Jeff looked rocky. His face was flushed, his eyes were red-rimmed, and his clothes were caked with dust and sweat-stained. I invited him to my quarters and poured a stiff drink of whisky (from a half bottle borrowed from Mort Belshaw) and invited him to spend the night with me. I put a stretcher on four petrol tins.
"There you are, Jeff. No innerspring mattress, but it's probably better than you've been having."
He nodded and took a drink of the whisky and brackish Tobruk water. He must have been terribly preoccupied, for he didn't even gag on the fearful mixture.
"You'll probably find most of the boys waiting for you around Barrani."
He nodded again and took another drink.
"First reports are always bad when a box has been overrun. It takes weeks to get an accurate check---men come in for days."
"One car could get through," he said as though he hadn't heard me.
"What? What are you talking about?"
"One car could make it, with luck. The Jerries haven't occupied Bir Hacheim. They just took it and pushed right along. I could get in to see if any of the kids are around."
"That's foolish thinking, Jeff. That area is lousy with enemy patrols."
"I guess you're right, but I'd like to know---to help if they need it."
"Sure you would, but you won't help any by getting yourself picked off and losing another vehicle."
"That's right," he admitted reluctantly.
"Have yourself another drink, and hit the stretcher. We move at daylight."
There is a meager dusk in the desert; there are no long shadows pointing to the coming of night, for there is nothing on the barren wastes to cast a shadow. One moment it is light; a few moments later it is dark, with a welcome tang in the air, and the movement of life slows from the pace of a military march to that of the Seventh Symphony.
It was a black night. The moon would not be up until after midnight, and the customary starshine was vanquished in the gloom of smoke and dust drifting over us from the south. Upon arriving at the headquarters hut I found the section leaders and platoon officers assembled. Hearing my call, they turned off the light inside while I pulled aside the blanket covering the doorway and entered. The small room was thick with men, and the air was blue with smoke. There was a gentle vibration within the room as men talked low-voiced to one another in short, sharp sentences. Nearly all were sweating. It was hot in the close room, but not that hot. From outside came the throttled roar of our three-ton trucks moving about to pick up the loads they were to carry.
Our camp was tense with activity and the excitement of the run-out. But above all our local noises was the growing thunder of battle from the south. Regularly, at four-minute intervals, heavy naval six-inchers (moved in that afternoon) exploded their loads from the escarpment above us. With each explosion bits of sand and cement chinking from the rock walls of the hut rattled to the floor, and fine dust showered us from the corrugated tin roof.
"We move before daylight," Captain King said without looking up from his notes. His voice was thin, on the high side. I remember wishing, as I had so many times before, he had a voice that would sound more confident. "Twenty-five ambulances will report to the hospital by five-thirty ready for loading. The five there under Hume will take the nursing sisters out. Lieutenant Marsh, will you take charge of this group?" The men stirred, felt of their faces; one or two spat.
The telephone rang. Bob Dean grabbed it. "American Field Service Headquarters. Yes, sir. Thirty. Yes, sir." Dean rang off and turned to King. "Colonel Davey has asked for thirty ambulances."
"All right, Marshy, you'll take thirty with you to the hospital. All the drivers will be instructed to proceed to Kilo 132, a few miles beyond Sidi Barrani. They will offload at the South African Field Hospital. Got that?"
"Yes." Marsh was older, phlegmatic, and slow, but his judgment was as sound as his training at Annapolis.
"Chan . . ."
"Here!" Ives spoke from the gloom of the outer fringe. Ives was always unobtrusive. Half the time you didn't know he was around, but you missed him like the very devil when he wasn't.
"You will take twenty ambulances to the South African Hospital on the escarpment and empty that."
"You will give your drivers the same instructions Marsh is giving his."
"How many ambulances does that leave?"
"Four," Bob Dean answered. "Evan Thomas is out with five; Felix Jenkins and Johnny Fisher with one each makes seven. Counting Hume's section, Mr. Marsh will have thirty-five at 62d Hospital, and Chan will have twenty. That leaves four."
The telephone rang again. Dean answered and turned away after ringing off. "Colonel Davey wants all available ambulances to report in the morning."
"Marshy, you take the four then."
"You and Chan can work out which sections you will use in your groups. Geer, you will remain in the camp until the last vehicle has left the grounds; then you will pick up the convoy on the road. You will be in command. Colonel Richmond and I are going ahead. We will pick out a camp site somewhere near Sidi Barrani. We will place a man on the road to direct you to the camp."
Outside I contacted Mort Belshaw. "Can you spare Bill Heidewald? I haven't a driver, and I'll need one. I expect to spend most of the day in the observation seat."
"Sure. I'll send him over now."
"He'd better bring his kit in my machine."
I found my way back to my quarters and began packing as quietly as possible. Jeff was in a restless sleep, and the gasoline-tin standards under the stretcher grumbled at his constant shifting. He lurched to a sitting position, clawing at his blankets. "Tichenor," he called in the queer, choking tones of a somnambulist, "you all right, Tich?"
"It's OK, Jeff, go to sleep. It's OK, Jeff."
Appalled at the amount of baggage---Thomas and Nichols had left much of their stuff in the dugout---I worked swiftly. It was almost three o'clock when I was through. Then I made a circuit of the camp, checking with the cook-, quartermaster-, and workshops.
There was no air raid that night; but there was no pause in the battle to our south, and the "heavy ones" who were our neighbors continued to disturb us with their methodical blasting. The first ambulances moved out of laager through the predawn mists. I watched the sun rise and bulge its cheeks and with one scorching beam dispel the night mists and brittle the foliage---the pockmarks on the leaves being the sole memento of the quickly vanished night dew.
When the last vehicle had left, Heidewald followed along. We went through the camp of our South African friends, and as I waved there was the ungovernable feeling that we were running out now that it was getting tough. There were few who did not experience the same emotion, but we all felt better when we got onto the main road and found it choked with vehicles. Everything and everyone not assigned to garrison duty in Tobruk seemed to be on the road---we were not the only ones leaving.
"See you in a few days," McKay shouted as we skirted his camp. I lifted my right hand with the thumb and forefinger in a circle. He laughed and jerked his thumb at me.
We took the Derna by-pass, thus missing the traffic of the town, and came to the junction of the road below the last escarpment. With each yard we progressed, with each turn we made we saw more and more traffic winding its way to the bottleneck that led from the basin of the harbor. With our Red Cross flag flying from the front bumper (this gave us a certain road priority), we swung out of line and drove directly to the road itself. Bill pulled to one side while I got out to have a look about. I saw our ambulances creeping along the road from Tobruk, but they were slowly being stopped and swung into line by military police who were cruising about on motorbikes.
The MP directing traffic at the junction was sending one lane into a wadi leading toward Marsa Umm; the second lane he was directing up the road to the crest of the escarpment. The track through the wadi was a bad stretch of going that finally came onto the main road some six miles farther along. I thought we should have right of way up the main road till I saw the fellow turn our first two ambulances into the wadi. I ran to him.
"You can't send my ambulances down that track---you'll kill half our patients."
"I'm sorry, sir. Thirteenth Corps has priority. Until they are out, all other vehicles must use the lower track."
"Good God, man! We're clearing out the hospital. Some of these men shouldn't be moving."
"Those are my orders, sir. If you go to area headquarters and get an order . . ."
I was turning away when an armored car with a brigadier sitting on top rolled by bound for the city. Running alongside I saluted the figure above me. The car stopped.
"Sir, I've about sixty ambulances clearing out the hospital. The MP is sending them along the wadi; he says 13th Corps has priority . . . "
"I'm sorry, Lieutenant. I can't countermand the order; it is not in my province . . . ...
Jerking another salute in the direction of the departing armored vehicle I turned on my heel to where the MP was standing.
"The Brigadier says we are to use the main road."
"Very well, sir."
Heidewald sped out after the two ambulances already down the track; but they had too much of a start, and when we finally did catch them there was more bad going behind than ahead to the road. I was not proud of my deception, but I knew the wadi would kill some of our patients. As it was, three died that night after offloading at Sidi Barrani.
We pulled off the road into the desert a few yards and watched our machines roll by; steadily, carefully they felt their way along the rutty tarmac. By this time the traffic was double-banked moving eastward. There was little or no stuff moving into Tobruk---that moving westward took to the desert, but in so doing created another hazard. The wind was from the north; vehicles westward bound took the tracks to the north of the road, and dust from churning wheels fogged the area with a dirty, grimy curtain. One emerged from these encounters under a fine yellow pall, teeth grinding on sand, and nostrils caked with the gluelike stuff. On the whole, road discipline was good. Occasionally there were collisions, and trucks overturned in the resultant pile-up. But there was no panic. There were fewer accidents between Tobruk and Bardia than I have seen returning from Palo Alto after a Stanford-California football game.
We passed the old Italian siege guns. They looked a bit more impotent and abject than when I first saw them.
Assured that the convoy was under way and in good shape, Heidewald, driving carefully but hard, strove to get to the head of the line again. We would try to outdistance most of the ambulances and get to the hospital in Sidi Barrani to give them the estimated time of arrival. In tribute to the RAF, let it be said we were unmolested by enemy aircraft, for they put an umbrella over us. One Stuka attack would have done untold damage. To the south were sounds of battle---short, flat, noteless,---just fragments reaching us in the rush of traffic.
We hit an open patch free of vehicles near Bardia and were wheeling along at forty-five when one of our ambulances went by in a swirl of dust. We took out after this Barney Oldfield. Fifty, fifty-five, and my old staff car (it had done over ten thousand miles, and that is a great distance in the desert) wheezed from fatigue. By dint of horn honking and reckless driving Heidewald finally overtook the vagrant and waved it over. I was furious at the driver, the way one is over carelessness that appears to risk the necks of men already hurt.
Jumping out I ran to the machine-it was driven by Bill Carter. "What in hell's the idea, Carter? I damned near had to do-sixty to catch you."
"All my patients are sitters. I wanted to get a swim at Salum." He looked tired; his face was dust-caked.
"Blow a tire and you'll all wind up in the ditch. You were one of the last out of Tobruk---now you're in front. That speaks for itself. You stay under forty, or I'll take the machine away from you."
