Monday, September 29, 2008

Saturday 17th May 1941

Local news: Last night's attack was more successful, the Aussies have driven Jerry out of four of the six posts he occupied at the gap in the wire.

BBC news: The enemy has commenced bombing and machine gunning our troops in Iraq. Use is being made of air bases in French Syria... British troops moving into Palestine. Western Desert: Our forces stormed Helfaya (“Hellfire”) Pass and re-took Sollum.

In the afternoon, enemy planes bombed Tobruk. One bomb fell fairly near the battery HQ area, and exploded a stack of old Iti ammo. Later the bombers returned over us. 36. The Aussies, undaunted, blazed away, and “Winkie” Kneal (surveyor), who had a rifle, gave them some excellent rapid fire until his magazine was empty. The whole thirty six roared past, flying low but un-hit, absolutely ignoring us!

Friday 16th May 1941

Four Jerries cruised past the OP. The Aussies blazed away. The planes swung off their course, banked left and right, came back, throttles roaring open. ”Look out boys!” We flung ourselves flat, in the sandbagged OP dug-out. The ladder party came scrambling down. I lay near the doorway, phone in hand, watched a plane scream down at an angle of 45 degrees, dead straight. Grey tracer lines at the nose, dead straight. The high-pressure rattle of guns, then it disappeared. Altogether they killed – one man; An Aussie officer who was standing beside his truck and got shot in the throat. (“Figures four enemy aircraft made machine gun attack near the outer perimeter blocks on EL ADEM blocks off sector stop Causalities one officer killed”)

Whilst on watch tonight, I saw gun flashes suddenly commence, from 240 to 280 degrees. It was just after one; I'd been feeling very sleepy until that happened. Presently, two red verey lights went up. This was the Boche signal, “We are being attacked”. Compass at eye, I happily took bearings as the enemy guns fired.

Tuesday 13th May 1941

A few hours at the OP yesterday afternoon and evening. (I go up about 4 times a week). They seem to have a gun section at about 170 degrees now and quite near the wire, judging by the noise of the guns when they fire. Once, when I was up the ladder in the afternoon, a shell suddenly plonked down just inside the wire, about 200 yards away. Three minutes later – whee! CRASH! - and a shell landed about 50 yards nearer. “Down you come!” called Mr Adams but I pretended not to hear him and eagerly scanned the ridge for some signs of an enemy OP. The expected “strafing” did not materialise however, the next rounds coming down about a mile to our right.

I fear bombs but not shells. They excite me – an exhilarating sort of excitement. So far I've never felt afraid at the OP; one has a feeling of confident safety because one knows there is controlled death just at your rear – controlled by the OP! Somehow, it never occurs to one that the Death beyond the wire may be more efficient and effective than the Death at the rear.

A sortie last night. As we returned from the OP we passed quite a few Bren gun carriers moving towards the wire in our sector. Further behind were 4 great I - tanks and then half a dozen big cruiser tanks – all making a hell of a noise. A few minutes later the enemy batteries opened fire. We looked back gloomily as we sped down the road, watching the yellow flashes of bursting shells in the darkness.
This morning we learnt that the attack had been a failure. We lost four Bren gun carriers – and two of those magnificent I - tanks which we saw last night are still out in no-man's land, abandoned. It is not known whether there are any men inside...

There is thought to be little hoping of saving those two tanks now, they are 6000 yards from our lines.

Monday 12th May 1941

12 Noon: There has been a little “Aeronautica Bombardamento Indiscriminato” but no dive bombing, for several days. No British planes about. What's on?

On Saturday night three of us were so thirsty that we drank fawn-coloured water from a stagnant pool. Didn't even boil it! However there have been no ill-effects and for today, we have managed to secure a little extra water.

Sequel to the above notes on aeronautica: At 3 p.m. about 40 Jerries came over and hell-dived Tobruk. They put an AA gun out of action and sank HMS “Ladybird” in the harbour. After the raid, they flew away, quite low, over the battery HQ area. Our rifle barrels were hot!

Friday 9th May 1941

We are getting rather short of water.

Wednesday 7th May 1941

Went to the exchange for the dawn shift, at 4:45a.m. this morning. Quite a good, though battered book was in the dug-out. A ”human” story of northern people losing jobs and finding them, falling in love and going to London as though it was a great adventure – and very rightly! I don't know the books name and the first 28 pages are missing, but I pieced it together as I read – it was a very simple story.

Pleasant hours of candle light, but at last it was daylight and I heard my “comrades” (!) gradually awake and ever since they began to stir there have been loud arguments and shoutings and wranglings just outside. Ye gods!

Monday 5th May 1941

Our own fire orders are phoned through very precisely and repeated back. Viz:

“Left – three degrees – two oh minutes”
“Left - three degrees – two oh minutes!”
“Angle of sight – zero”
“Angle of sight zero!”...
“Fire” “Fire!”
“Shot one!” “Shot one”
“Eleven – thousand” “Eleven thousand!”
“Shot one!” “Shot one”
“Right – three oh minutes – repeat”
“Right three oh minutes repeat!”
“Shot one!” “Shot one”
“Drop one hundred – two rounds gunfire”
“Drop one hundred! Two rounds gunfire!”
“Shot!” “Shot”

That's the usual sort of thing. It was very different at the OP tonight, when we were observing for some Aussie infantry, who were firing at a hostile battery with two Iti 75's. No repeating back orders now! And the orders! - “A lot more left” Bang! Bang! “Still more left” Bang! “Cock her up a bit” Bang! “About a fist to the left” Bang! Bang! Bang! “Good. The buggers have gone to ground now” Bang!

Message from the “gun position”: “Sir, can we use the other gun as well? The boys there want to have a go at the bastards”.

Sunday 4th May 1941

Last night at the OP, we watched with excitement whilst our guns in the Derna Road sector on our right put down a terrific barrage. It started at about 8p.m. and was still on when I turned in at 12:30a.m. We were making a counter-attack on the “bulge” in our defences. This morning we waited eagerly for news. When it came, I was at the telephone:- “OBJECTIVE NOT ATTAINED, NEWS SCANTY. RESPECTIVE LINES PRESUMED AS BEFORE”. Rather depressing – after watching a barrage of 14000 rounds gunfire fall on the enemy lines.

Shelled a bit during the night. Early in the evening a pleasurable state of tenseness was caused when we observed four white signal lights on bearing 170 degrees and 180 degrees. (that is, right in front of the OP) and only about 4000 yards distant.

A quiet day but there were several air raid scares. Once, I was up the ladder on the look-out when I suddenly observed a plane coming towards me along the wire at a height of about 300 feet, ¼ mile distant. I went down the 25 foot ladder like greased lightening! The plane turned out to be a Hurricane however – the only British plane in this area.

Then this evening, as we were returning home, I looked up and saw Nazi planes coming up behind. Put my head inside the cab, “Planes up, sir” “How many, Dawson?” “Over thirty, sir”. We stopped the lorry and Mr Adams, Sid Sorrell and I, took shelter among some sand bags. The planes dived superbly on a point about a mile away. AA shrapnel whistled viciously around us. About 20 minutes later, another wave of 15 bombers arrived...

I like being with Mr Adams. He is gentle and kind-hearted, not very sure of himself and he smokes a pipe. Last night I only had 4 ½ hours sleep (never get more than 6, nowadays anyhow) and fell asleep whilst off duty at the OP this afternoon – sprawled across Mr Adam's seat. When he came, he didn't awaken me, as many officers would have done. I eventually opened my eyes to find him sitting nearby, on a sandbag. He smiled gently, “You seem as though you can sleep anywhere, in any position, Dawson! Here is a mug of tea for you”.

News: We are now at war with Iraq. They have appealed for German aid. Fighting has started between British and Iraqian forces. The Essex Horse is part of the Legion on the Wall, that's what!

Friday 2nd May 1941

Noontime now and a hell of a dust storm on. Haven't had any breakfast yet and don't feel inclined to cook, in this weather. We've been out on the line. It wasn't very pleasant. The situation is obscure but not too good. Apparently there is a 2000 yards gap in our defences, through which the enemy is coming.

B and E Troops have moved away to the right flank; A and D remain in this sector. The enemy is stated to have at least 90 AFVs in reserve, yet. The enemy planes don't seem to pay so much attention to the harbour now but appear more keen on bombing and machine-gunning troops on the ground. Our planes are seldom if ever seen nowadays and then only singly.

Thursday 1st May 1941

Sorrell, Kerry and I were in last night's Op party as usual, but Ling and Gregory went also. Instead of one, there were two officers, and as those were Robin Boulton and George Judd, it suggested that they expected something to happen. And sure enough, just before sunset, a heavy artillery barrage began on our right flank. We watched tensely as the duel increased. Then a harassing battery to the SE began to put down fire around the OP. Fortunately, I'd had my supper (tinned stew with curry powder, and a mug of tea) before all this started. Presently, we learnt that an infantry attack was developing on our right flank (lucky we didn't get that sector, instead of this quiet one!)

Shortly afterwards, the A Troop - Exchange line went dead and then the B Troop - OP line followed suit! This meant we were out of touch with exchange, RHQ, command post and B Troop. I set off with a 'phone to test the B Troop line in the OP area. Each time a salvo came over, I lay down with enthusiasm and hoped for the best.

Eventually tapped-in about a mile from the OP and stated my position. “In that case you are right on the edge of the minefield,” came Robin's slow and dispassionate voice, “And you had better go no further.” I agreed! An Aussie officer had been killed near here by one of his own men, the night before; and on the way down, they had nearly shot at me. So when I passed through the Aussie lines on the way back, I was loudly whistling traditional English airs!

I was on the phone an hour later (all lines having now been repaired) when a message came up; “Enemy troops have penetrated the perimeter at S3, S5 and R31. It is thought that a tank attack will follow at first light... All regiments will stand to at 0500hrs.”

I didn't turn in until 2a.m., but then I slept soundly for nearly three hours, although shells were still falling regularly. Ling was supposed to relieve me before I went to bed. “Where is he sleeping?” I asked Kerry. “Don't know,” he said, “But you'll probably find him somewhere quite apart from anyone else” Sure enough he was lying right away from the others, in the lee of a lorry. Lone-wolf Ling! I woke him up for his spell of duty, then made my bed beside his.

About dawn, the barrage began again. 39 enemy tanks came through the wire away on our right flank, and joined in the battle. Nothing moved in front of us: we had breakfast. Watched two terrible dive bombing attacks, on the rear of the sector where the battle was raging. There have been no signs of our planes for some days.

Little information came through. Ling, Sorrell and I dispersed from the OP, lay down beside a useful looking hole. It was getting hot, but we dozed a bit. I slept, dreamt we were watching dozens of bombers diving on Tobruk, and awoke.

Came back from the OP at 3p.m. Guns were still firing fiercely but a laconic situation report had come through the exchange; “Situation Normal”. This seems to indicate that we had the better of the battle.

News: Greece evacuated. 80% of our forces got away. “Enemy had complete air control” Evacuation made possible by a sacrifice rearguard action.

