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Times of War: Tobruk, Episode 1

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Arthur Wright's Story Part I

Arthur raised his head from the sandy floor of the alleyway behind the bar. The heat of the desert rose like a snake and the cold night began to envelop the city. A similar sensation was rushing upon him from the dark of his mind. He knew too well what it felt to be hemmed in - suddenly he was in the tank again. His heart thudded like a shell had been dropped in his rib cage. Walls of poorly-forged steel. Barely an inch-thick, it might as well have been glass. His shaking hands pawing ineffectually at rattling binoculars. Then there was the other wall, the one that moved, the one that asked all the questions – the Desert Fox’s wall.

He pressed his back to the nearest solid surface in an attempt to anchor himself from the onrush of panic. Nausea had been coming in moments like this for over a month now. When he felt one coming he had to get away from his men. They couldn’t be allowed to see. The spinning lights of Alexandria were trapped in the neck of the bottle that he was for some reason still holding. Fortunately, normality suddenly intruded.

“You alright, Sir?” a voice called at him from the open doorway to his right. The din of a bar could be heard behind the speaker’s Scotch accent.

“Yes…perfectly fine, Private.” Arthur managed to say, dusting off his uniform.

“Do you really have to call me that on leave, Sir?” said the Scotsman holding the door open with a cheeky smile. “Just Dougie will do.”

Arthur sighed.

“Sorry Kilbane. How long had you been stood there?”

“In truth, I only just came outside, Sir” the loader lied.

Arthur went back into the bar through the door the Scotsman had appeared from. He paused to smooth his hair in a speckled mirror with a badly chipped gilt frame. He was just 25, but in this moment he could have passed for a man 20 years his senior. He jumped when Kilbane slapped him affectionately on the shoulder. He almost had forgotten his crewman was there. 

“No point looking in there, Sir,” said the Scotsman with a wink, “The girls are by the bar.”

The main room of the building was a scene of mixed emotion. Some joyous troops, New Zealanders by appearance, were singing a folk song in the corner boisterously. At the bar, a couple of fresh-faced boys in crisply pressed uniforms were talking nervously to a woman with bronzed skin. Through the haze of cigarette smoke, Arthur made out the rest of his crew. They were sat at the table they had barely moved from since leave of absence was called for their unit. There were few smiles between them.

“Next round’s on me, lads,” said Arthur trying to galvanise the mood. He really didn’t feel like any more alcohol.

“To be honest, Sir”, sighed Private Houghton, “We were just thinking about calling it a night.”

The others murmured a kind of weary agreement but not a single one of them relished the thought of trying to sleep. They all made this realisation at once and set about playing cards. The room smelt of rich spice, bad beer and sickly-sweet perfume. Arthur took a seat next to Private Houghton, his tank’s driver, and looked over his shoulder to see where Kilbane had gone. The Scotsman had drifted away somewhere. Arthur turned back to his cards.

The morning sun began to peer through the curtainless windows. Arthur realised he had been asleep on the table.  Someone had carved a quotation on its surface: What hath night to do with sleep?

“Milton,” Arthur remembered with a brief smile; university was a world away now.

The bar was empty except for the ghosts of the night before – stains on the wooden floor and many half-empty glasses. Victory did not feel like this. What time was it?

Arthur looked at his wrist to check the time but saw nothing except the white silhouette of where it had been. Oh that’s right, he had lost it in the sands during the Siege. His memory had never been the same since Tobruk. They were lucky that no serious damage had occurred when they crested that dune with the concealed rock. When the underside of the tank grounded, screeching horribly as metal scraped stone, the leather strap finally perished from the mix of heat and nervous sweat. The watch, a present for his 21st birthday from his parents, fell into a sea of sand. Time lost in an hourglass that never runs out.

Arthur knew it was still early as the sounds of the city were different at this time. He made his way out of the bar past the old gilt mirror and paused to look at himself again. Kilbane was a good man, he thought, remembering his saviour from the night before. He took a comb from his shirt pocket and smoothed down his hair with a little water. He was due at HQ for the unveiling of the regiment’s new tanks - something called an M3 from America.

Lost for a moment in thoughts of machinery, Arthur remembered the A10 Cruiser Mk.II that his troop had been issued with until now. He was a Second-Lieutenant in charge of three tanks, including his own. How wonderful it was when they first met Italian armour, the punchy gun easily surmounting any opposition they came against. Then there was the first sortie with German armour that had brought them crashing down to earth. He checked himself from becoming too negative. He was an officer after all. Stiff upper lip. That’s the spirit.

After returning to his quarters and changing into a fresh uniform Arthur lined up in front of his men on the parade ground and waited for the CO to emerge from the mess. In the centre of the camp, under a tied-down, white tarpaulin was the new machine. The parade ground was awash with excited chatter:

“It’s shorter than the A10, I’ll tell you that for free!” chirped Private Chapman.

“Aye, but what kind of armament does it have?” said Private Jones in reply.

“It’s all well and good being able to shoot back, Jonesy,” said Houghton, “but what happens when they shoot at you?”

“At us.” Jones replied gravely.

Arthur was just about to raise his voice and reinstate parade-ground silence when a Warrant Officer barked out: “Officer on parade!” and everyone stood to attention.

“At ease,” said the CO, taking command.

He was a fiery man, a Colonel of about 50 called Wyndham-Ferris. He had the face of a terrier and the temper of one that had just had its tail stepped on. It was hard to know when the first stomp had occurred but by Arthur’s guess it had happened somewhere between his conception and his fifth birthday and that he’d never really gotten over it. He was a hard man to like but the respect most of the unit had for him was immense. They had been through Tobruk. They had somehow won something in this war.

Arthur turned to inspect his men. Corporal Somerset had his full crew of five as did Sergeant Davies. Looking at his own crew, Arthur saw Jones, the gunner, barely able to keep still as usual, Chapman, the Radio Operator and Houghton the driver.

“Where the devil is Kilbane?” Arthur asked in annoyance, suddenly aware he was a man down.

This was most unlike the Scot. Although today was still technically a day of leave, Arthur had no ambition to be the only commander in the regiment to turn up without a full crew to meet the new armour. The faces that were supposed to answer him, instead looked back with intense concern.

“Perhaps you should lie down, Sir?”

Arthur was puzzled. His lip trembled slightly. A hand fell warmly onto his shoulder - it was the Colonel. Arthur heard a calm voice in his head but he wasn’t sure of the direction it came from.

“Steady, son.”

He felt like he could drift to sleep, the realisation slowly dawning. My, was it hot today! The desert sun beat upon him from above. Everyone was staring.

“Sir,” Houghton said stepping forward out of rank, his eyes filled with a deep sadness. “It’s been over a month.”




Stay with us.
The next episode of Times of War is coming on Wednesday, 28 January.
Arthur Wright's StoryBloody SandThe Boy's Tale
Part I Part I Part I
Part II Part II Part II
Part III  Part III Part III