Turtledove / THE WAR THAT CAME EARLY: TWO FRONTS
Marine Sergeant Pete McGill lay in the Ranger’s sick bay. He had a cut from bomb shrapnel along one rib and another in the side of his neck. A couple of inches there and he would have been nothing but a snack for the shark that had circled him after he got blown off the Boise’s deck and into the tropical Pacific.
He knew he was lucky to be alive. A lot of good men hadn’t made it off the light cruiser before she sank. The bomb from a Jap Val that flung him overboard broke her back, and she went down fast.
That blast also flung him clear of the fuel oil from her shattered bunkers. You swallowed some of that crap, you were history even if they did fish you out of the drink. And, even though his cuts must have been bleeding like billy-be-damned, the dorsal went away instead of slicing in for the kill. Maybe he was an off brand.
He’d managed to stay afloat, then, till the Ranger came over and started picking up survivors. That must have been a couple of hours. By the time he got rescued, he’d kicked off all his clothes so he could tread water better. And every square inch of him that had been above the surface for even a little while was sunburned to a fare-thee-well. The sunburn would have troubled him worse than his little wounds if they hadn’t had to put about a dozen stitches in the one on his ribcage. They’d used novocaine when they sewed him up, but it had long since worn off.
The Japs had dive-bombed the Ranger, too, but the carrier, unlike the poor damned Boise, must have carried a rabbit’s foot in her back pocket: all the bombs the Vals dropped missed, though none missed by much. She had some sprung seams, and blast and fragments had swept men from her flight deck. But she could still make full speed, and she still answered her helm. What more did you want—egg in your beer?
From what the other wounded men in the sick bay said, right this minute the Ranger was making full speed back toward Hawaii. The little task force of which she’d been the centerpiece had aimed to make life miserable for the Japs on some of the Pacific islands they held. What you aimed for and what you got, though, unfortunately weren’t always the same critter.
A pharmacist’s mate came through. Some of the guys in there were a lot worse off than Pete. Two or three of them, he feared, would go into the ocean shrouded in canvas, with a chunk of iron at their feet to make sure they didn’t come up again.
“How you doing, uh, McGrill?” the pharmacist’s mate asked.
“Hurts,” Pete said matter-of-factly. He knew more about pain than he’d ever wanted to learn. On that scale, this wasn’t so much of a much. But it did hurt. Without rancor, he added, “And it’s McGill.”
“Sorry.” The Navy file sounded more harassed than sorry, and who could blame him? He went on, “I’ll slather some more zinc oxide goop on where you cooked. You want a couple of codeine pills?”
“I’ll take ’em.” Pete knew they’d help a little, and also knew they’d help only a little. As he had experience with pain, so he also had experience with pain medicine. He wasn’t bad enough off to need morphine: nowhere near. They’d want to save what they had for the poor, sorry bastards who really did need it.
“Here you go, then. Can you sit up some?”
Pete could, though moving made him hurt worse. He swallowed the pills, gulping all the water in the glass the pharmacist’s mate handed him. He felt as if the salt water of the Pacific had sucked the moisture right out of him.
Whatever was in the ointment besides zinc oxide, it smelled medicinal and vaguely noxious. It soothed the skin on his cheeks and neck and shoulders and the top of his back. “I wish you could rub it in my hair, too,” Pete said. That was, of course, cut leatherneck short, so he had himself a sunburned scalp.
“I will if you want me to,” the pharmacist’s mate said.
“Nah. It’d be too messy,” Pete decided after a moment’s thought. He asked, “Can your scalp peel?”
“Fuckin’ A it can,” the Navy man said. “I’ve seen some bald guys who toasted their domes. It ain’t pretty, man. Like dandruff, only more so.”
“Hot damn,” Pete said resignedly. “So I’ve got something to look forward to, huh?”
“ ’Fraid so, McGrill.” No, the pharmacist’s mate hadn’t been listening. And how big a surprise was that? He had bigger things to worry about than Pete’s name. Off he went, briskly, to the guy in the next bed, who’d lost a sizable chunk of meat from one buttock, and who’d sleep on his stomach—if he slept at all—for the foreseeable future.
