The Raid. A short story.
I wrote this short story for my nephew (who was twelve at the time). I'm actually quite proud of it. It is historically accurate and is about an under age boy joining the AIF during World War Two (as many did) and going off to fight in North Africa. I think this would make a pretty good short or even feature length film. But where would I get the props, locations and hundreds of actors from?
Ryan stood uneasily in a long line with many other young men. But what no one realised was that Ryan was by far the youngest person in that queue. Each man was at least eighteen years old and each man was eagerly waiting to join up with the Australian Imperial Forces. The time was 1940 and Ryan had sneaked away from the little country town where he lived – determined to join the AIF and fight against Hitler and the Nazis. Gradually the line grew shorter and eventually it was Ryan's turn to face the elderly Staff Sergeant ensconced behind a desk in the reception area of the recruiting building. He was tapping away at an ancient type writer as he asked each potential enlistee a preliminary round of questions. Without looking up the Staff Sergeant asked Ryan a series of questions. “Name? Home address? Any childhood illnesses?” and eventually “age?” “Eighteen” replied Ryan firmly. The staff sergeant looked up and squinted suspiciously. “Really.” He said sceptically. “Do you have any proof of that?” Ryan pulled out a grubby and dog eared drivers licence. Drivers licences in 1940 were printed on card board and did not have a photo. The Staff Sergeant examined it carefully. “Do you have a birth certificate as well?” he asked. “No” replied Ryan, “I was born on the farm with out a doctor and I never got one.” Ryan knew that not having a birth certificate was quite common in remote farming areas and he hoped the fake drivers licence he had paid five pounds for would do the trick. The Staff Sergeant was sceptical. Although the drivers licence looked real, he knew it would not be hard to fake. But many years ago (in 1914 to be exact) the Staff Sergeant had also lied about his age and enlisted in the first AIF . He had been only fifteen years old. He had fought at Gallipoli and in Palestine and had the medals to prove it. “Alright son,” he said with a little smile, “lets see if you pass the physical.” Ryan's heart rose and he could not help but grin. He had passed the first hurdle.
After that he was taken through a series of examinations. No one seemed to question his age. Everyone seemed to assume that he must just look young but must have shown someone some proof of his age. His hearing, eyesight and reflexes were tested. Some of the tests seemed bizarre to Ryan. All the recruits had to strip for the doctors examination and a whole mob of naked men had been led into a large room full of doctors. Each doctor examined a recruit. One by one, they were probed and prodded in some very strange places. What did the doctor learn by grabbing one of his testicles and asking him to cough? At one point the doctor examining Ryan made him sit on a bench with his legs dangling and had tapped his knee with a little rubber mallet. Nothing happened. The doctor frowned and did it again – again, nothing happened. The doctor tried the other knee and then went back to the first knee but no matter what he did he could not get Ryan's leg to jerk the way it was supposed to. “Are those real legs, or are you trying to pull a swifty.” Said the doctor severely. Ryan protested that his legs were indeed real and perfectly functional. But the doctor made the stark naked Ryan do star jumps for five minutes (watched all the while by hundreds of laughing enlistees awaiting their turn). At last the doctor grudgingly admitted that Ryan was in fact capable of standing on his own two legs and might even be able to walk around unaided. Finally Ryan was given a manila folder with some carbon copies of his medical records and other tests. On the first page of each page - “Passed” had been rubber stamped. Ryan swore his service oath that day with hundreds of other brand new army recruits. He swore “true and faithful allegiance” to King George and the Commonwealth of Australia. Ryan was going to fight in World War Two.
A few days later Ryan was taken by train and then truck to the Army Training Area at Puckapunyl. There he was to be trained to become an infantry soldier. Ryan dropped down off the canvas covered back back of a dilapidated army truck and stood blinking in the light as he looked around. He was standing on a dirt road in the middle of an empty paddock. There was a long line of trucks and beside each truck there stood clumps of bemused young men. “Blimey!” said one. “Where is the army base?” Corporals and sergeants began to sort the recruits out. Each one was arbitrarily sorted into 'sections.' “Listen up you lot of horrible, horrible individuals” bellowed a stern faced and immaculately turned out soldier. He had the loudest voice and the sternest demeanour of any person Ryan had ever met. “My name is Regimental Sergeant Major Forrest! I am here to make your life utterly miserable. It is my sad job to turn you lot of useless sheep into the finest soldiers in the British Empire. The Australian Imperial Forces were the best soldiers in the world in the Great War and we will be again in this war!” Under the (very loud) guidance of RSM Forrest, each section was formed into platoons of three sections each. The platoons marched down the dirt road. As every man was still in civilian clothing and carting small suitcases or bags and other bits and pieces they did not make a very military sight. They also had no idea how to march properly –“A shambles, an utter shambles.” Bellowed RSM Forrest.
