Keynes Cruisers

Story 0139 February 1941

February 1, 1941 Beda Fromm


The driver of the lead armored car wiped his eyes. He was tired. He had driven for seventeen hours along a road that he would not have walked his parents’ Provencal goats. The First Free French Motor Marine Company had reached the Gulf of Sirte. Over the next hour, seventeen armored cars, several dozen trucks and six tanks arrived. Every man had a moment to wash the dust and sweat of a mad dash across the desert from his eyes and then they started to dig in. They were a thin cork who could only slow down a determined Italian vanguard but they may be enough to tell the remains of the 10th Army that they were done and there was no hope.

Many miles to the north, the Australian artillery fired another barrage. Every gun in the now veteran division was focused on a single grid square. Six rounds per tube were fired as every shell that had to be brought forward displaced even more precious water and petrol from the thin ranks of supply trucks that shuttled back and forth from the newly re-opened port of Tobruk. Every journey saw fewer trucks and even fewer supplies brought forward. If the Italians were in headlong retreat, the offensive should have ended weeks ago. But the Italians continually deployed thin and dissolute rear guards that bought them less and less time as artillery would fix them and then a determined tank and infantry attack would rout them. They stood the same way and then died the same way in a number of villages and crossroads that men who lived their entire lives on the Cyrenecian coast could not name nor care to remember.

Once again the infantry went in behind half a dozen tanks.

Once again Italian machine guns opened up, this time, two had been hidden in defilade, surprising the under strength company slightly as four men went down, two to never rise again.

Once again, the heavy tanks fired and artillery was walked into strong points.

Once again the infantry raised a loud roar as they closed the range and once more, white flags started to appear just before the Australians passed the point of no return on their charge.

Once again , two ambulances were filled with wounded Australian men.

Once again, seventy prisoners were told to sit down with their hands on their head and do nothing to anger the men who they had just tried to kill, capische.

Once again, the advance continued.


February 2, 1941 Singapore


The stubby fighters were being carefully assembled in the large hanger. The aircraft were fresh from transport. American and British negoatiations were long and contentious for a fighter that everyone knew was second rate. The Americans finally conceded on the key issue; they released these fighters with new, factory fresh engines rated for slightly more than 1,200 horsepower. The extra power over the original specifications would be appreciated but most of the performance gains would be traded off for additional weight of more armor, self-sealing fuel tanks and a better radio. Even still, a second rate fighter with a single .50 caliber machine gun in the cowl and one more in each wing was better than having no fighters. 67 Squadron of the RAF would be the first recipients of the stubby Brewster. Australian and New Zealand fighter squadrons were being stood up. Some of the order were being shipped directly to Empire Air Training Scheme bases while the rest of the order was on its way to either Burma or Malaya. Once the ANZAC squadrons arrived, the colony would have barely adequate fighter cover instead of grossly and criminally negligent fighter protection.




February 3, 1941 Malta


The air raid siren blared. The half dozen Martlets and four Fulmars were on strip alert this morning. They had fought hard since being stranded on the island when they failed to defend Illustrious. The men of the Fleet Air Arm had already claimed seventeen kills, post-war records would confirm eleven. Today was another day. A dozen bombers were spotted on radar high, with perhaps a squadron of fighters. The Martlets would take a single diving pass through the maneuverable Italian fighters while the Fulmars would engage the bombers. If the Hurricanes could scramble in time, they would get the bombers on the way out.

An hour later, the airfield was quiet as the men were sullen. Two Martlets and two Fulmars were gone. The bombers were actually ME-110s and the escorts this time were ME-109s instead of the Italian bantam weights that they had abused. Outnumbered and outperformed the priority had been to escape, and more of them had done that than had failed, but too many had failed. Two pilots claimed three kills but even was losing and losing was a fiasco.

The only good news was a motor torpedo boat entered harbor that night a slightly wounded Martlet pilot aboard. They had rescued him twelve miles north of the island, six miles from where he was last seen in the furball.





February 3, 1941 Mogadishu, Italian Somalia


Thirty one attackers were leaving the port. A single Albacore had been hit by anti-aircraft fire but it did not go down. It crashed in the sea yards from HMS Hawkins. The carrier's leaders debated on the appropriate ransom for the pilot. He had been behind some of the better phantom jokes on the ship and that decreased his attractiveness. An offer was made and accepted by the cruiser. He was traded for two bottles of whiskey and two new movies.

The harbor was closed. Three ships had been sunk at dock side and the entrance channel was heavily mined. Formidable continued north to join the Mediterranean Fleet.


