An Idyll Too Far

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Chapter Nine - The Action Begins

Since it was only just after noon, the sun was not far past its zenith and so there was no shade to protect them. Even in the higher atmosphere, therefore, the two were sweating freely as they looked down on the battlefield. This was now to be seen shimmering in the distance as the hot clean air rose above it, although the scene was about fifteen miles away, too far to be observed in any detail through naked eyes.

Bim raised his powerful binoculars and scanned the horizon until the enemy beachhead came into view. Now, for the first time, he was able to see that the area they were occupying was raised slightly above the surrounding sandy desert, which was probably why they had chosen that particular spot to invade and thus be able to dig trenches for themselves in good soil.

Although there were figures moving about within the double row of trenches at the perimeter, most of the invading force seemed to be entrenched in the outer row; that probably accounted for the report that they had expanded their beachhead. Nearer to the sea, a ring of prefabricated huts had been erected, each one protected by means of a wall of sandbags. This ring enclosed a vehicle park, occupied by five armoured cars, about twenty five-ton open lorries and, surprisingly, a JCB digger. Behind the trenches was a series of what looked to him like gun emplacements.

'It seems as though they've brought everything with them bar the kitchen sink!' Bim commented. 'They've even landed an excavator.'

'Not a bad idea, when you come to think about it,' Bob replied. 'If we assume they invaded at night, it would allow them to have a ring of slit trenches ready dug by the time they were spotted, which wouldn't be till daylight.'

Bim handed the field glasses back to Bob, who had been trying to see something of the battlefield by shading his eyes with one hand. After studying the situation for almost a minute through the lenses, he remarked that they had selected their territory well, because the Ambounese army were evidently unable to dig themselves trenches in the loose desert sand outside the beachhead, and were ensconced behind a series of short walls of sand-bags.

'I reckon they're using the wrong tactics, our people,' he said. 'They're at a real disadvantage where they're now placed. What they ought to have done is to dig themselves in on the outskirts of town, and let the enemy choose whether to stay stewing in their beachhead, or come at them over the desert. The Sultan's mob could catch 'em a treat then, 'cos they'd be out in the open with their pants down. Now the shoe's on the other foot.'

'Must have been a hazardous job for the locals, building those sandbag emplacements while exposed to enemy fire,' Bim remarked.

'They probably had to start off after dark so's by daylight there were some troops in place to keep enemy heads down,' the constable replied.

'I saw the invading force has some gun emplacements as well.'

'They're not guns, they're three-inch mortars. When they decide to break out, they'll play havoc with the blokes behind those sandbags, 'cos they'll have no protection from the rear. I see we have half-a-dozen old British twenty-five-pounders — they're four-point-five inch gun-hows — on our side, but they won't be much use against well spread out infantry. They've placed them about five miles to the west, well out of range of their mortars and small-arms fire; but from what I can see of it, they don't appear to have enough ammo to hold the enemy back for long, and there wouldn't be enough of them, anyway, if there were to be a serious attempt at a break-out. Shortage of ammo is probably why they haven't used the guns to shell the huts and vehicle park, 'cos they'd be ideal for that. Our people have got their administration behind the guns, I see, about thirty bell tents with one sporting a radio aerial, and a small marquee with the commander's pennant flying from it. Looks like the picture on a bottle of camp coffee through these, except the captain's missing. They're doing their cooking outside in the open, I see. It's a good job the enemy hasn't got any aircraft.'

There seemed to be no firing going on at that moment, so perhaps even war stood still for the siesta. In view of the lull, they decided to investigate the contents of their haversack and discovered it contained two large bottles of warm lager, half a dozen big sandwiches containing scrambled egg and tomato sauce and two packets of biscuits.

'Typical army grub except for the lager, and I never did think much of that, even when it's cold. What I really fancy now is a nice cool pint of Tetley bitter,' Bob moaned.

'You aren't in the Ritz now. I bet that goat herd round the corner would be glad to have your share!'

'Not him — he's sure to be a superstitious and strict Muslim, so no alcohol!'

Changing the subject, his boss told him, 'And I suggest you don't empty that bottle of yours now. We'll be pretty thirsty getting back down the mountain in the heat of the day.' With a deprecating grin, Bob joined his fellow Englishman in demolishing what had been packed for them.

