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1. THE DESERT RAT
The Libyan Desert May 27, 1942
They huddled in the chill, encased in hard steel, waiting, energized by rumors. Behind them, to the east, the black horizon was visible, silhouetted by the first glow of sunrise. The wireless radio was chattering, the voices of nervous officers far behind the line, the men in tents, who pored over maps, unsure, powerless to do anything about an enemy who might be anywhere at all.
They had climbed into the tank at the first sign of daylight, each of the four men finding his place, their commander perched higher than the rest, settling into his seat just beneath the hatch of the turret. It was still too dark in the west, and the narrow view through the prism of the periscope was too confining, and so he stood, his head and shoulders outside the hatch. The long, thin barrel of the two-pound cannon was just below him, pointing westward, where the enemy was thought to be. He stared until his eyes watered, tried to see the horizon. But it would not be there, not yet, not until the sun had given them enough light to distinguish dull, flat ground from the empty sky.
The air was sharp and cold, but that would not last. Once the sun rose, the heat would come again, and the infantry, a mass of men waiting far behind their armor wall, would seek whatever shelter they had, waking the insects and the scorpions and the snakes. The tank was as good a shelter as a man had in the desert, but there was a price for shade. The thick steel made a perfect oven, and the men would man their posts and glance instinctively toward the hatches, hoping for the faintest wisp of breeze. He blinked, wiped his eyes with a dirty hand, annoyed at the crackling intrusion from the wireless.
“Turn that off!”
“Sir, can’t do that, you know. Orders. The captain . . .”
He ignored the young man’s protest, stared out again. The sun would quickly rise, nothing to block the light, no mountains, no trees, no rolling terrain. In a few short minutes he could see flecks of detail, an uneven field pockmarked by small rocks. There was a shadow, right in front of him, beneath the barrel of the two-pounder. It was his, of course, the low, hulking form of the tank. It makes us a target, he thought. But, then, the Germans are in the west, will have to attack straight into the rising sun. We’ll be able to see them first, certainly. Stupid tactic. But what isn’t stupid out here? Sitting in a fat tin can, armed with a two-pound pop gun, hoping like hell we see him before he sees us.
There was a loud squawk from the wireless.
“Dammit, at least turn that thing down!”
“Sir, I think it’s Captain Digby. He’s upset about something.”
Digby. He stared at the horizon, clear, distinct, thought of the officer who sat sucking on that idiotic pipe. His tank smells like a Turkish whorehouse. And he’s upset. Good. Bloody fool. Carries fat rolls of maps so he can find his way. In a place with no landmarks, no signposts. Stuffs the damned maps into his ammo holders, and so, he runs out of ammo. Begs the rest of us for help. Just look at the sun, Captain. All the signpost you need.
The radio squawked again, and he heard the voice now. Yep. Digby.
“Rec report . . . enemy in motion . . . zzzzzzzzz . . . two hundred . . . zzzzzzzz.” The wireless seemed to go dead, and he looked to the north, could see the British tanks in a ragged line. The crews had climbed into their vehicles, and most of the tank commanders were standing up, searching for something across the vast emptiness. He still looked to the north, thought, yep, there’s Digby. The sixth tank over. Brew yourself a cup of tea, Captain. There’s nothing out here but us Rats.
He glanced down through the hatch, could see little, the tank dark. He knew each man well, more experienced than most, but so very young. They were better than the tank they pushed, the A9. She was fast, maybe faster than anything the Germans had, could maneuver easily over the rocky ground, spin around like a top. In training they had been told that the two-pounder was an effective antitank weapon, firing a solid-steel projectile, supposed to pierce anything the enemy had. It had certainly worked against the Italians, who had come at them with machines that were worn-out in 1918. The armor battles had been one-sided affairs, British tanks and artillery decimating the primitive weapons of their enemy. He remembered the first Italian tanks that had actually put up a good fight, something called an M13. But even that machine was small, and far too light, padded by a sad pile of sandbags around the turret. He could see it in his mind, the direct hit on an M13 that made it seem like an exploding sack of flour. And no one inside survived, ever. Bloody awful, that one. Target practice. Brave men sent to die in broken-down toys.
