By H.E. Graham
William Clowes and Sons, Ltd.
Axtell House, Warwick Street,
Regent Street, W.I.
MANY years ago I acquired an excellent little book or pamphlet entitled "The Defence of Duffer's Drift," written by one who preferred to hide his identity under the nom de plume of "Backsight Forethought," now known to be Major-General Sir E. D. Swinton, K.B.E, CB, D.S.O., M.A.
For the benefit of those who have not come across this little work, I will explain that it was an ingenious idea for illustrating certain minor tactical principles involved in holding a river drift against Boers, or any similar enemy.
Lieutenant " Backsight Forethought " had a series of dreams, in every one of which he was set the same task, namely, to hold Duffer's Drift with 50 n.c.o.'s and men. In each of the first five dreams he committed some tactical errors, with the result that he failed on each occasion. But after each dream, he had firmly fixed in his mind the cause of his failure and the tactical principle involved. He did not commit the same mistake twice. Having, during his first five dreams, been guilty of every possible error, in his sixth dream he found the correct solution of the problem.
Times have changed, and with them the methods of conducting war. Perhaps the most striking change is the advent of the armoured fighting vehicle, of which, as it happens, the author of "Duffer's Drift " was one of the earliest advocates.
The principles of war have not changed, but their application has. The methods which would be successful against an enemy consisting of mounted riflemen with a few guns, would not necessarily prove effective against an enemy in armoured cars or tanks.
It is possible that the junior officer of to-day (or the not distant future) may in actual war be required to hold an isolated river crossing against armoured fighting vehicles. It is fairly certain that many of them will be required to do so during peace training.
I have endeavoured, by methods similar to those adopted by "Backsight Forethought," to present my views as to how river crossings should be held and how road blocks should be made and defended.
Quite possibly, the methods suggested are not the best ones. All that is claimed is that they are reasonably sound.
In view of the strength of the enemy, it may be suggested that Smith and his platoon are credited with having performed the impossible. This would be a fair and reasonable criticism. But optimism is a desirable quality in a soldier, and when is he likely to be more optimistic than in his dreams ?
Moreover, the story does bring out one important fact which is not universally appreciated, namely, that a force consisting entirely of armoured fighting vehicles has very definite limitations in respect of ground, and that it is faced with a very difficult problem when con fronted with a physical obstacle held by a resolute and suitably equipped enemy.
This story appeared, in serial form, in "The Army, Navy and Air Force Gazette." I am greatly indebted to the Editor, not only for his permission to reproduce it, but also for his kind assistance in the matter of publication.
THE DEFENCE OF BOWLER BRIDGE
RURITANIA, one of the many new nations which came into existence after the Great War, has been attacked by its more powerful neighbour Industria. Great Britain, in fulfilment of its obligation undertaken in, has sent an Expeditionary Force to assist Ruritania. Industria is known to possess tanks and armoured cars.
The 1st Battalion Wessex Regiment forms part of a British Covering Force consisting of one Division with some armoured cars, which disembarked at Lobsterburg on August 1, 1930.
LIEUTENANT AUGUSTUS SYDNEY SMITH--commanding No. 4 Platoon, Ist Battalion Wessex Regiment--was tired and hungry. The hired transport Prince Rufus arrived during the early hours at Lobsterburg, and, what with unloading the ship and other duties incidental to disembarkation at a third-rate seaport, there had been little rest and less food until the battalion was settled in billets late in the evening.
Having seen his men comfortably bedded down for the night, Smith with other subalterns repaired to an adjacent cafe, where they proceeded to fortify the inner man with large quantities of lobster mayonnaise and white wine for which the town was famous.
By 10 p.m. Lieutenant Smith had returned to his billet, and was shortly in a heavy and somewhat troubled sleep.
A sharp knock at the door woke him with a start, and in came his excellent soldier servant Pte Pinchin." Adjutant wants you at once, sir."
Smith, with an effort, woke sufficiently to take in what was being said to him, hastily put on his clothes and made his way to the grocer's store which was being used as the battalion orderly room. There he found the C.O. and the Adjutant, also the Major and two other subalterns of his company.
The Colonel gave them each a map and came straight to the point.
"As you know, the main Ruritanian and Industrian Armies are engaged to the north along the Frontier. The main body of the British Expeditionary Force will not commence to arrive until the day after to-morrow. The Divisional Commander has heard from the Ruritanian staff that an Industrian Armoured Force is believed to be making a wide turning movement with a view to advancing on Lobsterburg from the west or north-west and interfering with the disembarkation of the main body of the B.E.F.
"If you will look at your maps, you will see the Raspberry River about 20 miles to the west of this place. You will notice that there are only three bridges below Koln; those at Bowler, Homburg and Topper. Koln is held by the Ruritanian troops. [See sketch-map No. 1.]
"The G.O.C. has decided to move a brigade to delay the enemy on the river line and, if possible, to prevent his crossing.
"I have been ordered to send on a platoon in 'buses to Bowler, Homburg and Topper to try and forestall the enemy's armoured cars there, to secure the bridges and to prevent the enemy crossing. On no account are the bridges to be destroyed, as they will probably be required by the C.-in-C. at a later date.
"The country has been almost stripped of mechanical transport for the Ruritanian Army, but the Mayor of the town has been ordered to supply six 'buses in an hour's time; he is also finding reliable guides. The brigade will have to march, and cannot arrive for at least 24 hours. Each platoon will have one anti-tank gun with it. Take two days' rations with you and be ready to start as soon as possible.
"Smith will go to Bowler, Roberts and Gordon to Homburg and Topper respectively.
"You will draw rations, tools, sandbags, &c., from the Quartermaster's store, which is in the shed on the other side of the road.
"The Brigadier has given me three motor-cyclist despatch riders; you will each have one. Arrangements have been made for you to use the civil telephones, so keep me supplied with information.
"Now are there any questions you want to ask? None! Well, good luck to you; don't forget that you must get to your bridges as quickly as possible. It is now 2 o'clock; you should be off by 3 and should arrive about daylight to-morrow."
The three subalterns were just leaving the room when they were seized by the Adjutant:
"I say! Don’t forget to leave an orderly at the telephone so that we can get you any time we want to."
Then followed an hour's hustle, but by o3.oo hrs. our friend had mustered his platoon in the two 'buses and had loaded up the necessary tools, sandbags, ammunition and rations. He had also collected his anti-tank gun, which was mounted on a small whole-track vehicle. It was a neat little affair: the 8 gun could be used either from the vehicle or it could be dismounted and used on the ground.
As the vehicle was small, and had to carry a crew of five in addition to 50 rounds of ammunition, there was not much armour attached to it, the only protection being to the vital parts of the engine and a small shield which gave partial protection to the crew from frontal small-arms fire.
The guide turned out to be a pleasant individual who had served his time in the Ruritanian Regular Army, but was now in the Territorial Reserve. He possessed the additional advantage of being able to speak fairly good English, having been employed for several years by a firm of English merchants at Lobsterburg. He was a native of Bowler.
Smith thought that the best plan would be for him to sit in the leading 'bus with the guide beside him. Accordingly he set off, followed by the anti-tank gun and then the second 'bus in charge of the platoon sergeant.
He had hardly gone fifty yards when he heard loud shouting; ordering the 'bus to stop, he jumped out and found his Company Commander running after him:
"Hi! you silly ass, what the ------- do you think you are doing ? Do you want to be shot up by the first armoured car you meet?"
Smith was somewhat peeved. "Well, sir, I can't stop the beastly things shooting me up."
"Can't you, you fathead! What about putting your anti-tank vehicle in front, then you may shoot up the armoured car. For God's sake pull yourself together, man, and remember that you are at war; this is not a blinking picnic."
Very crestfallen, Smith could only murmur, "I am sorry, sir; I should have thought of putting the anti-tank gun in front." The soft answer which turneth away wrath!
"All right, 'Chubby'; but do use your common sense."
Having discovered from the corporal in charge that two men were sufficient to work the gun from the antitank vehicle, Smith removed two of the crew to the leading 'bus, he and the guide taking their place.
They arrived at their destination without incident just as it was getting light.
(See sketch No. 2)
BOWLER proved to be a small and unexciting village, its only importance being that the main road from Lobsterburg crossed the Raspberry River there by a steel girder bridge.
The river was a sluggish stream about 40 feet wide. The east bank, on which was situated the village, was high and firm, but on the west side the ground was low and marshy, the marsh extending for some 300 yards from the river, the road to Fiddleton crossing the marsh by an embankment.
A good road ran parallel to the river on the left bank to Koln and Homburg, distant I O and 8 miles respectively.
The shops were all in the Lobsterburg road. The residential houses faced the river; these latter were somewhat back from the road and had small gardens in front of them, the gardens being enclosed by a low brick wall about 3 feet high, with an ornamental iron railing on top.
