The leading units of the Eighth Army are now about 200
miles from Tripoli.
Tripoli is the only town in the Italian Empire overseas still remaining in their possession. Therefore we will take it from them ... ON TO TRIPOLI!
GENERAL MONTGOMERY'S dispatch to the troops,
WE RACED to Tripoli --- the symbol of all Libya --- with the 22nd Armoured Brigade, commanded by General Montgomery. Our objective was to take it in ten days after starting operations. As the center axis of two flanking thrusts, the 51st Highland Division along the coast and on our left the 7th Armoured and 2nd New Zealand Divisions, we traveled across the wadis like participants in the Oklahoma land rush. We were fired with the enthusiasm of the coming battle and a race to see who would enter the city first.
And as we moved we saw the end of Mussolini's dream of colonization on a large scale in Libya. Of its two provinces, the eastern, Cyrenaica, contained the main towns of Bardia, Tobruck, Derna, and Benghazi and the western, Tripolitania, the towns of Sirte, Buerat, Misurata, Homs, and Tripoli. Ten years before Il Duce had sent out land-hungry Italian farmers, builders, and families. Their little white villages with small yards were built alike. Two box-type plaster houses with a connecting roman arch bore identification numbers and the words "Ente Collinazation Libia." Boldly scrawled on the outside walls by the retreating enemy were such bombastic slogans as "Vive Il Duce! Believe, Obey, Fight," or the black swastika.
By strip-cropping, the Italians had cultivated the fields and planted orchards. Rows of young cypress and alder trees lined the road and the short driveways that led to the farmhouses. They had worked hard, prospered, and gained wealth which they never could have acquired in their homeland. The maintenance of a secure future depended on peace, but the silent houses testified that Mussolini had denied them that by war. He had robbed them of their homes, taken their savings for taxes, and conscripted their reluctant sons, who were handier at gardening than at fighting, into the army.
Historically this fertile belt along the Mediterranean coast line was once the granary and vineyard of Caesar's Rome. The Greeks colonized it and built the five cities of Pentapolis. The Vandals, Goths, and Moslems overran the Greek and Roman centers and the Sahara added its sands. Ruins were still in evidence. Amphitheaters, statues, and mosaic murals in temples are hidden in the rising rock-strewn plateau covered by camel thorn and gnawed by wadis. Many a soldier explored this, and those with an esthetic streak scrounged a memento or two.
In 1911 the Italians chased the Turks from Libya, and after World War I the tyrannical Marshal Rodolfo Graziani slaughtered the Senusi Bedouin tribes by the tens of thousands in Italy's "pacification" of Libya, then ruled it with an iron hand.
I got to know the Senusi Bedouins quite well. My Arabic did wonders for me, not only in my bartering with them, getting information as to the location of the enemy and when he had last been in the place we had just reached, but in building up good will for the Allies and straightening out disputes which arose with the natives. I found from Syria to Tunisia that the language varies slightly in pronunciation and word usage. In Lebanon and Syria, Arabic is spoken with a soft g sound while in Egypt the g is hard and guttural. Moving westward into the desert, the g is still hard but gradually gets softer. The Arabs were baffled by my accent and asked, "Are you from Egypt, Syria, Iraq?" When I told them America, they just wouldn't believe me. They insisted that I came from whatever place they named. In towns I was besieged by Jews mistaking me for a Palestinian. In this foreign intrigue, it was indeed a privilege to be just an average American.
All along the line I met Arabs who would ask, "Have you seen my brother [or some other relative]? He was forced into the Italian army by bayonet point." Or, "He went to Benghazi with the Jerries, and when the British came escaped or joined up with them." These were the Senusi people. I had seen a few such soldiers along the line but didn't know whether they were prisoners or Allies. I soon learned that those poor Arabs who refused to fight for the Italians were shot, hanged, or bayoneted. Occasionally I heard of a few who dribbled back to their villages or camp after we had occupied Italian territory. Those with whom I spoke had hated the Axis. Their food had been bad and they had been put in front on many of the assaults. I was surprised to learn that 123,000 were forced into the army by sheiks who were in Italian pay. The families they had left behind were starving. Whatever good livestock or crops they had were taken by the Ities and Jerries. Their food rations were nil. They actually were existing on dates and what few eggs the chickens laid; as they said, "If the hens have something to eat, we have eggs." They had no tea, sugar, or flour. Meat was found only in villages where they had managed to hide their stock of goats and sheep when the Axis troops retreated.
Unlike the enemy, which took what it wanted, the British bartered for eggs and lamb with tea, sugar, or biscuits. A handful of tea brought from three to ten eggs; a liter or more of tea, a baby lamb. With tea or sugar you could get anything. One pack of hardtack biscuits brought two eggs, but the Tommies had spoiled their trade by accepting one egg for one biscuit. Of course, the Long Range Desert Group was far ahead of the army and had to scrounge for its food; when they had ample supplies, they bartered.
