16 FEBRUARY 1941
Madeline Brady had joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service — ATS — partly to annoy her mother. Maddie’s mother was a middle-class snob who didn’t think it quite the thing for women to be in the army, to put on a rough khaki uniform. Uncouth, was the word she’d used. They should be baking cakes, organising fund-raisers for the war effort or volunteering with the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) and serving hot tea to soldiers. That was fine. But when Maddie announced that she had passed the ATS driving test at Camberley and could strip down an engine and read a road map, her mother had reached for the smelling salts.
But Maddie Brady didn’t need her mother’s permission or her older brother Richard’s to enlist in the army. She was twenty-three years old. A grown woman. Able to make her own decisions.
And she was proud to be in the ATS, proud of the dress- uniform that she wore. It sometimes brought whistles her way, and one chap who took her for a drink in the pub kept on about how attractive women looked in khaki.
The brown lace-up shoes were heavy, though. And the rough, khaki lisle stockings itched like mad. One of the girls had ditched hers for silk ones — which only the officers were allowed to wear. They’d all been envious until an eagle-eyed sergeant (a large, overbearing woman with a sagging bust) had confined the girl to barracks and had her pay of ten shillings a week cut in half for a month. None of them had complained about wearing regulation lisle-cotton stockings since. But Maddie had swapped her uniform khaki bloomers for some silk knickers. It was as close as she came to rebellion.
She’d also invested ten shillings in the new and stylish forage cap. A private purchase, but most of her ATS friends had bought one. Ten shillings for ‘other ranks’ and a whole £2 for an officer. It was chocolate-brown with green piping and if you wore it at an angle it gave you a sophisticated ‘American’ look. It made up for the fact that you weren’t allowed to wear your hair long. Regulations. Four inches off the collar. That was the rule. And they all stuck to it.
She was doing what some considered a man’s job. And she did it well. At times it could be intriguing, the people she met. Mostly what the other ATS drivers called ‘big wigs’. And it was true because, lately, some of the chaps Maddie had to drive around were top brass, as she’d been assigned to the War Office.
On loan, her commanding officer had explained, like Maddie Brady was some kind of property, a piece of equipment, rather than an actual person. But the officer had redeemed herself by adding that Madeline was a lady. Knew how to conduct herself in certain company. Could mind her Ps and Qs. See all. Hear all. But repeat nothing that she heard. Discretion! Those had been her orders. To deliver her human cargo safely, without fuss — and absolutely no gossip.
She was to say nothing to the other girls in the billet about the high-ranking officers she sometimes carried in the back of her Humber staff car. Walls have ears. That was a favourite expression on many lips. And of course, no British patriot would want to let slip even the smallest crumb of intelligence. That would be like handing a gift to Hitler and his cronies. And Maddie Brady considered herself a patriot with a strong love for her country. Britain and its allies needed to win this war. Anything else would be a disaster.
So far, her new posting to the War Office had mostly been routine stuff, apart from a few of the braid-smothered big wigs she’d driven for. There were days it could be a little humdrum. Certainly not the glamour that some of her ATS friends imagined it to be.
Except today promised to be different.
Her journey would be longer than usual, and she’d be driving to a place she’d always longed to see: Cornwall, with its vast moors, the mist clinging to them like a mystical, alien world. And the jagged, jutting cliffs, falling into tempestuous seas at Hell’s Mouth cove. She’d heard about the churning seas of Hell’s Mouth, wanted to see them for herself. Then there was the natural and harsh beauty of the Lizard Peninsula. Was it as dramatic and awe-inspiring as people claimed? And Dead- man’s Cove beach, on the North Cliffs. That was supposed to be haunted. She hoped it was.
Maddie drove through the rubble-strewn streets of London towards Whitehall. It was often a challenge, zigzagging your way through a landscape that changed daily; broken water mains and gas mains jutting through the concrete like prehistoric beasts. But, by now, the mental map of back roads and shortcuts through the capital was so ingrained in her that she often found herself driving automatically. Like today.
She’d left early enough but had been held up several times and was five minutes late by the time she arrived at the War Office to pick up her passenger. He was a captain from the Directorate of Prisoners of War DWP (section 5) to be exact — and the War Office liked to be exact.
She was getting used to the confusing number of depart-ments in the place; a human beehive of more than 1,000 offices spread over seven floors. But the building in Whitehall never failed to impress her with its strange trapezium shape and those four magnificent domes. The War Office had been hit several times during the bombing but was still standing. A kind of irony, Maddie decided.
The officer was waiting impatiently for her, his greatcoat slung over his arm and a briefcase clutched importantly in front of him. Her orders were to drive him to Cornwall and be at his disposal during the length of his stay. Captain Ernest Andrews’ job in DWP (section 5) was prisoner-of-war camp inspections and camp security.
Maddie had already worked out a route to the hamlet of White Cross, but couldn’t imagine what Captain Andrews would have to do in a small Cornish village. Then a sudden, shocking thought struck her: there must be a POW camp there. The grim notion made her shudder. Naively, perhaps, Maddie had never even thought about the idea that Britain, like its enemies, also had prisoner-of-war camps.
The journey was long, and Maddie ended up with a fierce headache, concentrating on the map. There were no signposts anymore. They had all been taken down at the start of the war. No point in making things easier for your enemies.