But then the Germans came, and they brought the real thing, heavier, faster tanks, bigger guns, and suddenly the A9 crews were no longer as fond of their machines. There was something else the Germans had, a particular genius for weaponry. They had an eighty-eight millimeter antiaircraft cannon, long barrel, that threw a shell high enough to churn any pilot’s guts. But the Germans figured out that lowering the barrel and pointing it horizontally made for an antitank weapon like no other. Most of the larger artillery on both sides was like the basic howitzers, firing their shells in an arc. You could hear them coming and might even have a brief second to prepare for impact, time enough perhaps to dive into a slit trench. But the long barrel of the eighty-eight blew a shell right through you in a straight line. No high-screaming wail, no warning. And there wasn’t a single British machine that the eighty-eight wouldn’t blow to pieces.
He lowered himself into the hatch, tried to see the wireless operator, Batchelor, the man who doubled as the gun loader.
“Batch. Did Digby say anything else?”
“I’m trying to raise him, sir. He said something about the rec, then I lost him.”
He pulled himself up, stared out again, mulled over the word: rec. Reconnaissance. Hell of a job, flitting all over the place in light armored cars. They run right up to the Jerries, see what’s what, then run like hell to get away. Nothing but machine guns for protection. Ballsy chaps, those fellows.
Below the gun barrel in front of him, a small hatch opened, and a head emerged. It was the driver, Simmons.
“It’s warming up a bit, sir.”
Simmons was the youngest man in the crew, with bad skin and an unfortunate natural odor that even soap could not seem to cure. But there was no soap here, barely enough water to keep a man alive, and so Simmons had become just one more tank crewman who had to be accepted by his own, regardless of whatever unpleasant personal traits he might bring to the confined space. By now, they all smelled bad enough to offend anyone but themselves. Like Captain Digby’s pipe smoke, it had become a part of each tank’s personality.
“I say, sir. What’s that?”
Simmons was pointing out to the left of the barrel, eleven o’clock, and he stared with the young man, could see the cloud rising up, dark, obliterating the horizon. Simmons said, “A dust storm. Big one. Bloody hell.”
The young man disappeared into the tank, the hatch pulled down over his narrow compartment. The cloud seemed to spread out to the south, farther left, swirling darkness, sunlight reflected in small flecks. The radio squawked again, a chaos of voices, and now he could see new motion, a vehicle emerging from the storm, then two more, their dust trails billowing out behind them as they roared toward the line of tanks. His heart jumped, and he raised his binoculars, saw that they were armored cars, their own, the rec boys. He glanced toward the north, toward Digby’s command tank, looking for the colored flag that would tell them to start the powerful engines. But Digby’s wire antenna held nothing but the command flag, no other sign yet.
He glanced down into the tank, said, “Hands off triggers. Those are ours.”
It was an unnecessary order, the big gun not yet loaded, the machine guns still waiting for the belts of ammo that would feed them. The armored cars rolled past the line of tanks, did not stop. He said aloud, to no one in particular, “Jeez. They’re moving like hell.”
He calmed now, ignored the new sounds from the wireless, thought, guess those chaps don’t like eating that dust storm any more than we do. He looked out toward the dark cloud again, no more than a mile away, rolling closer. He let out a breath. Sure. Why not start the day with another one of these damned storms? By all means let’s eat dirt for breakfast. He began to move, lowering himself into the tank, then he stopped, frozen by a new sound. He looked again toward the great swirling cloud, ugly and familiar, the dull roar of wind and fine grit, a dozen tornadoes winding around themselves. But there were other sounds now, familiar as well. Tracks. Steel on rock. Engines. He froze, stared at the sounds, felt a light breeze in his face. That’s not a dust storm, you bloody idiot. That’s armor. Making their own damned storm.
Close by, he heard engines turning over, great belches of black smoke spitting from the other tanks in the formation. He looked that way, saw men disappearing into their tanks, hatches closing. He did not wait for the order from Digby, dropped down to his hard leather seat, pulled the hatch shut, shouted, “Fire ’er up!”
The driver responded, the tank pulsing, a deafening roar that drowned out the ongoing noise from the wireless. He leaned forward, searched through the periscope, felt for his machine gun, shouted again:
“Load ’em! Guns ready!”
The men moved with tight precision, each one doing his job. He looked down, saw the gunner, Moxley, right below and in front of him. He slid forward, put his knees right against the young man’s back. It was the position they had repeated many times, and Moxley never protested, the discomfort of the pressure giving them both leverage as the tank rolled and tossed them about. He reached down, tapped the gunner on the shoulder.
