Authors: John Harris
Lieutenant Harry Marder considered. He was an Oxford graduate with the university man’s habit of dissecting everything minutely – so minutely, in fact, you couldn’t sometimes see the pieces – and a superficially fluent command of French, German and Italian that would have been more valuable to the army if it had extended to a fuller understanding of some of the finer nuances of those languages. He liked to be amusing about the Intelligence branch, claiming it consisted of out-of-work journalists, Latin scholars, booksellers, unwanted clergymen and fugitives from university common rooms; but he was proud of his job nonetheless and regarded himself as making a considerable contribution to the war effort.
‘I understand, sir,’ he said, ‘that in the other war, General Marshall-Cornwall used to crawl out into No Man’s Land to listen to the Germans talking. He was able to judge whether they were from Bavaria or Saxony by their accents.’
Yuell frowned, wishing that Marder would sometimes give him a direct answer.
‘That’s no help,’ he said testily.
‘No, sir,’ Marder agreed. ‘But until we have some prisoners to question, I can’t see how we can ever give a proper appreciation. The Duke of Wellington used to say that all the business of war, indeed all the business of life, was to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do – what he called guessing what was at the other side of the hill. But that’s a bit difficult with a river between us. Whose was the appreciation, sir?’
‘They say he intends to go in for politics after the war,’ Peddy observed.
‘It’s a measure of how safe he feels that he can plan for after the war,’ Yuell growled. ‘I wish I could. All the same, it’s not entirely a bad plan, though it’d be better if there were more crossings. It’s the first principle of forcing a river position that there should be plenty of points of attack, so that the enemy can’t deal with any of them in strength. On top of that, we’re too close together. The Germans can deal with both crossings with the same defence.’
He lit a pipe and sucked at it for a while, before going on. ‘However, I gather we’ve been promised everything we want – boats, artillery, tanks, the lot, and all the back-up services we need. What’s more, if things begin to look dicey, it’s to be called off and something else tried.’
‘When’s it to be, sir?’
‘Three days,’ Peddy mused. ‘That’s not long. Will there be a rehearsal?’
‘No time.’ Yuell frowned again, feeling this too was a mistake. ‘They decided, after all the rivers we’ve already crossed, that we ought to know something about it.’
A Company officers received their first briefing the following day in Warley’s room. Graziella had swept and polished and dusted it as if he were the Pope about to give an audience.
‘It’s only a bunch of soldiers,’ he said.
‘Nevertheless, they must not feel you are neglected.’
It had delighted him but, faced by his officers, he was in a thoughtful mood. ‘We’re for it,’ he said. ‘We’re to be part of a push across the river. In front of San Eusebio.’
He explained the plan as he’d received it from Yuell, and Jago sniffed.
‘Bit optimistic, isn’t it?’ he said in a flat voice. ‘All this business of the Yellowjackets going across at Castelgrande half a mile away and then hacking along the river bank to San Eusebio.’
‘That’s the way I’ve got it, Tony.’
‘It’s too bloody obscure,’ Jago grumbled.
‘Well, it doesn’t exactly run out and bite you in the leg,’ Warley admitted with a grin. ‘But I suppose they know more about it than we do.’
Jago grinned back at him. ‘It’s always been my impression that the staff know a bloody sight less than the chaps who’re going to do the job,’ he said. ‘Come to that, how
we going to do it? The bloody place bristles with guns and that’s God’s plain unvarnished and unbuckled truth, and you can’t get away from it.’
Warley shrugged. ‘Brigade seems to think we can manage it; but then, of course, so do Division, Corps and Army. All the way back to Naples and London and Number 10, Downing Street, I expect. Let’s have Farnsworth in.’
In front of the officers, CSM Farnsworth was so stiff he seemed all bone. Warley offered him a cigarette and pushed a chair forward.
His first meeting with Farnsworth had been on the Egypt-Libya border. Standing upright by a heap of sandbags, staring across the empty desert with his binoculars, Warley had asked, ‘Where’s the front line?’ Farnsworth, crouching well down, had hesitated for a second before answering, ‘At the moment, sir, I suspect you’re standing on it.’
