Journey Towards Christmas
Chapter 11 — Prison And The Mushroom Country
Prison And The Mushroom Country
THROUGHOUT the last day of November the battle went on, the Germans fighting to close the Tobruk corridor, our forces to keep it open.
At 9 a.m. we were ordered to send eighty vehicles to serve the 4th and 6th Brigades, but the Tobruk Control Post said that a convoy of that size would not be able to get through. Finally fifteen lorries loaded with 25-pounder ammunition left at noon under Captain Gibson.
As they were moving out of the fortress they came under shellfire but no damage was done. They moved slowly towards the Ed Duda escarpment, skirted the Essex Regiment, and travelled for a mile and a half along the Achenstrasse, the 40-mile road built to by-pass Tobruk. Turning left, they found the 4th and 6th Brigades a short distance south of Belhamed. The infantry were shivering in their slit-trenches, damp and frozen but still indomitably cheerful. The campaign had yielded a good harvest of loot—pistols, binoculars, cameras—and they were like children on Christmas morning.
Half the 25-pounder ammunition was delivered to the 4th Field Regiment and half to the 6th. The latter was down to its last few rounds and our drivers went straight to the gun positions and flung off their loads. Scarcely had they done so than tanks came out of the setting sun and the guns opened fire. From tray to breech, from breech to enemy tank, and all in a matter of minutes—that was how it had happened in our dreams and that was how it was happening now. It made up for any number of disappointments, frustrations, and seemingly fruitless journeys.
With 200 prisoners aboard and the guns firing around them—and not firing only but fighting, hitting out in a hot rage so that the desert shook and quivered—the lorries were hustled from the area. Presently, looking back, our drivers saw a ring of fires burning rosily in the half-light. They were supremely content, never doubting that each fire was a tank.
Doubt came the next morning—it was 1 December—when we page 173 heard that Sidi Rezegh was again in German hands, and it deepened when we were told not to reload our lorries. We were to be used as garrison troops.
All through the day rumours of disaster, like evil birds returning to their grim roost, came back to Tobruk, and we were asked to believe, not for the first time in our Army careers, that the Division had been cut to pieces.
During the afternoon four lorries loaded with engineers' stores and mixed ammunition set out under Second-Lieutenant West-Watson1 to serve the 14th British Brigade, which was hard pressed on the left flank of the 4th Brigade a few miles north of Belhamed. The Ed Duda route was now closed and the lorries had to travel east along the Bardia road before bearing inland. Even the infantry guides from Headquarters 14th Brigade were uncertain of the way, but at last, after being turned back by unidentified motor-cyclists and coming under mortar fire, the convoy arrived safely at the command post of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, for which the ammunition was intended. It was now just on dusk.
‘I was told,’ said Second-Lieutenant West-Watson, ‘to keep the loads on wheels during the night, but as the enemy held an escarpment overlooking the post this seemed to me to be courting disaster. Accordingly I asked to be put through on the telephone to our own Divisional Headquarters so that I could get the order confirmed.
‘Meanwhile the enemy had attacked and for an hour he subjected the post to heavy mortar and machine-gun fire and tried to range his mortars on the transport. Our only casualty, however, was a driver who sprained his knee while scrambling for cover.
‘The enemy then broke through and drove the infantry on to the post itself. I withdrew our drivers to a nearby hollow occupied by the battalion headquarters, chose fire positions, and waited. The expected attack never came because British tanks arrived and with their support our troops were able to counter-attack.
‘During the fighting that followed one lorry went forward under infantry escort with a load of mixed ammunition, and while it was away we unloaded the others in accordance with orders that had come through. As soon as the lorry returned we set out for home.’page 174
While this small convoy was slipping towards Tobruk under shellfire, remnants of the New Zealand Division were heading for Egypt.
The attempt to keep open the corridor had failed and Tobruk was again isolated.
Rumour had it that we were to be evacuated by sea and the prospect pleased hardly anyone. We had no objection to leaving Tobruk, which seemed to us not so much God-forsaken as never to have been visited by Divine Providence, but we did object strongly to the idea of abandoning our lorries. However, after being whole-heartedly accepted for a few hours, the story, on as little evidence, was as whole-heartedly rejected, and during the days that followed our employment was so strenuous that Rumour, which has an objection to busy men, wasted little time on us.
Day and night, in working parties of from thirty to a hundred, we laboured at the docks, handling petrol, ammunition, and food. Every night there was at least one air raid and often there were several. Sometimes a lone raider would make a hit-and-run attack. Sometimes four, five, or six bombers, converging on the target from different directions, would dive through the ack-ack barrage and drop their bombs in or around the harbour. Our greatest danger was from falling nosecaps and shell fragments, for the barrage was terrific—fantastic. It arched above us like the red ribs of a gigantic burning lobster pot and the noise was physically painful to listen to. There was the deep crash of the three-point-sevens, the pom-pom-pom-pom of the Bofors, the heavy stammer of the point-fives, and the light clatter, no louder in that colossal din than the tapping of a typewriter, of the Bren and Lewis guns. The technique that had saved Malta was being used. The guns were firing on fixed lines, making every square foot of the sky perilous. Only the machine guns quested at will, their red tracers, like angry bees, swarming from target to target. It was breath-taking to see aircraft fly through this inferno apparently unscathed, but they seldom stayed long enough to aim properly and damage to shipping was rare. They dropped their loads almost at random and made off at once.
Sometimes the barrage would end raggedly, with odd bangs and page 175 slams and stutterings continuing after most of the guns had ceased fire. At other times it would end as though in obedience to a conductor's baton, and then, in the immense silence that followed, you could hear the delicate patter of falling shrapnel, and occasionally the wicked swish-swish-swish of a falling nosecap or a loud clang as a fragment of shell case landed on a metal deck. The dark waters of the harbour would be ringed as by rising fish.
We worked in the ships' holds, loading the slings in which the cargo was transferred to barges and landing craft, and on the wharves, carrying an endless succession of crates, boxes, and tins to the waiting lorries, a number of which were our own.
