Once Bardia was under control we moved west to our next task, the capture of Tobruk, supposedly a tougher nut to crack than Bardia. Once more we took up positions within artillery range and dug in. Things were much the same as Bardia with almost the same flat featureless rocky desert. However, there was one difference. Scattered around for miles were oddly shaped rock and concrete structures up to ten feet tall. It was thought that these were for the enemy artillery to use for ranging onto targets. Our Engineers tried to destroy some but they were so tough that we had to learn to live with them. We also had to keep an ear tuned to their artillery and dive for cover fast when we heard shells aimed in our direction. We had that couple of seconds warning. I think that the enemy artillery at Tobruk was more accurate and aggressive than at Bardia.
Again our patrols were out every night but this time the enemy stayed safely within their defences. Knowing that we were coming the enemy had scattered a few anti-tank mines around. One day an English type one-ton truck was approaching when it ran over a mine. There was a loud explosion, a cloud of dirt and dust flew about fifty feet in the air. What we saw that looked amusing was the front mudguard of the truck riding on top of the cloud. The two men in the cabin were not harmed much as they had taken the precaution of lining the floor with half filled sand bags.
On the 24th of January 1941, after a tot of rum each, the attack on Tobruk was launched with our tactics much the same as those successfully used at Bardia. Because we knew what to expect we were not nearly so nervous before starting. We had less distance to cover this time because we attacked through the wire almost in front of where we had been dug in. There was an Aussie 25 pounder almost directly in line with where I had to walk. I deviated and walked around behind it. One of our men walked across the front of it as it fired. He was knocked off his feet by the blast. Later that day he collapsed and was removed to hospital, vomiting blood. As I went past, one of the gunners held out a shell to me and said "Kiss this one goodbye, Musso's boys will have it in a few seconds". I didn't accept his offer.
This time it took only 36 hours to over-run the defences. Our Company had a much easier time as we were allotted only 5 posts to capture before becoming reserve company. We captured post B1 to post B5 and then our task was to guard the flank of the unit ahead and take control of the hundreds of prisoners being captured. Instead of attacking the posts with platoons we attacked with the whole Company. The losses suffered by "B" Company at Birdia having so seriously reduced our numbers, especially of officers, was the reason that we were given an easier run as reserve Company at Tobruk.
As at Bardia we were all weighed down with ammunition, food, respirator, great coat and leather jacket, the latter being thought by the enemy to be bullet-proof. We each carried two hand grenades in our coat pockets. By the time we had walked a few miles and dived for cover and got up again a few times we were heartily sick of those grenades wearing holes on our thighs. As we passed one presumably empty post one chap decided to get rid of one grenade. He pulled the pin out and tossed the bomb into the end machine-gun emplacement.
There was the expected violent explosion then, to our amazement, from the other end of the post streamed a mass of Italian soldiers all trying to get up the steps first. And to our amusement, the first man out was one of our own men. He later told us that he had popped down to explore for souvenirs and was snooping into a cupboard thing when he heard a sound, looked around to see the passage behind him filled with enemy soldiers all with their hands up. He was momentarily stunned and, as he was trying to decide what to do, the grenade arrived filling the place with smoke. That helped him to decide. He raced for the nearest exit closely followed by his prisoners. We had a lot of laughs about that episode.
It seemed that the enemy troops in the post had observed the fall of their nearby posts which were protected by barbed wire and a ditch while they had neither. So they decided to just keep their heads down and let the war flow past. It may not have been very brave but it was very sensible. As prisoners were captured they were gathered in groups and taken under guard towards the town to a prison cage. This consisted of a large area surrounded by ringlock fencing complete with office buildings, which the "optimistic" Italians had been prepared to hold us had our attack failed.
When we moved in, one thing became apparent immediately, they had not provided sufficient drinking facilities for the numbers of prisoners we had taken. It was one enormous task to get water to all of them. The lucky ones were taken to the boats at once. The rest suffered somewhat from thirst for a while. There were only a couple of taps and about twenty thousand men. Water was set out on the ground in tubs but some tried to grab the lot and let the ones following go thirsty. Some had to be rescued from drowning. When the front members knelt to drink, the ones behind pressed them head first under the water.
