Chapter 1: Anne - 1940
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.”
Chapter 2: Emma - 1940-41
Emma looked up with interest as the door to the room opened. Arisaig House had been quiet ever since she had arrived and she hoped that this might be the woman that she would be sharing a room with. The first person that she saw was Sophy Croft who was accompanied by a young woman who looked of a similar age to Emma. Emma smiled and rose to her feet as Sophy spoke.
“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 two to get acquainted.”
Emma watched the new arrival with unbridled curiosity as Sophy excused herself, leaving them alone together. The young woman may look the same age as Anne but the two of them were each other’s polar opposite where appearances were concerned. Emma, being rather tall, was often described as willowy and had porcelain fair skin, blue eyes and golden blonde hair. This new girl – Anne – was of a height with Emma and they shared the same pale complexion but where Emma was fair, Anne was dark with rich brown hair and fathomless dark eyes. With the way that she held herself, she could have been one of the multitude of girls that Emma had attended finishing school with but, looking closer, there was a quiet strength that intrigued Emma and hinted that this woman wasn’t all that she seemed. Then again, if there wasn’t more to her she wouldn’t have been recruited by the SOE.
“Anne, was it? I’m Emma, Emma Woodhouse.” Holding out her hand, Emma was pleased by the firm handshake that she received.
“Yes, Anne Elliot. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“No, trust me, the pleasure’s all mine. I’ve been the only woman here for the last two weeks so you have no idea how glad I am to see you. You’re one of Sophy’s recruits? How did she find you?”
“I was at Dunkirk; she rescued myself and my Captain and sailed us back to England.”
Emma smiled inwardly; there was the inner core of strength that she had detected. Eager for more gossip and to know more about her companion, she leaned forward. “You were in France with the BEF?”
“I was. I joined the ATS in 1938 then transferred to the FANY in 1939 and was sent out to France with the BEF. When the Germans invaded, we moved up the coast from Dieppe to Dunkirk where we assisted with the evacuation. My Captain and I were evacuated with the British rear-guard.”
“So what rank should I be referring to you as?”
Anne chuckled. “Technically, I’m a Lance-Corporal but Anne will do just fine.”
“Then it’s Emma.”
“How about you, Emma? Are you one of Sophy’s recruits as well?”
“No, not me. My brother-in-law is in the War Office. He knew that I wanted to do something but my father is … somewhat overprotective and wouldn’t hear of me joining the ATS or the WAAF or just about anything. My mother died when I was a baby and, even though I have an older sister, it was me who bore the brunt of my father’s protective instincts. Anyway, as a result of my education, John suggested the SOE and, well, here I am. He’s telling my father than I’m working for the War Office at Bletchley or somewhere similar so that he doesn’t worry about my safety quite so much. John’s brother, George, is an old family friend and he’s in the Royal Air Force so my father is worrying about him enough already; he doesn’t need to be worrying about me as well. How about your family? Do they know that you’re no longer with FANY?”
Anne was silent and Emma worried that she had overstepped the mark and offended Anne before they had even had the opportunity to become friends. Just as she opened her mouth again to apologise, Anne spoke in a quiet voice.
“We’re estranged. My family stopped talking to me when I joined the ATS in 1938. You say that your father would be worried by you doing this job; mine would be horrified that I would rather do this job – do any job – than get married. I am nothing but a disappointment to my family, having been engaged to an unsuitable gentleman, even if I later cowed to their wishes and broke the engagement, before declining several offers from apparently acceptable gentlemen, and that was before I had the gall to run away to the ATS. No, for better or worse, I have no family; it’s just me.”
Emma shook her head; she couldn’t believe that Anne’s family would be so callous or that Anne could be so matter of fact about it all. Even just the thought of her family treating her in such a manner had Emma shuddering in horror. Her heart aching for Anne, Emma plastered a smile on her face. “Well, that simply won’t do. I’ll just have to adopt you. You can be an honorary Woodhouse.”
“Do I get a say in the matter?”
“Not in the slightest. Now, if I give you a hand to unpack and then we should be able to see what mysterious substance we have for dinner this evening. The food isn’t bad per se but it’s hardly gourmet cuisine.”
“Emma, I’ve been in France for the last nine months; I’m not sure I can even remember what gourmet cuisine is.”
“Well that’s okay then.”
Less than an hour later, when the two women arrived in the room designated as the mess they were the recipients of more than a few curious looks from the assembled men, particularly the new arrivals, but both Anne and Emma had ignored them and simply continued to share details of their lives, both of them tacitly agreeing to avoid speculation of their upcoming training.
Their training had started in earnest the day after Anne’s arrival and the trainers didn’t care that Anne and Emma were women; they were subjected to the same gruelling regimen as the men and, as exhausted as they were at the end of each and every day, the two women were grateful for that. After all, what lay ahead of them would not be easy.
Arisaig House was just one of the hunting lodges around Invernesshire that had been appropriated by the SOE to house what were termed as their Group A schools, where the paramilitary training for agents was carried out. Here, prospective agents would complete three weeks of training before moving to Ringway, Manchester for parachute training and then the Group B schools based in Beaulieu, New Forest which was, essentially, a finishing school for spies. However, before Ringway and Beaulieu, they had to make it through basic training at Arisaig.
The training was gruelling. There was no other word for it and Anne and Emma were not exempt because of their sex. The very first thing that they had to do was a hard slog over the unforgiving and unwelcoming terrain of Invernesshire. When they had finally completed the course, having crawled on their stomachs and trekked up mountains, both women were tired, aching and covered in both cuts and bruises but proud of themselves for having finished and not only having finished but having done so ahead of several of their male compatriots. Their training didn’t stop at being able to complete the assault course. They were also required to do physical training as well as train in silent killing, weapons handling, demolition, map reading, compass work, field craft, elementary Morse code and raid tactics. Gun handling, in particular, was one element of their training that was never neglected. They were constantly drilled on both shooting a variety of weaponry as well as how to assemble and disassemble guns from rifles to revolvers. The preferred gun of the SOE was the Sten gun but agents were trained to use all sorts of firearms and each agent was issued with a Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife for close combat before they were deployed.
Despite being trained in each of these disciplines, both Anne and Emma found their own niche, areas in which they excelled. For Emma, it was Morse code and it was soon established that Emma would be the radio-communications expert when they were deployed. This came with its own set of risks beyond those of being an SOE operative in a foreign country. As a wireless operator, the agent would be beholden to sending messages at fixed frequencies as well as at fixed times and intervals which made them sitting targets for the Germans, something that the research department and heads of the SOE were working to change. Anne’s area of expertise, much to the surprise of both Anne herself and her trainers, was demolition and sabotage. She quickly took to the variety of explosives that were used by agents and the different kinds of detonating devices that were available to them, surpassing all of the other trainees in the training exercises both in planning and execution.
It was both of these things, as well as the fact that Anne and Emma had also proved themselves capable of completing all of the physical requirements meant that they earned the grudging respect of the men that they were training. At Arisaig, the potential agents were divided into lodges based upon where they would be eventually sent – provided that they passed the training. So, all of those agents destined for Poland were accommodated together, all of those for Scandinavia together and so on, with those agents destined for France being the most numerous. There were six British agents intended for operations in Poland; Anne, Emma and four men. The men had initially been more than a little scornful of the two women, convinced that they wouldn’t even make it through the initial course, only to have to retract their comments when Anne and Emma not only completed the course but left two of the men trailing in the Scottish mud.
Three weeks after Anne’s arrival at Arisaig, the two women left, heading for their parachute training at Altrincham near Manchester. They had passed the informal test where test where they had been given strong liquor and questioned to test their level of commitment to the SOE. With that accomplished, they – and the other candidates that had been successful – had moved onto the final test that would determine whether they would move onto their parachute training; the small matter of a ninety-six hour exercise involving a target recce and then an attack on said target. It had been the most gruelling thing that they had done as part of their training but they had managed to complete it.
Parachute training awaited them and beyond that? Europe.
After everything that they had just done as part of their training at Arisaig, parachute training at Altrincham almost easy. The easiest way to get agents into Europe was to parachute them in at night from a Lysander plane so all agents needed to know how to parachute. Their training took place at the SOE training school in Altrincham while the jumps themselves were undertaken at RAF Ringway near Manchester. In order for them to gain their parachute certification, agents had to undertake five jumps – four daylight jumps and one night-time jump. With these jumps and their certification under their belts, Anne and Emma moved onto the Beaulieu Estate in the New Forest and finishing school, albeit a very different one to that which they had already experienced in Switzerland.
Here, they received more detailed training to that which they had already received at Arisaig. The estate was divided into sections and while they all received training in certain areas, they then received further specific training. All agents received training in enemy organisation, identification and uniforms as well as forgery, reconnaissance, disguise, survival and criminal skills which included both house and safe breaking as well as burglary. The one section of training that both women struggled with – although they completed their training – was silent killing, a subject taught by E.A Sykes, one of the developers of the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife that all agents were issued with. Skyes and Fairbairn had both served as Royal Marines and then with the Shanghai Military Police where they had developed the knife in response to all of the close combat fighting that they had done. Their knife had become standard issue and while Sykes taught the British SOE agents, Fairbairn travelled to American where he was a trainer at Camp X. After this training, the work that the two women did diverged and became more specific. While Emma did more work on codes, ciphers and secret inks, Anne did modules on political warfare and unattributable sabotage.
Finally, when their trainers were satisfied that they had learned everything that they could be taught after a forty-eight or seventy-two hour exercise, they were given their forged documents as well as clothes and belongings that would allow them to blend in with the natives. They were also given two types of pills; Benzedrine to keep them awake and then the L-pill, which was their suicide pill in case their cover was blown. Once that was done, their departure was imminent.
Emma breathed a sigh of relief as the door to their safe house opened and closed quietly, Anne slipping through the gap as silent as a mouse. As she moved around the small kitchen, making a pot of the doctored coffee that they all subsisted on, the door opened and closed at irregular intervals a further four times to admit the rest of the team that Anne had been working with for the last few days. She had been out with a team sabotaging railway lines that lead north, out towards the forced labour camp of Treblinka. The group of five – two of them men that Emma and Anne had trained with, two Poles from the ZWZ and Anne as the explosives expert – had been using a variety of methods to sabotage the lines and thus, hopefully, divert the flow of Poles being forced north into the labour camp by the Germans.
The two women and three of the men that they had trained with – one had failed the final test at Beaulieu and had succumbed to the seduction technique of his examiner – had parachuted into the Kampinos Forest, west of Poland about almost three months ago. There, they had buried their parachutes and jump suits before they were met by their contact. Their cell was made up of the five British agents and five men from the ZWZ and their remit was to pass information from the Jewish ghettos that were rapidly being established back to the government-in-exile in London as well as sabotaging the Nazi’s in any way that they could.
