Jonathan Doering was born in Manchester in 1975. He studied at UEA Norwich and Trinity College Dublin and now lives in West Yorkshire with his family where he teaches English. He has had stories, articles and poetry published in: Contemporary Review, Cascando, Icarus, Backdrop, Silver Carrier, Concrete, Bucket of Tongues, Circus, The Quango Annual, Dogmanet.org, Bacchus, LitSpeak, and The Guardian.
Battalion 202: Into the Darkness
By Jonathan Doering
Pontefract, West Yorkshire, early October, 1941 …
Christopher Greenwood’s breath was ragged and burning at the back of his throat. He turned another corner and stopped for a second, listening again. The church bells were ringing, and every toll of the bells sent a rush of heat through his chest. It was certain, then. The Nazi invasion of Britain had begun.
Chris suddenly felt a pain in his side, and bent over, panting heavily. He’d better go more steadily or he’d never get to the Operational Base. He started walking again, rubbing at the stitch, when a voice sounded in his ear.
‘Oi! You! Where’d you think you’re going?’
Chris turned to see a policeman, carrying a rifle, approaching him. He took a breath and gathered his thoughts.
‘You shouldn’t be out, sonny. Not a night for Scouts. Go home and wait for further instructions.’
Chris turned to show his uniform, ‘I’m on war business, constable. I’m in the Home Guard.’
The officer looked over his uniform for a moment and grunted.
‘Bit young, aren’t you?’
Chris swallowed and realised his mouth was dry. ‘They have recruited some of us from the Scouts, I’m over sixteen.’
The police officer stared at him and then shook his head.
‘Over sixteen. Dear God. We’re sending sixteen year olds to war all over again.’ The policeman tapped at Chris’s shoulder badge. ‘What’s this? Battalion 202. Which Home Guard unit is that?’ Chris shrugged. The policeman studied his face for a moment. ‘Where did you get that mark on your face?’
Chris’s hand went to his right cheek. The stinging had died down. He hadn’t thought about it for several minutes. His mind raced for a good reason.
‘Had a row with my girlfriend.’
‘What about? Must have been bad for her to crack you like that.’
Chris’s face burned at the memory of how he’d been slapped and his mind went blank. He gambled on a shrug, ‘Oh you know, she’s just really worried about me.’
The policeman roared with laughter, ‘Worried? That’s a good one. Don’t let her worry too much—she’ll beat you to death. Women, eh?’ The policeman shook his head and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. ‘The Barracks are that way. You’re heading out of town.’
‘I’ve, er … got to report to another HQ’
‘Another HQ?’ The policeman’s eyes flicked back to Chris’s shoulder badge. ‘Battalion 202. What other HQ?’
Chris realised that the copper was taking advantage of his age. He’d always been brought up to be polite to the police, but enough was enough.
‘I’m sorry, constable, but I can’t tell you. It’s classified information. Excuse me. I’ve got to go.’
With that, he turned and walked away, with every fibre in his body screaming at the fact that he was disobeying a policeman. He could imagine his mother’s face right now.
But then he heard the older man’s voice again. ‘Good luck then, lad. Watch how you go.’
He looked back. The policeman seemed older somehow.
‘I will. You too.’
He walked to the end of the street, turned the corner and then started to run again. The others would probably be waiting.
The streets around him were deathly quiet, there was an ominous rumble to the south, which Chris realised with a start was the sound of artillery fire: British? German? Impossible to tell. He could hear some voices in the distance of the town. The local Home Guard unit would be mustering and preparing itself for a last stand. Otherwise people were to stay off the streets until further notice.
Chris wasn’t exactly a Home Guard soldier, but he wasn’t a civilian, either. He was in an Auxiliary Unit—the secret resistance fighters who were to mobilize if the Nazis successfully invaded.
The street lights of the town were behind him now as he approached the forest on the edge of the town. He stopped for a second, heart racing. Before him the forest was a tangle of twisted tree limbs, some catching the light, others standing black against the navy-blue sky. Would he be able to find the OB? For a second his heart failed him; he might spend all night looking and not find his way in the dark. He might get caught by the Nazis, shot, anything.
Then he felt the sting on his face again and remembered the real cause of it. He couldn’t go back to face his mother, not after their row. He had to go on. He took a deep breath, feeling the air streaming cold through his nose and into his lungs, then let it out. They’d practised finding their way in the dark before. He could do it now—and he would. He had to.
Heading forward into the forest he looked for the oak tree stump covered in moss—fifteen paces to the right of that should be the trap door for the OB.
The night suddenly wheeled around him and Chris found himself pinned to the ground, staring at a blade pressed along his face. A voice rumbled, ‘You’re late,’ then chuckled. The knife was lifted away and Chris breathed again.
‘Leave it out, Tommy.’
‘Just getting in practice, Chris. Happen now Jerry’s come we’ll be doing a lot more of that.’
