A NOVEL BY Andrew Gold ©
World War 2 – El Alamein, Egypt. 23 October 1942
The 6000 men of the 51st Highland Division are waiting, crouched in trenches and dugouts. Many are newly arrived, anxious and un-blooded replacements, others are tough survivors of the siege of Tobruk a year before. “Desert Rats”.
The German and Italian Afrika Korps that besieged them there, then pursued them 300 miles east across North Africa, confronts them again. But now the British are reinforced, rested, re-supplied and retrained while the Afrika Korps is stretched, with over-extended supply lines.
They are expecting the British to counter-attack, but not when, or exactly where, the thrust will come. In a few hours they will know, as 800 guns fire on them in the biggest artillery barrage since the First World War. Then an enemy they have battered to the brink of defeat, the 200,000 men of the Eighth Army, will rise out of the sand like ancient warriors of Anubis, fighting for restored pride as much as victory. The Afrika Korps commander, German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, has been given orders by Adolf Hitler to not yield an inch, to fight to the last bullet, to the last man. The Eighth Army’s commander, General Bernard “Monty” Montgomery, has done the same. With its back to the Nile, the Eighth Army is done with retreating. Just three months earlier he had told his officers that all plans for further retreat were cancelled. “If we are attacked, then there will be no retreat. If we cannot stay here alive, then we will stay here dead.” Now, on the eve of battle, he has exhorted his men again, to “fight, and to kill, and finally to win.” The stage is set. It’s to be death or glory and for many it will be death.
The barrage will start in the south of a 40 mile front, but that is a diversion. The real attack is to be in the north, where The Highlanders are. Many have written letters home, the sort of letters they pray will not need to be delivered. Others just pray, shuffle, fidget or stand in anxious silence. All have checked weapons and ammunition, but for something to do they check them again.
As a dusty purple of dusk cloaks the battlefield, naked flames are banned, so they cannot calm their nerves with a cigarette or a brew of tea. The regimental pipers settle themselves by silently rehearsing their repertoire. Some finger at the ragged battle honours sewn onto their bagpipe skins, remembering other assaults and other comrades. When the time comes they too will rise from the trenches, and walk as they always do, deliberately and steadily playing together in tune under fire. Officers walk the lines, quietly encouraging the Black Watch, the Argylls, the Camerons, the Gordons and the Seaforths to be ready. “Be brave lads, and do as Monty wants: no surrender”, goading their men to uphold the honour of the regiment, to keep up the pace when the attack is launched. Captain Angus Macritchie, 2nd Battalion The Gordon Highlanders, has done the same but as he moves through the trenches he has a different purpose. He has something else, and one man in particular, on his mind.
Chapter 1 – New Orders
Macritchie found his quarry, Sergeant Fred Lombard, playing cards with his squad.
“Ah, there you are Lombard. Fall out and follow me.”
Lombard, startled briefly, looked up and then answered the quizzical looks of his comrades with a shrug. He had no idea what Macritchie wanted him for. With a sigh he showed them a winning hand before throwing the cards onto into the upturned helmet that served for a kitty pot.
“Come on man, get on with it, we haven’t got all day!”
Answering with a clipped “Sir” Lombard stood, picked up his Lee Enfield rifle, and followed. The two made their way to the rear, squeezing between the dusty, tight, trench walls, passing more of Lombard’s querulous comrades and into the shallow dugout of the company command post. Macritchie waved his sergeant to sit while he removed his helmet and then joined him, perching on empty ammunition boxes. The deadly contents had already been distributed to the men in the lines, so the cool metal sweated condensation against their hot and sand-gritted bare legs.
“May I ask why’ve you pulled me out of the line, sir? If it can wait I should be with the boys. Some of them are new, a wee bitty anxious like. I want to be with them as much as possible.”
Macritchie didn’t answer right away, instead looking at his NCO, weighing him up. Even seated Lombard was big, the disparity between Lombard’s height and his own 6ft frame was marked. He was not burly though, but muscular. Lean from months of training and travelling, not hunger: a fit man. Not a man to tangle with on a wild Saturday night in Glasgow, or anywhere else for that matter. No, Lombard was a good man to have on your side in a fight.
“Your concern for your men does you credit Lombard, or is it just that winning hand you’re anxious to get back to?”
Lombard said nothing, but the slightest smile told Macritchie where his Sergeant’s concerns really lay.
“No matter, I’m afraid it’ll have to wait. I have something to say that I couldn’t say in front of the others.”
Lombard frowned, now he was worried. He briefly wondered if they’d discovered the missing tea rations, but disciplinary action immediately before an assault was unlikely. He decided on discretion and a non-committal silence. Captain Macritchie had noticed the slight furrowing of Lombard’s brow and thought it might be a subtle sign of something undiscovered, after all there had been rumours.
“Your record says you speak Italian, is that correct?”
So, it wasn’t the tea. Lombard, relieved, relaxed and smiled again.
“Yes sir, I do.”
Macritchie had noted the relief, and the drop of the shoulders. Yes there was definitely something hidden there, but what? He decided to pursue it later.
“Very well, like a native, you might say Sir. I was born in Scotland, but my family name is Lombardi. All Italian, both sides, and all the way back. We still speak it at home. Why?”
“Why? Because we need a volunteer to recce the Italian lines, someone who understands Italian, so we’re asking you.”
Lombard stopped smiling.
“Sir? I thought it was the 21st Panzers in front of us, not Italians.”
“And so they are.”
“Then I don’t see….sir, why pick someone from the 51st instead of an Aussie?”
“Because the success of “Operation Lightfoot” hangs on the whole front moving forward together. As far as possible we want to avoid any one unit falling behind its flanking units”
Lombard jumped in.
“Aye Sir. Well, you know you can count of the Gordons keeping up, We’ll not let you down. But I still don’t see what..…?”
Macritchie, annoyed by the interruption held up a hand to stop it.
