I’ll See You Down There
Oldenburg, Germany, 2001.
It had been a good reunion. The number of veterans was now getting to be very few, and those few were frail. He was rather proud of himself, he had been able to stand to attention throughout the National Anthem and had joined in singing Das Fallschirmjägerlied – Rot Scheint de Sonne.
It was the sixtieth anniversary of the landing on Crete, sixty years since the greatest disaster and the greatest success that the regiment had achieved. There were so many comrades to remember, and singing and drinking was the best way to do it. It was the way the dead ones would have approved of.
They had lost so many in Crete.
That thought no longer made him sad. It was already sixty years since he lost them and realistically it had to be less than ten more until he would join them in the beyond… whatever lay beyond.
Of course the alcohol had made him sleepy, and he had woken to find himself tucked up in bed. He had smiled to himself and had hoped that the young man who had undressed him had been handsome. He was still partial to a handsome young man. He tried to remember the last one. He had been seventy he recalled. They had taken him to a bar in Berlin to celebrate his birthday, and he had left discreetly with a young soldier. He had told the barman to tell the others that he had left with a girl. The barman had grinned and pocketed a handsome tip.
The young soldier had been shocked by the scars on his body. He had been even more shocked when he had listed the places where he had received the wounds.
“Did you win many medals in the process?” He asked, attempting to lighten the moment.
“Two Iron Crosses and the Croix de Guerre!” He laughed… “I changed sides!”
“Where did you win the Croix de Guerre?” He was sure that this was where the story would acquire holes.
“At Dien Bien Phu!” He replied. “I lost most of my good friends during the march out of the jungle.” He went quiet.
The young man sensibly chose to remember why they were there, before the mood of the moment could darken further. He had a thing for men old enough to be his grandfather. He had never met his grandfather. He had been killed as a Volksturm during the final battle for Berlin.
Life has so many unknown coincidences. If they had only known, Gottfried’s father had died alongside him.
But, that wasn’t why they were there and Gott lay back with a satisfied smile as the young man went down on him. He closed his eyes and remembered… a school, a barracks, a naturist beach… it didn’t matter. As long as his eyes were closed the mouth always started as Mustafa, particularly if the head in his lap was curly… but, at the end, when it was time… It would always be Gerhard that he called for.
Operation Mercury, 20 May 1941.
The major was excited. Luftwaffe High-Command had told him in extreme secrecy, that his men were to lead the attack on Crete. That the Luftwaffe was to be entrusted with a complete invasion was unique. At Eben Emael they had spear-headed the attack but with the Wehrmacht close behind, just a few miles behind.
This time, the Luftwaffe’s Fallschirmjäger would have to secure the island on their own. Only when it was secure would the rest of the German and Italian forces be able to arrive by sea, assuming that Britain’s Royal Navy allowed them to.
If the Royal Navy were successful in bottling them up on the island then they could be there alone for quite some time. In that case, the British might have time to bring in reinforcements from Egypt and North Africa. This adventure was not only an honour… it was also a tremendous gamble.
He and his superiors discussed the plans over the next few months, always by Enigma encrypted messages. Only a handful of men knew about the plans they were drawing up. At Oranienburg he was one of very few.
In Germany, the time came for news to spread down the chain of command. Harald had at last been told of his role in Operation Mercury. The capturing of Crete would be done using paratroopers and gliders, all three battalions would be in the first wave on 20 May 1941.
Harald was assigned to lead part of the glider force. They were being tasked with taking the capital, Chania.
Suddenly, Harald was not a happy man. He had understood the Führer’s insistence that Eben Emael should be a glider attack. There were good reasons and it had saved a lot of lives. But this time, his men were about to attack the British, and the British would have the radar that the Belgians had lacked! A glider attack would not come as a surprise this time. It would be like shooting geese, large fat lumbering birds.
Harald was proud to have been asked, he was one of the most senior survivors of the attack on the Belgian forts at Eben Emael, but… he couldn’t be happy that they wouldn’t be jumping… His men were jumpers after all. Just as much to the point, whoever was in those gliders would be in for a rough time. He didn’t want them to be his men.
He didn’t want them to be someone else’s either, but his own men came first.
He walked round and round the encampment for an hour, and then, having arranged his arguments in his head, he set off to find the major.
“Permission to speak, Herr Major!”
“What’s on your mind Harald? Why so serious?”
“Herr Major, Division have assigned my men to a glider attack. I feel that better use could be made of them!”
“You’re probably right, but… somebody has to lead the gliders and after Eben Emael you’re probably the best man for the job, and your men go with you.”
Flattery was not going to work… the major was undoubtedly correct, but Harald was not to be deflected.
“Major, I have the best trained jumpers in the regiment… You know they are the most reliable at landing. There hasn’t been a broken wrist or a twisted ankle for months. Gott and Sigi have them jumping nearly as well as they do. What we shall need are men safely on the ground, men who can get out of their harness without standing up or worrying about the quartermaster! For my men to arrive in a glider like office workers… it’s a terrible waste… they’re jumpers. It’s jumpers who will take the battlefield… the gliders are just reinforcements!”
The major fixed him with his one good eye…
“So, you want to go in with the first wave… lead the attack? You want to risk your young men when the enemy is at his strongest? There’s little hope of surprise… this isn’t a re-run of Eben Emael!”
“Major… If we are killed to a man, we shall still achieve more than we would arriving as reinforcements. These are the best of your men, they should lead the attack… even if all their mothers have to collect Iron Crosses!”
“So be it then. I shall re-write the orders. Good luck! I think you will need it!”
“Thank you sir. My men will do you proud… and, don’t start writing letters just yet. I think Gott and his mates will have every intention of gathering here afterwards.”
It was the early hours of the morning, long before dawn. The major was quietly walking among his men as they waited to embark. He had gathered them in a large group and had said all the things that leaders have said since Agincourt, since Thermopylae even. He had told them that they were the Fatherland’s best… that they had trained for a year for the next few hours. Now he was walking quietly, looking for the nervous ones, talking calmly to them, as if this were just a training flight. There was an inter-regiment football tournament in a few weeks… he discussed prospects for their team with men who would in all likelihood miss the matches. The sheer ordinariness of the conversation calmed men.
He knew that once they were on board the planes the adrenalin would kick in and time would speed up or slow down, whichever they needed. An eery calm would settle over them. He had experienced it himself, jumping into Norway. He had lost an eye, been captured, been re-captured by his own men and had fought on. His sergeant major had wiped blacking on the stark whiteness of the dressing over his eye, to make it less of a target.
It would all work out. Some would come back immediately, some later… and some never. That was the way of war.
Today his task was simple… to keep them calm and get them onto the planes.
In the dark the engines started and the JU52 planes, loaded with his men rolled to the runways. One after another they climbed into the sky. The roar of the engines gradually fading into the night. The runway lights winked out, darkness and silence returned.
