Listening to the battle from a tank
26th December 1942: British tank commanders use their own coded language to communicate on the battlefield
For many men, there was little time to mark Christmas or the celebration had to be delayed. Out in the desert of North Africa, the pursuit of Rommel's forces continued without pause. He was retreating into Tunisia, where Hitler had gathered substantial new forces.
This is an opportune day to include an undated passage from Keith Douglas1 from this period. His tank squadron was at the leading edge of the pursuit, periodically brushing up against German rearguard actions.
‘George, one of your children came up in the middle of my transmission then, when I was trying to talk to King. It’s most difficult and annoying, and I won’t have it... Tell him to bloody well keep off the air when I’m trying to fight a battle…’
the US Marines may have had their Navajo Code talkers, the British officers had their own code of communication both on and off the battlefield. Only those within the circle could truly understand what was being said:
From the first appearance of the enemy, a Crusader troop leader, well out in front of the regiment, sees and hears the whole action, almost as if it were a pageant prepared for his entertainment: for hours on end it may continue to be exciting in quite an impersonal way.
He sees a suspicious blob on the horizon; halts his squat turret almost level with a ridge and scrutinizes the blob through his glasses. Pressing the switch of his microphone, releasing it a moment to see if someone else is talking, and pressing it again, he says: ‘King 2. Something that looks like a tank to my front, about three miles, I’m on your right. Over.’
‘King 2. O.K. off to you. King, did you hear King 2’s message?
‘King, yes. Let him keep bumming on. But be cautious. Off,” says Piccadilly Jim to Edward.
‘King 1,’ says Edward, calling the squadron, ‘slow down a bit and have a good look from hull down before you go swarming over ridges. Over.’
‘2 O.K. off, 3 O.K. off, 4 O.K. off`.’ ‘King 2, 3, 4, O.K. off to you. King 5, did you get my last message?
‘King 5. Yes. Over.’
‘King 5, well bloody well wake up and acknowledge. Off.’
‘Off" caps the rebuke, like a telephone receiver being hung up.
We have two main sources of allusion, horses and cricket.
‘Uncle Tom, what’s the going like over this next bit? Can we bring the, er, unshod horses over it?’
‘Uncle Tom, I"m just going over Beecher’s myself, you want to hold ’em in a bit and go carefully, but after that it’s good going for the whole field!'
‘King 2 Ack,’ says someone who has broken a track. ‘I shall need the farrier, I’ve cast a shoe.’
Someone else is ‘having trouble with my horse’s insides. Could I have the Vet?’
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