Monday, March 1, 1943
Three months since the trial
Nine days until Nicholas Reitter’s execution
At the bottom of a deep pit, Maggie listened through the earpiece as she pressed a probe against the side of an unexploded bomb. Her face was covered by a mask of sweat and dirt, her hair pulled back into a tightly braided circle. “If you hold your breath, you can hear the ticking,” she said.
She looked up and grinned to show she was joking, but her trainee only looked nauseated. As a part of the 107th Tunneling Company of the Royal Engineers, their job was to defuse unex- ploded bombs left in London by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz in 1940. The sapper team, using picks and buckets, had already dug around the dank bomb crater—nine feet down into cold soil and flint. Thanks to their efforts, the UXB was now fully exposed and ready for defusing.
The 107th was part of the Royal Engineers and the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, which could trace its lineage back nine hundred years to the military engineers who arrived in England with William the Conqueror in 1066. With the advent of the war, however, it had come to be known as the “Suicide Squad.” Starved of resources, given little respect, its members were a ragtag troop of conscientious objectors, or COs—and, now, one woman—who defused and dismantled the unexploded Nazi bombs.
Even though bombs no longer fell from the skies nightly as they had during the Blitz, the city was still a battleground, with strained nerves running like fuse wires. It was estimated that over thirty thousand unexploded German bombs still remained in London— likely to detonate if moved, touched, or “just because.” In January, an unexploded bomb had discharged unexpectedly, killing thirty- eight children and six teachers at a school in South East London’s Catford district. Danger UXB signs were now sights as familiar in the city as red telephone booths.When she was dismantling a UXB, time stopped and nothing else mattered—it was just her and the bomb. All her worries and troubles fell away.
Maggie’s and Milo’s thick-soled boots sank into the cold mud, their khaki uniforms splattered and stained. While Milo was trying his best not to be sick, Maggie felt exhilarated—alive—despite her dry throat and hummingbird heartbeat. Adrenaline coursed through her veins, addictive as cocaine. When she was dismantling a UXB, time stopped and nothing else mattered—it was just her and the bomb. All her worries and troubles fell away. And that divine detachment felt like freedom.
But she was also there to teach. “Can you identify this bomb?” she asked Milo.
“Sprengbombe Cylindrisch One Thousand,” he replied, in what Maggie had come to suspect might be a cockney accent but with richly rolled r’s. “A large, general-purpose, thin-cased ’igh-explosive demolition bomb. About two thousand pounds, I’d say.”
“I read the manual,” he told her shyly. “And what’s this bomb’s nickname?”
“ ‘The ’Ermann’—for that fat Nazi, ’Ermann Göring.”
Maggie nodded. “Good.” Of course, it doesn’t matter if he knows the name of the bomb if it goes off, she thought. But it’s an excellent distraction. The air down in the hole was bitter and smelled of loam. It was almost silent there, below the city streets, the usual hum of London muffled by the densely packed earth.
Maggie put down the probe, then took off her leather gloves and cleaned off the cold metal fuse with her bare hands; her fingers were scarred and her fingernails black with dirt. At least this Hermann was relatively straightforward. As she picked away soil, she sang under her breath, “Every morning, every evening, ain’t we got fun?”
Milo watched intently as Maggie worked. He was only eighteen, with large dark eyes and olive skin. Like her, he was dripping with sweat, despite the cold. His glossy black hair stuck straight up at a sharp angle—from brilliantine or fear, Maggie couldn’t tell. While his physique was slight and wiry, his face still had the roundness of childhood. But he had none of youth’s lightness of heart; even back at headquarters, Maggie had noticed Milo’s demeanor: serious to the point of somber, full lips pressed into a thin, narrow line, always looking askance, as if he’d be ordered to leave at any moment.
As Maggie chipped off the last of the dirt with her nails, she re- membered her own teacher, a lanky fellow with thick blond hair and a matching mustache, saying, “A bomb’s still. It’s cold. But never for a moment forget a single wrong move might send you to eternity. It’s difficult for civilians to understand what it’s like down a hole with a UXB—one minute you’re there, the next you could be ‘pink mist.’ But you need to know. And you need to be prepared.”
From the thick afternoon light and the rumbling in her stomach, Maggie guessed it was sometime around three. When she finished cleaning the dirt from the fuse, Maggie picked up the universal key, using it to loosen the locking ring. “Have you ever been this close to a live bomb before, Milo?” she asked gently, noticing his pronounced pallor.
“I’ve, er, seen a demo, Miss ’Ope,” he said, blinking snowflakes from his thick eyelashes.
“Just Maggie,” she chided. “Especially down here.” She was technically not a “miss,” but a major in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the Army known as ATS, but her rank was a cover for her work with SOE, all of which she’d decided to leave behind. “And don’t forget to breathe,” she reminded him.
