Story of the escape by Cave, A.H. (Titch) #555729 (funny how you remember your old army numbers) together with Alf Potter of the Australian Army. It just happened that we landed up in the same place (Derna POW camp)..
In December 1940, around Christmas time. I was with the Wilts Yeomanry, and I was pretty fed up. We were in Palestine and the weather was awful. It was pouring rain, cats and dogs, we had it. We were all fed up. I just happened to see this notice on the board asking for men of initiative and integrity and half a dozen words I had to go and look up in the dictionary to find out what they were talking about. Anyway nothing ventured, nothing gained. I wrote out in my most illiterate hand that I would like transferred to this new desert unit.
So nothing happened for a day or two. Christmas came and went and one evening, must have been early in January, Bill Draper, who was the duty trumpeter, came rushing in and it was pouring rain and said, "Titch, you’re on orders" and I said "What do you mean, I’m on orders." He said "Your leaving here tomorrow morning. You’ve been seconded to some place up in Cairo." So I put a coat on and I was down to that board like a flash and sure enough there it was. I was to report to the Orderly Room at 7 o’clock, collect the unexpired portion of the day’s rations, which amounted to half a tin of bully and two slabs of bread and a rail warrant etc. And was to report to the RTO officer in Cairo where transport would be arranged to the Citadel.
Well, we duly arrived there and all went well. I am not going to go into all the bits and pieces in between but it must have been towards the end of March when Y Patrol of the LRDG went out on its first job. It was a long, weary journey, lets be honest. Down to Alexandria and all the way up the coast, right up to Derna and after that I can't remember what happened but a few days later we were patrolling down in the Msus area and we spotted some trucks. They were to far away to identify but Captain McCraith decided they were Jerries and took out after them. Well I was his driver at the time, one of the V8 Ford pick-ups, a very powerful little job, and he kept saying, Faster, Cave, faster," he told the gunner to lie flat on the load and took over the Vickers. I was going faster and faster - I had my foot through the floorboards and the old bus was doing about 85. Well he was firing at them over my head and, of course, I was completely deafened so I couldn't hear him shout, "Stop, stop, stop." He could obviously see the little red flags marking the minefield but I couldn't and shot into the minefield at over 80 miles an hour. Just as I hit it I saw the red flags out of the corner of my eye and , of course, it was to late.
I slapped on the anchors and we were slowing down, otherwise I think we would have toppled over. Anyway this dam thermos bomb went off. It was unfortunate for the Skipper because he was standing up and caught the blast and it broke his arm and hand in several places. knocked out some teeth and peppered his face with shrapnel. The only harm to the truck was a blown rear tire.
I had a look around and left Graham, the gunner, looking after the Captain and also to see what he could do with the truck and I want to look for the patrol as we had outdistanced them. I walked very carefully down one of the wheel tracks until I got on to firm ground, so to speak, and I walked away from it and waited for the patrol. It must have been nearly ten minutes before they caught up with me. The sergeant decided to send an urgent signal.
Later on we were ordered to rendezvous with Major Mitford and G Patrol. This was carried out and Captain McCraith was shipped off to the hospital at Barce.
The following morning found us on top of a small plateau. It wasn’t very high, maybe a couple of hundred feet, and you could see Mekili quite clearly. We were just on the edge of the plateau and then we had one of those funny little incidents that happen. I’m afraid it concerns dear old Hobby again. Hobby was the Boyes anti-tank gunner and he was looking down over the plain and he could see a tank, a very large tank. Mind, it was a very long way away. Nobby decided he was going to take a pot at this tank because he reckoned it was a Jerry. Whether it was or not, I have no idea but I said to Nobby, "You fire that toy at that tank, don’t be surprised if you get a bloody great shell come back at you." "Ha, Ha," says Nobby, they can’t even see us." ‘But," I says, "if we can see them I’m bloody certain they can see us." Anyway, Nobby gets behind. his old. what-do-you-call-it and looses off two shots. There was a bit of a pause and then there’ s a whooss-crump and a ruddy great shell came over and landed somewhere. Where the hell it landed I don’t know but, as I say, I warned Nobby and he didn’t do any more firing. He decided discretion was the better part of valor.
While all this was going on with Hobby and myself, signals were going backwards and forwards between Major Mitford and HQ and eventually we were told we were going to move off and follow G- Patrol.
We hadn’ t gone 100 or 200 yards when a stone went through my radiator and the whole thing came to a grinding halt. Major Mitford had to decide what he was going to do about it. He could abandon the truck or take it in tow. He decided not to do this. He decided to send me back to Mekili and get the dam thing repaired. So Mike Carr was detailed off (he was our navigator) to tow me back to Mekili with instructions to me to stay there until Mike came back the following day to pick me up. Afterwards I thought it was a big joke.
I duly arrived and I found the REME group and an English Captain. He was a very nice chap and he got his gang on to the old truck. Mike took off and it was only an hour and a half or two hours and the old truck was ready, back on its wheels and we were ready to go. Now, I thought about just driving back to the patrol because I've always had a good eye for country and it didn't seem any trouble as far as I could see. Then I thought well, if they've moved off I might have difficulty finding them again so I decided to stay where I was. Anyway, the Indians were very good chaps. They produced food and tea and when this was all over they brought two four gallon cans of water and suggested I strip myself off and give myself a good wash, if I wished to, of course, - which I did. - and I’d just got my shorts back on and that was all and there was a salvo of shells came over. I didn’t bother to stop and put anything on. I dived into the nearest slit trench. The Captain landed on top of me along with a small Indian.
Then another funny little incident occurred. No sooner had the Indian got into the trench than he got to one end and started. digging and he dug until he had a hole big enough to get his head and shoulders in. Having done this he took his tin hat and carefully tied it round his backside to protect the family jewels, I suppose. He then stuck his head and shoulders in the hole and there he stayed. until everything was over.
The shelling continued for quite a considerable period and when it ceased a DR came round and the Captain was told to get himself and his troops out. His trucks were already loaded up, they were these big ten ton trucks and he rounded up his lads and. he took the lead and asked me if I would bring up the rear and make sure there were no stragglers. He said if there were any shelling they’d be out of their trucks like rabbits. He said kick ‘em back in and keep ‘em going.
I also noticed at the time one of these Italian soldiers was a bastard. That’s the only word I can think of for him. What he was doing. Every now and again when one of the bigger chaps looked down on him and as he went to pass, he would boot him in the backside and I thought, well, I don’t like that at all but there’s nothing you can do about it. What bothered me was that the English officer did absolutely nothing about it. He didn’t even complain when the pay books were taken away and things like this which I thought was a pretty dam poor job.
My turn came and they searched my overcoat pockets and found nothing but a couple of cigarettes. Actually I’d left them in for a decoy, really. I then opened my overcoat and held it wide open so they could search the pockets in my boiler suit. Well, there’s only the patch pocket on the leg and it had nothing in it and the two breast pockets and there was only a pay book in there and this of course was taken away and thrown out. My haversack was simply upended and everything tossed out and I was given the empty haversack back and I kept my two water bottles. Now, this chap, disgusted I had nothing more, gave me a shove as if to say, move. Well, instead of moving forwards, I moved to the right. I side stepped him and his boot, as it came up, brushed the side of my coat and he went flat on his face. I didn’t wait to see anything else. I just shot forward into the milling crowd of prisoners who had already been searched and disappeared smartly and of course; there was a howl of laughter from the chaps still waiting to be searched. I should think -- I didn’t wait to see-- that one or two of the next follows up had a pretty rough time.
One thing it did for me, it gave my morale quite a boost, that one. From here I decided to have a look round to see what sort of place we were going to be locked up in. So I took a walk round. The land sloped up slowly to a place about 50 feet up, quite close to the top of this slope there was a place where, over the years, the sand had been eroded away and left a sandstone wall probably about ten feet high and 20 to 30 feet long and at the base of this was a flat, sandy area which I thought might well do to sleep in. I went round this to the top of the wall and this gave me a good view of the whole of the area. I should say the area was about 150 yards long by 100 yards wide,- a couple of football pitches. We were guarded on the four compass points by 7 ton Fiat trucks with two machine guns on each truck and a crew of four Ities. There was no other way of enclosing us and, in any case, who was going to run away from a place like Mekili - where the devil could you go to? But I’d already worked out what I was going to do. I know this sounds silly but from the moment I was captured I started planning how to get out of it.
I sat up there and watched the remainder of the fellows coming through the control post and already there were groups playing cards, lighting fires, sitting round talking and. fellows sitting with their head in their hands who didn’t know what to do about it. The trouble was with these chaps, they were all with the 1st Armoured Division which just come out from England and it must have been a hell of a smack in the eye for them to be captured before they’d even fought a battle, so to speak.
I explored the whole area, which was covered with short scrubby bushes, which was useful for firewood in some ways and also useful for other things. I sat there thinking about things and trying to decide what I could do about this and I slipped a cigarette out and smoked it quietly because I suddenly realized, I was sitting on a small fortune as far as cash was concerned. The cigarettes were going to be worth far, far more than any cash and I could well become, if people realized I had cigarettes, a target because I was isolated, I was on my own. I had no friends. I knew nobody. This was useful in a way for me but on the other hand I had to be extremely careful.
I considered all the angles and turned around and looked to the South to see what was going on down there but all I could see was a cloud of dust and as I watched, this cloud turned into a dust storm. All the hundreds of vehicles passing down the Mekili track to Derna stirred up all the dust and with the wind, I believe it is self generating, a dust storm, in some respects, and in any case, there was a great cloud and it was already stretching up Lord knows how high and I thought, Well, well, we’re in for the grandfather and. great grandmother of all storms. As far as I could see, dust storms. In fact I was very correct. For three days we were blotted out. You could hardly see your hand in front of your face. I thought about escaping at that time. Then I realized there was little point because if I escaped - it was easy enough to walk out the camp but it meant walking to Derna and I realized that sooner or later they were going to have to supply transport and take us to Derna so what the devil was the point of me walking there? All I was going to do was give myself a lot of exercise for nothing.
That night I dug myself into the sand. I had no blanket and I simply dug a hole big enough and deep enough to take myself and I simply pulled the sand in on top of me and., let’s be quite honest, I slept pretty comfortably and very warm. No problems at all.
The following day the dust storm continued, no water was issued so I had to go very, very careful. Fortunately I wasn’t thirsty. For some reason I drank very, very little water. I was hungry and I ate one of those pieces of emergency ration chocolate in the morning and another at night.
That was the second day of my capture. The third day there was a water ration and I went down and I caught a young officer there and I explained to him I was on my own and would it be possible to tack myself on to his platoon or company of men because I was not likely to get anything on my own and he said that was quite all right and to see the sergeant. So I saw the sergeant who was a pleasant sort of chap and there was no problem, he said, if there’s anything, you stick on with us and I’ll look after you.
So I got my water ration but there was still no food. On the 4th day we got a tin of bully which was to last an indefinite period so far as I could see but there was no more water. The problem was that some bright article in the British Army poured petrol into the wells and completely wrecked the water. There was plenty of sweet water in Mekili but they’d absolutely wrecked these wells by pouring petrol into them, which wasn’t very helpful from our point of view.
