(Rover Homepage)


Last episode taken from The Rover issue: 1708 March 22nd 1958.

For New Readers:

In late 1939, the German dictator, Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Germany. The rest of Europe was neutral. Shortly after the start of the war, a British agent was working in a German laboratory discovered a purple sand which he suspected the Germans were using to manufacture an explosive of an atomic nature which could win the war. Nicholas Wake, a King’s Messenger, was sent to find the source of the sand. He traced it to an explosives factory in Poland, where Zeppelins brought it from the south. Following the route of the airships, Wake travelled south through Rumania, crossed the Danube and eventually landed in Bulgaria.

“It’s a tough problem, but obviously I’ve got to get down to Yokaruda as quickly as possible,” I told myself as I looked up from the map to the rugged Bulgarian mountains before me. “There’s little chance of finding a car for hire in this country. I must try to get a horse somewhere.” But I knew that at least a hundred and fifty miles, much of it across wild mountainous country, lay before me—with only a brief section of railway to help me on my way. According to my map, I knew, too, that the Bulgarian roads are bad and scarce. And time was a most important factor. Barren and grim the mountains looked in the moonlight. A rough road ran towards them from the spot where I stood on the southern bank of the Danube, in a Bulgarian national costume. Barely ten minutes ago, I had left a small sailing boat in which I had crossed the river I had parted once again from my staunch helper, big David McKenzie. I had hired the boat at Rastu, on the Rumanian side of the Danube. Its swarthy owner was really a British Secret Service agent, to whom I had been guided by other British agents with whom I had managed to make contact in Rastu. So, at last, the trail of the purple sand which in various disguises, I had followed through Nazi Germany, then German-occupied Poland and Rumania, had brought me to Bulgaria. My last hope was that at last I was near the end of my search. It was vital that I should discover the source of the mysterious purple sand with which Germany was preparing a new and terrible explosive. The British Foreign Office knew that before it was of any use the purple sand had to be found in sufficient bulk to be mined, and that Germany alone possessed a suitable source. It was my job to find out just where the source was. I was certain that I was still proceeding in the right direction, for, about three weeks ago, I had discovered the arrival end of the purple sand—a secret factory in the Carpathian Mountains, on the southern frontier of Poland. There I had also seen an airship mooring-mast, and had discovered that the purple sand was brought from somewhere south by Zeppelins. Obviously I had to find out the place from which those Zeppelins came. Hastening on southwards, seeking more contacts with British Secret Service agents with helpful information, I had learned that there were four night-flying Zeppelins on the job, always passing due north and south. The most recent discovery was that they had been seen passing over the Bulgarian towns of Vraca, Lozen and Yokaruda. All of these towns were due south of each other. The trail obviously led on to the south of Bulgaria. Already I had encountered many dangers and difficulties. But always I had managed to get in touch with British Secret Service agents in the most unexpected places, and obtain help and useful information. Nevertheless, I should more than once have been beaten but for David McKenzie, the big Scotsman who had been appointed my helper by the British Foreign Office. I had just parted from him. But I knew that it would not be long before I should be glad to see him again. I had a feeling of triumph as I stood facing the Bulgarian mountains, wearing the national costume, and with a Bulgarian passport and money in my pocket. “So far, so good!” I exclaimed, folding up my map. “But now, where am I to get a horse?” This was indeed a problem. I greatly hoped that I should soon find some farm where I could buy one. Meanwhile, I realised I must rest before I tackled the mountains, for the past twenty-four hours had been both nerve-racking and strenuous. I lay down, thankful for my knack of being able to fall asleep instantly at any time and in any place. Dawn, however, found me well up in the mountains, following the rough road that wound through great gorges. Anxiety filled me as I strode along. I knew it was forty miles of terrible going to Vraca. My map showed me that if I had to walk all the way I should lose much precious time. Not a soul did I see for over an hour. But, suddenly, as I rounded a bend in the road, I saw before me a gipsy encampment with numerous huge black tents, and the smoke of wood fires curled up everywhere. Right before me, on the outskirts of the camp, a lean gipsy with a face tanned to the colour of mahogany, sat on an upturned bucket, rolling himself a cigarette and staring in front of him. What thrilled me was the sight of a few tethered horses and donkeys. There was a rough but sturdy-looking horse grazing near the fellow in front of me. In the end, I got the horse for a sum in dinars equal to five pounds, with a saddle and bridle thrown in. Shortly afterwards, I mounted briskly, filled with relief. “Yon road will take you to Vraca,” were the