Chapter 7
Back to the Western Desert, October 1941
Part 1

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By this time our chaps were gradually rejoining us and we were coming up to strength again. Then we were told that we would be going back to the desert to Màarten Bàgush, but this time there was a difference. While we had been over in Greece a Beaufighter squadron had moved into the desert and for some reason or the other the personnel had become thoroughly demoralised. The ground crews refused to work on the aircraft and the pilots refused to take up planes which had not been checked. So they decided to disband the squadron and the crew were all posted away to different stations. I don’t know if anyone was court-martialled for it because we only heard parts of the story.

Dugout
Dugout
However we went out there and found all the planes and other equipment on a deserted drome, got down to it and got them operational. In the meantime instead of having tents they had dug themselves small dugouts big enough for two people to sleep in, so Bernard Kidney and myself grabbed one of the dugouts, lined the walls with blankets and turned it into a reasonable billet, if you ignored all the desert creepy-crawlies the seemed to want to stay with us.

At this time Greece had fallen and the German paratroops were dropping on Crete so we were operating our Beaufighters over there. Now 51 Squadron, the fighter squadron which had been with us in the desert, had followed us over to Greece, and when they were evacuated from there they went to Crete where they still managed to operate what planes they had left.

These were now Hurricanes. They were right in the thick of it again and after losing all their planes were left defending the aerodrome against the paratroops. Apparently their CO ordered them to fix bayonets and charge to get down to the beach. I understand that some of them got through and were taken off by the navy.

The battle for Crete was coming to an end. There was no way that we could do anything. What we could do with our aircraft was so small in comparison to the Germans. They came round bringing a box of .303 rifle bullets and told us that they expected the paratroops to land in an attempt to capture our drome. We were to stay in our dugout and defend it. What hope had we got against fully seasoned troops? Anyway those were our orders and we were prepared to obey them. Luckily the Germans didn’t come. I believe that they suffered so many casualties in Crete that the command called off the attack. If they had known it would have been a walkover it could have changed the result of the war.

One of the snags in the desert that I have not mentioned was the sand fleas. For some reason they always seemed to bite your ankles while you were asleep. You scratched them and they became infected with desert sores. A long line of us used to go to the sick bay every morning to get our sores dressed with gentian violet and bandaged. I still had these sores when I went down to Cairo on my first leave.

I had a friend who was with 14 Squadron in Heliopolis. I called on him and we spent our leave together. He had become friendly with a family in Cairo and we used to take the daughters out to dances in the evening. I used to stagger back to my hotel around midnight, go to the bathroom, gently peel off my bandages, soak my feet in the bath and put new bandages on. I was then ready for the next day because I was determined that nothing was going to stop me enjoying (?) my leave.

Doug had made friends with a French woman in Cairo who ran a pension and he suggested that four of us go down and stay there on leave. This idea was taken up and shortly after we arrived there someone said,’ Why not get some civvies?’ The next day we went out and all bought civilian clothes and spent the rest of our leave wearing them. Usually when on leave in Cairo we stayed at an official hotel where they kept an eye on you. This time we were completely free of that and could wander around as we liked. One of our chaps spoke French, so whenever we were near any MPs he would wave his arms about and proclaim loudly in French, so we got away with it. We really didn’t do anything different from a normal leave but the sense of freedom and the risks we were taking made our leave all the more enjoyable.

The Germans were coming into the desert in strength now and seemed to have taken over the air operations from the Italians. They seldom attacked in the daytime, but we noticed the difference at night. A plane would come across fairly high up and drop a number of parachute flares and then when the drome was lit up Messerschmidts would come across very low, strafing everything within sight and dropping anti-personnel butterfly bombs. It was terrifying; they came out of the darkness and before you could get a sight of them they were gone leaving burning planes in their wake.

When they did attack in the daytime we had to go out immediately to inspect our planes for damage. I was in my plane one day just after a raid when an armourer fired a machine gun. I thought that the Germans had come back and nearly died. Just one thing I gained from these raids was a radio out of one of the wrecked planes, and I managed to hang on to it for a few months. We used to listen to the BBC world service program and this kept us up to date with the news Two of us kept notes and fixed the news bulletin up outside our dugout.

