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.
 
Story 0140 March 1941
March 1, 1941 Sofia, Bulgaria

The red leather bound folder was closed. All of the documents were signed. Bulgaria had joined the Tripartite Pact. Some of it was out of fear of the Soviets, some of it was out of fear of her neighbors, some of the reason for the signatures was the need to hook themselves to the new order in Central Europe, and some of the motivation was to pressure Greece.

German technical advisers were already scheduled to cross the border once a phone call was confirmed. There would be no combat formations, but Bulgarian river ports, airfields and rail yards would be upgraded to accommodate the rapid movement of forces as needed.

March 2, 1941 King George V Hotel Paris

Her toes curled up. A ray of sunshine poked through the window. If she was with her doctor, this would be an ideal day as the only thing she had put on was the radio fifteen minutes ago. The Paris station was playing a symphony that fluttered through the notes and the crescendo. She wished she could put on a jazz station, but a good mistress to a German colonel did not listen to that degenerate music.

Her lover had left for the morning. He had meetings. He would come back at nineteen hundred hours, and want her to fuss over him for an hour like she was his mother or his wife instead of his lover. She would smooth his collar and his ego before he would disappear again for a night of drinking. If she was lucky, she would be asleep and he would be too drunk to care. Last night she was not lucky but she put on a convincing performance of interest during the thankfully short act and then he talked about himself and his importance. He was soon be promoted. He would soon be given a division. That division would be a critical unit in the next big, world changing, history dominating event. And she should not remember his boasts as a good Aryan girl (Alsatians were at least honorary Aryans).

She crawled back under the covers for a few more minutes enjoying the tightness, the security and the warmth of the soft engulfing hotel bed. Once the day started, she had the freedom of the city to herself. She had money, she had travel authorization, she had time. And so she would take advantage of the chance to drink chicory coffee along the Queue d’Orsay, she would watch the pigeons squabble along the Seine and then she would pay her respects at Notre Dame.

As she walked through the occupied city, it was no longer the City of Light. The residents were glum and careful to avoid their occupiers and their collaborators. People saw that she had money, people saw that she had confidence to talk to men in gray uniforms, and people saw that she was smiling for no reason. People gave her either a wide berth or a short conversation whenever they could.

She knew why her countrymen treated her like this. She made it a point to be aloof and quietly arrogant. She had a role and she had a secret and without that secret her role would end in the drama of life and death that she had chosen to be a bit player.

March 3, 1941 Alexandria

“Bloody Hell, mate” the tall Australian rivet gunner shouted as a red hot rivet brushed his shirt for the third time in half an hour

“Watch it.” The rivet man waited a moment until his partner stopped hopping and starting to pay attention again to the Matilda tank. They were almost done with this tank’s repairs. A crew had replaced the engine with a new one earlier in the week. Now their primary responsibility was working on the armor. The tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment had been evacuated from Benghazi almost a month ago. The men were exhausted and the machines were if anything in even worse shape. Troop ships had brought replacements to compensate for the wastage of lives and hopes and dreams of the men in the regiment since Operation Compass started.

And the Delta workshops were full of crews rebuilding the machines that had defeated the Italian army. Some of the tanks were beyond repair. Honey Pot had been salvaged from the fighting near Bardia and her damage was too great to repair. Instead she contributed her parts to seventeen separate tanks. Dust Devil, in front of them, received Honey Pot’s machine gun and two plates of armor.

Several miles south of the workshop where the regiment was being rebuilt for future operations, the New Zealand Division was exercising along the Nile River. They had returned from duty in the East Africa after an Indian division was made available. The three months of combat had toughened the men and shaken out the rot in the command structure. Most of the officers were decent enough but a few were too old, and far too many were unwilling or unable to make the hard choices needed to accomplish their missions. The average age of battalion commanders had already dropped seven years and it was likely to drop even more as the better older commanders were promoted and the ineffective men were shunted to training or supporting commands. The division’s equipment had arrived in fairly decent shape and they would be next in line for repair and reconditioning once the XIII Corps was fully brought back to snuff.

March 4, 1941 0121 near Wilhelmshaven

The bomber shook. The bomber wiggled. Search lights probed the sky and the pilot dodged where he thought they would be next. Any bomber caught in the light would be hammered by the anti-aircraft guns protecting this critical naval anchorage and be attacked by the night fighters the Luftwaffe had deployed.

A mile in front of the bomber, a sudden burst of flames destroyed the pilot’s night vision. A Whitley was hit by an anti-aircraft shell that detonated and perforat a vapor filled fuel tank. If he had looked at the expanding fireball, he would not see any parachutes. A single man, the co-pilot lived through the initial explosion but stayed with the aircraft as it tipped over and smashed into the Jade.

The pilot blinked and jinked while the bombardier focused. He had his mark in sight and the bomber steadied for the final run. And then the bombs exited the bomb bay and the plane lept as her burden had eased and the propellers bit into the air with refreshed vigor as the pilot banked his baby to the north and away from the city that was starting to burn.

A few hours later, the plane was pushed into its revetment at its home field in East Anglia. London was burning and served as a navigation beacon. The Luftwaffe had raided the docks again and it appeared that they had some success. By daybreak, the bomber was in the skilled hands of the mechanics and the crew had completed their debriefing. The squadron’s central hall was full, every man who left the previous evening was on the base. Four men from A is for Apple were in the infirmary and H is for Hotel would be down for a week but everyone was alive at this station. The older men, veterans at age 23 and 24 knew that this incongruity of faith would not last while the younger men who had only raided Germany a few times celebrated their invincibility.

