were 
beginning to feel safe one of the Marines shouted, "They've 
seen us, sir!" 

Through the trees they could see another launch had landed 
and was spilling out troops. They came straight up the beach 
and into the jungle at them, guns blazing. The British replied, 
retreating up the thick jungle slope. Smith, the marine sergeant, 
gave a cry and fell sprawling. He was hit in the head badly, by 
the look of it, with the blood pumping out but then he 
opened his eyes, and managed to get to his feet, and stumbled 
on with them. 

"Better split up!" Mackenzie yelled. "Make for the rock 
after dark!" 

Further down-coast lay their next rendezvous point, a big 
rock humping out of the sea a few yards offshore. Mackenzie 
stayed with the wounded Sergeant Smith. The Thais had rifles. 
They had the better of it, for he and the others only had 
revolvers. Every now and then the shooting would blaze up 
somewhere in the jungle as the patrols beating the forest 
caught up with one or two of them. 

As night closed in the search died away and they came down 
separately from the hills through the trees to their rendezvous 
rock. They were ragged, dishevelled, and famished as they 
appeared, challenging each other with cautious whispers out 
of the darkness. A sentry watched the sea for the submarine, 
or a canoe, while the others slept around him like dead men. 

There was no sign of anybody from the sea. 

The next day they all melted into the jungle again, except 
Brown, the RAF officer; he stayed in sight of the rock. All 
day Japanese barges puttered up and down the coast, ferrying 
search parties ashore. The hunt was on with a vengeance. 
Another Thai party grounded on their beach and stayed all day, 
beating about in the bush for them. Brown kept low and 
coolly took pictures of the bay for Intelligence. 

Again that night they re-grouped and waited, but made no 


contact with Thrasher. It was a night of anguish in which hope 
faded as the sky paled and the bland sea mocked them, still and 

It was March i4th, D-plus-5- The alternative that stared 
them all in the face with the coming of dawn was grim. They 
would all have to make their way right across the island to the 
other submarine's emergency rendezvous the Torbay's and 
hope for the best. The alternative rendezvous was ten miles 
away through dense jungle. 

It was not a pleasant prospect with Mackenzie's scalp 
wound beginning to bother him and with Sergeant Smith now 
in a bad way and collapsing. 

It took them four days, marching and sleeping in the jungle. 
They had eaten their last rations three days before they started 
and though they managed to get plenty of water from the hill 
streams inland as they moved across the island, the forest was 
bare of food. They had been trained in eleven different ways of 
cooking bananas but nobody back at base had thought fit to 
warn them that the monkeys would have eaten all the bananas 
growing in the jungle. 

All over the island, now thoroughly roused, the Japs were 
combing for them. They nearly ran into one big patrol of well 
over a hundred soldiers moving in sections across the country 
looking for them. At that, they lay low for a couple of hours 
before daring to move on. Then just as they thought they were 
clear, a Jap sentry on the forest fringe spotted them and raised 
the alarm. They changed direction and plunged away. The six 
men managed to avoid several parties of Thai natives they 
were now a little cynical about the intelligence yarn that the 
Siamese were friendly. 

They were taking turns to carry Smith, the wounded 
sergeant, and now on the last day, within sight of their rendez- 
vous, he stumbled, fell from their grasp, and lay there twitching 
convulsively about on the ground. The others crowded about 
him watching helplessly. There was nothing anybody could do 
except hope he would come out of it safely. Underneath the 
head bandage Smith's eyes were wide and vacant. Gradually 
the violent jerking of his limbs subsided. He breathed noisily, 
unconscious; they let him sleep and slumped about him, ears 
cocked for their hunters. 


Smith woke but he was in a bad way. He was as weak as a 
baby now. He had four more fits that afternoon as they reeled 
onward to the new rendezvous, taking turns to carry him. 

At last there was the beach. 

It was deserted. 

They posted their lookouts along it at sunset to watch 
throughout the night for any canoes from the other submarine, 
the Torbay. The emergency escape plan should be operating for 
them now. But the whole night passed without a sign from the 

\Vhen dawn came Mackenzie and the RAF officer plodded 
wearily off to hunt about for native canoes. Their idea was 
desperate to steal them and make off for one of the outlying 
small islands. Mackenzie remembered the Yank O.S.S. agents 
he had palled up with back in Ceylon; they had said they 
occupied a hideout on a small island only thirty miles from 

They came back shaking their heads; the beaches east of 
them were bare of anything that floated. 

Three of the party the near-nude Major Maxwell in his 
woollen loin cloth and two of his Marines, Brownlie and 
Atkinson decided to search the other way along the coast, 
They were now starving; in their desperation they were eating 
leaves. They had had nothing now for seven days. The three 
Marines aimed to paddle any craft they chanced upon back 
around to the other beach from which they had first been 
driven into the jungle and where they had left a 14-day supply 
of rations buried in their flight from the Thais. It was a forlorn 
hope. The place would be stiff with Japs. The Marines knew it 
and shrugged as they said goodbye and moved off. There was 
now no chance of contacting the submarine before the following 
Sunday. What else was there to do? 

That left Major Mackenzie and the airman, Flight-Lieuten- 
ant Brown, to look after the wounded Smith. Mackenzie's own 
scalp wound had matted and bothered him with its throbbing, 
but Smith's condition was ghastly. Between attacks of convul- 
sions he lapsed into semi-consciousness. They made a bower 
for him beneath the bushes and laid him in it while they 
hunted for food. Mackenzie and the RAF officer took it in 
turns to sample the berries they plucked. They tried out 


different kinds of leaves, too; They were all bitter and useless. 
Once Brown dived forward with an exclamation and came up 
with a round pebble in his hands, grinning excitedly. It was a 
wild hen's egg. They saved it to share with Smith that, and 
the bark they collected from the otherwise empty banana trees; 
this was dry and tasteless but it gave the illusion of eating. 

A Jap patrol appeared on their beach that afternoon. They 
watched it from the trees, helpless. Smith could not be moved 
now. They covered him with undergrowth while they were 
away foraging. 

At one stage in their despairing search for food Mackenzie 
felt a light patter on his head. Broken nut shells were dropping 
about him on the ground. He looked up. High among the 
branches a lizard squatted, cracking nuts and letting the shells 
fall, watching them drop on the men below. It was too high for 
them to climb. All Mackenzie could say, hoarsely, was, "Lucky 
so-and-so 1" 

They got back just in time to see a lone Jap running away 
from their hideout. Inside it, Smith was still alive. He was 
conscious enough to understand Mackenzie, who bent down. 

"We've been spotted. If they come, remember don't fire. 
That's an order 1 All right?" 

Smith managed a faint smile. Mackenzie just put his hefty 
hand on his arm and squeezed, not knowing what to say. He and 
Brown collected their ammunition and withdrew into the jungle. 

Soon after it was dark they came warily back, down from the 
tree-clad hills, but stopped short. All around their lair were the 
silhouettes of the Japanese. They had got Sergeant Smith. 

For the following four days Mackenzie and the flight- 
lieutenant came back to the beach to the point arranged with 
the others. Every day they had to play hide-and-seek with the 
patrols which still combed the wooded slopes and shore-line 
relentlessly. They were weakening now from starvation and 
jungle sores were breaking out on their legs. The slightest 
prick from a bush or thorn was enough to start a new one. 

On Sunday March 25th they came hobbling eagerly down 
through the casuarinas and palms. It was Sunday. Emergency 
escape day. Tonight the submarine might appear and send in a 

They had not been there long when a figure came drifting 


through the trees. They watched it from the shadows. The 
man was alone. 

