Journey Towards Christmas
Chapter 13 — While Shepheard's Watched
While Shepheard's Watched
THE sun beat down on ruined Mersa Matruh, drawing a hot reek, sweet and sickish, from crumbled masonry and dirty sand. No. 1 Platoon's drivers lay half under their lorries to get shade and a little draught. They wondered if the platoon from the 4th Reserve Mechanical Transport Company would arrive in time to relieve them, and sometimes they hoped it would but mostly they hoped not. They eschewed heroics and they had seen enough action to know how unwise it was to covet honour, but, on the other hand, here was the curtain rising on one of the great dramas of the war, and—well, they were as good as the RMT, weren't they? ‘Those 20th jokers,’ they told each other, ‘reckon we'll do them. They're not fussy.’ Our drivers were beginning to fancy themselves in a troop-carrying role.
It was 25 June and they had been with the infantry eight days—five on the journey from Syria and three in an outpost near Charing Cross, ten miles south-west of Matruh. The battalion had been relieved by Indians early that morning and now it was standing by in Matruh, waiting to move back to the Charing Cross area to cover a mine-laying party.
Two o'clock came, and as there was still no sign of the RMT the infantry boarded No. 1 Platoon's lorries and the convoy set out for Charing Cross. Detachments of the British advanced screen—Sidi Omar and Sollum had been evacuated by now—were moving east along the main-road and the 20th Battalion seemed to be the only unit not in retreat. Often the road was choked by four lines of traffic, three of which, like rubbish in a chute, crashed and tumbled along in no sort of order. It was as though the desert had been tilted sideways and the British and German armies were obeying the law of gravity.
They wouldn't admit it, of course, but it was impossible for our drivers not to take a lonely pride in the situation. To be skinning her along towards Rommel, the old bull-bitch, the old Chevvy, while all the other stuff was high-tailing it for Alex—that was page 222 something. Our drivers were anxious to do well, and if for a single presumptuous moment they saw their common dust, the grey-yellow dust that spurted from beneath their wheels, mingling with the immortal spray from an armed merchantman, the slipstream from a doomed fighter, they held their peace, saying only: ‘Curse those RMT slugs!’—though meaning, perhaps: Come then: let us to the task, to the battle, to the toil—‘They certainly put it across us that time, those RMT jokers. They did that all right.’
The convoy passed through Charing Cross and drove along the Siwa road, halting fourteen miles south-south-west of Mersa Matruh. The infantry took up defensive positions and at 6 p.m. men from the 6th and 7th Field Companies started their job, which was to close a four-mile gap in an old minefield. Indian sappers, working from the north end of the gap, were out of sight, but our drivers could follow the New Zealand vehicles as they crawled across the perfectly flat desert. Every once in a while there was a flash and a gusty cough that told its own story. They watched breathless, and it was as though each vehicle carried a small part of them, which was felt as an ache, an absence, somewhere between heart and stomach. They did not know it, but a section from No. 4 Platoon was with the sappers.
The work was not finished until after ten, by which time four vehicles had been lost on our own mines. No one had been injured, though, and the sappers were just beginning to congratulate themselves when a 30-cwt. truck loaded with 350 mines passed over a bump and blew up, killing two men and wounding six others. For some moments a column of black smoke, much darker than the night and hooded like Death or Famine in an old print, hung in the sky, while behind it German flares blinked and spurted. The cause of the explosion was not known—then or later.
Soon afterwards the 20th Battalion withdrew through a narrow gap in the minefield and set out across country for the 4th Brigade area, ten miles south by east of Mersa Matruh, the journey, which so far as our drivers were concerned was an aimless succession of stops and starts, taking all night.
The intention was now becoming plain: our Division, less the 6th Brigade, was to fight a delaying action in front of the Alamein Line.
All reports showed that the enemy was advancing fast, and at page 223 five on the afternoon of 26 June the 4th Brigade moved ten miles south to higher ground. Two hours later the 20th Battalion was told to move north to meet an enemy formation that had broken through the Siwa road minefield.
With the sun setting, the infantry climbed into the covered lorries and our drivers closed the tailboards and sat waiting for the signal to move. There was a hum of engines, and more than twenty bombers, unidentifiable for a moment, flew out of the gold light and turned to place the darkening east behind them. They were Junkers 88s and they came in to attack at medium level. Except for the ack-ack crews, which met them with machine-gun and Bofors fire, nearly everyone was caught napping, and when the bombs began to fall some of the infantry were still in the lorries. Soon the whole area was covered by a pall of smoke through which came bursts of machine-gun fire and more bombs. Ragged lines of tracer struggled up in reply and Bofors shells blinked redly above the murk. By the time the planes left it was almost dark.
At first it was thought that the casualties had been sickeningly heavy but a check showed that four men had been killed and twelve wounded, which was less than anyone had dared to hope. None of our drivers was hurt and only two lorries were out of commission.
It was half past nine before the battalion moved, and an hour and a half later it halted and dug in. Flares were the only sign of the enemy, but later in the night our drivers heard firing close at hand. New Zealand gunners were engaging a patrol, the first to make contact with the Division. Early next morning infantry and transport moved again, halting in the brigade area in sight of an escarpment. At no time during the past twelve hours had the battalion been far from a place called Minqar Qaim, twenty-four miles south of Mersa Matruh, but our drivers didn't know where they were. They were relieved to hear that the rest of the Division was in the neighbourhood, for the hard, clean desert was very lonely and there was no pity in the clear outline of the escarpment.
While they were enjoying a cup of tea—enjoying it in spite of the brackish water from their camel tanks—a large concentration of enemy transport was seen on the horizon some miles away. Then lorried infantry and twelve tanks appeared and the battalion moved to a position below the escarpment, where it dug in as quickly as possible. The shelling became heavy just before noon.page 224
Sheltering beside their lorries, which in some cases were parked only a stone's throw from the gun positions, which in turn were only about a hundred yards behind the infantry's slit-trenches, our drivers saw pillars of dust and smoke from our own shells form a high ragged wall along one sector of the front. Presently it started to walk towards them, halting after a while and then withdrawing.