Eventually they reached a cluster of small buildings surrounded by large army tents laid out in an orderly manner. There they were immediately formed into long lines. Ryan put hand over his brow and shaded his face with his hand and even squinted but he couldn't see what was happening at the front of the line – it was too far away. “It's the Q Store.” said one of the corporals. “You are going to be issued with your kit. Which means you will be issued with trousers that are too big and a shirts that are too small and a battle dress blouse with sleeves that reach past your knees!” As Ryan slowly got closer to the Q Store he began to talk to his fellow recruits. They were a mixed bunch. There was Danny who was from a farm three days from the nearest town, There was Snowy who was from Sydney. He had very pale blond hair. That is how he got his nickname, “because I've got snow on top,” he said. There was even Karl who had a foreign accent. “Where are you from Karl?” asked Ryan. “Australia!” replied Karl proudly. “But I was born in Austria.” he admitted. “Crikey,” said Snowy. “That's part of Germany now – isn't it?” The other men looked at Karl doubtfully, as if suspecting he was a German spy. “Yes,” said Karl. “My family are Jewish. We have family in Germany and we already knew what to expect when the Germans marched into Austria and took it over in 1938 – before the war started. My father had three bakeries in Vienna and he left them all that same day and fled with my whole family to Australia.” Snowy frowned and said “but still...” Karl interrupted him. “Those members of my family that stayed behind or were in Germany have mostly been arrested and placed in concentration camps. The Nazis are evil and I will fight them to the last breath in my body!” The men were silent for a while. Danny said, thoughtfully, “did your father fight in the First World War?” Karl nodded. “Stone the crows!” said Snowy, “that means your dad fought my dad in the last war!” Karl said simply, “my father fought for his country.” Everybody thought about it. “Fair enough,” said Ryan. After that no one doubted Karl.
At last Ryan made it to the head of the line. There were three long tables with Quartermasters standing behind them. Ryan handed over his Qstore record and one by one, each item he was supposed to be issued with was given to him and ticked off the list. Dress uniform, battledress uniform, webbing, boots, ammo pouches, blanket, water bottle and a hundred other pieces of kit was handed over to him. Ryan had so much stuff in his arms he couldn't see over the top. And the new slouch hat perched precariously on his head didn't help at all. Staggering under his load, Ryan and his new mates made their way to the canvas tent that was to be their new home during their Recruit Course. Just as Ryan made it to the tent and dumped his stuff on the rickety canvas cot that would be his bed, it began to rain. “Just in time.” he said. “You reckon?” replied Snowy, who was sitting on his cot. Ryan began to laugh. There was a hole in the tent exactly above Snowy's head. Drip, drip, drip. Snowy sighed. “If I'd wanted to fight under water - I would have joined the flipping navy!”
The next day, long before dawn, the recruits were woken up by the yelling of the corporals and the very, very loud yelling of the RSM. “Wakey, wakey, rise and shine.” The sleepy young soldiers tumbled out of their nice warm cots and began to hurriedly pull on their new uniforms. But they had no experience putting on their new uniforms and didn't know what bits went where. The result was chaos and a lot of swearing. The corporals helped out the recruits and they eventually got dressed but then RSM Forrest began walking up and down the tent pointing out the very many faults in dress and deportment displayed by the hapless recruits. “You men are a disgrace! I have never seen a worse bunch of no hopers in my entire military career!” he said at the top of his voice. He stopped in front of Ryan. “Stand at attention when I am addressing you Private!” Ryan didn't know how to come to attention in the proper military manner but he did his best and even threw a haphazard salute. Instantly the entire tent went quite. All the corporals froze – some of them with an ominous look of horror on their faces. Ryan was reminded of the time he had proudly walked out to his birthday party some years ago. He had on his very first pair of long trousers. Everyone had frozen as soon as he had walked through the door. Because his fly was unbuttoned! Regimental Sergeant Major Forrest's eyes narrowed, his mouth pursed. “Son,” he said. mildly. “I work for a living – I am not a commissioned officer. So you do not salute me. Do you see the Royal Coat of Arms on my sleeve,” he said, his voice rising ominously and pointing the the coat of arms sewn onto his lower sleeve. “This is to show that I have a Royal Warrant – that I am a Warrant Officer. So you call me 'sir' unlike the other non commissioned officers....” Here he stopped, took a very deep breath and bellowed at the top of his voice, “but you bloody well do not salute me especially not with the kind of salute that would show discredit to a Portuguese bumboatman after a three day booze up!” Ryan was then given an exact, step by step lesson in how to salute correctly in the Australian Army. “Longest way up, palm out, shortest way down” was a phrase he was never to forget for the rest of his life. And all his mates were to agree that Ryan thereafter gave the snappiest and best salutes the army ever saw.