“Wait for my order. Patience. Use the sights. How many rounds?”
“A hundred twenty.”
“They’ll go quick. Don’t want to run out. Not in the mood to be a sitting duck, Private.”
“Me either, sir.”
“My Vickers ready?”
“Fit to fire, sir!”
His fingers wrapped around the trigger, and he squeezed, testing, the machine gun coming to life, a brief burst of fire. It was the signal to Simmons to do the same, the driver blessed with two of the Vickers machine guns up front. Simmons let loose a short burst. Well, all right then. We’re ready for you, Jerry. He was breathing heavily, the diesel’s smoke swirling around them, and he focused through the periscope, the dust cloud rolling closer.
“Where the hell are they?”
He punched the button on the crude intercom, wanted to give Simmons the order to move forward. No, wait. Show a little patience yourself. We don’t know what’s out there, not yet. Find a target. He spoke into the intercom now, the only way they could hear him through the roar of the engine.
“Nothing yet. Just dust.”
He stared as they all stared, the fine sand blowing thin clouds against the glass of the periscope, blinding, his eyes watering. He pulled his goggles off the hook beside him, slid them over his head. He hated the goggles, the lenses scratched, blurred, but they kept his eyes dry. He caught a flash of movement, above the dust cloud, coming at them, fast, now right above them. He heard the scream as it passed by and he hunched his shoulders, instinct, shouted, “109s!”
More planes roared past, barely a hundred feet above them, and he tried to ignore them, thought, no sightseeing, you bloody fool. You know what a Messerschmitt looks like. And, we haven’t been blown to hell, so they’re not coming for us. The supply dumps or the support trucks, most likely. Strafe the infantry. Poor bastards. He thought of the antiaircraft gunners, far back, dug into patches of camel thorn brush, lucky to get a brief burst of fire at the low-flying planes. Shoot straight, boys. Knock a few Jerries out of their seats. He stared into the dust cloud again, scanned from side to side. He could still hear the Messerschmitts ripping past, thought, a good-sized flock. If there’s that many 109s, there’s something coming with them. Come on, where the hell are you?
And now he saw them.
On both sides tanks erupted from the dust, rolled right past, the air punched by dull sounds, streaks of white light. He turned in his seat.
“Port! Ninety to port. Move it!”
The tank lurched forward, then spun, pivoting to the left. The dust cloud was everywhere, churned into thick, gray fog by the movement of the big machines. The tank rumbled blindly forward over a carpet of small rocks, and there was a bright flash, a sharp streak of light, thunder on the right side. He jumped in his seat, searched the dust frantically. You missed me! Hah! The gunner spun the turret, and he saw the tank now, black crosses on the sand-yellow armor. The German turret was moving as well, the big gun trying to follow his movement. He shouted to Moxley:
“Ten o’clock! A hundred yards!”
The turret kept moving, painfully slowly, and he watched the barrel of the two-pounder slide into position.
Moxley said, “Got him, sir!”
“Fire when ready!”
The words still hung in the air as the tank rocked from the recoil of the big gun. He fought to see through the smoke and dust, saw the crosses again, said, “Again!”
The two-pounder fired again, and Moxley let out a sound.
“Hit him! Hit him!”
They worked in perfect unison, the loader feeding the shells into the breech of the gun, the spent shells ejected automatically into the canvas bag that draped below. He coughed, the cordite smell filling the cabin, and still saw the crosses right in front of him.
“Stop! Watch him!”
They jerked to a halt, and he could see smoke coming from the German tank, waited for the movement, saw it now, the hatch coming open. A thick plume of black smoke poured up from inside the tank, and the men appeared, scrambling out, escaping the burning hulk. His hand gripped the trigger of the machine gun, and he watched four men drop to the ground, staggering, wounded, blinded by the smoke and the shattering blast that had ripped into them. He pulled the trigger, sprayed the machine-gun fire back and forth, all four men going down quickly. He paused, took another breath, fought through the stink of gunpowder, saw movement beyond, more tanks, streaks of light. The fight was all around them, tanks and armored cars, perfect confusion, enemies only yards apart, seeking a target in the dust, firing point-blank.
“Move! Ninety degrees starboard! Forward!”
He searched for another target, all four men rising to the battle, all a part of the chaos, a desperate dance of men and machine.