THOUSAND YARD STARE
Missing scene from Operation Briefcase – oneshot.
Like someone casually flipping a light switch, the flow of adrenaline abruptly shut off, leaving an all-encompassing, stupefying exhaustion in its wake. It had been quite a while since death had been so personal. Snippets of conversation from the evening's events ran roughshod through his mind.
"How is he?"
"He's badly wounded Colonel."
"Got caught in a burst of flak sir, the plane went down."
"Carter get a medic on the double. Put him in my office. Take it easy."
"He was most likely dead when you brought him in."
"He tried to bring him around Colonel."
"This lousy war!"
"Nothing could've saved him Colonel; never had a chance. Wish I could've done more."
"It's a mug's game I'll tell ya that. A filthy, rotten mug's game."
"Kinch, get in touch with London. Tell them what happened. Make sure they understand Hercules completed his mission."
Kinch left for the tunnel and Newkirk looked up as Hogan picked up the briefcase.
"This plan better work. It's already got an expensive price tag on it."
The Colonel headed for his quarters, leaving Newkirk sitting alone at the table, chain smoking and gulping great mouthfuls of coffee. He snaked his left arm across his stomach, unconsciously hugging himself to forestall the shudders as the memories began flooding back unbidden.
A few moments later, Hogan stepped back outside the door of his quarters.
He came to full attention and saluted. The entire barracks snapped to, saluting as Hercules' blanket shrouded body was gently borne across the room and passed down into the tunnel.
Hogan called out as he followed the sad procession down the ladder, "Stand down, men."
Newkirk sat down heavily as the bunk slammed shut, and stared dully at the table. He rubbed his eyes, then scrubbed a hand tiredly across his face before draining his coffee cup in a single swallow. Carter, ever attentive to his friend's moods, edged close and gently nudged Newkirk's shoulder.
"Peter, you okay?"
Newkirk didn't reply, even though Carter sat patiently waiting. Finally he glanced sideways at Carter with a small, sad smile. He took a long, slow drag and resumed staring straight ahead.
He spoke softly, "I'm alright Andrew. A bit knackered is all. Just leave off for now, okay mate?"
Carter hesitated and nodded before reluctantly getting up.
"André, mon ami, do not concern yourself so," LeBeau murmured as he refilled Newkirk's cup with coffee.
Newkirk didn't even notice the Frenchman had refilled his cup as he took a large mouthful of the steaming hot liquid and followed it up with another deep drag on the ciggie.
Carter, never one to take no for an answer where it concerned his friends, racked his brain and then muttered to himself, "He didn't eat before the mission – that's gotta be it! He's hungry!"
LeBeau watched bemusedly as Carter cast about looking for something, anything for Newkirk to eat. He put his hand on Carter's shoulder, "André, that is not it. Besides, you know our Pierre could live for days on coffee and cigarettes alone."
Carter wasn't mollified. This behavior simply wasn't like the usually cocksure, unflappable Brit. "What's wrong with him then, Louis? He's just sitting there, staring at nothing! I don't like it."
LeBeau sighed, shaking his head, as he refilled the Englishman's coffee cup yet again. "Pierre needs time mon ami."
"Time? For what Louis?" It was plain to Carter that LeBeau knew what the problem was.
Getting nothing but an apologetic shrug from the Frenchman, Carter proclaimed, "Well, I'm gonna sit right here just in case Newkirk needs anything."
LeBeau gently squeezed his shoulder as he headed to the stove to retrieve more coffee, "You are a good friend André."
Late May 1940
"They've scarpered back to Blighty wifout us mate!"
Newkirk nearly dropped his binoculars and glared down from his perch atop the wing of a badly damaged Blenheim. "Wot?! Bloody 'ell Freddie!!"
"All squadrons was ordered to re-form back across t'Channel!"
"Bloody marvelous of 'em to let us know! Bleedin' wankers! What about us then? Jus' cos our ol' Blenburgher's shot to pieces we don't get the word? Ain't we still in the bloody RAF?"
"Quit yer drippin'! 'ow were we goin' to get the word mate? Blimey! 'ave ya seen wot's goin' on 'ere?"
"Course I 'ave! Guess we're on our own then, eh?"
"Well at least ol' Tommie's on a ship bound for 'ome –lucky bloke! Especially seein' as 'ow he'd nearly gone for a Burton."
"Yeah lucky bloke – I s'pose…" He raised the binoculars back up to his eyes, keeping on watch for the Luftwaffe.
"Cor, Peter! Didn't the two of us load 'im up on that ambulance? Didn't those blokes say they was headed straight for the moles(1)?"
"Yeah they did. Reckon that we'd better do the same now that we finally got the word?"
