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Vern Maxwell Diaries

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Vern Maxwell Diaries

This is the full version of the Vern Maxwell Diary Extracts published in the 2012 edition of “Take Post”. We are grateful to Eric Maxwell for allowing us to publish his father’s war diaries relating to the five month period from 14 March 1941 to 23 August 1941.

Comments in Italics were added by Eric Maxwell, John Campbell Dick Hawting and Bill Schack.

MARCH 14th FRIDAY (cont.)
Tobruk today to take up a position at the aerodrome; new set of flare signals came in as usual, as usual by our own planes when passing over.

Still on kitchen fatigue again, must think I have married the job, more jobs today than others. Officers having Regimental dinner. Goodness knows what time they will finish. I got tired of waiting and left the dishes till the morning. Too dark outside to see. The ringmaster gets some wonderful ideas having regimental dinners, no one wants them, just trying to show what a big man he can be; he is making a big something or other of himself.

Very quiet Sunday, went to church in the morning and did some washing in the afternoon – that didn’t take long. Such a nice day that I felt too lazy to do anything at all. Bill arrived back today.

Dug a funk hole for the ringmaster, very little else. Had early morning air raid – dropped about a dozen bombs’ some not far away, hit main road.
(John – Funk Hole – a foxhole or small bomb shelter)

Continued with the funk hole in the morning. Shifted out onto the mole (outcrop of low rock jutting into the harbour to take over some old gun for field defence or rather harbour defence. Reeled out of bed at 4:30, more HUNS (Jerry), counted twelve this morning.

(Bill- Vern and Bill are fixing two naval guns.)

(Eric – Mole-see section Towns/Cities/Places mentioned in his diary).

Took a turn on air sentry starting at 3am. Had to call the boys out at 4:30 to listen to a dozen or so bombs explode and a few planes flying around. Cleaned two, three pounder Howitzer guns ready for firing. Goodness knows what will happen to them when the first shot is fired. They are so old. We are what you call patching. Now get our rations if we’re lucky, then get our own meals. Those not on duty do what cooking there is to do, warm the tins.

(Bill – Bill and Vern found an electric fan and an electric Electrolux refrigerator.)

Started on leave but didn’t get any further than HQ, as we have to go back and test the new toys – See if they fire or blow the back off. Hope the back comes off first shot or not at all. Fired guns and they worked but goodness knows what use they would be. Went on leave a little after eleven. Went in with the officers – saved walking. Didn’t stay long; Bill wasn’t feeling too well. Landed back and had a sleep, ready for the night on watch.

Cold and windy, waves breaking over the mole. Likely to get wet to the skin any moment outside. Came off watch at six and helped with breakfast, the one nearest gets meals.
Porridge (crushed biscuits soaked then made hot with milk ) bacon and beans (tins) plenty of bread, very little butter and next door to no jam, Plenty of oranges. Wind got worse as day went on; by night, waves were breaking thirty or more feet above mole. We all shifted out back to HQ.

Came back for breakfast and to pack up to shift again. E Troop to a place twenty miles away. We go back to HQ then to some other gun. Took up new position on top of a four storey building.
Places and gun very untidy and dirty but will be comfortable so long as our two enemies leave us alone (Jerry and Stokes (Commanding Officer)

Did usual shifts during night, nothing happened. Cleaned up new home, a great place too . Had a good hot bath, have electric light, bath and heater, stove, in fact everything of a modern home, sounds too good to last , still the unexpected does happen sometimes. They can leave me here as long as they like, only one thing wrong with the place – sleep alone with a photo at the head of the bed if those lips could only speak, if those eyes could only see…..

Up as usual, having a great time. Bill has to the kitchen like a duck to water. Put in the morning arranging the kitchen and getting dinner ready. The rest of crew checked and cleaned gun and did watch. Did a spot of washing-getting all cleaned up. Sitting down as happy as a larry having dinner when the phone rang – the crash had come – one hours notice to be ready to move. Back to HQ, unloaded, sat around till 3.30, out we go again, down the road into our empty building with gun and ammo, but it’s not being set up tonight – the bed comes first though the Boss doesn’t think so.