Ryan was part of a ten man section. There were three sections to a platoon and three platoons to a company and four companies to a battalion. But it was the platoon that was most important to Ryan. He came to know every person in his platoon. They trained together and learned how to operate as a team. Ryan knew that everyone in his platoon was his mate. He could trust and depend on his cobbers and they could trust and depend on him – to the death. Every day was taken up with lessons. Sometimes they did 'square bashing.' Which meant they were taught army drill, how to march in formation, stand to attention, present arms and more. Sometimes they were taught how to navigate at night or taught radio procedures. Sometimes they learned about different types of enemy aircraft or first aid or any one of the hundreds of things an infantry soldier needs to know about. But the recruits favourite lessons were about weapons.
“This is the Bren,” said RSM Forrest. The recruits were at the firing range and the RSM was holding up a large, modern looking light machine gun. It had a large curved magazine on the top and it didn't look like something you would want to have pointing at you. “It is the best light machine gun in the world. Dependable, accurate and deadly.” Ryan could barely restrain himself from jumping up and grabbing it out of the RSM's hands. The RSM went over the safety procedures, how to load and fire the Bren and then how to strip it and put it back together again. Ryan was lucky and got picked first to fire off some rounds. He was handed the unloaded Bren Gun. As he had been taught, he immediately checked the safety catch was on and then opened up the breech to see if there was a round chambered. He then went and laid down at the firing point on the rifle range. He set up the Bren on it's bipod and put the weapon to his shoulder. One of the corporals was there with some ammunition. “Go to load,” he was ordered. Ryan double checked the safety catch and then attached the magazine to the weapon. “Go to action,” Ryan then pulled back and released the bolt – chambering a round and cocking the weapon. “instant,” was the next order. Ryan braced the weapon to his shoulder and took careful aim. As he did so he thumbed off the safety catch. “FIRE!” Gently squeezing the trigger he let off a 10 round burst. It was much louder than he had expected and it kicked like a mule. But Ryan grinned to himself as he carefully fired off five to ten round bursts at the target until his magazine was empty.
Ryan learned how to use sub machine guns, pistols, rifles and even how to use a mortar. He was taught how to use a bayonet, lay a mine, direct artillery fire and dig a foxhole. But most of all he was taught how to act in concert with his mates. The platoon and the sections in it became a well oiled machine. Ryan learnt how to attack prepared positions, lay an ambush, how to retreat in good order, how to patrol and how to work with his fellow soldiers in any conditions, on any terrain and in any weather. Ryan's platoon went through many long, weary months of intensive training. By the end of it Ryan was an Australian infantryman. A small part of the finest soldiers in the world – the Australian Imperial Forces. Ryan's unit was embarked on to a merchant ship at Port Melbourne and they joined up with a convoy heading towards North Africa. The journey half way across the globe was long but uneventful. Ryan eventually disembarked at the port of Alexandria in Egypt. They were taken to camps out in the desert and began to train for desert warfare.
The days were very hot but the nights were very cold. News reached them that German forces had arrived to supplement the Italians and that they had launched an offensive. The Italians were not very good soldiers. They were badly equipped and weren't interested in helping Mussolini, the Italian dictator, and they were even less interested in helping the German war effort. So the Italians had proven easy to beat in the past. But the Germans were well equipped, well led and very good soldiers. At the same time many Australian, New Zealand and British soldiers had been lost a few months before in the ill fated attempt to help Greece to fight the invading Germans. So the allies were badly weakened even before the German offensive to conquer Egypt had begun.