On arrival Smith held a council of war, which his platoon sergeant and the corporal in charge of the antitank gun were invited to attend, the guide being incorporated as a co-opted member.
Sergeant Bass was the proud possessor of a D.C.M., a M.M. and a large corporation, the two former being gained by gallantry during the Great War, the latter by constant and diligent attention to detail in the bar of the Sergeants' Mess. A sergeant in 1918, he was still a sergeant in 1930. On one occasion he plucked up courage to ask his C.O. why he was always being passed over for promotion and referred to his creditable war service. "Oh yes," replied the C.O., "we all know what you did during the Great War, but what have you done since the Great War? I can tell you--nothing, except support the bar in the Sergeants' Mess."
However, although not in favour with the senior officers, the possession of two such honourable war decorations gave him a certain amount of glamour in the eyes of younger soldiers, and Lieutenant Smith was inclined to regard him as one who, although perhaps somewhat unreliable in peace, nevertheless had proved himself a giant in war, and would do so again.
Corporal Wads was young and inexperienced; he belonged to the generation which did not drink beer, but spent its pay on tea, lemonade and buns.
Lieutenant Smith himself had but two years' service, most of which had been spent in a small garrison town. A youth with average ability, he had been "wet nursed" ever since he could remember, and this was the first occasion on which he had ever been left "on his own."
Such, then, was the composition of the Aulic council which was about to decide upon the defence of Bowler Bridge.
Sergeant Bass, in view of his war record and age, was the first to be asked his opinion.
"Money for jam, I calls it ! There is only the one bridge 'ere, and this dago bloke says there ain't no fords anywhere, and no bridges between 'ere and Koln on one side and Homburg on the other. I suggest, sir, that you put the gun on the bridge and that the rest of us gets a bit of breakfast and a rest."
Corporal Wads had no comments to make on this suggestion. He did suggest that some obstruction should also be put on the bridge; this, he explained, would make any hostile car pull up and give them a chance of getting an easy shot.
The guide, beyond confirming that the river was not fordable anywhere, had nothing to add.
Smith applied his mind to the problem, and the suggested solution appeared to him to be good and sufficient.
He therefore ordered the anti-tank gun on its vehicle to move down to the near end of the bridge; the two rifle sections to collect carts, farm implements. &c., and to make an effective road block at the far end of the bridge
It was discovered that the Post Office was on the Lobsterburg road, and that next door to it was a fairly decent inn with a big courtyard and good outbuildings.
One man was detailed to sit in the Post Office, and the remainder of the platoon was collected in the courtyard of the inn, and preparations for breakfast started.
At 6.30 Smith, taking the platoon sergeant with him, started off on a tour of inspection. He found that the two rifle sections had finished making the road block. It consisted of two country wagons drawn across the road and a couple of harrows thrown down to fill the gap between the two carts.
The vehicle carrying the anti-tank gun was in position just on the bridge, able to command the road by firing between the two carts.
The two rifle sections were ordered back to the inn for breakfast. Having directed Sergeant Bass to see that breakfast for the crew of the anti-tank gun was sent to them, Smith returned to the inn well satisfied with his inspection and confident that any armoured car which appeared would " get it in the neck."
On arrival at the inn, he found that the faithful and thoughtful Pinchin had procured for him an excellent feast consisting of an omelette with rolls and butter and a liberal supply of delicious coffee.
War was not a bad sort of show after all, and there were advantages in being out on your own. The good old Raspberry River was a good egg: the blighters would have to cross it by the bridge, and wouldn't they get a surprise if they did come; he sincerely hoped they would, there would be a certain amount of kudos for the defender of Bowler Bridge. Yes! he certainly hoped they would come.
AND THEY DID !
The last cup of coffee was finished, and a cigarette lighted, when the unmistakable sound of a machine gun could be heard from the direction of the bridge. Smith listened in vain for the sound of the anti-tank gun. Rushing into the street he almost collided with Sergeant Bass, who, whatever his many failings might be, was not lacking in personal courage; he was thoroughly imbued with the maxim of marching towards the sound of the guns. Together they ran for the bridge, but had hardly reached the corner when they saw an armoured car about to turn round it. Some instinct of self-preservation prompted them both to dart into an open doorway, just in time to escape a burst of fire from the car's machine gun. The car swept on down the road and almost at once another burst of fire was heard. Looking out of a front-room window Smith was horrified to see that a number of men of his platoon had also rushed out of the inn and had been caught by the fire from the armoured car. He made a rush for the doorway, but was seized by the burly sergeant: " No use going out now, sir, you can't do any good and you are certain to get killed."
"A good thing if I am," replied the wretched Smith. "I have made a beastly mess of this show. I can't stay in here and watch all my men being shot."
Fortunately, the enemy car, pleased with its work to date, appeared to have urgent business farther along the road. Smith dashed back to the inn followed by the sergeant, to find that two men had been killed and four wounded. These were carried into the inn, the gates leading into the courtyard were shut and Smith then proceeded to dispose his platoon so as to defend the inn and its outbuildings. He found Sergeant Bass full of useful suggestions about this: here was a matter which he did understand.
Hardly had the preparations been completed when a second car arrived. It was greeted with a burst of Lewis gun and rifle fire which it did not seem to appreciate, as it quickly backed out of the road and round the corner | again.
Srnith at last had time to think--and his thoughts were not pleasant. He had certainly failed, but could not make out how the cars had got across the bridge. He appealed to Sergeant Bass: "What can have happened to Corporal Wads and his beastly anti-tank gun? It does not appear to have fired at all. It is impossible to get down there to find out with those damned armoured cars dashing about. I thought he would be all right."
"I can't think, sir," replied the sergeant; " but then, I never 'ave 'ad much use for those lemonade and tea swilling young fellers."
What the end was going to be, Smith could not think. If he ever did get out of it, which appeared doubtful, he wondered what his C.O. would have to say to him, or the Adjutant or old " Pink Gin," his Company Commander. He had certainly let them all down and was sorry for that, besides being very sorry for himself.
Suddenly more machine-gun fire was heard from the east, and the original armoured car was seen coming back at a great pace, firing backwards along the road. As it passed the inn it was given a good burst of fire from the defenders. Hardly had it passed when two loud reports were heard and the car was seen to swerve on to the pavement and crash into the wall of one of the houses. It was followed by two other armoured cars which were unmistakably British, and, after a short interval, two more.
Seeing that the enemy car was completely wrecked, the two leading British cars carried straight on to the cross-roads. The second pair stopped outside the inn, Sergeant Bass, with a couple of men, being just in time to secure the prisoners from the enemy car before they could be claimed by anyone else. On inspection it was found that the enemy car had two burst tyres, caused by Lewis gun and rifle fire.
Smith was not sure whether he was pleased or not to see his Company Commander getting out of one of the cars.
He shortly decided that he was not.
"Well! what have you been doing?" was old "Pink Gin's" opening remark. "How the devil did those cars get here?"
"They came over the bridge," was all Smith could say.
"But I thought you were sent here to prevent them getting over the bridge. Where is your anti-tank gun?"
"I don't know, sir," replied Smith, who then proceeded to relate all he did know.
On hearing the story, the Major conferred with the commander of the armoured cars, who reported that the village now appeared to be clear of the enemy.
The Major then took Smith to the bridge to find out what had happened there.
They found the anti-tank vehicle with gun complete and apparently undamaged. Corporal Wads, with his arm roughly bandaged, and two of the crew were inspecting the gun and carriage; of the remaining two members of the crew, one had been killed and another wounded.
Corporal Wads, who only had a slight flesh wound, explained briefly what had happened. Shortly after Smith and Sergeant Bass had completed their inspection breakfast had been brought to them. They sat down by the side of the road to eat it, leaving one man in the vehicle as a look-out. When they were about halfway through breakfast the man at the gun shouted that two enemy cars were coming; at almost the same instant the cars opened fire with their machine guns and the man at the gun was killed.
Corporal Wads and the other three men rushed towards the gun, but two of them were hit, so they all jumped down the bank off the road, where they were under cover.
They saw a man get out of the leading car and hitch a drag rope on to one of the country carts, and the car then pulled it clear. The two cars then crossed over the bridge. They could not do anything, as they had left their rifles in the anti-tank gun vehicle. He wished they had taken their rifles out with them so that they could have shot the man who got out of the car to fix the drag rope.
The Major took Smith aside: "Look here, young man, you have made a pretty good mess of this show. It is lucky that they sent a section of armoured cars to visit the bridges and that we arrived when we did. I got permission to come with the cars as I wanted to see how you were all getting on. I told you to use your common sense. The arrangements you made could hardly have been worse. Why on earth did you stick up your anti-tank gun in its vehicle to be a cock-shy ? You know that the vehicle is not properly armoured, and one would think it would be obvious, even to you, that when an armoured car is approaching a possibly dangerous place some cove will have his finger on the trigger of the machine gun, and that he will let drive the moment he sees the road block. You can't hope to compete with people in an armoured vehicle unless you have some pretty good protection yourself.
