Lieutenant Southgate wiped moisture off the face of his watch and consulted the dial in the faint dawn light. The tank was late. Behind him his men fidgeted. The occasional smoker's cough split the air. Southgate wondered if they had slept well in their billets scattered throughout Fornham St. Martin, safe from the enemy and the drizzle that had fallen during the night. His own sleep had been fitful. Much rested on this day, although he felt confident in their coming victory.
Leviathan, the Anglican League's own armour-plated traction engine, stood a hundred yards away, the furnace banked, a steady putter of releasing steam making the brutal slab-sided machine seem alive. Her crew stood smoking their pipes on the footplate, the heavy steel door swung open to allow ventilation into the confines of the cab. The commander saw Southgate looking his way and raised his pipe in salute, nodding to the clear sign of the Colonel's pleasure in the platoon's performance, a steel-clad wagon bearing a 3-inch mortar. Southgate nodded back. It could be our war-winner. Now, if that dratted tank would just turn up - ah.
A squeaking and a clattering of tracks sounded up the street, and the Vickers Mk VIb hove into view, the goggled commander peering out of the turret, a League pennon fluttering gaily above his head in the damp air. The tank pulled up close by on the road and Southgate walked over to talk to its commander. "All ready for the off, old chap?" the young fellow called cheerily.
"We are, indeed." Southgate resisted the urge to give the fellow lines or a demerit for tardiness. Being a schoolmaster for so many years had left its mark. "I'd like you to cover our attack from the highway, and advance in concert with us when the time comes."
"Righty-ho!" The man banged on the turret and the tank lurched into motion. "Onwards, Christian soldiers!" he called with a wave, and Southgate shook his head. I only hope the young idiot survives this day.
* * * *BUF Platoon Leader Arnold Huggins leaned on the parapet of the Lark Bridge, smoking a cigarette and wishing he were elsewhere. A hangover induced by a long night in the nearby Tollgate Pub did nothing to lift his spirits. He suspected the landlord, a surly cove, had spiked the drink with something. He looked across at the squat shape of the bunker and the slashed earth marking the trenches the other side of the river. They'd been positioned either side of the B1106 and protected the bridge from any attack from Fornham St. Martin, the roofs of which he could see against the dawn sky. We've done what we can, with what we have. Word had it those holy-rollers of the League were over there in force, ready to attack the sugar beet works, the towering silos of which he could see in the distance to the SE. Bad cess to 'em if they do tackle that place. I hope they get bloody slaughtered!
Nearby a section sat on the grass verge, smoking and chatting amongst themselves. They were passing several bottles around and seemed in remarkably good cheer, considering the defeats they'd had. One of the men, one of the scarce replacements he'd been given, saw him looking and held up a bottle. "Snort' o' gin, Pee-El? Hair o' the dog that bit yer."
Huggins thought briefly then nodded, taking the bottle then a good long swig. He began to feel better almost at once. "That's good stuff, lad. Where did you get it?"
The man jerked his head toward the pub behind him. "That bloody landlord had hidden it in a shed at the bottom o' his garden. We liberated it, in the name of the Party."
The man said this with a straight face, but Huggins couldn't help but grin. "Good lad - what the..?"
A faint rattle and squeak sounded from the east. Had the wind not been blowing from the SW Huggins knew he would've noticed it earlier. "Is that a tank?"
"F--k!" The man he'd been talking to tossed the bottle aside and leaped to his feet. They listened for a few moments, peering into the light of dawn. The man pointed. "I see movement over there, across the stream."
The rattle and squeaking grew louder. Huggins remembered the encounter the platoon had had with a light tank in the dreadful scrap over the Crown Jewels, another defeat and where Alcock had lost his life. Huggins' heart sank even as he knew what was coming and what he had to do. The holy rollers are attacking us here? Will we never get any peace?
"Stand to!" he roared.
* * * *
Battle report with pictures to follow soon.