Now letís go back to the time I was put ashore on the coast near Bardia Harbour. Nothing much happened while I was there and this is merely to relate an incident that illustrates the importance discipline played in our lives.
As Iíve already mentioned, once Iíd accepted discipline I never gave it a second thought. It enabled one to do things instinctively, I knew had to be done. (Strange to remember, there was even a discipline taught at Chatham, governing the correct way one should carry a pickaxe and shovel at night lest they bang together and disclose oneís presence.)
Bardia harbour was in Libya, formerly an Italian colony. Recently captured by Allied forces, it was manned by a small garrison of Australians. Naturally, I wasnít told why I was there, but on landing I was soon instructed to report to the Bardia garrison commandant.
Skirting the harbourís perimeter to reach the HQ, I was surprised to see the number of sunken ships, the tops of their masts and funnels showing above harbourís water level. In fact, among the few photographs not later confiscated by the army, I still have a shot of the scene.
After reporting at the garrison orderly room I was given a meal, shown my accommodation and told to report to the commandant. Luckily, he was a no-nonsense Australian major. "Ah, hallo sergeant," he said, after Iíd found him. "Iím told youíre the sapper explosives chap we wanted," indicating some papers on his desk. "Is that right?"
"I suppose so, sir," I said. "But I wasnít told why."
"Good. Then weíve got a little job for you. Come along and Iíll show you."
We walked the coastal road for about half a mile and stopped by a pair of massive wooden doors set into the cliff face. One held a small postern door for individual entry and this the major opened and stepped inside. I followed him, and was immediately terrified. The place was a nightmare.
"Thereís a light switch up here somewhere," he said, reaching up with his arm to find it.
"DONíT SIR," I shouted, and grabbed his sleeve as his fingers were closing on the switch. "Canít you smell it? The marzipan stink of nitro-glycerine. And thereís weeping gelignite here too, and God knows what else. Letís open the main doors and let some air in." If that light switch was badly installed by Italians and caused a spark, heaven knows what might have happened.
"Okay, sergeant. I suppose you know best," he said, untroubled by my abrupt behaviour.
Opening the main doors revealed a cave the size of a small cathedral - packed full of high explosives in chaotic disorder.
All explosives have their own characteristics and when they deteriorate, as most do in time, you can get what appears to be a contradiction in terms, but is technically known as sympathetic detonation. This lot seemed just about ready for that, and had it occurred, the map of that section of the North African coastline would have to have been re-drawn.
"Hereís a disaster waiting to happen, sir," I said, after Iíd made a quick inspection, trying to keep my voice under control. "The Ities have just bunged everything in together. Cordite, guncotton, gelignite, detonators, TNT and God knows what else, when most of them should be stored separately, and well away from each other. And I reckon this lot should be destroyed as soon as possible."
The major grinned at my alarm. "Yeah, sergeant, I know," he said. "Thatís what Iíve been told. Thatís why we sent for you. Can you handle this lot? Unless thereís anything worth saving."
"No problem, sir, but Iíd like a couple of men to help with the heavier loads; non-smokers please, and itíll take time. You canít work for long in this stench without getting a terrible headache."
"Okay, sarge. Letís know what you want and weíll do our best."
After that, it was simple. There was nothing worth saving, so we carried the crates up a cliff path to level ground about a mile from the garrison and destroyed most of the junk in a number of controlled explosions Ė advising the major of our intentions lest they think they were under enemy attack. It seemed a pity not to make some use of what weíd got so I liberated a rowboat from the harbour. With gelignite, detonators, and slow burning fuse I rowed out to sea and sinking my homemade bombs, weighted with stones, provided the garrison with fresh fish.
Returning from the cookhouse one day I saw a hospital ship heave-to at the harbour entrance. It carried a large red cross on its white painted side. The commandant, running out of his office saw me. "Sergeant," he shouted. "Just the man I want. Grab a boat, get a couple of men and row out to that ship. Tell them, DO NOT ENTER THE HARBOUR. ITíS STILL CHOCK FULL OF MINES!"
So we rowed out to the hospital ship and when in hailing distance I shouted the warning to someone on the bridge. He held a megaphone to his mouth. "Thank you, Digger," he yelled. "Message understood. Weíll move on." And so they did.
It was only a short time ago when I was engaged in writing these stories that I realised we had rowed both ways across a mine-filled harbour without even thinking about it.