As they crested the beach-head overlooking the shore at Dunkirk, Anne felt her mouth drop open in shock and she had no doubt that her colleagues’ reaction was the same as hers. She had seen plenty of things she had never expected in the nine months that she had been in France but nothing had prepared her for this. There were men as far as the eye could see, the beach seemingly swarming with them and Anne didn’t even want to think about the sheer numbers that had congregated, all of them trying to escape the advances of the rapidly approaching German Army.
Anne and the unit that she was attached to had, until recently, been stationed in Dieppe - which was the primary medical base for the British Expeditionary Force in France - since their arrival in the country in 1939. Other than doing some couriering, there had been very little to do so Anne had spent the time learning some basic first aid from the medics that they were quartered with, and Polish from the members of the Polish Free Army that had attached themselves to the FANY after the Germans had invaded Poland at the beginning of September 1939.
It was hard to believe that it hadn’t even been two weeks ago that they had heard the news that the Germans had invaded Belgium. Mary, their wireless operator, had been all but glued to her equipment as she delivered what seemed like bad news after bad news in an apparently never ending stream. The news of the defeats of the Allies and the constant advances of the German army had them all worried but not overly concerned for their own safety until they heard that, not only were the Germans advancing through Belgium, but that they had carried out a pincer movement and were sweeping north through the Somme valley.
As German Panzer divisions moved into Abbeville, cutting off the BEF regiments south of the Somme, Anne and her colleagues received the order to head north towards Dunkirk, where the Allied Chiefs hoped to evacuate as many troops as possible in a plan they had named Operation Dynamo. It was only 230km from Dieppe to Dunkirk but the roads had been clogged with men and vehicles trying to make it to the coast and safety; no-one wanted to be caught by the Germans. Now, looking out over the beach-head, Anne suddenly realised the magnitude of the task that lay ahead. That it was truly going to be a race against time to get as many men off the beach before the German army closed its pincers and cut them off from any hope of escape. Just for a moment, Anne couldn’t help but wonder what her family would think if they saw her now. It had been almost two years since she had seen them and the same amount of time since she had heard of them, in a letter from Lady Russell begging Anne to reconsider her decision. However, Anne – much to the shock of her family – had dug her heels in and refused.
The middle daughter of Sir Walter and the late Lady Elizabeth Elliot, Anne was something of an oddity amongst her family and couldn’t have been more different to her sisters Elizabeth and Mary if she had tried. Elizabeth, the eldest of the three, was very much her father’s daughter while Mary, the youngest, was … well, Anne was often at a loss as to the how best describe her younger sister, something which could undoubtedly be put down to the fact that their mother had died when Mary was barely out of the nursery. For her part, Anne had adored her mother and had been devastated to lose her so young.
A daughter of the aristocracy – albeit the lower branches – Lady Elizabeth Elliot had been adamant that her daughters would be well-educated and, not only that, but that they would be educated at her alma mater, the Royal School for Daughters of Officers of the Army in Bath and, however sceptical about women being sent away to be educated Sir Walter may have been, he had conceded to his wife’s wishes. However, while he may have agreed to his daughters being educated until their late teens, as far as Sir Walter was concerned, the loftiest ambition his daughters should have was to be married to another member of the British aristocracy. Thus, Anne’s dreams of a chance to go to university had been dashed as, instead, all three girls were sent to the Institut Chateau Beau-Cedre, a finishing school in Switzerland in the hope that it would ensure eligible matches for all three of them.
At the time that Anne left Kellynch Hall, her family home, her father’s hopes had only been partially fulfilled; while Elizabeth and Anne remained single, Mary had married Charles Musgrove, a member of the local landed gentry, and had borne him two sons. Anne had come close to wedded bliss and a happily ever after only for all of her dreams to be scuppered by her godmother, Lady Russell. Anne had had several offers of marriage since, all of them from gentlemen that both her father and Lady Russell would have approved of, but Anne had refused them, steadfast in the knowledge that she loved none other than her lost beau. That had been nine years ago and Anne was still resolutely single.
Anne had been nineteen years old and newly returned to Kellynch from finishing school when she had fallen head over heels in love for a Naval cadet. Frederick Wentworth was twenty-one and newly graduated from HMS Raleigh and visiting his brother Edward, the reverend in nearby Monkford, while he waited to join ship at Devonport and start his Naval career. Anne and Frederick had met at an afternoon garden party, become involved in a rather spirited debate about European politics and fallen madly in love. The two of them had been inseparable from that moment on. They had spent the whole summer walking the countryside together, talking and debating, even stealing more than a few surreptitious embraces and kisses. As it was, Anne had no compunction in accepting Frederick’s proposal of marriage when he had offered it scant days before he departed for Devonport.
