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Escape from Mersa

by douglaswelsford

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People in story: 
Duggie Welsford
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21 October 2003

In the strategic seesaws of the desert war in the Western Desert, fortune was once more in the favour of the German Africa Korps. After a comparative three months lull in the fighting whilst both Armies built up their forces, it was the German General Rommel who, anxious to continue his conquest of Cyrenaica made the first move. With the advantage of having air supremacy he unleashed his Panzer divisions and with military brilliance, the Africa Korps swept eastwards. Benghazi and Gazala were re-taken and the seemingly bastion of defence Tobruk with all its stores of fuel and supplies and with a loss of 30,000 prisoners, capitulated on the 21 June. It was now left for the fragmented 13th and 30th Corps to delay the Panzers advance and to allow the British forces to regroup at El Alamein. Mersa Matruh, the one remaining obstacle, was surrounded and cut off. In the darkness of the 28 June 1942, the beseiged British Troops attempted their breakout.
On the 25 June 1942, General Auchinleck, realising the seriousness of the situation had relieved General Ritchie and had himself taken over command of the Eighth Army. He wanted no part of his Army shut up in Mersa and for there to be another Tobruk, which he did not have the troops to defend. He had therefore decided that a stand would be made further eastwards. The 50th Division managed to break out eastwards during the night of 27/28 June but by a confusion of communications, 10 Corps in Matruh did not learn of this until the following morning.
Sunday 28 June dawned with our small RASC Unit Headquarters in a state of nascence regarding the true picture of what was happening. With the first light had come further bursts of shelling, some landing uncomfortably close. We had lost all control and contact with our platoons. By mid-day Auchinleck had ordered 10 Corps to breakout at 21 hours that evening, going southwards for 30 miles and then eastwards to Fuka. The withdrawal was to be covered by 13th Corps who were unfortunately told too late about the plan and were unable to comply.
Our Company Headquarters, ignorant of any orders, took the initiative and moved out from Mersa. About twelve or fifteen miles along the eastern coastal road and with the sea so near that it could be seen shimmering on our left, we were brought to a stop by vehicles blocking the road. On closer inspection, vehicles were seen amongst the sand dunes on the seaward side. It was a motley collection of transport of all types and sizes. Intermingled but seemingly isolated from their normal command were limbers towing pieces of artillery, an assortment of small and large trucks, some carrying infantry and some Bren carriers. The reason for the hold-up and the blocking of the road was that whilst the German 90th Light Division was breaching the minefields and attacking the western perimeter of Mersa, the Panzers skirting the town and coming inland from the desert had cut the road some twenty miles further east.
I had alighted from my vehicle and had walked forward to acquaint myself as to what was happening. Someone pointed out where the road rose and cut through the escarpment about half a mile away. It was just beyond this I was told that the Germans had cut the road.
At the time of our arrival, a Bren carrier was sent forward to reconnoitre the road. We watched as it trundled away getting smaller as it rose towards the escarpment and then to finally disappear. There was silence for a while and then we could hear a prolonged burst of gunfire, then silence again. Although we watched and waited, the carrier failed to reappear. It was then that the shells began to land among us.
It was about this time that the OC was told of the plan to breakout that evening. Our location was now coming under increasing fire and so it was decided that our HQ vehicles should return back the road from where they had come from. We took with us some of our own platoon vehicles, which somehow had ended up here amongst the motley collection of transport. We had been supervised to come across some of our own drivers who had been taken prisoner the day previous, but who had been liberated by a British tank patrol - such was the fluid nature of desert fighting.
Moving back away from the incoming fire, our unit dispersed itself among the sand dunes which led down to the sea. Future policy was outlined to everyone, it being decided that we would remain where we were until dark, when we would then go back and rejoin the others in an attempt to break through the force that had cut the road and was beseiging us. From where we were, we could still hear the sound of artillery and at one period in the day, witnessed a dogfight in the sky above us. During this encounter, three German planes were shot down, the planes spiralling smoke crashed somewhere out in the desert.
The Quartermaster opened his truck for the issue of shirts, socks, underwear and cigarettes, which was to our minds a foreboding of what was to come, especially when the issue was made without paperwork or asking for any signatures. The cooks got busy and prepared an enormous meal greatly enhanced by what they had plundered from Matruh. Nothing was stinted, which raised the question: Was this to be The Last Supper?