The enemy fired back and it became dangerous to move. None the less, at one time or another during that endless afternoon, most of our drivers had to leave their slit-trenches, frenziedly hacked, scooped, chiselled in the rocky surface, to fetch ammunition, to collect wounded, and, very often, just to move their vehicles. Alan Falconer and ‘Titch’ Maybury, paying the price for distinguished company, had to drive out in front of the foremost slit-trenches to enable Captain C. H. Upham, VC,1 to perch on top of their cab and direct machine-gun fire.
There were other jobs that were hardly less pleasant. When Les Howarth and Harry High,2 of No. 1 Section, which was serving A Company, were sent to the 5th Brigade's area to pick up a load of small-arms ammunition, it took them two hours to cover two miles and they were under fire all the time. The ammunition, when they found it, was a chain in front of the firing line and one end of the stack was burning. However, they got their load.
Early in the afternoon tanks, guns, and lorried infantry started to close in on the New Zealanders, the attack developing simultaneously from north and south. The Germans tried hard to silence the 25-pounders, and shells and mortars landed all around them. Often, peeping from their slit-trenches, our drivers were unable to see the gunners for dust and smoke.
‘They kept on firing though,’ said George Searle,3 ‘not giving a damn. My lorry was about 300 yards from the nearest gun, but Jack McDonald's4 was a good deal closer than that and one of his page break page break page 225 wheels was blown off. He had to crawl out of his slit-trench to try to fix it.
Kaponga Box after a raid
Burning lorry, Kaponga Box
‘Later we watched Charlie Upham at work. We saw him standing on top of Alan Falconer's cab and directing anti-tank fire. Once, when a hidden spandau was giving trouble and our jokers couldn't find out where it was, he jumped up on the cab on purpose to draw fire. The range, though, was too great for the Brens, and finally a 3-inch mortar did the trick.
‘The attack got fiercer, and a German troop-carrier, a half-track job, came tearing towards us. The anti-tank boys stopped it with a direct hit and as the old Jerries came tumbling out our Brengunners got stuck into them. Most of them put their hands up, but one tough Jerry was out of that carrier in a tick and down between the front wheels with his spandau going. A good boy, I should say.
‘The day was hot and by this time I was as dry as a wooden god. The infantry had their tongues hanging out too, so whenever there was a lull I put the billy on in the cab, keeping the old lorry close to my trench.’
Other drivers did the same, dishing out half a mug here, a third of a mug there, or a billy-full to a platoon or a gun crew.
Meanwhile, in spite of repeated attacks, the infantry were still hanging on below the escarpment. The enemy was shooting with 210-millimetre, 105-millimetre, and 88-millimetre guns, and with captured 25-pounders. Much of the supplies and equipment lost in the last fortnight was being used against us. German soldiers with British shirts on their backs, British bully in their bellies, and Capstan cigarettes in their mouths, were driving Bedfords and Chevrolets distinguishable from ours only by a black cross painted on the door or by a piece of cloth marked with a black cross and fastened to the radiator.
As the day wore on, the area in which the 4th Brigade was fighting contracted, and at length guns, vehicles, and aid posts were crowded together much too close for safety. Here and there fires were burning, but as yet none of No. 1 Platoon's vehicles had been badly damaged, though several were out of commission with cut wiring, punctured tires, and pierced radiators, which our drivers tried to repair whenever they had a chance. When expert help was page 226 needed Sergant ‘Dad’ Cleave and Norm Hague5 (the LAD crew) seemed always to be at hand.
Most of the damage, as always, was superficial. Lance-Corporal Jock Letham6 and his driver, for instance, were pinned under their lorry for half an hour by a storm of anti-tank, mortar, and machine-gun fire, but it was hit only twice: once when an anti-tank shell carried away part of the superstructure, and again when a burst of machine-gun bullets drilled a row of holes in the tray.
Soon after half past three the sector held by the 20th and 28th Battalions was approached from one direction by twenty tanks and 200 vehicles, and from another by twenty tanks. They were engaged by the 4th Field Regiment and help was asked for from the 6th.
It was this (or an earlier threat) that caused a sudden ebb among No. 1 Platoon's headquarters' transport, which left the ack-ack lorry high and dry. Before anything could be done a pick-up squealed to a halt ten yards away and an Artillery officer got out of it, saying to ‘Crassi’ Cliff7 and ‘Pop’ Cannell8: ‘I want to use your bus as a screen. You chaps lie down by the wheels and I'll look after what's worrying you.’ Shifting from foot to foot so that his head and shoulders were never a still target, the officer peered over the tray of the lorry and gave fire orders to his wireless operator, who was crouched in the back of the pick-up. Bullets hit the lorry and whizzed past the officer's head, but he continued to give orders and perform his clumsy dance. One bullet drilled a hole in the lorry's drive-shaft and a twist of copper-coloured metal landed in ‘Crassi's’ lap.
‘Hi!’ said ‘Crassi’, and the officer looked down for a second. ‘How much longer do you reckon you'll be wanting us?’
‘Not a lot longer,’ said the officer. ‘We'll get on to them any time now.’
He was a big, boyish-looking man with sandy hair and (‘Crassi’ thinks) spectacles.
Every now and then the wireless operator said ‘Rounds fired’, page 227 but among the medley of sounds it was impossible to tell where the rounds were landing or from where they were coming.
At last the officer said: ‘Thanks very much. We're getting out of here now. I wouldn't hang about too long if I were you. See you again, eh?’
‘Like hell you will!’ said ‘Pop’, but ‘Crassi’, who had no nerves, only smiled, pushing his Australian wide-awake farther back on his head and feeling for his tobacco.