The major suddenly felt very alone as he turned away, and headed for breakfast.
In the air, some men slept, it was after all still very early… or very late if they had been too nervous to sleep. Much of the nervous energy had dissipated the moment the engines started and the fight or flight choice had reduced to the obvious one. Now that they were committed to fighting, less energy was needed and eyes drooped closed.
A Bavarian soldier had brought a flute and he was playing, accompanied by the singing of the men around him. Conversation or singing was local. The noise of the engines prevented conversation with more than just the man next to them.
At 08.00h the red warning light came on, they had been watching for it for the last ten minutes. They didn’t need any shouted orders. As one, and in silence, they stood and moved towards the door. The first few clipped on their static line.
Gott was in his element! This was the moment he had been waiting for all his life.
For thirteen of those years he hadn’t known that it was this that he was waiting for… but he had been waiting for something. Now he knew… this was it. In just a few minutes he would make the one jump that had to be absolutely perfect.
Looking out of the window he could see one of the three planes in their triad. Signal lamps would coordinate their synchronised jumps. Three paratroopers would each leave their plane at exactly the same moment so that the three of them would land close together.
Gott, Sigi and Gerhard had organised with the jump-masters to be first out of their planes. It would place them together as a team on the ground. It also gave the jump-masters confidence that the first men to leave would actually jump. Once the queue was moving, inertia would keep it going. It was the first one in the door who could screw things up.
None of our three would be a problem.
No hesitation! Everybody jumped in a classic Fallschirmjäger spread-eagle position as they should… except Gott… Even this time he did a swallow dive!
Each jumper that followed got a solid pat on the back from the jump-master. Each felt reassured, it felt just like it had in practise.
But… things had by now gone as well as they were going to… From here on things weren’t going to follow the planned schedule of events.
Gott was watching his comrades floating down beside him.
Then, to his horror, Gerhard started to jerk about like a rag doll on a washing line.
It took a moment for Gott to associate what he could see with the rat-a-tat of a twin barrelled heavy machine-gun on the perimeter of the airfield. The machine-gunner seemed satisfied and stopped firing. Gerhard just hung there, not moving… just hanging there. He was the first to hit the ground and out of the corner of his eye Gott saw that he simply hit the ground, not even hands and elbows, let alone a Gott landing.
Gott had felt the snatching of his ‘chute as bullets passed through the canopy, and had waited to become a rag-doll like his companion. But, the gunner gave up when his targets dropped below the tree line. Gott saw the barrels turn away from him. He looked across at Sigi and waved… Sigi waved back.
They hit the ground together, landing feet together and a roll… not back onto their feet this time. This time they lay as flat as they could. Gott drew his knife and cut his single shroud… the canopy flew away in the breeze. Bullets were clipping the top of the tall grass around him. The gunner couldn’t depress the barrels enough to reach him where he was lying. It went through his mind that if he had attempted to stand up to release his ‘chute, or even just landed on hands and knees he would now be dead!
Gott and his friends, unlike many of their comrades had spent much of the night sharpening their knives to a razor-edge. As they lay under the rising Cretan sun, having first cut away their parachute, they now carefully cut the tight harness webbing around their chests. Later they would need to release the tightly laced boots that had protected their ankles, but… just for now, Gott had another urgent task to perform.
Sigi appeared from Gott’s left, rolling rather than crawling, avoiding getting his butt shot off.
“Well, we made it this far!” He said, with a wolfish grin…
“What’s wrong? Are you hurt?” He saw the bleak look on Gott’s face.
“I don’t think Gerhard made it down.” Gott replied.
Sigi grabbed Gott’s hand and kissed it. At any other time it might have seemed silly, but lying there with bullets passing inches above them, it was all he could do. It didn’t seem enough.
“I’m so sorry… Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure, a heavy machine gun got him on the way down… I’m pretty sure.”
Together they crawled towards a billowing ‘chute that Gott said was in the direction that Gerhard had been heading. When they got there they found him lying on his back, his sightless eyes looking towards them. He was clearly dying… not yet dead but nearly gone. No-one could survive the mess that the heavy calibre shells had made. His chest was shredded, but his face was mercifully untouched. Gott kissed him on the forehead and as he did so, Gerhard opened his eyes and quietly whispered just one word…
Gott pictured that face on a boy, the boy was weaving unsteadily on his feet in a boxing ring nearly two years before. He bent to kiss him once again… his pistol in his hand.
Gerhard closed his eyes, and as he did so, Gott placed the muzzle of his pistol on Gerhard’s forehead and paused a moment. It was long enough for the frown of pain to clear. Gerhard had felt the cold steel’s touch and knew that the pain was ending.
That moment would live with them as long as they lived. For Gerhard that was a few seconds, for Gott it would be over sixty years.
He shot him between the eyes.
One moment he was suffering terribly. A moment later, the love of his friend had ensured that he was not.
Gott gently closed the eyes that had opened on reflex as the bullet passed between them… the eyes that had first caught his attention across the Napola bedroom just three years earlier, the eyes that had looked startled and then glazed over as he hit him in the boxing ring. That time too, it was to save him further pain.
He reached into the ruin that had been Gerhard’s chest and removed his passbook and wallet. The dog-tags he left for the burial teams that would follow, but the passbook had a photo and the wallet had letters. Those were his, and the blood on them was special
“Come on… There’s a machine gun that needs taking out!”
Somewhere nearby there was a machine-gunner who was still feeling pretty pleased with himself… That wouldn’t last long.
They found him fifty yards closer to the runways. He was well dug in, surrounded by sand bags.
Gott and Sigi prepared grenades. Gott had his sub-machine gun set on single shot. He silently counted down for Sigi and they threw together. As his grenade left his hand he picked up his gun and settled… ready.
Their grenades landed among the sandbags, the machine gunner dived out of his enclosure. Gott waited patiently counting. As he reached four seconds there was the sound of the grenades going off, muffled by the sandbags. He nodded to Sigi who threw another. This time it went over the sandbags and landed a short distance from the gunner. Before the grenade could explode the gunner broke cover… Gott was waiting.
He took the man in the upper chest, the largest target, the greatest chance of bringing him down.
When they got to him he was dying… Gott made sure that he died.
It was a day for firsts… It had been his first jump in combat, but this, this wasn’t the first it should have been. This wasn’t the first time he had looked a frightened dying man in the eyes and then placed a shot between them. It should have been, his first kill should have been a Tommy… but, it had been Gerhard.
It would haunt his dreams for many years to come. He never dreamed about enemy that he had killed, they were too many to recall… except for the machine-gunner on Crete… he was a special case… that man’s death had been personal.
But, as he killed him, he didn’t feel anything special. The Britisher had killed Gerhard and he had killed the Britisher. He had done it carefully, inflicting as little suffering as he could manage. He felt a little better, but there were a lot more Tommies waiting. It was going to be a long day.
