It was still dark when Jack heard the noise.
They were nearly all on deck. It was too hot to sleep below. Anyway, they’d heard the stories of men trapped in the depths of a torpedoed ship, tearing at hatches jammed shut by explosions. You had a better chance of surviving on deck.
The metal under Jack’s feet trembled as their troopship charged towards the coast. This was the danger time: German U-boats often lurked near British ports, waiting to send torpedoes crashing into vessels just when they thought they’d made it. But Jack was pretty sure the noise he’d heard came from above — would they be bombed instead? He peered up into the darkness; strained his ears to hear above the troopship’s engines.
The rumour flitting around Western Star yesterday was that they’d be heading for one of the northern ports, Liverpool or Glasgow maybe. Hitler’s bombers had blitzed those cities from bases in Occupied Norway, France and Holland. Britain had been battered from all sides. Please let me be part of the striking back, Jack prayed. Please don’t let me be killed before I’ve even set foot in the country.
Jack’s stomach clenched as a black shape swept past, just 50 yards away, white water curling at its bow. One of the destroyer escorts, guns swivelling from side to side, depth-charge crews in position at the stern. Their own troopship had only a single anti-aircraft gun, mounted on the aft deck.
‘What bloody use is that against a Messerschmitt?’ Bluey the Australian radio operator had grunted.
Across the blacked-out deck, Jack could just make out the nearest faces: Reg, Bluey, a couple of the French blokes, Stefan the Polish co-pilot, who hated all Germans. Beyond them were two identical chunky shapes: the twins from Christchurch, Paul and Pete.
Jack’s hands clenched around the rail. Surely they wouldn’t meet any trouble so close to land? He’d waited so long to get here. He’d come halfway around the world: from a New Zealand Air Force training camp to Canada and more training, along with volunteers from so many nations, then across the Atlantic to England. If a Nazi U-boat or night-fighter saw them now . . .
He jerked as other men exclaimed and pointed upwards. ‘There! Starboard!’