On the morning of this 4 Th. day I was down close to this control post. It was still there but there were no prisoners coming in. There was an Italian officer sitting around there with a couple of his buddies and a German Major pitched up in a car and within a few minutes there was hell playing between them. The German Major was laying down the law and. shouting. In fact I thought he was going to knock this fellow down, this Italian officer, and what it all turned out to be when I found somebody who could speak Italian and German and knew what was going on, they should have moved us on the third day. In fact the Italians had done nothing at all about it and this German Major was very, very upset. He said we should have been moved and we must be moved immediately, if not sooner.
Well, the following morning about 9 o’clock a convoy of 7 ton trucks pitched up with trailers and after a while we were told to board. It was standing only, everybody standing up, so you can imagine what it was like.
After about two hours the convoy took off for Derna. I was right at the back of the lorry on the tailboard, so I did manage to perch myself there at great risk of being tossed out as we bumped over the ruts and the holes and all the rest of it. Somewhere along the line the convoy stopped and we were let off to relieve ourselves and it was just odd as there had obviously been a large British DID dump there. There were boots all over the place, socks, shirts, odd tins of food, ammo, guns, and all sorts of things lying around. I hunted around and eventually found a pair of boots because I only had my chaplis, those Indian sandals, and I thought, if I was going to do a lot of walking, boots would be necessary. I found a pair, which unfortunately was a little bit too small for me. Then we were told to get on our trucks again so I took them with me. It was the best I could do. And I found another water bottle, which I took, and off we went.
Well, it was late afternoon by the time we hit the pass at Derna. It is nothing but a bunch of hairpin bends and these trucks; in some cases they had to back up. Well, you imagine it, a 7-ton truck backing with a trailer on the back. It wasn’t funny. We eventually arrived down at the Old Italian barracks and we disembarked. The first thing was to find ourselves within these barracks. I was in no hurry. I ambled along slowly and the thing I was looking for was water and I found it. There were about four or five barrack rooms which I passed and then there was an area which had been bombed. There were two burnt out buildings and then there was a whole area, I should imagine there would have been about three of these barrack rooms. They had been completely bombed out but on the edge of this was a lovely standpipe and I went up to it and opened it and out came beautiful clear sweet water. This in fact, was piped down from the base of the escarpment, and I emptied my water bottles, what was left in them, and refilled them with this lovely water. Another thing I’ d picked up at this DID dump was one of those canvas buckets, the things we had in the Cavalry for watering the horses, and I filled this as well and took it along with me.
I looked in the next two buildings and they were jammed to overflowing. The third building I came to I managed to find room just inside the door. These buildings were probably a good 100 feet long and about 25 feet wide. Wide enough, in fact, because the roof span had a central pillar and there was just a space there. Nobody wanted it, apparently, and I parked myself down there and there I was going to stay for the next few days.
The following morning, as soon as it was light, I went down to the old standpipe and stripped off and had a stand up bath in sand. In fact I found sand quite a good substitute for soap except it’s a bit rough on you. Anyway, I had a bath and I washed my shorts and shirt. I still had my boiler suit on and my shorts and shirt dried very quickly.
I stuck around, to have breakfast. I still had two pieces of emergency ration chocolate. I ate one of these. And believe me, I was pretty hungry. Once things had dried out I re-dressed myself and decided to investigate everything and see what the camp offered and see what the chances were of escaping. I’ll give you a rough description. I’m not very good at this but I will draft out a plan of the camp so it will give you an idea of what I was up against.
The East gate, the main gate which we came in, and was the only gate in the camp. Now, as you came through this gate, to the North of you, or on my right, is the officers’ quarters where our own officers were billeted, Now, beyond this, stretching along the North side, were a series of workshops, stores and where the Italians put their vehicles. To the left, the South, were the Italian barracks. In front of the barracks was a road, I think it had been partly tarmacked, at some time. It was about 8 feet wide, just wide enough to get a small lorry down to the barracks.
To the North of this again there was a low wall and. beyond this the ground dropped away down to the North side where the stores were. The compound was just a dirt compound or parade ground, I suppose. The wall, which ran up the West side from the stores had a large hole in it. In the corner of the wall was the cookhouse which consisted of nothing but two great, filthy boilers, stinking of soot and God knows what, where the Italians originally, I suppose, cooked their pasta or whatever they cooked. Anyway, a bomb had dropped here and there was a large hole in the wall. Now, beyond this, carrying on southwards, the west wall ran into the south wall with barbed wire which ran up to the westward billet then did a sharp right angle turn and swept back down to the east and. round to the main gate. Now, there were machine gun guards on each corner, that is, on the north, south and east sides. Also there was a machine gun guard on top of the main gate, which had battlements, of all things, on it and there was a machine gun guard on top of the store roof where the Indians were, down on the north side. The camp ran right along the main road and the sea was no more than a few yards beyond this. We tried to persuade the guards to let us go in and swim but we didn’t get any joy out of it.
That’s a rough idea of what the camp was. Other than that there was just nothing. Two days later I had worked out a plan of action but I needed at least one man to come with me. I needed a partner because what I was worried about was that I had no idea what the country would be like between Derna and Tobruk. I had some idea but what worried me was if I broke a leg or if I injured myself I could lie there out in the wilderness and die because I was unable to reach anybody for help. So it was obvious I must have somebody and I must have a good chap, a good solid bloke who was prepared to go to any lengths to escape. This was going to prove a lot more difficult than I thought at first.
My plan was very simple. I reckoned it would take me five days to walk to Tobruk. How naive can you be! I needed two water bottles. Which I already had, in fact I had three. I needed about five tins of bully and biscuits, being the easiest and most nutritious, I thought. Having worked this out, I decided the actual plan of escaping was very simple.
My billet was no more than 20 yards from the corner where the bomb had dropped, where the old cookhouse was. Now, I intended to nip out there as soon as the day guards went off duty at 7 o’clock or as soon as it was dark. No problem there. They disappeared and there were no other guards on duty except the machine gun guards. Now all I had to do was nip out of my billet, slip down the steps which were exactly opposite, creep along the wall and., on hands and knees, creep out through that gap which had been conveniently made for me.
That was the rough idea. Now there were problems ahead of this because the escarpment there is 1,000 feet high and it’s virtually straight up and straight down. You do have an advantage, though, in that the whole of the escarpment, except for the south east corner where the road runs up, there is heavy bush, small trees, you name it, the whole escarpment is thick with it. My idea was that, once I got out, I would climb that escarpment and take it from there.
There was no chance of getting out on the road on the north Eastside. Any attempt up there would be useless because there was the airfield at the top and everything was heavily guarded. East of the camp was vertical rock. There was absolutely no way of climbing that.
That was my idea. So the first job was to find someone who was prepared to escape with me. Now, you might think that was easy but nobody wanted to know to know what I was up to.
I started touting and hawking myself round the camp. I started with the privates, I went to the sergeants, the senior NCQ’s and. eventually I went down to see this captain who had been captured, alongside me and asked him whether he would like to escape with me. He said no way. He said his feet wouldn’t carry him ten yards outside the camp. Never mind climbing that ruddy escarpment.
So there I was stuck. I tried hard. I spent ten solid days. I talked to all sorts of people. I found a chap who spoke German. He also could fly. He had a private pilot’s license. The only reason I happened to find him was that some German flying officers came down, three of them, walking around and they all spoke good English and had been to Oxford, Cambridge etc. before the war. They were quite amusing. They gave us chocolate and cigarettes and they were nothing like the Nazi types at all. It just happened that while I was talking to them this fellow came up, just an ordinary private and spoke to them in German, almost fluent German, I should say, which delighted them no end. He apparently had been to one of the universities pre-war. Anyway, I got talking to this chap and tried to persuade him. He said no. He wasn’t interested in walking out. He said, "how about pinching a plane". I said "well I could arrange that probably if you can fly it ". He said, "Oh, I can fly it, I’ve got a private pilot’s license. I considered this and thought there was a possibility there because the airstrip at Derna is a hell of a great place. It runs from the coast a couple of miles or more. And down to a little jebel there, a hill. But nothing came of it.
I struggled on and eventually I reached a point where I realized that if I was going to escape at all I must get on with it and do it myself. If I didn’t do it very soon, what was going to happen, we’d be moved up to Benghazi or shipped off to Italy and that was going to make life even more difficult. I decided then to see if I could purchase enough food to get myself out of the camp. I was getting no joy anywhere at all and then one of those odd incidents, which happen during the war. I don’t understand them at all.
They’ve happened in my life at all sorts of times, odd things, which I’ve never understood. In fact, I don’t bother to try and understand them because I see no point in it. Anyway, I used to go out every night just before dark and fill this canvas water bucket and carry it back. Don’t ask me why, it became a fetish with me. I was not going to be without water so therefore my bottles were filled and I drank my fill before I went to bed. Now, this particular night, for some reason I forgot to fill it and I suddenly realized as I was sitting there with my back against this four inch steel post. I hadn’t filled this bucket and. no ways was I going to bed without it. So I got up, I picked up the bucket and slipped out the door. It was dark already, the guards had gone and they were not likely to be around.. I walked up quietly past the other two billets and round the corner to the standpipe.
Now the standpipe was in the midst of a great deal of rubble and. this is old reinforced concrete with half-inch metal rods sticking out of it. I got there and I filled up my bucket when I heard a voice behind me, "For you the war is finished." I spun round. I still had the bucket in my hand and who should be there but the Italian camp sergeant major. Now, he was a known lush. He was always drunk. He was drunk, 24 hours a day and he was a nasty little character. He carried one of these big thick, heavy bull- whips and he used it too. If he didn’t like you he’d give you a clout with it.
He stood there and looked at me and I looked at him. He couldn’t speak English except for "For you the war is finished". He started raving at me in his own language and. he raised his whip with the intention, obviously of belting me one.
Well, I’m sorry but I’m not the kind, of person who takes a belt from anybody and he was just unlucky. As he brought the whip down I caught it in my left hand and the bucket automatically came up in my right hand and slapped him on the head. He went over backwards and he lay flat on his back. Now, I didn’t waste any time. I just disappeared. I shot back to my billet as fast as I could.
Now, as you come into these billets, in the front of them there are two separate rooms, sort of built on the verandah style. These obviously were for senior NCOs and I knew on the left hand side as I went in there was a room in which there were six Australians. Now these Australians were the original ones that had been in the front line at Mekili. I found out later that the seventh had been killed. As I shot round the corner to open the door, a large hand grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and I was picked up and dumped through a doorway into this small room. I couldn’t think quite what was happening to me. I suddenly realized I was standing in a candlelight room with six very large, angry looking Australians.
I said, ‘What, the hell are you doing?" I was not frightened but, you know, rather shook up. They said, "You just sit down, little fellow, and shut up.
