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Commando Order

Chapter Text

October 20, 1942

The two jeeps peeled off from one another, leading Hauptmann Dietrich's two half-tracks in separate directions. One led out onto the empty desert, the other towards a series of rocks with only limited passage to the other side. Troy and Hitch headed into the rock wall, leading Dietrich's own half-track, while Moffitt and Tully led the second half-track out onto the wide, sandy plain.

As Tully wove a series of rings to avoid their return fire, Moffitt threw hot lead at the crew of the half-track pursuing them, spraying the enemy with devastating effect in three-to-five second bursts. The gun shield protected the half-track's gunner, but the driver and commander of the vehicle were not so well protected.

Shot in the upper chest, the commander of the half-track fell over the back of the gunner, dead, while his driver plowed on in a virtual dance of death with the Willys MB. A hot piece of lead in his own chest, the defiant gunner kept firing, but his MG 34 was useless if the jeep kept up its serpentine course. No half-track could outrun—or outmaneuver—a Willys.

As a coup d'état, the Allied sergeant tossed a hand grenade into the rear of the half-track and its explosion killed the remaining two members of the crew. So there it sat on the sands, a golden-yellow behemoth, burning, blackened, and as dead as its three-man crew, gunner, driver and commander.

On the other side of the desert plain, Dietrich's half-track, armed like the one just destroyed by Moffitt and Tully, funneled Troy and Hitch into a pass through the rock wall. Troy spun the fifty around and threw .50 caliber rounds at Dietrich's driver and crew, but stayed just shy of shooting the captain himself. Wounding or killing him was not on Troy's immediate agenda.

The end of the pass through the outcrop was near and he expected to burst through it with Tully and Moffitt on the other side, taking up the slack. However, when he and Hitch emerged, there were two more of Dietrich's half-tracks and an armored car waiting for them. They were trapped!

Troy felt the ping of a bullet in his arm—the bullet came from the captain's half-track—even as Hitch spun the wheel, trying to slip past the half-track armada. Bumping over rocks big enough to shred tires or bust an axle, the jeep fell victim to a ravine to the left of the pass. Tumbling Hitch and Troy out, it turned half-over with its right wheels spinning.

Surrounded by two half-tracks and an armored car, the latter equipped with a 20 mm gun powerful enough to take down a plane, Troy turned and looked over at Hitch lying in the gully next to the lopsided jeep. He wasn't moving. Bringing his focus back, he saw Dietrich's half-track at the rear, just inside the rocky pass. Until Dietrich raised his hand, the whirr of bullets continued to rip the air over his head. Then the firing stopped.

Struggling to his feet with hands up, his face encrusted with bright yellow sand, Sgt. Sam Troy put himself at the mercy of some very heavy firepower. The half-tracks' MG 34s alone, machine guns capable of firing 800 or 900 rounds a minute, could rip a man to shreds and leave little else to bury but strips of clothing. He had to trust Dietrich not to shoot him, though that might have been a timely thought on the German officer's mind.

Two of the troopers in the rear vehicle—Dietrich's—loped over to his position and disarmed him, taking his side-arm out of its holster, and pushing him back. He nearly fell off his feet. One of the two gefreiters then went to see about Hitch, taking the private's belt knife, while the other held his rifle on Troy. Troy took some comfort in knowing that they hadn't taken his boot knife.

Hauptmann Hans Dietrich had not deigned to join the parties on the ground. He spoke from his elevated position in the rear half-track, his voice full of braggadocio. His winning against Sgt. Troy didn't come that often, so he was making the most of it on that hot, sun-parched day.

"Sgt. Troy, you may lower your hands, if you like." Boastful of his too-rare accomplishment of catching the leader of the Rat Patrol in one of his traps, he added, "I've pulled your teeth, so to speak."

Even with his 'teeth pulled,' Troy was still a deadly adversary, full of cunning and clever tricks. His hold over his men was legendary. His commando tactics were often one step ahead of the those of Hans Dietrich, the professional soldier.

"There's still one jeep out there," said the less than chastened Troy. Lowering his arms to his sides, he added, with a bit of a grin, "Don't count Moffitt and Tully out."

Dietrich smirked, but he didn't rise to Troy's bait. "I have you and Pvt. Hitchcock," he said. "Sgt. Moffitt won't dare attack this column with both of you on board."