At first, when the siren sounded, we used to go at once to the official shelters, which consisted of deep caves near the wharves, but after a while, disgusted by this waste of time, we took to ducking beneath the nearest cover, starting work again the moment the raid ended.
Unloading petrol from a motor ship was one of our first jobs. Dave Falconer2 describes what it was like:
‘When we stopped working we got as cold as hell. Our clothes were soaked in petrol and the stuff was washing about in the scuppers. This was because the petrol was in “flimsies” and in every slingful about half a dozen tins were crushed. On the first night of the job the hatches were closed on account of the danger from red-hot pieces of shrapnel, but on the second night, owing to the urgency of the work, they were left open. That night the first plane came over at nine. The beggar cut his engine and glided in unobserved—there was only one plane—and let a bomb go near our ship. He may have caught on that we were handling an important cargo, for about half an hour later we were attacked again—by the same plane we thought—and three bombs landed about a hundred yards away. We felt the blast in the hold.
‘Before that we had been scuttling aft during raids to shelter under the poop but from then on we stayed in the hold. We looked at it this way: the whole ship was swimming in petrol and either she went up or she didn't.’
On 3 December we help to unload an ammunition ship—a ship whose arrival had been awaited with great anxiety, as two days page 176 earlier the supply of 25-pounder ammunition in Tobruk had totalled only 4000 rounds.
In some ships the winches were operated by British soldiers, often with less skill than enthusiasm. More than once our drivers were fascinated by the sight of a heavy bomb swinging nonchalantly among booms and stanchions, and on one occasion a 500-pound bomb was dumped unceremoniously on the deck a few inches from the ship's side. There it dangled, half in and half out of the sling, while the onlookers, forgetting what they had learnt about detonators, wondered if it would explode at once or wait until it toppled into the lighter below. On the petrol ship, too, the winchman was sometimes at fault, but never more so than when he jumped overboard during an air raid and swam ashore.
In spite of these anxious moments it seems safe to say that most of us enjoyed working in Tobruk harbour, though enjoyed, perhaps, is not quite the word. It was like a football game in which you would sooner not have played but are glad afterwards that you did. At all events we discovered that hard physical labour is an excellent nerve tonic. Backwards and forwards we went hour after hour, carrying boxes from the dim-lit bowels of the invasion barges to the waiting lorries, crossing and re-crossing the landing ramps, which rested on the quaysides like dropped jaws. The sweat trickled over us like warm oil and the urgent rhythm of the work was as soothing as music. How much more pleasant it was than crouching in a cold slit-trench and suffering the complete nightmare from ambulance to operating table with the passage of each plane!
Many of us, too, were affected by the poetry of the scene. All the business of the port was being carried on in the dark. Winches rattled, voices shouted, tugs fussed, lorries arrived. ‘Right hand down. Bring her back on that. Keep coming. HOLD IT!’ In the background were the lost ships, which, like ghosts, were the more powerfully present for being hidden. We had marvelled at them by daylight. Everywhere masts and funnels poked skywards at crazy angles. There was a small steamer with only her wheelhouse, like an old-fashioned bathing machine, showing above the surface. There was a tramp with her side torn out, so that you could see the grey water sloshing along the catwalks in her engine-room. Near the harbour's mouth there was the Italian cruiser San Giorgio, black with rust, and across from the wharves, on the far side of page break page break page 177 the harbour, an Italian liner was aground, looking as though she had tried to rush into the hills. There were dozens of drowned ships.
A group near Tobruk (L. to r.) H. S. Jones, P. E. Coutts, D. C. Ward, F. G. Butt. K. E. May, S. A. Sampson
Stuka attack on transport south-west of Gazala
Sometimes the harbour was shelled but no one took notice of that. We stopped work only for the banshee howling of the siren, which was the perfect voice for the demon that inhabited Tobruk. Then it was as though the night were being operated on without ether. While the sweat dried on us we waited for the hacking, chopping, thwacking of the many guns, and for the sky to be torn open marvellously and filled with streamers, loops, and whorls, as of scarlet and gold viscera.
No doubt a little of our contentment at that time can be attributed to the rum that was always available at the docks. We referred to it with affectionate deference as ‘Tom Thumb’ and agreed that it was even more potent and unpredictable in its effect than ‘Uncle Joe’, our name for zibbib. Most of us took it in the form of café royal, which we made with cold coffee and condensed milk and found delicious. We helped ourselves liberally to cigarettes from the NAAFI supplies we handled and it was wonderful not to have to save butts any longer. During the past fortnight some of us had been reduced to smoking cigars (Italian Army issue), than which no more powerful emetic exists, and a few of us had experimented with tea leaves.
During daylight, much to the annoyance of the night shift, the Luftwaffe concentrated on supply depots rather than on the docks, and from the unit area we saw several exciting raids. On one occasion a large bomber was brought down, and on another we were moved almost to the point of cheering by the behaviour of a tiny minesweeper, which, with bombs throwing up water spouts all round her, calmly went about on arriving at the end of her beat and steamed back on a parallel course, defending herself vigorously all the while.
At night, to the annoyance of the day shift, we were kept awake by a nearby battery of three-point-sevens and by the noise from the harbour, but if we had lost nothing except sleep during our stay at Tobruk we should have been well content. Unhappily there were casualties. Lennie De Pina3 (A Section) was wounded in the leg by a stray piece of shrapnel, and Colin Cameron lost his life. page 178 The slight wound he had received earlier in the campaign had not mended and on 5 December he was evacuated from Tobruk in the merchant ship Chakdina, which was sunk by an aerial torpedo.
And we lost one life through sickness. Cliff Collie4 (B Section) was taken ill in the night and died before reaching hospital. That closed our casualty list for the campaign, making it: killed, 6; wounded, 11; prisoners (at that time), 66; died of sickness, 1; total 84.
Meanwhile, in the desert outside Tobruk, defeat had become victory. The scale had been tipped by the Royal Air Force, by the skill and daring of ‘Jock’ columns—fast-moving, hard-hitting raiding parties named after their originator, Brigadier Jock Campbell, VC—and by the fighting qualities of the ordinary British Tommy vis-à-vis those of his German counterpart. By 5 December the corridor was open again, and two days later Rommel broke off the battle and began to retire westwards.
