I haven't thought of that operation in many years, but the tragedy this morning reminded me. It was all secret then, of course. We were never allowed to talk about it. Probably that's one reason I hadn't thought of it for so long. But the world has changed in so many ways since then, I don't suppose it would do any harm to tell the tale now.
This was near the beginning of the war, just after Dunkirk, when things looked bleak indeed. The remnant of our army, forced to retreat, abandoning all their equipment, supplies, and even forced to rely on fat little weekend yachtsmen to ferry them home. One of our finest battleships sent to the bottom. Hitler doing whatever he pleased across most of Europe.
I wasn't really old enough to be a cadet, but like most boys, I was eager to get into the fight, and if a lad looked sturdy, they weren't too particular just then. So I got in, and got myself assigned to a training crew. Of course, we were all keen to sail off and sink the Bismarck or something equally stupid and hopeless, but even we could see we had to be shown how first.
So we got right down to it, learning new skills and duties as grimly as if each improvement was another round through the Bismarck's hull, which in a sense I suppose it was. We won, anyway. But we didn't know how it would all turn out then. We didn't know a lot of things we've found out since. For instance, I've heard the Irish Government, officially neutral, actually did what they could for us, quietly.
At the time, though, keeping in mind how the Irish hated the British, everyone suspected if Hitler sent men into Ireland to trap us in a pincer of sorts, he wouldn't meet much opposition. And there were Irishmen who took guns and explosives from the Nazis whenever their cursed U-Boats would deliver them. Their real hope, of course, was to drive us out of Northern Ireland while we were busy elsewhere.
With so many countries giving Hitler whatever he asked for, rather than quarrel with him, the idea Ireland would let him have his way wasn't such a far-fetched one. In fact, of course, they were never invaded, so no one knows for sure what they might have done. I didn't give all this much thought then, of course. I was too eager to finish up my training and put to sea.
Well, just when we were about done, a big car was dispatched to whisk the senior officers of our crew off somewhere very hush hush. When they came back, they didn't say a word to us, but they did hint we should be prepared if we'd like to volunteer. Then, our instructors lined us up on deck, and a little, dark man came and talked to us. He didn't say who he was with, but he told us they had need of our talents.
That was enough for me, of course, and I stepped forward. Most of us did, and the little dark man took our names and our ranks, then gave us a little lecture about the Official Secrets Act. It was a rather dull lecture, and I don't recall much of it now, but what can they do to a man my age? We were given a few days' leave, while everything was made ready.
I must have spent some of that leave above ground, I suppose, but I spent much of it sitting huddled in a shelter trying to act calm, or ducking into the nearest Underground station until the All Clear sounded. I can't recall what excuse they used to explain her absence, but I suppose they just said they'd moved her somewhere else for some reason or other. Who was going to pay much attention to a seventy year old sailing ship with a war on?
That was the point, of course. Even then, we understood that. She'd been fitted with frames and painted canvas so, from the air or the lens of a periscope, she'd appear to be just one more outdated tramp. Although she was wonderfully fast, we were given strict orders not to use all her sails, except in emergency. Even under half sail, she was a wonderful ship.
She was the first ship I ever put to sea in, and I quickly came to love her. We glided along the coast, staying just far enough offshore to avoid minefields, and crossed the Irish Sea. We ran up an Irish flag, and dawdled along the coast, ending up off Cork well after midnight. We anchored in shallow water, and I was one of those chosen to row the ship's boat through the surf.
We landed with no trouble at all, and shifted the few boxes wrapped in oilcloths we carried onto the beach. Three shadows stepped out of the blackness, gave a hushed reply to our subdued challenge, then two of them bent over the crates, while the third walked towards the boat. I happened to be closest, and when I saw it was a woman, I rushed to help her aboard.
She sat close to me as we launched into the surf to return to the boat. "I'm afraid I'm not the person they're expecting." Her voice was very soft, and I think it shook a little.
