Authors: Douglas Reeman
It is 1943, and Captain Mike Blackwood, Royal Marine Commando, is a survivor. Young, toughened and tried in the hellish crucible of Burma, he labours, sometimes faltering, beneath the weight of tradition, the glorious heritage of his family, and the burden of his own self-doubt.
For Blackwood, the horizon is not the lip of the trench seen by men of the Corps in the previous war, but the ramp of a landing craft smashing down into the sea, and the fire of the enemy on a Sicilian beach. Here, tradition is not enough, and Mike Blackwood must find within himself qualities of leadership which will inspire those Royal Marines who are once again the first to land, and among the first to die.
The fourth in the Blackwood Royal Marine saga
Douglas Reeman joined the Navy in 1941. He did convoy duty in the Arctic, and the North Sea, and later served in motor torpedo boats. As he says, âI am always asked to account for the perennial appeal of the sea story, and its enduring interest for people of so many nationalities and cultures. It would seem that the eternal and sometimes elusive triangle of man, ship and ocean, particularly under the stress of war, produces the best qualities of courage and compassion, irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the conflictÂ .Â .Â .Â The sea has no understanding of the righteous or unjust causes. It is the common enemy, respected by all who serve on it, ignored at their peril.'
Dust on the Sea
is the fourth in Douglas Reeman's bestselling Blackwood series, following
Badge of Glory, The First to Land
It is his thirty-third novel written under his own name. He has also written twenty-four bestselling historical novels under the pseudonym Alexander Kent, featuring Richard Bolitho and his nephew Adam Bolitho.
Twelve Seconds to Live
A Prayer for the Ship
Send a Gunboat
Dive in the Sun
The Hostile Shore
The Last Raider
With Blood and Iron
The Deep Silence
Path of the Storm
The Pride and the Anguish
To Risks Unknown
The Greatest Enemy
Rendezvous â South Atlantic
Go In and Sink!
Surface with Daring
Strike from the Sea
A Ship Must Die
Badge of Glory
The First to Land
The Iron Pirate
Against the Sea
In Danger's Hour
The White Guns
A Dawn Like Thunder
The Glory Boys
For you, Kim, with my love.
âDone with the Compass â
Done with the Chart,
Your Orchid-Boat contains my heartÂ .Â .Â .'
Tradition by itself is not enough.
The assault landing craft, the L.C.A., was probably the ugliest and most uncomfortable vessel ever designed by man. Short, stubby and box-shaped, with a ramp for landing troops as a substitute for bows, the landing craft could be almost impossible to manage in anything but ideal conditions.
The wooden hulls were thinly protected by armour plating, a defence against shell splinters and automatic fire, and even that additional weight was a severe handicap in shallow water and at the moment of beaching. But, if properly employed, they were the best means of putting men ashore, men who despite all the discomforts and danger might be expected to fight immediately after jumping on to dry land.
Hard training, comradeship and pride, to say nothing of a sense of humour, made the small landing craft accepted as a weapon of war. Until the day when it was, for the first time, real and in deadly earnest.
He was crouched down in the hull, one hand supporting himself while the deck swayed and shuddered below and around him. Behind him his men were still hidden in darkness, in groups of three, gripping their weapons, their helmets tilted against the spray which spattered over the sides like hail. The outer files of men took what advantage they could from the narrow steel side decks, while the ones in the centre suffered in silence, soaked by the spray and sickened by the stench of fuel and the hoarse rumble of engines.
Time had become meaningless, and even though his trained mind insisted that it was barely an hour since they had been cast off from their parent ship, it felt like an eternity. He had groped his way aft to speak with one of the L.C.A.'s crew, but he could not even remember how long ago that had been. On his way back to the forepart of the plunging, creaking hull he had gripped someone's damp shoulder to steady himself, or waited while the craft had yawed into a trough before continuing on his journey. Men with their weapons and equipment. Weighed down by it. Barely looking up as he had passed through them. The same men he had come to know, or thought he had. Now they were isolated even from one another. Men who had broken a last cigarette to share it with a special friend, who had always found time to explain the reasons for a stoppage in a Bren machine gun, or the secret of priming a live grenade, had, it seemed, become strangers.
He wanted to peer at his watch, but knew that somebody might see it as uncertainty, or anxiety, on his part. He tried to recall each face, but like the darkness they resisted him. He was their officer; that was all he could consider. Like him or hate him, trust him or doubt his ability, it was too late. Perhaps it was always like this.
