Those in peril.....

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic
WW2 brought about a whole host of strange co-incidences,
my story which is fiction, takes place during the Normandy
landing aboard a miniature submarine. The Petty Officer
aboard the vessel comes across thousands of bottles of champagne left on the beach by the German military, who left the site in a hurry....At a hundred pounds a bottle, the champers would be worth a fortune...reaad on

Submitted: December 10, 2011

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Submitted: December 10, 2011

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Those in peril…

 

A Novel

 

by

 

Geoffrey Kennell©

 

 

Cunningham eased the telescope seawards and focused onto a tiny fishing craft that had `hoved to’ a mile off shore.  Its foredeck was piled high with lobster pots set earlier and now dredged from the English Channel. A little less in length than a trawler, the ship pitched and swayed with the ebbing tide and like so many times of late, the yearning to feel the sea beneath his feet gnawed unmercifully at Cunninghams gut. It had been ten years since he took command of a Royal Naval frigate, and like an excited schoolboy had hunted U boats in the North Atlantic playing cat and mouse games with an unscrupulous enemy.  Now even his memory played tricks and he wondered whether perhaps it had all been a dream?

Henry Chandler, bank manager and life long friend sat quietly behind Cunningham. His unexpected visit bought the kind of news that he had been expecting for more than a decade.  Somewhat nonchalantly Cunningham attempted to shrug the problem off.

“You can see through to Dieppe on a clear day, of course today is pretty hazy.”

Chandler smiled as he swirled the twenty-year old brandy around in its goblet.

He had known the Commander since he was first commissioned in the early days of the war and had marveled how quickly this gentle giant of a man had climbed

through the ranks.  Now it hardly seemed fair that five years after his retirement from the Royal Navy, Commander James Cunningham was up to the hilt in debt and about to be pronounced bankrupt.

“You`ll have to sell this place Jim, and soon because I can`t hold the wolves off indefinitely. What`s it been, four years since Jill passed away and you`ve done nothing to fill the hole she left you in.  Dammit Jim, you haven`t even tried to find work, all you do is look out to sea with that stupid telescope and wish you were there.”

A fisherman appeared from the wheelhouse.  Stripped to the waist he lifted the latch of the trap and emptied the creatures into the hold.  A wave of self pity swept over Cunningham as he watched another trap hoisted and emptied. 

“Chandler was right,” he thought grimly  “He was like the lobsters, trapped by a life style he could ill afford and fast heading for a pan of boiling water.  Despite all his efforts to right things, almost everything had gone wrong after Jill passed away.  Luckily she had left the property to him, but the poor woman was hardly cold when he was obliged to borrow on it.

“Sell Rose Cottage?”The thought was preposterous. “There must be an alternative Henry, couldn`t we sub-divide the property?”

Chandler shook his head.  “Less than half an acre, its out of the question Jim, the Borough of Bridport are very strict on that count.”

“So what`s the alternative, rob a bank?”

The banker laughed.  “As long as its not mine Commander.”

Cunningham was about to pour another brandy when the phone rang in the lounge. “Half a jiff Henry, I wonder who the Hell that could be?”

Ducking beneath the low doorway Cunningham padded across the carpeted lounge to the telephone set on a small coffee table beside the fireplace and lifted the phone.“Cunningham.” he said quietly.  “Can I help you?”

“That you Commander?”  Without doubt the voice was cockney.  A split second passed before he was able to place the voice.  But something was wrong, very wrong.  He himself had placed a wreath on the gun carriage for the fallen caller five or six years back in Portsmouth Harbour at his full Naval funeral.

“Clarke?”  he queried.

“That`s right Sir, Nobby Clarke C.P.O. You remember, I drove the X 23, Operation Gambit, Northern French Beaches back in `43?”

“But….”  Confusion flooded through Cunningham.  He had stood on the bridge of H.M.S. Terrapin and watched the midget submarine that he had towed some two hundred nautical miles strike a magnetic mine and sink.  Had he been mistaken?  No, there could be no mistake, the X 23 went down with all hands, all four of them including C.P.O. Nobby Clarke.  My God, the man had died in battle and had been given full naval honors for his part in the operation.

Cunningham raised his voice a tad. “If you are the Clarke that served under me in nineteen forty-three, then you died at sea, together with three other naval ratings, I watched your submarine sink….So who the Hell are you?”

“It really is Clarke Sir, sorry to scare the life out of you.  You were mistaken Sir, you saw the X 20 set off a maggy mine and sink, not the X23…. but listen, could we meet?”

“Meet?”

“Yeah, I`m close-by you in Weymouth.  I have a surprise in store for you, guaranteed to knock your socks off.”

Cunningham was rattled. His memory wasn`t that clear on details so far back, especially memories at sea when all Hell was let loose and at any time.

“Listen whoever you are, I have no interest in that side of my naval career, I am retired now and have settled comfortably here in Bridport, but thank you all the same.” 

The voice on the other end of the line sighed. “Pity that Commander, its worth a packet I can tell you.  Anyway, take down my number in case you change your mind, and I sincerely hope you do. Its 03239796950.

