Journey Towards Christmas
Chapter 10 — Thursday, Friday, And Saturday
Thursday, Friday, And Saturday
THE siren sounded, Bren carriers raced in from the desert, and our guns opened fire. It was 27 November.
‘We were woken by the hell of a racket of shelling and machine-gunning,’ said Claude Campbell,1 ‘and Harvey McCabe,2 Don Baker,3 and I tumbled out of bed and into the nearest slit-trenches half-dressed and only half-awake. The tracers were criss-crossing a few feet above our heads like red ribbons and shells crashed round us. Before long our lorries were burning and a load of gun-cotton and ammonal blew up.’
At the start of the attack some of our drivers were asleep; others were brewing up, folding their blankets, cleaning their teeth. Noel Orsborn4 (14th Light Anti-Aircraft Section) was killed in the first minute of the battle while he was still asleep in the back of a lorry loaded with Bofors shells. Fortunately the whole area was scarred with Italian dugouts and British and Italian slit-trenches.
‘Very soon,’ said Clarry Monahan, who had taken cover behind a small stone cairn, ‘the machine-gunning made it too hot for us and we retired to a small building beside which a lorry was parked. The lorry was hit and went up in a roar of flames. I began to sweat considerably for I knew it was loaded with Bofors shells. There was a mob of jokers sheltering in the building and when I suggested making a dash for an old ruin about a chain away they said: “You'll never make it.” I said: “I'd as soon give it a go as wait here to be killed by those bloody Bofors.” About seven of us made a dash through the machine-gun fire and all of us got away with it. The ruin was manned by three airmen with Lewis guns page 156 and it was under heavy mortar fire. Soon afterwards the load of Bofors went up with a noise like the end of the world.’
One after another the lorries caught fire and those carrying mines or explosive blew up.
Corporal Nigel Barach5 (B Section), and Cyril Aro6 (C Section) were sheltering in an Italian dugout. Cyril peeped over the breastwork and saw Dick Turner7 (C Section) crawling in the open. He was wounded in the thigh so Cyril went out under fire and dragged him to safety. While he was being bandaged an engineers’ lorry caught alight about five yards from the wall of the dugout.
‘We asked the engineers what was in it,’ said Cyril. ‘They told us it was ammonal. We asked them how much and they said “Half a dozen cases.” Then they disappeared. It was impossible to move Dick, so Nigel and I decided to stay with him. About five minutes later the ammonal blew up, the blast knocking us all unconscious.’
Meanwhile the casualty list was mounting. Gil Drinnan8 (C Section) was mortally wounded by machine-gun bullets while the battle was at its height and Charley Mann9 (14th Light Anti-Aircraft Section) was wounded in the foot by a bullet from the same burst. He dragged Gil behind a wheel of the lorry they were sheltering under and there they were pinned to the ground by intense fire, Gil dying about half an hour later. Another C Section driver, Ben Clifford,10 was mortally wounded by bullets and ‘Fat’ Davison was hit in the calf and thigh.
George Laverick had gone to ground beside the billy and the brimming mugs, and he watched the tanks close in, firing as they came.
‘As soon as the leading tank was within range,’ said George, ‘a page 157 Bofors gun about ten yards away from me had a go at it. The Bofors fired one clip and was quiet, having received a direct hit from the tank it was engaging. A man I had known in “civvy street” came out alive but another member of the crew had the sights of the gun blown through his neck. How the others got on I am not sure.
‘By this time the machine-gun fire and mortaring was terrific. I could see three tanks about 300 yards away and still coming on. I spotted a better hole farther back and started crawling towards it. I had crawled twenty-five yards and still had another twenty-five to do when Jerry spotted me and started to do a bit of peppering. It was time for me to take to the old feet and I tell you Lovelock's record had nothing on that last twenty-five yards. I landed in a good, deep hole with an 18-inch stone wall right round it. Through the cracks I could follow operations and as things progressed I am not ashamed to say that I put up a prayer or two. At one stage I noticed a little bird like a sparrow standing near me. He wasn't game to get up and fly.
