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The Oblong Box

by Nick Sumner


Part One: The Box

He had gone with the oblong box directly from headquarters to the airport, his car passing swiftly through the streets of the darkened capital escorted by two motorcycle outriders, they were not really necessary, in the late cool hours of an autumn evening there was hardly anyone around. The light aircraft was waiting for him as they had said it would be, its engine already turning, the pilot was busy with the last of his pre flight checks, he looked tired, exhausted in fact but saluted when he saw the Colonel’s uniform.

The Colonel made himself as comfortable as he could in the cramped, noisy interior of the aircraft. As they climbed into the darkness the little plane shook and rocked in turbulence, the note of its engine changing as it reached altitude. His eyes probed the starless darkness outside the window but finding nothing to alight on there, came to rest on the tense features of the pilot beside him, his face lit by the green glow of the instruments.

The Colonel's hands rested on the box in his lap, they had not told him what the box contained and professional that he was, he had not asked. His mission was a simple one, deliver it in person to the general at the beachhead. He wondered what the box could contain? It wasn't heavy, wrapped in brown paper, tied with string, about sixty centimetres long and twelve centimetres square. Not papers, not maps, but what?

They had called him at eight o'clock, he had been working late. In the conference room maps of the beachhead were laid out on the tables, he had seen at once that the situation was grave. The General Staff had looked drawn, resigned, when one of them had handed him the box he had held it reverently as if it contained something precious but the look in his eye was serious, gloomy, full of misgiving. He might have felt annoyance at being treated as a delivery boy, but he was also glad to be going to the front, he felt the old thrill of excitement and fear, he had not seen action for a very long time.

Uncomfortable in the silence he said to the pilot;

"You look tired." The pilot turned towards him, as if noticing him for the first time.

"Yes Colonel I am pretty tired." The pilot smiled self-consciously, a rictus grin without a trace of humour. "I don't think I've had more than three hours sleep in the last four days, my squadron has been flying supplies to the beachhead."

"In this little plane?" Asked the Colonel. He meant it as a joke but the pilot smiled again, and again the smile was mechanical, joyless.

"Yes in this little plane, we've got every aircraft that can carry a load dropping supplies, they've even attached panniers to the fighters, you can imagine how pleased the fighter jocks are about that. All they’ve told us is that the situation is critical and our soldiers need every ounce we can drop them."

He hesitated for a moment as if wondering if he should continue before he said.

"Our losses have been bad, we were told the enemy fighters had been defeated but we've lost half the squadron, I'll be honest with you Colonel I am quite happy to be flying this mission tonight, after we land I'll have to go straight back." The Colonel did not reply.

Part Two: The Burning Shore

The first flush of a grey dawn was lightening the eastern sky as he picked his way as swiftly as he could along the quay. The dock was in chaos, crates of food munitions and medical supplies were stacked everywhere, the shouts of soldiers and dock workers, the noise of cranes moving the crates onto vessels of all shapes and sizes. From one, a procession of orderlies bought men on stretchers, some of them whimpering in pain even as the cranes moved nets filled with supplies over their heads

He found his way to the quartermaster's office, it was crowded, blazing with light that spilled out onto the dock despite the blackout, men hurried in and out clutching manifests, harassed, panicky, above the hubbub of voices two were raised in argument.

"Don’t you understand? The medical circumstance is beyond desperate over there, you must send these hospital supplies immediately!"

"I’m sorry doctor but my orders are both clear and explicit, munitions first, food second, medicine third." The Colonel had no time for this.

"Which one of you is in charge?"

"I am." Said the second man. The Colonel told him his name.

"Ah you are here Colonel, good, the boat is waiting for you."

It was a motor torpedo boat, roughly thirty metres in length, two torpedo tubes either side of the open bridge, two twin 20 mm gun mounts, one before the bridge and one aft, its engines throbbed and it sat in a reeking cloud of diesel smoke. As he walked down the companionway he saw that the crew were lashing crates and boxes to the deck

The captain, a Second Lieutenant was on the bridge, a cigarette dangled from his lip, he saluted and asked if the Colonel was ready, they cast off and as the boat nosed its way past the mole the note of its engine changed from a steady throb to a thundering scream. As the throttles opened the Lieutenant flicked his cigarette over the side, a tiny orange spark spiralling into the sea as the boat leapt forward into the grey morning.

