Journey Towards Christmas
Chapter 14 — A Study In Discomfort
A Study In Discomfort
NEITHER side wanted a sit-down war—not with the sides as they were arranged now, anyway. Rommel had a reputation to preserve and his supply lines were too long. As for the British, they were bottled up in their own penalty area and they couldn't move without treading on one another's toes. At present, however, both armies were too weak to attack. General Auchinleck made the attempt on the night of 21-22 July, with Indians and New Zealanders striking the main blow in the centre, but it failed because our armour was not in a position to help at the critical moment. The same thing happened four nights later when he tried again with British, Australian, and South African troops. This time we lost a thousand Australians and seventy tanks were destroyed or put out of commission.
Rommel, who was overdue at Shepheard's, was equally unhappy, but there was nothing he could do about it. Until one side had more of everything than the other it would have to be a war of patrols and artillery, of ships, planes, and factories.
Minefields were extended and defences improved. Again it was the worker in Essen against the worker in Detroit, the Ruhr coalminer against the Welsh coalminer, the Neapolitan stevedore against his brother in Wapping.
From an hour after sunrise until about an hour before dark we sweated all the time, even when we were in the shade. How we were able to sweat so much when we drank so little was a problem that baffled us. For a while the ration of water for each man was half a gallon a day. You got a quart (one full water bottle) to do what you liked with and the rest was pooled for the cooks. From somewhere—often from your private supply—water had to be found for your radiator. When it leaked or boiled over, no rare occurrence, there was nothing for it but to behave nobly—pour the last drop of liquid down your horse's throat, like the gentleman who brought the good news from Ghent to Aix. You got a cup of page 247 tea, not always a full one, three times a day, but the water it was made with was so brackish that it curdled the condensed milk. We were thirsty all day long and at night we had the Lemonade Dream, the hangover one, in which you swill glass after glass of something ice-cold and delicious without its doing you the least good.
Later the ration was doubled and then we were able to have an occasional wash, several drivers using one basin of water for their bodies and the same one for their socks; but the quantity was still so small that when you visited a friend for morning tea you took your water bottle with you, just as in England diners-out were careful not to forget ration cards. There was no water, of course, for washing up, but that didn't matter as dixies and frying-pans could be scoured with sand.
With chins unshaven and shirts black with sweat we resembled filthy beach-combers, but in point of fact we were cleaner and far sweeter-smelling than we should have been if water had been plentiful and the weather bitterly cold. There is a cleansing element in hot sunshine.
Worse than the lack of water were the flies.
The foul and dismaying thing about the Alamein flies was their oneness. None was separate from its fellows any more than the wave is separate from the ocean, the tentacle from the octopus. As one fly, one dark and horrible force guided by one mind, ubiquitous and immensely powerful, they addressed themselves to the one task, which was to destroy us body and soul. It was useless to kill them, for they despised death and made no attempt to avoid it. They existed only in the common will, and to weaken that we should have had to destroy countless millions of them. None the less we killed them unceasingly. We killed them singly and in detachments with fly swats, and the dead lay so thick in our lorries that we had to sweep them out several times a day. We set ingenious traps for them and they filled the traps, the living feasting ghoulishly on the dead. We slew them in mounds with our bare hands until the crunch of minute frames and the squish of microscopic viscera, felt rather than heard, became a nightmare. But what was the use? Their ranks closed at once and they went on with the all-important task of driving us out of our minds.
Although they had a common brain and a common purpose not page 248 all were identical in appearance. About one in a thousand was larger than his fellows and of a lovely bottle-green colour. These, so the story went, and doubtless it was true, were corpse-fed. One could only suppose that the Intelligence in charge of the operation had introduced them for their moral effect, which was considerable.
Flies are attracted by any light surface, and our towels and the sun-bleached canopies of our lorries were speckled as with black confetti. Flies crave moisture, and you knew from watching your friends—and the knowledge was disproportionately humiliating and disgusting—that you too were walking around with half a hundred miniature old-men-of-the-sea clinging dourly to the back of your damp shirt. And when you shut your eyes—this is the plain truth—flies tried to open them, mad for the delectable fluid.
