THE LIBYAN DESERT
MAY 27, 1942
They huddled in the chill, encased in hard steel, waiting,
energized by rumors. Behind them, to the east, the black horizon
was visible, silhouetted by the first glow of sunrise. The wireless
radio was chattering, the voices of nervous officers far behind the
line, the men in tents, who pored over maps, unsure, powerless to
do anything about an enemy who might be anywhere at all. They had
climbed into the tank at the first sign of daylight, each of the
four men finding his place, their commander perched higher than the
rest, settling into his seat just beneath the hatch of the turret.
It was still too dark in the west, and the narrow view through the
prism of the periscope was too confining, and so he stood, his head
and shoulders outside the hatch. The long, thin barrel of the
two-pound cannon was just below him, pointing westward, where the
enemy was thought to be. He stared until his eyes watered, tried to
see the horizon. But it would not be there, not yet, not until the
sun had given them enough light to distinguish dull, flat ground
from the empty sky. The air was sharp and cold, but that would not
last. Once the sun rose, the heat would come again, and the
infantry, a mass of men waiting far behind their armor wall, would
seek whatever shelter they had, waking the insects and the
scorpions and the snakes. The tank was as good a shelter as a man
had in the desert, but there was a price for shade. The thick steel
made a perfect oven, and the men would man their posts and glance
instinctively toward the hatches, hoping for the faintest wisp of
breeze. He blinked, wiped his eyes with a dirty hand, annoyed at
the crackling intrusion from the wireless.
"Turn that off!"
"Sir, can't do that, you know. Orders. The captain . . ."
He ignored the young man's protest, stared out again. The sun would
quickly rise, nothing to block the light, no mountains, no trees,
no rolling terrain. In a few short minutes he could see flecks of
detail, an uneven field pockmarked by small rocks. There was a
shadow, right in front of him, beneath the barrel of the
two-pounder. It was his, of course, the low, hulking form of the
tank. It makes us a target, he thought. But, then, the Germans are
in the west, will have to attack straight into the rising sun.
We'll be able to see them first, certainly. Stupid tactic. But what
isn't stupid out here? Sitting in a fat tin can, armed with a
two-pound pop gun, hoping like hell we see him before he sees
There was a loud squawk from the wireless.
"Dammit, at least turn that thing down!"
"Sir, I think it's Captain Digby. He's upset about
Digby. He stared at the horizon, clear, distinct, thought of the
officer who sat sucking on that idiotic pipe. His tank smells like
a Turkish whorehouse. And he's upset. Good. Bloody fool. Carries
fat rolls of maps so he can find his way. In a place with no
landmarks, no signposts. Stuffs the damned maps into his ammo
holders, and so, he runs out of ammo. Begs the rest of us for help.
Just look at the sun, Captain. All the signpost you need.
The radio squawked again, and he heard the voice now. Yep.
"Rec report . . . enemy in motion . . . zzzzzzzzz . . .
two hundred . . . zzzzzzzz." The wireless seemed to go
dead, and he looked to the north, could see the British tanks in a
ragged line. The crews had climbed into their vehicles, and most of
the tank commanders were standing up, searching for something
across the vast emptiness. He still looked to the north, thought,
yep, there's Digby. The sixth tank over. Brew yourself a cup of
tea, Captain. There's nothing out here but us Rats.
He glanced down through the hatch, could see little, the tank
He knew each man well, more experienced than most, but so very
young. They were better than the tank they pushed, the A9. She was
fast, maybe faster than anything the Germans had, could maneuver
easily over the rocky ground, spin around like a top. In training
they had been told that the two-pounder was an effective antitank
weapon, firing a solid-steel projectile, supposed to pierce
anything the enemy had. It had certainly worked against the
Italians, who had come at them with machines that were worn-out in
1918. The armor battles had been one-sided affairs, British tanks
and artillery decimating the primitive weapons of their enemy. He
remembered the first Italian tanks that had actually put up a good
fight, something called an M13. But even that machine was small,
and far too light, padded by a sad pile of sandbags around the
turret. He could see it in his mind, the direct hit on an M13 that
made it seem like an exploding sack of flour. And no one inside
survived, ever. Bloody awful, that one. Target practice. Brave men
sent to die in broken-down toys.
