WW II, a British focus



memories of Pte Tom Barker
1st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders

Tom Barker passed on October 1st 2008poppy.gif - 1571 Bytes

The desert 1940

We were marching, struggling might be a better word, especially pertaining to the bloke who was humping the boy’s anti tank gun through the desert and it was just beginning to get light (the gun was getting heavier). The blokes carrying the heavy boxes of ammo where not all that chuffed either.

Carrying a metal box full of bren gun ammo is no joke and to transport it for miles, well the uninitiated would think “big deal, carry a metal box for a few miles”. But the metal box is heavy since it is full of anti tank ammo and it’s shape, well the bods who invented this equipment should have been to made carry it a few miles. Then they would have said, “look we can’t issue this as carried equipment, it will saw some unfortunate jokers leg off”. I kid you not, as you walk holding the leather strap which is riveted on one side of one end of the box, the top two sharp corners of the box get your leg twice, once as your leg goes forward and the other corner gets your leg on the way back. You think, “I’ll be a clever boy and turned the box round”. So with the box now turned round and you have put your hanky away after wiping the sweat from your brow, you set off again. But lo and behold now instead of catching your leg at the knee it gets you at the ankle, because before the box tilted one way and now it was tilted the opposite way. So it’s a no win situation. Now some bright bod suggested “e re, why don’ yu carry two boxes then yu would be balanced”. “And why don’t you go and bury your head in the nearest quick sand” came the reply. “Well I was only tryin’ tu be helpful” added our mate. To which the carrier of the box snarled, “why don’t you take a spell with this then”. “Well oi got this 'ere bad back yu see an’ if’n ahm not careful” came the reply. When carrying any thing in the desert you try to leave one hand free because you need the other one to breath, because if you don’t keep the flies away from your face you could collapse from lack of air. You read this and maybe you think “haw haw, this bloke is too much” well I kid you not old son, or miss but the human body has two ear holes, two eye holes, two nose holes, and two one way apertures which are normally covered by clothing, so it;s not surprising since the flies can’t get at these they try to get into the ones that are not covered up, to wit, i.e .and vis, the afore said head gear.

I watched with interest one bloke who having opened a tin of bully beaf cut it into four and having dished it out to three of his mates sat down to enjoy a snack with his portion on a hard tack biscuit. He had it covered with his hanky and it was amusing, well I was amused, and it doesn’t take much sometimes in moments of adversity. He wasn’t too thrilled, because it was a toss up who was going to get most of the bully, him or the flies. He would lift the edge of his hanky and it was a toss up who got the first bite, him or about fifty flies. Some times you could see a bloke who was past caring. He would wave then bite and if the flies were on it, tough, they went down as well.

There was another hilarious episode when we got a visit from some Egyptian vultures. If you had your bully on a plate having just collected it from the cook, and a mug of tea in the other hand they knew you had your hands full and would swoop and your bully became airborne. They would float in like a kids kite and settle on to the sand so gracefully and sit there with beady eyes ever alert. And if some one put down his bully the head would come up and they would be ready for a quick dash and grab and the bloke would see this and mutter “oh no yu don’t yu feathered midden”. But some times the vulture was too quick and the bloke would be seen waving good bye to his bully ration, until you realised he was actually heaving rocks after the fast departing scavenger and questioning it’s parentage.

Some times a truck would pull up and blokes would get out and you would see the blokes coming out of holes in the sand because any thing new happening was like going to the pictures. “What’s this then” some one would warble “bleedin’ Punch and Judy show?“. “Nah mate, we got orders ta cook yu all a hot meal”. “Not before time”.

So out would come metal cages. The best way to describe them would be to say imagine an oblong fish tank, with no glass in it, this is what the frames looked like. These blokes fitted about five of these together then rigged up a flame thrower that shot a steady stream of fire through these frames. Then the cooking dixies with the food in were put on the frames and walla, five dixies cooked as one. But even then you can’t win because you have a dixie with stewed steak, mashed spuds, peas and gravy. You are drooling all the way back to your dug out, only to find a gust of wind has blown sand all over your dinner. I’ve seen grown men weep as they put one hand over the dixie to keep out the sand, but the sand just trickles between the fingers. So is there any wonder the stock dinner in the desert was was hard tack biccies and meat in a tin, sealed.

We were marching on another stunt and this took us through Halfaya pass. About half way through we got the order to halt and rest for ten minutes. I wandered over to a rock to sit on. That way I did not have to use so much energy to get up. Sitting there I saw a bit of paper fluttering in the breeze, so I leaned over and picked it up. To my surprise it was an English ten bob note, I tucked it into my pocket and forgot about it so I bet some dhobi walla got an extra tip. We marched till it began to get dark then stopped. The usual procedure was adhered to, dig a depression to get your body below ground level. Having done this we were well ready for a sleep and having posted double sentries it was not long before I was in the land of nod.

In my dream I was train watching and I could see the train coming and hear the noise it made. Then as it got nearer the noise did not fit a trains noise and I suddenly woke up as bren gun carrier (light tank), came racing out of the desert. It was obvious he didn’t know we were there and he raced past doing sixty plus and ran over two of our blokes who although awake could not get out of the way in time. The driver did not stop because he would not even know he had hit any one doing that speed in the bumpy desert. We buried the blokes and we learned something else that night, when you bury some one in the desert pile as many rocks on the burial site as is practical. If you don’t, the hyenas will get the scent and dig them up and eat them. That is what we found when we came back that way, a boot and a few bones. The rifles and bayonets stuck into the sand as a marker were gone also, Arabs no doubt. After a sand storm or high wind there would be nothing here to tell what happened

2982252 Pte Barker T.O. 1st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, Born 23 May 1921.
Tom Barker