On the 19th December, 1940, we left by train for Mersa Matru, stopped the first night at Sidi Haneish then moved on to Mersa Matru arriving on the 21st. This was the Western limit of the railway line. We spent Christmas Day there without any celebrations apart from attending a Christmas Service with Padre Dakers. A certain captain who was second in command to Captain Green became ill with diarrhoea on the first day out from Ikingi Marouk. Our Lieutenant Macfarlane stepped up to become 2nd In Command. We received Lt. Davis as his replacement as Platoon Commander.
Before the war Mersa had been a holiday resort for the rich and famous. There were still some fine quality buildings with a large white hotel which must have been really grand in its glory days. It was claimed that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor spent part of their honeymoon there. Too bad we had to camp under the stars when such high class accommodation was nearby. From that time onward sleeping out without shelter became the norm. Over a period of about three years Mersa Matru was occupied three times by German and Italian forces and three times by Allied forces. I wonder what it looked like by the end of hostilities.
Training was now over, anything we did from now on would be the real thing and against a real enemy who was at that time some miles to the west steadily withdrawing towards Bardia, being pushed all the time by our armoured forces. Over the previous few weeks we had often seen smashed up trucks, tanks and armoured cars go past on trains and wondered what it would be like to face that sort of danger and how we would react when we did. We were soon to find out.
From Mersa Matru we moved by truck, stopping overnight at Sidi Barrani and Bug Bug. At Bug Bug we received a sharp reminder to be always alert when it was discovered that the retreating enemy had sown the area with booby traps. These consisted of what appeared to be a fountain pen that exploded when one unscrewed the top. They contained enough explosive to blow the fingers off the unwary. The road along this strip was rougher than the desert and our trucks ran alongside the road rather than on it kicking up enormous clouds of dust. To avoid this dust, following trucks drove to one side so that the column was spread out in Vee formation like a flock of geese. The reason for the road being so rough was because it had originally had a fine sealed surface but had been shelled and bombed by both sides until it consisted of short smooth stretches interspersed with gaping craters.
Early in the afternoon we reached Salum, which was situated on the border of Egypt and Libya. We dispersed away from the road to await the air-raid. This always occurred midafternoon in the hope of catching our traffic climbing up the 600 feet high Hell Fire Pass, this being the only route to the top of the escarpment. Fort Capuzzo was situated a few miles inland from the top of the pass, from there they used to shell ,the road if they saw any movement. Sure enough at about 1500 hours (3 pm) over came a large flight of Italian bombers and fighters, flying high, and dropping a lot of bombs around the empty Pass and among the several British warships in Salum Harbour but not scoring any hits. As they departed we saw they were hastened on their way by half a dozen of our fighters which had been waiting for them. These pursued the enemy out of sight as they fled west. We heard later that our planes shot down three without loss to themselves.
While we waited for the bombers to appear we had grandstand seats to the show put on by the Navy as it shelled Bardia. The principal bombarder was a strange vessel known as a Monitor aptly named "The Terror". It was a low, almost flat craft with one turret holding two large guns, each of 15 inches (40cm) diameter. It was meant not for fighting but for destroying coastal defence fortifications. Later when we reached Fort Capuzzo we saw some of its work. In the courtyard there was an unexploded shell and it was huge. Fifteen inches in diameter, over 5 feet long and weighing over a ton. In spite of the rocky ground there were shell holes about eight feet deep and 20 feet across. No wonder the defenders left in a hurry.
Fort Capuzzo was a not very large stone building a couple of storeys high with a stone wall surrounding it. At the front was a paved courtyard where the troops were, no doubt, paraded for ceremonial purposes before some senior officer on the second floor balcony. The entrance to the courtyard was through an impressive gateway flanked by two large stone pillars that were carved to represent a bundle of rods which included an axe with the blade projecting. This was known as Fascis and was a symbol of authority of ancient Roman Magistrates. Each post was capped by an eagle, another ancient Roman symbol which was carried by Roman Legions in their extensive travels. Mussolini loved to associate himself, in theory at least, with heroes of Italy's glorious past. He may even have survived the war had he not chosen to throw in his lot with Hitler. Once Germany started to lose he was doomed. He dragged his country into a war that they certainly didn't want. His dreams of conquest were quickly shattered.
