IT WAS SUNDAY MORNING. London was at ease. The park in which he sat was quiet, surprisingly peaceful given that it was situated in the midst of one of the world’s great cities. The distant noise even softly enough for him to enjoy the sound of fresh autumn leaves rustling as they rolled across the lawn in the breeze, mustering themselves in piles beneath the earthward branches of the evergreens.
Squirrels made industrious use of the time, empty of hordes of rushing humans and rambunctious dogs, to collect and bury scores of the thousands of acorns littering the ground. An occasional pigeon fluttered noisily from its lofty oak perch, adding to the desiccated mess congregating on the stone steps below. Rain had been a long time coming this year and everything was dusty and brittle. So dusty that flocks of sparrows had wiggled small scrape holes in patches of bare earth, flapping a bath for themselves in the dry dirt.
The early sun was pleasantly warming and cast a reassuring orange glow on the surroundings. It was a soothing morning and in another time he would have enjoyed the peace and quiet, the solitude. Inhaled the briefness of tranquility before the bustle, and let the troubles of the world float away on the breeze, if only for a few moments. But this was not another time.
He didn’t yet know how this morning would end, or that he would even see it end. But in that choice he was resigned and, once made, a strange uncluttered calmness engulfed him. He thought he could live only if she lived, and was happy for this life to finish if she didn’t. At this moment he didn’t know one way or the other, every day was a struggle. But he would know shortly. In that he was relieved. It had been a long time, half a lifetime almost. And much of it wasted on secrets that were not secret, truths surpassed by time, and lies, lots of lies; designed by zealots and woven by experts unbeholden to national or moral boundaries.
To him now they were all meaningless, insignificant: Insignificant lies. Insignificant truths. Insignificant secrets. That insignificance born from the realization of what really mattered, what was of value and what was not: Living a life with someone, living it alone, or not living it at all. One had not been a choice, the other two were.
How everything became so cloudy, cluttered and confusing he couldn’t remember. It had, as I have mentioned, and as he told me later that morning, been half a lifetime. Long enough to purge the reasons for it all, but enough, also, to recover the purpose. Being engulfed in a longstanding, unflinching, chase for truth had cloaked the original purpose, cocooned it, retreated it into the deep recesses of his subconscious. Strange that now it was so clear, so apparent, the mistakes so obvious, the reason so lost. Strange also, that a perceived irretrievable subconscious can suddenly evoke such vibrant perspective and consciousness when sparked back to reality. Almost as if regaining the thoughts of childhood, full of lost innocence and honesty.
People had died for it, for the truth, or what they thought was the truth, for the secret created that was for years protected and that which was abused. Some were remembered too late for their efforts. Others forgotten altogether. On a still autumn morning the wheel had turned full circle, it was clicking into position and maybe it was now his turn. Could he forget? Would others forget? Or would he finish at only half a life?
A life for which he hadn’t even been a pawn, just an entity to be kicked around; drawn in first by choice, then by guilt, and finally by design. Events hadn’t always included him at all and yet they affected him at every turn. He’d been swept along with it, often ignorant that the game was even being played in distant fields. How is it that some people can float through life with no conscious navigation at all, getting everything they want with little effort? While others, equally talented and ambitious, eager to do what is right, and willing stand up for it, are forestalled at every turn, with no fault? Why is it they who pay the price?
The hue of sunlight slowly brightened from deep orange to yellow and stirred the sleeping city awake. There wasn’t long to wait, even if the journey had been long, half a lifetime long, and more for some; spanning two generations, several wars, hot and cold, and a life he allowed to pass him by. And for what?
A train clattered and squealed as it traversed over complex points and working tugs on the river blew their deep bellowing foghorns in unison; the sound of industry, old fashioned industry. Then, between the glint of the sun off the water and the rolling leaves he remembered a long forgotten conversation, and slipped into imagination, watching, in his mind’s eye, a hulking great battleship enter a distant port in time of war. A monster creeping silently into berth to be victualed. The ship not yet scarred by war, only by salt water, but prepared to unleash its formidable power to do war’s bidding nonetheless.
