A NOVEL BY Andrew Gold ©
War 2 – El Alamein, Egypt. 23 October
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.
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.
1 – New Orders
Macritchie found his quarry, Sergeant
Fred Lombard, playing cards with his squad.
there you are Lombard. Fall out and
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.
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
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
“Yes sir, I do.”
Macritchie had noted the relief, and
the drop of the shoulders. Yes there was
definitely something hidden there, but what?
He decided to pursue it later.
“Very well, like a native, you
might say Sir. I was born in Scotland,
but my family name is Lombardi. All
Italian, both sides, and all the way back.
We still speak it at home. Why?”
“Why? Because we need a volunteer to recce the
Italian lines, someone who understands Italian, so we’re asking you.”
Lombard stopped smiling.
“Sir? I thought it was the 21st Panzers in front of
us, not Italians.”
“And so they are.”
“Then I don’t see….sir, why pick
someone from the 51st instead of an Aussie?”
“Because the success of
“Operation Lightfoot” hangs on the whole front moving forward together. As far as possible we want to avoid any one
unit falling behind its flanking units”
Lombard jumped in.
“Aye Sir. Well, you know you can count of the Gordons
keeping up, We’ll not let you down. But
I still don’t see what..…?”
Macritchie, annoyed by the
interruption held up a hand to stop it.
“I’d expect no less, but that’s
not what I mean. Look here.”
Macritchie placed a map board
between them and pointed, tracing the battle plan with sweeps of his hand and
the point of a bayonet.
“The Black Watch are on our
immediate left, here, and the Kiwis further left still. As you seem to know, on our right flank are the 9th Aussies, here
and here. The Eyeties are facing them,
here, and they hold the coastal road and railway line. Intelligence says they’re the 7th
Bersaglieri. They gave us a hard time at
Mersah Matruh, and the 185th Folgore gave us a bloody beating only a
month ago. The Royal Italian Army are
professionals, not conscripts, and they’re no pushover.”
“I’m sorry Sir, but I still
“Look, if you’d stop interrupting
me, Lombard, you would see.”
“Right, that’s better. The 9th Aussies are tough but the “Rats”
lost a lot of men at Tobruk and they’ve only just come up from resting and
re-equipping in Syria. Their
replacements don’t know, not first-hand anyway, that these particular Eyeties
are up for a fight. If their advance
gets bogged down the whole line could cartwheel, and if the Eyeties get in
behind our flank they could be followed by the whole Afrika Korps. It could be a disaster.”
Lombard’s jaw tightened and the
veins on his temples began to pulse. He
was beginning to bridle at the repeated slur of “Eyetie”, but stayed quiet.
“So, this is the situation. The Aussies urgently need to know of any last
minute changes to Eyetie defences, especially minefields and anti-tank guns,
but they don’t have an Italian speaker who can recce their lines for them. We’ve been asked if we do. You seem to fit the bill.”
Lombard scratched at his stubbled face and
straightened up, silent for a moment.
Then spoke again.
“OK. I see that, sir. But it’s hellish late to be asking for
volunteers. Isn’t there someone else?
The barrage…..I mean, we’re off at 22.20 hours.
That’s only six hours from now.”
“I know it’s tight but ours is
not to reason why, Lombard. I have my
orders, and now so do you”
Fred Lombard mentally completed
Tennyson’s poem. He hoped he wasn’t
being asked, like the Light Brigade, to do or die gloriously and pointlessly,
as Macritchie went on.
“And there’s something else,
strictly between us for now: we’re short of experienced officers. I’ve been asked if there’s any senior NCO I
can recommend for a battlefield commission.
I’m thinking of putting your name forward. How would you feel about that?”
Lombard lowered his gaze and
rubbed his chin again, this time failing to release the tension in his clenched
jaw. He rose to his feet, accidentally
knocking back the empty ammunition boxes, briefly turned his back, then turned
“May I speak freely, Captain?”
“Yes of course Lombard, better
now or not at all, speak up. What’s on
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.
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
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,
“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
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
“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
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
“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”.
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
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
“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
“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
“Yes Sir. Is that why I was transferred to the
“Yes, it is, and I’m sorry but
you can’t rest for long. I have a
difficult and dangerous job for you right away so you don’t even have time to
change out of your Folgore uniform and change your insiginia for Basiglieri.”
