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Journey Towards Christmas

Chapter 17 — Feeding A Caterpillar

page 285

Chapter 17
Feeding A Caterpillar

THE ugly, snub-nosed lorries, their camouflage paint subdued to a pallid fawn by dust and heat and hard service, their mudguards dented, their canopies torn and patched, but their engines still growling strongly, could be seen everywhere. They bowled along the splendid seafront and down the opulent boulevards lined with acacias and palms; they swished past offices, public buildings, and hotels (not too badly damaged), through streets of grand shops (shuttered from caution or because there was nothing in them), through parts of old Tripoli, Turkish and squalidly magnificent, and out into the surrounding country, where the tender but hectic green of the young fruit trees was interrupted by water towers and pylons, exclamatory in ferro-concrete over the marvels of Fascism, and by patches of primal desert, red sometimes and sometimes greyish yellow, the colour of an old camel, which mocked the new green varnish of Balbo's colonizzazione.

Of those lorries that were marked with the New Zealand fernleaf a large number were marked also with the 69 of the 1st Ammunition Company, for at that time we were doing the most work of any NZASC unit in Tripoli and perhaps of any transport unit in the Eighth Army.

When that familiar number flashed past, those who were on day-leave in Tripoli would almost wish they were working, for Tripoli was a disappointment. There was plenty to see, of course, but soldiers, apart from an earnest minority, soon weary of seeing things, and to interest them for long it takes more than a fine seafront, an equestrian statue of il Duce, some houses of disrepute, and one of Count Ciano's summer palaces. After you had seen these and had drunk tea at the Count's place, which had been taken over by the YMCA, your problem was how to fill in the time until six, when the transport left for camp.

When a thousand soldiers go on leave some seek female companionship, a larger number seek liquor, but all, including the most earnest sightseers, require an appetising and substantial meal —if possible with three eggs. Of wine and women there was a page 286 small supply in Tripoli (of indifferent quality and uncertain effect), but of food there was scarcely a vestige. To protect the civilian population General Montgomery had forbidden the Eighth Army to buy meals, though probably none could have been bought anyway, for the Axis had emptied the city of supplies and most of the inhabitants had only their meagre ration.

Consequently, long before six o'clock, our drivers were hungry and discouraged, and they would speak wistfully of returning home and putting the billy on. But returning home when he still has money to spend is anathema to the average soldier. Realising this, a handful of philanthropic New Zealanders had organised two-up schools in convenient side-streets. These gentlemen, apart from one or two unfortunates whom unfair competition at Maadi had forced into the field, were not the ones who had battened on us at Helwan and in the bar of the New Zealand Forces Club in Cairo. They, bless them, had long since retired on their savings and taken their neuroses and fallen arches back to New Zealand. The new banditti were different. To give them their due, they were in the game as much pour le sport as for profit, but that did not prevent them from doing uncommonly well. Every day a vast sum of money changed hands under their supervision and went on changing hands (in spite of the fact that two-up, unlike Crown and Anchor, is a perfectly fair game) until it reached that limited number of pairs to which all money naturally gravitates. From these it was transferred to the limited number of paybooks and there it stayed.

In quiet courtyard, then, or in shady side-street, the ring was formed, its presence being advertised by a hedge of soldiers and by the practised voice, loud but confidential, that spoke from the midst of it as from the bush on Horeb: ‘I want a quid in the guts, gentlemen. I want a quid in the guts to see him go. Right, then! Are we all set? Are we all set on the side? Come in, spinner. And a good spin too. She's out the monkey, gentlemen—she's out the monkey. Right, then. I want a quid in the guts….’

Black faces, lit by goggling, amethyst eyes faintly stained with saffron, formed an outer ring—not that there was anything to prevent natives, if they were men of substance, from joining the game—and Italian colonials in off-colour ducks looked on with benevolence, enacting their admiration when our drivers plunged recklessly, their sympathy when they lost.

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‘I want a quid in the guts, gentlemen….’

‘Hell, let's go back to the YM—get some more chai.’

‘No. Let's bludge a ride home. Get back, eh, and boil up? Open a tin of tongues, eh?’

Yes, Tripoli was a disappointment. It was the kind of place where you couldn't get a good feed anywhere, and that kind of place, as everyone knows, is the New Zealander's idea of Hell.

You could, though, get a drink—not in the bars and cafás, but from a local wine factory, where the purple grape (Vino Rosso 1942) concluded a mad rush through a system of cylinders and metal pipes by gushing from a faucet. It was fresher than new-laid eggs and the amount you could take away—for a while at any rate—depended on the number of jerricans in your possession. It was remarkable, we found, more for its strength than for the delicacy of its flavour, especially if the cans in which we took it away had once contained high-octane petrol. It was the genuine article, though. We spoke of it as being of the port type, but it was rather more than that, for it implanted a purple stain (which wore off in the course of time) on lips and tongue, and given a few weeks it was quite capable of gnawing its way through the compressed steel of the stoutest jerrican. It was mentioned respectfully in routine orders and indeed it deserved to be. Healthy people, we found, went into a decline after drinking it, and we were forced to conclude that something had gone wrong during the period of its manufacture. A cylinder, perhaps, had been functioning incorrectly, or a pressure gauge had given a wrong reading.

We had little time, however, for carousing or for indulging our disappointment in Tripoli. The Eighth Army, that insatiable caterpillar, was waiting to be fed.

