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The Great TP Raid


Old Guy
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The Mission

Corporal Stag entered the regimental commander's tent.

"Sir, Corporal Stag reporting . . ." Colonel Miscue was not at his field desk. The Colonel, in fact, was on his hands and knees, obviously looking for something.

"Pardon, sir. Can I help? What did you drop?"

"My rubber ducky. Damned if I can find it. Look around a bit, Corporal. It's yellow, you know."

A third man entered the tent. Stag glanced around and sneered. It was Corporal Barclay, one of Major Minor's blokes. Standing barely five feet tall, with a sunken chest, no chin, and suffering from premature male pattern baldness, Barclay resembled the upper class twits Stag used to knock over for their pocket money.

"Your ducky, sir," said Barclay. He displayed a faded yellow toy. "You left it in the Ops tent."

Miscue scrambled to his feet and snatched the ducky, cradling it to his chest. "Bad boy! Bad boy! Trying to escape again, eh?" The Colonel carefully placed the toy on his desk. "Behave yourself now. Daddy has work to do."

Stag came to a position resembling 'attention' (if you squinted a bit). "You wished to see me, sir?"

Colonel Miscue adjusted his glasses. He picked up a paper. "Ah . . . I can't make this out."

"The raid, sir," said Barclay. "The . . . er . . . the suicide raid."

"Ah, yes. Thank you, Corporal." Miscue frowned. "Where is Major Minor?"

"Dru -- sick, sir." Barclay seemed to be studying the regimental crest hanging at the back of the Colonel's tent. "Not feeling at all well. Major Minor, I mean. Sir."

"Damn and blast! I'd hoped to have his assistance here. He is the Operations Officer." Miscue moved a few papers around and gently squeaked his ducky -- just once. "Well, no help for it. Stay for a bit, Barclay. We may need your help with . . . um . . . tactical information, routes of march. That sort of twaddle, eh, what?"

"Sir," said Stag. "The lads are opposed to any more bloody suicide missions. We've had more than our share. It's time those sodding SAS lads helped out. Sir."

"Oh, now . . ." Miscue dismissed Stag's whining with a vague gesture. "The SAS has their own agenda. Mapping terrain, scouting, assassination, the odd run-in with Afrika Korp patrols. They're much too busy to deal with our little affairs."

Stag sighed. Complaining did no good. Our little affairs, the Colonel called them. Stag had never seen the Colonel, nor any other officer, participate in those affairs. Stopping Martian invasions, fighting evil overlords, invading Hell -- the list was endless -- and entirely unbelievable to everyone else in the British Army. The savage pace of weird missions had driven the Operations Officer, Major Minor, into an attempt at drinking himself to death.

"What is the mission, sir?" Stag's response contained a slight degree of interest and a great deal of resignation. "Where are we bloody well going this time?"

"Oh, don't be such a ninny," said Miscue. "Step over to the map and I'll show you."

Corporal Barclay sidled up behind and to one side of Stag. The ape-like corporal reminded him of various thugs he'd been acquainted with as a lad. Most just held out a hand for his pocket money. Some felt that they had to earn the money by punching him a few times. He was morally certain Stag was of the latter type.

"Here we are," said Colonel Miscue. He used a pointer consisting of a wooden dowel tipped with a shell casing (.303 British) complete with bullet. In Stag's experience every officer above the rank of lieutenant owned such a pointer, along with a swagger stick and a habit of quoting nonsense written by some twit a thousand years ago.

The map overlay showed the regiment's position as a little castle drawing labeled "U-R-Here". The previous day's positions had been erased but were still visible in spots well to the west. Each change in position took them closer to Egypt. To the west of U-R-Here a series of X-marks were labeled "Here Be Germans". A skull and crossbones drawing marked the general position of the Afrika Korps.

The Colonel traced a route south from U-R-Here. "Briefly, you will travel south to Drybone Valley, then navigate across the Sand Sea to Plateau of Rocks, and north to Oasis #6."

"Blast! Sir! That's what . . . 250, maybe 300 miles! What do we do at Oasis #6?"

"Um . . . blow up a warehouse full of toilet paper."

"Right. Good one, sir. And 'toilet paper' is a code word for . . ."

"Er . . . code word?" Miscue glanced at his rubber ducky, as if seeking help. Apparently, none was forthcoming.

Corporal Barclay cleared his throat. "Perhaps I can be of assistance, sir."

An icy hand gripped Stag's heart. He knew that feeling. It was his body signaling his brain that bad news, really bad news, was imminent, followed by near certain death. He flashed on the first time he'd ever felt the cold grip of pending death: Patricia, eldest daughter of a burly Royal Marine Sergeant Major, was cuddled up next to Stag in her bed, in her room, on the second floor of the flat she lived in with her father. Both she and Stag were naked. An hour of pleasurable athletics were just over. This comfy little scene was interrupted by the loud arrival of said RM Sergeant Major, home early from a regimental dinner that should have kept him away for hours yet.

Fortunately, the Sergeant Major was falling down drunk. Two fellow NCOs laid him out on a sofa and vanished into the night, singing bawdy songs. Stag, quite deflated by intense fear, managed to sneak out unobserved. It was his first successful Special Operations episode.

The Colonel's testy response to Barclay's offer brought Stag back to the here and now. "How can you help, Corporal? You don't even have a rubber ducky."

"Well . . . no, sir. But I did take notes when Major Minor planned the operation." Barclay made a mental note to brief the Major on the operation -- as soon as the man sobered up. If ever.

"Why didn't you say so? Eh, what?" Colonel Miscue returned to his desk and sat pouting. "When I was a lieutenant, corporals weren't so cheeky. Knew their bloody place, they did." He picked up his ducky and crooned to it for a moment. Then, as if struck by sudden inspiration, he grabbed a paper and tossed it toward Stag.

"I'm giving you your bloody stripes back. You're a staff sergeant again. You'll have two OSS chaps along on this op. As a staff sergeant you'll be the ranking NCO."

Stag's heart sank even further toward his boots. "Americans, sir? I didn't know we had any of them around yet."

"No regular forces, I'm sorry to say," replied Miscue. He searched among the papers on his desk. "Ah. Here it is. They're sending us a former Marine Gunnery Sergeant and an Army Air Corps T5, whatever that is. The Marine is now a buck sergeant. Something about a bar being broken up in Alexandria. No details."

"An American Marine?" said Stag. "I thought they were all in the Pacific. It's probably against the Geneva Convention to employ them in Europe, sir."

"Be that as it may, the two chaps are on their way. The Marine is an infantryman; the Air Corps chap is a radio boffin of some kind."

Stag had been in the army long enough to recognize the fickle finger of fate. He sighed heavily. "What about this mission, Barclay?"

"Well, Sergeant, the first thing you should know is that 'toilet paper' ain't a code word. You're to make your way into the Afrika Korps rear area and sink, burn, or otherwise destroy the Germans vast stock of toilet paper."

"Sink?"

"Er . . . strike that." Barclay blushed. "Standard forms, you know."

"Toilet paper?"

"Yes, Sergeant. A staff study has shown that the Germans consume huge quantities of TP every day. It's vital to the health and well-being of their fighting forces . . . and support personnel, of course."

"God save us from staff studies," lamented Stag. "So we're to burn their stocks of toilet paper? And what if those fine Aryan troops simply switch to using books, magazines, letters from home, or Afrika Korps paperwork?"

Barclay nodded. "Oh, we're sure that will happen. Imagine all the orders that will be . . . uh . . . misused. The lack of TP will snarl the German logistics system and bring the Afrika Korps to its knees. Figuratively speaking, of course."

"Right. To their bloody knees. Figuratively speaking." Stag glanced at the Colonel. Miscue was making little motorboat noises as he drove his ducky around the desk top. No help there.

The Corporal stared at the map, caught up in his vision of logistical disaster for the Germans. "Think of it, Sergeant. Dysentery is at least as common in the Afrika Korps as it is in our forces. The lack of TP will cause all kinds of disruption in their rear areas. And that will spread to the front."

Stag tried to produce another heavy sigh, but could not. "So this little scheme will bring disaster to the Afrika Korps? That same bunch of Germans who have successfully played bloody hob with our best infantry, artillery, and all those other fine chaps scattered over the Western Desert?"

"It's a question of strategy, Sergeant." A smug expression flitted across Barclay's face. "No one expects mere soldiers to have a deep understanding of the strategic implications."

"So how did a sawed-off little runt, a mere corporal, get to be such a strategic genius?"

"Oxford. I majored in military history."

"So why ain't you a bloody officer?"

Barclay hung his head and replied in a muffled voice. "I'm too short."

"What was that?" Stag leaned closer. "I didn't hear you."

"I'm too short! I don't meet the height requirement, you illiterate buffoon!"

Stag lifted the little clod by his shirt front. "That's SERGEANT BUFFOON to you, CORPORAL!"

Colonel Miscue squeaked his ducky. "No calisthenics in here, you two. Take it outside."

(tbc)

It's been too quiet around here. :) OG

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Destroy Rommel's toilet paper supply? This should be quite the mission and it's likely to get messy.

