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Times of War: Tobruk, Episode 4

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Arthur Wright's Story Part II

What hath night to do with sleep?” chuckled Arthur to himself as the little tank glided over the moonlit dunes. Through leave in Alexandria, and his small stint in the military hospital, that quotation had seemed etched into his mind.

“How does she feel, Davey?” he yelled in a vaguely downwards direction, trying to catch his driver over the roar of the engine.

“Like honey, Sir!” the man replied, in a voice so cheery that Arthur could sense the broadening smile on the man’s face.

“Just call me Arthur – it’s alright.” And for the first time in what felt like an eternity, things were alright.

She was a rickety old gal, made from tractor parts, but lord almighty she could move. This was the first time Arthur had been out in the new machine since the short lay-off had been forced on him. Despite his own relative greenness, the lads of his crew were already well acquainted with how the tank felt, rolling and lolling over the desert outside camp. In fact, the M3 Stuart reacted so smartly to every twitch and turn that Arthur was having trouble finding the best place to situate himself inside the commander’s section of the turret.

No one was sure who had first coined the phrase but the men of the regiment were now calling it “the Honey”. It wasn’t a sophisticated machine but Arthur felt it could get the job done and that was all that mattered. The crew looked pleased anyway - wide grins were infrequent in the desert but at this speed, with the front hatches open and cool air streaming through the entire hull, the crew might have used the word happy.

“Turn us round then,” ordered Arthur and the little tank headed for base.

 

***

They hadn’t always been this smitten. When the NCOs had originally lifted the veil off the new tank on the parade ground, the men had immediately started a vicious debate:

“What kind of a joke is this? Are they having a laugh?” Jones whispered to his fellow crewmen, motioning toward the tank’s main armament. “It’s a damn pop gun still. Fifteen reports I’ve written…”

In front of the murmur of men, Colonel Wyndham-Ferris frowned. As informal as the parade was, no-one was really paying him the respect that his rank commanded. A loud cough into his hand resounded like a bark and seemed to ricochet off the assembled men. Everyone suddenly snapped to attention. As the men awaited the Colonel’s speech a few eyes turned to watch Arthur being lead away by a couple of NCOs. Wyndham-Ferris felt sorry for the young commander who clearly wasn’t coping well with losing a member of his crew – what was the chap’s name? The Scot? Kilbane? Yes, that was it.

“At ease,” Wyndham-Ferris said, not entirely meaning it. “As you well know, I’ve called you here today to become acquainted with a new resource. Some of you may have seen them before – the 5th Tanks have had them since they helped us out at Tobruk. Sergeant-Major Hinds will dismiss you and a crew of the Royal Engineers will go through the basic mechanics of this new fighting vehicle.”

He surveyed the men with his tiny, ink-dot eyes. Although primarily here to show the soldiers their new equipment, Wyndham-Ferris also wanted to get an idea on how the men were looking after recuperation in the city. Were they healthy? Were they content? More importantly - were they ready to fight again?

The Colonel and the man exchanged salutes. He left the parade ground on legs almost too small to carry him. He too was a soldier of the armoured regiments and never quite looked comfortable without a set of tracks beneath him. The camp was a ragtail mess of tents and some more permanent structures. It lay just near enough to the city of Alexandria to benefit from the sweeping sea breezes that carried the blissful aromas of the Mediterranean. It was a shabby town of dive bars on the whole and Wyndham-Ferris had preferred to spend his period of leave alone with his collection of maps. He knew Tobruk was no genuine victory.

Entering the dark roofed building that housed his staff, Corporal Cummings, the Colonel’s aide-de-camp, looked up from his desk.

“Command called for you, Sir.”

“Very good, Stephen,” The Colonel replied removing his beret off and putting it on a coat hook, “How many of my men do they want to take away this time?”

 

***

Arthur could tell from the groggy feeling in his forehead that he still wasn’t well. He was unsure how long he’d been in the field hospital but ever since they put him there he’d wanted to be out again. Sleep found him.

In his dream he saw the gilt-framed mirror of the bar back in Alexandria. He was looking at himself again, sand and grit covered his uniform and face. He looked too old for his years. Something else was wrong. He felt at his khaki shirt sleeve, itchy and dulled from the heat. There was a strange, white shape left in his tanned skin. His watch was missing! A presence was stirring by his left shoulder. It felt like breath. He shuddered. He wasn’t going to look in the mirror again. He felt that if he did, the ghost of Kilbane would be there, smiling and motioning towards the bar. Quite slowly it began to dawn on Arthur that the floor was made of sand. It began to give way under his weight, consuming and embracing him; warm sand, soft like pillows…

Arthur slowly began to wake. A short figure was sat bolt upright in the canvas-backed chair to his bedside. Wyndham-Ferris was thumbing through a worn paperback that a nurse had removed from Arthur’s kit. Arthur didn’t know whether to salute or just lie there, eyes widening with waking shock at seeing a senior officer right next to him. Wyndham-Ferris noticed:

“Steady, son,” the Colonel said, echoing his words from the parade ground. Through the man’s permanent frown, Arthur felt he could see a smile, “You’ve had a rough time of it.”

