Alternate Universe World War II
Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: This work of fiction is written as a historical report. It is based on the real events of Operation Postmaster and the character of Andi Lassan is based on the real life hero Anders Lassen, the only member of the British Special Forces ever to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
Betaed by Kerry.
When, in the summer of 1940, the Third Reich's puppet French government, based in Vichy, signed an armistice with Germany, it effectively put all of France's overseas colonies and territories in the hands of Nazi sympathisers. These included a number of Caribbean islands. One such island was Île des Rois and the little town of Napoleon, with its deep water harbour and anchorage. As early as summer 1941 the British became suspicious of a Spanish registered ship with a German name, the SS Nixie. She had taken up residence in the bay just outside the harbour. Her commander, a man who carried a Spanish passport but had a German name and spoke very bad Spanish with a German accent, informed the harbour master that she was his ship and he and his crew had retired to the Caribbean for the duration of the war. It was, he said, too dangerous for him to put to sea. For a ship supposedly retired she sat low in the water. Every so often she would leave for no more than a day and return, a little higher in the water. Once she was riding as high in the water as she could, she left for a few days. The Captain said he needed to run the engines occasionally, so they didn't seize up, but when she returned from this longer trip, she was once more low in the water. This pattern was repeated every few months. With no declared cargo, the harbour master had no reason to inspect her, even if his pro-German masters had let him. The suspicion was that she was acting as tender for the Caribbean's own submarine Wolf Pack.
The difficulty was, as much as they would like to have done something about the Nixie, Île des Rois was a long way from Britain, who had her back against the wall in 1941, with more pressing problems much closer to home. There was also the delicate matter of the Americans, an ally, albeit one who was officially 'neutral', Britain could not afford to upset. The USA at this time recognised the French State under Petain as the legal government of France and regarded de Gaulle as a rebel and a traitor.
Then, on the 7th of December, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and everything changed.
With the USA now in the war, the Caribbean Wolf Pack was free to strike at American shipping, which it began to do within days of the German declaration of war on the United States. This made the Nixie as much their problem as it was for the British, and it was a lot closer to home. That did not mean they could just attack her. She was a Spanish ship. Spain was a neutral power. There was no hard evidence the ship was a secret sub tender. She was crewed by men who claimed to be non-combatant civilians and she was in the port of the sovereign nation that the US still maintained diplomatic relationships with. Under the normal rules of engagement, she was untouchable.
That did not mean she would be left to continue her clandestine work. A man named Orin Travis, who was running America's Caribbean intelligence operation, was given the task of finding a solution to the Nixie problem. Travis had joined the Navy as boy of 16, had risen rapidly through the ranks, and by 1918 was commanding a submarine in the Atlantic. After the war, now a married man, he left the Navy to study law. After graduating he was approached and recruited by the State Department. With his naval background, he took a practical rather than legal or diplomatic approach. It was to be called Operation Corndog.
The boat, chugging at a steady 11 knots over a millpond calm, crystal clear ocean, looked like a pleasure cruiser, perhaps not as sleek or smart as some, but nonetheless, painted white, with a bright green and white awning over her upper aft deck and a plain white one enclosing the open area below, she was clearly a craft for enjoyment, not war or work. She was the , a converted tug, registered in Ireland. Since Ireland was neutral she was free to enjoy the delights of the Caribbean without fear, at least in theory.
Her commander was one Major Christopher Larabee of the US Marine Corp. Larabee was a whipcord thin man of striking good looks and straw blonde hair. The son of a first-generation immigrant from Austria, he spoke German like a native - of Austria. Larabee had a fearsome reputation, a commander who led by example and expected every man in his command to live up to his exacting standards, no matter what. He had served ten years in the Marines before leaving to take over the family farm and raise a family. When in 1940, he lost his family in a house fire, he left the farm and, with war clearly coming, re-joined the Marines.
Travis knew Larabee by reputation and had him seconded to his command. He and Travis then selected the other four men who would make up the crew. The first person approached was one Sergeant Buck Wilmington, another Marine. Wilmington and Larabee had served together before Larabee left the Marines in '36. Travis had been against his inclusion, pointing out that he had a reputation for brawling and womanising. During his time in the Marines, he had risen to the rank of Sergeant no fewer than three times, only to be busted back to Corporal or even Private. Wilmington had joined the Marines at the age of 17 as an alternative to prison. He had intervened when he saw a man attacking a woman, and in the ensuing fight, the man fell, hit his head and died; Wilmington was not a man who took to authority well. Larabee however insisted. He knew Wilmington, knew he could trust him in a fight and, as he pointed out, the reason he kept being re promoted, was that there was no one in the Navy or Marines who knew more about explosives. Very tall, with thick dark hair and traditionally handsome features, he was the only member of the group who wasn't bi, or even tri, lingual.
The man in the wheelhouse was one Josiah Sanchez, Mexican on his father's side and American on his mother's. As a newly ordained priest, Sanchez had served as Chaplain in the Army during the First World War. His experiences on the western front had caused a profound crisis of faith, and he had spent the next twenty or so years working on any boat, ship or yacht in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean that would employ him. By the summer of 1940, he had seen enough to know he needed to join the fight against Nazi Germany and volunteered for the Canadian Navy. Although somewhat old, his wealth of sea faring experience was much needed. Promoted to Chief Petty Officer, he was put to work teaching basic seamanship. While very important, it was not what he signed up for. When the Americans came calling, looking for some who knew the Caribbean waters like the back of his hand, knew people in almost every port and could speak fluent French and Spanish; he was more than happy to volunteer. Sanchez was a bear of a man, six foot and two hundred pounds of solid muscle. With startling blue eyes, steel grey hair and a dazzling toothy grin, he was the oldest man on the boat by more than fifteen years but he could more than hold his own in a fight.