They killed many more that day, and each helped him feel better. There was a complete airfield to clear, and with each one Gerhard was remembered.
Gott was in no mood to accept surrenders… It simplified things enormously. He gained a reputation that day, for courage and for ruthlessness.
Nobody except Sigi knew that it was not hate that brought him that reputation… it was love.
Gerhard hadn’t died alone that day. By now, an hour after the jump, most of their comrades were dead.
Nearly half of them hadn’t even made it as far as the battle… not even as far as the ground.
The reason for so many deaths would not be known for many years. Even the British who were waiting didn’t understand why, on that particular day, they were ready for the Germans.
The most senior commanders of the British force on the ground had been waiting all night for them. They had told their men to stand to, for no apparent reason. They had ordered them to watch the sky and the sea, mostly they had watched the sea.
Each platoon thought that only they were being inconvenienced by their officers.
Each group of officers thought that only they were being kept from their beds.
Only a select few knew… Today was the day…
It would be another forty years before oaths of silence, kept into extreme old age would be set aside, forty years before anyone else knew why the British had been so well prepared.
Alan Turing, a twenty-eight year old homosexual mathematician, seconded to war-service from King’s College Cambridge, had broken the Enigma cipher.
Two thousand miles away from Crete, the men and women of the British Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park held their breath and waited. They were able to say that today was the day the Germans would fall from the sky. That they were coming was certain… On the ground, how they would arrive was less certain, information was restricted. Too much information and the Germans would know that their Enigma cipher was no longer secure.
During all the preparation the attacking force had observed the strictest radio silence. Essential radio traffic within Germany had been encrypted using the rock-solid reliable Enigma cipher machines. The German high command had been absolutely certain… no-one knew they were coming.
Except, they did, and now it would all depend on which brave men died first, and which killed the other faster.
Harald had been the last out of his plane, so that he could see where the others landed. It would make it easier for him to gather them together into a coherent fighting force. He could also see the colour-coded multiple chutes of the equipment canisters and where they had landed. His mind was a whirl of data as he floated down.
He heard ground-fire and felt small jerks as bullets passed through his chute. It all seemed part of someone else’s script. The one thing he knew for certain was that this was not the day that he was going to die… He had far too much to do!
For those who had survived the drop, their task now was to capture Malame airfield, so that its runways could be used to land reinforcements.
It was not Britishers but New Zealanders who defended Maleme airfield’s surrounding area. Who they were didn’t matter, all the paratroopers knew was that the defence was exceptionally fierce and well prepared. They were lucky that the major had worked hard to get them as many MP40 sub-machine guns as he could. There should have only been one for every four men, but for his teams it was one in two. It meant that once free of their ‘chutes they could start to gather together. They didn’t need to wander the battlefield looking for weapons containers. In fact with half of them already dead the living could collect MP40s from comrades who hadn’t made it… statistically there was now a sub-machine gun for every man.
Once coordinated, some of them laid down covering fire for the ones fighting their way to where they could see the distinctive colours of their canister ‘chutes… and the much heavier weapons they contained.
Pink ‘chutes held the medical supplies… that would be needed later.
Things stabilised in their sector as they formed a coherent front and with equipment from the canisters started to attack the defenders of the airfield.
They were in fact better off than many that day. The first few hours were the worst. One company of the Third Battalion of the First Assault Regiment lost nine out of every ten men. Two thirds of that battalion’s men were killed during the first day.
Watching the glider force arrive, Harald knew that he had been right to insist that his men jump in. Within seconds of a glider landing the defenders brought down mortar fire on it. The few who managed to get out of the gliders alive were slaughtered to the last man by the New Zealand and Greek defenders.
Gott was surprised by the enemy dead when they over-ran defensive positions. Many wore Greek police force and cadet uniforms. There were civilians with guns.They would learn to take civilians seriously. It was civilians who managed to scatter the paratroopers who had dropped at Kastelli. It was Greek and Cretan forces that frustrated the paratroopers’ efforts to take Kolimbari and Paleochora, and those were places that they badly needed to take. They were places the British could use to bring in reinforcements from North Africa.
Gott cheered grimly when a second wave of aircraft flew over in the late afternoon. More paratroopers dropped, and there were more gliders. They contained heavy assault troops on their way to attack Rethymno and Heraklion, but that was a long way off, and Harald’s men had their own problems.
On that first evening, darkness fell quickly, as it does in the Mediterranean.
Although none of their objectives for the day had yet been secured, they were now slowly but steadily pushing the defenders back from the hill which overlooked and therefore controlled and protected the airfield.
Despite the problems that their heavy losses had created, Harald felt that the day was ending as well as he could reasonably have hoped it would. Some things had gone surprisingly well. Of nearly five hundred aircraft used during that first day, only seven had been destroyed by anti-aircraft fire.
Not knowing about the failure of Enigma, it wasn’t clear to the paratroop forces why the ground opposition had been so fierce and organised. The plan to create surprise by spreading the attack across four separate targets had inexplicably failed.
They weren’t the only ones with unexplained problems… or good fortune.
Overnight something equally inexplicable went wrong for the Allied side and the Fallschirmjäger took advantage of it without really understanding. During the night the New Zealanders had withdrawn from the hill that overlooked Maleme airfield, leaving it undefended. Harald and his commanders were puzzled, couldn’t see why they had done it, but rapidly occupied the abandoned defences.
German paratroopers had command of the heights. Whatever the reason for their withdrawal, the British would lose the airfield.
General Student now concentrated his forces on Maleme. Once his paratroopers had taken control of Maleme airfield and, despite an artillery barrage, Ju 52s brought in part of the 5th Mountain Division under cover of darkness. Their arrival was followed by an amphibious landing nearby Göring’s paratroopers now held a secure position on Crete.
During the second afternoon of the battle, the British forces counter-attacked. They attempted to retake the airfield but their attack was too slow to develop. By the next morning the Fallschirmjäger were receiving air support from Stuka divebombers.
Harald sent patrols to watch the coast. He’d been ordered to be ready to provide support for a convoy of around 20 caiques that would land 2000 reinforcements near Malame. The patrols returned, reporting that British naval forces had disrupted the landing, and the convoy had been forced to turn back.
The Allied troops on the island were now in real trouble. They were defending themselves against well dug-in paratroops, and newly arrived mountain-troops while being bombed by German Stuka dive bombers. Having been forced to withdraw to the eastern end of the island, the British and Greeks now risked being out-flanked by the advancing Germans.
The Fallschirmjäger and mountain troops were still on their own. Reinforcement by sea had failed to appear, a second convoy was known to have had to turn back. But then, once again there was a strange reversal of fortune. British naval forces mysteriously withdrew instead of continuing their attack on a convoy that had been a sitting duck, its only protection the Sagittario, a light torpedo boat.
