Hugh Hill Diaries
DIARY AND RECOLLECTIONS
SERGEANT HUGH W J HILL
8 Battery, 2/3 Light A-A Regiment
ON ORDER OF BATTLE IN TOBRUCH
FORTRESS TROOPS, 9th Division
DIARY AND RECOLLECTIONS
SERGEANT HUGH W J HILL
8 Battery, 2/3 Light A-A Regiment
ON ORDER OF BATTLE IN TOBRUCH
FORTRESS TROOPS, 9th Division
Grateful acknowledgement is due to Numurkah High School Year 12 Students Miss Joanne Harrison and Miss Nadine Smith for their expertise in word processing and printing the manuscript, and to their teacher Mrs. Valerie Bruce, widow of the late Sergeant R E (Bob) Bruce, VX1262, 2/3rd Field Coy, RAE whose many stories of his experiences with the 9th Division during World War II motivated her to assist in the collation of this work.
29 December 1940 Left Werribee at 6.30 and embarked HMT MAURETANIA at 8 am. Sailed down Bay and anchored at night. Sailed through heads at 7.30 am; arrived at rendezvous and picked up escort and convoy at 2 pm, consisting of Mauretania, Dominion Monarch to starboard, Aquitania in centre, Queen Mary and Awatea to port. HMAS Canberra as escort.
On the second day it was cold as hell. Were 300 miles south of Tasmania.
2nd January 1941. Arrived at Fremantle. Had leave on 3rd January. Saw Perth and Fremantle. Had a good time, I went broke but thoroughly enjoyed myself. Sailed again on 5th January and had a quiet trip to Colombo. Arrived on 12th January and had leave on 13th and saw the sights. Got sick of niggers; trans-shipped on 14th of January HMT Devonshire – a real hell ship. No room in the mess for Lance sergeants, s0 had to eat with the men. Conditions awful. Bad meat, rotten butter, and bread full of weevils. The new ship hadn’t been to England for 2 years and had to stock up from India. Canteen was rotten and prices awful. Sardines cost 2d each, 4 to a tin. Have come to the conclusion they’re a lot of robbers. Miss Mauretania’s comfort.
16th January 1941. Left Colombo. Thirteen troop ships and 2 escorts.
HMS Good Hope and a merchant cruiser. Later on picked up two large vessels. Reached the Red Sea. The surrounding country is very rugged. Sea was dead calm. Weather mild.
28th January 1941. Reached Port Suez. Anchored in the Bitter Lakes (in the middle of the Suez Canal) and, later, proceeded up the Suez Canal.
Anchored for the night in the canal, and proceeded in the morning.
Arrived at Port Said 29th January, 5 pm. Saw captured Italian submarine. It looked very deadly.
Left Port Said at 7 pm and got into the Mediterranean. Supposed to be the most dangerous part of the journey.
30th January 1941. Arrived at Haifa. Held up for 24 hours – some mix-up with English army saw a mine explode for the first time.
Hear that El Contara and Port Said had been bombed, saw a ship lying on its side – it had been tampered with by 5th column, probably the Arabs. The bottom got blown out of it. The name of the ship was SS Patria. About 600 Jews got drowned on that.
31st January 1941. Arrived at our camp. Railway carriage caught on fire. Had our first decent meal since leaving Mauretania… bully beef.
1st February 1941. It was a quiet day. Stew. 2nd, 3rd and 4th was the same as the 1st. On 4th I went and bought some oranges. 50 oranges for
20 mills – that was 6d Australian. Can’t sell through usual channels due to shipping. Got my first mail on 3rd. Four letters. It was all right after being nearly 6 weeks at sea.
On account of air raids we were not issued with lanterns. It is strange
going to bed in the dark. Jackals howled all night. Sentries fired at imaginary Arabs. etc.
Had a visitor – the Rt. Hon R G Menzies. That was all. Had to line the road for 2 hours – we were wild.
5th February 1941. Awakened 6.30 – very important news. Addressed by Colonel and told that we were going on active service up to Libya. Sat around all day – great excitement – 8 Battery was only one selected. After all that, nothing happened. Typical army.
6th February 1941. Told in morning that we were going at night; also that we were going to use captured Italian AA guns.
If we go it will be the first time that technical troops will have gone into action with n0 training whatever – so far we haven’t seen any AA equipment.
Struck tents today; got 4 blankets; also 2 days ration for 700 miles journey by rail. At 6 pm left our camp at Khassa. Left by MT – proceeded to station; entrained and after shunting around set out. Travelled all night and arrived at El Kantara. Had best meal since leaving Australia. Crossed canal by punt, entrained at El Kantara West 8 am and sat in the train until 2 pm. Set out for Amariya at 2 pm. 15 miles west of Alexandria. Arrived 1 am and got a feed of stew and went back to bed under the seat of the train. At 8 am went back to Alexandria arriving there at 10 am.
8th February 1941. Detrained and stood on the pier until 3.30 pm. Embarked on Polish steamer “Warszwar” with Tommies and Niggers. Crammed in like sardines. Rotten conditions, though food is not too bad – bread, margarine and bully. At Alex the harbour was full of warships – several had been hit by bombs.
Also some buildings. One ship had the stern blown right out level with the rear turret. Captured Italian materials; did a lot of work on the Hotchkiss Brenn and Breda. Went to sea at 7 pm. Fairly rough.
9th February 1941. Still rough. Ship is in filthy condition. The Niggers are sick and most of the Tommies.
10th February 1941. Just the same except that we are anchored off Tobruch (sic). Stayed out at sea all day 0n account of the mix-up with the Tommy army.