The speaker was about six two in his boots and with his bush hat on he looked about seven foot two. So I waited and he said, "What we want to know is what you were doing out at this time of night?" So I said, "What the hell’s that to do with you?"
He said, "It’s a lot to do with us because we’re interested in what you’ve been doing lately. You don’t belong to anybody here. You’re not tied up with anybody at all. You walk around on your own. You go and talk to people. You talk to a soldier here, a sergeant there or else you potter to the officers’ quarters and come back but you never have any friends and we’re rather puzzled and we’re worried too because, there’s an informer in the camp."
So I said, "You think I’m the informer?" "Well" he said, "You could be, couldn’t you! He said, "The bloody Germans have got a bloke in this camp who speaks perfect English, looks like an Englishman, and we think he acts very much like you do and you could well be him.
I was getting angry now. "Look" I said, "If you’re so sure it’s me, I suggest one of you takes a walk up to the standpipe. I went out to get water and I met the camp sergeant major up there and when I left the sergeant major was flat on his back. Now, he could be dead, injured or anything else because I belted him one on the head with the canvas bucket. Now go take a look."
They looked at one another and the big fellow nodded and said, "All Right, Charlie boy, go and have a look." So Charlie boy slides out the door and in a couple of minutes he's back and says, "Yes, he's telling the truth. The sergeant major's up there stretches out but whether he's dead or not I don't know and I'm not going to try to find out."
This changed things completely and they were a bit embarrassed. They didn’t quite know what to do. I sort of passed it off. "Look, chaps," I said. "You were the fellows who were in the front line. There were seven of you originally with two Boyes anti tank rifles. I was just behind you if you want to know. What’s happened to the seventh?" They said he was killed. I said, "What do we do now?"
They looked at me and they said, "Look, you’re in trouble." They said, "Have you got any kit where you’re bunked in?" I said, there’s only an empty haversack. I carry everything else on me."
They said, "Go and get your haversack and. come back here and you can stay here and if there’s a search or whatever tomorrow over the sergeant major, they won’t come near us."
And. this was perfectly true. The Australians only had to show their faces at the door and the guards disappeared like mist before the sun. Then I came back with my haversack they introduced themselves. The big fellow was Alf Potter. Charlie Boy, who was a much older man than the others, was serving as cook and Bluey. The other three I’m afraid I have long forgotten their names.
We sat down and chatted about odds and ends. I had it in the back of my mind that maybe I'd found somebody to escape with. This was something that was going to have to wait. While I was sitting there Alf said, "Listen, are you hungry?" He saw me eyeing a lot of biscuits and jam and also I could smell coffee being made and I said, "You got some coffee going?" He said, "Yes, you’ll get some in a minute and if you want something to eat, help yourself as much as you like. Biscuits and. jam we have plenty of, tomorrow you’ll be lucky and you’ll get a slice of bully."
So I tucked in. I didn’t waste any time because I’d been on starvation rations for days, scrounging a bit here and a bit there, swapping a cigarette or something. The Italians were giving us nothing. Every day they filled the two big boilers with water and chucked in a couple of lumps of fat, I think, and a few bits of greenery, if they could find, anything, Lord knows what they represented. I don’t know but what came out was simply some hot, greasy water. I used to queue up and go with the rest every day in the hope that some time they might issue a tin of food but they never did, at least not while I was there.
I tucked in and we talked and sat up most of the night talking about one thing and another, and. about what we were going to do, how they would hide me and. all the rest of it. I had no blanket or anything but these lads had two 3-decker beds so they were happy enough. They found me two blankets and I made myself comfortable on the floor.
As soon as it was light, Alf, who seemed to be the leader, sent everybody off to walk around the camp to see what, they could find out. He also went himself, leaving Charlie with me to get the breakfast. Eventually they came back, drifting in one by one, and so far as they could tell, there was no excitement, no guards were out, just the usual and the sergeant major had certainly gone from where he had been. Whether he was dead or injured we never did find out and I still don’t know. It has always worried me, actually, because I often wonder if I had killed the bloke or only injured him. But that’s neither here nor there really. It didn’t worry me at the time. In fact it would have pleased me no end to think the bugger was dead.
We had breakfast, which consisted of biscuits and jam, quite a large slice of bully some more coffee. I said to Alf, "Where the devil did you get all these rations?" He said they had brought it with them when they came in I said, "You didn’t get shaken down?" He said, "If those so and so’s tried to shake us down, they’re in big trouble."
As I say, the Italians were scared stiff of these Australians.
I thought this was the right time to produce a few cigarettes and I handed everybody one cigarette each. Alf was most indignant and he said, "Listen. You shouldn’t do it. You keep those cigarettes. You’ll need them later on for something or other to buy something with. They’re as good as cash. Better than cash." But no way, I said, "you’ve fed me, you’re looking after me, it’s well worth a cigarette." Anyway, they accepted them and I told Alf I still had about 100 left and I said you could use them for buying food if necessary.
I then approached them. They were all there. And I said, "You wouldn't like to escape with me. I intend to escape from here and the sooner the better. Anybody want to go along?" They looked at me in sudden surprise as if to say, "Escape? Escape? We hadn't even thought about it." So I said, "well, now's the time to talk about it." So I explained my plan to Alf and said "let's give it a thought for a couple of days and I'm pretty certain they'll all go along with you." So it was left there and I took off out and I showed him the gap and the bits and pieces and explained how we were going to go about this and what we should need. "Right" he said, "I'll turn the boys out and we'll see what we can get."
Here we were unlucky. The Aussies spent two days talking to contacts they already had, trying the guards, but apparently there was just nothing to be had at the time. Derna, of course, is off the beaten track in one sense and there seemed to be no supplies of British food which had been captured, which they could get their fingers on and sell to us at exorbitant rates. We didn't give up. We kept going and I was getting a bit depressed about this but I'd been down to see this officer to see if he had any ideas but he hadn't and instead of coming back across the compound where I normally came, I came up by the main gate for curiosity and had a look there. I walked along and when I came to the two burnt-out buildings I decided to have a look in them. What made me, I don' t know. Again it was one of those funny little things that happen during wars, I walked up and looked in and what I was looking at had obviously been a food dump, British food actually, we know it was because we found some eventually. I looked at this and the tins started about half way down and sloped up right to the back of the eves of this building. The walls were still there, the roof had long since gone and I was standing there looking at it and an idea popped into my head. I thought it's funny
The burnt-out billet had been used as a ration dump. The tins started at the doorway about a foot high and rose up slowly to the middle, then it sloped up more steeply to the wall at the back. The walls were ten feet high and there was no roof. The tins at the back were about two feet below the top of the wall. If the fire had burned evenly, the tins at the back should have been level with the tins at the center. I thought there must be untouched cases under the tins in the back. It would be a question of digging them out so I took off my overcoat and climbed up to the back left hand wall and started scooping debris.
I scooped out all the empty, blackened tins and in a few minutes I was completely black, black as a miner. I kept at it. Nobody bothered to come in and see what the noise was all about, probably because many lads had been in there before and had found nothing. So I dug to about half way down the wall and came across the charred top of a case. I broke off the charred wood and there were tins there. I took a couple out and the labels had been burnt off. They seemed to be the normal sort of fruit tins. I put them in my pocket, kicked a few tins over the top and went off to find Alf.
Back at the billet the lads were playing poker. We opened a tin and there were sliced peaches. Then leaving Charlie Boy in charge of the billet, the lads put on their overcoats and hid their haversacks underneath. We drifted back to the building one by one and with two outside playing cards, to keep an eye open for the guards and troublemakers, we set to work. We made a trench right across the back of the building and nobody came to see what all the noise was about. We got down to the charred cases and under these the other cases were as good as new. The center row was bully, on the left was fruit and tinned milk. On the far side a load on M & V.
We weren’t wasting anytime. We filled our haversacks then drifted off very smartly back to our billet. We didn’t say anything, for the simple reason that once the news was out, it would have been all round the camp in a few minutes and hundreds of men all trying to get in on this would have brought the guards down and then there would have been a camp search so we kept our mouths shut.
We left Charlie boy to hide the loot. I think he probably had a hole in the floor under one of the beds. We went over to the stand-pipe where we washed ourselves and our clothes but it took weeks to get the black stains off our hands and arms.
How we had the means to carry on with our escape but at the time the moon was wrong. We needed complete darkness between 7 and. 9 in the evening to enable the six of us to get out. Charlie Boy was not coming because he had bad feet and, as he said, he doubted whether he would have made it to the escarpment. So the agreement was Alf and I would go out, Bluey and one of the others would come out 20 minutes later and. the other two would come out 20 minutes after that. This would give each pair a chance to get clear. If they didn’t get clear you would hear the machine guns going and all the rest of it.
During the next ten days we stuffed ourselves with food and the Aussies kept me amused with stories about Australia, taught me poker and that wicked Australian game called Two Up. Alf told me the great adventure story about a bunch of prospectors who set out into the Gibson Desert to look for the mythical mountain of sold. They never made it back and eventually their skeletons were found. But no gold was ever found. But, as Aif said, Let’s hope our little adventure finishes a little more successfully.
Time passed slowly. Nothing happened in the camp. There was no sign of us being moved to Benghazi or anywhere else and eventually the great day arrived. In the afternoon I went down to see the Captain in the Indian Army and told him we were leaving and dial lie want to send a message or anything I could take out with me. But he said he had already written letters and posted them. He very kindly gave me a one ounce tin of Navy Cut tobacco and he gave me the front lens from a pair of binoculars. He said, if you haven't got a match, at least you'll be able to get a light which I thought was most decent of him.
I went back and Charlie Boy made a really big meal. We had bully, M&V and biscuits and jam, fruit and milk and a last cup of coffee.
Just before dark when the guards came round to chase everybody into their billets, Charlie Boy took it upon himself to go out and watch them when they were passing back down. He slipped along like a shadow and came back ten minutes later and said they had gone to their billets and we could now safely disappear. I suppose it was about 7 o'clock by the time we actually left. We were carrying a haversack with our bully and biscuits and any odds and ends we might have, which really amounted to very little - two water bottles and our overcoats. Also we each had our heavy webbing belts strapped round the bottles and haversacks to stop any movements. I regretted afterwards that we hadn't taken three water bottles but what was worrying me was that escarpment with its heavy bushes, trees and shrubs. I thought the less weight we had to carry up there the better. Even overcoats were going to be a nuisance but we had to have something to keep us warn at night. Carrying a blanket was out.
Eventually Charlie Boy said you'd better get off so we shook hands all round and wished each other luck. Alf and I slipped across the few yards of track, down the steps and huddled against the compound wall, waiting for someone to challenge us or shout but nothing happened. So we crept carefully along the side of the wall, reached the cookhouse where we dropped on to our hands and knees and crawled over the heap of rubble where the wall had been bombed. Once over the other side of this we were in the gully which was six or seven yards wide, and ran right from the bottom of the camp upwards to the top end oŁ the billet and you had a clear view all the way up. We could see the forms of the machine gun post even then. We crawled like two little mice. Not a sound did we make. We had about ten yards to go and when we reached the point where we had to turn off to the west we lay there and watched the guards. We could see their shadowy forms moving about and just then the lads in the billet started singing and were getting really noisy and any noise we might have made would have been covered.