March 5, 1941 Saint-Nazaire, France

He approached the port like a petty thief in the night. Stealthily his engines hummed, boilers heated by the reserves held for the journey to safety. Lookouts were alert. Their eyes scanned the waters in front of them and the skies above them. Three minesweepers and a patrol boat led the seventeen thousand ton raider along the swept channel. A single RAF mine had been cleared already. Rifle file had produced a deafening orange ball of light and a spray of water that drenched the exposed men on the light escort’s bridge.

Admiral Hipper was home. Or at least he was back to safety. There was no word on how he could make it to Kiel. There was no word on whether or not he would move to Brest or any other Biscayan port. He needed rest. He needed repairs, He needed time to celebrate his victories. The raid was a success. HMS Argus was the most notable kill but thirteen other ships went under the waves while he was at sea. Every convoy was now heavily escorted, tying up critical warships that could have been demolishing the trickle of supply convoys running from Naples to Tripoli. Royal Navy battleships were quartering the ocean and seeing nothing as Hipper and his bigger brothers prowled the waves.

An hour later, the cruiser was tied up and the first sailors were ashore for the first time in months. Mail bags were dropped off, and arrangements to secure prisoners were being made. Letters with crew rosters were sent to the International Red Cross as men who had been missing and presumed lost were now found and bound for camps in Germany. Officers made arrangements to repair and refuel the ship. He took almost no combat damage, a few light shells had scarred his skin but the wear and weariness of steaming had taken its toll. French dockyard workers under the eyes and direction of supervising German engineers would be needed to restore Hipper to his fullest strength.

March 6, 1941 1002 South of Crete

Three liners were being covered by most of the Mediterranean Fleet as they all pushed north at eighteen knots. Cruisers and destroyers could be seen by the men of the 19th Australian Brigade who were smoking on deck or walking around. They had fought hard throughout the desert campaign and now their reward for being veterans was a month’s rest to recover, repair and integrate replacements into the ranks and then a ride to another foreign country to fight the Germans. Sharp eyed soldiers could look up and see, if they squinted hard enough, four Fleet Air Arm fighters lazily circling between the clouds north and west of the convoy.

This was the second convoy to leave Alexandria full of troops. Equipment had already started to be shipped north. Enough American made tanks had already been landed in Athens to equip an independent tank brigade along the Salonika line where their fathers and uncles had died a generation before. Now men were moving north to meet with their equipment to fight the Germans and the Italians again. The veterans were confident to face the Italians, they folded under determined attacks and plentiful artillery. They had not yet seen the Germans and their reputation was stronger and fiercer.

March 7, 1941 1743 southwest of Brest, France

Seventy thousand tons of warships passed the Ile de Sein. They had been at sea for three months with little to show. A single small Canada bound convoy had been jumped. Eleven ships were sunk in an afternoon before a Coastal Command Liberator spotted them. The week after their position was reported was a week of searching for storms and steaming at high speed. Radio intercepts showed that Home Fleet was trying to corral the two powerful raiders into an ever more narrow box of the sea. They escaped without further detection. Post war records would show that Prince of Wales and Furious were, at one point, ninety four miles away but those hunters were steaming through twenty eight foot seas.

Escorts were draped around the two light battleships like a string of pearls on a mistress's neck, languid, long and looping. It did not matter. HMS L26 had hovered on the bottom for most of the day. The thirty seven men aboard were still and silent. Stillness to save their breath and preserve the lingering freshness of the air. Silent to stay alive. The young skipper listened to his hydrophone team’s report once more and glanced at the map. This was only the seventh time he had looked at the chart in the past twenty minutes. The tanks expelled some water and the boat came to periscope depth. One more glance at the chart and the skipper ordered the periscope to rise and poke through the surface.

Scharnhorst was less than a mile away. His brother, Gneisenau, was half a mile further away. They were lazily zig-zagging as they counted on the defensive minefields and local escorts to keep any submarines away. That assumption was wrong.

Four torpedoes left their tubes within a minute. The twenty one inch missiles screamed through the gray water. A sharp lookout who had been dreaming of his wife’s welcome noticed the tracks seven hundred yards away from the ship. The captain ordered increased speed and a turn towards the open ocean. The sharp reaction was almost enough. Three torpedoes passed astern. One exploded in the wake. A single torpedo detonated along the torpedo defense system. The first set of voids filled rapidly, and some water went through a trio of slashes in the armored bulkhead.

Within fifteen minutes, three escorts were shepherding the damaged and slightly listing battle cruiser to Brest while the rest of the escort was hunting for the interloper without success.

By midnight, the submarine had slunked away, thinking it had crippled the mighty battle cruiser. The dry docks at the arsenal were ready to receive the wounded but still capable warrior for months of repair.

March 8, 1941 0500 HMS Pembroke

The barrack's bell rang and a hundred young men were scrambling out of their racks and assembling before their instructors could send them for careless additional physical training. Today was the last day of the training. Tomorrow, Robert Smith would be an ordinary seaman and ready to be slightly higher on the scale of life than bottom clinging whale dung. He adjusted his uniform shirt so he was neat and proper and prepared for inspection. The seventeen year old boy had tried to join the Royal Air Force but they saw that he was under-aged. The Army would have taken him. They had taken enough of his classmates, but Robert had sworn to himself that he would not dig any more in his life after spending almost the entirety of the previous summer digging along the general stop line near Dover. The invasion never came. The line was still being manned by the old men of the Home Guard but the positions were a waste of time. Instead he had signed up for the Navy a few weeks before the Christmas break. They did not care about his age, there were enough young men signing up in droves that he was just one of a crowd. Conscription would have taken him soon enough so having some choice to join the navy instead of the army was all he cared about.

By midnight, he was exhausted. Today they marched, today, they prepared for their next destination. He would be heading to damage control training with a half dozen members of his class. Most of the soon to be sailors were ordered to join ships that were readying to rejoin the fleet after spending time in the yards or to new construction that still had not worked out. A few men had been selected out for ASDIC training. They were the ones who could sing. He did not care. He was too tired to care. One more day, and basic training would be done. That was all he thought about as his eyes closed for the night.

