8th Army

We had more embarkation leave and I was relieved when we went to Scotland and at Gurrock boarded the Louis Pasteur – a liner built for a French line but never delivered. I had begun to get agitated when several friends to whom I had stupidly bragged – ribbed me about paternity proceedings … being on a large liner out in the Atlantic gave me a sense of freedom … until the first huge storm – it was then dark and dismal February sobered me up and made me think of the months ahead. A new adventure … a new life…. action.

We sailed for weeks and weeks until we eventually put in at Cape Town. We stayed five days and were right royally treated when we went ashore.

News rumoured we were on the move. But where to? No one knew.

After being given embarkation leave we found ourselves in Gurrock, at the mouth of the Clyde going aboard the Louis Pasteur, a liner of respectable size, which had been brought into service as a troop ship. We were allocated space between decks some in hammocks some on palliasses on the mess tables some on the mess deck. Men everywhere. We spent a great deal of time playing cards. In bad weather we were paraded up on deck stations.

Soon after we had passed the Azores out in the Atlantic one stormy day in March 1941, we paraded at the beginning of a particularly severe storm and were kept there until it abated. Our station was on a closed deck aft on the starboard side. I was in the second row. From time to time we were allowed to “sit at ease”. Then recalled to attention, to give us something to take our minds away from the rolling green wall of water that at times appeared to be ready to swamp the stern. I was too ill to be sick, which I find is worse than being sick. Many days later after we had passed the equator the weather improved and we enjoyed being released in batches on the open deck. Most nights as the weather grew warmer three of us slept on deck under the stars

The news that Cape Town loomed ahead created great excitement. It took two days before we eventually docked. We were told that we were allowed to be entertained by the local population. Teddy Perfect and I had palled up together on the trip. Our idea was to find two girls and have a good time with them. At the foot of the gangway local white South Africans awaited to carry off their catch for the day.

A middle age executive type accompanied by a young lady of some twenty years greeted Ted and me. “Would we like to be shown around Cape Town and have lunch with them?”

I looked at Ted, he, like me, weighed up the situation in split seconds. If we passed this up we would probably be left to our own devices; we both said, “Yes, thank you very much.”

We had a wonderful day out, a car trip around the town and afterwards taken back to their opulent apartment for tea. He was an editor of the Cape Argus. The next day five of us went down the gangway together and were met by two youngish Jewish couples. They were related and each had similar cars and we split up between them. They gave us a delightful day out, we were not allowed to spend one penny of our own. On the third day we were not allowed ashore as we were due to sail.

War - in the desert 1940

War – in the desert 1940

Next stop Port Tewfic, Egypt and the canal. Eight weeks and four days since leaving Gurrock, Scotland. We were in tents in Moascar, the Arabic word for camp. Surrounded by sand, sand, flapping E. P. I. P. tents, standpipes and open showers on concrete plinths. Sand. Indifferent food, sand, too much time on our hands. Heat, sand, no water out of the taps, sand and more sand. An escape to the pleasant greenery of Ismailia be it illegal without a pass did not worry us, we needed to spend some money on food served in pleasant circumstances. We enjoyed the comparative quiet of that little pleasant town.

We made the best of what we had; we understood we would soon be advancing into the desert. An unknown quantity that spelt adventure and danger, I remembered the words of Walter Rowland, my art instructor and employer:

“When you get the chance you must go to Venice, I guarantee you’ll fall in love with it. But if you can visit Egypt you will be more than charmed and wish to return there to live.”

We were now part of the 8th Army. We put up our flashes. We were soon to become ‘Desert Rats’, but this term had not reached common usage.

After being accustomed to Egyptian heat and flies, particularly flies, we set out for the ‘front’ by driving up to Wadi Natrun some few miles near ‘Kilo 40’. Here we settled down to construct many small air strips, clearing patches in the scrub sufficient to accommodate a squadron of light defensive ‘planes. We employed several hundred casual labourers gathered from God knows where, a medley of odds and sods who we shaped into gangs choosing the best men as gang leaders, the best one I recall being an Idrissi – from Libya.

I was still in Captain Tolhurst’s 78 R. E. W. S. works section as I had been when in France. We had sticky relationship; back in Lincoln he had treated me well. I had even ‘baby sat’ in their super flat overlooking the racecourse on odd occasions. He had caught me out borrowing his little staff car when he was away on buckshee leave in London and posted me away to Peterborough for three weeks as punishment. We had our spats and moments and spent no little time semi-apologising to each other.

The exercise we carried out at Kilo 40 was a gentle grounding to the months ahead being part of the first ‘push’ in the Western Desert under the command of Major A. J. M. Tolhurst.

Having been conditioned to the heat smells and flies of Egypt at Moascar on the Canal No. 76

R. E. Works Section (Airfields) under the command of Major A. J. M. Tolhurst. D. C. R. E. some 24 personnel, moved up to Mari Bet half way between Cairo and Amaria a few miles in to the desert. Here we made camp. We received three decrepit civilian three ton lorries, crammed packed with thirty five labourers in each truck, roughly 100 in all – we never did pin down all of them, some sloped off to do their own thing as the mood took them (they were casual labourers, and they treated their job casually). We lived under tents; I shared mine with L/Cpl. Nelson, ‘Horatio’ – my clerk assistant. The labourers lived down wind some hundred yards away also in tents. The idea was we would be building airstrips – clearing runways in the desert to accommodate defence fighters in case of an attack on the capital city Cairo or Alexandria.

I spent much of my time on a motor cycle checking the names of each man – this became awkward until I made one hundred 1½ inch squares of plywood which I painted with numbers 1 to 110 for each man to have (and carry -under pain of no wages and present on site – checked against my lists. By lunchtime I gave them to Horatio in the office tent to write up the payroll. In the afternoon Corporal Petersen went out and did an afternoon call. Some days he did the morning shift whilst I attended to any mail or office work that needed to be done, I would make a cursory ride out in the afternoon on spot checks.

