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Last episode, taken from The Rover issue: 1717 May 24th 1958.

Commander Dan Sturdee, R.N., captain of H.M.S. Swiftsure, the fastest ship in the world, put his binoculars to his eyes and brought them to bear on dots on the skyline. These took shape as the brown sails of fishing smacks.

“They’re Portuguese fishing boats, Number One,” he said. “Useful” exclaimed Lieutenant Ralph Burney, the First Officer. “They’ll help to hide us. The enemy radar won’t be able to distinguish between us.” Sturdee nodded. He was a young man with a ruthless, determined jaw and a hint of recklessness in the set of his lips. “Ay, but even if the Klovanians are fond of fish, and have sent the Portuguese out to catch it for them, I can’t believe they don’t watch the boats pretty closely,” he growled. “There may well be a guard ship among them.” Sturdee scrutinized the fishing vessels again. It was the late afternoon of an autumn day in 1986 and those around him knew that the fate of Britain was in his hands. In tow of the Swiftsure was the disable submarine-tanker, Rorqual. The tanks of the submarine contained fuel for the monster rockets that were to be fired from Gibralter at Klovania. If he failed to get the Rorqual to the Rock, then Britain would be unable to strike back. The odds would then be on the enemy winning the war. The Klovanians had knocked out every nation except Britain. That she survived to fight on was due to the genius of her scientists in forming a “Roof” of electrical particles over the British Isles. On this invisible ceiling, the giant rockets of the enemy, called Fireflies, burst. But the Klovanians appeared to be mastering the problem for there had been at least one extensive and dangerous seepage of radioactive fall-out through the roof. The powerful engines of the Swiftsure pounded away. The tow was making thirty knots. A main hawser, a great six-inch rope, and two other cables, linked the ship and submarine, but the strain upon them was enormous. Sturdee’s greatest worry was the knowledge that the Klovanians’ biggest aircraft carrier, the Tulak, was in the vicinity. He had one advantage. He could decode the enemy signals. Their naval code had been cracked by Professor S.K. Elton, the boyish-looking chief of the Scientific General Staff, now organizing the British rocket sites at Gibraltar. The sea was choppy. There were occasional squalls but, on the whole, visibility was good. Sturdee wished it was a bit worse. He looked astern, watching the tow. On the bridge of the Rorqual stood Commander William Tate whose sandy beard was a well-known naval ornament. Sturdee shifted his gaze to the fishing smacks. About a dozen of them were dotted about. They were working in pairs with drift-nets out. The Swiftsure and Rorqual approached two of the boats. Sullen faces stared at them. The charge in their facial expression was astonishing when they saw the White Ensign. The fishermen waved and shouted in excitement. Sturdee switched on the loud hailer. He could make himself understood in Portuguese. His voice boomed out as he asked the question. “Is there a guardship about?” he enquired. The answer came from the skipper of one of the smacks. “He says there’s a corvette in the offing,” Sturdee stated, raising his binoculars to his eyes and, simultaneously, there was a shout from the look-out relayed through the loudspeaker. The mast of the warship was coming up over the skyline. Though the Swiftsure was built as a supply ship, for conveying fuel to the projector stations that maintained the Roof over Britain, she was armed with two torpedo tubes, rocket guns and Oerlikon quick-firers. The Rorqual only had Oerlikons for a measure of anti-aircraft protection. Sturdee used the loud-hailer to communicate with the Rorqual. It was quicker than signaling. “I’m going to reduce speed and try to use the fishing boats as cover till I can make sure of bagging the corvette,” he informed Tate. “I shan’t cast off the tow unless it’s essential.” Sturdee gave his orders and the Swiftsure slowed down, making a change of course so that there were fishing boats between them and the oncoming corvette. The Swiftsure was not a tall, conspicuous ship. Except for her high raked bows and streamlined superstructure, she was torpedo-shaped. Sturdee called Lieutenant Denton, the gunnery and torpedo officer, on the director platform. “Let fly as soon as you can be sure of hitting the corvette,” he rapped. “The vital thing is to stop it from talking.” The corvette, the Squeb, vanished in the rain mist. It was a fast, powerful ship of about 1000 tons displacement armed with 4.5 guns and rocket tubes. Sturdee saw the rocket guns in the Swiftsure’s turrets being elevated under Denton’s control. The Squeb came racing out of the haze and Denton fired. With a terrific whoosh, eight rockets streaked into the air, leaving only thin trails of smoke. Sturdee watched anxiously, using his glasses. He saw sudden movements on the bridge of the corvette. They had been sighted. But, a moment or two afterwards, there were lurid flashes and spurts of smoke as the rockets burst. It was great shooting. Denton had secured direct hits with his first salvo and another was on the way. The rockets were equipped with armour-piercing warheads but the Britishers were astounded by what occurred. A livid flash seemed to leap to the sky, there was a prodigious uprush of smoke and then the crack of a terrific explosion. It rent the Squeb asunder. Sturdee had never seen a ship break up and sink so swiftly. It just vanished from view and only a haze of smoke and a small amount of floating wreckage marked where the sinking had taken place. Sturdee used the squawk box, as the microphone was often termed. “Nice shooting, Guns!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t expect her to go like that,” Denton said harshly. “It was the magazine that popped off,” Sturdee answered. “and it’s my guess that, not expecting action, she wasn’t closed up.” That would explain it,” replied Denton, agreeing with his captain’s theory that doors were open in the armoured bulkheads and that a flash had penetrated to the magazine. Sturdee called Sub-Lieutenant Dale, the Radio Officer. “Did the corvette get a signal away?” he asked. “She had just given her call-sign  when the rockets hit her, sir,” replied the officer. “Just a minute, sir, we’re picking up something.” Sturdee ordered Burney to resume the tow. It was a tricky business to get the dead weight of the submarine under control again but the hawsers stood the colossal strain. The Radio Officer soon had some information. “The Tulak keeps calling the Squeb, sir,” he reported. Sturdee frowned “Ay, the Kovskies must be wondering why the corvette suddenly went off the air after giving her call-sign,” he muttered. “We’ll be lucky to escape trouble from the air.