We couldn't always be killing them, but we had to keep on brushing them away, otherwise even breathing would have been difficult. Our arms ached from the exercise, but still they fastened on our food and accompanied it into our mouths and down our throats, scorning death when there was an advantage to be gained. They drowned themselves in our tea and in our soup. They attended us with awful relish on our most intimate occasions. They waited until our hands were full—they liked us best when we were lying beneath a lorry busy with spanner or grease gun—and then they rushed us, feet and suckers working furiously, inflicting a hundred pricks and stings.
Some of us excavated dugouts, made them fly-proof with mosquito netting, and lay grilling below ground until we could bear it no longer. Some of us wore veils, with an opening for pipe or cigarette, but there again—who wanted to wear a veil when beard and baked skin were already maddening excrescences? The best plan—the only plan—was to open the canopy of your lorry at both ends, seal the openings with netting, and turn the lorry into the hot current of air that did duty for a breeze. This made life just bearable. Unfortunately nets were scarce. Many were torn badly, some had been sold in Syria, and some had been lost. Anyway, one net was not enough for the job, so there was really no escape. The Intelligence had foreseen everything.
On 29 July while the plague was at its peak—a peak that was to be maintained effortlessly for more than two months—we were visited by a swarm of mosquitoes. For some hours we waded page 249 through a warm, whirring mist, every particle of which was able to raise a blister. This would surely have driven us mad before long, but the wind changed and the mosquitoes went away, leaving the field to the flies.
To the flies and the desert sores.
The satanic cunning (‘But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh’) was evident in these noisome ulcers. The least scratch was enough to cause them and they took rather less than a fortnight to expand round a suppurating centre to the bigness of a slice of lemon. They were irksome and humiliating rather than painful (‘My flesh is clothed with worms and clods of dust; my skin is broken and become loathsome’) and they took weeks, months sometimes, to heal, and when they did they left scars that remained for over a year. Nearly everyone you saw had an arm or a leg bandaged and the knuckles of both hands ringed with filthy scraps of sticking-plaster. After breakfast and before tea ‘Doc’ Turner's pick-up was like a lazaret, but he was impatient only when someone failed to report for a dressing.
And there were sandstorms and dust-storms. Frogs and locusts we were not troubled by, nor was there need for them. We were ready to cry ‘Enough’, load our lorries with Israelites, and drive them to Tel Aviv.
Until now many of us had liked the desert and some of us had loved it. But the desert had grown smaller and it had grown dirtier. In fact, robbed of spaciousness and cleanliness, it was desert no longer. It was a big sand-pit in a big slum—the kind of nightmare playground you find sometimes in great cities; sandgrey like asphalt, clumps of toddlers squalidly underfoot, rickety urchins quarrelling round swings and sweating in hot, dark clothes, the grease of poverty on everything, and the sun shining. A vast army was boxed in between the Alamein Line and the Delta. Every horizon was dotted with guns, tents, or transport, and wherever you looked there was a moving vehicle cloaked in its private dust-storm. Claustrophobia is not a disease of the desert, but many of us, cabined by the great heat, encompassed by armies, wrapped in our foul garment of flies, came near to suffering from it.
A high standard of cleanliness was expected and as far as possible page 250 enforced, but in every unit there are a few men to whom decency and order mean nothing and collectively they are formidable. Unburied tins and refuse lay among the legitimate lumber of the battlefield, adding squalor to desolation. Some men—some units—would live for a month in one area and leave it spotless. Others would stay for two hours, conduct a vast disorderly picnic, and move on, leaving behind them the kind of sour patch you find on shifting a chicken run. Near busy road junctions and the entrances to supply depots sand turned to dust—grey, clinging dust—and in this the flies multiplied. Wild animals make only a little mess, but man, divorced from his cesspits and sewers, turns all to filth.
