We were on two hours on-two hours off that first night. The paint had been spread all over Stan, and Ernie had liberated some net curtains that broke up our shape, but I still felt isolated even though the rest of the troop were lying up either side of us in their own little patches of cover.
I didn’t get much kip at all, because I kept seeing the German twitching on the ground as great fountains of blood sprayed all over him and the snow, his head hanging to one side where the .45 had taken away most of his neck. I ended up seeing him most nights after that, him and many others.
About three in the morning, Bob shook us all awake as the sound of engines drew near, but they were ours in reality this time and not just in uniform. Our boss called down to me.
“Get up and have a look at these buggers, Ginge! I’m angling for a swap, me”
I scrambled up and stuck my head out into the freezing air, then ducked back down for Mam’s woolly delight. Once wrapped, I looked out to see a number of Morris C8s, each towing a thing of absolute beauty to my tired eyes. 17-pounder anti-tank guns, the same thing they’d squeezed into Sherman turrets to make the Firefly, and I could see exactly what Bob had in mind. There was no chance, much as I would have loved one. Long round, long breech mechanism, ferocious recoil, all far too big for our cramped little turret, and what was its rate of fire? Our QF was nowhere near as effective, but we had proved its speed of fire against that Tiger. With Ernie loading, I knew we could always get a shot off, and that is a good way to distract a bigger opponent long enough to get out of danger. For a while, anyway.
Bob dismounted and went to discuss things with our own Officer Mr Nolan, who had turned up with the guns. I could see lots of pointing, and the Lieutenant was obviously amused enough by Wilf’s efforts to shake Bob’s hand.
Bob was soon climbing back in, rubbing his hands together with the cold, and just sat there till five, lost in thought and eventually snoring. Wilf got everybody up at five, and begged a favour.
“Don’t like an open flame when we’re like this, Bob. Can I try and sort something out in the house?”
“As long as no smoke, aye lad?”
“Wilco. Lads, if I can, porridge? Got a gash load of powdered milk off the last replenishment, and there’s that sack of oatmeal cakes. Might work, might not, but either way it’ll be warm”
We were all in agreement with that idea, and off he went. An hour later, we were in heaven. God knows how he managed it, but Wilf was one of life’s champion scroungers, and always seemed to come up with something to eat that was at the very least better than normal rations, and at its best as close to heaven as any of us would ever get in that bloody war. This time, he even found proper bowls and spoons in the kitchen.
There was silence of a sort as we ate, snow coming in through Bob’s open hatch, and then with a sigh of contentment he started gathering up the empties.
“Wilf, lad, that were above and beyond even for you. We’ll have another brew in a bit, but I’ll fill you in on what’s planned. Jerry has come a bloody long way forward, but there’s been some bloody good work by the Yanks either side of the break in the lines. Turns out that the place they hit was full of green troops, and they weren’t up to it. The lads on the flanks, though, they’d come the same way we did, and they didn’t break. Sounds like they broke a lot of Jerries, though. That pair of pretend MPs, aye, they were part of a lot of stuff like that intended to disrupt us from behind. Yanks have caught quite a few, but ours were first ones in Khaki. Now, we’ve got the Yeomanry in front of us, mostly in Daimlers, so check twice if you see a vehicle to our front. Guns are attached to West Riding boys, so give the lads a ‘what cheer?’ when you have time. Thing is, Jerry is coming this way. He should go past us, but Monty thinks he’s going to have a go at the bridges here and up and down stream.
“We will be doing that little German trick, for once. 4, 5 and 6 troop are going to advance noisily once the Yeomanry have found Jerry, and then retire. The opposition are believed to be Panthers with some Mark IVs mixed in. If they take the bait, it will be messy work, lads”
I could see what he meant. The guns near us would be more than capable of doing to Jerry what he usually did for us.
“Not that I’m eager to volunteer, like…”
Wilf snorted his tea up his nose. “Nobody who’s lived this long is that fucking stupid!”
I raised a hand to silence him. “What I was wondering is why we aren’t the ones out front. I mean, it is sort of our job. Not complaining, though, am I?”
