JAMES RAMSEY ULLMAN
MAJOR WHITCOMB awoke instantly to the touch of a hand on his shoulder. He saw the face of Barrows, his batman, bending over him in the brown gloom of the tent.
“Five-thirty, sir,” Barrows said.
Whitcomb came up on one elbow. “All quiet?” he asked.
“Nothing on the wireless?”
“They haven’t reported anything, sir.”
“Or from the patrols?”
For a few moments Whitcomb remained propped on his elbow, his eyes narrowed in thought; then he threw off the blankets and got up. He put on his boots and battle-dress blouse and splashed his face with the water that Barrows had brought in a canvas basin. When he emerged from his tent the darkness had already thinned. A bluish milky mist was rising in slow billows from the earth, and the olive trees glistened, still and silver, in the greying light.
Whitcomb turned up the collar of his blouse and squinted at the sky. It was sodden and ragged with clouds, but no rain was falling. As he walked over to the wireless truck the mud of the orchard sucked noisily at his boots.
A lanky red-eyed corporal was at the wireless control board. “Nothing from Brigade?” Whitcomb asked.
“Or from Div?” (Asinine question, he thought.) “No, sir.”
Whitcomb bit his lip. “I’ll be at the mess, if anything comes over.”
“Very good, sir.”
He threaded his way through the orchard toward the camouflaged dug-in tent that served as battalion officers’ mess. The trees he passed were more than trees—they were homesteads, each sheltering a crude, miniature community of its own. Close under the concealing branches were armored cars and squat canvas-roofed lorries, and around them, like the spokes of a wheel, the dark oblongs of slit trenches. Paraphernalia of all sorts were stacked on the ground and hung from the trees and vehicles. As Whitcomb passed, the shadowy half-clothed figures of men were rising from sleep on every side, fumbling with shaving gear, cooking gear, fighting gear, stirring to another day in the still, silver orchard that was their home. Between the trees the orange flames of cook fires pricked the weaving grey billows of the mist.
Reaching the mess tent Whitcomb ducked his head, descended the three steps of packed earth and sat down at the head of the unpainted deal table. None of the other officers was there yet. He stared meditatively at the table top as he waited for the orderly to bring his breakfast.
Major Frederic Whitcomb (“Tubby” Whitcomb to all his intimates and more of his nonintimates than he was aware) was not cut in the traditional physical mold of field officers in his Majesty’s Army. He was a
short man, and if not actually as fat a man as his nickname implied, he was comfortably and unequivocally plump. His face, once a good beefeater pink, had gone sallow and leathery under two years of Mediterranean sun and wind, but his two and a half chins had resolutely declined militarization and still jiggled amiably when he walked or talked. He had thinning ginger-colored hair and a neat gingery mustache. His eyes were wide-spaced and blue. On certain occasions they could be very merry and friendly, on others as bright and hard as bits of polished stone.
He was not a professional soldier. An automotive engineer in civilian life, he had been a member of the Territorial Reserves in his native city of Leeds and when war came had been processed into the regular Army with the rank of captain. He had had his baptism of fire at Dunkirk and in the great blitzes of 1940. Later he had been assigned to the 58th Armored Battalion and served for almost two years in the African desert campaigns, during the course of which he received his majority. Late in 1943 the unit moved on to Italy. There, after three months in the fog and mud of the Apennine winter, the lieutenant-colonel commanding the battalion had come down with dysentery and been evacuated, and Whitcomb, as senior major, became acting C.O. A mature and competent man he had taken easily to command and had been retained in his new position, though without rise in rank. In the beginning he had, in his own quiet fashion, enjoyed the added authority and responsibility which had come to him. For the past 24 hours, however, he had not been enjoying it at all.
The orderly brought porridge, water biscuits and tea, and he downed them mechanically and without appetite. As he ate the other battalion officers straggled in and took their places at the table. First came Captain McGrath, black-haired, bullnecked and Irish; then three or four subalterns, the medical officer and the quartermaster; then Major Greathouse, Whitcomb’s second-in-command, a tall, hawk-nosed man with a cadaverous frame that gave the appearance of being held together by bits of wire and adhesive tape. Others followed and within 10 minutes they were all there.