“I’d expect no less, but that’s not what I mean. Look here.”
Macritchie placed a map board between them and pointed, tracing the battle plan with sweeps of his hand and the point of a bayonet.
“The Black Watch are on our immediate left, here, and the Kiwis further left still. As you seem to know, on our right flank are the 9th Aussies, here and here. The Eyeties are facing them, here, and they hold the coastal road and railway line. Intelligence says they’re the 7th Bersaglieri. They gave us a hard time at Mersah Matruh, and the 185th Folgore gave us a bloody beating only a month ago. The Royal Italian Army are professionals, not conscripts, and they’re no pushover.”
“I’m sorry Sir, but I still don’t see..”
“Look, if you’d stop interrupting me, Lombard, you would see.”
“Right, that’s better. The 9th Aussies are tough but the “Rats” lost a lot of men at Tobruk and they’ve only just come up from resting and re-equipping in Syria. Their replacements don’t know, not first-hand anyway, that these particular Eyeties are up for a fight. If their advance gets bogged down the whole line could cartwheel, and if the Eyeties get in behind our flank they could be followed by the whole Afrika Korps. It could be a disaster.”
Lombard’s jaw tightened and the veins on his temples began to pulse. He was beginning to bridle at the repeated slur of “Eyetie”, but stayed quiet.
“So, this is the situation. The Aussies urgently need to know of any last minute changes to Eyetie defences, especially minefields and anti-tank guns, but they don’t have an Italian speaker who can recce their lines for them. We’ve been asked if we do. You seem to fit the bill.”
Lombard scratched at his stubbled face and straightened up, silent for a moment. Then spoke again.
“OK. I see that, sir. But it’s hellish late to be asking for volunteers. Isn’t there someone else? The barrage…..I mean, we’re off at 22.20 hours. That’s only six hours from now.”
“I know it’s tight but ours is not to reason why, Lombard. I have my orders, and now so do you”
Fred Lombard mentally completed Tennyson’s poem. He hoped he wasn’t being asked, like the Light Brigade, to do or die gloriously and pointlessly, as Macritchie went on.
“And there’s something else, strictly between us for now: we’re short of experienced officers. I’ve been asked if there’s any senior NCO I can recommend for a battlefield commission. I’m thinking of putting your name forward. How would you feel about that?”
Lombard lowered his gaze and rubbed his chin again, this time failing to release the tension in his clenched jaw. He rose to his feet, accidentally knocking back the empty ammunition boxes, briefly turned his back, then turned again.
“May I speak freely, Captain?”
“Yes of course Lombard, better now or not at all, speak up. What’s on your mind?”
Towering over his commander he fixed him with a stare, his sand reddened eyes burning with anger, Lombard erupted, his words tumbling out almost without interruption for breath.
“I’m a regular. I joined up in ’38 because I could see what was coming, ready to fight for King and country and all that. I went to France with the old 51st and the B.E.F. What a shambles that was. Shoring up the Frenchies while the rest of the B.E.F. escaped from Dunkirk. I was taken prisoner, with the rest of the rear-guard at St. Valery, but a few of us managed to escape and get back through Le Havre with the 153rd brigade. Only, when I got back across the channel, I find that my Dad and my uncles are in the jail! In the jail if you please! Locked up they were, on the Isle of Man, just for being of Italian descent! Then, as if that’s not enough, they were shipped off to Canada along with a bunch of Jerry prisoners, in the same ship and barbed wire cages! They were put on the Arandora Star.”
He saw a flicker of recognition on Macritchie’s face.
“Aye, that’s right. The Arandora Star. I see you heard tell of it. Torpedoed. So, instead of being alive in Glasgow, or some poxy camp on the Isle of Man, or in Canada, two of them are at the bottom of the Irish Sea! Another uncle was fished out of the water alive, but they just dried him out and stuck him on another ship, to Australia! Do you know where he is now, because I don’t? They were all just enemy aliens to Churchill. Wops. “Collar the lot”, he said! For God’s sake my Dad was fifty years old and born in Lanark! But now we’re all just Eyeties. Even to you. So, while I‘m down in England retraining, our family business, three generations worth of hard graft in Glasgow, is in ruins. My poor grandparents, left trying to hold everything together, were bombed to buggery in the Clydebank Blitz. There’s only my mother now, and she’s taking in washing to survive! To be frank it’s made me wonder whose side I’m on. And you want me to be an officer?”
“Steady on Lombard”, Macritchie tried to calm him, but Lombard pacing back and forth roared on.
“Don’t get me wrong. Not your Jerry you understand, No problem there at all Sir, I’ll shoot the Nazi bastards all day long, just like Monty wants. But now the army is asking me to stick my neck out precisely because I’m Italian?! Me, an officer? I’ll tell you straight, sir, it doesn’y sit well with me at all. Not at all, Sir. I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.”
Captain Macritchie, had been taken aback Lombard’s ferocity, but seeing the anger spent, took his chance to reassert his authority. He stood again, pressing close enough to Lombard to see the veins in his eyes and the sand grains in his eyebrows. He growled quietly.
“I know I said speak freely, but remember who you’re talking to. I won’t tolerate insubordination. Now sit down, shut up and pull yourself together!”
Fred Lombard realised he’d overstepped the mark and hung his head. Mumbling an apology, he sat again.
“That’s better. Very well, Lombard, I understand. I do. I can even have some sympathy, but mistakes happen. We’re in a war and good people die, sometimes for stupid reasons. But I’ll have no more talk of not knowing whose side you’re on, in private with me or anywhere else. D’you hear, Lombard? Not unless you want to spend the rest of the war in the stockade. Is that understood?”
Lombard did not reply, still struggling with his emotions. Macritchie raised his voice again.
“Is that understood Sergeant?”