March 8, 1941 South of Qaminis, Libya


Every man clinched the ground inches in front of their face. The Italian artillery had commenced a rolling bombardment minutes ago. Scouts had been clashing with German and Italian light armored patrols for weeks now. The Lancers and Hussars had conceded ground as they were not strong enough to hold against aggressive probes, they were strong enough to identify when a probe was an actual thrust versus purely information. The 2nd Armoured Division had created a solid line of outposts manned by the Support Group and the recently moved up Guards Brigade. The two armoured brigades were still being held in camps near Benghazi. An Indian infantry division as well as a Free French battalion were further east along the coastal road.

The rifle men and Bren gun teams waited. They knew an attack was coming. The Italian artillery preparation would not be a feint and it was too heavy for harassment fire. As the shells burst to the rear of the forward position, enterprising subalterns and sergeants raised their heads and looked. Some looked to their front first, some looked to their left and their right. Some saw wraiths advancing in the swirling dust. Others saw their men trying to find their courage to expose their eyes and their lives to artillery again. A few were smart and active enough to call for their own artillery to shift from firing at map coordinates of likely assembly points towards actual threats.

A dozen tanks also advanced through the dust. They were trying to curl around the inland flank of the position. Anti-tank guns were being moved quickly to counter this threat.

A Bren gun opened up at a cluster of Italian infantrymen who had broken cover early. Two men crumpled over but soon a mortar section began to search for the Bren team. By mid-afternoon, the entire position was engulfed in sharp, short conflicts as the Italian infantry had locked the British infantry into combat.

By the early evening, the 2nd Armoured Division’s tanks had started to move forward as RAF fighter and light bombers were screaming that a German Panzer force was trying to swing wide of the entire battle. The Valentines and Matilda's stopped and then headed inland towards the German column.

By midnight, the armored columns had mauled each other to mutual ineffectiveness.

German tanks were more vulnerable to the heavily armored infantry tanks and their two pounder guns while anti-tank guns claimed more than their fair share of cruiser tanks that rushed forward to chase feinted retreats.

No one controlled the land between the armies. The division had not been pushed back. Stretcher teams and patrols bumped into each other as they searched for their friends, their comrades and their enemies. Scottish, English, Indian, Australian teams brought Germans and Italians to the rear while Bavarians and Lombards brought badly burnt yeoman to field stations. Artillery sparked short duels whenever obvious concentrations were seen but the pace of the battle had slowed, the veterans and the soon to be veterans on both sides of the field could feel the blow had been delivered and absorbed.

March 9, 1941 0418 RAF Nutts Corner
The first bomber of the morning took off. Two more bombers were in queue. Those two were twin engine light bombers whose ability to survive in combat had led them to be shunted off to Coastal Command where they just had to worry about the weather and the light cannons that could be found on the occasional U-boat.

The four engine, American built, bomber lumbered down the runway. She could have carried a crew of ten for a mission over the Continent but only five men were in the airplane. The Scottish depot made the aircraft look odd. A bomb bay was sealed. A blister for a quad 20 millimeter cannon cluster was added. The ASV radar had been installed along the top of the fuselage behind the wings.

She carried four depth charges and an additional bladder of fuel in the single functional bomb bay. Her mission was to circle a convoy of forty eight inbound ships from Halifax. The slow convoy had already fought through a small U-boat wolf pack and lost three ships to the sea wolves while the escorts claimed a single kill. As the merchant ships approached British home waters, the danger would increase for another day before dropping. Until last week, no maritime patrol aircraft could reach the convoys. A Liberator had escorted a fast convoy out to about the same point on the previous Tuesday without too much difficulty.

The large bomber’s wheels cleared the runway with plenty of room to spare. Two more of her compatriots were on the flight line and scheduled for the day. Within minutes, the pilot began to concentrate on keeping his large, ungainly aircraft on the leanest and most efficient fuel mixture possible as they had 900 miles to go before they could look for the convoy. The Welsh pilot looked to his right for a moment and saw the American co-pilot alertly watching the engine RPM gauges. The American was both an observer and a trainer for the new bomber. He had three more flights before the American was off of his crew.

March 10, 1941 Washington, DC

“Germany’s totalitarian regime is the critical threat to American security. It is in our interest to ensure that our friends and allies of all free people have the tools that they need to defend themselves and protect themselves from aggression. I strongly support this bill and encourage all of my honorable colleagues to join me. I yield the floor to my good friend from the state of Virginia”

The Senate was in session as the long debate over the Lend Lease Act was coming to a close. Republican opposition was split but Democratic support was not unanimous either. The Senate Majority Leader was sure that he had the votes for the act but he needed to let everyone have their say. Over the past two weeks, the presentations by the Treasury Department and several bankers from New York illustrated that the British cash situation was becoming perilous. Enough Senators had also heard from manufacturers in their district that the flood of British orders were slowing to a trickle that could only be paid for by current British exports instead of through British savings.

The bill would pass. It would pass by the end of the week and then the President would sign it. The flood gate of supplies that were needed for the Allied cause would open up without regard to compensation.

March 10, 1941 San Diego, California


11,000 workers were on the line. Actually there were three major production lines. Two Navy lines. One had a dozen PBY flying boats in various stages of completion. Six were Navy aircraft, the four were Royal Air Force orders and two more were being completed under a Canadian contract. Those last two were due to fly to Vickers Canada as working models for local replication and production. The central line was the Privateer line. Seven US Navy models were being assembled. They looked like first cousins to the three dozen bombers on the last line. They were slightly longer, and their skins were punctured by fewer turrets and defensive ports. But they both had the double tail and the high Davis wing. The Privateer and the Liberators both could fly forever with a heavy load. The Army and Royal Air Force bombers were being optimized for high altitude work while the Privateers had simpler and less expensive engines. They would seldom fly above 15,000 feet in a naval role.

