THE planes hustled down attacking the middle ship now obscured by smoke, drenched by waterspouts. The planes flattened out over the masts, their machine-guns blazing, but they had dived into a hail of rifle-fire and one machine hurtled straight on with a terrifying crash into the sea. A roar of "You beauty burst out above the rifle-fire while cheering drifted across to us from the attacked ship.
"Look out, they're coming!" someone yelled as planes came hurtling at us into a hail of lead from which each in turn violently swerved as its bomb fell harmlessly into the water. The row was deafening as attack after attack developed; even revolvers and anti-tank guns were fired against those gleaming demons.
"Whacko," a lad shouted, "see that one slew off! The stokers did it - they're throwing lumps of coal up the funnel."
In the laughter I saw chips flying from the mast while even the wire rigging was frayed and nicked by bullets. The gamest man must have been the man away up there in the crow's-nest, staring at the onrushing planes while shouting advice and waving his arms in encouragement to the gunners below. Plane after plane came diving apparently straight at him. He had no time to be thrilled because everything was happening too quickly. High on that swaying mast he stood, a hurricane of bullets whistling up from the decks passed by bullets hissing down from the planes. The wind from the screeching machines waved back his hair.
On our decks were packed four thousand men shooting upwards, when above the din the piano in the saloon broke out in a rousing tune, a hearty chorus with the Wog-dog energetically barking approval. Thus the boys who had lost their rifles cheered us on with piano and song. A terrifying roar drowned all sound as another Stuka crashed violently into the sea - a lovely, terrible sight. Then came a gust of laughter at the Wog-dog up on the sun-deck, excitedly barking at the waves swallowing the plane.
The hot reception drove the enemy from us and the planes again concentrated on the centre ship which was blotted from sight by spray from a stick of bombs. But the fire there also was too hot and the enemy bombs exploded harmlessly in the water. For hour after hour the planes came in screeching attack until by midday we had shot five down into the sea. A Lucas lamp from the bridge of the centre ship flashed us the signal:
"Congratulations on the volume of small-arms fire. Good show - keep it up!" And we did - with the destroyers at full speed concentrated furies of sound.
When the bright sun was high in the sky the enemy got our ship. The planes came like comets hurtling out of the glare and we could not see them until they flattened out directly above the mast. Even then they failed to hit us but one bomb screeching down raised the hair on my head. It burst overside with an explosion that rocked the ship while a mountain of water belched up over the port quarter. The rigging came clattering down. Had that bomb hit the deck it would have turned us into a charnel-house. Our ship had fought the good fight but in that last split-second decision made one little mistake - we had zigged when we should have zagged. The engines stopped, the firing ceased, an uncanny silence enveloped us. The plane had vanished; it was their last bomb, very fortunately for us.
The troops remained quietly at their posts. The destroyer Defender came racing beside us and a voice called through a megaphone:
"What is the matter?"
"We've run out of petrol!" yelled a soldier.
Above the laughter came a quiet voice from our bridge.
"Ship badly holed. Six feet of water in the engine-room. Engine moved off its mounting."
"We'll take off the troops!" came from the destroyer. Immediate, quiet action followed as the destroyer came alongside. The ship was to be abandoned. In an instant, I was jumping along the forecastle deck, trying to get to Horrie. Only then I noticed the alarming slant of the crowded decks. Already boats were being lowered, rafts thrown overboard. With considerable difficulty I reached the worried Wog-dog.
"Your first shipwreck, Horrie," I said consolingly, as I picked him up, "but we'll see it through, never fear." He wagged that apology of a tail and tried to lick my face as we slid rather than walked down that rapidly growing list to starboard. Troops already were scrambling down on to a destroyer. I dared not let myself think what would happen should the enemy planes return. From the sun-deck to the destroyer was a twenty-foot drop; troops were sliding down ropes while the little destroyer below was sickeningly rising and falling with the swell. The big troopship at times seemed to be leaning right over the destroyer - she was sinking rapidly. I'd discarded my greatcoat and had nowhere to put Horrie and leave my hands free.