But then the Germans came, and they brought the real thing,
heavier, faster tanks, bigger guns, and suddenly the A9 crews were
no longer as fond of their machines. There was something else the
Germans had, a particular genius for weaponry. They had an
eighty-eight millimeter antiaircraft cannon, long barrel, that
threw a shell high enough to churn any pilot's guts. But the
Germans figured out that lowering the barrel and pointing it
horizontally made for an antitank weapon like no other. Most of the
larger artillery on both sides was like the basic howitzers, firing
their shells in an arc. You could hear them coming and might even
have a brief second to prepare for impact, time enough perhaps to
dive into a slit trench. But the long barrel of the eighty-eight
blew a shell right through you in a straight line. No
high-screaming wail, no warning. And there wasn't a single British
machine that the eighty-eight wouldn't blow to pieces.
He lowered himself into the hatch, tried to see the wireless
operator, Batchelor, the man who doubled as the gun loader.
"Batch. Did Digby say anything else?"
"I'm trying to raise him, sir. He said something about the rec,
then I lost him."
He pulled himself up, stared out again, mulled over the word:
rec. Reconnaissance. Hell of a job, flitting all over the
place in light armored cars. They run right up to the Jerries, see
what's what, then run like hell to get away. Nothing but machine
guns for protection. Ballsy chaps, those fellows.
Below the gun barrel in front of him, a small hatch opened, and a
head emerged. It was the driver, Simmons.
"It's warming up a bit, sir."
Simmons was the youngest man in the crew, with bad skin and an
unfortunate natural odor that even soap could not seem to cure. But
there was no soap here, barely enough water to keep a man alive,
and so Simmons had become just one more tank crewman who had to be
accepted by his own, regardless of whatever unpleasant personal
traits he might bring to the confined space. By now, they all
smelled bad enough to offend anyone but themselves. Like Captain
Digby's pipe smoke, it had become a part of each tank's
"I say, sir. What's that?"
Simmons was pointing out to the left of the barrel, eleven o'clock,
and he stared with the young man, could see the cloud rising up,
dark, obliterating the horizon. Simmons said, "A dust storm. Big
one. Bloody hell."
The young man disappeared into the tank, the hatch pulled down over
his narrow compartment. The cloud seemed to spread out to the
south, farther left, swirling darkness, sunlight reflected in small
flecks. The radio squawked again, a chaos of voices, and now he
could see new motion, a vehicle emerging from the storm, then two
more, their dust trails billowing out behind them as they roared
toward the line of tanks. His heart jumped, and he raised his
binoculars, saw that they were armored cars, their own, the rec
boys. He glanced toward the north, toward Digby's command tank,
looking for the colored flag that would tell them to start the
powerful engines. But Digby's wire antenna held nothing but the
command flag, no other sign yet.
He glanced down into the tank, said, "Hands off triggers. Those are
It was an unnecessary order, the big gun not yet loaded, the
machine guns still waiting for the belts of ammo that would feed
them. The armored cars rolled past the line of tanks, did not stop.
He said aloud, to no one in particular, "Jeez. They're moving like
He calmed now, ignored the new sounds from the wireless, thought,
guess those chaps don't like eating that dust storm any more than
we do. He looked out toward the dark cloud again, no more than a
mile away, rolling closer. He let out a breath. Sure. Why not start
the day with another one of these damned storms? By all means let's
eat dirt for breakfast. He began to move, lowering himself into the
tank, then he stopped, frozen by a new sound. He looked again
toward the great swirling cloud, ugly and familiar, the dull roar
of wind and fine grit, a dozen tornadoes winding around themselves.
But there were other sounds now, familiar as well. Tracks. Steel on
rock. Engines. He froze, stared at the sounds, felt a light breeze
in his face. That's not a dust storm, you bloody idiot. That's
armor. Making their own damned storm.
Close by, he heard engines turning over, great belches of black
smoke spitting from the other tanks in the formation. He looked
that way, saw men disappearing into their tanks, hatches closing.
He did not wait for the order from Digby, dropped down to his hard
leather seat, pulled the hatch shut, shouted, "Fire 'er up!"
The driver responded, the tank pulsing, a deafening roar that
drowned out the ongoing noise from the wireless. He leaned forward,
searched through the periscope, felt for his machine gun, shouted
"Load 'em! Guns ready!"
The men moved with tight precision, each one doing his job. He
looked down, saw the gunner, Moxley, right below and in front of
him. He slid forward, put his knees right against the young man's
back. It was the position they had repeated many times, and Moxley
never protested, the discomfort of the pressure giving them both
leverage as the tank rolled and tossed them about. He reached down,
tapped the gunner on the shoulder.
"Wait for my order. Patience. Use the sights. How many
"A hundred twenty."
"They'll go quick. Don't want to run out. Not in the mood to be a
sitting duck, Private."
"Me either, sir."
"My Vickers ready?"
"Fit to fire, sir!"