Then his voice came to them- It was hardly any voice at all, 
only a thin croak. "Baboon?" 


The man came slowly on. It was Atkinson, the Marine 
corporaL He was dazed and dead beat and in the dark his face 
was like a ghost's. 

He said, "Brownlie's done for. And I think they caught the 
Major, sir." 

Atkinson, Major Maxwell and Marine Brownlie had managed 
to reach the top end of their original bay by the hazardous 
short route via the beaches, dodging the Japs on the way. 
They got there the following evening, spotted a canoe on 
the beach, crawled up to it eagerly only to find it had no 

A native saw them and fled up the beach. At that the three 
Marines scattered into the thicket inland, and lay up. They 
knew very well that without a canoe they had nothing left in 
them to get to the other end of that immense bay, curving off to 
the horizon itself, Somewhere in that distance, where the white 
beach met the blue infinity, lay their buried tins of food. By 
now food was life. But for life itself they would never make it on 
foot. They turned to struggle back to Mackenzie and his party, 
waiting up-coast in hopes of the submarine. 

Next morning on their painful march the Marines ran slap 
into a Jap patrol, and scattered again. Atkinson saw Major 
Maxwell heading south as they took to their heels, to divide the 
hunt. When they rejoined cautiously two hours later, the 
Major was missing. The other two waited. The Japs must have 
grabbed him. There had been no shots. They pushed on, and 
for the next two days legged it feebly back towards the rendez- 
vous, bolting every now and then as the hunt dosed about 
them. Obviously, now, the Japs had their progress thoroughly 

Early one morning the corporal and Brownlie came painfully 
downhill along the bank of a small stream towards the coast 
when Brownlie yelled from behind, "Look out! Japs!" Both 
dived into the bamboo. They blundered clean through its 
thin curtain and on to a bush track. 


They came staggering out of the bamboo right into the arms 
of another Jap patrol, wheeled in dismay, and fled. 

Brownlie pounded blindly away straight down the track. 
The Japs opened fire from a few yards and their opening volley 
brought him down. He fell in a cloud of dust and lay still. 
Atkinson leaped back into the bamboo, clawed through it, 
floundered across the stream and into the jungle the other side. 
When he had got some distance away he fell to his knees, tried 
vainly to get up, and crawled the rest of the way towards a 
hollow tree. He got inside it and lay there all day while the 
patrol scoured the jungle around him. 

When Atkinson emerged from his hollow tree for his last 
dash, more Japs sighted and chased him, but he eluded them 
desperately, and he had made it to their rendezvous. 

That night the three survivors Major Mackenzie, Flight- 
Lieutenant Brown, and Atkinson, the Marine watched from 
the rock which, they reckoned, marked their tryst with the 

Again, the sea gave no sign. 

By this time, they knew, Thrasher* would have left on another 

* Submarine Thrasher returned to the pre-arranged rendezvous for five 
nights after the parties landed, and searched inshore for the waiting men. 
Then it rendezvoused with Torbay off Goy Huang Island in the Similan 
Group and Alec Hughes swam across to Thrasher for a conference. They 
decided there was nothing either could do for the moment, and withdrew. 
Thrasher proceeded on another operation. The mystery of Major Mack- 
enzie's party failing to contact it on D-plus-4 remains unsolved, as both 
Thrasher and the shore party assert that they appeared at the correct 
rendezvous point. They may have stayed waiting within a few hundred 
yards of each other without picking up the signals. 

Two days later Torbay came back to Puket Island to the emergency 
escape point. Hughes and Alcock paddled along the shore ten yards from 
the water's edge, running a strong risk, of the silhouettes being seen, but 
found nobody. 

Torbay returned in a further three days and sent in two canoes under 
Commander Hughes. "No contact." 

Here again it is obvious that Mackenzie and Hughes disagreed as to the 
exact position of the rendezvous. Once more it is likely they came to within 
a few hundred yards of each other and still failed to link up. Homing 
remained the greatest hazard for COPPs. 

Before the final emergency rendezvous night Torbay received a signal 
from SACSEA that in view of the danger of further compromise no further 
attempts were to be made to rescue the party ashore. 


operation. They had pinned their last hope in vain it seemed 
on the chance that Tarbay might still be hanging about to try 
and get them off. 

Now, their whole area was swarming with Japanese, con- 
verging on them through the jungle. To landward they were 
practically surrounded. 

Before dawn the three of them took to the sea, wading and 
then swimming for an island lying about half a mile offshore. 
In their starved, emaciated state the swim was a terrible one. 

They dragged themselves ashore and lay up among the rocks 
as the sun climbed. Now and then a fisherman came climbing 
past their hideout and they had to stir themselves and crawl 
out of the way. 

The three of them were watching for the Jap barge they had 
seen use the island's moorings at night from the shore. 

The barge carne puttering in that afternoon to the lee side of 
the island, with three Japs aboard. Mackenzie and the others 
looked over their guns. When night came they aimed to swim 
out, pull themselves aboard, kill the Japs and make off into the 
night for one of the islands away to the west on which, they 
had heard, the Americans had their agents. 

Dusk came. And as it softened the coastal outline and 
quenched the golden wash of the sun in the sea, the barge 
engine started up. It moved slowly away from its moorings 
out to sea. 

It was the last straw. There was nothing left to do. They 
had not eaten for fifteen days. 

"We'll have to try a village." 

"They can only shoot us," Brown said. 

It no longer seemed to matter. Somehow they made it back 
across the half-mile strip of sea to the mainland. It so enfeebled 
them that they were careless about dodging any more, but 
luck helped them as they limped in file along the fringe of the 
beach and turned inland. They came into a small clearing dotted 
with huts, halted, and were surrounded in an instant by Thai 

Their wild-entreating eyes, staring out of gaunt, stubbly 
faces needed no pantomiming to help them. Food, they 
mouthed, desperately eager to be understood. They fetched out 
their blood chits printed in Siamese. This is a British officer. 


If you help him and treat him well you will be rewarded. British 
forces will soon be landing to liberate your country and rid it of the 
hated Japanese conqueror. Etcetera. 

The whole village was plainly terrified of the Japs. They 
looked doubtfully at the Englishmen's chits and shook their 
heads. Reluctantly, at last, the head man changed and let 
them stay. The others cast boding looks at them. Amid such 
fear their welcome would wear thin in no time. 

The next afternoon a village boy padded down into their 
hiding-place, delivered a note, and stood there solemnly toeing 
the dust while Mackenzie read it. 

It said: Dear Friend, 
I am a friend of the British and wish to help you. 

District Officer. 

"What price our blood chits!" 

"It's a trap!" 

"Look, if it's a trap, they only have to walk in and chuck us a 

"Well, here goes." Mackenzie got up. 

He followed the boy out along a track which wound along 
the fringe of the jungle until they came to a clearing. Standing 
in the middle of it was a lone Thai dressed in a topi and a shirt. 

The boy pointed. Mackenzie went forward. The Thai 
District Officer bowed. 

"It would be better," he said in careful English, "If you not 
fall in Japanese hands." 

Mackenzie agreed warmly. Then he asked for a boat; they 
would try and get to Rangoon. 

The Siamese shook his head hastily. He was nervous and 
obviously scared of the Japs. He kept fidgeting and glancing 
around him and smiling painfully; he was sticking his neck 
out to help them at all, and it was plainly taking all his courage. 

He said, "Better you surrender to Thai Navy. They will 
well-treat you. Japanese" he looked around him again 
"perhaps kill." 