The Corporal stared at the map, caught up in his vision of logistical disaster for the Germans. "Think of it, Sergeant. Dysentery is at least as common in the Afrika Korps as it is in our forces. The lack of TP will cause all kinds of disruption in their rear areas. And that will spread to the front."

A play on words? :lol:

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The lack of TP will cause all kinds of disruption in their rear areas. And that will spread to the front."

The "disruption to their rear areas" I understand. But it spreading to the front is just ghastly! Does that mean a case of 'Brown Balls' followed by the falling off of their schnitzengruben? :o

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Strike Force TP

Stag stopped Barclay as the pipsqueak exited the mess tent. "Get your gear, dwarf. You're going with us." He looked the corporal up and down. "Can you even carry a rifle?"

Barclay shrank away from the hulking sergeant. "I can't go on any missions. Major Minor needs me."

"No go, Corporal. The medics hauled Minor away a couple hours ago. He may never be back. Captain Codpiece approved your assignment to the strike force."

"Codpiece!" cried Barclay. "He hates my guts."

"Yeah. I gathered that. Said something about making sure the 'sodding bastard' dies in the desert. He really, really doesn't like you. Now that he's the Ops Officer you're better off with us."

"Better off? I'll be killed!"

"Possibly." Stag shrugged. "There's a war on, you know. Can you use a Sten gun?"

"Well . . . yeah. I'm pretty good with one." Barclay nodded slowly. "Can I shoot some Nazis?"

"I can almost guarantee it." Stag smiled. "The sods get to shoot back, though."

Barclay grinned. "I'm a lot smaller target than you are. Maybe they'll miss."

"That's the spirit. Come on. I'll introduce you to the lads. Then we can pick up your gear. What's your first name?"

"Er . . . do I have to tell?"

Stag stopped. "Mostly the blokes go by last names. I need to know . . . for reports and such. Who knows? I might have to write you up for a Victoria Cross." He snickered.

"Only officers can do that," muttered Barclay. "My first name is Gosport."

"Gosport? Really?"

"Don't ask me why. My Mum never explained. I go by G. Barclay as much as I can."

"G. Barclay it is." Stag motioned toward a tent standing a little beyond the edge of camp. "Let's go. Our bloody Americans ought to be along soon."

"I've never met an American," said Barclay. "What are they like?"

"How would I know? The only Americans I've seen were in the bloody cinema. The sods are all gangsters or Indian fighters I reckon."

"My Mum never allowed me to see gangster films."

"Me Mum booted me out of the house on Saturday nights so she could spend time with whatever bloke she was havin' it on with that week. I spent a lot of time with my mates -- at the cinema." He didn't say anything about the Sergeant Major's daughter nor about his experiences with cheap booze. If the kid lived he could tell all those stories later. It was always good to have a new audience. You didn't have to wonder if you'd told 'em a particular story before.

"I never had any mates," said Barclay. "And I only managed to see a few films. Bigger sods were always stealing my pocket money."

"Way of the world, lad. Way of the world." Stag slowed. "Looks like the Americans have landed." He nodded toward two men standing with three British soldiers.

"They don't look like gangsters," observed Barclay. "Except maybe that big bastard."

The big bastard turned slightly and stepped toward Stag. "I like y'all's sign."

Planted in the sand a few feet from the tent was a sign: FLAMMABLE LIQUIDS - KEEP BACK!

"It keeps the officers away," said Stag. He extended a hand. "Staff Sergeant Stag."

"Sergeant Thrift. Just call me Gunny."

"I heard you were no longer a . . . what was it called? Gunnery Sergeant?"

"True. Doesn't matter. I'll have my stripes back before long." He produced two cigars. "Y'all a cigar smoker?"

"I am that," said Stag, accepting the gift. "Are you a drinking man?"

Gunny glanced at his companion. "Sergeant Stag is evidently unacquainted with Marines."

The man laughed. "He may have met Royal Marines, Gunny. I suspect they drink as much as US Marines. More, maybe, judging from the ones we . . . celebrated with back in Alexandria."

"I heard somewhat of that episode," said Stag. "How did Gunny here lose his stripes and you seem to still have yours? Who are you, anyway, and what is a T5?"

"Joker Sullivan. To answer your last question first, a T5 is a technician with essentially the same rank and pay as a corporal. As for my stripes being intact . . . I managed a tactical retreat out the back door just as the MPs arrived. Gunny was kind of occupied with two Royal Marines at the time. Good thing I got away. I was able to persuade the OSS station chief to pull him from British custody. The chief had to agree to bust him before the Brits would let him go."

"Hard lines," said Stag. He indicated the other Brits. "These sods are Archie, Donnie, and Red. And the little runt is Barclay. He used to work in Operations. A change in the command structure convinced him to seek a new career."

"We were told a mission is in the works," said Gunny.

"Too true. And a right bastard it will be." Stag motioned toward the tent. "Step inside. Donnie nicked a case of scotch yesterday. I believe the lads haven't managed to drink all of it, yet."

"Ah, yes," said Joker. "The flammable liquids."

"At least the wind ain't blowin' up a storm," observed Gunny. He was seated in a canvas chair, drink in one hand, cigar in the other.

"Don't worry," said Stag. "It will." He relaxed in a matching chair. Everyone else perched on an eclectic collection of ammo boxes, shipping crates, and homemade benches.

"I never operated in the desert." Gunny knocked the ash off his cigar. "The OSS is not that much different than the Corps. Train you for one place, then send you somewhere else."

Stag chuckled. "The bleedin' British army is the same way. What is this OSS anyway?"

"Some call it the Oh So Special outfit," said Gunny. "On account of so many of its agents being from colleges like Yale and Harvard. The letters really stand for Office of Strategic Services."

"Right," agreed Joker. "No one would ever guess we're part of an intelligence agency."

"Too right, mate. Our little unit is officially called the Special Lorry Service. We don't use that title much, though. Too many blokes come around looking for someone to fix their bloody truck."

"So what do you call yourselves?" asked Joker.

"Why we're the regimental Mine Recovery Platoon," said Stag. "And us four blokes . . . five now that Corporal Barclay has joined us . . . are the entire bleedin' unit."

"Five is not enough for a platoon," agreed Gunny. "What kind of ops have you been running?"

"Running around in the sodding desert," grumped Red. "Recovering mines by running over the bloody things."

"And that ain't the half of it," added Archie. "We've had a lot of strange missions. You'd never believe half of it."

"Oh, I don't know," said Gunny. "Joker and I have been on a lot of weird ops ourselves."

Stag blew a smoke ring at the tent ridge pole. "Do the words evil overlord, Martian, and simian have any meaning to you?"

"They do," admitted Gunny. "And you clowns look vaguely familiar . . . except for Barclay. I can't put my finger on exactly where we might have met before though."

"Me neither," said Joker. "But you're right. This whole scenario looks familiar. Even the blowing sand, blazing sun, and a growing sense of impending doom." He frowned. "Something's missing."

"Boobs," said Donnie. He finished his scotch and repeated firmly, "Boobs."

"Never mind the lad," said Stag. "He has this . . . er . . . problem."

"Could be worse," said Gunny, shrugging. "He could be fixated on potted plants or maybe think he was Napoleon."

Stag laughed aloud. "The Napoleon stuff we leave to Barclay."

"Very funny," retorted Barclay. "Somebody has to be the military genius around here. But what I want to know is, why are these two Americans here? Other than to provide a new set of wise ass remarks, I mean."

"Good question," said Stag. "I don't see either of 'em in Harvard or Yale. What do you two blokes do for the OSS?"

Gunny nodded toward Joker. "He was pulled out of a nice safe posting in sunny Hawaii because of his knowledge of radios. Unfortunately, while undergoing OSS training, he made the mistake of demonstrating his prowess with a '03 Springfield rifle. In that case he so carefully carried all the way from America, Joker has a very nice scoped Springfield. He's a sniper, an assassin who can also fix your radio . . . or your toaster for that matter."

Joker bowed as he sat. "Guilty, your honor. But don't let Gunny fool you. His specialty is killing people and blowing things up. He just likes to operate at close range."

"To hell with that," cried Stag. "Tell us about this Hawaii place. I've heard stories."

"Stories?" Joker put on a sad face. "The man has heard stories."

"Don't get him started," warned Gunny. "But it is a good place to be stationed."

"Boobs?" murmured Donnie.

"Imagine, if you will," said Joker, "a tropical island. Warm sun, warm sand, warm women." He sighed longingly. "Of course, the place is infested with sailors and Marines, but an experienced veteran, like myself, always knows where to find females."

"Yeah," said Gunny. "He rented 'em in downtown Honolulu, ten minutes at a time."

Further discussion was cut short by a weird wail. "Boooooobs!" Donnie's eyes rolled back and he collapsed. Archie got up and nudged him with his boot.

"He's breathin'. No worries."

"Make sure he don't bloody well thrash around and knock over a case of booze," ordered Stag.

"Will he be all right?" asked Joker.

"Oh, right as rain he'll be. In a few minutes he'll stop twitching and go to sleep."

Gunny took a last drag off his cigar and tossed the butt outside. "Well, it looks like the gang is all here. Now . . . what about this mission?"

"We're going to strike at the Nazis where they least expect it and finish off the Afrika Korps," boasted Barclay. "We'll bag the lot."

