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Times of War: Tobruk, Episode 9

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The Boy's Tale Part III

They walked in silence, trying to make as little noise as possible. That wasn’t easy; the ground was uneven, covered in rubble, and they used no light. There were twelve of them: the skipper, by the name of Munir, his two crewmen, seven sick locals, Wolsky, and Boy. The two soldiers were wearing civilian clothes, and the whole company looked a lot like smugglers.

There were two reasons for their caution. Firstly, Allied Command probably wouldn’t look favourably on civilians being transported out of the city, as they might be spies. It was best they didn’t know. Secondly, Wolsky and Boy had two days of leave, but they weren’t allowed to leave the city. However, Boy insisted on going to the refugees’ hideout and tending to the sick and wounded, so they thought of the only way of going there – sneaking out of the city and coming back unnoticed. If they were caught, they would face a court-martial for attempted desertion, but if they weren’t…

“Turn left now. Stay in the shadows,” whispered the skipper. “My boat is not far away”.

They stuck to the side of an old warehouse, then turned down to the water. There, by the pier, the cutter was moored. Open, with only one mast, small enough to sneak through the harbour, but big enough to take them all.

They got in and sat down on whatever was available: barrels, crates, bales of fishing net. The crew untied the mooring ropes and pulled the vessel away from the pier with the boat-hooks. Munir started the small diesel engine. It looked like they had changed something in the compartment, because the sound was unusually quiet and muffled. The skipper took the helm and the boat started moving slowly through the peaceful waters of the bay.

It was near the end of the dog watch, and there was close to no movement in the port. Distant sounds of machinery, the whistling of the wind, diesel power generator – that was all Boy could hear as they were making their way to the harbour mouth.

All of a sudden, a spotlight started to slide across the surface of the dock. Despite the quiet engine someone had heard them. Or maybe it was a routine check performed by the guards?

Munir swore and sharply turned the steering wheel.

“What are you doing?” asked Wolsky. “It's going to be even more suspicious if they see us running!”

“Hiding.” grunted Munir. “Over there.” He pointed somewhere in front of them. Boy couldn't see anything clearly in the darkness, until the light hit something really big. Huge mass of steel and wood, full of sharp angles, cables, chains, and broken glass, was gleaming rusty steel on one side and oozing utter blackness on the other. It looked like an abstract high-contrast photograph. After a while boy could tell that it was a half-sunken transport ship, a relic of the first stage of the siege.

The skipper manoeuvred the boat behind the hulking shadow. The spotlight moved again on the pier, on the water, and on the wreck. They managed to get fully covered by it just in time.

“I hope they don't see our wake.” The skipper slowed the boat down to a full stop. “We need to wait”.

They waited for few long minutes before the spotlight finally went down. And then they waited a few minutes more.

Only then, when everything was still and quiet, did they move again.

 

***

The weather is nice, the sea is calm, and in the light of the sunrise I can see the land not so far away. I am quite happy being able to just give in to the rhythm of the waves. Nobody else in sight, no trenches, no tanks, just open space and our little boat.

That was it. The boats. There were a few cutters remaining operational in the city's harbour and providing for the besieged inhabitants. I told Wolsky about my idea of taking people out of the city to someplace safe the first time we met. I talked to him a couple of times afterwards about the details and progress.

I have to admit – Wolsky had a gift for persuasion. After identifying the most important skipper in the harbour, he talked him into cooperating with us. And then, the skipper convinced every other fisherman in the city. It seems they didn't take much convincing after all – he just had to explain that the needs of their folk were bigger than the risk, and that they were brave enough to take it.

From what I see from time to time shining on the skipper's wrist, Wolsky didn't use words only. There were also some other reasons for the fisherman to agree. One of them apparently has a new strap.

As far as I know, they found a proper place for the settlement in a quiet cove within a reasonable sailing distance. We're going there now, bringing some supplies we managed to obtain. I also want to tend to the sick and wounded. It's risky, because we aren't supposed to leave. I hope it's going to end well for us, otherwise we are facing...

 

***

“Damnation!” The skipper shouted. “Everybody down! Get down!”

He pointed to the horizon. After a few seconds Boy could recognise two dark spots in the sky, and after a short while he started to hear something that might be the sound of engines.

“Planes! You need to hide!” The skipper urged and started shouting orders in Arabic.

“How?” Wolsky wasn’t sure how they were supposed to hide in the open fishing boat, but he was already helping other people to lay down flat on the boat’s bottom.

“I’ll hide you,” Munir answered impatiently.

“Why? Are they going to shoot us?” Boy inquired.

“We don’t want the Brits to see people being transported, right?” The skipper rolled his eyes. “And if they are Germans… They usually don’t attack civilian crafts, but it’s better if they don’t get any funny ideas. Now quick, get down!”

Boy went down and found himself in a puddle of stagnant sea water, between a barrel and a young man whose eyes were wide open and gleaming with fever. Somebody’s foot rested on his head. And then he couldn’t see anything, as he was covered with a fishing net, and then a layer of fish. He could barely breathe.

“German!” a muffled voice came through the improvised camouflage.

Boy could smell the fish. They were definitely not fresh.

Despite the insulation, he could clearly hear the sound of the engines, growing louder and louder. After a painfully long time the planes, or one of them, went just above them, really low, with a mighty roar. The boat rocked.