‘Yeah, but not to each other,’ Chris could hear the harder, adult tone in his voice and realised what he had suspected over the last few months since he had been spoken to by the Chief Superintendent—that he had been growing up quickly, and that now, in some important ways, he was a man. Of course in other ways he was just a scared boy—like when he’d choked at the edge of the forest—but now he was with the unit. The sense of belonging was coming back to him.
It had started when he had been introduced to them and they had worked on the OB together. It had grown when they had gone for training at Colehill, a stately home somewhere down South. They had gone twice, and Christopher had felt excited and scared in equal measure as he had been shown how to use explosives, use a knife, and ambush enemy troops.
But the most frightening moment had been when one of their trainers had said, ‘Auxiliary fighters must never surrender to the enemy. You must fight to the last bullet.’
Tommy had spoken up. ‘And what do we do with the last bullet against an SS Regiment?’
The trainer had stared at each of them in turn and then said, ‘You use the last bullet on yourself.’
Someone had muttered, ‘God,’ in the silence, and the trainer had looked around again before continuing, ‘Believe you me, lads, you’ll want to die quick and clean—if those Nazis get their hands on you, you will die—but it’ll be long and painful. You’ll be better off doing it yourself.’
It had all been a bit of a lark until then. Blowing things up, throwing grenades, learning how to throw someone bigger than yourself. They’d even been driven out in the dark and then had to find their way back to the house, just like Scouts. But it had become hard and cold and real when the trainer had said that.
With Tommy behind him, Chris worked his way backwards through the trapdoor entrance to the OB, and climbed down the ladder. Turning into the communal area, he saw the other members of the unit—Mr Adamson, a local farmer who had been a sergeant in the West Yorkshire Regiment in the Great War. Mr Strode, a local solicitor who had been a lieutenant in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry at the Somme. Fisher, a sullen farm hand who worked for Adamson, and Peter Cosmin, whose father was Polish and who worked at the Co-op stores in town and who Mr Strode said was a bit of a Commie but not a bad one. Each of them nodded to Chris.
When Tommy had closed the trap door and joined them, Mr Strode stood up from the table they had been sitting around and cleared his throat:
‘Now that Tommy and young Greenwood are with us, I can begin. I’m sorry that it’s come to this, naturally, but we’ve all heard the church bells …’
‘You can hear the shellfire. If you listen closely enough,’ put in Adamson.
‘Yes, and I’ve also received the code word by telephone,’ continued Strode. ‘So it’s official. Britain is under attack, and as of now our unit is active. It is our duty to offer what armed resistance we can against the enemy. I don’t wish to be morbid when I say that we need to remember that our life expectancy from today is a fortnight.’ Strode paused. The men waited. ‘We therefore need to bear in mind the AU motto, ‘valiant yet vigilant,’ whilst also remembering that every night that we do not perform some action is a wasted night. Agreed?’ The other men nodded.
Strode continued, ‘If we can all see this thing through to the end, I will be delighted, but if we have to go down fighting, then I say let’s do that as well, as best we’re able.’
Cosmin snorted at this and Adamson fixed his eyes on the ground before saying, ‘What if some are better able than others?’
Strode stiffened, then shrugged. ‘I was at the Somme, and I won the Military Cross. And I earned it. And I’ll earn it all over again, I’m sure.’
To silence further dissent he motioned to Tommy to open the rum ration that was on the table and pour a tot into each of the metal tumblers on the table.
‘By way of a toast and for Dutch courage, gentlemen.’
‘Shouldn’t we wait until we’ve carried out the op?’ asked Adamson.
‘I’ve a feeling we may need it beforehand,’ said Strode, slitting an envelope of instructions and preparing to read aloud:
‘His Majesty’s Government wishes you every success in your work as AU fighters. Remember, think before you act, but always think of your country before you think of yourself. You will find below a series of instructions for what you should attempt to achieve over the coming hours and days but remember—you are the personnel on the ground and so you must make the best operational decisions you can according to the circumstances you are working under.’
Strode paused for a second, scanning ahead.
‘Now we’re coming to it,’ muttered Tommy.
Strode paled a little, then read on.
‘Instruction One. Your first action must be to make your identities, background and whereabouts as secure from the enemy as possible. To this end, you must locate the local senior police officer who vetted you for your membership of this AU. In your case, this is Chief Superintendent Frederickson, Address: 2 Major Walk, Pontefract.’
‘So the talk was true,’ Chris heard someone say. He lifted the tumbler to his mouth and tipped the burning contents down his throat. Strode continued reading.
‘This may be seen to be an act of betrayal at this moment. But you must remember that this Police Officer is the only individual who knows your role in the British Resistance Organisation, who you are, where you come from, your family, indeed, all significant information about you. If captured, he may voluntarily or under duress offer damaging information about you to the enemy, leading to the failure of your mission, your torture and death, and perhaps the torture and death of those closest to you. This war will be a long and difficult one. This is the first of many difficult actions you will have to perform. Do not delay. Go to the address noted above. The Officer in question has received instructions to await your arrival. Assassinate him immediately.’
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