Journey Towards Christmas
Chapter 15 — Out Of The Slough
Out Of The Slough
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start.
AFTER the enemy's batteries had been shelled for a quarter of an hour the barrage was switched to his front line. At 10 p.m., under a full moon, with bayonets gleaming, our infantry walked forward to the attack.
During the next twelve days both sides fought bitterly, the British to carve a pathway for the armour, the Germans to cripple the operation then and there.
As the days went by we waited patiently in our area for the advance to begin. Eagerly we grabbed at every crumb of news that came back to us. Miteiriya Ridge, in the northern sector, was ours, but the armour was not through yet. We had driven a large salient into the enemy's defences and he was counter-attacking fiercely but unsuccessfully. The Royal Air Force had smashed a concentration of tanks and armoured vehicles. Now the Australians were fighting on the coast sector. They were doing splendidly but still the armour was not through.
Although we were seldom well-informed about what was going on we had become adept in sensing an atmosphere, and by the end of October we knew that the position was critical.
One comfort we did have. The skies, beyond a doubt, were ours. British fighters and bombers were overhead all day long, and only at night, at dawn, and at dusk, was the Luftwaffe in the least active. On the evening of the 26th a single plane dropped bombs in a minefield on the edge of our area, setting off two mines and puncturing a tire, and at dawn the next day the same plane (so we believed) almost succeeded in dropping bombs in the same holes. A driver had just lit his primus to make morning tea, earning himself considerable unpopularity. Later in the day we heard that two drivers at the administration post had been wounded by strafing, though not badly enough to warrant their leaving the field.
There was one particular plane—we swore it was always the page 264 same one—that used to annoy us every night. It would fly round in great circles, passing over our area at intervals of about a quarter of an hour. When the moon was bright it was visible as a black lozenge, low and menacing. It dropped an occasional bomb and fired an occasional burst of bullets, but its main object, we felt certain, was to disturb our rest. In this it was eminently successful and we spent many sleepless hours in devising suitable tortures for the pilot. Once, to our joy, it was engaged by a British night-fighter, but it got away after a long chase.
A little earlier in the night, it or another plane had been using a bomb that exploded in the air with a kind of gobbling roar and a series of flashes, prompting the Petrol Company diarist to make reference to ‘infernal machines’. These were butterfly bombs, a weapon the Germans had been experimenting with for some while and had lately brought to perfection. In the course of time we were to become painfully familiar with them.
The principle was as ingenious as it was simple. A large container opened in mid-air like a pod to disgorge twenty-four anti-personnel bombs, the outer casing of which split into four quarters and became a propellor, unwinding a safety device. The fuses were of several types, so some of the bombs exploded in the air, some on contact with the ground, and some at intervals throughout the night. The delayed-action type were credited with a horrible propensity for rolling into slit-trenches.
The nights passed slowly and the days, too. We were busy, but hardly as busy as we had expected to be, for although the artillery was using a great deal of ammunition there was none of that fret and delay that at other times had added so considerably to our labours. Every detail of supply had been planned with meticulous care.
On 2 November No. 2 Platoon established an ammunition point one mile west of Alamein station, and later in the day twelve vehicles from No. 4 Platoon under Lieutenant Fitzgerald opened a forward ammunition point nine miles farther on. The latter was in range of German 88s and during the day and a half of its existence it came under fire several times, two vehicles being slightly damaged by shrapnel.
Business was brisk from the moment the points opened, and no wonder, for at one the next morning every gun on the Corps' front page 265 opened up and in four and a half hours 150,000 rounds were fired.
On 3 November we were rushed off our feet. As soon as our vehicles arrived at the ammunition points Artillery vehicles backed up to them, tailboard to tailboard. In the course of the day we sold something like 10,000 rounds of 25-pounder.
At a quarter past three in the afternoon there was a call from the 4th Field Regiment for thirty-three loads of 25-pounder, and these were sent forward at once, but as it happened there was no need for them. The enemy was already broken.
Early the next morning, 10th Corps, with the New Zealand Division under its command, began the chase.
The New Zealanders, with the British 4th Light Armoured Brigade and the remnants of the British 9th Armoured Brigade, drove through the gaps in the minefields and headed south-west. Their objective was the high ground west of Fuka and their intention was to cut off the enemy's retreat. His columns were reported to be fleeing along the coast road ten-deep under a rain of bombs and bullets.
By noon the bulk of our unit was at the ammunition point near Alamein station. The area was very crowded, for the party from the administration point had rejoined us the day before and, since the beginning of the month, twelve 4th Reserve Mechanical Transport Company lorries had been attached to us to carry extra ammunition. This was because we could expect to be cut off from our supply dumps during the first stage of the advance.