gipsy’s parting words on learning my immediate destination. “But you will have to pass through the valley of the Tombs. If you reach nightfall, do not stop, I do not advise you to sleep there.” “Why?” I asked curiously. “There are demons there,” he said briefly. “I’m not scared of demons, even in the moonlight!” I grinned. But as I rode off, my heart beat faster. The gipsy had hummed two bars of a tune. They were the opening bars of “Oranges and Lemons,” the British Secret Service code tune! The manner of his humming theme—opening two lines repeated—warned me of danger. “So the Valley of Tombs is a place to hurry through,” I muttered as I galloped on. “Thank you, gipsy.” Of course, that gipsy had not guessed at my urgent errand for the Allies. He could not know that I was a King’s Messenger, nor even did he suspect me to be British. He hummed the tune on the chance that I might need a British secret agent’s warning. I had no time to signal a reply to show that I understood. But I was alert and wary as I rode on as fast as my horse could carry me. For several hours I rode rapidly with few halts for rest. It was late afternoon when I reached the Valley of the Tombs. It was an astonishing sight. Huge grey tombstones, almost hidden by tall grass covered several acres of ground. As I approached the nearest of the great stones, I saw that they were covered with time worn carvings of horses and warriors and strange-looking writing. Although I could see no sign of any living thing, I remembered the gipsy’s warning and, urging on my tired horse, raced forward through the amazing valley at full gallop. Nothing happened until I was half-way through the tombs. Then I heard the crack of a rifle and the hum of a bullet as it whined past my head. Gasping angrily, I flattened myself along my horse’s neck and urged it to its utmost. Two more shots came from a different direction, and one passed through the loose sleeve of my Bulgarian tunic. But I got through unharmed, and at last galloped safely into the shelter of trees at the far end of the valley. I had seen no one. The shots had been fired from the cover of tombstones by hidden marksmen. Had I been on foot, or riding slowly, unwarned, I should have been killed by these bullets fired by lurking robbers for the sake of any money I might have had on me. I reached Vraca without any trouble about two hours later, just as dusk was falling. It was a queer little town, semi-oriental in appearance, with, here and there, domes and minarets rising above the huddled mass of houses. But all that mattered to me was that Vraca was connected to Lozen by a railway line. My map had told me that. I was dead tired after my long, hard ride, but I dare not stop. Not without regrets, I sold my plucky horse to a kind faced young peasant in the market place, who promised to look after it well. I soon found the dingy little railway station in the centre of the town. To my relief, I was told that a train—the second one of the day—would be leaving for Lozen within half an hour. It did not leave for another two hours. By that time, I was worn out with fatigue and impatience. It was only eighty miles to Lozen. But that train just crawled along, and it was not until the next dawn when I reached Lozen, at the foot of more mountains. It was another small semi-oriental town. It was satisfactory to have reached the second of the three towns through which I must pass. But the railway could help me no further. From Lozen it crawled eastwards to avoid climbing the mountains. How could I proceed straight southwards from there to Yokaruda? There was only one answer. I must try to hire a car. After a search of nearly an hour and a lot of bargaining, I managed to persuade the owner of a remarkable private car to take me to Yokaruda. Two hours later, I was thrilled to see the houses and spires of Yokaruda in a valley below us, and the old Turkish bridge that spans the river on its western side. I felt well pleased when I paid off my driver in Yokaruda market place. I had travelled across the whole of mountainous Bulgaria in two days! Without rousing any suspicions, I had reached the southernmost place above the Zeppelins had been seen flying at night, according to the information given me by my “contracts” away back in Rastu, in Romania. Now what? I must surely be near the end of the trail of the purple sand! For, quite close, in the mountains south of Yokaruda, lat the frontier of Grecian Macedonia. And beyond Greece lay the Mediterranean! I did not think I should have to search much further. Hungry, I entered an inn near the market place, and found it was kept by an old, grey-bearded peasant, who was helped by his sturdy son. Here I brought a flask of wine, a large sausage and a loaf of rye bread. At This vital stage I dare not ask about airships. I dare not risk arousing the interest of Nazi agents now! From the innkeeper’s son, I merely inquired casually if the mountain passes and paths through to Macedonia were all clear of snow yet. “Yes,” he whispered, with a strange look, “and I can guide you by a short cut through the mountains, by which it is possible to avoid all the dogs of Customs officers and all Customs houses,” he added. He had evidently mistaken me for somebody interested in running smuggled goods on a big scale. My pulse leaped. If I had a local guide, my task might be a lot easier. But I dare not risk it. I gave him a vague answer and soon left the inn.


