Royal Artillery open up for another attack

A Chevrolet FAT (Field Artillery Tractor) towing a 25-pdr leads a column of other vehicles on a road during the 8th Army's approach to Azizia, south of Tripoli, 27 January 1943.

A Chevrolet FAT (Field Artillery Tractor) towing a 25-pdr leads a column of other vehicles on a road during the 8th Army’s approach to Azizia, south of Tripoli, 27 January 1943.

Industrious poses are adopted for the camera at a Royal Artillery battery command post, 15 September 1942.

Industrious poses are adopted for the camera at a Royal Artillery battery command post, 15 September 1942.

In North Africa the Eighth Army was pushing on to the next major objective, Tripoli, still some 200 miles to the west.

Jack Swaab was a British Royal Artillery officer who had learnt of his first operational posting on Christmas Day. He was keeping a remarkable diary of life in the field. It is a running commentary of events, kept despite the very considerable demands being made on him and his men and the conditions they were living under.

15th January 1943

2130: One hour to go as Zero hour is now 2230. The ammo – 160 rds. per gun – is stacked and we are working hard in the C.P. against the clock. One meteor came in at 2100 and another is expected any minute.

The Jocks (ours are Gordons and Black Watch) are I suppose forming up, and somewhere a few thousand yards ahead, Germans and Italians know something is in the wind but not that an hour from now a curtain of steel and an armoured wall will move in to destroy them. The enemy guns are nervously banging away all the time. We are completely silent.
Planes overhead.

16th January

a.m.: In truck. Barrage crashed out till midnight. Up at 2.30 for orders and moved at dawn. Action about 0830. Now sitting in truck waiting to advance again. Frantic hurry everywhere; breakfast cooked and served in about 20 minutes; eaten in about 20 seconds. Fighters about .. identity uncertain. Suspect Kittyhawks.

Later: In action again some miles nearer the Tripoli road. No rations, water or petrol or ammo have so far come up so the smallest amount of each is vital. The sky is again rather monopolised by German planes (later this situation reversed). So far we have not been attacked.

We have just brewed up. It is about 1315. People are getting tired and irritable from lack of food and sleep. I find Sgt. Sherrat our Sig. N.C.0. the worst offender but there are several others. Buchanan and Cowie are keeping going well, and so is Wagstaff – somewhat ostentatiously.

12 of our fighters just going over. At least they`re probably ours but rather high to be sure. Nobody knows anything tactical. Came up through a minefield on which some of our tanks had been blown up. Lots of enemy trenches, some very deep. Flies are bloody here. Cleaned teeth and shaved at this posn. in 1/4 of a pint of water.

1730: As usual in the middle of our evening stew panic order from R.H.Q.. Equally as usual we are still waiting for the preceding part of the column to come through. B.C. (and my watch) back. A 5.9 is shelling the ridge about 1 1/2 miles forward.

2030, by moonlight: We’ve just received orders. Rommel has gone North fast and this time we’re not sending armour only but 152 (H) Brigade and all the Div Arty with mediums, bofors and what have you.

It means driving all tonight, all tomorrow and maybe tomorrow night. We have no food in hand (Regt. has it I believe) and hardly any water – a bottle full each. Cross country it certainly looks like being a tiring pursuit, [e]specially as most of us have only had from none to 4 hours sleep during the last 3 days. We are at present lined up in bright moonlight waiting to go.

See Jack Swaab: Field of Fire, Diary of a Gunner

A Valentine tank towing a trailer leads a column of lorries on the El Aroussa-Bou Arada road, 18 January 1943.

A Valentine tank towing a trailer leads a column of lorries on the El Aroussa-Bou Arada road, 18 January 1943.

A Valentine tank crew relax after an action near Bou Arada, 13 January 1943.

A Valentine tank crew relax after an action near Bou Arada, 13 January 1943.

Tanks and vehicles advance toward Tripoli for the final battle of the campaign, 21 January 1943. In the foreground is a lorry-mounted 6pdr anti-tank gun.

Tanks and vehicles advance toward Tripoli for the final battle of the campaign, 21 January 1943. In the foreground is a lorry-mounted 6pdr anti-tank gun.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Freeland January 16, 2013 at 10:08 pm

They also made at least one movie from Spike’s books. I saw it on Netflix of all places.

Editor January 16, 2013 at 11:48 am

Martin

Thanks for reminding me. I did read read at least one of them sometime ago. It would certainly be another perspective … I’ll look out for them

Martin

Martin January 16, 2013 at 7:11 am

I realise it’s not the historian’s first port-of-call, but have you read Spike Milligan’s memoirs about the war? Most of it takes place in North Africa and Italy, as I recall. A lot of ‘Goon-like’ soldier’s humour interlaced with the horrors of war. Books like “Adolf Hitler: My part in his downfall”, “Rommel? Gunner Who?”, “Monty: His part in my Vcitory” and “Mussolini: His part in my Downfall”. Some of his lines still make me chuckle :-)

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