I climbed back into my car. Heidewald drove along for a time in silence, then said, "Pretty tough on him, weren't you?"
"Do you think so?"
"Yes---we were given no orders as to speed, just told to get along as swiftly as we could. Now that we're tired, we're all apt to fly off easily."
"I guess you're right. Thanks."
Heidewald and I proceeded down the road to run into a modern miracle. Not far from Bardia we pulled a few yards off the road to eat lunch. Searching through my can of rations I found canned sardines, bully beef, canned meat and vegetables, everything but hardtack or crackers.
I handed Heidewald a fork from my kit and said, "I'm sorry, Bill, we won't have crackers. I forgot them."
No sooner had I spoken than a three-ton truck went by and hit a hole in the tarmac. The rear end jumped high in the air, and a box was thrown clear, landed in the sand a few feet from us, and broke with the fall. At our feet lay bundle on bundle of hardtack. I reached down and handed Bill a package.
"Have some hardtack, Bill . . ."
"Don't mind if I do. Thanks." He munched away for a time. "Watermelon, ice-cold watermelon, would go nice now, wouldn't it?"
I'm sure he watched the next half-dozen trucks that passed with more than a casual eye. I know I did.
In the crush of traffic it was impossible to keep in convoy. As the ambulances were loaded in Tobruk they were dispatched, and in the shuffle the luck of the draw and good driving put some ahead of others. After the first three hours of daylight we had vehicles scattered over sixty miles of road; some did not leave Tobruk until late in the morning. One group gathered in the basin of Salum and built gasoline fires to cook the noonday meal. Not wishing to deprive the hospital of rations they would need in a siege, many of the drivers had not drawn supplies but dipped into their own hoarded food-tinned stuff purchased with their own money---and cooked a meal for their patients.
Hume's section had worked through the night at the hospital and at daylight had loaded the thirty-five nurses into their ambulances and took the long road eastward. In this section and others, there were times when the overpowering desire to sleep could not be withstood. Then they pulled to one side, slumped over the wheel for a few minutes, and moved on again.
Bill poked the nose of our machine into the South African Field Hospital at four-thirty in the afternoon. Our speedometer showed approximately two hundred miles. Upon reporting to the commanding officer of the hospital, I found they were unable to care for all the casualties we were bringing in. That meant some of the men would have to drive another eighty miles to Matruh. Two hundred and eighty miles over roads that should not be called roads, with patients at your back who (though few gave utterance to their pain) were living from each bump to jolt! It was decided to send only the slightly wounded, the sitting patients, to Matruh. All stretcher cases would be off-loaded here.
When the business was done, I went to the mess tent. Never shall I, or any of us who ate there that night, forget that meal. Great slabs of rare roast beef! Fresh meat! And bread and fresh vegetables---as much as you wanted. To top off the whole meal I met desert-dirty Hellfire Dan'l Goodman chawing away on a sandwich as thick as his own big hand. I'd thought him IDB for the past ten days.
"I heard you were 'in der bag,'" I said, laughing with relief.
"Who? Me? Must have been someone else."
"Where you been?" I asked, cuddling the rare meat against my tongue.
"In the"---his jaws worked two or three times---"desert. Acroma, Knightsbridge."
"How was it?" I'd fire a question and while waiting for an answer build myself another sandwich.
"Pretty rough, old boy, pretty rough."
Later I learned that of all understatements this was the masterpiece. Dan'l and his section had been heavily hit.
The last ambulance did not check in until after one o'clock in the morning. Some of our domestic vehicles and motorcycles did not get in at all. Many of us slept in an open field a few miles west of Sidi Barrani. Three days passed before we had all gathered in the laager of Zawyet Shammas. Carl Keyser had broken a drive shaft east of Sidi Barrani. The workshop section bringing up the rear had found him and had switched the forward shaft to the rear, and in he came.
Jim Watson, riding one of the motorcycles, had broken down and in the dark had been passed up by the workshop boys. He stayed with his machine for twenty-four hours. After wheeling the bike into the desert and hiding it the best he could, he hitched a ride to camp. When we returned for the motorcycle, it was gone. Some passing unit had scrounged it.
The last to check in were Evan Thomas and his unit. They had been told by the Indian Main Dressing Station to report to AFS headquarters in Tobruk. This they did, only to find that we had left. At the hospital they learned our place of rendezvous and joined us there. They were one of the last units out---the road was cut a few hours after they had passed over it. They had neither seen nor heard of Peter Glenn, though they did know the box he was in had been overrun. Felix Jenkins was unreported, but Army Headquarters told us they were "quite" certain that he and his Captain McCarthy had got out. We made searching inquiries about Peter, but in the chaos of retreat there was no way to get an accurate check. Some time later we received the following report:
"Subject: AFS Ambulance Car Company
Fifth Indian Div.
20 July 42
The ambulance car to which your letter refers is not now with this division. It is probable that when the box at point 650, which was occupied by the ------ was overrun after the fall of El Adem, this ambulance car and driver were captured."
Our moving into Tobruk had been an adventure; our running out was an experience---a feat.
Our harbor in the palm grove of Zawyet Shammas was the most enjoyable spot we ever had the good fortune to live in. The sand was as fine and white as sugar, and the swimming was a delight. The water was as soft as velvet and soothing to our bodies, which hadn't been wholly immersed in water for a long time. We bathed and lay in the sun and slept; the war seemed remote. The enemy were at Salum and fighting their way down Hellfire Pass. They were to the south of us around Sofafi, but we were not disturbed by air raids or the firing of cannon. The road some three miles south was still heavy with traffic moving eastward. We reveled in the quiet of the beach and the luxury of swimming. But this was not to last.
Orders came through to prepare five ambulances for a long desert trek to Siwa oasis. Dick Tevis and his group were chosen for this choice plum. I was to go along with the unit and see them established and report back. We put our vehicles through workshop inspections, and Dick and I spent hours over the maps of the area. We decided to go eastward to Matruh and turn into the desert at Charing Cross rather than use the vague track that led to the oasis from near our present site. The movement order, however, never came through---Siwa was captured.
Tobruk fell. The news stunned us. We had been so confident the city would hold out again as it had before. Tobruk had been a symbol to everyone in the Eighth Army. Wild rumors flew about. The attack was said to have begun at seven-thirty in the morning and the surrender to have come four hours later. Wild and heroic tales came through with men who escaped. Small units fought their way out to add their stories.
One truth we did learn: Though the city had been surrendered early on Sunday morning, units of the Guards' Brigade were fighting in the streets as late as Monday night. It was these same Guards who had fought the rear guard at Dunkerque; who marched onto the chaos of Dunkerque Beach and stood an inspection while under air attack before forming and marching into the water with full equipment, the last off; who though they had been fighting without pause for seven days had not then fallen into an exhausted stupor when at last aboard ship but had bent to the task of mending and polishing equipment until, when they disembarked in England, they could have passed a king's inspection. Why did they do this? And why did they fight in Tobruk when the battle was lost? Because they are guardsmen. They have fought this way for over three centuries. The Guards' Brigade, the Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Welsh, and Irish Guards, are looked up to as top-class fighting men by professional fighting men the world over.
We left Zawyet Shammas at daylight the morning after the fall of Tobruk and headed east. We had been ordered into the El Dawabis district below Piccadilly and Oxford Circus to clear the casualties from a field ambulance unit. Our domestic and workshop vehicles went west to Matruh, where we were to join them later. The trip would be over a hundred and fifty miles; for more than half that distance, we should be carrying patients. The enemy had been reported, twenty-four hours earlier near Sofafi, which put them within thirty miles of the area we were entering. With sixty ambulances in convoy we should kick up plenty of dust once we left the coast road.
As we approached Sidi Barrani, the roads became clear and the surrounding territory was empty of equipment except for a few burned-out tanks and trucks. The absence of traffic and fighting units to right and left of the road, such as we had been accustomed to for months, created a strange impression. All about us was an eerie, quiet, and forlorn desolation. Bill Brown, who was driving me on this run, felt somewhat the same. When we did meet a small detachment of light tanks moving in the opposite direction, he leaned out the window and called: "Not too fast, boys---wait for us, we ain't got guns."
They didn't hear what he said but gave him a laugh and a wave. I leaned down from my observation seat and said, "You feel it too?"
"There's something wrong. No guns, no traffic, no noise. I don't like it. Sure you know where you're going?"
"Yes---we turn left into the desert at Kilo 128."
Behind us were sixty ambulances at proper dispersal intervals. The first twenty or so could be seen; the last were lost in the haze and the roll of the land. The unit was desert wise, convoy smart. We could pick up and move as a unit in thirty minutes. It was good we had learned quickly. In the next ten days we moved twelve times.
The track between the coast road and El Dawabis is thirty-five miles long. Every mile is bad going. Forcing the pace, we made good time and in the Piccadilly Circus area crossed the railroad line and saw the forward RAF fighting field packing. The fliers were taking off while the ground crews with trucks loaded high took the overland trail. Arriving at El Dawabis about ten o'clock we loaded at once.
Dick Tevis and his section were assigned to take all the bad stretcher cases and head out early on a better but longer track. The rest loaded. After eating we were to strike out across the desert in a line that would bring us to the coast road about sixty kilos east of Matruh.
Contacting the commanding officer of the field ambulance unit we were evacuating, I checked my navigation.
"What kind of terrain will it be if I strike off on a seventy-degree bearing to the coast road?"
"Would I do better if I headed due east to the Siwa tarmac and then up to Charing Cross?"
"Can't say that it would. That's shocking too."
A dispatch rider rode up, got off his motorcycle, and saluted. The Colonel said, "Excuse me." He walked to the messenger and signed for the communication. He read it, stuffed it in his pocket, and came back to me.
"Perhaps it would be better to return the way we came in?"
"How'd you come?"
"Sidi Barrani, Kilo 128."
"I wouldn't do that, old man. I've just been informed that the enemy is between Buq Buq and Barrani. A patrol's been sighted around Zawyet Sidi Barrani. I think your best bet is to strike out for the coast road."
