of the escape by Cave, A.H. (Titch) #555729 (funny how you
remember your old army numbers) together with Alf Potter of the
Australian Army. It just happened that we landed up in the same
place (Derna POW camp)..
In December 1940, around Christmas time. I was with the Wilts
Yeomanry, and I was pretty fed up. We were in Palestine and the
weather was awful. It was pouring rain, cats and dogs, we had
it. We were all fed up. I just happened to see this notice on
the board asking for men of initiative and integrity and half a
dozen words I had to go and look up in the dictionary to find
out what they were talking about. Anyway nothing ventured,
nothing gained. I wrote out in my most illiterate hand that I
would like transferred to this new desert unit.
So nothing happened for a day or two. Christmas came and went
and one evening, must have been early in January, Bill Draper,
who was the duty trumpeter, came rushing in and it was pouring
rain and said, "Titch, you’re on orders" and I said "What do you
mean, I’m on orders." He said "Your leaving here tomorrow
morning. You’ve been seconded to some place up in Cairo." So I
put a coat on and I was down to that board like a flash and sure
enough there it was. I was to report to the Orderly Room at 7
o’clock, collect the unexpired portion of the day’s rations,
which amounted to half a tin of bully and two slabs of bread and
a rail warrant etc. And was to report to the RTO officer in
Cairo where transport would be arranged to the Citadel.
Well, we duly arrived there and all went well. I am not going to
go into all the bits and pieces in between but it must have been
towards the end of March when Y Patrol of the LRDG went out on
its first job. It was a long, weary journey, lets be honest.
Down to Alexandria and all the way up the coast, right up to
Derna and after that I can't remember what happened but a few
days later we were patrolling down in the Msus area and we
spotted some trucks. They were to far away to identify but
Captain McCraith decided they were Jerries and took out after
them. Well I was his driver at the time, one of the V8 Ford
pick-ups, a very powerful little job, and he kept saying,
Faster, Cave, faster," he told the gunner to lie flat on the
load and took over the Vickers. I was going faster and faster -
I had my foot through the floorboards and the old bus was doing
about 85. Well he was firing at them over my head and, of
course, I was completely deafened so I couldn't hear him shout,
"Stop, stop, stop." He could obviously see the little red flags
marking the minefield but I couldn't and shot into the minefield
at over 80 miles an hour. Just as I hit it I saw the red flags
out of the corner of my eye and , of course, it was to late.
I slapped on the anchors and we were slowing down, otherwise I
think we would have toppled over. Anyway this dam thermos bomb
went off. It was unfortunate for the Skipper because he was
standing up and caught the blast and it broke his arm and hand
in several places. knocked out some teeth and peppered his face
with shrapnel. The only harm to the truck was a blown rear tire.
I had a look around and left Graham, the gunner, looking after
the Captain and also to see what he could do with the truck and
I want to look for the patrol as we had outdistanced them. I
walked very carefully down one of the wheel tracks until I got
on to firm ground, so to speak, and I walked away from it and
waited for the patrol. It must have been nearly ten minutes
before they caught up with me. The sergeant decided to send an
Later on we were ordered to rendezvous with Major Mitford and G
Patrol. This was carried out and Captain McCraith was shipped
off to the hospital at Barce.
The following morning found us on top of a small plateau. It
wasn’t very high, maybe a couple of hundred feet, and you could
see Mekili quite clearly. We were just on the edge of the
plateau and then we had one of those funny little incidents that
happen. I’m afraid it concerns dear old Hobby again. Hobby was
the Boyes anti-tank gunner and he was looking down over the
plain and he could see a tank, a very large tank. Mind, it was a
very long way away. Nobby decided he was going to take a pot at
this tank because he reckoned it was a Jerry. Whether it was or
not, I have no idea but I said to Nobby, "You fire that toy at
that tank, don’t be surprised if you get a bloody great shell
come back at you." "Ha, Ha," says Nobby, they can’t even see
us." ‘But," I says, "if we can see them I’m bloody certain they
can see us." Anyway, Nobby gets behind. his old.
what-do-you-call-it and looses off two shots. There was a bit of
a pause and then there’ s a whooss-crump and a ruddy great shell
came over and landed somewhere. Where the hell it landed I don’t
know but, as I say, I warned Nobby and he didn’t do any more
firing. He decided discretion was the better part of valor.
While all this was going on with Hobby and myself, signals were
going backwards and forwards between Major Mitford and HQ and
eventually we were told we were going to move off and follow G-
We hadn’ t gone 100 or 200 yards when a stone went through my
radiator and the whole thing came to a grinding halt. Major
Mitford had to decide what he was going to do about it. He could
abandon the truck or take it in tow. He decided not to do this.
He decided to send me back to Mekili and get the dam thing
repaired. So Mike Carr was detailed off (he was our navigator)
to tow me back to Mekili with instructions to me to stay there
until Mike came back the following day to pick me up. Afterwards
I thought it was a big joke.
I duly arrived and I found the REME group and an English
Captain. He was a very nice chap and he got his gang on to the
old truck. Mike took off and it was only an hour and a half or
two hours and the old truck was ready, back on its wheels and we
were ready to go. Now, I thought about just driving back to the
patrol because I've always had a good eye for country and it
didn't seem any trouble as far as I could see. Then I thought
well, if they've moved off I might have difficulty finding them
again so I decided to stay where I was. Anyway, the Indians were
very good chaps. They produced food and tea and when this was
all over they brought two four gallon cans of water and
suggested I strip myself off and give myself a good wash, if I
wished to, of course, - which I did. - and I’d just got my
shorts back on and that was all and there was a salvo of shells
came over. I didn’t bother to stop and put anything on. I dived
into the nearest slit trench. The Captain landed on top of me
along with a small Indian.
Then another funny little incident occurred. No sooner had the
Indian got into the trench than he got to one end and started.
digging and he dug until he had a hole big enough to get his
head and shoulders in. Having done this he took his tin hat and
carefully tied it round his backside to protect the family
jewels, I suppose. He then stuck his head and shoulders in the
hole and there he stayed. until everything was over.
The shelling continued for quite a considerable period and when
it ceased a DR came round and the Captain was told to get
himself and his troops out. His trucks were already loaded up,
they were these big ten ton trucks and he rounded up his lads
and. he took the lead and asked me if I would bring up the rear
and make sure there were no stragglers. He said if there were
any shelling they’d be out of their trucks like rabbits. He said
kick ‘em back in and keep ‘em going.
I also noticed at the time one of these Italian soldiers was a
bastard. That’s the only word I can think of for him.
What he was doing. Every now and again when one of the bigger
chaps looked down on him and as he went to pass, he would boot
him in the backside and I thought, well, I don’t like that at
all but there’s nothing you can do about it. What bothered me
was that the English officer did absolutely nothing about it. He
didn’t even complain when the pay books were taken away and
things like this which I thought was a pretty dam poor job.
My turn came and they searched my overcoat pockets and found
nothing but a couple of cigarettes. Actually I’d left them in
for a decoy, really. I then opened my overcoat and held it wide
open so they could search the pockets in my boiler suit. Well,
there’s only the patch pocket on the leg and it had nothing
in it and the two breast pockets and there was only a pay book
in there and this of course was taken away and thrown out. My
haversack was simply upended and everything tossed out and I was
given the empty haversack back and I kept my two water bottles.
Now, this chap, disgusted I had nothing more, gave me a shove as
if to say, move. Well, instead of moving forwards, I moved to
the right. I side stepped him and his boot, as it came up,
brushed the side of my coat and he went flat on his face. I
didn’t wait to see anything else. I just shot forward into the
milling crowd of prisoners who had already been searched and
disappeared smartly and of course; there was a howl of laughter
from the chaps still waiting to be searched. I should think -- I
didn’t wait to see-- that one or two of the next follows up had
a pretty rough time.
One thing it did for me, it gave my morale quite a boost, that
one. From here I decided to have a look round to see what sort
of place we were going to be locked up in. So I took a walk
round. The land sloped up slowly to a place about 50 feet up,
quite close to the top of this slope there was a place where,
over the years, the sand had been eroded away and left a
sandstone wall probably about ten feet high and 20 to 30 feet
long and at the base of this was a flat, sandy area which I
thought might well do to sleep in. I went round this to the top
of the wall and this gave me a good view of the whole of the
area. I should say the area was about 150 yards long by 100
yards wide,- a couple of football pitches. We were guarded on
the four compass points by 7 ton Fiat trucks with two machine
guns on each truck and a crew of four Ities. There was no other
way of enclosing us and, in any case, who was going to run away
from a place like Mekili - where the devil could you go to? But
I’d already worked out what I was going to do. I know this
sounds silly but from the moment I was captured I started
planning how to get out of it.
I sat up there and watched the remainder of the fellows coming
through the control post and already there were groups playing
cards, lighting fires, sitting round talking and. fellows
sitting with their head in their hands who didn’t know what to
do about it. The trouble was with these chaps, they were all
with the 1st Armoured Division which just come out from England
and it must have been a hell of a smack in the eye for them to
be captured before they’d even fought a battle, so to speak.
I explored the whole area, which was covered with short scrubby
bushes, which was useful for firewood in some ways and also
useful for other things. I sat there thinking about things and
trying to decide what I could do about this and I slipped a
cigarette out and smoked it quietly because I suddenly realized,
I was sitting on a small fortune as far as cash was concerned.
The cigarettes were going to be worth far, far more than any
cash and I could well become, if people realized I had
cigarettes, a target because I was isolated, I was on my own. I
had no friends. I knew nobody. This was useful in a way for me
but on the other hand I had to be extremely careful.
I considered all the angles and turned around and looked to the
South to see what was going on down there but all I could see
was a cloud of dust and as I watched, this cloud turned into a
dust storm. All the hundreds of vehicles passing down the Mekili
track to Derna stirred up all the dust and with the wind, I
believe it is self generating, a dust storm, in some respects,
and in any case, there was a great cloud and it was already
stretching up Lord knows how high and I thought, Well, well,
we’re in for the grandfather and. great grandmother of all
storms. As far as I could see, dust storms. In fact I was very
correct. For three days we were blotted out. You could hardly
see your hand in front of your face. I thought about escaping at
that time. Then I realized there was little point because if I
escaped - it was easy enough to walk out the camp but it meant
walking to Derna and I realized that sooner or later they were
going to have to supply transport and take us to Derna so what
the devil was the point of me walking there? All I was going to
do was give myself a lot of exercise for nothing.
That night I dug myself into the sand. I had no blanket and I
simply dug a hole big enough and deep enough to take myself and
I simply pulled the sand in on top of me and., let’s be quite
honest, I slept pretty comfortably and very warm. No
problems at all.
The following day the dust storm continued, no water was issued
so I had to go very, very careful. Fortunately I wasn’t thirsty.
For some reason I drank very, very little water. I was hungry
and I ate one of those pieces of emergency ration chocolate in
the morning and another at night.
That was the second day of my capture. The third day there was a
water ration and I went down and I caught a young officer there
and I explained to him I was on my own and would it be possible
to tack myself on to his platoon or company of men because I was
not likely to get anything on my own and he said that was quite
all right and to see the sergeant. So I saw the sergeant who was
a pleasant sort of chap and there was no problem, he said, if
there’s anything, you stick on with us and I’ll look after you.