February 4, 1941 Haverton Hill-on-Tees


Sparks lit the night. Half a dozen oxygen torches were ripping open the bow of a flat bottomed oil tanker. The port side already had a gash from the main deck to several feet above the water line. Ropes were lashed securely pressing the intentional wound against the ships’ hull. The skilled men worked their torches on the starboard side, slowly, carefully opening up the hull from the front. Once they were done, the ropes would be made secure once again and the cutting crews would enter the ship to clear the bottom lip of steel.

The Admiralty had plans for Misoa and her two sisters but the men at the yard could not figure out what they were.




February 5, 1941 Benghazi Libya


The offensive was over.

Operation Compass was supposed to have been a raid, a spoiling attack, an intelligence appreciation, a live fire tempering of the Western Desert Force. It turned into an offensive and then it turned into a rout. General Wavell’s forces had pressed the Italian 10th Army as had as it could and each hammer blow fractured the Italian defenses. The Italians had surrendered three times as many men as the Commonwealth could put into the field but their numbers were never concentrated. Instead two or three British, Australian or Indian divisions tended to hammer an equal number of demoralized and demobilized Italian defenders repeatedly. The Royal Navy had been able to keep enough supplies coming forward to allow the divisions to advance.

But now it was time for a halt. The fresh 2nd Armoured Division had taken positions south of Benghazi. Armoured car units and cavalry in light tanks had formed a screen south of Antelat.

The Western Desert Force was exhausted by its success. The 7th Armoured Division was a ghost of its former strength. The Italian 47 millimeter anti-tank guns were a potent foe but the greatest tank killer was dust. Every tank that had not brewed up catastrophically needed be taken to the workshops in the Delta to be rebuilt. New air filters were needed, and better oil filters were being ordered. The men were only slightly better than the tanks. They had been fed well as they fought but they needed a rest. Rumblings about a deployment to Greece meant the time to recover and reconstitute the Australians and Indians was limited. A new Australian Division would push forward to Benghazi by coasters while the veteran compatriot division would head to Crete to recuperate while garrisoning that island for the Greeks. A few dozen experienced field officers and section leaders would be transferred to stiffen the well trained but green replacements.

General Wavell ran his hand over his head. He needed men, and the East African campaign was the closest source of men. It had been proceeding well over the past few weeks and if everything went well, the four divisions from the Empire could be available for the summer.

Until then, he would make do as he again had more missions than he had men.





February 6, 1941 Central Atlantic


A small fire raged on the quarterdeck of Scharnhorst. A pair of obsolete destroyers guarding the convoy had charged the battle cruiser as soon both ships finished radioing a contact report that their seventeen ship convoy inbound from Argentina was under attack. They then made smoke and sought to sacrifice themselves to buy time for the scatter.

The bravery of the men in the small fleas that attacked the great massif was real. It would have been enough if there was only a single raider. The great guns of Scharnhorst boomed but missed repeatedly as the destroyers twisted and turned, chasing splashes and seizing across the ocean like a spastic. Only when the range had closed for the secondary armament of the raider to come into play was the first ship damaged and then crippled. Even as the pilot house was on fire and the bow open to the sea, the destroyer still managed to launch all her torpedoes and lay smoke for her sister to hide in for a few more minutes of life. Every minute meant the convoy had a slightly better chance of dispersing.

As the second destroyer broke through the smoke again, her guns firing a light round every few seconds, peppering her foe with shrapnel and high explosives, damaging radios, directors, seaplanes and anti-aircraft mounts, a second set of radio messages were heard.

Another battlecruiser was seen. It had looped around the convoy. Already two ships had dropped their flag in surrender and more were being brought under fire.

The lone destroyer pressed forward. Sixty one hundred yards away, she shuddered. An 11 inch shell hit her. Thankfully her skin was so worn with age and use that the delay fuse did not function until after the shell left a neat exit hole on her starboard side. Thirty six hundred yards away, the ship was dying. The men aboard her were dying. And she heeled over to stabilize the sight picture of for the torpedo men. Every fish entered the water. One began to circle, the rest went hot straight and true.

They missed. And by the time Scharnhorst resumed her course after combing the tracks, her tormentor was no more as her magazine exploded.




February 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor


The chief’s club was swinging.

Chief Swanson had won the prize from the Admiral.

Admiral Kimmel had made good on his promise. Chief Swanson had received a bonus of three months of pay, a bottle of 1916 Scotch and lunch with the Admiral. They had laughed as they went over the smuggling aboard the Arkansas two barrels of rum from Royal Navy stores in 1923. That was when the Commander first met the young petty officer. Officially the rum was for medicinal purposes. Usually it was for morale. As he was given a bottle of some of the Admiral’s better Scotch, the Admiral asked if anyone looked into the torpedo bulge near Engine Room 2. The chief chuckled as that was one of his better hides aboard ship.