While attached to the 22nd Armoured Brigade, we stopped at an oasis village not far from Homs. It was a beautiful spot, quite like descriptions in the Bible. Our water supply was low, and the important thing was to find out if the wells here were sweet and not salted. I tried to purchase several lambs and eggs for the unit. Sheep were running all over the village but the meat was too tough. Baby lambs were not to be found. Eggs were plentiful. Tom Smith and I took a five-gallon Jerry tin and accompanied one Hassan Ibm Muftah Chinarri who told me the water was good and sweet. Tom and I didn't care if it was poisonous; we just wanted enough of the liquid to take a good bath. I hadn't had one in over a month.
The well was situated in an orchard of date palms. It was the typical well of Biblical days. There was a goatskin bucket and a long trench runway. You dropped the bucket into the well until it was filled with water, and then raced down the runway trench pulling on the rope to bring up the filled goatskin. Just to stand near the well and try to pull the rope hand over hand was a tiring and strenuous job. Running down the trench was easier but also tiring as the length of the rope was a good hundred feet. At some other wells, cattle were used for drawing up the water. Hassan and another fellow from the village filled our tins and carried them back to our vehicles, three hundred yards away. They just wouldn't let us do the work. Later the water was tested and found to be good and sweet but we added a small amount of chlorine, for one doesn't take chances with typhoid.
I got to know Hassan quite well during our few days' stay near his village. He gave me all the information I desired. The Jerries had been at the oasis the morning of the day we arrived. The Arabs existed on nothing but dates, which he graciously gave us and made sure they were clean. One never saw Moslem women here. He went on to tell me that they actually buried their women in the ground for fear of the soldiers. I asked him about native food specialties and he beamed when he described those they had had before the war, but now mafeesh-she (nothing).
Whenever they had complaints, they would run to me, hoping I could straighten them out with the officers. For instance, after the water had been pronounced safe the Tommies started to drive to the well over some newly plowed fields of lima beans and onions. Of course, they meant well and tried to stay on one track leading into the oasis but usually would miss and turn the cars around in the plowed area. As their crop was the Arabs' livelihood, I took their complaint to the colonel. He immediately posted a sign stating that since we had made a track into the village we would remain on it when going for water or be disciplined accordingly.
I liked the Senusi people and extravagantly gave them my only pound of tea for a dozen eggs. My generosity brought results. I was given dates, peppers, a little olive oil, and Hassan brought me some sort of meat loaf cooked in red pepper sauce. I did not want to offend him and accepted it, but I didn't like it at all. Smithy did, however, and ate most of it himself, except for a few slices I mixed with M & V. Not being acclimated to the food, one has to be careful not to come down with Gypo-tummy. Smithy didn't care, and received no ill effects except a blistered tongue from the hot sauce.
It was here that I met Fatah, a strong good-looking boy of ten with big brown eyes. I did two paintings of him, one with his smaller brother, Mansoor, who had an older person's facial features but lacked the vivacious personality that Fatah generated all over the camp. Mansoor had a way of tucking his arms into his tunic, and at first I had the impression that he was armless. It wasn't until I offered them both biscuits that the hidden hands and arms emerged to accept the food.
Fatah and I got to be pals. He followed me around like a shadow. He helped me wash and clean my mess tins in the sand. He took a delight in my shaving. When it came time to brush my teeth I offered him some of the toothpaste to clean his teeth which were quite stained; he tried it and at first couldn't stand the peculiar hot feeling of the soap and spit it out. He then became bolder and asked me for some more which I squeezed out for him. He aped my brush strokes with his forefinger. Although tears were in his eyes, the broadest smile was on his face. Tom Smith and "Boo Boo" Reynolds, who shared an ambulance together, and I were in stitches over his antics. Boo Boo was so taken by Fatah that he wrote a wonderful letter about him to his little niece back in Hartford in which I did a small pen drawing of Fatah.
One windless sunny day while I was sketching from the back of the ambulance, Fatah and Smith were pitching stones. At Fatah's suggestion they set up a can target at least a hundred feet away. Fatah had a wonderful marksman's eye and knocked the can several times, whereas Smithy, who was a husky, healthy fellow of twenty-one, couldn't even touch it. Smithy remarked that Fatah had a wonderful swing and would make an expert ball player. Boo Boo and I watched the stone pitching with delight. Then Smithy started tossing stones directly overhead to see how high he could throw. Fatah followed suit and threw them just as high and sometimes higher. He started a barrage by throwing five or six stones to Smithy's one, straight up into the air, so that they fell right on top of the two of them. Tom couldn't stand this ack-ack fire so he ran to the ambulance and put his steel helmet on and returned to challenge Fatah. It was hilarious to watch the competition. Smithy threw his arm out while Fatah kept on going strong.
