Ambulance at Bir Hacheim

by ARTHUR MILLS STRATTON

1

THE Western Desert of Libya and Cyrenaica makes a practically perfect battleground for the generals. A sort of dry ocean of dirt, dust, stones, and sand, the flat surface is broken only by steep, gray-white chalk cliffs — islands and continents that rise up abrupt and dazzling under the desert sun. It is a place of bleached white snails and whiter bleached empty shells, of khakicolored scorpions hiding and scuttling like reduced monsters among the dugout stones and escarpments. A few little gray and dust-colored ringed snakes crawl out in the night mists from their flat rocks. And beetles, camel ticks, and flies find what they need to live on. The war has certainly fed a lot of flies. And lately a lot of mechanical monsters (please allow me that phrase) have taken up their positions on the desert. The waste is no longer trackless.

When we first arrived, just after the rare and violent rains that turn the dust to impossible mud, all the wadies were in bloom. Desert flowers are astoundingly beautiful; small white and yellow daisies bloom, and a kind of dandelion, and pink and purple flowers like cups, and more which look like butter-and-eggs but are purple and white, and then more pink and magenta flowers which are dry and long-lived and exquisite.

A graduate of Thome School and Bowdoin College, ARTHUR MILLS STRATTON, who is now in his thirty-second year, was living in Paris, at work on a play, when the war broke out. In January, 1940, he enlisted in the American Volunteer Ambulance Service, and in April of that year received the Croix de Guerre with Palm for his “ bravery in evacuating the wounded under heavy machine gun and artillery fire.” After the fall of France, Stratton enlisted in the American Field Service and was with the Fighting French when they were encircled by Rommel’s forces at Bir Hacheim.

On windless mornings the air is full of the perfume of these short blossoms growing among sparse, tough grass which is green and already seeding.

Bir Hacheim is on a high place. The Italians had a desert outpost there, a square stone fort just as in the movies. The British and Fighting French made a strong point of the place by planting deep mine fields around a square of the plateau. From here an unbroken chain of mine fields went up to the shores of the Mediterranean, fifty miles away. The fort was the anchor on the chain, and here the Fighting French dug in.

Artillery on the hill — but do not picture a smooth hill. It was a kind of spine for the place. When we dug down, the pick struck rock. It is smooth and creamy yellow, and looks like petrified cheese. Split it and you discover fossil shells like scallops and augers and limpets, redder in color than the stone. The Groupe Sanitaire Divisionnaire was placed in the hollow between the artillery and the southeast angle of the mine fields. The various battalions of infantry, the small armored sections, and the headquarters were placed over the twelve or sixteen square miles of the surface framed by the belts of mines. And anti-aircraft guns and crews were scattered strategically.

We had a tent — of sorts. It was old. It was square, perhaps eight feet to a side. It was set up on a square hole dug and picked and scraped about four feet deep. Around it, fifty yards apart or so, the ambulances were parked nose down in holes dug for the purpose.

When a sand storm blew up, the tent wasn’t much protection. At Bir Hacheim this is the way a sand storm behaves. Just before the sun goes down, you look north and shiver, for rolling directly across the wind down from the north is a high boiling cloud of dust, tawny and gray in color and thick as a wall. It progresses slowly. You see the tiny cars scuttle about, getting set before the storm engulfs them. It cannot be coining faster then ten miles an hour. You could take out the camera and photograph that relentless passage. It comes at supper time, so you eat in a hurry, and then sit down to wait. The dust settles in your ears and in your hair. In five minutes you are filthy. Before the storm I shove my wet shirts into a tin cut like a bucket, and cover the bucket with another tin; but the mud will be two inches thick on top of the washed shirts inside the bucket next morning. The storm lasts all night.

Sometimes the surface of the desert is hard rock, sometimes jagged stone, sometimes knee-deep powder. In places the thorn bushes grow as thick as forests of foot-high trees, and sometimes you hit a stretch as good as the very best graveled roads.

