Journey Towards Christmas
Chapter 9 — Fox In The Fowl Run
Fox In The Fowl Run
WHINING in low gear, the stream of vehicles headed for the setting sun. In the Ministries and offices the big men had done their jobs and now it was our turn—the turn of the small men. Only through our goodwill would the guns shoot, the tanks advance, the wheels go round. The columns of figures had crawled out of their pigeon-holes, the acres of maps had become solid desert, and under the uncaring sun, which was levelled on the advancing transport like a spotlight, glinting on windscreens, causing the drivers to blink and curse, the drama began to unfold.
Campaigns go well or badly; they seldom go smoothly. Already hitches had occurred. We had moved on to the road over two hours ago, and now, at 4 p.m., we were still only a few miles from where we started. Our carefully-nursed dispersal had not survived the assaults of an ambulance unit and a heavy anti-aircraft regiment, and it seemed as though the convoy would be split up hopelessly before it reached the starting point for the advance.
It was dark when we turned off the coast road to the Siwa road, and we drove without lights, following the white wraith of dust thrown up by the vehicle ahead. Every once in a while a mudguard folded up with a crunch. Finally the convoy turned into the desert, lurched another four miles over very rough ground, and halted until dawn.
A little uneasy sleep, and then, with heavy heads and stiff, cold limbs, we climbed back into the cabs and bumped off towards the west, while the chill morning, white and pale grey with a fleck of yellow in it, opened behind us like an oyster. Now we could see what the Ammunition Company looked like in desert formation. As far as the eye could see the sand was chequered with our lorries, each of which—in theory, anyway—was the moving but constant centre of 160,000 square yards of empty desert. Crawling through the colourless morning light, they resembled a regiment of monstrous snails, humped, drab, uniform. They butted their way up the sides of wadis, crunched over hard ground, ploughing page 122 fluffily through soft patches—infinitely strange and menacing and never more so than when they entered a great open expanse, flat and boundless, and moved across it with a dry rustling sound, a wisp of dust smoking behind each lorry while an angry looking sun levered itself over the horizon.
The area in which we were scheduled to spend the night of 14-15 November was reached late in the morning. We were then about thirty miles from the coast and still quite close to the Siwa road. During the afternoon our already large convoy—the 14th Light Anti-Aircraft Section, NZASC, had come under the Major's command the day before—was further augmented by the temporary attachment of the New Zealand Mobile Surgical Unit.
Throughout the 15th we travelled slowly but steadily due west, halting at dusk after travelling forty-five miles. The last three stages of the journey to the frontier were to be made at night, so we rested during the 16th, moving off at dusk in close formation. When we halted at one in the morning we had travelled twenty-five miles and were thirty-two miles due south of Buqbuq. We rested again during the 17th.
So far everything had gone fairly smoothly, but early on the night of 17-18 November the formation struck soft sand, some thirty lorries sinking axle-deep. Vehicles without four-wheel drive—some of the sections had a few Mapleleaf Chevrolets—became hopelessly bogged and this meant hard work for our breakdown lorries. Where the ground was not soft it was villainously rough and it was often necessary for the formation to narrow its front to avoid wadis or minefields. The presence of the latter was indicated by softly-glowing lanterns, but several of the drivers, confused by the darkness and knowing they were out of position, had moments of panic when they wondered if they were on the right side of the line. It was an eerie night. In ragged columns the vehicles plunged and stumbled through the desolation of stone and camel-thorn, and the heat and smell of them—you got a blast of it when a dozen or more swept crazily together to avoid an obstacle—alternated with a whisper of cold wind, forbidding as the brush of skirts when the coven gathers for its sabbat. West, in the direction of the frontier, sheets of lightning blinked and played along the horizon. North, south, and east, we were hedged in by the deep, mocking darkness.page 123
We crossed the Egyptian frontier at dawn on the 19th, halting near El Beida, thirty-three miles south-west of Sollum. Ahead of us was the barbed-wire entanglement—never known as anything but the Wire—erected by Mussolini in 1932 to prevent the Libyan bedouin from leaving Libya and from coming back again should they manage to leave. To some of us it was a familiar landmark but others were seeing it for the first time. Six feet high and nine feet wide, it rolled away to the horizon like an enormous, hairy, reddish-brown caterpillar. It was an evil-looking thing and it had done evil. It ran from Sollum to the Great Sand Sea below Jerabub and Siwa, and to a people who in times of drought had been accustomed to move freely between Cyrenaica and Egypt in search of grazing it had meant something next door to starvation.
That night we enjoyed a sound sleep, and we spent the 20th in doing the hundred and one jobs—everything from washing a pair of socks to adjusting a noisy tappet—that accumulate in the course of a long journey.
On the following afternoon we moved through the 300-yard breach in the wire to occupy an area eleven miles north-west of El Beida and there we spent another quiet night. Many of us had begun to ask when the fun was going to start.
It had started already.
Already advanced elements of 30th Corps, after taking Rommel by surprise and clashing with his armour, were in sight of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, which overlooked the force investing Tobruk. Already the garrison had begun its sortie. The 13th Corps, for its part, was striking north to isolate large enemy forces in the Sollum-Bardia area.
After we had travelled steadily for an hour and a half the Major was told that his lorries were passing between the frontier fortress of Libyan Omar and troops of the 7th Indian Brigade who were about to attack it. If we didn't want to get shelled, he was told, we had better swing left at once. Our drivers could see the Indian infantry sitting silently in open lorries. Almost immedi- page 124 ately, with a whine and a clap, shells began to land around us. In places, notably on our right flank, clouds of dust obscured what was going on, and new clouds were springing up every moment. It was as though the desert were being beaten like an old carpet. By this time our formation had wheeled and was heading north-west. A halt was called as soon as we were out of range and it was found that no damage had been done. Nevertheless there had been several narrow escapes and nerves were still tingling when two armoured cars came towards us across the desert. They were flying a single pennant and we had been told that our own armoured fighting vehicles would be flying two.
All was well, however, and we reached our new area, where we made haste to dig in, early in the afternoon. The New Zealand Division was now in action against Bardia and the frontier forts in the coastal sector, and our ammunition began to sell like hot cakes.
Meanwhile the fighting around Sidi Rezegh had reached a critical stage, and the evening of the 22nd found the 6th Brigade, under the command of 30th Corps, hurrying west to lend a hand. The next day the 4th Brigade moved against Gambut, an airfield halfway between Bardia and Tobruk, the 5th Brigade staying behind to contain the enemy in the Sollum-Capuzzo-Bardia triangle. With the splitting up of the Division problems of supply at once became three times as difficult, and a Composite NZASC Company was formed under Captain L. W. Roberts (Supply Column) to serve the 6th Brigade. To this we contributed C Section under Captain Butt.
At nine on the morning of the 23rd a convoy from the new company, composed of C Section (ammunition), two sections from the Supply Column (rations), and six lorries from the 4th Reserve Mechanical Transport Company (water), left Abiar Nza Ferigh under Captain Roberts to join Headquarters 6th Brigade at Bir el Chleta, six miles south-west of Gambut. After travelling west for seven miles the convoy was met by a 6th Brigade officer who reported that enemy tanks were on Trigh Capuzzo, a rough but extremely important track running from Capuzzo to El Adem, a large airfield sixteen miles due south of Tobruk. Bir el Chleta was page 125 just north of the Trigh. Accordingly Captain Roberts decided to head west for another twelves miles before turning north.
In the usual desert formation, which by now our drivers had become adept in maintaining, the convoy pushed on, encountering here and there bad patches of soft sand in which a number of lorries gave trouble, halting all the rest. The second time this happened C Section was joined by four Royal Army Service Corps Bedfords whose excited drivers told how their convoy had been attacked and dispersed on Trigh Capuzzo.