As Ryan's unit completed their desert training, the German general Erwin Rommel advanced swiftly across North Africa and was in a position to threaten Egypt and the vital Suez Canal. If the Germans managed to conquer Egypt and take the canal they would split the British Empire in two and then the only force in the world still standing up against the Nazi tyranny might well be forced to surrender. Hitler would be the uncontested ruler of Europe and, eventually, the world. But Tobruk was the thorn in Rommel's side. It was the only decent seaport along that section of the North African coast and without it Rommel would not be able to get the supplies he desperately needed to conquer Egypt. The ultimate victory against the Nazi war machine rested on the Australian 9th Division's defence of the encircled Tobruk and it's ability to hold out against the sustained attacks of Rommel's Afrika Corp and his Italian allies. In April 1941 Ryan became a part of the Siege of Tobruk.
Ryan's infantry battalion was to be attached to the Australian 9th Division and to join in its valiant defence of the vital seaport. But first, he had to get there. Ryan's platoon and the other platoons of the battalion were loaded onto a small, decrepit and rusty coastal ship. They slipped their moorings at Alexandria and headed into the Mediterranean sea. As they did so a German air raid began. Air raid warning bells went off and Ryan took up a hasty action station near the bows of the labouring ship. “Look! Over there!” yelled Danny, pointing. Karl squinted and said, “They are Dornier bombers.” Ryan looked around and spotted three Dornier light bombers heading straight for them. A racing destroyer began firing, it's bows throwing a huge slice through the water as it powered to intercept the bombers. The sleek destroyer was their only escort. The bombers dodged and weaved as the destroyer opened up with it's main armament as well as 40MM Bofors guns and 20MM Oerlikons. Tracer fire reached for the bombers and black puffs of smoke from exploding shells appeared all around them. But undeterred, the Germans bored in towards the merchant ship. Ryan and his mates began firing their 303 Lee Enfield rifles at the bombers. Here and there Bren guns and Lewis guns opened up from the side of the ship as well.
One German bomber caught fire as it was stitched with 20MM shells from the destroyer. Ryan saw it's crew bailing out, their parachutes slowly drifting to the surface of the sea. But the other two pressed home their attack. “Hey look fellers,” said Ryan, “their bomb bay doors are opening.” The first bomber screamed overhead. Bombs dropping from it's bomb bay doors. But the Australians were lucky. All the bombs missed, although the last one was so close to the ship that Ryan and his mates were doused with sea water. The last bomber came towards them at mast head height. It didn't seem possible that they would not get hit. Every man on the ship opened up. “Look!” yelled Karl. In the last moment a big belch of smoke appeared from one of the Dornier's two engines. At the very moment it began to drop it's bomb load the engine gave out and the bomber slewed, ever so slightly, to the left. “Huzzah!” yelled Snowy. The bombs missed and traced out a line of explosions behind the ship. All the diggers began cheering and shouting derisive comments as the limping bomber began to head back to it's base. “Better luck next time Adolf!” yelled a digger. The destroyer sent out a boat to pick up the downed German aircrew and the two ships continued their journey to Tobruk.
That night they docked at the port of Tobruk. Or rather ship anchored next to a stone quay and the soldiers climbed down the sides of the ship on netting. All the port facilities had been destroyed by Nazi air raids. The diggers lined up and began marching through the port area to the desert. As they marched through the night they could hear the crump of artillery fire and sometimes see the horizon light up from exploding artillery shells. Eventually, just as the first glimmering of the approaching dawn could be seen, they reached the front line. They made their way through bunkers, barbed wire and minefields. Each platoon in turn was peeled off to the part of the front line that was to be their responsibility. Finally it was Ryan's turn. His platoon was silently led to a featureless patch of desert. Ryan's section leader, Corporal Walsh, quietly told Ryan's section to start digging in as quickly as possible. Ryan took off his pack, put down the two tin boxes of ammunition he had been carrying all night, unslung his rifle, took off his webbing and got to work. Snowy, who would be sharing Ryan's gun pit and all the other men did the same. As they all began extracting their entrenching tools from their webbing, Snowy said, “First I'm a blooming pack mule, now I'm a sodding mole!” The diggers lived up to their name and dug foxholes frantically. They all knew that the only defence against artillery fire was a deep, well made hole in the ground. The work was back breaking. They only had short entrenching tools and the desert was made up of tightly compacted sand and millions of rocks and stones. But building a secure firing position was an art that Ryan had been taught at Puckapunyl. He and Snowy dug a hole deep enough to protect themselves from anything but a direct hit and used the rubble to build a protecting revetment around the edges. The enemy would find them hard to see as they attacked and even harder to hit. Ryan grabbed his water bottle, pulled the cork and took a huge gulp of stale water. “That's it,” he said “if we dig any deeper we'll be in China.” Snowy dropped his entrenching tool and grunted in agreement. He took a half melted block of chocolate out of his shirt pocket, broke it in half and handed one half to Ryan. “Breakfast.” was all he said.