A sudden change of heart prevented Cunningham from replacing the receiver, “What was that number again?” he asked.

“03239796950.”

“Thanks.”

Henry had poured another scotch from the decanter by the time he returned.
”What was all that about, an old sea faring friend?”

More than perturbed, Cunningham was unable to answer.  His mind was back at Naval Headquarters Portsmouth and the pomp and ceremony of the full-blown Naval Funeral held for the men who lost their lives in the midget submarine X23.  It was so clear now, he remembered reading the name carefully engraved on the small brass plaque. C.P.O. Gerald Clarke. 14921069.

He took the cut glass goblet off the side table with a trembling hand and drank its contents in one single gulp. “Not really Henry, stupid bugger got the wrong number,” he lied.

After the banker had gone, Cunningham returned to the telescope mounted on the seaward patio.  The fishing trawler was no longer visible but a small Easterly adjustment brought a modern diesel driven ketch into view.  He scanned its prow.

“Suliman 3, now where would you be off to so late on a Friday evening?”

The ketch had its decks awash with scantily dressed women holding glasses of evil looking plonk. Some were sprawled in low deck chairs and it was obvious that the trip they were taking was heading for a weekend of hard drinking and sexual decadence.

Cunningham sighed.  “What the idle rich get up to these days.”

The ketch moved slowly out of view and now only its stern was in view.  The royal crest emblazoned in crimson and gold could not be missed.  “Hazir El Hassim 3.”  The seventy-one year old Sheikh was reputed to be the richest man in the world, who knows?  Perhaps the old lecher had picked up a boatload of young fillies from Le Havre and was heading hot foot towards his Middle Eastern harem?

Sitting alone in the twilight hours, and watching the sky paling into darkness were the worst for Cunningham.  Since Jill had died, it was the time he dreaded most, and all the awful hours of waiting for her to die were never far from his memory. Yet he knew full well that drinking vintage brandy was not the solution to the problem, he poured himself another anyway.

“Clarke…Nobby Clarke,” he said aloud. The episode earlier was more than disconcerting.  “Raised from the dead…oh no…what in the name of thunder are you up to…and what have you got that will knock my socks off?”  The last time Cunningham had seen the C.P.O. was somewhere in the English Channel off the coast of Northern France ten years back.  Operation Gambit was the exercise, and he had towed the midget submarine to a release point some hundred miles from Portsmouth Harbour.  C.P.O. Clarke was a tubby little man with a  perpetual cigarette pressed between his lips and a willing smile.  He had waved a hand as he stepped down into the conning tower.  “Tell my Ma not to wait up Skipper.” he had shouted above the howling wind. Cunningham ordered  “Full astern,” and moved out the area fast knowing that the Terrapin had ventured deep into un-chartered waters. Ten minutes later the metal pod of the X 23 detonated the magnetic mechanism of a German laid sea mine. The brute force of the explosion rocked the Terrapin from stem to stern.

“Oh shit those poor sods have bought it,” were Cunninghams first words.  What was left of the miniature submarine was hardly worth mentioning.  He had written in the ships log words to the effect that the X23 went down with all hands.  He had even convened a short prayer meeting in the Officers Mess later that evening.  Now, out of the blue Chief Petty Officer Nobby Clarke was seemingly very much alive.

Unable to contain his avid curiosity and perhaps a little drunker than usual Cunningham plucked the telephone handset off its cradle and dialed the number.

It rang for several seconds before it was answered, then the all too familiar noise of a drunken public bar party invaded his ears. “ Hello Clarke, is that you?”

“Sir?”

“Its Cunningham Clarke, Commander Cunningham, when can I see you?”

The Chief was barely audible above the background noise. “I`m here in Weymouth, meet me at The Ship tomorrow morning around eleven and we can chat.”

“The ship?  Is that on the jetty?”

“That`s right Sir, you can`t miss it.”

The following morning it was blowing a gale and raining.  One slice of toast and a cup of black coffee sufficed for breakfast and by half nine Cunningham was on his way towards Weymouth.  He remembered Jill`s parents house set high on a cliff overlooking the lighthouse and Nothe Fort. Just commissioned, Jill had fallen for Sub Lieutenant Cunningham hook line and sinker.  That first stripe of gold braid on his epaulette had made all the difference to their relationship. Cunningham had run up the eighteen red brick steps to Jills house and hammered on the front door. “Guess what I have in my pocket?” he had asked.

Jill wore a pretty floral dress that day.  Her blonde hair hung shoulder length and she looked absolutely gorgeous.  Forefinger to her lip she tried to guess.

“Ticket to the Ice Follies?”

“Nope.”

“Mars Bar?”

“Nope.”

“Give me a clue.”

“It`s gold.”

Jill had caught her breath.  She wasn`t ready for marriage, well not yet anyway and this young sailorman had a lot to learn about etiquette, especially table manners. “Hmm gold you say, it wouldn`t be a bangle by any chance?”

Cunningham broke her suspense by plunging his hand into his pocket and showing her the six lengths of gold braid still to be sewn onto his uniform.