We navigated by compass for the first twenty miles until we crossed the pipe line; this we followed in a northeasterly direction to the main road. For the remaining sixty kilos into Matruh We again fought heavy traffic---the bottleneck through the mine fields was choked with machines. At the Matruh by-pass Dick Ragle was waiting with instructions. After off-loading we would report to Smugglers' Cove about twelve miles beyond the city.
Our camp site at Smugglers' Cove was nearly as pleasant as Zawyet Shammas, but we were not to tarry there long. Lieutenant Marsh took twenty-five ambulances into Matruh and began loading hospital trains. The balance of the unit moved eastward to El Daba. Our strength was gradually being decimated by illness. Chan Ives, ill from dysentery since Tobruk, was finally evacuated by plane while we were at Zawyet Shammas. Daily we lost other men. Sand-fly fever and dysentery were taking their toll. Our normal strength was one hundred and eighteen; at one time during the retreat twenty-two were hospitalized. There were no spare drivers remaining. The work from then on would be grim, tiring, and without relief until reinforcements could arrive from Syria.
The Western Desert is flat, desolate, and treeless. There are none of the rolling sand dunes of the Hollywood idea of desert---both armies avoid sectors of soft sand. There is some scrub that grows as big and tough as manzanita, but for the most part it is barren wasteland. To my mind, El Daba has a bleakness that makes it stand out in a bleak world. It is three or four miles from the sea on a flat plain that is open to every vagary of the wind. The pestilential fly and sand fly are thick in this hellhole. And this was to be our next stopping place.
Upon receiving orders to move from Smugglers' Cove, I coaxed my temperamental car, which appeared, with each mile, to be giving up, down the road ahead of the convoy. It was my job to contact the town major and obtain from him an area in which to camp. At El Daba I filled with gas and drove on to the town's headquarters. The town major gave us an area east of the town and to the north of the road (behind the cemetery) as a camping site. Interpreting this assignment liberally, we moved close to the sea not far from the field ambulance unit we were to serve. From El Daba we were to evacuate into Alexandria.
The cook trucks and domestics moved in and set up camp. Just before dark the convoy, loaded with casualties from Mersa Matruh, began to arrive. The situation at the field ambulance unit was a bit out of hand; they had recently arrived, and there had been little time to set up tents and wards into which we could off-load our patients. It was past midnight before the last of the ambulances came in. The tents were overfilled, and many of the wounded had to remain in the ambulances through the night.
The drivers stayed with their rigs, giving their blankets to the men inside. Many of them were up most of the night tending the wounded, who had been too long within the narrow rigid arms of a stretcher. The next morning at daylight the convoy was off again on the hundred-and-twenty-mile run to Alexandria.
With the loading in the morning came a situation that brought out the initiative of the drivers. We were carrying wounded from many units---Indians, South African natives, and South African troops as well as English. At that time, Alexandria was the site of many base hospitals. Each hospital cared for certain assigned troopers; the English went to one hospital, the South Africans to another, and the Indians to still another. Lest this system be misconstrued, it should be explained. The Indians and South African natives are difficult to treat; only doctors, orderlies, and nurses who understand their language and customs can make proper headway. Thus, separate hospitals are set up for each group, much as the Australians and New Zealanders go to their own and are cared for by their own. In this case, the Indian hospital was thirty miles from the British and South African base. An ambulance with an Indian, an Englishman, and a South African would have to make three off-loadings at widely distant points. The area around Alexandria was new to us, and it would take hours to find each hospital.
When I saw mixed groups of patients being loaded, it was suggested that one ambulance carry all Indians, the next Englishmen, and so on. Lieutenant Colonel Ball, a rather vague and badly overworked man, brusquely overruled the idea. I could see his point---he was concerned with clearing his camp of casualties for the greater influx that would soon be arriving, though it meant extra driving hours for the men.
Present at the discussion were Mort Belshaw and Evan Thomas, and when it was concluded I nodded to them. They grinned---that was all that was needed. Fifteen miles along the road they pulled the convoy off into the desert and sorted out the patients.
At midnight on June 24-25, a dispatch rider found his way into our camp with orders for me to report to the town major in El Daba. Dick Ragle drove me over. We speculated on the move we were to make---that was what such an order had come to mean to us. We knew the enemy were working on the mine fields of Matruh. Had they broken through? Were we on the run again? Everyone expected the "stand" to be made at Matruh. Perhaps we were going back-there was a rumor of a counteroffensive.
Making my way through the sandbagged entrance to the hut I reported to the major.
"What is your name?"
"You're second in command of the American Field Service?"
"Would you show your papers?"
I handed over my identification papers.
"Thank you." He studied them under the light. He handed them back and went to a door at his right.
"Brigadier Kendrick, Lieutenant Geer of the Field Service is reporting."
The Brigadier was a tall, slender man. His speech was slow---if I had not known him to be a New Zealander I should have thought his drawl placed him as from the Carolinas. He offered his hand.
"I met you in Syria, didn't I?"
"May we be alone, Major?" he addressed the commander of the area.
When the door closed, the Brigadier waved me to a chair. He took a seat on the opposite side of a rough table.
"The battle is not going well, Geer. Matruh is to be evacuated; the New Zealand Division has been rushed down from Syria."
"Yes, sir---I've seen them going by today."
"We are moving out of Matruh tomorrow night. We are going south around Minqar Qaim---it will be a night move." He pointed on a map. "We shall be in contact with the enemy within twenty-four hours of the move. It is Rommel's intent to by-pass Matruh to gain time. It would take too much time for him to work through the mine fields. If the enemy is allowed to sweep around unmolested, he will capture much of the army in the pocket east of Daba. Most important, however, is to hold Rommel until a line can be formed at Alamein." He stood up and lighted a cigarette after handing me one. "We have to hold until that line is formed."
"It will be a bitter battle." He continued to speak slowly. His words were heavy as though he was concentrating on each one. "We shall need twenty of your ambulances."
"You are certain to suffer losses."
"When shall we report?"
" At noon tomorrow in Matruh. Report to Colonel Ardagh. He will give you assignments and orders. Have every vehicle carry all the spare gasoline it can handle safely. Have them stocked with at least six days' battle rations, four stretchers each, and blankets."
Returning to camp I sent Dick Ragle in search of Evan Thomas, Mort Belshaw, Dick Tevis, and Dave Hume. When they arrived, heavy with sleep, and grumbling, I passed on to them the information given me. We sat in a close huddle and discussed the men to make the trip. Since Marsh in Matruh had twenty-five ambulances and the late departures had not yet returned from Alexandria, we found there were only twenty-four ambulances in the laager. Two were not up to making such a trip. We drew up the list and talked over the other plans for an early getaway.
While we talked, flares were dropped in the area of the gasoline dump near El Daba. After a time the bombs followed---they hit something, for a fire was started. Behind us, between Alex and us, there were more bombers, a larger force, and there was ack-ack to fight them off. They must have hit something big, for the sky in that direction grew a giant red halo. Though we did not give voice to the thought, we were thinking of the area behind us---some of our boys were on that road coming back after a late afternoon start from El Daba. It was after three o'clock when we broke up.
The convoy of twenty ambulances left at eight and was in Matruh three and a half hours later. Thomas and his section were assigned to the Fifth New Zealand Field Ambulance; Hume went with the Fourth New Zealand Field Ambulance, and Tevis's and Belshaw's sections were assigned to the supply depot as temporary reserves.
The move to the south began Thursday at ten o'clock at night. Matruh was being evacuated, and soon after the Kiwis (New Zealanders) moved out the engineers started blasting defense works and burning stores. The digging in of the Kiwis at Minqar Qaim, south of Matruh, began about two-thirty in the morning. The expected German attack developed that morning but was thrown back in confusion. It was Rommel's first intimation that he was again meeting the deadly fighter from New Zealand. Once again the Kiwis were pitted against the 90th Light Infantry. They were old and bitter enemies. Months before, the New Zealand Division had made the 90th Light cry quits at Sidi Razegh. Among the Kiwis rose the cry "Make it heavy for the 90th Light."
Jim MacGill and Manny Field with Evan Thomas, operating within view of the enemy, worked between the various regimental aid posts and the 5th Advanced Dressing Station. MacGill went to the 21st Regimental Aid Post and was cut off, unable to return. He was not seen again until the general retreat on Sunday. Dick Tevis and his unit were sent forward to the Fifth Field Ambulance but could not get through. Mort Belshaw and his unit of four cars were able to contact the Fifth at noon, and after loading the four ambulances and two three-ton lorries this convoy of six vehicles started east. They returned in a few minutes to report no way out---the New Zealand Division was surrounded.
All ambulances were filled with wounded and the advanced dressing station was loaded, ready to move when possible. Throughout the remainder of the day, Manning Field and Russell Hurd with John Peabody, Bill Mitchell, and Laurence "Sandy" Sanders stuck with their patients. Under heavy and constant shelling no man left his patients, all the while passing out small talk and cigarettes. Three of the ambulances were hit with shrapnel. Belshaw and Thomas constantly circulated from one machine to another. Unanimously Captain Waller's advice to seek cover was disregarded. From that day on the AFS has been in solid with the Kiwis.
Sunday afternoon General Sir Bernard "Tiny" Freyberg, VC, called a general meeting of officers. The outlook was bleak. The entire New Zealand expeditionary force was surrounded. They had withstood on Saturday five overwhelming tank attacks; they had been sent out to hold the enemy twenty-four hours and had stopped him in his tracks for more than thirty-six. Rommel knew only too well what the delay meant to him. He was attempting to sweep south of Matruh and cut off the 50th Division and get to the main body of the Eighth Army before it could form. Ruthlessly he threw his troops against the Kiwis. And it was not the German 90th Light Infantry alone that the New Zealanders were holding off ---the 21st Panzer Division was there with two brigades of the Italian Trento Division.
The meeting was held in a crude shelter, half dugout, half trench, in the center of the box. Brigade and battalion commanders came from their posts on the line. They came tired, dusty, sweat-stained. Since the desperate message had reached them in Syria five days before, no man in the division had slept more than three hours at a stretch. The fighting had been most bitter; losses had been incurred; the only supplies the division had were those brought with them from Matruh---there was no hope of more.