Lombard breathed so deeply his shoulders shuddered. He exhaled the dregs of his anger and nodded silently and Macritchie saw his Sergeant seemed, somehow, smaller.
“Alright, then. We can discuss the commission when you get back. You may have a choice about that, but you definitely don’t have a choice about this recce. You’re volunteered, and there’s an end to it.”
Lombard , still silent but already thinking about the opportunities a commission might present, suddenly looked up and smiled.
“Very good, Sir. I’m sorry. As you say, we’ll talk when I get back. What do you want me to do.”
“That’s more like it. If it helps, Sergeant, remember that anything you can find out, anything at all, even at this late stage could save a lot of lives.”
“I’ll try to remember that, Sir.”
Macritchie sat again and returned to the map.
“Good. Now, to get to the Aussie HQ, here, you’ll need to circle round behind our artillery. Go now, and for speed you can take one of the company motorbikes. I assume you can ride?”
“Yes Sir. I have one, well I used to have one, back in Glasgow.”
“Excellent. The sun will be going down soon but it’s clear, and there’s a full moon later tonight so be careful. When you get to the 9th look for a Captain Carpenter. Show him your orders and he’ll brief you. As it is, it won’t be properly dark when you go out but we can’t risk a radio so try to get back to him with whatever you can find out before 21.00, otherwise it will be too late to make use of any new information. The barrage proper starts at 21.40. At 21.30 the divisional pipers will start to play ‘Black Bear’, take that as a ten-minute warning. At 21.35 they’ll start “Cock O’ the North”. If you’re still out beyond the wire then you’d better dig in and stay put until the advance rolls up to you. Either way there’ll be no time to rejoin us here, so stay with the Aussies and catch up with us later. By the way, Corporal Macphail will be taking your place, as acting senior NCO in B Company, until you return. Now, any questions?”
“Tam Macphail’s a good man. He’ll do well. No Sir, no more questions.”
“Right, off you go then, Lombard. By the way, where’s your helmet?”
I left it back with the lads, I’ll go back for it”.
No time, here, take mine, and good luck to you.”
Very well sir, and thank you.”
As he left, under his breath, Lombard added “ buona fortuna to you too.”
Captain Macritchie followed Lombard from the dugout, but not back to the trenches. Instead he worked his way back through scrub fringed stony dips and scrapes, to the regimental command post and his Colonel.
“Well, Macritchie, how did he take it?”
“He’s not happy, but he’s going. In fact he was pretty angry, I had to more or less read the riot act. He’s a lippy bastard. Apparently things have gone badly at home, but there was something else behind it that I can’t quite put my finger on.”
“We’ll see. He was with the original 51st at St. Valery wasn’t he? That was rough, but he won’t have seen any action in nearly 2 years. D’you think he’s scared?”
No, it’s not that. He’s a professional. There’s something else…oh I don’t know.
“And the commission?”
“I think he might need persuading a bit, Sir, but I think he’ll be up for it. He’s experienced and capable, and I still think he’s a good candidate for a field commission. But I’d recommend we hold it for a while. Let’s see when he gets back.”
“If he gets back”.
El Alamein, Italian lines – 7th Basiglieri command – Same time
Lieutenant Piero Bosco was standing outside a tent. He pulled the front of his paratrooper’s jacket straight, slapped the dust from his trousers, and removed his helmet. Shouldering his carbine he took a deep breath, pulled open the flap, and peered into the gloom inside. An officer was bent over a map table, the glow from an oil lamp above the table shining on his balding head. Bosco coughed to attract his attention. Colonel Luigi Batista looked up, grinned, dropped his pencil onto the map and came round the table to greet his Lieutenant with a hug, a kiss on both cheeks, and a handshake.
Bosco, freed of the embrace, stepped one pace back, snapped to attention and saluted.
“Tenente Piero Bosco, reporting as ordered. Sir!”
“Yes, yes. Bosco, I’ve been expecting you. Welcome to the 7th Basiglieri.”
Batista turned back to the map table, wiped the late afternoon sweat from his pate and neck with a dust encrusted desert scarf, and indicated a folded canvas camp seat to his junior officer, still standing to attention.
“Come, my boy. Relax. Sit. You look tired, where have you come from? Far?”
Bosco slipped his carbine from his shoulder and propped it against the tent wall, opened the chair and sat in front of the table.
“Thank you, Sir. I’m alright. Not far. I was with the 185th Folgore, only a few kilometres south from here. I would have been here sooner but I’ve been dodging British ‘planes all day.”
“Ah, The Folgore. Fine outfit. You did well at Deir el Munassib last month I hear. Is that where you got this?” He leaned forward and flicked at a medal ribbon just visible on the lapel of Bosco’s jacket.
“Iron Cross, eh? Our esteemed allies don’t hand them out like biscotti. They must have been pleased with you.”
“Thank you, Sir. Not only me. There were ten awarded that day, but a hundred more deserved it. We fought like lions.”
“Spectacular! The Germans sometimes treat us like we are donkeys, so the British weren’t the only ones surprised, eh? A good action, Bosco, our King will be very proud. I am very proud. However, that was yesterday, this is today. Things have changed. Rommel just made a mistake and got a bloody nose for his trouble, so now we badly need your combat experience here in the north. We think Deir el Munassib may have been a deception for an assault up here, but the British have been reinforcing and regrouping all along the front, so we aren’t sure. Patrols have been probing our positions and skirmishing with our scouts for days. In the last 12 hours all this has stopped. We think this means that sometime soon, perhaps tonight, they will attack. I’m told you speak English. Correct?”
“Yes Sir. Is that why I was transferred to the infantry?”
“Yes, it is, and I’m sorry but you can’t rest for long. I have a difficult and dangerous job for you right away so you don’t even have time to change out of your Folgore uniform and change your insiginia for Basiglieri.”
