Chapter Twenty-Six

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Friday 17 September 1915

Captain Bryce Tompkins had reverted to his proper uniform after their trip to Windsor, and he resumed his duties at Oriel College. He continued the lunchtime meetings with David and Herman two or three times per week. The catering was done by Lance Corporal Hudson, David's new batman.

David opened the door to the knock and congratulated Herman as he came in. "The pips look good on you."

"Good to have the course behind me. You've still four weeks to go, but they become increasingly easy. Actually, the final weeks are almost pleasant."

There was another knock on the door, and David opened it for Bryce to enter. He congratulated Herman on his graduation, then said, "Your leave request to go home next week has been denied. You'll be staying on here to meet the team and begin working with them. Submit another request for the week of 11 October."

Bryce looked at David. "Your afternoon has been excused. We'll be meeting the others on the explosives range at fifteen thirty — well the eleven of them who have now arrived. We've just added another, but he's still in Belgium and won't be here until Sunday."

"So we're fourteen now," David said. "Better we've some spares, rather being short." There was another knock on the door. "That'll be Hudson with lunch."

As they ate, Bryce gave a summary of the team that had been recruited. "Four are Australians, three Canadians and two from each of South Africa and New Zealand, and one from Britain. Five of them have Swiss papers and eight have explosives experience."

"So that's seven of us now with Swiss papers," David said. "This certainly makes it easier."

"I've met none of them, and like you I know them only by documents. This afternoon we'll all meet for the first time. I thought it best to do it casually, and since the range building isn't being used today, I've arranged tea there."

Bryce took a thick folder from his briefcase. "Here are their files. We've seen these before, but they now include the recruiters' notes. Let's read them through to refresh our minds and hope we can quickly link their faces to their backgrounds." He reached into his briefcase and pulled out a roll of adhesive tape and a chinagraph pencil. "We'll all wear our names on our tunics."

A few minutes to three, there was a knock on the door. "That should be the driver," Bryce said, as David rose to answer it.

They were driven through town and north past lush grazing meadows filled with cattle. "Raising beef for Tommy," Bryce said. "And there, ahead, is the aerodrome where we're teaching men to fly." He laughed. "They use targets in the demolitions range for their practice bomb dropping but with bags of sand to save ordnance."

They bounced along the rutted lane across Port Meadow. "We have to chase the cattle away when we use the range, and there are herders who keep them off the landing field when it's in use."

As they stopped next to a group of men in front of the range building, there was a loud bellow, "Group!" All stood to attention, and the Sergeant saluted.

Bryce stepped down from the motorcar, returned the salute and said. "At ease, men." He motioned to David, who had joined him. "This is Lieutenant Berry, your Commander," and pointing to Herman, he continued, "and Second Lieutenant Moberly, your 2IC. I'm Captain Tompkins, your instructor and coordinator."

He swept his arm across the pasture. "We'll be training here for the next four weeks, learning new skills, refreshing old ones, but most importantly, learning to work together as a team and as three smaller coordinated teams." He turned to David. "Lieutenant Berry will brief you on your afternoon's activities."

David took two steps forward and scanned their faces slowly, catching everyone's eyes. "We've much to do. The first thing is to get to know each other. We'll begin by each giving a brief background sketch. I'll start. I'm David Berry from British Columbia, Canada. Exploratory mountaineering background, studied organisation and business administration at university. Volunteered at the start of the war last August. Was in the first gas attacks at Ypres, ended up wounded and behind enemy lines and evaded through Germany to Switzerland. I'm fluent in English, French and German and have Swiss identity papers. I know the theories of explosives and demolition, but I have no experience with them."

He scanned the group. "We'll have Second Lieutenant Moberly use this same format, then you each will follow." David listened to the presentations, and easily related each to the files he had read. He focused as the Sergeant stepped forward as the last to speak. Finally, I've been waiting for this one.

"I'm Georg Heiss, Swiss-born and grew up speaking German and French. I moved to England in 1900 to join the Army and fight in the South African War against the Boers. After the war, I moved to Windermere up in the Lake District to work in the quarries, then I re-enlisted in the Army in 1908 as a Royal Engineer. I've climbed extensively in Switzerland and through the Fells, and I was teaching demolitions at the School of Military Engineering in Chatham when I was posted here, Sir."

David stepped forward and nodded to the men. "A fine bunch we are. We've many skills and talents, a broad range of experiences and backgrounds. We're from five very different countries and our families are from three others."

He pointed to each of them. "Every single one of you has been individually selected for this duty, and each of you is a valuable part of the team. From our little presentations, you will have observed some skills we have in common — fluency in German, wilderness or mountaineering experience and a familiarity with explosives."

He scanned the group again. "That's not all you have in common, though. Your records show each of you has demonstrated initiative and courage, and you've each shown you have huge ballocks. That's essential. We've a bold mission ahead of us." He stroked his beard. "You'll stop having your hair cut in military fashion, and allow your looks to resemble the men in the street. You may stop shaving if you wish."

He motioned his swagger stick toward the door. "Let's go inside and get to know each other. Discover how we can work together. There's a keg of ale and a small buffet in need of demolition." 

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