They got Pete out of the sick-bay bed a day later. Since he’d come aboard the Ranger with not even the clothes on his back, they had to give him everything from skivvies on out. Nothing fit real well, and his shirt chafed his tender hide. But clothes make the man. Once he had on even these hand-me-downs, he felt like a Marine again.
Ranger’s Marine detachment figured he was a leatherneck, too. They’d lost a few men to the Japs’ near misses, and had several others worse off than Pete. He got to be low man on the five-inch-gun totem pole again, for the same reason as before: he was a new guy, and had no established place of his own. He didn’t fret over it the way a more reflective man might have. It was useful duty, and duty he knew he could do.
His gun chief was a tobacco-chewing Okie sergeant named Bob Cullum. He had a narrow, ferrety face, cold blue eyes that seemed to look every which way at once, and hands with slim, almost unnaturally long fingers: a surgeon’s fingers, or a fiddler’s. He guided the dual-purpose gun with a delicacy and precision Joe Orsatti would have envied. Unless some other ship had plucked Joe out of the Pacific, he was dead. Pete hoped for the best there, but expected the worst.
Cullum’s long, slim fingers had another talent, too. He could make a deck of cards sit up and beg. Since Pete came into the Ranger naked as the day he was born, that didn’t matter much to him. Cullum said, “Hey, if you want to play I can front you. If you end up losing it, pay me back when we get in to Pearl.”
“Thanks, but I’ll pass,” Pete said. “Never been much of a gambler, and I don’t want to do it on borrowed money.” That wasn’t strictly true. He didn’t add that Cullum seemed a little too eager, though. Anybody who could set the cards jitterbugging like that could probably make them behave in all kinds of interesting—and profitable—ways.
He must have sounded sincere, because the other sergeant didn’t get mad. “Well, maybe you ain’t as dumb as you look, then,” he said. His drawl and Pete’s adenoidal Bronx accent were halfway toward being foreign languages to each other.
“Up yours, too, Mac,” Pete said. He didn’t sound—and wasn’t—especially pissed off. But if Cullum wanted to make something of it, he was ready. Sometimes you had to go through crap like that when you found yourself in a new place. He figured Bob Cullum was faster than he was, but he had two inches and at least twenty pounds on the other leatherneck. Things evened out.
Cullum thought it over. Pete must have said it the right way, because he seemed willing to let it alone. “And the horse you rode in on,” he replied, also mildly. He eyed Pete. “You look kinda like a raggedy-ass scarecrow, you know?”
“Only things that fit are my shoes,” Pete agreed. He spread his hands. “Shit, what can you do, though?”
“Let me work on it,” Cullum said. “I’ve been on the Ranger since she was commissioned, and if I ain’t the best scrounger aboard I dunno who the hell would be.”
“Okay,” Pete said, which committed him to nothing.
But Bob Cullum proved as good as his word. By the time the carrier did get to Hawaii, Pete had clothes that fit better than approximately. He had a wallet with five dollars in it. He had an obligation, too, and he knew it. When he and Cullum got some liberty, he’d be doing the buying.
He didn’t mind. The other sergeant was plainly a guy with an eye for the main chance. If Cullum figured Pete might be connected to the main chance one way or another . . . What am I supposed to do? Pete thought. Hope the son of a bitch is wrong?
Hans-Ulrich Rudel’s flying suit was made from fur and leather. No matter where you took off from, up above 5,000 meters the air was not only thin but far below freezing cold. In Russian winter, that flying suit came in handy when you were still down on terra firma. Rudel all but lived in it from first snowfall to spring’s grudging arrival months later.
He sat in the cockpit of his Ju-87 at the end of a runway made by flattening out a long, narrow strip of wheatfield. The fall rains and the thick, gluey mud they brought were over. The ground under the Stuka’s landing gear was frozen as hard as Stalin’s heart.
He spoke into the voice tube: “Radio behaving, Albert?”
“Seems to be, sir,” Sergeant Dieselhorst answered, voice brassy through the tube. Along with the radio, he was in charge of a rear-facing machine gun. Both he and Hans-Ulrich always hoped he didn’t have to use it. The Stuka was a fine dive-bomber, but it had been in trouble against even the Czech biplane fighters it faced at the very beginning of the war. Fighters these days were a lot nastier—although the Ivans still threw biplanes at the Luftwaffe. The Ivans, from everything Hans-Ulrich had seen, threw whatever they could get their hands on at their foes. If not all of it was top quality, it could still do some damage before it went down in flames. That was how they seemed to think, anyhow.