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In the middle of May it came my turn to go out on patrol. We drove all morning in a convoy strung out wide across the desert so that a plane could only get one vehicle at a time. From time to time we stopped.

Early one morning a plane crashed a mile or so away, and I followed the Commandant in my ambulance in case the pilot had managed to escape. The plane turned out to be a Kittyhawk, one of ours, and it was burning too fiercely to see much.

We stood around for a few minutes, feeling useless. And then the officers went on to do their round of inspections and I turned back. The plane had crashed in a level stretch grown over with thick bushes. I saw the reserve tanks explode. The heat melted the aluminum wings, which ran in white-hot puddles on the sand. I had to pay attention to the driving, and so at first I didn’t look up when the Negro rifleman with me called and pointed. He was my protection against flat tires and strafing planes, and I did not understand his Cameroon French. But I did look up, and there stood the aviator, a small man standing quietly in the bushes, waiting for me. He told me he recognized the small American flag, and the cross of St. Andrew, painted on the hood of all our cars.

“Oh,” I said, “I’m glad to see you. We thought you were dead.” I began to laugh, and the Negro grinned. We were glad.

He was bareheaded and dirty. The German guns had got him above their camp, which he was bombing and strafing, not five miles away. He thought he had fallen within their lines, and had saved his rations, planning to escape at night and walk the seventy-five miles, he figured, to safety.

At lunch the Commandant brought out a bottle of Zibdib, and then the cook brought on a real banquet. Tomatoes, eggs, lettuce, and artichokes had arrived that morning from Alexandria. The food had been consigned to us by accident, but the Commandant used it for a feast in the aviator’s honor. We celebrated a man’s life, and we were the Allied Nations: Fighting French, British, Canadian, American. And with the Fighting French are Poles, Dutch, Russians, — our Colonel is a Prince, — Belgians, a few Scandinavians, and even some Germans and Italians.

Later, after the pilot had gone, the Commandant remarked that the boy, for he was only nineteen, had suffered a pretty bad shock. But I found that the pilot was thinking about the bawling-out in store for him. He had not managed to save his parachute, and silk is hard to get now. And he lamented his plane. War was his life; and what we on the ground looked upon as a miracle of a close shave, he accepted as part of the day’s work. And he had been up since before dawn, so he was tired. I hope he did not get called down for the lost parachute.

The next afternoon Lieutenant B. came in, in a hurry. He was on artillery patrol and had some news. All day the radio men brought slips of paper from the French post and from the British liaison. The first slip said that a dozen tanks were seen moving west, and the next twenty-five, and the next forty, and the next seventy-five, and so on to about a hundred and fifty. We were all ready to move at any moment.

I suppose it was 4.30 in the afternoon when we started back. I folded the stretcher, cut loose the bushes, and then drove off. I had a full tank. Everything was set. We drove in convoy, spread out over a mile or more of the desert. I got caught in deep sand once, but the English crew of a Bofors got out and pushed. Once we stopped for an hour or so while the advanced posts and the artillery caught up. We arrived at Bir Hacheim at about eight o’clock in the evening, and the attack was to start at one in the morning. Actually it started at eight.

Because of a twice-broken spring, I was scheduled to do the routine evacuation that morning, and to get the repair job done at the heavy workshop on the coast several miles from Tobruk and El Adem. Tichenor had a load of sick and wounded, too. We set out. At the gate the legionnaires swore at us. “Look,” they said. “Over there are the tanks.” And so they were, and then they began to shower us with little shells, which fell all around us. The men on the anti-tank guns began to swear at us some more, and so we beat it back, driving fast. That’s the way it began. We were encircled.

