The killing ground
A MACLEAN’S NOVELETTE COMPLETE IN THIS ISSUE
The engine was dead. There were only two shells left.
The Panzers were sweeping toward them.
And they were trapped, right in the middle of
THE attack lasted two days more, the rain three. The bridge had gone down before the rear-guard armor was across; but the infantry was already fighting its way into the bridgehead on the east bank of the Odon, and held its positions. The second night had been the worst; men had died in it, as yet uncountably. On this third day flank elements were mopping up toward the Gillarme Ridge, and battalions were counting their strength. There were gaps in the lists of men and tanks and guns that startled the jaded commanders. The action was won, but the price had made it a most wicked luxury.
Of C Squadron, ten tanks were still on their tracks, but only four were fit to fight on. Three were missing. No one had seen them.
Major Knowles was in a dugout a mile from the wreck of the bridge. It had contained a dozen German officers, ten of them dead, one dying and one crazed. They had been here under the bombardment of the British and Canadian guns and under the dawn attack, today, of a squadron of rocket-firing Typhoons that had made the breach for the ground forces.
But the field telephone still worked. It had rung, an hour ago, and Knowles answered it. The caller asked in German what the position was in that area. Knowles suggested to him, in English, that he come to see for himself. The line had closed abruptly.
He looked up at his second-in-command.
“Number Three, Two Troop?”
“Missing. Being looked for now.”
“I hope so.”
Captain Hallett said, “It’s that bloody river. We know that two of them drove into it in the rain.” He waited for the next question, his body aching to the point of collapse, his eyes squeezing water when he blinked their hot red lids.
“You’d better go and fall down somewhere. Jim.”
“I'm all right.”
“You're half dead. Too much Benzedrine.”
“Well, it got me this far.”
“The main thing,” Knowles said wearily, “is that a lot of us have got this far. Enough of us to establish the bridgehead they asked for.” He dropped his hands onto the lists of the present and the absent names. The paper was wet, like everything else. It had been raining through their bodies and into their souls for days on end. “At least. I suppose it’s the main thing.” He sounded as if he didn't care.
Hallett leaned his wet shoulders against the wet wall.
“We’re passing into reserve,
“If they don’t change their minds.” “But they haven’t yet, as far as you know?”
“Not as far as I know.”
“D’you think they’re going to?”
Major Knowles got up. “Who the hell knows?” He lurched against the trestle table. “The attack has been successful. The bridgehead has been established. The infantry will hold it. Stores are coming across. So we’re in clover, aren’t we?” Hallett’s pinched wet face was distorted by a grin.
"If this is clover, what’s a nettle bed like?”
"Bloody rough. Now get out of here and go to sleep. It makes me feel like the tag end of an air raid just to look at you.”
"You seen yourself?”
Knowles sat down again, collapsing into the chair. “I’ve got to carry on for a bit. You haven’t. So just Hit, will you?” Hallett stretched, shifting the ache in his muscles to new areas. “There’s still a bit I can do. Bob. If you want me, I'll be somewhere handy.”
He left the dugout, worrying over the missing tanks. If a tank was wrecked, it was a write-off and he could forget it; but if it was missing, it might be anywhere, perhaps with a crew still aboard who needed help, desperately.
Sergeant Verity met him, red-eyed, mud-caked, halting smartly and standing rock-steady. "We’ve found two of ’em sir. Mr. Jackson an’ Sergeant Tiefe.”
The rain dripped from Hallett’s tin hat. He asked. “What’s their shape. Sergeant?”
“Mr. Jackson’s bogged down at the foot of the ridge, sir. There’s an ARV trying to pull 'im clear. Crew’s okay.”
I he captain nodded. So the other one wasn’t okay.
"What about the other one?”
"It’s brewed up, sir, half a mile down the river. None of ’em got out.”
Hallett nodded again, remembering the major’s hands as they dropped wearily across the lists. “That leaves Corporal Pike still missing.”
“Yes, sir. We’re still searchin’.”
"When did you sleep last. Sergeant?” “I don’t remember, sir.”
“Does it bother you?”
"Nothing special. We’re goin’ into re* serve, aren’t we, sir?”
“Don't bank on it. I’ve heard nothin; definite, but I don’t like the smell here. For a bridgehead this size, there doesn't seem much support yet.”
"Oh, it’ll get here. We’re all right. 1 hear there’s some mail cornin’ through."
“Mail?” It took time to remember what the word meant. The envelope, the stamp, her writing. My dearest Jim.
"Be all right, with a bit o’ mail, eh, sir?”
"Yes. Those of us who—” he straightened himself, aware that his body had been sagging oddly. “Yes. May the Lord look sideways on the Army Post Office.” The late-afternoon skyline was melting in front of his eyes, the light blinding him. He squeezed his eyes and opened them again; the horizon steadied.
“—along the river, sir?”
"What?” He straightened his shoulders again. He felt like a fly sliding down a window.
“Shall I take some men and search along the river, sir?”
“'The recovery unit's out. Thcy'li pick, them up sooner or later. You get your men easy, and let ’em sleep.”
Sergeant Verity was still standing steady as a post. Hallett was annoyed with him for that. He turned away with a nod, trying to walk straight, trying to remember where he had to walk. He heard the sergeant squelching away through the mud. There shouldn’t be men like Knowles and Verity. You couldn’t let yourself break until they did; and they never would.
A tank plowed slowly through the rain, almost blind, its wireless gone. This was the Top Dog
The raindrops hit his tin hat with the noise of someone hammering rivets in. He walked as far as the nearest camouflage net, did not see it, walked slowly into it and used his last pinched reserves in trying to free himself from the mesh. Then he sagged onto it, face down, prone, thought the fly on the window had found a spider’s web, and slept.
EVENING came early, a slow seeping away of the light from the sky. The river ran steel-grey through its banks, the water still rising, rushing more fiercely through the tangled wreckage of the bridge and collecting debris against it, running on smoothly below the big pontoon where the echelon trucks had crossed minutes ago.
The garrison of the bridgehead was partly at rest, partly alert. Reports of the enemy were coming in quickly from observers and scout parties. The Panzers had drawn back to a ten-mile line that in places touched the river, enclosing the bridgehead in a rough arc, so that in places the British and Canadians slept exhausted within a few hundred yards of the exhausted and sleeping enemy.
A second telephone call had reached C Squadron Headquarters before the Royal Signals had cut the line and reconnected it. The caller had said, in poor English, “You are being contained by vastly superior forces who are about to make an overwhelming attack and annihilate you to a man. You will be wise to surrender immediately, and save the lives of your troops.” Major Knowles, stirring a mug of thick black coffee, had answered, in poor German. “You will please keep this line clear of unimportant messages, as we are busy organizing a dance.”
The evening was quiet, but there was tension. Patrols were out from both sides, and at intervals there came a rattle of gunfire or a mortar salvo, tinging the rainscape with red and making the ground tremble. Tanks were on the move, finding a late harbor, or reconnoitering in small groups on roving commissions; and throughout the bridgehead, armored recovery vehicles and shifts of REM Es were working hard, salvaging tanks that were bogged down, crippled or abandoned. In the lowering dark, the work was difficult.
One British fighting tank, still on the missing list, was plowing slowly through the rain, driving almost blind with its wireless broken down. It had been moving for an hour, turning laboriously at tangents to the main direction, finding its way again and then losing it, bogging in the mud and struggling clear, with its commander and crew fighting nothing more deadly than exhaustion. Minute by minute it was beating them down, implacable and overwhelming. This tank was Top Dog.
The co-driver, Soaper, was asleep in the forward compartment, lolling with a doll’s inertness against the headplates. The driver, Luff, had stopped talking to him, seeing he was asleep, but felt no loss of companionship or support. Soaper was no help to anyone, awake or asleep; he was a dead weight in the tank, a bit of ballast. Nor was Luff disgusted with him. When the point came when he could no longer drive his tank through this God-forsaken wilderness of blinding muck, there would be no one else aboard who could take over. He could outwork them all. He stared through the driving slit at the rain, at the lift and fall of the ground and the ghosts of trees that swayed past him, coming out of the silence and losing their way, wandering back as the tank turned again, trying to find the river. Then the engine stopped. Luff tried to restart it.
The engine stopped. “We got trouble," said Pike. “You ask me," said Luff, “we're not safe here"
“ ’Ave a look,” said Corporal Pike briefly. Luff had a look at the engine. “Timing gear’s stripped.”
Pike said after a moment, “That’s our lot, then.”
“Well, we can’t move. It’s a replacement job.”
