Peering over the bulwark, the ocean below shimmers like toasting sand on my beach in Melbourne. The waves are just a lot further from my parched feet on this throbbing deck. The sea is actually thrashing. And then there's the bow wake. It's way too big for us kids to surf. Never mind. I must climb over the gunwale to remedy my mistake. As Pappy used to scold, “You gotta test you're mettle.”
I'm dangling on the boarding ramp strung alongside my old warhorse ship. The rickety handrail slithers and slaps the iron hull. Being an only baby-boomer in command of a decommissioned troop ship isn't all Dad's beer and skittles after all. This run-down passenger commuter, Duntroon, certainly keeps me busy. Mum says our cruise to Port Moresby is a get-well-soon present, and I'm putting on a growth spurt. Like I should know.
That smouldering day I'm playing long-distance quoits with myself. I pretend it's a kids' cricket pitch. Anyway, unlike my every other bowl, this Captain Teddy finally chucks one overboard. Luckily it lands on that slippery ramp hung along the starboard side. I feel dizzy sick just staring over at the flexing, but I force myself to walk the gangplank. Slowly. I lose awareness of all but my next step. So far, so good. Eventually, quoit retrieved, I clamber back on board. Relief.
But worse is to come; the Bosun is striding toward me. Now I wish the quoit had fully gone by the board. No point expecting a salute from Mac this time. The caber tossing Scotsman is livid. His eyes are flaring under that flaming red mop. He grunts, as if priming a pump to unleash a tirade.
“No, no, you dinnae do that, not on my ship, lad. For pity's sake, man overboard! Ye daft or somethin'?” He's wagging one finger at my nose, and waving the other fist around.
“Never, you hear me, boyo. Listening? Ne'er go over a rail 'less you're bailing. Unnerstaun?”
“But you said I'm the Captain. I can ...”
“Argh! No, no ... no like that. Away with ya!”
I am ear-tweaked and frog-marched to our brig of a cabin, accompanied by a drum-roll of yammering. My dignified old parents are wide-eyed mortified.
A disabled father and a worn-out mother, desperate for R&R on this trip, had consigned me to my own devices. What mischief could a ten year old concoct, contained at sea without mates, bike, chemistry set, or my adventure park neighbourhood? Luckily the crew befriend me, particularly Mac who treats me like the ship's mascot. I tour the bridge, the engine room, the officers' mess, and even the bilge, plus nooks along the way. I spend hours in the crew's quarters learning ropes and bad language. I master card games, gambling, girl talk and sports bravado.
Twenty years on I also recall being told my old command, MV Duntroon, ferried troops during the War. And she transported a handful of prisoners from the German raider HSK Kormoran, scuttled after sinking the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney with over six hundred hands lost. The ongoing mystery of how Kormoran, a camouflaged merchant with outdated armament, sank Sydney, the pride of our navy, centers on what lured Sydney to its destruction.
On my voyage I also learned Duntroon herself sank a friendly ship or two as well. The ship's colorful history intrigued me even then. I started absorbing the mystique as soon as I discovered Duntroon's bowels graffitied in layers like Aboriginal paintings. I expected to read the where, when, and who; instead I gradually realized the soldiers' act of scribbling was more important than any record left for my benefit.
On wet days I discover panels of cryptic scrawl the deeper I burrow into ever narrower alleys. Water-tight doors prove little obstacle; I'd seen the crew lever the squeaky wheel. My solo expeditions eventually take me through manholes and ducts. Here and there I notice a parcel tucked in a crevice. Strange. There's even some food morsels. Some are almost fresh. Puzzling.
Back on deck another day the crew are servicing the anchor. Lots of cursing and an occasional yap. Ferret is the ship's fox terrier. I like big dogs at home, but I can make do with a foxie who can squirrel into any crevice. Soon he follows me everywhere. Pity he won't sit and shake for me. And as long as I carry him up and down the ladders, he sniffs out packages in the strangest places. Curiosity sparked, I plant a couple of food parcels of my own.
Two days later I find one is unpacked, and not by Ferret. Nor the rats. Who? Not the passengers; they can't even gorge all their lavish helpings. And none can descend a ship's ladder properly anyway. Plus there are no other kids on board to grovel for sweets; I made sure of that. The crew is well fed too; I should know. Their mess is overflowing at meal times, and full of snacks in between. I hardly ever need loiter the galley.