They had been lucky so far in that they hadn’t lost any of their cell although they knew that they were constantly at risk. Emma and Szymon – her Polish counterpart – were constantly on the move around Warsaw, utilising the Kampinos Forest and Kabaty Woods whenever they could to send their encrypted messages back to London in the hope of avoiding detection. Anne and her team tended to work under cover of darkness, setting explosives and doing all they could to derail German troop and ammunition movements. When they weren’t doing that, they were smuggling weapons and information as well as aiding the home resistance in any way that they could. All of them were well-trained and as careful as they could be but everything they did, they did so at the risk of not only their own life but the lives of all those in the cell as well. In all honesty, Emma knew that their luck would only hold out for so long. She knew the numbers – they all did - and how long wireless operators, in particular, lasted in the field. Already, she and Szymon had lasted almost twice as long as most operators in France. All it took was one person who knew their location, scared for their life or that of their family, to talk and that was it.
It was simply a matter of time.
“Wake up! We’ve been betrayed.”
The words were hissed in Emma’s ear as she was shaken awake. Looking across the room, she saw Anne staring blearily at her having just been woken in the same manner.
Moving swiftly, slightly more awake, Emma and Anne dressed and made their way downstairs to where the rest of the group had gathered.
“We do not have much time but what you need to know is that we have been betrayed. I have received intelligence that the SS will stage a raid at dawn. We need to leave and split up now to make sure that we’re safely out of the way. God willing, the information we’ve been given isn’t wrong.”
Nobody panicked; they all knew that they had been living on borrowed time for the last eight months and this had all been an inevitability. Everyone had gathered their things and started to make their escape singly and in pairs. After the first five had gone, Emma had noticed that Anne was lingering for whatever reason, Emma didn’t know.
“Anne, go. Get out of here. Now, while you still can.”
“Emma, no. I’m not leaving you.”
“You have to; we have to split up and we can’t afford to waste time. This is what we trained for, Anne. Think about it; with your colouring, you’re going to struggle to get across Europe without them taking you in for questioning but I can blend in more easily. My German is fluent thanks to that year in Berlin after my debut and they made sure that I had a set of German papers, I’ll be fine. Head south for Italy and I’ll meet you back home.”
Anne’s tears were spilling over onto her cheeks and Emma’s own eyes were brimming with moisture, especially when Anne reached out and took her by the hand. “You can’t promise that.”
Emma took a deep breath. “No, I can’t promise that but this is what we signed up for.”
“You’ve turned out to be the sister that I always wanted.”
Emma lost her battle against tears at Anne’s words and had to suppress a large sob. “You were the other sister I never knew I wanted.”
Emma leaned forward as Anne nodded and hugged her friend tightly, kissing her firmly on both cheeks as Anne reciprocated the gesture, clinging back just as tightly as Emma. “Take your papers and go. I’ll see you in England.”
She watched as Anne brushed away the tears and straightened her shoulders. “I’ll see you in England. Take care, Emma.”
Emma watched as Anne gathered her things and then set off into the night with just one fleeting glance behind her. Emma wasted no time in gathering her own things and making sure that her forged papers were in order. She had put on as brave a face as she possibly could for Anne but Emma was terrified. This might have been what they trained for but there was a difference in being trained for it and having to do it. In truth, she wasn’t sure which of them had the harder journey ahead of her. Yes, Emma had to get across the entirety of Nazi-occupied Germany in order to make it to the coast before trying to get a boat back to England but Anne had an equally perilous journey ahead of her, having to cross both Czechoslovakia and Austria, both of which were under German occupation, before she reached Italy. As soon as Anne had disappeared out of sight, Emma slipped away herself into the darkened streets of Warsaw.
Emma battled the urge to cry as the English coast came into view. In some ways, this last stretch of the journey had been the hardest. Her German papers had done their job well. Other than a rather nerve-wrecking few hours held up at the Polish-German border, where she had been detained and thoroughly questioned, Emma had made slow but relatively unhindered progress across the continent. It had been once she reached Holland that they had perhaps done their job too well. Combined with her looks, she had had difficulty persuading the Dutch resistance that she wasn't a German spy but was actually an SOE operative. She had spent hours arguing with them while they examined her papers over and over before they had finally agreed to take her to the local agent. That had been simpler as Emma had been easily able to answer questions that verified she was who she was. The agent, Thomas, was quite a few years older than Emma and she didn't recognise him from those that had been at Arisaig or Beaulieu with her and Anne. He had listened to Emma's tale with interest before agreeing to help her get back across the Channel back to England but warned that it would take time to put things in motion. In the meantime, he had arranged for Emma to have a change of clothes and some food which she had all but fallen on, demolishing it with almost embarrassing speed.
Food hadn’t been overly plentiful but between them all – and with their contacts – the cell had never truly wanted for food. It hadn’t been quite so easy once they had been betrayed and she was on the run. Emma had managed well enough while she was still in Poland and had enough zloty that she could use to barter with; what she had managed to get hold of wasn’t always good but it was at least food and there was enough or it, or near enough. It wasn’t the same once she crossed the border and was into Germany. There, she was forced to steal what food she could or forage for it as she stuck close to forests and woodland in an attempt to avoid unnecessary questioning. This slop that she had just been presented with was the best meal she had had since that night in Warsaw.
It had been hours later, while hidden in the cabin of a small fishing boat, wearing a thick jumper, trousers and sou’wester that all emitted a distinctly fishy odour, that Emma allowed her thoughts to drift to Anne. Emma had thought of her friend numerous times over the four weeks that they had been parted but hadn't really been able to worry about her friend; every inch of Emma's being had been focused on her own survival. Had Anne made it to safety? Even if she had made it out of Warsaw and, by some miracle, through Czechoslovakia and Austria there was no guarantee of her finding safety in Italy, not while it was controlled by Mussolini. All Emma could do was hope and pray that whatever luck had carried Emma through Europe, had been with Anne as well and that they would see each other again one day.
Stepping off the boat in Ramsgate harbour, Emma thanked her saviour profusely even as he waved her off and made preparations to head back to Belgium. As they had made the crossing at night to minimise their chances of detection, the docks were still relatively busy with fishing boats crewed by former fishermen who had come out of retirement and were willing to risk the U-boats in the Channel. Making her way down the sea wall and trying not to get in the way, Emma made a few enquiries and found one man willing to give her a lift to Billingsgate Fish Market, even though she had nothing to offer in return. Emma had accepted gratefully, resigning herself to smelling of fish for a little longer.
The journey passed quickly enough as Emma’s driver for this portion of the journey – Bob as he introduced himself – was more than happy to chat away about his family; his son and grandson were both in the Navy and somewhere in the Med. He gave her half his sandwiches and a good portion of tea from a battered Thermos, waving off her protests by confiding that he’d stop for jellied eels on his way home. By the time that Emma made it from Billingsgate to SOE Headquarters on Baker Street, it was early afternoon and Emma was flagging. Entering the building, Emma gave her name at the security desk and was about to steel herself for an interminably long wait when she saw the welcome sight of Sophy Croft moving across the lobby.
“Emma? My god! Let her through man; she’s one of ours. What happened? The entire Warsaw group went black.”
“We were betrayed.”
“Right, let’s get you debriefed. Come this way…”
Four hours later, the other officer that Sophy had brought in left, leaving Emma feeling like a wrung-out rag. They had guided her through everything that had happened in minute detail, taking notes on every single thing, no matter how trivial it seemed.
“Do you have anywhere to stay tonight, Emma?”
“Not really. Although I suppose I can always go to my brother-in-law’s.”
“No, you’ll come home with me. Hot bath, stiff drink, good food and proper sleep. We’ll get you sorted.”
Emma smiled weakly. “Thank you, Sophy.” Emma hesitated before her next question. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard from Anne?”
“No, I’m sorry. There’s been no word from her since we lost contact with your group.”
Chapter 3: Knightley 1940-1941
George Knightley couldn't help but be horrified as he saw the destruction that had been wreaked upon London for the first time in person. He had known about it, of course, both from his correspondence with John and with the news, but it was one thing to know what had happened and something different altogether to actually see it. London had been bombed incessantly for 57 days, the fires from the burning buildings acting as a guide for the second and third waves of Luftwaffe each night. Great swathes of the city were reduced to rubble even now, several months after the bombings had stopped to allow Hitler to focus on his Russian campaign. Knightley supposed that no attempts had been made at rebuilding as no-one was sure if the bombers would return and besides, not only were there more important jobs to be done but there simply wasn’t the manpower to do any rebuilding.
Knightley had been expecting it but, even so, it sent a pang of sadness through him. He may have spent his formative years at Donwell Abbey and then at boarding school but there had always been regular family visits to London and he had always loved the trips. Now, huge parts of the city lay in rubble and, as he passed through, he couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that the great white dome of St Paul’s Cathedral still dominated the London skyline, somehow unscathed despite the devastation that surrounded it.
As he drove down Fleet Street and onto the Strand the disparity between the East End and the West End was plain to see. The East End and the docks had taken the brunt of the heavy bombardment while the West End hadn’t been hit as badly. It was far from unscathed and all of the windows bore crosses of tape but familiar sights like The Savoy were still standing and the streets were full of people, even if all of them carried a gas mask box slung over their shoulders.
Before long, he was passing through Trafalgar Square onto Whitehall, bringing the car to a halt in a side-street near the War Office. Getting out of the car, he straightened his uniform after the drive from Biggin Hill, checked that his papers were close to hand and donned his cap. As expected, he had barely taken a handful of steps inside the squat, concrete block that housed the war office when he was asked for his papers and to state the reason for his visit.
“Wing Commander George Knightley. I’m here to see my brother John Knightley; he’s expecting me.”
His papers were scrutinised and a phone call made before Knightley was handed back his documents and ushered past the security desk by an armed guard, who escorted him up several floors in the lift until they reached a door, outside which was a desk with a pretty brunette sat behind it.
“Wing Commander Knightley to see Mr Knightley, Violet.”
“Thank you, Corporal. Mr Knightley is expecting you, sir; please go in.”
Knightley nodded his thanks, removing his cap before rapping on the door, not bothering to wait for his brother to reply before he opened it. John was sat behind the desk but stood up, a smile spreading across his face as he saw who was at the door.
“John.” Knightley was halfway across the room in just a couple of strides, meeting John in the middle as they embraced in a huge bear hug. It had been a long year and furloughs were hard to come by, even more so for a Wing Commander. They had written letters and spoken on the phone but it wasn’t the same and Knightley had missed his brother sorely. After squeezing John tighter once more, Knightley pulled back from the embrace although he kept hold of John’s arms.
