Assignment in BrittanyHelen Macinnes
ASSIGNMENT IN BRITTANY
ALSO BY HELEN MacINNES
AND AVAILABLE FROM TITAN BOOKS
Pray for a Brave Heart
North From Rome (August 2012)
Decision at Delphi (September 2012)
The Venetian Affair (October 2012)
The Salzburg Connection (November 2012)
ASSIGNMENT IN BRITTANY
Assignment in Brittany
Print edition ISBN: 9781781161517
E-book edition ISBN: 9781781161586
Published by Titan Books
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd
144 Southwark Street, London SE1 0UP
First edition: June 2012
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
© 1942, 2012 by the Estate of Helen MacInnes. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
Printed and bound in Great Britain by CPI Group Ltd.
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1. Leap Into Darkness
2. Gone To Ground
3. Night Journey
4. The Sleeping Village
5. The Farm
7. Stranger On The Hillside
9. Pages From The Life Of Bertrand Corlay
10. Poems For E.
11. Visit Of Inspection
13. Warning For Saint-Déodat
15. The Golden Star
16. Trial For A Traitor
17. First Blood
18. St. Michael’s Mountain
21. The Awakening Of Saint-Déodat
22. Captain Riedel Takes Charge
23. At The Hotel Perro
24. One More Day
26. “White In The Moon The Long Road Lies”
27. The Dark Wood
28. Fishermen’s Rest
29. End Of A Mission
LEAP INTO DARKNESS
It was almost daylight. Ahead of them the cold darkness of the early morning sky waited for the first pale fingers of light.
It should be almost time now. Hearne glanced again at the watch on his wrist, and fingered his kit. Everything was ready. Underneath his flying suit, in the inside pocket of the torn, shabby jacket, were the tattered letters and photograph and the identification papers. He felt for them once again, and caught a sympathetic smile from the gunner who had moved up close beside him. So he was to be helped safely off the premises...He grinned back to the boy, and nodded reassuringly. He wouldn’t need much helping—not after the last three weeks and the practising he had been through. What had worried him most had been the thought of interception by enemy aircraft, or of being spotted after he had left the plane. That wouldn’t be at all pleasant, dangling between heaven and earth with some blighter grinning as he got you fair and square in his gun-sight.
But the twenty-two minute journey was almost over: only one more minute to go. The engine was suddenly silent, and the pilot waved a bulky glove.
“That is when you get ready,” he had told Hearne cheerily, over their last cup of hot chocolate. “Second time I wave is goodbye and good luck.”
Hearne rose and stood as he had learned during the past three weeks. The boy at his elbow steadied him for a moment. Hearne cursed his own clumsiness. These fellows seemed to move about as easily as if they were in their mess-room. The gunner’s fingers tapped sharply on his forearm. “All set?” they spelled quickly in Morse.
Hearne nodded again. His eyes hadn’t left the pilot, silhouetted black and shapeless against the lightening eastern sky. How long, Hearne was wondering, how long did it take to glide from twenty thousand feet to six? He was answered by the movement of the padded arm. Goodbye and good luck. Well, here it was at last. The gunner had enough sense to stand clear, thank heavens: he could choose his own split second.
“Good luck, yourselves!” Hearne called over his shoulder. He saw the gunner begin to crack that warm grin of his, and the thumb go up. And then he was diving through bleak grey air. He started to count.
“Not too soon, not too late,” he reminded himself. “Take it easy and don’t think about what happens if the damned thing doesn’t work.” But what if it didn’t? His sudden fear was as cold as the air through which he hurtled. However much he practised, he never got rid of these moments of panic. He restrained himself in time from pulling the rip-cord. Not yet: the longer he fell, the quicker, the safer. Perhaps. He pulled the rip-cord. It wasn’t going to work. It wasn’t going to—then the sudden jolt to his plunging body, the feeling of being pulled up backward into the sky again, the abrupt change from the hurtling drop to slow-motion floating, contradicted him. He took his first breath since he had left the plane.
Drifting down to the colourless, formless land, he strained his eyes towards the sky. In the east the heavy black curtain was slowly rising to show a steadily broadening river of light. Its edge which touched the darkness flowed greyish-green; and even as he watched a streak of flame lined the horizon, and the earth and clouds took shape. Then from the west he heard the sound of the plane’s motors. They must have glided round to get well over in that direction before they had started climbing again. They had given him every chance, anyway.
He looked down at the fields, swaying gently beneath him. They were no longer formless. Dimly he could see the triangular outline of a wood on a small ridge just to the south. That was what he had hoped for, that was what they had aimed at. Cheery lot of coots, he thought gratefully, remembering the gunner’s grin. Pity they couldn’t be here to see how neatly they had landed him almost on the doorstep.
He pulled on the ropes so that he would keep clear of the trees. And then the last few feet suddenly shortened, and the ground seemed to rise up to meet him. It was unexpectedly rough: from above it had looked so smooth and simple. As he landed, his right arm reached high above his head to grasp the control rope and the clip on his belt automatically released the parachute as it pulled him forward. He was thoroughly jarred. That was all.
