An AuthorsOnLine Book
Copyright © Authors OnLine Ltd 2004
Text Copyright © Anthony G Williams
Cover design by Tim O’Brien and James Fitt
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ISBN 0 7552 0156 6
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Anthony G Williams is a military technology
historian. He is the author of 'Rapid Fire: The Development
of Automatic Cannon, Heavy Machine Guns and their Ammunition for Armies,
Navies and Air Forces', and the co-author of 'Assault Rifle: the Development
of the Modern Military Rifle and its Ammunition' (with Maxim Popenker) and the
three-volume series 'Flying Guns: Development of Aircraft Guns, Ammunition and
Installations' (with Emmanuel Gustin). 'The Foresight War' is his first novel.
He maintains a website at:
CHAPTER 1 - THROWBACK
He woke, and instantly wished that he hadn’t. The throbbing headache which consumed him seemed to extend beyond his head into every part of his body. He began to moan, but stopped abruptly as the ache intensified. He lay unmoving, gritting his teeth, enduring in silent desperation.
After an indeterminate period, the pain subsided enough to risk an attempt at coherent thought. What on earth had he done last night? He was not a heavy drinker, and besides, the worst hangover he could recall was a pale shadow of this suffering. Had he been in an accident? Fallen ill? He gingerly searched his memory, but could find nothing to account for such appalling agony. The pain gradually dimmed further. Slowly, he opened his eyes to the dull light of early morning.
He was lying on his back, staring at a ceiling. The ceiling was plain, with an old-fashioned frilly lampshade surrounding the single bulb. The lampshade stayed steady and his head remained intact. Adventurously, he turned his head sideways and immediately shut his eyes to ward off the surge of nausea. Time passed. Slowly, he opened his eyes again. No reaction. He took stock of what he could see.
The wallpaper was dull and also old-fashioned. So was the varnished wooden door and the brown Bakelite light switch next to it. Puzzlement began to grow. He was certainly not in his bedroom, nor in anyone else’s that he recognised. Curiosity overcoming the gradually receding pain, he raised his head. A thin, brass curtain rail, suspending thin, drab curtains, framed a sash window. A further effort brought a pair of discoloured brass taps into view, followed by a porcelain washbasin on a metal stand, framed and partly obscured by the foot of a brass bedstead. A pair of brown leather shoes completed his field of view. He wiggled his feet and the shoes moved in sympathy. Turning his head to the other side, he saw a large wardrobe in dark wood. There was nothing else in the room, apart from a wooden chair on which sat his holdall.
Experimentally he tried moving his legs. They obeyed orders promptly. The pain was fading rapidly now, and he swung his legs over the side of the bed with more confidence. Slowly sitting upright, he took stock.
He appeared to be uninjured, and although weak and shaky, did not feel ill. He was fully dressed, still possessed a full wallet and his keys, and he confirmed (after a careful stretch to the chair) that his holdall retained its usual contents. Not a robbery, then. A careful shuffle to the end of the bed gave him a limited view of rooftops with a larger structure some distance beyond. At first, the rooftops caught his attention. There was something odd about them. The wisps of smoke rising from the chimneys was an unusual sight, but he suddenly realised that what puzzled him wasn’t anything he could see, but something he couldn’t see: there were no aerials; not a satellite dish, not even the most humble antenna.
Something else nagged at him. He looked at the structure in the distance. It appeared to be an enormous, barrel-roofed greenhouse with towers at each end. He stared at it blankly, until he gradually realised that his memory was telling him what it was, but his mind was refusing to accept the data. He was looking at the Crystal Palace.
For a long time he sat unmoving, his mind jammed by the utter impossibility of the evidence of his eyes. Slowly, his thoughts unfroze. He could not deny what he was seeing: the pride of the Great Exhibition of 1851, moved from Hyde Park to a permanent home at Sydenham Hill, destroyed by fire in the 1930s.
Destroyed by fire in the 1930s – nearly seventy years ago! His mind locked again and he fought desperately to regain some equilibrium. He tried to think logically, to build on small steps. How did he know this was the Crystal Palace? Because he had seen pictures a hundred times, there was nothing of this size remotely like it. How did he know when it was destroyed? Because he was a historian, it was his business to know. So which year did he think he was in? 2004, at the end of the summer. How did he know that? Because he was a lecturer at London University, preparing for the next academic year. Knowledge flooded back into him as if a dam had burst.
His name was Don, Dr Don Erlang. He repeated this out loud, to make sure it sounded right. The sound of his own voice in the quiet room startled him. He was forty years old, divorced five years ago, living alone in a flat in Kennington. He couldn’t possibly be seeing the view out of the window, and as he never took hallucinogens he must be experiencing an extremely vivid dream. Feeling very self-conscious, he pinched himself hard. It hurt. The Crystal Palace floated serene and unperturbed in the distance. He tottered to the washbasin, poured some cold water, splashed it into his face, then looked up. Still there. This close to the window, he could see more.
The street was cobbled; near by was a junction with a larger road. Ancient cars crossed the narrow field of view. A couple pushed a pram across the junction, the woman in a long dress and coat, the man wearing a trilby. The pram had huge overlapping wheels. His mind dived for cover again and he forced it to work with an effort of will. There had to be a rational explanation.
The simplest was that he was suffering from an intense delusion. How this came to be, he had no idea. Certainly life was much less rewarding these days, with steady increases in class sizes, pressures to research and publish, the obtrusive quality assessments. Still, it wasn’t so bad that he was likely to have cracked under the pressure. His discipline was his all-consuming interest, indeed a contributory cause of the failure of his marriage. He knew more about the military history of the Twentieth Century than all but a handful of other academics and his life was in its study.
Suppose he had lost his sanity? What should he, could he, do about it? How should he behave? Most immediately, what should he do now?
He realised that he would have to leave this room, and instantly felt a strong reluctance to do so. The room was a little old-fashioned, but it was known, safe, explicable. The outside world was another matter. He forced himself to straighten up from the sink, walk to the chair, pick up his bag and walk to the door. It felt like a journey towards unknown terrors. He braced himself, opened the door and walked out.
Afterwards, Don remembered little of the building he walked through. It appeared to be some sort of low-cost boarding house but he met no-one to ask. The street was equally deserted, so he walked to the junction with the main road. The light breeze did not entirely dispel the smell of smoke.
Across the road there were some shops, one of them a newsagent. He walked over, feeling an icy chill of apprehension. A looming shape and the blare of a horn caused him to jump quickly to the pavement. He entered the shop and approached the piles of newspapers. The nearest had the headline ‘THOUSANDS OFF THE MEANS TEST’. He noted vaguely that it was the Daily Mirror, and that the lead story was about Government efforts to help the workless. It took a real effort to force his eyes to the date. Monday 3rd September 1934. His vision spun in front of him, and he grasped at the counter to stay on his feet.
‘Are you all right mate?’ He barely heard the concerned voice, but nodded and staggered out into the street. He began thinking again some time later, when he was already a distance from the shop. He looked at his digital watch, which informed him that the time was 9.37 a.m., and the date Friday 3rd September 2004. Exactly seventy years. He was only a few yards further down the road when the significance of the date struck him. It was precisely five years before the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, would announce that the German refusal to withdraw from their invasion of Poland meant that Britain was at war with Germany; five years before the start of the Second World War.
He kept on walking blindly and after a while realised that he was beginning to feel calmer, more relaxed. There must be a limit to the amount of stress a mind could take before it began adjusting, accepting the current appearance of reality, no matter how absurd. At least this particular delusion was remarkably consistent as well as detailed, with no obvious anachronisms. Of course, that could simply reflect his knowledge of the times. That being so, he reflected that he might as well behave accordingly: as if the delusion were reality.
What to do next? He was already beginning to feel hungry and it was clear that this delusion required him to go through the motions of eating if he were not to become uncomfortable. He had enough money to buy food, but when he stopped to check his wallet he found that it still held twenty-first century currency, useless in this context. He would need to find someone to help him. He noticed from the position of the sun that he had been instinctively walking north, towards the centre of London. He had a long way to walk, but although it had evidently rained earlier, it was becoming warm and sunny. As he walked, he considered who he might contact. It occurred to him that he was not without resources. Some of the gadgets he possessed would be of great interest, and above all he had knowledge. The thought struck him with such force that he stopped. Six years of war. Fifty million dead. Britain bankrupted. Eastern Europe imprisoned. In this milieu, his knowledge was beyond price.
He continued walking more thoughtfully. He was treating this delusion as if it were reality, but what alternative was there? He was clearly going through some escapist wish-fulfilment fantasy, as there were few people as well-equipped as himself to provide useful advice about what to do over the next few years. He might as well enjoy the opportunity and see what happened.
Winston Churchill. The obvious name came to mind. After a while, Don dismissed the idea. In 1934 Churchill was in the political wilderness, a notorious Jeremiah, always prophesying war. He would be convinced readily enough by Don’s story but it was unlikely that anyone would listen to him. He needed to speak to someone with authority, but not a politician who might consider only the party political implications. After a while, he made up his mind and walked with more purpose, staring with fascination at his surroundings. The relative absence of motor vehicles made the walk more of a pleasure than he would have expected, but he had to smile wryly as he encountered his first trams. He recalled reading recently that London was considering the reintroduction of a tram system and wondered if the old tracks were still there, buried under the tarmac. He crossed the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge, noting with a pang of nostalgia the steam train chuffing its way across the railway bridge to his right. He had forgotten, though, just how smoky the air would be, and how grimy the buildings in their layers of soot.
The porter at Imperial College was suspicious. ‘The Rector is a busy man. He isn’t accustomed to seeing people without appointments.’ His look clearly suggested that anyone as strangely dressed and dishevelled as Don, still perspiring from his long walk, would be unlikely to be granted such an honour.
‘Do you have an envelope I could use?’ Don asked politely. The porter grudgingly passed one over. Don opened his wallet and slipped something inside the envelope before sealing it. ‘Could you take this to the Rector, please? I am certain he will want to see me.’ He tried his most confident smile. With more grumbles and suspicious looks, the porter bade him wait and disappeared inside the building.
Henry Tizard was irritated but clearly intrigued. ‘What’s all this nonsense about?’ He asked coldly, holding up the 2002 pound coin.
Don did not immediately reply, but instead passed over his digital watch. Tizard looked at it with incredulity, his pale face even more tense than usual, fierce eyes glinting through metal-rimmed spectacles. Don opened his holdall and took out the notebook computer.
‘Let me show you what this can do.’ He said calmly.
Don reflected with some amusement that for all Tizard’s reputation for being penetrating, tough and prickly, he looked decidedly nonplussed now.
‘Very well, then,’ Tizard said abruptly, ‘for the sake of argument, let’s accept your story that you’re a visitor from the future. What do you want? Why have you come to see me?’
‘The second question is easier to answer than the first, Sir Henry,’ Don began, then realised his mistake as Tizard frowned. ‘I’m sorry, of course you haven’t been knighted yet.’
There was a glint of amusement in Tizard’s eyes. ‘Indeed I haven’t,’ he growled.
Don ploughed on. ‘You are chairman of the Aeronautical Research Committee and shortly to become chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Defence, which will among other things sponsor the invention of radar.’ Seeing Tizard’s expression, Don hurried on. ‘You are one of the most respected scientists in the country and your word carries weight with politicians as well as your peers. Besides,’ he added, ‘I knew where to find you. As to what I want, that’s hard to say. Perhaps, above all, to give a warning.’
‘What kind of warning?’
Don spoke slowly. ‘The War to end all wars isn’t over yet. This is no more than a pause in the struggle. The worst is yet to come.’ He leaned back in his chair and then paused as an increasing distraction claimed his attention.
‘Before I begin,’ he said apologetically, ‘do you think I could have something to eat and drink?’
The meeting had taken weeks of argument, demonstration and persuasion to organise, and was being held in conditions of absolute secrecy. Don had not been introduced to anyone present, but Dunning had warned him about that.
‘They haven’t been able to ignore the evidence you brought with you, which is why they are coming,’ he explained, ‘but they are acutely sensitive of the prospect of public ridicule if news of the meeting leaks out, so they won’t officially be here.’
Tizard had introduced Charles Dunning to Don a few days after what Don had come to think of as his ‘reversion’. A neat, well-dressed man of about his own age, Dunning was self-effacing but had an air of quiet authority. He had described himself as a civil servant, but his reticence combined with his remarkable ability to make things happen suggested to Don that his particular branch of the civil service probably had no official existence. He had rapidly organised some rooms close to Whitehall in which Don had been spending most of his time, and had turned up without warning to take him to this meeting.
Dunning had assured him that although no politicians were present (‘This is being kept away from them until their advisers know what to make of it’) the meeting included highly influential civil servants and military advisers (‘They won’t be in uniform, but you’ll probably be able to pick them out’).
So far Don had related, for the umpteenth time, the story of his strange reversion and his summary of the events of the next decade. He had then spent a considerable time fielding detailed questions, many of which he found surprisingly difficult to answer. He somewhat ruefully realised the extent to which general background knowledge tends to be frustratingly unspecific.
The air was thick with smoke, cigarettes vying for pre-eminence with pipes and cigars. Don felt ill, but was too nervous to ask for a window to be opened. The chairman of the meeting was a lean, grey-haired man wearing the authority of one whose judgement was unquestioned. He had chain-smoked cigarettes throughout the meeting.
‘Very well, we have heard Dr Erlang’s account. Let us assume for the purpose of this meeting that it is accurate. Certainly there are enough straws in the wind to make his story credible.’ He began ticking them off on his fingers. ‘Last June Hitler and Mussolini met in Venice. At the end of that month, Hitler purged Rohm’s faction from the Nazi Party.’ (Don tried to recall when the phrase ‘Night of the Long Knives’ had been coined). ‘In August, the Austrian Chancellor, Dolfuss, was assassinated by a Nazi and in the same month Hindenberg died and Hitler immediately combined his position as Chancellor with that of the Presidency. He is clearly well on the way to becoming the unchallenged dictator of Germany. In the light of Dr Erlang’s revelations, what response should we make?’
There was a rather uncomfortable pause. Clearly, no-one wanted to appear foolish or gullible. Finally, an elderly man who had not yet spoken removed his cigar and cleared his throat.
‘The key problem is clearly the German Nazi Party in general and Hitler in particular. Japan is a separate issue of lower priority. The question must be: how can we stop Hitler?’
An obviously cultured younger man, whom Don had tagged as a Foreign Office official, elegantly waved his cigarette holder and begged to differ.
‘From what we have heard, the Nazi Party is an inevitable expression of German frustration at the outcome of the Great War, and Hitler no more than a demagogic catalyst. If he fell, he would be replaced by someone else with similar ambitions.’
‘But perhaps by someone more reasonable, less megalomaniac.’ This from a rather earnest, pipe-smoking individual whose application of hair cream did not entirely stifle the exuberance of his light brown curls.
‘But Hitler’s paranoiac megalomania will be the cause of his downfall. A more rational leader may still wish to expand Germany’s boundaries but would make fewer mistakes in so doing. Even with Hitler’s misjudgements, we have heard how close Germany will come to winning the next war.’
‘But if only half of what we have heard is correct, Hitler is appallingly evil.’