Although Fatah didn't speak English, he understood we liked him. I spoke Arabic with him and before we left I instilled a few English words in him which I hoped would be of value. He had a way of saying "No" that became contagious and we began doing it ourselves. He would smile, his eyes would sparkle, and he'd click his tongue against his teeth with a tsk-tsk sound and his head would nod slightly from side to side.
Early one morning, it must have been 2 A.M., I was awakened by Junior Bachman who slept in a furrow between two small dunes while I slept inside the ambulance. He said there was someone to see me. It was Hassan and two Gordon Highlanders. A battalion of them had moved into the oasis in the early morning and had leaguered on the northern side of the well across from us. They were competing with our brigade and division to be first into Tripoli. Hassan immediately broke out in a scared voice, saying that these two soldiers were scrounging and would have taken his chickens if he hadn't pleaded with them to accompany him to see me and that I would straighten the situation out. He was nervous and frightened and couldn't believe the British were similar to the Italians in flashing knives for what they wanted. He promised that if these two soldiers would wait until morning he would give them all the eggs they desired free.
I was in a hell of a spot, for I had to appease them both, especially these Scots, infantry men of the group better known as the "Ladies from Hell." They were out to get what they wanted since they were front-line troops. I explained to Hassan the conditions of these troops whose food was rationed and who had to scrounge for what they could get; how they had been taken prisoners and the treatment they received; the selfishness of other Arabs who had stolen and cheated them; and finally their doubt about whether they would be alive the next day. They lived for the moment! He understood but said his people had been so frightened that they had not slept, and had tucked the women and children under the floors of their huts. They liked the English, they wanted to help them, but begged them to leave their livestock for that was all they had left. I informed him that this was another unit which was camped north of us on the other side of the village and that they didn't know the Senusi as we had learned to know them, and these other units compared them with Arabs who had taken advantage of them. I assured him that they meant no harm and would do no harm. Hassan felt better, thanked God for my little help, said good night and departed. I then explained to the two Highlanders the Arabs' lament, how they were hospitable and different from other wogs, how this sheik would be glad to give them all the eggs they needed and how the Senusi were existing on dates. The Highlanders informed me that they had meant no harm but were hungry after being on rations of just a tin of bully beef a day and no tea for weeks. Junior was now fully awake, and I suggested a brew-up and he seconded the motion.
We invited the Highlanders into the ambulance and blacked it out. They were a Mutt and Jeff combination and just as funny. We could understand the brogue of the tall one, called Jock, but the other, Chaur, had us baffled most of the time.
Their tams leaned rakishly over their sandy-red freckled Scottish faces, and their bruised stubby knees showed the wear of the terrain. To them all other soldiers were secondary. This was a war between them and Jerry. They were self-righteous individuals and without a doubt among the fiercest and most valiant fighters, especially with cold steel. As we talked, I kept remembering the spine-tingling wail of the bagpipes which played every sundown in the desert, as well as the chilling battle marches with accompanying drums when the Highland Division charged with bayonets and were practically wiped out. Jock and Chaur were browned off, for they had subsisted on short rations of nothing but cold bully beef and hardtack biscuits for three weeks, so they had finally come to the point of scrounging food. We remedied that on short order. We had a banquet!
Junior went over to Al Bowron's and Spike Himmel's car and borrowed their primus and we cooked M & V, brewed tea, and had a tin of Dole's pineapple slices. We swapped stories over our early-morning meal. We discovered Chaur had been captured and escaped, and Jock was a machine gunner. The snack broke up at four-thirty in the morning.
Today 23 January exactly three months after we began the Battle of Egypt the Eighth Army has captured Tripoli .... The achievement is probably without parallel in history .... I congratulate the whole army. It could not have been done unless every soldier had pulled his full weight all the time. I congratulate the whole Army and send my personal thanks to each of you for the wonderful support you have given me. . .
. . . There is much work still in front of us. But I know
you are ready for any task that you may be called upon to carry
GENERAL MONTGOMERY'S dispatch to the troops,
ON THE twenty-third of January, we of the 7th Armoured Division lost the race to Tripoli by a few hours to the armored cars of the Cherry Pickers, the 11th Hussars, who were closely followed by a battalion of Gordon Highlanders. Junior and I wondered whether Wee Wee, Jock, and Chaur had got in on the much-talked-of occasion.
The capital of the last of Mussolini's remaining colonies had fallen and Rommel was still retreating to the Tunisian border with the Desert Rats on his tail. The task of these men was not yet done. Desert victory was merely a steppingstone toward heralded African battles yet to be fought.
The Kids raced against each other toward the city, but the real race was for the wine and food to be procured there. We almost lost each other driving in the deception of the moonlight. Its magic erased the dirt and shrapnel scars of war from the desert villages --- it was like driving through suburbs at home; but with daylight we were brought back to the reality of where we were. On the coast road everybody seemed to be going to a fire. As we moved we sang the Marine Hymn.
