Tom Barker passed on October 1st 2008
THE LONG RANGE DESERT GROUP
"I don't know where we are.", I had heard that phrase so often I eventually got used to it, and did not bother my head about it, because after a lot of marching we seemed to get where we were going to in the end . I had absolute faith in the beginning, that the officer in charge knew what he was doing, but as time went on I began to realise he was not God and was just as likely to make mistakes as was the Lance Corporal next to me.
We were on the escarpment above Fuka air strip in the Lybian desert and we had just come back from a stroll in the desert just to give us an appetite for tea, bully and biscuits. The bully was one tin (small tin of Fray Bentos) between four men and a packet of biscuits (the kind we now feed to the dog. Correction, we tried to feed to our dog but he refused to eat them). But we were happy in the knowledge that tomorrow we could look forward to a change. We would have biscuits and bully. The drinks never varied either, half a water bottle of luke warm water with tablets added made it taste like some one had drunk it before me. However this meagre ration kept us alive enough to do what we were doing, strolling round a hot desert during the day. If we were not doing the same at night we would be freezing laid out on the cold sand at
night with one blanket and a ground sheet.
To any one who has not been in the African desert at night it is difficult to paint a verbal picture that would do it justice. The sky seems to be made of deep blue felt, and hanging from it are clusters of jewels glinting in the moonlight it is some times unreal. It is some times so quiet one can hear the silence, but it also lets one hear if some one is approaching a long time before he or they become aware of you. The only time that falls down though is when we lay on the sand in a shallow dug out trying to get some sleep
and a bren gun carrier (light tank) would come tearing across the desert at sixty plus and, before you could get out of the way it had run over one or two of our blokes. The driver would keep going because in the desert you can't tell the difference, it's too late any way. So the next day we carried on one or two men short. We also lost men in a sand storm, we would hunker down to wait the storm out but sometimes a bloke had to obey nature. He would go off on his own and get lost in the desert or walk into a quick sand either way we did not see them again.
We got to a well one day and we thought as we lowered a can down to get water this was going to be like having a big frothy beer but when the can came up it had sludge in the water. The water had been
poisoned, later we found out it was oil seeping up through the ground, so we did not get a fresh drink that day. Two days later we had to suddenly wet our ground sheets and throw sand on them then get underneath them and keep still. An Italian spotting plane was heard and soon seen coming towards us but
we were lucky and he did not see us. So we sat down and had a biscuit and a drink of tablet water 'lukewarm as usual soon as he was out of sight. That night I woke up to a funny noise. It sounded like some one was suffering from asthma. I looked to were the sound was and heard also this padding shuffling noise and about five feet away was this pair of eyes glowing like two live coals in the dark. Now and again this hyena would bend the front legs and sniff at the bloke who was either asleep or playing dead
a few feet away and I wasn't in a playing mood so slipped off the safety catch of my rifle and the hyena was gone like a shot. He must have seen me rear up to aim but I would not have let go for fear of hitting the bloke laying there, also we would give our position away. But I would have shot if it had attacked me. Because they have a powerful bite and if one attacks they all do so you were at risk. One hyena would back off, but not a pack. In the dark when you can see lots of pairs of eyes winking at you it's time to do something, I did. I yelled a rude four letter word followed by off and this woke every body, or rather
it roused everyone because others had been awakened by the funny noises and I noticed most now had a naked bayonet in the hand. In the morning we had a laugh about the incident but at the time, it was not funny. We marched some more and came upon some blokes in trucks they gave us some fresh water (warm with tablets in it), and we got a drink of hot tea from them and some grilled sausages (out of tins), but the same old biscuits were present here also. That was the best we had tasted for a long while. I liked
the way they grilled the food, bit like an Ozzie barbecue. They had tin half full of sand and they sprinkled some petrol into the tin and the sand immediately soaked it up. Then some one struck a match and threw it into the tin and it looked just like a gas fire because the petrol can only burn when it mixes with the air at the surface of the sand. Anyway it made a pleasant change from bully. We said cheerio and continued our march.