Unfortunately for the young couple, their news was not received well by Anne’s family. Her father had refused to give his blessing although Anne hadn’t been too distressed, almost having expected it. It was Anne’s godmother who had persuaded Anne to break the engagement however. Anne wasn’t proud of her actions back then but she had been naïve and had listened to her godmother when she had suggested that maybe it was better for Frederick to establish his career without a young wife on land, whilst also planting doubts as to why Frederick had wanted to keep their budding relationship a secret. When Anne had voiced her concerns and fears to Frederick, tentatively suggesting a very long engagement, Frederick had not reacted well at all and had broken things off completely, departing for Devonport in anger and leaving behind a heartbroken Anne.
In the ensuing years, Anne had shunned relationships and love, instead throwing herself wholeheartedly into the running of Kellynch and, in the process, saving her father from financial ruin. While she did not feel completely fulfilled and was constantly withdrawing further into herself, Anne found herself not only more than capable of doing the work but enjoying it to an extent as well. She wanted more however and came to realise that she wouldn’t get it if she remained at Kellynch and surrounded by all of the memories of Frederick and what could have been. Her opportunity came in 1938 when the Auxiliary Territorial Service started recruiting female drivers. Seizing the chance to do something, Anne had signed up, eager to use the skills that she had learnt running Kellynch.
She had been excited about the new adventure that awaited her but her family had been far from happy. It had been in the ensuing arguments (of which there had been many) that Anne had come to the heart-breaking discovery that her family cared little for her beyond what she could do for them. As she was of age, Anne had taken the inheritance from her mother that she had guarded zealously as well as a few sentimental items and left Kellynch for the ATS. There, she had found a reason to live again and had started to regain the zest for life that her family and life in Somerset had been grinding away little by little. She had stayed with the ATS until September 1939 when war broke out and her years in Switzerland saw her transferred into the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and France under the command of Captain Norris.
Their unit was relatively small. There were eight women including Anne under the command of Captain Norris, the majority of them at the rank of Driver although Mary was there as a radio operator. Several of the women came from the same type of background as Anne did and they were out in France as a result of their education on the continent, often to the disapproval of their family. Out of necessity, being quartered together for the best part of nine months, they were close but Anne was closer to a select few as opposed to the majority. Captain Norris, a somewhat stern and rather brusque woman who, by all reports, had lost her husband in the trenches of France during the Great War, ruled over her unit in a firm albeit fair manner, much as some of the teachers that Anne remembered from her days in Switzerland.
Ordering them over to the side of the road, Captain Norris wasted no time in trying to find out more information while Anne and the rest of their unit stayed where they were, watching the chaos unfold around them. It soon became apparent that one of the biggest problems lay in the fact that, because the docks were so badly damaged, it was necessary for the boats to come right onto the shore to pick up the soldiers and that simply wasn’t possible for the larger Royal Navy vessels. Smaller civilian boats were acting as ferries, coming in as close to shore as they could and taking men out to the larger ships, while some of the more desperate men were abandoning their gear and simply swimming out into the Channel.
“Alright chaps, this is the state of play. From what I’ve managed to glean, there is no official organisation in place; it’s pretty much every man for himself. There will be no reprisals from me or the higher-ups if you choose to go and get on a boat right now.”
Some of the girls whispered amongst themselves and shifted restlessly at Norris’ words and Anne knew that that was precisely what they would be doing. She tuned back in as Captain Norris continued talking.
“However, there are an awful lot of soldiers who have been wounded fighting in Belgium and we’re expecting more every day as the Allied armies continue to withdraw. Those men are going to need help and I would be grateful to any of you who will stay.”
“I’ll stay.” Anne could hear a faint tremor in her voice but she stood tall, chin held high as several other voices echoed hers. Looking around, Anne wasn’t surprised by who else had volunteered; Marianne and Fanny couldn’t have been more different in temperament but both were hard workers and had some first aid knowledge like Anne. Cathy was prone to flights of fancy and was a bit of a timid driver but she’d volunteered to stay and that said a lot.
Captain Norris nodded, lips set in a grim line. “Thank you, ladies. This is much appreciated. All of you, whether you stay or go, I wish you the very best of luck.”