They were in the middle of their story when five enemy armoured fighting vehicles were sighted. Some of the lorries were still bogged, so the drivers were ordered to form the transport into a defensive square and defend it with their rifles.
Fortunately the enemy sheered off without firing, and Captain Butt, grabbing a shovel, at once organised the spare drivers into a digging party. Soon every lorry was on firm ground again.
At two in the afternoon, when the convoy was due south of Gambut, Captain Roberts swung north, leading his transport through what had very recently been an Italian camp. Wine bottles and empty tins together with more offensive refuse lay thick about trenches and weapon-pits, and in one place a fire was still smouldering. On the left flank, about a mile away, unidentified armour could be seen moving west.
An hour and a half later three enemy armoured cars bore down on the convoy from the east, attempting to cut it off. The Trigh was now only five miles ahead, so Captain Roberts decided to run for it. As soon as the drivers saw the speed-it-up signal the transport surged forward, rocking and bumping over the rough desert. The manoeuvre was successful and the armoured cars dropped away on the right flank. Just in front of Bir Nza er Rifi, which was a mile south of the Trigh and in line with Gambut, the convoy halted in deference to a mass of transport that covered the southern slope of a wadi about a mile ahead. It was taking a lot of punishment. Shells were landing among it with good effect and our C Section drivers watched from their ringside seats with growing excitement. They had decided the transport was friendly.
Meanwhile Captain Butt had gone forward in his staff car to put the matter to the test. The moment it reached the floor of the wadi page 126 the car came under machine-gun fire, and as it whipped round and came racing back a string of bullets stitched a seam in the desert a few feet from it. The position was now plain: the transport was the enemy's and the shells were from our own 25-pounders. There was no hope of crossing the Trigh and reaching Bir el Chleta.
A second later our drivers lost all interest in what was going on in the wadi. Now they were under fire themselves. They leaped for their cabs and with a throaty scream of engines the whole convoy turned and fled south while three armoured cars fired on it from one direction, two machine guns from another, and two small-calibre guns (probably anti-tank guns) from a third. The going was abominable and there were slit-trenches everywhere. Into one of these a Bedford—one of the four that had joined the convoy earlier—plunged headlong, having to be abandoned.
The pursuit was not given up until more than five miles had been covered and all the while a heavy concentration of unidentified transport had been moving north-west on the right flank.
After travelling south for eight miles, Captain Roberts turned east at Uesc Chet er Reian (through which the convoy had already passed once), carried on for another nine miles, and halted for the night at Bir es Sufan, the transport forming up in a laager just as the covered wagons did in Red Indian country.
Bir es Sufan, no doubt, meant something to Arab nomads. One could imagine—though not without an effort—their comparing it with Nza er Rifi and Uesc Chet er Reian and confessing a nostalgic preference for the former. To our drivers it was nothing—just a stretch of desert indistinguishable from any other stretch. To Captains Butt and Roberts it was a six-figure map reference (475392). Even the cistern, whose presence was suggested by the prefix Bir, was invisible to the uninitiated.
Some of the drivers had eaten and bedded down and others were still busy over their primuses, with canopies close drawn to prevent any light from showing, when a distant squeaking and rumbling, as of mice and volcanoes mixed, forced itself on the attention. Presently its import became unmistakable and Captain Butt sped from lorry to lorry. He said: ‘Stay where you are. No noise, No lights. No smoking.’
From the monstrous racket individual sounds began to sort page 127 themselves out: the clank of tracks, the clatter of exhausts, the chafing of metal against metal, the unruly hammering of a diesel engine. When the crescendo reached its peak our drivers could see black shapes moving past in close formation. They waited in dead silence, hardly breathing. After the column had gone by white flares of a type the Germans were using at that time shot up at intervals along its whole length. Gradually the noise died away in the distance and at last it was only a faint squeaking.
Feeling that they had experienced quite enough for one day the drivers went to bed.
Only a few miles from where C Section's lorries were laagered but separated from them by Heaven alone knew how many wandering groups of Germans, New Zealanders, Italians, and South Africans—for by now the confusion on both sides was considerable—the Major was recording the day's events.
November 23 0100 hours: 14 Lt A-A Section1 ceases to be a separate entity and is marched in as an additional section of Ammunition Company. 0600: 26 lorries left for 50 FSD under 2-Lt May to load ammunition. 0900: Reported to Col Crump and was instructed to move to Uesc Chet er Reian and form ammunition point. Point to be operating at 1400 hours. 1100: Advised by HQ that enemy tanks were in the new area and unit would not move until information had been received that area was clear. 1400: Instructions received for unit to move. 1500: Convoy under 2-Lt May returns from 50 FSD. 1600: Unit moves off. After travelling seven miles convoy makes contact with rear of Divisional Headquarters. It appears to be held up while waiting for the area ahead to be cleared of enemy tanks. 1700: Unit halts and prepares evening meal. At dusk Divisional Headquarters moves on but unit stays in present area for the night. No word from C Section which left supply column lines under Capt Roberts at 0930 hours….
Everyone from the Major down—from General Auchinleck down—was worried. There was reason to be. The Germans had retaken Sidi Rezegh, the sortie from Tobruk was pinned down, and worst of all the spring had gone out of our attack. It had been hammered out and for the moment we were on the defensive.
The tired sentries paced up and down beside the closly-packed page 128 lorries, starting nervously at distant flares, listening intently to every movement in the darkness.
On the morning of 24 November Rommel felt the ball in his hands and he decided to make a touch-down. Collecting three armoured divisions—two German and one Italian—he made a run for the Wire. Tanks of the 7th Armoured Brigade, like plucky half-backs, went in to tackle him, but he fended them off, and in the afternoon the 21st Panzer Division under General von Ravenstein reached the frontier at Sheferzen and crossed into Egypt. Then it went merrily to work. It fanned out in columns and began shooting up transport and overrunning supply dumps, field workshops, and B Echelon areas.
Supplying the New Zealand Division with ammunition, petrol, food, and water had been difficult before; now it was a nightmare task. The 50th Field Supply Depot, from which we had been drawing ammunition, was near El Beida, on the Egyptian side of the Wire. The 5th Brigade, with its headquarters at Sidi Azeiz and large forces of the enemy all about it, was still investing the Sollum-Capuzzo-Bardia triangle. The 6th Brigade, with no safe lines of communication, was fighting in the Sidi Rezegh area, and the 4th Brigade was at Gambut. Bits and pieces of the enemy were anywhere and everywhere.
For transport units there was no safety. Every convoy was like a fleet of fishing smacks in a hostile ocean. It was now to be discovered if our drivers could really drive—if our section officers and subalterns could really read maps and lead men.
The 24th dawned cold and bright, a pleasantly astringent Monday morning. Taking their cue from the weather, the drivers woke in good heart. Already, no doubt, steps had been taken to avoid a recurrence of the unpleasantness of yesterday.
Renewed optimism was in the air and ‘Fat’ Davison responded to the general feeling by giving his drivers a breakfast of fried sausages—a rare treat after a succession of bully-beef stews eked out with army biscuits.
They queued up in the chill silver and gold sunlight, avoiding the long spikes of shadow cast by the lorries and chatting happily page break page break page 129 about the fright the armoured column had given them the night before.
Waiting for nightfall, Crete
The Prime Minister inspects Bedfords at Maadi
Leave in Tel Aviv
‘I was next in the queue,’ said George Laverick,2 ‘and I was holding out my dixie and just beginning to lick my chops when two South African vehicles—a pick-up and a three-tonner—came tearing over towards us. There were about half a dozen South Africans aboard and they were in a bad way. Their clothes were in shreds and some of them were covered with blood. We particularly noticed the negro driver of one of the vehicles. His eyes were rolling in his head with fright and excitement. An officer, tattered and bloody, told Captain Butt there were enemy tanks in the neighbourhood. He said his own outfit had been cut to pieces.3
‘A column of some sort was moving towards us from the northwest, so the cooks packed up at once and I didn't get my snarler. A few minutes later we were on the move, heading south and then east towards Abiar Nza Ferigh, which we had left the morning before.’