There was a small moon when I climbed eagerly up into the mountains some hours later. The track I was following was rough, but I was by then accustomed to long tramps across mountains. I was sure that I had slipped out of Yokaruda unnoticed. But several times I halted and turned abruptly, to make sure that I was not followed. My good luck still held. Nevertheless, I proceeded cautiously, straining my eyes ahead as the trail climbed and wound upwards. I wanted to avoid frontier Customs posts, and I felt sure that this well worn track must lead to one, eventually. About an hour later, I halted on a mountain shoulder and looked around anxiously. “I must have covered about three miles,” I muttered. “So, according to the talk at that inn, I can't have much further to go. Yet my map tells me that the Macedonian frontier is only seven miles south of Yokaruda. If I’ve got to cross the frontier it will mean finding some little-used path. I almost wish I’d accepted that guide—“I broke off short and stood rigid, staring at the object that had just caught my eye. A great, gleaming object was rising above that mountain top a little ahead of me and to my right! It seemed to float in the air like a ghost, brightening as it rose. It was a Zeppelin! My heart leaped as I saw that long, silver shape like a giant cigar, soaring upwards, increasing speed. It swung round as I stared at it. I crouched down behind a boulder as it turned to come in my direction. Rising from five hundred feet to a thousand feet, it came right over me a moment later. I had marked the mountain top behind which I had seen it rise. Instantly, leaving the track, I ran towards the spot, slipping and stumbling on the steep ground. “That Zeppelin rose less than two miles away from me!” I gasped excitedly. “It came from right behind those crags yonder!” How, in the next twenty minutes I didn’t fall and break my neck I don’t know, for, as I raced along the uneven ground, I had keep my eyes on my objective. But, at last, breathless, my heart pounding madly, I approached the crags I had marked. Cautiously, I dropped to my hands and knees and crawled the last fifty yards. Then at last reaching the jumble of crags, peered round them. I had counted on seeing something of vital importance. What I saw took my breath away. It exceeded my highest hopes. I was looking down into a wide, moonlit valley. In the bright moonlight, I could plainly see four airship mooring masts away below. There was a Zeppelin moored to one, the other three were vacant. I saw wooden buildings around them. About a hundred yards nearer to me I saw many more buildings and numerous cranes, derricks and other machinery. Near them was a black, yawning hole about fifty yards in diameter, with lights moving inside it. I knew that at last I had found Germany’s source of the purple sand. Near the pit, awaiting shipment in an airship, I could see great piles of wooden cases. They were just like the cases I had seen in the secret factory away back at Panok in the Carpathians. Without doubt they were all full of the deadly purple sand, awaiting dispatch. I could see men swarming round the buildings and passing in and out of them. I reckoned that Germany employed at least five hundred specially-selected men on this job. This was reckoning without guards. There was no visible fence round the workings nor the airship landing ground. But I could make out sentries posted to keep intruders away. To the south stood some crumbling walls, probably once the boundaries of farming fields, some abandoned peasants’ huts and beyond these a belt of trees probably concealing more guards. At last I had the information that was so vital to the Allies, the news which was so anxiously awaited in London. “Can the Allies get hold of this purple sand?” I asked myself. “Germany must have leased this valley from Bulgaria, and will have to be ousted somehow. But a force can’t be landed in a neutral country to drive them out!” My thoughts ran on. If the Allies could seize this purple sand pocket, how could they remove the stuff? The only way would be to take it down by motor lorry to the nearest port—Salonika—there to be loaded into ships. No other way would be possible, since the Allies did not maintain airships of the kind suitable for heavy transport, and ordinary aircraft would not be of any use for several reasons. But that problem could wait. “I’m going down to Salonika at once!” I exclaimed. “From there I can cable a report in code to London.” I reckoned to proceed along the track up which I had come until I reached the frontier Customs post, where I would merely show my Bulgarian passport and personal possessions and ask the best way down to the nearest Greek town according to my map. But I never reached the track! As I made my way round a spur of the mountain, a startling thing happened. A dozen men leaped up from behind boulders all round me. A dozen rifles covered me. My good luck had apparently broken!