It is near the end of my night shift on the exchange. Ye gods! I'm sleepy! George was working the exchange last night and was plugged-in to the OP whilst I was out on the line. “Look out!” bawled a voice. “What the hell's up?” cried George. “It's alright,” said the voice, now re-assured and slow – Robin's, “Only talking to someone else. That was some shells, falling in the vicinity of Bombardier Dawson”.

Tuesday 29th April 1941

Shelling during most of last night; heavy air raids today. One raid was by 22 dive bombers, delivered on a nearby infantry post. Each plane appeared to drop six bombs. They killed one Aussie, wounded another, and destroyed two vehicles. Nearly 90 bombs!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Sunday 27th April 1941

There hasn't been an attack, or even any bombing, for two days. All yesterday, I was at the OP in a dust storm. Rather unpleasant. Today is windy but not dusty.

One thing of which we have not been robbed – her at any rate – is hot tea, with plenty of sugar and milk. We have drunk tea without milk or sugar and we have drunk un-sweetened tea made with salt water. The water is foul here, in it's virgin state, but one gets a qwise mug of tea from it, several times a day. One must not drink to the dregs though – there's usually a steady layer of sand at the bottom of the mug.

On the whole, things aren't too bad here and it is more cool and less fly-ridden than it was Mersa Brega way, a month ago. We're lucky to be here instead of in Greece. Reckon there'll soon be an evacuation there. Yugoslavia fell days ago.

Thursday 24th April 1941

Desert “panorama” from an OP is very bleak. “Points from this one are: “Ruined Houses”, “Cairn”, “Light Patch”, “Track”, “Bush”, “Bushes” and “White Spot” (the latter is thought to be a petrol tin!) About 2000 yards from the OP, beyond the wire, is a ridge which hides our further view. How I'd like to be allowed to craw up to that ridge and take a look at the landscape beyond!

Came back to the exchange at about 10:30a.m. Whilst out collecting wood for the fire, Jack Pitt and I found a cave air raid shelter running far back into a hillside. I stepped into the entrance with the intention of exploring the whole cave and to light my pipe out of the wind. There was an unexploded bomb in the entrance however, and for some reason, this scared me. I've walked past hundreds of unexploded bombs and shells – they're all over the place – but somehow, I dare not step past this one!

“Go on in, nervy!” I said to myself. But I couldn't! I came back to the track without even lighting my pipe. A few minutes later some engineers arrived and told us to keep away as the whole hillside was “mined to buggery” and that trains of gunpowder were laid in the caves, leading to chambers containing sufficient explosives to blow up the whole of that escarpment...

We have been here a fortnight now. The enemy advance can definitely be said to have been halted around here.

In bits and pieces I'm reading two diverse books. Both have been read before – years ago. They are Scott's “Kenilworth” and “Rough Justice” - I don't know the author of the latter as the title page (among others) is torn out. The first, a sedately moving “heavy” romance of Elizabethan England, gives me an excellent sense of detachment from the prevailing surroundings and conditions; the second, a psychological study of people who went from the loveliness of the Thames riverside country to the horrors of war (25 years ago) brings me satisfactorily back to realities.

High Noon 1941

“Make a wish – you and I -
May it all come true some day...”

Wednesday 23rd April 1941

Apropos of yesterday's remarks – old Stan Ling asked me today if all was well at M1? “I've noticed one or two funny things up there lately and heard some queer remarks,” he said. So I'm not the only one who realises I'm non au fait – that's the best way to describe it – with the rest of M1. “Gee!” said Denny, who sat nearby, (Denny Search usually starts with a soprano squeak of “Gee!”) “If we three, and Ted Gayler and Johnnie Stevens were the M1 crew it would be qwise keteer!”

However! I went to forward OP again tonight and was free from them all and from the exchange of which I am no longer in charge – any order I give is so often countermanded by George, if the men appeal to him.

“X” car hit a land-mine and was put out of action. Sorrell and I had to bring the Colonel, Major Puckle and Fred Dawsey back to the rear area. Saw Delph, who had been wounded, at the infantry HQ. The other three were still dazed and deaf. Lucky that Denny and Stan weren't in the back of “X” on this occasion...

(Major Puckle went to Base a few days later. Shock and deafness)

Needless to say, Sorrell and I dashed back to the OP pretty fast, subsequently. We didn't want to be wandering in the minefield after dark! There were four heavy air raids on Tobruk today. Quiet tonight. During my spell of duty I observed 14 gun flashes at 265 degrees and two ground flares at 30 and 40 degrees. There was also a little machine gun fire to the westwards.

Tuesday 22nd April 1941

A mail came today. All the letters were from the wrong people – except one from Win. She wrote that she is now married. But she doesn't seem any different, all the same, a real friend, never a sweetheart. Otherwise the mail left me profoundly depressed – about in the frame of mind which I tried to express in this diary on March 18th.

Black days! The war drifting on endlessly and when it is over – what then? My affairs just as rottenly tangled, no, worse! than they were before I came away. I'm not even “happy in my work.” The good days when Pond, Gayler, Hammich and Nicholls were with me on M1! But all these went, one by one and now I've no friends here. Strange, there are more friends, blokes I have something in common with, on any other vehicle in the battery except my own. Rarely do I even enter into any conversation here. Somehow the conversation – or noisy arguments are such that I can say nothing except an occasional “yes” and “no” sycophantic-like.

The horrors of being, for months, with people whom you do not interest and who do not interest you! But this I could stand if only the other were settled. “Never be free in the heart” Never be free!

Two pages of self pity! What an exhibition!

Monday 21st April 1941

At the OP all day today. Grand to get away from M1 for a bit and to have someone to talk to.

The OP Officer (Mr Adams) did some registry today. Interesting to be up the ladder, watching the rounds fall, creeping shot by shot, nearer to the target. On the way back, in the evening, we saw over 30 dive bombers attacking Tobruk harbour. From such a safe distance, it was a magnificent sight.

Saturday 19th April 1941

The war is fairly “steady” and static. A few air raids and shelling on both sides, each day. Our patrols go out, their tanks occasionally break through the wire and are driven off.

Was at the forward OP from 7p.m. yesterday until 10a.m. today. It was in the forward defence lines, by the outer wire and was even quieter than the rear area – in fact I missed several air raids which kept them awake around the exchange that night.
It was pleasantly tense up there,though, and everyone had to stand-to at 5a.m instead of the usual 6a.m.

Thursday 17th April 1941

Damned dusty again yesterday. Only one day in the last six has been decent.

In the morning we found a precipitous wadi nearby in which there was a large pool of water. In the side of the cliff above – about 25 feet from the bed of the wadi was a small cave. Ideal as a funk hole for six men! Pity the exchange isn't there; it would take a very lucky shell or bombs to damage men skulking in that cave.

In this cave we found a large canvas sheet which is now used as a tent at the exchange position. This structure is called “The Operator's Home of Rest”; telephone is laid on, of course. We don't get much chance to rest, nowadays, however. Rumoured that the enemy will shortly make another attack, supported this time by dive bombers and long-range bombers. We expected it about now (4a.m.) but all is quiet at present.

Other local news is good. Sollum has definitely not fallen, indeed it is rumoured that some of our forces have re-occupied Bardia. Something will happen here soon. Either they'll attack the defences again or we'll be out and after 'em.

2p.m. I was breaking up some old Iti ammo boxes for firewood. Each box was stamped with the name of the town of origin - “NAPOLI”.

Napoli! The first time I heard Naples called “Napoli” was in the “Golden Grove”, that inn kept by a French woman on St. Anne's Hill. Those Italian musicians from Chertsey always called it “Napoli”. They seemed nice fellows. Who knows? They may be here, in Libya, now! The “enemy”.

Monday 14th April 1941

4a.m. A few minutes ago came the laconic message from the OP: “The enemy has broken through on our right flank. Stand to.” The enemy seems to be breaking through everywhere, nowadays. Yesterday we had the news that Bardia had fallen, that there was fighting at Sollum and that what remained of our troops was falling back on Mersa Matruh...

Dark days – and there's been foul weather lately, also. Dusty and bitterly cold, as cold as last January, I do think.

4p.m. This morning's attack failed. The enemy lost 7 tanks and quite a few men. Later there was an air raid, in which they lost 12 planes.

Extract of conversations overheard on the OP line during the critical phase this morning:

“On guard. 20 through at Post 33”
“20 tanks penetrated wire at Post 33”
“Small arms fire and flares seen on bearing of 22 degrees...”
“Men seen de-bussing at Post 6”
“Hullo, Maintenance 'ere. Is breakfast up yet?” “Not yet boy” “Let us know, will you?” “Sure”

9p.m. Now confirmed that the enemy came in with forty, not twenty tanks today. They failed to synchronise infantry and tank movements, and lost 18 tanks. We took 430 prisoners.

BBC news tonight. “Tobruk is not cut-off or isolated”...

See copy of German diary report, at the end of this book

Saturday 12th April 1941

We are surrounded; besieged except by sea. It's about 2a.m. and B Troop has just sent for more ammo. They've fired 100 rounds already tonight...

We'll put up a decent show here, no doubt, but many of us took part in the assault on this place, three months ago, so don't feel as hopeful as we normally would do.

Among the 70 odd men in the Regiment now officially posted as missing are Ron Dean, Tiny Jennings, Orrin, “Ciggy” McKeown and Jimmie Fitton. Among missing officers are the Colonel and Major Upton.

Thursday 10th April 1941

We are in the defences of Tobruk and our guns are aimed – ironically enough – at approximately the positions outside the wire which we occupied during the siege, three months ago. Now there may be another sort of siege... but we are not cut off yet.

Enemy artillery has been shelling the outer defences on the Derna road today. And there has been a good deal of bombing – only one lot fell near enough to cause us to take cover; they generally aim at the docks. We often paused in our digging tonight, to watch the terrific AA barrage fly up. Then, twice, minutes after it was all over, the air became full of a gentle sighing, as though a summer shower of rain were coming. Then part of the barrage droned down around us!

The war is still gathering momentum – no sign of the pace slackening yet. How many years more, before we all get back to living our real lives?

Tuesday 8th April 1941

Got a shave, despite a spectacular air raid, when a Hurricane made a forced landing and a German bomber crashed and exploded in all directions.

Monday 7th April 1941

Bitterest wind ever, when I awoke, trembling with cold this morning. Apparently the enemy did not attack Timimi last night, and our gunners are back here now.
They say the GOC is captured. This battery has 30 men missing, believed captured. god knows how we manage to escape time after time. Partly fine judgment and map reading, partly luck.

Last night's news did not mention Libya at all, except to say that troops from the Libyan campaign were now fighting in Yugo-Slavia and Greece!

Did not move. A dusty, foul day.

Sunday6th April 1941

Jackie awoke me at midnight and got in my place in the back. I drove across the desert, with the convoy. Weary, dusty track. Bumping blindly southwards, eyes smarting intolerably. Gradually it grew light and I could see the monotonous desert all around.