Pike nodded. Top Dog stood within fifty yards of a wood, facing cast. There was good cover there, but they couldn’t reach it. Behind him a crack of the sky was lightening, even as late as this.
Under the turret Lance-Corporal Munro was crouched on the occasional seat, head going down, jerking up, nodding again, lifting. His eyes came open as Pike said, “Well, we got trouble, an’ that’s that.”
The gunner, Weston, leaned against the breech, one fond arm draped over it. The metal was cold. The gun had not fired for three hours; the drops of rain fell without sound, without their tisstiss-tiss on the warm metal. He felt the loss. He did not like a cold gun. He said to the corporal, “Is that all we got? Trouble?”
“We’re lost,” said Pike.
Pike sank down onto his little platform, dangling his legs, looking at Munro in the gloom. “Can’t you get that wireless workin’, Gutsy?”
“Valves are duff.” Munro’s head had jerked up again; his answer was automatic; he had known the question would come as soon as they stopped, and he had rehearsed the answer many times during the long dark grind.
“Ain’t we go no spares?”
“I’ve used three. Others’re bust.”
“Well this is a turn-up, this is.”
“I thought that’s what it was,” said Weston without spirit.
Gunfire began again, north of them. Small echoes were broken off by the turret rim and rang inside the tank. Trooper Luff appeared again in the hatchway, jamming his shoulders there and looking at the three blurred faces among the familiar shadows. “You ask me,” he said, “we’re not safe here.” “What a shame,” said Weston.
Their commander said, “Position is, we don’t know where we are, we got no engine, an’ no wireless.”
Munro said: “Then let’s have a fag.” Weston gave him one, and the glare of the match dazzled them, lighting the confines of the turret with its blinding flame. The corporal said, “Why don’t you send a festerin’ rocket up, so Jerry knows where we are? Be brighter than a match.”
“I'll send a rocket up in a minute,” said Weston, “an’ it won’t have far to go.” He gave Pike a cigarette, keeping the match going for him. When it went out they could see nothing but the three red spots of their cigarettes against the dark.
“You want a fag, Luffy?”
“Nope. Fresh air’s what I want.”
“Go an' get it then, boy.”
Luff looked at the pale blur that was the corporal’s face. “Okay, Corp?”
“Okay. Go careful, though.”
F I THEY heard their driver drop to the A grass. There was no mud here, for they were on a gentle slope that ran down to the east bank of the river, and nothing had passed this way to churn up the ground. Feeling the soft grass springy under his feet. Luff pulled his boots off, and his socks, and walked slowly round the tank, watching the trees, the gunfire, the widening crack of light in the west sky. He wanted to call out to the others, about how good his feet felt, cool on the soft wet grass. It was marvelous, he thought, how easy it was to find ecstasy in the midst of its opposite. You take your boots off and suddenly feel like this, floating about with your heart free, just because of a bit of wet grass; it was marvelous.
He walked in wider circles, going directly away from Top Dog, his eyes halfshut, his feet nuzzling through the cool sweet miracle, his mind trying to pretend that the tank had gone, the war had gone, the battlefield agonies draining away and somewhere very far a bugle fading, leaving him alone here to wander where he liked, to lie fiat with his face turned to the healing kiss of the grass, or sit against a tree and watch the light in the sky there in the west, and think of what he liked, or of nothing, letting the soft touch of the rain cool his body and soothe his eyes while he drew the slow air into his lungs, deep and deep until its sweetness filled him and he fell asleep.
A close salvo from two mortars punched the wind and the bombs burst short, blossoming in the gloom. He turned his head. They had fired from the east; the bombs had burst in the west; he stood halfway along their trajectory, some quarter mile from its path. The answer came from a tank gun, west to east. He waited, w'orried, turning to catch the location of small-arms fire as a patrol opened up and was engaged.
The smell was in the breeze, driving away the last hope of pretending that the war had passed beyond: it had everything, that raw metallic smell, to whip the memory up and send it spinning among the past, tripping on a friend’s death, looking askance at men with mouths and bowels open to the half-second of fear before the obliteration and the blinding and the squirt of blood. Other smells, other memories: the kindly tang of tea, reminding of a snatched rest and a brew-up with your mates; the first pull at a fag. half an car to a smutty joke, good for a laugh at any price; the heady scent of wild (lowers, almost bewildering in its power to send you sailing away through the miles and weeks to the bit of a garden where the peas were nearly up, and the watering can still leaked its homely piddle over the moss in the path—but this smell, this raw-gutted stink of cordite and phosphorus, made you sick in your memory. It was here now.
He swung round as a big gun banged, firing west from a tree belt a mile down the slope. Firing west, from west of where he stood.
Someone was moving about, near him. “Lu fry?”
“Hello?” He had cupped his hands, pitching his voice without shouting.
“See that, did you?” It was Weston. When he came up, I.ufT said. "I told you, we’re not safe here.”
"We’re right among bloody Jerry, eh?” “Right there, mate. Does Alf know?” "He’ll’ve heard that gun. We better get back.”
They looked up. Corporal Pike was between them and the tank. "Stop shoutin’ the bloody odds! We’re up be’ind Jerry!” I hey went toward him in the grey light. Above them the cap of cloud that had covered the sky for three days was drawing cast, and the twilight was sharpening. Pike said softly, "Keep near the tank, ready to ’op in. You know where we are, eh?”
"Up a creek,” said I.ufT.
"What you doin’ with them boots oil?” “Paddlin’.”
Pike creased his face up. "Now listen. You ear anythin’, you report to me, see? Don’t matter what it is—guns or shoutin’ or transport—you come an’ tell me. We got to get our bearin’s, quick.”
Munro was leaning with his back to the tank, smoking. He said. "We'll have to get out of here, Alf."
"Where to? It’s better to stop ere with Top Dog than go walkin' straight into Jerry.”
"Well, I’m willin’ to take a chance.” Luff said, “Don’t talk daft, Gutsy. At least we’ve got three guns an’ some armor plate, here. Corp’s right.”
“I’m not only right,” said Pike reasonably, "I'm the geezer that gives the orders, too. Where’s bleedin’ Soaper?”
“Still inside, kippin’.”
"Get ’im out an’ give ’im some fresh air.” He looked at Weston. "George, how’s the ammo?”
“Five rounds in the gun, an’ two Besa belts. An’ a few grenades.”
"They won’t get us far.”
“They’ll have to get us as far as we got to go.”
Pike turned as Soaper came over the side and pitched onto the grass. "What’s on, then, Corp?”
"We’re on enemy territory. 1 don’ ’ave to tell you more’n that, do I?”
Soaper got up slowly, staring at the corporal. "Enemy territ’ry?”
“Oh God. Oh God.” He said it softly. “ ’E won’t ’elp. neither. ’E’s got quite enough on 'Is ’ands. Now get some air in your lungs.” He dropped his dog-end and stamped on it, then put his head up. face to the sky. “You know what? It’s stopped rainin’.”
Pike lifted the palm of his hand, and then looked down, saying softly, "Look at that, then.” He sounded awed, a witness to a miracle. “It’s stopped. It's bloody stopped.”
Weston stood in his drenched uniform, holding his drenched boots. "We’re goin' to miss it. you know.”
Munro shook his head. "I don’t think I'm goin' to be able to stand it.”
Half the sky now was clear, and half cloud still; but the cloud was drawing eastward, leaving the first two stars.
"Why can’t we go?” It was a whisper from Soaper. He was still staring at Pike. They looked at him. "We’ve got to get out of here.” He was crouched a little; the tension in his body was visible. "Why can't we go?” He shut his mouth hard on the last word; they heard the tremor in his breath.
"We'll go. mate,” said Pike, "when we’re ready.” It was kindly said, without a hint of contempt.
"They said they’re not takin’ prisoners. C orp. Corp.”
"It ain't true. It's to scare us, see?” Soaper jerked badly as another mortar salvo banged, and Luff gave a laugh. Pike looked at him and said. “Shuddup.” He turned back to Soaper. "See what you c’n find in the way of camouflage nettin’, kid, back on the racks. An' then start ’angin’ it out. All right?”
It was embarrassing to hear the thin tone of fright in his voice. "But we can't stay here. We can't stay, Corp.”
"You just get the scrim, an' put it up." He turned away before Soaper could say anything. “Munro, you an' Luff start diggin’, under the rear, good and deep. And watch out you don’t hit any metal with the spades. It’s goner be a n:ce peaceful night, see?”
They moved, and Soaper moved with them, calmed by their easy obedience.