Relieved, Jill threw her arms about his neck. “That`s absolutely marvelous,” she had said. “So now you are an officer and a gentleman?”

“Sub Lieutenant Cunningham at your service Ma`am.” He said, throwing her a fair specimen of a naval salute.

Later that morning Jill had sewn them onto his epaulettes and completely botched the job.  The one on the left shoulder was crooked, and it stuck out like a sore thumb.  “Never mind darling, I`ll get Stevens to put the others on.”

“Stevens, who is Stevens?” She asked.

“Oh, didn`t I tell you, I have a batman assigned me, he does odd jobs like running my bath, and ordering refreshments and…”

Jill for some reason was furious. “A what?” she screamed.

“Batman darling, all Officers have batmen, I mean, they are part and parcel of

becoming an officer.”  The frozen silence between the two was broken by Jill`s Dad who was delighted by news of his Commission.  Bill Stacey seemed a lot more enthusiastic than his daughter, but the Officers Ball, held in honour of the young men being commissioned broke the ice in more ways than one. On the way back from the function Cunningham had tied the knot with Jill and they announced their engagement to her parents the next morning.  Forty-eight hours later, he was heading for Portsmouth and made second in command of a corvette. Mine-sweeping operations in the North Sea took him away for several months at a time and he wouldn`t want it any other way.

Swinging off the coast road, Cunningham turned into the suburb of Rodwell and took what he thought would be a short cut.  Of course, he was wrong.  The Ship just happened to be on the North side of the estuary. “Damn,” he swore.  “Nobby Clarke, you had better have a good story to tell for me to come all this way.”

He sat in his car until three minutes to eleven then headed for the Public Bar, where he imagined C.P.O. Clarke would be waiting. A quick scan of the patrons made it abundantly clear that Nobby Clarke was not there and he wasn`t in the Saloon Bar either.

“Damn, where are you Nobby?”  Trying to find someone you haven`t seen for years was not as easy as Cunningham had imagined.  Two Private Bars and a Ladies Lounge later and C.P.O. Clarke had still not turned up.  In desperation he called to the bar tender of the ladies Lounge and ordered a large scotch. The eight or nine patrons already in the bar were all in their early twenties.  Clarke, Cunningham fathomed, would be in his forties.

The barman bought a barrel of ice and placed it beside his drink.  “Thats  six shillings and four pence, thank you Sir.”

“Thanks, er…perhaps you can help me, I was to meet an old naval friend here this morning, he was my Chief Petty Officer by the name of Clarke, Nobby Clarke to be more precise, I wonder if you might remember him?”

The barman smiled.  “You wouldn`t mean Mr. Clarke would you Sir, Gerald I think his name is…he is the owner of The Ship?”

Cunninghams eyebrows raised an inch or more.  “Owner?” 

“That’s right Sir, in fact he owns quite a few properties in Weymouth.”

The first gulp of scotch burned all its way down to his stomach. He was taking a second when the bar tender announced, “Here he is now Sir.”

He turned expecting to see the Petty Officer he once knew aboard ship.  The large and sinewy hand that was extended towards him was perhaps the only part that did he recognize. Clarke had slimmed down appreciably.  He was well dressed in a light gray suit, silk shirt and a blue tie that matched the sailors piercing blue eyes.“Commander, so glad you could come.”  They shook hands warmly.  “How long has it been…five years, nearly six?”

Cunningham laughed.  “Sometimes it seems longer…nice place you have here.”

“It`s something that I have always wanted…a pub on the jetty, and this one just happened to be going for a song.  But I didn`t get you here to show you a pub, I guess you have spent almost as much time in the saloon bar of a tavern as I have?”

Clarke turned to move off, but Cunningham held his sleeve. “Don`t lets beat about the bloody bush Petty Officer.  As far as I am concerned you are dead, and if you are the same man that I saw disappearing into the conning tower of the X 23, how come that you are still very much alive?”

Clarke flushed a little, and for a moment the Commander wasn`t sure that this was the same Clarke he once knew. “I think you owe me an explanation.”

“Of course Sir, but I suggest we move to more affable surroundings.  I have a small, private room overlooking the sea that I use as an office, my wife is there already waiting for us.”

Cunningham reached for his glass but Clarke stayed his hand.  “Leave that Commander, I have a fifteen year old whisky upstairs that hasn`t been watered down.”

Two flights up a well-carpeted staircase brought the two to a doorway marked Private.  “Here we are Sir, sorry about the climb but I think you`ll find it was worth the effort.”  Clarke opened the door.  The room was far from small and set centrally was a window that framed the entire harbour and the sea beyond. “Best view in Town,” he said.

Stunned by the Eastern style décor, the Commander could barely believe his eyes.  Every inch of space displayed a work of art that was both priceless and exquisitely beautiful.  Carved ivory tusks and camphor-wood chests, porcelain vases, gold and silver spoons, paintings, Indonesian woodcarvings and hand painted ceramics.  Cunningham was speechless. “My God this place is beautiful,

where in the world…” he began. Clarke had disappeared behind a sandalwood screen but appeared again with a woman wearing a blue and gold cheongsam. She was even more breathtaking than the décor surrounding him.