"Ever heard of surprise? You have! Well, try to hide your gun so that you have a chance of springing a surprise. What do you imagine you were given a whole platoon for--to sit and have breakfast in the inn?
Had the Colonel thought that one anti-tank gun was enough for the job he would have sent only an anti-tank gun. If you had hidden some of your men in these houses they could have prevented the crew of the armoured car getting out and so removing the road block.
"I have to go off now with the Armoured Car Section, which has to return to Lobsterburg, after visiting Homburg and Topper.
"I suppose Sergeant Bass was partly responsible for your dispositions. Don't rely too much on your subordinates; think for yourself. Old Bass is a gallant old beer-swiller, but that is about all.
"Put yourself in the other chaps' place and think what you would do.
"Here, have a cigarette and don't be downhearted; you are lucky to get another chance. Try to make the most of it, and profit by the lessons you have learnt."
(See sketch No. 3)
THE first thing to be done was to re-make the road block. The corporal in charge of the section detailed for this job had a brain-wave. He sent a man to find some wire, and when it came he lashed the two wagons together, also the farm implements, thus rendering it more difficult for the road block to be removed.
Smith looked about for a suitable spot for the antitank gun. He thought of putting it in one of the houses facing the river, but it was found that the height of the window-sill rendered it difficult and that a wooden floor did not make a very suitable platform.
He finally decided upon the garden. The brick wall separating it from the road would supply excellent cover, and a few sandbags on top would give good head cover. It was found later that the sandbags were rather obvious, but, by removing a few shrubs and plants from neighbouring gardens, the whole affair was well camouflaged.
But Smith had ceased to place too much reliance on the anti-tank gun, and the fate of the enemy armoured car had brought it home to him that Lewis gun and rifle fire were not entirely useless against armoured cars.
What was it old "Pink Gin" had said? Oh yes! "You can't hope to compete with people in armour unless you have some pretty good protection yourself."
He also remembered what Corporal Wads had said about being able to shoot the man who got out of the armoured car if they had had rifles. Good idea! Why not put a few men in the woods to shoot anyone who got out of the car in order to remove the road block? A suitable spot was found downstream of the bridge amongst the trees, where there was some undergrowth. The men must be protected, of course! So a little work was dug and head cover provided with sandbags, the whole being carefully concealed. A lance-corporal and two men were considered sufficient for this post.
Now, what to do with the rest of the platoon; there did not appear to be anything for them to do. However, in order to strengthen the defence, one Lewis gun section was posted in one of the houses, where it could command the bridge and the road block. The rest were sent back to the inn, to which Smith shortly returned.
Owing to casualties some re-organisation was necessary. A couple of men were lent to the anti-tank section, and one of the rifle sections was temporarily disbanded.
On reviewing the situation, he felt satisfied that his arrangements were better than his previous ones, but, having had one nasty jar, he was not nearly so full of confidence on this occasion.
Try as he would, he could think of no way of making the position more secure. Nevertheless, he was somewhat worried about those two and a half sections which were still doing nothing except holding the inn.
Taking out a pencil, he proceeded to jot down in his notebook the causes of his previous failure and the lessons he had learnt:--
1. The anti-tank gun had been left in the open
Lesson. Concealment is always important.
2. The anti-tank gun having failed there was no one to guard the road block.
Lesson. (a) Always try and have two strings to your bow.
(b) A road block is no good unless it is guarded; if it is not, the cove will get out of his vehicle, hitch on a drag rope and pull it away.
3. A man in an armoured car with a machine gun is a nasty customer; he appears to have lots of ammunition and to use it freely.
Lesson. Men guarding road blocks must be concealed and, if possible, provided with cover from fire.
There seemed to be lots of other things that he had, or should have, learnt, but somehow it was not so easy to put them on paper. That useless young ass Wads was not prepared when the armoured car appeared; he and his men were all having breakfast. True, he himself had also been at breakfast. Dammit! Napoleon or some such expert said that a man could not fight on an empty stomach.
Suddenly he had a brain-wave--why not arrange for a look-out to give warning? After all, the wretched men could not be expected to sit all day with their fingers on the trigger.
Smith jumped up and went in search of Sergeant Bass, to whom he explained the "brain-wave." Bass was good enough to agree that the idea was a bright one. A discussion followed as to where the look-out had better be placed. Sergeant Bass suggested a few hundred yards down the road, with orders to fire his rifle in the event of any enemy coming along.
At first Smith thought the suggestion a sound one, but after further thought came to the conclusion that there were objections to it. In the first place, the bridge was visible for about 400 to 500 yards along the road; the look-out post would therefore have to be a longish way out. Moreover, the country was very open and flat, even where it was not marshy. It would not be easy to find a place for the look-out post there, and if the post was seen by the enemy he would probably do it in. A river is a jolly good obstacle against armoured vehicles, and Smith was not anxious to commit men out into the blue if it could be avoided.
"Well, sir," remarked the sergeant, "I don't see any look-out towers knocking about here."
Smith had an idea--" What about the church?"
So to the church they both repaired and found it to have a square tower easy of access. From the top of the tower a view of the country for some miles could be obtained. No vehicle could approach to within two to three miles of the bridge without being seen from the tower. The only question remaining was how the lookout man was to give the necessary warning if any hostile vehicles were seen.
The platoon sergeant had a useful suggestion--why not rig up an empty oil tin and give the look-out man something with which to beat it ?
Accordingly, the remainder of the rifle section which formed the post near the bridge was detailed as a look-out post on the church tower, with orders to keep a keen watch on the Fiddleton road and give timely warning of any enemy seen.
A trial proved that a small iron bar beating a kerosene oil tin made more than enough noise to warn every one concerned.
It was 10.00 hours when these arrangements were finally completed and Smith returned once more to the inn.
His next task was to arrange for half-hourly visits to each post, he and the platoon sergeant taking it in turns. At about 10.30 he was just starting on his first visit when the alarm was sounded from the church tower. In less than a minute he was on top of the tower, where the excited sentry pointed out to him four armoured cars approaching the bridge, the two leading cars about a mile to a mile and a half from it, the remaining two some 800 to l,000 yards behind.
Although intensely excited, Smith realised that he could not have a better spot from which to watch events; he had made his plans and must now wait and see them put to the test.
The cars came rapidly on until the leading one had reached the bend in the road some 400 to 500 yards from the bridge; here it stopped for a minute or two. Smith feared that it was going to turn back, but suddenly it came on, and when about 300 yards from the bridge, the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun could be plainly heard and the strike of bullets could be seen on the road all round the block.
Bang! and after a few seconds, bang! went the anti-tank gun.
"A bull's-eye, by Gad!" shouted Smith. "Good lad, Wads!! "
A bull's-eye it certainly was. After the first shot the car stopped, and the second caught it fair and square as it started to reverse. A third and fourth shot missed, but the fifth registered another hit. Meanwhile, the second car, judging discretion to be the better part of valour, made off as quickly as it could, joined the remaining two cars and rapidly disappeared with them.
Wild with delight, Smith quickly climbed down from the tower and hastened to congratulate Corporal Wads and his gun team.
It was found that one of the crew of the armoured car had been killed and the rest wounded. The car itself had been knocked out of action for all time.
At last there was something good to report--the bridge held, an enemy car knocked out and no casualties suffered. A different story from that of the early morning, when disaster had only been averted by a wonderful stroke of luck.
On getting through to Lobsterburg he found that the Adjutant was not in the office, but the Colonel was, and that august person was not only pleased but quite complimentary, which was more than could be said of the Adjutant when he reported the previous encounter.
"Well done, Smith," said the Colonel; "tell your lads that I am quite proud of them, but don't relax your vigilance. So far you have only had to deal with reconnaissance vehicles. The enemy is evidently taking considerable interest in Bowler Bridge, so he may make a more determined effort later. The Brigade will be starting from here at about 2 o'clock, so you may expect us to arrive about midnight."
Another tour of inspection to give the Colonel's message to every one and to warn them not to relax their precautions. A special word of praise for Corporal Wads.
"Well done, Wads. I am glad you held your fire as long as you did; you would not have bagged that car if you had fired too soon." Smith felt quite the experienced and successful leader.
Back in the inn again, he called Sergeant Bass into the sitting-room.
"Sergeant Bass," he said, "this is, I think, an occasion --most decidedly an occasion. Do you ever drink beer?"
"I do sometimes," replied the sergeant, with a grin.
"Well, let us see what this old inn can produce."
