Beaches of Blood Stop the spy with the stolen plans or D-Day invasion will be a total disaster
Olson said, 'How is he, Monsieur Doctor?’
The old fellow shrugged, sniffed and pulled an expression of indifferent. ‘He is not ready for the slaughterhouse for a few years yet.’ He closed his canvas medical bag ‘Unless another German bullet finishes him properly, of course.’
The six Operation Hawkwind field agents were hidden in the basement of an isolated rough-stone windmill between Bayeux and Caen near the Normandy coast. French Resistance fighters Claude and Marie-Claire, USAAF bomber navigator Lieutenant Curtis Olson, RAF fighter pilot Squadron Leader John Hartley-Penrose, Royal Engineer sapper Sergeant Sam Haines and last, and he probably thought least, moody SOE agent Eric Baker.
They had recently escaped to France from Guernsey in the German occupied Channel Islands, which were part of Germany’s Atlantic Wall defences. All of them had been highly desirous of getting back home for a few days in a warm bed with plenty of sleep and regular hot meals. However, they were considered perfectly placed for another and a far more majestic assignment. Hawkwind had been subsumed into the umbrella organisation of Operation Overlord. They were now part of the long-awaited invasion of Europe.
‘What a bugger, eh?’ Baker said when he heard, and emptied a bottle of gut rot red wine down his throat to deaden the disappointment.
Operation Overlord was born in the spring of 1941, a year after the devastating Allied defeat when the vastly superior German war machine overwhelmed the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium and northeast France, and drove British and French troops into the English Channel at Dunkirk. From there they were rescued by all manner of naval and civilian craft and ferried back to England. Fortunately this terrible disaster was countered in the following months by the triumphant outcome of the Battle of Britain, when the Royal Air Force trounced the attacking Luftwaffe, resulting in the postponement of Germany’s invasion of the British Isles with their Operation Sea Lion. This was to be a whole scale assault to conquer the British nation and annex it into das Dritte Reich, the Third Empire.
Overlord was designed to be the Allies counter invasion to liberate those nations under Nazi domination. Unfortunately it took over three years to complete.
May ‘44 was the date chosen for the massive cross Channel attack on the northwest beaches of Normandy, a sixty-mile strip east of the Contentin Peninsular (also known as the Cherbourg Peninsular), running between the village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise and the fishing port of Ouistreham. It was a hundred and twenty miles across the Channel to the southwest coast of England, from where thousands of ships and landing craft would sail. If it succeeded it would be the greatest wartime operation the world had ever known.
Alternatively, if it failed, it would be the greatest disaster.
To ensure its success, softening-up raids by Allied bombers and fighters were made on airfields and army bases, bridges and marshalling yards across northern France and Belgium and the Netherlands. In order to disguise the precise focal point of the invasion, thousands of Maquis resistance fighters, both communist and nationalist, and various Allied covert teams, harassed the enemy from the Atlantic in the west to Belgium in the east, and northwards as far as Norway.
And among them was this particular mixed bunch of six bloody-minded members of Hawkwind.
The basement of the mill was dug out of the foundation infill to conceal arms and equipment and for clandestine meetings of the communist French Resistance group Rouge Gant, Red Gauntlet. There were no windows, but a small amount of light and air came through cracks in the wooden floor of the flour bag store above. The basement floor was hardened earth and the sides were the stone foundations of the circular mill. Narrow wooden palettes and bundled straw served as beds. A table was the door of an old oak wardrobe sitting on packing cases in the middle of the room.
Two weeks had passed since they first settled in. Fairly regular food was to be eaten, a mix of traditional buckwheat savoury pancakes, vegetables, eggs, duck, and various apple pastries. Rest was to be taken. And wounds to be patched up.
Hartley-Penrose said, ‘Still feels stiff, Doc. How long before I take this bally wrapping off?’
‘When the time is right,’ the doctor said.