The overcrowding was of little moment, for at four in the afternoon, leaving behind Headquarters and one platoon of Workshops under Lieutenant Hill,1 we moved off in column of route behind the Major's car, heading west and a little north to hit the Boomerang track. On the way we picked up the vehicles at the forward ammunition point and the 523rd Company RASC (serving the 9th Armoured Brigade). It had been under command since 21 October.
From the New Zealand Division's headquarters the Major had received no detailed instructions about the move. He had been told to find the tail of the 6th Brigade and tag along behind it. Not knowing where the 6th Brigade was, he went forward to Divisional page 266 Headquarters for further instructions and was told to move along the Boomerang track for a few miles and then travel on a given bearing until he caught up with the tail of the brigade. On the Boomerang track we were at once enveloped in clouds of blinding dust. All the transport in the world seemed to be moving west and it was impossible to keep the convoy together.
The track and its verges had been swept by the engineers but mines were still a danger. The Germans had a trick of burying them one on top of the other with a layer of sand in between, and it sometimes happened that the bottom one was overlooked. Odd mines were buried deep enough to escape detection and these would not explode until the sand above them had been packed hard by perhaps a hundred or more vehicles. Such a one cost Les Howarth his back wheel, and shortly afterwards a wheel sailed past Major Coutts's car while a cloud of dust enveloped a 15-cwt. truck, the driver of which had been talking with the Major about mines only a few minutes before. He was injured fairly severely, and his load, part of which was General Freyberg's personal equipment, was transferred to one of our vehicles.
Most of us had long since removed the sandbags from the inside of our cabs—a protective measure adopted earlier in the year—and we felt our way forward in the greatest trepidation. We could be seen crouching over the steering wheels in stiff attitudes as though by not sitting back and making ourselves comfortable we were somehow reducing the total weight of our lorries.
Slowly and with many halts, while the dust clouds boiled about us and all we could see was the swaying canopy of the vehicle ahead and perhaps a dozen yards of deeply-rutted desert, we drove into the sunset. At six the convoy turned left off the Boomerang track and travelled for a further two miles at about a mile an hour. By then part of No. 3 Platoon and the whole of No. 4 Platoon and the 523rd Company had been cut off in the dust and darkness, so the Major decided to halt for the night, hoping that by morning it would be possible to travel at a reasonable pace. Before we bedded down we were told to be ready to move at first light. Except for the banging of a single gun, which seemed to be firing across the line of our advance, all was quiet. The moan of transport was so much part of our lives that we did not count it as a noise: it was like our own breathing.page 267
Before dawn Captain Sampson was away to round up the missing vehicles and with the first glimmer of light we moved, halting for breakfast after travelling a few miles. Before the meal could be eaten we were off again, heading south-west. It was a beautiful morning, cold and bright, and never in the unit's history had spirits been livelier.
The desert was littered with burnt transport and smashed tanks and guns, and yet, for miles at a stretch, it was clean and almost virgin. Plainly but one battle had been fought there and that a short one. Nor was it long over. Smoke was still coiling from some of the charred wrecks, and groups of Italians, their natural gregariousness heightened by danger, were moving across the desert in tight little phalanxes, protected collectively by white sheets and individually by pathetic scraps of once-white linen and even by old newspapers. They had been disarmed, or they had thrown away their arms, and in most cases they were unguarded. Rommel, we learned later, had left five Italian divisions to their fate.
Treasure was all about us—shirts, uniforms, brand-new anti-tank rifles, berettas, and even cameras—and good eyesight paid handsome dividends. We were travelling at a fair pace now and there were few stops, but no one ignored a pistol or a camera even if it meant pulling out of convoy or simulating a petrol blockage.
Our day's march ended at six o'clock when we halted about eight miles south of Fuka. By now most of the missing vehicles had caught up with us, and the unit was complete except for Captain Morris2 and about six Workshops' vehicles and the party that had been left behind under Lieutenant Hill. Shortly before dusk we heard gunfire, but presently all was quiet.
That night it rained.
We woke in the morning—those of us who had not been woken earlier by leaking canopies—to a prospect of puddles. We cursed bitterly as in the mind's eye we saw the enemy speeding along the coast road and our lovely Shermans floundering in a quagmire. There was still, if it cleared quickly, a hope, but it showed no signs of clearing.
