Friday, October 31, 2008

Stillness 1942

"Breathless we flung us on the windy hill,
Laughed in the sun and kissed the lovely grass...”

Wednesday 7th January 1942

Living in some comfort now, at the YMCA. I got up at 8 o'clock after a morning cup of tea. The barber shaved me, the shoe-boy cleaned our boots and I read the Palestine Post at the breakfast table, until Jack came down.

“London sees hope of a counter attack in Malaya.”
“Anti-German Riots in Paris.”
“AMERICAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCE FOR BRITAIN.”
“Turkey Ignores Nazi Lies.”
“Russians hammering enemy in Crimea.”

So far we have not had a frightfully hectic leave – no rush of sightseeing, no bouts of drunkenness. Our tastes at present are happily similar and we can enjoy ourselves quietly. We've done a bit of reading, too. Among other things Jack has bought three books - “Teach Yourself Latin” (he has thoughts of studying for a degree after he war), Hugh Walpole's “Rogue Herries” and “Judith Paris” (in one volume), and Margaret Mitchell's massive book, “Gone with the Wind”,(which he has given to me).

Oh, yesterday, I nearly forgot, we heard Church bells ringing as we strolled in the streets. A rare sound to English ears. They rang merrily in Jerusalem but in England, by official edict, they will never ring again until the war ends – or in case of invasion.

This morning as we idled along, we got somewhat off our track into a quarter of some wild Asiatic Jews. Ghastly people they were; the men all seemed old and dirty, they had ragged black beards and filthy clothes. There was a foul smell in the winding streets but we were reluctant to return the way we had come and so wandered around, baffled, for some time. Disgusting.

Jack was dozing in the lounge below. I trotted, light-footed in slippers, upstairs to get a book, whistling as I went.

“... Thou would still be adored
As this moment thou art...”

On the landing was a solemn group of men, engrossed in conversation: “... Then one of the Durhams came in. He told me himself that they'd been...” (Why the hell, I thought, half amused, half irritated, can't they leave the war alone for a while?) “... Our planes went over... two German tanks.... oh, yes, it was...”

End of Midnight 1941/2

Tuesday 6th January 1942

The following morning when we arrived at the Egged Bus Station, we were told that the services to Jerusalem had been stopped, owing to the snow drifts. Yes, snow in Palestine! Apparently it happens every twenty years or so. We decided to remain in Tel Aviv until the road was clear. It rained miserably all that day.

In the afternoon we went to a matinee; one of the two major films was Elizabeth Bergner in “Stolen Life.” Years old but remarkably good. We had a comfortable front balcony box which cost 86 mills altogether. Compare this with the 400 mills for two back balcony seats for “Gone With the Wind”! Meals in Tel Aviv were indifferent and expensive. An evening snack of coffee and cakes cost us 170 mills for instance. It was difficult to find a really decent restaurant. I still retain my horror of kosher meat and garlic.

We spent the night at St. Andrews Hotel, an establishment run by a kindly but strict and brisk British lady. (“What a landlady she'd make,” I told Jack, comparing her with some I'd known.) This evening we went to a concert given by the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. The audience (slightly intelligentsia) was of the type that one might see at a similar function in England, except that there was a sprinkling of soldiers. Of course I knew nothing about music and had never been to a symphony concert before. It was rather impressive and delightful although the only piece I knew was the last they played – Ravel's “Bolero.”

Mass music! There were 52 musicians on the stage, including 22 violinists. Ah! The fiddles! And the magnificent playing of the Bluthner Grand! There were 16 weird wind instruments and lord knows what else but the fiddles and the Bluthner dominated everything. For “Bolero” they altered the orchestra. There was a harp; no piano. Another drummer and several more violins, making the total of instruments – 57.

I don't think “Bolero” is music really. It's barbaric rhythm. It started quietly; a softly played drum, a gentle wind instrument – a fife maybe – and the occasional twang of a 'cello string. And minute by minute it swelled. First the violinists plucked their strings, then in fours, and sixes they took their bows. The harp player was crouching there tearing the strings savagely; and the monotonous tempo held, thudding on towards it's clashing climax. It made me grin; made the hair prickle on my scalp. Something by one Beethoven gave me goose-flesh also but I'm unfortunately too ignorant of music to describe that. But I remember how the pianist struck me then – alive when the piano was rippling out notes; motionless, reposeful yet breathing quickly, when the Bluthner was silent. Also I remember the conductor. He didn't just wave a baton. He coaxed and pleaded and threatened the notes into being, with his gestures.

The following morning, the roads were clear of snow and we came here, to Jerusalem.
A lovely morning, cold but sunny. We were snug in the bus as it dashed along the excellent main road between green and brown fields, citrus groves and olive trees. I dozed off and awoke amid much excited movement and chatter from the Jews onboard. We were high in the mountains now and Aussies were laughingly throwing snowballs at the bus as it passed. There was white snow all around, on the slopes above and in the valleys below. Snow! I thought I'd never see that again until after the war.

We arrived in Jerusalem at about noontime. The streets were more or less clear of snow, here. It lay in heaps in the gutters however and one still found it on the less frequented pavements. There was no accommodation at the YMCA so we eventually decided to spend the night at a wog place, with the high sounding name “Hotel Majestic.” The proprietor, a rum-looking old boy wearing a fez and trousers all ready for the birth of the Prophet, first showed us to a windowless cell but this discouraged us, so we eventually were given a three-bedded room. There was a stump of candle; no electric light. “They'll sacrifice us, badin,” I said sorrowfully, “Carnivorous heathens...”

Fairly late at night we arrived back at the hotel. In the hall, a dark skinned young man and the proprietor were crouching over the ashes in a brazier. This appeared to be the only heating in the place, although the puddles on the pavement were freezing outside. Jack went to bed, whilst I entered into conversation with the dark young man. He said he was an Albanian, not an Arab – although he had been talking fluent-sounding Arabic when I joined them. I told him that I didn't like Jews and eventually got his views on the Palestine problem. He dwelt on the injustice of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 but admitted that Churchill was a good man, like a lion. “But unfortunately, one flower does not make a spring.”

He had no doubt that the Jews would eventually get complete control in Palestine, after the war. “They are so powerful in America and England,” he said.
“But surely England would not wish to antagonise the whole Arab world, like that? Do we not value the friendship of Egypt, for instance?”
“You have already lost the friendship of Egypt,” he said at once. “A handful of Pashas is not Egypt. A question of money, you see.”

Yes, he felt sure the troubles would come again to Palestine. “Why did they cease, after the start of the war?” I asked. (I'd always thought this was through the good-will of the Arabs and a gesture against the Axis.)
“My friend, they ceased before the war. You see, they went too far; England sent in more and more troops... there are ten thousand orphans in Palestine... Then recently, things have improved slightly. There were Jewish land restrictions in 1940...”
“Ah yes I remember. There was rioting in Rehovat”
“... But all the same, we are tired of England's politics. The Arabs begin to wonder if Germany would also betray them, or would they receive better treatment from the Germans. We say that England never keeps her promises and never will.”

(I noticed that he said, “We” sometimes instead of “They”, although he had said he was not an Arab.)

“I hear that the Mufti, is now in Berlin,” I remarked. “Yes,” he said, “I think we are disappointed in the Mufti. He has not acted in the way that a patriot would be expected to act.”
I told him of the Libyan Arabs hatred for the Italians and I pointed out that in this war thousands of English soldiers were coming to Palestine, most of whom, disliking the Jews, were sympathetic towards the Arabs.
“Yes,” he admitted, “The Arabs have grown to like the English a little more lately. They have been good for trade, although of course, the Jews have benefited far more. This friendliness is a good thing, too,” he added, “After the war they will go home and be citizens again.”
“... And remember...”
“... And have a vote...”
“Exactly”

But I knew in my heart that the votes of the Middle East Force would not be enough to right the wrong.

“You see, the Arabs will never learn,” he went on, “The Jews have done much good in Palestine. They have system. Because of the Jews, we now have the best doctors in the world, here in Palestine. And have you heard the Palestine Symphony Orchestra? It is one of the finest in the world.” He dwelt on Jewish efficiency and Arab muddling. The bus service was one example. The Arab bus would depart when a few passengers had turned up, when the driver thought it time to be going. The Jewish bus service worked to a strict timetable. “And the Arabs see all these things but they will never learn.”

“And you think the solution of the Jewish problem lies in a Jewish state?”
“That is the only way, my friend. And Palestine, I fear, will be that state.”

What indiscreet extracts from an astonishing conversation between English soldier and Arab sympathiser! Anyhow, I'd had my finger a little nearer the Arab pulse, and he'd found that many Englishmen since Lawrence (Ah! We trusted him! And he was sincere in his promises. We think he died a disappointed man”) had interest and sympathy for the Arabs.

In the early hours I awoke. The Arab proprietor was coming stealthily into the room, carrying a candle. He was followed by a foreign-looking soldier. “Here they come, to murder us in our beds,” I thought gloomily. Then it occurred to me that the swarthy soldier might be a prospective occupant for the third bed, so I fell asleep again. When Jack awoke me, at about 9 o'clock, the third bed was empty but seemed to have been slept in.

This morning Jack and I left the town by bus and strolled, in snow and winter sunshine, around the Mount of Olives; the trees in the Garden of Gethsemane were laden down with snow.
Snow and winter sunshine!
England!

Jack took me to the Russian Church of Mary Magdalene, “to examine the architecture” Whilst we were doing this, the door swung open, and an old women beckoned us inside. We obeyed. The door swung to at our backs. Delightful aroma of incense! A service was in progress; sweet chants. A group of young black-clad figures were singing; they wore tall, black conical hats. The priest wore strange coloured vestments. In the dim shadows behind him was something... it looked absurdly like a Christmas tree.
Perhaps it was; we later realised that this was their Christmas Day.

Saturday 3rd January 1941

Leave began, “subject to recall” of course. Oh! If they're going to invade Turkey, I hope they wait just 14 days!

Several of the hours prior to the start of my leave were spent in an amusingly contrasted way – around a centre of Punishment. (Field Punishment – almost the worst – and leave – certainly the best – of a soldiers lot, all in one day.)

Yes, I had to take one Gunner Bayliss of RHQ to Sarafand Field Punishment this noon. He threw down a revolver in Tobruch; it went off and wounded a man. A miles walk to the prison. I helped him with his heavy load until we got in sight of the grim barbed wire enclosure. “Escort stand fast. Prisoner, double!” “DOUBLE when you're told!” snapped another MP. In he dashed. I was waiting by the reception office with various documents. “Halt!” he halted. “Have you any cigarettes, tobacco or matches?” “I don't think so sir, I haven't...” “Well, you'd better not have any! You won't be needing them here. You've been sentenced to 28 days... and you'll address me as “sir”.... and everyone else you'll address as “staff” understand?” “Yes sir.” “About turn! Double!”