WHITCOMB answered their good mornings with a friendly nod, but only when Lieutenant Atherton came in did his face break into a smile. Atherton was the youngest subaltern in the regiment, a slender, handsome, yellow-haired boy of 21, of whom the major had become very fond. Although already a
A moving story of men at war and the courage which knows that true heroism demands more than physical bravery
veteran of Tunisia and Sicily, and twice wounded, he faced each new day of drudgery and danger with an explosive enthusiasm that reminded Whitcomb of an Eton middle former heading out for the cricket crease. Hurrying into the mess tent now, he was still fumbling at the buttons of his tunic and breathing hard from his run across the orchard.
“All of a piece?” Whitcomb asked him.
“I think so, sir. Sorry I’m late, sir.”
The boy’s pink cheeks turned a shade pinker, and he bent to his porridge and tea. Whitcomb returned his gaze to the scarred table top, and the men ate their breakfast in silence. An air of waiting filled the tent.
“Nothing from Brigade, sir?” Greathouse asked at last.
Whitcomb shook his head.
“Have you been trying to get through to them?”
“Not yet. I thought you and I might have a bit of a look around first.”
Ten minutes later the two officers were jolting across the orchard in a light reconnaissance car and out onto a rutted tarmac road. The ground mist had lifted by now but the newly risen sun was hidden behind thick cloud banks, and the countryside lay desolately in colorless, watery twilight. They drove half a mile northward along the road, then swerved off into the rough and climbed the slope of a scrubby knoll. Just below the summit they stopped the car and got out. Continuing to the top on foot they crouched behind a low screen of brush and adjusted their binoculars
To the left of them were the easternmost ridges of the Apennines, to the right the flat wet slate of the Adriatic. Ahead, beyond the stream and a jumble of smaller hillocks, lay the empty coastal plain, bisected by the black ribbon of the road. The plain narrowed as it went, until it ended at a point, about two miles distant, at which a spur of the mountains curved sharply down to the sea. A deep notch in the spur marked the route of the road. On either side of it were steep forested slopes and the grey gleam of outcropping rock.
It was on this notch and the slopes above it that Whitcomb’s gaze was focused. For perhaps five minutes he held the binoculars ready, moving them clockwise in a slow, painstaking arc. Then he lowered them to his chest. For a few moments the two men looked at each other without speaking.
“Even more of them than yesterday,” Greathouse said.
Whitcomb nodded slowly.
“What do you think, sir?”
Whitcomb waited a moment before answering. His blue eyes were staring again into the distance, and there were taut, vertical lines in his chubby face. “I think we’re out on a limb,” he said. “And I think the limb’s getting ready to break.”
“Perhaps Brigade’s moving the tanks up to cover us.”
“Could be.” Whitcomb frowned. “Why haven’t they notified us, though?”
“Something will probably have come through by the time we get back.”
Whitcomb nodded a little. “If they’re sending the tanks up we’re all right.”
“They must be, sir. Brigade knows what it’s doing.”
“I hope so,” Whitcomb said.
He took another careful look through the binoculars. Then they descended the slope to the car and jolted back to the encampment in the orchard.
When he entered the wireless truck the corporal was still at the board, and Captain Spence, the signals officer, was sitting at the table beside him.
“Anything from Brigade?” Whitcomb asked.
“No, sir,” Spence said.
Whitcomb sat down at the table and wrote out a message. “Get this off to Brigade,” he said. “And notify me immediately when the answer comes through.”
Leaving the wireless truck he made his way through the orchard to the three-ton lorry that served as his mobile office. There was a stack of orders and requisitions on his desk, but he put them back in the wicker tray. “Ask the B.S.M. to report to me,” he told the orderly on duty.
He sat drumming softly on the table with his finger tips. After a few minutes there was the sound of footsteps in the outer cubicle of the lorry, and a moment later Battalion Sergeant Major Digges appeared. He was a man in his middle fifties, massive, but without fat, with a brick-red face and clipped iron-grey mustache. Entering the lorry from the muck of the shell-pocked orchard, he might, from his dress and bearing, have been coming off the parade ground at Aldershot. Kipling would have been proud of B.S.M. Digges; in Kipling’s absence Whitcomb was.
“Vehicles all roadworthy?” he asked.
“Ammunition and emergency rations distributed?”
“You will instruct all ranks to stand by for 10 minutes’ moving notice.”
The B.S.M.’s face showed neither curiosity nor surprise. “Very good, sir,” he said.
He saluted and withdrew. Whitcomb was reaching for the papers on the tray when Lieutenant Atherton
poked his head into the cubicle.