"I'm with ya mate. Let's scarper back to Blighty ourselves!"
If Hell materialized on earth, the path to Dunkerque surely would be at the center. The air roiled with nauseating, sickly sweet smells – fuel oil, superheated metal, raw flesh, blood, burning rubber, cooked flesh, cordite, rotten flesh. The hysterically shrill cries of both wounded men and horses rang out, overpowered only by the din of explosions both near and far, the staccato beat of the machine guns, the overhead drone of Heinkels and Dorniers mingled with the high pitched screaming of diving Stukas. The entire landscape was littered with the detritus of war. The desperate retreat seethed past, taking no notice of shattered lorries, tanks, bodies and parts of bodies.
And yet the streaming mass of men staggered on – vacant eyes bloodshot, seemingly unseeing, drool spiraling from slack jaws, arms swinging loosely, madly, legs buckling yet struggling onward, onward to the hope of salvation with the ships evacuating all personnel at the moles. Every so often a determined few would stop and empty their rifles and revolvers at the German planes skimming by on their way to bomb the harbor, hurling gibberish and curses skyward. Even more frequently all would madly jump for the hedges, ditches, or whatever appeared to offer cover when the German Stukas and Messerschmitts dived to strafe the retreating hordes.
"Bleedin' 'ell! Are all this lot goin' to the moles? Look at 'em! They're all knocked, knocked to buggery(2)." Peter looked overhead. "Wif all our boys gone, the bleedin' krauts own the sky now mate!"
"Looks like it's every man for 'imself Peter! I don't see any bleedin' officers, do you? Course, we're not under orders. We was left be'ind right and proper, we was."
"But it's all gone pear shaped Freddie! Wot the 'ell are we supposed to do? We got no orders, no plane, we ain't even got a bleedin' gun!"
"'ang on Peter me lad! 'ang on. 'ere ya go mate…'ere's a gun some fine upstandin' gent seems to 'ave dropped in 'is 'aste to get along 'ome!."
"I don't know about you Peter but I'm right knackered and bleedin' ''ungry!"
"Just wot d'ya suggest Freddie?!? We ain't got many options 'ere mate!"
"'ey! Look! There's some ambulances 'cross the field there. They keeps tea and sugar and such, y'know, for the wounded. Might still be some left."
"It's worth a go mate."
Both men quickly made their way across the open field, eyes constantly scanning the sky the entire time. Peter approached the nearest ambulance first. He opened the rear doors and then violently staggered backwards, gagging and retching at the hideous stench. The roof was riddled with large caliber bullet holes, like those from a 20mm cannon of a Bf-109. (3)
"BLOODY "ELL!! Freddie – they're…they're all dead!!"
"Cor! They never got to the beach or the moles!! Peter, d'ya s'pose…?" Freddie took off, running to each ambulance and flinging the doors open. He frantically ran from one to the other, finally dropping to his knees at the rear of the last ambulance. "Oh God…..oh God. Tommie….oh Tommie…" he cried.
"Freddie! Freddie! What're ya doin' mate?"
Peter finally caught up and stared at the open doors. He walked up to the back of the ambulance as if in a daze.
"Don't go in there Peter. Please…don't…"
"I've got to Freddie…I've got to…GOD! Tommie! God no, Tommie!" In his haste to back up, he tripped and collapsed in a heap, sobbing uncontrollably.
"C'mon Peter. We've gotta get outta here. C'mon mate! Snap outta it! We can't do anythin' for poor ol' Tommie now!"
"But Freddie…Tommie's…e's…'e's…bleedin' cut in 'alf!!!"
"Let's go lad. Nothin' we can do 'ere. C'mon old son! Let's get back 'ome. 'ere let me 'elp ya."
"Yeah Freddie. Let's get back 'ome…" Confused and nauseated, Peter let himself be dragged to his feet. "Let's go 'ome…"
They slowly made their way to rejoin the exodus. Peter kept looking back, tears streaming down his face.
"Don't Peter! 'ow'd could we 'ave known? We couldn't! C'mon! Ol' Tommie would want us to get back 'ome, right?"
Peter nodded, wiping his face savagely, and wondered if any of them would make it.
Finally after what seemed like years, they arrived at the beach. A scene of utter destruction and chaos opened up before them. The horizon was invisible, obscured by the thick, black smoke of burning planes, lorries, ships and oil. Peter could barely make out the outline of the ships lined up at the mole. "Cor! Lookit Freddie!" Men were lined up from the beachhead out in the water, those farthest out in water up to their necks. It struck Peter as a river of forsaken men seeking salvation within the sea. And he was soon to be one of them. He began to head down to the water but pulled up short at the anguished cry that arose beside him.