To me the officer said, “You'll have to come back for the receipt and to check his kit, at 2 o'clock.” “Sir, the BSM said I was to bring both papers back at once.” “Yes. Well you'll have to come back at 2 o'clock.” “Yes sir.”
(I wasn't arguing with that feller! He might have wanted me to stay in his little camp, doubling around!)

I was back just before 2p.m. and was let in after some formality. Bells jangled, whereupon wooden faced soldiers doubled to and fro. We checked my prisoners kit. He was clad in trousers and vest. They opened the windows wide, presumably so that the wintry wind should prevent him getting overheated.

“Put your things down there,” said a Corporal, “Quick!”
Poor Bayliss groped madly with multitudinous possessions.
“Got a Bible?' “No, sir.” “Staff!” “No, staff.”

When we'd finished, Bayliss had a few spare moments, whilst I was dipping pen in ink and signing three papers. So the RSM gave him a job to do. “Don't stand there!” he snapped, striding across. “Read the orders. Double! Halt!” (After two yards had been covered at the double) “Left turn. Read that order board.”

Papers in hand I marched smartly out. The sentry at the gate gave me a friendly look and let me through the wire. I gave him a wooden stare and marched away. After a while the spell dispersed, I lit my pipe and strolled on leisurely. Damn that place! I thought!

A couple of hours later, Jack Chenery and I arrived in Tel Aviv and booked a room at the Balfourian, the hotel at which I spent a weekend during the spring of 1940. In the evening we went to the cinema. It was the famous “Gone With the Wind”. Oh! What a film!

Tomorrow we go to Jerusalem. Maybe later we'll get to Jericho by some means. Why go to a wilderness? Well! In the summer of 1940, the battery went through the weird Jordan Valley, on an endurance test. (The extraordinary road to Jericho, a glimpse of the Dead Sea, and then Jericho itself – what a lovely surprise – and an hotel, “The Winter Palace Hotel”.) I silently vowed to come again, some day; it fascinated me. And beyond Jericho, far away near the top of a mountain, we saw buildings which seemed to hang on the side of the cliffs. Through a telescope we saw what looked like a bell upon a terrace above the abyss; and a man sitting beside the bell. Why, it might have been the Shangri-la of “Lost Horizon”! From that moment, the environs of Jericho fascinated me even as the “blue mountain” of my dreams used to continually fascinate my sleeping hours!

Now, perhaps we'll go nearer to the place on the mountain. And to Jericho; and to the Winter Palace Hotel; and to the Dead sea. But especially must we investigate Shangri-la! That's why I've brought my water bottle.

Friday 2nd January 1942

Felt alright again, today, although I nearly “passed out” completely last night in the foyer of the Garrison Cinema – great solicitude from Jimmie James and Denny Search, immediately. So, feeling fine, I went to the Battery Christmas Dinner. Yes, over 12 months late, but we had it!

The new O.C., Major Strutt, spoke for the first time, since taking command of 339 – a brief, staccato, nervous but witty speech... “I feel rather an impostor – been with you for so short a time. I would have wished that Major Puckle, Captain Boulton and Captain Gosling could have been here tonight. But they're not... it's very unlikely that we shall fight again in the desert; I've always thought that once we got across Suez to Cantara East it would take nothing less than the Russian Army behind us, to get us back again...”

Some time during the dinner, Ling, on my right hand, leaned over and said, “Just been told that Bardia has fallen; pass it on.” This was the third time we had been informed that Bardia had fallen, since the offensive began. On this occasion however, the news was correct, as we later found. Bardia had fallen, almost exactly a year after it first capitulated. 1000 British prisoners were rescued and over 20,000 of the Italian and German garrison surrendered.

After the dinner we put Search, who was unconscious, to bed.

Thursday 1st January 1942

Pay parade. I received the colossal sum of £20 – in a thick, crisp wad of new notes. We go on leave shortly.

There was another sign that we are due for a spell of peacetime soldiering – or else that we shall not return to Egypt – our kit bags arrived from the Citadel, Cairo. There was all sorts of junk in mine – a Mills bomb, an Italian bayonet (I added a German one!), a Fascist tie and a huge Italian shell case. Also my diaries, beloved books and odds and sods of clothing!

Most of the blokes – Ling, Stevens, Naden, James and the rest – intend going to Cairo or Alex for their leave. To hell with Egypt, say I! Anyhow, I've already had my hectic leave of dashing around cities. So Jack Chenery and I are planning a leave in Jerusalem, not far from here. Hope I'll be fit enough to go. At present I feel rather “crook”.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Wednesday 31st December 1941

New Years Eve. Confined to barracks still. Let us hope that there'll be more light for the world in 1942 than in grim 1941.

Apparently we shall be given leave from this transit camp.

Monday 29th and Tuesday 30th December 1941

We moved from the rest camp on Sunday night. 414 marched down gaily, minus their packs this time, as well as their bed-rolls. We had to hump our packs however and were in bad temper by the time we completed the 2 mile march. Our greatcoats made us all hot and clammy and there was angry muttering when we were made to mark time inordinately near the station, also when we came to the train and found 414 men already comfortably seated therein. Jimmie James had gone down earlier, with the baggage party and had nobly looked after our interests. He'd obtained chocolates, cakes and beer from a NAAFI, which he shared among his cronies (all faint from hunger) on their arrival.

I slept on the floor between two seats on which Naden and James lay. One of my blankets covered the three of us. My feet curled around Golding's back as he crouched in the gangway and ended by Pawsey's head just beyond. as soon as I put my head on my haversack, near the floor, I became conscious of the terrifically soothing rhythm of the wheels: drub-drub-drub,di,di,drub,drub,drub. It put me instantly to sleep.

When I awoke the train was still and someone was saying “Yes, this is Cairo station...” I slept again and awoke in the grey dawn light, when we were far to the east of Cairo.

We crossed Suez about 9a.m. and within a few minutes were having an amazingly good and well organised breakfast at Qantara East. No muddling and no waiting! The meal was tea, potato mash and four tinned sausages. Subsequently we waited about five hours for the north bound train. We were crowded and HQ was dismally mixed up with A and B this time.

The Sinai Desert, hour after hour. No miredam, no wadi. Just long, ragged sand dunes and little green clumps of palm or eucalyptus – two trees around each small station. We reached El Arish Oasis, of happy convalescent memories, after dark, and stayed there some time. I slept as before, but very uncomfortably on this occasion for some reason, waking up several times with pains in the back and cramped legs.

However, when we all finally awoke the desert was gone, and the train was standing in green Lydda station. Eventually it crawled on, through orange groves and wet ploughed land, past eucalyptus and olive trees, past little farm houses. Strange and lovely to see it again. Palestine! What a good land after being in blasted Egypt! Here was neither desert or forced and irrigated land, but fertility – and the sun shining above the misty line of hills to the eastward!

Sarafand Camp. Vast town of huts. We were quickly off the train and detailed to our huts – there are about 50 in this, belonging to the headquarter troops of 339 and 414. Search, being in the advance party, had got good places for Naden, Stevens, Motley, Ling and the rest of us.. Search says that the division to which we are now attached (it is mainly the old 1st Cavalry Division to which we originally belonged) has a high opinion of us. They certainly have looked after us well; the meals are excellent and well served too. This is a transit camp. We shall not remain here long. However one thing does seem certain – we are in a different Army now and probably will not go to the Western Desert again. This is a very good thing! Any front but that!

It is now 8:15p.m. We are all shaved and bathed and fed. Most of the day has been taken up with the tedious but necessary duties connected with settling in.

Sunday 28th December 1941

Apparently we shall move, Palestine-wards, tonight, but there is no panic whatever! It's so simple when there's no equipment, only our personal kits!

The Japs are doing fine in the Pacific. Hong Kong has fallen, but we still hold Singapore, and USA still have the Philippines. There have been heavy naval losses on our side, although no real battle has taken place. We've occupied Portuguese Timor, which was within bombing range of Aussie. Apparently whilst we've been out of touch, several if not all of the South American states have declared war on the Axis powers.

The other news, is quite good. The Jerries in Russia are still falling back (it seems incredible that they should contemplate an attack on Turkey or Spain at this time) and the British order in Libya for Christmas Day was “ATTACK AND PURSUE”. Benghasi has been taken, with 27,000 prisoners, and some of our forces are at Agedabia, whilst the German and Iti rearguard has been cut off around Barce, in the green region.

Saturday 27th December 1941

There was a sudden panic this afternoon (perhaps because of the reported massing of German troops on the Turkish frontier!) and instead of a small party of libertymen being sent into Alex, as planned, a huge crowd went, including myself. When we got there a few of us grouped together and had the thrill of a haircut, shave and shampoo at once.

Ling, Grant and a fellow named Webb then went to Toc H for a bath. Jimmie James and I arrived later by gharri, and found the bath-rooms all occupied, so we first slipped into the dining room for a cup of tea – ah! sublime luxuries of town! - and chain smoked many excellent cigarettes. Sometimes we've thought “Wog” Woodbines a luxury, but now we had lots of Players, Gold Flake and Craven “A”, with no danger of the supply becoming exhausted.

Then – we wallowed in hot, soapy baths! The others were waiting and we all had a hell of an appetite. So we went into the Hotel Baudrot, nearby, and waded through a meal of many courses and varied tastes, which lasted two hours. “My God, they're still eating,” we heard an amazed Naval officer at the next table say to his companion, when the forth course commenced. Lager beer – what a thirst the hors-d-oeuvre (especially the anchovies!) gave us! The price of the dinner – with beer – was 73pts. each. Well worth it, to desert soldiers with large credits.

When we were sated (it was tragic to have to turn away some of the second helpings offered to us) we all went into the bar and bought a cigar apiece and more cigarettes and John Haigs. This didn't seem very strong after the neat rum we'd been drinking lately, so after a few John Haigs, we had a round of Vodka, just to see what it was like. The bottle was labelled with mystic characters and “WODKA” and in large figures, “50%”.

There was of course, a good deal of merriment and joviality by this time, and the conversation flowed freely, as indeed it had right from the time when we entered the hairdressers shop. We met Pop Parker of 414 here. He had been saved from a draft to 107 RHA at the last minute. Even his news, that the advance party had already left camp to proceed to Palestine, failed to damp us. “Ha! It's Russian alright! Another round of Vodka, boys!” “Yes, get used to it, what?” “Cheerio!” “Mud in your eye.”

Gharri to the square where the lorries were parked in teeming rain. There were still a few minutes before they were due to start, so Jimmie (laughing like hell) and Basil and I, hurried round the corner for a quick beer and to obtain a few bottles for the morning-after thirst. (Forethought, that!)

The journey back, when harassed sergeants and officers had finished sorting us out, was quite a jolly one. I felt fine and thought I was very witty and that everyone appreciated my humour fully. Gayler and Stevens were there, very sober, and Scott lay inert on the floor. Every now and then I'd check up on his condition “Is Scott there?” “Oy,Oy!” would come a voice from my feet. “Alright, old boy?” “OK Steve. Still breathing.”