That night, as Fanny and Cathy slept, Anne felt Marianne stir and huddle a little closer before her soft voice broke the silence.
“Do you ever think about him? The man that you were engaged to?”
“Frederick? I used to think about him constantly. It may not be constant but yes, I still think about him.”
“Do you think he’s out there right now, in the Channel?”
“To be honest, I’m trying not to think about it, Marianne. Why?”
“I can’t help but wonder if he’s out there, out on the beach. It’s alright for Fanny and Cathy; they know that their men are safe at Bletchley. It’s different for us. The minute we arrived, the thought sprang into my head and it just won’t leave.”
“Are you talking about Willoughby?”
Marianne had told them all about her headlong fall into love with the dashing John Willoughby who apparently had the rather rakish air of Errol Flynn. Anne prompted the younger woman.
“I … might not have told you all the whole truth about Willoughby. Yes, I did fall head over heels for him but he never really loved me. Not truly. He was rather a cad, actually; I was just a thing to amuse him until someone better came along and she did. She was a Society girl from London, so money and looks as opposed to a poor country bumpkin like me. I found out at a soiree where he proceeded to publicly humiliate me and I did something very silly that resulted in me getting pneumonia.”
“Oh Marianne!” Anne couldn’t help but feel for her. “But who are you thinking of, if it’s not Willoughby?”
“I’m thinking of the Colonel.”
“The Colonel?” Anne raised an eyebrow. This was the first that she’d heard of such a person.
“Colonel Brandon. He’s a landowner near where we live and he knew what Willoughby was like. He tried to warn me but I didn’t want to listen. It was Colonel Brandon who found me when I was stupid. People kept telling me that he was in love with me but I just laughed at them. I couldn’t understand why a forty-one year old decorated war hero would be interested in a silly twenty-three year old girl.”
“No, I was silly. I didn’t see what was in front of me which was a good, kind and intelligent man who loved me enough to let me go after another man, even if that man was the wrong one for me and he could see it. He loved me and I didn’t realised how much I thought of him until I was here in France and now I can’t get him out of my mind. I didn’t realise the truth until it was too late.”
“And what might the truth be?”
“That Colonel Brandon is in love with me – or at least he was – and …. I think I already love him, that I could easily fall in love with him.”
“What makes you think that he could be here?”
“He fought in the Great War, at the Somme and Ypres. He was wounded and won’t ever talk about it but according to Sir John he saw some terrible things and was decorated for bravery. He was technically discharged from service a few years ago but from things that Colonel Brandon said and knowing what type of man he is, I have no doubt that he would have signed up. What if he’s out there right now on that beach? What if he was in Belgium or the Netherlands? What if he was stationed on the Meuse Line?”
“What if he was on one of the early boats and is now safely back in England? What if he never re-joined the Army? You can’t focus on the what-if’s Marianne, you will do yourself no favours. There is nothing that you can do while we’re here. all you can do is your job and search for news when you return to England, however hard it seems. All you can do, all any of us can do is hope.”
Several days later, Anne and the other FANYs who had stayed with Captain Norris were exhausted, but they continued ceaselessly because it seemed as though their task was never-ending. Anne knew that in the two days since the evacuation began, they had got thousands of men on boats but still more arrived, some of them bringing terrible stories with them, of captured British and French soldiers being lined up and shot by the SS or captured by the Wehrmacht. The problem was, not even reaching Dunkirk was a guarantee of safety. The German army may have been called to a halt but German U-boats were still prowling the Channel and the Luftwaffe were consistently strafing the beach and the boats; the amassed soldiers awaiting evacuation were nothing more than sitting ducks.
All of a sudden, the air was filled with the sound of explosions and a huge commotion arose on the beach. Anne’s heart sank. Such a noise couldn’t mean anything good. That sound could only mean one thing; a torpedo from one of the U-boats had found its target. Throwing back the rest of her tea in one gulp, Anne grabbed her now rapidly diminishing medical kit and the keys for the ambulance. Racing down the beach, she asked several men if they knew what had happened but couldn’t get a straight answer. She was about half-way down the beach, zig-zagging through the chaos when a second explosion rent the air. This time, she made sure to grab an officer, someone in the Durham Light Infantry if she’d interpreted his cap badge correctly.
“Bloody Jerries torpedoed HMS Wakeful with 600 below decks. HMS Grafton went to try and pick up any survivors and the bloody bastards have just torpedoed her.”