The pilot sat on the edge of his palette and rolled his bandaged shoulder up and down, grimacing. He had survived their previous action on Guernsey with a bullet straight through his shoulder, a few flesh wounds, and a fractured ankle. None of the others had suffered anywhere nearly as badly, the worst being Haines with one major bullet wound in his side which was healing nicely after he had removed the slug with his clasp knife and stitched the wound with cotton thread.
'And what about his face?’ asked Baker.
The final, and the most apparent injury to Hartley-Penrose, was the skin of his face being partially burned due to exploding fuel, and exposing patches of pink flesh. The old man made an almost dismissive gesture as he shuffled towards the short ladder where Marie-Claire stood waiting.
Hartley-Penrose shot an angry look at the SOE spy. ‘I’m fine, for God’s sake!’
Baker said, ‘Oh, well, sod you, then, Mr Bloody Hero.’
‘Hey, easy, you two,’ said Olson.
‘Eric was only showing concern, sir,’ said Haines deferentially to the RAF officer. ‘We have to be responsible for each other if we’re to survive this business.’
The doctor returned to the table, rummaged in his bag and took out a small round cardboard box, removed the lid, and offered it to Hartley-Penrose.
‘Smear a little of this on now. I can’t give it all to you. My medicines are running low.’
Hartley-Penrose reluctantly did as he was bid and gave it back. His face now shone like a greased bird ready for the oven. The doctor turned to leave again and Olson shook his hand.
‘Thanks, Monsieur,’ he said with feeling. ‘We really appreciate the risk you’re taking.’
The doctor made an embarrassed snort and shook the hands of Baker and Haines, who offered their own words of gratitude and good luck. Hartley-Penrose was the last, conscious of the doctor’s firm grip, and of the warm grey eyes staring compassionately back at him, eyes that had seen too many wounds during his bloody trench days in the Great War, never mind this one.
Marie-Claire took the doctor’s bag and escorted him through the trap door in the ceiling.
Baker said, ‘Looks like we won’t be having your company on our little jaunts for a bit then, Squadron Leader.’
‘Nah,’ said Olson. ‘What John needs is exercise. He needs to get up stairs with us and eyeball the enemy.’
Haines said nothing as he knelt at the low table and studied the maps and the few sheets of thin yellow flimsies taken from their plain cardboard cover. They had been brought over by a Hawkwind liaison officer with the news of their new mission.
‘I’m game as any of you chaps,’ said Hartley-Penrose, stoically enduring his stinging face. ‘But I would hate to be a bally let down under pressure.’
Upstairs, Marie-Claire led the way through dusty bags of buckwheat flour, used for the galettes as well as for heavy bread. On the next floor above, the hefty stone wheels monotonously ground the buckwheat of the local farmers held over from last year's harvest, the sound a constant dull background noise they were now accustomed to until it stopped and caused them to feel ill at ease until they realised.
A tough grizzled man opened a door and peered outside, and satisfied there was no danger, stepped aside to let them pass. Marie-Claire and the doctor kissed each other’s cheeks.
‘You are a true patriot, Monsieur Arras, visiting us out here,’ she said.
He smiled phlegmatically, patted her hand and went to his donkey and cart. He rode down the track to a country lane that passed the windmill and surrounding fields, the creaking of the huge revolving sails drowning out the sound of the cartwheels. She paused on the doorstep, taking in the view of trees with new green leaves and beyond to the open land stretching to the far beaches and the waters of La Manche. Nothing but quiet nature indifferent to man’s military posturing, which had dominated France for the past four years.
Late spring was warming up although it rained its inevitable seasonal showers. Lambs could be seen on the nearby hills. Shoots were appearing in the manured fields. Farm workers were busy everywhere, although there were fewer of them each year as many went permanently missing, either joining the Resistance, or being imprisoned or executed for some misdemeanour blown up into acts of terrorism. But many more would have to lay down their lives before the final victory was celebrated.
And there was no telling who would be among them.
Some or all of the Hawkwind heroes perhaps?