A groundcrew man yanked at the starting crank in front of the port wing. The crank was hard to move; another mechanic joined the first fellow in coveralls. The Junkers Jumo engine roared to life. Smoke and flame belched from the exhaust pipes. The prop blurred into invisibility. The groundcrew men carefully stepped away from the plane. If you weren’t careful around a spinning prop, it could cost you your head—literally. At least one groundcrew man had been shipped home from Russia in a coffin sealed tight because of a split second’s inattention.
“Everything look good, Herr Oberleutnant?” Dieselhorst asked—shouted, really, because the racket was terrific even inside the soundproofed cockpit. Outside . . . Like artillerymen, a lot of the Luftwaffe troops in the groundcrew wore earplugs to try to save some of their hearing.
Hans-Ulrich checked the instrument panel. “All green, Albert,” he answered, and gave the guys outside a thumbs-up to let them know the Stuka was ready to take off. They waved back.
The dive-bomber lumbered down the unpaved airstrip (as far as Rudel knew, there were no paved ones this side of Warsaw). When it reached takeoff speed, Hans-Ulrich hauled back on the stick, hard. The Stuka’s nose came up. It sedately started to fly, rather like a fat old man doing a slow breaststroke across a public pool.
No Ju-87 ever made was or would be or could be a hot performer. All the same, Hans-Ulrich wished that particular comparison hadn’t occurred to him. The weight and drag of the twin 37mm panzer-busting cannon under his wings only made his Stuka even more of a beast than it would have been anyhow. He’d used guns like this pair to blast enemy panzers here and, earlier, in France. He’d even knocked down a couple of fighters with them, more from desperation than tactical brilliance.
And he’d been shot down twice, once in France and once here in Russia. He and Sergeant Dieselhorst had both managed to bail out twice, and hadn’t hurt themselves too badly either time. No enemy pilot had machine-gunned them while they hung helpless under their big silk canopies, either. The Frenchman who’d got Rudel’s first Stuka must not have thought that was sporting. Victorious German pilots also didn’t murder defenseless French flyers.
The Ivans . . . There were no guarantees with the Ivans, none at all. Hans-Ulrich knew how lucky they were not to have got perforated when the Russian pilot shot them down.
He spiraled slowly upwards. He wanted to gain altitude before he crossed the front and went hunting on the Soviet side. You couldn’t die of old age waiting for your altimeter to unwind. It only seemed as if you could.
“Three thousand meters,” he said at last to Dieselhorst. “Oxygen time.”
“I’m doing it,” the rear gunner/radioman answered. “Delicious.”
“Well, that’s one word,” Hans-Ulrich said with a laugh. Sucked in through a rubber hose, the bottled oxygen always reminded him of gnawing on a tire tread.
He flew north and east, in the general direction of Smolensk. If everything had gone the way the Führer and the General Staff wanted, the city would have fallen to the Wehrmacht before the fall rains slowed everyone’s operations to a crawl. (Of course, if everything had gone the way the Führer and the General Staff wanted, Paris would have fallen to German blitzkrieg before winter 1939 turned to spring. You had to deal with what you got, not with what you wanted.)
Other Stukas droned on in the same general direction. They spread across the sky too loosely to be in anything worth dignifying by the name of formation. They had no set target. If someone spotted something that seemed worth going after down on the snowy ground, he’d attack it. If not, he’d keep going.
If someone spotted something. . . . The Russians had forgotten more about the art of camouflage than Germany knew. That was one of the reasons the hammer and sickle still flew above Smolensk: one of the reasons Smolensk still shielded Moscow from attack. The Wehrmacht had got more than its share of bloody noses on the way east from forces whose existence it hadn’t suspected till it ran into them face-first.
“Hello!” Rudel exclaimed. “What’s that?”
“What’s what?” Sergeant Dieselhorst asked. Like Epimetheus in the myth, he could see only what already lay behind him.