‘All the better. It gives us a much less ambiguous target. A more reasonable man might be much harder to turn public opinion against, particularly in America.’ The last speaker was clearly military, although Don was unable to guess the Service.
‘Could the League of Nations be used in some way?’
‘No fear’, retorted Diplomat with feeling, ‘If we try to encourage them to take a more active role, they would just expect us to contribute most of the military forces. We could end up being dragged into a war anyway, in circumstances not of our choosing.’
‘Is there no way we can persuade the Germans away from their folly? Show them our evidence? Get them to see reason?’ Creamed Curls was sounding desperate. Military Man was unmoved.
‘War appears inevitable. Dr Erlang is the biggest secret weapon we will have. His existence must not be revealed.’
There was a thoughtful pause. Chairman broke the silence. ‘I agree that the consequences of revealing Dr Erlang’s existence are too incalculable to be risked, in terms of public opinion as well as German reaction. Events would be set off on an entirely new course which could result in a much more disastrous outcome for this country. And the interests of this country must be paramount in our minds.’
Don shuffled, feeling he ought to protest, but was stilled by the murmurs of agreement around the table. Chairman was warming to his theme.
‘Let us consider the situation. We are warned of a terrible war which we, none the less, will win. It is therefore to our advantage to take no radical steps which might affect the outcome, but to make whatever adjustments appear necessary to our policies in order to reduce our losses and end the war in a more favourable position.’ There was much nodding around the table.
‘Some gentle nudges on the tiller,’ murmured Diplomat, ‘take in a reef here or there. Changes which, begging your pardon’ – this to Don – ‘would do no harm even if your promised apocalypse turns out to be a damp squib.’
‘We are agreed then,’ stated Chairman with justified confidence. ‘It might be helpful for us to have a preliminary tour around our foreign and defence policies in order to identify areas which could do with attention.’
‘Mustn’t forget the empire,’ observed a man whose ruddy face was emphasised by his white hair, ‘incredible about those Japanese. I wouldn’t have thought they would have the nerve, let alone the ability, to pose any risk to ourselves or the Americans.’
‘I agree entirely,’ smoothed Diplomat, ‘but from what we have heard, the errors which cost so dear - beg pardon, will cost; or should it be would have cost? These tenses are becoming confusing. No matter – the forecast problems in the Far East should be easy enough to correct with better preparation.’
‘That depends,’ responded Ruddy Face, ‘the Navy can’t be expected to deal with Japan at the same time as Germany and Italy. It would be highly dangerous to risk war with Japan unless we could be assured that America will fight with us.’
‘From what we have heard,’ commented Chairman, ‘that should not be too much of a problem.’
There was a thoughtful pause.
‘Are we agreed on that?’ Enquired Chairman. Emphatic nods. ‘Very well then, let us turn to the German question. What are our options.’
Creamed Curls was still optimistic. ‘We could speed up re-armament and take a tougher line with Hitler; aim to stop him at some point before the attack on Poland. Perhaps the re-occupation of the Rhineland? The crisis over Czechoslovakia?’
‘That would only postpone the conflict’ (this from Elderly Cigar) ‘and it’s not feasible anyway unless we have full backing from France.’
‘Can’t we attempt to convince France of the need to re-arm and take a strong line as well?’
Elderly Cigar looked incredulous. ‘My dear chap, have you been over there? Read their newspapers? Listened to their politicians? They are perpetually torn apart by conflict between left and right-wing groups and have no political stability at all. And while most countries are pulling out of the Depression, French production is still declining. What’s more, they were so traumatised by the slaughter of the Great War that they would do almost anything to avoid conflict. They intend to hide behind their Maginot Line and haven’t the will to confront anything. I am actually astonished that they are apparently going to stick to their treaty obligations and back us over Poland.’
Chairman frowned. ‘Very well then, what other options do we have?’
Military Man had no doubts. ‘Re-arm more quickly and effectively, persuade the French to do the same – as far as possible – and concentrate on defeating Germany as soon as possible after 1939, when they’re still busy with invading Poland and simultaneously covering the Russians to ensure that they don’t advance too far.’
‘Risky, given German strength and French weakness,‘ murmured Diplomat. ‘Let’s face it, it’s clear that in order to guarantee German defeat, we would have to bring the Russians in against them. This will only happen if Germany attacks Russia, and Germany won’t do that unless France is defeated first.’
Everybody looked at Diplomat. He waved his cigarette holder. ‘One of our most vulnerable points will be after the defeat of France. According to our friend here, nobody knows what would have happened if Hitler had invaded us in 1940, with our Army defeated and its equipment lost.’
‘They would never have got past the Navy.’ Ruddy Face’s allegiance was now clearly identifiable.
Chairman was interested. ‘What do you suggest?’
Diplomat smiled, rather enjoying the limelight, thought Don. ‘I propose that we stay away from European entanglements and let Hitler do what he likes on the Continent. He will have no reason to attack Britain and will not be able to if we prepare our defences against invasion. There is still a good chance that Russia will defeat him single-handed, only much weakened. We can then step in to put things right.’
Creamed Curls was indignant. ‘We can’t do that, it would be legally and morally impossible given our treaty obligations.’
‘What’s more,’ added Elderly Cigar, ‘Hitler’s desire for conquest appears to be insatiable and there will still be the risk that if he can secure his position in Europe, Germany will turn on Britain. Furthermore, as he grows in power so will his influence here. Nazism already has many supporters.’
There was silence as thoughts turned to the frequent, well-attended meetings of the British Union of Fascists.
‘And not all of his supporters are down at the level of Mosley’s Blackshirts,’ murmured Diplomat.
‘Quite so,’ said Chairman, a little sourly Don thought. ‘We need a way of minimising our losses without breaking our treaty obligations.’
‘Try this one for size,’ offered Diplomat. ‘We refrain from giving that expensive guarantee to Poland – seems a daft idea anyway as we could never do anything effective to defend them and the Treaty of Locarno doesn’t commit us to guaranteeing their boundaries. That means that we don’t have to declare war until the Germans charge through the Low Countries on their way to France. It will then be too late for us to get any substantial part of our Army over before the French are defeated. Then we could sit, honour satisfied but with defences intact.’
Another pause, this time more encouraging.
‘I like the sound of that,’ from Elderly Cigar.
‘So do I,’ said Ruddy Face ‘and I suggest a refinement.’ Enquiring looks. ‘We prepare instead to pinch Norway from under the Nazis’ noses. If Hitler follows the script, we will be fully engaged in battling his invasion of Norway just at the point that he moves on France, so we will have a cast-iron reason for not coming to France’s aid. Holding Norway will incidentally save us a great deal of trouble later on.’
Creamed Curls winced and objected. ‘How do we know that the Germans will still invade Norway just before attacking France, if we’re not already at war with them over Poland?’
‘We don’t,’ said Diplomat, ‘but we can take steps to ensure that they do. Suppose they were made aware that we would certainly declare war if they attacked France, and would then seek to ensure that Norway remained friendly to us? That would give Hitler enough incentive to catch us on the hop by invading Norway first. Ironically, our interests and those of the Nazis would be identical at that point: to prevent us from becoming involved with the fighting in France.’
Chairman waited for further contributions, but no-one seemed inclined to take the argument further. ‘Very well, gentlemen. We seem to have arrived at a consensus over the broad thrust of our policy. I suggest we cancel any other commitments in order to continue these discussions next week.’
That evening, Don bought a copy of the Daily Mail on his way back to his rooms. ‘GENERAL STRIKE IN SPAIN’ announced the headline. And the sub-heading, ‘Sound of firing heard in Madrid.’ This would be the abortive precursor of the Spanish Civil War, he thought, with an attempt to form a Catalan republic leading to a battle in Barcelona. The real fighting would start in the following year.
Another headline caught his eye; ‘NATION DEMANDS MORE AIR DEFENCES’. It seemed that the Conservative Party conference had passed a resolution expressing ‘grave anxiety in regard to the inadequacy of the provisions made for Imperial defence.’ Neville Chamberlain, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had tried to fend off criticism by describing the government’s plans to increase home defence aeroplane squadrons from forty-two to seventy-five over a five-year period. The Party was obviously not so easily satisfied. Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland, a former Cabinet Minister, claimed that air attacks would be so sudden and destructive that within forty-eight hours of war having been declared, one or other side would be annihilated.
That, thought Don, showed a remarkable lack of comprehension of basic statistics about aircraft, bombloads and the amount of destruction which bombs could cause. He read on. Lord Lloyd pointed out that Britain’s armed forces were so weak that the country was ‘no longer in a position to guarantee the safety of our sea routes and food supplies.’ That struck much closer to home, he thought. If war was inevitable, as the country’s most influential observers seemed to believe, much needed to be done.
Don walked to the window and looked down into the street. As on the previous few nights, an anonymous car was parked opposite the entrance to his building. A brief flare within it marked the lighting of yet another cigarette. Someone was keeping an eye on him and didn’t care if he knew it.
Dunning dropped in a few days later, as usual without warning. Don had been using the unexpected free time to walk around 1930s London, re-learning the city he had previously known so well. He did not enjoy cooking and was finding the limited variety of eating places a distinct drawback; no Chinese, no Indian, no pizzas, even a burger would have been a welcome relief. The pubs were no help either; meals weren’t available, and the restricted choice of beers (mostly mild or India Pale Ale) didn’t much appeal. He noted that despite his frequent absences, Dunning clearly expected him to be in, and wondered about the extent of the surveillance he was under.
‘Just thought I’d drop in to see how you’re managing.’ Dunning said pleasantly.
‘Well enough Charles, but I’m becoming increasingly concerned about the policy decisions being made.’ Don had been worrying for days, and knew that the situation would slip out of his grasp if he kept silent. ‘The powers-that-be seem set on allowing this war to happen and in using my information merely to fight it more efficiently.’
Dunning raised an eyebrow but did not comment. Don leaned forward urgently.
‘They have no conception of the horrors this war will bring. Millions slaughtered in Nazi concentration camps simply because of their racial origin. Tens of millions of Russians killed. There has to be a way to stop it.’
Dunning looked at him thoughtfully. ‘I agree with your sentiments, Don, but what can be done? You have said yourself that international tensions are such that, one way or another, Germany is bound to try to avenge the crippling penalties of Versailles. Do you suppose that other countries will voluntarily give back the territories Germany has lost? Perhaps in your time governments are more rational, less nationalistic, but there is a tide rising in Germany which will not be held back by the threat of war. This boil has to come to a head before it can be lanced.’
Don said nothing, feeling overwhelmed by a sense of hopeless inevitability.
‘Japan is an even worse case,’ continued Dunning. ‘They may not have a defeat to avenge but they are looking to expand their empire and are chronically short of the raw materials they need, which happen to be conveniently available in nearby territories occupied by the USA or European countries. Conflict is becoming increasingly inevitable.’
‘It just seems so absurd, pressing on down the road to war knowing full well what the cost will be.’
‘Perhaps the world has to go through this experience,’ Dunning said gently, ‘before nations are ready to put conflict behind them as a way of solving problems.’
Don thought of Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia and the Middle East, and put his head in his hands.
‘In any case, by helping this country to win the war more quickly you will be reducing the period of suffering to a minimum.’
Don sighed. ‘Very well, it doesn’t seem as if I have any other option.’
It was clear that much discussion had been going on in the week since the previous meeting. Chairman seemed quite jaunty. ‘Let me begin by summing up. We agreed last time that we would make no changes to our existing foreign policy but we would take care to ensure that our political masters enter into no further commitments, with particular reference to Poland. What we need to do now is to concentrate on any fundamental changes we should be making to our Imperial defence policy in order to come out of the forthcoming conflict as well as possible. Dr Erlang, do you have any observations to make?’
Don, who had firmly placed himself by a window which he had managed to open slightly, wondered briefly what conclusions they had reached already. They seemed remarkably confident of their ability to cope without detailed advice once they had grasped the basic issues. Still, he had already prepared what he was going to say.
‘I will start with defensive measures before going on to the question of offensive action. First of all, top priority has to go to the measures needed to repel an invasion of the British Isles.’ He had their full attention. ‘This will involve a sophisticated aircraft detection and fighter control system backed by plenty of fighters, and fast bombers capable of attacking any invasion fleet. Strong fighter defence will also be necessary to provide cover for the naval units which will be engaged in attacking enemy vessels. Finally, mechanised divisions containing tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft vehicles and armoured troop transports need to be held in south-east England to respond rapidly to any landings. Above all, timely and accurate information will be needed to guide the defence effort so a robust communications network needs to be set up and thoroughly tested. I don’t just mean telephones and radios, but a co-ordinated, multi-service system for gathering information from a range of sources, analysing it and ensuring it is passed on to the relevant military commands as quickly as possible.’
Much thoughtful nodding around the table.
‘The next priority will be to prevent the North Atlantic supply lines from being cut by submarine warfare. It nearly happened in the last war and is still the biggest threat.’
Ruddy Face stirred uneasily and appeared to be about to say something. Don continued quickly. ‘I know the Navy feels confident that sonar – I mean Asdic – is the ultimate answer to submarines, but I can assure you that it isn’t that straightforward.’
Ruddy Face looked appalled, but at a gesture from Chairman held his tongue.
‘Air cover is the key to defeating submarines,’ continued Don, warming to his theme and slipping into lecturing mode. ‘Maritime patrol squadrons should have priority in being issued with long-range aircraft. Incidentally, it would be advisable to hang onto those bases in the Irish Free State, and not allow the politicians to give them up before the war.’
‘Noted,’ observed Chairman drily.
‘Land-based air cover won’t be enough. Cheap aircraft carriers will also be needed to accompany convoys.’
Creamed Curls was becoming increasingly agitated. ‘But bombers will surely be the main means of fighting war. They should have priority over any other type of aircraft.’
‘They will be important,’ conceded Don, ‘but once again it’s not that simple. Bombing has the potential to cause great destruction, but as a war-winning weapon it will not be as effective as many people fear.’
Don saw real alarm on Creamed Curls’ face and remembered the bitter inter-service rivalry which had followed the end of the Great War, with the two older services trying to return to their pre-war pre-eminence and the newly-formed RAF fighting to preserve its independence. The RAF under Trenchard had taken to proclaiming the theories of Douhet and others who argued that bombing would be so destructive that it would supersede other methods of fighting. It had therefore become an article of faith in the RAF that the bomber would always get through, and could win wars by itself. He had a distinct feeling that Trenchard and his followers would be acutely unhappy about the message he was bringing.
‘Turning to other issues,’ Don continued, ‘there are some basic questions of changes in military organisation and equipment which will be needed to enhance war-fighting capability; above all, the closer integration of the three armed forces in developing combined arms tactics, with a particular emphasis on amphibious warfare. Put briefly, you will need to develop the capability of transporting armoured divisions overseas and putting them ashore on an unprepared coast, closely supported by aircraft sufficient to overwhelm local defences and attack enemy troop concentrations and strongpoints.’ Don recalled the chaos which had affected the Norwegian and Dieppe landings and added: ‘It will also be prudent to acquire during peacetime detailed maps, photographs and other information about areas in which you may need to fight, with particular emphasis on coastlines.’
