Sand storms in North Africa could be right buggers!

Unpredictably, they'd howl down on you out of nowhere bringing gloom and destruction. Everything stopped, for both adversaries. Such storms might last for minutes or hours and just as mysteriously disappear, leaving an unnatural calm for us to inspect the damage and erect fallen tents. When they occurred, the only thing to do was tie a wet handkerchief over your nose and mouth to help breathing and seek shelter in the nearest tent, if one was still standing, or better still an enclosed vehicle, otherwise the sand would scour your exposed flesh like - well, like sandpaper. Next, you covered your gun's barrel and breech-mechanism with a towel or any material not already sandy.

Some of us were lucky enough to have benefited by the capture of an Italian truck loaded with condoms. One of these rolled over a rifle's muzzle gave the barrel perfect protection. Jerry probably did the same thing.

But believe me, dust storms could be worse. They too came billowing in without warning, but not as violently as sand storms. Often they were merely local affairs but still caused trouble, covering everything with a thick coating of yellow dust as fine as talcum powder. Their opacity varied from moment to moment, limiting visibility to six feet or a hundred yards - and then just as quickly, they'd be gone.

One of our generals overcame their disruptive nuisance by siting his headquarters in a caravan. This excellent idea was soon copied and caravans quickly became the vogue for enterprising commanders.

For reasons long forgotten. I was serving with an Australian Division. One day the commander's adjutant sent for me.

"Sergeant," he said, "I hear you can draw and paint a bit."

"Well, yes. I suppose so sir, when I get the time."

"In that case, you'll probably do. The general's just got himself a caravan. It's at the railhead at Mersa Matruh and he wants someone to camouflage it and tow it back here. Can you manage that, and can you drive?"

"Of course . . . sir! Given the time and the materials."

"Good. I'm told it's a biggish affair so you're going to need some extra muscle. I'll let you have three drivers to go with you. Do you know Mersa at all?"

"Fairly well. sir. I was stationed there a year or so ago."

"Right. So you'll know where to find the railhead. Get a suitable truck from the transport section. Here's the authority chit to get the caravan released from the RTO (Railway Transport Officer) at Mersa. Sign for paint and anything else you need from the Quartermaster's stores there. Off first thing tomorrow then. Okay?"

Next morning, having finished dressing I was looking forward to a three-day doddle back at base. Maybe four, if I decided the caravan needed a second coat of camouflage. We'd be independent, sleeping in it and eating (for preference) at the NAAFI canteen, which was sure to have beer.

Then I became aware of three large shadows looming up against the canvas side of my tent. I lifted the flap and went outside and for a long moment I was stunned. Nearly all Australian troops were big. But these three were enormous. One was so tall it didn't seem possible at first that he could be real.

But he spoke. "You the bloke we're takin' to Mersa?"

For a moment or two I had to adjust to being a midget. I even thought of turning sideways a little, the better to display the three chevrons on my sleeve, showing however pitifully that I was at least a sergeant. But sanity returned in time. Aussies just didn't give a bugger for rank; any rank usually. Yet they always appeared to get things done smartly without the need for any discipline whatsoever.

I looked up, squinting and trying to straighten my spine.

He started again as though sound couldn't perhaps carry that far. "You the bloke we're. . ."

I held up my hand. "Yeah," I agreed, using the vernacular, with the hope perhaps of gaining membership of the club ."So I suggest you lot have breakfast while I have mine. I'll draw the rations and meet you at the vehicle park in half an hour. Okay?"

I'd already asked the transport sergeant for a vehicle large and powerful enough for our job, with the necessary towbar, and wide enough at a pinch to seat us all in the driver's cab.

We were based somewhere in Libya and it was going to be a long drive to the railhead, over the border in Egypt. We would probably manage it in a day if we met no trouble, like enemy aircraft strafing convoys. The answer: avoid convoys.

"I'll take first stint," decided our giant, and since nobody demurred he took the wheel. At first I wondered if he'd be able to, but by squatting well down in the seat with his head gently rubbing the cab's roof, he managed.

It was an uneventful journey, hot and tiring, with the usual squaddie's stops for brew-ups and to change drivers. We soon got to know each other. I became just Bob. Our giant was Jim. The other two names are long forgotten.

