Grey Wolves - Robert Muchamore
‘The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.’
Winston Churchill (British Prime Minister 1940–1945)
In summer 1940 the German Army tore through western Europe, conquering France, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg in barely two months. Britain was Hitler’s next target, but the Royal Air Force won control of the skies in the Battle of Britain, making a cross-Channel invasion impossible.
Hitler’s new strategy was slow strangulation: bombing British cities and targeting vulnerable supply lines. With no European allies Britain had to ship fuel, weapons and more than half of its food across the Atlantic from Canada and the United States. But slow-moving cargo vessels made easy prey for German submarines, commonly known as U-boats.
By April 1941, over nine hundred British tankers and cargo vessels lay at the bottom of the Atlantic. U-boats were sinking ships faster than Britain could build replacements.
If the submarines weren’t stopped, the British people would starve.
Sunday 20 April 1941
Marc Kilgour had jumped out of aeroplanes, belted around the countryside on an old Triumph motorbike, shot a straw dummy through the heart with a sniper rifle, studied the correct procedure for attaching limpet mines to the hull of a boat, survived in the wild on berries and squirrel meat, stuffed dead rats with dynamite, swum freezing lakes and done physical jerks until he was as fast and strong as any thirteen-year-old was likely to get.
But training counts for nothing if you lose your head, and Marc felt uneasy squatting in the two-man canoe with damp trousers, an oar resting between his legs and Commander Charles Henderson seated behind.
It was near midnight on a moonless night – the only kind dark enough to infiltrate occupied France by boat. The sea was calm, the air had bite and the blacked-out French coastline was a total mystery. They might have been fifty metres from shore, or a thousand.
They’d trained to drop into occupied France by parachute, but the RAF refused to spare prized bombers for espionage work. A fast torpedo boat for the long voyage down France’s western coast would have been second best, but the Royal Navy was no more willing.
In the end they’d made the two-day journey from Porth Navas Creek in Cornwall aboard Madeline, an elderly French steam tug designed for harbour work rather than open sea. Their canoe was a leisure craft that had spent years hanging from the ceiling in a Cambridge junk shop, before being discovered by Henderson, who patched its cloth hull with fish-glue and pieces cut from a coal tarp.
The rest of their equipment was no better. The radio transmitter was an unreliable beast. Twice the weight of more recent sets, it left the canoe precariously low in the water and compromised the amount of equipment they could carry. Henderson had kicked up a stink, but Britain was fighting alone against a Nazi empire and CHERUB wasn’t the only unit muddling through with scraps.
‘Nerves holding out?’ Henderson asked quietly, as his oar cut into a wave.
‘Just about,’ Marc said.
Henderson was the one thing that gave Marc confidence. He was a flawed human: drinker, womaniser, a short-tempered maverick who rubbed senior colleagues up the wrong way. But as some men turn genius when you give them a football, or set a maths problem, Henderson had a gift for espionage. He was completely ruthless, able to speak the five major European languages in a variety of accents, and had a magical ability to devise practical and sophisticated operations.
‘Are those young eyes seeing things I can’t?’ Henderson asked.
Marc squinted, but could barely see beyond the end of the boat. ‘What if the tide’s carrying us further out?’ he asked. ‘I mean, are you even rowing in the right direction? Shall I take a compass bearing?’
Henderson gave a restrained laugh. ‘You don’t have much faith in my nautical skills, do you? Listen to the gulls. Are they getting louder or quieter?’
‘Louder,’ Marc said, realising that the gulls lived in colonies onshore.
Marc felt foolish: he might have been blind in the dark, but Henderson had been using his other senses to navigate.
‘Clever old goat, aren’t you?’ Marc said cheekily.
A dark mass loomed beyond the bow. Marc thrust his oar out ahead of the canoe, then pushed hard against rocks jutting from the water. The boat tilted as its canvas side-scraped barnacles. Henderson threw himself sideways to counterbalance, but with the canoe so heavy it wasn’t enough to stop water spilling over the side.
Marc threw down his oar and reached around to grab an