By Mickey S.
This is a fictional story. Most of the characters and events are figments of the author's imagination. However, some of the fictional characters take part in real events and some real characters take part in fictional events. In spite of that, this is a fictional story. My thanks to Tim and Drew for all of their help. The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent. Comments are appreciated at NJMcMick@yahoo.com.
We passed through the Strait of Gibraltar on November 5th and two days later we were nearing our objective. We were part of the Eastern Task Force which was divided into three sectors, Apple, Beer and Charlie. Apple, of which we were a part, was to land about twenty-five miles west of Algiers. Beer, made up of both British and American troops, was to land between us and Algiers. Charlie was another mixed company and was to land east of Algiers. Apple sector's landings were to be made on Green and White beaches. We were headed for White beach, to the east. H-hour was 1:00 am on November 8th.
Shortly before midnight we were on deck being given instructions on how to disembark from the landing craft. My sergeant came up to me with a long pole with something wrapped around it.
"As you're the only Yank in the regiment I think it's appropriate that you carry the American flag."
"American flag? Why are we carrying that, sergeant?"
"The French and British have never been good friends, but since the end of the Battle of France when we bombed their fleet so the Germans wouldn't get their hands on it, a lot of them have really hated us. They like you Yanks, though. That's why most of the troops involved in this operation are Americans with us Brits mainly providing the naval backup. And those of us in this task force are all carrying American flags."
"It's the middle of the night. How will they see it?"
"If we can see where we're going by moonlight maybe they'll see the flag. And don't forget, they have searchlights. Since you won't be using a gun anyway, this will keep your hands busy. Think of it this way, between the flag and the cross on your helmet, it's highly unlikely you'll be fired on."
"So there's still a chance the French will shoot at us?" Peter piped up.
"No one knows. But we're lucky in a way. Our intelligence tells us most of the French troops are stationed east of here in the Beer sector's landing zones."
So we all crowded onto our landing craft and headed toward shore. At least I hoped that's where we were headed. The air was still and the sea calm, but we were so far out it was impossible to see any distance in the darkness. Peter was acting antsy beside me.
"This is such a small boat and it's so crowded. We're packed in here like sardines. I didn't mind the transport ship so much - it was huge and felt safe. But this little tub makes me nervous. It could flip over so easily."
"Don't worry about it. Just keep still and we'll be fine. The sea is calm and our pilot seems to know what he's doing."
"My stomach doesn't think the sea is very calm."
"That's because there are so many of us crammed onto such a small boat. Every time someone moves it rocks."
"Have you got anything is your rucksack for sea sickness?"
"I'm afraid not. Try looking straight ahead toward the horizon. I know it's dark but don't look at the water around us. The further off you look the less it will seem we're rocking."
"You've been on a small boat like this?"
"A small boat, yes, but not like this." I laughed. "My grandfather has a summer home on the north shore of Long Island and growing up I spent a lot of time there sailing with my brother and cousins. It wasn't at all like this. But small craft are fine as long as you treat them right."
It took nearly an hour but the shoreline finally appeared. The pilot of our landing craft knew what he was doing and got us right up to land so we didn't get very wet going ashore. I unfurled the flag once I was on firm ground and we scrambled inland. We were a couple of hundred yards in and there hadn't been any shooting so I decided we'd landed in a lucky spot. Just then there was a gunshot far to my left, immediately followed by a scream. Everyone around us dropped to the ground. A few seconds later, the word "Medic!' was called out.
I dropped the flag and scrambled in the direction of the sounds. It was a lot further than I'd thought and I passed a lot of soldiers flattened to the ground on the way. Finally I reached a man on the ground moaning and cursing while another man knelt over him.
I took off my knapsack and knelt beside the moaning man, surprised to see that he was in an American uniform As far as I knew there weren't supposed to be any American troops in Apple sector.
"It's my leg, doc, some damn frenchie shot me in the leg."
I saw his lower right pants leg was soaked in blood. Pulling it up I found a bleeding groove across the back of his calf. It was only a flesh wound but a deep one. The man kept groaning and cursing.
"Ah, shut up, Jamieson," the other man said. "It wasn't the French. You shot yourself when you stumbled over that rock."
"I tell you it was the fuckin' French. I shot back in self-defense."
We all knew only one shot had been fired, so it was clear what had happened. There was no point in wasting time arguing about it.
"Hold this torch, er, flashlight, down close to the wound," I told the other soldier. "That's it, enough for me to see what I'm doing but not so much that the light can be seen very far away."