“I need you to go through the wire right away, get ahead of our forward observation posts and see what the Australians are up to. But, for God’s sake, be careful Bosco. We need information, not heroes. I have plenty of heroes but I can’t afford to lose any more experienced officers like you. Be back before dawn. If the attack is coming it will probably come then. Good luck”
Bosco stood up, came to attention again, and saluted, but Colonel Batista had already turned once more to the map in front of him. Barely looking up he returned Bosco’s salute with a casual wave and shouted for his Adjutant. Bosco turned on his heel, stopping only to pick up his carbine, then pushed aside the tent flap and went out into the rapidly cooling early evening air.
El Alamein – No-man’s land – 23 OCTOBER 1942 – 19.00 hours
Fred Lombard was stuck. Caught up in barbed wire, in a shell hole with one foot resting against the side of a landmine. Muttering to himself in Italian as he tugged at the wire, each phrase punctuated by another pull, and another tear in his shirt or shorts.
“Holy Mother…what a fucking mess…sorry for swearing. Well, mama…I don’t think your son is… going to get out of this… too well. What did you do to deserve me…eh? I wish I’d been better…nicer to you and Papa. Now he’s gone…and his brothers. Me too probably. I s’pose now would be a good time… to own up…I took that money from your purse…it was me. I’m sorry, and I’m sorry I lied to you too.”
His shirt suddenly gave way again, but the release caused him to kick against the mine, and he froze. His struggling was making the hole unstable and even deeper, so he gave up, and fell back panting.
“I bet you really knew it was me all the time didn’t you? Of course you did. That’s what mother’s do, know everything and still forgive. Anyway, I know I’m a miserable sinner. I wish I had been better to you and I’m sorry I didn’t go to mass more often like you wanted…”.
His pleading was silenced by the slight sound of sand trickling into the shell hole. The grit fell against his face and he held his breath, hoping that it wasn’t a hunting viper attracted by the vibrations of his struggling or, worse still, his nightmare: a scorpion. He hated scorpions.
The sand trickle became a rivulet, then stopped. Lombard pressed himself as close as he could to the side of the pit, holding his breath and straining to listen. The sound he heard was not of gliding scales or pincers, but of breathing. Laboured human breathing. Then a voice came from the darkness. Speaking Italian.
“Don’t worry, I’ll soon get you out of here, I have wire cutters. Here, hold my Berretta.”
Lombard watched as a Berretta 38 machine-carbine slid over the rim of the pit followed by the ‘snip, ‘snip’ sound of wire cutting. Then a camouflage blackened face appeared, grinning teeth shining in the early moonlight.
“There you are my friend. Give me your hand. Tenente Piero Bosco at your service. What are you doing this far forward? I wasn’t expecting…..” His voice trailed off. Bosco found himself looking down the barrel of his own gun and pulled back his hand.
“Australian? No! I thought you were Italian!”
“Keep your voice down will you! No, not Australian. I’m British. I thought you were a snake, so we’re both wrong aren’t we? Now, come down here. And be careful, I’ve got my foot on a bloody mine. If it’s all the same to you I’d rather keep my legs.”
Bosco slid into the pit, head first and his face came to rest at Lombard’s shoulder badge. He spoke in English.
“So, Inglese! I was told it was Australians out here. I thought you were Italian, you were speaking such good Italian to your mother Lombardi! Your accent is perfect. Oh well, I am Bosco, Tenente , 1499650, 185th Folgore. I am your prisoner.”
“Don’t be daft, Lieutenant. Apart from the fact that you outrank me I think we are pretty much in the same boat here. Very soon we are both going to be right in the path of a barrage, and then an attack. Our comrades will start throwing shells at each other and somebody’s tanks will drive all over us. I would say that which of us is the prisoner of the other is pretty academic.”
Lombard put Bosco’s gun down, away from both of them, wiped his hand on the remains of his shirt and held it out to Bosco.
“Piacere Tenente. Pleased to meet you. I’m Fred Lombard. Sergeant. A292101. Name, rank and number, that’s the drill isn’t it? And Scotsese, not Inglese, if you don’t mind!”
Bosco laughed too, nodded agreement, and shook Lombard’s outstretched hand.
“OK, not Inglese, Scotsese. I can just see your badge, a Highlander eh? Well, Piacere! I’m pleased to meet you too, Sergeant. You are right, of course. A predicament for us both is it not? What do you suggest we do?”
“First of all, can you get my other leg off this wire? Then can you deal with this.
Lombard pointed to the hard lump in the sand under his free foot.
“I assume that is one of yours, out here, so you should know how to defuse it. I surely hope so, otherwise we are both very dead.”
Bosco snipped the wire away and then eased down to Lombard’s foot. Carefully scraping the sand away from the side of the mine, he quietly whistled an exclamation.
“Oooh! You were lucky Sergeant . You are right, it is one of ours, but if it went off it would take more than your legs: it’s a Type 9, anti-tank. Fortunately it needs more pressure than your big British boots to set it off, so you can move your foot. Here, help me lift it out of the hole.”
Lombard began by rubbing the blood back into his cramped leg before moving to help.
“Thank God for that! And thank you too, Sir. All the same, I’d prefer if you disabled it. A stray bullet, bit of shrapnel, one of our tanks passing nearby, anything might set it off.”
Bosco went to work, and carefully lifted the lid from the mine’s oblong wooden case. He peered inside but found the firing pin already detached he laughed at Lombard’s un-necessary discomfort.
“What’s so funny, Sir?”
“You can relax my friend, it is safe. Someone else has already been here! One of your Australian sapper patrols, probably. Anyway, think. If we are in a shell hole, even a mortar shell, why didn’t it set off the mine? I think it must’ve been thrown in here after it was defused. And please stop calling me ‘sir’. I’m Piero.”
They slumped back into the hole and sat on their haunches, facing each other in the moonlight, and shook hands again. Fred started to laugh.
“Of course, you’re right….stupid of me, Sir..I mean Piero. Look, if I’m going to call you Piero, you’d better call me Fred. Is that OK?”