“I`d like you to meet my wife Commander, her name is Yvette, and she`s from French Polynesia.”

“Hello Yvette, you are very beautiful,” he said without realizing how utterly pathetic the words sounded. Yvette was more than beautiful she was radiant and as colourful as a Toulouse Lautrec painting.

Clarke intervened.  “She doesn`t speak English too well yet Sir. Say good morning love.”

Yvette blushed ever so slightly, and deep down in Cunningham`s heart something completely intangible stirred.

“Good morning Sir, I am so pleased to meet you.”  She offered her hand.

“Me too,” he whispered. “Me too.”

Clarke eased himself into a comfortable armchair and they all sat in front of the panoramic window facing the harbour. “So, what`ll it be Commander, twenty year old Dimple Haig, the real stuff this time?”

Cunningham didn`t answer the question. “You`ve lost a lot of weight Clarke,” he said.  “Have you been ill?”

Clarke`s eyes glanced towards Yvette then back to the Commander. “Yes, I suppose you could say that, but I was coming to that in a minute.  Let us just have a quick one, and then I want to take you somewhere very special.”

“Very special?”

Well, its very special to me, and I sincerely hope it will be to you Sir.”

Cunningham was annoyed.  “Look let`s cut all this Commander and Sir crap, I have been a civilian for far too long, call me Jim, James or plain Mr. Cunningham.”

Clarke replied with a happy, “Oh, all right Sir.” Pressing a bell push mounted on a table lamp beside him brought a waiter from the bar downstairs. “Two dimples and a Daiquiris in a tall glass Henry, thank you.”

Eager to find an explanation regarding Clarke`s resurrection, all Cunningham got was “All in good time.”He turned to Yvette. “I lost my wife a year or two back…I still can`t believe she`s gone, I..I still talk to her.  Sounds silly but it gives me a little consolation that she is still here, somewhere…well, you know what I mean?”

Yvette smiled, “I understand.” Reaching for Cunninghams hand she touched it lightly with her warm brown fingers, as if to assure him that she really did understand his grief.

Clarke stood up, “All right then, let`s hit the road, we`ll have to use your transport Sir, I never learned to drive…but we can get a taxi if you prefer?”

Cunningham shook his head.  “No, that’s fine how far are we going?”

Clarke laughed.  About two miles…actually Lake Radipole, you remember it, the bird sanctuary Sir.”

“Bird sanctuary?”

“That’s right, head up the A 354 and turn right….I`ll sit in the front and show the way.”

The weather had cleared up by this time and there were patches of blue sky showing through the scudding clouds.  Cunningham remembered the lake.  He and Jill had often picnicked there and afterwards watched the model yachts sailing in its waters. Clarke broke the memories that came tumbling back.  “We have to park here Sir, then walk the rest of the way…its not far, a few hundred yards.”

They were at the waters edge now and well to the North of the lake. They walked in file along a wooden jetty to where a long row of derelict boathouses had been built.

“Here we are then,” Clarke announced.  “They no longer use this lot, but before the war, it was packed with skiffs and punts and even a motor launch or two.”

Quite agitated by this time Cunningham stopped. “Look Nobby, where the Hell is all this leading to, I have things to do and demand an explanation right now.”

Clarke caught his breath, he was obviously laboring to breathe.  “Watch where you place your feet this bit can be tricky.”  The fifth boathouse in the row had a new padlock on its doors and, further to this, it was a good ten feet longer than the rest.

“Close your eyes Commander, I`ll tell you when to open them.”

“What is this, come kind of game?”

Cunningham heard the familiar clink of metal as the steel chain securing the boathouse entrance was undone, then the creak of timber as the entrance slid open.“Right Sir, you can open them now, just don`t fall into the water…its cold.”

Cunningham opened his eyes and saw the sleek steel stern of a Royal NavyX Craft Miniature Submarine. He blinked once.  “Good God Clarke!”  He exploded. “Where the Hell did you get this from?”

Clarke was unable to reply.  He was in the grips of a violent coughing fit and doubled up with distress while Yvette delved into her handbag, “Its alright.”  she attempted to explain, “I have pills and a pump for this illness.”  Clarke grabbed the small cylinder from her and placed its nozzle into his mouth. 

“Aah...sorry Sir….aah…aah…I`ll be all right in a minute, just let me catch my breath and….”

Another two minutes and he was able to stand.  “Sorry about that.  It’s a long story Commander, and I would like you to come aboard with us for a little light refreshment while I tell you.”

“Aboard?”  The Commander`s first thoughts was theft of Royal Navy property.

The mini submarine was a relic of the past and should be in the dockyard museum alongside other ageing craft.  Not floating merrily here on Lake Radipole, Dorset.

“I think not Clarke.”  said Cunningham.  “The first `phone I get to and I will report this matter to the Naval authorities.  This is plainly a question of desertion Chief Petty Officer, together with theft of a Royal Navy Sub, I am heading home now and will have nothing to do with whatever hair-brain scheme you may have in mind.”