“So, are you ready to go or do you have to finish anything? I’m starving and desperate for a good lunch. What’s that look for?”
“Look, George, I'm really sorry but I'm not going to be able to get away. I've been called in for a meeting with Eden but you'd already left when I phoned the base."
"Not a problem, these things happen." Knightley tried to hide his disappointment, after all, what he'd said to John was entirely true. But, having spent the better part of the last year flying endless sorties and watching far too many men get killed, he had been really looking forward to lunch - and indeed the weekend - with his younger brother. Still, the Foreign Secretary (and former Secretary of State for War) took precedence over Knightley and his feelings.
"We’ll have the rest of the weekend; I’ll make sure of it. As for lunch, well you could always take Emma; the two of you used to get on awfully well and I'm sure she'd love to see you."
"Emma? Emma Woodhouse? She's in London? I would have thought her father would have wanted her at Hartfield, as far away from all of this as possible."
"He did, but you remember how stubborn Emma can be. Isabella and the children are at Hartfield, Emma's up here. I think she's in the office today; let me give her a ring."
As John made his phone call, Knightley let his thoughts drift to the person that they had been discussing. Emma Woodhouse. She had to be, what, 29 or thereabouts these days; ten years younger than him. He had held her at her christening and everyone had laughingly commented on how she had screamed her lungs out in her sister’s arms but quietened the minute that Knightley had held her. Some nineteen years later, he had been her escort to Queen Charlotte’s Ball as well as shepherding her around a whole host of other events as part of her first London season.
In some respects, he wasn't surprised that Emma had found a way to be of use to the war effort; she had always been intelligent and strong-minded - opinionated, some had said - with an almost blunt honesty that he had always found equal parts charming and frustrating. No, whatever her upbringing and indeed, despite it, Emma was not one to sit around and do nothing. What he was surprised by was that her father had allowed her to not only work but to leave Hartfield. As much as he loved the Woodhouse family - and he loved them as though they were his own, regardless of the wedding vows that now joined them - there was no denying that they had cosseted and coddled Emma no end. Growing up, she had wanted for nothing and her every whim was indulged. In an attempt to counter that, it had been Knightley who had taken the part of stern companion and moral compass in her life, something that he felt was welcomed by Emma and which was aided by Emma's own sweetness which tempered the indulgence somewhat. He was brought out of his thoughts as John spoke.
"I got hold of Emma; she's free and would be more than happy to join you. In fact, she sounded practically delighted at the prospect of seeing you. Can't think why. Anyway, I had a table booked at the Ritz; she'll meet you there and you can put lunch on my tab."
Knightley raised an eyebrow at his younger brother's teasing but simply received an unrepentant grin in response. "The Ritz? My, my John. Are you sure they'll let in a lowly pilot? And why would Emma meet me there? Surely if she's working in the War Office, I can simply escort her from here?"
John didn’t reply and Knightley watched his brother squirm for several long seconds before the truth dawned. "Unless Emma doesn't actually work in the War Office and you're simply using that as a cover to keep Mr Woodhouse calm. Now, let's think. What job could there possibly be for a young, highly educated woman with blonde hair, blue eyes and fluent in several languages. Oh god, she's not?"
“Bloody hell, John. You recruited your own sister-in-law into the SOE? What the hell were you thinking?”
“I was thinking that we need women like Emma to win this bloody war. Don’t think that I made this decision lightly.”
“Does Isabella know?”
“Considering that she hasn’t initiated divorce proceedings, no she doesn’t. She knows the same as Mr Woodhouse.”
“You’re best asking Emma, George but I’ll tell you what I know. After I recommended her, Emma did the standard SOE training and, with her partner, parachuted into Poland before being based in Warsaw. They were part of a network passing us information from within the Warsaw Ghetto as well as from Auschwitz concentration camp and engaging in acts of sabotage. Earlier this year, they were betrayed and had to escape. Emma and her partner split up – we still don’t have conclusive information on where she is – but Emma made it back after six weeks travelling across Europe including through Germany and occupied Holland.”
“My God.” Knightley fumbled for a chair as his knees felt weak. He was struggling to reconcile the images of Emma laughing as she was spun around the dancefloor at Quaglino’s with the image of an SOE agent traversing Nazi Germany by herself and on forged papers.
“Try not to think about it too much. Go on, you’ll be late and Emma hates to be kept waiting.”
“Will she be sent out again?” The silence was telling and Knightley’s voice was hoarse when he managed to speak, “John? Will she be sent out again?”
“Maybe. I wish I didn’t have to say it but if she’s needed then yes, they’ll send her out again and I won’t stop it. I won’t be able to stop it. Now, I’m sorry but I have to go; I can’t keep Eden waiting. My housekeeper is expecting you and I’ll see you for dinner.
Knightley was still more than a little shocked when he pulled up at The Ritz a scant twenty minutes after leaving the War Office. Given the way that the hotel was bustling, you could almost forget that there was a war on and Knightley in his pristine RAF uniform and Ford V-8 cabriolet drew plenty of admiring looks that he was utterly oblivious to. Making his way inside he headed straight for the bar and ordered a large scotch, taking a large gulp.
He was struggling to process the information that John had just given him. Emma, his Emma, was an agent for the SOE. She had been parachuted into Poland, worked with the resistance there for months and then made her way back through Europe on forged papers. It made his brain spin. He was so lost in his thoughts that it wasn’t until he felt a tap on his shoulder that he realised that he had company.
“I was starting to wonder what a woman had to do to get your attention, flyboy.”
“Hello Wing Commander Knightley.”
Knightley was sure that he was staring but he couldn’t quite help himself. Emma had always been beautiful but there was an air of maturity to her now. She was impeccably dressed – impressively so for the office – in a powder blue dress, belted to show off her tiny waist, and matching hat and he struggled to reconcile this image with the concept of Emma undergoing the extensive training that he had no doubt agents were required to undertake.
“Mr Knightley? Shall we eat? I’m ravenous and I believe lunch is on John…”
“Of course! Forgive me, I’ve been remiss.” Standing from the bar, Knightley offered his arm to Emma with a slight bow. “Miss Woodhouse. Shall we?”
The smile that Emma bestowed upon Knightley was positively beatific as she took his arm and Knightley found himself reeling, still trying to reconcile the Emma that he remembered with this devastating creature that was before him. He wasn’t finding it easy at all.
As they moved through the bar and into the Grill, Knightley saw King Zog of Albania who was living at the hotel with his family while in another corner of the Grill, Churchill was dining with Lord Mountbatten. Both sights were clearly par for the course because none of the others diners were paying attention, as though it was nothing that European royalty and the Prime Minister were lunching at one of London’s top hotels. Knightley was also aware of the gazes that followed them across the floor of the Grill. They may be in the middle of a war but the socialites of London were still lunching in the finest hotels and every day they were joined by a multitude of politicians and journalists and every single eye in the room – except for Churchill and Mountbatten – was on Emma as she crossed the room, utterly oblivious to the stares that she was drawing.
Despite the fact that the government had slowly but steadily been introducing rationing since the beginning of the year, the restaurant industry was exempt and the lunch that they were given was truly first class. That being said, Knightley was far more interested in his conversation with Emma than he was in the food that was being served. Emma had always been a fine and intelligent conversationalist but somehow there was now an added dimension, even if she didn’t touch on the work that she was doing. Knightley didn’t know if it was what he now knew about her or the fact that it had simply been an awfully long time since he’d seen her, even without taking into consideration the thing that Emma had seen and done in the last few years, but something had changed. He found himself spellbound, captivated by everything Emma said and did and it was with great disappointment that he heard Emma saying that she needed to leave.
“I’m sorry but I do have to get back to the office. Us worker bees don’t get unlimited lunch breaks. How long are you here for?”
Knightley couldn’t help but smile inwardly at hearing Emma describe the Baker Street Irregulars as mere worker bees. “I’ve only got a weekend furlough. I’m expected on the parade ground first thing on Monday morning.”
“Oh.” Emma looked momentarily downcast before she spoke again, “well if that’s the case, will I be able to see you again before you leave?”
Once upon a time, Knightley would have only spent time with Emma grudgingly – because it was expected of him rather than because he wanted to. Oh, he had liked her well enough but that was as far as it went. Now, after a perfectly lovely lunch that he didn’t really want to end, his feelings were exactly the opposite.
“I would be thoroughly disappointed if I have to leave without seeing you again, Emma. Do you have plans for tomorrow evening?”
“I do now. I’ll phone John’s townhouse with the details if you trust me to organise things.”
Emma’s grin was cheeky and Knightley found himself returning it involuntarily. He fumbled slightly as Emma stood gracefully, moving around the table to press a kiss to his cheek. He was almost overwhelmed by the scent of Chanel No.5 as well as something that was purely Emma and barely managed to reciprocate Emma’s farewell before she was disappearing out of the room, once again followed by almost every eye in the room.
The following evening found the two Knightley brothers making the short walk from John Knightley’s townhouse through Grosvenor Square and onto Park Lane before they reached the Dorchester Hotel. They had spent a perfectly pleasant and relaxed day with Knightley enjoying a rare lie-in before a generous breakfast served by Mrs Riley, John’s housekeeper. They had then made their way to the Carlton Club in Piccadilly where John was a member, where they had taken lunch in the main dining room before spending a portion of the early afternoon in the drawing room with the other members that were present, mostly discussing the current state of affairs. They had returned home to discover that Emma had left a message with Mrs Riley to say that she had got them a table at the Dorchester for the evening and that she would see them there.
As they drew up to the front of the hotel, it was clear that the Dorchester was going to be a popular choice for the evening and the two brothers – John in black tie and George in his RAF uniform – drew plenty of admiring glances. John did a quick scout inside before coming back to report that Emma was yet to arrive; something that was not entirely surprising given that they were early. They were not kept waiting too long before a rather sporty looking little roadster turned up and Emma got out, handing the keys to the valet. It was only John’s sharp elbow to the ribs that brought George out of his stupor, able to snatch a few seconds to collect himself before he had to greet Emma.
In his defence, he wasn’t the only person who had had the same reaction. More than a few of the gathered men were staring agog at Emma and Knightley could hardly blame them; if he had thought that Emma was beautiful before in her blue day dress for lunch at the Ritz, now she resembled a goddess. Emma wore a floor-length evening gown that looked Grecian in style, and was relatively simple in design with just some beading around the neckline. The gold colour perfectly set off her colouring and with her hair in what they were calling victory rolls, and bright red lips and nails, Emma looked as though she belonged in the glamour of Hollywood. Placing a hand on Emma’s back to usher her into the Dorchester, Knightley’s mouth went dry as his hand met bare flesh and a quick glance confirmed that, yes, there was no back to Emma’s dress.