Time to grill Mac who our scavenger is.
“Swain, does anybody live on board?”
“What do you mean laddy, permanent? Ach, who would? We copped an owner for a month or two some years back. Nobody since.”
Dead end. But later I think of a different tack. Nurse Flo is Mac's girl, or so the crew say. Been on board nearly as long as Mac. Still speaks like a Pom. Long fair hair wound up in a bun makes her even taller. Mum says she's from Devon. I love Devonshire teas - not the sitting prim and proper part, just the scones, jam and lots of cream. Anyway, Miss Flo is everyone's friend, solid and dependable. So I can quiz her next time she checks my wheeze.
Fast forward and I fondly remember Nurse Flo as the only working woman on the Duntroon. She dispensed mild derision to the snotty officers, and muted sarcasm to the pretentious passengers. As for the burly crew, even with her smile she wouldn't take any crap. And then there was her Teddy, the supposedly sickly child. But she only softened a smidge. Doubtless I was a welcome relief from middle-aged female passengers with hypochondria and menstrual issues, sipping gin slings and juggling gossip. Flo told me how she lost her man early in the War at Dunkirk. She was stoic, but she particularly harbored a lingering resentment for ungrateful European patients.
“Miss Flo, do you speak German?”
“Teddy, I'm a ten pound Pom, you know. After the London blitz we all learnt a smidge, just in case. Bloody gruff language – ah, sorry.”
“Can you read a few words for me in the baggage hold?”
“What were you doing down there? Does Mac know? I'll give him whatfor if he's leading you astray.”
“No, no, I found it on my own. There's lots of writing all over the ship.”
“Yes, well that's soldiers' talk. Not meant for you. They wouldn't write German anyway. Now, tuck your shirt back in your shorts. Nearly dinner time.”
I must look pretty dejected. She claps.
“Righto, after mess, you can show me.”
Jumping up, I'm out the door. “Yeah. Bring a torch. I'll bring Ferret and swat the spiders.”
Flo's not bad through the hatches and down the ladders, although she's a bit wide in the beam. At least her blonde bun wards off bumping the noggin. And she likes Ferret's attention. He looks at her sideways whenever she hesitates. She sure must be keen to see where I get up to mischief some days. Good thing she doesn't know about my boardwalk exercise. Thanks Mac.
“Teddy, it's putrid down here.”
“Over here, shine the torch, Miss Flo. See ..”
Through the dank air the beam lit up the rusty inner hull. The writing reflects the whites of all the eyes that wrote it. Ferret follows the spot of light.
“Good god, there's graffiti everywhere. Teddy, this isn't for you.”
“This way Miss Flo, along the footbridge. Give me your hand. And keep your head down.”
“If you're going to hold my hand, call me Flo, alright?”
We're nearing the bow. I can feel the panting. Flo is looking scared.
“It's just the pulse of the prow. Mac told me. The ship's breathing.”
“Well, it hurts my ears ... and it's foul. How much longer? What happened to the baggage hold anyway? We are way deeper.”
I heave the bulkhead porthole open. Flo lights up the crawl space.
“No, no ... not in there. It's only a closet. Not even room to stand.”
I dive in, and coax poor Flo inside. I notice her fragrance. She's a spunky miss alright. Ferret follows. Flo crouches with her arm around him. I point her torch above us. Flo stares. Side-on her bright eyes sparkle. I can tell she's reading with surprise. I'm rapt too. She finishes, and tries to look pained. I think she's too timid to talk. All I feel is a softness like I want to pat her.
“It's Jerry alright. Amazing, Teddy.” Smiling at me, “I wondered if any were on board.”
Yippee for my discovery. I suddenly feel taller, and bump my scone.
“Incredible. This German writing is almost tidy, though in different hands. Not like our fellas' scribble. You see their surnames too, not just the odd initials. There's one, 'Skeries'.” Pointing enthusiastically, “The extra letters must be their ranks. Here ... must be a lieutenant.”
I watch a tear glisten down her cheek.
