“If war is ever lawful, then peace is sometimes sinful”
C S Lewis, God in the Dock
The Indias, the East and West India Docks, had been serving London for nearly 150 years by the time war broke out. Originally, they were built at the behest of the great trading companies like the the London Society of West India Planters and Merchants and the Honorable East India Company, to serve the imports from the Caribbean on the one hand and India and the East on the other. The East End, particularly the Isle of Dogs, had done reasonably well out of the construction of these vast networks of wharfs and warehouses. Dockhands and labourers made a reasonable, if precarious living: accidents happen, and a family’s main breadwinner could be taken out of action in an instant. It was almost a blessing if they died outright, rather than becoming a lingering drain on fragile family resources.
It was no surprise that the Docks were a prime target for the Luftwaffe: cripple London’s ability to unload imports and you cripple London’s supply chain. Cripple the supply chain and you cripple the ability to lead. Cripple the ability to lead and, well, you win, hopefully. A simple enough equation, and good tactics in many ways. It was the cynincal punishment of the working classes, the deliberate bombing of the dwellings of the East End that was harder to accept: the German High Command had come to the view that the working classes could be cowed, made to lose heart for the fight ahead.
They were wrong.
They never quite succeeded in shutting down the docks, but the area would never quite be the same again. They never broke the spirit of the East End, but in the long run, this too was changed forever. A lot of brave men, who kept the supplies flowing, frequently under difficult conditions, had been treated quite badly by those who thought that they should have been fighting overseas.
Billy Blind had contacts all over London, and the joke, though never to his face, was that for a man with only one eye, there was little he didn’t ‘see’. It was the East End where he was most comfortable, even though he’d not been born there. Over the years he’d probably done every labouring job going, so not only could he sympathise with the problems specific to a working man’s conditions, but he knew the jargon. Billy liked helping people too: he lent a hand wherever he could, whenever he was able. There were many who were able to eat, when it looked like they might starve, thanks to Billy. And if anyone was having trouble lighting a fire, there was a silent blessing when they saw Billy passing by – he had the knack, and the reputation for being able to make a flame out of a handful of snow.
He didn’t collect favours, like some did, but the code of the East End was that you coped, that you didn’t get into debt. Billy never said anything, but some of the smarter ones realised that Billy collected information and some of them paid off a perceived debt in this currency. Some would help out when Billy needed a hand. Those who thought Billy should stay out of the East End soon found out that messing around with Billy didn’t pay.
The damage to the docks had taken its toll. They’d kept up as best as they could but by the end of the war they’d lost about a third of the capacity, not to mention the devastation to the communities around about. With the pressure off, the business of the docks declined as other routes were found. There was talk of rebuilding. The optimists prophesied a new golden age, greater even than when the docks were first built: the most up to date facilities, greater consideration of safety – the works. The pessimists predicted urban clearance at best, an abandoned wasteland at worst.
As ever, sooner or later, word got to Billy: someone was using the docks without Port Authority permission. Money had been seen changing hands. A different quay everytime but the same three or four small ships bringing people and portable goods in. People disappearing into the night. Billy let it be known that he was interested, that he’d like to know if anyone had any ideas about when the next ship would be coming in. Further afield, he wondered if anyone fancied a bit of a rumble?
The timings had actually worked pretty well, as it turned out. Tinkerbell had a few days grace to settle into the safe house in Seagull Lane. It wasn’t luxurious by any stretch of the imagination, but it was clean and tidy. Without being too obvious about it, Tinkerbell set out about improving security and started thinking about how to go about interdicting a whatever was coming ashore in the Indias.
At relatively short notice, Billy was able to find a dozen or so lads: the usual mix of dockers, East End likely lads, and leavening of a couple of demobbed soldiers who knew what they were about and missed the excitement of a few years before. There was little time to do any serious training, but on the basis of the brief sketches that Billy was able to provide, Tink buddied up the ‘help’ and planned on three teams of two pairs each. At least one docker, all of whom had worked the Indias at one time or another in the past, was included in each team.
