Baptism of fire in the western desert

A 3-inch mortar crew of the 2nd Cameron Highlanders training at Mena Camp near Giza, Egypt, 4 June 1940.
A 3-inch mortar crew of the 2nd Cameron Highlanders training at Mena Camp near Giza, Egypt, 4 June 1940.
Light Tank Mk VI of 8th Hussars negotiating rough ground in Egypt, 5 June 1940.
Light Tank Mk VI of 8th Hussars negotiating rough ground in Egypt, 5 June 1940.

Britain and Italy were at war but so far there had been little fighting as they confronted each other over the Egyptian – Libyan border in North Africa. In the main hostilities were confined to sporadic bombing raids by both sides. These were of nuisance value – causing few casualties.

In this context the phrase ‘light casualties’ conceals a great deal, especially for those who happened to be among the casualties.

In the last week of June twenty year old Ray Ellis moved with his unit of gunners up to the front line outside Mersa Matruh. They first had to survive their first sandstorm – then came an even worse ordeal.

The following morning I was ordered to go as part of a fatigue party into Mersa Matruh to help with the unloading of stores. By this time the wind had eased somewhat and the worst of the storm was over, but it was still very hot and dusty as we made our way towards the cluster of buildings and I realised that Mersa Matruh was a very small town. The air raid damage was immediately apparent: shattered houses, splintered trees and huge blackened craters bore testimony to the fact that this place had been under heavy attack.

We parked by the side of the road and the officer in charge of the party went off in search of orders. I decided to have a closer look at the damage and so I dismounted and wandered off a little way down the street. I heard the noise of aircraft very high in the sky and I saw people running for cover and then suddenly there was a succession of tremendous explosions and it seemed as if the whole world had gone mad all around me.

The noise was ear-splitting, the ground shook and the air was filled with flame and smoke. There had been no warning at all, just a screaming, whistling sound and then this terrifying series of detonations. It was my first experience of any type of bombardment and I was totally unprepared and just stood transfixed as everything seemed to blow up all around me.

Then, just as suddenly, it was all over and the noise stopped, only to be replaced by a different kind of shriek; this time it was made by a human voice and a figure lurched into view from behind a building. It was a soldier and he was screaming. He had his hands pressed against his stomach and his entrails were spilling out between his fingers.

I watched, horrified, as he sank to his knees, his screams changing to a whine, and then he toppled over, kicking and gurgling in a pool of blood and slime. Within seconds I was on the ground beside him as a second stick of bombs came whistling down to explode nearby.

I had never been so frightened in my life as I lay there trembling and bewildered; it had all been so sudden and I couldn’t believe that it was all happening. When it was all over I climbed to my feet. The air was filled with dust and smoke, the soldier was lying in a grotesque heap and I could hear a lot of shouting.

My first impulse was to run away as far as possible from this awful place. In those few minutes the war had become a reality.

I was thankful to find that none of our party had been injured in the attack and we were able to continue with our duties. It was significant that we were no longer singing and our work was punctuated by repeated fearful glances into the cloudless blue sky.

I could not get the sight of the dying soldier out of my mind. Although I was to witness a great many horrifying scenes in the years that followed, that poor man has always remained in my memory.

See Ray Ellis: Once a Hussar: A Memoir of Battle, Capture, and Escape in World War II. Ellis emphasises that he does not intend to shock nor fill his memoir with similar horrors – but that this incident had a particular impact on him.

One thought on “Baptism of fire in the western desert”

  1. Nothing quite so terrifying as your first time under fire. I’ll never forget mine – a 122MM rocket attack in Viet Nam on my third day in country. My roommate was hit and lost his arm and damn near died. Still gives me the creeps.

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