The pick-up raced off and the ack-ack lorry followed, ‘Pop’ going through his gears in two quick rips. As soon as they were safe ‘Crassi’ and he found a quiet spot where they could boil up. Later they made their way back to platoon headquarters—cooks' lorry, orderly-room lorry, water cart, LAD, staff car—which was again in danger. After being cursed by several drivers (not No. 1 Platoon men) ‘Pop’ had to be content with a position that was far too exposed to excite jealousy. (‘Pop,’ said ‘Crassi’, ‘they want you to go and park with the bloody Germans.’) A vehicle still farther out in the desert came under heavy mortar fire and was set alight. Then the enemy turned his attention to the ack-ack lorry, bracketing it with bombs and finally landing one by the tailboard. ‘Crassi', sheltering under the rear differential, was lifted from the ground and slammed down again unhurt.’ ‘Pop’, lying between the front wheels, was wounded in the head. Black smoke hid the lorry, which hissed air from a punctured tire and dripped water from a pierced radiator and petrol from a pierced tank.
The fire shifted to another target and ‘Pop’ was taken to an Advanced Dressing Station. In spite of pain and disappointment he was able to remember in which secret corner he had cached a bottle of Scotch whisky against a rainy day, and before he lost consciousness he made ‘Crassi’ a present of it.
‘Pop’ was our third casualty. The others were Ed Child9 (No. 2 Section) and Pat Wells, whose section (No. 4) was serving D Company and had spent most of the day 400 yards in front of the 25-pounders and 100 yards behind the infantry. Ed was wounded slightly in the calf, Pat badly in the foot. ‘C Jay’ O'Brien, who could hardly be classed as a casualty, though he received medical page 228 attention, could show a paybook in two halves, a smashed fountain pen, and a spectacular graze immediately above the heart.
Not knowing how lucky the platoon had been as a whole (for the sections, of course, had stayed near their respective infantry companies all day), our drivers worried about their friends, and they were anxious, too, about the general situation. The Division, from all accounts, was encircled, 25-pounder ammunition was running low, and General Freyberg was wounded.
But dusk, thank goodness, was not far away. Dusk meant relief from tension, a cup of tea, a chance to stretch your legs. As the sun dropped towards the horizon the fire slackened and by sunset it had almost ceased. Sometimes there was a rattle of machine-gun fire from an outpost (one of those I'm-still-here rattles) and sometimes an armour-piercing shell, glowing red among the shadows and sending off showers of sparks when it bounced, plunged in from the surrounding gloom. Burning German transport, twinkling like camp-fires, traced a ragged circle round the beleaguered position.
Slowly, grudgingly, as though in the celestial store they were short of nights and the Divine Quartermaster was reluctant to make the issue, the darkness deepened, and presently it was as dark as it would get. Our drivers were out of their slit-trenches by now and gathered in small groups, starting at every noise. At first they were almost shy—‘How d'you make out, “Pork”?’—‘Not bad, eh?’—‘Get a puncture?’—but soon they were talking thirteen to the dozen. Out it all poured—the bottled-up comments, suggestions, criticisms, hopes, fears, stories. It was as though an invisible butler had passed around, giving everyone just two cocktails.
‘Reckon old Jerry took a hiding worse than what we did.’
‘See that Jerry car get it early on? She comes bowling along the escarpment, game as one thing, and then she stops it. One of our anti-tanks, eh? Reckon they never knew what hit them.’
‘Saw a two-pounder get a Jerry motor-cycle and side-car. Just blew it to nothing.’
‘One Itie they reckon—Harry saw it—came into our lines on one of those motor-cycle combination things. He has his hands in the air and all he can say is “Momma! Poppa!” Riding along gripping the thing with his knees saying “Momma! Poppa!”—the poor bastard.’page 229
‘Hell! What's the difference? They'll get the lot tonight or tomorrow. We're surrounded and we've got no 25-pounder left. It came over the German radio.’
‘If anyone's in the bag it's bloody Rommel.’
‘Look, boy! Rommel's just the best general….’
Thus the talk, while four drivers crouch over a tin of bully and six over a tin of sausages. Round a tent, like spokes round a wheel, men lie on stretchers, blankets covering them. Every now and then one of them is picked up by two orderlies and taken inside. Sometimes an orderly glances at a man's face and pulls the blanket right over him. There is little noise—only the low murmur of voices and the hiss of primuses hidden in cabs or in the backs of lorries; only the scrape of metal against metal, the clatter of a dropped spanner, the thud of steel on rubber as groups of drivers, hot and swearing in the darkness, change tires, patch radiators, fix a drive-shaft. The ack-ack lorry is repaired and driven to a safer place. An hour later ‘Dad’ is able to tell Captain Gibson that all the lorries are mobile except one, which is on tow.
Captain Gibson goes round platoon headquarters, warning his men that an attempt to break out will probably be made during the night. They had better try to get some sleep.
You fetch blankets from your lorry and lie down in your slittrench among puddles of moonlight and bars of shadow. In the distance shovels make tiny scraping noises, and ‘Baldy's’ pickaxe, striking hard rock, ticks steadily—like a watch under your pillow. You look up and see the thick tire, the heavy tow-bar, the ugly page 230 radiator, you smell the congealing oil drained half an hour ago from the sump (remember to enter oil-change in AB Four-One-Two tomorrow) and are comforted. Comforted, you fall asleep.
The orders were: ‘Brigade night attack. Battalions in the following order: 19th Battalion front, 28th Battalion right rear, 20th Battalion left rear.’ The intention was to break through into the open, the leading battalion's task being to clear a narrow neck of high ground to make a path for the transport. Zero hour was half an hour before midnight, and after the break-through had been made the transport would move forward to embus the infantry, the 5th Brigade following.
The transport started to form up at 11 p.m., and for ten, twenty, thirty minutes—time was difficult to reckon—all you could hear was a deep, angry growl that seemed to be coming from the earth, from the sky, from the four corners of the desert. Chequering the bone-white battlefield with swaying shadows, lurching over rocks, swerving to avoid, often unsuccessfully, shadowy slit-trenches, the transport formed up in column of route on a wide front. The growl sank to a mutter—suck of intake, rap of tappet, putt-putt of exhaust—but still you could hear nothing else.
