A rough draft of an action in North Africa in WW2
|The flare caught them in the open. They froze, marble statues in the stark white glare. A long minute passed and the three of them waited for the burst of machine gun fire that would kill them all. Slowly the light again gave way to dark and as one, they let out their pent up breath.
Two continued moving, hunched over as though the darkness weighed on their shoulders. The third stayed immobile crouching, rifle pointed back in the direction they had come.
Len Carlton peered over his rifle’s sight in to the darkness, straining to see movement, hoping he would not. Satisfied they were not followed; he lowered the weight of the weapon onto his knee and let it rest there. His free hand pushed his tin hat back and wiped a dusty hand across his sweating forehead, leaving a dark smudge. After a moment he rose to a crouch, turned and followed the others into the gloom.
“Its here somewhere” he heard the signaller whose name was Barnes or Bunn or some such whispering urgently.
“Well find the bloody thing then” hissed Corporal Jimmy Page “So we can piss off out of this mess. Those bloody Jerries can’t be far behind”.
Page turned in his direction and raised his Tommy gun as Len got closer “Identify yourself or I’ll shoot”.
“It’s me Corp, don’t shoot” Len whispered, “Its quiet behind us”.
Page lowered his weapon and scowled “Yeah, well that’s not going to last too long. Bloody Barnard here better pull his finger out and find that bloody phone line”.
“Got it!” exclaimed Barnard raising a slender cable from the dust at his feet. He moved off hunched down in his greatcoat feeding the cable through his fingers. Len and his Corporal moved slowly behind him. They had barely gone a few yards when a burst of machine gun fire ripped the quiet to their rear. All three men froze and peered back in that direction, hoping to find the source of the fire.
“Was that ours or theirs?” asked Barnard terrified.
“That’s their’s, Mr Green isn’t going to fire and give away his possie until he’s got no choice” Page answered quietly “They’re just probing for now, trying to find our positions. Barnard, hurry up and find that break”.
Another burst of fire came from behind them, then a flare, burst in the dark sky bathing everything in a stark white glow. “I can see the break; it’s only a few yards away. It looks like one of the mortar bombs broke it”. They waited, not daring to even breathe as the bright sun of the flare slowly drifted downward on its tiny parachute.
When it had sunk to the ground and was no more than a spot of sputtering light a few hundred yards away, Page pushed Barnard forward “get it fixed”.
“Get the other end would you Carlton” Barnard whispered, and Len crept past the signaller who had already fished a pair of wire strippers form the bulging valise hanging on his hip and was busily sawing at the snapped cable.
He slung his rifle and picked up the broken line, still warm from the blast that severed it minutes earlier. As he passed it to Barnard, there came the sharp report of a German machine gun, quickly answered by the shuddering BOOMP, BOOMP of mills bombs exploding.
They all froze for a fraction of a second “Bloody hell, it’s on” gasped Page and Barnard quickly continued working, rapidly stripping the rubber coating off the wire before deftly splicing the two naked ends together.
“Hurry up” Len hissed as Barnard pulled a roll of dark tape from his valise
“Keep your hair on mate, I’m nearly done” answered the round faced signaller without looking up. He rapidly wound a length of the tape around the cable “all done”.
As the three started back in the direction that had come, the first German machine gun fired again and was joined by the distinctive BBBBBRRRPPPPPP of a Schmiesser. A Bren up ahead answered with three quick rattling bursts. Then distinctive sounds were lost as machine guns and rifles opened up, slowly at first but rapidly increasing in intensity and rate.
“STEP IT UP” Page shouted over the sound of the firing “MOVE!” He began running as fast as the heavy coat and webbing would allow. Both Len and the panting Barnard caught up to page silhouetted crouching at the lip of a large hole gouged out of the earth by a German Howitzer
“Identify yourself.” the wiry corporal hissed into the dark.
The night in front of them remained silent and dark for a moment, then a whispered “du ist?” came in return.
The distant sound of gunfire was suddenly drowned out by the pounding of the blood in his temples and when Barnard whispered to him, Len could only imagine what he was saying. His fingers grasped white knuckled at the wood of his rifle and he felt like a block of cement, unable to react, unable to move.
He watched transfixed as a dark object arced through the darkness. The three of them watched wide eyed as it landed in the sand between them with a soft “thunk”. In the gloom, Len could make out the square top of the device and its long wooden handle and the trance was broken. “POTATO MASHER! He shouted and threw himself backwards, knocking Barnard of his knees sprawling in the sand.
Len felt the slap against his ears leaving them ringing. Something hit him in the back as he sprawled with the shocked signaller. When he regained his senses, Len could see Page through the dust cloud, sitting, with his Tommy Gun raised to his shoulder.
Len struggled to his knees, using his rifle as a crutch as the wiry Corporal let loose a burst of fire. The yellow darts of flame from the muzzle of the weapon were answered by a ripping burst from Germans a short distance away. Spits of sand kicked up around the wiry Page, as he scrabbled backward in the dust. He let out a grunt as he turned to scrabble toward Len who was calling out to him to hurry.
A big German loomed out of the dark, rifle pointed at page as he stumbled back toward Len, Tommy gun hanging loosely in one hand. Len raised his rifle and with taking time to aim, fired. The bright flash had blotted out the advancing German but he was gone when Len blinked the glare from his eyes. Page was at his side now looking down at Barnard “bloody hell” he exclaimed. Barnard was laying on his back. His eyes were closed and blood covered most of his round face.
