Oliver Perks' Wartime Blog 3 - 1941-1942
November 1941: Palestine (Haifa, Kibbutz, Jordan valley calibration shoot, swimming in the Dead Sea)
When we arrived in Palestine, we were encamped not far from Haifa. Some of the chaps in our troop were extremely left wing, that's to say communists. And they established contact with a Kibbutz, who very kindly entertained us to supper. At the time we had thought the Jews were doing a wonderful job in Palestine and that the Arabs were just idle layabouts. Years later when we were in Palestine again we saw the thing in a totally different light. But at the time, the Kibbutz seemed marvellous.
We were there for a bit during the course of which the regiment had to have the guns calibrated. This is quite a technical operation and we had to go all the way down the Jordan valley down towards Jericho, where the calibration shoot took place. Our gun was the sort of number one gun of the regiment. So the rest of them went away and we stayed and did some further calibration after which we had a bit of time and went down into the Dead Sea where we endeavoured to swim. Well, you can't swim in the dead sea because if you try breast stroke, your arms and legs come out of the water. It's a strange sensation. You can't sink, but we had a swim and then made use of the Palestine police post shower to get rid of all the salt and chemical accretion that we had acquired. But that was interesting. Then we went back up and soon after we were back up in the area near Haifa. The regiment was getting ready to go off to Iraq and our regiment with it. But before our Brigade group, the 150th Brigade group had started to go, things were going badly in the desert. So although two brigades went on to Iraq, our brigade then went back to Egypt.
December 1941: Egypt (Christmas near Alexandria; Goods train to Sidi Barrani; Getting lost during night-time troop watch)
Round about Christmas, we were at a camp by the name of Marten Bagush, just west of Alexandria. It wasn't a great deal of fun. But the interesting thing there was, we were looking down on the main road, the east-west axis. One morning I looked down and saw a Vickers Valentia, which is an antique bi-plane bomber transport cruising along just above the road at about 80 knots. And they were totally obsolete, they had been replaced by the Bristol Bombay aircraft, but the Royal Air Force still had about half a dozen of these Valentia's, which they used to ferry beer up to forward airfields. They never had one shot down because they went so slowly that the German fighters invariably overshot and they never lost one, but that was rather a strange sight.
Soon after that we were put on a goods train, in great discomfort. I don't know how many were in a compartment. We were then shunted off up the line to the rail head. Travelling in a goods train isn't fun because when it stops, it is loose coupled so each of the individual trucks all go clank, clank, clank all the way down the line, then the whole thing is reversed when it takes off again. So we didn't sleep much that night. Next morning, we arrived up at the rail head which was somewhere south of Sidi Barrani, on a cold morning. We de-trained and eventually went, I think our trucks arrived, and we eventually found ourselves with our equipment up in the forward area up in the Gazala line, where there were a series of brigade groups. I think we were attached to the Indian Division or something.
We were there for a time and I remember one occasion when we were on guard at night. We had to do an hour or so at a time. I was wondering around in the dark with the troop watch in my pocket. I'd look at that at frequent intervals to see how much longer I had to go. We had occupied a position that had been established originally by the Free French. They were a bit windy about air attack and the individual guns were very far apart. When I finished my turn I had to hand my watch in and hand over to the chap on Number 4 gun. But I found it eventually, but soon after that I got lost trying to find my way back to my own gun. Eventually I found a truck somewhere else, one of the other troops. So my own chums wondered where I had got to, but when it got daylight, I eventually found my way back.
February 1942: The desert near Alexandria (Gazala Line column patrols, leaving the gun behind, ammunition safety devices doing their job)
We went up into the desert, into the Gazala line from which we did various patrols and trips out into the desert for two or three days at a time, always in a very extended order, because despite what the newspapers might have said, the air was largely in the control of the enemy. We were at the back - the regiment used to travel in three columns; a battery on either side, regimental headquarters in the middle, with a hundred yards between each column and fifty yards between each vehicle fore and aft. This open formation making things much harder for the ubiquitous Luftwaffe. We were the rear gun of the right hand battery and whenever the column stopped, we had to stop and unhook our gun in case anything unpleasant happened while we were waiting. Then after a time someone would call out "they are moving off again", and we would hook-in and proceed.