"Never mind the corporal," warned Stag. "He has his own set of fancies. Truth is, we're going for a long drive through the desert and if we don't run into a German patrol or get our asses blown up by the Luftwaffe, we may have a chance to die at Oasis #6, a bloody garden spot from all accounts."

"A garden spot, Gunny!" Joker nudged the big Marine. "Palm trees, sunshine, cool winds. What about women?"

"No women," said Stag. "Date palms, yes. Sun hot enough to bake your brain, yes. Hot winds and sand, yes. No women. If you see a woman she'll be covered from toes to head and be kin to any number of brothers, cousins, and uncles who will gladly slice your bollocks off just for looking."

Gunny patted Joker's shoulder. "I think he's saying: no women."

(tbc)

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Ah! Ein nozher vone of Oldt Guy's ztoriez of love und var. Ich... I zertainly hope zhat he doez not have zhe intenzion of putink me in ein nozher vrole az ein evil overlordt. Zhose dayz are behind me und Ich, ach!... I am lookink for ein new job to go along vizh mein new face. Zo go und kill zhose Nazis but remeber zhat Soren iz ein new man.

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The Trek

Buzzards perching on a burned out tank watched as two fat-tired Chevrolet 3-ton trucks rolled by.

"Looks like the bastards have been eating well," growled Gunny. He was riding in the second truck, braced against a .50 caliber machine gun mounted a few feet behind the driver. The truck had no top and no windshield. Red drove. Donnie stood in the space once occupied by a passenger seat. A mount for a .303 caliber Browning machine gun had been installed in the door opening. He kept one hand on the mount and the other on a grab bar welded to the cowl.

Archie drove the first truck. Stag rode shotgun, scanning the route ahead. They were four hours south of U-R-Here and had already passed a dozen or more minefields marked with signs reading "Achtung Minen!" or similar warnings in English. Stag had directed them around two other areas he knew were heavily mined, but unmarked.

Joker manned the heavy machine gun in the first truck. Like Gunny, he turned constantly, watching for aircraft -- and not just German planes. Stag had warned them to consider all aircraft hostile. He'd been strafed several times by British Hurricanes.

Barclay sat on a metal toolbox a few feet behind Joker. His whole body ached from the pounding. Standing up was worse. He kept falling down on various sharp-edged objects.

The little convoy passed through an area of gravel interspersed with jutting lumps of wind-carved sandstone. Stag directed Archie into a narrow patch of shade cast by a tall, strangely scalloped outcrop.

"We'll be at Bone Dry in a couple hours," explained Stag. "After that it's nearly a hundred miles of sand. This is about the only shade we'll see for a bloody long way." He watched Barclay climb slowly down from the truck bed and collapse. "Get up, Corporal. Our Americans are going to think we're all a bunch of sodding pansies."

Barclay groaned and struggled to his feet. "I think my back is broke, Sergeant."

"I'll break your bloody back. Walk around. Work the kinks out."

"Somebody worked me over with a damned stick," lamented Joker. He leaned over and massaged his scalp. "Sand. I must be carrying an acre of the stuff."

Red grinned and shook his head. "If it wasn't for the bleedin' sunburn I'd think my skin had turned into sand. Fools, which means officers, told us we'd get used to it. Lying sods."

"At least it's dry," said Gunny. He raised a set of binoculars and swept the horizon. "Nothing moving. No dust clouds. What's the chance of running into a German patrol?"

"It happens." Stag shrugged. "More often at night."

Archie lit off a spirit stove. "Tea'll be up in 'alf a mo'."

"Aircraft!" called Gunny. "West. Twin engine. A pair."

"Bloody hell!" cried Archie. "How do the bastards know when I start to make tea?"

The two aircraft droned south until nearly out of sight, then turned west. Within minutes, they were gone. No one relaxed until the engine noise faded out.

"What the hell were they?" asked Joker.

"ME-110s," said Stag. "We see a lot of those."

"Tea's up," announced Archie. "Bully beef anyone?"

"My old man told me about your bully beef," said Gunny. "What else you got?"

"I doubt if this lot has been around since you dad was a pup." Archie examined a tin. "Well, maybe it has. We have spam. Fancy any of that?"

Gunny sighed. "Gimme the bully beef. It didn't kill Dad."

Bone Dry turned out to be nothing more than a cluster of ruined buildings huddled at the base of a sandstone cliff. Little remained but crumbling walls.

"Who the hell would build anything in this place?" asked Joker.

"Don't ask me," replied Stag. "The British Army's travel bureau didn't provide a guide book."

Barclay stood up and gripped a machine gun mount. "Egyptians, perhaps. Romans. Maybe even Carthaginians."

Stag glanced back over his shoulder. "Thanks for narrowing it down, professor."

"I can't help it that I'm the only educated man in this rolling circus."

"Hey," cried Joker. "I finished high school."

"The corporal is a bloody Oxford don," said Archie. "The rest of us ain't got much polish."

"I've got polish," objected Stag. "I use it on my boots."

The little convoy descended a shallow wash and entered the sand sea. Progress slowed. Stag navigated via compass and his own memory. All too often the drifting sand had completely altered the landscape. Within an hour the lead truck bogged down in deep sand. Thus began a seemingly endless round of digging out, backtracking, and moving forward, followed by more digging. On top of it all, the wind began blowing. Goggled, faces covered with neck cloths, the small band kept moving.

At dusk, Stag called a halt. "Tea, Archie."

Joker helped Archie rig a canvas windbreak. Within minutes it was completely dark. Faint starlight gave the nearby dunes a ghostly pallor.

"Donnie, take first watch. Red will spell you in two hours. Moonrise is about an hour after that. If it stays clear the moon should give us enough light to continue."

"Joker and I can stand watches as well," said Gunny.

"Oh, you will. You will."

The three-quarter moon rose as predicted. Thirty minutes later, they moved out. The wind died down and it grew cold. For most of the night Stag managed to keep the trucks on stony ground or packed sand. They only had to extricate themselves twice before morning. As the sun peeked over the horizon, Stag had Archie stop in the shadow of a high dune.

"We'll take a bit of breakfast here. We'll be climbing out of this mess in another hour . See about some tea, Archie."

Gunny hopped down carrying a small can. "I'll make some coffee, if that's okay. I've had about all the tea I can handle."

Stag stood with his hands on his hips, favoring Gunny with a disapproving glare. "Well, did you bring enough for everyone?"

(tbc)

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Encounter on the Plateau

Sand slowly gave way to stony ground littered with gravel. Almost without realizing it, the Strike Force found themselves traveling a rough track that probably qualified as a road. Dry brush and stunted trees began to make an appearance. Some of the trees looked as if they might be alive. As the convoy neared the edge of what Stag swore was called Plateau o' Rocks, Gunny began to see a few greasy green bushes. Some had even produced tiny yellow flowers.

As they approached the crest of a small rise, Stag called a halt. He dismounted and walked forward.

Gunny got down and followed. Soon the two men were belly down a few yards to the right of the road. Gunny wormed into the meager shade cast by a dried up tree and scanned the terrain ahead with his binoculars.

"Nothing moving," he reported.

Stag pointed toward the cliffs marking the edge of the plateau, now only two miles away. "See the road? Where it winds its way up the cliff?"

"Yes. Is that the way we're going?"

"Right. Take a bloody good look at the road and the rim of the plateau. I'll check out that cluster of mud huts off to the left."

"Jeez. I didn't even see those. How could anyone live in this furnace?"

"The place has been abandoned -- probably for years." Stag chuckled. "I once used the ruins for cover when we ambushed a German patrol." He dug his elbows in and focused his glasses on the village. "I imagine the evil bastards might try the same thing on us."

Five minutes later Gunny relaxed. "I don't see a damn thing."

"Me neither." Stag stood up and knocked some of the dirt from his trousers and jacket. "With luck, any Nazi blighters hiding down there are asleep."

Other than a few buzzards circling lazily in the air rising up from the cliffs, they saw no living thing during the short drive across the flat and their grinding ascent of the road. Once on the plateau Stag had the drivers slow down to allow the engines to cool.

The trees growing on the plateau looked a little more alive than those down below. There were also more of them. And more of the gray-green bushes.

"Jesus, Red," called Gunny. "You could hide a brigade in all this cover."

Red laughed. "Keep your eyes peeled, Gunny. A brigade we don't have to worry about. It's the Kraut patrols that could cause trouble."

The first hint of danger announced itself in the form of a black cloud rising into the morning sky. One glance told Stag he was seeing the exhaust smoke from a German vehicle. As he started to shout a warning the blunt nose of a large half-track appeared less than fifty yards ahead.

"Keep going!" he cried. "When we get close turn hard left and stop!"

"They're dragging a tank!" shouted Archie. "It's a Panzer 3."

Stag worked the charging handle of his Browning. He nearly pissed himself when the tank came into view. Then he sagged in relief. The Panzer was obviously out of commission. Archie slowed and swerved left. Stag and Joker opened up as the truck shuddered to a halt. Barclay fell off his tool box perch and crashed into the front bulkhead.

Several men leaped from the half-track. Others went down in the hail of bullets. Joker fired a long burst, shattering men and vehicle structure. Stag ripped everything moving with short bursts. Seconds after the first round was fired, Red guided his truck in behind Archie's. Gunny and Donnie leaped down and sprinted forward, circling out to the right. Red was close behind.