The day passed slowly. There was no sign of enemy activity. Even the sound of artillery in the distance stopped. For the next three days nothing what so ever happened except on the second day when Snowy claimed to have been attacked by a Nazi scorpion while trying to have his early morning poo in hole he had dug in the ground. “I swear you blokes – that scorpion had swastikas painted on it! Bloody Germans!” But an hour before dawn, on the fourth day, Ryan and Snowy were woken up by Corporal Walsh. He was crawling on his belly from foxhole to foxhole. “Wake up you men. Man your positions. Our forward observers have spotted some movement to our front.” Ryan rolled out of his blanket next to his foxhole and put on his webbing and grabbed his rifle. He was already in his uniform and like all of the soldiers, he slept with his boots on. In seconds he was in his foxhole and taking up a firing position. Snowy was already there. Up and down the platoon's front all of the diggers had done the same with out making a sound. They waited tensely for what ever was going to happen next.
Ryan strained his eyes but it was too dark and he could see nothing. After twenty minutes he began to wonder if it was a mistake. Then, with out warning, there was a low pop, followed by a whoosh and then suddenly the desert was bathed in the harsh light of a flare. The platoon's sergeant had fired a star shell into the sky. Ryan couldn't believe his eyes. There was an approaching line of Nazi soldiers, crouched low and moving quietly, only a hundred feet away from the Australian's position! Every weapon the Australians had opened up. The harsh stutter of the Bren guns was joined by the deep and sustained roar of the Vickers Machine Guns. The Vickers were water cooled heavy machine guns - they could fire continuously for hours. At the same time the diggers bolt action 303's fired deliberately and with effect. The Germans were caught by surprise. Even so they returned fire and after their initial surprise launched a desperate assault on the Australian's position. The battle raged. At one point the Germans were so close to Ryan's foxhole that he had to throw hand grenade after hand grenade to drive them off. Then things got really nasty. “Tanks!” yelled Karl from the next foxhole. Sure enough some German tanks were cresting the ridge line behind the German soldiers. As the tanks ponderously approached, they began firing into the Australian lines. Corporal Walsh scrambled into Ryan and Snowy's foxhole. “You two come with me.” Without another word he rapidly began crawling to the rear. Ryan and Snowy followed. They ended up in the little hollow behind the Australian's position that the platoon used as an ammo dump. To Ryan's surprise there was a 2 Pounder Anti Tank Gun there. “We got issued with this two days ago but the artillerymen who are supposed to man it haven't arrived yet.” Ryan smiled. “I'll have a crack at it Walshy.”
The Two Pounder was small and had wheels but it was still difficult for the three men to man handle it to the top of the little hollow. But eventually they managed it and cracked open a box of shells and unlimbered the small artillery piece. Ryan undid the latch and opened the breech. Snowy inserted an anti tank shell and Walshy adjusted the aim. “FIRE!” he said. Ryan puled on the firing lanyard and the gun jumped. There was an explosion but it was next to the tank – they had missed. “Reload,” said Ryan calmly, reopening the breech. Snowy slid in another shell, Corporal Walsh took aim again and Ryan fired at the command again. This time there was a hit! One of the tanks tracks was hit – leaving it helpless. Fearing the next shot, the German crew bailed out at once and made a run for it. Realising that they were facing much heavier opposition than they had counted on – the Nazi soldiers retreated. Other attacks were launched in the following days and weeks and air raids and artillery barrages as well. But the diggers of the 9th Division withstood it all and regularly launched counter raids to keep the Germans on their toes. The Germans were not going to take Tobruk! The weeks passed until even the constant danger became routine to the besieged Aussies.