Up bright and early. Bill set to clean up kitchen as he is going to stick to the cooking. The rest of us made a ladder, first, to get onto the roof which is the full size of the building; flat, with two feet wall around us. I was to strip gun and take fuses up, and assemble the necessary other jobs. Took up most of the day. Started to put guard of bricks and sand bags round but as everything has to be carried up, we didn’t get far.

(Bill – No electric light or water laid on. Had Lt. Scott for tea, brought word to move for the 4th time in five days. Chips, bacon omelette, pineapple with baked rice custard.)

Finished putting bricks around in the morning. Bill still happy in the kitchen. Boys went to get sand bags to finish guard for gun. I received word to pack and go to Barce for dental treatment. Left 1 o’clock in a truck and arrived at six, went around to hospital and saw some of our boys who are there. Dentist has gone to Tobruk. We next looked for some place to sleep. Finished up with sore toes. Slept on floor and ground sheet and blanket over the cement, ‘twas a little hard,

Had breakfast with the Poms. Packed the blankets and went back to the hospital to see Lt. Jorgensen and Sgt. Davis. Afterwards we had a look around Barce, then set off back to Benghazi about 11 am. Stopped on the road and had something to eat (bread and salmon). Arrived at Benghazi at 1 pm, stayed there for a couple of hours, then back to camp only to find that my things had been moved back to HQ, so here we go again.

(Bill – Moved back to B.H.Q. in the afternoon, drove a Fiat truck 70 miles towards the front line. Had a terrible trip, a bit of a smash – hit a telegraph post when being towed in pitch black. Arrived home at 7:30am.)

Did very little all day. Set up my things, some were here, others were back at where we came from; otherwise did a few odd jobs, nothing worth mentioning.

(Bill – Made some bombs and blew up some fish. Ten soldiers shared 70 tins of fruit, 13 tins of milk and 50 oranges. Third Fiat out of action – probably the clutch.)

Had first drive in truck today since leaving Australia–it was much better than sitting behind a gun. It wasn’t the usual Ford, there are six Itie trucks, Breda guns A.A. 73mm., A.A. guns 75mm. field guns, the powder coastal defence. Still, we have a few rifles of our own. Spent all the afternoon in the same truck, backwards and forwards through the town getting things that were forgotten.

A pleasant Sunday in the truck. Left 8 o’clock in the morning to go to Ajedabia to get a load of ammunition. Arrived there at 11, hunted through heaps of ammo and over 100 field guns, fifty odd tanks and stacks of other supplies . Arrived back at 6: 30. Only had half a tin of peaches for dinner. Stopped three times on the way because of planes flying round, but they were our own, best luck.

Another day nearly gone. A nice warm day only too many flies to be pleasant. They must have an endless supply of tinned bacon – had it for breakfast every day for weeks; doubt if I will be able to look a pig in the face if this keeps on much longer. Was told to be in readiness to go to Ajedabia again. Stood by all day and did nothing at all. Must have forgotten about   the trip.

Very peaceful all the morning, one recco. plane over at midday; caused a bit of excitement but by night things were happening. Our lines had retreated, our rations were drawn, t rucks were scattering in all directions collecting the boys.
Others were working post haste getting the gun down . I have to lie here and do nothing as I sprained my ankle half an hour ago, running around in the dark; it’s now  11:30. Boys worked on until 3:30. The ones from *Margram arrived at 3:30, so no one got much sleep.

(John – * Margram was a food and ammunition dump subject to air raids.)

Everyone sitting around waiting for the word; most kits loaded, still no sign of rnovement at midday. Four crews left early for *Regena. Felt sick all day. 6:30 all trucks loaded and scattered all around the roads. Goodness knows when we will move off . Jerry is keeping a watch on movements. Two recco planes were over half an hour ago. 8.15. Told to take our blankets inside f or the night, so here we are – what’s next.