Jimmie was hilarious, a friend to all, handing his cigarettes around constantly. In passing the cookhouse, after we'd reached camp, he collected a tin of evaporated milk and a tin of jam. Even when he was being sick, later on, he kept his gay spirit. “There goes the soup course, Steve,” he cried once, disconsolately merry outside the tent, in the rain. “Hold on Jim, keep the rest!” I urged him, (from between warm blankets within) “Yes! 73 piastres! Can't waste it...”

Friday 26th December 1941

Eventually we marched about two miles to a “rest camp”. We carried the usual impedimenta, less blankets this time, and did the march in good order. The majority of the men must be very fed-up, for there is grousing at the least thing.
(“...'Shun! Right turn! Quick march!” “Bugger me,” they growl, “All this bull shit”... “Right, fall in again, pick up your kits.” “I 'ain't goin' to walk much further. I'll fall out if they make us...” “Fall out the Sergeants! There's a tent for you, together.” “Cor! The lousy sods! A tent for them!”)

We had to erect our own tents. Ours was sodden wet and in an awful tangle, but we got it up eventually. There are only eight of us in it – quite a large E.P.I.P.
There are no duties here. Some of us managed to scrounge bedboards and we rigged up bits of string to hang things on and a black-out and so forth. Jimmie James, the “X” driver, made a brew on the primus. Then he and I washed – in hot , soft water.

This is fine, for the time being. We shall not be here long. There may be leave, but no one knows anything. Tonight a party of men paraded and were taken down to Alexandria, but the rest of us are confined to camp! It is comic! There's no NAAFI, so it's lucky that Charlie Perry has managed to rig up a petrol lamp out of a cigarette tin, a guy line and some petrol from a lorry.

Scott has just told of an amusing incident which occurred whilst we were waiting at the railhead, on Xmas Eve. There was a sudden clatter as someone fell over their cans, (water, two gallon,) outside the tent. “Oy, oy, there!” yelled Scott indignantly. They heard the tins being replaced. “Where is Regimental Headquarters?” asked a refined voice. “No idea!” answered Scott. “This is 339!” “339?” said the voice outside, “I thought as much. Bloody half-wits.” It was the Adjutant!

Thursday 25th December 1941

Late last night, George obtained a few bottles of Johnnie Walker, so we sat in the dim tent in a circle, passing the bottles around. “Froggie” French and other old regulars sang and talked and tipsily jested about India.

This morning, in celebration perhaps of Xmas Day, we had porridge and sausages for breakfast. Then we hastily fell in to march to the railway. Each man carried pack, haversack, water bottle, rifle, respirator, tin hat, and four blankets. We wore our greatcoats (tattered) and various types of head gear. (“HQ Troop -'shun! Right turn! Quick march!”)

It was about a mile to the station. Not bad for those at the head of the column, like myself. But there were many weary stragglers. By the railway we were met by Major Howell (2nd i/c of the Regiment). He had apparently come up on board the Officers Mess lorry and carried nothing – not even a water bottle or tin hat or field glasses.

After a few words with Captain Jones, the unpopular new battery captain, Major Howell took his hands out of his greatcoat pockets and addressed us: “Disgusting! You look like a rabble of prisoners.” (Is he sympathising with out plight? I wondered. But no!) “414 Battery,” said their ex OC smugly, “Marched here like an RHA battery. But you -” We stolidly listened, Stan Ling leaning heavily on his rifle beside me. “All right!” said the 2nd i/c, “Now you can stand to attention and keep holding your kits for two hours, or until it pleases me to stand you at ease.” He stamped angrily away. Five minutes later the battery captain returned, looking rather uncomfortable and, telling us to put our kits down and carry on smoking, added, “What Major Howell said was hardly right, as 414 were not carrying four blankets, like you”.

He was telling us!

The train – a goods train – came in presently. There were 24 of us in a 10 ton truck with sliding doors. The floor was covered with dirty straw which stank of paraffin or petrol or both. Perhaps our fathers, accustomed to the trucks (chevaux 6 hommes 40) of France some 25 years ago, would have been thoroughly comfortable, but this was a new experience for us.

Clattering eastwards, after some hours of crossing a flat waste of stone and dust, the scenery gradually merged into a flat waste of scrub and dust. Clattering eastwards; where to, ultimately? Everyone has said at one time or another that we'll get another job apiece when we get down. The signaller swears he'll be a driver, the driver wants to be a gunner. Others are determined to get out of the Regiment – into the Field or another RHA regiment or into the Field Security Service (mysterious haven of interesting work). But will they? No! Not one! They'll all plod wearily grumblingly on as before, hoping for something to turn up!

Lunch by the railside near Charing Cross. Several sausages per man, and a drop of rum in the tea. We rattled and jolted on. Stan Ling and I managed to make a brew of sorts, despite the jolting of the truck, on a broken primus.

Badin, I was standing in the open doorway, smoking a pipe. Near the line, beyond a low hill, a white cloud shot up into the air. Bomb? I thought instinctively. Or mine? But of course not! It was a great splash of sea spray! We were running along the coast.

I looked out again to see the desert at dusk. We were nearing the Sidihanaish area. Slightly undulating ground, small scrub bushes, wet sand and water puddles. What a Christmas Day! We slept as we sat, huddled around the sides of the truck. Miraculously, we did sleep, too, despite the cold. We reached Daba at midnight after 15 hours in the truck. There was half a mug of hot tea for each man here. It was glorious.

When I awoke again it was dawn – a very dull dawn. My grey-faced, stubbly-chinned companions were scrambling about the steel truck. It might have been a scene inside a submarine. At about 9a.m. we reached a station near Alexandria – the very station I left to go on board ship for Tobruch, last month. Here we detrained and had a breakfast of sorts. It was a sunny morning and Boxing Day.

Wednesday 24th December 1941

Christmas Eve. Ye Gods!

Cold this morning; breakfast in the dark – the usual disgusting rations from the cookhouse. This morning it was hot tea (qwise) and biscuits and margarine (zift).

As the convoy got under way the wind grew rougher and colder and eventually developed into a pukka dust-storm. Visibility was sometimes only 30 yards. Hour after weary hour, the trucks clattered on. We missed railhead but wandered on and eventually located the line.

The trucks deposited us on a flat stony miredam, presumably about a mile from railhead – and went away. The dusty wind howled at us across the flat drear wilderness. We cowered behind our kits and snapped savagely at each other. Nearby, a small Naafi opened. A queue of about 300 rapidly formed. We got in the latter part of the first 100. When we were about three places from the counter, the 339 batmen arrived and pushed their way to the front. There were angry cries. “Sorry mates,” they said, “We got a chit from the officers' mess.” They were rapidly served and staggered away laden down with goods – tins of fruit and what not. A moment later:- “Sorry chums we're sold out,” said the Naafi man. I delivered a vitriolic address on the bloody officer class.

We scrounged a tent and with much swearing got it erected in the teeth of a bitter wind. Shelter! One could at last lie quietly smoking, safe from that damned wind. From now, things brightened. We scrounged onions and a 24lb. tin of English coffee. With the aid of these and a stolen tin of milk and a primus we made a decent meal out of the cookhouse rations of boiled bully and stale bread and tea. They also issued a quart of water per man. Plus four gallons which Naden scrounged from somewhere, we had enough water for mass washing and shaving – the first for two days.

I produced a candle and we made ourselves snug for the night. Final bit of luck, they issued some canteen stores – two cans of beer, one bar of Lieber chocolate and 20 Marcovitch cigarettes, each. So now we are singing and arguing and celebrating Xmas Eve.

Tuesday 23rd December 1941

Derna has fallen and also Mechili. Bardia – so they say – is once more in our hands, although Sollum and Helfaya still hold out.

And – we are in Egypt! Several miles on the Egyptian side of the frontier! Tomorrow we should reach railhead (it is further west than Matruh now) We've done about 100 miles – perhaps more – today. There were seven of us in an open RASC lorry. Dusty bloody journey. We came through the wire well to the south of Helfaya.

Last night it was very cold and miserable, lying in the open, but tonight we should be very snug, in the back of the truck, which has been covered over with our sariba sheet.

p.s. And Jim Murray has given me an ounce of Four Square tobacco! Blessings on his head!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Monday 22nd December 1941

5p.m. We are on the way to, but owing to Army muddling just as far as ever from, the frontier. Late last night we got the panic order “Be ready to move at 7a.m. breakfast will be at 5:30a.m.”

Well, we duly got up about 5a.m., lit the primus in our sariba and had a last excellent mug of sweet, milky cocoa each, and biscuit porridge with jam – disdaining the meagre fare offered by the cookhouse. Just before sunrise, essential kits packed and miscellaneous gear abandoned, we scrambled aboard some broken down lorries – 10 men and their kits in a 15cwt. Each lorry had an even weaker lorry in tow. (Out swords! The Essex Horse roars forward!)

Thus we left Tobruch and came south and unloaded ourselves and our kits above the first escarpment, near El Adem aerodrome, on the new Italian Bardia Road (built this year, out of range of Tobruch's patrols and guns). We waited hopefully for the RASC convoy which would take us down, but it did not appear. Eventually some lorries arrived, into which we loaded ourselves and our kits (20 men to each lorry) and they brought us about 5 miles south, to the foot of the second escarpment. And here the Regiment is now, in bivouac. There may be a convoy Egypt-wards tomorrow.

Sunday 21st December 1941

Regimental Church Parade – a memorial service for Gilbert, Captain Turner, Bibby, Elliott, Wilkie Wilkinson, Mr Yates and the rest. A razor blade was issued to each man last night... And dress this morning was greatcoats, tin hats, battle dress and gaiters. The service was up on the miredam and most of us could hear little of what was said, the bitter desert wind snatched the words from the Padres lips and tossed them away.

The Colonel has been to see Army Commander and hopes to get us moved down eventually. The 1st RHA went yesterday. Jack Weatherall has come back to us from that regiment. We now have to man an exchange, as night duties have recommenced. Yesterday there was a foul dust storm but it is clearer today.

Late this afternoon there was a hell of a panic and, grumbling, we dismantled our exchange and 'phones again and eventually sent the cooloo down to Ordnance. Wireless sets, batteries... everything went in, at about 10 minutes notice. So there's no wireless news or music in our tent tonight and a very dim light run off 4 “X” type (1.5V) cells in series.

However the general morale is high again for it looks as though we really are going down soon. But that doesn't make us jubilant for we are “the generation of the broken hearted.” Something more concrete than the hope of leave and civilisation has increased our happiness criteria – the arrival of NAAFI stores. 40 Players each and two tins of beer.

Friday 19th December 1941

We are still here - all of us – but terribly depressed. The first sign of a change of plan came when the Colonel rang up to say they were “doing all they could about the draft, at RHQ. “Tell the men we're not sitting on our backsides...”

