Island of Steel 24 hours to kidnap a high-ranking German officer. Or die in the attempt.
Operation Hawkwind had been a wretched disaster.
Three days before six escapees from a German patrol on a Normandy beach had been washed up on Guernsey, an SBS team had successfully reached its sister island Jersey in a submarine, using three two-man kayaks to paddle their way into a sheltered bay, where they landed. But as they were concealing their boats, Waffen-SS troops opened fire. One man survived, and although wounded, heroically rowed back to the sub waiting for radio confirmation that they had landed safely. It returned him dispiritedly back to England.
Two nights later, a planned RAF raid took place over St Helier and was used to camouflage the dropping of four paratroopers. Tragically, searchlights picked them out like bemused moths and they were raked by gunfire. None survived. The War Office department that had conducted Operation Hawkwind considered it an obvious failure and decided that all it needed now was for the paperwork to be stamped and filed away.
Then it received news of a coded message from the six shipwrecked Allied combatants picked up by their monitoring operators.
Sergeant Sam Haines. Six foot tall, broad shouldered and muscular. Weighed fourteen stone. His manner quiet, yet concealing a bellicose attitude tempered with chivalry. A man to be trusted. And feared. He was a humble sapper sergeant of the Royal Engineers, and now seconded to the elite club of the Commandos because of three useful abilities.
First, having been left behind after the tragic Dunkirk evacuation four years before, he had travelled across France with Resistance fighters, ending up on the west coast to spend a happy year with them giving the Germans a hard time. He therefore had a broad understanding of the Normandy and Brittany landscape.
Second, he was fluent in German and French, with a remarkable knack of mastering accents and dialects and all forms of social and diplomatic speech and mannerisms.
And third, he knew his explosives.
The seven commandos and Haines were all dressed in Wehrmacht uniforms. Because of his superior linguistic power, Haines was in the uniform of a major with his boss, Lieutenant Howard, as his second-in-command, a situation neither was comfortable with, but it was a need of the hour.
Their objective was Chateau La Bretonnaire in Nantes, Brittany, where the Abwehr trained their agents, Vertrauen-smenner, in deception techniques and counter-intelligence. The commandos were to capture ‘Wormwood’, a particularly successful German agent, who had recently returned from causing extensive trouble in England. They had to snatch him back to London before he was fully debriefed. Not only would he be out of circulation, but also MI5’s Double-Cross Committee might turn him into a double agent.
Deploying their skills further, the unit would destroy as much of the chateau as they could and sabotage shipping moored in the docks.
It was 0220 hours when they pulled up at the gates of La Bretonnaire in a stolen jeep-like Kubelwagen and a despatch rider’s motorcycle. The gates were locked. The walls were high and surmounted with double coiled razor wire overlooked by machinegun towers.
To the guards, Haines said with conviction, ‘We have orders to see Rittmeister Groning.’
Baron von Groning was a known spy trainer at the chateau.
He explained they had with them a British double agent with vital information. The guards unlocked the gates without further enquiry and the K-wagen and motorcycle passed through. They rode up the gravelled drive lined with trees and shrubs and empty winter flowerbeds, seen in a twilight created by the chateau floodlights.
Haines said tersely, ‘This is all going too well, sir, isn’t it?’
‘Don’t fret, Sergeant. We’re in and we’ll get out, okay? Although I do suggest we execute this spy chappie rather than bringing him with us.’
But Haines’ apprehension was justified. As they parked in front of the grand chateau entrance and got out, three or four armed German soldiers appeared. There was an unnatural tension in the air. They know, he thought. This is a stall. And lo and behold, seconds later a small convoy of army vehicles roared up the drive. Someone had obviously raised the alarm about the shoot-out when they stole the K-wagen and a smart officer had made a correct assumption.
Or maybe a German spy had tipped them off?
Haines was partially hidden by their vehicle and ducked out of sight. ‘Smithy,’ he hissed to a previously wounded soldier sitting on the back seat. ‘Give me some of the jelly bombs we’ve made up.’
