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Times of War: Tobruk, Episode 7

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Arthur Wright's Story Part III

A cruel and lazy sun was lukewarm on his skin. It shone dully through half-closed shutters, forming a cold cross section on the table. The Alexandrian bar was somehow even more hopeless under the light of day than it had been a few months ago. Everything seemed to be covered in a layer of dust.

How did the tank regiment end up here again?

It had all been going so well. After the successful sunset raid on the airfield, Arthur and his troop had enjoyed a few weeks of success against Rommel’s armour. Now, the tide had turned and they were on the back foot.

A nervous-looking war reporter with a dog-eared note pad sat opposite him. The young man jumped every time the city produced a loud or foreign noise. He brushed red hair off his face with one hand and, shaking as he did so, put down his half-pint with the other.

“Lieutenant, if you would p-please continue with y-your story?”

Arthur took a sip from his glass and winced. If it had ever been scotch, it had surely been a nasty blend. He managed a smile nonetheless.

The young man was essentially harmless and Arthur knew that this story probably wouldn’t reach print. Besides, every time he opened his mouth, the young man seemed too engaged to jot a single word down anyway.

“It was the day of the push but this time, it was as if they knew we were coming…”

 

***

…the M3 Stuart was flung through three-hundred-and-sixty degrees, chaotically throwing Arthur out of his place in the turret and downwards onto Houghton. Its track was sheared in two by the detonation of the high explosive shell. At the speed they were travelling, the effect of the sudden loss of power to one of the vehicle’s sides induced the dizzying spin. They were helpless now and in a really bad spot.

“Out!” Arthur screamed but the men were well drilled and had already scrambled for their exits. As the tank had fortuitously not spilled onto its side, it was still a threat to the enemy – its gun could yet be fired. Arthur knew that it was quite possible that they would be hit again.

Outside the tank, the British line was a whirlwind of sand and oil. Fire pounded the ground from entrenched anti-tank weapons and grey shapes were bobbling on the horizon, the heat of the desert floor creating a mirage of their true location. For some reason Arthur’s regiment were still attempting the assault.

The metal of the crippled Stuart was scorching under Arthur’s hand as he vaulted off the hull and took cover. The last ones out, Chapman and Jones, fell into line just as a bright yellow tracer round ricocheted off the turret like stray lightning. To their left was a collection of ruins, poking out of the sand like broken teeth. Arthur and his men crawled their way to its relative safety. The sand tasted horrid.

A second M3 Stuart, the one commanded by Somerset, Arthur’s Corporal, stopped near them but the young officer only waved his hands furiously:

“Get out! Away!” Arthur screamed.

The M3 traversed on the spot, its large rear drive-wheel winding like an enormous cog. As it bolted away another high-explosive shell smashed into the ground right where it had been standing. Arthur and his men were alone and surrounded by shellfire and smoke.

“They were prepared, sir!” shouted Houghton, “How did they know?”

Arthur didn’t know how to answer but knew well enough to say nothing even if he did. Finding cover, he simply put the set of field glasses to his eyes and surveyed the terrain. Things would be okay unless the German commander launched a counter attack - and that was when he saw the Panzer.

The grey machine mounted a section of the ruins with ferocity. The ancient masonry crumbled under its weight like the falling apart of a dry bird’s nest. It was larger than the Panzers they had seen before and had enormous skirts mounted on the sides of the hull. Its frontal armour looked thicker too, with extra plates bolted on for good measure - no wonder the Stuarts had been struggling to do lasting damage from any angle.

“Look out!” someone screamed but the men were frozen in place. The beast reeled round on its tracks, churning up sand and stone like a hurricane. It was bearing down on them now. Even at a slow pace it was more menacing than anything Arthur had seen before. Why couldn’t he move? Were they about to be killed or captured? Whatever the result, it seemed unlikely there was a way out of this one.

Suddenly, a shell smashed into the side of the Panzer between the turret and the hull. The audible fizzing sound indicated it had been a high explosive anti-tank shell. The turret ring had partially melted to the hull, the mechanism beneath straining ineffectually. Arthur and his men seized the chance and got to their feet. The Panzer now had to turn its entire hull in order to face the new threat. It was in vain. Another shell slammed into the front drive-wheel of the turning machine, simultaneously immobilising it and causing something inside the hull to combust.

A tank with British markings was just outside the ruins. It towered above the men. The gun, much larger than any that Arthur had seen on Allied armour to this point was mounted in a side sponson. It was smoking in the aftermath of its rescuing shot. High above, with his head poking out the commander’s hatch, was a welcome sight indeed.