Then Marie-Claire’s reverie was viciously broken.
‘Ow! Hellfire, what are you doing, Henri?’
She was roughly dragged back inside by the Red Gauntlet leader who said harshly, as he bolted the door, ‘Why not wave a flag to say you are here, woman! You have become soft and careless since you left us.’
She stared venomously back at him but said nothing in her defence.
He continued, ‘How long do these English intend to stay?’
‘As long as is needed. They are not a burden, are they?’
‘We have little food as it is. And the Boche are still searching for them, which puts us in greater danger.’
‘They are searching for me too, remember. Do you want me to go with them? Listen, Henri, they are our allies. They are here to help rid us of Nazi oppression. They are part of a big operation, as are Claude and me. And as you and the Rouge Gant are.’
The man grunted and spat on the floor. ‘That Christian prig I do not trust. He is not one of us. And I am coming to the conclusion that you are not either, Petite Guillotine. You have been with him and his imperialist lackeys too long. You are not the communist firebrand we knew!’
Marie-Claire was both hurt and angered by this slander after her years of solid commitment to the Cause. She was as ardent a member as anyone, gaining the nickname Petite Guillotine, Little Guillotine, because of her skill with a stiletto. She had belonged to the Gauntlet long before being adopted by Claude’s nationalist group, which had saved her life following the massacre of her unit seven months before. She also spat on the flour-covered floor in a way that expressed her tortured feelings, and pushed past him, her head high, and her face flushed with indignation.
Marie-Claire descended into the basement to join her Hawkwind comrades, the only ones she could completely rely upon these days.
A hundred kilometres away to the southwest of the flour mill, Claude blended back into his life as a carpenter in Avranches in the south of Lower Normandy.
‘Have I been missed?’ he asked his wife and neighbours and other tradesmen he worked with, when he first arrived.
‘No, you have not been gone long enough,’ he was told. ‘We have covered for you anyway.’
He made sure he was seen around the small town doing odd jobs and drinking coffee and wine. But he spent most of his time resting and luxuriating in his family home. It could happen at any hour that the bullyboys of the German Army or the French Milice of the Vichy Government, would pick him up as a suspected Resistance fighter. He wanted to devote as much time as possible to being a father to his three girls and two boys and a husband to his wife as long as he could.
But that would not be long enough.
‘I will have to leave again very soon,’ he told her within hours of returning.
She nodded, and continued cooking without a word of reproach. She was as dedicated to a free France as Claude and every other patriotic Frenchman. Everyone’s life was barely half lived while the enemy forces dominated them, no matter how benign they appeared. For apart from occasional overt acts of butchery, the Wehrmacht insisted they were France’s allies in this burgeoning New Europe created by Germany.
While he was back in Avranches, Claude met with other committee members and planned and executed a couple of small acts of resistance. It was good to be with his old gang of maquisards even for a short time, but the call of his Hawkwind duties forced him to say adieu before he got too attached to them once again.
Being away from home so long after getting the four Allied servicemen and the subversive German Kruger to the corvette to take them to England, but ending up marooned on Guernsey, Claude had never been so reluctant to leave his family, as he was five days later. Despite conditioning themselves not to behave in anyway that might give their conquerors reasons to be suspicious, his wife and children were in tears. Claude too, hardened as he was to the life of a Resistance fighter, had an impossible task holding back his own tender feelings.
‘Pray for me every morning and night, my cherubs,’ he instructed.
Two hundred or so kilometres away, this time to the east of Claude’s quiet Normandy hill town and sixty-five north of teeming metropolitan Paris, stood a building of supreme splendour. This was Chateau de La Roche-Guyon, looking down on the tiny village of La Roche-Guyon and the river Seine that flowed by for another eighty kilometres to the port of Le Havre and La Manche, the English Channel.
