If not for the burning vehicles in the valley it would be as dark as a grave on the hillside, but silent it was not.
The cry came from the gun controller of a GPMG in the sustained fire role and its gun crew from ‘C’ (Royal Berkshire) Company, 2 Wessex, were firing on a DF he could not even see had it been daylight.
The GPMG was almost at its maximum elevation as fired twenty round bursts, with every fifth one being a tracer round to aid correction. The rounds arced away into the night but not to a pre-registered Defensive Fire in front of their own positions, they were disappearing over a protrusion of higher ground to their right to plunge down at a target 1700 metres away.
The gun pit was not situated for direct defence but instead to provide enfilade fire support for other companies or units on the flanks. The GPMG was particularly well suited for this as the ‘beaten zone’, the pattern in which the rounds from a burst of fire landed, was cigar shaped and therefore more effective when employed against advancing infantry.
Likewise the companies and units on either flank would fire on their neighbours DFs.
Its sight was the C2, the same as that used on the L16 81mm mortar, and similarly used in conjunction with an aiming post to register targets they may not even have direct line of sight to, and to lay onto those targets again at any time, come day or night although a Trilux lamp was clamped to the top of the aiming post for night shoots.
Once the fall of shot was landing where it was required then the bearing and elevation was recorded. In this fashion a good crew could unlock the guns swivel mount, swing it onto the desired bearing where after a little fine adjustment they could put rounds on the ground in exactly the same place, very rapidly.
If it was necessary to engage targets to their front, the gun was dismounted from the tripod and used in the light role over open sights as the tripod was below ground level.
Some twenty three DFs were registered carefully in waterproof chinagraph pen along with three FPFs, Final Protective Fires, that would be called in in the event of units coming into close quarters with enemy infantry.
Thus far they had fired on those FPFs some eleven times this day, and the day wasn’t over yet.
In a trench to their rear a young soldier slung his rifle across his back and squatted to grip the metal handles of two ammunition boxes from a stash left by the CQMS. The yellow stencilling identified the contents as 7.62 link and the boxes were heavy, the handles slippery with mud and he used the remaining boxes as steps to exit.
“NO…crawl!” shouted the gun controller before flinching at the sound of a high velocity round, its sharp crack hurting his ears as it passed by at a velocity exceeded the speed of sound.
“Ah, bollocks!” Lance Corporal ‘Dopey’ Hemp snarled with feeling, tearing his eyes away before turning to the gun’s No. 2, yelling into his ear.
“Back in a jiffy Spider, but get ready to throw smoke when I shout?.”
“I’ve only got the one.”
Dopey checked his pouches, but he had only L2 fragmentation grenades, the Brit version of the US M26.
“Bugger it…” Roger was busy doing his gunner bit so Dopey checked his pouches for him, and he was out of smoke too. He would have to use a wet and muddy route back to the trench behind them and save the smoke for the return journey.
“Where’d the shot come from?” Spider asked.
Dopey nodded downslope where Soviet AFVs and tanks sat disabled or burnt-out in mud that grew deeper with each new attack’s churning sets of tracks.
“The smart money says he…or they, will be five hundred odd metres away in amongst that lot down there.”
Downslope beyond their own units positions was known as the Thin Green Line, the ground held by the Royal Marines of 44 Commando who had allowed a group of enemy tanks and AFVs to roll over their forward trenches before engaging them where their armour was thinnest and knocking them out with infantry anti-tank weapons.
The NATO forces best tank killers were still the guns of their own MBTs, but attrition was at work there too on this seemingly endless day and night.
Clearly not all the enemy who had reached the defenders on the Vormundberg were dead as two members of D Company, 2LI, at whose rear the gun pit sat, had also fallen victim in the past hour.
Private ‘Spider’ Webber did not stick his head up to look; he had learned that lesson early on.
“I wonder what the Argyll and Sutherland guys will call us when we are the forward line of troops?”
“Same as always, I expect…” replied Dopey, stripping off his bulky fighting order and adding with his best attempt at a Glasgow accent “…yon fockin’ wee Eng-lish bast-ads.”
Spider checked the wind direction and decided he would have to toss the smoke to the right front of the gun pit, and not too far either as damp air made the smoke ‘hang’ in the rain rather than drift with the breeze.
Unburdened by the webbing Dopey slipped over the lip of the gun pit, keeping as low as possible he snaked through the mud into a depression carved out by this constant rain. He couldn’t remember when he had last been dry and neither could he recall when last he had last felt safe. He followed the depression on his belly for twenty metres up the slope.