Then another piece of luck. One of the guards must have produced a packet of fags because the next thing was a match flared and four heads were seen fairly close together by the match. Alf nudged me and we scuttled up over the little bank about five yards over the rise and out of sight. Even if the guards had heard us there was no chance they'd see us because after striking the match they were night blind. Alf and I couldn't resist looking back over the ridge to see what the guards were doing - not that we could see much but we could still see the cigarettes glowing and we both lifted two fingers at them. I couldn't help it and I suppose Alf couldn't .
We slid back down out of sight and started walking to our meeting place. This was a large tree we could see from the camp. It was no more than 100 yards from where we were and it was a thick, wild fig tree about 40 feet high. We sat down with our backs against the tree. I counted to a thousand. Alf counted to a thousand. Then we started again. After a while we began to get a bit edgy because we had no real idea of how time was going. We didn't want to walk away and leave the other 1ads to arrive and find us gone.
A moment or two later the problem was solved for us because the machine gun nearest us started firing. We didn't see any tracer so we couldn't see where they were firing. Alf and I said nothing. There was nothing we could do. We sat there for a little while longer because if the lads had managed to make it over the rise the machine gunner wouldn't have been able to shoot at them because they would have been out of sight.
After a few minutes they obviously weren't coming so we got up and continued our walk westwards. The reason we were going west instead of south was that the ground behind the billet was very rough where it ran back to the escarpment. It looked as though someone had been out there with a giant spade throwing things around.
We walked for a while and came to a shallow wadi. It had sandy sides which we slid down to the bottom. How we turned south and headed for the escarpment. We could see vague black shapes in the distance. We approached them with caution until we could see they were 44 gallon fuel drums, some full, some empty. There appeared to be nobody about so we just continued on.
We reached the foot of the escarpment and pushed our way through the heavy bush at the base until we reached the cliff itself. Here we sat down to rest a while and Alf took out the tin of tobacco and rolled matchstick thin cigarettes which gave us about two puffs each. We had heard no more of the hue and cry from the camp but we waited a while just the same in case there was a chance.
Eventually we decided to go and we turned our faces to the wall and started climbing. It was a question of pulling ourselves up from branch to branch, tree to tree and bush to bush. It was hard, heavy work made more difficult by the dark. We just pushed our way forward, scrabbling for footholds. We rested hourly and it must have been about midnight when we reached a ledge some six feet wide where we could sit down and Alf rolled another cigarette. When we got up we realized we had been sitting under an overhang. Alf could reach up and touch the branches and bushes above our heads because the overhang was a bit shorter than the ledge we were standing on.
There was no way up for me so we traversed along to the east but there was no way up so we came back and looked to the wrest. There was no way up there either so Alf said, there's only one way for it; you'll have to get up on my shoulders. we bent down and I sat on his shoulders and he walked carefully to the edge of the ledge. There was plenty of stuff to get hold of so I got a good grip on something and he got his hands under my feet and lifted me up very slowly and I simply flopped over the top.
Well, once there, I lay still for a moment then I turned round to Alf. Me coming up was one thing but Alf had to reach up and find something to get hold of and then lift himself up by brute force. There was no way he was going to drop down again. With the amount of room on the ledge he would simply have gone off backwards. So I found a large root, wrapped my legs round it and then lay down so that I was overhanging and I said to Alf, right, put your hands up. He did this and I guided him to a couple of good grips. we then lifted himself up slowly but a bit at a time until he reached a point where his head and shoulders were on a level with the overhang. How he was struggling to pull himself up the neat bit but by now I could reach his webbing belt. I got both hands on this and I said Alf boy, you're coming up and I gave a heave and we shot up on to the ledge. It was like landing a large fish. He lay there for a moment then he turned and looked at me and said, I don't know how you did that but thank you. So I said, Tit for tat, Alf. I wouldn't have got up here without your help.
We now continued our climb up the cliff. In fact we climbed for the rest of the night. Morning found us close to the top but unfortunately the vegetation we had been able to haul ourselves up with finished about fifteen feet from the top and the rest was bare rock, slightly concave. There was no way we could even hack footholds out of it. So Alf and I looked at each other and looked at the rock. To the east there was nothing but bare rock as far as we could see but to the west, several hundred yards away, there was a tree so we made our way along to it. It wasn't too difficult to get to and we found it was the sort of tree a child might draw with lots of sticky-out branches. The roots were there if only we could reach them but there was no way I was going to sit on Alf's shoulders and reach - far too far. But he said, strip off, and we took off our overcoats, haversacks and water bottles and he leaned with his hands against the cliff and said, climb on my shoulders. I put on both webbing belts and a water bottle strap and prepared to stand on his shoulders - not an easy thing to do. There were two factors. First, I was afraid I would hurt Alf with the leather chaplis I had on; second, if I fell off I was going to fall a hell of a long way before I hit the bottom.
But I blanked it out of my mind and I climbed up on his shoulders and put my hands against the wall. He said, walk your hands up and he stood up very slowly, walking his hands up and I did the same.
Eventually he was up straight and there was me balanced on his shoulders with my hands against the cliff. I was still a couple of feet short, though, so Alf said, put your feet in my hands, which I did and he pushed up. I could feel him trembling under my weight because I weighed 11 stone 7 but I was able to grab a branch and relieve him of my weight. I then pulled myself up over these wretched roots and eventually, there I was, on top.
I lay there for a while and Alf shouted up, what the hell was I doing, having a sleep? I joined up the webbing belts and the water bottle straps and let them down to Alf and we could just about reach them. He tied on another strap and I hauled up the bits and pieces. I took the straps off' the other water bottles and haversacks and made a line as strong as I could and tied one end to a root and let the rest down to Alf. He swung his weight on it then came up hand over hand. There was nothing I could do to help him because there was nothing I could lock on to. He reached the roots and started pulling himself over them. I got two hands under his arms and said, Whatever happens, you' re not going down again. Then, with a heave and a grunt he came over the top.
He lay there for a moment then got up and we stood there looking down the face of the escarpment. Across the plain at the bottom, all that rough land. The prison camp was nothing but a tiny little match box. Other buildings you could see were microscopic. I don't know how far away we were but it was a great long way. Alf said, "I don't believe it" and I said, "Nor do I". But there, we'd made it, against impossible odds.
Alf said, "What how?" I said, "I'm tired, I'm buggered, I don't know about you." All he did was laugh. "Anyway Alf, it's dangerous to wander around up here. We may be some considerable distance from the airstrip." We could hear planes landing and taking off even from here. "And also there is the Mechili-Derna track somewhere between us and the landing strip so what we are going to do is find somewhere to we up for a few hours and sleep."
"OK" he said, "Let's go." The land behind us to the south rose quite steeply and a few yards to the west of us was a gully, a washout (it must have been washed out over the years, I suppose). It was quite deep, about eight or nine feet maybe and about ten feet wide with a sandy bottom. The western side of the gully was lined with these little black dead trees. I think they were probably thorn trees of some kind, I don't know. Anyway, we decided to walk up here. It was going south which was the way I wanted to go for a short way, anyway. After a while (without a watch it's impossible to tell how long you walk) we came to a fork. The gully we were following continued south while the other one branched off to the south east, which was exactly where I wanted to go. However, right in the middle of the fork was a hole about four feet in diameter, maybe a little more. Being nosy, I dropped down to peep into this hole and inside was a small cave, not much higher than the diameter of the wall but plenty large enough for Alf and 1 to creep into, and it had a nice soft sandy bottom. Well, in we went and off came our water bottles and haversacks, and we curled up and went to sleep.
I was dreaming that I was cold, that I was freezing in fact. This woke me up and I found that I was freezing, my teeth were chattering. Alf was still sleeping and I thought God knows, "What am I doing freezing?" Anyway, I went out through the hole into the sunshine and I found it was just on midday or thereabouts. 1 whipped off my overcoat and sat in the sun, and even then it was a good ten minutes before I really started to get warm again. 1n the meantime, Alf appeared and wanted to know what we were doing in the North Pole! I said, "Don't ask me Alf, but come and get yourself warm." Anyway, it was not till long after that I realized what had happened. Of course, when you sleep, your temperature drops and inside that cave, the cave itself was completely insulated from any heat; and the result is with the drop of our temperature, sleeping, of course we did become cold.
I did not know this at the time and I was very puzzled. Anyway, we sat there in the sun and we ate a little bully and drank a very little water, and we were just about to get up to continue following the south east gully when we heard a sort of a clunk-clunk noise. Alf looked at me and said, "What the hell's that." I said, "I don't know Alf but we'll find out." But before I could find out there was a tinkle-tinkle - bells. A whole herd of goats came bouncing along the top of the gully. Goats are very much like cats, they climb trees. They run up these trees and balance themselves on a couple of little branches looking for the nearest bit of greenery, if there is any. I think this is one of the reasons that anywhere you find goats, you find erosion.
Anyway, we watched these goats for a moment or two and they went on past us and two small Arab boys appeared. They could not have been more than about eleven or twelve, and they were not even the slightest surprised to see us, and certainly not frightened of us. They came over, "Salaamed ", shook hands with us and one small boy rushed off and came back with an arm full of dead wood. The other small boy produced a teapot from his goatskin bag together with tea and a mint leaf and sugar. We were made to sit down and the four of us then squatted round this bit of a fire while the boy made typical herb tea - mint tea. Two small short glasses were produced and we each had three of these small glasses, then the boys had their turn. We couldn't talk to them really but we mimed things and used "finger language", so to speak. Anyway, we eventually asked them, by holding up a water bottle, where we could find water. "Oh," they said, "'There is plenty of water," at least that is what we gathered, all we had to do - they waved their hands to the south - was follow them back to their Father's tents. Well, we weren't prepared to do this. I didn't know much about what the Arabs were like in those days, it was only later that I discovered that most of the Arabs could be trusted up to as far as Derna, but beyond that, they could be dicey. Anyway, we opted to miss that one, and eventually we stood up, put our kit on, and shook hands with the boys and thanked them. They Salaamed, waved us goodbye and set off with their goats, and Alf and I set off, following the south east gully.
We walked for a long time and eventually the gully petered out and we found ourselves standing on the plain. We had come quite a considerable distance and could see the planes quite clearly landing there. The end of the airstrip was heavily wooded, and beyond this (maybe half a mile beyond this), was a low range of hills. I was aiming for somewhere between these hills and the end of the airstrip, being plenty of cover. What I had forgotten was that in between us was, of course, the Derna-Mechili track.