We camped on the outskirts of the city before being allowed to visit the capital. And who should strut in but Wee Wee with his tale of the fall, elated at having been the first American into Tripoli.
He related how at 4:30 on a cold morning, three months to the day after the 8th Army attack on El Alamein, its units approached in silence the city of Tripoli. It had been a bitter 1400 miles, but now the kilo post read "Tripoli 23." The civilian population was asleep or too scared to venture out into the streets. Ahead of the ambulances were a half dozen armored cars. They entered the Piazza Italia unopposed and turned into the Piazza Castello. The city seemed deserted except for the new occupants who had a brew-up along the palm-lined waterfront. The harbor was full of sunken and bombed ships. An hour later the Highlanders arrived, having fought their way along the coast road. A tank regiment with the Scots aboard the turrets roared its way in. On the lead tank stood a piper playing a cheerful tune. Daylight came, and with it civilians appeared nervously from buildings of white, pink, and blue. All of them were pockmarked from shrapnel. Arabs curiously sized up the conquerors, and somebody hoisted a Union Jack on the flagpole. Many men of the 11th Hussars had been with Wavell and were suspicious of the taste of victory which had so often bitterly eluded them. The whole regiment's footsteps echoed in the city --- they had been the first into Tobruck, the first into Benghazi, and now the first into Tripoli.
The gang was together again for the first time since we congregated over cards in a lonely blacked-out ambulance. We hurried into the city and had a few drinks of vino in celebration, and then descended upon a horse-drawn carriage with an Italian driver and demanded the keys to the city. We mellowed gradually as we toured around in the open carriage. When we pulled up into the main square, the Piazza Castello, we learned of the coming visit of Winston Churchill. We stopped at the Grand Hotel, where in the height of jubilation one of us stood on his head and saluted a passing British officer.
There was little to do in town for everything was closed and the only excitement we had was to get inebriated. Tripoli had been emptied of foodstuffs, crops, flour, and operating machinery by the retreating enemy. The natives were left to shift for themselves or wait until we could tide them over until their next harvest.
When we got into town the bargaining was ideal --a handful of tea brought a dozen eggs. Bowron managed to find six bottles of champagne. But things began to change as the whole 8th Army poured in. Since the push they had had practically no place to spend a cent. Rolling in British occupation currency, and hungry for food and souvenirs, they made prices soar. No matter what price the natives asked, some Tommy would pay it, and as a result a flourishing black market sprang up. Eggs began retailing at a shilling apiece --- approximately twenty cents. Thousands of soldiers were packed in streets of tiny shops that had nothing to sell.
The natives spoke French, Arabic, Italian, and German. We bartered with them in English pounds and shillings, Egyptian ackers or piasters, and Italian lire. In all transactions we translated the various currencies into dollars to get an idea of what we were getting into, whether we were being cheated or not. The Christmas wallets came in handy after all. The city itself slowly awakened. Military law and business curfew reigned while we were there, but soon were replaced by civil authority.
Before leaving the city, I bought the first issue of the Tripoli Times, the city's newspaper, the only memento of my visit that I have kept through the years.
On a Sunday morning three thousand men of the 8th Army removed the dust and grime of many campaigns from their battle dress and gathered in the Piazza Castello before their commanders to praise God and to remember their comrades who had fallen in battle. Here Churchill spoke the sentence that meant more to them than the Victoria Cross. "When after the war is over a man is asked what he did, it will be enough for him to say I marched with the Eighth Army."
After spending two and a half days in Tripoli our unit was pulled out five days before Churchill's arrival and housed in fairly intact Italian military barracks up in the mountains in a town called Garian. We repaired our vehicles there, and I cooked some macaroni for the gang. This macaroni was one for the books. It was so hard that I soaked it for a day and practically cooked it to death for another day on a primus stove before it softened enough to be eaten. Doctoring it with spices, we ate the hot dish as a diversion from the usual rations.
While the barracks were being cleaned to serve as a rest camp for our brigade, I found a huge room that was to be used as a recreation hall. Its bare white walls were a temptation to doodle --- especially for me. Being a muralist and having time on my hands, I decided to do some large-scale doodling. I found some paint left by the Italians who hadn't been considerate enough to leave anything but yellow and blue. In our own workshops I found a can of army brown.
I had previously done pinup-girl murals on board ship, under the bunks and on cabin doors (these in good taste). On the coast near Sirte were some intact Italian houses. In one of these, used as an Italian officers' quarters, where we had stayed for a night or two, I had done some murals which caused quite a commotion among the women-starved men. The one opposite the door depicted three luscious nudes, one reclining, one facing the door, and one whose back was turned. The third one held a baby over her shoulder who pointed an accusing finger at whoever entered. Unfortunately we had left before one of the boys could take pictures for my record.