In the gathering light the Colonel saw that the vessel had suffered damage, there were hastily patched holes from bullets or splinters in the sides of the bridge and on her deck, the men too looked exhausted, they were unshaven, their clothing rumpled and stained as if they had not changed for many days, the water was choppy now and the boat bounced from wave to wave, he held on to the cockpit coaming as the deck pitched beneath his feet. Instinctively he hunched into his jacket and pulled his peaked cap down further as the wind of their slipstream blew strong and cold in his face On the horizon - the enemy coast - a great dark column of smoke rose into the clouds, it looked like a funeral pyre, an omen of doom, they were heading straight towards it.

The cloud was beginning to break up, shafts of sunlight streamed through its tattered edges from the dawn behind them and suddenly one of the gunners was shouting "Enemy aircraft, seven o'clock!"

Three fighters in a loose V formation had dropped out of the low cloud and were turning toward them. The formation split, one aircraft banked away to the port side of the boat, the other two to starboard, the Lieutenant was giving orders to the helmsman, they turned towards the two aircraft, shortening the distance between them, giving the greater threat the smaller amount of time to bring their guns to bear, but the Colonel knew even as they turned that the enemy fighters were herding them, for while they sped as quickly as they could towards the guns of the two fighters now in front of them, the third aircraft was angling in behind and their relative speeds meant that the pilot would have a much longer period of time in which to aim.

The aft 20mm guns opened up and suddenly the two fighters in front of them broke right and left, but the Colonel looked over their stern to the third fighter, the great disc of its propeller seemed to float inches above the water, its wings caught a flash of sunlight as they rocked, then a ripple of fire spread along their length and the bullets came whistling around them, the Lieutenant shouted an order and the helmsman slammed the throttle back and turned the boat broadside into the enemy fire, the Colonel lost his footing as the boat heeled over, he fell to the cockpit floor as water came foaming white over the gunwales but it was too late, the boat seemed to stagger under the thud of bullets striking home and suddenly someone was screaming as the fighter roared overhead seemingly inches from the top of the bridge.

The Colonel scrambled to his feet as the boat rocked from side to side but he slipped and fell heavily back to the deck. He had slipped on the helmsman's blood. The helmsman was dead, his body lay crumpled, a broken doll, one hand still gripped the wheel, the side of his face smashed open, the Colonel could see broken teeth and the white of bone through the blood and the ragged hole in his cheek. Pinkish grey brain matter oozed from the helmet that still somehow remained on what was left of his head.

Again the Colonel got to his feet more carefully this time, a wave of nausea turned his stomach, he had not seen violent death close-up for more than twenty years. The box had slipped from his hands and fallen into a corner of the bridge, he scrambled to retrieve it but when he held it again the corner of the wrapping was soggy with blood. The Lieutenant was shouting orders and took the wheel himself but let it go suddenly, his hands came away from it bloody, he wiped them quickly with a rag. Another sailor came and pulled the helmsman's body out of the bridge.

One by one the crew reported back, the damage was light but the aft gunner had been injured, he sobbed in pain, a bubbling cry of agony and despair. No one spoke as slowly the boat moved forward again, picking up speed towards the dark column of smoke that reared above the coast, towering over them like a malevolent beast. The body of the helmsman was wrapped in a piece of canvas and laid out next to one of the torpedo tubes.

Another crewman took the wheel, the engines opened up again and the boat once more surged forward. The Colonel fought to bring his mind back under control, he lit a cigarette, ‘Don’t think about the dead man, remember your mission…’ For him it had been many years since war had been more than just an exercise in command and control, an abstract problem, in the past year the army had fought brilliantly while he had had to content himself with paperwork, he wasn’t used to this any more, but then, did anyone ever get used to it?


They were close to the enemy shoreline now and the lieutenant was giving him instructions, he held up a map and was pointing to one of the beaches on which the landings had been made four days previously.

"... we can't get too close to the beach - there's too many obstructions in the water - including mines and booby traps, it hasn't been cleared." He looked at his watch. "It’s now low tide, we will stay about a hundred metres out, you'll take the dingy..."

The Colonel interrupted him

"But we captured the port on the second day, I was told you could take me right to the dock." The lieutenant shook his head,

"No Colonel the port is closed, air attacks have been constant, there are several hulks blocking the entrance to the harbour, we can't get into the port everything has to go over the beach including you."