From above, he had thought at one moment that he was on top of the trees, but actually he had landed almost a hundred yards from them. He must have pulled on the ropes too much. Still, you couldn’t expect everything to be perfect, and a hundred yards was better than being noosed up in high branches. Around him were fields which were half moorland. No house was in sight. He looked up again at the eastern sky. It was a uniform pale grey, bleaching slowly but dangerously. Now there was light enough to see: very soon there would be light enough to be
Hearne rose to his feet from where he had fallen, and started to pull the parachute folds loose from the clump of gorse bushes against which they had blown. It was slow work, and, seemed all the slower because every minute was precious. He must reach the trees before the light strengthened, and he couldn’t leave the parachute billowing here as a landmark. He pulled savagely, gathering the flapping silk into a rough, cumbersome bundle. Holding it in front of him, his arms filled with its softness, he half ran, half stumbled, towards the wood. The ground was rough but not treacherous, and the gorse bushes in their sparse clumps were now useful. He ducked down behind them, gathering the parachute more tightly as its folds slipped from his arms, cursing its maliciousness. It seemed to take a pleasure in thwarting him. Its weight had doubled.
He finished the last twenty yards in a despairing spurt...The trees closed in around him, and he fell grotesquely on top of his burden. He buried his face in its folds to smother the gasps which shook his body, and then, as he felt himself stifle, he rolled stiffly over on to his back. Burning liquid welled up suddenly in his dry throat. And then at last he could breathe normally again, and the cold air was drying the sweat on his face. He lay, waiting for the heavy heart-beats to quieten, watching the leaves above him suddenly waken at the touch of the morning breeze. In the world outside a lark was singing.
GONE TO GROUND
Hearne waited until the pounding of his blood had stopped. Then, gathering the parachute once more in his arms, he dragged it farther into the wood. He moved quietly and capably, like a man who had so often imagined this moment that his movements were almost mechanical. When the undergrowth was thick enough to please him, he halted and eyed the ground round the bush he had chosen. He went to work with his clasp-knife, cutting the turf into neat squares, stacking them methodically at his side. The loam under them he scooped out with his hands. It took time, but in the end he was satisfied. He had packed the parachute into the hole he had scraped, thrusting it tightly down under the thin straggling roots of the bush. On top of the parachute lay his flying suit and helmet, and over them all were spread the thick rich soil and the sods, fitted together as neatly as the bulging earth would allow. He had worked lying uncomfortably flat on his stomach. Now he crawled out from the thickness of the bush to find some twigs and leaves and with luck, some stones. These he scattered over the parachute’s grave, covering the gaping cuts between the sods. After two such journeys, he had finished. The evidence was well buried.
He looked at the unfamiliar watch on his wrist. Three hours ago he had joked with the red-haired pilot over a last cup of hot chocolate. Three hours ago he had stood on English earth. Three hours ago he had been Martin Hearne with twenty-seven years of his own life behind him. Now he was Bertrand Corlay, with twenty-six years of another man’s life reduced to headings and sub-headings in his memory. He looked down the faded uniform which had been Corlay’s, felt once more for the papers in the inside pocket.
“All set?” the gunner had asked.
Well, that would be the last time he would listen to English for some weeks. All set... He patted the pocket of the tunic with his earth-stained hand, and smiled grimly. From now on, he would not only have to speak, but think, in French.
He moved slowly westward along the wood, keeping parallel to the open stretch of fields, so that he would not wander too far into the maze of trees. He still moved carefully and quietly, but he was less worried. He had plenty of time, now that he had got rid of the parachute and flying suit. Once he got far enough away from where he had buried them, he would find some place to lie hidden until night came again. Fourteen hours ahead of him for thought; for sleep, if he felt safe enough. Yes, there was plenty of time, and plenty to think about. He would review all the details he had learned by heart, all the movements and expressions he had memorised. Nothing which he had discovered in the past three weeks must be neglected.
At last he found his hiding-place under a small, unimportant-looking tree, with a tangle of bramble bushes behind him and a screen of bracken in front. When he lay stretched out under the tall curling fronds of the fern, he felt safe. Barring accidents, such as a rabbit-hunting farmer and his dog, there would be little chance of anyone stumbling across him. And a farmer wouldn’t be surprised to find a dishevelled poilu waiting for the daylight to fade. There were many of them, this summer of 1940.
It was cold and damp, but the discomfort sharpened his mind. He thought of Corlay in his white hospital bed in England, and smiled wryly as he felt the heavy dew soak efficiently through his clothes, as he watched the black insects clinging to the underleaves of the bracken. Well, if Corlay’s hip-bone hadn’t been shattered on the way out of Dunkirk, he might have been doing this job himself. And if Matthews hadn’t been examining a boat-load of French and Belgian wounded after it had arrived at Folkestone; if he hadn’t seen the unconscious Corlay, believed he was Hearne, and then notified Military Intelligence that one of their men had just got back in an uncomfortably original way, then this scheme would never have been born in Matthews’ fertile brain. That was like Matthews. He must have mulled it all over in his mind for a couple of days, and out of his sardonic amusement had grown the germ of an idea.