The Sergeant, of course, didn't always stand up in the hatch, other people relieved him. On one occasion, after one of these stops, a rather short chap called Bombardier Jackie Spence was standing up in the hatch, and after a bit the Sergeant called out "How's the gun riding Jackie?" Well, Jackie hauled himself up a bit for a look and at once shouted out "Christ! we've left it behind, we've got to stop." The fact was, we had driven off without the gun, we had forgotten to hook the gun in. So we had to turn round and go back, and there, about a mile or so back, was our precious 25 pounder sitting all by itself in the desert. We hooked-in smartly and eventually caught up with the column without anyone apparently noticing our temporary absence.
Other minor excitements on these things; we had one occasion where we had been out for two days over pretty rough ground. I was the so-called limber gunner, responsible for the ammunition in the limber. So when we got back, I was checking this and found that in one of the trays holding two shells and two cartridges - kept in by a spring clip - the clip had broken and the shells had been bouncing around inside the tray. As a result of this, their screw caps had disappeared and their so called ballistic cap which was merely meant, when the shell was fired, to keep the air pressure from firing the shell off, that was all battered and had disappeared. And the actual strikers were all bent and battered where they had been banging around inside the ammunition trailer. This rather proved to me the various safety devices which we had been told about in the shell must have worked very well. Well, we wondered what to do with these because there was no way we could have fired them. So we dug a little hole and buried them, and I expect they are there to this moment.
Bir Hakeim - falling into the ammunition pit
Eventually, when we had been in the Gazala Line for a bit - we had taken over a position that had previously been occupied by the free French, who had then moved off to Bir Hakeim. They were a bit windy about air attacks, so the gun position was very much extended. One night I was on sentry duty and I had to hand over to a chap on number one gun, we were number four gun, or the other way round. I was wandering around in the dark, looking for this gun with much difficulty. During the course of this I fell with a terrific clatter, rifle, tin hat and everything onto the steel ammunition boxes in the ammunition pit. This was about three feet deep, but covered with camouflage scrim netting, which strolling around in the dark with my rifle slung over my shoulder and my hands in my pockets, I hadn't seen. I thought I had woken everybody for miles around, but nobody took any notice and I got up. And eventually found the chap that I had to hand over to, and eventually got back to my own bivvy.
A night move near Bir Hakeim and misadventurous tea making
One evening we were about to be moved, I think it may have been to this particular gun position, but anyway in the Bir Hakeim area. It was to be a night move, which was never much fun. Usually, when we wanted to have a drink in the evening, we would pull down an old tent we had got over the tractor, get the vehicle inspection lamp on, and get the paraffin stove up and brew up in the tractor. This was a bit tricky, but we used to do it.
Well, on this position, we had been waiting for a while in the dark, thinking that a cup of tea wouldn't be amiss, but there was no way we could have done it by pulling down the tent. Well, after a while we thought that if we hung a couple of blankets behind the two front seats and covered over the light out through the windscreen, we would perhaps manage to have a brew up. So we started this and everything was going fine. The cooker had almost boiled but somebody made a false move because it showed signs of running out of fuel. So instead of turning off and re-filling it, somebody started to pour paraffin into it when it was still alight. As a result, there was a sudden conflagration of flames in all directions, the blanket hanging down behind the seats started to catch fire, and the sand bag covering, which we used to have on our tin hats started to burn. Everybody was flapping in all directions furiously. Very fortunately I quickly put out the fire. We then sat there, in panic really, because we thought everybody must have seen it, and waited for the Sergeant-Major to put us under close arrest. But after a pregnant period, nothing happened and we realised eventually that nobody could have seen it. And soon after that, the column moved off, but we never had our cup of tea.