War. It always starts with war. Wars are the ripples of life: The tiny drops of misery that spread ever outward, growing, multiplying, absorbing everything in their path; the hurdles we must breach to push humanity forward in its endless quest for a better future, a more peaceful existence, a righteous and more truthful world. He was never able to breach that wave, but carried forever along on its tip, involuntarily, from one event to another, unable to break the cycle.
Awake he dozed, his mind carrying him from his troubles as the tidal Thames washed against the stone…
THE GREAT WARSHIP GENTLY SLIPPING alongside the pier caused quite a stir among the small group of onlookers. Not for her size, though she was large for a light cruiser, at 608-feet and 10,000-tons, and not for the unusual designation on her bow. But because of the red, white and blue flag flying proudly from her stern. The stars and stripes waving in the southern breeze were easily identifiable, but since the start of the war had been an infrequent sight in the Cape Town port. The United States Ship Phoenix was being tugged into position at the secure berthing area on the edge of the Simon’s Town naval base at False Bay. Her crew standing rigidly side-by-side in neat white rows along her decks, watching the intricate procedure of docking the massive rust stained vessel after her transatlantic crossing. She was only two years old and yet her structure already bore the appearance of a much older ship, the natural wear and tear of a long sea voyage, having recently come from the Pacific for a quick modification to her armaments. Along the pier, dock workers, although not attended in such neat lines, also stood rigid and stationary, gazing up in wonder at the formidable black and grey behemoth towering high above them. They were accustomed to seeing large merchant vessels but this was clearly not one of them. The Phoenix’s array of fifteen six-inch guns protruding from her deck portrayed a magnificent military presence, and the unusual color scheme, made up of abstract drab blocks of color, designed to obscure her shape and size and make it difficult for marauding submarines to gauge her speed and range, just compounded the collective awe. Nevertheless, this Brooklyn-class cruiser appeared as a colossus next to the other vessels in port and no curious color scheme could hide the fact.
Few people knew the real purpose of the ‘Phoo-bird’s’ visit and everyone that did were keeping it very quiet, not least the Americans for sending her. If people outside the privileged few had known, things might have been very different for the following five war-torn years, and possibly more.
The Phoenix’s covert task was to pick up gold bullion as the last ‘cash and carry’ payment before America would release fifty rusting hulks that were purported to be seaworthy destroyers, which, twenty-five years previous during the First World War, they might have been. Since then, though, these clunky 314-foot, 1,200-ton, four-stacker, flush-deck rust buckets had been mothballed, their empty shells creaking and groaning the approach of their death knell even while in dock. In reality, they were not far from the knackers yard, thanks to being improperly preserved prior to being deactivated. The embattled engineers attempting to maintain the antiquated engines were resorting, ironically, to jerry-built tactics just to make steam. And once running their four funnels often spewed huge clouds of smoke that could be seen along the horizon for miles. Admiral Lord Ramsey called them “the worst destroyers I had ever seen… The price paid for them was scandalous.”
Later, however, after Royal Navy crews had time to become familiar with their many awkward idiosyncrasies, some of them performed with distinction in the convoy role for which they were assigned, with their superior speed enabling them to at least keep up with the slower transports they were tasked with protecting, though that credit may be due to sailing skill rather than steel. Their maneuverability, however, was somewhat questionable; their turning circle was huge and twelve ended up colliding with friendly ships. The sailors also generally hated them; with cramped damp quarters and a rough ride they surely must have thought they had stepped back in time. Not one of them survived beyond 1947, most of the surviving ships being broken up between 1944 and 1945. This deal, which demanded the transfer of bases for American use, was, in the long term, far more advantageous to the Americans, but it was desperate times.
This, then, was the purpose behind this recently commissioned warship’s arrival; to protect the last of the British Empire’s gold bullion while on its way to the United States before initiating the transfer of fifty aging destroyers under the Destroyers for Bases Agreement. Those destroyers so desperately needed, even in their current dilapidated state, to safeguard Britain’s beleaguered lifeline during the Battle of the Atlantic.