At last his stubbornness persuaded Mackenzie. Without Thai 
help, he could do nothing. He scribbled a note in pencil to the 
others advising them to join him, and sent it back with the 
waiting bov. 


By the time Brown and Atkinson came hobbling into the 
clearing the Siamese had brought up a lorry from his village. 
They climbed in the back and the lorry bumped down the 
jungle track and out onto a main road towards the Siamese 
seaplane base. At a shore encampment they drew up and the 
District Officer handed them over. A bunch of Siamese troops 
came aboard and squatted around them. 

Now they were truly prisoners. 

When next the lorry pulled up, they saw squads of Japanese 
troops on the road, all staring curiously at the truck. A couple 
of Jap officers came walking over. 

At that their Thai officer motioned them under a tarpaulin. 
His troops stood on them. While they crouched there a squabble 
went on outside. To their relief, the engine started up and the 
gears grated. They were off again this time to the local jail. 
The Thais had refused to give them up, and they had won. 

Not long after their cell door closed, their head jailer came. 
He was a genial villain, with a long smooth high-cheeked Thai 
face. He knew a little English. His first words stirred a feint 
sickness within them. 

"The Japanese come," he announced, and grinned upon 

" b u t only to ask questions. We keep you.' 1 

As he went out he turned. "Lucky you go Bangkok, not 

They could not have said it better themselves. 



THE operations off Malaya went on. 

On a moonless night in June 1945, off the low, swampy 
Malayan mainland near the port of Morib, the quiet was broken 
by one of those submarine sighs. Water cascaded in the darkness 
and the dim tower of the Seadog showed against the few 
stars. There was the usual iron-clanging, some slaps in the 
water, and four canoes came stroking away, heading for a 
spit of sand which ran out from the mangrove-lined shore. 

It was a long beach. One canoe anchored offshore to keep 
watch and maintain a link with the submarine. The other 
three split up to tackle the land spit: Lieutenant Hood paddled 
away to the south. COPP 3*s Commander, Alec Hughes, 
stroked in towards the centre. The Canadian officer, Lieutenant 
Alcock, turned with his paddler to search out the northern 
end of the beach. 

The strong tidal set helped Alcock and brought him swiftly 
opposite the dim lozenge of sand where it dipped into the 
sea. He went in, crawled about, and found himself on a beach 
so soft that it would swallow any landing alive. He and his 
paddler came beating back against the powerful set, looking 
for Hughes. Vainly; Hughes must still be busy ashore. They 
carried on with their recce, then stroked back, checked their 
position against the northern tip, and again came battling 
desperately, this time against the force of the tide to find their 

Again they were out of luck, groping in the dark for each 
other. It was now 1.30 the final time for all canoes to return 
to the submarine. 

"Try the RG. Well have to home direct to Seadog:' 
His paddler Turner picked up the infra-red and blipped, 
but no answer showed on the screen. They risked a shaded 

After two hours, still no answer. 



It was now 3.30. Emergency rendezvous with the submarine 
was ten miles out to sea. 

"We'll never make it by daylight," Alcock muttered. He 
didn't have to say much more. Already on their way out 
they had slipped past the dim bulks of no less than eight 
junks. They infested the Malacca Strait; with that, and the 
aircraft flying between Malaya and Sumatra, the chances 
of their living for long beyond dawn in this sea were not 
worth counting. 

They dumped their secret stores overboard with all their 
inshore recce gear, leaving only what they needed for deep- 
water navigation. The Canadian said, '*We'll take a course 
that'll land us well south of the recce beach/' 

Their canoe grounded just as dawn was breaking. There 
was no time left to start wrecking the canoe. At the top of 
the beach there was a grassy strip with some scattered trees. 
No sign of Japs. The coast road was probably less than two 
hundred yards away, but before them as they dragged their 
canoe to the crest of the beach lay a swamp. They waded into 
it cautiously till they had both sunk in it up to their necks. 
It was too deep to cross. 

All that day they hid there. The swamp and its reeds gave 
them good cover. It was an oppressive, lowering day, full of 
portents of the storm that was gathering over on the horizon. 

Just before nightfall it broke, with squalls and heavy rain. 
As soon as the darkness came they moved off through it and 
probed and found the road. 

They slipped across it in the cover of a squall, but the 
curtain of rain was so intense that they did not realise what 
they had blundered into until it lifted and revealed the outlines 
around them. 

Huts, all laid out in neat lines. They were in the middle of a 
Japanese camp. 

There was nothing to do now but go through it. They 
scurried through, flitting from hut to hut, pausing in their 
deeper shadows to assess what lay just ahead, darting forward 
again. Some of the windows were open. Shafts of light shone 
out through the squall and onto their rain-pitted mud path. 
They could see the Japs inside, crowded around tables, smoke 
from their cigarettes wreathing in the yellow light glare. 


They darted forward again. At last they were through. 

Now they would have to get as far inland as they could, 
away from the coast garrisons. They leaped across wide 
trenches whose banks streamed glutinously under the driving 
rain. All through the night, stumbling blindly northward 
through rain and forest and plantation, their luck held. They 
were tiring badly when Alcock uncapped his watch; two 
o'clock, its dial shone greenly, and at last he dared to call a 
halt for the night. 

Having spent eight hard-working hours in a canoe and the 
next fourteen up to their chins in a swamp, followed by a 
seven-hour dash through Jap-held territory and jungle, they 
were done in. They each found a sheltering tree and slumped 
under it, and slept. 

The sunlight woke them, and the jungle noises; monkeys 
quarrelling and the strident lyricism of many birds. 

Luckily they were pretty well dressed for the jungle. Both 
were in jungle green battle dress and negative caps. The 
short, stocky Canadian Lieutenant Alcock, however, had 
rubber parachutist's boots which were bad for jungle work; 
where it was wet he slipped and skidded like a novice skater. 
Turner's rope-soled submarine shoes were ideal. The wetter 
they got the harder they became. They were wonderful for 
climbing among fallen trees and forest roots. 

They set off, making for the east now. Intelligence had 
told them that the only organised guerillas on the Peninsula 
were the Chinese. It was better to avoid the Malays, and 
so they carefully skirted the plantations, keeping always 
close to the jungle in case the natives or the Japs sighted 
them. Each of them carried an automatic and thirty rounds, 
a compass, some water-sterilising tablets, enough concentrated 
food in a pack to last seven days but not to fight through 
jungle a flask of rum, a map of Malaya and Sumatra, 500 
Malay dollars, a "blood chit" and a Chinese "pointee-talkie" 
vocabulary. They both had Commando knives in their belts. 

At the end of the day they saw their first Chinese. Alcock 
and Turner peeped at them and their well-kept property 
through the jungle foliage. The officer shook his head. "No 
dice. They look too prosperous." 

The next morning some natives on a plantation spotted 


them before they could slip back among the trees. Alcock 

"Ah, what the hell?" he said. "Let's talk! WeVe got our 
guns and the jungle behind us.'* 

They left the jungle fringe and walked towards them, 
waving reassuringly. The natives stood their ground, awed, 
curious. Some of them smiled. Turner said, "Watch it, sir 
one of them's going away!" 

But the native did not go very far. He came back bearing 
a pineapple and offered it, bowing and grinning. Alcock 
bowed, skinned himself a slice and said ecstatically, sucking 
back the sweetly astringent juice as it dripped down his stubbly 
chin, "I think they're friendly!" 

They showed their blood chits, and by the way the natives 
chattered and pointed at the words in Jawl, they realised they 
had happened upon a Javanese community. 