Everyone was standing by, kit packed until about noon, when the news came through that both the draft of 120 men to 51st RA and of 60 men to an RHA unit were cancelled. Nor postponed, cancelled! “It's definitely cancelled,” said the Colonel, less brusque than usual, “but we look like being here some time. No expectations of a move down yet.”

So the groups of sullen men dispersed and the death throes of the Essex Yeomanry were postponed; but the seed of unhappiness and discontent had been sown. The rations are terribly meagre and badly prepared now, with battery cooking. Half a mug of tea each, without sugar. “We'll have to do more tomorrow,” said the cook, vaguely. At present we've a small reserve of tinned rations, milk, sugar, tea etc. but it can't last long without any supplementing.

The popular B.C. and the genial Battery Captain have both gone away with minor ailments. We'd hoped to get the weary, drawling, dry-witted Major Robin Boulton back as B.C. But no! (He hit a mine about nine weeks ago and went down suffering from shock. Today he returned to Tobruch and became a Captain in 414.) Captain Stratt, probably quite a decent fellow but unknown to us, came from 414 to be our B.C.

We're all beastly short of cigarettes and tobacco stores. There's apparently some difficulty in obtaining supplies for this Regiment as it is just about to go down...

(“We look like being here some time, yet,” said the Colonel.)

Thursday 18th December 1941

We are waiting in bivouac, inside the Tobruch perimeter. Soon, we are almost certain to move to Egypt. I do not think we shall reach civilisation in time for Christmas but we should be there in time for New Year. Great doings in Libya, whilst we lounge here at rest doing nothing except prepare our own meals. (And tomorrow, battery cooking recommences, so we'll be even more lazy.) Nothing to do but eat and sleep! Excellent life. But elsewhere, the Germans and Italians after a fine resistance, are at last exhausted and on full retreat back along Derna road and across the desert towards M' Zoos and Ex Sceledima... “Our pursuit of the retreating enemy continues...” said tonight's BBC news.

10p.m. Only a few hours since writing the above, but how changed everything is now! George Hignall just came in, as we sat over our mugs of brew, with a pretty savage look and the words, “Steve, I advise you an' Grant to report sick tomorrow.” “Why?” I asked amused. “There's a draft – of a hundred and fifty men – being detailed tomorrow morning. The BSM's just told me. It's to the 51st Field RA, I think. Going up...” “A draft of 150 out of the Regiment?” “Yes. You're both on it...”
“Good Lord,” I said, “Do they think this is the Base Depot or something. Drafts...”

It seemed impossible but it was true. Grant and I are both to go. And Stevens. Even some of the men who've never left Tobruch, are to go. The EY looks as though it is doomed. Already far below strength, the deletion of 150 men will render it a travesty of a fighting unit. Apparently the Colonel said to the B.C. tonight, “The gunners will not be relieved..." Even those few who are not on draft are gloomy. Search said, a moment ago, “I'm morally shaken by this development!” Few will reach Cairo. And an hour ago, everything was set fair.

Whilst we were cynically – but some, angrily, - discussing the break-up, Stevens came in the tent. An awkward silence fell, for George signalled that we were not to tell him what had been unofficially disclosed to us. Then conversation began again, somewhat stiffly.

The wireless began to crackle. Someone tuned in to a piece of music. “...Auld Lang Syne...For auld lang syne my dears...” I passed the headphones to Search. “Typical!”
And by the grin on his face and the nod of his head as he picked up his headphones, I knew that Denny – bless him! - understood!

Midnight 1941/42 Stillness, Dawn 1942

870844 Bdr. Dawson, 339 Battery, 104 (EY) Regt. RHA Middle East

“...And I recall, lose, grasp, forget again,
And still remember, a tale I have heard, or known,
An empty tale of idleness and pain,
Of two that loved – or did not love and one
Whose perplexed heart did evil, foolishly,
A long while since and by some other sea...”

Glossary

Miredam: A flat expanse of desert land.
Bomb Alley: The sea route between Alexandria (or Mersa Matruh) and Tobruch.
Wadi: A dried up, rocky ravine, caused by erosion – in very few cases perhaps of volcanic origin.
Harbour Gun: The Italians have one or more heavy guns, with which they regularly shell the town and harbour.
“Wastes”: Slang, literally “waste of good rations,” applied to no-good men.
OP: Observation Post.
F.O.O: Forward Observation Officer.
Rats: Berlin Radio once or twice referred to Tobruch Garrison as “The Rats of Tobruch”.
Toc: Bren gun carrier with wireless set, used by a F.O.O

Tuesday 16th December 1941

Warm morning. Went for a stroll with Jack Chenery (now lance sergeant GPO Ack) in the sunshine. He gloomily discussed the war situation (America's heavy naval losses – and ours – in the Pacific; Japs advancing towards Singapore. He typically did not stress the Jerry withdrawals in Russia and Libya) and emphasised the probable lengthy duration of the war.

Whilst in the vicinity of RHQ we saw a cynically resigned party of men loading their kits on to a lorry. They were men of 339, 414, and RHQ who, on account of their short terms of service in Tobruch, had been detailed to leave the Regiment. They were all posted to 107 RHA, which is moving westwards shortly. Among the forlorn ones, I was sorry to see Claude Edwards, and Pop Parker. I hadn't met Claude since landing last month, whilst I hadn't seen Pop since leaving the Base for my second spell of hospital, in September, although I'd chatted with him over the line recently. “Hullo Steve! I'm afraid it's good-bye again!”

There are only four in the M1 tent now as Search and Andrews are both temporarily, out with “A” Troop. A small family, after the original nine!

The time is 8:40p.m., the Pacific news is still bad and Naden is just making a brew on the primus. Almost certain to go down! Meanwhile we do nothing except prepare food, eat and sleep.

Thus ends 1941's Starshine.

Monday 15th December 1941

Dust storm today. It is cold and dusty and miserable outside but fairly bearable in this tent. The BSM told us all to parade at 8 o'clock this morning, at about 10 minutes notice. Our hopes were high as we staggered across through the biting wind. (“Get your kits packed, we're going down!”?)

But BSM Carlos (ex-bricklayer, almost illiterate) only wanted to give a typical and ridiculous address on avoidance of booby-traps etc. “Now, listen together. You 'aint got to drive trucks through no minefields (we have no trucks) an' you 'aint got to go muckin' round any enemy positions. They bin left full o' booby traps, see? It says so in this 'ere paper I've got 'ere...”

There seems to be a good chance of our going down, at present. It's about time, so far as the Regiment is concerned. We've now been in the field for twelve months and have had 250 casualties in the Regiment – killed, missing and wounded. Of these 72 are prisoners of war. Out of the original Essex Yeomanry that left Chelmsford in November 1939, only 153 officers and men now remain in this Regiment.

Sunday 14th December 1941

Still waiting: There are only five of us to dwell in the snug tent and fire at the dusk bombers, now. Bob has gone temporarily to “A” Troop. Plenty of grub, plenty of time to cook it in and no work except looking after ourselves. Plenty of sleep – oh! assuredly we'll soon be moving!

Last night I lay in bed with the earphones on and heard music for a while! “...These have seen movement; and heard music...” - blessed ones! Strauss' “Radetsky March” and then a lovely piece called “Dream of Autumn.” I could have listened to that for hours but eventually it ended and a Gilbert and Sullivan Overture began. However this, following on two other non-swing pieces, was too much for the set operator, who ever it was, and he began to vaguely explore the waveband. I sighed and took the earphones off – and went to sleep.

Saturday 13th December 1941

The weather is mild and we are fairly comfortable now. We have a blacked out tent, fitted up with wireless and electric lighting. So I expect we'll soon have to move from here; ironical fate.

The planes came over at dusk, again, two fairly low, and the six of us put up a hell of a small arms barrage. as the bomber came over we heard him accelerate, engines straining.

Friday 12th December 1941

About ten hours sleep last night, after a nightcap of rum. Tubby left us after breakfast and arrived back in charge of the water cart, a couple of hours later. We drew 5 cans (10 gallons) for six men. As the ration is officially ¾ gallons per man this was not bad!

11a.m. The latest rumour is that the mobile column plan is all altered. This may be so but there is still no talk about the Regiment having a trip to Mena or Halwan, nor any talk of leave. Personally I don't mind, I've had my leave and a break from Tobruch; but there are many who have not been out of the desert since last winter and it is very hard on them. The BBC stated recently that the entire garrison of Tobruch had been changed and that none of the original regiments remained. That is not true of at least four artillery units...

Evening: A long air raid has just finished. They began to come at dusk and kept it up for over an hour, dropping heavy stuff and flares. We got fed up eventually and opened fire (Naden, Grant, Bob Andrews and George and I) on a parachute flare that came drifting our way, lighting up the whole miredam. I'll swear it was my shot that hit the flare! It was my fourth shot and it seemed dead right somehow, even as I fired it! and a second later the flare dropped to bits and went out. a significant point was that when I “claimed” the flare no-one argued!

We get little news, since no wireless sets are in operation but apparently the whole Tobruch area is now clear of the enemy. We hold Barce and Jerry is still in Derna – apparently cut off there.

Thursday 11th December 1941

A depressing day of rumours. Cold, dusty, high wind. Eventually we rigged up a bivouac tent; what a relief to crawl into a still, unstirred pocket of air and smoke a cigarette. In mid-forenoon nearly all our lorries were handed over to our gallant allies, the Poles. Our stores and equipment however, are still stacked in one of the gun pits. Bloody chaos.

Now it is stated that A and D Troops are to be the artillery of a mobile column. Bits of B and presumably E Troops are, for the present to remain in Tobruch as garrison artillery. The rest of us are to be infantry men in the mobile column!
Stevens, Ling and Search remain here as wireless operators and ammo numbers. Naden goes to “A” Troop and Tubby Cartwright back to the water cart. Around here (excluding “wastes” of course) that leaves Grant, possibly George, Andrews, Scott, Strain, Tiny Plane, and myself for the mobile column. It should be an interesting experience if it “comes off” but the idea is really too fantastic to be true!

British planes in great numbers roar about all day above Tobruch. The Bardia road is crowded with vehicles as convoy after convoy clatters in from the frontier. There are obviously still enemy troops in the vicinity of Tobruch. at night we can see their flares rising. They are over to the west, possibly in the Pilastrino and Medauuar sectors.

Wednesday 10th December 1941

0140 hrs. Not a shot was fired all yesterday – unless one includes the .303 rifle bullet fired by Whacker Newton at a Dornier which passed over at a height of about 8000 feet!

414 and the 1st RHA have moved westwards to intercept some retreating Iti, but we remain here at peace in the shit. We notice this foul dust all the more because we've been away from it for some time. Our clothes are fusty with it and the wind and dust combined make our faces and hands sore.

