Shop ’til you drop?

On 15th June 2020, the UK government re-opened “non-essential” retail business (then, in England only) to trading.

TV reports showed queues forming outside retail parks, and interviews with representatives of other parts of the economy still closed, like ‘hospitality’. There were opinions from medical science about the safety of reducing ‘social distance’ from the present 2 metres, but not any behavioural science underpinning the relaxation.

I struggle to understand why any, never mind many, people are in such desperate need for “non-essential” items to the point they would queue overnight – as happened in some places. Crowds, bordering on disorderly, were seen outside so-called flagship ‘brand’ shops. What the social distancing was like inside the stores we do not yet know.

The point of this post is not to focus on the unquestionable health risk associated with this behaviour, but on what I perceive to be the fragile, and fundamentally unsound, basis of our economy which caused the government to allow shopping to resume in spite of the risks.

The UK is a service-led economy. We don’t manufacture much to sell to anyone but ourselves, and most of what we do sell to others is services, not goods – apart from very specialist and high priced items like luxury cars and aeroplanes. We sell ideas, designs, science, ‘systems’, lifestyles. We buy goods from (mainly) developing nations because they can make ‘stuff’ and ship it to us cheaper than we can make it ourselves. In consequence our economy, the flow of money round the nation, and critically into the coffers of the tax man, depends on us spending – especially discretionary spending. Much of our retail, and of course our leisure travel, sector is dependent on this sort of activity but the Covid-19 pandemic has also starkly exposed how dependent we are on routine international air travel for underpinning supply chains with freight carried on passenger airliners.

The latter part of the 20th century saw the confluence of two developments in the economic activity of so-called first world countries: on-line commerce and “just-in-time” manufacturing. Very few major sectors of our UK economy, whether it be retail (including food retailing), car making, construction, or even heavy industry like ship building or wind turbine manufacture, hold ‘stock’. This means, as an island nation, we are extremely vulnerable to disruption of supply chains. In the past we, as individuals, went to ‘agents’ for purchases and they co-ordinated all our purchases and placed orders with suppliers. Now we are all our own agents, making individual direct purchases and “cuttting out the middle man”. This sort of activity is almost impossible to plan for, whether in materials, manufacture or logistics, and so there have been shortages. Shortages create unease, unease creates panic, panic influences our buying behaviour to such an extent that we will buy things we wouldn’t normally buy – in order to get ‘something’: a sort of displacement purchasing.

And so, back to the point of this post. Judging by the queues, and excitement, as shopping became just a little bit easier it seems that we have become so dependent on buying, and spending (even getting into debt to do so), for our emotional and psychological health that we are individually prepared to take Covid-19 risks with our physical health. It also seems our economy is so dependent on our spending, even on “non-essential items, that our government is prepared to encourage us to take risks too.

Sadly, for some, “Shop ’til you drop” may become the reality.

Are we all ‘ists’ practicing ‘isms’?

There has been worldwide reaction to the illegal killing of an African/American (George Floyd) by police in Minneapolis. In ordering my own thoughts about this issue, and the current unrest in and on behalf of the BAME communities about it, I have come to the troubling conclusion that I am an ‘ist’, or at least guilty of ‘ist’ behaviours – or ‘isms’. This realisation has helped me to understand, I hope to some extent, the institutional and inherent racism in my own country.

The manner of George Floyd’s killing, by a police officer kneeling on his neck for almost 9 minutes, could not have been more calculated to evoke the history of black slavery in the Americas. However, not all of the understandable reaction has been well intentioned. While it has given people from ethnic minorities a focus around which to express their anger over past and present injustices, it has also provided opportunities for “racists” to promote their views during demonstrations against them. It has also provided opportunities for those who benefit from creating and maintaining division, in society more generally, to exploit the situation by provocation.

The event sparked the creation of a movement (fuelled and fanned by social media) that self-identified as “#BlackLivesMatter”. Curiously in the UK (so far) #BlackLivesMatter has not appeared to focus much on similar events in the UK. In other words it does not appear to be using the George Floyd incident to draw attention to occurrences of UK people, often young male people of ‘colour’, dying while in British police custody.

In the immediate upwelling of protest, some individuals defaced or destroyed statues, and other memorials, of historical people with links to slavery, the British Empire’s colonial past, or believed to be associated with support for historically contentious figures like Mussolini and Hitler. In passing it made me wonder whether, across the former British Empire, in fact all of the former Empires of European nations, similar things are happening? Are statues being torn down in the former African colonies of Belgium or Germany, the French colonies of north Africa and South-east Asia, the Far East colonies of the Netherlands, the Portuguese and Spanish colonies of South and Central America?

In the fairly recent past of other nations, effigies of world-influencing people have disappeared from view. In the former Soviet Union, once replete with images and statues of Stalin Marx, Lenin, Engels etc., such are hard to find except in museums, while those of pre-Soviet personalities are reappearing and revered. Iraq and Libya have seen statues of former dictators torn down after regime change; the same happened in Cambodia, Romania and many more.

For what my opinion is worth I think we’ll have to reconsider how, and where, we ‘memorialise’ people in future, but I’m happy to think of existing statues being moved to a “walk through history” sculpture park – not a theme park, but somewhere that allowed space for interpretation, information, and context. Where exisitng statues of contentious individuals cannot be moved, why not add some interpretative panels nearby or even erect another statue adjacent which depicts another part of their story? I believe we have to face up to our past, and through education learn from it, not try to expunge or edit it. To do so is to deny their context: a context that seeks to explain, not excuse. Otherwise we are no different than those who seek to deny the reality of the WW2 Holocaust, and murder of 6 million Jews by the Fascist Nazis.

