Uncle's War Diary May/June 1941
Posted by Mac Cummings on May 17, 2018, 9:06 am
I'm increasing the daily content because I will not be around for a few days Tuesday onwards. |
Bill would be chuffed to have his words read so avidly.
I have also discovered that the Diries are archived at the Imperial War Museum.
May 8th Discharged and found my way back to Almaza to find that the Boys had “Flown the Coop” Spoke to others I knew who had come back from Greece…licking their wounds. “R” Troop is stationed near Alexandria.
May 10th Detailed as an escort for six deserters, who are to be taken back to their Regiment, the 8th Field, in action at Sollum near Sidi Baranni. We left Almaza at 22-00 hrs and took the train for Alexandria at 23-00 hrs.
May 11th This is my first glimpse of Alexandria or “Alex” as the services call her. It is a fine city with a most imposing sea front, a wide sweeping promenade with fine white buildings. It is a much cleaner City than Cairo, but even so, it has its own native quarter which stinks to the high heavens, however we are not sight seeing.
Taking deserters back into action is not a pleasant task, however the six under our care were decent blokes. We the escort were 4 in number with a Sergeant in charge.
On the train to Alex, I met an Indian with whom I had been in action with at Keren and we talked over this action with the Zeal of old “Veterans” Left Alex at 07-00 hrs for Mersa Matruh via the western desert railway. This journey is perhaps the most monotonous in the world and the scenery consists of nothing more than sand and rock and more sand and rock. The only relief from this monotony is an occasional glimpse of the sparkling waters of the Blue Mediterranean and the white sand dunes hugging the shore. We saw many wandering Arabs “Beduins” with their trains of Camels making their way through the desert to Alexandria and Cairo. The womenfolk usually wear rings through their noses which fact does not add to their appearance. Having passed through Rousseat, Fuka, Sidi Haneish all being most miserable looking villages we arrived at Mersa Matruh at 20-00 hrs. We await orders and it is extremely cold. We passed a most uncomfortable evening.
May 12th –13th You will appreciate that we the escort were all armed, and with deserters even when they obey the rules, you are bound to keep an eye on them at all times and keep an eye on your rifle- when they go to the water closet someone goes with them. We were all frozen when we woke and it was a pleasure to get up. Mersa had been knocked about somewhat. It was once a fashionable resort for wealthy Egyptians who came here in the Summer Months. Mersa has a fine bay for bathing, clear Blue waters, a sandy bottom and a shallow slope. The former Hotels are mostly burnt out shells. The streets are still presentable and are all Palm lined. A few sunken ships can be seen. We make ready to leave Mersafor Buq Buq a 3 Tonner provided by RASC. The road to Sidi Baranni does simply not exist, its former surface having vanished long ago, due to the wear and tear of countless convoys, the bombardment of the road by British Warships, and the absence of maintenance. It was a very rough and dusty ride, and to add to our mental discomfort we were informed that enemy planes were on the “warpath” Its hard scanning the heavens for ME109’s when you are hanging on for grim death to a truck which is giving a performance that any wild west Bronco would envy.
Further alarm was caused when our truck was suddenly halted by some CMP’s who informed us that the enemy had broken through at Sollum and that British troops were falling back to prepared positions, indeed we found ourselves the only truck going forward amid numbers of trucks and Bren Carriers falling back. The guards were going great guns, digging positions at the side of the road…I did not feel very happy. The Sgt in charge of the party decided to go on, and rightly so, the main bulk of our forces were still in action and at grips with the Hun around Sollum…so on we went. We finally contacted the RHQ of the 8th field Regiment near Buq Buq, the most desolate spot on Gods Earth, and handed over our prisoners. A little way forward we could see the air bursts of the Hun, as he tried to force his way into Sollum. Field Regiments have a habit of whipping in any stray people they come across, when they are short of men in action. I saw the RSM weigh us up with great care…he seemed deep in thought… our Sgt was as quick a thinker as he was, and in no time we were on our way back to Mersa…Alexandria…and Cairo, arriving back in Almaza at 01-00 hrs May 14th .