‘I could see things were hopeless, so I buried my diary and two or three letters, keeping only my paybook. The three tanks came within fifty yards of me, and then one of them halted and continued to let fly with all he had while the other two, firing furiously, carried on, intent on routing us out. One rumbled each side of me at a distance of about three yards, but—thank God!—I was not noticed.’
At that moment Don Baker was saying: ‘Look at this.’ About fifty yards away, side on to the trench in which he was sheltering with Claude and Harvey, three German Mark IV tanks, their guns shooting out flames eight feet long, were finishing off a 25-pounder.
‘A few minutes later,’ said George, ‘things ended. I stood up and gazed about me. It was a sorry sight. The place was a mass of burning vehicles. I had seen three of our lorries disappear in black smoke, but some of the others—the ones with less sensitive loads—were still in the process of going up. Even though the firing had stopped Sidi Azeiz was still far from healthy.’
When the firing stopped Cyril Aro and Nigel Barach stood up too.
‘The blast from the ammonal had knocked all of us unconscious,’ page 158 said Cyril, ‘and by the time we had come to and struggled out of the sand and stuff that was half burying us—the breastwork had been levelled flat—everyone was standing up with hands in the air. We helped each other out and found we were OK except for being bruised and shaken. Then we started to carry Dick Turner over to the Regimental Aid Post, where the prisoners were being herded together.’
All over the area our drivers were standing up, their hands in the air.
‘The Jerry who routed us out,’ said Claude Campbell, ‘wore glasses and had a bit of camouflage in his tin hat. He was wildly excited and he looked grotesque, but he meant business all right. Stuff was burning all round us. One of the armoured cars that had escorted us from the 22nd's position the night before was burning like a torch, and as we watched the wireless mast started to wilt and bend slowly over.’
‘I stood up,’ said Clarry Monahan, ‘and the white flags were flying and the German tanks came flooding in with Rommel leading them.’
It was not Rommel whom Clarry saw but a German tank commander. His tank halted near Brigadier Hargest11 and he stood up in the turret—he was a fine-looking man with a monocle and an Afrika Korps cap—and said: ‘You fought well.’ Brigadier Hargest asked if his men could get their gear; the tank commander agreed.
When Clarry and another driver approached their lorries they were turned back by Germans with tommy guns. George Laverick had the same experience.
‘I had about 200 yards to walk to where our lorry had been before it was blown up,’ said George, ‘and when I got there out pops a Jerry. He was about the biggest of the lot and why he had to pick on me I just don't know. He took one look at me and then rammed the snout of his tommy gun in the fleshy part of my back, at the same time saying something that sounded like Ooch! and page 159 pointing towards Rommel's tank.12 His meaning was plain, so I didn't stop to argue the point with him. As far as I was concerned he was welcome to that part of the desert, but he wasn't satisfied and he repeated the Ooch performance. By this time I was under way, running with my hands in the air, which wasn't easy. A couple more pokes and a couple of Oochs and I was in full gallop. We kept it up between us until I reached the other prisoners at the RAP.’
It was little enough our drivers were allowed to salvage from their wrecked vehicles—a blanket, perhaps, or an overcoat. Most of them had lost everything except what they stood up in. While they were searching among charred rubbish German amateur photographers got busy with their cameras. ‘Smile, please,’ they said, and many of the prisoners responded automatically before realising their mistake. Other Germans were routing around for tinned food and when they discovered a tin of something particularly palatable they opened it on the spot, making a hearty meal in front of the breakfast-less prisoners. British emergency rations—slabs of rich chocolate—were in great demand, and for these a number of our drivers were searched.