“Watch out – Stukas,” yelled Ryan's friend Snowy. Ryan dived into a slit trench, quickly followed by the rest of his section. An unearthly wailing sounded as the sirens mounted under the wing of each Stuka dive bomber howled as they began to dive steeply for their dive bombing run. Their targets were the ammunition and supply dumps behind the Australian lines. Each Stuka released a bomb and a massive concussion wave rumbled through the earth as each bomb went off. Ryan could hear the deep 'boom , boom, boom' of the heavy 3.7 Inch Heavy Anti Aircraft Guns as they went off. Then the lighter 'pom, pom pom' of the 40mm Bofors guns as they also tried to shoot down the German dive bombers. Eventually the air raid finished and the Stukas ran away with little damage done. They were closely pursued by Royal Air Force Hurricanes. Bombs and artillery shells were constantly raining down on Tobruk and by now Ryan and his mates didn't worry about it too much. They had built deep trenches and strong bunkers over the past weeks that were proof against most of the nastiness that the Germans threw at them. Ryan carefully dusted off the dirt from his bolt action 303 Lee Enfield rifle and then took a peek over the parapet of the trench to make sure that the Germans were not following up the air raid with an attack with tanks and infantry. “Hey Corp,” said Snowy, “what's this furphy I hear about the Lieutenant asking for volunteers for a special task?” Some of the other blokes in the trench spoke up too. All of them asking their section Corporal to confirm the rumour that there was something up. “Strewth,” said Corporal Walsh (by now called Walshy by everyone in the platoon). “You lot are keen. I've only just this minute been tasked with getting some volunteers together. We are going out on a fighting patrol tonight.” At once everyone started to clamber to be taken along. Every person had a good reason as to why they were the best man for the job and Walshy was overwhelmed with volunteers.
Ryan said to Snowy, “hey Snowy, this is going to be great fun. We'll give the jerry's a bloody nose and we get to blow up stuff!” “Righto mate!” replied Snowy. “I'm not missing out on this for quids. Come on Walshy, give me and Ryan a go!” Ryan and Snowy were accepted as volunteers and reported to the platoon HQ for an orders group. There they were thoroughly briefed on their orders and what to expect. They were issued with black balaclavas to cover their faces and rubbed burnt cork onto their exposed arms and hands so that the gleam of flesh would not give them away in the moonless night. Snowy was issued with a Bren gun and Ryan was overjoyed to be given a Tommy gun (or Thompson sub machine gun as it was officially designated). They were also given heaps of grenades and demolition charges. “This raid is all about destroying German equipment,” said their platoon leader, Lieutenant Jenkins. “Every artillery piece, tank or armoured car we can destroy is one less that can be used against Tobruk. Just as important is transport trucks, fuel and ammunition. Remember, we are raiders. We don't want a stand up fight if we can avoid it. We just want to do as much damage as possible (everyone grinned in anticipation when they heard that) and then get out.”
At exactly midnight the three sections of the platoon (ten men in each section) that was to make up the fighting patrol moved through the Australian lines in a single file. They crouched low as the threaded their way through the entrenchments, barbed wire, mine fields and tank traps of the Aussie lines and entered no man's land. Luckily there was a breeze blowing over the desert that was strong enough to throw up a little dust and also served to mask what little noise the Australians made. Carefully, with every nerve taut, they moved over a low ridge and then entered an ancient and dry river bed on the other side. The besieging Germans and Italians were facing a line over thirty miles long. They couldn't watch every bit of it. With a little bit of luck, thought Ryan to himself as he nervously clutched the Tommy gun, the Germans would not know what hit them until it was far too late. The field signal for 'halt' came down the line. The line froze and everyone went down on one knee. Each man covering a defensive arc in case of attack. Ryan wondered what was ahead. Weapons pointed left and right. Every digger was instantly ready to repel attack from what ever quarter it came from. Then Corporal Walsh signalled for them to get up and keep moving.
Using every bit of cover, the Aussies managed to get miles past the German front line. At last the signal for 'enemy ahead' was passed down the line. The platoon harboured up. In other words, formed a defensive circle while Lieutenant Jenkins and two scouts reconnoitred the enemy position. Orders came down and two sections took up a line abreast with the third section following as a reserve. As silently as the desert wind, they advanced down a slight slope towards the enemy position. Ryan was stationed second from the left with the left hand section. That meant that the only thing on his left flank was Snowy with his Bren. As Ryan and the rest of the soldiers crept down the hill, Ryan realised that there was a large supply dump ahead. It was made up of a maze of storage bunkers and vehicle parks protected by berms (protective embankments of dug up earth). It was hard to make any sense of the layout in the dark. There did not seem to be any sentries but then suddenly, Ryan heard a sleepy voice ask something in Italian. Then a single shot rang out. At once Ryan and every other raider opened fire. Ryan emptied an entire magazine of ammo. He couldn't see any enemies so he just (as he had been ordered to) fired in the general direction of the camp. The diggers rushed the encampment, all guns blazing. As intended, the few German and Italian soldiers that were about instantly believed from all the shooting that they were being attacked by at least an entire battalion and they ran like rabbits.