They went straight into the Grill to eat and, just as at the Ritz the previous day, Knightley immediately spotted several well-known actors and actresses as well as numerous politicians yet, as before, it was Emma who drew the eye. With John present, much of the talk over dinner focused on Isabella and the children as well as Mr Woodhouse who were all in the safety of Hartfield. Luckily for Knightley, with John carrying the conversation, he was able to drink his fill of Emma. He couldn’t help it; he simply found every aspect of her captivating.
It was when they moved into the ballroom that Knightley truly came undone. The room was packed both with people sat at the little tables arranged around the outside of the room and others on the dancefloor, the sound of the Lew Stone band a counterpoint to the chatter. Unsurprisingly, while John took the wives of various prominent politicians for a turn around the floor, Emma was approached by more than a few hopeful dance partners and, after a quick glance towards Knightley, Emma accepted gracefully. Slightly befuddled as to why Emma would look to him as if for permission, Knightley watched as a succession of assorted officers from the services as well as several tuxedo-ed young guns moved Emma expertly (and somewhat inexpertly) around the floor, some unknown emotion coiling low in his stomach.
Before too long, he had decided that enough was enough and he had to do something. Surely asking Emma to dance now was no different to dancing with her when he had been acting as her escort during her debut season? Having convinced himself that his behaviour wouldn’t be at all out of the ordinary, the next time that Emma returned to their table, he seized his opportunity.
Standing, he gave a shallow bow that brought a smile to Emma’s face as he offered his hand. “Would you do me the honour, Miss Woodhouse?”
“Why, Wing Commander Knightley, I thought you’d never ask. It would be my pleasure.”
As Emma took Knightley’s hand and allowed him to lead her to the dancefloor, the band segued into the next number and the music and lyrics of Arlen and Mercer’s song ‘This Time The Dream’s On Me’ drifted through the ballroom. They had barely been on the floor for a minute before Knightley’s head was spinning as a result of sensory overload. The lyrics of the song, the surroundings, the feel of Emma in his arms, the scent of her; it was almost overwhelming. It was certainly enough to make a man all but lose his mind. He was starting to wonder how and why Emma had this intoxicating effect on him and he was just wondering whether he should say something, although what he would say he wasn’t completely sure.
In the end, it didn’t matter. The decision was taken out of his hands by the Germans. Despite the fact that the Blitz was officially over, there were still intermittent bombing raids on London and they had chosen tonight for their next raid. As the air raid sirens rang out across the city, the band moved into the Anvil Chorus, and despite his frustration that he couldn’t do anything useful, Knightley couldn’t help but be amused and impressed by the musicality of the band as they timed the music perfectly to the distant sound of bombs hitting their target.
Breaking their embrace, Knightley placed his hand in the small of Emma’s back, the sound of London exploding forcing him to focus on the situation rather than the fact that his hand was on Emma’s bare skin. He cast a glance over his shoulder to check that John was also making moves towards the air raid shelter that had been created in the basement and which incorporated the Turkish bath, apparently the venue of choice for the foreign secretary, Edward Halifax, his wife and his mistress.
Knightley wasn’t entirely sure what he had expected when he arrived in the shelter but it certainly wasn’t row upon row of camp beds, each of them perfectly made up with sheets in one of three colours. It was all so different from the dug outs that they had at Biggin Hill. Unfortunately, here he was forced to part from Emma by the maître d’ as the Dorchester employed strict rules in its shelter with men and women being kept separate and only married couples allowed to remain together.
Thus, Knightley spent a sleepless night, his gaze fixed upon the bed where Emma lay, only half-listening to the hushed conversation between John and several of his War Office colleagues. This wasn’t at all how he had envisaged the evening going. He knew that it could be far worse than this and the evening that they had had up until now had been more than pleasant but, and this was what disconcerted him, he had been hoping for more, although for the life of him he wasn’t sure what.
The following morning, Emma thanked the two brothers for their hospitality the previous evening and professed her regret that the evening had been interrupted. They both waved off her apologies and John had extracted a promise for dinner later in the week. Unsurprisingly, John was then hailed by an acquaintance and it was Knightley who put Emma into her car. He had been just about to close her door when she looked up at him with those impossibly blue eyes of hers and he was suddenly reminded of those days when she was a child and he had done his best to resist what she was asking for.
“Mr Knightley, may I ask a favour of you?”
“Of course you may, Emma and I shall do my best to fulfil it. What would you ask of me?”
“Would you allow me to write to you? I’ve … enjoyed spending time with you this weekend and I would hate to lose contact again.”
Knightley was more than a little taken aback; what Emma was asking was the last thing that he had expected. “It would be my honour, Emma.” He couldn’t resist a little tease, “I may even write back.”
The last thing Knightley saw was Emma’s cheeky smile, so reminiscent of the child that he had once known, and the words tossed over her shoulder as she drove off down Park Lane. “I’m counting on it, flyboy.”
Knightley was in his rooms dealing with some correspondence when there was a rap on the door followed by his batman poking his head around the door frame.
"Sir? There's someone to see you."
"Thank you, Robert. I don't suppose you know who it is, do you?"
"It's Miss Woodhouse, sir." Robert Martin, his batman, had worked for the Knightley family at Donwell for years and thus knew Emma quite well.
Knightley's heart leapt only to sink like a stone almost immediately. There could only be one reason for Emma to be here at Biggin Hill; his nightmare was coming true and she was being sent back out. John had warned him that this could happen but, as the months passed and Emma continued her work at SOE headquarters in Baker Street with just the odd trip to one of the many training base, Knightley had become complacent. He had managed to forget that Emma was an active agent and that she could be called upon and, not only that, but that Emma would do her duty to her country unquestionably, just as she had done before. Abandoning his letters, not caring that his pen left ink blots over the words that he had been agonising over just moments ago, he was on his feet and heading for the main building where Emma would be waiting, forgetting that he was only half-dressed. He was the recipient of more than a few confused looks from the off-duty airmen and crew who saw him all but sprinting from the barracks to the main office; they probably hadn't seen him do that since they were in the throes of the Battle of Britain.
As the main building came into view, he could see Emma holding court amongst a group of men, including Group Captain Rushworth, all of them hanging on her every word. His heart skipped a beat and he had to finally acknowledge what he had been fighting for the last few months, ever since he and Emma had started writing following his furlough in London; he was in love with Emma Woodhouse. Beautiful, intelligent, fearless, impossible Emma. The question was, what did he do about it?
As he drew closer, he was gratified to see that, already animated as she was, Emma seemed to brighten when she caught sight of him and he was, all of a sudden, lost for words. Everybody else ceased to exist and it was just the two of them. He couldn't believe that he'd never realised before, that the love of his life had been under his nose the whole time. Then again, how could he have expected that the baby he had held in his arms at the age of ten would grow up to be such an amazing creature?
The sound of Rushworth clearing his throat brought Knightley out of his daze and he quickly saw that not only had the other airmen dispersed leaving just the three of them but that there was a rather becoming flush to Emma's cheeks.
"You have an overnight pass, Wing Commander. I expect you on parade first thing in the morning."
"Sir. Thank you." Not for the first time, Knightley was grateful for Rushworth's perceptiveness; the way that he had seen what Knightley needed and granted it without hesitation.
"Your thanks are unnecessary but for god’s sake Knightley, get dressed properly before you go. Miss Woodhouse, it was a pleasure to meet you."
"And you, Sir."
As Rushworth headed back inside, Knightley turned back to his guest. "Emma..."
"Not here. The Group Captain has given you an overnight pass; go get dressed and pack an overnight bag. I have a room booked at the pub down the road."
Knightley nodded once and pressed Emma's hand before whirling around and heading back to his room. Ten minutes later, they were roaring away from Biggin Hill with Emma at the wheel of the V-8 roadster that she'd driven down from London.
Once in the pub, Emma proceeded to check them in with the landlady, apparently having made a reservation under the name of 'Wing Commander and Mrs Knightley', which made Knightley arch an eyebrow in surprise. Not wanting to draw attention, although the pub was almost empty, he waited until they had been shown to their room before he said anything.
"Emma, are you sure that was wise? I mean, it wouldn't take much to discover that Mrs Knightley doesn't exist. It's hardly proper for a young woman of your position to be alone with a man, even an old family friend like myself ... think of your reputation."
"I'm going to parachute into Vichy France in a few days, straight into German-occupied territory. There is no guarantee I will be coming back and that is me being practical rather than fatalistic. If you think I care one whit about propriety, George Knightley... why are you smiling?"
"Do you realise that's the first time you've called me George since you were 12 and in a fit of pique?"
"Yes, well. That was always rather deliberate on my part. I don't know, I suppose that I didn't want to call you by your Christian name unless I could call you mine."
"Emma, what are you saying?"
"I think you know what I'm saying, George. I'm in love with you, I think I always have been but I didn't truly realise it until after I saw you in London last year and we started our correspondence. What I do know is that I've unconsciously compared any other man who had shown interest in me to you and every single one of them has been found lacking. I suppose the big question is, do you feel the same for me? Do you love me? Could you love me?"
"Dearest, loveliest Emma. How can you ask such a question? I may not have realised it before today but there is no doubt in my mind that I love you with all that I am."
Taking a step towards Emma, Knightley reached out a hand and cupped her cheek, brushing his thumb over her cheekbone first before he brushed it across her lower lip. Just as he had been that day at The Ritz all those months ago, Knightley was overwhelmed by the scent of Chanel No.5 as well as that scent that was pure Emma. He let his eyes close, breathing it deep into his lungs before he opened his eyes again. Leaning in, he kept his eyes open as his lips followed the path of his thumb brushing across Emma’s lips; he wanted to savour every single second of this, commit it all to memory. He smiled, seeing that Emma’s own eyes had drifted closed and leant in again, pressing his lips more firmly against Emma’s. Emma all but melted into his arms, wrapping her own around Knightley’s neck as her mouth opened under his.
This was what he’d been waiting for, Emma was who he’d been waiting for and he couldn’t help but hate the fact that they had finally found their way to each other just as they were about to be parted for who knew how long.
That evening, after a quiet dinner in a secluded corner of the pub that neither of them had really tasted as they were so wrapped up in each other, Knightley found himself unsure as to how to proceed when it came to sleeping arrangements. No more mention had been made of Emma going to France but it was the elephant in the room; neither one of them could avoid it. Despite his earlier comments about propriety, there was nothing that Knightley wanted more than to spend the night with Emma, even if it was nothing more than being able to hold her in his arms. He just didn't know how to broach the subject. He really shouldn't have been surprised when Emma, once again, took matters into her own hands.