Alf said, "Shall we continue walking?" "I think we'll risk it," I replied. We were getting into the afternoon now, mid-afternoon I should think, and we would see dust in the distance, if there were any vehicles about. So we continued walking, having forgotten about the Mechili track, and the fact that it was a sunken track here. It ran for seven miles and you couldn't even see a vehicle coming along it from where we were standing - it was too deep. Anyway, we almost fell into the damned thing when we reached it. We looked at one another and I said "Alf, we had better beat it, quick." So we slithered down the sides, and up the other side and about a couple of hundred yards or more away there was a large clump of bushes. We headed for this, reached it and sat down there to get our wind back again. However, there was nothing happening, no signs of vehicles. After a while we got up and continued our walk across the rest of the plain to the southern end of the airstrip where the heavy bushes were. We reached this in safety and I said, "Let's continue on Alf." The land rose again slightly to a ridge, to the east of us and I said "Let's continue walking. I want to see over the top of that ridge because the road will have to be over there somewhere." We reached the ridge and lay down and sure enough there was the road, and we could see vehicles passing along it. I took a bearing in the mind of which way we were going to go exactly, and we then retired into the bushes and slept until dark. As soon as it was dark, we set off again over the ridge and I headed north cast. This would bring us down onto the road some miles away from the airstrip. We eventually reached the road.
Here we had a problem: Should we continue walking along the road, which would have been easy walking for us, or would we walk north and head for the coast. We discussed it between us but what I disliked or even Alf disliked the idea of walking along the road for the simple reason that if a couple of lorries with troops on decided to stop for the night and just pulled off onto the side of the road, we could quite easily walk into these fellows and get recaptured. This road was very busy, even at night with Rommel shoving stuff down to the front.
Although we disliked the idea of walking over the rough ground down to the coast as opposed to walking along the road or along the side of the road, we decided to head for the coast. Now this, of course, was the biggest mistake, in fact it was the only really bad mistake we made the whole time as you will see a little later on.
We continued north for some time until we could hear the sea quite plainly, and we then turned east. We hadn't gone 200 yards when we hit a wadi, a big deep wadi. What we had clone obviously, was follow it down to the coast, a couple of hundred yards away from it. Anyway, we stood there looking down in this wadi. Fortunately the walls here were not perpendicular, you could scramble up and down them easily, (fairly easily), but it needed energy. Anyway, there was nothing else to do, either go down and up the other side, or walk back to the road and carry on down the road. So down we went and we scrambled up the other side and carried on hoping that was the last of our real troubles here. Anyway it wasn't, we probably went no more than half a mile and we hit another one, just as deep and just as nasty. Down we went and up we went the other side. By now, we were getting pretty weary, so we found a sheltered spot from the wind and tried to sleep but the cold was far too much for us. We continued walking and of course after a while we hit a fourth one. Well, we went down and we went up. It took us a long time, and by the time we reached the top it was getting close to daylight, and we were both absolutely buggered to be honest. We found a group of rocks and the sun came up and warmed us, and we went to sleep. We slept most of the day and towards night, late in the afternoon we ate a little bully and drank some more water. Our water was going down quite rapidly now. Anyway, we decided to walk again and off we went.
We walked, we stopped a while and rested and then we carried on walking. We couldn't sleep, sleeping was impossible without a couple of blankets to warm you up. Anyway, just before daylight we came to the edge of another wadi, the fifth one. We decided to sit there until the sun came up to see what we had. Well, the sun came up and we looked down this wadi which was just as steep and as nasty as the rest of them and much wider, but the funny thing was on the other side, exactly opposite us was a track leading up. It was white, you could see it had been hacked out of the wadi wall years before I suppose. It was simply a zig zag up to the top. I said "That's funny Alf, where's the track this side?" Well, we couldn't see one and didn't even bother to go and look, we were too tired. We climbed down and we started to cross the bed of the wadi. Half way across we came across wheel tracks.
Now that frightened the life out of us because obviously German patrols or Italian patrols were coming down here so we took to our heels, tired or not tired we ran. We hit the bottom of this track leading up and I suppose we were half way up before we really slowed down, and in fact we sat down to rest again. The track itself was about six feet wide, obviously wide enough to take animals up and down. It was all rough stones though, very rough walking. Anyway, we continued to the top and here the track carried on to the east which suited us. It made easy walking because the track was about a couple of feet wide, was well worn and smooth, no rocks, no pebbles so my feet were not troubled too badly. The trouble with chaplis is everything gets in between your toes and the sole. Anyway, we walked on and we kept walking. After a while - it must have been close to midday, we stopped. We found ourselves now passing through an area which was rocks and high rocks. The track itself wound through all those great rocks, rather like walking through a miniature gorge. Anyway, close to midday, we decided to call it a day and found a hidey-hole behind the rocks and went to sleep. I don't think we had been asleep for long before I woke up to the sound of horse beats. I thought "That's funny - what's a horse doing here?" Alf woke up too and we looked at one another and Alf said to me "Do you think the Germans have got Cavalry?" "Well," I said "They probably have got Cavalry but I can't imagine they would have them out here." Anyway, we got up and got ourselves a position where we could see the track, and we waited and the hoof beats came closer and closer, and what appeared was an Arab lad of about seventeen, I suppose, leading two horses. The funny thing was, he was absolutely delighted to see us. Fortunately he could speak English, or a certain amount of English, enough to get by with. He told us that not far away there were some more English soldiers hiding in a cave in the next wadi. I said "Don't tell me there is another wadi?" "Ah well" he said "'This is what it is. It's not running from the coast upwards to the south. It apparently ran eastwards. "Anyway" he said, "Would we like to ride his horses if we were feeling tired." Alf refused, he preferred his flat feet (But of course, he had damn good boots). Anyway, I climbed aboard a horse and let the Arab lead the way, me on a horse, Alf bringing up the rear. It was a considerable walk, a long time, maybe it was close to four o'clock, I should think by the sun when the Arab boy stopped and said we must wait here in the rocks until we came back. He wanted to go and take the horses back to the camp and scout out the area to make sure there were no Italians about. Apparently, they came down a track from the road, down to the little oasis and pumped water. Anyway, we lay up in the rocks there, and once he had gone, out of curiosity, we followed the track along, only a couple of hundred yards where it ended at the top of another cliff. We looked down (it was no more than a 100 feet high here I suppose), and the wadi itself that he was talking about ran due east. The sea was no more than 300 yards away I suppose, but between us and the sea was a rock wall of say 50 feet high. Now where it joined our cliff in the left hand corner, it was very thickly bushed and wooded for about 60 or 70 yards, but beyond this it was sheer rock as far as you could see and about half a mile away from us was a group of palm trees and obviously the water holes he had been telling us about. To the right of us or to the south a little shallow wadi ran away, (sandy this was), and we could see the tiny black tents which was obviously the Arab camp.
Satisfied with what we saw, we returned to our hideyhole and waited. It was close to dark when the boy came back and this time he was carrying a rifle which we understood was to make sure no Italians got near us. Anyway, we went down the side of the cliff and at the bottom he turned left or towards the sea, and to this clump of bushes in the corner which we had seen. Here we climbed through the bushes at the bottom and then there was a path/track leading up the side of the cliff. Quite close to the top but well covered was a ledge and beyond this a fairly large cave. We stopped there and the Arab boy went forward and called out and two British soldiers appeared. He talked to them there for a moment, and then called us over. We shook hands and exchanged names and that. Inside the cave there were two other men - a sergeant who had been wounded in the hand and the arm with these explosive bullets and was in a pretty rough state. He also had dysentery. A friend of his was with him and there had been a third man with the sergeant, but he had volunteered to walk to Tobruk and see if he could persuade the authorities to send one of the Navy boats to pick everybody up. I thought it was most unlikely myself but I did not say anything. Anyway, we never did find out if the chap even arrived in Tobruk although we made inquiries when we got there. Anyway, the other two fellows were R.A.S.C. fellows.
Apparently they had been driving a lorry load of rations from Derna, heading east of course, when for some reason they decided to turn off and head north down the coast over all the rough ground there. Why they did this, I don't know. I think they probably panicked. Anyway, they drove as far as they could, then they unloaded a lot of rations which appeared to be basically nothing but 25 lb. tins of porridge oats. Anyway, they drove the lorry to the edge of the wadi and let it roll over the top. Now, it rolled down but it never reached the bottom. It tumbled over and over and fetched up against some very large rocks and it's still there, (and was still there as far as they knew). We hadn't seen it but then we weren't looking for lorries. Anyway, they said we were welcome to stay with them and see whether a boat came up. Anyway, my feet were in a pretty rotten state and we were both tired with climbing these wadis up and down. We decided to stay but we couldn't stay long because of the food situation. We hadn't got much and we still had to get to Tobruk. "Oh" they said, they could give us a meal of porridge oats once a day.
Apparently, these two lads had carried four of these tins, one under each arm from the truck up to their present cave. It was fairly easy for them, once they had got to the top of the wadi (that last wadi we climbed), it was all flat going. So we decided to stay. We got bored after a while, (we stayed three or four clays and were really bored). They got talking about this lorry and Alf said to me "Why don't we go back and have a look at this lorry and see if there is anything left on it?" I said, "I shouldn't think so, I would have thought the Arabs will have cleaned it out. They must know it's there." Anyway, for something to do, we decided we would take a walk back, it wasn't that far. The following night we set off and we reached to top of the wadi in the morning. We were standing there looking down and we could see this lorry where it was stuck half way down the other side, (the cliff of the other side), and we were just about to start clown the track when an Arab appeared out of nowhere. He came steaming up that track, saw us and although we couldn't speak English, we know exactly what he was saying.
He was being chased by a German patrol apparently or at least there were Germans around. Well, he didn't wait, he shot past us and off, so we followed him. We weren't taking any chances - to hell with the food! Anyway, we got back to the cave that night, just before dark. All we had done, was tired ourselves out a bit more and walked probably an extra fifty miles for nothing.
Anyway, we then decided it was time we moved on. We didn't see any point in waiting because I was pretty certain that nothing was going to happen. In any case, the sergeant was beginning to stink. His arms were going rotten and he should in fact have taken himself up to the road and given himself up. Anyway, we decided to leave and when the Arab boy came round that evening, which he did every evening, we told him we were leaving. He said "Wait, I want you to see my Father first." The following day he came back and said that evening we were to go to his Father's tent where we would be given food. I said "Do you think you could get my sandals mended for me?" Apparently this was no problem. So that night he came and fetched us and we arrived at the tent. Here we were greeted like royalty almost. We were sat down. Alf's boots were unlaced and taken off. My chaplis were taken away to he repaired. We were led into the tent and there was a carpet - a nice carpet and cushions and Alf and I sat down there. We were then each given a raw egg. I couldn't stand raw eggs (hungry as I was), so I gave mine to Alf who didn't mind at all. Next, a great bowl of lebne, (sour milk which the Arabs are very fond of), came in. Alf couldn't drink this - he tried it, but no way! Anyway, I drank the lot. After this there was a great dish of what appeared to be boiled barley with meat and gravy on top of it, and were told to eat as much as we wanted and not to worry. We were given a spoon each (because the Arabs eat with their fingers). Alf and I dug in and we were just about busted by the time we finished. After this there was coffee, three tiny cups of coffee each. We had no problems conversing with the old boy because the son interpreted for us. At the end of this, after a little small talk, my chaplis were brought back, Alf’s boots were produced and we stood up and shook hands all the way round. The old boy "Salaamed" and the son took us back to our cave.