As I started working to stop the bleeding I heard Peter's voice not too far away, a sort of loud whisper.
"Coop! Where are you?"
"Over here, Peter," I quietly called out while I worked.
"Coop?" My patient squinted at me in the dim light. "Well, I'll be goddamned if it isn't Nancy Cooper who ran away from DeWitt. What are you doing in a damn limey uniform?"
I looked at the soldier's face and sure enough, he was Ed Jamieson, my old nemesis from DeWitt, the one who had given me the name Nancy.
"If you want me to fix your leg you might try calling me Corporal Cooper and show a little respect, soldier. Or you could just bleed until an American medic to your liking shows up. It's your decision." I turned to his companion. "The real question here is what are American troops doing on Apple White beach?"
"Apple? We're supposed to be on Beer Green. That idiot piloting our landing craft had us going in circles for two hours and nearly drowned us to boot."
Just then Peter arrived.
"I brought the flag, Coop. What's going on?"
"An old school friend from back home in the States accidentally shot himself."
"You know this guy?"
"Enough of the chitchat, Corporal, save my damned leg!"
"Stop being such a sissy, Jamieson. It's just a flesh wound." It gave me so much satisfaction to call him that. "I've stopped the bleeding and cleaned it up. Once I bandage it you should even be able to walk although it'll be a bit sore."
After making sure the bandage was securely fastened I helped Jamieson to his feet and pointed to the east.
"The other Yanks went that way."
"You mean I have to go back to my unit? I'm wounded!"
"As I said, it's just a flesh wound. Check with one of your medics when you find your unit. He'll decide if you're fit for duty."
They started off, Jamieson leaning heavily on his comrade. Peter and I worked our way back to where our troop was.
"You didn't treat him very nice for being old friends, Coop."
"We weren't really friends, Peter. We went to school together for three years and he did what he could to make my life miserable. It turns out he grew up to be even more of a jerk than he was then."
"I knew kids like that when I was in school but I don't think I'd be able to stand up to them now any more than I could then."
"Well, I had a bit of an advantage with him, seeing as how he couldn't stand at all until I fixed him up."
From what I understood of the plans laid out on the transport ship, our Apple White group had the easy task. Apple Green troops had to capture the towns of Castiglione and Kolea where French troops were stationed, and then move south to take the airport at Blida The Beer sector troops were to secure the road along the coast, capturing the towns along it as they approached Algiers from the west. Again, lots of French troops along the way. My group was to find the road that led inland, then follow it as it circled around until we approached Algiers from the south. There was only one small town along that road.
By dawn we had found the road and were five miles inland. The only shot that had been fired was the one by that idiot Jamieson. I apparently hadn't paid much attention in geography class in school because I thought all of North Africa was part of the Sahara Desert. At least that's the way it looked in movies I'd seen about the French Foreign Legion. But while not exactly lush, the area we marched through wasn't arid and had plenty of green vegetation. And it was very hilly and rocky. We reached a crossroads near the village of Bir Touta by noon. We were about halfway between Algiers and the airport and that seemed to me to be a good spot to set up camp. We were all exhausted, having been up all night. But no one asked me and our orders were proceed toward Algiers. It was late afternoon when we reached the southern outskirts of the city. There, we finally made camp.
Several days later we were still camped in the same spot. Word filtered down that there was political wrangling going on with the Americans trying to get the French to agree on who would lead them. Since the French had ceded control of Algiers to the Americans by the end of the first day there was no military conflict. The Luftwaffe flew over and made a few bombing raids but nothing as bad as I'd experienced in London. All in all, it was a very uneventful invasion, exactly the kind I liked.
They started giving us a few hours leave to go into the city and do some sightseeing after a while. Peter and I went together and while we spent some time in the modern center of the city, which looked very much like any European city, we also wandered through the Casbah, the oldest section of Algiers. Everywhere we went we saw more American and British uniforms than French.
A week into the occupation we were given orders that we were being sent to the east by rail toward Tunisia. On the morning of the 16th we marched to the Algiers railroad station. Apparently transportation in North Africa was not good. There was one rail line and one major road eastward. Neither was equipped to handle large troop movements. Most of the heavy equipment, tanks, artillery and trucks, were being shipped by sea to Bone and Tabarka. Some troops were going by motor convoys, others, like us, were traveling by train.
The train station was surrounded by soldiers when we arrived. There were also quite a few civilians milling about. Peter nudged me as we neared the building.