His fingers wrapped around the trigger, and he squeezed, testing,
the machine gun coming to life, a brief burst of fire. It was the
signal to Simmons to do the same, the driver blessed with two of
the Vickers machine guns up front. Simmons let loose a short burst.
Well, all right then. We're ready for you, Jerry. He was breathing
heavily, the diesel's smoke swirling around them, and he focused
through the periscope, the dust cloud rolling closer.
"Where the hell are they?"
He punched the button on the crude intercom, wanted to give Simmons
the order to move forward. No, wait. Show a little patience
yourself. We don't know what's out there, not yet. Find a target.
He spoke into the intercom now, the only way they could hear him
through the roar of the engine.
"Nothing yet. Just dust."
He stared as they all stared, the fine sand blowing thin clouds
against the glass of the periscope, blinding, his eyes watering. He
pulled his goggles off the hook beside him, slid them over his
head. He hated the goggles, the lenses scratched, blurred, but they
kept his eyes dry. He caught a flash of movement, above the dust
cloud, coming at them, fast, now right above them. He heard the
scream as it passed by and he hunched his shoulders, instinct,
More planes roared past, barely a hundred feet above them, and he
tried to ignore them, thought, no sightseeing, you bloody fool. You
know what a Messerschmitt looks like. And, we haven't been blown to
hell, so they're not coming for us. The supply dumps or the support
trucks, most likely. Strafe the infantry. Poor bastards. He thought
of the antiaircraft gunners, far back, dug into patches of camel
thorn brush, lucky to get a brief burst of fire at the low-flying
planes. Shoot straight, boys. Knock a few Jerries out of their
seats. He stared into the dust cloud again, scanned from side to
side. He could still hear the Messerschmitts ripping past, thought,
a good-sized flock. If there's that many 109s, there's something
coming with them. Come on, where the hell are you?
And now he saw them.
On both sides tanks erupted from the dust, rolled right past, the
air punched by dull sounds, streaks of white light. He turned in
"Port! Ninety to port. Move it!"
The tank lurched forward, then spun, pivoting to the left. The dust
cloud was everywhere, churned into thick, gray fog by the movement
of the big machines. The tank rumbled blindly forward over a carpet
of small rocks, and there was a bright flash, a sharp streak of
light, thunder on the right side. He jumped in his seat, searched
the dust frantically. You missed me! Hah! The gunner spun the
turret, and he saw the tank now, black crosses on the sand-yellow
armor. The German turret was moving as well, the big gun trying to
follow his movement. He shouted to Moxley:
"Ten o'clock! A hundred yards!"
The turret kept moving, painfully slowly, and he watched the barrel
of the two-pounder slide into position.
Moxley said, "Got him, sir!"
"Fire when ready!"
The words still hung in the air as the tank rocked from the recoil
of the big gun. He fought to see through the smoke and dust, saw
the crosses again, said, "Again!"
The two-pounder fired again, and Moxley let out a sound.
"Hit him! Hit him!"
They worked in perfect unison, the loader feeding the shells into
the breech of the gun, the spent shells ejected automatically into
the canvas bag that draped below. He coughed, the cordite smell
filling the cabin, and still saw the crosses right in front of
"Stop! Watch him!"
They jerked to a halt, and he could see smoke coming from the
German tank, waited for the movement, saw it now, the hatch coming
open. A thick plume of black smoke poured up from inside the tank,
and the men appeared, scrambling out, escaping the burning hulk.
His hand gripped the trigger of the machine gun, and he watched
four men drop to the ground, staggering, wounded, blinded by the
smoke and the shattering blast that had ripped into them. He pulled
the trigger, sprayed the machine-gun fire back and forth, all four
men going down quickly. He paused, took another breath, fought
through the stink of gunpowder, saw movement beyond, more tanks,
streaks of light. The fight was all around them, tanks and armored
cars, perfect confusion, enemies only yards apart, seeking a target
in the dust, firing point-blank.
"Move! Ninety degrees starboard! Forward!"
They were a part of the British Seventh Armored Division, and from
their earliest days in the fight in North Africa, they had been
known as the Desert Rats. They took the name from the greater
Egyptian jerboa, a strange and awkward rodent that bore an uncanny
resemblance to a tiny kangaroo. The jerboa had made its appearance
at every supply depot, every place where man brought something
edible to this inhospitable place. They seemed to hate the sunlight
and avoided the heat, which seemed more than a little odd for a
creature who made his home in the desert. It was a trait the jerboa
shared with the men of the British Seventh Armored.