Best to keep him occupied, she thought, turning her attention back to the deadly device. “Hand me the extractor, will you?”
“Er, which one is that?”
“Fuse Extractor Number One. The one we call ‘Freddie’ for short.” He fumbled through the tools with sweaty hands, finally choosing one, handing it to her gingerly.
“Excellent,” she told him. He tried to smile, but it never quite reached his eyes. Using the extractor, Maggie began to work slowly and carefully; her movements were precise, even though her hands were red and numb. “I’m making sure the extractor is in line with the eyebolt,” she explained in a level voice. “You see here?” She pointed. “It must match perfectly.”
Milo swallowed. “’Ow—’ow long does this usually take?”
“Each bomb has a life of its own.” Maggie continued to work.
“We could be down here anywhere from twenty minutes to twenty hours.”
“Maybe . . .” His voice cracked bit. “Maybe the ’Ermann’s a dud?”
Well, wouldn’t that be lovely. “Possible, although I’m afraid odds are it’s not. The Germans had lots of practice perfecting their bombs during the Spanish Civil War. They learned the ones that didn’t explode on impact could cause more trouble—especially near schools, hospitals, railways, and the like. They build them so they don’t all go off at once. On purpose.” Maggie sniffed and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “So, I’m assuming you know all about gaines and picric and tumblers? The technicalities of removing the fuse from the bomb casing?”
When she looked up at Milo and saw him sway slightly, she felt a stab of pity. He looks so innocent, she thought, so young and untried. And the poor bugger doesn’t know one end of an extractor from the other. She turned back to the fuse, eyeing the ring of the exploder tube.
Like Milo’s, her only preparation had consisted of reading the Royal Engineers’ Manual of Bomb Disposal cover to cover a few times and watching various officers wrestle with bombs, picking up technique on the job. All the top brass cared about when it came to hiring was Are you unmarried? Are you a good sprinter?
“Well, I learned on the job when I started, too,” she said, attempting to sound encouraging. “And there’s no time like the pres- ent. This is a Category A bomb—which is why we’re disarming it on site.” Milo’s olive skin took on a greenish cast. “Look,” she said, her voice gentle, “you can go back to the truck if you’d like, Milo. I’ll handle it from here. No judgment.”
“No, miss—er, Maggie—I need to learn. I’ve always been handy with mechanical things. And I’m supposed to be learning from you.” He tried to smile. “I ’ear you’re good.”
“Well, the problem with thinking you’re any good is each new bomb you encounter has no idea. We ’re all UXBs, really, when you think of it,” she said, to herself as much as to Milo. “Just waiting for the right combination of things to set us off—maybe today, maybe next week, or next year.” She paused. “Are you sure? Last chance.” “I’ll have to ’andle one at some point.” He swallowed. “Might as
well start now.”
“All right then. Let’s show this bomb who’s boss, shall we?” Her adrenaline level surged again and her pulse began to race, heart beating a staccato tattoo. “Well, come on, get a little closer.”
At Maggie’s feet was a hold-all kit, a canvas bag with the tools the defusers had been provided, including a discharger, hammer and chisel, rags and sacking, and a flashlight. She put down the universal key and picked up the discharger. “Just watch my hands.”
He studied her profile. “You’re the girl in the papers, aren’t you?
The one they’re callin’ ‘the Bomb Girl’? ‘A bombshell on a bomb-shell,’ they say.”
Maggie did her best not to roll her eyes. The previous month, a photograph of her wearing a striped blouse and khaki trousers, straddling an enormous defused bomb and smoking a cigarette, had appeared in The Daily Enquirer. Her superiors at the 107th had not been pleased—they didn’t think the public was ready to know a woman was working as a bomb defuser. Or wearing trousers. Or straddling things.
But while the recognition from the photo irked her, being the “Bomb Girl” was better than being known as the woman who took down the Blackout Beast. And the men of the 107th had taken great pride in the picture; numerous clippings plastered the walls of the mess. “I do some of my best work with lipstick on, actually,” she quipped. “What about you? What’s your story?”
“Don’t you know? I’m a lily-livered conchie,” he said, using the derogatory term for conscientious objectors. “Thought I’d take my chances with the bombs.”
Maggie was aware well over sixty thousand men had registered as conscientious objectors, claiming exemption from military ser- vice. They came from different backgrounds and social classes, but however different they were, they all shared one basic belief: it was wrong—whether for religious, moral, political, or humanitarian reasons—to be conscripted for war and to take up arms and fight. No matter how great the danger facing Britain, no matter how much pressure was put on them to change their minds.