They could see the shoreline clearly now, high cliffs, peaceful green countryside the column of smoke was rising from the town behind the port, as the boat sped closer they could see burning buildings, the Colonel pulled his field glasses from his pack but there was little he could make out through the smoke. The beach was around the next promontory, abruptly their speed slowed to a crawl, the smoke was thicker here and the choppy water was filled with debris, pieces of wood, a life raft half deflated, the bloated body of a horse. A landing barge down at the bows, abandoned, her wheelhouse blazing. The upturned hull of another, the masts of a larger ship jutting from the sea. The man at the helm conned them carefully, craning his neck to see over the bows.

With the engines throttled back the sound of gunfire came clearly across the water, the rattle of small arms, the thud of exploding shells, it didn't make sense, their forces had struck more than 30 km inland, they shouldn’t be able to hear the sound of battle at that distance, had the situation degenerated that far?

The Colonel's eyes strained in the direction of the gunfire, the smoke cleared in patches showing the beach, the sea wall and the buildings of the town behind it and then the Colonel gasped, for a moment refusing to believe the evidence of his senses as the smoke cleared some more to reveal the unmistakable shape of an enemy battleship.

The battleship had died fighting. She had been deliberately grounded, probably at high tide, the ship was listing at about 25° to port and had been driven up on the shingle, her prow was only thirty or forty metres from the low sea wall. Her ram bow was completely clear of the water and crumpled by the impact, waves broke around her stern and there were two jagged overlapping holes beneath her exposed waterline, both nearly forty metres in length. Her main deck was a shambles, her hull and superstructure bore the scars of fire and shell impacts, her four twin turrets all pointed in different directions, the guns at various angles of elevation. Her casemated secondaries too were all run out and her battered tripod fore mast, stark against the sky, loomed over them like a gallows. The Lieutenant was speaking, there was weariness in his voice but also admiration.

"That happened the day before yesterday, they sortied a good portion of their fleet, timed it perfectly, they came past the narrows and caught us at sunrise, it was chaos, they went right through the escort and slaughtered our transports, it was a massacre..." As his voice trailed off he pointed to the battleship with his chin.

"She took two torpedoes, she was finished but they beached her and it was nearly two hours before we could silence her guns. The crew didn't surrender even when they had emptied their magazines, they fought on with small arms, I don’t know if any of them survived..."

They could see the rest of the beach now, it was pitted with Shell holes, crowded with the wrecks of smashed and upturned vehicles, two transport barges were being unloaded even as shells exploded around them sending towering columns of water into the sky.

"It's time" said the Lieutenant." As the boat came to a stop and drifted for a moment, he again bought out the map. He pointed to a building behind the sea wall, and then to a point on the paper. "That house is here, the Generals Head Quarters are in this building here, its three hundred metres east of this point, it’s a white hotel, we will hold our position for one hour…"

"No, my mission might take longer, you must wait for me."

"One hour Colonel, I’m sorry."

He rounded angrily on the Lieutenant about to order him to stay until he returned but something in the man’s eyes told him that it would be a waste of breath.

Part Three: The Broken Army

The streets of the town were deserted, some of the buildings were in ruins, most were pockmarked with bullet holes, on one road some burned-out cars seemed to have been assembled into a hasty barricade, an enemy tank with a thrown track blocked another, on a third, one of his own tanks completely undamaged, its hatches open. The ammunition, hull machine gun and radio had been stripped. It had run out of fuel.

He ran from cover to cover bent double, his service pistol drawn, the oblong box an awkward burden beneath his left arm. Shells were falling on the town and the crackle of small arms seemed very close. He rounded a corner and saw three paratroopers, a corporal and two privates, recognisable by their cut down helmets and camouflage smocks. With their machine pistols they were covering four men standing against a wall, they were prisoners, two were in enemy uniforms, but the others wore civilian clothes. It was a firing squad.

"Corporal what is the meaning of this?"

The corporal saluted, he returned it, "Sir, these are enemy saboteurs."

"Two of these men are in uniform."

"I have orders to shoot all saboteurs in uniform or otherwise Sir, the order comes directly from High Command."

He looked at the prisoners, each of them wore a different expression, one seemed resigned, at peace, another met the Colonel's gaze with a look of curiosity, the third hung his head fighting to control the sobs that were shaking his frame, as his eyes met those of the fourth, the man began to shout in his own language, defiance, fury and contempt in every syllable and the Colonel suddenly realised that these were old men, the youngest was in his fifties and the two that had uniform - the uniforms were twenty years old - they were from the last war, his war.

"Corporal two of these men are uniformed enemy combatants."