"George, how would you feel if I said that I didn't want to be intimate with you this evening? Would you be terribly disappointed?"
"There's part of me that wants to desperately but I honestly have no idea what lies ahead of me and I don't want to take any risks or not think about the possible consequences. Then there's the other part of me that thinks it's just far too soon."
"Will you let me talk Emma? I would be lying if I said that I wasn't disappointed but I think you're wise in thinking of the future. I will be more than content if I can just sleep with you in my arms."
Knightley knew that he’d said the right thing when he saw the tension leach from Emma’s frame. Besides, he had spoken nothing but the truth. Knowing that Emma was going into France and not knowing what awaited her, he wanted to spend as much time in her presence as possible. Emma blushed once more as she removed her night-things from her little case and Knightley couldn’t resist reeling her in for another kiss, simply because he could.
“George!” Emma protested but she was laughing and Knightley knew that she didn’t really mind too much. She returned the kiss briefly before she wriggled out of his grasp and into the adjoining bathroom to change. While she was away, Knightley took the opportunity to change into his own pyjamas, turning back the covers on the bed in preparation for Emma’s return.
When she did return, Emma looked somewhat hesitant and Knightley smiled reassuringly. Despite her unease, Emma came willingly when he held out his hand to her and, when the two of them clambered into bed, she didn’t hesitate in nestling back against him. For his part, Knightley buried his nose in Emma’s hair and breathed in deeply, doing the best that he could to commit everything about her to memory.
The following morning, Knightley stayed in bed for as long as he could, not caring that he was edging perilously close to missing the deadline that Rushworth had set him. He wanted to take advantage of every single second that he possibly could with Emma. While Emma had fallen asleep relatively quickly, Knightley had been unable to do so and had stayed awake all night, simply watching her sleep and marvelling at the fact that he had been lucky enough that Emma returned his feelings. As he watched Emma, a rogue shaft of sunlight slipped through the partially open curtains and landed directly on Emma’s face, causing her to stir.
“Mmmph, George? You’re awake?”
“Yes, Emma.” Knightley smiled; Emma clearly wasn’t a morning person. He watched as Emma roused herself enough to roll over and bury her face in his chest.
“How long have you been awake?”
“How long have we got?”
“Not long enough. Morning parade starts in forty-five minutes.”
“Last night happened, didn’t it? It wasn’t a figment of my imagination? You truly love me?”
“Yes, it happened. No, you didn’t imagine it. Yes, I truly love you.” Knightley chuckled to himself. “I’ve spent the whole night lying awake, marvelling at my good fortune that you say you love me too.”
“I do! Of course I do!”
Knightley brushed his lips against Emma’s. “I know you do, my Emma. I don’t doubt it. It is simply a case of utterly wretched timing. We will make it through this, we will come out the other side and then we will have the rest of our lives together.”
They were both silent as they dressed and made the short drive back to Biggin Hill, neither of them quite knowing what else to say. When they arrived at the gates, the sentry on duty waved them through without asking to see either of their papers. Emma carefully manoeuvred the roadster through the base until she pulled to a stop in full view of the parade ground.
“Don’t, please don’t say anything. We’ve said everything that needs to be said.”
Knightley was torn. He wasn’t sure that they had said everything that needed to be said but he could see the sheen of tears in Emma’s eyes and knew that she was barely holding herself together. Truthfully, he wasn’t too much better himself. Giving a stiff nod, he moved closer and, not caring that the entire squadron was in full view, pulled Emma into a searing kiss that she returned wholeheartedly. Ignoring the whoops and catcalls from his fellow pilots, he did his best to pour everything that he was feeling into the kiss before reluctantly pulling back only when air became a necessity.
Knowing that he had run out of time, Knightley took Emma’s hand, raised it to his lips and pressed a kiss to the back of it. “Do what you have to do, but please, come back to me.”
That said, he turned, got out of the car and walked towards the parade ground, resolutely not looking back.
Knightley looked up hopefully as Robert appeared with the morning post and a cup of the sludge that now constituted coffee from the mess hall.
“Sorry, Sir. There’s nothing from Miss Woodhouse.”
“Okay. Thank you, Robert.”
As soon as the door shut behind Robert, Knightley let out a loud sigh and raked a hand through his hair. It had been weeks now since he had said his farewell to Emma in full view of the entire parade ground; something that had earned him a fair amount of ribbing in the mess. Weeks without hearing anything; he didn’t even know if Emma was still alive. He’d tried asking John for information but that had come up blank and he couldn’t exactly contact SOE headquarters as they would not only deny all knowledge of the op (not that Knightley knew any details) but they’d, in all likelihood, deny all knowledge of Emma herself. All he could do was wait and Knightley hated that. Indeed, there had only been one other time that Knightley had been in such a permanent state of constant tension.
The Battle of Britain.
Beware of the Hun in the Sun.
Never fly in a straight line unless you want the bastards to get you.
They were just two pieces of advice that the experienced pilots gave the new recruits that turned up at Biggin Hill. As one of the commanding bases for the RAF, Biggin Hill was not only of great importance to the Allied war effort but also a major target for the German bombers. They had already taken five direct hits since August, with workshops, stores, barracks and WAAF quarters being hit and a number of people killed. There were a number of squadrons based at Biggin Hill, given its proximity to London and thus its importance in the defence of south-east England, most of them flying Spitfires and Hurricanes although there were a few Blenheims as well. For his part, Knightley was Wing Commander of several squadrons of Spitfires and, although they had lost far too many men for Knightley’s liking, his men were brilliant fighters for the most part.
The problem was, they were constantly under attack and, regardless of how good his pilots were, the Luftwaffe simply outnumbered the RAF and their allies in numbers that they didn’t want to think about too much. Instead, all they could do was hope, pray and fly like the devil himself was on their tail. Then again, he was, far too often. Despite their jokes and display of that famous British stiff upper lip, all of the pilots were in a constant state of tension, smoking too much, drinking too much and sleeping too little. Yet despite all of that, every single one of them could get up in the air from standby in two minutes flat. Still, it wasn’t always enough and, after every single dogfight, there was one more pilot who didn’t return, who needed to be replaced. Every time they took off, they wondered if they’d return. At his age, Knightley was almost old enough to be a father to many of the younger pilots that were coming through. Pilots that were too young and with too few hours in the air. Just like the two stood in front of him right now.
“How many hours in Spits?”
Seven and ten hours. It wasn’t enough, nowhere near. Not to go up against some of the German aces. As morbid a thought as it was, Knightley couldn’t help but wonder how soon he would be writing the letters home to their mothers.
“Fine. Keep your eyes open and stick to me like glue.” Knightley turned to his Spit, pulling his cap and goggles onto his head as he muttered under his breath, “God willing, all three of us will return.”
In the end, it was almost three months to the day since Emma had been dropped into France, that Knightley got the phone call that he’d been waiting for. He was relaxing as best as he could over a drink with some of his fellow officers in the mess when Martin burst through the doors panting for breath, slamming the doors open with such force that the windows rattled in their frames.
“Sir? Phone call for you in Group Captain Rushworth’s office. Come quick, it’s Mr John.”
Knightley didn’t hesitate, having been half on his feet from the instant that Martin had burst into the officers’ mess. He hoped to god that this was what he’d been waiting for; news of Emma. To his relief, Rushworth’s office was less than 300 yards from the mess and, sprinting, he was there in less than a minute, not caring in the slightest about his dishevelment as he knocked and opened the door without waiting for a response.
“Phone’s all yours, Knightley. I’ll give you some privacy.”
In his impatience, Knightley didn’t even both waiting until Rushworth had left the office, instead snatching at the receiver as quickly as he could. “John? Is it Emma? Have you got news?”
“How quickly can you get furlough?”
“I don’t know. Why?”
“Talk to Rushworth and get as long as you can. If there are any problems, let me know and I’ll get it turned into an order.”
“John, what’s wrong? What aren’t you telling me? Why do I need leave? Does this have anything to do with Emma?”
“For god’s sake, just tell me John, whatever it is. Not knowing has been killing me. Just … is she still alive? Tell me that at least.”
“Yes, she’s alive. We got her back yesterday. By all accounts, she was captured by the SS just over a week ago and has been subjected to multiple interrogations by Abwehr agents. The local maquis that she’s been working with staged a risky but successful rescue mission and helped her to get back to England.”
“Was she…” Knightley could hear his brother sigh heavily although he didn’t reply. “John…”
“Yes. We believe she was tortured but we don’t know the extent yet. She’s currently in hospital so we’ll know more when the doctors have examined her. Just, get here as soon as you can, George. Queen Alexandra’s on Millbank.”
“I’ll talk to Rushworth as soon as I hang up the phone.”
Knightley was true to his word and was on his way to search for his superior as soon as he had replaced the receiver. He didn’t have to go far. As soon ashe opened the door to the office, he saw the rather incongruous sight of his group captain and his batman waiting together for the outcome of his call.
“Well, Knightley? What’s the news?”
“Emma’s back in London but she was captured by the Abwehr and, they believe, tortured. She’s in hospital now.”
“Go.” Rushworth’s words startled Knightley. “I can’t guarantee that I won’t have to call you back if something goes down but for the moment I’m not aware of any upcoming missions. Go and see your Miss Woodhouse.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“Don’t thank me. I have other wing commanders; you’re lucky that the bastards didn’t send her off to one of those damned concentration camps. If you leave soon, you’ll make it to London before the blackout.”
Having made it to London and Queen Alexandra’s Military Hospital on Millbank in record time and well before the blackout, Knightley couldn’t quite bring himself to enter the room that he had been told that Emma was in. He just couldn’t summon the courage. He had been trying to mentally prepare himself for what might await him for the whole journey but he didn’t think that he’d been successful. He’d seen plenty of terrible injuries over the years, both in the Great War as a teenage pilot and, more recently, in the Battle of Britain but there was a difference between men that he served with being injured in the line of duty and Emma being injured. With Emma, it was worse somehow. He looked up at the sound of footsteps clicking on the tiled floor to see his brother walking towards him, a doctor and a well-dressed woman at his side.
“John! How is she?”
“George, this is Colonel Michaels; he’s one of the most senior doctors here at the hospital and is the one who examined Emma. This lady is Mrs Sophia Croft; she’s Emma’s superior officer.”
“Pleasure to meet you both. Forgive my ungraciousness but how is Emma? All John would tell me was that they’re examining her.”
“Take a seat for a moment, Wing Commander. As Mr Knightley said, I’m the doctor that performed Miss Woodhouse’s examination. She’s a lucky lady; there is evidence of torture but most agents that get captured end up being shot or sent to a concentration camp. She made it out alive.”