Alan Stuyvesant and The Goat got out a movie camera and proceeded to photograph the tanks as they approached. In the desert the light and air are very pure when no wind blows. They lay in the trench-like entrance and took pictures. I leaned against the dirt wall and kept remarking that I did not like this at all. The tanks stopped short when the 75’s opened up. They stopped for all time: five shells stopped five tanks, as neat as that, the closest just fifty feet from the cannon. It is hard to see even the enemy jump out of a burning tank, clothes aflame. When they hit the ground they are dead, though they burn for some time longer. The French took a number of prisoners, most of them wounded. They were Italians. It had been a crack armored division, and very courageous they were. It is not easy to attack a fortified position.

And that was our life for three or four days. The Fighting French were to hold out; for while we held, the enemy had to send all supply convoys around us. And so they did until they managed to cut the mine fields up toward the coast thirty miles or so away, toward Knightsbridge.

3

We could stand on our hill and watch the battle. It was hard to believe. We saw South Africans fight and maneuver the Germans, and watched the ponderous heavy tanks advance and deploy. Pillars of black smoke rose up in the still air all over the desert, marking for several hours an accurate aim and a good hit. The French 75’s — - an excellent gun — took effect on anything that foolishly came within range.

At night a burst of tracer bullets from the planes, 20-millimeter Brownings, gives you not the slightest feeling of the Fourth of July. That sudden celebration means business, and no fun. It is a rain of fire.

Then the big ack-ack shakes the ground and bursts high with a brilliant yellow flash. But the Bofors guns provide the show. Long streamers and strings of balls of red or green flames, spaced about five feet — or perhaps more — apart, but regularly and in perfect alignment, they twist and bend slowly and gracefully in the night air; and then one after another the balls of fire explode in sequence. They saw that display from Bir Hacheim that night, fifty miles away. From there it looks like a bouquet of flowers, more or less. It is very beautiful, but deadly; it rains iron fragments.

On the fifth day we had a bad air raid. I had just put a captured German ambulance in a hole — the one on the hill near a gasoline dump — when the Stukas came. They fly by threes in wedges. There were a lot of them. I ran for a trench.

Stan, the violent Polish-American, once described strafing from the air as “a great din that suddenly materialized.” And that is what happens. A fearful noise turns solid and tries to kill you. But when a bomb falls on the desert you see it leave the rack and straighten out as it falls shining in the sunlight. It whistles and then you see the smoke and dust burst and rise up like a giant graywhite cedar tree or a fat cypress, and then you hear the noise. It is more than a huge plume of smoke and dust, and there are enough for a small grove. Always more than one of them fall. Later, when the planes came in multiples of three, crowding the sky, fifty-one and ninety-nine and more at a time, filling the air with noise and glinting silver wings against a blue sky, their landing gear like the stretched feathered legs and talons of large birds of prey — you learn that silhouette by heart — later the bomb smoke and dust fell as thick as a fog, but dry and choking.

Three bombs fell directly upon a Bofors gun and its crew of French Marines. That killed all but one of the men. They had been standing up, manning the gun, aiming and firing it, and the bombs blew them to pieces. It set fire to the munitions truck, drawn up a few moments before, and so we went into the bright bursts of the shells. The one man alive died in my car on the stretcher. His eyes were open, and he was not bleeding much though his right leg was gone at the hip. He lay in the wreckage, the other leg across the leg of the gun. In the midst of those bodies the spoiled gun still stood, pointing directly overhead.

Even the dust was burned. It was blackgray, and the bodies of the young men had suddenly aged in that instant in which they were dismembered. The faces looked old and worn, like faces that too much bitter knowledge has aged. When the munitions truck had burned out, they were picked up and buried not very far from their gun, which stood up straight like a marker on that high place in the desert.

4

The next few days we spent digging in. At least early in the morning and late in the evening, and later by moonlight, we could work fairly safely. We got some black stretcher bearers, and we set up the tent once more, to take care of the wounded.

Tich and I made ourselves a sort of dugout, where we were very comfortable. Tich rarely said anything, but he was an ideal companion for a trench. Toward the end of the siege, up until the night we had to leave, we did talk about a lot of things. We found we knew a few of the same people. I had come across them in Paris, and he in New York. He had been a photographer and had worked in an elegant studio, meeting a very smart set of characters and names about town. Not that he boasted, for he never did that. He was, as I have said, a silent young man.

