I. "One Man's View of Combat."
Our narrator, British Army Lieutenant. R. Lawrence Chapman ("Chap"), recounts his experiences during the North African campaign of WWII. Chap is writing from London in the mid-1970's, as a civilian -- an editor and publisher -- in his fifties, recalling events of the summer of 1942. His memoir is of his time with a British special forces unit, the Long Range Desert Group.
At the time of the British retreat to El Alamein in summer '42, the Long Range Desert Group had been in business for almost two years. Its raids had destroyed and damaged hundreds of Axis aircraft on the ground and caused thousands of German and Italian troops to be pulled out of the front lines and redeployed to provide rear-area security. The LRDG had acquired a certain swashbuckling glamour. Volunteers queued by the hundreds. Getting in was no cinch however. From one batch of 700 applicants, the LRDG took only twelve. Criteria for selection were less wild and woolly than one might imagine. The group was not seeking buccaneers or assassins; what it wanted was the solid, mature sort--the type of fellow who could think for himself under pressure, work in close quarters with others, and handle extremes not only of danger but of tedium, hardship and privation. The virtues of resourcefulness, self-composure, patience, hardiness and generosity (not to mention a sense of humour) were prized as highly as those of bravery, aggressiveness, or raw martial rigor.
In this I believe the LRDG was spot on. One of the factors that has kept me until now from writing of my own experiences under fire is the uneasiness I have felt about the genre of war literature. Tales of heroes, the nobility of sacrifice and so forth have always left me cold. They run counter to my experience. From what I've seen, the operations of war are constituted less of glorious attacks and valiant defences and more of an ongoing succession of mundane and often excruciating balls-ups. The patrol of which I write, typical of so many, achieved little heroic beyond its own survival, save at the very end, and then less by military or tactical brilliance than by luck and its protagonists' stubborn, even mulish refusal to quit. Those actions of its men which may legitimately claim the name of gallantry came about largely from attempts at self-extrication from peril, most of which trouble we got into ourselves by our own overzealousness, and the main of which were performed either in the heat of instinct or the frenzy of blood terror. The men who performed these heroics often could not recall them in the aftermath. Let me say this about courage in combat. In my experience valour in action counts for far less than simplyperforming one's commonplace task without cocking it up. This is by no means as simple as it sounds. In many ways it's the most difficult thing in the world. Certainly for every glorious death memorialised in despatches, one could count twenty others that were the product of fatigue, confusion, inattention, over- or underassertion of authority, panic, timidity, hesitation, honest errors or miscalculations, mishaps and accidents, collisions, mechanical breakdowns, lost or forgotten spare parts, intelligence deficiencies, mistranslated codes, late or inadequate medical care, not to say bollocksed-up orders (or the failure to grasp and implement proper orders), misdirected fire from one's own troops or allies, and general all-around muddling, sometimes the fault of the dead trooper himself. The role of the officer in my experience is nothing grander than to stand sentinel over himself and his men, towards the end of keeping them from forgetting who they are and what their objective is, how to get there, and what equipment they're supposed to have when they arrive. Oh, and getting back. That's the tricky part. Such success as the Long Range Desert Group enjoyed may be credited in no small measure to the superior leadership of Colonel Ralph Bagnold and Lieutenant-Colonel Guy Prendergast, its founder and follow-on OC, for whom the applications of preparation and thoroughness far surpassed those of courage and intrepidity.
II. "The Mission Briefing," from Chapter Ten.
The first ten chapters detail Chap's youth and military training and his service as a tank officer in North Africa in 1941 and 1942. As this excerpt begins, Chap has been seconded to the Long Range Desert Group and has trained with them for several weeks at Faiyoum, south of Cairo. The time is mid-summer 1942; Rommel and the German Afrika Korps have routed the British Eighth Army and driven them back to the gates of Alexandria. The fate of North Africa, and possibly the outcome of the entire war, hangs in the balance. Desperate measures are called for.
An historical note: other than Chapman, Lt.. Warren, Flight Lt. Higge-Evert and Sgt. Collier, all personages in this section are true historical figures, many of them legendary in the annals of British special forces.
The briefing takes place in the Motor Repair Shop of the Heavy Section, that branch of the LRDG whose role is to supply petrol, ammunition and rations to the fighting patrols. The shop is the only space that has wind-proof walls (to keep dust out of the newly-machined engines) and that is big enough and cool enough for comfort. It is called "the barn." Three officers preside: Major Jake Easonsmith, commanding the operation as a whole; Captain Bill Kennedy Shaw, LRDG Intelligence Officer; and Major Blair "Paddy" Mayne, commanding the SAS.
