Battalion 202: Rotten Parchment Bonds by Jonathan Doering

“Rotten Parchment Bonds”, the latest story in the Battalion 202 series by Jonathan Doering, features Harold Storey, a quiet man praying for a quiet life after the horror of the First World War trenches. But his prayers are cruelly crushed by the German Invasion of Britain in 1941. As a police officer he is forced to co-operate with Nazi officials and is thrown into moral turmoil by the accommodations that start to be made. But perhaps there is one good man amongst the enemy ranks?

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Author’s Note: A previous instalment of “Battalion 202” told the story of a young Auxiliary Unit recruit, Christopher Greenwood, and his first night of service in one of the hundreds of nascent armed resistance groups organised across Britain against the possibility of a successful Nazi invasion in 1940. Now we follow a police officer’s experiences as the grip of the Nazi Occupation begins to tighten….

Pontefract, West Yorkshire, Early October, 1940…

Jennifer’s kiss was still wet on his mouth when he shouted:

“Oi! You! Where do you think you’re going?”

Police Constable Harold Storey initially felt only irritation when he stopped the youngster with a red mark on his face in an army uniform a size too big for him. He could tell from his face he was too young for the regular Army, but the earnestness in the lad’s gaze when he explained about the Home Guard had shifted Storey’s mood to one of contempt.

“We’re sending sixteen year olds to war all over again.”

The boy had frowned, then nodded. Storey’s eye was drawn by an unfamiliar shoulder badge: Battalion 202. Never heard of that before; but as he questioned him further, the cheeky little runt had pulled himself up to his full height:

“I’m sorry, constable, but I can’t tell you. It’s classified information. Excuse me. I’ve got to go.”

And again the earnest gaze showed that he was telling the truth. Storey shrugged inwardly at that: let him follow his path of glory and taste some war. For all either of them knew, they’d both be feeding the worms in a couple of hours. As the boy walked away—in the opposite direction from the Barracks and the Home Guard mustering station – Storey knew that he was up to something dark. How old was he? Sixteen? Seventeen? Simon would have only been a few years older. But he would have been doing his part as well.

As he turned towards the town centre, Storey heard sobbing. Long, heavy, lost crying. Staring at the door from behind which the noise was coming, he knew that this was the house that the boy had left. He raised a fist to knock, but then thought better of it: what did he have to say?

Memorising the number, he hefted his carbine and set off at a march. The artificial thunder that had been building in the distance for days seemed to intensify, with toxic lightning from shell and bomb. Another flash. The runt’s face flickered across his mind. Dammit, maybe he should have ordered him back home, no matter what. But then, how could he have ensured the boy would stay there? And if all hands had ever been needed on deck, it was tonight. Nevertheless, as he moved along, a snatch of Gray’s Elegy on a Country Churchyard learnt at school hammered through his mind: The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Turning down a steep street that afforded a view of the valley to the South he swiftly wished that he hadn’t: a sea of darkness was spread before him, intermittently but persistently flashing. Around the far edge of this basin of night was a rising tide of fire; Storey nearly missed his footing on the hill as he remembered Passchendaele. He hadn’t been much older than that boy, just a few years out of school, Jennifer and Simon at home…

“C’mon,” he snapped at himself, “If a boy can do it …” He shouldered the carbine once more, still feeling the moistness of her kiss.

“Come back, Harry.”

§

There was the sickening silence just before action at Pontefract Police Station. Storey’s stomach clenched as he recognised the smell in the air. Sweat and something else. He’d smelt that in the trenches, on the trains, on every man he’d ever known who’d been told he’d have to go back to the Front. The smell of fear.

Every man in the Parade Hall had his own theory about what was happening, what needed to be done, and felt the need to elaborate this theory to anyone within earshot, it seemed. Finally Superintendent White stood up and the murmuring subsided.

“Right then, I think that we all know what is happening. The situation is grim, gentlemen. The Defensive Line is collapsing. As far as we know, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet are on a train heading North. The King has set sail from Glasgow.”

“Hope he sends a postcard,” someone muttered. There was a general chuckling until White gave the men a heavy stare.

“That is enough of that. The point is that the Nazis are overrunning the country, slowly but steadily. Most cities will be occupied shortly. Chief Superintendent Frederickson has been called away to a rendezvous …”

“What, on Churchill’s train?” the same wag enquired. There was a roar of laughter, more nervous than impudent, that was cut off when White picked out the speaker and whispered through gritted teeth, “I’m warning you, Balks.”

Order restored, the Superintendent continued: “Put simply, gentlemen, we must assume that this will be the last stand. You will now hear two lists read out. The first list comprises those men chosen for the Pontefract Constabulary Volunteers. This group of men will be headed by myself and will have the honour of joining the Defensive Line.” His words hung in the room, almost as visible as mustard gas. No laughter then. Each man looked from one to another, but after all, they had been warned earlier against this possibility. White cleared his throat.

“The second list comprises the men who have been selected to remain in Pontefract, to maintain good order, offer armed resistance later if deemed appropriate, and handle policing issues that may occur…beyond the hostilities.”

Even Balks was silent at that. As the Superintendent began to intone the first list everyone knew that it was as good as a death sentence. That stench again. Storey focused on his breathing, attempting to control it, but still felt his pulse inexorably rising with each name called. Finally the list ended. His name was not on it. A wave of cool relief flooded through him from shoulders down to belly, followed by burning shame at the thought that some other fellow was on that list in his place. A fellow who would almost certainly not be coming back.

White spoke again, more gently, even kindly: “These men will shortly accompany myself to the Defensive Line. Transport has been arranged and is waiting outside for this purpose. Chief Inspector Knight will now read the second list.”

Storey found himself staring at the faces of friends and colleagues he would have to expect never to see again: Bagnall, O’Shea, Gretton… Some caught his eye; others not. He heard his name with a jolt and had a split second urge to stand up and ask to be transferred to the first list, but the throbbing in his chest and that smell ensured that he didn’t.

When the list had been read and they had all synchronised their watches, White spoke again: “You now have a quarter of an hour to prepare yourselves. The Volunteers should report to the Vehicle Yard in fifteen minutes’ time. Food, weapons, ammunition and other equipment have been organised for each man who is going and is waiting, labelled, at the far end of the Parade Hall behind you. Say your farewells, gentlemen. Thank you and good luck.” With that the Superintendent strode from the Hall.

Again, the smell of fear. There was a pause, then low murmurs, like at a funeral; hands shaken, shoulders gripped, final words. Bill Hagen came up and pushed an envelope with his wife’s name on it into his hand. “Goodbye Harry, you lucky bastard.” He’d smiled as he’d said it, but his tone was so flat Storey felt another wave of guilt. Then Hagen squeezed his hand: “Keep smiling, trooper.” He turned and left before Storey could say anything else; he watched Hagen’s burly back as he lumbered over to the packs, selected one, swung it to his shoulder and stumbled, a wounded bear, from the Hall.

In what seemed only a moment the Hall had emptied by more than half; the Volunteers would soon be leaving; the men selected to remain in the town scuffed their heels sheepishly, hardly daring to look one another in the eye. There was a muffled hubbub outside, and Storey knew that they were about to depart. All of a sudden he found himself running towards the door, through the reception area, out into the Vehicle Yard, to see the buses that had been commandeered sweeping out of the Yard and down the hill towards the Doncaster Road. He felt his shouting above the roar of the engines, deep in his throat like a raw scratch:

“Good luck, lads!”

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