The Battalion 202 stories by Jonathan Doering have been running in Alt Hist since Issue 4. They give an imaginative view of some of the pressures and reactions to Nazi Occupation had Operation “Sea Lion” been activated successfully in late 1940. “Operation Solar”, the concluding story in the cycle, brings together the narratives of the key characters, centering on the AU plans to attack and liberate the Nazis’ transit prison at Pontefract Castle.
You can purchase a copy of Alt Hist Issue 10 if you want to read the full story.
Battalion 202: Operation Solar by Jonathan Doering
Author’s Note: Battalion 202 has attempted to offer an imaginative view of some of the pressures and reactions to Nazi Occupation that would have been caused had Operation “Sea Lion” been activated successfully in late 1940. “Operation Solar”, the concluding story in the cycle, brings together the narratives of the key characters, centering on the AU plans to attack and liberate the Nazis’ transit prison at Pontefract Castle.
Late December, 1940
A British army officer looks out of the window of his office. Behind him, a young man and woman sit, watching him. Finally, he turns.
“So, what happened?”
Pontefract, 7th December, 1940
It was a couple of hours after the hanging of Father Peter Mackintosh that Tommy slipped back into the Operational Base of Pontefract Auxiliary Unit. Fortunately, the Queen’s Hotel was not overlooked by houses and sat beside one of the town’s three railway lines. Darting into the courtyard at the back, Tommy slipped through a side door and into the basement. His eyes adjusting to the gloom, he made out, behind the beer barrels and wine racks, a makeshift wall with a service door built into it. He looked over his shoulder once more before tapping the security signal: three separate knocks followed by a single one. It had been Chris’s idea – three dots and a dash, the Morse code for “V” for Victory. The door opened and Christopher Greenwood’s face appeared; he turned the muzzle of the silenced sniper rifle to one side when he saw who it was.
“Hi, kid, let us in then.”
“How was it?”
“Just get the bloody door locked first.”
They retreated down a short passageway between rough brick walls, marking off certain parts of the basement. They came to a second metal door and gave the same knock. The door was laboriously unlocked and unbolted before a ruddy-complexioned face beneath a thatch of sandy red hair was thrust out. “Welcome back trooper! Come away in.”
They stepped into a small living area: four metres by four, two sets of bunk beds opposite each other against two walls. In the centre stood a table where the AU members ate, discussed, planned, and cleaned and repaired weapons. On the far wall was a disused coal chute, allowing fresh air in. To the left of it stood a small stove, and to the left of that was a worktable with a small box of kitchen utensils on top. Stacked neatly underneath were tins and other provisions. To the right of the chute stood a Belfast sink, and beside that two slop buckets. In both corners on either side of the door were metal lockers holding weapons, first aid equipment, more clothing. As they entered the room, a pale-faced young man who had been sitting on one of the lower bunk beds looked up at them: Lieutenant MacKinnon gestured with his head.
“Steve, take the 303 and stand guard at the outer door, eh?”
Stephen Walsh, a renegade from a recent work round-up, had been brought a week before by Rosie Doyle. MacKinnon had taken him after some negotiation, joking ruefully: “Don’t be sending us too many; we’ve barely got enough space for ourselves here.”
Rosie raised her eyebrows. “Don’t send too many? How are we going to build a Resistance Army like that?”
“You wouldn’t be saying that if you had to spend a day down here. We only get to clear the slop buckets out each night. If we’re lucky.”
She laughed. “Well, you need to get out and about more, don’t you? Little more fresh air.”
MacKinnon had laughed easily enough, but once the door had closed again he’d turned and exchanged glances with both Tommy and Chris, before turning to their new recruit.
“And what the bloody hell can you do?”
Walsh had been a worker at Dunhill’s liquorice factory, so had become the unit’s cook, which was an elastic term, encompassing the role of preparing food, keeping the OB clean, mending clothing and equipment, performing First Aid when required, and so on. He had little military experience, save a few weeks’ preparation with the Home Guard before the invasion, but had settled down well enough. He took the rifle from Chris, nodded and disappeared through the metal door.
MacKinnon set a kettle to boil on the small stove, dropped some tea into a pot and sat down at the table.
“So how was it?”