Halted at 7:30a.m. and we had tea and a rapid snack – about 10 miles from Michili.
We found several .303 Lea Enfield rifles – broken. The track we were on, then became suddenly sinister. We'd so often found broken Iti rifles but – Lea Enfields! And what that implied!

Soon afterwards we learnt that the enemy had already been in Michili and were still around. We turned back, eyes scanning the horizon in all directions. The track, which had been just weary and dusty, now seemed horribly sinister and oppressive in the morning sunshine.

More evidence of hasty flight – trucks, tin-hats and rifles (we threw away the bolts of all the rifles we could find). There was a dead officer sprawled across the track – a blanket thrown over him. Some of us hastily began to dig a grave but we didn't have time to put him in, as the convoy moved on suddenly. We had to just leave him there and run for our trucks. I put a little three ply cross on the body before I jumped aboard. “RIP A British Ordnance Officer April 1941”.

We grew silent. The track seemed even more evil and ominous. If our troops had been chased up this track so recently – God alone knows how we ourselves missed running into the enemy last night! Probably the swirling dust clouds saved us. Over on our left – westwards – we espied a body of about 100 men; they were marching in close formation and were disarmed. One began to run towards the road.. Who were they? Aussie prisoners? We'll never know.

Then we found one of our own guns – the “A” Sub. gun which was lost at Agedabia. The gun and the towing vehicle were both in decent order. There were marks of tank tracks around... nothing else. We simply put a driver in the FWD and brought it along. How had the gun got there and where were the crew? Away to our left now, we could see burning vehicles, dust, smoke and... tanks.

We came to a crossroads and turned right for Tobruk, not straight on for Derna.
Three Hurricanes hell-dived us and scared everyone. Thank God they recognised us before firing!

Would we get through? The suspense was terrific. Blazing vehicles all along the track – we had to leave a few behind, also. Passed through Martuba Oasis. Silent and deserted, except for some Arabs, looting Aussie kits. The main road – Derna 24 Tobruk 146. It was empty for the first 30 miles. Would that Michili column have reached Timimi yet? If so we had little hope.

Smoke over Derna, behind us. Frantic searches for petrol. Just after we'd passed, a blazing Bren gun carrier went Bang! We looted some useful signals stores from a blazing truck. “Keep going! They're already past the escarpment!”

Safe! Timimi was being held. There was a desperate little triangle of guns and men, just this side of Timimi. Our “A” troop stayed behind here, The Aussies lay by their machine guns (which were aimed in all directions) sleeping or smoking. Some of them grinned tiredly. We went on and made bivouac about 20 kilos from Tobruk.
The boys became loot crazy.

Milk! And porridge! Now that the tension had been relaxed, we were all snappy and bad-tempered.

Saturday 5th April 1941

Luxury: Porridge, with rich condensed milk and lots of sugar, at breakfast. We've so much English loot on M1 that we do damn well for grub.

News: Germany declared war on Greece and Yugo-Slavia.
Wild rumour: Turkey made it's usual bi-weekly declaration of war on the Axis.
Report: Enemy columns crossing the desert by Z'Mos from Esc. Sceleidima and attacking Michili.
Action: 339 moved off at 45 minutes notice (Just before teatime but we managed to get a mash first.)
Observation: Roads crowded. Engineers mining all the bridges and defiles. Men going to battle laughing, gay, singing. Thumbs up!

Saturday 5th April 1941

It was daylight when I awoke – on the main road at Barce. It had been bombed heavily; all civilians had gone. I found an old topee beside the road – this was a godsend.

Engineers were mining the pass as we came through; and one of our guns was left behind covering the road until everyone was clear of Barce. Then the gun followed into the hills and the pass was blown up.

We found Aussie infantry all around. Grand to see them again after the blokes we'd been with. Laughing and gay, they turned the whole show into a jolly holiday affair. They threw cigarettes, tins of fruit and milk at us as we went by. They told us where there was an abandoned stores dump so we hastily collected two sand bags full of tobacco, matches and cigarettes!

Halted in some woods, had a wash and a meal. Someone else took over the rear guard and we moved on at 3p.m. Moved into position in woody hill country in Derna province but still to the west of De Martino. No time for digging in and the enemy can't get here before tomorrow at the very earliest. It may be some days before we are in action again. Made a temporary shelter for the exchange, which is where I am now. (6:45a.m.)

Until breakfast, I'm going to read that thriller “Dangerous Curves”!

Friday 4th April 1941

Moved stealthily on at day break, across trackless, broken country. No breakfast. No water. Direction north east. Rough travelling. No halts. Wadi, hill and rock. The sweet smell of sage.

(Was it sage or thyme? Well I'll know if I ever smell it again, anywhere. SJD 7/5/41.)

In mid-afternoon we saw a well blown up, miles ahead. Bedoin Arabs, flocks of sheep, growing crops. Came over a hill and saw a white town, with green trees. El Aliar? The place was nearly evacuated – they'd thought we were an enemy column,coming out of the desert! The rest of the troops soon moved out – eastwards. We got water, had some tea. This place is somewhere south (or inland) from the Benghazi-Barce road. It seemed like paradise to us. Thought we'd have a quiet night's sleep but there was a “panic” move at 8p.m. when we were half-way through our “breakfast” of stew. “That's the system,” said George, fed-up. “All in one breath, you get, Prepare to move. Move. Follow me. Haven't you got the wire in yet?”

“The infantry is a shower” said an armoured car man, “We're supposed to protect them, but they won't stay around to be protected!” “And we're supposed to support them,” chuckled Vic, “But we can't keep them in front of us!”

Grant was ill, but we could not leave him behind. First we turned ESE but enemy vehicles were reported to be already on the desert tracks so we came northwards. Crept on through the night. Once, as we halted by some eucalyptus trees, an RHA convoy went by, weirdly. There was no traffic moving southwards...

Dozed occasionally.

Thursday 3rd April 1941

On, with many tedious halts, a vast column, to the fort at Esc Sceleidima, between Z'Mos and Solluch. Once we saw an RAF lorry halted. “Let's go across,” said someone, “And ask what RAF stands for!” However, our planes have begun to appear in the last 24 hours and we are no longer certain that every plane sighted is Jerry.

Battery position in the hills beyond the fort. Reunions of friends. A few vehicles have not turned up yet – including one gun and the water cart. The water situation is not good, as the wells here have already been blown up by the engineers. Thirsty evening. Still digging at 10p.m. when we overheard on the exchange that the unit was isolated and unable to contact the support group. We morosely stopped digging and began to load M1.

No sign of our infantry. Rumble of many tanks, passing from west to east below the escarpment. Enemy? Probably. Suspense whilst the officers had a conference. A lovely starlit night, as I sat smoking by the exchange. Absolutely silent except for the rumbling of those tracked vehicles below.

Reeled-in, closed down, crept away in to the hills. At 1a.m. we rolled in our blankets, beside our vehicles.

Wednesday 2nd April 1941

Out on the line before breakfast. The guns began firing – B Troop right behind me across a valley. A plane screamed down. I dropped flat. It curved and zig-zagged and banked beautifully, below the level of the hills. Hell broke loose, the air was full of red flashes from AA and tracers. I waited for something hot to hit my body. The plane did not fire but zoomed and climbed steeply out of sight beyond the hill. I got the break mended. Naden came running. Withdraw within 15 minutes. They saved some line whilst I reeled in the command post wires and had a hasty snack of breakfast (cold).

Bloody warm weather.

We dug-in, laid lines etc. to the east of Agedabia. Jack Pitt came to M1 as Grant was sick and couldn't do much. We were right in front of A Troop so got the blast, when they opened fire. “Ready to move at a moment's notice!” We began loading. “Move at once!” We abandoned all lines and left the position like a dose of salts. The road was packed with vehicles like Southend arterial road on a bank holiday. At last we swung off into the desert. After an hour or so, some vehicles halted to fill-up.

A brigadier came by, wrote his orders on slips of paper and threw them at us. Blazing vehicles along the track – anything that broke down was set on fire and abandoned. Two air raid scares.

Halted for bivouac at dusk. M1 brewed a pot of tea, with fried sausages. Eight hours sleep. 339 had seemed to come out of action in a much more orderly way than the infantry, with whom we were mixed up. On our flank, I saw 414 coming out magnificently. The Regiment hasn't done too badly, I think.

Tuesday 1st April 1941

4p.m. Since about this time yesterday I've had no leisure – and only two hours sleep. At 4p.m. the B-A link line went dead. Vic and I set out to maintain it – three miles. “Bombers!” said Vic. We streaked for a little bush, lay in it's shadow, whilst three Heinkels roared past at a height of 150 feet.

We found the break – 20 yards of line blown out, besides a blazing lorry. Then, with George, and M1 we had to lay a new A-B line, as B Troop had moved forward about 3 miles beyond A. Several times we had to take cover from bombers and reconnaissance planes. We found B Troop and began to lay lines. From the front (unpleasantly nearer) rose Verey signal lights – white over white – meaning - “Unidentified Vehicles Approaching”.

Whist George and Vic buried wires at a road crossing I dashed on to locate A Troop. Suddenly, in the dusk, guns began to fire furiously. It was “A”, I know, because there was no more artillery in the section. I roared over a hill and right into the gun position. A man ran towards me shouting. “Is this A Troop?” I yelled. “Yes!” “Righto!” and I swung around and rushed back into the dark; the red flashes glowing behind and around me every few seconds, made it seem as though I were leaving purgatory.

We were back at A Troop with the line, within half an hour, but what a difference! Silence, except for whispered voices and clank of metal as guns were limbered-up.
“We're withdrawing” said the GPO “You'll have to abandon your lines. Return to HQ and if they've already gone, carry on down the road after them”. Verey lights arose on our left – white over white. “We gave them 36 rounds gunfire” said someone, “And still they came on.”

We crept back along a silent track. The lorry broke down, 100 yards away from the exchange, just before HQ left the position. If it had broken down 10 minutes earlier, or if we'd reached the exchange 10 minutes later... We got most of our gear aboard; a mechanic put the lorry right; and the retreat begun.

I'm too tired to remember much more. Laying a two mile line to a position we'd never seen, by guesswork. Once I fell, cutting my hand and was too exhausted to rise for a minute or two. When we'd put down five drums of wire, we tapped-in and heard that HQ and A Troop had gone and we were to reel in and follow. Thank heavens, we had plenty of water and I had matches, a pipe and a tin of Skipper tobacco. The others had cigarettes. We reeled in two drums, abandoned the rest. Eventually caught up the battery in bivouac at 5:30a.m. and had two hours sleep beside the lorry.

Moved into battle position after breakfast, dug-in and laid lines etc. “Enemy vehicles approaching” came from the OP. Soon afterwards, A Troop opened fire. “Good old 339” said George, approvingly, “Holding up Jerry and Iti on our own.” A frantic “Stop” call came through and we learnt we'd been shelling our own forces. “What a bloody useless lot this is,” said George, in disgust!