We were a sadly truncated unit. A Section, with a sub-section from Workshops, had been attached to a Composite NZASC Company newly-formed under Captain Roberts to serve the 5th Brigade; B Section, with five lorries from A Section, had stayed in Tobruk to serve elements of the 4th Brigade, and fifteen of our spare drivers with 172 others from the NZASC had stayed to do garrison duties.
The rest of us moved through the Wire at El Beida late in the afternoon and the next night found us a few miles from the Siwa road. On the 10th, at five in the afternoon, we halted in our old area at Fuka, from which we had been away a little less than a month. The vehicles came to rest in their old parking places and we jumped out to inspect our dugouts, which we found half-filled with loose sand but otherwise habitable.
As we boiled our billies that evening we were conscious of an agreeable symmetry in our affairs, a soothing pattern. The pity of page 179 it was that not everyone had returned to the starting point. Many were prisoners, some were in hospital, and some had gone out of the world altogether. But mixed with our melancholy was a certain smugness perfectly compatible with sincere grief. The conviction was upon us—the survivor's unwarrantable conviction—that in avoiding pitfalls into which others had fallen and returning unscathed to Fuka we had evinced judgment: had, in fact, shown merit. And our absent friends would have been the last to cavil at this: it was a feeling they would have shared.
The next day we resumed the pleasant seashore life that the campaign with Rommel had interrupted and two days later B Section returned to us. On the day after that the unit logbook contained this comfortable and laconic entry: Coy at Fuka.
But the statement was too comfortable and too laconic to be comprehensive. It took no account of A Section, which was now at Acroma, some fifteen to twenty miles west by south of Tobruk, girding its loins (it hoped) for the pursuit to Tripoli, or of the fifteen spare drivers who had been left behind in Tobruk (they were working on the wharves and being bombed nightly), or of the sixty-six members of our unit who were freezing and starving in the prison compound in Bardia.
They must have guessed that by now they had been posted as missing and struck off the unit strength, but they kept together still and they still regarded themselves as members of the Ammunition Company, though on bad days their time with the company seemed remote and clouded like childhood and fugitive like a dream. Always when they had been away from it before—on leave, on courses, in hospital—it had continued to govern and condition their lives: the parent unit. It was a train that could be caught up at the next station, and in that train above a certain seat in a certain compartment in a certain coach was a notice: RESERVED. Now it was a train that had dashed off into the darkness, none knowing how far it would travel or in what direction. At last, after a decent interval, the ticket-collector would come down the corridor, see the RESERVED sign, and take it away. Then a stranger would sit down.
The prisoners daily grew weaker and sometimes they felt dizzy and light-headed. Then nothing that had happened to them before and outside—not their homes, nor the Ammunition Company, nor page 180 the girls they remembered—had any reality beside the icy fingers of wind that tugged at the overcoats and dirty blankets beneath which they huddled close for warmth in hollows scooped out with steel helmets, the crying need for a cigarette, the grey bread and black coffee they had been given for breakfast, the macaroni, dried potatoes, dried onions, dab of sauce, small piece of bread (it was neither as filling nor as appetising as it sounds) they could look forward to for dinner. Only these things were real.
Sometimes one hardship seemed important to the exclusion of all others. Sometimes it was dysentery—many were suffering from this. Sometimes it was a smaller thing: trouble with dirty false teeth, not hearing from home, long finger-nails that broke when you tried to scratch yourself through your clothes.
Time meant nothing in the prison compound. Our drivers' watches—the ones that had not been confiscated on the first day—had gone to Italian guards in exchange for scraps of food or a few cigarettes. (One prisoner handed over a gold watch for a small black loaf.) It was enough that every morning the sun elbowed itself over the grey rim of the horizon as from a bath of filthy, freezing water, to shine dismally for a few hours or to be obscured at once by drifting veils of rain. It was enough that three times a day prison meals were served.
For the prisoners to say that they had been only two and a half weeks in Bardia meant nothing. The events of their captivity, spaced by an eternity of boredom and discomfort, stretched behind them like a perspective of telegraph posts, reaching as distant an horizon as any they had ever known. They saw, smudged at the end of the long line, the morning on which the two parties—Sergeant Mellows's drivers and the party from Sidi Azeiz—had met in prison. That was on 28 November. After the meeting they had been searched, first by German and then by Italian guards. The latter confiscated compasses, service watches (and some private watches, too), knives, razors, and anything else that took their fancy. Then about a third of the prisoners had been marched to a larger compound full of rocks and rubble, where they were joined by the rest a day or two later. Except on the north side, where it was divided from Bardia by the blank walls of houses, the new compound was bounded by a wall nine or ten feet high. The next day, to facilitate the issue of water and rations, the prisoners page 181 had been sorted into groups of thirty under their own NCOs and some old Italian mess tins and water bottles had been handed round. Then the camp sergeant-major, WO I O. A. Wahrlich5 (5th Field Regiment), had taken the names of those who had neither blankets nor overcoats. When the blankets arrived they were filthy and there were not enough of them.
The sound of falling bombs had been comforting at first, but on 1 December nine Marylands dropped their loads near the compound and on the 2nd there was another raid, even closer this time. When that happened our drivers were filled with unreasoning bitterness. That day it rained and the camp sergeant-major wrote in his diary:
What a hell of a condition for men to live in! Some will die of exposure unless something is done soon.
And three days later: Cold again. Sick parade was attended by MO. Germans appear to have no medical supplies. Bread rather good but loaves appear to be getting smaller. Rumour that some of the officers had been taken away. Men getting a little down. Quite a number of dysentery cases. Cold at night and dust-storms as well. Saw men fighting over scraping out a dixie to get more to eat. No sign of RAF during the day but quite a bit of bombing at night.