When the riot started in the market place and truncheons and fists flew, Tommy, standing towards the back of the crowd, automatically backed away and strolled past the front of St Giles church. His wish was to bear left, back to the Knottingley Road, cross over and make his way directly to the basement of the Queen’s Hotel, where they had managed, through a union friend of his, to set up headquarters. But of course, that would have led any watchful snitch or secret police officer straight to them. Instead he bore right onto Shoemarket, his heart lurching at the realisation that this way would take him past the new Gestapo offices. His steps faltered momentarily, but he forced himself to continue: any sudden change of direction might attract attention, and he had three choices: move in the direction of the OB, take his chances in the market place, or walk to another edge of town and lose himself, and this was the only way of doing that under the circumstances. The hairs on the back of his skull rose slightly as the beautiful library building came into view, like that gorgeous bright white marble mausoleum he had seen when he had been wandering around Barcelona just before he came home with the British Battalion in 1938. He had looked at the shining, ice-white surface of it, then imagined the bones inside and shuddered.
“Just keep walking slowly. It’s just a building.”
He moved on, the electric field of evil sliding over and past him, before another faltering step: half way down the street was a line of trestle tables, with British police officers and German soldiers positioned behind it. Before and behind it, German infantrymen circulated, gently but firmly guiding passers-by over the table in order to have their documents checked. “Just take a moment. Nothing to worry about.”
Tommy’s eyes flicked to the alleyway just beyond the tables. In all likelihood, he would be spotted if he tried to walk down there undetected. And even if he made the alleyway without these personnel seeing him, there could well be another check point or at least an armed soldier waiting out of sight.
“Well, we’ll see how good these papers from Wakefield are.”
Sauntering nonchalantly towards the table, Tommy took in two British uniformed bobbies in blue, a German in field grey, and, improbably, a severe-faced young woman in a German uniform. Her blonde hair was tightly bunched beneath a piss cutter cap, but one or two stray hairs had worked their way loose. Tommy guessed that she was a member of the SS-Helferin Korps, focused on the strands of hair and drifted forwards, and by some miracle—perhaps because he did not protest against having to show his papers—was not intercepted and found himself in front of her. She flicked a glance at him as she shuffled some papers together and lined up her rubber stamp.
“Papers please, mein herr. Identity card, residency permit, work document.”
Tommy had his hand on all of the documents he thought she would want already and brought them out of his jacket pocket as one, handing them over with a grin. “There you go.”
Again, the glassy, disinterested glance, and for a second he regretted choosing to come to this woman. She pulled the corners of her mouth back in a polite smile and took the sheaf from him, turning them the right way round to read them, immediately lifting the top paper up for inspection before looking back at him more closely.
“This is a driving licence. I do not require to see it.”
She said it crisply, like a primary school teacher reprimanding a child for some sloppy spelling, but in for a penny, in for a pound. Tommy took the licence back with another grin, deliberately and brazenly seeking her eyes out and staring into them. “Pardon me. I’m sorry about that. I shouldn’t have given that to you, should I?”
Her eyes flickered for an instant, then her cheeks coloured slightly and she laughed lightly and looked down at the other documents. Tommy allowed himself to laugh in a low voice. “Now that you know that I have a vehicle, perhaps you’ll let me drive you somewhere some time?”
Again, the slight flush and the giggle. She glanced at the name on his papers. “Yes, Herr … Roberts. Perhaps.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Tommy spotted a movement as one of the soldiers became aware of the flirtation and started to move towards him. The woman shifted from side to side and gave him one more look before handing his papers back. “These are in order, mein herr. Thank you for your co-operation.”
Tommy risked one more look, flicking his gaze at the edge of her pupils, smiling broadly and taking the paperwork back.
“Thank you very much. Danke schön.”
She shifted again, and he became aware of her body inside of her uniform. Then there was a poke at his shoulder and the German soldier was there, frowning.
“Ja, ja, danke schön.”
Tommy half-winked at the Helferin before turning to smile at the soldier and walking away. Maintaining an unflustered walking pace, he moved on down the street, turning right in front of the Windmill Inn, then curling round to the left into Finkle Street. His heart was a thumping fist and he kept seeing the rising blush in the woman’s cheeks and the excited look in her eyes as she looked downwards. But then he felt a wave of shame at the very thought of touching one of the enemy, the blush rushing through the whole of his body, before he felt the chill of the December wind, and his sense of ardour cooled. He walked into the cemetery, quickly losing himself amongst the gravestones, working his way back to the corner of the wall, and climbed up and over and into the field beyond.
MacKinnon drained his tea and nodded approvingly.
“Thinking on your feet. Good.”
Tommy shrugged. “I couldn’t really think of anything else to do.”
“Sounds like you couldn’t think of anything else at all.” They both chuckled at that, with Chris smiling good naturedly enough, although since getting engaged he was even more awkward about all of that than ever. Still, Tommy felt a little easier about his earlier reactions. As MacKinnon refilled their mugs, he asked: “What now, then?”