Varying degrees of interest, scepticism and dismay were evident from around the table.
‘What about the Empire?’ Asked Ruddy Face, returning to his theme of the previous week.
‘Actual defence will mainly be provided by aircraft, ships and troops which can be put in place shortly before war is due to start. However, it will be important to prepare the ground to support the defences. This means, for example, building substantial bombproof storage for fuel and ammunition, storing plenty of food, providing sufficient airfields complete with shelter for the aircraft, providing submarine pens where appropriate, and so on. As much military equipment as possible should be pre-positioned ready for troops to use when called up.’
‘Some of that has been done,’ observed Chairman, ‘but the cost is considerable.’
‘But probably not as much,’ interposed Diplomat, ‘as losing the colonies.’
‘There is another alternative,’ Don said hesitantly. Chairman looked wary.
‘I have already indicated to you that, from the late 1940s onwards, Britain starts giving independence to its colonies. It could be argued that there isn’t much point in fighting for them now, if we’re going to give them up soon afterwards.’
Ruddy Face appeared close to apoplexy. Even Diplomat seemed ruffled. ‘Quite out of the question, dear chap. There is tremendous popular, and therefore political, support for the Empire. Just last week the government’s modest inclination toward giving India more home rule was roundly condemned by the Conservative Conference.’
‘Besides,’ added Chairman, ‘we could hardly simply cut the colonies free and abandon them to German, Italian or Japanese invaders. We would be honour-bound to offer them support against a common enemy.’
Don gave up. Shortly afterwards, the meeting broke up and Dunning accompanied Don back to his rooms.
‘I feel boxed in, Charles. Every attempt I make to reduce the scope of the next war seems to be blocked.’
‘But for very good reasons, I’m sure you realise. It raises interesting questions about the extent to which knowledge of forthcoming events enables us to alter them. In detail, yes, but the broad sweep of historical events seems to have a momentum of its own.’
Dunning changed the subject. ‘With the basic policies decided, it’s time to get down to details. It’s unlikely that you’ll be meeting that particular group again. Instead, we aim to get our specialists to extract all the information you can provide; painlessly, of course! To help with that, a change of scene has been arranged. You’re off to the countryside.’
The house was large and sited somewhere in the Berkshire countryside. Don wasn’t sure exactly where, as the car journey had been at night. The absence of the large, reflective road-signs – that he was used to taking for granted – disorientated him, and he was able to recognise few landmarks on the way. The grounds were spacious, surrounded by a high fence topped with barbed wire. No other buildings were visible from the grounds. The only break in the fence was at the main driveway, guarded by a small gatehouse, occupied continuously by men who were evidently soldiers despite their civilian clothes. It did not take Don long to realise that he was effectively a prisoner.
A few days after arriving, he returned from a pre-lunch stroll around the grounds to be met at the entrance by Dunning. With him was Mary Baker, an attractive, dark-haired woman whom Dunning had introduced as ‘your secretary, assistant and general factotum’. Don had not been aware that he needed a secretary and suspected that she was yet another pair of eyes to watch him. It was noticeable that at least one of them was always around. He sometimes wondered if he was becoming paranoid.
‘Some people to meet you, Don,’ Dunning announced. ‘I’ve put them in the lounge and I’ll introduce you in a moment, but I thought I’d better explain who they are first. They represent the intelligence branches of the three Services and will be solely responsible for interviewing you about developments in their areas. For obvious reasons, we want to keep contact with you to as small a group as possible. They will all have rooms here, and will be alternating between staying here to talk to you and going off to use your information where it matters.’
They had reached the door of the oak-panelled lounge and Dunning shepherded Don inside. He was immediately the focus of intense scrutiny from three pairs of eyes.
‘May I introduce Peter Morgan, RAF; David Helmsford, RN; and Geoffrey Taylor, from the Army. Needless to say, neither their ranks nor their uniforms will be evident here.’
Formalities over, Don settled down over tea to study the new arrivals. They all appeared to be in their late thirties or early forties, unremarkable at first sight except for the air of sharp intelligence common to all three. They had clearly been fully briefed on his background and were consumed with curiosity.
Morgan, slim and fair-haired with an air of boyish enthusiasm, was first to speak. ‘We’ve been trying to work out which service you’re least popular with,’ he said with a grin. ‘The Navy, for insulting their beloved battleships by insisting on the importance of aircraft carriers; the Army, for dismissing their equally beloved horses in favour of clanking machinery; or my lot, for shooting down the bombers and, to add insult to injury, advocating the transfer of the Fleet Air Arm to the Navy.’
Don smiled. ‘Well, gentlemen, who’s going to be the first to give me a going-over?’
They all grinned in response. ‘David tried to argue that the Senior Service should take precedence, but Peter and I sat on him until he agreed to draw straws,’ drawled Taylor, ‘as a result of which you have the pleasure of starting with me.’
‘Seriously, you needn’t worry about offending me,’ Taylor said after a long lunch filled with speculation, debate and above all, questioning of Don. ‘I’m an engineer and have little time for the prejudices of the well-bred cavalry. Anyone with any sense can see that machine guns and artillery have done away with horses in the front line; they just make big targets and can’t dive for the nearest shell-hole when they come under fire. Unfortunately many of the senior staff grew up worshipping horses and have tried to pretend that the Great War was an aberration.’
‘It’s not just the tanks,’ interposed Don, ‘everything else needs to be able to accompany them at the same speed and with armour protection; artillery, anti-aircraft guns, infantry, supplies and even engineers.’
Taylor laughed. ‘I know. Fuller has been arguing that for years and we have been holding annual exercises with mechanised formations. Hobart introduced a real novelty in this year’s exercise by making extensive use of radio communications between tanks. The main problem we have is in deciding the right proportions of the kinds of tanks we will be making; slow heavily-armoured ones to accompany the infantry and fast lightly-armoured cavalry vehicles.’
‘Neither. If the tanks are too specialised you’ll never be able to depend on having the right types available when you need them. In one respect, the tank enthusiasts are right to draw parallels with naval practice; like battleships, tanks need a good balance of characteristics – fire-power, armour, speed - so they can cope with whatever comes up.’
Taylor grunted and filled his pipe. His brown hair and neat moustache were unremarkable, but his powerful build and air of calm competence were impressive. ‘I’m putting together some detailed information about our current plans for you to comment on. However, to turn for the moment to infantry equipment, I’m afraid your pleas for adopting a small-calibre automatic rifle have not been well received by the Master General of the Ordnance. He is adamant that we have too much invested in the three-oh-three calibre to be able to afford to change, and that designing a new automatic rifle and a new cartridge would take too long anyway.’
‘I was afraid of that, but I have some alternative ideas...’.
The next morning was the Navy’s turn. ‘The first problem is our relationship with Germany,’ said Helmsford. He was tall and dark with a habitually sardonic expression, and inclined to choose his words with care. ‘We’ve been considering a naval treaty with them to try to limit their plans for expansion.’
‘I advise you to forget it. It will only bring criticism on Britain for recognising formally Germany’s breach of the Versailles Treaty, and we know that Hitler will build anything he wants to anyway.’
‘What about wider international agreements? As you must know, we are deep in preparation for the second London Naval Conference due to be held next year, and one of the main issues is the size and gun calibre of new battleship construction. And I have to add that your scepticism about the value of battleships won’t get a favourable hearing – the Admiralty will never agree to stop building them while everyone else is carrying on. However, the cost of these ships is so high that we are pressing for the smallest ships we can – ideally around twenty-five thousand tons and with twelve-inch guns – but the Americans are pushing for much larger ships. ‘
‘I’m afraid they’ll win. On the other hand, that can be turned to our advantage. If we manage to win agreement to thirty-five thousand tons and fifteen-inch guns – which should be quite feasible – we could save a huge amount of time and money by reusing fifteen-inch turrets from existing, obsolete ships, and incidentally save ourselves the trouble of maintaining and manning them. We can use the resources saved to concentrate on aircraft carriers.’ Don warmed to his theme; ‘The Navy did actually accept the reuse of the old fifteen-inch turrets from the Courageous and Glorious to arm their last battleship – the Vanguard – so all I’m suggesting is to incorporate those into the new design, and scrap the five old ‘R’ Class battleships so their turrets can be reused as well; really, they contributed – will contribute – next to nothing to the war. And frankly, the old fifteen-inch will be much more reliable than the new fourteen-inch you’re planning.’
Helmsford considered. ‘That might just be acceptable. But as for your other comments about the importance of anti-aircraft over surface fire, you had better be warned that I’m a gunnery officer by training!’
Don grinned. ‘Sorry, but the evidence is clear. Aircraft are a much bigger threat than surface ships to warships, so it’s essential that all ships have good AA armament – and that includes directors as well as guns. In any case, even against surface targets, the hit probability of a destroyer’s guns is so low that they would do better with eight four-inch dual-purpose guns rather than four, low-angle four-point-sevens – the rate of fire is so much higher.’
Helmsford grimaced doubtfully. ‘People will need a lot of convincing. And you say that the capital ships should have nothing bigger than four-point-sevens as secondary armament?’
‘Yes, definitely. Give them modern, heavier shells by all means, but a well-designed twin turret in that calibre will be much faster-firing and more effective than those dual-purpose five-point-two-fives, as well as being lighter.’
Helmsford sighed. ‘All right, I’ll do my best, but I never thought you would present me with such a headache!’
Morgan was his usual ebullient self. ‘You’re quite right about the direction of aircraft design, of course. I’ve been to see the aeroplanes just about to set off from Mildenhall on the England-Australia race. Those sleek de Havilland Comet monoplanes are beautiful!’
‘And they’ll win!’ Don grinned. ‘But aircraft are only a part of the story. The key to success is to choose the right engines and concentrate on developing them by specifying them for future front-line aircraft. Another important issue is armament. Next comes the priority given to different aircraft types, and I’m afraid the RAF won’t like them.’ Morgan raised an enquiring eye. ‘Fighters come first, which means that for once the politicians’ preference is correct, albeit for the wrong reasons – they only like them because they’re cheap and quick to build so they can meet their promises to build up the number of RAF squadrons more easily. But maritime patrol planes come next, and then some modern carrier-borne fighters and bombers. They all have a higher priority than the RAF’s beloved bombers.’ They were soon deep in conversation.
Days became weeks which rolled into months. Winter came and went. The bare trees allowed a wider view of the countryside, but still no other buildings could be seen. Don was occasionally taken out by his minders, as he thought of them, to visit a nearby pub or cinema, but was never let out alone. He sometimes joked about the degree of custodial care, but Dunning was too serious about it to be amused.
‘You must realise that your safety is of vital importance – you’re probably the most valuable person in the country.’ Furthermore, Don added silently, no-one else must know of my existence.
Newspapers were his other contact with the world outside. He found the old-fashioned sentiments and phrasing, the innocent adverts rather touching, but was amused to note unexpected portents of things to come. He had not been aware that Scotland Yard had been experimenting with an autogyro for observing ‘traffic-congested areas’ and possibly tracking ‘car bandits’. A report of a German aeroplane powered by a 2,500 horsepower ‘steam turbine’ and capable of travelling at 230–260 mph for sixty or seventy hours appeared more optimistic, although Don was again surprised to read a report that an American steam-powered craft had flown three times already. He wondered if newspaper reporters in the 1930s were more or less gullible than those in the 2000s, or more willing to make things up. It also occurred to him that Dunning need not worry about his spilling the beans to any reporters. They would probably write up his story, but with zero impact on the public.
In the spring and early summer of 1935, Don began to notice a sharpening of interest and concern on the part of his team of interviewers. The reasons were evident enough in the newspapers. He had already been proved right in his prediction about the Saarland, which in January voted to return to Germany by 90.36%. On March 15th Hitler announced military conscription and an increase in the size of the German Army to thirty-six divisions; ‘The Times’ military correspondent stated that, with nearly 400 machine-guns, the German army was well-equipped defensively ‘but it is hardly to be expected that an army... long restricted in developing heavy artillery and tanks, should have anything like an equivalent power of taking the offensive.’ Don groaned. The complacency was almost comical.
Clearly, however, someone in the government was becoming worried. On the twenty-eighth of the month, Anthony Eden travelled to Moscow to discuss the European situation with M. Litvinoff (Soviet Commissar for foreign affairs) and spoke to Stalin. He established that there was ‘no conflict of interest’ between the governments. More accurate than they realise, Don thought; at least in the short term.
On April 7th, elections were held in Danzig – a predominantly German enclave within Poland and next to East Prussia – which had been detached from Germany and given Free City status after the Great War. The Nazis increased their vote by eight percent but despite intense propaganda, including visits by Hess and Goebbels, they failed to gain the two-thirds majority necessary to change the constitution in favour of Germany.
The Foreign Office stepped up its activities; between 11th and 14th April Britain, Italy and France met at Stresa for a conference on the European situation, which led to an expression of ‘complete agreement’.
‘All this diplomatic posturing will get them nowhere,’ grumbled Don, reading the morning papers in bed.
‘What do you expect?’ asked Mary. ‘They are politicians and diplomats. Even if they know that their efforts are likely to prove fruitless – and I doubt they’ve been told – they’ll still try. It’s what they’re there for.’
Don was never quite sure on whose initiative his relationship with Mary had begun. In darker moments he suspected that she had been chosen for her good looks and her willingness to lie back and think of England. At other times he was merely thankful that she was there. Usually serious, quiet and attentive, with a core of sadness which was never far from the surface, her occasional smiles sparked a glow of warmth in him and their partnership gave a structure and dimension to his life that had been missing for a long time. In fact, as time went by it was his past life which took on the aspect of a dream, something less real than his fantastic present. He now felt at home in the 1930s, and he tried not to think too much about how he had arrived there. Whenever his thoughts drifted in that direction, he felt he was teetering on the edge of an abyss.
Mary’s voice wrenched him back to the present. ‘I wonder if Churchill’s been told about you,’ she mused, studying another paper. ‘He’s warning that if German air strength continues growing at its present rate it will overtake Britain’s within three or four years.’
‘True enough,’ said Don, ‘but I suspect that he’s not been included in the “inner circle” yet; he had a reputation for sounding off about the Nazi threat for years before the war. Our lords and masters are anxious to avoid prejudicing the natural development of events – except in a few specific areas – so that my predictions remain valid for as long as possible. I expect they’ll wait until he becomes Prime Minister before letting him in on the secret.’
‘Now there’s a paradox for you; Churchill is supposed to come to power because of the military crisis under Chamberlain's government. If your advice is followed, the crisis shouldn't happen, so how will Churchill become PM?’
‘Somehow,’ said Don grimly, ‘I have a feeling that it will be arranged.’
‘And there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask: what about the wider paradox? Suppose any one of your grandparents were to be killed as a result of the changes you’re causing? Or that your parents never meet? What will happen to you?’
‘Good question. I’ve given it some thought myself. Of course, I could just disappear in a puff of smoke, but that wouldn’t be the end of the problem; if I’d never existed, I couldn’t have returned here in the first place, so none of the last few months could have happened, so I couldn’t have changed events, so I would have lived to return here – and so on. The thinking becomes rather circular.’
‘So where does that leave you?’