"Cease fire!" shouted Stag. He grabbed a Bren gun and jumped to the ground. Joker and Archie followed.

Barclay dragged himself erect and looked around. His ears rang. He'd been lying a few feet from the muzzle of Joker's heavy machine gun. "Hey. Where is every . . ." Comprehension dawned when he saw the half-track, still lurching forward, tank in tow. "Bloody hell." Desperately, he grabbed his Sten gun and dashed after the others. Unfortunately, his dramatic leap from the back of the truck turned into a rather undignified tumble. His weapon went one way and he, in a tangle of arms and legs, went another. He fetched up against a large boulder, quite unconscious.

A few rifle shots rang out. The men called to each other and fanned out, searching the scrub brush for the enemy. They gathered where the German dead lay sprawled.

"Seven?" wondered Joker. "I coulda swore there was a dozen of the bastards."

"I saw a lot of men flying around," said Stag. He turned an looked at the half-track, now grinding across the landscape about fifty yards beyond the road. "There could be some on the lorry."

Gunny trotted across the road. "Come on, Donnie." They easily caught up with the vehicles and stopped the half-track.

Stag motioned his drivers back to their positions. "Get your bloody lorries back on the road. Check for damage. We need to keep moving."

"Two dead in the truck," called Gunny. "The Panzer is empty."

"See what they have for food and water," yelled Stag. He noticed Barclay lying beside the road. "Bloody hell. What's happened to him?"

Donnie trudged back carrying two jerry cans. "There's two more water cans back there. Gunny is gathering food and anything the Intelligence lads might like. He said we ought to load the dead Krauts on the half-track, put it in low gear and let it go."

"Good idea," said Stag. "But we have to hurry. Sure as hell some Nazi sod heard all that shooting and will be along to check it out."

"Yeah, Gunny mentioned that." Donnie shoved the two jerry cans into the back of Archie's lorry. "He said we could probably use the gasoline in the track, but draining it out would take too long."

"That Gunny's a smart cookie," said Stag. "I know because he agrees with me. Let's move!"

"What's wrong with Barclay?" Donnie knelt beside the runt.

"If he ain't bleedin', get him up. He can help us haul bodies."

Fifteen minutes later, richer by about twenty gallons of water, two MG-42 machine guns, and an assortment of German rations, the strike force moved out. Barclay didn't regain full consciousness for some time. When he finally came to his senses, he had no idea why his head ached nor why his clothes were soaked with a dark substance he strongly believed to be blood.

(tbc)

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The Picnic

"Whadya think, Red?" asked Joker. "Are the Germans likely to have heard all that ruckus?"

"Ruckus?" Red glanced over his shoulder. "What kind of word is that?"

"It means noise, tumult, confusion. That little firefight back there qualifies as a ruckus."

"Why can't you bloody Yanks speak English?" Red shook his head. "There's a war on. It's noisy. No one can investigate every bleedin' . . . ruckus." He grinned and pointed at a burned out tank lying a few yards off the road. It's turret lay upside down about twenty feet from the chassis. "Those sods in the half-track were picking up salvageable hulks. The one we just passed is good for nothing but scrap. And I ain't seen anything but junk for the last few miles. Have you?"

Joker looked around. He could see scattered clusters of damaged vehicles. Hardly any looked to be repairable. "You're right. This area has already been picked over. So you think those poor bastards were a long ways from their base?"

"I ain't gonna count on it, but, yeah. I think . . . I hope so." Red shrugged. "All it takes is some Kraut with a radio in the right place and, Bob's your uncle, we get our bollocks shot off."

"How'd you know I have an uncle named Bob?"

Donnie and Red burst into laughter. Before either could explain, Barclay stood up and latched onto the forward bulkhead. "What happened? Where am I?"

"Ah -- you've been kind of out of it," said Joker. "What do you remember?"

Barclay touched the lump on his head. "I . . . I had breakfast with the headmaster. Never done that before. I think it was because of my volunteering."

"Volunteering? For the army?"

"No. Volunteering to help the porter. He was to make sure students complied with blackout regulations . . . and, um, to try and keep tarts out of the rooms."

"Jeez, Corporal, you really must have taken a bad knock." Joker and Donnie proceeded to bring the poor sod up to speed vis-a-vis his status in the army, his location, and the current mission. Before they were quite done he collapsed and lay twitching. For a long time Barclay said nothing . . . unless low calf noises count as speech.

Other than the ever present buzzards and a couple of distant aircraft, the strike force saw naught but desert for several hours. The sun was halfway to the western horizon before Stag called a halt. He chose a rough track branching off to the east, between two low ridges. A few hundred yards from the main road they pulled up in a clump of trees. Archie fired up his stove and started heating rations and tea. The others began sorting through the gear needed for the eventual assault on the TP depot. Even Barclay came back to life and started cleaning his Sten.

"What does the Michelin guide say about this part of Libya?" asked Gunny. "What can we expect to find in the way of accommodations, museums, restaurants, and the like?" He snickered, impressed with his own wit. "I imagine the night life is exciting?"

Red glanced at Joker. "What's he going on about now? Sun addle his wits?"

"Gunny's an aspiring comedian," replied Joker. "I thought that should have been obvious by now."

Stag just laughed. He finished disassembling his Bren gun, laying the pieces on a fairly clean blanket. "The Michelin says nothing about Libya. Other than goat tracks, of which we are quite familiar, the only halfway decent road is the Via Balbia . . . the coast road. I think the Italians built it." He looked around. "Barclay. Did the Italians build the Via Balbia?"

"Bugger off," snarled the corporal. "Do I look like a sodding school master?" He bent over his weapon, cleaning rag in hand. "This bloody thing is full of dirt. Some twit must have dropped it."

"What's wrong, Barclay?" asked Donnie. "I thought you were interested in history."

"History? I'm only interested in getting out of this sodding desert and finding a good whorehouse."

Donnie frowned. "That knock on the head must have scrambled his brains."

"Leave the blighter alone," said Red. "I like him better this way."

Archie banged on a pot. "Tea's up. And I heated up this German stuff."

"What is it?" asked Red.

"Damned if I know. Some kinda meat and vegetables. I stewed 'em all together. There's crackers."

Stag walked over and examined the 'stew'. "It won't kill us, I suppose. The Krauts manage on it. Finish cleaning your weapons, you lot, then get a bite. Don't come whining to me if you come down with a bloody belly ache."

Gunny unlimbered his mess kit. "I'll try some of the stew. And maybe a couple crackers. My mom used to make stew."

Red tasted his portion and grimaced. "Your old mom never made stew like this, mate."

"How do you know?"

"You're still alive."

Before they mounted up, Stag held a short briefing. He passed around the only aerial photo they had of the TP depot. Going to one knee, he used a stick to draw out a rough diagram of the facility. "The photo shows a double row of wire and four bunkers. The area between the rows is probably mined. Lorries go in and out using one gate on the north side."

Red looked up from the photo. "This is a toilet paper depot, right? Why all the bunkers, wire, and mines? Looks like the depot itself is dug into the ground. Like a big bunker." He handed the photo to Gunny. "Aren't those defensive positions at each corner?"

"Maybe." Gunny examined the photo closely. "Probably. There are also two sandbag pits on the side away from the entrance. Mortar pits, I think." He looked at Stag. "Maybe they were using this for ammo or fuel storage before they filled it full of toilet paper. No way to tell if the defensive positions are actually manned."

"True." Stag regarded his dirt drawing. "We'll have to find a spot fairly close to the target where we can hide and send out a recon team. Depending on what we find, we can alter our attack plan. For now, I intend to bash right through the front gate. You drivers will stop in front of the depot just long enough for the rest of us to unload. Then, before you join us, turn the lorries around. We may have to leave in a bloody hurry."

Joker let out a long sigh. "Barclay, are you sure this place is a toilet paper depot?"

"How the bloody hell should I know? I'm a corporal, not a bleedin' general."

"You seemed pretty certain back at regiment," said Archie. "What did he say, lads? Something about bringing the Afrika Korps to it's knees?"

"Sod off, you lot! Just sod off." Barclay stomped off and picked up his Sten, then climbed aboard Red's truck.

Donnie cursed and started for the truck. "I'll take a spanner to him. I will, by God."

"Leave him be," ordered Stag. "If we survive this mess you can drown him."

"Drown him?" asked Gunny. "Where in hell could he do that?"

"I was getting to that," said Stag. "After we hit the depot, we'll head for the coast. A steamer will pick us up. It will drop us in Alexandria . . . where there actually are whorehouses and bars." He smiled at Gunny. "You, however, may want to avoid any bars frequented by Royal Marines."

"What steamer? I don't remember anything about a ship picking us up," said Archie.

"I knew returning over the desert would be dodgy," explained Stag. "We're bound to have a few Jerries on our trail. So I arranged for the Ocelot to pick us up."

"Ocelot?" cried Donnie. "Isn't that the one Captain Spectre operates?"

"Yeah. So what?"

"That's not a real ship," said Archie. "It's a bleedin' hulk. Rust everywhere, the sodding hull is paper thin, her engines only operate sometimes. What were you thinking?"