“Oh god. Are there any survivors?”
The sergeant shook his head, lips pressed together in a thin line. “At the moment? We just don’t know.”
“Thank you.” Hitching the bag further up her shoulder, Anne continued on down the beach until she was standing in the shallows. Several ships were congregated together but, at this distance, Anne couldn’t work out which ships they were.
Anne turned to see a slightly older man stood to her left, a captain if the stripes on his shoulder were anything to go by. “HMS Wakeful?”
“Aye. Near enough lost with all hands. One soldier, twenty-five crew; that was all they could save. Poor buggers. And then the sods got the Grafton while she was trying to collect survivors…”
Anne closed her eyes as the full implications of the captain’s words sank in. This was the third day that the two ships had been evacuating soldiers and Anne knew the numbers that they’d been dealing with. If the Wakeful had gone down with all of the soldiers below decks then, depending on how many they manage to save from the stricken Grafton, they were potentially looking at a thousand dead men.
“If you have an ambulance, Driver, then I suggest you get to it; you’re going to be needed today.”
The captain hadn’t been wrong. None of the days had been easy since they’d arrived in Dunkirk but this day had been the most gruelling. Anne made the same journey more times than she could count as she ferried countless bodies from the beach to where the men were trying to give their former colleagues some last show of respect and dignity by burying them. The Grafton had somehow managed to stay afloat long enough for all of the soldiers who had survived the torpedo attack to be picked up by two other ships so, while the casualty count was high, it could have been worse, which was a relief to them all.
That relief was short-lived.
It was late afternoon when the Luftwaffe appeared in the skies above Dunkirk. Panic, unsurprisingly, immediately spread through the men awaiting evacuation, some of whom had been standing up to their necks in the water for hours. The majority of the soldiers were still carrying their heavy packs of equipment and all of them were bogged down by their sodden uniforms. They were nothing more than sitting ducks as the Luftwaffe made pass after pass, strafing the water and those in it. When the aerial bombardment became too heavy for the soldiers to continue embarkation and for Anne to carry on driving, Anne went to volunteer her services with the medics.
The Royal Army Medical Corps had set up stations all along the approach into Dunkirk and those who had made it into the town itself had set up in the scores of abandoned shops and houses along the seafront. Here, they did the best that they could with the limited supplies that they had. There were hundreds of wounded soldiers, many of them needing operations that it simply wasn’t possible to do; on several occasions, Anne had seen doctors give men screaming for surgery a shot of morphine, bandage them up and then, when they came around, make them believe that they had had the surgery. There were so many times that all Anne wanted to do was cry but she plastered on a smile and did what she could, which was never quite as much as she would like. She supposed, given the circumstances, something was better than nothing.
That evening, when she finally retired for the night in the abandoned building that Captain Norris had claimed for her unit, Anne made no to attempt to stop Denny – one of the Poles – from pouring a generous slug of brandy into her tea. Normally, Anne refused, never having been much of a drinker but tonight she needed the warmth, the jolt, that the alcohol brought. Most nights the unit would chat, sharing stories and their backgrounds, sometimes singing songs but tonight they were silent, minds preoccupied with their own thoughts as well as images of what they’d seen that day seared into their memories. Tucked into a corner of the room, a somewhat musty and scratchy army blanket wrapped around her, Anne sipped at her doctored tea and found her thoughts drifting towards Frederick.
It was hardly the first time that she had thought of him since they had parted ways. Indeed, in the early days he had plagued her thoughts constantly and, while she had put on a brave face as she did her work around Kellynch, she had cried herself to sleep every night for the first year. Anne had been unable to stop thinking ‘what if’ until the almighty rows with her family and the realisation that they would never have accepted Frederick. Joining the ATS and FANY had given Anne a purpose and, while she may no longer dwell so often on the ‘what ifs’, she did find her thoughts drifting unbidden towards Frederick from time to time. Today, it was hardly surprising that he was foremost in Anne’s thoughts.
For the first few years after Frederick had left, Anne had obsessively trawled the Naval lists for any scrap of information that she could; he may not love her anymore but she would know how he was doing and she could content herself with that. Even in the last few years, she had been unable to stop herself from checking the naval lists from time to time. Continuing with that act simply hadn’t been possible since her arrival in France. She no longer knew what rank Frederick was, which ship he was on and where he was posted. For all she knew, he could be out there somewhere in the Channel at this very moment or he could have been one of the multitude that had gone down with the Wakeful earlier today. Anne desperately hoped that he hadn’t been. She may never see Frederick Wentworth again, may never get to tell him that she regretted listening to her godmother, that she still loved him but she needed to know that he was alive in this world.