The second sweep had been a mad dash as the scrounging teams were only given twelve hours to find the crown jewels. Arizona gave up little else. Half a dozen shotguns, enough entrenching equipment to have the entire ship’s company rebuild Verdun, and a few crates of hand grenades were the haul from Arizona. Pensacola probably had the best find for the day. Gunny Flinn discovered two Hotchkiss 47 millimeter guns as well as three Gatling guns. No one admitted or bragged about where they came from.

However, the prize was not weapons per displaced ton but merely weapons. Chief Swanson and his team ransacked Tennessee. They found another hundred Krags, twenty seven civilian Tommy guns, four crates of land mines, and eight 37 millimeter infantry guns still packed in their original factory crates.

It did not matter, the scroungers were having a party that would run through the half of the bonus in four hours. It was a professional convention of creative suppliers of certain needs and professional secrets would be shared. Chief Swanson looked around and found his next mark, a young petty officer first class who was being groomed for the goat locker. He had to see if that boy could play cards, or more importantly if he insisted on playing with a fresh deck or not.


February 9, 1941 Off Sheerness


Tor twisted. Her two single Bofors spat shells at the attackers. A stream of tracer bullets bit into the water as the aircraft tried to line her up. As it got closer the three recently added Oerlikon’s hammered away. Several hundred yards away her sister, Sleipner, did the same. She twisted in the narrow waters to dodge a bomb that a Heinkel dropped early. Both ships had made smoke where most of the coastal convoy could hide behind. Both ships had screamed for Fighter Command but they were on their own for at least a few more minutes.

Six more bombers curled around the two escorts and penetrated the smoke screen. A dull crump followed by a red orange glow in the smoke told the experienced men that a coaster had been hit. They were bringing coal to London so the cargo could be replaced but the men aboard their charges were not. They hurried into the smoke as the raiders departed without loss. A single coaster with 400 tons of coal in her hull has breaking in half. Tor hurried to the single life boat. Seven of the nine crew members were quickly pulled aboard the small destroyer. One man could not be found and the last man was dead.

Twenty minutes later, a squadron of Polish fighters circled over the convoy that was plodding south at six knots. Their journey would be completed without any more excitement.


February 10, 1941 near Strasbourg


“How are you mon cherie?” The doctor asked this question with professional and personal concern. His fingers brushed back his young partner’s hair from her upset face.

“I will be fine once you wash me down with bleach… that fat whale almost crushed me last night and I don’t think he ever even tried to please me. No, I was supposed to be ready for him as soon as he indicated that he needed relief. Ohhh… that uniform is so stunning on you, the tailor did an amazing job of hiding your girth, the power of Teutonic aggression makes my knees wobble… oaf. At least the cave-in only lasted a few minutes. I’ve had worse…”

“Have you had better…”

“Are you fishing for a compliment my doctor?”

“Yes”

“Much”

They laughed as the doctor continued to examine Anna Marie. She had introduced herself to the German colonel a month ago and had quickly become a part of his inner circle. She played the role of a naive ingenue who thought collaboration with the Reich would save her family and her farm to the hilt.

He talked. He talked to impress her. He talked to relieve himself of the stress of command, He talked to fill the silence between rounds.

She listened. She listened to impress him. She listened to convince herself to continue. She listened to create silence that he then filled.

“I won’t be with him for much longer. He said that to me last night. He has a conference in Paris he wants me to go with him. I’ve never been. He has a room at George V and will put me up there. And then he said his regiment is leaving here and heading east. “

“Do you know where, when?”

“End of March, he said he would be visiting his wife two weeks before Easter as his regiment sorted itself out after the move. He was telling me this while he was pre-occupied and I was focusing on sounding like I was enjoying myself so I did not pay too much attention.”

“Where…”

“Kosice, Katowice… some place with a soft start and a hard ending, the complete opposite of what I want..”

“You’ll get what you want soon enough”

“Should I go to Paris with him?” Her voice dropped not out of fear of being overheard by an informer but the fear that Paris was a city that she had never seen, a city of vice and excitement that could overwhelm her. Would a farm near Strasbourg be enough for her?

“Yes, you should go to Paris. You should always go to Paris when a lover offers to take you there.”

“Will you take me there after the war?”

“Yes mon belle petit amie, we will someday have Paris”

Minutes later, she left the doctor’s office and went to a dress shop. She needed a new dress to impress her colonel. As she browsed and eventually found a brilliant sunflower yellow dress with a complimentary hat, she ignored the eyes of her peers and neighbors who knew why she needed that dress. She smiled as she handed over what she needed to purchase her pretty new dress. The other women saw the smile of a collaborator while she smiled a knowing smile of a secret maker.