Even under these conditions food continued to be important to us and much time was spent in grumbling about the meals. They were adequate but unpleasant, and stew—bully stew, fresh meat stew, tinned meat-and-vegetable stew, sausage stew—was nearly always the main dish. It was not a cooling diet. The daily ration of bread was grey and unpalatable and sometimes weevily, and our fresh vegetables were no longer fresh by the time they reached us. Fortunately our platoon canteens were fairly well stocked with tinned fruit at this time, so we had something good to eat. Anyway, it was no weather for gorging.
Nor was it weather for work—but it was work that saved us, giving us a sense of purpose and responsibility and something to think about beyond ourselves. The field regiments were constantly in action, and although we were now stronger by a platoon we had to borrow transport from other units to keep pace with their demands. Supplying the 25-pounders with ammunition was our greatest problem and to this No. 1 Platoon devoted all its time. The other platoons dealt in mixed loads and took turn and turn about at the ammunition point, which did not settle down in a permanent area until 17 July, when it was formed five miles south of Alam Nayil, staying there until early in August.
Whenever an unusually heavy demand for 25-pounder was on the cards, vehicles from No. 1 Platoon were sent to the point with as many loads as were likely to be needed, and this system worked fairly well. Much time would have been saved, though, if the Artillery had been able to give their orders by wireless or telephone instead of having to depend on messengers. As it was, vehicles were page 251 often standing idle at the ammunition point when they were urgently needed for other work.
The point was replenished from the unit area, the empty lorries reloading at the 86th Field Maintenance Centre, near El Hammam, some twenty-five miles north-east by north of the area, or, less often, at the Burg el Arab railhead, ten miles farther on. The round trip between the unit and the field maintenance centre was something like eighty miles and it was rough going all the way. To save time and to avoid congestion the lorries travelled singly or in small groups.
The Sun, Moon, and Star tracks, the Bottle, Boat, and Hat tracks—how well we got to know them! We drove through a hot, ochrous haze, sometimes bumping over a mile-wide pattern of ruts, sometimes ploughing between high sandbanks that the bulldozers had thrown up to make a road through the soft sand. Here the wheels, sinking a foot deep in dust before finding the buried army-track (heavy-gauge wire-netting), threw powdery bow waves, which hushhushed under the mudguards and fell back whispering. Often there were traffic blocks, and then, while the air trembled with heat and flies in their hundreds came from nowhere, driving you from the cab, you could hear, in the uneasy silence, radiators gurgling like kettles and the grease frying on the manifolds. You swore fiercely at the delay, forgetting how urgently only five minutes ago you had craved release from the hot prison of the cab, and how since early afternoon, like a dead slave on an oar, you had been jerked and wrenched by the steering wheel, its sudden, spiteful twitches jarring you from wrist to shoulder.
With evening some magic came back to the desert. Sweat dried on face and body, the engine sweetened, and the tin of American beer hanging in a wet sock from the bracket of the driving-mirror (no money could have bought it) cooled rapidly. The lorry's spiked shadow—blunt spike of canopy, spike of cab, spike of headlamp—ran beside you, shortening and then lengthening with each lurch. The twitch of the steering wheel was a friendly nudge now, almost a rough caress, like the touch of the dust and the warm air flowing under the windscreen.
To complete this study in discomfort one would like to be able page 252 to say that we were bombed constantly, but that was not the case, though some of us were so shaken by our recent experiences that we viewed every plane with distrust and suffered vicariously when neighbouring areas were raided. We saw many Messerschmitts but they left us alone. Dog-fights took place high above us and we heard the tiny stammer of machine guns, like argument in Heaven, and watched while the aching blueness was cut by vapour trails—perfectly described arcs and segments, beautifully simple and remote: Euclid drawn large for children. Often a parachute opened like a white flower, opened and drifted to earth in a slow curve, swinging a black dot, a comma, a tiny man, while the flames crackled behind the hill and the scream still rang in our ears and the gout of black smoke, sudden as a splash of ink, drew all eyes and fingers. Ours, we wondered, or his?