The wartime roads often meant lengthy detours because of military traffic. You had to be patient and keep your wits about you. But Maddie enjoyed the challenges and that day was one of those days that called for all her ingenuity and skill. Convoys of military hardware and fuel being transported on roads that were already under pressure meant several hold-ups for her staff car, dwarfed by the huge vehicles.
A roadblock, set up at a crossroads in Devon, had made her passenger agitated. At one point he’d even started to blame her for the hold-up: ‘You can read a damn map, can’t you?’ he’d demanded. A bit unfairly, Maddie thought, and quite rude. The war was hardly her fault, but he was the one in charge. So, she’d bitten her tongue and got on with it.
After his short outburst, Captain Andrews had become quiet again. And late that night, when they finally arrived at their destination, he’d even smiled at her. Guilt, Maddie figured.
They set her up in a small ante-room off the main guards’ barracks. Hardly luxurious, but then there was a war on. And a corporal even brought her some food.
‘Just some bread and cheese,’ said the soldier. ‘And not much at that.’
‘That’s kind,’ she said. ‘More than I expected.’
‘Bread’s that thin you could spit through it. An’ you’d need a microscope to find the marge on there.’
‘It’s the thought that counts,’ said Maddie. She gave him a small, tired smile.
The man smiled back and sloped off.
She had no idea what tomorrow might bring: they were due to be there a few days, the officer had informed her. Tomorrow, I’ll instruct you in your duties. But that would take care of itself.
As for now, Maddie collapsed into the tiny, uncomfortable bunk, feeling none of its hard, wooden slats pressing into her through the thin mattress. It might well have been a massive, luxurious bed with silken sheets and an eiderdown of feathers as soft as an angel’s wing, and she Sleeping Beauty, for she immediately fell into a deep sleep. And if she could have hovered above herself, it might have amused her to see the smile on her face.
The next morning, the corporal arrived again. Corporal Williams seemed to have taken her under his wing and he brought her a breakfast of stewed tea and bread and dripping. Hardly exotic, thought Maddie. But it was a kind thought and she listened politely as he told her a little about the camp and the neighbouring farms and she watched a smile cross his face. But the smile disappeared when Captain Andrews arrived and barked at the poor man to stop loitering, ordered him out. Maddie turned her attention to the captain as he outlined the day’s duties for her.
‘You’ll find instructions here, Private.’
‘Very good, sir,’ said Maddie, as she accepted the scrap of paper. Tried to decipher his messy handwriting.
‘Not a gruelling task. Only a few items on there. But you’ll need to check they’ve got the measurements correct. Can’t trust some of these tradespeople if you’re not there to spur them on.’ ‘Right, sir. Measurements correct. Got it.’
‘Place is in Newquay, so I’ll instruct them to dig out some petrol for you.’
‘Do we know where in Newquay?’
‘Address is on there.’ He handed her an envelope. ‘Give him this and make sure he gives you a receipt.’
‘And the other items, sir?’
‘Already paid for.’
Nothing on the captain’s list struck Maddie as being in the slightest way military: not a single item that might influence the course of the war. Unless you counted the ladies’ lingerie she had to pick up from a seamstress. Or the fine leather evening shoes waiting to be collected at the cobbler’s shop in a back lane — it had been almost impossible to find — near the train station.
She took the shoes, handed the man the envelope. The cobbler counted out the money inside: a £1 note and a ten- shilling note. £1, seven shillings and 6d — that’s what it said on the receipt he gave her in return. The shoemaker pocketed the rest of the money. All that for a pair of shoes!
But being the captain’s personal servant did have at least one compensation: Maddie got to see the ocean. It seemed only fair, something she’d earned. She walked down to Tolcarne Beach, kicked off her shoes, removed the fearsome lisle stock-ings and allowed the soft, smooth sand to invade the spaces between her toes.
If you ignored the other beach walkers, promenading in their uniforms, you could imagine yourself on a lonely desert island with just the sound of lapping surf for company. Might even fool yourself into believing there wasn’t really a war on.
She walked to the water’s edge, dipped her feet into the ice- cold sea. The shock brought her back to reality. There may not be any barbed wire here on Tolcarne, but many of Newquay’s other beaches were mined against invasion, and had sinister black gun-emplacements on the cliffs above them. You might try to forget the war for a few giddy moments, but you couldn’t ignore it. She was on the army’s payroll now, and she ought to get back: Captain Andrews might well have drummed up a few more chores to keep her busy. Keep her out of his hair. She understood. For him she was just a lowly private and a woman at that. Good for some things, like running his damn errands, but someone to be kept out of the real business of war — the serious business. She’d met chaps like him before.
As she brushed the damp sand from her feet and tied her shoes, Maddie took one last look at the ocean and then trudged back up the steep path away from the beach. She got into her car and drove back to the hamlet of White Cross. To Camp 115.
17 FEBRUARY 1941
POW CAMP 115, WHITE CROSS, ST COLUMB
Rudi Fischer had been a prisoner of war for almost six months now, although sometimes it was hard to judge the passage of time. One of the first things his British captors had done was to take his watch. He’d tried to hide it in his boot, but an English Tommy had found it. Any other time, Rudi might have called it stealing, but he was a realist. The wedding rings and the watches, the money that had been taken away from them all for ‘safekeeping’ had never been returned. It had been confiscated, along with the cap badges, regimental insignia and the swastika pins. The booty of war. Rudi had quickly understood that some of the British Tommies saw these things as souvenirs, something they had a right to take from their defeated German enemies.