Several hours later, the message that a regiment was moving east was written in invisible ink and placed in the water closet of a Paris bound train. By the end of the week, the message had arrived at the Canadian interest section in Vichy. That consolidated messaged confirmed the movement of several other divisions in France and Western Germany to the East.




February 14, 1941 Singapore


MV Nordbo was in an odd situation. She was in a British port, with an American cargo, owned by Danes and operated by Japanese. She had been interned in Kobe until the Japanese offered to bare-boat charter her from her Danish owners. Those owners were then obligated to turn over the entire charter fee paid in gold to Germany. But after that, her captain, an engineer, and a pair of general seamen with some capacity for language, were placed back on board the ship with a Japanese merchant crew and they resumed the normal drudgery of commerce. Today, they were loading 4,100 tons of iron wood and 100 tons of other goods to take to America from Malaya. The voyage home would be convoluted as they were scheduled to move American steel bridges and automobiles to Chile and take Chilean fertilizer back to Kobe. As the ship nosed into the main shipping channels, the first mate, a very proper man with a naval reserve commission looked at the general readiness of the harbor defenses and was not impressed. These men were second line troops for a third rate theatre and it showed.




February 15, 1941 near Loch Ewe


Her older sister was twenty three thousand yards away running at twenty four knots. Each turret skewed as the servo-motors stabilized the guns despite the pounding of the North Atlantic's waves against her hull. The solution stabilized and all ten guns fired. An unsecured chart fell off the table, and every man’s ears popped as the noise and then the pressure wave assaulted them.

Ten shells arced into the sky. If a bird could see a moment in time far above them, the shells were in three groups. Four were tightly clustered and slightly ahead and to the right by one hundred yards of another cluster of four shells. The final pair of shells were below these eight shells and were barely identifiable as a grouping. But the shells were still moving, dominated by Newton and the winds high above the seas. They tipped over and plunged towards the aim point, an offset of eleven degrees from the citadel of King George V.

Eight shells landed in a respectable clump in the wake of the modern battleship. One shell went long by 500 yards and the other was short and to the left by six hundred yards. Prince of Wales processed the information, and corrections were dialed into the firing table. Another salvo, and another correction as the central scatter was tight but the dispersal of the last two shells was unacceptable. They continued throughout the morning until it was time for the two battleships to shift roles. King George V routinely placed all ten shells of a full salvo within the confines of her younger sister’s wake.

Several hours later, both fast battleships met up with their destroyer escort as they steamed south to go raider hunting.


February 16, 1941 Midway Island


The three light cruisers gently bounced inside the lagoon. They had gingerly navigated the freshly blasted channel. Two supply ships, one Navy, one civilian were slowly unloading. The engineering equipment was taking more time than anyone thought it would have as the bulldozers and steam shovels were not willing to be controlled by the underpowered ship board cranes. Work gangs had rigged rope harnesses for the machines. Sweat soaked men in shorts and boots hauled in conjunction with a single crane straining to life a bulldozer onto Eastern Island. The runway had been declared operational for light aircraft, but it was a rough cut strip that was still too short and too narrow for effective use.

Over on Sand, the new arrivals of the 3rd Marine Defense Battalion were stretching. Their sergeants and lieutenants were forming the men up in lines as they needed to run to regain their wind and their fitness after the luxurious sea journey from Pearl Harbor. The run in the near tropical sun would be the easiest part of the day for these men as the long and complex task of mounting the coastal defense guns and preparing sites for the heavy anti-aircraft guns would dominate their days for the next nine weeks.


February 17, 1941 Salamis, Greece


As she passed the point of where the Persians were defeated, Georgios Averoff increased speed as she sortied to defeat another invader. Bad weather was coming through the central Mediterranean would be the striking unit’s shield. Two modern destroyers waited for her. An older ship, Leon, was the last ship in the group. Her anti-submarine gear had been landed and in its place, she carried forty mines.

The task force would work its way along the coast and mine the approaches to Vlore, Albania to slow the build-up of Italian reinforcements along the northern front.


February 18, 1941 Singapore


21st Brigade of the Second Australian Imperial Force arrived this morning. The men were all volunteers. They were enthusiastic but still raw. A few of the senior officer had fought in France or Iraq in 1918, a few of the sergeants had fought for the British in Northwest Frontier Province or other trouble spots on the edge of the empire over the past few decades. A captain commanding A company had spent most of the decade in the Foreign Legion.

The ships were still in the process of unloading. Artillery was a mixed bag. Twenty four guns were allocated to a brigade group but only sixteen 25 pounders were available. The third battery for the division was currently equipped with heavy mortars while they waited for new equipment. The carrier platoons for each battalion were at two thirds strength. The anti-tank battery was fully equipped but had little ammunition to practice.

The brigade was assigned to Malaya to have some practical use as it completed its training. By the end of the year, they would be ready to deploy to Egypt or beyond. Until then, they would make do in the bastion of the east.


