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My crime thriller Paper Ghosts has 700,000 readers. It can be bought on Amazon for 99c.
A fictional story based on actual events
19 January 1940
The Kriegsmarine’s U.33 blew its buoyancy tanks and broke through the black surface of the water just before 9.00 am Berlin time. The conning tower hatch was opened and Kapitanleutnant Kroll and Oberleutnant Bauer, erster Wachoffizier, emerged. The Bo’sun and four watch crewmen scrambled onto the bridge next.
Above them the stars glittered in the still dark morning sky, beneath them the water swelled gently. Dawn was breaking through to the east; the sun taking its time this far north. The winter, the first of the war, had been one of the coldest on record and the men on deck soon felt its bite. Submariners, on bitter mornings like this, gave thanks for their cork-soled boots which prevented the numbing chill of the steel penetrating their leg marrow. Kroll felt a comforting rumbling beneath his feet as the Chief Engineer switched from electric motor to the powerful diesels.
Kroll swept the horizon with his Zeiss binoculars. Satisfied they had the sea to themselves, he spent a few seconds watching the bow waves as the boat cleaved cleanly through the water. The submerging had been a practice one, the fourth since they had left their home port of Wilhelmshaven two days before. So far the trip had been pretty uneventful. They had crossed the North Sea undetected, but during the night they had rounded Cape Wrath and turned south into North Minch, the stretch of water dividing the Inner and Outer Hebrides. They would need to maintain constant vigilance in enemy waters, especially when passing the Firth of Clyde, before pushing farther south into the North Channel.
Built in the Germania yard at Kiel, the U.33 was a type VIIB boat, capable of eighteen knots on the surface. Normally armed with fourteen torpedoes, on this voyage the payload consisted of twenty-six magnetic mines. Naval High Command had great expectations for the new mines, designed to lie on the bottom undetected, exploding under the keel of any ship unfortunate enough to sail above it, more often than not, breaking its back.
Mine-laying was not the sort of operation Kroll would have wished for on this his first voyage as the ‘Old Man’. There would be no sinking pennants flown when they returned to Wilhelmshaven, no tonnage towards a Knight’s Cross. Mines could be as deadly as torpedoes, but the U-boats received no credit when one sank an enemy vessel.
“Permission to come on the bridge?”
Kroll recognised the voice of one of the civilians on board. Mueller had the clipped tones common to the Bavarian aristocracy.
“Permission granted,” he barked down the speaking tube.
Mueller emerged quickly from the hatch and nodded at Kroll.
Before U.33 could lay any mines, it had another task to undertake. Civilian passengers hitching a ride on board a U-boat were not unheard of, but still an infrequent enough event to make him and the crew feel uneasy. Two men, grim-faced and wrapped-up in heavy overcoats, carrying battered leather suitcases, had boarded just before they sailed. Headquarters had warned Kroll by coded radio signal to expect them. The blond-haired one, Mueller, had handed Kroll his amended orders as soon as they were at sea. The Kriegsmarine envelope had also borne the seal of the Abwehr — Military Intelligence — so Kroll knew not to pry any further into their business, and told his Bo’sun to pass a quiet word of warning among the crew.
On opening the orders, countersigned by Admiral Canaris, the Abwehr chief, he found the instructions to be concise. Sailing under strict radio silence, the U-boat was to take the two civilians to given coordinates one thousand metres off the south-west coast of Scotland, where they would disembark and row themselves ashore in the submarine’s collapsible dinghy. The U.33 was then to sail for the Clyde estuary to lay its magnetic mines. The orders made no mention of when and where the men were to be picked up again.
For their part the interlopers had kept themselves to themselves, as best they could, given the U-boat’s cramped conditions. They took turns to sleep in a bunk that had been allocated to them in the crew’s bow room, keeping both suitcases next to them at all times. When the chief artificer had offered to find a place to stow the cases, the men shook their heads in a manner that brooked no further discussion. They ate their meals together and in silence. Although Mueller would come into the control room from time to time, his companion, an Irishman called Bracken, rarely left the bow room, other than to visit the head.
