Scorched Earth - Robert Muchamore

Part One

June 5th–June 6th 1944


Monday 5 June 1944

‘Mondays have never liked me,’ Paul Clarke said, trying to keep cheerful as his face creased with pain.

The fifteen-year-old had turned his ankle and skidded down an embankment. A khaki backpack cushioned the muddy slide, but he had dark streaks down his trousers and puddle water trickling into his boot.

‘Nice slide?’ Luc Mayefski asked, offering a hand as rain pelted their waxed jackets.

The teenagers’ hands couldn’t have been more different. Paul’s slender fingers linked with a great ham fist, and even with 30 kilos of explosive in Paul’s pack, Luc didn’t strain as he tugged his skinny cohort out of the mud.

If it had just been the pair of them Luc would have taken the piss out of Paul’s tumble, but these trained members of Charles Henderson’s Espionage Research Unit B (CHERUB) had to show a united front for the benefit of their inexperienced companions, Michel and Daniel.

Michel was an eighteen-year-old Maquis. Nine months’ living in the woods had left him stringy, with wild hair and a wire tourniquet holding on the sole of his right boot. His brother Daniel was only eleven. Their father was a prisoner in Germany and their mother had vanished after being arrested by the Gestapo. Daniel had chosen to live on the run with his brother, rather than be dumped at an orphanage.

‘Are your explosives OK?’ Daniel asked, as Paul joined the brothers on a muddy track at the base of the wooded embankment.

‘Plastic explosive is stable,’ Paul explained, as he tested his ankle and decided he could walk off the pain. ‘You can safely cut it, mould it. It wouldn’t blow up if you hit it with a hammer.’

Luc checked his compass and led off, eyes squinting as the early sun shot between tree trunks. Even with the rain Luc was sweating and he liked the earthy forest smell and the little squelch each time his boot landed.

Paul and Michel were suffering after 15 kilometres under heavy packs, but Daniel had done them proud. He’d walked all night, but refused to stop even when doubled up with a stitch.

Luc had been out this way on a recon trip two days earlier, and he turned off track at a point he’d marked by pushing two sticks into the soft ground.

‘There’s a good view down from this ridge,’ Luc explained, as he led the way. ‘But keep quiet. The sound carries across the valley and we’re not far from the guard.’

‘If there is one,’ Paul added.

The undergrowth was dense and Michel lifted his brother over a fast stream carrying the overnight rain. As Daniel got set down, Paul was touched by the way Michel put an arm around his little brother’s back and kissed his cheek.

‘Proud of you,’ Michel whispered.

Daniel smiled, then squirmed away, embarrassed, when he realised Paul was looking.

After a dozen more paces, Luc crouched and pushed branches aside. He’d opened a view over a ledge into a steep-walled valley cut into chalkstone. Water dripped off leaves on to Paul’s neck as he peered at two sets of train tracks running along the valley’s base. Sixty metres to his right, the tracks entered the mouth of a tunnel blasted through the steep hillside.

‘You’d never be able to bomb this from the air,’ Luc whispered, as he slid a pair of German Zeiss binoculars from their case. After wiping condensation off the lenses, he raised them to his eyes and looked towards a wooden guard hut near the tunnel mouth. The magnified view showed no sign of life and a padlock on the door.

‘We’re in luck,’ Luc said.

The tunnel formed part of a main line running north from Paris, taking trains to Calais on the Channel coast, or forking east into Belgium and Germany. The Germans had built guard huts at the ends of hundreds of important bridges and tunnels, but only had enough manpower to staff a fraction of them.

‘Nice binoculars,’ Paul noted, as Luc passed them over. ‘Where’d you get them?’

‘Drunk Osttruppen 1,’ Luc explained. ‘They’d swap the uniform on their backs for a bottle of brandy.’

Paul backed away from the ledge as Luc glanced at his pocket watch. ‘If there’s a guard at the other end, we’ll sneak up and take him out from behind. Our target train is due to reach the tunnel at around seven a.m. That gives us half an hour to lay explosives along the tunnel and get in position, but with air raids and sabotage, there’s no guarantee that