Okay, I'm tipping my hand. I cut the scene you're about to read—the prologue to Cape Wrath—to reduce word count. So you're getting a bonus. If you like what you read, stay with me and look forward to the book. It gets even better.
24 January 1943
No one could have known there would be gold. But First Lieutenant Thomas MacAllister’s discovery, that day, would define the rest of his life. In a way no one could foresee, it would also hasten his death.
He and the few men in the wheelhouse and chartroom of the HMS Defiant expected nothing more than a kill. In the dimly lit rooms, MacAllister sensed it in the way the men looked at him and at each other, the way they had remained toward their consoles through the past hours of their chase.
Forward of MacAllister, Mr. Cowley sat at the ASDIC. His narrow head was clasped in headphones, and he stared into the circular dial in front of him. When asked for readings, his responses had been quick and terse, despite the prolonged duty. “Depth, two hundred fifty. Target bearing oh-six-oh degrees at two thousand yards.”
The air around them was foul. Around 0430 Mr. Willis at the radar had smoked two cigarettes. For more than a day it had been an invisible hunt, their enemy’s presence indicated initially by a ping over a loudspeaker, later by a torpedo that narrowly missed the Defiant’s stern.
They had ploughed their way through the sea and through an endless night. On three occasions—hours apart—the passing of time seemed suspended when the pinging echo was lost and the room fell silent. There was always a measure of relief when they reacquired their target, always simmering anticipation at the order for more depth charges. Since the chase had begun, the HMS Defiant had lobbed forty-eight.
On the bulkhead near MacAllister’s shoulder, a slight but refreshing draft of cold air came through the speaking tube that lead up to the bridge, where the captain stood. The captain had moved up with the first light of dawn and begun directing the engagement from there, barking orders through the network of metal pipes that coursed the length of the ship. The effect of this mode of communication was that of an omnipresent lord whose authority was felt by the power of his voice.
“Where is she Mr. Cowley?” the captain asked.
“Depth two hundred. Bearing oh-five-eight degrees at fifteen hundred yards.”
The captain’s voice rang from the wheelhouse speaking tube. “Pilot, bring us another ten degrees starboard. Mr. MacAllister, have the men make ready another pattern of depth charges.”
Mr. Cowley sat upright and pressed one headphone to his ear. “She’s blowing her tanks, sir. She’s definitely on her way up. Twelve hundred yards at oh-four-nine.”
“Thank you, Mr. Cowley. Surface action stations, Mr. MacAllister. She’s coming up at oh-four-nine. Pilot, bring us around starboard to match their bearing. When they come topside I want them looking straight at our bow.”
“Yes, sir. Starboard to oh-four-nine.” The pilot turned the ship’s wheel and lowered his voice. “It’s bloody well about time.”
MacAllister twisted a switch on the forward bulkhead, and the alarm bell rang through the ship. In a weak dawn, on a gray and heaving sea, the HMS Defiant turned, creating a broad and bending wake, inclining to port as it heeled into its new direction. The maneuver jostled the running crew, who, in their battle gear, tried to compensate for the suddenly angled deck. Amid curses, shouts, and the ship’s engines, they hurried through the faint light and settled into their stations.
As if forming itself from the sea, the U-boat rose, the whole length of it appearing from the waves, trailing water from the conning tower and from its gun. The Defiant continued its turn starboard until the target lay dead ahead.
From the first of two gun turrets on the forecastle came sudden, thundering blasts, and the ship and the air around it shook. Tall plumes of water shot up from the far side of the U-boat. Tracers from the machine gun near the bridge cut bolting streaks across the water. Moments later, the twin guns on the second turret moved down and fired. Another deafening roar. A quaking ship. White sulfurous smoke swept through the air. From the U-boat came a burst of flame, followed moments later by a blast and black smoke that poured from her stern.
MacAllister, now in a shearling jacket and helmet, stood near the starboard machine gun, directing fire, watching, through binoculars, as the tracers crossed the U-boat’s deck, moved up to the conning tower and decimated the vessel’s anti-aircraft gun. The phone next to him buzzed and MacAllister lifted it. “Yes, sir.”