Although the officers had been imprisoned in another compound our drivers felt more unprotected than ever when it was learned that they had been taken to Italy by submarine, Second-Lieutenant Duke with them. Now there was no authority to appeal to, however uselessly, when the Italians made unreasonable demands, as they did on the 6th. On that day Claude Campbell and others were told to clean up an area some distance from the compound, but when they got there they refused to work. They felt sure the enemy meant to use the area as a supply dump; apart from this it was littered with disgusting filth and was a favourite target of the Royal Air Force. The camp sergeant-major was sent for and he told the Italians that the order was an improper one, on which the officer of the guard flew into a passion, threatening to keep the party there without food or water until the job was done and adding that he would not hesitate to use machine guns if there was any more trouble.page 182
In face of this unanswerable argument a start was made, but the work was interrupted before long by a visit from nine Marylands. The Italians at once took to their heels and so did the working party. ‘But we did not run,’ said Claude Campbell, ‘either as far or as fast as the Italians.’
In the midst of their miseries and discomforts our drivers were buoyed up by the belief that Bardia would fall soon. Brigadier Hargest had spoken to some of them on the first day of their captivity, telling them to be of good cheer because they would be free in a few days. They clung to this promise and they were quick to notice how on some days their guards were milder and more friendly.
Then Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and the Germans and Italians became twice as arrogant as before. Gloatingly they pointed out that New Zealand was now in the danger zone, and soon they were able to speak of the sinking of the Repulse and Prince of Wales. Our drivers did their best to discount this claim as propaganda and they repeated their own stories—Turkey was in the war on our side and the Russians were rolling up the German Army—but in their low state it was difficult to remain cheerful and confident.
They were haunted always by the fear of being sent to Italy, and fear became panic on 15 December when a hospital ship was seen approaching the harbour. Contradictory announcements were made in quick succession. Only the sick and wounded were to go. Everyone would be going. No, it was the sick and wounded plus all who had attended sick parades. These would not fill the ship so some fit men would have to go as well. A list was being made out.
There was no further change of plan and later in the day 300 prisoners, several of whom were members of the Ammunition Company, were paraded and marched down to the jetty. There they were kept waiting for about an hour, at the end of which a Medical Corps major began questioning some of the less obviously sick. In nearly every case he was given the same answer: ‘I'm as fit as a fiddle. There isn't a thing wrong with me.’ Whereupon he delivered a lecture on the Geneva Convention and ended by ordering all fit men back to the compound. Back they marched, happy as though the compound were paradise.page 183
Among those who did not return—WO I Wahrlich was told later that sixty-two New Zealanders had been embarked—were Corporal Nigel Barach, Lance-Corporal Stan Wrack, Owen Blomfield,6 Pat Dooley,7 Bill Gamble,8 and George Jeffrey,9 all of whom, with the exception of Stan who had gallantly volunteered to go to Italy as a medical orderly, were sick and exhausted.
The rest could still hope, so life went on in the compound, flickering a little more feebly each day. Weakened by hunger the prisoners suffered increasingly from cold and at times they were conscious only of an empty, aching stomach to which was attached a pair of enormous numb hands and a pair of enormous numb feet. But they could still baa provocatively when the Italians herded them into line for roll-call; they could still discuss the gargantuan meals they would order when they reached Cairo (a whole chicken, six eggs, chips …); they could still, in the intervals of lying together among the rubble in inert filthy heaps, grumble a little, play poker or two-up, laugh a little. Together they would chant the schoolboy quatrain—‘Cold as a frog in a frozen pool’—and someone would say: ‘Put a sock in it, you jokers. Go help Fred catch a seagull.’
Meanwhile Rommel was being hard pressed at Gazala, some thirty-five miles down the coast road from Tobruk. Taking part in the battle under the command of 13th Corps was the 5th Brigade, which had left the Sollum-Capuzzo area on the 9th. A Section, as part of the Composite NZASC Company serving the brigade, had gone first to El Adem, camping for a day or two on the outskirts of the great Axis airfield there. Here the section was joined by ‘Dad’ Cleave and Basil Thorburn who had been given up for lost (they had been with the Supply Column all the time), and here Jim Stanley was wounded in the thumb by a small explosion that occurred while he was inspecting captured equipment.page 184
From El Adem, still serving the 5th Brigade, the section had gone to Acroma, twenty miles west by south of Tobruk, and from there to Gazala, from which Rommel had been driven on the 17th. On 23 December while the Eighth Army continued its advance—Derna had been occupied four days before—the 5th Brigade began the long journey to Baggush, A Section picking up the 23rd Battalion at Gazala and taking it as far as El Adem, where the drivers spent Christmas Day. For lunch they had bully beef, but it was followed by a fruit salad, the ingrediènts of which the cooks had been saving for a long time.
In Tobruk, in spite of an unpromising start—there was a duststorm and a heavy air raid in the morning and for some reason the NZASC party had not been included in the garrison strength for the issue of Christmas comforts—the unfortunate fifteen did tolerably. For dinner they had tinned turkey, tinned chicken, and tinned plum pudding (an issue they made to themselves), and someone produced 60 litres of bad wine.
At Fuka the fare was frugal, for it had been decided to postpone the Christmas festivities until the unit was complete. Nevertheless it was as pleasant a day as Christmas can hope to be without children, and if we enjoyed it more as a remembered happiness or as a happiness experienced vicariously—in New Zealand the red flowers were on the pohutukawa, yachts were sailing in the Waitemata, nephews, nieces, and small brothers were shrieking to high heaven, and the 5-gallon kegs were in the sinks—it was none the worse for that.
Bev Hendrey describes the day in his diary:
Most of the blokes writing home. A few of them got primed. Very quiet on the whole.
In Bardia the prisoners fared better than they expected. A few days before, Major-General Artur Schmidt, the German commander, had paid them a visit.
‘He had grey hair, pale-blue eyes, and a hard mouth—one of the old school,’ said Claude Campbell. ‘But his manner was friendly and when Harvey hit him up for a Christmas dinner he said: “I will promise you nodding. Your comrades outside have cut our lines of communication.” He added something to the effect that we page 185 should get our Christmas dinner if the position was restored in time but we told him what he could do with it. The chaps complained about the conditions and the food and the old boy said: “This desert warfare is very uncomfortable.” To which someone replied: “You said it, pal!”’