“Train heading north,” Hans-Ulrich said. “They’ve whitewashed the cars and the locomotive, but you can’t whitewash the smoke plume coming up out of the stack.” He spoke into the radio, too, alerting his squadron CO to what he’d found and where he thought it was.
“Go get it, Rudel,” Colonel Steinbrenner answered. “Somebody may show up to give you a hand, too. Here’s hoping it’s a troop train full of French traitors on their way up to Murmansk or Arkhangelsk.”
“Yes, sir. Here’s hoping.” Rudel switched off the radio and called into the speaking tube: “I’m going to shoot up the cars and then give the engine a couple of 37mm rounds through the boiler.”
“That ought to do it, by God,” Dieselhorst declared.
“It had better. And when I pull up, give the train a burst from your machine gun, too,” Hans-Ulrich said.
“It’ll be a pleasure,” the rear gunner replied.
Hans-Ulrich didn’t have to stand the Stuka on its nose to attack the train. He came in at a shallow angle, flying slowly, and shot it up from back to front and from only a few meters above the cars. Then, as he’d promised, he blasted the locomotive the way he was in the habit of shooting up enemy panzers through the thin engine decking that didn’t do enough to protect them from attack from the air.
As he pulled back the stick to climb for another attack if he needed one, Dieselhorst did rake the train with a long burst from his MG-34. “That engine’s blowing steam like a whale,” the sergeant reported. “They won’t be able to keep going like that for long. . . . Ja, the fucker’s already slowing down.”
“Good,” Hans-Ulrich said. “I’ll make another pass and chew up whatever’s in the cars one more time. With luck, I’ll start some fires.”
What was in the cars were soldiers—Russian or French Rudel couldn’t tell, since both wore khaki when not in winter white. They spilled out as he climbed for the new attack. By the time he dove again, muzzle flashes warned that they were shooting back.
Well, they could try if they wanted to. A Stuka was a tough target for a rifleman. Even if a bullet or two did hit, the Ju-87’s cockpit and engine were armored against small-arms fire. Infantrymen, poor fools, weren’t. Rudel’s thumb came down on the firing button. His forward-facing machine guns chattered. The enemy soldiers ran every which way through the snow.
Sergeant Dieselhorst gave them a parting burst as the dive-bomber climbed away from the stricken train. “They’re froggies, I think, Herr Oberleutnant,” he said. “I’m pretty sure some of them were wearing the helmets with the crest.”
“Good,” Hans-Ulrich said savagely. “They need to know they can’t play those games without paying the price.”
“Damn straight, sir.” But then Dieselhorst went on, “What kind of price will we have to pay when the war in the west starts cooking again?” Since Hans-Ulrich had no good answer for that, he pretended not to hear, but droned on back toward the airstrip west of Smolensk.
Lieutenant Aristide Demange had traveled in cattle cars before. In the last war, the French Army used them all the goddamn time: often enough to make stencils for painting the legend 8 horses or 36 men on their sides. In the last war, the French Army’d used anything and everything it could find. Things hadn’t changed much in the generation since, either. If it was there, you grabbed it. Legalities and other details would wait till later.
But the Red Army made Demange’s countrymen look like a bunch of pikers. Fighting against the Russians, he’d seen they were in grim earnest. Now the French expeditionary force was in Soviet hands. The Ivans wanted them the hell out of their country. What they wanted, they got. And they didn’t worry about legalities even a little bit. Legalities were whatever the commissars said they were. Anybody who didn’t like it headed for Siberia or got a bullet in the back of the neck.
When Demange was a sergeant, he’d always tried to make his men more afraid of him than they were of the enemy. He’d done a damn good job of it, too. But, from everything he could see, all of Red Russia worked that way.
No doubt the generals and colonels who’d led this force in the biggest French invasion of Russia since Napoleon’s day were riding north in the same kind of luxury high Soviet officers enjoyed when they weren’t at the front, classless society or no classless society. No doubt. People who weren’t generals or colonels headed north however the commissars wanted them to. And if the commissars felt like getting some of their own back . . . They might be godless Communists, but they were also human beings.
So Demange and too many men from his company were sardined into a cattle car the French Army would have been ashamed to use in the most desperate hours of funneling men forward into the Verdun charnel house. You could watch the sleepers go by through spaces between the floorboards as the train rattled up the tracks toward . . . wherever the hell it was going. Nobody’d bothered to tell Demange where that was.