Our drivers sat quietly in their cabs, not talking. Time passed and a battalion formed up in the open desert. The officers were speaking—you could sense it—and the men listening.
The battalion melted away and our drivers sat on, straining ears and eyes. Engines had been switched off in obedience to an order passed down from the head of the column and it was very quiet. Marvellously this great mass of transport—it seemed to be fifty or sixty yards wide and its length was impossible to judge—had attracted no fire. A flare went up and hung yellow in the sky for some seconds but no shells or bullets followed. What was wrong with Jerry? Surely he had heard the transport moving? Surely he knew what was going on? There was nothing to do except wait quietly under the moonlight, sitting tense in your cab or standing beside it and shifting from foot to foot.
When the success signals were seen the transport moved forward through the gap and halted. One of the first shells that landed hit page 231 No. 1 Platoon's ack-ack lorry. It was an armour-piercing shell and it struck the tow-bar side on, twisting the thick steel as though it had been tinfoil and biting a great piece out of it. From the engine came a smell of burning, and fire extinguishers were torn from the nearest vehicles. A blaze was what everyone dreaded most and our drivers would have beaten out a fire with their bare hands had that been necessary.
Mortar bombs and anti-tank shells, fired wildly and at long range, came in from the flanks, and a spandau opened up only a short distance ahead, the bullets springing from the ground and going high. Some men lay down between the lines of transport; others bustled around finding things to do, because it was easier for them to keep calm if they were busy. ‘Dad’ and half a dozen helpers changed the off front wheel of the ack-ack lorry in less than five minutes and Bernie Caddy12 backed his water cart to take it in tow.
By this time the infantry had started to embus. Discipline was good though some of the men seemed almost drunk with excitement and some were wounded. For these there was no special transport and room was found for them where they were most likely to be comfortable. Everything had to be done in haste, for the weight and accuracy of the fire, though not considerable yet, was increasing momently. There was no avoidable confusion and soon the leading vehicles began to move. The whole mass surged forward.
In Thessaly, in the bright sunshine, our drivers had seen the shadows of aircraft run before them on the white road, the first warning of danger; in Libya they had been driven towards the guns like pheasants; but nothing that had happened to them before was as strange or as wild as this mad dash. It was experienced as a ‘mad dash’ and that is how people remember it, though in point of fact the column was moving almost sedately—probably at not more than twelve miles an hour.
The dust was so thick that at times it was difficult to see the vehicle in front, though it was never more than a few yards away and seldom more than a few feet. Bursts of light, their glare muffled by boiling dust clouds, showed where mortar bombs were bursting, but the explosions were not heard, for the long shriek page 232 of vehicles moving in low gear drowned everything. Bullets passed unnoticed, and afterwards our drivers found neat holes in trays and canopies. On the flanks splashes of orange and yellow showed where the infantry were making a running fight of it, firing rifles and Bren guns from behind cabs or from the backs of the lorries and drawing answering fire.
When a vehicle was knocked out or developed engine trouble or collided with another, telescoping fan and radiator, it was abandoned at once, drivers and passengers jumping on the first vehicle that slowed down.
And so it went on—not for a long time according to the clock but for ages as dreams go, and this was a kind of dream and therefore not really frightening: less frightening, our drivers were to find, than lying in a slit-trench with the lorry ten yards away and a dixie of stew cooling on the flat, ugly mudguard and the Stukas coming. There was no background of normality, no touch of every-dayness, to make a nightmare out of a dream. It was Cowboy-and-Indian stuff: a picture, a story, a play—almost, in its rush and wonder, a poem.
And in the boiling dust, superimposed on the dun clouds and the wagging tailboard ahead, our drivers saw everything: all the scenes of the day, all the scenes of the night. They built them from quick phrases, chopped sentences, gabbled words; from the glimpse of a bayonet dark and bright with blood (‘I tol’ you I'd use ‘er—I was determin’ to use ‘er.’); from a field dressing all one stain of blood. They saw Captain Upham standing with his hands in front of his face after throwing a grenade into the back of a lorry; and ten terrified German lads, like the ten little nigger boys, shot all together in the one big bed they were sleeping in for warmth and company; and the tracers flowing shin-high above the desert and the infantry skipping to avoid them; and a fat German officer kneeling in the back of a staff car and trying to fire his pistol. And they knew (from shouted question and answer) who was wounded and who would not be wanting, ever again, the camera safe under the seat, the zip-fastening-despatch case in the tool box wrapped in rags.
After a mile and a half had been covered the head of the formation met enemy transport in a wadi and swung south to avoid it. That concluded the Cowboy-and-Indian phase. The shooting stopped page 233 as suddenly as it had started, leaving a few fires, rapidly fading in the distance, to prove that it had taken place. Soon the last fire was out of sight, but the great mass of transport, still moving in a cloud of dust, still close-packed, pressed on at the same speed. Later it sorted itself out and the drivers settled down on an eight-vehicle front and tried to dress by the centre. Once, towards morning, the head of the formation had to swing south to avoid a concentration of enemy transport, but soon it was heading east again, making for the Alamein Line. Jumbled together in the backs of the lorries the infantry slept like logs. Only the wounded were awake.
The stars paled and a streak of primrose light appeared far ahead. Light, grey and frozen, flooded the whole desert, making it possible to see the drawn, dirty faces of the men in the lorries. The tires—the thousands of tires—made a crunching noise as they turned against the hard surface.
As soon as it was light the transport moved into desert square formation and halted, while portées with anti-tank guns, and towers dragging Bofors, hurried towards the perimeter. The enemy was not far away.