The youngest man on the boat was John Daniel Dunne, known as JD or more often 'Kid', for he wasn't yet twenty. Raised in the slums of New York, he knew how to take care of himself and could speak fluent Italian and French. He'd learned his Italian - not to mention a smattering of Yiddish and Chinese - on the streets of the lower East Side, but French was his first language, learned from his mother, who was born just outside Paris and, before getting married, had been a lady's maid in a grand Long Island Mansion. JD began working as a telegram boy at age 10. Ambitious and smart, he had studied hard and aged 17 began work as junior engineer at CBS. He left his job on December the 12th 1941 and walked into a Navy recruiting office on the 15th. The Navy, with a logic only the military can muster, did not train him to be a radio operator but as a signalman, at which he showed considerable natural ability. He learned to send and transcribe Morse very quickly and with astonishing accuracy using a signal light. His previous work at CBS had given him the technical skills needed to use and maintain the radio equipment. Their mission would be conducted under strict radio silence so any communication with with other ships would be by lamp, but they also needed to monitor other radio traffic around them.
Local knowledge was essential, and Nathan Jackson had been a lucky find. American by birth, his father had taken him and left the USA after his wife drowned, which while recorded as an accident, may well have been a suicide. The Jacksons seem to have moved steadily south though the Caribbean before settling in Île des Rois, when Nathan was 8, where his father got a job teaching English. When he was 16 they moved to Jamaica, to further Nathan's education. It worked, as he went on to win a scholarship to Oxford University. He was one year into a medical degree when the war began. Deciding he needed to do more than study, he left his studies and joined the Royal Navy, where he became a medical orderly. While not part of their mission brief, since they were operating alone without back up, having a medic on board was an added advantage.
The last man on the boat was something of an enigma. The team had trained for their mission as they sailed south from Florida, stopping in Kingston Jamaica for refuelling, replenishing and some land based training with the Royal Marines. Larabee gave his men Friday night and Saturday off. As was his way, he'd gone off on his own and while drinking in a local bar an argument turned into a brawl and then things really began to turn ugly. Major Larabee's mission could well have ended there and then, had not a total stranger thrown a rock with astonishing accuracy to knock the bottle out of the hand of a man about to hit Larabee over the head with it. His saviour, a Texan by birth, was one Vin Tanner and he was stranded. Raised by his grandfather, a full blood Comanche, he'd worked as a cowboy, a professional hunter and a bounty hunter. At the time of their meeting Tanner was wanted for the murder of a man called Jess Kincaid, a witness he'd been tracking after he failed to appear in court. He'd found him just seconds after he'd been murdered. Despite no evidence against him, no motive and no witness, the local sheriff, a man named Yates, had charged Tanner with the murder.
As a man of mixed race, with little education, no money for a good lawyer and no way to prove his innocence, he had chosen to run. Luckily for him, no one in Kansas - where the killing took place - knew he was in Jamaica. Jamaica had little use for a hunter come bounty hunter so he'd been working in a hardware store. While it wasn't sitting in a death row cell some place, he was still in a kind of prison.
Larabee bought him a drink and offered him a berth on the Honour Grace. Tanner had asked what would happen to him when the mission was over.
"Hell," Larabee had replied. "We'll worry about that when it happens, chances are we'll all be dead anyway."
All the information they had on the SS Nixie and her suspicious activities had been provided by a very reluctant spy by the name of Ezra P Standish. Standish, as far as history can tell, was a professional gambler who travelled the world, playing high stakes card games and visiting casinos. Napoleon had three casinos, which weren't exactly the Casino de Monte Carlo or the Claremont Club, but there was still money to be made on an island that was a long way from any active fighting. Standish was born in France to an American mother and a father who may or may not have been French. He had dual nationality, grew up in America, France and Monaco and spoke fluent French, Italian and German. From correspondence that remains it is clear that patriotism to America, the Free French or democracy were not his motives for taking on the role of spy. It seems more likely he was being blackmailed, possibly by Travis himself.
Standish was still only twenty-nine, of average height, with matinee idol looks, green eyes, auburn hair and a gold tooth, the origin of which he steadfastly refused to divulge. He had spent a year in the French Army, having been conscripted as a French citizen for one year's National Service. Records show, however, that once his basic training was over, he spent the next eight months as a wages clerk until he was suddenly transferred to the artillery for the last two months of his service. He certainly had no espionage training, yet he seems to have been a natural spy. He befriended Captain Jonas Ginter, supposed owner and commander of the Nixie, and had been inviting him and his six officers to the casinos, parties, picnics and other social gatherings on a regular basis. He had similarly befriended the island governor, the chief of the police and the harbour master. Communication with Washington was achieved using a book code and via a secret radio, with which he called the Royal Navy stationed on nearby Montserrat, who in turn passed it on to the US Navy, who passed it to Travis' office. It was a less than perfect method of communication, but the best they had. If anyone on Île des Rois ever intercepted the radio signal, they never linked it back to Standish, who - on some pretext or another - drove the elderly Citroen he had acquired out of town at pre-arranged times to either send or receive a message.