Before working for the 107th, Maggie had had only a vague awareness of the war’s conscientious objectors. She might have as- sumed they were Quakers. Or cowards. But after getting to know the COs in her division, Maggie realized they were all different, and their reasons for refusing to fight were complicated.
The personal costs of registering as a conscientious objector were high: many lost their jobs, some were attacked, abused; others ostracized by their friends and family. She’d learned from talking to them, sometimes down in the dark bomb pit, of the soul-searching that led to their decisions—and the shame and guilt that inevitably followed.
“What’s your reason for being a CO?” Maggie asked. “ ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ yes?” She knew all too well the cost of taking a human life, as well as what it meant to lose comrades and friends. Still, she’d learned to do what needed to be done and was no stranger to violence. “Except we’re fighting the Devil himself in this war.”
“Look, if you could guarantee my getting a shot at ’Itler, I’d take it,” Milo countered. “I’d kill the bugger in a second. Sorry about the language, er, Maggie.”
“Swear all you like down here—I do.”
“But all those other bastards—Musso’s Dagos, the Krauts, the Japs—they’re just like you and me. Poor men, drafted for rich men’s wars.”
Maggie pushed a stray lock of hair from her eyes and chose her words carefully. “But what if everyone became a CO? What if no one fought?”
“Well, with all due respect, miss—if no one fought, then there’d be no war.” He crossed himself.
“Parish of St. Peter’s Italian Church in Clerkenwell.” Clerkenwell was an area in north-central London, not far from Bloomsbury. It was the city’s Little Italy, a neighborhood of Italian immigrants, their children and grandchildren. “I also didn’t want to risk being sent to fight in Italy. Might have to shoot one of my uncles or cousins.” He offered a nervous smile. “How could I come ’ome and tell me mum I killed Uncle Sal?”
Maggie wanted to understand. “But what about loyalty to your fellow Britons?”
“I love Britain, miss—Maggie. I love London. I may not be English, but I’m British.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “And don’t get me wrong—I ’ate Mussolini and his Blackshirts with all my ’eart. Strength, national pride, fake Roman history—all lies.”
“I can only imagine how hard it is to be of Italian or German descent here these days.” Maggie stood up and stretched, cracking her neck and rolling her shoulders. The U.S. papers were thick with stories about their own internment camps. “Or Japanese.”
Milo also rose. “I’ve always been proud to be Italian, but now . . .” He sighed. “Well, it’s ’ard to see anything good about it these days. It’s almost an embarrassment, with Italy in the news so much, you know? And then at the cinemas, they have these horrible pictures of Musso, alongside Hitler and Tojo. Nobody wants to be a part of that gang. I certainly don’t. And after those shorts, I feel like everyone sees us differently. Like we’re in cahoots with the enemy or some- thing. Then add being a CO on top . . .” He shook his head. “Well, I don’t mean to complain.”
“Well, you have nothing to do with Mussolini or any of them, of course.”
“Not with Musso, certainly. But we always joke we’re going to see Zio Peppino or Cousin Luigi sooner or later on those films.” He released a bitter laugh.
Maggie felt for him and decided to steer the conversation back to the matter at hand. She rubbed her hands together to warm them. “All right, back to business—all German UXB fuses are electric. Just think of them as really big batteries. Hand me the crabtree discharger, please. No, not that one—yes, that’s right.” She began to work using the new tool.
Maggie noticed Milo wipe his sweaty hands on his trousers. “It’s always good to bring a handkerchief when you’re working,” she said, handing him a clean cambric one from her pocket. “We all get a bit slippery-handed sometimes.”
“And always remember to watch out for booby traps. Some of the later bombs have updated German engineering—if they don’t explode on landing, they’re rigged to blow during the defusing process. Sometimes I try to picture the bloody Kraut scientist who thought up such a thing, then make it my personal mission to outwit him. Oh, it’s a battle just as much as anything going on in the air or sea or land, believe me. We just don’t see our enemies. But they’re there, hoping today’s the day . . .”
Maggie unscrewed the gaine. There was a small crack! as the detonator was dismantled. She and Milo both stiffened. Slowly, ever so slowly, she pulled out the fuse. Her mouth was dry and her heart thudded. She felt elation. Victory. She picked up the probe and once again put it back to the side of the bomb to check for ticking.
“Anything?” Milo asked.
Maggie shook her head, a wave of triumph rushing through her.
The bomb was defused. We’ve won! Then, This round, at least.
She pulled her gloves back on, then gestured to the ladder. “After you, Milo. Well done.” She tried to ignore the sharp pang of disappointment that it was over. Now she had to return to reality. She’d have to remember and think and feel once again, at least until the next one.
“I—I didn’t do anything.”