The lorries were widely dispersed, and men with biscuits and lumps of bully in their hands went over to each other, meeting between the lines to exchange news. A few of our drivers, it was found, had been borrowed by the 5th Brigade, which had broken out on its own (delay in launching the attack had caused an alteration in the programme), but as far as it was known everyone was safe except Corporal ‘Snow’ Weir.13 He had been missing when No. 4 Section formed up for the break-through, and Frank Humphreys,14 his driver, after searching everywhere, had been forced to leave without him.
At seven o'clock, after an hour's halt, the journey was continued, the transport travelling in desert formation with the guns on the outside. There was no stop for lunch as the enemy was known to be following.
The day was hot and several of the wounded became feverish, and everyone, being over-tired, had a headachy, sickish feeling. page 234 Our drivers shared the general malaise but they were well content. It was over now and they had memories comforting to their selfesteem. ‘Every man,’ says Doctor Johnson, ‘thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ Every soldier, he might have added, thinks meanly of himself for not having been under fire. Our drivers were proud of their unit and they would not have chosen to belong to any other, but all the same it had sometimes occurred to them—and they were sensitive on the point—that belonging to the Ammunition Company was not quite the same thing as belonging to the Black Watch. No. 1 Platoon would feel easier from now on while any spoke that fought upon St. Crispin's Day.
At nine that night—it was 28 June—the 4th Brigade reached its destination: Fortress A, Alamein Line. The wounded were evacuated to hospital, the infantry dug in, and the drivers serviced their vehicles. Then, with the guns sounding in their ears, they fell asleep.
For many days the platoon listened to the guns—our own and Rommel's. Sometimes the sound was no more than a dull rumble in the distance: often it made the air tremble. Wherever the 20th Battalion went the drivers went too, withdrawing behind the nearest cover as soon as the infantry had debussed and then standing by for the next order. There was ammunition to be fetched, hot stew to be taken to outposts, and at any moment the transport was liable to be called forward to embus the battalion and move it to another sector. It was No. 1 Platoon's testing time.
The general position on 29 June, the day after the break-through, was that the 30th and 13th Corps were hurriedly strengthening the Alamein Line while the following units, reading from north to south, were barring the advance: 1st South African Division (Alamein Box), 18th Indian Infantry Brigade (Deir el Shein), New Zealanders (Fortress A), and 19th Indian Infantry Brigade (Fortress B).
The 29th was a quiet day for our drivers. During the morning gunfire could be heard from the direction of Fuka, where infiltration along the railway and the coast road had prevented the British from standing, and in the afternoon the 20th Battalion moved a page 235 mile or two south and dug in. The Luftwaffe was overhead all night long.
Early on the following afternoon Rommel arrived in front of the Alamein Line. The 20th Battalion was now near Deir el Munassib, twenty miles south of El Alamein, and the main attack was expected to develop during the night at a point twelve miles northeast of its position.
The attack was launched the next day (Ash Wednesday they called it in Cairo, mocking the smoke rising from army and ministerial chimneys), the first and fiercest blows being struck against the South Africans in the coast sector. The 18th Indian Infantry Brigade was heavily engaged at Deir el Shein, south of the Alamein Box, and during the afternoon tanks and infantry converged on Fortress A. When the artillery opened fire the enemy decided that the weak spot he was searching for was not there. The tanks sheered off and the infantry climbed back into their lorries. At half past six in the evening the 6th Brigade's guns opened fire on a large enemy column, which then withdrew out of range. A report from the coast sector said that the enemy was retiring west leaving burning vehicles. The last news of the day was bad: the 18th Indian Brigade at Deir el Shein, after fighting splendidly all day, had been overwhelmed, and there was now a gap in the line.
That night our drivers heard heavy bombing. The Royal Air Force was attacking panzer divisions in laager.
Rommel started 2 July by throwing the 90th Light Division, three armoured divisions, and most of his Italian infantry against the South Africans and the British 1st Armoured Division. He was trying to enlarge the gap south of the Alamein Box. The battle raged all day, and at one time he was so sure of success that he issued a communiqué in which he spoke of pursuing the defeated British towards Alexandria. The German radio said that he would lunch there on Friday.
That evening after a long, anxious day—the battalion had moved north-north-west to harry the enemy's rear and had come under shellfire—our drivers heard news of a big tank battle. The enemy was said to be retiring.
It was true. The bombing of the panzer laagers, the gallantry of the 1st Armoured Division, and the dogged resistance of the South Africans had saved the day. On 3 July Rommel tried again page 236 and the next forty-eight hours were desperately anxious. Both sides were drunk and poisoned with tiredness but they fought like lions—the Germans because they were good soldiers and the prize was in sight, the Allies because it was the last ditch and it was better to die now than to be ashamed always.
They fought in the stinking heat and through the cold darkness, and on the third morning tens of thousands of men, packed like people in a city between Alexandria and the Alamein Line, between the sea and the depression, came out of their tents, threw off dewy blankets and climbed from their slit-trenches, hoiked in the sand, scratched themselves like dogs in the sunlight, and looked around. And they said: ‘She's going to be all right. I think we've done it. I reckon she's going to be all right.’ They turned to their breakfasts and their tasks, forgetting their anxiety in a few hours, not remembering, after a few days, the times when she was all wrong.
No lunch for Rommel in Alexandria—not this week. Mussolini and his white charger could go back home and stay there until they were sent for. The Eighth Army, after being beaten at Knights-bridge, after losing Tobruk, after abandoning Mersa Matruh, after failing to stand at Fuka, after seeing the new line—the last line—bend and begin to crack, was holding fast. No one could call it a great victory, but you could, if you liked, call it a miracle. Not because the Germans were much stronger than we were—they weren't—not because they had more and better weapons—they hadn't—but because somewhere on a tarmac road between Tobruk and El Daba, for ten minutes, for an hour, for a day—all who saw it will know the truth—a great army had streamed east, reeking of defeat, breathing the sour air of defeat, sick with defeat.