Standing very close to Weston, the corporal said. "Listen. George. 1 don’t think much of our chances ’ere. but we got to stay. If Jerry comes, we fight it out. There’s not much ammo, but it’ll ’ave to do.”
"What’s going to happen in the morning, Alf?”
"For one thing, we shall ’ave ’ad some sleep. We need it, bad. And if we get a bit o’ luck we can look after Top Dog till our lot take this area. I’m not ’andin' a good tank to blcedin’ Jerry, for the sake of a crocked engine. Not Top Dog, any’ow.”
Weston stubbed out his cigarette. "Okay then, Alf."
"There’s one more thing. Don’t chivvy Soaper. ’E's scared, we all know that, but don't go anti make it worse lor the lot of us.”
"Now go an' check the guns, mate. We may want ’em.”
WESTON climbed into the turret, careful with his boots. Inside, he found his gym shoes among the clutter and put them on. He didn't have to check the guns. They were ready. He sat for a minute on Munro's seat, looking up at the sky through the turret, thinking how like a well it looked with the pale light shimmering in its circle of dark. It was strange not to hear the rain. Other sounds came, in the pauses of the gunfire. Outside, Soaper was dragging some scrim over the gun barrel; he sounded like a mouse trying to get in through the wainscoting. And tnere was the soft thud of spades behind the tank, reminding him of the burial parties on the way from the coast to here. This could be another, by the morning.
The rapid pum-pum-pum of mortaring filled the well of the sky. beating against his ears, and the rim of the turret reddened with light, seconds afterwards. He was suffering an almost physical itch to use his guns, to bang a round into his six-pounder and punch it out. He felt strong when he was sitting there with an eye to the sights, waiting for the order. It was when he loved Top Dog most: when she barked. There might be a chance tonight; it might even be their only chance of staying alive. He had no thoughts about whether Jerry would take prisoners or kill out of hand; his confidence that Jerry could do neither was in his gun. When the racks were empty, he might feel different; but that could wait.
His head nodded, and he brought it up sharply, getting off the seat. The air was stale in here, warm with the oil smell and the rough scent of the spent cases in the bag behind the gun. It was a scent he loved; whenever he smelt it it was always from his own gun, to his mind. He climbed onto the commander’s platform, and looked out over the rim. Nearly all the cloud had gone; there must be a fast high wind up there, chasing east through the night. Down here there was not much more than a breeze, fresh with the wet grass and smelling of corn. It was a lovers’ night, star-eyed and timeless, false as Delilah, its deceit exposed by the flicker of guns across the wood and the slow throb of a spotter plane.
He could see Pike standing some way from the tank, alone. Pike would have to get them through this night; he didn’t envy him.
Soaper was struggling with the camouflage netting, and Weston dropped to the grass and went to help him. Soaper said quietly, “Corp mus’ be mad.”
“We won't have a chance when they come.”
“We got ammo, haven’t we?”
“Five rounds? What’s the use of that?”
“You can do a lot with five rounds. And there’s the Besas.”
“You’re all mad, lettin’ him get away with this.”
Weston shut up, pulling at the scrim; it was heavy with rain water and badly torn. He heard the corporal coming across and climbing into the tank; in a minute he was out again, wandering over the grass towards the trees. Soaper’s breathing was painfully audible in the patches of silence; he was dog-weary and afraid, but he was doing all he could to get the netting up.
Weston felt sorry for him, really sorry. He was not much afraid, himself, of the enemy. He had always been afraid of heights and of deep water, so that there had been times when this fear had risen in him badly enough to sicken him for days; once he had nearly drowned; twice he had forced himself to high places, challenged by his friends; so he knew what fear was. Soaper felt it in him now: this was his kind of terror,
as natural as Weston’s kind but different. It was no good just calling him a coward. A coward would run, and not stay here putting the camouflage up. It must take some doing.
“We’ll be okay here,” Weston said. “They won’t see us till daylight, and by that time we’ll have got our bearings and know which way to go.”
Soaper did not answer at once. He must be thinking of a dozen answers; they all boiled down to the one. “I want to get out of here.”
“We’ll be okay.”
THE NETTING was sodden, chilling their fingers, filling their noses with its ship’s-rope smell. Weston heard a new sound, chipping into the silence, slow and rhythmic. He couldn’t place it. It came from the wood, higher on the slope, a soft chipping noise.
Soaper said, “What’s that?”
After a while it stopped, and later Corporal Pike came back, dragging a great bush. Luff stopped digging and let the sweat run into his eyes, tired of trying to stop it.
“What’s that, Alf? A bleedin’ Christmas tree?”
Pike was panting hard. The bush was as big as himself. He passed the hatchet to Weston. “Take Soaper with you. Bring back all you can, big an’ small.” He took a deep breath. “There’s goin’ to be a moon afore midnight. We got to get Top Dog covered by then.”
“Stone the crows,” said Munro. “We’ll need a forest.”
Pike pointed. “Don’t take it all from one place, see? Dodge about a bit, an’ when you leave bare wood, rub earth on it, darken it down. Okay?”
“Okay, Alf.” Weston took Soaper off. “ ’Ow’s the trench, Gutsy?”
“Cornin’ on. What about a brew-up, to be gettin’ on with?”
Pike stood with his hands on his hips, sweat shining on his face. “As soon as that trench is deep enough an’ the tank’s covered, we’ll ’ave a brew-up.”
“And what about kip?” Luff asked.
“We’ll start shifts. I’m goin’ to be first watch, for two hours. But get that trench dug.”
They moved their spades again. Their clothes were drying on them, steaming. They thought of tea and sleep, lifting the spades, driving them in, pulling away the earth, thinking of hot sweet tea and the drowning delight of sleep as their spades bit, cutting through fibres, raising the cool earth smell, coming to chalk and bringing it up, crumbling and ghostwhite in the glow of the stars, until Luff threw his spade down and let his body rock against the tank. He leaned there, shoulders to the cold metal, face to the sky, head throbbing.
“I’m done,” he said. He said it to the sky and the night, more than to Munro.
“So's the trench.” Munro dropped his spade.
"It’s got to be covered yet.” The corporal stood there, his body doubled, hands on knees as he took in slow deep breaths. The silence lasted minutes.
Luff moved, falling away from the tank as if drunk.
“I’m going to start makin’ the tea, Alf.”
Corporal Pike straightened up, wiping a hand over his face. In front of his half-shut eyes Luff and Munro wobbled. The ground dipped away and he swung his head, cursing in his mind, forcing it to work. “Get the trench covered first.”
Luff said, “I’m beat.”
“Then you’re the only one. Even Soaper’s still workin’.” He picked up the hatchet. “Come on.”
Munro moved, following him, picking up his feet and putting them at the slope, leaning forward so that his feet must move forward too. Pike turned his head.
“Luff,” he said.
“I got to sleep.” Luff had moved a pace and stood swaying.
“You’re cornin’ with us, to ’elp us.”
Pike turned his head. Munro was still climbing the slope; his legs moved with a sleepwalker’s rhythm. Pike looked back to Luff.
“I’m waitin’,” he said.
Anger mounted through the fatigue in Luff’s voice.
“Even an almighty corporal can't make a man work when he’s—”
Pike came towards him quickly and stood bunched against him in the faint light. “My stripes don’ matter. You're goin’ to ’elp us because you’re one of us. If we’re dead by mornin’ it’s not goin’ to be because you backed out. Now jus’ rake up your guts from somewhere an’ come on.”
"1’ve been drivin’—” His voice broke, the anger gone.
"Now it’s me who’s drivin’. I got to get you lot through the night alive, so you got to ’elp.”
Luff stood sagging. Pike put his arm around his shoulders and pulled him forward so that his feet had to shift. It was like walking a drunk, but as they went up the slope they got a rhythm to it and when Pike took his arm away Luff came on with him, his breath grunting in and out to the jog of his feet. They came to the wood. Leaves were rustling where Munro was working. Soaper came out of the trees farther along, dragging a bundle.
They worked for half an hour more, Pike staying with the tank and making adjustments to his scheme of camouflage. He had raised three bushy saplings on top of the tank, bracing their stumps with wire; the rest of the foliage was arranged as a base for them. Where a bush had been growing upright he stacked it upright; where a branch had grown parallel with the ground, he fixed it in that same way, so that Top Dog before midnight looked like a clump of trees and bush, and not like an unlit bonfire.
Weston, making his last trip down the hill with Luff, stopped for a moment to look at the transformation. He had not seen the tank, from this distance, since they had started work; he had been too tired and too burdened.
“My God,” he said.