Clarke climbed onto the hull of the submarine and his foot was already on the first rung of the ladder into the small conning tower. Yvette was a little behind him.  He turned and faced Cunningham, and for a moment the Commander imagined he was going to shout, “Tell my Mom not to wait up for me tonight.”  Aged considerably and critically ill, Chief Petty Officer Clarke had an ace card up his sleeve.  “Its worth a few thousand pounds to step aboard Commander, its neither here nor there whether you do or don`t.  I`ll wait for you in the mess.”

Cunningham stormed off along the rickety wood planked jetty.  The issue of the mini sub was dismissed from his thoughts as his feet felt the soft green turf of firmer ground.  With five thousand he could pay off the mortgage on Rose Cottage and it would be his again.  He could purchase a brand new Rover and perhaps go on a trip overseas.  His mind in turmoil, “My God Cunningham, what in the name of Heaven are you walking away from,” he thought.  “You are forty five next June, what hopes have you got of ever getting employment when all you can do is steer a bloody battleship.”

His key was in the lock of the car and he was about to turn it when he saw Yvette hurrying towards him. “Please Sir, I beg you to stay, Gerald is ill, very ill and only has a few more weeks, perhaps only days left.  He needs your help urgently, come back with me and talk.”

 

Nobby Clarke had a grin on his face like the veritable Cheshire cat as Ex Commander Cunningham RN clambered down the iron steps of the conning tower and stepped through the hatchway into the small mess-deck. With a girth of only five and three quarter feet, the mini submarine offered little comfort for its crew of four.  “Damn it Chief, I`m getting too old for this kind of caper.” he remarked.

The soft whir of the crafts auxiliary engine and the dim lights set into the bulkhead were all too familiar to the Commander, and a quick glance around made him realize that the vessel was still in tip top shape despite its years.

“This must be…”

“The X23 Sir, the one you saw was the X 20, she went up during Operation Gambit.  Magnetic mine, these sardine tins are a death trap if you don`t keep an eye on the Sonar screen.”

Clarke was seated at a enamel topped mess table, and a bottle of opened champagne, with three tin mugs were at his elbow. “Glad you came back Sir, I thought you might so I did the honors.  Come and have a cup of bubbly with me and the Missus and I`ll tell you a story that will either make you laugh like a drain or cry like a baby.”

Cunningham checked his watch. “I`ll give you twenty minutes for an explanation Chief, then I am off.  Understood?”

“Understood, but first wet your whistle mate, there isn`t a finer bottle of champers in the whole wide world.”

The thought of drinking champagne from a regulation type navy mug was revolting enough.  But it was mid morning and the Scotch he had consumed earlier still soured his tongue.  “Very well Chief, it had better be good,”

He raised the mug to his lips and drank the smooth tingling almost erotic liquid until the last drop was finished. “Damn Chief, that was good,” he said.  “I`ll have another.” Clarke poured another round, lit a cigarette and began.

“You know I was born in Wandsworth London, Commander, so I won`t go into details about my youth, only to say that the only highlight I ever had was to stay with my Aunt Daisy here in Weymouth, by the sea.”  A fit of coughing racked Clarke again, and he gasped for breath until Yvette came to his aid with the pump. “Sorry all, he began. Well, of course that’s what made me enter for the Royal Navy when I had my calling up papers.  Joining the Navy turned me around so to speak, for I was a nasty little sod as a kid. Two years and I was C.P.O. and I volunteered for subs because I could give the extra allowance I got to my old Mum. My old man had left us when I was eight, so I don`t know anything about him!”

The Commander interjected.  “Very commendable Clarke.”

“That day you towed the X 23 to the landing zone for Operation Gambit was a near disaster for us all.  You didn`t know that Gerry had laid maggies (Magnetic mines) and we didn`t know until we got submerged and had the sonar running.

How you got out Sir is a bloody miracle.  That’s when the X 20 to our port side went up, and she went up because she had no business to be there.”

“How do you mean Chief?”

“They made  the rendezvous at the wrong point, she should have been ten miles to our South, off Dieppe.”

Cunningham gasped.  “Good God man, we thought…”

“Yes Commander, we got a full naval send off, with gun carriage and boson whistles, and were still very much alive!”

“And the X 20?”

Clarke lit another cigarette that sent him into a further fit of breathlessness.  Then he continued.  “The explosion as the mine detonated damaged our hydrofoil Sir, it was jammed solid. Stuck at twenty fathoms, could neither go up nor down, we just thanked our lucky stars we could steer to port and sta` board.Sorry Sir, the X20 was lost with all hands there was nothing we could have done in seas like that anyway.”

Clarke poured another round of champagne and Cunningham raised his mug to the fallen men of the mini submarine. “We honor your courage and loyalty to God, King and Country…to the X20 God bless you all.”

The C.P.O. continued.  “With Smith on sonar, Jarvis on engine standby, and me at the helm we dodged twenty-seven mines in all.  Nearing the coast of France we got a blip on the sounder like one we had never heard before.  Well, Smithy thought it was a German battleship, but it didn`t appear to be as bulky as that, I thought it might have been a cargo vessel, in fact, we prepared one of our amatol charges and made ready to attack. Fact is, the blip we were getting wasn`t coming from the ocean at all.  It was right ahead of us, somewhere off the beach at Saint Valery au Somme.”