February 18, 1941 Bari, Italy


Under ideal conditions, the cruiser San Georgio should have been retired years ago. These were not ideal conditions. The Regia Marina still only had two battleships ready, and the cruiser force was being worn down through a combination of mechanical failures and British actions. The front in Albania had stabilized after the humiliating defeats of the invading armies. The Army had requested and received permission to massively reinforce the forces in Albania. By late spring, they would be ready to recommence their attacks against the Greek lines. In order to do so, they needed supplies of all types.

Convoys were running daily to build up the supply dumps near Vlore and then to push shells, fuel, food and medicine to the trench lines manned by cold infantrymen. San Georgio, obsolete though she may be, was making weekly runs across the narrow sea escorting coasters and sea going merchant ships that would support the army. Radio intercepts had indicated that the Greeks were planning a surface raid into the Adriatic instead of the consistent harassment mining done by their submarines, British submarines operating from Malta and British bombers operating from the Peloponnese. Her heavy guns could take on any raiders while the two destroyers of the screen would push back against torpedo boats and bombers. Seven ships were ready.


February 19, 1941 near Dover


“Sir, I stand relieved”

The British major general saluted and waited a moment. His Belgian counterpart saluted him and they held eyes briefly. The 3rd Division was no longer responsible for anti-invasion duties. Over the past month, the 1st Free Belgian Division had begun the slow process of taking over the sector. Four infantry brigades, freshly equipped, were moving into the works that the 3rd Division had built and manned since Dunkirk.

The Belgians were decent troops. They were getting better and could hold a position against a determined combined arms attack but they had very little depth and few reserves to make up manpower losses. A single Belgian brigade was being dispatched to the Congo to reinforce the Force Publique. Other than emigres, exiles and escapees, there were no more Belgian recruits to sustain the five brigades already in the field. There had been talk of upgrading the Belgians to an armored force but the tanks would not be available for at least another year. So they would defend until then.

3rd Division and its former commander were scheduled to be shipped east mid-spring. Or at least that was what the rumors had been. They were to go to Salisbury Plain for training and to integrate an armoured regiment with the division. After thirty days of brigade and divisional maneuver training, the men were to be given twenty days leave before re-assembling at the Clyde for duty overseas.


February 20, 1941 North Atlantic


Nothing. Nothing was all anyone could see. It was all anyone had seen in the past two days as the two ships had left the normal sea lanes.

Furious had been flying off patrols stretching two hours ahead and to each flank every morning and afternoon. Prince of Wales was still working out the kinks in her crew and her equipment with action stations at dawn and dusk and usually twice more during the day. Her crew was getting sharper but more tired.

A tap, hold tap -- di -dahhhh- di was heard on the guard frequency. Radio operators began to turn knobs and dials. The signal repeated again, and again. Somewhere, out there, there was a merchant ship spotting a raider.

Both warships began a broad turn to establish a baseline in order to triangulate. Furious waved off a pair of Swordfish in the landing pattern as she accelerated to twenty-six knots and headed east for fifteen minutes. Prince of Wales headed west until the baseline was long enough. Both ships converged back to each other and headed south. The seas were broad and the raiders would have a head start, but there was a datum and there was a chance.

February 21, 1941 Port Said, Egypt


Lancastria
and her compatriots had arrived. Men who had gone half a world aboard them were scrambling to get off the ships. In a few days, the 50th Division would be ready to assemble on the training fields west of the city. There, they would first train and acclimate themselves under the watchful eye of the veterans who had repulsed the Italian invaders during Operation Compass, and then they would take part in a mock combined arms battle with a fresh Army Tank Brigade on their side as they would fight against a freshly trained Indian division. They had forty five days to prepare before they would be pushed forward to the front line. The buzz had been clear that they would be fighting Germans somewhere, either in Libya or Greece. The men who had survived the evacuation of the BEF were ready to get their revenge.




February 22, 1941 Border between Soviet Occupied Poland and German Occupied Poland


The German manager looked down. His Soviet counterpart had come over the border earlier that morning. Officially it was to discuss the plans to tranship oil from the Baku fields to German standard gauge rail cars. That was always a tricky proposition as the cargo was heavy, valuable, and flammable so leakage of both physical and criminal types were always a worry. But more prosaically, it was to have a few cups of tea with a man who had not become a friend but a trusted colleague who knew his business.

Four westbound trains were due to transfer gauges today. One was an oil train, another was a coal train, while the two remaining trains carried food and intermediate processed goods. Heading east were two trains. The first was mostly carrying industrial chemicals and the other had machine tools, passengers including several dozen political prisoners the chekists wanted, and consumer goods. Nothing too unusual at this border crossing.