The men crowded about them and bore them off excitedly 
to the huddle of wood-and-thatch houses in the clearing. They 
were shown into one, and soon the whole village was jostling 
around the doorway in the sunlight outside, peering in and 
chattering as though the Britishers were apparitions from 
another planet. Children gaped through the legs of their 
elders. One by one the families came in, bowed, smiling 
widely, introduced themselves and their offspring, and laid 
out presents of food: a great array of fruit and fish and meat 
and fresh vegetables. The two men were oddly moved. There 
was even home-grown tobacco. Their hosts produced a tattered 
fragment of the Singapore Times of 1939, and they rolled 
cigarettes in it. 

They had struck it lucky. It took a lot of hand-waving 
and grimacing and hopeless manipulation of the Chinese 
"pointie-talkie" before it dawned on both of them that the 
Javanese visiting them in relays were trying to tell them 
that they all belonged to some sort of anti-Jap organisation. 
They were later to realise that whole communities like this 
were knitted into a vast underground movement. It was 
called the anti-Jap Civilian Forces the AJCF. The civilians 
stayed put and went dutifully about their business under the 
nose of the Japanese, and at the same time fed the guerilla 
fighters in the jungle ^the AJF, Anti-Jap Force, a miUtary 


organisation with information, funds, food, and occasionally 
with orders. 

One of the few natives who could speak a little English 
explained that he was a sergeant in the civilian forces. He 
chattered to Alcock in a mixture of Javanese and the worst 
pidgin, holding up his fingers, grinning, showing his broken 
white teeth. 

Alcock turned. "He says the Japs are out looking for some 
Europeans they believe have landed Guess they found our 
canoe. They're offering 10,000 dollars for information leading 
them to us." 

Turner was disgusted. "Blimey Straits dollars? Is that all?" 

That evening the sergeant came back with a well-fed, 
important-looking Chinese and an escort of four natives in 
tow. They entered the flickering light of the hut and the 
Chinese introduced himself with wary ceremony. He produced 
a paper written in English, Tamil and Malay announcing him 
to be a member of the anti-Jap forces. He considered their 
blood chits, his shiny-ivory face impassive and mysterious in 
the flickering firelight, and seemed to be satisfied. Then he 
got ponderously to his feet and said in quite good English, 
"Dangerous you stop here. Better you come with me." 

The Javenese crouched about them, watching these ex- 
changes respectfully. How far? The post was about thirty 
miles. They would travel along the main coast road on bicycles. 
Dangerous? Everybody shrugged and considered this. Yes 

Alcock and Turner changed into native clothes. They thought 
they had better blacken their arms, faces and legs, and wear 
straw hats. The natives started cackling at the weird sight they 
presented; the news sped through the village and brought 
them a House Full audience whooping with merriment out- 
side their door. The stubby little Canadian Lieutenant Alcock 
gravely doffed his coolie hat which showed a shock of red 
hair above his grimy face. With the huge Leading Seaman 
Turner towering self-consciously above him in a loose coat 
with a skirt knotted at his navel, they made a vaudeville pair. 

With their escorts, they walked their bikes along a trail 
till it came out on the coast road. They went carefully past a 
police station at the junction, The sergeant had whispered at 


them not to worry: there would only be two or three Japs 
there, and a score or so of Malays. All they had to do was to 
shoot the Japs, and the Malays would put their hands up. 

They went past two more stations like this fringing the 
coast road, then an MT park full of Jap vehicles, and cycled 
silently through a sleeping village. The road was ruler-straight 
along this flat shore, and Alcock was desperately tired. In spite 
of the need for alertness he found himself dozing. At least 
three times he fell asleep, waking up once with a start and 
wobbling to get his balance. The second time he ran into a 
bullock cart Unchastened by this, he dozed off again and 
somersaulted into a ditch. 

Their thirty miles turned out to be much more. And it was 
only the beginning. By dawn they had already been passed 
on from one Chinese village headquarters to another, and there 
the Chinese anti-Jap officers listened with obvious suspicion 
to Alcock's request to send a radio message through to Ceylon. 
Their reaction was invariable. It is safer further on. They did 
not say for whom. 

For the rest of the day they walked, this time across miles 
of paddy and through rubber plantations, making towards 
the jungle hinterland and being delivered from one guide to 
another. Their last guide had a surprise for them. He put an 
index on the American flag in their pointee-talkie, pointed 
ahead, and held up two fingers. Somewhere ahead of them were 
two Americans. He thumped them on the chest. Like you. 

He took them along a jungle path. A few hundred yards 
along it a raggedly uniformed Chinese soldier in a five-pointed 
cap stepped out and barred their way. They exchanged words 
and he led them on through the forest which opened out into 
a strange world. The evening smoke from many fires rose in 
the clearing. All around them youngsters in the same five- 
pointed peaked caps with the three stars on them unbent or 
turned to look at them as they went through. Some were 
cleaning their rifles, others binding their jungle sores with 
filthy rags. One of the kids he was little more than eighteen 
grinned at them and patted his rifle. Were they dreaming? 
The sight of them was something to make the heart leap. 
They had heard the guerillas existed, but only romantically, 


remotely. It had been bare of meaning for them until, suddenly, 
they found themselves walking among them like this, follow- 
ing a sentry into the bivouac of an organised guerilla army. 

Turner cast incredulous stares about him. "I can't wait to 
get to the NAAFI," he muttered. 

But there was a bigger surprise than the NAAFI waiting 
for them. Ahead lay the main hut of the encampment, and 
lounging outside it were two figures. 

Turner saw them first. "They're not Yanks, sir! They're 
our own blokes!" 

So they were. Hood, the young sub-lieutenant, and his 
paddler, Sowter. They, too, had failed to pick up the sub- 

"Well, I'll be darned!" 

"Dr. Alcock, I presume. Pardon our dirty bare feet, sir." 

"You should have brought your boots, mate." 

"Oh I love you in that skirt. And the hat I" 

"Hell of an operation this turned out to be. And they called 
it Operation Confidence^ 

When the backslapping and commiseration was over Alcock 
and his tall paddler stumbled for the jungle, curled up in the 
undergrowth, and slept blissfully till well into the following 

When they got back to the clearing with the morning sun 
slanting through it both Hood and the seaman, Sowter, were 
waiting for them. They looked ghastly and shaken. It did not 
take Alcock long to find out why. Hood pointed to the knot 
of soldiers standing over near the galley fire. Shrieks and 
screams were coming from the ground. 

"The AJF caught a spy. They've been torturing him all 
morning. We've just had to stand by and watch." 

The Chinese had tied the native spy hand and foot, and 
thrown him on the ground. He lay there, imploring, screech- 
ing, eyes rolling fearfully, while the soldiers heaped extra logs 
on the fire. As soon as these were blazing well, three or four 
of them each took up a log, formed a circle around the prisoner, 
and turned the flaming tips on him. One jabbed with specu- 
lative calm at his face. As he writhed away, screaming, another 
brand met and seared him; he rolled in agony in a new direction 
and another stake scorched him remorseless, indifferent to 


eyes, mouth, throat, or limbs. While they plied their poles the 
soldiers shouted questions at the smoking, contorted bundle 
on the ground and he answered desperately between his 
prayers and those terrible sobbing screams. 

The kicking and the writhing grew spasmodic. The screams 
which had rung through the trees fell away into a crazed 
moaning, and with that the soldiers grew tired. One by one 
they gave up. -There was no more to be got out of this one. 
The camp came swarming up as the N.C.O. raised a great 
curved sword a captured samurai. There was a sudden sharp 
word of command and the sword thrashed down. The body 
quivered and was still, the head almost completely severed. 

