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Monday, November 30, 2009

The Raid

The fight between the prisoners began innocently enough. A “Tommy” was brewing up a bit of tea for his mates when another group of Tommies, bored with the prison routine decided to get up a football match. Unfortunately, what appeared to be a bad kick, sent the ball squarely into the tea kettle, with predictable results. The two groups clashed, forty or so prisoners, punching, kicking, and shouting epithets, and drawing the attention of the camp guards.

Shouts of “Fermo!” erupted from the Italian guards, as they waded into the unruly mob, rifles swinging.

Long Range Desert Group Leftenant Nigel Smythe-Clyde and Sergeant “Jock” Andrews slipped quickly under the fence and into the desert as the sun began to set, whispering a word of thanks to the lads in the camp for the distraction they had provided. With the light fading and the heat of the day dropping, the two survivors of the ill-fated raid on a Duetche Afrika Korps (DAK) supply dump began the long trek to freedom, hoping to fight again another day.

Smythe-Clyde could not help but relive the moments leading up to their capture, as he and “Jock” moved from cover to cover as best they could in the bleak desert terrain.

The raid began with two teams of LRDG trucks and jeeps, carrying a lone S.A.S. team, surprising the drowsy guards at the DAK supply depot. The initial explosion from the S.A.S. team's demolition charges, or "Lewes Bombs", destroyed a pile of fuel drums, sending flames high into the gloaming sky.

Smythe-Clyde’s team raced past a lone Italian Stuka, hosing it with tracer fire as they went. Their route took them between three tasty targets, and their combined fire destroyed all that they aimed at, sending exploding ordinance arcing into the sky, narrowly missing their vehicles.

With the flames settling down to a steady burn, it was time to leave. Having achieved four of five of their intended objectives, it was time to beat a hasty retreat before the alerted enemy arrived.

The other LRDG team commander swept in and picked up the S.A.S. team and headed for their planned escape route, as the roar of engines and a plume of dust announced the arrival of a group of unhappy DAK soldiers. Watching their precious supplies go up in flames put them in a decidedly foul mood.

The DAK heavy machine gun unit leapt out of their Krupps trucks and set up their weapons, intent on stopping the "Tommies" from escaping. As Smythe-Clyde’s team began turning their vehicles around to make good their escape, the DAK HMG teams opened fire, destroying every truck in Smythe Clyde’s team. Two men ran towards his jeep as he began to accelerate away from the killing zone, he nudged “Jock”, who slewed ‘round, braking and accelerating, then braking again as he neared the survivors. The two troopers jumped on board as “Jock” stood on the gas pedal, pumped the clutch and sent the jeep careening towards the other LRDG team’s location.

As they drove, the soldiers could not take time to reflect on their grievous losses, instead focusing on getting clear of the area, hoping to fade into the desert as dusk approached.

A rumbling in the distance announced the approach of another enemy unit. Drivers pushed their machines to the limits as they negotiated the unfriendly, yet familiar desert terrain.

Ahead of the escaping LRDG, a DAK Panzergrenadier platoon leapt out of their trucks and hustled into position, hoping to block the oncoming juggernaut with a wall of lethal lead.

The LRDG teams approached a route they had reconnoitered earlier around a patch of nearly impassable marsh, filled soft sand, when a sharp-eyed gunner spotted the Panzergrenadiers and opened fire. At nearly the same instance, every gunner on the remaining trucks and jeeps sent a fiery hail of tracer-laden machine gun fire into the scrambling grenadiers. Bullets struck flesh and bone with merciless abandon.

As they eased past the marshy area, they could hear the cries of the wounded and dying. There was no return fire. Smythe-Clyde allowed himself the slightest grin, hoping that this encounter was a portent of their impending escape.

The last gleam of the desert sun disappeared as the survivors pushed past the salt marsh and continued towards a wadi, which they hoped would shield them from enemy eyes and retribution.

As darkness deepened, the teams were forced to slow their vehicles, for fear of becoming stuck or running into an enemy position. Smythe-Clyde and his comrades pushed on, relying on the cover of darkness and what speed they could maintain to cover their escape. He could just make out the entrance to the wadi they sought, slightly illuminated by the rising moon. If only their luck would hold a bit longer! They were in sight of safety!

Suddenly another sound issued from the night. Again, sounds of engines, but this time mixed with the unmistakable sounds of tracks clanking across the desert floor.

Smythe-Clyde took a deep breath and said a quick gallows humor prayer,”For what we are about to receive, we give thee thanks!”

Two SdKfz-231 armored cars appeared like ghosts out of the darkness. They opened fire on the escaping LRDG teams, missing all but one truck. The team from the stricken Chevy leapt to safety, climbing aboard another vehicle.

One of the “acht-rad”, or eight-wheeled armored cars was sitting directly in the entrance of the wadi, nearly blocking the escape route. Engines roared as the commander saw their only hope for escape slipping away. He shouted his command, “Get past ‘em, go, go, go!! Into the wadi, move it!.”

The other armored car was on their right hand side, outside the wadi. If they were quick enough, and lucky with their shots, they might be able to bail the crew of the one armored car out, and dodge the fire of the second by entering the wadi.

Smythe-Clyde ignored the command to enter the wadi, instead ordering “Jock” to slide past the second armored car while it was pre-occupied with the other team.

As he glanced back, he could just make out the flashes of fire from HMGs. He wondered if it were the same lot that had killed most of his team. To their side, he could see sporadic fire, apparently from another panzergrenadier platoon.

The other LRDG team commander and his trucks entered the wadi and raked the side of the armored car, unfortunately to little effect.

Then, with a lurch, Smythe-Clyde’s jeep came to a bone-jarring halt and burst into flames. He and “Jock” were both thrown from the vehicle. In the flames, he could just make out the team he and “Jock” had rescued, apparently dead from machine gun or cannon fire. Smythe-Clyde and “Jock” leaped to their feet and ran onward, hoping to escape in the darkness.

Inside the wadi the other LRDG team’s luck ran out. With their vehicles destroyed by HMG and 20mm cannon fire, three surviving teams attempted to assault the armored car in the wadi. A series of rushes and assaults using sticky-bombs failed to produce results, and the return fire from the armored car killed the remaining men.

The clank of tank treads on desert track grew noticeably louder, and then ominously stopped. “Jock” and Smyth-Clyde looked at each other and slowly stood, throwing their weapons and Arabic headgear to the ground. Ahead of them, five Panzer Mark III “Specials” loomed, all guns trained on the two survivors. Behind them, the turret from the armored car swung around to cover them. A hatch opened in the lead Panzer, and the tank commander climbed out, motioning with a raised MP-40 for the pair to approach.

As they walked cautiously up to the Hauptmann, they heard in surprisingly clear and nearly unaccented English, “Welcome into the “bag” Tommy. Cigarette?”

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