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An Officer adjusts to life in the Desert

“If going much further please take one..” Typical ‘Aussie’ humour is reflected in this sign erected on the El Alamein road by Australian troops, 14 September 1942.
Industrious poses are adopted for the camera at a Royal Artillery battery command post, 15 September 1942.

After Rommel’s attack on the British lines at El Alamein had been beaten off the two armies were in largely static positions facing each other. Montgomery was [permalink id=22693 text=”determined not to attack”] until he was completely ready and the Eighth Army was being steadily re-enforced as more troops arrived from Britain, having taken the long way round Africa and up the Suez canal.

Montgomery was prepared to spend much time preparing and training all his men for the forthcoming assault. For newcomers to the desert it was an uncomfortable process of acclimatisation – coping with “the usual diseases that afflict new troops when they first arrive in the Middle East – dysentery, ‘gyppy tummy’, sandfly fever, desert jaundice”. H.P. Samwell was a young officer who arrived in the desert in September 1942:

We lived in “boxes” i.e., large areas capable of holding a complete brigade, boxed in on all sides by minefields, with two or three recognised exits.

We were beginning to get used to the sun, but the flies were appalling; one couldn’t raise a piece of bread and jam from plate to mouth without it becoming covered in flies. They buzzed round one’s head, eyes, mouth, and ears.

Every precaution was taken with food, latrines, etc., but it was difficult to stop men from throwing rubbish away or even not using the latrines during the night, when they had to go anything up to fifteen times, and at night it was quite possible to get lost by moving even fifty yards from one’s “ bivy,” so completely featureless was the desert. One often felt convinced one was making direct for one’s ” bivy,” only to find oneself completely lost in another company area.

Those of us who had compasses used to take a bearing on the latrines. This was a wretched time; the training was dreadfully hard and monotonous, and nearly all of us were feeling ill to varying degrees.

Some officers went up to the front during this time; they were attached to the Australians. Things were very quiet up there, and they came back with amazing stories of men strolling about in full view of the enemy, but they emphasised that the war was taken seriously at night and there was constant patrolling.

As in other things military, the Australians were very unorthodox in their patrolling methods. They hardly bothered about compasses but went from point to point by means of battle landmarks, utilising everything from broken-down tanks to unburied corpses. One company had a skeleton whom they affectionately called ” Cuthbert,” who was propped up with his arm pointing to the gap in our minefield.

Coming back from patrols it was one of the most difficult things to find these gaps, and, as most patrols were timed to end just before dawn, one couldn’t afford to waste time walking up and down trying to find the gap and thus risk being caught in the open during stand-to, thus inviting a burst of machine-gun fire.

H.P. Samwell’s Fighting with the Desert Rats: An Infantry Officer’s War with the Eighth Army is one of the classic accounts of the Desert war and is just about to be re-issued.

A Crusader tank of 4th Light Armoured Brigade in the Western Desert, 20 September 1942.
The crew of a Crusader tank prepare a meal in the Western Desert, 20 September 1942.

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