Thursday, September 22, 2022

Into the Fire, Western Desert, October 1941

Australian troops advancing on an Italian position
Imperial War Museum
"Christ it's bloody cold." William O'Shea said over the intercom as he drew his greatcoat tighter around himself.

The advance was halted, waiting for dawn. With the engine off, sitting in the dark, the nighttime cold of the desert gradually seeped into the tank, chilling the entire crew. They had bundled up in their greatcoats after retrieving them from where they had been bundled on the outside of the turret. Of course, they were all saturated with sand.

"It's like wearing sandpaper!" Alan Caddick, the tank's driver, had complained when he was back in his seat after donning his coat.

"That's enough lads, haven't you heard, there's a war on." Sergeant O'Connell snapped over the intercom. He was tired and a bit nervous about going into action blind.

The Aussies had sent out a patrol to investigate a number of campfires over the next ridge. They reported back that it was an Italian Army bivouac, no sign of any Germans, or armor. Which made O'Connell a little happier, until his gunner, James Fitzhugh, asked if they'd seen any sign of dug in anti-tank guns.

While a large part of the Italian Army in the desert was made up of conscripts with indifferent leadership, the same didn't hold true for the Italian artillery. Absolute professionals who worked their guns to great effect. The last thing a tanker ever wanted was driving into an anti-tank gun ambush. O'Connell broke out in a cold sweat at the thought of AT guns in the dim light of dawn.

Morley was shaken awake by the young Italian who had been tasked with guarding him. "Tenente, sveglia!¹"

"Cosa, cos'è, Nicola?²" Morley sat up, he was tired and confused. He did note that sunrise wasn't far off, the horizon was beginning to light up. After a brief moment, he heard engines, tank engines.

"Carri armati tedeschi, tenente, presto, devi nasconderti!²" Private Falasco hissed at him as he tugged on Morley's shoulder.

Groggy, not quite awake, his Italian being not as strong as he'd like, he only understood part of what the Italian said. But the words "German" and "hide" got his attention. He was confused as to why Falasco was helping him, but for now he'd go along.

After refueling, Hoffmeister's platoon received orders to move up to the border with Egypt. He was briefed that there was an Italian camp along the way and he could expect an infantry escort from there. The Italians were not motorized, but they could ride the tanks. At least they would have infantry support, even if it was Italian!

Hoffmeister and his men were bundled up against the cold of the desert night, with the hatches closed and the engine running, the men inside the turret and the hull were comfortable. Only Hoffmeister was shivering as he was standing on his seat, he hated moving buttoned up, especially at night. He was cold, but he could see what was around him.

As the horizon in the east began to light up, the platoon entered the Italian bivouac. He had the platoon assume line formation then halted them. He looked around for someone in charge and saw a man he assumed was an officer, also looking for someone among the Germans in charge. "Das bin ich,³" he muttered to himself as he climbed down off of his Panzer.

He walked over to the man he assumed was an officer, and in the dim light saw that the man indeed was an officer, a major by the looks of it. Hoffmeister stood to attention and offered the man a crisp salute, hoping that the officer spoke German because Hoffmeister knew almost no Italian.

Smartly saluting, the Italian officer spoke. "Good morning, Herr Unteroffizier, Maggiore⁴ Feliciano Stagliano at your service." The man grinned then continued, "Yes, I speak German, I went to university in Ulm."

Relieved, Hoffmeister dropped his salute and said, "Good morning Sir, I was told you would have infantry to escort my Panzers as we reconnoiter the line ahead of your position. Aerial reports indicate a Britisher patrol is moving in this direction."

"If you wish I can provide infantry to ride your magnificent tanks. However, if you like, you can take up position here, behind my anti-tank gun screen, and pick off the English survivors when they charge into my cannon." Stagliano smiled as he said that, the man seemed very confident.

Hoffmeister nodded and said, "I understand that Herr Major, but I have my orders to advance. If you wish I will go forward along your desert flank and if the English do show, we can destroy them together. Given those circumstances, I won't advance very far, so I won't need your men to ride my vehicles. Is this acceptable, Sir?"

Stagliano smiled broadly and said, "I think we are of like mind Herr Unteroffizier. Cover my desert flank and we shall give the Englishmen a warm welcome." He then turned on his heel to rejoin his men.

The Australians were out of their trucks and were advancing briskly towards the Italian positions, the sky was getting lighter as they advanced. Private Caddick remarked over the intercom, "Well, it's officially dawn in these parts."

"What makes you say that, Alan?" Ian Sullivan asked from his bow gunner's position.

"The Arabs say that when you can distinguish a black thread from a white thread, then it is dawn." Caddick answered.

"How do you know ..." Sullivan began before being cut off by the tank commander.