“I need you to go through the
wire right away, get ahead of our forward observation posts and see what the
Australians are up to. But, for God’s
sake, be careful Bosco. We need
information, not heroes. I have plenty
of heroes but I can’t afford to lose any more experienced officers like
you. Be back before dawn. If the attack is coming it will probably come
then. Good luck”
Bosco stood up, came to attention
again, and saluted, but Colonel Batista had already turned once more to the map
in front of him. Barely looking up he
returned Bosco’s salute with a casual wave and shouted for his Adjutant. Bosco turned on his heel, stopping only to
pick up his carbine, then pushed aside the tent flap and went out into the
rapidly cooling early evening air.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Inglese! I was told it was Australians
out here. I thought you were Italian,
you were speaking such good Italian to your mother Lombardi! Your accent is perfect. Oh well, I am Bosco, Tenente , 1499650, 185th
Folgore. I am your prisoner.”
“Don’t be daft, Lieutenant. Apart from the fact that you outrank me I
think we are pretty much in the same boat here.
Very soon we are both going to be right in the path of a barrage, and
then an attack. Our comrades will start
throwing shells at each other and somebody’s tanks will drive all over us. I would say that which of us is the prisoner
of the other is pretty academic.”
Lombard put Bosco’s gun down,
away from both of them, wiped his hand on the remains of his shirt and held it
out to Bosco.
“Piacere Tenente. Pleased to meet you. I’m Fred Lombard. Sergeant. A292101. Name, rank and number, that’s the drill isn’t
it? And Scotsese, not Inglese, if you
Bosco laughed too, nodded
agreement, and shook Lombard’s outstretched hand.
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
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?”
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.
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
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
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,
But Lombard laughed,
acknowledging the difference in their rank once more.
“Finders keepers, Tenente. Call it a souvenir. I can say I took it off a dead Italian. Here, you can have this.”
Lombard pushed his Lee Enfield
rifle over the rim of the hole.
“You can do the same; say you got
it off a dead Tommy. You might get another medal for killing me! You can have these too! ”
And with that he snapped off his
identification tags and threw them after the rifle. There was no time to argue. Bosco grabbed the rifle and the tags, and in
a deep crouch scuttled away calling over his shoulder.
“Arrividerci you crazy Scotchman!
God be with you!”
Fred Lombard sank back into his
hole hoping God was with them both that night.
He waited, rehearsing how he would explain all this to Captain
Carpenter, if he should ever see him again.
“I’m sorry Sir, I didn’t see
anything. I got hung up on their
wire. I did find a dud Italian mine,
though. One of your disposal teams must’ve
disarmed it. The only thing I can tell
you is that the Italians have been reinforced by paratroops. 185th Folgore.”
“How do you know?”
“I met one. An officer”
“Dead or alive”
“Very alive, sir”
“Did you kill him?”
“No sir. To be honest, we both sort of got the drop on
each other. Didn’t seem right really, he
was a decent sort.. Actually, it was him
who got me off the wire. Gave me this
jacket and his gun. When the pipers
started we shook hands and went our separate ways.”
“Where are your ID tags?”
“Must’ve come off in when I got
caught on the wire, Sir.”
He thought it didn’t sound
credible, and it wasn’t. He was abruptly
shaken from his meanderings by the thunder of the barrage, and the whine of the
first shots roaring over his head into the dark. Then a shell landed 50 feet away, and the
darkness became very solid.
24th October El Alamein
Battlefield – Swept Up.
When Fred Lombard finally came round he crawled and scrambled out of the half collapsed shell hole. Dazed, disoriented and cold, the sand that had half buried him, sticky with dew, clung to his bare legs and his uniform as he struggled to his feet. His head hurt. There were sounds of battle, but they seemed distant and masked by a rushing sound in his head, the result of the shell blast. His thoughts whirled like the sand: maybe the fighting was closer than he thought? Which way was the fighting? The battle might be behind him. He didn’t know. Perhaps his position had been over-run and he might be behind the enemy lines. He did not even know what time of day it was, nor even really what day it was He felt for his watch, but when he looked down at it the glass was broken, the case and hands bent and clogged with dust so he took it off and threw I away. He lifted his head and peered upwards to where, somewhere above the swirling dust, the sun began to warm him. He felt his body for wounds but there were none and he sank again to his haunches, dizzy. He tried to clear his head but the questions kept coming. Who was winning? Which way should he go? Which way is anywhere? He rose again and began to walk. He had no compass, so his staggering shuffle started to follow the tracks of hundreds of trucks and tanks and feet. Ours or theirs? But the tracks went everywhere, and nowhere in particular. Signs loomed out of the dust “Actung Minen”, the skull and crossbones leering at him. Broken wire snatched at his feet and he fell, more than once, over a body or a bit of a body, dented helmets and broken rifles. It was the devil’s own hellish obstacle course, a ride on a fairground ghost train with real ghosts. He had only come out for a short, night-time, reconnaissance: he’d be there and back in just a couple of hours, Captain Macritchie had said, so he had no water or food. By nightfall, dehydrated, delirious, and lost he slumped to the ground and, again, into unconsciousness.