The submariners, a superstitious bunch at the best of times, considered the men’s ominous presence to be an ill omen. Kroll refused to allow them or the mine-laying mission to dishearten his crew. Their chance of glory would come soon enough. Admiral Doenitz, commander of the U-boat fleet, had guaranteed it when he had taken his hand to congratulate him on his promotion. Kroll’s opportunity to command was a reward for the part he had played in U.47’s now legendary raid four months earlier. Under the command of Gunther Prien, U.47 had given the British a bloody nose at Scapa Flow. Prien had done the unthinkable and slipped undetected through the narrow eastern entrance of the Royal Navy’s backyard. The British had no idea they were there until the first torpedo had exploded against the hull of the Royal Oak, blowing the mighty battleship asunder with a catastrophic loss of life.
“Ship bearing 32 degrees, Herr Kapitan,” the port lookout shouted.
Kroll swung his glasses around and soon located the tell-tale masts etched against a trailing plume of black-grey smoke. It was a merchant vessel, running in darkness close to the coast, and apparently unaccompanied.
“Ten degrees to port,” Kroll ordered the helmsman. The ship would not have seen them yet and there was no harm in taking a closer look.
“Your orders were clear, Herr Kapitanleutnant,” Mueller snapped. “You are to sail with all due haste to the drop-off point.”
“Just taking a look,” Kroll replied, with all the authority he could muster. “Any intelligence I can gather on enemy shipping may prove valuable.”
“Not as valuable as following orders.”
Kroll bristled. Who the hell was Mueller to question him? He was not on the battlements of his family’s Black Forest Schloss now, ordering the village peasants around. “Äusserste kraft, full speed.”
“Herr Kapitan, she’s an oil tanker,” the forward watch announced. “British!”
“And she’s low in the water,” Bauer added.
Probably making for Scapa Flow, Kroll thought. The tanker was alone against the skyline, and with the rising sun at her stern as she zig-zagged, any other accompanying vessel would be silhouetted like a pine on a bare hillside. A fully laden twelve-thousand ton tanker, sailing without escorts, would be a juicy prize.
“Clear for action,” Kroll barked. “Gun crew on deck.”
Mueller stepped forward. “Cancel that order!”
Kroll lowered his binoculars and directed a hard stare towards Mueller. “Get below. You have no authority here.”
Mueller just gave a thin-lipped smile, turned and moved towards the hatch. He had to wait for the gun crew to scramble onto the upper deck before he could climb through the hatch and slide down the conning tower ladder into the control room. Kroll let out a deep breath. He had been expecting further protest. Mueller must have thought better of threatening him with a report to his superiors. After all, it would have been a threat without teeth; Mueller was not to be on the U-boat when it made its return to Sludge City, the crew’s name for Wilhelmshaven.
Below him on the gun deck the ratings had the 88mm ready to fire. The U.33 may have lacked torpedoes, but it did have two hundred rounds for its deck gun, three or four of which should be enough to earn the U.33 its first sinking pennant.
Kroll leaned in to the speaking tube. “Any radio intercepts?”
“Negative, Herr Kapitan,” the radio operator answered,
As the U-boat closed on its unsuspecting prey, Kroll counted down the distance in his head. As soon as they were within range, he gave the order. “Let’s wake up her captain. Fire a warning shot across her bow.”
The deck gun roared and a tongue of flame shot from the mouth of the barrel. Kroll nodded his approval when he saw a plume of water rise out of the sea not a hundred metres from the tanker’s bow. Nice shooting.
The sun was now providing enough light for the submariners to make out the merchant seamen as they rushed to the hand railings to stare at the boiling maelstrom of water sweeping past on their port side.
With a grunt of satisfaction, Kroll noticed that the tanker was making less smoke and slowing. He would have done the same thing if he and his crew were sitting on top of thousands of tons of highly inflammable oil and someone was threatening to lob a high explosive shell into their midst.
“Smart man, that tanker skipper,” Bauer said, echoing his Kapitan’s thoughts.
The rating on the varta-lamp stared at Kroll, anticipating delivery of his next order.