Stag grabbed Archie by the shirt front. "I was thinking that nobody at regiment will lift a finger to get us out if we run into trouble. I was thinking that the Germans would make going back the way we came bloody dangerous. I was thinking some of us wanted to survive this sodding mission." He dropped Archie and glared at the others. "Any other bloody questions?"

Everyone scrambled to board the trucks. Evidently, no one had any other concerns.

(tbc)

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The Raid

As they neared the summit of the ridge Stag and Joker wormed their way through a patch of brush and eased forward until they could see the depot, half a mile to the east. Donnie occupied a security position back down the slope. The others were holed up in a gorge a few hundred yards back.

Joker had Gunny's binoculars. He swept the area. Stag did the same. While the depot was their target, any nearby German units would be a threat to the mission.

"Nothing," murmured Joker. "I'd expected to see engineer units, supply, something."

"So did I." Stag rested his chin on his crossed arms. "This bloody affair is getting crazier by the minute. Why wouldn't other units settle down close to a TP supply? If the place actually holds fuel or ammunition or even a stock of boots, for God's sake, any number of sodding support units ought to set up nearby."

"I don't think it contains ammo," said Joker. "That stuff is always split up into smaller lots and kept in dedicated bunkers. Just one big bunker makes no sense. Same for fuel. No tanks that we can see."

"My thinking exactly." Stag focused on the depot. "I see two guards walking around the bunker. Do you see any others? In the corner bunkers?"

"Nothing. Not a soul. And those square bunkers built into the corners of the main one look kind of odd. There are no firing ports. No openings to the outside at all."

Stag was silent for some time. "You're right. Too bloody right. I think we have a gas storage depot."

"Gas?" Joker's face went white. "You mean poison gas? But that's . . ."

"Against the Geneva Convention? Yeah. But that doesn't mean Adolph won't use it."

Joker held up a hand. "No. Wait. What about the lack of exterior guards? If this place held gas it would be heavily guarded -- by elite troops. Wouldn't it?"

"Right. Right." Stag nodded slowly. "At least -- I think you're right. But . . ."

"But what if the Germans don't want to draw attention to the place? What if the internal security is hidden?" Joker began scanning the nearby terrain again. "What if they have security forces tucked away nearby . . . in the hills?"

Stag also began searching the local area. "You're scaring the crap out of me, Joker. Still . . . I don't see any sign of . . . anything. Vehicles leave tracks. The work of digging bunkers leaves traces."

"Neither do I." Joker focused on the depot again. "So what the hell is in this place?"

"Probably toilet paper. Intelligence must have gotten it right . . . for once."

Joker lowered the glasses and wiped the sweat off his face. "How likely is that?"

"Not bloody likely. But, we know one thing for sure. We have to smash our way in there. I suspect we'll know what's inside shortly after that."

"Smash our way in?" Joker pointed at the target. "The gate's open. Only two guards. Aren't the Germans using a lot of captured trucks?"

"Too bloody many of 'em," said Stag. He nodded slowly. "Trucks loaded with dust-covered sods look pretty much alike. And we have those MG-42s."

"That's what I was thinking. I'm sure we can figure out a way to mount them."

"Come on," said Stag as he began crawling back out of the brush. "Let's go tell the others."

Donnie rose to greet them. "How bad is it?"

"No problem," replied Stag. "We'll just drive in, like we intend to pick up a load of TP."

"You're bloody well shitting me."

"No." Joker grinned. "It will be like a social call. Right up until we open fire."

"Look here," said Archie as he slowed and eased to the side of the road. Two kubelwagens passed through the depot gate and rolled toward the strike force.

"Keep moving," snapped Stag. "Give 'em room, but keep moving." He gripped the MG-42 mounted to his right, barrel down. The British mount didn't fit the German weapon, but Red had scrounged up a couple bolts and secured the guns so they wouldn't fall off. Actually firing them would be tricky, perhaps impossible.

Driver and shotgun rider in both trucks wore distinctive Afrika Korps caps and goggles. Joker and Barclay, hatless, but wearing goggles, sprawled in the back of the lead truck. Gunny did the same in truck number two. Thick dust coated every surface.

The kubelwagen occupants waved merrily as the two groups passed. Stag responded with a wave. He waited several seconds before turning around. The Germans never looked back. "All clear, lads." Joker began manhandling the .50 caliber machine gun back into position. Stag unbolted the MG-42 and stuck the Browning back where it belonged. A quick glance told him the others had done the same. He dropped the cap on the cab floor. "All right, Archie. Let's do it."

"We're almost there." Archie concentrated on maintaining a steady speed. "Did you notice that those clowns in the kubelwagens were clean? I mean really clean. And I didn't see any toilet paper."

"You didn't really believe this place was full of TP did you?"

"I had my doubts. What do you think is in it?"

Stag shrugged. "Maybe it's a shower point. Like you said: those Krauts looked damn clean." He worked the charging lever on the machine gun. "I reckon we're about to find out."

As they drove through the gate the men could see that the depot was more of a bunker, sunk into the ground. In places, concrete walls were visible behind layers of sandbags. The entrance was about thirty feet wide and consisted of a concrete docking platform with thick timbers supporting a triple layer of sandbags for a roof. The platform side were protected in like fashion creating a shaded, porch-like entrance. On the left a wide set of metal steps led up to the platform. A large passage door and a roll-up warehouse door led into the bunker. Both were closed. A kubelwagen and a medium size truck were parked against the wire to the right of the entrance.

"Where are the guards?" muttered Stag. Archie didn't reply. He angled the truck to the left and stopped a few yards from the metal steps. Joker stayed where he was, swinging big machine gun nervously. Red rolled in beside the first truck. Gunny bailed off and sprinted toward the steps. Donnie and Barclay followed.

In seconds, Archie and Red had repositioned the vehicles, noses pointing toward the gate. Archie parked his at the depot corner so Joker could cover the front and one side of the structure. Archie and Red dashed after the others.

Two guards strolled around the corner nearest the two parked German vehicles. Both froze at the sight of Red standing by the steps, covering them with a Sten gun. When they saw Joker standing behind a heavy machine gun which was pointed directly at them, the two let their rifles slide to the sand and raised their hands.

Cursing, Red ran forward, grabbed the rifles and tossed them into the surrounding wire. He drove the two Germans toward the entrance. "I'll take 'em inside!"

"Right!" called Joker. "I don't hear any shooting. Everything must be under control."

"I bloody well hope you're right." Red nudged the two prisoners up the steps. "Schnell!"

The door stood open. Archie motioned the prisoners inside and followed them down a short flight of steps. "You're not going to believe this, boyo."

"What ain't I going to believe?"

"It's a bloody whorehouse."

(tbc)

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The Bordello

Archie and Red stood transfixed. The open area in front of them was strewn with overstuffed chairs, a few tables, sofas, and women in various stages of dress . . . and undress.

Four Germans lay prone on the floor. One, a feldwebel, was fully dressed. The others were either naked or nearly so. Barclay appeared at the back, prodding another Kraut wearing an officer's cap and black socks. Gunny walked out of one of the corner rooms with another prisoner. This one still had his shorts on.

Red couldn't speak for a long moment. Finally, he motioned for his prisoners to join the others. "Where's Donnie?"

Archie merely pointed. Donnie lay a few feet away, apparently unconscious. Every now and then he crooned, "Boooooobs."

"He's out for the duration," said Red. "Bloody twit."

Stag came up a stairway cut into the floor on the right side of the main room. "Showers downstairs. Nobody there at the moment." He grinned as he walked across the floor. "What the hell are we going to do now?"

Gunny pushed his prisoner to the floor. "Get the hell out. We'll have to take these guys with us."

"Jeez, Gunny." Archie stared at the women, now gathering in whispering groups. "Look at 'em. Where do you suppose they come from?"

"Germany," said Gunny. "France. Italy. Who knows? This is some sore of a morale . . . uh . . . unit."

"Just standing here has done wonders for my morale," muttered Red.

"Are you bloody fools on your own?" The speaker, a slender woman with cropped dark hair, left a group of women and approached the strike force.

Stag frowned. "Are you English?"

"Of course I'm English. I asked a question. Are you at the head of a British offensive or just a bunch of desert rats?"

"Scouts, ma'am," replied Stag. "Though we look a bit like rats. We were . . . hah! We were assigned to assault this place and destroy it. Our Intell boffins had it pegged as a . . . warehouse."

"Well, it ain't that." The woman sighed. "My name is Helen. What are you going to do?"

Gunny interrupted. "We have to go, Stag. There's nothing we can do here. If we move fast, we stand a good chance of getting out."

Stag nodded. "We can take you with us, ma'am. Could be bloody dangerous, but maybe better than being a . . . um . . ."

"The word is 'whore'. And I ain't one. The Germans haven't had my knickers off . . . yet. I'm a nurse. Captured about five months ago. I take care of the prostitutes." She looked around at the other women. "A doctor comes around once in a while, but mostly it's just me. I ain't going to leave them." She fished a folded paper from a pocket in her smock. "I've written down my name and unit. Take it. Make sure the Red Cross knows I'm a prisoner. I don't think the Germans have reported me among the POWs."