AT I 2 noon the commander again inspected his garrison; finding all well with the anti-tank gun, he next visited the Lewis gun section in the house overlooking the bridge. The view was not very good from here, as it was restricted by the trees on the left bank of the river, but the road block could be clearly seen and there was a good field of fire for about 500 yards down the road beyond the bridge.
Smith was just about to leave when the alarm was again plainly heard. He decided to remain where he was and watch events from the window next to that through which the Lewis gun was sighted.
For an appreciable time nothing was seen or heard except the repetition of the alarm signal.
After a few minutes, however, Smith thought he could see something at the bend in the road beyond the bridge; although there were no trees there, there were a few bushes; moreover, there was a slight dip in the road. He wished he had gone to the church tower, and was on the point of making for that place when there was a heavy burst of fire from the direction of the road bend. This was answered by the Lewis gun. The situation, although somewhat unpleasant, was not very alarming After all, a couple of cars (for there appeared to be two machine guns firing) could not do much harm by having pot shots at them across the river, and although their bullets were striking the walls of the houses and must have been going pretty close to the anti-tank gun, it was well provided with cover and the men should be fairly all right.
The gun had not fired yet; probably the crew could not see the car as they were too low down. Smith started to reconnoitre a safe means of getting to the gun. He found that by going out of the back of the house he could enter the next house from the back door. By crawling on his hands and knees he got sufficient protection from the low garden wall to enable him to reach the gun in safety, although it was hot work with the bullets whizzing over his head and striking the wall above and behind him.
The Lewis gun was also making a fearful din, the combined effect making him somewhat excited.
"Why don't you shoot the blighter?" he shouted.
'I can't see him, sir," replied Corporal Wads.
"I'll show you where he is," cried Smith. He got up to look through the loophole, but hardly had he done so when he flung himself down again with a crash. An enemy armoured car, with its machine gun pointed straight at him, had just pulled up on the road, coming from the direction of Koln. By some miracle he fell right under the wall and so escaped the burst of fire, which, however, knocked out the entire gun's crew; the wall, of course, gave them no protection except from the front. Smith was no coward, but he realised that to move would mean instant death. So he remained where he was until he heard the car move on. Almost at once he became aware that someone was addressing him in a foreign tongue and decidedly unfriendly tone. Looking up, he saw a burly looking ruffian covering him with a revolver; it was clear that he was meant to get up and follow.
He was led out on to the road, where he was shortly joined by the remnants of the Lewis gun section under the escort of an equally unpleasant individual. By signs it was made quite clear to them what would happen if they attempted to escape.
The village appeared to be alive with armoured cars. Smith saw two on the Koln road and two on the road leading to Homburg, whilst two more were in the act of moving down to the bridge, towards which three or four cars were advancing from the other side of the river. The leading car on the right bank drove right up to the bridge before halting. A man jumped out to cut the wire entangled round the block.
Crack! Crack! Crack! rang out three rifle shots from the woods to the left of the road, and the man pitched forward on his face and lay still.
Smith could not suppress a shout of joy. "Corporal Johnston, by Jove! Well done, my lad." His escort did not share his joy, and would probably have committed an assault on him if an officer had not come up at that moment.
The prisoners now had the mortification of being helpless spectators to the unequal contest between the gallant little post guarding the road block and half a dozen armoured cars, all of which immediately opened fire into the woods from which the three shots had come. As there was no answering fire the cars soon stopped firing, but the officer in charge was not taking any more risks. One car was drawn up on either side of the block as close to it as possible, and all the available machine guns trained on to the place from where the shots had come, as well as on to the undergrowth on the opposite side of the road, before any further attempt was made to remove the obstruction.
Smith had no idea what had happened to Corporal Johnston and his two men. He could only hope that somehow they had escaped. Nor could he guess what had been the fate of the remainder of his platoon in the inn; no sounds of firing had been heard from there, so perhaps they were all right for the present.
The prisoners were eventually led into one of the houses facing the bridge, Smith being put into one room and the men into another, both rooms being upstairs and on opposite sides of the passage, the escort remaining in the passage.
Smith now had time for thought--and his thoughts were far from pleasant. How the devil had those beastly cars suddenly appeared from the direction of Koln ? The guide had assured him that the river was not fordable anywhere between Bowler and Koln, and he knew from the map that there were no bridges. Could the guide be a spy? That was very unlikely. He was an old soldier and appeared to be a decent chap; moreover, he had been vouched for by the Mayor of Lobsterburg. Anyhow, the damned things had got over somehow and he had miserably failed. Possibly someone else had failed, and that was how they had been able to come along and upset all his arrangements. They might also conceivably have crossed on a ferry or have been rafted over. He should, of course, have blocked the roads leading into the village; true, he had only one anti-tank gun, but he might have made road blocks and guarded them. The armoured car people were certainly no fools --that was a jolly good dodge, drawing up those cars to give shelter for the man who got out to move the road block. It appeared that the men detailed to guard the blocks would have more chance of preventing their removal if they were distributed on either side of it. He would do that next time. Next time? There would be no next time; he would probably spend the rest of the war in some rotten prisoner-of-war camp.
His reflections were interrupted by a considerable noise outside. Looking out, he saw large numbers of vehicles crossing the bridge and stretching back as far as he could see. They were obviously light tanks. The sight of them served to emphasise his failure; he could not bear to watch the very thing he had been sent to prevent. What a perfectly useless ass he had been!
Returning to the other side of the room where he could not see the results of his stupidity, he again surrendered himself to his gloomy reflections.
Except that he had omitted to block and guard the roads, he really could not see that he had committed any very glaring errors, or had omitted to do anything which he might reasonably bc expected to do. What had happened ? And what had been the enemy's little game ? Probably a few cars had come on to see if and how--the bridge was held. At the expense of one car he had found that it was held, but that the village was open to a flanking movement on the left bank. Some cars had then approached the bridge from the west sufficiently close to draw the defenders' attention and to pin them down by fire, whilst those which had crossed elsewhere crept up and took the defences in flank and rear. Perhaps it would have been better to have put the anti-tank gun in the house after all--it would have been safe from attack in the flank.
Smith went once more to the window to see what sort of view and field of fire the gun would have had from there. Looking out, he saw some funny-looking vehicles crossing the bridge; on closer inspection they proved to be light guns, carried on half-track vehicles. So they had guns knocking about, ready to make themselves objectionable if necessary!
What had he been told about guns? Many things--amongst others, that it is not wise to occupy a conspicuous or obvious building if there is any likelihood of being shelled. True, the house in question was not very conspicuous, as there were many houses in the village, but it was most certainly obvious in so much as it overlooked the bridge and was a likely place for an anti-tank weapon. No! on second thoughts, he would never put an anti-tank gun in a house unless he was reasonably certain that the house could not be shelled. Better to find some place where it cannot be easily spotted.
Smith had been up all night and had had a busy and exciting day. He felt somewhat tired, and wondered what the blighters would do with him. He wished he had something to eat; also he was horribly thirsty--there was nothing to drink in his room. Perhaps his jailer would get him a drink or allow him to get one. He seemed a stuffy sort of brute--better be careful about opening the door, or he might be shot.
He gently knocked--no answer.
He knocked again more loudly--still no answer.
Cautiously he opened the door and found the passage empty: like a flash the idea entered his head--escape.
Creeping across the passage he carefully opened the door opposite. There he found his fellow-prisoners. Quickly, but quietly, he explained his idea; telling them to remain where they were, he crept down the stairs to reconnoitre. He had just reached the bottom when his guard rushed at him, and before he could make any effort to defend himself he received a heavy blow on the jaw which knocked him sprawling on the floor.
Rolling over, he woke up to find that he had fallen out of bed and had hit his head on a chair in doing so.
"Gosh!" murmured Smith, as he rubbed his somewhat painful jaw, "too much lobster mayonnaise, I think."
COMPLETELY woken UP by his fall, Smith did not at once go to s1eep again. He had a vivid recol1ection Of every detail Of his dream, or nightmare. He could, with the greatest ease, have drawn a sketch of Bowler and have given an accurate description of everything that happened there. Even more strange than this, he remembered perfectly well what his thoughts had been; above all, he remembered the 1essons he had 1earnt.
Being a young man not devoid of keenness and interest in his profession, he mused somewhat On these 1essons and wondered if he wou1d ever, in rea1ity, be Ca11ed upon to ho1d a bridge in circumstances Simi1ar to those in his dream.
Thc resu1t was that he 1ay awake for some considerable time, and before sleep had again 1aid its heavy hand upon him, he had inde1ibly fixed in his mind the methods he would adopt should the fortunes of war p1ace him in the position of Horatio Cocles, who so gallant1y, if somewhat spectacu1ar1y, he1d the bridge of Ancient Rome.