“Well, I’m damned,” he would say. “Well, I’m damned.” And then he’d begin to think of a use for such an extraordinary likeness, especially when he learned more about the Frenchman and where he came from. That was like Matthews. He never wasted an opportunity. Two days after he had seen Corlay, he had not only the idea shaping nicely, but also the go-ahead signal from his own department.
Strange bird, Matthews, thought Hearne, and rolled over on his side to ease a hip-bone. He took some deep breaths, tautened his muscles to warm himself. His clothes would dry when the sun really got into this glade. He’d be warm enough then. Strange bird, Matthews; he sort of sensed things coming. He’d cook up some plan, keep it simmering until the right moment arrived, and then dish it up piping hot. The right moment in this case had been a week before the Franco-German armistice. It was then that he sent for Hearne.
“Glad you got back in time,” he had begun, and smiled quietly. Hearne knew that smile. He waited, wondering what was coming this time.
“How would you like to spend a summer in France?”
That meant he was going to spend a summer in France. He allowed himself one objection—not that Matthews would show that he had ever noticed it.
“But I’ve just come back from there.” Thirty-six hours ago, Hearne added under his breath.
“Brittany, this time.” Matthews gave his imitation of a benevolent Santa Claus. “That should interest you, Hearne.”
It did, in spite of the fact that for the last month he hadn’t slept in a clean bed, or seen anything which might be remotely called a bathroom. Hearne saw his leave and the quiet comfort of his flat evaporating as quickly as August rain on a hot London pavement.
“When do I go?” he asked. Brittany...well, that was something.
“In about two or three weeks. That is, if things go the way they are shaping. Looks bad, at the moment. If there’s a separate armistice, then we shall use you, because every Frenchman who can get back to his home will then make a bee-line for it. A lot of them won’t get back; and there will be some with guts to fight on. But you are to be one of the Frenchmen who do get back, and stay there.”
“Home?” Hearne was incredulous. Home meant relatives, and complications. He had never tackled anything so domestic as that.
And then Matthews explained about Corlay.
“Here’s all the official knowledge about him,” he ended, pushing a folder across his desk to Hearne. “All checked and amplified by a French Intelligence chap—Fournier, he’s called— who will be one of those who fight on, so there’s no danger of the wrong people learning about our interest in Corlay. You’ll find that Fournier has done a pretty good job. He included a detailed map and description of the district. Saint-Déodat is the name of th
e village. Know it?”
Hearne shook his head. He had no idea where it was. He searched his memory in annoyance. Hell, he thought, Brittany is supposed to be my pigeon.
“North or South Brittany?” he asked at last.
“North. Just south-west of the town of Dol. Within walking distance of the railway-line from Rennes to Saint-Malo. Near enough Dinan to admire the canal. Close enough to the main north road from Rennes.” Matthews was speaking slowly, underlining the importance of the towns with the inflexion of his voice. “And also,” he added, “not so very far from Mont Saint-Michel, and our old friends Duclos and Pléhec, if you must send us news about your health.”
Hearne smothered a smile. Matthews was at his old trick again of coating the pill lavishly with sugar. He liked to make his assignments sound like a Cook’s tour.
“Duclos is still there?” Hearne asked.
“Yes, and very useful he will be from now on. I am rather afraid his archæological researches are going to be disturbed. Then, for emergency use only, you will find another friend outside Saint-Malo. Fournier guarantees him. You’d better talk to him about this man of his before you leave.”
Hearne nodded. “And I’ve to take moonlight strolls round the railway-line and road and canal?” he asked.
There was almost a smile on Matthews’ face. “You are being sent to this farm so that, within a patch of about two hundred square miles, you can find information which will fit neatly into the reports which we hope to get from all the other patches of two hundred square miles. Then, when all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are fitted together, we shall have a working idea of German intentions. Now, here are the particular pieces of information which we need. First, we want to know if North Brittany is being fortified and garrisoned for defence; or is it being prepared as a base for an attack on the British Isles? If so, then just in what way are the Germans preparing to attack? If airfields are being constructed, then they are aiming for our southern ports and our shipping lanes. If huge masses of troops and boats are being prepared, then our south-west flank is in danger.” Matthews stabbed at the map on the desk in front of him. “The Devon Coast, the Bristol Channel, Southern Ireland. Brittany is just the right position to try for these places. So look for airfields, troop movements, types of supplies being sent by road and rail and canal, new construction works, underground dumps, gun installations. You may not see much sense in what you observe, but your report will fit neatly into the other reports we’ll receive. When we fit them together, they will make a pretty pattern. So don’t even let the little things escape you. Work at night. I think you’ll find plenty of material for your usual precise reports. Anything you pick up will probably be useful.”