RogerBW's Blog

Gold from Crete, C. S. Forester 04 January 2015

1971 collection of earlier fiction; various stories of action during the Second World War.

As with Douglas Reeman, Forester is much better known for his Napoleonic fiction; as with Reeman, I mostly haven't read it, but unlike him Forester didn't actually serve. Most of these stories were published during the war, though the date of the last is unclear; more on that later.

The story Gold from Crete opens the book and introduces us to Captain Crowe, commander of a destroyer flotilla. There's rather more characterisation here than there is with Reeman; for example:

Crowe sat himself at the table and drew the notepaper to him and began his Thursday letter:

My dear Miriam,

There has been little enough happening this week—

On Thursdays he wrote to Miriam; on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays he wrote respectively to Jane and Susan and Dorothy. On Fridays he wrote to old friends of his own sex, and he kept Saturdays to clear off arrears of official correspondence, and he hoped on Sundays never to take a pen in hand.

He often thought about using a typewriter and doing four copies at once, but Miriam and Dorothy and Jane and Susan were not fools - he would never have bothered about them in the first place if they were - and they could spot a carbon copy anywhere. There was nothing for it but to write toilsomely to each one by hand, although it did not matter if he repeated the phraseology; not one of those girls knew any of the others, thank God, and if they did, they wouldn’t compare notes about him, seeing what a delicate affair each affair was.

It's self-indulgent, perhaps, but it gives us an impression of a real person, human, imperfect, but doing what he can. The story itself is rather slight: a gold reserve is to be got out of Crete, so the destroyer Apache goes in, waits while it's loaded, comes under air attack, and gets away.

The next several stories are similarly simple in structure, and also deal with Apache in various actions. Dawn Attack gives us Sub-lieutenant Lord Edward Mortimer, RNVR, coming into his own with local navigational knowledge:

"It's not Crotona," agreed Lord Edward, "It's—" Lord Edward ranged back through his memories. It was that Viennese girl - he couldn't remember her name now - away back in those impossibly peaceful years. They had gone picnicking with a couple of mules. A cold chicken and a bottle of wine, and some of that sheep's-milk cheese. He could remember the smell of the macchia in the sunshine.

"We're seven miles north," said Lord Edward, "eight, perhaps."

It had been pleasant riding back on that shambling old mule over those eight miles.

and deals with a surprise attack on an Italian port; Depth Charge! happens while the ship's alongside in New York, and seems sufficiently implausible to have been based on fact; Night Stalk covers the hunting and killing of an Italian submarine; and Intelligence is about setting the psychological bait to catch a specific U-boat skipper.

The other three stories are less engaging, but still enjoyable. Eagle Squadron deals with a pair of American airmen fighting unofficially with the RAF, with an emphasis on the big picture and the connections that make up a country at war; the principal plot has both sides attempting to lure the other's fighters over their own land, so that they can shoot down one of the new enemy planes and look it over. An Egg for the Major shows a light tank squadron heading through the North African desert to cut off a retreating Italian army, with lots of coincidental detail about life in the desert. The Dumb Dutchman is the closest to a straight propaganda story, telling of a Dutch tug pilot who, by collaborating with the Nazis, gets himself into a position to tow a string of invasion barges over to England on exercise and get them collected by the Royal Navy.

The final piece, If Hitler Had Invaded England, was published in the Daily Mail at unknown date but certainly before 1960. It's less a story and more a descriptive history; alternate, of course. The point of divergence is a report from Dunkirk describing the demoralisation of the British troops during the evacuation; Hitler decides to divert forces from mopping-up the French, and makes all haste to invade England, with the actual landing taking place at the end of June 1940.

This version of Sealion diverges a little from what's known of the historical plans. The Nazis heavily mine two sections of the Channel, from Cherbourg to Worthing and from the Hook of Holland to Deal, to keep the Royal Navy off the backs of the invasion fleet. (What the Royal Navy and RAF might have to say about this is hand-waved.) They then concentrate their landing forces into a ten-mile front around the beaches at Camber and Rye, in particular the small harbour there. They have some experimental landing-craft and some even more experimental amphibious tanks, and manage to get substantial armoured and infantry forces ashore even under bombardment from the RAF; they fight their way in-land, towards London, but with the RAF's advantage of operating from nearer fields their supply chain is effectively broken and they're stopped about twenty miles in-land. (Having a map of Kent to hand is highly recommended for a sense of how the shape of the battle changes.) The Luftwaffe is wiped out trying to defend the beaches, and the Kriegsmarine goes down fighting to defend the mines. Although the Heer's losses are relatively small, they're thoroughly demoralised, and as it's without support from the Kriegsmarine or the Luftwaffe the British are able to smash it down, taking Norway in spring of 1941 and then rolling into the Baltic.

It's an interesting piece, but I am always inclined to keep in mind this essay by the late Alison Brooks pointing out the huge logistical difficulties that would have faced an invasion fleet. Never mind the enemy, most of the invasion barges would have been swamped in typical Channel weather, and with a 30-hour crossing one couldn't predict the weather with any reliability. Even the Sandhurst wargames, which handwaved the Channel crossing, predicted a defeat within three days.

In any case, while the Apache stories are the best part of the book, the whole thing is well worth reading.

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