Haines took one of the small packages and primed the detonator. He threw it like a grenade into the assembly of armoured vehicles and a staff car. As it exploded, he grabbed other jelly packages and dodged his way into the building. Submachine gun bullets followed him, cracking into the stonework.
Getting here had taken days by sea and then a Goatly collapsible boat for the Loire river paddle. Now there were only minutes left before the subversive operation came to its end.
Successfully or not.
The layout inside the Abwehr spy HQ had supposedly been passed onto MI5 by a previous double agent. Unfortunately the information did not tally and he was momentarily confused.
‘Here goes another cock-up.’
Someone on the stairs shot at him. Haines shot back and dashed into a corridor. He primed a bomb and, nipping back into view, flung it onto the stairs. Its explosion created foul dense smoke and a fire started, adding more. A gunfight was taking place outside with more detonations as Smithy copied Haines’ tactic.
The boys were giving high-octane military dignity to their desperate situation.
He dashed down the corridor and finally found the servants’ back stairs. Bounding up he reached a long corridor. He saw someone poke his head out of a room before disappearing back inside. Haines raced for the door, then stopped short and gently tried the handle. It was not locked. He looked round and saw other doors.
He opened one. This looked like a lecture room with a blackboard and scattered seats. The walls were covered with maps of England and Wales and coastal sea charts. He threw a primed package and closed the door. It was heavy oak and the detonation hardly rattled it. Dirty yellow smoke flushed from the gap at the bottom.
The one remaining gelignite package he stuffed into his greatcoat pocket.
Haines ran back to the first door, and knocking sharply flung it open. A hastily dressed balding man was nervously lighting a cigarette. From the description and photo given by the Commando controller, he knew it was their target. The man dropped the cigarette as he grabbed a pistol.
Haines left his in its holster.
‘Who are you? What’s happening?’ the agent shouted.
Haines ignored the man’s weapon, although he recognised it as a British Webley Mark 6.
‘You are Wormwood. Please come with me, sir.’
‘Where to? I don’t like this. Where is Baron Groning?’
‘Downstairs. He is also safe. We have to get you out of here. There is no time. British Commandos are after you. I am Major Hermann of the Security Department. Quickly, please.’
Haines led Wormwood down the back stairs.
He said urgently, ‘We should take another exit. Will you lead the way, sir? You know it better than I.’
Mollified by Haines’ firm though polite manner, the agent took them down a short flight of stone steps and through a door into the darkened garden at the side of the building. Haines immediately pulled him back into the doorway and looked cautiously towards the front. The shooting and explosions had stopped. Moving black images were thrown onto bushes and trees by the light of flames like some bizarre shadow-puppet show.
He carefully walked to the corner and peered round it. An army fire brigade was hosing down burning vehicles and trees. Troops and officers milled around. Haines turned back to Wormwood. He was right behind him.
With his Webley pointing at Haines’ stomach.
‘If you’re not trying to kidnap me then you’ve no objection to us having a chat with the army authorities, have you?
‘Not at all,’ replied Haines with barely a pause. ‘Yet I am reluctant to lose my pistol, my friend. Will you please carry it for me?’
Haines handed over the Luger and while Wormwood was momentarily distracted, turned away and palmed the last packet of gelignite. They walked along the front of the damaged chateau towards the noise and activity, Haines with a typical military swagger as if all was well, his back as straight as a rifle barrel. But his elbows were tucked into his sides as he covertly primed the detonator close to his stomach. Ahead was a large buttress against the wall.
Gauging his pace, he dropped his arms, and after counting five seconds he flicked the package behind him, immediately flinging himself round the corner of the buttress.
The bomb exploded, taking Wormwood with it.
In the chaos that followed, Haines picked up his pistol and carelessly joined the activity round the wrecked vehicles. Bodies were being gathered and laid out together. Anger boiled in him knowing his commando unit were among them. He wanted to jump onto a K-wagon and cut down the surviving German soldiers but innate common sense and hard training prevented him. Instead, he found their abandoned dispatch rider’s motorcycle and wheeled it down the path choked with military vehicles. At a convenient spot he nonchalantly sat on the bike and started it. He negotiated his way to the gates and rode through with the usual arrogance of an officer, ignoring anyone who might wonder who he was or what he was doing.
