Under Orders (A Donald Cameron Naval Thriller), page 1
© Philip McCutchan 1981
Philip McCutchan has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in 1981 by Arthur Barker as Cameron of the Castle Bay.
This edition published in 2014 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
Table of Contents
Extract from Dangerous Waters by Philip McCutchan
The racket was appalling, a terrible assault on the ears, worse by far than the close thunder of a battleship’s broadside. It seemed as though Reichsmarschall Goering’s screaming Luftwaffe meant to wipe Portsmouth and Southsea clean off the map, though clean seemed scarcely the word as houses crashed their occupants to pulp with falling brick and stone and burning woodwork. In the red glow that lit the night firemen could be seen, together with air-raid wardens and the men from the heavy rescue squads. As they worked, the bombs continued to fall. There was a shelter on the corner opposite the Queen’s Hotel at the end of Osborne Road, at the edge of Southsea Common where in the piping days of peace the King’s birthday parade of the Portsmouth Port Division and the military garrison had been held each year; only three years earlier the salute had been taken by the much-liked Admiral Sir William Fisher, lately Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, an imposing figure in cocked hat and epaulettes, wearing old-fashioned side-whiskers like John Bull. Fisher had caught a chill and died within a few days, and now lay in his sea-grave off the Nab Tower beneath the menacing beat of the German bombers...
Leaving the bar of the Queen’s Hotel, Cameron, with his anti-gas respirator bumping his side as he ran, held Mary Anstey close to his body as some protection until he could get her down into the shelter. Somewhere on the common, earth and stones erupted and red and white flame came blindingly in the roar and crash of the explosion. Cameron threw the girl flat, covering her with his body. Half Southsea seemed to drop around him. As the din diminished he heard the screams from the burning houses and, looking round as he got to his feet, he saw a flaming beam hurtle down from a roof to land fair and square on a fireman with a hose. Untended, the hose flailed like a wounded snake and water gushed uselessly. Cameron was close now to the shelter, and he pushed Mary Anstey unceremoniously down the steps. ‘Look after yourself,’ he said briefly. ‘I’ll be back.’
She turned, eyes scared and anxious in the red glow. ‘Aren’t you coming down, Donald?’
He shook his head, looking back towards the fires.
‘Please take care.’ She was in tears now, her face all crumpled.
He turned away: time was short and water was precious—and no one was tending that gushing hose. Cameron ran for it as more bombs came down and the anti-aircraft batteries close by on the common pumped shrapnel into the night sky. As he ran he felt blood for the first time, but it was not his own. As part of the scatter from one of the bombs, a piece of flesh had come down on his shoulder. He shook it free and ran on, grabbed the hose and struggled with it, astonished at its sheer power in unskilled hands. He lifted it with an effort, and played the stream of water back on the burning building. There was a woman up there, screaming for help. Two firemen were trying to reach her from a turntable ladder on an auxiliary fire service vehicle. A policeman in a steel helmet was rendering first aid to an old man lying in the gutter.
An AFS man came up to Cameron, tapped him on the shoulder. ‘Right. Time for the professionals to take over!’ He grinned from a blackened, dead-tired face, eyes looking like red holes. ‘Thanks for the effort, mate, but you need to know the flippin’ ropes. Way you did it, it’s like a nipper tryin’ to pee over a six-foot wall.’
He handled the hose with ease, and kept the stream steady where it was needed: as near as was safe to the firemen and the screaming woman.
Cameron looked round, all his senses battered by the combined racket of the explosions and the ack-ack. Something sliced across his left shin; a stinging sensation was followed by a feeling of wetness, and when he glanced down his uniform trousers were seen to be torn. A sliver of metal, and not to be worried about now. The rescue squad needed all the help they could, get, any handy man with muscle and a fit back to go in and bring out anyone left alive. That night Cameron sweated blood and ruined his number one uniform, his shore-going one, by helping to prop up beams and masonry so that the living and the dead could be dragged clear. In some cases that was not possible: the bodies were too twisted, too integrated into the shattered buildings, and they had to be left until the coming of dawn gave light and freedom from the Jerries...
The All Clear brought an army officer from the shelter: a seedy major with a chairborne look, his breath smelling of Dutch courage. He saw Cameron.
‘You there,’ he said. ‘That RNVR sublieutenant.’
‘Why aren’t you wearing your steel helmet, young man?’
Cameron was as weary as hell and he’d just seen a lot of death. He said, ‘Oh, get stuffed, will you?’
The major gasped. ‘I say, you can’t talk to me like that. I’m from the Provost staff...’ He broke off as a police sergeant approached. ‘Yes, what is it?’
‘This young officer’s been hard at it, sir. Worked like a black, he did.’ The police sergeant rocked on his heels, his face grim. ‘Refused to take shelter.’
‘Really? Oh. Good show, good show.’ The major ambled off, and the police sergeant gave Cameron a wink. This was a naval town, and the brown jobs were here on sufferance of the Senior Service. And they were apt to be a mentally constipated bunch at times. Cameron went down the steps into the shelter. A number of people had fallen asleep; Portsmouth was growing used to the bombing, and sleep was important to the next day’s work. Mary Anstey was amongst those who slept; she had been overcome by sheer tiredness. She had a demanding job in the Drafting Office in the Royal Naval Barracks, which held a constant level of some eight thousand ratings coming in from sea or from training and being drafted out again to the Fleet. Cameron woke her gently, then kissed her.