After this unpromising conversation the Christmas rations came as a pleasant surprise. Each man was given ten cigarettes, two packets of biscuits, and two or three sweets, and the usual issue of coffee and rice was augmented by an issue of bully beef (three men to a tin), cheese, jam, sugar, and cognac. From this the cooks were able to prepare two good meals, one of savoury rice, with cheese and bully, and one of sweet rice. The cognac went into the coffee. That night for the first time in twenty-seven days our drivers went to bed on full stomachs. They were comforted, too, by the feeling of having feasted from the barren fig tree. Fresh water from the rock in Horeb was hardly a greater miracle than good cheer in that flinty compound.
On Boxing Day, as in prison and workhouse the world over, it was a case of back to porridge and old clothes, but the confidence that freedom was not far away grew stronger daily. Since 16 December the prisoners had been guarded only by Italians, all Germans being needed for the front line. Each day the air raids on gun positions and supply depots became fiercer—on one occasion bombs landed only twenty-five yards from the west wall of the prison, one prisoner being killed and four wounded—and nightly the artillery bombardment was intensified.
As their eventual release was now almost a certainty few of the prisoners thought of trying to escape; indeed, as far as our drivers could discover, only one man made a serious attempt. He was Jacky O'Connor10 (B Section). On the night of the 27th-28th, taking nothing with him, not even his greatcoat, he scaled the prison wall, hung for a moment by his finger-tips, and dropped into the darkness. He was risking a bad injury—for at the point he had chosen (it was where the latrine abutted upon the outer wall) the ground sloped steeply—but he escaped with nothing worse than a twisted ankle. Guided by the British barrage and depending on it to drown the noise he was making, he crossed a succession of page 186 deep gullies. He had relied on being clear of Bardia by dawn, but the going was much harder than he had expected and he was hindered by his ankle. When daylight came it found him on the side of a gorge among German infantry positions. There was nothing for it but to creep into a patch of camel-thorn and lie there all day without moving a muscle. Without water, food, or overcoat, and with so little freedom of movement that the small desert birds scuffled in the sand only a few feet from his face, he lay still for hours, hating the daylight as it has seldom been hated before and waiting for nightfall as a man waits for his girl. It came at last, late but beloved, and he moved forward cautiously until he was among the outermost German pillboxes. The escaper's supreme moment was now upon him: safety in sight and the worst dangers all about him like a thicket; on the one hand, the fun of strolling into his own lines a free man, free by his own nerve and efforts; on the other, the disaster of being dragged back to prison ignominously or shot down like a dog.
But escapers need luck and Jacky's was dead out. He disturbed some Germans in a pillbox and began to run. There were guttural shouts from three sides of him and rifles stabbed the darkness with flashes of smoky orange. He yelled ‘Kamerad!’ and the Germans came up to him.
Instead of being returned to the compound he was placed in a building outside it, and the Italian guards slyly allowed Corporal Jack Moore,11 the commander of Group 8, to which most of C Section's drivers belonged, to continue reporting him present. When they were tired of the joke they turned nasty, threatening Jack with a diet of biscuits and water and the whole of Group 8 with the dreaded punishment of a submarine trip to Italy.
Neither threat was carried out, for by now it was plain to both prisoners and guards that their roles would shortly be reversed. On 30 December it was learned that Benghazi was in British hands, and that day each man was given ten cigarettes and there was a double issue of rice, not to mention several unexpected issues of civility.
On New Year's Eve the camp sergeant-major wrote in his diary:
At 0430 hours the attack commenced. A bombardment was page 187 kept up for more than two hours and then some tanks appeared over the horizon. Boys as excited as hell. Well, it's 1200 hours and they still seem to be cracking away and a 2-pounder has just whizzed down the gully. The idea of being a prisoner and more or less in the firing line as well is not so good. Still, here's hoping. Tons of ammo have been expended today and it can't go on like this for long. Rifle fire can be heard. Men laying odds about how long it will last. Truck arrives with water. Tanks with infantry behind can be seen approaching over the hill. Rifle fire a little closer. Brens can be heard in action.
New Year's Day was cold and bleak. Showers of rain swept over the compound and a savage wind tugged and tore at the miscellaneous rubbish from which our drivers had built shelters. The noise of the fighting was not loud but everyone knew that the end was very near. The Italian guards treated the prisoners with a solicitude that was almost tender.
January 2 (wrote the camp sergeant-major). Heavy bombardment last night. Quite a lot of shell splinters flying round our area. Garrison surrenders….
At 10 a.m., after a two-hour truce, Major-General Schmidt surrendered unconditionally to General de Villiers, commander of the 2nd South African Division. The prisoners had been told earlier that their friends would be with them at 9 a.m.
In Bardia there were 1100 prisoners, gaunt, bearded, filthy, wobbly at the knees—1100 scarecrows with hearts as light as puffballs. After the first flush of joy they became 1100 craving stomachs.
‘Jokers from the Div. Cav. were the first troops we saw,’ said Claude Campbell, ‘and as soon as they arrived they started to dish out cigarettes, tucker, and their own Christmas parcels. Don and Harvey and I got a cake. We ate it straight away and it made us crook. We were still hungry, though, and for the rest of the day, off and on, we were eating or trying to eat.’
Clarry Monahan and a friend breakfasted with German officers in a well-found mess.
‘After breakfast,’ said Clarry, ‘we still wanted more, so we set off down a steep hill to the waterfront, where we remembered having seen a bakehouse when we marched down to the hospital ship. We were as weak as kittens but excitement kept us going. We missed out at the bakehouse, so we went over to some caves that page 188 looked as though provisions might be stored in them. Here we struck it lucky and we each filled a sandbag with Jerry pork and beans. We struggled back to the compound and dished the stuff out to our cobbers. It made them crooker than hell.’
They ate all day, many of them, with a kind of sterile lust, just for the pleasure of feeling the meat in their mouths. Dusk found them lying ill in their old places in the compound heaped with enemy blankets. The next morning, suffering from every known variety of stomach disorder, they set out for Maadi.
At Maadi they were rested and fed up (in both senses of the word) and as the weeks went by there was some danger of their forming themselves into an exclusive Bardia society. Other members of the unit who were at Base—drivers discharged from hospital—waited anxiously for our return, refraining in the meantime from complaining too loudly of cold when anyone from Bardia was present or stressing unduly that slight feeling of emptiness that assails the ordinary soldier between tea-time and bed-time.