This afternoon after watching a dozen Jerry planes on dive bombing we were mortified to see them turn and come streaking our way, very low. Nearer and nearer... Then the high-pressure clatter of machine guns and swish of bullets. Not pleasant.

NB I took cover again – very hastily – after writing the above. Every plane plane we see is a Jerry.

7p.m. Apparently no sign of the enemy tanks yet. We are all browned-off and shaky. Browned-off because there are no British planes and very little ant-aircraft stuff up here. Shaky because we're always waiting for bombers. We start anxiously and look round when we suddenly hear the engine noise of a vehicle on the road. They're so often about; usually they fly over – but 14 Jerry planes came to see us at teatime. Not very nice to see them deploying and swinging in and out, selecting a target.

Then they dived – again and again. One could see the bombs in flight; they seemed to fall quite slowly. A solitary AA gun opened fire but they quickly machine gunned it into silence. Then they circled and bombed and dived at their leisure. I was eating my tea (stew) in the slit trench but the bombs quite spoilt my appetite and I could not finish. There were no casualties but they got several vehicles. After they'd gone, we mashed another pot of tea and then felt better.

The weather is getting hot and for a few hours each day one desperately needs a topee. Tonight it was so warm – even at 2a.m. - that I was wearing shirt sleeves only, whilst on exchange night duty.

Got a good Peter Cheyney thriller - “Dangerous Curves” but was too sleepy to enjoy it this evening.

Monday 31st March 1941

Another “panic” today but rather more like the genuine thing, this time. I was peacefully cleaning out M1 after breakfast, when George came along and said that about 200 enemy armoured fighting vehicles were advancing so we'd better load M1, as much as possible. Which we did. Soon afterwards the guns began firing. They've been firing ever since, until about 30 minutes ago. The ranges shortened to about 6500 yards, then lengthened again.

We've had no shells back but worse – from the point of view of morale – a dive bombing attack by Jerry planes. At first we interestedly watched the planes – a score or more – circling and screaming down in amazing vertical dives on a point about two miles away. Then the tail end of the attack came our way and we went to ground. George used to be nervous of bombers, he isn't now! He crouched in the exchange trench and had a couple of shots at one of the planes!

2:45p.m. The enemy attack seems to have fizzled out for a while. The infantry is moving forward now and for B Troop at least, it is P.T. Ack! But where are our planes?

Altogether, it's been, so far, quite a busy hectic day.

Saturday 29th March 1941

Monotonously peaceful windless days. The best thing about each day perhaps is the mug of hot tea with which we are awakened, each morning, by the “cook”. As the other blokes seemed to lose enthusiasm for the bed, I sleep on it regularly every night. It's alright if one can dodge the hard springs, and much cleaner than lying on the floor.

Thursday 27th March 1941


George seized Grant's rifle (we've changed the Ross for a Lea-Enfield) but the magazine promptly dropped off! Grant stoically bore the ensuing criticism... This was my first definite experience of Jerry and machine gunning. The plane seemed rather slow and antique.

8p.m. It was dusty – a high wind – all yesterday, all last night and all today. A few quiet, windless lulls but now it is blowing harder than ever. Snug but very hot in our dug-out. We have an Iti accumulator wired-up and two 3.5v bulbs are illuminating the place. It's almost a gale outside; sand is drumming on the roof like rain.

Morning 1941

"I've tinkered at my bits of rhymes
In weary, waiting, battle times...”

Thursday 27th March 1941

Heard on the news from Blighty last night that Jerry patrols had occupied El Ageila, near here. 414 came up yesterday and took a position nearby.

Whilst we were starting breakfast this morning a Jerry plane came over and machined gunned the area from a height of about 100 feet. He attacked H truck but missed widely. A 414 signaller was wounded.


Tuesday 25th March 1941

I went to bed at 1a.m. last night, half afraid that I'd suddenly be awakened in the stillness and told that we were packing-up and that I'd got to reel in the 2 ½ miles of line to Battery Wagon Lines. But instead I awoke at 7a.m. and heard Naden saying “I've brewed the tea” and heard George answer sleepily, “Well, bring it in, mate.” Then I knew that all was well, that I need not get out of bed for another 20 minutes or so and that I'd soon have a mug of hot tea – with sugar in it, besides milk! - in my hands.

The situation is easier now, though how long it will last is difficult to say.

Monday 24th March 1941

I was M1 cook today. Quite enjoyable for a change, cooking, and cleaning and scheming things so that billy cans boiled simultaneously. The housewife must have great fun with her pots and pans!

I'll be sorry to leave this dug-out, now so qwise and clean. Things are getting more organised now; there was plenty of water again today. After a few more days I think we'd have been able to get a bit of leisure. On the walls of firm sand I have made engravings:- “Heil Freiheit!” and each kit recess is marked with the owner's name i.e. “George”, “Steve”, “Vic”, and “Legs” (Grant).

Several times a day the planes came over, but so far they have not come frightfully low or near us. This is unfortunate, as on each occasion, Grant appears from the dug-out with an old Canadian Ross rifle in his hands and an eager look in his eye. He's longing to have a shot at a plane! Someone else did, with effect this morning. An AA gun opened fire on two Iti planes a couple of miles away. Suddenly a trail of smoke appeared; it grew thicker and then we saw bright flames, even at that distance, on the plane. A man leapt out and came down by parachute (he was captured by excited A Troop gunners).

The other three airmen stayed aboard the plane, which suddenly came down vertically at a terrific speed. It disappeared behind a hill; a moment later a cloud of black smoke arose and then there was the roar of an explosion. Grim curtain!
I felt excited and pleased at the time, but now I wonder it the three who did not jump were married men, and hope that they did not jump because they were dead before the flames reached them.

Nothing is certain, but it's rumoured that the enemy have now occupied El Ageila, previously a no-mans land. Also that some Aussies have been captured by enemy tanks and that engineers are blowing up wells around here. A and B troops have moved forward and we may be ordered to move at any time. We've got everything possible ready – which isn't much – and are now waiting. All the others are asleep just now – it's 11:30p.m. and I'm on duty until 1a.m. The switchboard is quiet now, but there was a rare flurry of calls a couple of hours ago. Hope we don't have to move – either forward or the other way – for a bit. It's getting snug here.

Very peaceful now; I'm going to light my pipe (Afrikander) and read an exciting spy story. Things may settle down again or this may be the breathing space before we start having the hell of a time!

Sunday 23rd March 1941

A good day. Windless and sunny. We had time to improve our dug-out; to put on a better roof, dig out six inches of dust and muck from the floor and to make cupboard recesses in the walls. We also scrounged water and each had about 2 pints of hot water for a thorough bathe.

An experiment is being tried – vehicle cooking instead of the usual troop arrangements. So far it's been a success. Grant was cook today and we had more grub, better cooked than before.

Saturday 22nd March 1941

There was a bit of a “panic” this evening, when it became known that 200 Jerry tanks had arrived in this sector. I don't mean that the authorities became highly perturbed; but only that certain measures for dealing with these tanks, if necessary, were suddenly put into operation.

Middle shift on the exchange tonight, so I have the bed. The time is 5:45a.m. - only a few minutes before I'm relieved. Ye Gods! I've been anticipating that moment for nearly three hours! I'm so tired tonight, and so cold. Those blankets which I can dimly see on the bed in the far corner! Soon I'll roll between them, to warmth and oblivion. And now I lean over and waken the next man... This dug-out smells stale and dirty.

Friday 21ast March 1941

Same as yesterday. We all feel filthy but there is not enough water to wash either ourselves or our clothes. Thank God we've got a decent dug-out to get into, away from the whirling dust and bitter wind or rain.

Thursday 20th March 1941

Presumably one sticky, dusty day nearer the end of the war.

Wednesday 19th March 1941

Moved into our positions here (somewhere in the Sidra Desert) at about midnight – all very dark and mysterious – and took over from the battery we were relieving. Took over their wire and dug-in positions; they showed us around and moved out. It was much more like an arrival at the front than any of my previous experiences. Quite as described in war books, except that there was no sign of action. This is actually a very quiet front just now; apparently both sides are dug in, well apart, waiting for the other side to attack. Guns don't often fire, if at all. Jerry planes come over every day but this position is so well concealed that they have not found it yet.

When everything was done, we all got about four hours sleep last night. Not bad! The exchange is in a large hole, so large that there is room for three men to sleep in it. We have now roofed-in this hole. It's furniture includes a spring bed which is to be used by whoever has the middle turn of night duty. Needless to say, we've been pretty busy all day! It's already becoming hot, thirsty weather and flies are appearing... The Sidra Desert – what I have seen of it – seems about as mish qwise a place as one could expect to find!

Tonight I revived an old ideal and kept Vigil as I did nine, eight, seven and six years ago. It was as sincere and important a Vigil as any I've kept, I think. I had to walk on a star bearing to get to the spot I intended to find; and I got to it alright. And after I'd sat there smoking and thinking things over for some time, I got down on my knees and prayed pretty hard. There seemed quite a lot of things to pray about.

Tuesday 18th March 1941

Moved further south and further into the Sidra Desert. The oasis village of Agedabia is well behind us now and El Ageila (rumoured to be either a no-man's-land or in enemy hands) lies ahead. We are in bivouac and move into our position tonight. Monotonous travelling; moving too fast to do any reading so there's nothing to do except dream. Unfortunately I brood rather than dream or think. Hour after hour...

Never free in the heart, never free in fact, never free... Blaguardly Don Juan, now you'll pay. Anyway out? Anyway out? Can't be happy now. Got to pay. Want to wash all the other years out; different now, want to be single hearted... Too late to be single hearted! You can't marry anyone else! If you can be free you can't be free in the heart, you can't marry anyone else...

Hour after hour... Brooding quite stupidly, for nothing constructive comes out of it...

The fore-going paragraph could have been written for every day of the journey down and back again – except when I was driving and so had something else to think about. That's a fair summary of my broodings at any time since we came to the desert last autumn and had time to brood. But it's worst when we're travelling. At other times one can find something to do, or one can read a book. and it's grown worse lately as my longing has increased; previously it didn't matter so much as I felt sort of wooden and didn't care greatly what happened.

Now – round and round and round go my thoughts, getting nowhere. Like a squirrel in a bloody cage.

Monday 17th March 1941

Came on today (the battery, not the whole regiment), out of the woodlands, out of the hills, across the coastal plains and to Ghemines, on the farthest edge of the fertile lands. Made bivouac here.

Sunday 16th March 1941

Up those winding escarpment roads this morning! Aprilchen roared up nicely (clouds of blue-grey tobacco smoke pouring out of the cab). After we'd reformed at the top, things went fairly well and we did the rest of the journey at a speed of about 48 kilos per hour, only one vehicle being in tow.