I kept my voice low, as well. "As long as you can convince them you aren't spying for Hitler, you ought to be all right."
Her laugh sounded bitter, but I didn't question her.
We tied up to the ship, and she let me assist her in climbing to the deck. As we scrambled over the railing, the quiet man who had accompanied us was waiting. As soon as he glimpsed my companion, he started forward.
She spoke carefully, as if repeating something memorised. "It is too cold in the glen for hunting this time of year." Her voice became more natural. "He sent me in his place. He gave me something for you."
Before the quiet man could speak, she dug into the pocket of her skirt, fumbled a minute, and handed him a battered, dingy tube of lipstick. He frowned, but took it from her, then went below decks as quickly as I'd ever seen him move.
On the strenght of our brief acquaintance, I was assigned to show her to a cabin, and see that she was settled. Before she went inside, she asked me to wait, so I stood outside her cabin door, wondering what on earth could be so important to the outcome of the war, yet be hidden in a tube of lipstick. I hadn't heard of microfilm yet, of course.
I turned when the door opened, and started. I had had a good look at her once we were below decks, and she was a plump, hard faced woman with brassy curls and far too much makeup to appear respectable. The girl standing in front of me now couldn't have been much older than I was. Her long, straight black hair was thick and glossy, her face was much softer, and while she had a very full figure, she wasn't plump at all.
She giggled, nervously. "Isn't it wonderful, what can be done with disguises?"
I looked her over again, carefully. The full lips were the same, the large shining dark eyes no longer narrowed in a squint, but otherwise looked the same, and now that I looked carefully, I could see my attention had been cleverly diverted from her somewhat generous nose by the bold makeup on her lips and around her eyes.
"Yes, miss, indeed it is wonderful!" I didn't say how wonderful I found her, or how beautiful, but my face must have revealed my thoughts, since she blushed.
"I'm sorry, I don't even know your name."
"Thomas, miss. Midshipman."
"Thomas, I know we haven't been properly introduced, but as you are the only person I know here, please call me Rose. Miss sounds so formal."
"Very well, uh, Rose."
"I wanted you to stay so you could vouch for me. You're the only person on board who has had a good look at me."
Before she could say more, the Captain himself approached, accompanied by the quiet man. Both men were frowning. The Captain didn't even try keeping his voice down. "I don't care what she knew, you can't assure me we haven't taken a Nazi spy aboard!"
I stood my ground, beside her, and she took my arm. They halted, and the quiet man looked her over sharply. "So that's why he wanted to get you out." His voice was soft and sad.
"What the devil are you talking about? I don't like this woman aboard my ship!"
"Captain, Look at her! She was disguised before, of course, but you can see it now. She's Jewish. You must have heard at least some of the rumours..."
"Faugh!" He stared at her face for a moment. "I suppose she is. Well, we shall just have to put up with her, for now." He stalked off without another word.
When they were out of earshot, I found the courage to speak. "I'm sorry, Rose. The Captain isn't usually so harsh. He must be worried, trying to bring us home safely."
"It's all right. I'm used to far worse."
"Then you are Jewish?"
"Yes." She paused, and I could barely hear her next words. "Does that matter to you?"
"No! Of course not! I just never met anyone before..."
She was silent and I felt very nervous, all of a sudden. "Look, I'm sorry. I meant no offence. I just wouldn't have any idea how to tell if you were or not, and I wondered if they were right, that's all..." I trailed off.
Rose gave me an odd smile. "You can't tell, or not really, but everyone thinks you can."
"Oh. I am sorry."
She smiled at me again, but just then there was a commotion. It seemed the man who gave the Captain his instructions had informed him it was necessary for us to put in at another point along the coast. It wasn't much before dawn, and we were all nervous, but we did what we had to, and the ship's boat went ashore again. In all, it made three hurried trips, and we took on perhaps thirty huddled, miserable people.