* Regena – Allied Aerodrome

Retreat from Benghazi. Smoke from fire could be seen 50 mile s away.
6:30 air raid siren going, we are given half an hour to get out, no planes about hut; we loaded our kit as quick as possible and left under clouds of smoke with explosions all  around from all important buildings. All guns and ammo blown up. All our surplus went up beside us. Stopped outside Benghazi to wait for all the trucks. The road was crowded with trucks going both ways, mostly back. Stopped for the night about 12 kilos out of Barce . Very slow going as so much traffic. Stopped once because of planes, even the wells along the road were destroyed.

(John – they did not fire on the recco planes as it would given away their positions.)

All nicely asleep – 2am. Word came through to pack and be ready to move so we got to it and then had to sit on trucks and freeze till daylight. Left daylight to Barce, then took
back road. All aerodrome buildings are ablaze, planes leaving, went out several kilos, passed detour, engineers ready to blow road. Set up guns in several places, trucks went on and hid, so did we. Jerry is supposed to be on the move, but where? Can’t be worried, the fire is going and the billy’s on – we must eat. Stopped in the timber near the road all afternoon. Some guns went back towards Barce, scattered all around. Hurricanes are very active, patrolling the roads, infantry in the hills about a mile from us.

(Bill – Bill left Baracca Pass, just past Tara, fourteen miles into Barce to fill all Freddie’s troop tins and water cans so as to have sufficient water. Camped on two acres of broad beans, the Italians were  
good about it. Moved off, then were attached to 24th Brigade HHH.2. Awaiting German attack . Plane came over , they put 130 rounds into him. Moved again 20 miles but returned.)

Had a good night’s sleep, packed all kits on trucks early in morning, ready to move if necessary. Left about 9am, headed across country on about the dustiest road I have
ever seen. We all rode on the top of the cabin, set up guns in one place then shifted inland along main route to Alex. to the bunch again; gun set to guard Div. HQ. Went for a
trip an hour later to 2Oth Brig . for f our trucks; had to wait around for them to come from goodness knows where , but they took long enough about it. Roads heavy, some infantry
on the march, dozens of Hurricanes on patrol. Arrived back at midnight after a lot of travelling about.

Still trying to get the trucks into their place, walked for miles from one to another. Finally got them set, so that earns a sleep as I went to bed last night (2am) and was up at daylight. Trucks into night crews only for a few hours. 4pm on the run again, given 2 hours to pack and get out. Had to dump some of the heaviest gear as some trucks went to withdraw infantry. Left at 1:44 along a deserted road, caught up to traffic later; travelled all night across desert to avoid being cut off . Hundreds of trucks of all sorts doing the same, stopped at sunrise and had a cup of tea.

(Bill – Bill attached to 56th. Brigade H.2. Travelling towards Derna, roads blown up. Very tired after driving several nights and often part of the day. Truck not going the best)

Four trucks who were with us at sunrise, failed to get through. Sunrise: at the back of Derna, road too crowded to travel fast; went on nearly to Tobruk and stopped just behind the lines. Had to go through our own lines. Two trucks who were waiting to join convoy past Derna were engaged by four tanks. Two boys wounded, trucks lost, three trucks and one bike, most of our stores secured, kits were lost; arrived at our present position 1:45. Left again at dark and went back 40 kilos near Tobruk and slept in the back of the truck – six of us in room for two, three in front. We may have to move again through the night.

(Bill –Bill came through Derna, early in morning, cut off by Germans. Bill’s truck got through, but two trucks didn’t. Two men were wounded, one truck useless. Moved 14 kms from Tobruk/ stayed the night at Ainel- Gazala.)