At first I was strict and marked men absent if not found. I soon learned to be less strict, so many shrill arguments on pay days caused so much hassle that provided the ‘rais’ assured me the man was working and had only slipped off to a call of nature (where?) a distant spot in the desert – py dog or a shimmering cairn of stones… provided the work was being done and the desert cleared of stones and bush, I learned to live with it.

Adzes, shovels and hands did all the work. The labourers worked at their own Cairene pace they were always short of water, we had two civilian lorries, when they arrived in camp they were attacked by a rush of thirsty men and on one occasion the lorry was almost turned over and the water lost. After that the adjutant deputed Petersen to be taken out to meet the water lorry at the main road and ride ‘shot gun’ with his rifle cocked and escort the water tanker to the rationing point, firing a shot in the air if things got out of hand. I enjoyed the time we spent at Mari Bet I learnt a lot; how to deal with men; how to think on a wider scale – to sense a bigger picture of what war was to be about. I was soon to learn as we prepared to proceed into the desert just three or four days behind the battle line.

Up to now we – the lower orders – had little knowledge of what was happening I knew we were soon to be attached to 13th Corps and move into ‘action’ Being at Mari Bet was a doddle. We had been strafed only once we did not know by whom, we suspected a CR 42 but the dust and haze when he zoomed away and disappeared into the blue gave us no indication of what plane it was. We were flat on the deck.

Lieutenant Colonel Christian Chevis R.E headed the C. R. E. No. 2 Airfields.

The Adjutant being a Major whose name I have forgotten. He was a brevet major, a nice bloke; he had been the senior warrant officer at the School of Military Engineering, Chatham.

The personnel muster to be 18 Officers and all ranks.

No. 76 Works Section Muster Roll: 24 personnel all ranks

Major E. D. Kassell Deputy Commander Royal Engineers
Captain Hutchison Garrison Engineer
Q. M. S. Clerk of Works

No. 77 Works Section Muster Roll: 24 personnel all ranks

Major Richard Chettoe Deputy Commander Royal Engineers
Captain Garrison Engineer
Q. M. S. Clerk of Works
Other ranks etc.

No. 78 Works Section Muster Roll: 24 personnel all ranks

Major A. J. M. Tolhurst R.E. Deputy Commander Royal Engineers.
Captain Wood R.E. Garrison Engineer
Q. M. S Baker Clerk of Works
Other ranks etc.

Ninety Personnel in all.

Commanders I met:

Brigadier Keish Chief Engineer 8th Army:

Brigadier Briggs 7th Indian Brigade.

Brigadier C. D. L. Guessens C. E. 13th Corps.

Major Moore

Major White

Major Lawring.

War - on leave in Cairo, September 1941

War – on leave in Cairo, September 1941

Leaving Cairo was a wrench. I was leaving behind a good friend – Richard Campbell Herod a Flight Sergeant in the Canadian Air Force. We were stationed in the same Hotel and shared a room with two others. Although I knew he was soon to be posted to Takaradi in North Africa I was unhappy to leave Cairo at that time, we had formed a strong relationship, he was just the type of fellow I would have liked to have as a brother. Richard and I were together for about seven weeks and in that time we saw much of Cairo, riding out from the centre swaying and jangling along in Cairene tramcars, being given royal treatment by some of the passengers who obviously did not know what to make of us and earning strange looks and mutterings from others. We rattled on past strange, sometimes forbidding suburbs until we reached the terminus. If we like what we saw we wandered around for a while but not too far from the terminus as, one time, we became lost and were pestered by young local youths who asked for baksheesh and became some-what nasty when we told them to “imshi”.

We learnt a lot about Cairo and it was very cheap way to pass the afternoons. Neither of us drank much, we were quite happy to spend time in Groppi’s taking afternoon tea for I think both of us missed the more gentle things after the harsh conditions of the desert. A couple of light pilsners and a visit to the cinema or an evening in our room at the hotel when the other two had gone out led to an exchange of views, reminiscences and talk of home. He Canada, me England.

Richard was a delightful person, witty, knowledgeable and a grand fellow to know. We corresponded as best we could, letters made a circuitous route of the Middle East and Africa and in the end my last letter after the war to his address in Hamilton, Ontario failed to find him.

On Monday 29th September 1941, we learned that we were to advance forward. Big push. Our advance party to be the D. C. R. E. Major Tolhurst, the Garrison Engineer, Captain Wood, Warrant Officer II Baker, Corporal Hill, Sapper Miller (cook) Driver Redfern and Driver Hall. Orders were issued by the D. C. R. E. Major A. J. M. Tolhurst R. E. to prepare lists of all stores etc and have every-thing ready to hand over to Lt. Leach by Wednesday 1st October.

The list of personnel in the forward recce party to be:

Major Tolhurst D. C. R. E.
Captain Woods Garrison Eng.,
Q. M. S. Baker Clerk of Works
Cpl. Hill Eng. Clerk
Sapper Millar Cook
Driver Redfern Driver
Driver Hall Driver

In the event only four of us made up the party. The D. C. R. E. Major Tolhurst, Warrant Officer Baker, myself and Redfern the driver. I spent two days getting as much of the paper work done as I could but didn’t complete it. At 9.30 on the morning of the 2nd October the Major had us away. The Major and I in Utility Ford, Doughy Baker following behind on a Matchless motorcycle and Redfern driving the 15cwt truck. I had left a note for Captain Hutchinson, the Adjutant explaining the position of the uncompleted work as best I could in the two minutes I had before the peremptory command from Twist (Tolhurst) to get a move on. Luckily I had written a note to Horatio (Nelson) who would have to deal with what I had not been able to complete and I left my bed and mattress in his care.

We called in at Daba and saw Mr. Leach, George Dalgetty and Sappers Burrows Petersen and Marriott. Dining in the sergeant’s mess I met Sergeant Major Palmer. We left at 5.15 for Bagush arriving at 7.40 in time for the evening meal. Saw Lloyd first, nice chap, then Ted Perfect, just the same old Ted, and Harry Owen. Owen approached me and said he wished to take my place. Cheeky sod, I said he could do as he liked but I was going anyway. I heard later he did speak to Tolhurst but got a short snub. I was disappointed, Dobbie was not around, within five minutes the smiling’ snub nosed young Geordie draughtsman, Leonard Smith-Dobson appeared. I was so pleased to see him. He, of course was not going with us but just seeing him made me happy.

