The German soldiers who had been guarding us were now replaced by Italians and we were moved by truck to the outskirts of the coastal town of Derna, about sixty miles away from where we had been captured. Here we were confined in an enclosure which was an old Moslem cemetery and was without any sanitary facilities. There were already some prisoners there and more came in later and on the following day. Many were quite ill and some had minor injuries. To begin with, an area in one corner was used as a lavatory but this area gradually spread until the whole compound became indescribably filthy. We had been given an issue of biscuits on arrival, and later a water truck was brought in, causing some squabbling from which Harry and I were able to stay aloof. This panicky reaction to the fear of thirst was repeated during the next few days whenever water was issued.
On the second morning a group of Italian officers carne into the enclosure and what was, to judge by his medal-beribboned uniform, the senior of them stood on a tombstone and made an impassioned speech which, although quite incomprehensible to everyone, was received with some ironic cheers. Even though morale was low, it was not so low that Italian could be regarded as anything other than a joke. We all felt rather less jokey, however, when he was followed by an interpreter who told us that as a reprisal for an order allegedly made by the British on the treatment of Axis prisoners, we were to get no more food or drink until after we had been interrogated. As this would at best take several days, the prospect seemed a gloomy one. However a few hours later the officers and the interpreter appeared again to announce that, following an assurance from the British government, this sanction would now be suspended. At the time we took this incident to be a charade of merely local significance; only recently have I learned that there was indeed such an exchange between the governments and that this took place on 6 June.
Amongst the two or three hundred prisoners in the compound there were surprisingly few who had been in our unit and the only one whom Harry and I knew well was Bradley, who had been Sergeant in charge of our little group of specialists in the Battery command post. We had somehow become separated from Don Crane, the fourth member. Harry, Bradley and I managed to maintain our spirits, or at least we did not fall quite into the state of despair and disintegration of morale that afflicted a sizeable minority. We were fortunate in that we had not become ill and we had managed to bring some basic equipment with us. I had a water bottle, which added a sense of security, also a mess-tin and a haversack with washing and shaving gear, even some sketchbooks and pen and ink. There was the comfort of my greatcoat, for it could still be cold at night. One pre-occupation, and this continued for the rest of my time as a prisoner, was for the safety of my glasses, for I had no spare pair and would have become hopelessly incompetent without them. At night I put them in one of my boots which I then tied to my tin helmet as a safeguard against theft and used the helmet as a pillow. Sleeping directly on the ground was no problem; apart from when on a week’s leave in Cairo, I had done so for the last seven months.
After four or five days, during which time our numbers had continued to increase, and the filthy conditions had become worse and worse, a start was made to take some of us away westwards. We had still not been interrogated, nor even our names listed, and the loading of the large trucks which had arrived was very haphazard. Most were pleased at the prospect of getting away from this awful place and some even queued up to be first. There were a few optimistic people who tried to avoid it as long as possible in the hope of being freed by a counter-attack. An as yet inconclusive battle was still being fought some fifty miles to the east.
We climbed up into a truck on the second morning. It was a big open-topped diesel and held about thirty of us in the main part with a similar number in the trailer. One Italian soldier armed with a carbine and a bayonet was in each section and we were issued with a tin of meat and hard biscuits for the journey. We set off in convoy on the first stage along the Via Balbia, the well-engineered road which ran along the coast for some eight hundred miles from the Egyptian frontier to Tripoli. In the late afternoon we reached the out skirts of Benghazi where an enclosure of barbed wire had been erected to serve as a transit camp for the night.
The next morning we were off again on a similar length of journey-to El Agheila and this routine continued for two further days until we reached Homs, where there was a larger and somewhat more permanent-looking camp. This was about forty miles short of Tripoli. The long journey had not been too uncomfortable; the dust and heat we were accustomed to, while the truck, for all its vibration and bumping, was at least on a road rather than the rough and stony surface of the desert. The guards on the truck had been quite amiable – perhaps they were going back for some leave – one had even passed round his bayonet for us to open our tins of meat.
At Homs we filled in a questionnaire giving our names, numbers and next-of-kin and were officially enrolled as prisoners. Perhaps our families at home might now receive some news of us after our having presumably been listed as missing. In fact it was some months before they did so. We were, however, each allowed to send a postcard, although this had only a preprinted message saying that we were well. Our next move, after about two weeks, was more organised: the names of those to be transferred were actually read out at a roll-call. With a party which included Harry and Bradley we were trucked to a camp at Castel Benito, about five miles inland from Tripoli.