Present are all LRDG patrol officers and their senior NCOs: Captain Nick Wilder commanding T1 patrol, Lieutenant Geoffrey Warren commanding T3 (Jake himself will take R1). T2 patrol, under Second Lieutenant Ron Tinker, is absent on another operation. Major Vladimir Peniakoff--"Popski"--takes a seat on a bench alongside his second-in-command, Lieutenant Bob Yunnie. I find a place on the side. At the front are the operation's medical officer, Captain Dick Lawson, and its RAF adjunct, Flight-Lieutenant Higge-Evert, who will accompany Wilder's patrol as adviser and air liaison. Near Major Mayne sit his three NCO mainstays, Reg Seekings, Johnny Cooper and Mike Sadler, the navigator, along with Mayne's single officer other than himself, Captain Alexander "Sandy" Scratchley. The feel of the briefing is extremely casual. There are no chairs, so the fellows perch on test stands or benches or simply camp on the floor with their knees up and their arms round their bare legs. The uniform is shorts and desert blouses, with chaplies, the box-toed sandals that the men favour over boots because they're cooler in the heat and because scorpions and spiders can't hide inside them.
A sergeant named Collier closes the big sliding shop doors. At the front, Captain Kennedy Shaw pins a blow-up photo to a presentation stand. The photo is of Rommel.
I glance round to see if any of the officers appear surprised. If they are, they don't show it. Sergeant Collier comes back and takes the seat beside me--on a wooden crate of .303 ammunition.
"The Desert Fox," says Kennedy Shaw, indicating the photo. "For nearly two years every man in this room has burned to get a crack at him. Well," he says, "soon you shall."
Briefly Kennedy Shaw goes over Rommel's early career--his spectacular success as an infantry officer in WWI, his winning of the Pour le Merite, the triumph of his book Infantry in the Attack. Kennedy Shaw is trying to give us a sense of the man. "Rommel's physical courage is beyond question. The hallmark of his fighting style is audacity and aggressiveness."
In the invasion of France in 1940, Rommel commands the crack 7th Panzer Division. This formation spearheads the blitzkrieg breakthrough of the Ardennes, the blow that breaks France's back. Rommel's reward is command of the DAK, the Deutsche Afrika Korps, and all German troops and armour in Tunisia and Libya.
Now elevated to Lieutenant-General, Rommel lands at Tripoli in February 1941. In his first campaign, before half his men and tanks have arrived from Europe, he chases Western Desert Force out of Cyrenaica, driving our armoured divisions back a thousand miles to the frontier of Egypt. The British press effectively knight him by bestowing the title "Desert Fox." Churchill himself declares
We have a very daring and skilful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.
"No one has to tell this," says Kennedy Shaw, "to the British soldier. So powerful is Rommel's hold over our Tommies' imagination that General Auchinleck, C-in-C of Eighth Army, felt it necessary last spring to publish the following directive:
There exists a real danger that our friend Rommel is becoming a kind of magician or bogey-man to our troops, who are talking far too much about him. He is by no means a superman [and it is] highly undesirable that our men should credit him with supernatural powers ... We must refer to 'the Germans' or 'the Axis powers' ... and not always keep harping on Rommel. Please impress upon all commanders that, from a psychological point of view, [this] is a matter of the highest importance.
"What makes the Rommel myth even thornier to contend with," Kennedy Shaw says, "is the fact that he fits neither the stereotype of the rapacious Hun nor that of the brutish, doctrinaire Nazi. He is not a member of the party and never has been. His code of soldierly honour has been shaped by the era of Prussian arms before the rise of National Socialism. He is, we are told, a warrior from a bygone era, an old-fashioned knight for whom the virtues of chivalry and respect for the foe are indivisible from the passion for victory. In other words," says Kennedy Shaw, "you can't even hate the bastard!"
Rommel's men worship him, Kennedy Shaw declares. He is unique, essential, indispensable. No German general can replace him. This is the strength of the Rommel phenomenon and its weakness.
"Eliminate this one man," says Kennedy Shaw, "and you drive a stake through the Axis' heart in North Africa."
He indicates the photo of the Desert Fox.
"That, my friends, is where you come in."
Kennedy Shaw turns the briefing over to Major Easonsmith. Jake thanks him and comes forward, with a sly look towards his audience. "Do I have your attention, gentlemen?"