Tomorrow, the border guard commanders would have their weekly meeting to coordinate anti-smuggling patrols. This was a quiet post outside of the range of British bombers. His biggest worry was making sure that the tea was properly made this time.




February 22, 1941 2322 east of Tripoli


Seven men stayed low to the ground. They had another two miles to cover in three more hours before HMS Unbeaten was due to surface near a beach. They would be picked up by a boat team and then smuggled back to Malta and flown to Alexandria. They brought good and bad news.

Teams could infiltrate German and Italian positions. They had been watching the coastal road for four days. They had seen the bad news. At least an entire Panzer division had started to move down the road early that morning. More importantly, several hundred trucks had gone down the road the day before and returned this morning. They were building up supply caches along the march from Tripoli to Cyrenaica. The Germans looked professional, they looked motivated, and they looked absolutely miserable in the midday sun. They were Northern European troops not used to the desert unlike both the Italian and Commonwealth forces.

Four hours later, the seven men were asleep in the crew section of Unbeaten.


February 23, 1941 0800 Salamis, Greece


The four raiders were now escorts again. Leon was the guardship for the naval base while the cruiser and two modern destroyers were off again to Alexandria to cover a convoy of ships that had arrived from America. The raid had been successful enough. Every mine had been laid, and the destroyer Vasilissa Olga sank a 300 ton Italian patrol boat with gun fire. The Italian response was slow, half a dozen level bombers scared but did not harm the flotilla. A pair of fast cruisers gave chase, but a Royal Navy force of three Leander light cruisers and four destroyers was spotted by Italian scouts. The Italian pursuers retired rather than seek battle with their technological equals.




February 24, 1941 Near Cape Bon, French Tunisia


Every second was an eternity. The engine was already fluttering from a single hit from the lead destroyer’s accurate anti-aircraft fire. Five companions were low and slow on the deck as they were boring in on the convoy.

“Steady, steady” The twin stack merchant ship was trying to curve away from her attackers. The Swordfish pressed on. The rear gunner screamed as a machine gun bullet shattered his right arm. As the stacks of the ship filled the horizon of the wobbling light bomber, the desperate fire of the convoy’s defenders seemed to increased. Six hundred yards from the merchant ship, the torpedo fell into the water. It dove deep and then came back to only run six feet below the surface. Two other torpedoes were also boring in on the merchant ship carrying artillery ammunition for the 5th Light Division and aviation fuel for the two squadrons of single engine fighters that the Luftwaffe had deployed to Tripoli.

The torpedo dropped by the Swordfish which tumbled into the sea missed wide. One man, the radio operator escaped and would later be picked up by a Tunisian fishing boat that also rescued half a dozen Italian sailors. The survivors would be repatriated to their respective nations in due time.

The other two torpedoes hit square and true. The ship shuddered, it stopped, and then within minutes, it broke in half. The forward half was on fire from hundreds of leaking oil drums. Several hundred yards away, a companion was turtling after taking a single torpedo.

A single torpedo boat circled the water for half an hour to rescue survivors but as soon as she saw Tunisian fishing boats approach, she accelerated to reinforce the five remaining escorts covering the seven small merchant ships that were inbound to Tripoli.




February 25, 1941 southeast of Crete


Every man in the cramped control room waited. They waited for success. They waited for failure. They waited for the eventual counterattack. They waited with the expectation of a man seeing his wife enter their marriage bed for the first time.

Four torpedoes were streaking forward covering a twelve degree spread. The angle was wide to increase the chance of a single hit. One hundred and thirty seven seconds of waiting ended with a single explosion. Seconds later, another explosion was heard. The men in the control room smiled at their success as they focused on their escape.

One hundred feet above Leonardo da Vinci and twenty two hundred yards away, HMS Malaya wallowed. She had been stunned by the detonation of a single torpedo forward of A turret and just as the captain started to process the damage, he was thrown across the bridge by the second torpedo exploding near the engineering space. Malaya skewed as water rushed into her hull and the shafts rattled around with shock damage. Within minutes, she had an eight-degree list and two thousand tons of water in her. Within an hour, the list had reached sixteen degrees but the water inflows had stopped. Achilles had edged up to her damaged side to send pumps and damage control parties aboard to assist.

By nightfall, the Mediterranean Fleet had circled around their crippled compatriot and steamed back to Alexandria at six knots.


February 25, 1941 Los Angeles California


Dozens of ships were being loaded. Dozens of ships were disgorging themselves. MV Malayan Princess was empty and idle. Normally she would have been loaded with American shells or American food or American trucks to take back to the expanding army that was tasked to defend Malaya. But the British consul had asked her captain to hold in port and see if he could find a charter in the Americas that could paid in specie or dollars.