Nobody’d bothered to muck out the car, either. As far as Demange could tell, nobody’d bothered to muck out the car since Tsar Nicholas was running things, or maybe Tsar Alexander before him. The Frenchman would never again doubt what bullshit smelled like.
Sanitary arrangements were a couple of honey buckets with covers. When somebody needed to crap, Demange told off a poilu to stand in front of his chosen bucket and hold up a greatcoat to give some rudimentary privacy. By what Demange had seen in the USSR, the covers on the buckets represented no small concession to French sensibilities from the Red Army.
His men were hardened to Russian conditions. They bitched about the stinks in the cattle car, but if you put a bunch of poilus fresh from the front in heaven they’d bellyache about that. Demange discounted it. Besides, some of the soldiers had vodka in their canteens instead of pinard or—God forbid!—water. They were the ones who pissed and moaned the loudest, and who fell asleep first. Hearing them snore, Demange wouldn’t have minded a good slug of liquid lightning himself. He knew how to hold his booze. He wouldn’t go out like a flashlight with a used-up battery.
Two French soldiers played piquet. Four more made what would have been a bridge table if only they’d had a table. One fellow leaned against the filthy boards of the cattle-car wall with a pocket New Testament a few centimeters in front of his nose. How anybody could go through more than five minutes of combat and still believe in God was beyond Demange, but Maxime was a long way from the worst man in his company. As long as that stayed true, the lieutenant didn’t care how stupid he was every other way.
Demange stubbed out the tiny butt of one Gitane and lit another. While he was awake, he smoked. His cigarettes dangled from the corner of his thin-lipped mouth. Alert poilus gauged his mood by the angle of the dangle. Of course, the gamut of those moods ran from bad to worse. He wasn’t about to waste his rare happiness on his men, the cons. He inhaled deeply. Gitanes were good and strong. The smoke helped him ignore the other foul odors in the cattle car.
He’d just blown out a long stream of gray when he cocked his head to one side. He was trying to hear better—which, in its own way, was pretty goddamn funny, considering how often he’d fired a rifle right next to his ear. If by some accident he lived through the war, he’d be deaf as a horseshoe five years later. And this train, clunking along over a railroad that needed way more maintenance than it ever got, didn’t exactly make the ideal listening platform.
All the same, this new background noise didn’t sound like anything that belonged with the train. It was getting louder, too, as if coming up from behind. It sounded like . . . “Fuck!” he said softly when he realized what it sounded like. He didn’t get the chance to yell before machine-gun bullets tore through the cattle car’s back wall and roof.
Something stung his cheek. Automatically, his hand went up to it. His fingers came away bloody. For a bad second or two, he wondered if he’d got half his face shot away and just didn’t feel it yet. His hand rose again. No: he was still pretty much in one piece. Either a round had just grazed him or he’d got nicked by a flying splinter or something.
Not all of his men were so lucky. The iron tang of blood suddenly warred with the rest of the stinks. One of the bridge players was down. With most of the left side of his head blown off, he wouldn’t get up again, either. The poilu beyond him clutched at his leg and howled like a wolf. The same bullet might have got them both.
Other wounded men added their shrieks to the din. At least one other poor bastard looked to be dead, too. And, to add insult to injury, a bullet had holed one of the honey buckets below the waterline. Only the goddamn thing didn’t hold water.
The train slowed, then stopped. At first, Demange swore at the engineer. Why wasn’t he going flat out, damn him? But that was a question with an obvious answer. If the German Stuka—Demange thought it was a Stuka, anyhow—had shot up the locomotive along with the cars behind it, the train wasn’t going anywhere because it couldn’t.
And if it couldn’t . . . Demange knew what he would do if he were flying that ugly, ungainly bastard. “We’ve got to get out of here, dammit!” he yelled. “That cocksucker’ll come around again for another pass now that he’s got a target he can’t miss.” That he hated Germans didn’t keep him from giving them the professional respect they were due.