May 14th –May 17th Spend three days digging tents in (back breaking work) doing guards and visiting Cairo. I saw several films including “This man Reuter” and “Balalaika”, and also fed my face whenever possible. I am trying to contact Major Feweks in order to rejoin my troop at alex.
May 18th Detailed to join “X” troop who are going up to Alexandria to survey in some AA sites. Leave Almaza at 11-00 hrs and make for the Alex road via Menia and the Great Pyramids. After passing through Pine Woods outside Menia the road passes through a vast expanse of desert and great drifts of fine sand spill themselves across the road. We arrived at what is known as half way house, a large modern road house standing alone in the wilderness. We had tea and pushed on to Alex arriving there at 15-00 Hrs. We found ourselves at Mustapha Barracks which are almost on the Sea front. Major Fewkes goes off in search of R Troop who are sure to be stuck in the desert somewhere, miles from Alex, They were. Spend a day in Alex before joining the troop who are at Amria some 8 miles outside Alex. Visited the Rio in Alex and see the “Great Dictator”.
May 19th Rejoin the troop and receive my first mail from England. Between now and the end of May my time is spent in doing the common round and the daily task, Guards, Cookhouse fatigues, Pickets and the like, slipping off now and then to visit Alex. The weather is very hot and sand storms do not add to the charm of this enchanted land. The food is good by Army standards, and there are few complaints. News about the War situation was bad. We had heavy casualties in Greece and Crete, and also shipping losses including the Warship HMS York, which I saw launched at Palmers in Jarrow in 1928. Hess had landed in Scotland, The Germans were reinforcing their Afrika Corps, and things did not look very rosy.
May 31st On the move again, and into action…where? We marched to the station at Amria amid a violent air raid, and boarded yet another train. We think it’s the Fort of Tobruck where the Australians are still holding out.
June 1st We join up with “A” troop and make for Mersa Matruh, which is now our main supply base, there we settle down in a transit camp while our stores are loaded onto a Destroyer HMAS Waterhen.
June 2nd Embark at12-00 hrs on June 2nd bound for Tobruck or Tobruch as the Italians spell it. HMAS Waterhen was a destroyer of rare vintage, having been built on the Clyde soon after the last War. We were some Three Hundred strong, and the small craft was crowded somewhat. For a while we hugged the Egyptian shore as we were promised no air support, and it was a well known fact that German aircraft were present in fair numbers, and that they were as a rule pretty active, we were a sitting target, despite our speed (some 30 knots) we were overloaded with men, stores, and ammo piled high on the decks, and what was more we were sailing to Tobruck of all places. The Med was no longer “Mare Nostrum”. Later in the afternoon we changed course and stood well out to sea. We were passing Sollum and later Bardia both in enemy hands and possessing shore batteries, so far no attacks, but we knew that it would come sooner or later. Towards 19-30 hrs they came, 3 Black Dorniers swooping low out of the Sun and almost catching us unawares. We ducked for cover, as, mast high they released their 500lb bombs, and for good measure straffed the decks. Our sole protection lay in our speed of turning, and the ability of our Ack Ack to prevent them coming too close. The Huns were rotten shots and their bombs fell just astern and to the side sending up great columns of water and badly denting our plates. They were only some yards away, and we owe our safety to Providence and to the skipper who lay on his back on the Bridge, giving helm directions. The ship almost turned over as we Zig-Zagged in an effort to avoid the path of the bombs. Ammo and stores slid gracefully overboard in the Blue waters of the Med. WE survived, but then came the sad news that Bdr. Smith in an effort to seek cover had fallen through the airshaft into the Engine room and was dead. It was a great shock, and what was worse they could not retrieve the body until we docked as they dare not stop the ship. Another of the crew was wounded by cannon shot. We were strangely silent. I found later that I had taken cover on top of the ships magazine, and that the box I was sitting on contained sticks of Dynamite for the Engineers of Tobruck. If we had been hit I was sure of a flying start. Darkness fell as we reached the outer Buoys and lights of Tobruck Harbour, and in the pale light of a new Moon. We berthed along side the mole, in the shadow of tall cliffs. So this was Tobruck. All was quiet, apart from the lapping of the waves, subdued voices (quiet as though the enemy might be listening, action makes you that way) the sound of motor engines starting up, and the thud of army feet. We were disembarking and in a hurry to, it did not seem a healthy place to linger. Grabbing Two kit bags I staggered ashore, (stagger is the word) as I am sure they contained half bricks or the like. Making our way up the cliff sides by means of a rough path we reached the top and the outskirts of the town itself, then into waiting Italian Diesel trucks, across the stony plateau to the transit camp, which because of its vulnerability to shell fire was called “The leave and chance it” camp. We could see on the horizon a few tracers and Very lights. We were tired and bedded down for the night in large tents, our first night in Tobruck, the first of many.