“We hit her engines, Number One. She does not look as if she will be going anywhere,” the captain said. “I will have the pilot bring us within two hundred yards. I want you to alert the boarding party and have the whaler made ready. We just might find something useful aboard.”
“A code machine,” MacAllister said.
“Precisely, yes. Hold your fire for now, but have your men there ready to cover the boarding party.”
“Then I want you astern directing rescue efforts.”
“I’ve seen no one leave their boat, sir.” MacAllister raised his binoculars, nearly to his eyes.
“Oh, they will, Mr. MacAllister. Let me know when you fish out their skipper. That is all.”
With the Defiant’s guns silent, men emerged from the U-boat’s conning tower and through its forward hatches. They moved across the deck quickly, furtively, shoulders and heads down, and dove or jumped into the water.
The whaler, with its small crew, started slowly toward the vessel, and MacAllister went astern and set men to prepare the ship for prisoners. He and the Chief Warrant Officer issued side arms, irons, and machine guns to a group, with brief instructions on shackling and guarding. Men were dispatched belowdecks to retrieve blankets. MacAllister directed several others to remove the prisoners’ clothes, then search each piece of clothing. The ship’s doctor and two assistants were to treat the injured.
The first to come aboard were two men who struggled together through the waves, their faces barely distinguishable in the morning light. They struggled out of the water and up the scaling net that hung off the stern, coughing and dazed. On deck one collapsed and was taken below. The other became impudent at the order to disrobe until a seaman presented a sub-machine gun, pulled back its breech bolt, and held it to the man’s chest.
Others followed in a dark and broken line across the water, and a pile of soggy shirts and trousers soon littered the afterdeck. The prisoners huddled, trembling in their blankets, until men with pistols separated them, fastened irons around their exposed wrists and ankles, and took them below.
Not one of the rescued men had presented himself as the U-boat’s captain or executive officer. MacAllister checked with a few of the men who had been guarding.
“Would not have known it if the bloke screamed it in my face, sir. My German’s dodgey as it is.”
“No, sir. Not one of ‘em looks like a skipper. They’re all drowned rats to me. You best try Kilsby, commander. He’s below takin’ names.”
MacAllister pushed past blanketed bodies and made his way to the deckhouse and stairs. “Mr. Kilsby!”
The Chief Warrant Officer stood at the foot of a companion way filled with British and German sailors. He held a clipboard and was writing furiously. He yelled above the curses and commands. “Yessir!”
“Is their skipper below?”
“Not that I can tell.” Mr. Kilsby took one of the prisoners and spoke a few slow, deliberate words. He looked up again and shook his head. “Sorry. It’s like a bin of crabs down here, sir. If he turns up, I’ll alert you.”
MacAllister turned and started forward up the starboard side when a telephone on the deckhouse buzzed and a man picked it up.
“Yes, he’s right here.” He held the telephone out. “Sir? The captain for you.”
MacAllister took the phone. “Yes, sir.”
“Number One, report to the bridge immediately.”
He went forward and hurried up the companion way to the bridge. Fully exposed, now, to the winter wind, his face became stiff, as firm as dry clay.
The captain stood at the front of the bridge, nearly in profile, his binoculars in gloved hands just below his eyes. The tail of his greatcoat flapped in the wind. He turned as MacAllister approached. “I have received a communication from the boarding party,” he said.
“Did they find the code machine?” MacAllister looked forward to the U-boat’s conning tower. The boat was listing.
“We were too late for that. They destroyed it. Our men have found the captain in his quarters and from what they can understand the chap wants to make an arrangement.”
“What kind of an arrangement?”
“I would think intelligence in exchange for—immunity, or something. What else could he have that would be a bargaining chip? Anyway, the man is demanding to speak to a commanding officer. You understand that I cannot go over there.”
“You want me to go over, then.”
“There could be much to gain if you did. By the same token, he could be just drawing us in.”
MacAllister watched the gray silhouette in the distance. “Has the ASDIC made any new contacts?”
“No, it is just we and they.”
“I’ll have another whaler made ready, sir.” MacAllister spread an open hand over his bristled face.
“Take the powerboat, Mr. MacAllister. And extra ammunition.”