"Quiet lads, the Aussies are going in. Caddick, prepare to move." Then over the R/T he transmitted, "All tanks, this is O'Connell, echelon left, forward, walking pace."

As O'Connell finished, Caddick engaged the transmission and the tank began to crawl forward.

The crew of the Cannone da 47/32 anti-tank gun were ready for whatever came at them from out of the blowing dust. It didn't matter if they were the heavy Matildas or the lighter Crusaders. They were ready.

What they weren't ready for was infantry.

The Australians had packed nearly a half-company into the two big Bedford lorries. Eighty-two men had dismounted behind their armored escort, aligned themselves and plunged into the swirling dust kicked up by the wind rising with the sun.

One man, a private from Brisbane, jumped into an Italian gun pit and began joyfully bayoneting the gun crew. He was having a wonderful time until an Italian gunner smacked him in the back of the head with a crow bar. The Aussie went down, his skull caved in.

His squadmate, also from Brisbane, bayoneted the plucky Italian who went down cursing and swinging that crow bar, catching the Aussie's arm as he did so. His killer's arm broken, the Aussie dropped his rifle.

But his mates swarmed in as he fell clutching his broken forearm. They took out the gun pit and swarmed over the surrounding foxholes manned by Italian infantry. Some of the Italians began to head for the rear.

Maggiore Stagliano was furious, shouting at the running infantry to support their brothers in the artillery. They didn't stop. Stagliano drew his pistol, not to threaten his own men, but to engage the enemy soldiers (who he thought were English) he could see starting to emerge from the dust.

An Australian sergeant stopped, aimed his rifle at the Maggiore and began to shout something. He was bayoneted from behind by a group of Italian infantry who were falling back in good order.

Another Australian emerged, shouting his fury at the Italians, the desert, the war, and life in general. Stagliano could see that the man's bayonet was dripping with blood. The Maggiore was offended for some reason by the man's antics, it didn't seem very soldierly.

That didn't stop Stagliano from shooting the man in the chest as he approached, oblivious to the Italian officer standing in front of him. The Maggiore thought he was starting to get control of the situation as another group of his men joined him and began firing at the advancing Australians.

He was directing a small party of five men to the right flank, in the hopes of stopping the enemy, when a Lee-Enfield .303 bullet hit him and spun him around.

There was no pain at first, but Stagliano was having trouble keeping his balance, and he felt winded. Shaking his head, he aimed at another Australian running at him, screaming. He fired an instant too late.

The man from Perth fell without a sound, the Maggiore's bullet had hit him square in the forehead. As he fell, his bayonet struck home, killing the Italian officer from Firenze as it pierced the man's chest.

The Australian attack was faltering as Italian resistance stiffened. The death of their Maggiore had enraged them, he had been a very popular officer.

The Italian infantry were starting to advance, some of the men who had fled shamefacedly rejoined their comrades. One gun pit was retaken and the gunners among the men in the counterattack quickly prepared the gun for firing.

The bark of a tank cannon off to the desert flank on their right startled the men. But one of their lot recognized the sound of a German gun.

"Steady boys! The Afrika Korps has pitched in!"

"Jesus wept! Now what?" O'Connell watched in horror as one of his vehicles staggered to a stop. He hadn't heard the crack of gunfire on his flank until too late. He was on the R/T at once.

"Wheel left, enemy tanks!"

Morley was wondering what fresh Hell he'd wandered into. His guard, Falasco, had been leading him to the center of the bivouac when firing broke out. The shouts of men killing and dying could be heard very close by.

Falasco shoved him into a trench yelling, "Tenente! Nascondere!"

Morley fell hard, banging his left shoulder into an ammunition crate, causing his arm to immediately go numb. As he tried to sit up, Falasco shoved him back down, his rifle at the ready.

"Nicola! What the bloody Hell!" Morley gasped as he tried again to sit up. Just as Falasco started to shove him back down again, both men froze at the sound of a tank cannon firing, not twenty yards away.

Morley began to wonder if he would ever see his Janice again.

¹ Lieutenant, wake up! (Italian)
² German tanks, lieutenant, quick, you have to hide! (Italian)
³ That's me. (German)
⁴ Major (Italian)


  1. I hear the squawk of the SNAFU Bird, who is usually near the center of the action!

  2. Punch and counterpunch Sarge. Unexpected Australian infantry, unexpected Germans.

    1. War is full of surprises, very unpleasant surprises.

  3. Infantry against infantry with tanks in the wings........hoooo boy!

  4. Our (present) hero is hiding in a trench as their position is attacked.
    Will he be saved? Will he be killed? Will he end up in a German POW camp?
    Stay tuned for the next instalment of "The War! (Late 1941)"!!

  5. All puckered up with this one. Thanks.
    John Blackshoe


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