In Biarritz Tich had fallen in love with a girl, a Basque who had been through the Spanish wars. The family came from San Sebastián, I remember, and they had lost all their property. It was a romantic love affair, and Tich planned to go back there and get married.

When Alan did not come in that first night, we thought that perhaps he had run into a South African armored patrol and had joined those men. Perhaps they told him Bir Hacheim was surrounded again. But we began to doubt that comforting thought when a note came in from Rommel. He had taken prisoner a British liaison officer not far from where Alan had been, and Rommel had sent the officer’s chauffeur and truck into camp with a message. It advised the French to surrender; otherwise Rommel was going to destroy us. He added that he had all the necessary material. He had brought down the heavy tanks and big guns from Knightsbridge. Besides tanks, thirtytwo guns shelled us from that day on.

Alan still did not show up; so James, an American in the Fighting French GSD, kept us informed, and told us when an ambulance call came in. We worked at dawn and dusk and by night, except when a man was very seriously wounded.

One evening a nurse came over from the hospital to give James a message. He was to take the ambulance with the largest red crosses painted on it, and a white flag, and then go down to the edge of the southern mine fields to pick up some wounded German sappers. We fashioned a flag from a sheet. James went alone, I think. He said that they shot at him at first, and he reached out and shook the white flag at the gunners. Then they stopped shooting. He drew up on the edge of the mined ground, and a German stretcher bearer, Red Cross arm band showing, beckoned him to come into the mines. But James laughed, and he said that perhaps it was a dirty trick, but he made the German walk up to the ambulance, and then together they took back stretchers, stepping in the safe footprints among the buried mines.

That German stretcher bearer came back to our hospital to take care of his wounded. He was matter-of-fact and straightforward. He did his job efficiently in war conditions. I don’t know whether he was killed when the hospital was bombed.

We ate burned rice, all the bully beef we could lay hands on, and whatever else we found. That was not much. The last day or two we ate nothing at all. By that time there were a lot of casualties, and the doctors and surgeons worked all night long in the operating theater — a pair of trucks banked in sandbags and sunk in the chalky rock. It was a big hole. The two double hospital tents overflowed, and our tent was full. And then two hundred Stukas bombed the hospital .

The bombs killed everybody in one hospital tent. It was deep enough so that only the roof showed. The bombs fell directly upon it. I didn’t go over there. James said there was nothing to do. It was the only time we found him silent, and when the planes returned later on in the afternoon, he said, “God, if they bomb that other hospital tent, I can’t take it. I cannot stand that.” The men’s bodies were completely destroyed, and the Negroes and the doctors took shovels and covered them.

That night we worked all night, taking the wounded back to their company and battalion infirmaries where they could be hidden in small trenches and protected. They accepted the business and made no complaint. The mist hung on until eleven that morning, which gave us plenty of time. The men of the artillery were tired and their faces showed their great effort. They were calm when they did their work, but they had taken the great part of the bombings, and the enemy cannons searched them out.

After one bombing I closed my eyes to sleep, and so missed a lovely sight. An antiaircraft gun got a direct hit on the bomb rack of a Stuka, and the slow silver plane burst in mid-air. They tell me it exploded with a huge orange flame shaped like a candle flame, and the two wings spiraled down to earth burning. The engine fell in the middle of a triangle formed by the tents of the officers at HQ. The pilot was thrown out of the cockpit, and his automatic parachute opened; he swung down to earth, blackened, burned to a cinder.

5

The day after the hospital was destroyed we left. We had to leave. The Germans had cut through the mine fields higher up, and the Fighting French had fulfilled their part of the plans. The job was accomplished. The munitions all spent, nothing was left us except to go. Rommel had been sending in note after note. They went unanswered. We were not going to give ourselves up. We were fighting our way out.

