In the desert of North Africa it remained a static war with both sides dug in. The ‘British’ lines – which included forces drawn from the colonies amongst them India, South Africa, New Zealand ( the Australians were out of the line at this time) as well as the Free French – were a line of fortified ‘boxes’ running south from the sea, the Gazala Line. Both sides were making extensive use of barbed wire and land mines to defend their positions, in the hard rocky ground this could be a considerable undertaking.
James Brown was among them, living in the trenches of the South African Division. As former journalist he managed to write up a piece for the press in South Africa – which he later reproduced in his published diaries. At the average soldiers level there was still plenty of activity between the two sides:
‘Two thousand paces, sir,’ says the corporal. Still 3000 to go to the enemy lines but no one speaks for fear of enemy patrols in the vicinity.
Suddenly the officer kneels and holds up his hand. Everyone stops dead, kneels and listens intently. A star shell bursts, burning whitely in the darkness. The light flickers and dies. Breathing more heavily the patrol rises and continues. Almost immediately a machine gun opens fire, chattering noisily, tracer bullets spitting in short bursts. Then there is silence again.
Forward! Practically there now, down a wide shallow depression where the ground is broken underfoot and criss-crossed with car tracks. Slit trenches and empty gun positions appear out of the darkness and fall away behind. At regular intervals star shells soar into the darkness and the machine gun fires. But now the lights and the firing are well to the left. It seems that the patrol has penetrated the enemy lines at some point still unwired.
‘We seem to be on the flank of an outpost,’ says the officer. ‘Listen!’ The sound of picks on stone. ‘Come on!’.
The patrol moves up the side of the depression, crouches among the rocks at the top, and then advances stealthily into the open again. Now one can plainly hear the slither of shovels and the striking of picks. Suddenly the patrol leader falls headlong to the ground. The tommy gun flies from his hand with a clatter. He has tripped on a low coil of barbed wire.
A few feet in front of him is a circular patch of freshly-dug soil. Mines! Watching the ground intently, the patrol passes through four rows of mines. ‘Down!’ comes the order. ‘They’re just ahead blasting! They’ve lit the fuses and taken cover. When they come back give them all you’ve got!’
There is a flash and a series of explosions. Stones and earth are still showering around when a number of men appear. The soft sound of Italian is quite audible. Silhouetted against the starlight the work-party makes a wonderful target. Cocking handles on tommy guns click back. Bodies slither into firing positions.
‘Fire!’ A dozen tommy guns roar. There are shrieks and screams as the workparty breaks and runs. Some fall, rise again, stagger on. Others lie where they fall. The firing stops. The patrol races forward and searches the fallen for means of identification; swiftly retires through the minefield, over the wire, down into the depression and away.
Over to the right the star shells still flare and a machine gun is firing in nervy bursts…
James Ambrose Brown wrote one of the outstanding accounts of the Desert war in his diary, Retreat to Victory: Springboks’ Diary in North Africa – Gazala to El Alamein, 1942 (South Africans at War).