Authors: Douglas Reeman
|A Ship Must Die (1981)|
January 1944. Out in the wastes of the Indian Ocean, British ships are sinking. The cause: a German armed raider, disguised to deceive unwary merchantmen. In Williamstown, Australia, HMS Andromeda awaits transfer to the Australian navy. After years together in bloody combat with the Nazis, the cruiser's crew will disperse to fight in other ships, in other seas. But a call to Andromeda's youthful captain, Richard Blake VC, changes everything. He puts to sea immediately. His mission: to seek out and destroy the raider. And in this conflict, one ship must die.
Douglas Reeman has written thirty-two novels under his own name; he has also written tweny-three bestselling historical novels featuring Richard Bolitho, under the pseudonym Alexander Kent.
Douglas Reeman joined the Navy in 1941. He did convoy duty in the Atlantic, the Arctic, and the North Sea, and later served in motor torpedo boats.
As he says, ‘I am always asked to account for the perennial appeal of the sea story, and its enduring interest for people of so many nationalities and cultures. It would seem that the eternal and sometimes elusive triangle of man, ship and ocean, particularly under the stress of war, produces the best qualities of courage and compassion, irrespective of the rights and wrongs of conflict . . . The sea has no understanding of righteous or unjust causes. It is the common enemy, respected by all who serve on it, ignored at their peril.’
Douglas Reeman has written thirty-two novels under his own name; he has also written twenty-three bestselling historical novels featuring Richard Bolitho, under the pseudonym Alexander Kent.
The Greatest Enemy
The Last Raider
With Blood and Iron
A Prayer for the Ship
Dive in the Sun
The Hostile Shore
Rendezvous – South Atlantic
Send a Gunboat
The Deep Silence
Go in and Sink!
Path of the Storm
The Pride and the Anguish
To Risks Unknown
Surface with Daring
Strike from the Sea
Badge of Glory
The First to Land
The Iron Pirate
Against the Sea (non-fiction)
In Danger’s Hour
The White Guns
A Dawn Like Thunder
with love and with thanks
The author wishes to thank those officers and men of the Royal Australian Navy and the Royal New Zealand Navy who gave their assistance.
THE NEW YEAR
of 1944 was only two weeks old but already it looked as if it might be one of the hottest on record. The sun which blazed down across His Majesty’s Australian Naval Dockyard at Williamstown was so fierce that it had stripped the sky of colour, and the crowded berths and wharves twisted and danced in an ever-changing mirage.
But it was Sunday, and the working parties about the dockyard were reduced to a minimum, leaving the ships to themselves, overlapping shapes of grey steel or vivid dazzle-paint.
The main berth was devoid of movement, the gantrys motionless like dozing storks, the massive wooden concourse all but covered with a litter of pipes, wire, anchor cable and debris of all sorts, a scrap-dealer’s paradise. Ships being refitted, others being constructed to fill the unending gaps left after four years of war. Veterans too, their hulls showing hasty repairs, others still displaying their scars. Splinter holes and buckled plates, where weapons and men had once stood and faced their enemies.
But it was Sunday. War or not, the urgency could wait.
Halfway along the main berth was a cruiser. From her sharp stem to the motionless ensign which drooped from her quarterdeck staff she seemed to stand apart from the many vessels around her. Despite her seven thousand tons she had the grace of a destroyer, with her funnels trunked into a single structure to add to her air of power and speed.
At the foot of her brow, where a sentry stood almost asleep in a patch of shade, a lifebuoy hung on a small varnished stand with the ship’s name,
, for anyone who cared to read it.
She, of any ship in the Royal Navy, was a veteran in the clearest terms. She had steamed thousands of miles from one theatre to another. Norway, Dunkirk, the Atlantic and finally the Mediterranean, there was no sort of war she had not experienced.
had become famous, another of the Navy’s special legends which nobody could explain. Some ships were happy ones, others brought only trouble, even disaster to those who served them. Outsiders scoffed at the idea. How could a thing of steel effect people? But those who knew such ships were content to keep the secret to themselves.
Now, after two years of some of the hardest sea warfare in the Mediterranean, when
had rarely been absent from the nation’s headlines, she had come far south, to this dockyard in Victoria, Australia.
The Pacific war was spreading in all directions, and with the United States Navy taking the lion’s share of the operations, the Australians were in need of more ships to reinforce their scattered fleet and to replace the ones already lying on one sea-bed or another.
would be paid-off, to recommission eventually into the Royal Australian Navy, perhaps even with a new name, one more in common with the men who would fill her messdecks and action stations.