The rest of the unit had also started the day on an empty stomach. We were roused before dawn and the Major led us westwards across the desert, Captain H. S. Jones4 having been sent ahead to make contact with Colonel Crump on Trigh Capuzzo. He returned some two hours later to report that he had been fired on as he was approaching what he thought was Divisional Headquarters. Soon afterwards British tank officers who were enquiring for the 6th Brigade warned the Major that enemy armour was in the neighbourhood. No one seemed to know what was what or where anything was.
In real fact the situation, at least as it affected the New Zealanders, was beginning to clear a little. The 4th Brigade was at Gambut (where advanced troops of 13th Corps had been held up for some while), and it was waiting for the word to move west and link up with the 6th Brigade, which after a hard battle was in possession of Point 175, four and a half miles east of Sidi Rezegh.page 130
At half past ten a Divisional military policeman told us to go to Bir el Halezin, seven miles south-west of Bir el Chleta. We moved steadily in that direction until noon when we were halted by an action between British and enemy tanks. While we were waiting for the situation to clear, Captain Ward6 and B Section, accompanied by a Petrol Company section that had joined us early that morning after being chased by tanks, set out to serve the 6th Brigade, and twenty minutes later Captain Jones returned from Divisional Headquarters with a report that the 4th Brigade was short of ammunition. He brought with him the brigade liaison officer, who had been fired on by our own tanks, his batman sustaining severe wounds. Captain Gibson7 and A Section left at once for the 4th Brigade and Sergeant Sam Mellows and six lorries from the former 14th Light Anti-Aircraft Section, NZASC, left about half an hour later with Bofors ammunition for the 41st Battery.
Watching from Company headquarters' area, Corporal Bev Hendrey8 (Don R) followed the six lorries as they moved across the desert. He saw them join a fairly large formation of transport—they were just dots by now—and continue south with it. Then there was a sound of gunfire from the north and a lorry near the tail of the formation stopped and began to burn. None of those six lorries was seen again.
Later in the afternoon the Major was asked to move his transport as it was parked between German tanks and the guns of the 22nd Armoured Brigade. We moved a mile south and settled down for the night.
The light faded from apple-green to blue-grey and all over the desert groups of transport huddled close in the prescribed formation—-Custer's Last Stand. A Section's lorries were protected by the page 131 4th Brigade, B Section's by the 6th, and C Section's, at Abiar Nza Ferigh, by the 5th. Sam Mellows's detachment, with the exception of Arty Meiklejohn9 and Steve Kennedy10 who were lying beside their burnt-out lorry almost within sight of Company headquarters, was under the protection of German panzers. The rest of the unit was near Bir el Halezin with the 22nd Armoured Brigade.
Again the sentries walked up and down beside the close-packed lorries. Nothing very alarming had occurred during the day and they spoke sagely and cheerfully of final flings, mopping-up operations, and isolated pockets of resistance—and their wireless sets did the same. True there were some disturbing stories about. Packs of panzers, it seemed, were roaming the desert and chivying and savaging unprotected convoys. And there was that business about the tanks. None of ours, a bewildered tankie had explained, fired anything heavier than a two-pound shell, whereas the lightest shell fired by the German tanks was 4½ pounds and the heaviest 14-15 pounds.
We consoled ourselves by thinking of their horrible pink petrol. A British tank wouldn't look at it.
The blue light faded to black and later the moon rose. The burnt-out stubs of tanks and trucks stood out dark against the desert, the surface of which seemed to have been strewn with largesse—great silver pieces. They were only petrol tins, though, and empty German and Italian and British food tins.
With eighteen men and one corpse in the back of the lorry Sam Mellows's drivers found it impossible to stretch out in comfort. They dozed for a while, then woke up aching with cold and cramps, then dozed again. Before dawn they were roused by a rumble of tanks and a confused shouting from the Germans. They shook hands in the darkness, feeling suddenly certain that the enemy was surrounded and they would soon be free.
‘It started the afternoon before.’ said Corporal S. T. Midgley11 (known to everyone as ‘Midge’). ‘The six lorries of Sam Mel- page 132 lows's sub-section left the unit area with myself and twelve others about half an hour after Captain Gibson's convoy. We were to serve the 41st Battery, which was under the command of the 4th Brigade, and our orders were to travel four miles west and then about six north. We set out in desert formation with an interval of 150 yards between vehicles.
‘After we had gone about three miles we noticed a convoy in the far distance moving towards us on our right front. Sam Mellows thought it was most probably Captain Gibson returning with A Section after failing to get through to the 4th Brigade, so he halted his vehicles. Shortly afterwards we saw six armoured cars swing across our front and drive swiftly down our left flank, keeping about half a mile out in the desert. We could now see that the formation ahead of us was an armoured column and our spirits sank when we noticed that it was accompanied by motor-cycles with side-cars.
‘The six armoured cars swung left, each of them heading towards one of our lorries. Sam Mellows shouted to the drivers to stand firm. The car that had singled us out halted fifty yards away and an officer said in perfect English: “Hands up! Have you any arms?” I said: “Rifles only.” The officer said: “Drive to the rear of the column.” A German soldier got in beside our driver and Sam Mellows and I climbed into the back of the lorry, two guards going with us.
‘Meanwhile this scene was being repeated at each of the lorries and in a matter of minutes the convoy was heading towards the German column, which had never halted, the armoured cars following behind with their machine guns trained on us. While we were catching up the column we passed within a mile or so of the company area and I could see our boys and their vehicles.
‘After we had travelled a short distance we came under heavy fire from British 25-pounders and Jerry set off at full speed, altering direction from time to time. Shells were landing all round us and we heard afterwards that the lorry in which Arty Meiklejohn and Steve Kennedy were driving received a direct hit, but we could get no details. The shelling continued for about half an hour and all this time the column seemed to be travelling more or less in circles.
‘At dusk we halted. After dark the column moved five miles to confuse the Royal Air Force, which had had us under observation page 133 all day long, and laagered in tight formation. It was now possible to make a rough estimate of Jerry's strength. The column appeared to consist of about sixty vehicles—load-carriers, staff cars, armoured cars, and tanks. There were plenty of motor-cycles with side-cars mounted with machine guns.
‘That night we were told to unload one of the captured lorries and we were all herded into it. We were joined by six Tommies who had been captured earlier in the day and that made eighteen of us. It was pretty close quarters.
‘We didn't get a feed that night. In fact the Jerries gave us nothing all the time we were with them. I don't know how we should have managed if the boys hadn't thought to grab a few tins of food while they were travelling in the backs of their lorries. Our Jerry guard—he stayed with us always and he used to sit on the camel tank, which by a mercy was full of water—was pretty generous in sharing his own rations. He was a good little joker. He came from Munich.
‘An officer, an elderly man who visited us before we turned in, was quite decent too. After telling us to make ourselves as comfortable as possible he stayed for a little chat, mentioning that he knew England well and liked it. He said he used to referee soccer matches at Wembley stadium.
‘As a matter of fact most of the Jerries we met treated us well. On the whole we found them a pretty free and easy crowd, much like ourselves, and there was only one incident that really got our goat. That had occurred during the afternoon. Sam and I, while we were in the back of our lorry, dug out a carton of 200 cigarettes, from which we gave the two guards a couple of packets each. They must have mentioned this outside, for during one of the halts an officer came up to us—he was a typical Prussian specimen: lean, with a cold, hard eye and a clipped, abrupt way of speaking—and demanded some of the 2000 cigarettes he understood we possessed. When we told him we had only a few packets he flew into a rage and said he could make thing very unpleasant for us if we didn't obey orders. After a bit of back-chat we gave him three or four packets and he went away muttering under his breath.