The only other person on the island who knew about the radio was Andi Lassan. He was the local agent for a Swedish sugar firm. Lassan, only twenty himself, was the son of the company's owner and he confessed to Standish that he had been sent out to Île des Rois to look after the family interests as a way to stop him running off to England to join up and fight the Nazis. This was indeed his plan. In the meantime he was only too happy to help the allies and whatever mission was being planned. Officially he knew nothing, but it didn't take much to work out something was going on. He had, after all, spent a considerable amount of time in his harbour side office watching the Nixie with field glasses, all the time taking copious notes about the crew and their work. Standish's radio was hidden on the Lassan land. He and Lassan moved it to a new location at random intervals, each new location pre-prepared by Lassan to ensure it was dry and safe from prying eyes.
Standish had been advised of the plan and had informed his spy masters that it was - even if the Honour Grace made it to the island in one piece - 'ludicrous, unachievable and suicidal'. This they ignored and told him to get on with the preparations.
Having survived the near loss of their commander in a bar brawl, the crew's next challenge was to reach their destination undetected, in one piece and on time. When built, the Honour Grace was steam powered. Sometime in the 1930s she was converted into a pleasure craft and her steam engine was replaced by a single marine diesel. For their mission this engine was replaced by two much larger engines. Larger engines needed more fuel. Accommodating the additional engines and fuel had meant the loss of two cabins, leaving only four berths, thus two men had to 'hot bunk'. Logic dictated this be Sanchez and Larabee. As the two principle helmsmen, one of them was always in the wheelhouse. When Tanner joined them it was decided he'd hot bunk with JD, but this proved to be unnecessary, as Tanner always slept on the deck or even, occasionally, on the roof of the wheel house.
The Honour Grace was not a fast ship. Tugs, even seagoing tugs, are built for strength not speed. At her top speed, not towing anything, she made 12 knots. Their journey to the Île des Rois was broken down into legs. From their base at Fort Lauderdale they sailed to the US Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, then on to an American base in Kingston, Jamaica. After this they had to make the 850 mile crossing to the British Virgin Islands. This would take them three days. Three days across open ocean, ocean where their enemies were as free to operate as allies were. This was why Larabee had given them time off in Kingston - it might well be their last hurrah. They were 18 hours out, and it was just after seven and breakfast was about to be served. Wilmington had taken on the role of ship's cook. By all accounts, he was quite accomplished.
"Behind us!" Tanner had suddenly shouted from his perch on the wheelhouse roof.
Everyone on deck had turned to look. A ship was coming up behind them, and it was clear they couldn't outrun it.
Larabee ordered Sanchez to make a minor course adjustment. The lower open aft deck was still covered in its white canvas awning, not to keep the sun or sea or gulls out, but to keep prying eyes out. Behind the canvas was a 20mm deck gun.
"Who's is it?" JD had asked.
"Coming at us that like that, head on, impossible to know," Wilmington told him.
The ship adjusted its course to match them.
As it got closer it was clearly a small cargo ship.
"Spanish," Tanner informed them.
The Spanish were officially neutral, but were happy to let German agents to operate freely in their territory and German, not to mention Italian, ships use her ports.
Larabee turned to his team. "No one speaks anything but English," he informed them. "Clear?"
The the ship slowed as it came alongside. A man with a full beard at the railing hailed them in Spanish. Larabee waved and smiled but shrugged to indicate he didn't understand. The man tried again, only slower and louder, proving it wasn't just English speakers that seem to think this will magically make people understand your language.
Larabee continued to smile and shrug, neither ship had actually stopped at this time, so hearing was always going to be an issue over the engine noise. In the wheelhouse Sanchez handed control to Wilmington and joined his commander.
"What's he want?" Larabee asked quietly while still smiling up at the Spanish ship and her curious crew. There were now at least a dozen men hanging over the railing looking down at them.
"Something about whisky I think," Sanchez had replied.
"Okay, talk to him - but try and sound Irish."
As orders go it wasn't the easiest for anyone to carry out, much less a Mexican-American who had never been to Ireland, but it must have worked. It turned out the captain of the ship was very fond of scotch, but this was now in short supply so he was willing to try some Irish whiskey if they had it and would sell or trade for it. Sanchez told them sadly they had drunk their only bottle dry some days ago and we unable to help. The Spanish captain looked sad but wished them well as he ordered his ship to pull away.
Other than Sanchez fretting about an approaching storm, the next twenty hours were uneventful. When they were still six hours out from the British Virgin Islands, another ship appeared. This time it was coming at them at ninety degrees, moving very fast. This was no cargo ship - it was too fast, too slim, and too grey.
"What do we do?" Dunne asked his commander.
"When you can't run, you have to fight," Larabee told him bluntly.
There was no way to know who's navy was bearing down on them, so they assumed the worse and began to uncover their gun and bring every gun, grenade and even the explosives for the mission up onto the deck. Every one of them knew it was hopeless - even a minesweeper could out gun them - but at least they would go down fighting. Up on the wheelhouse roof, Tanner, now armed with a Thompson, stood, eyes straining though the field glasses for any clue. The deck gun was almost ready when he shouted out.
"Brits! It's the Brits!"
They just got the gun covered up by the time the ship, a Royal Navy corvette, HMS Hero, turned to circle them and come alongside.
"Honour Grace?" an officer on the deck hailed.
"That's us," Wilmington confirmed.
"We were asked to escort you in. Welcome to the British Virgin Islands."