Bracing himself, swallowing down the fear and forcing it away he left the depression with a dive and roll, and the lance corporal kept on rolling until he reach the other trench, dropping over the edge and back into cover.
He landed on a pair of legs, but the owner did not object, he lay where he had toppled backwards over the trench’s lip.
Dead eyes which had been alive but a few minutes before now stared back. The soldiers face was in shadow until illuminated briefly by a Soviet parachute flares sulphurous light and Dopey saw it held a look of surprise. He checked for a pulse anyway and it confirmed what he had learned to judge by sight, the difference from the living and the dead, so he wrested the ammunition boxes away from the body. Crouching below the edge of the trench he braced himself before heaving each one up and over, lofting not only those boxes but the six remaining boxes of link cached there.
There were also two boxes of 7.62 ball ammunition which could be belted together with the growing pile of expended links below their GPMG. One at a time he tossed these over the lip of the trench toward his own gun’s position. His arm and back ached with the effort.
The small arms fire from the both his 2LI hosts and 44 Commando rose to a crescendo seemingly at the very second he opened his mouth to call to Spider, and he froze.
Streams of tracer, almost akin to lasers, ripped through the air high overhead as the marine’s called in defensive fires.
Gradually the angles of the outgoing tracer altered, engaging DFs closer to the marine’s positions before again dropping plunging fire onto a FPF as the Hungarians closed almost to grenade range.
Mortar fire missions arrived on target and overhead the outgoing artillery rounds droned mournfully eastwards, the sound punctuated by those of Challenger and Chieftain’s main guns deliberate fire.
Dopey’s heart pounded and it would have been so very easy to just stay where he was, put his shaking hands over his ears and resign to fear, but the firing slackened from that of a deafening roar to one of a few desultory shots in the dark.
At times like this the good soldier does not grit his teeth and fight on for Queen and country, he does not risk his skin out of regimental pride either, what he does do though is to think of his mates and it is that spurs him out of safety and back into harm’s way.
“SPIDER!” he waited for an answering shout.
“SMOKE!” Dopey yelled.
There was a pause until Spider judged that line of sight between the trench and the suspected firing point was sufficient.
Perhaps the sniper was now dead? But if not he was unlikely to have moved on as his last victim had emerged from this trench carrying ammunition boxes, so it was a potentially good source of targets.
Dopey did not leave the trench the way he came in, he left the far end and rolled again, pausing only to check that the smoke was where it should be before slithering quickly downhill to where the boxes had landed.
The smoke was thinning out by the time he had tossed the last one the remainder of the way to the gun pit and rejoined the rest of the crew.
They were none of them regular soldiers, although Dopey Hemp had served a tour attached to The Queens Regiment in Iraq. They were all three of them part timers from Britain’s Territorial Army, a diverse mix in terms of background, education and employment in their day jobs, far more so than amongst the ranks of the regular army. ‘Dopey’s’ given name was Mark and he was a barman by trade, pulling pints in a pub in Dedworth on the outskirts of Windsor. He didn’t know what Spider Webber’s Christian name was, but Spider was a machinist somewhere on Slough Trading Estate. The gunner was Roger Andrews, an apprentice butcher from Eton Wick and young man lying dead in the trench behind them had been a college student in Maidenhead.
Dopey and the others from 2 Wessex who were on loan to the Light Infantry were filling dead men’s shoes, and in their case manning one of the 2LI Machine Gun Platoon ‘gimpies’, the L7A2 General Purpose Machine Guns.
The carefully recorded bearing and elevation sight settings were not written in Dopey’s hand and they did not ask what had happened to the light infantrymen who had been the original crew, the sandbags lining the gun pit were torn and ripped in places from an air bursting artillery round’s shrapnel, but the rain had washed away the blood.
Now back in the gun pit the barrel of the GPMG glowed red, the rain hissed and sizzled on the metal but the fire mission in support of 1CG’s left flank company was complete.
It is possible for the barrel of a GPMG to become white hot with constant use, and with that the barrel will warp and become unusable, but before that occurs then rounds will cook-off in the breach due to the heat. Three spare heavy barrels are part of an SF kit and carried in a thick wove bag of ’37 Pattern webbing, and it is but the work of a moment to replace a barrel that is glowing red orange with that of a spare.