‘With eighteen jokers in the back of the lorry it was hell trying to get to sleep. To make matters worse we had a most unpleasant addition to our number early in the night. An officer poked his page 134 head in and said he was going to give us a “dead comrade”. Naturally we thought he meant either Arty Meiklejohn or Steve Kennedy, but what we got was a dead German with a sack over his head. No one felt like grabbing hold of him and there was a bit of hanging back before he was hoisted aboard. No one wanted him as a neighbour either and he gradually got edged forward to the front of the lorry, ending up wedged between me and the spare wheel. He was like frozen mutton.
‘Before daylight we saw flares in the sky, and the Jerries started shouting and we heard tanks. We were highly delighted, believing the laager was surrounded by our own chaps. Nothing happened, though, and soon it was light enough for us to see that we had been joined by a huge enemy force—a collection of armour and lorried infantry. Rommel was there as well we heard later. We looked through peepholes we had made in the canopy and saw vehicles of all types stretching out in every direction. It was a bitter sight.
‘We moved at sunrise—having first got rid of the dead Jerry, thank goodness!—with the bulk of the tanks travelling in front and a screen of armoured cars and tanks on the flanks and scout cars away out on the horizon. Royal Air Force reconnaissance planes were almost continually overhead throughout the morning and we knew that before long we should be getting it good and heavy….’
By this time the fate of the six lorries was no longer a mystery. At breakfast-time Steve Kennedy had reached Company headquarters dazed with exhaustion. He said that his lorry had been destroyed and Arty Meiklejohn was lying out in the desert seriously wounded. A rescue party was formed under Captain Sampson, with Steve, although he was almost at the end of his tether, acting as guide. He told his story as they went along.
When the German column came under fire from our 25-pounders Steve's and Arty's lorry received a direct hit, both drivers being blown out of the cab. Arty's leg was almost severed by a piece of shrapnel but Steve escaped with a bad shaking. The lorry started to burn fiercely.
A German soldier pointed his revolver at Steve and told him to leave Arty and climb aboard the next lorry. Steve refused to do this and the German fired, missing him and wounding Arty in the page 135 shoulder. Ashamed of himself, or afraid of being left behind, he went away with the rest, and soon the convoy was out of sight. Our drivers stayed by their burning lorry and after a while a British tank came over to them. The crew applied a tourniquet to Arty's leg and then left, promising to send an ambulance. No ambulance arrived and they spent the night in the open. At daybreak, realising that Arty would die if no help came, Steve made his way to our lines.
After a fairly long search—Steve could give only vague directions—the burnt lorry was sighted with Arty lying beside it. He was in bad shape by now, and for the time being it was impossible to evacuate him to a field dressing station. (He was evacuated the next day and was killed on the day after that—the 28th—when New Zealand medical units were overrun between Bir el Chleta and Point 175.)
The rest of the morning passed quietly. A Section returned from serving the 4th Brigade and B Section from serving the 6th.
Early in the afternoon orders arrived for the 65th RASC Company, which had reached our lines before breakfast with the now familiar story of a chase by tanks. Their ammunition was to go to the 4th Field Regiment, their petrol and water to the supply point. It was as well that something for the guns to shoot had come forward, for C Section was now serving the 5th Brigade in the Bardia area, and until we received word that the way was open to the new replenishment point—El Beida was closed to us—nothing could be done about refilling A and B Section's lorries.
Word came at two in the afternoon and the sections set out under Captains Gibson and Ward to load ammunition at the 62nd Field Supply Depot, which was some distance from Alem el Abiad and over thirty miles south by west of Bir el Halezin.
After the convoy had travelled a dozen miles it was halted by Captain Gibson who had noticed a suspicious movement ahead. Some A Section drivers took advantage of the halt to salvage a perfectly good staff car that was sitting unattended in the desert. It was undamaged except for a few bullet holes, and a short tow started the engine. In the meantime two armoured cars had moved to a ridge on the left flank.
As soon as the convoy moved off they pounced—like a cat with page 136 a mouse. A bullet nicked Colin Cameron12 in the thigh and a stream of bullets followed the newly-acquired staff car as it shot to the front, its driver feeling no gratification at being mistaken for an important target. Through the crackle of machine guns and the roar of engines came the heavy knock, five times repeated, of Jim Stanley's anti-tank rifle, the one he had used in Greece. He was lying on his stomach in the back of A Section's ack-ack lorry and firing over the tailboard. Before the chase was given up he managed to get away the best part of three magazines, but by that time the convoy had been driven far off its course. There was nothing for it but to return to the unit lines and report that the Germans were watching the route to the supply depot.
Our drivers got home in time for tea. The steaming bully stew and soggy rice, reassuringly familiar against the rather macabre atmosphere of the campaign, went down well after the day's excitements, a pleasant consciousness of dangers overcome adding sauce to the cooks' efforts. A and B Sections were not sorry to have had an adventure of their own, for C Section, according to all reports, had been stealing the limelight.
During the 24th—the day of Rommel's dash to the frontier—the Composite NZASC Company had been disbanded, C Section remaining at Abiar Nza Ferigh to serve the 5th Brigade in the Bardia area; and by the morning of the 25th seventeen lorries had been emptied. Their drivers breakfasted at dawn and set off under Captain Butt to refill at the 50th Field Supply Depot on the far side of the Wire.
After travelling south by west for eighteen miles the convoy came under fire from artillery on the right flank. Captain Butt turned it about and headed for a tank recovery section he had passed four miles back. He made his report to the officer commanding the unit but it was received sceptically and his request for an armoured escort refused. The tanks in the area, he was told, were under repair and none of them was really fit for action.
In an attempt to by-pass the danger zone he led the convoy five miles west and then turned south, only to be halted after travelling page 137 a further two miles by the sight of nine or ten armoured cars on a low rise. With the early sun behind them they were dipped in pools of their own shadow and it was impossible to tell whose they were. Our drivers were inclined to think they were South African. Captain Butt, however, was taking no chances. He halted the convoy and went ahead to reconnoitre.
‘I was in the staff car with Freddy Butt and his driver,’ said Sergeant Bob Aro.13 ‘Freddy put the glasses on the armoured cars but what with the shadows and the haze they weren't any help. We crept nearer and stopped. We did that four times, halting finally when we were about 150 yards away. In the leading armoured car there was a joker with a black beret like our tankies wear. He was standing on the turret and waving us to come on. Then we saw someone hop down into a weapon-pit beside the car. We all saw him at the same time and Freddy yelled to his driver: “Go for your life, Jack!” Jack Girvan14 spun the car round and as we turned I saw the joker on the turret drop behind his gun and a second later a burst of bullets ploughed up the sand alongside us. It was Jack who saved us. He did a marvellous job of driving, going flat out and flinging the car around to make it hard for the Jerries to draw a bead on us.’
Our drivers saw the staff car come tearing towards them in a spray of bullets and the lorries turned as one. As they did so five more armoured cars appeared on the right flank, and for a minute it looked as though the game was up. Bullets went between the lorries and over and under and through them. At first the convoy drew ahead, but then it struck soft sand and the armoured cars started to gain. One lorry was hit in a vital part and it clattered to a standstill, the drivers tumbling out. The enemy kept up the pursuit mile after mile, and all the time Captain Butt's staff car was like a sheepdog. Now it was in the lead indicating the course; now it was on a flank watching over a straggler. The C Section drivers were beginning to swear by him. Finally he led them back to the recovery section and only then did the armoured cars give up the chase.page 138
Again the officer in command was asked for the loan of a light tank and this time the request was granted. However, just as the convoy was setting off, three armoured cars appeared 1300 yards north of the position. They prowled about, nosed this way and that, and then sat back on their haunches for all the world like dingoes; and like dingoes they slipped away into the haze when four I-tanks rumbled towards them. The incident, unfortunately, caused the officer commanding to change his mind. He decided that he must keep everything he had for his own protection, so Captain Butt had no alternative but to leave the convoy where it was and try to get through to Headquarters NZASC with a report.