Although we lived always in the shadow of the Luftwaffe we came to no harm. Individual drivers were frightened while on jobs and one day two old transport planes, Bombays, were set on fire by Messerschmitts as they were landing near the unit area, but for most of us the Luftwaffe was only a minor worry and vexation, taking its place somewhere between desert sores and curdled condensed milk. Other units were less fortunate: so much damage was done during July that we were ordered to dig bunkers for our lorries and sandbag their vitals.
Increasingly, though, the sky was filled with our own aircraft. We counted the bombers as they flew west and we counted them on their way back, and it was seldom that one was missing. The promise was coming true: ‘We shall fight, with growing confidence and growing strength, in the air’.
The author of this promise visited the Eighth Army early in August. Then he went to Moscow to see Stalin, who had lost Sebastopol and Rostov. Then he returned to Egypt and paid a visit to the New Zealand sector of the Alamein Line. A reception was held and among those who attended it were men decorated in the desert. We were represented by Bob Aro.
One result of Mr. Churchill's earlier visit was a reshuffle of Generals. Lieutenant-General B. L. Montgomery was given command of the Eighth Army and two days later General Auchinleck was succeeded as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, by General Sir Harold Alexander, famous at Dunkirk and in Burma.page 253
We heard of these high matters and we were not encouraged. Only yesterday press and radio had been reminding us of our confidence in ‘The Auk’ (which was what we were supposed to call him) and saying how much he meant to us. Now they were saying the same thing about his successor, whom we were to refer to affectionately as ‘Monty’. Hell!
Although it would be idle to pretend that our morale was high, at this time we were nowhere near—nowhere remotely near—breaking point. Work was still our antidote to discomfort and depression, and during the third week of August we struck a particularly busy period. At a time when we were even busier than usual it was decided to dump enough ammunition in the forward areas to last the Division three days in an emergency. While we were helping with this task a British brigade arrived in the field without any first-line ammunition, and we were told to supply half its immediate requirements.
Thus our days. As for our nights, they came with the blessedness of a recurrent miracle. They damped the flies and the dust, they hid us from the Messerschmitts, they bathed us in coolness. Then we could enjoy our tinned pineapple and pears and gather round the platoon wireless sets. Then we could sleep, dreaming of downs and lakes and the woolshed back home, dreaming until the first fly, rising earlier than any lark, stepped delicately across an eyelid, or dipped to drink, with tiny, filthy proboscis, at a desert sore.
If you have read Kingsley's Water Babies you will remember with what pure delight young Tom, Grimes' the chimney-sweep's boy, tore off his sooty rags and tumbled into the stream. So we tumbled into the Mediterranean on 24 August when the unit moved to an area six or seven miles from the beach and twenty-two miles from Alamein. It was our eighth move since the beginning of July (though a month had been spent in one area), but the others had meant only more digging.
From then on we bathed daily and whether the salt water did more for body or for soul it would be hard to say. Our spirits revived in one leap, our sores started to heal, our appetites came back, and the dirt peeled off us. Only No. 2 Platoon, which had been at the ammunition point (twelve miles south by east of Alamein) since 5 August, carried on as before.page 254
Thus marvellously recovered we heard the rumour with equanimity: Rommel was about to attack. And plainly it was more than a rumour, for men on leave were recalled to their units and everyone was ordered to be dressed and armed a quarter of an hour before sunrise as a precaution against paratroop landings.
On 30 August our fighters were unusually active, and the next day we were told to send 10,000 rounds of 25-pounder to the ammunition point. No. 1 Platoon set out with half this amount and vehicles from Nos. 3 and 4 Platoons with the rest. On their way forward our drivers passed heavy guns that were being dug in on the left of the track.