“Is he dead?” Len enquired without looking away from the dusty air that the Germans
had attacked from.
Page felt the supine signallers body. “No he’s breathing, must have caught a bit from that potato masher” He shouldered his Thompson “Cover us Len, I’ll get him sorted”
The night was quiet now and the dust was settling. Len kept his eyes forward scanning for movement. He worked the bolt of his rifle, the action slickly clicking with each movement, letting the empty shell casing drop in the sand.
Len could sense movement before he could see it. “Corp, the Jerries are coming again” he whispered.
Page struggled up to the lip of the crater “Are you sure?”
“I can’t see them but they are out there” as he said it, the desert floor shifted slightly ahead of them “Did you see that?”
Page withdrew “I need my gun, do you have any Mills bombs?”
As the sinewy little corporal edged back, Len drew two Mills bombs from his greatcoat pocket and laid them on the lip of the hole. When he could feel Page struggling back up, Len picked up one of the Mills bombs, feeling the scored surface of the grenade cold against his palm.
Leaving his rifle on the edge of the hole, he took hold of the ring fastened to the safety pin in his left hand. As the panting Page drew next to him, Len pulled the pin from the grenade and let the lever flick out from his fingers. There was a quiet snap and a fizzing sound accompanied by a fine wisp of smoke. He counted silently, “one…two… on three he tossed the grenade out into the dark.
It exploded with a deep “BOOMP” and the night came alive once more. Out of the dark and the dust came more Germans, helmeted, some wearing greatcoats that made them look squat and slow. They fired rifles and schmeissers at the hole as they came on and Len grasped for the other grenade as empty shells rattled on his tin hat as Page fired short bursts from his Tommy gun at the rapidly advancing enemy.
Len tossed the last Mills Bomb and picked up his rifle. A flare burst in the sky, bathing everything in a coat of white. The dull yellow uniforms worn by the attacking Germans became marble, stark and white. As they dropped slowly, the flares swung gently, lending a drunken, jerking quality to the movement of the Germans as they charged. Over the sight of his rifle, Len saw one stop and draw a stick grenade from his tall boot leg.
He fired and hit the man as he moved to throw the grenade. As he fell back, the German managed to toss the grenade away from himself, toward the hole. It landed with a thud close to the lip of the hole, between Len and Page. With out taking his eyes of the enemy, the small corporal scooped it up in his left hand and tossed it back toward the Germans, where it exploded in a cloud of sand and shrapnel.
The first either knew of the mortar barrage was a thin whistling that fought to make itself heard over the firing. The first round hit in front of the hole with an ear punching BOOM and a plume of dust.
“Jesus Christ” yelped Page as he fell back from the blast. Len ducked his head down under the rim of the hole as the second mortar bomb hit nearby, dirt falling all over his back and head. There was a momentary silence, both men looked cautiously over the lip of their shell hole.
The Germans were gone, only dark bundles on the ground, sometimes moving or moaning gave any hint that they had even been there. Further ahead, near the Company position they had occupied earlier in the night, they could hear more mortar rounds landing with a flash discernable in the dark.
Len left Page at the rim of the hole and scuttle down to check Barnard. In the dark of the hole, he couldn’t see the signallers face well, but he could feel it swollen and damp with blood. He dug his shaking fingers in under the collar of his greatcoat, feeling for a pulse and finding one, weak and rapid. “He’s going into shock Jim” he hissed up at Page, who spared only a glance in his direction as acknowledgement.
As he gazed up at the corporal, the small man was bathed in a brilliant white light. “What’s all this nonsense?” a voice roared “Corporal Page, is that you malingering in a shell hole when the whole Afrika Korps is knocking on the door” Page half turned toward the light left hand raised, trying to protect his eyes. “Is that you Reg?” he enquired, dazzled by the light.
“Company Sergeant Major to you Corporal” the voice from the dark roared again “and who is this cowering in the bottom of the mineshaft?”
“Private Carlton Company Sergeant Major, and a wounded man”
The voice from the dark was quiet a moment as a large man struggled to the ground next to him. Company Sergeant Major Pullen was suddenly next to Len “Stretcher party forward” he was bellowing even as he turned “Page. Report please.”
Page stood uncertainly at the lip of the crater and said purposefully “ Private Carlton, Signaller Barnard and I were ordered by Mr Green to find and repair a break in the phone line from his command post to Company HQ. We did so and were engaged by some enemy Company Sergeant Major” He paused a moment “I’ve been hit” he added as he sank to a sitting position “bloody hell, I never noticed before”. A stretched bearer climbed next to him and pulled his greatcoat open.
“Very good Corporal, you may stand down”
A Bren Carrier shuddered to a halt next to the crater, and suddenly Page was sitting in darkness as the spotlight was dragged across the ground in front of the hole, illuminating a dozen dead or wounded Germans. “Bloody hell mate” gasped the driver “did you save any for tomorrow?”
“Alright one section, advance on foot Check these Jerries, make sure they aren’t playing possum. Two section, cover from the carriers.” Company Sergeant Major Pullen barked, then quietly to Page who had been assisted to stand up “Corporal, you two accompany your signaller to the Aid post. Well done man” He patted the smaller man on the back as he was led away by the stretcher bearer.
Carlton was helping two stretcher bearers load the litter carrying Barnard onto one of the Bren carriers when Page joined him “That was close Len” he whispered “ You did well for your first time”
“Ta Corp” Len answered with a smile as he helped page climb on board “I could murder a cup of tea."