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The Lost Years - Chapter 4 (2)

by Fred Digby

Contributed by 
Fred Digby
People in story: 
Fred Digby
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05 July 2003

After a day or two I found the job easy enough, Mr Duncan pleasant and not difficult to please. I didn’t like doing it but of course had no choice, I was lucky really to be looking after him rather than one or two others who I knew would have made life quite a bit more toilsome. One advantage was that it kept me off all other duties.
One morning, when going about my duties round the tent and being lost in what I was doing, I was singing one of Benjy’s songs, and it was, I remember, from the musical New Moon - Lover Come Back To Me, the words something like: “...the sky was blue and high above, the moon was new and so was love, this aching heart of mine keeps singing, Lover Come Back to Me....”
When in strode Mr Duncan who, upon hearing me, commented that I must be content with life. I don’t remember what sort of reply I made but whatever it was it did no harm. In fact, it stood me in good stead because after a few days we were able to talk with one another, and it created a kind of officer relationship. During that time I had let him know that I was keen to join the tanks, I didn’t then think that anything would come of it really.
After returning to ‘Chesty’ and the petrol wagon and working there for about two weeks, I was called to report to sergeant ‘Stormy’ Rayner for tank training. As there was a lull in the fighting, apart from a scheme or two, the tanks were static so tank maintenance or gunnery training was carried out each day. To me it was most interesting, to the Regular crew members who had done it all before it must have been rather boring, but I got on fine with them and it seemed that before too long I would be one of them.
We received very little mail from home, sometimes a new arrival from England might bring us up to date with the more recent events. We knew of the great air battles that were taking place over our country and of the period called the ‘Battle of Britain’, also that our RAF boys were bombing Germany by night.There was the story too, of the mysterious landing in Scotland of one of Hitler’s henchmen by the name of Hess. Some thought that he had landed on some sort of peace mission. The German submarines were still causing heavy shipping losses, casualties and loss of life.
We had been in Egypt for about two months when the first batch of mail arrived, I received quite a pile. So many ships had gone down that some of ours must have been lost. The newspapers (Chron & Echo) were dated September and I was reading them in November. There were letters from my brothers, one from Sam, and a few more, but there was one from Dad which I was forced to read over several times in order to assimilate its contents and to give it my most serious attention.
There was no letter from Jane, but Dad’s letter gave the reason why. Apparently she had been down to home and given them her engagement ring, therefore indicating that our relationship was at an end. The were no details of what she had said, no reason given for the decision but just the fact to be accepted that it was at an end. I wondered about the promise given only a few months ago to wait no matter how long, when she had promised through her tears.
I don’t think that I was either shocked or upset at the news; as Dad pointed out I had much else to think about without an added worry over something which I could do nothing about. I was only one of thousands who would receive similar news during the long years of war and we would know when one of our comrades received what became known as ‘Dear John’ letters.
However, as I saw it, all I could do was to ‘soldier on’. Although our mail home was censored (blue-pencilled) the folk at home had a good idea where we were and what we were doing, they guessed by our hints what we meant to convey, they read between the lines.
In the early days of the Italian desert campaign in 1940 there were no dress restrictions, anything wearable was acceptable and as the weather began to cool off we were glad even to clothe ourselves in any discarded enemy coats, or anything to keep out the desert cold because we were only equipped with our tropical drill. Someone evidently was not aware that the sands of the desert do run cold. We must have looked a real rag-tag, unshaven, scruffy Fred Karno’s Army.
Beards were in evidence everywhere (with the exception of those like myself who couldn’t grow one) there being no water pipeline at that time, we relied on the water truck and made do with our water bottle ration per day; that had to be sufficient for all purposes, teeth, washing and drinking; shaving was not then a priority, the washing of clothes was with the use of petrol. We drew water from the wells also which helped out. It was fortunate that at that time there were no press photographers up there with us, the only others who would see us were our enemy the Italians and they ran away from us anyway.