As her finger trembles, “Those squiggles could even be signatures. And look, Teddy, the dates are all forty-one or forty-two. Still early wartime but after the blitz ... after my Dunkirk.”
Ferret sniffs. Flo shifts her gaze to me. “How'd they get in here, Teddy? Fascinating. I'll ask around the crew.”
I squirm at a dreadful realisation.
“Ah, Flo, please don't tell where Jerry is. Not yet anyway. I'll be grounded if Mac or my olds learn where I go. Please, pretty please, Flo.”
“Alright Teddy, don't fret. I'll just say I thought I saw German writing in the baggage hold, and ask how it could get there.”
“I trust you Flo. Cross your heart?”
Flo's better than a big sister, not that I want one. Bit old for a girlfriend, luckily. Anyway, on with my next item. What will Flo say about my other find?
“On the way back, Flo, I've something else to show you.”
“Not more surprises, Teddy! I can hardly wait.”
I lead Flo past one of the tucked away parcels. This discovery is even more important to me than the writing. I point at the crevice. She glances, then instantly freezes. In the glow she looks like she's been caught out. Like I do with a pinched lollie. Ferret sits, expectantly.
“Who would hide this, Flo?”
She shrugs. “Well, it's not mine, young man. Just leave it be.”
“But there's more. And food too. Who stashes snacks on board?”
“Teddy, listen to me. This is not your business, or mine. Promise me you'll forget about it. I mean it. Promise?”
I shuffle about, nod, cross my heart ... and two fingers.
“Now Teddy, get us out of here. It's getting late. Your folks will be wondering.”
Next day I'm in Flo's surgery waiting for her to stethoscope my bronchitis dash pneumonia. Cough, cough, I hate being sickly, but no point grizzling. Up the corridor I hear Mac storm in. He's bellowing Scottish. Flo's voice is immediately soothing. She's trying to quieten him, probably for my benefit. I hear some shuffling. Then there's some muffled lovey-dovey sweet-talk. Flo must be drawing him into the far cubicle. Mac's still snarling about something. I'm off the bunk, through the curtain, and creeping along the corridor toward them.
“... Can ya b'lieve it? Just a wee engine issue downstairs. Turns into a great muckle. I got the oiler, fitter and two ratings ... all belly-aching at the blunt Engineer. Shite!” In the moment's silence I wonder how close I can get. “Aye, me lass, and what's your trouble?”
“Arh, Teddy.” I imagine Mac praying skyward. “What's he done nou?”
“He's found German writing in the hold.”
“Aye, up forward? Tha's easy. You know, this old girl transported refugees, not just our boys.”
“In the Far East, Asians sure. And ex-pats, I expect. We even know one Dutchman, eh Mac. But no Germans. You never mentioned any German sailors.”
Flo sounds a bit shrill.
“Lass, maybe a few Jerry prisoners too.”
“Jerries? You know how I detest them. On the Duntroon?”
“Aye, not to worry, Pet. Let it be, awricht.”
More shuffling, a sob or two, and some whispering. Gee I'm rapt. Prisoners of war, POWs, yes! I'm straining to listen, but Mac's gone quiet too. I can only hear Flo still pacing. She suddenly stops.
“Teddy's also found some hiding spots, some with food. Must be Frits, right? Look, I love Papa, but Teddy will come across the gnarly gnome sooner or later. Nothing surer. What do we say then?”
Mac's boot stomps. “Mmh, that's no so good. ... Shite!”
Flo tries to shush him now. More stomping double-time.
“Weel, Teddy must'a found the walkway for'd over the bilge. He's a gutsy lad alright. But the wee geet could bring us grief, you're richt. Aye, let me think on it, wumman. Anyhoo, things'll keep him busy with me over the next day or so. Just ye keep the lad under wing too.”
“Righto. He's in the aft cubicle now, playing doctor.”
Mac's footsteps accelerate. Quick, back to my cubby hole, pronto Tonto. All innocent, I'm wondering ... who's this Frits? Why's Flo call him Papa?
Later that arvo I'm on deck with some of the guys when the ship stops humming. My toes feel it first. Then the slowing silence expands. The crew just nod among themselves and deal another hand. They say we're coasting past the port of Cairns, gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Mac ambles by. No fuss.