General Freyberg, the battle-wise hero of Antwerp, Beaucourt, and Gallipoli, sat on a gasoline tin with a map case across his knees. Square-jawed, his lips a hard straight line, he listened to each officer's report. The 21st and 25th were heavily engaged---as if to echo the reports, mortar and artillery fire increased in fury. The 26th and 28th were holding tough, but the pressure was increasing.
The wind was from the south-building into a khamsin ---and dust drifted in clouds across the desert.
And so the reports came in. At no time did the expression change on Freyberg's face. When he did begin to speak, his voice was full-throated, confident.
"We have ten thousand men and ten thousand bayonets. The Jerries don't like steel---believe me, I know." His voice lifted. "We were sent out here to hold Rommel for twenty-four hours; we've held him thirty-six and we've hurt him, but we're not through, gentlemen---we'll get out of this. We shall live as a division to march into Tripoli." Quickly he outlined the plan of break-through.
When night came, each unit on the sides of the lane of escape were to advance on the guns---with bayonets and grenades they were to open the line of retreat.
"I have a feeling Herr Rommel thinks we are done for. He is waiting for the sun to run over us."
The motorized transport was organized into four lanes, with the Red Cross vehicles on the inner two for protection. The convoy began to move slowly at ten-thirty in a northeasterly direction but was met by overwhelming fire from mortars and tanks and machine guns. Trucks crashed into slit trenches, and motors screamed and tires slithered in the sand as the drivers strove to get their vehicles out.
Flares distorted the scene. Vehicles were hit and caught fire, adding to the light of flares. German field guns now began firing, sending salvos blindly into the inferno, but much of the big stuff passed high. The convoy swung easterly. Enemy fire slackened. The New Zealand infantry was at work with the bayonet and grenade.
The truck behind Manny Field's ambulance was hit and burst into flames. The night was a bedlam of noise and the sky aflame with tracer bullets. An AFS ambulance was hit and was seen to go up in flames---the vehicles to the rear swung around and continued. There was no stopping in this break-through---those were the orders. Another AFS ambulance was hit and fell out. The fire slackened and died. The convoy was through; the Kiwis had fought their way out---they were in the clear.
In the checkup it was revealed that the AFS was missing two vehicles and three men, Mort Belshaw, Bill Mitchell, and Sandy Sanders. Three months later we heard that they are prisoners of war in Italy. In Bengasi, six months later, I talked with a chaplain who had been imprisoned with these three and who told me of Sandy's complete faith in General Freyberg's words and ultimate victory.
With the evacuation of Matruh, Lieutenant Marsh brought out his twenty-five ambulances and joined AFS headquarters near El Daba. From then on they retreated steadily to El Alamein, evacuating to capacity as they retired. A mistake in judgment led them into the salt marsh near Rahman; but this mistake, though it bogged ambulances down to the frames, saved them untold damage. All through this night they were heavily bombed, but the marsh was so soft and the bombs went in so deep before exploding that they shot skyward like skyrockets.
One small hole in Bill Heidewald's ambulance was the extent of the damage. But it took hours and many blisters to dig out the unit.
For the next three days and nights the AFS drivers worked without respite, evacuating casualties from the front into Alexandria. A good many began to show the strain, and several had been badly shaken by near misses.
The unit gathered behind the El Alamein line in the Burg el Arab area. The main section was sent to Tanta in the delta area for refitting and rest. The sections who had joined the New Zealanders at Matruh (the ambulances and men lost were replaced) remained on the line until relief could be sent out.
The story of the retreat must carry a word about the 50th (Northumbrian) Division and Private Wakenshaw. The insignia of this division, two superimposed letters TT standing for Trent and Tweed, were to be seen where the fighting was heaviest---now the Gazala line, near Acroma and the bitter rear guard at Matruh, and later at El Alamein. Made up largely from three units, the Green Howards, the East Yorks, and the Durham Light Infantry (DLI's), this division is second to none in fierce fighting qualities.
After the fall of Bir Hacheim and the enemy success in the Knightsbridge tank battle, Tobruk was in danger of being isolated; the 50th Division was threatened with being totally cut off and captured. The decision was made to fight a way out from this untenable position. In as audacious a move as was ever determined upon in military history, the 50th Division would fight to the west. They would break through the enemy, turn south behind the enemy's lines, and once below Bir Hacheim turn east toward Matruh and the Egyptian frontier wire---a move of approximately one hundred and twenty-five desert miles before there was much hope of picking up the rest of the retreating Eighth Army. One hundred and twenty-five miles to escape, with forty or more miles to be done behind the enemy lines!
At eight o'clock in the evening on June 14, 1942, a battalion of East Yorks attacked the enemy, singing "Rule Britannia." The bridgehead was formed, and in a cauldron of mortar fire and burning vehicles they fought through surprised enemy camps. The second and third columns (Green Howards and DLI's) pounded through. Fighting patrols were sent out. The bulk of the division drove its way through mine fields, slit trenches, and enemy fire, to the south of Bir Hacheim, and the main body joined up at Fort Maddelena.
On June 21, the 50th Division was south of Mersa Matruh. At first light of day, units of the German 90th Light Infantry prepared to attack; tanks and light fieldpieces swung into position.
Private Adam Wakenshaw, of the Durham Light Infantry, was on a forward slope with the crew of his antitank gun. The gun, a two-pounder, put an enemy tractor and gun out of action and destroyed another enemy gun. Then the two-pounder received a direct hit, and the crew were killed or wounded. Wakenshaw's left arm was blown off above the elbow. He crawled back to the gun and loaded and fired five more rounds, succeeding in putting another enemy gun out of action and crippling a light tank. A near miss blew Wakenshaw away from the gun and inflicted further severe wounds. Realizing the danger to his comrades, who were being subjected to intense mortar and artillery fire, Wakenshaw dragged himself back to the gun and placing a shell in the breech aimed and fired and set a gun tractor afire. He was in the act of loading the gun again when a direct hit killed him. His body was later found stretched out on the back of the ruined breech block beside the ammunition box. This act of conspicuous gallantry prevented the enemy from bringing their guns into action against the infantry, which were only two hundred yards away.
Our camp in Tanta was in an old water-buffalo pen on the outskirts of the town. It was a filthy hole doubly patrolled by flies by day and mosquitoes by night. We had little to do, and the very inactivity made things the more unpleasant. Tanta itself was fairly agreeable---there were two motion-picture houses and two or three good places to eat, but we all preferred the desert. Upon the arrival of reinforcements from Syria, nine men were sent north for a rest. We continued to be hard-hit by illness. Dysentery and sand-fly fever received a new ally---malaria. No sooner would two or three men return from hospital than we would lose as many at sick call.
Brigadier Walker again listened to our pleas for work on a more active front. He ordered us back to the desert. Major Drysdale, now in command of our Tobruk friends, the First Ambulance Car Company, brought in a unit of his command to relieve us. Not wishing to see him condemned to our animal pen, I drove him to the city, where we contacted Dr. Moore of the American Hospital. The doctor kindly allowed the First to move into the large play-yard of the school. The next morning, after recalling Wick Johnston and his ambulances from their Damanhur assignment, we took the road. Our destination, Ikingi in the Amuriya area, was to be our headquarters for the next two months. From here the ambulances were sent out to Burg el Arab and to the front. We were on the line once again, where we were to do some of our best work and suffer some of our most serious losses.
Every effort was made by us, the Eighth Army, and the New Zealand Division to determine what had happened to Belshaw, Mitchell, and Sanders. Kiwis who had been in the break-through were questioned, but the confusion had been great and no two stories were found to agree. One ambulance, as I mentioned, had been hit and had burst into flames, but no one had been seen to leave it. One of the most convincing reports we received was the following:
July 4, 1942
On June 28, 1942, while coming through the German lines near Mersa Matruh at 3:30 A.M., I saw an American Dodge ambulance to the right side of my own ambulance, about two yards away. The convoy had paused for the moment and was being fired on by the Germans at the time. There was a terrific explosion and, when I looked around, flames were coming from the rear part of the bonnet and the forward part of the body of the American ambulance. None of the doors of the ambulance were opened and no one got out, and, when I moved off in about two minutes, the doors of this American ambulance were still closed and no one had got out. I did not know who the driver was nor the number of his car. The car was still burning when we left it. It was a bright, moonlight night and I am certain that the vehicle was an American ambulance.
Pt. T. Brady 36849
Fourth N.Z. Fld. Ambulance
I was seated beside the above-named medical orderly at the time of the incident and verify the truth of the above statement.
Stanley D. King 35049
Fourth N.Z. Field Amb.
When the stories were summed up, they amounted to no more than was reported by the above letter. This loss was felt keenly---Belshaw and Mitchell had been members of the San Francisco unit, and I counted them close friends. Of the small band of twenty who had left California they were the second and third to be struck down. Tim Krusi with the Fighting French was of the same unit. Keith Robbins had been hospitalized after a long illness, and our small group was thus smaller by one in five.
If by chance Belshaw and Mitchell and Sanders were prisoners, my main concern was for Sandy. There was no man in the AFS who did not have tremendous respect for Sanders. He was fifty-six years old and never once had asked favors because of his age, nor did he ever ask for relief on the Tobruk-Bardia run. Always he had a helping hand for the youngsters in his section. He had volunteered to drive an ambulance and wanted no other job, though soft berths had been offered him.
We were assigned to a spacious house and grounds in the Ikingi area for headquarters. The house had a large living room with a fireplace and six bedrooms. The kitchen was used for the canteen. The workshop section had another house and buildings for their living quarters and shops. Our cooks established themselves in a large outbuilding to the rear of the main house. There was a windmill in the yard, and ample water for bathing, though we had to draw our drinking water from points a few miles away.
Quickly a routine was established. Twenty ambulances were on front-line duty with the New Zealanders. Thirty-five vehicles were at Gharbaniyat evacuating from the casualty clearing station to Alexandria. With our present strength in ambulances reduced because of losses, that left ten rigs at Ikingi for workshop overhauls. When these ten were repaired, they would be sent to Gharbaniyat and ten would move from there to the front. Two sections (ten ambulances) would return to Ikingi from the front; the machines would go through the workshop, and the men would go on leave to Alexandria. These changes were made every sixteen days.