It had been hard at first. He’d been cold, hungry, frightened. Unsure of his future or how cruel his British captors would be. He’d been part of a bomber crew, after all, a waist gunner in a Heinkel. If you bombed their cities, you couldn’t expect to be welcomed with open arms.
But, although he’d been subjected to some initial interrogation, and de-humanised as he was stripped naked for a cold shower and his uniform fumigated, there had been no violence, no real cruelty. His captors had even fixed his broken leg.
There had been hundreds of them at the prisoners’ reception centre at Kempton Park — a famous racecourse, he’d heard later, although Rudi had no idea where he was. He was grateful that his father had taught him to speak English. But he knew little about Britain, its geography, or its people, other than the propaganda fed to him at home: about how useless and inferior the British were, not anything like as competent as his own countrymen. Still, he’d been grudgingly impressed by the way his enemies had swiftly processed the milling horde of prisoners.
A prisoner of war. Hard to take in, when all he’d felt was numb. And bone weary. He’d been lucky to survive the crash. Only two of their flight crew had: him and the haughty Berliner, Oberleutnant Karl Hoffmann. Hoffmann was the navigator, an officer and fanatical Nazi sympathiser who, it was rumoured, had been destined for great things in the Nazi Party.
Now that Rudi was in this new, permanent work camp in Cornwall, he’d been allocated clothes and boots that finally fitted. The clothes were a uniform of sorts. An old, worn British RAF battledress, but not royal blue: it was dyed black for prisoners. But it was the miracle of the boots that had put a smile on his face. His own uniform boots had always been far too small for his large feet. He was tall. Big feet came with the package. But when he’d first been issued with his uniform and complained about the boots, they’d all laughed. Germans didn’t complain. They were stoic. You were in the Luftwaffe. You took what they gave you, and tight boots were better than no boots at all.
These new boots weren’t actually new, of course. Probably from some dead British soldier. They were scuffed and worn, but at least they didn’t let water in. And no more blisters. It was bliss.
And this permanent camp meant they finally knew when their next meals were coming. Two a day, regular as clockwork. Not luxurious meals. One hot, one cold. He was skinny, wouldn’t get fat on what they were fed there, but then neither would the guards, for they ate the same thing as their German prisoners.
One of the guards, a Scotsman, was even quite friendly, and had taken a photograph of Rudi outside his hut.
And the camp regime wasn’t too harsh. You did what they told you and you got by. It was a boring, monotonous existence, but it was better than facing the flak in the skies, night after night.
He hadn’t been keen on fighting a war in the first place. Hadn’t joined the Hitler Youth like some of the other young men in his small Alpine village. Rudi had longed to be an engi-neer, to use his head and his hands like his father, but some-times you had no choice. And joining the Luftwaffe had been better than fighting in the infantry, plus the food was better.
And now? He’d tried to be philosophical. Here, in the middle of the Cornish countryside, he would wait the outcome of the war. And his captors had been reasonable, had even allowed Rudi to set up the camp newspaper, Die Wochenpost.
He’d also organised a small, informal group of fellow pris-oners who wanted to learn English. Rudi had never imagined himself to be any kind of teacher but found that he enjoyed it and it was a focus, something to hold onto in the boredom of captivity.
There were no guard towers here in Camp 115, no spot-lights or coils of barbed wire, no fierce guard dogs — just a perimeter fence and regular patrols. Some of his fellow pris-oners even got to go outside the gates, in work parties to help local farmers; or as labourers, working with the locals, fixing potholes in the roads.
But suddenly everything changed, and Rudi Fischer awoke each day now with a gut- wrenching fear. Not a fear brought on by the British, by his captors. No. The fear had come from his own side.
He knew something important about another prisoner that could get him killed.
Rudi thought back to when his plane had crashed in Kent. How he’d watched Oberleutnant Karl Hoffmann do something
strange. The man had changed clothes with the young dorsal gunner, callously stripping the poor dead bugger of his uniform.
At first, Rudi had been confused. But not anymore. That bastard Hoffmann had changed identity, turned himself into an enlisted man, someone who wouldn’t be sent to the special interrogation centres reserved for officers and hardliners with Nazi sympathies.
And now, life had changed dramatically for Rudi. It happened the moment he had threatened Hoffmann. Threatened to tell the British who the man really was. He had done it because Hoffmann had been bullying younger prisoners. Beating some. If only Rudi had kept his mouth shut, things might have been fine. Instead, he had warned that swine Hoffmann. Stop the bullying or I go to the British. Tell them every-thing I know.
The footsteps behind him were loud and menacing, and a large, meaty hand spun him viciously around. The eyes that stared at Rudi were full of hate, and the broad, brutish face spoke only of vengeance and spite.
‘So, I find you here, skulking,’ said Hoffmann.
‘Skulking? Why should I skulk?’ asked Rudi.
‘Hiding in the shadows like a frightened rabbit.’
‘Now I’m a rabbit? You should write fairy tales, Hoffmann. Something we Germans are good at.’
‘A friendly warning, my dear Obergefreiter Fischer.’
‘This camp can be a dangerous place. There are many hazards.’