Luff stopped, head down, propping himself against his bundle of leaves. "What?” he said.
“Well, jus’ look. We’re good, you know. Who’d ever think that was a tank down there?”
Luff felt himself falling, stopped himself, and moved forward. He had not lifted his head to look at the tank; it was too heavy. He dragged his bundle as if it were part of his body, a broken limb that had to be drawn along.
Weston followed him. looking at the clump of saplings and bush. In this light it was perfect. Any Jerry patrol could walk right into that knoll of leaves and not know what it was until they cracked their heads on the gun.
"You’re good.” he told Pike when he reached him. "1 hand it to you, boy.”
Pike was wiping his face. A long bright graze was on his arm, where a sharp end of wire had ripped the skin. His voice was borne on one long breath, and he had to take another to finish. “Soaper’s got the billy on in the trench.
Don’t waste water, we’re short.”
Weston stood back a few paces. ''You’re good. Alf. Proper artist, you are.”
They listened to small-arms fire, closer than a mile away. The spotter plane droned, beelike, under the stars.
Munro came round the leaves. "Tea’s up, mates.”
Pike said. "Where’s Luffy?”
Soaper was in the nearby trench, listening. “You hear that gunfire?” he asked. “Patrols Nearer”
They looked for him. He was lying on the grass, under the bower of leaves where the gun poked, supporting its camouflage. He was lying on his face where he had dropped.
Munro said. "1 thought ’e was dyin’ for a cup o' tea?"
Pike sat down, leaning against one of the boxes he had used to stand on. "He’s doin’ 'imself more good where 'e is." He folded his arms. There was satisfaction in him because they had all worked hard and the job was done, and it was a good one; and this sense of achievement lulled his mind so that he knew now how tired h_was. The enemy was in here with h ni despite all the camouflage: the need for sleep.
Weston crouched beside him. “We don't want a guard with this lot coverin’ us. We can ail get a kip."
"There's got to be a guard. We’re goin’ to take some wakin'. once we’re out."
"I'll do first shift then."
"Now don't argue. Go an' get your char, i'll 'ave you on guard soon enough, my son. so now’s your chance."
Weston left him. He found Soaper in the trench, a mug in his hands. Soaper said, "Did you hear that gunfire?” "Yes.”
"Forget ’em. Where’s my char?”
The trench was warm with the heat of the Tommy stove; its fumes made his head reel. He spilt some tea over his hand and the pain roused him. The mug was jerked by the movement and more tea spilled, slopping onto the chalk. “Can’t you stop fidgeting, George?”
He waited until the first of the pain had gone; then, in the dark, he raised the mug to his mouth, tilting it by slow degrees until his head touched the earth wall, his lips expectant for the hot liquid. his hands ready to bring the mug down if it burned them. He went on tilting the mug, his breath hollow in it; and at last a drop ran against his lips, a single drop. The rest had been spilled. He lowered the empty mug and sat with his head against the earth, his body beginning to shake with the slow laughter that was rising in him. He listened to the sound of it, detached from it. "What's funny?" Soaper’s voice.
He went on laughing. There was little enough breath for it. but he couldn’t stop. As it went on. its sound seemed to go farther away from him and there was Soaper’s voice again, far away too. and then the rattle of the mug as it fell from his hand; but it did not wake him.
Munro, feeling his way among the leaves, came to a patch of sky and saw Pike above him, perched on the turret. Softly he called, “Alf."
Softly: " 'Allo?”
“Here’s your tea.” He reached up with the mug.
"You're a china, you are.”
Whe.i Munro had gone, the corporal sat watching the east horizon, drinking his tea slowly. The smell of the sap was in the air. rising from the hacked stems of the wood. He waited, alone, for the moon to come.
THE MOON came up red. through haze, beyond the villages where days ago the fighting had been hard. The battle dust, laid by the rain, was dry now and stirred by transports passing between the front line and rear positions. To the corporal who watched, it seemed natural that the moon was stained. like everything else, with the color of war.
He had been thinking a lot about Sophie. remembering the last times they had had together before the war. She was very near to him now; perhaps nearer than she had ever been. A wicked little thing. Sophie, not much thicker than a whippet, born to the East End and thriving in its flinty element, dealing in its life with her own coin, and never in debt to the day. She was a clippie, now, on the Aldgate run. She’d started the job since his last leave, and although he had never seen her there he always thought of her now swaying alon«i at the back of her bus, clipping the tickets out. He liked to picture her that way.
He had a dream about it too. When this lot was finished, he’d be demobbed, and of course he’d have to let her know he was all right; but he wouldn’t tell her when he was coming home. He’d be in his new demob suit, waiting at the bus stop, and he'd jump on board and say, “Pitchford Road!” Then he’d watch her face. What would she do? It’d be a scene, all right. There’d be a few people on that route who’d get a free ride that day, and that was a fact. “Pitchford Road!” he’d say. He had said it many times in the last few months, but it still gave him a kick. He knew it was silly to keep on thinking about it; but no one else knew, and he could think what he liked.
The moon grew bright, losing its stain as it rose to clear atmosphere. Its light was sharp on the ground; it shone against the leaves here and washed over the grass. There was a stillness in just the sight of it, a distillation of its remoteness in the sky. In its milky glow the wink of gunfire on the dark earth was feeble and red-eyed.
The corporal no longer felt tired. His wits were far from alert, but the fatigue had lifted, soothed away by the knowledge that his tank was in good harbor and all the crew sleeping. He even wondered if he had worked them too hard and to no purpose, for there was no sound of the enemy, apart from the clash of patrols now and then, and the sometime drone of the plane. He’d look a real clot in the morning, with Top Dog done up like a Christmas tree and no Jerry to come along and have a look at it.
Leaves moved below him. He looked down. For a moment he resented the invasion of his solitude.
It was Luff. His face was pink in the moonlight, above the stubble of his chin. When he pulled himself up beside Pike, he sat for a moment with his hands together between his knees.
"I gave you a lot o’ trouble, Alf.” “Eh?”
“Only I was that tired I thought I was goin’ to flake right out, see.”
Pike grunted. “1 was tryin’ to make you. It would’ve been all right if you’d only ’ad the grace to fall fiat on your dial. You got no sense, you ’aven’t. You don’ know when to give in.”
After a minute Luff said, “I think I did pretty bad.”
“You did bloody miracles, so you can shut up about it. Look at that there moon, big as ’alf crown, ain’ it?”
“See any sign of Jerry, have you?”
“No. I told you, we’re goin’ ’ave a peaceful night. What you doin’ up ’ere?” "Relievin’ guard.”
“I don’t want no relievin’.”
“You been up ’ere a good two hours, y’know.” •
Pike turned Luff’s wrist and looked at his watch.
“So 1 ’ave. Where’s the other blokes?” "Both under the gun, spark-o.”
Pike said, “Both? Who?”
“Gutsy an’ George.”
“I don’t think ’e’s here.”
“What you mean?”
"He’s not in the trench, or anywhere.” “You bin lookin’ for ’ini?”
“1 had a wander ’round.”
The corporal watched the moon for a long time, and said, “ ’E’s ’ere, somewhere, don’t you worry.”
Luff said, “That was a good drop o’ tea he made. I’m goin’ to brew up again, that okay?”
Pike was thinking. He turned his head. "Eh? Yeh. Keep it quiet, though.”
LUFF DROPPED to the grass, and took a step, and heard the engine. He stopped, listening. It was a tank engine. The low murmur of it rose and died on the wind, but each time it rose it had loudened.
"Don’ worry. I'll watch it.”
Luff moved again, going round to the mass of leaves over the trench and dropping into it. He could not hear the sound of the engine now. but with the Tommylighter in his hand he hesitated, and straightened up, so that his head was level with the top of the trench. The engine was still running. In the rhythm of it there were throttle variations, so that he knew it was a tank on the move. He put his lighter away and came out of the trench, crawling through the leaves until he could stand upright. The moving tank reminded him of a tractor in the next field at harvest time in England. "Alf."
"It’s on the march.”
Luff climbed to join him on the turret. "See anything?”
"Not yet. I thought you was goin’ to ’ave a brew-up?”
Luff could see a patch of moonlit grass through a gap in the leaves. He set himself to watch it. Unless he stood up. it was the only part of the ground he could see. "I didn’t like showin' a light." he said.
"Down the trench? Safe as ’ouses, hoy.”
The big engine throbbed. He could no longer think of it as a tractor in a sunny field in England. The tank was moving through scrub at the top of the hill, its tracks breaking light timber that snapped, brittle-boned.