With the lorries burning around them, the dead lying beside their guns, and the wounded and dying being carried to the Regimental Aid Post on stretchers, the prisoners were lined up in four ranks and counted. An inspection took place, the German guards pulling up short when they came to a New Zealander who was wearing ammunition pouches and a bayonet. ‘The Jerries,’ said Clarry, ‘did their scones. They dragged him out of the ranks and whipped his bayonet off him, looking thoroughly disgusted. We did a big grin.’
It was their last grin for some while. After the strain, relief had brought gaiety, almost hilarity, but this had worn off now and our drivers were feeling lost and forlorn. In all fifty-four members of the Ammunition Company had been captured—forty-seven from C Section (counting former 14th Light Anti-Aircraft Section personnel) and seven from B Section.13page 160
Twenty-one lorries had been burnt or captured.
Half an hour after the battle the German transport and armour headed west, a skeleton force remaining to look after the prisoners. At last they were given the order to move, and the long column, escorted by motor-cycles with spandaus mounted on side-cars, started its 18-mile trudge to the prison compound in Bardia, those who were unable to march—among them were Charley Mann, Dick Turner, and Tom Barlow—being left behind at the aid post.
Our drivers were hungry, thirsty, and over-wrought, and the struggle to rise to their feet after the short hourly rests became increasingly painful. ‘Fat’ Davison, with wounds in the calf and thigh, was soon in great distress, but he struggled on gamely mile after mile until at last he was forced to sit down by the roadside. George Laverick and two others stayed with him. After a while a staff car pulled up and a German officer asked them what they were doing. They told him that ‘Fat’ was wounded and could go no farther. The officer said: ‘Don't worry, boys. I was a prisoner in France for one day and the British treated me well. You never know your luck. You may be free tomorrow.’ When the car moved off towards Bardia ‘Fat’ was draped across the roof—there was no room inside—like a huge fish.
The prisoners were halted near the outer defences until dark. Just on dusk a German officer drove up and shouted that there was a hot meal waiting inside the fortress. Our drivers gave him a cheer, but the announcement was made either in error or as a cruel joke, for the small walled compound into which they were eventually herded after another march contained nothing except a little water, dirty and brackish. The prisoners were parched with thirst and they rushed it, with the result that many of them failed to get a drink.
The compound was so crowded that there was hardly room to turn. This mattered little, for the night was bitterly cold and the prisoners would have had to huddle together in any event. Besides there was comfort in proximity.
They slept at last, forming under the cold moon in Bardia, as the German prisoners had formed in Sidi Azeiz, a great squalid mass of insulted and protesting flesh, a community of aches and pains, with a battle going on in each tired mind—guns firing, lorries exploding, guns firing, guns firing, on and on through the night.page break page break
Despatch riders, Tobruk
The rest of the Composite NZASC Company was still free, but only, as it seemed to our drivers, by a miracle. After leaving Sidi Azeiz the convoy had travelled five miles south-west by south and then laagered for the night. It would have been senseless to go on. Enemy flares were appearing in almost every direction and some of the drivers had not slept for thirty-eight hours. They rolled themselves in their blankets beside the lorries without even taking off their boots.
At first light, with unidentified vehicles approaching from the north-east, the convoy continued on its course, swinging wide from the Wire, only to run into a semi-circle of enemy tanks, transport, and armoured cars. Turning under fire, it went back to Sidi Azeiz, the enemy pursuing. A shell whistled over Jim Stanley's head—he felt the draught of it—and landed almost between the front wheels of Les Howarth's14 lorry but without doing damage. From the direction of Sidi Azeiz came a sound of heavy firing, and over the position there was a pall of black smoke beneath which were dabs of vermilion.
Still pursued, the convoy headed towards the 22nd Battalion at Bir ez Zemla, but was turned back once again. Captain Roberts considered next the possibility of dodging the enemy until dark and then trying to return to Sidi Azeiz, but shortage of petrol was an objection. Finally it was decided to run west towards Bir el Halezin, where the Divisional Administration Group was known to be.