We left the trucks at the Fort. After making certain that all the enemy really had fled we moved on towards Bardia and halted for the night just out of artillery range. Our arrival must have been observed by the enemy as a barrage of shells greeted us, bursting just in front of where we halted. Most impressive but, as I have said, we were out of range and were not affected. That was our introduction to shell fire. We were to get a lot more experience as time went by and, of course, much closer experience.
We woke at dawn to a heavy dust storm that cut visibility to only a few yards. The "Powers That Be" seized the heavensent opportunity. We moved under cover of the dust to our pre-determined position outside Bardia about 10 miles from the town and west of the main Bardia-Mersa Matru road. It was certainly a lot easier to make the move in daylight. We could quite easily see the enemy fortifications when the dust cloud cleared as they were less than two miles away. We could see a couple of what appeared to be, light poles about twenty feet high. Through binoculars we discerned that there were spikes to act as a ladder leading to the top, to where there was a cage affair with a seat. This item was for their artillery observers to use when directing fire onto us. We later found them to have a bombproof shelter at the base of each post. This would have been for the observers to shelter in when our artillery returned their fire.
We were now within range of their artillery, a fact soon shown once the dust cleared and we could be seen as we tried to dig in. We were pleased to find that someone had already started to dig some trenches but they were very shallow. When we tried to make them deeper we understood. The whole area was more rock than soil once you broke the surface. We never did dig those slit trenches any more than a couple of feet deep although we received a lot of encouragement to go deeper with shells regularly landing too close for comfort. A talk with the Australian Artillery Unit deployed behind us, shed some light on the situation. They had occupied our positions for a short time and had been forced to move when the enemy artillery found their position and range. They had moved straight back so that the enemy did not notice that they had moved. Their artillery continued to waste ammunition firing on the vacant site. Vacant, that is until we moved in.
So we moved to a safer spot a short distance further west, safer but extremely noisy. And I mean really noisy as we were now in front of an English 6 inch Artillery Battery which fired off a few salvoes each morning as soon as it was light plus at any time and without warning during the day. A 6 inch (150mm) gun has a barrel 6 inches across, not long. It can hurl a projectile weighing 100 pounds for a distance of 15 miles (25km). Our position there was to protect them from any Italian patrols that may be sent out to destroy them. In army parlance, we were dug in on "dead ground". The ground between us and the enemy was a few feet higher than where we were. This made it almost impossible for the enemy artillery observers to judge exactly where their shots were falling in relation to us. Our sections and platoons were spaced well apart to lessen the chance of casualties.
When they did get the range right, the shells used to arrive with a noise like the arrival of a train accompanied by loud explosions. They were usually fired in salvos of six shots at the time and all would arrive in the same second. It was strange to hear the shells land and, in the half of a second following, the sound of their flight going in the opposite direction. The projectiles travelled faster than the sound. The reason that we heard the guns a couple of seconds prior to the arrival of the shells was because the sound travelled in a straight line while the shell went a few miles up before descending on us. On occasions when they landed short of us we would see the dust and smoke fly up and then the sound of explosions and the rest would arrive. Shells passing overhead made a harsh whistling sound. It was said that if you could hear the shell in flight it had already missed you. It was the one that you didn't hear that got you. That would be the truth.
While we were waiting outside Bardia we were joined by a Machine Gun Unit equipped with Vickers machine guns. For those not too familiar with weapons, it is the one which feeds its ammunition into the gun on a long belt and is capable of extended bursts of fire and, in use, is mounted on a tripod. It is water cooled. The unit was a company of a famous British regiment, the Northumberland Fusiliers, a unit with history going back a couple of hundred years. They were all professional soldiers and made us realise that by comparison we were raw recruits.
