"Long" John Outram
about the author
“Look, chaps, we need to get this road open by nightfall,” explained the young lieutenant. Johnson didn’t know him. Lieutenant Gardner had been moved up the column in the morning to take the place of a Captain who had caught it from a sniper back in… Johnson had forgotten where.
“The tankies are just ahead of the wood here, in cover,” the lieutenant continued, indicating the position on a map. “Back here we have an AT battery. He can’t go forward or back without coming into our field of fire. But from here – ” the lieutenant’s finger stabbed into the centre of the wood – “he may still have a clear view over the road. So we’ve got to chase him out somehow.
“There may be some Jerry infantry in there, but not much. Since this afternoon’s firefight, mortars have given that wood a good old stonking.
“Now it’s just a simple matter of going in to get that Tiger!”
Five minutes later they were back on their bellies, creeping through the trees. The wet earth soaked through the elbows and knees of Johnson’s battle-dress. The warm August weather did not seem to have penetrated so far into the thick woods, and he was cold and damp.
“A simple matter of going in to get that Tiger!” said Maguire, doing a fair impression of the young officer. “I should say. You know what I feel like, Corp? One of those black fellas in the Tarzan flicks, that used to get sent into the jungle beating pots and pans to scare up whatever they was hunting. All the while the Great White Hunter – that’s the AT battery in this man’s army - would be sat on his elephant with a bloody great gun in one hand and a big gin in the other.”
“Pipe down and I’ll buy you a big gin when we reach Ghent,” replied Johnson.
The section stopped. There was a Panzer Grenadier ahead. A mortar blast had torn open his abdomen but left his face curiously untouched, so that he looked as though he had simply fallen asleep on the forest path.
“I always quite fancied being the Great White Hunter,” whispered Maguire, still thinking about Tarzan. “Never fancied being one of them black fellas, though. They were always the first to catch it when the tiger got playful.”
They pressed on. Here and there they found more corpses, men killed by the mortar attack or in the fighting earlier in the day. Their weapons and ammo had been taken, suggesting that their comrades had survived and were lying in wait somewhere.
“Eyes and ears, lads, eyes and ears,” said Johnson needlessly, to men who had slept with one eye open since Normandy.
Charlie Fairbrother, the man on point, waved them to a halt again. They had made about a hundred yards from the site of the firefight two hours before – slow progress – and again they waited. The air seemed charged with anticipation.
A shot rang out to their left, where the new lieutenant and his section were meant to be working up from the road. Johnson and his men dropped on their bellies but kept their heads up. A Bren thumped from the other side of the trees, and more single shots. Suddenly the wood was alive with figures in field grey, running back in disorder. Charlie opened up with the Sten when the first was just ten yards away. The rest of the section joined in – rapid fire at point-blank range.
“Make ready that PIAT!” yelled Johnson, feeling a terrible premonition even as he worked the bolt of his Lee Enfield.
While the Germans and Americans fired anti-tank rockets from bazookas and panzerschrecks, the British infantryman’s anti-tank weapon was a spring-loaded mortar. It was simple and reliable, and because there was no flame-back it could be used from the cover of a trench or a building without danger. Its drawback was that the powerful spring mechanism was not easy to prime in action. Once made ready, the recoil from the first round was usually enough to cock the weapon for a second shot.
McRae had the PIAT ready, and not a moment too soon. Like the roar of some primeval monster waking from an unquiet sleep to sudden rage, the Maybach engines rumbled a warning through the woods. Trees and bushes crashed and splintered before the onrush of the mighty metal beast, and with a chattering burst of Spandau fire the Tiger was upon them. Charlie Fairbrother was the first to fall, his body dancing obscenely back down the path as the bullets smashed through it. A red mist hung in the air long after he had fallen, but now other men were falling and dying as the beast came on.
The world became a cloud of smoke and leaves, chips of bark and flying lead. Johnson rolled behind a tree and frantically tried to work two clips of rifle ammo into his magazine. Atop the careering tank, a figure in a black leather jacket wielded a swivel mounted machine-gun, hunting down the fleeing Tommies, while a hull mounted gun fired blindly at everything in its path.
