Tel el Kebir, known to the British troops in Egypt in the 1950s as Tek, a sprawling mass of sheds and tents shimmering in the heat, rose out of the desert as the jeeps came over the crest of the hill. The sentry recognized Lieutenant Pete Roberts, saluted, and waved him through the camp’s main gate. Roberts looked up at a nearby searchlight tower where, up on its platform, a bored Mauritian soldier scanned a part of the camp’s 17 mile barbed-wired, mined perimeter with binoculars. Another, stripped to the waist, his black body glistening with sweat, languidly polished the searchlight’s reflector.
Driving the leading jeep, Roberts heard the soldier behind him unclick his weapon’s magazine as they raced down the tarmac strip into the center of the camp, incongruously signposted Oxford Street. He swung his vehicle onto a rough track, at the end of which another sign read PDF, which stood for Perimeter Defense Force.
Roberts turned onto the uneven rock-hard sand vehicle park behind the building that housed the battalion’s headquarters. It was quiet in the yard. Most of the unit slept in the afternoon, since all the patrols and ambush teams that watched over the perimeter operated at night. In the park a lone mechanic, dressed in greasy shorts and canvas shoes, lay on his back in the dust under another jeep. At the armory, the store man, clearly half awake, leaned on the counter behind the closed lower half of the stable-like door, and jerked to attention when Roberts put down his revolver.
“Sorry, sir, I’d just dropped off for a moment.”
Roberts lowered his voice, so as not to be heard by his crew waiting in line behind him.
“It’s not good enough, Banks. I know it’s bloody hot, but I ought to charge you for sleeping on duty. You know that, don’t you?”
The man nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Well, watch it.”
Roberts handed over his revolver. “Clean this, will you? I’ve just used it.”
He thought again of the injured dog that had leaped in front of the jeep an hour earlier in Tek village. Crazed with pain, it had spun around in the hot road. A few villagers, sitting at coffee tables under a jacaranda tree at the curb, jeered and threw stones at the animal that was dragging itself toward the canal, trailing its crushed leg. Roberts leaned out of the jeep, took hasty aim at the dog from about twenty feet and squeezed the trigger. But he’d only wounded it. Now the locals mocked the English officer, catcalling and shouting to their mates in the village street.
For the dog’s sake, but also to save face, he was determined to finish off the animal. He scrambled out of the vehicle, and walked a few paces back to it. The villagers were closing in a little and Roberts, glancing back, was relieved to see that his armed men in both vehicles were covering him.
A young Egyptian dressed in grubby khaki with neither hat nor shoes, had moved between Roberts and the agonized animal, making a sneering pretense of shielding it.
“Don’t kill the dog, mister, please don’t kill it!”
He called to the excited crowd and they closed in, quieter now, watching intently. The dog lay maybe a yard to the right and a little farther back from the youth’s feet, and the men all but touched Roberts when he took a few quick paces forward and shot the dog dead. A roar went up from the crowd of villagers, and then they quietened down and scattered, keeping a wary distance from the jeeps.
Roberts walked back to the jeep and his watchful escorts at a deliberately casual pace, revved the engine to an angry roar, and drove away.
Roberts looked into the officer’s mess on his way to his tent. Inside, Mike Drayton, Bravo Company commander, was sprawled in an armchair dozing under a whirring ceiling fan, with an empty beer glass on the table beside him. He looked up when Roberts came in.
“Hello, Pete. Everything OK?”
Roberts decided not to mention the dog because Drayton, known to be a tartar when he wanted, might well have given him an earful for putting himself and his men at risk.
“No problems, sir.”
“How are your men handling this heat?” Drayton asked.
“They swear about it, but they can take it. The temperature out there’s a hundred and twenty-two.”
“Like a beer?” Drayton asked.
“No thanks. I’m going to get some shut-eye for an hour or two.”
“Good idea. By the way, I’m putting a new man on your patrol tonight. He’s a National Service kid called Cash, straight out of officer cadet school back home. Don’t scare the poor little bugger too much on his first time out.”
Roberts grinned. “We’ll try not to.”
Outside the mess hut, he realized how tired he was. In his tent a cheap tin alarm clock ticked away the afternoon. He sat on the end of his bed and slowly unwound his puttees. The black shining leather where they’d been made a tidemark against the dusty uppers of his boots Then he undressed, lit a cigarette and sat naked on the bed, winding the clock.
“Boy, you get more alluring every day we’re out here!”
Chris Pollard’s face emerged from under the mosquito net on the other bed. “And you’re smoking too much. Know that?”
Roberts laughed. “I thought you were asleep.”
“I was,” Pollard said.
“Jesus, you look worn out, Pete! Take a break. Why don’t you let me do your turn tonight?”