After breakfast we pushed on, but much delay was caused by bogged vehicles and by hold-ups ahead of us. The large party of page 268 prisoners we passed at lunch-time served only as a reminder of the larger number whom the elements were helping to escape. We drove under louring skies, and during the afternoon intermittent squalls gave place to a steady downpour. At a quarter to five we halted for the night on the outskirts of a large German airfield five miles south of Sidi Haneish. Fuka was now fourteen miles behind us.
Torrential rain fell during the night.
It was still raining at dawn and showers alternated with down-pours until the middle of the afternoon, by which time the desert had turned into a morass. Our officers ranged the neighbourhood in search of negotiable routes but found none, and the transport stayed where it was all day. For most of us the waiting hours were ones of extreme exertion. In every quarter of the area, especially in that occupied by the 523rd Company,3 which had single-drive Bedfords, vehicles were in distress. Some listed at alarming angles; others, like plesiosauri aspiring from the primal ooze, pointed towards the sky, their hinder parts buried deep in wet sand; still others, travelling at a hundred yards an hour, crept agonisingly towards firmer ground while their engines screamed in anguish and their wheels ploughed parallel trenches across the desert.
During the day we were joined by Captain Morris and five Workshops' drivers. They had travelled some ten to fifteen miles along the coast road between Daba and Fuka and they were able to tell us what it was like. The verges and the road itself in some places were littered with abandoned gear and transport. Some of it was undamaged—there was a volkswagen that looked as though the driver had pulled up at the curb and hopped out to do some shopping—but most of it was burnt and twisted and peppered with bullet holes. For a mile and a half at one stretch there was nothing but tangled metal.
The Opel staff car that was splashing backwards and forwards through the area at a high speed with Captain Morris at the wheel had been captured after an exciting chase and some shooting. With it three German prisoners had been taken.
Throughout 7 November the New Zealand Division and most of the flanking armour was anchored to the desert as firmly as flies page 269 to flypaper, but the 8th, a Sunday, dawned dry and clear. The sun came out and sparkled in all the puddles and made the canopies steam. The desert was still in a foul mess but it was drying momently and we had hopes of being able to move soon. The damage, though, was done now. Rommel had been given a day's respite both from pursuit and from bombs, and his army, fleeing along the tarmac coast road, had made good use of it.
We moved at two in the afternoon, the Major's instructions being to get as far as he could towards Sidi Barrani, which was not yet in British hands.
The desert was like soggy gingerbread and vehicle after vehicle became bogged, causing much back-breaking work with shovels and the sacrifice of many German overcoats and uniforms. These were thrown under the churning wheels to give them something to grip on. Convoy discipline was in abeyance, the speed and direction of each vehicle being determined by the kind of surface it was crossing.
We skirted Sidi Haneish airfield and gazed gloatingly at the wrecked, burnt, and grounded planes. On one landing-ground we counted thirty wrecks, and were convinced, for perhaps the first time, that a great victory had been won.
As dusk gathered the going became steadily worse and when we halted shortly before nightfall we had covered only eighteen miles; the leading half of the convoy was on high ground and the rest was floundering in the mud two miles behind. Nothing could be done in darkness, so it was decided that the two halves should bivouac where they were.
Over our late tea we could speak of nothing except the great news: American and British troops had landed on the coast of French North Africa. To most of us, in the first flush of our enthusiasm, it seemed that the war was as good as over and our long journey towards Christmas as good as ended.
Bringing the convoy together was a formidable task even in daylight and it was after nine before we were ready for the road. For two hours the going was good and then we were held up while the 6th Brigade passed through a narrow gap in the minefield. Tired of waiting, the Major found an alternative gap, which led us directly to the Siwa road. The coast road was reached at half past four in the afternoon.page 270
German and Italian equipment—objects as gross as tanks to others as small as shaving brushes—burnt, broken, and wasted, was jumbled in a black mass, among which, disgustingly mutilated sometimes and sometimes lying like men asleep, were figures in olive grey. It was certainly a notable victory.
At five we halted three or four miles west-north-west of Charing Cross, and for the first time since the start of the advance the cooks were able to give us a hot meal.
While we were enjoying it Lieutenant Hill's detachment arrived. Delayed by breakdowns and bad going, the drivers had found the journey a hard one, but at least they had seen something missed by the rest of us: the coast road between Alamein and Daba.
‘The wreckage was all mixed up,’ said one of them, ‘with one wreck on top of another or so shoved against it that you couldn't tell which was which. There were plenty of dead Jerries and dead Ities about, and plenty of live ones too. Their arms had been taken away, and all they wanted was water and directions to the nearest pen. The Italians were much worse off than the Jerries. After the rain fell we saw them on their hands and knees in the desert scooping the stuff up from puddles. Most of them had no boots and they'd wrapped sacking round their feet, making us believe it was true what they told us: the Jerries had taken away their boots and transport and left them in the front line with only small arms.’