"Alf. what nationality’s that bloody thing?”
"It's cornin’ from the west, ain’t it?" "But it could be one of ours. Lost, or something.”
"Yeh. Or it might be a bus for Balham.”
Timber crackled again, and Pike thought he saw the tops of saplings move at the edge of the wood; but it might be the wind or his nerves. Through the gap in the leaves he could see the hill brow, running from the wood to his left and out of sight. The tank would not come through the wood, because the grass was firm enough going. It would come over the horizon, over the brow there. He said:
"Go an’ wake the boys.”
Luff went down. Even in this dangerous moment he was aware of beauty as he loped forward, crouched, into the space under the camouflage where Munro and Weston were sleeping. The netting. festooned from the gun barrel, was interwoven with the stems of brushwood and new leaves, forming an arbor in which a man could stand nearly upright. The leaves were thick, but there were gaps where the moon shone silver, dappling the grass. The two men were stretched out on a rucked tarpaulin.
"George.” He pulled at his shoulder. "George."
Weston moved one leg, rolling over in his sleep. Luff got him by the wrists and heaved, so that he was jerked into a sitting position with his head lolling. He began mumbling.
"George." Luff dragged on him and he started to shout, reeling about with his legs jerking. “Quiet. George!” He had managed to get him upright, but his head still lolled and his eyes were still shut. He was asleep on his feet. Luff brought a hand across his face, trying not to make the slap too loud. Weston hit back at him, but he grabbed his wrist. "Listen, George. Jerry’s here. Wake up."
Munro groaned, kicked into near consciousness as the other two swayed above him. “Gutsy,” said Luff, "get up quick! Jerry’s here. Jerry. German.”
“Where?” Weston swung about, one arm flying. His hand hit the gun and he yelped.
Luff was sweating. He left Weston sucking his hand, bent down, lifted Munro by the bell and dropped him. The breath came out of him with a grunt and he got to his hands and knees, head down, coughing.
“Gutsy. The Germans are here.”
Weston said clearly, “Where, then? Where?”
“Listen. That’s a tank. Panzer.”
“Up top. Gutsy—get up!"
He stooped again, put his arms round Munro’s waist, and heaved. Munro swung a fist.
“Jerry's here. Jerry.”
The leaves rustled as Corporal Pike came down, crouching into the arbor. Munro was up now, swaying, holding his face. They were all on their feet and awake.
Pike said, “George, up at the gun. Luffy, forward Besa.” Munro swayed towards him.
“Cornin’. Get up there, quick. An’ keep it quiet.”
FOR A FEW seconds no one moved.
Pike and Luff were listening, wanting to know if the tank were nearer. Weston wanted to get his bearings on its sound. Munro, for the first time, heard it. Then they all moved.
The throb of the engine was heavier by the time they were inside Top Dog, but there was no crackle of timber and there was nothing in sight as Pike stood on the top armor with the moon behind him. He called down. “Gutsy, we got smoke bombs?”
He heard Munro shifting about in the darkness below. His eyes were watering as he stared at the thin line of the hill brow. He wanted badly to see the tank. Once he could see it he’d be all right. The noise alone was a mounting strain. He said quietly aloud, “Come on. Let’s ’ave you, then. Come on!" The throbbing loudened.
“I got 'em,” Munro said.
The throb was part of the night, a sound in the ears, in the imagination. There had never been a time when this sound was not here; and it would never go.
“Alf, can you see it?”
“Where the 'ell’s it got to, then?” "Shaddup.”
The throb was so loud now that Pike cursed it and moved round on the armor plate, pulling at the leaves and making new gaps. Through one of them he saw the tank come over the brow, well to the left. He was startled by its dark shape. In the same moment the throb died away to a murmur as the engine idled. He said, "It’s a self-propelled gun.”
Munro came up beside him.
“Stopped, has ’e?”
“Havin' a look this side of the hill.” He could see moonlight flashing across a pair of field glasses and the shape of the commander, a dark stump above the gun.
He spoke a little more loudly so that Luff could also hear. "Listen. 'E's two ’undred yards, ten o'clock. We can't move, an' we can't swing the turret.” “How can we fire, then?”
"We can't, that's what I'm tollin' you. Not till we can move, an’ that'll be when they’ve seen us. We jus' got to sit ’ere, see? An' if anyone drops anythin' on metal, or 'its anythin' metal, they'll ’ear, an' we're goners. Don't forget that.”
He straightened up slowly, turning his body to face the ten-o'clock direction before he stood upright. The self-propelled gun had not moved. Munro murmured, "He’s takin' a blecdin' good look.”
“Don't make a noise. We’re a Christmas tree.”
Beyond the SP gun the sky flickered to a distant barrage, silhouetting it. Pike was quivering with frustration. If Top Dog were standing head-on to that Jerry, they could have blown it apart with one six-pounder before he knew they were here. He was a perfect target, high on the hill, silhouetted against the light sky, motionless. But they could not move the turret. They were a Christmas tree.
Munro said, "It’s very annoyin’, isn't it.”
"An’ the rest.”
"If they cotton on to us, Alf, we’ve ’ad it.”
"Better if we swung the gun on ’em before they can do anythin’.”
“Don’t be daft. Once we move, they shoot, an’ that's an eighty-eight. We got to keep our 'air on."
Munro touched his arm as the SP began to move. It lumbered down from the brow of the hill, and stopped again. Now there was silence.
“He’s switched off. Alf.”
They could hear the voice of the commander speaking into his wireless. Pike crouched, and put his head over the dark hole of the turret, speaking in a forced whisper. "George, he’s got ’is engine off. We got to keep dead quiet. Tell Luffy.”
"What’s he doing?”
"1 dunno. Tell Luffy.”
Munro said, “The commander’s got out. Havin’ a walk ’round.” Another man dropped. "An’ there's the gunner or the wireless op.”
"Driver to come.”
The German crew were out. There were four. They were lighting cigarettes. The commander was lifting his field glasses again, looking this way, straight at Top Dog. Very quietly Munro said into Pike’s ear, "If we could get ’em while they're all out—
"It’s no go, boy.”
They did not move. Their faces must not catch the moonlight. The commander was studying them. The moonlight was on his glasses, glinting. He held them steadily. Pike began to sweat.
/ANE OF THE Germans laughed, walking a few paces on the soft grass, enjoying himself; his cigarette end traced a winking pattern as it moved about. The commander had not lowered his glasses. They were trained on Top Dog. There was something he didn’t like about this isolated clump of brush. Pike wondered vaguely what it could be: a bit of shine on the left
track where the metal had polished on a bit of stone, or a badly placed bush, or his own face among the leaves. It «vas no good moving now'. He listened so Munro’s breathing.
The German laughed again, and then walked towards his commander, who turned, as if answering a question. The two of them stood facing this way across the slope, and the commander gave the other man his field glasses and he raised them, and Pike waited again. Munro waited again. Munro was thinking that if those men suspected anything they’d ¿o back into their SP and swing a shot across, to see what happened. And Top Dog would brew up. first go, because its soft flank was exposed on the left forward quarter. Pike was thinking that if those men suspected anything. Top Dog would have a fight on.
Below them a sound came, Weston or Luff moving about. Pike couldn't even turn his head. Facing the men with the field glasses he spoke, using the left corner of his mouth.
"They’re watching us. They’re watching us.”
The commander took his field glasses back and raised them again. Under his breath. Munro said something to him in rich English. There was a feeling of shame in him, to have to stand here under that steady surveillance, like a chorus girl having to strip off and show her legs to get the new job.
Pike said in his throat, "Gutsy, there’s goin’ to be some action, mate.”
When the German commander lowered his glasses he started to walk in this direction, the other man with him. They did not hurry. They had just decided to come and have a look.
Now that the field glasses were down, Pike could move. He pulled Munro down with him. "Inside, quick.”
Munro went first, sweating with the effort of moving with no noise in the dark confines. Pike felt for his Bren gun and brought it up slowly inside the turret rim, clearing it with the barrel. He was whispering.
"Stand by on the coaxial. George, you stand by on the gun.”
He raised himself on his platform, finding a gap in the leaves. Using it as a sight, he moved his head until he could see the two Germans. They were walking steadily toward Top Dog. He could hear them talking. He ducked again, whispering.
"Stand by. They’re coinin’.”
He straightened himself again, and had trouble remembering which gap in the leaves he had been looking through. It took him half a minute to find it and the sweat was running from under his arms and his scalp pricked. They were halfway between here and their gun, still walking steadily. He got the Bren comfortable, steadied it, and sighted. Its metal was sticky in his hands. Its smell was under his nose, cold and exciting. Using the corner of his mouth he whispered, "Any minute now. You got to be ready.”