“Certo, certainly. So, Fred, how is it that you speak Italian so perfectly?”
“Well, my family are originally from Tuscany. Great grandfather Lombardi emigrated to Scotland in the 1890s, from a little village in the Garfagnana, near a town called Barga.” It’s in the Serchio Valley, below the Apuane Alps.”
Fred could see Bosco’s eyes widening in surprise and recognition.
“Have you heard of it?”
Bosco spluttered, incredulous, and slapped Fred’s arm.
“Heard of it Fred? Mother of God I know it well! I was in an orphanage near there before they sent me to Military School in Naples! That’s where I learned English. What a strange world. Unbelievable!”
Bosco saw Lombard shiver, rubbing at the goose bumps on his bare arms. He knew about fear, and not to ask about it.
“Cold isn’t it, the desert at night? You wouldn’t think such a hot place could be so cold.”
“Aye. Well, I haven’t been out here long enough to get used to it, but being stuck in the wire for an hour with your foot on a mine doesn’t help.”
“Ha! Well said. Your honesty does you credit Fred. I go cold every time I have to jump from a perfectly good aeroplane.”
Bosco slipped off his paratroopers smock, and then his jacket. He pulled the smock back over his head and handed the jacket to Lombard.
“Here. Take this. I’ll have my smock – you can’t have that, it is a lucky charm for me. I have made many, many jumps with it. As you see, all successful!”
“No, I couldn’t..”
“Take it, take it. Don’t worry, my smock is completely wind proof. I will be warm enough”.
Lombard took the jacket, still with the comforting heat from Bosco’s body, and slipped into it. His teeth stopped chattering almost at once. They sat for a moment, looking at the stars, and Lombard at the medal ribbon on the jacket, then Bosco broke the silence.
“Well my Scottish friend, we can’t stay here all night. What shall we do?”
Lombard’s answer was pre-empted by the distant skirl of “Black Bear” as it rose up and drifted through the darkness from the front lines towards them.
“Shit! It must be 21.30. We’re in trouble now. We’ve only got minutes before the big guns start up. If either of us tries to go back to our own lines now we’ll be caught out in the open and killed for sure. We’d better stay put, and I suppose this hole is as good as any to hide in. C’mon, help me dig in.”
But Bosco had already moved. In seconds he was over the top of the hole and out under the cut wire. He looked back down to Lombard, and his white teeth grinned again.
“I think that’s a chance we both must take, Fred. Either here and now, or later somewhere else in this war, but if this is your attack I must go back. It’s a matter of honour to stand with my comrades. Do whatever you must. Stay or go, and may God protect you, but I’m going back.”
He looked at his machine-carbine, and back at Lombard, pointing to it with a nod. He held out his hand, once again an officer in the Royal Italian Army
“My Beretta if you please, Sergeant.”
But Lombard laughed, acknowledging the difference in their rank once more.
“Finders keepers, Tenente. Call it a souvenir. I can say I took it off a dead Italian. Here, you can have this.”
Lombard pushed his Lee Enfield rifle over the rim of the hole.
“You can do the same; say you got it off a dead Tommy. You might get another medal for killing me! You can have these too! ”
And with that he snapped off his identification tags and threw them after the rifle. There was no time to argue. Bosco grabbed the rifle and the tags, and in a deep crouch scuttled away calling over his shoulder.
“Arrividerci you crazy Scotchman! God be with you!”
Fred Lombard sank back into his hole hoping God was with them both that night. He waited, rehearsing how he would explain all this to Captain Carpenter, if he should ever see him again.
“I’m sorry Sir, I didn’t see anything. I got hung up on their wire. I did find a dud Italian mine, though. One of your disposal teams must’ve disarmed it. The only thing I can tell you is that the Italians have been reinforced by paratroops. 185th Folgore.”
“How do you know?”
“I met one. An officer”
“Dead or alive”
“Very alive, sir”
“Did you kill him?”
“No sir. To be honest, we both sort of got the drop on each other. Didn’t seem right really, he was a decent sort.. Actually, it was him who got me off the wire. Gave me this jacket and his gun. When the pipers started we shook hands and went our separate ways.”
“Where are your ID tags?”
“Must’ve come off in when I got caught on the wire, Sir.”
He thought it didn’t sound credible, and it wasn’t. He was abruptly shaken from his meanderings by the thunder of the barrage, and the whine of the first shots roaring over his head into the dark. Then a shell landed 50 feet away, and the darkness became very solid.
24th October El Alamein Battlefield – Swept Up.
When Fred Lombard finally came round he crawled and scrambled out of the half collapsed shell hole. Dazed, disoriented and cold, the sand that had half buried him, sticky with dew, clung to his bare legs and his uniform as he struggled to his feet. His head hurt. There were sounds of battle, but they seemed distant and masked by a rushing sound in his head, the result of the shell blast. His thoughts whirled like the sand: maybe the fighting was closer than he thought? Which way was the fighting? The battle might be behind him. He didn’t know. Perhaps his position had been over-run and he might be behind the enemy lines. He did not even know what time of day it was, nor even really what day it was He felt for his watch, but when he looked down at it the glass was broken, the case and hands bent and clogged with dust so he took it off and threw I away. He lifted his head and peered upwards to where, somewhere above the swirling dust, the sun began to warm him. He felt his body for wounds but there were none and he sank again to his haunches, dizzy. He tried to clear his head but the questions kept coming. Who was winning? Which way should he go? Which way is anywhere? He rose again and began to walk. He had no compass, so his staggering shuffle started to follow the tracks of hundreds of trucks and tanks and feet. Ours or theirs? But the tracks went everywhere, and nowhere in particular. Signs loomed out of the dust “Actung Minen”, the skull and crossbones leering at him. Broken wire snatched at his feet and he fell, more than once, over a body or a bit of a body, dented helmets and broken rifles. It was the devil’s own hellish obstacle course, a ride on a fairground ghost train with real ghosts. He had only come out for a short, night-time, reconnaissance: he’d be there and back in just a couple of hours, Captain Macritchie had said, so he had no water or food. By nightfall, dehydrated, delirious, and lost he slumped to the ground and, again, into unconsciousness.