"Helen, I . . ." For once Stag was speechless. "For what it's worth, you're probably safer here. We have a long road ahead of us."

"What do we do with the prisoners?" asked Red.

"We can't leave 'em," said Archie.

"You can't shoot them here," said Helen. "The Germans reprisals will start with these women. Here's a suggestion. Leave Major Heinz. He's the one wearing black socks. Leave the feldwebel and the two guards. They're decent sorts. Whoever the Germans replace them with might not be."

"What about these others?" asked Stag.

"Take them. Keep 'em as prisoners, shoot 'em later, let 'em go, whatever."

"We can disable the vehicles," suggested Archie.

"Right." Stag made up his mind. "Get right on that, Archie. Barclay. Lock these four in the storeroom down below. I saw a lock hanging by the door. Then help Red with the prisoners. Get 'em in the lorries. We leave in five minutes."

"I'll drag Donnie out," said Gunny.

"Kick him until he wakes up," snarled Stag. "I've about had it with his boob fixation."

A couple well-placed kicks didn't wake Donnie. He did, however, regain consciousness when Gunny dropped him off the loading platform.

"Get aboard," Gunny ordered. "Help with the prisoners."

"Prisoners? What prisoners?" Donnie ducked the big sergeant's fist. "I'm going. I'm going."

"What's happening?" called Joker.

"You'll never believe it," replied Gunny. "We leave in a couple minutes."

Archie trotted by holding a fistful of spark plug wires. "They won't be going anywhere until the sods can replace these." He tossed the wires into Red's truck.

Helen accompanied Stag up the steps to the platform. "Good luck, Sergeant."

He paused. "How did you know I was a sergeant?"

"I can tell. You aren't an overzealous twit. My father was a sergeant. Killed at Dunkirk."

Stag straightened his battle jacket and came to attention. "Sorry about your father. Take care, ma'am." He snapped off a parade ground salute. Helen returned it with equal precision.

He descended to the ground and climbed aboard Archie's truck. Joker goggled at the women now filing onto the platform. "What the hell?"

"It's a convent," explained Stag. He winked at Archie. "The Krauts moved the nuns into this place in order to better protect them."

Joker eyed a pert little blonde standing near the platform edge. She wore a thin camisole and nothing else that he could see. The woman smiled and returned his cheery wave. "Just the kind of convent I used to dream about."

"Keep dreaming, boyo. Let's get out of here."

Thirty minutes later the strike force passed a convoy consisting of one kubelwagen and two trucks. Beaming German soldiers yelled and waved as they passed.

"Word of our presence will go out in about half an hour," said Archie. "What now?"

"We get off the road and under cover." Stag perused his map. "This road splits in about two miles. One fork goes to Oasis #6. The krauts are sure to have someone there."

"Where does the other road go?"

"A little town on the coast called Swoha. We're to contact the Ocelot when we're ready to be picked up. Captain Spectre said he'd be offshore tonight and tomorrow night."

"So he says. I don't trust that blighter."

"Neither do I. He won't get his money until we're safe in Alex."

"What choice do we have?"

"None. Going back the way we came is too risky."

"The road junction is coming up. Which way?"

"Take the road to the right. I'll watch for a place where we can lie up."

The convoy encountered no other traffic on the road to Swoha. The bulk of the Afrika Korps lay to the east. The primary conduit for the movement of German troops and supplies was via the coast road. Rommel had often turned British positions by outflanking them to the south, through the desert. The scattered wreckage marking the road used by the strike force bore mute witness to the ferocity of fighting along one of those turning movements.

Stag motioned for Archie to slow down. "What's this?"

A tangle of wrecked vehicles lay east of the road. Burned out tanks and trucks had been towed into the area and arranged in ragged rows. Here and there mangled vehicles were piled two and three deep. Some bore evidence of salvage, with parts and assemblies missing.

"Pull in here," ordered Stag. "Take us around to the back of this mess. See if you can find a spot where wreckage shields us from the road."

Five minutes later Archie parked next to a tank chassis missing its turret. A half-track sans tracks and much of its drive system lay atop the tank. A smashed kubelwagen perched on top of the heap. Two trucks formed a pile large enough to hide Red's truck. Another row of vehicles provided adequate cover to the east. The space between the rows was open at both ends, but a chance observer would have found it difficult to spot the British trucks.

Gunny and Barclay unloaded the prisoners and made them sit between the trucks and the wreckage.

"What shall we feed 'em?" asked Joker.

"Give the sods some of their own ration bars," said Barclay.

Stag eyed the four prisoners. They were handcuffed to each other. "Any of you lot speak English?"

The man nearest Stag, a gefreiter, raised his free hand. "I have ein Anglaisch. Zum Anglaisch."

"Well, corporal, tell your mates we'll provide water shortly and see about some rations." Stag nodded toward Donnie, standing beside his Browning. "Anyone who makes a break for it will be shot down."

The corporal nodded. "Jawohl . . . ah . . . verschtanden . . . ve understand." He spoke to the others, then turned his attention back to Stag. "Vot . . . vere are you taking us?"

"Right now, I don't know. Probably back to Egypt. But, if I can find a safe way to release you, I'll do that. Don't make trouble and you'll be fine."

"Ja. Ve do not make trouble." He began translating to the others.

Stag walked around to the front of Archie's truck and motioned for Gunny and Joker to join him. Gunny produced cigars and handed one to Stag. "What you got in mind, general?"

"Thanks." Stag tucked the cigar away. "I'm making this stuff up as I go along. You got any ideas?"

"Nothing much. The Germans will be looking for us by now. This is a good hiding place . . . at least until some salvage crews show up."

After a glance at the lowering sun, Stag sat down on a handy truck fender. "I plan on turning those clowns loose and it occurred to me that it would be bloody handy if they thought we were going to escape some other way than we plan."

"Okay." Gunny lit his cigar. "Good idea. We're sort of limited though . . . aren't we?"

Joker nodded. "It's either out by sea or go back by way of the sand sea. Right?"

"We could hole up somewhere and wait for the army to drive the Germans back to Tunisia," said Stag.

All three men laughed at that. Stag shrugged. "Okay, that won't happen soon enough. What about stealing a plane and flying back?"

"You got a pilot up your sleeve?" asked Joker. He grinned. "Oh, I see. You tell the prisoners that and then release them. The Germans spend a lot of time securing airfields while we float away."

"Something like that," said Stag. "Only we won't tell the bloody Krauts . . . not directly. I want you two to discuss the idea privately, but manage to let that corporal overhear."

"We can do that," agreed Gunny. He thought for a moment. "Which one of us should be the pretend pilot?"

"Joker," said Stag. "The Germans already know you're a sergeant."

"How the hell would they know? We ain't wearing any rank badges."

"I don't know for sure. Helen, that British nurse, told me she can always tell which men are officers and which are sergeants. Made me think a bit, which is bloody unusual. I've never had any trouble recognizing sergeants. Have you?"

"No." Gunny nodded. "There's something in what you say. What about that nurse, anyway? Why didn't she come with us?"

Stag explained as best he could, making it clear that Helen hadn't been forced into prostitution, but was taking care of the other women. She simply could not abandon them.

"Damn, Stag. I take back anything I might have assumed about her." Gunny thought for a moment. "So Joker can play pilot. I'll be the NCO concerned about his lack of knowledge of Nazi aircraft."

"Perfect." Stag stood up. "Let's see if Archie has any tea ready. I think he's making stew again."

"Stew," cried Joker. "The Germans might object. Feeding that stuff to prisoners is probably against the Geneva Convention."

Later that evening, just before dark, Stag allowed the prisoners to visit the makeshift latrine he'd had two of them dig earlier. Joker or Red accompanied each one. The gefreiter went last with Joker as his guard. Gunny tagged along.

He stopped Joker a few feet behind the German and spoke in a low voice. "What do you think?"

Joker responded in the same manner. "About what? The flying? Piece of cake."

"But you don't know the first thing about German aircraft."

"No problem. You put me in the left seat of a transport and I'll figure it out." He stared at the ground for a moment, as if considering something. "The Nazis do have some captured British planes. One of those would be even easier. At least the gauges would be in English."

"Right." Gunny chuckled. "But that's British English. And the controls would all be on the wrong side and upside down. You know the Brits."

"True. A German plane might be easier."

Gunny stepped forward to relieve himself while Joker walked the corporal back to camp.

(tbc)

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Red couldn't speak for a long moment. Finally, he motioned for his prisoners to join the others. "Where's Donnie?"

Archie merely pointed. Donnie lay a few feet away, apparently unconscious. Every now and then he crooned, "Boooooobs."

"He's out for the duration," said Red. "Bloody twit."

That's our Donnie! :lol:

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Red couldn't speak for a long moment. Finally, he motioned for his prisoners to join the others. "Where's Donnie?"

Archie merely pointed. Donnie lay a few feet away, apparently unconscious. Every now and then he crooned, "Boooooobs."

"He's out for the duration," said Red. "Bloody twit."

That's our Donnie! :lol:

It's the only way I get any sleep. Servicing so many babes a day...finally the site of another pair of boobs makes me decide to pull this routine so I can get some rest.