The tank commander's name was Clyde Atkins, and at twenty-eight he
was among the oldest of the noncoms who ran the tanks. Most of the
big machines were run by sergeants, men who were inappropriately
called "sir" by their crews. No one seemed to care about the breach
of protocol. To the Desert Rats, being in charge of a tank earned a
man the right to be called sir. There were officers of course, at
the head of each squadron, men like the despised Digby, who
commanded groups of six or eight of the big machines. But driving a
tank in battle was a young man's game, quick reflexes and a
hardiness required to work in conditions that no amount of training
could accurately duplicate. In the chaos of a fight in the desert,
each tank fought its own war.
Though the Italians had fared well against the first British troops
they'd confronted, when the Seventh arrived, the tide had turned.
The British had marveled at the gallant men in obscenely outdated
vehicles, whose bravery and amazing willingness to die had not
slowed the British from sweeping them entirely across Libya. The
power of the British tanks was a shocking surprise to the
unfortunate Italians, who had been told their own tanks would crush
any foe. And no matter how gallant they had been, their commanders
had seemed utterly worthless, something the British had observed
from their very first confrontations. The lack of respect the
British felt for the Italian commanders extended all the way up the
chain of command to Mussolini himself. The British quickly
understood that the Italian armies were being sacrificed by an
arrogantly stupid man whom the men began to call a "small-bore
dictator," a stooge for Hitler. Even now the Italian prisoners
brought the stories, how Mussolini had assured them that their
conquest of North Africa was only the first chapter in the birth of
a new Roman Empire. But the prisoners Atkins had seen cared nothing
at all for some glorious legacy and seemed to care little for
Mussolini himself. Their officers were a different story. They had
marched into the British camps protesting all the way, outraged at
being captured, insulted by defeat, oblivious to the catastrophic
ineptness that had killed so many of their own good men.
The Seventh Armored had been a major part of the push that had
driven the Italians halfway across Libya. Near Benghazi, the Desert
Rats had emerged from their tanks with the glow of victory, many
speaking of a quick end to the entire war.
Then, Rommel arrived.
The Desert Rats knew little of the new German commander, but in the
battles that followed, they learned that he had brought the most
modern guns and armor in any theater of the war. The Italians who
had survived were now alongside an ally who had known only victory,
who had crushed the French, and the British themselves. Sergeant
Atkins and the other tank commanders soon understood that their
cherished two-pounder was seriously outgunned. If the A9 was to
succeed, it had to be at close range and to the side, firing into
the thinner, weaker flank of the German armor. Otherwise, it would
take a lucky shot beneath the turret to have any effect at all. To
many, the bigger guns on the German tanks, combined with the
eighty-eights lurking behind their armor, made Rommel seem
The Seventh had suffered as badly as any, but worse for their
morale, they had lost their beloved commander. General Jock
Campbell had brought fire to the Seventh Armored, but Campbell was
dead, not from combat, but by the cruel joke of an auto accident,
his car overturning on a dismal stretch of desert road. Campbell
had inspired not only his men, but the British high command, and
convinced them to understand the value of the massed, carefully
coordinated armor strike, the same kind of tactic Hitler's army had
used in France. The Seventh took pride that they were recognized as
the very force that would lead this kind of strike, what were now
called "Jock columns." Though the Germans might have the better
machines, Campbell had given his Desert Rats the confidence that no
army had better men.
Darkness brought the fighting to an end. They huddled beside the
tank, beneath a thin canvas shelter they had unrolled from the rear
of the turret. The canvas partially covered the tank itself, an
attempt at camouflage, hiding both men and machine. They were
filthy and exhausted and slowly fumbled with their ration tins, the
first food any of them had eaten all day. Simmons had poured a cup
of gasoline into a small, round hole in the dirt, the fire
surrounded by a circle of rocks, just wide enough to support a pot
of water. At least they would have tea.
No one spoke. Atkins scanned the edges of the canvas tent, reached
out and pulled one side away from the tread of the tank. He was
careful, no light could leak, nothing to give any gunner a place to
aim. Somewhere, on all sides of them, men were doing as they were
doing, finding time for food, sleep perhaps, a little tea. The
Germans were there too, in all directions, two armies lost in the
same span of desert, scattered tanks and armored vehicles, some in
small clusters, others alone, all of them knowing that in the
darkness, just out there, the enemy was close.
The tank was still warm, but the air was already cool, would get
colder, and the men had wrapped themselves in ragged sheepskin
coats, pulled from hidden nooks inside the tank.