11th February 1941. Moved into Tobruch harbour at 10 am. The harbour is an awful mess. Ships sunk everywhere and quite a few aground. The whole harbour is covered in oil, one oil tanker on fire and all the ships aground had been burnt out. One sea-plane is floating about shot to pieces. The “San Giorgio”, an Italian heavy cruiser has been blown in halves, and burnt out, destroyers are lying everywhere. Just funnels and masts showing above the water. Moved off boat at 8 pm and went ashore by lighter.
Marched out 4½ miles to large ravine, Wadi Auda. Camped in open for the night. Had a lot of trouble with Pommie officer about blankets. Told him to go to hell. He said we didn’t need any. As a result we got to bed at 2 a.m.
12 February 1941. We were allowed to poke around all day looking for stuff. Dagos must have had a hell of a hiding. All around the hills SAA rifles and MG’s and grenades, clothing and equipment. Hundreds of burnt out MT’s – large 8 and 10 ton trucks – all Italian. There was no severe fighting around here close to the town. The fighting was 10 miles out. The Italians must have been demoralised. It’s on the “Warszawa” that I saw my first dago. They were loading hundreds going back to Egypt or Palestine. Shifted our camp ½ mile today and at the time of writing am occupying a nice, comfortable dugout lying in an Italian bed. Now that we are settled in Libya we are much happier. Though the war here is nearly over – in less than a week we have been in 4 countries – Palestine, Sinia and Egypt – Libya. Haven’t had leave since leaving Australia. 8 hours at Fremantle and 6 hours at Colombo.
13 – 17 February 1941. Nothing much doing, Had an air raid and dust storm all on the one night.
18th February 1941. Found a large dump of our stores at night time.
We went into Tobruch; got a ride out in a truck – nearly got lost. Had a hard time to find the road. Got home in the finish.
19th February 1941. Went over to the dump with kit bags, etc. Got into the top end amongst the oranges. Had a meal of them and filled our haversacks. Then moved to bottom end and left Pucka and Cyril minding our oranges and Lew and I went in. Had just found pork sausages. Had 2 tins inside our giggle suits when they fired 2 shots over our heads.
You never saw the likes. About 300 men tore out of the dump and got for their lives Tins and cases were dropped everywhere. Never saw a funnier sight in all my life. Everybody in the Battery was there unofficially. They could have marched the whole battery over.
Went straight back in again and got 3 tins of pineapple, 2 of milk, 8 rations and tinned vegetables; 4 raspberries and 2 blackcurrants; tin of jam; 5 tins sausages; 2 of salmon, 900 cigarettes, Have had a wonderful feed today.
20th February 1941. Got 6 Breda AA Guns.
21st February 1941. A dust storm all day. Went for a swim in the afternoon. At night went over to the dump. Two of us had a wonderful go. 18 pineapple, 20 milk, 8 pear, 10 rati0ns, 3 loganberries, l6 oz tobacco.
22nd February 1941. Went over to English AA battery. Had a great time. Had 3 7 guns around harbour of Tobruch, They had fired on Fritz just before we got there. Got 1 bottle of beer (Tommie rations – unreal – something special) with our midday meal. That made it worth while.
23rd February 1941. Day starts with Fritz coming over. AA and Breda put up a great display of fireworks. Minesweeper hit a mine in the harbour and sank in 2 minutes. 27 lives were lost 3 men were saved.
Convoy came in and landed Australians and Tommies. Cold as hell. It was a Sunday into the bargain, Sunday in the Army was a miserable day. RC’s would go to church in the morning and get the rest of the day off. We’d work all morning and still not get the afternoon off. Have to polish everything.
24th February 1941. Nothing doing except gun drill in the morning. Fired the guns. Fired AA guns in the afternoon. Fritz came over. Just got our guns into position waiting for some ammunition. There were 6 planes over and they dropped a considerable number of bombs causing some fires. Raid lasted 35 minutes.
25th February 1941. Fritz came over again. Firing lasted about 10 minutes.
26th February 1941. Warned to move to Benghazi.
28th February 1941. Left our camp. Have just found out this is 1st March. With all the messing around have lost track of time.
1st March 1941. Cold and wet. Rained all the day. Saw dozens of burnt out aeroplanes. Country rocky and sandy all the way. Arrived at Derna at 5 p.m. Pretty spot. We approached from about 2,000 feet to a Wadi – Wadi Derna. Big Wadi comes down from the mountains. It is a walled town. It has not been damaged much. Has been machine gunned from air. One ship was sunk in the harbour. It is nice to see flowers growing about the place. Went through the town and slept in the hills. Cold and wet. Biscuits and bully for meals. Left our camp outside Derna at 7.30 a. m. Country was very nice. It has been colonised by Italian settlers and we could see their houses as far as we could see. They were Limestone. Arrived at Barce at 1 p.m. Italian people still there. Didn’t look very pleased with themselves. Stopped on outskirts of Benghazi until 6 p. m. – moved through the town and moved into barracks. Drove forward pulling down verandahs ……hell to pay…..cranky Wogs!
Benghazi comprises new town and old town. New town was beautiful. The sweep of the Boulevard with its statues of copper, Romulus and Remus and the she wolf mounted on marble archway. The copper war memorial to those killed in the Turkish war. The mausoleum – the bones of the dead were neatly packed in glass boxes – leg and arm bones placed inside rib cage. Skull in front. His name, rank and number.
Terrific artificial harbour. Old town concrete 2-roomed houses surrounded by high concrete walls. No gardens – dusty and dirty.
3rd March 1941. Fixed up our quarters.
4th March 1941. Went out in truck to get Breda guns, and had a good look at the town at the same time. It has been damaged in places. Bombs and machine guns. Had an enjoyable day. Got down a side street and got stuck. Had to back up about 400 yards. Street was full of Niggers and those garries (little buggies). Had a hell of a job clearing them out. In the night we got stuck and couldn’t drive backwards or forwards. Had to lift the back of the truck around the corner.
5th March 1941. Cleaned our guns all day.
6th March 1941. Moved to our positions. Missed Fritz through our gun stoppage. Building gun emplacements.
7th March 1941. Still sandbagging. Had air raid at 6.15 pm. Dropped bombs in sea.
8th March 1941. Fired on plane shot down in sea. Alarm at 11.00 pm – nothing happened.
9th March 1941. Air raid at 5.45 pm. Plane passed high over gun position and dropped bombs on aerodrome. One burst and two delayed action. I opened fire at extreme range at 9,000 feet. Good shooting. Tommies near us said it was the best they’d seen.
English captain came across from other side of the bay and congratulated us. Own officers came down later and weren’t too pleased. I told them where to go! Another alarm at 8.01 pm. Two planes – one dive bombed the harbour and dropped sticks of bombs – 7 in number – 300 hundred yards to our immediate front. Alarm at 9.05 pm – planes about but couldn’t find the target – dropped a stick of bombs about 4 miles to our left in the sea.
11th March 1941. Got my first leave since leaving Australia. Had a great day – as far as run goes, anyway. Nothing to eat in town except spaghetti and eggs. Only thing to drink was wine, cost me 35 piastres – gyppo money. Alarm in morning. Fritz came over again. 1 plane. 25,000 feet. Got home 6.30 pm and went to bed. Got mail, 6 letters – only had time to read one when alarm given 8.20 pm. Fritz gave us hell. Dropped 40 bombs. We fired g7 rounds – best performance so far. All clear after 2 hours and 20 minutes.
12th March 1941. Nothing to report during the day. Had our Tommy friends over to see us. Gave them afternoon tea, one bloke brought back 1 ½ tins of jam, and 6 pairs of sheets which we pinched. All have a pair on our beds now. Making ourselves comfortable.
Lucky day – got bitten in the eye by an insect – can’t see out of it. Had dysentery again – can hardly walk. Had air raid at 1.40 – 2 planes over – that we saw – opened fire. Panes gave identification signal – all clear.
13th March 1941. It was windy. I was very sick. Had the MO around. Got medicine.
14th March 1941. Storm blowing – waves crashing over the breakwaters. Mine blew up at 6 am. Felt much better today. Occasional pains. Shifted t0 new position 0n central mole. Good quarters. Electric light. The house looks very nice with a light and sheets on the beds. Broke a tooth off my plate eating bread.
15th March 1941. Quiet day.
16th March 1941. An air raid at 4.10 am turned out to be our own planes.
17th March 1941. Was my unlucky day. Slipped and fell into sea et 6.00 am – cold and miserable. Got wet up to the armpits. Cut some wood to get warm and sliced my thumbnail in halves. Had air raid at 4.15 am – no alarm sounded. Woke up when first bomb exploded. Never got such a start in my life. Planes dropped 5 only.
All clear at 5.45. Raid at 1.40 – 5 planes across 0n reconnaissance. Did some good shooting. (Must have been a night raid – all cleared at 2.20).
18th March 1941. Quiet day. Lots of Brass (officers) around. Air raid at 11.30 pm.
19th March 1941. Air raid at 5.15 am. Went back to bed at 5.30 am. Raid at 5.45 am. All clear at 6.10 am.
20th March 1941. Telephone laid on. Raid 4.30 am and again 6 am.
21st March 1941. A storm. Raid at 2.30 pm. Told to move in the morning at 8.30.
22nd March 1941. We moved at 11 am and went to BHQ. Saw the Major. Told us we were going to have a hard time and a hot time, and dysentery as well. Going to new positions about 12 miles west of Benghazi. Passed through Benina. Saw aerodrome. A few machines damaged and some burnt out. Told then we had shot the tail off a Bristol Blenheim.
Quartered in an Itie ammo dump. Had narrow escape from losing arm here. Ammo of various sorts were stacked in concrete shelters, and consisted of anything from flares to 250 lb aerial bombs. 4 of us – Lew, Mocha, Cyril and myself were having a took around, and I picked up an aeroplane flare and took the cap off and saw the fuse burning and told them to get out. We could have been killed. Got about 2 yards before the first explosion and then the second and third shell filled the shed filled with smoke. No casualties except skinned arms, shins, sore heads. Have to watch booby traps. Lay about in the sun all day. No worries about raids or planes – w0nderful feeling of freedom. Pinched a sheep last night – first fresh meat for weeks. Wogs will he mad when they find out.
23rd March 1941. Still resting. Supposed to be defending 20th brigade HQ. Have no guns – left our own at Benghazi for harbour defence.
24th March 1941. Am still resting.
25th March 1941. Packed our kit. Moved out of Regina for move to Benghazi.
28th March 1941. Left our quarters and moved to North Point manning Itie field guns.
29th March 1941. Was a quiet day.
30th March 1941. Wog kids tapping Itie shell on nose. Usual result (I must have been getting cynical). Pucka grabbed the spade and buried the kid. Mucktah (head of the village) stepped in and took control.
On these 75’s (75mm guns) at North Point we fired shrapnel shells and our job was to fire both guns at 8 o’clock so HQ British knew we were out of bed. Drill was load guns, get into dugouts and pull telephone cable tied to lanyard. Never knew when the bloody guns would burst.
1st April 1941. Ordered over to come off the guns and retreat from Benghazi. Working like hell. We were on top of the Benghazi Railway
Station. Getting guns down from buildings. Got to bed at 4.30 am – up at 6 am.
2nd April 1941. Worked like Niggers. Got up at daylight and went out to North Point. Ran over stone wall. Nearly killed. Cuts and bruises. Pucka got cut in the f ace. Had to take him to MO. Got to bed at 1.
3rd April 1941. Packed and ready to move again. Sent on detail to North P0int. Blew up the field guns. Everything of value in Benghazi has been destroyed. Petrol, coal dumps, all shipping and workshops. We blew up two 75’s. Engineers set fire to everything in town – smoke for miles.
Left Benghazi and camped at Tocra. Saw our first refugees. Men, women, kids, the 0ld and feeble – couldn’t help them. Keep moving were the orders. Complete petrol convoy attacked from air and burnt out.
6th April 1941. E Troop 8 Light AA Bty had 2 wounded and 30 missing Derna. My gun and Gallagher’s were only two survivors to reach Tobruch. He shot through. I took inland route – nearly got caught by Jerry. O’Connor and Neame (Generals) were just in front of me. 10 o’clock at night they were taken POW. Came through in a Humber Super Snipe staff car with their lights on. We yelled out “Put off your bloody lights”. They had the windows shut reading their notes (interior lights on) and didn’t hear us. There were four in the car – two in the front and the two Generals in the back. Jerry gobbled them up.
7th April 1941. No idea of what is going on. Had no sleep for days. Worked incessantly. In and out of action dozens of times. Travelled all night on the 6th. Today we are on 26 Brigade HQ. On 6th were on 9 Div HQ. Had to destroy a lot of kit. Moved to Tobruch on 7th.
8th April 1941. 10 am 9 Jerries came over. My gun was the only one in action. Shot Messerschmitt down in sea. Had stoppage. Also hit another one ME110 after its tail had been shot off by McKillen’s crowd. It crashed in front of gun. Got surviving souvenirs. All were confiscated by intelligence. Moved into position 9th Div HQ area. Gun right over advance dressing station. They were in tunnels a couple of hundred feet underneath us at the bottom of the escarpment. Got very pally with them, and lived well on hospital rations. The reason why! Clouds of dust trickled down into their tunnels every time we fired the gun and they felt sorry for us. We often tested that gun about dinner time and lived well for those few months in Tobruch. I know from experience – later I received treatment for a busted knee – 2 glasses of brandy from the MO – dust trickling down – kerosene lamps for illumination – and doctors cutting a bloke’s arm off. I needed the brandy!
Good Friday. Easter battle. 9th Div HQ area. We got all the raids. Fired all our ammo HE (High Explosive) – 4,000 shells. Had to use our armour piercing. Said to the gunners “What goes up must come down, and l hope to Christ it lands on Jerry. Terrific battle – 5 planes crashing at once. Dust, fire, smoke – can’t see anything. Gun running hot. Haven’t had a wash for a week.
18th April 1941. Still around Tobruch! Air raids night and day. Large number of Jerries flying around. Gun has not been in action for days. Too much dust. Have damaged 2 planes in last few days. Had dysentery for a week. That together with bombing has played up on my nerves. I am nearly right again.
Tobruch is steps and stairs – a rise of 200 feet from one flat desert to another. The escarpments were rock. A few passes here and there heavily defended.
Sandstorms – visibility nil on each flat. On edge of escarpment no dust for probably 50 yards all around. ME110’s would hug the edge of the escarpment on level with our gun. 4 at a time, pilots wearing goggles and leather helmets – we could see them clearly – rear gunners swinging machine guns from one side to another. BEAUT – we set our trap. We’d take all the blankets off the gun when we heard them and wait until they flew past. Then straight up them with probably 50 shells. Worked well until they sent in 75 bombers and 10 fighters – that shut us up.
3rd May 1941. Haven’t had time to bring diary up to date. Have been having a pretty hot time in the last few weeks. Got 1 JU87 on 24th April. Have had quite a few hits on various occasions
Gun firing well. Have been bombed and machine gunned. We are near 9th Div headquarters right near an ammo dump.
4th May 1941. Had 5 raids for the day. Big raid at 6.75 – bombers and 10 fighters. They bombed 9th Div HQ which we were defending. Divvy HQ was in tunnels. They flattened us. We also copped it and the medical dressing station besides. Ambulance and cars wrecked. We got 5 bombs all within 30 yards of the gun pit. All knocked out by concussion – no injuries.
The gun pit was just a circle of rocks 3 feet high. Ammo boxes built into walls. Blankets to keep dust out of gun stored outside pit – sleeping on rocky ground outside pit – pinched asbestos sheeting for roof. Low wall of rocks at our feet. Rough living. Pet rat lived in wall of gun pit. Sleek and glossy – would run over us at night – bite our hair for the grease. Nothing to wake up and he’d be sitting 0n your chest. Dust storms – we would wear our respirators to try and get relief – lift the chin piece to let the sweat out – walked out of the pit one day in a sandstorm (to answer a call of nature) and arrived back 2 days later. Moved into the first truck I saw – unwritten law – food and water. Every truck was provided with food and water. Moved into truck and slept there. You can get lost quite easy in a sandst0rm. Sometimes we would have blokes stay with us for several days before we knew where they belonged.
8th May 1941. Found out today that I had 3rd stripe. It will go through when we get back to Egypt. Weather is very hot. Lot of sand storms. Jerry has been doing a lot of skiting about Tobruch garrison, but we are still all right. Had message from Menzies and Blamey – apparently we are all heroes. I don’t think! Some talk about mentioned in dispatches but haven’t heard anything more.
27th May 1941. Still up on the hill above 9th Div HQ. Have been having a busy time. 15 raids on the one day. Haven’t been doing much firing – lots of shelling been going on on both sides.
GLOUCESTER GLADIATORS … and fleet air arm. Bombed Bardia Bill, the big gun that shelled us in Tobruch. Lysander reconnaissance plane – slow moving high winged. Used by artillery and army. Its opposite number was a Heinkel (German) – you couldn’t shoot the bastards down – they were heavily armoured – they’d sit on us all day and just laugh at us.
HURRICANE FIGHTER – later a fighter bomber – they provided air protection in the Benghazi handicap. A few were stationed in Tobruch – had an aerodrome right below our gun. We were stationed on the escarpment, at Divvy headquarters. Palistrino Road. They were wiped out after the Easter battles.
A bornber flew into Tobruch one day – Blenheim, I think it was – carrying high-ranking officers. Departed in the afternoon – returned to the aerodrome with engine trouble. Took off in broad daylight. Four Messerschmitts moved in. One fired and the bomber crashed into the sea. The whole lot of them perished – sheer bloody stupidity.
After that there were no air force – just two Hurricanes – would have a quick look around and see where the trouble was and come straight back home – 5 minutes out and back was all it was.
A Glen Martin – an American plane flew over Tobruch early one morning – we wondered what it was – never seen one before.
Jerry had JU87’s and JU88’s – one a dive bomber and the other a high level bomber.
Heinkels – a bomber – glasshouse. Had a big long perspex roof.
Dorniers – called the flying pencil – a high level bomber.
THE ITALIAN AIR FORCE: Macchi fighters. I belted one up in Tobruch.
SAVOY BOMBERS. Heavy bombers.
The ships would come in at midnight. Destroyers, cruisers, merchantmen. The navy would move in and out and off. Two hours to unload and off home. The merchantmen would just tie up alongside the wrecks. The engineers – dock parties – would cover them up with camouflage. Jerry would bomb all night – they’d hit a petrol ship, which would illuminate the harbour and away we’d go. It would light up everything. Normally they’d just drop flares, but once they hit a ship every German pilot would be dragged out of bed to drop bombs. Many a ship was hit. We got n0 sleep when that happened. Days and nights without sleep – we were rooted!
In Tobruch, after the first few days, we had no air cover at all. In Alamein it was all together different. We had plenty of air cover there. In those days a plane only had the range of a few hundred miles. It could only stay 10 minutes to a quarter of an hour in extreme conditions. Nowadays they can stay all day.
PARACHUTE BOMBS – frightened the hell out of everybody. Nobody knew what they were. Churchill’s idea – a mortar fired a canister – opened at approximately 3,000 feet – parachute trailed a couple of hundred feet of wire with a bomb on the tail end of it. First German attack was completely disorganized. Stukas collided and crashed. Two went home dragging the things – must have been a rough landing! They were only used once more and we never heard any more about them. Must have been 100 parachutes – we wondered what the heck was going on!
June 1941. Blue Mediterranean – beautiful – brilliant – Hospital ship leaving Tobruch dive bombed – near miss. Might be sunk – can’t remember. 2 destroyers came from nowhere and took off the wounded and crew. Nerves weren’t too good. Saw our own planes (British RAF) 0n 28 June. 45 of them – for the first time since the siege of Tobruch. Haven’t seen them since. Hit a JU87 very hard one morning. He fell on the perimeter wire and the artillery got him. Cigarettes and tobacco very scarce; have been without for a fortnight. Mail coming through slowly and all very mixed up. There is a possibility of going on Bofors for 10 days. Very hot and plenty of flies and fleas.
1st July 1941. Jerry dropped 20 bombs around us. Am feeling fairly fit. Have been getting shelled for the last week. Great scrap going on up the line – infantry. Get fair bit of shrapnel and shell splinters.
11th July 1941. Have moved up with artillery. Not many raids, mainly night bombers and high level day bombing. Lots of shelling. Had a week on Bofors – very interesting. 3 days on mobile and 4 days on static in the harbour.
Germany invading Russia. Relief to Tobruch – all the Jerry planes – everything – pissed off to Russia!
9th August 1941. Still up with the artillery and everything is fairly quiet. Have had only 2 actions since last writing. Hit Italian fighter G50 very hard. Bofor got him in engine, so it was given to them. Some 22 dive bombers came over and we had luck to bring one down. Two planes a day isn’t bad. The weather is fairly good these days and the winter will soon be here. We have been doing a lot of patrolling and everything has gone wrong. We have a good many casualties but the Italians have a lot more. Mail is mixed up and coming slowly.
Poles moved in artillery – most impressive. Shiny badges – saluting everybody – pressed clothing (unlike us in our rags) – Carpathan brigade – all intellectuals – Great blokes! Left one up the spout of their 23 pounders – nearly blew us out of the gun pit. We got VIP treatment. They (the Poles) had stretchers and the works – they did look after us.
A big change from the activity of Tobruch. Few raids – plenty of shelling. Gun dug in; living area a dug out. Only light we had was a tobacco tin with a slit in the lid with a piece of blanket pushed through. Kerosene fumes were shocking. Few raids. GOC General Morsehead often called in. Always ready for a yarn – have a cup of tea and clear off to the Poles or Aussies.
1st September 1941. Anniversary of the day Germany declared war on Poland. Jerries decided to impress us and the Poles, who have taken over from the Aussies on the field guns. The Poles were mainly artillery and infantry. The number of planes hasn’t been estimated, but it was over 100. They gave us a tough time for a while. Bombed Tobruch from end to another – not much damage. Guess what? At midnight the Poles fired every artillery piece they had. Our artillery had been rationed to 2o shells a day. Poles used up ALL the ammunition we had. Jerry fired every artillery piece back at us Aussies. Stood to until daylight.
Over 100 planes sorted out Tobruch – pretty tough – they nearly got us that day!
5th September 1941. Birthday today – 21 years – had a packet of milk biscuits. Haven’t been too good for the last few weeks.
Good news – warned to move on the 23rd September. Men went into rear HQ straight away. We were relieved by an Irish Regiment. They got a hell of an education. Been in Alexandria for two years. Flies, fleas and dust didn’t suit them – or the rations. Gun drill was terrible. The relieving crew had a lot to learn – I stayed to train them.
25th September 1941. When I was out training the Irish NCO’s on how to operate the guns, back at Rear HQ they were lining up for cigarette rations. Our blokes one line, the Irishmen the other. Where we were a plane went over at 20,00C feet, 5 miles away. We couldn’t do anything about it. Too far away. Later the Lieutenant came over and I said: “You look crook, Herb.” and he told me what had happened–we had no telephones, no nothing–a German JU 88 bomber had swooped on rear HQ. We lost 4 dead and 5 wounded. The Irishmen had 9 dead and 11 baldly wounded. It was bad luck. Gunners Jim Cowie, Don Evans, Sam Hardingham and Val Morrow were killed. It was a very sad day for the 8th Battery.
26th September 1941. Left Tobruch on the destroyer “HMS Jackal” a little after midnight. Had a wonderful trip to Alexandria at 36 knots. Saw what was left of the Mediterranean fleet. Actually saw some of our air force. I was very pleased to get out of Tobruch, even though we had bit of fun at times. A big push is coming off, and we aren’t fit enough to stand up to anything rough, although it would be nice to be in at the finish. Went by train to Amariya and later started by train to Palestine. We have settled down at Hill 95 now and are having a good time. The food is lovely and plenty of it and BEER in large quantities.
15th October 1941. 4 days leave to Tel Aviv and Haifa.
27th October 1941. Admitted to 1 AGH – fever – had Christmas in bed – good time, plenty of good tucker and Christmas cheer! Spent quite a few weeks in hospital.
3rd January 1942. Discharged from 1 AGH Gaza Ridge – now at base waiting to be claimed. 2 days no duty – first time in my life in the army.
6th January 1942. Left Neusirat – arrived at camp 7.30. Had night out in mess. All right!
14th January 1942. Told of transfer to new regiment. Had night out with the old 8th Battery gun crew. Don’t remember getting home.
15th January 1942. Farewell in the mess – very nice tea.
16th January 1942. Left Hill 95 and are now camped at Beit Jirja.
24th January 1942. Had a day out at 1st AGH Gaza Ridge. Whitley, Heavey, Cavanagh and myself. Had a wonderful day. Flaked out and nearly broke my nose.
16th February 1942. Still at Beit Jirja.
18th February 1942. Stripe confirmed – about time too. Are working hard on Bofors.
2nd March 1942. Left Beit Jirja and now camped at Haifa. Beautiful spot, close to town, having plenty of fun, etc,
15th March 1942. Went on tour. Visited Nazareth and saw both churches – everything is commercialised at the churches. Got 3 hankies from a nun. Went on to Tiberus on the shore of Galilee Sea. Then on to Capernium; then went on to a Jewish Kibbutz and had dinner there. Came back through hills of Galilee.
29th March 1942. Six of us took a taxi to Jerusalem and had a good day. Visited Megiddo, Samaria, which is a stinking wog village. Lots of ruins around those places. Saw a wog well at Nabulus where Joseph was put down, and then sold into slavery. lf he ever was? Arrived in Jerusalem. Saw the churches, the Wailing Wall, bazaar, Gethsemane, Bethlehem, Solomon’s quarries. Solomon built the walls of Jerusalem out of them (that’s their story anyway) – went to Tel Aviv, and got home at 12 or something like that. Covered 360 kilometres for 50 Palestinian quid each. Board, accommodation, beer and all.
31st March 1942. Left Haifa and moved back to Beit Jirja.
2nd April 1942. Left Beit Jirja and moved to Mughayi.
20th April 1942. Had a trip to Ammon and Jerash in Trans Jordan. Had a great time.
2nd May to 30th May 1942. Been on manoeuvres most of the time. Got first mail for the year. Hospital 8 days.
An army in retreat is a terrible sight. Getting to Alamein hundreds of air force vehicles passed us. We were advancing and they were getting back to the delta. Vehicles loaded with every spare part the air force ever had – wings, petrol tanks, the whole issue – vehicles were loaded – blokes asleep everywhere. Got to El Alamein and the British took command of the air then. Fair old battle of wits, too, just quietly. It was touch or go who was going to win – them or Jerry.
2/4 Lt A-A was formed after Tobruch. Many from 7, 8 and 9 Bty NCO’s and specialists. When the 2/3rd sailed to Australia it was formed plus any hospital cases. Training Palestine – later at Haifa with British Regiment – approx. 2 months. Next Syria, Alleppo and Homs near the Euphrates and Turkish border. Recall to Egypt. Day and night to Alamein – Hill of Jesus. Ruin Ridge, 4 attacks lasted about 1 month. After Ruin Ridge I became attached to the NZ’s and the Indian Division.
A Fokke-Wulf 190 – a new fighter of the desert. It had a brawl with a Spitfire MK XI (dog fight). The Spitfire returned to base. Jerry headed for home – 4 miles. He was safe. All he had to do was get there. Said to gunners “one burst well in front – five shells”. He dropped altitude. We landed him like a fish. His engine was dead. Belly landed beside us on the main road. The coast road. Army acted camouflage nets anti-tank transport. I was very happy etc. Lieut. arrived beside himself – called me a “Bloody murderer”. Hell did I cut loose. Jesus what a row! I demanded a Court Martial by the commander of Royal Artillery. We thought he had begun to crack. Lieut. later died of a brain tumour. We were always mates. Machine guns and cannons pointing down the barrel of my gun didn’t make me very happy.
Raid on El Daba at dusk. Silhouetted against the evening sky – 18 heavy bombers in a box formation. Warned not to fire. American planes – first time – we had never seen them before. Said to gunners “Hell, they’ll be shot up”. Within five minutes they’d struggled back. Landing in minefields, no-man’s-land, etc. Opposite gun pit tail gunner fell out of rear turret – 300 feet – like a bag of spuds – no parachute. Many an air crew bailed out and were hit by ack ack fire. Parachute just explodes – sad sight.
1st June 1942. Left Maghayi for Syria to take part in manoeuvres. Had a great trip up.
11th June 1942. In hospital again – fever – good food and everything is nice and clean – in Tripoli.
25th June 1942. Returned to Mughayi.
28th June 1942. Left for Egypt.
29th June 1942. Arrived in lsmailia.
30th June 1942. Left for Cairo and Alex. Saw the pyramids for the first time.
1st July 1942. Lines strafed: 1 dead; 7 wounded.
We could see Jerry in the moonlight, but we couldn’t fire back as it would have given away the British position. Jerry didn’t know if he was shooting at anything – could have been his own side – but he got right on to us. One of my best mates was killed that night – he got 7 bullets straight in his chest. He was sleeping under a truck.
2nd July 1942. Short action against 7 planes. Am looking forward to an advance.
29th July 1942. Sent back to coast road – ours not to reason why – plenty of army traffic until 9 am when it gradually disappeared. Scratched our heads. Approximately 11 am – fighters flew over – armoured cars tore up the road – staff cars and in an open vehicle something that looked like Churchill – cigar gave him away. Later returned to gun pit – not impressed.
Got our revenge, so the story goes. Blokes swimming in the Mediterranean, and the great man hit the roof. “Who issued these men with white underpants”? Officer investigated and reported “Bare arses, sir!
6th August 1942. So far we have done everything. We, Bill’s, Jaffa’s and my gun. Spent a week with artillery. Had a few scraps. Then went 0ver the top with infantry. First time AA guns have done such a silly thing. Fritz put up a good scrap. But our troops stopped short of the objective. A few days later they had a second attempt and we did the same silly thing. Copped it properly. Worst barrage I’ve seen. Also had to put up with anti tank shells, bullets, mortar, etc. Still short of objective. Few days later had another go. Put over the best barrage I’ve ever heard and Fritz slung one back. 1 ½ hours it lasted and I was shivering like a leaf. Next morning his tanks attacked and his Stukas at the same time. Had one box of ammo blown up on the gun. Got splinter on top of hip but it feels all right.
Were standing to at dawn with AP (armour piercing) ready for tank attack. Truck loaded with gear, etc. A jeep tore up and a Lieut. yelled “Get to hell out of here. The infantry have pulled back”. Didn’t stop – headed for our rear flat out. In 3 minutes the gun was mobile. Ammo loaded and crew aboard. We went flat out across the flat to the next escarpment chased by Itie artillery, then down to lower flat. Saw some infantry digging in. Selected a gun site and started to dig in when the Ities got on to us – end of digging for the time. Lost all our equipment, from shell bursts. In bits and pieces we got slit trenches dug and finally a gun pit. Still none the wiser what was going on. A lot of tanks destroyed on the escarpment. Near midday a raid developed – all around us and forward to the INF. Then things quietened down. At dusk we pulled out. Checking the ammo, I was a box light. After a lot of argument it was located about thirty yards from the gun. Hit by bullets one charge had exploded and lifted a 130 lb box out of
Moved back through INF and found out that Jerry’s attack had been successful. We lost the 28th Battalion – they had been taken prisoners. Western Australians, who we’d been with for a month. They were great fellows. So twice in one day my Bofors and crew had stayed in no-man’s land. The 2/43 behind us had badly wanted to help 2/28 Btn.
29th August 1942. At night we evacuated our position and are now resting at a beach. Messerschmitts still coming over and we get plenty of action. Haven’t seen much of his bombers. Have seen a lot a dog fights, etc. That finishes my first scrap for 1942. It lasted a month and was even worse than Tobruch at times.
Spent 2 weeks with recovery – an army vehicle recovery and repair unit – then moved up Katara Road. After a week we moved to 43. He has put on one attack, but got a hiding so has been on his best behaviour for a while. Plenty of air activity, but not much shooting.
5th September 1942. Had a birthday today but no party.
NZ ARMY. Went down to QATTARA DEPRESSION – or rather, nearby. Nobody could live in a depression – it was about 400 feet below sea level. It was all salt. A month 0n my own – the only Aussie with the New Zealanders – sick, etc. Big attack. Went to map reference, etc.
At dusk saw a whole battalion standing in a Wadi. Faces to the wall, great coats, etc. They were facing the wall because your face shows up from the air (white) – so you face the wall and don’t move so Jerry won’t see you if he comes in for a raid. Imagine 1,000 men lined up against a Wadi – a great target if he can get a go at them. One bomb and he’d get hundreds. It was cold. That evening at dusk 3 blokes appeared. The bloke in a sheepskin jacket shook hands and thanked me, etc. Anzac tradition and all that. Two NZ gunners grinned. I was cranky and wrecked. Nearly got stuck into them.
Told me I had been speaking to Captain Upham VC and bar. So that made my day.
Before Xmas they would come around with a big truck full of samples of Xmas presents for us to select what we wanted to send to our family and friends. We couldn’t go anywhere to spend any money, so we’d buy Xmas presents, which would be delivered in due course, and our pay books duly debited for the cost of the presents.
The Padre called in with the Xmas presents truck. Asked if he could play some records on a gramophone he had with him. 0K. Xmas Carols. Looked around and 18 Stukas were looking our way. l promptly lost interest in “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” – gave gun order and engaged enemy, thus gave our position away, and it was on! Gunner Shepherd fell over and I thought he’d been wounded. Instead he fell over the padre who didn’t know what was going 0n — did I give the Padre a serve! Never saw a bloke run so fast – easily broke the 4-minute mile. Cleaning up, things were rather quiet. “What’s the matter?” I asked. Gunner Shepherd said “You needn’t have been so hard on the Padre.” Puzzled me a bit – found out I’d told the Padre to “Get the f…ing hell out of here”.
Great preparations for attack. No half measures this time. Warned that we were to go from starting line in no-man’s land.
We had become attached to the 51st Highland Division. Later we were with the New Zealanders.
On that evening at dusk I had to go to map reference such and such. A. mud map – just drawn in the sand. Nearly fell over. A full formal mess of 51st Highland Division officers’ mess. Hell – trestle tables, waiters, regimental bands (5 of them), silver trophies, etc. All the regimental silver and port.
A good many of them died that night. They had their mess and went straight into attack. Everybody attacked at 20 to 10 that night. It was a hell of a battle. Unreal.
With our infantry at 10 o’clock on the night of the 23rd. Heavy barrage for 20 minutes, then we were to advance to a gap in his minefields. Two miles and dig in – right in the minefields – the Diamond Track. Got there all right except for Spandau fire. Spent all night digging. No sleep after heavy counter attacks for the next 6 days. Heavy casualties inflicted on him.
Terrific gun fire. Tracks marked by various signs. Mine was a diamond. A kerosene tin with a diamond cut in the rear side. Illuminated by a lantern inside. It was the way through the mine fields. The engineers had cleared the track – they had picked up mines. Spandau fire, shell fire, etc. Went in on left flank of 2nd 13th Btn Australian and 51st Highland Div. Terrible losses.
Forward of enemy minefield. Dug gun in behind the mound. Shells either hit it 0r passed over us. Did Jerry have that track registered! South African armoured car pulled up at gun and the Lieut. wanted to know where he was. I said “Show me the Diamond Track and get going!” Never read a map so quickly in all my life–headed for my slit trench and Jerry dropped an 88 right where the armoured car had stopped. After the explosion I took a quick look and said Lieut. waved back to me. He was all right.
DRESSING STATION. On opposite side of German minefield – medical helpers burying Italians alongside the dressing station. Red Cross flag and all – 2 shells from the 88 and all were dead – the MO and everybody.
Night bombing. Second or third night. Stukas dropped flares. Hit 9th Div. Cavalry Regiment. One bastard did us. Dropped it a few yards away. At daylight gun u/s – wrecked. Had to get a replacement. Was 0n Diamond Track just behind Jerry’s minefield. Stayed there 10 days. Dead everywhere. Lost two gun tractors to tank fire. Had a hectic action. Walls 0f gun pit shivered and shook. Big inspection. Large container. Thought we’d found sandbagged jewels, gold, etc. which once belonged to the Pharaohs. Turned out to be a baby’s bones hundreds of years old.
The first rain we had had for 2 years. The last rain I could remember was at Benghazi. Spent two days burying Jerries in slit trenches etc. Any hole in the ground you could find you put them into it. Thompson’s Post area.
Mosque of Sidi Rahmin etc. Woke up nearly dead. Crawled out of slit trench and approached sentry. Raining like hell. The sentry had a blanket around him and never thought we would drown. The water was over our chests. We could not hear the rain on our overhead cover which was covered with sand. Were we wet! We were trying to breathe water and nearly got drowned that night. Shivered until daylight and were pleased to see sun. Live and learn. AII the graves opened up and did we have a job. It was beyond belief .. . . then they wonder why you get hepatitis.
A dive bomber. 1 cup of tea (rationed). 1 blow fly. 4 or 5 fleas stuck on to him landed in the tea. Flicked them out and then drank the fluid. Shocking. And all coming off the dead bodies.
November 1942. Went to the 7th AGH on 24th – fever again – discharged on 10 December to 4th BCD. Had a good time. Spent 6 days in CCS – fever – had fever on con camp (that’s where you’re supposed to get better). — Got well and had a good time.
2nd January 1943. Travelled by train to Palestine via Cairo. Had 5 hours leave. But was broke. That’s nothing. Arrived in Palestine. Nieu Serat con camp on 3rd January. Got a vaccination next day. On the 5th was admitted to the 6th AGH with jaundice. Having jaundice feels like giving birth to a coil of barbed wire. Your stomach swells and it’s agony. Transferred to the 66th British General Hospital on the 16th. Had a rotten time. Short rations, etc. Glad when I was discharged. Moved to the base depot battalion on the 24th. Left by train for Egypt on the 28th, arriving on the 29th at El Shatt reception camp.
Only 5 miles from Tewflik. Looks like home now.
31st January 1943. Left El Shatt and moved by cattle trucks to the breakwater. Boarded HMS Queen of Bermuda at 10.45. Have bunks for sleeping and meals are very good.
1st February 1943. Left Tewfik at 7. 15. (Thank God)
2nd February 1943. Was admitted to ship’s hospital with probable relapse of jaundice. The weather is much warmer than either Egypt or Palestine.
3 weeks in Milne Bay. American barges to Lae. Beach landings. 3 weeks later landing at Finchafen. Battle of Sattleburg. Madang, then Australia. Peace.
23 April 1988. Met Bill at a reunion in Melbourne. He is 83 years old now. Jaffa has been dead for a few years. He got the MM at Alamein.