Now began a breathless scramble for safety and it went on hour after hour. The going, for the most part, was terrible, and the convoy became as formless as a chariot race. Each driver chose his own path, intent only on following the leading staff car and avoiding slit-trenches. Often three or four lorries would be travelling abreast, mudguard almost touching mudguard.
What they were running from was not always clear to the drivers, but when they looked south or behind them they could usually discern little scurrying objects preceding a plume of dust, the more terrifying because they were seldom glimpsed clearly. Even when the pursuers were invisible the spectacle of between ninety page 162 and a hundred vehicles being thrashed along at top speed was enough to suggest that Nightmare was following with all her brood.
The man at the wheel, of course, saw only what was in front of him, and for mile after mile it was little except clumps of camel-thorn round which the drifting sand had formed hard mounds anything from six inches to a foot high. They were so close together that it was impossible to steer between them and a lorry could be kept on its course only by brute strength. It was like driving over a gigantic nutmeg grater.
Hardly ever was it possible to travel in top gear, but in second and third they attained speeds they had previously thought impossible. They no longer gave a damn about their cherished engines. They prayed only that ‘conrods’ would not buckle like hot pokers and flying pistons mix everything into a metal omelet. But the wonderful Chevrolets never faltered. They boiled along mile after mile, screaming like circular saws. They took terrific wrenches; they were slammed up and down until it seemed next to impossible that a single spring could be unbroken; but only one Ammunition Company lorry was lost through a mechanical defect that day. It had been towed for some miles and was cast off the moment the situation became really dangerous.
A Section's anti-aircraft lorry was on the southern flank of the convoy, the muzzle of Jim's anti-tank rifle projecting over the tailboard. On several occasions he drew a bead on distant armour, but it was not until early in the afternoon that he got a chance to fire. Three midget armoured cars, which his experiences in the 1940 Libyan campaign enabled him to identify as Italian, appeared suddenly from the south and scuttled along beside the convoy at a distance of 300 yards. Jim got in several shots, the barrel of his anti-tank rifle swinging in a crazy arc between earth and sky. Some of the shots kicked up the dust a few yards away and others soared towards the Pole star, but two got home, or near enough to it to make the Italians sheer off.
After they had gone Jim threw his rifle on the deck and glowered at it. Its rubber shoulder pad had come away from the butt and he had taken some shrewd knocks. Besides, he had never quite forgiven it for misfiring in Greece. Something like a personal quarrel had developed between the two of them and twice already it had been ‘given a passage'—Jim's phrase—over the tailboard, sharing the page 163 fate of a really formidable list of refractory primuses and skin-removing spanners, the majority of which had been retrieved when Jim had cooled down a little. His rages seldom lasted more than a minute or two, and now, after giving his enemy a few kicks, he began tenderly to wipe its breech.
Earlier, a number of Royal Army Service Corps vehicles had joined the convoy, and at this stage they began to run out of petrol. One after another they were abandoned, their drivers piling into a large, open Morris Commercial that was acting as a sort of lifeboat. It literally bounded across the desert, and ever and again its unfortunate occupants, wearing agonised expressions, would rise into the air in a body exactly as though they were being tossed in a blanket. It was a marvel that some of them were not thrown out.
Nor were the prisoners having a comfortable ride, but they were in good spirits. They became cockier as the day wore on, laughing and cheering whenever the convoy changed course and shouting unsolicited advice. They accused our drivers of fleeing from their own friends and perhaps they were not always wrong. Our officers were still handicapped by their inability to recognise or acknowledge friendly signals.
Time was passing and the estimated distance to Bir el Halezin had been covered, but still there was no sign of the New Zealand Division. Plainly the convoy was off course. It turned north, covered four miles, and ran into a tank battle. Then it turned east. The drivers were beginning to believe that this was one of those nightmares from which you don't wake. Finally the convoy halted. There were armoured fighting vehicles ahead of it and on both flanks. They dotted the horizon, and though it was impossible to distinguish details our drivers had the impression of being mocked and stared at by wild beasts. They could picture the bright, hot eyes, the dribble of saliva. The officers held a hurried consultation and it was decided to keep moving until the last. Petrol was short and the chase was bound to end soon one way or the other.