The whistle blew for the shift change. 11,000 workers put down their tools and prepared to hand off their charges to the much smaller second shift of 1,900 workers. The second shift had more experts and technicians as they would have the space to complete delicate tasks. Finally, out in the yard, the engineering department was filing out for a baseball game versus accounting. The engineers were working on the next round of modifications that was being informed by combat experience.

March 11, 1941 North of Al Maqrun, Libya


The Australian infantrymen huddled under whatever cover they could find. Some men were digging rifle scrapes while others found cover in the dips and rolls of an almost flat terrain. Some of the men were hiding behind the bodies of their friends who were either too slow or simply unlucky. Heavy machine guns were entrenched several hundred yards north of the crossroad village that they were supposed to take. The counter-attack had punched air for the first six hours but German and Italian resistance was increasing as the brigade pushed south.

They had been the reserves that stabilized the line on the 9th. They had anchored the 2nd Armoured Division’s courage and logistics when the Germans attempted to turn the inland flank. A melee battle ensued as the heavily armored British tanks took more damage than the Germans but they blunted the sickle that was aimed to scythe the division south of the port of Benghazi. Patrols were set out on the 10th to gain intelligence and a series of sharp encounters with German and Italian patrols had almost escalated into another pitched battle. A single company had lost seventy seven men from a well executed Italian artillery and machine gun coordinated ambush.

They started to move south before dawn, pushing to find the defensive lines of their attackers. The first few hours were almost a walk in the park. A few mines slowed them down slightly. Three or four map fired artillery barrages drove them to cover without causing causalities. They suffered their first air raid mid-morning as half a dozen Junkers attempted to bomb the supply column that was only a thousand yards behind them. So far, no friendly fighters had been seen.

And then suddenly, the open ground that they were crossing before the small village that was their objective became a killing ground. Artillery rolled south to north, machine guns sent beams of tracers eighteen inches off the ground. Mortars searched out for ditches and trenches and the slightest protection of reverse slopes. A dozen tanks from the attack’s reserve moved past the infantrymen. Machine guns chattered out of the steel beasts and their main guns roared. The new tanks still lacked a good high explosive round but their ability to take risks and attract fire heartened the infantrymen as the young officers encouraged, cajoled and threatened their men to close up on the tanks and use their hulking bulk as a shield to continue the advance.

So they did. The men left cover, fearing the disapproval of their mates more than they feared steel shards ripping them apart. Most of them were able to get into the bullet shadow of a tank and they continued to walk forward with their bayonets ready and their backs hunched.

Five hundred yards from the village, several machine guns were already silenced and then friendly 25 pounders began to lay a thick curtain of smoke and high explosive shells between the advance and the defenders. It was not enough. Half a dozen anti-tank guns focused on the lead tank and the seventh hit was a catastrophic hit. The ammunition brewed up and the driver started to scream as the flames licked at his legs and began to consume him. The commander scrambled out of the hatch, while a machine gun that had previously ceased fire started again, spraying bullets bouncing off the tank’s armor.

The attack was losing momentum as another tank stopped after an anti-tank shell destroyed its tracks and another tank’s turret was jammed.

March 12, 1941 North of the Faroe Islands

Montcalm pressed through the storm tossed seas. Her bow dipped and then raised with the waves. Men had strapped themselves to railings and tables to keep their feet stable and their bodies safe as the ship was tossed. She had been on patrol for a week and would be on patrol for another week. Another large, heavy, long legged cruiser would take her place in the slow strangulation of Germany through blockade. Her crew, almost entirely Frenchmen who had been aboard her in Norway or had served aboard the battleship Courbet which was demobilized in Portsmouth, had seen nothing untowards. She steamed on with eyes open, looking for raiders and looking for blockade runners.

March 13, 1941 Martinique

USS Los Angeles was made secure to the dock with half a dozen thick hawsers bights were wrapped around steel posts. Her propellers ceased to churn the tropical water. Within an hour, two hundred men were ashore to seek women and wine. Their chiefs had been clear that they were not to do anything that would require the chiefs to officially notice. Good behavior was promised on the liberty call.

Los Angeles was due to report to Norfolk after training in the easy, sunny seas of the Caribbean. Yorktown needed escorts. But there was enough time in her movement orders to allow for a short visit to the French fleet in exile. American ships had routinely visited the port. Yorktown and her task force had visited the four French battleships immediately after they transited the Panama Canal. Idaho and Mississippi had done a day of gunnery trials with Dunkerque and Strasbourg. That was the first time the battle cruisers had gone to sea since they had entered exile as surety for the reconstruction of the French armies. The shooting was good considering the under-strength crews and the lack of live fire drills in almost a year. They were still drilling every day as if they could be at war by night fall.

Two days later, every man on the American heavy cruiser had time ashore. The cruiser left the port with a pair of French light cruisers behind her. They were heading to the range established just past the headland. Each ship would fire six salvos at the sea and then spend another six hours working on man overboard drills. The two French warships were slower on the draw as their crews were short and supplemented by men from the other cruisers still tied up in port but their skills were still sharp enough. As Los Angeles turned to the north, a Standard Oil tanker flashed her lights in recognition and respect at the warship. The slow, heavily laden tanker had only a few more miles to her destination. The two light cruisers took station ahead and behind her to lead her into port.