Rommel arrived at the line panting and tired though still strong and confident, but he arrived too late by twenty-four hours. The hours he had been held up, frustrated and battered, by the Kiwis had cost him the battle of Egypt.
The El Alamein line was formed by pillboxes and strong points that had been built, shall we say, by accident. A story was told me by General Dan Pienaar, commanding officer of the South African forces, one night after the El Alamein line had been established. It went like this:
"When the 2d South African Division arrived in Egypt, they were burning for action, but there was little fighting at that time. Tobruk was surrounded, and we were preparing for an advance that would be some months in the making. We were camped in the desert not far from Alexandria, and in their restlessness the boys were giving Alex quite a beating---so I called a meeting. I said to the boys, 'You want something to do? You're crying for work? All right, I'll give it to you. Build me a line here---we'll pretend Rommel has broken through and is headed for Alexandria. Build a line that will stop him. I'll give you three weeks.' "
On such a background the El Alamein line was built. It was to these hastily built and nearly forgotten fortifications that the Eighth Army retired in July. It was here that Rommel was turned back.
On July 14 Keith McLarty was wounded in a Stuka raid and his ambulance destroyed. The attack came about four o'clock in the afternoon while he was in the vicinity of the advanced dressing station. McLarty had driven in with wounded from a regimental aid post and after off-loading at the advanced dressing station dispersed his vehicle and walked a hundred yards or so to the YMCA canteen truck that was touring the area with cigarettes and candy. He was at the side of the canteen when the attack began. The first bomb of a string of three exploded harmlessly in the desert; the second landed near his ambulance and set it afire. The third bomb landed in the vicinity of the canteen truck. There were no slit trenches in the immediate area, and Keith threw himself onto the sand. Fragments from the third bomb hit him. He was removed at once to the advanced dressing station, where it was found that his sacrum was damaged and his pelvis broken. Later that afternoon he was removed to the medical dressing station, where he was operated on. The doctors gave him a better than fifty-fifty chance to live. He retained some feeling in his feet, indicating that his spine was not so severely damaged as to cause paralysis.
When Chan Ives's signal reached me at Ikingi (Captain King was on leave in Syria), I bent every effort to have McLarty evacuated by air, for I knew what a frightful thirty-five miles the trip back was. But two hospital planes had been shot down in the past ten days, one near the medical dressing station where Mac was waiting, and it was hopeless to send another up. Mac had to come out over the desert tracks, and he never recovered from that trip.
The day Mac reached Alexandria I went to see him. Because of the nature of his wounds he was lying face down, and it was difficult for him to talk. He moved a bit to see me better.
"Hi, Mac. How was it?"
"Not good." He paused and closed his eyes against the memory of that ride. "Now I know how some of those poor fellows I hauled felt. I'll be a better ambulance driver when I get back."
"Sure you will."
"I had a lot of notes and manuscript in my ambulance. Will you hold onto them for me? There's one story I'd like to send Grant Parr in Cairo."
"Your stuff burned, Mac." I thought he must have been told his rig had been hit too, but perhaps he had forgotten. "The second bomb got your rig."
He didn't speak for a time. I guess I knew that, only I kept hoping it wasn't true." He shifted to an easier position and talked to his pillow. "I think I would have been a good writer, Andy. I worked hard at it. At night I used to black out my ambulance and work inside. Grant Parr thought I was coming along."
"Sure you will, Mac. Think of the stuff you can turn out after you're through this." My voice was flat and heavy, though I tried to lift it.
"How is your writing coming?" he asked.
"I haven't had much time."
We stayed silent while he rested. The nurse walked by, and I questioned her with my eyes, asking if I should leave. She held up her hand-five minutes more.
"You going to do a book?"
"You better get it done before the war's over." He turned his head and looked at me. He gave me a thick-lipped grin; his face was heavy with a black beard, and his lips were swollen with fever blisters. "As soon as the war is over, the market will be flooded with books by Germans telling how they killed us. I suppose one day a joker will go over and lecture at Cal [University of California] and tell the boys how he got me."
"I don't think so, Mac," was all I could say. Ordinarily, Mac was not the bitter kind. He was a clear thinker; he took a broader, more liberal view than a young man of his age usually did---he was only twenty-one. I stood up. "I'd better roll along now, Mac, and let you rest."
"You be back?"
"Sure." I lifted my voice again. "I've got your leave ticket to Jerusalem written out. While you're 'recuping' in the green hills of Palestine, you can rewrite some of that stuff."
"Andy---" he called me back. "It's been good for me---this work in the AFS. I know we're doing a good job. For a time I was ashamed to belong to the AFS, but now I'm proud, and that's because of boys like Tichenor and Krusi and Belshaw---I was proud to serve the Eighth."
On the afternoon of July 15 Dave Hyatt lost his ambulance in a bombing. Dave did some fine work and saved it from burning. A large hole was blown through the front and set the inside afire. Dave tore the seats from the machine and put out the fire. The ambulance was repairable. That same afternoon Libber's ambulance was riddled with bomb fragments. It was roadworthy when tires were replaced on the front wheels. McLarty's ambulance and Hyatt's were evacuated to Company HQ at Ikingi. The vehicles were written off and papers made out to replace them from the vehicle pool. Before these replacements could be sent for we heard of another loss. Lee Kyle and Wayne MacMeekan had blown up in a mine field. Neither they nor their patients were hurt.
MacMeekan (who played David Wayne in the Broadway hit The American Way with Fredric March) brought in the report on Kyle's ambulance. He was driving a captured German three-ton truck (an Opal) in good condition. We added it to our establishment at once---MacMeekan was proud of his capture.
Then he told me of the accident in the mine field. On the night of July 14 one of the New Zealand battalions had been cut off from the rest of the brigade in heavy fighting along the line, and it was not until the night of July 15 that contact was made and ambulances could be sent in to clear out the wounded. MacMeekan took three machines through the gap---this was in the late afternoon. By the time they were loaded and ready to return it was dark. A Kiwi orderly volunteered to show them the way out. With Al Savage first in line and the orderly beside him, Buck Kahlo second, and Kyle and MacMeekan last in the convoy, the three rigs began the treacherous trip through the mine fields in the dark. The orderly missed the lane and drove into the mine field. Kyle's machine hit a mine and blew up. Fortunately the mine blew forward and did not injure anyone in the machine, but it tore off the front wheel of the vehicle and damaged the front end extensively. Savage and Kahlo heard the explosion and stopped and walked back. They off-loaded the patients from the wrecked ambulance and carried them out of the mine field on foot. Then came the problem of what to do about the other two ambulances. They were in the same field, and they might well hit mines if they proceeded.
In as fine a piece of work as was ever done by men of the AFS, MacMeekan, Savage, Kahlo, and Kyle, with the help of a few passing Kiwis, prodded about for mines and lifted them from the sand until they had cleared a lane to the track. They got the two machines out safely with all the wounded, abandoning Kyle's vehicle temporarily.
MacMeekan and I went back to the front with spare parts and tires for Johnny Nettleton, who was in charge of repairs up forward. We did not find Chan Ives at the medical dressing station (he was in charge of the detachment at the front) and after off-loading the spare parts at his camp drove on to the advanced dressing station. Still no Ives. He was out on a reccy (reconnaissance) to the various regimental aid posts. Leaving word for him at the advanced dressing station, MacMeekan, Buck Kahlo, and I decided to have a look at Kyle's ambulance. As we approached the mine field, we came upon a squad of Royal Engineers, who informed us that they had just cleared the field---they pointed to stacked piles of mines. Letting Mac and Buck walk in, I drove the machine alongside the wrecked ambulance. It was not in bad shape---a new right front wheel and axle and a bit of repair work on the radiator would put it on the road again.
MacMeekan drove my machine out to get Nettleton (our ace repairman---it was he who put the eight wheels on an ambulance to haul out the bogged-down convoy in the Syrian Desert). We would need his help and tools to jack up the ambulance and tow it out on the back of my machine. While Mac was gone, Buck and I went to work dismantling the vehicle in case Nettleton decided we could not move the wreck. In a few minutes Ives and Nettleton with Charlie de Rimsingeur drove up in Chan's car and were followed into the field by MacMeekan.
Nettleton went to work at once. The wreck could be towed out, he decided. Chan's machine was backed in close, and the front end of the ambulance was jacked up and chained to the rear of his staff car. Upon releasing the jacks we found that the car was not high enough to hold the ambulance off the ground. My machine, a different type, was backed in. It would be high enough, and so the job was repeated.
The change had taken perhaps an hour and a half. While we worked, our artillery was making a racket behind us, sending over quite a bit of stuff. Our front-line positions were approximately a thousand yards to the west. A company of King's Royal Rifles were laagered in the field, and a few gathered to give us a hand. One of them brought over tea. As we worked, the engineers came back and began driving iron stakes into the ground some ten to fifteen feet in front of my machine. I went to the officer in charge.
"What are the stakes for?"
"We've been working on this field and have it pretty well cleared on this side of the stakes."
"This" side was in the opposite direction from where we were working.
I can guarantee this side---I'm not too sure about the side your men are working on."
"We've driven over that strip between us and the stakes several times since we've been here. We can make it over on this side all right."
"See no reason why not," he agreed.
The engineers finished their stake driving and left. About another twenty minutes and we were ready to move out. I got into the driver's seat and told Johnny Nettleton, "I'd better drive---this damned machine is getting more temperamental every day. I'm getting sick of it---I wish I could get rid of it."
Buck Kahlo, got into the "glory seat," the steel-framed seat fastened to the top of the cab from which a man directing a convoy may have a clear, unobstructed view. The rest got in with Chan Ives and drove to the track on the guaranteed side of the stakes. I started the motor, nursed it a while, and started to pass the stakes. I felt better---I was on the "guaranteed" side. Then began the slow turn to the track. The nose of Kyle's ambulance was so close to the rear of my car that I could not turn sharply. After proceeding slowly for another fifty feet there was a tremendous explosion. I hit the roof of the cab a frightful jolt, my shoulder striking the rifle bracket on the way up. My nose was filled with the black fumes of the mine. The smell was so heavy I immediately thought of fire. Kicking the door open I slid out and stepped into the mine crater. My machine was a right-hand drive, and the right front wheel had set off the mine. Buck Kahlo, was jumping around holding his leg.