The vibration of a big engine, running nearby, penetrated his limp body and began to bring him round. He couldn’t open his eyes, they were caked shut with dried sweat and sand, but it was close enough to feel. He began to think more like a soldier again, not a casualty. It didn’t sound like a lorry. Not a tank either. Lumpy, uneven, growly; the engine beat rising and falling as if anxious to move but held back. A German half-track maybe? He stayed still but a voice pierced the mist in his head. English?
“This one’s still alive. Still in one piece I think. Can’t see a wound.”
Hands turned him over, pulled at his clothes, wiping dust from nostrils and cracked lips with a rough cloth. He couldn’t see the owner of the hands, his eyes still stuck shut with dried sweat. He thought “I’m really thirsty, can I have a drink of water?” but somehow it came out,
“Acqua. Ho sete, acqua, per favore, ho sete”.
The voice with the hands spoke again.
“Well, he’s Italian! And look at this, Folgore patches. What’s a paratrooper doing way out here? He’s an officer too, by the looks of these epaulettes. There’s a Model 38 Beretta too. Definitely an officer.”
The hands searched carefully for other weapons or a booby trap then, when satisfied, roughly through his pockets.
“Safe. No trip wires. No I.D. tags. Bugger all.”
“Water, please. Water”.
“So! You speaka di English? He speaks English! Alright my lucky mysterious Eytie friend, I’ll get you some water.”
In a moment the hands lifted his head and warm liquid, but cold as a mountain stream to Lombard, splashed into his mouth. He retched, coughed, puckering his lips, a little bird begging for more from its mother.
“Woah, not so fast! That’s enough for now my friend or you’ll be sick.”
The hands lay his head back and the talking and searching continued. He heard the carbine being unloaded.
“Gun safe, sir. Nothing else here. No documents. Not even any fags. What’re you doing this far north, eh? I thought the Folgore were down south. Hang on, is this an Iron Cross ribbon? It is isn’t it? Blimey are you someone important? He’s pretty far gone, poor sod. What’ll we do with him?”
Another voice, above the grumbling engine replied. Gutteral.
“Well we can’t just leave him, now you’ve brought him back to life, can we? Tietkop! Put him in the truck. No time to piss about, we’ve got to get back to base before daylight. If he lives he may have some useful intelligence for the skipper.”
The hands, joined by others, lifted him. The engine snorted, happy to be at work again, coughed up some black smoke and then they were moving. Fred Lombard saw none of this as he once again slipped into the soft embrace of unconsciousness.
Base Tango – 1 November October 1942
“Good morning. You look better, fit enough to answer a few questions anyway, so let’s begin, shall we Lieutenant. It is Lieutenant is it?”
Lombard eyed the man in front of him. He was tall, with piercing blue eyes and thin, almost emaciated with a wild blond beard. No insignia of rank, or even of army, but by his attitude and bearing an officer. His clothes were a mixture of German, Italian and British but he was wearing a full Arab head-dress. Lombard thought to himself that this was not so much a uniform as a costume, and allowed himself an inner laugh. It was almost as if he was a captive of some bizarre entertainment unit performing The Desert Song.
“No. It’s Sergeant. Lombard, Frederick, 292101, and that’s all I’m saying.”
“So. Lombard, Frederick, Sergeant. Name, rank and number, very proper. Presumably not Italian then. British? Where are your identity tags, then?”
“Don’t know. Must’ve lost them, somewhere. Out there where you found me.”
“How inconvenient for you, and not very helpful for us either. No, we didn’t see them ‘out there where we found you. You see my difficulty Sergeant. You speak English, now, but with some sort of accent. When found you were delirious but speaking perfect Italian. You had an Italian weapon. You say you are British but won’t say what unit, even though your British shirt has a Highland Division shoulder badge, does it not? But then you’re wearing an Italian officer’s jacket with the ribbon of the Iron Cross. You can see how it looks? For all I know you are a spy, left out here on purpose for us to find, to pick up, to bring back to our base. You might be British, as you claim, but also a deserter, no? We have no time for niceties in our part of this war Lombard, or whatever your name really is, and there are no Geneva Convention inspectors in the desert. With no I.D. you could be shot. Just another anonymous bump in the sand out here. Understand? Capisce?”
Lombard thought for a minute, and decided to go on the attack.
“If you don’t mind me pointing out Sir, it is Sir isn’t it, I have the same problem. You haven’t told me who you are. You imply you’re British, but your accent isn’t British is it? I’ve heard people talking outside, and not in English either. Dutch? Afrikaans maybe? There’s a lot of Germans in the south of Africa I hear. You’re driving around in a half-track with Afrika Korps markings, wearing German panzer goggles round your neck, so you could be a Jerry. For all I know, you could be the spy, searching behind the battle lines for survivors to interrogate. On the other hand you could be a bloody ENSA concert party in that Arab get up.”
The tall man threw his head back and laughed.
“Well, at least you have a sense of humour. It’s a fair point, but not one for debate and I’m the one with the gun. Until we’re sure of who you are I’m not telling you who we are. So, this is what we’ll do. We’re staying here for a few days. There’s no need for restraint because there’s nowhere for you to escape to. If I have your word you’ll not try any funny business, you’ll be free to move around our camp. Consider yourself under open arrest, but you’ll be kept under observation until we’re ready.”
“Fine, but is there any grub, Sir?”
“Our rations are limited, but we’ll keep you fed and watered. Meanwhile I’ll radio our HQ with your description, and service number. It’ll take a while but we’ll get an answer. If you are who you say you are, fine. If not, we’ll have some more searching questions for you, and then…. well, we’ll see shan’t we? Fair?”