Cunningham only needed a moment before his memory clicked into gear. “That’s the Estuary of the River Somme, so what was the blip?”

“Well Sir, by that time it was early morning, around five I guess.  I did a periscope check of the area.  There were bunkers on either side of the estuary and to our surprise they were deserted. We moved in closer using our electric auxiliary engine just in case.  The draught of the X23 is around five feet and we weren`t in any danger of running aground, especially with Smithy at the sonar.

I suppose we were a quarter of a mile up the river when the blips got more pronounced.  That’s when we opened up the conning tower and took a quick look around.

Impatient now, Cunningham banged his fist on the metal table. “Damn it man, what did you find?” he demanded.  His action brought about another bout of coughing that was so distressing Cunningham apologized.  “Sorry Clarke, but what did you find?”

“Tucked away in a creek, and cleverly camouflaged we found four German landing craft.

“Four landing craft, what size were they?”

“Enough for three hundred men in each at least.  But Sir, they were all shot up, like the R.A.F. had seen them and given them Hell. Well it was obvious where our blips were coming from, so we nosed the X23 into a steep embankment, tethered her and went to investigate.

“Seaman First Class Smith waded towards the first craft and hoisted himself aboard, myself and Jarvis stood in the conning tower with the Browning Automatic at the ready just in case.”

Cunningham was getting exasperated. “And then?” he asked sharply.

“And then we heard Smithy say, “Bloody Hell….Bloody Hell, come and look at this lot.”

“What did you find that was so important?”

Clarke laughed. “You`d never guess in a million years Sir, I mean, I`ve done some drinking in my time, but this lot really took the cake.”

“For Gods sake tell me what you found man!”

“We found thousands of bottles of champagne Sir, well, tens of thousands, stacked neatly into the bottom of each landing craft.  At a pinch, I`d say, roughly fifty thousand…all corked and sealed but not labeled.”  Clarke picked the one up from the mess table and handed it to Cunningham.

“Here you are Sir, here`s one of them.  Vintage stuff, worth a hundred quid a bottle!”

Cunningham took the bottle, “Good Heavens Chief, the Germans were probably going to make a break for it and take the champagne with them.”

Yvette appeared with another bottle and Clarke popped its cork and began to pour. “That’s what we thought too.  To tell the truth Sir, it was like discovering a gold mine, and apart from getting roaring drunk that evening we all knew that the cache was worth an incredible amount of money.”

Cunningham`s interest grew as Clarke related the strange story. “Your instructions about scuttling the Mini Submarine Chief…you never carried them out did you?” he asked.

Clarke hung his head, “No Sir, we didn`t scuttle her because we intended to get her back to Portsmouth, she still had a range of several hundred miles.”

“So what happened?”

”We moored the X23 and used some of the German camouflage net to hide her out the way.  We slept on board that night but were woken up the next morning by someone throwing rocks at the hull of the sub.”

”Rocks.”

“That`s right Sir, and when I looked through the visor on the conning tower I saw a young kid of about fourteen hurling rocks and clods of earth at us. I woke Jarvis and Smith and we all agreed we had better let the kid know we were British and not German.”

“And how did you do that Chief?”

“That was easy Sir, Jarvis spoke the lingo.  He raised the lid of the conning tower and yelled at the kid to stop, telling him that we were British sailors, and were there to chase the Germans out of France.”

Yvette smiled and placed her arm around Clarke`s shoulder, “The boy was my brother Pierre, he was very naughty and could be killed but he bring Gerald, Smith and Jarvis to my fathers farmhouse where we keep them safe.”

Cunningham stood up to leave, “Its an astounding story Chief, and I thank you for telling me, but I must go now.  Let me take you back to The Ship, and I`ll get back to Bridport.”

Clarke remained seated, “But Sir, I called you for a specific reason, I need you Sir, and like I said, its worth a great deal to you if you agree.”

The Commander was confused.  “Agree, agree to what?”

Clarke roared with laughter and slammed his tin mug down hard onto the table top.  “Lord help us!”  he chortled. “That is only the beginning of the story.”

Another bout of coughing lashed him speechless for a while and then he continued.

“Next came the Normandy invasion Sir, us three stayed hidden away at the farm because the whole area was swarming with Germans.  After the area was cleared, Jarvis and Smith left with a British contingent of Royal Marines, they got back home safe.

I left later on a Fishing Trawler and arrived in Wandsworth to find that my Mums road had been obliterated, there wasn`t anything left but red brick rubble.

Both she and my sister were killed. A German Buzz Bomb just about knocked out the entire area.  You remember them Sir?

Cunningham remembered the flying contraptions that were loaded with explosives and suddenly cut out when they were over Britain. 
”I certainly do Clarke, I certainly do.”

“Well, not having anywhere or anyone to go to, I hopped a trawler back to France, and as it happens to Yvette here. We got married in fifty-two.”

“Congratulation.”