“Signal them to make no radio transmissions and to surrender their vessel,” Kroll said.
The lamp’s shutter started its familiar clanking. Kroll expected the tanker’s captain would count his blessings that the U-boat had given him the opportunity to get his crew off without any loss of life. With any luck, before evening the captain and his men would be enjoying a beer in one of Ullapool’s public houses without having got their feet wet.
The tanker’s seamen moved away from the port bow and started to prepare to launch the lifeboat. Kroll watched the frantic crew slip the bindings holding the tarpaulin. The tanker was already almost dead in the water, another sure sign that it had a very full hold.
“Can you make out a name?” Kroll asked.
“It looks like the Algonquin,” the watch officer replied uncertainly. “French- sounding?”
“Herr Kapitan, it’s North American Indian,” the gunner spoke up, not once allowing his attention to wander from keeping a deadly bead on the tanker. “She’s out of Liverpool. I was once moored beside her in the Port of Glasgow.”
Kroll returned his attention to the merchant ship. The crew had swung out the davits and the men were climbing into the lifeboat. Try as he could, Kroll could not be sure at this distance which of them was the captain. As the crew took their seats, the two seamen on the winches started to lower the lifeboat.
An abrupt announcement came from the speaking tube. “Herr Kapitan, the tanker is signalling its position!”
Kroll responded instinctively to the hostile act.
“Fire two rounds into her side!”
The deck gun roared a fraction of a second after he had finished giving the command. The steel deck shook from absorbing the recoil and Kroll had to stretch out a hand and grab the bulwark to steady himself. The lifeboat was riding the waves and a few of the seamen were lowering oars to row away from the tanker. Their heads turned as one as the shell exploded into the wall of steel towering above them. Red-hot shrapnel and burning oil rained down on them.
The gun fired again, but Kroll knew that it was overkill. The tanker was already doomed. A second explosion ripped through the tanker’s stern. A few of the seamen stood up, coated with the flaming black oil. The clinker-built lifeboat was a mass of flames. Two men threw themselves into the water, but the oil pouring from the ruptured steel plates was spreading faster than they could swim. The sea seemed to be on fire. A blanket of thick black smoke was rising quickly across the morning sky.
Sickened at the needless slaughter, Kroll, his face as white as chalk, watched as the devouring flames caught the two swimmers.
“Herr Kapitan,” the radio operator shouted, scrambling through the conning tower hatch. “The tanker did not use its radio. It did not signal its location!” he shouted breathlessly.
“What are you saying?” Kroll demanded, but realised in that instant what Mueller had done. For he knew it had been the arrogant Bavarian who had used the speaking tube to deceive him into sending the British seamen to a fiery hell.
Bill Bracken swung his legs from the hammock and rubbed sleep from his eyes. He checked his watch. He had been asleep for barely an hour. The sound of the U-boat’s deck gun had woken him, but he had assumed it had been a test firing and tried to get back to sleep. The second round clearly indicated that something was afoot.
He pushed aside the cured hams, sausages and the string nets of onions that the cook had slung from the bulkhead. Before a U-boat sailed, space had to be found for the provisions, which usually meant keeping them off the ever-wet deck. Bracken hopped down to the steel floor, checking that both the battered brown-leather suitcases were still safely stowed in the bunk.
“What’s the commotion?” he asked one of the crew.
The man fired him a dirty look and shrugged. If he knew, he certainly had no intention of sharing the information with Bracken. The crew treated Mueller and himself like lepers. Their attitude did not perturb Bracken; he had endured much worse for the greater part of his life.
Mueller’s return interrupted Bracken’s maudlin recollections. The German’s had replaced his customary arrogant sneer with a smirk.
“Halsschmerzen,” Mueller said derisively. “That fool Kroll has a sore throat.”
Bracken had overheard the crew talking about U-boat commanders with such an affliction. Men in a hurry to have the Führer hang a Knight’s Cross round their neck, the award for sinking one hundred thousand tonnes of enemy shipping.
Mueller leant into Bracken and whispered, “The Tommies will know soon enough that there is a U-boat operating in the area, but there will be no witnesses left to tell them what bearing it was on.”
