Bill Meilen
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THE ARMORER

 

Susquatchewatchewan?” Laughing, he moved on to the next coach, waving his men ahead to check the guard change, and the tall youth heard the door between close solidly.

“Ten minutes,” he muttered, and opened the door. Eighteen seconds later the most awful stench permeated the compartment. A Panzergrenadier’s eyes shot open, he gagged, shouted, clapped a hand over his nose and mouth, then charged for the door, yelling. “Raus! Raus! Alle Mann verlassen der Zug! Get out, men! The red bastards are gassing us!”

“Gas!” the cry went up, and all were awake now, and bolting. When the panicked prisoners shoved their way towards him, Private Dubinsky promptly dropped his rifle and did a back-flip into the latrine with a clatter and thud of equipment. Pandemonium was total, with everybody trying to march over each other as fast as they could before their lungs started to boil. “Phosgene!” someone shouted, which made things worse. Experienced hands reached through panic and pulled at the emergency chain—but there was no immediate response. Prisoners hung out of doors on both ends of the compartment, crushing their guards helplessly against train bulkheads. Uproar had started in the next compartment and was spreading up the train.

On the platforms at the end of the other coaches, sentries struggled to contain the panic, but the rumour-fed uproar was so great it could only be contained with the train at a standstill.

Shaken awake by RSM Campbell, Captain Sutherland, ratty in silk pyjamas and dressing gown, made an executive decision. Opening the alarm box, he pulled the special emergency cord, warning the engineer to stop the train’s headlong rush. Immediately there was a change in the impetus of the carriage as the engineer ‘soaked it’ with the vacuum brakes. Then Hamish started to pull his service dress uniform on over his pyjamas.

Hand on the vacuum brake, the engineer looked back and saw a window and shiplap explode outward from the first compartment as a jackbooted leg kicked it out. He eased on the vacuum brake again, applying sand to the track, and removed all steam driving power, to bring the troop train screeching and grinding to a halt in the middle of the broad dawning flatland.

Immediately the train stopped Vet Guards left the train and ran to set up Bren positions wide on either side of the tracks, enfilading the whole train, throwing a light cordon of firepower about the dark mass on the silver rails. As soon as they were in position, orders were given to unlock carriage doors and prisoners flooded out in a series of spills the length of three coaches. They moved in a condition of near panic, most of them not knowing what had happened, only that there was a stench in the air and men shouting to escape from the coaches.

Shouts of ‘Gerraruvere! Move it Jerry, get outside, get outside!’ rang out and ‘Get back here, Jerry!’ from the rifle-toting guards as coughing and spluttering men tumbled about on the track ballast.

Out in the cool night air, they soon realised that whatever had happened to them, they had certainly not been gassed. Yet the stench still hung in the air, thick in the back of the nose. The brakeman was walking along the engine’s tender, looking at his wheel casings with a large lamp, when he suddenly roared with laughter, reached

 

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