That spy was lucky. Sometimes, they were to discover 
later, they lacked a sword, and used a hoe. They were also to 
learn that in this district alone, Selangor, they used to kill 
about a hundred spies and a half-dozen Japs a month. 

Lunch that day was rice and sweet potatoes and monkey 
meat. After the morning's spectacle, none of them ate well. 
Alcock avoided the monkey meat; it was too closely linked, 
somehow, with the tormented wretch who had just died. He 
had a sickening personal vision and pushed the half-eaten 
meal away. "They've been stuffing us with food at every 
camp," he said. 

That afternoon one Ching Fee, an English-speaking Chinese 
N.C.O., returned to the camp with blankets, shirts, and shorts 
for Hood and Sowter. He exhibited not the slightest surprise 
to find two more Britishers there. "Senior Officer arrive soon," 
he said, looked at them all, bowed, and vanished again into 
the jungle. 

Senior Officer arrive soon. That was to become an ironic 
slogan with them. 

They stayed there for three days, a ragged band of guerillas 
who drilled and manoeuvred in the jungle with deadly earnest- 
ness but who remained apparently isolated. They were all 
Chinese youngsters in their late teens or early twenties, some 
of them with three years of jungle warfare behind them, and 
they were all in bad physical shape. Most of them had scabies 
and malaria; some were covered from head to foot in running 

Hood and Sowter, still in their bare feet, had collected a 


lot of scratches on their escape inland to this camp, and already 
their legs were breaking out in jungle sores. They were in a 
bad way for walking about in the forest and tried to rest up to 
heal them, while all around them the Chinese went earnestly 
through their jungle drills. Except for the five-pointed peaked 
cap with its 3 -star insignia these were nondescriptly dressed in 
shirts with or without shorts puttees, and shoes. They 
carried a small pack and bore their arms as reverently as 
totems of gold. The newer recruits among them, fresh from 
initiatory training, carried shotguns. They were second-line 
troops. The others had rifles or Tommy-guns which they 
kept spotlessly clean. The worst thing that could happen to 
any of them was to get de-moted to a shotgun. 

More than a score of these youths were mustered to a unit 
like this, under a sergeant. Wherever they camped he kept 
them at it stalking, camouflaging, decoy drills, organising 
retreats, squad and rifle drill. Beside the bird calls, his whistle 
was the commonest sound of the day. 

"Listen!" Alcock said. 

The other three looked up. 

"Hear anything you know?" 

It came to them again through the trees one of the number- 
less songs. The Anti-Japs had songs for the jungle, songs for 
their food, songs for battle. This was a marching song. 

"Pack Up Your Troubles! I'll be damned!" 

"Blimey in Chinese!" 

Three days later the sergeant came to them and explained 
that the unit was moving out. With signs and patient resorting 
to the "pointee-talkee," he conveyed that they were going on to 
a headquarters. 

They marched by night through the rubber plantations of 
the hinterland, always keeping close to the jungle. At the 
first sign of Japs in the area their scouts would come scuttling 
back and the whole force would melt into the forest. Hood 
and Sowter hobbled along with rags wound around their feet. 
Alcock, the senior, kept on the heels of the Chinese sergeant 
and badgered him doggedly for information. Where were 
they going? When would they get to a headquarters? This 
message for Ceylon very important. Must speak with big 
Chinese Officer. When? 


All he could ever get in answer was a patient yet casual 
Never mind. Headquarters not far away now. 

But they kept on marching endlessly and after a while they 
began to make another bitter slogan out of this. They added 
it to the one about Senior Officer come soon. Never wind. Alcock 
checked with his compass and found that they were moving 
in a wide circle. After a week of this the English-speaking 
Ching Fee suddenly appeared in their midst again. 

He came out of the darkness into the light of their camp- 
fire, beckoned to Alcock, and led him off into the jungle. 

"Very High Officer," he explained over his shoulder as he 
parted the ferns that swished in their faces. 

They came to the centre of a plantation and there, out of the 
blackness, several shadows appeared. Ching Fee and Alcock 
halted some yards away. 

One of the shadows spoke. The questions were hostile and 
suspicious but at the end of the weird parley, with Ching Fee 
translating, they seemed to be satisfied. Alcock asked and won 
a boon. They let him scribble out a radio message in the 
darkness for Ceylon, and took it. In it he reported them safe, 
asked approval to carry on reconnoitring the beaches with 
local help and prompted by his unseen interrogators asked 
for an arms drop for the anti-Japs, 

Back at camp they settled down to wait, day-camping 
among the rubber trees on the edge of the plantation and 
moving into the jungle to sleep at night, for the fortnight or 
so that it took to get an answer to their radio message. Alcock 
stopped trying to guess by what channels it would come. All 
he could understand was this: 

The whole resistance movement in Malaya was controlled 
by the Anti-Jap Civilian Force. Virtually the entire population 
in the outlying areas belonged to them. It was the civilian's 
organisation, AJCF, which supplied and controlled the anti- 
Jap guerilla army. It restricted the authority of the guerilla 
officers and their knowledge of what went on beyond their 
own areas. 

If the guerillas caught a suspected spy, it was the intelli- 
gence service of this highly organised civilian force which 
established his innocence or guilt. 

The method was simple. As soon as a strange man or woman 


entered the district, word of it came in to the headquarters 
of the Anti-Jap Civilian Force. They warned the local guerillas, 
who appeared from their hiding and seized the stranger. He 
was asked only three questions: What is your name? Where do 
you come from? Why are you here? 

A runner bore the answers off to the district the stranger 
named. There the Anti-Jap civilian authorities checked on 

The answer came back swiftly, for the areas individually 
controlled were small and closely neighbouring. If it was 
simply We do not know him, it was his death warrant. In these 
non-travelling peasant communities, everybody knew every- 
body else. Whether Chinese, Tamil, or Malay, he was tortured 
and killed. 

It was in this way that their respite from the heavy jungle 
marching while they waited for a reply to Alcock's hopeful 
signals to Ceylon were harshly interrupted. Through the 
rubber came the shouts of the guerilla sentries. The boys 
appeared out of the darkness among the tall trees, dragging 
three spies with them. One of them was a woman. 

It was nearly midnight. They would keep till daybreak, 
before their treatment began. They flung the three of them 
down, bound them, and mounted a guard over them. 

But at dawn they were all up and packing. The Japs were 
coming into the jungle. The guerilla troop had only an hour's 
warning of their coming. 

They all stayed where they were in the thick jungle, un- 
perturbed, waiting. 

The word kept coming in by runner. A lot of them two 
hundred or more. The Japs were heading straight their way. 
Their sergeant translated calmly in sign language. His ges- 
tures said, somebody must have spotted us and told the Japs. 
They seem to know just where we are. Wait. No worry 

Now the Japs were within a thousand yards of them. At 
the news, the sergeant got reluctantly to his feet and made a 
sign. His soldiers dragged the woman spy and her two com- 
panions out and flung them headlong. They screamed. An 
axe flashed in the dim mottled jungle light and hacked their 
heads off. There was no time to bury them. A youngster 


nudged one of the sailors and gestured cynically in the direction 
of the oncoming patrol. 

"What's he saying?" 

"Finders keepers, I think." 

They pushed five scouts ahead, left ten in the rear to watch 
and draw the Japs off if they got too near, and headed deep 
inward down creeper-strung game tracks that were like tunnels 
in the great jungle mass of tree and fern and impenetrable 
foliage. It was dank and squelchy and only a fitful patch 
of sunlight stabbed the gloom, gilding the delicate pinnate 
leaves of a fern with a sudden exclamatory glory. They had 
to step carefully every inch of the way over roots and liana 
and the great soft brown humus of rotting undergrowth. 

