When darkness came, Private Kev Kendall looked over at Private Mick Smith, who returned an anxious glance. Soldiers were sucking in air. It was electric with anticipation. A golden moon climbed through the fast dwindling storm clouds revealing shadowy figures moving around the Bren-gun carrier. The silence that usually marked the night didn't come. Fighting vehicles moved to their battle positions and caused a low throbbing hum. At 21:00 hours, the noise ceased, and in the silence, Kev felt the tension as he watched men shaking hands with their fellow men knowing what was about to happen.
At precisely hours, on
‘Fire! Fire! Fire!' screamed over and over broke the stillness of the night. Artillery of the 8th Army crashed into action with a terrifying, earth-shaking roar. A wall of flashing lights and the exultant shriek turned into a long malignant howl that rose and rose into a rampant ferocity that echoed from the coast to the
For about fifteen terrible minutes, the weapons thundered. Kev wanted the salvo to smash the enemy until there wouldn't be anyone left to kill him. Then suddenly, far to the east, two searchlights flashed into the sky like a celestial sign and remained stationary. The guns ceased firing. The darkness and the abnormal silence were more terrifying than the noise. It felt like everybody on earth had died. Yellow cordite mingled with stirred up dust and ghostly figures floated past the watchers. Five long-drawn out minutes passed. Kev felt as if the whole world was holding its breath. The searchlights waved and crossed. Scarlet flame stabbed into the grey night like a thousand angry dragons.
‘Cop that!' said Corporal Alby Macintosh, commander and Vickers gunner of the Bren gun carrier. Mick was the Bren Gunner and Kev the driver.
At zero hour, red signal flares hissed, illuminating the waiting army in lurid, light like ghostly apparitions. The rumbling of hundreds of tanks and the rattle from equipment of thousands of foot soldiers filled the silence left by the now soundless guns. They loomed out of the red light and into the moon glow like messengers from Hell. Overhead a continuous stream of angry red and white tracer from two Bofors guns marked the line of advance.
Approaching Tel el Eisa in the carrier, Kev watched as a column of grim faced diggers ran through the 2/43rd Battalion's lines. Vehicles pulling six pounder guns followed. German artillery roared in and smashed into a tank near Kev. A sheet of flame shot into the sky leaving a great steaming brown hole and the tank a blackened pile of metal. One wheel wobbled off into the darkness. No survivors emerged from the tank. More shells landed but other than shrapnel damage, there were no more direct hits.
Mortars with smaller but more accurate detonations blistered around them, and joined crashing enemy artillery. Kev thought it was time to move. The 18th Platoon of the 2/43rd Battalion moved forward to raid Kilo 110 north of the railway line. An angry red-faced officer ran up to Alby and spoke briefly to him, and then ran away again.
‘We're nursemaids for the 18th,' said Alby.
They jumped into the carrier; Alby came in behind the Vickers, with Mick on the Bren.
‘Not too close,' said Alby.
‘Why?' asked Kev.
‘I don't bloody know. It's the Army. You do as you're bloody well told.'
‘Keep your shirt on. I only asked.'
‘Your problem is you want to be the full bottle on everything. Just do as you're told.' Kev moved off in the carrier concentrating on his driving.
‘Lighten up you two,' said Mick.
After so much noise and mayhem, fear made Kev alert as the order to enter the fighting came. His hands shook on the steering wheel as the smell of battle, cordite, gun oil, and the carrier's petrol fumes filtered into the air, but, his training took over and the vehicle responded to his handling.
‘What'd we do?' asked Kev.
‘Mop up anything the 18th leaves,' said Alby.
‘Yes, Sir!' shouted Kev.
‘Don't give me the shits, Kev. I might turn this fuckin' Vickers on you,' said Alby.
They heard small arms fire and the nasty purr of machine guns ahead. An engineer waved them down to show where he had cleared a path through a minefield. Through the field, the carrier's armour sang as bullets cannoned into it.