Desert
The Desert
Something else happened about this time in the desert. We had a beacon which was put down about fifty miles south of the coast to guide the planes back from their bombing raids at night. The desert was almost featureless and if planes had to take evasive action the navigators could not always tell where they were. For a certain time each night it would flash a morse signal which was changed regularly. It was an electrician’s job to attend to this beacon and initially they used to send us out there on our own. We had a single tent, some food and water and went out for a fortnight. Then a relief would come out with supplies and the previous electrician would return to camp. A small spotter plane used to fly over and drop a message to tell when to turn the beacon on and off, and what letter to send. Sometimes the message was that there would be no flying for a few days. I quite enjoyed it; a couple of weeks completely on my own. I had a rifle and used to take pot shots at tin cans. I did once see some gazelles but they were too far away and I had no chance of getting near them.

On one particular occasion I had gone out there and the flying had been stopped, so I had nothing to do but the daily check of the beacon. At the end of the fortnight I waited for my replacement to come out and nobody turned up. When we went out there we used to take extra food with us so I was not worried about having enough to eat, but our water was in the flimsy petrol cans and they were not always empty of petrol when the water was put in so it tasted horrible. I realised that I was getting a bit short on water - what was I going to do? I knew that I was about fifty miles south of the coast and that if I walked due north, using either the sun or the stars, I would eventually reach the coast road and possibly an army or airforce camp before then. I thought I would leave it until my water had been reduced to the amount I could carry with me, possibly about two days supply. I intended to start off at night because it would be cooler and once I had located the north star I would be able to walk due north. The desert was reasonably flat in that area and as the moon would be shining I could see no problems with the terrain.

Two days later I saw a cloud of dust in the distance so I went down to the beacon and climbed to the top of it, prepared to take my shirt off and wave it if the vehicle turned away. Instead it came straight on, so I went back to the tent and waited. It was a staff car and the adjutant got out of it. He said that he had decided to come out to see for himself how we were getting on. He said they were starting flying again and was everything OK? I said,’Well, I’m a bit short of water.’ He said,’ You can’t be, you’ve only just come out here.’ I said, ‘No I haven’t, I’ve been here about 17 days.’ ‘Oh lord,’ he said, ‘I told them to come and collect you when the flying stopped, hang on here and I’ll go back to camp.’ My replacement came out and I went back in. I’m not certain what would have happened if I had started to walk back and he had come out and found no one there.

On another occasion I was sitting in front of my tent when I saw right over to the west a figure walking across the desert. I watched for about three hours and eventually a nomad Arab came up to my tent. ‘Salaam maleecum,’ he said, I replied ‘Maleecum salaam.’ Then he pointed towards the east and said, ‘Birka.’ I said ‘Aiwa.’ He said, ‘Salaam,’ and walked off in that direction. It’s amazing how they find their way around in featureless desert. Perhaps they use the sun. There was one disadvantage of being on your own at the beacon and that was the rations. When we drew them they gave us enough food for three meals a day for fourteen days, which was fine, but all the tins were large ones so you got, for example, a tin of herrings in tomato sauce which was supposed to last four meals. That meant it had to be eaten over two days, and as we had no means of cooking, it meant four consecutive meals of cold herrings in tomato sauce, if it didn’t go off in the hot weather, or the tin was not invaded by the bugs of the desert. That was one of the reasons we cadged extra rations for our excursions.

After my incident at the beacon they decided that it would be more convenient and safer if three of us went out there. There would be a driver, a fitter and an electrician together with a lorry and a big tent. We were still to go out for two weeks but our sessions would be staggered so that there would always be one of us there while the others were changing over. It did mean that we could occasionally get some fresh meat when the changeovers took place and it ended our monotonous meals.

On one occasion while I was on my own, the other two having gone into the camp, I saw a small truck with two officers and about eight native troops in it. It drove up to the front of the tent and I saw that they were South Africans. The officers chatted for a while and then asked me if I knew where a certain place they indicated on a map was. I said I had no idea, all I knew was that I was about fifty miles south of the Med. I remembered that when we were coming out to the beacon I had seen some army engineers who were working on one of the cisterns which were scattered around the desert. These cisterns had been built by the Romans when they were in Egypt and were still full of water and as good as when they were built. I told them about the engineers and said they could possibly help them. Then they asked, ‘Would I like some oranges?’ Naturally I said yes and they gave me a box of them.