One of the great luxuries was our ‘desert brew’ and whenever stopped, even if only for a minute or so the ability to produce a brew of tea in an instant and all packed away again to move off was a work of art. For a period that luxury was denied us by the Italians when they salted the wells as they retreated. The Carnation milk in the tea curdled and salted tea did nothing to quench our thirst. It didn’t either do a great deal to improve our usual diet of bully beef stew and rice pudding. Maybe they thought that one way to beat us was to hit us where it hurt, knowing of the Britisher’s craving for his tea. There came the time though, when they had advanced and once again occupied that same area they then suffered from the very same wells which they had salted earlier.
I’m not sure how it came about but I became a member of ‘Stormy’ Rayner’s crew. My first experience was as gun loader while on patrols. We understood that we would quite soon be moving off into attack as the year was drawing to a close and the days shortening. However, in the meantime, we learned that we were in for a treat, because whenever tank regiments find it possible they celebrate ‘Cambrai’ Day, to commemorate the first great tank battle of the 14-18 War and this year was to be no exception, we were to have a special meal at the cookhouse when we came in from patrol.
We gathered our mess tins and hurried along to the cook’s lorry with its lines of dixies backed by the orderlies, the rumour was that it was chicken, we couldn’t wait and got into the queue. As we shuffled nearer with mess tins thrust out we heard murmurings and some in front of us moved out, and then someone passed the word down the line that “he’s only gone and left the bloody innards in”.
We knew of course that Joe, the cook sergeant, would have no other means of cooking chicken than to boil them but with the insides still intact didn’t seem to be a very palatable meal. So that most of us then just took our ration of rice and tea, at least we had tins of bully and biscuits on the tank, and we had our rum ration. It was to say the least disappointing but we didn’t openly complain, that you didn’t do unless you were very brave and could stand the wrath of Joe when he was in one of his moods. His piercing eyes would set you as you held your mess tins, willing you to dare and complain. No-one ever did.
It is rather difficult to describe him, at least to give a true picture. He was a Regular soldier of many years’ service and had been a wrestler. Short and squat with heavy shoulders which seemed to reach almost to his hips, his cheeks and jowl even after a shave were of a battleship grey colour, what little hair he had grew only at the back of his head. But I thought his outstanding feature was his eyebrows which were black and so bushy that they appeared to provide shelter for the rest of his face.
It was not surprising that there were no complaints, the lads were always quietly taking a mickey such as the heraldic shield they drew depicting him mounted on an oversized bully beef tin holding cross ladles. When asked by an Orderly what the menu was to be, his regular answer was “give the buggers rice”. That became an expression used among ourselves, it became a sort of catch-phrase, I am sure that he hated every one of us.
Our advance began in earnest at the beginning of December 1940, after leaving the Mersa Matruh area we attacked each coastal town in turn coming in from the south and hitting the coast road and our targets in much the same manner on each occasion all the way westward.
Here and there the enemy put up some stout resistance but very often hundreds of them were only too eager to surrender and it became a regular sight to see columns of prisoners stretching way back being marched into captivity by just a junior NCO and an escort.
We ourselves suffered some casualties where the Italians had fought fiercely. Their shells had the same capability to maim and kill as any other. I can remember some of the places as we advanced such as, Bardia, Sollum, Sidi Barani, Bomba and Tobruk. The occupants of a tank have little knowledge of where they are or what is happening when enclosed in that steel chamber.
In those early days we were not equipped with wireless so that there was no internal communication, and vision was limited to the visor slits. The driver would have some view but on undulating ground he would probably have a view of the sky for a moment and then as he came down would see the surface which was immediately to his front.
The crew in the interior would be able to see the back, head and shoulders of the driver, and the boots and legs of the commander as he stood on his seat with head and shoulders out. We rarely worked closed down’, that is with the cupola cover closed. Outside, in order to signal to other tanks the commanders used flags, for instance to order ‘rally to me’ he would circle the flag above his head, to form a line ‘abreast’ formation two flags held out at arm’s length would be used and so on. Somehow it worked.
