Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Sunday 5th January 1941

Written between 3:30 and 4a.m sitting at the exchange in an (now disused!) Iti machine gun nest, inside the Bardia wire. Whether Bardia has altogether fallen yet, I don't know. There is occasional firing so I suppose outposts and scattered units are still holding out. Resistance is said to have collapsed in the main since about 1300 hours yesterday.

Providence plays into my hands! I had nearly run out of it – and there are no NAAFI around here – but right against my elbow I've found, as though left here especially for me, a bottle of “Stilographico Superfiltrato Leonardi-Bologna Bleu” which is probably blue ink and will be used for this fountain pen shortly.

There is no sad news to relate. Iti couldn't seem to get our range at all and altogether we've had far less shell-fire than during a normal day at the old position. The tense moments before our barrage began! Jackie lay in the slit behind me. As he gave me a light for my Woodbine I saw his hands, shaking violently. “Another minute and a half, Jackie,” I whispered, glancing at my watch as the cigarette glowed in the darkness. Shattering roar as every British gun opened up! The ground shook. The flashes flickered in at the doorway like constant lightening. And that kept on for several hours.

At about 7a.m. the barrage apparently lifted but the firing did not slacken. At 7:10a.m. I heard on the exchange that our advancing infantry was passing the OP. “Thank God we're not in the infantry!” most of us were saying and “Thank God we're not in Bardia.” From about 8a.m. our guns did not fire except at targets. They seemed to get plenty of these. A cup of tea was prepared at the command post. We all had some – hot, wet and lovely. (Yes, there is still a little fighting, for I've just heard that at “zero minus 20” we have to shell some enemy troop concentrations. I believe “Z” is 9 o'clock.)

The gunfire began to slacken. I had an hour's sleep, was wakened by Grant with some vegetable soup he'd prepared, heard that the outer defences had been penetrated and that about 10,000 prisoners could be seen from the OP, and slept again. Sid Pond awoke me half an hour later, “Pip Toc Ach!, Steve!” “Oh hell!” I grumbled. All the “victors” seemed fed-up at having to advance!

Since then we've had occasional meals of stew and hot tea; sometimes the “grub” lorry, B9, has not appeared and then it's been just bully and biscuits. We eventually advanced about three miles, laid our lines and dug-in in the dark, all very tired. Sid and I worked the exchange then, from 2a.m. to 7a.m. Crouching very uncomfortably, in a small square hole. Very sleepy. And dirty. I got two hours sleep. We had a proper breakfast at about 8:30. Not very cheering news – we were told that part of the garrison was still holding out and that we'd intercepted a wireless message to Italy, appealing for help, asking that every available plane be sent to Bardia.

Saw Stan Ling; he'd had a sticky job – wireless operator in Toc. Seen a few queer sights but, “When we got through their wire, the boys (Australian Infantry) were sitting down having a brew of tea!”

Slept from 11a.m. to 1p.m. Heard a cry of “Look out!” and huddled in my trench whilst the bombers came over. Only a dozen or so, with fighters, and the bombs fell about half a mile away. Ate some bully beef and had another hours sleep. The Pip Toc Ach again!

We came through the wire at dusk. The engineers had built a bridge across the tank trap. Beyond the wire there was a colossal crowd of blue-clad prisoners. There must have been thousands! And another column several hundreds strong was marching up, led by Iti officers (with two dogs) and one Aussie soldier (with slung rifle).

It was almost dark when we reached this place, a winding slit, concreted, with a circular machine gun post at the end. An overturned machine gun lay there and several rifles, hundreds of bullets. Also a few bodies nearby, I believe. I kicked the bullets, mess tins and what not out of the way and installed my exchange in the post. Used a box of machine gun rounds for a seat and put a cover over the top of the emplacement. Having “scrounged” some paraffin we are able to have a lantern in what is, just now, the exchange pit and that is how I have been able to do all this writing. Although we are within the defences, our troubles are not over. There is machine gun firing not far away and another grim message was recently passed to the command post, “Reliable information indicates intervention by enemy aircraft 5th January”.

Last night I had five glorious hours sleep, from 10p.m. to 3a.m., when I came on duty. Re “scrounging”... Three days ago, all in a hurry, the BSM slung a sack into M1. We grumbled at the extra load. “You must take it!” he snapped, “Nowhere else!” It contained loaves of bread and several spare tins of emergency ration (“Not to be opened”...etc.) M1 personnel have been eating the bread and opening tins of emergency rations ever since! We carefully bury the tins! The “ration” does not taste too bad. It's a sort of dried up chocolate.

Rather pathetic. Sid Pond found a photograph album containing a dozen snaps taken with a similar camera to mine. An Italian view; two girls with bicycles; a girl in a garden; a woman, aged about thirty, standing in front of a house; two little children, with the same background. What he was fighting for! It made us all feel rather sad. Hammick waved cheerily to the next bunch of prisoners whom we saw. They waved back, smiling...

Issue of cigarettes last night. The packet was unfamiliar, “Imperial Specials,” but the contents were old friends, Wills' “Woodbines, wild,” as Stan Ling calls them.

9:30p.m. Today has been quite restful. We've hunted for souvenirs in the dug outs, washed (but not too lavishly, water is still rationed) and watched the prisoners marching away. Never have I seen such a mass of men! Not bad blokes, a bit pathetic, whining for water and cigarettes, all looking rough and dirty, like us. They, a few thousand of them, were struggling over one of our lines and I had to keep shoving them away from it, in case they damaged the cable. They weren't unruly at all and occasionally, one of their NCO's, seeing what I was trying to do, would bark out some fierce orders which the men obeyed. One man (barefoot, poor devil!) broke away, begging for boots, but we had none to give him. I gave some water to a thirsty little dog with a wounded foot. The poor little chap limped away on three legs then, following the long procession of familiar blue uniforms. Wonder how he got on in the miles of stony desert – and the bare footed man?

Further down the column a party got out of hand and ransacked several of our trucks. Well, I guess I'd probably have done the same thing, in similar circumstances. Among other things they took that sack of rations out of M1... We now know there'll be no day of reckoning but still, I wish we'd just opened a few more tins of emergency rations!

Saw quite a few dead bodies around here, today.

Have now got a bayonet and sheath, a pair of socks, five new handkerchiefs, lots of stationery and photographs, a Fascist tie, a Fascist membership card and a pullover!
The Iti know all the little Arabic words and phrases that we have picked up. Our common language!

The bombers have been over several times today and have dropped bombs twice.(once when I was looting in the dug-out and once this evening, about an hour ago) but only a few planes came each time – not the mass attack we'd feared.

Jackie Hall, bless him, brought me a 50 gramme tin of tobacco - “Trinciato “Italia” Monopoli di Stato ... Roma” - and I soon borrowed a pipe and enjoyed the first smoke for a fortnight.

There has been no firing since midday. Bardia is ours. The great question is being feverishly discussed again – WHERE NEXT?

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