So I got my water ration but there was still no food. On the 4th
day we got a tin of bully which was to last an indefinite period
so far as I could see but there was no more water. The problem
was that some bright article in the British Army poured petrol
into the wells and completely wrecked the water. There was
plenty of sweet water in Mekili but they’d absolutely wrecked
these wells by pouring petrol into them, which wasn’t very
helpful from our point of view.
On the morning of this 4 Th. day I was down close to this
control post. It was still there but there were no prisoners
coming in. There was an Italian officer sitting around there
with a couple of his buddies and a German Major pitched up in a
car and within a few minutes there was hell playing between
them. The German Major was laying down the law and. shouting. In
fact I thought he was going to knock this fellow down, this
Italian officer, and what it all turned out to be when I found
somebody who could speak Italian and German and knew what was
going on, they should have moved us on the third day. In fact
the Italians had done nothing at all about it and this German
Major was very, very upset. He said we should have been moved
and we must be moved immediately, if not sooner.
Well, the following morning about 9 o’clock a convoy of 7 ton
trucks pitched up with trailers and after a while we were told
to board. It was standing only, everybody standing up, so you
can imagine what it was like.
After about two hours the convoy took off for Derna. I was right
at the back of the lorry on the tailboard, so I did manage to
perch myself there at great risk of being tossed out as we
bumped over the ruts and the holes and all the rest of it.
Somewhere along the line the convoy stopped and we were let off
to relieve ourselves and it was just odd as there had obviously
been a large British DID dump there. There were boots all over
the place, socks, shirts, odd tins of food, ammo, guns, and all
sorts of things lying around. I hunted around and eventually
found a pair of boots because I only had my chaplis, those
Indian sandals, and I thought, if I was going to do a lot of
walking, boots would be necessary. I found a pair, which
unfortunately was a little bit too small for me. Then we were
told to get on our trucks again so I took them with me. It was
the best I could do. And I found another water bottle, which I
took, and off we went.
Well, it was late afternoon by the time we hit the pass at
Derna. It is nothing but a bunch of hairpin bends and these
trucks; in some cases they had to back up. Well, you imagine it,
a 7-ton truck backing with a trailer on the back. It wasn’t
funny. We eventually arrived down at the Old Italian barracks
and we disembarked. The first thing was to find ourselves within
these barracks. I was in no hurry. I ambled along slowly and the
thing I was looking for was water and I found it. There were
about four or five barrack rooms which I passed and then there
was an area which had been bombed. There were two burnt out
buildings and then there was a whole area, I should imagine
there would have been about three of these barrack rooms. They
had been completely bombed out but on the edge of this was a
lovely standpipe and I went up to it and opened it and out came
beautiful clear sweet water. This in fact, was piped down from
the base of the escarpment, and I emptied my water bottles, what
was left in them, and refilled them with this lovely water.
Another thing I’ d picked up at this DID dump was one of those
canvas buckets, the things we had in the Cavalry for watering
the horses, and I filled this as well and took it along with me.
I looked in the next two buildings and they were jammed to
overflowing. The third building I came to I managed to find room
just inside the door. These buildings were probably a good 100
feet long and about 25 feet wide. Wide enough, in fact,
because the roof span had a central pillar and there was just a
space there. Nobody wanted it, apparently, and I parked myself
down there and there I was going to stay for the next few days.
The following morning, as soon as it was light, I went down to
the old standpipe and stripped off and had a stand up bath in
sand. In fact I found sand quite a good substitute for soap
except it’s a bit rough on you. Anyway, I had a bath and I
washed my shorts and shirt. I still had my boiler suit on and my
shorts and shirt dried very quickly.
I stuck around, to have breakfast. I still had two pieces of
emergency ration chocolate. I ate one of these. And believe me,
I was pretty hungry. Once things had dried out I re-dressed
myself and decided to investigate everything and see what the
camp offered and see what the chances were of escaping. I’ll
give you a rough description. I’m not very good at this but I
will draft out a plan of the camp so it will give you an idea of
what I was up against.
The East gate, the main gate which we came in, and was the only
gate in the camp. Now, as you came through this gate, to the
North of you, or on my right, is the officers’ quarters where
our own officers were billeted, Now, beyond this, stretching
along the North side, were a series of workshops, stores and
where the Italians put their vehicles. To the left, the South,
were the Italian barracks. In front of the barracks was a road,
I think it had been partly tarmacked, at some time. It was about
8 feet wide, just wide enough to get a small lorry down to the
To the North of this again there was a low wall and. beyond this
the ground dropped away down to the North side where the stores
were. The compound was just a dirt compound or parade ground, I
suppose. The wall, which ran up the West side from the stores
had a large hole in it. In the corner of the wall was the
cookhouse which consisted of nothing but two great, filthy
boilers, stinking of soot and God knows what, where the Italians
originally, I suppose, cooked their pasta or whatever they
cooked. Anyway, a bomb had dropped here and there was a large
hole in the wall. Now, beyond this, carrying on southwards, the
west wall ran into the south wall with barbed wire which ran up
to the westward billet then did a sharp right angle turn and
swept back down to the east and. round to the main gate. Now,
there were machine gun guards on each corner, that is, on the
north, south and east sides. Also there was a machine gun guard
on top of the main gate, which had battlements, of all things,
on it and there was a machine gun guard on top of the store roof
where the Indians were, down on the north side. The camp ran
right along the main road and the sea was no more than a few
yards beyond this. We tried to persuade the guards to let us go
in and swim but we didn’t get any joy out of it.
That’s a rough idea of what the camp was. Other than that there
was just nothing. Two days later I had worked out a plan of
action but I needed at least one man to come with me. I needed a
partner because what I was worried about was that I had no idea
what the country would be like between Derna and Tobruk. I had
some idea but what worried me was if I broke a leg or if I
injured myself I could lie there out in the wilderness and die
because I was unable to reach anybody for help. So it was
obvious I must have somebody and I must have a good chap, a good
solid bloke who was prepared to go to any lengths to escape.
This was going to prove a lot more difficult than I thought at
My plan was very simple. I reckoned it would take me five days
to walk to Tobruk. How naive can you be! I needed two water
bottles. Which I already had, in fact I had three. I needed
about five tins of bully and biscuits, being the easiest and
most nutritious, I thought. Having worked this out, I decided
the actual plan of escaping was very simple.
My billet was no more than 20 yards from the corner where the
bomb had dropped, where the old cookhouse was. Now, I intended
to nip out there as soon as the day guards went off duty at 7
o’clock or as soon as it was dark. No problem there. They
disappeared and there were no other guards on duty except the
machine gun guards. Now all I had to do was nip out of my
billet, slip down the steps which were exactly opposite, creep
along the wall and., on hands and knees, creep out through that
gap which had been conveniently made for me.
That was the rough idea. Now there were problems ahead of this
because the escarpment there is 1,000 feet high and it’s
virtually straight up and straight down. You do have an
advantage, though, in that the whole of the escarpment, except
for the south east corner where the road runs up, there is heavy
bush, small trees, you name it, the whole escarpment is thick
with it. My idea was that, once I got out, I would climb that
escarpment and take it from there.
There was no chance of getting out on the road on the north
Eastside. Any attempt up there would be useless because there
was the airfield at the top and everything was heavily guarded.
East of the camp was vertical rock. There was absolutely no way
of climbing that.
That was my idea. So the first job was to find someone who was
prepared to escape with me. Now, you might think that was easy
but nobody wanted to know to know what I was up to.
I started touting and hawking myself round the camp. I started
with the privates, I went to the sergeants, the senior NCQ’s
and. eventually I went down to see this captain who had been
captured, alongside me and asked him whether he would like to
escape with me. He said no way. He said his feet wouldn’t carry
him ten yards outside the camp. Never mind climbing that ruddy
So there I was stuck. I tried hard. I spent ten solid days. I
talked to all sorts of people. I found a chap who spoke German.
He also could fly. He had a private pilot’s license. The only
reason I happened to find him was that some German flying
officers came down, three of them, walking around and they all
spoke good English and had been to Oxford, Cambridge etc. before
the war. They were quite amusing. They gave us chocolate and
cigarettes and they were nothing like the Nazi types at all. It
just happened that while I was talking to them this fellow came
up, just an ordinary private and spoke to them in German, almost
fluent German, I should say, which delighted them no end. He
apparently had been to one of the universities pre-war. Anyway,
I got talking to this chap and tried to persuade him. He said
no. He wasn’t interested in walking out. He said, "how about
pinching a plane". I said "well I could arrange that probably if
you can fly it ". He said, "Oh, I can fly it, I’ve got a private
pilot’s license. I considered this and thought there was a
possibility there because the airstrip at Derna is a hell of a
great place. It runs from the coast a couple of miles or more.
And down to a little jebel there, a hill. But nothing came of
I struggled on and eventually I reached a point where I realized
that if I was going to escape at all I must get on with it and
do it myself. If I didn’t do it very soon, what was going to
happen, we’d be moved up to Benghazi or shipped off to Italy and
that was going to make life even more difficult. I decided then
to see if I could purchase enough food to get myself out of the
camp. I was getting no joy anywhere at all and then one of those
odd incidents, which happen during the war. I don’t understand
them at all.
They’ve happened in my life at all sorts of times, odd things,
which I’ve never understood. In fact, I don’t bother to try and
understand them because I see no point in it. Anyway, I used to
go out every night just before dark and fill this canvas water
bucket and carry it back. Don’t ask me why, it became a fetish
with me. I was not going to be without water so therefore my
bottles were filled and I drank my fill before I went to bed.
Now, this particular night, for some reason I forgot to fill it
and I suddenly realized as I was sitting there with my back
against this four inch steel post. I hadn’t filled this bucket
and. no ways was I going to bed without it. So I got up, I
picked up the bucket and slipped out the door. It was dark
already, the guards had gone and they were not likely to be
around.. I walked up quietly past the other two billets and
round the corner to the standpipe.
Now the standpipe was in the midst of a great deal of rubble
and. this is old reinforced concrete with half-inch metal rods
sticking out of it. I got there and I filled up my bucket when I
heard a voice behind me, "For you the war is finished." I spun
round. I still had the bucket in my hand and who should be there
but the Italian camp sergeant major. Now, he was a known lush.
He was always drunk. He was drunk, 24 hours a day and he was a
nasty little character. He carried one of these big thick, heavy
bull- whips and he used it too. If he didn’t like you he’d give
you a clout with it.
He stood there and looked at me and I looked at him. He couldn’t
speak English except for "For you the war is finished". He
started raving at me in his own language and. he raised his whip
with the intention, obviously of belting me one.
Well, I’m sorry but I’m not the kind, of person who takes a belt
from anybody and he was just unlucky. As he brought the whip
down I caught it in my left hand and the bucket automatically
came up in my right hand and slapped him on the head. He went
over backwards and he lay flat on his back. Now, I didn’t waste
any time. I just disappeared. I shot back to my billet as fast
as I could.
Now, as you come into these billets, in the front of them
there are two separate rooms, sort of built on the verandah
style. These obviously were for senior NCOs and I knew on the
left hand side as I went in there was a room in which there were
six Australians. Now these Australians were the original ones
that had been in the front line at Mekili. I found out later
that the seventh had been killed. As I shot round the corner to
open the door, a large hand grabbed me by the scruff of the neck
and I was picked up and dumped through a doorway into this small
room. I couldn’t think quite what was happening to me. I
suddenly realized I was standing in a candlelight room with six
very large, angry looking Australians.
I said, ‘What, the hell are you doing?" I was not frightened
but, you know, rather shook up. They said, "You just sit down,
little fellow, and shut up.