They’d only just had time to hold a proper briefing – not all of the lads, obviously, because that would have been a bit too suspicious, but Billy had found a back room in a pub that they could use. They’d had one night’s grace. They looked at the maps, and one of the team leaders, a docker named Albert Grice, who’d been working at the Indias until the day they officially closed was able to bring the map up to date with information on the state of the wharfs and warehouses: which were too precarious for anything, and which might be risked if the stakes were high enough. Which had been demolished completely, and which were still occasionally used for semi-official purposes. Billy’s latest news gave them the details that they needed to refine the plan. The next shipment was coming in tomorrow night: they knew the time, they knew the quay, but they did not know what it was that was being brought in. Tink had the uneasy feeling that he always got when working with a rag-tag team without the time to prepare a proper plan.
And now it was later, and the plan had not survived first contact with the enemy. For a start it seemed as though they’d known something was going to happen, and one of the help had been shot before they even realised that the ship had pulled up at the quay. It was much smaller than they were expecting for a start. Then the fun and games had started. The dockers hadn’t signed on for getting shot at, but fair play, they’d stayed close, even if they had kept their head’s down. The ex-soldiers had fallen into the old drill pretty quickly and had managed to take out a couple of guards and armed themselves at their expense. Then it had really got exciting. The smugglers or whatever they were hadn’t signed on for this, and tried to cast off, but clearly there was another party involved, and they were rather keen to get whatever it was that was being brought ashore off and somewhere safe. It was hard to tell who was who and what was what in the general melee, but there appeared to be two, perhaps three people who were couriers, and then some muscle who were trying to fend off the interlopers, keep the smugglers under control, and keep the couriers on track.
In this last endeavour, and probably the most important, they were unsuccessful: one of the soldiers, who fancied themselves a bit of a marksman, managed to get an angle on one of the couriers and took his chance. The man fell, his package tumbling onto the ground in front of him. The muscle apparently didn’t have good leadership, because they tried to go after the soldier, and then got confused when the remaining couriers took off in different directions. One of Jack’s men managed to take advantage of the situation and secured the package – a briefcase as it turned out – and disappered into the wasteland of the docks with the rest of his team providing some cover.
Jack let the team go. He whispered a message to the man leading the team he’d attached himself to: they took off after the courier heading out of the docks, and he followed the man heading further in.
Now that he was trapped in this creaking old warehouse, he was beginning to think he may have made the wrong move. The warehouse had taken damage in the past, but not so much that it had been condemned. In total it was five storeys of brick, with large arched windows on every floor. He’d manged to scragg the courier just as they ducked through the doorway into the building: it had been an untidy rugby tackle that had seen the unfortunate tacklee crack his head on the stone floor with the kind of sickening crunch which suggested urgent medical attention was required. Hearing footsteps pounding outside along the open boulevard between this warehouse and the next, Jack snagged the package, this one a package about a foot on each side, done up in brown paper and string with red wax seals holding the paper and the string in place. Jack hared off into the building and bounded up the stairs three at a time. He took two flights of stairs this way, and hoping that he had sufficent lead he took another flight much more carefully, before trying to lose himself in the interior of the building.
Jack caught a whiff of something flammable on the still night air. As he looked for a way out, he heard the unmistakable snick of steel on flint. A tiny glow in the darkness came flying in his direction. He flinched as the Molotov smashed on his improvised shelter, splashing its contents: the maker clearly hadn’t had much experience of the Finns or their Alko manufactured fire-bombs and the liquid failed to ignite – this time. Again the snick. Jack got his bearings. The window behind him faced the Thames, and whilst three storeys up was the only credible exit remaining. Time slowed: he could see the next Molotov arcing towards him and he started to move, bouncing to his feet and hitting his stride as if he was wearing the boots of his spring-heeled namesake. He dived through a window as the bottle landed where he had been, and the sudden ventilation encouraged a minor fire to go for the big time. The conflagration washed back towards the arsonist and there were cries of alarm and screams as those coming for Jack beat a singed retreat, where they could.
Outside, ripples spread out from the point at which Jack had entered the water. Broken glass and burning wood fell as a light rain, followed by smouldering fragments of paper, flaring and charring as they floated down on the murkey water of the Thames. Jack sank into the darkness, his last thoughts before it engulfed him that the fire at the docks would be hard to explain and that he would just have to make sure he didn’t need to…
© 2018, David Jesson & Debra Carey