Cold and hunger had been established once and for all as their special province—and you cannot argue with experts.
As early as 16 December our unit had been reorganised as a reserve mechanical transport company to serve the Eighth Army, forty-seven vehicles with appropriate personnel being attached to us from other NZASC units and thirty-six from the Artillery. From then on we were under three hours' notice to move but it was not until five days after Christmas that we left Fuka for Bir el Thalata to start our new duties. A Section, which had moved from El Adem on Christmas afternoon with the 22nd Battalion aboard, was already there, and the Tobruk party rejoined us during the day, so the unit was complete again.
By this time Rommel had withdrawn to positions—temporary ones—at Agedabia at the bottom of the Benghazi bulge, and the forward units of the Eighth Army, tired now, very thin on the ground, and worried by supply problems, could do little until Benghazi port was made usable and reinforcements arrived. That was the position on 2 January when A Section (‘favoured A Section,’ said some, though the Major was celebrated for his impartiality) embussed the 1st Welch Regiment at Thalata and page 189 headed west, leaving the rest of us to the pleasant but not wildly exciting task of shifting miscellaneous supplies from the railhead to Tobruk.
There was a holiday feeling in the air as A Section's convoy, with the Welch sitting sedately in the backs of the lorries, slipped along the coast road, the verges of which were littered with burnt or abandoned Italian vehicles: big diesel jobs—Fiats mostly, and Lancias. Engines purred and hummed, running like a dream, and the road's tarmac surface, compared with rough desert tracks, was like a springboard. The Mediterranean, sometimes grey and tumbled but hyacinth blue and apple green on sunny days, was often at the drivers' elbows and as they drove they sang; and so they came to Derna.
Viewed from the top of the escarpment, down which the road wound in serpentine loops, the little town resembled a clutch of snow-white eggs in a green nest. Poplars, palms, and eucalyptus sprouted between the villas, which, formerly the homes of wealthy officials, were deserted now or occupied by British troops, their broken windows and chipped balconies—the Arabs had played a short, forceful, and enjoyable innings, scoring freely—looking out on trampled gardens.
The next morning a Junkers 88 bombed and machine-gunned the convoy for a few seconds, and for hour after hour a grey sky pelted it with rain, both doing something to dispel the holiday feeling. However, the green, hilly country into which the convoy had climbed on leaving Derna was lovely in our drivers' eyes after the desert, and they came happily to Giovanni Berta, a small Italian settlement that boasted a castle. Here the regiment went into bivouac for a few days.
The people of Berta, depressed and bewildered after changing their masters three times in one year, seemed never to be quite sure which salute was now in fashion. Usually they gave the wrong one.
While the regiment patrolled the surrounding country—a party of Germans was supposed to be at large—a few of our drivers empurpled themselves with some new wine discovered in a deserted factory. Once a Junkers 88 dropped bombs uncomfortably close to the transport, and always the rain fell, turning the scrubby meadows into bogs.page 190
No one was sorry to leave Berta behind and enter the Green Mountains (Jebel el Akdar) at the top of the Benghazi bulge. Now our drivers were in true New Zealand country, and the modern village of D'Annunzio, named after the Italian poet, the hero of Fiume, might have been a large and rather beautifully designed butter factory. It was square like a factory and tall and white like a lighthouse, and among the green hills it was altogether enchanting in the flashy, Fascist manner.
Late in the afternoon they came to the end of the Green Mountains and below them was the town of Barce, between which and the coast, eleven miles away, the plain was dotted at regular intervals with little, square, box-like farmhouses: colonizzazione. Beyond Barce the road ran between fields and large orchards, which sparkled with raindrops and smelt lovely under a peep of late sun. At Baracca, a tiny village ten miles west of Barce and between fifty and sixty north-east of Benghazi, the journey ended. The transport was dispersed among farms and the infantry took up positions in Tocra Pass, six miles west of the village, their boots shining as brilliantly as on the day when they stepped into the lorries for the first time. Polish was something that concerned their officers deeply, and the road to Thalata must have been strewn with empty blacking tins. They could never understand why Captain Gibson worried so little about his drivers' boots or why he allowed them to wear bits of enemy uniform, protesting seriously only when they had neglected to remove insignia or badges of rank.
Section headquarters took possession of one of the little square farmhouses, which, like its fellows, contained four rooms and adjoined a sizeable outbuilding. Like its fellows it was empty. Many of the colonists had left with the retreating army; the rest—old men mostly, and women and children—had moved to the village, where they lived in pathetic squalor and discomfort. Each night a large number barricaded themselves in the church. It was not the British they were afraid of but the Senussi, who, if they were to be believed (and their panic was most convincing) had been terrorising the entire district, shooting, looting, burning, raping, and generally paying the Italians back in their own coin—or, rather, visiting on them the sins of their soldiers.
These sins (as those of us were aware who had read that delightful book Desert Encounter by Knud Holmboe, a copy of which was page 191 going the rounds of A Section at that time) were not light. The sect of the Senussi, which was originally based on extreme asceticism and a return to the pure teaching of the Koran, was founded more than a century and a quarter ago by Mohammed Ben Senussi, who claimed descent from the Prophet. When the Great War broke out the Senussi, by then several million strong, turned on the Italians and drove them almost out of Libya. Next, flushed with success, they moved against Egypt and were decisively beaten on Christmas Day 1915 by a small mixed force that included the 1st Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, Sikhs, and British Yeomanry. Later they were defeated again and, after the war, when the Italians regained possession of the fertile strip along the Libyan coast, an agreement was concluded whereby the Grand Senussi, Sayyid Idris, was given rulership under the Italians of all the oases along the 29th Parallel and of Kufra to the south. In 1926, after careful preparation, the Italians attacked the oases and the remnants of the tribes fled to Kufra. The next attack came four years later, and Kufra, on which the Italians converged from three sides, was the scene of a horrible massacre. Under Graziani (‘the Butcher’) the survivors were ruthlessly repressed and their lot was not alleviated until Mussolini proclaimed himself the Defender of Islam and made Balbo Viceroy of Libya, ordering him to placate the tribes. His efforts, so far as our drivers could gather, had been unsuccessful.