Naturally as a person with some Jewish heritage and DNA, I have a reaction to this last point in particular, and it’s visceral. A novella by John Buchan, “The Thirty Nine Steps”, is a favourite story of mine but there are profoundly, and explicitly, antisemitic passages in it which I really struggle with. I have to skip past them in order to read the rest of the book, but I couldn’t burn it. Antisemitism is not part of my direct experience: I’ve never been abused, called a ‘Yid’ or a ‘Jew boy’ (not to my face) so my response is taught, learned and passed on, inherited. I am a white, middleclass, well educated and, I like to think, ‘liberal’ person and yet I have a direct instinctive response to an indirect stimulus: I am preconditioned by my environment (upbringing) to not have a rascist bone in my body and yet, and yet, I find myself admitting to prejudice about people I have never met.

In considering the undoubted rascism experienced by our BAME citizens, and trying to imagine how people of those communities must feel, really feel, I tried to put myself in their shoes. Of course that’s impossible, but in my head I tried to go through some benign scenarios, such as how would I react to people of different appearance, dress, skin colour, race, ‘presentation’, turning up unannounced at my door, say to conduct a survey. I had to admit I might be, probably would be, instinctively more wary of a young black man in a ‘hoodie’, and talking in ‘urban patois’, than I would a white middle-aged man in a suit. That is prejudice. That is racism. And there is nothing in my direct experience that leads me to this, quite the opposite, so it must be environmental. I must have been insidiously exposed to imagery and attitudes in various ways, some so subtle that they have been un-noticed, that I have formed some underlying attitudes to stereotypes. I suspect most of us have, and so it is entirely understandable that for some people, without the priviledges of a good education, sound upbringing, decent housing and work opportuities, these prejudices are nearer the surface than in others.

I recently undertook a DNA-based exploration of my family history. There were few surprises: I expected my genetic makeup to be mostly Celtic and European (Ashkenazy) Jewish, and it is. However, I also had a few ‘outlier’ strands, some from north and west Africa. I wonder if some of the Nazi-saluting fascist thugs who counter-demonstrate #BlackLivesMatter gatherings might be similarly surprised to find how cross-cultural their DNA is? Those who parade proudly under the cross of St. George or Union Flag, and proclaim themselves thoroughly English or British, might be surprised just how polyglot they are.

When I lived in Scotland, from where my Celtic DNA derives, my wife experienced occasional low level anti-English bigotry. She is not identifiable as being from a particular racial group, or origin, until she speaks. At that point, some deep seated stereotyped response was triggered in some people she met. Not based on who she was, or on appearance, skin colour, attitude or behaviour, she was made to feel unwelcome. That was 30 years ago, and yet it has coloured her feelings about the Scots ever since. She knows that this is irrational, but her slight experience has created an emotional ‘trigger’ in her. How do we expect people of BAME origin in the UK feel, when they are individually and collectively subjected to much more overt, systemic, and frankly nastier, abuse?

The unpalatable truth, as I see it, is that humankind is tribal. It is complex and multi-layered, but we have an animal need to belong. Whether that be defined by race, religion, politics, profession, class, sporting affiliation, age, gender, neighbourhood (and sometimes several of these) we seem to need the safety of our ‘clan’. In times of societal stress, whether that be caused by a pandemic, a financial crash, or even a war, we fall back on the instinct of what makes us fit in with our group to feel safe. We are frightened, especially just now, and frightened people are often irrational.

And so I would ask that we self-examine our motivations, and feelings about #BlackLivesMatter, both for and against, and whether over this or other things, we are also ‘ists’ and practice ‘ism’s. I know I do, and it’s not a very comfortable place to be.

UK Covid Travel Quarantine

On 8 June 2020 the UK government initiated quarantine restrictions on incoming travellers. With a few minor, and clearly (?) defined, exceptions everyone arriving in the UK by air, sea or rail, has to self-isolate for 14 days.

In the weeks since ‘lockdown’, during a period of unusually fine weather, 1000 illegal migrants arrived on the shores of the UK by various means – mostly small boats crossing the English Channel. In one day alone, in the week before the new restrictions, 160 arrived. How many arrived undetected is obviously not known.

In the context of quarantine restrictions intended to prevent ‘importation’ of new Covid-19 infections, one has to wonder where, and how, the illegal migrants are being quarantined – for their safety and ours – and how many of them have been tested and proved ‘positive’ for Covid-19?

Violent Protest in UK – George Floyd

Violent behaviour in demonstrations is unacceptable, but mass public protest has always been ‘hi-jacked’ by violent elements. I’m old enough to remember what happened during the height of the Vietnam War protests, and the CND movement, and the Miner’s Strike where sometimes extreme violence was perpetrated by, and against, protesters.

However, our society at large is tolerant, even encouraging, of violence legitimised by context. You just have to look at mainstream Film, TV, video ‘gaming’ to see how we glorify violence.

It is also the case that political protest has always been exploited by ‘agents provocateur’ – for example police dressed as miners during the miner’s strike – and unscrupulous media looking for a ‘good’ story. I’m not saying these incidents in London and Bristol are like that, but you have to be mindful that those small number of violent protesters may have an ‘agenda’.

