icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle



The sky had grown light enough to blot out the stars. It was morning. Finally the sun brought forth that faint, silvery-white tone that materializes just before sunrise. The men waited, painfully stretched on tenterhooks, waiting for the ever-increasing breach of daylight to give them a better view of what they were facing.
“Holy shit,” came from one of the guys who’d helped Rosen lay the wire. His voice was barely a whisper, but distinguishable enough.

Rosen blinked. He looked down the hillside toward the German line. This couldn’t be right. He couldn’t believe the staggering scene before him. The Allied troops that were braced behind paltry mounds of earth were just a couple of hundred yards away from what looked like the entire German army, stretched out like an impossibly endless fan below the hill. Tanks, big guns, and trucks were positioned all over the pass, hundreds of them, maybe more. Many of the trucks were American issue, obviously captured by the advancing Germans when the Americans retreated. And soldiers. Scores of German soldiers were bedded down close to their equipment.

The order to fire was given and the American howitzers ripped into the German camp. Shell after shell slammed home; the noise was horrendous. The mind-numbing rapid-fire explosions rattled Rosen to his very core. He tried to use the telephone to contact the command tent, but the noise was simply too intense. They couldn’t hear him. Creasy had shrunk way down low, his hands over his ears.

The Allies had taken Rommel and his men by surprise all right, but there the advantage ended. The German army outnumbered the Americans and the handful of British by thousands. The Germans lost very little time before they started returning fire. Soon all the German guns opened up and both sides were now fully engaged.

They fired non-stop, shelling constantly. Rosen ducked as shrapnel rained all around his position. He felt his blood pulse everywhere, even in his fingertips. The panzers were on the move and two American 105-mm guns were taken out. The Germans also lost tanks and men in the barrage, but the firing never stopped, not even for a moment.

Rosen’s head pounded, the hideous noise slashing into his brain. The thunderous explosions reverberated in his ears as the artillery on both sides blasted shell after shell into the sky. The ground beneath them shook. Rockets burst overhead like one-hundred 4th of Julys. The sky glared red, smudged with angry smoke.

After several hours of relentless battle, the Germans had finally garnered air support. Stuka dive bombers attacked, shattering American men and equipment. The smoke descended on them, thick like fog. Now the air whistled with the piercing shrieks of the Stuka bombs in addition to the uninterrupted roar of constant shelling from the big German guns.

Then the unthinkable happened. Creasy was hit by one of the Stukas. Rosen saw him go down. He rushed to Creasy’s side, not knowing what to do. Instantly, blood colored the mud beneath them. Creasy made only a few wet, choking, thrashing sounds before he went completely still. In seconds, his life had been blown out of him, vaporized just like that.

Creasy had died almost instantly, inches from where Rosen had been crouched trying to get through to the captain on the telephone. Rosen carefully slid Creasy’s eyelids shut. He didn’t know why that seemed so very necessary; he just couldn’t bear having Creasy’s dead eyes staring at him in that pleading way. As if Creasy were imploring Rosen to explain what had happened.
Rosen had never witnessed a person dying right before his eyes, let alone a friend being killed so callously, so indiscriminately. Creasy didn’t have a moment to say even one good-bye. God help them all, Rosen thought. He hadn’t heard any of the other guys actually say the words: suicide mission, but the idea had probably crossed their minds just as it now crossed his. And it looked as if it weren’t simply a wild speculation. The Ninth Division artillerymen had been knowingly sent to their deaths. The army could not have expected any of them to come out of this grotesquely uneven battle alive. Rosen felt dragged down, knowing now that he, too, would probably come to his end in this horrible mire of liquefied mud.

The lieutenant was hit next. One of the two remaining men helped Rosen carry the lieutenant down the hill. He wasn’t dead, but from the looks of him, he’d been blown to a scrambled mess. Rosen felt certain the lieutenant had been castrated. The horror of the scene pressed against the back of his eyes, straight through to his core.

By now the telephone line that Rosen and the others had laid so carefully had been destroyed by the steady bombardment of German shells. He had to repair the wire, but meanwhile the gunfire never stopped. All day, the Americans fired round after round. At the same time, the German tanks tried to take out the American guns.

The night before the Ninth had arrived at Thala, several British tanks had attempted to steal into the darkness and travel back to the British supply depot. Ammunition stores had been just about exhausted and fuel supplies registered dangerously low. But the Germans had used Arab spies to keep track of British troop movement, and a column of Germans quickly pulled together and pursued the British. The British fired; so did the Germans. The skirmish left behind a logjam of disabled British and German tanks, completely blocking the narrow road. The ridgeline to the left of their position resembled a junkyard.

Then Rosen spotted a line of German troops creeping toward them along this same ridgeline, partly concealed by the tangled wreckage of tanks that had been put out of action the night before. The Germans were trying to surround their position from the left. If the Germans came around from behind the berm that protected the Americans and British at least somewhat, the Germans would have them hemmed in. From there the Germans would be able to advance directly into the Allied stronghold.

Rosen had to find the captain, fast.