On previous occasions it had been necessary to feed the caterpillar from its tail or from points (Benghazi, for instance) in the neighbourhood of its midriff; but now, thanks to our having Tripoli, the vital supplies could be injected at a point somewhere near its right shoulder—if caterpillars may be allowed to have shoulders.

The port had been badly damaged by bombs and the Germans had carried out extensive demolitions, but almost at once with the help of landing craft, it was possible to start unloading cargoes.

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These had to be cleared from the wharves the moment they were landed and taken to dumps in and around Tripoli.

We started work two days after arriving at Peach Blossom Farm, and on 5 February (on the 4th 180 of us had attended a parade for Mr. Churchill) Captain May took over the duties of dock transport officer. By the 8th of the month all four transport platoons (with a vehicle availability of 120) were employed at the docks, and from then on, though detachments from other NZASC units and from the 51st Division helped us, the job was mainly our concern.

It was not practicable, of course, for the platoons to operate from Peach Blossom Farm, so they were packed as closely as possible about a square of barrack buildings some two miles from the docks. Here our drivers were very comfortable, the barracks providing many with sleeping quarters and all with a place to store their gear—the beds, boxes, and tins of which it had been necessary to strip the transport.

Captain May, controlling matters from his office with the help of a Don R and a jeep, sent the transport to the docks as it was called for. After loading, the drivers would go independently to dumps in and around Tripoli. The loading and unloading, until 11 February, was done by Highlanders. Then it was taken over by 3000 men drawn from the 5th and 6th Brigades and the Divisional Artillery. By the 14th of the month 200 vehicles, British and New Zealand, were employed at the docks under the command of our old friend and new major—Major Sampson. Major Coutts had left us on 27 January to fly to Cairo to take command of the 18th Tank Transporter Company, NZASC.

During the second week of February the transport began working in two shifts and an improvement was seen at once. On 14 February 18.471 tons were lifted, of which our unit and the detachments under our command handled 1651 tons, using 195 vehicles and travelling 10,806 miles. Between the 15th and 23rd our transport alone lifted 14,745 tons (an average of 1581 tons every 24 hours), and during the 24 hours that ended at half past five on the afternoon of the 19th we achieved a record by lifting nearly 3000 tons.

By now Company headquarters and one section of Workshops (the other was with the transport platoons) had moved to an area near Suani ben Adem, thirteen miles south by west of Tripoli. Our page break page break page 289 second-line holding of ammunition went with them and this had to be carefully guarded, as did everything at that time.

black and white photograph of army trucks on desert

Desert formation—left hook at El Agheila

black and white photograph of ancient ruins

Ruins at Cyrene

black and white photograph of signpost

Nofilia signboard

black and white photograph of army kitchen

Tripoli cookhouse

We had no reason to suppose that either the Italians or the natives were unfriendly towards us—the former affected to look on us as protectors and the latter as liberators—but we knew from bitter experience that both were highly acquisitive. Only once was there a suggestion of something worse and that was when a mysterious fire broke out in the barracks. A party of Workshops' drivers did their best to put it out, but the local fire-engine—a very old lorry equipped with a pump and a tank—had to be sent for. The fire, though small, burnt with unnatural fierceness, and the subsequent discovery of an artificially contrived draught seemed to suggest that it had been started maliciously, perhaps as a guide to aircraft.

The Luftwaffe, of course, was taking more than a passing interest in what was going on at the docks, but its efforts to interfere, thanks to the deadly efficiency of the anti-aircraft barrage, were unavailing. Through star-filled skies, night after night, the searchlights' tapering beams swept, steadied, and swept on, making it seem as though a phantom ship, with booms a million times bigger and busier than those working in the dark harbour below, was softly unloading stars. Then the ack-ack would start up—odd cracks first, as from a recalcitrant motor-cycle, and then a deafening acceleration of sound that reached its climax in a few seconds and stayed there. Columns of coloured balls, toppling a little at the summit, came from a hundred places, and strings of red beads from smaller and faster guns were flung all over the sky. It was hard to believe that anything could live above Tripoli, and we were not surprised when we heard that six planes had been shot down in one night. Once we saw a plane get a direct hit and fall out of the sky like a comet, lighting the whole city.

Accurate aiming was certainly out of the question, and although bombs fell near the docks and in the harbour, we never heard, while we were there, that any ships had been sunk. The harbour was full of wrecks but they belonged to Italy and Germany.

Only once were our drivers in real danger and that was on the night of 24-25 February when a solitary plane glided down to drop bombs on the docks before the ack-ack could open fire, and then came in again, flying low. Bombs showered down on our barracks, page 290 wiping away the roof and the front of a garage occupied by Workshops, and blowing in windows and doors and scattering tiles around. One driver was blown five yards into an air-raid shelter, another was blown against a palm, and another woke up with a tree across the foot of his bed and a window frame round his neck. There were many cuts and bruises, but only one man was hurt badly enough to need more than first aid, and he was back with us within a few days.

The damage to the buildings mattered little, for we had done with them. The attached drivers returned to their own units and by eleven the next morning we were all together in the area near Suani ben Adem.

Vehicle maintenance, a good rest, a game of football, a picture show in the area, and it was the end of the month. On 1 March we drew six days' rations and put our second-line holding on wheels.

The caterpillar had been fed.

page break
colour map of Gabes area

Map of Tunisia 1943