Chapter 4
Libyan Desert


We moved up and stopped at Sollum, the first place (you couldnít call it a village) in Libya. It was on an escarpment overlooking the the single coastal desert road which came up all the way from Alexandria. It was an ideal defensive position if only the Italians had been prepared to defend it. We were sleeping in concrete huts on concrete floors which were darned cold, the desert can get very cold at night even in the summer.

One thing about the desert was the absolute brilliance of the stars, there being no lights around as there were no cities or towns anywhere near. It was amazing and I began to get interested in the star formations and was determined to find out more. When I next went down to Cairo I bought a planisphere by Francis Chichester so that I could work out what the stars were, their positions and all the rest of it, and that was the start of my lifelong interest in astronomy.

We moved on up to El Adem which was the main Italian airforce base in Libya not far from Benghazi and there we saw all the wrecked aircraft which were the result of our bombing raids and the army guns.

I managed to collect quite a bit of salvage from these and built myself a radio, making most of the components out of scrap. In the desert we very seldom heard any regular news, so I used to go out to one of the planes in the evening, tune the radio to the BBC World Service and try to memorise as much of the news that I could. We spread it by word of mouth and if there was any very important news we went to the NAAFI and announced it there. We never really comprehended the force and extent of the air raids in England, partly because the BBC were not allowed to tell the whole story. Occasionally, an airman would be called to the CO office to be told that his family or some of them had been killed, and this raised anxiety among the others, so news of raids was eagerly sought.

The news of the Spitfire and Hurricane pilotsí successes was a great fillip to morale. My visits to the planes, while not being forbidden were frowned upon, so I took the earliest opportunity to build my own radio. There were no transistors and although a crystal set did not require any power, they were not sensitive enough to receive normal shortwave radio transmissions, so I had to use valves, which I scrounged. I could always use part of an aircraft battery to heat the valve filaments but the 120 volt dry battery was always a problem. I discovered the the desert sand was alkali so I tried to make a battery with empty tins coins and wet sand, each one gave me about 1.2 volts, but when I joined a lot of them together they gave me a high voltage but no capacity so were no use.

One thing in the desert was the sandstorms, they could last for days and there was little you could do about them. The sand got everywhere; into your tents, clothes, food and you were breathing it all the time. The only thing to do was to get under your blankets and try to filter it out. Even finding your way around the camp was difficult, sometimes it was impossible to see a hand in front of your face and unless you were able to make your way from tent to tent you couldnít get to the mess tent. One of our chaps missed his way and when the sandstorm stopped after about three days he found himself about a mile from the camp below the escarpment.

At that time when the war out there started there were only two squadrons of fighters; Nos. 51 and 80 which were Gloster Gladiators the old biplane. There was a squadron of Lysanders, the high wing spotter planes, two squadrons of Bristol Blenheims (ourselves 113, and our sister squadron, 211 who had been brought in from Shiba, and were based at Fouka).

In Cairo, No. 14 Squadron had 3 Bombay transport planes and 6 Vicker Valencias, a string and strut Triplane with a top speed of 65MPH. I actually saw one land backwards in a sandstorm! Number 211 Squadron and ourselves were doing almost all of the bombing although the Bombays and Valencias went on raids carrying anti-personnel bombs and dropping them by hand out of the aircraft doors. Against that the Italians were reputed to have 2000 front line planes.

After a while the Italians regrouped and attacked and we retreated back to Mŗarten Bŗgush. During this time the Italians had been bombing but they never attacked during the daytime. They used to come over when the moon was at the first quarter directly it got dusk and two of them used to stooge around and occasionally drop a bomb. I donít think they ever hit anything, although on one occasion they dropped a bomb about fifty yards from the railway line. There was a train in the station and it took off at a rate of knots back to Alex and we didnít see it again, at least not with an Egyptian crew. The Army soon took over the running of the trains.

When the Italian planes eventually left they were replaced by another pair and they kept this up until daybreak every night until the moon was in its third quarter. I donít know if there was any target they were after or whether it was just to try to keep us awake and disrupt our organisation, but after a while we got quite used to it and didnít really bother about them, we only took shelter when we thought it was necessary. The fly leaves of the tent made an ideal sounding board and we could hear the distinctive sound of the three engined planes when they were about fifty miles away. The only time I was really worried was just before I was going on leave to Cairo and they came over the night before. I was down in the slit trench saying, ĎNot tonight, not tonight, Iím going on leave tomorrow.í

If our planes were not flying on the nights when we expected the Italian raids then they were dispersed to a satellite airfield. One night we were startled by a plane which flew over our tents with its landing lights, on trying to land. The duty officer dashed out of the flight tent and fired a red Verey light to warn it off. We were told to lay out a flight path for it , this consisted of taking paraffin lamps out in a truck and laying them down either side of the runway. Twice more the plane tried to land and was warned off. We were getting near the end of the runway and only had to put a red light on top of a hill just to the side of the start of the runway. The pilot obviously spotted the lit runway and came into land before he was given the green and hit the hill. His plane went up in flames and we could hear him screaming in the cockpit but there was nothing we could do to save him. Apparently he was a new pilot bringing in a replacement plane and he didnít know about the satellite airfield where they were waiting for him.

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