Chapter 7
Back to the Western Desert, October 1941
Part 2


No matter where you went in the desert there were always hundreds of flies around, even out at the beacon. Some of them were camel flies which appeared to be armour-plated. They would land on you and even if you hit them as hard as possible they just flew around in a circle and landed back in the same spot. They had a bite like the kick of a horse. Also when you were eating you had to keep waving your hand around to keep the flies off your food, put some jam on a piece of bread and it was immediately covered in flies. You waved your hand as you put it in your mouth and if you were lucky you didn’t get some flies in with it. One of the chaps in our tent managed to get hold of a chameleon. He strung a rope along the top of our tent and put the chameleon on it attached with a running loop. It was very good at catching flies with its long tongue and kept the tent fairly free of flies.

Around this time there was a scare that the Germans were going to use gas. We were told that we would reply and that we had to do some training for it. For some reason it was the electrician’s job to prepare the gas cylinders. They obtained some 40 gallon drums of aniseed liquid which was supposed to have the same liquidity as mustard gas. We were given the gas containers and over in the corner of the drome we had to fill these with aniseed, dressed in full gas clothing and gas masks. There were two apertures in the cylinder, one at the bottom which we covered with a diaphragm, fixed a detonator to it and screwed on an exit funnel. We then had to pour the liquid into the top aperture, fix another diaphragm and detonator. The cylinders were then loaded on to the aircraft, the detonators connected and the planes took off on a trial run.

The pilots released the aniseed at the end of the drome near the officers’ mess and then landed the planes. All the tails of the planes were covered with the stuff and we were supposed to decontaminate them. We got covered in the stuff ourselves and it got inside our protective clothing. The peacetime rule was that if you were contaminated with mustard gas then you were not supposed to come in contact with it again, but what would have happened if we had used it during the war, I do not know. One amusing consequence of this was that dogs love aniseed and the wild ones came from miles around to the officers’ mess.

The push we had anticipated was just about to begin. The Germans were stationed round about Salum. As I mentioned earlier, because it overlooked the desert road from the escarpment it was an ideal defence position. It appears that Auchinleck decided that he was going to make the Germans think that the attack was going to come from the south, and we found ourselves, together with 51 Squadron and a column of tanks, armoured cars and anti-aircraft guns, going down towards Siwa in the sandseas on the edge of the Sahara desert and on to Jaghbub, which was an oasis on the Egypt-Libya border.

We got to Jaghbub and shortly afterwards were attacked by a squadron of the German airforce. I remember that I was caught out in the open, not near the aircraft but about a hundred yards away from some cliffs. I made for them to get some shelter. I started running and my legs were like lead, I was so scared, but I eventually made it. We had a few casualties We buried the dead, the wounded were sent back to hospital.

German Airman
We pulled out from Jaghbub and moved on into Libya, to LG125. This was a flat piece of ground which was called LG125 because it was suitable for landing and was 125 miles behind the German lines. We established ourselves there with the army surrounding us. We didn’t get to operate from there at all, because the next thing we knew was an attack by Junker 88s coming over from Greece. We found this out later from one of the aircrew we captured after his plane had been shot down. He had no objection to telling us because he was so arrogant, he was so certain that they were going to win the war. I have a picture of him in an immaculate uniform surrounded by a lot of scruffy airmen and I can see what he thought of us.

The ground was almost solid rock so we were unable to dig trenches and had to lie in hollows during the airraids. During the first raid I was watching an 88 diving towards us and saw puffs of smoke coming from the wings and suddenly realised that they were bullets. One point about an aircraft firing at a ground target is that it may put several bullets into it while it is diving straight, but immediately it starts pulling out the individual bullets are spaced quite a long way apart. On one occasion when they were firing cannon shells I remember hearing one burst in front of me and the next a long way behind.

However the decoy strategy apparently worked, because the Germans sent out an armoured column to wipe us up, and this was caught and destroyed by one of our own which had been lying in ambush for them. We were then ordered back to our base at Màarten Bàgush. We suffered about thirty percent casualties, us and the army, and one of signals chaps heard the CO on to Headquarters complaining about our losses. He was told that we were lucky because they had estimated at least fifty percent casualties.