We settled down until the sun set. Then we set to work. Equipment had to be abandoned, unless it could be tied to the fenders. We loaded hurriedly and set out. The GSD went first, our four ambulances, one English Morris, and ten empty munitions trucks, loaded with wounded. General Konig led the convoy. We drove tight together, a meter apart so that we should not miss the narrow path opened through the mines. An English column with seventy-five ambulances waited for us a few miles off. They lit a blue flare.

That night the enemy shot red and green and white flares all around us, to show us that they were on the job, and to signal one another. Sometimes giant rockets burst in the air and fell, leaving a serpent of smoke trailing. We made a slow progress at first. It was a black night with the sky powdered with stars. And of course the cannon flashed and the colored flares rose, arched, and fell. Some hit trucks, and gas dumps smoldered, and a few flames burst up from time to time. Our light sand-colored canvas ambulances showed too clearly. We were protected by all the Bren carriers and armored cars left running.

My radiator had been pierced near the top. I thought it would last out, but it did not. We decided in the end that it would be more comfortable for the wounded if some truck took me in tow. Fournier said he would. I got the cable ready, and when he came by I hooked on. Then the bad part began. It is hard to go in tow on a level road, but on the desert among mine fields it is all jerks and sudden stops and starts. I put the ear in high gear, so that the dead motor acted as a sort of brake.

We got through the mines and came to the Breda emplacements. A wounded Negro kept calling for a drink, and when I could I handed him a cup of water. We saw the tracer bullets pouring out at us like water from a fire hose, but these were 20-millimeter bullets, not water. They came from both sides of us and from in front of us. But you could see them coming. They shot up into the air, or bounced along the stony surface, running the wrong way uphill. White magnesium flares replaced the pretty red and green things, and for long moments the night turned livid. Then the truck stopped. I found I had no brakes, and for the past hundred feet I had not been able to steer properly. The direction control had been shot. The tires exploded. I crashed the back of the truck, and that pushed the radiator against the fan, so the engine would not turn over. The truck started up again, and I swung behind it.

6

It happened very quickly. We were making time. I had seen one car that looked like an ambulance burning; we avoided that light. One ambulance seemed to go to the left and stop; one to the right and disappear. We went straight ahead and then stopped suddenly. A blast of incendiary and explosive bullets hit the engine of my ambulance, and the gasoline flamed up.

I had my foot fast to the floor, but the brake was gone. I reached for the emergency, but that was gone, too; and that was when we crashed the truck and the bullets hit us. One thing, as I have said, about tracer bullets is that you can see where they come from. These came from my right.

Je suis blessé!” I said in a most surprised voice. “I’m wounded,” I repeated in English for my own benefit. “I am, too,” the nurse remarked. We threw ourselves out on either side. I found I could not walk, and fell down. It was a fearful discovery. And my left hand and arm ran blood. I sat on the ground and hollered. “Empty the car,” I said. “Separate them.” Or rather I yelled “Dégagez les voitures! ” I am not sure if it is the correct French phrase, but I kept saying it. The flames had taken hold. Wounded crawled out of the truck and dragged themselves away out of the firelight. Nobody in his senses would stay or would approach so bright an object for a marksman. I thought I saw men walking, black figures in the black night outside of my firelight.

Now when I think about it, I think that my wounded had all been killed by the same Breda that shot out my brakes and tires and hit the steering gear. I hope so, for I could do nothing lor them. You do not know lime when things happen fast and horribly. I cannot say how long I lay and shouted. By that time the tank and reserves were burning. I got up and ran a few yards and then fell down among the camel thorn, fainting.