Stan Phillips and I took 300 in one group with Stan in front and myself bringing up the rear. The fighting was still proceeding around us at the time and sounded very heavy a mile or two in front of where we were heading. We were following a minor road. Because I had the rough map, I could see that Stan had taken the wrong turn in one place. We looked like joining the fighting. I had to hurry up to the front to set him straight. The obedient prisoners kept up, none making any effort to go astray.
As we went, beside the track we passed a pair of brand new Australian Comfort Fund sandshoes. One young prisoner pointed to the shoes then to his own boots which had the soles falling off. I nodded and he hopped along trying to change footwear and keep up. I pointed to the ground and motioned for him to sit. He did this and, by the time he had finished the change, he was left well behind but he ran all the way until he caught up and as he went past said, "Gracia." The sand shoes must have come from one of a couple of our trucks which, before the attack, had become lost in the dark and blundered into enemy lines. As at Bardia, these Italian troops were very shabbily dressed, in particular their boots were a disgrace. It would not have looked so bad, had their officers not been dressed like opera stars. No wonder those men showed little stomach for fighting once we came to close quarters. The majority of the prisoners taken in both battles were very young, in the region of twenty years old I thought at the time, and of course conscripts. By my own observations I felt that the really young need strong leadership and example to hold up under fire. Those poor lads did not get much of that.
Nightfall found us across the Tobruk to Bardia road and responsible for the taking of the last two posts in the east end of the line of posts. They were situated to cover the approach along the road and down a deep wadi that formed the main barrier on that side. As we formed up and started to advance on the enemy from what was really their rear, they decided to give up and raised their white flags. As we were receiving some artillery fire, some of us took shelter in the post. The rest sheltered in a large cave in the side of the wadi. In the morning we moved towards the coast and gathered a lot more prisoners. These were mostly base troops, not fighting men so put up very little resistance. We gathered several hundreds without firing a shot.
That last post in the line in which some of us sheltered for the night was a work of art. As it was very impressive I shall try to describe some of its features. Just as well we approached from the rear. It was sited right on the edge of a very deep, steepsided wadi which formed the eastern boundary of the Bardia defences. On the top was the usual machine gun post and bomb proof shelter. Inside it was amazing . Steps led down through a series of three concrete rooms carved out of the rock, going down in all about forty feet. In each room there was a small opening which looked down the wadi and along the barbed wire entanglements which lined the bottom of the wadi. A machine gun pointed out from each opening. Inside was all solid rock and concrete. From the outside it appeared to be all natural rock with the small openings being practically invisible from a distance. To advance against such defences from the front would have been suicidal. There, as in many other places the Italians proved that they were artists in the use of stone and concrete.
The most excitement I had was when a couple of us relieved a beautifully dressed Italian Officer of his gold epaulettes. Our Company Commander "Wadi Mac" had expressed the desire to have them as a souvenir of the campaign. Anything he wanted we were determined that he should have but this "Peacock" had other ideas and tried to resist, without any luck I might add. A bayonet held to the throat is a powerful argument. Later we were surprised to be confronted by this fellow in the company of a pair of Army Provost Officers who demanded his property back. Fortunately he was unable to identify the scoundrels who did it. They even had our haversacks searched. Just as well they didn't search Wadi Mac for he had the missing epaulettes in his pocket. He expressed righteous indignation at this affront to the honesty of his men. Under the terms of the Geneva Convention we were in the wrong in our actions. But it was hard to resist a wonderful souvenir.
There were a few civilians at both Bardia and Tobruk but of course, only the troops who actually penetrated into the town made contact with them. The first Allied troops to get that far were naturally the tanks. I think I remember hearing that the civilians were handed to the Red Cross.
One thing we found interesting during the days of waiting outside Bardia and Tobruk, was watching the activities of an English Lysander Spotter aircraft which cruised around over the enemy lines at about 2,000 or 3,000 feet directing artillery fire onto targets within the enemy stronghold. Naturally every enemy Anti Aircraft Gun within range tried to shoot him down but he just kept droning along, never going in any direction for long enough to allow the gunners to predict where he would be by the time their projectiles arrived. The Italians always used tracers on their light Anti Aircraft ammunition. We could see the streams of shells going up. So far as we could tell each gun in the sector used a different coloured tracer which, at night, was quite pretty. It is worth noting that an Australian Artillery Major was in the plane doing the actual directing of our artillery fire.
