On the platform at the end of the coach, Captain Hamish Sutherland and his piper MacDonald came upon a smoking party being held by the Vets’ Guards. Hamish bellowed at the top of his lungs, slashing at the smoke with his leather-bound swagger-stick.
“I’ll have your guts steaming on a silver platter, you horrible lazy people! I will drink your blood!” The guards crashed to attention, dropping their cigarettes, knocking out their pipes. “Can’t you hear what they’re singing? ‘We Are Marching Against bloody England’!? Those Jerries don’t believe the war is over for them!”
“Yessah!” yelled the surprised old sergeant, “Whaddyawannus t’do sah?”
“They’re not supposed to be having a party! This is a prison train, not a bloody Berlin cabaret! Shut them up and get their heads down, on the double! Lights out!”
The sergeant double-marched his men into the compartment, shouting “Halten-sie bitte das Mund!” at the Germans to make them shut up. As the door crashed to behind them, Hamish glowered sourly back at the train snaking around a curve. He lit up a cigarette, muttering to himself.
“Don’t do as I do, do as I bloody well say! Bloody peasants. Bloody recalcitrant Jerries. Bloody Army!” He straightened up. “Ghillie MacDonald!”
“Full order, at twenty-three fifty-nine hours, right on this platform ready to go. Do I make myself clear?!”
“Och aye sir! A Heelans ammo boot right in the aural goolies. A hard Scots kiss right up the jacksie!”
Rudi looked around him as the guards left the now silent compartment. The lights went down to a low blue glow, and all around him men snorted and stirred, making ready for uncomfortable sleep again. His fellow prisoners sat three to a wooden bench, fifty to each coach, apart from the command group at the far end of his coach behind the engine, who were mostly Waffen SS, sitting two to a bench. Now men occupied every lying space. He did a quick mental calculation. Fifty times twenty is a round thousand. A thousand men. If we all were to start running for the woods at once, there is no way those old men and boys who guard us could do anything about it. We could just walk away, singing our hearts out.
Rudi Kristl had been away from home so long that his memories of bucolic Carinthia were fading badly, a washed-out tapestry. As his eyes grew heavy with sleep, he wondered how things were at home, having heard nothing since the early days of nineteen forty-three, just before his capture with elements of the Eighth Panzer Regiment at Djebel Bou Aoukaz, Tunisia, on April thirtieth. It had been General von Arnim’s final fling against the British Eighth Army under Montgomery, the last bloody curtain call of Feldmarschal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the desert war.
Rudi recalled the dignity of hardened Afrika Korps men, defiant even in defeat, well disciplined, marching into captivity in ordered formations, soon to be joined by another flood from the American victories at Tunis and Bizerta, filthy and war-torn, but with heads high, eyes bright with defiance. It was the end of
the last chivalrous