"Is it my imagination or is that man waving at us?"
I looked in the direction he was pointing and nearly fell over when I recognized Dad waving with both arms in the air. I ran to him and would have hugged him if he hadn't forestalled that by holding out a hand to shake. So instead I pumped his hand vigorously.
"What are you doing in Africa, Dad?"
"With all of the political wrangling going on Eisenhower decided to fly some reporters over to report first hand on the situation. A lot of folks back home weren't happy that he'd put Admiral Darlan in charge since he's thought of as a Nazi collaborator, but apparently he's the only one all of the other French officers will follow. Ike wanted us to see that ourselves."
"When I heard Eisenhower was in town I hoped TR would be with him, even though he's not directly on Ike's staff. I never expected to see you, Dad."
"I only got here yesterday and have spent most of my time trying to track you down. They don't exactly give reporters specifics on troop movements. So how are you? How did your part of the invasion go?"
I introduced Dad to Peter and told him what little there was about our somewhat boring adventures so far.
"But what about the rest of the invasion, Dad? We haven't heard anything about the other task forces."
"There was some nasty fighting in Oran harbor. We lost two ships and some men there. And General Patton ran into some opposition in Casablanca, but overall it went better than expected. Unfortunately, the French haven't been as cooperative as they might have been."
"What do you mean, Mr. Cooper? It sounds to me like there wasn't much fighting."
"That's the good part. The bad part is that Vichy has given the Germans permission to fly troops into Tunisia. Not that they had much choice. As soon as word got out about our invasion the Germans and Italians invaded Vichy France and have occupied it. But the French generals in Tunis didn't have to go along."
"So it looks like we have some fighting ahead of us."
"I'm afraid so, son. There's a big rush on to get to Tunis as soon as possible before the Germans are able to get many troops in. I assume that's where you're headed now."
"How's everyone back home?"
"All are well. TR is spending most of his free time with a young blonde named Sarah."
"I met her last month. Knowing his short attention span with girls, she must be special if he's still with her."
"She seems quite nice. Last week Terrence was on leave and she brought along a friend so they double-dated."
My stomach tightened as I thought of Terrence on a date with a girl. I felt a sense of betrayal that TR would be a party to such a thing even though I knew that was unreasonable. My feelings must have shown on my face as I noticed Peter giving me a strange look. I immediately did as my friend John had suggested back at Pirbright and looked at the positive side. At least Terrence was all right. And he hadn't been sent to Africa as so many Fighter Command pilots had been. He was still safe.
"Everyone sends their love, son. And, knowing the military mail service is probably non-existent for now, I brought letters with me."
Dad handed me a sheaf of envelopes which I stuffed inside my jacket for later. Orders were being shouted about boarding the train so our visit was over. This time Dad hugged me as we said goodbye.
"It was a long way to come for a half hour visit."
"Well worth it, though, Woody. Although I do have work to do as well. And it was nice meeting you, Peter." Dad shook hands with him.
"Nice meeting you, too, sir."
We turned and rejoined our company to board the train.
"Your father seems like a nice man and you two have a close relationship. I can't recall the last time my father hugged me." Peter said as we got settled. "I suppose you Yanks are just a lot more informal than us."
"Not really, we usually just shake hands, but now and then when he's feeling emotional he's been known to hug me or TR."
"You seemed a bit put out when he mentioned Terrence and TR double dating."
"Not exactly put out. It just came as a surprise, although after meeting Sarah it shouldn't have. She talked about finding a girl for me. I'm beginning to think she's a matchmaker by nature."
"So you're disappointed it's Terrence and not you on those double dates? Do you date a lot?"
So many of the men in the army talked incessantly about girls that I had a stock answer ready whenever I was asked about my own relationships with the opposite sex.
"No, not at all, actually. There has just never seemed to be time. First school and now the army get in the way. I suppose there will be plenty of time for that once the war is over."
It took nearly four days for the train to take us three hundred miles to Souk El Arba. Grandfather would have had a fit if any of his trains had moved that slowly. But to be fair, we traveled through some very mountainous terrain and it was a long train pulled by very old engines. The weather didn't cooperate either. It rained nearly every day, making me glad I wasn't in the truck convoy. After Souk El Arba, the rest of our journey was on foot. We marched thirty miles to Beja and then another twenty to the outskirts of Medjez El Bab, a town that was occupied by Germans.