The Bren was heavy. His arms ached. He heard Munro’s whisper from the dark below.
“We’re ready, Corp.”
He was calmer, at once. They were ready. He wasn’t alone. But the sweat was a hazard, itching on him and sticking his hands on the gun. His left eye, closed for sighting, watered. The heat from his body touched his face. His scalp was a cap of needles. They were still walking. Then they stopped and the commander put his glasses up. The range was less than a hundred yards. Through the gap he could see the tops of their bodies and their heads.
The commander jerked the field glasses down and hit the other man’s arm and they turned to run back.
The noise shocked Munro, below, and he cursed.
Pike fired a second burst, moving the Bren in a close circle. The leaves ripped and fluttered down. The men were on the ground, one of them rolling.
"Gunner traverse left!”
The turret swung with it and the camouflage broke up as the gun came round, shedding the stacked bushes and tearing the leaves aside, exposing him. He crouched, his eyes an inch above the rim. The two Germans lay where they had dropped. Then Pike heard the SP’s engine start up.
The turret slowed.
He waited for his gunner to find the target. The turret shifted another degree. He heard Weston’s shout: “On!”
The self-propelled gun was moving, turning quickly to face its enemy. The recoil of Top Dog’s six-pounder shook more of the camouflage away. The shell hit low and ploughed into the earth so that for a moment the German was hidden by the dark flying wave of it. Munro, loading for his gunner, slammed another shell home. Pike called to Weston. Weston fired.
The first shell from the German eightyeight cracked across Top Dog’s back with the percussion of a thunderclap and sent Pike dropping for cover. He heard the big shell burst somewhere in the wood.
Weston was shouting.
“It’s a smacker!”
Pike took a look. Weston’s shell had caught the SP square below the barrel at two hundred yards’ range, buckling plate and leaving an eddy of smoke. He heard Munro putting another shell in.
"Hold it now!”
Luff was shouting. His voice was pitched thin and jubilant. Pike waited. It looked like a knockout. The smoke cleared slowdy. There was no sign of fire. Weston said, "Finish him, Alf?”
“No.” No sign of life, either. "Not yet.” There were only three shells left, and it was far from morning yet. “I think ’e's finished already, boy.”
Weston caressed the hot breech, itching to send another one. Pike breathed in the fumes that were rising, relishing them. He said. "Keep on the target." He raised himself a few more inches, using his field glasses. The SP looked derelict. He lowered the glasses. A popple of llame ripped in the moonlight and he dropped, grazing his arm as the machine-gun bullets fluted across the turret. He squeezed his arm, sick with the agony. When he could speak he said, "All right, Weston. Fire.”
The ears blocked. The fumes rose. The breech came back. The shell case hit the scoop and dropped. Munro said. "Alf. you hit?”
"No. Funny bone." He pressed his feet down, sliding his shoulders against the rim to raise himself. It was the second direct hit.
Luff shouted, "It's a brew-up!”
Flame was fanning out of the SP. Pike tried to use his arm, failed, and forced himself out of the turret with his other arm and both feet, dropping among the shambles of the camouflage and landing soft. “Come on!"
They came after him. He ran across the grass, stopping to look al the two Germans. They were riddled from neck lo rump. He went on, towards the SP. It was well on fire. Weston ran by his side. They could hear a voice, ahead of them. Munro caught them up. The flames pinked their faces. They heard the voice again. It was a scream now. Suddenly Weston dropped back. Luff was coming up with the Bren. Weston turned away from him and let him go past, and when he had gone, dropped on the grass and cupped his ears with his hands as he heard the scream again. He made a noise, inarticulate and tuneless, to drown the other noise.
Pike stopped, as near to the burning SP as he could get. There was no way in. The hatch was a chimney, furnacered above its rim. Munro began going forward and Pike moved and grabbed him. When the scream came again. Luff cried out obscenities and brought the Bren up. firing through the torn gap in the plates, giving it a long steady burst, cutting the scream off.
Munro turned away, wiping an arm across his chin where sweat had gathered. His shadow danced on the grass in the flamelight. Luff was walking like a drunk, dangling the Bren. When they reached Weston he was vomiting; they passed him and Munro broke into a shambling trot, reaching the tank and climbing into the turret. When the others came up he was dropping out again, with a packet of cigarettes. They took them and lit them, and stood watching the SP.
The petrol went up first, and then the ammunition. Their cigarettes were finished before the flames settled down to a flicker. The rose light died away across the grass, and the chill of the moon came back.
None of them felt triumphant. It was a big gun, an eighty-eight with a crew of four. lop Dog had knocked it out. and not even able to move her tracks. That was very good; but they did not feel triumphant. There were two men on the grass, and two human clinkers in the burnt-out shell. That was the way things had gone, and there was nothing else to think about it.
IN A LITTLE while Pike said quietly.
"George, we've got two rounds left, eh?"
"We got a bit of ammo for the Besas, and grenades.” He watched a scatter of sparks fall away from the SP. When they had settled, he said. “That commander was callin' up his base, or some unit on the other side of the hill. 'E was Idlin' them the ground looked clear, this side. Remember, 'e brought the gun down the hill a bit. to get it off the skyline. an' then switched off. 'E was waitin', see, an' while 'e was waitin' 'e thought 'e'd 'ave a dekko at our Christmas decorations. They didn't 'urry, remember. So that's 'ow it is."
Weston lit another cigarette. “You mean there’s going to be more of ’em coming.”
"Yeh. Infantry, p'r'aps. or tanks. We can't see our lot. from 'ere. We know there's a Jerry gun or two, west of us. It's natural for ’im to bring up support, as there's no opposition.”
Munro gave a flat short laugh, looking at the red-hot shell of the SP. "No opposition, isn't there?”
“Apart from us," Pike said.
Luff took a turn on the grass, cooling his feet. “So we're goin' to stick it out here, an’ wait for ’em? That what you mean, Alt'?”
He waited, not looking at any of them. Ash shifted in the wreck, and sparks went up. The soft wind took the smoke away, curling along the grass. After an age, Weston said, “It's your orders, mate.”
“I didn’t want to make it an order. I. want you to see for yourselves that it’s what we got to do.”
“I’m orderin’ you three to bail out,” said Pike. “But if you’ve got any objections, I’ll listen”
Again there was silence, until Tuff said. “There’s only two rounds for the gun, Corp. At best, we could only knock out two tanks.”
Pike said, “That'd make three for the night. Wouldn’t be s’ dusty, would it?”
“That’s at best,” Luff said. “At worst, we wouldn’t do any more than we’ve done already.”
Munro said, "Let’s cut our losses an’ go.”
Corporal Pike did not allow himself to be hurried in his argument. He meant to stay here, and use l>is tank till it foundered. He wanted these men with him. but not without their own faith in the rightness of it.
He said, "This is a crisis. We ’aven’t got a tank that'll move. It’s a case for bailin’ out. No one’d blame us if we left Top Dog ’ere an’ took a chance on gettin’ back to our lines on foot before mornin’. So we needn’t ’ave any conscience, see? But I’m tcllin’ you what I’m goin’ to do, meself. I don’t need a driver, or a co-driver, because the engine’s duff. I don’t need a wireless op. because the wireless is duff too. That lets you out, Luffy, an’ you. Gutsy. Soaper’s took ’imself off already, an’ good riddance. An’ I don’t need a gunner, because it’s easy enough to work single’andcd. an’ there’s only two rounds left, any’ow.”
“If we don’t—”
“1 ’aven’t finished, quite. This is the bit that counts. I’m orderin’ you three to bail out, an’ try an’ reach our lines as best you can. Now that’s an order, but if you’ve got any objections. I’ll listen.” He took a cigarette from Weston and lit up. Luff said angrily, “Why don’t you use your authority an’ tell us to stay on? We can’t disobey orders, can we?”
Pike said nothing. He cupped the cigarette, from habit, concealing its glow, though it was lost in the moonlight and a thousand times less bright than the embers of the SP’s wreckage.
“I’ve got to get some kip,” Munro said, “before 1 fall over. You can’t send me out in enemy territory on foot. It’d be murder.”
A ripple of ack-ack came from the sky. There was the drone of planes up somewhere. It was a remote and strangely peaceful sound.
Weston said, “I don’t fancy walking into a bunch of Jerries and spendin’ the rest of the war behind barbed wire.”