During the attack on Tobruk, in spite of heavy shell fire, casualties in "B" Company were light, only Lieutenant Carstairs and six other ranks were wounded. Australian casualties altogether at Tobruk were 49 killed and 306 wounded. We captured over 30,000 prisoners. I think that they must have been unnerved by what had happened to Bardia. Possibly the reason for the reduction in casualties and the speed of our victory was because the leading units had the support of tanks which were so sadly lacking at Bardia. I often pondered at the indiscriminate way people were hit during fighting. There never seemed to be any pattern or reason. In dangerous situations some get hit, some don't. Some would walk through a hail of fire without getting a scratch. Others fell at the first few shots. Fate could be very unkind.
As soon as the fighting ended, we were moved west for a distance, camping astride the road. This was to stop any enemy troops who had eluded us at Tobruk from escaping and joining their forces still in positions further along the coast.
To gather firewood for the cook, half a dozen of us were one day sent down the escarpment to a patch of scrub and timber growing near sea-level. As we were to carry a load of wood back up the long slope only one man carried his rifle. Imagine our feelings when, half way down the escarpment, we saw a couple of people moving amongst the scrub below. We were like sitting ducks with about three hundred feet (95m) to go back and about the same to the bottom where they were. Not knowing whether or not they were armed, nor how many of them there were, we decided to bluff it out. Spreading out and calling loudly on them to surrender, we scrambled down at full speed. To our relief they came out with their hands up. There were only two of them and by their attitude they were pleased to see us. They had no food or water and it was a long way to where there would be any. I don't think they realised the risk involved when they set out with so little preparation. There was no chance to live off the land in that area. Only rocks and scrub all the way.
So we gathered the wood, also loaded our prisoners and climbed back to the top. The cook was pleased with all the nice wood and, finding that the prisoners were starving, gave them each a tin of bully beef and a packet of biscuits plus water. They cleaned up all the food and thanked the cook so warmly he was embarrassed. The escarpment which I mentioned runs along the border of Libya and Egypt, from many miles inland to Solum then along the coast to Benghazi, mostly, it is about 600 feet high and ranges from steep to vertical, the only breaks in it are at Bardia, Tobruk and Derna. It runs out near Barce.
We next moved on to Derna where our advance troops and tanks were involved in some very heavy fighting, this time, against enemy tanks as well. The fighting was most fierce at the aerodrome where our tanks were able to destroy several aircraft on the ground. The enemy were fighting in the open away from their concrete bunkers. It seemed that they had put some of the concrete into their spines as they not only fought well but west of Wadi Derna counter-attacked strongly causing one of our infantry units to battle hard to hold their position. When they were provided with a bombproof shelter they were reluctant to put their heads up out of it. Here in the open they performed differently. We tried to encircle them but they withdrew before we were able to close the trap on their western flank.
It was there that I observed et difference between the comradeship of our troops and lack of it in theirs. We were guarding a batch of prisoners overnight. It was terribly cold and we had rigged a tarpaulin as a windbreak while we stood guard with a Bren mounted on a tripod. We had also rigged a tarpaulin shelter for our captives. Five prisoners, who seemed to be close friends, asked to share our shelter from the wind as theirs was over-crowded and they couldn't all fit in. We allowed them to join us in our shelter. Towards morning, knowing that within the hour our water truck would call to refill our bottles, I gave my waterbottle to the five to share the contents. It was about half full and the first four downed the lot leaving the fifth man without a drop.