(See Sketch No 4)
SMITH looked at his watch and saw that it was one o'clock; he had been awake over an hour. This wou1d never do; With a busy day ahead, he must go to sleep. Turning over on his side, he managed to shake off thought of his recent dream and was soon again in the Land of Nod. He did not, however, drop into that pcacefu1 and refreshing sleep which a hea1thy young man with a clear conscience is entit1ed to expect. But healthy young men shou1d not eat inordinate quantities of lobster mayonnaise.
Hardly had he lost consciousness when he was again the victim Of another vivid dream.
It should be CXP1ained that his second dream was in many respects Simi1ar to the first: up to a certain point the detai1s Were idcntica1. Throughout the dream he was conscious of a fee1ing that it had all happened before; he did not, of course, remember that he had just had a dream, but he recognised people and p1aces.
There was, however, one marked difference: whereas in his first dream he had approached the prob1em With a fee1ing that he knew nothing about it, he now had a comfortab1e fee1ing of confidence and a vague impression that he had once before he1d a bridge in simi1ar, if not identica1, circumstances. Above all, he had a c1ear recollection that somehow or other he had learnt many useful lessons on the subject. These lessons were firmly fixed in his mind.
Once more he was summoned to the battalion orderly room--once more he received identical instructions from his Commanding Officer--once more he found himself entering the village of Bowler.
"Not much of a place, sir," remarked Sergeant Bass.
"No," briefly replied Smith, who was more keen to get on with the job than to discuss the beauties and amenities of Bowler.
"Tell the platoon runner to go with the guide to the Post Office; I want to get through to the battalion to report our arrival.
"Tell the guide to question the inhabitants and to let me know if any armoured cars have been seen here."
There were so many things to be done that it was difficult to know where to start. However, the bridge appeared to be the most important place. Taking Sergeant Bass, the platoon sergeant, and Corporal Wads with him, he set off.
"Hope we don't run into a car round the corner sir," cheerfully remarked Wads.
"So do I," answered Smith. "On second thoughts, I think we will carry out our reconnaissance in that anti-tank affair of yours; turn out a couple of men to make room for Sergeant Bass and myself."
Arrived at the bridge, he had quite a shock. Why, surely he had seen this place before? Absolute rot, of course, he could not possibly have seen it before. But, nevertheless, the girder bridge with the embankment over the marsh, the trees on the left bank, and the houses facing the river with small gardens in front, all seemed quite familiar.
"Better leave the gun at the road junction," said Smith; "hide it behind the hedge as much as you can, but be sure that you command the bridge. I will get one of the rifle sections on to making a road block on the other side of the bridge, and when I have completed my other arrangements I will look round for a place for the gun from where it can be used dismounted.
"When the rest of your gun team have arrived, you might look for a suitable place yourself, but don't move the gun until I have seen the place you suggest. Warn your men that they must keep on the alert, as an armoured car may come along at any moment."
Smith and the platoon sergeant then made a hasty inspection of the bridge.
There were three roads to be blocked as well as the bridge. Suppose he detailed a section to guard each road block; that would use up the whole of his platoon and leave no reserve. Also he wanted to arrange for a look-out post.
He discussed the matter with Sergeant Bass.
"Can't see myself, sir, what you want to block the roads for. The guide, who knows these parts well, says there ain't no bridges or fords between 'ere and Koln on the one side, and Homburg on the other. Better let the men get a bit of breakfast and a rest."
"Plenty of time for breakfast and a rest when we have made this place safe. I am not taking any risks. There may not be any other bridges for a considerable distance, but the enemy may possibly force his way across one of the bridges at Koln or Homburg. Moreover, he may raft a few vehicles across somewhere.
Added to which, we do not know that there are not some armoured cars on this side of the river already Take one of the rifle sections off to the bridge at once and start them making the road block. I will give orders to the others."
Smith was determined that he was not going to be "run" by his platoon sergeant.
The sergeant looked at him with mild surprise, but apparently decided that he had better do as he was told and not argue.
The next step was to decide upon a look-out post A brief inspection disclosed that the church tower formed an ideal one. Two men were posted on the top with orders to keep a sharp look-out and give warning of the approach of any vehicles. In order to sound the alarm, they were provided with an old tin bath tub and a short iron bar.
The section commanders of the three remaining sections were then collected and the plan of defence explained to them.
The two Lewis-gun sections were ordered to construct road blocks on the Koln and Homburg roads, the rifle section being left to block the Lobsterburg road. For the sake of simplicity the four blocks were named: Bridge Block, Koln Block, Homburg Block, Lobster Block.
Having despatched the three sections to collect material and make their road blocks, Smith returned to the bridge. He found that the section there was getting on well with its road block; a couple of heavy carts had been collected, and these were being lashed together with some wire.
"That will be all right for a beginning, corporal," said Smith to the n.c.o. in charge, " but you had better stiffen it up a bit with any old ploughs, harrows, &c., you can find: an armoured car might crash through that and a tank certainly would. You cannot make the block too thick and solid."
Corporal Wads arrived at this moment and reverted to the question of the site for the anti-tank gun.
"I can't make up my mind whether it ought to go in that house there, the one on the main street, facing the bridge, or behind that low garden wall. It will be difficult to fix up the gun in the house, but I think I can do it. Behind the wall would be easier, and we could make a bit of head cover with some sandbags. Will you come and have a look, sir?"
Together they inspected the house and the garden.
" I don't know that I care much for the garden," observed Smith; "you get protection all right from the direction of the bridge, but you would be badly enfiladed by any armoured car coming from either Koln or Homburg. I prefer the house, as both your flanks are protected there. But I am not very keen on the house, either. If the enemy really intends to cross here he will probably bring guns with him; and it won't take him long to discover from which house the anti-tank gun is firing. This house can be plainly seen from the other side. I am afraid you would have a pretty thin time if you were shelled there. We must try somewhere else."
The main Koln-Homburg road ran parallel to the river, roughly 100 yards from it. A thick belt of trees ran along the left bank; between the trees and the road were considerable patches of bushes and undergrowth. The road itself, as indeed were all the roads near the village, was lined on either side with fairly thick hedges. On the river side of the road were two pairs of small semi-detached houses, one pair on either side of the Fiddleton road.
Smith and the corporal walked across to the left-hand pair of houses. They were almost completely concealed from view from the west side of the river by the trees, some tall bushes, and a thick hedge which enclosed the garden at the back of the house, but a very brief inspection was sufficient to prove that there was no position to be found for the gun there. Neither the bridge nor the road running west from it could be seen at all. On crossing to the other pair of houses they quickly found what they wanted. Here, also, the gardens on the river side were surrounded by a thick hedge, but a path ran from a gap in the hedge obliquely to the river. The undergrowth had been cleared for a few feet on either side of the path, which made its way through the belt of trees where there was a gap caused by two trees having fallen or having been cut down.
A clear field of fire could thus be obtained on to the far side of the bridge and for about 100 yards along the road to the west of it.
Smith decided at once that this was almost an ideal ~q spot for the anti-tank gun, which would be nicely concealed from view. A little work with spades and the use of sandbags would soon produce ample cover for the crew against machine-gun fire.
Returning once more to the bridge, he discussed with Corporal Johnston the position of the post which was to prevent the road block being moved in case the antitank gun was knocked out or, for any other reason, failed to function.
A suitable spot was soon found behind a small mound in the undergrowth, to the south of the Fiddleton road. There was a clear view and field of fire to the road block, but the actual spot would be difficult to locate from the road. A garrison of three men was detailed for this post and ordered to start at once upon the work necessary to make it proof against machine-gun fire.
Having explained briefly his views on the subject, Smith left the corporal to select a similar post on the other side of the road, warning him that it should not be too close to the position of the anti-tank gun, or else it might come under any fire meant for the latter.
Later on, he inspected this post and signified his approval of the spot selected.
Meanwhile he felt confident that the enemy would not be able to rush the bridge, and would have a tough nut to crack if he tried to force it.
Now for the other road blocks. He decided to inspect the one on the Koln road first, as being the most likely direction from which the enemy might come if any armoured cars were already across the river.
The road to Koln ran due north from the centre of the village for about 400 yards, when it made a sharp bend to the right, bending again to the left another 200 yards farther on. Walking along the road, Smith could see no sign of any men working. On reaching the bend in the road he was surprised to see one of the large 'buses in which they had travelled from Lobsterburg drawn right across the road just beyond the bend.
" What the devil is this?" exclaimed Smith." Are these blighters too lazy to walk a few hundred yards?"
Just then Corporal Webster, in command of the Lewis gun section, appeared.
"Hi, corporal! what the devil are you playing at ? Why on earth did you come here in this 'bus? And what is it doing stuck across the road like this?"