Despite the largely one-sided deal, the British Parliament really had no choice in the matter, they were at the end of the rope, as it were, and about to fall into the abyss. Every member of the age-old parliament knew it was the New World gouging the Old in an obvious attempt to end, once and for all, what America saw as an outdated imperialistic empire. Before the Americans got their way, however, there was a diminutive deluded Austrian corporal staking a claim to a new empire, and squeezing the Home of the British Empire so that he could be leader of the next Reich. The New World knew that if they could bleed the Old dry, use its manpower and drain its resources in fighting the Nazi tyrant and his hordes, they could pick up the pieces as the spoils of victory. They, however, like Hitler, didn’t fully appreciate the practiced shrewdness of Britain’s new wartime leader, Winston Churchill.
Churchill had been behind the scenes of government and largely forgotten for ten years, from 1929 to 1939. His ‘wilderness years.’ This had infused many foreign leaders into the mistaken assumption that if Churchill hadn’t been of any long term value to Britain, then he was no threat to anyone else. But the blustery bulldog was born to this role; his speeches were his teeth, and once in his grasp his bite inescapable. He was, then, perhaps Arthur, King of the Britons, as in legend, returned to protect Britain in its moment of greatest despair. It was the role for which he had been born and, moreover, he well knew it and thoroughly relished it. He fortunately regained his seat in government at exactly the right moment and immediately shrugged off any talk of appeasement in exchange for untold toil and violence.
Churchill had risen to notoriety after becoming a national hero in the Boer War, subsequent to being captured for playing to big a role in a skirmish, and then escaping to freedom, all the while posing as a reporter for the Morning Post; that being the only way he could get into the fray in order to make a name for himself. He had previously fought in India and North Africa and knew well what was needed to fight, although the feeble bloodstained foothold on Gallipoli during the Great War, for which he was solely blamed, temporarily ended his political aspirations. But that wasn’t entirely his fault. Incompetent high-ranking officers hadn’t provided the required forces to complete the mission, nor had they taken advantage of favorable events, all of which inevitably caused the catastrophe. Such is the nature of war, bold chances have to be taken to seize initiative, and more often than not, even during the seemingly endless gloom and misery after Dunkirk, his boldness behind a few stalwart military minds would win the day and steer Britain toward its ‘Finest Hour.’
While ‘The Few’ gained immortality many difficult decisions were being made. Not least among them giving up the last of the empire’s gold. Churchill was deeply hurt by the request from Roosevelt and said: “It was not fitting that one nation put itself wholly in the hands of another.” But that is exactly what the American government was demanding. The American people and Congress were in no hurry to get embroiled in another European war, and they accused Roosevelt, and his circumvention of Congress in agreeing to the destroyer deal, of being akin to “an act of war.”
America knew Britain was on her knees. London was being systematically blown asunder in the blitz and crucial men and cargos were being sent to the bottom of the Atlantic in ever increasing numbers. Britain had manpower to fight and, with Churchill’s determination, was willing to fight, but it badly needed the matériel with which to fight. That matériel could only come from the great untapped resources and industry of America. Churchill’s dilemma, then, was to fight the good fight alone, hoping that the empire would, one day, be able to provide the modern tools with which to fight, or sell the empire’s very soul in guarantee to save it, and be beholden to another sovereign nation. For the man who said he did not “… become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” it was a considerable choice.
Two things made it especially difficult: Admitting to being wholly indebted to one country, with all that that entails was bad enough; but to know that the gold America had come to collect no longer existed was worse, if not downright embarrassing. Only a handful of people knew of that conundrum and many of them were already dead. Churchill knew, however, and he was very much alive, and more than willing to keep it a secret to save his country and precious empire. Churchill knew because the time he’d spent in South Africa had provided him a network of friends on both sides, including Jan Smuts, one of the Boers’ great guerilla leaders and, later, Prime Minister of South Africa. Churchill discovered the gold had been spent repatriating the thousands of Boers who had been interned during the Boer War, interned against the wishes of the British people. For one reason or another the bullion had remained on the books, however, waiting for someone bold enough to tell parliament and the country of the affair. But so far no one had. Elections, strikes and the depression always managing to get in the way of its disclosure and the inevitable outrage.