The speaker was about six two in his boots and with his
bush hat on he looked about seven foot two. So I waited and he
said, "What we want to know is what you were doing out at this
time of night?" So I said, "What the hell’s that to do with
He said, "It’s a lot to do with us because we’re interested in
what you’ve been doing lately. You don’t belong to anybody here.
You’re not tied up with anybody at all. You walk around on your
own. You go and talk to people. You talk to a soldier here, a
sergeant there or else you potter to the officers’ quarters and
come back but you never have any friends and we’re rather
puzzled and we’re worried too because, there’s an informer in
So I said, "You think I’m the informer?" "Well" he said, "You
could be, couldn’t you! He said, "The bloody Germans have
got a bloke in this camp who speaks perfect English, looks like
an Englishman, and we think he acts very much like you do and
you could well be him.
I was getting angry now. "Look" I said, "If you’re so sure it’s
me, I suggest one of you takes a walk up to the standpipe. I
went out to get water and I met the camp sergeant major up there
and when I left the sergeant major was flat on his back. Now, he
could be dead, injured or anything else because I belted him one
on the head with the canvas bucket. Now go take a look."
They looked at one another and the big fellow nodded and said,
"All Right, Charlie boy, go and have a look." So Charlie boy
slides out the door and in a couple of minutes he's back and
says, "Yes, he's telling the truth. The sergeant major's up
there stretches out but whether he's dead or not I don't know
and I'm not going to try to find out."
This changed things completely and they were a bit embarrassed.
They didn’t quite know what to do. I sort of passed it off.
"Look, chaps," I said. "You were the fellows who were in the
front line. There were seven of you originally with two Boyes
anti tank rifles. I was just behind you if you want to know.
What’s happened to the seventh?" They said he was killed. I
said, "What do we do now?"
They looked at me and they said, "Look, you’re in trouble." They
said, "Have you got any kit where you’re bunked in?" I said,
there’s only an empty haversack. I carry everything else on me."
They said, "Go and get your haversack and. come back here
and you can stay here and if there’s a search or whatever
tomorrow over the sergeant major, they won’t come near us."
And. this was perfectly true. The Australians only had to show
their faces at the door and the guards disappeared like mist
before the sun. Then I came back with my haversack they
introduced themselves. The big fellow was Alf Potter. Charlie
Boy, who was a much older man than the others, was serving as
cook and Bluey. The other three I’m afraid I have long forgotten
We sat down and chatted about odds and ends. I had it in the
back of my mind that maybe I'd found somebody to escape with.
This was something that was going to have to wait. While I was
sitting there Alf said, "Listen, are you hungry?" He saw me
eyeing a lot of biscuits and jam and also I could smell coffee
being made and I said, "You got some coffee going?" He said,
"Yes, you’ll get some in a minute and if you want something to
eat, help yourself as much as you like. Biscuits and. jam we
have plenty of, tomorrow you’ll be lucky and you’ll get a slice
So I tucked in. I didn’t waste any time because I’d been on
starvation rations for days, scrounging a bit here and a bit
there, swapping a cigarette or something. The Italians were
giving us nothing. Every day they filled the two big boilers
with water and chucked in a couple of lumps of fat, I think, and
a few bits of greenery, if they could find, anything, Lord knows
what they represented. I don’t know but what came out was simply
some hot, greasy water. I used to queue up and go with the rest
every day in the hope that some time they might issue a tin of
food but they never did, at least not while I was there.
I tucked in and we talked and sat up most of the night talking
about one thing and another, and. about what we were going to
do, how they would hide me and. all the rest of it. I had no
blanket or anything but these lads had two 3-decker beds so they
were happy enough. They found me two blankets and I made myself
comfortable on the floor.
As soon as it was light, Alf, who seemed to be the leader, sent
everybody off to walk around the camp to see what, they could
find out. He also went himself, leaving Charlie with me to get
the breakfast. Eventually they came back, drifting in one by
one, and so far as they could tell, there was no excitement, no
guards were out, just the usual and the sergeant major had
certainly gone from where he had been. Whether he was dead or
injured we never did find out and I still don’t know. It has
always worried me, actually, because I often wonder if I had
killed the bloke or only injured him. But that’s neither here
nor there really. It didn’t worry me at the time. In fact it
would have pleased me no end to think the bugger was dead.
We had breakfast, which consisted of biscuits and jam, quite a
large slice of bully some more coffee. I said to Alf, "Where the
devil did you get all these rations?" He said they had brought
it with them when they came in I said, "You didn’t get shaken
down?" He said, "If those so and so’s tried to shake us down,
they’re in big trouble."
As I say, the Italians were scared stiff of these Australians.
I thought this was the right time to produce a few cigarettes
and I handed everybody one cigarette each. Alf was most
indignant and he said, "Listen. You shouldn’t do it. You keep
those cigarettes. You’ll need them later on for something or
other to buy something with. They’re as good as cash. Better
than cash." But no way, I said, "you’ve fed me, you’re looking
after me, it’s well worth a cigarette." Anyway, they accepted
them and I told Alf I still had about 100 left and I said you
could use them for buying food if necessary.
I then approached them. They were all there. And I said, "You
wouldn't like to escape with me. I intend to escape from here
and the sooner the better. Anybody want to go along?" They
looked at me in sudden surprise as if to say, "Escape? Escape?
We hadn't even thought about it." So I said, "well, now's the
time to talk about it." So I explained my plan to Alf and said
"let's give it a thought for a couple of days and I'm pretty
certain they'll all go along with you." So it was left there and
I took off out and I showed him the gap and the bits and pieces
and explained how we were going to go about this and what we
should need. "Right" he said, "I'll turn the boys out and we'll
see what we can get."
Here we were unlucky. The Aussies spent two days talking to
contacts they already had, trying the guards, but apparently
there was just nothing to be had at the time. Derna, of course,
is off the beaten track in one sense and there seemed to be no
supplies of British food which had been captured, which they
could get their fingers on and sell to us at exorbitant rates.
We didn't give up. We kept going and I was getting a bit
depressed about this but I'd been down to see this officer to
see if he had any ideas but he hadn't and instead of coming back
across the compound where I normally came, I came up by the main
gate for curiosity and had a look there. I walked along and when
I came to the two burnt-out buildings I decided to have a look
in them. What made me, I don' t know. Again it was one of those
funny little things that happen during wars, I walked up and
looked in and what I was looking at had obviously been a food
dump, British food actually, we know it was because we found
some eventually. I looked at this and the tins started about
half way down and sloped up right to the back of the eves of
this building. The walls were still there, the roof had long
since gone and I was standing there looking at it and an idea
popped into my head. I thought it's funny
The burnt-out billet had been used as a ration dump. The tins
started at the doorway about a foot high and rose up slowly to
the middle, then it sloped up more steeply to the wall at the
back. The walls were ten feet high and there was no roof. The
tins at the back were about two feet below the top of the wall.
If the fire had burned evenly, the tins at the back should have
been level with the tins at the center. I thought there must be
untouched cases under the tins in the back. It would be a
question of digging them out so I took off my overcoat and
climbed up to the back left hand wall and started scooping
I scooped out all the empty, blackened tins and in a few minutes
I was completely black, black as a miner. I kept at it. Nobody
bothered to come in and see what the noise was all about,
probably because many lads had been in there before and had
found nothing. So I dug to about half way down the wall and came
across the charred top of a case. I broke off the charred wood
and there were tins there. I took a couple out and the labels
had been burnt off. They seemed to be the normal sort of fruit
tins. I put them in my pocket, kicked a few tins over the top
and went off to find Alf.
Back at the billet the lads were playing poker. We opened a tin
and there were sliced peaches. Then leaving Charlie Boy in
charge of the billet, the lads put on their overcoats and hid
their haversacks underneath. We drifted back to the building one
by one and with two outside playing cards, to keep an eye open
for the guards and troublemakers, we set to work. We made a
trench right across the back of the building and nobody came to
see what all the noise was about. We got down to the charred
cases and under these the other cases were as good as new. The
center row was bully, on the left was fruit and tinned milk. On
the far side a load on M & V.
We weren’t wasting anytime. We filled our haversacks then
drifted off very smartly back to our billet. We didn’t say
anything, for the simple reason that once the news was out, it
would have been all round the camp in a few minutes and hundreds
of men all trying to get in on this would have brought the
guards down and then there would have been a camp search so we
kept our mouths shut.
We left Charlie boy to hide the loot. I think he probably had a
hole in the floor under one of the beds. We went over to the
stand-pipe where we washed ourselves and our clothes but it took
weeks to get the black stains off our hands and arms.
How we had the means to carry on with our escape but at the time
the moon was wrong. We needed complete darkness between 7 and. 9
in the evening to enable the six of us to get out. Charlie Boy
was not coming because he had bad feet and, as he said, he
doubted whether he would have made it to the escarpment. So the
agreement was Alf and I would go out, Bluey and one of the
others would come out 20 minutes later and. the other two would
come out 20 minutes after that. This would give each pair a
chance to get clear. If they didn’t get clear you would hear the
machine guns going and all the rest of it.
During the next ten days we stuffed ourselves with food and the
Aussies kept me amused with stories about Australia, taught me
poker and that wicked Australian game called Two Up. Alf told me
the great adventure story about a bunch of prospectors who set
out into the Gibson Desert to look for the mythical mountain of
sold. They never made it back and eventually their skeletons
were found. But no gold was ever found. But, as Aif said, Let’s
hope our little adventure finishes a little more successfully.
Time passed slowly. Nothing happened in the camp. There was no
sign of us being moved to Benghazi or anywhere else and
eventually the great day arrived. In the afternoon I went down
to see the Captain in the Indian Army and told him we were
leaving and dial lie want to send a message or anything I could
take out with me. But he said he had already written letters and
posted them. He very kindly gave me a one ounce tin of Navy Cut
tobacco and he gave me the front lens from a pair of binoculars.
He said, if you haven't got a match, at least you'll be able to
get a light which I thought was most decent of him.
I went back and Charlie Boy made a really big meal. We had
bully, M&V and biscuits and jam, fruit and milk and a last cup
Just before dark when the guards came round to chase everybody
into their billets, Charlie Boy took it upon himself to go out
and watch them when they were passing back down. He slipped
along like a shadow and came back ten minutes later and said
they had gone to their billets and we could now safely
disappear. I suppose it was about 7 o'clock by the time we
actually left. We were carrying a haversack with our bully and
biscuits and any odds and ends we might have, which really
amounted to very little - two water bottles and our overcoats.
Also we each had our heavy webbing belts strapped round the
bottles and haversacks to stop any movements. I regretted
afterwards that we hadn't taken three water bottles but what was
worrying me was that escarpment with its heavy bushes, trees and
shrubs. I thought the less weight we had to carry up there the
better. Even overcoats were going to be a nuisance but we had to
have something to keep us warn at night. Carrying a blanket was
Eventually Charlie Boy said you'd better get off so we shook
hands all round and wished each other luck. Alf and I slipped
across the few yards of track, down the steps and huddled
against the compound wall, waiting for someone to challenge us
or shout but nothing happened. So we crept carefully along the
side of the wall, reached the cookhouse where we dropped on to
our hands and knees and crawled over the heap of rubble where
the wall had been bombed. Once over the other side of this we
were in the gully which was six or seven yards wide, and ran
right from the bottom of the camp upwards to the top end of the
billet and you had a clear view all the way up. We could see the
forms of the machine gun post even then. We crawled like two
little mice. Not a sound did we make. We had about ten yards to
go and when we reached the point where we had to turn off to the
west we lay there and watched the guards. We could see their
shadowy forms moving about and just then the lads in the billet
started singing and were getting really noisy and any noise we
might have made would have been covered.