MacKinnon stopped pouring for a moment and watched him, before continuing to pour: “You’ve taken the temperature of the town, got a feel for what it’s like. What are your thoughts?”
“There’s an anger, but they don’t know how to focus it. The Jerries look well-organised and the local police seem to be hand in glove with them. If they’ve got the local command structures on their side, it’ll be hard to challenge them with such small numbers, other than harrying them the way that we have been doing.”
Christopher spoke up. “But we know what they’re planning to do with the people at the Castle. We’ve got to do something about that.”
MacKinnon looked at Christopher. “I know that your mother’s up there, Chris, but you’ve got to try to stay objective about that.”
“You know what I mean. Try to stay calm. I promise you we’ll do everything to get as many of them out as we can. But I can’t guarantee that we can get them all out. Or how many that we get out will survive.”
Christopher reddened and opened his mouth, but then trembled slightly and closed it again. MacKinnon pressed on. “Look, of course you want to save your mother and the others. We’ll do what we can. And we’ve made contact with some other groups who are interested in giving us some back up.”
“We’ve got the AUs in Leeds South and Wakefield on side, so they’ll co-ordinate actions when we’re ready to go. Make as big a statement as possible, and hopefully draw some soldiers away from here. Or at least distract them.”
“But what about our own numbers? We’ll be overwhelmed if it’s just us.”
“Both units have said they’ll send who they can, but they probably each will manage one or two. They’ve got their own work to do, eh?”
Chris snorted. “That could be six of us, maybe eight. Hardly an army going up against a garrison.”
MacKinnon nodded slowly, rolling his eyes. “Ye-es, so we’ve got to concentrate on other sources of support. That’s one reason why I sent Tommy into town, to try to gauge if there might be stomach for some action.”
Tommy grunted. “I’d say there’s stomach. You might be able to garner six or so men of fighting age … But how to reach them? Then to train and equip them?”
“You’ve got a point, but we’ve got some local contacts now. Tommy, you’ve been able to work your old union contacts like a dream, especially now the TUC has been declared illegal, they understand we’re all in the same boat. And since you’ve linked us up with this Christian group, Chris, we’ve got a line to a lot of other sincere people who want to make a difference.”
Tommy sighed softly. “Yes, that’s true, but half of them are past retirement age. Their hearts are in the right place, and they’ll be champion when it comes to knitting us balaclavas and warm socks. Getting us food, even hiding us, sure. But storming the barricades? The Nazis would cut them down in a second.”
MacKinnon shrugged. “Maybe, but if they want to do their bit, we shouldn’t deny them.”
He caught a glance from Tommy. “For God’s sake, I don’t mean sending old ladies over the top with a rifle, Tom. But we’ve got to accept every offer of help that we get.”
Tommy nodded, but his eyes were dark. “You’re probably right, but it will mean more casualties. More arrests. Reprisals.”
“Aye, maybe. But the more every last single person stands up to what’s going on, the sooner things will change.”
Tommy flicked his eyebrows and his shoulders: there was truth in what had been said and there was no denying it. MacKinnon sipped his tea, watching first one then the other. “Anyway, boys, look on the bright side. This means that you both get to travel again.”
Tommy pulled a face. “Already? I’ve just got back from the clutches of Marlene Dietrich’s ugly sister.”
“This is to meet friends this time, or potential ones, anyway.”
MacKinnon nodded at Christopher. “Chris, I need you to make contact with the local brethren. Try the Methodist minister first. The Catholics are under more pressure than anyone else right now. Explain what’s happening and see what he says. We’re going to need volunteers for the attack, safe houses for anyone we do get away, medical supplies, food, clothes, you know the score. See what he thinks.”
“Right. If I can’t find him can I—?”
“Go and bother your wee woman? God man, anyone would think you were already married.” MacKinnon shook his head in mock irritation. “Well I can’t deny a man in love can I? But you be back here by the rendezvous time, Chris. That’s important.”
Tommy was watching Christopher. “Is that wise, Sandy? She could be being watched …”
“Some comfort necessary, I’d say. I’d be facing dissension in the ranks if I always said no. But I mean it Chris. Not a second later than the time we agree. Understood?”
“Good. Now, Tommy. Our other source of help.”
“Yes? I was wondering.”
MacKinnon nodded again. “You know how they’re keeping Jewish prisoners up there? Well, I’ve been in touch with some Jewish groups who are champing at the bit to help.”
“Great. How many people can they spare?”
“Not sure yet. And anyway, we need to have a meeting, talk things over.”
“Anyway, there are two main groups. The Jewish Defence Committee …”
Something shifted in Tommy’s memory. “Defence Committee? Weren’t there …?”