‘Wakey wakey,’ he said. ‘Time to go now. Did you sleep through all that lot?’
She shook her head. ‘Not all of it. Not till it began to tail off... then I just couldn’t keep awake.’ She paused, looking at his filthy, torn uniform. ‘Has it been bad, Donald?’
‘So-so,’ he said, and left it at that. They caught an early corporation bus to the dockyard, and walked along Queen Street to the barracks.
The place was a shambles, with dust heavy in the morning air. One of the seamen’s blocks had bought it, and the parade ground was pitted. The main gate was untouched, so was the guardroom. The sentry saluted Cameron and reported a lot of casualties; Cameron could see blood-stained stretchers for himself, and canvas-covered heaps. Mary went off through the gate to the Drafting Office, reporting exceptionally early for duty: she hadn’t wanted to go back to the Wrennery. When Cameron crossed Queen Street to the wardroom block he went up to his cabin to strip off. He felt better in a hot bath, but fell asleep for a while in its comforting warmth. Back in his cabin, he put some Elastoplast on his grazed shin. Bringing out his number three uniform, he dressed and went down to t
But it wasn’t to last.
That very day, after breakfast, he was sent for to report to the Drafting Commander’s office. He reported to a Lieutenant RNVR who brought a CW list from a drawer of his desk.
‘Cameron,’ he said. ‘Here you are.’
He handed the clipped sheets of paper across.
Cameron read. As of 17 August he was appointed to HMS Castle Bay. The 17 August was in two days’ time.
‘No leave, I’m afraid,’ the lieutenant said. ‘She’s lying in Rothesay, currently. I don’t know for how long. You’d better get up there, old man.’
Cameron nodded. ‘What is she?’
‘Ocean boarding vessel. Bringing in prizes—that sort of thing. That’s all I can tell you.’
It was pack and go, and goodbye that evening to Mary Anstey, now for an indefinite period to be just a memory and a photograph in a leather frame to adorn his new cabin aboard the Castle Bay. Using a first-class railway warrant, he left Portsmouth Harbour station on an early evening train for Waterloo, then caught the night train from Euston for Glasgow, whence he would proceed to Greenock and the ferry down the Clyde for Rothesay. Next day, as he came round Toward Point north of the Cumbraes aboard the ferry, he began to raise the ships at anchor in the bay, their cables straining to something of a blow coming out of Loch Striven. There was an aircraft-carrier and what appeared to be a merchant ship painted RN grey; as the ferry came closer in and shaped up towards Victoria Pier, he saw a dumpy-looking depot ship with a number of submarines clustered at her sides. By this time it was obvious that the apparent merchantman was in fact HMS Castle Bay; a commandeered and converted three-island freighter of around six thousand tons with somewhat matronly lines that indicated a lack of speed. However, she appeared to be bristling with guns. Her bridge was surrounded with Swiss 20-mm Oerlikons plus pom-poms and machine-guns; on either side of the fore well-deck 4-inch guns were mounted, with two more aft, whilst amidships the deck had been cleared for the mounting of two 3-inch anti-aircraft guns. Cameron thought that if everything was fired at once, she would probably collapse and sink. But she looked trim and taut, with the Officer of the Watch and a full gangway staff at the head of her accommodation ladder, the White Ensign blowing out along the wind, and a signalman on the bridge exchanging signals by light with the submarine depot ship. It was a fresh forenoon, with the waters of the Clyde and Rothesay Bay dappled with small white horses under a bright, warm sun.
By chance, as the Greenock ferry came alongside the pier, a boat from the Castle Bay was inshore to collect wardroom stores. Cameron approached the coxswain, a leading-seaman.
‘Joining the ship,’ he said, returning the coxswain’s salute. ‘Can you spare some hands to bring my gear aboard?’
‘Soon as the stores party gets back, sir,’ the coxswain said. Cameron stepped into the sternsheets of the motor-cutter; within a few minutes the stores party was aback, his gear was brought aboard, and the cutter had cast off and was proceeding out towards the Castle Bay. Saluted aboard by another sub-lieutenant, Cameron made himself known.
‘Welcome to sudden death,’ the Officer of the Watch said, grinning.
‘Well, what do you think—if ever we meet the Scharnhorst or the Gneisenau or some such. By the way, the name’s Ricketts.’
They shook hands. Ricketts said, ‘Father’s expressed a wish that you should go straight up to his cabin to meet him—the First Lieutenant’s ashore, so he can’t do the introductions. Father, by the way, is a good chap—Commander RNR and late Chief Officer of the Queen Mary, no less. He drops on cackhanded seamanship like a load of manure.’ Ricketts grinned again: he had a round, chubby face and looked as though cheerfulness in adversity was his watchword. ‘Just thought I’d warn you!’