“No thanks. I appreciate it, but I’ll be fine after a couple of hours kip.”
Pollard had gone when Robert’s batman woke him at five, with a mug of tea and a canvas bucket of hot water. He shaved in the tent and then showered outside under a galvanized iron tank perched on stilts in the sun. The air was a little cooler outside now. He dressed in a fresh set of khaki drill. In the compound near the mess four jeeps stood in a row, each with a Bren machine gun and a spotlight on the hood.
The officers’ mess was almost empty at six, since everyone who wasn’t on perimeter patrol normally dined an hour or two later. Major Drayton, captain Hugh Lunt – his second-in-command – and two subalterns were already at the table when Roberts sat down. Cash, the new arrival, had been seated between Drayton and Lunt.
Roberts leaned across the table and shook his hand.
“You must be Cash. Welcome to Tek.”
Cash was slightly built, with a white, vulnerable face and close-cut ginger hair. He seemed a few years older than most of the National Service officers who came out to serve their eighteen-month stint with the regiment.
“Where are you from?” Roberts asked.
“Bristol, but I’ve been in London for the last four years getting my degree.”
“Slade,” Cash said.
“So, you’re an artist?”
The young man smiled. “One day, maybe. But I’m not sure a BA in Art’s going to be relevant for the next year or so.“
While they ate, Max Barstow, another subaltern who made a habit of intimidating young newcomers, and who was one of the least liked officers in the regiment, turned to the new arrival and said, “Done any duck shooting, Cash?”
The newcomer faced Barstow. “No, why?”
“Shooting ducks is better experience for this place than painting pretty pictures.”
Major Drayton glanced at his watch. “That’s enough, Max. Gentlemen. Let’s . . . well . . .let’s go shoot a few ducks. I want you and your men in your vehicles out there and ready in ten minutes.”
It was getting dark. Roberts, at the wheel of the jeep with Cash beside him, led a column of six vehicles.
“So, what’s the routine?” Cash asked.
“Same old thing. As always, the mission’s to keep these brown bastards from creeping in and stealing our stuff. We take each team to its start point a few hundred yards back from the perimeter. They leave their trucks there and manhandle their weapons and gear up to the wire on their flat feet in the dark. If they’re quiet about it, anyone breaking in will find it harder to know where we are.”
“Then you and I cruise the seventeen-mile perimeter a few hundred yards back from the wire. From time to time I’ll accelerate and speed up to the points where no PDF team’s lying there, the dark spots between the searchlight towers. At the same time, I want you to sweep the area with your spot lamp, and if we find anyone sneaking through we shoot ‘em. Of course, if we’re near enough to one of our teams that puts up a parachute flare and starts shooting, we’ll go in and give ‘em some extra fire power.”
After a year of perimeter patrols, all this was routine for Roberts. He remembered his own fervor in the first weeks and months out here. It may not have been the action he’d hoped for in terrorist hotspots such as Malaya and Kenya, but it was as close as he could get to real action for now. After getting what his fellow cadets at Sandhurst had jokingly called “a degree in killing people,” he’d relished the promise of putting his training into practice. But for Cash, it must be starkly different. This just wasn’t his thing. He was fresh from the secure routine of his art school in London. How would he react to what happened out here?
Cash had been reticent and diffident in the mess room, but now, as they drove out to the perimeter, with the radio operator and his gear wedged in the narrow seat behind them, he seemed far more self-confident.
“I met a bloke in Port Said yesterday,” Cash said. ‘He said the stuff behind the barbed wire in here’s worth millions of pounds. Is that true?”
“Absolutely. It must be the one the biggest army supply places in the world – hundreds of acres of small arms, ammunition, radio, telephone equipment, vehicle parts, tanks, trucks. You name it, and it’s probably here. The wogs come in looking for things they can carry away, especially weapons and ammo. And would you believe they pinch tons of blankets? They get a good price in the street markets. Fancy risking your life for a few bloody blankets!”
Cash didn’t reply for a moment. “But then, they’re as poor as anything, aren’t they?” he said. “I mean, it’s pathetic. They’re on their uppers. They live in little mud houses . . .hovels, really. I saw a lot of people when we were on the train coming down to Ismailiyah today, out there in the fields. The fellahin. Most of them have arms and legs like scarecrows. Mustn’t there be something wrong with their society if they have to risk being killed for a few blankets? And they must have a lot of guts, too. You can’t help being sorry for them.”
Roberts was taken aback. Something wrong with their society? Guts? What sort of talk was this? It was lucky the radio operator was busy netting-in with his headset on to hear him. He couldn’t believe it. Here was a newly commissioned officer fresh out from home, trying to justify the sins of their enemy. But then, he was an artist, wasn’t he? He was probably a damn poet, too. Arty people tended to be like this, radicals, a bit left of center. He’d pronounced fellahin like a bloody Arab. Where had he learnt that?