We left the following day around four o'clock. We took a chance that at that time there was unlikely to be any Italians coming down for water. We had one tin of bully each and a packet of biscuits left. We stopped at the little oasis at the water holes and filled up our two water bottles and continued on our walk. We walked all the night on and off, rest a little while and walking because it was always too cold here to sleep at night. In the cave it was all right because there was a group of us, we produced warmth and with our coats we were quite happy in there, but outside, no!
First thing in the morning sunlight, we found ourselves at the end of this long, long wadi. The walls had dropped away on the seaward side and we were in a park like area, acacia trees, a small forest of them. We found a lie up here and slept most of the day.
That night we walked smack bang into a small Italian camp. There were four wacking great stationary engines, a sludge pump and from the sludge pump was a flexible four inch pipe running into a great hole. I peered down the hole and there was water at the bottom. It was only about six or seven feet down. There was no noise so whether there was anybody in the tents Alf and I didn't take the trouble to find out. If there were we left them in peace.
I climbed down the hole and tried the water. It was drinkable but it had a peculiar smell and a very funny taste. But water was water and I filled my water bottle and Alf's. I also drank a little of this water. I asked Alf if he'd like to drink some of his but he said he was OK. I drank a little more and I lived to regret this. I wasn't so wise in those days as I grew to be later on. Anyway, up the pipe I went and off we started again.
We walked some considerable distance and then we ran into a waterway. It was only a few yards wide and not very deep. We waded through it and came up on to a spit of land again but we hadn't gone many yards when we ran into another waterway. Well, we crossed five of these and then gave it up as a bad job because if there were five there were possibly 55 of the damn things ahead of us. So we walked up the spit of land which was probably about half a mile until we came to the road. Now, in this particular part we were in the narrow end of the bay just west of Gazala point itself. We didn't know this but that was where we were.
We climbed up the embankment on to the road and started walking along the road which was no problem. Everything was very quiet. There seemed to be no life around so we carried on walking and suddenly we stopped. In the distance we could hear footsteps coming closer. Alf said we wouldn't get down the embankment. We could dive off down there if it was anything nasty and nobody was going to follow us into the swamp.
The footsteps came closer and it reminded me of the old serials we used to watch as children when the saw came nearer and nearer to Vera. Eventually out of the darkness came two short, stocky figures. As they approached us on the other side of the road, both of them averted their heads. Obviously they were up to no good. What they were up to I've no idea but, as Alf said, it was a damn good job.
We carried on and hadn't gone much further when suddenly my legs collapsed under me. There was no question of going any further, they just collapsed and I couldn't go on. There was no pain, only if I tried to stand up, then the pain was violent in both calves. Alf said, "Well, just sit there and we'll see what happens. The morning was coming on then and we had to get on or we were going to be caught in the bend of the point. We could see the shadow of the hill which ran down where the road bent round Gazala Point.
So Alf got me up and we staggered along. Every now and again we would rest and we kept at it. We couldn't do anything else. We had to be out of that area and into hiding before daylight which was coming on rapidly. We then heard the sound of a motor and we shot off the road into a clump of bushes. There was plenty of cover here so we simply lay there and along came one of those seven ton Lancia lorries with a trailer, both lorry and trailer loaded with Italian soldiers. They turned off down to the left of us down to the seaward side.
We decided to get under cover and stay there for the rest of the day because there was no chance of moving much further. We were lucky. No more than 15 or twenty yards away there was an umbrella tree, very much like a weeping willow with branches sweeping right down to the ground. It had very large leaves and when we parted the branches and leaves there was a clear open space. Alf helped me in and I propped myself against the tree and simply sat there. Lorries began to come in and troops were passing by no more than five yards away. We could see them all clearly but even if they were looking closely I doubt if they would have seen us.
I went to sleep and probably Alf' did the same. It must have been about Mid-day when I woke up. I was thirsty and hungry. Although I was not in any pain, when I tried to stand up my legs gave me hell. So we drank a little water and ate a little bully beef' and we still had a little tobacco left which we smoked. We stayed there until dark then decided to try again. Funnily enough I was able to go about half' a mile quite happily, then my legs gave out again. The rest of the night was spent with Alf helping me hobble along. We had to get clear of Gazala Point by the morning if possible because obviously there was a large troop concentration there and sooner or later we were going to walk into trouble.
Some time in the early hours oŁ the morning tire reached the end of this track and found ourselves on a long sandy beach. We continued very slowly because Alf had to help me all the way. Daylight found us in a most peculiar position. To the right of us we found ourselves in the middle of a German camp - trucks, tents, men moving around and the worst thing of the lot was that no more than 100 yards ahead of us there was a little point of land which ran out to sea about 50 yards and on the end of this point was a German soldier, fully equipped, helmet, greatcoat, water bottle, haversack and he was leaning on his rifle staring out to sea.
I said to Alf, "What do we do?" and he said, "The only thing to do is to keep walking". I said, "You'd better take your hat off, you can see it a mile away". and he said, "If you think I'm going to take my hat off for any bloody Jerry, you can think again, so let's walk."
Now, strangely enough, my legs suddenly came back to life. The pain disappeared and I found myself walking normally. Whether this was the fright of seeing the German sentry I don't know. Now, Alf had very long legs and he was stepping it out and I had to damn nearly double to keep up with him. After a while we stopped and looked back and, strangely enough, the German sentry was still standing on the point staring out to sea and Alf said, "I wonder if the bugger's dead or whether he's gone to sleep." I should imagine he'd gone to sleep leaning on his rifle. I've seen people do this.
We continued our walk. There were no more troops camped to the south of us. The land had become very rough and wild. There were little hummocks of sand with bushy tops very much like Etla where there were all those dunes covered in bush and scrub. This seemed to go on for miles and miles but the beach was pure sand. It was easy walking for me because my chaplis were finished. Not only that but my feet were raw. They were cut and bruised and I had blisters on my heels but walking on the sand was fairly easy.
We walked until mid-day. We were both tired and thought it was better we slept in the afternoon rather than walk through the heat which would only deplete our water supply. So we found a shady place under these scrubby bushes and we slept there until late afternoon. We then ate the remains of our bully and that was the last of the food. We drank a little water. We then continued walking and the sandy beach continued for some hours and it must have been a little after midnight when it ran out and we found ourselves climbing hills of pure rock. W loose stones: they were just flat sheets of stone which rose up and fell down the other side to form a narrow valley. We then climbed up the next one and down it again.
After a while we stopped and slept a little and just before dawn we started off again. When the sun came up we were approaching what appeared to be the last of these rocky hills. We were close to the bottom and, though the rocks stretched flat for a while, we could see the sandy beach was starting again. The land to the south of us was rising rapidly to low hills and very, very rough.
Then we heard a motor which caused us both to drop flat. We couldn't see anything. Then suddenly we saw the top of a lorry and a moment or two later we could see it was driving along a sunken road. I’d forgotten about this road. I knew about it but it had long passed out of my mind. We simply lay there hoped for the best as we were no more than 25 yards away when the lorry passed us and, funnily enough, not one head turned in our direction.
We waited until the engine sound disappeared. We listened for another lorry but there was nothing so we simply ran forward, dropped down on to the, road, climbed up the other side and took to our heels across this flat stretch of rock. We kept going regardless of my feet until we reached the sandy beach. Here we sat down and rested. We also stripped off arid had a swim. I found that swimming helped our thirst. Also we rinsed out our mouths but were scared to drink the salt water. Many years I learnt that you can drink a pint of sea water a day and have no ill effects. If we' d known that, what a big help it would have been.
Anyway, we didn't so we dressed ourselves and carried on walking. We went on until close to mid-day when we ran into another German rest camp. There were men on the beach swimming and playing and there were tents and lorries no more than 150 yards from the beach. There were more little sand dunes with bushy tops there so we crawled in among these and went to sleep.
It was late afternoon when we woke up and there were still people down on the beach and lots of troops around the camp. Our water supply was down to just under a full bottle and we weren't going to go much further because we were both badly dehydrated. Alf suggested we raid the German camp and see if we could find some water. I agreed but not for both of its to go in; there was no point in two of us getting clobbered. So we drew lots with two sticks. I picked the short one but Alf still tried to argue that he should go in because of my feet. Also, he being big and tall could easily be taken for, a German whereas I, being short, would probably be easily noticed.
I cut the legs off my boiler suit, cut them into strips and bound them round my feet. I dumped my haversack, left my overcoat with Alf and took his empty water bottle. We waited until well after dark when the troops had been fed and had come back to their tents. We could hear them singing. Someone was playing an accordion.
We started up towards the camp. Alf came with me to within 50 yards of the camp and waited on a rocky ridge. I walked boldly across. There was no point in trying to hide because slinking around was more likely to be noticed. I went to the first lorry I could see. As I closed in on it there were a number of jerricans but instead of walking towards them I ducked under the truck. These trucks were very high off the ground and there was plenty of room for little me underneath.
I slid under the truck and was just about to edge my way towards the four gallon jerricans when a figure squatted. down and peered at me from under the truck and a voice said something which sounded like "Vas ist das?" To say I was scared was to put it mild so I did the first thing which came into my head. I had Alf's empty water bottle in my hand and I hurled it at this figure's head and at the same time I let out a screech which would have done justice to a Comanche warrior and I shot out from under the truck like a bullet.
I ran, shouting to Alf to beat it but, instead of carrying straight on to where I'd left Alf, I bore off to the right which would take me further down the beach away from the camp. Behind me were shouts and I continued running. The rags came off my feet but never mind the stones, I went like a rocket. Somebody let off a rifle shot. I heard a dog barking and I continued on just running.
There was no sign of Alf and there was no point in me waiting to find out. I just kept going. I ran until I could run no longer. In any case the shouts and the dog barking all died away and there was no sound, only the sea. Eventually I sat down from exhaustion and I waited, thinking Alf was bound to come along in a moment or two. But nothing happened. There was no sign of Alf and I came to the conclusion he must have been caught.
Well, there was nothing I could do about this. So I stood up, took a look around and continued walking. I walked until the early hours of the morning and again I was becoming close to exhaustion. I drank more of my water. There was very little left. Then I lay down on the sand and tried to sleep but it was too cold with a wind off the sea.
I then had another of my bright ideas. I waded into the sea and, surprisingly, the water was quite warm. I lay down so that only my shoulders and my head were above the water and I went to sleep.
When I awoke the sun was shining on my face, otherwise I would probably have carried on sleeping. I sat up in a hurry and looked to the West and there was nothing but the sandy shore stretching away as far as I could see. I turned to the East and there again the beach stretched away as far as I could see. After a while I dragged myself up and drank the rest of my water. I examined the beach for footprints in case Alf had passed me by in the night but there was nothing. So again I started walking and I continued until lunchtime.