The quiet man made sure they all went below as soon as they were aboard, and he told Rose she had to leave my side and go below as well. I didn't see much of her until we'd crossed the Irish Sea, but once we were off the coast of England again, the quiet man let everyone up on deck. I came across Rose leaning on the railing near the bow, her face sadder than I'd ever seen anyone before.
I don't know why, but the misery in her face reminded me of the remark I'd overheard last night, and I went up to her. "Rose?"
"Yes? Oh, hello, Thomas!"
Her face brightened a little, but I still asked her what I'd meant to. "What did that man mean, when he talked about hearing rumours?"
She looked very sad again. "You truly don't know, do you?"
I shook my head. "I'm sorry if I made you sad."
"It's not you. The truth is, they aren't just rumours. Out here, away from all Hitler's craziness, no one wants to believe it possible, but it is the truth. They are killing people, thousands of them, perhaps more."
"Well, it is sad, but of course people do die in war, don't they?"
Her eyes flashed contempt for a moment, and I took a step back. "I'm sorry. Whatever I said..."
"No, you truly don't understand, do you?"
"I suppose I don't."
"Hitler hates Jews. Not just some of them, but all of them. Men, women, children, even babies."
"That's... that's mad!"
She smiled at me. "Yes, it is mad. But Hitler is mad. And the men who follow him are as mad as he is. They are arresting Jews, every one they can find. They send them off, to work they say, but no one ever comes back. No one."
I shivered, then I said what came into my mind. "Well,that's one more reason to get this war over with. I'm bloody glad... ah, sorry, I'm glad I signed up."
She stared at me a moment, then threw her arms around me and kissed me. It was the first time I was ever kissed by a girl, and it was better than I'd imagined it would be. I wasn't able to see much of her, of course, but we arranged to stay in touch. We were nearly home when we were spotted by a Messerschmitt. He was diving on us when a pair of Spitfires came out of the sun and drove him off.
I did mange to speak to Rose for a few minutes before she had to go ashore. She sent a note with the address where she'd be staying, and I got a bit of leave to go and see her. I got my orders, and learned just how deadly the North Atlantic can be. Whenever I got leave, we'd get together, and we'd write when we couldn't see each other. Both our hearts broke when I was sent off to the Mediterranean.
I didn't get to come home until the war was nearly over, but we'd been writing back and forth, and she met me on the docks. Before I returned to my ship we were married. It wasn't long after that we broke into Germany, and the whole world learned the truth. I was able to guess that the few refugees we'd brought to England, however they'd been smuggled out of Germany, were witnesses to what had been going on.
I understand why Churchill didn't say much about it. Everyone knew he hated Hitler, and anything he said would just seem like another way of getting at him. But Roosevelt, Stalin, they must have known, too, and they never said a word, never tried to shame Hitler. Afterwards, people were shocked, and said it would never happen again, but even then I wondered.
Rose never really felt safe, even though we were happy together. She always said it could happen all over again, if people let it. So I let her talk me into moving to Israel. It took a lot of getting used to, but she was worth it. But after she took the wrong bus, the same one one a suicide bomber was riding, I couldn't stay there. So I came back to England.
Here, at least, if I couldn't be close to Rose, I could be close to the ship that brought us together. I toured her, many times, and never told anyone I was once a part of her crew. This morning, for some reason, I couldn't sleep. I went for a walk, and I saw the flames across the water. I knew where they'd taken her for refitting, of course, and I knew at once it was the Cutty Sark. If I'd been on that side of the water, I think my tears would have been enough to quench the flames. She was a good ship, the best I've ever been on.The mission never happened, of course. As soon as I heard of the fire that devastated the Cutty Sark this morning, I knew today's story had to honour her in some way. I could think of no better way than to give her one secret, important wartime mission against the Nazis, and to have the story narrated by a man with good reason to love her. Tonight, the world, without a single surviving clipper ship, is poorer. I hope they rebuild her, of course, but it won't be quite the same.
Labels: Cutty_Sark, fiction