"Oh Christ! That's me buggered! I can't swim!"(4)
Peter swung round and stared. They had come so far and were now so close, so very close. "Wot!? Wot d'ya mean ya can't swim Freddie?!? We can't give up now mate! We can't!!" He grabbed his friend by the shoulders and shook him. "We're going together, d'ya hear?! We're going together! I'll 'elp ya."
Completely terrified, Freddie continued to wail, "I don't like the water!! Don't make me go! Please don't make me go! I'll wait 'ere…'ere on the beach!" He desperately tried to wriggle out of Peter's grasp.
Peter kept his grip firm and dragged his friend along beside him as he headed for the waterline. "The boats ain't comin' to the beach mate! I tol' ya I'd 'elp ya! 'Ang on to me Freddie! We've come too far to give over now!" Dealing with the water was frankly the least of his worries; in the past, he had avoided many a pursuing copper by hovering unseen deep within the wet, cold embrace of kindly Father Thames.
The big worry was of course the Germans. Small arms fire, mortar rounds, artillery shelling and last but not certainly least the unchecked strafing and bombing runs of the Luftwaffe made all of the men on the beaches and in the water sitting ducks. As Peter saw it, at least the water offered some chance of survival, albeit small.
"Don't make me belt ya Freddie! We're goin' come 'ell or 'igh water mate! It's our only chance!" Freddie whimpered, still struggling. "We're goin'. We're goin'." Peter repeated the phrase as if a mantra, determined to get it through to his friend as he dragged him down the beach.
They made it to the water and joined the sinuous line of men waiting to be evacuated. Peter kept a tight grip on Freddie who had quieted somewhat. As if the entire situation wasn't surreal enough, faint strains of singing could be heard wafting over the water. Peter cocked his head and tried to make out the tune. He broke out in a genuine smile when he recognized it. "Cor Freddie! Somebody's singin' Roll Out the Barrel!(5) Can ya 'ear 'em? Innat somethin'? We ain't givin' up do ya 'ear me!? Those blokes ain't and neiver are we!"
They inched forward at a snail's pace. Peter kept his eyes on the sky, thankful that the Luftwaffe had seemingly taken an extended break from dealing out random death and destruction. He knew it was only a matter of time before their deadly runs resumed.
An hour or so later a low drone heralded the inevitable return of the Luftwaffe. Leave it to the bleedin' Krauts to put flippin' sirens on their dive bombers! thought Peter. The sky keened with the shrieks of a thousand wailing banshees as the Stukas dove to release their bombs onto the helpless masses below. Freddie was hysterical again, absolutely shattered at being stranded in the water compounded by the approach of the Stukas. Peter shook him by the collar. "Belt up Freddie! I'll not stop at giving ya wot for if ya bail on me now! When I give the word 'old yer breath and leave the rest ta me!"
Before Freddie even had time to scream a reply, the water around them roiled with the deadly 'thwip,thwip,thwip,thwip,thwip,thwip,thwip' of machine gun fire from above. "Oy! Freddie!" Peter took a deep breath and, dragging Freddie along, dove as fast and deep as he could, seeking shelter amongst the large granite blocks underwater alongside the mole. He stayed as long as his lungs permitted, surfacing only long enough to take a quick breath before heading back down underwater. He kept a tight grip on Freddie and prayed he remembered to hold his breath each time they ducked down below the surface.
They broke the surface moments later as the gunfire ended. "Peter you bleedin' idiot!" spat Freddie. "Are ya tryin' to do me in mate? Isn't Jerry doin' enough?!"
"I told ya what to do mate! You should be thankin' me not bleedin' cursin' me! Oy! Shut up and go again!"
They dove under as more machine gun fire raked the water. The scenario repeated itself several times. Peter had to admit that his pal Freddie was holding up better than he thought he would. The next time they broke the surface he told him so. "Oy Freddie! Yer doin' fine mate, just fine!"
Freddie didn't answer.
"Freddie? Freddie?" Peter found it suddenly difficult to tread water and support his friend's suddenly limp body. "Freddie mate! Answer me!"
"C'mon me old China, you gave me a right shiver there. 'Old on….let me get us up on the mole." He shouted for some help "Oy, give us a 'and 'ere?" Several willing hands helped him get Freddie out of the water. He scrambled up onto the mole as well and took his friend into his arms. "Thanks gents, much obliged. Freddie? Are you hit?"
"I…I think so…..."
"Where mate? Where?!"
"Not sure mate. Can't feel anything below me waist."
The remnants of Freddie's trousers were soaked with bright red blood. "Cor Freddie! Somebody give me somethin' I can use for a tourniquet. Quick!" Someone handed him a scarf. He stripped the bloody trousers off and…"Oh God no Freddie! No!"