‘Thanks,’ Cameron said drily. At that moment there was a carrying shout from the Captain’s deck immediately below the bridge. Three stripes of interlaced gold braid surrounded the upraised cuff of a strongly-built officer.
‘Ricketts... special sea dutymen, and cable and side party. Close all watertight doors. Secure for sea... and warn the Chief Engineer I’ll be getting under way the moment Number One’s back aboard.’
‘Aye, aye, sir!’
‘That sub-lieutenant is that Cameron?’
‘Yes, sir,’ Cameron called back, saluting.
‘Come up, then, and make it fast.’
Cameron saluted again; the Captain withdrew. Under the guidance of a gangway messenger Cameron went up to the cuddy. When he arrived Commander Forbes was seated behind a desk in his day cabin, signing papers. Very blue eyes looked up, staring Cameron full in the face. Forbes’ own face was like old leather, the face of a seaman of many years’ standing. He got briefly to his feet and shook Cameron’s hand. Sitting again, he said, ‘I’m sorry, but I haven’t much time. We’ll get to know one another soon.’ He paused. ‘I understand you did some rather spectacular work in the Carmarthen, what with those grenades down the U-boat’s conning-tower. Quick thinking, and I like quick thinking. Then there was Crete.’ The blue eyes seemed to bore into Cameron. ‘You’ve proved you’re of some use in a fraught situation. I believe your father’s a master mariner?’
Forbes nodded. ‘Good background. I’ve no doubt he’s contributed to the quick thinking. I—’ He broke off as a tap came at his door and Ricketts entered. ‘Yes, Ricketts?’
‘The First Lieutenant’s coming off from the depot ship now, sir.’
‘Right, thank you.’ Forbes rose and reached for his brass hat, which he placed on his head with a firm gesture, pulling the gilded peak well down in front at a Beatty-ish angle. ‘Shift the watch to the bridge, please.’
‘Aye, aye, sir.’
Forbes marched out of the door and could be heard climbing the ladder to the bridge. Ricketts raised an eyebrow and asked, ‘Well? What d’you think of him?’
‘First impressions very good,’ Cameron said with a grin.
‘You’re right. Ship’s company would follow him anywhere.’ Ricketts hesitated. ‘I’d like to know where he’s leading us... I’ve a feeling there’s something big in the air.’
With his engine—the Castle Bay was a single-screw ship—moving at half ahead Forbes took the ship away from Rothesay, out past the expensive structure of the Glenburn Hydro Hotel, temporarily a little dimmed from its peacetime splendour, into the Clyde proper for the turn to starboard and the passage through the Cumbraes into the broad waters of the Firth. Inchmarnock Water and the Sound of Bute fell away to starboard as the ship came down past Arran and headed on for Pladda and Ailsa Craig, the former a flattish island, the latter an immense rock rising from the sea to provide a lavatory for the seagulls, whose droppings gave it a permanently whitened aspect. Passing to the north of Ailsa Craig the Castle Bay came round the Mull of Kintyre into the North Channel, and Forbes gave orders to bring her up northwards towards the Mull of Oa in Islay. When she was on course he stepped to the tannoy and flicked the switch.
‘This is the Captain speaking,’ he said. ‘This ship is bound north to make a rendezvous off Hvalfjord in Iceland. I’m proceeding through the Minches to pick up two destroyers who are also detailed for the rendezvous and will act as our escorts to Hvalfjord. We’re under orders to join Rear-Admiral Vian and come under his directions. For now, that is all.’
The tannoy clicked off.
If they were to link up with Vian, the future looked like being anything but routine.
From the bridge, Forbes pointed westerly. ‘Barra,’ he said. ‘Castlebay... town we’re named after presumably, though we’re blessed with a capital B.’ He paused. ‘D’you know the islands, Cameron?’
‘I’m afraid not, sir.’
Forbes grunted. ‘Some Scot! Try ‘em sometime—they’re worth it, or will be when this lot’s over. Know the song?’ Not waiting for an answer he started singing in a not untuneful bass:
From Mull to the Pentland Skerries,
From Skye to Colonsay,
From Staffs to Iona
And the sands on Castlebay,
Each island has its magic
And holds men in its thrall,
But always in my dreams I’ll see
The lights on Loch Indall...
Then he said, ‘Bugger the war,’ and lifted his binoculars to take a long look around from the port beam through right ahead to the starboard beam. The ship was in land-locked waters sure enough, with Barra to port and the island of Rhum to starboard as they made up towards the Minches, where, off Rubha Hunish at the northern tip of Skye, they would pick up their destroyer escort which had been refuelling from an Admiralty tanker in Kyle of Lochalsh, but land-locked or not, there could be no lack of vigilance. In land-locked waters, in Scapa, the battleship Royal Oak had succumbed to the torpedo-tubes of Kapitan-Leutnant Prien soon after the declaration of war, and the lesson had been well learned, the more so since not long before that the aircraft-carrier Courageous had been sunk in a torpedo attack off the entrance to the Bristol Channel...
PHILIP MCCUTCHAN SERIES:
Other author's books:
- Overnight ExpressThe ExecutionersCall for Simon ShardThe HoofThe Abbot of StockbridgeThe Logan FileKidnapBlood Run East
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