Like weary buffaloes the lorries swung round and charged towards the widest gap, but almost at once tanks appeared ahead of them and that was the finish. It was a relief in a way. They slowed to a trot, to a crawl, then halted. One of the staff cars went ahead and presently the convoy was waved forward. Soon the drivers were able to see the faces of the men in the tanks and armoured cars. page 164 They were red, grinning faces, unmistakably British. Everyone began talking at once, talking and laughing with relief. It was anti-climax.
‘We bin watching you blokes,’ said a fat, red-headed sergeant. ‘Saw you muckin’ about all over muckin’ desert. Had a go at heading you off twice. Suppose you thought we was muckin’ Jerries. Fourth Armoured Brigade—that's us.’
The officers checked their sections and all our vehicles were accounted for except ‘Dad’ Cleave's and Basil Thorburn's15 LAD. No one had seen it since eleven in the morning when three tanks had attacked the convoy from the south. A Supply Column officer and his driver had also been missed at eleven, and as their pick-up was known to have been giving trouble it was thought that ‘Dad’ and Basil might have been captured while helping them.
Now that the excitement was over our drivers found themselves as stiff and sore as though they had been playing the first football match of the season. In rather less than eight hours they had been chased for 100 miles over country across which you would have hesitated to drive a horse and cart.
Staying with the 4th Armoured Brigade—it was eight miles south by west of Bir el Halezin—only long enough to check their engines and distribute evenly what little petrol remained, the A Section drivers set out for the unit area, reaching it without further trouble. Captain Butt with what was left of C Section—nine lorries of the original thirty-six—arrived a quarter of an hour later, reporting that the Composite NZASC Company had been disbanded.
For the rest of us the 27th had been a quiet day. Captain Ward and B Section had returned early in the morning to report that the road to Sidi Azeiz was closed, giving the Major just time to prevent the balance of the load-carriers from trying to reach it. Then we had moved four miles north-west, our empty trays, with no comforting weight of ammunition to hold them down, rattling loosely behind us. We had halted three miles from Point 175, which, with Ed Duda, Belhamed, and Sidi Rezegh, was still in our hands, though precariously. For the rest, it was known that Rommel's armour was returning from the frontier.
There was no longer the least doubt about the gravity of the page 165 situation and we were depressed by the emptiness of our lorries. It gave us a special feeling of failure. For the time being, through no fault of our own, we were just an incubus—dumb and idle, but eating, drinking, and burning petrol—on the shoulders of an exhausted division. It was a bitter pill for men who were accustomed to regard themselves as universal providers.
The sun came up next morning—the morning of the 28th—fresh and golden as a lemon, flooding the desert with clear light, easing aches and pains, making it less of a tribulation to hold ice-cold dixies at breakfast-time. It cheered everyone, even the sixty-six members of our unit who were breakfasting lightly in Bardia on cold water; even Charley Mann, Dick Turner, and Tom Barlow, who, with some sixty other sick and wounded men, had been left at Sidi Azeiz in the care of medical orderlies until someone—friend or foe—had time to collect them; even Ernie Symons's party, which, carrying its wounded in the remaining lorry, was moving slowly towards the Wire with a well-guarded convoy. Throughout the previous day its British hosts had been chased in a wide circle, Tom Laverick, who was a stretcher case, riding in a captured vehicle with the Tommy sergeant whom Alf Hallmond had done his best to kill. He had been wounded at the same time as Tom and he enlivened the trip by remarking as each shell from pursuing armour whistled overhead: ‘The next one's ours, chum. It stands to reason.’