It was a scene best forgotten and No. 1 Platoon's drivers forgot it as soon as anyone. They were becoming used to this mobile column business and the men they carried were now their friends. The RMT could take over if it liked—but there was no tearing hurry.
And then, to spoil everything, the Stukas came.
They came in fives, in tens, in thirties, and they came every day and several times a day. They would circle above the transport and fall out of the sky one after another, screaming. And after they had gone, before the smoke had cleared or the sand settled, the page 237 ambulances would come scuttling across the desert, making for the flames and the smashed lorries. The Luftwaffe was trying to hamstring the mobile columns by knocking out their transport.
On 4 July the 4th Brigade area was raided four times. In the afternoon several lorries were damaged and two were destroyed. ‘Owie’ McKee,15 sheltering in a deep slit-trench, was buried alive beside his burning lorry, and his friends dug him out with bare hands and steel helmets. He was unconscious when they lifted him into the ambulance.
Mail arrived in the evening and the last raid of the day took place while our drivers were reading letters from home by the fading light. Frank Humphreys' lorry was destroyed, Frank being badly hurt by blast when a bomb landed on the edge of his slittrench, and George Searle's lorry, loaded with mortar bombs, sticky bombs, and hand grenades, was set on fire. After George and the others had dug out an Artillery driver who had been buried in his slit-trench they shovelled sand on the flames. Ammunition was exploding, but that did not stop Corporal Arty McDonald16 from jumping on the tailboard and clearing it of a box of smouldering sticky bombs, which, by some miracle, was still intact. Half an hour from the start of the raid the fire was under control. The tires had gone from the back wheels and at first glance it seemed as though the lorry would have to be written off. But our drivers, knowing that transport was precious beyond price, set to work, and by ten that night, when C Company was due to move, the lorry was again mobile.
Shortly before noon the next day, while the 4th Brigade Group was shifting from east to west of the fortress, aircraft appeared out of the sun, roared down the lanes of transport, and dropped bombs from about 1000 feet. A glitter of wings, black blobs falling, an eruption of the desert, and it was all over. In the centre of the formation, where a jeep had been overturned beside a staff car, there was a bad mess, and word flew round that Brigadier J. R. Gray17 was dead. Also among the dead, it was learned later, was page 238 the Brigade Major and four men attached to brigade headquarters. The 28th Battalion, which had come under the command of the brigade group the day before and was travelling on the right flank of the convoy, had lost one major, one lieutenant, and fourteen men.
After the wounded had been taken away the convoy travelled on, reaching its destination at three in the afternoon. The Luftwaffe appeared almost at once and there was a short, sharp raid. Digging was difficult and the third raid of the day caught several drivers with their slit-trenches unfinished. At 6 p.m. some sixteen planes bombed the brigade area, and the last raid, made by Stukas and Junkers 88s escorted by Messerschmitts, took place at dusk. Claude Cameron18 was injured by blast from a 500-pound bomb and three tires were blown off Captain Gibson's staff car. Other damage was slight.
And it was like that every day. The Stukas seldom diverged from their timetable. They could be expected early in the afternoon, during the evening meal, and at sunset. Even when they failed to appear the feeling of suspended doom was almost as bad as a raid.
For a while No. 1 Platoon had a run of luck. There were no more casualties, and although several of the vehicles became like sieves none was immobilised for more than a few hours—thanks chiefly to ‘Dad’ Cleave and Norm Hague, both of whom earned the Military Medal for putting the job first and their lives second.
Except in an emergency, moves for which transport was needed were made only at night, and during the long, cloudless days the drivers had little to do except watch for Stukas. Most of them were very tired, but when they slept in the daytime their nerves stayed awake. Everyone developed a listening expression. Conversations would end suddenly and eyes go to the horizon. Ears would be cocked for the noise of engines, the thump of guns. When it was a genuine alarm Bofors started coughing in the distance, marking the course of the bombers with a mass of white puffs, thick near the centre of the target, scattered on its outskirts, like the marks on a dart-board. Our drivers seldom heard the beat of engines. As dogs in lonely districts pass on from farmstead to farmstead the chorus of warning and mad rage, drowning the step, page 239 the sly rustle, that first caused it, so the Bofors, in area after area, barked furiously, until at last the guns with the 20th Battalion were barking them all down. ‘Crassi's’ spandau, a Pomeranian among wolfhounds, barked too, but you couldn't hear it.
Sometimes the Stukas dropped their bombs and went away. Often they would dive and scream among the smoke for what seemed an eternity. After they had gone our drivers would rise from their slit-trenches, stand upright in them for a few moments (as you might stand in a bath before stepping out of it) and grin shakily while they counted the fires, watched the ambulances at their grim tasks, and noted how the desert was splashed with greyish-white streaks. These were caused by small bombs that had exploded before piercing the surface.
Everyone owned that he was afraid and everyone either had a charm against fear (which sometimes worked and sometimes didn't) or was trying to find one. It helped to count the planes and watch the bombs falling. It helped to dig your slit-trench to a specification: so many yards from the lorry, so many feet deep, so many feet wide. It helped, when the planes were coming, to have a pet jingle you could let loose in your head—nonsense:
Down where the waistline's a little longer,
Down where the soup stain's a little stronger,
That's where the vest begins….
Or something charming from childhood:
How many miles to Babylon?
Three score and ten.
Can I get there by candlelight?
Yes—and back again.
It helped, perhaps, to pray: to pray that nothing irrevocable would happen (as yet, though people were dying around them, none of our drivers had been killed or mutilated), or to ask, with a diminution of self-respect, for the RMT to be sent.
But the RMT, the slugs, didn't come. There was no talk of the platoon's being relieved, and the Stukas went on observing their timetable.
