At eighteen hundred hours, we gathered without fanfare and slogged out of camp. Not a march. Imagine trying to march on a beach. With each step, we churned the sand, which worked its way into our boots. The weight was not much, but each step whittled out strength to a helpless state of fatigue. A desert army is only as fit as its vehicles and armor, and we had neither.
We plodded eastward in a narrow column, following the faint path the half-track took the previous day. On either side of us were unexploded German landmines. Eating dust stirred from the marchers ahead was preferable to stepping on a mine.
Nearly eight hundred men were making an act of faith that the New Zealanders would follow through with the surrender and then feed and give us shelter. The heat bore down on our backs, sucking the sweat from us. The day waned, but not fast enough. Our shadows grew longer before us, but the relentless heat failed to abate. We lumbered on.
Behind us, the air thundered with a series of dull thuds. I glanced behind me. Two thin columns of smoke rose and mingled together in a darkening azure sky. Our sappers succeeded in destroying our vehicles and supplies. We had nowhere to go but forward.
Novak trudged beside me; his netting draped around him like a veil. “What if our friends from down under let us walk all night? What if they decide not to be bothered?”
I shrugged, my throat too dry to speak. His words echoed in my thoughts. Resources were scarce in the desert, but soldiers, no matter the color of their uniform, followed an ethical code, even when dealing with the enemy. Our captors would deliver us. They had to.
Twenty hundred hours. Long shadows faded as the sun dipped behind black dunes. We were two hours into our Exodus. I grinned at the thought. Our enemy stood ahead, not behind us. There was no Red Sea. Just an ocean of sand sapping our strength. Few of us carried our greatcoats. Too much weight. The night chill would be, at best, uncomfortable.
Novak grabbed my shoulder. “We’re being watched.” He pointed. “There. To the left.”
Only then did I notice dozens of dark figures standing atop the dunes. More appeared to the front and back, surrounding us. As they advanced, more shadows topped the dunes. A score of canvassed trucks rumbled to our column. From a nearby jeep, a New Zealand captain in khakis stepped out and ambled toward us. “Any of you chaps speak English?” he asked.
Novak answered the officer. “I do, sir.”
The officer grinned, enjoying himself. “Excellent. That makes my job easier.” The mustached captain was my age with sun-bleached hair and an impeccable uniform.
Another officer approached and saluted. “I came to assist, sir.”
“Thank you, lieutenant.” The captain pointed to Novak. “This man is your interpreter. Make your way to the rear of this column. Instruct the prisoners we will transport them to a temporary camp where they will be processed. Cramped conditions I fear, but they’ll get food and water. The less fuss they make, the sooner they can bed down for the night.”
I touched Novak’s sleeve. “I’ll see you later.” Without meaning to, I spoke in English.
The captain glanced at me. “You speak English as well?”
“Some. I’m still learning.”
“You’ll do. Come aboard.”
I rode with the captain and two other soldiers to the front of the line, where more cargo trucks arrived. There, I explained to my comrades the captain’s message. “Our host will transport us to a holding camp in the rear. As soon as they can sort things out, we will move to a more permanent encampment.”
A German captive, no older than a boy, looked up, his eyes reflected defeat. “Where will we go?” he asked in German.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Can you find out?”
The guard behind me motioned for the boy to move on. I never saw him again.
More troop carriers surrounded us. A cargo transport halted in front of the New Zealand officer. The empty truck-bed reeked of petrol.
The captain gestured with a sweep of the arm. I pointed and yelled, “Get onto the trucks!”
German soldiers boarded each vehicle to capacity. Some even climbed on the side of the canvas truck and found a foothold. Each loaded vehicle joined a convoy heading north. I stood to one side; my role as interpreter no longer needed as the last of our column boarded the remaining troop carrier. I caught the captain’s attention and motioned to the vehicle. He nodded, and I jumped onto the running board and grabbed a support bar. We, too, joined the northbound procession.
At one time, the Afrika Korps sent Allied forces retreating across the continent, but the tide of war had shifted. We were vanquished. What will happen to us? Where will we go?
And when will we see home again?