Mueller’s eyes were a cruel hard grey, and they sent a shiver down Bracken’s back. The German was capable of snuffing out a life without giving it a second thought. They had first met just after Christmas at the Abwehr training camp at Quertz Lake near Brandenburg. Bracken had been unceremoniously plucked from vital war construction work at a Hamburg shipyard and been ordered to report for a crash three-week instruction course. Specialists had instructed him and three other men, two Frenchmen and a Pole, basic field-craft; how to handle explosives; how to use a radio transmitter: how to survive as a saboteur behind enemy lines. The day came when they were to be taught how to kill.
The four men assembled outdoors in the freezing cold, dressed only in shorts and vests, and await their instructor. They had remained there for a hour before a tall, blond-haired man appeared.
“My name is Mueller,” he announced. He was dressed in British Army khaki battledress, complete with gaiters and boots. Walking along the line of men, he gave each a depreciatory appraisal, before taking up a position in front of them.
“Have any of you dog turds ever killed a man?” he asked.
The Pole tentatively held up a hand.
“A knife in the back or a razor across the throat?” Mueller asked.
“Neither, it was a lump of rock.”
The German nodded approvingly. “Lesson number one. You will never be unarmed as long as you use your imagination.”
Mueller pointed at Bracken. “Step forward. I want you to attack me as if your life depended on it.”
Bracken hesitated. He did not see any rocks lying on the ground, but he felt sure skills he had picked up the hard way in Belfast would stand to him.
“Come on turd. I’ve just fucked your sister, now I’m going to fuck your mother.”
The mention of his mother did it for Bracken. He bent into a crouch, tucked his chin in, and lunged at the German.
Mueller swivelled as gracefully as a bullfighter, evaded the clumsy charge, and retaliated by slamming a knuckle-duster enclosed fist into Bracken’s kidney.
Bracken stumbled to all fours on the frozen earth, feeling like a wall had fallen on him. Pain blinded him and his legs refused to support him. His back went into spasm as he tried to raise himself.
Mueller drew back a boot and sank it between Bracken’s legs. The Irishman took no further part in the first lesson.
Instructor for both the armed and unarmed combat sessions at the camp, Mueller continued to use Bracken or one of the other men as hapless victims as he taught them to kill with whatever was to hand. Anything from a kitchen knife to a rolled-up magazine. He stressed that the mechanics of killing was relatively simple, but only if you had the resolve. The secret was to never hold back when launching an attack.
“Or to have Mueller in your sights,” one of the Frenchmen whispered.
It had come as a bolt from the blue when Bracken learnt, twenty-four hours before the U-boat sailed, that Mueller was to accompany him. Ostensibly, he was there to assist Bracken and to act as a liaison between the Irishmen and a well-placed fifth-columnist, but Bracken felt there was a more ominous explanation. He suspected that some of the Abwehr planners were not convinced that his motivation was powerful enough to see the job through. As long as he proved valuable then, he would be unharmed, but if the undertaking failed, or if he compromised himself in some way, Mueller would show him little mercy. He was expendable.
Bracken rubbed his bristled face uneasily, before turning round to the suitcases and starting to undo the leather straps of the one nearer him. He raised the lid and pushed aside his gas mask and his spare clothing packed neatly on top, exposing a parcel wrapped in oilcloth. He gently undid the outer layers of the parcel, as he had done every six hours since he had boarded the submarine. The three yellowish blocks of amatol were still untouched and dry. The explosive, a fifty-fifty split of TNT and ammonium nitrate, was safe to handle, but it was prone to absorbing moisture, thus reducing its effectiveness.
Mueller undid the other case to check its contents. Wrapped in cotton wool were a dozen percussion caps, the detonators for the explosive. There was also a cardboard case of colour-coded time-delay fuses. Each fuse contained an exact amount of acetone, which, when released, would dissolve a celluloid dish-shaped stopper that held back a primed striker. Simple, but effective.