Then another piece of luck. One of the guards must have produced
a packet of fags because the next thing was a match flared and
four heads were seen fairly close together by the match. Alf
nudged me and we scuttled up over the little bank about five
yards over the rise and out of sight. Even if the guards had
heard us there was no chance they'd see us because after
striking the match they were night blind. Alf and I couldn't
resist looking back over the ridge to see what the guards were
doing - not that we could see much but we could still see the
cigarettes glowing and we both lifted two fingers at them. I
couldn't help it and I suppose Alf couldn't .
We slid back down out of sight and started walking to our
meeting place. This was a large tree we could see from the camp.
It was no more than 100 yards from where we were and it was a
thick, wild fig tree about 40 feet high. We sat down with our
backs against the tree. I counted to a thousand. Alf counted to
a thousand. Then we started again. After a while we began to get
a bit edgy because we had no real idea of how time was going. We
didn't want to walk away and leave the other 1ads to arrive and
find us gone.
A moment or two later the problem was solved for us because the
machine gun nearest us started firing. We didn't see any tracer
so we couldn't see where they were firing. Alf and I said
nothing. There was nothing we could do. We sat there for a
little while longer because if the lads had managed to make it
over the rise the machine gunner wouldn't have been able to
shoot at them because they would have been out of sight.
After a few minutes they obviously weren't coming so we got up
and continued our walk westwards. The reason we were going west
instead of south was that the ground behind the billet was very
rough where it ran back to the escarpment. It looked as though
someone had been out there with a giant spade throwing things
We walked for a while and came to a shallow wadi. It had sandy
sides which we slid down to the bottom. How we turned south and
headed for the escarpment. We could see vague black shapes in
the distance. We approached them with caution until we could see
they were 44 gallon fuel drums, some full, some empty. There
appeared to be nobody about so we just continued on.
We reached the foot of the escarpment and pushed our way through
the heavy bush at the base until we reached the cliff itself.
Here we sat down to rest a while and Alf took out the tin of
tobacco and rolled matchstick thin cigarettes which gave us
about two puffs each. We had heard no more of the hue and cry
from the camp but we waited a while just the same in case there
was a chance.
Eventually we decided to go and we turned our faces to the wall
and started climbing. It was a question of pulling ourselves up
from branch to branch, tree to tree and bush to bush. It was
hard, heavy work made more difficult by the dark. We just pushed
our way forward, scrabbling for footholds. We rested hourly and
it must have been about midnight when we reached a ledge some
six feet wide where we could sit down and Alf rolled another
cigarette. When we got up we realized we had been sitting under
an overhang. Alf could reach up and touch the branches and
bushes above our heads because the overhang was a bit shorter
than the ledge we were standing on.
There was no way up for me so we traversed along to the east but
there was no way up so we came back and looked to the wrest.
There was no way up there either so Alf said, there's only one
way for it; you'll have to get up on my shoulders. we bent down
and I sat on his shoulders and he walked carefully to the edge
of the ledge. There was plenty of stuff to get hold of so I got
a good grip on something and he got his hands under my feet and
lifted me up very slowly and I simply flopped over the top.
Well, once there, I lay still for a moment then I turned round
to Alf. Me coming up was one thing but Alf had to reach up and
find something to get hold of and then lift himself up by brute
force. There was no way he was going to drop down again. With
the amount of room on the ledge he would simply have gone off
backwards. So I found a large root, wrapped my legs round it and
then lay down so that I was overhanging and I said to Alf,
right, put your hands up. He did this and I guided him to a
couple of good grips. we then lifted himself up slowly but a bit
at a time until he reached a point where his head and shoulders
were on a level with the overhang. How he was struggling to pull
himself up the neat bit but by now I could reach his webbing
belt. I got both hands on this and I said Alf boy, you're coming
up and I gave a heave and we shot up on to the ledge. It was
like landing a large fish. He lay there for a moment then he
turned and looked at me and said, I don't know how you did that
but thank you. So I said, Tit for tat, Alf. I wouldn't have got
up here without your help.
We now continued our climb up the cliff. In fact we climbed for
the rest of the night. Morning found us close to the top but
unfortunately the vegetation we had been able to haul ourselves
up with finished about fifteen feet from the top and the rest
was bare rock, slightly concave. There was no way we could even
hack footholds out of it. So Alf and I looked at each other and
looked at the rock. To the east there was nothing but bare rock
as far as we could see but to the west, several hundred yards
away, there was a tree so we made our way along to it. It wasn't
too difficult to get to and we found it was the sort of tree a
child might draw with lots of sticky-out branches. The roots
were there if only we could reach them but there was no way I
was going to sit on Alf's shoulders and reach - far too far. But
he said, strip off, and we took off our overcoats, haversacks
and water bottles and he leaned with his hands against the cliff
and said, climb on my shoulders. I put on both webbing belts and
a water bottle strap and prepared to stand on his shoulders -
not an easy thing to do. There were two factors. First, I was
afraid I would hurt Alf with the leather chaplis I had on;
second, if I fell off I was going to fall a hell of a long way
before I hit the bottom.
But I blanked it out of my mind and I climbed up on his
shoulders and put my hands against the wall. He said, walk your
hands up and he stood up very slowly, walking his hands up and I
did the same.
Eventually he was up straight and there was me balanced on his
shoulders with my hands against the cliff. I was still a couple
of feet short, though, so Alf said, put your feet in my hands,
which I did and he pushed up. I could feel him trembling under
my weight because I weighed 11 stone 7 but I was able to grab a
branch and relieve him of my weight. I then pulled myself up
over these wretched roots and eventually, there I was, on top.
I lay there for a while and Alf shouted up, what the hell was I
doing, having a sleep? I joined up the webbing belts and the
water bottle straps and let them down to Alf and we could just
about reach them. He tied on another strap and I hauled up the
bits and pieces. I took the straps off' the other water bottles
and haversacks and made a line as strong as I could and tied one
end to a root and let the rest down to Alf. He swung his weight
on it then came up hand over hand. There was nothing I could do
to help him because there was nothing I could lock on to. He
reached the roots and started pulling himself over them. I got
two hands under his arms and said, Whatever happens, you' re not
going down again. Then, with a heave and a grunt he came over
He lay there for a moment then got up and we stood there looking
down the face of the escarpment. Across the plain at the bottom,
all that rough land. The prison camp was nothing but a tiny
little match box. Other buildings you could see were
microscopic. I don't know how far away we were but it was a
great long way. Alf said, "I don't believe it" and I said, "Nor
do I". But there, we'd made it, against impossible odds.
Alf said, "What how?" I said, "I'm tired, I'm buggered, I don't
know about you." All he did was laugh. "Anyway Alf, it's
dangerous to wander around up here. We may be some considerable
distance from the airstrip." We could hear planes landing and
taking off even from here. "And also there is the Mechili-Derna
track somewhere between us and the landing strip so what we are
going to do is find somewhere to we up for a few hours and
"OK" he said, "Let's go." The land behind us to the south rose
quite steeply and a few yards to the west of us was a gully, a
washout (it must have been washed out over the years, I
suppose). It was quite deep, about eight or nine feet maybe and
about ten feet wide with a sandy bottom. The western side of the
gully was lined with these little black dead trees. I think they
were probably thorn trees of some kind, I don't know. Anyway, we
decided to walk up here. It was going south which was the way I
wanted to go for a short way, anyway. After a while (without a
watch it's impossible to tell how long you walk) we came to a
fork. The gully we were following continued south while the
other one branched off to the south east, which was exactly
where I wanted to go. However, right in the middle of the fork
was a hole about four feet in diameter, maybe a little more.
Being nosy, I dropped down to peep into this hole and inside was
a small cave, not much higher than the diameter of the wall but
plenty large enough for Alf and 1 to creep into, and it had a
nice soft sandy bottom. Well, in we went and off came our water
bottles and haversacks, and we curled up and went to sleep.
I was dreaming that I was cold, that I was freezing in fact.
This woke me up and I found that I was freezing, my teeth were
chattering. Alf was still sleeping and I thought God knows,
"What am I doing freezing?" Anyway, I went out through the hole
into the sunshine and I found it was just on midday or
thereabouts. 1 whipped off my overcoat and sat in the sun, and
even then it was a good ten minutes before I really started to
get warm again. 1n the meantime, Alf appeared and wanted to know
what we were doing in the North Pole! I said, "Don't ask me Alf,
but come and get yourself warm." Anyway, it was not till long
after that I realized what had happened. Of course, when you
sleep, your temperature drops and inside that cave, the cave
itself was completely insulated from any heat; and the result is
with the drop of our temperature, sleeping, of course we did
I did not know this at the time and I was very puzzled. Anyway,
we sat there in the sun and we ate a little bully and drank a
very little water, and we were just about to get up to continue
following the south east gully when we heard a sort of a
clunk-clunk noise. Alf looked at me and said, "What the hell's
that." I said, "I don't know Alf but we'll find out." But before
I could find out there was a tinkle-tinkle - bells. A whole herd
of goats came bouncing along the top of the gully. Goats are
very much like cats, they climb trees. They run up these trees
and balance themselves on a couple of little branches looking
for the nearest bit of greenery, if there is any. I think this
is one of the reasons that anywhere you find goats, you find
Anyway, we watched these goats for a moment or two and they went
on past us and two small Arab boys appeared. They could not have
been more than about eleven or twelve, and they were not even
the slightest surprised to see us, and certainly not frightened
of us. They came over, "Salaamed ", shook hands with us and one
small boy rushed off and came back with an arm full of dead
wood. The other small boy produced a teapot from his goatskin
bag together with tea and a mint leaf and sugar. We were made to
sit down and the four of us then squatted round this bit of a
fire while the boy made typical herb tea - mint tea. Two small
short glasses were produced and we each had three of these small
glasses, then the boys had their turn. We couldn't talk to them
really but we mimed things and used "finger language", so to
speak. Anyway, we eventually asked them, by holding up a water
bottle, where we could find water. "Oh," they said, "'There is
plenty of water," at least that is what we gathered, all we had
to do - they waved their hands to the south - was follow them
back to their Father's tents. Well, we weren't prepared to do
this. I didn't know much about what the Arabs were like in those
days, it was only later that I discovered that most of the Arabs
could be trusted up to as far as Derna, but beyond that, they
could be dicey. Anyway, we opted to miss that one, and
eventually we stood up, put our kit on, and shook hands with the
boys and thanked them. They Salaamed, waved us goodbye and set
off with their goats, and Alf and I set off, following the south
We walked for a long time and eventually the gully petered out
and we found ourselves standing on the plain. We had come quite
a considerable distance and could see the planes quite clearly
landing there. The end of the airstrip was heavily wooded, and
beyond this (maybe half a mile beyond this), was a low range of
hills. I was aiming for somewhere between these hills and the
end of the airstrip, being plenty of cover. What I had forgotten
was that in between us was, of course, the Derna-Mechili track.