They had hardly finished clearing up the sandwiches, with Bob eating a full share in spite of his complaining, when they both heard the sound of distant explosions.

'That's not rifle-fire, we'd never be able to hear it at this distance,' he said. Bim, who had been the first to grab the binoculars, passed them to his colleague after a few seconds, with, 'You're right, there's puffs of smoke coming out of those mortar emplacements.'

After half a minute, the reply came. 'It don't look right to me. If they're about to try a break-out, why do it in the heat of the day? And they're concentrating their fire on the defence this southwestern side of the perimeter nearest to us, not as you would expect, to try and spread out their bridgehead along the cool sea front towards the city.

'Oh my god! A mortar bomb has just exploded behind the section nearest us.... five, six, seven, eight — I can see eight bodies, that's the lot wiped out. And now the other sections alongside them have stopped firing and the bods are all lying down trying to scrap themselves holes in the sand — I know the feeling! There's nothing to stop them from being overrun now, if the enemy use their loaves and attack.' Bim held out his hand for the binoculars, but the other ignored it and continued his commentary.

'They're keeping up the mortar bombardment, but half a dozen of their lorries are loaded with troops — must have been doing that while we were eating — and they're beginning to leave the ring of huts. Now there's a lull in the firing, and the trucks are heading this way, led by an armoured car. The mortars have altered their targets and have started laying down a barrage behind our other sections. Their convoy is pouring through the gap in our defences now, and believe it or not, they're still heading this way!'

As he spoke, he automatically felt for his revolver with his free hand. Then, with a wry grin, he said, as he at last handed back the glass, 'Not that this pop-gun would be any use against the sort of arms they're bearing. But if our Alf knows what he's talking about, they may not be able to make it over the desert at this time of day, because of the heat.'

By this time the convoy was all completely clear of the perimeter, and moving quite quickly in the direction of the mountain.

'What the hell are they up to?' the constable almost yelled, watching with bare eyes as the distant 'caterpillar' moved directly toward them over the desert. 'They must be off their little rockers — surely they don't propose making this mountain their primary target to use it as a base for attacking the city? We'd be cut off from our digs if they did, of course. But the logistics involved in keeping themselves supplied over the desert would be horrendous, and anyway there'd be no point in it — they would be much better off working from their existing beachhead.'

His boss replied that perhaps their object was to cut off the water supply to Ambounadi, which would rapidly bring the city to its knees. That was partly why Singapore fell, because their entire water supply had to be piped in from the mainland. Bim raised the binoculars to his eyes, and as he brought the convoy into focus, he saw, and seconds later, heard, the twenty-five pounders go into action. The first salvo of six shells landed many yards past the trucks; the second fell far too short. As they came under fire, the vehicles spaced themselves out to make poorer targets.

'You can't get worse territory than that for effective use of those heavy shells, because they bury themselves in the sand before exploding, and that absorbs most of their effect,' Bob said. 'So they'd need a direct hit to do any good, and there's less than a chance in a hundred of them achieving that.'

The third salvo claimed no victims either, and the guns tried no more.

Just then there was a very different sound, as they heard a deep roar coming from the direction of the aerodrome. As they watched without the aid of their glass, they saw two dark specks rise rapidly from the runway.

'There go two of our Harriers — the other one can't have been got ready to bomb up yet,' said Bob. 'But I reckon that if those pilots know their onions, they'll be more than sufficient to put paid to the enemy's little excursion. Prepare for action!'

After briefly circling the airfield, the two aircraft climbed rapidly, but instead of flying eastward to the invading force, they soon disappeared from sight to the south. The two men returned their eyes to the convoy, but the drivers appeared to have heard nothing, probably because of the noise from their engines. They had by now advanced a quarter of a mile or more from the beachhead.

'Why do you think our planes have cleared off like that, just when they're most needed?' Bim asked plaintively.

'If you wait patiently for a minute, you'll soon find out, and those buggers down there aren't going to know what's hit 'em. Our planes will be diving at supersonic speed, directly out of this blazing sun, so the blokes in that convoy will neither see nor hear them coming. I just can't wait for the fireworks!'