Pike said reasonably, “It wouldn’t be for long, mate. ’Itier’s got ’is back to the wall. We know that.”
“Well, I don’t like your order, just the same. I think it stinks.”
The antiaircraft battery opened up again. There was a strong bomber force crossing the north horizon, and searchlights were up. Corporal Pike watched them as their beams moved over the sky, the long bright fingers fanning and touching, feeling the stars.
Luff said, with less anger, “I’m too dead beat to think any more. All 1 want is some sleep. If I stay here, Alf, it doesn't mean I'd be much good to you.”
“If you stay ’ere,” said the corporal, “you’ll ’ave to work till you drop, an' maybe fight till you're dead, so don’t make any mistake about that.”
Luff sat down with his back to the tank.
“I want to stay.”
“Because there’s the gun an’ two Besas. That’s work for three men. An’ the fourth can look after the smoke an’ grenades. We're all in it.”
The corporal said, “Munro?”
He dropped his fag and stubbed it out. “Then God ’clp you.”
PIKE had worked alone for an hour replacing the ragged camouflage. If he had lain down, he would not have slept; so he had worked. The gun was still traversed left, so that the shape under the massed leaves was a little different: but it still looked more like a crop of bush than a fighting tank.
Once he had sat down, and had said to himself, “Alf, your number’s cornin’ up, tonight. You're goin’ to die." But he had no deep feelings about this. Once a man was this deep in his war, his sense of drama was blunted. If this was one of his last few hours of life, there was nothing to be done about it. But he hoped that Top Dog would do well tonight.
Then he could die happy.
He had thought, too. about Sophie. She was a long way off and now he seemed out of touch with her. and could not see hcr face so clearly or hear her voice. He had to stop thinking of her. because she was no part of this. The first she’d see of him again would be on the tailboard of the bus. "Pitchford Road!” he’d say. It could still happen. But it didn't do to think any more about that little dream. It was getting thin, wearing out. He tucked it away like a dog-eared snapshot and got up from the grass, and climbed aboard Top Dog.
Switching on the tiny lamp he checked the instruments; then as he turned in the confined space his hand touched the concertina. one finger brushing along the bellows. He could remember the Angel, at the corner of Pitchford Road. He could almost taste the beer.
"A 1 f !”
He looked up. "What?”
"There’s a lot of stuff movin'.” Munro dropped into the turret. "Tanks, by the sound of it.”
"All right, mate. The others still asleep, are they?”
He had the sudden thought that Munro’s number was coming up tonight, too. And Luff’s, and Weston's. Did they know, or weren't they letting themselves think about it?
"Yes,” Munro said. “I'll go an' get ’em
Pike thought: he knows. It's in his voice.
Munro left him. Now he could hear the sound, from over the hill. It was trapped inside the turret. It was tanks, all right.
Then Luff dropped down beside him. The corporal told him, "On the forward Besa, mate.”
"Did you get any kip?”
"Eh? No.” He went down forward. So he knew, too.
Weston came down with Munro. Pike said to them, "George, you’re on the gun. Gutsy, unbolt that smoke mortar and get it outside. It'll give me a bit o’ room in the turret.”
Munro got a spanner. "When shall I get the smoke out, then?”
“Soon as 1 give the tip. You know where the wind is. But don't let 'em off too early. We want the Jerries to come in close.” He slapped the breech of the gun. “Two knockouts is top score. We ring the bell, we get the cigar.”
Weston said, “We'll get the cigar, all right.” For the first time he had no confidence in his gun. He could kill a couple of tanks with it if they came close enough and he could sec their weak spots; but there'd be more than two. There was a whole pack on the way. The third to go up would be Top Dog and the crew with it.
Soaper had got sense. He envied him. He despised himself for letting Pike talk him into this. They were going to die, the lot of them. How had it happened? What was he doing in here, trapped? His stomach was going sour on him as he listened to Pike’s easy voice.
"Over you go. Gutsy.”
Munro's boot scraped on the metal rung. He went over the turret rim with the two-inch mortar. Pike dropped a bag of smoke shells after him. The noise of the tanks was rising. They would be nearer than they sounded, because the wind was toward the hill brow, from the east. Munro stood outside the leaves, his body facing the direction in which he must send the smoke, his head turned to listen for the tanks and for Pike’s order. He felt vulnerable, standing here in the open; on the other hand, he would not want to be inside the tank if it were hit. He could still remember the noise the German had made while he was being burned alive. Any man would make that noise—Pike, or the other two — if he was inside a burning tank and couldn't get out. He was glad to be here, vulnerable and unprotected. but not in a trap.
He listened to the tanks and his own breath. His breath was going in and out and making a noise like a man under an oxygen mask. He remembered the field hospital he had seen, three days ago, when he had taken someone’s belongings to him. The breath had gone in and out with a forced rhythmic desperation that was unnerving to hear. Now he was breathing in the same way. His body sensed it was in great danger, and was reaching out for more oxygen for its blood; and the heart was pumping faster, gearing the system to the pitch of readiness that was necessary if its life was to go on.
He felt detached from his body: it w'as a separate animal with its own plans for survival, preparing its defenses—the ears, hearing the danger coming, alerted the brain, and emotion was touched off. so that the fear should race the heart and fill the lungs and tune the senses finely. But the sum total was a creature known as Lance-Corporal Munro. and he was the one who had to put out the smoke screen. If he did it right, there might be a better chance for all of them. If he made a mistake, it might kill one of them or all of them. The best thing to do, before his knees gave way. was to concentrate on that.
He had never thought he was a coward. It was just this waiting.
THE sound grew enormous, filling the night. There was half a squadron coming. He wanted to shin up to the turret and tell the corporal it wasn't going to he possible to do anything hut die here, with so many of them coming. He was aware, as the noise rose, that he was saying the corporal’s name, “Alf.” Every few seconds, saying it aloud. “Alf.” To try to tell him it was no good, there were too many. Rut he knew Alf couldn’t hear. That was all that mattered, that no one heard, “/!/ƒ.” The name became a mere repetitive utterance, losing its connection with Corporal Pike. It had to be said, aloud, against the sound of the Panzers coming. It meant, sometimes, “Christ,” and sometimes, “Mother.”
The wind brushed his face, the sweetness of the rain still in it, and the smell of corn. It was a good wind for smoke; and it would carry it well, perhaps save them all.
Someone inside Top Dog gave a shout. The corporal answered. “You all know what to do.” He stood in the turret, watching the moonlit grass through a hole in the leaves, the Bren gun was in his hands, its barrel resting on the turret rim. His stomach was filling with a slow delight. They would come, and pass the crop of bush and saplings, and then hear Top Dog’s gun, and feel its shell.
It would be a big shock for them, as good as the water bucket on top of the schoolroom door, as funny as the snatched-away chair. Out of a bit of old bush, a six-pounder shell whistling at pointblank range. Number Three tank, Two Troop, falling by magic into the middle of a Panzer squadron, invisible, a secret in the moonlight, a monster out of a fable. The delight warmed him. He was beyond the thought of death now. He had paid for this beautiful ice cream and it was his.
He shouted again. “We're goin’ to knock ’em in the Ole Kent Road!”
Below him Weston sat with his gun. Alf had gone mad. Only a madman could have that joy in his voice at a time like this. He envied him the madness, as he had envied Soaper’s sense. He should have run away or gone mad. To have to sit here, knowing what was going to happen. was a drawn-out torture that brought the sweat on him until he was limp; but his hand was braced on the gun lever, a tense, stiff-boned claw with the rigidity of death already in it. The worst fear in him was that he wouldn’t be able to move it when the order came to fire.
Forward, away from the others, Luff sat at the Besa machine gun. His thoughts were technical. In the moonlight it would be possible to make out the driver’s slit if a tank came within fifty yards. A commander's head would be an easy target.
What was the corporal shouting? It didn't sound like an order. The driving compartment was drumming with the sound of the tanks, exciting him. Impatience ran alive through his nerves. He had four 7.92 belts ready, and one in the gun. On the driving scat, beside him, was his revolver. If Top Dog started to burn and he couldn't get out, the revolver would save him from the unthinkable.
Very faintly a voice rose through the din of the tanks.
"Here they come.”
It would be Alf’s voice. He looked along the sights of the Besa, his impatience at explosion point.
Pike had seen the first three tanks cross the line of the hill in arrowhead formation and at a fast pace. 1 hey would have heard the exchange of shots between Top Dog and the self-propelled gun, and would have seen the light ol its fire. 1 hat they came at all, after this warning, was a sign of their numbers. Three more came over the skyline, clearing it at full throttle and spreading out over the slope, no longer silhouetted.