"Catch my dog!" I yelled down to the destroyer.
"O.K., Dig! Let him go."
And Horrie dropped through the air towards grinning faces and upheld hands. He twisted and turned but was expertly caught, his little face turning up towards me. Laughing at his fright, I slid down a rope and was grabbed by those below while Horrie tried to lick my face off. I put him out of the way in one of the destroyer's lifeboats then hurried to give a hand with the ropes, down which troops were swarming like lines of monkeys.
In the nick of time I noticed a lifeboat coming down from the troopship; one end was slipping as the destroyer was beginning to rise from the swell. I leaped towards Horrie's lifeboat and snatched him out just as the two boats smashed together. It was a close call for Horrie.
In less than half an hour every man had been taken from the stricken ship while the destroyers were circling the water, picking up swimmers and men clinging to rafts and lifeboats. Then we were steaming full speed for Crete. We wondered why the enemy planes had not returned while we were helpless; probably their base had run out of bombs. They did not catch us up again until we were landing at Suda Bay, Crete. We had lost our rifles on the ship but the destroyers kept the planes off with a terrific barrage while we leaped ashore and ran for it. Horrie was so pleased at being on solid earth he did not race ahead for cover but ran with me, barking and leaping at my flying legs, urged by machine-gun bullets whipping up the ground. We dived into a cutting and gasped for breath while the planes roared past. I was stroking Horrie when the sound of running feet and panting warned me to dodge two hurtling bodies.
"Made it!" gasped Poppa's triumphant voice above Horrie's frantic barking.
"Are you hurt?" gasped Don.
"No. For the love of Mike, don't say this is Horrie!" Horrie was kissing Poppa and Don in turn.
"I thought you'd make it," laughed Don as he petted Horrie.
"Yes, with a little luck. Where are the boys?"
"We don't know, but think and hope they're all right. What with that night on the beach and the crowd and the hurried embarkation and sunken ships, boys in all units have been scattered everywhere."
"There's a transit depot established somewhere," said Poppa. "We'd better set out and find it."
We found it among the hills, just outside the town of Canea. The troops were rolling in in two and threes, and groups of twenties and hundreds. They were a sorry sight; some were practically naked, many were without boots, some appeared to be ragged half soldiers, half sailors. These were the men from sunken ships. Those whose ships had been sunk under them had lost their rifles. Under an olive-tree we enjoyed our first good meal and cup of tea for many days.
"Horrie is eating like a horse," said Don. "You must have starved him."
"The sailors on the destroyer gave the little wretch plenty!" I protested.
But Horrie raced away with wagging tail and frantic barks.
"Hooray!" shouted Poppa. "Feathers and Gordie and Fitz and Murchie! Surely now the devil does look after his own."
It was a happy little party of Rebels that sat down under the olive-trees and feasted and yarned. We'd all had our adventures - plenty. But just weren't they glad to see Horrie.
"If anything happened to him it would mean the end of the Rebels," laughed Feathers.
"The end of the war!" declared Poppa. "The troops simply could not get along without Horrie the Wog-dog!" and he patted the little fellow's head, the quaint little dog as usual lapping up the petting.
"I notice you're admiring our fashion plate," grinned Murchie.
I had been smiling at Feathers. How he did it I don't know but despite all he'd gone through he was moderately neat and tidy - just moderately.
"I think I'd better scrounge a bit more tucker for Horrie," I said, "while the going's good. Keep an eye on him.
I strolled to the cookhouse and the cook was obliging.
While I was returning to the boys, a voice yelled "Hey, Jim, I've got your dog!"
In surprise I turned round to see Les Jeffers walking towards me; he'd joined our unit shortly before we left Egypt for Greece, but his was a different job to ours and we hadn't seen much of him. I wondered what on earth he meant about Horrie. I thought it was some joke.
"I saw the little fellow looking terribly alone in the confusion when the Costa Rica was going down," he said, "so I picked him up and managed to get him aboard a destroyer. I've got him over here; I felt sure I'd run across some of you boys when events sorted themselves out."