Dust clouds caused by the slightest movement of vehicles were often the reason for us to be called on to investigate, the usual term was to go and have a ‘shufti’, to check whether it was friend or foe. It did happen that we on occasions found that we were checking out nothing more than a bedouin caravan; they seemed to appear from nowhere immediately after a battle and they had produce to barter, fruit, eggs, chickens.
Apart from the tricks which the dust played on us there were the mirages, the shimmering lakes, always in the distance. However far you drove it was impossible to reach them, they were very tempting to the thirsty soldiers, but did nothing to quench our parched throats because they were only the result of the effects of the heat and the bright sunlight on the white sands.
The vast ocean of sand which came to be the home of thousands of men for several years was for ever changing. So complex and full of mystery. Whole surface areas were changed by even a moderate wind which moved sand from one spot and placed it elsewhere.
One could be travelling over scrubland of thorny low bushes with their colourful flowers in the early part of the year, and then to suddenly be confronted with miles of soft, drifting sands, these caused the men of ‘B’ echelon to swear, when every few yards they would need to dig themselves out, inserting sandmats (perforated metal trays), accompanied by much pushing and shoving. Then again within a few miles distance the terrain may change to a stony rocky surface, causing whether on a tank or in a truck a lot of jolting and jarring resulting in bumps and bruises.
It was all a great deal better when moving over the salt flats which were baked concrete hard and glistened white. Not many times were my squadron able to experience the smooth travelling of the Via Balba (the coastal road) or to enjoy the fertile and cultivated area there. All so very different, Italians had settled there in the 1930s under Mussolini’s ‘Land Ownership Policy’. By Christmas we had covered about 500 miles forcing the Italians ever-westwards and Wavell’s force had captured all the coastal towns on the way. We became stationary at Tobruk which had recently fallen to us.
For a week or so I had been plagued by several boils which had developed on various parts of my body, one on my behind, one on my belly button, my neck, and of all places there arose a beauty on the end of my nose. There were plenty of suggestions from all around me as to possible cures, I was willing to attempt any because they really ached, pulled and tormented me so much.
The method I favoured was to take advantage of the fact that we were only a few hundred yards from the sea and salt water, I intended to lance them and let the sea cleanse them. An army knife was offered but someone produced a needle from their ‘housewife’ kit. Armed with that I waded into the water, it was icy cold.
I probed away with much squeezing and afterwards they were easier and I obtained a good deal of relief. They didn’t take long to heal and for the skin to repair again. I am sure the salt water method was responsible for the cure. I can readily recommend the sea water at Tobruk and a needle as a sure remedy for boils!
The weather was cold so that I was pleased to find among the heaps of abandoned Italian stores a heavy coat. Amid the jumble of equipment left behind were dozens of bottles of Chianti wine in their wicker cases. There was clothing of all sorts, personal belongings, including letters and photos and large tins of Nivea cream which we daubed on our unwashed skin. Our great find, or so we thought, was a stack of bags of Lire notes. These we stuffed into our pockets having visions of becoming rich when one day we cashed them in but of course as currency they were useless and the last we saw of them was being scattered by the wind across the sands.
I have never intended to dwell too much on the horrific sights of the ghastly outcome of the battles we had fought but reviewing the carnage after one of our attacks the terrible scenes which became more and more familiar to us and came to be accepted as the daily norm, were imprinted on my mind, were there forever; I suspect also with anyone else who suffered those same experiences but perhaps not so vivid as the years pass.
There were burnt-out lorries, abandoned guns with their crews still in their pits and bodies strewn about in all sorts of grotesque positions. All the product of the war we were fighting. In spite of all that it was no good being squeamish because it was a matter of them or us and we were outnumbered by ten to one.