“Lucky Cairns is timely fo' repairs, eh boys? Bloody donk. No oil pressure.”
There's a knowing grin or two from the crew. Mac winks at me and slips below. I'm on his heels. I hate the breathless pong of diesel in the engine room and its greasy slime. But it's eerie quiet now. When the First Officer appears, I slip away. On deck the crew are whinging at the downtime and delayed passage. Sure they are! Perhaps it's the dull prospect of night life in town.
After limping into port around sundown, we're careering into town in someone's Jeep. No headlights, just the Moon and potholes. I'm perched on the tailgate. Mac and the fellas chortle ditties as we swerve along tunneled tracks. I'm swiped by the odd palm branch. This is just like a horror chamber tour, full of delicious surprises. We abruptly skid to a halt. It's time to crash a bar or three. In each one I'm given a girl or two to mind. Ho-hum. They seem to enjoy being off-duty with me, plied with complimentary drinks, courtesy of Mac. The crew moves on but the ruckus keeps swelling. Mac disappears in search of the rowdiest ones. Or more booze and women.
Next morning the crash of a loose gantry on the foredeck certainly wakes the deck chair potatoes. I scurry below decks when Mac finds me farting around the debris. One of his mean stern looks is enough to send me below decks. Meeting Ferret on routine patrol, he immediately scampers along a new alley, yapping ahead of me. Tail wagging, he's found something. Actually, someone.
Not a passenger or crewman I've seen before. He's an old-timer, scrunched over. As he turns around slowly I see he's pasty white like his beard and brimless cap. When I see his hands I'm thinking ghostly, but I gotta act fearless.
“I'm Teddy. This is Ferret.” At least he's happy as Larry circling the maybe not so old man.
“Frettchen, nein! Sitzen! ... I am Frits, young man.” Ferret sits.
“Are you with the crew? I haven't seen you before.”
Frits carefully sits on a tea chest and starts filling a pipe. After a puff or two Ferret jumps on his lap.
“Young Teddy, is it? Are you old enough to keep a secret?”
“Sure, Nurse Flo already asked me to keep yours.”
“Vhat! She told you about me?” Ferret stirs.
“Not exactly. Flo asked me to forget about the food parcels.”
“Zee stores, as you say, 'for rainy day,' ja?
Frits jabs the pipe my way. “So, Teddy, can you forget about me too?”
“Are you a stowaway or something?”
“Vell, I am on this ship many years. I have no papers, so Mac the bosun and the crew don't tell the officers.”
“Are you German?”
“I prefer Dutch but ...”
“Can you read German? I found some writing up for'ard. Flo couldn't read it all.”
“Ja, I know all about that. Young Teddy, what did Fraulein Flo say about me?”
“Nothing. Are you a prisoner of war?” Ferret jumps down and plops between us, but he's getting restless.
Frits looks around him and puffs. “I need zis ship. It's my home ... Frettchen, halt! Teddy, can you take him on deck? He needs der sandkasten, er, sandbox.”
“I see you here again?”
He leans over to shake my hand. “You von't tell?”
“Nein. ... Come on Ferret.”
The next time I drop by the clinic. I'm smiling, but Flo is definitely crooked on me. Like my mum, she's not about to say why. Instead, she smoulders until I can't take anymore.
“What's up, Flo?” She waves me off, looking for some apparatus or other, but really seething. I join in, rattling bits and pieces around.
“Teddy, stop that gadgeting and fidgeting. For heaven's sake!” Flo turns her back on me. Hands on hips, she asks the porthole, “How was Cairns' nightlife?”
“Ah, fun. The Jeep ride was like the carnival.”
“What did you do? Meet anyone nice?”
“Just the bars. There were some girls ...”
“Oh glory be! What happened?”
“They're crazy. Told me some great stories about the crew ... brawling and carrying on. Funny stuff.”
“And Mac? What was he up to?”
“He kept buying us drinks, and some lollies. Then he had to chase the crew.”
“So he wasn't womanizing like you, eh? Small mercies.” I can tell a wry grin when I look up. “Still a cad, leading you astray. Wait 'til I get my hands on you, Mac.”