Initially, by helping the Boers, someone had tried to do the moral thing, but it was seen as payment to keep the released internees quiet from future claims against the British Government. Kruger gladly accepted the payment and shared it with the tough Dutch Boers so that they could rebuild their devastated farmsteads that enabled the country to eat. Now, forty years later, the gold was still on the books, and too late to change the fact for fear of financially devastating an already indebted country. As embarrassing as it was for the gold to no longer exist Churchill was glad it had been spent as it had, for it had heeled rifts between the two nations after the expensive bloody war had ended. In effect, enabling Britain to count on South African troops in the desert war against the Italians in North Africa, to great advantage. However, all the advantages the bullion initially bought were now offset by the problem of its absence.
Thus, all those nice neat white rows of American sailors and awestruck dock workers were witness to a great lie. The Phoenix’s arrival in Simon’s Town was nothing more than an elaborate ploy, where the “truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies,” and with Churchill, as usual, the grand puppet master.
The British War Room personnel, those in the loop and privy to such sensitive information, decided not to divulge the lack of gold and in its stead apparently provided a load of gold plated lead, securely contained inside welded steel crates less inquisitive eyes should notice the discrepancy. The formidable clusters of six-inch guns were, therefore, to be transporting both a great weight of lead, valued at virtually nothing, and the great weighty conscience of an entire empire, the value of which was priceless. No one else would know. Certainly not the captain of the vessel who was anxiously overseeing the loading of the worthless cargo for which he had just signed. After all, who would not trust Britain’s claim that the heavy steel crates did not, in fact, contain what they should?
Roosevelt had originally requested that the cargo be delivered. But this was impossible due to the workload of both the Merchant Navy and Royal Navy, in convoying matériel from the Americas to sustain Britain and its colonies in the war effort, much of it being transferred immediately to the active campaign in North Africa. London and its docklands had been bombed consistently for weeks, ever since Germany lost its fight for air superiority over the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain in September 1940. Many other ports around the country had also been severely damaged, straining to breaking point the reserves of the Merchant Navy and general transportation system. Guns and ammunition of all types were needed desperately, as was antiaircraft artillery to avert the air menace and instill the embattled populace with confidence that the government was doing its very best to protect them, even if it couldn’t. The British Army in the desert had shown their bayonets and provided some tremendous and sorely needed morale-boosting victories, pushing the Italians back over two hundred miles in five weeks during the sea-saw battles in North Africa. However, a lack of supplies and Rommel’s arrival in February slowed their advance after they had captured 113,000 Italian prisoners. There was only one country in which this replaceable matériel could be produced in large enough quantities and be supplied in a timely manner; the United States. And there was only one navy — apart from valiant Canadian assistance — that was powerful enough, and available, for the protection of that matériel. So neither the Royal Navy or the Merchant Navy had ships nor time to transport gold and Churchill said as much in his correspondence to the United States President, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
By this time Roosevelt was quite used to getting such letters from the ‘Former Naval Person,’ as Churchill referred to himself, and accepted them with candid politeness, knowing full-well the great stresses under which the Prime Minister was working. Roosevelt was more aware than most in the United States Government about Britain’s situation and he fully understood that the New World would eventually be drawn into the conflict sooner or later, by choice or otherwise. Infamy soon meant that it was to be otherwise. In the meantime, however, an isolationist America was happy to see British manpower use American manufactured equipment, especially since it was now understood by all that England would not give up the fight, as had been earlier expected.