That evening we reached Matruh, reported to the Provost Marshal's office to say who we were and why we were there, and were told where to site ourselves. Then off to the RTO to collect the caravan; and as the adjutant had said, it was huge. As I was nattering with a sergeant whom I'd met before I saw Jim pick up one end of the enormous monster as though it were a match box - an empty one - swing it round effortlessly and attach it to our truck with the tow bar! His two mates merely watched, leaning against the lorry, smoking. Why waste energy?

I know that Mersah by then had adequate air cover but still attracted the occasional attention of enemy bombers. I also knew that the Provost Marshal's staff were too busy guarding the NAAFI stores and the Quartermaster's compound to worry about us. So we towed the caravan well away from the centre and found a suitable site by the sea.

The camouflage job didn't tax my imagination. I merely copied the disruptive designs I saw on other vehicles, but slowly. You should understand that no professional painter would ever rush headlong into such a delicate assignment as mine without giving it considerable thought.

My three Aussie mates helped too of course, just as slowly. Teaching art to inexperienced students can be time-consuming, laborious and thirsty work in a desert environment. Hence our need for longish siestas in the shade of the caravan to discuss progress and play pontoon, with NAAFI beer easing an undoubtedly stressful occupation. As usual, swimming in the Med was great.

But eventually we finished to the satisfaction of all and started the journey back.

It. was slow, careful work, towing the heavy load, but things improved once we hit the tarmac road in Libya.

The landscape was flat and featureless except for units of the 8th Army, encamped on each side of us. Our divisional headquarters would be easily identified by a large white fingerpost bearing its name. Due west we drove, taking turns at the wheel. The road was straight and flat, and so far, no problems . . .

Then, "Oh, Christ!" muttered someone. "Look!" So we looked, and there bowling silently towards us and already obscuring much of the sky was a dust storm. A real stinker; and we were soon in the middle of it. We stopped for a short think. Driving was now going to be hazardous. But we pressed on more slowly, and for good reason.

Visibility was often only about ten or fifteen feet, sometimes less, sometimes more.

The road and the verges were invisible to the driver because they were covered by swirling dust. To proceed in safety one of us walked at the left side of the truck, tapping with his rifle butt to ensure we were still on the road's hard surface, banging on the mudguard when necessary to warn the driver to straighten up a bit. Another man walked on the other side and placed the palm of his left hand on the windscreen to give the driver visual directions, for he too was tapping the road with his gun-butt to ensure we were still on course. The fourth man walked ahead to warn us of the possibility of meeting an oncoming vehicle. None, fortunately. Only in this cautious way could we ensure that we didn't drive off the road and into a minefield - which we knew were plentiful.

"Look out for the Div sign," we warned each other. There was no need to stop, for at least we were making some progress. Eventually, we agreed, we must be nearly there. But still no div sign . . .

And then - the wind dropped and the dust started to clear. We could see twenty, thirty then forty yards ahead - and soon could distinguish vehicles . . . Rommel's Tiger tanks neatly lined up each side of the road. God only knows how many! Our driver stopped, probably shocked. The three of us outside instinctively threw ourselves into the cab as though for protection - but without slamming the door.

"Holy shit!" murmured someone, which seemed adequately to express our situation. Then Jim turned to the driver and in a decisive whisper said, "Stay in first gear. Do a slow turn U-turn and for fuck's sake don't stall the engine. There seems to be just enough room, but I'll stand on the running-board to guide you." And indeed, with Jim as our built-in periscope, we made it - just.

So as quietly as possible and with nerves as tense as fiddle strings we regained the road and drove back the way we had come, thankful that the Jerries were sensibly tucked away in their own vehicles, probably playing a Kraut version of pontoon. Bless 'em.

The storm was quickly lifting and we could soon travel at a respectable speed. In due course we found the divisional fingerpost, which we'd missed, turned off onto an XPM (Expanded Metal) track and before long, we were home. At div HQ we reported to the adjutant. Whether or not he thought we'd been long on the job was academic, for he made no comment. We'd brought him what his boss wanted, which was all that mattered.

The area had obviously missed the storm, for noticing our yellow dust-caked state, he said, "You lads appear to have had a rough drive. You could probably use a drink." We all nodded, but sensibly remained silent. A little later we did at least thank him for the beer.

Believe me, you DO learn from your mistakes!

Copyright Bob Thwaites, 2007