There was a bright flash and a bang as the PIAT bomb struck the Tiger. Pieces of white-hot metal whizzed past Johnson’s ear. For a moment he felt a stir of false hope. Then the engines growled again, the tracks rumbled and the Tiger’s guns roared their reply.
“Like trying to shoot a lion with a pea-shooter,” shouted Maguire. “Jesus Christ! Did you see that? Took a direct hit on the hull without even stopping! What now, Corp?”
“Where’s that PIAT?” yelled Johnson.
McRae was lying sprawled by a holly bush, the PIAT launcher dangling from his hand. He was a veteran, an Africa Star man, but this had been his last fight.
“Stupid bugger pulled the trigger as he went down,” said Maguire as he scooped up the launcher. “Have you ever tried to cock one of these in the field? It can’t be done!”
Johnson tried not to look into the dead man’s eyes as he picked up the cardboard carton containing the two remaining bombs and pushed it towards Maguire. Casting around, he wondered if anyone else had survived. On the other side of the tank a lone rifle was popping back between bursts from the Spandau – that was at least one man, but that was all.
Maguire threw his weight against the mortar’s spring. “I’m getting there, Corp. Watch the bastard in the turret.”
The black jacketed machine-gunner started to swing back in their direction. Johnson let off a shot without aiming, and then threw himself flat. Bullets rattled and cracked overhead. He fired again. The German tanker convulsed and collapsed across the hatchway, half-in and half-out. Johnson put another bullet into him for good measure as the tank rolled away from them.
“Got the bugger,” he grinned.
“Good for you, Corp,” replied Maguire, slumping down beside Johnson with the PIAT cradled in his arms. He had succeeded in reloading it. He had also caught one in the guts. Bright blood was already soaking through his denim blouse.
“Oh my God, Mickey…”
“There you go, Corp,” gasped the wounded Private as he sank to the ground. “Go and get the bastard. Don’t let it be for nothing…”
Johnson yelled for a medic, but there was no-one to hear him. He rolled his cap-comforter into a pad and stuffed that on top of the hole in Maguire’s abdomen, trying to staunch the bleeding, but there was an exit wound twice as large on the other side, bleeding twice as fast. Maguire’s eyes were already glazing over.
“Bag a Tiger for me,” he whispered.
Suddenly Johnson’s fear and horror gave way to wild rage. The Tiger was lumbering off, running clear of the troublesome infantrymen, blindsided by the loss of its turret commander. Snatching up the PIAT, Johnson gave chase. The Tiger was making good speed, even over the rough ground, but Johnson managed to keep it in sight. It ran out into a small clearing, struggling to batter its way through the saplings on the far side. Johnson knelt, aimed quickly and fired his only shot.
There was another huge explosion. Johnson fell flat. The Tiger’s engine rumbled on. He stared, disbelieving, at the ragged gap in the trees. The German tank had taken two direct hits from the PIAT and it was still moving.
Ten seconds later, the forest shook to a terrible roar as the Tiger’s fuel tanks brewed up. Another five seconds, and the ammo stores for the “eighty eight” went too. Johnson saw the enormous turret, bigger than a jeep, thrown skywards like a child’s toy. It seemed to hang there for an age before it crashed back down to earth.
Johnson felt like Beowulf, like Saint George, like some other monster-slaying hero, as if he had somehow achieved the impossible. The beast of war was finally dead.
And yet… he realised that as the Tiger had run out of the clearing, it had fallen into the field of fire of the 17 pounders of their tank support squadron. There was no way of telling who had fired the fatal shot that had finally brought the Tiger down.
As the trucks trundled through the night towards Ghent, Johnson slept fitfully. Three other men from the section had survived, Pascoe the Bren gunner amongst them. The young lieutenant had been killed by a grenade when they ran down the last of the panzer grenadiers. The platoon had lost twenty men out of thirty in the space of an afternoon.
The truck stopped, jolting him awake. Instinctively he grabbed for his rifle. Frightened faces looked pale in the dawn light as the canvas flaps were thrown back.
“All change, please,” grinned an impressively-moustached Sergeant. “Passengers with tickets for Berlin, please change here and await further instructions.”
“What is it, Sarge?” asked Johnson as he climbed down.
“Trouble up ahead,” beamed the Sergeant. “Tiger tank, dug in.”
Table of Contents
This story is copyright the author. It
may not be
used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for
(Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)