A figure brushed past him, a sailor, strangely out of place amongst the weapons and steel helmets, his bare feet very white and delicate against the side of the tiny wheelhouse where the coxswain was fighting his own battle with sea and rudder.
Then it was nearly time. The movement was sharper, small, steep waves, so they must be close to the beach. To their objective.
He thought of the men behind him, a mingling of old sweats and the usual hard cases. But mostly they were youngsters who had not yet been blooded, or tasted the madness of battle. All that hard-won experience at the basic training centres, and the special combat courses where only the elite survived, and where they had learned to hate their instructors more than the enemy, and it could all end here. Today.
A muffled voice said, âFinal run, sir!' That was the coxswain, peering through the slit in his plated hutch, not unlike an armoured knight at Agincourt.
Something rattled against the hull, and he heard a man give a quick gasp of alarm.
A stone thrown up from the beach, a piece of flotsam? But they had learned about booby traps and underwater snares for the unwaryÂ .Â .Â .
He turned his face towards the ramp, and thought he saw water glistening on the dull metal for the first time. But the sky seemed as dark as ever. Would there really be sunshine again within hours? Would he live to see it?
A burly shape pushed down beside him; he knew who it was, just by the touch of him. A presence which somehow reassured him.
âRunning in now, Sergeant.' He turned, but saw only the helmet. âEverything all right back there?'
âThey'll do, sir.' No heroics, no bluster. The true professional. âThe other L.C.A.s are on station.' The flash of a grin. âI just had a dekko!'
Then he was gone. Maybe he had come to see for himself, to decide if his officer was up to it.
He tried to clear his mind of everything but the objective, and what might be waiting ahead. Maps, conferences and a few useless aerial pictures had been the only preparation; there had even been some private snapshots taken before the war, with a woman in one of them. He could recall her face, her smile. Where was she now, he wondered. What would she say if she knew her photograph had been passed around, and that a vital objective had been directly behind her?
He tightened his jaw and felt it click. He needed to yawn, but he knew he must not. Somehow the knowledge steadied him; it was something he recognised.
It was fear.
Stand by, sir!
' The voice seemed loud, dangerously so. The engine vibrations were noisier too, the air clammy. He could feel his clothes sticking to his skin.
He sensed his men stirring now, and heard the mutter of a machine gun. It was never like the films, where you always knew when the gun was pointing directly at your favourite actor. This was real, distant and impersonal. He bunched his free hand into a fist to stop its trembling. It was like the sound of a woodpecker on one of those perfect, impossible days of peace, which they had taken so much for granted.
He heard the rattle of machinery and saw more seamen by the ramp. He felt his revolver in his wet fist, although he did not remember having drawn it from his holster.
He waited, counting seconds as the ramp began to come down like a drawbridge. How long would it last? But all he could hear was the bored voice of some instructor, as if from another world.
Never take a pistol out of the holster, sir, except to load or unload it. Or to use it.
The ramp was down, not exactly straight, and through the gloom he saw the sea boiling over it, while the engines thrust ahead to hold the craft in position.
He was on his feet. He did not look back at his men. He dared not.
Another voice, as though right here beside him.
They're looking to you. Don't let them down.
He strode to the ramp; he could have been completely alone. But his voice was as steady as the one he had just heard.
Royal Marines, advance!
Major-General Ralph Vaughan was a big man, in every sense of the word. He had served in the Royal Marines all his life and had a reputation for plain speaking, and a hot temper which had made him almost a legend in the Corps. Even on this bitter November day, with his impressive figure perched somewhat incongruously on a frail-looking shooting stick, his feet planted wide apart in the wet gorse and heather, he looked the part. âA marine's marine', they said, something which never failed to please him. In his younger days he had been well known in the boxing ring, and had represented the Corps in many inter-service contests. A broken nose and a luminously ruddy complexion had won him great respect, and although he was generally admired by all ranks in the Corps, nobody with any sense ever took his famous intolerance over training and efficiency lightly.
Scotland in November. What a bloody awful place, he thought grimly. Only the high command would ever dream up such a location. Achnacarry, barely marked on any map and dominated by two big lochs, Arkaig and Lochy, was rugged terrain where marines could learn the skills and pitfalls of hard training under all conditions,
harried by seemingly tireless instructors, and very aware of the additional danger of live ammunition.