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Steel Chariots in the Desert

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Steel Chariots in the Desert
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Author(s): by S.C.Rolls
Date Published: 10/2005
Page Count: 256
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-005-0
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-019-7

'Exciting Episodes In Libya and Hejaz, and Especially Railway-raiding Exploits With Lawrence' Yorkshire Post ‘Rolls, the driver, our strongest and most resourceful man, the ready mechanic, whose skill and advice largely kept our cars in running order, was nearly in tears over the mishap. The knot of us, officers and men, English, Arabs and Turks, crowded round him and watched his face anxiously. As he realised that he, a private, commanded in this emergency, even the stubble on his jaw seemed to harden in sullen determination.’ T.E. LAWRENCE - THE SEVEN PILLARS OF WISDOM

Life in a Rolls-Royce tender in those days was one continuous hustle. I cannot now give an account of all my movements with any attempt at accuracy as to dates. As soon as Lawrence had made up his mind to make any sort of move he put his decision into force instantly. His own diary shows that he was in a different place nearly every day, but this makes no mention of hundreds of trips which lasted only a few hours. At any moment we might suddenly dash off to put a couple of belts of machine-gun bullets into a Turkish repair gang on the railway line, or a message dropped from an aeroplane might send us scurrying out to intercept a hostile patrol. Cars soon became indispensable to the Arab army. At first there had been a prejudice against them, probably because the camel-riding Arabs mistrusted and feared the entry into their country of such a superior and dangerous form of war machine. But before long Feisal began to accompany Lawrence in his rides in my tender, and as all the officers of the Arab regulars were impressed with the advantage of having armoured cars at call, the Bedouins were obliged to make the best of the position.

As the companion of Lawrence and Feisal on many a drive I was in an excellent position to pick up interesting information had I been able to understand Arabic; but as I did not I had to wait for enlightenment until Lawrence rode with me alone, for then he never failed to talk freely.

Once I drove Auda of the Howeitat on a journey. He refused all my pressing requests that he should sit comfortably on the cushioned front seat, and perched himself high on some cases of gold in the body behind. I have no doubt he had smelt the gold, and I am quite sure that such a typical Arab found boxes of gold a far more comforting seat than the downiest of cushions. Such was not my idea of the seat of honour for notabilities; but still it is impossible to sit in a car, at the best of times, with any great air of distinction, and there is no doubt that Aura regarded no seat as honourable to a grown man except the back of a horse or a camel. He had come with us to act as a guide, and he told Lawrence in his deep, guttural tones that he could see better from his perch on the gold. All his life he had lived for raiding and fighting; he was the greatest warrior in all the northern tribes; and now, amused by the unaccustomed motion of car-travelling, he permitted his handsome old face to show a good-humoured smile. When the rear wheels suddenly dropped into a hole and jerked him violently on his perch, he even clapped his hands in juvenile delight and nodded to me as a sign of his approval of my great skill as a driver. There he sat stroking his beard, the man whose single harsh word was enough to raise the hosts of the Howeitat on both sides of the railway line and bring them buzzing in hundreds around the entrenchments of Maan.
And the crews of the armoured cars, bearded and unkempt, sunburnt and ragged, were, in appearance at least, worthy allies of the looting cut-throats of Arabia.The going was terribly bad; huge stones lay everywhere, and watercourses had to be negotiated continually, and as I drew nearer to the railway a hail of spent bullets whistled about me and fell in the dust. I drove right down to the bridge, and as soon as I had stopped Lawrence ran up and said, ‘I hope you’ve got the gun-cotton.’
‘Yes,’ I cried, ‘I’ve got it.’ By this time I had completely forgotten in the excitement what I had really come here for, and also my lonely friend on the ridge. Backwards and forwards we ran, laden with gun-cotton, regardless of everything except the job in hand. ‘This is a splendid bridge,’ said Lawrence, as he jammed six blocks of gun-cotton into a drainage hole. I looked round, saw the armoured cars covering us, and agreed with him. ‘I doubt whether they’ll have the time or the inclination to repair it before Deraa falls,’ he said confidently.

Suddenly there was a violent burst of machine-gun fire, but it was only the armoured cars firing at the Turks in a trench before the block-house. These, not knowing whether they were expected to run away or surrender, had got up in their trench, apparently to make inquiries. They tried again, more successfully, after a few minutes, and I saw them approaching the cars with their hands held up above their heads.

Half a dozen charges were fired under the arches, and the bridge was put out of action for a long time to come. ‘That’ll fix it!’ said Lawrence, as we mounted into the tender again. The prisoners were packed aboard the cars and we drove away. I was doubtful of the ability of my car to carry the extra weight over the very rough ground; but we were nearly always overloaded in these days, and I drove on grimly, hoping for the best. I swung her first to one side, then to the other, so as to avoid the many watercourses which criss-crossed over the ground, while our prisoners hung on as best they could. All at once there was a violent crackling of breaking wood and rending of metal, and two of the prisoners were flung off with a heap of gear. The car had come to a standstill. Was this to be the end of the car which had carried me in all sorts of rough conditions for twenty thousand miles? Lawrence and I glanced at one another, and without a word got out. I made a quick inspection and found that she had broken a spring bracket. The case seemed hopeless. Lawrence meanwhile signalled to the armoured cars, which by this time were some distance ahead.

I stood looking at my disabled car and racking my brains to think of some plan to get her going again. At last I began feverishly flinging the load off her to right and left, while the men of the other cars, which had now come up, turned to and lent me a hand. Then I seized the hydraulic jack, which was always kept handy in the fore part of the cockpit, and placed it under the lowest corner of the chassis, at the same time calling for packing. Various kinds of objects were handed to me, and with the help of some of these I managed to get the required height. Lawrence, eager to help, seized the jack handle and began to lever it up and down. Slowly the car rose; more packing was placed underneath, and we repeated the operation until she stood nearly level.
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