Luftwaffe bombers were having great success against the British navy. By the end of the second day, the British had lost two cruisers and a destroyer. Royal Navy gunners had shot down ten Luftwaffe aircraft and damaged nearly twenty more.
As the third day of the battle began, things seemed to be going the Fallschirmjägers’ way. They were now receiving a constant supply of fresh troops by air.
There was no choice for the Allies… they began to retreat southward across Crete.
Meanwhile, Baldur and Heinz were having an adventure and it has to be said, a very lucky escape… literally.
They had been in one of the landings on the first day that went somewhat astray, resulting in them being captured. They had been held by New Zealanders at Kastelli, but now Germans were headed their way. Kastelli was on the line of eastwards advance.
The 95th Gebirgs Pioneer Battalion were advancing on the town, but it was the Luftwaffe that got there first. Luftwaffe dive-bombers were pounding the Allied defences around Kastelli when they had an unlikely stroke of luck, or at least Heinz and Baldur did.
The boys had found what they believed to be the safest corner of the cellar in which they were imprisoned. If their memory of events surrounding their capture were correct then their corner was sheltered by a large outcrop of rock. Perhaps that’s why the farm buildings were there… it was the one part of the farm that was better used for buildings than farming.
They would never understand quite what happened next. In fact, the bomb that was aimed almost directly at them, hit the outcrop of rock above them and skidded sideways, passing through the light wooden building above them and dropping over the far edge of the farmhouse floor.
As the building was on a steep slope that meant that the bomb now lay against a wall that was where the cellar was actually above ground. Two things saved the group of prisoners… it wasn’t much of a bomb and it wasn’t much of a wall.
The explosion left their ears ringing. They only saw a flash reflected off the far wall of the L-shaped cellar. They were in the below-ground arm of the L and the bomb went off at the far end of the above-ground arm. Suddenly it was daylight in the cellar and in the painfully bright sunlight they could see the last of the rough stonework landing in front of them. Luck had saved their lives… they had chosen the correct half of the cellar!
Baldur recovered his wits first… “Attack!” He shouted and charged at the hole in the cellar wall. Outside he found a dead farmer, with a hunting rifle still in his hand. He grabbed the rifle and dived behind a tree that had been felled by the bomb. From there he provide his companions with rudimentary covering-fire as they came out. Most of them were dazed or at least disorientated.
A Greek policeman appeared around the side of the farm building, and Baldur brought him down with his first shot, blood poured from the damage to his throat. Nothing had shocked Baldur up to this point, the jump, the firefight, capture, even the bomb, he had taken them all in his stride. But… the sight of the policeman, his shocked face, and his hands vainly attempting to halt the flow of blood… Baldur closed his eyes and was quietly sick.
It was Heinz’s turn to take the initiative. He hit Baldur on the shoulder… “Wake up! Cover me… we need his gun!”
He was up and running as his friend recovered his wits and looked around for opposition. None was immediately apparent. He saw Heinz seize the policeman’s rifle, pistol and ammunition belt and run back to Baldur.
He was elated, like a kid at a birthday party!
“Now we’ve got three guns… Five minutes ago we were prisoners. Now we’re an army again!”
“Keep your head down… or we’ll be a burial party.”
At that moment two New Zealand officers appeared. Unaware of what was going on they were examining the dead policeman when Baldur and Heinz opened up on them. It seemed a pity later, none of the New Zealanders had treated them badly… but this was now a real war and the paratroopers were four ahead on the body count.
The paratroopers advanced cautiously through the farm. They jumped another pair of soldiers and now every man fit enough to make use of a weapon had one.
That was when they met the boy. They were moving back to the cover of the ruin, to work out what to do… which way to advance as Heinz put it. The boy was kneeling beside the dead farmer, in tears. Seeing Baldur holding his father’s rifle, he charged at him, swinging a wicked looking scythe. Baldur was startled both by the child’s anger and the unwieldy length of his blade.
“Shoot the idiot!” Heinz shouted at him. He couldn’t bring fire to bear himself… Baldur was directly between him and the boy.
Baldur shook his head… then he side-stepped the swing of the blade and brought his rifle round in a swift arc. But, instead of shooting the kid, he brought the barrel of the rifle sharply across the boy’s upper arm. Heinz winced as he heard the bone snap.
The boy collapsed in a heap holding his injured arm. Then he burst into tears.
Heinz came across and aimed his weapon at the boy’s head. Baldur gently pressed it aside with barrel of his rifle.
“He’s no threat to us now.” He said quietly, stepping between the child and the others.
“Standing orders are to take regular forces captive, but immediately shoot irregulars!” Heinz said, clearly outraged.
“He’s not an irregular…” Baldur said. “Yesterday he was, and tomorrow he’ll be a child with a broken arm… today he’s a kid with a dead father to bury. Come on let’s find some real enemy, this kid’s no threat to use.”
“With a broken arm he’s not going to be anyone’s problem but his own… I wonder if he has a mother.” Heinz replied, suddenly concerned for the boy.
It all seemed so silly. Five minutes earlier Heinz had been keen on summary execution and now he was worrying about whether a fifteen year old kid with a broken arm had a mother to take care of him.
“If Gott was here, you know what he’d say?” Baldur asked of no-one in particular.
“I don’t have to tell you how silly this!” They chorused.
It was the first time Heinz had smiled in days. Gott had that effect on men.
All over the island, the Cretan Greeks were determined to resist, but were pitifully badly equipped, only half of them had a rifle and even those had virtually no ammunition. Unsuprisingly, the Germans continued to advance.
Nevertheless, heroic Greek efforts around Kastelli delayed the landing of German reinforcements.
What the Germans desperately needed now were heavy weapons, armour in particular. If local opposition consisted of men with rifles then a panzer was the obvious way to simply brush them aside.
The German Kriegsmarine were attempting to deliver heavy weapons to the struggling paratroopers. Oberleutnant Österlin was so determined to transport two Panzer II light tanks to Kastelli Kisamou beach that he commandeered a small wooden boat at Piraeus and craned the tanks into it. The boat had no ramp so there was no apparent way to get the tanks ashore. Towed by a small harbour tug, the Kentauros, Österlin set sail to the Gulf of Kithamos, a sheltered bay with a landing beach. The tug pushed the boat onto the beach. Oberleutnant Österlin‘s plan now became clear… his engineers blew the boat’s bows off. The tanks drove out and up the beach… the paratroopers at last had armoured support.
Their orders were to use the panzers to pursue the British along the coast to Rethymno and then onwards towards Heraklion. They helped round up British troops in the Kisamos area and then headed east to support the German pursuit.
Two nights later, eight hundred British commandos landed on the wide flat beach at Suda Bay on the southern shore of the island. Once ashore they found themselves in smooth terrain with scrubland.
Lacking any mortars or artillery, armed with only rifles and a small number of machine guns, they were not about to re-take the island or even stop the German victory. But, they could fight a heroic rearguard action that would give the British time to carry out an evacuation.