Troy felt it was better to keep silent on just what his second-in-command might do, now that he and Hitch—Pvt. Mark T. Hitchcock—were prisoners of the only German officer who could have executed such a smooth maneuver and outfoxed them.

Under the gun held on him by the crewman, Hitch was rising. Rubbing his head, he staggered over to his sergeant. Troy glanced at him in some concern as Hitch's eyes didn't seem to match up. Registering that he needed to keep an eye on him, he turned his attention back to the German captain in the half-track.

"Pvt. Hitchcock needs medical attention." He lifted his arm. "So do I."

"All in good time, Sgt. Troy. Neither wound is life-threatening, so you'll keep until we get back to base."

His base? With Moffitt's help, he had already pinpointed a likely place for it on their map. But he asked anyway, "And where is that?"

His eyes glowing, Dietrich laughed slightly, but it was a laugh without much mirth in it. "You'll find out when we get there."

He nodded to his two troopers. In their tan fatigues and brimmed 'railroad' caps, they sped over, laid hands on the prisoners, and hustled them onto one of the half-tracks. Favoring his ankle, Troy climbed aboard, following by a slightly swaying Hitch. At the point of a Schmeisser, they were forced to sit on the searing hot metal plates of the floor of the vehicle. By Dietrich's order, its deadly MG 34 was trained specifically on the prisoners. When the signal to move out came, it took a midway point in the new column.

Standing in his own half-track, with his goggles lowered to his neck so he could use his field glasses, Dietrich kept a weather eye out for the second Willys. Whether he saw it or not, he knew it would be there, trailing his column with its Cambridge-educated gunner and its moonshiner driver all the way to al-Qarah, his base in a small Arab town, about thirty miles away.

"I'm sure they're both working out a plan to liberate Troy and Hitchcock," he said to himself. "It'll be an interesting trip back to al-Qarah."

On the scorching floor of the half-track, Troy looked over at his driver. Hitch's eyes were rolling. Restless and shaken, he didn't seem to know where he was.

"Hey!" Troy called up to one of the guards. "How about some water for my friend?"

Possibly the gefreiter didn't speak English, because Troy was ignored. Frustrated, Troy tried again. His command of German was limited to only a few necessary words. He tried one of them now.

"Wasser!" he yelled over the roar of the vehicle in which they rode. "Water!"

"It's alright, Sarge," said the slightly tipsy Hitch, his words slurred. "I'm just a bit bruised, that's all. I'll manage."

"You sure?"

Hitch nodded. "Sure. No worries."

Belying his words, Hitch fell onto Troy's shoulder. A look of alarm pierced Troy's eyes as he caught him and set him upright again with his back to the vehicle. Seeing their movement, one of the crew kicked out and caught Hitch in the shin. Troy was on his feet in an instant, throwing his weight against the German private. Unbalanced, the gefreiter tipped over the side of the vehicle and landed with an audible splat! in the sand.

Troy didn't know why he'd done it, as it didn't accomplish him a fig. He was forced back down to the floor at the point of a Schmeisser. Slowly, he descended to hard grating as the half-track driver pulled up to recover he lost crewman. Troy glanced up to see the driver waving his hand for the rest of the column to stop.

Impatiently, Dietrich turned as Troy's half-track and the armored car behind it ground to a stop. He watched with some disillusionment as the tossed-out crewman clambered back in, rifle and all, then moved past the prisoners to stand at the front of the half-track, well out of Troy's way.

"More fool me," said Dietrich, with a sigh, "to think that I could have gotten back to base without an incident."

Dietrich spoke to himself, in English, to the uncertain look of his own driver, Pvt. Kurt Hilfer. Looking down at him, Dietrich broke out into a sort of sickly smile. Hilfer turned back to his driving, puzzled. He'd never get used to how Hauptmann Dietrich, his CO and a man he highly respected, both as a man and a German officer, seemed to favor these commandos, these desert rats. He himself would have taken Troy out to a spot in the sand and put a bullet in him.

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"How could it have gone so wrong!" cried Tully, slapping his palm against the steering wheel. "We had them dead to rights, Doc—why did Hitch have to take that pass? It had to be a trap."