"Peter...give over mate. I can take it..."
"Cor Freddie…" he couldn't say it. He couldn't tell his mate that both his legs were barely attached to his torso only by shredded flesh and mangled bone. He couldn't tell his mate that he was bleeding to death right before his eyes. "God Freddie…." Peter buried his face onto Freddie's shoulder, unable to take the sight of his butchered body any longer.
"Peter…listen to me old son…get yerself back to Blighty. For me and Tommie. Get yerself back…rest up…and pay Jerry back for both of us. D'ya 'ear me mate?"
Peter could only nod through his tears. He finally found his voice.
"Cor Freddie, we were s'posed to go back together! Together!"
"Didn't….work…..out....go back…for….us Peter." Freddie's body began to shudder violently.
"Freddie? Freddie?! Don't do this to me mate!" Peter tried to quell the fatal shaking, and then he felt the final breath leave his friend's body. "No Freddie! No! God no! Why?! Why now?! We come so far! Why now?!?"
A hand tapped his shoulder. He didn't respond.
"I'm sorry mate. He's gone. You've got to leave him. We've got to get aboard and get back home." The voice didn't penetrate Peter's dulled mind until that last word – "home". He was going home. Tommie and Freddie weren't. They were being abandoned in France – by him.
"Freddie, Freddie, I'm so sorry mate. I've gotta leave ya – God I'm so sorry.....say 'ello to Tommie for me will ya?" Peter scrubbed a hand over his eyes, trying to clear his blurred sight.
"C'mon mate. Let's go." The voice urged him on and a hand guided him down the mole to the boarding area.
"Oh God…I'm so sorry…..so sorry…." He looked back towards the mole as he stumbled aboard the ship for home. "Freddie please forgive me."
And that was that. Despite the copious amounts of coffee consumed, he was at the end of his endurance. Tommie. Freddie. I'm so sorry mates So sorry I couldn't help ya Please forgive me. Complete exhaustion finally took over. He sighed and slowly eased his head down onto the table, eyes closed. LeBeau quietly moved in to remove the unfinished cigarette from his hand and then gently drape a blanket over his shoulders.
A few minutes later, the bunk disguising the entrance to the tunnel clattered open and Hogan climbed out. "Okay fellas. Lights out in half an hour. Shultz'll be here in a.." Noticing Newkirk still at the table, he stopped mid-stride and quietly approached him.
Hogan sent a questioning glance at LeBeau, who nodded slightly. He paused and then leaned down, cupping his hand gently across the back of Newkirk's head. He raised his chin in Carter's direction, motioning him over. "Carter!"
"Carter…Andrew, I want you and Louis to get Peter to bed. Can you handle that for me?"
"Oh yes sir." Carter was relieved that he would finally be able to do something for his obviously distressed friend.
Hogan glanced at LeBeau. "Give him a few more minutes Louis."
"Oui mon colonel."
Giving a gentle squeeze to Newkirk's shoulder, Hogan sighed and headed back to his quarters. Carter followed him with his gaze, and then turned back to LeBeau with questioning eyes.
"Le Colonel understands André."
"Understands what Louis? I sure don't."
LeBeau walked over and put his hand on Carter's shoulder. "André, have you ever had a friend die in your arms?"
Carter's eyes grew wide as saucers; he glanced at Newkirk then back at LeBeau, then back at Newkirk. "Oh Louis…no wonder…poor Peter," his words trailed off as he remembered how fiercely close their Englishman held his private pain.
"André, Pierre would not want our pity." Now LeBeau's eyes held an unspoken question.
"You're right Louis." Carter nodded in acceptance of their wordless agreement. "I'll let him sleep in my bunk for tonight. It'll be easier."
"He will appreciate that mon ami."
Carter gave LeBeau a small smile. "C'mon, let's try not to wake him."
I took inspiration for the flashback sequence from "Finest Hour, The Battle of Britain" by Tim Clayton and Phil Craig and "Dunkirk, Fight to the Last Man" by Hugh Sebag-Monefiore. Two quite comprehensive accounts of the Dunkirk episode. I highly recommend them.
(1) The East and West Moles were narrow jetties that extended nearly a mile out to sea. By this time the docks and harbor had been pretty much destroyed so the evacuation ships were loading from the East Mole.
(2) Quoted from "Finest Hour, The Battle of Britain", Tim Clayton and Phil Craig, p. 85.
(3) Based on the account of Martin McLane, ibid, p. 124.
(4) Actual quote, ibid, p. 97.
(5) This actually happened. Many of the survivors reported hearing groups of men singing to keep their spirits up while in the water ("Dunkirk, Fight to the Last Man", Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, p. 495).