So secret was their mission, that no one on board HMS Hero knew who they were escorting or why. They arrived in time to get a shower, a hot meal and sleep ashore, before departing at dawn. This they did this against advice. The storm Sanchez had been so worried about was now imminent. The wind had got up and a dark storm front was visible on the horizon, but there was no alternative. Radio silence had been imposed on them since Cuba, so they had no way to tell Standish of any change in plans. They had to press on and hope to God their little ship could weather the storm and arrive in time.
It wasn't a hurricane, but this storm was still a major event, with average wind speeds of 56mph recorded at the weather station on Nevis and gusts of up to 68mph. Honour Grace was never built to tackle a storm in open water but she battled on bravely. While her engines might have been upgraded, her bilge pumps had not, and they weren't coping. Not long after two in the morning, with the storm at its height, engine number two began to misfire. They had to have two working engines when they arrived at Napoleon, so to prevent any irrevocable damage, until they understood the problem, they had to shut it down. This slowed them down but by now the storm was behind them, pushing them toward their destination. With Sanchez and Larabee in the wheelhouse, everyone else was working manual bilge pumps or bailing to keep the water level from becoming critical. Lashed to the forward deck was a canoe. With everyone engaged in just keeping them moving forward and afloat, no one saw it break free. Only when the storm abated as the sun began to rise, did they realise they had lost a critical mission asset.
By dawn the worst of the storm had eased some. Behind schedule they had to get number two engine working, so while the others were able to rest, Sanchez and Wilmington, the closest they had to engineers, worked on the engine. The problem turned out to be air in the system. Given that their mission required long periods at sea and total secrecy, Honour Grace had been fitted with three extra fuel tanks. They should have provided an uninterrupted supply, but the slightly Heath-Robinson nature of their fitting and the extreme weather had allowed air to enter the fuel supply. While not difficult to fix, it could be, and was, a long, fiddly job even sitting in a flat calm harbour, let alone being tossed about in what was still a force 7 gale.
H hour was set for 23:00. The original plan was to arrive around dawn at the small, uninhabited Isla de Sapo - Toad Island, so named by pirates for its lack of any beauty or redeeming features. It was little more than a mangrove swamp, with no fresh water, no beach and surrounded by a reef. If, however, you knew what you were doing, you could sail over the reef, at one spot, at high tide. There was then a deep water lagoon in an S shape, where even quite a tall ship, let alone a small tug, could hide from prying eyes and passing ships. Here they were to lie up, rest and prepare until nightfall and high tide at 19:54. By the time they were passing Toad Island, with number two engine now working, it was already 21:40. They had no time to stop.
In Napoleon, Standish's part of the mission had been under way for some hours. The mission had to be tonight no matter what the weather, because it was Carnival, or Mardi Gras as he knew it, and everyone was partying. Partying and drinking, Standish was counting on them drinking. The Germans call it Fasching or Karnivall, but celebration is mostly confined to Catholic religions and was discouraged by the Nazis. The crew of the SS Nixie were presumed to all be good Nazis, or they wouldn't have been entrusted with such an ultra-secret mission so far from the High Command. Standish had been working on the captain for some time, and had contrived to get him and all his officers invited to a swanky but discreet dinner party away from all the madness in town. They were booked into a private function room with balcony at the Grand Hotel. The hotel was the best Île des Rois had to offer. It was new and, most importantly, it had no views of the harbour. Île des Rois was formed by two, now long dormant, volcanoes. The larger, Le Diable to the west and the smaller Petit Diable to the east. Their rich, fertile soils, gentle lower slopes and large flat ash planes, were ideal for growing sugar cane. There were a small number of banana farms and on the higher slopes, a few coffee plantations. The two peaks were connected by a relatively narrow strip of land which formed the south side of the bay. This was where the town of Napoleon sat. To the south was the newer part of the town, looking out over pristine white beaches, and - before the war - a burgeoning holiday industry, of which the Grand Hotel had been central. To the north, the old town looked out over the bay and harbour.
The host of the dinner was Monsieur Jordan, a semi-retired wealthy shipping agent and an enthusiastic Nazi. He had been more than happy to socialise with the crew. Just after noon on that day he came hurrying into the café where Standish habitually took breakfast. There was bad news and good he reported. The hotel was having some problems with its water supply and could no longer host the dinner, but not to worry, he had pulled stings at the Yacht Club and got them booked in there.
"The menu will be more limited, but the setting is idyllic," he explained.
Standish accepted the change calmly and assured Jordan, who he would go on to describe as an 'odious little worm', that there was nothing to be done and he understood. Once Jordan had gone he started to panic. The Yacht Club had a panoramic view over the harbour and the bay beyond. Even though there would be almost no moon, the Nixie's officers might well be able to see at least the outline of their ship and quite possibly the Honour Grace. Standish then hurried over to the club, where he made sure they were able to accommodate double the number of guests. It would cost more of course, but he assured the club Monsieur Jordan would be happy to pay whatever it cost, not something he bothered to tell him. With this in place he headed into town and rounded up the seven most presentable prostitutes he could find, luckily it was still too early for them to be genuinely drunk. He did consider ditching one of them for the boy who washed glasses at the Café Henri, because he was fairly sure the young third officer, Langer, would find him more diverting than any woman, but he dismissed the idea as impractical. Besides, he wanted to distract Langer, not get him court martialled.
He paid the girls to be at the club ready to meet and greet the men when they arrived and had bribed the serving staff to seat all the men with their back to the sea, each with a pretty girl in front of him. He sat Langer in the centre opposite the most corpulent girl. His job done, all he could do now was sit there and pretend to be a genial host, and pray.