“Yep, the mouthy bloke at Waterton House.”
Tommy remembered the intelligent young man with sharp, dark eyes. And with a rush of heat, he remembered the man’s sister, with cropped, russet hair. “Yes, I think I remember him.”
MacKinnon snorted. “Aye, bit of a bolshie leftie if you ask me, but you know what they say about your enemy’s enemy.”
“Why send me to speak to him?”
“Why not? You’re a union man, you were in Spain. I understand this guy was out there too.”
“Get away! Which brigade?”
“How the bloody hell should I know? You’ll be able to ask him when you see him. Maybe he’ll have a few snaps from back then, eh? You can reminisce about the good old Republic.” MacKinnon’s tone was gentle enough and Tommy allowed himself a chuckle. The Scot smiled. “Seriously though, I need you to do a wee bit of that, get the measure of him. See if he’s trustworthy, build a few bridges, sort out how many he can muster, whether they’re battle-ready.”
“Right. And how are you going to be entertaining yourself whilst we run messages across the West Riding?”
“I’ll be helping myself to the best malt they’ve got on offer in the bar upstairs.” MacKinnon laughed and looked into his mug. “I’m billeted under a great bloody calendar hotel with a fully-stocked bar and my throat’s as dry as a bloody thistle.” He blew a sigh and set his cup down.
“There’s another Jewish unit. But professional. Made up of guys who actually have army training. Served in regular army outfits, but then when the Invasion came, they volunteered to form stay-behind teams of their own. Winnie agreed, said they’d fight all the more fiercely cause of what Hitler would do to them if he got half a chance. They call themselves the Jewish Brigades, and we’ve got one near Leeds. They’ve said they want to meet up and help, and from where I’m sitting, they’re the bloody cavalry.”
“I’m sure they are. So where do you want me to go?”
MacKinnon opened up an Ordinance Survey map on the table and pointed. “You meet there, in the woods between Pontefract and Ackworth. Chris, you go to the Methodist minister’s house first. He’s expecting you. Steve stays here and holds the fort. Meet back here no later than oh-two hundred hours.”
Pontefract Castle, 7th December, 22.30 hours
A car came screaming up to the gates in the early afternoon. The prisoners down below in the old Magazine, now nicknamed “Der Kühlschrank”, heard shouting and someone being dragged across the ground above. The door to one of the Nissen huts opened and slammed shut. Periodically since then there have been cries and shouts. Down in the perpetual half-light of her subterranean prison, Doris Greenwood fancies that she can hear familiar voices: particularly of that grubby little police sergeant, Balks. Something has happened, and now something else, something horrible, will happen. Beyond that, she knows nothing. It is strange to reflect that this is the worst thing: the not knowing.
A door slams again. More shouting, blows, then a shout and a sharp report that echoes back and forth above their heads. The sound echoes and reverberates: someone has been shot. In the leaden silence that follows there are more voices, but quieter, almost sheepish.
Then—scraping; a metal shutter far above their heads is thrown open. A voice (Balks’s?) drifting down: “Someone wants to say hello. You people are going up in the world, or is it that he’s going down?”
As she looks up into the already unfamiliar light, a dark shape is falling towards them. It takes a moment for her to register what has happened. Then it is as if her very being is again wrenched in two directions. There is a part of her that looks at the body hanging in the pool of light thrown down through the service hatch, spinning slightly like a puppet on a string, and factually remarks, “There is a man hanging there.” Another part of her wants to scream.
Above, Sergeant Balks looks with fresh respect at Chief-Inspector Knight.
“I know he was a traitor, sir, but …”
“Well, shooting him …”
“Like you say, Sergeant. The Mayor was a traitor. He had nothing further to tell us. Let him serve as an example to the other prisoners.”
Knight slips his Smith and Webley revolver back into its holster. He will clean it when he has a moment back in his office. Such unpleasant things will, he imagines, be increasingly necessary. He turns to looks at Lieutenant Kürten, who is staring directly at him, and slowly nods his head.
END OF FREE EXTRACT
You can read the rest of this story by purchasing a copy Alt Hist Issue 10.
About the Author
After eight years living in West Yorkshire, Jonathan Doering now lives in Oxford with his wife and son, where he teaches English. His work has also appeared in: Cascando, Sheaf, Silver Carrier, Circus, LitSpeak, Contemporary Review, Alt Hist, Brittle Star, Gold Dust (for which he won a Best Prose Award), The Guardian and The Wolfian; his SF serial “Earworms”, which has recently been running in this last magazine, has been published by the Wolfian Press.