BY WILL F
Major Woollard cursed as the tank lumbered over the mossy carcass of a fallen tree. Swiveling in his seat, he barked a warning at the driver to “Be more careful, you clumsy oaf!”
The object of his frustrations shrank back into his own chair with a stammered apology and a salute, eyes wide, face pale. Content that his displeasure had been heard and understood, the Major turned back to the forward viewing slit, wiping the stinging sweat from his eyes with a sleeve which had been clean and unstained when he’d donned his jacket just this morning. He made a mental note to ask his steward to send for more clean uniforms with the next delivery of supplies.
Curse this confounded jungle, he thought to himself.
Another tree-trunk, another lurch – and a further oath from the general. “Keep her steady, dash it all! I can’t see a blessed thing if we keep pitching about like a schooner in a gale!”
Young fellow looks like a youth of twelve, he grumbled to himself. No wonder he can’t drive a tank properly. No strength in those scrawny little arms.
The driver eased back on the throttle lever somewhat in an attempt to keep the metal juggernaut steady enough to please his commanding officer. The din of the engine receded a little, allowing some of the sounds of the endless jungle to permeate the hot, stinking cabin.
To the ears of the Englishmen inside – used to the gentle noises of the English countryside, or the clatter of the city - this strange new symphony was unpleasantly foreign, and undoubtedly threatening. Things chittered in the dense foliage. Insects whined insistently. Off to the Major’s left, some distance away, something hooted softly. All around them the tropical forest steamed wetly in the oppressive heat. Butterflies floated, unbelievably bright splashes of colour in the half-light. The Major sighed. He detested it all.
They’d made slow progress once the tanks had entered the forest, some days ago now. The great trees were so densely clustered that any headway they’d made was hard fought, and they’d thrown treads multiple times as the great metal vehicles had lumbered over hidden chasms.
Some of them were big enough to swallow a man whole, he thought to himself. God only knew what loathsome creatures lurked in their depths.
The men were becoming skittish. Major Woollard couldn’t blame them. The oppressive heat, the insects, the stench of decay, and the perpetual twilight caused by the thick canopy overhead all combined to give this place a truly unearthly feel. Maps were no use in here – no way to take a decent bearing – and even air support was limited by the interlocking treetops above. They were truly alone in here. Cut off.
The only good thing about that, mused Woollard, was that it meant their enemy was cut off, too.
As he pondered the thought, fat drops of rain began to fall.
The storm intensified as they made their agonisingly slow way deeper into the heart of the forest, plinking and pattering off the metal of the tanks. The humidity and the stink rose until it was almost unbearable. Finally, as the gargantuan vehicle rounded another massive set of vine-covered buttress roots, the Major narrowed his eyes. Something had lumbered between the trees a hundred and fifty yards ahead of them, crossing directly in front of him. As he watched, a second massive shadow made its way across the small gap. He lifted his field glasses to his eyes, squinting through the steamed-up lenses as he struggled to make out clear shapes in the gloom and sweeping curtains of warm rain.
The outlines were broken up by the dappled shade of the forest floor, but they were unmistakable. They, too, were making slow progress, directly perpendicular to his convoy. They did not deviate from their course, nor show any sign of having spotted his units – they puttered on, unswerving, like great sightless beasts. A grim smile graced Major Woollard’s features.
He craned his head up back into the main body of his own war machine, meeting the questioning gaze of his Gunnery Officer. He’d seen them, too. Woollard nodded to the man, who scrambled back up into his seat, peering down the sighting apparatus for the main gun and furiously turning gears, aligning the massive weapon with its intended target. Behind them, the other tank commanders ought to be doing the same.
A curt nod from the Gunnery Officer. All was ready. Woollard raised his hand for a moment, then let it fall.
“Fire! Show ‘em what Her Majesty’s land divisions are capable of, by God!”
Nothing happened for a fraction of a second. Then the heavy, buzzing darkness under the trees was lit by stabbing flame. There was a sound like thunder...