I am writing a thriller called "Missing in Action." It is set both in the present and in the wartime Cretan Resistance - Patrick Leigh Fermor territory, both literally and metaphorically. In the present, an academic goes to Crete to try and unravel the mystery surrounding his grandfather who was posted Missing in Action towards the end of 1944, but turns out to have died in Crete just recently. He finds his grandfather's diaries which tell a story of wartime dirty political work at the crossroads. The novel is based on actual events involving Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) and the Cretan Resistance. Here is the opening. I would be most grateful for some feedback from members. Does it grab you?
Part 1: The White Mountains, Crete, November 1943.
Shuffling his feet in the snow, Sergeant John Gallagher banged his hands together, wished he had brought gloves, and looked at his watch; five past two. Twenty-five minutes to go, all things being equal. He looked around; so far, so good, all things seemed equal. The White Mountains were blanketed with snow, silent and majestic, glowing in the light of the full moon. Millions of stars twinkled in the unpolluted sky. A shooting star fizzed through space, and John immediately wished for a safe airdrop. There wasn’t a breath of wind in the air which was just as well, for at six thousand feet, it was cold enough without an added wind-chill factor. As he moved to blow some snowflakes off the bolt of his rifle, his boots crunched the deep, hard, wind-crusted snow.
Beside him, Kostas Sfakianakis muttered some Greek imprecation about the cold, moving his sten-gun from one hand to the other. But he was wearing his kapote, the traditional woollen cloak of the shepherds of Sfakia, while John shivered in his battledress under which he was wearing a khaki woollen jersey, while a homemade white camouflage cloak covered his uniform. The Tam O’Shanter with its distinctive Commando black hackle on his head could not protect his ears, which he rubbed vigorously. John looked down.
Several hundred feet below him, the circular snow-filled plateau of Niato reflected the moonlight like an eerie stage-set. A group of Andartes stood by the signal bonfires, a column of mules nearby; the occasional glow of a cigarette marked their position. John marvelled at the resilience of these partisans who, at the drop of a hat, would stop everything and head up the mountains in the middle of the night with their pack animals. For them, it was a welcome interlude in the hard graft of the pastoral routine, and the grim reality of enemy occupation. Yorgos the runner had arrived in the village of Korifi a couple of nights previously with the news of the airdrop. He looked impossibly young to be charged with such important duties, and John smiled as he remembered a phrase from his native Glasgow: does his Mammy know he’s oot? But Yorgos was a legend amongst the British Liaison Officers who worked with the Cretan Resistance. Although he was small and slight, he covered impossible distances at great speed with unflagging reliability and good humour, and it did not seem to bother him that the Germans had put a price on his head, dead or alive. During his absence, some bastard had stolen Yorgos’s family’s few remaining sheep, but the teenager never once complained. John had made sure the family got a couple of gold sovereigns from the British fund.
Kostas nudged him and pointed up at the sky. In the distance was the drone of an approaching aircraft. John strained his eyes and suddenly, a Halifax aeroplane swept right over their heads. Down on the plateau, a torch winked a signal in morse code, and the aeroplane repeated it with its wing-tip lights. There was a burst of activity down below, and the bonfires blazed out in their distinctive T-shape. In the distance, the aircraft banked, circled and approached the plateau low and straight; the dispatcher clearly silhouetted in the open door. Clusters of parachutes appeared underneath the aircraft, mushroomed open, and pendulumed down with containers suspended below them. The Halifax gunned its engines, climbed overhead and disappeared, its wing-tip lights flashing a valedictory dit-dit-dit-dah: V for Victory.
A sudden gust of wind carried a parachute bearing a container over John’s head and it landed with a muffled thud in the snow a hundred yards away higher up on the ridge. John and Kostas dashed towards it, their rubber commando soles squeaking in the deep snow. Just as they detached the container from the collapsed parachute, a burst of gunfire whistled past them. Kostas was hit and fell to the ground, rolling a few yards down the ridge. John grabbed him by the collar, towed him into the cover of a large boulder, dived down into the snow, cocked his rifle and tried to spot where the fire was coming from. But Kostas yelled, “Run for your life!” and opened fire with his sten-gun.
John grabbed the container and ran for it, his rifle at the trail. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see several German soldiers, also in white camouflage uniforms, on cross-country skis higher up the ridge, firing. Kostas was hit again and flopped over. As John slid down the far side of the ridge, a German soldier snow-ploughed to a halt, crossed his ski-sticks in front of him, rested his Mauser 98 sniper’s rifle on the ‘X’, aimed carefully, and fired. John was hit, staggered, but kept going, and toppled into space with a yell.