They were closing the suitcases when the Bo’sun appeared, his face as dark as a thundercloud. He grabbed Mueller by the arm. “Kapitan Kroll wants to see you in the control room.”
Mueller fired back a look of such venom that the man dropped his hand and took an involuntary step backwards.
“Now,” the Bo’sun mumbled.
Still on the upper-deck, Kroll was incandescent with rage at having allowed himself to fall victim to Mueller’s subterfuge. There was nothing he could do for the merchant seamen, that much was certain. The Algonquin was already well down by the stern and could not last more than a few minutes before she slipped below the surface. There was no sign of life on board and no longer any in the water. Kroll forced his eyes away from the scene of carnage. His priority was now to put as much distance as possible between his U-boat and the sinking. The smoke pall would be visible for miles, and it would not be long before a RAF plane came snooping.
He gave the order. “Starboard fifteen degrees. Fifteen knots.”
The drawn faces of the men on deck showed that Kroll was not alone in feeling revulsion at having fired on surrendering civilians. He was certain that it would hit morale, and no doubt some would ridicule him for allowing Mueller to so easily dupe him.
Kroll handed the bridge to his watch officer and went below to confront Mueller. If he could have, he would have had the sinister Bavarian and his Irish companion thrown overboard.
It was the rib-shack delivery wagon that set alarm bells ringing inside my head. The pick-up was fitted with a glass-fiber shell and had been treated to a customized paint job − black with tongues of orange flames rising from the sills. Nothing unusual in that, but it had made a delivery at the Cronin’s house, and for the four years that I had known them, my neighbors had been committed Vegans. He was a retired flight steward, and claimed that thirty years of airline food would have made a vegetarian out of Colonel Sanders. His wife, tiny as a sparrow, had followed her husband’s lead. Folks who refuse to wear leather on their feet do not suddenly develop a craving for a rack of honey-roasted.
My partner, Andy Kove, had instilled in me the need for constant vigilance, to be forever on the lookout for anything that was just little out of the ordinary. Stay alert had been Andy’s refrain for the nine months we had worked together. I had thought him a little paranoid; now I wasn’t so sure. In ominous mood I climbed the stairs, my insides as empty as a drum, to a side bedroom and made myself comfortable in a cane armchair set back against the inner wall. From the shadows I had a clear view of the Cronin house.
The phone rang twice in the first hour, but I let it ring. A car had cruised slowly past the house a couple of times, though the woman driver didn’t glance over. After three hours, my patience was rewarded. Two men dressed in slacks and sport shirts, bent low and hugging the hibiscus hedge, darted through the Cronin’s rear yard. Ten minutes later, two other men left by the same route.
I went downstairs and, having already made up my mind about what I had to do went about it calmly and methodically. As I had suspected, my house was being staked out. How long they had been there? I had no way of knowing, nor did it really matter. They were there now and that was all that counted.
I carried all that I would need into the kitchen, away from prying eyes, and carefully arranged it on the table next to the ice-box. Reaching above the stove, I clicked on the extractor and turned the dial to maximum. Not being a smoker, the only gas lighter I could lay my hands on was the one for the stove. I sat down next to the table and positioned a metal waste bin in front of me, then lifted a bunch of dollar bills from the stack on the table, fanning them out like a hand of cards. Five of a kind. Five Federal Reserve C-notes.
The lighter’s battery was weak and took a couple of tries before shooting out a blue flame. Holding the corner of the first hundred-dollar bill to the naked flame, I watched, fascinated, as the flame ate along the paper, igniting the others in turn. Setting the lighter aside, I plucked another five bills from the pile and lit them from the dying flames of the first five. I dropped the burning remnants into the metal bin. As the leaves of white ash floated gently down, a ghostly Benjamin Franklin stared back at me.
It would take time I knew, but I wasn’t expected anywhere and it was not a job to be rushed. I made some mental calculations. At two thousand dollars a minute, it would take ten minutes to burn twenty grand. One hour for one hundred and twenty thousand. Eight hours and twenty minutes for a million. It would be well into the following day before I finished. Would I be given that much time? How long before my watchers grew tired of eating out of foil trays and made their move?