Glorious mountain lands! Stunted trees, green bush land and farm country. After lunch I was the last vehicle in the convoy. By this time, it was a perfect summer's day. Once as the road twisted through woody sunlit slopes, the convoy suddenly increased speed and I lost touch. I roared along many miles without sighting anyone. Once I made a halt to get out and light my pipe! I knew this was a perfect afternoon and was very happy and a bit sad as each second slipped away. “Lonely road, slipping away, lonely road, come back some day”. Now I'd have a cigarette. There were still a few Capstan in my gilt emergency ration tin/fag case...

Today's journey was about 100 miles and I must confess I felt some regret when I saw familiar faces and knew I was back. We delivered the trucks to 414. Felt quite sentimental when someone took my truck away from me! It took a hell of a while to get my kit over to 339, and I lost my Iti water bottle in the process. Hell!

We move tomorrow, to the new “bluey”, far beyond Benghazi.

Bright spot! There was a birthday cable: “Greetings and keep smiling darling – April Aiken”

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Saturday 15th March 1941

4:30p.m. and we're in a bivouac area just to the west of Derna and near the foot of the second escarpment. Nine lorries are here now, out of the 13 30cwts. and 1 8cwt. which left Tobruk yesterday. It's been a rare chapter of accidents! Aprilchen has behaved very well, she only stalled twice and I was soon able to get her going again.

Well, I'd better start at the beginning!

The lorries reached Tobruk yesterday and we spent the morning “taking over” and so forth. There were a few mysterious features about my trucks – an auxiliary gear box operating a four wheel drive, for use in rough country; petrol switches, many dashboard dials; and what not. We eventually left in mid-afternoon yesterday. A dust storm was in full sway. (The previous night's gale kept the raiders off and all was quiet except that the drunken Aussies who shared our billet were fighting and letting off rifles in the early hours and except for the rough wind, which bought down a steel wireless mast (about 250 feet high) with a hell of a crash!)

Filling up with petrol, oil and ammo took a long time. We reached a deserted water point and filled up our water cans at dusk – a high wind piping. Pushed on in the dark and bumped, hideously blind, around two rocky detours. Bivouac soon after, by a hillside. Supper of biscuits and bully (augmented, in my case, by cold boiled potatoes and peas, saved from lunch).

Barltrop had an open truck so came over and slept in mine. “What can we talk about,” I pondered; he didn't seem a very bright individual and I dreaded a silent evening. After some persuasion I got him to talk about his ambitions in civil life, after the war. Apparently he wanted to own a fried fish and chips shop, so we spent a pleasant hour discussing the intricacies of that sort of business. Then he slept, on one of the shelves in the rear of the truck and I made a snug nest among the boxes of ammo on the floor. That high wind keened in some telegraph wires close by. Swift lullaby! A grand night's sleep.

This morning we came away in squalls of rain. I was third in the convoy – the officer roamed to and fro in an 8cwt. Barltrop dropped out early and later on Broughton, too. I found myself leading the convoy, with no definite orders. Kilo 120 to Derna. The rain ceased, the wind dropped a bit. Aprilchen swung merrily along the road. I smoked “Coolie Cut Plug” which looked rank but seemed all right to my hardened palate.

We saw the Michili signpost, near our old bivouac area. Kilo 74. This was better than signalling! I felt capable as a driver, which is more than I've always felt as a signaller. We halted at midday, dispersed and had lunch (including a brew up) The officer arrived about 12:40p.m. and told those of us who could, to carry on to Derna and fill up there. Four vehicles were still limping along the road further back, with Sergeant Bransgrove!

Soon afterwards, as I was rounding a narrow bend, a heavy RAF lorry struck me in passing. The bastard didn't stop; he was travelling fast. I waved the convoy on and waited for the officer. My cover was ripped, one tyre was grazed and several nuts from one of the axle grease hubs were sheared off. The officer came along soon afterwards, escorting Morris-Richards, who was being towed by Barge. I showed him the skid marks and he agreed that I couldn't have avoided the accident (my outside wheels were very near the edge of a drop).

Then I went on, quite alone. Singing, “Lonely road, you're leading me home, lonely road no more will I roam. Lonely road, rolling along, as you roll, I'm singing this song”. I made up the words as I went along, to fit a half forgotten song in the film, “Lonely Road” which I saw some years ago.

That escarpment down into Derna! I crept round the hairpins in second, and was glad of two cigarettes during the descent! At one bend there was also a wrecked vehicle to negotiate. Then, into picturesque Derna. As the others had taken a wrong turning I was actually first at the petrol dump. Eventually I came on and chose this bivouac site at the foot of the next escarpment. Hudson came in soon afterwards, then Pike, then Barge and Morris-Richards. (Funny that the latter's first name is John 'cos he looks very like old John Brockwell and has a faintly similar accent – he is the Southwell man.) They've been arriving ever since and there are only two missing now – Brierley and Broughton. We should have pushed on further than this if the convoy hadn't straggled so much. It's apparently some trouble with the feed. Luckily mine has been OK so far.

Nearly dark now. Bransgrove is working on Pike's lorry, nearby. On one side of us is the sea, on the other the grim escarpment. Rather cold, but quite a pleasant evening, otherwise. As we got here fairly early, we've had two brews of tea and some baked potatoes and bully for supper!

Friday 14th March 1941

5:20p.m. and here I am, having a furtive cigarette in the cab of my lorry, at the AAD
about 4 miles from Tobruk. I've just taken on about 20 cwt. of HE shells and charges. This is a new Ford V8 30cwt. truck and the cab is completely enclosed, so that I'm able to enjoy my smoke (doubly so because I'm at an ammo. dump and smoking is naturally not encouraged) despite the fact that there's a nasty dust storm on – squalls; visibility varying from 10 to 120 yards. We shall be moving off shortly.

P.S. After a look from the window, I'm quite convinced that it's not fit outside for the traditional man or beast. Inside however, it is snug as the traditional bug-in-a-rug and qwise. The name of this lorry – chalked on mudguards and above the windscreen – is “APRILCHEN'.

Thursday 13th March 1941

The air raid siren wailed at 12:30a.m. this morning – the sound rising and falling just as it used to in Blighty in the early days. Most of us got up and filed out to the shelter but nothing whatever happened. The all-clear (suitably triumphant, soaring notes) awoke me soon after I'd got back to bed. Nearly all of us became fed-up and didn't leave our beds when the genuine raids commenced, about half an hour later. The raids seemed to be by single planes and nothing fell near us but there was a hell of an AA barrage and we couldn't get much sleep for the next three hours.
The Aussies in this moved out this afternoon; some more moved in. I now secured a camp bed – it seems very springy and soft, after the dusty floor.

The ammo is apparently ready now but the lorries are not here yet. We wait on.
There are few amenities here. There is a YMCA (“bring your own mugs”) and that is where I am writing this. Unfortunately there is no tea available this evening, nor is the wireless set working yet. However there is electric light and some old magazines. It is a dusty day and I don't suppose the Regiment is happier, somewhere in the open, up the road. I, at least am in a barn tonight (although I do have to reach it by scrambling over a heap of bricks, through a partially demolished house).

Wednesday 12th March 1941

Tonight I'm in a quite different world; this is a most refreshing state of affairs. In mid-afternoon, when we were well past Bardia, the convoy stopped. I was peacefully sitting in the back of M1 reading a Yankee thriller, when Mr Gardener appeared and told me to get in a lorry further down the convoy, with my bedding. Shortly afterwards, this lorry dashed on alone. There were 12 of us in the back; I didn't know any of the others very well (some of them were new draft men whom I'd never seen before) and the only thing in common between us was that we could all drive!

Eventually we reached Tobruk, signed in at the RAOC Depot and got billets in a barn with some Aussie infantry. We're right in the town, near the harbour. It gets bombed here somewhat; about sunset blokes began to carry tin hats about with them and two men came into the sand-bagged AA post and got the machine gun ready for action.
Had a decent tea and a wash and a shave.

Now, all around I can hear the slow Aussie drawl. There are no signallers here. It is a very pleasant change. One of the new draft here, who left England quite recently, is a Southwell man. He knows all the gossip of that wee town. Knows the Cottams and the Simmons; remembers the days of the Yeomanry in Southwell and knew several of us. He says that they still have happy memories of us in Southwell – we made a good impression.

The job we're on here is to wait a few days until some ammo arrives and then drive after the Regiment. Altogether qwise.

Tuesday 11th March 1941

The second leave party is back, also some replacements. Among these was a signals bombardier, Cowell, who only left England eight weeks ago. He told me, in a quiet, pleasant voice, about the air raids. He was a West Country man and had a faintly blurred accent. “Oh, the civilians are fine,” Cowell said very quietly, “They haven't altered in the least – it's just as though the bombers had never come... I can assure you England will still be there, when we get back – and just the same... Jerry? Needless to say, we all hate and despise Jerry”.

We moved from Mersa Matruh today and are now in that awful tract of country between Barrani and Sollum. Very dusty. Very rough.

Saturday 8th March 1941

In the picturesque little seaside bivouac near Mersa Matruh. Sunny days. Until the second leave party returns, I'm NCO i/c Sigs. (Acting, temporary, non-substantitative) and have a certain amount of running about to do in addition to M1 work.

Yesterday afternoon however, Stan and I went to the beach and found a rock where we could take a plunge into 5 foot of clear, blue-green, invigoratingly cold water. In the evenings we sit in “X” car, with the light on, reading or writing, and hearing the news. Before we go to bed (in Stan's “tent”) we have a brew and some supper. Last night it was fried potatoes, tonight it is fried bacon, beans and fish cakes. Marvellous grub now and plenty (Qwise Keteer in fact) so we're usually able to scrounge something extra for an evening fry-up. I'll be sorry when the rest return, the day after tomorrow!

Sunday 2nd March 1941

Awoke 9a.m. An Arab brought us a pot of tea soon afterwards; we lay and smoked awhile. Breakfast was eggs and bacon with pepper and salt! followed by bread, marmalade and lashings of goats milk butter and more tea. And the newspapers to read.
There was a barbers nearby, where I had a shave, haircut and shampoo. Everything was fine!

After a spot of shopping we returned to barracks. From the state of the barrack-room, one imagines we were not the only people to fail to return the previous night!
There was a good deal of mail for us. I received two cables and four letters, all of which depressed me, and one letter which instantly made me feel elated and that all difficulties could, somehow, one day be overcome!

Took our small kit back to the hotel and our kit bags to the Citadel – a gloomy and ancient fortress – where Geoff Pyman was in charge of spare stores and universal kit bags. I took one or two things I wanted and left others behind. Also I took the beloved shell-case and bayonet out of my sea bag and left them in the universal.

Sunday, Monday and Tuesday! Free and in Cairo! Taxis, Shower-baths, Capstan cigarettes, Barney's tobacco, Shops and Cafes! Films – Ronald Coleman in “Lucky Partners”, “Pinocchio” - a Walt Disney, rather sweet, and hilarious “Turnabout”.

I collected the films – all 16 exposures had been printed, so my weeks of care were rewarded.