By this time I was very, very thirsty but had nothing to drink. I swam in the sea and washed my mouth out and I found a shady spot - there were plenty of bushes - and I went to sleep.
It was close to dark again when I woke up and the thirst now was really bad. My tongue seemed to be swollen and too big for my mouth. Anyway, there was no going back. I must continue forward. So I started walking again. I walked for a long time. The moon came up. There was quite a lot of moonlight. Eventually I came to a shallow wadi. It was quite wide and stretched away to the South and just the other side of this wadi I could see a tall, dark thing. I wasn't sure what it was in the moonlight but I decided to go and investigate. As I closed in on it I discovered it was a cactus. It was a good ten feet high, thick stem and thick leaves.
The leaves were eight to nine inches wide and over a foot long. I stood staring at this cactus and somewhere at the back of my mind I remembered reading a story about a man in Mexico who was lost in the desert and he was saved because he found a cactus plant which was one of the type which hold water. They store it up during the wet season and use it as they require it. I thought now is the hour to find out. The leaves were covered in very sharp spikes and I went and found two flat stones and carefully rubbed off all the spikes from one leaf and then I broke it off and carried it across to a little rocky ledge. Here I sat and pounded it very gently on top. I didn't want to bruise it underneath and lose any liquid which might be in it. It started to ooze liquid and I simply picked it up and licked it. It was quite acid tasting and it seemed to do me the world of good. I kept sucking at this until there was nothing left and this helped revive the swollen feeling in my mouth.
I tossed it on one side and was about to go back for another one when I heard dogs barking. The feeling about German police dogs came into it and I realized it couldn't be police dogs. What would Germans be doing with police dogs in such a place. What I was hearing was pi dogs or Arab dogs and if there were Arabs there was water. So I turned my face to the South and started walking up the wadi. I walked and the dogs kept barking and then they would stop and I would stand there cursing because I wanted the dogs to keep barking and guide me. My mind was not working very well and if I’d had any sense at all I had to do was to keep walking up the wadi and sooner or later I would find their camp. After a while I came to a ridge which ran right across the wadi. I climbed up over this and found I was right on top of these barking dogs and in the moonlight I could see black dots which I took to be the Arab tents. So I went on walking and out of the darkness a pack of them came. I don't know how many of these dogs there were but they came howling at me as if to tear me to pieces. Well, I had an empty water bottle and I simply threw it at them which dispersed them for a moment or two and gave me time to pick up a couple of rocks which I hurled at them. I retrieved my water bottle and with stones I drove the dogs back until I reached a tent.
Now, how do you knock on a skin tent? I stood there for a while wondering whether I should shout and then I pounded on the tent with both fists. After a while a slit appeared and a voice said something. I simply held out my water bottle and said, "Water." A hand came out, took the bottle and disappeared. A few moments passed. I thought he'd gone. I thought he'd taken my bottle and stuck to it. But then a hand came out with the bottle, dripping wet and a voice said something again which I didn't understand. So I waited and he hand came out with a whole great chippatti, dry as an old bone but, never mind, it was food.
'I said, "'Thank you," and left. I walked back to the ridge. The dogs had dispersed. I sat on the ridge and drank a little of the water. I had to use a great deal of will power not to drink the lot but I had already learnt the lesson that too much water can be as bad as too little. I started on the chippatti. It was very dry but with a little water with each mouthful I managed to eat the whole lot.
When I had finished I had roughly half a bottle of water left but with the food and the water I felt a new man and I set off back to the beach and continued walking East.
It's a funny thing: I had two little men in my mind. One little man was saying, "You must go East, young man" and the other little man said, "No, that's wrong. You should go West, young man." This little rhythm seemed to play in my mind, "Go East, young man."
The sandy beach soon gave out and I found myself faced with a mountain of rocks, loose rocks, and there was no way I could walk over them, my feet were far too bad. Walking along the beach I could splash through the water. So long as there was water there was no problem. So the only thing I could do was to go down on my hands and knees and crawl. I crawled up this mountain of rocks and down the other side. On the second crawl up I was quite close to the top when I heard the tramp of feet. I simply flattened myself and hoped for the best. I hid my face in my hands, because I knew that in the moonlight it could probably be seen and show up white.
I waited and the tramp of feet came closer and eventually six figures, I counted them, fully equipped with overcoats, water bottles, packs, rifles in hand and they passed within five yards of me and went off down towards the sea. I waited until the footsteps had died away and I scuttled over the top. My feet were forgotten. I went down the other side like a mountain goat.
Now here I was lucky. I hit sand again and was able to walk. Lord knows what I'd done to my feet coming down those rocks because even walking on the sand was now becoming painful.
But I continued walking and after a while I slept then continued walking again and at daylight I was still on sandy beach and I kept going.
Eventually the sand gave out and I reached a point where the land rose maybe ten or twelve feet. There was a rocky ridge in front of me and to the south and ahead of me there were low hills. I climbed up this low ridge and lay looking over the top. In front of me was a long valley which stretched away. I could see a bay or two and there were these low hills to the right. I was still lying there when I saw a flash and then another. It was a long way ahead and then all of a sudden it was as though I had developed telescopic eyes for I had a complete clear picture of a sangar and sitting on the wall of this sangar was a figure playing a stringed instrument. The flash was coming from a machine gun which another soldier was cleaning and as he turned the gun each time there was a flash.
Well, there was no way I could continue walking up the valley because I would have walked straight into a German or Italian outpost. So I slithered back down to the beach again and sat there for a while to consider things. Of course, my mind was not really working. It hopped from one thing to another like the two little men who told me to go East or West. After a while I decided to look at the rocky side of the low cliff so I walked along to it and climbed round and found to my delight I was standing on a shelf a couple of inches under water. Over the years the softer rock had been worn away and there was an overhang eight to nine feet high where I could walk under quite comfortably and the shelf was a good three to four feet wide so there was no problem. I thought this was the cat's whiskers, off we go. So I started but after a while all my prospects suddenly vanished. I found myself at the end of this shelf staring over a very wide bay, several hundred yards and to the right of me I could see this machine gun post quite clearly and the fellow was still sitting on the wall strumming away. There was no -way I was going to get past them so far as I could see and I retreated a little backwards feeling disappointed and very sorry for myself.
My thirst was becoming even worse but I dare not drink the last drop of water. That had to wait until I had reached the extreme. So I sat there and then realized I'd overlooked something. There had been some bodies floating in the water and I moved round to where I could look across the bay and sure enough there were half a dozen bodies floating in the swell and they were drifting in very slowly towards the beach about 15 yards from me. I had the idea that if I slipped into the water and swam under I could come up under one of the bodies and hopefully tow it gently lying alongside of it and swim across the bay with it. I've always been an excellent swimmer and that was no problem. So I tossed away my empty water bottle and I strapped the half full one down very tightly with my belt. I stripped off the remains of my boiler suit so that I was only in shirt and shorts. I then slipped into the water, dived down and swam until I could see the body above me. I came up very slowly and steadied myself against it until I could peep over the top. Nobody had apparently notices anything. The chap was still strumming on his guitar so I lay myself alongside this gentleman, grabbed him by the shirt and, kicking with my feet and paddling with one hand, I moved away very slowly across the bay.
I don't know how long it took me to cross but then I was in no hurry. The water was warm and pleasant and if it took: me all day it didn't really matter. I eventually reached the other side and once under cover. I gave the old boy a pat on the shoulder, thanked him for his help, gave him a shove and sent him on his way.
Here again I was lucky. I was in exactly the same position as before with a nice shelf to walk along under the overhang but I didn't travel very far, maybe 150 yards. I came to the end of the shelf and in front of me was a cracking great bay, twice the width of the one I had just crossed and, worse still, there was a gun post no more than 150 yards from the beach itself and almost central to the bay.
I retreated a little and sat there thinking about things. My mind wasn't working too well but I knew one thing - I couldn't go back. But with the small amount of water I had I doubted whether I was going to make it at all. If the worst came to the worst I hadn't far to go to give myself up - not that I had any intention of doing so but the thought was there.
I happened to look up at the overhang and just above me was quite a large hole so I reached up and pulled myself up through it. I found myself in a small, sandy cave. The mouth of the cave faced East. I peered very carefully round the corner and there was the machine gun post and there was nothing I could do. I was beginning to feel cold now so I stripped off my shorts and shirt and lay them in the sun then curled up in the cave arid went to sleep. I probably slept from sheer exhaustion.
It was probably around 4 o'clock when I woke up and it was the noise of a dog barking which brought me round. I crawled to the mouth of tire cave and three soldiers - Italians I think - had walked down to the beach with their dog. They were swimming and throwing sticks for the dog who was enjoying himself chasing and splashing in the water. All I hoped was that the dog didn't to take a walk up in my direction. Eventually they came out arid dried themselves and walked back up to the machine gun post where eventually I saw a wisp of smoke coming up and this didn't do anything to help me.
I decided I'd have to wait for dark and pulled on my shirt and shorts. My thirst was becoming unmanageable now so I drank the last of my crater. It was either drink it or go and give myself up. The wait for darkness was the longest couple of hours I've ever been through. I thought the sun would never set. Every now and again I would slide out of the hole and walk along the ledge to the west and the sun seemed to stay in tire same spot. Eventually it went down and out of sight and as soon as it was dark I climbed out of the cave and walked down the rocky spit. When I got to the beach I walked very quietly through the water so as to leave no footprints. I was lucky now because it was sand all the way. I had no problem. I passed various bays and it was all sand. There were still the hills to the right of me and possibly I passed more gun posts, I've no idea.
Towards midnight the sand came to an end and I was once again climbing up and down these rocky ridges on hands and knees. There was nothing; else I could do. My feet wouldn't carry me any longer, only on the soft sand. Eventually, some time after midnight, I saw in the moonlight a long upward slope in front of me. I was able to walk part of the way because of the sand between the rocks but frequently I had to drop down on my hands and knees and eventually reached the top. I found myself looking down into a vast wadi. I don't know how high I was but the beach at the bottom with the little white rollers coming in looked tiny and I sat there thinking and these two little men kept hammering at me again.
My mind was going very rapidly now. I was unable to come to any real conclusion but eventually going East won and I slithered over the side of the wadi. I have no recollection of going down it except for the last ten feet or so. Just before I reached the bottom the slope gave way to a vertical drop. Fortunately it couldn’t have been more than eight or ten feet. I slid off the edge and landed on a pile of sand at the bottom.
I rested there for a while then picked myself up and staggered across the sandy bottom of this wadi and I was probably half way when I could see something shining in the moonlight. I dropped flat on my face. I was puzzled about this and looked at it for a long time but it made no sense to me so I began crawling. I crawled across the remaining half of the wadi but I could see the shining thing was rows and rows of barbed wire. I reached out and touched it. It was solid enough because I was beginning to wonder if my mind had gone away.