It was hot all day, but towards evening (Stuka-time) it became cooler. The sun retracted its fierce heat and curled up in a great glowing ball, dazzling westward-gazing eyes and hiding the Stukas. After the Stukas had gone for good, the night, cool and lovely, rushed over the whole desert and flowed right to the sunset, little page 240 and distant now, like the mouth of a cave. Our drivers opened tins of pears, laughing and talking. Later—between nine and ten probably—the transport would form up in column of route, move after a wait of anything from one to four hours, and travel, most likely, all through the night, stopping and starting, while in the backs of the lorries the infantry lolled and dozed, their faces drawn and corpse-like under the moon.
All day long under the sun, under mortar bombs and shellfire, they had lain in slit-trenches, with little water and nothing to eat except biscuits and bully. But they were always cheerful—cheerful when they gave our drivers their cameras and other treasures to look after, saying ‘Hang on to it if anything happens’; cheerful when you boiled up for them (‘Hell! You'd think we was Father Christmas!’), cheerful and angry when they went out to die (angry with the Germans, with the authorities, with themselves for being such fools), cheerful and even happy sometimes under the hot sun, under the cold moon, under the stars.
Ruweisat Ridge, fourteen miles south of Alamein, was the most important of a series of roughly parallel ridges cutting both the German and British positions. Whoever held it securely could sweep the coast with direct fire and operate from good cover against an exposed plateau to the south. Its capture was worth many lives.
The 4th and 5th Brigades held a ridge six miles to the south, Alam Nayil; the 5th Indian Brigade held the east end of Ruweisat and the Germans the west, which was the New Zealanders' objective. The battle was planned for the night of 14-15 July.
On the morning of the 14th the men of the 20th Battalion were in their slit-trenches, revelling in the spreading warmth after a bitter night. Greatcoats and blankets (one each) had been sent up to them the day before but had failed to keep out the cold. Since the afternoon of the 11th, when our drivers had seen them moving steadily forward into a storm of shellfire and mortar fire, there had been no extra cups of tea for them—only hard fighting and discomfort. The transport was with the B Echelon near Alam Nayil.
Shortly before noon enemy bombers escorted by fighters passed overhead on their way to bomb the Divisional replenishment area. page break page break page 241 Our drivers saw the black smoke, but it did not occur to them that as a result of that raid two men from their unit were dead, two dying, and six wounded.
Hailstones in the desert, south of Alamein
Digging slit-trench, Kaponga
Wheel tracks, Alamein
Twelve Stukas had dived out of the sun to bomb and machine-gun No. 2 Platoon at the ammunition point. Corporal Owen Miles was killed instantly when a lorry loaded with gun-cotton, gelignite, and ammonal received a direct hit and blew up, Bob King19 was killed by shrapnel while sheltering under a pick-up, and Doug Henderson and Jacky O'Connor were wounded mortally by shrapnel. Dave Gordon20 was wounded in the face, and Bob Towart,21 his mate, was wounded in the back and legs and pinned to the ground by the differential of his lorry, which was let down by the collapse of all four tires. When he had wriggled clear Dave and he began to throw cases of mortar bombs from the back of the burning lorry. Their friends had to make them stop, and after a while the lorry blew up. Second-Lieutenant Borgfeldt,22 who had been lying beside Bob King, was wounded in the head and body, Sergeant Andy Andrew23 (Ammunition Platoon) was hurt by blast, Joe André24 had a compound fracture of the leg, and Len Skilton25 was injured in the head. Two three-tonners were completely destroyed; another, which was used for carrying stores and canteen goods, had to be written off; and two vehicles, a three-tonner and a pick-up, were badly damaged. Three men who had been drawing ammunition were dead, and in all, according to the 5th Field Ambulance war diary, twenty-one deaths, had occurred in the replenishment area. Forty were wounded.
Our No. 1 Platoon drivers did not hear of the tragedy until later in the day (14 July). Headquarters 20th Battalion was bombed once during the day and the 4th Brigade area came under shellfire, page 242 but no damage was done to the transport and none of our drivers was hurt. Our own field and medium guns pounded the enemy for hours, preparing the way for the attack, and at dusk the firing quickened.
Zero hour was 11 p.m., but by then our drivers were asleep. What happened that night is not their story. They heard about it when it was over and they set out with sad hearts to collect what was left of the 20th.
They stayed where they were that night and the next day, and the news that came back to them was all bad. The battalions had gained their objectives but were in trouble with tanks. The Indians, attacking on the right, were held up. Supporting arms were unable to come forward because of tanks, and something had gone wrong about our own armour.
Our drivers thought of the infantry up there on the ridge—the tea-drinkers, the cheerful fighters, the good friends—but they had troubles of their own. The brigade area had been under shell and mortar fire since dawn, and at eleven o'clock the first bombers came over. There were ten of them and they hit No. 1 Platoon's water cart and killed Bernie Caddy in his slit-trench. Jack Voice,26 Bernie's mate on the water cart, was wounded in the back and hurt by blast, and Lenny Hay27 died later in the day.
It was the first time that any of the platoon's drivers had been killed violently in front of the others, and this long run of good luck had given them a sense of immunity. Now all that was shattered. They saw Bernie Caddy—dry, humorous, resourceful, very well liked—lying beside his slit-trench, unwounded, but with the life crushed out of him. They heard how Lenny Hay, asleep in the back of his lorry, had been woken by the bombs falling and had been caught before he could get to his slit-trench. He had wanted to know if any of the others were hurt. Then he had said he was hot and would like his jersey taken off. We heard afterwards from a New Zealand doctor that if courage could have saved him he would have lived.
Possessing no unusual gifts, unless a genius for friendship is a page 243 gift, possessing no unusual virtues, unless happiness and high spirits are virtues, consciously contributing nothing to the sum of the world's treasure, he was the one we could spare least. He was like Stevenson's man—an extra candle in the room. When they heard that he was dead, his friends knew then, as so many had known before them, and so many others would know later, that the war had lasted one day too long, had killed one boy too many.