“You watched and learned.” She noticed his legs were wobbly and his hands were trembling. “That’s enough for today. And con- gratulations! You didn’t wet your pants—which is more than most can say after their first tussle with a live bomb.”
Milo turned to the wall of the pit and began to dry heave. Maggie looked away until he was finished. “All right?” she asked finally.
“Right as rain,” he answered with a faint smile. But his hands were still shaking.
“Look,” Maggie said, “I’ll climb up first and say you’re finishing up.” She put a reassuring hand on his bony shoulder. “You take as much time as you need and then come up with the tools when you’re ready.”
“I don’t want to make a fuss—”
“You just went face-to-face with a ticking bomb and lived. You’re allowed to take a few breaths.”
“I’m ready to go up now.”
“All right.” She took the whistle hanging around her neck and gave it a good long blow. The piercing sound indicated the bomb was now inert and all were safe.
She gave him a slap on the shoulder. “Off you go, then!” She felt good knowing that by emerging first, he’d have the full effect of the company’s and assorted civilians’ applause—he certainly de- served it.
Above, they realized where they were—a cold, frozen back gar- den of a flat somewhere in Lambeth, dusted with snow. A large sign proclaimed in black and red lettering: danger uxb: Unexploded Bombs and Ammunition. Another announced Touch at Your Peril— Don’t Collect Dangerous Trophies—These Objects Were Meant to Kill. The dark windows of the modest brick row house the garden belonged to had been crossed with tape. A nearby willow tree spread its bare branches against the pewter sky, barrage balloons floating by like surreal silver fish. Poor old London, Maggie thought, watch- ing as a group of boys found pieces of shrapnel to throw at one an-
other with grim relish.
As Milo and Maggie brushed dirt from their clothes, there was a smattering of applause from the assembled members of the 107th— the driver, the digging crew, the disposal unit team. A young house- wife wrapped in a pilling wool coat, a Union Jack scarf covering her hair rolls, cried, “Our hero!” Maggie saw Milo’s face flush when he realized she was referring to him. There were also a few police officers in uniform and civilian onlookers—the young boys with caps who looked on with rapt attention, giggling teenage girls, a few wizened old men with pipes and walking sticks.
A woman in a blue wool turban called out, “God bless and keep you!” over what could only be the low hum of distant airplane engines. Maggie looked up—the noise was coming from the west, growing louder, and Maggie searched the sky. Theirs? Ours? Messerschmitts? Spitfires? The difference could be life or death.
When the planes finally emerged from the scudding clouds, Maggie could see they were a trio of German Messerschmitts. They dove low over the city, close enough that those on the ground could see the black iron crosses emblazoned on the wings. She heard the antiaircraft artillery shooting.
As the crowd watched openmouthed, the aircraft came in low and fast, roaring like wild beasts, sweeping over the rooftops of London, before flying north with their deadly loads.
“Probably off to Cardiff,” the woman in the turban said. “I read in the papers they’ve been going after the factories there now.” While London wasn’t a regular target anymore, the bombings continued, with the Germans targeting industrial cities with large factories: Birmingham, Liverpool, Southampton, Sheffield, and Manchester.
The three Messerschmitts disappeared into the heavens, leaving trails of exhaust against the sky, and Maggie found she could breathe again. The driver for the 107th, a fireplug of a man with enormous forearms, handed her a cigarette.
“Thanks, Pete,” she said with a weak smile. She allowed him to light it for her, then drew on it, causing the tip to glow orange. Pete was another conscientious objector; he called himself a “Methodist pacifist.”
“Well done, Maggie.”
“This one”—Maggie jerked a thumb at Milo, who looked equally pained and pleased—“deserves all the credit. He was cool as a cu- cumber sandwich for the vicar down there.”
Pete took Milo’s measure. “Well done, lad.”
Milo blushed. “What, er, ’appens now? To the ’Ermann?” “Well, these fine gentlemen”—Maggie took a long drag as she
indicated the men in khaki, now circling the hole—“are the disposal team. They’ll take the bomb to Hackney Marshes, for its ‘ultimate demise,’ as they say. But our part of the job is done. And we deserve to have a bit of fun!” She exhaled, a string of smoke rings floating from her mouth.
Milo looked as queasy as he had with the bomb, and he kicked at the frozen earth with the toe of his boot. “I don’t know . . .”
“Nonsense!” Maggie exclaimed. “We ’ll clean up and have a cuppa back at the mess—and then I’m taking you out to celebrate. You conquered your first UXB! The least I can do is take you out.” “I feel a bit like I might explode myself,” he admitted as they
walked with Pete toward the van.
Maggie grinned. “And that, my friend, is why we deserve a drink.”
Excerpted from The King’s Justice by Susan Elia MacNeal. Copyright © 2020 by Susan Elia MacNeal. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.