‘There are just two possibilities: either all of my forebears survive and my parents meet up as before regardless of all the changes, or the parallel worlds theory is correct.’
‘Parallel worlds. The idea is that there is an infinite number of worlds existing in parallel in some undetectable dimension, each different in some small way from the next. They are connected by an equally infinite number of branching points; occasions when something different happened and changed history. So my return to the past would have kicked me onto an entirely different branch; what happens here can’t affect the world I came from, that just continues as before on a parallel track.’
Mary snuggled up to him. ‘Well, just make sure that you stay on this track from now on!’
Time seemed to pass with ever-increasing speed. Intensive consultations with his military interviewers were interspersed by anxious scanning of the news as the European tragedy began to unfold. The celebrations in early May to mark the Silver Jubilee of the King and Queen included reviews of Britain’s military and naval forces. Shortly afterwards Lord Londonderry, Secretary of State for War, announced a trebling of the strength of the Royal Air Force based at home to 1,500 machines by March 31 1937; the existing thirty-four airfields were to be increased to sixty-five and in addition, seventy-one new squadrons were to be formed.
Charles Dunning was naturally reticent but could occasionally be prompted into revealing progress. ‘The Defence Requirements Committee has been considering how to act on your advice,’ he said, ‘although we did of course have to disguise it as the strongly-held views of the best military minds. They have agreed that the Army should be restructured to concentrate on armoured warfare including capacity for amphibious landings and the development of close co-operation with the RAF. An experimental paratroop brigade is to be formed and secret trials of the rectangular wing-parachute you sketched are due soon. The Fleet Air Arm is to be handed over to the Navy within the next few months; Coastal Command will remain with the RAF but under Naval operational control – that took a hell of a lot of haggling and a number of premature retirements to achieve. The discussions over the Naval Treaty are working out as you suggested and the Royal Marines are being strengthened, with their amphibious role being more clearly defined. Radar is coming along fine; Tizard sends his best wishes, by the way.’
‘What about the basic education and training side? We will need far more electrical engineers and factory capacity in order to keep up with the demands for radio and radar systems.’
Dunning grinned sardonically. ‘Much more difficult – did you ever see the educational establishment move quickly? We’ve made a start, though, in offering generous bursaries to able students in these areas, and will be identifying electronics shadow factories as well as those for weapons production.’
The military contacts were more forthcoming. Geoffrey Taylor, despite his cautious and deliberate manner, had obviously warmed to his task. The Army’s biggest deficiency – the development of competitive, reliable tanks – was being tackled with vigour. Tank design was assigned to a planning body including Vickers, the only private firm with substantial tank-building experience, car firms to provide mass-production expertise, military officers and the Ministry. An integrated family of armoured fighting vehicles was being developed with reliability, ease of use and maintenance and the ability to be upgraded as top priorities. New artillery, mortars, anti-tank weapons and small arms were being designed.
News on the aircraft front was also encouraging. Morgan reported the selection of the Rolls-Royce PV12 Merlin and the sleeve-valve Bristol Hercules (still some months away from running) as the RAF’s future front-line piston engines. Napier had been assigned to develop Whittle’s centrifugal fan gas turbine, and advanced project teams at Rolls-Royce and Bristol were working with the Royal Aircraft Establishment to develop Griffith’s axial flow turbines for jet and turboprop engines respectively.
Fighter guns were a priority; as well as developing the 0.303 inch, a slightly larger version of the Browning (the ‘Vickers-Browning’) was being designed to take the Vickers 0.5 inch cartridge, somewhat smaller than the American equivalent. Hispano-Suiza in France were being pursued for a licence for their new 20 mm HS-404 cannon which was still in the process of being designed, and the development of a belt-feed mechanism for it was being given a high priority to ensure that both could enter service by the end of the 1930s.
Meanwhile, development of the Spitfire and Hurricane had been given top priority with arrangements already underway for their mass production. Don was acutely conscious of the fact that as soon as war was imminent, the War Ministry would be inclined to freeze current designs in the interests of achieving mass production. Accordingly, he discussed with Morgan the types of aircraft which would have a long service life to ensure that they would be in production by 1938. Among other proposals, de Havilland was to be strongly encouraged to design a wooden, twin-engined high-speed unarmed bomber as soon as possible.
Helmsford was equally encouraging about the Navy’s plans. The fifteen-inch gun battleship design was proceeding well, as were the new aircraft carriers with their angled decks to enable planes to land without crashing into the ones waiting to take off (‘steam catapults were considered, but would have taken too long to develop’). Don had advised against the armoured decks used by most RN war-built carriers because of the loss of hangar space and aircraft capacity. Just as important were the aircraft for them; Bristol had been given the contract to develop Hercules-powered fighters and multi-role torpedo/dive bomber/reconnaissance planes, with as much commonality as possible.
Otherwise, concentration in the naval field was on enhanced anti-aircraft and anti-submarine capabilities, with advanced fire-control systems, the commissioning of Bofors to speed up their development of 57 mm as well as 40 mm automatic guns and the development of ahead-throwing anti-submarine mortars (Don’s mention of the ‘Squid’ promptly led to the name being adopted) with their associated pencil-beam Asdic sets. Don had been surprised to discover that ahead-throwing weapons had already been built and tested, but development was just about to be abandoned when his arrival led to a re-think.
By the autumn of 1935 the international situation was clearly worsening. On September 5th Italy walked out of the League of Nations Council meeting called to discuss the Italo-Abyssinian crisis. This was followed in October by an Italian attack on Abyssinia, countered by the urgent reinforcement of British forces in the Middle East. In November, German army recruits were required to swear allegiance to Hitler as well as to the nation. Don read the news with a mixture of anxiety, despondency and an uncertain hope that perhaps, this time, he could reduce the scale of the suffering to come. Mary was a patient, unfailing support.
‘You have done everything you can,’ she said for what was probably the hundredth time, ‘you know all the arguments for keeping your existence secret. There is too much hatred and frustration bottled up for anyone to prevent what is going to happen. All you can do is to try to ensure that it is ended quickly, with an outcome that keeps Russia out of as much of Europe as possible.’
‘I know, but I feel so helpless. It’s not just the big picture, it’s the personal aspect as well.’ Mary took him in her arms, feeling the tension slowly leaving him as she stroked his neck.
‘It’s your parents you’re thinking of again, isn’t it? It must be so hard for you.’
Don grunted wearily. ‘Fortunately they’re still young children. I can’t help wondering about them, although I know Charles is right when he tells me to leave them alone.’
‘Well, what would you gain from seeing them? They’re just like any other children, and won’t even meet for years yet.’
He sighed reluctantly. ‘I suppose you’re right, but I still feel I should be introducing them to each other, or something!’
Mary grinned. ‘From what I know of young children, that would just put them off each other for life!’
Spring to Autumn 1936
In the following year the pace of events quickened, although not all of them were concerned with the impending conflict. In January King George V died, and Don winced at reading the praise heaped upon his heir, the man who would not become King Edward VIII.
Spring saw rapid developments. In March, the political Left won the Spanish elections; yet another harbinger of war. In the same month, Hitler repudiated the Treaty of Locarno and sent German troops into the Rhineland, previously demilitarised following the last war. As a result of their ineffectual response, the French government was voted out of office in May in favour of Leon Blum’s left-wing Popular Front. Churchill warned that failure to match Hitler’s growing military strength could end in disaster for Britain. A government White Paper on defence, published in March, identified weaknesses and proposed increased spending. Newspapers were filled with concern about the adequacy of the country’s defences and the threat of war.
Far from being worried, Dunning seemed quietly pleased. ‘Every time the Nazis make an aggressive move that you’ve predicted, your stock goes up and your recommendations are given even more attention. People are feeling increasingly confident about being able to cope with the future.’ No doubt, thought Don rather cynically, the attention isn’t doing Dunning’s status any harm either. However, his evident good humour paid off in a special treat; an unexpected trip for Mary and himself.
Dunning refused to state the destination or purpose, but the big Humber cruised steadily south until it reached Southampton late in the afternoon. Dunning led them to the water’s edge near packed crowds and they looked out over the Solent. By now, Don knew what to expect. The weather was cool and cloudy, but the sun broke through as a huge passenger liner steamed slowly down the Solent.
‘The Queen Mary!’ Mary said, ‘how wonderful!’
‘Off on her maiden voyage,’ added Dunning, ‘first Cherbourg, then on to New York. Sure to win the Blue Riband.’
Don watched the magnificent ship with a strange mixture of emotions. Awe, at the majestic vessel. Excitement, at the noisy pride of the crowds. Perhaps above all, nostalgia, for an era he had never known. He thought about Jumbo Jets crammed with bleary-eyed, irritable passengers, and sighed.
The summer of 1936 saw no relief from the steady build-up of tension, as piece after piece dropped into place. In May, Italy conquered Abyssinia. The next month, Leon Blum’s Popular Front government gave way to concerted strike action by signing the Matignon Agreement, giving French workers high pay for shorter hours and further damaging an already lamentable industrial performance. In July, a right-wing revolt erupted in Spain; the Spanish Civil War had begun. In August, the Berlin Olympics were held.
The bad news wasn’t restricted to Europe. Throughout the summer and autumn, Arabs rioted against the growing numbers of Jews in Palestine; British troops were involved. Don felt particularly low when he read this news.
‘We haven’t even begun this war yet, but more are already being lined up.’
He had to explain this to Mary; wars after 1945 in which Britain would not be involved had understandably been of little interest to the interviewers. Mary seemed particularly thoughtful.
‘My mother was Jewish,’ she said. Don looked at her speechlessly, thinking of all she had heard about the Holocaust. She raised her arms and shrugged helplessly. ‘Why does the world have to be like this?’ Don had no answer.
October 1936 saw a huge Nazi rally in Nuremberg and clashes between Mosley’s Blackshirts and anti-fascist demonstrators in the East End of London. At the beginning of December, Mary found Don looking at the newspaper, sadness on his face.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asked quickly. Don gestured at the paper. Mary looked at the item featured large on the page. The Crystal Palace had burned down.
‘I never saw it,’ said Don regretfully. ‘It was the first thing which made me realise what had happened to me. And I never went to see it.’
The winter was marked by major events at each end of the social scale; unemployed workers marched from Jarrow to London, and King Edward VIII abdicated in order to marry Wallace Simpson. For Don, a much more significant event took place. On 1st January 1937 the Washington and London Naval Treaties expired and the keel-plates of the battleships King George V and Prince of Wales were laid at Walker-on-Tyne and Birkenhead respectively. So much was in Don’s history; but these were to a different design, guided by his advice. It was the first concrete evidence he had received of the impact he was making.
The months skimmed by, a continual round of meetings with ever more urgent questions being asked as the nation’s defence expenditure rose rapidly in the face of the German threat. Don found it more and more difficult to offer helpful advice. He felt drained dry of everything he had ever learned about the personalities, policies, strategies, tactics, equipment and events of the period.
Every now and then, his absorption was punctuated by a news item; the bombing of Guernica, the destruction of the Hindenburg at Lakehurst, the coronation of King George VI, the fall of Blum’s government, followed by further rapid changes of government in France. The Japanese onslaught on China opened yet another chapter in the growing volume of the world’s suffering, while European leaders scurried to and fro, meeting Hitler, trying to avoid the inevitable.
In early 1938 Dunning announced, with unusual good humour, that they were going on a tour, chaperoned by Geoffrey Taylor and himself.
‘Something of a working visit,’ he qualified apologetically, ‘but I’m sure you’ll find it interesting.’
Their first stop turned out to be an almost deserted rifle range ‘somewhere in Surrey.’ A small group of Army officers was huddled around some objects on a bench. Don was introduced as ‘a senior civil servant in the Ministry’ and the group parted to show him the weapons gleaming against the wooden bench. A Bren light machine gun was instantly recognisable. The warrant officer picked up a smaller weapon lying next to it. It was a short, brutal looking rifle, all metal pressings with a minimum of wood, a curved magazine jutting down behind the pistol grip.
‘This is the new BSA rifle, called the Besal for short, which it is,’ he laughed, ignoring the groans from the others. ‘Action based on the Bren, but turned upside down and located within the stock, behind the handgrip. Calibre three-oh-three inch, self-loading with semi-automatic fire only. Empty cases are ejected straight upwards, but are deflected to one side by this rubber-padded underside of the cheekpiece, which can be instantly flipped over for left-handers. Weight ten pounds with a full fifteen-round magazine, which is interchangeable with the thirty-round Bren magazine. Like a go?’
Don declined, mildly alarmed. He had studied armaments, but firing them was something he had no experience of. The WO seemed disappointed, but not surprised. Doubtless his opinion of civil servants had just been confirmed. Taylor did not hesitate. He picked up the Besal, cycled the action with brisk efficiency then fired a rapid series of shots at the distant target. Don retrieved a distant memory; the Besal had actually been a simplified machine gun based on the Bren, which had not been adopted. Oh well, fairly close, he thought.
‘This other beauty is the new Solen sub-machine gun,’ continued the WO. Don, who had been slow to clap his hands over his ears when the Besal fired, barely heard him but hastily covered his ears again as Taylor picked up a weapon even uglier and more brutal looking. ‘Based on the Solothurn SI-100 but simplified by Enfield for mass production. Chambered for the nine-by-twenty-five millimetre Mauser Export cartridge, longer and more powerful than the Luger round used in most such weapons. Gives it an effective range of around two hundred yards, which is enough for most purposes. Available with a wooden stock, like this one, or a folding metal one.’ Taylor enjoyed this one even more, firing off the 32-round side-mounted magazine in short, controlled bursts.
Next came a conventional-looking self-loading pistol. ‘Based on the American Colt M Nineteen-eleven, modified to fire the nine-by-twenty-five millimetre cartridge and with a two-row magazine holding fifteen rounds.’ Dunning stepped forward this time, raised the gun, pulled back and released the slide, then fired off the entire magazine in a seemingly interminable string of concussions.
Dunning was smiling as they left. ‘We’ve told the Army that these are meant for paratroops and marines, who’ll need lots of firepower. Of course, we’re preparing to mass-produce them instead of the Lee-Enfield Number Four bolt-action rifles.’ Taylor snorted amiably, but made no comment.
The next stop was in Dorset, at another army camp busy with construction work. Some tanks were visible as they travelled through the site.
‘This must be Bovington Camp,’ guessed Don. Taylor merely smiled and led him into a large hangar-like building. An armed guard checked Taylor’s and Dunning’s passes carefully. Inside, some large shapes were covered with tarpaulins. A few men were sitting on boxes nearby, playing cards by the light filtering down from the skylights. They jumped up when they saw Taylor and moved to the shapes. Taylor was clearly enjoying himself, Dunning following quietly behind.
‘We’ll start with this one.’ The tarpaulin was pulled away, revealing a low squat tank, the sloping armour giving a streamlined look. ‘This is the Crusader. Eighteen tons, with two inches of armour on the turret and the frontal plate, one inch elsewhere. Engine at the front, beside the driver – a three hundred horsepower six-cylinder in-line unit; half a Rolls-Royce Merlin, actually. This leaves the rear half of the vehicle clear for the fighting compartment, in this case with a three-man turret mounting a two-pounder gun firing ammunition compatible with the Bofors forty millimetre AA gun – it makes resupply easier.’ Don caught Taylor’s wink as he remembered suggesting just that, in place of the very similar two-pounder ammunition historically used. ‘Thoroughly tested in a wide variety of conditions and about to enter mass production in three different factories.’ He moved on and more tarpaulins fell.