That night, Anne’s sleep could best be described as fitful. Her mind was full of thoughts not only of Frederick and where he might be but also of the horrors that she’d seen. The air was mostly quiet bar the occasional burst of gunfire as the Wehrmacht pressed in closer. The abandoned building that Captain Norris had claimed for her depleted unit was far enough from the buildings being used by the RAMC that the cries of the wounded soldiers were inaudible, but Anne didn’t have to hear them to know that they were happening, and she couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to them with the evacuation. In the end, Anne woke from a restless doze at a touch to her shoulder with that horrible weary feeling that made you wonder if it had been worth attempting to sleep at all to see Marianne crouching over her.
“They’ve started embarking the men; we’re needed.”
Setting aside her exhaustion, Anne nodded and reached for both her cap and the keys that Marianne held out. “I’m coming.”
That day and the next were more of the same. Soldiers spent hours crouching in the sands in orderly queues hoping to avoid being targets for the seemingly never-ending waves of Stuka bombers before hopefully making it onto a ship while drivers such as Anne, Fanny and Marianne ferried dead bodies and wounded soldiers alike. One good thing was that the British commander-in-chief had given the order for them to start using the East Mole to start embarking soldiers directly onto the destroyers so they were getting more men than ever onto the ships.
It was late on the 1st of June that Captain Norris gathered the remains of their unit together on the pier in front of before the building that they had been using.
“Right, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your work over the last nine months and especially the last few days. It has been exceptional and, for the ladies in particular, beyond the call of duty and is very much appreciated. I am here to tell you that that work is at an end, at least for the moment. Lord Gort has been evacuated and the British rear-guard will be evacuated tomorrow. I am now instructing you to leave before them. Go and get on a boat now, get back to England. It has been a privilege serving with you. Now, gather your things and leave.”
Cathy was quick to comply, Fanny and Marianne following reluctantly as they gathered their scant belongings, bestowing brief hugs to their comrades and making their farewells while Anne remained where she was. Pulling back from their embrace, Fanny kept her hold upon Anne’s elbows and eyed her worriedly as Marianne hovered close by. “You’re not coming?”
Anne flicked her eyes over to Captain Norris, knowing that both Fanny and Marianne would understand. “I’ll be on a boat but don’t wait for me.”
Fanny nodded once and leant in to press a kiss to Anne’s cheek, Marianne following suit before moving off after Cathy. Anne watched them go before steeling herself and turning to face Captain Norris.
“It’s not like you to disobey my orders, Driver Elliot. Why are you not waiting for a boat right now?”
“What about the wounded soldiers? You say the rear-guard leaves tomorrow so what will happen to them?”
“They’re to be left behind.”
“Anne, I like it as much as you do but those are the orders that have come from High Command. Those that can be patched up and get themselves on a ship are to go, all others are to be left behind. The RAMC are drawing lots as to which medics will stay.”
“The Wehrmacht are less than seven miles from Dunkirk, Captain. You’ve heard the stories just as I have. Those that remain or get left behind will become prisoners of war and that is a best case scenario!”
“The men are aware of this and they will continue to do their duty to the best of their abilities regardless of what awaits them.”
“Very well. Then what of you, Captain Norris? When will you be leaving?”
“Tomorrow, with the rear-guard.”
“Then I shall leave with you tomorrow.”
Captain Norris looked as though she were about to protest but Anne simply raised her chin stubbornly. She had defied her family; Captain Norris didn’t scare her.
“If we were officially in the army I would be writing you up for insubordination but luckily for you, we’re not. Very well. We both leave tomorrow. If you insist on being here then get back to work. God knows, there’s plenty still left to do.”
The following day, the day of their evacuation, dawned with the news spreading like wildfire amongst those waiting that there were going to be no evacuation attempts until nightfall. The aerial bombardment the previous day, both from the artillery and the Luftwaffe, had been so heavy and had affected the process that it had been deemed too risky and the visibility wasn’t good enough for the RAF to provide cover. Instead, they would evacuate under the cover of darkness and hope to get the entire British rear-guard and as many French and Dutch soldiers to safety before dawn broke. So, Anne and Captain Norris occupied themselves by helping the medics as best as they could before making their way down to the waterline as dusk broke and evening fell. The embarkation was as orderly as it had been throughout the entire operation but there was now a desperation that hadn’t been there previously. They hovered, a little uncertain as to where they should go before a distinctly female voice called out to them.
