Reminiscences Of An Old Desert Rat by Dan Waters
My first Christmas in the army, in 1941, was spent at Wallingford, on the banks of the River Thames, where we slept in bell tents, without duckboards, with snow and slush on the ground. Ablutions were done outside in icy water.
Then, in August 1942, four of us were posted from 249 to 221 Field Company, Royal Engineers, to help make the unit up to strength to go East. Some looked forward to it but one sapper, who was being held in the guardroom on an ‘absent without leave’ charge, shot himself in the foot to avoid embarkation. We had no idea when or where we were going.
Eventually, after going to bed at normal ‘lights out’, we were woken up by ‘reveille’ at half past midnight. The well-kept secret was out. Although it was in the wee hours, the locals had heard the bugle call and many were at windows or in front gardens to see us march in full kit to the railway station. After a long, slow wartime train ride in the black-out to Liverpool, we were played out to sea by the bagpipes of the London Irish to the strains of ‘Over the Sea to Skye’. A large number never came back.
The troopship Orduna was built as a liner, prior to World War One, for about 800 passengers. Just before ‘The Push’ at El Alamein, in 1942, it was necessary to get many troops out East. There were said to be 3,300 of us on board. We sailed in convoy with naval protection well to the West to try to avoid German U-boats. Drinking water was on tap for two hours every day, when we queued to fill our one-quart sized water bottles at the few faucets available. We washed in seawater using so-called saltwater soap which refused to lather. Because of the shortage of bunks and hammocks we slept wherever there was space, usually on the floor. In fine weather this meant up on the decks, although these were hosed down at five o’clock in the morning without warning.
It was the first time I had seen the Southern Cross. The day was taken up with boat drill, physical training and lectures, such as those about the sun compass and survival in the desert.
We were told the tale of the four troopers whose tank ‘brewed up’ (was destroyed) in the bluey (desert) in battle and they were faced with a 40 mile trek without food and water. One died on the way; the second died in the field hospital after reaching base; the third was discharged seven days later and the last was on parade after reaching his own unit. Because of crowded conditions on the Orduna tempers sometimes became frayed and fist fights broke out. It was said that bromide was put in the tea to dampen libido.
Owing to the German and Italian navies we could not sail through the Mediterranean. We saw some survivors in a lifeboat whose ship had been sunk and we buried one of our shipmates at sea who had died of sunstroke. If anyone fell overboard the convoy would not stop to pick him up because of the danger of U-boats. Our first port of call was Freetown in Sierra Leone.
I remember complaining to a member of the crew because I had seen a large rat walking along a beam. “’That’s a good sign,” he replied. “Rats always leave a ship that is going to sink at its last port of call”. After one month aboard, and shortly after a nasty storm, we saw Table Mountain. There in Cape Town we were feted for 10 days by the local population.
Just as the Orduna was due to sail again, a handful of soldiers walked down the gangway to protest against the conditions and the food, much of which had gone bad. The remainder of us were instructed to “fall in” and the roll was called. We sailed without the twenty or so mutineers who were marched off to the ‘glasshouse’ (military prison). We never saw them again. Meanwhile, I pondered the words: “Those with the biggest crime records make the best wartime soldiers”.
Part of our unit went on to India, but my section sailed for Port Tauzin, in Egypt, where we boarded a train made up of cattle trucks. Every time it stopped in the desert soldiers would run to the engine to draw off hot water from the boiler to make tea. We eventually arrived at Tell el Kebir, then the largest military base in the world.
After two weeks we picked up new transport and supplies and drove in convoy to Iraq. The ship on which our own transport was loaded had been sunk on its way out from England and one member of our Company, who was travelling with it, had his hair turn grey within a period of 10 days while he was in an open lifeboat.
The small things in life often provide pleasant, lasting memories and I recall stopping, on the first night of the journey to Iraq, at a small canteen on the east side of the Sinai Desert. There, I am not sure why, extra beer was available. Teetotaller Monty (General Montgomery) had cut our ration to one bottle a week. One soldier with a fine voice sang ‘Pagliacci’.
We eventually arrived at Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, where the 56th London Division, with its black cat insignia, was based. The troops that had left us in Cape Town, and had gone on via India, had already arrived. We slept in the desert in tents, with our rifles chained, through the trigger guards, to our waists. Dates (the palm tree sort!) were easily obtainable and petrol was cheaper than water. To spite one Lieutenant named Dickenson, who had a mania about (what he thought was) long hair, every man in my section had his clipped completely off. A cleverly-worded ‘advertisement’ for ‘Dickidodger’ hair tonic also appeared on the Company notice board! But in the desert you did not see a woman for months on end and, with water in short supply, it was more hygienic without hair. We were trained to go without water and water bottles were inspected at the end of an exercise to make sure we had not drunk any.