During the next two hours the drivers amused themselves by exploring the recovery section. It consisted of a mass of vehicles—tank-transporters, lorries, and light trucks—and at the moment it was engaged in repairing British I-tanks that had come to grief in the fighting for the Omar forts, the nearest of which, Libyan Omar, was about six miles to the east. There were several light tanks in various stages of disrepair and about eight heavy ones. A number of these could be used as artillery, so the position was by no means undefended. An opportunity to defend it came early in the afternoon.
A cloud of dust appeared from the direction of Libyan Omar and rapidly grew larger. ‘What can you see?’ asked Tom Laverick15 of a British sergeant, who replied: ‘I can't see a lovely thing for lovely dust’. The sergeant, except that he was standing in a tank turret and was looking through field-glasses, was like Sister Anne. Even when the cloud was quite close it was impossible to see what caused it, but an ominous squeaking and rumbling told its own story. ‘See anything now?’ asked Tom. ‘Lovely Jerries,’ said the sergeant, closing the turret. A second later his gun went into action.
There was an instant—a moment suspended in time—in which the dust cloud was stabbed with orange flames and a voice could be heard shouting ‘Take post!’ and the Tommies could be seen manning their ruined tanks, calm through despair or through long discipline. Then the shells came over with a squeal and a short rush and the dust hid everything. On Bob Aro's orders our drivers page 139 had started their engines at the first hint of trouble and they were under way as soon as the firing started. They zigzagged among the slit-trenches while shells burst ahead of them. Twelve lorries headed west, four headed west by south, and smoke and dust separated the two groups.
Bob Aro was leading the larger group, and as soon as it was safe to do so he swung north and went straight to the Supply Column lines near Abiar Nza Ferigh—no mean feat without a compass. There he reported to an officer, but his story was laughed at, so he pushed on in the hope of finding either Captain Butt or the rest of the section. Presently he met Major Pryde, who put him on his way to the ammunition point at which the loaded lorries were still standing by. It was where he had left it that morning. Ten minutes later a staff car drove up with a short, stocky man, a tommy gun in his arms, leaning through the trapdoor in the roof. ‘Freddy,’ said the drivers, their hearts lightening.
Captain Butt had managed to get through to Headquarters NZASC and had been instructed to put himself and his section under the command of Captain Roberts, the Composite NZASC Company having been re-formed to serve the 5th Brigade. He had set out for the recovery section to collect the convoy and while still some distance away had seen fires break out in the area. He had closed to 1800 yards and then to 1300. By that time at least six vehicles were in flames and he was able to make out, in and about the camp and round the British I-tanks, at least fifty strange tanks and armoured cars and about 200 load-carriers. He stayed no longer.
Except for the party that had dashed off on its own—ten drivers in four lorries—C Section was complete again. Without further delay it joined the Composite Company and moved seven or eight miles north-east into the Sidi Azeiz position, where Headquarters 5th Brigade was entrenched. The company was still there when night came.
Night came with a quickening chill, a dropping of green and pink and blue veils and a rush of shadows.
At twenty minutes to eight, after moving four miles north with the 22nd Armoured Brigade, our unit halted and made camp. The German column halted after moving five or six miles.page 140
‘It was quite dark by then,’ said ‘Midge’. ‘The boys were in good spirits, though some of them had begun to feel a bit knocked up. We were stiff and sore and what we needed above everything else was a smoke. That was out of the question of course. A glimmer of a light would probably have been a shooting matter. The Jerries, I think, were getting a bit rattled, but you couldn't blame them for that. We'd had a taste of the Royal Air Force ourselves when thirty Blenheims came over in the afternoon. The concentration of tanks and lorries made a good target—the Jerries didn't seem to go in for dispersal on the scale we did—and columns of black smoke showed that some hits had been scored.
‘Later in the afternoon, while halted, we were shelled by British 25-pounders. Several vehicles were hit and one shell landed only thirty yards away from us, spraying our lorry with stones and gravel. We were not allowed to get out and take cover and we didn't feel any too good sitting up there like Jacky. Craning from the back of the lorry, we could see the flash of the guns when they fired and after each flash we spent some lovely seconds wondering where the shells were going to land.
‘Presently we moved out of range and we kept going until just on sunset, when all the tanks went forward, apparently to engage a British force. I got out of the lorry for a minute, the guard going with me. Our lorry was pointing north and the sun was going down on the left flank. Standing near me was a German officer. At that moment two 8-cwt. Chevrolets driven by Tommies came towards us out of the setting sun. When they were about twenty yards away they must have noticed my battledress and the uniforms of the two Germans, for they changed down with a flourish and one of them shouted: “What the hell goes on?” One of our boys had been watching through a peephole in the canopy and he yelled out: “Go for your bloody lives!” The two Chevrolets leapt forward, swung hard left round the tail of the lorry and hard left again round the bonnet, and were away into the setting sun, gathering speed. The officer yelled to the guard for his rifle. It was at the slung position and a second or two went by while he struggled with it. A few more were lost while the officer doubled round the lorry and by that time the target was just a diminishing cloud of dust right in the eye of the setting sun. It was hopeless page 141 and he lowered his rifle without even trying a shot. He didn't say a word.
‘Taking it by and large, we felt pretty chirpy that second night. We knew we had a good chance of being rescued so long as the column stayed in the forward areas. We discussed it from this angle and that, and all the while the need for a smoke got worse and the cold struck up through the steel tray….’
Clusters of tanks, trucks, and tired men—like islands of various sizes in a cold, dark ocean—dotted the whole desert. They lay so still that it was possible for two of them to be almost cheek by jowl without knowing it. In a dozen places the leopard was lying down with the kid or with other leopards, but not in amity. The German column, for instance, as ‘Midge’ and his friends were to find out shortly, had chosen a British force for a bed-fellow, and it was chance alone—a dozen miles in this or the other direction—that prevented that force from being the one that was sheltering our ten lost C Section drivers and the Tommy sergeant who had driven up exclaiming: ‘Blimey, chum! You bloody near shot me.’ He had been mistaken for a German.
Now there were only three lorries, the fourth having broken down early in the chase, which had been very hot for a while. Rough going, however, had helped our drivers to get clear, and after putting a safe distance between themselves and the doomed recovery section they had halted and allowed the irate Tommy sergeant to come up with them. A bullet fired by Alf Hallmond had missed him by a whisker.
The drivers said to Corporal Ernie Symons16: ‘You're the boss. What do you reckon we should do?’
There was a mass of transport on the horizon and it was decided to approach it from the flank with extreme caution. Shy as antelopes and as vulnerable, the three lorries and the Tommy sergeant's pick-up drove hesitantly across the desert, halting near a British anti-tank gun. There was a bad moment when the crew abandoned their billy of tea and sprang to action stations, but the drivers were wise enough to stay still and presently they were recognised. ‘If page 142 you'd turned round, Kiwis,’ they were told, ‘you'd have got it proper.’ Our drivers must have looked a bit white about the gills, for the Tommies handed over their billy like gentlemen. ‘A nice cuppa Mike McGee,’ they said. ‘Get it into you, chums.’