Darkness had settled in when we moved from the location and travelled the short distance along the road to meet up again with the others. For the break-out we were organised into packets of vehicles. One thing we had in our favour was that the moon was shedding just that amount of light for the drivers to at least see the vehicle in front of them and for them to see where they were driving.
Leaving the road, the vehicles worked their way towards the escarpment. They were in low gear; the noisy discordant sound of the engines, especially of those becoming bogged down in the sand was shattering the silence of the desert night. The object was to slip out unobserved, but the noise that they were making must surely be heard in Berlin!
The first casualty was one of our own vehicles, which had been bogged down in the sand and had to be abandoned. There was no way to completely destroy it; to catch it on fire would be to alert the Germans. The driver had to be content with opening the bonnet, removing the distributor and wrenching out the leads. Passing it immobilized I could not help but cast a lingering look at it and bemoan the loss of all the goodies it carried which had been filched from the NAAFI in Mersa.
In the darkness vehicles became so hopelessly mixed that trucks and men of different units travelled together and in the mix-up many of the drivers could do nothing but follow the vehicle in front of it. After a while, the tension left us, we had passsed over the escarpment and were moving into the vastness of the desert. Perhaps all was going to be well after all.
Both the driver and myself were wearing greatcoats. The desert nights even in summer could be quite chilly. The moon was giving just that amount of light to avoid any of the larger stones or boulders, nevertheless the ride was bumpy. The vehicles were travelling two or three abreast and were bunched together with space between them just that much to allow the driver to pick his way. Our truck was about two-thirds of the way back in the vehicle formation.
Suddenly, without any forewarning, there was the rat-tat-tat and crackle of small arms fire. At the same time, shells were exploding somewhere in front of us. Crossing the sky from our right, we saw the trajectory of tracer, balls of light bouncing across the sky. The front of the column was the first to receive the barrage of fire and then we could feel it all around us. The whistle and shriek of the bullets and shells passing over and around us was frightening. I could remember, that subconsciously, for protection, I turned up the collar of my greatcoat.
For a short time, the mind was in a state of stupor and then from the pandemonium came the reality of what was happening. It was not possible to go forward, vehicles in front had stopped and were trying to extricate themselves. Without being told, my driver had somehow managed, in the calamitous confusion, to turn the vehicle and swing out into the desert. Bumping over the uneven ground, we were racing back the way we had come. Vehicles that had come unscathed were roaring along with us. After a while I told the driver to slow down, in the darkness and at the speed we were going, we could easily hit an obstacle or break a spring. Finally, I told the driver to stop.
Seeing him slow down and stop had prompted other drivers to do the same. Whilst I was trying to gather the vehicles together, the ground was lit by flares and the trucks quickly dispersed into the darkness of the desert. By this time, other vehicles had come along and joined us and it was whilst I was again endeavouring to get them all together that there appeared out of the darkness, and coming from the direction of Mersa, another column of vehicles.
Riding at its head in a 15cwt was an officer; his shoulder badges barely discernible in the darkness denoted the rank of Colonely. Seeing the group of soldiers he enquired as to who was in charge? I was able to say that although I was not in charge, I seemed to be the senior present. The colonel questioned me as to what had happened and on hearing my account of the ambush, decided that they should attempt to break through the Germans at a different point. He gave instructions for our vehicles to join his convoy.
This time we were lucky and met no opposition. Having no compass I guessed by the stars that the general direction was southeast. It must have been around midnight when we had the second brush with the enemy. This time we were lucky and met no opposition. Having no compass, I guessed by the stars that the general direction was southeast. It must have been around midnight when we had the second brush with the enemy. This time it was a few shells fired in our direction, but we carried on. Again, in the early hours, we drew more fire and this cat-and-mouse game carried on for most of the night, but we were spurred on with the thoughts that every mile was one nearer to Fuka where, it was understood, that 13th Corps armour awaited us.
Darkness had begun to weaken and with the appearance of the hazy daylight of dawn had come a thick and heavy enveloping mist, forcing us to stop. The colonel had done his job well and considered that we had thrown off the enemy and must now be at Fuka or beyond. The latest communication that he had received before leaving Mersa was that the Eighth Army were making a stand at Fuka, which was between Mersa Matruh and El Daba. Briefing us, he told us that he now considered us to be in safe territory.
The word went round that we were considered to be in safe territory. Tired, dirty drivers wrapped in greatcoats, some still wearing their steel helmets, slept at the wheel of their trucks. Others took the opportunity to stretch their legs. The desert morning mist was so thick that we had difficulty in seeing the vehicles on either side and about us. It was then that the order went out for absolute silence; something had been heard on the verge of the cluster of vehicles.