‘C'mon Boxheads, I've got a present for you,' yelled Mick as the Vickers, and then the Bren fired bursts towards the muzzle flashes. Kev pointed the carrier at the enemy. He noticed two bloodied dead Germans thrown off the track like bits of waste.
The carrier came to a hole in the wire, blown by the engineers, and went through. Ahead, Kev heard gunfire and the screams of wounded soldiers. There was no way of knowing whether they were Australian, or the enemy. He felt the urge to turn around, but saw the grim look on Alby's face and continued. They reached the fighting, and found the 18th Platoon had surprised the enemy. Kev was pleased to see German bodies in many parts of the clearing, some with their entrails spilling onto the ground.
He stopped because there were dead bodies sprawled in his way. ‘What did you stop for?' yelled Alby. ‘Keep going.'
Kev's face showed his disgust. He let the clutch out and felt the bump as the front of the carrier went over the first dead German and soon the vehicle was riding on a carpet of bodies. The flailing blood-red tracks slipped as traction decreased and Kev looked over the side and saw dead eyes staring at him from ashen faces. He looked back at his instruments as if they had the answer to how the tracks were churning and grinding the corpses. After whirling around for what seemed like minutes but was only seconds, the tracks reached ground and Kev bumped clear of the Germans' mangled remains.
Fearful enemy wounded were trying to attend to their wounds. One was placing a bandage on a bloody seared stump that was once his arm. Some were crying out in pain, others were sitting stoically staring at the Australians who were too busy to care. The man with the severed arm tried to run and Kev saw a digger shoot him in the back. He sank to his knees like a priest in prayer, and then collapsed on the ground and kicked for a few minutes then lay still. Five glum prisoners sat with their hands on their heads. Engineers arrived and set charges in an enemy anti-tank gun. The gun exploded with a roar, lifted into the air and settled back with the breech blown out.
Kev heard the rumble of tracks and an enormous shape lurched out of the gloom into the red light of a distress flare, its huge cannon swinging from side to side like the snout of a prehistoric beast. It seemed to fill his entire world. An Allied tank moved into its path. A scarlet flash and the crash of the German gun firing into the British tank sent flame shooting high into the air and lit up the battlefield for a moment. Kev's ears rang, he couldn't hear. Two of the British crew ran from the tank but German tank machine guns sent them crashing into the dirt like broken dolls. Kev sank lower in his seat as the tank's heavy machine gun raked the area, and a digger was almost cut in two only three yards from the carrier. The carrier's armour sounded like the battering machine gun, it was chewing it up and he was sitting inside a reverberating tank. The Platoon Commander stood and signalled withdrawal. A bullet hit him high on the chest; he spun around and crashed to the ground.
‘Hang around Kev. We'll cover the withdrawal,' yelled Alby.
Alby's rapid volleys made the barrel of the Vickers red-hot as he attacked the German infantry. Mick fired so often that empty magazines continually bounced near Kev, who tried to keep British tanks between him and the German tank. He was praying for the order to pull out, because he was worried the armour couldn't take such a battering. The 18th Platoon gathered their wounded as the carrier's constant firing delayed the German advance. Eventually, Kilo 110 was clear of Australians and Kev slowly backed away.
Swinging the carrier around, he raced for the gap in the wire. Mick covered their retreat with a metallic storm from his Bren. They were almost through the wire when Kev yelled, ‘Boxheads. .' Alby swung the machine gun around and attacked the new enemy.
Although the Germans only had small arms, the riflemen had good cover and were close to the gap in the wire where they spread out. One of them stood and threw a grenade. Mick fired and the German was thrown back with the force of the bullets slamming into him. The grenade bounced off the armour. Kev put his foot down and they were well away when, with a rush of air, the grenade exploded, splattering the carrier with shrapnel. They left the attack behind them, and slowed for the minefield.
