South Africans under night air attack in the Desert

An official publicity shot of a South African rifle section patrolling the desert sand dunes.

In the Libyan desert the British thrust, Operation Crusader, to relieve Tobruk and push Rommel back was now making much better progress after the initial confusion. South African troops had recently joined the campaign, veterans of the fighting in East Africa. Amongst them was James Ambrose Brown:

December 21, 1941

They say Rommel’s bolted right back to where he started from, and we are all moving forward. So much supply traffic on the road, twisting through the hills towards Martuba, a stony village where the sign posts are still in German and Italian.

Blackie said he didn’t like being parked in this valley with so many vehicles, ‘Real Stuka bait,’ he said. ‘Get away from the trucks tonight sarge but where?’ Although it was dark the battalion lit cooking fires and we had a good meal but soon enemy bombers came growling along above the road, hungry for targets.

Wise in the way of bombers we listened but offered no insult, but others, less wise, opened fire and the tracers went streaming and coiling up. ‘I’m off,’ shouted Blackie, and now we heard one bomber coming in lower and the sudden brilliance of his flare lit the plain as if it was under floodlights. There seemed a million trucks in the hot light, every detail sharp but no shadows.

There was a rush of air as the German came in under his flare, so low that the flare Chute was quite visible and the white magnesium smoke curling up from the canister. Again the black machine rushed by and we saw its belly open.

The stick fell around battalion headquarters where a number of officers were listening to the BBC news. Successive flashes blasts of air. An uneasy night followed with news that ‘Deaf Doug’, ‘A’ Company Commander, never knew why everyone was scattering. He died without hearing a sound, and Lt Dawson, signals, had both legs blown off and died, most gallantly preferring other wounded to the MO who worked until he collapsed of his own wounds.

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).

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