Clarke raised his mug of champagne, “Thank you Sir, we`ve been pretty happy I must say, but I haven`t come to the important part of the story. The champagne bottles in their thousands remained where we had hidden them, down there in the bombed out German landing craft.  So was the X 23. I contacted Smithy.  Jarvis had family commitments and wasn`t available. Smithy came across the channel to where I was living, a place named Le Treport, its about 50 miles North of Dieppe. Together we loaded up the sub with our very first batch of champagne, five thousand bottles of unlabeled plonk.”

“What about stability Chief, with all that extra weight I would imagine the sub would be hard to control?”

“Not really Sir, if you will remember the X Caft carried two, two ton charges of Amatol explosives, port and starboard, we managed to get them off the sub and disarm them, that gave us four tons of extra carrying space.”

 “Good Lord, and then?”

“We blew both port and starboard ballast tanks until she got floatation, then 

keeping the craft just below the water line and using electric propulsion, we headed for the English coast at a speed of 8 knots an hour.  I chose Weymouth because I knew pretty well every inch of the estuary right into Lake Radipole.

The lighthouse was fully operational by that time too, and helped us navigate

the X23 almost to our front door as easily as paddling a kiddies row boat.

Cunningham gasped. “You got a buyer for the champagne?”

“That was the easy part, champagne was at a premium for several years after the war.  Well, still is come to that, especially vintage stuff like this.  I didn`t market it, but found a wholesaler who gave me the option of naming the product.  I called it Madam Pompadore and now you`ll find the brand pretty well all over the world.”

Clarke`s amazing story had flaws, but Cunningham was prepared to accept the better part of it.  The Chief`s opulent way of living was proof enough that he had

great wealth.  What troubled the Commander most was the fact that the whole operation was criminal, and there was no doubt in his mind that smuggling champagne into the country was highly illegal and should the Chief be caught, it would carry a very hefty prison sentence.

“How many years has this been going on?”  Cunningham asked.

Clarke looked towards Yvette and she smiled. “Close to five Commander, and we have done ten runs in all.

“We?”

“Smithy died on me a year ago, now Yvette is my navigator and sonar operator, she is better at it than I am, all I do is sit at the helm and steer to her command.”

“And you haven`t ever been tracked or detected by coastguards and the like?”

Clarke lit another cigarette. “Just the once, by a Coast Guard Patrol vessel.  I flooded both port and starboard ballast tanks, and with the extra weight, we sank like the proverbial stone.”

The Commander laughed.  “That must have been close, how long did you stay submerged?”

“Two hours, by that time we were both on oxygen and gasping for breath, but Sir, I didn`t contact you for a pleasant chat and glass of plonk.  I made contact because I need your expertise and I need it in a hurry.”

“Go on.”

“I…I haven`t got much longer, I was given six weeks and that was over three weeks back.  When I do go, I want to go down with my ship…the X 23 Sir.”

Cunningham helped himself to another mug of champagne. “Down with the ship Chief, I don`t quite understand?”

“Scuttle her Sir, with me aboard.  Of course, I`ll pay you for the inconvenience, how does two hundred thousand pounds sound Sir?”

“Two hundred thousand pounds….that’s a fortune Chief.”

“I`ll brief you on the sub, she is still in good shape and Yvette is as good a seaman as you`ll ever get in the Navy.  Take her out mid Channel towing my dinghy, two hundred fathoms will do me fine. I am asking you Sir, because I know that’s what you do best.”

The Commander frowned.  “What I do best?” he queried.

“Navigate the English Channel Sir, you know the French coastline like the back of your hand.”

Chief Petty Officer Clarke`s generous offer put a different complexion on things and the Commander needed time to think about the offer before accepting the challenge. Time was the one commodity that was in short supply for it was more than obvious that Clarke was a very sick man.  Cunningham got up from the table. ”Can I think about it Nobby, I have other commitments that need my attention, say a week?”

Clarke shook his head, “I`d like an answer now Sir, I don`t think I`ll be here in much more than a week, and there`s just one other thing I`d like you to do.”

Cunningham sighed.  “What`s that?”

Another coughing attack almost sent the Chief into convulsions.  Yvette was there with an inhaler in seconds and after a while the Chief was able to continue.

“Look after Yvette Sir.  I have left everything I own in her name, The Ship pub,

and Madame Pompadore Champagne Limited are all in her name, but she`ll need a lot of help Sir, for a while any way..and that`s….that`s about all I can think of.”

Cunningham shook his head, “I really don`t know what to say Chief, I mean it’s a tall order, scuttling the sub, and I`m not a great businessman.”

 

The offer was tempting.  The massive remuneration he would receive could pay off the mortgage on Rose Cottage and there would be cash over for whatever he needed.  The main stumbling block for Cunningham remained however.  The escapade was highly illegal.  Theft of a Royal Navy X Craft Submarine would be regarded as tantamount to treason in the eyes of the Law.  In the eyes of a Naval tribunal, they would crucify him, there was no doubt about that whatsoever.  Nevertheless, it was highly unlikely that he would be caught, for the mini sub had been designed to operate inside enemy waters completely undetected.  The Commander turned to Clarke,

“You need my answer right now?”