The Nixie was anchored just outside the harbour proper. Navigating into the bay, known as Baie de L'eau des Rois, was easy by day but more difficult by night. The deep channel was wide enough, but was flanked by small reefs and islets.
They had planned to approach at dead slow, but were now so far behind schedule they had to go in at flank speed, such as it was, with Sanchez at the helm and Jackson beside him acting as harbour pilot. As fast as it came, the storm went and the ocean was once more calm as a mill pond. Tanner stood on the wheelhouse roof, Larabee was at the prow, with Wilmington and Dunne on either side, all straining to see the marker buoys and any sign or a reef, rock or shallows. They made it.
The plan was audacious and mad, just as Standish had warned, but it was also the only workable way to accomplish their mission. Sneaking in under cover of darkness, they would board the Nixie, imprison what they hoped would be a skeleton crew below decks and then take their prize back out into international waters, where they would rendezvous with the USS Musket, who would then take charge of her. The Nixie, as far as Lassan's meticulous observations could surmise, used a generator, probably running on the same diesel she was storing in her tanks, to provide the power the crew needed while she was at anchor. They only fired their boilers for the main engines when they put to sea. Starting the engines from cold would take much too long, so there was no way to sail her out of the bay or even pull up the heavy anchors. This was why they needed Wilmington, who would blow the anchor chains and why they had chosen the trusty former tug Honour Grace, who would then tow the much larger Nixie out to sea, right under the noses of her officers.
As planned, they cut the engines while they were some way off and let their momentum take the Honour Grace in. Sanchez displayed an amazing degree of skill judging these last few hundred yards perfectly. She drifted silently toward the dark bulk of the Nixie, all but coming to a standstill as they came alongside where the side rail was lowest. Tanner, up on the wheelhouse roof, was able to see onto the deck. There was, as far as he could tell in the darkness, no one about. They had been so silent they could easily hear the sounds of the revelries in the town beyond. Larabee and Jackson swung ropes with grappling hooks, wrapped in sack cloth to muffle their impact, up and over the side, then climbed up, followed by Tanner. Any ship, in any port, wherever it is, should keep a look out, and the Nixie was no different. Tanner hadn't see him because he was on the far side, up by the prow, looking out over to the town.
If he heard the grappling hooks land, he had not reacted to them. Only when Tanner, who had spotted the glow of his cigarette as soon as he was on board, was less than ten feet from him did the man turn and see a stranger advancing on him. There was just enough light from the ships running lights for both men to see each other, and for the crewman to see Tanner's Tommy gun. Larabee came up behind the man and told him, quickly and quietly in German that if he co-operated, silently, he could live. He co-operated, but would not tell them how many men were on board or when the officers and crew were due back.
They knew from Standish that the height of the celebrations in town would be around midnight, which was why H hour had been set at 23:00. They had to assume that those ashore would return after this. Lassan had noted that at New Year, he had seen as many as 15 men leave the ship, not including officers. That night almost all the crew had headed to a bar come brothel called Bar Marsellie. While located in the old town and close to the harbour, it was in a narrow alley and had no view of the water. Standish had used his State Department funds to get the bar to issue 20 'free drinks' vouchers. He and Lassan then made sure that 15 of these found their way to the crew of the Nixie. By giving out a few to locals, they hoped to disguise the real reason for the vouchers, which was to ensure that all, or almost all, the crew would be inside the bar and drunk by midnight.
The ship had declared a crew of 26 to the harbour master, so given 7 officers and 15 men ashore there shouldn't be many more than four men on board. They had one, so that left at least three more to find. It proved very easy, although there was, in fact, four men below decks; a cook, a steward, an engineer and another deck hand. Three were in the crew mess, engaged in a very tense game of cards. The cook was in his cabin, asleep. The men playing cards didn't even notice the man standing in the doorway wasn't their crew mate until Larabee told them to put their hands up. At this point, Larabee, Tanner and Jackson were on the Nixie, securing the crew and collecting any and all paperwork they could locate. Dunne joined them with a camera to photograph as much as they could. This was their back up, in case they had to scuttle the Nixie before she could be handed over to the Navy. Sanchez was handling the Honour Grace. That left Wilmington to set the charges. They needed the forward and aft chains to blow at different times, both during the firework display, and they had less than an hour.
Had they been trying to sink the ship, they could just have attached the newly developed limpet mine, but research had shown that the magnet on a limpet mine would not hold on the irregular surface of the chain, especially as the ship had been moored for some time and the chain was probably covered in barnacles. Lassan had reported that he had never observed them cleaning it. Wilmington would have to secure plastic explosives bracelet charges. It was essential that the chain was broken only just below the surface. Blown above the water they would need more explosives and the sound would be too loud to be mistaken for a firework. Blown too deep, the chain - with no power to pull it back up - would hang down past the keel and could snag on the bottom as they towed the ship out of the bay.
With no canoe, there was no alternative but for Wilmington to swim to the chains. Using a life ring and some canvas, they had rigged up a float to carry the charges, which weighed more than 6 pounds. He set out from the aft of Honour Grace for the bow chain, pulling the ring behind him. Captain Ginter had chosen his mooring spot well. The bay was encircled by a coastal road and dotted with fishing villages, except where the ship was moored. Here some past volcanic eruption had set off a landslide, which had then been weathered into razor sharp ridges and deep imperturbable valleys. The road went inland and around and over this section of coast. The only down side was that off shore, and probably part of the same landslide was a reef, which at its closest was less than 20 feet from the ship's side. When the ship was broken free they could not afford for her to drift even a few feet to the starboard. To this end, they would blow the bow chain, attach the tow line, then pull Nixie around by almost 180' before the aft chain blew. They could then tow their prize out of the harbour and away with no delay and no chance of her drifting onto the reef.