"Sir these men are saboteurs."

"Corporal we are soldiers, shooting surrendered enemy combatants is a crime."

"Sir, I have my orders."

He looked very hard at the Corporal but the man's eyes could not meet his, the muscle at the angle of his jaw worked nervously, his expression wavered between repugnance and resolve.

The corporal saluted, his gaze fixed somewhere over the Colonel's left shoulder. The Colonel did not return the salute, the enemy prisoner was still shouting as he turned his back, he heard the corporal say ‘Fire.’, the quick rattle of the machine pistols, the unmistakable sound of bullets hitting flesh. The shouting ceased.


He was just a few tens of metres from the white hotel now, every window in the building seemed to be smashed, part of the roof was missing, the chimneys toppled, the walls riddled with bullet holes. He walked through the open gate to find the garden full of wounded, they sat or lay on the ground, some were unconscious, a few moaned in pain but most were still and quiet. He bent down to ask one of them where the General was, the man saluted feebly and gestured towards the buildings interior, as he turned to go he heard the man ask weakly, "Colonel, please, do you have a cigarette?" He holstered his side arm, gave him the rest of the packet and went inside.

The corridors too were crowded with wounded, on the stairs and in the passageways. The general was quite alone in what had been a dining room, some tables had been put together and on them a large map of the South East coast was unfolded. The General stood looking through the open French windows, out into what remained of the garden. The crack of artillery fire seemed very close, a cigarette was held in his left hand. He turned as the Colonel came in.

"What can I do for you Colonel?" The colonel saluted, the general returned the salute perfunctorily, his eyes were distant, dreamy with a weariness beyond simple fatigue.

"I have come directly from headquarters, I am instructed to give you this." He held the box out in front of him, the brown paper wrapping was scuffed and torn, the blood on it had dried.

"What is it?" Asked the General.

"I don't know Sir, I was told only to bring it to you and hand it over in person."

The general sighed, stubbed out his cigarette and placed the box on top of the map on the table. He cut the string, and tore open the brown paper. The box was made of dark wood, beautifully polished, on the lid a gold eagle with a wreathed swastika gripped in its claws.

"Ha!" An exclamation escaped the General, somewhere between surprise and disdain.

"Of course…" But as he reached for the clasp they heard the sudden snarl of aircraft engines very close. "Get down!" the General shouted and both men sprawled on the floor even as the bombs burst nearby and the room filled with choking dust. They lay there, coughing in the smoke, hearts pounding as the sound of rifle and machine gun fire grew louder under the fading noise of the motors.

They got up and patted down their uniforms in silence. The General brushed dust and masonry debris from the box, the gold eagle was dented. He undid the clasp and opened the lid, inside was a blue Field Marshal’s baton, its shaft decorated with eagles and Maltese crosses, his name embossed at one end, black lettering on a white band. He held it up and laughed.

"And they say the Fuhrer has no sense of humour." He threw it back into the box angrily, as if the baton had soiled his hand.

"General, I mean Field Marshal, Congratulations sir, but…"

"Congratulations? For what?"

"For your promotion sir." The General looked at him with contempt and suddenly he was shouting.

"Promotion?" The word hung in the air between the two men, "Promotion? We have lost this battle colonel, do you understand that? We have lost it catastrophically, this will go down as one of the worst defeats in history - that fool Goering has ensured it with his meaningless promises and this…" He picked up the baton again, "…this is nothing but a bribe."

Again the baton fell back into the box, the General turned and walked once more to the window. "You’re too late, I’ve already given the order to withdraw, my staff are disposing of the papers as we speak." He paused "If you have a way out I suggest you use it, we’re falling back on the beach near here, but we’ve no prepared positions, The Kreigsmarine was almost obliterated the day before yesterday, the Luftwaffe do not control the skies, we’re practically out of ammunition and some of my men haven’t eaten in days. Not many are going to get away…" His voice trailed off, he thought for a moment, then turned once more to the Colonel.

"You realise no German Field Marshal has ever been captured by an enemy?" He weighed the words carefully.

"I shall be the first." He paused again, his eyes looked outward through the French doors and the clearing smoke.

"So be it."

For a moment the two men stood in silence. The Colonel saluted, clicking his heels together in the Prussian way but the General was lost in his own thoughts, looking out through the doors and did not seem to hear. The Colonel turned and walked quickly from the room.

If the road rises to meet you, doesn't that mean that you've fallen over?


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