They said goodbye and drove off, the only strange thing being that they did not go towards the engineers but instead in the direction they had been aiming for. When the others got back I proudly displayed my oranges and I thought no more about it.

Doug Barrett came out as my replacement. I was surprised to see him back in camp a few days later. I knew that we were still flying so I went to ask him what he was doing back in camp. He said he had seen the South Africans, I said ‘What do you mean?’ He said,’Haven’t you seen last Thursday’s DROs?’

Apparently, there was a report of a couple of fake South African officers going around destroying food and petrol dumps which the long range desert patrol had set up for the army. Doug had been out there on his own just like me when these officers drove up. Now the report had said that they had incorrect shoulder badges and the truck did not have any identifying insignia on it. Doug said that he looked at their badges and then walked round the truck and could not see any insignia. He said he nearly panicked but managed to keep control of himself and indicated to them where he thought the place they were looking for was.

When his lorry returned he came into the camp and reported the incident. A patrol was sent out and caught them destroying a food dump, the one that Doug had sent them to. I realised that I had been in very close contact with the enemy although I hadn’t known it at the time. Some people said to me later, ‘Why didn’t they kill you?’ I think the reason was that they realised that an act like that would have indicated that they were in the area, whilst their object was to destroy dumps.

There was another occasion when we were out there. When we went in to the camp we sometimes got some fresh meat. The cookhouse would cook it for us and when it arrived we would eat it almost right away while it was still warm. This time maybe there was a bone in it, I don’t know, but something caught in my throat and I was in agony. It was just a day before I was due back so I stuck it out until my relief arrived and immediately on return to camp I reported sick. The medical orderly looked at me, said there was nothing they could do and packed me off to hospital.

I was taken down to hospital on the Suez canal zone. I got in there fairly late at night and the orderly asked if I was in pain. I replied that it was still very sore. So I was put to bed. The next morning the doctor came round, they shoved a tube down my throat and had a look around. He said that it was badly scratched but there was little they could do but wait for it to heal.

In the hospital they had an inspection by the chief surgeon every morning. The orderlies would come around, straighten all the bed clothes and the sergeant would come in and shout, ‘Lay to attention.’ You would lay there, sheets absolutely tight around you, until the inspection was over. After a while we were allowed to get up and we went out on to the canal bank to watch the troopships sailing by. We all got thoroughly bored and wanted to get back to our units, but they didn’t seem to want to get rid of us. Then one day the order came; everyone out the next day. We knew what that was. They were clearing the hospitals because a big push was coming.

There was a big transit camp at Ismallia just a bit up the canal from us and I was told to go there and go on to Alex the next day where I could pick up the desert train. I went up to Ismallia, and reported to the MPs there. It was fairly late at night and the camp was in darkness. They told me to find a bed in one of the tents. I was quite surprised because there did not seem to be anyone else around, but I found a bed and turned in for the night In the morning I discovered that the tent I was in was full of bullet holes. The reason why there was practically no one in the camp was that the Germans came over regularly and strafed it at night, so most of the occupants slept out in the desert.

I went into Alex and was told that there would be a train at 7.30 in the morning. I went along to the Hotel used by the troops and was told that they were full up, but I could sleep in a corridor. I told them that I had to catch an early train and they made me some sandwiches for breakfast. I woke up next morning and found a bearer sweeping the floor. I asked what time it was and he said about seven. Big panic! I said ‘Go and find me a taxi!’ I very quickly got dressed and dashed out into the road. He came back with a taxi and I told the driver that I had to catch the 7.30 train at Benhur station. He said, ‘OK, we get there in time,’ and tore off round the streets. Luckily there was very little traffic.

Anyway, he pulled up outside the station and said ‘Your train is in the station.’ So I gave him all the money I had in my pocket, dashed onto the platform, threw my kitbag on to the train and scrambled aboard just as it started moving. When I had recovered my breath I looked around and saw that all the other passengers were Arabs. I thought that was a bit funny because I didn’t expect them to be going up to the front, and in any case there were no troops on board.

After a short while a ticket collector came along and told me that the train was going to Port Said, the opposite direction to the way I wanted to go. He said that the train stopped at all the stations so I could get off at the next stop, but I would have to walk back along the line. I did this and trudged about a mile back to the station and reported to the RTO (railway transport officer). I explained what had happened and he said ‘That’s all right, you can get the next train.’ Apparently there were about six trains a day.

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