Manoeuvres took place in the desert as well as at Ruwandiz, further north, in the snow of the mountains approaching the border with Turkey. Wild game was plentiful there in what is part of Kurdistan.
In the Spring of 1943 the ‘Black Cat’ Division embarked on the longest approach march in military history, crossing seven deserts. We set off from Kirkuk, in convoy, with chuggies (canvas water bags) tied to the front of the vehicles. These provided cool drinking water. We covered between 200 and 300 miles a day with one day off a week for maintenance. It was cold at night and hot by day, with very low humidity, and the air had to be let out of the tyres in the middle of the day to prevent excessive expansion.
A regular ritual was to stop at the side of the road to make tea in the desert. This was done on a ‘Benghazi fire, namely half a four-gallon, flimsy petrol can with sand soaked with petrol inside. In some fires, just petrol was burned without the sand. A second tin, containing water, was then placed on top of the Benghazi. A small piece of wood was floated on the water because it was believed this would collect the smoke. The tea was added to the galloping water at just the right moment. You had to be an expert! Everyone had his own enamel mug and ‘Sergeant Major tea’ was a special brew containing extra milk and sugar. Tea making was something to look forward to, in a world of few pleasures, where you could gather round the pot and have a chat. No doubt soldiers everywhere all had their own rituals in one form or another. In our case the saying was: “When in doubt, brew up!”
After crossing the seven deserts, at the end of our approach march, we went into action close to Enfidaville in Tunisia. I had often wondered what it would be like to be under fire and I remember thinking to myself: “This is it!” As Churchill is supposed to have said: “The most exhilarating thing in life is to be shot at without success!” With experience, you get to recognise the different noises made by the various types of shells and mortars. In World War One shell holes were quite deep and soldiers used to take cover in them. In World War Two shells had improved, so that explosions mostly took place above ground. Shell holes were shallow. You could not shelter in them. We drove at night in pitch darkness, without lights, and the flash of a gun was useful to lighten your path so you could see your way clear, for a short distance at least.
On one occasion we were clearing German anti-personnel land mines in a wadi (a watercourse, but usually dry) and I was bringing more ‘pins’ to the two sappers who were ‘de-lousing them.’ They assured me that the strip of ground between the two white canvas marking tapes had been cleared and it was safe to walk. Obviously, they had missed one because the next thing I knew there was an explosion and I was hit in the back and groin by pieces of the case. There was blood. For a split second I thought I would die. Then I realised I had got away with it and God had been good to me.
The preliminary explosion should have blown the mine up to a height of about four and a half feet, when a second, more powerful explosion would have sent 360 steel ball-bearings in all directions. These could be lethal for up to 100 yards. In my case the first explosion was too strong and the second one took place above my head. As they took me away to a field hospital I heard an officer say “One of those damn little ball-bearings hit me in the chest.” He died later. A few others were wounded. My injuries were superficial. The shrapnel was left inside me. There were more seriously wounded to attend to.
A few days later, three of us in a ‘White’ scout car drove over and exploded a German ‘Teller’ anti-vehicle mine. The car was a complete wreck. We were in a minefield and we de-loused a few as we crawled carefully out. The only injuries we received were the effects of the blast and what saved us was that it was an armoured car and we had put sandbags on the floor in case of such an eventuality.
Tunis fell on May 7th 1943 and the war in Africa ended. Somehow I value my Africa Star and ribbon with the wide red central stripe on a yellow background (blood on sand we used to say) and the Eighth Army clasp, more than my other war medals. There was something about the desert. It was a ‘cleaner’, more gentlemanly war. No women or children were involved. During that campaign some in our Company acquitted themselves well. Others, like the old sergeant who led his patrol from the back, were considered to have let the side down.
My brigade then moved to Tripoli where we slept in bivouacs. I had not been inside a building for about ten months. One of our pastimes was swimming, and one could see hundreds of stark naked soldiers along the beaches of North Africa. While one of our brigades took part in the invasion of Sicily, we trained and waited. Our diet was largely tinned bully beef, often with hard army biscuits. There was little in the way of fruit or vegetables although sometimes we had melon. Because of our deficient diet most of us had desert sores on our legs (we wore shorts) and arms. Few escaped. There was little entertainment and, unlike the Italians, there were no mobile brothels although one had once been captured by the Eighth Army. While at Tripoli, we also did invasion training by going out to sea in landing craft and coming in to dash up beaches under mock fire. I used to carry a Bangalore Torpedo to blow a gap in barbed wire.