- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Victor John Flack
- Location of story:
- Alexandria, Abukir - Egypt; Malta convoy.
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 16 December 2005
Instalment 4 — RAF 1942
On April 10th, a group of use were posted to the Alexandria area, leaving the next day, our special railway coach being attached to a train going in that direction. My diary reminds me that from the train, we saw water wheels being worked by bullocks, providing the irrigation in the fields. The train passed closely to enclosures holding thousands of P.O.W.s — a lively, shouted exchange of good humoured abuse took place, enjoyed by both sides. I think they must have been Italians, happy to be away from the danger area.
Another incident, which sticks in the memory, occurred when our train was parked, with our coach straddling a bridge over a road. We had surplus corned beef sandwiches from our packed lunch; when one was jettisoned, landing on the road below, it was eagerly snatched up, so more were provided for the gathering crowd hoping for manna from heaven. We watched the resultant chaos with interest as the traffic came to a stop.
Holidays abroad were not affordable for most ordinary people pre-war. It was not until after the war, when jet engine air liners with packaged holidays were in competition with expensive and time consuming travel by sea, that holidays abroad became within reach of many holiday makers. And of course television didn’t come into most of our lives until the 1950s so travel films were not commonplace in our homes. That is why we common erks found this train journey through a foreign country so intriguing, - a totally new experience for most of us.
At eleven thirty that night, we arrived at Abukir, near Alexandria. Here, there was a transit camp, attached to 103 Maintenance Unit, and a landing strip. The actual village of Abukir was about a mile away. Our tents were within easy walking distance of Abukir Bay. (Where Nelson defeated the French fleet in Battle of Nile in August 1798).
After a few days at the camp, we decided to make ourselves more comfortable by using wooden boxes for beds, there were no ants here, but sitting on the floor was not something we were used to. All seemed well for a couple of nights, and then the downside of our ingenuity became apparent. One of our numbers woke up in the night, being bitten by bugs. We then found that every joint and crack in our woodwork, was alive with the things. We had to counter attack using paraffin liberated from a fuel store, while a sympathetic bribed guard was looking the other way. So this was Egypt, and we hadn’t met the mosquitoes and other nasties yet. The vision of cold and foggy England was not so unpleasant after all.
For about ten days we were free to do as we wished after the roll call. Most days we meandered down to the beach, using the lizards for target practice on the way — luckily I saw no one score a direct hit. Our route took us past an Egyptian owned shack, where lads who woke up too late for breakfast, could buy delicious smelling fried stuff, and on arrival at the beach, we could modestly get changed in a hut, before cooling off in the sea. Sometimes the water was flat calm, and we could swim down through clear water to pick up things from the bottom, at other times there were rollers coming in big enough to ride without a surf board (come to think of it, surf boards may not have been invented then).
When we were up at the airfield one day, we watched planes (ours) swooping over targets and releasing bags of what looked like flour. We put these antics down to target practice. This idyllic lifestyle couldn’t last for long, of course, there being a desperate desert war in full swing a few miles away. One of the hangars on the airfield was used for constructing Hurricanes, which arrived in sections. Much cooler in the hangar, and we felt more wanted when directed to work in there.
On 1st June, a few of us were told to pack, ready to move, our posting had come up. Our overalls had to be handed in, and our kit bags marked ‘M draft’. Didn’t know what that m meant... Our next stop was El Tahag, my diary says. I have tried to find it on my atlas, but no luck there.
On Wednesday 10th we climbed aboard a train, which took us to Port Said. By now, from that ‘M’ on our kitbags, and the fact that we were about to cross a gangplank on to yet another boar, a rumour that we were on our way to Malta, seemed to be worth taking note of. The older ones among us seemed to be very apprehensive about this , but me, at 19 I was quite enjoying this foreign travel and sea cruises, even if I didn’t get a cabin every time.
The gangplank led on to a small passenger ship called the “Princess Marguerite”, a Canadian ‘Packet Ship’ we were told. It sailed very soon after we were aboard.
The next day we arrived at Haifa, Palestine (now called Israel) and about six of us were transferred to another ship. This was Holt Line cargo ship, called “Ajax” — not to be confused with a naval vessel with the same name. Our accommodation took a dive here. No cabin, no bed, just find a place among the mixed cargo on the crowded deck.
In addition to our small group, there were several RN sailors and some stevedores. They all seemed to know more than we did about what was going on. “We are going to Malta”, they said. We learned that the Navy lads were there to operate the Bofors guns, the stevedores, to rapidly unload the cargo, some of it on rafts, and the smaller Lewis guns were our responsibility. Unlike the Navy and Army, we would not be coming back, as we were to replace ground crew being brought back from Malta.
I didn’t get to handle a Lewis gun, probably just as well as I would not have had time to view the proceedings during the voyage.
We all had to do something, no idle passengers on this trip — my something was to be fireman at number 4 hatchway, which I found was located just below the bridge, where the captain spent most of his time.
Because so few merchant ships were reaching Malta, each one carried a mixed cargo, food, spare parts, fuel, a bit of everything, so if only one arrived, many people would benefit. Our ship sailed that same day — we had been paid in Palestine money, but no way of spending it, and we were now on our way back up the Med, to join a convoy off Alexandria.
The convoy sailed on Saturday 13th June. We were now in the company of eight cruisers, twenty six destroyers, four corvettes, two mine sweepers, nine other merchant ships, and a tanker. Oh yes, and a battleship, or what had started life as a battleship, built 1911, had degenerated pre-war into a wireless controlled target ship, and in April 1941, was given a wood and canvas super-structure to make her look like the new battleship “Anson”, in order to confuse the enemy.