When he came to, John found himself buried in a blood-stained snowdrift up to his thighs, a wound in his left shoulder throbbing and leaking blood. The container was beside him, but his rifle was missing. He rummaged around in the snow, but couldn't locate it. Dragging the container behind him, he struggled out of the snowdrift and set off downhill, sliding and slithering. He knew he had to be somewhere south of Niato, but didn’t know exactly where.
As dawn broke, a blizzard was blowing, snowflakes were driving into John's nose, mouth and eyes, and he could barely see a couple of yards in front of him. He was freezing up – how to find shelter before hypothermia set in? But if he was buggered by the weather, Gerry would be too; that's good. Blinking and peering around, he spotted a cave above him with the entrance half blocked with snow. I've got to get in there before I conk out. Go for it. He scrambled up, and slithered inside. Grunting with pain, he dumped the container and slid down the wall of the cave into a sitting position. Forcing himself to take deep breaths, he pulled off his tunic and pullover, and examined the wound in his shoulder. A flesh wound, deep enough, but it hadn't touched the bone. Good. Got to stop the bleeding though. How am I going to get a shell dressing over it? That's it, hold it in place with my right hand and pull the bandage ends free with my teeth. Jam the dressing against the wall and tie it in place. Ouch! Not pretty, but better than nothing. Now, get my pullover and tunic back on as it's freezing in here.
John opened the container, to find several aluminium tubes, about half-a-centimetre in diameter and fifty centimetres long. He knew what they contained. Got to hide them. Using his hands, he tried to dig a hole in the pebbled floor of the cave, but fainted with the pain in his shoulder. Coming to, he tried again using his Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife, with more success this time, although blood trickled down his arm onto his left hand. He jammed the tubes inside the hole, filled it with pebbles, and stamped it smooth. Sitting down again, he fumbled a map and notebook out of the map-pocket in his battledress trousers, and began scribbling with an indelible pencil, referring to the map every so often. As the day wore on, he slid in and out of consciousness, his shoulder throbbing; he ate a little chocolate and drank some water from his water-bottle. As he waited for nightfall, he checked his Webley pistol.
After dark, John wriggled out of the cave into the snow, and crept downhill, pistol in hand. Were the Germans still about? Ah, there was the snow-covered bridle-path which led to the village. He checked it looking both ways; no tracks. Forcing himself to stay alert, he stumbled down the path down to the outskirts of Korifi. Lying behind a drystone wall, he scanned the houses, his breath rasping. The village was sleeping, but the smell of burning olive wood wafted through the night air for in the winter, the villagers kept their stoves alight round the clock as their houses were chronically cold and damp because of their thick, rubble-packed walls, lack of a damp course, and beaten earth floors and roofs. A few better-off villagers had wooden floors and tiled roofs, but even so, they were still cold.
John rolled over the wall, gasped at the fierce stab of pain in his shoulder, staggered down a lane looking right, left and behind him, and reached the house at the end. There was no sign of movement. He lifted the latch and slid inside the house, pistol at the ready. The house was exactly as he had left it. He lit an oil-lamp, hobbled over to the kanabes, the wooden sleeping-bench, and put his pistol down. He manipulated the wooden wall-planking, and a small plank sprung open revealing an alcove. John took the map and notebook from his map-pocket, placed them inside a tin box, put it in the alcove and clicked the plank shut.
John stood up and inhaled deeply. He heard a footstep outside, grabbed his pistol, spun round, aimed at the door, and – collapsed at the feet of the two Andartes who charged in, weapons at the ready. His wound began to bleed heavily.
John swirled in and out of consciousness, feeling nauseous, and came to to the steady beat of an engine, and a prickling pain in his left shoulder. He was lying on a berth in a sick-bay where a Royal Navy surgeon stitched his wound. John started up, looking about wildly.
“What the… where am I?… I must…..”
“Easy does it, Sergeant,” the surgeon said. “You’re all right. You mustn’t do anything now except rest.”
“Where am I?” John said.
“On one of our submarines,” the surgeon said. “Halfway to Alexandria. Before you know it, you’ll be in a nice clean bed being looked after by a popsy. Now, you must rest. You’ve lost a lot of blood.” He put a dressing on John’s wound.
“But, but how did I get here?” John said.
“Your Cretan chums carried you to the shore on the back of a mule. They knew there was a sub due. You're lucky to have friends like that.” John sank back onto the pillow, exhaled deeply, and closed his eyes. The surgeon was right; he was lucky to have friends like that.