As soon as it arrived at the point No. 1 Platoon came under shellfire. This stopped before any damage was done and then there was a vicious bombing raid on transport in the next area. Our drivers looked at one another. ‘The old Rommel,’ they said, and they might have been speaking affectionately of a headstrong uncle who had overstepped the mark, ‘he's away again.’
Rommel had said on the 30th: ‘Today the Army, strengthened by new divisions, is moving into the attack for the final annihilation of the enemy.’ But Alexander had said earlier, and Montgomery in a special message to the Eighth Army had repeated it: ‘We will fight the enemy where we now stand; there will be no withdrawal and no surrender.’
In the small hours of the 31st Rommel had started to lift the minefields in front of the southern sector of the line. By midday his main columns were through the minefields and then one column swung north to contain British and New Zealand troops which had been by-passed by the advance. So far the enemy had met with no opposition except from light mobile forces that had been ordered to inflict as much damage as possible before withdrawing under pressure. Rommel was using the cream of his infantry, between three and four thousand lorries, a huge number of guns, and nearly all his armour. It was the real thing.
But nothing invites disaster like a Blitzkrieg geared down, and on this occasion Rommel was never able to shift out of second. The story of the next three days is the story of his finding himself enclosed, and in danger of being embalmed, in a coffin-shaped salient between twenty and thirty miles deep, of his lacking room to manœuvre, of his failure to force the British armour to give page 255 battle under conditions of his own choosing, of the ceaseless bombardment of his troops, tanks, and transport from the air and by artillery, and of his finally realising that if he stayed where he was he was likely to be destroyed piecemeal.
One of the chief obstacles to an orderly withdrawal was the presence of the New Zealanders at the end of the road back. From the start our gunners had been pouring shells into the enemy's transport as it went past, and on the night of 3-4 September British and New Zealand troops launched a three-brigade attack, the object of which was to narrow Rommel's escape route and gain ground from which our artillery could inflict even greater damage on his retreating columns.
Unhappily the British units were cut to pieces by mortar and machine-gun fire, which made it impossible for the New Zealanders to consolidate their gains. A new line was formed, and it was held throughout the next day in the face of determined counterattacks, but the escape corridor remained wide open.
Pushed from behind by two British armoured brigades, Rommel made haste to use it, and by 5 September he had come to the conclusion that he had intended only ‘an armoured reconnaissance in force’. By the 7th he had completed his withdrawal and the demand for ammunition was back to normal.
He had gained a little ground but he had lost a large number of admirers on both sides. In fact, a legend had been shattered.
September the 7th was a fine, cool day, the 8th was fine but dusty, the 9th windy and wickedly dusty, the 10th—the 10th could have been the worst day of the year and we should have approved of it still, for at 9 p.m. the Division was relieved by British and Greek troops. By then a large number of us were on the beach near Burg el Arab, nearly thirty miles from the front, a smaller party was guarding the vehicles in the Swordfish area (between Amiriya and Burg el Arab and about sixteen miles inland) where most of the Divisional transport was parked, and the only platoons working were Nos. 3 and 4 at the ammunition point, which was to be kept open until the 12th. We had been paid and had been promised leave.
All but the domestic vehicles had been left in the Swordfish area, page 256 so the beach party went to bed that night under the stars, which crowded Heaven like a rash—a sort of silver chicken-pox. In their dreams our drivers heard the waves folding on the beaches and the breeze stirring the marram grass.
For a week we made holiday. Four-day leave parties (eight officers and 198 other ranks all told) left for Cairo or Alexandria on three successive mornings, and for the rest there was day-leave to Alexandria. Some of us chose to spend all our time on the beach and it would be hard to say who had the best of it.
