A day in the life of a Tank soldier in the desert

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.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Editor May 8, 2014 at 6:21 pm

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peter groves May 8, 2014 at 4:52 am

I am writing my fathers memoirs he enlisted in 1926 was in china then Malta and back to china saw action from El Alamein to Tunis and then Italy and France. May I have permission to use some photos for this undertaking. I have a lot but you have some that fill the gaps.

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