Warley had ducked out of sight and they had grinned at each other, Warley faintly sheepish, Farnsworth with no sign of superiority, and it had been the beginning of a long and easy relationship that made the passing on of orders a very simple business.
‘We’re moving up, Fred,’ Warley announced briskly. ‘In two days’ time.’
Farnsworth smiled. It was like a crack appearing in concrete. ‘This river crossing, sir?’
Warley’s head jerked round. ‘How did you hear about that?’
‘It seems to have been around since yesterday, sir.’
‘Does it, by God? Where did it come from?’
‘HQ Company runner was at Brigade, sir, you’ll remember. He brought it back. He didn’t like the sound of it. Come to that, sir, neither do I.’
Warley frowned; then he shrugged. ‘I expect,’ he said, ‘that, as usual, the ordinary common or garden soldier will salvage everybody’s reputation.’
Perhaps he would, but he wasn’t very keen all the same. Unlike the people, sitting at home in clubs complaining about the slow movement of the army up Italy, unlike the Prime Minister who felt they were being wasted and should be allowed to get on with the job; unlike everybody except themselves and their friends, in fact, they had no particular wish to be part of the battle. People got hurt in battles.
It was all right planning battles, seeing them in great sweeps on the map. It was a bit different when you were up at the sharp end. The descriptive phrases used by newspaper correspondents and war commentators about ‘flinging in armour’, ‘pouring in reserves’ and ‘launching pincer movements’ gave a fairly reasonable impression to those at home with a map in front of them; but most of the men involved would have found it difficult to recognise just what part they’d really played, even if they’d had it pointed out to them.
It had come as a surprise to them to read in such newspapers as found their way out from home that the time when they’d spent three days cowering in the mud behind a wrecked farmhouse, they were reserves being ‘poured in’, and that the shambles at Sant’ Agata di Militello was part of a ‘pincer movement’. They hadn’t been aware that these occasions even were battles. They’d merely thought they were just continuing the painful advance up Italy through mud, mountain and river, which seemed to have been going on ever since the dawn of time and, as far as they could see, would continue until the Last Trump sounded.
The more intelligent of them, of course, knew that the war was on the home straight at last and that if they could only get going again in Italy, the Second Front could be launched across the Channel while the attention of the Germans was occupied in trying to hold on to Rome.
‘After all–’ Fletcher-Smith spoke with the authority of scholarship and the romantic view of a man heavily involved with an Italian girl – ‘they’re bound to try. Italy’s the land of the Romans.’
‘You know what they can do with Italy?’ 766 Bawden said. ‘They can fold it three ways and stick it where the monkey sticks its nuts.’
‘If they up-ended the mountains and slotted ’em into the valleys,’ 000 Bawden chimed in, ‘they’d be able to roll it reasonably flat.’
‘Tha ought to suggest that to t’ staff,’ Rich said enthusiastically. ‘It’d make transport a ’ell of a lot easier.’
For just a little longer Heaven continued to lie about them, but soon it began to dawn that with all the new
equipment and new weapons that were flying about, something was in the wind.
A river crossing, they were told, and they were even less happy when they heard that. River crossings were the worst possible means of getting from one place to another. Without the Navy around to help, the launching of small boats by rank amateurs, weighed down by heavy equipment, was bad enough even in daylight. At night time, while being shot at, it was about as horrifying as anything that wartime could produce. And added to that they were all too well aware that the boats, flat-bottomed and not possessed of much in the nature of bows or stern, wouldn’t lend themselves to anything much more demanding than a duckpond on a calm day; especially when their occupants were being shelled, mortared and raked by machine-gun fire.
‘River crossin’s are bloody ’ard work,’ Duff said, his small face full of alarm.
‘An’ ’e knows all about work, don’t you, Lofty?’ Parkin said. ‘All that flannel about “Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go” comes natural. ’E’s one of the Seven Dwarfs.’
Martindale gestured with his pipe. ‘Yon river’s fifty feet wide an’ twelve feet deep,’ he pointed out aggrievedly in his slow, plodding, ploughman’s manner. ‘And when you can’t swim like me, that’s enough to drown in.’