"Well, sir," respectfully replied the corporal, "I thought it might take us some time to collect the stuff for the road block, and I thought it would be a good plan to shove one of the 'buses across the road to act as a temporary block, in case an armoured car came along before we were ready. I have got the Lewis gun with a couple of men over there guarding it."
"Quite right, corporal; a jolly sound plan. I had not thought of it. Now where are you going to put your block?"
"I thought of putting it just short of the bend in the road, sir. It will come as a surprise there; if it is round the bend the enemy will see it some 200 yards away and will have time to pull up and back away."
"Corporal Webster, I see that you have brains, and what is more, you use them. Right you are! you carry on. Don't forget to see that the posts guarding the blocks have cover from fire as well as from view; any armoured car which is fired at will certainly let drive at them."
Smith felt that he could leave matters in such capable hands. He walked back with the intention of next visiting Homburg block. Hardly had he gone 100 yards when he discovered that he could see this block on the other side of the village, the road being perfectly straight. It suddenly flashed across his mind that both blocks would be visible from each other at from 700 to 800 yards' distance. If that were so, an enemy car held up by one block could fire into the back of the other. True, the posts would not be on the road, but it would complicate matters if they had to consider the possibility of being fired at from the rear as well as from the front; on second thoughts, perhaps, the Koln block had better be round the bend.
Returning to Corporal Webster, he explained his idea, and gave instructions for the block to be constructed on the far side of the bend.
He next visited the Lobsterburg block. The n.c.o. in charge here was also quite sensible and appeared to have plenty of common sense. His task was, of course, a comparatively simple one. He merely had to block a road with houses on either side, and it was quite an easy matter to find excellent cover for the men guarding it by placing them in houses where they were very unlikely to be found by an armoured car's machine gunner. Smith was congratulating himself on having such a good lot of section commanders when he arrived at the Homburg block.
The road to Homburg was perfectly straight for some considerable distance. The site selected by Corporal Jones, the section commander, was just clear of the houses. The question of materiel for the road block had presented no difficulties, as there was a farm close at hand.
Smith found that the block had been well constructed and appeared to be sufficiently strong to prevent the passage of armoured cars, or even light tanks.
On either side of the road was a strip of grass about four feet wide, and outside this again a ditch some two to three deep. Smith, to his disgust, saw that the Lewis gun, with three men, was in a position on the strip of grass on the right-hand side of the road some thirty to forty yards behind the road block; on the other side of the road was the remainder of the section.
"Come, Corporal Jones," he said, taking the section commander aside, "I don't think much of your arrangements. It is absolutely no use your putting your men on the road. Try to imagine that you were the commander of an armoured car trying to get into Bowler. Picture yourself corning along the road at 30 miles an hour and suddenly discovering a road block from, say, 400 to 500 yards away--what would be the first thing you would do?"
"I suppose I would stop and turn back, sir."
"Well, you might or you might not; that would depend on the orders you had received. In any case, don't you think you would tell your machine gunner to let drive with his gun at the block and the area immediately behind it, that is, if he had not already done so?"
"Yes, sir, I suppose I would," agreed the corporal.
"Well, get your men in a position from which they can prevent men getting out of the cars and removing the block, but where they will be reasonably safe from the machine-gun fire of the car. Come along, we will have a look at that farm; it appears quite hopeful."
An inspection disclosed that there was an ideal position along the north side of the main farm buildig. By keeping close to the wall, the Lewis gun could be placed where it could just command the road block, but was protected from the fire of any car which might be a few yards outside it. There were lots of materiel available with which good cover could be constructed in case the car went right up to the block.
"It is possible that, if the enemy is determined to get through the block, he may draw up one of his cars on the edge of the road so as to give protection against fire from here to anyone getting out to remove the block, so you had better place a couple of men on the other side of the road," was Smith's parting instruction.
Leaving Corporal Jones to carry out his instructions, Smith walked back along the road wondering what he had better do next. An aching void in his tummy suggested that it was time for some breakfast. Looking at his watch he discovered that it was after 8 o'clock. He therefore returned to the inn to get breakfast for himself and to arrange about that for the men. Arriving there he found that Sergeant Bass had already had the same idea. He had succeeded in getting tea made and had divided up the rations for each of the sections, and had also impounded a small local motor delivery van in which to take round the breakfast.
After breakfast Smith called the platoon sergeant into the small sitting-room of the inn.
"Sergeant Bass," he said, "I want you to help me consider whether everything possible has been done. I think we have made the bridge pretty safe, and we have blocked the only three roads leading into the village. The only thing that worries me is that I have not got a reserve. I have already taken two men from one of the rifle sections for the look-out post, and I don't see how I can take any more; each road block has two posts to guard it."
"I have been thinking about that myself, sir; you see, the trouble is, we 'ave only got one of them anti-tank guns, and you 'ave put that on the bridge. Of course, I see that the bridge is the most important, but if I was in command 'ere--and I'm glad it's you and not me, sir
I would keep that gun in its vehicle and 'ave it somewhere central and use it as a reserve. Road blocks may be all right to keep out armoured cars, but they can't 'urt them. And if that gun was on wheels it could be run up wherever they come and might do a bit of damage."
"Yes, Sergeant, I think there is a lot in what you say, but to my mind the chief danger is that the beastly vehicle is not fully armoured, and if I use it as an armoured fighting vehicle it may be at a great disadvantage against other A.F.V.'s which are completely armoured.
"Of course, it is fairly all right if the other johnny only fires from straight in front, but he may attack on two or three sides at once here, in which case it might get shot up in flank or from the rear if it moves about. On the whole, I think it is best to put it in the most important place and trust to it being able to spring a surprise on them. However, that is a good suggestion; have you got any more?"
"I don't know that I've got any more suggestions, sir, but I've been wondering what I would do if I was in command of a section of the enemy armoured cars on this side of the river and came up against one of your road blocks. If I found I could not remove it, I would do a bit of thinking. Of course, I don't know exactly how many men they have in those cars, but I expect they could spare one man from each with a rifle. I don't see why a few men should not be sent to crawl round and get behind some of those posts."
"By Jove, Sergeant, you are right," cried Srnith. ' That convinces me, I must have a reserve; but how the hell I am going to get one I am damned if I know; sorry for the language, Sergeant."
"That's all right, sir; it is a bit of a problem."
"It is," continued Smith; "the blighter might even stuff a couple of infantrymen into each car for that very purpose. One thing is certain--I cannot give up any of those road blocks, and I don't see that it is possible for one section to look after two blocks. However, we must thin out the firing line; come along and we will see what can be done."
The final solution at which they arrived was that each post should consist of two men only--that the remaining three men of each platoon under the section commander should be used as local reserves. Smith's servant and the driver of the anti-tank gun vehicle were exchanged for the two look-out men on the church tower, the guide also volunteering to take his turn at this duty. Owing to its favourable position, the Lobsterburg block was considered safe enough with only two men guarding it, one on either side of the road, the remainder of that section being held as a central reserve in the inn.
Not until these changes had been made did Smith feel really confident that he had done everything possible to ensure success. Even now he was somewhat uneasy on one point. He considered the bridge safe enough against armoured cars, but was still a trifle apprehensive as to the result if medium or heavy tanks were used to force it, covered perhaps by artillery fire. He would feel much happier if he had been allowed to blow up the bridge altogether.
10.00hrs. found Smith and his platoon sergeant at the Koln block on a tour of inspection. Hardly had, they arrived when the alarm was heard from the church tower. Smith had no idea from which direction the enemy were approaching, but not wishing to be caught near the road block or on the road, he and the sergeant got off the road and took cover behind some bushes. It ; was soon evident that the alarm had been a false one, as a minute or two later two armoured cars which were undoubtedly British, came round the bend and approached the block.
Smith ran out to meet them.
"Well, I'm damned," shouted the officer in the leading car; "and what, may I ask, is Chubby Smith doing here blocking the public highway? "Hallo! can this be Porker Simmons?" replied Smith. "If you want to know what I am doing, I am King of Bowler at the moment, appointed to keep enemy stink boxes, like yours, out of this delightful country town. By the way, I suppose you want to get through; you are a beastly nuisance, but if you wait a few minutes I will have the portcullis lowered and let you in."
"All right, old boy. I have been sent to see how you are getting on, and have to go on to Homburg; but don't you trouble to move your pretty collection of war trophies, there is a track a couple of hundred yards back there, so I will just buzz round. See you again in a minute."
The two cars backed along the road.
"Augustus Sydney Smith," mused the completely crestfallen King of Bowler, " of all the fatheaded, useless, brainless idiots, you take the bun. Fancy not having a look to see whether there was a way round your precious road blocks. Of course, the track must lead to the North Farm."
At this moment one of the cars came back again to the block.
"Hallo, Chubby, I hope you havc not stuffed any of those anti-tank mines on that track. I don't want to be blown up."