‘I see. Like what?’ asked Rudi. But he figured he knew exactly what they were.
‘After lights out, many traps can wait in the darkness. And a trip to the showers — a man could easily become careless, could slip. A broken neck. A man should remain vigilant, accidents happen.’
‘My thanks, Oberleutnant Hoffmann,’ said Rudi.
‘For what?’ asked Hoffmann.
‘Your concern for my welfare. I’ll be sure to stay vigilant. Keep my eyes open for hazards.’
With that, Rudi Fischer walked away. He whistled as he left, stuffed his hands in his pockets in a nonchalant, carefree pose. But it was a lie. His hands were shaking, for he had seen the evil in Hoffmann’s eyes.
There was no way back now. Escape was the only answer.
Rudi went to the camp chapel, and he prayed. He wasn’t a religious man, but he tried to be honourable. Even in war, a man could still have honour and some kind of humanity.
He felt better after he’d prayed, even though he didn’t believe in a higher power, in any kind of god.
But, considering the eventual outcome, it would seem that God believed in him.
Maddie looked over at Captain Andrews. The officer was having an animated discussion with the camp commander, an army major with a piratical patch over one eye and high blood pressure (if the alarmingly red face was anything to go by). Captain Andrews was tall and thin, and the major had to look up at him. Both men seemed to be arguing, although she couldn’t hear their conversation. But their exaggerated body language was like watching a silent pantomime. Maddie forced herself not to smile.
It looked as if things weren’t going well for Captain Andrews. He kept twisting his handlebar moustache, something she’d noticed him do before when he was agitated. The furrowed brow and the small lines of stress on his face told their own story. At least to Maddie, who seemed to have the knack of reading people; it was a gift that had developed over the years. Not one she was aware of. But her friends in the barracks had told her she was easy to talk to and often got right to the root of their problems.
She liked people. Liked talking to them, hearing about their families. Maybe it was a way to forget about her own family,
who knew nothing about the real Maddie: what made her laugh or cry; her hopes for the future. None of them had ever asked.
Instead, they had tried to mould her into this perfect creature: a boarding school education, an exclusive finishing school and elocution lessons that made some of her ATS pals describe her as posh. Fit to marry the best in the land. That was the ludicrous phrase that fell repeatedly from her mother’s lips. Sometimes Maddie felt as if there’d been a mix-up at birth and the hospital had handed her over to the wrong family, by mistake. She’d always felt out of place.
When she’d first joined the ATS, her mother and brother had discussed her enlistment like she was a troublesome item on their agenda. Something that needed to be fixed. They’d lectured her: she was wasting her life, throwing away her education. She was one of the elite, they claimed. If she had to be in the army, why a damn private? Why not an officer?
But Maddie had no interest in being an officer. Or even in becoming an NCO. A non-commissioned officer wasn’t the same as an officer — they came up through the ranks — but they could still bark orders. She didn’t want to do that. She was happy being one of the many, enjoyed the spirit of camaraderie. The feeling of being part of a sisterhood. In the barracks, there was mutual support. You looked out for each other.
She watched the camp commander walk away, and went across to Captain Andrews, throwing him a smart, regulation salute. Officially, she was only meant to salute her own ATS officers, but for Maddie, it was a matter of courtesy: he was in the army and so was she.
Captain Andrews’ salute was returned in an off-hand way, lacking enthusiasm, not crisp like hers. And his eyes didn’t connect with her but lingered on her cap badge. Fair enough, you saluted the cap, not the person. Respect for the cap badge and all it represented. That was the way of the British Army. Not like the Americans: they liked throwing salutes right, left and centre, even when servicemen weren’t wearing their caps.
Her eyes went to the captain’s face. Yes, she’d been right. The man seemed distracted. And there were small red veins of stress standing out against the whites of his eyes. Things not going well, maybe.
She waited for him to speak, wondering what was next on his list of errands for her.
‘Back so soon, Private?’
‘Yes, sir.’ She came to attention.
‘Mission accomplished, I take it?’
‘And my packages?’
‘In the car, sir. I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to leave them there, or...’
‘Leave them? Good grief, girl. Why would I want you to do that?’
What was she? A mind reader? And girl? She wasn’t a girl. She was a woman.
‘Take them to my billet. When you’ve done that, come and find me. The commander has given me the use of his office.
Somewhere down by the water tower, I believe. I’m sure even you can find it.’ The captain smirked like he’d made an excel-lent joke and walked away, leaving Maddie with her mouth open.
That was unfair. She’d only got them lost once on the way there, and it had hardly been her fault as the diversion hadn’t been properly signposted. And they’d made it in the end.
Some people just weren’t very nice, were they? You’d think with the war and the need to pull together that it would make people kind. Most of the officers she ferried around were real gentlemen. Had been gracious, treated her like a fellow human, an equal, despite the difference in rank.
Still — she wouldn’t let it get to her, for Maddie Brady recognised sarcasm when she met it. It was a favourite weapon of her mother’s, and Maddie always managed to come out on top when those two sparred. But this Captain Andrews had her at a disadvantage. She couldn’t bite back at a superior officer, especially one like this chap. She suspected that he wouldn’t think twice about getting her into trouble with her own officer. He didn’t strike her as a happy man, a man content in his work.