For the recreation room at Garian, I decided upon a super-duper nude encompassing the entire wall, 30 x 15 feet. Usually when a muralist works he uses a scale pattern of a small sketch or a photograph of the sketch projected onto the wall. He carefully traces this, insuring his proportions. In this case I had neither the time to make this sketch nor the means of projecting it. And to top it all - no scaffolding. I managed to get up by means of boxes, but this meant that my nose was rarely more than six inches away from the wall. Starting from the head, I worked down to the feet on this beautiful virgin wall. To this day I don't know how I kept the figure in proportion. When I stood back to inspect the completed figure, I found that the top outline of her body ironically coincided with the coastal line of North Africa. I marked her off as the Middle East from Tripoli (Lebanon) to Tripoli (Libya) and named parts of her body for nonexistent wadis: Wadi you hiding? Wadi you doing? Wadi you say? Wadi you know? Superimposed on her from Syria to Tunis were Lilliputian figures of the units, men, and doings of the 8th Army. Somewhere near the midriff is a blown-out German tank with the string of old boots tied behind and a caption on the back, "Just Married." Above her soared the RAF and American 9th Air Force whose eager men were parachuting onto her. Along with the confusion of armored cars, convoys, and slit-trench digging on her terrain was a key figure similar to the Kilroy of the U.S. Army. It was a little Tommy in a sitting position holding the inevitable stretched-out newspaper and shovel. He was among the parachutists, the infantry, the armored units, and even at chow call. Such was life in the desert.
The colonel of the brigade came in with Lieutenant James Ullman. At the colonel's request I designed the stage and backdrop for this room and attached roof tiles from a blown-out building to wooden panels for a proscenium. For the background I painted a surrealist desert scene dominated by two large snails, surrounded by sagebrush, crawling along the coast road which was spanned by Marble Arch, the halfway point between Alexandria and Tunis. On top of the arch flew the Union Jack. Out of the clouds came three planes bearing the American flag; the ruins of Cyrenica were in the distance. All objects cast long Daliesque shadows across the sand. I did two other scenes, one depicting a Tommy waking up in a slit trench, being waited upon by luscious nudes serving steak and potatoes. The other was a Tommy sitting under a grape arbor, surrounded by beautiful nudes bearing jugs of wine, the Bacchus of the desert! Lieutenant Ullman avidly took pictures of my painting and of the finished murals, being very meticulous about angles, light, and so forth. He promised me prints for my scrapbook. When I saw him later in Cairo and asked him about them, he shamefacedly admitted that he must have been desert-happy at the time, for he had forgotten to put film in the camera.
It took eight hours to paint the large mural, finally called the Lady of Garian, three hours apiece for the other two, and two hours for the background.
The colonel asked me to stay on at the rest camp as interpreter for the British authorities, but I wanted to be with the gang, do the job, and have greater opportunities to record the war. The griff now circulating among the men was that Rommel would either make a stand and fight at Medenine, a contemplated defense-position approach to the Mareth Line, or would retreat within this line of supposedly impregnable concrete pillbox defenses. Either way, a battle was coming up and I didn't want to miss it.
Leaving the Lady of Garian to those more in need of her, we moved out as a reconnaissance outfit into the melting days of the almost forgotten desert for Foum Tatahouine, the southern outpost of the Mareth Line.
Somewhere around here we were to establish an RAP, an ADS, and an MDS.
As we traveled southwest to a procedure point on the map, we were within range of and constantly eyed by Jerry's 88-millimeter guns which were hidden in the Atlas Mountains to our left. This versatile gun was quite accurately maneuverable and Jerry used it most effectively either as an anti-aircraft gun or an anti-tank gun or as an artillery weapon. Consequently we were in constant fear of a giant sniper's barrage.
En route we came upon some jeeps around which were clustered tall Arabs and urchins bartering for tea. When we pulled up alongside, the Arabs turned out to be a band of blond and red-bearded British desert guerrillas who wore the traditional headdress of the Bedouin. They were a group of the notorious LRDG (Long Range Desert Group). Beneath their breeze-blown robes, they were walking arsenals. Each sand-caked jeep carried two 50-caliber guns, mounted on metal frames over the windshields which were heavily smeared with oil and sand to cut down the glare and reflection to the enemy.
It was always the hope of one of us fire-eaters to go on a patrol with some of these men, but that was wishful thinking, for in their secret missions they worked alone behind enemy lines, sometimes hundreds of miles back.
The LRDG exploits became legendary and were more daring than anything fictional. There wasn't a man in the 8th Army who hadn't some tale to tell of their harassment of Rommel or of their attack on his headquarters in an effort to capture him. These raiding operations took a steady toll of their gallant men but they continuously crippled Rommel's supply column, raided his munition dumps and airfields, and swooping in the dark of night on unsuspecting enemy camps, left a trail of death and destruction behind them.
For this work, they went through months of intensive training, iron discipline, tested courage, and developed the ability to use almost any kind or make of weapon. Added to this, they were masters of demolition charges, moving across country without making a noise, and of the superb poker ability to bluff in awkward situations.