Cairo and Alexandria were as gay and as expensive as ever. They alone in a world of worn-out playthings and depleted store cupboards had avoided the chill touch of austerity: everything was to be had at a price. All the pimps and hucksters in the Middle East, knowing they had only a few hours in which to indemnify themselves for our long absence, were at the service of the New Zealanders. In Alexandria, no doubt, there were great killings, but in Cairo it was less simple, for the genius who had organised the leave transit camp at Maadi had foreseen what would happen and had made his plans accordingly. Transit camps, as we knew them, were dusty purgatories occupied by slowly-shuffling queues of hungry and exasperated men, but this one was different. On arrival you were led to a long counter piled high with clean clothes and invited to peel off your dirty ones. Delicious meals were served at all hours and the beer bar was never closed. If you wanted a bed for the night you could have one. If you wanted to spend the night in Cairo that was all right too. You did just as you pleased, treating the camp as an hotel.
But on the beach at Burg el Arab there was bathing from sunrise to sunset and you didn't have to wear clothes. There was peace and freedom and something lovely to look at all the time. White sand, blue sky, blue sea, dark-green fig trees—the scene had a boldness and economy, a clear-cut beauty, that was breathtaking. It was so simple and at the same time so clever that a man who had never handled a brush in his life might say to himself: ‘I could paint that. Couldn't miss. Couldn't go wrong.’ There was plenty of beer and the meals were first-class. Indeed, they made us ask ourselves if we had been quite fair to the cooks during the past two months. That extra halfcrown a day no longer seemed a large sum when we remembered the heat, the flies, and the roar of the petrol page 257 burners, above which it was impossible to hear aircraft. ‘Cook's neck’ we called it, that special stiffness that came from constantly glancing skywards.
The cooks, if anyone, had earned a holiday. Well, so had we all. Between 29 June and 11 September, we had issued, among other things, 243,000 rounds of 25-pounder, 3,200,000 rounds of rifle and machine-gun ammunition, 84,000 rounds of Bofors ammunition, 345,000 rounds of tommy-gun ammunition, and 30,000 grenades. The heaviest issue of 25-pounder on any one day had been about 12,000 rounds. We had met demands for fifty-nine different commodities, which was going two better than Heinz.
On the last day of our holiday we had a second chance to see the Kiwi Concert Party, which had performed in our area on the 14th. The desert had seen wonders and absurdities before—tank battles and air raids—but nothing quite so incongruous as this. Under the blazing sun, in the middle of the wilderness, a half-circle of brown, up-turned faces (intent one moment, the next convulsed with laughter) gazed fixedly at a small, gaily-decorated stage, centre of all the beauty and merriment in the world. And all around was simmering, staring emptiness. Tanks on Saturn, battles on Mars—yes; but when a clown in a red coat and a bow tie, with yellow hair falling over his forehead, takes his quips to the moon, dances on the edge of a volcano, deluges the dead rocks with laughter, then, why then, something notable has happened.
The sweat poured from actors and audience alike and hands fluttered without ceasing, brushing away flies. But no one noticed the flies and the desert was not there—gone, vanished, along with everything else ordinary and horrible. In the suburbs of Stalingrad men were fighting like mad beasts, and all over the world, from Russia, from Germany, from Italy, from bombed Britain, the cry was going up: ‘How long, O Lord? How long?’ But in one bare acre of desert where Theatre had drawn its charmed circle, excluding the world's grief, none heard it. The actors worked and sweated on the small, gay stage, and the audience, forgetting all else, lived for a short hour in a country where everyone can dance and play the accordion and where no one opens his mouth except to sing golden notes or to be excruciatingly funny.page 258
Our holiday ended and on 19 September we went back to the Swordfish area where we had left the lorries. We were glad to see them again, though only a week ago we had wished them at the bottom of the sea. We went over them with spanner and grease gun, feeling in our hands that skill and knowledge, almost that tenderness, that an ostler feels when he runs his hands over a horse.
By midday on 24 September the unit was near the Divisional exercise area, thirty miles south of Burg el Arab, where the New Zealand Engineers had laid dummy minefields and dug gunpits for a mock battle—a dress rehearsal, had we known it, for the Battle of Alamein. Live ammunition was used and we established ammunition points.