It was round about this time that an aircraft carrier, I think it was the Invincible, was badly damaged in the Malta convoys so the planes were flown off and came to us in the desert. They were Swordfishes which I had worked on when training at Henlow. The Swordfish was an old string and strut single engine biplane with a top speed of 85 miles an hour, but a really excellent plane. They each carried a torpedo, and I remember once we sent nine of them to the docks at Benghazi where they sank eight ships, destroyed a jetty and came back without a scratch.

One thing I didn’t like about them was that in order to adjust the charging current to the batteries you had to take off a bit of the leading edge of the wing and have the engine run up at full speed to carry out the adjustment. The propeller was turning at hundreds of revs behind you and it deadened your senses. There were cases of electricians stepping backwards after finishing the test with the obvious fatal results. We carried on operating the Swordfishes for a while and were then told that we were returning to Cairo, to our old camp at Heliopolis.

One of the things that I haven’t mentioned was that the main water supply in the desert was dependant on a pipeline which came all the way up from Alex to Mersa Matru. Other than that, the supply was from water bowsers. Each squadron had two, but once we started out into the desert, especially when we went to Jeribub the water was collected from the old Roman cisterns. The water had been there for a couple of thousand years or so and was full of salts out of the sand, the main one being Epsom. salts, so you can imagine what it did to us.

During the movement out to LG125 we were forbidden to shave. The water ration was two pints of water per person per day and this included drinking water used by the cookhouse, washing, cleaning clothes and our own drinking water, so naturally we all grew beards. Immediately we got back to Màarten Bàgush an order was posted requiring us all to be clean shaven by the next parade. The ground was littered with airmen sitting around trying to cut off each others beards.

Even in base camp our water ration was small, which meant we had to conserve every drop. We rigged up filters by filling old petrol cans with stones and sand, and every time we used water for washing both ourselves and our clothes we poured the waste water into the filter. It came out clean, but not free of soap, so it was no use for drinking. Obviously we could not have baths or showers, so we stood in two halves of petrol cans and washed ourselves down like that.

The first thing we used to do whenever we got down to Cairo on leave was to book into a hotel and have a long hot bath, put on our uniform which the hotel had cleaned for us while we were bathing and go out for a haircut. Finally, feeling human again we would go to Groppis for a slap-up meal, then we knew our leave had really started.

Anyway we went off back to Heliopolis and received an uproarious reception from the people of Cairo who must have been astonished at our dirty, scruffy appearance. We drove into the camp where they had the tea urns all ready for us. We got a mug of tea, took a gulp and spat it out. There was no salt in it, it was horrible! It took us quite a while to get used to plain drinking water again.

It was rumoured that we were being sent to help in the defence of Leningrad, although how we were going to get there from Egypt I have no idea. We obviously couldn’t fly all the way across enemy territory, and going round through Iran and Syria up into Russia seemed impossible. The convoys going to the northern Russian ports were having a very rough time, and in any case that would have meant returning to England to get there. It was only a rumour although we were not happy about it. Anyway, just at this time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, bringing America into the war and thereby changing a lot of the strategic plans which had been made.

This was just before Christmas 1941 and we were sent on leave while they decided what to do with us. We were delighted with the prospect of spending Christmas in Cairo and set out to enjoy ourselves, but on Christmas Eve received a notice to return to camp the next day. I don’t remember who was with me at the time but the two of us were thoroughly fed up. For the first time in my life I went out to get drunk. We went into a bar where they had all the bottles of different drinks lined up on three shelves. We started at the end of the top shelf having a drink from each bottle until we reached the end of the third shelf. I still felt sober.

Then my companion said ‘You can skate, can’t you?’ I said,’Yes.’ He suggested that we go to the roller skating rink. We got out on to the floor and performed, as far as I can remember, the most impossible stunts. I do know that everyone cleared the rink and stood around applauding. Then I dashed for the toilets and was as sick as a dog. Following this I felt fine but I never tried to do it again.

While I was on leave I went to see Wally Solomon. He offered me a Phillips radio, an old one but it worked perfectly. I said I didn’t know where we were going and I may not be able to return it to him. He replied that he was not all that worried and that he knew that I would do my best. So I thanked him and took the radio back to camp.

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