Oh the war's moving westwards alright now. Our troops approach El Adem aerodrome, only to find it had been evacuated by the enemy three days previously. The only people there were a few Italians (now “in the bag”) and about a score of wounded New Zealanders. Our OP's look to the south and the further escarpment but the South Africans have already been contacted there, so there really isn't much to shoot at around here!

This dust! My hair is a tangled mat. This little dug out stinks of dust. It's not clean sand; filthy dust! Hellish day. First there was rain then a high dusty wind.
And just after the swirling shit clouds had obscured our view of the southern escarpment, early this afternoon, came the amazing order “Prepare to withdraw!” Sergeants were rushing about shouting, lorries were revving up, kits were hastily being packed whilst the devilish wind scattered our belongings and splashed dust upon exposed food. From the panic, one might imagine the enemy was upon us. Actually, it probably meant that the war, for us, was over for a while.

Then the long weary journey back into the perimeter of Tobruch. at dusk we stopped at an old gun position on the central sector. A line had to be laid, supper cooked, the lorry stripped bare, the signals stores stacked in a gun pit, ready for handing over at 7a.m. the next morning...

My God! And as we stumbled to and fro in the darkness the devilish wind whipped and tore at us. “Get that fire screened!” screeched an officer's voice. “Go to hell!”
The wind blew the food to coldness before it reached our lips. Imagine it! Cowering on a desolate waste with a dusty wind of a thousand demons roaring at you. No shelter and not knowing what the deuce you were supposed to do.

We buggered about for some considerable time, until the lorry was more or less stripped and the signals stores more or less stacked. Our personal kits were, in the confusion, scattered about the miredom and the wind had great sport with these.
There were several snug dug outs on the position, but these we found, were already occupied by the battery clerks, cooks, sanitary orderlies and other spare files.
So we had to sleep on the deck and we erected a rough lean-to tent which the wind bellied out like a sail. But at least, it might afford protection from the occasional squalls of rain.

Just as I was making my bed, in the dark, in this draughty erection, a petulant officer appeared. “Why isn't a duty signaller in the command post? There must be someone there.” “Alright!” I said, “I'll go. We mustn't disturb the command post signallers. No one knows where they are, anyway.” It was snug in the command post and well lighted. When I entered it was empty. In a corner a bloody officer's bed had been neatly made by his servant. One officer occupying a dug out which was roomy enough to shelter four common soldiers...

“Hullo 339?” said a voice over the phone. “Yes! I'm here!” I shouted. “104 here,” said a cheery voice – probably speaking from a pleasant room somewhere. “Can you find the battery clerk please. It's urgent.” “Haven't seen him for hours,” I replied, “He went to earth as soon as we arrived. it's damn dark and windy here...”
“He must be found, old man,” said the 104 signaller, all jovial, “It's about the tickets to Cairo.” “What?” I bawled. “I say, it's about the tickets to Cairo!”
“That doesn't make me the least bit enthusiastic, “ I shouted defiantly. “Alright! I'll find him!” “Thanks old man. It really is most important. A return that's urgently needed,” said the faint voice. (It was a rotten line; everything is rotten and foul tonight.)

Sergeant Parker when he arrived had to submit a return of the number of men who had been in Tobruch since the siege began; the number who had been evacuated but had since returned; and the number who had joined the battery in Tobruch for the first time. Urgent! About an hour later Scott, one of the command post signallers, was rooted out of bed by George an took over. He's got to sleep here, so that the officer won't have to wake up and answer the phone during the night.

Monday 8th December 1941

12 noon. We're moving forward. Yes, our pleasant shanty in which I had such a glorious 8 hours sleep last night, has been demolished. We are now loaded, waiting for the order to close down communications and move.

Last nights show was a success without any artillery fire being needed. We are definitely on top now. Hordes of RAF planes pass overhead but whilst here we have only seen two enemy raids on distant Tobruch. Yesterday it was stated that the whole area north of Bardia Road was now clear of the enemy.

Evening: We are about a mile from the base of the escarpment tonight. When we first arrived and dropped into position near the 1st RHA, M1 had to lay the “A” OP line – Lord knows why, it is not our job. It is a hard line to lay, about two miles long and the last mile on foot up a steep escarpment and across the rocks and wadies beyond, but there was no shelling whatever and when we reached the OP there seemed no sign of movement in the country ahead. I reckon the main struggle is over, around Tobruch.

Plonk has now fallen and when we passed Doc. this morning, there was no sign of activity except for some looting parties. The Germans and Iti strong points were given quaint code-names by us. There was Doc, Sneezy, Bashful; in fact all the seven dwarfs, and Snow White, were mentioned in our codes. Jack, where heavy infantry casualties were sustained, used to be Happy.

Snatch of conversation heard by Bob Andrews a few days ago on the exchange:

Distant voice: “Are you Sneezy please? Hullo! Sneezy?”
Battery Captain: “No, I am not Sneezy or any of the other Seven bloody Dwarfs!”

By the time we returned from the OP it was nearly sunset and we were thoroughly fed-up and ready for out midday meal. After tea, bully – biscuit stew, rice and tinned raspberries, and dusty tea, it was dark but we eventually got the exchange dug in. There was a mish qwise dusty desert wind blowing, so we put the truck broadside on and rigged up a lean-to tent on the lee side. It's 9p.m. and I'll soon be going to bed. The lines are very quiet. The situation seems sans tension, just as it was towards the end of last winter's campaign.

BBC news: Japan has declared war on USA and England. The USA naval and air force bases in the Pacific have been bombed and the Japanese Navy has also been in action. Singapore was bombed, besides the American Guam, Hawii and Phillipines. The war spreads.

Oh to be in South America, neutral half continent! Otherwise there are few countries still enjoying peace. Turkey is the chief neutral but I can see war coming to Turkey soon. In Europe there is Spain, still exhausted by the Civil War, Portugal, happy little Switzerland, and Sweden. There are no other neutrals in Europe, I believe.
In Asia, besides Turkey there is only the mysterious mountain land of Tibet at peace. I don't think there are any neutral states in Africa... Certainly none in Aussie!

And in America there's Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Uraquay, Venezula... may be a few small comic opera states besides. Apart from the South Americans there are not many peoples still at peace in the “civilised” world today. Tomorrow probably I'll remember some frightfully important neutral country which I've forgotten now. But I'm tired and there's a coating of dust on my eyelashes and my nose and ears are full of it!

Sunday 7th December 1941

Well, bugger me, here we are, dug-in – after a fashion – and line laid in a position several miles outside the wire. It is now 4:30a.m. The panic was resumed at 8 o'clock last night – an hours notice to move. At 8:30p.m. came PTM (thank heavens the moon was up) and at 9:30p.m. we set out. Nobody knows yet what exactly is in the wind. A battle may be pending or this may only be a routine move, or we may be here for some small task. In any case, since our troops are now in Wadi Belgassem, there was little point in staying on the Eastern Sector. Strange to be on the flat miredam again after so long in the wadi lands.

On the way here we saw a cheering sight – 200 Iti prisoners marching into Tobruch, guarded by 6 jovial Tommies. Presumably they had been captured in The Wadi Belgassem. There are many parachute flares hovering above the enemy positions. We have not been troubled much by shelling but there is almost constant aerial activity. Just now, a load of bombs somewhere, shook this place. The planes are so low that they are clearly visible, although it is a cloudy night. They appear to be 3 engined Iti bombers. Now I'll try and have an hours snooze, sitting here.

6:30a.m. On duty again now. Still all quiet – comparatively. I've just had a nice long chat over the lines with old Pop Parker at the 414 exchange nearby. It's a bit cold. At 4a.m., by the way, I managed to brew five mugs of tea on the primus. This was appreciated by all ranks including myself. at such an unconventional hour and when one is cold, tired and hungry, the “brew” is doubly magnificent!

10p.m. By jove, I'm sleepy! Only another hour to go, unless something unusual happens, then I'll retire to the snug M1 tent nearby. “A party” or “a show” as it is sometimes called, has been in audible progress since 9p.m. exactly. Our infantry is making an attack on the escarpment. So far they have not asked for artillery support, apparently trying to use the element of surprise. For the past hour however, there has been a good deal of enemy gunfire – a barrage in fact – and considerable machine gun fire. It seemed rather contradictory, therefore, when the FOO came through just now and reported, “Situation is unchanged. Still no noise.”

We've moved about cautiously here, all day, as we are visible to the enemy on the escarpment, in this position. No shells have fallen in the battery area, however.
It is quite pleasant to have a change of scenery but my God, I am sleepy!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Saturday 6th December 1941

Ted Gayler and Sammy Jacobovitch came back from the Base today.
The Polish exchange closed down for good last night, with many excited shoutings of “good bye” and “down with Hitler” over the line.

2p.m. This time, we really move! The line laying party has already gone on ahead, to some point outside the perimeter. We've obtained some trucks and borrowed others, so that the whole battery can move. When the borrowed trucks have dumped their contents on the position they will return to their owners, leaving a far from mobile battery in action. We certainly can't advance; lets hope we don't have to withdraw!

6:20p.m. We did not move! Just before we went, and after some parts of the battery had already gone, it was all postponed again! That was two hours ago but part of the Regiment is still scattered about the miredam, even now. What a bloody game. It's postponed for 24 hours, so doubtless we shall have to go through it all again, tomorrow.

Friday 5th December 1941

6:30a.m. Heavy shelling during the last few hours. Some is far away to the SW, some is near enough for me to hear the whistling of the shells. One of the Polish troops, “Gora” is a target but has not been hit yet.

1:45p.m. Apparently there was heavy shellfire in the S and SW during most of last night and this is thought to have been Hun artillery, covering a westward movement of their troops. Westward means a withdrawal. Anyhow two British armoured brigades have appeared from nowhere near the El Adem (southern or central) sector and things look more hopeful today.

Last night, the continuous shelling suggested the prelude to an enemy assault. The BC rang up the Command Post – from some far distant position outside the wire – and said that if Tobruch was about to fall, he'd like to be advised, so that he could send in a raiding party for rations!

Another humorous conversation in the early hours was between Major Howell, the 2nd i/c, and the Polish officer. “They may be withdrawing” said Howell. “Yes! Yes! Please?” “If your OP sees any such movement of German troops, give 'em stick!” “Please! Please! I do not understand! Give STICK?” “Yes. Fire on them. Give 'em every thing you've got!” “Yes! I understand! Thank you! Thank you!” And then the blood thirsty Pole was heard yelling excitedly to be put through to the “post of observation.” “Made up with it, 'e was!” said George, who was on the exchange at the time.

I'll have to stop now. Word just came through that we are to move tonight – if we can get some lorries.

6:45p.m. The order for the battery to move was cancelled and given again and finally cancelled! All between 2p.m. and 3p.m.! Eventually A Troop went alone, with 1000 rounds of ammo, bits of HQ Troop and most of RHQ. We stay here at present – spare files! The exchange is as quiet as death now. I believe there are only two officers left in the “battery” ie 2/3 of HQ and B Troops.

