Eventually I was evacuated from Tobruk because I was needed elsewhere.
Those of us to go, left under cover of darkness, or at least by moonlight, embarked in a small coaster, packed literally to the gu’nnels with wounded and other evacuees. We edged slowly out of the harbour with two sailors in the bows to keep a lookout for mines; a useless precaution because however slowly we were travelling we could never have gone suddenly astern in time had a mine been spotted.
Sailing close to the coastline we proceeded eastwards and by daylight were approaching friendly territory. At one point I probably caused near heart attacks. Having excellent eyesight I saw a number of small black spots on the horizon heading towards us from the north, from Italy. ‘Shit,’ I thought. ‘Here we go again,’ and alerted the crew. The alarm bell was rung. The too few machine guns we possessed were hastily manned and everyone prepared for the worst.
But the black dots rapidly approaching proved to be a large flock of migrating birds. I was not popular.
Having reached Allied-held territory we entered a small bay and anchored. A motor launch put out from the land and took off about half-a-dozen of us, including myself, who were then landed ashore.
Later, I learned later that the coaster, on its way to Alexandria, had sailed no more that a few miles eastwards when it was attacked by the Luftwaffe, and sunk.
My disembarkation at Bardia surprised me for I assumed I would be rejoining my unit in Egypt. Their task, I had learned, was to keep the Suez Canal safe for Allied shipping. The Luftwaffe had started making daring long distance raids to drop acoustic mines in the Canal, designed to explode when activated by the noise of a ship’s engine passing overhead.
Our answer was quick in coming. A Wellington bomber with a degaussing ring fitted beneath its fuselage would fly the length of the canal and if a mine was detected a Very light would be fired marking the spot. Advised of the location, an RE section would arrive to deal with the nuisance.
A metal drain pipe some seven or eight feet long would be filled with blasting powder, which was contained in a box somewhat larger than a tea-chest. Being a relatively low explosive its detonative force was greatly increased by tamping it tightly down with anything suitable, and wooden, such as a pick-helve. Capped watertight and fitted with detonator and slow burning fuse the pipe would then supported by two inflated goat’s bladders and rowed out to a position above the acoustic mine. The fuse would be lit, the bladders punctured and the two-man crew would row their dinghy back to shore with the determined speed of a Henley eight.
The resultant explosion would provide smiles all round and probably fresh fish for dinner. Hopefully ...
Later, arriving in Cairo, on my way to re-join my unit in the Desert, I was told that almost my entire section had been killed on the banks of the Canal. Some twenty-eight close friends, many from our Training Battalion days together in Chatham.
I only heard the words that I was told. But they didn’t register. They were meaningless. I just couldn’t take the news aboard. It took a long, long time for the enormity to sink in ...
Lofty Thornton ...
The nominal roll was examined and twenty-eight coffins provided to accept enough remains to suggest twenty-eight bodies, which were then given a military funeral outside Cairo.
Among the debris was found the remains of the pick-helve that had been used to tamp down the powder. As pick-helves do in time, it had become loose. To prevent the pick-head from sliding down the shaft a short metal wedge, made for the purpose, had been hammered into the top of the shaft.
With this also eventually becoming insufficient, someone had then driven in a six-inch nail and finding it too long had bent the top over the edge.
Even a mild-steel nail striking a metal drain pipe can cause a spark.
What, for me, made things worse: had I been in charge, such a tragedy would never have happened. I was never, never, over-confident when handling explosives.