"God damn me!" he said. He hopped up and down. "God damn me, God damn me!"
He had been blown completely off the top and had landed on the ground to the rear of the machine. "Lie down, Buck," I ordered.
"I don't wanna lie down---God damn me, God damn me!"
By that time we were surrounded. "You hurt, Andy?" Chan asked. I nearly laughed at the size of his eyes.
"No, but I got rid of that damned machine."
"I'm getting God-damned tired of being around when machines blow up in this field," MacMeekan complained, with a great deal more feeling than he had ever shown on Broadway.
"Buck's leg is all right---just bruised," De Rimsingeur reported after his inspection. "Some of that stuff hit me where I was," he added as an afterthought.
"Now we've got two machines to salvage," Nettleton observed, walking around my machine.
"Your face is bleeding, Andy," Chan said, taking a closer look at it. "Not bad, though, just a scratch."
A truck driven by a sergeant of the King's Royal Rifles came up.
"Can I help, sir?"
"Yes, will you drive me to your commanding officer?" It was an effort to keep my voice steady.
Chan and I got into the truck, and we went bouncing over the field to the west. I looked at Chan, knowing he was thinking the same thing I was. I always had the feeling he was grinning, though for the most part his face was as solemn as an old country bishop. He settled a bit in the seat beside me. "We're on the guaranteed side. Remember?"
We came upon a major of the King's Royal Rifles seated on a gasoline tin with a towel around his neck. A big, burly sergeant was cutting his hair. I got out of the truck and approached the officer.
"Good evening," he corrected with his chin on his chest. He looked up at me through his eyebrows. The Sergeant went on snipping.
"We had an accident over there a ways."
"Oh, yes. Thought I heard something. Remember, Sergeant, I mentioned it?" The Sergeant nodded and went on cutting. "Anyone hurt?"
"One of our ambulances was blown up here the other night. We were trying to get it out. My staff car hit another."
"Beastly nuisance, old man. I've lost four trucks in this field in the last five days. My Sergeant here went up yesterday. Beastly nuisance, eh what, Sergeant?"
The Sergeant nodded and smiled.
"I can't get these machines out before dark. Will you put a guard around them for me until I can get in tomorrow? We are not armed, or I could leave some of our men.
"Sorry, we don't stay here at night. We sort of roam about, you know. This is open country at night. If you do come back tomorrow, you want to look around a bit---these jerries are great ones for planting booby traps on vehicles that look as though they might be salvaged. Sorry, old man."
We were driven back to the wrecks and went to work stripping them of all removable parts. My stomach didn't feel right, and I had a terrific buzzing in my head. Several times I thought I might lose my lunch. Perhaps I would have, but I hadn't eaten any lunch.
As Nettleton and Kahlo stripped the machines, they loaded the parts onto a stretcher. MacMeekan and I took out the first one. The thing weighed about two hundred pounds. Halfway through the field to the track where the ambulance was (De Rimsingeur had gone back to get an ambulance to carry the spare parts) Mac stopped. "Loaded the way this thing is we weigh enough to set off a mine."
I guess you're right." The admission didn't help my stomach. I did my best to smile. "We're on the 'guaranteed' side, you know."
"Christ!" was all he said as he picked up his end of the stretcher and we started off.
On the next trip out Charlie De Rimsingeur took the other end with me. I didn't like walking through the field any more than the rest, but the whole thing was my idea. The more I had time to think about the situation the more of a damned fool I felt. Each time I looked at the two wrecks chained together I felt worse. My consolation was this: I had gone into the field only when I knew it had been worked over by the engineers; if I'd been a bit more lucky, I would have salvaged a good ambulance. There was no blame to be attached to the engineers, however; it is practically impossible to clear a field of all the mines. It is a miracle they do as well as they do.
We got back to the advanced dressing station in time to dive into slit trenches for a Stuka raid. When that was over, Chan and Nettleton and I went back to the medical dressing station, where we were to spend the night. We went to the mess tent and ate. The Quartermaster gave me a stiff jolt of issue rum---the stuff, raw hot, went down my throat and spread out fiery tendrils inside me. It spread slowly, like a grass fire on a still day. After eating we went to the medical inspection tent. Major Bill Duncan daubed my face with iodine and gave my shoulder and back a survey. By this time my right shoulder felt as though I had a football pointer. But worst of all was my head---it felt as if it would pop open any minute. Bill looked into my eyes; he flashed a light into them.
"You better have X rays taken in Alex."
"O.K." I was soaking with sweat; it was running down my neck as I put on my shirt. When Chan and I got outside, I went to the latrine and lost my meal---then I felt better. I blamed my squeamish stomach on the rum; my throat burned with the stuff. We picked up a stretcher at the back, of the tent and found our way in the dark to where Chan and Nettleton slept. We put our stretchers in a row and rolled out our blankets and crawled into them.
It was a bright starlit night and fairly quiet. Our guns to the west were kicking up a bit of a racket, but they faded out around ten. I kept trying to hear my watch with my right ear, but it was no use---strain as I might, there was no sound. I took two more of the aspirins that Major Duncan had given me, but still my head pounded.
Then I became conscious of a rank odor. "Hey, Chan, I accused, "why don't you go to the latrine?"
"What're you talking about?"
"You know what they say about skunks," Johnny Nettleton mumbled.
"I still say there's something dead around here."
There was a heavy dew that night, and it was cold. After spending an uneasy, restless night I slept heavily before daylight. When I awakened, Chan was sitting up in his blankets, yawning and shivering. For months he had been raising a mustache; it had grown into a big sweeping monstrosity---more drooping than sweeping---and it was something to look upon in the morning when he crawled from his blankets with his lip barricade wet and stringy with dew.
When I got up, I found that the stretcher I had picked up in the dark near the operating theater was soaked with blood. My blanket next to it was caked and gluey. I apologized to Chan for accusing him of stinking up the desert.
Upon returning to Ikingi that day word was waiting that McLarty had died. Early the next morning I went to Alexandria to arrange for the funeral. Since I was without a car, Tug Barton drove me into the city. I was grateful for Tug's company---he has an Ina Claire kind of humor---and he lightened the trip not a little. He had spare parts to pick up for the workshops, and after he let me off at the hospital I was without transportation. At the hospital I sought out the commanding officer, to learn that he had scheduled the funeral for two o'clock. He asked if I wanted to see McLarty. I said, "No." I told him I would arrange for the guard of honor and bugler. A number of wreaths had already arrived.
From there I went to the X-ray department and had pictures taken of my head and spine and shoulder. The doctor would not let me leave until he had had a look at them. My head was still full of thunder, but what bothered me most was my right ear---it continued to be dead to sound. The doctor assured me, after an examination, that the hearing would return. The picture of my spine showed an aggravation of an old injury received in football some years before, but nothing new or alarming. There were no indications of a concussion. The tip of my right clavicle showed a chip and a small lateral crack where I had hit the empty rifle bracket. He told me if I took it easy there would be no need to put the arm in a sling.
From the hospital I went to area headquarters to arrange for the bugler and guard of honor. I should have liked to have Jack Pemberton do taps, but he was at the front and could not get back in time. While waiting in Staff Captain A's office, I was introduced to Sir Alexander Keown-Boyd. When he learned I was without transportation, he drove me to the florist, then back to the hospital. He had heard of the AFS and the work we were doing and told me many fine things he had beard about us from ranking officers in the Eighth Army. He placed his machine at my disposal for the balance of the day, and a wreath from him was at the grave when the cortege arrived.
As I drove about the city, I distracted myself by thinking of its history---how once a young general named Alexander who carried with him, wherever he went, the works of Homer placed his short Macedonian cloak on the ground and said to Ptolemy, "Here we will build a city, the city of Alexandria. We will model it on this cloak---a semicircle bounded by a straight line." Here I was in Pharaonic Egypt, the Egypt of Zeus Ammon, Ptolemy, Cleopatra, and Napoleon, preparing the funeral of a young man from California. Many other young men would be buried this day in the same plot; hundreds more would be killed a few miles to the west. History would not mark this lone burial; not more than a few hundred people would care---not more than a score deeply. This, then, was a matter of no great moment. Yet rationalize as I might, I knew it did matter.
Keith McLarty was buried in the Alexandria Memorial Cemetery with full military honors. There were many flowers---wreaths from the Australian and New Zealand Division and the American consul. McLarty had served with the Aussies in Syria---I thought it fine that the "Diggers" had remembered. About thirty AFS men who were on duty at Gharbaniyat were able to attend. Afterward I went back to the hospital and arranged for a marker.
On July 22 we lost another ambulance. Dan Beatty and John Brooke were proceeding without patients from the advance dressing station to the 18th Regimental Aid Post. They were to have passed through a mine field en route but missed the way and while searching for the proper track were hit by machine-gun fire. They sought cover in near-by slit trenches and from there watched their rig burn. This occurred in the morning, and they were forced to remain under cover until they could make their way back under protection of the night. Beatty limped into camp thinking he had a blister or nail in his boot; examination showed that a small shell fragment had penetrated his shoe and slightly wounded his foot.
In these early days on the line, it was rough going for the men on duty. Rommel was exerting every effort to break through the last few miles to final victory in Egypt. Day and night attacks were made along the line; Stuka raids were numerous and severe. Almost without exception, the AFS men at the front distinguished themselves.
Colonel Ardagh, Assistant Director of Medical Services of the New Zealand Division, did have one criticism. He said, "My only complaint of your men in the AFS is that they insist on going too far forward in their zeal to help. This zeal has caused you unduly heavy losses."
At one and the same time El Alamein constituted the worst and best battlefield in the world---the worst because of the physical torture the men had to live through, the best because there were no civilians to be killed or cities to be ruined. The two armies could not despoil the sands they were fighting over.