“Wright, get your men on the back sharply!” Wyndham-Ferris shouted, the dull light gleaming off the tankers’ badge on his beret.

The Colonel’s tank manoeuvred round smartly and Arthur could assess just how large it really was. It must have been over 10 foot tall with a turret, mounting the familiar 37mm gun from the Stuarts, stuck on top like an afterthought. Struggling aboard the massive hull, the men clung to whatever handholds they could find. The machine accelerated swiftly towards British lines. Risking a glance over his shoulder, Arthur saw a fuzzy grey line of German tanks fill the horizon against the setting sun. The British forces began a swift fall back towards Alexandria…

 

***

The nervous young man had not actually been making notes for the entirety of Arthur’s story. He was listening so attentively that Arthur felt it would shame him to have it pointed out.

“A senior officer r-really risked his own life to save you from the front?”

Arthur could only reply with a smile at first. It would have been unlikely in perhaps any other conflict, and certainly in any other regiment, but life in the tanks was different.

“The Colonel is just like that.” He finally said. “A different breed of officer. It’s the esprit de corps, I suppose, we’re all like it.”

“You must have a lost a lot of friends” said the reporter before he suddenly remembered himself and blushed. “Oh sorry, how careless of me! I…”

“It’s fine” said Arthur, feeling a pang in his chest. ”Would you like another drink?”

Arthur got to his feet and went over to the empty bar. Hopefully this action would spare the young man further embarrassment. The staff of the bar all slept through the heat of the day so he fished out a dusty bottle from a floor cupboard on his own. Arthur left some crumpled notes in a jar on the bar side and stopped himself from trying any more of that terrible excuse for whisky.

The young man was dithering with his note pad again, probably trying to recall the details of Arthur’s story that he had just heard. Arthur could only chuckle. Civilians seemed so funny these days. Especially those with some kind of ambition. He was suddenly saddened. The war was obscuring his mind. Hadn’t he once wanted to teach literature?

“Anyway,” said Arthur, as much interrupting himself as trying to ease the young reporter’s anxieties, “back to the story, eh?”

 

***

The M3 Lee rolled back into base and Arthur and his men demounted. The hatch of the massive machine popped open and the Colonel lifted his tiny frame out of the tank. Damaged and dusty Stuarts and a couple of other Lees were slowly filtering into the bay. There were few smiles around.

“Wright, I want to see you in my office right away.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Entering the Colonel’s office, Cummings, the secretary, stood up and saluted.

“I heard on the wireless, Sir. Was it bad?”

The Colonel nodded and seemed to bark in affirmation. Wyndham-Ferris lead Arthur into his private office and slammed the door behind him it sounded louder than any gunshot Arthur had heard all day.

“Take a seat, Wright.”

Arthur sat down. The desk was awash with papers and maps but most of the Colonel’s things were packed up. The Colonel was no fool – he knew their position was untenable and that they were being pushed even further back towards Alexandria.

“Get ready for a full-scale retreat. For the last month, the Germans have anticipated every move we’ve made. Either we’re getting sloppy or something’s gone awry.”

“Awry, Sir?”

Arthur wasn’t sure why he asked. Of course things were awry. Command was a in a flurry. The rumours were that most of the officers in charge were being removed from their posts. Tobruk had fallen again, taken in no time at all. A cruel joke considering how long they had held on in that pitiful city.

The Colonel put both hands on his desk and peered at Arthur with a look that conveyed something like worried rage…

“Listen closely, Wright…”

 

***

“What did he tell you?” said the reporter, forgetting his stammer amidst his excitement.

“I’m afraid that’s classified.” Arthur replied, smiling again.


The youth visibly deflated in his chair like suddenly stepped-upon bellows. Before the young man could launch another question Arthur had left the table. He needed a splash of cold water across his face.

On his way through the narrow backroom corridor, he glimpsed a flash of light in the corner of his eye. Turning in that direction, Arthur found himself once again face to face with the gilt-framed mirror. He leaned in for a look and barely recognised the man he saw. He was older. War had aged him. How could they have gotten through the Tobruk months only to lose the city again and end up back here? He walked into the bathroom stall and splashed water onto his face. Then it suddenly dawned on him.

With water still dripping from his nose he ran back out to the mirror and stared deeply into it. There was no one but him in the reflection. Arthur was still alive and there was no such thing as ghosts. 

 


Stay with us.
The next episode of Times of War is coming on Saturday, 14 March.

 

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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