Finally, I would ask those who are uncomprehending of protests triggered by an event thousands of miles away, to consider these 2 points:

1) The sort of casual and institutional violence exhibited by those police officers in Minneapolis sometimes happens here in the UK. Simeon Francis, a 35 year old black man, died in police custody in Torquay Devon on 20th May this year. Whatever the cause proves to be, you can be sure that racism is in the UK too.

2) Put the boot on the other foot. How would you feel if your society was largely of a different ethnicity from yours, where justice and law enfocement was delivered by a judiciary and police force largely of that different ethnic group, and where members of your ethnic group were routinely abused, even killed, by them without sanction? When you come to the point where, even in a pandemic, you think “Enough is enough”, would you be calm and measured? Would you maybe lose the plot, or be susceptible to the encouragement of others to do so?

Generation after generation, the words of Martin Niemoller are there to remind us that if we turn our eyes away, and stay silent in the face of such events, we are complicit. However ‘liberal’ and fair-minded we believe ourselves to be, if we do not protest we are no different from those who allowed the stain of fascism and Nazism to spread across Europe in the 20th Century.

‘Tombstoning’: Metaphor for Relaxing Lockdown?

In recent years there has been a growth in numbers of people (mostly young people) undertaking physical challenges that involve high risk. One of these is ‘Tombstoning’ – the practice of jumping from height, sometimes considerable height, into a body of water.

Over the sunny weekend of 30/31 May, in Dorset (UK), there was an incident involving ‘tombstoning’ which provides a clear metaphor for the UK government’s decision to relax the strictures of ‘lockdown’.

People were frustrated by being confined, at that time for 10 weeks, and the government had signalled that we could have a degree of freedom to go outside. It began by saying, three weeks previously, that we could travel any distance to enjoy exercise, as long as we maintained the prescribed social distancing of 2m. Predictably, people took that as a green light to go to the ‘seaside’ – in their thousands. Cars streamed to the coast, clogging roads and carparks, disgorging their occupants in confined locations where it was inevitable that ‘social distancing’ would be challenging if not impossible.

Durdle Door, in Dorset, is an iconic and beautiful location where an enclosed shallow bay features a natural arch over the water. It is, or should be, self-evident that an enclosed bay surround by cliffs will have limited access, and the limited space on the beach will be influenced by the fall and rise of the tide. Apparently not. Many hundreds of people arrived and spread themselves on the beach. Amongst them were three who decided it was a good idea to test their bravery by climbing up the cliff, over the arch of the ‘door’, and ‘tombstone’ 70 feet into the shallow water, encouraged by the onlooking crowd shouting “Jump, Jump”. They were all seriously injured and had to be airlifted to hospital, although it is questionable whether land ambulances would have been able to get anywhere near on the clogged roads. To make room for 2 helicopters to land safely, hundreds of people were compressed into a small space, destroying what remained of any potential social distancing, and were eventually evacuated from the beach up the single access path in a massive ‘crocodile’ file. In this case, amongst the unknowable infected people, any one or all three of the jumpers might have Covid-19, presenting risk to their rescuers and medics, not to mention that flying helicopters into that location is not entirely risk-free either.

This event is where my case for ‘metaphor’ comes in. Over a fairly short time frame UK governments (there are 4 devolved administrations) have decided to shout “Jump, Jump” while we contemplate tombstoning off a lockdown cliff. In the face of conflicting (and in some cases absent) evidence and scientific advice, we are being told we can come out of lockdown but, explicitly, to do our own assessment of risk. The problem with this is that the assessment of risk, in relation to Covid-19, remains, as it has been all along, selfishly focussed on not catching the disease rather than not spreading it. One thing the scientists are agreed on is that we need a robust, fully functional, ‘track and trace’ system to pick up, and isolate, outbreaks of disease. We have seen the value of this in other countries where they had systems for, and experience of, population scale testing and tracking in pandemics. To be robust and fully functional it needs to have adequate capacity, both for carrying out tests and analysing the results, and critically that means speed because outbreaks must be stopped quickly or they rapidly get out of control. At present the UK does not have this and, by all accounts, the statistics on tests carried out are suspect. The evidence, or should I say experience, from other countries where they have had a better grip of Covid-19 is that it keeps coming back. Other countries experimenting with coming out of lockdown have low rates of new infection, in the low hundreds at most. Our daily rate of new infections is stubbornly high, apparently around 8000, of which perhaps 25% are actually confirmed by a test. After 10 weeks of lockdown, which has limited movement and contact, one has to ask why? What is driving community transmission? I have my own theory, which is asymptomatic spread. Asymptomatic infectees will not be picked up by track and trace, or other existing testing, because they fundamentally require self-reporting of symptoms. Those contacted by ‘track and trace’, as having been in contact with someone who is confirmed (by another test) as infected, will be asked to isolate. However, though they may also be infected they may not have, or go on to develop, symptoms. In fact they may be the person who unknowingly gave the infection to the reporting person in the first place!

The science around modality of spread, of viability of deposited virus, of viable infectivity in a person after infection, of any acquired immunity and persistence of immunity, is weak. This brings me back to my metaphor. In a country where some seem only too ready to accept the government’s encouragement to “jump”, while applying their own assessment of risk to them, I fear we are all tombstoning to potential disaster with them.

The Emperor’s New Clothes 2020

I am not a scientist, so what I write here has to be viewed as the product of an interested, but inexpert, mind.

I have been repeatedly struck by the similarity between the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and the UK Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

For any reader not familiar with the story, a pair of con-men tailors persuade an Emperor that they could make him a magic suit of clothes. The suit would be so special that only superior citizens could see and appreciate it. Nobody would admit to being inferior, including the Emperor himself, so nobody would say that the suit was imaginary: it didn’t exist. Eventually it takes a small child to puncture the community conspiracy and call out that the Emperor is naked. I am calling out. I am saying our political leaders, and the scientists they defer to, are naked: they don’t know what to do (or are unable to do what they need to do) even though they profess to know.

It seems to me that the UK, and UK media in particular, is bewitched by the 2020 Covid-19 ‘smoke and mirrors’ version in which they, and we, are told to believe in something patently untrue because they, and we, are afraid of looking stupid in the face of “the Science”. We, the mere mortal citizens, cannot understand the complexity of this pandemic and are afraid to ask difficult questions in case we seem ill-educated.

This is plainly nonsense. First of all our media are replete with clever, well educated, people. Moreover we, the populace, are not only not generally ill-educated but we are also blessed with something which seems singularly lacking in the narowly focussed Government science community and the Government itself: common sense.

Every day, and I mean every day, a UK Government minister hosts a so-called press conference from Downing Street in which ‘slides’ of graphs, updated from the day before, are presented by a ‘scientist’ to illustrate progress in the fight against the virus. This presentation is followed by questions from the media. Recently, presumably in an effort to engage the public in an illusion of transparent democracy, two questions are first taken from members of the public. The Government claims these questions are ‘unseen’ but it is evidently untrue because you can see the ministers, in particular, consulting notes when speaking in response to the questions. I will try to ‘pick over’ some of the anomalies that arise from these questions and answers.

Being Led by the Science

One of the advantages of saying you are following the science is that you can blame the scientists if it all goes wrong. It’s the job of Government, both as leaders of the country and as employers of the scientists, to test the scientists, or at least ask them hard questions, however ‘daft’ they may seem. It has been marked, really marked, how often the scientists speaking at the daily press conference say something like “it’s too early to say, it’s difficult to draw conclusions from the data, we’ll know what happened when it’s all over”. In short, they often say “we don’t know”, so how can anyone follow that lead?

The charts shown to the public display, and invite, international comparisons and yet the scientists say “it’s very difficult to make comparisons because the data across countries is not recorded consistently.” If it’s difficult (or even meaningless) to draw comparisons why do they show these charts?

Testing

The Government’s approach has, like the science, been ‘behind the curve’. At the outset of the epidemic, before it became an official pandemic, the World Health Organisation advised “Test, Test, Test”. The UK did not. Those countries that did, seem to have had a different level of transmission. Some countries imposed travel restrictions, quarantine and scanning for elevated temperature in arrivees. The UK did not. Some countries were very quick to impose lockdown, the UK was not. Worldwide, but especially in S.E. Asia where they had both a culture of routinely wearing facemasks when ill, but also experience of epidemics of respiratory diseases like SARS and MERS, the community response was immediate and effective. The UK’s was not. In the UK our limited capacity for testing outside of hospital was initially focussed on getting medics and carers back to work because the medical workforce was under pressure. Once the decision was taken to increase testing (and I think this decision was forced by public pressure) the figures of tests undertaken became a politically, not medically, important key performance indicator and therefore had to be presented in a ‘managed’ way. The results from those tests, especially in hospitals, became a key indicator in the progress of the disease through the population and of the prevalence of the disease in the country as a whole. It emerged very early on that there was a range of severity: the majority of infected people would experience only mild symptoms and some would have no symptoms at all. A smaller number would need hospitalisation, about half of those would need intesive care, and of those requiring the highest level of hospital intervention (sedation and ventilation) a significant number of those would die. These numbers became key indicatiors of the progress of the disease, and of healthcare performance through mortality rates.

What nobody seems to have grasped (or been prepared to call out) is that testing, any kind of testing in the sick population, that is to say those persons presenting in care settings and exhibiting symptoms, is only confirming what is already suspected. Two cohorts of the population were missed by this approach to testing, and therefore any measurement of population prevalence is distorted. First, those people with ‘mild to moderate’ symptoms were (and still are) required to self-isolate at home. Until the proposal to use an ‘App’, see below, they were not counted as cases. They were not tested (unless as part of the belated testing of key workers), they were not confirmed cases of Covid-19 and their contacts were not traced. Secondly, those people with no symptoms at all, or misidentified as ‘just having a cold or hayfever’ were, and still are, free to circulate in the population to potentially shed and spreading the virus: the Typhoid Mary effect.

Laterly, in May 2020, the Government has started a limited trial of an ‘App’, a technological solution to tracking and tracing outbreaks of disease. If deemed successful it will be rolled out across the UK. People who use this ‘App’ will be asked to monitor their state of health and, if exhibiting symptoms, report illness. The ‘App’ will then inform their ‘contacts’ who will be advised (advised!) to self-isolate and so break the chain of transmission. It seems to me there is an obvious, and fatal, flaw in the logic of this approach, and that is the Typhoid Mary effect. Track and Trace only works on those people who have symptoms: officially at least 30% of the infected population are asymptomatic.

