Battlecruiser (1997)

Battlecruiser (1997) by Douglas Reeman Read Free Book Online

Book: Battlecruiser (1997) by Douglas Reeman Read Free Book Online
Authors: Douglas Reeman
Tags: WWII/Naval/Fiction
his face in themirror. He had shaved before turning in, a habit he had developed somewhere along the way, when the real edge of war had shown itself. It did not do the watchkeepers any good to see their captain unshaven and bleary-eyed when he first appeared on the bridge. Like that morning when they had weighed anchor: the forecastle party, shining black like beetles in their oilskins, and seemingly miles away from his lofty position on the upper bridge. Two tugs hovering nearby in case the new captain made a cock-up of it. At least Rear-Admiral Stagg had stayed away during the manoeuvre, although his presence was very real, nevertheless.
    The great bows swinging, as if the land and not the ship was gliding past, while the Jack was hauled down and the anchor appeared above the water like a giant pendulum. And so quiet. The coxswain and telegraphsmen far below the bridge, hidden behind armour plate, the officers on the lookout for unexpected harbour craft, the navigator, Lieutenant-Commander Rhodes, a great, bearded figure bending over his chart table, his big fingers supple and almost delicate as they worked busily with dividers and parallel rulers. In
Pyrrhus
, the pilot had been an R.N.R. officer, an ex-merchant navy man with a master’s ticket. During some of the long night watches Sherbrooke had found a form of escape in listening to him and his tales of another world, of cruise ships and long voyages, of money, and of the passengers, many of whom reappeared every year for one cruise or another.
    In time he would get to know Rhodes, too. But even that memory opened the wound again.
    There was a tap at the door. ‘Captain, sir?’
    It was a bridge messenger, a mug of tea carefully balanced on a tray. Sherbrooke had been surprised, moved, when for the first two mornings at sea his own steward,Petty Officer Long, had brought the tea himself, as if he did not trust anybody else, or perhaps for other reasons at which one could only guess. Either way, he had got out of a warm bunk to do it.
    He sipped the tea, the typical navy mixture of sugar and tinned milk: stuck to your ribs, they said. It would be going round the upper deck positions now, the secondary armament, and the anti-aircraft gun crews. Even up here, they were manned. Not even a battlecruiser could afford to be careless.
    He could picture the chart exactly in his mind, as if he had just examined it. They were three hundred miles south of the Icelandic coast, Seydisfjord to be exact, and some two hundred miles west of the Faroes. A wilderness, but a jungle, too, where hunter could so easily change roles with the hunted.
    Their destroyer escort numbered six, some of the new M-class, probably the largest of their type yet built. Even so, they would be finding it hard going in these waters, keeping station on their giant consort, men trying to stay on their feet with the hulls bucking and plunging, attempting to cripple the unwary.
    ‘What’s it like out there?’
    The seaman hesitated, surprised that the captain had spoken to him.
    ‘Bit rough, sir. She can take it, though.’
    He looked away as Sherbrooke glanced at him, afraid, perhaps, that he had gone too far.
    But Sherbrooke had caught the man’s sense of belonging, of pride. How old was he? Certainly not yet twenty, or old enough to draw his tot.
    The seaman left quietly. And there were twelve hundred more like him crammed into this great hull. There had been a few absentees when
Reliant
had left the Firth ofForth, a couple of men who had been sent on compassionate leave, their homes and families wiped out in air raids, and another who had gone south to see his wife. The welfare people had reported that she had been having an affair with somebody else. It was common enough in wartime, but no less heartbreaking for the one involved. Neighbours had heard screams, and the local police had discovered the woman more dead than alive, with a real chance that she might not recover. The naval patrols would be out

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