The Bridge Over the River Kwai - Page 23

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"So now everything depends on him."

"Yes, everything depends on him, and I feel completely confident."

"Has he got his knife?"

"He's got his knife. And I'm sure he'll be capable of using it."

"One can never really tell till the time comes."

"I know one can't. All the same, I'm pretty sure."

"And afterwards?"

"It took me five minutes to get across the river, but he swims nearly twice as fast as I do. We'll be able to cover his withdrawal."

Warden told Shears what arrangements he had made. The evening before, he had climbed down from the observation post, this time before it was quite dark, but had not gone as far as the stretch of flat, open ground. On his way he had selected a suitable spot for the team's light machine gun and had reconnoitered positions for the partisans, who were to provide rifle fire in the event of a counterattack. Each position had been carefully noted down. This barrage, in conjunction with the mortar shells, would provide ample protection for quite a long time.

Number One approved of the plan in general. Then, since he felt too tired to sleep, he described to his friend how the previous night's operation had been carried out. As he listened carefully to this account, Warden felt almost relieved that he himself had not taken part in the preparations. Meanwhile, there was nothing else for them to do until the next day. As they had said, everything now depended on Joyce—on Joyce and the fortunes of war. They tried hard to curb their impatience and to stop worrying about the principal actor, who now lay hidden in the bushes over on the enemy bank.

As soon as he had decided to put his plan into action, Number One had drawn up a detailed program. He had assigned the various roles so as to enable each individual member of the team to think out in advance what he would have to do and to rehearse each move that he would have to make. In this way, when the time came, they would all be able to keep their minds free to deal with any unforeseen eventuality.

It would be childish to think that a bridge can be blown up without a great many preparations. Working from Joyce's sketch and notes, Warden, like Captain Reeves, had made a plan—a destruction plan: a large- scale drawing of the bridge in which every pile was numbered and every charge marked in at the exact spot where it would be needed, the intricate network of electric wire and detonating cord which would set the whole thing off being indicated in red pencil. Each of them soon had this plan engraved on his memory.

But these paper-work preparations had not been sufficient for Number One. He had made them go through several rehearsals at night on an old derelict bridge lying across a stream not far from their camp, the charges, of course, being represented by sacks of earth. The men who were to fix the explosives in position—himself, Joyce, and two local volunteers—had practiced swimming silently, pushing in front of them a light bamboo raft specially built for the purpose, on which all the kit was fastened. Warden was the umpire. He had been quite ruthless, and had made them repeat the drill until the operation was a hundred per cent perfect. The four men had gotten used to working in the water without making a splash, fastening the dummy charges firmly onto the piles, and connecting them together by means of the intricate network of fuses worked out in the destruction plan. At last they had managed to do it to Number One's satisfaction. All that now remained was to prepare the genuine material and see to a mass of important details, such as waterproof sheeting for whatever needed protection from the damp.

The party had then started off. Along paths known only to themselves, the guides had taken them to a point on the river a long way upstream from the bridge, where the launching could take place in complete security. Several native volunteers were acting as porters.

/> The plastic was made up into twelve-pound charges, each of which had to be fastened to a separate pile. The destruction plan called for the preparation of six consecutive piles in each row, making a total of twenty-four charges. All the supporting beams would thus be shattered for a stretch of nearly thirty yards, which would be quite sufficient to bring the bridge down under the weight of a train. Shears had wisely brought a dozen extra charges in case of accident. They might eventually be fixed in some suitable position to cause the enemy further alarm. He was not one to forget the maxims of Force 316.

These various quantities had not been chosen at random. They had been determined after much calculation and long discussion, and were based on the measurements that Joyce had taken during his reconnaissance. A formula, which all three knew by heart, gave the weight of charge required for shattering a beam of any given material, according to its shape and size. In this case six pounds of plastic would have been enough, in theory. With eight, the margin of security would have been ample for any ordinary operation. Number One eventually decided to increase die amount still further.

He had good reasons for adopting such measures.

Another of the Plastic and Destructions Company's principles was to add a little on to every figure provided by the technicians. At the end of the theoretical training, Colonel Green, who ran the Calcutta school at a very high level, used to deliver a short address on this subject, based on common sense and his own personal experience of engineering.

"When you work out the weight needed by means of the formula," he would say, "make a generous allowance —then add even a little more on. On a tricky operation you must make absolutely certain. If you're in the least doubtful, it's better to use a hundred pounds too much than a pound too little. You'd look pretty silly if, after slaving away, for several nights perhaps, in order to prepare the target, after risking your life and your men's fives, after getting so far after God knows how many difficulties—you'd look pretty silly if, for the sake of saving a few pounds of explosive, the destruction was only a partial success—beams knocked about a bit but still in position, and so quite easy to repair. I'm speaking from personal experience. That's what happened to me once, and I can't think of anything in the world that's more demoralizing."

Shears had sworn he would never allow such a disaster to happen to him, and he generously applied the principle. On the other hand, one had to guard against going to the opposite extreme and cluttering oneself up with a lot of useless material when there was only a small team available.

In theory, the launching of the material presented no difficulty. One of the many qualities of plastic is that it has about the same density as water. A swimmer can easily tow quite a large amount of it behind him.

They had reached the River Kwai at dawn. The porters had been sent back. The four men had waited till nightfall, hidden in the undergrowth.

"The hours must have dragged by," said Warden. "Did you manage to get to sleep?"

"Hardly at all. We tried to, but you know what it's like just before zero hour. Joyce and I spent the whole afternoon chatting. I wanted to keep his mind off the bridge. We had the whole night to think about that."

"What did you talk about?" said Warden, who wanted to know every detail.

"He told me a little about his civilian life. A rather sad type at heart, that lad. A pretty dull career on the whole—draftsman in a big engineering firm; nothing brilliant about it, and he doesn't pretend there was. A sort of glorified office boy. I'd always imagined it was something like that. Two dozen chaps of the same age sitting all day long over their drawing boards in a communal workroom—can't you see what it was like? When he wasn't drawing, he was working out sums—with formulae and a slide rule. Nothing particularly exciting. I don't think he was too keen on the job—he seems to have welcomed the war as the chance of his lifetime. Strange that a chap chained to a desk should have landed up in Force 316."

"Well, after all, there are professors in it as well," said Warden. "I've known quite a few like him. They're not necessarily the worst of the bunch."

"And not necessarily the best, either. You can't make a general rule about it. But he's not at all bitter when he talks about his past. Just rather sad, that's all."

"He's all right, I'm sure. What sort of drawing did he have to do?"

"By a strange coincidence, the firm had something to do with bridges. Not wooden bridges, of course. And they didn't handle construction work, either. Articulated bridges in metal—a standard model. They used to make them in separate pieces and deliver them all together to the contractors—just like a Meccano set! He was never out of the office. For two years before the war he drew the same piece over and over again. Specialization and all the rest of it—you can imagine what it was like. He didn't find it terribly exciting. It wasn't even a very big piece—a girder, that's what he said. His job was to work out the shape that would give the greatest resistance for the smallest weight of metal, at least that's what I understood him to say. I don't know anything about the subject. It was a question of economy—the firm didn't like wasting material. He spent two years doing that—a boy of his age! You should have heard him talk about that girder! His voice was trembling. You know, Warden, I think the girder was partly responsible for his enthusiasm for the present job."

Tags: Pierre Boulle Fiction
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