I lay there for a while looking at the wire and I knew I couldn't go back. No way was I going to climb the side of that wadi I' d just come down. So I stripped off my shorts and shirt and wrapped them round my empty water bottle. Then, lying flat on the sand I wriggled my way through the wire. I think this is probably the thing that saved me from setting off any land mines. I came out the other side without so much as a scratch on me. I sat there, pulled on my shorts and shirt, put on my water bottle and began on my hands and knees to climb the next hill. It was sand and stones and half way up I could see a great rock. I kept struggling and reached the rock then sat there with my back against it.
There was a light wind coming off the sea. After a while I was aware of voices and I began to wonder whether I was really hearing them or imagining them. I listened and again I heard them. They were rising and falling but were like no voices I had ever heard. They weren't German. They weren't Italian. Then I thought they sounded like Welsh, the sing-song note. After a long time I came to the conclusion I was bewitched. There was no way of going back, there was no way of going forward without finding out who front of me and my mind was too far gone to realize I had crossed the British front line. It could have been anybody up there as far as I was concerned but why they should have been on that side of the wire, common sense should have told me.
I thought the only tiring I can do is to shout . So I tried to shout but nothing came out. I tried again and a grunt came out. I thought this really won't do, you really must shout, shout. I tried again and something like a scream came out and the voices stopped and there was a clatter of rifle bolts and a voice said in English, "Come up with your hands up."
Well, there was no way I was going to climb that last bit of mountain. I was there on my hands and knees peering up the side of the hill and at last I got out, "I can't. I can't." The next thing I knew, two great forms came shooting down the hillside and hands were placed under my arms and I was lifted bodily and carried up to the top of the hill and dumped into a trench. The. first thing I did was to say, "Water, give me water." A water bottle was passed to me and I must have drunk half before it was snatched away, much to my indignation but a voice said, "No, if you drink too much you'll kill yourself." They were all twice the size of me. these gentlemen and it was then I realized they were Indian troops.
One of them put his arms round my shoulders and said, "Come." He helped me along the trench, a blanket was pulled aside and I found myself' in a dugout. In here was an Indian with a field telephone beside him. There were heaps of blankets in two corners and this chap said to me, "Go and sit on the blankets and keep warm and I will make you some tea."
The big chap who'd brought me in turned out to be the Subador or Sergeant Major. He picked up the phone and was talking to somebody in his own language. Then he called me over and said, ''The Major wants to talk to you."
So I picked up the phone and said, "My name is Cave" and the voice at the other end said, "Ah, Cave. And how did you get through my barbed wire fence?"
I thought, that's funny. "I crawled, sir." He said, "You crawled through my barbed wire fence?" I said, "That's right, sir." He said, 'I don't know whether you're a bloody liar or you're just plain lucky. That was a mine field in there."
So I said, "I'm sorry, sir, but I crawled through it. "Well," he said, "I'll see you in the morning. Give me the Subador."
By this time the tea was ready and I was handed a cracking great mug of it. Well, the Indian tea is solid sugar and condensed milk and you wave the tea over the top of it. But it did me a hell of a lot of good. I stood there sipping this tea and scratching my fleas. We picked up these fleas somewhere round Ras el Tin. We were unlucky. We walked across an area where the Arabs had had their goats and it was only after we came out the other side that we realized we were covered in fleas.
I settled down into the blankets trying to sleep but I wasn't going to get any sleep because these fleas always worked at night. So I was sitting there and the Subador came in followed by another tall figure and in the candle light I realized I was looking at an Aussie hat and when Alf straightened up, there he was.
I couldn't believe my eyes and he looked over at me and he said, "I see you've made it, you little so and so," and I said, "Yes, Alfie, and so have you."
There's no way I can describe the reunion between myself and Alf so I'll just leave it there. More tea was made. The Subador rang the Major again and I imagine he got another rocket for allowing someone to walk down and swim round the wire instead of crawling through it.
By this time it was close to daylight and the whistle went and everybody rushed out to stand to. Alf and I sat there talking. We found that he had never been more than an hour behind me the whole way but he never managed to make that hour up. Where I swam he had waited for dark. But we were together again and that was all that mattered.
In the morning, as soon as the stand-to was over and it was daylight, we climbed out of the slit trench and we were taken to the Major. Now, when I stood there on top of the trench looking over, there was nothing but rocks, all loose rocks and I burst into tears. Alf said to me, "'What the hell's the matter?" and I said, "I can't walk, Alf, over those." And he said, "Well, there's no problem. Just pretend you’re a little boy again." And he bent down and he said, "get on." And I climbed on his back and carried me piggy back. I don’t how far but a long way down to the Major’s HQ.
This was a cave in the side of a cliff. We reached there and I slid off . We both stood there looking at this Major and he looked at us from his chair and He said, "Sit down, sit down. "
So we sat down and we took our particulars, names, numbers, units and all the rest of it. He then disappeared into the back f his cave and came back with two bottles of Australian Black Horse beer. He gave us each one and a packet of cigarettes and he said, "Get on with that while I ring HQ."
"When he'd finished with the phone he came back and sat down and he said, "Right, lads, give me a short version of your walk." We did this and when I reached the point where I was in the wadi crawling through the barbed wire, he said, "I still can't understand how you managed to climb through that barbed wire without exploding a mine." I said, "I wouldn't know, sir."
He then told us he had arranged for us to be picked up by ambulance but explained we would have to walk the two miles to the pick-up point.
So we thanked him and once again Alf bent down and I climbed on his back and he carried me the full distance to this point to pick up the ambulance. We must have waited a couple of hours or more listening to shells going over from the German heavy artillery. They were shoving over shells further over into Tobruk because we were quite a long way from the center. The ambulance was empty when it arrived and it took us to the Army HQ in Tobruk. We reported to the orderly room and the sergeant took Alf away. He was away quite some time, then came back and said, "Intelligence."
The sergeant beckoned to me and I went into this other room. To my surprise the Intelligence officer was Lord Weymouth who had been Major of A Squadron in the Wilts Yeomanry where I was. He obviously didn't recognize me. I doubt if my own mother would have recognized me. My hair was down to my shoulders; I had a straggly sort of a beard and a very tattered and torn shirt and pair of shorts, bare feet and my water bottle - I still hung on to my water bottle which was now full and I intended it to stay full.
I had to tell the Major about my escape and he questioned me about various things. Eventually he said, "Very well, Cave, but what do you want to do now?" I said, "Well, I want to get back to my unit."
So this was arranged. Alf's Australian unit was in Tobruk and agreed to keep me with them until a ship arrived to take me out.
So that was that. It was a couple of hours before a truck took us back to Alf's unit. When we arrived we found the Colonel with a number of officers and quite a number of off-duty men and there were hand-shakes and all the rest of it going round. The Colonel took us into his dug-out and insisted we tell our stories, a bottle of beer was given to each of us, cigarettes were supplied; in fact, a jolly good time was being had by all of us.
The Colonel gave us a party. I don't know where he got the beer from. It is probably a military secret. But at 5o'clock all off duty men were invited and there were the officers and the colonel. The beer was dished out and the lads sat in rows on the sand and the Colonel had a trestle table put out and he stood on this, me on his right hand, Alf on the left.
He then proceeded to tell all these tough Aussies what a wonderful chap I was. It was unbelievable. I blushed from my toes to my hair. Anyway, great cheers and hurrahs were given and then Alf was called upon to say a few words. And the same thing again, he had me blushing right, left and center. Then somebody said, "Let's hear from our Pommy friend." So the Colonel said, "Come on, lad, say something."
Well, I' d never had to make a speech in my life so I said, "What do I say, Colonel? I just don't know what to say."
He said, " Just say the first thing that comes into your head. It doesn't matter. All they want is a few words."
So I stood there and in a very loud voice I called out, "Ladies and Gentlemen." The Colonel, quick as a flash, said, "Right, the first two ranks can be the ladies."
Well, there was a deadly hush for a moment or two, then somebody began to giggle and within seconds, all those big, tough fellows were rolling on the ground howling with laughter and beating each other over the shoulders. When there was a lull, a voice piped up, "Ladies and Gentlemen" and off they went again. Well, the Colonel thought it was a good thing if we all stepped down and continued with the drinking rather than the speeches.
I've never forgotten that and after the war when I was called upon to make a speech, believe me, it was chaotic. After that I always tried to make a few notes so that I wasn't caught out. But I was so embarrassed over this that it's lasted all these years. I often feel red in the face when I think of the boob I made.
I spent about a week with Alf before there was a call from HQ for me to catch a boat and, believe me, it was a very sad little man that shook hands with Alf and the Colonel. The boys were all there to wish me well and I set off and arrived back at the Army HQ. I' d never changed my shorts and shirt. I was still wearing the same old ones, the reason being that Tobruk had as many fleas as I was carrying anyway so there was no point in changing old clothes for new ones. But the sergeant gave me a new pair of shorts and a shirt and a pair of sand shoes and, I forgot, the Aussies presented me with an Australian bush hat.
So there I was, standing on the quay - what remained of it - and this little sub chaser came in. Before boarding her I took off my old shorts and shirt and dropped them into the harbor and I said, "Swim, you buggers, swim." I pulled on my new shorts and shirt and put on my water bottle and my Aussie hat and I went on board bare footed. My feet were healing up but they very still very sore round the heels.
Now that, so far as I'm concerned, concludes the story. I'll give you a few impressions another time of what happened when I got back to Alex.
The "London Gazette" supplement contains the following:
The King has been pleased to award the Military Medal to the following in recognition of gallant and distinguished service in the Middle East:- No. 555726, Trooper Holloway Cave, Royal Armoured Corps (Yeomanry) of The Firs, Rode Common, near Bath.
The story is now revealed of how Trooper H.A. Cave, R.A.C. won the Military Medal, announced in the 'Chronicle" and 'Herald" on Saturday.
The official announcement says:
'On November 29th during an attack on an Italian fort at El Ezzeiat, Trooper Cave displayed great courage in operating his machine gun from the vehicle in a very exposed position under heavy enemy fire.
Two days later during a night raid on enemy transport on the coastal road near Bomba he shot one driver and killed a further five men with hand grenades.
Throughout this and other patrols he had shown great determination and a constant desire to engage the enemy.
"Have been awarded the M.M. How’s that for a Merry Christmas" read a cabled message received a few days ago by Mrs. Cave, of the Firs, Rode, from her son, Anthony Holloway Cave, of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry.
Anthony Cave who is 22 years of age joined the Yeomanry at the age of 16 at Devizes as a trumpeter, and has been in the regiment ever since. He went abroad with the Regiment, and twelve months ago volunteered for special service with the "Commandos" in the Middle East Forces. He had some exciting experiences. On one occasion he was captured, but was in the hands of the enemy for only twelve days before escaping.
After wandering for miles in the desert he returned to his base. His mother has no news of him during one period of over seven months and he was officially reported "missing". In September last when in hospital for some time, he broadcast greetings to him mother through the BBC.
The new Military medalist was born at Devises, where his parents resided at High-field farm. He attended St. Peter’s School Devises, under Mr. S. White. His father died some fifteen years ago, and his mother moved to Rode some four years ago, Anthony is her only son.
Here is the diagram of "Titch's" POW camp.
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