As he spoke, showers of sparks threatened to set light to the straw on which they were lying and Private Rich, having beaten out the threat of fire in his immediate vicinity, moved away a little to avoid being blinded. ‘They’ll ’ave to clear t’ near bank,’ he grated in his Dracula voice. ‘They’ll ’ave to ave a ’olding force to stop t’ Teds puttin’ us off as we go forward.’
‘There’s a fat lot of good a holding force will be,’ Evans the Bomb said. ‘With the whole bloody area open to observers on the hills.’
‘Under the circumstances–’ Hunters looked up from where he was scraping mud off his greatcoat – ‘I’m going out tonight to find myself a dame.’
‘They say there’s a concert,’ 766 Bawden said. ‘An ENSA job.’
‘They never ’ad concerts when I joined up,’ Henry White observed.
‘Gi’e o’er, ’Enry,’ Parkin said. ‘Look what fun it was when they turned the lions loose on the Christians.’
‘Did you know’ – this time the voice was Fletcher-Smith’s – ‘that a squad of Yellowjackets got down to the river a week ago to lift the mines the Teds laid? The next night they went again and lost five men from mines.’
‘Obviously didn’t do a very good job of it,’ 000 Bawden said.
‘That’s just the point,’ Fletcher-Smith insisted. ‘They did. They were
mines. The Teds had crossed the river again and laid some more.’
Private Syzling summed up the prevailing feeling better than anybody. He could see ahead of him days of cold, wet misery with the Germans shooting at him and probably even killing him. At the very least going without food and having that stupid nit, Deacon, nagging at him to stand up straight or keep his head down, to clean his rifle and find his kit, and above all to behave like a man with some pride in himself and his company. All in all the future outlook – and Syzling’s future outlook rarely went beyond the next week – was sheer unadulterated gloom.
‘A battle!’ he said indignantly as he pinched out his fag-end and stuck it in his pocket. ‘You’d think they was tryin’ to get us killed.’
Curiously enough, the thoughts that Syzling was thinking were much the same as those running through Captain Reis’ mind on the other side of the river.
To Reis it stuck out a mile that Germany had already lost the war, but the lunatics in Berlin seemed to want to see the German army – the whole German nation – go down in some sort of fiery Götterdämmerung. No wonder Wagner, with his love of gods and gloom and Valhalla, appealed to the feverish and twisted intellects that were running the country.
Reis had lost a dozen good friends since he’d become a soldier and he couldn’t help thinking uneasily, and not for the first time, that there must be something wrong with the popular conception of the Almighty, with His mercy and His justice, when He could allow such things to happen while the monsters in Berlin continued to wax and grow fat. Though Nemesis was clearly approaching,
were still alive and still enjoying the fleshpots while far finer men had long since gone to their graves – German and enemy alike. The idea that it was sweet and fitting to die for one’s country seemed to have become just a tired old platitude. As a good Catholic and a good German, it worried Reis.
Standing by the sandbagged window of the cellar of the farmhouse in San Eusebio which he had made his headquarters, his elbows resting on the sill, his eyes glued to his binoculars, he tried to push the bitter thoughts from his mind and concentrate on the job in hand. But it wasn’t easy. He had a wife he hadn’t seen for over a year and a child he had never seen at all and, though the Rhineland where he lived was safer than Hamburg, Berlin or the Ruhr, these days nowhere in Germany could be called secure. Enemy bombers ranged over the country twenty-four hours a day.
They had been promised airy sunlit homes: Well, thanks to the enemy bombers they’d got them. Anybody who
got an airy sunlit home these days – a home with the roof still on and the windows still in – could be called lucky. Even along the rural areas of Rhine there had been raids and attempts to mine the stream. Yet still the gang in Berlin seemed quite happy to go on as they always had, as if they were untouchable.
was the saying. Everything’s ticking over.
Hitler ist der Sieg.
Hitler is Victory. But with men of sixty-five being called into the Volksstürm and the cracks in the national façade appearing faster than the Nazi propagandists could paper them over, such sayings took on a hollow ring. And in the meantime, men continued to die.