“Aw, Flo, Mac's a good bloke. He looks out for me ... picks me only the nice girls.” I start fidgeting again. Flo could still blow her top. Time to get scarce, before she tries another tack.
The Cairns escapade must have cost Mac some sleep. I hear the officers worked out the engines hadn't failed. And of course Flo is still fuming over me. When I drop by the clinic, Mac and Flo are at it, hammer and tong. My olds could never keep up, thankfully. I hear Flo in full fury, “... only a child ... traiping sleazy town ... bars and strip joints ... molls.” In return Mac is “... y'ur the lappie-mirther, you mind him then, specially nighttime ... you do better ... he'll be more of a mischiefer fo' ye.” Whoa. I'm off to find Ferret and duck below.
Later I look for Mac on his own. Around sunset I find him on the lower deck smoking. My mum reckons puffing soothes mind bumps.
“Sorry about the trouble, Mac.” His craggy mooch looks round at me.
“Think no of it, laddy.” And with a wink, “Weemen.”
“What about the First Officer and the engines?”
“Just brislin. A bit het up. Steam blown off nou.”
“I met Frits, you know.”
Mac looks away. “Och, did ye nou?” Taking a drag, “Ye keep it to ya'self, boyo. Aye?”
“No worries, Mac. Promise. Just tell me, how come Frits is a prisoner?”
Mac butts out, and walks me farther aft. “Mind you hold y'ur tong wi' this. Awricht?”
I extend my hand. Mac puts his arm round my shoulder.
“Frits is no Dutchy. In the War, Oberleutnant Fritz Skeries be the gunnery officer on a German raider, Kormoran.”
“Fritz is the enemy! But Flo hates Jerry - ah, she thinks he's Dutch?”
“Aye, she soft on her Papa. So no tellin'.”
Argh! I'm seeing red like Flo would.
“Okay, Mac, so what's a raider?”
“It's a merchant ship fro' ootside, but heavily armed in disguise. It sneaks up enemy merchants, to capture or sink 'em.”
“Did Fritz sink our ships?”
“Aye, lad. Some. Ere thair raider come ower p'haps the pride of your navy, the leet cruiser, Sydney. An' the Kormoran sank her too. True. All Sydney's crew went down wi' the ship.”
“No! How many died?”
“Six hundred or more. And most of Kormoran's crew leeved. “
“But Mac, how does an armed merchant sink our top warship?”
“That's the mystery, laddy. They say Sydney came too close, thinkin' Kormoran was friendly.”
“So Fritz won. Wow! How'd he end up prisoner on Duntroon? “
“B'for Sydney sank, she managed to cripple Kormoran. Jerry scuttled and got captured off Fremantle.”
“Does 'scuttle' mean they still ran away?”
“No, not quite, laddy. They sunk their own ship to mar capture, then tried for land in their lifeboats. This very Duntroon shipped Kormoran's officers to Melbourne. But ou' canny Fritz went missing. Dis'peared.”
“Why did he hide on board? Chicken!”
“No, no ... none of it. Fritz did his duty awricht. Later he was gi'en the Iron Cross First Class. But your michty navy decided Fritz couldn't sink Sydney 'cep Kormoran conned it. Ya nou, deceived it?”
“You mean their ship pretended to be friendly? That's dirty.”
“No that simple lad. Soldiers can camouflage. Ships can disguise 'emselves, long as they hoist their real flag afore attacking. Fritz swears they did, but only when they closed 'nuff to have the upper hand. Your navy no believe him. And Fritz as gunnery officer, copped it worst, b'for 'n durin' the Duntroon vaige. A bloody hidin' he gat, his back like tread. You dunna want to see how hard a man can be flayed, Teddy. Mind 'n body.”
“Fair dinkum, Mac, Flo would kill Fritz if she knew his real story. Her Tommy died at Dunkirk. She told me the Germans shot him in the back scrambling to board a ferry.”
“Trulins, Teddy. Aye! When she first come aboard and heard about a stowaway, she would'a gone stark wuld if she knew Fritz was a Nazi prisoner. But one day she melloo li' the rest of us. The War's weell over nou. Awready Fritz could be her pa. Bonny lass.”
One drizzly morning I'm practising knots under shelter. Ferret is tugging at the loose ends. I try lassoing him but he sidesteps and yaps like it's another game. Mac strides by, and chuckles.