Very soon after the commandos arrived, the British accepted that the battle for Crete was lost, and ordered their troops to withdraw to the south coast to be evacuated. The British were becoming good at organising evacuations, evacuations that were so magnificent that they very nearly counted as victories.
In the afternoon, Harald received word from headquarters in Athens that an Italian convoy had departed from Rhodes with a brigade-sized task force supported by 13 light tanks. The 3,000 men and their equipment were on shore by 17:20h. The Italians advanced to the west unopposed, and linked up with the Germans at Ierapetra.
Meanwhile, the British were leaving, mainly from Sphakia on the south coast. It took them four nights. During the hours of darkness 16,000 British troops were evacuated to Egypt by ship. Not everyone got away. More than 9,000 British were left behind.
It had been the Greek civilian resistance that made the evacuation possible.
The village of Alikianos lay between Harald’s men and the Allied line of retreat. It had been one of the places the Fallschirmjäger had attacked on the first day. Greek defences in the village were young Cretan recruits, gendarmes, and cadets. They were badly equipped and numbered less than a thousand men. Attached to the New Zealand Infantry, little was expected of them. They proved expectation wrong. They held off the Engineer Battalion, and resisted repeated attacks by the 85th and 100th Mountain Regiments. They held Alikianos for seven days and made the evacuation of western Crete possible.
The battles across the island are famous for their brutality. The Fallschirmjägers’ standing orders were not to take partisans prisoner, they were to be shot out of hand. Nevertheless, Cretan men, women, and children, together with priests, monks, and nuns resisted determinedly. In a basically farming community weapons were in short supply, so museums were raided for ancient weaponry, farmers and priests re-discovered the skill of loading and firing matchlock rifles. Many were weapons that had been buried on farms when Crete was occupied by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Now they were dug up, cleaned and used to resist new invaders.
Cretan housewives provided much of the weaponry for their men. Quite a few Fallschirmjäger were killed with kitchen knives. Those ridiculous harnesses were still getting men killed. In one case, an elderly Cretan man clubbed a parachutist to death with his walking stick before he could get free of his parachute. At one of the landing zones a priest and his son had two ancient rifles. The priest shot at German paratroopers with one while the son re-loaded the other. The partisans were of course quick to gather up the weapons of the dead paratroopers. With half of those who jumped dead before they hit the ground… there were a lot of weapons to gather.
Across the island, the partisans were nominally under the control of British and New Zealand advisors, advisors who were hard pressed to prevent massacres by their civilian forces.
The Germans were still having to use air attack to support their infantry. Even after panzers were available, their use was limited because the terrain was simply too rocky for them.
The British retreat had a rearguard provided by two companies of Māoris. The Germans had reason to respect them. They had already overrun the 1st Battalion, 141st Gebirgsjäger Regiment and halted the German advance. Once the main Allied force was safe, the Māoris began a fighting retreat of twenty-four miles. It was a fighting retreat, not a rout… They lost only two men killed and just eight wounded. Even those they didn’t abandon. All of them were carried to safety.
The Fallschirmjäger could respect that kind of fighting force. It would amuse Gott in later years to discover that the Fallschirmjäger were better known and held in greater respect in New Zealand than any other nation. He hoped that black Māoris featured as they should in the re-enactments that happened in that far off land.
There would be another irony and it requires us to jump forward in Gott’s life for a moment.
The commando detachment and Māoris that Gott and his comrades were pursuing southwards were known as Layforce. Two hundred of them with their unit commander, Robert Laycock, were to cover the retreat of heavier units. Laycock’s men, three of the remaining British tanks and men of the 20th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery were providing a rearguard. The antiaircraft men were there because they refused to accept that a general evacuation could have been ordered!
Laycock eventually retreated in the night to Beritiana, to be joined there by the Māoris. The latter set up their own defensive line, a line that would eventually permit them to make their famous fighting retreat.
Laycock and his men unfortunately held a line that became cut off near the village of Babali Khani. They stood their ground, attacked by dive bombers as well as by land. Layforce were now unable to get away and most of them, and the antiaircraft men would be killed or captured. Eight hundred commandos had been landed on Crete and six hundred were now killed, wounded or missing. Of the eight hundred, only 23 officers and 156 others would make it off the island.
The irony you were promised? Well, Laycock and his brigade major made good their escape, breaking through German lines in one of the tanks. Against all odds they made it through the surrounding Germans, survived and were among those evacuated from the island, to continue their war elsewhere.
It was an elsewhere that finally would include the invasion of Normandy.
Now the irony… Laycock would find himself leading an attack against Gott and his Fallschirmjäger comrades as they in turn fought a fighting retreat across Normandy. Gott would know who he was fighting… Laycock’s men now featured in Fallschirmjäger myth and legend. Just as Laycock would know who the men he was chasing were. It must have given Laycock great satisfaction to be in pursuit of his pursuers.
Meanwhile, returning to the fighting on Crete… The British at Heraklion had also surrendered, Rethimno had fallen too and on the night of 30 May, the Germans met up with the Italians who had landed on Sitia at the far western end of the island.
The Greek Resistance was now well equipped. Heavy antiaircraft guns and tanks would be useless to them and were destroyed by the British. But, as they prepared to leave they gave their personal weapons and ammunition to the Cretans. The Cretans would stay behind as resistance fighters.
It was still only 1 June. It had taken just eight days for the Fallschirmjäger to capture Crete. They remained on Crete until the end of the month when they were withdrawn to re-join the forces gathered on Germany’s new and unwisely opened… Eastern Front.
Harald and his men had missed the start line for the war in the East. Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia had rolled eastward on 22 June 1941. But, the capture of Crete had provided their Führer with a defensive position that secured his southern flank in Russia.
Despite their remarkable success, all was not well for the future of the Fallschirmjäger as parachutists.
While delighted with the victory, the very high casualties that they had taken had shocked Hitler. The High Command could hardly comprehend how many of their best had not even survived the parachute drop. That many more had died during the battle on the island was understandable, it happened, it was war after all. But to be shot like geese as they descended slowly, by an enemy that appeared to be more or less expecting them… that gave even enthusiasts for airborne operations pause for thought.
Hitler cancelled all airborne operations associated with Operation Barbarossa and the Eastern Front. Gott and his comrades, in units assigned to Barbarossa, were now rapidly sent east through Poland and Romania to fight as infantry.
Gottfried didn’t regard his time in Russia as memorable. The fighting was fierce but the cold and wet, the mud and the fact that the advance was shared with the SS, and the general awfulness that implied, made it a part of his life that he walled off and refused to remember. They had been sent to Russia in October to reinforce the front along the river Neva. Russian resistance was fierce. They fought until December, by which time their numbers were so reduced that they were withdrawn to Germany.