June 3rd Woke to find the Sun streaming in through more holes than the makers of the tent had provided, and came to the conclusion that they were machine manufactured, Machine Gun.
We staggered across in threes (a protection against air attack) for breakfast and tasted our first cup of tea, made with almost salty water, it was revolting, then we dug in for the day as we awaited orders. A few air raids whiled away the time, and nothing came near. George Smith’s body was recovered today and we buried him in the small cemetery near the El Adam cross roads. We all felt very upset about it all. George was a good man and came from Alnwick.
A little about Tobruck
The perimeter was some Thirty miles long, running from the coast West of Tobruck (Derna Sector) inland along the Madawa Ridge for some Six miles, then parallel to the coase (East-West) for some Ten to Twelve miles, crossing the Tobruck-El Adam road, then turning North to the coast again (Bardia Sector.) The town itself was a mass of ruins, and house various peoples such as the RAOC, Bakeries, the Naval staff and others. They lived like rats in the ground, seeking protection from the heavy air raids. Outside the town was a large hospital, often hit during the air raids. At 20-00 hrs we climbed the steep sides of the Wadi (dried river bed) in single file, and reached the top of the plateau where transport was awaiting us, the most miserable collection of trucks that I have ever set eyes on. Crossing some rough ground we make the main road (Tripoli-Sollum) and proceed East, skirting the town and harbour (Dotted with sunken ships, including the Italian cruiser San Georgia and our gunboat the “Ladybird.”) We then climb over several escarpments and make camp on the North side of the El Adam cross roads, not far from a house known as Pink House. Amid shelling and violent air raids we dig in. Dig, dig,dig, you’re alright. Water is rationed, which is a serious thing and beards start to grow. We are as Haw Haw calls us “The Rats of Tobruck” and self supporting prisoners, There is no air support, not even a 1924 Biplane. One sharp and violent bombing attack on our position was very “Hairy” a stick of 6 bombers and some very near misses. Tom Wake, and Paddy Bennet were nearest, some 4 Yards away. No one was hurt.
June 4th –19th We soon settled down to the grim existence of siege warfare, we had to, and the water grew saltier. Under no circumstances were we to have more than our ration of water. Air raids were a nightly occurrence, the main targets being the harbour, the town , and the Ack Ack sites. All night long we heard the whistle and thumps of the bombs, the whine of the aircraft and the screaming of the Ack Ack shells. During the day, Stuka dive bombing was the order of the day, and over they came in their Twenties and Thirties. The stores arrived and we laid our first SR base on the El Adam and Bardia sectors, using multi cable which did not prove very successful. Another bright idea of the Major’s was the use of overhead telegraph wires, but this brilliant idea was soon nipped in the bud, when brawny Australian lumberjacks started to chop down the poles. Brian Rook on the phone at the chopping end was almost in tears, but down they came, and that was that. At this time I gashed my finger rather badly, and as a result my temper was rather short and frayed. “Jeeps” Lt. Kemsley to the rescue and he dressed my finger.
We were now in possession of a cave, which despite the fleas gave us some protection from the hot sun, and the shrapnel from the guns situated just to our rear. There were some Fourteen members of our underground movement. Food was not bad at all, but the water. So the days passed by, with the usual line maintenance, survey, Counter battery work, Shelling, air raids, Sun rise and Sun set over the same horizon and the salt water, and not forgetting the rumours of course.
