- Contributed by
- People in story:
- James Palmer
- Location of story:
- North Africa
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 28 October 2004
Pushing back Graziani
I had pretty well lost all track of the date, but it must have been at the beginning of December 1941 that we were given our orders. The attack was on. Graziani had gone far enough. He had to be pushed back to Sollum and Tobruk. For two days we pummelled away at the Italian and Libyan troops, holed up in their little desert outposts. Gradually, with support from Australian and Indian troops, Sidi Barrani and Sollum were recaptured. We rumbled and crashed up rocky wadis and across salt flats, fighting running battles with light Italian M14 tanks. It was much more open fighting than we had experienced in France. But the dust, oily petrol smell, the smoke, the cordite fumes and the screech of shells and the crump of the guns were as before. At least in this present situation we knew what we were chasing and shooting at. It was more of them against us. It was a straight forward affair - hit them or they would hit you.
The Italians had established pockets of defence all over the area. Small forts, or small enclosures made of stone, were heavily manned with artillery, including heavy machine guns and anti-tank guns. Their tanks were usually behind these defence points and only came forward when we attacked the outposts. We often found that as we advanced, we would run into forward patrols of infantry carriers or light recce tanks. If we attacked these, we would be drawn into the line of fire from their outposts and artillery. Actions became much quicker and more decisive. A quick thrust forward, a couple of hours of crashing and banging, thumping and clumping, screeching and thundering. Then the smoke swirled away and we all sorted ourselves out again.
Some tanks would inevitably have been hit. Some would have lost their tracks and been pummelled by the enemy anti-tank guns and artillery. During these battles, there was the constant chatter of machine guns and the fluorescent arcs of tracer bullets. Then all would be still before the infantry went forward and mopped up. It was only then we became aware of the ache in our legs, the burning in our eyes and the feeling of nausea that enveloped us.
One of our HQ tanks had got its traversing gear jammed and could not swing its gun. It had been going straight towards an anti-tank gun well, sited in a gun pit. Without deviating right or left, the driver had stormed straight at the gun. Although the gunner had him right in his sights, the tank driver continued forward, and crushed the lot.
The Libyan and Italian troops didn’t put up much resistance once we had overrun their guns and put their armour to flight, or put them out of action. Collecting the prisoners was a bit of a problem though, there were so many of them!
Aftermath of the battle
The outposts and dugouts were crammed with all sorts of things. Apart from empty shell cases and smashed machine guns, there were thousands of packets of cigarettes and small bottles of Vichy water. In some there were bottles of perfume and boxes of contraceptives. Lewd photographs littered the floors.
One souvenir we all wanted was one of the small bayonets the Italian infantry carried. These were very useful. Another thing we hunted for was the small camouflage sleeping bags. They were really ground sheets that could be made into small tents. These were definitely worth having. The cigarettes, however, were made with a horrible dark tobacco and if I remember correctly were called Tres Stellas.
With the capture of Tobruk, the army of Graziani had been driven out of Egypt and we were now on Libyan soil, on our way to Gazala and Derna. We had suffered many casualties and our numbers were down to only 18 tanks. The Australians were pushing their way along the coast road, past Derna on the way to Benghazi. Instead of us making for the coast to join up with the Aussies, we cut deep into the desert and made for Agedabia, about 100 miles due south of Benghazi. It was a forced march of about 150 miles across the desert with a very depleted tank force. The whole of the battalion had combined to make one composite squadron of about 16 tanks in all. I was allocated to the command troop and the journey commenced.
Into the desert
Deep into the desert we slowly thundered. It was a very lonely place. The tanks had to be coaxed along, and so did we, tired and exhausted. Only men who have experienced a dreadful long desert journey could realise how tired and exhausted the human frame can become. The dust and dirt clings to your skin, your eyes become red and bloodshot, your head aches and your limbs become stiff. Your mind wandered and your eyes watered and closed as you crouched in the smell of oil, petrol and cordite fumes.