They had timed the manoeuvre with a similarly sized ship back in Jamaica, but that had been when they had a canoe. Once Wilmington had set the bow charge, he swam back to Honour Grace and was ferried to the stern, but then he was on his own, Honour Grace had to pick up Jackson and Dunne, then return to the bow to be ready to connect the tow line as soon as the charge blew. Larabee and Tanner were to remain on the Nixie to complete the line connection, guard the prisoners and control the rudder. Once the turn was complete and Honour Grace had the strain, the stern charge would be blown. The trigger was somewhat unconventional. The timer fuse on the second charge could not be set for a long enough for Wilmington to swim far enough way. The alternative was to blow it using the manual trigger, like pulling the pin on grenade. To do this they had constructed a slow weight using a large tin with a tight lid. They put a small hole in the tin and connected it to the pin using a yard of fuse wire. As water filled the tin, it began to sink, once it was deep enough it would pull the pin and fire the charges. In their tests the tin sank much too quickly and they didn't have a bigger one. It was JD Dunne who came up with the idea of attaching floats to it, sufficient to slow the decent, not enough to stop it sinking at all. Three rubber gloves from the first aid kit blown up and secured like a child's balloons worked perfectly to make a 3-minute fuse. In tests, Wilmington, who was a strong swimmer, had made the 100 yards in less than 2 so they weren't concerned.
Everything went perfectly until they were in place, with Nixie now turned though 180' and Honour Grace taking the strain. Wilmington let the can and its 3 floats go and set out. He had to swim along approximately half the length of the imposing bulk of Nixie before he would reach the starboard side hatch, where Larabee and Tanner were waiting with a rope ladder. They had timed the raid for the height of the revelries and that had worked, but it meant they were now on a rising tide, which was rushing into a reasonably narrow bay. Already exhausted, swimming in the dark, against a tide that was pushing him back and toward the reef, he became disorientated. Seeing the white of breaking water ahead of him he took it to be Honour Grace's wash breaking on the bow of the Nixie, when in reality it was the tide running in over the reef. Only when his legs dragged past the jagged rocks did he realise his mistake, he could make out the ship and even the open hatch, so struck out for it, just as the charges blew.
On the Nixie, Tanner and Larabee were desperately trying to locate him. The charges were due to blow at any second and their comrade was not yet safely on board. When the charge blew there was the same muffled bang they had heard the first time, the same plume of water shooting into the air and, moments later, the same clang, as the chain swung back against the hull, but still there was no Wilmington. Larabee threw caution to the wind and turned on every light they could find around them. The extra light reached just far enough for them to locate him.
When the charge blew Wilmington was still much too close and the shock wave had hit him hard. Now even more disoriented and barely conscious he was struggling to keep his head above water.
Larabee fastened a rope around himself and entered the water, swimming as fast as he could, toward his friend. Every so often he would stop and look. He too was getting disorientated and listened out for Tanner's directions from the ship.
On the Honour Grace they knew something had gone wrong but had no way of finding out what. As soon as Wilmington was safely on board they should have been given the all clear signal to take the strain and pull as soon as they heard the charge blow, but no signal came. All they could do was wait. In the meantime with her stern now free, the tide was pushing the Nixie toward the reef.
This drift to the reef was, in the end, what saved Wilmington and the mission. By the time Larabee had reached him the distance between them and the ship had closed so much that, with Tanner now pulling on the rope, it took only seconds to pull them back to the ship. It was no easy thing to get the groggy Wilmington, who was almost 6'4" and weighed close to 170lb, up the swinging rope ladder and onto the ship, but they made it. Tanner then sprinted to the bow and, all thought of clandestine signals abandoned, he shouted across to Honour Grace, for them to pull.
They managed to get the Nixie moving just as her stern began to drag along the reef, but no serious damage was done. While Tanner did his best for his clearly concussed comrade, Larabee went to the wheelhouse and the brave little Honour Grace began to pull. With Sanchez at the wheel, Dunne and Jackson stood at each side rail straining for any sign of an obstacle.
From entering the bay, 14 minutes behind schedule, to clearing the last headland with their prize in tow, had taken just 64 minutes, not a shot had been fired, no one had been killed, they had not been detected and only Wilmington had been injured. All they had to do now was reach their rendezvous point on time with the USS Musket.
Back in Napoleon, Standish was not so jubilant. When the officers' party was to be held in the Grand Hotel he had been confident he would not be linked with the loss of the Nixie. Now it was different. The strange seating arrangement would come under scrutiny, and it would only be a matter of time before the local authorities linked him to that and the sudden availability of free drinks for the ship's crew. He might not be an SOE agent but he would be subject to the same treatment if he was taken in by the French and handed over to the Germans. Hitler himself had determined that men like him, or indeed the crew of the Honour Grace, should they be captured, fall into what Hitler named the Nacht und Nebal, the night and fog. They would in effect disappear, be tortured and then executed, hung by piano wire. Standish was well aware what fate would await him if he fell into Nazi hands and he and Travis had made contingency plans for this. One plan was the cyanide capsule he carried in a silver snuff box in his inside pocket. This was his last resort, as it was for all of Honour Grace's crew. His preferred option was to get off the island and be picked up by the men whose mission he had facilitated, but he was now against the clock.