Moffitt, who had the binoculars trained on the column of three half-tracks and one armored car, shook his head.

"Dietrich's half-track was shooting so close, they had to duck between the hills to save themselves. He'll be going back to base. We'll bust them out tonight."

"Doc, there's only the two of us. Capt. Dietrich will lock them up so tight, it'll make Fort Knox look like an open-air concert at the Hollywood Bowl."

Moffitt lowered the glasses and looked down at him from where he stood on the sand next to the jeep. His voice took on a quizzical tone. "Wherever did you hear of the Hollywood Bowl?"

Tully stared up at him a moment and then said, "One of our local banjo-playing guys made good out there. The newspaper carried a story about him."

"Oh, I see."

Moffitt was already forming a plan for liberating the other two Rats and he was now very far away from the Hollywood Hills, not only physically, but mentally, as well.

"C'mon, let's get going. We'll follow discreetly, of course. Troy and I think we found Dietrich's base on one of our maps, at al-Qarah, so we'll head for there if we lose them."

"We won't lose them," said Tully, "not with me driving."

"Righto!"

Moffitt climbed in, adjusted his goggles over his eyes and reached up to the barrel of the fifty for support as Tully took off across the sands, angling towards the rear of the German column, following its dust trail—but keeping 'discreetly' just out of sight.

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Major Ernst Meindl, an old mentor of Dietrich's, looked at the communique in his hand for the fiftieth time. This was not a war he wanted to fight, nor was it Rommel's kind of war, either. To him, war was where the enemy, if he surrendered, could be assured of his rights under the Geneva Convention—that was the kind of war that men like Rommel practiced, and those under him. But here was Hitler's Commando Order, just two days old. Dated 18 October, 1942, it was to take effect immediately by all officers in the field.

Rommel, when he got wind of it, would ultimately refuse to send it to his own officers, but Meindl had received it just yesterday by another channel. He didn't know yet what the Desert Fox would make of it, but he thought he would share it with Hauptmann Dietrich, since he was plagued by 'desert rats.'

The Fuhrer's Kommandobefehl said, in essence: any and all Allied commandos, caught in Europe or North Africa, even while in uniform or surrendering, must be summarily executed, without trial—to the last man (zum letzten Mann).

Meindl's eyes glazed over as he read the order's own words, especially in parts three, four and six:

This is to be carried out whether they be soldiers in uniform, or saboteurs, with or without arms … .

Even if these individuals on discovery make obvious their intention of giving themselves up as prisoners, no pardon is on any account to be given.

To hold them in military custody—for example in P.O.W. camps, etc.—even if only as a temporary measure, is strictly forbidden.

I will hold all Commanders and Officers responsible under Military Law for any omission to carry out this order … .

Reading those parts of the order again, Meindl remembered the radio call from Hauptmann Dietrich that he had received earlier that day.

"Major Meindl, sir, Hauptmann Dietrich."

After being acknowledged and asked his health, the captain continued, "I've caught two of the members of the LRDG, sir. The ones known as the Rat Patrol."

"The ones who operate in your sector, Captain?"

"Yes, sir. Under lock and key. I'll be sending my report by courier later today. But I thought a radio call appropriate."

"Very good. Hold onto them. I know how easily they can slip away. Are they in one piece, Dietrich?"

"Reasonably so, sir. The leader, Sgt. Sam Troy, has a small graze on his right arm and seems to be limping, but my medic has seen to him. Otherwise, he's unhurt.

"What about the other one—you said two?"

"Ah, yes, his driver, a private by the name of Mark Hitchcock, both of them American, sir. He's suffering from a bump on the head, which occurred during his capture."

"What about the Englander and the other American?"

"Still on the loose, Major, but I suspect they'll try a rescue tonight. I'll be waiting for them in force, sir. They won't get away from me again."

"How many times would it make it, Captain?"

Dietrich reddened. "More times than I care to count, sir. They always have a trick to play, even when one or all of them are bottled up tight."

"I know, I've read your reports—some I couldn't believe even though you doctored them up to the best of your ability."

Dietrich's stomach felt queasy all of a sudden. If he and Major Meindl, who had known each other since Dietrich was Meindl's aide-de-camp, hadn't had such a father-son relationship, the good captain knew he'd be Gestapo-bait by now!

