Alistair MacLean - HMS Ulysses
PRELUDE: SUNDAY AFTERNOON
SLOWLY, deliberately, Starr crushed out the butt of his cigarette. The gesture, Captain Vallery thought, held a curious air of decision and finality. He knew what was coming next, and, just for a moment, the sharp bitterness of defeat cut through that dull ache that never left his forehead nowadays. But it was only for a moment, he was too tired really, far too tired to care.
'I'm sorry, gentlemen, genuinely sorry.' Starr smiled thinly. 'Not for the orders, I assure you, the Admiralty decision, I am personally convinced, is the only correct and justifiable one in the circumstances. But I do regret your-ah-inability to see our point of view.'
He paused, proffered his platinum cigarette case to the four men sitting with him round the table in the Rear-Admiral's day cabin. At the four mute headshakes the smile flickered again. He selected a cigarette, slid the case back into the breast pocket of his double-breasted grey suit.
Then he sat back in his chair, the smile quite gone. It was not difficult to visualise, beneath that pin-stripe sleeve, the more accustomed broad band and golden stripes of Vice-Admiral Vincent Starr, Assistant Director of Naval Operations.
'When I flew north from London this morning,' he continued evenly, 'I was annoyed. I was very annoyed. I am, well, I am a fairly busy man. The First Sea Lord, I thought, was wasting my time as well as his own. When I return, I must apologise. Sir Humphrey was right. He usually is...'
His voice trailed off to a murmur, and the flint-wheel of his lighter rasped through the strained silence. He leaned forward on the table and went on softly.
'Let us be perfectly frank, gentlemen. I expected, I surely had a right to expect, every support and full cooperation from you in settling this unpleasant business with all speed. Unpleasant business?' He smiled wryly. 'Mincing words won't help. Mutiny, gentlemen, is the generally accepted term for it, a capital offence, I need hardly remind you. And yet what do I find?' His glance travelled slowly round the table.
'Commissioned officers in His Majesty's Navy, including a Flag-Officer, sympathising with, if not actually condoning, a lower-deck mutiny!'
He's overstating it, Vallery thought dully. He's provoking us. The words, the tone, were a question, a challenge inviting reply.
There was no reply. The four men seemed apathetic, indifferent. Four men, each an individual, each secure in his own personality, yet, at that moment, so strangely alike, their faces heavy and still and deeply lined, their eyes so quiet, so tired, so very old.
'You are not convinced, gentlemen?' he went on softly. 'You find my choice of words a trifle-ah- disagreeable?' He leaned back. 'Hm...'mutiny.'' He savoured the word slowly, compressed his lips, looked round the table again. 'No, it doesn't sound too good, does it, gentlemen?
You would call it something else again, perhaps?' He shook his head, bent forward, smoothed out a signal sheet below his ringers.
''Returned from strike on Lofotens,'' he read out: ''1545, boom passed: 1610, finished with engines: 1630 -provisions, stores lighters alongside, mixed seaman-stoker party detailed unload lubricating drums: 1650, reported to Captain stokers refused to obey C.P.O. Hartley, then successively Chief Stoker Hendry, Lieutenant (E.) Grierson and Commander (E.): ringleaders apparently Stokers Riley and Petersen: 1705, refused to obey Captain: 1715, Master at Arms and Regulating P.O. assaulted in performance of duties.'' He looked up. 'What duties? Trying to arrest the ringleaders?'
Vallery nodded silently.
''1715, seaman branch stopped work, apparently in sympathy: no violence offered: 1725, broadcast by Captain, warned of consequences: ordered to return to work: order disobeyed: 1730, signal to C.-in-C. Duke of Cumberland, for assistance.''
Starr lifted his head again, looked coldly across at Vallery.
'Why, incidentally, the signal to the Admiral? Surely your own marines-----'
'My orders,' Tyndall interrupted bluntly. 'Turn our own marines against men they've sailed with for two and half years? Out of the question! There's no matelot-boot-neck antipathy on this ship, Admiral Starr: they've been through far too much together... Anyway,' he added dryly, 'it's wholly possible that the marines would have refused. And don't forget that if we had used our own men, and they had quelled this-ah-mutiny, the Ulysses would have been finished as a fighting ship.'
Starr looked at him steadily, dropped his eyes to the signal again.
''1830, Marine boarding party from Cumberland: no resistance offered to boarding: attempted to arrest, six, eight suspected ringleaders: strong resistance by stokers and seamen, heavy fighting poop-deck, stokers' mess- deck and engineers' flat till 1900: no firearms used, but 2 dead, 6 seriously injured, 35-40 minor casualties.'' Starr finished reading, crumpled the paper in an almost savage gesture. 'You know, gentlemen, I believe you have a point after all.' The voice was heavy with irony. ''Mutiny' is hardly the term. Fifty dead and injured: 'pitched battle' would be much nearer the mark.'
The words, the tone, the lashing bite of the voice provoked no reaction whatsoever. The four men still sat motionless, expressionless, unheeding in a vast indifference.
Admiral Starr's face hardened.
'I'm afraid you have things just a little out of focus, gentlemen. You've been up here a long time and isolation distorts perspective. Must I remind senior officers that, in wartime, individual feelings, trials and sufferings are of no moment at all? The Navy, the country, they come first, last and all the time.' He pounded the table softly, the gesture insistent in its restrained urgency. 'Good God, gentlemen,' he ground out, 'the future of the world is at stake, and you, with your selfish, your inexcusable absorption in your own petty affairs, have the colossal effrontery to endanger it!'
Commander Turner smiled sardonically to himself. A pretty speech, Vincent boy, very pretty indeed, although perhaps a thought reminiscent of Victorian melodrama: the clenched teeth act was definitely overdone.
Pity he didn't stand for Parliament, he'd be a terrific asset to any Government Front Bench. Suppose the old boy's really too honest for that, he thought in vague surprise.
'The ringleaders will be caught and punished, heavily punished.' The voice was harsh now, with a biting edge to it. 'Meantime the 14th Aircraft Carrier Squadron will rendezvous at Denmark Strait as arranged, at 1030 Wednesday instead of Tuesday, we radioed Halifax and held up the sailing. You will proceed to sea at 0600 tomorrow.' He looked across at Rear-Admiral Tyndall. 'You will please advise all ships under your command at once, Admiral.'
Tyndall, universally known throughout the Fleet as Farmer Giles, said nothing. His ruddy features, usually so cheerful and crinkling, were set and grim: his gaze, heavy, lidded and troubled, rested on Captain Vallery and he wondered just what kind of private hell that kindly and sensitive man was suffering right then. But Vallery's face, haggard with fatigue, told him nothing: that lean and withdrawn asceticism was the complete foil. Tyndall swore bitterly to himself.
'I don't really think there's more to say, gentlemen,' Starr went on smoothly. 'I won't pretend you're in for an easy trip, you know yourselves what happened to the last three major convoys-P.Q. 17, FR 71 and 74. I'm afraid we haven't yet found the answer to acoustic torpedoes and glider bombs. Further, our intelligence in Bremen and Kiel, and this is substantiated by recent experience in the Atlantic, report that the latest U-boat policy is to get the escorts first... Maybe the weather will save you.'
You vindictive old devil, Tyndall thought dispassionately. Go on, damn you, enjoy yourself.
'At the risk of seeming rather Victorian and melodramatic', impatiently Starr waited for Turner to stifle his sudden fit of coughing, 'we may say that the Ulysses is being given the opportunity of-ah-redeeming herself.' He pushed back his chair. 'After that, gentlemen, the Med.