For the first time, laughter breaks up the concentration.
"I know what you're thinking," says Jake. "'The job can't be done. And we're just the fellows to do it.'"
More laughter. A flask of coffee is passed round. Cigarettes are lit. Next to me, Sergeant Collier tamps his Sherlock Holmes pipe and re-fires it.
Jake starts in, describing Rommel's style of command. Rommel leads from the front. "He's got guts, give him that. He doesn't manage the battle by remote control." As Jake speaks, he distributes a number of Afrika Korps propaganda photos depicting Rommel in various front-line environments--in staff cars, atop Mark IV Panzers and so forth. Rommel's aggressive instincts, Jake says, have made him thrust himself again and again into the thick of the fight.
"In other words, gentlemen, the single most important enemy personage, upon whom the outcome of the entire North African war depends, will not be sitting safely hundreds of miles behind the lines, where we have no hope of getting at him, but will in all probability be placing himself deliberately out front, in broad daylight, protected by nothing stouter than a rag-top command car. All we have to do is find him."
The men are given photos of the vehicles that comprise Rommel's mobile headquarters, his Gefechtsstaffel, whose identifying characteristics we are to study and commit to memory. A field marshal's command post, Jake reminds the men, will stand out amidst acres of other vehicles by virtue of its concentration of wireless aerials, the steady traffic of couriers funnelling to it, and hefted-up security round about. These factors, too, will enlarge our chances of success.
This produces the briefing's second laugh. A sergeant pipes up: "What are we supposed to do, sir, go swanning about the desert hoping to run into the bastard?"
"Sigint has learnt," Jake responds (meaning Signals Intelligence, our radio intercept fellows), "that each night when circumstances prevent Rommel from returning to his proper HQ in the rear, his wireless operator sends a single coded signal at a specific hour, different each night, informing his headquarters staff of their commander-in-chief's whereabouts."
Our spies, Jake says, have acquired this schedule. He indicates the words Desert Fox on the chalkboard.
"What this means is that the DF can be DF'ed." Meaning located by radio Directional Finding. "By no means does this warrant that Rommel will stay put. Where he sets down at 1900 may not be where he remains at 1930. That's where you fellows come in. Major Mayne, will you take over?"
Paddy Mayne steps forward. To those of his era, no introduction would be necessary, but for contemporary readers let me say only that Mayne had been a rugby star before the war on a par with the great champions of any epoch; he is a Cambridge man and a solicitor; by war's end he will become Britain's most highly decorated soldier and, with the exception only of his commanding officer in the SAS, David Stirling, the most celebrated British commando of the North African war.
"What does this mean, sir?" a voice addresses the major. "That we pinhole Rommel and go in with all guns blazing?"
Mayne smiles. "I wish it did, men. But it looks like the RAF will be getting all the fun."
The first groan ascends.
Our ground party's assignment, Mayne explains, is to penetrate the enemy's defences, getting close enough to the target either to fix its bearings or, if possible, to mark Rommel's location with red smoke. Fighter planes of the Royal Air Force will take care of the kill. Our role is to clean up anything left over, then get the hell out.
At this, the briefing breaks into muttered indignation. For my part, though by war's end I will have participated in a number of such briefings, during which outlandish assignments are imparted with absolutely straight faces (and during which I invariably feel my blood run cold), I cannot fail to be astonished at the keen and cheerful fervour with which this near-suicidal mission is embraced.
"Rotten luck," said Mayne. "The Air Force boys have beaten us this time. Still our turn should be damn brisk sport. Don't give up hope, lads. I've seen these aviation types come up empty more than once. If they kick it, we'll get our shot."
The briefing breaks up in high spirits. The men, who all know each other from their units and from prior operations, move off into their various groups to work out the details of their individual assignments. I find myself alone, picturing in my mind the vast expanse of the Western desert and the tens of thousands of soldiers, tanks and guns of the Afrika Korps. Is it just me, or is this operation as preposterous as it sounds?
I turn to the Kiwi sergeant, Collier, who has been perched on an ammunition crate beside me throughout the briefing. He looks the athletic sort, who on civvy street has probably been a rugby-player or mountaineer, as so many NZedders are.
"What do you make of this show, Sergeant?"
The New Zealander turns to me with a grin. "Sounds like a dodgy do to me, sir."