Alf said, "Shall we continue walking?" "I think we'll risk it,"
I replied. We were getting into the afternoon now, mid-afternoon
I should think, and we would see dust in the distance, if there
were any vehicles about. So we continued walking, having
forgotten about the Mechili track, and the fact that it was a
sunken track here. It ran for seven miles and you couldn't even
see a vehicle coming along it from where we were standing - it
was too deep. Anyway, we almost fell into the damned thing when
we reached it. We looked at one another and I said "Alf, we had
better beat it, quick." So we slithered down the sides, and up
the other side and about a couple of hundred yards or more away
there was a large clump of bushes. We headed for this, reached
it and sat down there to get our wind back again. However, there
was nothing happening, no signs of vehicles. After a while we
got up and continued our walk across the rest of the plain to
the southern end of the airstrip where the heavy bushes were. We
reached this in safety and I said, "Let's continue on Alf." The
land rose again slightly to a ridge, to the east of us and I
said "Let's continue walking. I want to see over the top of that
ridge because the road will have to be over there somewhere." We
reached the ridge and lay down and sure enough there was the
road, and we could see vehicles passing along it. I took a
bearing in the mind of which way we were going to go exactly,
and we then retired into the bushes and slept until dark. As
soon as it was dark, we set off again over the ridge and I
headed north cast. This would bring us down onto the road some
miles away from the airstrip. We eventually reached the road.
Here we had a problem: Should we continue walking along the
road, which would have been easy walking for us, or would we
walk north and head for the coast. We discussed it between us
but what I disliked or even Alf disliked the idea of walking
along the road for the simple reason that if a couple of lorries
with troops on decided to stop for the night and just pulled off
onto the side of the road, we could quite easily walk into these
fellows and get recaptured. This road was very busy, even at
night with Rommel shoving stuff down to the front.
Although we disliked the idea of walking over the rough ground
down to the coast as opposed to walking along the road or along
the side of the road, we decided to head for the coast. Now
this, of course, was the biggest mistake, in fact it was the
only really bad mistake we made the whole time as you will see a
little later on.
We continued north for some time until we could hear the sea
quite plainly, and we then turned east. We hadn't gone 200 yards
when we hit a wadi, a big deep wadi. What we had clone
obviously, was follow it down to the coast, a couple of hundred
yards away from it. Anyway, we stood there looking down in this
wadi. Fortunately the walls here were not perpendicular, you
could scramble up and down them easily, (fairly easily), but it
needed energy. Anyway, there was nothing else to do, either go
down and up the other side, or walk back to the road and carry
on down the road. So down we went and we scrambled up the other
side and carried on hoping that was the last of our real
troubles here. Anyway it wasn't, we probably went no more than
half a mile and we hit another one, just as deep and just as
nasty. Down we went and up we went the other side. By now, we
were getting pretty weary, so we found a sheltered spot from the
wind and tried to sleep but the cold was far too much for us. We
continued walking and of course after a while we hit a fourth
one. Well, we went down and we went up. It took us a long time,
and by the time we reached the top it was getting close to
daylight, and we were both absolutely buggered to be honest. We
found a group of rocks and the sun came up and warmed us, and we
went to sleep. We slept most of the day and towards night, late
in the afternoon we ate a little bully and drank some more
water. Our water was going down quite rapidly now. Anyway, we
decided to walk again and off we went.
We walked, we stopped a while and rested and then we carried on
walking. We couldn't sleep, sleeping was impossible without a
couple of blankets to warm you up. Anyway, just before daylight
we came to the edge of another wadi, the fifth one. We decided
to sit there until the sun came up to see what we had. Well, the
sun came up and we looked down this wadi which was just as steep
and as nasty as the rest of them and much wider, but the funny
thing was on the other side, exactly opposite us was a track
leading up. It was white, you could see it had been hacked out
of the wadi wall years before I suppose. It was simply a zig zag
up to the top. I said "That's funny Alf, where's the track this
side?" Well, we couldn't see one and didn't even bother to go
and look, we were too tired. We climbed down and we started to
cross the bed of the wadi. Half way across we came across wheel
Now that frightened the life out of us because obviously German
patrols or Italian patrols were coming down here so we took to
our heels, tired or not tired we ran. We hit the bottom of this
track leading up and I suppose we were half way up before we
really slowed down, and in fact we sat down to rest again. The
track itself was about six feet wide, obviously wide enough to
take animals up and down. It was all rough stones though, very
rough walking. Anyway, we continued to the top and here the
track carried on to the east which suited us. It made easy
walking because the track was about a couple of feet wide, was
well worn and smooth, no rocks, no pebbles so my feet were not
troubled too badly. The trouble with chaplis is everything gets
in between your toes and the sole. Anyway, we walked on and we
kept walking. After a while - it must have been close to midday,
we stopped. We found ourselves now passing through an area which
was rocks and high rocks. The track itself wound through all
those great rocks, rather like walking through a miniature
gorge. Anyway, close to midday, we decided to call it a day and
found a hidey-hole behind the rocks and went to sleep. I don't
think we had been asleep for long before I woke up to the sound
of horse beats. I thought "That's funny - what's a horse doing
here?" Alf woke up too and we looked at one another and Alf said
to me "Do you think the Germans have got Cavalry?" "Well," I
said "They probably have got Cavalry but I can't imagine they
would have them out here." Anyway, we got up and got ourselves a
position where we could see the track, and we waited and the
hoof beats came closer and closer, and what appeared was an Arab
lad of about seventeen, I suppose, leading two horses. The funny
thing was, he was absolutely delighted to see us. Fortunately he
could speak English, or a certain amount of English, enough to
get by with. He told us that not far away there were some more
English soldiers hiding in a cave in the next wadi. I said
"Don't tell me there is another wadi?" "Ah well" he said "'This
is what it is. It's not running from the coast upwards to the
south. It apparently ran eastwards. "Anyway" he said, "Would we
like to ride his horses if we were feeling tired." Alf refused,
he preferred his flat feet (But of course, he had damn good
boots). Anyway, I climbed aboard a horse and let the Arab lead
the way, me on a horse, Alf bringing up the rear. It was a
considerable walk, a long time, maybe it was close to four
o'clock, I should think by the sun when the Arab boy stopped and
said we must wait here in the rocks until we came back. He
wanted to go and take the horses back to the camp and scout out
the area to make sure there were no Italians about. Apparently,
they came down a track from the road, down to the little oasis
and pumped water. Anyway, we lay up in the rocks there, and once
he had gone, out of curiosity, we followed the track along, only
a couple of hundred yards where it ended at the top of another
cliff. We looked down (it was no more than a 100 feet high here
I suppose), and the wadi itself that he was talking about ran
due east. The sea was no more than 300 yards away I suppose, but
between us and the sea was a rock wall of say 50 feet high. Now
where it joined our cliff in the left hand corner, it was very
thickly bushed and wooded for about 60 or 70 yards, but beyond
this it was sheer rock as far as you could see and about half a
mile away from us was a group of palm trees and obviously the
water holes he had been telling us about. To the right of us or
to the south a little shallow wadi ran away, (sandy this was),
and we could see the tiny black tents which was obviously the
Satisfied with what we saw, we returned to our hideyhole and
waited. It was close to dark when the boy came back and this
time he was carrying a rifle which we understood was to make
sure no Italians got near us. Anyway, we went down the side of
the cliff and at the bottom he turned left or towards the sea,
and to this clump of bushes in the corner which we had seen.
Here we climbed through the bushes at the bottom and then there
was a path/track leading up the side of the cliff. Quite close
to the top but well covered was a ledge and beyond this a fairly
large cave. We stopped there and the Arab boy went forward and
called out and two British soldiers appeared. He talked to them
there for a moment, and then called us over. We shook hands and
exchanged names and that. Inside the cave there were two other
men - a sergeant who had been wounded in the hand and the arm
with these explosive bullets and was in a pretty rough state. He
also had dysentery. A friend of his was with him and there had
been a third man with the sergeant, but he had volunteered to
walk to Tobruk and see if he could persuade the authorities to
send one of the Navy boats to pick everybody up. I thought it
was most unlikely myself but I did not say anything. Anyway, we
never did find out if the chap even arrived in Tobruk although
we made inquiries when we got there. Anyway, the other two
fellows were R.A.S.C. fellows.
Apparently they had been driving a lorry load of rations from
Derna, heading east of course, when for some reason they decided
to turn off and head north down the coast over all the rough
ground there. Why they did this, I don't know. I think they
probably panicked. Anyway, they drove as far as they could, then
they unloaded a lot of rations which appeared to be basically
nothing but 25 lb. tins of porridge oats. Anyway, they drove the
lorry to the edge of the wadi and let it roll over the top. Now,
it rolled down but it never reached the bottom. It tumbled over
and over and fetched up against some very large rocks and it's
still there, (and was still there as far as they knew). We
hadn't seen it but then we weren't looking for lorries. Anyway,
they said we were welcome to stay with them and see whether a
boat came up. Anyway, my feet were in a pretty rotten state and
we were both tired with climbing these wadis up and down. We
decided to stay but we couldn't stay long because of the food
situation. We hadn't got much and we still had to get to Tobruk.
"Oh" they said, they could give us a meal of porridge oats once
Apparently, these two lads had carried four of these tins, one
under each arm from the truck up to their present cave. It was
fairly easy for them, once they had got to the top of the wadi
(that last wadi we climbed), it was all flat going. So we
decided to stay. We got bored after a while, (we stayed three or
four clays and were really bored). They got talking about this
lorry and Alf said to me "Why don't we go back and have a look
at this lorry and see if there is anything left on it?" I said,
"I shouldn't think so, I would have thought the Arabs will have
cleaned it out. They must know it's there." Anyway, for
something to do, we decided we would take a walk back, it wasn't
that far. The following night we set off and we reached to top
of the wadi in the morning. We were standing there looking down
and we could see this lorry where it was stuck half way down the
other side, (the cliff of the other side), and we were just
about to start clown the track when an Arab appeared out of
nowhere. He came steaming up that track, saw us and although we
couldn't speak English, we know exactly what he was saying.
He was being chased by a German patrol apparently or at least
there were Germans around. Well, he didn't wait, he shot past us
and off, so we followed him. We weren't taking any chances - to
hell with the food! Anyway, we got back to the cave that night,
just before dark. All we had done, was tired ourselves out a bit
more and walked probably an extra fifty miles for nothing.
Anyway, we then decided it was time we moved on. We didn't see
any point in waiting because I was pretty certain that nothing
was going to happen. In any case, the sergeant was beginning to
stink. His arms were going rotten and he should in fact have
taken himself up to the road and given himself up. Anyway, we
decided to leave and when the Arab boy came round that evening,
which he did every evening, we told him we were leaving. He said
"Wait, I want you to see my Father first." The following day he
came back and said that evening we were to go to his Father's
tent where we would be given food. I said "Do you think you
could get my sandals mended for me?" Apparently this was no
problem. So that night he came and fetched us and we arrived at
the tent. Here we were greeted like royalty almost. We were sat
down. Alf's boots were unlaced and taken off. My chaplis were
taken away to he repaired. We were led into the tent and there
was a carpet - a nice carpet and cushions and Alf and I sat down
there. We were then each given a raw egg. I couldn't stand raw
eggs (hungry as I was), so I gave mine to Alf who didn't mind at
all. Next, a great bowl of lebne, (sour milk which the Arabs are
very fond of), came in. Alf couldn't drink this - he tried it,
but no way! Anyway, I drank the lot. After this there was a
great dish of what appeared to be boiled barley with meat and
gravy on top of it, and were told to eat as much as we wanted
and not to worry. We were given a spoon each (because the Arabs
eat with their fingers). Alf and I dug in and we were just about
busted by the time we finished. After this there was coffee,
three tiny cups of coffee each. We had no problems conversing
with the old boy because the son interpreted for us. At the end
of this, after a little small talk, my chaplis were brought
back, Alf’s boots were produced and we stood up and shook hands
all the way round. The old boy "Salaamed" and the son took us
back to our cave.