Thursday 2nd October 1941: Major Tolhurst came at 9.30 and off we went to pack up truck for our long journey. All the office work and list was left undone as at that point in time. I left a note to Captain Hutchison the acting Adjutant explaining the position as best I could in the two minutes I had – luckily I had written a note to Horatio my L/Cpl. Clerk the night before explaining matters and I left my bed and mattress in Cpl. Nelson’s care. We left Burg el Arab at 10.30 called in at Daba, saw Mr. Leach, Cpl. Dalgetty and two Scots laddies. Met Burrows, Petersen and Marriott; dined in the Sergeants Mess met S/Major Palmer and left at 5.15 for Bagush arriving at 7.40. Saw Lloyd first, then Ted and Harry Owen. Owen wished to take my place on this trip – nothing doing. Saw Dobbie, now a probationer draughtsman.

Friday 3rd October 1941: Left Bagush at about 9.30 Major and self in utility Ford, Baker and Redfern following on motorcycle and 15 cwt truck. We called at the officer’s shop at Matruh where Major Tolhurst tried to buy goggles for all of us. None in stock. We search around for a NAAFI and after a lot of trouble eventually came upon a Y. M. C. A. van tucked away in a little Arab courtyard. We bought a few things, not that we needed them it was just the idea of stocking up on tooth paste and odds and ends just because they were there, in the desert.

Saturday 4th October 1941: We had arrived at the R. A. F. Squadron campsite at 5 o’clock yesterday after noon. We had gone down to the beach about five miles across the desert and pitched camp near to the Indian Pioneer Force that were to become our source of labour.

We had all found ourselves little dugouts and fixed our bivouacs over the top. Italians had previously occupied these dugouts before they gave up. Many of their old wrecks lay around still. The Major awoke us at 7.30 and we all drove off in the utility wagon at 8, a hell of a way and found no breakfast left at the RAF Camp; the cook fixed up with sausages which we ate standing around the best way we could.

The Major, Q. M. S. and Jimmy went off at 10 o’clock taking their bedding and bully and biscuits. They said they would be back the next day. I was left on my own. Nothing to do, I tidied up the camp and decided to get plenty of water. I took the truck, begged some petrol from Mr. Head of the Indian Pioneer Corps and drove to the well a mile away. I felt like Rebecca lowering the bucket tediously filling the empty petrol cans – it was a long job almost lasted until lunch time

Then went over in the truck for a bite to eat at the R. A. F. taking with me a chit I obtained from Mr. Head (can’t say I like the fellow – damned unsociable chappy he acts like a real “pukka” sahib to draw some planks from his store. Whilst sitting in the truck eating lunch bully, bread and tea, a Gerry came along but a bit of ack-ack from the R. A. F. camp drove him off. Back at our little camp I did more work on the dugout we already had. It took so many sand bags and I grew tired, went off to the ack-ack battery to beg a bit of dinner. Too late; all gone, settled for bully and biscuits but their tea was good.

By the way it is the worst bit of sandbagging I’ve done or seen yet, Twist will explode when he sees it but ma’arlish, working in the moonlight is no joke and my back aches. It is very lonely not a soul around and no noise but the gentle swish of the sea. I took a stroll to ease my back, yet I had not gone far when two Indian guards challenged me. It took ages for me to explain who I was.

Sunday 5th October 1941: Awoke at 8.45 feeling stiff all over. Too late to get breakfast from ack-ack so lit primus and settled for tea and biscuits. Expensive business this camping out I have spent more than fifteen shillings on food since I left Burg el Arab.

On my own still. Major and others not yet back Took a walk around camp saw lorry in distance went over and found a chap from the R. A. S. C. here on his own on detachment to the Indian Pioneers.

Monday 6th October 1941: Awoke, watch had stopped overnight went across to R. A. S. C. chap and had breakfast sausages and eggs with him. It was fine the tea was perfect! Major and crowd not yet back give them another day and then contact R. A. F. O. C. Washing a two hour job, blankets out to air, darn socks; fold up laundry; wash plates clean shoes; time flies. Gerry over twice very high. Went for a scout around on motor cycle found quite a lot of angle iron and stuff for dug-outs, Had lunch with the R. A. S. C. chap, name Kenneth Cook. Got back to camp just before arrival of the C. R. E, and Captain Wood. D. C. R. E. and Co returned but a few minutes before the C. R. E had left. Busy preparing meals for hungry Q. M. S. and Jimmy. Major ate little. I went down to bathe in moon light sea at 8 p.m.

Tuesday 7th October 1941: Today we cook our own rations. Fifteen Indian pioneers and two L/Cpls. turned up to dig in our tents etc. Head had refused me when I asked for help. … I had no rank to impress him. The pioneers left at 4 o’clock Q. M. S. and I finished off Captain Woods tent then mine then the Major’s it was 10.30 when we turned in. Major and Jimmy not yet back from Bagush where they went early this morning.

Wednesday 8th October 1941: Awoke at 8.30 just as Q came to kick me out of bed. Washed looked out of dugout noticed Major had returned with Captain Wood’s batman. Heard we may move today after spending all yesterday digging in and camouflaging the tents. The Indian Pioneer Corps moved out too. Cooking our own meals is great fun but it takes up time.

A strange thing happened yesterday, I must record it. Whilst driving around with Ken the R. A. S. C. driver looking for booty we came across a fellow all by himself, guarding a dump of tents. He was a squat dark complexioned tussled headed chappy and as we stopped the truck he ambled over. When I am greeting Greeks or Cypriots I usually ask:

“Do you speak English?” This I did and was taken aback by its effect.

“Blimey Guv’nor in a rich cockney accent “You don’t take me for a bleeding wog, d’yur…” I more or less apologised and chatted with him for quite some time as Cockneys are rare in these parts.