Chasing the ‘R’ Number

The distortion of the real, natural, level of community transmission of Covid-19, and therefore pursuit of the magic ‘R’ number, has been profound.

The ‘R’ number is the reproduction rate, the rate by which one infected person passes an infection on to others: its ‘natural’ infectivity in a population with no immunity. An ‘R’ of 1 means one person will infect one other and the infection rate is stable, while anything above 1 means an exponential growth of infection. The ‘R’ of normal ‘flu is about 15 – it’s highly infectious. The natural ‘R’ of Covid-19 is said to be 3. There is no way to change the natural infectivity, the ‘R’, of Covid-19. Until we can develop a vaccine, all we can do is reduce it’s opportunity to make people sick by hygiene measures and, crucially, keeping people away from each other. What we have managed to achieve, with extreme restrictions and the wrecking of our economy, is an un-natural ‘R’ number hovering between 0.5 and 0.9. Clearly, though, something is going on which is sustaining new infections. The UK government is saying the locus is now Care Homes. I really struggle with the logic of this; Care Homes are, more-or-less, ‘closed’ communties. Once the problem was identified, even with mass mortality as we have had, how does that drive infection in the wider population? I suggest that it is the reservoir of undiagnosed, untested, and asymptomatic infection. That being the case, the relaxation of the measures to keep people apart will inevitably result in a resurgence of the disease.

What the UK government seems to have decided is that the economy must be restarted, and has embarked on an experiment in which we are the guinea pigs, to see what happens if we let the reins slacken. The government says that ‘lockdown’ can be reinstated if this happens, but I suggest this is unrealistic: once the freedom genie is out of the bottle there is no way the public can be persuaded to put it back and comply with the measures in the way they have, broadly, until now. I don’t doubt that behavioural science is informing some of the epidemiology, but we have already seen the extent of wilful disregard for lockdown measures, as well as plain misunderstanding. The UK Prime Minister has pleaded for “good British common sense” to apply: in effect this sounds like “it’s too complicated to explain or advise about, even for me, so just do whatever you think is right”.

Epidemiology

We know that the first widescale outbreak of what became labelled Covid -19 was identified in a Chinese city of 11 million people called Wuhan, in the province of Hubei. As far as we know it was noticed in December but officially denied. Travel in and around China continued, and critically beyond China’s borders. Blaming China has become a politically convenient distraction. What has only recently become general knowledge is that cases appeared in Europe in December, before it was reported in Wuhan. That means it was circulating more widely there (and elsewhere) for longer than was suspected, and therefore maybe even calls into question the location of the original outbreak. Moreover, DNA-based research has shown that the origin of disease in other parts of Europe was significantly driven from the UK. We know the virus is highly infectious, and we now know it has been mutating: the strain that subsequently arrived in the West coast of the USA, from Asia, was different from that which over-ran New York that came via Europe (and therefore the UK).

Virology

When we bagan to hear about a virus outbreak, we were told “Catch it, Kill it, Bin It” – and wash your hands thoroughly and often. We were told this was because the virus was spread by “droplets” getting from an infected person to someone else, directly by coughing or sneezing, or indirectly by the droplets landing on a surface and then being picked up by them and transferred to the mucus membranes of a face / mouth / eyes. Initially we were told that you had to be in close contact, face-to-face, for 10 to 15 minutes, and to stay more than 1.5 metres away. The obvious question then was how long the deposited virus ‘droplet’ remained viable on a surface, and it wasn’t (and still isn’t) clearly answered. Then we got the 2m ‘social distancing’ rule, but evidence emerged that droplets were spread over varied distances in an aerosol according to the environment, inside or out, by someone with virus on their hands touching something, and what people were doing like exerting exercise, which called into question the adequacy of 2m as a safe distance. Now we are advised to stand side by side, not facing each other, and as near as 1m if using “mitigation” measures. We have also now found that the virus can remain viable on clothing for several hours and that we should wash our clothes frequently, which makes a bit of a nonsense of the original advice to sneeze or cough into our elbow and shaking hands by ‘touching’ elbows.

The fact (and I use that word with caution) is that the virology, based in laboratories, cannot keep pace with the developing ‘field’ epidemiology with sufficient speed. That is to say that what’s happening in the epidemiological ‘reality’ is outstripping laboratory science’s ability to answer the new questions raised by changes in the experience on the ground. And so those of us without specialist expertise are watching the news from other parts of the world to see what they are doing, and how effective it has seemed to be, and applying our own common-sense response. Some people (me included) ordered facemasks, gloves and hand sanitizer, and began to adapt our behviours in and outside the home, even before a pandemic was declared. I mentioned the question of facemasks earlier in this piece, and of all the visible measures that various countries could have taken, the wearing (or not) of facemasks has been an obvious point of difference. Facemasks are routinely worn in a medical setting for two reasons, the principal one of which is not contaminating the patient by breathing on them. The secondary reason, except in specific cases, is protecting the clinician from any bacteria the patient may pass on to them. The specific exception is where the risk from the patient is bacteria (or viruses) transmitted by them in an aerosol spray – in which case a high performance, moisture resistant, mask is required (to standard N95 or higher).