In the A.I.F. that bottle would not have been emptied until every one had received his fair share regardless of how little it contained or how many men there were. To us it was just mateship. You never let a comrade down and if he was elsewhere someone always made sure that his share of rations or whatever was saved pending his return. On a higher level it was called Esprit De Corps or Spirit of the Army. There was one prisoner amongst the five who entertained us all with his beautiful tenor voice. He sang some operatic numbers but when he sang what were apparently more modern sentimental songs the Italian troops really loved it. Poor devils, their lot was not a happy one and they lapped up the chance to get a little pleasure. Without wasting any time next morning we loaded our prisoners onto captured trucks for the long trip to Solum. it would not have been a very comfortable trip as so many were loaded onto each truck that there was standing room only.
We then boarded our own transports to move to south of Giovani Berta. From there we set out on foot to cut the road west of the town along which the retreating enemy troops would have to pasa. On the way we crossed very rough country that was in most places too rocky and steep for trucks or tanks to traverse. It was a bit rough for us too in places. On that day we covered 24 miles carrying full gear including those hated gas masks because information gleaned from prisoners indicated that the enemy werg planning to use gas. Prisoners who were prepared to walk away from their other possessions without argument, clung to their gas masks. There just had to be a message for us in that behaviour.
Stan Phillips and 1 toted an anti-tank rifle and a box of ammunition, each weighing about 25 pounds. The anti-tank rifle fired a 0.5 inch armour piercing bullet at a terrific velocity through a barrel about four feet long. The front was supported on a short leg which one dug into the ground. it had a kick like a horse. Just as well it had a deeply padded shoulder rest. It had a point blank range of six hundred yards. This meant that one did not need to adjust the sights for distances less than that. By comparison with our .303 rifles we had to start adjusting the sights once the range passed two hundred yards. The trouble with the box of ammo which we took turns at carrying was its shape. Being almost square it could not be balanced on your shoulder, in your arms or in in any other of a dozen positions we tried. Had it been long and narrow the weight would not have been so exhausting. We were beyond mere exhaustion when we reached our destination. Our walk was not made any easier when we were told that the anti-tank mines that the retreating enemy had planted all over the place, had their heavy springs removed. They now would explode if a man stepped on one. But our efforts were in vain, the enemy had bolted past only minutes before the first of our unit arrived at the road.
As there was no way of us knowing whether or not there were more enemy forces to come, we hastily deployed into defensive positions across the road and waited. This time it seemed that we would get a chance to use the anti-tank rifle that we had toted so far. Not having digging tools, we used the rocks, of which there were plenty around, to build what some called "sangars". These were small walls of rock to fire over which hopefully would stop a bullet. They also were a reasonable wind break to sleep behind. It was dark by the time we had finished preparing for the enemy who did not come. We kept alert all night just in case. Next morning some of us were enlarging our sangars when we discovered that under a lot of rocks there were large scorpions. We had not been able to see them in the dusk the day before but must have disturbed lots of them. I certainly would not have slept so snugly had I known with what I was sleeping. An English mobile patrol in armoured cars came through later and gave us the news that the defences of the town of Giovani Berta were deserted. The birds had flown.
As we were waiting for our trucks to arrive we saw a large force of Italian bombers and fighters pass a few miles to our north heading west. Just as they went out of sight we heard the rumble of bombs exploding. So far as we or our officers knew the only troops in that area were the fleeing Italians. Poor devils copping it from us on the ground and from their own air force from above. So, late in the day, it was into the trucks once more and off to the next town, which was Barce. The enemy had abandoned it without making a stand. Barce was entirely different from anything we had seen so far. The area was fertile and consisted of a real town with a dozen shops and hundreds of civilians, most of whom seemed to go about their own business while carefully ignoring us. Outside the town were many small farms running for several miles along each side of the road.
Barce was also a barracks town and for a week we occupied the army barracks on the edge of town. This was the first time we had slept under a roof since leaving Ikingi Marouk over a month earlier. We enjoyed the small luxuries of a shower and being able to buy a few things from the shops. We even had a concert in the Town Hall organised by The Salvation Army with artists from the various units camped around the town.
The only work we did while there was to go out each afternoon to visit some of the farms. The reason was twofold. We were searching for enemy soldiers, probably deserters, who could have been hiding out amongst the farmers. Also we were checking to ascertain that they had no hoards of weapons. We did not want any armed groups of men at large behind us as our supply lines stretched further west. This latter was a waste of time as civilians did not dare have weapons in a Fascist country. The other reason was to get the message to the civilians that we meant them no harm in any way. That their police force, the Carabiniere, would remain intact and would be responsible for their welfare.
