By David Flin.
Every month, SLP runs a vignette competition with a specific prompt.
The current competition, the 70th, has as its theme "Public Domain", and can be found Here.
This competition has been running for more than 5 years, and has generated many, many wonderful creations. This example comes from the very first contest, which was – in the light of the name of this publishing company – devoted to Operation Sealion. This competition, in turn, resulted in the production of an anthology: Fight Them On The Beaches.
One of the legends of the Second World War is the comedic aspect of the Home Guard. The long-running comedy show Dad’s Army was devoted to precisely this source of humour.
Experts generally agree that if the invasion had gone ahead, the inherent flaws in the plan would have meant that the initial landings would have been very scattered and disorganised. That defeating it would have been relatively easy.
That last point always annoys me. There is always cost even in an easy victory.
In a situation where Operation Sealion had been launched, it is likely that most of the invading forces wouldn’t have reached the shore. Those that did would have first met the local defenders. Those very same Home Guard, most of whom were veterans of the Great War.
That’s the background to this story. On with the story itself.
Cheap at the Price
The old man looked across the beach and started his walk. Come rain or shine, he made this walk every year on this very day, always pausing at the same spots, each one forever fixed in his memory.
Today, people know that what was done here on that day didn’t really matter, that it didn’t make the slightest difference to the outcome. They could have stayed at home, stayed safe, and it would still have ended the same.
He paused on a sand dune overlooking the beach and he looked out to sea. It was from this point that they first saw the barges approaching. It was a clear day then, with just the merest breath of wind. Today, the winds were rough and the grey sea looked angry. It was raining, but he refused to carry an umbrella. Had the weather been like this back then, they couldn’t have come. The sea was almost mill-pond smooth that day. They had seen the barges coming out of a light mist.
They saw the barges coming; what they couldn’t see and didn’t know was that in the Channel, the Navy was destroying the barges by the score. Only a handful had slipped past here and there. They couldn’t see any of that. All they could see were the barges approaching this beach. They could see the enemy approaching and they knew they were the next line of defence.
The child at his side spoke. “But Granddad,” he was asked, “why didn’t you all just wait for the real Army to come? Weren’t you scared?”
He thought about it. Scared? Most of them had been in the trenches last time. They knew what their chances of leaving this beach were. They weren’t exactly scared; they knew that they had a job to do, and that others depended on them doing that job. The cost? He gave a mental shrug. They were not scared, just resigned and determined to do their bit.
“Just remember one thing, boys. You can always take one with you.” That was what Captain Collins had said. He was standing right here, right on this spot, when he said it. A mild-mannered solicitor most of the time, and he rarely wore the MC he’d won during the last unpleasantness. He always called them boys, even though the youngest of them had been in their 50s. None of them had been young. All of them had lived their lives and had one last final act left to do. No regrets.
Captain Collins had made sure that the Lewis gun had been ready. Then he had moved on and went to speak with everybody at their positions. A word of encouragement to each person before moving on to the next. Everyone knew that he was, in his own way, saying goodbye.
The old man sighed, and then continued his walk. It was always the same route, from where the Lewis gun had been sited, down towards the small wall. Every so often, the Council tried to have that wall removed, saying that it spoilt the beach. And every time, those from the village old enough to remember that day objected and blocked the attempt.
This wall was where Weston and Perryman had been. They were the best shots in the Home Guard platoon. They were going to try and shoot the coxswains of the barges, the people driving the barges.
They’d done this. A couple of barges had swung out of control and grounded on a sandbank a quarter of a mile from the beach, but the other barges came on. There had been something implacable, unstoppable about them, creeping forward like giant water beetles. A dozen barges, 30 men in each barge. They were heading for this beach; standing between them and the rest of England were the 21 men of this Home Guard unit. The old man gave an involuntary shiver.
“Why didn’t you run away, Granddad?”
“You’ll understand when you’re older. We said we were going to stop them here or die trying. People were depending on us. We couldn’t let them down.”
He walked along his regular route to the edge of the water. Back then, he wouldn’t have been able to do that. They didn’t have much barbed wire back then, but they did have a lot of chicken mesh, and they’d used it in abundance. Anything to stop the Germans getting off the beach.
The barges couldn’t reach the shore, grounding some distance off. The German soldiers had to wade the last bit to get to land. The Lewis gun had the range; it chattered and the sea around the Germans wading knee-deep through the sea started to turn red.