Ryan and Snowy and two other soldiers ran up and over a berm. It was three sided with the front open and it contained a German PzKpfw III tank and two trucks. There were tables with tools next to the trucks and Ryan realised that the tank was under repair. It was an engineering depot. First checking that there was no one about, Ryan told Snowy to cover him and clambered up on to the deck of the tank. It would take more than a grenade to knock this monster out, thought Ryan to himself. “Hey you drongo,” hissed Snowy, “use that!” He pointed to some jerry cans of fuel that had been left in front of the tank. Karl and one of the other blokes opened one up and passed it up to Ryan. Slinging the Tommy gun behind his back, Ryan grabbed the heavy jerry can and took it to the turret. He opened the turret hatch and carefully, so as to make no noise, lowered it into the dark interior of the tank. But then he could not think of what to do next. If he let it go it would drop to the deck of the tank with a huge clatter. “What am I thinking of?” thought Ryan to himself with a grin. “I don't need to be quiet now!” He let go of the fuel container and it hit the steel floor of the tank with a clattering, booming thud and Ryan could hear the chugging sound as the fuel poured out onto the deck of the tank's cabin. Ryan pulled a grenade out of his webbing pouch and held it up so that the other men could see what he was doing. The men took cover behind the reverse side of the berm and watched as Ryan pulled the pin on the grenade, dropped it down the tank's hatch and slammed the turret hatch shut. Then he jumped off the tank and hit the ground running. In seconds he was on the other side of the berm and managed to take cover just in time.
He poked his head up and watched the tank being destroyed. First there was a huge, deep thumping boom. Then, in the flicker of an eye, the tank's hatch was torn away and sent flying into the sky. A huge tongue of flame jetted out of the tank's turret hatch. It was propelled not just by the grenade and the fuel but also by the supply of tank shells stored in the turret. Ryan could feel the heat on his face and the flame was at least twenty or thirty yards high. Snowy thumped him on the back. “That's' the way mate,” he said. “Bloody oath, that's the way to do it.” Bringing the Bren to bear, Snowy sent a burst of fire into the repair truck's fuel tank. Holing it in several places. Then he expertly tossed a grenade at the truck. It too went up in flames and the same was done to the other truck. The soldiers ran through the supply depot like madmen. They burnt, blew up or shot up dozens of vehicles. They came across another group of Aussies who were spiking some artillery pieces by shoving demolition charges down the barrels and setting them off. The barrels were split open like bizarre flowers. Never again would these howitzers be used to shell the Australian positions. Corporal Walsh showed up. “Right,” he said. “I want you blokes to investigate those bunkers over there,” pointing to some bunkers draped in camouflage netting. Ryan and half his section raced over to the entrance. “Should we roll a grenade down there just in case?” Said one of the men. “No,” replied Ryan “let's suss it out first.” Grabbing a torch Ryan led the way down into the bunker. “Blimey!” said Snowy. “I'm glad we didn't use a grenade – or we'd all be in heaven right now playing harps!” It was an ammunition bunker. There were thousands and thousands of artillery shells in the bunker. All in wooden boxes with the German words for “DANGER: High Explosive” stencilled all over them. “There must be tons and tons of explosives in here,” said Ryan in awe.
The raiders withdrew in a an arrow head formation away from the German supply dump. Ryan checked his watch and hastened his stride. At two minutes to the hour the order was given to take cover. Everyone tried to find something to hide behind but still peeked out so they would not miss anything. Everyone wanted to see what was about to happen. Lieutenant Jenkins had rigged the ammo dump with demo charges with the timer set to go off on the hour exactly. Ryan checked his watch; thirty seconds to go. The seconds crawled by and then there was the most massive explosion that any of the Australians was ever likely to see in their lifetime. The ground literally shook under them. In a fraction of a second the supply dump, it's fuel, munitions, food, water, vehicles and equipment was atomised or shapeless wreckage. The Australians could barely restrain themselves from cheering. They had badly hurt the German offensive against Tobruk. The explosion would have been seen in Tobruk itself and the dump would be burning for days. It had been a good nights work. The diggers set off across the desert – heading back towards the Australian lines. Luck had been with them so far but they were all uneasily aware that every German for miles around knew that there was an enemy party on the loose and that it would probably be retreating back to base.