I lay on my back in the desert. Fournier looked for me — he and the nurse, too, whose leg was rewounded, though he managed to walk. I suppose the bushes — they were only a foot high — hid me. Anyhow, Fournier had been working on the truck and had got it going. He unhitched the ambulance and drove off perhaps a hundred feet. He stopped to gather up the wounded. I stood up again and saw the truck. A man passed by and I grabbed his arm. He was wounded, but his legs were solid, and he got me there. Everyone else was aboard when we arrived. I reached up and took hold of the tailboard. It seemed an insurmountable barrier. I hung on. It was like the wall of China. Fournier ran back to see if we were set. I laughed. I seemed to be perfectly clearheaded. I said, “I cannot climb that wall.” Fournier took hold of me and threw me in. He is not a tall man. I rolled onto a pile of wounded men, and they could not help but groan. I got over against the side of the truck and lay on a pile of blankets. But they seemed to be too solid for blankets. I was afraid I lay on some unconscious man, and so crawled over onto a tool box. It was cold and wet.

We drove on all night, and at dawn we ran into an English patrol. We were glad to see them. I had slept a bit, my head on the man next to me. The English gave us hot sweet tea, as much as we could drink. They began to get us out of the truck. We lay on the ground. I remember the smiling sergeant who wrapped us with field dressings. I had had only one, and the nurse’s leg was bleeding badly. My own I had stopped by pulling up my tight wool stockings which had slipped down before the pieces hit me. And I remember a young man with red hair who was naked, too, except for a heavy coat. His left leg was gone. I remember how pale his face was under his very red hair as he stood on one leg.

By now I couldn’t stand up at all. I lay spread-eagled on the ground, my knees drawn up, and translated for the French and the English. They found three more dead in the truck. They lay beside me, their arms spread out, knees bent. But I only looked at them briefly. They were covered with blood. And anyhow, when I asked Fournier about the men in my ambulance and he told me that they had burned, I had to cover my face with my scarf, which served as a bandage and sling for my arm.

7

And so I didn’t recognize Tich there beside me. He had been killed immediately. His ambulance took fire, and while he worked with the wounded he had been hit in the head, and had fallen across the wounded men. His body lying across them had saved their lives. One man, blinded, told me that, and later I heard the same thing from the redheaded fellow whose leg was gone, in the hospital in Beirut. He had been in Tich’s ambulance.

At first I had lain on Tich’s body in the truck, and I had not known it. I suppose they had thrown him in, too, thinking that perhaps he was alive. The English buried him with the two others in three graves. I remember looking at the graves side by side, and thinking that they made a mark on the desert somehow like a bar of music. Later, in the ambulance, the nurse told me it was the American with a small beard on his chin, and that was Tich. Also he showed me Tich’s silver name bracelet. James came around looking for us. Tich and I were the only drivers he found. The Goat was missing; Kulak and Mac were missing.

The ambulances took us seventy-five miles across the desert that first day. Fournier was machine-gunned from the air, but his luck held, though a couple of wounded men were killed. I wonder how many lives he saved. How many men are directly responsible to him for being alive? At least thirty,

I should think. And he is a munitions truck driver, a member of the Train, not an ambulance driver at all. Then, that night, Jeff found me. I was glad. I was on the bottom stretcher, and couldn’t sit up. The other more seriously wounded men had been so bruised that each bump made them groan.

In the morning we went to Solium, to the Hadfield-Spears Ambulance Hospital, set up in big marquees on the white sand of the beach, with the shining Mediterranean on one side and the crescent of chalk cliffs rising up in the background, white, blue, and lavender in the cool evenings. As I was being carried out of the operating theater I saw The Goat running, and called to him. It was good to see him. He had a slight wound in the calf of his leg, and his face showed how tired he was. I had forgotten that look. At Bir Hacheim we all were worn, and our faces showed how much, now that we had other faces to look at.

In a day or so I went on to Mersa Matruh, and then to Alexandria. I kept meeting the men who had shared that solitary truck ride with Fournier over the desert. That was a ride, indeed, in the munitions truck — another radeau de la Méduse, the redheaded young man remarked. I remembered Delacroix’s fearful and romantic painting, and the wall it hung on in the Louvre. It was full of dark waves and drowning naked bodies. And I remembered Goya’s etchings of the “Horrors of War.” Those men, if anything, made understatements with their brushes and needles.