The UK government, and its scientific advisors, consistently said that masks had no benefit in protecting the wearer, in fact suggesting they risked the health of the wearer because they would contaminate themselves putting them on or taking them off. This inexplicably ignored that the principal benefit they admitted was in reducing the risk of an infected person passing the virus on, and reducing transmission was the key objective of the lockdown! For weeks the government steadfastly refused to recommend general wearing of masks, even in the face of a growing public clamour, and this week (11 May) has only grudgingly “advised” (not mandated) the use of masks, as long as they are home made, saying that medical grade, or style, masks were inappropriate and should be kept for clinical settings because clinicians, nurses, carers, paramedics etc., need them for their protection. One has to ask if a mask protects a paramedic, why doesn’t it protect a member of the public? Of course, all of this has to be seen in the context of a massive failure to hold stocks of, or procure, adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), of which masks are but one example. Almost uniquely in the “western” world, the UK has a universal and centralised healthcare service: the NHS. However, successive politically Conservative governments have sought to privatise the service and so the delivery of healthcare has been incrementally fragmented under the cloak of “efficiency improvements”, and responsibility devolved to area Care ‘Trusts’. The UK government was warned a year before the outbreak that we were unprepared for a pandemic and that central stocks of essential equipment were low. The government initially sought to blame the Trusts for mismanaging their ordering and stockpiling of PPE, ignoring the fact that the NHS had been systematically ‘bled’ of funding in the wake of the 2008 world financial crash. Then they sought to blame the public, who had bought their own PPE, for using up finite resources. Once they realised this blame game was not going to work with the public, their failure to deliver PPE to the front line medics, and care homes, resulted in the government giving daily scores of “items of PPE delivered” as fatuous as counting an individual glove as an item. The government clearly could not recommend the public to wear masks when there weren’t enough for doctors, nurses and carers. Now we know there is mounting evidence that facemasks do, indeed, protect the wearer (and in early June both the WHO and our UK government recommended widespread us of “face coverings” and specifically medical grade masks for the over 60s). By early July the WHO raised the possibility of airborne transmission, which suggests more widespread use of facemasks will be required.

What Next

We have no vaccine. We may never get a vaccine. If we do it may need to be redeveloped every year like the ‘normal’ seasonal ‘flu vaccine because the Coronavirus naturally mutates. There is some evidence that some infected persons have developed antibodies and therefore some immunity. Our NHS is experimenting with infusing sick people with plasma drawn from previously infected people. We do not know if this immune response is consistent across all sections of all populations, and even if it is we do not know how durable the immunity is. Without an effective vaccine we are going to have to live with, i.e. adapt our ways of life, the presence of Covid-19 (or Covid-20/21/22 etc.) for the long term and depend on improving therapeutic treatments to help us survive infection – if not knowing very much at all doesn’t kill us first.

Thank you Lord (gospel)

Verse 1

Thank you Lord for a helping hand

Even tho’ I didn’t understand

 It was you who bound my wounds

 I felt peace in the calm I found

(Chorus)

I Thank you Lord; Thank, thank you Lord

WE Thank you Lord; Thank, thank you Lord

Verse 2

You lifted me when I was down

 Bore me up when I thought I would drown

Tho’ I would kneel you helped me stand

 Thank you Lord for your helping hand

Verse 3

 Turned inside my deepest sorrow

 Couldn’t see a sunny tomorrow

 But for you I would be lost

 my wounded pride the pointless cost

(Chorus)

Thank you Lord; Thank, thank you Lord

I thank you Lord; Thank, thank you Lord

 Verse 4               

Now I know the sweet surrender

 When I gave my stubborn will away

 Your care so safe and tender

 Helps me thro’ another hard day

Verse 5

Here I am in the promised land

By my side, I know you stand

 It is you who heals my wounds

 Your Grace is the calm I have found

(Everybody)

Praise you Lord;

Thank, Thank you Lord

Love you Lord,

Thank, Thank you Lord

Praise the Lord.

Thank you Lord

(Repeats as required)

© Andrew Gold October 2005

Somewhere on the Road

You remind me of a boy I knew

and a summer long when my heart just flew

I thought he was strong he thought I was quirky

when we were living in Albuquerque

but not quite ready to move on.

The road is long from there to here

memory’s hazy from the grass and beer

but it seems to me that we’ve met before

somewhere on the road back then.

Yeh, back then I had the world in my hand

living on the banks of the Rio Grande

my life was slow and my hair was long

we had nothing to do but sing our song

until we felt ready to move on.

The road is long from there to here

memory’s hazy from the grass and beer

are you sure that our tracks have never crossed over

somewhere on the road from back then.

But he went first up to Santa Fe

so I headed west for the lights of L.A.

we kept in touch for a while by letter

then the next guy or place began to look better

and I told myself to move on.

The road is long from there to here

my memory’s hazy from the grass and beer

but I’m sure I’ve seen that pretty smile of yours

somewhere on the roadside back there.

There’ve been many more places and many more fellas

I met some in the street and some in bordellos

But none came close to the flame we fanned

or the songs we sang by the Rio Grande

before he decided to move on.

You remind me of a boy I knew

and that summer long when our hearts just flew

he was strong and I was quirky

I thought we were happy in Albuquerque

but he was ready to move on.

And I remind me of a girl I knew

through this dirty mirror and the light so blue

in back of a car on Franklin and Vine

now I’ve got a bellyfull of cheap red wine

but I’m still not ready to move on,

No sir, still not ready to move on.

The road’s so long from there to here

my eyes are streaked and I smell of fear

but I’m sure I’ve seen your handsome face

somewhere on the road back there

somewhere on the road back there.