In a powerboat piloted by a fearful-looking seaman, MacAllister moved through water layered with oil. Smoke and the odor of burning diesel fuel filled the air near the U-boat, so thick and rank that he covered his nose with the sleeve of his jacket and constantly spit into the sea.
The sailor piloting the boat cursed at the smoke and waved it from his eyes. He struggled to bring them alongside, and once in position, near the conning tower, he stumbled as the boat rolled in the seas and repeatedly struck the U-boat’s hull. MacAllister stepped to the boat’s gunwale, and on the force of a rising sea, leaped aboard. He drew his pistol. One of the boarding party—an ensign—approached him from the conning tower.
“All right, Mr. Spencer,” MacAllister yelled. “What is so important?” He walked ahead of the man, climbed up the conning tower, and steadied himself against the railing. Mr. Spencer followed.
“Taylor and Henderson are with the captain in his quarters, sir. Taylor’s tried to get him out, but he is quite adamant about speaking with a commanding officer first. Something about an arrangement.”
MacAllister moved through the hatch into a dark conning tower, then continued down and landed in the control room. Blue lights along the hull flashed to the cadence of a soft tick. Moisture and heat occupied the still air and reinforced the odor of diesel fuel and urine. Copper conduit and steel pipes—some dripping water—ran the length of the ship. Jutting up from the deck, the periscope mast reached up through the center of the room.
MacAllister proceeded forward, passing a community of gauges, dials, valves, and wheels that protruded from the hull, making the room look even smaller. He stepped through broken glass, water, and paper, much of it amassed along the starboard side, and undulating with the listing boat.
He climbed forward through an open hatch. The air was filled with smoke, and about him, on the deck lay partly burned manuals and papers. He found the cramped radio and listening room, lit by a naked bulb. On the floor, in the faint light, lay the code machine: a smashed wood box, mangled typewriter keys, black wires, and several steel wheels and sprockets, all in a heap.
“Commander, we’re in here!” A few feet away a green curtain hung to the floor. Henderson, one of the Defiant’s Chief Petty Officers, parted it and motioned. “In here, sir.”
MacAllister stepped around the smashed code machine and into the tiny wood-paneled room. Small cabinets around the top were open with papers hanging from them. Maps, charts, and books—many torn and burned—lay scattered about the floor. Ashes had settled nearly everywhere.
Henderson and Taylor pointed their pistols at a wiry fellow in a thick, white sweater and a soiled captain’s hat. He was sitting on a narrow bunk; bent forward, head down, with his arms on his knees. When MacAllister entered he looked up and glanced at the insignia on his hat.
MacAllister nodded, and for the next few seconds the two men studied each other.
“I imagined you older,” the German said, “und fetter.” He passed his hands around his waist and chuckled. “Regardless, you are machen historie, no? Der first Allied commanding officer on ein Unterseeboot?” He rubbed a hand over his dark beard. His skin looked milky, and his forehead glistened.
MacAllister leaned toward the Chief Petty Officer. “Mr. Henderson, you have searched the officers’ quarters?” He nodded forward.
“Yes, sir. Ensign Spencer did.”
“Then take Mr. Spencer and search the petty officers’ quarters and the aft torpedo room. Give everything a thorough going over, but be quick about it.” As he spoke, he stared blankly at the German.
“Yes sir.” Henderson slipped past and disappeared through the hatch.
“So, he understands English.”
“He surprised me, yes,” Taylor said. “He speaks it broken. He’s said over and over that he wants to make an offer of some sort.”
The German looked back and forth between the two men, stood, and moved as if he would interrupt.
MacAllister stepped closer. “I am First Lieutenant Thomas MacAllister, Executive Officer of the HMS Defiant and have been given full authority by her captain.” He pointed his pistol at the man’s chest. “Listen to me…very…carefully. Do you understand me?”
“What are you talking about? What are you prepared to offer the Royal Navy?” The German started to speak, but MacAllister continued. “Bear in mind, Captain, your opportunity to offer us anything is very limited.”
The muscles in the German’s face became firm, and he stared for a moment at the pistol. He drew a deep breath, then looked up and spoke.