The fugitives had found sanctuary with the B Echelon of a British armoured brigade. About 300 vehicles, including tanks and tank-transporters, were dispersed over a wide area, and the position was protected by anti-tank guns. Ernie Symons and the others were not sorry when the officer commanding the unit ordered them to stay where they were until contact could be made with a New Zealand convoy. While they were talking with the OC a scout car brought in a captured lorry and ten Germans, one of whom was an officer, a big, tow-headed Nazi who must have weighed every ounce of 16 stone. As soon as he got his feet on the ground he slung the OC a tremendous Wehrmacht salute, which was so smart as to be insulting. The Englishman just sketched the courtesy, and the honours, in point of offensiveness, were even. Meanwhile the Tommies had discovered several large tins of ham in the captured lorry. ‘That,’ said the big Nazi, ‘is for our tea.’ ‘No,’ said a Tommy sergeant-major. ‘That's for our tea. For you, chummy, we've kept a nice bit of bull.’ The big Nazi looked hose pipes and hunting whips but had sense enough to keep quiet.
Each of our drivers received a big helping of ham and they went to bed that night on full stomachs, to dream, perhaps, of dusk, gentle and soft as a suéde glove, brushing over Auckland harbour while a liner goes past the heads lit up like a Christmas tree, and a little familiar ferry, grubby and well-loved, butts over to Devonport with all its lights in the water. Or did they dream, snoring in their three lorries, of a sea of sand, of an engine that spat and snuffled like a hairy goat, of an armoured Westphalian ham—gaining, always gaining—bestridden by a gigantic, tow-headed Nazi?
Dawn in the desert comes in about five blinks. Peering through gummy eyes and a misted windscreen, you see only a lumpy pallor joggling beyond the radiator cap. You blink—and perhaps doze for five minutes—and when you open your eyes individual snail shells and spikes of camel-thorn can be seen plainly. You blink page 143 again and you recognise the lorry ahead of you as ‘Mack's’ by the dent in its tailboard. Again, and you can make out the staff car, louse-like, scurrying far ahead.
We had been woken by gunfire shortly before dawn—the dawn of the 26th—and the company, at the request of the 22nd Armoured Brigade, was moving back to Bir el Halezin. (Our overnight area, no doubt, was needed for a tank battle.) Captain Butt's convoy, as dawn broke, was feeling its way, engines grunting and backfiring in low gear, down a winding, precipitous track on the Sghifet el Charruba escarpment, near Bir ez Zemla, seven miles north of Sidi Azeiz, which had been left at one that morning. It was entering the 22nd Battalion's area, where an ammunition point was to be established. Some C Section drivers—those whose lorries were either empty or loaded with mines or explosives—had stayed in Sidi Azeiz, and daybreak found them huddled in their slit-trenches, rifles at the ready, and eyes straining to make out what was in front of them. For an hour past they had been listening to the groans of the wounded.
‘That hour before dawn,’ said George Laverick, ‘was the worst part of a long, bad night. Quite early we had seen distant enemy flares and later the whole horizon was jumping with them. At the same time we could hear the growl of heavy transport going past. By midnight there were Very lights and parachute flares on all sides of us and it looked to me as though we were pretty well surrounded. However, the loaded lorries got away all right and I felt better after that. My lorry carried mines, so I didn't have to go.
‘Not long before daylight a small group of transport, part of the great mass that was still moving past, got off its course or mistook us for Jerries. Anyway, it came in across the small airfield—there was one just in front of us—and when it reached the middle it was given the works. Machine-gunners opened up at point-blank range and an anti-tank gun joined the fray. This lasted about ten hectic minutes. Tommy voices could be heard calling out: they said they were British prisoners. But Germans voices could be heard too, so the officer in charge of us, suspecting a trap, refused to allow them to come in and ordered us to fire on the slightest movement. The cries from the wounded were terrible.page 144
‘When dawn came we saw a grisly sight. About thirty German and Italian soldiers were lying out there wounded and three were dead. I didn't see any wounded Tommies, but I feel certain there must have been some as about sixty prisoners had been set free and in the trays of two of the six lorries captured there were large pools of blood. There was an ambulance—occupied by a British airman and a German—that did not seem to have been hit, and there was a German staff car, the driver of which was dead.
‘The day opened quietly and I was just beginning to think things were rather fun when—at about nine in the morning—a Jerry convoy came towards us, very uncertain about who we were. It came on about ten yards at a time, taking all precautions. Its inquisitiveness was soon satisfied. Our 25-pounders opened up and the way those Jerries turned and took to their scrapers reminded me of my own experiences. It was all right to see the old Jerry getting a bit of his own back.
‘The next target to show itself was a crawler and a second shot from a 25-pounder sent it to its doom. The two occupants tried to escape but Kiwi machine-gunners changed their minds for them. One of them came in with his hands up. The other had no hands; he was badly burnt as well, and he died.
‘Intermittent firing by our guns had been going on since early morning and it was now early afternoon. Stuff was still going past out in the desert….’
Throughout the afternoon a mass of tanks and transport moved towards Bardia, passing between Sidi Azeiz and the 22nd Battalion's position at Bir ez Zemla where the ammunition point had been established. C Section's lorries were dispersed against the steep side of a wadi, at the mouth of which two sub-sections commanded by Corporal Alec Mills17 had taken up defensive positions.
There was nothing to do except watch and wait, so Clarry Monahan18 (‘The Prune’) beguiled the time by setting fire to a heap of German flares. They burnt with a beautiful blue light and everyone was extremely gratified. But not for long. Three German tanks—two Mark IVs and one Mark III—came into the wadi firing green and white recognition signals. They passed within 200 yards page 145 of Alec Mills's detachment and then stopped dead, having spotted an anti-tank gun on the right flank. The tank nearest to it opened fire and it replied in the same instant. Two more guns joined in at long range and the tanks turned and made off, one of them limping a little. Our drivers mopped their brows and implored Clarry not to do any more signalling. Then they put the billy on, for it was afternoon-tea time. In Sidi Azeiz, too, our drivers were boiling up.
For ‘Midge’ and his friends, passing at that moment through the gap between the two positions, there was no afternoon tea. In other circumstances Clarry could have served them from the ammunition point or George Laverick could have driven over from Sidi Azeiz with what was left in the billy, and the brew, though it might have been black and not very hot, would have at least been drinkable, for the gap was only six or seven miles wide. Germans, of course, never boil up, and in any case the column was in a hurry to reach Bardia, the perimeter of which was still five miles away.
‘This was our third day with the Jerries,’ said ‘Midge’. ‘At dawn that morning we were woken by the hell of a racket and by shouts for the driver of our lorry, Stan Wrack,19 who was in the back with us. He was doing all the driving with a big Jerry sitting beside him. Our move the previous night had landed us next door to a mob of British armour and with first light it had spotted us and opened fire. The Jerries set off at full speed, armour-piercing shells landing among the vehicles. We could see them darting towards us, glowing red-hot in the half-light. When they hit the ground they rebounded with a flash of sparks. The British followed us for several miles, firing all the time, and as far as we could judge the Jerries lost about twenty vehicles.
‘Next we were machine-gunned by fighter aircraft from a low level. At the time we were in semi-darkness, the guard having tied down the canopy at the back of the lorry. We could hear the planes swooping down on us and the rattle of their machine guns, and we cowered in the tray with our tin hats crammed over our ears. It sounded as though the planes were right on top of us and it was the hell of a feeling sitting there and not knowing what was page 146 going on outside. The raid lasted about five minutes but it seemed like five hours.
‘At every halt Stan would sing out the news and the boys found this a great comfort. Stan's was a difficult job and everyone remarked that he was the right man for it. He kept cool and nursed us along over the bumps.
‘During the day we were transferred to an open Jerry three-tonner, Stan coming with us. We were now near the front of the convoy.
‘We had only the vaguest idea of our position but we guessed we had been making a good deal of easting since our capture and were now close to the frontier. Actually we were not far from Bardia, which we thought was in British hands. Our impression that we were with some sort of a raiding column was confirmed during the afternoon. A party of Tommy linesmen were repairing a telephone line on our right flank and they hardly bothered to look up when the huge formation rumbled past. Two of them were still working away at the top of a telephone pole when an armoured car pulled up to collect them.