"Anti-tank mines! Of course not; do you think I keep a tame Field Company up my sleeve to dig mines all over the country? You will be perfectly safe going round there--in fact, just as safe as any enemy cars would have been."
" All right, old man! don't get peevish. If you are not too proud to take a tip from an old friend, I advise you to shift that block of yours down the road to where the track joins it. And don't turn up your nose at anti-tank mines; we hate the beastly things, especially if they are dug in and hidden so that we can hardly see them. Get your Adjutant to send some out to you. A few mixed up with your road blocks, or just in front of them, will make you much safer and will give you a sporting chance of bagging something. Well, cheerio! I must be off--no charge made for the advice."
Smith was not too proud to take advice. He first gave orders for another block to be made just short of the next bend in the road, where it would guard the track as well as the road, and then sent Sergeant Bass to inspect the other two road blocks and to report whether these could also be evaded. He soon cheered up. These mines might solve his problem of making the blocks safer against tanks.
He had some difficulty in persuading the Adjutant that mines were necessary, but eventually extracted a promise that that officer would get in touch with the sappers and see what could be done. The Adjutant told him that the brigade was to march at 14.00 hrs. and that his battalion would reach Bowler about midnight
About midday a lorry arrived in charge of a sapper sergeant and three men who were prepared to give expert advice on laying the anti-tank mines, of which they had brought 60 with them. By 14.00 hrs. they had all been placed in shallow trenches dug across the roads in front of the blocks. The metalling had been carefully replaced so as to render them as inconspicuous as possible and angle-irons fixed over the strikers to ensure their exploding if passed over by armoured cars. A few had also been mixed up with the block on the bridge.
Smith now had a comfortable feeling that his arrangements were complete at last, and that he had done everything possible to ensure that, if attacked, he would render a good account of himself. If he failed, it would not be because he had sat down and done nothing. He could truthfully say that he had not spared himself, physically or mentally, to make the defences as strong as the men and materiel at his disposal would allow. In fact, he felt that he deserved his lunch and the large tankard of beer he had with it.
SCARCELY had he finished his meal, when the orderly reported that he was wanted on the telephone. He discovered that he was speaking to a staff officer of the Divisional Headquarters, who informed him that an air reconnaissance had reported considerable movement of enemy armoured fighting vehicles on the road leading to Fiddleton from the north. That enemy armoured cars had passed through Fiddleton about twenty minutes ago and appeared to be making for Bowler. Finally, that an unknown number of enemy armoured cars were known to have been, that morning, east of the river and that they were in wireless communication with the armoured force on the other side.
Smith, having sent a warning to the section commanders, hurried to the look-out post on the church tower.
The sentry on duty had nothing to report. Smith thought it advisable to double the sentry, one being told off to watch the Fiddleton road and the other to watch the remaining three. They had not long to wait. About ten minutes after Smith had arrived, one of the sentries pointed out what was undoubtedly a section of armoured cars advancing from the direction of Fiddleton, two cars moving about 800 yards in front of the others. Smith looked at his watch as the sentry sounded the alarm. The great battle had started at 14.30 hrs.
The two leading cars came on until they reached the bend in the road about 500 yards from the bridge; here they stopped. After a minute or two, one of them went back to where the other pair of cars had halted. After a short interval all three cars returned to the road bend. Apparently another consultation took place here, for there was no movement for another few minutes.
Suddenly the two leading cars rounded the corner and came forward at a fairly considerable pace, firing their machine guns as they came along. Simultaneously the two rearmost cars opened fire, but without moving. From the church tower it was clear that they were plastering the road block and the area immediately round it; the strike of the bullets could be plainly seen on the road. It was not until the leading car was about 100 yards from the block that the defenders showed signs of life. Suddenly the anti-tank gun could be distinctly heard above the rattle of the machine gun. The first shot was evidently a miss, as was the second, but the third caught the leading car just as it was reversing and evidently did some vital damage, as the car stopped dead, the next round silencing its machine gun. The second car quickly got out of the line of fire from the gun and safely returned to its friends, the whole lot beating a hasty retreat.
"First round distinctly ours," said Smith, who had a strong feeling that this was only the first and by no means the final round. It was not long before his surmise proved correct.
Hardly had the first lot of cars disappeared when others were seen coming from the direction of Koln. It was not very easy to count them because the road was bordered by high hedges, but Smith estimated them at another section. The leading car appeared to be taken completely by surprise by the road block, which it could not see until it came round the corner. To Smith's disgust it managed, however, to pull up just in time to avoid crashing into the block and also just stopped short of the mines. To show its annoyance it blazed off with its machine gun as it backed round the corner.
"Damn!" exclaimed Smith. "If we had had another anti-tank gun we would have bagged that one too."
He thought the staff officer at Lobsterburg would like to hear the news, and was not reluctant to report the encounter, out of which they had come off best.
The staff officer was glad to hear the news, and imparted the information that further air reports confirmed a previous one that a part, at least, of the enemy armoured force had gone to cover in and near Fiddleton. The general indication from various sources of information pointed to the fact that the enemy was going to make an effort to cross at Bowler. Smith was relieved to hear that the Divisional Commander was despatching a whole tractor-drawn brigade of artillery, escorted by a company of armoured cars, to take up a position on some high ground west of Bowler, to engage the enemy should he make a serious effort to force a crossing. The brigade had only just finished its disembarkation and would not be in position for at least three hours.
Smith, although glad to hear that he was to receive such formidable support, realised that he might be in for a much more severe test than he had experienced so far. However, he had been successful up to the present and could only hope for the best.
Coming out of the Post Office, he met Sergeant Bass, who reported that he had been to the bridge and that there were no casualties. Two of the crew of the armoured car had been killed, and the third, who was wounded, was being carried to the inn.
There appeared to be nothing to do but wait, so Smith returned to the church tower, which he decided to make his battle headquarters. Nothing happened for an hour, but at about I5.30 hours, the distant boom of a gun was heard to the west; and shortly afterwards there came the dull thud of a shell landing in the marsh.
"Rotten shot!" exclaimed Smith.
However, the next was a better one; it landed in the trees some two or three hundred yards below the bridge. The third and fourth found billets in the village.
"Small howitzer, I should say," remarked Sergeant Bass, who had joined his platoon commander on the tower; " things Will get a bit more lively in a minute, sir."
Prophetic utterance! No sooner had the sergeant spoken than half a dozen shells burst round about the road junction opposite the bridge, one or two falling on the houses. It soon became evident that the guns were searching the immediate vicinity of the bridge; particularly the houses opposite and the area upstream of it.
"Look, sir!" called out one of the sentries, "look at them funny-looking things coming along the road. They must be little tanks."
Sure enough, there were about half a dozen low vehicles advancing along the Fiddleton road. Smith inspected them carefully through his glasses.
"Yes, they are light tanks right enough; evidently they are going to have a shot at it under cover of the shelling."
This surmise was soon proved incorrect. When nearing the bend of the road they disappeared from view, but, although they could not be seen, they were very shortly heard. The bridge and its vicinity were subjected to intensive machine gun fire as well as to increased shelling.
"More armoured cars, sir," announced the sentry, "two of them coming along all out."
The two cars soon rounded the corner and came straight for the bridge. The damaged enemy car was still on the road about fifty yards from the block; this left only half the road available.
Up to this point there had been no signs of life amongst the defenders. But it soon became evident that they were not all dead. The anti-tank gun spoke once more, and spoke with deadly effect--a second enemy armoured car incurred the penalty of its rashness; unfortunately, its companion was more fortunate, for it made good its escape.
Simultaneously with this abortive effort to force the bridge, a section of cars had again approached the Koln block, but beyond firing a lot of ammunition they had done nothing and eventually withdrew.
"What about it, old mossy face!" murmured Smith to himself." You don't put it across Augustus Sydney Smith as easily as that. Think of something better, old sport."
The enemy had evidently decided either to think of something better or else to give up the attempt, for his activities suddenly ceased.
"Suppose you were commanding that lot across there, what would you do now?"
"Afraid I can't say, sir; them tanks and things are not much in my line. Always been an infantryman myself, and I 'opes I always will be. Why, give me a couple of platoons, and I would put up a better show than all that junk over there."
"Well, Sergeant, suppose you had your couple of platoons, how would you set about it?"
"'Ow would I set about it, sir ? I certainly would not come straight at the bridge. Infantry aren't confined to roads; they would soon find a way across that marsh, and a few sappers with some rafts would soon put them across the river."
"I wonder if they have got any infantry?" said Smith." It will complicate matters if they have; in fact, it will make things damned unpleasant. The defences have been arranged to keep out armoured cars and things like that, and I have only got one section in reserve, and that will not be much use if the enemy uses infantry as well as his other things."
