Shortly before my regiment was ordered to commence an advance on Cassino in Italy, my tank crew, having accumulated a surplus of cigarettes (mainly "Cape to Cairo" brand), dispatched one member to barter with the locals for some eggs. Strange to relate, the reputation of "Cape to Cairo" cigarettes had already preceded us and, the Italians were reluctant to exchange their eggs for our "coffin nails", stranger yet, they were quite happy to offer two hens in exchange.
Now, the immediate idea was to cook the chickens for a nice meal that evening. However, there were two obstacles to this plan; firstly, we were ordered to prepare to advance and secondly, while we were aware of our purpose as far as the enemy was concerned, killing chickens was something entirely alien to our nature, a task that no member of our crew was prepared to undertake lightly. The question now arose, what to do with our recently acquired poultry?
Some weeks earlier we had been able to construct a bedding rack along the whole width of the back of our tank and had the rack (complete with lid) welded to the rear of our vehicle by the regimental fitters. The grand affair had been fashioned from perforated lengths of steel designed for laying down temporary roads in muddy areas. Strapping our bedding across the engine louvres we lined the rack with straw and, with the chickens safely inside, we prepared to advance.
We soon discovered that there was a regular supply of new laid eggs for in the noise of battle our chickens obliged again and again. There was always a plentiful supply of food available for them from the abandoned fields and, pulling into leaguer for the night, we would always arrange the camouflage nets over the tank making sure to form a pen for our "friends" to have their run until we prepared to move back into the line before dawn of each day. We became very attached to our chickens and, I hope, they to us.
Everything was going well until a mortar bomb, landing on the back of our tank, sprang the lid, releasing the chickens and, two members of our crew, disregarding the enemy snipers around, leapt out of the tank in hot pursuit. The fugitives were recovered and returned to the bedding rack and we thought that no harm had been done.
However, we did not count on the wrath of our troop officer in the command tank who, while raising no previous objection to our mobile smallholding, could not bring himself to sanction a chicken hunt in the face of the enemy (who must have been too shocked to open fire) particularly outside of the Hunting Season. We were ordered to dispose of our poultry at our next spell out of action, which we consequently did on pulling back but, what should have been a gourmet treat after existing on a diet of tinned food from army "compo boxes" turned out to be a little less palatable as we remembered our absent feathered friends.
The sad blow was softened a few days later when, back in action, an enemy shell landed on the back of the tank completely shattering the bedding rack and rendering it a twisted mass of metal. What an ignominious end that would have been for our feathered friends who had become part of our crew in those few weeks.
(This is a true story).
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