‘When we were a few miles from Bardia, which we could see in the distance, the German armour suddenly veered to the right, the thin-skinned vehicles carrying on towards the fortress.’
It was afternoon-tea time and when the bombing was over B Section boiled up, but A Section, which had not sustained casualties, carried on towards Sidi Azeiz where there was supposed to be a field supply depot.
At two in the afternoon nineteen empty A Section lorries followed by twenty-two empty B Section lorries (plus a detachment from the 65th RASC Company) had left the unit lines at Bir el Halezin, joining Trigh Capuzzo and heading east. According to Divisional Headquarters the road to Sidi Azeiz was clear.
Shortly before three, by which time A Section was ten miles from Sidi Azeiz, Captain Gibson halted his vehicles. Behind them, a few miles down the track, a heavy air raid was in progress. ‘Hell!’ said the drivers. ‘That's B Section getting it.’ They could hear machine-gun fire and see the black smoke from the bombs.
Then the raiders headed towards A Section. The drivers started page 147 to scatter but someone sang out: ‘It's all right, you jokers. They're ours.’ And they were. Blenheim bombers with an escort of fighters flew over and dropped a white flare. Then bursts of bullets swept the dispersal lines. Our drivers gaped at the red, white, and blue circles, and many of them were too dumbfounded even to take cover. ‘But the bastards are ours,’ they cried. ‘You can see the bastards are ours.’
There were two Very light pistols in A Section's ack-ack lorry but Jim Stanley had no idea what to do with them.
The firing stopped as suddenly as it had started and the aircraft flew away. Possibly only a warning had been intended. At all events, though the area had been raked with fire, no damage had been done. This was not the case with Captain Ward's B Section.
‘We were driving along Trigh Capuzzo in column of route,’ said ‘Skin’ Wilson,20 ‘when we saw the dust in front of us being kicked up by bullets. At first we thought we were being fired on by enemy armour but when anti-personnel bombs began to fall we realised that we were being done over from the air. Shrapnel and machine-gun bullets tore the canopies of the lorries and Tom Barlow21—the “Tree Man” —was wounded in the arm and chest.
‘Our convoy then moved off the Trigh and got into desert formation but we were still pretty close together. Apparently we had been attacked by Blenheims with heavy fighter escort and no one could get the guts of it at all. However, hardly any damage had been done—a punctured tire for the “Tree Man” was about as far as it went.’
While the lorries were being checked a single British fighter-bomber flew over and dropped two flares. This was done to reassure them, the drivers decided, so no one was much concerned when a large Royal Army Service Corps convoy came driving through the lines of transport, making a splendid target, or when British aircraft were sighted a second time. Doubtless the mistake had been discovered and the pilots were returning to see what damage had been done. Our drivers shook their fists, but only when the planes banked to bring the sun behind them did they think of taking cover.page 148
‘I stood watching the planes,’ said ‘Skin’, ‘and it was not until I saw the black blobs falling that I realised we were being bombed again. Some of us dived under lorries. Others ran for it. I got about fifty yards from my lorry and flopped down in the sand. I think there were about eighteen planes, bombers and fighters, the same ones that had attacked us before. They dropped stick after stick of little anti-personnel bombs and I didn't think I was going to come out alive.’
‘After that,’ said ‘Skin’, ‘we were told to disperse the transport properly. I could see that my lorry had been knocked about a good deal—she had three flat tires for one thing—but I got into the cab to have a go at starting her. As I did so I called out to “Yorkie”—Albert Storey—who was my cobber on the lorry. A second later I saw him struggling to his feet right at my elbow. He looked pretty bad and I had just time to hop out of the cab and grab hold of him before he slipped to the ground. He had been hit in the back by a piece of shrapnel that had passed right through the engine. Everyone thought the world of “Yorkie”. He was a fine musician, and back in Petone, where he came from, he was assistant band master. His instrument was the cornet. Ray Crapp26 bandaged him up pretty smartly but he hadn't a show.’
Six lorries belonging to the Royal Army Service Corps detachment, which had sustained one casualty, were wrecks, and four of B Section's were badly damaged. The convoy hardest hit was the one that had cut in just before the attack started. A doctor who was travelling with it attended to the wounded but there was no vehicle suitable for evacuating them to a dressing station. While waiting for one to come along, our drivers put the billy on and page 149 then got out wheel-braces and jacks. There were many flat tires.
A Section, meanwhile, was nearing Sidi Azeiz. By now it had acquired 150 prisoners—a present from a passing artillery convoy. Three German officers were travelling in state in Jim Stanley's ack-ack lorry. The first thing they had asked for was water and then they had wanted something to eat. Two of them were polite and grateful but the third was a deplorable-looking person with small snake's eyes, thin lips, criminal forehead, and an expression in which cunning, meanness, and brutality were blended. He sat in glowering silence until Jim provoked him by saying: ‘Well, the war's over for you, boy. Good thing, eh?’ ‘For the soldier,’ he replied, ‘it is better to fight.’ The remark was correct enough but the tone in which it was uttered was so extraordinarily malignant that Jim picked up his Tommy gun and thoughtfully released the safety catch.
‘It is not very nice, this desert warfare,’ said one of the other officers in a gentlemanly sort of way, evidently wishing to dispel the unpleasant impression made by his companion. ‘Myself, I do not find it very nice. These biscuits, they are very nice.’ (They weren't: they were horrible.) ‘You have plenty?’
He was a tall, fine-looking man with a simple face and very honest blue eyes. He was the sort of man you would be glad to get into conversation with on a railway journey. It was impossible to doubt his courage and integrity and difficult to doubt that he was inherently decent: it seemed unbelievable that a man of his stamp could have anything but contempt for the Nazi bosses. (This was in the days when people still spoke wistfully of ‘honourable elements in the German officer class’.) He said he came from Bavaria. His rat-faced companion came from Munich, which seemed a most appropriate place for him to come from. One could imagine his having a high old time in the basements of the Brown House.
The remaining member of the trio was a small, plump man with a cherubic face, steel spectacles, and a really charming smile. He spoke hardly at all, contenting himself with munching biscuits, smiling his disarming smile, and bouncing up and down in the uncomfortable little seat provided by the Motley mounting. He looked like a village schoolmaster—you thought of woollen mufflers and children singing ‘Silent Night’—or like one of those lovable, absent-minded German professors whom most of us had read about page 150 but none had actually seen because for ten years or more all of them had been busy, in a lovable and absent-minded way, in places like Peenemünde. Probably he was a passionate believer in the Hitler Youth, just as his gentlemanly colleague was probably an admirer of Goering's. Looking at him, however, you saw only the rosy-cheeked children, heard only the rejoicing fiddles and the crunch of snow. It was very puzzling.
Conversation with the pleasant Bavarian and the task of keeping a sharp eye on the disgusting little creature from Munich kept the ack-ack crew fully occupied until the convoy halted outside Sidi Azeiz. Twilight had fallen and the outlines of gun positions and barbed-wire entanglements were barely visible at a distance of 200 yards. Close to where Trigh Capuzzo touched the perimeter a gun and a gun-tower were burning fitfully, putting out petals of scarlet flame which bloomed and faded fantastically in the quiet dusk. No sound came from the garrison.
After halting the convoy Captain Gibson drove forward alone, tooting his horn. He stopped for a moment at the guarded entrance, then signalled the lorries forward. They went rumbling into Sidi Azeiz.
‘You're lucky, boy,’ a New Zealand anti-tank gunner said to Jim Stanley. ‘We were watching you all the way. We were pretty near certain you were Germans and if that officer of yours hadn't come forward the way he did you'd have stopped the lot.’ He pointed to where the gun and tower were glowing softly in the twilight, adding: ‘That's our work.’