El Alamein is now several months away and perspective has come, but the picture has not dimmed. There is no forgetting that land where sadness and tragedy are lifted, distorted, wafted about as are the blue-veiled mirages. Egypt is old, sterile, and decayed, with no comforts in her sandy bosom save the cool nights, and even those hours between setting and rising suns are drenched with pestilential dew and fouled with a miasmic breath. People are prone to curse this soil, which breeds a black terror of living, but the soil is not at fault. One day it was good soil, this land around El Alamein, black, rich, and fertile. It fed vast hordes of people (as our dust bowls once did), but a wastrel civilization without thought of crop rotation or reforestation brought it to its present state of sterility.
At the front, it took a Spartan to withstand the flies. They blinded and choked you and made eating a dreaded process. It took something out of men to fight these pests and their allies, the sun glare and hot sands. Always there was the sameness, sun, flies, dust, rumors, battle casualties---sun, flies, dust. Even as beauty illumines, so this sterility of wastelands numbs the brain. The absolute desolation of a whole country appalls you.
This land, then, is a breeding place for "queerness" ("sand-slappiness," it is called). The life drives you into yourself, for it is an exaggeration of the normal. While taking a drink of water you think, "When can I get this filled again? Have the flies infected the mouthpiece and cork with dysentery? Is it necessary to put so much chlorine in it?" Day on day these exaggerations build up---the constant alert against attack, the sand and sun and flies whittling away the veneer of civilization until there is nothing left but a primitive man, with desert aberrations of the brain making him do quaintly queer things.
For some inexplicable reason it is impossible to read or write very long. Sentences come out in jumbles, perhaps as a result of a seizure of agraphia. While reading your eyes wander off the page in the midst of a paragraph, and your thoughts go further astray. Your eyes return to the page, but the words they read make no impression on the brain, much like water pouring over a rock---the rock is wet from the current but retains little water for itself. Finally down goes the book, almost self-consciously and with excuses. "Finish it off later---shouldn't be reading anyway." For you dislike intensely to admit even such tiny failures.
The art of conversation is lost, the one topic being desert warfare. For a soldier the whole war revolves around his slit trench---no one is taking quite the hell he is. In spite of the spaciousness of the desert, the far horizons, the cloudless dome overhead, life is as narrow and confined as a sailor's on a small ship. You should have the expansive feeling of a roaming cowboy, but actually your sphere is within a unit---within a stride or two of a slit trench.
The company commander sees the battle on a company front, and so it goes---broadening to battalion, brigade, and division. Corps commanders see the war from the tactical side of their front. Perhaps the only person to see an over-all picture is the commanding officer; and unless he is a supreme strategist, he sees the war only as his army is fighting it. Ambulance drivers will come in from a unit convinced the battle is being lost; another from a different outfit will return exultant with tales of success. One platoon officer of mine, two days before the breakthrough at El Alamein, was morbidly pessimistic. The attack had failed. He was seeing the battle from a brigade's viewpoint, and his particular brigade had been hard-hit.
There is an absence of the ribaldry that usually passes for humor in an army. The same stories are told over and over. One regimental aid post doctor told me five times in two days about his RAP truck taking a direct hit from an eighty-eight. You find yourself sitting patiently through a tale heard and labeled prolix days before. A stretcher-bearer told me a sensational story the first time we met.
This was brought forth a second time, warmed over and spiced, with breakfast, and at odd intervals during the day. That evening as we sat in the RAP rig waiting for the meal to be brought up by lorry (two warm meals a day, one at dawn and the other before dark), he said, "Did I tell you about the attack on Ruweisat Ridge?" I said neither yea nor nay, and once more we lived through this tale, for I was as patient a listener as he was keen on being a taleteller. This could be labeled getting into a mental tank trap.
There is another type of raconteur who will begin a tale bravely enough only to break off in the middle. Some actually lapse in the middle of a sentence, to stare off across the desert, turning back two or three minutes later and asking, "What were you saying?" But none of this is serious or permanent. A few days' leave will bring the proper adjustment.
The physical appearance of most men changes. I don't mean they become dirtier (the ration per man was one quart of water a day), not that---but something that has been taken away or added will change a man in a few days. One man of over forty-five went up to the line and was forward a long time. He went up a fleshy, moon-faced, good-natured fellow. When he finally came out (pleading to stay longer), he had lost his belly bulge and was trim to hardness. His round face had angles and was youthful. But the remarkable change was in his hair. It had been gray, curly gray; now it was white and kinky and fitted his head like a monk's cap. He had seen things his lips would not talk about, but his eyes told.
Those who withstand the assaults of dysentery and sand-fly fever are plagued with desert sores. These sores are endemic in the desert, and are no doubt the same affliction as the "boils and blains" inflicted upon the Egyptians and mentioned in the Bible. Some men are struck harder than others, but with none does an abrasion heal as it would at home. Undoubtedly a partial cause is dietary. The desert sore cannot be classed as a furuncle, for in most cases it begins from an abrasion; perhaps it is a form of yaws. There is no specific treatment. The sore usually begins when the skin is broken or scraped from diving into a slit trench or working around a vehicle and is extremely painful. Men of fair complexion appear to be more susceptible than brunets. The treatment most often used is to sprinkle the sore with sulfanilamide powder, cover it, and not remove the cover for at least a week. A friend of mine, Captain John Baxter of the 3d Water Tank Company, who was plagued with desert sores, came upon his own cure. Taking the fine sand from the beaches he covered the opening and applied a bandage. He claimed a cure. This suggests that the sores may. arise from lack of salt in the diet.
The very hardness, the privations, the utter absence of things feminine and soft paradoxically create an aphrodisiac torment to men who are long in the desert, a virile heat creating a mental passion that becomes a fever. At night a camp has nothing to offer but loneliness and a chill wind. A man becomes convinced he would be inexhaustible, insatiable. This is summed up somewhat facetiously by the tommy when he says, "The second thing I'll do when I get home is take off my equipment."
Early in August orders came through placing me in command of the platoon in the Damascus area. I was loath to leave the desert at this time. Because of my duties at Ikingi I had seen little service up forward. There were things I wished to learn that could be learned only at the front. I wanted to live with fighting men, catch their talk, their humor, study them when they were going into action, see them when they came out. I asked for ten days' leave (I had had one day off since sailing from Halifax). It was granted, and I went to the front.
With no duties to hold me I could roam where I willed. In the next week I went O-Pipping ("O-Pip" is British Army slang for observation post) three times, twice at night in forward infantry posts and once at an artillery officer's post with Howard Terrel. There we saw this young captain lay the plans for an OGPU (organized pileup), as he called it. For several days enemy transport had been gathering in a wadi some hundred yards behind their own mine fields. His scouts had reported this gathering. He had watched, all the while taping the range. He figured he now had them cold. It was blind shooting, for the eastern end of the wadi was closed, thus cutting off any view from our side. When the shoot was done he would crawl to a more forward position where he could jot down the tally.
Coolly, over the telephone, he gave the range to the four batteries that were in on the shoot. He gave lifts and sweeps, chuckling as he worked. The post was a shallow hole in the rock on the top of a ridge, and the sun baked us.
"This'll shake old Jerry." He pointed to the map. "See this wadi? We're going to blanket this. There's going to be a lot of scared jokers in there when we let loose."
"Why do you suppose they gather in there?" I asked.
"Probably 'ammo' trucks [ammunition transports] waiting until dark before moving up. If they're 'ammo' trucks, you'll hear them, and maybe you'll see them."
"When do we start?"
"Fourteen hundred hours-two o'clock."
"Sorry we can't stay. Howard has to get back to the advanced dressing station on duty."
"Well, you can hear us. Come up tomorrow, and I'll tell you how we did."
Howard and I made our way back through the wadi and to the advanced dressing station. That afternoon at two o'clock sharp the batteries let loose with salvo after salvo. The shoot lasted six minutes. The next day I saw the officer; the shooting had been good---eleven enemy trucks, and they had been ammunition transporters.
During my roaming about I met an infantry officer whom I had known in Syria. It is better for him to be nameless. He invited me to go on a night patrol with a few of his men without seeking authority from brigade headquarters. There might be no kickback, but then again there might.
Nine of us gathered in a wadi dugout immediately to the rear of the mine field. It was about nine o'clock and cool to cold, as the nights always are. The flies were gone except a few hardy strays which were lapping up the beer that had showered the place when a corporal opened a tin. He stamped on them with his foot as he drank. The beer was the Corporal's weekly ration; he offered none of us a drink, and no one expected him to. The moon would not be up till after midnight, and then it would be only a sliver. The sky was clear (seldom are there clouds), and the starlight was almost enough to cast a shadow. The sudden coolness brought an afterglow to the sky.
The party of nine consisted of my friend, the Lieutenant, who was in command, a sergeant and six men, and myself. I was going as medical orderly unarmed; thus I would not violate the conditions of my Geneva card.
The Lieutenant gave his instructions. "This is a reccy [reconnaissance] patrol. We're after information, not looking for trouble." That was all right with me. "We will go through the mine field at lane 4-H." The men seemed to know this passage.
"On the far side of the mine field we will take a bearing of two seven five degrees for twelve hundred yards. There we will come upon the enemy mine field. We will have a shufty [look-see] in that area to see if Jerry is opening lanes. At this point we will turn south one eight nought degrees and follow the edge of the field for a thousand yards. At that point we will turn to fifty-four degrees, which will bring us back to the lane in our field. If we get separated, remember where the Plow [Big Dipper] is. Work your way back with it over your left shoulder.
"Any questions?" There were none.
"The password is 'bowler hat.'" The officer grinned. Several of the men chuckled. "Bowler hat" in the British Army means getting the sack. If an officer is "bowler hatted" this means he is demoted and usually sent home. It does not necessarily mean he is court-martialed.
"Oh, yes," the officer said as if he had forgotten, "Lieutenant Geer of the American Field Service is going along with us as medical orderly. He'll be around in case any of you cop one."
"Just the job," one of the men said gruffly.
The fellow sitting next to me leaned over until his breath fanned my cheek. "I always feel better when one of you jokers is along."
That was what I wanted to hear. One of my reasons for being there was to determine how much these fighting troops depend on the medical services.