There was a seal on the door. The Ivans didn’t want their guests wandering around. They just wanted them out. He’d been told there would be hell to pay if that seal got broken. Well, too bad. There was already hell to pay, and his men were doing the paying. He broke the seal and slid the door open. He supposed he should have counted himself lucky that some subcommissar hadn’t nailed it shut.
“Out!” he ordered. “Grab your rifles, too. Maybe we can fuck up the lousy Nazi’s aim if we make him flinch or something.”
Out went the French soldiers. The hale helped the wounded. Demange waited till everybody else had left the cattle car before he jumped down himself. He still carried a rifle. No officer’s pantywaist pistol for him. If he spotted something half a kilometer away that needed killing, he by God wanted the proper tool for the job. He was damned nasty with the bayonet, too, and didn’t flinch from using it: more than half the battle right there.
Here came the Stuka again, machine guns winking malevolently. It flew low enough and slow enough to let Demange see the pilot’s face for a couple of seconds. He fired two shots, neither of which did any perceptible good. The plane’s bullets kicked up puffs of snow. They thocked into the train. A couple hit with the soft, wet splat that meant they were striking flesh.
Some of the poilus fired at the Ju-87, too. It buzzed off toward the southwest. Demange looked around. Nothing to see but the shot-up train, snowy fields, and distant, snow-dappled pines. If he wasn’t in the exact middle of nowhere, he sure as hell wasn’t more than a few centimeters away.
And how long would the Russians need to figure out that this troop train was well and truly fucked? Would they get it before the French soldiers stranded here within a few centimeters of the middle of nowhere started freezing to death? All Demange could do was hope so. In the meantime, he lit a new Gitane and bent to bandage a man with a bullet through his forearm.
“Merry Christmas, Sergeant!” Wilf Preston said, and handed Alistair Walsh a tin of bully beef.
“Well, thank you very much, sir,” the staff sergeant said, surprised and more touched than he’d dreamt he could be. The young subaltern was a decent enough sort. He might even make a good officer once he got some experience to go with all his Sandhurst theory.
Till he acquired that experience, he had Walsh as his platoon staff sergeant. Walsh had been in the Army since 1918, around the time Preston was born. The junior lieutenant had the rank, but men higher up the chain of command were more likely to hearken to Walsh. At a pinch, the British Army could do without subalterns, but never without sergeants. So it had been for generations. So, the admittedly biased Walsh suspected, it would be forevermore.
He hadn’t thought to provide himself with a Christmas present for Preston. Truth to tell, he hadn’t remembered it was Christmas. Well, there were ways around such difficulties. He took an unopened packet of Navy Cuts out of a breast pocket of his battledress tunic.
“Here you go, sir,” he said. “A happy Christmas to you, too.” He’d scare up more smokes somewhere. He could always cadge them from the men. They knew he didn’t welsh on such small debts.
Even thinking the word made him swallow a snort. He was Welsh, as his last name suggested. He proved as much every time he opened his mouth; to English ears, his consonants buzzed and his vowels were strange. If he hadn’t stayed in the service after the last war ended, he would have gone down into the mines instead. Chances were he’d been safer in uniform than he would have been had he taken it off with most of the Great War conscripts.
For all he knew, he was still safer here in North Africa than he would have been grubbing coal out of rock. As long as the Italians were En- gland’s only foes on this side of the Mediterranean, he’d reckoned his odds pretty good. Musso’s boys made a feckless lunge into British-held Egypt, then retreated into Libya. Tobruk, their main base in the eastern part of the colony, had looked like falling soon.
But it hadn’t fallen, and now it wouldn’t—not in any kind of future Walsh could see, anyhow. The main reason Mussolini’d tried pushing forward was to punish England for backing out of its alliance with Germany against the Russians. With il Duce in trouble, Hitler had sent in planes and tanks and men to pull his chestnuts out of the fire. Who would have guessed that the Führer, always so ready to double-cross most of his neighbors, would prove loyal to this strong-jawed son of a bitch who didn’t come close to deserving it?
At this season of the year, Libya wasn’t so bad. Rain made the hillsides and even the desert green up a little. It wasn’t blazing hot, the way it had been and the way it would be again before long. Even the flies and mosquitoes and gnats and midges were only annoying, not pestilential.