III. "Attack on Rommel"
After numerous false starts, the raiders locate and infiltrate what they hope is Rommel's position -- a division-sized German formation thirty miles west of Alamein -- and initiate their attack. Things go haywire immediately. Our fellows' own RAF fighter planes wind up attacking them by mistake. Amid the chaos, the raiders struggle to carry out their mission. "Collie" is Sgt. Collier; Hurricanes are the British fighter planes; a Breda gun is an Italian 20mm cannon favored by the Brits when they could capture them. "Jake," "Nick" and "Major Mayne" are the true historical figures, Jake Easonsmith, Nick Wilder and Paddy Mayne. The other men are members of Chap's four-truck patrol.
From Chapter Eighteen:
Now the planes come back.
One pair takes the scarp, the other the flat. I see Collie's truck--a hundred yards ahead and angling diagonally away from the summit, so its rear-facing Breda gun can get off at least a few rounds where they'll do some damage. Collie fires the gun, Standage feeds the oversize belt; Midge and Hornsby are up front. The Hurricanes dive on us and on them.
In slow-motion I see a double stitching of cannon fire rip the sand before Collie. The right-hand stitch rolls over the long axis of his truck. The vehicle is a rolling bomb, packed with explosives. I see the rear half disintegrate. Midge at the wheel is attempting a hard right to evade the cannon fire. As the truck's hind end explodes, the frame and forechassis cartwheel into a series of high, bounding flips. I see the undercarriage ten feet in the air, then the engine, somersaulting over. The Breda gun drops dead-weight, 700 pounds, onto Standage. The Hurricanes pass with a shock wave that nearly floors us.
Later, Nick will tell of the parallel bedlam taking place on the summit of the scarp. Before the first strafing run,, one of the SAS jeeps has succeeded in getting close enough to Rommel's "Mammoth" to mark the vehicle with red smoke as planned. But somehow the Hurricanes don't see this. Their first pass misses everything. At the same time the Mammoth's defenders, reckoning the purpose of the smoke, cleverly snatch up smoke grenades of their own and begin marking every vehicle and position within two hundred yards.
The Mammoth, like all staff command centres, is protected by its own combat team; these troops have now taken up defensive positions and are plastering our fellows' vehicles with machine-gun fire. Neither Jake nor Nick sees what happens to the first SAS teams in the assault, but it can be nothing but death or capture. Now come the Hurricanes on their second pass. By this time the trucks and jeeps of Jake, Nick and Major Mayne have been located by the enemy and are being engaged in an all-out firefight. The Hurricanes attack this. Nick tells us later that he is firing his Thompson into a lane of Axis staff vehicles, sited shrewdly away from the Mammoth and pointing in the opposite direction, when he hears the planes dropping onto him. In an instant the bonnet of his truck vaporises, along with both front tyres, the radiator, and half the engine. Motor oil scalds his face, blinding him. The Chev nose-dives into the sand. Nick is certain that his number is up. But the truck simply stops, settles upright, and he and his driver and gunner dismount, "like stepping out of a taxi in Grosvenor Square." The Hurricanes have shot up everything on the summit except the Mammoth. "I can see the bloody thing," says Nick later, "fat as Aunt Fanny's arse and not a scratch on it." One of Mayne's jeeps picks up Nick and his men. In the end they flee down the reverse slope of the scarp, chased by the machine guns and cannons of enemy armoured cars.
Down on the flat, Punch has got our truck flat-out, racing for the wreck of Collie's truck. We can see Collie, charred black but on his feet, along with Standage, whose left leg hangs limp. Collie supports him. We can't find Midge or Hornsby. As our truck barrels toward Collie and Standage, another vehicle appears on our right--an Afrika Korps van, racing towards the wreck at top speed. I shout to Oliphant to take the German out. The camp is pandemonium, with men and trucks criss-crossing madly and smoke and dust everywhere. Oliphant swings the Vickers. Then I see: the enemy van is an ambulance! The Germans obviously think the shot-up truck is one of theirs. Why wouldn't they, when it's just been strafed by two British Hurricanes? Oliphant sees the red cross and holds fire. Only one thought animates us--to get to our comrades first and haul them out of there.
Punch ploughs to a stop alongside Collie and Standage. Oliphant and I and dash to them on foot. The ambulance men are racing up as well--two young stretcher bearers, barely more than boys, and an officer in shorts and peaked cap who looks like he might be a doctor. Now we spot Midge and Hornsby. Midge's jaw has been shot away. His shorts and shirt have burned off. He is naked, his chest, arms and legs charred black. He rises from the spo