“May I speak wi^h you a second, sir?” he asked. The shadow of a smile crossed Whitcomb’s tired eyes. “Of course, Johnny.”
“It’s my turn for patrol this morning, sir. I know you’re worried about Jerry having a lot of stuff up on the ridge, and I was thinking perhaps you’d let me take the cars in a little closer than usual. Sort of— well—draw their fire a bit.”
Whitcomb shook his head dubiously.
“Don’t wbrry, sir, I won’t get nipped off or anything. We’d just duck in and duck out. It would be a good way to get an idea of their strength, don’t you think?”
“I’m afraid we know their strength pretty well.” “Their positions then. How their patrols are deployed and where their batteries are.”
“The patrols don’t matter. Besides they're always shifting them.” Whitcomb considered a moment. “If we could get a line on their main positions though . .
Atherton leaned forward eagerly. “We can do it, sir. I know we can.”
Again a smile touched Whitcomb’s eyes. “Still anxious to get your head blown off, aren’t you?” “Not a bit, sir. It’s just that—well—I’m sure it would be of help.”
For a few moments Whitcomb stared meditatively at the desk top; then he looked back at the blond, pink-cheeked boy. “Well, all right,” he said. “No damnfool chances, though.”
“Thank you, sir. And you needn’t worry—we’ll do the job right.”
“I’m not worrying.”
“Good.” In two steps the boy was at the entrance. “Well, cheerio, sir!”
Atherton saluted and went out. Whitcomb took the stack of papers from the wicker tray and stared absently at the topmost sheet. Presently he arose and went out to the tailboard of the lorry. Adjusting his binoculars he stood for several moments, staring through them at the grey spur of mountains to the north. Then he went back inside and began signing the orders and requisitions.
IT WAS perhaps 10 minutes later that Captain Spence appeared. Whitcomb regarded him questioningly, his blue eyes quick and keen. “Get through to them?” he asked.
“Didn’t have a chance, sir,” Spence said. “Message started coming in from them just after you left. I’ve been decoding it.”
Whitcomb took the slip of paper from his extended hand. “58th Armored Battalion,” the message read, “will attack enemy positions Alghesa Spur along Coastal Road 1400 hours this inst. Immaterial whether positions taken. Action designed as diversion from main attack tanks, Adjuano sector, 1600 hours.” It was signed by the brigade commander.
Whitcomb read the message through. Then he read it again, more slowly. Then he lighted a cigarette and sat for several moments, watching the blue smoke curl upward to the canvas top of the lorry. Finally he turned back to the desk, wrote briefly on a blank sheet of paper and handed the sheet to Spence. “Cancel the earlier message,” he told him, “and have this sent off at once. And be good enough to tell Major Greathouse and Captain McGrath that I should like to see them.”
He sat quietly smoking until the two officers arrived. When they came he handed them the message without comment and waited silently until they had finished reading. For a while no one said anything.
Greathouse moved a big hand slowly along the bony ridge of his jaw. “Nothing about reinforcements,” he said at last.
“Sounds as if there’s nothing to send,” said McGrath. “Everything else must be over at Adjuano for the main show.”
“They can’t have the foggiest about what Jerry’s got up on that spur.”
“We couldn’t hold him five minutes if he came down on us. Much less attack him.”
“A diversion—” Greathouse mused.
The two men fell silent, their eyes on WhitcomlJ. “I’ve already sent word back,” he said.
“What did you tell them, sir?”
“I told them it was impossible.”
“Well, suicidal then. Insane.”
“You gave it right to them, then?”
“Yes, I gave it right to them.”
There was another silence. Whitcomb looked at his
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watch and stood up. “The B.S.M. has the men standing by,” he said. “I’ll be at the wireless if you need me.”
Clambering into the wireless truck a few minutes later he found Captain Spence, the corporal and a technical sergeant hunched together over the control board.
“Getting through?” he asked.
“Not yet, sir,” Spence said. Whitcomb saw that his face was tense and drawn.
“A bit, sir. We’re receiving all right but—” He paused and looked questioningly at the sergeant. The man shook his head slowly.
“But what?” Whitcomb asked.
“I’m afraid the sender’s conked out, sir.”
No one said anything. There was a metallic clank as the corporal dropped a bolt to the floor and stooped to retrieve it.
“You don’t think you can fix it?” Whitcomb said quietly.
“We’ll keep on trying.”
“It’s one of the cathodes, I’m afraid, sir,” the sergeant said. “We ’aven’t no proper replacements.”