The fishing fleet disappeared astern. There were two hours of daylight left, hours that would be tense with anxiety. If all went well, Sturdee hoped to get the Rorqual into Gibraltar at about three o’clock in the morning.

The Rock was under siege, but to seaward was protected by minefields. An ingenious system of markers treated with fluorescent paint that glowed in “black light” would guide the ships in. Both the Swiftsure and the Rorqual were equipped with “searchlights,” to produce infra-red rays. “Go below and get a meal, Number One,” Sturdee said “Ask the steward to bring me up some sandwiches.” Sturdee was munching away at a beef sandwich when Dr Fred Randle, the scientist who always travelled in the Swiftsure, came up the ladder. He was a tall, scraggy man with a wispy moustache. “they’re getting worried at home, Dan,” he said with much less than his usual bounce. “We’ve decoded a long signal from London to professor Elton and, though the Fireflies aren’t penetrating the Roof, the fall-out is getting through in increasing quantities.” “We heard that Yorkshire had experienced a bad fall-out, “ Sturdee replied. “Ay, and now South Wales has caught it,” said Randle. It has been necessary to evacuate everyone from Neath and Port Talbot as the contamination is so dangerous.” The Swiftsure sank in a trough and lifted again. The Rorqual wallowed through the waves. Occasionally a wave slapped against the conning-tower and foam smothered the bridge. Sturdee grinned. “Bill Tate will be expressing himself forcibly,” he said. “He can’t submerge and dodge the weather. Only wish he could.” “Air Search!” the voice of a radio operator cut in. “We’re just starting to pick up aircraft. Astern! Strength Five plus! They seem to be scattered.” “Does that mean planes have been launched from the carrier?” asked Randle. “I guess so,” said Sturdee. “I’ve been expecting it!” The western sky was a yellow glow with angry cloud patches here and there. “Air Search!” exclaimed the operator. “Aircraft are approaching!” Not long after, Sturdee saw specks glinting in the sky. They swiftly took shape. He sounded off the alarm and Burney came hurrying back to the bridge. He got a sight on the planes, five of them, with his glasses. “I haven’t seen this type before,” he said tensely. The planes which were flying in V-formation, had lengthy cigar-shaped fuselages. The cranked wings were set far back and the engines were in the tails. Sturdee scowled. “They must be Niks, their new carrier borne planes,” he snapped. “We were warned about them. They are flying gun batteries.” According to some Intelligence “gen” he had read, each Nik carried two 88-mm cannon, quickfirers of colossal calibre for an aircraft. “Can Gibraltar help us?” Randle asked tensely. “I doubt it,” Sturdee answered, “but they know our approximate position and should have picked up the planes on their radar.” The roar of the Niks’ ram jets reached them thunderously. The planes changed formation and flew in line ahead. At a distance of about five miles, they began to orbit, gradually losing height. Sturdee stooped to the squawk box. “Engage them as soon as they’re in range, Guns.” One of the Niks peeled off. It came out of its dive on the starboard beam and closed on the Swiftsure. Cr-ack, Cr-ack! The two hugh guns of the aircraft started to flash. They were mounted under the nose of the