Tom Barker passed on October 1st 2008
DOWN TO THE SEA IN SLIPS
There was a military band playing some where. I could hear it as plain as day, as I lay on the ground and listened to it I thought I had never heard a band as good as this one. The instruments seemed to be getting further away but the big drum was pounding as loud as ever and finally the instruments faded completely away and now only the bass drum was pounding ever louder in my ears until it got to the stage where I hoped it would go away because now it was getting unpleasant.
I felt like I had been asleep for a long time, as I laid still and explored my dry mouth with my equally dry tongue it occurred to me that there was no band and the big drum thumping was actually my heart beating. At each “boom” of the drum, or my heart, my head seemed to enlarge like some kid blowing up a balloon then it would shrink ready for the next blast of air. Only trouble was each beat was accompanied by surges of pain, to my eyes, head, jaw and neck. I wasn’t aware of my body and a horrible thought passed through my mind, what if my head has been blown off, because now I could make out shapes and I was beginning to focus my eyes but I could feel nothing else. Then I thought that was a stupid thought because I would not be seeing this now if my head was off, and I could make out lots of tall trees with some thing moving in the distance ”just keep still” was my first thought. Then I wondered if perhaps I was dreaming because it occurred to me that there were no tall trees where I had been laying. That’s right, I had been laying under a bush watching a motor cycle and side car coming toward me, and having unseated the two occupants, I remembered a hefty bang on the head and seeing lots of pretty lights. It felt as though some one had hit my tin hat with one of those mallets you see at the fair ground, where a beefy guy pays the attendant then gets a mallet and whacks this peg and it in turn sends a weight sliding up a rod to ring a bell at the top. That is if the bloke hit it right in the first place. I pondered what could have happened, if it had been a bomb I would have heard it coming down, come to think of it there had been a droning noise very high up in the sky. No it was not a bomb, nor a mortar round I would have heard either, the only thing I could accept was it could have been a German sniper. That would fit too, because he would cover for the motor cycles, and if the bullet had been a little more to the right there would have been a round hole in my tin hat but the shoulder of the bullet must have hit and then it glanced off, lucky me.
Now I was aware that I was rubbing one of my thumbs against my first finger and was overjoyed to find I could move and in moving I began to sweat. Then I remembered the movement I had seen among the trees so I froze again and realised now, that what I thought I saw were not trees at all but grass stalks so close to my eyes that they had indeed looked like trees. I laid very still with my heart pounding because now I could see two blokes. They were coming in my direction. I also suddenly found out I could not move my head and when I tried it was very painful on my neck, so I stayed still and closed my eyes and played dead.
It was hot, I did not feel up to scratch. I was wet through now with sweat and that could give me away because the dead don’t sweat, but now I could hear them muttering and as they got nearer still it suddenly dawned on me they were talking in English. The two blokes turned out to be Australians and although I had kept still I was spotted by one of them. They came over and one of them said something like “strike a bloody light mate you look bloody awful” So they helped me get up and it was then I realised I had something wrong with my mouth. It would not close like it used to and it hurt like hell. Also as I was getting up the side of my face was stuck to the ground with dried blood so I had twigs and grass on the side of my face. They brushed some of the rubbish off and found my tin hat, it had a big dent in it and was now useless. One blokes reckoned I had been hit the day previous because the blood had had time to dry hard. “Try and keep the flies off yer face till we get to the beach mate then we can clean yer up”.
We got to the beach and I cannot honestly remember how we got there. All I know is that as I sank down into the water. I was reminded of the village black smith making a horse shoe and as he grasped the red hot metal with a pair of long tongs, he would dunk the iron shoe into a trough of cold water and it would go “scheeeeeeeeee”, and a cloud of steam would rise into the air. I ducked my head under two or three times, and with the soaking, the rubbish came off my face. As I came out of the water one of the Aussie’s had cut the tail off my shirt and he said “here’ya mate, this’ll keep the bloody flies off’n yer”. Then we moved under some rocks for cover as we realised we could be seen on the beach from a long ways off. Some one said to me as I walked past him on the beach “g’day mate, y’know yer slips showin”, because my shirt with the tail now missing was always hanging over my shorts instead of being tucked in. One bloke gave me a hard tack biscuit and without thinking I stuck it into my mouth intending to bite a bit off but as the pain shot through my jaw I now realised I had a new problem, how do I eat? For the rest of that day I had lost all interest in food, keep drinking was some advise offered and this was no problem as there was plenty of fresh water. Two days later one bright bloke came up with “I don’t know why you don’t do as the locals do, soak it in water and drink it like soup”. I could have hugged him as I was thinking of snuffing it due to lack of vitals. Well it worked, or I would not be writing this now. And if perchance that bloke should happen to read this now I would say to him “God bless yer mate, yer blood’s worth bottling”
So gradually the number of blokes on the beach increased, there were a few Navy, quite a few Australian. One bloke who stood out was one of our officers, a Major Mc Nab. He did not pull rank on any one, but we did listen when he spoke, force of habit maybe. We had to scrounge what food we could get and you wouldn’t believe some of the stuff we ate. We had look outs posted to warn us of danger from the ground and the air, because a stuka could be upon us before we could take cover. This applied mainly to the wounded. We moved them permanently to caves or under overhangs were an aircraft could not see them.
Some of the blokes tried to repair one of the beached T.L.C.s and the plug was pulled on that project when a stuka put a bomb through the bottom of it. The now disenchanted but more determined blokes scavenged off it what was useable to repair one that was hidden in a cave and that one got back to Tobruck.
The next night a large aircraft flying low swept over the beach and because it was dark we didn’t know what it was and we waited to hear the scream of bombs but some one suddenly shouted he’s signalling. But before any one could read it, he was gone and we hoped he would come back, but he didn’t. The more optimistic among us suggested he was trying to tell us a submarine was on the way from Alexandria, but most seemed to think the navy would not risk sending a sub because of the stuka threat. Others thought if one did come, it would have to be at night, so with this in mind we all slept cheek by jowl. So if a sub did come we could wake the next bloke with out making a noise because of German snipers. This way we could all be quietly taken off by small boat out to the sub and Jerry would be none the wiser. The next day a bloke excitedly told us he had found a bloke who would sell us one of his sheep.
2982252 Pte Barker T.O. 1st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, Born 23 May 1921.