I reckon I'l have time to read “The White Cliffs” Now! Early in the evening!

9:30p.m. This is a queer show, be damned if it isn't! After all the preparations, orders, contradictions and final definite movements, the whole thing was dismissed in a few laconic words from the CRA just now, “You know the party's off, do you?”
Flabbergasted distant voice from somewhere outside the wire; “No sir!” “Well it is,” said the cool voice (not in the least like the savage, rapid accents of our Colonel), “So everyone can return to their old homes either now or tomorrow morning.”
“Yes sir,” said the dazed, distant voice. “That's all, I think,” said the Commandant Royal Artillery, thoughtfully, “Good night.”

Thursday 4th December 1941

Three killed and nine wounded in 414 today.

We prepared to move today; it was cancelled. Then parties were sent to dig-in at some position outside the wire. Early in he evening this was contermanded so they were brought back. The dumping of ammo stopped, was resumed, and then stopped again.

Received a parcel from home today, containing woolies and a book - “The White Cliffs” by Alice Duer Miller. More of that later, when I re-read it. I also received a letter. Yes! It was a Red Letter!

Wednesday 3rd December 1941

The corridor has been cut, according to last night's BBC news, although Tobruch is not isolated. There is heavy fighting around Sidi Rezegh, which is now held by the enemy. For ourselves however, things become quieter as the tide of battle rolls SE. No shells come in from the E now, only a few from the western and southern sectors. Our planes seem to dominate the sky around Tobruch; Italian or German planes seldom appear now.

My burrow, though small, seems quite snug. It is illuminated – a candle – and there is a telephone, so that I can listen to the news at nights and so that they can call me for duty from the exchange, without having to come stumbling along the wadi.

9p.m. I knew it! It was tempting fate to dwell on the tranquility now being enjoyed by 339 Battery! Reckon we shall not enjoy it much longer. Rumour says we are to move – God knows how! Then tonight there was an interesting call to which Bob Andrews and I both plugged in listening intently. Viz.-

Colonel: You've been there? What do you think of it?
OC: Is Plonk occupied by the enemy still, sir?
Colonel: It is!
OC: In that case the battery would not last very long there, sir.
Colonel: Would you be under machine gun fire from Plonk?
OC: Yes sir.
Colonel: Surely not.
OC: Yes sir. I wasn't fired on this afternoon but the people there were horrified to see me arriving in a truck in broad daylight.
Colonel: (half-convinced) Well did you find anywhere else from where we could carry out the task?
OC: No sir. Of course if you insist, the battery will have to go there sir,but -
(Pause. For heavens sake speak, Colonel, don't keep me in suspense!)
Colonel: No, no, William. Look here, I'll give you five minutes to think this over. All right?
OC: Yes sir.
Colonel: Right. Off.

(Five minutes later came the reply)

Colonel: Well? What's the answer?
OC: I don't know sir.
Colonel: Right. I've been looking at the map and if things are (dubiously) as you say they are, you'd better go to – (co-ordinates given) inside the wire. I'll make arrangements for having your guns towed into action (Ha! The dashing RHA!) and once there you will not, repeat not,be expected to move again. Right?
OC: Yes sir. I'll have to rely entirely on wireless in that case.
Colonel: Yes? An OP at Tougan and a forward OP beyond that. Alright?
OC: Yes sir.
Colonel: Off.
Exchange operator: Still working? Have you finished? Finished!

Captain Turner is missing, believed killed and two wounded in 414 Battery yesterday. One of the killed was a signaller I know, little Wally Elliott. He was in my tent at the Base, was on leave when the draft was announced, but got included at the last moment. He was a rum, quaint little chap, absolutely unchanged by the roughness of 26 months in the Army.

My last and typical memory of him is of a scene on the destroyer coming up. We were standing packed aft, like sheep in a pen, encumbered by kit bags, packs, rifles and what not. Cold, hungry and miserable; tempers frayed.
(“Aw bugger this!” “Take your ruddy rifle outta my ribs for Christ's sake!” “Sod it” “Can't you move over a bloody bit, awkward?”)
At this point I dropped 50 rounds of .303 “Are you standing on my bloody rounds?” I asked Elliott. “No, I'm not,” he said primly and carefully, “Let me see” He peered around. Then he tapped the nearest gloomy warrior politely on the shoulder. “Excuse me. This gentleman is looking for his rounds...”

And the man he addressed was so flabbergasted at this suburban chapel formality, that he forgot to blaspheme! Poor little old, refined , inoffensive Wally Elliott!
Blown to pieces in a slit trench which received a direct hit...

Monday 1st December 1941

NAAFI issue today – 2 cans of beer and 100 cigarettes per man. I could hear the Poles laughing like buggers in their exchange, when I rang 'em to tell them the good news.

“Forward units should keep watch for stragglers approaching our positions tonight who do not know the password”
“6 tanks and 60 MT (ours) came up Bardia road from frontier to Tobruch, we thought they were enemy and shelled them so they turned off on the bye pass track and went to El Duda, where they joined our troops”. First signs of the Bardia road opening!
Large armoured forces of ours are also coming up Bardia road at full speed, to help us. A bit of a battle expected in the morning. 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades and the South africans!

I always used to say that when Tobruch was relieved it should be done in proper Hollywood style – to the skirling of bagpipes, - as in “The Drum” and other Empire building films. That's the way to end a siege, what? Damn the planes, tanks and lorries!

However, strange to say, Bob Andrews and myself both heard the crying of the pipes tonight as we crossed the wadi. Bright moonlight and starshine; the night was very still and the sound of piping came to us very clearly. If Bob had not also heard it, I'd have ascribed it to my imagination. Bagpipes in Tobruch!

Perhaps it was the Black Watch, though I thought they'd gone from this sector.

Sunday 30th November 1941

I overslept. Bob Andrews awoke me, calling through the entrance of my burrow. “How goes the war?” I sleepily enquired. “El Duda must be held at all costs,” he responded grimly. “That's discouraging. Who's got to hold it? Us?”
“Not yet, anyhow. Come on, breakfast is ready.” “OK”

9p.m. The news tonight was definitely encouraging. The General commanding 21st Armoured Division is “in the bag,” along with ten of his officers. (This is the division which I heard mentioned over the phone lines a couple of days ago.) Two counter attacks on our 5 mile wide corridor have been repulsed and the Jerry is still fighting desperately, possibly trying to escape to the south. Meanwhile, our patrols have reached the coast beyond Benghazi and destroyed a convoy on it's way to the front. Yes, encouraging!

“What news pless?” asked a Pole (I was sitting in their new exchange, down the wadi) “Jerry finish, in Libya,” I said and they laughed. It seems that all soldiers understand the soldier's weary, cynical, sarcastic humour.

Saturday 29th November 1941

The exchange was absolutely dank when I went on duty at 3a.m. I wore a damp great coat and bought with me two damp blankets. One of these fell in the puddle at the bottom and became even wetter. “Hell!” I said or words to that effect.

Putting my feet out of the puddle's reach I read and smoked. The book was a tale of the Wars of the Roses – bow and arrow, tabard and jerkin; horses and the green wood – called “The Black Arrow.” I last read this romance (RL Stevenson) in Leicestershire. (On summer afternoons I'd cycle out alone, by Evington and Stoughton along the quiet Roman road to nowhere, called Via Devana. There I'd perch in an oak tree above the road, reading; and “Black Arrow” was one of the books that I enjoyed in this oak tree. None of the few people who passed below, along the road, ever noticed the youth in the tree!)

Eventually the bloody light grew too dim for reading and I was left alone with the dampness, in a twilight. Eventually, to keep awake and cheerful I dashed down the wadi, returning with a mug of water, a mug containing milk, a spoon and the tea tin. Yes! I intended a midnight brew! The primus burnt well and I carefully balanced the mug of water upon it. This was too good to be true! The mug would fall over' or the primus fade out! But nothing untoward took place. I crouched over the primus, intent, engrossed, like some high priest of mystic cults. Watching and waiting I whispered the lines of the Tobruch poem, “Ode to Beer”:-

“O choice brown shape of my desiring,
My eager lips doth crave for thee...
O brew... sublime and free...”

Then as the water began to steam, I leaned back shouting aloud, triumphantly:-

“This royal throne of Kings,
This sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars!”

And then I mashed. There was no sugar but ah! what a glorious cup of tea!

There is now a wide corridor connecting Tobruch and the New Zealanders, through which supplies are being passed. Some of the Nzs came in this morning with their guns. These must be the first British troops to reach Tobruch by land since the siege commenced. Tobruch is not yet relieved, as shells still whistle in from east, south and west. Yes, here on the eastern sector, we get shelled from three sides!

Dialogue.
The Colonel: We are now linked to the New Zealanders by a corridor.
OC: Yes sir.
The Colonel (savagely) It's got to be kept open. Understand?
OC: Quite sir.
The Colonel: They'll want ammo. So we've got to go careful with that. No waste! Understand?
OC: Yes sir.
The Colonel (grimly) Right. Off!
Exchange operator: Finish? Finish? Finish!

(The Colonel bites off every word, fiercely, accusingly. The OC sounds polite, resigned, yet unimpressed)

3:30p.m. and a sunny very warm day – praise the gods!

Apparently a counter attack has been made by the enemy at El Duda (presumably the southern end of the corridor between Tobruch and the NZ's forces). Our role is still a minor one. This battery has not enough vehicles to take the field for action. We are however sending up ammo to the 1st RHA, who are in the corridor. They have already had one convoy (it left about an hour ago) but they have sent for still more ammo and this is at present being loaded into any available truck. Now, it is stated that a heavy battle may develop at El Duda.

10:30p.m. A Polish battery is all mixed up with ours. The last few hours have been pretty hectic, with people jabbering incomprehensible lingo on several lines at once. Order has arisen out of chaos however. At present there is another exchange in this pit, “Polish Mary” manned by a Polish signaller from Posan via Hungary, Greece, Turkey, Syria and Palestine, named Joseph Mowski or Moski or something. Besides his native tongue he speaks a little English, German, French and very little Arabic. So with the help of all these we manage to sustain a conversation. At present he's reading a Jerry magazine, part of the meagre loot from Butch.

He is a decent feller (1914 class) and it's rather nice to have some company on the night shift.

Friday 28th November 1941

We have a steady rum issue now and my God! we need it!

There was no counter attack last night but there was plenty of rain. My rough shelter (built in the belief that Tobruch would speedily be relieved) was proof against anything but a downpour – but last night was a downpour and I had a miserable awakening about 3a.m. this morning, when rain water began to ooze through my roof of blankets. (Drip! Drip!) I slept uneasily until 7a.m. by which time all my blankets were damp or soaked.