Knightley’s stomach roiled at the confirmation that Emma had been tortured; it was one of his worst nightmares come to life. Bile rose in his throat and he swallowed heavily, fighting against it. “You say she was tortured? What … what did they do to her?”
“They seem to have favoured deprivation as a technique; both sleep and food. There’s also evidence of beatings in the form of bad bruising, several fractured ribs and a few cigarette burns. I’m afraid there are also a few missing toe and finger nails. They rescued her before things could progress too much. It all sounds like a lot, Wing Commander but, as I said, the most important thing is that she is alive and she is here. The rest will heal eventually.”
“Yes, of course. Thank you, Colonel.”
Knightley watched as the man excused himself, leaving Knightley with his brother and Mrs Croft. Even knowing that Emma was as well as she could be, given the circumstances, he still couldn’t quite bring himself to enter the room; he simply wasn’t ready to see Emma lying in a hospital bed. Then again, neither could he really bring himself to look at Mrs Croft once his mind had connected the dots and realised that this was the woman who had sent Emma out into Vichy France. However, as little as he wanted to look at her, he needed to know one thing.
“Will you be sending her back out?”
“Emma,” he ground out. “Will you be sending her back into France when she’s recovered?”
Mrs Croft’s face softened, looking almost sympathetic. “No, Wing Commander, we won’t be sending Emma back out; even if we wanted to, it wouldn’t be advisable. No, while I wouldn’t be averse to Emma joining us either in the office or as a trainer, that will be entirely up to her and is a conversation to be had when she’s recovered. If you have no objections, I’d like to visit when Emma is up to it…”
Knowing that he was only being churlish if he refused, Knightley inclined his head. “By all means…”
Even once the sound of Mrs Croft’s footsteps had receded, Knightley made no move to enter Emma’s room; he simply stared at the door. He was completely lost in his thoughts and jerked like a startled rabbit when John’s hand landed on his shoulder.
“Standing out here isn’t going to help you at all. Go and see her for god’s sake, take all the time that you need. What’s done is done but I can guarantee that Emma will feel better if she wakes up and finds you at her bedside. Go, George.”
Despite the nervousness thrumming through him, Knightley couldn’t help but smile as he saw Emma waiting for him. Perched on a bar stool, martini glass in hand, she looked the epitome of elegance. It had been six weeks since his mad dash up from Biggin Hill, not knowing what sort of state Emma was in after her escape from the Nazis. He had stayed by Emma’s bedside for three days and nights before he had been summoned back down to the base by Group Captain Rushworth. The RAF had been about to start their bombing campaign on Germany and, even though their squadron was made up of fighters, every single pilot was needed back on base and ready to fly, providing an escort to the bombers. Since then, he and the rest of the pilots in his squadron had flown countless bombing raids over Germany but, despite everything, Knightley had taken every opportunity he could to see Emma.
Once she had been discharged, Emma had refused to return to her family at Hartfield. Her father and her sister still had no idea as to the work that Emma had been doing during the war and that was how Emma wanted things to stay. Instead, she had chosen to stay at John’s London townhouse where his housekeeper kept an eye on her and Emma had a constant visitor in Sophy Croft, her superior at the SOE. Knightley and Emma spoke on the phone as often as they could, wrote letters and Knightley made the short drive up to London whenever he could.
When they had said their farewells on the morning that he and Emma had last seen each other, Knightley had promised her that when she returned from France they would spend the rest of their lives together. The time that they had spent apart hadn’t affected his resolve; he was determined that that was precisely what they would do. After talking with John, he had retrieved the engagement ring that their father had once given their mother, a ring that had been in the Knightley family for over a century. 18ct gold with diamonds and sapphires set in a half-hoop shape and beautiful filigree patterns, he knew that it was going to be perfect for Emma.
All he had to do now was pluck up the courage to actually ask the all important question.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take Emma long to cotton on to the fact that he wasn’t completely focused on their conversation. Equally, it didn’t take her long to call him on his inattention in the no-nonsense manner that he had come to expect of her.
“I realise that my conversation is hardly scintillating but is it really that tedious? Anyone would think that you don’t want to be here.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth. Forgive me, Emma; I do not mean to slight you, my mind is simply elsewhere today.”
“Is there anything that I can do to help?”
Emma’s sincere desire to help was clearly audible in her voice and Knightley knew that the moment that he had been waiting for had arrived. Fumbling in his pocket, his fingers wrapped themselves around the jewellery box and he pulled it out, pushing back his chair and falling to one knee as he did so. From the look of complete and utter shock on her face, this was not what Emma had been expecting. He hoped that that was not a sign that Emma may refuse him. Clearing his throat, he ransacked his brain, trying desperately to remember the eloquent speech that he had painstakingly prepared only to draw a blank. However, given that they were in the Grill of the Ritz, he need to find his tongue and quickly.
“Miss Emma Woodhouse. Darling, wonderful Emma. You made me the happiest man on earth all those months ago when you told me that you returned my feelings, that you loved me as I love you. Before you left, I swore that upon your return we would spend the rest of our lives together and I would keep that promise. So, Miss Emma Woodhouse,” Knightley popped open the lid of the ring box with only a little difficulty, “would you do me the honour of becoming my wife?”
There were tears streaming down Emma’s cheeks but equally she was beaming so Knightley didn’t take the tears to be a bad thing. Pushing his suit, he implored her. “Marry me, my darling, wonderful friend. Marry me, Emma.”
“Yes, George Knightley. I’ll marry you.”
As Emma threw herself into his arms and he kissed her triumphantly, Knightley was dimly aware of applause coming from the rest of the gathered diners. Pulling back, he slipped the ring onto Emma’s finger and kissed her once more before helping her back into her seat. A waiter brought champagne but, just as the night they confessed their feelings for each other, neither of them noticed nor tasted what they were eating; they were on cloud nine.
It was as they were leaving that Emma spotted someone that they both knew.
“Emma, Wing Commander Knightley. I see congratulations are in order.”
“Thank you, Mrs Croft.”
“Yes, it’s wonderful to have some good news in these times. Frederick, this is Miss Emma Woodhouse who works in my department and her fiancé, Wing Commander George Knightley. Emma, Wing Commander, this is my brother, Captain Frederick Wentworth.”
“It’s just a shame that I can’t tell Anne … after everything we shared. I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything?”
Knightley held Emma’s hand a little tighter at her words, having heard all about Anne Elliot, Emma’s fellow agent in Poland and knew that it weighed heavily on Emma’s mind that there had been no word of her since they had flown Warsaw.
“Actually, we heard this afternoon, I was going to tell you tomorrow. She’s alive, Emma. She made it to Italy and is currently working with the resistance there. She made it.”
Knightley smiled as he found himself with an armful of exuberant fiancée at Mrs Croft’s words, knowing that this news was the icing on the cake for Emma. As for himself, well now he’d better make his way to Hartfield to ask for Mr Woodhouse’s permission.
Chapter 4: Frederick - 1943
“Frederick! Over here!”
The man in question looked up and smiled at seeing his older sister waving at him from the main concourse, practically jumping up and down in her enthusiasm. It had been far too long since he had seen her and Frederick had missed her more than he could say. Hitching his kit bag a bit further up his shoulder, he strode through the milling crowds of soldiers and sailors on furlough and wrapped Sophy in a huge bear hug, actually sweeping her off her feet and swinging her around in a circle. He felt Sophy stiffen momentarily in confusion but then she was wrapping her arms more firmly around him as she murmured in his ear, “oh Frederick.”
For his part, Frederick didn’t say anything, simply tightened his embrace and breathed in the instantly recognisable and deeply reassuring scent that he had always associated with his older sister. Fifteen years older than him, Sophy had always been more than just a sister to him, particularly after their mother had died when Frederick was still relatively young. It had been up to Sophy to be both mother and sister and, in Frederick’s eyes, she had done a superlative job. Releasing her, he stepped back to look her over, noting that she looked well albeit a little tired.
“You look well, Sophy. Whatever work you’re doing must be treating you well.”
“It has its ups and downs. Let me have a look at you; my little brother, the Royal Navy Captain.”
“Sophy, you’re married to an Admiral and the Admiral of the Fleet was at your wedding.”
“Yes, he was very understanding of your interrogation. Now, stand straight so I can get a proper look at you; I’ve never seen you in this uniform.”
“It’s hardly my fault that you weren’t in London the last time I had furlough.”
“Neither was it mine. Yes, you look very handsome. Come on then, let’s get you home.”
Frederick slung his arm companiably over Sophy’s shoulder as she started to lead him out of the station. “Where is home these days? I’ve only ever known you in base housing…”
“We’ll get a cab. I’ve got a two-bedroom flat in Balcombe Street near Marylebone station; it’s just around the corner from work so very handy. It’ll be nice to have someone staying with me.”
“Around the corner from the office? In Marylebone? I thought you were with the War Office, Sophy?”
“I am but, you know, there still isn’t room for all of us in the rabbit warrens of Whitehall so my department works out of Baker Street. Come on, there’s a cab!”
Despite the fact that he wasn’t completely convinced by Sophy’s explanation as to why her department of the War Office was located in Baker Street of all places, Frederick did his best to simply ignore his misgivings and enjoy the time that he had with his sister. After all, who knew if such a furlough would happen again.
Each day, as Sophy left for work, Frederick made a phone call to enquire after the ongoing work to his ship. The HMS Valiant was currently docked at Devonport for final repairs. A Queen Elizabeth class warship, the Valiant had been badly damaged by limpet mines in Alexandria harbour in 1941. Needing major repairs to her hull, she had been taken to Durban and, with months of work ahead, her crew had been temporarily dispersed. Frederick had found himself assigned first to HMS Repulse and then HMS Warspite when the former sunk, both of which had been based out of Trincomalee and then the Maldives, seeing action against the Japanese. Now, with Warspite in need of repairs herself and Valiant approaching being battle-ready once more, Frederick had been given furlough while the Navy attempted to reassemble his crew.
It had been two years since Frederick had been in England. He’d been back for the best part of a month in late spring- early summer of 1941. Having seen action at Tripoli and then the Battle of Cape Matapan, the HMS Valiant had been hit by two German aerial bombs towards the end of the Balkans Campaign, in the Battle of Crete. Docked in Alexandria for repairs, and in need of some medical treatment himself having sustained burns as he tried to put out fires left by the bombs, Frederick had been permitted to return to England for a brief furlough. Admiral Croft, his brother-in-law Richard, was in New York with the HMS Malaya undergoing extensive repairs and refit and, when he finally managed to get hold of Sophy, she had been on secondment in the arse-end of Scotland. So, more than a little reluctantly, Frederick had headed to his older brother Edward and Somerset; the one place that he had never really wanted to return to.