He moved along the beach near the water’s edge until he reached a spot indistinguishable from any other. This was the point where the first soldier from the barges reached the shore. One pace further on marked the spot where he died.
But 21 men can’t stop over 350. They can make them pay a price, though. The Germans returned fire as they struggled to get off the beach.
Pick your mark, settle on it, make sure the rifle butt is firm against your shoulder, exhale, then squeeze the trigger. Pick the next mark. Ignore the puffs of sand near you. Stay under cover and pick your mark. One of the puffs would get you, sooner or later. It was your job to make sure you took one with you.
This was where Cotton had bought it. A German bullet hit him in the face; he went down instantly. Cotton was the first of them.
He tried to remember how long they were on the beach for. It had felt like forever, but it might have been no more than minutes.
He continued his walk. This was where Captain Collins had died. He’d been trying to get over to Wilkins and Matthews, who were struggling to hold their position on the far side of the beach. The Captain had been cut down as he ran over to help them. The Captain had always wondered how his boys would perform should the time come. In the end, he had died seeing his boys holding fast, doing their bit to the very end.
He continued his walk. King had died here. His gun had jammed; while he was clearing it, a German bayoneted him. Then Moore had shot the German, and he’d been shot a few moments later.
He continued his slow walk along the beach.
There had been explosions, explosions all the time as the Germans threw grenades. One of them knocked over Grant and Hawkins on the Lewis gun. That was the beginning of the end.
“Granddad, didn’t you surrender then?”
“Of course not. Our job was to stop them, or at least make them pay a price to get off the beach. You see, we didn’t matter. We were only old men. Militarily, we didn’t count. The Germans on the beach, they mattered. When one of us died, it didn’t make any difference. When one of them died, it meant Hitler had one less soldier.
He walked to the next spot of his annual walk. This was where Miller had bought his. He wondered what God thought of a Vicar who took up a gun and fought and tried to kill in defence of his country. Reverend Miller had strong views on this. If he was going to bless soldiers to do this work, then it wasn’t wrong; if it wasn’t wrong, then there was no reason he shouldn’t do it. He smiled in memory. Miller had always been a kind man, except when it came to cricket. That was somehow different, and his bowling was anything but kind and friendly.
He wiped his eyes. It was the rain making them wet.
This spot was where Marshall had died. He had three sons, all in the Forces; and yet it was he who first got to grips with the Germans.
He reached the base of the Martello tower. This was always the end point of his walk. This was where it had come to an end. It was just him, and Bishop and Beck. A moment later, it was just him and Bishop.
“Surrender, or you will pay,” a German officer had shouted.
“Cheap at the price,” he’s shouted back. He’d tried to hit the officer, but he missed. Then it was just him; he’d continued to fire until he had no more ammunition.
“Granddad, Mr Perkins at school said that you were fools, that you all could have lived and that it was just a waste of lives. But Miss Onslow said you were heroes, laying down your lives to protect others.”
“We weren’t either. We just did the job we were given. That’s all anyone can ever do.”
The two stood in silence for some time, watching the waves roll in and then roll back out again. The rain had stopped, and it was a sunny day now, but there was a chill in the air. It was just as it was on the day that the Germans came.
Finally, a woman called the boy. “Time for supper, Jake. Come on, it’s getting dark out there.”
The boy turned to the old man, his grandfather.
The grandfather spoke. “You run along, lad. I’ll stop here for a bit. The cold wind doesn’t bother me none. I’ve things to remember.”
“Was it worth it, Granddad?”
He looked up the beach to the houses near the front, at the people going about their business, at the cars and all the bustle of life.
“Look up at that. That’s the result. People living their lives. Was it worth it? As I said to the German officer, it was cheap at the price. You run along now.”
The boy ran up the beach to his mother; the old man looked out to sea, remembering every detail of that day in September 1940.
The mother looked at the beach, puzzled at what had kept Jake there for so long. There was no-one there.
Comment on this vignette Here.
A version of this vignette can be found in the anthology of ghost stories, Ghost Written, published by SFP.
SLP produced an anthology of stories about Operation Sealion, edited by Katherine Foy, entitled Fight Them on the Beaches.
in addition, SLP has produced a horror anthology, Travellers in an Antique Land, also edited by Katherine Foy.