One inside story demonstrates their split-second thinking. Two of them, creeping silently up on a heavily fortified enemy post, were discovered by a suspicious sentry who gave the alarm. Immediately a blinding searchlight beam caught them standing plunk in the middle of the surrounding barbed-wired entanglement of the outpost. In spite of their training to hit the dust and escape the beam, they turned without hesitation to the light and signaled, pointing urgently in another direction: "They went thata way!" The bluff worked; the light shifted long enough for them to steal away into the night like a couple of Arabs without their tents.
Our chance meeting on the desert with the guerrilla group was rare in a battle area. It was short and full of inquiries and not conducive to sketching. It was one of those times when our MDS of the 14th LFA was ahead of itself and its brigade and a month ahead of Montgomery's flanking movement at the Mareth Line. Also up in the surrounding Atlas Mountains Jerry's 88 mm's were looking down on us.
Although I never did paint any LRDG men, I managed to sketch their counterpart, the armored patrols who operated in a more orthodox military fashion and with whom we were often-times attached, the 11th Hussars (the Cherry Pickers) of the 7th Armoured Brigade. Known as the British Bedouins, they carried out patrols which rivaled in audacity, courage, and physical stamina the exploits of the mysterious LRDG.
Encased in the armor of their vehicles, these skillful navigators demonstrated the advanced technique they employed on patrols. They drove blind, steered by radio, in the vast wastes of the desert sixty miles behind enemy lines, going for long periods of time without water. Not even when ammunition and gasoline were brought to them every day did they ever lose their mobility and freedom of action. They roamed the desert releasing British prisoners, wrecking tanks and vehicles, and forcing Rommel to withdraw valuable troops to protect his lines of communication. They were called the "Desert Rats" and answered proudly to the name. Today the wind and sand swirl over many of their graves, but their tradition has never died.
When Wee Wee signed over his ambulance to me, I streamlined it for further efficiency of maintenance and for my needs. This enabled me to have the opportunity of painting without interfering with evacuation duties. A rack installed on the inside, which did not interfere with patients, carried my kit, canteen, and primus stove. As a nonunion electrician I put a light switch on the interior ceiling of the car. Handier than the dashboard switch, it was convenient for quick blackouts and operations performed on RAP duty. It was also good for poker playing. I carried a collapsible table, used for card sessions, writing, and painting, attached to the petrol-tin rack on the outside. With this setup, I was ready, willing, and able for anything.
There was method in Wee Wee's madness of wanting the freedom afforded a spare driver. After his exciting sojourn with the Desert Bedouins, he always volunteered when a Recce (reconnaissance) assignment came up. Several times he left me to live a lone Bedouin existence with an ADS until he was replaced by transient spare drivers.
Wee Wee moved in with me after Junior went back to Egypt for a much-needed rest. With Wee Wee came his rolling farm of two hens which he kept in a whiskey crate filled with straw. He ingeniously fastened on a canvas top from a scrounged Itie knapsack and called it his Patent Poultry Pen.
We attached the mobile farmyard to the front bumper of the car and drove along the desert terrain as carefully as we did with wounded. One hen was black and silver. We called her Cleo, short for Cleopatra. The other was a redhead dubbed Fathouma. Their cackling was pleasing at times for it broke the deathly silence of the vast wastes, but occasionally they overdid it and I was for having a chicken dinner. Wee Wee kept an eye on me, for once before when he had his own ambulance he had proudly owned two roosters which he had guarded carefully but somehow, somewhere, they had disappeared. Someone quietly scrounged them one night around Christmastime. He still suspected the AFS cooks but couldn't prove anything.
We fed the chickens crushed hardtack biscuits and during the day when we were not on duty we let them loose to scrounge for themselves. They pecked all around the ambulance and like pets rarely strayed away.
Every morning for days we looked for eggs in the coop but none were to be found. The day did come when, corralling the chicks for a hurried duty call, Wee Wee and I discovered we were fathers --- Fathouma had laid an egg beneath the ambulance and we were fortunate in discovering it before we pulled out. It turned out that both chickens had been depositing eggs all over the desert; we had just been looking for them in the wrong place. Each morning thereafter, like caddies looking for golf balls, we hunted for eggs.
Whenever we received a hurried call for duty or a move to our next point, we had a hell of a time corralling the chickens. Usually Wee Wee had to climb on top of the ambulance and grab. After many days of trial and error, we devised a scheme as good as a Texas roundup system. As I opened the doors to the back of the ambulance Wee Wee chased the chickens in and I locked up the whole family. Patients lying in the back often said they thought they heard something that sounded like chickens cackling. When they were informed that they heard right, they lost the fear that something was wrong with them mentally. There were always questions about when we were going to eat our hens and why we were carrying them through miles and miles of desert. Our reply was --- for the day we met up with the Americans and the 1st Army and then ---good old southern-fried chicken.