His boss grunted, before replying, 'If anyone had told me as recently as the beginning of this week that two ordinary British coppers would be sent a quarter of the way round the world to climb a mountain and hope to watch a group of Muslim Brotherhood men being destroyed by aircraft belonging to our people — let alone the fact that I'd be one of those coppers... The trouble as far as I'm concerned is that those blokes are all human beings who must believe in the cause they're fighting for, whether they're in the right or wrong, and I don't want to feel partly responsible for shedding their blood — yet I'm as excited as you are at the prospect of watching your "fireworks", that's my problem.'

'You've got to remember in a case like this, it's either them or us,' Bob replied.

The pair did not have long to wait; before long they saw the two Harriers pass directly overhead, line ahead and half a mile or so apart; and a second later they heard the aircrafts' sound as, already diving, they headed for the convoy. Now out of effective range of the gun-howitzers, the enemy vehicles had closed up their formation once more, believing themselves to be secure from enemy fire. From their vantage point a couple of thousand feet up, the policemen were able to follow the path of the aircraft all the way and the two held their breath as the planes and unsuspecting convoy quickly moved closer to each other.

Only seconds had actually elapsed between the time the aircraft passed over the mountain to when the first plane released a rocket at the armoured car heading the column; following that it opened up on the other vehicles with machine guns and cannons before they could scatter. A split second later, with the leading car in flames, the second Harrier similarly released a rocket and opened fire with all its guns. They both then carried on toward the beachhead, and each plane unloaded a single bomb in a low-level attack on the ring of hutments, leaving behind them half the huts and several of the parked vehicles on fire.

As for the convoy, the armoured car had taken a direct hit from the second rocket and its bits and pieces were scattered over the sand, leaving no sign of the crew. All six of the trucks were out of action, with half of them in flames. Through the field glasses, Bim saw more than a score of bodies lying in the sand as well as many prone figures still in their vehicles, while a hundred or more of the men were trying to run the half mile or so back to the beachhead, now empty handed, having dropped their rifles and light machine-guns.

As Bim watched through the binoculars, he saw the Ambounese troops, who had until now been lying inert behind their walls of sandbags, pick up their Bren guns again and, still lying in the sand, begin to take pot shots at the approaching enemy, all of whom put up their hands when the firing began. Seeing the terrified men begin to fall, either from the flying bullets or the heat, Bim could no longer bear to watch, and handed the glasses back to his colleague.

'They're shooting those unarmed men down in cold blood, now. 'Surely they're not permitted to do that under the Geneva Convention?'

Bob did not reply for a moment, as he took in what was happening. 'Bloody awful shots!' he muttered as the volleys of fire only found a target here and there, but he continued to watch until the vast majority of the enemy eventually reached the sanctuary of their beachhead, before attempting to answer the sensitive question. 'Whatever the Geneva Convention says, you couldn't expect them to stop firing, since there's no facility for harbouring prisoners out there. Once they get back within their perimeter, they're active enemies again,' Bob declared. 'And anyway, although they had raised their hands, they were still making for their own lines.'

'Come on, I reckon I've seen enough to be going on with, let's get back,' Bim replied. They gathered their bits and pieces together, and began to retrace their steps downwards.

Twenty minutes or so later, with Bob leading the way, he suddenly dropped flat on his belly. Bim immediately followed suit, not knowing the reason why.

'What's up?' he wanted to know. The only reply, for the moment, was 'Pass the glasses!' After peering out in front for a few moments, he passed it back to his boss and told him to take a look straight ahead, without showing himself. The inspector brought the distant scene into focus and made out the figure of the goatherd. He appeared to be squatting down on the ground talking, although there was no-one else in sight; but as there was an aerial and what looked like a radio beside him, the conclusion was obvious. What was more significant for their immediate future, there was a gun of some kind lying across the fellow's knees.

'Did you notice he's got a shotgun with him?' the inspector asked.

'That ain't no shotgun, it's an old bolt-action rifle,' he was told.

'It might be old, but no less effective.' He asked for the field glasses again, and for a full minute studied the terrain ahead of them. Turning to Bim at length, he told him, 'There's no other answer — you don't need a radio transmitter and rifle to look after goats up here. He must be one of theirs, or been bought, and now he's taking radioed instructions about what to do with us when we return. As there's no other way back, he knows we have to pass him. Like our first Indian driver implied, there's not a lot these Arabs won't do if they're offered enough cash. Now there's a long crawl ahead for you and me. I've just discovered enough dead ground for us to approach the bugger from behind his hutments and surprise him within our pistols' range. If we're discovered before we're within thirty yards or so, we're dead ducks. So follow me, and do exactly as I do.'