“You ladies look as though you could use a ride.”
Looking out to sea, they saw a small pleasure boat by the name of The Saucy Arethusa idling some ten feet from the beach. At the helm was a good-looking woman in her late-forties decked out in sensible, warm clothing. Seeing that she had caught their attention, she jerked her head towards the back of the boat. “Jump in and we’ll get you out of here.”
Anne and Captain Norris wasted no time, wading through the water until it was up to their chests and then clambering aboard somewhat clumsily. They were collapsed in a somewhat soggy pile, crumpled in the bottom of the boat when they felt the small engine roar to life beneath them and the boat started to turn towards the Channel.
“There’s blankets and dry clothes back there although they’ll be a bit big for you. Get warm and we’ll do the introductions when you’re not soaked to the bone.”
Anne did as she was told before standing at the back of the boat, watching as the coast of France slowly slipped away. She felt Captain Norris squeeze her shoulder in silent support before they moved to thank their unlikely saviour.
“Thank you for your help, Mrs …?”
“Croft, Mrs Sophia Croft but please, call me Sophy. And who might you two ladies be?”
“Captain Norris and Driver Anne Elliot of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.”
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you both. Welcome aboard The Saucy Arethusa. It was an anniversary present from my husband years ago and the name was his idea of a joke. He’s in the Navy, an Admiral, and my youngest brother is a Captain; they were adamant that I learn how to sail and, lo and behold, I fell in love with it. When they put the call out for boats, there was no question of me coming. Blasted Navy wanted one of their men to captain her but I said that she was my ship and I would captain her. Not ashamed to say that I name dropped to get past them; amazing what happens when the Admiral of the Fleet was at your wedding.”
Anne laughed in delight at that; she couldn’t help but be amazed (and impressed) by the spunk that Sophy showed. “Well your presence is much appreciated, thank you.”
An hour later, Captain Norris was curled up at the back of the boat seemingly fast asleep but Anne had stayed awake, wanting to keep Sophy company as she was somewhat fascinated by the older woman. Indeed, they hadn’t stopped talking for the last hour.
“And how about you Driver Elliot? Will you be returning to your family, wherever they hail from?”
“Somerset. And no, I won’t be returning home. We’re … estranged.” It felt strange to talk to a complete stranger about her family but also somewhat cathartic. Anne had shared her tale with Fanny and Marianne but this felt different. “They hated me signing up for the ATS in 1938, tried to talk me out of it. There were earlier issues with an engagement that they encouraged me to break off as well but we haven’t spoken since. I doubt they know that I joined the FANY, let alone that I’ve been in France.”
“Where will you go?”
“I bought a small flat in Gracechurch Street with the money I got from my mother’s inheritance. I’ll go back there and wait for what comes next.”
“You’ll stay with the FANY?”
“As long as they’ll have me, yes. I need to be doing something; I can’t just sit around idly.”
“Good girl. There’s a Thermos full of cocoa down there – I laced it with brandy – pour us both a cup, why don’t you? I think we could do with it.”
The journey across the Channel took longer than it should as the ships moved in convoy, hoping that the darkness would give them cover against both the planes of the Luftwaffe and the U-boats that prowled the waters. Despite her attempts to stay awake, Anne drifted off at some point mid-conversation and only woke as Sophy manoeuvred the Arethusa into Ramsgate harbour.
“We are, a few more minutes and then you’ll be back on English soil. You’ll want to wake your Captain.”
Anne did as she was told and then stood at the bow, watching as Sophy quickly brought them in to dock, mooring the little boat expertly. The harbour here was, as at Dunkirk, swarming with soldiers but the mood was entirely different. As opposed to the despair and sorrow of that port, here the soldiers were jubilant at their survival, overwhelmed with relief at being back on home soil. Anne and Captain Norris left the boat and gave their thanks to their rescuer.
“Your thanks are unnecessary; I’m just glad that I could help. Now, follow the crowds; they’re providing food and drink for all of you then packing you on trains back towards London.”
Captain Norris nodded and headed off up the harbour front in the direction that Sophy had indicated while Anne hesitated a few seconds more. “Thank you, Sophy. It was a pleasure, and a privilege to have met you. We are truly grateful for your assistance.”