The captain’s billet wasn’t hard to find: a tiny room in a two- storey house set back from the main gate. She wondered who had been thrown out of the place to make room for the bombastic captain.
After she’d left his parcels on the small bunk bed, Maddie went outside into the garden. It was well kept, the lawn neat and with some sort of small shrubs growing at regular intervals around the perimeter of the grass. Their scent was heady. She had no idea what kind of bushes they were. Gardening, agricul-ture, it wasn’t an area she was familiar with.
A massive, sculpted eagle, its wings spread, wide stood in the middle of the lawn, mounted on a tall stone plinth. She wondered who might have made it and put it there — in the middle of a garden, in a prisoner-of-war camp. But then maybe this place hadn’t always been a prison camp.
She might ask Corporal Williams about it. He was a man who seemed to have his finger on the pulse of camp life. And he hadn’t just dismissed her, like some of the regular army did to ATS women, as if they were a joke and not part of the real army. He’d taken her seriously, given her respect.
Maddie turned her back on the gatehouse and headed towards the tall brick water tower in the distance. The camp was large, with row after row of neat concrete huts. Hard to say how many men would fit into each separate hut, but one of the guards had told her they could house up to a thousand prisoners in the place.
She’d seen some of them earlier that morning before heading off to Newquay. A thin, ragged bunch of men. They’d been gathered in groups around the front of the huts chatting, some of them smoking. Some even laughing. That had surprised her. How could you be captured, be a prisoner — and still be cheerful? Maybe some of them were glad to be out of the fight-ing. She guessed they’d been about to line up for some sort of roll call. A roll call in the morning and another last thing at night. To make sure none of them tried an escape.
But this was a low-risk camp, as far as escapes went. There had never been any, at least according to Corporal Williams. He’d reckoned this lot were a bunch of Jerries who weren’t all that partial to Herr-bleedin’-Hitler and maybe they didn’t wish him and his bleedin’ Nazis any luck. But most of the prisoners didn’t wish him any harm, either. Fence-sitters, that’s what Corporal Williams had reckoned they were, what he’d told Maddie. They’d been interrogated by intelligence chaps at a holding camp in London, most of them; and some army big wigs had decided these prisoners were neutral. Safe enough to be let out to work on some of the surrounding Cornish farms. And still come back to the camp at night.
How strange! That’s what Maddie thought, at any rate. Even if you had armed guards taking you to work in the fields, and bringing you back... if there were a lot of you, wouldn’t you try to overpower them, try to escape? It was a prisoner of war’s duty to escape. To make the enemy use lots of resources and manpower in trying to recapture you.
She passed a flat piece of ground with two sets of makeshift goal posts there and a few men kicking a ball around. A football pitch. The POWs had built a pitch; maybe there was even some kind of league. It was beginning to look more like a holiday camp. No! That was wrong of her. None of these thin, scruffy men looked as if they were on holiday. And the clothes they wore marked them out as prisoners. Those and the white patches on their backs.
Maddie moved on quickly, heard the noisy cheers as one of the prisoners scored a goal. Humanity, with all its faults and quirks, never ceased to amaze her. How the human spirit could rise above trials and find triumph in small things.
Next to the football pitch was a long, low building with a thin, metal chimney on the roof, pumping out steam. A cook-house. The size surprised her, for it stretched all the way across to the far side of the camp and the perimeter fence. On the other side of the fence there was a railway line. Strange to see that — right out here in the middle of nowhere. So far, she hadn’t heard or seen any trains.
The camp was neat and well laid out. Not just a collection of mud walkways and huts. Proper concrete pathways connected the long, low buildings and some of the prisoners’ barracks even had small patches of cultivated ground out in front of them. No grass here, though, or fancy shrubs. Perhaps they’d been allowed to grow vegetables for themselves. That would make sense.
Growing your own food was important. Not just for these prisoners but for everybody in the country. It saved precious wartime resources. And helped in a time of hard rationing. Dig for victory! That’s what the posters said. In the pub, you’d hear a different slogan: Dig for a bad back. But despite the odd grumble, people still did it, saw it as their patriotic duty to get out into the allotment and get stuck in. Every available piece of dirt in the country had been turned over and used for growing food.
Maddie smiled as she remembered walking through Kensington Gardens last month, and the bizarre sight of the famous Albert Memorial surrounded by allotments of cabbages, leeks, potatoes, carrots. She felt sure Prince Albert wouldn’t have complained if he’d been alive. The prince had been a practical man; he’d have understood. He might even have chuckled that the Tower of London also had the best of veg growing in its moat.
That was all fine, of course — if you liked veg. Maddie wasn’t too partial to it. But it was supposed to be good for you, so she’d force down the limp, overcooked cabbage that they served up in the mess, and the disgusting sprouts.
‘Fine day for a walk, miss. Doing some exploring, is it, now?’
The loud voice made Maddie jump, and dragged her out of her head. ‘Corporal Williams! Just getting my bearings. It’s a big place,’ she said.
‘That it is. About an ’undred and twenty-odd acres. But we’ve got a fair few prisoners here. Germans right now, but we used to have Italians till they moved ’em out. They built that fancy chapel over there.’ Corporal Williams pointed to a small, whitewashed building some distance away. ‘And that grand-looking eagle out front,’ he said.
‘Ah. I was wondering about that,’ said Maddie. ‘Impressive.’