For a moment I was dumbfounded. Rage filled me as I faced my ambushers. Never had I seen such a cut-throat gang. At one glance, however, I knew them for what they were—Macedonian bandits from over the border. It was a maddening situation. I had at last succeeded in my task of gaining the information that the Allies so badly wanted. A speedy report was vital—and I was held up by a band of brigands. Robbery could be the only motive for stopping me. With this realization, I boldly faced the gaunt ruffian who seemed to be the bandits’ leader. “If it’s money you want, well, you can have all I’ve got on me. But leave me my report and let me proceed at once. I have urgent business. To my dismay, the scoundrel shook his head and laughed. He gave me a mocking bow. “I do not speak well the Bulgarian tongue,” he said in a Greek dialect, naturally believing me to be a Bulgarian. “I do not know what you say, Hands up, your money or your life! I regret that I must detain you.” “For what?” I exploded. “For a ransom,” he leered. “A gentleman who carries so much money on him, as you do, surely has wealthy friends who will gladly pay highly for his release.” At that, my fury knew no bounds. It was unthinkable that I should be held captive by these scoundrels—indefinitely—when every moment of my time was precious! I started to bluster and argue. It was no use. At a sign from their leader, the gang closed in on me. Just as I wondered how they could possibly know I had a big sum of money, I saw in their midst a fellow I recognised. It was the son of the innkeeper at Yokaruda—the rascal who had mistaken me for a tobacco smuggler—and had offered to show me a secret path through the mountains. All was clear. The young ruffian had caught a glimpse of my well-filled wallet when I had paid my bill at the inn. He had kept watch on my movements, then had slipped across the border to there brigands with news of a wealthy traveler and brought them after me. I was quite helpless, and at once the brigands started to force me through the mountains to their secret lair. That journey by way of twisting mountains, with my captors leering at me, seemed endless. In vain, I argued with the bandits leader and assured him that he would never get a ransom for me. He did not believe me. “I will give you three days to change your mind!” he laughed grimly. Three days! I did not mean to be held prisoner for one day if I could help it. But dawn came, and still I had no plans for escape. I was desperate. All day I was kept bound in the inner cave, guarded by a rifle armed bandit, one hand being freed for a short time, only so I might eat. My first guard was a huge glum-looking ruffian who smoked cigarettes incessantly. He was surlily silent. He was changed after about three hours as were his successors, most of  whom proved quite willing to talk. My guard had been changed again at dusk. Once more I had the big, surly fellow. He sat with his back against the cave wall, his rifle across his knees, smoking. A lantern hung on a nail above his head. From the outer cave came the sound of talk and harsh laughter, and the red reflection of a cooking fire. I sat pondering. But suddenly I was alert, listening tensely. I stared at my huge guard in amazement. He was humming quietly the tune of “Oranges And lemons.” It seemed incredible. But I knew I was not mistaken. This giant bandit was actually humming the British code tune—the six opening lines which as good as told me that everything was going to be all right! I looked at him closer as he puffed cigarette smoke into the air. Realisation dawned on me. “David McKenzie!” I gasped. It was big McKenzie guarding me, in bandit garb, his rifle across his knees. How he had taken the place of the real guard I did not know. It was enough that he had turned up once again in amazing fashion. He gave no sign of recognising me, until the talk and laughter in the outer cave died down. Then he rose, quietly cut my bonds with a knife, handed me a pistol, then beckoned me to follow him. We tiptoed froth into the outer cave, gripping our weapons. All was silent. I caught my breath as, by the light of a lantern hanging near the cave mouth, I saw a dozen bandits lying asleep round their fire. McKenzie motioned me to creep round them. Fifteen minutes later, thanks to the two ponies which McKenzie had hidden nearby, we were well clear of the lair of the sleeping bandits. Though pursuit might start at any time, I did not want to leave the neighbourhood of my big discovery too hastily. While held prisoner by the bandits I had had ample time to ponder over the source of the purple sand. It had filled me with dismay to realise that the Allies would have great difficulty to make use of it. How could they do so? I was still grappling with the problem when we halted our ponies on a broad stretch of path some miles from the bandits’ lair. “I’ve found the source of the purple sand, McKenzie!” I announced. “You have?” he exclaimed delightedly. “Where—” “My knowledge would have been no use, if you hadn’t turned up once again and rescued me,” I broke in. “How did you manage that?” “Oh, I’ve been following you round—lost you in Yokaruda,” he laughed shortly. “But I picked up your trail again after those bandits had collared you.” I told him how I had seen a Zeppelin soaring up from one of the mountains two nights ago, how I spotted the place from where it had risen, and thus found the air ship mooring ground, and the vital sand pocket and workings. “But how can the Allies possibly use the purple sand?” I muttered. “They’d have to use force against Greece and Bulgaria, and that we know they wouldn’t do. McKenzie nodded