‘All of the rest are based on the same chassis. The Comet anti-aircraft tank, with two twenty-millimetre Oerlikons in a power-driven turret. The Cromwell assault tank, with thicker armour – up to three inches – and a twenty-five pounder field gun in the turret. The Centaur self-propelled gun with the new sixty-two pounder field gun in an armoured compartment. It’s a four-point-seven-inch gun firing the same shells, at a lower velocity, as the new navy dual purpose gun – which has incidentally also been adopted as the Army’s heavy AA gun – and replaces the old five-inch sixty-pounder. Next comes the Cavalier tank destroyer with the new seventeen pounder – essentially the new three-inch high-velocity AA gun – behind an armoured shield. Last but not least, this Covenanter armoured personnel carrier, with a high, extended body carrying ten infantrymen.’
Don remembered the arguments about the anti-aircraft guns; his insistence on replacing the planned massive 3.7 inch with a smaller and much more mobile gun, which could do double duty as a tank/anti-tank gun, had evidently paid off.
They moved away from the men to more shapes at the other side of the hanger. Taylor spoke more quietly. ‘Versions with more armour and more powerful guns are already fully developed, but we’re keeping them back until we need them. We’re also well advanced with testing the chassis of the next generation forty-tonner, with a turret large enough for the seventeen pounder gun or even bigger if required.’
They approached the other vehicles. The small Daimler Dingo armoured reconnaissance vehicle was instantly recognisable, but the big, low-slung six-wheeled armoured cars were not.
‘These are made by Humber,’ announced Taylor. ‘Turret interchangeable with that in the tanks, so they can use similar armament. We’re also developing a range of cross-country lorries using the same mechanicals.’
Don was in good humour after his tour around the Army bases. The following week, Helmsford arrived to brief him about progress with naval developments. Construction of the new battleships and aircraft carriers was proceeding apace, and the first of the fast, light carriers built on hulls originally intended for cruisers had been laid down. The new frigates, very light cruisers with four twin 4.7 inch dual-purpose turrets, were also taking shape. Then Helmsford changed the subject.
‘There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you about. You mentioned two new German battlecruisers – what were they called?’
‘Scharnhorst and Gneisenau,’ Don replied promptly. ‘Fast well-armoured ships, over thirty thousand tons, nine eleven-inch guns. They should have been commissioned by now, but I’ve not read a peep about them in the press. Have our agents reported anything?’
Helmsford looking at him curiously. ‘No, they haven’t,’ he said. Dunning suddenly leaned forward, some sixth sense warning him. Don felt a sudden chill. Helmsford continued. ‘We’ve been watching the German dockyards carefully, even ‘accidentally’ overflying them with photo-reconnaissance aircraft. The Germans are not building any more big ships. Nothing but small destroyers and submarines.’
Don stared aghast. ‘But we’ve done nothing…nothing that could cause them to change their naval strategy as drastically as this.’
Dunning’s breath hissed between his teeth. ‘If you were helping Germany instead of us, would you advise them to build big ships?’
Don looked at him helplessly. ‘No,’ he said. ‘They were a waste of resources.’
Helmsford passed him a photograph. ‘What do you make of that? It was taken in the Baltic.’
It was an oblique view of a sleek hull, low in the water, topped by a slender fin. There were no guns or other distinguishing features, except for a periscope-like object with an unusually massive head. Don stared, appalled.
‘It’s an Elektroboot – a high-speed submarine,’ he whispered.
‘When are they supposed to emerge?’ Dunning asked sharply.
Don swallowed. ‘Nineteen forty-five.’
The three men looked at each other, none wanting to put into words the icy certainty forming in their minds. Eventually Dunning spoke.
‘That’s torn it,’ he said quietly. He looked at the white-faced Erlang. ‘They’ve got someone like you, haven’t they? Someone just like you.’
CHAPTER 2 - PRELUDE
Don felt a powerful sense of déjà vu. The smoky room was the same and, with the exception of Elderly Cigar, the men were the same, despite the passage of time. It was the first meeting of this group Don had attended for over three years; he still did not know the names of the men, although Dunning had told him that the group was called the Oversight Committee. Unlike the air of perplexed scepticism which had greeted his previous visits, the mood was one of anxious tension. Chairman drew deeply on a cigarette.
‘We’ve all heard the evidence, and have agreed that it’s a strong indication that the Nazis are also receiving advice from the future. We now need to review the impact on our strategy.’
No-one spoke. Even Diplomat looked grim and worried. Don realised that they were upset not just by the threat of a suddenly uncertain war, but by the concepts that they were trying to grapple with. Their known, predictable world was becoming dangerously unstable. They had lost control of their situation and no longer knew what to do.
Don cleared his throat. ‘I have been giving some thought to this. We essentially have a three-level problem. First, what would Hitler have done given the sort of knowledge I have. Second, what would he do if he also knew that Britain had similar foreknowledge of events. Third, how would his actions be affected if he also knew that we knew that he had such knowledge?’
Diplomat recovered a little of his sense of humour. ‘If he knows that we know that he knows that we know…’ he murmured. Chairman glared briefly at him then turned to Don with something of the air of a drowning man thrown a lifeline.
‘Let’s take the simplest case first. How would you have advised Hitler?’
Don settled into his lecture. ‘There were certain key strategic errors which lost Germany the war. Declaring war on the USA was one of the biggest and certainly the most unnecessary in terms of Hitler’s objectives.’
Military Man frowned. ‘What about the attack on the Soviet Union? You’ve always said that Germany would have lost that war even if the Americans and ourselves hadn’t invaded France.’
‘It wasn’t the attack that was the mistake, but the aftermath. Many of the states of the Soviet Union were sick to death of the Russians in general and Stalin in particular. The invading German army was welcomed with open arms in many places. If Hitler had offered states such as the Ukraine and the Baltic countries independence under an overall Reich oversight, regardless of whether he intended to stick to it, he very likely would have had firm allies against Russia. Instead, he treated them as underpeople and unleashed the SS on them. As a result, he managed to weld the Soviet Union together into a formidable and single-minded enemy. That lost Germany the war, not just on the eastern front but altogether.’
There was a thoughtful pause. ‘That seems to be poetic justice,’ observed Diplomat, ‘but I’m not sure where it takes us.’
‘What about the potential for alliances?’ The curls were still creamed if somewhat greyer. ‘Can’t we tie the Soviets to us now in order to pre-empt Germany’s non-aggression pact with them?’
Military Man was dismissive. ‘Given Stalin’s purges of the officer corps, the Soviet armed forces are more of a liability than an asset, and will be for some time to come.’
‘They’re unlikely to want to get involved unless they are convinced that they’re being directly threatened in any case,’ added Diplomat, ‘on the other hand, they could be useful in restraining Japan.’
‘What chance is there of bringing in the Americans?’
‘None. Roosevelt is sympathetic, but America in general is more isolationist than ever before.’
There was a pause broken by Chairman, who turned to Don. ‘Go on’, he said grimly, ‘what else?’
Don shrugged. ‘Letting Britain off the hook in nineteen-forty was a major mistake, of course. More thorough prewar preparation would probably have led to the defeat of Britain.’ Ruddy Face shifted uncomfortably. Don went on hastily. ‘The emphasis on high-performance submarines rather than heavy surface ships is clear. We can also expect to see heavy bombers entering Luftwaffe service; that was one of the few technical areas the Germans never got right. Finally, I expect much attention is being given to tank landing ships and the like. And when it comes to tactics, they will have two priorities; the neutralisation of the Royal Navy with mines, submarines and air attacks to prevent interference with an invasion, and the capture of the British Expeditionary Force. They will not permit a Dunkirk this time around.’
Chairman looked at him sourly. ‘Is that it?’
‘Basically, yes. The Germans didn’t make many mistakes in fighting the war. Fortunately for my time, the ones they did make were big ones. There is one thing that I’m finding it hard to understand, though.’ They looked expectantly. ‘The Nazis were utterly reviled and rejected in my time, nowhere more so than in Germany. They were so sensitive about militarism, I simply can’t understand how any educated German from my time could help Hitler to win the war.’
The others looked uncomprehending. ‘If he’s a German, he’ll support the Germans, surely. In fact,’ Chairman gestured at the photographs of the electroboat, ‘he obviously is.’
Creamed Curls leaned forward anxiously. ‘What can we do to stop them this time?’
‘Some of the actions we’re already taking. If we keep our army out of France and prepare our defences we can still make a German invasion difficult if not impossible. The advanced anti-submarine equipment and methods we are working on should be able to cope with the electroboats, albeit with much more difficulty. Unfortunately there’s nothing we can do about the other matters. In fact, if the Germans advise the Japanese about the outcome of their attack on America, they might refrain and thereby keep the Americans out of the war altogether.’
Diplomat leaned back thoughtfully. ‘I’m not certain the situation is quite as bad as that. For a start, the Japanese are both suspicious and arrogant, and probably won’t believe the Germans unless they provide them with incontrovertible evidence, which they may be reluctant to do for the same reasons that we’re keeping quiet about you.’ He carefully fitted another cigarette into his holder. ‘I have also been studying all the information you’ve provided about Hitler. He is clearly not entirely rational and might not be prepared to listen to sensible advice. His racism is so intense, so integral to his entire philosophy, that he might not be able to refrain from his treatment of Jews and the eastern peoples.’
Chairman sighed. ‘And that’s the easy situation? Now, what’s likely to change if Hitler knows that we know?’
‘That could depend to some extent on when he knows. So far, we haven’t done anything publicly except amend the battleship armament calibre from fourteen to fifteen inches, which is subtle enough to be missed. The longer we can keep him in the dark the better. That means concealing some of the new developments for as long as possible. Once my opposite number sees the angled decks on the aircraft carriers, the proverbial will hit the fan.’
The others looked momentarily mystified, then Ruddy Face grunted. ‘That won’t be long, then. The first two Ark Royal class vessels are due for completion this year.’
‘Have you noticed any alterations to German actions which might indicate that they know about you?’ Chairman enquired.
Don considered. ‘There’s a lot happening but it all sounds familiar.’ He started ticking points off on his fingers. ‘Hitler is now exercising personal command over the armed forces, has set up a Cabinet Council to advise on foreign policy, forced the Minister of War and the Army Commander-in-Chief to resign together with many other senior officers unsympathetic to Nazism. He is putting heavy pressure on the Austrians prior to declaring the union of Austria with Germany. Business as usual.’
‘So what is he likely to do when he does find out?’ Creamed Curls was sounding increasingly anxious.
‘Almost impossible to say. He first has to assess what we’re likely to do. We considered our strategic options the last time we met, and Hitler will be faced with the same possibilities. As far as he’s concerned, those could range from our declaring war over Czechoslovakia to staying out of the war altogether. When the truth dawns on him, he ought to be a very worried man.’
Hitler wasn’t worried yet but Konrad Herrman certainly was, albeit for quite different reasons; he was not a naval expert and the significance of the amendment to the details of the Second London Naval Treaty had passed him by. He was reviewing his personal strategy for at least the thousandth time since waking up seventy years in his past, and was increasingly aware of the tightrope he was walking. He lay back on his bed and sighed, feeling sick and weary to the core, and thought through the arguments again.
The demolition of the Berlin Wall had shattered the prison in which he had spent all of his adult life, and had enabled him to resume his academic career. He had been brought up by his grandparents, his mother dying in the aftermath of the Red Army’s final onslaught on Berlin, his father in the Soviet prison camp he had been taken to within weeks of Herrman’s birth. His youthful interest in history had been encouraged by his teachers and had secured him first a place as an undergraduate, then as a postgraduate researcher, and finally as a professor. That was when the trouble started. His curiosity had unveiled inconsistencies in the official version of the Great Patriotic War; his stubbornness had led him to investigate areas frowned on by the Party. The result: rapid deflection into a routine clerical post away from sensitive material. His young wife had been unable to stand the shame and had left him to bring up Stefan alone.
Stefan. He was able to think of his son now without anguish, just a deep, sad, sense of loss. The boy had been brilliant; sharp, keen, full of life and laughter. And fatally impatient. Herrman thought of the Wall again and felt the familiar tension in his stomach, the hate slowly burning. Stefan had been one of its last victims, unable to wait to be freed by the changes already in the air. Herrman tensed his muscles for a few seconds then released them with a deep sigh. He was right. His past must not be repeated. Stalin must not win.
He rolled on his side, trying to shut out the memories of the terrible photographs, the appalling names. Auschwitz. Belsen. Buchenwald. Treblinka. Could he do it? Could he stop all of this from happening again? Was it possible to find a middle way between the excesses of Hitler and Stalin – to preserve Germany but use the influence given him by his unique position to steer the country down a more civilised road? He didn’t know, but he felt his determination firming afresh; he was going to do everything he could to try. First and foremost, for Germany to stand any chance against the Soviet Union, Britain had to be knocked out of the war as soon as possible.
‘It’s happened then.’ Mary walked into the library, holding a message slip from the communications unit based at the house. ‘Hitler moved into Austria on March the fifteenth, exactly on schedule.’
Don nodded resignedly. As he had predicted, all of the efforts of von Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor, to preserve his country’s independence had failed. A last-minute attempt to hold a plebiscite to determine the wishes of the people had been blocked by German pressure, which had then forced the resignation of von Schuschnigg in favour of the Nazi, von Seyss-Inquart. Anschluss – the incorporation of Austria into the Reich – had followed.
She sat in an easy chair and looked at Don. ‘Next will come Czechoslovakia. Are we sure that the politicians will keep us out of this one? From what you said before, there’s quite a risk of war.’
‘I think we’re safe. Chamberlain is no war-monger, and I know that the Foreign Office has been pressing him not to get Britain involved. The only reason that Chamberlain is trying to mediate is that he’s afraid that if Germany does invade Czechoslovakia, France might feel bound to go to her defence, and Britain could be dragged in later. If all goes well – for us, that is, not the Czechs – Hitler’s informant will have no reason to suspect my existence from any changes in our policy.’
‘Is there any risk that the Czechs will fight this time? They’ve been making a lot of defence preparations.’
‘They did last time, but it won’t do them any good. Germany is too strong for the Czechs to stand up to alone. Even if they do fight, and Germany defeats them militarily, I can’t see that making much difference to subsequent events. Poland will be next on Hitler’s list, to enable him to get at the Soviet Union.’
‘Does that have to be so? The German propaganda only seems concerned about the position of Danzig and the treatment of Germans within Poland. I would have thought that a diplomatic solution would be possible.’
Don sighed. ‘In a sensible world it would, my love. But the Germans have been demanding the reunification of Danzig with Germany, plus access through Poland to Danzig, since before Hitler came to power. Hitler would prefer to gain this without fighting, of course, but this would effectively cut off Poland’s access to the sea, which is too vital to their economy for them to agree to. In any case, Hitler would only use any Polish concessions as a springboard for a later attack. German hatred of the Slav peoples has a long history; the Germans have regarded Eastern Europe as territory for expansion since the Teutonic Knights first invaded centuries ago.’