On the 10th June Fletcher and I were on line maintenance on the El Adam section. We checked M1,2 and 3 also advanced position. We tally and repair damage caused by enemy shelling. Trucks also damaged the lines.
On the 12th June I had my finger redressed. Maddison wounded when his truck hit a land mine. Sent to hospital. Discuss “Home” news with Tom Wake.
The 16th June saw me write lots of letters home. The King’s message was read out to us, and we read the local papers produced in Tobruck known as “Truth” but better known as “DINKUM OIL”
On the 17th June a new SR base was to be laid in the Derna Sector and the El Adam base is brought in amid a violent sandstorm. New base in action and Captain Balfour is well pleased. Bob Dunn and I check lines to “Mikes” 4 and 5. Friendly “Diggers” in the forward area give us “Hot Tea and Wads.”
June 19th Our first move in the fortress of Tobruck. We are to take over from the flash spotters who are on the Derna sector, Code name MOBA) and they in turn take over our sector. The base is pulled in very quickly, several trucks getting lost in the minefields. The survey party are already lining up the base on the Derna side, and HQ has been established in a very deep cave (there were Thousands in Tobruck) next to the GHQ and the main ammo dump. We were in action on the Derna sector by 22-00 hrs which was a record move. June 20th is spent in checking the lines and making necessary repairs. Paired off with Bob Dunn, and we maintain some 10 miles of line. By 18-00 hrs all lines were in action.
June 21st-22nd We were all awakened last night by the sound of swishing bombs and we thought the cave was for it, they fell just over the rise and brought down a shower of rocks and mortar, but there were no injuries or damage. This cave houses the recorder which takes a film of the sound waves. Men are now going into dock daily with septic wounds and stomach disorders. Gypo Shields tries his hand at cooking Beans on Toast. We hear the glad news that Russia is at war with Germany, and fondly hope that he may withdraw from Africa, at least Tobruck. German ME 109’s glide overhead as if to assure us that we are not forgotten. Warden and Cowan go into hospital.
Addendum to Original Diary
Regarding this cave, in 1967 (25th anniversary of the battle of Alamein) the Sunday Times published a book “Alamein and the Western Desert.” In it is a photograph taken by an Australian war reporter. It shows some of our troops, Myself, Keith Burns, Sgt. Ted Marshall. Oliver, Hugh Gibb and others. A few of us are wearing our tin hats having been forward laying new lines.
June 23rd –30th I am now detailed to go back to the Bardia sector to take over duties on the Counter Battery Telephone Exchange, and arrive back at my former cave to find Ray Rooke, George Dyson, and George Mason, already on the job, and soon get the hang of the new exchange. Life is very boring these days. The Hun sinks all the NAAFI barges (at least nearly all of them) and down the hatch of Davy Jones’ locker goes our NAAFI ration and what is more important our mail. Some days later I receive mail rescued from the sea, and I can just read the same. The air raids continue apace, on an average of six to ten raids a day, varying from single planes to formations of Thirty to a hundred. One of our survey trucks is machine gunned on the Derma sector, but no casualties. The food is improving, the water, well we are getting used to it. George Dobson and Eric Howard were shelled at the advance post last night and had to make a dash for it. The members of our little community are as follows:- George Mason (CB Exchange) George Dobson (MT Driver) Laidlaw (MT Driver) Peacock (MT Driver) Ray Rooke (Surveyor and CB Exchange) George Dyson (Surveyor and CB Exchange) Pindar (Cook) Bennett (DR and Surveyor) myself and a few others who kept coming and going. We got on fairly well together, though tempers were rather short at times. The latest rumour is that we are going back to England, the best one yet. Other current ones are of a new push to be made at Sollum to relieve the garrison, Ha, Ha. Survey of Trig data in the fortress is carried out.
June 30th Better food today after row with cook saying MOBA were being fed like Lords.