As soon as the plan changed, he had put his contingency plan in to operation. Almost as soon as they met, Lassan has been teaching him to sail. At first it was just for fun, and he enjoyed it. He had purchased a small former whaler with a single gaff sail, and was becoming quite competent, so long as he stuck close to shore and never set out in anything but ideal conditions. As soon as darkness fell, Lassan had taken the dinghy, called Ace of Diamonds, out and sailed her to a remote bay on the southeast side of the island. He then hiked back into town, no mean feat in the depths of a moonless night, with only a small hurricane lamp.
Midnight was marked with a ringing of the church bells in the town. From his seat at the head of the table Standish risked a glance out over the bay, he thought he could see Nixie and told himself she was moving, but in truth he wasn't sure. Logic told him if the raiders had been caught someone would have phoned the club to tell the captain, but again, he wasn't sure. Luckily, his plan had worked and all the officers were now very drunk. That made it easier for him to excuse himself to answer nature's call and slip away. He had packed a case and placed it in the back of his car that afternoon. He habitually kept the bulk of his assets in US dollar Bearer Bonds, which were now safely in an oil cloth pouch in a money belt around his waist. He drove as fast he dared, taking the dirt roads that skirted the town so as to avoid being delayed by revellers. Once outside of town, he made it to the radio. In the event he needed to leave the island he had a pre-arranged signal. Honour Grace might be observing radio silence but she could still listen in. He would send a single word, 'sata' which is Hindi for 7. He would send it twice and then hope to hell he had been heard. With that done he set out for the beach where his boat had been left.
He had offered to take Lassan, but he refused. There was no reason for the authorities to connect him to the taking of the ship. Yes, he was known to keep binoculars in his office and watch the harbour.
"So what?" he said. "Do I not keep James Bond's excellent Birds of the West Indies on my desk as well?"
Standish knew the book was mostly used as a paper weight.
"So I like to watch birds and pretty girls and watch people sailing and rowing and catching fish, what of it?" he continued. "Everyone knows my job is very boring. I am a friend of yours, but so are many people or at least they think they are. I will stay and be you, at least until they send a replacement. Will you trust me with the code book?"
This was strictly against orders, but then so was letting Lassan in on the plan in the first place. Standish decided to make a unilateral decision, and hand over the book - To Have and Have Not, the frequency list, and time table.
As planned, he parked his trusty Citroen at the end of the track that lead down to the beach. It could not be seen from the road and was facing out to sea. He left his headlights on and scanned the beach for his boat. Lassan had beached it and dug the anchor into the beach as high as he could. With the tide now coming in the boat was floating in about three feet of water. Standish waded out, his worldly possessions in a canvas case above his head and climbed aboard. Before hoisting his single sail he rowed the Ace of Diamonds out and over the reef that protected the beach. Once out in the open sea, he hoisted a lamp displaying a red and white light to the top of the mast, so he could be seen and identified. He had a compass with a luminous dial, so all he had to do was go south. When the headlights were out of sight, he had made it to the rendezvous point. There were any number of things that could go wrong, he knew. If he didn't connect with Honour Grace by dawn, he'd have to go back, and take his chances. The one problem he hadn't considered was a lack of wind. He was becalmed, and his only option now was to row.
JD had not forgotten their unknown ally on the island, code name Postman, who had provided them with so much information and, by some way they were unaware of, got all but a handful of men off the ship they had just stolen. As soon as they were clear of the bay he was listening on the radio for the emergency call sign. It came just half an hour into their journey. He wanted nothing more than to respond, to tell Postman, whoever he was, he had been heard and they would be there to pick him up, but he could not.
Like Standish, Larabee set a red and white light on his ship's mast. They knew where he was setting out from. They knew, based on when the signal was sent, approximately when he set out. All they could do was look for him. In the intervening hour they had used one of Nixie's life boats to get Wilmington and Larabee over to Honour Grace and Sanchez onto Nixie. Other than a concussion and some nasty lacerations to his ankles, Wilmington wasn't in as bad shape as Jackson had feared. He fell asleep as soon as he was helped to his bunk.
It took another hour before they spotted a bobbing red and white light off to their port side. Towing a large ship had slowed Honour Grace to just 7 knots and severely limited their manoeuvrability. There was no practical way to turn toward the small boat. Based on what they could see, the boat was too far away. They would pass him before he ever made it to them. Nixie was now too far astern to call to her, so Larabee had Dunne contact them with the signal lamp, instructing them to lower the life boat and send Tanner over in it. Tanner and Jackson then set out, on an intercept course, shouting at Standish to keep rowing. He was doing his best but he had been rowing for more than two hours by this point, and his hands were blistered raw. When they finally met he was barely able to pick up his bag - Tanner had to hop into the Ace of Diamonds and collect it for him.
"She's a fine craft," Standish had admitted. "I'll be sorry to lose her."
With typical directness Tanner told him to, "Stop being sentimental and get your ass in the damn boat!"
With three in the boat, even with Tanner and Jackson rowing, they were still losing ground.