Gott much preferred to remember their time back in Germany. They spent the first half of 1942 as what was known as a Lehrbattalion. A Lehrbattalion’s task was the testing of new airborne tactics and weapons. For someone whose usual reaction to the existing textbook was “I shouldn’t have to tell you how silly this is!”, the development of new ways of doing things was exactly what Gottfried needed.
Meanwhile the regiment trained new recruits and brought itself back up to battle strength.
That idyll lasted until most of them were assigned as Airborne Brigade Ramcke’s 2nd Battalion, and dispatched to Africa.
North Africa. October 1942.
For those who were sent to Africa, military tourism didn’t last long. After landing in Tobruk, they were immediately moved to the front to reinforce, if not rescue what was essentially and formally an Italian front. They were soon engaged in the Second Battle of El Alamein.
That didn’t go well. The British Commonwealth forces of roughly a thousand tanks and two hundred thousand men outnumbered the Axis forces by roughly two to one in both men and armour.
During the summer, the First Battle of El Alamein had stopped Rommel in his tracks… literally. The British had chosen a choke point where the desert approached to within 40 miles of the sea, close enough that they couldn’t be outflanked… tank tracks couldn’t grip in the deeper sand of the desert.
That had greatly advantaged the British defence as they faced Rommel’s advance. Now, in offence the terrain advantage lay with Rommel. The British couldn’t outflank him and would need to start with a frontal attack.
Montgomery launched it with an artillery barrage that was louder than it was effective. Few artillery barrages were ever as useful as they sounded… whether on the Western Front in the First World War or the Pacific Islands in the Second. The problem, amongst others, was that bagged charges were very inconsistent in their load, the majority of shot missed the target entirely. Scientists who visited the battlefield later were shocked at how little of the barrage had served a useful purpose.
Then it was time for men with bayonets.
Some ran shouting, with Scottish pipers making terrifying noises. Infantry were skipping along over the anti-tank mines that their feet were too light to set off… in what the British had humorously termed Operation Lightfoot.
Then, the Royal Engineers now managed the slowest bayonet charge in history. Lying on their bellies they crawled towards the Germans, probing the sand , feeling gently with their bayonets for the anti-tank mines that stood between their own tanks and the Germans. Some of them had the new mine detectors that the Polish Army Lt. Kosacki had invented in 1941, an invention that doubled the rate of progress of the engineers in mine clearance. They were charging forward at a mile every eight hours!
The Axis forces were pushed back despite a magnificent defence by the Italian Folgore Division, who together with the Ramcke Fallschirmjäger held up the British right flank’s advance. The Folgore famously fought to the last round of ammunition. When re-formed after the battle, the division had to be reduced to a battalion. Even that battalion was finally destroyed at the later battle of Takrouna in Tunisia in 1943… These were not spaghettikameraden, as the Germans derisively termed their Italian allies…. These like Ramcke’s men were paratroopers.
When the Afrikakorps were forced to withdraw, the Fallschirmjäger Brigade Ramcke became surrounded. Everyone assumed that because it had no transport it would have to surrender, but its leader, Generalmajor Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke, who had also been on Crete, chose instead to walk his men out, just as the British had on Crete. He would lose 450 of them in the process. On the way out they captured British supply trucks and their contents, and for a short while lived in some luxury… as they walked.
The rest is of course history. Wars are not won by magnificent retreats, though defeat can be delayed.
The rolling back of German successes had started.
Tunisia. November 1942.
Gott was on the move again, preparing for another fight. After their time in Germany their battalion was moved to France. Then via Rome they moved to Sicily. They were preparing to meet an Allied invasion. But, where they were going to be needed was not yet clear.
The mainly US Allies had landed on the Atlantic coast of Africa at Casablanca and at Oran in French Algeria on the Mediterranean, a third force landed further east at Algiers. If the Allied successes continued then an invasion of Sicily was becoming highly likely.
The Fallschirmjäger were either going to be needed to face west towards the Americans or east towards the British led advance from Cairo. The reality was that with the Americans in the lead, the side of Africa that was closest to the USA and re-supply was likely to be the focus of the battle for North Africa.
That was what German High Command were holding them for. The peace of their few weeks in Italy didn’t last long. Some were unlucky enough to be returned to Russia in October 1942, but Harald’s men happily found themselves attached to the force that returned to North Africa to oppose the Allies.
German forces were now fragmented along the Mediterranean coastal fringe. Rommel was on his own west of El Alamein and the others were in the general area of Tunisia and Libya. They were all on the same coast but with thousands of miles between them were unable to combine resources or strategy.
The Mediterranean landings had been in French Morocco, and in French Algeria. The great question was whether the French forces, which were considerable, would oppose the landings, which were of course invasions of sovereign French territory.
The Vichy French government had made a peace with the Germans that left them free to rule the unoccupied southern parts of France, so long as they behaved themselves.
Nominally the French forces in North Africa were subject to Vichy rule, so would they behave themselves? or join the Allies? as had the Free French under De Gaulle.
As part of that Vichy agreement, the French had undertaken to resist any Allied attempts to capture French territory or ships. The question was would they take that responsibility seriously or take the opportunity to roll over, play dead and aid the forces that would one day give them their nation back.
It might have reasonably been hoped that the instinct of the French Army would be to join forces with the Allies. Fighting the Germans was of course a big part of the army’s heritage… unfortunately, so was fighting the British!
The French Navy was a different matter. While they didn’t like the Germans any more than the army did…. they vehemently hated the British Navy!
Back in July 1940, the British had feared that the French naval forces in port at Mers-el-Kebir would fall into German hands and become part of the German navy… There were a number of fine ships at stake.
Britain gave the French an ultimatum. They could surrender the ships to the British Navy, place them beyond German grasp or… the British Navy would sink them.
Admiral Darlan assured Churchill that the ships would not be lost to the Germans, but Churchill, looking at a France that had been surrendered by a French field-marshal, didn’t feel that a French admiral’s hands were likely to be any safer. The British action started in England. French ships and submarines in port in Plymouth and Portsmouth were boarded by the British. The submarine Surcouf (the largest in the world at the time) resisted and three British sailors were killed, together with a Frenchman. Things had started badly.
At Mers-el Kebir, at the western end of the Algerian Mediterranean coast, the French fleet sat, two battle cruisers, two battleships and five destroyers. The British attacked with an aircraft carrier, two battleships, a battle-cruiser, two light cruisers and eleven destroyers.
The French were at anchor and were only able to bring to bear those guns that already pointed in the right direction. It was impossible to turn the ships to enable full broadsides. The outcome was fairly predictable and one-sided, perhaps that was what really upset the French Navy. In exchange for two British airmen and six aircraft lost, the French lost thirteen hundred men and a battleship. Another five major ships were damaged or put out of action.
The French Navy in North Africa were therefore not expected to receive British invaders with open arms. But, perhaps an American invasion force landing at Casablanca, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco would be greeted as liberators.
