Excerpt from “One False Move” by Robert Macklin ~~Thirteenth~~

picture-OneFalseMove-MacklinRonnie Fortt was all charm, an actor who occasionally made the West End playing character parts. His great ambition was to become an impresario managing his own company and staging melodramas and musical comedies. He spoke with a clipped Oxford accent, habitually carried a black cane with a silver knob, and suffered all the superstitions common to his profession. The down-to-earth Australian found him delightful company as they travelled together to the area where at least two mines had fallen overnight.
Fortt had been allocated a C type that had crashed into the courtyard of an old soldiers’ home. Its nose was buried but it rested quite firmly, with all RMS access areas handily exposed. The local police had finally cleared the grumbling inhabitants to a nearby pub.
‘Piece of cake,’ Hugh ventured.
‘Yes, yes, jolly good,’ the actor said, but his tone and manner belied his words.
Syme started to leave, when Fortt intercepted him. And between stammers and apologies for the next five minutes he exhorted his Australian colleague to take his place. ‘You see,’ he said finally, ‘it’s my thirteenth mine and I can’t chuck this feeling that it’s got my number on it.’
Hugh grinned. ‘Don’t mind in the least, provided you do mine.’ A wave of relief spread across the Englishman’s face, and he set out immediately for Hugh’s mine on the other side of a nearby rise.
Now alone, Hugh quickly discovered that frost around the fuse had frozen to a covering of ice. He had to rub salt around it to lower the temperature and expose the fuse to his ministrations. This done, he pumped up the bulb and set it over the keeper ring and began to turn the stopcock. But as he did so the air started to leak from the bulb. He quickly disengaged it.
‘Every bulb and tap was supposed to be tested daily in a bucket of water,’ he says, ‘but despite that they develop faults due to rough handling.’ And that was exactly what was happening now. His heart was beating furiously.
He went into the home ‘to fetch a pail of water’ and when he returned with it he tested the bulb. No air bubbles escaped; it seemed in perfect working order. So he tried again. This time it held and when he opened the tap he heard the safety pin drop home. But then suddenly the bulb began to deflate, and the abrupt change in pressure could trigger the firing mechanism. It had to come off. He couldn’t extract the keeper ring until he had the pressure stabilised.
Slowly and with shaking hands he disconnected the primitive device and pumped it until it couldn’t take another whisper of air. Then back to the mine, quickly now, brass spanner attached and the keeper ring turned one revolution . . . two, and at last it came away in his hand.
Still working with speed, he delved into the mine and withdrew the fuse and detached the gaine, that most treacherous part of the beast, a thimble-sized cast-iron pot screwed into the bottom of the fuse and containing highly volatile penthrite wax. If it exploded, it could take his arm off. He gently unscrewed it and set it down. Then, with a special screwdriver, he went after the detonator, clicking it into the notch for which it was designed and drawing it swiftly out.
Only then could he finally disengage the bulb and sit back on his haunches in the cold courtyard. His breathing had just returned to normal when from the other side of the hill there was a fearful crack and echo. Ronnie Fortt’s mine had exploded.
Hugh was stunned to total immobility. A thousand thoughts invaded; visions of a deep hole gouged into the earth, the utter annihilation of his friend and colleague . . . but since there was nothing he could do about it, he returned to his mine. He banished all extraneous thoughts; it was the only way . . .
They had warned him there was a real possibility of a booby trap behind the hydrostatic clock and he had to tackle that now. Perhaps that had been Ronnie Fortt’s downfall.
He scrabbled around to the other side of the mine and started unscrewing the face plate. Once it was off he needed to gently move the clock from side to side. If there was a booby trap beneath it, he’d feel its presence. Then he would have two options – a very long ball of twine or a flowerpot burn.
However, when he reached it there was no movement and he drew the clock out and snipped the wires. He burned the gaine and gathered the rest of the detritus for the rating to pack away in the boot of the Humber. He signalled for the car’s return and when it arrived he walked over to get the full story of Ronnie’s demise.
As he approached, the back window wound down and the cheerful actor’s face emerged. Hugh was dumbstruck. ‘Beastly thing,’ Ronnie said, ‘Fuse was damaged. Had to blow it up.’

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2 Comments

Filed under Literature, Military, Non-Fiction

2 responses to “Excerpt from “One False Move” by Robert Macklin ~~Thirteenth~~

  1. Hugh Syme was born in Melbourne, Australia on 20 February 1903, and died on 7 November 1965, aged 62 years. He was one of the first Australians chosen to serve in the Royal Navy’s Rendering Mines Safe section which had been established to disarm unexploded, often booby-trapped, bombs and mines scattered across Britain by German aircraft.
    He was awarded the George Medal in June 1941, followed by a Bar to his G.M. a year later. Then in March 1943, he was awarded the George Cross for his mine-recovery operations.

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