A year ago, there would have been a trip to Japan with steel and scrap in her holds. That option was no longer valid. Perhaps a trip to Colombia or Venezuela could be arranged. The captain started to think through his contacts and more importantly the contacts of his contacts as someone would need to owe him a favor.




February 26, 1941 2145 Tripoli


Four ships stayed in the outer roads of Tripoli harbor guarding against any Royal Navy onslaught. Six ships were unloading. One more might arrive later that night . A small tanker had struck a mine that morning. The sole light cruiser of the escort and two destroyers were guarding her and a tug boat was slowly bringing the lamed ship to the partial safety of a defended port.

Stevedores were busy unloading supplies. The fuel depots were filling up again as the Afrika Korps had drained local reserves before they moved east. The shell stockpiles were still not enough to support a major offensive, but new production was beginning to keep up with the consumption from training and skirmishing with British patrols in the Cyrene desert.

Another convoy was due to leave Naples tomorrow morning. Air raids were planned to hammer Malta so that the bombers on that flyspeck nuisance of a base could not attack. That was the plan, but the sailors on board the merchant ships and escorts knew that Malta would exact Chiron’s toll on enough of them every crossing.

Several hundred miles away, HMS Adventure was leaving Gibraltar with a full load of mines. Force H would cover her movement until she could enter the Sicilian Narrows and lay a pair of fields near Cape Bon and then a third field west of Pantelerria. Each mine was unlikely to ever cause damage but enough of them would do something. It was a cold and impersonal war of statistics where men risked their lives for probabilistic damage and inefficiencies they could impose upon their enemy.


February 26, 1941 Inglewood, California


“What do you mean, you can’t order any more?”

“We’re almost out of dollars and everything that we have is already committed. The RAF loves the Mustang, and thinks they could be special but we can’t pay for it now. We’re stuck. The original two batches for the end of this year and early next year plus the prototypes is the line.”

“Anything we can do?”

“Take payment in sterling”

“We can’t do that…”

“Well then, we’re at an unfortunate impasse, we look forward to the Mustang in front line service but funds are tight so we will adapt to our less opulent circumstances….”

“Wait… I have an idea.” The general manager of North American Aviation paused a moment as he looked at his Scottish project representative. The two men had become close over the course of the Mustang project. They knew they had something special, a thoroughbred that could fly forever. He looked down on the factory floor. The first batch of production Mustangs were almost complete. Four women were installing the propeller on one plane. Another plane had several men connecting hoses to the Allison engine while a third team had the frame open as they wired the cockpit to the wings and fuselage.

“Go on”

“Engines… they are the most expensive part of the plane, right?”

“Of course….”

“We tested two prototypes with Merlins and the pilots loved them. The Mustang is a different plane with them. Why don’t we sell you the air frames and you install a Merlin as an engine? That makes this plane much cheaper in dollars. We could get at least one more batch out for the same dollars”

“Get the engineers to go through the details.. I will see if we have spare Merlins, but I think we have something”




February 27, 1941 On the Romanian Danube


“Goddamn it”

The tug boat captain cursed as he looked at his bundle of oil barges he was pushing up the Danube. He did not have far to go as the river was not open all the way to Vienna. Instead, he was moving some of the day’s production from Ploiesti to storage tanks for later transhipment. Or at least that was the plan.

A grain barge was heading down the river in the wrong lane. The tug’s horn blared as the slow motion crash could barely be averted if both clusters of barges moved immediately. The oil barges slowly started to change course. There was no hope that the grain barges would move fast enough.

Moments later the deep draft oil barges ran aground outside of the shipping channel. A minute later, the steel sides crumpled as the grain barges scraped the entire tow.

After the tow captain made sure that every family and crew member was safe, he cursed some more. He had the name of the grain tug boat and knew the man. He would owe him for damages again. The drunk should not be on the river. The offer to take his tug boat and his barges for a bare boat charter in a Turkish port was looking more attractive every day. He had no idea what British would do with his boat and barges in a neutral country but the money looked good.


February 27, 1941 Marsa Al Brega


One armored car was on fire. A 37 millimeter shell tore through the engine block when the inexperienced driver got stuck in his hide and had go in reverse to wiggle his way out. The screen for the 2nd Armoured Division was in front of the entire XIII Corps. They had two weeks to push ahead of the main defensive lines. The Germans were coming, the Germans were coming. They were coming by land and not be sea, but the Germans were coming. The RAF’s light bombers were harassing the advancing German columns, but the scouts had not seen any action yet.

And this morning, they had finally arrived. It was not much. Four light tanks and a dozen scout cars along with a few mortars. A company of infantry riding in Italian trucks backed the lightly armored spearhead. The gray clothed wraiths would have been out of place in the desert but the uniforms blended in well enough in the city.