Shortly after we joined the convoy, barrage balloons were deployed over some of the ships, and the motor launch approached our ship, and a naval officer climbed aboard. We were asked to gather round, to hear what he had to say. He introduced himself as a liaison officer, and proceeded to frighten some of us to death. His address went something like this: - “We are going to attempt to get supplies to Malta. When an operation exposing service people to considerable danger is undertaken, the policy now, is to inform those taking part, of the overall plan. Two convoys are being despatched to Malta simultaneously, one from the west Gibraltar, and one from the east, this one “. He went on to explain optimistically, that if we were to get sunk, a rescue ship would pick us up. A few more words, then off he went to his motor launch. This dire warning probably made our faces turn pale, but this would not have noticed under our recently acquired tan.
The next entertainment, was watching three motor torpedo boats catch up with the convoy, and each one tied up behind a ship, to be towed. Don’t know for how long they stayed with us, as I didn’t see them depart.
All seemed peaceful so far. Night came, and we were warned to keep our steel helmets and life jackets close, if we were to bed down somewhere. My cape/groundsheet was still with me, and this was to serve as my bed again.
That Saturday night , and for part of Sunday, we were still in range of British held airfields, which could provide cover for us, and we passed through “Bomb Alley” as it was called, between Crete and Derna, with nothing untoward happening. But we are now getting out of range of our fighter cover, and later that day we got to know what it was like to be at the receiving end of persistent air attacks from unfriendly dive bombers. My recent research tells me that we were subjected to seven air attacks by nightfall on Sunday, by sixty or seventy Junkers 87 Stuka dive bombers, and JU 88s, I don’t know who counted them, and I was too busy watching the spectacular display at close quarters.
All the ships were tacking; continually changing course in an effort to avoid the bombing, there must have been many near collisions. The tanker was close to us, and I watched with interest, as a Stuka aimed a stick of three bombs at it. Spray from the exploding bombs hid the tanker from view, but not for long. The bows of the tanker came ploughing through the spray, no damage done. I felt the urge to cheer, but there was nobody else near, except, hopefully, somebody up on the bridge. This episode, I had been watching from the exposed ship’s rail, but I retreated to the cover of an overhang, when I noticed rows of splashes alongside our ship, and realised they were caused by machine gun bullets
After dark there was no relief, as flares were dropped to aid the bombers and the air attacks were accompanied by submarine and E boat attacks, no chance of decent nights sleep yet. There had been a few casualties on our ship, including the third mate, who had stopped a few pieces of shrapnel. The terrific din from the ceaseless anti aircraft barrage, the screamers on the dive bombers, the sound of explosives, and the sight of tracers rising up from the close range AA guns, continued on Monday 15th.
During Tuesday, I saw that a fire had started on our “battleship” — the Centurion, it slowed down, presumably to avoid fanning the flames, then, with the flames extinguished, and it got under way again. A report states that its close range armament had destroyed four Stukas. That ship was scuttled in June 1944, off Normandy to be used as a block ship, prior to the construction of Mulberry Harbour.
The convoy reversed direction fro the second time on 16th June, and was now hot footing it back to Alex. At least it was going well, until a cruiser, the Hermione was sunk by a U boat’s torpedo. This caused the whole convoy to “heave to”, while destroyers scurried up and down, hopefully tossing depth charges overboard. Don’t know if they had any luck with them. We resumed our withdrawal, and eventually reached Port Said, we were back in Egypt. But not all of us. One cruiser had been sunk, taking 87 sailors down with her, two other cruisers damaged, four destroyers sunk, two merchant ships sunk and two others damaged and had dropped out of the convoy.
The liaison officer had mentioned two convoys. I have discovered from library books that the one from the east-Alexandria, our convoy, was code named “Vigorous”, and the one from the west-Gibraltar, code named “Harpoon”. The Harpoon convoy had set off with five merchant ships and a tanker, plus escorts. Two merchant ships survived to limp into Malta, all the others were sunk. Those two merchant ships helped Malta to survive until the well known “Pedestal” convoy managed to deliver more supplies in August.
Our “Vigorous convoy, was the only British convoy-for lack of a Battle fleet, to be turned back in the Med. (Cruisers were the largest naval vessels in the convoy).
It seems that our convoy had used up most of its ammunition, and would have been defenceless had it continued. Many lives had been lost, including servicemen on the merchant ships; we had also lost planes, trying to protect the convoy. One of these, a Beaufighter, was shot down into the sea. The observer got out on the surface, but the pilot sank with his aircraft. He could not undo the hatch, and had to given himself up to death. He sank so far, that pressure opened the hatch, and brought him to the surface in an air bubble, at the same time tearing from the wing a petrol tank almost empty of fuel. The pilot out the observer, a poor swimmer, on to the tank, and pushed him ashore in a swim that lasted ten hours.
At Port Said, the six of us in crumpled RAF outfits, said cheerio to our fellow sufferers, not knowing if we would be re-called for a second suicidal attempt.
We were whisked away to nearby Port Fouad transit camp, where we were confined to camp for security reasons, but were allowed to obtain beer on the book, not having any suitable currency.
A few days later we were on the move again, next stop Abukir, where we started work dismantling airscrews, propellers.
On 30th June, a notice appeared asking anyone who could drive, to volunteer to be taken to Tobruck, to evacuate lorries from there, as the advancing Germans were uncomfortably close. I volunteered, and was refused, owing to our workload. The Germans were only seventy miles from us, and were expected to capture Alexandria.
Shortly after this eleven of us were posted to 111M.U. a maintenance unit in the hills near Cairo.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.