The town had been the easternmost outpost of French troops but in the first battle of the Tunisian campaign a few days before, the Germans had driven them out. It was our job to re-take it. The plan was a three-pronged approach with one force attacking from the north, one from the south and a third, my own East Surrey Regiment, coming in from the west. Our job was to capture the high ground overlooking the town but not to enter until the other two forces had forced a surrender. That was fine with me. I was not eager to be a part of the heavy fighting.
Even so, we ran into our share of fighting. We were attacking an outpost, not the town itself, so the fighting wasn't heavy. It could have been a lot worse, as I was to learn later, but it seemed bad enough to me. Men shooting at each other - and sometimes hitting their targets - was a battle in my book, especially since it was the first fighting I experienced.
I didn't pay attention so much to the actual battle as to the men who were being wounded. There were enough of them to keep me busy. After all of Mother's first aid classes and then months of training at Pirbright, I was finally seeing real injuries, real bullet wounds, and I didn't like what I saw. But it didn't matter whether I liked it or not, I had a job to do.
The bullet wounds, as bad as they could be, weren't the worst of the injuries. Those came from explosions caused by mortar and other artillery shells. A bullet was small. If it hit in the right place it could cause terrible damage, even death. Often, however, they just caused bleeding, pain and minor damage. If I could stop the bleeding until the soldier was evacuated to a place where the bullet could be removed, my job was a success. Sometimes with flesh wounds I would put a bandage on and the soldier could go back to fighting, as in the case of Ed Jamieson. But if a shell exploded close enough it could blow a man to pieces. A little farther away and it could still cause massive injuries. The first time I saw a soldier with a bleeding stump where his foot should be I was sick. For some, a tourniquet to try to stop the bleeding was all I could do to help. For others, a shot of morphine to dull the pain in their last minute or two of life was the extent of my treatment.
At first I was overwhelmed, even with the few injuries we faced in that first battle. But after patching up a couple of minor wounds and one major one and watching a soldier die, I knew if I didn't find a way to block my feelings I would be of no use to anyone. I found that by concentrating on the specific job at hand, dealing with each wound in an isolated, textbook sort of way, I was able to be a bit more dispassionate. I couldn't completely separate the wound from the soldier, however. I knew that sometimes treating the patient's pain and fear was just as important as patching the wound.
Peter decided his main job would be to protect me. He stood, or more usually knelt, over me while I worked on the injured soldiers. When possible I tried to do my work under cover of some sort, behind a tree or rock, in a depression of the ground, but often we were right out in the open. Peter would get in front of me and fire away. It made my work easier, not having to worry so much about being shot myself. It was also very dangerous for him but oddly enough he didn't seem to mind. For as long as I'd known him, he'd talked about how much he was afraid of being in battle, but now that it was here he was a real trooper. In the same way that I was able to partially turn off my emotions about the wounded, he was able to turn off his fear.
At least while it was going on. Our little battle ended late in the day when the Germans withdrew into town. I still had some work to do, tending to the last few wounded and making sure those who had been more badly injured were evacuated to the rear. When I was done I found Peter sitting under a tree at the top of the hill, trembling. I sat next to him, exhausted, and put an arm around his shoulder.
"You were great, Peter, very brave. Thank you for providing me with cover."
"I was scared to death, but I couldn't let anything happen to you. I doubt if I helped the cause very much, though. I was firing pretty wildly and probably didn't hit anyone."
"You did fine. What you did helped me do my job, so it was very worthwhile. I`m not sure I could do what you did, putting yourself in danger like that."
"Well, I know I couldn't do what you do. I took one look back at you, working in all that blood, and found it was a lot easier to face the enemy than to look at that."
I gave his shoulder a squeeze and we sat in silence for a while, each lost in our thoughts. In the midst of reliving the wounds, the blood and the cries of pain mixed with gunfire, an odd thought popped into my head.
"Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. I don't suppose we'll be having turkey."
"What are you talking about?"
I explained the very American holiday to Peter, telling him about the dinners at my grandparents when I was a boy and the two since I'd been in England. The year before I'd been in medic training and hadn't been able to go to London, so this wouldn't be the first one I missed. I found I didn't mind. Just being able to talk about it was like being home. As a member of the British army fighting Germans and Italians in French territory it felt good to share my American memories.
We got word that both the northern and southern prongs of our attacks had met more resistance than expected and were driven back with heavy casualties, so it looked like we might be on our hill for a while. The next morning we were surprised to be informed that the Germans had withdrawn during the night, apparently feeling the town wasn't worth defending any more. So we were able to move into the village without any more fighting. I hoped to stay there a while but within hours we were heading out after the enemy. We met little resistance as we traveled twenty miles toward Tebourba. With the aid of some artillary our regiment was able to take Tebourba shortly after midnight. Two days into the fighting and we were just over ten miles from Tunis. So far the war seemed to be going well.