Their sympathy, naturally—for they saw the pale, pretty children and the frightened old women and the broken old men—was with the settlers, and to give it practical expression they mustered a dozen head of cattle—miserably lean beasts that the settlers had been afraid to go into the fields to look after—and drove them into the village for distribution among the hungry. Most of them were slaughtered immediately by the non-stock-breeding members of the community.
After a day or two the drivers came to be looked on as protectors and when one of them fell ill he was taken into an Italian cottage and nursed with great tenderness.
In their snug farmhouse Captain Gibson and the drivers of Section headquarters had a pleasant time. They did little except repair the fire that burned all day and most of the night in the enormous open hearth and watch the fierce rain dash against the page 192 windows. Sometimes, catching sight of a broken toy—a child's blue go-cart—which, tidy it away how they would, reappeared continually, a death's-head at the feast, a few of them had moments of uneasiness. They wondered how homeless Italian children fared in Libya in winter. Mostly, though, they were comfortable and content.
On fine days—there were one or two—they went mushrooming, returning home with sackfuls of delicious fungi (which everyone felt almost sure were mushrooms) for the cooks to fry for breakfast. Duck-shooting, in spite of the scarcity of ducks and shotguns, was another popular diversion.
An order forbidding anyone to walk abroad unarmed added a spice to these expeditions, and indeed, whenever Senussi were encountered, our drivers felt the sound sense of this edict, for the tribesmen, to judge by appearances, had drifted a long way in the last century and a quarter from the pure teaching of the Koran and the principle of extreme asceticism.
Lorries went sometimes to Barce but there was little there. Once, perhaps, it had been a pretty country town; now it was indescribably shabby and bedraggled, its general appearance suggesting the aftermath of a drinking bout. It was permeated through and through by a nauseous reek of arrack, the sale of which, together with that of dusty boiled sweets and small looking-glasses, appeared to be its sole means of subsistence.
There was talk of our drivers staying with the Welch Regiment for an indefinite period and that was what both wanted, but on 10 January Colonel Crump, accompanied by our old friend Selwyn Toogood (who was a captain now), arrived with orders for the section to pack up. Goodbyes were said and meetings in Cairo arranged, our drivers little guessing that Rommel, who had just withdrawn from Agedabia to El Agheila, almost another 100 miles, would in rather less than three weeks sweep forward and engulf Benghazi, involving the Welch Regiment in fighting only less bitter and costly than that which it had seen in Crete.
The section pulled out from Baracca the next morning—and pulled is the operative word, for some areas were so muddy that the lorries had to be coupled together like a goods train. The return journey was diversified by a visit to Cyrene (birthplace of that Simon who was made to help carry the Cross) and Apollonia, the page 193 port of Cyrene. Above the ruins of the old city and the broken pediments and capitals of the Grotto and temple of Apollo, from which Italian archæologists had fled in haste, leaving some gear behind, grave cypresses stood sentinel, and down the precipitous hillside, haunted by spirits of grove and fountain, a cascade tumbled, spreading a green mist and a green murmur. All over the hillside were the houses of the Roman dead.
On 17 January the section joined us at Bir el Thalata.
We left Thalata a week after A Section's return and 25 January found us at Acroma. By this time Rommel was nearing Benghazi and petrol was needed to extricate British transport. A convoy under Captain Ward was rushed to Derna, where part of the load was dumped, the rest being dropped off by the roadside on the way back. The entire trip was made in something like thirty-six hours, but at the cost of many broken springs.
By the beginning of February we were back at Thalata and for the next two or three weeks our transport was employed at the railhead in unloading trains. C Section, which had been brought up to strength partly with some of our own spare men but mostly with drivers and vehicles borrowed from other units, left for El Adem on the 15th of the month to join yet another Composite NZASC Company formed under Captain Roberts to serve the 5th Brigade, which had returned to the Western Desert from the Canal zone.
In the Thalata area we played ‘500’, did a little desultory training, listened to our thrice-blessed wireless sets (on some days we got ‘Elmer's Tune’ only five times and ‘Kiss the Boys Goodbye’ only four: often it was the other way about), and always we talked and talked on and on and on and round and round and round, mostly about nothing or about private matters—rows with the Old Man, victories in love long forgotten by everyone, incidents in the past that formed the basis for great rambling chapters of autobiography: ‘I've seen me go down to the boozer Saturday mornings….’ But it didn't matter. Nobody was compelled to listen: we knew each other so well.
Meanwhile our side was losing the war, though we were too stupid or too ill-informed or too steadfast to realise it. We were page 194 concerned only with our little setback in Cyrenaica. What was going on in the Far East was largely concealed from us by the determination of press and radio to put a brave face on matters. LITTLE ENEMY RESISTANCE TO OUR WITHDRAWAL ran a headline in a London newspaper: the story referred to the British retreat in the Malay Peninsula. Singapore, we were told, was impregnable.
At that time Germany was broadcasting a weekly programme entitled, if memory serves, ‘From The Enemy To The Enemy’. It was extremely popular with the Ammunition Company, chiefly because the Master of Ceremonies made free use of Vera Lynn's best records. The general idea was that a number of jolly, laughing British prisoners were being entertained in the studio by their German hosts, the atmosphere being conveyed by bright music, tinkling teacups, and gay asides. Most of the asides were made by the MC, a light baritone of peculiar ease and charm.
‘Well, I've just been having a yarn with 3456789 Bombardier Jock McGregor. Jock hails from Castle Douglas, Kirkcudbright. Jock has just bet me a fiver that Singapore will hold out until the cows come home. Well, I'm afraid we don't agree about that. My own idea is that the Japs will be in Singapore in less than a fortnight. I'm going to collect that fiver when this tiresome war's over—by the way, I see old Jock's having a bit of trouble with his raspberry jam, ha ha!—and I'm going to have a lot of fun spending it in Scotland.’
Never in our wildest nightmares did it occur to us that there might come a time when the old smoothie would be in a position to pollute Kirkcudbright, but we should have enjoyed the joke more if the Japanese had not entered Singapore on the 12th of the month and captured it just three days later.