“T'night I'll learn ye the Zeppelin bend. Here, seven sharpish. Aye?”
After dinner I slip away. I'm early but I see Mac and Flo in the shadows. They're smooching so I stay back awhile. The tenderness intrigues me. It's not part of their nine to five jobs. Maybe that's why they need it. Pity I can barely hear them, until Flo startles, “You invited Teddy here? When?”
“Around nou. What's it matter, lass?”
“Mac, if he discovers us as an item, and Frits any day now, he's bound to tell.”
Mac's trying to quieten her, but Flo is getting restless.
“Flo ... Flo, just wait a rap. List to me. Teddy's awready met ou Fritz.”
Flo goes limp, and Mac draws her closer. “Teddy give his word ... he'll no blab. Ah tell you why. The lad finishes what he starts. Ye know the board'n ramp yonder side? While back he clambered over onto it – had to fetch a quoit he chucked over. True. In a seaway I couldna get crew to go over.”
I can see Flo gasp. She'll go ape, but Mac clasps her cheeks like he's rubbing noses. “ .. tell you, lass, he's enough of a man no to gab. He's one wi me.”
Flo's head drops to his shoulder.
Time for me to arrive. “Ferret, mushy stuff, eh?” as he yaps on cue.
“Ah Teddy, Mac was just showing me the airship knot,” as they loosen grip.
I've been back to the rendezvous a few times looking for Fritz. One time I found an old pair of binoculars. I guessed Fritz had been back too. The next time, the glasses are still there, so I take them to Mac. He says they're 7x50 Kriegsmarine, by Zeiss. Pre wartime German quality, and definitely Fritz'. Mac reckons he must want me to have them, but I don't feel right. I return them and wait. By lunchtime Ferret is getting irritable. At least I've worked out how to adjust the right eyepiece to focus properly. As we leave, Ferret turns and points. Fritz coughs.
“You like Zeiss, ja?”
“So clear, for miles, amazing.”
“They're yours then.” I nod sideways. “Vhy not? No use to me in here.” I smile.
“I'm really grateful, but how do I explain them without mentioning you? And they're German.”
“Ah, your promise. Goot. So you hide them until departure. Zen, just say you find them. They're nobody's.”
“Beaut!” But then I look away. “I'll miss Ferret ... everyone onboard.”
Fritz pats me on the head. “You keep promises and your memories. Be strong, ja?”
I can't hide Fritz' glasses in my cabin in case Mum finds them and she asks who gave them to me. Ditto Flo, but if I tie them in wrapping paper, hopefully she'll mind them without prying. Sheesh, Flo immediately asks, “Where did you get the parcel?” But I've rehearsed my reply.
“It's a parting gift from Fritz, only to be opened when I disembark.”
“Well Teddy, if I'm to mind it, you won't mind me taking a peak first.”
She's not asking me. Before I can think how to say 'no,' she's staring at a pair of binoculars labelled 'Kriegsmarine von Zeiss.' Recognising them to be German military issue, she steps back and glares at me. Horror registers as her colour leaks away. When she grabs my hand she's on a mission, pale but fuming.
Outside her surgery she commands Ferret, “Finden Frits.” Flo is dragging me along in search of Fritz. Finally she catches him ambling in a dank corridor. Flo halts abruptly and calmly queries to his back, “Kriegsmarine von Zeiss? Ein geschenk für Teddy?”
Fritz hesitates, then simply tosses over his shoulder, “Ja.”
Flo is squeezing my hand and trembling. Ferret is circling himself between us and Fritz. She coughs out, “Where did you get military issue binoculars?”
I'm tugging her hand to be released. Flo darts down at me, “Stop!”
Fritz turns and answers, “Fregattenkapitan Theodor Detmers, my commanding officer on HSK Kormoran.”
Flo winces like a needle has been flung in her eye. I break free. No sound, then one screech as she whirls about and weaves back along the corridor.
Fritz is weeping too. “Go, Teddy, calm her. Bitte.”
I catch up with Flo at the watertight door about to go on deck. But she's collapsed in a corner. I sit next to her. When she notices I give her my grubby hankie. She snorts and clasps my hand. Ferret almost crawls up to us.