It rained all day. Despite our efforts, water percolated through the earth and appeared from the floor of the exchange, making puddles. At night fall my blankets were still damp and two were too wet to use at all. I migrated to a suspicious burrow near “A” Troop which extended about 8 feet into the rock and was about 3 foot 6 inches wide and 2 foot high at it's most spacious point. At the far end it tapered away to a sort of rabbit hole. Claustrophobia I thought, when I crawled in at first!

However it was dry, so I put one wet blanket underneath my ground sheet and had the three damp ones above me. I slept in my overalls and kept my scarf on (in case the rats should tear my throat!) and found it was warm in there, even with damp blankets.
The moonlight shone on the opposite side of the wadi; the whitened rocks were framed by the mouth of my cave. I slept fine.

Thursday 27th November 1941

1:30a.m. The delight of waking from deep sleep in warm blankets on a cold morning! Last night I didn't go to bed until after 3a.m. When I did go, snug and warm inside five blankets (I recently scrounged one) I slept finely sound.

The most delicious way of slumbering would be to keep awake until the early hours, say two or three o'clock, in the winter, then sleep in a warm, soft bed and be awakened at 10a.m. or 11a.m. The pleasantest method of waking would be for the sound of soothing, gentle music to reach the sleeper, and for the volume of sound to be gradually increased until he awoke! (Then pass him a cup of tea!)

The battle at Sidi Rezegh still goes on, SE of Tobruch. The New Zealanders have reached there; they are not here. Last night our troops captured the strong point in the area of the wrecked plane and yesterday they made an attack on the Wadi Belgassem which – as I'd expected – was driven off. The enemy should be able to hold Belgassem for weeks. BBC news is reserved now. They state that both sides are bringing up reinforcements and the aim of both sides is to destroy tanks. The isolated German forces at Sollum made a sortie into Egypt! They're game, anyhow. They were harassed by fighters, bombers and guns and eventually retreated westwards again, having lost 1/3 of their tanks.

This desert battle must be about the bloodiest that British troops have been in, during the duration of this war, for it is the first battle which has not been a running fight. Dust covered ambulances are jolting into Tobruch all day long from the SE. And lorry loads of prisoners.

First it was “they have arrived,” then “the men who walk upside down are going to a place...” and now, at 2:30a.m., the duty officer has received a message:- “It is thought we have made contact with our friends. Confirmation is awaited.”

Fullerphone Message 6:30a.m. :-

“Junction has been made with NZ division El Duda area. Counter attack by the enemy is a probability, special vigilance to deal with this contingency is vital for next 24 hours.”

Phone message 10a.m. :-

“German 21st Armoured Division ordered up to help their forces at Tobruch, who are seriously threatened.”

Evening on the exchange,after a rainy day. At one time the pit was flooded to a depth of 14 inches by water cascading down the rocks above. Now a drainage trench has been dug and the pit baled out but we have a primus burning to dry out the remaining dampness.

Well, this campaign does not seem to be going so smoothly as expected. We in Tobruch will certainly be “for it” if this present effort to get Jerry on the run should fail for this is quite obviously the supreme endeavour. However, I think still, that we shall be the eventual victors in this present conflict. We are much stronger in air power than we have been hitherto. Flights of Hurricanes and Tomahawks – sometimes as many as 34 at once – have been roaring around all day; a strange sight for the Rats of Tobruch, unaccustomed to seeing friendly aircraft.

News is scanty – real news that is. Our forward elements contacted the New Zealanders this morning but it is not known whether the contact has been maintained. The enemy made a counter attack at El Duda but were repulsed, losing two tanks. A Polish artillery battery has dropped into position nearby, in case there is an attack on this sector tonight. An OP officer near the coast has just reported seeing a brilliantly illuminated ship, presumably the hospital ship which arrived this morning, sailing eastwards. So we can now trust them not to attack our hospital ships? That is very good.

“Exchange answering.” “That you, Steve? Did you hear last night's news?”
“Yes, George. Heard most of it. The general tone was fairly hopeful.” “Yeah?”
“Sure. Great enthusiasm in London at the linking up of the frontier forces with the garrison of Tobruch. There was a bit about the length of the siege and the importance of Tobruch as a base after we'd pushed Jerry further back. Seems we've now made a breach in the enemy line. But apparently there are still pockets of resistance... Just small pockets, George!” “Huh.” “We've recaptured Sidi Rezagh... Don't know when we lost it...” “Aw...” “We've done well in the air. Shot down about thirty for the loss of two planes or something.” “Mmm.” “I'm afraid things are bad in Russia. Hell of a push for Moscow under way. That's about all I heard, between calls.”

“Oh! OK Steve.”

Tuesday 25th November 1941


Ling is back, with Motley, from the forward areas. He is in the exchange with me at this moment. This battle, he says, was more bloody and horrible than Bardia, Tobruch or the skirmishes of the retreat. Young Motley should not have been there, he said. Men being blown up, “like a bunch of fireworks,” in the minefield, screaming. And being hit and crying out in pain; and being dead and lying grotesquely huddled and getting run over by the truck... “Thank God I'm not in the infantry,” said Stan.

In this big-scale, mobile warfare, official reports are contradicted hourly and orders countermanded. For instance, the relieving forces did not arrive a few days ago; and 414 has not gone outside the wire as yet. Tonight's BBC news stated that the tank battle SE of Tobruch was still in full swing; thousands of prisoners had been taken, especially in the Frontier area; and the New Zealanders were advancing steadily along the Tobruch road from Bardia.

Increased air activity today; several raids by lone bombers, and one mass display over the forward areas this afternoon.

Message received by the secret Fullerphone this afternoon:- “VE AAA New Zealanders coming on well AR”

Report from an OP, of the chief air raid:- “Over 50 planes in the sky at once. Over 30 of these enemy including 20 Stukas who dropped bombs on a bearing of 135 degrees.
3 enemy planes shot down – one ME110 in the sea, one unidentified enemy plane in sea. An ME109 was chasing a Tomahawk which it hit, but Tomahawk landed safely in our defences. AA fire then hit the ME109 and bought it down in the sea. A column of smoke was seen from bombing area.”

Call from the Colonel to OC 339 this evening:- “Despite all you know or have heard to the contrary, the men who walk upside down, will go to a place we all know, tonight. When that happens you are to open fire on the wrecked plane. You understand?” “Yes sir. Twenty rounds a gun.” “Can Musso fire in the dark?”
“Yes sir.” “Then use Musso as well.”

Later I heard there was a task for 9p.m., that “things would get cracking about dawn” and that “A” Troop must be ready to go out with 414. It is now nearly nine but I think the task has been postponed until 9:30p.m. for some cryptic reason connected with “things on tin carts.”

The phrase of, “The men who walk upside down” - obviously New Zealanders – is really lovely. Picturesque enough for the title of a story!

2:30a.m. Yes it is really tomorrow, not tonight at all. I've only about another half hour to do, now. The barrage was eventually extended a little and lasted about 40minutes, keeping on until the OC, Major Gosling, cried “STOP!” to both troops. After that there were a few moments of silence broken only by the drone of an enemy aircraft overhead – then, the steady clatter of machine guns, far away.

Some time after, I believe, the success signal (three red Verey lights) was seen, but I was far too busy with calls to listen in. All night since then, distant and near guns (but not ours) have been grunting and rumbling uneasily. Enemy aircraft have been active – one dropped a bomb further along our wadi.

I've been on duty many hours now but the time has passed quickly as there has been much to do. a long situation report came through on the Fullerphone and one of our lines broke – A OP. Poor old Basil Grant was out nearly three hours!

When does this Colonel sleep or slow down? I had him on this exchange at 5:45 this morning, roaring and raging at the Battery Captain, and he rang up, all fire and fury, just now, and told the duty officer that things had got to move and there was to be no messing. He reminds me rather of a high-commissioned Sergeant Marcoff of Fort Zinderneuf (PC Wren's “Beau Geste”)

My vigil is nearly over. In ten minutes I'll go and call my relief.

Monday 24th November 1941

Libya is front page news, nowadays. Even the fight for Moscow comes second. Today's news from Cairo is that a terrific tank and infantry battle is in progress SE of Tobruch, of which the issue is still in doubt; the garrison of Tobruch have now consolidated their gains; the New Zealanders have taken Gambut. 414 Battery moves outside the wire tomorrow.

One of our OP officers reported he had seen two artillery men, probably from the 1st RHA, walk up to an enemy post and surrender. Two more later attempted to do the same but were fired on by our infantry and forced to return.

Sunday 23rd November 1941

Desultory firing into Wadi Belgassem and to the south east, continues. A few “scares” during the day which came to nothing. Tougan has been taken – or re-taken. Among the spoils were four excellent 7.5mm guns with German equipment, complete and in good order.

Message from 104 RHQ, to 339 and 414 Batteries:-

“Brigadier Chappell has expressed to CO thanks for the support which he has received from 104 RHA. Special reference work of FOOS and I-Os. He is most appreciative of work done and support provided.”

“Exchange?” “Sir.” “Pass this on to everyone. The official British communiqué states that we have taken Bardia, also that Sollum and Helfaya are surrounded.”
“And Fort Capuzzo?” “Yes, we've got Capuzzo too. Broadcast that, will you?”
“With pleasure, sir.”

Saturday 22nd November 1941

We pounded steadily at the enemy in the south east (occasionally using super charge – over 12,000 yards distance, therefore) and at the Wadi Belgassem. Today there was
little response from Bellgassem except in the afternoon when they slung over a few shells – perhaps about 20 – and incidentally broke two of our lines.

This morning I washed, shaved and dhobied some socks. After lunch George went to Butch with some rations; unfortunately I had to stay behind. He said there were truck loads of dead around Butch.

Whilst I was smoking a ruminative cigar, the BSM and the Padre came along and asked if we had any spare bandages? We hadn't. “What for?” I asked. “We're burying Mr Yates, see? There 'ain't no safety pins and we want something' to 'old the blankets together.” “Would old signal wire do?” “Yes. I think it'll be alright,” said the BSM.
I cut a length. “That enough?” “Yes, that's just about enough to go round...”
“It's appropriate really,” I said, handing it across, “For it is good British wire, not Iti stuff.” (We use a good deal of captured Iti wire.) Neither of them replied and I felt ashamed for having made such a silly and sentimental remark.

This evening, Bob heard a rather interesting item of news from the OP's. “HORA reports they have arrived.” “Oh!” said the Intelligence Officer, “We didn't expect them until morning. I take it they mean the people we are hoping to meet?”
“Yes, I gather that's it.” “Righto, thanks.” HORA – for today at any rate – means the 2nd Leicesters. And who are “they”? Probably advance units of the South Africans, from Sollum.

Lion has now been taken. After many conflicting reports it is now known that the enemy still hold Tougan, however, away to the south east there have been clouds of battle smoke, all day. I reckon the 1st RHA are getting it pretty hot, out there.