Lombard nodded agreement, but as the tall man turned to leave he spoke again.
“Fair enough, Sir. By the way, who’s winning?”
The tall man laughed again, and without turning said,
“We are. Of course”.
Lombard muttered to himself.
“Aye, but who’s we?”
For two days and nights Fred Lombard walked, watched, ate and slept. The camp was in a wide depression, a bowl in the sand. A few scruffy palms stood in the centre, above a stone walled well-head. A little further out, were the remains of bleached sandstone houses. They were little more than rubble and sentinel parapets. On the edge of the camp there was a soft tinkling sound where a young boy stood with a small herd of goats. Under the trees open topped trucks, in desert yellow paint, were tidily parked in groups, all facing outwards from the centre, he supposed in case a quick getaway was required. A few carried Africa Korps markings, but most bore no identification at all. There were a few jeeps too, heavily armed in a way he’d never seen before with twin mounted machine guns on the front passenger’s side. On the rim of the depression there were camouflaged observation posts. This was obviously a semi-permanent base and his captors didn’t intend to be surprised.
There was an armed guard in sight, even when squatting in the latrine, but apart from that he was left alone and the other men didn’t talk to him. They seemed relaxed in his presence but always taut and alert. Thin, scarred, tired looking with deep set, sand reddened, eyes: they all had the mark of men who had been in desert action a long time. There were occasional alarms for aircraft flying overhead. He could not tell if they were Allied or German, but his captors scurried to man the guns on their trucks, or parked under camouflage netting, in case it was an enemy. But which enemy, whose enemy?
On the third evening in camp the tall man came again, accompanied by two others. This is it, Lombard thought, if they hadn’t verified his story there was going to be rough stuff. But they were all now wearing British insignia and the tall man was smiling. Lombard took and shook offered hands.
“Well, Sergeant Frederick Lombard, late of His Majesty’s 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders, 51st Highland Division. Edinburgh and all that. You check out.”
“No Sir, it’s the Second Battalion, and Glasgow not Edinburgh.”
The officer grabbed Lombard by the shoulders and then laughed as he ‘chipped’ his chin with a closed fist.
“Ha! Good man. You can’t blame me for trying to catch you out one last time. Just in case, you understand? Well Fred, you’ve landed up with the Long Range Desert Group. I’m Captain Piet van der Kok. South African, as you guessed. You can call me ‘Skip’. This is Andy Kirkpatrick, officially Lieutenant, ex-some unpronounceable bloody place in New Zealand. You’ll find there are quite a few ‘boks and Kiwis here.”
Lombard and Kirkpatrick exchanged nods.
“This mongrel is Maurice le Blanc, Corporal. French from somewhere in Algeria. He says. A bit of time in the Foreign Legion, we think, but he won’t admit to or talk about it. We call them “Paddy” and “Blanco” respectively.
Van der Kok saw doubt briefly crease Lombards forehead.
“Not the sort of regimental formality you’re used to, eh? We don’t stand on ceremony in the LRDG, no deference to rank, except in orders, and definitely no saluting. Don’t get me wrong, everyone knows their place, but every now again we’ll run into an Italian or Jerry desert patrol and they take a particular interest in picking off or capturing officers if they can identify them. So, everyone here has a nickname. Since we thought you were Italian maybe we’ll call you Nero. And you need to explain why you were speaking Italian and wearing a Folgore unifom”
He didn’t wait for Lombard’s agreement.
“I’ll introduce you to the rest of the patrol later, but now we are sure of each other, you can tell us your story.”
They walked across to a low wall, and sat in the shade of a tree. Fred ran his hand through his hair and began.
“Well, before I start, where the hell am I?”
“Siwa Oasis. About 300 miles south-southeast of Tobruk. Similar distance south southwest of El Alamein. We’ve come right down the edge of the Quatara Depression.”
Fred, having only recently arrived in Egypt, had no real idea of the geography, certainly not enough to tell if the distances and directions were right, but by the time he’d finished relating how he came to be lost miles behind the action, with no I.D., how Bosco had saved him, and why he spoke Italian, van der Kok was also satisfied he was not a deserter. As they left he told Kirkpatrick to radio Cairo for further instructions about Lombard’s future.
A week later – November 11th
The rest of the group had been busy. Siwa being a main LRDG base, trucks came and went all the time, and occasionally a light spotter aircraft flew in. There were two funerals, solemn but brief to the point of perfunctory. For Lombard the enforced rest was welcome but a week of waiting for news had passed slowly. Finally Paddy Kirkpatrick dragged Lombard out of the mess tent.
“OK Nero. We have your orders. You’re staying with us for the time being so Skip says to give you a quick run down on us. Let’s go over there under the trees, bring your tea.”
The two men were joined by Blanco and the three sat in the shade, swatting flies away from their mugs, while Paddy started his briefing.
“Our group usually consists of three, sometimes four, patrols. You’ll have noticed the trucks, the jeeps, and we have a few captured Italian and Jerry wagons like the one we picked you up in. Three or four men to a vehicle, all volunteers. Up to six vehicles to a patrol, so that’s 24 men times 3 or 4 patrols around 70 to 90 of us all in, not counting the locals. Of course we’re almost never all here at the same time, apart from anything else that would be very hard to hide from the air.”
“Do you get many air raids?”
“Nah, mostly a Jerry snooper on reconnaissance, but we have to be ready though. We’d rather hide than fire on them, that would give the game away and we’d have to move base. The patrols usually work independently of each other, so we only meet up like this when we come back to base for re-supply. We don’t always do that, sometimes we’ll get an airdrop of water, ammo and spares for the trucks. Occasionally groups go on a raid together, but that’s usually against a specific target and under orders. If a target of opportunity presents itself while we’re out we might take it on, but only if it wouldn’t compromise our position or mission. The vehicles are all stripped down to carry extra supplies and heavy weapons: every patrol has mounted machine guns, even the jeeps. You’ll have seen that one or two of the bigger trucks have 40mm Bofors gun, and a couple of ex-Royal Artillery types are working on fitting a 25 pounder. That should be fun on a ‘beat up’.”