The rest of the day was bad. The platoon's vehicles were parked near some abandoned German guns which drew bombs like a magnet. There was another sharp raid before lunch, and at three in the afternoon the area was raided by twenty-four bombers. Three lorries were hit—they were not ours—which brought the total for the day to six. Throughout the afternoon the area was under fire nearly all the time, but there was a lull in the bombing as soon as sixteen British fighters appeared. They patrolled the sky until shortly before sunset. After they had gone, twenty-four bombers, preceded by fighters, came out of the east. The bombers went away after dropping their loads, but the fighters stayed and were joined presently by eighteen bombers, one of which dropped twelve bombs in a row.
At dusk there was a double issue of rum and our drivers drank it gratefully, feeling the treacly fire warm and comforting all the way down to their toes, ironing out creases, steadying nerves, melting the stone under the heart. The news was shocking: Ruweisat Ridge lost, the 4th Brigade overrun, the 20th Battalion with 50 per cent casualties, the Brigadier28 and his staff missing, and also Captain Washbourn,29 Captain Upham, Captain Maxwell,30 Lieutenant Moloney,31 Second-Lieutenant Cottrell32—men whom our drivers had come to know in the last fortnight, know and trust.
Later that night all the transport in the area moved a short distance to Headquarters 4th Brigade. There it formed up in three lines page 244 and everyone rested. German flares lit the sky but our drivers were too tired to worry. Most of them were asleep in their cabs.
The convoy moved off between three and four. Some of the lorries carried men but most were loaded only with ownerless gear, of which our drivers were the unwilling legatees. At three the next day, after a slow, roundabout journey, the brigade halted near Point 102, only a little more than ten miles east by north of Alam Nayil. The 20th Battalion was ordered to hand over all arms for delivery to the 6th Brigade, which was moving up from Amiriya. The drivers heaved sighs of relief. They had had enough.
The next morning the area was covered with neat piles of equipment, most of which was the property of dead, missing, or wounded men. From the air it must have looked like a supply dump. At all events, when the bombers appeared, which they did shortly before noon, they made straight for it. There were twelve of them and they came in at a low level, dropping bombs and strafing. Four or five bombs fell round the platoon's ack-ack lorry, which had all guns firing, and ‘Crassi’ Cliff dropped at his post, badly wounded in the back. Second-Lieutenant L. N. Cording,33 who had been speaking to ‘Crassi’ when the raid started, was hit by a chunk of shrapnel, which almost severed his left leg. Cliff Brown34 was unconscious and dying from blast. Ambulances arrived before the smoke had cleared and the wounded were taken to a nearby dressing station.
With heavy hearts our drivers heard that the platoon was to report to the 28th Battalion. They yielded to none in their admiration of the Maoris, but they could think of no people whose company they wanted less at that moment. The Maoris were seven miles north-west by west of Point 102 and the move was made late that afternoon. In the evening the sky was smudged with bursting shells and full of scudding aircraft.
Early the next morning the Maoris were taken to Point 102 where they were handed over to a platoon from the 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Company. Our drivers made no pretence of feeling anything but relief. By tea-time they were back with the unit, which page 245 was now eighteen miles south-south-east of Alamein and sixteen miles from the coast.
We stared at the lorries as they moved into the area. Some of them were like sieves. No more would people say, with a suggestion of a sneer, that No. 1 Platoon was lucky. But the drivers were not comforted. They would rather have stayed safe and undistinguished, with Lenny, Bernie, and Cliff alive and well, and Second-Lieutenant Cording still able to play football, and Frank not dangerously ill in Helwan hospital. They would rather that no shadow had fallen on shining memories of good times at El Daba, Baracca, and Aleppo.35
8 Dvr R. W. J. Cannell; farmer; Lepperton, Taranaki; born NZ, 1 Apr 1904; wounded 27 Jun 1942.
10 Maj-Gen L. M. Inglis, CBE, DSO and bar, MC,* m.i.d.; barrister and solicitor; in First World War commanded company in NZMG Corps; CO 27 (MG) Bn Jan-Aug 1940; commanded at various periods 4 and 6 Bdes, 9 Bde, 4 Armd Bde, and was GOC, 2 NZ Div, Jun-Aug 1942 and Jun-Jul 1943. Since 1945 has been in Germany as president of a military legal court and was recently appointed Chief Judge of the Control Commission Supreme Court in the British zone.
* First World War.
11 Brig J. T. Burrows, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d.; Rector, Waitaki Boys' High School, Oamaru; born Christchurch, 14 Jul 1904; CO 20 Bn 8 Dec 1941-27 Jun 1942; comd 4 Bde 27-29 Jun 1942, 5 Jul-15 Aug 1942; CO 20 Bn and Armd Regt 16 Aug 1942-12 Jul 1943; comd Adv Base 24 Jan-11 Feb 1944; 5 Bde, 29 Feb-30 Mar 1944; 6 Bde, 1 Jul-22 Aug 1944; 5 Bde, 22 Aug-4 Nov 1944.
13 Cpl A. McK. Weir; timber worker; born Rawene, 12 Dec 1913; p.w. Jun 1942; died while p.w., 3 Dec 1942.
17 Brig J. R. Gray, ED, m.i.d.; barrister and solicitor; born Wellington. 7 Aug 1900; CO 18 Bn 5 Jan 1940-6 Nov 1941, 28 Mar 1942-29 Jun 1942; comd 4 NZ Inf Bde 29 Jun-5 Jul 1942; killed in action 5 Jul 1942.
27 Dvr L. E. Hay; carpenter's labourer; born NZ, 16 Oct 1917; died of wounds 15 Jul 1942.
28 Brig J. T. Burrows. He returned to the Division on 16 July.
31 Lt D. A. R. Moloney; insurance clerk; born NZ, 11 Aug 1910; died of wounds 15 Jul 1942.
34 Dvr C. S. Brown; farmhand; born NZ, 20 Aug 1913; died of wounds 17 Jul 1942.
35 Our casualties between 29 June and 17 July were: killed in action, 7: wounded, 15; missing (later posted p.w.), 1.