With Winston at the helm Britain was not going to fall prey to the Germans as easy as the French had been. Or not, at least, until they had given it their all and had nothing more with which to fight but their wits. Two things changed the minds of the American Government and its politically powerful media on that account: The sinking of the French fleet at Oran and Mers-el-Kebir, to prevent the Germans from taking control of the superior French ships; and the Battle of Britain, when American newspaper reporters sat on the White Cliffs of Dover watching the daily aerial spectacle between the beleaguered ‘Few’ of the Royal Air Force and the might of the Luftwaffe. Prior to these two significant events, world opinion had largely predicted that Britain would succumb to the inevitable. But Britain’s audacity had now been cemented in the eyes of the world, altered the attitudes of world leaders, especially the Americans, and caused everything to change quite considerably in Britain’s favor.
However, this still didn’t prevent the New World from wanting to dissolve the Old, even if Britain and its empire were willing to fight on alone to save the world from domination by Hitler’s arrogant Aryan masses and Mussolini’s pompous, Romanic delusions. America had successfully stayed out of the war for almost a year and a half, forced to do so mainly by its traditional isolationist policies that Roosevelt was slowly but steadily eroding, to the vocal consternation of many powerful and influential senators. A few of whom were still actively doing business with both German and Italian companies and reaping tremendous rewards, albeit indirectly in most cases. Even the more legitimate, and one could try and say moral, businesses within the United States were garnering huge profits from the production of war matériel in ever growing proportions, until, that is, the government was forced to cap such exploitive gains once it realized it might also have to pay the same exorbitant prices.
Meanwhile, while all the political wrangling and soul searching was underway in London and Washington, the South Atlantic was about to be host, once again, to the Phoenix. It slid quietly from its moorings in total darkness, ready to negotiate the dangerous U-boat infested waters of the frigid Atlantic Ocean. America was not yet at war and so far no United States Navy vessel had been attacked, although some United States Merchant ships had. But the Phoenix’s captain didn’t want to be the first to chance a U-boat encounter before hostilities had been declared, because the current rules of engagement gave complete advantage to the attacker, which he wasn’t allowed to be. While slipping quietly out into the murky depths they didn’t go completely unseen. On shore someone had been carefully watching the whole affair. Not for the cargo as much as for the vessel itself. The spy’s information was immediately transmitted to the Japanese High Command, who sent orders to one of their active submarines that was rendezvousing with their German equivalent to exchange sensitive coding materials. The German submarine, now finished with its Far East exchange, and armed with this new information, was on the surface and speeding toward the expected path of the large battleship, although no one onboard the submarine knew what they were going to do if they made contact. All but the most ignorant knew that a shooting war with America was inevitable, but few knew who would fire that first fatal shot.
Unknown to the submarine’s captain, the Americans had broken the Japanese naval code in 1939, and before the information had been decoded on the surfaced Japanese submarine it had already been read in plain text by the Americans. The Phoenix, therefore, knew well of the submarine’s whereabouts and avoided the area, successfully evading the unwanted rendezvous without the Japanese being any the wiser to their signal being deciphered. Once past the danger the Phoenix steamed toward the eastern seaboard far faster than any submarine could match. The German U-boat captain, unaware of why he hadn’t made contact with the battleship, passed the information to the German Naval High Command who then alerted their patrolling U-boats in mid-Atlantic. It seemed as though all the active submarines wanted to be first in line to have a shot at this American vessel and be first to sink her, should orders change and the situation arise. One or two captains knew that even without orders they could always later say they had thought she was British, as they had done a few weeks earlier, when sinking an American merchant ship with all hands off the Azores. The Germans had many practiced veteran U-boat captains either in the vicinity or in the Phoenix’s expected route just waiting for a glorious opportunity to serve the Fuhrer.
With the increasing risk, American Naval Headquarters changed plans for the shipment immediately. This was no time to lose a major warship in a fight in which they were not yet a combatant. The ship would be too valuable later when they were. The cargo was then arranged to be transferred to a small ballast only merchant ship on its way back to the United States, while the Phoenix was ordered on to the Pacific to join the Seventh Fleet, much to the pleasure of the crew who were already tired of the Atlantic weather. The British naval officer portraying himself as a Japanese spy had made everyone very happy.