Friday 10th October 1941: Up early this morning, had time to shave before breakfast; Postcard from Mother; finished off a list of stores with Major T. he signed sheets and they were sent off to C. R. E. for action.

Sunday 12th October 1941: Up early. We move today. Captain Wood off to Bagush. I went for a dip before breakfast. Tolhurst was in the water, he murmured “Morning” and then got out. Frank and I had another dip midmorning afterwards going for a long stroll on the seashore. Noon and a quick lunch then move to the next campsite in the dunes a little lower down the road. Delighted with the situation chosen. Camel thorn a few wild fruits dotted around a single palm struggling for existence. The sand reminds me of my favourite walk to Lady Evelyn Maudes house except the silver beeches were missing. Thoughts of Sherwood Forest remind me too much of the pleasant days with Laurence, Eileen, Tessy, Barbara and Oliver. What a happy crowd we were. Sherwood afforded much fun for gay youngsters as we were. Q. had dug us in fine. Dugouts cut into sand dunes, well protected, sandbagged and very cosy. Captain Wood brought Gray back as cook. We started a canteen. A drink of beer was real treat.

Tuesday 14th October 1941: The C. R. E. is due to pay us a visit. A rush around this morning to get the cookhouse finished and the camp reasonably straight. I did the supervision of the cookhouse for Q. Twist nailed on the C. G. I. sheets and knocked up his thumb; he is as happy as a kid when he has a hammer in his hand. We were just having lunch when the old man arrived. He did not know Gray, I doubt he had ever seen him. Colonel went after lunch after seeing Scot Lt. Colonel of the Indian Labour Group. It started spotting rain, sky overcast and growing cold.

Wednesday 15th October 1941: Working in Major’s tent, he has gone to Matruh. “Said straighten up my tent and if you like you can work in it.” Life very easy… it suits me. Paid today; all went for bathe, very rough.

Thursday 16th October 1941: Major and Captain away at H. Q. back tomorrow; Sky very black and overcast. Straightened up Major’s tent; sand had covered much of it. Jimmy Redfern couldn’t give a damn; I shall ask him for half his batman fee. D. C. R. E. and Garrison Engineer are due back on Saturday.

Saturday 18th October 1941: No water for washing until after breakfast. The C. R. E. and G. E returned as I was washing. G. E. chatted away when I went to his tent to collect his mess subscription. He remarked he lived in Teignmouth in the summer months and asked what I did in Civvy Street. He said he had a small interest in the Brunswick Press in Teignmouth and seemed to know John Payne. I wonder if it the same John Payne that Wal. R. introduced me to at the Seacroft Hotel. If so he is a pretty poor specimen; I did not like him at all. Peter Wood seemed to know the Oaksfords although I don’t imagine Bert Oaksford would cut much ice in Teignmouth. I did not mention the Wards. Peter’s father is connected financially with the ice works at the back of the cinema. Wood has some good ideas about the redundancy of the C. R. E. Aerodromes out here which seemed sensible but also he has fixed ideas (or as borrowed them) that after this war the Air Force should split and the R. A. F. as we know it continues with it’s own programme based principally on economic warfare.

The Brigadier and the Colonel arrived; we scrounged up some lunch and I had to act, half way through as waiter carrying dishes that Tolhurst wanted. I received a letter from Lollie B. written the day that Laurence went away to join the Fleet Air Arm. Although a cheerful effort it betrayed in the last few lines how much she missed him.

Sunday 19th October 1941 and Monday 20th October 1941: Much the same except I had haircut on Monday by the Indian barber who charged me one piastre – I gave him three, it was worth it.

Tuesday 21st October 1941: Major gained a new Dodge truck. Met Dalgetty near aerodrome. Saw Lt. Leach who went up in the air about “missing” tools, I said Captain Wood had signed for them; that took the wind from his sails. Learnt George D. had lost his newly born son. That Lloyd had gone to Syria and had lost his wife and child who were on their way home from Vichy to England via Portugal. What a bloody war. That Edwin had gone to Daba; that Larry had a bomb and crown and Foster was acting as foreman of works. Left with a tank and bibcock; no beer or baccy at N. A. A. F. I. – back at Kilo 111 at 3 o’clock – Ken had gone for rations. Bit of excitement this afternoon, half a dozen planes came over swerving, zooming and diving. When red-hot bullets began to fly I lay flat on the deck until they had gone.

Wednesday 22nd October 1941: The end of Ramadan and the Indians had some-thing to celebrate. The Major and his driver/batman Redfern being away left six of us, Captain Wood, Warrant Officer Baker, self, driver Hall and the cook, Sapper Gray and driver Cooke. The Indian section invited us to lunch. We all trooped across with some complaining they had misgivings about curry. Thanks to Captain Wood despite Doughie Baker’s remarks we had a pleasant meal.

Thursday 23rd October 1941: My head aches and my nose is all stuffed up. If only I could get my nose to bleed the hammering; hammering; hammering might go. I swilled my wristwatch out with petrol, the dirt and grime that came out was amazing. It started up on it’s own and sounded like a traction engine.

Friday 24th October 1941: Spent a wretched night too weak to undress, flopped down on my bed and pulled a blanket over me. This morning Doctor came across from R. A. F. and took my temperature. I had only a slight temperature but he examined my back and my kidneys. Result – I am to stay in bed and diet!? Major came back today he has been flying over Libya. He was indignant over a lack of change of clothes. For ten days the R. A. F. laundry has held up the washing. I wish my headache would go.

Saturday 25th October 1941: Much better today. Nothing much happened. I read: Charlton autobiography; Now East Now West, Susan Erst; Ragged Banners by Ethel Mannin. I ate lunch and a little dinner, I slept well. I also had a pair of desert boots given to me by the Major; the next minute I had a row with him in our quiet and wordless manner.

Sunday 26th October 1941: Feeling much better. Major and Jimmy went off on another recce in the “blue”. Funny how we use Air Force terms for our own ends. “Out into the blue”; “Cheesed off instead of browned off”. “Gen” meaning the ‘low-down’ (intelligence). I must write home.