Vickers machine gun
Their Sergeant, Sammy Hurst had been in the army over twenty years, most of it overseas whilst the Corporal had almost twenty years service. The men had all recently completed a full term of duty in India and were about to embark for home when war was declared. Instead of home they went to Abyssinia to fight the Italians. They were not particularly happy at the delay in reaching home. From Abyssinia they moved to support us in the desert. They were fine soldiers and moved with us into Bardia but as Vickers guns are primarily a defensive weapon they did not get a lot of opportunities to take part in the actual fighting.
As the enemy artillery was continually trying to range onto us we had to keep movement above ground to a minimum during daylight. We still received a fair few shells but so long as they could not get proof of where their shots were falling in relation to our positions, they could only probe the area. Most shells landed where there were no troops. One shell, either by luck or good judgement, landed on our Company Quarter-master's store. The sergeant was half buried under soil, rocks and groceries. His worst injury was where a can of evaporated milk, descending from where it had been blown into the air, landed on his forehead. He said later that he watched fascinated as the tin fell but was unable to move out of the way because of all the stuff on top of him. A few days in hospital, then he was back on the job. In spite of the daily and even hourly shelling we had remarkably few casualties. I can only remember a couple in our Company.
The area around Bardia was mostly flat with a slight rise and fall which, as we approached the enemy lines, became wide depressions. These further on became narrower and deeper leading eventually to becoming deep narrow wadis. These mostly converged at sea level to where the lower part of the town and port of Bardia lay. This area surrounding Bardia could not have been more different from what we Gippslanders were accustomed to seeing. We would have seen green fields with trees and scrub in the distance, with every shade of green. No matter where one went in Gippsland there was always a range of hills in sight. Here in the desert there was the monotonous sandy grey of the desert stretching in all directions to the horizon. No hills even to add some interest. With hills one can wonder what lies beyond. Here in the desert we knew, more of the same and beyond that, more again. The nearest thing to hills was a slight rise and fall of some twenty feet in the vicinity of the defences and beyond to where the wadis carved through to the coast. All in all a drab, monotonous place.
I will say one thing in favour of the desert. It was a great place to wage a war. No mud and no civilians to hurt. Out where we were it was mostly stony sand with small vegetation of a type of salt bush that struggled to survive reaching the height of a couple of feet at the most. A lot of the bushes were dead. When the officers were not about we would heat a little water with it. It burnt without smoke. Inside the defensive area of Bardia there was no vegetation at all having no doubt been destroyed by traffic over the years. The young Italian recruits must at times have been bored witless spending months and even years there.
We continued to get our mail through wherever we were although it was often delayed for a few days. The mail was normally delivered at night with our rations. Having to wait until daylight before we could read it was a real pain. I remember reading a letter from Shirley, crouched down in the slit trench with a blanket over my head and reading by the glow of a cigarette, reading it one letter at the time. The things one did.
On one night patrol, within about 40 yards of the enemy wire, we had to remove some booby traps that were placed out on our side of the anti-tank trap. We only supplied the escort patrol, the engineers did the actual removing. One night an engineer was injured when he accidentally exploded a booby trap. Amusingly, when it exploded all the enemy Anti Aircraft guns in the locality started firing into the air thinking that it was an air raid. They didn't think to fire at the site of the explosion where half a dozen of our boys were hugging the ground waiting to be shot to pieces. The Engineer was not very badly wounded by the explosion. These booby traps were about the size of a large can of fruit and were filled with shrapnel and explosive. When the trip wire to which they were attached was moved they would shoot about ten feet in the air before exploding. Nasty things.
Because the terrain around Bardia where we were dug in was so flat and featureless, to find the way at night without the aid of a compass one had to take special precautions. From the centre of each section area we had to lay lines of stones pointing in the direction of areas likely to be visited at night such as other sections and Platoon and Company Headquarters. These lines of course, were set out in daylight. There were rarely any clouds so the nights were not too dark even when the moon was not shining. After dark one chose the appropriate line of stones and walked the predetermined distance before calling softly for permission to advance if one had not already been challenged. Once the challenge came one advanced until told to stop and give the pass word. To try to vary the routine and either sneak up or blunder on could be very dangerous as sentries were always on the alert for enemy patrols. The return to ones own lines was the same procedure only in reverse. It was very easy to get lost under desert conditions, to walk in a circle instead of straight ahead. To overcome this problem one chose a suitable star and walked towards it.