On a hilltop a round medieval tower dominated the area, and below it the old chateau that had grown over the years into the grandeur it now possessed. It had been home to the Rochefoucauld family since the 17th century. One descendent was the famous writer François VI, Duc de la Rochefoucauld, and incidentally, a person greatly admired by the poetic Claude. It was now Field Marshal Rommel’s headquarters of Heeresgruppe B, Army Group B.
Eight months ago, the famous Desert Fox, exalted above all German military leaders, had been made head of the Atlantic Wall defences following his Italian campaign and before that fighting in North Africa. The Wall stretched from Norway to the Spanish border, encompassing the Channel Islands, the only bit of Great Britain occupied by Germany. Thousands of big gun emplacements and U-boat pens protected Fortress Europe from seaborne attacks.
Although discipline was absolute, there was lightness in the atmosphere of the chateau. The Desert Fox had a reputation for civility, which permeated his staff and the fifteen hundred garrisoned troops. He refused to have the duke and his family evacuated from their home, allowing them to use the upper levels while he and his staff used the lower. A maze of rooms had been dug in the chalk rock beneath the foundations for barracks and more offices and staff accommodation.
And one particular room was used by a certain Karl Kruger, a tubby and harassed-looking fifty-odd-year old clerk, the estranged seventh member of the Hawkwind team.
What a divine comedy it was that he too should be living underground as they were beneath the mill.
Kruger viewed the idyllic countryside from the window of the library also known as the Grand Salon overlooking the sparkling sunlit waters of the Seine. He had just delivered documents from his basement office and now briefly relished the daylight. He found himself reminiscing to himself about his recent past.
He was a true German patriot but also a bitter Nazi hater. And sadly a failed assassin of the Fuhrer himself. The group of amateur subversives he had belonged to had been broken up and he had been forced to flee Germany, leaving his wife and stable home life behind, with his daughter working in her bank and his two sons in the military, somewhere in Europe. And most of all, leaving his responsible job at the tax office.
‘Seventeen years of diligent service since the end of the Kaiser’s War. Rising through the system to an inspector. And now what? Condemned as a traitor! It’s not right. Not right at all.’
When his Hawkwind colleagues had been captured by Rommel’s men on Guernsey, two weeks earlier, he had been fortunate in the magnanimous Rommel taking him on his staff out of compassion for his shattered life and their shared anti Nazi feelings. Kruger was given the identity of Uwe Webern, a dead clerk he replaced, taking his rank as corporal first class. Rommel had a small dedicated staff of senior and junior offices, clerks and aides, and a couple of historians and war reporters. Yet no National Socialist Guidance Officer, as was the norm – his show of resistance against politics in the army.
But Kruger’s experience in clerical matters and obsessive attention to detail and pathological need for perfection, made him indispensable and irritating.
‘He’s made me rewrite this list of requisitions because I’ve made spelling mistakes and he doesn’t like the order I’ve placed them in. The man’s a machine!’
Kruger did not have the sense to realise how easily jealousy and suspicion can ferment into a poisonous brew. His only real concern was the haunting fact of his attempting to kill Hitler and hiding from capture and punishment under a false identity.
‘Which someone assiduous enough must surely uncover and expose me.’
Someone like Lieutenant Schroeder, no doubt?
Schroeder was a young thrusting officer, one of whose tasks was to supervise visitors and induct new staff. He was openly hostile to Kruger, making sly remarks about his work and intrusive comments about his origins.
‘I am not satisfied with your military background, Korporal. I shall be doing detailed checks, so watch out.’
Yet the Fox had given Kruger his current identity and knew his secret history. If there were any problem, he would protect him.
Would he not?
He did not mix with Rommel on a social level for he was too low down in the pecking order, but he was conscious of the great man’s approval whenever their paths crossed.
The war was still the only reality. He lived from day to day being a reliable member of staff and unwavering supporter of the heroic Feldmarschall. The memory of his Allied comrades-in-arms and his brief life as an undercover agent of the British, he had erased from his mind as he would a mistake on a sheet of paper. Those days were gone.
Those six people were grey memories from a troubled nightmare best forgotten.