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The Beach Trip

Stag watched as Joker and Red handed a canteen to each prisoner. The men were handcuffed together and those on the end were cuffed to large pieces of wreckage. The gefreiter accepted his canteen with a muttered, "Danke."

"We're leaving," said Stag. "You have water and rations. Some of your lot will be along later to salvage parts. I imagine you'll be back to your units before long."

"But . . ." Even in the moonlight Stag could see that the gefreiter's face was drawn and pale. "Vhat if no one comes today . . . or even tomorrow?"

"Fortunes of war." Stag hesitated. "We can't take you with us. My only real option is to shoot you now. I don't want to do that." He shrugged and walked away.

Archie fired up the truck and looked around. "Ready back there?"

"I don't know about me," said Joker, "but Barclay is so ready he's about to get unready."

"Bugger off, why don't you?" Barclay gestured with his Sten. "We ought to shoot those bloody Germans."

"Bloodthirsty, eh, Corporal?" Stag laughed. "We're not out of this yet. I'm sure you'll get a chance to shoot some Germans . . . assuming you don't trip over your bloody toes and knock yourself out again."

Barclay's face flushed red. He settled back against an ammo box and kept quiet.

"Let's go," ordered Stag. He glanced up at the rising moon. "We've got maybe seven hours to either find a new hiding spot or contact Spectre for pickup."

Blacked out, moving carefully, the strike force moved out of the scrap yard and headed south on the Swoha road. They began to see an occasional cluster of mud-brick houses, though no people were about.

"There must be a checkpoint at Swoha." Archie shouted to make himself heard over the roar of the truck exhaust.

"We'll have to avoid it," replied Stag. "There are a couple side roads that connect with the coast road a few miles west of the town. The Krauts can't have set up checkpoints at every little crossroad."

"You hope. The bastards tend to be conscientious sods."

Thirty minutes later they paused at the first side road marked on Stag's map. "I don't like the look of this one," declared Archie. "It's too bloody dark to be sure but it looks like it goes straight into that ridge."

"Yeah." Stag examined the map using his torch. "Lot's of sharp turns according to this bleedin' rag. A goat track, probably. Let's try the next one."

The next west-going road didn't look much better, but Stag decided they had no choice. To drive any closer to Swoha was too dangerous. The Germans were bound to have checkpoints and military police all around the place. The little convoy ground west along a rough road obviously used and misused by heavy tracked vehicles. Three hours of lurching travel brought them close to the top of a hill just south of the Via Balbia.

Everyone got down to stretch the kinks out. Archie made tea. Stag had the others begin loading the gear they might need on Archie's truck. For the last lap of the mission the whole team would be in one vehicle.

Gunny and Stag walked along the road to the crest of the hill.

Gunny stumbled and cursed. "Goddamn country. Rocks. All rocks with a few miserable trees and brush thrown in. Why do we even want the place?"

"We don't," replied Stag. "At least I don't. The Krauts can keep it . . . and be welcome to all the sand and snakes they can handle."

Resting on a heap of boulders the two men scanned the road below. Beyond the ribbon of pavement the waters of the Mediterranean lay dark and foreboding. As they watched, a truck convoy passed, heading east.

"No sign of a checkpoint," said Gunny. "The sea isn't more than a mile on the far side of the road. Can we get your ship to pick us up here?"

"No. Spectre's freighter is small . . . a coasting ship. The locals keep up a fair amount of trade along the coast, regardless of the war. He carries non-military cargo and sails the usual routes to and from ports along the coast. We have to get into the port of Swoha, or near enough to steal a boat."

Gunny thought about that for a minute. "Maybe stealing a plane is a better idea."

"Right." Stag snickered. "Too bad we don't have a pilot."

"Yeah. There is that. I suppose we could kidnap a pilot."

Now Stag laughed aloud, though quietly. "Why don't we just rob a couple banks and hijack a load of whiskey as well? Then steal a plane, with pilot, and carry the whole lot back to Cairo?"

"I didn't say anything about robbing banks."

"Sorry. My mouth runs away with me at times. That's why I never manage to keep my stripes for very long." Stag gave Gunny a hand up. "Let's see if we can hook up with the Ocelot. If that doesn't work, we can try the kidnap routine."

"Jeez," said Gunny. "It was just an idea."

"No problem, mate."

"Stealing some whiskey sounds like a good deal, though. Is there likely to be a lot of it lying around?"

"The British army runs on whiskey, my friend. The Germans are addicted to schnapps, from what I hear. So, yes, cases of various poisons are thick on the ground. In fact, I'd be willing to bet the Krauts have considerable supplies of scotch. They captured a lot of headquarters staff lately and those sods are always stocked up on whiskey."

"True. Our Army is the same way. So are the Marines, for that matter."

"Time to stop daydreaming about whiskey," said Stag. "Let's see if we can sneak into Swoha without getting shot."

"I'm for that."

Joker had the radio warmed up and waiting. Stag took the mike. "Cracker, this is Dog Biscuit, over."

He waited a long minute then repeated the call. No reply.

"Bloody hell," breathed Archie.

"Cracker, this is Dog Biscuit, over."

This time the speaker crackled with a response. "Dog Biscuit, Cracker, how copy?"

"Cracker, read you 3 by 3. You have a rat in your radio, over."

"Two rats, Dog Biscuit. We'll try to have it fixed no later than tomorrow night, over."

"Dog Buscuit, out."

"Shut it down, Joker. Remove the crystals. We won't be able to take the bloody thing with us."

"That was Ocelot, I take it?" asked Gunny.

"Aye. He's in position. We have to be aboard by tomorrow night. That's good. It means there has been no change in plans on his end."

Archie handed Gunny a flashlight with a red lens cover. "Stag has one. So does Red. You better have this one. Just in case."

"Yeah." Gunny stuffed the flashlight in his jacket pocket. "Just in case. What's the signal?"

"One long and two shorts," replied Stag. "Followed by one long and three shorts."

Gunny nodded. "D for Dog and B for Biscuit."

"Right." Stag laughed. "I learned Morse as a boy scout. You?"

"I was never a scout," said Gunny. "The Corps beat it into me."

"Ah, yes. The bloody Corps. I wish we had more of your pals here to help out." Stag motioned toward the truck. "What's everyone standing around for? Mount up!"

Once they reached the main road Archie headed toward Swoha. When the first mud-brick houses loomed out of the dark, he turned left onto a narrow track leading more or less toward the harbor. No lights showed in any of the houses. Some had been knocked about by artillery fire or bombs.

"Nobody seems to be around," muttered Stag. "It's too bloody quiet."

Archie negotiated a tight corner and let the truck idle down a short slope toward what looked like a market square. Moonlit awnings hung over empty tables. The buildings crowding around the market were dark.

"Maybe a lot of the locals have taken to the hills," suggested Gunny.

"Yeah. Probably. We need to find a spot to ditch the lorry." Stag glared at the shuttered shops. "The Germans probably enforce a curfew."

Archie chuckled. "And here we are, out after curfew."

"Just find a spot to hide this bloody lorry," snapped Stag.

The houses thinned out after they cleared the market square. Gunny grabbed Stag's shoulder and pointed to the left. "How about right there? That has to be a motor pool."

Several dozen vehicles, mostly trucks, were parked haphazardly amid a scattering of houses. The houses were much the worse for wear. Hardly a wall remained standing. No lights showed.

At Stag's command, Archie brought the truck to a halt. They sat idling.

"Down there," said Gunny. "I see a spot between two trucks. It's hard to be sure in the dark, but one of them looks to be a Chevy, just like this one."

"You're bloody right," agreed Stag. "Take us down there, Archie. Quietly now." He turned toward the others. "Packs and weapons. Try not to wake the sodding Krauts."

Every lurch and squeak seemed to echo through the village. Brakes squealed slightly as Archie brought the Chevy to a stop. He killed the engine and a cloak of silence fell over the tense group.

"Off . . . quietly," hissed Stag.

Other than a few rattles and muffled curses, the exodus went smoothly . . . until Barclay missed a handhold and fell in a heap. The clatter of his weapon brought the others to a halt, hearts frozen in fear.

A voice called out of the dark. No one moved. Barclay lay rigid, not even daring to breathe. A large rock ground into his back.

Barely visible in the dim light, a sentry stepped out of the shadows and spoke.

Joker raised up and replied. In German. None of the others understood a word. The sentry replied, then laughed and strolled back toward wherever he came from.

"Jesus," hissed Red. "What did he say? What did you say?"

"He told us not to make such a racket." Joker slung his pack. "I told him Heinrich had fallen down. Said he was always tripping over his own feet."

"I can't believe he bought that," said Gunny.

"He did." Joker glanced up at the moon. "It's late. He's tired. No one expects a pack of Allied morons to park a British truck in a German motor pool. Besides, he said one of his comrades was like that . . . a clumsy oaf."

Barclay managed to get up without dropping anything or falling down again. "Hadn't we ought to get out of this sodding place?"

"Right you are." Stag hefted his Bren gun and strode off, making no attempt at skulking.

"Move it," urged Gunny. "Follow Stag. Act natural, if you know how."

"Right," said Red. "We'll do plenty of sneaking about soon, I'll warrant."

"This is too easy," muttered Joker.