Apart from many cafes full of soldiers, we went one night to Parisiana, a better class place. (“A swagger joint, this,” I said to Ling as we lazily watched what he called “cotton kings” and their exotic women, taking reserved tables). The sweet at our dinner had a peculiar name – Eymek-Kadayif – but actually it seemed to be treacle and cream.

“Pinocchio” was supposed to be our last film but we couldn't bear to be saying good-bye to flicks again, so went to see “Turnabout” at a matinee the following afternoon.

Shopping: We wanted to buy, among other things, some pyjamas for April and a dressing gown for Phyllis. I went to the Tipperary (a club run by English ladies for the benefit of desert warriors) and asked one patrician old lady for advice. She told me there were only two shops in Cairo where “they” purchased such things. So we visited both. We sauntered into Rivoli's – two desert rats amidst the cream of Egyptian femininity, as I remarked at the time – and took the lift to the Lingerie Department.

Egyptian ladies don't seem to use pyjamas; there was only one pair in stock and they were peach – the wrong colour. I didn't like the night dresses - and dressing gowns!
They showed Ling an absolute creation in blue silk but it was a bit too expensive, over £6. So we went across to Eaton's, a smaller shop but with a better range (it seemed they specialised in lingerie) and after much deliberation Ling bought a blue dressing gown (lined with pink, he asks me to mention!) for £3-10-0 and I bought pale blue silk pyjamas for 175 akkas – about £1-15-0.

We later packed our parcels and sent them off from the Army Post Office. Slipped cards inside (quite soon it will be April's 22nd birthday) and just have to hope they'll get to England safely and if possible without being censored and messed about.

The end of the leave? Oh I won't dwell on it! The train left Cairo at about 10p.m. on Tuesday night and arrived at Mersa Matruh at 11a.m. the next day. Having had so many late nights, Stan and I were tired; he slept in the gangway and I up on the luggage rack!

News: Advances continue in Iti East Africa – Bulgaria joins the Axis – German troops begin to gather on the Greek Frontier.

Saturday 1st March 1941

(Continued from Dawn)

We deposited the rolls of film at Thompson's. I also bought three more rolls and a pair of sunglasses here. Tea and music at The Nile, two seats for a flick at the Diana – a swashbuckling Errol Flynn film of Gloriana days. Sheer aesthetic enjoyment!

We couldn't find anywhere for a third meal after the cinema (Oh, I forgot to mention that we'd had creamy coffee and several cream sundaes at The American Bar, Sharia-Emad-el-Dine, before the show), it was well past midnight and all the cafes were closed. Eventually we found an hotel, went in and had sandwiches and tea, sitting in solitary state in the lounge. It was a comically Victorian place – heavy furniture, gloomy walls, pot plants! I could imagine the pensioned gentlemen and decaying gentlewomen who would sit, straight-backed, in those chairs!

Suddenly, as we smoked, I didn't want to go back to the barracks – ugh! awful place! - and ruminated on clean, white sheets... I enquired, but unfortunately the last double room had just been taken. They suggested a hotel across the road – The Marina. We tried there and there was a vacant room and we were very soon in it. We had no kit whatever but I picked up a book in the lounge to read in bed.

The other place had been (appropriately!) The Victoria. As we were just about to leave, an RAF bloke came up to Stan and said, “Where are you going, old man?” “Back to barracks, perhaps,” replied Stan with sleepy vagueness. “Have you got anyone to see you home?” went on the other solicitously. “Yes,” I said, grinning, “I'll look after him, old boy.” “Sure you'll be alright?” “Hell!” cried Stan bitterly, “I ought to be alright. Tea and coffee... Hell!” So saying, he quitted the hotel and I followed, chuckling.

Over at the Marina, in our snug bedroom, I read for a while. Turned out the light at 2:30 and just felt cool sheets, soft mattress and pillow before sleeping. Funny how warm it is in a house! In the desert we make a bed with four blankets and a great coat; here, we each had a sheet, a thin blanket and a coverlet – and it was just right!

White Dew. Morning. High Noon. 1941

870844 Bdr. SJ Dawson HQ Troop 339 Battery 104 (EY) Regt. RHA MEF

“Life, love and happiness are all very precarious – little flames in a wind-haunted darkness."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Saturday 1st March 1941

Well, Stan and I carefully hid all our loot – but it turned out not to be necessary; the train wasn't searched tonight. (I later took my shell-case and bayonet to the Citadel at Cairo and left them in my universal kit bag in the Regimental Stores – so they are quite safe for the present.)

We dozed uncomfortably in the EFI coach for a couple of hours, woke up and found we were in the Nile Valley, and it was daylight. Reached Cairo at about 8:30 a.m. and all went by lorry to Abassia Barracks.

... Eventually we had breakfast and put our kit in a barrack room. Went to Base Depot, some miles off and spent several hours being issued with boots, socks, shirts etc. It was still raining and there were queues. Stan and I wisely made ourselves comfortable in the NAAFI for a couple of hours, until the queues were nearly gone.

Back to Abassia. Wash, shave, clean-up, pay parade (£10) and we were free! (5p.m.)
Stan and myself took a taxi to the Gardens and visited Thomson's, the photographer's, first of all.

(Continued in White Dew)

Friday 28th February 1941

4p.m. Nineteen hours after despondently writing the above, I'm sitting, with Stan Ling in a train which is just pulling out of Matruh. Bound for Cairo and four days leave! Which all goes to prove that you never can tell!

5:30p.m. and well to the east of Sidihanaish. How half the Essex Horse happens to be on this train is as follows:-

First, we had rain last night, after we'd gone to bed; we suffered in varying degrees, George Hignall worst. I had a ground sheet above as well as below so no rain came through from above; it ran in from the weather side... When I felt the damp insidiously creeping in, I frantically erected a dam of rolled up ground sheet and blankets. Then I withdrew into the four inches of dry bed and slept until the morning's cold, wet wind awoke me.

Secondly, it rained nearly all the forenoon. We put up a tent; rain streamed through the roof. “This is the crowning misfortune,” I said bitterly, gazing out at the grey world. “I may seem gay, Steve,” confided Denny, “But underneath I'm full of despair...”

Thirdly, the authorities decided we all could have leave, half now, half next week! We had about 90 minutes to pack, wash and get our pay (10/-) and some dinner. We made it!

There's a NAAFI – or EFI – on the train (chocolate, sandwiches and tea); wooden seats, but a fair amount of room. Outside, as we rattle towards Cairo, the rain has started again, but we don't care a damn, now! Stan Ling is reading yesterday's “Egyptian Mail” Headlines:-

“Imperial Forces Capture Mogadiscio – record breaking advance in Italian Somaliland” “Tense Days For Bulgaria” “RAF Bomb Tripoli For Five Hours”

Guess I'll go and have a cup of tea!

10p.m. The train has crept as far as Daba. We're back where we were before! There's light enough to read by in the EFI coach, so Stan and I are in there, perched high on some empyy boxes clear of the wet floor. I'm afraid we'll get searched somewhere tonight; this is a pity 'cos I've got that AA shell-case in my kit bag. I don't want to lose that shell-case!

Thursday 27th February 1941

It is no rumour now, but fact. We move, early this afternoon, up the Road again, towards Mersa Matruh...

9p.m. We're sitting around a cheery camp fire on the coast near Mersa Matruh. We can hear the sighing of the sea; the crackle of wood. Grant is here and mashing tea. I've just eaten two bars of Cadbury's (bought from the Daba NAAFI). Nevertheless, I, like the rest of 104th (EY) Regiment RHA, am profoundly depressed. Going up to Libya!

Perhaps the worst moments of today were when we passed 106th on the Road, going down to rest camp. Truck after truck, marked with the familiar fox's head like our own, flashed past, full of men dirty and tired – but happy. As the two convoys roared past each other, 106th gave ironical cries. Probably think we're just going for our initial trip up that rotten Road.

No leave now, definitely! And no visit to the photographer's! No break from the Army!

Wednesday 26th February 1941

Came along the familiar but not-very-much-liked Road from Matruh, by Bagush, Sidihanaish, Fuka and to Daba, where we made bivouac – how slowly we travel! The aerodrome that used to be bombed near Sidihanaish, was gone now – but they'd left two good anti-aircraft guns there, to defend damn all! Rather amusing to see the guns there, elevated to a business like angle, with nothing and no one in sight for miles around!

Otherwise there was little sign of the once bristling defences of our “Bagbush Box”
There was a rumour that we might all be searched, further down the road, (for loot) so just as a precaution, we concealed a revolver in a drum of wire. I also emptied my camera and shall hang the two rolls of film inside my greatcoat sleeve. My AA shell case and bayonet are in my kit-bag, which is travelling separately.

There is a pukka NAAFI here! Now full of Yeomen, naturally! As I approach the NAAFI, I heard them roaring the chorus of a song. This was an obscene ditty about a lady named Lulu – somewhat of a nymphomaniac, one imagines. Inside, the Yeoman were in good spirits – on the last lap out of the wilderness! - and were scoffing at an alarming rumour, which was, nevertheless, spreading from table to table. We had been stopped by a DR and ordered not to move beyond Daba. If so, why and where next?

I sat with a Polish soldier, who was learning English, though he found the pronunciation “heavy” He was a serious sort of a bloke, formerly a teacher near Cracow, who had not seen or heard of his family since last spring. We parted with regrets, handshakes and “Auf Wiederschen”. He proposing to “look-me-up” in England, after the war.

I came away. The Yeomen were bawling, half-tight, “No friends in all the wide world”.

Tuesday 25th February 1941

A fine hot day. My blankets and the socks I've just laundered, are spread out to dry. Will we get leave, Cairo-way? Shall I even get a chance to have my films developed and printed? My pipe's burning nicely, it is quiet here and I'm bathed in sunshine – but ah! how depressed and heart sick I feel! I tried to find comfort in reading old diaries (Will they ever reach home?) but there's none to be found there. All is summed up in the last sentence I read (quotation from a book, at Nablus, last June) :- “ Life, love and happiness are all very precarious – little flames in a wind-swept darkness”...

It is better that I should write no more now, because when one is in this mood one is liable to write more than should be written. I'll carry on with some essentially everyday task – perhaps a little sock darning?

Monday 24th February 1941

Mersa Matruh for tonight's bivouac. An advance party goes by rail tomorrow, from Matruh station, to our “rest” camp. Probably it will be a refitting place and we won't “rest” there long either! George Hignall and Grant are in the party.

Evening: Went across to X car site and had three games of chess with Denny Search and Stan Ling in their candle-lit “tent” They entertained me hospitably – cigarettes, tea in a nice, clean mug, chocolate and chocolate biscuits!

When I got back to the M1 site, everyone there was in bed and asleep.

Sunday 23rd February 1941

Across the trackless stretch to Sidi Barrani (ruins of) and to Kilo 100 from Mersa Matruh, where we made bivouac, beside the battered road.

Ah! M1 is not the same since Sidney went! We still have our camp fires but the people who sit around then are quite different (although Naden and Grant, now almost silent sycophants, and Hall are still there.) There's no singing now and the conversation is quite changed – usually of a defeatist or dissatisfied nature, the OC is no good, the CPO knows bugger-all, the Regiment is US, Gawd-'elp-us–when-we-meet-Jerry, sort of thing.