March 14, 1941 Hong Kong


Lamotte-Picquet eased herself out of the crowded roads of Hong Kong. HMS Thracian dipped her colors to the light cruiser. She had received permission to bring a convoy of four ships from Haiphong to Osaka. These ships carried rubber, tin, lead, and rice to the Japanese Home Islands. After a three day port visit, the cruiser called on her former allies in Hong Kong and then was scheduled to spend three days at Macau. Half a dozen foreign observers had disembarked in Victoria Harbor. They had seen the French-Thai war and half were reporting back to the British high command and the rest were booking passage to Manila. The Thais were using Japanese advisors so there would be something worth learning.

Days steaming south, her sister ship entered the Johor Strait. She had been damaged in the fighting. The Royal Navy offered the Marine Nationale access to the new dockyards for Primauguet. She would be indisposed for three weeks before she had to return to Cam Ranh Bay.

March 14, 1941 1542 Valletta, Malta


The mother clutched her child to her chest. Her other children were playing games in the corner of their basement. This was the fourth time today the family had hidden in the basement. They had reinforced their stairwell with wood and steel and sand bags creating a narrow, deep bomb shelter. Over the past nine months, they had used the shelter several times a week. Over the past week, they spent more time in the shelter than out of it whenever the weather was good enough for aircraft to fly. The mother prayed , her fingers gently touching the smooth wooden beads of her rosary. She prayed for safety, she prayed for a storm, she prayed that her youngest child could finish teething. She prayed that the bomb that everyone could hear screeching down from the belly of a bomber would either miss the town or be a dud.

She prayed.

Twelve thousand feet above her, a twenty one year old pilot prayed. His depleted squadron of Hurricanes had risen in defense of their base yet again. They had bounced a small bomber force before their escorts could respond. But once the ME-109s started the chase, time lost all meaning as a second was an eternity. He juked, he skidded, he slewed. An experten had gotten on his tail and only the intervention of another Hurricane breaking out of a furball saved him. His left wing had a dozen holes in it. A single machine gun bullet entered the cockpit and sliced his thigh open. Three minutes of combat was a lifetime as he found a high cloud to hide in. He took his belt and squeezed it tightly around his thigh to stem the loss of blood.

He prayed he would not be spotted.

He prayed that his landing gear would work.

He prayed that his plane would stay together long enough for the ground crew to pull him out.

He prayed that he would walk again.

March 15, 1941 at a cafe in Izmir, Turkey


“Let me pay for the coffee, it is the least that I can do”

“It is all that you have done”

The anger in that retort was quiet, but strong. The Iraqi Army officer had been dispatched to Turkey to continue discussions with German officers for the support of the planned revolt against the British. They needed arms, they needed, supplies, they needed advisors, they needed everything. Great Britain deigned to embrace the fiction that Iraq was its own country but the Empire controlled the bases, the Empire controlled the exports and imports into Basra, the Empire had too much influence at court. Iraq was merely an appendage to the Empire, free in nothing but name.

The Golden Square were feeling out their options. The Italians had proven themselves weak and useless. British prestige rebounded after they destroyed the 10th Army. German counterattacks in Libya had barely changed the front line. The Greeks were strengthening. The Turks had looked at the situation and decided to pay no attention to the possibility of a regime change in Baghdad. This meeting was to suss out the level of support Germany could give.

There was little they could do. The supply lines were feeble. Vichy airfields in Lebanon and Syria would be under British surveillance and passive resistance. There were no rail lines that could move bulk supplies. Paratroopers could not be staged through Bulgaria or Romania to Mosul without violating Turkish airspace. The Germans could promise little beyond moral support even as the flow of well trained infantry brigades into the theatre from India and England increased.

The discussion soon turned as acidic as the coffee. There was no hope of external support.

March 16, 1941 2349 Southeast of Iceland

HMS Roxborough slowed dramatically. Her sonar was pinging frantically as her lookouts had sent her chasing down the bubble track of a German torpedo run. Finally, they had a solid contact, a submarine that had fired early as the eight escorts were patrolling the perimeter of the forty-four cargo ships in convoy HX-112. One ship was lost the previous day, a tanker had been torpedoed and was escorted to Reykjavik. The rest of the convoy had pressed on.

Her stern skewed, the captain guessed his target would try to sprint to port. Depth charges rolled off the rails and sank rapidly. A corvette was coming to support the old destroyer in her attack. White flower petals of water bloomed as the depth charges went off. Nothing came up from the first attack. The corvette Bluebell waited for the water to settle and the destroyer to regain the fix. The corvette followed the directions of the destroyer and rolled a full pattern of depth charges to 125 feet. One depth charge exploded seven feet from the dive planes of U-99. A screech of twisted metal and turbulent water flows was heard by the hydrophones onboard both escorts. Roxborough twisted and turned in a wide circle. She stabilized and with guidance from Bluebell, another pattern of depth charges landed within yards of the target. U-99 soon started to make an emergency blow to rise to the surface. Seven men were rescued by the escorts. Another two men froze to death in the cold waters of the North Atlantic. The rest of the crew drowned.

Twenty-seven miles and three hours closer to Liverpool, HMS Vanoc claimed another kill. U-100 had been caught between Vanoc and HMS Walker when she had surfaced to repair depth charge damage. Vanoc’s bow sliced the small submarine in two.

A single Liberator from 120 Squadron arrived over the convoy at 0655. As the lumbering bomber circled the forty-three surviving ships, a sharp eye observer saw a flutter of white spray move against the direction of the waves eleven miles in front of the point ship of the escort. Walker accelerated to chase the contact. Her engines were insignificant when compared to the four powerful piston engines aboard the Liberator. The bomber banked and dropped in altitude, her co-pilot focusing and directing the pilot’s attention on a spot of the ocean where they were sure they had seen something unnatural. Two depth charges set for 50 feet tumbled out of the bomb bay. One missed U-110, the other detonated feet from the turning propeller.