“We’ll keep trying,” Spence repeated.
Whitcomb nodded slowly. “I’ll be in my office,” he said.
As he retraced his steps through the orchard he saw that the tents were being struck, gear stowed, motors revved. Reaching the office truck he instructed the orderly to send for a dispatch rider. Then he entered his private cubicle, sat down at the desk and wrote out another message. He had just completed it when there was the sound of a motorcycle outside, and a moment later the dispatch rider appeared.
“This is for Brigade HQ,” Whitcomb said, handing him the folded square of paper. “You will deliver it to Brigadier Collier in person and report back immediately with his return message. Brigade is at map reference 824.651, about two miles east of the Adjuano road. Are the instructions clear?”
“Speed is important.”
“Very good, sir.”
The D.R. saluted and withdrew. Whitcomb listened to the dwindling sound of his motorcycle. When it was gone he sat for a long time staring absorbedly at the sparse, gingery hairs on the backs of his hands.
THE morning wore on. The invisible sun crept slowly across the sky behind the sodden clouds. Around 10 it rained. The rain did not last long and when it stopped the sky remained overcast. A thin line of white showed on the crests of the mountains to the north and west.
It was quiet in the orchard now. The battalion had struck its tents and stowed its gear, the vehicles had been fueled and greased, and the men were ready, waiting. A few were still busy with oiled rags at their rifles and machine guns. Some played blackjack and crown and anchor on the steel floors of the armored cars. Most of them stood leaning against the sides of their cars, smoking issue cigarettes and staring abstractedly at the grey olive trees and the grey mud.
There was an indefinable air of expectancy about them, as with any group of men waiting for something to happen. But there was no tautness, no visible evidence of strain. This was a veteran battalion. It had attacked many times and withdrawn many times across half the breadth of Africa and
half the length of Italy. It had had its victories and its defeats. It had had its dead and had buried them. Old taces had gone and new ones had come in their place, but the core remained and the core was sound. It was steady and professional. And it was proud.
Earlier in the morning the rumor had been that they were withdrawing. Now it was that they would attack. The men oiled their guns and smoked their evil - smelling cigarettes and slapped their cards down profanely on the steel floors of their cars. They would find out soon enough.
At 10, 10.30 and even 11 Major Whitcomb tramped across the orchard to the wireless truck. Leaving it for the third time he went to his sleeping tent, got his toilet kit from the bedding roll, poured a cupful of water from his canteen and began to shave. It was the first day since he had been a commissioned officer in His Majesty’s Army that he had not shaved before breakfast.
A half-written letter lay on an upended packing box in a corner, and after a few minutes his batman, Barrows, appeared and headed toward it. He stopped abruptly, however, when he saw the major. “May I ’elp you, sir?” he asked.
“Thank you, no, Barrows,” Whitcomb said. “Go on with your letter.”
The man hesitated a moment, then squatted down beside the packing box and continued writing. Whitcomb’s eyes wandered from the steel square of his mirror and watched him speculatively.
“Your wife?” he asked.
“Are you writing your wife?”
For a few minutes the only sounds in the tent were the thin scraping of razor and pen.
“Do you mind telling me what you’re writing her?” Whitcomb said.
Barrows looked at him in surprise. “Why—er—no, sir. It’s about—well —” he cleared his throat self-consciously, “—about them old Roman ruins we saw the other day.”
“Not about the war? Or killing? Or getting killed?”
There was another silence. Whitcomb pulled his two and a half chins taut against his jawbone and stroked slowly down along his throat.
“Doesn’t that seem to you a strange thing to be writing about right now?” he asked.
“Strange? How do you mean, sir?” “The battalion is moving at two o’clock. You know that, don’t you?” “Yes, sir.”
“Our orders are to attack.”
“I’ve heard that, sir.”
“In a little more than two hours we’ll be in combat. We’ll be fighting for our lives, or, vary possibly, be dead. And it doesn’t seem strange to you that with that prospect in view you’re sitting there writing your wife about Roman ruins and I’m standing here shaving as if I were getting ready to be presented at court?”
Barrows ran a puzzled hand through his hair. “Well now, sir—”
“A lot of people think we British are queer ducks, Barrows. Perhaps they’re right.”
“Wouldn’t be surprised, sir.”
“And on the other hand, perhaps—” Whitcomb paused, looking meditatively into the tiny mirror. “Do you consider yourself a brave man, Barrows?” he asked.