(John. -. German soldiers dressed as British and New Zealand Military Police were directing traffic to the inland road. Those that went inland were ambushed by German tanks. Several of the MP’s were caught and shot.)

Woke up covered in dust, can’t see far. This must be to add a little more to our pleasant trip. I haven’t had a wash or my clothes off for a week now. Nearly all our rations went in the last truck, still living on biscuits and jam mixed with dust. Can’t see for dust, has been blowing all day.
Received more rations during afternoon, had bread for the first since the retreat started. Wind dropped. We all went to bed around the truck for a good night’s sleep. Lines seem to be holding. More troops arrived, also some tanks, so it looks like the next move will be forward again.

(Bill – Bill pulled up at a dump, although Jerry close on their heels. Got many stores which have been very handy as store supply are not very great. Tonight being about 8th night that Bill has had to drive to another position – is feeling dead beat, but must keep going.

Moved again 5 miles b ack towards Jerry’s front. On the alert for him to come at US.)

Woke up by the sound of planes at dawn, several planes attacked Tobruk. Half an hour later twelve German planes made another attack. Alt passed over us both ways. In a while they were throwing the lead around here. We brought one down amongst us, others were further away, a lively half hour. Went to bed with the noise of field guns one side and the continual flash of heavy and light A-A as planes attacked Tobruk. Field guns and trucks going up in lines, stopped for the night about four miles out of Tobruk.

(Bill – Front Line position, Germans on our wheel. About 11 o’ clock, 12 – 18 Messerschmitts were on their way to Tobruk; coming back, they machine gunned us – we fired, bringing 2 down. With the heavies, the total was 6. At 6 o’clock there started an artillery duel and Jerry’s shells were dropping up to 100 yards from us. No shave and one wash in 14 days.)

Woke up covered in dust, we are in a valley of dust where little wind makes a lot of dust. Hurricanes are using it for landing. No wood and plenty of dust makes it very pleasant for getting meals; wind dropped late afternoon, allowed us one clean meal for the day. Cars, trucks, tanks and guns arriving from all directions as far as the eye can see. Twenty five cruisers went through at dusk. Tobruk was again raided, splinters from heavy A.A. fell around here like hail. We all got under the truck; I finished up sleeping under it.

Had one good night’s sleep, also a wash and shave – first for six days. Valley still busy; trucks everywhere; artillery open up occasionally on the hill beside us, must be a few patrols about. All quiet, then all of a sudden Jerry appeared over Tobruk. All guns went into action; there were flares everywhere. Rest of Hurricanes appeared, a burst from one and one Jerry went down, no flames. Four came down near Tobruk, the rest left. Artillery going solid till midnight, otherwise all quiet. Jerry let us have a good night’s sleep. Chocolates and beer were on sale for the first time for weeks.

(Bill – First attack on Tobruk by Rommel. The Germans used Panzer Tanks, Stukas and troops in a concentrated effort to dislodge the defenders.)

Wind a little stronger, had breakfast early and cleaned up before the dust started to blow. Truck had to go to Tobruk so we were left sitting on our kits with the dust sifting over us – couldn’t see more than a few yards ; cleared a little during the afternoon. Water getting shorter – only half a gallon a day now. Dinner is out of the question, often is as the dust is too thick. Blew all night, had to stand guard for two hours during the night. (goodness knows why)

Still blowing though not so dusty. Shifted camp again up onto a hill clear of most of the dust, also behind the second line. A lot of new equipment arrived and had to be issued out. That was done during the afternoon; everyone received full webbing equipment – extra to carry around.

Called out of bed to pack as some tanks have broken through at * El Adam. It’s all right to pack but where to go. Just finished when flares appeared. In a few minutes there were more flares than flies coming from all directions. Bombs were dropped all around. Later we were ordered to put on equipment and get a supply of ammo to act as support for our Bren guns. Went to all gun positions during afternoon to issue webbing; had three raids during time. Finished the day cleaning anti-tank guns.