Each patrol usually visited about three or four houses each day. I think that I went out on four occasions. Almost every house we visited contained only women with an occasional elderly gent. I suspect that there may have been a few younger men who saw us coming and disappeared. It was not always easy to walk up to the door of a house and knock knowing that there were women, often only teenagers, having to answer the door, not knowing what we might do and dreading having to let us enter their homes. Some of the young ones, obviously pushed forward by their elders, were terrified to the state of being scarcely able to speak or walk. They had been fed by Mussolini's propaganda a whole lot of nonsense about what monsters we were. After one place where the girl of about eighteen was so distressed that she almost fainted and had to be helped to a chair by an older woman, our Corporal Hec Smith summed it up when he said, "Doesn't it make you feel a bastard".
At one place we met a friendly old lady who spoke English with an unmistakable Australian accent. She had lived for a number of years in Carlton, Melbourne. Because there were no listeners who could understand English, she was very open in her comments about Mussolini and his Fascist regime. She told us of how her family were conned into moving to Libya to what was described to them as lovely large farms. The farms never were self supporting. The three youngest children were with their parents in Libya while three teenagers were back in Italy. Thus both groups were kept under control because any adverse behaviour by one group could seriously affect the welfare of other groups. An elder son, her grandson, was in the army and serving in Bardia. They were all very anxious as to his welfare and nervously asked whether we knew anything.
I guess that they were all, as our parents would be, anxious about the welfare of their soldier sons. They were much relieved to hear that Italian casualties were relatively light and he would probably be sent to Australia for the duration of the war. We made use of her to spread the message that we were a decent lot and not anything like the picture being painted by their propaganda. She also said that almost all the Italian settlers in Africa were subject to this divided family pattern. Families were chosen because of having children of an age able to live away from the parents. At least by the time we left the various houses most of the women were smiling and waved goodbye from the front veranda. No doubt very glad to see us go. We were able to buy fresh bread from a couple of places when we arrived as they were bringing the loaves out of the oven. We always paid for what we received, in all cases several times the real value. We had considerable sums of Liras that had been gathered from captured pay offices and which we were told was occupation money. As it would be worthless elsewhere, we didn't mind spending it. This information was wrong, of course, and people who took it back to banks in Alexandria were able to send tidy sums home.
Our reasonably soft life all too soon came to an end after about a week and we set off in a westerly direction to Benghazi. We found that this semi fertile strip of country reached to beyond Benghazi. Not so fertile as around Barce but certainly better than desert with quite a lot of scrub. We hardly paused but went on in easy stages to our final goal which was near a village named El Agheila. This was the last village on the road West in Cyrenaica near the border of Tripolitania. These two states form Libya. We had reached the limit of the westward advance of our forces. Some miles south of Benghazi we came on the scene of what had been a massive tank battle. There were dozens of tanks and artllery pieces and trucks along the side of the road. Obviously our side had won again. It was near the small town of Beda Fomm.
We were known as "Wavell's Army of the Nile". General Wavell wished to keep going to Tripoli and finish the job of chasing the Italians right out of Africa. The German Generals warned Hitler that there was now nothing to stop us from taking Tripoli. This was revealed in German War Records. But Churchill ordered Wavell to stop as our armour was run down and there were other plans under consideration. A few miles past the village there was an extensive salt water swamp that stretched from the coast to reach far inland to where the true Sahara desert lay. This was impossible for vehicles to cross or go around. The only way along the coast at this point was along the road which we now covered. Our platoon was further west than any other Allied infantry troops in Libya.