The vibration of a big engine, running nearby, penetrated his limp body and began to bring him round. He couldn’t open his eyes, they were caked shut with dried sweat and sand, but it was close enough to feel. He began to think more like a soldier again, not a casualty. It didn’t sound like a lorry. Not a tank either. Lumpy, uneven, growly; the engine beat rising and falling as if anxious to move but held back. A German half-track maybe? He stayed still but a voice pierced the mist in his head. English?
“This one’s still alive. Still in one piece I think. Can’t see a wound.”
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,
sete, acqua, per favore, ho sete”.
voice with the hands spoke again.
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.”
hands searched carefully for other weapons or a booby trap then, when
satisfied, roughly through his
“Safe. No trip wires. No I.D. tags.
“Water, please. Water”.
You speaka di English? He speaks English! Alright my lucky mysterious Eytie friend,
I’ll get you some water.”
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
“Woah, not so fast! That’s enough for now my friend or you’ll be
hands lay his head back and the talking and searching continued. He heard the carbine being unloaded.
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
voice, above the grumbling engine replied.
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
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.
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?”
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.”
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.”
but is there any grub, Sir?”
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?”
nodded agreement, but as the tall man turned to leave he spoke again.
“Fair enough, Sir. By the way, who’s winning?”
tall man laughed again, and without turning said,
are. Of course”.
muttered to himself.
but who’s we?”
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?
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.”
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
and Kirkpatrick exchanged nods.
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.
Kok saw doubt briefly crease Lombards forehead.
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”
didn’t wait for Lombard’s agreement.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
men were joined by Blanco and the three sat in the shade, swatting flies away
from their mugs, while Paddy started his briefing.
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.”
get many air raids?”
mostly a Jerry snooper on reconnaissance, but we have to be ready though. We’d rather hide than fire on them, that
would give the game away and we’d have to move base. The patrols usually work independently of
each other, so we only meet up like this when we come back to base for
re-supply. We don’t always do that,
sometimes we’ll get an airdrop of water, ammo and spares for the trucks. Occasionally groups go on a raid together,
but that’s usually against a specific target and under orders. If a target of opportunity presents itself
while we’re out we might take it on, but only if it wouldn’t compromise our
position or mission. The vehicles are all stripped down to carry extra supplies
and heavy weapons: every patrol has mounted machine guns, even the jeeps. You’ll have seen that one or two of the
bigger trucks have 40mm Bofors gun, and a couple of ex-Royal Artillery types
are working on fitting a 25 pounder.
That should be fun on a ‘beat up’.”
“Of course. Not many rifles in LRDG though: we’re a small force and we need to punch well above our weight. Our biggest weapons out here are speed of movement and our ability to hide. With surprise we do a lot of damage, way out of proportion to our force size, but it’s no good if Jerry or the Italians know where we are. Sometimes HQ will task us to join other groups for a bigger operation, say a ‘beat up’ on a major airfield, but our main job is intelligence gathering: road watching, that sort of thing. It’s mostly boring, I’m afraid, but vital.
“Boring is fine by me, Paddy, I’d
just as soon get home in one piece.!”
“Me too. We might look mad, but we aren’t. Well mostly. Some of us, including the officers, have been near the edge. It’s the desert after all. We don’t go looking for trouble but even so we get our share. We hide, observe, report what we see: move by night and lay-up by day watching for enemy movements, looking for their supply dumps. We were doing that mostly along the coast road, before the big push.. In fact that’s why we were up in the north, sweeping behind the advance from Alamein, when we found you. Now we’re trying to catch up with the front, to get round behind the enemy lines again.”
you get your orders, then?”
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?”
scratched again at his chin and swatted away some flies.
now, Sir, not now. Sorry, I mean not now
Paddy. It’s a lot to think about. Maybe later, if that’s alright?”
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.”
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.”
didn’t move at first, he was taking time to get used to being called Nero.
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
“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
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.
time for a wash and brush up now I’m afraid, Nero, but you’d better get some
“Right. When you said we’re off, Paddy. Who’s ‘we’, and where to?”
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!”