The guards ahead hacked and thrust in single file down 
their path. Swaying palm fronds lashed back and stung those 
following them with their prickles. 

The jungle thinned after a mile or so and they began sinking 
into ooze. They came out into sharp rough grass reaching 
high over their heads into the sudden bright sky. Swamp. 
It gurgled about them and soon they were up to their waists. 
The soldiers grimaced and made signs to them: There was 
ten miles of this ahead of them if the Japs pushed them too 

For the rest of the day they skulked waist-high in swamp 
water with the sun beating down on their skin like furnace 
flame, while the Japs probed the jungle around them. 
^ This was a sickening place alive with leeches, notoriously 
rife with fever and disease, stinking with decay. The leeches 
even got inside their shoes and ragged foot bandages, and 
great red ants dropped down on them from the waving heights 
of the elephant grass. It was so vilely unhealthy that one 
could not stay in it for more than a few hours before the 
insect bites and the leech scars began festering. 

But the evil jungle swamp was to be their refuge. It was 
the best place for dodging the Japs. At every new alert they 
would break from the jungle and go slushing through its 
sinister bogs to sidestep a new thrust from their hunters. 
The grim hide-and-seek went on for two long weeks and at the 
end of it the Japs malignant pawing for them through this 
impossible jungle faltered and died away altogether. 


Their little force came lurching out at last into the clean 
haven of a plantation, through the stately silver pillars of its 
rubber trees. By this time their condition was appalling. 
They all had jungle sores. A virulent kind of scabies had 
broken out among them. The two seamen, Sowter and Turner, 
were in an awful way with jungle sores spreading up their 
legs, and Alcock was laid out, shaking with fever. 

The naval party decided to start a sick bay. The English 
officer, Hood, helped Turner to scrounge all the material 
they could for bandages. It meant washing and dressing 
about twenty-five of the youngsters each day. Hood swabbed 
their revolting great sores gently, untiringly. He soothed them 
when they flinched in agony and ignored the stench of the 
rotting flesh. The wretched diet of rice relieved only by an 
occasional spiky fish they managed to trap in the swamp made 
the healing slow and painful. 

It was the first time since these boys had taken to the jungle 
with the guerilla army that anyone had done anything for them. 
They submitted to the cleaning torture docilely, like children. 

Even in this respite their training went on inexorably. 

Alcock and the three Englishmen had been a whole month 
in the Selangor jungle now. They had done nothing but dodge 
Japs, keep on the trek with the guerillas, badger, cajole and 
threaten the leader to get them to a headquarters, until it 
slowly dawned on them that he was as helpless and almost as 
ignorant of the world beyond their immediate compass of jungle 
and plantation as they themselves a simple cog in a guerilla 
machine wholly supplied, informed, instructed by civilians the 

An answer to their radio signal, too, was now well overdue. 

Alcock had given up the locals as useless. He even took 
out his map and studied it to try and work out an escape 
route out of Malaya. Beneath his ginger hair his face was 
lobster-red from the sun's grilling. 

"Never mind Japs," he muttered. "Looks like we've got to 
escape from 0Z/-Japs!" 

But next morning there was a sudden change. By the route 
which remained such a mystery to them, the unit received its 
orders to move on to another area. They were to leave their 
sick behind as well as the four Britishers. 


The four of them Lieutenant Alcock, Lieutenant Hood 
and the seamen, Sowter and Turner left the cooling fires of 
the camp by a jungle path with a guide and came at last to 
a clearing patched with slanting afternoon shadows. In it 
stood the usual-seeming Chinese plantation house a simple 
wooden hut with a high thatched roof, dwarfed on all sides by 
the immense tangled palisades of jungle. 

The Chinese came out, smiling, bowing and helped them 
in. It was like walking into a luxury hotel after the swamp and 
the trekking. There were two bedrooms for them. Two! 

The Chinese waited on them as if they were royalty. 

To their table came every kind of meat, fish, fruit and 
vegetables and they ate like the survivors of a famine. The 
beaming women in the kitchen never stopped cooking. Life 
was a procession of friendly people bearing new dishes of food 
and waiting on their every whim. 

In two weeks of this they were sleek and glowing again 
with health. Their jungle sores had healed and the fever had 

And then at last the message they had so long been waiting 
for came through. It came heralded by the ubiquitous Ching 
Fee who had bobbed up here and there at intervals like a 
genie in their jungle march, and disappeared as mysteriously 
again. He was clearly their link with the civilian resistance 
organisation, and the dog-eared note he handed to Alcock read : 



0600 Hrs. 14.7.45 

Your two undated letters (one with bad spelling) reached 
us on 4th July. AJF HQ were suspicious of you. Your message 
to SACSEA passed through our link and reply received on 
1 3th with following instructions: 

You are to proceed to Negri Sembilan and wait with Negri 
AJF HQ the arrival of "Reed" through which you will receive 
further orders. In the meantime you are to assist "Reed". 
At the same time as you receive this letter the people with 
you will have received orders to arrange your onward move- 
ment. Negri Sembilan, the neighbour state, will be warned 
by another channel of your expected arrival there . . . sorry we 


did not have the opportunity to ambush you . . . good luck 
and remember us to "Reed" who knows us well." 

It was a puzzling message. Who was "Reed"? 

AJF guerillas had brought the message. That was why it 
had taken so long. Now it was up to them to see them through 
to this H.Q. at Negri Sembilan, the neighbour state to Selangor, 
where they had landed. 

Fitting them out for the trip was a problem. Ching Fee 
came to the rescue again with a blanket for each of them and 
by scrounging some pre-war stock of canvas shoes big enough 
to fit their large Anglo-Saxon feet. Alcock was doubtful about 
the seaman Sowter's condition. His feet had only just healed. 
If the going proved hard he might not make it. This was 
after all a good spot for him to lay up. But Sowter was keen to 
go. He had guts. 

"Okay we'll chance it," Alcock said. He could not disap- 
point Sowter. 

The stocky guerilla fighter who called to guide them treated 
them almost as royally as the Chinese plantation folk who 
now gathered, smiling, to see them off. It was hard to turn 
their backs on that place with the vision it had bequeathed 
them of ease and plenty, and plunge again into the jungle. 

As usual, they travelled close to a river. The only real 
way of getting through the jungle proper was along its rivers 
and game tracks. That night they kept going steadily for 
hours till they reached a Sakai riverside village. These fierce 
pygmy-like aborigines who lived by the blow-pipe and bow- 
and-arrow in the jungle depths were staunchly anti-Jap. The 
Sakais ran out their dugout canoes to ferry the whole party 
about six miles downstream. They climbed out onto the 
opposite bank, and carried on through jungle swamp that was 
thick with leeches. 

Long before dawn Sowter was already having trouble with 
his feet. His sores had become open and exposed. But they 
ploughed on through swamp and jungle for two more nights. 

The full moon filtered through the ghostly avenues of 
rubber and showed them the way. At first light they had 
reached a Chinese settlement and the guerilla guide walked 
ahead of them eagerly. Nobody stirred in the settlement. 


It was empty. 

That shook their guide. When he got over his dismay he 
did the Chinese Micawber. Never mind. Headquarters not very 
-far. They all groaned aloud at that, but Ching Hong was very 
sure. Half mile, maybe, I go find out. Back soon. 

He marched off jauntily and plunged into the jungle. 

