'I shall remember while the light lives yet
And in the night time I shall not forget.'
The stukas were the worst. I could hear them several miles away, like a vast swarm of bees droning in the distance, heading directly for us across the endless desert sky. At first sight they looked like a plague of silver locusts hovering above us, with nothing to prevent them from swooping down and picking at our bleached bones. My heart would begin to pound in my chest as the humming got nearer. My legs would quiver as the fear rose from the pit of my stomach, clutched at my throat and squeezed tighter and tighter.
A key weapon in Adolf Hitler's massive military machine in the North African Campaign, the dreaded Stukas, or dive-bombers, were specially equipped with wind-activated sirens to make a screaming sound as they plummeted to earth at high speed. Flying in formation in waves of up to a hundred planes at a time, without warning they would break away independently to hurtle headlong towards us, shrieking, spinning and whistling. At the exact moment when their bomb doors opened, the screaming would stop and they would soar silently, almost gracefully, back up into the sky, freed from the burden of their load. For their near-defenceless target on the ground, the echoing quiet which followed was almost as unnerving; an interminable five seconds while the bombs they'd dropped spiralled silently down.
I would count the seconds in my mind, one, two, three, four, five...like a frightened child trying to calculate the next clap of thunder in a storm. And then it would come, that horrible crump and the blinding flash of white light, making me jump every time even though I'd fully anticipated it. The earth would shudder and debris filled the air as the armour-piercing shells exploded on impact, maiming and scorching and disfiguring all around me. And still more planes were on the way, sweeping leisurely over the horizon before slowly circling round, their flanks adorned with black swastikas. The humming they made drew closer and closer until it seemed to be inside my head.
It was the screaming that terrified me more than anything else in that godforsaken spot; the screaming that I could hear long before the ground shook and the grey Libyan dust rose up in a great pillar to mingle with the lethal matter; the screaming that I still heard in my mind long after they had gone. 'Please let it be over, please let it end,' I would murmur softly to myself, but the droning would start again in the distance and I knew that they were coming back.
Sitting alone on the floor in the middle of my dugout -- a narrow grave four feet deep into the floor of the Western Desert, piled up at the edges with sandbags and a thin scrap of khaki canvas stretched over the top -- I would put on my tin helmet and wait. My hands up around the back of my neck, my legs bent and clamped together beneath me so that my chin was tucked well into my knees, I flexed my muscles and held my breath. In my mind's eye, I imagined that I was in a vast underground bunker, much more substantial than this shallow little scraping in the sand. My tin helmet became a huge metal umbrella and if any of the bombs fell on me, I forced myself to believe, they would simply ricochet off like harmless hailstones.
My helmet would protect me by providing an impenetrable barrier against what I had seen the Stukas do to the men around me. The faceless, limbless and dying all called out for their mothers in their native tongue, 'Ma mère!', 'Mutter!', 'Madre!' And I, leaning over them afterwards, the only woman among nearly four thousand men, would duly play the role. I tended to them after the air raids, I helped carry those still alive to the overcrowded hospital tent, I slid shut the eyelids of those beyond help. Then, after each raid, I crept back to my dugout alone, closing off my mind, pressing my own eyelids shut against the grisly sights and sounds and smells I'd just witnessed, and waited once again for the next attack as forty thousand German and Italian troops closed in on our position.
We'd been in this hell on earth for over three months, in a theatre of war that had become pivotal to the outcome of the Axis invasion of North Africa. As the world watched and waited, holding its breath, the legendary German commander Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps were pounding us to dust, using every war machine at their disposal. Each day brought fresh artillery shells whining across the desolate no-man's-land of coiled barbed wire and anti-tank minefields to erupt in the sand. Heavy-calibre machine-gun bullets rained on us almost constantly. The scorching desert sun -- sometimes as hot as 51° Celsius (120° Fahrenheit) with no shade -- sat unchallenged in the sky for fourteen hours a day, baking us dry. We were pestered by sand and flies, had no shade and little water, hardly any food, and had been under continuous attack for just over two weeks. Some of the men were so thirsty that they drank from the radiators of the few remaining vehicles.
The nights brought little respite from the glaring heat. Almost as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, it became bone-achingly cold, the temperatures plummeting to well below zero. We shivered in our pits, the cold depriving us of any sleep we might have been able to snatch between the incessant night raids.
Despite their best efforts, the RAF were unable to do more than pester the relentless waves of Stukas, Messerschmitts, Heinkels and Savoia bombers. The German panzer and Italian Ariete tank divisions were rolling closer and closer across the vast desert plain towards the slit trenches where we were dug in like hares. We were outnumbered ten to one. The noose was tightening.
Rommel, having confidently predicted that we could be crushed in fifteen minutes, had been fighting us for fifteen days. Unaccustomed to such a setback in his hitherto glorious campaign, he had vowed publicly to deal with us himself. Breaking away from the rest of his forces, which were locking horns with the Eighth Army further north, he had come in person to supervise our annihilation. And, despite the gallant efforts of our general and his men, who were constantly badgering the enemy at the periphery of our beleaguered encampment, his determination was paying off.
'Over here, padre,' an officer named Simon called out to Père Mallec, our Yugoslav chaplain, summoning him to administer the last rites to a mortally wounded man on that final evening. 'This man needs your blessing.' Simon and his men had just survived a tank barrage as fierce as any yet, emerging dusty and sweat-stained but grinning from a shattered Bren-gun carrier as fires raged all around.
The chaplain, a thick-set Slovene with an indefatigable spirit, looked up from his sad task. 'No need,' he called, his voice cracking with fatigue. 'By the end of this night, we'll all be in Paradise.' As his hands made the sign of the cross over the shell of the man he was kneeling by, I found I too was crossing myself, despite being an agnostic. The chaplain saw me in my moment of weakness and I retreated hastily back into my hole.
In some strange way, I wasn't afraid to die. I had only myself to blame for being at this previously insignificant place, this compass bearing on the map of Africa on which the future of the entire continent now appeared to rest.
The sun turned the colour of blood and began its slow descent that June night in the summer of 1942, silhouetting the shredded tricolour that still fluttered proudly at the heart of our makeshift garrison. I knew it was only a matter of time before I might have to use the Beretta pistol I now kept permanently to hand. With the same curious sense of calm that had cloaked me as I sat day after day in my dugout under its canvas wing, I quietly accepted that my big adventure might well end soon. Here, at a place called Bir Hakeim...
Copyright © 2001 by Ted Demers