Then came the gunfire.

Boy stopped breathing. He could almost feel everybody else’s fear as they waited motionless for the bullets to come hissing from above, to turn the boat into splinters with the soft sound of chipped wood, to make the passengers food for the fish.

Yet nothing like that happened. After the first burst came another, and another, but nothing hit them, no one got hurt. Somebody was shooting, but not at them.

“What the hell is going on?” Boy, on the verge of panic, desperately wanted to see why the German planes keep missing. He moved so he could use his hands and started to remove the fishing nets and fish from himself. After some time he could stick one arm out, then his head. He looked around.

Above them two planes started their deadly aerial dance. Boy couldn’t be sure, but one of them looked like a German Bf 109, and the other like a Spitfire. Shots had been fired already, and it seemed like a matched fight. Something was not right though. The sounds of the encounter were somewhat off.

Boy pulled himself up and looked over the side of the cutter. Then the situation and the sounds became clear. There was a second Messerschmitt, the one that flew low and very close to the boat. The pilot had just finished a tight turn and started to climb to join the fray from below.

The first German pilot disengaged in an attempt to escape the more agile Spitfire and build up speed. The British fighter gave up the pursuit and changed his target to the new enemy. He rolled to avoid the first machinegun burst, then turned sharply and started the circling dogfight with the Messerschmitt. After a few moments he managed to graze the German, after another turn he placed more bullets in the enemy aircraft.

The Brit had the clear advantage, almost sitting on the enemy’s six, and preparing for the final blow. And the blow came.

However it landed on the Spitfire.

It seemed like the British pilot forgot to check the position of the second Messerschmitt. The German fighter came back fast and with one long burst from his guns, practically annihilated the elevator and rudder, and shredded the wing. In a split second the Spitfire lost control, yet the pilot somehow managed to level out and open the canopy. Then he bailed out of the plane.

After a moment the dark ribbon of a parachute appeared above him.

“Oh my God…”

Boy turned his head and saw Wolsky, who also come up from under the nets and fish. His Canadian face was tense.

“What?”

“He’s too low.”

With his parachute half-open, the British pilot crashed into the sea. His plane soon followed.

 

***

“Where am I?”

Boy could barely hear the soft and weak voice coming from below. He looked down and saw that the Brit had woken up.

“It’s alright, sir. You’re in good hands.” He replied and crouched, so he could hear the man better.

“But…what happened? I can remember jumping out of my craft, and then…”

“Do you want some water?”

When the pilot nodded, Boy gave him his canteen.

“You were shot down by those two Messerschmitts, remember?”

“Yes, I do. I was on a scout mission. They shouldn’t even be there…” He paused and winced. “I remember jumping out of the plane, but then… Oh, it hurts…”

“Well, it does, I’m sure.” Boy nodded. “You’re chute didn’t fully open, you were too low. We picked you up from the water. You were unconscious. Actually it was good, because I had to reset both your legs.”

The pilot’s eyes opened wide.

“What?”

“Both your legs are broken and you have a concussion, but you seem fine otherwise. You should consider yourself lucky. You survived. We were at the site, and I’m a medic. You damaged one German fighter. He was trailing smoke when they went back to wherever they came from.” Anticipating the next question, Boy added. “We will take you to Tobruk soon, but now you need to sleep.”

“That won’t be easy. It hurts really bad.” The pilot tried to smile, but it didn’t really work for him.

“I told you I’m a medic, right? I believe I have something just for that.”

 

***

“It’s here!” shouted Munir as he pointed to the mouth of the small cove, that they could have otherwise easily missed.

When they came closer and around the rocks, in the bright morning sunlight they could see a few houses of the village on the edge of the dry river bed. It seemed that the place had been abandoned before, deteriorated significantly, and was recently repopulated without the proper repairs.

They could spot a few people taking care of some day-to-day tasks, and a few children helping them or playing, but as soon as the boat was spotted everybody went quickly inside and the village went completely quiet.

“Are they going to come and meet us?” Boy asked. “They know we’re coming, right?”

“Yes,” the skipper replied, “but they were instructed to be cautious whenever they see anybody. They will probably come out when we prove who we are, and bring the sick ashore.”

“Alright, bring us as close as possible then,” demanded Wolsky. “We will have to…”

He stopped talking and shielded his eyes with his hand.

“Look, Boy.” He pointed at one of the houses. “There is somebody over there.”

Boy looked closely. They were getting closer to the shore, and after some time he could see a petite woman leaning against the doorframe of one of the houses. He couldn’t see any details though, as she was standing in the shadows, but he felt that something in her posture was strangely familiar.

“You think…” Adam was looking at the woman intensely. “You think… it’s possible that…?”

“Dunno. You better go and find out.”

Wolsky nodded, then jumped out of the boat and started walking vigorously through the shallow water.

“Is this his ‘lucky night’?” Boy thought.

He looked at Munir. The skipper was standing on the bow, holding the forestay. Watch on his wrist cast a bright reflex across Boy’s eyes.

“What happens next?” came another silent question.

Munir, as if he could hear Boy’s thoughts, turned around and grinned.

The woman stepped into the sun.


This was the last episode of our short-fiction series.
Thank you for reading!

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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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