Tuesday:> Lettered box for Captain Wood. Read book and chatted with Indian Doctor on Mohammedanism and Christianity. Doctor quite entertaining.

Friday 31st October 1941: Major Tolhurst made a new fireplace and then he cooked the dinner. Gray is rather hopeless and never seems to organise his cookhouse.

Sunday 2nd November 1941: Hot khamsin blowing all day. Escaped down to sea to bathe. No water to wash. Unbearable weather, feel tired and weary. Marvellous moonlight night. I decided to go for a stroll. I buckled on my revolver in case I met one of those wild dogs, big as wolves they are, and I explored the back of the camp. It was truly exhilarating, so quiet, so peaceful, so lovely. Back in my tent I sat quietly and read and so to bed.

Thursday 6th November 1941: Wrote to Oliver, read, became bored, nose bleed freely, cold in head. Lamp had humorous fit so couldn’t read. Went to bed, arose and went to lat. On way back surprised by three desert py-dogs. When I came back with my gun they had slunk off.

Sunday 9th November 1941: Captain returned back from H. Q. and learnt Major gone to Cairo and would be away for five or six days. Peter nonchalantly announced one parcel and three letters for me. Parcel contained birthday cake from Laura Brindley in excellent condition. I am so glad but will it keep another eleven days? As he had brought back some beer we had a merry evening. Everyone appeared very happy dreaming of home and reading over in their minds bits of their letters they had received. I was probably the greatest offender……… “Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin they think of fire lit homes, clean beds and wives”…

Monday 10th November 1941: I awoke this morning feeling good; the beer had had its effect. I raced ‘Q’ to the latrine but came in second. Sketched and did no work. Mainly writing to Laurence B. Laurence had written to me about his engagement to Olga; July 13th.

Wednesday 12th November 1941: Pleasant days when one can read, write letters and listen to yarns and tales. Found books belonging to Peter, “The House at Pooh Corner”, “Now We are Six.” Reminds me of Pat and I and our little Christopher FitzGerald at Marnham on Trent. I shall remember the many happy hours we spent on that river.

I think to myself, I play to myself,
And nobody knows what I say to myself;
Here I am in the dark alone,
What is it going to be?
I can think whatever I like to think,
I can play whatever I like to play,
I can laugh whatever I like to laugh,
There’s nobody here but me.

Saturday 15th November 1941: A very unusual day and a very interesting one. Frank Hall nearly altered it. He almost forgot to give me a letter from Frank Williams. All the time I have been out here I have been trying to contact him. Frank Williams offered me the management of the Scala cinema after this lot is over. I wrote back and accepted. It has settled my future for me, it will keep me whilst I am organising Illustra once more. Three or four years at the Scala will get me down to earth again and give me a base and salary to plan my future.

Sunday 16th November 1941: Capt. Wood, Driver Hall, Staff Sergeant Perham and Corporal Owen left on their Part 1 or opening act of their ‘show’. Ken Cooke went back to his Company and we have two R. A. S. C. chap pies here now. Lieut. Little took over the construction of the landing strip. Same old tale no time to hand over anything. Away and leave all to the bloke who follows. I was to pack and be ready by 7.30 in the morning.

Monday 17th November 1941: At 8 o’clock we set off for Bagush with 2nd Lieut. Kilbey and 50 men. Had tea and meal 7 miles beyond Matruh. Slept in old dugouts at old camp. Terrific electrical storm and it rained like hell.

Tuesday 18th November 1941: 18 kilometres today. Spent day at Barrani bogged down. Couldn’t find a way across anywhere. Tried to build a causeway. Auto patrols (graders) got stuck themselves. Mr. Silk, Australian press photographer, joined our convoy he took shots of bogged down tractor.

Wednesday 19th November 1941: We struck camp at 9 o’clock and went into desert further down the coast. I rode my motorcycle. We came across an ambulance, which we pulled from a bad patch they had been stuck in for 5 days. One R. A. S. C. driver and two patients had been stuck there; they had run out of rations. We gave then some tins of soup and fruit etc. We struck another bad patch and turned in at Burg-el-Arab by the telegraph wire and pitched tents there.

Thursday 20th November 1941: Passed Bir Khamsa. Reached B. H. Q. and pushed forward at dusk; pitched camp just inside border a few miles from our muster point.

Saturday 22nd November 1941: Lieut. Kilbey shot a gazelle after chasing it for almost a mile on a motorbike.

Tuesday 23rd November 1941: Today is my birthday I am 24 years old. Nothing to celebrate with; no booze, only stewed gazelle. I keep the fact of my birthday to my self. I don’t feel like celebrating…

Thursday 25th November 1941: Went on a trip with Captain Taylor, Q. M. S. Baker and Sapper Wagstaff to Fort Madelina a couple of miles away across the wire fence. Built by the Italians to keep in check the ever-harassing Sinussi tribesmen. The area had been destroyed by shellfire. Saw two lorry loads of No.1 Party. Lance Corporal Petersen and the South African Cabuche among them. Witnessed a gruesome sight. A hurried burial of two Italians. One in a nine-inch deep grave and the other lying on a stretcher where he had died covered over with a smattering of earth. The skull and the feet partly exposed. In the afternoon I was tricked into playing one-hour football in the heat of the sun. I was utterly useless – out of wind after the first ten minutes. About six p.m. got NEWS of advance of about thirty German tanks. A Lysander plane touched down on salt patch near to us and we were told to make back for cover of a larger unit. We packed up and leisurely ambled back many of the chaps grumbling about the “push” but they soon realised we were moving back to form a larger concentration. Saw nothing of Captain Wood’s crowd. Spent night sitting in cramped position in back of Major’s truck. Just after midnight I awoke from a dozing sleep and felt I was choking to death. My nose and throat were burning and I had an “asthma” attack again.

Wednesday 26th November 1941: Pitched camp at B. H. Q. away from station and dug ourselves in. Heard Brigadier Stokes was coming next morning. Captain Taylor went back to Bagush as liaison officer.