We left the following day around four o'clock. We took a chance
that at that time there was unlikely to be any Italians coming
down for water. We had one tin of bully each and a packet of
biscuits left. We stopped at the little oasis at the water holes
and filled up our two water bottles and continued on our walk.
We walked all the night on and off, rest a little while and
walking because it was always too cold here to sleep at night.
In the cave it was all right because there was a group of us, we
produced warmth and with our coats we were quite happy in there,
but outside, no!
First thing in the morning sunlight, we found ourselves at the
end of this long, long wadi. The walls had dropped away on the
seaward side and we were in a park like area, acacia trees, a
small forest of them. We found a lie up here and slept most of
That night we walked smack bang into a small Italian camp. There
were four wacking great stationary engines, a sludge pump and
from the sludge pump was a flexible four inch pipe running into
a great hole. I peered down the hole and there was water at the
bottom. It was only about six or seven feet down. There was no
noise so whether there was anybody in the tents Alf and I didn't
take the trouble to find out. If there were we left them in
I climbed down the hole and tried the water. It was drinkable
but it had a peculiar smell and a very funny taste. But water
was water and I filled my water bottle and Alf's. I also drank a
little of this water. I asked Alf if he'd like to drink some of
his but he said he was OK. I drank a little more and I lived to
regret this. I wasn't so wise in those days as I grew to be
later on. Anyway, up the pipe I went and off we started again.
We walked some considerable distance and then we ran into a
waterway. It was only a few yards wide and not very deep. We
waded through it and came up on to a spit of land again but we
hadn't gone many yards when we ran into another waterway. Well,
we crossed five of these and then gave it up as a bad job
because if there were five there were possibly 55 of the damn
things ahead of us. So we walked up the spit of land which was
probably about half a mile until we came to the road. Now, in
this particular part we were in the narrow end of the bay just
west of Gazala point itself. We didn't know this but that was
where we were.
We climbed up the embankment on to the road and started walking
along the road which was no problem. Everything was very quiet.
There seemed to be no life around so we carried on walking and
suddenly we stopped. In the distance we could hear footsteps
coming closer. Alf said we wouldn't get down the embankment. We
could dive off down there if it was anything nasty and nobody
was going to follow us into the swamp.
The footsteps came closer and it reminded me of the old serials
we used to watch as children when the saw came nearer and nearer
to Vera. Eventually out of the darkness came two short, stocky
figures. As they approached us on the other side of the road,
both of them averted their heads. Obviously they were up to no
good. What they were up to I've no idea but, as Alf said, it was
a damn good job.
We carried on and hadn't gone much further when suddenly my legs
collapsed under me. There was no question of going any further,
they just collapsed and I couldn't go on. There was no pain,
only if I tried to stand up, then the pain was violent in both
calves. Alf said, "Well, just sit there and we'll see what
happens. The morning was coming on then and we had to get on or
we were going to be caught in the bend of the point. We could
see the shadow of the hill which ran down where the road bent
round Gazala Point.
So Alf got me up and we staggered along. Every now and again we
would rest and we kept at it. We couldn't do anything else. We
had to be out of that area and into hiding before daylight which
was coming on rapidly. We then heard the sound of a motor and we
shot off the road into a clump of bushes. There was plenty of
cover here so we simply lay there and along came one of those
seven ton Lancia lorries with a trailer, both lorry and trailer
loaded with Italian soldiers. They turned off down to the left
of us down to the seaward side.
We decided to get under cover and stay there for the rest of the
day because there was no chance of moving much further. We were
lucky. No more than 15 or twenty yards away there was an
umbrella tree, very much like a weeping willow with branches
sweeping right down to the ground. It had very large leaves and
when we parted the branches and leaves there was a clear open
space. Alf helped me in and I propped myself against the tree
and simply sat there. Lorries began to come in and troops were
passing by no more than five yards away. We could see them all
clearly but even if they were looking closely I doubt if they
would have seen us.
I went to sleep and probably Alf' did the same. It must have
been about Mid-day when I woke up. I was thirsty and hungry.
Although I was not in any pain, when I tried to stand up my legs
gave me hell. So we drank a little water and ate a little bully
beef' and we still had a little tobacco left which we smoked. We
stayed there until dark then decided to try again. Funnily
enough I was able to go about half' a mile quite happily, then
my legs gave out again. The rest of the night was spent with Alf
helping me hobble along. We had to get clear of Gazala Point by
the morning if possible because obviously there was a large
troop concentration there and sooner or later we were going to
walk into trouble.
Some time in the early hours of the morning tire reached the end
of this track and found ourselves on a long sandy beach. We
continued very slowly because Alf had to help me all the way.
Daylight found us in a most peculiar position. To the right of
us we found ourselves in the middle of a German camp - trucks,
tents, men moving around and the worst thing of the lot was that
no more than 100 yards ahead of us there was a little point of
land which ran out to sea about 50 yards and on the end of this
point was a German soldier, fully equipped, helmet, greatcoat,
water bottle, haversack and he was leaning on his rifle staring
out to sea.
I said to Alf, "What do we do?" and he said, "The only thing to
do is to keep walking". I said, "You'd better take your hat off,
you can see it a mile away". and he said, "If you think I'm
going to take my hat off for any bloody Jerry, you can think
again, so let's walk."
Now, strangely enough, my legs suddenly came back to life. The
pain disappeared and I found myself walking normally. Whether
this was the fright of seeing the German sentry I don't know.
Now, Alf had very long legs and he was stepping it out and I had
to damn nearly double to keep up with him. After a while we
stopped and looked back and, strangely enough, the German sentry
was still standing on the point staring out to sea and Alf said,
"I wonder if the bugger's dead or whether he's gone to sleep." I
should imagine he'd gone to sleep leaning on his rifle. I've
seen people do this.
We continued our walk. There were no more troops camped to the
south of us. The land had become very rough and wild. There were
little hummocks of sand with bushy tops very much like Etla
where there were all those dunes covered in bush and scrub. This
seemed to go on for miles and miles but the beach was pure sand.
It was easy walking for me because my chaplis were finished. Not
only that but my feet were raw. They were cut and bruised and I
had blisters on my heels but walking on the sand was fairly
We walked until mid-day. We were both tired and thought it was
better we slept in the afternoon rather than walk through the
heat which would only deplete our water supply. So we found a
shady place under these scrubby bushes and we slept there until
late afternoon. We then ate the remains of our bully and that
was the last of the food. We drank a little water. We then
continued walking and the sandy beach continued for some hours
and it must have been a little after midnight when it ran out
and we found ourselves climbing hills of pure rock. W loose
stones: they were just flat sheets of stone which rose up and
fell down the other side to form a narrow valley. We then
climbed up the next one and down it again.
After a while we stopped and slept a little and just before dawn
we started off again. When the sun came up we were approaching
what appeared to be the last of these rocky hills. We were close
to the bottom and, though the rocks stretched flat for a while,
we could see the sandy beach was starting again. The land to the
south of us was rising rapidly to low hills and very, very
Then we heard a motor which caused us both to drop flat. We
couldn't see anything. Then suddenly we saw the top of a lorry
and a moment or two later we could see it was driving along a
sunken road. I’d forgotten about this road. I knew about it but
it had long passed out of my mind. We simply lay there hoped for
the best as we were no more than 25 yards away when the lorry
passed us and, funnily enough, not one head turned in our
We waited until the engine sound disappeared. We listened for
another lorry but there was nothing so we simply ran forward,
dropped down on to the, road, climbed up the other side and took
to our heels across this flat stretch of rock. We kept going
regardless of my feet until we reached the sandy beach. Here we
sat down and rested. We also stripped off arid had a swim. I
found that swimming helped our thirst. Also we rinsed out our
mouths but were scared to drink the salt water. Many years I
learnt that you can drink a pint of sea water a day and have no
ill effects. If we' d known that, what a big help it would have
Anyway, we didn't so we dressed ourselves and carried on
walking. We went on until close to mid-day when we ran into
another German rest camp. There were men on the beach swimming
and playing and there were tents and lorries no more than 150
yards from the beach. There were more little sand dunes with
bushy tops there so we crawled in among these and went to sleep.
It was late afternoon when we woke up and there were still
people down on the beach and lots of troops around the camp. Our
water supply was down to just under a full bottle and we weren't
going to go much further because we were both badly dehydrated.
Alf suggested we raid the German camp and see if we could find
some water. I agreed but not for both of its to go in; there was
no point in two of us getting clobbered. So we drew lots with
two sticks. I picked the short one but Alf still tried to argue
that he should go in because of my feet. Also, he being big and
tall could easily be taken for, a German whereas I, being short,
would probably be easily noticed.
I cut the legs off my boiler suit, cut them into strips and
bound them round my feet. I dumped my haversack, left my
overcoat with Alf and took his empty water bottle. We waited
until well after dark when the troops had been fed and had come
back to their tents. We could hear them singing. Someone was
playing an accordion.
We started up towards the camp. Alf came with me to within 50
yards of the camp and waited on a rocky ridge. I walked boldly
across. There was no point in trying to hide because slinking
around was more likely to be noticed. I went to the first lorry
I could see. As I closed in on it there were a number of
jerricans but instead of walking towards them I ducked under the
truck. These trucks were very high off the ground and there was
plenty of room for little me underneath.
I slid under the truck and was just about to edge my way towards
the four gallon jerricans when a figure squatted. down and
peered at me from under the truck and a voice said something
which sounded like "Vas ist das?" To say I was scared was to put
it mild so I did the first thing which came into my head. I had
Alf's empty water bottle in my hand and I hurled it at this
figure's head and at the same time I let out a screech which
would have done justice to a Comanche warrior and I shot out
from under the truck like a bullet.
I ran, shouting to Alf to beat it but, instead of carrying
straight on to where I'd left Alf, I bore off to the right which
would take me further down the beach away from the camp. Behind
me were shouts and I continued running. The rags came off my
feet but never mind the stones, I went like a rocket. Somebody
let off a rifle shot. I heard a dog barking and I continued on
There was no sign of Alf and there was no point in me waiting to
find out. I just kept going. I ran until I could run no longer.
In any case the shouts and the dog barking all died away and
there was no sound, only the sea. Eventually I sat down from
exhaustion and I waited, thinking Alf was bound to come along in
a moment or two. But nothing happened. There was no sign of Alf
and I came to the conclusion he must have been caught.
Well, there was nothing I could do about this. So I stood up,
took a look around and continued walking. I walked until the
early hours of the morning and again I was becoming close to
exhaustion. I drank more of my water. There was very little
left. Then I lay down on the sand and tried to sleep but it was
too cold with a wind off the sea.
I then had another of my bright ideas. I waded into the sea and,
surprisingly, the water was quite warm. I lay down so that only
my shoulders and my head were above the water and I went to
When I awoke the sun was shining on my face, otherwise I would
probably have carried on sleeping. I sat up in a hurry and
looked to the West and there was nothing but the sandy shore
stretching away as far as I could see. I turned to the East and
there again the beach stretched away as far as I could see.
After a while I dragged myself up and drank the rest of my
water. I examined the beach for footprints in case Alf had
passed me by in the night but there was nothing. So again I
started walking and I continued until lunchtime.