*First major attack on Tobruk – German tanks almost reached the junction of El- Adem and Bardia Roads. EI Adam was in this area.

Up at 6 am to take over guard around camp until 8 am. Bombs were falling around Tobruk. At the time we are nearly a mile from the town. When will this shifting finish – moved back into dust valley where we were at first – the place where it blows dust three and three quarter days out of four. Jerry still persists in bombing Tobruk several times a day although several planes fall each time. Artillery lines are only a few hundred yards away and they let us know it.

(Bill – 200 prisoners and material captured.)

Another day of dust, woke up nearly smothered, couldn’t tell which was blanket or ground. Went to Tobruk for rations, very little dust there (most round our camp dust valley). All our kits had to be unloaded to be put on another truck as we are nearly drifted over now. There’s a rumour of a big attack, tonight guards are being placed all round as parachutists are talked of. Nothing happened anyway they wouldn’t be able to see for dust. Bill arrived back this morning.

Artillery active this morning. They decided today that I was in the wrong crew, so another shift was necessary. This time to the most forward gun toward fig tree (Approx. 1000  metres from perimeter) . Artillery all round, firing at intervals. Very active in the evening -quiet night except for the fleas and rats.

JULY 29th    TUESDAY Another good day, nice and warm. Artillery busy all round, make a duce of a noise. Some shells corning in – they make more noise. Most part of our time is spent in dugout. There is nothing else to do. All nice and quiet as far as we were concerned. Our artillery doing a lot of firing. Having tea when several shells landed about 60 yards away, talk about a scatter, down to earth. Tea was forgotten for a while.

Took all my things and went into HQ this morning, and into Tobruk in the afternoon to the dentist. Back to HQ again 5:30 – one tooth less. Water pond near Tobruk was shelled while we were in town. Several high level bombers over late afternoon, dropping bombs in different places.

High level bombers over Tobruk for hours, from midnight on, shelling at same time. Many bombs were dropped, also some land mines. They shook the whole place. Face still aching a bit so didn’t get up very early, did nothing all day. Some of the boys went for a swim this afternoon but I didn’t feel like it.

Quiet night, only two planes over, don’t remember hearing any bombs fall. Spent all day at the beach getting clean and sunburned. One of our planes flew over, was apparently heading for the aerodrome; received a cheer – the first plane for weeks.

Went out to # position again. Had to stop for a while on way out as shells were falling. Another lot came in about 11:30 all round us, some as close as six feet. Some more came after dinner. One of the **Sigs was hit. We went out to help and another shell came over. A bit hit me on the shoulder     – both of us went to * R.A.P. Other chap died.
I went back in stages to HQ. Half an hour after arriving, the place was bombed, some .

*R A P Regimental Aid Post.

** SIGS -Signal Personnel.

# Refer map Page 30. Gun position was approximately under the word “Valley” in the text “Shell Happy Valley”. See also Page 6 – Soldiers Tales/Notes section Wounded.

(Bill – Six bombs landed 5 yards from the dugout and a half a chain from Bill’s tent. Vern wounded during the day. A few of Bill’s Geelong cobbers were killed.)

Went to bed early hours of the morning. Because of planes, did nothing all morning. Went up to * R.A. P. to have shoulder dressed. Bombs were dropped near camp as we came back. Many planes were over early in night. Another packet was dropped at same time 11:30 in this valley about 40 yards from the tent. Tobruk and water point were shelled. * R.A.P Regimental Aid Post.

Went up to R.A.P. again this morning. That, and dodge bombs is all I have to do. Another trip to * M.D.S. this afternoon and had to wait for hours for the truck to come back. Planes getting very active around this corner lately. Planes over all night, bombed all round. Dropped another stick in the valley same place and same time (11:30 )

(John – M. D. S. Medical Divisional Station probably British Medical unit or first aid area.)