Thursday 27th November 1941: Nothing much happened. Captain Wood and party turned up. They had been as far front as Bir Khamsa, said they had been chased by Gerry tanks. Redfern said he was really ‘browned off’ and was applying for a transfer.

Friday 28th November 1941: Brigadier Stokes turned up with Major Tolhurst. He asked me what my job was. Said quite nicely with a faint suggestion of sarcasm he was glad to see no papers strewn around. So there it is; I should be ten times more use back at Bagush doing something worthwhile.

Saturday 29th November 1941: Major Tolhurst and Redfern off on trip. I left behind in orderly room tent with ‘nowt to do’. Major came back and spent all afternoon in the back of his truck writing out report and doing all the office work. What the hell use am I? Here I am doing no good in any way; one more to ration in the middle of a battlefield witnessing or hearing of everyday instances of heroism or blind stupidity and feeling very small, very ashamed and very idle. I asked the D. C. R. E. if he needed me for office work. He said “NO” there is none to do.

I asked for a job of work to do. He said he couldn’t give me one. I asked him to send me back to Bagush if he had no use for my services. He agreed on condition I went back “ill” I said NO. Although I have been unwell I am able to carry on and not sit idle. If I go back I go back to work and the reason for going back should be that I have no job here. He decided to send me back to H. Q. and said he would write to the C. R. E. on the subject. This seems a gamble but it is one I now have to take. Back at H. Q., I shall suffer the jibes of all my contemporaries and even the officers. They may think that I have become frightened of the battle area and have not one ounce of courage, in plain words that I am “yellow”. Perhaps the Colonel and the Adjutant will see it the wrong way too. Although I think they will realise the true state of affairs. I have never worked in H. Q. I seem to be disliked by the staff there, or so I think. They think I have a cushy number because Tolhurst has always looked after me since France; we have been seen to argue. Redfern his driver once said to me, “He thinks I’m joking when I sometimes tell him what I think when he comes all over in his la-di-dah manner”. You seem to get away with blue murder by just looking at him. If I didn’t know better I’d think there were somat between yer”.

Monday 1st December 1941. Surely December at home is not much colder than this. There was frost on the tent this morning.

Tuesday 2nd December 1941: Twist lost himself and the sappers for at least three hours. As it grew dark I went out on motor cycle looking for them, occasionally flashing light like I used to do when he went out to dinner and came back late at Mari Bet (Wadi Natrun). After about an hour and half Sergeant Medley commanded a hill top and flashed with a torch and received a signal and continued for ten minutes only. “What luck! Good show Sgt. Medley,” said Tolhurst when he turned up at camp. “I saw your light one hour ago and steered by it”. Medley said nothing. However Porter and Liptrott were still out in Kilbey’s wagon, so I went out again to look for them. They turned up next morning after using 15 gallons of petrol. Liptrott had found a Sub’s valise full of kit that may have fallen off a lorry.

Wednesday 3rd December 1941: Visited Group Captain with despatch. Took reply tried to locate Major Tolhurst. No joy, hopeless so came back tried to listen to news at L. G. office; atmospherics interfered with reception.

War - western desert - Matchless 350

War – western desert – Matchless 350

Thursday 4th December 1941: Went and had breakfast, literally freezing icy cold wind. No shave for four days and no wash either. Two pints of moir per day each man. Q. became pally and asked me to sample his whisky. Very nice it was too and kept out the cold. Bread instead of biscuits makes a change. Major T. went ahead with Redfern and “A” Section with auto patrol to mark out a new location for airstrip. We follow tomorrow to Sidi Omar. Packed and started to new location at 0900 hours. I rode in Cook’s lorry as Major had motorcycle with advance party. Passed wrecks of various aircraft on the way – ours. Kilbey set a hell of a pace one puncture to 3 ton Chevvy, and main leaf bust on Bedford water cart. Met Major at 12 o’clock as prearranged. Wreck of burnt out bomber, our placed out of bounds. Tomorrow burial party will bury the four dead. Burnt out remains of five German tanks on skyline. Artillery fire incessantly about six miles away.

Saturday 6th December 1941: Obtained permission from Major to inspect German tanks. Rode over on m/c; found five burnt out shells of Mk. 1V (I believe) German tanks. Also found four graves of the gun and tank crew with little wooden crosses made by our chaps who had buried them. I paid my respects to the fallen. As I stood there I could not but help myself – I thought of four happy, laughing, blond blue eyed German soldiers – I wondered what they were like, were they as brutal, vicious and uncivilised as we are taught, or were they good hearted cheerful and good natured lads? I could not but wonder – for there is “good in the worst of us bad in the best of us”. However “c’est la guerre” and such questions are not permissible until peace reigns again. What a crazy mad world we live in. Cpl Stone and several Sappers volunteered to bury the airmen. Major and Mr. Kilbey and Q went over. Two more were found under the wreckage making a total of six. Three badly burnt were buried in one grave. Of the others one of whom was identified as E. A. Lowther R. A. F. one a Sergeant and one an officer had separate graves. A rather sordid business, Cpl. Stone however seemed unaffected by the job. They are still bombarding away at Gerry – who are said to be only three or four miles from us in a pocket. I have a wash and shave!

Sunday 7th December 1941: Still busy on works – I have nothing at all to do, all day to myself. The D. C. R. E. must have something in mind. I find a job! Sapper made four crosses and I lettered them:

A. E. Lowther R. A. F.
Buried 6.12.41.
Three British R. A. F.
Buried 6.12.41.
Sergeant R. A. F.
Buried 6.12.41.
Officer R. A. F.
Buried 6.12.41.

Monday 8th December 1941: I visited the four graves of the six airmen and paid my respects to the fallen. We are getting 16 gallons of water per day for 60 men! Guns still bashing away to the North.

Tuesday 9th December 1941: Q had a little trouble with “Tiny” Pickard & Sapper Johnson – pity Johnson has not a little more sense – I rather like him, he has a jolly sense of humour and at heart is quite a good character. Tiny is just a bone-idle loafer with an inferiority complex, which seems incongruous, compared with his bulk! (Tiny has improved).