The cruiser had been at sea for Christmas, an occasion of very mixed emotions as well as being a far cry from the previous ones she had seen.
was special, so too were her people. Now, some had already left, to be sent home in the next convoy, others to work their passage on a newly repaired vessel needed elsewhere.
On this sweltering Sunday all the remaining members of the ship’s company not required for duty were ashore. Again, it was an entirely new experience. No air attacks, no bitter cold or freezing nights, just sunshine and a warmth of hospitality which left them breathless.
The ship was very still, with just the gentle murmur of fans and a faint throb of a generator deep in her bowels to show a sign of life.
Right aft in his day cabin,
’s captain sat alone at his desk, plucking his shirt away from his skin as he sipped at a glass of iced gin and considered his own feelings.
Captain Richard Blake was just thirty-three years old. Earlier in the war such swift promotions were compared with other, less demanding times, but now they hardly raised a comment. At the outbreak of war Blake had commanded a destroyer. It was a world he understood and enjoyed, in spite of all the hazards. He had imagined that nothing could ever replace a destroyer in his affection. Even as a small boy he had read about them. The ‘greyhounds of the ocean’ as they were described by writers who had obviously never served in one.
As the war had increased momentum, and every belief he had gathered on his way up the ladder of promotion had been rewritten by the savagery of battle, Blake had seen his old world crumble. The enemy could not be stopped, or so it had seemed in those first months and years. Precious convoys had been decimated, while on land the British armies had been forced into retreat again and again.
At home, bewildered by the swiftness of apparent disaster, the civilian population had been made to endure air raids around the clock, rationing, shortages of just about everything, with only the tiny vapour trails above London or the Kentish fields to tell of the few who were winning in spite of the odds, or perhaps because of them.
Once more, Blake had been advanced in promotion, ‘forced up under glass’, as they had called it, and had joined
as her acting-commander. He had been with her ever since, and when her captain, Tom Fellowes, had been killed outright by a bomb splinter when they were escorting a convoy to Alexandria, Blake had been put temporarily in command.
The war had been going so badly throughout the Mediterranean that any change in a ship’s pattern could spell disaster. Perhaps there had been somebody in Whitehall who understood about ships like
. Maybe he had served aboard her either in her three years of peace or since then in combat.
But Blake had stayed. Malta, North Africa, Tobruk and back again. E-boats, submarines, dive-bombers and powerful cruisers, they had survived it all together when many, many others had not.
They had fought duels with shore batteries, humped stores and fuel to beleaguered Malta and protected the army’s flank whenever they could be of use.
Then, quite suddenly, the balance had hesitated. At a place called El Alamein the army started back along the coast road. And
had stayed with them, until last year when the Allies had taken that first, tentative stab at the enemy’s own territory, the invasion of Sicily.
Looking around the quiet cabin it was hard to picture any of it, Blake thought. The clattering automatic fire, the Mediterranean sky pock-marked with drifting shell-bursts and ripped apart by tracer. Screaming dive-bombers, the bridge jerking and reeling to a near-miss, or too often a hit.
Blake could see their faces better than the actual events, or the order of each incident. Yells and cheers, curses and screams as the steel cracked into the cruiser’s side. Grins on smoke-blackened faces when his promotion had been signalled and his steward had sewn an extra stripe on his faded reefer, bright gold against the three tarnished ones. Just for the hell of it. A thing for the moment.
was that kind of ship.
The deck trembled very slightly and Blake stood up and crossed to an open scuttle to watch a tug thrusting past.
Three months after Sicily had come the invasion of Italy, a far more ambitious and deadly affair. Costly too, in men and ships.
And then, after all the varied actions, the heart-breaks and the jubilant moments of survival had come that challenge which in hindsight might have been planned for the ship and for himself.
He felt his stomach muscles contract as he relived the moment. A great double column of landing craft, weaving and floundering about as only they could in anything but a flat calm. Each packed with troops, tanks and ammunition,
heading for the beaches to join the fighting. Two elderly destroyers trying to maintain some sort of discipline, an even older anti-aircraft cruiser which had looked like a relic from Jutland. And at the head of the unruly flotilla had been
. It had been a Sunday then as now, he thought, his mouth suddenly dry.
Three ships had been sighted to the north-east, closing fast. They should not have been there. The approaches to Italy and Sicily were sealed and patrolled by a massive force of capital ships, cruisers, destroyers, everything you could think of.