That night we were told to be extra on the alert so we dug out just enough sand so we could lay down and not be seen in the moon light. Then we lay very quiet and listened and in the distance. We could hear the Italians speaking and laughing and sometimes one would stagger out to throw up. They must have been in a dug out not too far away. Now the trick here is to wait until a bloke comes out on his own to relieve himself then we grab him and take him back with us. We thought the Italians would think he had got lost in the desert being dark and usually pissed as a cricket. This went on for some weeks then we learned the operation was going to be motorised.
We were moved back to the escarpment just in time to see the next day when a Wellington bomber that had been out on a raid trying to land with only one wheel down and a bomb hung up. We watched with our mouths agape as sand was flung up when he hit and he skidded for a long way sort of twisting as one wing dug into the sand then it stopped and suddenly. All the crew were running to get as far away as they could. They looked like little dots in the distance but boy did they move. It was two days before any one went near the plane again and if memory serves me right some one put a charge under it and the areas was vacated until the plane with bomb was destroyed.
Two days later we were below the escarpment digging trenches in the sand when some one shouted "TANK". The officer shouted "WHERE?" and the bloke pointed at this tank to our front, gun pointing our way. But since he was up on the escarpment, and we were below him, he could not have cranked the gun down to fire at us, we were too far below him. The officer commanded every one to load and aim at the tank when the top opened and a posh voice called "I say chaps any chance of a brew?". Our red faced officer went up and gave him a good rollocking "We nearly shot you, you clot.". To which the reply was "Not really old boy, those things don't pierce these things you know, still you might have scratched the paintwork and then I would have taken an extremely dim view of that, what?". Our bloke nearly burst into tears. He was so mad, and you could tell how dischuffed he was because he made us fill in what we had dug out and marked out a spot about fifty yards further back. But before we got started digging it, another officer came along and asked what were we playing at, "If you have a trench here you are in line of fire from the escarpment. No, no, that won't do." He walked to where we had just filled in and said "This is the right spot I think, yes this will do nicely". Taking the little whistle that hung on a string round his neck he put it in his mouth, blew a short sharp blast, and put one hand on his head, shouted "Everyone to me move". I heard some of the ex Indian service men groan "Gawd, where did he come from, the bleedin' brownies?".
A Scots accent joined in "Aye, but he blaws a canny wustle ye ken?". Another suggestion was to shove the whistle where he couldn't reach it, and a murmur of approval seconded this remark, and as guffaws of laughter also supported it. The officer snarled "Get on with it then". So the disgruntled among us had
to shovel out the now loose sand and we were glad when it was finished as we could drape our ground sheets over it to get some shade. Mean while, our stalwart commander was sitting on a rock under an umbrella sipping drinks from a cool drink bin (nowadays called an esky). The India wallas remarked "You wouldn't see that in India" and another remarked "These young blokes haven't gor' a clue, they comes strait from Sandhurst most of em an they don't know if their ass is bored or punched. We ad wun bloke broke the neck off the bottle cos e' didn't know how tae get the top off. Naw, I aint pullin' yer leg mate. I bet
daddie's maid served him drinkies every day so why should he bovver?".
Remarks like these eased the tension sometimes, but there were times when it could get out of hand, usually if a mobile canteen had just visited the area. Some blokes would simmer and when the canteen came they would get so full both with liquid and rage, if at the wrong moment, one of these cocky young officers happened along and started to be abrasive that was the trigger. I have seen good soldiers go to the glasshouse for attacking an officer. The glasshouse is a bit like the film "The Hill". No one in his right mind wants to end up in the glasshouse.
We had one new officer came to us while we were in the desert, no one knew any thing about him and we kept an eye on him for the first few days. Then one day, while we were on a march through the sand we stopped. He surveyed the landscape with his binocs and suddenly remarked "This is a God awful place, just miles and miles of shit coloured f---k all." Some of the blokes had a giggle and that broke the ice and that bloke turned out to be a good Officer. He would take off his shirt and get stuck into any digging we had to do, not like some of the other twenty day wonders they sent us. But we didn't take liberties. But when
no other officers were around he was like one of us, he had no crust on him at all. But like some other good blokes he got killed at Sidi Barani Well that's how it seemed in the desert, you get somebody who is a right Charley and you can't get rid of him.