Back in Egypt at the breakout, it had been a scrounger's paradise with wreckage extending for miles. Tunisia, as we entered it, was clean virgin country with no signs of war except a few deserted Arab huts. Being a scrounge addict, Wee Wee went off on a lone safari when we leaguered en route to our movement point. He returned with a porous Arab water jug which he had found in a deserted hut. He also returned with fleas and lice.
We were wearing winter battle dress, a heavy woolen olive drab with brass buttons. The latter had a habit of coming off at the wrong time and continuously --- no matter how strongly and well you sewed them on. Many a night I spent doing nothing but sewing buttons on both pants and tunic. The uniform was comfortable, warm, but itchy. The itchiness was irritating, but now with lice we scratched away until we had the opportunity to fumigate the ambulance and soak ourselves in raw petrol. We eliminated the pests and also Wee Wee's scrounging addiction.
In convoy, while we plowed through a sandstorm, Wee Wee took over the wheel and gave me the opportunity while the light lasted to paint various phases of the storm on the move. We were entering enemy territory where the LRDG's had just made a reconnaissance. They had reported to Montgomery, giving him valuable information for his plan for the battle of the Mareth Line. We had the strange feeling that the eyes of 88 mm's were looking down on us from the Matmata Mountains on our left. We were never really scared when we were actually being shelled, bombed, or machine gunned, for we were too busy working, and then too you weren't alone, for no matter where you looked you saw other units and men close by. Now we were alone, going toward a spot where a month later the New Zealand Division with some 27,000 men and 200 tanks were to overcome the difficult terrain and enemy action by outflanking the Mareth Line to Hamma. As a lone moving brigade, with the thought of Jerry surrounding us, we became more uneasy the farther we penetrated his territory. The khamseen camouflaged us from the enemy but its intensity hid us from each other as well, and it was a job for Wee Wee to keep the ambulance ahead of us in sight.
Once we of the 4th Light Armoured Brigade crossed the border, the enemy resistance stiffened with rear-guard action and our light advance forces were hampered by the weather and rough going. The gruff came in about Jerry's activity in the Mareth Line. The 7th Armoured Division took the first main outpost of the line, Ben Gardane, and we were one of the forward units on the move to the important road centers of Medenine and Foum Tatahouine.
While Rommel was strongly attacking with his panzers in southern Tunisia, Montgomery was bringing up his supplies, reinforcements, and air wings to the Medenine positions. General Leclerc and his French force made a remarkable drive across the desert from Lake Chad to the battle zone.
We stopped in the middle of the khamseen for a brew-up and the rumors flew around in the midst of the sandblasting wind. They were usually misleading, contradictory, speculatory, and wrong. Word came to us of the first American defeat somewhere southwest of us in the mountains at Faid Kasserine Pass. The early news of the casualties of our fellow countrymen staggered us and struck the whole gang speechless. We experienced inexplicable tug, hurt, and we-want-to-be-there feeling.
Rommel had launched an attack against the Americans around Gafsa and the Yanks withdrew toward Tebessa. The enemy penetration was threatening to outflank the Allied positions in the north and the situation looked grave.
Later, when the accurate statistics of the defeat and of the retaking of the objectives came over the Tiggy wireless, we perked up and became our old selves again.
The men of the 8th Army had a limited knowledge, at the time, of the Anglo-American forces in southern Tunisia. They knew nothing of the number of American troops or how they were thinly spread out along their mountainous line of combat. They knew that the American army, although green in combat, was the best equipped and best fed of the Allied forces. They were anxious to meet and join hands with them but were more interested in beating them to the punch and rubbing out the Afrika Korps.
Our convoy, because of its size, moved slowly across the unknown terrain against the wind of sand. At one point, the visibility was so bad I stopped painting and we opened the oil- and sand-covered windshield. The sand and dust came at us with a driving force which surpassed any blizzard I had ever encountered in New England. Fog, mist, and sleet were treacherous for driving but this peppering of sand in all directions from one bit of desolation to another was damn-all. Nevertheless, we withstood the open-window sand blasting for a while for the sake of visibility.
The Arab was right, for the khamseen could stop anything and drive anyone to insanity. Yet these natives weathered such storms, although how they kept going so long was a mystery none of us could fathom. You saw them wending their way through the khamseen across mine fields and it made you shudder.
You saw them living among the absolute ruins of villages, and some came from nowhere passing through the convoy camp site. En route we came across one dead beside his blown-up camel. They had both hit a mine.
When the fury of the storm shifted away from in front of us, we closed the windshield. I started to paint again in the sandstorm, protected by the windows of the ambulance. It was an exciting mental stimulus which eliminated the strain of the storm's impact and the boring time of passing through it.
