First blood

That last story reminds me of my earlier posting to Mersa Matruh, but as most of my scrappy diary notes are long lost I should make it clear that this episode happened much earlier during the North African campaign.

The Field Company in which I was serving was allowed an element of discretion when choosing where to site itself and thus hopefully avoid enemy attention. Our efficiency depended largely upon the range of equipment we carried, from screwdrivers to a Bayley bridge. What, you ask, bridges in the Desert? Of course: to span enemy anti-tank ditches.

Our location at Mersa was a wide waddi overlooking the railhead about a mile away, with its collection of storage, administration and military units surrounding it.

With such an attractive target Italian bombers paid frequent visits, sweeping in lower and lower with impunity since our only deterrents, apart from a few badly co-ordinated ack-ack guns, were two or three lumbering biplanes with a top speed of perhaps a hundred and fifty miles an hour.

Until the Spitfires arrived. We saw some half dozen of them coming in low one evening, to land at a makeshift airfield on the higher ground above us. The next morning having attended roll call and undertaken the usual round of regimental duties I checked my camera was loaded. And here I should mention why. It was a miniature German Vestex with a magnificent Zeiss lens and small enough to fit unseen into the top of my respirator. I took it almost everywhere; everywhere, that is, where I might get some action shots. Naturally, any of my mates involved at the time were always eager to see the results and often asked for copies. Periodic leave in Cairo was available to us all. So, having found a camera shop in the city to handle the processing, I took exposed film there and in future got my mates to deliver and collect material for me. I wanted no profit from this hobby, only to cover my costs. Everyone appeared happy with the arrangement, so when I was seen running anywhere with my camera, I seemed to attracted an enthusiastic following.

On this occasion I listened with greater anticipation for the distinctive drone of the three-engined Italian planes. And yes, they came. Hoping to get some good aerial shots, I ran to an overhanging spur of the waddi.

My hope of a photographic scoop was short-lived, for many of the company seeing me running to a point of vantage, followed me. The next thing I knew was a breathless orderly demanding that I report back immediately to the duty officer.

Lieutenant Lloyd, in as near an hysterical state as I had yet seen any officer, screamed that I had been leading men to their deaths - but took no further interest in the matter as bombs began to fall, and out of the clear blue sky howled three or four Spitfires.

At this distance in time I cannot recall the scene in detail. Too much was happening too fast. There appeared to be total aerial confusion, with the Italian bombers totally disorganized, jettisoning their bombs anywhere and trying to take evasive action.

We of course scattered to take what shelter we could among the broken terrain of the waddi from random gun-fire and shrapnel, for the sky was a whirling mass of planes.

Naturally we were all screaming with excitement to see our Spitfires creating such carnage among an unsuspecting enemy . . . until we saw a Spitfire trailing flames.

The cheering stopped. We saw a figure ejected from the cockpit, and begin falling, with a parachute trailing behind him like a kitbag. But the parachute didn't open, and the pilot hit the ground about half a mile away. Instinctively three of us leapt into the nearest truck and drove to the spot.

No one could have survived such a fall - and of course the pilot was dead. I immediately noticed things that I can still vividly remember. He was scruffily dressed with torn blue shorts and worn plimsoles. It was also the first time I was to experience the sweet sickly smell of violent death, for the bones of all his joints, fingers, elbows, and knees had burst from his body with the impact of his fall - yet there was little blood.

It was common knowledge that in Egypt, anyone who died had to be buried the same day. One of us took the spade strapped to the truck, an essential tool for any desert vehicle, and began to dig a grave. We other two emptied the pockets of his few possessions and removed the two identification tags from around his neck, stating his number and name, which indicated he was French. After untangling the parachute to use as a shroud, we buried him and marked the spot with a cairn of stones.

Back at the orderly tent we handed his possessions to the sergeant major and explained what had happened.

Eventually things calmed down, for the skies above Mersa appeared clear of aircraft. I remember we were all standing in groups telling each other excitedly what we had seen and trying to assess the enemy's casualties. We were all holding our mess tins for it was nearly lunch time and we were merely waiting for the cook to bang on a saucepan to tell us food was ready - when apparently out of nowhere appeared a stricken Italian bomber. It was high above us, and blazing fiercely. Its engines were silent and without forward momentum it was falling slowly, slowly like a leaf, drifting from side to side - the only noise, the roar of the flames.

Again we scattered. Where would it fall? Each of us made his own decision and ran, for it was coming perilously close. Then at last with a colossal whoompf it landed more or less flat, three hundred yards from our field kitchen.

An impartial witness might have commended the bravery of those fellows rushing to the wreckage as though to help the crew to safety. Bur no. We knew they had to be dead. We had other priorities. Avoiding the dying flames we passed the four bodies lying close together in a row, shrivelled to the size of small black monkeys. Their burnt uniforms were embedded into their flesh. Their skulls had split open by the heat so that their brains oozed out over their blackened skulls Not an enviable sight. But war is unreal and left little time for speculation or compassion. We passed them with but a momentary glance - then hastened to our real objectives: the much-coveted Breda machine guns carried by all Italian aircraft. And soon we had salvaged all four.

I should explain that it was the illicit purpose of all Allied forward units to mount as many such armaments as was possible on their vehicles for their own protection. The source was immaterial; it was always open season, whether taken from enemy aircraft or swiftly lifted from a neighbouring unit inexperienced enough to have left its own guns unguarded.

Quickly we carried our plunder to a nearby stone hut for inspection. Two were damaged beyond repair, but the others worked perfectly - and these we quickly concealed under canvas.

What happened to the dead Italians was not our concern. They belonged to the RAF.

As expected, many of the company were soon called away to help with repair work around the bomb-damaged railhead. But I was still at our camp site with our CSM, Boyte, when an RAF staff car drew up at the bottom of our waddi and out stepped two officers.

Boyte and I went down to see what they wanted. We both saluted of course for they appeared to be fairly senior men, carrying numerous braid rings around their jacket cuffs.

"Good afternoon," began one. "Our observers tell us that one of our pilots bailed-out somewhere around here this morning, and his 'chute didn't open. Do you know where?"

The CSM jerked his head at me.

"He'll show you where," he said. "He helped bury him."

"Well, I'm afraid we must ask you to let us have him back. We'll have to give him a proper funeral and then of course, we must find out why his parachute didn't open."

So I collected a spare bod, and watched by the others we disinterred the corpse and laid him on the back seat of the staff car.

"Thank you," said the officer wearing the most braid. "And didn't an Italian bomber come down somewhere near here earlier on?"

"That's right," agreed the CSM. "We'll take you to it."

So we clambered up the waddi and arrived at the wreckage. The flames had died away but wisps of smoke were still rising from the remains.

The two officers, poked around with the walking sticks they were carrying (Yes, honest!) and scribbled away in their note books.

"I suppose you'll be taking care of the bodies?" asked Boyte.

"Oh, yes. Certainly. We'll send a detail along tomorrow to see to it." agreed the junior officer.

So CSM Boyte and I waited until they'd finished their inspection.

"I think that's all we need to see, thank you sergeant major," said the senior man.

And as we led them back down the rock-strewn waddi to their car I heard the junior man say to his boss in hushed amazement, "Didn't you notice, sir? The Italians must be having supply problems. That plane wasn't carrying any machine guns at all!"

Copyright Bob Thwaites, 2007