Wednesday December 9th 1941: Date but no entry.

From now on until Xmas (Boxing day I am writing this) I am unable to give dates or a proper account of the full action for we have been continually pushing and moving and working all the time that I have had no time to keep this up.

10/12/41 – 12/12/41:

We left Sidi Omar the same day that Gerry bombed it and proceeded to Sidi Reseck. It was here that we first saw the battlefield. What a gruesome site. Dead lay around – South Africans, our own lads, German and Italian. Equipment of both sides, guns of all types, hand grenades, molotoff cocktails and all manner of things.

The battle had raged for several days and must have been very fierce.

We buried as many dead as we could while we were there – more Italians and Germans than we did our own chaps, for quite a lot of our lads had been buried. Q found a Luger and case and 1,000 rounds for it.

Rout found two Tommy guns and I soon had them working. Major had one and Kilbey the other.


After Sidi Reseck we moved on to El Adam and awaited orders. Next day we moved to Gazala and camp only seven miles from the fighting. (Brand and C. S. M. came to Gazala with the mail). As soon as the place was free we did the job – three and R. A. F. moved in. Each day I had a sixty-mile DR run back to the 13 Corps to C. E. It was on this run that the Enfield packed up – 2 broken rings after 800 miles.


On December 20th I went with Major Tolhurst to Tunimi and he saw C. E. 13th (Brigadier Guessens) the C. E. changed his plans and I had to go to Matuba and Derna on a motor cycle.

I got to Matuba that night and stayed with Indian Sapper Company. C. S. M. and Q. M. S. were English and Anglo Indian respectively. I dined with them and left for Derna the next morning, 21st. I got to Derna the next morning about 9.30 and went to brigade H. Q. I had all day to wait so explored the whole of Derna.

In the afternoon I met a fellow called Lyman in the R. as and I was with him when an air raid was on. I also had a good night with the R. As in their canteen. I slept on the canteen table with a couple of borrowed blankets.

Next morning I reported to B/HQ and saw Brigadier Briggs, 7th Arm. Dv.

I went back to Tunisia and saw Brigadier Keish. C. E. 8th Army and I followed his car and his staff Major on to Mechele after 15 miles we hit stony ground I could not keep the pace/staff major’s 15 cwt broke front spring so Brigadier went on alone. I was to go back with Major White. At that moment Mr Preston Bowls along with his ration truck behind.

I put B. S. A. up in lorry and rode behind. We went a hell of a pace over Rocky ground and I got mixed with the motorcycle & a forty-gallon drum of petrol and got off with a crushed big toe. We made Mechele at dusk. I was in pain with my toe.

Report on accident December 1941

Report on accident December 1941

Harry Owen was at Mechele with Captain Taylor going back to Bagush – I was not told why.

We set off on Tuesday morning Dec 23rd to go to Redegvous and arrived 20 miles from it that night. There was Mr Preston & a C. S. M. of Royal Artillery who Preston was giving a lift back to his unit. There was Smith Johnson & Shorter in “Eric”. (“Little by little” Ford) Brown (Preston Driver). Brown & Leedham & Boshoff, and I in Bedford and Boshoff’s ford.

We were lost until Xmas day – living on bully and biscuits and dirty water – and precious little of that.

On Xmas afternoon we met a convoy and followed it to Msus and arrived there mid afternoon and found no. 2 party (Mine). I handed over dispatch from C. E. 8th Army to C. E. 13 corps (rather late) and met Capt Wood talking to the Major. I told him in reply to his query that the Iti diesel was lost the first day out from Mechele – sump knocked clean away.

I had a wash and shave and Major sent me to have my toe dressed. He told me he was sending me back to Bagush with a New Zealander we had with us via R. A. S. C Convoy.

I had to Bivouac with New Zealander because Q hadn’t put tent up. I found the New Zealander was quite a nice fellow – he was handing over the mine detector to major and going back. He had alperman bivouac – I found it was easy to erect and was very warm. He was pleasant company – and from what he said I found out that he was English – only had his Pater – mother died when he was four. Had three other brothers – all in New Zealand – farming. His name was Jim Locke – his father in civvy R. N. (store keeper job). When 16 went to Bermuda – could not settle so joined his bros in N/Zealand, chucked up farming at 19 and became chippy – joined N. R. E’s on outbreak of war and came to England.

He said there was no money in farming and was glad that he became a carpenter. Also that he would not advise a fellow to go to colony to take up farming – one can farm in England and be more happy.

Boxing Day morning I went to Major and asked what was happening to me/he hit the ceiling and asked how the hell did I expect to go back. I turned away from him/I said goodbye to Kiwi – for I had got to like him even during our v/short acquaintance (He had intelligence and a gentle and quiet manner, and made a pleasant companion). Twist said he was sorry – I said it didn’t matter as I was quite looking forward to keeping with the section except that I wanted to be somewhere where I could have my toe dressed.

We set off to Fort Antelat and await orders. Meanwhile make an extension to drone.

My foot hurts. Move camp to drone at 3.30. Dominic came over at 4 but did nothing

Sunday 28th December: Still at camp at Antelat awaiting instructions to move forward.

Heard from Q that 2 of our lads had heard on Radio that hellfire Pass Sollum & Bardia were still hanging out. Whee! And 40 miles away rages the frontline. I reckoned up how far we are from Bagush and find almost 600 miles across the blue/no wonder Taylor didn’t want to go back. Designed a stencil for No 2 Section.

Monday 29th December: Wrote more signs for R. A. F. DROMES. Major in bad temper.

Q. made a faux pas and got in bad books with whole section.

Tuesday 30th December: Wrote more signs. Read in evening. My toe is no better it hurts considerably when I have to walk on it.

Wednesday 31st December: New Year’s Eve – still no sign of C. S. M. of 658. A poor Xmas we have had. Wrote to Lawrence & Frank W. Packed at 10.00 and went back to Msus. Pitched camp at Msus.


Thursday New Year’s Day 1st January 1942: A very ordinary day. Bully diet continues.