Larabee now had a dilemma. How did he get his men back? He could drop the tow line and let Nixie drift while he went to get them, but they were perilously close to a number of submerged pinnacle rocks, the remains of long dead volcanic vents. If Nixie drifted too far she could well run aground or be holed. He could try and turn both ships, but that, too, risked Nixie running aground. Or, he could stop and let the rowers catch up. Stopping was easiest and very risky. As a tug, Honour Grace could come to a quick stop and maintain her position while under power. Nixie could not, and her far greater bulk gave her much greater inertia so she would take a lot longer to drift to a stop. He just hoped they could row fast enough. He made all these calculations and came to a decision in no more than seconds. it took a little longer for Dunne to signal the plan to Sanchez. He didn't bother to relay the four letter response he got.
Stopping created another problem, the tow line began to go slack and risked getting tangled in the props. With the smaller Dunne at the wheel he began to pull it in to keep the line tight. Strong as he was, it was a job normally done by at least three men. Wilmington, probably awakened by a change in engine noise, appeared in the wheelhouse and instructed Dunne to go and help him. When the teenager protested he told him, "I may not be able to pull in that rope without puking, Kid, but I'd have to be dead not to be able to hold a wheel and keep a straight course."
With two of them working on it, they just about managed to keep ahead of the drift and keep the line from dropping too far or too close to their prop. All the time the life boat was closing the distance.
"Move it!" Larabee bellowed as they got closer and Nixie began to loom ever them.
"Not sitting here knitting!" came Tanner's response, as he strained at his oar.
In the end it was almost a tie. As the men on the life boat jumped aboard, flinging Standish's case ahead of them, Wilmington put Honour Grace to full head and within seconds the coiled tow line was spooling out again.
That should have been that. Around dawn, they should have met the USS Musket and their job would be done. Musket would put a salvage crew on to Nixie, take off the prisoners, fire up her boiler, and sail her back to Jamaica and then on to Florida. Job done. But Musket wasn't there. Still under strict radio silence they couldn't call and find out what was happening, so they circled - very large circles - for half a day.
They were not to know it, but the storm that hit them on the way to Île des Rois, had also stuck the USS Musket, only where she was at the time, half way between Florida and Jamaica, the storm was much worse, almost a hurricane. She was pushed off course and, as the weather got even worse, forced to run for cover in Guantanamo Bay after sustaining storm damage and taking on water.
At noon Larabee made the decision to proceed on what should be Musket's course and hope to intercept her, but before they could do that they had to refuel Honour Grace. Jamaica was to the northwest; to the north and east of them were a number of friendly ports they could have reached much faster, but towing made them slow and a very easy target for any U-boat that might be looking for them. They had to hope if they were being hunted, but their hunters were looking for them in the obvious places, which is why they were not in those places.
Her extra fuel tanks should have taken them safely back to Kingston, but not if they had to tow Nixie all the way. Luckily the thing making their prize so heavy was that her refuelling tanks were more than half full of marine diesel. With no reef to worry about and a flat calm sea, they were able to put Honour Grace alongside Nixie and refuel.
Just as they had always believed, the SS Nixie was indeed a clandestine U-boat tender. On board were huge tanks for refuelling. There were also tanks of fresh water, supplies of dried and tinned food, stocks of U-boat spare parts, and a fully equipped work shop. Once out at sea they had released their prisoners for supervised deck time. They considered sailing Nixie under her own power but they just didn't have enough men. The engineer was persuaded to help with the refuelling. Larabee told him not only would he be watched very carefully, but if he did anything to sabotage their mission he would executed and his friends held in solitary confinement for the duration. We will never know if the man truly believed these threats, but he did cooperate. During the refuelling, Tanner and Standish joined Sanchez on the Nixie. If they didn't meet Musket, Honour Grace would have to tow Nixie all the way to Jamaica and that would take, with good weather, almost five days. They would need to keep a 24 hour bridge watch as well as feed and guard their prisoners.
In the end, they met up with the USS Musket, now repaired, only a day from Kingston. By then the seven of them were exhausted, but when both the British and US Navy personnel worked out what they had achieved they were hailed as heroes. Not one of them paid for a single drink for a week. This was the only public acknowledgement of their skill and heroism, but coming from their peers was the only praise that meant anything.
The captured crew of the Nixie were questioned and then imprisoned for the rest of the war. The US informed the Red Cross they were alive and being held as POWs but no more information was given. Limited and highly censored communication was permitted after the first year.
Captain Jonas Ginter was recalled to Germany and court martialled for gross dereliction of duty.
SS Nixie was examined and documented. Determined to be a prize of war, the ship was renamed the USS Sargas and put to work as a sub tender.
Andi Lassan stayed on Île des Rois as an unofficial American spy until the arrival of the replacement, Raphael Cordero. Lassan then joined one of his father's ships on its way back to Sweden. He left the ship at Cork, travelled to Britain and volunteered for the Royal Navy. As a strapping blond haired, blue-eyed Viking who could speak German, he was snapped up by the Special Operations Executive and ended the war as highly decorated Major in the Commandos.
Travis had all charges against Tanner dropped. He and Standish then joined the Navy, and with Larabee and the rest of the Honour Grace crew, went on to become the core of the American's own Small Scale Raiding Force. Based in Port Moresby, they operated mainly among the islands of Indonesia, carrying out reconnaissance and sabotage operations against the Japanese. All seven men survived the war.
The brave Honour Grace was re-registered as an American Navy vessel, once more becoming a working tug, based at Guantanamo Bay. A favourite of all the men on the base, when the Navy tried to change the spelling of her name there was almost a mutiny. In the 1950s, the retiring commandant of the base was able to buy her from the Navy and kept her as a pleasure craft.
This is the only known picture of the Honour Grace crew with Standish, taken on board the USS Musket, as they approached Kingston Jamaica.
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