Walker trained her guns at the disturbed sea as she began to ping. A solid contact was made, and a pattern of depth charges released. A minute later, U-110 began to crest through the waves. Every gun aboard Walker started to fire. The main guns punched through the submarine’s sail and pressure hull while anti-aircraft pom-poms and machine guns swept the deck to keep the German gun crews away. A single white shirt, the cleanest piece of laundry aboard the submarine was soon being waved. Fire ceased. A boat was lowered into the sea and soon the wounded survivors were being hustled below deck on Walker and then soon Vanoc arrived to assist. The healthy men left the submarine last, a prize crew aboard her. The senior officer of the prize crew was the chief engineer of Vanoc. He ordered a rapid inspection of the boat to determine if a tow was worthwhile. There was too much damage and too much danger.

Instead, the seventeen men of the prize crew had an hour to strip the submarine of anything valuable. Three men ransacked the radio room, grabbing books, stuffing papers into waterproof bags and most importantly taking the complex coding machines. By lunch, every man was off the submarine. Walker cast off and fired a pair of torpedoes at her prize. One exploded by the conning tower and the submarine dove for the last time. The young skipper ordered twenty-four knots to catch up to the convoy that had zig-zagged away from the confrontation and the capture.

Four days later, Convoy HX-112 arrived with Liverpool having lost a single ship sunk and two damaged. Three submarines were confirmed kills and an Engima machine was captured.

March 16, 1941 Berbera, British Somaliland


The boats moved closer to shore. The seas were relatively calm. The boats were full of Punjabi infantry. They were huddled, heads low to minimize their exposure to the machine guns that they knew that they would have set up on the beaches but had not fired yet. Out to sea a pair of cruisers waited. Their guns tracked targets. A single Walrus amphibian loitered overhead ready to call fire on any Italian resistance.

By noon time, the Italian infantry brigade tasked to defend the port had surrendered. A few strong points held out but they were isolated and thus easily flanked and destroyed as their peers and compatriots could not and would not support them. By nightfall, the newly taken prisoners as well as pioneers from Aden had started to clear the port and open up the supply lines. Berbera would be the new nexus of the East African campaign where ships would be the key to logistics instead of battered trucks and ornery camels moving down smuggling tracks.

March 17, 1941 Alexandria


Bells clanged. Birds dipped down to find fish, offal and garbage floating near the warships of the Mediterranean Fleet. Three battleships were behind torpedo nets. Half a dozen cruisers were resupplying and attending to the hundreds of minor and not so minor repairs that warships needed. A dozen destroyers were tied up to the piers. One had her entire aft third ripped open as workmen repaired bomb damage. The rest were getting ready. They would be heading to sea soon.

The entire fleet was not in port. Two destroyers and half a dozen motor launches were escorting a coaster convoy to Benghazi to supply the army. Shells, fuel and rested men were going forward. Damaged trucks and exhausted men were coming back to the Delta.

Formidable and Eagle were at sea north of Port Said with a light escort. The old carrier had repaired the damage she suffered during the raid on Taranto. Now she was had new air wing. Twelve Martlets and fifteen Swordfish were assigned to her. Another dozen Martlets were ashore along with spare pilots. She was supposed to have received Sea Hurricanes, but the first batch had not been released for general deployment in time. Instead, the American fighters would have to do. The Hurricanes with the Merlin XX and the 20 millimeter cannons would join the fleet sometime in the early summer once enough had been added to the next Winston Special. Formidable’s airgroup had been reinforced as well. Her two Albacore squadrons had twenty one machines on the establishment. Two fighter squadrons of twelve Fulmars and twelve new, folding wing Martlets were also on board. The forty five aircraft made the ship tight even with the folding wing Americans taking up less space than their predecessors. By now, she was used to operating with a small deck park as the defensive gains from more fighters easily outweighed the liability of maintenance and slower launch cycles.

The two carriers steamed throughout the day in a lazy box as shore based planes kept a tight anti-submarine vigil. The carrier crews knew they would be needed soon, so they trained together as a team for the first time and shook off the rusty edges of solo operations.

March 17, 1941 Washington DC

President Roosevelt signed the Lend Lease Act. This act authorized the President to transfer to Great Britain or any other nation involved in a conflict when the President determined the transfers improved American national security. American and British technical experts had arranged a long series of meetings to determine which goods would be subject to Lend Lease and the relevant trade clauses and which goods would be purchased. Within days, dozens of contracts were signed and arrangements were made to ship vitally needed goods around the world. Included in the early orders were another 150 Martlets for the Fleet Air Arm.

March 19, 1941 Groton, Connecticut


The two Mackerel class submarines would be transferred via Lend-Lease to the Royal Navy. Once construction was completed and the crews had been trained on the ships, they would sail for Gibraltar to reinforce the U-class flotillas operating against the Italians in the Mediterranean. Another nine WWI veterans were also on the list to be transferred. Those old, obsolete death traps were destined for coastal training duties.

March 20, 1941 1900 Near Strasbourg

“Mama, I love you”

“I love you, I’m just sad and happy, and proud, and worried and everything else as my baby girl is growing up faster than I could ever think possible!”

“Mama, don’t worry, I’ll only be in Paris. I have a job with the railroad administration. They need girls to file repair reports. I have some friends there, they’ll watch out for me. I won’t get into trouble….”

“My dear, you should try to get into a little bit of trouble. Not too much of course, but some. If there is no trouble, then why live in the city? I always wanted to see Paris,. We never could, the farm would not wait for us. Go my dear, go”

Anna Marie wiped tears from her eyes. This was easier and harder than she ever thought it could be. Her parents took the news that she wanted to move to Paris better than she thought. They actually supported her. They knew that a dairy farm was not where their daughter wanted to be. They did not know that their daughter had been asked by the good Doctor to go to Paris. They did not know that their daughter’s lover (who they knew about and decided to take the wise parental course of deliberate ignorance) had arranged for his mistress to ask one of his colleagues for a job as a clerk and as a mistress. They did not know those details. But they knew their daughter needed to see the world.