Mary walked over and slipped her arm around him. ‘Sometimes it seems so unreal. Here we are, in the peace of an English springtime, talking about the certainty of a horrible future. It seems almost…biblical, like the Apocalypse.’
Don thought of the nuclear weapons programme and gripped her hand. He had not wanted to give encouragement to the atomic research which had been in progress anyway, but the thought of Hitler’s adviser providing him with such a weapon chilled the blood.
‘Let’s hope you’re wrong,’ he whispered.
Herrman was feeling nervous, as he always did before meeting Hitler. He was uncomfortably aware of the dissonance between his knowledge of the crimes committed on Hitler’s orders, and the way in which this extraordinary man seemed to look on Herrman as a personal totem, a sign from above of Hitler’s destiny. This evening the Fuhrer was with Göring, both of them in high good humour.
‘Have you seen this?’ Hitler waved a press report. ‘Franco’s showing the way, and proving you right about the bombers!’
Herrman looked at the paper, which reported the results of three days of bombing raids on Barcelona. Nearly a thousand were believed killed with thousands more injured. No wonder Göring was looking smug, he thought. Successes for air power meant a higher status for the Luftwaffe, and more influence for Göring.
‘The prototype of the new Heinkel four-engined bomber is almost ready to fly, with the big Dornier following a few months later,’ Göring stated. ‘Thanks to your advice, Professor, there is little doubt that they will be successful. By the end of nineteen-forty we will have a force of heavy bombers capable of bringing Britain to the conference table on her knees.’
Herrman could not help pointing out the obvious. ‘It won’t be enough by itself.’
‘Yes I know,’ said Göring, tetchily. ‘The new submarines are doing well on trials, I hear, but they will only be of use against Britain. The bombers will also have the power to reach out and crush Russia after Britain has surrendered.’
‘But they will not be enough for that task, either.’ Herrman ploughed on doggedly, unsure whether to be more worried about Göring’s increasing irritation or the glint in Hitler’s eyes. ‘It is imperative to win the Soviet satellite states over to our side.’
Hitler stood abruptly, forcing Herrman to do the same. ‘With your knowledge, we will deal with everyone who stands in our way. We have been given another chance to deal with the Slavs. We cannot lose this time. Why else would you have been sent to us?’ He turned abruptly and left the room.
Göring eyed Herrman sardonically. ‘Be careful, Professor,’ he said softly. ‘To survive here you need friends. With your support, my position will become unchallengeable. With my support, you can have anything you want. Just think about it.’ He smiled benevolently and followed Hitler from the room.
Shaken, Herrman sat down abruptly. After such sessions, he could never decide whether his feelings of nausea were due to the release of tension or simple revulsion. Despite his fear of the casual, cruel power of Hitler and his cronies, he knew he could not give up. He was driven to try to achieve the best for Germany and the rest of Europe, whatever the cost to himself.
Don was feeling equally nauseous, but in his case it was due entirely to the rhythmical motion of the Hunt class corvette as it cruised down the Channel at twenty knots. It was a bright, fresh, April day and the sea seemed calm, but a steady swell was rolling in from the Atlantic. Helmsford, unfamiliar in naval uniform, stood easily beside him on the bridge and considered his distress.
‘I think I should prescribe some medicinal brandy,’ he said judiciously.
‘Will that make me feel better?’
‘Perhaps not, but it will at least take your mind off it.’
The commanding officer laughed. ‘I hope this isn’t putting you off the Atherstone. She’s a beautiful little ship.’
‘I’m sure Dr Erlang appreciates her,’ said Helmsford drily.
Don had as usual been introduced as a senior official in the Ministry and no-one except Helmsford was aware of the fundamental role he had played in specifying the design of the new class of escorts. Although generally similar in size and purpose to the historical ‘Hunts’, the design differed in many details. She included all of the wartime lessons that Don could recall, with an emphasis on anti-submarine and anti-aircraft armament, a hull designed for heavy-weather performance rather than the smooth-water speed of the traditional destroyer, and an accommodation layout intended to ensure reasonable comfort on Atlantic winter patrols. So the radar, two twin-4 inch, dual-purpose guns and multiple 40 mm and 20 mm automatics dealt with surface and aerial targets, while the forward-firing ‘Squid’, coupled with the pencil-beam sonar, saw to the anti-submarine role. Using one half of a destroyer’s twin-screw powerplant, she was fast enough to deal with the new high-speed U-boats and a much more useful escort vessel than a destroyer, while costing far less to build. As a result, the corvettes were being built at three times the rate of destroyers, to the anguish of many in the Navy.
Helmsford led Don to the CO’s cabin immediately behind the bridge and poured him the prescribed brandy from a bottle which he triumphantly produced from his briefcase. He seemed far more cheerful now he was at sea.
‘Foresee all eventualities, that’s my motto. Seriously, how do you like her?’
‘Looks OK, but I’m not exactly an expert. The captain seems pleased, though.’
Helmsford grinned. ‘Commanding officers always are. The important thing is how she performs against the electroboats. The rush job to produce high-speed submarines for target practice is on schedule, so he’ll soon have something to get stuck into.’
‘I didn’t say anything about advanced submarines earlier on,’ Don admitted. ‘I couldn’t see any point. We didn’t need them, and if we built them the Germans would soon copy us.’ He settled back into the only chair in the cramped cabin; Helmsford made himself comfortable on the bunk.
‘We still don’t really know what the new U-boats will be capable of,’ Helmsford pointed out.
‘We can assume that the combination of larger electric motors, larger battery capacity and streamlining will double their underwater speed to around seventeen knots. The boat in the picture seems to have a schnorkel as well, so it can run its diesels for cruising or recharging while staying underwater.’
Helmsford nodded. ‘The combination of the big electric motors from the Thames class in a streamlined version of the small ‘S’ class hull should give comparable performance for our target, albeit without the range.’ He leaned back on the bunk, sipping his brandy thoughtfully. ‘It does seem strange, you know. All my training and experience, all the assumptions in the Service, lead to enemy battlefleets being treated as the major threat and our own capital ships as the best counter to them. Yet here we are, quietly preparing for an entirely different kind of war to the one my fellow officers expect. They would be horrified if they knew.’
Don grunted. ‘As long as the equipment and training are provided, they’ll cope. Lack of competence was not something that the Navy was accused of in my time.’ He looked around the cramped cabin and smiled. ‘Thanks for arranging this. I’ll never be much of a sailor, but anything to get out of that house for a while.’
Helmsford looked at him sympathetically. ‘I can imagine how you feel. If you like, I think I can arrange some more trips. The first of the new frigates is working up, with the battleships and aircraft carriers following shortly after, not to mention the assorted amphibious mongrels.’ He grinned again. ‘There can’t be many people who can claim to have been responsible for the design of a whole new navy!’ He fiddled with the glass for a moment then asked abruptly, ‘what chance does Poland have?’
Don was surprised. ‘Basically, none. They are surrounded by potential enemies with Britain and France too far away to be able to intervene. And although Poland has a large army, it is nothing like as well trained and equipped as the Germans’.’
Helmsford sighed. ‘It just seems such an appalling mess,’ he muttered.
Herrman stood in the warm August sunshine, peering over the desolate countryside; heathland scattered with groups of trees. A deep, rumbling roar like distant, continuous thunder slowly built in volume. Vague movement became visible through the screen of trees. The roar gained a hard, clanking edge and the ground began to shake. Herrman knew what to expect, but even so he found himself filled with an unreasoning, atavistic fear. He flinched as a line of tanks burst through the undergrowth like a pack of hunting dinosaurs, roaring towards his position at over thirty kilometres per hour.
Stadler laughed. ‘Don’t worry, they’re on our side. But God help the troops who have to stand their ground against this lot.’
Over a hundred tanks were now visible, storming across the heath, fire blasting from their cannon as they passed in front of their viewing platform. Behind them came the boxy shapes of the armoured personnel carriers. As they came abreast of the platform, they stopped as one, hatches bursting open and troops tumbling to the ground, the air suddenly filled with the crackling roar of a thousand automatic weapons. A wave of self-propelled guns crashed into view, some heavy artillery, some with automatic anti-aircraft guns. They slewed to a halt and added to the appalling din. At the front of the platform, Hitler clapped his hands with delight while the generals beside him looked on smugly.
Stadler spoke in his ear. ‘The boys are pleased with their new toys. Guderian is in seventh heaven.’ Stadler’s casual disrespect never failed to amaze Herrman. The SD man had been assigned to him only recently, the latest in a line of ‘aides’ whose job seemed to be to accompany him at all times.
They were attending the beginning of ten weeks of manoeuvres involving three-quarters of a million men. Hitler had been keen to see the first of the new armoured formations which Herrman had persuaded him to create. As ever, he insisted on taking Herrman with him. The firing suddenly stopped and the soldiers jumped to their feet and stood to attention. Hitler and the generals strode down from the platform to inspect the nearest men.
‘All hand picked,’ observed Stadler. ‘Aryan supermen with perfect teeth.’ As ever, his dark, brilliantined hair was perfectly slicked back, his black leather coat immaculate, his patrician features set in a complex expression that Herrman could only describe to himself as a varying mixture of boredom, arrogance, disdain and watchfulness. At the moment, bored disdain predominated.
‘Göring won’t allow this little show to pass without response. We’ll be at an airfield within a week.’
In fact it took ten days before they stood on a bleak, windswept airfield, admiring the new Heinkel He 177 as it prepared for flight. Standing with a group of senior Luftwaffe officers was Vuillemin, the Chief of the French Air Staff, who was being impressed by the strength of the German military preparations in a calculated – and successful – attempt at intimidation. Herrman looked at him with interest, knowing that his worried report of his visit would influence France against going to war over Czechoslovakia. The Daimler-Benz engines roared into life, four propellers slowly accelerating in turn – Herrman’s anxious pleas had led to the rapid abandonment of the plan for coupled engines, as well as the need to strengthen the plane for dive-bombing. The huge plane bristled with turrets mounting the new Rheinmetall-Borsig MG 131 machine guns. It was clearly in a different league from its predecessor, the He 111.
‘I’ve just realised,’ remarked Stadler over the thundering engines, ‘why the Kriegsmarine has so little influence.’ Herrman waited for the punchline. ‘Their toys don’t make enough noise!’
They watched the big Heinkel lumber along the runway before lifting off and climbing away with surprising speed. As it disappeared into the distance, an assortment of other aircraft roared low overhead. Herrman automatically identified formations of Messerschmitt Bf 109s, Junkers Ju 88s, Focke-Wulf Fw 187s, Dornier Do 217s and the sole prototype of the new Focke-Wulf Fw 190. They circled the airfield then all landed in neat sequence, pulling off the runway to allow the He 177 to land, which it did with immaculate timing just as the Fw 190 took its place in the line-up. As the Heinkel rolled to a halt, the crews of all of the planes jumped out and stood to attention beside them.
‘Trust Göring to put on a show,’ Stadler commented as the portly General strode jovially beside Hitler to view the aircraft. ‘Somehow I can’t see Raeder getting the Führer to look at submarines.’
Judging by the volume of tobacco smoke, the Oversight Committee had been in session for some time when Don was invited to join them. They were no longer surprised when he immediately opened a window, despite the slight chill in the spring air. Chairman gestured genially at him, and Don judged that the atmosphere was more relaxed than before.
‘It might be helpful for us to review our discussion. I understand that so far there has been no deviation from your predictions?’
Don leaned back in his chair, his expression thoughtful as he reviewed the last few months. The latter part of September 1938 had seen frantic diplomatic activity, sparked by a Nuremburg Congress speech by Hitler in which he demanded that ‘the oppression of three and a half million Germans in Czechoslovakia shall cease and be replaced by the right of self-determination’. Three days later Chamberlain, alarmed that Germany was on the point of starting a European war, had flown to Munich to see Hitler at Berchtesgaden; the first of a rapid round of shuttle diplomacy involving the French and Italian leaders as well, and culminating in the Munich Conference in which the other European powers acquiesced to the transfer of German-populated parts of Czechoslovakia to Germany. This outcome had been greeted with widespread relief in Britain, despite Winston Churchill denouncing it as a servile act of appeasement. On 1st October, German troops had marched into Czechoslovakia and met no resistance.
Several months of uneasy peace had followed in Europe, punctuated in November by the savage German reprisals against German Jews following the shooting in Paris of von Rath, a German diplomat, by a Polish Jew. Mass emigration of Jews from Germany had resulted, encouraged by the Nazis (who confiscated their property) but limited by the willingness of other nations to absorb large numbers of refugees when they were themselves still suffering from unemployment. The Jews’ favoured destination of Palestine was no help to the British who had been given a mandate by the League of Nations to manage the country; violent clashes with the resident Palestinians were intensifying.
Then on March 10th, less than two months ago, the Czech crisis had erupted again. Dr Tiso, the Slovak premier, was arrested on orders of Dr Hacha, the Czechoslovak president, for attempting to establish an independent Slovakia. Tiso visited Hitler a few days later; as a result, Hacha was invited to meet Hitler and forced to sign documents turning the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia into German protectorates. Prague was occupied by German troops on March 15th. Czechoslovakia had finally been dismembered.
Last of all, the long and bitter Spanish Civil War had finally ground to a halt on 31st March with the capitulation of the Republican government to Franco’s forces, much to the jubilation of the supporting Italian and German governments.
Don was jolted from his thoughts as Chairman impatiently cleared his throat. ‘Yes, I haven’t noticed any changes in the pattern of events so far.’
‘Good. Now Czechoslovakia’s out of the way, Hitler’s beginning to shape up to Poland.’
Don nodded. ‘I read of his Reichstag speech the other day, denouncing the non-aggression pact with Poland and calling for the annexation of Danzig. On top of his demand for the return of German-speaking regions of Poland, he’s on course for an invasion in September.’
‘Is there nothing we can do to warn the Poles?’ Don was amused to note that Creamed Curls had somehow retained his hopeful optimism.
‘They know about the danger, all right,’ said Military Man, ‘I was over there the other week with the military attaché. The trouble is that they are banking on their alliance with France to deter Germany, or if the worst comes to the worst, they think they can hold out against the Germans until the French can come to their aid. Unfortunately, they don’t appreciate the speed of the blitzkrieg they are about to face so they don’t realise that they won’t have time to mobilise their forces properly.’
‘Can’t we at least get them to mobilise in advance?’
‘The problem with that is that it would raise the level of tension considerably as it’s the final stage before a declaration of war, so France is pressing Poland not to do it. In any case, it would only delay the inevitable. The Poles simply don’t have the modern equipment, tactics or trained manpower to hold out for long, despite their undoubted courage and determination. Whatever we were to do at this stage, it’s too late to save them from their fate.’
‘At least we’ve managed to dissuade Chamberlain from guaranteeing their independence this time, which was quite a struggle. There’s a lot of political pressure to be seen to be taking action to stop Hitler’s escapades.’ This from Diplomat. ‘He wanted to give guarantees to Rumania and Greece as well, after the Italians invaded Albania. He’s becoming very irritated with us, but of course we can’t yet tell him about Dr Erlang – it would be difficult to do so, bearing in mind that he needs to step aside once war commences.’