Arthur began to try and say something but the Colonel subtly raised a hand to show he wanted to continue talking.

“Tobruk was hell. But you got your boys through. What happened to Private Kilbane was not your fault – war is war. Whatever that man meant to you, both as a soldier and as a friend – you have to take that with you and keep going.”

Arthur wasn’t sure what to feel. Should it be embarrassment at what had happened on the parade ground? He had almost fainted. The Colonel clearly had something to say as by now, he had put the paperback down and stood up.

“Some people back in London think lads who’ve had a blow like this deserve to see a different front in this war. The truth is, this army needs men like you here more than ever. Be proud and show the leadership that I know you are capable of.”

Arthur did not know if he was still dreaming.

“You know where to find me when they discharge you.” He turned to leave the sick bay. Arthur felt a pang of pride that he had not felt since childhood. Did the Colonel really believe in him that much?

“Sir,” Arthur said, finally able to get a word out, albeit with a stammer. The old officer turned around, his face creased up and dog-like again. “I’m not going anywhere, Sir.”

The Colonel’s mouth and brow made that shape that vaguely resembled a smile again. He nodded slightly and left.

 

***

Arthur was lying prone atop a dune, half buried in concealing sand and peering down the other side at the Panzer III lying in wait. This was perfect. He crawled backwards and, when clearly out of sight behind the crest of the dune, slid down the slope as fast as he could towards his tank.

He jumped up onto the hull and swung himself into the hatch.

“There’s one of them on the other side, alone.”

Everyone grinned back – they knew by now what the M3 was capable of in situations like this. A month of fighting in the machine and they were more confident than they had ever been in any other fighting vehicle. Arthur picked up the radio and checked in with the other tanks under his command. They were both located within eyesight of Arthur, fully crewed and ready for orders.

“Listen in everyone, here’s what we’ll do. Somerset, Davies, take your tanks around the front of the dune. There is a Panzer on the other side, bait him and head for the airfield. We’ll crest the lowest point and put a shot into the engine. Understood?”

His radio crackled back with approval.

“Use your speed and for god’s sake don’t stop moving. I expect the noise will attract the other scouts in the area so keep those hatches open and get ready to spot. We’ll join you on the airstrip after we knock this one out.”

He turned to Private Houghton and nodded.

The Honey seemed to pivot entirely on the spot. They were now facing up the steep bank of the dune. Even at its lowest point, the angle of attack on the sandy slope was blood-curdling.

“Ok Davey, back her up so we can build some speed. Quieten her down when we crest. Wait for the others to run past before we show ourselves.” Arthur whispered.

The other two M3s had started up again. They eagerly whizzed past. At this, Arthur’s little tank roared into life and began to eagerly surmount the obstacle. The heat and oily smell coming off the little engine stung the eyes of the crew but it also got their blood pumping. They and their machine were wide awake again.

The gritty sand crunched and rustled under the narrow tracks as they sailed upwards. Soon enough the crest of the dune was poised to fall away. Houghton let go of the throttle and they were silently perched, a metal silhouette against the fading light of the desert evening. Through the front hatch, those in the crew who were facing forward saw their view of the starry sky above turn into the hapless shape of the grey Panzer below them.

At that moment, the German tank’s turret began to move – they had spotted the distraction run of the other tanks in Arthur’s troop.

 “Now!” Arthur exclaimed, “Keep us steady, we don’t want to roll...” 

The M3 began the descent. It was a lot steeper than Arthur had anticipated but his driver seemed to relish being only just at the point of control.

“Jones, pass me an armour piercing round but don’t shoot until we have the rear armour. We have to make this count.”

“Here!” replied the gunner.

“Good, await my order.”

They were almost at the bottom. The Panzer was moving forward now, trying to close the distance on the Stuarts that it had spotted. Jones began to operate the turret traverse and get the gun lined up.

“Davey, halt here….steady….fire!”

The 37mm gun went off with an audible “PAP!” its armour piercing shell ricocheted off the back corner of the boxy German tank. The Panzer halted and its turret began to turn like the neck of a cumbersome predator.

Tension was only slightly raised in Arthur’s voice – he knew how fast the gun could be reloaded.

“Fire!”

This time the tiny shell planted itself firmly in the rear of the Panzer. Smoke and flame bellowed from the tank and the escape hatches flew open.

“They’re done for, let’s go find the others.”

As Houghton got the tank moving again, the radio barked into life - it was Corporal Somerset: “Contact, Sir! Two more of them out here by the airstrip.”

“Move!” Arthur shouted, the Honey reeled around and bolted in the direction of their allies, everyone inside was pushed backwards by the force of the engine. The sounds of battle were now beginning…


Stay with us.
The next episode of Times of War is coming on Saturday, 21 February.

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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