And so Sergeant Sam Haines of the Royal Engineers simply disappeared into the burgeoning light of a new dawn. In control of his own destiny once again. And two hours later he boarded a troop train on its way to St Malo on the north coast, projecting the perfect image of a gentleman German soldier.
He was on his way back to England and beer and skittles.
The air was cool. A strong wind blustered its way from the Atlantic, across Brittany and to where they were over the border in Lower Normandy, rattling the branches overhead and riffling through the damp grass. The weak late afternoon sun was a diffuse radiant glow behind pale clouds. Shadows were chocolate coloured under the trees. The railway lines were listless thin streaks of silver grey fading into the distance. Dark figures lurked on the margins of trees where the ground fell sharply to form a cutting.
A little way along, a railway bridge crossed over a main road that made a parting through the forest. Claude and one of his Maquisards clambered from underneath the bridge, following detonation wires back up to a plunger in the trees overlooking the cutting.
The skinny figure of Marie-Claire joined them.
‘Everything all right?’ she asked.
The Resistance leader nodded and blew into his chill cupped fingers before inspecting his submachine gun. It was a 1939 Mitraillette Modele 38 stolen in a raid on a Vichy army ordnance dump. It had served him well these four years of fighting for freedom. The long ash butt was notched with kills.
‘And Gerard?’ asked Claude.
‘He and his boys are all getting fractious. This train is late.’
He shrugged, sniffled, and spat into the grass. ‘Not much. We have to be patient as a hen on eggs. They know that.’
‘He thinks he could have organised this better. You know Gerard.’
They had called in the services of the St Malo group because they realised they were too small for such a large operation. Their rivalry was jocular. Their comradeship solid as granite.
‘And I suppose you think you could have too, huh?’ sneered Claude.
Marie-Claire pulled a condescending face. ‘Of course,’ she said, and moved away.
Marie-Claire was her true name. She had had numerous others during her twenty-two-year old life. As a child her loving father nicknamed her Cauliflower because of her tight curls. In her mid teens she so resembled the slight Parisian street singer Edith Piaf, the Little Sparrow, her friends called her Birdie. At eighteen, in 1938, when she joined the local Communist Party in Caen, she was referred to as Josephine because of her vocal dedication to Joseph Stalin. Now her vigorous guerrilla activities, especially in executing enemy soldiers and collaborators with a knife, gave her the sinister moniker of Petite Guillotine.
Some time after the invasion of France by Nazi Germany, Marie-Claire’s party cell was subsumed into the FTP, the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans, Irregular Gunmen and Resistance Workers.
Marie-Claire became a dialectic materialist afraid of no one.
Claude, on the other hand, was a staunch nationalist, a dedicated Catholic with wife and children. His profession was carpenter. In the villages and farms in the Avranches region of Normandy he was a king of wood workers. As leader of his Maquis group, he was a Bonaparte, for he was a skilful strategist and courageous fighter. ‘Maquis’ referred to the high land scrub where they traditionally operated. These Maquisards were Frenchmen and some Northern Spanish avoiding slave labour or Vichy military call up, who literally took to the hills and mountains.
In contrast to his grim exterior, Claude was a romantic man who quoted poetry and studied philosophy. But war makes killers of us all.
Their two groups, so completely ideologically at odds, pursued the same objective of harassing their common enemy, and with the same fervour. They would occasionally cross each other’s paths. One time was during a fatal ambush when the German unit Marie-Claire’s FTP had jumped rallied with the unexpected support of a passing reconnaissance Messerschmitt Me 109.
And the communist guerrillas were decimated.
Claude’s group had unwittingly been planning to attack the same army unit farther up the road. Attracted by the fighting, they headed for the place of battle. The Me 109 had already rocked its wings in farewell to a job satisfactorily accomplished, and so the remaining Germans were taken completely unawares and stood no chance. Every German soldier was killed, as the entire FTP had already been.
Save one. Marie-Claire.