“ ’Oo, me?” Barrows looked closely at the major to see if he were joking. “No, sir—I don’t.”
“Do you consider most of the men
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you know brave? The men in this
battalion, for instance?”
“No, sir. A few maybe, here and there. Most of them are just blokes, same as myself.”
“They don’t want to get killed, do
“Not if they can ’elp it.”
“And neither do you.”
“ ’Ell no, sir.”
“Then what is it that makes them go ahead, if it isn’t courage? You, me, all of us? What keeps us shaving, and writing letters about Roman ruins, and playing crown and anchor, and wondering who’s going to win the Grand National, when we know that by this afternoon, as likely as not, we’ll be nothing but some pieces of burnt-up mincemeat in some Italian ditch?”
“It’s just not letting yourself get too stewed up, I guess, sir. Not—well— thinking too much. You get your orders. You do what you ’ave to do. You do what everybody else is doing.” “And you don’t call that courage?” “No, sir.”
“What is courage then?”
“Well—” Barrows paused a moment, his eyes squinted in thought. “It’s almost the opposite in a way, I’d say, sir. It’s what a bloke’s got to ’ave when ’e’s alone. It’s when you’re alone, that’s it, and there’s nobody to tell you what to do and nobody else doing it. When it’s just you and something you ’ave to do, and you’re so bloody alone » and scared you can’t, but you know you ’ave to and by God you do.” He stopped abruptly, as if suddenly astonished at the flow of his own words. “I’m not much of a ’and at explaining things, sir. Maybe you see what I mean, though.”
It was an appreciable time before Whitcomb answered. “Yes, Barrows,” he said at last. “I think I see what you mean.”
He finished shaving in silence and rinsed his face from a clean cup of water.
“About those ruins,” he said. “Your wife might be interested in knowing they were built by the Emperor Caligula in the First Century.”
Whitcomb spelled it for him. Then he left the tent.
IT WAS about an hour later that the senior battalion officers assembled in the office truck. Whitcomb waited until they were all there; then he began speaking in a low even voice.
“I’ve called you together, gentlemen, because of the very unusual nature of the situation in which we find ourselves. For the past 24 hours the battalion has been in what I consider to be a dangerously untenable position. The enemy has been massing a large concentration of fire power on the ridge ahead, and if he should decide to come down at us it would be a very bad show indeed. Early this morning I prepared a message to Brigade to this effect and urgently requested either reinforcements or permission to withdraw. Before this message could be sent, however, word arrived from Brigade, ordering us to attack the enemy positions at 1400 hours today. This attack, the order stated, was to be in the nature of a diversion from the main attack by our tanks at 1600 hours in the Adjuano area.”
He paused a moment and went on:
“I immediately tried to contact Brigade to point out to them the—well —impracticability of the order, but ! unfortunately our wireless has gone out of commission and we’ve been I unable to get through. Meanwhile I’ve sent out a dispatch rider, with instrucI tions that speed is imperative. It is
extremely unlikely, however, that he will be able to complete the round trip by 1400 hours.”
Whitcomb stopped and looked from one to another of the officers. No one spoke.
“There are just two other things I wish to point out to you,” he said. “The first is that with our equipment and in this terrain the only sort of attack possible is a frontal one, along the road. The second is that this attack is designed as a diversion. It is supposed to draw enemy troops away from our main objective around Adjuano. Unfortunately, however, it hasn’t the remotest chance of accomplishing this end. The enemy has enough fire power up on that spur right now to destroy five battalions like ours. And he knows it.”
There was another silence.
“It’s as bad as that, sir?” Major Greathouse said.
“I’m afraid it is.”
“Looks as though we’re in for it, then.”
Whitcomb nodded slowly. “If we attack,” he said.
“We don’t necessarily have to attack.”
“You mean—we might ignore the order?”
A shocked stillness came over the gathered men. Greathouse semed about to speak, but no words came.
“You don’t agree with me, I see,” Whitcomb said quietly.
“How about you, McGrath?”
The bullnecked Irishman stared back at him with stony eyes. “I’m a soldier, sir,” he said.
“That an order’s an order, sir.”
“And the rest of you?”
No one answered.
Whitcomb crushed out the cigarette he had been smoking and breathed in audibly. “I’m sorry,” he said. “This makes it all the harder.”
“You mean you—” Greathouse broke off. His face was incredulous.
