Tom Barker passed on October 1st 2008
THE DISAPPEARING BREN GUN CARRIER
Since the Egyptian train was overcrowded and the flies were attracted to bodies and clothing saturated with sweat, the hot sun on emerging from the shade of the carriage was like standing under a blast furnace.
Discontented voices were objecting, "wit the f-k' 'r' we dae'n 'ere? yer need steam cladding on yer dick tae take a leak"
We were told, "get used to it, we are going to be here for a while"
Once all the gear was unloaded and we got ourselves sorted out we watched as a Bren gun carrier was being off loaded down two steel channel ramps. These ramps had a tab at the top end that was bent over. The bent over bit fitted into a slot on the flat rail wagon. Since the slots were a bit long to allow for adjusting the ramps to different wheel widths on transport being transported by rail it is a good idea to have the bottom of the ramp on solid ground.
It was a comedy of errors.
" Hang on a minute" shouted a voice, and the ramp was moved a little, then the driver was given the o.k. Revving the engine a little then slowly inching to the ramp the carrier gradually crept to the ramp but on touching it the ramp moved away pushing into the sand.
"Whoa" screamed the bloke who was signaling with his arms franticly as if he was trying to dock the Queen Mary.
"Go back a bit"
Since the carriers engine was so noisy the driver screamed back, " ah canny hear a f-n' word yer sayin' ".
Then angrily getting out of the carrier he jumped off the railway flattop wagon and perused the situation. The driver's shirt looked like he had just crawled out of a swimming pool so there was little wonder he was angry. The sun beat down, the flies tried to get into ones nose and mouth, tempers were fraying and all it needed was for something like this to happen.
With Officers standing in a group trying to ignore the situation and the Sergeant in charge of the unloading looking like he was about to cry a voice from the ranks suddenly bellowed, " why don't yer move the f-n' train so the ramps is on solid rock instead of soft sand.
Immediately one of the Officers strode over and shouted to the Sergeant, I think it might be a good idea if you moved the train so the Carrier ramp is on that solid rock about fifty yards back. As the Officer strode back to the group of Officers a sarcastic cheer and some hand clapping was heard from the ranks.
The Sergeant walked to the engine with a red face and after a brief confab with the engine driver and a bit of pointing at the rocky ground fifty yards away he walked to the rocky ground then waved.
The train whistle tooted and with a slow hissing of steam and a couple of chuffs the train crept along the line slowly until the sergeant held up his hand.
The train stopped and the heavy ramps were again offered.
The Carrier was unloaded without mishap.
Then the next one was lined up and off loaded, and so on.
Once all the carriers were off the train we formed up and prepared to march.
Since the railway line stopped at El Alamein the end of the line had a set of heavy buffers built across the line.
The conversation was mixed. "Ah well Wully, did ye bring yer bucket an' spade?" and one bloke waved in the direction of the train "there goes our only connection with civilization" he said bitterly.
We marched off into the desert. No trees, just an ocean of sand with a little gray-green scrubby bush now and again as far as the eye could see. In the distance the horizon shimmered in the heat one got the impression that there was a lake just below the horizon. Thoughts of jumping in and cooling off when we got to it were soon dispelled as we marched and marched and the lake stayed where it was when we had first seen it, just under the horizon still.
To add to our discomfort willie willies forming from swirling hot breezes would pick up the powdery dry fine sand, and after chasing and dancing over the sand like mad dervishers it would whip through the ranks of hot sweating, tired, marching men, and the fine sand would get down the back of the shirt and up the legs of the damp shorts and cause skin rashes, and where the equipment straps rub the skin it would be rubbed raw and bleeding. Poking ones arms through the straps alleviated the pain of skin rubbed off the shoulders, but after a while the hips soon began to protest as the full weight of the ammunition loaded pouches no longer supported by the shoulder straps began to make itself felt. Any halts for rest involved making sure the cover over the breech of ones rifle was secure and check that no sand had got in.
"Dae ye no thenk they blokes in olden times wi' bows an' arrers knew somethin' that we dinnae?" queried one uncomfortable Jock.
Then there was a roaring of an engine as a Bren gun carrier swept past at high speed and it suddenly changed direction and veered left away from the column.
Cries of, "fukofyermadcunt" as clouds of fine sand and dust were thrown up and blown on the breeze it covered everyone struggling in the sand.
Now and then the sand would peter out and hard rock would take its place and but for the heat the walking became almost pleasant. Racing away from us, the carrier was obscured by the clouds of dust and sand it was disturbing by its passing.
The dust cloud hiding the carrier got smaller as the carrier sped away from us.
"Mad bastard goes berserk just because he has got a bit of space to play in" snarled one irate Jock spitting dust out.
Then gradually we could see the carrier was veering right again because the dust cloud began to move to the right and the tip of the nose of the carrier could be seen at the front of the swirling dust.
"I'll shoot the c-t if he comes back 'ere" said another voice.
The area where the Carrier was now moving seemed different to the rest of the desert in that there were no rocks or rifts, no scrub, just a huge area of dead flat sand. The Bren gun carrier doing about sixty miles an hour seemed to us to be labouring and going out of sight.
One of the blokes in the column muttered, "he thinks he's drivin' a bleedin' submarine".
Then it was gone. The silence was suddenly eerie. There were no gullies or dead ground, there was no more engine noise, just silence. Where one minute there had been a Bren gun carrier racing along at sixty miles an hour with an engine screaming there was now just silence and a cloud of fine dust drifting over the desert on the breeze.
The Officer called a halt and took out his binoculars. Looking through his binoculars the officer said in a quiet voice, "Where the hell is he? it can't just disappear into thin air"
The Officer looking at his map then with a haggard expression on his face whispered to the Sergeant "My God, that's the Qattara depression over there, he's gone down in the quicksands"
"The Qattara depression is about two hundred and fifty miles by fifty miles of quagmire with odd pockets about a mile square around it. I'll wager he s found one of those pockets" said the Officer half to himself.
Then the officer said, "March on Sergeant even God cannot help him now"
The remainder of that day's march to Mersa Matru was uneventful. It was also done in silence.
The desert had claimed another victim.
2982252 Pte Barker T.O. 1st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, Born 23 May 1921.