When she recovered, by default she joined Claude’s Maquis group. Despite being diametrically opposed, her radical politics did not affect her value as a Resistance fighter. It was Marie-Claire in fact who proposed editing an underground newspaper, Liberte!, which was based upon FTP propaganda leaflets. She taught the others unarmed close quarter killing techniques she had learned from a Chinese sailor when she worked for a shipping company.
So with all that and her stiletto wielding skills, she was a one-woman revolutionary murder machine.
‘It comes, Claude!’ he was told. ‘And everyone is in place.’
The leader indicated he had heard and crouched in the grass over his detonating plunger, donated by a maquisard quarry worker. He was on the edge of the trees overlooking the road with the side of the bridge in full view. He had plenty of experience detonating explosives, although this moment always brought unwanted extra tension.
Marie-Claire had positioned herself above the cutting a hundred yards nearer to the approaching steam train. Other comrades were on either side of her, and across the tracks were Gerard’s band of fighting patriots, equally spaced out and ready with grenades and various guns. The basic plan was to attack at a distance, but she had her knife freshly sharpened and ready just in case. She gripped a Spanish Ruby nine-shot semi-automatic pistol with an accurate range of 50 yards. That was enough.
The huge 100 tonnes Pacific class engine thundered onto the bridge. An excellent piece of the fabled Chapelon’s French engineering. The perfect moving work of art to make the heart of any enthusiast swell to bursting. And such a one was Claude. But not at this moment. Now the engine was a tool of the occupying forces of Satan and had to be expunged of its heinous connections.
The explosions unseated the cross-members of the bridge, causing metal and stone to drop onto the road. They also lifted up the great weight of the Pacific, but within seconds the engine and tender also dropped, slowly twisting sideways until they collapsed onto the rubble beneath. The following flatbed wagons of heavy artillery and munitions wagons were dragged down after them, spewing forth Krupp anti-tank guns and Opel lorries.
The roar of the detonations and the subsequent smashing and crashing of rolling stock and vehicles obliterated the previous hours of patient silence. The fading daylight was a brief memory as dust and smoke and fumes blackened the air. Added to it was smoke from bales of burning straw rolled down into the cutting to illuminate enemy targets and to cause more confusion.
And this was just the beginning.
The howling screech of buckling metal continued as freight wagons and carriages were dragged down on top of the wrecked burning Pacific. Those farther back on the line piled into each other and were lifted up into the air to stand like nightmare fairground rides. Others were heaved off the track to lie buckled and overturned on the gravel at the base of the cutting. Shouting curses, the Resistance fighters sniped at surviving soldiers as they scrambled from the wreckage.
The Germans valiantly fought back but in spite of their superior military training they were being exterminated.
The only serious retaliation came from an anti-aircraft gun, known colloquially as an Acht-Acht (Eighty-eight), at the rear of the train, which was firing 88mm shells. Its wheels were still fastened to the flatbed that remained undisturbed on the railway lines. The gun crew pounded the top of the cutting, blowing up Maquisards and severing tree trunks that fell and crushed others.
Claude ran back and forth along the top of the cutting, urging on his patriots, feeding them spare ammunition and encouragement and firing along with them. Marie-Claire, motivated by adrenaline and a manic urge to destroy not just an enemy, but also a demonic fascist one at that, emptied her pistol within seconds. As she reloaded she heard the Acht-Acht booming in the near distance.
Now that was a trophy worthy of her skill and dedication.
Without a second’s further consideration, she slithered down into the bloody carnage, skipped over bodies, and ducked and dived under and through the train wreckage. Occasionally shooting, occasionally slicing a throat, she finally worked her way around an upturned stores wagon and came upon the brute of a gun. Above her head a heart-stopping ear-bursting detonation occurred as another 88 shell punched its way out of the barrel. The steel flatbed shook from the recoil.
As she adjusted to the momentary silence that followed, she saw an amazing sight. A German officer pointed his pistol at another officer and shot him. Then he calmly shot the gunnery crew and a guarding rifleman. After only a cursory appraisal of his handy work, he jumped down.
And they came face to face. Both opened mouthed and unprepared for the sudden meeting.
They had only seconds to assess the other person’s motives.
