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24 Hours I Will Never Forget

by Arthur Kelly

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Arthur Kelly
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20 January 2006

24 Hours

It was 9.30am in September 1941. I was on the deck of a destroyer with about a hundred other soldiers. To the south I could see the Egyptian coast and the little railway stations of the Desert Railway, El Amariyah, El Alamein, El Daba. To the north were the other ships of our high speed convoy — three other destroyers and a high speed mine-laying light cruiser — in their Mediterranean camouflage of various shades of light grey; at deck level I could distinguish a dark brown line. They carried several hundred other soldiers.

We were the reinforcements for the garrison of Tobruk, the Libyan fortress besieged by the Germans since April. The infantry of the garrison, mostly four Australian brigades, were so weakened by the German assaults at Easter and early May, the continuous artillery and air bombardments and sickness, that they were not in a position to repel many further attacks, nor could they have mounted the sortie which was to link up with the 8th Army in November and December.

So, for two months, every moonless night, an Australian battalion was replaced by a battalion either from our division or the Polish Carpathian Brigade. We had been woken in Alexandria at 6.30am and embarked at about 8am. The cargo — about 200 tonnes of ammunition; shells, bombs, mines and a few sacks of post — was already loaded on the deck. We arranged ourselves on and around this explosive heap.

Obviously we were expected to stay at our destination for several months, for despite the heat of an Egyptian summer, we were kitted up with serge battledress. We were equipped in full field service marching order — a backpack weighing about 30lbs, a knapsack with three days’ rations, full water bottle, steel helmet, gas mask, rifle and 150 rounds of rifle ammunition. In addition, because there was very little useable motor transport in the fortress and absolutely no horses or mules, everyone had several extra burdens. I got an extra 300 rounds of rifle ammo in bandoliers and half a 10-line telephone exchange. I forgot; we had one other extra burden. We had been told to wear gym shoes and carry our army boots round our necks, hung by their laces. I reckon I was carrying well over a hundredweight.

Our destroyer carried the headquarters of the 23rd Infantry Brigade and the Brigade Signal Section, in which I was a wireless operator.

After an exciting but successful encounter with some stukas in “bomb alley” we reached our destination about nightfall. The convoy stopped about 10 miles offshore. Through the dark we could see and hear shells and bombs bursting in the port and I could see lines of tracers in the sky.

I asked a passing sailor “Is that Tobruk? I don’t much fancy landing there.” He said, “Don’t worry, the Jerries guess we’re going to land something tonight and they hope to get us in the trap. The bombardment will finish in about half an hour. They can’t afford to shell and bomb the harbour all night. The moon doesn’t rise till 10.30 and you will have at least two hours to get to the perimeter positions.”

He was right. After about 20 minutes the shelling and bombing stopped. We slid gently into the port and tied up to a ruined jetty. The crew threw the cargo over the port side into a waiting barge and we went down a starboard gangway onto the jetty. In the darkness we could just distinguish a line of Australian infantry waiting to embark. We said nothing but, despite their incredible hardships over the last four to five months, the Aussies could not refrain from their usual banter. “Enjoy your seaside holiday, Poms!” they shouted to us.

We made our way through the ruined town. The street was cluttered with debris and shell splinters, which was very painful for those wearing rubber shoes and carrying over a hundredweight. We could see the glow of the rising moon over the coastline escarpment and did not dawdle. After a march of about five or six miles, almost entirely over unmade roads and tracks, we reached our destination. I can’t remember where or when I discarded my burden of the telephone exchange or where or when I put my army boots back on, nevertheless we got there.

We ran into the usual cock-up. Due to the inevitable “fog of war” we found the dug-outs of our position still occupied by Australian infantry. They resisted the invasion by a section of lost Pommy signalers with a barrage of swearing and an absolute refusal to move out. We had, in the words of “Old Bill”, to find another ‘ole. We found shelter in various slit trenches and shell and bomb craters. I was in a large bomb crater with two other wireless ops. This was not very comfortable as the bottom of the hole was full of bomb splinters and bits of rock, but at least it was below ground level.

We were relatively safe, but in a rather noisy location. Every five or 10 minutes we would hear a salvo of enemy shells land, usually a mile or two away, and occasionally the reply from the garrison artillery. Almost continually we heard the slow rattle of the heavy machine guns of the garrison and the even slower reply of the German Spandaus.

I remember one of my two companions in the bomb hole. He was a local man who had been in Tobruk before and been wounded at the battle of Beda Fomm in February. He had been in hospital in Tobruk when the siege began and was eventually evacuated to Egypt — his experiences, especially in Tobruk, had left him a bit “bomb happy”. I noticed he was very agitated during the bomb alley run, but since I was also uneasy I didn’t think it significant. I was soon to find otherwise.

The moon rose and after a little while we heard AA fire and the sound of an aircraft passing and repassing overhead. The AA ceased but the plane, which seemed to be a reconnaissance plane, probably a Henschel or a Fieseler Storck, continued to drone overhead. “I wonder what he’s looking for,” said the other of my companions. “Maybe an ammo dump,” I said. “Or perhaps the recently arrived reinforcements,” he replied. At this, the bomb-happy man said he was going back to try and find shelter in one of the dug-outs. We told him not to move as it was clear moonlight and any movement would give us away.

Just then the aircraft dropped a parachute flare and it was like daylight. Despite our efforts to restrain him, the man broke free and ran towards the fortified position. We heard the aircraft turn round and come towards us. The engine note rose. “He’s dropped his stick”, said my mate. We heard the scream of the bombs and about six dropped across our hole — the nearest about 5 yards away. We were unhurt, but half buried in a deluge of sand and small stones. “If he turns round again he’ll strafe us,” I said. “This saucer will be no good then.” So we both ran to the dug-outs. This time the Aussies were more sympathetic and we both found shelter. He, on the floor and I on the entrance steps of the dugout.

After a short while a light wind sprang up and the air became like a pea soup fog. This was one of the notorious Tobruk dust storms. I could barely see 10 feet from my face. Under cover of the dust storm, an Australian officer turned up to take his soldiers away and we occupied the dug-out. I had not long dropped off when I felt an annoying irritation. The dugout, like all old desert shelters, was infested with fleas. Fleas or no fleas, I was soon asleep. Within seconds, it seemed, I was being woken up by the sentry. It was the dawn “stand to”.

All through the siege, every day, at dawn and at dusk, the whole garrison occupied their defence posts with loaded weapons. No one was exempted. Infantry, gunners, engineers, cooks, clerks and orderlies all had to “stand to”, even the stevedores in the docks.

And so I found myself standing on the fire step, my rifle in front of me on the parapet, magazine full and one up the spout, my thumb on the safety catch, my feet bruised and bleeding, my shoulders and arms aching from the previous day’s loads, eaten up by fleas, sand in my eyes, my ears, my hair and between my teeth. My face was covered in a sort of chocolate make-up made of sand dust and sweat. I thought of the days, weeks and months ahead in this hell hole, I remembered all that had happened since I left Alexandria and I said to myself, “This is 24 hours I am never going to forget. And I never have.

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