Friday 21st November 1941

6:15p.m. All quiet now, like any other evening. It was quiet, too, at 6:15a.m. this morning, five minutes before the barrage began. Previously the exchange had been busy as hell; but then, everything being arranged, everyone at their posts, waiting, a strange small interval of peace descended. Then, at zero hour came the crash of the barrage – the mediums started, crack-thud! then B Troop, wham! wham, wham! Wham! and then the more even A troop, wh-wh-wh-wham!

For an hour we fired steadily. Scott brewed a mug of tea for each of us. Reports of early successes began to filter through. The switchboard became bloody busy... “Calling 104 Priority...” Butch fell at Z+8, Tiger an hour later (these were enemy strong points)
“Priority! A Troop! Stop all firing on Jack immediately!”
“A Troop answering” “Stop!”
“Stop firing!” I heard Darkie Hunter shouting to the “A” guns...
“...Our troops have taken Jack...”

“Colonel for you,” “Major Howell here, sir.” “Where is Yates, in Toc?” “He's come back sir – wireless set nor working. He's changing it...” “What the devil -?” “Toc is going out again almost at once, sir. It's pretty hot out there... Major Gosling wants to go instead of Peter -” “Bill is to do no such thing! Tell Yates to get back into Toc and get out there.” “Yes sir, I -” “At once! You understand?” “Right sir.”

Suddenly the air around the exchange was filled with whistlings and bangs, subtly different from the thud of our own gunfire. It kept on. Shrapnel whistled. Yes, the enemy guns were replying at last. I began to test lines regularly. The duel went on. Someone bought up my breakfast – bacon, beans and fried bread with another mug of tea.

“M1 answering” “Flash spotters line has gone, George.” “OK Steve, I'll get out on it” He and Naden climbed past the exchange, tin-hatted, and disappeared.

“M1 answering.” “Basil? B OP line's gone.” “OK Steve, we'll fix the bastard.”
I smoked steadily. Heard a roar of planes, grabbed my tin hat, looked out. A dozen of them, weaving and dipping. Ye gods! I prepared myself for bombs... looked again... RAF! “They've got me!” I thought sadly, “And I'm in heaven, with lots of friendly planes roaring around,” A light flicked up on the switchboard. Not dead! They really were the RAF!

“Line Ok to Flash Spotters?” asked George, appearing by the dug out a few minutes later. “Yes, George. And Basil has just mended the OP line.” “Good. They killed a fellow and wounded three, at RHQ” “Who was it?” “Don't know.”

The reports of steadily gained objectives kept coming. Fifty German prisoners were seen, being marched to the rear. Bob Andrews relieved me at the exchange. It was mid morning, there was a good deal of shelling still going on. I got some “Waverley” out of my pack, filled my pouch and lit my pipe. Tubby Cartwright said, “B OP lines gone again Steve.” “Coming out Tub?” “Yeah.”

We walked forward, nearer and nearer towards the shell bursts. At intervals we tested the line but could not get the OP, only the exchange. I took a few snaps of the shells landing. About a mile forward, near Battalion HQ, we saw Iti prisoners being driven rearwards in lorries, under fire from their own artillery. Half a mile onward we found the break and mended it. Returning we saw a pretty picture – about 200 prisoners marching on the skyline, with bursting shells in the background.

A shell burst right ahead, quite near. We tapped nto a line. “Who's that? Lineman here.” “Musso here, Steve.” “Can you still get the exchange?” “Hold on...yes!”
“Exchange here, Steve!” “OK Bob. Got a brew on?” “Yes, it's on.” “Good oh!”
We went on. “Let's try there,” said Tubby, “There are some lines where those shells landed.” “Good idea. Don't want to come out again.” “Not bloody likely!”

In an area of blackened earth we found a mangled line and tapped in. “These Iti are wastes, boy,” said Tubby as he linked up our phone. I knocked the earth pin in.
“Yes, they are -” CRASH! Down we went, deafened and dazed. Shit and black smoke all around us. A shell had dropped twenty yards away. “My God! Let's get this bugger fixed and get out of here!” “Strewth, yes! Can't believe I'm OK”

We repaired the line. It was B OP again! “Good!” said the exchange. “That's only just been broken!” “Red hot maintenance service, boy!” bellowed Cartwright. We lost no time in taping up and getting away from there. “We didn't hear it whistle Tubby.” “No! That proves it! You don't hear the one that hits you.” “No.” “Lucky escape, Steve. We weren't even lying down...”

At last we clambered down into the wadi. It seemed a peaceful haven after the nuredam”s tumult. George had got two mugs of tea saved for us. Warm and wet. We smoked cigarettes. “Any news?” “We're attacking Tougan now. You heard about Mr Yates?” “No, George?” “He's dead. They told him to go further forward again, so he walked on. Left Toc. A sniper got him.”

We had some toast and cheese – it was about 2 o'clock. And lit cigars. Black Iti cigars. Geoff Pyman came and took a snap, with my camera, of the three of us sitting outside the untidy shelters. We weren't at ease for long. “Battalion line's gone. You and Tubby go?” “OK”

Once more we walked forward. There was no shelling. My black cigar was going nicely. Suddenly the mediums and 339 began to fire rapid. They kept on. Yes, another barrage.
“Sod it. This will draw their fire.” “Yes, we'll be in the shit soon.” We found two breaks, beside two ominously fresh shell holes, not far from B Troop. The enemy shells whistled over. CRUMP! Fifty yards away. Wham, wham, wham, wham! said B Troop.
We mended the breaks hastily.

CRASH! Dazed and deafened again. Just across the track from us. “Line Ok now, exchange?” “Can't get Battalion yet, Tubby. Wait there a bit, will you” (“Tell him we'll wait somewhere else, Tubby.”) “Not too healthy here, Vic. We'll tap in presently, somewhere a bit further back.” “OK” I paced the distance to the new blacked, metal-strewn hole. After 15 paces I was nearly there and was filled with an unaccountable dread, and came back. “It's twenty yards, Tub.” We hastily retreated to a small wadi, found a snug place in some rocks and tapped in to a line. “Who's that?” “B Troop.” “Can you get exchange from here?” “You can. Give a buzz.”

Exchange told us to wait a bit. We lounged at ease. The crash of shells nearby came every now and then. Shrapnel clattered on the rocks but we felt quite safe there, for some obscure reason. I relit my cigar, which had gone out, and felt fine.
Our barrage ceased. The enemy fire slackened, died away. Exchange said the battalion line was still out of order so I threw away my cigar stub and we climbed out of our wadi.

We found the other break fairly soon and got back to M1 without any further incident and helped George prepare dinner. It was tasty too, despite the heavy shell fire around the position. We had bully rissoles, hot meat and vegetables, and baked beans and fried bread plus sweet pickles and mustard. The second course was rice and apricots. Not bad for battle rations!

Towards dusk, the shelling on both sides, ceased altogether. Quietness reigned. Tougan had been taken. General operations for the day were satisfactory, both here and with the relieving forces. Maurice Nicholls was slightly wounded and there were several wounded, one seriously, in 414.

There are four signallers available for line duty tonight. Three will do exchange shifts and the other will stand-by for night maintenance (mish qwise!) with George Hignall. They're drawing lots with the cards down below, now. I hope I get an exchange shift, frankly!

Well, I have. Tubby Cartwright is the maintenance man. He may get a good night's sleep or a lot of work and no sleep. I've got the lucky first shift, Naden is middle shift and Grant last shift.

Well, there's a lengthy chronicle! First time I've described a battle in such detail. One seldom has a spare hour to devote to diary writing. This battle has, so far, been cushy, as we've fought it from established positions. RA stuff, this; not RHA!

Starshine 1941

“Fear and be slain; no worse can come to fight,
and fight and die is death destroying death
Where fearing dying, pays death servile breath.”

Friday 21st November 1941

3:30a.m. A busy evening since “21” yesterday – at 5p.m. Now all is quiet here, except for a persistent steady rumble near the road. Tanks, lots of them, moving up for the morning attack! Far away to the West are occasional gun-flashes and distant thuds. There are few calls on the switchboard except for an unusually careful testing of lines. Still the tanks rumble on. It's a pity that they have to advertise their approach in this way.

4:30a.m. I can still hear the noise of the tanks but it is almost drowned now in the thud of gunfire from somewhere quite near at hand – on our right rear. This is probably 107 RHA firing to the South. Is this the morning of the battle? I suppose so. We shall put down a barrage on the enemy positions whilst a force (which includes the 1st RHA) will try to break out of the perimeter and join the forces from the frontier. We have been told nothing but I think this is the Day, probably.

Does she love me? Is it possible? To reassure myself I read her last letter again.
“... Just for fun I have looked in my diary again to see the exact things we did write on those windows...
... I suppose I must have liked you very, very much to write all those scrawls in my diary, but I'm glad I did now, for darling we were so hopelessly happy – weren't we?
... And I sat on a little gate cum fence and Stephen said he thought I looked very lovely sitting there... Oh Lord! we are such fools... I wonder just why FATE DESTINED US TO MEET!
... I think the Stephen I love is being kept quite safe, to be re-discovered somewhere in the English countryside...
... But when I stroll away in the evenings... and my secret thoughts... and sometimes I wonder if I am foolish in wondering these things, and then extracts from the letters you have written me, tell me I'm not...”

Why! She wasn't sure either! She had to reassure herself just as I did. It certainly does seem too good to be true – yet it is true.

Today! It's nearly 6:15 and just now I heard, “Nine minutes to go before the first bang.”!

Twilight of 1941 ends in the twilight of early morning, a few minutes before the barrage goes down.

Thursday 20th November 1941

2p.m. So far, there's little information regarding the progress of the blitz. Today, the following arrived:-

HQ 70 Inf. Div. 18/11/41
Special Order of the Day.
The following telegram, which has been received by the C in C from the Prime Minister is to be communicated to troops at the earliest opportunity:-

“I have it in command from the King to express to all ranks of the Army and RAF in the Western Desert and to the Med. Fleet, that His Majesty is confident that they will do their duty with exemplary devotion in the supremely important battle which lies before them. For the first time British and Empire troops will meet Germans with an ample equipment in modern weapons of all kinds. The battle itself will affect the whole course of the War. Now is the time to strike the hardest blow yet for final Victory, Home and Freedom. The Desert Army may add a page to history which will rank with Blenheim and with Waterloo. The eyes of all nations are upon you.”

George Hignall pinned this notice on a board, just beside M1's fly-ridden shelter.

“'Ere, get a load of this. This means you.”
The grimy denizens of the wadi strolled over to read the document.

“His Majesty is confident! Well, 'e's the only one wot is!”
“Do their duty! What's he think he is? Bleedin' Nelson?”
“Waterloo! Bugger me!”

Someone derisively whistled a fanfare of trumpets. Yet for all our jeers, for all our weary cynicism, we are keen and enthusiastic and – this time – confident.