Now he had a very different view of the bastards. Not long ago they were crawling through the wire and over the mines and blowing up trucks, burning down the storage sheds and sniping at the searchlights. And he just couldn’t get this morning’s incident with the dog out of his mind. That was what these people were really like. They loafed in the streets, spat at the soldiers whenever they were stuck in traffic. They stole from strangers, and even from each other. And guts? Forget it. They had as much courage as the pye-dogs slinking in the village streets.
“Listen, Cash,” Roberts said. “You’re entitled to your views, but if I were you I wouldn’t air them to your colleagues. It won’t go down well.”
Chastened, Cash didn’t say anything, but occupied himself with loading the Bren gun that lay in front of him on sandbags on the jeep’s hood, and connecting up the leads of the spot lamp on his lap. Minutes later, the two arrived at the first team’s start point.
As in the other four teams, there were four privates and a non-commissioned officer, equipped with two medium machine-guns, three rifles with sniping sights, a spot lamp, a two-inch mortar for parachute flares, an Alsatian killer-dog and its handler.
The men didn’t like the dogs. Too many had seen them tear out the throat of an intruder in a few seconds. They tended to snuffle in the dark, giving away their positions to the intruders. There was also a prevalent belief that, after killing their real prey, they’d sometimes come padding back and attack the team.
Roberts and Cash watched as the men, laden down with their weapons, ammunition and heavy spot lamp batteries, set out on foot for the perimeter fence, and fading into the dark. An hour later, with their lights and engine off, the two officers were parked in the shadows. Across the sand from the Nile Delta drifted the constant barking of village dogs and the throb of a water pump among the palm trees, like a giant human pulse. Half a mile away a searchlight beam swept languidly to and fro across the desert, like a lighthouse on some dangerous coastline.
“Just keep your eyes open, and listen for noises,” Roberts said, his voice lowered.
Another hour passed uneventfully. From time to time they sped to a new position, while Cash, behind his gun, raked the sand across the wire with the spot lamp. The night dragged on, each successive hour longer than the one before. After midnight, a brilliant half-moon rose on the horizon, and it grew colder. With the vehicle parked again, Roberts shivered suddenly, and felt the telltale drooping of his eyelids. Next to him the new man, was wide awake, and sitting bolt upright, watching the moonlit wire through glasses. He’d been as keen himself once, he thought. But now, it was dull routine, with two incidents a month at most.
Roberts glanced at his watch. Three-thirty. It seemed it was going to be a quiet night.
But a few minutes later, Cash turned to Roberts.
“Listen! What’s going on over there?”
There were raised voices, and then shouts from a nearby observation tower. The searchlight had stopped sweeping, and now concentrated its beam on a point maybe fifty yards beyond the outer ring of the wire. One of the Mauritians was scanning the illuminated area with binoculars.
“They’re onto something all right,” Roberts said.
The men on the tower had swung the beam away for a few seconds and then quickly back to the same spot, hoping for a change of shape – something to identify, maybe someone running.
“Let’s get over there,” Roberts said. He ground the jeep into gear and drove the hundred or so yards to the foot of the tower and, cupping his hands, called up to the men on the platform.
“What’s going on out here?”
Nobody answered, but seconds later there was a rifle shot, and then another, and a third. The shots echoed from the Delta and then, from the platform above, came a burst of convulsed laughter.
“Hey! I said what’s going on?”
A head appeared over the railing.
“The PDF officer. What happened?”
“We shoot him, sir.”
“Who did you shoot?”
“A fox, a big one.”
They were back in the shadows again
“Are there a lot of foxes here?” Cash asked.
“Quite a few, but I doubt it was a fox. More likely a damn pye-dog.”
The young officer was silent again, and neither spoke for four or five minutes.
“Aren’t we going to get any action tonight?” he asked later.
Roberts was leaning back in his seat, gazing up into the sky at a moon that was almost dazzling, and a million brilliant stars.
“I wouldn’t say that,” he said. There’s another hour or two before sunrise. A lot can happen in a couple of hours.”
The faintest glimmer of dawn appeared on the horizon. Roberts glanced at his watch. In an hour or two, he thought, they’d be back in their tent lines, sleeping off another uneventful night on the perimeter.
A few minutes passed, and then two short bursts of machine-gun fire broke the silence.
“Well, Cash,” Roberts said, “you wanted action. Here it comes.”
He started the engine and they raced northeast up the perimeter road. As they sped past one of the first observation towers, the crew on the platform pointed excitedly toward the next one. But oddly, as they came over the crest of the next slope, there was no sweeping searchlight beam at the top of the tower. Roberts stopped under the platform and yelled up to the men on the railing.