In part they were… six Moroccan army divisions instantly surrendered to a small commando raiding force. Perhaps the Moroccans felt liberated… from France.
French commanders took this surrender badly… Their Vichy obligation was to fight the enemies of a Germany that had defeated France and occupied Paris!
This wasn’t a momentary misunderstanding.
The French now sank four US troop-carriers, 150 landing-craft and killed 174 US servicemen. The French themselves lost 462 men, a cruiser, four destroyers and five submarines, together with a huge list of ships, submarines, aircraft and shore guns damaged. But, those eight days fighting gave the Germans time to bring U-boats to bear, causing significant further losses before the landings could be completed.
They really hadn’t wanted to be liberated! So they weren’t… They were defeated instead.
The Fallschirmjäger were coming to North Africa to put things right. Their reception at first seemed strange. The Moroccan troops had surrendered to the Allies at the first opportunity, but the Fallschirmjäger were now being greeted in Algeria as liberators, honoured guests and friends of the Arab people.
This was a mystery until someone mentioned an old Arab saying…
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Then it all became clear. French-Algeria and French-Morocco were exactly that… French. Fiercely independent, the Arab tribesmen cheered when they saw their colonial masters being ousted by the Germans… and by Americans, either would do.
In Italian administered Libya, the colonial Italians too greeted the Germans with open arms. Rudolf Witzig, the paratroopers’ commanding officer would later be given an automobile by a wealthy Italian, told that it could be returned when hostilities ceased… assuming that everyone and the car still existed. History doesn’t relate whether that promise was kept… probably not, the odds were against it.
German fears were that while the landings had happened well to the west, around the Straits of Gibraltar, the good roads along the coast would allow the Allies to drive rapidly towards Tunisia.
Tunisia was the key to the Allies taking the whole of North Africa. It was itself perilously close to Sicily, and Sicily in turn was only seven miles from Italy. The Allied invaders couldn’t be allowed to take Tunisia.
The Fallschirmjäger found themselves in southern Italy, being readied for transfer to North Africa. They took off from Naples with a splendid view of Vesuvius.
The world was told that they had entered Tunisia “in full agreement with the French and military authorities”. The Vichy government was still keeping its side of the deal.
Rommel was out there somewhere to the east, with his Afrika Korp, but he was a very long way off. If and when things went wrong they could go wrong on an enormous scale. The fronts had been advancing and retreating thousands of kilometers. North Africa had become the ideal place for the war to continue once stalemate had been arrived at in Europe.
Kesselring viewed Tunisia as his route into North Africa for his reinforcements and as a launch point for offensive actions. He also knew that while he held Tunisia he had a way to extract Rommel and the Afrika Korp to Sicily. It was the fate of their comrades in the Fallschirmjäger Ramcke Paratrooper Brigade with Rommel that concerned Harald and Gott.
By the time Gott arrived, newly promoted to Feldwebel, Rommel was in retreat across Libya. To call it a retreat suggested a degree of organisation. In fact they were on the run and would not stop. He would lose over 25,000 men as prisoners to Montgomery’s British army following the Second Battle of El Alamein.
Rudolf Witzig, Harald’s Battalion Commander had been hospitalised with wounds and had missed the departure from Italy for Libya… He now arrived and took charge, driving the white luxury car that the wealthy Italian had entrusted to him and wearing a soft forage cap. He was not a man to hide under a steel helmet, and his men adored him.
The second set of landings had come as a surprise to the German High Command. They had expected a landing on the African Atlantic coast but a landing within the Mediterranean was a nasty surprise.
If German forces in Tunisia had been unprepared for attack from their west… even less were they prepared for Hitler’s ambition to launch them westwards against Patton’s forces… Patton had over 100,000 men!
Kesselring, who had the task of sorting the mess, brought to bear a force of parachute troops. They were the remainder of the Fallschirmjäger, those who had not been sent with Ramcke to reinforce Rommel. Those in Tunis itself were a mix but they were experienced and their commander Colonel Walter Koch was a veteran of both Eben Emael and Crete. He now had five battalions of Luftwaffe ground troops of various sorts. The Italians had also sent five battalions across, but despite this the Allies heavily outnumbered them.
Gott was there from the start and watched the establishment of order from chaos. Sorting the men out took time. They were as subject to the old military principle of hurry, hurry, wait, as any other army group in wartime.
Gott was not particularly concerned about waiting. He was busy learning Arabic. Everyone needs a skill, and everyone needs a hobby. It’s a lucky man who can combine the two and even luckier if they are exactly what his masters want him to do.
He had made himself the battalion’s main contact with the Arab street traders. He had progressed well beyond please and thank you and how much is that? He was now holding serious conversations with the villagers and towns-people.
The time had come to immerse himself in the midst of the local life. It would be interesting to see if he could be accepted as just another man. It was Saturday night and Gott was bored. Perhaps tonight was the night he had been waiting and preparing for.
Most of his companions were going in to town. They would get drunk first, in camp where alcohol was easier to find and cheaper. The French had created a market for alcohol in this Muslim nation, but as with all essentially forbidden treats it was secretive and expensive. Perhaps the cities and ports were different, more European in outlook, but here in a small town it was easier and quicker… and cheaper to get drunk at the Führer’s expense.
Later they would wander away, in small groups to find some quiet street with women who would look after their needs. The women wouldn’t be local, they would have migrated from the city, drawn to the army encampment like flies to a honey-pot.
The men would stay in their slightly shame-faced groups, for safety. Although Algeria was now occupied and the French had been defeated by Germany, there were still many French settlers, supporters of General de Gaulle and his Free French… with scores to settle. Their government might not support them now, but one day the French Resistance would mobilize openly… and it would start in North Africa.
The women had no great appeal for Gott. He had occasionally gone into town with his friends and admittedly, one mouth was much like another. If he was drunk enough he closed his eyes and thought of Gerhard. Tonight however, the idea of standing in line to await a few minutes with these, less than the cream of their trade… did not appeal.
The men either knew or suspected his disinterest sufficiently to guarantee bawdy remarks, mainly about the beauty of the camel-driver who sold them milk and eggs.
Actually, it wasn’t a camel, it was a mule that was driven by the boy who brought milk, but otherwise the men were right… He was indeed exceptionally beautiful. He had olive-skin and huge dark eyes with long eyelashes. He was more attractive than even the youngest of the prostitutes, and probably young enough to be the oldest one’s grandson!
But Fallschirmjäger NCO’s, even young ones… don’t consort with attractive young camel-drivers… even ones with a mule. Nor do they spend Saturday night under the stars with them. Gott was bored and frustrated.