That all came to an end in the morning when the Germans counter-attacked. This time there was heavy fighting and we suffered an enormous number of casualties. And this time there was no time for emotions. I operated like a robot, moving from one bleeding soldier to the next. A few men were dead when I got to them, several more died while I was trying to save them, but most I was able to fix up enough to keep them alive until they could be taken back behind the lines for further treatment. Again Peter stayed with me, providing me with a bit of cover. The attack lasted all day but the enemy finally withdrew near dusk. It was a victory, but as I thought of all of our losses it sure didn't feel like one.
We were assigned to protect a bridge in El Bathan, a village south of Tebourba. Things quieted down for a few days but then the Germans resumed their attack. For days the fighting went on, and though we were only on the edge of it I was kept busy. By early December it was clear that we weren't going to make it to Tunis any time soon. Not only had we lost a lot of men, we lost tanks, armored cars, big guns, small guns and mortars. The Germans had built up their forces in Tunisia faster than we'd expected and our supplies hadn't caught up to us yet.
The first week of December we began withdrawing toward Medjez El Bab following the route we'd come. For the next few weeks it seemed like it was a stalemate with neither side gaining or losing much ground. The week before Christmas we began another big push. We fought for days alongside mostly American troops to take Longstop Hill, just to the northeast of Medjez El Bab. Once again the weather didn't cooperate. The rain came down steadily as we fought our way up the hill and were pushed back down. By Christmas Eve it was like a monsoon and the mud was so bad in some places it was hard to move at all. Between our lack of progress and the weather, it was decided to call off the push to Tunis.
For the rest of the winter it truly was a stalemate in our area with both sides hunkering down and building up their strength. We'd been operating with insufficient supplies the first few weeks but now that we had a chance to regroup we were becoming a full strength army. Unfortunately, the Germans were able to build up as well. As the winter wore on we heard there was some major fighting going on, but it was far to our south. The two German armies, the new arrivals in Tunis and Rommel's command near Tripoli, were being pushed together. That was the bad news. The good news was that it was Montgomery's Eighth Army that was doing the pushing, advancing toward us from the southeast.
As I watched our squadrons replenished with replacement troops and saw the materiel arriving I had more confidence than when we first started fighting. In addition to more supplies getting through, regular mail delivery had resumed. I learned that TR was in Algiers, helping direct the supplies. Of course he hadn't been able to tell me that straight out in his letters, but he did say that he was doing the same old job in a new location, about a mile from where I'd last seen Dad.
The only letter I'd had from Terrence since I'd left England in October was the one Dad had handed me at the train station in Algiers. But right after Christmas a letter from him got through. He was even more vague than usual about his military exploits. Instead most of the letter was about Betty, the girl that TR and Sarah had introduced him to. He described her (fair-haired, petite, cute) and gave a bit of her background (raised in Notting Hill, middle-class, worked in a shop) and talked about the two double dates they'd gone on. I didn't want to hear, or even think, about him being with her but I did want to read Terrence's words. At least those were directed to me.
I received two more letters from Terrence over the winter. Again they were mostly about Betty. With TR 'away' Terrence was taking Sarah and Betty out together on his leaves. That made me feel a little better. I didn't want him going on single dates with Betty.
As spring arrived we were gearing up for battle again. The third week of April the final drive began. I was surprised to learn the main thrust was coming through our area. I had assumed the Eighth Army would be the lead, since they were more experienced and had been far more successful in their endeavors. But the idea was to go straight to Tunis and cut the Axis army in two.
Our first goal was to take Longstop Hill, which we had failed to do at Christmas. The fighting was ferocious and I was kept very busy working on the wounded, but we finally achieved our goal. Even so, the Germans weren't defeated. By early May we'd only moved a few miles and still hadn't made it as far as Tebourba. The 4th Brigade, just a few miles south of us, wasn't doing much better at first, but on May 5 they finally broke through. They had worn down the Germans in front of them. Within a day Allied troops were in Tunis itself. Our regiment pushed on through Tebourba over the next couple of days. There was still some fierce fighting here and there as the Allies gained more and more ground and took the city of Bizerte to the north, but on May 13 the Axis forces surrendered.
The war in Africa was over!
To Be Continued