Monday, 12 July 2010

JUSTICE By Dean Crawford


In my experience, those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it.

As I stare down the barrel of a rifle into the tortured eyes of the soldier before me, the sounds of the raging battle become muted and time seems to stand still. Curtains of smoke drift across a wasteland of shattered masonry, and I flinch as fighter aircraft thunder past overhead. Shafts of sunlight reach down from the clouds, accusing fingers from heaven illuminating the horrors below.

Beyond the barrel the soldier trembles with a volatile fusion of hatred and fear. As I see the terminal defiance in his expression I know that there will be no mercy.


Caen, Normandy, France.

9th July, 1944

‘How many casualties are there?’ I ask.

Lieutenant-General John Crocker’s grey eyes swivel to peer at me above the twisted bayonets of his moustache.

‘Eight hundred civilians, Jim,’ he says in his clipped tones. ‘But that’s not why you’re here.’

We stride through a muddy quagmire churned by the passing of the 79th Armoured Division, to where tents overlook the beaches of the Cotentin. The hiss of the breakers is punctuated by blasts of artillery that reverberate through my chest. Crocker approaches an exhausted officer standing beside a jeep and introduces me.

‘This is Lieutenant James Warner, Corps of Military Police. Jim, this is Captain Morris, 9th Brigade.’

Morris’s hand is as dry as torchwood. His mouth twitches a ghostly smile like many others I’ve seen recently; scoured of emotion, a man who has stared death in the face and wondered what he’s achieved by doing so.

‘Sorry to drag you into this,’ Morris rasps.

‘It’s my job, sir. What happened?’

‘Six civilians killed for what they had on them by one of our lads. We’re holding him at the moment.’

‘I’m sure everything will be resolved, captain,’ I reply simply. ‘Shall we?’

Morris drives the jeep whilst I try to ignore the exhaustion aching through my bones and remind myself that I’m lucky to be here at all.

We came ashore on the 6th at Courseilles-Sur-Mer, Sword Beach: D-Day. Machine gun emplacements, mortars and artillery welcomed us with a hail of fire. Bullets thumped into human flesh, wounded soldiers chanting mankind’s hymn of war as we hurled ourselves out of the landing craft. The crashing surf was stained with crimson foam, but somehow the 9th Brigade carried the beach as the Nazis fell back towards Caen.

Afterward, we Provosts began marshalling artillery ashore as the lads of the 3rd Infantry advanced on Caen and the 12th SS Panzer Division under Standatenfurher Kurt Meyer.

‘We’ve linked up with the Canadians at the Orne River,’ Captain Morris said. ‘The Nazis are still holding the south.’

As we drove through the outskirts of the city I had the impression of a medieval town that had been ravaged by an earthquake then flayed by fire. Buildings and churches lay shattered, their broken walls jutting like giant bones above the rubble. Crackling fires blustered on the wind, soldiers patrolling through the wasteland like ghosts drifting through fog.

‘Is there anything left?’ I ask.

‘RAF Lancasters hit the town before we arrived,’ Morris said. ‘They missed the bloody Panzers though.’

The Panzer Division was the Provost’s target after we learned that their commandant, Kurt Meyer, had massacred Canadian and British prisoners of war two days ago. I’d been assigned to tracking him down when Crocker had accosted me back at the beach.

‘Here we are,’ Morris pointed to a scorched town house and pulled in.

As we duck through what remains of the building’s front door I notice something crackling beneath my boots, and look down to see thick deposits lining the doorframe, congealing in bulbous puddles.

‘Bloody melting roofs are starting fires all over the city,’ Morris said.

We reach what must once have been the living room, the remains of a large settee opposite a fireplace. Pictures lay scattered about, broken and abandoned like the lives they once represented. Further in, a kitchen area opens onto a garden split asunder by a large crater. The walls are pock marked with bullet holes. I glance up and see that the entire upper floor is a maze of charred timbers and roof beams exposed to the sky above.

Then I see the bodies.

Some lie contorted against the kitchen cabinets, others sprawl across a table charred by flames. Shattered bowls and plates littered with crumbling food testify to the time of their demise.

‘Yesterday evening?’

Captain Morris nods but says nothing.

I look at the bodies and can see scorched lesions perforating flesh. A young woman stares at my boots with beautiful green eyes now devoid of life, her chest peppered with bullet wounds. I kneel down, reaching out and pushing my finger inside one of the wounds. The tip of my finger touches a ball of cold, hard metal.

‘We found bullet casings,’ Morris says. ‘God, how could he have done it?’


‘Private Samuel Cain,’ Morris said as though spitting something unpleasant from his mouth.

‘Any history of violence?’

‘The army will hire anyone willing to fight,’ Morris replies. ‘But Cain’s a coward, barely got off the boats at Sword.’