The routine at the day's end was to gather the tank squads into
camps, canvas sheets draping the tanks, which were parked in uneven
rows. In this part of the desert, the British had made good use of
any cover they could find, patches of camel thorn that would add to
the camouflage of the vehicles. If the Germans sent a patrol to
poke around, either side might fire starlight flares, the black
desert suddenly bursting with light, tanks silhouetted for a brief
moment, enough time for an artillery observer to guide a
well-placed shell. But with the profiles of the tanks blending into
the brush, there was not enough time for the enemy scouts to choose
a target. That was the routine. But today, nothing had been
routine. The fights had swept over the entire front, all the way
north to the great escarpment that separated the sea from this flat
table of desert. And the British had taken the heavier blow,
Rommel's massive surge of armor flowing right through and around
the British units. Confusion and fiery destruction had sent many of
the British tanks back, panicked drivers blindly seeking the safety
of the artillery support to the rear. But many could not get that
far, were cut off, chopped to pieces by Rommel's rapid advance. It
was the German's great genius, avoiding the head-on confrontation,
sweeping the flank of the British armor. The tactic was obvious to
the men in the tanks, and yet somehow the British command was all
too often caught off guard by Rommel's rapid circular attacks.
Today, the blow had been terrifyingly precise, and all across the
British position, tank squadrons had been obliterated, some of the
wrecked machines visible even now, scattered across the desert,
small specks of flame.
Atkins waited for Simmons to pour the boiling water, stared at the
cup in his hands, holding the last of his special hoard of tea. He
knew that somewhere to the east, the food and water wagons were
waiting, anxious men wondering if the tank squads they served had
survived the day. Yes, we're alive, he thought. No bloody idea
where we are, or what's between us and all that hot food. And
water. And gasoline.
"How much petrol we have left?"
Simmons looked at him, said, "An hour. Maybe a quarter more. Not
enough to play around."
"How many shells?"
Moxley was holding his tin cup as well, staring at the small,
dimming fire. "Maybe . . . twenty-five. Thirty."
Atkins nodded, and Batchelor, his loader said, "Four boxes for the
Four boxes. Enough machine-gun fire for what? Maybe an hour of
fighting? Then what? Did that bloody Rommel get to our ammo dumps
today too? He stirred the water in his cup, knew they were looking
to him, would measure their own despair by his response. He nodded,
tried to seem as positive as he could.
"That's enough. Ought to get us out of this mess. We've got at
least a half dozen tanks to our south. We can team up at first
light, drive east."
He knew they would understand the word: east. Retreat. No,
more than retreat. Get the hell out of here. He thought of the big
tents, the men with the maps. Hell, you don't know where we are any
more than we do. But you sure better know what kind of whack we
Simmons pushed dirt into his fire hole, killing the last flicker of
light. They sat in total darkness, each man's eyes trying to find
some glimpse, something to adjust to.
Simmons said, "Sir, we took a good licking, eh?"
"It wasn't pretty."
"I saw Captain Digby brew up. Looked like he got hit by an
"You don't know that."
Simmons was silent for a moment. "I saw him brew up, sir. Nobody
Atkins sipped at his tea. Damned strange description of it. He had
seen the explosion as well, but there was no time to think about
it, beyond the glimpse of Digby's command flag. Never liked that
chap. But . . . not what I had in mind.
There was a burst of firing, a machine gun, and Atkins pulled back
the canvas, saw streaks of tracers arcing toward the north. Now
another, a sharp streak of white light, then red, the response.
Damned fools. Shooting at ghosts. Just as likely to kill your
"Sit tight, chaps. A lot of itchy fingers. Maybe wounded, just
shooting to show how pissed they are. No targets until
Simmons said, "You think they went after Tobruk again, sir?"
"Hell if I know. That's forty miles from here. I think. Rommel
pushed around the south of us. He might have pushed north too.
Tobruk's not our problem."
There was a long silent moment, and Atkins pushed at the canvas
again, tossed it back, the cold air rolling over them. No one
protested, the men simply huddling up tighter, tugging at their
coats. He slid out from beneath the heavy cloth, could make out the
dark shapes of tanks, trucks in the distance, faint silhouettes in
the light of a low crescent moon. There were still fires, smaller
now, distant, but most of the burned hulks were cold and silent. He
looked up, stared at the vast open sky, a million flickering
lights, the night perfect and clear. He watched the stars for a
long minute, felt the chill inside his coat. He realized now how
truly tired he was, how every part of him ached. He looked back
into the dark canvas cave, thought, you better get some sleep.
Tomorrow, if we're lucky, we can get the hell out of here, regroup,
wait for those damned generals to figure out what we're supposed to
do next. But we weren't lucky today. Today, Rommel kicked us in the
Excerpted from THE RISING TIDE © Copyright 2011 by Jeff
Shaara. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books, a division
of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.