Retreat to Rueisat
14th June 1942, panic stations and a bloody awful trip back up desert to Maschiefa, then to Halfaya where I was rearguard observation post. My local protection were Pathans; one proudly showed me the rifle he had made at home and carried in addition to Army issue. Late in the evening, I had orders to rejoin the Battery at the top of the Pass. I had to dive for cover on arrival as Stukas bombed Sollum. A little after 2300 hours, the engineers blew up the depot at Sollum— a remarkable sight, a great mushroom of flame and then a cloud that almost blotted out the moon. Finally, ‘Hellfire’ Pass went up which was even more impressive; the boulders looked as though they would come down on us some five miles away.
With Very lights popping off in all directions and planes flying to and fro, we set off, quite prepared to be attacked on route. I found myself left some way behind because of another puncture but by some fluke, managed to follow the track and arrived soon after the Column had halted; no time for a brew up, we continued for another fifty miles. No sooner were we on our way than a Jerry column opened up on our rear; an ammo truck and a 6 pounder were hit; we knocked out a truck or two with our anti-tank guns but, as a Battery, did not stop.
We kept going and arrived near the Siwa Track where we brewed up for the first time since Halfaya. We bivouacked near Mohalfa, I had to be towed in after my fifth breakdown that day.
We were nearly overrun during one rearguard action. Our regimental position, we were then down to six guns only [most of 52 Battery went into the bag at Tobruk], was under direct fire. Bombardier Hook and I took cover in a slit trench with tracer flying over our heads, but it was no good just lying there and we had to leap out again. I directed the fire of one gun at vehicles as they came over the skyline, and scored at least one direct hit. The Colonel gave orders to withdraw, so we limbered up under direct fire from Bredas and machine guns, with a miraculous lack of casualties, and drove off in open formation.
Enemy forces surrounded us. The Brigadier addressed all officers, explaining that our best chance was to drive first towards the enemy and then turn down south to the edge of the Qattara Depression, where the going was so bad that Jerry would probably not bother to follow. We set off just before dark and, in the night, drove through an enemy encampment on our way south; lots of noise etc but we just kept going and out the other side, without engagement.
It was a long haul back to our lines. Water had to be rationed, only one mug of tea a day. We grew beards during the three weeks it took. And when we reached Rueisat, it was not that pleasant. Open desert, a hard dusty surface with little scrub or cover, the only protection a sangar or a slit trench.
Regularly dive-bombed, one bomb landed between my slit trench and the BSM’s; he went deaf in one ear while my wristwatch was disembowelled. Signaller Mitchell, a blue-eyed boy of nineteen, was killed by blast without a mark on him, a happy-go-lucky good-natured lad, liked by all. I was not alone in shedding a tear for him.
And then there was the dust blown into everything you ate or touched; and the flies! Small wonder we all had the ‘shits’.
I had to relieve an OP one night, which meant driving without any lights round one of our anti-tank minefields, not always very clearly marked. My PU truck, an 8 cwt Morris, struck a tank mine and my driver, Bowen, died from his wounds. It was a dreadful business, which I felt then I should never forget; I felt responsible for his death. It could so easily have been me. But time is kind and such memories are soon blurred and then filed as not wanted on the continuing voyage of life.
General Auchinlech [the Auk] exuded confidence, the situation stabilised with continual harassing of the enemy and, as air cover improved, Churchill was allowed to visit and a completely phoney shoot was arranged for his benefit. We even had an ENSA show just behind the lines.
For the battle of Alamein, we moved to a position camouflaged as a feint attack, and fired many thousands of rounds for the barrage in support of infantry and tanks.
After the breakthrough I went down with jaundice, as did a number of officers and NCO’s. My journey back, in the front seat of a 3 tonner, was the ultimate in discomfort. Good treatment at 66 General in Gaza, then three weeks at No.3 Convalescent Depot, Nathanya.
I rejoined the regiment 9th Dec ’42 at kilo 89 by the sea amid the sand dunes. We were only a few miles from where I had first joined Garra Battery nearly a year before but how we had all changed.