“Of course. Not many rifles in LRDG though: we’re a small force and we need to punch well above our weight. Our biggest weapons out here are speed of movement and our ability to hide. With surprise we do a lot of damage, way out of proportion to our force size, but it’s no good if Jerry or the Italians know where we are. Sometimes HQ will task us to join other groups for a bigger operation, say a ‘beat up’ on a major airfield, but our main job is intelligence gathering: road watching, that sort of thing. It’s mostly boring, I’m afraid, but vital.
“Boring is fine by me, Paddy, I’d just as soon get home in one piece.!”
“Me too. We might look mad, but we aren’t. Well mostly. Some of us, including the officers, have been near the edge. It’s the desert after all. We don’t go looking for trouble but even so we get our share. We hide, observe, report what we see: move by night and lay-up by day watching for enemy movements, looking for their supply dumps. We were doing that mostly along the coast road, before the big push.. In fact that’s why we were up in the north, sweeping behind the advance from Alamein, when we found you. Now we’re trying to catch up with the front, to get round behind the enemy lines again.”
“How do you get your orders, then?”
“We radio what we see to Cairo or Alexandria every night, if we can, but sometimes we’ve been so far behind Jerry lines, sometimes hundreds of miles for weeks at a time, radio comms are not possible. If it’s important we may have to come back into range to pass on information. Once in a while we provide transport for other special forces on operations. Have you heard of the SAS? You maybe haven’t heard of them, they’re quite a new outfit. If you think we’re odd you should see them. Mad as hatters but tough. The “Libyan Taxi Service” they call us, cheeky bastards. Anyway, like I said, we can be ‘out’ for weeks and we don’t usually pick up strays or prisoners so you were very, very lucky we were on our way back here and stopped for you. OK. That’s it. Any questions?”
Lombard scratched again at his chin and swatted away some flies.
“No now, Sir, not now. Sorry, I mean not now Paddy. It’s a lot to think about. Maybe later, if that’s alright?”
“Of course. After Alamein the push has got momentum, so it looks like the whole group is on the move. We’re expecting new operational orders from HQ tonight, so we’ll know what we’re going to be doing then. One way or another we’ll be leaving here so, if I were you, I’d get some more rest. I’ll get Blanco to sort out some fresh kit for you, meantime.”
Lombard went back to his tent and dozed fitfully into early evening when an insistent and rising tide of noise broke through. Orders were being shouted, things were being thrown into vehicles. Engines were firing up. They were the sounds of the camp being broken up in a hurry. Lombard’s tent was already being dismantled around him when Paddy burst in, pulling the rough blanket from Lombard’s prone body.
“C’mon Nero, chop chop, on your feet. Get your kit. We’re off in an hour.”
Lombard didn’t move at first, he was taking time to get used to being called Nero.
The flat of a commando knife blade rapped the bare soles of his feet,and he stirred, rolling onto an elbow, as Paddy rushed out again. Rubbing his eyes Lombard could see a new heap at the foot of the cot. ‘Blanco’ must’ve been in while he slept. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed frame and moved, still seated, to the end. It was his new kit, alright. There was a water bottle, goggles, an Afrika Korps forage cap with neck curtain, and a khaki string scarf. It was cold, so he was pleased to see they’d left him Bosco’s Folgore jacket. As he began to dress, Paddy returned to check if he’d come round. There was a Bren gun propped against the cot end and Paddy pointed to it with a commando knife before tossing it onto the kit pile.
“Do you know how to use one of those?”
Without speaking Lombard picked up the knife, turning it over in his hand and feeling the balance, before hoisting the long heavy weapon and resting the butt in his groin. He checked the safety catch was on, then quickly and methodically looked it over for damage. He removed and examined the curved magazine, opened the breech and squinted up the barrel. The weapon was clean and the magazine full. Before he locked it back into place he checked the breech was clear again and again that the safety was on. Paddy was clearly pleased.
“Good. You seem to know what you are doing. They’re your weapons then. Look after them. You’ll need a sheath for the knife and get yourself a side-arm. I use a Browning .45 but we tend to pick our own personal weapons, so see the armourer right away.”
Lombard nodded and quickly finished dressing. Paddy watched him, impressed by how calm and competent his new man seemed. He didn’t know that Lombard hadn’t fired a weapon in anger since Dunkirk, two years before, but Lombard wasn’t about to tell him. When he stopped to stretch, rub the sleep from his eyes one more time, and run his hand through his tangled hair, Paddy laughed out loud.
“No time for a wash and brush up now I’m afraid, Nero, but you’d better get some food.”
“Right. When you said we’re off, Paddy. Who’s ‘we’, and where to?”
“Cairo radioed through again. You’ll be pleased to hear you’re no longer ‘Missing in Action’, but you’re staying with us until it’s possible to get you back to your unit. Officially you’re on temporary detachment with LRDG so ‘we’ is L Patrol, plus you. The truth is we’ve no idea when you’ll get back to the Gordons. We can’t be spared to take you back, or even arrange a rendezvous. At the moment they’re miles in front of us anyway, chasing after Rommel – he’s retreating but we’re not following him. We’re going inland and swinging right round his back. Our orders are to get behind his line of retreat, disrupt his communications, destroy his fuel and supplies, and generally sow alarm and confusion. In a few days we’ll be well ahead of the battle so eventually you may be waiting for your old unit to catch up to you! By the way, the Yanks have just landed in Tunisia and are pushing east towards us, so let’s get cracking or the war will be over before we get there!”