The leaders were Mark Fives, carrying long seventy-five-mm tank-killing guns. They were already below Top Dog, running on past the ambush without giving it attention. The second wave was nearer, with the flank man a few score yards distant, but again there w’as no sign that the ambush was suspected. The leading tank of the second wave was opened up, its commander visible above the turret rim, swaying easily to the motion of its passage across the ridges and molehills toward the base of the slope. He saw the ambush and looked away, deceived.
Corporal Pike was bewildered. The camouflage was too good. They were going past in a bunch, certain of their ground. The whole of the Wehrmacht could go past here and Top Dog would be missed.
The third wave rose on the hill brow and came over, running into the mud that the leaders’ tracks had left, bruising the wet turf and churning it up, streaking the moonlit slope with dark earth stripes. Half a squadron over, and more coming. Top Dog was watching a parade.
Pike became afraid that the whole unit would go past, with no time for engagement. He stood with the taint of exhaust gas in his nose; a drift of it was in the wind, gathering away more thickly toward the hill brow so that the rear tanks came driving into the light-blue haze of it.
He bent down. “George. The next wave. The nearest one.”
Weston's face turned pale in the gloom. He nodded and moved his head down, sighting. Pike straightened, looked through the leaves, saw the next three top the hill, and crouched again.
“Swing 'er, George!”
Straightening again he rocked to the movement as Weston put the turret in traverse, swinging the six-pounder to fix on the nearest tank. Then he traversed back, keeping on his target while the range came down from a hundred yards to fifty as the enemy Mark Five swung heavily down the slope with its turret open and commander mounted. Its hank was fully exposed.
Pike hit Weston’s shoulder.
Weston delayed two seconds after the order to make certain he was aimed at the turret. Then he fired.
PIKE had stood upright to watch. The German commander was turned in this direction, perhaps attracted by the movement of Top Dog’s camouflage as the gun had traversed, disturbing it. The commander was raising his field glasses. Then Pike could not sec him because the shell hit the turret at the rim, obliterating the commander and bursting against the raised armored hatch.
It smothered the tank under a shock of light. Below Pike, Weston was reloading with his last shell, taking time. The fumes rose from the breech. Leaves fell away in front of the corporal as the recoil displaced the camouflage. He watched, absorbed. The tank had stopped. I he turret didn't swing. The commander was dead and the crew shocked, dazed, perhaps the gunner and wireless operator dead too from shrapnel. The driver would be without orders.
Beyond the crippled tank, two others were turning to face the ambush and their turrets came round.
Pike shouted to Munro.
“Smoke! Gutsy! Smoke!”
He saw Munro move, then dropped inside the turret, to find Weston sighting.
“’Old it! Wait!” He slammed the hatch down. Weston saw his sights blank out as the smoke came past, enveloping Top Dog and drifting towards the enemy. Into the air. Pike said: “Save that last one, mate. Save it.”
Weston sat with his shoulders hunched, watching the moonlight go out as the smoke billowed and brought total night. It muffled the sound of the enemy's engines; they had the remoteness of a noise outside a closed window.
Top Dog had become isolated. She was as alone as a submarine moving through the dark of enemy waters, as imperiled as an underwater target that is known to be there, that must be searched out and killed.
A shell came with a whip-crack sharpness, flighting through the smoke anil bursting low, hitting the tank with blast like a hand-slap. Others came, and when they came. Weston bobbed his shoulders and sucked in another breath. It would be the next one . . . the next one . . . this one, now—whccep!—and beyond, not that one but the next . . . going into the breech now and the lever closing . . . the German voice and then the slam of the air shock . . . this one—whccep!— and still alive . . . dear God. make it the next one, I can't stand this—make it come. The smoke and the dark and the engines. Pike in here, blast his eyes for keeping us here to die, a little Cockney almighty corporal who thought he — whccep! . . . oh, make it come, make it be the next one . . . the next one . . . this one, now . . .
He sat with his mouth open, his back to the dark that was the armor plate, staring at the dark that was the floor, his body alive with the last-minute terror of the bird over the gun, the rabbit under the snake, his body a thin-skinned vessel of frail veins and singing nerves, the heart itself trapped in it and quivering for escape. He was spread-eagled for the kill. It wouldn't come.
Pike was laughing, shouting something about Jerry and bad shots, and his gunner sat hating him for this. Pike had sentenced them all to death, and was laughing. Weston got a sound into his open mouth, but heard nothing but the ghastly cackle of Pike above him in the dark.
A machine gun began rattling, and the bullets came picking at the dark with the sound of their soft flight suddenly nearing until the gun's aim crossed Top Dog and they struck, hammering on the iron. The enemy was locating his target. Now the turrets would swing, and the long barrels fix on the line that the little gun had drawn for them.
Pike shouted again: “Traverse right!”
Weston moved by habit, finding the lever with a blind man's certainty in his familiar room. The turret swung. Pike hit his shoulder. He had watched the tracer coming and took his aim from it. “You're on. Fire!”
Weston dragged his hand. Their heads exploded with the gun’s sound. The recoil came. Pike eased past him and shouted. "Luff! Luff!”
There was a faint answer. He shouted again. “Bail out! We’re gettin' out!”
WESTON tried to stand but crumpled, gashing his cheek on metal. Pike knocked into him, grabbing at his arm. “Come on!”
The fumes thickened, creeping from the breech and the spent case in the bag.
Luff came aft, calling something that was cut off by the crash of a shell that hit Top Dog in the left track. Weston began sobbing. Blood from his cheek gathered; a string of it drew across his mouth as Pike shook him and his head jerked. The hatch was open and Pike was above him. yelling for him to get out. Grey light was in the turret, seeping through thinning smoke. Pike dragged at his shoulders. He could smell the wind. His hands clawed at Pike. They went over the turret rim.
A shell hit Top Dog’s flank and ripped the armor. The tank heaved on the springs. Pike, on the lee side, threw Weston against the leaves of the camouflage and climbed back up to the turret. The white of flame dazzled him and its heat struck his face. He could see Tuff, a moving thing with one arm up. He reached him. blinded now by the flame and working in the red of blank shut eyelids, feeling his way through nightmare, shouting to Tuff. They were together when the third shell came. It burst in the heart of the tíre.
The smoke to windward of Top Dog thickened. Munro had fired two more shells. He clawed his way back through the leaves, stupid with terror, and brought his hands up as the heat struck him across the face. Something tugged at his leg and he kicked out, trying to fling himself hack through the leaves, but the hand still clung to his ankle and he fell, and saw a face in the red light. It was Weston’s face, and he was shouting silently. Munro caught at him and began dragging. His ankle was tree and Weston was crawling with him. I he thin stems of the camouflage broke and scraped at their faces and their hands. They cleared them and Munro stood up and began running. Weston dragged him down.
"Don't leave me!"
Half Weston's face was bright blood, shining in the glare of the burning tank. Munro heaved on his arms, enraged.
"Get up. then! Get up. damn you!"
Weston lurched to his feet, sobbing. Munro pulled him through the smoke, his feet tripping on the rough ground. They came to the source of the smoke, and went forward beyond it into the clear moonlight. It was like finding land from a wild sea.
Ammunition went up in Top Dog. The Besa belts had caught.
"Oh. God! Oh. God!"
"Shuddup," Munro said. He was over his terror now' and ashamed of it. He stopped and looked back at the drift of smoke. The blaze was in its midst. He said between heaving breaths. "Alfs gone. Alf an' Tuffy." He seemed to shout it at the red smoke cloud. "They’ve gone!”
Weston swayed on his feet. He said, "Serves him right!" His voice was pitched to a childish temper. "He asked for it!"
Munro grabbed him again. “Who?"
“Pike." Weston's head swung against his shoulder. "Corporal bloody Pike!”
Munro hit him and he fell, crying out. Bullets rattled inside the tank, the sparks flew up. Munro turned his back on it and began walking to the wood. He could hear Weston still crying out, the voice growing fainter behind him. At last it was lost in the drum of engines as the Panzers rolled dow'n the hill.
He reached the edge of the trees and fell forward among them, his feet bearing him along and sometimes pitching him against the stems, bruising him. When he sank down and lay with his face upon brambles, he opened his eyes and looked at the dying glow' of the flames that colored the smoke with rose.
He had blood in his mouth. There was no wound that he could feel in his body, but he could taste the salt. “Top Dog,” he said. “Top Dog.” ★
This episode will later he included in the novel, The Killing Cround, to he published by William Heinemann, London.