The officer cried, ‘Bonjour, mademoiselle. Up with the Resistance! I am British.’ He indicated his uniform and raised his cap. ‘In disguise!’
And he smiled a smile to melt any woman’s heart. Even the hardened one of Petite Guillotine. It definitely saved him from a severed jugular.
Marie-Claire involuntarily giggled, a release of the tension in her frail body.
‘Enchanted,’ she replied brightly.
They both ducked low as gunfire tattooed the metalwork above them.
‘I am Sergeant Sam Haines of the Royal Engineers. I was with Rene the Wolf and Big Louis a few years ago. Do you know of them?’
She nodded. ‘I did. They are no more. Come on, then, Sergeant Sam, you can help us get this little job tided up!’
After the triumphant demolition of the train, Claude’s group returned to their disparate lives of farmer, plumber, lawyer, dentist, and so forth. Those who survived, of course. The dead were discreetly buried and the wounded equally discreetly patched up. Seventeen out of twenty-four survived. The St Malo group fared similarly. The plus points were not only the killing of many German troops, the destruction equipment and the disruption of their military transport system, but both groups increased their ordnance supplies considerably.
There was the expected backlash from the German army and the French paramilitary police, the Milice, but no innocent lives were lost though a number suffered severe interrogation. In the attic of a bistro in the hill town of Avranches that looked across the coast to the famous monastery island of Mont-St-Michel, Claude and Marie-Claire sat with two other members of the Committee. Sergeant Sam Haines sat in as an honorary member. After an hour’s recapitulation and before further plans of resistance were formulated, Marie-Claire had something equally important to discuss.
‘There are two more Allies in La Haye-du-Puits hiding in Madame Jolloin’s boulangerie. I said we would get them out.’
‘Did you, indeed?’ sniffed Claude.
‘You don’t approve? We should let them rot there until they become a liability? You fascist thug!’
‘Don’t talk stupid, woman. The Committee would just like to have a say that’s all. She can look after them a little longer. We will work something out.’ He weighed up Haines. ‘Monsieur Sam, perhaps you will want to go back with them?’
Haines pulled a scornful face. ‘I suppose I’d better, but I’d prefer to do a bit of work with you fellows before I leave.’
‘You can. There’s a low-key demolition and one that needs your engineering skills. Your army uniform will come in handy.’
‘Suits me. And these other two. How do you intend to get them out?’
‘No doubt the usual route down through Vichy France and into Spain.’
Marie-Claire said, ‘They told me they want to get back to England as soon as they can.’
Claude said, ‘Pah!’ and fumed to himself. He took his responsibility as the group’s leader very seriously. ‘They will have to accept what we can offer. We’re not a travel agency!’
But it appeared that they were, for not long afterwards, Gerard arrived in a state of unusual agitation.
‘The Boche have broken our ring! The bastards have taken seven of us and three others died in a shoot-out. Those of us who escaped will live rough and harass them constantly. We have enough ammunition and weapons after the train raid.’
‘Are we under suspicion?’ said Claude.
This was a constant worry for any subversive organisation. Suspicion led to counter action, which led to capture and death, not only of the individuals involved, but of those who supported them too.
‘One never can tell, my friend. Someone made a slip and got himself caught, and they forced him to give them names and the whereabouts of our meeting place. We scattered. And here I am.’
‘We’re always ready to help you out, you know that, eh?’
‘Well,’ Gerard said, looking a little sheepish. ‘There is one thing you can do. Take somebody off our hands.’
‘Of course. Who?’
‘An American airman. He was passed on to us just before the train business and we didn’t have time to pass him on south. I’ve got him in the car. Say no if you can’t help, Claude, I’ll understand.’
‘We’ll take him,’ said Claude, patting Gerard’s shoulder. ‘You clear off and continue the work as best you can.’
Flying Lieutenant Curtis Olson was brought in and introduced.
‘Say, this underground Route of yours is sure is one hell of an organisation!’ he said with juvenile gusto, which disturbed the serious atmosphere of the meeting. ‘Brought me all the way across from Belgium.’
Then he made it worse by adding, ‘You guys wouldn’t have ice cream and a soda pop, would you?’