According to the SASC, the Small Arms School Corps, the hot barrel should be placed to one side and allowed to cool naturally in order to prevent the metal eventually becoming brittle. But at one side of the gun pit stood a 16” high aluminium storage tin that had once held twelve shermouli para illum tubes, it was now brimming with rainwater and had two heavy barrels for the ’gimpy’ sticking out of it. Had it not been raining and the locale arid, then the tin would have been filled with the crew’s urine and the pungent odour of a public urinal on a hot summer’s day would have hung in the air.
A wonderful tool is a soldier’s urine, it has softened boot leather for centuries and cooled barrels since the invention of gunpowder.
In a cramped shelter bay dug into the side of the gun pit Roger was working on the third barrel with a wire brush from the weapons cleaning kit, also a webbing bag. Carbon builds up rapidly in the SF role and if unchecked it will adversely effect accuracy as it fills the rifling grooves. The barrels gas regulator also collects carbon residue each time a round is fire and this eventually leads to stoppages.
Having once cleaned the inside of the barrel Roger removed the gas regulator and carefully placed this, along with its two small semi-circular lugs into an old compo ration tin. He dropped them into two inches of clear fluid that was already in the tin where they fizzed. If the SASC frowned up the method of cooling the barrels that the Berkshire men employed, then they would be seriously upset with the regulator being immersed in rust remover. Nothing, however, removed carbon quite as quickly and thoroughly as an acid solution. The gunner was far more concerned with husbanding his limited supply of Jenolite than he was of the SASC’s wrath.
The position had a field telephone with a direct line to a man-portable telephone exchange at company headquarters and he reported the death of their ammunition carrier to the D Company 2LI CSM.
“What was his full name?” the CSM asked.
“I dunno sir, his surname was Crowne.” Dopey replied, pausing to look at the other two, almost indiscernible in the dark.
“Fucknows.” Spider offered unhelpfully, and Roger's shrug went unseen in the darkness at the back of the shelter bay.
A few months ago they would all have been greatly embarrassed at not knowing the name of one of their unit who had been killed, but that was then and this was now.
“He was a new guy…and we are down to six boxes of mixed link.”
“And smoke!” Spider reminded him.
The CSM could be heard calling out to the Q Bloke at the other end but the company’s quarter master sergeant’s reply was a mere nod. He was a busy man this day.
Dopey hung up the old fashioned handset and sat beside Spider on empty ammunition boxes in the entrance to the shelter bay, their boots squelching in the mud with each movement as the boxes of 7.62 ball ammunition were opened.
They were all deathly tired, and not just from lack of sleep. Fear produces adrenaline and adrenaline has a toll on the body but they squatted, silently creating fresh belts using spent links. There would be no tracer rounds in these belts so they would be carefully stored in the boxes the rounds had come from and placed with similar belts as their final ammunition reserve.
“Anyone got any scoff?” Spider asked “Me stomach thinks me throats been cut.”
Dopey fished out a small tin from a cardboard ten man ration pack beside him, tossing it across.
Spider worked his compo tin opener industriously in the dark interior of the shelter bay before giving the contents an exploratory sniff.
“Bacon Grill! What kind of grub is that for a good Jewish boy?” he grumbled “Hasn’t this man’s army heard of religious diversity?”
“Did you wash this morning, Spider?”
“Was it army issue soap, nicked from the bogs at Paderborn when we passed through?”
“Then the answer is no, it doesn’t give a stuff about rigorous debauchery because it was so old you were probably washing with your granny.”
Spider tried to feign offence at the remark, but he failed and joined the other two soldiers giggling like demented schoolboys at the bad, and very old joke, before bending the newly removed lid of the tin slightly and using it to scoop the contents into his mouth, taking care not let his tongue touch its jagged edge.
Roger fished the gas parts from out of the compo tin and grunted in pain as the rust remover attacked the tiny cuts on his fingertips that seem to appear as if by magic on infantrymen’s hands as soon as they get into the field. Roger’s discomfort was a minor thing, akin to getting lemon juice on a cut and the reassembly and reattachment of the gas regulator to the barrel went in silence.
The newly field cleaned barrel replaced the old one, and a brief hiss sounded from the shermouli container that one was doused too.
The white noise issuing from the radio headphones cut out abruptly.
“Hello Four Six Delta this is Nine Four Bravo, over?”
The trio paused in what they were doing.
“Four Six Bravo, send, over.” replied Dopey.
“Nine Four Bravo…shoot Dee Eff Three Six Echo, over!”
“Here we go again.” muttered Roger.