glumly. “It comes to this—the Allies can’t possibly use the pocket of purple sand themselves!” I exclaimed grimly. “We can’t allow Germany to continue to use it for her new weapon,” McKenzie declared. “There’s only one thing to be done. We must destroy it.” “I’ve thought of that,” I assured him. “But how?” For answer, he grinned and showed me that his saddlebags contained several hand grenades. He had stolen them from a police station in Yokaruda, he told me, thinking they might come in handy. That was after he had learned of my capture by the bandits, and had thought he might have to bomb his way in to my rescue. But he had changed his plans on noticing that one bandit was about his build. He had knocked this man out and taken his place. Immediately we formed a plan. If we could get into the valley, we might blow up the whole workings. Two or three bombs bursting inside that purple sand pit would blow it skyhigh, together with any Zeppelins that happened to be anchored to the mooring-masts. A few minutes later, we were ready to set out for the valley. “But there are guards,” I pointed out thoughtfully. “Our best way of approach would be through the wood on the valley’s south side. We’re on the right side now. But there are sure to be one or two sentries lurking in that wood. “Leave them to me!” grinned McKenzie, and we urged our ponies forward. Within an hour, we were approaching the wood on the south side of the valley. Here were more of the long crumbling walls I had seen before. We dismounted behind one and tied our ponies to a bush. McKenzie motioned me to wait. A moment later the moon vanished behind a cloud and he promptly disappeared through a gap in the wall with all the silence of a Red Indian. I don’t know how long I crouched by the wall, waiting, revolver in hand in case of accidents. The moonlight came and went fitfully. Suddenly I heard a few bars of “Oranges and Lemons” whistled softly. The next instant, big McKenzie was back by my side. “All’s clear now!” he whispered. “Fill your pockets with bombs, then come along, Hurry!” We both grabbed bombs from the saddlebags and a moment later, we were creeping through the little wood. We stole through it unchallenged. McKenzie had done his work well. On the farther fringe of the wood I saw the great airships floating almost above us, and once again saw all the buildings, derricks and other machinery. I could see, too, the yawning mouth of the sand pit about a hundreds yards away from us, almost surrounded by big buildings and machinery. It was now past midnight, and all was silent. But I knew that in those buildings and huts were about five hundred men and I could see other guards patrolling some distance away. Next instant we were creeping through the towering machinery. Suddenly we dropped flat as three rifle armed guards came along and passed within a few feet of us. I realised that there were guards everywhere. Even worse was the sight of a wire fence round the pit, doubtless electrified, and previously invisible in the gloom. Let’s get at it before more guards come along,” I whispered. McKenzie nodded and we had not covered two yards before one of the trio who had passed looked back. He saw us, and leaped towards us with a challenging shout. Even as a rifle cracked and a bullet hummed between us. I saw McKenzie rushing at the wire fence, and heard shots from all sides as men roused by the rifle crack came dashing from buildings. Ducking, I followed him as more bullets whizzed at me. Then we heard a crash, glanced back, and saw running men falling all ways as my grenade exploded with a flash and a roar. But almost instantly a siren wailed from somewhere overhead. The whole valley was roused. Everywhere, yelling men were hunting for us; shouts and shots showed that we were seen. I saw black objects hurtle from McKenzie’s hand. He was hurling his grenades over the electrified fence into the sand pit. Joining him, I heaved a couple. Then we turned and ran for our lives. We twisted and dodged through the gaunt machinery and huts, while the whole valley echoed to the din of the siren, the shouting of our pursuers and rifle fire. But, suddenly, mingled with the din, there sounded a series of explosions from away down inside the sand pit. Our grenades were exploding there! At that moment, we were clear of the buildings. Hearing the thuds, we dropped prone. Roars burst from our pursuers. But the next instant the whole world seemed to explode in thunder and flame. From out of the sand pit leapt a fifty-foot column of coloured fire. The earth rocked to the mighty detonations. Vaguely I heard shrieks followed by thunderclaps overhead, then a fearful crashing of things falling. For a nerve racking moment we lay still. Dazed, we staggered to our feet. The moored Zeppelins had vanished, blown to atoms! Nearly all the buildings were wrecked and blazing and over all hung a great cloud of smoke, a huge blazing crater showed where the sand had been, and everywhere tottered the gaunt wreckage of tangled machinery. The only known pocket of the purple sand had been destroyed for ever! McKenzie and I ran from the place, now unpursued. We tore through the wood, reached our ponies, and galloped off. Ahead of us across the mountains lay Greece and a triumphant return to London.

“Well done!” Sir John Saunders nodded to McKenzie and me when he had heard the whole story. “So Germany will never use the purple sand against us, What you two have achieved for the Allies will never be forgotten!”


THE PUZZLE OF THE PURPLE SAND 6 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1703 – 1708 (1958)

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2004