For Ernie, Tom, and the others the campaign was over and for us, too, it was drawing to a close.16
After breakfast on the 28th we were told to shift three miles in a south-westerly direction to allow elbow room for a tank battle, and no sooner had we begun to move than the action started. For a long while we could hear the slam of the two-pounders and the steady drilling of heavy machine guns. We moved again at 10 a.m., heading north and passing through Divisional Headquarters’ area. page 166 Our course took us close to Point 175 and over a stretch of desert that had seen much fighting. It was dotted with burnt-out tanks and vehicles—German, British, and South African. They stood in splashes of charred sand, and from the tail of each, like viscera from a squashed beetle, debouched a litter of rubbish—clothes, equipment, toilet gear, and reams of letters and photographs. Whenever the convoy halted, which it did often, our drivers would tear over to the nearest wrecks and grub frantically in these rubbish heaps. In every case the eyes had been picked out of them, but no one returned to his lorry without an armful of assorted litter that ranged from boltless Mausers to torn German overcoats.
The fascination of these lucky dips never failed. Apart from sometimes yielding a Leica camera or a Luger, they were like a peep into the enemy's private mind. Why, for instance, did German soldiers encumber themselves with cosmetics? Wherever they had been the desert was littered with pots of face cream and skin salve, bottles of sun-tan lotion and hair oil, and little tins of powder. It argued a sybaritism we had not suspected. The Italians on the other hand—reputedly delicate and effeminate—were industriously turning the desert into a midden.
The propensity of the German soldier—and of the Italian soldier too—for burdening himself with letters and photographs was easier to understand. Our soldiers were the same. Whenever a battle had occurred the state of the desert suggested that a gigantic paper-chase had been in progress concurrently with the fighting. Acres of cheap notepaper covered eastern Cyrenaica at this time, letters in German and Italian mingling in the same drifts with letters from Britain, South Africa, and New Zealand. The writing was nearly always feminine and one is tempted to add that nearly every letter might have been written by the same woman. Few of us could read German or Italian and the scribbles from Bermondsey, Capetown, and Central Otago were protected from prying eyes by a delicacy that was almost universal, but one knew instinctively what each letter said, whether it was written to Caro Enrico, Lieber Heinrich, or Dear Harry. Has the parcel arrived safely? Is the food still enough? The curtains in the sitting-room at home … and so on. Hardly a word, of course, about Hitler or Mussolini or Churchill or Peter Fraser. Nearly always the same letter—nearly always the same woman. Lying crumpled in the desert, mixed with torn page 167 photographs of girls, pudding-faced babies, and mournful-looking mothers—mournful behind the bright, fixed smile—they exhaled, the blue, the pink, and the mauve sheets, to an almost unbearable degree, that weltschmerz, that sentimental pessimism, which, though peculiarly German, is common to soldiers the world over.
Was there a hint here—it was one of the things we discussed often—that the German soldier, so like ourselves in the externals of his daily life, was subtly different from the blind automaton of legend, just as we were different, by the grace of God, from the flattering conception of the Kiwi warrior—always brave, always modest, always magnificently independent—presented by friendly journalists for the delectation of our admirers? Was it, perhaps, the whole thing, a lie and a mistake? There was no bitterness in desert warfare, no slow poison of starving civilians and smashed cottages. Rommel was a hero to both sides.
We halted at noon near Ed Dbana, three miles north of Trigh Capuzzo and eight or nine miles due east of Belhamed. Soon afterwards we came under shellfire, which continued in a desultory fashion for half an hour, damage being confined to a few shrapnel holes in our vehicles.
After tea we were warned to expect a night move. The optimists said it was the beginning of the chase to Tripoli. The pessimists said that the Division had been cut to pieces and what was left of it was going to run for the Wire. Some said we were moving to Tobruk. Most of us were too sleepy to care much.
A tank battle, like a foundry in full blast, was banging away just over the horizon, and as darkness closed in it moved nearer and soon we could see the flash of guns and watch the tracers, like rows of red stitches, curving against the night. At one stage a tank must have received a direct hit from an armour-piercing shell, for a patch of rose pink, like the instantaneous blooming of a peony, appeared suddenly in the darkness. It bloomed and faded and was gone in five seconds.