His boss did not attempt to exert his own authority, acknowledging the other's expertise in matters like this. It took them half an hour of crawling on their bellies, mostly on hands and knees but sometimes running at the stoop, to arrive behind the hut that was closest to the man. By the time they got there, they were both dripping with perspiration in the noonday heat.

The constable put an eye round the corner and gauged the distance, noting at the same time that the Arab had finished with his radio and was holding his rifle at the ready, watching out in the direction from which he expected them to arrive. They were now just about within pistol range of him. Withdrawing from his viewpoint, he told Bim to go to the far corner of the hut, and if the blighter didn't drop his weapon when warned, to open up with his pistol. He would fire at the same time and, if neither of them didn't get in a disabling shot first round, fire again. If one of them hadn't winged him by then, it would serve them both right.

Seconds later, the inspector heard a bloodcurdling yell in a strange tongue. As he stepped out into view with pistol in hand, he saw the terrified herdsman drop his gun, and with hands held high call out something in Arabic. Bob replied in the same tongue and, closing up to him, picked up the rifle. The man threw himself down at his feet. Although he did not understand a word, Bim knew that the man was pleading for his life as he grovelled in the dust with tears in his eyes. Just then, the woman came running out from their humble dwelling. She threw herself down at Bim's feet and joined in the tearful chorus, much to his embarrassment.

After listening to the man's pleading for half a minute, Bob told his boss that the man was claiming that he had been forced into working for the enemy as they had threatened to rape his wife and kill all his livestock if he refused. 'That may or may not be true,' he added, 'But I reckon that if we destroy his radio equipment and take his gun away, he'll not be able to do us any more harm, what do you think?' Bim agreed, but told him to search all the property to make quite sure there was nothing else there likely to be used against them, while he stayed out there and kept an eye on the man.

After half an hour's hunting through the apparently poor couple's meagre belongings, with the woman watching him closely, the only prize he confiscated was a box of ammunition for the rifle. Then he was surprised to find a rolled up rug that contained what at a quick glance appeared to be several thousand Ambas. The woman gave a little miserable cry. He shrugged his shoulders and left them where he had found them. When he had finished his search, he returned to his boss outside to give him the all-clear, with the woman following him back.

After stamping on the radio and smashing it to smithereens, the two turned back on their path down the mountainside, with one carrying the rifle and the other the box of ammo. As they left, the woman disappeared into one of the huts, and seconds later reappeared. With a surprising agility in her long clothes, she ran to catch them up with what looked like a bomb in her hands. Instead, they were presented with a small round stinking cheese, which she handed to them, with tears running down her cheeks into the black cloth covering the lower part of her face.

'It seems the poor soul isn't used to being treated like a human being — what sort of life must a young woman like her live up here, with no one to turn to except one old man when she's in trouble, and nothing to occupy her mind with all day except making cheese,' Bob reflected.

'She looks half her husband's age, she must be thankful she's got no kids,' Bim observed. 'And being Muslims, I suppose she has to obey her lord and master's every whim. Whatever we may think of women's lib at home,' he continued, unable to forget the couple, 'I reckon they could do with more than a touch of it here — have you noticed there are virtually no Arab women on the streets in Ambounadi? What women you do see are nearly all Chinese or Indian, so the Arab men probably do the shopping. My mother told me that even when the Muslim women are emancipated regarding their clothing, as they mostly seem to be here, their menfolk often won't let them go out on the streets. And after you went back to muck up that Arab's radio the night before last, the Consul told me that in spite of the Sultan's Cambridge education, he keeps four wives, although he doesn't broadcast the fact to visitors from Europe.'

'And what are we going to do with this stinking stuff she's given us?' Bim wanted to know. The constable told his boss, 'I'll eat my share if it kills me!' In fact, in spite of the smell, when they eventually came to sample the goats' cheese they were surprised to discover it to be quite palatable.

An Idyll Too Far Archive

Len (Snowie) Baynes

07.09.06 Front Page

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