As she hugged her mother, her father, grave, stern, and loving but distant tried to hide his approval for her. He could not cry in front of his daughter. He could only go to a cupboard in his bedroom and remove a bottle of wine that they had stored since the day they knew that Anna Marie was to be expected. He had thought this would be a wedding gift, but today, he felt it was appropriate. His daughter, his beautiful, smart, vivacious daughter was launching herself into the world. She was barely an adult, he could remember how she fit in the crook of his elbow as her mother and him had played cards around the table after a day of work. He remembered the pride he had when she came home from school with exceptional marks in math. He remembered her smile when she helped a cow, a prime milker, give birth for the first time. He was proud of her. And now she would go.

“Papa, I will write. “

“I know you will my dear, I just worry about finding out that you’ll forget us here at the farm”

“Never papa, never mama….”

March 22, 1941 Wake Island

Four hundred and seventy three Marines, one hundred and ninety one sailors, and three hundred civilian laborers arrived at Wake Island to supplement the Pan Am waypoint crew and the current six hundred and seventy civilian construction workers who had blasted out a packed coral fighter strip, and a clear passage through the coral into the lagoon where a dozen ships could now tie up at the new but rickety wooden pier.

The lead elements of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion would install their three assigned coastal defense batteries of 5”/51 caliber guns taken from Standard battleships which had been refitted with heavier anti-aircraft defenses at the expense of their anti-destroyer defenses, and six anti-aircraft batteries. Over the next three months, they would pour seven thousand tons of concrete, bury thirty eight miles of telephone wire, and begin to make Wake a strong shield for the fleet from the roving patrol planes the Japanese had based in the Marshalls.

The one hundred and ninety one sailors had three missions. The first group of thirty sailors were deployed in direct support of the Marines. Eighty three more sailors were assigned to the two large eight inch gun turrets removed from Lexington and shipped across the Pacific. These turrets with their twin eight inch guns would be placed, camouflaged and armored with as much ingenuity as possible. The remaining sailors were used to begin building a small fleet support facility that could accommodate a patrol squadron, a division of mine layers and a squadron of submarines.

The new civilian labor force was used to accelerate the construction of the base infrastructure and their heavy equipment, most notably the seven bulldozers and four backhoes would prove to be amazing time saving devices as the Marines were able to dig positions in a day that would have taken weeks if they had to only use shovels.

March 25, 1941 Stranraer, Scotland

The ungainly amphibian finished its taxi to the concrete pad. She was the last new flying boat that 209 Squadron would receive. Over the past several weeks, the squadron had stood down from flying patrols with the Lerwick as they re-acclimated to flying the new Consolidated Catalinas. These planes were a joy to fly compared to the Lerwicks. The old aircraft, unfortunately, were not being scrapped. They were being sent north to Glasgow for research and evaluation flights.

Along with the new aircraft was a bevy of Americans. This time they were not even disguising the fact that they were Americans instead of Canadians with atrocious accents. Half a dozen American naval officers were attached to the squadron until June. Another dozen mechanics and engineers from Consolidated were also present. Operational flights routinely had men from four countries on a given sortie. So far they had not seen anything of value besides an out of place oil slick north of Coleraine but the time they had spent circling convoys and hunting for raiders seemed to have done enough work to keep the German submarines down and the raiders cautious when they entered the observable area for land based air patrols.

March 25, 1941 Vienna, Austria

The celebratory dinner was quiet. No one who was enjoying the fine beef laid out on the plates. Instead the diplomats and the generals poked and prodded at their food on their plates, occasionally having a bite as ennui and muscle memory reminded them that they should eat. It should have been a day of celebration. Six months of hard work had been completed. Yugoslavia had signed onto the Tripartite Pact. Germany and Italy guaranteed her borders and would not station troops in her territory. Over the long run, she would gain access to the Aegean.

The Yugoslav diplomats had a success. Their primary foreign sponsors had been defeated and could not back her. This was a deal they did not want to make, but it was a deal that they had to make. Despite this desperation, it was not a bad deal as long as the peoples in the readily fracturable country could back the deal with cold-hearted reality.

March 26, 1941 Norfolk, Virginia

Bump, bump. The tug boat nudged HMS Illustrious against the dock. The dry dock was closed as Idaho needed two more days to clear the dock as the refit was behind schedule because a new gang of ship fitters had managed to make a new and creative mistake on the port shaft. The carrier looked, at first glance, to be in good shape. She sat slightly deeper in the water than Constellation and her island structure looked odd when docked next to the Atlantic Fleet’s carriers. It was only when one could look down on her from above and see the rushed repair job on her deck. It was only when one looked closely at the repainted hull that they could see the scars that had been fixed in Durban. It was only when one smelled the air in the hangar deck that the miasma of burnt gasoline and incidental incineration of sailors in the temporary crematorium of the hangar deck that one could tell that she was damaged.

Her journey to Norfolk was slow. She had spent weeks in Durban fixing the worst of the damage that would have endangered her journey to America. She had waited two weeks in Freetown for an escort across the Atlantic. She had emptied herself of all useful supplies and large bodies of her men who had called her home as the Fleet needed all the trained men that they could find. She brought with her a third of the pilots who survived the journey back to Alexandria. They would be shipped around America for a few weeks. After their journey, they along with graduates the Empire Air Training Scheme and trained crews from the Fleet would congregate in Virginia and Maryland to rebuild Illustrious’ squadrons. The veterans were the core of the new squadrons that would be designated as successors to the squadrons that were still flying in the Nile Delta and defending Malta.