Suddenly there came a noise that sounded like engines. Ryan and the other men in his section looked around. Cresting a ridge to the east was a big eight wheeled German armoured car. It was armed with a powerful 20mm cannon that could easily turn them all into mince meat! The German scout car zoomed down the slope and opened up. Exploding 20mm shells stitched a line towards the Australians and everyone dived for cover. Ryan and Snowy opened up with their weapons but their bullets just bounced off the scout car's armour. “Aim for the tyres, the tyres'” ordered Corporal Walsh calmly. Ryan lowered the barrel of his Tommy gun and aimed for the armoured car's front tyres. The Aussies fired their 303's and every other weapon they had at the scout car's tyres. Calmly working the bolts of their rifles between each shot. The driver of the armoured car realised what the Australians were doing and started to dodge and weave. But that turned out to be a mistake because when a bullet finally penetrated one of the front tires he was doing a hard right turn. The huge armoured car tilted and then flipped over as the tire blew out. The raiders resumed their swift march across the moonless desert.
The Australians were only a mile or two from their own lines when disaster struck. A company of German panzer grenadiers loomed out of the desert on half tracks. Deploying swiftly they poured fire into the Aussies. Reacting instantly, Lieutenant Jenkins ordered the Australians to take cover and return fire from a wadi (a dry river bed) that formed a handy makeshift trench nearby. Sizing up the situation, the Lieutenant decided to leave a rear guard behind and withdraw down the wadi away from the Germans. The Germans would not realise that the majority of the Australians were gone until it was too late. Ryan and Snowy volunteered to stay behind. First one section and then the other withdrew down the winding wadi. Then half of the last section and then finally there was just Corporal Walsh, Snowy and Ryan left behind. They furiously poured fire into the Germans and also tossed grenades at them as well. But Ryan could see that there were at least fifty Germans and they were preparing to attack. “We haven't got a hope of holding them back boys,” said Walshy. “I'm afraid we are going to have to surrender. “Hey Corporal,” said Ryan with a gleam in his eyes. “I've got a better idea.”
The Germans began to advance all along their front. One wave would cover the advance of the first wave with heavy covering fire. Then the first wave would cover the advance of the second wave. The Germans thought it was working because only one lone Bren gun was returning fire. But that lone machine gun was well handled and was forcing the Germans to be careful. Suddenly, on the left flank of the advancing German line, there were a series of dull pops followed by a low whooshing sound. A huge bank of smoke was forming and it swiftly drifted down across the advancing Germans. Ryan had brought some smoke grenades along on the raid. While Snowy continued to keep firing on the Germans, Ryan and Walshy had crawled on their bellies up the wadi. The dry river bed had quickly petered out, forcing the two soldiers to keep their heads low so as not to be detected by the Germans. But the dry wash did a large curve around the flank of the German position. This ruse had allowed Ryan and Walshy to crawl all the way around to the side of the German attack. Luckily, the desert wind was blowing from the two concealed Aussies and right down across the Germans. As the Germans got half way to the lone Snowy and his Bren gun, the two diggers had thrown all the smoke grenades they had towards the Germans. Blown by the wind, the Germans were enveloped in thick black, choking smoke. They lost direction and began firing all over the place. In some cases mistaking the firing of their fellow panzer grenadiers as coming from the Australians – and then firing back. In seconds the German attack was pandemonium. German officers and NCOs yelled and screamed to restore order. Eventually the smoke screen dispersed and the German attack resumed.
Pouring fire into the Aussie position the Germans stormed the dry river bed. “Was is los?” said a German feldwebel in confusion. There was no longer anyone there. All the Germans found was heaps of empty cartridges. Snowy had jumped up and run like lightening up the wadi the moment the Germans had been swallowed by the smoke. The three soldiers had then jogged through the desert night for a good 20 minutes – leaving the thwarted Germans behind. “That was a bloody good idea Ryan,” said Corporal Walsh. The three eventually rejoined the main body of the raid. The very first flush of coloured sky from the approaching dawn could be seen on the horizon, They had made it just in time. Lieutenant Jenkins was using his torch to send the coded signal to let the Australians manning the trenches of Tobruk know that they were heading in. With his torch he signalled; three long flashes, two short flashes. He was answered by two long flashes. Getting up from their defensive positions on the desert floor the Aussies shook out into a box formation and began moving. Alert, their weapons at the ready, they silently paced through the last dregs of the night to the safety of their own lines. “This raid has been a success”, thought Ryan to himself. A heavy blow had been inflicted on the Afrika Korp. Tobruk must be held and so long as one digger was left alive - it would be held.