No tea tonight – no water to be had. Asked Major Tolhurst just before he went back to find a new road to Mechele if he wanted me to go back when C. S. M. Palmer came he replied that he would rather I stay on.

Friday 2nd January 1942: Wrote an air graph home. Cut 2 stencils & Johnson & I stencilled 60 signboards.

Saturday 3rd January 1942: Did another 46 signs making 106 in all. (Mechele – Msus). Major returned from Mechele at 9pm. Bully for all meals! Major returned.

Sunday 4th January 1942: Still no sign of Taylor or C. S. M. We are still at Msus and seem likely to stay here for a short time. I wrote another two large signboards today – I seem to have changed my vocation. Oh Yeah?

Monday 5th January 1942: Q. with a section off to Mechele with all notice boards. We stop here.

Tuesday 6th January 1942: And still more signs.

Wednesday 7th January 1942: At 5.30 we start off for Antelat. We go ten kilometres

Thursday 8th January 1942: Q. catches us up – but has to leave our lorry behind – broken.

We arrive at Agadabia.

Friday 9th January 1942: We stop at Agadabia.

Saturday 10th January 1942: Seven C. R. 42 came over and bombed the drome. Five logs over five minutes after strafing – no damage.

Sunday 11th January 1942: We start off at 8 o’clock back to Antelat – Major Tolhurst invited me to ride in his lodge – for the first time for many weeks he was amiable once more. We came back thro’ two minefields – and across one which we were not sure about – it was indeed a sensation riding in front of a convoy – not knowing whether the next moment would be ones last – for the lodge had plenty of explosives in the back – hit a landmine and we should go sky high.

Ten miles from Antelat we met Sab Porter returning bringing along with him Captain Taylor and Major Brand – Driver Wagg now drives for the Major of 658.

It never rains but what it pours they say – here was Captain Taylor with N. A. A. F. I. stores & what should we meet two miles further on than a Mobile Canteen – Major Tolhurst spent 12 on Cigs: for the lads I bought 1’s worth.

Back at Antelat – we received our mail. Parcel – of last August from Wentworth. Air graphs from Mother, Eileen J. A. C, Hilda, and one from Sydney. Letter from mother & Lollie .B.

Major told me that I was going back to C. R. E. H. Q. I received notification that I was now full corporal w.e.f. last November 12th.

We were due to move tomorrow but Captain Taylor has yet to find Corps.

Gin Party – Q. Porter & I supped a bottle of gin.

Monday 12th January: Hanging around expecting to go back with Capt Taylor. Delayed until tomorrow. At dinnertime – 5.30. Colonel Chevis arrives and I make a poor impression – so I think. My fate hangs in the balance – heard Major had some bad news.

Tuesday 13th January: Major Tolhurst saw me before breakfast and told me I was going back – and that I had a chance of a third – that Fawcett was coming back to C. R. E. as Chief Clerk – Q. M. S. Rank. I learn Pickard is going back and know that Spr. Walls wishes to go back.

I must have an interview with the Colonel

Major lost his mother and so I am leaving this party to go on its way – beyond Agadabia – Assiat. I believe I am to go back to El Adam and find myself once more.

Wednesday 14th January 1942: Pickard doesn’t want to go back and is staying. We start off at 2 o’clock – the Colonel and Major Bavistock – driven by Worley and Durlord and self in Captain Taylor’s truck – captain Taylor riding behind with Major Brand – Puncture to mend

We push onto Soluch aerodrome and make Bengasi at 6 o’clock. Stay the night at R. A. Barracks. 2nd Puncture to mend.

Thursday 15th January 1942: All morning around Bengasi. Push onto Barce – passing thro’ lovely wooded country. For the first time I saw the Italian colonization – wonderbar! Reached Barce at nightfall. Puncture no 3.

Friday 16th January 1942: Colonel & Bavy go on alone. We follow – they make El Adam. By 6 o’clock – we only did 50 miles Spend night at Cirene – Lovely place – Old Roman ruins – in wonderful state of preservation. Seen from the top of hill. (Appolonia). Petrol trouble – it rained like hell all night – I had a most marvellous meal – Rissole, – potats, sauerkraut and sauce – rice pudding and tea –

Saturday 17th January 1942: Battery flat – had to tow 2 miles to start “Ballerina”. Got back to head quarters at 6 o’clock. Ballerina just made it. Four letters awaiting me when I got back.

Sunday 18th January 1942: Met almost everyone – nice to be back – nice to have decent food once more.

Monday 19th January 1942: Went to Q’s. He took nail from left great toe – much easier now.

Heard I am to work in office.

Here unfortunately is a break – due to the fact that the war is going all wrong in this part of the world.

So today is February 5th! What has gone before – tie up with El Adam! Well here it is – we left that godforsaken place two days ago. Feb. 3rd it would be. And journeyed back to Barrani. On the night of the 1st or was it the 31st? Jerry or Jim came over and bomb and strafed us – rather an uncomfortable night for an hour but soon went to sleep again. Continued working in office and went to M. O. for Chest treatment.

Two pages deleted – synopsis:

From Barrain to Moascar in February – we set up an office.

Dobbie and I pay visits to town.

Dobbie of to Kilo 40 to Capt Chettoe.

Dick and I off to town.

Messing in sappers’ mess not so good.

Dobbie – Mahmond – N. A. A. F. I. and two rascals of waiters.

Three stripes and off to Cairo as Colonel’s clerk – very poor welcome from Q. M. S. Rees, he is certainly no gentleman.

Robert Hill and Oliver Brindley in Cairo, 1942

Robert Hill and Oliver Brindley in Cairo, 1942

Billet led at Abbassia I said that I would rather return.

Met Wally.

Back once as Corporal.

Bob Fawcett returns as C/Clerk

Cinema at Moascar

A. S. C Coops joins unit.

Office moves to Kilo 40

Happy days in 658 mess. A day in Cairo every week.

Ray Dick Dobbie & I into town every weekend.

Cairo. At H. Q.

Richard Campbell Herod, Sgt Pilot Royal Canadian Air Force.

(Pieces cut out by me and censor.)

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