Authors: Sven Hassel
Translated from the French by
A DIVISION OF TRANSWORLD PUBLISHERS LTD
'I wonder,' said Little John, shading his eyes with his hand as he stared out to the horizon, 'if you could reach England by swimming there?'
'Probably,' said the Legionnaire, sounding bored.
'If you were a fish,' added the Old Man.
'And had a supply of food to keep you going----'
'Mind you, it would take some hell of a time.'
Little John stared out across the sea again, frowning and scratching the top of his head.
'It has been done?' he said at last.
'Sure, but not from here. They don't set out from here.'
'Where would you arrive if you set out from here?' insisted Little John, who was nothing if not downright dogged when once he had embarked upon a subject.
The Legionnaire hunched a shoulder.
'Buggered if I know... Dover, perhaps.'
'Crap,' said Heide. 'This is in a straight line with Brighton. Nowhere near Dover.'
'How far do you reckon it is, then?'
Little John again.
'Mm... thirty kilometres. Eighty kilometres. A hell of a way, at all events.'
'Why don't we try it?'
The Old Man smiled.
'Because you'd drown before you were even half-way there.'
'You want to take a bet?'
'Why not? It's practically a certainty! '
'Of course,' murmured Barcelona, 'there is always another point. If you missed your way, which you very likely would, because one bit of sea looks exactly the same as any other bit of sea, there's no knowing where you might end up. You could be lucky enough to bump into the coast of Ireland, but if you floated past that you'd have to carry on all the way to Greenland.'
'I'd take a chance,' said Little John. 'I'd sooner swim about the perishing ocean for the rest of my life than carry on fighting in this bleeding war.'
Absurdly enough, we actually began training for it. Each day we swam a bit further than the previous day, always pushing ourselves to the limits of our endurance, the rule being that the weakest must keep up with the strongest. I personally gave up the idea of swimming to Greenland on the day I nearly drowned with cramp. If it hadn't been for Gregor, the war would have been over as far as I was concerned. But one or two of the others pressed on with the training programme. They came back at midnight after their last excursion, all of them completely knackered but exultantly declaring that they had seen the coast of England on the horizon.
'Another couple of weeks,' declared Little John, 'and I reckon we'll be able to make it.'
They never had the chance. For some reason unknown to us the look-outs were doubled all along the coast, and before Little John and his team of aspiring Channel swimmers had found the means to evade them, history had put a stop to their ambitions in the shape of the Normandy landings. War had once again intervened.
NO QUARTER GIVEN IN SECTION NINETY-ONE
They were hurling grenades into our midst. The blockhouse had already received a direct hit and was leaning drunkenly at an angle, one side dug deep into the sand, the other rearing skywards. The roof sagged in the middle.
For my money, grenades are even more fiendish than bombs. They play more cruelly on the nerves. The noise they make is infernal, and they tend to fall where least expected. At least with a bomb you stand a chance of calculating its probable landing point.
Another explosion. The blockhouse had received its second direct hit. This time the roof finally collapsed. A shower of earth and sand rained about our ears, slabs of concrete crashed about us, all the lights were abruptly extinguished. Those of us that could, got out. Major Hinka was thrown out, bodily, head-first, and landed with a thump on a pile of debris. Cautiously he picked himself up. There was blood on his face, his uniform was in shreds, the stump of his right arm poked grotesquely through a rip in his sleeve. It was two years ago he had lost that arm. The stump had never yet healed properly.
A squealing horde of rats came bounding out from the ruins of the shattered blockhouse. One, in a panic, made a dart at the Major. It clung to his chest, rolling back its ugly mouth and revealing a row of sharp yellow teeth. With the back of his hand Little John sent the brute flying, and the minute it hit the earth it was seized upon by its companions and torn to ribbons.
From afar, the Marines artillery were firing non-stop upon us, slowly demolishing the stout concrete walls upon which we had relied for our protection. The newly-embarked infantry troops were advancing upon us, and we repulsed them as best we could with volleys of hand-grenades. Little John carelessly dangled a grenade as he helped pull a survivor from the wreckage of the blockhouse. I watched him in a state of suspended horror: the pin was half pulled out and he gave no signs of having noticed. But Little John knew what he was doing where hand-grenades were concerned. He and I were, so to speak, the champions of the section. Little John threw them from a distance of 118 metres; I from 110. So far, no one had been able to better our performances.
Meanwhile, the fun continued. It had already lasted for several hours and we were growing quite bored by it. It was rather like sitting inside an enormous drum beaten by a million maniacs. After a time your senses became blunted and you accepted it as mere background noise.
Porta suggested a game of pontoon, but who could concentrate on cards? Our nerves were stretched taut, our ears cocked for the least change in the quality of sound of the inferno that raged all about us. It was child's play at the moment, compared with what was surely to come. Sooner or later, they would launch a full-scale attack; move in for the kill. God grant they wouldn't use flame-throwers! We should be lost if they did, and we knew they neither gave nor expected any quarter. They themselves had taken care to inform us that surrender was our only possible course, as they otherwise intended to fight until our last man had been wiped out. Propaganda, of course. We put out the same sort of rubbish ourselves. When it came to the point, flame-throwers or no, we should fight until we dropped, with our backs to the wall, with no thoughts of surrender in our well-drilled mind.
The Old Man was standing alone and forlorn in a corner, gently swaying from side to side and staring with glazed expression at his tin helmet, which he was holding before him in both hands. He didn't know that I was watching him, and I saw that his cheeks had two clear rivulets of tears running through the layer of smoke and dirt. There, I guessed, was a man who could not much longer endure the disgusting sights and sounds and smells of war.