They waited three days. 

They never saw him again. 

As soon as the sun set the mosquitoes came in swarms. The 
place reeked of fever. 

Sheer luck came to their rescue. Part of their old guerilla 
unit was moving through the neighbourhood and they bumped 
their patrols. The anti-Jap fighters themselves were going 
down like flies with fever. "This place no good," they said. 
Their interpreter-informant was an amiable villain called 
Beng. He had been a Communist agitator in Singapore till 
its fall, when he had given up his favourite sport of ambushing 
British police with a sling shot and taken to the jungle. 

"I speak English about second-class," Beng announced. 
An ugly grin split his melon-smooth face. He was giving his 
talent some promotion, at that. "Yes, yes," he insisted, 
"Headquarters very near." 

To prove it he too plunged off and returned triumphantly 
in a couple of hours with orders. They were to leave the 
area, under his care, and head for the main headquarters. 

"Okay, okay! I know where!" their new guide protested. 
"Been there many times! One headquarters British. Other 
headquarters Chinese." 

The Chinese H.Q. in their main jungle lair even had its 
own lathes and workshops, Beng said. To prove it, he produced 
a grenade. "They make this." 

They had to take him on trust, and moved out doubtfully 
with him. 

All the time they kept penetrating further inland. They were 
now well clear of the protective jungle, travelling dangerously 
across open country. The last week of hard travelling since 
the paradise of that rest house had pulled them down fast. 
Sowter had been keeping up gallantly but now his feet were in 
a terrible mess. His sores had spread horribly. It was agony 
even for him to stand on them. 


They had to call a halt. While they rested the amazing 
Beng vanished. He came back with some guerillas, beaming 
and wheeling bicycles for them! Sowter managed to pedal 
his. The guerillas darted ahead of them down the road to 
scout for Japs. They were making for a regional headquarters 
which Beng said was about ten hours away. 

They cycled down into a large valley surrounded by low 
hills and thickly clumped with rubber plantations. Not only 
was it dangerous with its absence of cover and the presence 
of Japs, but the valley was a death trap of fever. The Chinese 
here, said their guide, died in their hundreds daily. 

By early morning they reached its outpost a wooden farm 
hovel through which everyone had to pass to reach the local 
headquarters. They were shown into its one big room, littered 
with dim, sleeping figures, and bidden to wait. 

The guerillas' method with strangers was now becoming 
bitterly plain. The Coppists never saw a headquarters or its 
regional command centres if these really existed. When they 
approached one, the four Britishers were told carefully to 
wait at an outpost such as this farm hovel while the escort 
went ahead, made contact with its hidden commanders, 
received their orders, and returned. 

And always, it seemed, the orders were to deliver them 

There was no appeal against this. It was vain to rave or 
threaten. To balance the hazards inherent in maintaining a 
ramshackle, ill-fed, poorly-equipped jungle army, their instinct 
for security was fanatic. The guides heard the protesting 
Britishers out impassively, waited till the tirade was over; 
soothed, "Never mind" and did precisely what their own 
orders said. 

In a corner of the dim farmhouse a girl, the farmer's young 
wife, was dying. She lay in a coma with her black hair plastered 
lankly about her shrunken, sweat-shining face. Deep shadows 
lay under her eyes. She had been nine days like that, slipping 
away from life after successive bouts of fever, while the 
Chinese doctor attending her pattered in from other houses in 
the fever-stricken valley, inspected her gravely, spoke to the 
haggard husband and passed him some herbs, and left again. 
Hood roused himself to help. He laid his blanket over her, 


sponged her face, dripped some water between the pallid 
lips, and watched; without quinine or their mepacrine there 
was little he could do. 

Sowter, their able-seaman, was in a bad way now. Hood 
unpeeled his bandages delicately and stifled his sudden dismay. 
One foot was almost eaten away and the hideous sores were 
starting up his leg. He could only vaguely imagine what guts 
the man must have summoned to get this far with them. 

It was certain he could go no further. And if the fever took 
him in this state, he would probably last only a couple of days. 

Towards dawn the girl opened her eyes, spoke clearly, 
and smiled at Hood. Hope leaped in him. She rallied enough 
under his coaxing to sit up and take the food he spooned 
her. And out of the ravaged young face the eyes, wide and 
lustrous, smiled again at him. She was about twenty. The 
doctor came. Hood had to relinquish her while the Chinese 
took over his patient with a show of importance. He could 
not afford to ruffle his feathers. They were stranded in the 
middle of an open valley with the Japs all around them, and 
no jungle cover. Between the four of them they had two 
revolvers, a rifle, and a couple of grenades. The Chinese were 
scared enough of harbouring them as it was. 

And they were now all shivering with the first chills that 
promised fever. 

In the evening the girl died. 

It was the AJCF which responded to their messages of 
appeal, passed on through Beng. First a doctor appeared. 
The herbs he produced for Sowter's feet arrested the spreading 
sores, at least, but before he arrived three other Chinese in 
the crowded, stinking farmhouse had died of fever. 

Next a packet of 5,000 Malayan dollars came through the 
grapevine for the four sailors. It was from their mysterious 
genie, Ching Fee "to buy food." 

On August 6th a guerilla bodyguard appeared with orders 
from the civilians to take Sowter out of the area on a stretcher 
and conduct the other three on to the mirage-like headquarters. 
The appearance of this new escort confirmed other hints of 
a big H.Q. not far away ; they were all rigged out with American 
automatic rifles the first modern guns Alcock had seen them 


The road ahead was fraught with risks now. The faithful 
Beng translated the warnings. 

"Big roads to cross. Malays and Tamils in villages. We 
not trust them. Many Japanese on the road. If Japanese 
attack we " he flurried with his hands. 


Beng nodded. "Come back starting place." Then he added 
the ominous "Headquarters six hours away. British troops 

"Like hell, you old bastard!" 

He grinned and gave them a password. Only the guerilla 
and AJCF would know it. From his stretcher Sowter managed 
a grin and a wave as they carried him away in another direction. 

By early morning on their march Hood was out on his feet 
with a new attack of fever. He had it worst of all of them. 
He reeled on unseeingly with a hand on Alcock's shoulder to 
guide him. At any moment they expected him to drop, but 
somehow he kept going. 

By dusk two days later, still plodding after the guerillas and 
with the sick Hood still miraculously on his feet, Alcock made 
his last bid for news of the headquarters they should long 
since have reached, and finally lost his temper. 

"Goddam liars!" he raved, "Bluff and bull that's all you 
give us!" The others tried to pacify him but he shook them 
off. He carried the responsibility for them and his patience 
was at an end. He wheeled and faced the other guerillas. 
"None of you has a clue where your HQ is! Have you you 
useless bunch of " 

"Headquarters ten minutes," Beng said. The Canadian 
threw him a look as loaded with venom as a blow, and gave 
up. "Ah what the hell!" he said wearily. 

Next day, shooed onward by frightened villagers with news 
of Jap patrols beating the jungle for them, they straggled on 
in lashing tropical rain, heading south through mountainous 
jungle-covered country. 

They passed through their first anti- Japanese headquarters. 
The officers there peered blankly at the maps Alcock produced 
and shook their heads. Guerilla units were their only map 
references and days of travel their only measures of distance. 
Nobody knew the way direct only from unit to unit. They 


pushed on, swearing, but making excellent time down the 
valley. Late in the evening Hood fell. He struggled to his 
feet, reeled on, and flopped. Again he tried to rise. He was 
falling every few yards. The hefty Turner lifted him painfully 
onto his back and staggered on with him for the last half-hour. 