“I mean that I refuse to butcher the men of this battalion, uselessly and hopelessly.”
“You intend simply to stay here?”
“I believe we should stay here until we have an answer to my message to Brigade. If the enemy attacks before that I believe we should withdraw.”
It was Spence, the signals officer, who spoke next. “But my God, sir,” he blurted suddenly. “We can’t!”
“We can if we choose to.”
“But it isn’t just us, sir. Think of the battalion—of its reputation—” “The battalion is exactly what I’m thinking of. And the battalion, to my way of thinking, isn’t just an accumulation of citations, battle honors and records in the files of the War Office. Among other things it’s composed of human beings.”
“You’ve considered what Brigade will say?” Greathouse put in.
“And Division? And the whole Army?”
“I’m the commanding officer of the unit. I’m willing to take the responsibility.”
“And the rest of us?”
“Have no responsibility.”
“That’s all very well to say, sir. But a thing like this will reflect on every officer and man in the battalion.”
“I should think that, if anything, it would reflect our common sense and initiative.”
“I’m afraid that’s not what they’ll call it, sir.”
“It’s not what I’d call it either,” McGrath said. “It’s not what it is.”
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“What is it then, Mac?”
For a moment McGrath’s eyes remained on the floor. Then he looked straight at Whitcomb, and his voice, when he spoke, was flat and hard.
“It’s running away,” he said. Whitcomb did not answer. He sat motionlessly behind his table, but his hands were curved around its edges and the knuckles were white. The flesh of his chubby face seemed suddenly to have gone tight over his cheekbones. “Gentlemen,” he began at last . . . He did not get any farther. There was the sound of a car stopping outside and the thumping of feet on the tailboard of the truck. A moment later Lieutenant Atherton appeared in the entrance of the inner cubicle. Behind him were the figures of two armed and helmeted soldiers.
“Reporting back, sir,” he said, saluting.
Whitcomb returned the salute. “Did you make contact?” lie asked.
“What is the enemy’s most advanced position?”
“Along the road, about halfway up to the notch. Map reference 831.662.” Whitcomb consulted a map on the table. “How far did you get?”
“About a half mile beyond them.”
“We managed to break through after a bit of a brush, sir.”
“You told me to find their main positions if I could. The only way was by going ahead.”
“But to attack them—with a single squad—”
“We knew how important it was, sir. We—we didn’t want to let you down.” As the boy spoke Whitcomb noticed that he was leaning against the framework of the entrance in a peculiarly awkward position. His face, under its caking of dried mud, was paper white. Suddenly he stopped talking and his knees sagged slowly.
Whitcomb got up and went to him. “You’ve been hit,” he said.
“Just caught a bit of iron, sir.”
From where Whitcomb stood now he could see the wound. A jagged shrapnel fragment had apparently struck Atherton’s right side, toward the back, and the whole area from hip to armpit was a jelly of blood and shredded clothing.
Whitcomb looked angrily at the two soldiers behind him. “Why didn’t you take him to the dressing station?” he demanded.
“We wanted to, sir,” one of them said. “ ’E insisted he ’ad to report to you first, though.”
“Well, get him there as fast as you can.”
“I’m all right, sir. It’s nothing, really.” The boy had grasped the frame of the entrance and was holding himself up. “The main enemy positions are at 83£.664—along the road and on the slopes above. There seem to be a lot of them, but—”
He stopped suddenly and retched, his forehead glistening with sweat. The two soldiers ducked their heads and took his weight on their shoulders.
“But they’re jittery, sir,” he went on. The words blurred into each other and his voice was scarcely audible. “They may have the guns but they haven’t the guts. We’ll be all right, sir. The old 58th will show them, by God! We’ll smash through them like — like—”
He began retching again and his head drooped slowly forward. At a signal from Whitcomb the two soldiers helped him out, and a moment later there was the sound of a car driving away.
There was absolute stillness in the cubicle. Whitcomb turned back to his
chair, sat down and stared for a few moments at the backs of his hands. The others remained motionless, watching him.
Presently he raised his head. “Orderly,” he called.
A soldier appeared from outside. “Please ask the sergeant major to report to me.”
The soldier withdrew. Again there was silence in the cubicle. Then came the sound of footsteps on the tailboard and the B.S.M. Digges entered and saluted.
“The men are on 10 minutes’ notice?” Whitcomb asked.
“You will have the vehicles distributed in road formation. The battalion will be ready to move at 1400 hours.”
