BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

BBC Homepage
BBC History
WW2 People's War Homepage Archive List Timeline About This Site

Contact Us

Chapter 11b - Deeper Into the Desert

by TORRANCE Duncan Leitch

Contributed by 
TORRANCE Duncan Leitch
People in story: 
Duncan Torrance
Location of story: 
Lybian Desert
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
05 December 2005


During my stay at Giovanni Berta, I was given the map reference of several Germans who were lying unburied at a position not far from the Wellington for which we had searched in vain. It was decided I should take another expedition to that area.

I left Benghazi the next friday morning. As before, with a jeep and a 15cwt. There was no spare officer, but three drivers. One of the wheels had been stolen off our jeep at night. The driver had fitted one taken from a scrap dump. As we soon saw, it was badly out of true, so there was our first hold up. Once we had swopped the new wheel with the spare, we were able to drive on. We took the old route we'd taken before and sustained ourselves on tea.

At the first-halt, we decided to burn wood instead of the usual petrol. The petrol was poured onto the sand in a tin and lit - a Benghazi burner. Wood was both quicker and easier to control. Unfortunately the flames died away before our water was boiling. L/Cpl Mannering (see photo - part 1 of this chapter), an experienced desert hand, picked up a four, gallon tin and started to pour petrol on the fire. The result was inevitable.

The jerry can caught fire. The jeep was only ten feet away.

I was petrified. But the driver insisted that he could close the cap on the jerrycan with a stick. He said 'the can can't go on fire, there's no air in it'. To my amazement, he proved his point. He got the fire out. All was safe.

We passed El Charruba about 4.30, and made our way further into the desert. At about six, we halted and made camp, although I was not exactly sure where we were.

Next morning I left with the jeep and one driver. The ground we traversed corresponded with the map, and I was soon quite confident we had camped at the right spot the night before.
Only an hour after we had left our camp, I was hailed by a Senussi herdsman. He invited us to his camp for some tea. We sat with him for about an bour. I was able both to confirm our position beyond all doubt. I also got a guide to the camp of a neighbouring tribe who were supposed to be familiar with the area we were going to search.

The surface of the desert was gradually becoming more and more rocky. In places, the tufts of grass cocealed rocks. I had to stand up in the jeep and keep an eye on the ground in front of us to prevent that horrible sensation of hearing a large stone crack and crunch under one of the differentials.

Our next host would only accompany us a short way. Our map reference lay in the'no man's Land' between his tribe of Senussi and the neighbouring tribe of bedouins. we started our journey back to his camp along a level sand flat which stretched Southwards as far as the eye could see.
It was a fact of life that not all the Senussi bedouin were friendly to each other. Occaisionally at night, we could hear their cross-fire.

This had been left in some ways a bitter country. Its societies and traditions had been damaged.

I think the Italians invaded Lybia about 1937. Legend has it that General Badolia captured twenty leading Senussi. They were taken up in an aeroplane and chucked out without parachutes. Not the friendliest gesture.

We had noticed one or two gazelle on the way out and were not surprised to see another herd on this endless sand flat. Our Arab passenger was most insistent that we offer chase. So, rather to satisfy him, than with any real desire or hope of catching the gazelle, we made a show at giving chase.

But our Arab friend was quite determined. On our part, we needed his help.
With the gazelle safely stowed, we were able to resume our journey. The Arab was now repeating his promise to take us to the aircraft that matched the description we'd been give by Cairo.

We journeyed on for mile after mile. After the chase, I was not sure where we were to within ten miles. This rather worried me as I took a pride in knowing my exact location, even with a guide. There is no doubt that the Arab has a wonderful knowledge of the desert as far as the tracks are concerned. He relies on his memery as much as anything. Nothing will persuade him to take to the unknown.

Eventually I became quite worried in case the bedouin was actually lost. The we came to a wadi which I realised was one of two marked on the map, time would prove which. We had by now covered a dog leg of thirty miles. We had travelled at least fifty miles from the point at which we started the chase, when the aircraft was supposedly ten miles away. Something was wrong.

We halted, checked the petrol, then told the Arab that we would give up the search for the aircraft. It must be remtbered that we knew as little Arabic and Italian as he knew English. I tried to check my bearings, but he would not co-operate. I told him the correct (I checked this afterwards) location of his own camp, but even that did not register. So, we decided to go a little further in search of the aircraft.

Fear draws everyone closer. We started to side slip while climbing the face of a wadi. Only the front wheels pulled us out. Our friend became talkative once more. Apparently, at the halt, he had imagined we were running short of petrol and trying to throw him off so we could make a straight run home.

After about another three miles we came to our aircraft. We could find nothing atall. Nothing, save a hare which bolted away.

During the journey we had struck a bargain for the spoils of the trip. The Arab was to give us a meal for which he kept the gazelle with the exception of the head. I took the head back to Benghazi in the hope of finding a taxidermist. But I had to be content with the skull and horns; these I still have.

The whole camp gathered in the Sheik's tent. A rug partitioned the centre. On one side the men began skinning the kill, on the other the women prepared to cook the meal. It took them only acoupleof hours from the time of arrival to having a leg beautifully cooked before us.

We ate it in the true Eastern fashion, squatting, with a bone in our hand, smacking our lips, and generally making as much noise as possible even to belching. This was the first time I had eaten gazelle, I suppose the last as well. We ate it completely on its own, no vegetables, no bread, only water so thick it could have been cut with a knife, and enjoyed it.

Almost as soon as the meal was over, we set off again with our original guide. The only piece of excitement was when going along the side of a wadi. The jeep hit a stone and balanced itself precariously on two wheels for what seemed an age but can't have been more than seconds.

