THE FIRST EXPERIENCE OF incoming shellfire remains imprinted on the mind for ever. David Blake would remember the shock of its detonation, a mind numbing explosion that turned his youthful limbs to jelly.
Cruuump! Whoosh! The second explosion lifted him off his feet in a cocoon of hot air. It sucked him from the motor torpedo boat's deck and cart wheeled him into space. For a moment he felt he was flying like an awkward, inverted bird. He was conscious of somersaulting in the air before splashing heavily into the chilling waters of the English Channel.
The shock of the cold water slowed his senses. He turned over and over, as if in slow motion. Then his body was pounded by the whirling wake and he was suddenly conscious of the thrashing of the boat's propellers. Swirled around in a maelstrom of white foam, he struggled to find his way to the surface. He lost all sense of direction and was struck by the fear that he no longer knew which way was up. The pressure on his lungs was gave him a violent headache and his legs gyrated and beat the water uselessly. He stopped struggling and his own buoyancy gradually took him upwards until, thankfully, he at last broke surface.
He gasped for every breath, sucking the cold night air into his tortured lungs as he floated on his back, bobbing in the dissolving spume of the departing MTB's wake. The boat was already a faint silhouette in the night, but he could still hear the roar of its mighty Packard engines, now wound up to their emergency top speed. There were other noises, too: The crack of the German shore batteries and the deadly whirring and swooshing sound peculiar to incoming shellfire. More batteries seemed to have joined in the barrage, with each shot opening the range until he could barely discern the fountains of water from the shell-bursts.
Suddenly, the night was split with an explosion of brilliant light and flame. Now, through a curtain of black smoke, he could see the MTB in its last dying throes. Only the bow section could be seen standing, and this was on end, its stem pointing pathetically at the sky. It was lit by a sheet of burning gasoline that spread from a billowing ball of fire, all that was left of the aft part of the boat.
David felt a wave of sick despair, but forced himself to watch. After a while the bow slid beneath the water, but the surface oil slick continued burning and flickering, like the last dying embers in a fireplace.
* * * * *
AFTER WHAT SEEMED TO be an eternity the enemy guns ceased firing. The night became blanketed in an eerie silence. He blew into the mouthpiece of his life preserver, which lifted his head enough so that the waves stopped lapping over his face. He called out several times, hoping for a returning cry from any survivors. Hearing none, he looked around to take stock of his own situation.
He felt stunned by this change of fortune. Was it only this morning that he had reported for duty on MTB 227 after being transferred from the Royal Naval Barracks at Chatham? He had been excited and enthused by the prospect of crewing one of those small, fast craft that were waging a different kind of war off the coasts of France and Belgium. The captain and crew had all welcomed him aboard as though he was their benefactor; which in their eyes he was, since their boat had been held in reserve for several days due to shortage of a full crew roster.
He reflected on the young captain's briefing to the crew before they left harbour in company with four other boats. "Here is the situation," he'd said. "There is a patrol line of our other boats positioned up and down this coast. The idea is, when one of us reports surface shipping in the inshore traffic channel, that's when all nearby boats will concentrate to provide ding-dong attacks on the enemy vessels. Ostensibly, no matter which quadrant the Jerries turn to, one of us should be in a position to have a clear shot at them. That is, unless they run themselves ashore."
The instructions were to occasionally get in close and provoke enemy defences into opening fire from every sector of the coastline. It was hoped that this would help identify their firing positions and would also tire the defenders by having them stand-to every night. Eventually, the German commanders might get out of patience with local units crying wolf every night, leading to the possibility they might mistrust any reports of the commencement of the expected Allied invasion.
The first crack of artillery had been accompanied by a fountain of spray erupting close to the boat's starboard quarter. Too close. For a moment David had thought they had struck a mine, and then realized that the explosion came from gun fire.
The captain had jumped to the wheel. "Christ! I think we've stirred up a hornet's nest... Coxswain! Clear for action... I'll take the helm ... Engines! Wind those buggers up.... Let's get the hell out of here."
He had spun the wheel to turn the boat toward the open sea, advancing the throttles as he did so. Then he shouted a command to David. "You, take over the starboard Lewis guns. You can cock them, but do not fire except on my command."
The boat raced seaward leaving a wall of white phosphorescence in its wake. As the range opened, the exploding enemy shells were tracing its path, with near-misses beginning to bracket ahead and to starboard. Then another enemy round exploded close alongside the boat. David, who was scrambling along the starboard side to gain access to the Lewis gun turret-pod, had felt himself lifted in a blast of hot air and stinging spray and had been catapulted into the sea.
Now, as he wiped water from his eyes, he shouted again and listened intently for any answers. There were none. Was he the only survivor? It seemed unreal that shipmates he had only just met, were now lost.
Looking around, he only had a vague idea in which direction the shore lay. Then, by scanning the faint horizon, he was able to discern the different shades of darkness between the horizon and the lesser blackness of the night sky. He detected a dark break on the horizon stretching from his left to his right. The shoreline was behind him, to the east!
Paddling water, he reflected on his last conversation with the skipper. What was it he had said? There's a spring tide stream that is setting at one or two knots in a north-north-easterly direction?
He remembered that the skipper had plotted their rough position as about five or six miles off the beaches of Le Touquet. He guessed that--for the next two or three hours, at least--the tide would be setting him in that direction. If the average speed of the tidal stream was about one-and-a-half knots it was probable that in less than three hours he might be only half mile off shore; maybe an easy swim.
* * * * *
FORTIFIED BY THIS REASONING, he felt confident he could swim to the shore. He just hoped that the skipper was right about the tidal flow in this area of the Channel. Turning on his side, he began to swim easily toward the inhospitable French shore. After a while he stopped to kick off his shoes. The water felt cold on his feet, but his layered clothing and the heavy white woollen sweater commonly worn by coastal craft crews helped take the chill off his body. He realized that its drag slowed his movement through the water, but the trade-off against hypothermia was worth it.
He started to swim again in what he thought was an easterly direction, conscious that the prevailing tide was indeed setting him somewhat to his left. He pressed on, thinking it could be a long swim toward two disparate destinations, a prisoner-of-war camp, or Davy Jones Locker. Making a choice was easy.
After a while he turned onto his back, swimming with strong measured strokes for some time before turning again and changing to a breaststroke. He alternated every few minutes, occasionally resting for a while in a floating position, mindful that the tide should still be sweeping him along the coast and setting him closer to the shoreline.
He felt he had been swimming for hours. The cold compelled him to step up his stroke, so that shortly he was merely flailing at the water. Realizing he was wasting much of his strength, he stopped and rolled onto his back again, panting and gasping for breath. He floated like this for a long time until the cold prompted him to kick with his limbs and shake off his inertia. When he stopped splashing he was conscious that the waves were breaking around him and that there was an increased ground swell. It stimulated him to renew swimming with increased vigour, until the sound of breaking surf told him he was getting close to the shoreline. Then he saw it; the black silhouette of rising land against the dark of the night sky.
With a feeling of relief, he trod water as he surveyed the emerging scene ahead. To his right lay the beach, climbing to a high-reaching escarpment. He was drifting slowly left alongside a bouldered groyne. Feeling too exhausted to swim against the tide in the direction of the beach, he allowed himself to be swept north, parallel with shore, until he reached the end of the promontory. Here he seemed to be facing a bay and was being sucked by the tidal flow into its centre at an increasing rate. He concluded that this must be Le Touquet and he was being drawn into the mouth of the River Canche at the top of a rising tide.
A few minutes later he felt the strength of its flow diminish and realized that this must be slack tide. Soon the tide would start to ebb and possibly sweep him back out to sea. He started to swim again toward the shoreline, about a half-mile away across the mouth of the river. He headed toward it with a renewed sense of urgency, making every stroke count as he forced his tiring arms and legs to propel him forward. Gasping for air now and gulping mouthfuls of water with every tortured breath, he was finally forced to rest. As he stretched his burning leg muscles his feet touched ground and, standing up, he was able to slosh through the shallows to where a salt marsh met the water. Climbing on to a piece of firm ground above the reeds, he staggered forward to collapse in a thankful, exhausted heap on a muddy ridge above the high water mark.
It was cold in the early morning air and he lay there shivering in a light-headed stupor, his tired body demanding sleep ... just to sleep. By God, he had made it! He knew he still had more to do, that he needed to find shelter and warmth, but his eyes closed. His world drifted into darkness, with shadowy images of home and deliverance.