I fruitlessly examine the bodies for any other cause of death, as something sits on my shoulder and gnaws away at me.

‘What does Cain have to say about all of this?’ I ask.

‘Says they were dead when he got here,’ Morris muttered, ‘and that he got pinned down by a couple of snipers. He admits stripping the family of their possessions but swears he didn’t kill them.’

‘Bullet casings?’

‘Lots of Standard British calibre, but we didn’t find any German casings.’

I glance out of the door frame to the cratered garden, then back at the bodies in the kitchen. Something doesn’t add up but I can’t put my finger on it.

‘Let’s go and see Private Cain.’


‘Go to hell.’

Samuel Cain’s gaze twitches as he speaks. He’s nineteen years old, bony in his features and haunted with repressed terror.

The beach-houses at Courseilles-Sur-Mer are doubling as prisons for captured enemy troops. Private Cain is held alone in a small and windowless room, handcuffed to a chair with two provosts guarding the door.

‘I need to know what happened,’ I say. ‘You understand the seriousness of the crime?’

‘Theft,’ Cain utters. ‘Nothin’ more.’


‘I didn’t kill them.’

‘Just tell me what happened.’

Cain sighs.

‘I found ‘em that way, then got jumped by a couple of snipers when I was searchin’ them. Barely got out of the building when the lads turned up behind me. They saw the bodies and that was it.’

‘Your bullet casings were all over the house,’ I point out.

‘Well they bloody would be! I had to fight my way out.’

I rub my temples with one hand.

‘Can you prove your innocence?’

‘Do you think I’d be sitting here if I could?’ Cain snaps. ‘That’s your job, lieutenant.’

‘Then I need the truth. I’m not a bloody magician.’

Cain leaps up and hurls himself at me. I fall backward over my chair as the soldier screams something unintelligible and a bony fist cracks across my cheek. For one terrible moment I fear that he will kill me with his bare hands as he straddles my chest, but the two Provost guards smash Cain aside in a tangle of limbs.

I stagger out of the room to where Captain Morris is waiting in the hall outside.

‘See, he’s lost it.’

‘What did the men who found him at the scene say when you questioned them?’

‘That he was carrying Francs and jewellery taken from the victims.’ Morris’s jaw hardened. ‘I don’t have time for this. Let a court martial deal with it.’

I shake my head.

‘A court martial based on hearsay won’t achieve…’

‘We have a war to win,’ Morris cut across me. ‘Private Cain’s career is over.’ With that, Morris turned his back on me and left.


The countryside of the Cotentin becomes a fearful place at night, the forests silhouetted against distant exploding artillery flashes and soaring flames.

I take a pull on my cigarette, listening as the 12th Panzers take what I hope is a damned good thrashing.


I turn to see an NCO in the darkness, the faint glow from a thousand distant burning houses illuminating a furtive expression.

‘What is it corporal?’

‘I want to speak to you about Private Cain, sir.’

‘That investigation is ongoing, and I can’t pass comment on…’

‘He’s my brother, sir. I’m Francis Cain.’

I look again at the young man, no more than twenty-five years old.

‘You have information on the case?’

‘He didn’t kill those Frenchies, sir.’

I flick the glowing butt of my cigarette away.

‘Your testimony would be considered bias by any jury.’

‘Captain Morris had him demoted,’ Francis said. ‘So he was slow off the boats at Sword, but who can blame him? He’s only nineteen. Sammy took it pretty bad and started breaking rules simply because he saw no reason to keep to them. But he couldn’t kill in cold blood any more than you or I.’

I take a deep breath.

‘Private Cain will have his say at court martial.’

‘Sammy has been putting himself in harm’s way. Didn’t you wonder how he got so far into Caen to be engaging enemy snipers single-handed? It took the rest of us five minutes or more to catch him up. It’s like he doesn’t want to live any more. If you send him to court martial, I don’t know what he’ll do.’

I sigh softly.

‘I’ll talk to the Lieutenant-General and see what he says.’

‘That’s all I’m asking for sir, a fair say for Sammy.’

The corporal melts away, and I stride to where a large tent houses the senior officers. Inside, I see Captain Morris talking to the provost general over an ordnance map.

‘Ah, lieutenant,’ Morris greets me. ‘I was informing General Hilton here of your progress. Cain will be court-martialled on the morrow and this ghastly business will be over.’

I look at Provost-General Hilton.

‘We need more information before we can proceed with Cain’s prosecution. There’s a great deal that we don’t know about….’

‘No need to concern yourself with that, James,’ Hilton said. ‘You’ve got bigger fish to fry.’

‘What do you mean, sir?’

‘Kurt Meyer,’ says a voice from behind me. ‘We’ve found the bastard.’