Bob nodded. “Thank our master of the kitchen for that one, lad. Mr Nolan were right impressed by Wilf’s work with paint, and those net curtains, and he said it would be a crying shame to put it all to waste. Our part is to lie ready. When time is right, we advance, counter-attack like. East Riding boys are over other side, lying up. Eyes peeled and sharp, lads. Let’s not hurt any of our own”
“Just wondering, like. What happened to that bastard they took away?”
“Uniforms were from some lads in XXX Corps, they took them in Holland. Buggers were both SS, had the tattoos”
Bob turned to me as he caught my confused look.
“They don’t have a big one saying ‘Heil Hitler, Long Live the SS’, lad, but all of them have their blood group marked on them. Anyway, Colonel of the East Ridings held a drumhead and then the bastard went for a long drop on a short rope”
He put a hand on my shoulder. “No time for the formalities, lad. This is too shitty a war to bother about that now. Right, lads: weapons check, another brew if you would be so kind, Wilf, fags if you have’em and then we’ll be standing to”
The day stayed dreary, snow falling steadily from a leaden sky, and I began to get bored. Wilf did a couple more brews, and there was the occasional glow reflected back from the clouds dropping their white rubbish, but it was hours before we started to hear the crack of individual high-velocity weapons. Bob was sitting wholly inside, his headset on and his eyes closed, trying to follow developments in what was clearly building up into a savage encounter while he awaited our own orders. I had my head out, beret pulled down as far as I could get it over my balaclava and hands jammed into the pockets of my pixie suit. I really felt for the PBI, stuck out all night in not much more than battledress.
There was movement up front. I gave Bob a nudge with my foot, and he was out next to me in a second.
“What you got, Ginge?”
“Vehicles, about two hundred yards past that big oak in the field. Don’t know what they are yet”
“Sunray, sunray, Bravo Seven One”
“Movement to our front. Range four hundred”
“Yes, bloody snow indeed. My boy’s a sharp one”
“Understood. Listening out”
“Ernie, get up here, but load AP first. Harry, warm her up. Ginge, I am off out for a bit. You get into your seat and check your sightlines”
Ernie took the set, and Bob was off for only five minutes, clearly passing the orders by word of mouth and runner. Ernie slipped back down behind me as Bob fastened everything back on, brushing bits of snow from his shoulders.
“Yeomanry will be across shortly, lads, so watch your front and hold your fire. Our boys will be the next. They’ll go straight down that lane to our left, so pick your targets with care”
Wilf called back. “We’ll have some targets then, Bob, not just the hares?”
Bob sighed yet again, a sound I was getting to dread. “Not just the hares, son. Bloody great load of hounds behind them, too. Now, pick your targets, boys, but not even a sneeze till I give the word. All set?”
We gave him a little chorus of “Aye” and I settled myself against my periscope. The first vehicle over the bridge was a Dingo, and then there were two Daimler cars, turrets trained rather hopefully to their rear, followed by Cromwells. I counted to thirteen before that one stopped with a bang and a flash from the engine bay. I sat uselessly as the hatches flew open, and thanked God when I saw five figures actually running across the bridge, nobody missing, nobody being carried. Another shot hit the tank when they were twenty yards clear, and the blast wave took three of them off their feet. They were soon up and running, though, as Harry made sure we were fully warmed up.
Infantry came over the bridge next, and they were ours, firing and dropping back in sections. They didn’t all get across, and I felt my fingernails slicing into my palms as I sat there like the most useless waste of space in the whole of Belgium. The West Riding boys were busy, though, and mortar rounds began dropping over the far end of the bridge while Brens hammered at the same spots.
Squat, that was my first thought. Wide and angled and fastened to the ground by the slope and weight of its armour, and I realised I was about to die as two of the guns right by us spoke. I saw the strikes through my gunsight, and they were beautiful in a dreadful way. The Panther simply skewed to its right as one broken track spooled forward off its roadwheels, and the driver lost interest due to the very precise hole right under his vision slit.
The Bren gunner was waiting. No quarter.
There were others, and I was about to fire when my whole world rang like the biggest of bells, and Bob had his hands on my shoulder straps and my head was already through the hatch.
He almost threw me from the turret top, Ernie close behind me. I grabbed a look back, to see Harry following…
We got thirty yards away before Stan blew his turret off. The Germans retired, badly mauled, after another six hours of shit and noise and death, and after everything had cooled down, we got what was left of Wilf out of the wreckage and buried him in that back garden.
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