"Yes, sir. Anything else, sir? I must prepare for the visit tonight by Moffitt and Pettigrew."

"Don't let them escape this time, Dietrich, or else your own hide will be hanging on a hook. Ende."

Glad that the call had ended, Dietrich tried to picture that, his hide hanging on a hook. Dropping the handset back onto the radio, he set about giving orders to cancel all leaves and passes for his men, and to recall them to duty with no excuses unless they were bedridden in the field hospital.

That had been first thing that morning. Later that day, he in turn received a call from Major Meindl, who relayed to him the brand-new Commando Order of their revered Fuhrer.

"There's no mistake, sir?" Suddenly troubled, Dietrich leaned on the desk manned by the radio operator, who looked up at him and thought he was looking at a ghost, so pale had his CO become. "It says they must be executed?"

"They must be executed. Right away," replied Meindl. "Even holding them prisoner is forbidden. If you let them live, Hans, and the Fuhrer finds out you disobeyed him, you would be in mortal trouble."

"What prompted this act of our Fuhrer?"

"The murders on Sark Island in the Channel. Our men were shot by the British while trying to escape."

"How are Troy and his driver responsible for that?"

"See the big picture, Hans. It's not about two men. All commandos, all spies, are to be put to death. You're holding two of them now. You may have all four of them by the end of today."

Dietrich found his voice breaking. "Is this the way to win the war?" asked the stunned captain. "They're men, Major, not vermin. And, more to the point, they're POWs."

"Hans, I shared this with you as soon as I received it to spare you the Fuhrer's wrath. If you don't execute at least the two you have now, it could go hard for both of us. We'll give them until first light."

Dietrich hesitated, then plunged in. "What would Field Marshall Rommel do?"

"Since I'm in Berlin, Captain, I haven't had any contact with him. He's not my direct superior. In this matter, he isn't yours, either."

"Should we wait instead, sir, to see how he acts?"

"It's the Fuhrer's own order, Hans, under his signature. Do I make myself clear?"

Numb-feeling and fidgeting with the snaky black cord of the radio phone, in a very low voice and feeling in some way gut-punched, the captain replied, "I understand, sir. Firing squad. Two commandos—Troy and Hitchcock. At first light."

Even though Meindl didn't like the order, or wish it to be carried out on prisoners of war, he suddenly found himself angry with his subordinate.

"Don't speak their names! It dignifies the kind of work they do."

Dietrich heard the bark and nearly dropped the handset.

At the other end of the line, in an office in faraway Berlin, where it was raining, Meindl pulled himself together. Taking a deep breath, he said. "There's more. After the executions, they're to be buried without ceremony, certainly without honors. You don't have to report this to the Red Cross. The order makes it clear that these commandos are to be treated like the vermin they are—and may God have mercy on their souls."

After Meindl hung up, the captain went to his office for a breather. He sat down at his desk with his head in his hands and thought about it. A part of him was glad he'd finally be rid of at least two of the Rats, but another part of him said, "No, this isn't right. They're prisoners of war, suitably uniformed, giving themselves up into my custody—in effect, trusting me to honor their rights as soldiers."

He had only a few hours left, but he had two things to do. First, he called his aide, Cpl. Ritter, to come in. Through him, he dispatched orders to beef up security on the walls and at the main gate. He hadn't wanted to increase the number of guards in those areas too soon, for fear the guards might become lax and lose their 'edge.' But the second matter he had attend to that night had him all tied up in knots, and he wasn't sure if he could sufficiently give orders on security after that.

Now, after making preparations to capture the other two desert Rats, and with only hours to spare until dawn, he had the hardest task of all to fulfill.

He had to break the news of Hitler's order to the two he'd already captured, Sgt. Sam Troy and Pvt. Mark Hitchcock. There! He'd said their names—he wouldn't treat them as if they'd never been, or deny them their humanity.

Once in the basement area of the base headquarters, a three-story building in the market area of Al-Qarah, he stood outside the main door of the cell block, waiting for a nervous gefreiter to open the door for him. Once he had, Dietrich caught up his breath and stepped into the aisle outside the four cells, two of which held Troy and Hitchcock.

"Sgt. Troy," he called, coughing once and then firming up his voice. "Troy!"