I've left them to it just now and am writing this in the Y1 “tent”. In here, everyone seems contented, in a thin haze of tobacco smoke. The BSM and George Kerry are reading, Nicholls, Tiny Plane and McNichol are playing cards. Quite qwise!

Saturday 22nd February 1941

Rough roads and rotten weather; desert on either side. What could be worse, except crossing the desert? Bardia, Fort Capuzzo, the frontier, Sollum. Down a steep escarpment above the harbour (blue, in spite of the grey skies) – not “Hellfire Pass” by which we ascended.

Made bivouac about 2 miles beyond the ruins that were Sollum. It's nearly tea-time now – a miserable grey day, with a gusty wind that blows the smoke of our fire in all directions.

Friday 21st February 1941

Awoke up at our bivouac (near Tobruk) with that remembered evil desert wind piping around my head. We stay here until tomorrow. George Hignall came up from Base today and took over his old job as NCO i/c Sigs. Sidney becomes “B” Troop NCO and Ron Dean reverts to gunner or transfers.

A high wind blew all day. We cowered under a shelter in the lee of M1. To hell with this bloody desert!

Wednesday 19th February 1941

There was a well hard by our camp site, so last night I had a good wash and a hair shampoo in hot water. After our singing was done, the others kipped down in the lee of the lorry but I rolled myself in the blankets, beside the fire and went to sleep with my eyes on it's red glow.

This morning, Sid and I were up early and mashed a pot of tea. Later, before breakfast, we washed in two gallons of hot water. Qwise!

This morning we were travelling through fine, mountainous country until about 11a.m. when we descended rapidly right down to sea level, from the top of a magnificent precipice. Long zig-zags. (What a place to hold an Army! Why didn't they?)

Derna. Nearly every house had walls pitted with shrapnel. Some houses were in ruins. A colourful town of tropical trees and plants. After we reached the plateau above Derna, there was no more fertility. Gradually the scenery merged into that mish-qwise stony flatness of dust that we know so well.

We are now in bivouac 72 kilos from Derna, on the Gulf of Bomba. M1 stands at exactly the same spot as it did until we left here, on the 5th February, to start that awful march which ended at Solloch.

Tuesday 18th February 1941

An easy day's march again. We're still in the fertile region – haven't reached Derna yet – and are now sitting round our camp fire in a valley between rocky hills. It's quite dark but the fire is blazing merrily! Camp fire! “As the sparks leap upward, so may our ideals; as the red logs glow, so may our hearts; as the grey ash fades, so may our errors”. The camp fire is my job, I make the fire, Basil Grant mashes the tea. “Scout Dawson” they call me and I tell them how Baden Powell is the greatest leader of youth in this age. (So he is.)

As we sing, I can see the gleam of yet another fire on the hillside.
“...When day is done and grass is wet,
With twilight dew...”
“... But come ye back when summer's in the meadow,
Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow,
For I'll be there in sunshine or in shower...”

Monday 17th February 1941

All day we've been travelling in the fertile region. About midday we swung inland, climbing high into rolling hill country by two magnificent passes. A fine road swept up and down and spiralled into the hills with many hairpin bends. Farms, delightful sunshine. It might have been Derbyshire. We stopped for lunch near a white State Colonists Scheme farmhouse, where some Aussies were in billets. The farmer and his wife, typical Italians, came out to us. They could not speak English but were very friendly. It only made war seem all the more futile...

In mid afternoon we halted and made bivouac in bushy hill country. It looked for all the world as though we were somewhere on Danbury Common, near Chelmsford. But on the splendid tarmac road just below, are several wrecked English tanks and lorries. There must have been an ambush here, during the advance... Beside one tank, I noticed two fresh graves, each marked with a little cross of three-ply wood.

“Eee, ah'm sorry for they poor bleeders” said Jackie Hall. Still – there are two men sleeping quietly in the green country. And each has his mate, whom he must have known very well, lying alongside. And just for a while at least, the tank in which they served together, and fought and probably died, remains beside them in the greenery. And, for them, this war is over. No more hopes or fears...

9p.m. M1 stands in the midst of bushes, half way up a hill. Sid and I are sitting in the blacked-our cab, whilst Jackie, Vic, Naden and Grant are lying in their beds discussing great matters – stars, planets and the sun. From time to time, Sid and I interpolate with some sage remark – presumably culled from our superior Knowledge of Space. A staccato remark rips out from the cab into the middle of some astronomical argument, then we are silent again. “But, I tell ye, a fallin' star...”

“A falling star is actually a meteorite, boy, moving through space at 40 miles per second and only visible to your eye when passing at it's nearest point to the earth!”
“... 'An we're all revolving round the sun” ... “Yeah, but they reckon the sun's getting smaller” ... “The sun is losing gaseous matter at the rate of over a billion tons a year, Basil!”

Well, I'll read a bit before turning in. Tonight I have a good old cloak and sword romance by HC Bailey - “Karl of Erbacht”. There's a rare business of book swopping nowadays and somehow, between us, we each manage to get two or three fresh books each week.

The world news is not too good – apart from the African campaign. Increasing tension in the Far East (Japan and French Indo-China and Dutch East Indies) and in the Balkans (Yugo-Slavia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Romania).

“The boys are pretty shaken tonight,” Sid told me just now, when I returned from a visit to Stan Ling at “X” car. Oh, we were bombed a bit last night! I'd almost forgotten it, in the Bagush Box days I'd have written a lengthy account of our ordeal in the slit trench. Last night we all awoke but no one got out of bed or just put on a tin hat. We just lay there sleepily, listening to the drone of planes, the roar as they dived an the crash of explosives, followed sometimes by the tinkle of breaking glass as windows were blown in. They were Jerry planes – a different engine note to Iti planes.

“Here's a Hurricane coming,” said someone as a rapidly increasing snarl was heard. “Don't be too sure,” came Naden's voice, complainingly, “I thought I heard a Hurricane just now – and it dropped a load of shit!”

We have discovered a bottle of Chianti (belonging to Jackie) in the cab here and are quietly disposing of it. He'll call us a couple of whores in the morning, but that won't get his Chianti back!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sunday 16th February 1941

The rest of the night was uneventful except for the drone of planes and the crash of guns and bombs. Sunny day. Grant was fit again and all the sinister things of the night were past. (Ha! That's good enough for a “thriller” novel!)

We move tomorrow. “Intention: The Regiment will move to Egypt”... The lads (including myself) were shaken this evening when it was noised abroad that our destination was not Cairo, but some new “camp” at a place name in the Sinai Desert, just across the Canal! Let's hope that rumour is not true!

Saturday 15th February 1941

Visited Benghazi today. Only one hour to spare in the city. Bought some bread at a bakery and some Iti cigarettes from a street hawker. Nearly all the shops were closed and boarded up. A barbers was open however and I had a super, magnificent haircut. Felt finely immaculate then!

The men of “Essex Horse”, rough as they looked, were not so scruffy as some of the desert rats in khaki who roamed the streets. There was no constraint twixt soldiers and civilians, no slightest sign that this was an invaded, captured town, except for the Union Flag on the flagmast at Municipal Hall and a tin-hatted sentry on duty there. The civilians regarded us with indifference or interest; without either enthusiasm or enmity. The soldiers treated the civilians with normal courtesy, in fact everything was as it should be.

A report came through the exchange that some Italian had been caught in B Troop lines after firing rifle shots, also that there were two more wandering around somewhere. Only Vic and I were on the exchange. Grant was sick – kept tossing about and retching and getting up for a spew and groaning. Then at about 10 o'clock came the report that a shot had just been fired at a vehicle about a mile away. All sentries warned etc. Drama!

Grant retched and threw his blankets off. The storm lantern flickered. Naden grumblingly replaced Grant's blankets. CRACK! A shot right outside! Vic and I looked at each other; it was a first-class case of suspended animation. Then, I went out and found Sid and Jackie Hall very alert at M1, armed with revolver and rifle. I borrowed the latter and prowled around but found nothing. “What's on?” asked Denny Search. “A night of terror, boy,” I said, savouring the melodrama to it's fullest, “Creaking doors, a guttering lantern, Basil nearly dying – and then a shot in the night!” I lugged the .303 around for a bit, but there was nothing doing.

Vic is asleep now (We enjoyed a tin of Benghazi pears before he turned-in) and if nothing happens in the next half hour – that is before 12:30 a.m., I'll kip down also. Normally there are no calls at night and we hadn't intended to man the exchange at all after 10p.m., but these mysterious shots started a series of urgent calls.

Friday 14th February 1941

Bitterly cold day. We're lucky to have the shelter of four walls. A marvellous false dawn of yellow, about an hour before sunrise, which faded to grey and gradually turned red rose colours, as the sun came up.

The Regiment paraded in hollow square after breakfast for a brusque, soldierly address by some general. The parade was very amusing; everyone, especially the officers, was very casual about the drill. There were titters when the OC addressed us as, “339 Battery Essex Royal Horse Artillery” ... (missing the word “Yeomanry”). Presumably everyone's minds leapt to our secret ironical title “The Essex Horse” And the 414 OC bawled across the square, “You must have lost your B Echelon, Bob!” Loud laughter at that. Finally the Colonel, about to give the time-honoured and dramatic command, to the whole regiment, - “Essex Yeomanry – 'Shun!” suddenly noticed the 2nd i/c blowing his nose, and made a long pause after the initial word of command. Thrilling seconds whilst the 2nd i/c frantically struggled to get the handkerchief into his pocket! We daren't laugh at that, however!

The address was the usual jingoism – praise; traditions splendidly upheld; you'll soon get your chance to strike the Boche in the Balkans etc. etc. There was one serious note however. “Here – owing to our magnificent air force – we've had air superiority right from the start. But don't get careless. When you meet the Boche it may be very different. For God's sake keep always on the alert for air attack”.

After the General had gone, the Colonel said a bit about our splendid achievements (two battles and a trek across the desert!) and how he knew that by our bearing we would uphold the finest traditions of the Regiment, in civilisation (Cairo) as in the rigours of campaigning...

(Aye, and the General called us all “Gentlemen” he did an' all!)

From all that is said, one imagines we won't be in Cairo long! Well, I hope I get that leave! I'm tired and that's all I want, right now.

Thursday 13th February 1941

Benghazi was bombed for several hours last night, by relays of lone bombers. Must have been fairly heavy stuff; although we were some distance off, the ground often trembled. Amazing that Iti pilots can bomb a city which contains thousands of Italian civilians!

Today we set up an exchange, for the first time since leaving Tobruk. Eventually it was installed in a room in one of the buildings around the farm court yard and four of us are sleeping in there tonight.

As we're so short of men I borrowed two B Troop Signallers for today – one of them, Bryceland, is working on the switch board tonight also. They were a welcome change from the grumbling, arguing M1 personnel. Either they worked quietly or with much humorous repartee; when doing no work they usually sat silent, legs crossed, like a couple of Arabs!