‘Artistic bunch, the I-ties were. And always singing, they were. And smilin’.’ The corporal himself was smiling then.
‘You’d wonder they had anything to sing about,’ said Maddie.
‘Aye, that you would. Lovely choir they had, though. The drop of a hat, the buggers — ’scuse me, miss — would break into song. Bit like the Welsh.’ Corporal Williams winked at her: he was Welsh himself.
Maddie gave him a smile in return. The man was friendly, had made her feel welcome.
‘I’m looking for the commander’s office,’ she said. ‘Seems like Captain Andrews has commandeered it for the time being.’
‘That so?’ The corporal grinned. ‘And you’d be looking for it in this direction, is it?’
‘Down by the water tower, that’s what the captain said.’
‘You’ll be after the Glory Hole then. Least, that’s what the lads call it,’ said Corporal Williams.
‘That’s the only thing you’ll find down there. Tiny, pokey place. Storage room, no bigger than a cupboard. Reckon you’d get a desk and chair in there — at a push, mind.’
‘Captain Andrews seems to think he’s been given the commander’s office.’
‘Does he now? Well, he’ll be tamping then. When he finds out, like.’
‘Tamping?’ Maddie queried.
‘What you English call “browned-off”. Angry, like. Very angry.’
‘Ah.’ Maddie had seen Captain Andrews upset on the journey down. When he’d been disappointed with their progress. She didn’t fancy seeing him when he was angry.
‘You can’t do it, Rudi. They’ll find you.’
‘Maybe they won’t. There’s no choice. I have to try, you know I can’t stay here. One way or another, he’ll get me,’ said Rudi.
‘We won’t let him. We’ll protect you,’ said Hans.
Rudi Fischer smiled at his friend. Hans Meyer was a good friend. He’d been a farmhand in a tiny village back home, a bit like Rudi’s own. It was why they’d naturally been drawn to each other, helped each other out; kept each other’s spirits up when the trials of being imprisoned in a land far away from your country became overwhelming.
But Hans couldn’t help him now. Nobody could. Not against that bully Hoffmann. ‘Okay,’ said Hans. ‘Say you even manage to get away from this place. I’ve been out there, been on one of the farms. It’s the back end of nowhere. Where would you go? The whole bloody country is an island.’
‘So?’ said Rudi. ‘Didn’t you say you could see the ocean from that farm of yours?’
‘What?! All of a sudden you’re a sailor?’ Hans laughed.
‘I know how to row a boat,’ said Rudi. ‘And I hear that the
Southern Irish don’t feel the same way about us filthy Krauts as the English.’
But even as he said it, he knew it was a measure of his own desperation. Of course he wasn’t a sailor. He’d been on Lake Hintersee near his home, but someone else had been in charge of the boat — and there’d been no waves. Even then, he’d been seasick.
‘That’s it? That’s the plan? You steal a boat. I’m assuming this is a rowing boat.’ Hans smiled again and punched his friend in the arm. ‘And then — what? You row around Britain, then head across the Irish Sea, where you’re greeted like a long-lost friend by some strange Irishman as you pull up on a friendly beach.’
‘I never said it was perfect.’ Rudi returned his friend’s smile. ‘Still a work in progress.’
They both knew it was thin. Any kind of escape needed planning, and resources, and friends who could help. But most of all it needed luck. And so far, Rudi Fischer hadn’t had a lot of that.
But Rudi had already made up his mind. Today was the day. No way around it. He couldn’t stay here for another day, and whatever happened, even if the guards discovered him trying to make a run for it, what would they do to him? Send him to another camp — a harsher one? That would be nothing compared to whatever Oberleutnant Karl Hoffmann had in mind for him.
At breakfast that morning, Hoffmann had accidentally stumbled into him, had loudly and courteously apologised, smiled, clicked his heels in that polite German way. But quietly, for Rudi’s consumption only, he’d whispered in Rudi’s ear that that day was to be a special day. No prizes for guessing what that meant. Hoffmann had already warned him that an accident could happen. He meant to carry out his threat. Hoffmann was a sociopath who liked to have fun with his prey. To keep them guessing. But even he wouldn’t wait for ever.
‘It’s insane,’ warned Hans, when Rudi explained he wouldn’t be there for evening roll call.
‘Not as insane as staying,’ said Rudi.
‘Okay, even if you get as far as joining the work detail in the lorry, they always look in the back; do a headcount of those going out.’
‘Throw of the dice. Maybe I’ll get lucky.’
‘Go to the camp commandant. I’ll come with you, they can’t ignore both of us.’
Rudi slapped his friend on the back: better than words, for there were no words to express the solidarity, the feeling of comradeship they shared. But he knew that Hans would be putting himself in danger too, would end up on that bastard Hoffmann’s list — and for what? The British would hardly take them seriously. Would dismiss the whole thing as just rivalry between the troublesome Krauts. And even if somebody did feel their complaint was worth investigating, it would take time. It would be too late.
‘I’ll be interviewing people for the rest of the day,’ said Captain Andrews. He tapped the pile of buff folders on the desk in front of him. It was a large pile.
‘I see, sir.’
‘I doubt you do, Private Brady. Nevertheless...’ He sighed out his frustration.