“He's the enemy. I thought he was like Papa.”
I want to say how Mac explained Fritz to me. But all I can manage is, “He was the enemy.”
“Where's Mac do you think. I want a piece of him. Liar!”
Oh boy, here we go again. Flo's raging with me in tow.
Mac sees us coming. His arms leave his side with a shrug. What can he say? Flo only just stops when she's nose to nose. “Dutchy, my arse.”
Mac glances at me, and Flo let's me go. “You're a liar, Mac the Bosun.”
He steps back and checks if any crew are in earshot. “Flo, ye wouldna be civil, no matter War's done. Fo' awbody's sake, had to keep the peace.”
Flo's seething and goes to backhand him. “What he say ye, lass?”
She's hesitating. I offer, “Fritz straight out admitted he was on the Kormoran.”
“Aye Flo, ye dippit on him and 'e struck his true colours at ance. Gotta give 'im that, lassie. Nou it's cleared yer pretty head, we can move forrit.”
I grudgingly accept my adventure is ending. The days get harder. I can't relax; too much to cram in. I spend every minute with someone – Mac, Flo, Fritz, the crew. My parents look surprised to see me. They can wait. On my last day I return to the rendezvous point where I first met Fritz. A well used handbook is laying on the tea chest as if waiting for me. It's blue dog-eared cover says 'Langenscheidt Taschen Wörterbucher'. I open it and realize it's a battered German-English dictionary, obviously Fritz'. I move it aside and plop dejectedly on Fritz' box. Ferret hops in my lap. I pat him and start to cry. I can't face leaving. Eventually I doze off, propped against the bulkhead.
Ferret stirs when Fritz shuffles in. I shift off his seat. He lights up. Ferret's ears prick as Fritz fossicks for a tidbit. Instead out comes a small book, like the psalms in church, and just as worn out. I watch him leaf through it, almost affectionately. Then he quickly hands it to me. I carefully lift the blank cover. The pages are tiny handwritten, in German I guess. A few pages include diagrams.
“What's this?” I go to hand it back, thinking it's important or precious.
“But I can't read it.”
“You will one day. It's our secret until then, ja? Keep it safe.”
“Sure. Did you write it? All these entries.”
“Ya vol, Junker.”
“What's it all about?”
Fritz taps his chest and puffs. Ferret leaps in his lap and looks at me, unblinking. “Young Teddy, shake my hand. And don't forget your dictionary – you'll need it.”
Another twenty years on, just after I cracked my first state secret, I remember the diary Fritz entrusted to me. I dig it out of my library of once read novels. It shouldn't be there as it was indecipherable. Then again ... Anyway, now I'm an information technology professor specializing in internet espionage, I have the skills to decrypt Fritz' diary, into German at least. How else could Fritz expect me to decipher his puzzle? Or anyone for that matter. It turned out to be in a code not readily crackable in Fritz' era.
Back in Melbourne there's a new kid on the block. Rudi and his parents are European migrants with splotchy English. Once us kids work out he's German, the taunting begins. He fights back with a double-edged sword. His father was an SS sergeant so watch out. We start a ging war across the street between our houses. First it's yonnies, then marbles and finally we escalate to ball bearings. He snipes from his vantage in a high tree behind his front fence. I sneak around my back yard to fire from unexpected cover. We're good enough shots to just miss each other.
Eventually Rudi learns enough English, and with my help, enough slang to mix in. We start to get along, but always compete. He'll never kick a footy properly, let alone master a torpedo. But his Dad's medal and SS insignia carry weight. So I tell him about Fritz on the Duntroon. Rudi only believes me when I show him Fritz' old binoculars with the Kriegsmarine logo. We have to trust each other now.
After a couple of years Rudi announces he's leaving. His folks are buying a house out west. I promise to visit but don't expect to. I reckon I can show him Fritz' diary now. Like Flo, Rudi can barely read a sentence, though most words are recognizably German. He says it's double Dutch. Days later he tells me he sketched one of the diagrams from memory for his Dad. Geez! I punch him in the arm. Rudi swears he only blabbed “Teddy found the notebook on his ship.” Anyway, his 'fuhrer' supposedly guessed the two curves that cross, then run near parallel, show the course of two ships in a naval engagement. That's some leak, Rudi. Glad I didn't spill any more about Fritz.