The day before we reached El Agheila our convoy had pulled off the road for the night near Marsa Brega. We were dispersed in a shallow valley when we saw a dozen aircraft approaching from the east, flying very low and with their wheels down. It was not until they were almost over us that we saw the crosses on their wings and fuselages. Then we recognised them as German Stukas or J.U. 87s, well known as the best dive bombers in the world at that time. Some men dived for their weapons while others dived for cover in the slit trenches we had been busily digging. It was very confusing for a few minutes. Fortunately, the bomber crews were just as much surprised as we were and were almost overhead before they observed us. Having apparently used all their bombs elsewhere and no doubt being short of petrol, they could only spray the area with machine gun and cannon fire and then proceed on their way. Our first encounter with Germans. The only casualty we suffered was to the water truck which received several bullets along one side, giving a bath to the chap who had taken cover underneath. It was able to be quickly repaired without losing too much of the precious contents.
We were fortunate that we always dug ourselves a slit trench as soon as we stopped for any length of time or overnight. To dig ourselves in not only gave us shelter from a sudden enemy attack, but by being below ground level, meant that we were sheltered from the icy winds that invariably blew all night. It was mid winter when we went through the desert and very cold with frosts on still nights. When it rained we were able to stretch our Ground sheets over the slit trenches, mostly keeping ourselves and our weapons dry. Fortunately it did not rain very often. There was a bright side to all the casualties we had suffered early in the campaign. Those of us left on duty shared their blankets until their return.
I remember one morning, in preparation for moving on I was shaking the sand from my blankets. To my surprise I shook a small snake out onto the ground. He must have enjoyed the warmth of my company as he was not at all unfriendly. Some people said that it was an Asp and thus poisonous but I had no idea what it was. Throughout the campaign the daily ration of water per man was a mere 30 ounces or one and a half pints. A little less than a litre. There were times when we received stews and tea which were extra. But sometimes we received less. The bottle full had to cover shaving and washing as well as drinking. One tried to never empty one's bottle as the water truck could always break down and hold up supplies for a day or more. Water had to be carted long distances because the retreating Italians, as they withdrew, hid salted or destroyed wells and water holes. When the water truck hove into sight, everyone would empty their water bottles, having their first big drink for the day. That action of salting wells was illegal under the terms of the Geneva Convention.
We arrived at El Agheila on the 23rd of February 1941. There were frequent air-raids by German planes but strangely we never encountered Stukas again. One day an Australian "Brass Hat" roamed through our area. In most cases, as on this occasion, they were full Colonels who wore a red band on their hats to indicate that they were Staff Officers, the fellows who really ran the war. This one was affable enough and squatted on the edge of the Bren pit with a few of us standing around and had a very casual conversation. He asked about our reaction to the many air-raids which were occurring each day and whether we enjoyed having a go at them at every opportunity. We told him we had been ordered to not fire on enemy planes unless we were directly attacked because, in most cases this was a waste of ammunition and drew attention to our positions. At that he replied "If we didn't have a go at the enemy any time a target presented itself we would never finish this darned war".
That afternoon an air-raid started while it was my turn on Anti-Aircraft duty on the Bren. I was busy writing a letter at the time. I put my pen and pad down and, taking the Colonel at his word had some fun blazing away at the planes as they dived low overhead. After the enemy left I returned to my letter writing only to find that in the excitement my pen had fallen underfoot and become squashed. That was really a big blow as I had invested in a good quality pen on joining the army, a Swan brand with a Waterman nib. The nib was undamaged and I used it attached to other bodies for years. But it was never the same thereafter as it had a tendency to leak ink when not in use. Something else for which I hated "Jerry".
Across the quarter of a mile wide space between the marshes and the sea our Engineers had sown large areas of mine fields. One day a group of Arabs with camels walked right through the field without exploding a single mine. We were at a loss to explain this as we had been assured that anyone walking or driving there would be killed. Another day, a R.A.A.F. Hurricane Fighter returning from patrol had engine failure and crash-landed just clear of the mines. The pilot was unhurt but his plane, badly damaged, was left where it crashed. It was one of the first Hurricanes to be used in Libya and the first that we had seen. The Hurricane was far superior to the Italian fighters in Libya but soon after the arrival of the Hurricanes on the scene the Germans came with their top fighters. So still the balance of power in the air was maintained.