The bombardment continued. Quite suddenly, and with no warning, the roof of our new shelter caved in upon us. For a moment there was panic and confusion. The thought ran through my head like a ticker-tape gone mad: so this is how it feels, to be buried alive. So this is how it feels, to be buried alive. So this is---- And then, suddenly, I was standing upright next to Little John, both of us straining to support the weight of a heavy beam and prevent yet another landslide. Little John said nothing; just stood and sweated and clenched his teeth. It seemed to me that every bone in my body was breaking beneath the strain. I half wished that Little John would give up the unequal struggle, and then I, too, with no loss of face,
could let fall my
share of the burden and sink down peaceably to die beneath the resulting debris. But Little John stood stolidly on, and before I could disgrace myself Gregor appeared with a heavy hammer and some props. We weren't yet buried alive, but it had been a near thing.
One end of the shelter was clearly still unsafe, and we crowded silently together and passed round cigarettes and bottle of calvados without a word. The only sound, other than the howling of the battle outside, were the pitiful moans of those who had been injured. A young kid of seventeen or eighteen was screaming his head off in agony, lying in a corner with both his legs crushed almost to pulp under the weight of a heavy cannon. They hauled him out and pumped him full of morphine, but I gave little for his chances. And certain it was he would never walk again.
Porta crawled about between people's legs, in search of his pack of cards, which had been scattered by the blast. The Legionnaire calmly unrolled a little green mat and began playing dice, left hand against right. The rest of us stood, or sat, or huddled together in an atmosphere as taut as a bow-string. We had reached that extreme of fear and tension that carried madness in its wake, when any chance remark or trivial incident could drive men over the borderline and turn them into wild beasts scratching arid clawing at each other. It was a relief when a second horde of rats appeared: it gave us a legitimate excuse for violent action, and probably averted a small-scale disaster.
The hours passed; slowly, wearily, one after another in orderly procession, dragging onwards towards a new day, or a new night, we were no longer sure what time it was or how long we had been there. We just sat and waited. There was nothing else we could do. Some of us smoked, some of us talked, some of us slept. Most of us just sat and stared. The Legionnaire had long ago rolled up his little green mat, but Little John brought out his harmonica and gave us the same half dozen tunes over and over. A few of us swore at him, but the majority suffered in silence. The Army teaches you patience if nothing else.
Outside, there was no indication whether it was day or night. A dense cloud of smoke hung like a pall between Heaven and earth. It seemed unlikely that anyone--or, indeed, anything--could have survived the onslaught.
At one point, Porta pulled out the forty-nine playing cards he had managed to salvage from his pack and began dealing them out to his nearest neighbours, but even his enthusiasm waned in the face of our total lethargy. For one thing, it was almost impossible to see the cards without constantly lighting matches, and for another, who the hell cared anyway whether he won or lost?
'Not even bloody worth cheating any more,' grumbled Porta, sweeping up the pack and angrily shuffling the cards.
No one bothered to deny it. We just went on with our wearisome task of waiting.
'Might as well bleeding eat as sit on your bleeding arses and do nothing!'
Porta glared round at us in the gloom. No one so much as twitched a muscle. With an indifferent shrug of the shoulders he pulled out his iron rations and set about consuming them. We stared with vacant eyes. Not even Major Hinka passed any comment, though the opening of iron rations, never mind the actual eating of them, was expressly forbidden until or unless the order was given by a commanding officer. Porta munched stolidly on, using the point of his bayonet as a fork. When he'd finished his rations he drank the water used for cooling the machine-guns. No one protested. No one cared. Who wanted to cool machine-guns when any moment he was in danger of being blown to pieces by the enemy? Porta, apparently unmoved, concluded his meal by scrubbing his one remaining tooth with the piece of oily rag used for cleaning rifles. He then settled back with his hands behind his head and a of contentment on his lips, as one who has come to the end of a three-course meal and a bottle of wine.
At last the bombardment showed signs of abating. Cautiously we roused ourselves, picked up our rifles, pushed the armour plating away from the wall slits, set the machine-gun in position. That anyone should still be living in the hell of the outside world would be nothing short of a miracle. The scene had changed beyond all recognition since last we had looked upon it. Wreckage lay scattered for miles about. The barbed-wire installations so lovingly supervised by Rommel had completely disappeared. Major Hinka made several despairing attempts to contact base by the field telephone, but with no success. There was no telephone: was no base. All the positions we had held had presumably been crushed out of existence by the bombardment.
And now the enemy were pouring off the landing-craft and swarming up the beaches in their thousands. Wave upon wave of khaki clad figures with never a thought in their heads that they might still have to encounter opposition. Who, after all, could possibly have survived the onslaught and be alive to offer any resistance?
And then, suddenly, the mortars were sending an uninterrupted cascade of grenades into the midst of the khaki hordes. For a moment the infantry hesitated, dropped back, evidently shocked by this unexpected reception. Their officers gave them no respite. They shouted orders back and forth and urged the men on with impatient arm movements and jerks of the head. The machine-guns sliced through their approaching ranks, mowing them down dozens at a time. Porta's flame-thrower sent its evil tongues leaping in among them, catching a man here, a man there. We rose up from our hell-hole and watched them die. It was our turn, now, to deal out wholesale destruction. The khaki figures fell over each other, trampled on their fallen comrades, stumbled and staggered but still came on. I saw one soldier trip on a pile of debris and become impaled on some hidden barbed wire. His screams were horrid even to my exultant ears. It was a relief when he was caught in the machine-gun fire and sliced almost in half. At least it put an end to the screams.