We stayed in the same area until the middle of October, enjoying a thorough rest. The days were still hot and the flies were still with us, but we minded them less now. Possibly we had become used to them, like the Egyptians. One afternoon the sky clouded over and a north wind got up, exhaling a brown breath. Next the heavens opened and pelted us with hailstones as big as hens' eggs, and in a moment the desert was sprinkled with crushed ice. The stones rattled against the lorries like buckshot, cracking windscreens and drumming madly on taut canopies. On one pretext or another (there was a rifle to be rescued, a tool box to be covered) we put on our steel helmets and rushed out into the storm, loving it for its strangeness and wonder as children love snow. It stopped as suddenly as it had started and the sun shone brilliantly, melting the prize hailstones even as we unpacked our cameras. Presently there were only puddles to show where they had shone and sparkled.
The most important social event that took place while we were in this area was a party to celebrate the third anniversary of the First Echelon's entry into camp. Once enough beer had been secured the preparations were simple, all that was needed being an old canopy, four lorries from which to suspend it, and some empty jerricans for seats. Speech-making was barred, but the customary toasts were allowed, and our absent friends were honoured with more than usual solemnity, for among them (to use Henry James's phrase) were some who had achieved the extremity of personal absence. The beer worked out at about eight bottles a head, which was plenty. The first two were consumed quickly and decorously (‘Later, you jokers—a man can't sing when he's stone cold.’) but page 259 there was music in the third and fourth. ‘Sheriff’ was not there to give us the ‘Pokeydoke Blues’ (a lugubrious ballad about a gambler who loses his coat, his hat, and his straight-laced shoo-OOO-oos) but Basil, our crooner, sang ‘The Old Rocking-chair’—in fact he sang it twice—and the rest of our star performers sang the particular songs that custom demanded of them. The fifth bottle brought new talent to light. One of the visitors sang ‘Stick To Me, Bill’, a genuine tear-jerker, and ‘Poop-Quail’ went one better with a song all about Confusion and Shame and his having only one mother. The sixth bottle, as always, had the disconcerting effect of convincing everyone whom bashfulness had prevented from singing earlier in the evening that now—this minute—was the moment for his contribution. Six singers struck up at once, each of them taking it for granted that the cries of ‘Fair go, you jokers!’ and ‘One at a time, eh?’ were meant for everyone except him.
From that point the party drifted through a golden mist to its last stage, which was reached when a small cluster of die-hards realised that all the others had wandered away to bed or to suppers of oyster and whitebait fritters, leaving them alone with the empty bottles, the upturned jerricans, the increasing chill.
‘Once more, you chaps. The old “Sheriff's” song. The old “Pokeydoke Blues”.’
Ah thought Ah was er gambler—
Ah broke every joint in town
Until Ah met-ter gambler
Whose name was Appledown….
Gallantly they struggled on, but it was no good. Something had happened to the golden mist. All the gold had gone out of it and it was an ordinary mist now, and a mighty cold one at that.
The hour was approaching fast. Drivers back from leave spoke of shiploads of American Shermans, of airfields that had sprung up overnight, of pale divisions fresh from England, and of masses of guns and transport that were moving into the desert.
On 9 October seventy-two lorries loaded with 25-pounder ammunition set out under Captain May for a secret destination. The drivers had been told to say nothing to anyone about what they saw and did. The following evening found the convoy on its start line, and punctually at half past seven (timing was of the first page 260 importance) it moved west along the coast road, passing Alamein and halting two or three miles from the front. Here it was divided into groups of three, each of which was led to a gun site by an Artillery officer. The average distance from the road to the gun sites was a mile and a quarter, and an hour and thirty-five minutes was allowed for the round trip. The guns were not in the line yet—they were to be brought forward secretly two nights before the attack—so as soon as the ammunition was off-loaded all hands set to work to dig it in and camouflage it. There was no time to waste, for the transport had to be east of the start line before daylight.