A 15cwt truck with a Bren team was despatched to investigate. The NCO in charge was Len, one of the platoon sergeants of our unit. He was an old friend, our friendship going back to the time when we had been corporals together in Palestine before moving into the desert. Up to this time I had no idea that Len was travelling with us. He must have come out of Mersa with the colonel's convoy.
Soon, Len was back and to the astonishment of everyone had brought with him a vehicle filled with Italian soldiers. We did not know who was the more surprised, the Italians or we. Our small British force was surprised because we had just been congratulating ourselves in shaking off the enemy. The Italians were surprised at being captured whilst resting in the centre of a German armoured column. There were no British forces at Fuka, they had withdrawn further east and unwittingly, our mixed bag of men and trucks had somehow penetrated without detection into a large German force.
It was whilst interrogating the Italians that the thick mist that had been enveloping us and helped by the appearance of a strong rising sun, had started to clear. Visibility first extended to a few yards, then quickly it rose to a hundred, then two hundred and the full realisation of our predicament became clear.
Out of the swirling lifting mist, the blurred outline of vehicles quickly resolved into tanks dispersed all around us. My spirits sank when I saw on the side of the nearest armoured vehicle, a black cross. Intermingled with the German vehicles and all too recognisable were British trucks which had obviously been captured during the recent German blitzkrieg across the desert.
There was no need for the colonel to stress our predicament. He gave orders for the uncoupling of the two Bofor guns that had been travelling with us. Their muzzles were lowered to ground level and turned to face the mass of enemy vehicles; I could not help but think, poor bastards - they are to be sacrificed in order to help us get away.
The vehicles moved off, slowly at first and then motivated by their drivers will to escape, they quickly gathered speed until they were all racing and swerving through the enemy vehicles and encampment in their headlong flight to escape. The Germans, first possibly put on guard when the Italians were picked up, or alerted by the sentries were quick to respond. Before our vehicles were clear of the camp we were already coming under concentrated small arms fire. Clear of the camp the charging vehicles bumping and bouncing over the desert were fleeing in every direction, but were coming under increasingly heavier fire. The driver of my vehicle was doing well, but there was a limit to the speed that the truck could make over the rough and sandy terrain.
Added to the crackle of small arms fire were now the louder thump of larger guns and the whine of shells. A truck just in front and to the the left of our vehicle suddenly shuddered and careered across in front of us and we drove through its splintering wreckage. I was then aware of a half-track vehicle immediately to my left. It was parallel to my vehicle, travelling fast and rapidly closing in on us. Clearly seen in the back of the the half-track and manning an ugly-looking weapon were two Germans, the weapon was aimed straight at us.
As I looked, the weapon was fired and the frightening shriek of a projectile was heard passing overhead. It could not have been a miss, more likely a warning shot. Before any further shot could be fired I shouted for the driver to abandon the vehicle. With the vehicle continuing under its own momentum, we opened our cab doors and flung ourselves out.
I hit the ground on my left side, my upper arm and shoulder taking the main brunt of the fall, my thick greatcoat helping to cushion the impact with the ground. I rolled over and lay still on my stomach with my head pushed into the ground. Above and around me I could hear the continuing noise of weaponry and the whirring tracks of the armoured vehicles. At any moment I expected to feel the thud of one of the bullets hitting my body or that one of the mechanised monsters would grind over me.
Such was the tension and fear that I found that I was breathing heavily and with each suction of my breath, dust and sand was being drawn into my mouth and nostrils. I moved my head to one side and from the ground level of my eyes could see nothing but sand and dust swirling around me. I could not believe what was happening, my thoughts were all jumbled up. Should I risk getting up? Perhaps if I lie there feigning death, they might not bother about me. In the past, I had seen many bodies lying where they had fallen.
The noise had lessened and was moving away, but firing could still be heard in the near distance. I became calmer, my blood ceased to pound as it had before. I heard voices somewhere behind me and then there was a prodding to my body, by someone kicking at me with his foot. I turned my head to look up and saw not the steel helmeted Wehrmacht soldier of my nightmares, but a bearded corporal of the Africa Korps.
He was dressed casually in tropical jacket and trousers and on his head was a soft cap with a large peak. The bottom of his trousers overlapped canvas boots - the automatic weapon he was holding was pointing right at me.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Escape from Mersa

Posted on: 10 November 2003 by douglaswelsford

A typing error on line 60 of the above. Supervised should be surprised.

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