I’m lost somewhere on the road back there.

© Andrew Gold 16 August 2003

A Matter of Honour – Synopsis

A Novel. Working Title “A Matter of Honour”

Synopsis

A story of love, crime, betrayal and redemption.  Fiction, interwoven with real events and people, “A Matter of Honour” tells the multi-generational story of a Scots-Italian crime family, the Lombards / Lombardis.

Part One

The story begins in October 1942 and the eve of the final battle of El Alamein – a turning point in WW2. 

Fred Lombard is a Scottish soldier of Italian descent, a Sergeant serving in the Gordon Highlanders. At home, three generations of his immigrant family have been dispersed by internment; his family home and café business have been shattered by anti-Italian sentiment and the Clydebank blitz. 

These events, together with his experiences as a prisoner of war after Dunkirk, sharpen a natural antagonism to authority.  Resentful, and vocal about who the real enemy is, he is reluctant to accept a battlefield commission.  He is ordered to reconnoitre the Italian forward defences before the attack begins.

While doing this he meets Piero Bosco, a decorated paratroop Lieutenant serving with the Royal Italian Army who has also been ordered to reconnoitre the front line.   

Lombard is in a ‘foxhole’, entangled in barbed wire, cold and with his foot on a land mine. Bosco extricates Lombard, but with the battle about to start, they are trapped together in no-man’s land.  Passing the time they discover that their ancestors came from the same locality in Northern Tuscany: the Garfagnana.  They share hard histories.  We hear more of the Clydebank blitz that has claimed Lombard’s grandparents, and the disaster of internment which has cost Lombard the lives of his father and uncles.  We hear of Bosco’s fractured upbringing; orphaned by an earthquake and ‘sold’ to The Nunziata Military School (Piacenza) by the nuns running the orphanage.  By the time the battle starts a bond has been forged.  Before returning to his own lines Bosco gives the frozen Lombard his uniform jacket.  They exchange weapons to prove to their superiors that they have been in contact with the enemy.

When the first salvo of the battle is fired, Lombard decides to stay in the ‘foxhole’.  Separated from his unit in the confusion of battle, Lombard is later gathered up by a patrol of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).  Wearing a decorated Italian Officer’s jacket, and carrying an Italian weapon, he is suspected of being a deserter, or spy, and is interrogated before convincing them of his identity. By now, many miles behind the Gordon Highlanders, he has no alternative but to stay, and fight, with the LRDG until he can re-join his own battalion.

Many months pass: it is September 1943.  The Axis forces have been defeated in North Africa, but most escaped to Sicily and the mainland.  By the time Lombard catches up with the regular army the invasion of Italy has begun and the Gordon Highlanders are already fighting in Sicily.  Unwell, and recovering from wounds sustained while with the LRDG, Lombard remains in a Tunisian transit camp until October.  Though not fully fit, he is sent with others to reinforce Salerno on the Italian mainland instead of, as promised, to his own unit in Sicily.  He is briefly involved in a mutiny.  Under threat of prison or the firing squad he is compelled to join American-led forces at Salerno. 

At the same time, Italy has surrendered.  Bosco is taken prisoner and in a twist of fate the unlikely comrades are reunited, tasked to use their local knowledge and language skills to gather intelligence, initially in preparation for the American-led landing at Anzio.  Success leads to them being sent south to Foggia, for special training as liaison officers with partisans.  Repeatedly parachuted behind the retreating enemy’s lines they make contact with, and become trusted by, partisan groups working with British SAS forces.  The Mafia, which has been helping in the invasion in return for ‘favours’ in America, infiltrates allied supply lines and takes advantage of the chaos to develop a thriving black market.

D-Day, June 1944 sees the main focus of the war move to France and Belgium, but in Northern Italy the fighting is still fierce, and allied progress is slow.  Partisan groups factionalise, with eyes on the State of Italy after the war.  Bosco, realises the danger he is in:  he is a former Royal Italian officer, on the run with no papers, he is at risk from the Germans, the Communists and the remaining Fascists.  He deserts from his American controllers and affiliates with a group of partisans which, it turns out, have criminal connections.  Lombard returns south to his HQ.

Christmas 1944.  At the same time as the Battle of the Bulge, in Belgium, Axis forces also attempt one last counter-attack in Italy, along the ‘Gothic Line’ in Tuscany.  Bosco and Lombard are, again, under fire together.  This time in Sommocolonia, in Northern Tuscany where a third key figure enters the story.  Victoria Modrone, a young villager, has been tending the wounded Bosco.  Lombard saves Bosco by getting him safely back to his partisans and the debt of honour from North Africa is repaid.  Victoria falls in love with Lombard and, by the time they separate, Victoria is pregnant – but by whom? Lombard and Bosco never see, or hear from, each other again.

The war ends.  Fred is repatriated and demobbed to a devastated Glasgow where he finds his family still dispersed and their business still in ruins.  His smouldering sense of injustice is fanned into flame.  Influenced by his military experiences, he begins to rebuild his family’s fortunes supported by black market trading and low-level crime.  Victoria Modrone follows him to Scotland bringing the child, a boy she has named Benedetto, who is to become another key figure in the story. Fred and Victoria marry.