Over 48,000 rounds were dumped for the ninety-six 25-pounders with the New Zealand Division (seventy-two of these were the guns of the 4th, 5th, and 6th Field Regiments), and the job was completed on the fourth night without the enemy's being aware of what was going on. On the fifth night an extra 160 rounds were taken forward for each of the New Zealand guns and 8000 rounds of Bofors ammunition were dumped for the 14th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment.
On 16 October we moved to the Swordfish area, Captain May's detachment joining us at lunch-time. The afternoon—the ancients would have taken it for an omen—we were enveloped by one of the worst sandstorms in our experience. It was impossible to read without a light, and to walk more than a yard or two from your lorry was to get lost. At tea-time the cooks of a section of the Petrol Company, our next-door neighbour, hit on the idea of using an air-raid siren as a dinner gong, but the experiment was only partially successful, as half the men in the queue were found to be members of the Ammunition Company. The intruders, indistinguishable from one another and from anyone else under their yellow masks, had thought they were at their own cookhouse.
The next day was nearly as bad but the 18th showed an improvement. In the afternoon Captain May's convoy of seventy-six lorries set out for the Artillery waggon lines with 160 rounds a gun for the New Zealand 25-pounders, returning on the afternoon of the 19th. We moved five miles south on the 20th, and on the 21st 218 vehicles from various British and New Zealand units came under our command for the move to the Divisional assembly area, which was at Alam el Onsol, about twelve miles behind the front. At page 261 half past three that afternoon we moved towards the coast, halting in a dispersal area seven miles south of Burg el Arab.
We had a scratch meal, and shortly before half past eight the leading vehicle in our convoy passed the starting point for the night march. There were 398 vehicles under Major Coutts's command and they formed a column nearly ten miles long. On reaching the coast road we turned left, halting soon before midnight at Kilo 58, where we dispersed. The move had gone like clockwork, but most of us, conscious only that we had stopped and started a great deal, had mistaken it for another army muddle. We had enjoyed it, though. Moving under the moon in the right direction was a rare pleasure.
The next day we said goodbye to seventy-five men (drawn from Headquarters, Workshops, and the Ammunition platoons) who were to stay behind at Kilo 58 to form an administration post, and at half past seven we started the second stage of the move, reaching the Divisional assembly area before midnight.
We slept soundly that night and when we woke up the next morning it was Friday, 23 October 1942. In the course of the day the platoon commanders assembled their men and read them a personal message from General Montgomery.
When I assumed command of the Eighth Army I said that the mandate was to destroy Rommel and his Army, and that it would be done as soon as we were ready.
We are ready now.
The message concluded: Therefore, let every officer and man enter the battle with a stout heart, and with the determination to do his duty as long as he has breath in his body.
And let no man surrender so long as he can fight.
Let us pray that the Lord mighty in battle will give us the victory.
After the line had been breached, the New Zealanders, now under the command of 30th Corps for the assault, would join 10th Corps for the break-through and pursuit. There was a chance, therefore, that the supply columns might have to operate for a short time without full protection, as they had done in November. At all events we were to be prepared for anything.
What we were not told officially we learned from our grape-vine. On the northern sector, from which the 30th Corps would launch page 262 the main thrust, over 800 guns were in position. The barrage would start at twenty minutes to ten that night.
The afternoon dragged past under a sky filled with our fighters and bombers. When dusk came we made our beds so that we should be able to watch the barrage without leaving them. The nights were fairly cool now.
The moon came up unbelievably large and yellow, like a stage moon. You could have read a newspaper by it easily, and to get to sleep you had to pull the blankets over your head. We were used to turning in early because of the blackout, so when the barrage started many of us were asleep, but it woke us immediately. The horizon was on fire and it threw back a continuous hollow roar. Giants were striking matches, matches as big as pine trees, on the rough desert, and a roaring wind was blowing them out at once. The roar and the dancing flashes went on and on, and we lay in our sandy beds or stood huddled in blankets in the backs of our lorries, which were dark mouths in the silver desert, and watched and wondered.