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Times of War: Tobruk, Episode 2

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Bloody Sand Part I

It had been some weeks since Klaus had last written to his mother, though it was not from a lack of affection. His neglect stemmed from a healthy respect for operational security and the fact that he couldn’t convey any details in a letter. It was unlikely that spies would intercept his letters, but he did respect the opponents in this war, which he thought was only sensible, considering it only took one bullet in the right place - and many parts of the body could be considered the right place - to end a life.

What could he possibly write to her without mentioning where he was and where he was going? Which experiences would be safe to write about?

He had not been in Africa long. Even his last experience on the European mainland should be avoided. One of the cargo ships had caught fire and the loaded tanks had been lost. What would people at home think if they knew their sons were not even safe on the way to the front? It would be especially hard on his mother. She worried so easily.

He was pulled out of his thoughts when the truck he was riding in came to a halt. It was good to feel solid ground under his feet. The roads had not been comfortable and the dust kicked up by the convoy had made the experience doubly unpleasant. Not that the dust had gone away - the tanks rolling past still kicked it up and still made it hard to see where he was going and after hours of sand being blown in his mouth he was looking forward to a drink of water like a brownshirt to a parade. Still, he supposed it was better than freezing on the Eastern Front. Not by much though. The sun was setting behind the rest of the arriving convoy and in the short time he had been here, he had learned that the burning heat of the day seemed unreal at night, when men were shivering in the cold.

He glanced at the pocket watch his father had given him before they had both left from home. He grinned when he remembered the words of his father: “You’ll need this more than me. You’ve always been bad at telling the time from the sun.”

Of course they couldn’t have known he’d be going to Africa where the watch would last barely an hour before the sand had stopped it. Luckily knowing the time wasn’t actually that important. That was something officers needed. As long as he did what he was told when he was told to do it, he was on time.

The camp was bristling with activity as the trucks that had arrived ahead of his were being unloaded and soldiers were directed to their quarters. He grabbed his gear and fell in behind the rest of his mess. As they were marching towards their assigned quarters he looked around. Even though only a small part of the dispatched forces had arrived, it almost seemed surreal to think that all of this was only a comparatively tiny fraction of the people involved in this far-flung war. He had long since accepted it, but no matter how many times he contemplated it, he could never quite suppress a feeling of awe.

The soldiers talked of home at dinner. One young man, Johann, was talking of his sweetheart. Calling him a young man seemed like a stretch though. He was just 18, or at least he claimed he was. He hadn’t even started to shave and he was very eager to serve his country. He seemed like somebody who had cheated in a year or two to get into the action. His girl was waiting for him at home, he said. Her name was Hilde and to hear him speak of her, she could have been the greatest beauty to ever walk the earth. Some of the older soldiers were grinning at his youthful enthusiasm, others were gazing into space thoughtfully, no doubt thinking of their own waiting girls.

“What about you, Klaus?” asked Johann, “What do you miss most about home? Do you have someone waiting?”

“My family, of course. But apart from them, real food and the ability to breathe without sucking in sand, I think what I miss most is the forest.”

“Aha!” shouted Wolfgang, a large, red-faced man who usually looked angry and only ever shouted when he spoke. “So you are a true German then! I had my doubts about you. But here is someone who knows what has value. A country is like its trees. And Germany is strong like the oaks in her forests. It’s good to hear someone speak some sense!”

“Well I’m sure that would be one reason to miss it, Wolfgang, but I mostly just miss the shade it provides. And by the look of your face, you could use some of that too.”

Amidst the ensuing laughter Wolfgang’s sunburnt face turned even redder. Whether it was from anger or embarrassment, Klaus could not tell, but it was quite a sight to behold.

They were back on the road the next day, back to breathing in dust, back to enduring the heat. They had been sent out on a patrol, although the chances of contact with the enemy were considered very low. Johann was cheerful as ever, regaling the rest of the troops with stories of home as they marched behind the tank that was leading their column, a Panzer II. Suddenly the machine came to a halt with a loud hiss, followed by an eruption of steam and curses from within the machine.

Verdammter Mist!” came from its commander. “It’s overheated. We’ll have to stop and let it cool down. You men go on ahead. Finish the route and we’ll catch up to you later.”

Losing the tank had an upside: It was no longer kicking up dust ahead of them. It looked like the last hours of this patrol might end up being bearable. Even Wolfgang was scowling a little less intensely than usual. After about half an hour‘s march, Johann started singing: “Brot und Frieden hätt’ ich gern, tät es nicht vergessen. Wollt‘ ich hätte zehn Pfund Brot, mich mal satt zu essen!“ (Bread and peace I’d like to have, I would not forget it. Wish I had ten pounds of bread so I could eat my fill).

They were laughing when Johann’s singing was suddenly cut short by a loud bang. The boy collapsed and for a moment everything was silent. Then everything seemed to happen at once. Bullets were flying all around and men were being thrown down. Klaus grabbed Johann and sprinted off the road and down a slope, dragging the boy with him. Keeping his head low, he looked at his friend and saw that he had died smiling.

Klaus edged up to the top of the slope. He thought of the tank, which was not that far from them. Would they hear the shots? Perhaps it had already been repaired and was on its way. All the men had to do was hold out until then.

Most of the survivors had now gotten to cover. There weren’t many, but they had a fighting chance.

Klaus peeked out of his cover and saw an enemy looking straight at him from a rock some 30 meters away from the road. He quickly raised his rifle, aimed and squeezed the trigger.

Nothing happened. He ducked back into cover and checked his rifle. It was the sand again. It was always the damn sand. It would end up being the death of him, he thought. Then his eye caught an object rolling down the slope a few meters next to him.

He started running, shouting “Granate”!  Then he felt a force pushing him faster than his legs would carry him and the world turned black.

 

 


Stay with us.
The next episode of Times of War is coming on Saturday, 31 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

 

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