The young officer commanding the patrol had to be reminded by the platoon sergeant that his first job was information, his second job was communication and his third job was killing Germans. He had wanted to open fire as soon as possible until the older man jogged his elbow. A radio message was sent back to headquarters, and then two scout cars had been dispatched to make sure the message was received.

The patrol was down to two thirds its strength before they were even spotted. A sharp eyed German scout who had fought in Poland, Belgium and France saw a thin straight line in a place where nothing was quite straight. His eyes tracked downwards and saw the scout car hiding behind a stall. And then the light tank thirty meters to his right fired, destroying the car.

Contact was made between the Afrika Korps and the XIII Corps. The young men in command, none older than twenty four did not care for history. They cared to make sense of the sudden bursts of confusion, the chaos of fire, the movement of unseen enemies, the location of their hidden escape routes. They cared about their men screaming, they cared about their ability to run, they cared about surviving the next fifteen minutes.

And most of the men did survive the next fifteen minutes as the light British patrol threw dozens of smoke grenades to mask their withdrawal. They left the single scout car and its crew. No prisoners were left behind as the men in that car were dead or were in the active process of dying.

Contact had been made.




February 27, 1941 800 miles east of Provincetown


“Chief… can you listen to this.” The sonar trainee heard something funny. He knew what a ping off of whales sounded like. He could tell humpbacks from rights to blues. He was not sure what the sound was that he was hearing on USS Reuben James’ sonar was.

The chief walked over and took the headset from the 3rd class who was showing some promise. His eyes crunched and his hand waved down the question that he saw forming. There was return that sounded funny.

“LT… Gunderson has a probable submerged contact”

The officer of the deck took the information in stride. His ship (and it was his ship until he was relieved as the officer of the deck) had been cruising at a steady twelve knots. They were tasked with pushing out the neutrality line further from the US shore. Every hour or so, a few pings would be allowed by the active sonar for training and marking, like a dog pissing on a tree. And now Gunderson heard something funny.

“Sound general quarters, anti-submarine”

The klaxon sounded and within four minutes, the Old Man was on the bridge taking report and preparing a course of action.

“Very well, we’ll keep this contact down and let them know we see them. Send a report to Newport and then a message in the clear to warn all merchant ships to avoid this area"

"Aye sir, report to Newport and message in the clear." The communications officer hurried to the radio shack drafting the two messages in his head.

For the next seven hours, Reuben James pinged and pursued the contact. After four hours, half a dozen hand grenades were thrown overboard to let the suspected U-boat know that the American destroyer was playing nicely with it.

After nightfall, the U-boat was able to slip away with only a few hours of stale air left.




February 28, 1941 Cavite Naval Yard


She was older enough for young men to whistle at her. Now she was getting cleaned up and fixed for more active duty. USS Marblehead could not undergo a complete overhaul and refit in Cavite. The facilities were insufficient for that. But she could get a make-over. Over the next four months, her engines would be repaired, boilers, retubed, her anti-aircraft fit replaced with modern 1.1 inch quad mounts and a half dozen brand new Swiss 20 millimeter machine guns. The torpedo tubes would be repaired and lightened. Her lowest main guns were useless in a heavy sea and ate up crew that was needed elsewhere. The lower casemate was to be covered with steel.

Four months worth of work on an old cruiser was one of the larger projects in the shipyard. The American supervisors and shipwrights had been growing their teams to support the slwoly growing Asiatic Fleet. Houston was still the pride of the fleet and its flag. USS Raleigh was due shortly from Pearl Harbor to supplement the fleet while Marblehead was unavailable. Thirteen fleet destroyers provided a patrol and escort force while the eight destroyer minelayers led by Walker thickened the defenses of the islands. Finally, the offensive thrust of the fleet was still the thirteen submarines.

Activity was picking up as the Philippines Coastal Patrol had taken delivery of four British built torpedo boats recently and dozens of more lighter coastal combatants were on order and in the pipeline from American shipyards. The yacht Isabel had left harbor the day before to sail to Hong Kong and then Shanghai through the Formosa Straits. She was charged with taking her time and counting all the Japanese ships that she could encounter. It was not a hostile reconnaissance but the information would be appreciated especially if she had engine problems that forced her to seek refuge in a Formosan port for a day or two.

February 28, 1941 Port Said

The cargo ship MV Athena arrived at Port Said from Philadelphia. Onboard were eighteen Wildcats purchased from US Navy stocks in September 1940, and a battalion of 75 mm guns and six dozen heavy machine guns. Ammunition and spare parts were also being carried.

Technicians were on hand to prepare the Wildcats for deployment to Cretan airfields where the pilots could become familiar with their new machines. The artillery and machine guns would proceed to Athens once a convoy was organized.
 
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