machine. Cr-ack, cr-ack! The shells fell short and raised tremendous splashes as they exploded in the sea. Nearer and nearer they came, the splashes being accompanied by dazzling bursts of flame. Suddenly, the Nik wobbled unsteadily. Randle gave a piercing yell. “It’s lost a wing!” he shouted. The astonished watchers saw the starboard wing crumple and come adrift. The plane went into a spin and plunged. It entered the sea about a mile from the Swiftsure and exploded as it hit the surface. “What did that?” Randle gasped. “We didn’t shoot, did we?” “No, it was the recoil of the guns that broke it up!” exclaimed Sturdee. “You can just imagine what terrific stresses they set up, banging away like that! The air-frame just couldn’t take it.” “There’s another of them coming at us!” Burney declared. A second Nik started it’s swoop. The pilot was showing caution. He evidently intended to get much nearer than the leader before opening fire. The Swiftsure and Rorqual blazed at the plane with rockets and Oerlikons. Its guns were just starting to flash when a rocket hit it at extreme range and blew a great hole in the nose. It ceased shooting but continued to fly in a most erratic fashion, with the starboard wing down. “It’s flying on its own!” Burney exclaimed. “I reckon the crew have been killed.” Sturdee gauged the approach of the plane and saw there was a risk of it falling between the Swiftsure and the Rorqual. “Port thirty,” he ordered. The quartermaster turned the wheel and the Swiftsure veered. The bows of the submarine came round. With the ram jets roaring deafeningly, the plane came down the sky. It seemed for an agonizing instant that the machine was going to crash on the Swiftsure. Spray rose in sheets as it struck the surface near the ship and broke up. Sturdee stared up at the other machines. They had formed a shallow Vic. He knew what was coming. There was to be no more peeling off. A simultaneous attack was intended. The Niks were getting into position to launch the attack when the look-out shouted. “There’s another plane,” he bellowed and then added. “It’s one of ours!” With a silvery flash, guns flickering, a plane with a cylindrical fuselage, swept-back wings and wing-tip ailerons, dived out of the blue at the Niks. Sturdee identified it as one of Britain’s old P.1C’s and undoubtedly it had taken off from the exposed runway at Gibraltar. It raked one of the Niks with cannon-fire and zoomed. With flames rising in sizzling sheets, the enemy machine fluttered down towards the sea like a burning leaf in a forest fire. The two remaining Niks turned sharply westward, but by comparison with the P.1, they were ponderous. The British pilot shot the tail off one of them and, when last seen for a time, was chasing the other out of sight. Sturdee’s face glowed. “That was a welcome bit of help, Dan,” he said. You’ve merited a bit of help, Dan,” declared Randle. You’ve kept things going on your own for long enough.” Three of four minutes elapsed and then the P.1C was sighted astern. It made a shallow dive and skimmed over the vessels before streaking away towards Gibraltar. “When I meet that bloke, I’ll cut him a slice of cake,” chuckled Sturdee.


Through misty darkness the Swiftsure forged along. It was midnight and there were enemy ships on the prowl. With the use of its invisible searchlight, the Swiftsure was searching for the first of the markers.