The English armoured cars and light tanks would drive west along the road almost every day, probing to find out what the enemy were doing. They started bringing back news that was not good. The enemy, Germans this time, were building up the strength of their forces especially their tanks and armoured cars. Before long we could be in for a thoroughly rough time if we stayed there. History shows that the big push east by the enemy came a couple of weeks after we left. The 2/7 Battalion was relieved by the 2/5 Battalion on the 4th of March. The 6th Division, of which both battalions were part, was relieved by the 9th Division on the 10th of March, 1941. Our orders were to return to Egypt for re-equipment and redeployment whatever that may mean. We speculated a lot about our future during those days when we had little else to do. It would have helped if someone had thought to put us in the picture occasionally.
Our return journey did not take us past Benghazi as we followed the shorter route through Msus and Mechili. Shorter but very uninteresting. Mostly scrubby desert all the way. On the trip back to Mersa Matru we stopped overnight at many places but just where in most cases I have no idea. At one stop we stayed at couple of days somewhere close to the coast. A group of us went walking along the beach to fill in time and chanced upon a rowing boat that had no doubt brought some sailors ashore from a sinking ship. A few adventurous types decided to take it for a short trip, using boards and other pieces of wood as paddles. It eventuated that one man carried a hand grenade and saw this as an opportunity to catch some fish. They paddled out a short distance and waited while the would-be fisherman pulled the pin from the grenade and dropped it ver the side of the boat. When the grenade exploded we saw that the boat had been drifting and was directly over the explosive as it went off. Water flew up on both sides of the boat, drenching its occupants. At first we all laughed madly at the sight but then realised that it was not so funny as the force of the explosion had split the bottom of the rotten old craft.
Didn't they paddle for the shore, every one going like steam with the boat all the time getting lower in the water. When they were still a few yards out the boat finally went under. They were left standing up to their waists in freezing water, then the laughter on the beach started all over again. It was much later before anyone remembered to look for the course too late. Typical fisherman's luck, wet tails and no fish. Leaving the area of our "fishing" beach we moved on to Mersa Matru arriving on the 20th of March. We were only there a few days. During that time we had to compete for the right to be issued with a Thompson Submachine Gun which were being issued one to each section. I was happy to win one after we had all enjoyed some target practice with it. They proved to be a very effective weapon at close range. They raised our firepower by giving us two automatic weapons per section of nine men.
The Thompson was .45 inch calibre. It came with a straight magazine holding 28 rounds. There was also a drum magazine that held 50 bullets but we all rejected that as it was clumsy and slow to load and once loaded rattled noisily as one walked. Things could be dangerous enough at night without broadcasting ones presence. The rate of fire of a Thompson was a little over twelve shots per second.
From Mersa Matru we went to Amiriya camp where we received the promised refit. All new clothing and the opportunity to wash the uniforms if they were still fit to be worn. Believe me, it was needed after wearing the same clothes for almost five months with only a couple of changes of underwear. Because in the desert our facilities for washing were between scant and non-existent, we were soon hosts to fleas and lice. Lack of water was a fact of life which we learned to live with but we did not learn to enjoy. We handed in our sheepskin jackets here. They were wonderful at keeping out the cold and wet. I remember one incident in the desert where we received an issue of new underwear. After de-fleaing ourselves, we donned the new gear and buried the old lousy stuff in a sand dune. Soon afterwards a group of Arabs came along, as usual on camels, and one smart Alec had an idea, he dug up the old stuff and sold the lot to them for quite a good price. We had a few laughs speculating on what would happen when our fleas started fighting with their fleas.
Amiriya, where we arrived on the 26th of March, was closer to Alexandria than Ikingi Marouk and we were given liberal amounts of leave. Where leave passes were not issued we just went without them. Once morning roll call was over there were no further parades apart from duty rosters. Most of us took the opportunity to get away from the Army for a while to just relax. As a courtesy to the cook we normally let him know if we would not be in, to save him wasting food and effort.
Meanwhile our trucks and stores were being loaded onto ships in Alexandria harbour. Everyone was guessing as to where we would be going. Some said Greece and this proved to be correct. Shirley's brother Lawrence Young was attached to 7th Division Headquarters and stationed in Alexandria at the time. He knew when I was in the area and searched me out. I was very pleased to see him and we spent some time in Alexandria together each time I had leave. He confirmed that the Greece rumour was correct.