Due to our casualties and the rearranged tank crews I was returned to ‘B’ echelon and worked again with ‘Chesty’; there I found that due to the speed of Wavell’s army’s advance it was difficult for supplies to catch up with our tanks. When it happened that we didn’t find them before they moved on they would be down to basic rations of bully and biscuits and captured ‘Itie’ fags, water and petrol was the biggest problem and could force them to halt. When replenishment was possible we all fed together, nothing exceptional, just the same stew and rice; sometimes Joe would provide a bowl of curry powder where those inclined could spoon it on and by stirring it in enliven the dish.
One of the annoyances at mealtimes as we sat around the cookhouse was that the slightest of breezes would lift the sand to give our food a fine covering which crunched in our teeth as we ate. An added menace were the flies which pursued us everywhere.
I took to hanging around the officers’ mess truck whenever possible because there was always a little extra or something special to be had there. Corporal Edwards was the cook and the batmen the waiters, I was always amazed at the meals which he turned out. It was wonderful to see what those little extra ingredients which the officers procured made to a meal. I have a very pleasant memory of the mugs of cocoa which I often scrounged there, absolutely delicious, I haven’t tasted any cocoa since to compare with that which Corporal Edwards made.
The enemy were being chased further westwards and we bowled on into Libya until somewhere around the Derna area on the coast we were given orders to turn and take a south-westerly direction, a route which took us through some uncharted desert. It was reported that the Italians were evacuating Benghazi.
The plan was to make as much speed as possible and to try and catch them on the coast road, to cut off their retreat by travelling across country. It was hard going for the vehicles and drivers and there were quite a lot of breakdowns due to the rocky terrain; progress was very slow but we intercepted the vanguard of the retreating enemy in the Ajedabia area. We had made a difficult march of about eighty miles to do so.
The tanks went into battle immediately against an enemy who were fighting for their lives. They were determined not to be captured if at all possible. They came down the road in all manner of transport in their haste to get away. The tanks and other armoured vehicles made attempts to by-pass us by taking to the desert, but even with our much depleted force we were capable of containing them. Masses of prisoners were taken and as small groups of our army trickled in, among them some engineers, cages were erected to confine them. Many fierce encounters ensued right up to nightfall but by then we were in complete control.
The actual spot where we leaguered that night was at Beda Fomm, from where looking back along the road to Benghazi could be seen one mass of blazing tanks and lorries; dazed Italian troops trudged in being escorted into the cages or the ambulances; it appeared that many of those captured were from what we would have termed ‘county regiments’ as many seemed to be related.
They greeted each other by flinging their arms around one another in an embrace, often crying, it was possible that if not related they belonged to the same town or village. There were women among them and it was said that their vehicle was the officers’ brothel. That night the stench of cordite, burning rubber, oil and flesh made me want to retch as the air over the battlefield hung heavy while I was on guard. We had been able to replenish the tanks just before they did battle. By first light quite a lot more of our brigade arrived to give support, there were a few casualties among our men but no-one that I knew.
The next day was one of the worst days of the whole war for me. The effects of the events then have never completely left me. We were divided into small groups to act as burial parties, each group taking a number of prisoners who were to dig the graves and to bury their dead comrades. They dug the graves but persistently refused to handle the bodies so that the loathsome task fell to us while they continued to dig.
The worst part of the stinking job was having to extricate the stiff corpses from the vehicles and so often they would become wedged making it impossible to move them. The most sickly part though was when attempting to remove charred bodies from burnt-out tanks by trying to get a rope round them, when the flesh peeled away. We had to wear face masks.
It was so sickening that some strong men were caused to vomit, we complained and were duly taken off the duty. The engineers took over and set the vehicles alight, this caused the stench to become more repulsive than ever as it hung and lingered over the area all day. I don’t think that I will ever forget that time and place, or that experience; I thought that the impression it had on me was because at 22 I was still a comparatively young soldier but that was not so because I saw hard-bitten old soldiers turn green then.
The prisoners seemed to accept the situation quite easily, no doubt pleased to be out of the war. I have a clear recollection of one group sitting around a pile of packages and suitcases singing along with one who was playing an accordion which somehow he had to managed to salvage after the battle. Two of the songs come to mind, Sorrento and the other Santa Lucia.