“That’s right Sir, I just haven`t got the time to dally around, I need you answer now.”

Cunningham gulped the last of his champagne down, “Its just that my reputation is at stake, that’s all Chief.  All right, I`ll do it, I will make that last journey for you … it will certainly fix a lot of my problems.”

Clarke extended a hand, “Then it`s a deal Commander, I`ll get Yvette to make a cheque out right away.”

Cunningham smiled uneasily. “One mere point Chief, I`ll need to know a little more regarding the subs control areas, its been a few years and I am as rusty as Hell when it comes to the tactical maneuvers of a mini sub.  What`s her draught, five or so feet?”

“Make it seven, but don`t you worry about getting her out into the Channel Sir. Yvette is a dab hand at that, she`ll need you most when you are out in the ocean”.

As the two men stood eye to eye in the tiny mess deck of the craft, a great pang of remorse surged through Cunningham`s veins. Feet stumbling, the two men half embraced.  Climbing up the iron steps out of the conning tower Clarke looked back.  “Tell my Mum not to wait up for me Commander.” he said, and was gone.

Yvette handed Cunningham a cheque for two hundred thousand pounds as he mounted the first rung of the ladder.

“This is yours, I will phone you when its all over.”  she whispered.

The lump in the Commander`s throat prevented him from saying much.

“I hope….” he began.  But nothing more came out, all was swallowed down in one great gulp of anguish.

 

Cunningham got back to Bridport around four that afternoon only to find that an estate agent had planted a wooden board on his front lawn.

 “For Sale,” glared back at him as he swung into his flag-stoned driveway. He stopped the car and walked across to it.  Taking two steps back he kicked at the fragile stake that the notice was mounted on.  It didn`t break but a further kick flattened it onto the lawn.With any luck, he wouldn`t have to sell Rose Cottage after all, but at the same time his heart gave a nasty lurch.  “Lord what have I let myself in for?” he thought.

Two nights later the phone rang at half past two in the morning.

 “Commander Cunningham?”  The Commander recognized Yvette`s voice immediately.

“Yes.”

“Terribly sorry, Gerald died an hour ago,” she said.  Her voice was  surprisingly calm and unemotional.

Cunningham sighed. “Oh dear.”

“Please you must come now, the ship is prepared and ready.”

Jolted out of a deep sleep, the Commander was unable to understand.

“The ship…what ship?”

Yvette gasped.  “The submarine Commander, you must come quickly before dawn, you must come right now.”

Cunningham moved the bedroom curtains aside.  A gale was blowing and rain lashed at the window-pane.  “My God Yvette, take a look at the weather, we can`t go to sea in this.”

“Please Commander, you must come now, Gerald say we must go right away, before questions are asked.”

Throwing on a duffel coat and shrouding his head in its hood, he ran for his car

and drove as fast as the weather would allow towards Weymouth.In less than two hours he was parked in the driveway outside The Ship Hotel.

With hardly a greeting, together they bundled Petty Officer Clarke`s body into the rear seat of the car and headed for Lake Radipole and the X23 submarine.

Once the conning tower was battened down, Yvette took command of the mini submarine.

“You please take the helm, I will guide you through waterway to open sea.”

Cunningham nodded, “Aye, aye Captain.”

“Auxillary engine half ahead, helm ten degrees to port.”

“Aye, aye Sir.”

With a small dab-chick dinghy in tow, the X Craft Mini submarine headed into the middle of  Lake Radipole on its final voyage.  Remarkably, the storm that hit earlier had subdued, and as the first streaks of dawn touched the overcast sky, the sleek craft nosed quietly beneath Weymouth beach and out into the English channel.

The Commander and Yvette had sat the lifeless body of Chief Petty Officer Clarke propped up in a chair at the head of an enameled top table on the mess deck.  Dressed in full naval uniform, which included the numerous medal ribbons awarded him during his tour of duty, Clarke looked, as he had always looked, a jovial sea-faring sailor, with a twinkling eye and a love for life.

Now mid channel, the Commander brought the craft around to face the flooding tide.  “We have a couple of hundred fathoms beneath us, I think this will be fine.”

Yvette agreed.  “One more thing, I think we should drink a toast, don`t you?”

Peeling off the silver seal of the champagne bottle, they poured three glasses, one for each of them.

As the first tears fell, Yvette and Commander Cunningham raised the glasses.

“Here`s to Chief Petty Officer Nobby Clarke, may you never die in our hearts, and live for ever in our souls.”

As Yvette clambered into the small dinghy, Cunningham wrote a last entry into the vessels Log.

“Scuttled August 5th. 1943,” then pulled the plug set into the hull of the submarine that served that very purpose.

Water quickly flooded the engine room and after-deck as the Commander hopped aboard the dinghy.

They both stood silently watching the mini submarine until the final death rattle as the sub turned turtle and sank.

With tears streaming down their cheeks, the Commander came to attention and with a wavering voice sang the age-old hymn for fallen mariners.

 

Immortal Father strong to save,

Who`s mighty hand doth still the wave

Oh hear us when we cry to thee,

For those in peril,  on the sea.

 

 

 

 

 

END

 

 


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