By this time I was very, very thirsty but had nothing to drink.
I swam in the sea and washed my mouth out and I found a shady
spot - there were plenty of bushes - and I went to sleep.
It was close to dark again when I woke up and the thirst now was
really bad. My tongue seemed to be swollen and too big for my
mouth. Anyway, there was no going back. I must continue forward.
So I started walking again. I walked for a long time. The moon
came up. There was quite a lot of moonlight. Eventually I came
to a shallow wadi. It was quite wide and stretched away to the
South and just the other side of this wadi I could see a tall,
dark thing. I wasn't sure what it was in the moonlight but I
decided to go and investigate. As I closed in on it I discovered
it was a cactus. It was a good ten feet high, thick stem and
The leaves were eight to nine inches wide and over a foot long.
I stood staring at this cactus and somewhere at the back of my
mind I remembered reading a story about a man in Mexico who was
lost in the desert and he was saved because he found a cactus
plant which was one of the type which hold water. They store it
up during the wet season and use it as they require it. I
thought now is the hour to find out. The leaves were covered in
very sharp spikes and I went and found two flat stones and
carefully rubbed off all the spikes from one leaf and then I
broke it off and carried it across to a little rocky ledge. Here
I sat and pounded it very gently on top. I didn't want to bruise
it underneath and lose any liquid which might be in it. It
started to ooze liquid and I simply picked it up and licked it.
It was quite acid tasting and it seemed to do me the world of
good. I kept sucking at this until there was nothing left and
this helped revive the swollen feeling in my mouth.
I tossed it on one side and was about to go back for another one
when I heard dogs barking. The feeling about German police dogs
came into it and I realized it couldn't be police dogs. What
would Germans be doing with police dogs in such a place. What I
was hearing was pi dogs or Arab dogs and if there were Arabs
there was water. So I turned my face to the South and started
walking up the wadi. I walked and the dogs kept barking and then
they would stop and I would stand there cursing because I wanted
the dogs to keep barking and guide me. My mind was not working
very well and if I’d had any sense at all I had to do was to
keep walking up the wadi and sooner or later I would find their
camp. After a while I came to a ridge which ran right across the
wadi. I climbed up over this and found I was right on top of
these barking dogs and in the moonlight I could see black dots
which I took to be the Arab tents. So I went on walking and out
of the darkness a pack of them came. I don't know how many of
these dogs there were but they came howling at me as if to tear
me to pieces. Well, I had an empty water bottle and I simply
threw it at them which dispersed them for a moment or two and
gave me time to pick up a couple of rocks which I hurled at
them. I retrieved my water bottle and with stones I drove the
dogs back until I reached a tent.
Now, how do you knock on a skin tent? I stood there for a while
wondering whether I should shout and then I pounded on the tent
with both fists. After a while a slit appeared and a voice said
something. I simply held out my water bottle and said, "Water."
A hand came out, took the bottle and disappeared. A few moments
passed. I thought he'd gone. I thought he'd taken my bottle and
stuck to it. But then a hand came out with the bottle, dripping
wet and a voice said something again which I didn't understand.
So I waited and he hand came out with a whole great chippatti,
dry as an old bone but, never mind, it was food.
'I said, "'Thank you," and left. I walked back to the ridge. The
dogs had dispersed. I sat on the ridge and drank a little of the
water. I had to use a great deal of will power not to drink the
lot but I had already learnt the lesson that too much water can
be as bad as too little. I started on the chippatti. It was very
dry but with a little water with each mouthful I managed to eat
the whole lot.
When I had finished I had roughly half a bottle of water left
but with the food and the water I felt a new man and I set off
back to the beach and continued walking East.
It's a funny thing: I had two little men in my mind. One little
man was saying, "You must go East, young man" and the other
little man said, "No, that's wrong. You should go West, young
man." This little rhythm seemed to play in my mind, "Go East,
The sandy beach soon gave out and I found myself faced with a
mountain of rocks, loose rocks, and there was no way I could
walk over them, my feet were far too bad. Walking along the
beach I could splash through the water. So long as there was
water there was no problem. So the only thing I could do was to
go down on my hands and knees and crawl. I crawled up this
mountain of rocks and down the other side. On the second crawl
up I was quite close to the top when I heard the tramp of feet.
I simply flattened myself and hoped for the best. I hid my face
in my hands, because I knew that in the moonlight it could
probably be seen and show up white.
I waited and the tramp of feet came closer and eventually six
figures, I counted them, fully equipped with overcoats, water
bottles, packs, rifles in hand and they passed within five yards
of me and went off down towards the sea. I waited until the
footsteps had died away and I scuttled over the top. My feet
were forgotten. I went down the other side like a mountain goat.
Now here I was lucky. I hit sand again and was able to walk.
Lord knows what I'd done to my feet coming down those rocks
because even walking on the sand was now becoming painful.
But I continued walking and after a while I slept then continued
walking again and at daylight I was still on sandy beach and I
Eventually the sand gave out and I reached a point where the
land rose maybe ten or twelve feet. There was a rocky ridge in
front of me and to the south and ahead of me there were low
hills. I climbed up this low ridge and lay looking over the top.
In front of me was a long valley which stretched away. I could
see a bay or two and there were these low hills to the right. I
was still lying there when I saw a flash and then another. It
was a long way ahead and then all of a sudden it was as though I
had developed telescopic eyes for I had a complete clear picture
of a sangar and sitting on the wall of this sangar was a figure
playing a stringed instrument. The flash was coming from a
machine gun which another soldier was cleaning and as he turned
the gun each time there was a flash.
Well, there was no way I could continue walking up the valley
because I would have walked straight into a German or Italian
outpost. So I slithered back down to the beach again and sat
there for a while to consider things. Of course, my mind was not
really working. It hopped from one thing to another like the two
little men who told me to go East or West. After a while I
decided to look at the rocky side of the low cliff so I walked
along to it and climbed round and found to my delight I was
standing on a shelf a couple of inches under water. Over the
years the softer rock had been worn away and there was an
overhang eight to nine feet high where I could walk under quite
comfortably and the shelf was a good three to four feet wide so
there was no problem. I thought this was the cat's whiskers, off
we go. So I started but after a while all my prospects suddenly
vanished. I found myself at the end of this shelf staring over a
very wide bay, several hundred yards and to the right of me I
could see this machine gun post quite clearly and the
fellow was still sitting on the wall strumming away. There was
no -way I was going to get past them so far as I could see and I
retreated a little backwards feeling disappointed and very sorry
My thirst was becoming even worse but I dare not drink the last
drop of water. That had to wait until I had reached the extreme.
So I sat there and then realized I'd overlooked something. There
had been some bodies floating in the water and I moved round to
where I could look across the bay and sure enough there were
half a dozen bodies floating in the swell and they were drifting
in very slowly towards the beach about 15 yards from me. I had
the idea that if I slipped into the water and swam under I could
come up under one of the bodies and hopefully tow it gently
lying alongside of it and swim across the bay with it. I've
always been an excellent swimmer and that was no problem. So I
tossed away my empty water bottle and I strapped the half full
one down very tightly with my belt. I stripped off the remains
of my boiler suit so that I was only in shirt and shorts. I then
slipped into the water, dived down and swam until I could see
the body above me. I came up very slowly and steadied myself
against it until I could peep over the top. Nobody had
apparently notices anything. The chap was still strumming on his
guitar so I lay myself alongside this gentleman, grabbed him by
the shirt and, kicking with my feet and paddling with one hand,
I moved away very slowly across the bay.
I don't know how long it took me to cross but then I was in no
hurry. The water was warm and pleasant and if it took: me all
day it didn't really matter. I eventually reached the other side
and once under cover. I gave the old boy a pat on the shoulder,
thanked him for his help, gave him a shove and sent him on his
Here again I was lucky. I was in exactly the same position as
before with a nice shelf to walk along under the overhang but I
didn't travel very far, maybe 150 yards. I came to the end of
the shelf and in front of me was a cracking great bay, twice the
width of the one I had just crossed and, worse still, there was
a gun post no more than 150 yards from the beach itself and
almost central to the bay.
I retreated a little and sat there thinking about things. My
mind wasn't working too well but I knew one thing - I couldn't
go back. But with the small amount of water I had I doubted
whether I was going to make it at all. If the worst came to the
worst I hadn't far to go to give myself up - not that I had any
intention of doing so but the thought was there.
I happened to look up at the overhang and just above me was
quite a large hole so I reached up and pulled myself up through
it. I found myself in a small, sandy cave. The mouth of the cave
faced East. I peered very carefully round the corner and there
was the machine gun post and there was nothing I could do. I was
beginning to feel cold now so I stripped off my shorts and shirt
and lay them in the sun then curled up in the cave arid went to
sleep. I probably slept from sheer exhaustion.
It was probably around 4 o'clock when I woke up and it was the
noise of a dog barking which brought me round. I crawled to the
mouth of tire cave and three soldiers - Italians I think - had
walked down to the beach with their dog. They were swimming and
throwing sticks for the dog who was enjoying himself chasing and
splashing in the water. All I hoped was that the dog didn't to
take a walk up in my direction. Eventually they came out arid
dried themselves and walked back up to the machine gun post
where eventually I saw a wisp of smoke coming up and this didn't
do anything to help me.
I decided I'd have to wait for dark and pulled on my shirt and
shorts. My thirst was becoming unmanageable now so I drank the
last of my crater. It was either drink it or go and give myself
up. The wait for darkness was the longest couple of hours I've
ever been through. I thought the sun would never set. Every now
and again I would slide out of the hole and walk along the ledge
to the west and the sun seemed to stay in tire same spot.
Eventually it went down and out of sight and as soon as it was
dark I climbed out of the cave and walked down the rocky spit.
When I got to the beach I walked very quietly through the water
so as to leave no footprints. I was lucky now because it was
sand all the way. I had no problem. I passed various bays and it
was all sand. There were still the hills to the right of me and
possibly I passed more gun posts, I've no idea.
Towards midnight the sand came to an end and I was once again
climbing up and down these rocky ridges on hands and knees.
There was nothing; else I could do. My feet wouldn't carry me
any longer, only on the soft sand. Eventually, some time after
midnight, I saw in the moonlight a long upward slope in front of
me. I was able to walk part of the way because of the sand
between the rocks but frequently I had to drop down on my hands
and knees and eventually reached the top. I found myself looking
down into a vast wadi. I don't know how high I was but the beach
at the bottom with the little white rollers coming in looked
tiny and I sat there thinking and these two little men kept
hammering at me again.
My mind was going very rapidly now. I was unable to come to any
real conclusion but eventually going East won and I slithered
over the side of the wadi. I have no recollection of going down
it except for the last ten feet or so. Just before I reached the
bottom the slope gave way to a vertical drop. Fortunately it
couldn’t have been more than eight or ten feet. I slid off the
edge and landed on a pile of sand at the bottom.
I rested there for a while then picked myself up and staggered
across the sandy bottom of this wadi and I was probably half way
when I could see something shining in the moonlight. I dropped
flat on my face. I was puzzled about this and looked at it for a
long time but it made no sense to me so I began crawling. I
crawled across the remaining half of the wadi but I could see
the shining thing was rows and rows of barbed wire. I reached
out and touched it. It was solid enough because I was beginning
to wonder if my mind had gone away.