We were called soon after nine and at twenty-five minutes to ten we set off in desert formation, tacking on behind the rear of Headquarters 13th Corps half an hour later. The whole of the Divisional Administration Group—Petrol Company, Supply Column, Divisional Ordnance Workshops, and many smaller units and parts of units—was moving behind us. We went through 4th Brigade page 168 headquarters area at Belhamed and then on to Ed Duda, passing the infantry in their slit-trenches. Some of them were asleep and our drivers were desperately afraid of running over them. We were in single file because there were minefields on both sides of the track, and that was another worry. German flares were disconcertingly close and we could hear machine-gun fire. At Ed Duda, or near it, we turned north-west, and we guessed then that we were going to Tobruk. This was confirmed soon afterwards by Tommies—men of the Essex Regiment—who spoke to us from the darkness in their slow, warm voices. As long as we were driving we were strained and jumpy, but at every halt—and halts became more and more frequent—the tightness inside us unwound and billowing layers of exhaustion, like an eiderdown quilt, like an anaesthetic, came down and smothered us. Engines were switched off and sometimes it was very quiet. A cough, the squeak of a tank, the faint tapping of a machine gun, came to us close and clear like the noises that cattle make near at hand in a mist. Often a sentry would walk over to us.
‘How is she, Kiwi?’
‘Good. How's the war going?’
‘All right, Kiwi.’
‘Whose flares, d'you reckon?’
‘Dunno. Must be old Jerry's.’
Silence then, and an upward jerk of the chin to avoid sleep as a swimmer avoids a wave. Sometimes the wave was too tall and it would break over its victim, drowning him quietly and suddenly—but only for a short time. He would wake up, perhaps a quarter of an hour later, to find darkness in front of him and behind him a column of silent vehicles of which he was the self-appointed leader. He would start his engine in a panic and push on as fast as he dared, praying that some sixth sense was leading him in the right direction. It was easy to make a mistake, for on both sides of the track wheel marks led confidently into the darkness, clamouring to be followed. In an agony of indecision he would make his choice and go blundering on through the night, until at last to his enormous relief the outline of a lorry appeared ahead of him. Now someone else was doing the leading. Now it was another's responsibility if half the NZASC ran into a minefield or ended up in the German lines.page 169
Even for the Major, who was accustomed to leading large convoys under difficult conditions, it was a night of appalling anxiety. With drivers falling asleep at every stop and others following strange leaders and passing him in the darkness, he found it impossible to keep us together or watch over us. Soon after midnight he discovered his leading vehicles in a minefield, and with trampled tape all round him he directed them while they turned in the width of the track and retraced their wheel marks.
By three in the morning only a few 13th Corps vehicles were ahead of him. He was told by a British officer that the enemy was on all sides and was advised to travel on a bearing of 317 degrees, the officer adding that it was essential to get the transport clear of the corridor by daylight.
Just before dawn, by which time the bulk of our unit had passed through or gone round the whole of 13th Corps headquarters, the Major discovered that he was being followed by only half a dozen vehicles. He halted, and Corporal Bev Hendrey went back on his motor-cycle to try to find the rest. The next section of the convoy was half a mile behind, a sleeping driver heading a long line of other sleeping drivers, most of whom were ours.
We were led through the rubbish of a battlefield, among which infantry were standing-to in slit-trenches, and at a quarter past six, while it was still dark, the head of the huge column—it has been said that something like a thousand vehicles passed through the corridor that night—crossed the perimeter of Tobruk. Company headquarters was in the van and a party of our Don Rs led the way in. Behind them was the first column to enter Tobruk since the Australian 9th Division, seven and a half months earlier, had halted there on its way through Cyrenaica—had halted and fought.