“The privilege was all mine but we will see each other again before long, Anne Elliot. I have no doubt of that.”
Anne lasted little more than a week alone in her little flat in Gracechurch Street before she felt like climbing the walls out of boredom. She had spent a day being debriefed whereupon she was thanked for her service and informed that she wasn't being discharged but they needed time to work out where best she could serve. Anne could read between the lines well enough. They may have promoted her to Lance-Corporal for the work she had done but the fact remained that they didn't really know what to do with her because of her sex. It had been fine for the government to send women to France when it was a Phoney War and they didn't truly believe anything would happen but now that Normandy and Brittany were full of German soldiers and the 500,000 tonnes of ammunition the BEF had been forced to leave behind? Well that was a totally different story.
Anne was just at the point of going out to try and see if she could locate Captain Norris or anyone from FANY when there was a knock at the door, something which was practically unheard of. Anne had written to her family to inform them of her new address but, with a young family, Mary never visited London and Sir Walter, Lady Russell and Elizabeth would never be seen dead in Cheapside. Mrs Gardiner who lived three doors down would occasionally pop round with leftovers or excess baking before Anne had left for France but Anne wasn't even sure if the Gardiners knew that she was back. Rather hesitantly, Anne opened the door to see the most surprising - and unexpected - visitor; Sophy Croft.
"Mrs ... Sophy! What are you doing here? How do you know where I live?"
"Never ask a lady to reveal all her secrets, my dear. May I come in? I come bearing cake..."
"Oh! Of course, please come in. I'll put the kettle on."
"Perfect. I'll just make myself comfy at the table."
Somewhat perplexed at the sudden arrival of her rescuer from Dunkirk, Anne set about making tea and producing plates for the cakes that her guest had brought. Bringing the tea pot to the table, Anne took a seat and selected a cream-filled extravaganza when prodded although she toyed with it rather than eating it as they waited for the tea to brew in awkward silence. Finally, when Anne had poured them both a cup of tea, Sophy spoke.
“I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m here, Anne. I may call you Anne, yes? I wasn’t at Dunkirk simply because I had a boat that could be used. I work, just as my husband and my brothers. I’m a graduate of Girton College, Cambridge even if they couldn’t officially give me my degree. Since the start of the war, I’ve been working for Section D under Major Lawrence Grand. We look at … alternative methods of fighting the enemy; sabotage, infiltration, propaganda. There are rumours that we will be merged with another department in the next few days with the intention of creating a single organisation. We are going to need agents, people that we can put into occupied Europe to help fight the Nazis from the inside. I want you as one of those agents.”
“Me? What makes you think that I would be a good agent? You haven’t spent more than a few hours with me.”
“Those few hours told me everything that I need to know. Besides, your file at FANY wasn’t hard to find. You’re strong, determined, fluent in French and reasonably fluent in Polish. You have some medical training, you can drive, you can probably operate a wireless and I have no doubt that at least one of the men that you worked with taught you how to fire a gun. You have every single quality that we will be looking for. I’m not going to lie to you, Anne. It will be dangerous work and there is a strong possibility that you will die in service to your country but the work you would be doing will be essential.”
“I … I don’t know what to say.”
“Then don’t make a decision now, think about it. If you agree, you’ll undertake training first at Arisaig in Scotland then Beaulieu and Altrincham before you’re deployed in the field. If you decide that you want to help but not as an operative then there are countless positions that could be found for you. Take a couple of days to think it over and when you’re ready, you can find me at the Metropole in Trafalgar Square. I must be off but keep the cake.”
Anne could do nothing but sit at the table as Sophy breezed out of the room, as though she hadn’t just dropped a decision of such a magnitude on Anne’s shoulders. An operative in Europe? Her? Anne couldn’t fathom such a task, didn’t feel as though she was capable of something like this. Yet, she wanted to do something, needed to do something.
She had decisions to make.
A month after she had found Sophy Croft on her doorstep, Anne walked up the steps to Arisaig House to find a grinning Sophy waiting for her. Sophy hugged her tightly before taking one of the suitcases from Anne’s hand and leading her upstairs, into a room that was already occupied by a rather statuesque blonde.
“Anne Elliot, meet Emma Woodhouse. The two of you had better become friends quickly. Not only are you going to be sharing a room and training together, you’ll be partnered together when we send you out into Europe. I’ll leave you ladies to get acquainted.”