The Fritzes, now, the Fritzes were pestilential the year around. Walsh had fought them in France in two wars, and in Norway this time around as well. He didn’t love them, but they knew their business in temperate climes and in the snow.
They knew it here in the desert, too. As always—and as dauntingly as always—they were very much in earnest. A lot of Italian units fired a few shots for honor’s sake and then gave up, the men smiling in re- lief because they hadn’t wanted to go to war to begin with. Not all the Eyeties were like that, but plenty were. Who could blame them? Fighting when you were short of aircraft and armor was suicidal, and they never had enough.
Tell a platoon of Germans to hold a hill no matter what and they damn well would, as long as flesh and blood allowed. And if the survivors did finally have to surrender, they’d spit in your eye when they came down from the hilltop, as if to say you’d only whipped them by fool luck. Bastards, sure as hell, but tough bastards.
Walsh wasn’t the only soldier to feel the Royal Navy should have kept the Germans—and the Italians, for that matter—from reinforcing Tobruk. Say that any place where both sergeants and petty officers bought their pints, and you’d get yourself a punchup. If we had Gibraltar, now . . . the sailors would go.
They had a point—of sorts. Gibraltar had fallen to Marshal Sanjurjo’s men way back in 1939. Without it, the Royal Navy had to run a formidable gauntlet to get into the western Mediterranean, and an even more formidable one to go farther east. These days, most naval support went all the way around Africa, through the Suez Canal, and over to Alexandria. Even there, the Italians had sunk a heavy cruiser with a limpet mine attached by a raider who rode a man-carrying torpedo (or maybe a one-man submarine; the stories wafting through the veil of secrecy varied).
With France back in the fight against Hitler and Mussolini, maybe things would get better. The Mediterranean was the froggies’ natural naval province. They’d done a decent enough job in the narrow waters the last time around. Of course, Italy had been on their side the last time around.
Nowadays . . . Nowadays Musso was liable to grab Malta before England could take Tobruk away from him. That would hurt almost as much as losing Gibraltar had. Well, I can’t do a bloody thing about it, Walsh thought. He might be able to help in some small way with the seizure of Tobruk—if Lieutenant Preston let him, anyhow.
A moment too late, he realized the subaltern had just said something more to him. Unfortunately, he hadn’t the least idea what. “I’m sorry, sir. You caught me woolgathering there, I’m afraid,” he confessed.
“I said”—Preston let his patience show—“that some doctors are telling us we’d be better off if we didn’t smoke. As far as health goes, I mean.”
“Bunch of ruddy killjoys, far as I’m concerned . . . sir.” Walsh added the honorific in case Preston happened to believe the tripe he was spouting. “I might have better wind if I tossed out my Navy Cuts, but I’d be a hell of a lot grouchier, too. Can’t get too many big pleasures at the front. Are they going to start begrudging us the little ones now? Wouldn’t surprise me a bit.” Doctors were natural-born wet blankets.
“I don’t believe they’re just speaking of wind,” Preston replied. “If I understand this correctly, they say tobacco is bad for the health generally, and hard on the lungs in particular.”
“Hmp,” Walsh said: an eloquent bit of skepticism, even if unlikely to show up in the Oxford English Dictionary. “It’ll be best bitter next, or I miss my guess.” He eyed his young superior. “I don’t notice you chucking your fags into the closest sand dune, either.”
“Er . . . no.” Preston had the grace to look shamefaced. “It’s a funny thing. I never smoked much before I first went into combat. But in a tight spot a cigarette will steady your nerves better than almost anything, won’t it?”
“Anything this side of a couple tots of stiff rum, any road.” Walsh held up a hand before the subaltern could answer. “And yes, sir, I know what you’re going to say. A smoke won’t leave you stupid the way a tot or two will.”
“Quite.” Preston nodded. Then he chuckled wryly. “Doesn’t seem to bother the Russians, by all accounts.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Walsh agreed. By all accounts, the Russians drank like fish. “But then, by all accounts they’re stupid to begin with.”
German artillery, or maybe it was Italian, opened up just then. Walsh and Preston dove for holes in the sandy ground. As 105s burst around him, Walsh lit a cigarette. He would sooner have had the rum, but you took what you could get. And Preston was right—a smoke did steady your nerves.