After a while, we became like zombies, doing things automatically and reacting to events without knowing why. I think that our minds went blank as we drove on, stopping every so often to check our bearings from trig points on the map.
The desert is a godforsaken land! Petrol and ammunition lorries followed behind us, and each night we tumbled out of our tanks to re-fuel and cool the engines. What a relief it was to breathe some fresh air. After about two hours though, we were off again, travelling as far as we could in a south westerly direction, before first light.
The road to Benghazi
Our radios told us that Benghazi had been taken by the Australians. On the same day, we reached Beda Fomm. I thought was the 1st of February. In fact it was the 7th, but time had meant nothing to us for the last week.
The road south from Benghazi followed the coast and continued westward towards Mersa Brega and El Agheila, about 500 miles to the west of Tripoli. We leaguered up behind a small hill which we called 'the pimple'. Looking down onto the Benghazi/Tripoli road, we couldn’t believe our eyes. The whole of Graziani's army was retreating from Benghazi. As far as the eye could see, there were columns of trucks, tanks, field guns, troop carriers, artillery and armoured cars. They were sitting ducks!
By this time, we only had 14 tanks left, so everything went mad. The ammunition lorries were called up and every tank took on as much ammo as it could carry. Petrol was topped up and we prepared to attack. Italian light tanks were at each side of the column, like destroyers escorting a convoy. We came round the pimple and hit the road. Straight alongside the column we crashed, firing as we went and as fast as we could. Trucks burst into flames and within minutes the road was blocked with blazing lorries. The Italians were in complete panic, with men jumping out of their trucks and firing blindly at anything. Machine guns spluttered and we could hear the pinging of bullets hitting the side of our tank. The air inside was filled with smoke and cordite, all the gunners were firing as fast as they could load. There was no need to select targets, every shot was a hit!
Anti-tank guns were manhandled out of their column and were fired at us at point blank range. Men were throwing hand grenades at us as we screamed along the convoy. The Italian tanks were scattered all around us firing away, but in absolute panic. They were even hitting their own lorries, and on some occasions, even their own tanks. The dust was so thick we couldn’t see more than a couple of yards. Everything was burning and there were the horrible sounds of screaming and dying. Tanks were blazing and the ammunition inside was exploding as they were hit. Some of our tanks were also hit with the crews scrambling out of the blaze and dashing to the shelter of the rocks. The air was full of the whine of bullets as hot metal shrapnel came raining down. Smoke was swirling around and the sound of explosions rent the air. The noise was unbelievable.
Two or three of our tanks pulled out to replenish ammo from behind the 'pimple'. When they returned, it was as if they were stricken with a bloodlust. The whole operation was over in less than two hours. After that there was nothing left to hit.
Prisoners of war
All the convoy was burning, all their tanks had been hit or abandoned. What was left of the Italian troops were lying down at the side of the road, waving white flags. The wounded were crying, screaming and dying. It was sickening! For two hours we had gone berserk, shooting, killing and burning. Now we were dazed, confused and sickened.
Slowly, we returned to the 'pimple'. Meanwhile, the Italian medics and ambulances attempted to sort out the mess and collect their wounded. Our casualties had been minimal. Just a few shrapnel wounds, metal splash, gunshot wounds and burns. To this day, I know that the carnage forever scars the minds of all those tank crews involved.
The next day, we went to recover what Italian tanks we could. There was a smell of burning flesh amid the smouldering ruins. Men were hanging half out of their cupolas. We find the blackened remains of human beings inside the tanks. It was a sight I shall never forget, and I know that my soul will be damned for having been a part of it!
Graves were being dug by the Italian survivors, but no one said much. Tears were trickling down many a face and both sides were mumbling that they were sorry it had happened.
We sat amid the carnage and gave fags to the Italians. The war was over for them. All they could do was just wait patiently to be taken away. It had been a victory for us, but if that was victory, I didn’t want any more of it. I was stunned by the atrocity of war and bloodshed. I had experienced the ultimate degradation of human life!
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