INTERPOLATION 2 : The Desert, December 1941 to June 1942
I had quite enjoyed the desert. Certainly if you have to have a war it is an ideal place for it, one in which the rival armies can manoeuvre and play their games with a minimum of damage to anyone except each other. The Western desert was not a sand desert like the Sahara, indeed the coastal strip of Cyrenaica was supposed to have been the granary of the Roman Empire, although there must have been more rainfall than in modern times. Mostly we operated well away from the coast and here the surface was dusty and stony, with outcrops of rock, dry wadi beds and cliffs, but there were few absolute barriers for a four-wheel drive vehicle and a way could be found around most obstacles. It was hard on the suspension though, and broken springs were commonplace.
Finding the way was not easy; maps were hopelessly inadequate and often we were operating like ships at sea. Vehicles were equipped with sun-compasses, but these were not much use as it was seldom possible to drive in a straight line. More often we used a sort of dead reckoning which depended on taking a bearing on some landmark on the sky-line and getting to it somehow, measuring the distance on the vehicles’ odometer and marking it out on graph paper.Having reached the point, we then took a new bearing on another landmark, and so on. There were also traditional desert tracks, previously used only by nomads with camels, and these had now, with vehicle use, become a mile or more wide with much of the surface completely broken into powder – a chief cause of the duststorms which blew chokingly, sometimes for days on end, and even reached the Nile delta and Cairo hundreds of miles away.
After having spent the summer of 1941 in Cyprus and the autumn in Palestine, we moved up into the desert in December when it could be quite cold, especially at night. During the day it often warmed up and in Christmas week when, unusually, we were on the coast, I even bathed in the sea. A couple of days later there was a storm with huge grey waves, looking more like the North Sea than the Mediterranean. It was near here that several of us explored a well that was said to date from Roman times. This was an underground cavern which could have been man-made, certainly the square-cut entrance was. Down below there was no actual water to be seen, for at this time the winter rains had not yet begun, but there was evidence that the level could be quite high. It was hardly suitable for drinking however: there was a great deal of rubbish, including what I took to be camel bones.
Inland, the desert surface varied. Sometimes it was hard and rocky, but there were softer, dusty areas where careful driving was needed to avoid becoming stuck. There was some thorny scrub, and in places many snail shells, empty and bleached: there must have been many generations of them which had accumulated over the years as I never saw a live one. In January we had the first rainfall and within a few days a variety of little seedlings sprang up everywhere. After a week or two these were in flower and I was able to press several of them and send them home in a letter to Jeanne. During the next two months there were more occasional heavy falls of rain and these were very welcome to us. We had only a small water ration, enough for drinking but not for washing, and we caught all we could by stretching out canvas on an improvised framework and allowing it to drain into buckets and cans.
Although fighting had been going on in Cyrenaica for more than a year, there were still groups of nomads roaming the desert. Exactly how they made a living I never understood – probably by now it was based on salvaging the debris and jetsam of the opposing armies – but on several occasions we traded with them, swapping our tea for the tiny eggs produced by their bantams which travelled with them in wicker cages slung on the camels. Once they even approached us to trade at a time when our twenty-five-pounder guns were deployed for action. It must have been a hazardous life; there were extensive minefields – many of our own casualties were caused by these – and also their black-tented encampments were liable to be shot-up at night by aircraft from either side.
Our living standard varied according to the mobility of the situation. Sometimes our position was static enough for a proper cookhouse to be set up, latrines to be dug and our little bivouac tents dug in and daily made more comfortable. The theory of the bivouac was that each man had been issued with one pole and with half a tent which was then buttoned together with that of a colleague to form a two-man shelter. In practice we mostly had scrounged a complete one each, often with additional bits and pieces. At other times we were moving almost daily, and then our rations consisted mainly of corned beef, hard-tack biscuits – which I quite liked – jam and margarine. The latter was a special formulation ‘for hot climates’ and, at the temperature of a winter morning, being quite un-spreadable it was eaten in little chips balanced on the biscuit or stuck to it with jam. There was also ‘M & V’ – tins of unspecified meat and vegetables, which we warmed up in combined operation with tea-making. Water was boiled in a large tin on the fire – desert scrub burnt very well – with the unopened tin of M & V standing in it. True, the tea did sometimes taste somewhat strange from the protective varnish on the outside of some of the tins.
At times there were visits from a mobile NAAFI and we were able to buy additional luxuries such as chocolate and tins of South African pineapple. Smokers complained of the cigarettes; often English brands were unobtainable and there was only the notorious ‘Victory V’, popularly supposed to be made from camel dung. As water was in short supply for washing clothes, we exchanged our dirty things weekly for others which had been laundered somewhere back in Egypt and these were consequently of a somewhat arbitrary fit.
Serving in the desert had not been ideal, but it must have been preferable to most other campaigns, say the Malay jungle, the Russian winter, or the Flanders mud of the first world war.
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