End of Part One

Part Two

Post war recovery completed, the story moves forward to the early 1960s.  The Lombard business has been growing but ‘takes off’ when the balance between Fred’s criminal and non-criminal business changes.  His criminal activity becomes dramatically more successful when he is approached by, and associates himself with, an Italian organised crime ‘family’. The Lombards are able to leave their immigrant home, in the poor east-end of Glasgow, and move to a villa in a salubrious neighbourhood – Bearsden.  The Lombard’s son, Benedetto (Benny) also becomes involved in local crime but, neither as astute nor well-connected as his father, quickly acquires a police record with successive periods in borstal and prison.  During one such term in prison his again-pregnant mother travels to Italy where she gives birth to another son, Pietro. 

Fred’s rising profile in the criminal community brings him increasingly to the attention of the police.  A senior policeman, corruptly involved with other Glasgow criminals, does everything he can to bring Fred’s growing ‘empire’ down.  He repeatedly fails because of ‘behind the scenes’ help from Fred’s Italian associates.  Increasingly desperate the policeman threatens the life of the infant Pietro who, for his safety, is ‘spirited away’ to Italy to be brought up by surrogates, the Marchetti family.  They name the boy Federigo.

Emerging from prison with contacts, and ideas, of his own Benny seeks to persuade his father to change the base of their criminal activity and make him a partner.  He wants him to move from ‘traditional’ crime, like robbery, and gambling, into prostitution, protection racketeering, and drug supplying.  An old school ‘crook’, with a traditional view of honour and morality amongst thieves, Fred rejects this and, in so doing, lights the fuse of a deadly family war.

The story now moves forward on two fronts: Italy and Glasgow.  In Italy, young Federigo is taken under the protection of a businessman, Rico Morisi.  Federigo has no direct contact with Morisi; he and the Marchettis receive his help through Morisi’s solicitor and right-hand man, Piero Bosco.  The same Piero Bosco.  Morisi pays for Federigo’s education and then his training as an accountant.  Morisi has a villa in the far north of Italy, on Lake Como, where Federigo goes every vacation to help with the accounts.

In Glasgow Benny, mad with frustration, forms an alliance with his father’s main competitor and begins to sell their drugs through his family’s fleet of ice-cream vans.  When his father finds out he ejects him from the family home and moves to disinherit him.  Benny, together with his new associates, and the collusion of the corrupt policeman, arranges for his father’s assassination and the takeover of his business.  It is at this time that Benny discovers of the existence of his brother in Italy and arranges for his murder too.

The story moves back to Italy.  Benny strikes but Federigo is away in the Morisi villa at Como, working, The Marchettis are killed in a staged car crash and fire.  There are three bodies in the car so Federigo is believed dead also, but it is the Marchetti’s pool boy whose charred body is found with them in the car.  Morisi, believing the attack to have been directed at his business sends Bosco to tell Federigo of the accident but, unaware that it is his own brother Benny who has tried to kill him, Bosco sends him to Glasgow, under an assumed identity, to find his real family.

Federigo arrives in time to witness his father’s funeral.  He meets Benny, and his mother, for the first time.  Benny, realising his plot has failed, takes Federigo into his protection.  Using the fact of Federigo’s illegal status and false identity, he involves him in crime as a means of controlling him.  Meanwhile, developing a close bond with his real mother, Federigo discovers that she is suspicious, and afraid, of Benny.  Together with Federigo, she sets about uncovering his duplicity.  During this time Federigo learns about his real family’s history, his upbringing, and the identity of his father.

In pursuit of evidence against Benny, and information about her late husband’s business contacts, Victoria Lombard goes to Italy and meets with Bosco.  She recognises him as the injured soldier from Sommocolonia.  Unmarried, Bosco declares he has been carrying a torch all these years.  He followed her to Scotland after the war but finding her married and happy with Fred, and a son, he returned to Italy.  He thinks, in other circumstances, Benny could have been his child, and out of love for Victoria, it is he who has been using Morisi’s network to secure Fred’s business all these years.  Victoria explains that Benny is not his son; the brief affair he believes he had with Victoria was an hallucination, brought on by his infected wound.  Shocked to discover the truth about Benny’s betrayal of his comrade-in-arms and his friend Fred, he agrees to work with Victoria to gather evidence, and protect her and Federigo from him.

When they have proof, using Federigo’s skill as an accountant, they seed doubt in the minds of Benny’s criminal associates, and the corrupt police, about his suitability as a partner, and they begin to cut their ties with, and protection of, him.

Meanwhile Morisi, as an important criminal in his own right, with links to organised crime in Naples and Sicily, is under ever-increasing scrutiny of the Carabinieri and Guardia di Finanza.  Bosco, as his confidante and solicitor, is also under suspicion and now fighting on two fronts.  He launches a plan to use Benny as a sacrificial goat and get the police off his, and Morisi’s, back.

Bosco lures Benny to Italy, using an offer to protect Benny from his own camorrista backers and shore up his business.  When the trap is sprung, by Bosco and Victoria, Benny is exposed and alone.  Terrified and humiliated he trades his life by betraying his backers, and the corrupt police in Glasgow, to the Italian police and one final twist is revealed.

A Matter of Honour

A NOVEL BY Andrew Gold ©

Prologue

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

16.00 hours

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.

“How well?”

“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.”

“Sorry Sir.”

“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”.

Chapter 2

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.”

“Sir?”

“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.

Chapter 3

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.”

 Lombard laughed.     

“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.

Chapter 4

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?

November 4th

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’.”

“Small arms?”

“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!”