All three naval men now had malarial fever in varying 
degrees. Leading Seaman Turner was glassy-eyed, feverish 
and in little better state to travel than Hood, who was delirious. 

Alcock was still the fittest. He was desperate to push on and 
find help for them. At their next stop he left the other two 
sick men in the care of Chinese civilians and pushed on alone 
in his search for the shadowy figure who loomed behind every 
image they had of a British base in this hostile territory the 
man their only message had called "Reed". 

He went on through the jungle with three guerillas. After 
five days of climbing through rugged mountain jungle the 
little red-haired Canadian and his guides were all stricken 
with fever. In their dulled minds even the disasters which 
now overtook them were only incidents in the great monotonous 
nightmare fight through terrible forests and mountains. 

For two days they had floundered, lost, in a swamp. But 
all the time they headed steadily eastward, and grubbed the 
jungle's depths for anything to placate their starving bellies. 
Slowly they fought down the slopes of the mountain chain, 
following a river. Alcock can remember his injured surprise 
at not being able to dig up bamboo shoots, things he had eaten 
so often with oriental foods that he expected the bamboo-thick 
wilderness to be teeming with them. 

For more than two months now he had wandered at the 
head of his team through some of the world's most terrible 
jungle always with an apocryphal British HQ only a few 
hours away. He had been alternately deserted by one guide, 
only to be rescued miraculously by another who came out of 
the jungle, helped him to his feet, and plodded ahead, leading 
the way where? 

He was now reeling resignedly after his umpteenth guide 
and following him out of the jungle. 

In full daylight uncaring now, they emerged from the trees 
and descended into a valley. In this valley, death lay on every 


Smoke rose from the ruins of villages. They walked through. 
Everything had been burnt to the ground by Japs. Not a 
Chinese house remained standing. 

Away to the south, they heard sporadic firing. 

As Alcock and his guide ploughed on, it was everywhere 
the same story the families, now destitute, camping in the 
open with their wailing children, unsheltered now among the 

swarms of mosquitoes, going down in hordes with fever 

helpless, panic-stricken in the knowledge of their certain 

Amid the charred ruins from which the smoke still wisped 
upward lay the bodies of their relatives, black and bloated 
and stinking and swarming with vermin. The Japs had fired 
the houses with whole families inside. 

Two days later, the miracle happened. Alcock, led by a 
guerilla guard, broke out of jungle into a Malayan village 
near Seremban and linked up with the British 13 6th Group 
which was operating in the Malayan hinterland. He was in a 
shocking state but he managed a wide grin at the sight of 
their astonished white faces. 

His sun-blistered grin widened further and took on a hint 
of irony when they told him the war was over. It had finished 
a week before. 

"Then what's all the shooting around here about?" 

They explained that the war in these parts was having a 
hard time dying. 

Two days later they had fetched his three charges Hood, 
Sowter and Turner out of the wilderness and put them to 
bed in Seremban, capital of Negri Sembilan. 

That was how Lieutenant Alcock's war came to an end. 

It was a wonderful way for the war to end; any way that 
left you in one piece was a wonderful way. 

To the men of COPP I it was wonderful. They were in 
Madras, waiting to board a submarine which was to take them 


right across the Bay of Bengal for their first operation on 
the coast of Malaya. They had been training up hard for it. 
Peter Wild, tall, blond, gay, leader of these Far Eastern 
COPPs, felt a little cheated. So did Robin Harbud, the cheekily 
good-looking lieutenant who had a Wren waiting for him 
in the Temple of Beautiful Thoughts at COPP Depot, Hayling 
Island. They grumbled about it and decided to work off 
steam with a monster party. Bit of an anti-climax to celebrate 
in Madras. They would take a train clear across India to 
Bombay and do their celebrating there. 

And so they did. 

# # # 

Thailand hurriedly withdrew her declaration of war against 
the Allies, surrendered the territories she had annexed with 
Japanese connivance and released Major Ian Mackenzie, 
Flight-Lieutenant Brown, and Marine Corporal Atkinson 
from Bangkok jail. They were the only three survivors from 
their party which had landed to reconnoitre Puket Island. 

Their joy at liberation was dimmed by news of the others. 
Major Maxwell and Sergeant Smith, the two among them who 
had fallen in Japanese hands, had been executed by their 
captors only a month before the surrender. 

Soberly they remembered their first Thai jailer's words. 
"Lucky you go Bangkok, not Tokyo." 

Back in COPP Depot in Hayling Island they held a party 
too. Nick Hastings was the C.O. there now, and Geoff Galwey 
was Training Officer. When the party reached its rip-roaring 
height in the wardroom overlooking the shingly wind-swept 
flats of Hayling Island, Geoff climbed onto the table. 

"Time for a swim I" he yelled, and began peeling off. The 
others had to follow suit. 

At subsequent COPP reunions in London or anywhere else, 
topping off the party with a swim was to become a notorious 
penchant of Galwey a sign that he was approaching the 
maturer stage in his revelry. In the years to come he was to 
be forcibly restrained from diving into Chichester Harbour, 


off Brighton pier, and even off Thames Embankment across 
from the Savoy. 

And after all, a swim was not a bad way for a COPP man to 
end the war. 

The end came for Lieutenant-Commander Nigel Willmott, 
D.S.O., D.S.C. (and bar), in London. The founder of COPP took 
a late night train down to Sussex and on the way gravely dis- 
cussed the peace with an orchestra leader who was puzzled 
why the Free Poles did not want to go back and settle in 

It was two o'clock when he got off at their dark little country 
station and walked home through the lanes to Farm Corner. 
The night air was heavy with summer sweetness, and the sky 
powdery and immense with stars. 

In the garden he picked a flower bouquet for Prue. He 
did not want to wake the house by going in through the front 
door so he looked about, fetched the ladder, and set it against 
their bedroom window. 

As he came in through the window with his bouquet and 
clumped to the floor the soft voice said, startled, "Who's 

"Don't worry," he said, "It's all right It's me.'' 

There was a laugh in the darkness. Coming home like 
that! It was the most wonderful end of all. 


This book does not purport to be a history of COPP. We 
have indulged a freer right to select than historians. Otherwise 
the gallant work of COPP 2 under Lt. Berncastle, for instance, 
who operated in landing craft quite apart from the main 
organisation, would demand a more prominent role. We have 
used some licence, though rarely, in recreating imaginatively 
some happenings from the detailed operational reports; but 
only where those who took part were not available to supply 
in person the final dimensions of reality. 

Our debts are many: first and most of all to Lieutenant 
Commander (now Captain) Nigel Willmott, D.S.O., D.S.C. 
(bar), R.N., himself, for his enduring courtesy in relating the 
whole basis of the story, and for struggling so obligingly with 
his own reticence; to his wife, Prue Willmott, unflinchingly 
tolerant of writers* ways ; to Geoff Galwey and Robin Harbud 
for willing and often hilarious reminiscence; to Mr. B. Rawlings, 
Records Officer of Amphibious Warfare Headquarters for the 
helpful service of a precise and prodigious memory; and to the 
following gallant members of COPP whom we cannot think of 
in terms of initials, ranks, and decorations: Nick Hastings, 
Ian Mackenzie, Ruari McLean, Mike Peacock, Archie Hart, 
Neville McHarg, Bob Smith, Ralph Stanbury, Bruce Ogden 
Smith, Geoffrey (Thin Red) Lyne, Peter Wild, and Peter 
Harris; and to those who receive no personal mention here, 
but to whom we were none the less greatly indebted.