I lay there for a while looking at the wire and I knew I
couldn't go back. No way was I going to climb the side of that
wadi I' d just come down. So I stripped off my shorts and shirt
and wrapped them round my empty water bottle. Then, lying flat
on the sand I wriggled my way through the wire. I think this is
probably the thing that saved me from setting off any land
mines. I came out the other side without so much as a scratch on
me. I sat there, pulled on my shorts and shirt, put on my water
bottle and began on my hands and knees to climb the next hill.
It was sand and stones and half way up I could see a great rock.
I kept struggling and reached the rock then sat there with my
back against it.
There was a light wind coming off the sea. After a while I was
aware of voices and I began to wonder whether I was really
hearing them or imagining them. I listened and again I heard
them. They were rising and falling but were like no voices I had
ever heard. They weren't German. They weren't Italian. Then I
thought they sounded like Welsh, the sing-song note. After a
long time I came to the conclusion I was bewitched. There was no
way of going back, there was no way of going forward without
finding out who front of me and my mind was too far gone to
realize I had crossed the British front line. It could have been
anybody up there as far as I was concerned but why they should
have been on that side of the wire, common sense should have
I thought the only tiring I can do is to shout . So I tried to
shout but nothing came out. I tried again and a grunt came out.
I thought this really won't do, you really must shout, shout. I
tried again and something like a scream came out and the voices
stopped and there was a clatter of rifle bolts and a voice said
in English, "Come up with your hands up."
Well, there was no way I was going to climb that last bit of
mountain. I was there on my hands and knees peering up the side
of the hill and at last I got out, "I can't. I can't." The next
thing I knew, two great forms came shooting down the hillside
and hands were placed under my arms and I was lifted bodily and
carried up to the top of the hill and dumped into a trench. The.
first thing I did was to say, "Water, give me water." A water
bottle was passed to me and I must have drunk half before it was
snatched away, much to my indignation but a voice said, "No, if
you drink too much you'll kill yourself." They were all twice
the size of me. these gentlemen and it was then I realized they
were Indian troops.
One of them put his arms round my shoulders and said, "Come." He
helped me along the trench, a blanket was pulled aside and I
found myself' in a dugout. In here was an Indian with a field
telephone beside him. There were heaps of blankets in two
corners and this chap said to me, "Go and sit on the blankets
and keep warm and I will make you some tea."
The big chap who'd brought me in turned out to be the Subador or
Sergeant Major. He picked up the phone and was talking to
somebody in his own language. Then he called me over and said,
''The Major wants to talk to you."
So I picked up the phone and said, "My name is Cave" and the
voice at the other end said, "Ah, Cave. And how did you get
through my barbed wire fence?"
I thought, that's funny. "I crawled, sir." He said, "You crawled
through my barbed wire fence?" I said, "That's right, sir." He
said, 'I don't know whether you're a bloody liar or you're just
plain lucky. That was a mine field in there."
So I said, "I'm sorry, sir, but I crawled through it. "Well," he
said, "I'll see you in the morning. Give me the Subador."
By this time the tea was ready and I was handed a cracking great
mug of it. Well, the Indian tea is solid sugar and condensed
milk and you wave the tea over the top of it. But it did me a
hell of a lot of good. I stood there sipping this tea and
scratching my fleas. We picked up these fleas somewhere round
Ras el Tin. We were unlucky. We walked across an area where the
Arabs had had their goats and it was only after we came out the
other side that we realized we were covered in fleas.
I settled down into the blankets trying to sleep but I wasn't
going to get any sleep because these fleas always worked at
night. So I was sitting there and the Subador came in followed
by another tall figure and in the candle light I realized I was
looking at an Aussie hat and when Alf straightened up, there he
I couldn't believe my eyes and he looked over at me and he said,
"I see you've made it, you little so and so," and I said, "Yes,
Alfie, and so have you."
There's no way I can describe the reunion between myself and Alf
so I'll just leave it there. More tea was made. The Subador rang
the Major again and I imagine he got another rocket for allowing
someone to walk down and swim round the wire instead of crawling
By this time it was close to daylight and the whistle went and
everybody rushed out to stand to. Alf and I sat there talking.
We found that he had never been more than an hour behind me the
whole way but he never managed to make that hour up. Where I
swam he had waited for dark. But we were together again and that
was all that mattered.
In the morning, as soon as the stand-to was over and it was
daylight, we climbed out of the slit trench and we were taken to
the Major. Now, when I stood there on top of the trench looking
over, there was nothing but rocks, all loose rocks and I burst
into tears. Alf said to me, "'What the hell's the matter?" and I
said, "I can't walk, Alf, over those." And he said, "Well,
there's no problem. Just pretend you’re a little boy again." And
he bent down and he said, "get on." And I climbed on his back
and carried me piggy back. I don’t how far but a long way down
to the Major’s HQ.
This was a cave in the side of a cliff. We reached there and I
slid off . We both stood there looking at this Major and he
looked at us from his chair and He said, "Sit down, sit down. "
So we sat down and we took our particulars, names, numbers,
units and all the rest of it. He then disappeared into the back
f his cave and came back with two bottles of Australian Black
Horse beer. He gave us each one and a packet of cigarettes and
he said, "Get on with that while I ring HQ."
"When he'd finished with the phone he came back and sat down and
he said, "Right, lads, give me a short version of your walk." We
did this and when I reached the point where I was in the wadi
crawling through the barbed wire, he said, "I still can't
understand how you managed to climb through that barbed wire
without exploding a mine." I said, "I wouldn't know, sir."
He then told us he had arranged for us to be picked up by
ambulance but explained we would have to walk the two miles to
the pick-up point.
So we thanked him and once again Alf bent down and I climbed on
his back and he carried me the full distance to this point to
pick up the ambulance. We must have waited a couple of hours or
more listening to shells going over from the German heavy
artillery. They were shoving over shells further over into
Tobruk because we were quite a long way from the center. The
ambulance was empty when it arrived and it took us to the Army
HQ in Tobruk. We reported to the orderly room and the sergeant
took Alf away. He was away quite some time, then came back and
The sergeant beckoned to me and I went into this other room. To
my surprise the Intelligence officer was Lord Weymouth who had
been Major of A Squadron in the Wilts Yeomanry where I was. He
obviously didn't recognize me. I doubt if my own mother would
have recognized me. My hair was down to my shoulders; I had a
straggly sort of a beard and a very tattered and torn shirt and
pair of shorts, bare feet and my water bottle - I still hung on
to my water bottle which was now full and I intended it to stay
I had to tell the Major about my escape and he questioned me
about various things. Eventually he said, "Very well, Cave, but
what do you want to do now?" I said, "Well, I want to get back
to my unit."
So this was arranged. Alf's Australian unit was in Tobruk and
agreed to keep me with them until a ship arrived to take me out.
So that was that. It was a couple of hours before a truck took
us back to Alf's unit. When we arrived we found the Colonel with
a number of officers and quite a number of off-duty men and
there were hand-shakes and all the rest of it going round. The
Colonel took us into his dug-out and insisted we tell our
stories, a bottle of beer was given to each of us, cigarettes
were supplied; in fact, a jolly good time was being had by all
The Colonel gave us a party. I don't know where he got the beer
from. It is probably a military secret. But at 5o'clock all off
duty men were invited and there were the officers and the
colonel. The beer was dished out and the lads sat in rows on the
sand and the Colonel had a trestle table put out and he stood on
this, me on his right hand, Alf on the left.
He then proceeded to tell all these tough Aussies what a
wonderful chap I was. It was unbelievable. I blushed from my
toes to my hair. Anyway, great cheers and hurrahs were given and
then Alf was called upon to say a few words. And the same thing
again, he had me blushing right, left and center. Then somebody
said, "Let's hear from our Pommy friend." So the Colonel said,
"Come on, lad, say something."
Well, I' d never had to make a speech in my life so I said,
"What do I say, Colonel? I just don't know what to say."
He said, " Just say the first thing that comes into your head.
It doesn't matter. All they want is a few words."
So I stood there and in a very loud voice I called out, "Ladies
and Gentlemen." The Colonel, quick as a flash, said, "Right, the
first two ranks can be the ladies."
Well, there was a deadly hush for a moment or two, then somebody
began to giggle and within seconds, all those big, tough fellows
were rolling on the ground howling with laughter and beating
each other over the shoulders. When there was a lull, a voice
piped up, "Ladies and Gentlemen" and off they went again. Well,
the Colonel thought it was a good thing if we all stepped down
and continued with the drinking rather than the speeches.
I've never forgotten that and after the war when I was called
upon to make a speech, believe me, it was chaotic. After that I
always tried to make a few notes so that I wasn't caught out.
But I was so embarrassed over this that it's lasted all these
years. I often feel red in the face when I think of the boob I
I spent about a week with Alf before there was a call from HQ
for me to catch a boat and, believe me, it was a very sad little
man that shook hands with Alf and the Colonel. The boys were all
there to wish me well and I set off and arrived back at the Army
HQ. I' d never changed my shorts and shirt. I was still wearing
the same old ones, the reason being that Tobruk had as many
fleas as I was carrying anyway so there was no point in changing
old clothes for new ones. But the sergeant gave me a new pair of
shorts and a shirt and a pair of sand shoes and, I forgot, the
Aussies presented me with an Australian bush hat.
So there I was, standing on the quay - what remained of it - and
this little sub chaser came in. Before boarding her I took off
my old shorts and shirt and dropped them into the harbor and I
said, "Swim, you buggers, swim." I pulled on my new shorts and
shirt and put on my water bottle and my Aussie hat and I went on
board bare footed. My feet were healing up but they very still
very sore round the heels.
Now that, so far as I'm concerned, concludes the story. I'll
give you a few impressions another time of what happened when I
got back to Alex.
The "London Gazette" supplement contains the following:
The King has been pleased to award the Military Medal to the
following in recognition of gallant and distinguished service in
the Middle East:- No. 555726, Trooper Holloway Cave, Royal
Armoured Corps (Yeomanry) of The Firs, Rode Common, near Bath.
The story is now revealed of how Trooper H.A. Cave, R.A.C. won
the Military Medal, announced in the 'Chronicle" and 'Herald" on
The official announcement says:
'On November 29th during an attack on an Italian fort at El
Ezzeiat, Trooper Cave displayed great courage in operating his
machine gun from the vehicle in a very exposed position under
heavy enemy fire.
Two days later during a night raid on enemy transport on the
coastal road near Bomba he shot one driver and killed a further
five men with hand grenades.
Throughout this and other patrols he had shown great
determination and a constant desire to engage the enemy.
"Have been awarded the M.M. How’s that for a Merry Christmas"
read a cabled message received a few days ago by Mrs. Cave, of
the Firs, Rode, from her son, Anthony Holloway Cave, of the
Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry.
Anthony Cave who is 22 years of age joined the Yeomanry at the
age of 16 at Devizes as a trumpeter, and has been in the
regiment ever since. He went abroad with the Regiment, and
twelve months ago volunteered for special service with the
"Commandos" in the Middle East Forces. He had some exciting
experiences. On one occasion he was captured, but was in the
hands of the enemy for only twelve days before escaping.
After wandering for miles in the desert he returned to his base.
His mother has no news of him during one period of over seven
months and he was officially reported "missing". In September
last when in hospital for some time, he broadcast greetings to
him mother through the BBC.
The new Military medalist was born at Devises, where his parents
resided at High-field farm. He attended St. Peter’s School
Devises, under Mr. S. White. His father died some fifteen years
ago, and his mother moved to Rode some four years ago, Anthony
is her only son.