Lieutenant-General Crocker joined us at the map.

‘He’s been leading the centre thrust of their counter-attack. You’re to go in and find him in the morning with Captain Morris and his company.’

I look at Crocker.

‘There may be a miscarriage of justice regarding Private Cain.’

‘Cain is history,’ Crocker said. ‘But this Nazi’s a bloody murderer and right now he’s your priority.’

‘My priority is justice, sir.’

Crocker’s steely eyes burrowed into mine. ‘Do you have any evidence at all that Cain is innocent?’

‘None, sir.’

‘Kurt Meyer has murdered allied prisoners,’ Crocker snapped, ‘and will be the first senior Nazi apprehended on European soil. Of course, if you prefer somebody else to undertake this assignment then a willing replacement can easily be found...’

‘That won’t be necessary, sir.’ The words fall from my lips before I’ve realised that I’m saying them.

‘Good,’ Hilton nods. ‘It’s decided then. Have Private Cain sent for court martial immediately.’

I swallow thickly, my legs weak and numb. As I walk out of the tent I see a soldier walking away into the darkness, a corporal’s stripes on his shoulder.

For the first time in my career, I feel ashamed.


Everything sounds muted as I creep down the side of an abandoned street. Eight men are behind me, shifting from cover to cover amidst fires still crackling amongst the ruins.

A cloaking fog has silenced the enemy artillery and all is eerily quiet. Hulking buildings loom out of the mist like advancing giants as we edge forward. Something in the street ahead catches my eye.

‘Enemy to the front!’

My cry goes out as I recognise the formidable shape of a Panzer tank. A fierce tongue of flame erupts from its gun and moments later a shell lands with a thunderous blast that hurls bodies aside like leaves. I throw myself into an open doorway as lethal shards of shrapnel howl past outside.

‘It’s a trap!’

I crouch in pitiful terror as a murderous hale of enemy fire crackles down from the rooftops. My only thought is to escape the deafening assault.

‘Fall back!

I see men already scrambling back down the street. I brace myself to follow them when a bubbling, popping sound forces me to look over my shoulder. Running between the floorboards is a smouldering, spitting trickle of grey fluid. I look up to see more of it dripping in flaming globules from rafters high above, where flames are licking around ragged holes in the roof.

I remember Captain Morris’s words from the day before.

‘… bloody melting roofs are starting fires all over the city…’

I watch with a sudden dread the molten globules falling around me. An image of the killed French civilians fills my mind, the scorched bullet holes bored into their bodies. The bullet wounds all came from the same direction, but the bodies were lying at different angles. They were struck after they had fallen, from directly above, and the roof tiles Caen had been made with lead since medieval times.

The French victims were killed by the bomb that landed in their garden. The fires started by the blast had melted the lead tiles of the roof, which had dripped down and bored into their bodies. Private Cain is innocent.

I hurl myself out of the doorway, running through the terrific hail of bullets.

‘Fall back!’

A blast from the Panzer’s gun smashes a wall to my left, filling the air with supersonic fragments, and I shield my face as I crouch in another doorway. I’m about to leave cover when a soldier lunges into the doorway and thrusts a rifle between my eyes.

I stare dumbfounded as Corporal Francis Cain glowers down at me, his eyes stained with dirt and tears.

‘Sammy’s innocent!’ I shout.

‘Sammy hanged himself this morning in his room,’ Corporal Cain growls.

As I stare down the barrel of a rifle into the tortured eyes of the soldier before me, the sounds of the raging battle become muted and time seems to stand still. Curtains of oily smoke drift across a wasteland of shattered masonry, and I flinch as fighter aircraft thunder past overhead like angels of death. Shafts of sunlight reach down from the clouds above, accusing fingers from heaven illuminating the horrors below.

Beyond the barrel the soldier trembles with a volatile fusion of hatred and fear. As I see the terminal defiance in his expression I know that there will be no mercy.

* * *


Hi all, my name's Dean Crawford, 37 years old. This piece is a shortened version of a story sent to the Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival competition in May 2010. It didn't reach the final, but I thought that TKnC readers might enjoy it.
I'm currently represented by Luigi Bonomi of LBA, and my debut novel 'Covenant' is being sent to publishers in September. You can follow how things have gone and how they turn out at


  1. Really enjoyed the historical detail in this one...but not sure who that genral Hilton could be based on LOL

  2. ...or even General Hilton

  3. LOL! Thought you might notice that. I'd actually picked the name sometime before discovering your work, and considered changing it before posting here, but thought that it fitted the character rather well. Consider yourself promoted, General! :o)

  4. Gen. Hilton
    Col. Bury

    and, uh...

    Lt. Hughes

    Sounds good to me!