Battle at dawn

Egyptian desert at dawnDawn and dusk were the commonest times of battle, so crews in the North African desert had to be up before sunrise to ensure several hours of tension. ‘There is no knowing what thoughts may come during these approach marches,’ Keith Douglas has written. ‘They are the only moments when it is hard to avoid reveries, and they take place during the last and most depressing hours before dawn.’

Reading Douglas’ words, I thought of Wellum and the Battle of Britain pilots, waiting for first light. I thought of the bomber crews waiting for dusk, flying through the night and limping home to their airfields at dawn.

Grim memories rest in these watery hours of faded light:

 ‘There is no cold like the cold of a desert dawn. It is a long, slow strangulation of sinew, blood and bone… You get up and hug whatever you have in the way of covering around and over you. You see monstrous shapes moving slowly in the strange, suffused light and hear muttered cursing, and you begin to see the flickering flames of sand burning inside a score of cans…Generals do not choose to make their attacks at dawn simply because of its deceptive visibility. They do so because men of war discovered long ago that this is the time when man is most susceptible to the terrors of his imagination.” (Harrison 85)


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