That was when he decided that it was time to chance his arm. After all, he was there to work on his ability with languages. Why not take advantage of the peace and goodwill, make the trip into the town, find what passed for a bar… and practice his Arabic? At the least he would enjoy a good strong coffee or two, some barbecued lamb and who knows…. It was now a garrison town after all. Gott had yet to find a garrison town that didn’t have a few streets with shuttered rooms where men could meet, to talk and perhaps dance…
He slipped quietly out of camp. The sentry saw him and saluted smartly. He had no reason to question Gott’s destination or intentions. Whatever the Feldwebel had decided to do… it was none of his business. He was there to keep beggars out… not to keep NCOs in.
Out of sight of the camp. Gott took the small bundle from under his arm. The djellaba it contained had once been white. The normal dress of an Arab male it covered him down to his ankles… a simple Arab head-dress completed the transformation. He sat down to remove his socks and now his oldest work boots were simply the good fortune of a street-Arab who had come upon a dead soldier.
The Fallschirmjäger favoured non-Aryan types, and Gott’s brown eyes and deep tan created quite a convincing Arab. Buying eggs and milk for some weeks, and questioning villagers to obtain intelligence about Allied movements had given him a more than basic grasp of the language… certainly enough to buy coffee and a meal without embarrassment, even perhaps without being discovered. How like his boyhood hero Lawrence that would be.
As a boy, he had found a copy of the Englischer Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He had been intrigued by the idea of going dressed as a native. Even with blue eyes, Lawrence had successfully moved among Arabs, dressed as one of them. The romance of the idea appealed to Gott.
The walk into town took Gott all of twenty minutes. It was dark by the time he arrived. The sun had set, but later there would be a full moon. Gott was depending on it for finding his way back to the camp. He suspected that Algerian Arabs weren’t usually seen carrying electric torches.
He wasn’t entirely sure what he was looking for… food, drink and something entertaining. As it was an Arab and Muslim country all three were unlikely to be what he would have found on a Saturday night in Berlin, Paris or Prague, but… that surely was the whole point, wasn’t it?
The lack of alcohol resulted in a quieter town than it would have been with hundreds of drunk soldiers, or even drunk locals.
Instead, in the cool of the evening men, he saw no women, sat outside coffee shops and cafes, sipping incredibly strong coffees and eatings sweet pastries, while smoking unknown tobacco-based substances from water pipes that made a soporific bubbling noises. If truth were told the smoky bubbles were indeed soporific, the result of their hashish… universally available and almost legal.
His slow meander about town allowed him to observe how the local men related to one another… when they were quiet… when they appeared affectionate… holding hands was commonplace but obviously implied nothing more than friendship. He saw how they approached a coffee-shop, the greetings, the rituals that eased them into a seat and table… and their acceptance of a soporific pipe.
When he felt confident, when his reconnoitre had equipped him with the necessary social skills, Gott walked towards a coffee shop in a quiet side-street. It seemed clean, the pastries looked fresh and the proprietor… well, he looked prosperous, if a little less fresh than his pastries.
The owner of the shop greeted Gott with news that God was good and Gott assured him that he was indeed good. Religious niceties out of the way, he was ushered to a quiet table a little distant from the regulars who were playing some form of backgammon. Gott was pleased to be alone. As yet he had no idea of the rules of the game, and so he couldn’t risk being invited to play. That thought applied to more of the evening than just coffee and backgammon.
He accepted the proprietor’s suggestion of a coffee and some bread. The bread, he guessed, would be flat bread eaten as it was, nothing added except a sprinkling of salt and olive oil.
The coffee was strong. He amused himself by trying to decide whether it was so thick that it supported the spoon. There was a wind-up gramophone inside the shop and the owner played a mix, everything from Arab-music to Lili Marlene.
Gott was pleased with himself, this was already much better than queuing for the dubious delights of the ladies of the night, and the night was still young. The moon was just rising, perhaps casting a little light into the darker corners of the town. Gott smiled to himself. Sitting quietly, sipping the strongest coffee he had ever encountered and dipping his bread in oil that had escaped onto the plate, he was able to watch the interactions between regulars and passersby, at the tables near him, and at others across the street.
Mostly the men he could see sat in sociable groups, but there were a few places where single men sat as he was, a little away from the others. After a while, he noticed an interesting variation in the pattern. Occasionally, a young man would walk by, greeting just the men who sat alone. They in turn assured the young man that God was indeed good… and mostly, the young man moved on.
Then one came along who seemed slightly younger, the greetings took longer and seemed more genuine. When the man across the street had greeted the boy he gestured him to sit… a coffee and cake arrived and they chatted for a while. In the Arab style, the man took the boys hand and they sat companionably, hand in hand, chatting for ten minutes or so. Then they rose, the owner appeared, the reckoning was paid and the pair walked quietly away, towards…? Who knows.
They didn’t come back. Presumably it was the end to his evening that the man had hoped for.
After an hour or so. Gott was on his third cup of coffee and had consumed a quite delightful honey-based pastry. His head buzzed from the strong coffee and nodded from the weight of sugar in the pastry. He felt a trifle confused, which was probably because he had accepted the offer of a water-pipe, a hubble-bubble. The hashish now had him relaxed as well as buzzed and sleepy.
That was when the boy returned.
Gott had decided already that his evening needed to end if he was going to be able to return to the camp and sleep with any semblance of dignity. So, the appearance of the boy was the excuse he needed. The boy walked his side of the street this time, and greeted Gott… Gott invited him to sit and offered him coffee, the boy accepted. Gott offered cake and the boy smiled, patted his stomach and declined gracefully.
After five minutes of polite exchanges about how dry the wind from the south was, and how long it was since the last rain… the sorts of things that strangers intersperse into a companionable silence… the boy laid his hand on the table, perhaps invitingly. Gott, as naturally as if it happened every evening, moved his hand to greet it and took it gently in his. He squeezed very gently, and the boy squeezed back, confirming the guesses Gott had made.
“You are a stranger in our land.” The boy said in the local Arabic.
“Yes, but your people are hospitable.” Gott replied.
“Of course! They are happy… The French masters are gone.” The boy replied. “You have helped them… the French and their legionnaires are gone. Of course you are welcome in our town.”
“That is good… I am glad to be welcome then. But how did you guess?” Gott asked.
“You speak Arabic, but you are not from North Africa. Perhaps Arabia or Syria, but maybe… the camp outside town? ”
They both laughed, and there was another round of squeezing of hands. Gott was glad of the trousers under the djellabah… He wondered how Arab men hid their excitement… at moments like this.
“Anyway, I recognized you… You buy my eggs and milk.” The boy giggled.
Gott took the boy’s chin in his hand and turned the face towards the light.
“Of course! I should have realized!”
The boy was indeed the beautiful young man who each day brought his donkey laden with milk and eggs. The soldiers gathered at the camp gate, mainly to buy his fresh produce. But, a few were there as Gott was, to admire the flawless beauty of his copper coloured skin, his flashing black eyes. He didn’t yet have a beard, just a slight hint of a moustache beginning. In camp, Gott had estimated his age as fifteen, perhaps sixteen.
“Tell me… How old are you?” Gott asked.
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