Maddie tried not to let her feelings register on her face. But really, the captain’s ego was large; his people skills small. And she wasn’t stupid, had a certain amount of intelligence. She could understand all kinds of things, provided they were explained to her. But then, he was an officer. He didn’t need to explain himself.
Maybe that sigh of his said something. Could it be that Captain Andrews had been handed the mucky end of a dirty stick and told to get on with it? Sort it out? You never knew. It was the army, but even in war, when everyone should be pulling together, people passed the buck.
‘So.’ she said. ‘What are my orders, sir?’
‘Your orders? Ah. Well, I won’t be needing a driver for today, or even tomorrow, as I expect I shall be stuck here behind
this damn desk all day tomorrow as well...’ He eyed the files in front of him malevolently.
She didn’t envy him. The office was tiny, and claustrophobic. And the pile of work looked huge. ‘Yes, sir,’ she replied, her voice neutral. Not her place to comment.
‘So, Private — why don’t you clean the car, or check the radiator, look at the sump. whatever you normally do when you’re not driving?’
‘Will do, sir,’ she said, and threw the man in front of her a regulation salute — he still had his uniform cap on, after all.
‘And when you’ve finished that, take a couple of days off, Private. Drive somewhere. See a bit of the countryside. I envisage driving back to town the day after tomorrow. Until then, you may be on your own devices. Consider it a forty-eight- hour pass.’
‘If you’re sure you won’t need me, sir.’ She couldn’t believe her luck.
‘Absolutely certain. I can think of no contribution you could possibly make to the work I’m about to undertake here. So, off you go — before I change my mind.’
‘Do you have written orders for me, sir?’
‘Do you need written orders? Aren’t you supposed to be at my disposal until we return to Whitehall?’
‘Those were my orders, sir.’
‘Well, then, off you go. And be back here at oh-seven hundred hours the day after tomorrow.’ ‘Look at the sump?’ asked Corporal Williams. ‘That’s what he said?’
‘Those are my orders,’ said Maddie, as she lifted the bonnet of the Humber.
‘I wouldn’t even know where to find the sump in one of these things.’
‘Not sure if the captain would either.’ Maddie smiled. ‘But we looked under the bonnets of all kinds of cars and lorries at Camberley. A three-tonner holds no mystery for me,’ she said, and laughed. ‘They taught us how to strip an engine — put a stopwatch on you. We had weeks of studying scale models and memorising all the parts, before they let us loose on the real thing.’
‘Doesn’t sound so bad,’ said Corporal Williams with a grin.
‘I loved it,’ said Maddie. ‘It’s good to learn new things.’ She thumped the bonnet down with a satisfying clunk and inspected the rest of the car. Mud from the narrow Cornish lanes had stuck to it, and the bodywork wasn’t as spotless as she liked to see it. The captain was right: it could do with a wash before she went on a sightseeing trip, explored a little. After all, those were her orders, and in the army, you always followed orders.
She smiled and watched as Corporal Williams marched smartly away to the sentry box by the gate. He was on barrier duty today, it seemed. A boring but important job that Maddie figured the Welshman would tackle with stoic resignation. He looked back over his shoulder and threw her a friendly wink. She laughed, and thought about her friends back at the billet and how her bunkmate Molly Peters would let out that long, low whistle of hers when there was a hint of romance in the air. Or lust.
Molly, a big buxom blonde with a generous heart, was very hot on the idea of lust. She was a confident, happy young woman, glad of the freedom that war had given her and her escape from a stifling family and rigid Catholic upbringing.
Maddie had checked the oil, topped up the water in the radiator and filled the Humber Snipe’s hungry belly with a jerry can of petrol. Just a quick wash and brush-up for the old girl now. The car was a reliable workhorse if you were good to her: Maddie always thought of the car as a she. She’d christened her Harriet. Harriet the Humber. Blokes would have sniggered, she knew. But Harriet had become a close ally and, at times, Maddie even found herself talking to the thing. Bizarre, maybe. Still — not as bizarre as being ordered off on a sight-seeing trip. It would be easy to follow an order like that, and the man was her boss, at least for the time being. But would she get in trouble with her own commanding officer back in London? Stuff in life had a way of hanging you, even if you were innocent.
A voice cut through her thoughts: ‘You leaving that there all day? You’re right in the way of the lorry. All the same, you ATS girlies are; ain’t got the sense you was born with.’ There was a loud tut. ‘Never should ’ave let women join the army,’ the man grumbled under his breath. But Maddie heard it.
She looked up at the man, his red, angry face. His sergeant’s stripes. She opened her mouth to speak, but he jumped straight back in: a one-sided conversation, then.
‘Pull it up over there and leave enough room in front for the prisoners’ transport. They’ll be leaving soon.’
‘I’m washing the car.’
‘I don’t see no water. Anyroad, you can do that just as easy, parked up over there.’ The sergeant pointed to a spot behind her right shoulder, like Maddie’s brain was somehow inferior and couldn’t work out the directions by herself.
Some of the regular army blokes felt intimidated by women in the ATS, as if somehow the women’s army section was tainting the whole service. Had brought it into disrepute. The man is one of those, she decided. It wasn’t the first time she’d come across that sort of prejudice, and it annoyed her. But she always tried to ignore it. The sexual slurs were harder to ignore — when a bloke sniggered and called you an officer’s blanket. And it wasn’t true: very few of the ATS girls were easy.