Having left Somerset some ten years ago in a mix of fury and hurt pride, he had sworn that he would never return. Upon his previous visit to his brother Edward, who served as the vicar in the parish of Monkford, Frederick Wentworth had fallen head over heels in love with Miss Anne Elliot, proposed marriage and been accepted only to then be rebuffed. He had been twenty-one, newly graduated from HMS Raleigh and awaiting posting to a ship while Anne had been nineteen, the middle daughter of a local landowner and newly returned from finishing school in Switzerland. As his brother’s guest, Frederick was beholden to Edward and thus couldn’t protest too much as he was dragged around and shown off. Frederick tolerated it with as much good grace as he could muster, smiling politely and making chit-chat with a seemingly endless stream of little old ladies until, at one particular afternoon garden party, he had been introduced to Miss Anne Elliot.
Frederick had never met a woman like her. Anne had been a breath of fresh air, not what he had been expecting in the slightest. He had steeled himself for yet another insipid little princess with no ability whatsoever to make intelligent conversation yet had instead been drawn into a relatively heated debate about the current state of European politics.
From there, they had progressed to walks around the countryside, talking and debating on a wide range of subjects and even, in the safety of several well-hidden follies, stealing a few surreptitious kisses. Frederick had been certain that he wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of his life with this woman and, even though he was due to report to Devonport in a few short weeks, Frederick had made the decision to propose to Anne. To his delight and amazement, she had accepted and, for a brief spell, Frederick had been deliriously happy. And then, just before he was due to report to Devonport, Anne had broken their engagement. It hadn’t taken much for Frederick to find out that Anne had cowed to her family’s wishes and belief that Frederick, as a humble sailor, wasn’t good enough for an Elliot of Kellynch Hall. Furious and hurt to an extent that he hadn’t thought possible, Frederick had simply left.
Now, he was faced with the prospect of having to see Anne again and he found himself more than a little uncertain about it. Ten years had passed, what had happened to Anne in that time? Had she married? Had she managed to find a husband that lived up to the standards set by her father and godmother? If she were married, did she have children? Was she still in Somerset? His brother hadn’t mentioned her leaving the county but then with Frederick being attached to the Mediterranean fleet and then in the Indian Ocean, correspondence between the two brothers had been more than a little intermittent. In truth, Frederick wasn’t sure what he dreaded most; seeing Anne again or seeing her married to someone else.
It may have been ten years since he had left Somerset and he may have hated her for breaking their engagement but Anne Elliot had been constantly on his mind. Anne had been his first love and he had never truly been able to forget her. There certainly hadn’t been any other women although that was more down to the fact that he’d been constantly at sea than anything else. Maybe now was the opportunity; surely Anne hadn’t been the only woman in Somerset, even if he’d thought so at the time?
As Frederick had hoped, he had received a warm welcome from his brother Edward and an equally warm welcome from his brother’s new wife, Maria, and it was a joy to be able to spend time with Edward after so long apart. The vicarage, where Frederick had stayed on his first visit to the county, was equal parts familiar and unfamiliar with Maria’s touch clearly visible. For the first few days of his visit, Frederick happily occupied himself by wandering the fields and lanes, reacquainting himself with the countryside once more and trying not to be too overcome by his memories of Anne and what could have been. It was three days after his arrival when Edward announced that they had been invited to dine with a local family; the Musgroves.
“They’re perfectly charming people, even if the mother does talk a little too much. They have a son who’s probably of an age with you then two daughters who are in their early twenties, I think. Maria would probably know for certain. There was another son as well who was in the Navy. He was on the Lancastria when it was sunk outside of St Nazaire last year. Do you remember the Elliots who lived up at Kellynch Hall? Well, the youngest daughter is married to Mr Charles Musgrove. They’ve got two sons of their own.”
This was it, Frederick thought. This was his chance to ask about Anne but, at the last minute, his courage failed him and he missed his opportunity. Instead, he simply remained silent and followed along with his brother and sister-in-law to their destination for the evening.
As Edward had said, their hosts were perfectly charming, with both Mr and Mrs Musgrove being of a rather gregarious nature and there were no awkward silence or lulls in the conversation. Mr Charles Musgrove seemed perfectly charming if slightly insipid but, as for his wife, well Frederick was amazed that she was related to Anne. He hadn’t met Mrs Mary Musgrove – Miss Mary Elliot as was – on his first visit because, just as her older sisters before her, she was at finishing school in Switzerland. Unlike Anne, this woman was shrill, far too in love with the sound of her own voice, opinionated and selfish. He simply couldn’t believe that two sisters could be so different. What also amazed him was that none of the assembled family members called her on her behaviour. Instead, they did the precise opposite and simply ignored her. The final two at the table were the two Musgrove daughters, Miss Louisa and Miss Henrietta. As Edward had said, they were both in their early twenties, educated and rather pretty. It would also take a blind man to miss seeing their interest in Frederick. After months at sea, Frederick was flattered by their interest and, though he wasn’t particularly interested in either of them, he saw no harm in a little flirtation.
Rather surprisingly, it wasn’t until after dinner that the subject of the war came up. Frederick found out in relatively short order that Charles Musgrove was unwell enough to have avoided conscription, Mary Musgrove was a fire watched ‘when she was able’ and that Mrs Musgrove was in the WVS and one of the driving forces behind local families taking in evacuees. Frederick had then turned to Louisa and Henrietta, asking what they did, only to find himself dismayed by their answers.
“Well, we help mama from time to time but that’s it. We did consider the WRENs or the WAAF but it seemed so dull despite all the men in uniform and we’d never be seen dead working on the land.”
“Yes, not all of us can be like Anne.”
This was it, this was Frederick’s chance. His heart racing, he strove to keep his voice both even and casual. “Anne?”
“My older sister, Miss Anne Elliot.”
“I believe the two of you met when you were last here, Frederick.”
“Yes, I do have a vague recollection of her. Does she work on the land?”
There was an awkward silence before it was Charles Musgrove who finally spoke. “We’re not entirely sure what my sister-in-law does; none of us have seen nor heard from her in three years. She spent a number of years running the Kellynch estate but then, in 1938, she joined the ATS. We all tried to persuade her not to – Lady Russell even went after her – but she was adamant. We haven’t heard from her since.”
From that moment, Frederick was a rather deplorable guest as he was utterly distracted by what he had just been told. Anne, his Anne – for that was what he still thought of her as – was in the ATS. Edward and Maria, seeing Frederick’s distraction, did their best to cover his lapses in concentration before, finally, Maria faked a headache when it became apparent that Miss Louisa was more than a little unimpressed by Frederick’s lack of response to her flirting. Frederick roused himself to bid a courteous farewell to their hosts but, by the time they were back at the vicarage, he was once more lost in his thoughts and both his brother and sister-in-law left him alone.
Frederick was struggling to wrap his head around the idea of Anne Elliot in the Auxiliary Territorial Services and what role she had fulfilled. The Anne that he had known all those years ago was so different to the other women of her class and station. Not only was she educated but she used that education to form thoughts and opinions that she wasn’t afraid to voice, even if they differed from what was expected of her. He really shouldn’t have been surprised that she had gone and done something so completely unexpected yet, he found himself wondering as to the catalyst for her actions. However headstrong Anne was, something had to have pushed her to make the move that she had made. It was patently obvious that he would get no answers from the Musgrove’s and Frederick had no intention of going near the Elliot’s, but maybe a trip to Kellynch Hall was necessary; surely there was somebody there that could give him the information that he needed, that he craved.
The following morning, Frederick set out from the Monkford vicarage to make a journey that he had never thought that he would make again after Anne broke their engagement; the walk to Kellynch Hall. As he arrived at the estate, he couldn’t help but noticed that it was looking a little neglected. Then again, he supposed that that was to be expected as no doubt all of the male staff would have been called up. Not wanting to take the chance of being seen by Sir Walter or Elizabeth., he hugged the treeline up the length of the house, aiming for the back door. Once there, he hovered in wait of the person that he was hoping to see; one Phyllis Mudge. Back when he had frequented Kellynch, Phyllis had been a sort of ladies’ maid for the Elliot girls, having graduated from being their nanny. Now, with the younger servant girls off to work in the multitude of factories that had sprung up all over, she was apparently performing any number of jobs around the house and still serving as a lady’s maid to a reputedly unhappy Miss Elizabeth.
Despite having prepared himself for a long wait, in actuality Frederick only had to wait around half an hour before the kitchen door banged open and a familiar figure appeared. Frederick rose from his hiding place, hoping that he didn’t give Phyllis too much of a shock and draw attention to his presence, which was the last thing that he wanted to do.
“Phyllis?” He winced as she gave a small shriek and dropped the basket she was carrying but, when no-one came running, he started to breathe a little easier. He couldn’t help but smile as she started to berate him, even before she’d fully turned around.
“What do you think you’re doing, sneaking up on a woman like that? You might have given me a heart-attack! What’s wrong with coming and knocking at the door like normal folk?” At these words, Phyllis turned around and proceeded to drop the basket and scatter its contents again. “Bless me! Master Frederick?”
“Well, look at you. You always were a handsome lad but you look like you could be in the movies. What are you doing in Somerset?”
“I’m on furlough. I’m a Captain in the Royal Navy now but my ship was hit and is currently undergoing repairs so we were all given furlough. I had a few burns that needed treatment as well … nothing serious.”
“So, you came down to see your brother and Mrs Wentworth?”
“Yes…” Frederick hesitated before he spoke again, unsure how truthful to be before deciding that he would have to give Phyllis something about himself in return for the information that he desired. “I wasn’t keen to come back but my sister is away for work and my brother-in-law is in New York.”
“We didn’t think that we’d see you back here after the business with Miss Anne.”
Frederick couldn’t help the wince that crossed his face and, judging by her gasp, neither could he hide it.
“I’m sorry, you probably don’t want to talk about it.”
“Not terribly but I did come to talk to you about Anne. I had dinner with the Musgrove’s last night…”
“Say no more, Master Frederick … or should I be calling you Captain now?”
“Just Frederick is fine, Phyllis.”
“Humph. Well, Mr Frederick, if you’d take this down to the lines for me, Mrs Carey has just been trialling some new recipes; I’ll bring you a little something and tell you all about Miss Anne.”
Shaking his head at Phyllis’ inability to call him by his Christian name without a prefix, Frederick nevertheless did as he was instructed and had started hanging the washing on the line for Phyllis by the time that she returned with a tray.
“Away with you and get dug into that. Now, what do you want to know about Miss Anne?”
“Charles Musgrove said that she ran the estate for a few years and then she joined the ATS?”
“That’d be the short version, yes.”
“Then you know more?”