Pay parade this afternoon. For the first time since leaving Mena, HQ Troop had to fall-in, in three ranks... The BSM tried to revive old bullshits - “Headquarter Troop – Troop – 'Shun! Troops reported present sir!” He then swung round, saw the whole squad registering amusement, chose the most lowly member (a wretched LAG gunner) and told him to stop smiling, what was the joke? I hadn't deigned to go to this parade – being busy with the exchange at the time – but Sid Pond had managed to limp along and told me it was damn funny.

Wednesday 12th February 1941

Moved today to the outskirts of Benghazi (a few miles Cairo-wards, anyhow!) It seems to be a large city of white, civilised-looking buildings. Decent roads. Green country, a good many eucalyptus trees and plantations. Artificial irrigation of course but there are quite a lot of wells also. We're bivouacked around an old white farmhouse some miles from the city. We're supposed to be here for about a week but there's a panic on and we're under 30 minutes notice to move, at the present.

Sidney's leg is poisoned. He's not feeling too good tonight. I'm having to do his job – not that there's much to do – and altogether we're very short-handed on M1 as Nicholls and Gayler have been put on other vehicles.

We're reading in bed tonight as usual although there was a good deal of bombing last night. A Jerry plane flew around Solluch last night, or rather early this morning, for some time. Amusing if this reconnaissance is followed by bombs – tonight – on our old bivouac site, some thirty five miles away!

More rumours from Bulgaria and from Romania, of Jerry movements. I feel depressed tonight. Do hope I get that bloody leave, so long overdue, before the next campaign starts.

Tuesday 11th February 1941

Presumably, a day nearer the end of the war...

Monday 10th February 1941

Weather slightly better. Had a wash, shave and shampoo. Drove Sid into Solluch during the morning, to see the MO. Arab town, white buildings, picturesque in the distance, dirty in reality. Tree-lined streets and a pretty square. Soldiers and lorries everywhere. Thousands of prisoners on the outskirts and wandering about or doing small jobs in the town. Sunshine. Wounded soldiers and Arabs being taken away in ambulances. (Many Arabs, including children, were unfortunately involved in a skirmish near here.)

There is a railhead here, too. Minaret and nunnery, now a hospital. The whole scene was somehow familiar to me – that's why I've troubled to mention it – so maybe I've read a book or seen a film that describes a similar scene.

H truck wireless tuned in to the English news at 7p.m. Libya - “magnificent victories of a handful of British and Australian troops against overwhelming numbers”... In East Africa, the rest of the MEF is pushing far into Italian Eritrea – and the Africans are getting into southern Abyssinia .... Few air raids over Britain last night ... Bulgaria denies presence of German troops ... Our Ambassador and consular staff being withdrawn from Romania as “German troops are now concentrating there, fully equipped” and obviously an expeditionary force is being prepared there.

“Like buggery we'll go home soon,” I said sardonically when the last item came over.
Don Parker, Ted Gayler and Search agreed gloomily. The popular answer to “Where next?” just now is “Back to Mena and then – the boat!” We'll probably go back to Mena or some such base camp but if there is a BOAT, it will not be going to Blighty. Not yet.

Sunday 9th February 1941

Moved about 50 miles today, west and northwards, from Z'Moos to Solluch, which latter place is on the edge of the fertile (“green belt”) region. We came along a decent track, through hills, past ruined forts, an old Arab castle, across an excellent tank-trap (which was being filled in by engineers, assisted, (apparently voluntarily), by Iti prisoners) and through minefields. Weather – high wind, dark clouds, savage rain squalls. During the last ten miles we saw signs, growing more numerous, of an almost forgotten colour – green! A sort of turf – half grass, half clover.

We are bivouacked on a dismal plain of mixed stones and grass, beside a wind pump (I climbed it to have a look around) with some trees and white buildings – Solloch village – nearby. We made a rough lean-to tent in the lee of M1; we're not used to campaigning in this sort of weather yet. When I first crawled into this “tent” I noticed an old, remembered smell – the fused scent of canvas and wet grass. Haven't smelt that since the camping days in England! Still, not being accustomed to rain (it's eleven months since our last dose!) we are at present biassed against the “green belt” and almost long for our dry, dusty desert.

(NB Observe, we ALMOST longed for our desert. 21/2/41)

Peering out – during a fine spell – Grant observed, “It's alright here. Green. You know -” “Yeah, lovely,” I said morosely. Sid chuckled boisterously. “Like a whoring Sunday School treat, “ain't it?” snarled Jackie Hall. Why does Grant say such inane things and swear so stupidly, I wondered irritably, as rain splashed down again.
“... So I told the bah-stud I weren't gonna wear a bah-stud overcoat...” Blast him, he drones on about nothing, when he's not asleep, or eating!

Midnight! Rarely are we up so late! Usually get to bed about 8p.m. As only Pond, Hall and myself are at M1 tonight (les autres having been put on guard) we made a modified tent of local materials – a roomy but fragile affair. We erected it during periods of intermittent peace and storm. On one occasion, just as we'd finished, a sudden gust of wind and rain blew it down ... terrible oaths ... it began to collapse on several occasions ... blasphemy.

Poor old Sid is suffering from boils and rheumatism. “I've never felt so ruddy miserable in all my life,” he said as we sat inside at last, wind shaking the tent hopefully. I was cheerful for once. “This is good fun, isn't it?” I said, appealing to a dissenting audience. “Takes me back 10 years, to the dear old boy scout days!” “Just think!” said Jackie, savagely making his bed. “Think of the weather we've had lately – sandstorms, bloody cold, whoring rain – and then think what auld Lady Astor is sayin' about us!” (“Basking in the sun”).

The others went to sleep after that. I lay awake reading “Spiderweb” and smoked a whole packet of Woodbines. The wind dropped, the rain ceased. Dogs howled and barked, there were occasional rifle shots in the village. Weird surroundings for reading a macabre novel! And it certainly did become gruesome!

By the way, we have a storm lantern in here and are not troubling unduly about the black-out. Eventually the “thriller” became so truly thrilling that I just had to keep reading. Have come to the final chapter (obviously the orthodox happy ending) and shall finish that now, in bed, before going to sleep.

Saturday 8th February 1941

Awoke very early and heard rain falling. “Rain!,” I thought, “The one misery we have not endured during the last few weeks!” The rest of the night and the forenoon were somewhat gloomy. Although it was very cold there was no rain in the afternoon however and we managed to get our clothes and blankets more or less dry. Move tomorrow to a place called Solluch, which is on a road – A ROAD!

Apparently the Army is not penetrating beyond Benghazi so maybe the Libyan campaign is over. Maybe we'll go back to Cairo again. Not for too long though, I hope - “bullshit” soldiering and that dismal routine of guards, parades, fatigues and inspections would be awful after this! “Isn't it strange?” said the Signals Officer to Gayler, “A year ago today we left England, and now we've finished our first campaign.” “And the last, I hope,” responded Gayler!

Yes! It was about this time a year ago today, that I took a last, almost casual look at the English shore before I went below, dull, wooden and apathetic. (Well, since then I've inevitably become a good deal more rough and tough and dirty – yet, somehow, I don't quite know, cleaner, too!)

At present the main thing is the question of that DAMNED wind. Will it fall now, at sunset? If so we'll be able to gather snugly around our fire, toasting bread and cheese, later on smoking and singing. We did last night; even after it became dark, flames were leaping up. As we sat around, the last vehicle (barring the one we abandoned in the dust-storm!) came in from the desert. We cheered ironically as they passed us – a gun tower, towing a 30 cwt, a 15cwt, and a 15cwt towing an Iti lorry.
Gayler became a commentator, “The Essex Horse is roaring into action. They're coming past me now, coming into action, towed in...”

However! We got here! (Most of us) And not too late to have been useful, if the occasion for which they wanted us had arisen. A credit to the MT and the drivers. This was an MT show only. It was just a case of being in certain places at a given time. But as it happened, we weren't needed.

Friday 7th February 1941

No dust today but bloody cold. We obtained petrol, came on about ten miles and rendezvoused with the rest of the Regiment. Apparently we're staying here the rest of the day whilst the vehicles have a bit of maintenance done.

Breakfast – tea, beans and biscuits. No dinner, but Nicholls made good use of our emergency rations plus “scrounges” and we had a stew of bully (3 tins), Maconchies stew (1 tin), Five onions, one packet of biscuits and a cup of water!

Thursday 6th February 1941

Today's journey was infinitely worse than yesterday's, for to add to our troubles it was bitterly cold and there was a very high wind – almost a gale – as we came across a high plateau. This inevitably led to a dust storm. It was hell. Surely, at times during this day, the wretched personnel of M1 reached the quintessence of misery!

Many lorries were left behind; for a miracle M1 kept going through it all. Once (God knows when, we lost count of time) I remember we stopped and unloaded one of the B echelon vehicles which was hopelessly bogged in deep sand. We groped through the dust clouds carrying boxes, ankle deep in sand... The lorry was abandoned.

Eventually, I remember, we got going along a fairly good stretch of sand. There was little dust but it was bitterly cold. We had climbed a good deal and now crawled across an icy cold, wind swept plateau. A small group of trucks huddled together; in pretence at desert formation or dispersion. H, L, M1, B9, B8. Otherwise, no sign of the regiment!

L broke down and was taken in tow by B9. Then B9 broke down... B8 ran into H truck... While we were sorting things out a General arrived in a staff car. He told us that “We might be glad to know,” that Benghazi had been taken, also that units of the 7th Division had had an engagement with 60 Iti tanks and licked them.

(This engagement was the Battle of Beda Fomm (“Breda Farm”) and resulted also in the bagging of General Bergonzoli. (Note August 1941))

Benghazi, the second city of Libya taken! This seemed amazingly good news but we were probably too wretched to register any gladness whatever. Eventually we reeled on. It grew dark – and no warmer. In the back of M1, huddled together for warmth, we tried to sing:-

“California, here I come
Right back where I started from.
The bowers, the flowers, bloom in the sun,
Each morning, at dawning, birdies do run.
Sun-Kist maid said “Don't be late,”
That's why I can hardly wait.
Open wide your Golden Gate!
California, here I come!”

Petrol was exhausted. We made bivouac. It was about 8p.m. “Bugger the lights!” we said and lit a fire to leeward of the truck (which also screened the fire from view of the only officer in the party!) We made toast on the glowing embers and ate it with cheese and margarine. Afterwards, the cooks provided everyone with a mug of hot tea. Not so bad! We turned in. The wind had fallen somewhat.

Sid and I were rolled up in our eight blankets. Before we went to sleep he told me about what he called “the rise and fall of the Zulu Empire” - of Chaka, Dingaan, Pandra and Cetawayo. Very interesting and sense-of-detachment-producing. Reminds me of that early morning on the train from Cherbourg to Marseilles, when Sid told me about mahogany and veneers!