‘What about the Soviet attitude?’
Diplomat shrugged. ‘We have been trying to involve them in some sort of agreement for collective security, but they remain as impenetrable and paranoid as ever. They won’t believe anything we tell them as they’re convinced, not without cause, that we’d like to see them and Germany fight each other to a standstill. One side benefit of refusing to guarantee Poland is that we’ve thereby avoided annoying the Russians, but persuading them to commit themselves to an agreement is another matter. The Poles, of course, are in any case refusing to co-operate over any plans which would involve Russians moving into their territory to help defend them.’ He sighed. ‘Then there’s the Finland problem. We know that Russia plans to invade later this year, and that there will be strong pressure to go to Finland’s aid, but we must resist that at all costs – it would be disastrous to be drawn into a war against the USSR.’
Chairman intervened. ‘France is still shaky, despite the failure of the general strike last autumn. They are uneasy about their treaty with Poland, and would be very reluctant to get involved without us. They’re much more worried about Italy’s territorial claims against them. And Spain has no interest in anything other than recovering quietly from their civil war. As for Italy – did you say it was next month they’re due to sign a treaty with Germany?’
Don nodded. ‘Mussolini will be determined to link Italy with Germany. The Albanian coup, following on from his Ethiopian success, will have boosted his confidence. He seems to be spoiling for a fight with France.’
‘Let’s turn to Ireland. Our first real change in policy was the decision to refuse to hand back the Irish bases. That took a lot of work with the politicians, who wanted to keep the Irish happy. And now we have IRA bombs going off in London.’
Don was unconcerned. ‘As I recall, that happened anyway. Nothing will appease some sections of the Irish while partition remains in force. And the bases will be very valuable in a year’s time.’
Chairman sighed. ‘Very well, then. What about outside Europe?’
‘No real change in China,’ commented Military Man, ‘the Japanese are continuing with their invasion despite constant harassment by Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces and the Chinese Communists. It’s just guerilla warfare, though, they can’t stand up to the Japanese in open battle.’
‘And the American attitude?’
Diplomat looked thoughtful. ‘Roosevelt’s speech to Congress in January was a hopeful sign, but it doesn’t seem to have had much effect on the generally isolationist view. And the Nazi sympathisers have a high profile there.’
Don recalled that Roosevelt had warned of the dangers from aggressor states and suggested that the possibility of America’s remaining isolated from the troubles of the rest of the world had become much reduced. On the other hand, right-wingers such as Charles Lindbergh, the pilot who had become a national hero after his solo transatlantic flight, had a lot of influence.
Chairman looked at Don dourly. ‘There is, of course, one other possibility which we have so far not considered. What if other countries have been blessed with visitors from the future? Russia? Japan? America?’
The Committee looked at Don in consternation. ‘That has occurred to me,’ he said slowly, ‘but so far I have seen no evidence to support the idea. On the other hand, we might well not find out until the fighting starts.’
Chairman surveyed the Committee intently before bringing the meeting to a close. Don was aware of a heightened tension – shared in it, in fact – and realised that they were all beginning to brace themselves for what lay ahead. The time for theorising was coming to an end. The necessary preparations were well in hand. Europe’s inexorable slide to war had become a free fall.
‘I still don’t think this is a good idea.’ Don was feeling grumpy, probably because he had been standing in the rain in a crowded Hyde Park for the past two hours. Dunning was more philosophical.
‘It’s the price we have to pay,’ he said. ‘Chamberlain was most annoyed that we dissuaded him from giving his guarantee to Poland, and he insisted that the King’s review of the National Defence Forces went ahead in order to try to frighten Hitler. Extended the scope, in fact.’
Don grunted irritably. An apparently endless stream of first aid, fire service, ARP and other civil defence volunteers had marched through the Park past the King’s saluting stand. What bothered him most, however, was the grand finale. He didn’t have long to wait. A growing roar, partly mechanical, partly from the cheering crowd, preceded the arrival of most of the 1st Mechanised Division. The two observers watched with mixed emotions as the first reconnaissance units came into view, pennants proudly flying from the aerials of the little Daimler Dingos. Hard on their heels came the big Humber armoured cars, two-pounder guns poking menacingly forwards. Last, filling the air with their thunder, came rank after rank of Crusader tanks.
‘Thank God we managed to hold back the other tracked vehicles. It’s bad enough giving the Germans a free view of this lot.’
‘Don’t thank God,’ corrected Dunning, ‘thank the Oversight Committee.’
His last words were drowned out by the roar of aero-engines as formations of warplanes flew low overhead, beneath the cloudbase. A fleet of Hurricanes, Spitfires, Blenheims, Hampdens and Wellingtons filled the sky. Don anxiously studied the Hampdens. The other aircraft would look familiar enough to anyone of his time, but thanks to his advice the Handley Page bomber was significantly different, with its circular-section fuselage, big Hercules engines and power-operated dorsal and ventral gun-turrets.
‘Sorry about the Hampdens,’ shouted Dunning. ‘It was hard enough keeping the RAF from including Reapers, Mosquitoes and Herefords, but we managed to persuade them that it wouldn’t be in the interests of national security. And of course, the Fleet Air Arm wanted their Beaufighters and Beauforts to join the fun as well. Had to promise them a separate naval review to pacify them.’
Don grimaced. The Gloster Reaper was an historical design which had been brought forward at his recommendation. A single-seat long-range fighter, its twin Merlin engines gave it a phenomenal performance and the quartet of Hispano cannon under the nose provided firepower to match. The Mosquito was very much as he remembered it, whereas the Hereford was a variant of the Hampden with a solid nose packed with machine guns, powerful anti-tank guns installed in the bomb bay and additional armour protection for the ground-attack role. He wasn’t sure if Bristol had been influenced to name their new carrier planes after historical models, but in any case the Beaufighter and Beaufort were very different. The former was a single-engined, single-seat fighter-bomber based on Bristol’s historical Type 153 design study for a Hercules-engined fighter. The Beaufort, a single-engined, multi-role two-seater, was as similar as possible, using the same engine installation and many common parts to ease maintenance in service.
Dunning suddenly rummaged in an inside pocket. ‘By the way, I think we’ve identified your friend.’ He produced an envelope which Don opened under cover of Dunning’s umbrella. In it was a photograph of a man in civilian clothes standing in a group of men, mostly in German military uniform, except for someone standing close to him who was wearing a leather coat.
‘Part of Hitler’s entourage. We have several photographs of him, but so far have been unable to find out who he is. All we know is his name: Professor Herrman. He holds no official position and we’ve been unable to trace his background.’
Don stared at the photograph with sudden intensity, as if to try to read the man’s mind. The picture showed a tall, slim, bespectacled figure in his late sixties with light, probably grey, wavy hair. He seemed preoccupied, somehow depressed.
‘It would fit Hitler’s character to want to keep a chap like this around him. Probably makes him feel more confident.’
What are you doing? Don thought. What is motivating you? Do you remember the Cold War, the Common Market, German reunification? What is in your mind?
Herrman was feeling bored. He studied the photographs again and looked up at Stadler.
‘I can’t tell you much,’ he said hesitantly, ‘but I believe these ships carried few aircraft because of the weight of their armoured decks. They were never as effective as the Japanese or American carriers.’
He pushed back the photographs of the Ark Royal and Illustrious. They had all been taken at flight-deck level so that the angled deck was not obvious. Herrman was not to know of the efforts the Oversight Committee had put in to ensure that no more revealing pictures emerged. Neither did he realise that the biplanes carefully parked on the decks bore no resemblance to the fast monoplanes with which the navy pilots were practising away from prying eyes.
Stadler sighed. ‘Very well then, do these jog your memory? They are the new battleships King George V and Prince of Wales.’
Herrman shrugged. ‘The names are familiar, but I really can’t tell you much about their strengths and weaknesses. I seem to remember that they had a lot of trouble with their main armament. It was a new design, and kept breaking down in action.’
Stadler looked at him in astonishment. ‘But these use old guns and turrets from Great War ships. That’s why they could build them so quickly.’
Herrman frowned, confused. Stadler pushed forward some pictures of the Hyde Park Review. ‘What about their mechanised division?’
Herrman studied the photographs and his confusion increased. ‘Six-wheeled armoured cars? And these tanks have sloped armour! I’m certain that something is wrong here.’
Stadler looked at him intently, then drew some more photographs from his briefcase. ‘These were taken with great difficulty at an army training ground by a sympathiser of Irish origin. What do you make of them?’
Herrman’s breath hissed out at the sight of the box-shaped parachutes. He scrabbled quickly through the photographs, stopping at a slightly blurred close-up of the back of a paratrooper. The Besal rifle slung over his shoulder was clearly visible, the brutal appearance of the bullpup quite unlike any rifle which should be in existence. Herrman stared at it in growing horror.
‘Oh my God,’ he said slowly.
Himmler was coldly furious. ‘So all of the time you have been telling us that you can give us the key to world domination, the British have had someone doing the same for them?’
The two men did not reply. Herrman noticed that the SD man’s normal air of ironic insouciance was not in evidence. Himmler paced in agitation.
‘Does this change our plans? What threat can the British mount against us?’
Stadler diplomatically let Herrman reply. ‘It’s difficult to say. We have discussed it, of course, but it is difficult to see how the British could stop us on land. If they warned the Poles, I can’t see that making much difference. Our armed forces are far too strong for them. In any case, the British have refrained from giving any guarantee to Poland and the French are keeping very quiet about their old treaty. The signs are good that they will not even declare war this time.’
Himmler glared at him. ‘What about us defeating the British?’
‘That will be much more difficult. They will certainly be better prepared for an invasion. I still think, though, that our new submarines will be more than a match for them. We can still starve them to the negotiating table.’
Himmler stared coldly at them. ‘I don’t think you realise how serious this is. It isn’t just a question of military advantage. The Führer is convinced that your arrival is a sign of his destiny.’ He made a rapid decision. ‘Tell no-one of this. I will put some trusted men onto examining the military implications and planning appropriate measures. In the meantime, no-one – and I mean absolutely no-one – is to be informed.’
‘The French are panicking, as expected.’ Dunning had become quite philosophical about the onward march of events during his years of association with Don. ‘Germany’s non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union is causing some real flutters.’
Don grunted. ‘Well it might. Nine days to go. Let’s hope to God that someone’s sitting on Chamberlain to make sure that he doesn’t make any last-minute commitments to Poland.’
‘Well in hand,’ murmured Dunning absently. ‘Do you think there’s any chance that France will honour their treaty and declare war on Germany, even without us?’
Don shrugged. ‘We’re in uncharted waters, so anything’s possible. I very much doubt it, though. They know they’re in no shape militarily to take on the Germans, so they’ll find any excuse to wriggle out of it. Their Foreign Minister is still strongly in favour of reaching some sort of deal with Germany even though their Premier is made of sterner stuff. Makes you wonder how Bonnet and Daladier can live together in the same government. Still, I gather Diplomat is trying to get them to agree a common sanctions policy.’ He looked at his watch and sighed. ‘The Schleswig-Holstein should be on her way to Danzig by now.’
Dunning nodded. ‘She was missing from her Swinemunde moorings this morning, according to a reconnaissance report. We’re expecting to receive a sighting report from Danzig at any moment.’
Don nodded tensely. The Schleswig-Holstein was an old battleship that Germany had been permitted to keep after the First World War. Her visit to Danzig was prearranged and ceremonial, but she was a ‘Trojan horse’, with over two hundred marines on board to supplement the hundreds of German troops who had been surreptitiously infiltrated into the supposedly demilitarised ‘Free City’ over recent months. In addition, regular German Army forces were poised to cross the border from East Prussia into the Free Zone around Danzig. When the old battleship opened fire on the Polish military transport depot on the Westerplatte, by the docks, it would be a giant starting gun to mark the beginning of the Second World War.
Käpitan zur See Gustav Kleikamp checked his watch. The time was 4.47 a.m. on Friday 1st September. From the bridge of the Schleswig-Holstein, the long red brick wall marking the boundary of the Polish base on the Westerplatte was just three hundred metres away. He turned to the gunnery officer and gave the order.
The ship shook as the four 28 cm guns opened fire, shattering the silence with a massive blast, their 240 kg shells screaming towards the base at over 800 metres per second, the shock wave from the muzzle blast alone flattening buildings en route. The Westerplatte erupted with flame, smoke and earth as the shells hit home. In the sudden silence following the first salvo, the battleship’s 5.9 cm secondary guns made themselves heard against the background of the tearing sound of the 2 cm AA guns, all firing at the beseiged base.
The Marine-Sturmkompanie had disembarked from the battleship a couple of hours before and was now a few hundred metres from the Polish base, waiting for the firing to stop so they could advance. The Leutnant in charge turned from observing the destruction on the Westerplatte to watch the Schleswig-Holstein, waiting for the next salvo from the big guns. He gasped in disbelief as two huge columns of water suddenly rose from the side of the ship, followed a second later by the blast of high explosives. At first, the old battleship seemed unperturbed, but as the Leutnant watched, the ship gradually tilted towards him and, in what seemed an impossibly short space of time, capsized with majestic dignity.
The Leutnant turned to face his stunned men, and realised that they would lose all heart if he didn’t act immediately. ‘Advance,’ he shouted, and rising to his feet led his men towards the railway gate. There was a blast as explosives placed by an advanced team flattened the wall by the gate and the marines rushed through, only to tumble to the ground, shot or shaken by the hail of automatic fire from the Polish defences. The battle for the Westerplatte would be a long one.
As dawn broke on September 1st the Oberleutnant looked down on a misty landscape as his Junkers 88 led the Staffel towards Krakow. As the bombers neared the city, the small dots which were Polish defensive fighters rose to meet them from Balice. The obsolete PZL P11 fighters struggled for altitude but the Schnellbombers, the fastest in service in the world, simply increased speed and flashed past them, turning to line up on the airfield. The Oberleutnant’s orders had been clear; the Polish airforce had to be wiped out. As he aimed the bomber at the airfield buildings and the few aircraft left on the ground, he heard over the radio the crisp interchanges of the Fw 187 pilots as they dived from high altitude on the Polish fighters. His air gunners wouldn’t need to expend any ammunition on this sortie.
The Major of the Pomorska Cavalry Brigade of Army Pomorze in northern Poland watched through binoculars as the leading German armoured cars came into view. He noted they had only four wheels, and identified them as SdKfz 221s, lightly armoured and armed only with a machine gun. Unimpressive they may be, but he had more sense than to try to charge them with his cavalry. He gave a command and one of his men ran, crouching, towards his position, carrying the long Maroszek rifle which had only just been taken off the secret list. The soldier lay down beside him and worked the bolt to load one of the long 7.92 mm cartridges into the breech of the rifle. The calibre was the same as the standard infantry weapons but the cartridge was much bigger, propelling the armour-piercing bullet at 1,200 metres per second, enough to punch through the SdKfz’s armour at several hundred metres.