Ah well, we reasoned, things couldn't be too desperate. Australian and New Zealand beer was coming forward from Base in comforting quantities, we were getting our mail regularly, Wickham Steed sounded hopeful, and leave had started.
We were looking forward to our own leave. Nor was it far away.
On 23 February, leaving Captain Butt and C Section with the Composite NZASC Company, our unit turned its nose towards the page 195 coast road: first stop, Barrani. As we drew near the coast we entered a sea of poppies in which there were islands of yellow and blue spring flowers. For those of us who had not visited the mushroom country it was like finding a pound note.
The next night found us near Mersa Matruh and on the 25th we set out for El Daba.
Most of the lorries were loaded high with salvage and forty-six of them were towing other vehicles. It was a common enough sight at that time, for the campaign had been cruelly hard on transport and on everything else. At least a quarter of the vehicles heading east were towing one or more wrecks and half of them were loaded with broken or worn-out gear. It was a matter for pride that all our lorries were returning under their own power.
We spent a night at El Daba (A Section casting sentimental glances towards its old area) and a night at Amiriya, and then set out, as we thought, for Mena. The Major, however—we should have blessed him had we known—went on ahead to try to arrange for us to go straight to Maadi and for a guard to look after our vehicles that night so that everyone could have leave. He was successful and we carried straight on, grinning delightedly as we passed Mena and turned sharp left near the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Now we were bowling along a splendid boulevard, region of rich pashas and fat beys, but there stole to meet us, from the great hot heart of the city, the old mocking, familiar, fascinating stench of red pepper, caraway-seeds, stale urine, arrack, dust, sweat, coffee.
We passed the zoo, crossed the bridge over the Nile, and turned right into the Helwan road. Soon we were passing the old wharves, where feluccas were drawn up, their great wings furled, their slender tapering masts, like trout rods from Brobdingnag, bending above the water as they had bent since the world's childhood, when there was no Athens, no Rome, no London, and certainly no Berlin. Presently we swung into the Mad Mile—madder than ever it seemed after our desert solitude: more clamorous with excited wallads shouting their joy and derision at the sight of so much good prey returning from the unprofitable wastelands; more crowded with gesticulating fellahin trying to sell us melons and lemonade while we struggled with insoluble traffic problems—nightmare problems presented by minute donkeys from Goblin Market dragging carts page 196 with wheels twice as high as themselves, by donkeys moving like sections of hedge under shaggy masses of green-stuff, by long flat carts loaded with patient wives, shapeless in black robe and yashmak, sitting back to back (like sacks of coal except for a glint of orange or yellow gold from tooth and wrist), and by swarms of blue Fiat taxicabs, all of the same model (an old one) and each with a mechanic lying out on the off mudguard and tinkering with the carburettor—problems that might just conceivably have been solved but for the assistance of the Egyptian police, who looked warm to the point of melting in their thick black serge but were probably, in spite of their fierce excitement, quite cool.
We beat clear of it at last—that storm of donkeys, hookahs, galabiehs, camels, café tables, chickens, water-melons, sheep, cooking stoves, dust, trinkets, smells, and enormous bare feet—and swam, as through backwaters and calm reaches, down a long gracious avenue with the Nile again at our elbows; and so we came to the Maadi turn-off. We passed the opulent, creeper-hung villas, the carefully-tended midans, the Maadi Tent—still, we never doubted, unrivalled in all Egypt for ices, cakes, and salads—accelerated for the rise, got caught as usual by the bump at the railway crossing, passed the check post, entered the camp.
Under the bright desert sun Maadi Camp looked more than ever like a clean but uncomfortable palanquin on the back of an enormous, shabby, dusty camel. It was so forbiddingly neat and decorous that we took pleasure in our stained battledress, tattered shirts, bone-white boots.
News of our coming must have gone ahead of us, for hardly had we switched off our engines before the drivers from Bardia and those who had been in hospital were around us like flies. After the storm of hand-shaking, back-slapping, and all-in wrestling had subsided a little, everyone began to talk at once with no one listening. In the centre of one congratulatory group was Bruce Morice12 whom we had seen last in Greece. Doubtless he was dying to tell us—we were dying to hear—how he and twenty others had tried to sail to Crete in a rudderless schooner, how he had lived for several weeks in a cellar in Piraeus and then for three months in the house of a Greek dentist, how at last he had been taken to page 197 Marathon and had embarked with other fugitives in a Greek schooner, reaching Turkey and finally Smyrna where he had been taken care of by the British Consul. But he was sworn to secrecy and so was Stan Barrow who had escaped from Crete to North Africa in an open boat.
To set the seal on our contentment word went round that we would be paid and there was leave to Cairo until one in the morning. Our first thought was to get cleaned up and everyone made a bee-line for the shower-house, carrying armfuls of fresh clothes hoarded for just such an occasion. It was wonderful to stand under hot water again, though that first shower did little more than transfer the outer coating of dirt from our skins to our clean towels. Boots were polished, some pairs sucking up a whole tin of nugget, and there was a demand for needles and thread.
After we had been paid the cooks provided a meal but few of us bothered to eat it. Already many were on their way to Cairo; others were waiting for the beer bar in the NAAFI to open at six o'clock. At once, with no preliminaries or organisation, a big reunion party got under way, and it grew progressively larger and merrier until closing time. It continued in the training area and towards midnight shots were fired (enemy weapons were being tested and demonstrated) and the sky was bright with flares. The Major intervened and some arrests were made. It was a night to remember.
A postscript to the campaign is provided by the last paragraph of a report submitted by the Major to Colonel Crump:
Although some of the moves entailed long hours of driving, and, quite often, driving all night, nobody complained and all the officers, NCOs, and men did everything they were asked to do and the general standard of work and conduct was such that it is difficult to discriminate individually.
3 Dvr L. De Pina; motor driver; born NZ, 2 Sep 1917; wounded Dec 1941.
4 Dvr C. L. Collie; barman-porter; born Sefton, 31 Oct 1914; died of sickness 4 Dec 1941.