We were away early the next morning, passing through Sidi Barrani at noon and stopping for lunch half an hour later. It was after three before we moved again and from then on we travelled very slowly. The road was crowded with transport now and we watched the sky. During the morning some Messerschmitt 109s had swooped out of the sun and machine-gunned the tail of the convoy, damaging No. 3 Platoon's wireless set and slightly wounding two drivers with splinters from explosive bullets. At half past four we halted near Buqbuq, dispersing for the night among low mounds.
That evening there was a small delivery of New Zealand mail and parcels. Always when mail arrived the orderly-room clerks stood in the backs of their lorries and called names (as they were doing now under ragged clouds turning black and a sky almost page 271 drained of colour, the sea being black already), and then you could tell from our drivers' looks all that letters from home mean to soldiers, and hear, blowing through vanished barrack-rooms, blowing through a hundred thousand haunted squares in France, in India, in Egypt, in Africa, the old bugle call clear and cynical, mocking human needs: ‘There's a letter from Lousy Lucy—there's a letter from Lousy Lou!’
The next morning we moved slowly along the coast road, dodging bomb craters and smouldering wrecks. The Sollum escarpment was ahead, and as we drew near it the press of vehicles became greater, till at last we were travelling almost nose to tail. By eleven we had reached the foot of Halfaya Pass, up which an endless stream of tanks, guns, and transport was slowly winding.
The pass had fallen during the night to a surprise attack by 110 men from the 21st Battalion (‘Valiant unto Death’ was the motto of the Italian division to which most of the 612 prisoners belonged) and it was quite clear now, though the occasional crack of a rifle and the duller and louder explosion of a grenade made us think that stray Axis soldiers were still being winkled out from its seamed face.
The seashore and the wide flat were dotted with the guns and transport of other New Zealand units (most of which had precedence over us), and we dispersed off the road as best we could, the ack-ack crew setting up its guns. There were one or two alarms but mercifully no heavy raids.
Six vehicles were allowed to go forward at one in the afternoon, but the rest of the convoy had to wait for another four hours and it was twilight before we started the long crawl. In many places the road had been damaged by shells or bombs and for yards at a stretch the concrete fence was down. With a sheer drop on one side of us we remembered how earlier in the day we had seen a British tank swerve off the road and go rolling down the face of the escarpment like a huge boulder. Tremendous wedge-shaped shadows, tongued like pennants, went streaming past us, merging and spreading at the bottom and covering the whole flat. Great foreheads of rock, full of madness and menace, overshadowed the slender roadway and frowned down on the labouring vehicles as though willing them to usurp control and dash like the Gadarene swine down a steep place.page 272
By the time we reached the top our radiators were boiling and our engines running with that false sweetness that follows a long climb. Darkness had fallen before the tail of the convoy was clear of the pass and only half of us reached our destination that night. It was the junction of the Trigh Capuzzo and the Bardia road, eleven miles south by west of Bardia, which, with Sollum, Capuzzo, and Sidi Azeiz, had fallen without fighting. The rest of the convoy bivouacked at the top of the pass.
During the day—it was Armistice Day—the Battle for Egypt had been won. The Eighth Army, after advancing 278 miles in eight days, had driven the last Axis unit across the frontier.
The convoy was complete before breakfast the next morning and we moved to an area about six miles east of Sidi Azeiz, reaching it in time for lunch. The next day, travelling in desert formation, we set out for Bir el Chleta, twenty-five miles west-north-west of Sidi Azeiz. For an hour we made good time and then we halted. We got out of our cabs for a stretch and a smoke but kept near them, for we knew these halts: they might last for two hours or for two minutes. This, however, was a long halt. It lasted until 5 December.
While the New Zealand Division trained and rested near Bardia the Eighth Army continued its advance. Tobruk was entered on the 13th of the month, Derna on the 15th. (In Britain the church bells were rung for the first time since June 1940 and our Second Echelon drivers wished they had been there to hear them.) Benghazi was entered on the 20th, Agedabia on the 23rd. In twenty days the Eighth Army had advanced 778 miles and by the end of the month Rommel was behind his old line at El Agheila.
And the press said it and the radio; the fighter-bombers, homing through the dusk like thunderbolts, roared and screamed it; and we said it to ourselves comfortably over the primuses at night: ‘He will not pass this way again.’page break page break page break
Flooded at Fuka
Removing the rims from a 3-ton lorry tire, Bardia
A bath at Bardia
Lorries on the skyline, south of Bardia
3 It ceased to be under command on 11 November.