Stag lowered his binoculars. "I was thinking the same thing. We haven't seen a single German since we parked the truck, save for that one bloody sentry."

Gunny studied the small ship lying at anchor about two hundred yards from shore. "Are you positive that's the Ocelot?" The team had taken cover inside a small waterfront warehouse. A short dock extended into the harbor. Both showed signs of great age and the effects of stray artillery rounds and bombs.

"That's her," said Stag. "See how the stack is bent back? A German bomb did that. The forward cargo handling boom has been reduced to a stub. A British destroyer fired across her bows, to make her stop for inspection. Unfortunately, the round blew the cargo mast to splinters."

"Much knocked about, eh?" Gunny lowered his glasses. "Will she stay afloat all the way back to Alexandria?"

"Probably. We don't have any other choices at the moment."

"Too true." Gunny scanned the harbor. "Not much in the way of shipping."

"Not much in the way of anything." Stag looked toward the darkened town. "I was here once before. Place has been beaten up several times since then."

"There's something going on," called Donnie. He was standing beside a large shell hole blown in the south wall of the warehouse. "Lots of traffic on the main road."

Then they could all hear it. That grinding roar of engines and squeal of tracks could only be one thing: an armored column on the move.

"Better for us?" ventured Archie. "We can sneak out while the Krauts are busy."

"Too right," replied Stag. "Too bloody right. My luck has never been this good." He let out a long sigh. "Signal the sodding ship, Gunny. Let's see how far this run of good fortune takes us."

"Wait a minute," said Red. He stood up. "Guns." He pointed to the east, across the harbor. "Flak guns."

Silent, they all focused on the eastern horizon. Low flashes in the distance marked the position of anti-aircraft weapons. A muted thump, thump, thump drifted over the bay, growing louder as closer flak cannon began firing.

"Bloody hell," snarled Stag. "It's the bleedin' RAF." He grabbed men and shoved them toward the back door of the warehouse. "Out! Out! Up the hill. There's a ruined bunker we can use for cover!"

Lugging weapons and equipment, the strike force labored up a short rise and tumbled into a badly damaged gun emplacement. Scattered chunks of concrete spoke of the bomb that took the bunker's roof off. A medium size naval cannon lay beside an empty mount. The barrel was twisted pretzel-like.

"There's a shelter at the back," shouted Stag. "Inside! Inside!" The men filed into a chamber littered with empty ration tins, a few rags, and a great deal of sand.

Gunny hesitated inside the entrance, staring back at the growing tumult to the east. "Shouldn't we be finding a boat and getting out to the Ocelot in the confusion?"

Red grabbed the big Marine's arm and dragged him inside. "Didn't you hear, mate? That's the bloody RAF."

"But surely their target is the armored column . . . up on the main road."

"Of course it is. But it's the RAF. Come on. Let's get out of the sodding door."

Flak guns located in the town started firing. The drone of aircraft grew to a piercing roar. Bombs began exploding. Three or four individual blasts vibrated the bunker floor, then a continuous roll of explosions marched closer and closer.

The men were shaken like rats in a box. The sound grew to painful levels . . . then went up even more. Bright flashes lit the entrance. The hammering went on and on and . . .

Dust filtered down from above. The men huddled in the dark, shocked by the incessant pounding. Red dragged himself erect and staggered to the entrance. A red glow lit the sky. He stepped back inside and began shaking his team mates. "Up, lads! Get up!" His own voice sounded faint and weak. Every man was shocked and nearly deaf.

Gradually the men made their way outside. Flames rising from warehouses along the waterfront illuminated the harbor. Fires burned throughout the town. As his hearing improved, Stag could hear men shouting in the distance. Shapes moved in the shadowed streets. He found Gunny standing beside a shattered block of concrete. The Marine was scanning the harbor.

"Our luck has run out," he said, motioning toward the bay.

Stag raised his own glasses. Splintered wood lay on the oily water. What looked like an Italian torpedo boat burned beside an intact dock. A grove of masts sticking out of the water gave evidence of sunken craft. A curiously bent stack poked above the surface about two hundred yards from shore.

"Bloody hell."

"Yeah. Looks like Ocelot caught a bomb."

As Stag watched, a small boat rowed around the stack, picking up men. "So much for Spectre's ship. I hope the blighter got out."

Red slumped on a nearby block. "Christ on a bleedin' crutch. What now?"

"We move out," said Stag. He tucked his binoculars away. "We either retrieve our lorry or steal some kind of transport from the Germans."

"There's bound to be a lot of confusion in town," said Gunny. He frowned, listening. "But the armored column is still moving."

"The sods won't be confused for long," said Stag. "As for the convoy . . . what did you expect? Bombing at night against a target covered by a bloody regiment of flak cannon?" He nodded toward the fires burning near the line of the Via Balbia. "They hit something up there, but God knows if it was German armor or a building full of Arabs."

"It was the bloody RAF," snarled Red. He slung his weapon and moved out.

(tbc)

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Stuka Fodder

Major Fick came to attention and saluted. "You wanted to see me, Herr Oberst?"

Colonel Waxfigr, commandant of 7th Gruppe Stuka Geschwader, treated the major to an icy stare. His malignant gaze softened as he noted Fick's uniform. Immaculate, as always, with every badge in place. Not a speck of dust marred his highly polished boots. The man might have stepped directly from the pages of the Luftwaffe Uniform Manual. In fact, he looked a great deal like one of the men modeling uniforms in that manual. Fick, in spite of his failings as an officer . . . and he had many . . . was handy to have around to greet visiting brass. The Italians, being addicted to showy uniforms, were especially impressed by his appearance.

Nonetheless, the man was an arrant coward.

"Major, your commander has reported you at least five times for apparent cowardice in the face of the enemy. What do you have to say for yourself?"

Fick began to sweat. He remained at rigid attention. "Ah . . . sir. Might I inquire. Which commander was that? There have been so many . . ."

"All of them, Fick. All of them."

"Um . . . I can only assume such reports were due to the confusion of combat or bad weather or . . ." Fick tried desperately to come up with a plausible excuse. ". . . or even a case of mistaken identity. Sir."

"I see." Waxfigr shuffled papers on his desk. "Twice you returned due to a problem with your engine. And yet, your engine was found to be in working condition. Both times."

"Er . . . ah . . ."

"On at least two occasions . . ." The Colonel read from a log book. "This from your own flight log. 'My bombs slipped from their racks and fell into the sea.'"

"Jawohl, Herr Oberst. I believe the bombs were not tied on properly."

"Tied on? Major, your bombs are secured in racks designed for them. They are NOT tied on." Waxfigr picked up another report. "Apparently, on your last mission, you were driven off by enemy fighters. How do you explain the lack of bullet holes in your plane?"

"No bullet holes? I could have sworn . . ." Fick flashed on the shapes of British Spitfires he'd glimpsed about five kilometers . . . no . . . two kilometers away. He remembered releasing his bombs and diving into a cloud. All the way back to base he agonized over the state of his uniform trousers. Pee and poop are so hard to get out.

Colonel Waxfigr sat back. "This is your last chance, Fick. This afternoon we are to begin bombarding the French positions on the south of the Allied line. You WILL participate in the mission, and you WILL bomb the target. If you fail again, I must send you to the punishment company of the Afrika Korps. Now get out!"

Fick staggered out of Operations, mind awhirl. He cursed the day he'd left his post in the Gestapo to begin flight training. All because the blonde frauleins always passed him by and took up with Luftwaffe pilots. Gott im Himmel! He'd never dreamed of being sent to the choking sands and burning heat of North Africa, much less had he ever considered diving a lumbering wagon like the Stuka into withering flak. A man could get killed.

Cold fear gripped his gut. The Afrika Korps punishment company! No man had ever survived more than a week in that hell unit. Especially when they were ordered to conduct mine clearing operations . . . with their feet.

He had to get away . . . somehow.

"Herr Major, I found a source for those hubcaps you wanted for your kubelwagen."

Surprised, Fick jerked away from the speaker, then realized it was only Tibia, his gunner and driver. The man claimed to have a brother called Scapula and a sister named Ulna. His father was a surgeon with a strange sense of humor.

"Ah . . . corporal. Ja." Fick struggled to calm himself. Officers must set an example.

The gunner knew his pilot tended to avoid risk, but since the Major's actions kept Tibia alive, he took a philosophic view of the issue. A living man with heroic photos of himself posing with his machine gun were of more use in the postwar world than that same man rotting in an unmarked grave in the middle of the Libyan desert.

"Hubcaps, Major. The ones you wanted for the kubelwagen. I found a place where we might find some. A junk yard. The engineers have been stacking damaged vehicles in an open area not far from here. There are bound to be lots of kubelwagens."

"Of course. Hubcaps. I forgot about that." Fick wanted to get away . . . far away. Where he could think. Maybe plan a way out of this mess. He hesitated. A trip to this junk yard Tibia was talking about might be a good idea. Who knew? Something might turn up. "Good idea, Corporal. We'll go after breakfast. No sense muddling around in the dark. Some trigger happy sentry might shoot us."

"Yes, sir. I have a lunch packed. And there are two bottles of apple schnapps."

"Splendid, Tibia. Splendid. I think I'll have a lie down before breakfast."

(tbc)

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