We had a halt as our guide wished to speak to a shepherd. He drew some crystal clear, ice cold water from a well. He then sent his son off for some goat's milk. The boy milked the goat, and came back. This put us on our feet again.

It was after five when we left our guide. Sadly, he was feeling terribly insulted. He had offerred us some more tea, which we had very regretfully to refuse. It would have been fateful if we had allowed darkness to overtake us. We ourselves would not have come to any harm, but our friends in the camp would have been extremely worried. I had left orders to cover such an emergency. They were to light petrol fires during the night and start searching at dawn. If they did not find us, they were to return Benghazi, and call for an air search.

We had a standing arrangement, that if two days late back in Benghazi, our 00 would call for an air search. We always left copies of our route etc in the office.

During the evening, I formulated a plan for our next day's search. I decided we must travel out by a circuitous route, well beyond the area,ofothe Sennasi tribe we had already contacted. We would then attempt to approach our map reference from the other side, with, if possible, the assistance of different guides.

We left early in the morning. After an hours travel, we stopped by one of several concrete pillars. These navigational aids were useless to us because their identifying numers were not marked on our maps. By one of these, we attended to the routine morning function of a healthy life.

Shortly afterwards we came cross some German troop carrying vehicles. The tale, about our bosche was that a group of enemy troop carrying vehicles had been caught in laga, and straffed from the air. I thought this scene was typical of what I was looking for. But it was well off the route my information suggested, and some ten miles from the map reference.

We swerved off the track so as to see most of the trucks. We stopped and examined each in turn, save the one actually on the track, which was in the centre of the semi-circle.

After an hours travel, we came to another bedouin camp, where we halted, and were welcomed in for another 'shy' (tea). Serving took time. The longer the time, the geater honour conferred on the guest. The tea was always in tiny glasses and flavoured with mint. A wonderful thirst quencher.
We confirmed our position, but were unable to get any clue about our Germans. We had to follow the route our informer had traced on the map. It did not take us long to find his route was impassable to 15cwt trucks. Even with the jeep, we had to be careful in places.

Just as we were beginning to wonder if we were lost, we came across a little Arab boy of fourteen or so, shepherding a flock of sheep' and goats. The war might still have been on, so high were his praises of the British and curses of the Germans. He soon gave us directions to a place answering to our description, where he said there were some skeletons.

We had noticed that Arabs refused a gift of bully beef, probably on religious grounds. As a parting gift, we gave our shepherd boy a tin of sardines, with which he was overjoyed.

From the brow of the neighbouring sand dune, we pursued our quarry through binoculars. I was horrified to find an uncanny resemblance between them and the vehicles we had seen earlier in the morning. I tried to locate the track and identify the angles of these wrecked derelicts, and persuaded myself they were a second lot. Anyway, it was impossible to be certain while still eight miles away.

As we approached nearer and nearer, I became more and more certain these were a different lot of vehicles. Then, suddenly, when only three of four hundred yards away, 'the penny dropped'. The
first vehicle we came to, was the one we hadn't looked at last time. Lo and behold, four white skulls lay neatly beside it, where the kite hawks had left them.

It had also been reported that an aircraft lay not far from these vehicles. We cruised round and eventually found Meschersmitt 109. Not, as we had hoped, a Wellington, which might have been connected with our search of the previous day.

We were by now none too certain of our exact position, and the track back. fe decided that, rather than return to the troop carriers, we would join the return track at an angle. We would be able to confirm our position at the concrete post marked by our early morning halt.

Things did not go as expected. We missed the track and soon we had the ridiculous picture of a British Officer, riding round the desert, lookng for the particular concrete post he had visited in the morning. All good things come to an end so we decided to strike off in the rough direction of our camp. We came to a ridge of hills. Finding a way through guided us back onto the track that brought us out at our camp.

Safely back in camp, sitting round in the evening, I reflected that I had found my quarry without the use of a compass or speedometer. I had travelled by the sun, and, as the jeep's speedometer was broken, had had to judge all the distances. My informant at Giovanni Berta, had warned me of the necessity of getting a guide to take me to the area, let alone for the search.

Using a compass was quite hard work. A magnetic compass had to be read two hundred yards away from a vehicle. So either you walked, or were dumped, and the vehicle retreated. Then you fixed a point on the horizon and lined up the vehicle with it. We then checked where the sun cast its shadow on the bonnet. That shadow was our guide.

A ship can sail a straight line. You can't cross the desert in a straght line. But the shadow of the windscreen frame on the bonnet, guided us as we bumped and weaved through the rocks.

The 15 cwt trucks had a hole in the roof above the passenger seat. Standing on the seat, three feet out of the truck, gave improved vision. Although padded, the bumping used to leave a bruised waist.
Our journey back to Benghazi did not include any points of particular interest. I got one false alarm about 8.30 in the morning. The 15 cwt was often a fair distance behind the jeep. But I was horrifed to find it well over a mile away, with the driver squatting down, examining the front wheel.

The jeep driver and I peered through the glasses, but could determine nothing. Then we suddenly realised that the relieve driver, a L/Cpl driver mechanic, and an expert with motor vehicles, was standing on the other side staring into space. We realised what was in progress, so waited rather sheepishly 'till they had caught up with us.

Our spirits were a little damped from the start of the journey. We had all enjoyed ourselves immensely. But this was the last trip. Possible the last time we would be in the desert. Certainly the last time we would work as a team.

© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.

Archive List

This story has been placed in the following categories.

Books Category
icon for Story with photoStory with photo

Most of the content on this site is created by our users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please click here. For any other comments, please Contact Us.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy