Tom Barker passed on October 1st 2008
THE SOLUM INCIDENT
We had taken Siddi Barrani, the Australians took over from us and pushed on to Bardia to guard thousands of Italian POW's at sollum. I was on guard one night, just outside Solum, there was another bloke with me as at night the guard was always doubled. We were both bored sitting in a stone enclosure called a sanger. I don't know what language that name came from because I can't find it any where, however be that as it may be it was known to us all as a sanger. This sanger was a round enclosure, the best way to give you a
mental picture would be to say it looked a lot like of stones put together like dry walling, except in this case the stones formed a what looked like a hat box with no lid. It was about ten feet across and to get in, you climbed onto a big stone used as a step and jumped down inside. Once inside you were safe from any snipers that might want to do you a mischief and only when you stood on a stone on the inside were you able to observe the landscape out side. That is on one side because on the other side it was a sea scape.
Anyway we were there to observe and report, according to our officer "The Italian gentlemen are unaware of our presence here so don't fire at any aircraft and try not to show yourself. We don't want to advertise our presence here." That night the Italian air force came over and bombed the building we used as a guard room and now we had a flat guard room. Then one bright lad found a cave half way to the beach, so we all moved into the cave. It was dandy because now the Italians bombed at night and we were tucked under the cliff out of harm's way. At two in the morning I was again in the sanger on watch with another bloke when I heard a droning in the distance and I held up my hand and the other bloke said "I hear it". Then the noise stopped and I thought 'he's gone'. Then I remembered in the desert we used to hear planes at night but because they were far away no one bothered and when the noise left us we assumed they were gone. But the crafty devils were cutting their engines and gliding over us dropping fountain pens and such so when some one picked them up they would explode taking off the blokes hand, and if it was a thermos flask it could kill three or four blokes in a group. So I looked over the top of the wall and I could plainly see the
plane in the moon light about half a mile away over the sea. He was sowing mines in the sea. I watched as he dropped mine after mine and I could see the water splash up as the mine hit the water. So when I went off guard, I reported to the officer on the beach what I had seen and he said "jolly good, very alert, what? Very well, cut along and get some sleep". I walked off the beach looking back and this officer was walking along the beach whistling, he hadn't a care in the world.
The next day a tug arrived from Alexandria with three dumb barges in tow (Dumb meaning no motors or sails and had to be towed). These barges were towed just clear of the jetty which was crowded with Italian POW's . The POW's were taken out to the barges by small boats and finally when the three barges were full of pow's accompanied by some of our blokes acting as guards the whole lot started to move away into deeper water. The tug towing three barges containing about three hundred and fifty unlucky people missed the mine in the water but the first barge struck the mine and it detonated and as the now holed barge
sank it dragged down the barge behind it and it in turn dragged down the remaining barge the blokes on the tug were also too late cutting the rope and the tug joined the rest on the bottom of the sea. As I remember it no one came out of what should never had happened. We had reported the mines were sown in the sea, what was the point in us standing on watch if what we reported was being ignored. We spent the next few weeks dragging bodies from the sea and it was not a pleasant job because sea creatures had been feasting on them.
None the less we had to collect identity tags where possible and hand them in to the bloke who was sorting out the mess. It was a good job when we moved and let some one else have a bash at a very messy job. Having taken Siddi Barrani from the Italians, the powers that be decided we could have a rest at Sollum while the Australians took over from us and continued on to Bardia which
in due course they took from the Italians.
The Italians were having a bad time of it but they had more to come. And they got it. A lot made the desert their permanent home. The cave by the way turned out to be a burial cave which we found out as soon as it was day light. One wall had squares on it indicating the body was pushed in and the hole plastered over. So we only went in there when there was an air raid. We would spread a blanket on the floor and play cards while listening to the bombs going off on top of the cliff and around the jetty. But the jetty never got hit. Maybe they thought they could use it if they got Solum back, so they concentrated on the few buildings
that were here. About three in all.
One day we were down the cliff to the sea and were having a swim when we noticed an all white ship with a big red cross on the side, "Bet that's a hospital ship, Fred" said one bloke. "Shouldn't wonder" replied Fred. Then God turned the ignition key in his brain because suddenly his face lit up and he blurted out "I bet they got fags on there" and he pointed to the ship. "Yea, well they alwus do carry every fing on a boat like that" added the bloke. They got to go a long way some times, an it wouldn't do to run out of supplies in the middle of the sea, naw wat ah mean." "yea, ah suppose" agreed Fred. Then he followed up with his thinking "How about if we get our raft and paddle out to the boat and tell em we aint got no fags?". I recon they would throw us a box of fags if we tell em we is desperate for a smoke." "Hey, that's not a bad idea Fred". Fred beamed and untied the raft which was a triangle of planks with an oil drum at the three points and two planks through the middle. Because there were no civilians at Solum and because of interruptions
by bombing things were a bit slack, maybe relaxed would be a better word. So when we went for a dip
in the sea we wore nothing at all and soldiers all have the same equipment so down by the sea we enjoyed the complete freedom of nature. But the two lads paddling like Hiawather and his mate did not realise until they were close to the ship that they were in the nutty and there were about twenty giggling young nurses lining the rail. They were pointing and laughing and some had binoculars and were almost hysterical. We saw the humour of the siuation and had a laugh as they suddenly jumped into the water and franticly pushed the raft back the way they had come toward us and as they clambered up on to the warm rocks.
Fred muttered "They can stuff their bloody fags."
Then we were sent to Alexandria docks to board HMS Glenroy a
destroyer bound for Crete.
2982252 Pte Barker T.O. 1st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, Born 23 May 1921.