“I know more. Not where she is now, but I know more. Miss Anne … didn’t deal well with you leaving. I don’t know whose fault it was and I don’t want to know, that’s your business. What I do know is that Miss Anne cried herself to sleep for weeks on end. She threw everything into running this place – she even got Jeb to teach her how to drive the farm truck and the tractor. Worked herself to the bone she did but she was good at it. Rumour has it that she saved the Elliot family from ruin after Sir Walter and Miss Elizabeth’s spending. Estate folk loved her before but they loved her even more for all that she did. Miss Anne still wasn’t happy though. She turned down two perfectly good proposals of marriage; I thought Lady Russell was going to have an apoplexy. Anyway, when the war broke out Miss Anne upped and joined the ATS. Whole family was horrified; Lady Russell even went up to London to try and bring her home but Miss Anne wouldn’t come. We haven’t seen her since. Afraid I can’t tell you more.”
“No, that’s fine. You’ve given me more than enough.”
Frederick’s head was swimming with all the new information. “Thank you, Phyllis; you’ve given me plenty to think about.”
“My pleasure, Mr Frederick. You just stay safe out there.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Frederick had meant what he had said to Phyllis back at Kellynch in 1941; he had done his best to stay safe and she had given him plenty to think about. He had done some research into the ATS and where Anne could potentially have been posted to as soon as he had got back to London and what he discovered made his guts roil in a way that no number of storms at sea had succeeded. Whilst ATS members were deployed across army bases as orderlies, drivers, postal workers and ammunition inspectors, some three hundred women had been billeted to France. Not only that, but as the German Army had advanced over the Maginot Line and through France, the British and Allied troops retreating to Dunkirk, some of the last British personnel to leave France had been the ATS telephonists.
All of a sudden, Frederick’s thoughts were a bit more serious than ‘was she married?’ and ‘was she still alive?’ However, much Anne had hurt him, however angry he had been with her, he couldn’t quite bear the thought, the possibility, that Anne had died before they had the opportunity to meet again was one that he couldn’t bear.
Thoughts of Anne had consumed Frederick for the two years since he had spoken to Phyllis and found out what Anne had done. Even now, in London, he couldn’t help but watch other servicemen with their sweethearts jealously, unable to stop thinking that, if the fates hadn’t conspired against them, that could have been himself and Anne. He tried to occupy himself with long walks through Hyde Park and Regents Park as well as patronising The In and Out club, an officer’s club for the army and navy, while telephoning Devonport on a daily basis in the hope that he could get back to sea with enough to occupy him that he didn’t have time to think of Anne.
Finally, two weeks after his arrival in London, Frederick made his daily phone call to Devonport and was told that the repairs were finally complete and that the Valiant was currently undergoing the final necessary checks. Once they were complete, she would be given orders and return to her duties in the Mediterranean Fleet. As such, Frederick could expect to report to Devonport within the next week.
While it was the news that Frederick had been waiting for and he was highly delighted to hear that he would soon be back in the centre of the action, Sophy was understandably disappointed but accepting of the news when he told her that evening. The two siblings scarcely saw each other except for breakfast and dinner for the next few days as Frederick busied himself at the Naval outfitters ensuring that he replaced certain things for his next posting.
In an attempt to make it up to Sophy, he persuaded her to apply for an afternoon off work and, the day before he was due to leave London, took her for a long lunch in the Grill at The Ritz as his treat. Sophy, wearing a dark plum skirt suit with a little veiled hat, looked inordinately attractive – even to his sibling gaze – and Frederick was glad that he’d worn his best uniform to squire her around for the afternoon. He wasn’t quite sure what he’d been expecting from one of London’s top hotels in the middle of a war but he hadn’t expected it to be busy, full of politicians, film stars and a whole host of women that Frederick was certain were undoubtedly well-known socialites.
Still, war or not, Frederick was impressed with the spread that they received especially for just five shillings each. They’d feasted on smoked salmon, game pie with an assortment of vegetables and a dessert, the decadence of which Frederick hadn’t had since well before the war. They were about halfway through their dessert when Frederick’s attention was caught by a man in a Royal Air Force uniform drop to one knee and propose to the rather stunning blonde that he was with and Frederick couldn’t help but watch the outcome. It didn’t take Sophy long to realise his inattention and even less time to discover what had caused it. What Frederick wasn’t expecting was for Sophy to actually know the couple, exclaiming out loud as she recognised them.
“Oh! It’s Emma and her beau. Looks like he’s finally plucked up his courage.”
“Do you want to go over and congratulate them?” Frederick was assuming from the rather passionate kiss that the young lady – Emma – had accepted and both he and Sophy joined in the applause.
“No, give them their privacy; what little they have somewhere like this. I’ll say something if they notice us.”
Nodding his head in agreement with Sophy’s decision, Frederick returned his attention to his excellent dessert, making appropriate noises in the lulls in Sophy’s chatter. He was just indulging in a snifter of brandy when the newly engaged couple passed by their table and recognition dawned.
Sophy stood and kissed the blonde firmly on both cheeks before shaking hands with the pilot. “Emma, Wing Commander Knightley. I see that congratulations are in order.”
“Thank you, Mrs Croft.”
“Yes, it’s wonderful to have some good news in these times. Frederick, this is Miss Emma Woodhouse who works in my department and her fiancé Wing Commander George Knightley. Emma, Wing Commander, this is my brother, Captain Frederick Wentworth.”
Frederick stood and gave a short bow as he offered his own congratulations to the couple. They were duly accepted and then Miss Woodhouse proceeded to continue talking to Sophy, mentioning one particular name that caused Frederick’s ears to prick with interest.
“It’s just a shame that I can’t tell Anne … after everything we shared. I don’t suppose you heard anything?”
“Actually, we heard this morning, I was going to tell you tomorrow. She’s alive, Emma. She made it to Italy and is currently with the resistance there. She made it.”
Frederick watched in interest as Miss Woodhouse almost appeared to be more ecstatic about this mysterious Miss Anne than she was about her own recent engagement. Casting a glance across the table, he could see that Sophy was equally delighted by this news albeit not being quite as obvious in her delight and found himself to be highly curious as to the woman who could provoke such a response from these two. He waited until the newly engaged couple had bid farewell and taken their leave before he started to quiz Sophy.
“I have to say, Sophy, this lady that you spoke of must be a remarkable woman. Who is this Anne that you speak of?” He was a little taken aback by the somewhat disdainful look that Sophy bestowed upon him. “What?”
“You know perfectly well which Anne I’m talking about, Frederick Wentworth. However secretive you think you were in Somerset all those years ago, your family knew you a lot better than Anne’s knew her. We just couldn’t do anything to stop you behaving so appallingly.”
“So, you were talking about Anne Elliot? My … that Anne?”
“Yes, Anne Elliot. Your Anne.”
“What the hell is Anne Elliot doing in Mussolini’s Italy? I think you have a lot of explaining to do, Sophy.”
“Then we’d best return to Balcombe Street. This isn’t a conversation for The Ritz.”
“Very well. I’ll settle the bill and then we can leave.”
The journey back to Sophy’s flat in the cab was tense to say the least and, as soon as they arrived, Frederick headed straight for the bottle of whisky that she kept on the sideboard. He swiftly tossed a glass back in two large gulps and poured himself another generous measure before he turned around to face Sophy.
“Well? You have a lot of explaining to do, Sophy. Start from the beginning; you don’t work for the War Office, do you?”
“You’d better pour me one of those, Frederick. What I’m about to tell you doesn’t leave this room, understand? Not even Richard knows everything that I’m about to tell you. Frederick, I need you to promise me this.”
“You have my word, Sophy. I swear on my life.”
“Good. Well then, yes, I do work for the War Office but I work for Section D which is why I’m working out of Baker Street. To be more precise, I’m a recruiting agent and supervising officer for women of the Special Operations Executive and I recruited your Anne Elliot as one of my agents in 1940.”
At this, Frederick choked on his whisky. Coughing and spluttering, he heaved air into his lungs as Sophy waited patiently before continuing.
“I met her in 1940 when I pulled her and her Captain off the beach at Dunkirk. I know you knew that Anne had originally signed up with the ATS but she swiftly transferred to the FANY and was billeted to France as a driver. When the BEF retreated to Dunkirk, Anne and her CO stayed almost until the last boats and I picked them up in the Arethusa; her actions saw her promoted to Lance-Corporal. Anyway, she gave me her whole history and told me that she was – she is – estranged from her family and would be remaining in London until she was reassigned. There was no reason for me to not recruit her; she had every attribute that I look for in an agent.”
“And what might those be?” Frederick ground the words out from between gritted teeth.
“She was fluent in French, more than passable in Polish with driving skills, some medical training and the ability to use a gun. Everything else she needed, we taught her. More importantly, she had no attachments.”
“She had me.” The words burst from Frederick’s mouth, before he could even think of them.
“Did she, Frederick? Did she really have you? All she told me was that she had been persuaded to break off an engagement by her family and Lord knows you never mentioned it. She never spoke of it any more but it sounded as though she regretted it. Anyway, we put her through our standard SOE training and then dropped her in Europe with Emma as her partner. The cell that they were working with was betrayed and they had to make a run for it; Emma made it back through Germany and Vichy France but we didn’t know about Anne until today. Truth be told, we thought she was dead.”
“You’re not the only one,” Frederick made no attempt to hide the bitterness in his voice.
“Then talk to me, Frederick. What happened between you and Anne all those years ago?”
“I let anger and hurt pride ruin our chance at a life together. Anne was nineteen, just returned from finishing school and I was twenty-one, a newly minted cadet awaiting my first posting. We both fell head over heels and I proposed just before I was to leave for Devonport. Anne accepted and we were both over the moon but then her family weighed in on the matter. Her father refused to give his blessing but that didn’t seem to bother Anne too much. It was when her godmother got involved that it went horribly wrong. She persuaded Anne that it was a bad idea for me to start my naval career with a young wife but when Anne spoke to me and suggested that we have a long engagement, I took it to mean that Anne didn’t trust in what we had, in our love, and I stormed off breaking the whole thing off altogether. I haven’t seen her since although, in truth, I’ve never stopped loving her and she’s never been far from my thoughts. And then, two years ago, I find that she joined the ATS and was estranged from her family. I did some research after I left Somerset and found out that she could have been in France and could be dead without having been able to see her one more time. Now you’re telling me that she survived Dunkirk, she’s one of your agents and that she’s active in Europe.”
“She’s alive, Frederick. Focus on that. She’s still alive and there’s still a chance for anything. Only when all hope is gone should you give up. Even then, you’re a Wentworth and we don’t give up easily. Until then, hope and pray and your fighting spirit – yours and Anne’s – will see you and Anne through this.”