"Seems to me, sir, that this affair is getting a bit big for us; time we got some reinforcements. Might I suggest, sir, that you send those two 'buses back to the battalion and ask the Colonel to send them back full of men? The enemy shows no sign of using infantry yet, so I expect he hasn't got any handy, and it will take him some time to bring any up."
Smith thought the idea was an excellent one. It was now nearly 4 o'clock and his reinforcements could arrive by six. With another platoon he would feel fairly safe. He took out his notebook and wrote a brief account of the situation to the Adjutant, explaining his fears and asking for a second platoon. This he despatched by the D.R., who was directed to inform the adjutant that the two 'buses would follow as quickly as possible.
HOWEVER, fate, or rather the enemy, decided that he was to be put to another and more severe test before his reinforcements had arrived. It soon became apparent that the enemy had no intention of abandoning his efforts to secure a crossing. About 16.30 hrs. the shelling was renewed; this time he meant to make no mistake about knocking out the gun which had frustrated his previous efforts. It was obvious that many more guns were firing and that some, at least, were of much greater calibre. It was also evident that he now had a pretty accurate idea of where the anti-tank gun was situated. There was also a very considerable increase in the amount of machine-gun fire. The number of light tanks firing had been at least doubled. The section of armoured cars was again in action from the Koln road. Fortunately for the defenders, the hea~,y cultivation prevented them operating off the road.
It seemed to rain shells, and the centre of the village very soon presented a fairly good representation of a portion of a devastated town in France. The houses facing the bridge were being severely knocked about and several of them were on fire. Smith was thankful that he had not put anyone in them. He was fairly confident that nothing but a direct hit or a very close shell would knock out the anti-tank gun, and he was not without hope that it might escape the inferno. He was uncertain as to what all this bombardment precluded. What was going to happen next ? Of one thing he felt certain—no further attempt would be made with armoured cars; not only had the previous attempts failed, but the two wrecked cars formed an additional and effective road block.
The smoke from the burning houses rendered it almost impossible to see what was going on in front. Smith began to feel uneasy about remaining in comparative safety while his men were being subjected to that awful strafing below. He therefore left the tower and rejoined the reserve section in the inn. Here he felt equally out of it, so he took the section u-ith him as near the Koln-Homburg road as he could, without running unnecessary risks.
Hardly had he left the inn when the shelling suddenly ceased, as did most of the machine-gun fire. Alarming as the shelling had been, this sudden cessation was even more so. There was evidently some dirty work afoot, and Smith felt that he must be there. It soon became evident that all his men were not dead, as he could plainly hear the sound of rifle fire. He dashed forward to the corner of the Fiddleton road in order to have a look at the bridge and see for himself what was going on, the reserve section following hard at his heels. There he saw a dozen or more infantry rushing across the bridge. How they had got there he did not know, nor did he stop to ask. They were already being engaged with deadly effect by the post to the south of the Fiddleton road, who were evidently alive and kicking. However, some did manage to get over and make their way into the undergrowth, from where they returned the fire from the post. Smith made up his mind in a flash. It was clear that he and the reserve section had not been seen; it would be dangerous to charge them with the bayonet, as they themselves would probably be caught by the fire from the post. He therefore ordered the section to crawl forward until it could see the enemy and then shoot him in the flank.
Meanwhile, the enemy had brought a couple of automatics into action close up on the other side of the river; they appeared to be firing from the embankment somewhere near the road block. Smith had expended his reserve, what was to be done? Why, form another one, of course--the section guarding the Homburg block was not closely engaged, and he might collect its Lewis gun and leave a couple of riflemen to look after the block. He was looking for a safe route to take when he heard a new noise. Looking through the hedge down the road he saw a pair of large tanks bearing down on the bridge. They soon solved the problem of the obstruction caused by the two damaged armoured cars, by going quietly, but firmly, at them and pushing them over the embankment.
"I suppose this is the end," thought Smith; "the anti-tank gun has evidently gone west and there is nothing left to deal with these damned things."
However, he was going to die fighting, so he dashed off to collect that Lewis gun. He had no difficulty in finding it, so brought it back and found- a good place for it amongst the ruins of one of the houses, which fortunately was not on fire, and from where the bridge could be seen. He had half expected to meet one of the tanks on his way back, and was surprised to see them both halted, still on the far side of the block; something appeared to have gone wrong with the leading one. The firing had died down by now: evidently the enemy infantry who had got across had been killed or captured.
It was now 17.00 hrs. and he could not expect any reinforcements for another hour. What he wanted was something now, with which to knock hell into those two tanks.
Suddenly some shots rang out, evidently fired by his own men. This was the signal for a renewed outburst of fire all round, in which the tanks joined with the small guns as well as with their machine guns.
The artillery evidently thought it was time they took another hand in the affair, for it once more began to rain shells.
This time, however, they appeared to be avoiding the bridge and its immediate vicinity. Smith soon discovered that he had selected a peculiarly warm spot, but it was hopeless to think of changing now. The game was up, but he had put up a good show and, after all, the odds were pretty heavy against him.
Hearing a loud humming noise, he looked up and saw a flight of aeroplanes passing over them. "Oh Lord! another form of horror!"
"Those are British, sir," shouted the Lewis gun corporal beside him: "and look, sir, here come some more of them, and more still. Lumme, sir, the blinking place is stiff with 'em."
" You are right, corporal," said Smith, who knew something about aeroplanes, " that is a squadron of single-seater fighters, and by Gad ! they are going after those b-------- guns, and I hope they give them hell."
The effect of the squadron soon became apparent, as the shelling quickly slackened and then ceased altogether.
More droning overhead announced the arrival of a further contingent of aeroplanes. "Day bombers, or I am a Dutchman! " exclaimed Smith. "I am off to the church tower to see the fun."
He arrived at the church tower in time to see the effect of the first lot of bombs, which fell just on the far side of the bridge. Although no direct hit was scored, they fell all round the two tanks. The latter seemed to have quickly abandoned all idea of offensive action; one turned and made off as fast as it could along the road, the other was evidently disabled in some way. Some dozen light tanks could be seen moving back across country pursued by the bombs of one flight of the bombing squadron, the rest of the squadron joining a second one which had arrived and making off for the main body of the enemy, which could not be seen from the church. All was now peace in Bowler. Smith set out to collect reports and discover at what cost the bridge had been held.
During the second bombardment a high explosive shell had landed within a few yards of the anti-tank gun. Not only had it killed two of the crew and wounded or stunned the rest, including the gallant Corporal Wads, but it had also half buried the gun itself. The rifle post nearest the gun had also been hit by another shell, and the section commander With his little section reserve had likewise suffered. The post to the south of the road had been more fortunate and had come through the ordeal unharmed.
A total of three killed and six wounded could not be considered heavy casualties.
"The men grumbled a bit at being made to dig themselves in," remarked Sergeant Bass, "but they are very thankful now, and they won't require much encouragement to dig next time."
The platoon had taken a much more severe toll of the enemy. The bag included two armoured cars and one medium tank, besides ten killed and fourteen captured, but above all the bridge had been held.
The mystery of why the leading tank had failed to come on was soon explained. In clearing the two damaged cars off the road, they had been pushed over the line of mines laid in front of the block. The leading tank had then endeavoured to break down the road block, but its track had been broken by some mines which had been laid in the block itself.
It was also discovered that the men who had been rushed across the bridge were not infantry but some gunners who had been supplied by one of the batteries.
Having reorganised the defence and made all arrangements he could to prepare for another effort on the part of the enemy, Smith repaired to the inn, where he had a well-earned cup of tea. Scarcely had he finished when a car drove up to the door; out of it stepped the Brigadier and his Commanding Officer.
"This is Smith, sir," said the Colonel.
"Well done, my boy," said the Brigadier. "You have put up a magnificent show. I am sure your Colonel is proud of you."
"We are all proud of him," replied the Colonel, seizing him by the hand and, at the same time, patting him on the shoulder....
"It's time to get up, sir. No, I ain't the Colonel; it's Pinchin, sir, and if you don't get up quick, you'll be late for parade."
"Lord!" mumbled Smith, as he dragged himself out of bed, "what a night!"
The officer commanding "A" Co. had nearly finished breakfast when Lieutenant Smith entered the Company Mess.
"Good morning, sir," said Smith.
"Morning," grunted the Company Commander. ‘I've got a job of work for you."
"What, sir!" cried Smith, " don't say it is to hold some bridge against an armoured force."
"What on earth are you drivelling about? You've got to take your platoon down to the docks and start - unloading some ordnance stores."
"Yes, sir," replied Smith; and then to himself, " So this really is war."
[Original] Printed in Great Britain by
WILLIAM CLOWES AND SONS, LIMITED,
LONDON AND BECCLES.