One day I was sitting on the sand busy cleaning my rifle. A nice cooling breeze drifted across the hot desert and I thought, "how pleasant it was sitting here minding my own business", when out of the corner of my eye I saw movement in the sand about fifty yards away. I carried on what I was doing, but I was looking
side ways out of my ear it seemed, but there was nothing there. When I had finished cleaning I clipped a canvas scabbard over the bolt part of my rifle to keep the sand fouling the very slightly oiled bolt, it was held in place by two press buttons, and could be discarded in a split second. I looked at the sand were I had
seen movement and could now make out a big sand spider. It was about the size of my hand if I spread my fingers. At first I thought nothing about it, until it slowly started to move toward me. So I picked up a stone and threw it at the spider but as the stone neared the spider it side stepped and the stone missed it. So I threw another stone and it dodged that one also. Then I put my bayonet on my rifle and tried to stab it but it evaded my every effort. I now noticed It never retreated. It would inch forward when I walked away from it, but when I approached it it would squat down ready to dodge again. I now felt the hair on the back of my neck rising because I had not come across any thing like this before. I was thinking does it spit poison can it jump onto a leg and bite, is it poisonous even? Then I had a good idea, I would out wit the little shit for attacking a Brit. So I put down my rifle, at the same time I kept my eye on the spider because having seen how fast it could move I was not about to take any chances. Then I collected as many small stones as one hand could hold, I approached the spider who squatted down as I approached, then I let go with this hand full of stones. The spider did not know which way to move to evade the volley of stones that hit it like a blast of buck shot. While it lay stunned, I gave it one for good measure with a really big stone. One of our blokes wandered over to see what I was doing. When he saw what was left of the spider he said "You wouldn't want that in your blanket at night. I agreed.
We always knocked our boots out in the mornings that was all we ever took off at night. We knocked
them out because some times, during the night, a wandering centipede would decide he had found a new home and creep into a boot or up a trouser leg. That's why, at night, we always used to tuck the bottom of our trousers into the tops of our socks. Then there were scorpions. Most of the bigger rocks had scorpions under them, so one always checked before sitting with ones back to a rock. They could be very painful and some times fatal. Then there were the hawks and vultures. These things knew when it was grub time
and you had to cup your hand over your bit of bully sometimes, other wise they would silently swoop and your food was gone. I've seen irate blokes throwing stones after a fast departing vulture with the blokes bully ration firmly grasped in its talons. According to our blokes all vultures in Africa were born out of wedlock.
Sometimes a group of our mob (A&SH) The Argylls, would pull up at our position and they would take over while we would hop on their trucks. We would be transported down to the beach for a swim and relax on the sand, wash our clothes out and drape them over a bush, go for a swim and they would be dry by the time you got back. This was really appreciated because we hardly ever got to take off our equipment back at the position in the desert. We were sort of 'stood to' at all times. Always ready for action meant just that, because there were times when a light dust storm could cover an enemy bent on destroying any one they happened to encounter. On a clear day you could get a visit from the Italian air force, then you had to get under cover and stay still hoping that if they straffed the position you would not be hit. On a clear day you could see for miles in the desert because of the flat terrain. If some one decided to visit, you had plenty of warning because a cloud of dust could be seen if it was transport. If it was a group, then small dots would be seen in plenty of time to arrange a reception committee.
The horizon seemed always to be shimmering and some times you would see what looked like a lake but when you got to it it was gone and the sun seemed to be hotter still. To make matters worse you would get some disgruntled bloke muttering all the time, "Wait ti ah get hame, ahm gonna buy a pub an drink mahsel stupid". And some one would say "Ye dinna need tae buy a pub fae thaaat jimmy". Some times it would raise a laugh but sometimes it could get ugly. I once saw bayonets drawn before an officer intervened. "Save that energy for the enemy, any way it's too hot to fight", and this would break the tension. One day
a truck came and we were informed that there was a dentist at the rear position and any one needing the dentist speak up now or forever hold his peace. Well I had just cleaned my piece and I was going to take it with me in case we run into trouble. So without further ado, this other bloke and I hopped onto the truck
and amid a cloud of dust we made for the rear position which was about twenty minutes away. When we got off, I let the other bloke go first and wished I had gone first. Because suddenly he was howling
and struggling and he came out of the chair swearing and sweating and mouthing "bloody butcher". Then "right, your next" and with a stiff finger motioned from me to the chair sitting there in the open sunshine on the sand. He smiled and said "Sorry I haven't got any pain killers, but your a big boy, let's have a look". He picked up a chrome plated prod and explored my teeth, "Oh my goodness, you have four molars that need filling. Well this won't take long". He had this little drill which, when he switched it on, sounded like an angry wasp. He started with the first tooth. As I edged lower in the chair the drill hit nerve, and I slid out of the chair onto the sand. But he followed me down, and the other three were drilled with me laying on the sand and the dentist on my chest. "Now that wasn't so bad was it? Now sit up on the chair and rinse your mouth and we will finish up, ok?" So he mixed some filling stuff, and when all was finished I was glad to get back to my unit. I thought never again would I let a dentist at my teeth, they can drop out first. One of the times we went to the beach we had a game of footy. We kicked this sack full of rags tied up with string to resemble a football until some idiot kicked it into the sea and it got carried out by the under tow. We just laid about in the sun until we heard an aeroplane engine in the distance so we got in amonst the rocks and laid still but he did not come close enough to see us.