She watched the sergeant puff himself up with power.
NCOs — the backbone of the army, but some of them misused their position, became bullies.
‘I’ll get some of them lazy buggers who ain’t going out on work detail to bring you buckets and stuff,’ he said. ‘Do ’em good. Some of ’em think they’re on holiday.’ The small, fat sergeant guffawed as he marched away.
Rudi Fischer felt suddenly positive, cheerful even. A kernel of optimism was growing in the pit of his stomach, and spread itself to his face in a happy grin. Maybe there was a God after all, and He’d finally decided to throw His muscle behind Rudi.
It was the first time he felt that escape might be more than just a vague hope, but a realistic idea. The thought made him whistle as he polished the car. The big old vehicle couldn’t really be polished, for like most military vehicles of its kind it was just a dull mat green. But Rudi polished away enthusiastically with his rag as if you might see your reflection in it, and while he was at it, he polished the silver boot latch with equal vigour.
He’d already tried the latch and it had moved smoothly. And the two long hinges at the top of the boot hadn’t even groaned as he’d expected, but moved easily to lift the thing like a lid. He’d always thought of his own nation as excellent engineers and manufacturers, for German cars were reliable. Precision, it was a German trait. But maybe the British knew a thing or two as well. Probably used German engineers before the war, though.
He smiled and patted the boot of the car affectionately. It was roomy enough, even though there was a spare tyre in there. Could have been worse. Finally, the sun had decided to shine on him.
He looked at the others busily drying off the car. Four of them had been ordered to wash and polish the thing. Some of them had grumbled under their breath, but not him.
Rudi set about his task with a renewed vigour and cheerful-ness, which he suddenly realised might seem suspicious. He cut off his whistle, mid-flow.
The woman in the army uniform turned her head to look at him. He guessed she was the vehicle’s driver for she seemed to have a personal interest in the car and had once even patted the bonnet like the thing was a family pet. He’d laughed at that and when their eyes met, there had been laughter in hers as well, and she’d shrugged her shoulders, a kind of admission that she’d been caught out being foolish.
Her eyes were blue. Sparkling blue, like he imagined the purest ocean to be, and fizzing with life and laughter. And her hair, a curtain of silky blonde tresses sneaking out from under the uniform cap and framing a strong, but nevertheless pretty face. Not long hair, or the style favoured by Frauleins in his homeland, but attractive all the same, and the colour of new mown hay. She was unusually tall too. For a woman. At least any of the women Rudi had come across. Her height easily matched his own and gave her a natural elegance that made her stand out in the stark and bleak surroundings. A jewel in the middle of a rubbish heap was the description that came to Rudi’s mind when his eyes were tugged hypnotically towards her. Another time, another place, he thought wistfully, and things might have been different.
He might even have been brave enough to overcome his natural shyness and start up a conversation with the woman, tap into the humanity that lay behind that smile. He suspected that she had understanding and empathy, for she’d already apolo¬gised to them for having been forced to wash her car. She’d even argued with the sergeant that the men shouldn’t be treated like slave labour, should be given the dignity captured prisoners of war deserved.
Rudi had been impressed by the young woman’s spirit, but the fat sergeant had only laughed and trotted out some vague insult about allowing women to wear uniforms. Rudi’s grasp of English was still only basic, and the sergeant’s strange accent hard to decipher, but the downward slope of the woman’s shoulders and the sadness in those deep blue eyes hadn’t needed a shared language to interpret: that bastard sergeant had made her unhappy.
And for some irrational reason that he couldn’t possibly begin to fathom or explain, Rudi Fischer wanted to protect this lovely woman, this stranger he had only just met and never even spoken to. Protect her from any more pain.
Maddie knew nothing about the man, other than the fact he was a POW. A German. An enemy. Someone she should hate. But when he’d smiled at her like that, she could find no hate in her for the tall man with the hypnotic, ice-blue eyes. He struck her as someone who would laugh easily, despite whatever sadness the world threw at him, and even now the skin around his eyes crinkled readily into laughter lines. It was a strange contradiction, humour playing across a face with sunken cheeks and sallow skin.
Despite the smile, the man looked ill, emaciated, his impressive height seemed designed for a body with more meat on its bones. Skeletal was a word that floated into Maddie’s head; she shrugged it off. For she guessed that someone like him, who could find humour in a grim POW camp, would never consider himself a victim.
What? she asked an invisible Molly, as a picture of her bunkmate suddenly thrust itself again into her mind. Molly, the friend who could find romance lurking under every rock. Well, he is very striking, Maddie argued with the image in her head. And those cheekbones — classical, wouldn’t you say? But of course, Molly didn’t answer back. And what would she have said if she had? That the man was an enemy?
Maddie had never come face to face with an enemy before, and the reality was a surprise. He didn’t look at all like a monster or some strange clone from a race of Hitler’s super-humans that the propaganda described. He looked like a normal chap; one she might even talk to if circumstances were different. One thing she knew — some strange chemical reaction had taken place; one she had never encountered before; an indefinable force that drew her towards this stranger, a force she had no control over. But one that she would try her hardest to ignore. She was British, a patriot, proud of her country, and fraternising with the enemy was number one on a long list of things you didn’t do.
Even so, after she watched them retreat back to their huts, she wished she’d asked his name.
End of sample