There was no supply depot in Sidi Azeiz, so the lorries were unable to load. The prisoners were placed under guard and given some packets of biscuits and what water could be spared, which was very little. Our drivers drew rations from the cooks’ lorry—tinned sausages and tinned potatoes—and lit their primuses. Soon it was dark, and later the moon rose and went shining on through the long, cold hours.
It shone on Company headquarters, Workshops, and the handful of load-carriers at Bir el Halezin. It shone on the small, dirty compound in Bardia where ‘Midge’ and his friends, cold and supperless, were experiencing their first night as prisoners of war. page 151 It shone between half past nine and midnight on Captain Butt and his drivers as they crept across the seven miles of desert dividing Sidi Azeiz from El Charruba escarpment, where they had spent the day with the 22nd Battalion. It showed them a dizzy pattern of Allied and enemy wheel tracks, and although they had with them the rest of the Composite NZASC Company and an escort of armoured cars they could hardly have felt more vulnerable if the convoy had been a small, lost, goods train in a siding controlled by a mad signalman. Anguished, they waited for the shining, snorting expresses to come whistling down on them.
It shone on Captain Ward's lorries, which, about midnight, were forming a laager somewhere east of Bir el Halezin. The wounded drivers, after waiting nearly five hours, had been taken in a passing British ambulance to 13th Corps' main dressing station. After that the convoy had headed for home, Captain Ward's information being that it was useless to try to reach Sidi Azeiz. It shone on Ed Duda, where, about an hour later, men from the 19th Battalion shook hands with men from the Tobruk garrison, and on Belhamed, which the 4th Brigade had captured the night before, and on Sidi Rezegh where the 6th Brigade was fighting.
It shone on the B Echelon of the British armoured brigade, one of whose six laagers sheltered the three lorries in which Ernie Symons and his nine C Section drivers were sleeping. No dreams tonight of Nazis and Westphalian hams. They had spent a pleasantly quiet afternoon tinkering with a German motor-cycle that Ernie and Alf Hallmond had brought back to camp after going out on patrol with the scout cars, and later they had taken their turn at the listening posts. Now they were sound asleep.
The aircraft came over about half past one in the morning. They circled in the moonlight and dropped several bombs, all of which fell on the same laager—the one in which the C Section lorries were parked. Two were set on fire and the third was riddled with shrapnel. Tom Laverick was wounded in the back, Bob Troughear27 in the face and leg, Alf Hallmond in the leg, and Sid Pausina28 in page 152 the thigh. The Tommies had suffered heavily as well and several of their vehicles were blazing.
Tom Laverick was stunned by blast and when he came to he was surrounded by flames.
‘I opened my eyes,’ he said, ‘and the canopy was blazing and fire was darting all over the back of the lorry. At first I couldn't make out what had happened or where I was. A few seconds must have passed before I pulled myself together but once I did start to move I was over that tailboard like lightning. I didn't realise I had been hit until I was outside.
‘At the back of the lorry there was a Tommy with his head blown off. Another Tommy had lost his leg and was screaming out and calling for his sergeant. I went over to see if I could help but there wasn't a thing I could do for him. A plane was still hovering over the burning lorries and machine-gunning.’
The driver of the third lorry, meanwhile, had climbed into his riddled cab and pressed the starter, expecting no result. To his astonishment the engine fired at once. The others scrambled aboard, the fit helping the wounded, and the lorry headed for the open desert, which seemed safety itself in comparison with that fiery neighbourhood. It was a wise move, for presently the aircraft returned, bombing and strafing.
Banners of flame streamed skywards for a long while, and afterwards, in half a dozen places, hot metal glowed cherry red.
The moon had still an hour or two left. It shone down on Sidi Azeiz, where the slit-trenches were like stencilled Ls, the gunpits like blobs of ink, and the barbed wire like faint scribbling—a dirty, blotted page. The lorries were huddled together for protection and clumps of them formed dark patches in the desert. There was resentment in the humped outlines of their canopies, in the blank stare of their stubby radiators and blind headlamps. Under the cold craziness of the moon they seemed to be on the point of trumpeting shrilly and stampeding across the desert, driven mad by all the hounding and harrying they had put up with during the past forty-eight hours.
Most of A Section's lorries were grouped roughly around an open space, which appeared at first glance to be a dumping ground for old clothes and abandoned equipment; then the moonlight, page 153 striking a livid face or glinting on an outflung hand, showed that it was covered with human beings, all tangled together in an effort to keep warm. Even their uneasy stirrings, the risings and subsidings in the amorphous mass, were suggestive more of the burrowing of rats among rubbish than of the movements of living people. These, though, were German prisoners—captured Herrenvolk—and the poor devils were as cold as any Pole and as hungry as any Greek. Yesterday they had ranked with the world's finest soldiers: tonight they were down and out—finished. The presence of two Bren guns crouched over slim bipods—bird dogs inspecting the day's bag—seemed almost superfluous.
The prisoners squirmed and muttered and some of them moaned a little. Nothing else moved. They might have been dying men on a dead planet. Everything looked cold and dead, and low in the heavens, colder and more dead than anything on earth, washing the sands with silver, emphasizing each mean and ugly detail—the discarded tins, the rusty wire, the poor disgusting prisoners—turning the sentries into silver statues and silvering the guns and lorries, evil and indifferent, was the moon.
The drivers lay for a minute longer—two minutes longer—in the lovely blankets, but the voices came back: ‘Right-oh, you jokers. Pack up. Pack up. Moving in ten minutes.’
It was a little before two in the morning and Captain Roberts had been ordered to replenish the Composite NZASC Company at the 50th Field Supply Depot near El Beida. A Section was to go with him, and all empty C Section lorries. The loaded ones were to remain in Sidi Azeiz under Second-Lieutenant W. S. Duke.29 Counting six from the former 14th Light Anti-Aircraft Section, there were twenty of these. The rest packed up at once.
The frozen prisoners were herded aboard—with pathetic honesty they scuttled round trying to return old radiator muffs and bits of canvas they had borrowed—and within ten minutes the convoy was under way, travelling south-west. Ahead and on both flanks German flares bobbed up and down in a manner indescribably page 154 knowing and intimidating, making the outing hardly less unpleasant than a swim in a shark-infested lagoon.
The drivers who had been left behind were inclined to congratulate themselves—the No. 1 drivers anyway: the spare drivers were less certain. They had been issued with hand grenades and extra rifle ammunition and told they were infantry. They shivered in their slit-trenches, longing for dawn.
‘The night was quiet,’ said George Laverick, ‘but Jerry put up a continual string of flares, showing that he had us taped pretty near all round. My heart was right down in my scrapers.’
Just before dawn two Hurricanes took off from the airfield. Soon it was light.
‘With great sighs of relief,’ said George, ‘my cobbers and I made our way back to the lorries and put the billy on. When we were all set for the first mouthful—the milk was in the billy and some of the boys were getting their cups and others were fossicking around for eats—the siren sounded. The rising sun was just level with the horizon, and over a low ridge, about a thousand yards away, came German tanks, lorried infantry, and motor-cyclists, shooting and shelling.’
1 123 ORs commanded by Capt G. Fordyce.
6 Capt D. C. Ward; motor driver; born NZ, 24 Apr 1905.
9 Dvr A. B. Meiklejohn; orchardist; born NZ, 29 Oct 1918; wounded 24 Nov 1941; killed in action, 28 Nov 1941.
10 Dvr. O. J. Kennedy; builder's labourer; Tapanui, Otago; born Tapanui, 24 Aug 1911.
12 Dvr C. Cameron; butcher; born NZ, 23 Jul 1919; wounded 25 Nov 1941; killed in action (drowned) 5 Dec 1941.