The Lieutenant was young, perhaps twenty-two or -three. He was cool and confident. One of his men told me he was up for a ribbon for a show he had put on two or three weeks previously. He was blond, and his hair and eyebrows and mustache (a hirsute marvel that fanned out gloriously---Ives would have died of envy) were bleached to a platinum color. His eyes were blue, the blue of the Mediterranean off Zawyet Shammas.
The Sergeant was an old desert rat. He had fought in the desert in the last war. To him this patrol was a nocturnal stroll, something to relax on before crawling into a slit trench to sleep. The men were as varied as six men can be, but about them all was the same quality---toughness.
While we waited for the time to shove off, the men put on sneakers and battle-dress trousers to protect their knees from the cutting sand. The officer and I, being shod with crepe-soled desert shoes, did not change footwear, but we did put on the long woolen trousers. We then were all given a stiff jolt of rum. The stuff was thick and strong; it tasted and looked like varnish. Almost immediately I began to sweat.
"Well, let's shove off. Watch your silhouette when we go over a rise of ground. The moon won't be big, but it will be at our backs---and, for God's sake, watch out for trip wires."
The Lieutenant led the way from the dugout. The men stumbled up the steps after him---three were armed with tommy guns, two with rifles, the rest with revolvers. All carried bags of hand grenades at their belts. Pretty good armament, I thought, for a gang not looking for trouble,
The night, so it seemed, had become very warm. Before we were through the mine field I was sweating hard. A peculiar form of perspiration was running down my neck and back; it was cold, and its odor was rank. This was caused, I reasoned, by the overworking of the adrenal glands and was not the normal result of exercise.
Once beyond our mine field we spread out, the men on my right and left becoming vague shadows---they were not men; they were shadows moving through shadows. We went slowly, inching our way over hillocky rises. The higher the rise, the flatter we made ourselves. A branch of scrub brush lashed my face, and it smarted when the sweat ran into it. Underfoot were the shaly rock and sand of the desert. No noise we made seemed as loud as my heavy breathing.
The shooting stars (there were many more in the desert than anywhere else I've ever been) startled and chilled me. There was a long pause. I judged we were five hundred yards out. I heard whisperings and mutterings to my right. "Our O-Pip," said the Sergeant.
We went on, but more slowly. The damp night air grew fetid and heavy with the repugnant odor of human dead. Then this abated somewhat, though it clung faintly to my clothes or stayed in my nostrils.
I tried to keep my senses turned outward through all this, to see and hear and feel every nuance, but it was well-nigh impossible. I'd have complete lapses where my one concern was getting over the ground as swiftly and silently as the man on my right and left. Then I'd begin to observe again. I saw a burned-out tank (German Mark IV) and could have touched its blackened sides. By this time I was soaked with sweat and breathing heavily through my mouth. The water ran down from under my helmet and along my nose.
We passed the remains of two lorries, and three corpses on a slight rise silhouetted themselves in the starlight. On and on we went until we were halted by the Sergeant. He and the Lieutenant went on their own little reccy. I took out my compass to check the bearing. The Big Dipper and Polaris were over my right shoulder, the coolish wind was in my face, and I began to dry off with the miserable feeling of one who has taken a bath and has no towel.
The most wearing thing was the silence. Since we had passed through the mine field, no shot had been fired and there had been no untoward noises. We moved in the grave silence of a starlit night. The Lieutenant and Sergeant returned, and we moved on. Now it was slower going; we would scramble a few yards, then wait and listen, then scramble on a few more. Another cadaver threw a vile blanket over us. We passed through it as we would a fog, A machine gun suddenly let loose. I coughed in my surprise and flattened out, but it was one of our own and far to the right. The Indians were over there---they were touchy at night. I watched the tracers rainbow through the night. The gun cut off. We went on in silence.
After another eighty to a hundred yards the man on my right hissed a warning, and the line stopped. He had come upon a trip wire; to walk into it would set off a mine, perhaps a series of mines. While we waited, there came to us a new low resonance; it was someone talking. I strained to hear better, holding my breath until I thought I'd burst my lungs. The silence settled back like a feather quilt. We waited and waited. I could hear the Sergeant and Lieutenant whispering. We retreated slowly, crabwise, for fifty or sixty yards and turned south. We were skirting the enemy mine field. We went by another vile, stinking thing that had once been a man. I could easily have vomited. We gathered in a shallow wadi.
"That was a Jerry O-Pip," the Lieutenant whispered. "We got it taped to a yard. It won't be there in the morning," he promised. He lifted his whisper to include the others. "The Sergeant and I will work out from here. Wait!"
The last word seemed a signal. Flop went a light. We flattened behind the slight convexity of the wadi. Plop, plop went other lights. The surrounding plain was lighted as brightly as a county fair. Then it came.
Machine-gun fire sprayed hot stuff above us, and not far above, for I heard the bullets whining in the air. A mortar exploded directly in front with an orange-red burst. Others came in, creeping toward us, each succeeding one nearer. Bits of shrapnel were slapping the ground. One landed to our right---we felt the concussion and smelled the explosive. For a long time I tasted it on the back of my tongue.
The machine guns were firing in bursts of perhaps ten, and the tracers were ribbons of blue white passing over and to our right and left. Occasionally a burst struck the rocky sand and ricocheted angrily with a whine. The lights blinked off, one by one. As quickly as it started it was over. We lay there for some minutes.
The old Sergeant tugged on my leg. "I think they heard us. We got those machine guns measured."
The Lieutenant came over stealthily. "How's it going?"
I cleared my throat in a grunt. "OK." It had been on the tip of my tongue to say, "This is fun." I'm glad I didn't make a hypocrite of myself---work like this is fun to no one.
"We've another eight hundred yards to go; then we turn back to our own lines."
"How do you know how far?"
The Sergeant grinned at his officer. "We count our paces---we've got to know."
I chewed on that one in silence. Here I had been going along trying to pick up an occasional marker of a tank or a lorry. These two jokers were counting paces and all the while "fixing" the positions of observation posts and machine guns.
It was two-fifteen when we regained the dugout. We had another ration of rum and sat about smoking. The Sergeant and officer bent over a map. The Lieutenant lifted his head and said to the men, "When you've finished your rum, you can go and bash your spines [go to bed]."
They got up and, nodding good night, went out. I stood up and said, "Thanks for taking me along."
"You did all right, Yank. I don't like to take strangers out with me---but you did all right."
"There was nothing to do but keep quiet."
"Well, that's all I ask. If you're around day after tomorrow, come up. We may be sending out a fighting patrol. We want to know if the 90th Light is still over there. The men would like to see you along."
The Sergeant went to my machine with me. "What the Lieutenant says is right, sir. We like to see a joker along who knows how to use that properly." He tapped the Red Cross emergency kit I had slung at my hip.
"That's what I've often wondered about, Sergeant. How much do we with our ambulances and the doctors mean to you fighting men?"
He was slow in answering. He drew heavily from the cigarette held cupped in his hand. "This is my second war, sir. I think I know front-line troops. Take the ambulances and the doctors away from us, and you won't have any fighting men who will fight. Green troops might make one attack without the medical services behind them, but that's all. Just one."
I found out one other thing. To plan and enter into a dangerous task take more courage than the completing of it. Action can surfeit or drown the emotion fear.
On this trip I had been sleeping in a slit trench (a palatial affair, seven feet long by three deep) not far from the 6th Regimental Aid Post. I made my way slowly and cautiously---the area was thick with slit trenches (many of them occupied), and I had to drive with great care. Sleeping men have been killed when trucks moving at night crash into these shallow trenches. I finally found my trench, but it had been filled in and a cross stood at its head.
I continued on to Wadi el Ragle and slept near the palm tree. Due credit should be given this source of great aid to the men driving ambulances and to fighting units. A palm tree, a stunted old palm tree (not more than ten or twelve feet in height), the only palm tree on thirty miles of front was the guidepost of a division. How it came to set root in such a Godforsaken wadi no one will ever know. Invariably if you asked directions to a battalion or company or post, the answer ran, "Know where the palm is? Well, take a bearing of [so many] degrees. Three miles [or whatever it was]---that's where you want to go."
The next day I drove over to see Colonel Daniel McVickers, Assistant Director of Medical Services, of the 1st Armored Division. For some time the drivers of the AFS had been asking for duty with an armored unit. I thought if I could sell Colonel McVickers on the idea the assignment would come through.
"Fighting Dan" McVickers (so called throughout the desert army) is a graduate of Edinburgh and the winner of the Military Cross while with the Coldstream Guards at Passchendaele in 1917. As well as being a fighter, he is a thinker; he is ahead of his time. We became good friends, and from him I took my postgraduate course in the evacuation of wounded.
On this trip he inspected an ambulance---he had seen them about but had never had the opportunity to give them a close look. He had me drive him about, sitting behind, on the stretchers.
Our ambulances are Dodge four-wheel-drive vehicles designed for the United States Army. These machines are tough and rugged---there are none more rugged in the desert. In four-wheel drive they will go nearly anywhere. They will carry four stretcher cases and nine or ten sitting cases. But they have weaknesses in design. With four stretcher cases slung in the rear there is not room for a doctor or driver to get between; if a medical officer wishes to inspect a patient the stretcher must be lifted to the ground. The carrying compartment should be eleven inches wider. There is no partition between the driver and the patients. The head of the patient in the upper left stretcher is no more than eight inches from the driver's head. It does not help the driver to hear every gasp and moan of the wounded at his back. He drives as carefully as possible, but no matter how bad the road he must go on. A partition would prevent a pain-crazed or delirious patient from distracting the driver.
A wider body with a partition would permit a doctor to work inside and the machine would be easier to black out at night. There is ample room under the body for another gasoline tank. The walls and roof should be insulated with a fire-resistant packing. Under the driver's seat and floor board there should be a strip of reinforced steel as a guard against land mines.
The British Bedford and Austin ambulances have the partition and wider body and they give the patients an easier ride, but they are not nearly so rugged as the Dodge and they are not four-wheel drive. Being heavier, they bog down easily.
In fifteen minutes Colonel McVickers picked out the strong and weak points of our machine. He was satisfied our type of machine would fit in better with the maneuvers of an armored division than the Bedfords and Austins. It was not long before we received assignments with armored groups.
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