Most movement within the area was done at night as the enemy monitored all our movements in daylight. People tending to move to and from one area would indicate a headquarters of some sort there, thus worthy of some extra attention from their artillery. Naturally this was the last thing we needed. A phenomenon that most soldiers had to be aware of was the tendency of stationary objects such as bushes or rocks to appear to move if you stared at them for long enough at night. After peering into the dark for an hour or two it was hard to convince one's self that some object out in front was stationary, even when one knew that it must be. The trick was to gaze at an object nearby and observe the mobile thing out of the corner of your eye. Invariably, if it really was still it stayed that way.
So far as I know, the enemy only once sent a fighting patrol in our direction, when they sent a fairly strong force presumably to destroy the artillery battery behind us. They were too noisy and walked into a section to my right. A few shots were fired. They disappeared into the night. It was too dark to see if any casualties resulted on their side, we had none. That patrol was really a good thing as it served to make us much more alert and less complacent. We were still at that stage very inexperienced. But we were learning.
On the other hand we sent patrols out almost every night to get information on enemy behaviour and defences as well as alertness. Although the enemy sentries were very nervous and fired wildly if they heard anything, our patrols were able to measure the anti-tank trenches which were only about 25 yards from enemy posts. They were able to find the places where the ditch was shallowest and where the soil was softest for digging down to let the tanks cross when the attack began. The speed with which the tanks could be enabled to cross was vital to the success of the whole operation. The anti-tank ditch, about five feet deep and ten feet wide, ran for most of the thirty miles of defences. Imagine digging that in stony ground. Only where the terrain was too rough for tanks to operate was the ditch omitted, a condition that existed at both ends of the defences where there were very steep wadis.
Australians always favoured small patrols that could slip into enemy positions, place explosives with timing devices, then leave without the enemy knowing they had been there until the explosives went off. Our patrols were never able to actually penetrate their defences at Bardia as there was too much barbed wire to get through. I went on one patrol which was to dig a trench on the rising ground overlooking where the heaviest action was expected to take place where the first break-through was planned. It was for shelter for our Commanding General to enable him to have first-hand knowledge of the progress of the battle. I am sure that what he saw would have pleased him.
I had a close call during one period of enemy shelling. They had been firing short of our positions and to one side when we picked the sound which indicated that the incoming shells were meant for us. We could always tell by the sound of the guns and had about two seconds to hit the deck before they arrived. I dived into my slit trench. The chap that I had been talking to could not reach it and fell alongside the mound of soil forming the parapet. One shell, a 75 mm, landed on the other side, missing the trench by about two feet, covering both of us under several inches of dirt and stones. Apart from making our ears ring we were unhurt.
The night before the attack started, I was informed that from the next morning I was to be runner for our Company Commander, Captain Green. This could be considered as an honour although I was disappointed at not being with my section mates during our first action. t was usual for the officer's batman to act as runner but the man in this case was not a very strong character. I could only agree, he was not a man to be relied on in an emergency and nobody knew what emergencies may arrive next day. Runners are often faced with emergencies. Capt. Green had shown in the past his leaning towards country men for their initiative and field craft.
The night before the attack we didn't get much sleep as we were all feeling too keyed-up with anticipation for the morrow. There was everything to be checked for readiness and last minute things to do. Rifles to clean once more and extra ammunition to distribute. Final checks on rations carried and once more running over Battle Orders. As always when we moved each man carried two spare loaded Bren magazines. Now we each carried an aditional one hundred rounds of ammo in a bandolier slung around one shoulder. Each man was given two hand grenades and had to arm them by inserting the detonators inside the screw-in base plate. I was not issued with grenades as my role would not call for fighting under normal circumstances.