“Kapitan, er, officer, I stay mit mein ship, or I go to prison camps, I am a dead man. Das ist, unless we can reach ein arrangement, a ‘deal’ as you say. Vhasever happens, I cannot return to mein home.” He looked down and hissed through his teeth. He trembled a little, then glared up at the two men.
“Just what do you have to offer the Royal Navy?” MacAllister asked.
Already listing, the boat shifted from the force of a sweeping sea, and the German braced himself against a small wood cabinet near the top of the bunk. “The qvestion ist not vas I offer your navy, but vas I offer you!” He glanced over at Taylor, then at MacAllister again and smiled. “Surely, vhen the time comes, you would leave das var with more than your ‘king’ can give you?” He rubbed his thumb and fingers together. His eyes were eager and attentive. “Yes, yus’ as I thought.”
“That’s enough.” MacAllister grabbed the lieutenant’s arm and moved him toward the curtain. “Mr. Taylor, go fetch the others. We’re taking this man out, even if we’ve to bind him hand and foot.”
The German’s grin vanished. He looked angrily at Taylor, then sprang to his feet. “No, NO!”
“You sit—down.” MacAllister took the man’s throat, thrust his head against the cabinet, and threw him backward onto the bunk. The German struggled from the tiny space, rose again, his shoulders square. He threw his hands up and shook them.
“You are such a fool!”
“Get going, Mr. Taylor!”
The German closed his hands into fists and shook them. “I am not going back! Shoot me! Shoot me now!”
Taylor turned to leave, but the German rushed him and grabbed his arm. The weapon fired, and the wood just above MacAllister’s head broke into splinters. The German drove his elbow into the lieutenant’s gut and pulled the pistol from his hand. He turned the barrel to his own throat and backed away.
Henderson and Spencer appeared at the curtain. “Commander, we heard the gunshot and—”
“You machen historie?” The German’s eyes became wide. He stared at MacAllister and trembled. “Tell das your kindern und enkelkindern!”
At the gunfire, blood and flesh struck the wood cabinets and walls, and the German convulsed and fell.
“Ah, you bastard!” MacAllister holstered his gun, took the man’s shoulders, and lifted him from the bunk. Around the bloodied neck hung a steel chain. He tugged it around the man’s head and found it bore a collection of keys, along with a larger, square plate of brass, with a bulge in the center. With his hands beneath the German’s shoulders, he shifted the body toward the others. “Get him out of here, will you? I’ve got to collect all this. And pick up what you can o’ that code machine.”
The men took the German. Jostling a little, stumbling around the mess in the radio room, they carried him through the hatch.
MacAllister held his arms out and checked the blood streaked across his hands and jacket.
He dropped to his knees, quickly grabbed papers, and stuffed them into his jacket. He slipped a few books into his pockets, then took a wire-bound manual, folded it in half, and slid it down the back of his trousers. He sifted through some of the papers, stopped suddenly, and stared at one.
“Wolfram. They’re carrying wolfram.”
He folded the papers, placed them inside his jacket, then searched the deck. It was composed of hard rubber panels, encased in metal frames and placed together like tiles. He dug with his fingers at the gaps between the metal but was unable to pry them until he found a panel with a brass reinforcement. It had a slit, several inches long, with a round opening at the center. MacAllister took the chain of keys from his pocket and placed the large brass piece into the slot. He worked it, twisting it, then pressing it down with the heel of his hand. The panel shifted up and he took it from the deck.
Below, three wood cases sat neatly together. He reached down and took one. He struggled with it and hefted it out slowly. The lid was hinged on one side, nailed fast on the other. He drew his service knife and worked it around the edges, prying and twisting until the nails creaked free of the wood and the lid fell open.
“I’ll be damned.” MacAllister stared for a few seconds. Then he pulled a small slip of paper from the box, studied it, and looked at the box again. Inside, packed tightly, sat gold bars, dully reflecting the light. He stuffed the paper into his jacket.
“Commander, we have got to get out of here!” Henderson’s panting voice rang through the radio room. “Lieutenant Taylor’s found the demolition charges. This boat is wired through, and she could blow any minute!”