It was February 7th, when after sixty-two days of campaigning we had concluded with a great victory. The Italians had been defeated, we had taken 130,000 prisoners, 400 tanks and 800 guns. Our two divisions under General Wavell had despatched Mussolini’s ten divisions ensuring that his forces would be of no further threat. We ourselves had suffered 555 dead and 1400 wounded.
It had been the first important victory on land since the outbreak of war, a victory which our people at home had waited for, something which would help lift their spirits and give them hope. As we were relieved, only a small token force was left behind to occupy the area. Our lines of communication were at that time very stretched; even though more ports had become available to us supplies at that distance were difficult to maintain. Our own vehicles needed to be replaced so that we left the desert and moved back down to the Alexandria area.
The Germans at that time had invaded Greece and the Greek government made a request for our assistance to which Mr Churchill agreed, causing General Wavell to despatch a large part of his occupying force from North Africa there. This further depletion had the inevitable result of leaving our forces too weak to defend the recently-gained territory; while this happened the Germans being obliged to assist their Italian allies landed several panzer divisions and attacked our meagre defence force which was forced to pull out and were pushed back as far as the Egyptian border.
The German advance by-passed and cut off Tobruk and were also in possession of the other ports. The commander of the axis forces was General Erwin Rommel, who was revered and respected not only by the men of his Afrika Korps but later by the Desert Rats too, for his cunning and ingenuity.
The regiment then at Alexandria were camped in tents just some distance along the coast at Sidi Bish, it would have been early in March 1941 then and we were to wait there for new tanks and reinforcements. In the meantime duties were at a minimum and we were issued with regular passes for Alex; we had a week’s leave and were able to rid ourselves of the desert grime. Having a pay parade and drawing back pay made it quite enjoyable.
Importantly too, having received a load of mail, we had the opportunity to write our letters and catch up on news from home and of the world in general. Among my letters were two month old Chron & Echos. It was a relief to hear from my family and find that they were all in good health and that there was no bad news to impart of parents, brothers or friends. There was one very pleasant piece of news, and that was that my youngest brother Arthur had married Joan who I had never met. Dad though was not altogether in agreement because he felt like I did about wartime marriages and thought that eighteen was too young to wed anyway, especially as Arthur sailed for India with the airforce immediately and would possibly be away for a number of years. When replying to my letters there was one person less to write to now that my fiancee had thrown me over.
We had heard very little news of the war outside our own little theatre of conflict so that there was a lot to learn of what had been happening. We did know that our troops had evacuated Greece and that HMS Southampton had been sunk there. Men arriving from England were always a source of information and we plied them with various questions of conditions at home. They told of the heavy bombing raid on Coventry and of the stubborn way in which Londoners were standing up to the Blitz; also how folks were beginning to find that the Rationing of food and clothing was making itself felt.
There, in Sidi Bish, our food was quite reasonable, at least we had white bread, vegetables and fruit, which for months had been missing from our diet. In addition we were in a position of having money in our pockets to sample the overwhelming choice of delightful food and drinks available to us in Alex. When we gave thought to the conditions with regard to the rationing at home we ought to have felt guilty that we were able to indulge ourselves so, but I suppose they would acknowledge that for some months past we had often been without a meal and at best food was lacking in variety. The other luxuries which we enjoyed in camp were the showers or the pleasure to soak in a bath.
The camp being only a short distance from the sea made it possible most days to go swimming, usually a group of us, but often just Batty and myself, he was a very good strong swimmer. It was really wonderful to have that long stretch of white sandy beach almost to ourselves and to be able to dash into the great Mediterranean sea. Batty always struck out for a distant rock and not to be outdone I attempted to do the same and succeeded, so that from there on it became regular practice. But I admit that many times I wondered if I could manage it, or had I taken on too much. Having reached it there was also the return to consider, anyway it was a good challenge.

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