The Wolf’s Hour


Robert McCammon

'And then the clouds were coming after him, about to engulf him. He ran, but he couldn't run fast enough. Faster. Faster. The storm roaring on his heels. Faster. His heart, pounding. A banshee scream in his ears. Faster….'



The war went on.

By February 1941, it had leaped like a firestorm from Europe to the shores of northwest Africa, where Hitler’s commander of German troops, a competent officer named Erwin Rommel, arrived in Tripoli in support of the Italians and began to drive the British force back to the Nile.

Along the coastal road from Benghazi through El Aghelia, Agedabia, and Mechili, the Panzer Army Africa’s tanks and soldiers continued to press across a land of torturous heat, sandstorms, gullies that had forgotten the taste of rain, and sheer cliffs that dropped hundreds of feet to flat plains of nothing. The mass of men, anti-armor guns, trucks, and tanks marched east, taking the fortress of Tobruk from the British on June 20, 1942, and advancing toward the glittering prize Hitler so desired: the Suez Canal. With control of that vital waterway, Nazi Germany would be able to choke off Allied shipping and continue the eastward march, driving into the soft underbelly of Russia.

The British Eighth Army, most of the soldiers exhausted, staggered toward a railway stop called El Alamein in the last scorching days of June 1942. In their wake the engineers frantically laid down intricate patterns of mine fields, hoping to delay the oncoming Panzers. There was rumor that Rommel was low on petrol and ammunition, but in their foxholes dug in the hard white earth the soldiers could feel the ground shake with the vibrations of Nazi tanks. And as the sun beat down and the vultures circled, columns of dust rose on the western horizon. Rommel had come to El Alamein, and he was not to be denied his dinner in Cairo.

The sun set, blood red in a milky sky. The shadows of June 30 crept across the desert. The soldiers of the Eighth Army waited, while their officers studied sweat-stained maps in tents and engineer teams continued to fortify the mine fields between them and the German lines. The stars came out, brilliant in a moonless sky. Sergeants checked ammunition reserves and barked at men to clean up their fox-holes-anything to get their minds off the carnage that would surely start at dawn.

Several miles to the west, where recon riders on sand-scarred BMW motorcycles and troopers in armored scout cars rumbled through the dark on the edge of the mine fields, a small sand-colored Storch airplane landed with a snarl and flurry of prop wash on a strip bordered by blue flares. Black Nazi swastikas were painted on the aircraft’s wings.

As soon as the Storch’s wheels stopped turning, an open-roofed command car drove up from the northwest, its headlights visored. A German oberstleutnant, wearing the dusty pale brown uniform of the Africa Corps and goggles against the swirling grit, got out of the aircraft. He carried a battered brown satchel that was handcuffed to his right wrist, and he was smartly saluted by the car’s driver, who held the door for him. The Storch’s pilot waited in the cockpit, following the officer’s orders. Then the command car rumbled off the way it had come, and as soon as it was out of sight the pilot sipped from his canteen and tried to get a little sleep.

The command car climbed a small ridge, its tires spitting out sand and sharp-edged stones. On the ridge’s other side stood the tents and vehicles of a forward reconnaissance battalion, everything dark but for the meager glow of lanterns inside the tents and an occasional glint of shielded headlights as a motorcycle or armored car moved on some errand. The command car pulled to a halt before the largest and most central of the tents, and the oberstleutnant waited for his door to be opened before he got out. As he strode toward the tent’s entrance, he heard the rattle of cans and saw several skinny dogs rooting in the trash. One of them came toward him, its ribs showing and its eyes hollowed with hunger. He kicked at the animal before it reached him. His boot hit the dog’s side, driving it back, but the creature made no noise. The officer knew the nasty things had lice, and with water at such a premium he didn’t relish scrubbing his flesh with sand. The dog turned away, its hide bruised with other boot marks, its death by starvation already decided.

The officer stopped just short of the tent flap.

Something else was out there, he realized. Just beyond the edge of the true dark, past where the dogs were searching through the garbage for scraps of beef.

He could see its eyes. They glinted green, picking up a shard of light from a tent’s lantern. They watched him without blinking, and in them there was no cowering or begging. Another damned tribesman’s dog, the officer thought, though he could see nothing but its eyes. The dogs followed the camps, and it was said they would lick piss off a plate if you offered it to them. He didn’t like the way that bastard watched him; those eyes were cunning and cold, and he was tempted to reach for his Luger and dispatch another canine to Muslim heaven. Those eyes stirred ants of unease in his belly, because there was no fear in them.

“Lieutenant Colonel Voigt. We’ve been expecting you. Please, come in.”

The tent flap had been drawn back. Major Stummer, a rugged-faced man with close-cropped reddish hair and round eyeglasses, saluted, and Voigt nodded a greeting. Inside the tent were three more officers, standing around a table covered with maps. Lantern light spilled over the chiseled, sun-browned Germanic faces, which were turned expectantly toward Voigt. The lieutenant colonel paused at the tent’s threshold; his gaze wandered to the right, past the skinny, starving dogs.

The green eyes were gone.

“Sir?” Stummer inquired. “Is anything wrong?”

“No.” His answer was too quick. It was stupid to be upset by a dog, he told himself. He had personally ordered an “88” gun to destroy four British tanks with more composure than he felt at this moment. Where had the dog gone? Out into the desert, of course. But why had it not come in to nose amid the cans like the others? Well, it was ridiculous to waste time thinking about. Rommel had sent him here for information and that’s what he planned to take back to Panzer Army headquarters. “Nothing’s wrong except I have stomach ulcers, a heat rash on my neck, and I long to see snow before I go mad,” Voigt said as he stepped into the tent and the flap fell shut behind him.

Voigt stood at the table with Stummer, Major Klinhurst, and the other two battalion officers. His flinty blue eyes scanned the maps. They showed the cruel, gulley-slashed desert between Point 169, the small ridge he’d passed over, and the British fortifications. Inked-in red circles indicated mine fields, and blue squares stood for the many defensive boxes, studded with barbed wire and machine guns, that would have to be overcome on the drive eastward. The maps also showed, in black lines and squares, where the German troops and tanks were positioned. On each map was the recon battalion’s official rubber stamp.

Voigt took off his flat-brimmed cap, wiped the sweat from his face with a well-used handkerchief, and studied the maps. He was a big, broad-shouldered man whose fair skin had hardened to burnished leather. He had blond hair with swirls of gray at the temples, his thick eyebrows almost completely gray. “I assume these are up-to-the- minute?” he asked.

“Yes, sir. The last patrol came in twenty minutes ago.”

Voigt grunted noncommittally, sensing that Stummer was waiting for a compliment on his battalion’s thorough reconnaissance of the mine fields. “I don’t have much time. Field Marshal Rommel is waiting. What are your recommendations?”

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