“To attack or to withdraw, sir?”
“To attack,” said Major Whitcomb.
AP 1358 hours the staff sergeant commanding Armored Car No. 1 of the First Company, First Platoon, was surprised to see his battalion commander walking toward him through the grey mud of the orchard. He was still more surprised when the major came directly to the side of the car, and, in spite of his weight, swung himself lightly up into the turret.
“I shall be riding with you, Staff,” Whitcomb said.
“There are no buts about it, Staff. I want to be with the First Platoon today.”
“Very good, sir,” said the sergeant. Whitcomb turned, facing the echelon of vehicles behind him, and looked at his wrist watch. He raised an arm high above his head and lowered it slowly. “Very well, Staff,” he said quietly. “You may start now.”
A blue haze of exhaust fumes rose languidly from the orchard and the hum of revving motors filled the still air. One by one, platoon by platoon, company by company, the long columns of squat grey vehicles crept out from the screen of silvery olive trees and turned their blunt, bristling snouts to the north.
Now the whole great motorcade was moving forward. Some moved along the shining black tarmac of the road, others along the paths and lanes that crisscrossed the neighboring fields, still others, bucking and weaving, across the fields themselves. Looking back Whitcomb could see the whole battalion spread out behind him. The First Company -Platoons 1, 2 and 3; the Second Company; the Third. The Headquarters Company, with his own staff car in its centre. Last of all the thin-skinned vehicles: the ammunition and petrol lorries, the kitchens and water carts, the ambulances and the wireless truck. As they advanced the sun, as if by a theatrically prearranged signal, emerged from behind the clouds for the first time that day. Its light fell in lambent shafts across the forlorn countryside. It danced on the dun steel of armor and guns. It glittered, proud and shining, on the red and blue and green pennons of the command cars.
It was like some medieval pageant, Whitcomb thought—like a host of plumed knights, moving picturesquely against the walls of a beleaguered castle. He turned his eyes away.
The black ribbon of the road slipped away beneath them. The brown slopes of the Alghesa spur moved slowly toward them across the empty fields. Presently the ground began to rise. They were no longer on the open plain but in a narrowing valley, climbing gently upward to the notch between
the hills. Whitcomb signalled to the cars behind him to converge in toward the road. Ahead and above now he could see the slanting belt of forest and the grey gleam of bare rock. The road began to twist and the tires of the car whined on the gravelled tar.
The gunner in the turret beside Whitcomb crouched taut and still, waiting. Whitcomb waited too. They rounded a sharp curve, sped along a short boulder - lined straightaway, slowed for another curve.
Then it came!
There was a bright, sudden flash on the slope above; then another and another, until the whole hillside leaped with darting flame. An avalanche of sound and light seemed to be cascading down upon them. A shell passed overhead, shredding the air with its thin scream. A second exploded in an orange glare a few yards ahead on the road, raising a black geyser of smoke and hurtling fragments.
“Drive through ’em!” Whitcomb heard his voice shouting. “It’s the only chance. Straight through!”
A red roar blotted out the sky. The steel floor of the turret was no longer beneath his feet. The gunner was gone. The road was gone. He seemed to be half in and half out of the turret, sprawled grotesquely across the slanting steel plate of the car’s roof. He tried to crawl to his feet but nothing happened. He tried to shift his position
but could not move. He lay listening to the soft, pleasing, familiar sound that was coming nearer and nearer—(was it a stream flowing, he wondered idly, or his wife, Florence, calling?)—and he closed his eyes.
He did not see the cars plunging past him: bucking, exploding, burning. He did not see the mud-caked dispatch rider leaping from his motorcycle at the end of the shattered column and handing a message from Brigade to Captain Spence. He did not see Spence reading the message or the tears of anger and frustration that ran in dirty channels down his cheeks.
THEY gave him the Victoria Cross.
On an early spring day a few months later the widow of Major Frederic Whitcomb stood in a gilt and velvet audience room in Buckingham Palace and received from the hand of the King the highest honor it is in the power of the Empire to bestow. “Your husband was a hero, madam,” he said to her.
The King said it. The newspapers and radio said it. Civilians and fighting men said it. A whole nation said it. Indeed, there was only one man in all the world who, had he been there, might have raised a quizzical, gingery eyebrow and politely pointed out to His Majesty that there had perhaps been some slight mistake.
But Tubby Whitcomb was not there