Sea Search had continually reported the presence of destroyers and the fast launches that the Kovskies called F boats. “Bridge!” called the operator. “We have an echo of a very big ship astern! Distance fifteen to twenty miles!” “The Tulak!” muttered Burney. “Must be,” said Sturdee. The Swiftsure nosed her way through another belt of haze. A hum was heard. The noise swelled. Aircraft passed nearly overhead with a thunderous roar. The mist thinned. Burney flung up an arm and pointed at a shadowy shape on the port bow. “It’s an enemy destroyer,” he gasped. Sturdee grabbed the microphone of the loud-hailer. “Iben sie der kratch!” The loud-hailer magnified his voice into a tremendous roar. “Echtung! Varmer der poldski!” A voice answered from the destroyer. “What’s he saying?” muttered Randle. “Darned if I know,” replied Burney, “but, by gosh, he’s getting out of our way!” As they peered into the darkness, they saw the froth of the destroyer’s wake as it veered sharply away from them. “Let’s get it clear, Dan!” Randle exclaimed. “You bawled at them in Klovanian, didn’t you?” “Ay,” chuckled Sturdee. “In brief I told them to get out of my way.” “But you don’t know their lingo,” growled the puzzled scientist. “The only bloke of my acquaintance who does is Professor Elton.” “It was the Professor who instructed me in what to say in such an emergency,” explained Sturdee. “We nearly got cornered when we had him as a passenger and I remembered what he said.” “Ha, ha, it worked,” cackled Randle, for the destroyer had faded right away into the darkness. “The Professor will laugh his head off when he hears how he helped to diddle a Klovanian ship.” Mist enveloped the Swiftsure again. In the haze there was a sudden green glow on the surface of the sea. “Marker picked up, sir!” the look-out exclaimed. Sturdee heaved a sigh of relief. For the past hour he had been under a vast strain. The sighting of the marker relieved the tension at last. He gave the order for the hawser to be cast off. From this point the Rorqual would proceed under her own power to Gibraltar. The Swiftsure lay to while the Rorqual forged ahead. The Rorqual was soon swallowed up by the darkness. Sturdee put his ship about. He took the stool in front of the radar set. “We’re going after the Tulak,” he announced. “With so many small Klovanian craft about I think we shall be able to sneak in.” The ship vibrated as speed picked up. The big “blip” in the tube guided Sturdee towards his target. Spray lashed the windows of the bridge as the Swiftsure worked up to sixty knots. Suddenly, Sturdee jumped off the stool and peered into the darkness. Against the skyline loomed the immense shape of the Klovanians’ new carrier of 70,000 tons displacement. The darkness gave way to blinding light as searchlights blazed. Guns flashed in a tremendous barrage. With his lips compressed in determined lines. Sturdee held his course. The explosions of an enemy salvo dazzled the eyes of all on the bridge. It was like attacking a sky-scraper. “Torpedoes gone,” shouted Denton and, at Sturdee’s order, the quartermaster put the helm over. The Swiftsure heeled with shells exploding all round her, she streaked away. “The torpedoes have run past,” muttered Burney, but he had hardly spoken when the concussions of two tremendous detonations were followed by cascades of sparks. The Royal Navy, that the Klovanians bragged was finished, had struck again. An hour after the Swiftsure’s attack, the pride of the Klovanian fleet went to the bottom. That was on the night of September 25TH. It was on October 1ST at mid-day that three enormous “Sparkler” rockets were fired from Gibraltar. H.M.S. Swiftsure was anchored off Gibraltar and was able to see their launching from an emplacement in the Rock. It was 12.10 that the main Klovanian radio station in the capital suddenly went dead. “That’s all we want to know!” Randle exclaimed. “Our sparklers found the target! Now we can let another salvo go!” It was 6.0 p.m. on that fateful day that a Klovanian radio station situated far from the capital, or any of the manufacturing areas, was faintly heard. It was a frantic appeal for an armistice. “You were right, Fred,” Sturdee said. “You told me that we should knock them out in half a day.” “Yes and I had a good reason for making the prediction,” answered Randle. “There was no Roof over Klovania!” The suddenness with which the war ended, the abrupt manner in which seeming defeat was transformed into victory, amazed the world made free again. Once more Britain had stood alone and once more Britain had won. On the day that the peace treaty was signed, Commander Dan Sturdee stood to attention while Her Majesty pinned the Victoria Cross on his tunic.


THE FRIGHTENED YEAR OF THE FIREFLIES - 15 WEEKS The Rover 1703 February 15TH 1958 – 1717 May 24TH 1958

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2003