In hindsight Rudi's father probably gleaned a lot more from his son's tattle. Clearly, the binoculars suggest Fritz was a German naval officer. The notebook was likely his diary. That Fritz remained on the Duntroon indicates a POW stowaway. To further surmise that Fritz was off HSK Kormoran would be straightforward. Kormoran's infamy for sinking Sydney lingers even after both wrecks were located in 2008 off the West coast. And the only German navy prisoners reported in the newspapers to have been shipped into Australia were Kormoran's. Of course I now know only one POW on Duntroon went missing, presumably overboard – one Oberleutnant Fritz Skeries, the artillery officer 'posthumously' awarded the Iron Cross First Class by the Third Reich for his instrumental role is sinking Sydney.
In his diary Fritz claims his Kapitän Detmers was obsessed with Sydney, though the heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra was also patrolling in Kormoran's vicinity. Fritz notes for instance, Detmers learned his radio-officer had once toured HMAS Sydney. The radio-officer was formerly the RO on a German merchant moored adjacent Sydney in a Spanish port in the mid 1930's. Detmers' excitement was palpable when the RO explained the crews exchanged visits. Detmers actually interrogated his RO about the exact location of Sydney's critical command posts and infrastructure. Fritz states he was ordered to record elevations and other detailed targeting data.
When Kormoran needed a new disguise before entering Australian waters, it radioed German HQ for suggestions. According to Fritz, Detmers chose the Dutch freighter Straat Malakka, despite HQ being unable to confirm its secret Allied call sign. Apparently Kormoran's RO was confident he could bluff if challenged because former neutral merchants were often slack with wartime identification safeguards. At least HQ was satisfied the silhouettes of the two ships were sufficiently similar, plus the real Straat Malakka was currently plying obscure routes in the Dutch East Indies.
Fritz' diary records Detmers cited a further reason to adopt the Straat Malakka disguise. Most of Sydney's bridge officers, the wardroom at least, were seconded Royal Navy. Detmers was aware they were highly experienced from Sydney's Mediterranean campaign. Consequently they lacked local knowledge of Straat Malakka, its itineraries and cargoes. Additionally, Detmers was informed HMAS Sydney's Australian born Capitan was new to his command from a senior shore posting.
The diary I decrypted contained one particularly difficult passage to translate. I wish I could have asked Fritz for clarification. The translation certainly outlined a plan of radio communication in the event Kormoran was challenged by Sydney. The communication plan intended to utilise a previously undisclosed level of familiarity between these two ships' personnel. This extra channel of informality would leverage Kormoran's preferred disguise as Straat Malakka. Suddenly I realized Detmers had an ace up his sleeve.
Fritz relates that in pre-war days the Kormoran's radio-officer personally knew the RO currently assigned to the real Straat Malakka. He was a Dutch colleague, even a chum. And he was married to the sister of the British number one officer on Sydney. Fritz records on hearing this news Detmers danced a jig. Detmers could presume the sister in Holland would be out of touch with her brother, thanks to the war. Kormoran disguised as Straat Malakka could utilise this familiarity in the event of radio challenge from Sydney.
I understood that Sydney's No.1 should be delighted to hear from his brother-in-law serving as radio-officer on the real Straat Malakka. Fritz almost apologetically reveals that Detmers ordered his RO to prepare a convincing dialogue along these lines. The pretend Straat Malakka's RO would announce himself as the brother-in-law of Sydney's No.1. Fritz affirms Detmers even required his RO to rehearse his wife's personal greeting as the sister of Sydney's No.1. Was this planned communication ever conveyed?
Armed with this revelation I researched the known Kormoran-Sydney radio communications. Only snippets were overheard elsewhere at sea or on land. If there was any informal chit-chat, it would almost certainly not be logged. Could this explain a ruse that crucially persuaded Sydney to approach the unknown merchant as an innocent rather than a suspicious vessel?
The day my parents and I disembarked, Flo is waving on the deck above the gangway. I can see her lips exaggerating. I know she's mouthing the saying she and Mac drilled into me about Fritz, Loose Lips Sink Ships.