I followed him across to some olive-trees, feeling very curious.
"There he is, or rather, she," said Les triumphantly.
For a second I was too astounded to speak. Tied up under a tree, a picture of misery, appeared the living image of Horrie. But in a flash I noted the slightly different expression, the long tail, the ears not quite so perkily pricked and she was "a lady dog".
"Well I'm blessed!" I exclaimed.
"What's the matter?" Les asked, for the little dog lay there gazing at us very timidly.
"It's not Horrie," I said, "but it's almost the dead spit of him; the same breed too, and I used to think there was not another dog in the world like Horrie."
"I'm sorry if I've taken someone else's dog," said Les.
"You haven't; she would have gone down with the ship if you hadn't rescued her. I wonder if she belonged to one of the crew; they were fearfully busy getting us off the ship before she sank. Perhaps her owner was hurt."
"Maybe that's it," said Les.
"Well look here, you'll have all your time taken up looking after yourself. I've an idea we're going to be kept pretty busy on this island. What if I take the dog to the Rebels? There are a crowd of us to look after her until we locate the crew of the ship. They came off in the destroyer too."
"Good-oh," said Les, and I knew he was relieved.
It was the funniest thing out, the meeting of Horrie and Horrietta. Horrie at his fullest tiny height - with stub tail stiff as a ramrod, showing off his paces to the bashful girl dog. Horrie doing all the manly stuff, insisting upon winning her confidence, and then with tail erect trotting away to show her round the place. After just the right amount of masterly coaxing she followed meekly and obediently.
"So that's that!" declared Poppa. "Are you fellows going to set up a menagerie?"
"She's a new addition to the two we started with," grinned Murchie.
"If you mean that for me, my lad - " began Poppa, but the returning planes cut argument short. We dived for cover in time to see Horrie leading the terrified Horrietta into a foxhole.
The countryside around Canea was delightful, with groves of olive-trees and vines and little farms among hills overlooked by mountains.
The island of Crete lies across the eastern Mediterranean as a mountain mass about one hundred and seventy miles long and approximately twenty wide. All land possible is cultivated with numerous olive groves, barley fields, and grape-vines. The frugal Cretans have even levelled terraces out of the sides of the hills which appear like enormous steps covered with a green carpet of vine. The folk were very friendly, and though their island was not well stocked with food they offered us the luxuries of fruit and eggs and wine - meals fit for a king, especially after the hard biscuits and bully beef which had been our fare for so long.
But that this peaceful scene was to be peaceful no longer was hourly obvious. The bombing attacks grew in intensity, mild forerunners of the terrible fighting soon to take place before the enemy overwhelmed Crete.
Horrie and his girl friend got along famously together, and were rarely separated. In the bustle of preparing for defence there were no such events as ordinary parades, but at such times as the battalion marched out on a job Horrie and Horrietta trotted at the head of the column looking very important. But the bombing terrified Horrietta; she was pathetically frightened, trembling violently for long after each raid despite all we could do to soothe her. She had obviously been very well looked after aboard ship and no doubt at each alarm had been rushed down below to some quiet hideout. But here was the open earth, and the crash of the bombs nearly paralysed her with terror.
"If we can't do anything with her," said Poppa at last, "it would be better to put her out of her misery."
Kind hearted old Poppa! We might be forced to do it, might have to draw lots as to who must shoot her. We would not see any of the ship's crew again; we'd heard they were immediately shipped to Egypt to man another ship.
"The Germans are going to land here," said Fitz, "and the fighting will be hellish. Sooner or later we'll have to do something about her."
"Perhaps we might get some Cretan family to take her," said Gordie hopefully.
"That's it!" exclaimed Poppa. "All hands keep an eye out for some Cretan family that's willing and will be kind to a dog."
But Horrietta simply could not get used to the bombing. During the violent tremors Horrie tried his best to soothe her, licking her face and prancing around her and trying to coax her to lie still. Again and again he'd lead her to a foxhole shelter of his very own, trying to explain that she had only to run and dive in on the first sound of the planes.
But Horrietta continued to live in misery during the air raids.