“What’s wrong with your searchlight?”
A Mauritian leaned over the railing. He spoke almost unhurriedly, as though there was no need for urgency.
“They shot it, sir. Right out! There were four of them and we’ve killed one.”
“Which way did they go?” Roberts asked.
“Toward the Delta, I think. They have not gone very far. They went back very carefully through the minefield. I think we hit at least one.”
They needn’t have bothered, Roberts thought. The mines, an unreliable and long obsolete early 1940s model, had been there in the heat for a decade or more, and they rarely detonated. Their value was now mainly psychological.
Roberts knew the quick way out to the Delta. Several small, locked, heavily-wired wooden gates, known as Q-gates, were installed around the perimeter. These allowed PDF patrols to drive out into the desert through a ten-foot wide mine-free channel, and each was positioned in full view of a searchlight tower.
“You got a Q-gate here?” he called up.
“Oh yes, sir. I will drop the keys down to you.”
The ring of keys pattered down, and minutes later Cash had unlocked the gate and they were through the fence. Although the sun had partly broken the horizon, it was much lighter now, but the dark belt of palm trees in the Delta prevented the fleeing men from being silhouetted against what little light there was. For a few uncertain seconds the patrol circled and peered around themselves.
Soon they were no more than a quarter of a mile from the trees.
“Look! We’ve got ‘em.”
The three men, one of whom had a rifle, were making for the cover of the trees in Indian file, and the man in the middle was dragging his leg. He was clearly wounded, and his companions seemed to have slowed down somewhat so that he could keep up. Roberts veered toward them and, following regulations, he called out his only word of Arabic, ordering the men to stop.
But the men kept running, stumbling on toward the trees.
And now, to Roberts’ astonishment, Cash called the second warning, adding a few other words in Arabic. They sounded curt, peremptory. Immediately, the armed man at the rear stopped running and spun toward them. But he wasn’t raising his hands in surrender. He’d dropped on one knee and was taking aim.
Quickly, Roberts barked a third warning when simultaneously, a bullet struck the jeep’s radiator with a ringing metallic clang.
Roberts saw a jet of water spurt to the left from the pierced hood.
“Kill the bastards!”
To Roberts’ annoyance, even though the man with the rifle would shoot at any moment, Cash held his fire for a few more seconds, and instead yelled one last sentence at the Egyptians. His voice was hoarse, passionate. Roberts recognized only one word. Allah.
Cash, who was already leaning into the butt of the Bren gun, flicked the control lever to automatic, took aim and opened fire. In a few seconds, at about forty yards, he’d felled the armed man with a quick, well-controlled burst, jerking him off balance so that he seemed to toss away his rifle, falling spread-eagled on his back. The man in front had stopped and turned, throwing his arms around his limping comrade. Then, in one long burst of fire that caused a juddering vibration in the vehicle, Cash swept the gun from left to right and back again, until the magazine was empty, and all three men lay dead on the sand.
Roberts and Cash sat still, and neither spoke. The radio operator, his face white with shock, was calling for an ambulance. Not far away, from a dozen minarets behind the trees, came a plaintive call to prayer.
A dazzling sun rose over the Delta. Roberts turned back to the radio operator to whom – though he’d been there with them for eleven hours – neither officer had spoken except to give the occasional order.
“What’s going on back there?”
“They’ll have the ambulance here soon as they can, sir.”
For the first time, Roberts looked into the soldier’s baby face. He didn’t look a day over sixteen. Like Cash, he was probably fresh out from home.
“So, what did you think of that little action, signaler?”
The young soldier grinned. “Me, sir? I was friggin’ scared . . .I don’t mind tellin’ ya.’ I thought that little wog was goin’ to do us all in.”
Though it was only seven-thirty, the temperature must already have been in the upper eighties.
“How’d you feel?” Roberts asked Cash, who’d still said nothing since the incident.
“I’m all right,” he said, but his voice was lifeless and he was shaking uncontrollably, as though he was chilled with cold.
Roberts had been puzzled by Cash’s apparent fluency in Arabic. What an odd fish he was!
“What did you say to them the first time?”
The young man shrugged. “I said, ‘stop or we’ll fire.”
“And the second time?”
Cash hesitated. “It was, well . . .a kind of blessing, I suppose. It was . . .’may God protect you. Something like that.”
What was this all about? Roberts couldn’t think of a suitable response.
“Where did you learn Arabic?” he asked.
“My uncle taught me, he’s a professor at Oxford. And, we speak it all the time lot at home, of course.” Cash said.
“How come? And who’s ‘we’?”
“Well, my mother’s Egyptian, and a lot of my relatives speak Arabic.”
A cloud of dust was billowing near the perimeter behind them, and the ambulance was coming.