Another nice day, warm with cool breeze. More bombs were dropped on Tobruk. Doc wanted to put my arm in a sling then decided it wasn’t necessary. Another trip up this afternoon. Got smothered in dust – was blowing nice and thick at that time. Bombs missed the valley this tine though quite a lot fell on the hills around.

Extra dusty today, may keep those planes away. Two were over early. Nothing much to do, wrote a letter or two, only have to go to the * Mr. D today. Quiet night, only one plane over and its bombs dropped well away.

* Doctor appears to be Mr. D. Sonce. Battery did not have a doctor and were treated by first available aid station.

Not so dusty today, much hotter. Still on holidays. Spent all the morning getting up to the M.D.S. and back again. Received another parcel today, lots of papers. Bombers over again, dropped one lot in next camp.

A much better day today, still on holidays. The usual trip up to M.D. S. takes up most of the morning. Quiet night.

Went up to M.D.S. They decided I had to stay and have shoulder done every two hours; got as sore as the devil. Slept in the tunnel for the night.

(Bill – Vern gone to hospital, shoulder turned septic.)

Still at the M.D.S. having dressing every two hours. Dive bombers over Tobruk at evening. Church service was held in next tunnel. Back to the flea bag again – plenty of them here.

Dressings as usual until midday. Left M.D.S. at 2:30 for **A.G.H. Tobruk. Admitted late afternoon. Dr, had a look at my shoulder and wrote out ticket to Base. Planes over  during night, many bombs dropped, some in hospital yard between the wards . No damage.

**AGH – 2/4th Australian General Hospital.

(Bill – over 200 bombs dropped here in 24 hours, about the average. Hospital bombed, 3 killed and many wounded.)

Shifted down to * 2/5 A at docks hospital 2:30, stayed there until ** 12, then went onto a destroyer. Left Tobruk half an hour later. Bombs fell near destroyer as we went out.
* 2/5th Field Ambulance Unit at the docks hospital.
** 12 midnight – ships had to be clear of “Bomb Alley” by daylight – see map P. 30.

Arrived at Mersa Matruh 7 : 30 – went into * S.A. hospital, stayed there all day. Planes were over at night but we were well underground.

* Believe Hospital to be a South African field hospital for minor treatment before sending on to Alexandria.

Left Mersa Matruh at 0800 hrs for somewhere else. Stopped awhile at Alex then out. Hospital is about 30 miles out, all in tents, but what a change to get into a bed with clean sheets.

(Bill – Thermometer rose in quarter of an hour from 108 to 122 in the sun.)

Up at 7 am. Had to make bed and roll mosquito nets before 7:30. Messed around all day, nothing to do but sleep and I did it. A nice soft bed, and everything clean. Plenty of our own planes over this way. A change to see “circles” on the wings instead of black crosses.

(Bill – Bill’s leg poisoned).

Same as yesterday, all cleaned up before breakfast, if you could call it that . Get less to eat than at Tobruk. Received a tin of butter scotch and a tin of tobacco from
Aust. comforts fund. Slept nearly all day.

Still half starved. We don’t get enough to eat to feed a fly. The only difference to yesterday was that there was church.

Still in hospital.

Goodness only knows why they can’t get any decent food in this place, more like a rest camp in the desert than a hospital. Another convoy landed in tonight. To be hoped they get some extra rations and not share the bit they already have.

WEDNESDAY Beans and the smell of bacon for breakfast – won’t say what it looked like. Same thing doing as any other day. Bombers over Alex during night. Sound of bombs could be heard from here.

Another convoy arrived this morning, some going also, none
from this *motel (Hospital ward) . Meals are much improved.

Still living peacefully in J2. Some operations here today so the place is much quieter. Supposed to be moving tomorrow, but that may be changed now.

(Bill – Many Polish soldiers relieved different units).

Still here, don’t know when or where I am going. Bit windy today. More of the boys are going back to their units. Today we got plenty of jobs doing nets (mosquito) and beds for the be d patients.