They found some of the retreating 18th Platoon's diggers struggling with wounded. Kev stopped and Alby and Mick got out so two of the injured could ride. Other wounded were placed across the carrier and with six diggers walking; they took the injured soldiers to a field hospital. Other platoons were already back and Kev learned how units in the brigade had met with similar success. He heard the whistle of an artillery shell and dived behind sand bags. He stayed there for four hours while the enemy pounded the Australian lines.
Over the next few days, life was comparatively quiet. Other than the occasional artillery barrage, the enemy was occupied elsewhere. Kev watched teams of allied bombers; they called the "Football Team", make regular sorties against the enemy.
Kev brought the carrier in behind the 2/43rd to relieve the beleagued 2/48th Battalion at the Blockhouse in pitch darkness. There was no noise; Alby had to walk in front so that they could find the way. There had been no prior reconnaissance and very little briefing.
At the next morning, a large shell landed on one of the carriers, the vehicle lifted into the air and slammed down onto the crew sheltering behind it. Seared body parts, and mangled metal covered the men in debris and smoke. Kev, Mick, and Alby crawled over to the stricken crew. Two had been crushed and were dead. Kev picked up another but his viscera was swelling out of his severed flesh. He died. Kev shuddered as Stukas screamed at them out of the sky, causing more havoc further along the battalion's lines.
The diggers cheered when RAF Hurricanes arrived. They watched the fighters chase the Stukas. The British caught six of the enemy aircraft and each time one was shot down in a swirling ear-splitting dive exploding like a flaming silver oversize ball, shouts of victory echoed across the battlefield.
Next day, they were ordered to approach Barrel Hill and support the 9th Platoon. German tanks had broken through and came between the carrier and the 9th. Heavy machine gun fire pounded the carrier and Alby yelled, ‘Piss off, Kev. Get out.'
Kev slammed his foot to the floor and wheeled the carrier away from the tanks. ‘Looks like the 9th has copped it,' said Kev. He thought of his best mate Steve Yardley who was a member of the 9th Platoon. ‘I hope Steve's all right.'
‘Infantry at ,' Alby yelled as he swung the Vickers around from the speeding carrier and two Germans crashed to the ground their bodies riddled with bullets. It looked like at least a platoon, so Kev veered towards the 2/43rd's lines as rifle fire bounced off the armour.
‘We're getting done,' yelled Alby.
‘Where's our bloody tanks? This thing's as good as a country shit-house against those bastards,' yelled Kev.
‘Needed elsewhere,' said Alby.
‘They're needed here,' said Mick.
Kev heard the cries of wounded as he retreated in the face of the German advance. He slowed.
‘Keep going, Kev. We can't stop,' said Alby. Kev felt guilty because his first response was relief.
At hours, the Germans attacked the 2/43rd again, and Kev, Mick, and Alby watched the "Football Team" arrive and drive the troops and the tanks back. All the watching diggers shouted abuse at the Germans and cheered their airmen.
By the close of day, the 2/43rd Battalion had lost the forward slopes of Barrel Hill, but still had a firm grip on the reverse side. The top of the hill was a ‘no man's land' with neither side able to take it.
The next day, Kev was tightening the carrier's tracks after all the action the previous day. He was well away from the battle and he could hear intermittent gunfire. It was quieter, and he wondered whether the German's had retreated. A digger hailed Kev near his carrier. ‘You're Kev, aren't you? A mate of Steve Yardley's?'
‘How is he?'
‘Dead mate. He copped it up near the Blockhouse. He was a brave bastard but. He saved the rest of the section.'
Kev caught his breath in anger.
‘It's a bastard to lose a mate.'
‘He was the best mate a man could have.'
The digger walked away. Kev slumped down near his carrier. He thought of all the silly things, like Steve's face when they first met as he was offering Kev a beer, or his excitement when a girl agreed to have sex with him in
He felt a hand on his shoulder. Alby's soft voice said, ‘Come on Kev, we have to go out again.'
‘I'm coming, you heard the bastards got Steve.'
The enemy were gone next day, except for a few German Bombers. The battle of