The transfer occurred without a hitch a few hundred miles west of the African coast, well away from U-boat prime hunting grounds around Sierra Leone. Phoenix, happy to be away, steamed for the Scotia Sea and Drake’s Passage and later found her place in history in the midst of the Pacific War. She was fondly known as a lucky ship and survived Pearl Harbor and the whole Pacific Naval War. Ironically, she was eventually sunk during another war, by a British nuclear submarine forty years later, in the South Atlantic, when she was called the General Belgrano. In that, she found herself yet another place in history, in being the first ship ever sunk in conflict by a nuclear submarine. The merchant ship, Albatross, meanwhile, empty except for ballast and a few extremely heavy crates, steered north by east toward the eastern seaboard for her new destination, Portsmouth, Virginia. Churchill had already devised a suitable plan in the event that the Albatross actually made it to port, which he didn’t think likely. His alternate plan was to have real bullion coming from Russia shipped over onboard the Duke of York, which was currently engaged in convoy escort duties and shipping prisoners of war to captivity in Canada. In the unlikely event the Albatross did make landfall Churchill would indulge Roosevelt into his obscure ‘bodyguard of lies,’ scenario, in which the Phoenix had been nothing more than a lavish decoy. It was, after all, the last of the empire’s gold and should be protected as such.
The likelihood of the old rust bucket the Albatross reaching Portsmouth was remote, however. Her reduced crew were Royal Navy volunteers and instrumental to yet another of Churchill’s ploys; an exercise in coastal safety and an attempt to get the United States into the war by having her sunk by a submarine just as she reached the apparent safety of the U.S. coast. A British submarine was already laying in wait for her arrival should the Germans fail. The ship would sink to the deepest depths, with no possibility of salvage. With her would disappear the forty-year secret and the lies which had kept it. Yet with her loss would also come hope in the form of destroyers, and possibly the eventual entry of the United States into World War Two. The latter of which Churchill knew would guarantee victory to the ‘Grand Alliance.’ The Old World and the New locked together in battle against the tyranny of fascism to save the world.
Once within sight of the eastern seaboard the skeleton crew of the Albatross disembarked and boarded the surfaced Royal Navy submarine, while commandos placed onboard a few recently deceased Germans they had picked up from a destroyed U-boat and attached some strategically placed explosives. Transfers completed, the captain of the submarine unleashed four torpedoes from four hundred yards. Three fired straight and true and hit the Albatross broadside, obliterating everything in a great fireball that could be seen for miles along the shores of numerous, still well-illuminated, towns up and down the coast. The next day all the coastal inhabitants knew of the ship that had gone down with all hands. She had probably exploded and disappeared so quickly because her empty tanks hadn’t been vented, a fatal error on behalf of her inexperienced crew. Rather unexpectedly, and to make it even more believable, a U-boat patrolling unusually near the area actually claimed her loss to make up tonnage in order for her captain to receive a much prized Ritterkreuz — for sinking 100,000 tons of allied shipping. He had seen the ship blow up, apparently all by herself, and so added her to his already numerable sinking tonnage. No one ever thought differently, because after documenting his claim his U-boat was itself sunk with all hands on its way home a week later, by a patrolling RAF Coastal Command Sunderland flying boat during standard antisubmarine operations off the south coast of England.
The Royal Navy’s volunteer crew and submarine would never say a word, even if they were fortunate enough to survive the war. The British Government’s wartime secrets made available thirty years hence never mentioned any part of Operation Burden, and no one at the time was especially worried about the lost bullion. In the Arctic convoys such cargos were being sunk with alarming regularity.
It was total war. People were dying of starvation and being murdered by the millions. No one was going to worry about a few bits of gold. Moreover, the British would finally be released from years of subterfuge. For another forty years anyway, by which time everyone directly associated with it was dead and buried.