There was an active debate as to whether or not Illustrious would receive American torpedo planes or if Albacore torpedo bombers would be shipped across the ocean for the new squadrons. Once the pilots and engineers had further discussions with the US Navy and Grumman about the new Avenger torpedo bomber, that decision could be made. Illustrious would be equipped with only Grumman Marlets. The fleet had started to receive the folding wing fighters. There was a chance of being able to fit two reinforced squadrons on board. A carrier could survive a determine air raid if she had radar, good fighter interception direction, sufficient fighters and a bit of luck. She was living proof of what happened without enough luck, but the concept was proven. She would embody the hard and bloodily discovered truth once the shipwrights of Norfolk rebuilt her hangar, rebuilt armored her deck and updated her with all of the electronics that had become critical in only the short time that had passed since she had first joined the Fleet.

March 27, 1941 South of Crete

Forty ships were moving north. The carriers and battleships of the Mediterranean Fleet were slightly south of the main body. A dozen transports and cargo ships were moving the last echelon of Lustre Force to Athens. Around those ships a division of cruisers and a squadron of destroyers aggressively patrolled looking Italian submarines and German snoopers. Overhead Eagle maintained a combat air patrol of two sections of Martlets. Formidable was holding her squadrons in reserve to either strike or defend. A single twin engine bomber lazily scouted ahead looking for submarines. So far none of the troop convoys had been successfully attacked as they moved a corps to Greece, but no chances were being taken with the last one.

Queen Elizabeth, Warspite, and Valiant were anxiously waiting for a spotting report. They were ready, and their captains and crews knew that they were the best battleships still afloat in the theatre. The Italian main fleet had seldom sortied since Taranto. Instead of seeking to interdict the flow of reinforcements and supplies heading to the Greek Army, they were content to protect the entrance to the Adriatic and harass shipping heading to Malta while covering their own convoys to Tripoli.

The look-outs looked at the horizon. Some men strained their eyes. Others put their hands on their foreheads to shield their eyes from the sun’s glare. More men looked at a phosper glowing screen deep in the hulls of the guardians. There was nothing to see even as every man whose mission it was to look looked hard. The ships cut through the waves of the wine dark sea and continued to bring succor and relief to Greece.

March 29, 1941 Belgrade, Yugoslavia

The baker hummed.

He had walked to to work at 3:00 in the morning as he normally did. The streets had been prenaturally quiet since the treaty had been signed. A few trucks, with Army and Air Force markings, full of men in the beds, careened around the corner of his quiet, sedentary neighborhood moments before he unlocked his shop door.

He did not care. One oven bay was full of rapidly browning bread. Another needed his attention to pull out pastries to cool. As they cooled, he swayed to the jazz on the radio, not thinking about the music, not thinking about the sugary drizzle that he was preparing to lay down on the treats for children and decadent adults to enjoy in only a few hours.

As the bustle of the bakery increased as his shop clerk entered through the back door, the smells wafted through the air. He had never become immune to the pleasure of smelling freshly baking bread in the morning, the roasted yeasts and wheat toasting to a firm crisp made him happy as he hummed and danced through the crowded and complicated steps of baking bread for his neighborhood. A few more minutes and the shop would be open. A platter of rolls was placed under the glass case, and several loaves of bread were cooling a few more minutes before being placed on the wooden racks for the early grandmothers to inspect.

The music on the radio stopped. A somber voice announced a critical announcement was to come. The baker stopped humming.

The voice of the young Crown Prince, Peter, broke on the radio as he announced that the government of Prince Paul had come to an end and that a new government of national unity would be formed.

Within hours, tens of thousands of people were on the streets of Belgrade. The Serbs among them were the loudest, yelling that they wanted war rather than a pact and graves rather then slaves. The baker dismissed the young hotheads. He had fought at Caporetto and Piave and he limped slightly due to a bullet that broke his leg in the first week of November 1918. He had seen too many of his friends in graves. He did not say much, as he made bread throughout the day and his shop was constantly busy as the crowds looked for food and the murmurs said that the shop down a side street in a quiet neighborhood had some amazing bread.

March 30, 1941 1450 Boston Harbor

HMS Glorious arrived in style. She had made a high speed run across the sea for her own safety but the speed was invigorating as she was no longer tied to the battleships of Home Fleet. Most of her air wing had been left in Scotland for more training. She had just four Martlets, and six Swordfish for self defense. One of the Martlets killed a Luftwaffe bomber that was searching for convoys. No other planes fired except out of boredom and training.

She had been scheduled for three weeks in the Boston Navy Yard for a quick bit of work. Her known defects would not be cured, but her engines would be tuned, her hull scraped, and a dozen new Swiss machine guns would be installed. Most importantly to her men, an ice cream machine had been promised. Before work could begin, she needed to unload her cargo; two hundred new Merlin engines. A squadron of Hurricanes was waiting for their aircraft which had been delayed due to the diversion of engines.

Once ashore, the Fleet Air Arm pilots were whisked away to South Station where they were put on a train full of American naval pilots. Two cars full of fighter pilots, steaks and whiskey were a learning experience for both the pilots and the railroad. By the middle of next morning, most of the men would have recovered from their hangovers and the naval airfields near Norfolk were busy scrambling new fighters in the air for tactical instruction.

March 31, 1941 Tulagi, Solomon Islands

The tramp steamer was heavy in the water. She had dropped off six hundred tons of tools, food, clothes, spare parts and fuel for the plantations. In return, she had picked up a significant portion of the coconut crop. Most of the coconuts had already been pressed down for their oil but some raw coconuts had been taken aboard for consumption in the cities of Australia.

A single Royal Australian Navy officer and three enlisted men had disembarked. They were to conduct a local survey of the southern Solomon Islands before returning to Sydney on the next tramp steamer that pulled into the wonderfully protected but woefully underused sheltered harbor of Tulagi and Florida Island.
 
Top