There was a moment’s silence before the vicious crack of the anti-tank rifle. Momentarily deafened, the Major saw the armoured car lurch off the road, black-clad figures jumping from it into a hail of light machine gun fire. The cavalryman reloaded and fired with methodical care until all three 221s lay abandoned, their surviving crews gone to ground. In the sudden silence, the louder rumble of tracks could be heard and the first of a line of squat, massive shapes emerged through the smoke of battle. Rapid fire from the Maroszek had no effect and the leading tanks started spraying the Polish positions with machine gun fire. The Major gave another command and his troops withdrew to where their horses were tethered. There would be other opportunities for combat on more even terms.
The Oberleutnant in command of the Panzer III tank felt confident as he led his troop towards Piotrkow. His 1st Panzer Division had punched through a gap between the two main Polish forces, Army Lodz and Army Krakow, and was almost half way to Warsaw. The Poles were fighting furiously but most of their weapons were incapable of harming the massive new battle tanks.
The sound of firing ahead grew in intensity and the commander dropped down into the turret as bullets began ricocheting off the armour. As he did so he spotted the compact shapes of tanks ahead and to one side. He shouted a command to his gunner and felt the turret traverse; the long 5 cm gun muzzle seeking its target. An earsplitting clang signalled a hit by one of the Polish tanks, but a shouted enquiry determined that his crew were unharmed; the shot had failed to penetrate. His own gun barked in reply and he could see through his periscope the Polish tank lurch to a halt, smoke pouring from the hatches. Through the dust another shape emerged. ‘Right, aim right!’ he shouted and the gunner responded.
Half a kilometre away, the crews of the Marder SPGs in a Panzerjäger unit observed the battle with interest, picking out with some difficulty the small Polish tanks from the big Panzers as they manoeuvred in the smoke and dust. Suddenly, the Oberleutnant spotted a column of the Polish 7TPs approaching the battle and gave a quick order. The long barrels of the 7,5 cm guns in the Marders tracked their distant targets. At a range of one kilometre, the Panzerjägers opened fire. Less than one minute later, there were no Polish tanks remaining.
Dunning was grim faced. ‘It was Helmsford,’ he said. ‘He warned the Poles in enough time for them to be able to smuggle a couple of torpedoes and their firing mechanisms, probably dismantled, into the Westerplatte.’
‘Helmsford?’ Don was aghast, ‘surely it could be a leak from the German side?’
Dunning shook his head. ‘It turns out that Helmsford’s wife has Polish relatives. He admitted passing on the warning about the Schleswig-Holstein.’
‘What’s happened to him?’ Don had come to like and admire the dour sailor.
‘Don’t ask, but you won’t be seeing him again.’ Dunning looked tired. ‘Just to be on the safe side, we’ve run a detailed security check on all those with inside knowledge. I think he’s the only weakness.’
‘I didn’t think there were that many. I thought I was the number one top secret.’
‘You are, but the knowledge you brought is too valuable to too many people to keep it entirely under cover. That little computer of yours, for instance. The boffins were absolutely ecstatic once they found out how to use it. The Royal Aircraft Establishment has been using it to speed airframe and engine design work – it’s like magic after relying on log tables and slide rules. Now the intelligence people have sorted out code-breaking programmes which will speed up cryptanalysis no end. Even your little pocket calculator is being pressed into use. The boffins have been suffering acute frustration in trying to copy them, but there are too many unknown technologies involved.’
Don shrugged. ‘I’m sorry I can’t help there, but electronics was a closed book to me. Apart from the general importance of preparing for mass production of radio and radar equipment, the only thing of importance I could remember was the resonant cavity magnetron; I know it was essential to make compact, short-wavelength radars but I’ve no idea how it was designed.’
‘They’re working on it,’ Dunning said absently. ‘Have you heard the latest news from Poland? Despite the sinking of the Schleswig-Holstein, the fighting is going more or less as you predicted. The Poles used the warning they received to mobilise fully but the Germans are of course much better equipped than they were in your time so they’re carving through them just the same.’
Don shuddered, trying not to think of the suffering being inflicted on the Poles, and changed the subject. ‘Do we have any details about the German equipment?’
Dunning opened his briefcase and took out some photographs. ‘I brought these along to show you. They’ve been collated from various sources, both Polish and German.’
Don examined them carefully. It was easy enough to tell the source of the pictures; the German ones showing triumphant soldiers, often in appropriate poses, the Polish ones snatched photos taken in battle or close-ups of wrecked equipment.
‘Apart from their use of the Czech TNHP38 tank, they appear to have standardised on one main tank,’ he noted. Dunning nodded.
‘They call it the Panzerkampfwagen Three. In comparison with the description you gave us, it seems to be bigger and the shape is clearly different, with the glacis plate and turret front being sloped, but they’ve kept the engine at the rear and the front machine-gunner next to the driver.’
‘The guns are obviously bigger as well. That looks like a long-barrelled five centimetre piece.’ He sighed. ‘That makes a mess of my plans. You’d better bring the Mark Two version of the Crusader into production as soon as possible; the Mark One will be outgunned.’
‘Already in hand. The turrets of the Mark Ones will be fitted to the Humber armoured cars and the hulls used for the Comet AA tanks – very frugal! Take a look at these.’
The next series of photographs showed self-propelled field artillery and high velocity anti-tank guns, air defence tanks with quadruple automatic cannon, and armoured personnel carriers.
‘They don’t seem to have too many of these, and have concentrated them into hard-hitting armoured divisions. The Poles have nothing that can stand up to them. The Germans also have other mobile divisions relying on wheeled vehicles which have much greater range and speed and are causing chaos in Polish rear areas.’
Don looked at the photos, feeling depressed. Even the armoured cars looked formidable in the brutally functional way that only German designers seemed able to achieve. Dunning picked out another one.
‘I’m sure you’ll recognise this.’
It showed a dead German soldier, sprawled on his back. Lying across his body was a compact, efficient-looking rifle, obviously automatic, with a long, curved magazine in front of the pistol grip. Don winced.
‘The Sturm Gewehr Fourty-four,’ he sighed, ‘four or five years early. That will cause us problems as well. What about aircraft?’
‘So far, not so very different. The Messerschmitt One-oh-nine is the main fighter and the Junkers Eighty-seven Stuka has been doing most of the tactical support, with the Junkers Eighty-eight very much in evidence too; it seems to have reached service more quickly than in your time. The main variation seems to be the adoption of the Focke-Wulf One-eight-seven instead of the Messerschmitt One-one-oh. Any ideas about that?’
‘Not really. The Messerschmitt wasn’t a particularly outstanding aircraft, as I recall, but it proved very versatile so it stayed in production for a long time. The Focke-Wulf must be something special. I seem to recall that the prototypes were fitted with rather low-powered engines, but I assume they’ve rectified that by now. It looks smaller than the One-one-oh and is probably quite a bit faster. Any sign of heavy bombers?’
‘Not in action, but there are reports of four-engined aircraft being seen near Luftwaffe bases. They seem to be working up towards operational readiness.’
Göring was not pleased. The Polish operation had come before he was ready to launch the new Heinkel bombers into battle, and although the Luftwaffe had acquitted itself well, he felt that an opportunity to demonstrate its invincible power had been missed. On top of that, this freak from the future seemed to be hiding something. If only he could get him to himself for a while at Karinhalle; but Hitler would never permit that. He kept Herrman always within reach, so Göring had had to come to Berlin.
‘You still haven’t explained to anyone how the British failed to declare war in support of the Poles,’ he remarked lazily, ‘this sanctions agreement with France is hardly the same thing, is it?’
Herrman blinked nervously. He could have speculated at some length as to the reasons, but the warning from Himmler was still fresh in his mind. Göring may be powerful, but Himmler was to be feared.
‘It may signify nothing. Chamberlain was out on a limb in any case when he gave that guarantee to Poland. It might have taken something very small to deter him.’
‘Ah, yes, your butterfly theory.’ Göring was amused by the notion that an apparently insignificant change could ultimately lead to major consequences. But then, Herrman was not a clear expositor of chaos theory.
Herrman decided to cover his bets. ‘Of course, one possible explanation is that the British have also received information from the future. That could affect their strategy.’
Göring was startled. ‘Is this possible? Do you have any evidence for it?’
‘Any change in predicted British policy might signify either that something we have said or done has had an effect on their thinking, or that they have a source of information of their own. There’s no knowing which is more likely in this case, but I think we should keep our options open.’
He sat, hoping that his perspiration was not evident, that he had given himself a get-out if the facts became known. Göring was not fooled. The man was clearly lying, but why? The truth slowly came to him.
‘You know, don’t you?’ He said softly. ‘They have one of you. He is guiding their thinking just as you are guiding ours.’
Herrman said nothing, but his expression revealed all.
‘Now why should you keep quiet about this? Ah yes, of course, friend Himmler. Doubtless he has had a word in your ear.’
Herrman still said nothing and Göring considered his tactics. ‘On balance, I think Himmler is right to tell you to keep quiet.’ He smiled and Herrman shivered. ‘We shall keep this to ourselves. But I expect a clear briefing from you on what the British can be expected to do next.’
Don looked over the coast from his viewpoint on the South Downs, shivering slightly in the fresh autumn breeze. Mary, Dunning and Taylor stood beside him. An ordinary tourist could be expected to enjoy the sight of the Downs sweeping down to the sea, but this group was looking with other eyes.
‘The combs you can see leading down towards the coastal railway line are essentially dry valleys.’ Taylor was in lecturing mode. ‘As you can see, we are constructing several railway spurs up them. These apparently go nowhere, but in fact are intended to be firing points for railway guns. In fact, when we were investigating possible sites, we were surprised to discover an existing section of track with a large shed at the end, which contained a nine-point-two inch gun from the Great War. Still in perfect working order, and maintained by an old guy whom everyone had forgotten about.’
Don smiled. He recalled hearing this story in his previous existence. Taylor went on.
‘We have a crash programme to produce more railway guns for coast defence purposes. The Navy have passed over all of the seven-point-five inch guns from the four Cavendish class cruisers which they’re converting to light aircraft carriers. We’ve put them into high-elevation mountings which give them considerable range.’ He turned to point to some tiny buildings almost obscured by vegetation. ‘Some of the small blockhouses for machine guns and anti-tank weapons are visible, forming a line along the coast designed to provide interlocking arcs of fire. We’re doing our best to conceal them in various ways. If you look carefully, you can also pick out some horse-shoe shaped mounds not far from the road, over there. They are intended as gun emplacements for field artillery.’
Mary was listening with interest, this tour a rare outing for her. ‘Wouldn’t it be better to have the defensive lines further back? Then you would have more time to put the guns in the right position, once you knew the direction of attack.’
Taylor did not look surprised. All of the regulars at the House had become used to her perceptive questions.
‘We do have another line, much further inland, and some armoured divisions will be held back from the coast. History tells us, however, that the best chance of thwarting a landing from the sea is to hit it as soon as possible, before the invaders have a chance to become organised and established. We hope we can rely on aerial reconnaissance and other means to give us enough warning to get the guns in place. And of course, the Air Force is practising tactical co-operation with the Army and Navy in order to ensure that the enemy are given no peace from the moment they set sail.’
They all looked at the peaceful scene for a while. Don realised that they were all probably thinking the same; trying to imagine this stretch of British countryside covered with black-crossed tanks, a scene of ferocious fighting, Luftwaffe planes dicing with the RAF overhead. They returned to their car in silence.
‘So now we have Poland, and the British and French cower behind their defences, bleating about sanctions!’ Herrman couldn’t decide whether Hitler was angry or triumphant, and decided he was both. Hitler fixed him with his stare. ‘They didn’t guarantee Poland’s safety and left me a clear field to attack. Why were you wrong?’
Herrman stammered the same sort of rationale he had used with Göring, but added, ‘there are now strong indications that they are obtaining guidance from the future in some way.’ He held his breath and waited. Hitler was silent for a moment and Herrman suddenly realised that Stadler had been right to warn him; this had come as no surprise to Hitler, so one of his sources must have informed him already. Then Hitler smiled grimly.
‘So the Gods are restaging the contest? They want us to fight again! What reason could they have, except that they were dissatisfied with the outcome last time? Very well, we will give them a battle that will gladden their hearts.’ He considered for a moment, pacing around the room. ‘The question is: do we start with Norway or with France? The British will be expecting us to attack Norway, and may be better prepared to come to its aid, especially as they won’t have most of their army locked up in France. To attack France first might surprise them.’
Herrman felt emboldened to intervene. ‘Why not ignore France and Norway, and go straight for Russia instead? Then there wouldn’t be the risk of facing a war on two fronts.’
Hitler considered this for a moment. ‘There would still be the risk of being stabbed in the back by the French if we committed our forces in Russia. Besides, I have a score to settle with France. I am very much looking forward to signing their surrender in the same railway carriage they forced us to use after the last war! And with your help, defeating the French will be even quicker and easier than it was in your time. That will show the Generals that I know what I’m doing!’
‘Well then, the British must know about me, or at least that you have someone like me. So they will be aware that we will be trying to outguess them. It is even possible that they have decided to stay out of the war altogether. There was a view held by certain postwar British historians that it was a mistake to get involved. The cost to Britain was appalling, and the Cold War outcome not much better than a Europe dominated by Germany; which will eventually happen anyway, in economic terms at least.’
Hitler considered this as he paced. ‘Given their international obligations, I don’t see how they can avoid coming to France’s assistance. They would lose too much face. But if they intend to defend France, why didn’t they declare war over Poland, which would have given them plenty of time to bring their army across the Channel? It’s possible they may be planning to strike a deal after France’s defeat; I would be generous and it would only cost them a few colonies, plus Edward back on the throne and a sympathetic government. A small price to pay in comparison with what they would lose in the war. They have no ties to Norway, though, and it need not be a causus belli. If I could take Norway first, it would be a clear warning to Britain and would still be useful later on in threatening the supply route to Russia.’
Hitler became more animated as he developed his thesis. ‘Raeder has been arguing the case for securing bases in Norway anyway, if only to keep Britain out – we can’t let them bottle up our ships in the Baltic while denying us the winter route for supplies of Swedish iron ore. We can’t trust Norwegian neutrality; the British would try to stop the iron ore supplies anyway.’ He stopped pacing as he came to his conclusion. ‘If the British don’t want war they may ignore our move on Norway. If they do, then being tied up in Norway will keep them out of France, making our task there easier.’ He turned suddenly and faced Herrman. ‘What do you think?’
Herrman stood silently for a moment, suddenly struck with the thought that this could be one of the pivotal moments in European history. He had no doubt that Hitler still regarded him with a kind of superstitious awe, and would listen to his views.
‘Britain has been spending large sums on armaments and is clearly preparing to fight if need be. There is no indication that they are building any heavy bombers, though, of the sort they used to attack us. And they have kept their army in their own country. They may be glad of the excuse to avoid becoming entangled in France. We must remember that most of the prewar British government wanted to reach some sort of deal with us rather than go to war. They have been quick to build new battleships and aircraft carriers, but they will be more useful against Japan than us. It is possible that they would like to avoid war.’
Hitler stood in thought for a moment. ‘Very well, then. We will put them to the test. Norway it is – but we will leave the attack until just before we invade France, to give the British no time to deal with both problems!’