Then the truck came to take us back into the desert and every one was a bit quiet because our position was strategic, so we could be attacked any time. Bit like a Monday morning feeling, you have to go back to work after a lazy Sunday. The next day we were sitting on the sand taking it easy when some one hollered "Look at that". Slowly creeping toward us was what looked like a cliff of sand, but it was a sand storm. When you see one like this one you take cover. Scoop out the sand to make an indent in the sand so you can lay in it, then pull the ground sheet over you and cover your mouth with a cloth. You can breath through it because there will be a lot of very fine dust with the sand and it could choke you. So for about fifteen minutes you watch this abomination creep closer and closer. Then you feel sand begin to sting as it hits you at speed driven by a now hot and very strong wind. It strips the paint off of our trucks as efficiently as a paint shop sandblaster. The only consolation is no one in his right mind would attack us in this kind of weather because you cannot see a hand in front of your face and blokes could get lost so easy. But the time to be on the alert was as it was petering out. The enemy could be following it to surprise the unwary, did not happen too often. The sun used to come up at dawn just like a huge ball of fire and you could feel the difference as it began to shoo away the cold of the night. And if a breeze sprang up it was bearable, but if there was no breeze it would get like an oven. Some times in the open desert there is no shade so
you just had to stick it out by digging a hole and cover it with the ground sheet, then sit in the hole and keep looking out so no one can creep up on you. On one occasion one of our blokes was going for a leak and as he climbed out of the hole the officer asked him where was he going. He replied "I've had enough, I'm going home", The officer drew his revolver and said "Get
back here or I'll shoot", but the bloke replied "f-you, shoot, who gives a shit" and walked on. Having relieved himself, he came back and the officer let it go, nothing more was said about it. But it showed that sometimes the situation needed a bit of give and take with all ranks. Mind you, given a different officer, the out come may have been very different.
Leave in Alexandria was always a pleasant sojourn but our pleasures were curtailed by lack of finance. But one leave, when Bob Moat and I went on leave we met an Aussie who had to go back the next day and he
was grieving because he had a lot of money left and asked us if we would assist him to get rid of it. Reluctantly we agreed to help him, so the three of us set off and had a right old time. We sat on the terrace and had coffee while admiring the passing talent. We visited the local cinema and were sitting down when
the King Farouk national anthem was played and some one poked us from behind and made motions with their hands for us to get up while they frowned upon us. So to keep the peace we got up and wavered there until the tune ended then we slumped down again, and dozed and missed most of the picture. At half time I heard this rumbling noise and looking round I noticed a huge slice of sunlight streaming through the ceiling
As the rumbling continued the beam of sunlight got broader and broader until the noise stopped and the sunlight was streaming in and all the tobacco smoke was leaving and ascending heaven wards. Then the rumbling started again and the opening closed and the second part of the program began. All in all it was a good leave, and it was the last one in Egypt.
But there are still some of our blokes in the desert who will never be found because the wind blows and the sand moves, and they have no marker. But they will be remembered by those who loved them and those who were fortunate enough to have had their company in this lonely desolate landscape. They left us in the
bloom of youth and we owe them. We got the freedom but they paid the bill.
2982252 Pte Barker T.O. 1st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, Born 23 May 1921.