Listening to the battle from a tank

A Sherman tank with a Christmas greeting painted on its hull, Benghazi, 26 December 1942.

A Sherman tank with a Christmas greeting painted on its hull, Benghazi, 26 December 1942.

A Stuart tank comes to the rescue of a truck which has become stuck in soft sand near Nufilia, 26 December 1942.

A Stuart tank comes to the rescue of a truck which has become stuck in soft sand near Nufilia, 26 December 1942.

For many men there was little time to mark Christmas or the celebration had to be delayed. Out in the desert of North Africa the pursuit of Rommel’s forces continued.

This is an opportune day to include an undated passage from Keith Douglas from this period. Whilst the US Marines may have had their Navajo Code talkers, the British officers had their own code of communication both on and off the battlefield. Only those within the circle could truly understand what was being said:

From the first appearance of the enemy, a Crusader troop leader, well out in front of the regiment, sees and hears the whole action, almost as if it were a pageant prepared for his entertainment: for hours on end it may continue to be exciting in quite an impersonal way.

A Crusader Mk II, often used out in front for reconnaissance and probing the enemy, was the tank commanded by Keith Douglas.

A Crusader Mk II, often used out in front for reconnaissance and probing the enemy, was the tank commanded by Keith Douglas.

He sees a suspicious blob on the horizon; halts his squat turret almost level with a ridge and scrutinizes the blob through his glasses. Pressing the switch of his microphone, releasing it a moment to see if someone else is talking, and pressing it again, he says: ‘King 2. Something that looks like a tank to my front, about three miles, I’m on your right. Over.’

‘King 2. O.K. off to you. King, did you hear King 2’s message? ‘King, yes. Let him keep bumming on. But be cautious. Off,” says Piccadilly Jim to Edward.

‘King 1,’ says Edward, calling the squadron, ‘slow down a bit and have a good look from hull down before you go swarming over ridges. Over.’ ‘2 O.K. off, 3 O.K. off, 4 O.K. off`.’ ‘King 2, 3, 4, O.K. off to you. King 5, did you get my last message? ‘King 5. Yes. Over.’ ‘King 5, well bloody well wake up and acknowledge. Off.’

‘Off” caps the rebuke, like a telephone receiver being hung up.

We have two main sources of allusion, horses and cricket. ‘Uncle Tom, what’s the going like over this next bit? Can we bring the, er, unshod horses over it?’ ‘Uncle Tom, I”m just going over Beecher’s myself, you want to hold ’em in a bit and go carefully, but after that it’s good going for the whole field!’

‘King 2 Ack,’ says someone who has broken a track. ‘I shall need the farrier, I’ve cast a shoe.’ Someone else is ‘having trouble with my horse’s insides. Could I have the Vet?’

Metaphor changes: ‘King 2, someone is throwing stones. I can’t see where from yet. Over,’ and a little later Piccadilly Jim asks: ‘King 2, now that that chap has retired to the pavilion, how many short of a full team are you?’

As the action goes on, metaphors, direct speech, codes, sequences of messages are intermingled, until a good deal of concentration is needed to disentangle them.

‘King 2. There are a couple of 88s on that grey ridge to my right. One is near the brew up, and the other to the left of it, about two degrees. Over.’ ‘King 2. O.K. off to you. Orange Pip, can you see those 88s of King 2’s? Over.’

‘George 4, is that a vehicle moving on your right front? Over.’ ‘Orange Pip, yes. Getting gunfire on now. Over.’ ‘George 4. Yes, I reported it just now. Over.’ ‘George 4, are you bring fire on to it?’

‘King, have you anything to report? Over.’ ‘George, one of your children came up in the middle of my transmission then, when I was trying to talk to King. It’s most difiicult and annoying, and I won’t have it… Tell him to bloody well keep off the air when I’m trying to fight a battle. Off . . . er, to you. King, King, have you anything to report? Over.’

‘King, King, signals. Over.’ ‘King 2, I think one of those guns is being towed away. Over.’ ‘King 2 or whoever that is, GET OFF THE BLOODY AIR when I’m trying to talk to some- body. Off…. King, King, signals over! ‘King, strength NINER. I’m sorry, I was talking to my jockey. Could you say again? Over.’

And so on.

See Keith Douglas: Alamein to Zem Zem

Posed photograph of infantry 'rushing towards enemy positions through a smoke screen' near Nufilia, 26 December 1942.

Posed photograph of infantry ‘rushing towards enemy positions through a smoke screen’ near Nufilia, 26 December 1942.

Lance Corporal Charles Jeffrey, Private George McCulloch and Sergeant John Spowart of the Camerons who all won medals for bravery at El Alamein, 26 December 1942.

Lance Corporal Charles Jeffrey, Private George McCulloch and Sergeant John Spowart of the Camerons who all won medals for bravery at El Alamein, 26 December 1942.

The grave of a Scots Greys officer lies beside his Stuart reconnaissance tank, 26 December 1942.

The grave of a Scots Greys officer lies beside his Stuart reconnaissance tank, 26 December 1942.

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