The sixteen tanks began reversing off the ridges where they had been for the last hour. The light was beginning to fade and the sun was casting lengthening shadows over the distant Radfan Mountains. The gunners, sweltering inside those mobile ovens, traversed their guns to cover the rear, as the drivers swung their Centurions through 180 degrees to head off at full speed for their rendezvous point. Clouds of yellow sand obliterated the gunners’ view, but they squinted regardless through their sights, and still continued to traverse the gun from left to right and then back again. The sand flew everywhere, blocking nostrils and ears and stinging the faces of the drivers and commanders. Only the lead tank commander had anything like a clear view, and the rest of the squadron raced trustingly behind like a skein of geese heading for the protection of their night’s roosting place.
The roosting place for the tanks was well back from their last position. It was in open ground with good all round visibility. They would huddle there throughout the night for mutual protection and leave at the earliest hint of first light. The light had gone by the time that the squadron arrived at their leaguer area. On arrival they went into a well-rehearsed, well-choreographed, routine. The six tanks of 1st and 2nd troop formed a line to the left with guns traversed left to protect that flank. 3rd and 4th troop formed a line to the right and HQ troop formed a third line in the centre, leaving lanes either side to give access to the trucks of MT troop who would shortly arrive bringing water, rations, fuel, and ammunition to replenish as required. It was reminiscent of the covered wagon circles of the old Wild West, but a square.
The officers dismounted as soon as the tanks had halted, almost before the sand clouds had settled. They gathered up their notebooks, maps, and chinagraph pencils and went directly to the squadron leader’s tank to be debriefed on the day, and to receive the next day’s orders. Drivers began to calculate their fuel needs, gunners checked and oiled the guns, radio operators filled their boiling vessels and lined up the crew’s tin mugs on the turret top ready for the first mash of the night. And the NCOs stood in little groups comparing notes and swapping yarns, while they drew languidly on cigarettes. Soon the trucks of MT troop approached the leaguer and drew alongside the hulls of the tanks. Crews worked feverishly transferring jerry cans from truck to tank. 22 cans here (a hundred gallons), 20 cans there (ninety gallons), and all around could be heard the unmistakable sounds of a tank leaguer replenishing. The dull thud of full jerry cans as they struck the decks of the tanks and the more metallic sound as the empty cans were returned. The hum of the tanks generators as boiling vessels were put to use and the hiss of pressure stoves as one man from each crew made some sort of hot food for his crewmates. The smells too were identifiable. A smell of petrol hung on the air as hundreds of gallons were poured manually into the fuel tanks of the Centurions. The combined smells of canned mutton and peas, canned steak and kidney pudding, and canned ham and egg promised the crews their only hot meal of the day. And there was the smell of sweat, stale sweat from the unwashed bodies of tank soldiers who had sweltered all day inside their tanks beneath the desert sun, with never a hint of shade to be found.
Meanwhile four men were detailed as outlying piquets, the loneliest, scariest job of the lot. Infantrymen would often protect a tank leaguer by forming an outer cordon but when none were available it fell to the tank crews themselves to protect the leaguer. Out they crept, alone. One man to each side of the square and a hundred yards away, armed with a sub-machine gun, a Verey pistol to sound the alarm, and his commander’s binoculars with which to peer into the desert night. Each man watched the dunes and saw them assume different shapes. The low desert scrub seemed to move of its own accord. One moment it appeared to be a man crawling towards the piquet, then it was a small man standing, and then it was just scrub again. One of the piquets needs to pee but dare not stand, another peers at his watch and wonders just how long can an hour be. A third man wonders how fast he could cover the hundred yards, over sand, back to the safety of the leaguer should the position be compromised. And the fourth plays nervously with the Verey pistol and decides that if that shadow moves any closer he will pull the trigger.
The red Verey light arced high into the night sky. Shouts of “Stand to” could be heard throughout the leaguer and Rolls Royce engines of the Centurions burst into life. Crews scrambled aboard the tanks and dropped through the hatches into their fighting positions. The outlying piquets could be seen racing in, crouching low and weaving, but with instinct of a homing pigeon heading for their own tank where their commanders stood anxiously waiting to haul them aboard. The turrets of the tanks one by one began slowly to move from left to right and back again through their appointed arc of fire. More joined in as the gunners took their positions. The engines were revving loudly as the drivers waited impatiently for the order from his commander of “Driver advance!” The order was given to all commanders “Hello all stations! Break out. Move now. Out.” and as one, all of the tanks roared forward, keeping formation and guns still traversing. As their speed increased the box shape began to form an arrow shape. Then the arrow became a fan as each tank came up along side his troop leader, and then the fan became a battle formation. Once the battle formation was achieved the speeding tanks slowed, then stopped, then turned to meet the threat on their chosen ground. Engines ticked over, the main armament stabilisers hummed, and the power traverse whirred quietly as gunners scanned the ground in front of them. Every commander had his binoculars to his eyes; every driver and every radio operator watched the desert ahead of them. Hearts beat loudly but no one spoke, and they waited, and they watched for a threat that may or may not appear.