‘It's bloody Kiwis!’ said three tired, dirty infantrymen. For thirty weeks—thirty aeons—they had been beleaguered in the world's most desolate and dangerous spot and now they were so pleased and excited they could only swear. Doubtless, under that pale dawn, they saw us as liberators. Dancing before them were visions of clean beds, Cairo food, Cairo girls, liquor. It was not for us to disillusion them or tell them of our suspicion: no one would be leaving Tobruk; people were coming in. The General commanding 13th Corps put the matter in a nutshell: ‘Tobruk is relieved but not half so relieved as I am.'page 170
By daylight nearly all our vehicles were inside the perimeter but we were not yet out of the wood. Heavy-calibre shells began feeling for the long column in which we were jammed nose to tail. They groped blindly across the desert, found the roadway, then overshot it. They tried again and this time did better. The column kept halting and it was impossible to leave the road because of minefields. When we did move it was at a maddening crawl, but our luck was in.
We got clear after what seemed an age, and the Major's logbook takes up the story:
At 0800 hours Corps Headquarters directed us to unit area, but owing to various Corps officers giving different instructions the unit moved three times before it finally halted late in the morning. We had travelled 20 miles in 14 hours. At once the vehicles were sent to 108 AA Site to load ammunition. Fresh rations drawn and nearly empty water trailers refilled. Rations included bread. Drivers very tired, and as soon as they had completed maintenance of vehicles they were ordered to rest as much as possible.
When we had finished our jobs there was still some pale daylight left but no one wanted to have anything to do with it. The scene that surrounded us was unbelievably dismal and it was a pleasure to draw down the canopy and shut it out. Hardly a soul was abroad and the shabby lorries, with no human figures about them, looked lonely and dead-tired. Nothing can express weariness better than an army lorry. They looked not only weary and solitary, but, in some indefinable way, disgruntled. Their present surroundings, it seemed, accustomed though they were to salty and stubborn pastures, were a little too much even for them. It was as though the charred skeletons of the British and Italian lorries that littered the neighbourhood were able to remind them of mortality. It was as though they were feeling in a queer way—and an old lorry (you think with it and for it so much) is almost sentient—that no tenderness of ours, no oiling, greasing, ‘four-o-sixing', could aid them against their last enemy. To just such desolate cemeteries all vehicles were bound.
And indeed, with the wind blowing thin and mean, the prospect they looked out on was so bleak, so barren, so starved and withered, that you said to yourself: ‘The thing's dead. It's a bit of the world that went bad. They cut it off and threw it away.'page 171
Our area was in the eastern part of the fortress and the ruined town with its harbour full of lost ships was hidden from view. Looking seawards, one saw only naked hills, framing here and there a fragment of the Mediterranean—hard and lustreless as blue china broken on a rubbish heap. Inland there was nothing but minefields, tangles of barbed wire, wrecked vehicles, abandoned gun positions, shell cases. The hillsides, the minefields, the area we were parked in, all were sprinkled liberally with little pieces of shrapnel. It was as though the owner of the estate, the demon who inhabited Tobruk, had gone forth to sow, and in scorn and mockery of all fertile things had sown shards.
4 Dvr N. J. N. Orsborn; farm labourer; born NZ, 6 Dec 1915; killed in action, 27 Nov 1941.
8 Dvr G. B. Drinnan; farmer; born Milton, 26 Jul 1909; died of wounds, 27 Nov 1941.
11 Brigadier James Hargest was then in command of the 5th Brigade. He was captured with 46 officers and 650 ORs after an action lasting about an hour and a half. He escaped in March 1943 from a prison camp near Florence, eventually reaching England, and was killed in action in Normandy in August 1944.
16 All our wounded were evacuated safely to the rear. The three drivers who had been left at Sidi Azeiz, after living mainly on rice for three days and nights and being visited daily by German patrols and once by British armour, were taken on the 30th to Fort Capuzzo. Ernie Symons's party, after leaving their wounded with a New Zealand field ambulance unit on the far side of the Wire, continued in their own lorry to Fuka, where they were held until it was possible for them to rejoin us.