A Stuart tank is silhouetted against the setting sun as its commander scans the horizon, 6 September 1942.

For some acclimatising to the desert was a rough uncomfortable affair. But many men had been in the desert for a long time and had adjusted to the conditions. For these men there were weeks and months of uninterrupted routine living in the most basic conditions. Here one of the principal pleasures was tea – “tea greasy with evaporated milk and powdered with dust” that was considered an “elixir”.

Peter Roach, who had left the Merchant Marine as a volunteer for the Royal Tank Regiment, describes a typical day in his life at this time. Only at the back of his mind was the thought that they would soon be going into action:

I washed every day with a pint mug part full. First I washed my teeth, spitting the water back into the mug. Then I shaved, washed my face, and dipping a slimy flannel into the sludge washed myself down.

Clothes we normally washed in our old friend and comforter petrol, which reduced the drudgery, dried almost instantly and also killed any vermin which might be travelling with you.

Our life was quite elemental, ordered, simple and mentally numbing. We rose shortly before the sun, rolled our bedding and strapped it on the back of the tank, warmed the engine and tuned the radio.

Then out with the fire tin, in with the petrol, brew tin filled with water, and we stood round shivering slightly in the cool air waiting for the sun to come up over the horizon, watching the reddening sky, waiting for the full flood of light before we could light up.

The air was crystal clear and cold, our wadi etched with a dark-rimmed silhouette. Other tanks stood out stark in the morning light; other figures stood around their tins. Then over the horizon flooded a warm yellow glow, eating up the shadows, swallowing the tight-drawn outlines.

Fires burst forth, lost in the rapidly intensifying light; the tin boiled and we stood around gulping scalding hot tea, fresh and taut and blissful. By the time breakfast was cooking it was hot. Porridge made from crushed biscuit and some form of sweetening, bacon and beans, hard biscuit and gooey sweet jam or marmalade; butter was non-existent and the margarine was nearly always liquid. By then the world was reduced to a glaring shadeless heat and we settled to a pleasant day of nothing.


After lunch we repaired into our tank, covered the hatch with an old mosquito net, killed all the flies and prepared to re-read Dingo’s copies of an old local papers from Nelson in Lancashire. Then we dozed until the oven in which we squatted began to cool.

The sun ran down its course, the flies went, we donned our shirts and the supply trucks arrived with food, water and stores – perhaps there was mail. We ate our bully stew in comradely groups.

In the cool of the evening we gathered round the tank and made one last brew on a petrol stove, tuned the wireless to the BBC and then relaxed into a silent self-supporting family.

We unrolled the bedding from the back of the tank, spread it on a tarpaulin beside the tank, took off our boots and socks and crawled into blissful warm blankets, to lie there watching the stars and listening contentedly to occasional firing up at the sharp end, to the drone of aircraft and the occasional crump of shell or mortar. Then we slept.

See Peter Roach: 8.15 to War: Memoirs of a Desert Rat

AEC Mk I armoured car equipped with a 2-pdr gun in the Western desert, 20 September 1942.

A Bishop 25-pdr self-propelled gun in the Western Desert, 25 September 1942.

Tank crews receiving instruction on the Grant tank, 9 September 1942.

Staff officers examine a newly-arrived Sherman tank sitting on a Scammell Pioneer tank transporter, 15 September 1942.





RAF bomb Gestapo HQ in Oslo

25th September 1942: RAF bomb Gestapo HQ in Oslo

An observer regretfully remarks that if the bomb had been only three metres lower it would have hit the centre of the front facade. He adds : ” German airmen and flak officers are impressed by the precision bombing, which was fantastically cleverly carried out; there are not so many German flags on the houses any longer.”




Hitler sacks his Chief of Staff Franz Halder

24th September 1942: Hitler sacks his Chief of Staff Franz Halder

After situation conference, farewell by the Fuehrer: My nerves are worn out, also his nerves are no longer fresh. We must part. “Necessity for educating the General Staffs in fanatical faith in the Idea.” He is determined to enforce his will also in the Army.




Japanese treatment of attempted escapees

23rd September 1942: Japanese treatment of attempted escapees

The amazing thing was the ability of the three men to stay alive, if indeed they were still alive at the end of the second day of this treatment — they were battered beyond recognition, with the ear of one prisoner hanging down to his shoulder. I think we all prayed for the men during this ordeal. I know I did. And I am sure all of us said a prayer of relief when the Japanese finally cut the men down and took them away for execution. Two of the men were shot. The third was beheaded.




A Romanian officer arrives in Russia

22nd September 1942: A Romanian officer in Russia

In the station there was another German train of a Caucasian battalion. We were astonished to see these men in German uniform and we could not understand them because of their Kirghizian dialect. All officers were Caucasians but battalion’s commander who was German. These were volunteers previously captured by the Germans and that offered to fight against the Bolsheviks. After a training session of several months they were sent to front.




A work party leaves Auschwitz for Buna

21st September 1942: A work party leaves Auschwitz for Buna

The summer sun scorched the back of my neck. The alsatian trotting beside me was panting. A man reeled from the ranks, fell and had the top of his head blown off by an S.S. man who did not even bother to stop as he fired. Farther up the line a man ran wildly into the road and was bowled over by a burst of machine gun fire. The S.S. were kicking the kapos now and all the time they were shouting: “Faster, you bastards! We’re late! We’re late!”




Operation Musketoon – Commando raid on Glomfjord

20th September 1942: Operation Musketoon – Commando attack on Glomfjord power station

After the operation, which took place successfully on the night of 20th September, we climbed up to the huts behind Glomfjord power station. Captain Black then told the rest of us to climb the hill as best we could and get away. We divided into two parties, Smith, O’Brien, Christiansen (Granlund), Fairclough and Trigg going up to the right and the others to the left. However Captain Black called Smith back to administer morphia to a man who had been wounded.




An Officer adjusts to life in the Desert

19th September 1942: An Officer adjusts to life in the Desert

As in other things military, the Australians were very unorthodox in their patrolling methods. They hardly bothered about compasses but went from point to point by means of battle landmarks, utilising everything from broken-down tanks to unburied corpses. One company had a skeleton whom they affectionately called ” Cuthbert,” who was propped up with his arm pointing to the gap in our minefield.




The fight for the Stalingrad grain elevator

18th September 1942: The fight for the Stalingrad grain elevator

Soon after that enemy tanks and infantry about ten times our strength attacked from south and west. After the first attack was beaten back a second began, then a third, and all the while a reconnaissance plane circled over us. It corrected the fire and reported our position. Ten attacks were beaten offjust on September 18th




Bomber Command steps up the attack

17th September 1942: Bomber Command steps up the attack

As the aircraft crossed into Reich territory, air raid alarms were given for vast areas, sending people down into the shelters for hours at a time. This brought a damaging loss of production, particularly serious for the armaments industry, in its train. Quite apart from the damage and casualties inflicted by the bombing itself, these alarms imposed a great strain on people.