Sketching during the campaign and reporting what I saw was so challenging and so engrossing that during lulls of inactivity I lost all sense of time. I had many problems besides that of executing the work. One day I received permission to leave our campsite to go over to sketch a Bofore gun team who were lolling about in the Tunisian sun. I took a bearing on a mountain and walked a mile to get to them. In the midst of painting the weather changed and a small dust storm kicked up, raising havoc with paint and paper. I stopped work briefly for a brew-up and a chat with the Tommies until the wind died down. They were the No. 2 Detachment "B" Troop of the Royal Army Ack-Ack Battery. Just as I had resumed painting, the aircraft warning sounded and Messerschmidts came over. The crew were at their stations manning the gun in a matter of seconds. I dropped the sketch book, grabbed my steel helmet, and kept out of the way while the gun fired away. The suspense and tension were indescribable, for these guns were always the targets of Jerry, and to get them out of the way he resorted to bombing and low-level strafing. I was frightened out of my wits, but the crew were joking as they fired. One plane was downed and the RAF soon appeared and circled overhead. Trying to look nonchalant, I got back to painting, and concentrating on my subjects, I felt the terror I had known a few minutes before go out of me.
Although we had another air alert, I finished the painting and did a bonus picture for myself for sticking around the gun during all the air activity that was going on. It was a portrait of Sergeant in Command Cyril Owen, the only survivor of this gun's original crew.
The gun itself certainly had had an interesting history, a taste of which I got that afternoon. It had seen service in France, during Wavell's Push, in the siege of Tobruck, and in the entire Western Desert campaign. Its crew was wiped out three times, once by shell fire, once by bombing, and once by machine-gun fire. Once when the gun was disabled and the crew casualties, Sergeant Owen moved the wounded back and pulled the gun away from a burning ammunition lorry. At the time I did the picture, which had a suède finish from the dust storm, he was up for a military medal. He was truly a Desert Rat.
It had got dark by the time I returned to the outfit and with the darkness I had lost my bearings and found myself wandering around among a bunch of tanks. The excitement of the afternoon had subsided and now I feared the German night patrols, which had been frequenting our units, coming down from the hills, taking prisoners, and dynamiting a vehicle or two. However, a tank man gave me instructions as to where the 14th LFA was, and I located Wee Wee by the cackling of Cleo and Fathouma.
Subject matter came to me in several different ways, such as the time I picked up a forced-down South African pilot, Lieutenant Eric Newby from Johannesburg. He was on duty bombing Gabes when his Kitty Hawk engine cut out over the German lines. He managed to glide down near us and belly-flopped his plane. It was most important for him to report his whereabouts to his air base within twenty-four hours for otherwise he would have been declared missing.
As night was approaching Wee Wee and I sped the lieutenant by ambulance to the airfield. Upon arrival we discovered nothing but an empty field surrounded by ack-ack crews. The planes and their crews had moved elsewhere due to the shelling from the German 88 mm's in the mountains. A Bofore crew informed us where the new field was located, and we took off in the dark and found it.
When we arrived we found this field also empty and surrounded by ack-ack guns. This was the right field, however, and we learned from one of the gunners that the planes of our pilot's wing had not yet arrived but would be along in the morning. I parked the Dodge in a small oasis at the edge of the field which was surrounded by plenty of Bofores. Although they served as protection, they were also prime targets for Jerry's 88's lodged up in the hills. On the primus I cooked some macaroni and other stuff I had bartered along the line, and we had a feed topped off with a can of peaches. Newby posed for me and I got a nice story for the caption to the painting. All through the night we anticipated a shelling of some sort which never came. At dawn the planes of his squadron flew in and our guest departed.
By doing a picture of some sort every day I started to hit my stride in the true water-color medium, the old French method of painting aquarelles --- that is, abstaining from the use of opaques. The most interesting were the operation scenes done in two-hour sittings. My recording was done with the team of Lieutenant Colonel Clifford Evans who was in command of the 14th LFA, and RAMC Surgeon Captain Samuel Vincent who became so enthralled watching me paint that he took up the art. Later when I returned to the States I sent him painting equipment for his tour of duty in Germany.
The surgical wonders he performed under adverse conditions were fabulous. On a busy day he would do as many as fourteen or fifteen operations, taking anywhere from a half hour to two hours apiece, and then with two or three hours of sleep, get up and resume his work in the operating theater. He had a wonderful Irish sense of humor and occasionally after working all day or night he would look up and make a remark that would make everybody laugh and relieve the tension. Other times when planes came in too low and close to the tent he'd swear good-naturedly and keep on operating.
His mobile surgical room was always ready to be moved at a moment's notice. This room was nothing but a tarpaulin slung from the back of a three-ton lorry and suitably propped up with metal struts to make enough lightproof space to perform an operation. Vincent worked all hours, but mostly at night as the brigade was usually on the move during the day.
As I painted scenes of this operating room I tried to keep out of the way, but assisted now and then by handing equipment which fell within my reach.
I also once tried to sketch a formation of attacking Folke-Wolfs in the very midst of actual close fire and bombing. My calculations said that a direct hit on this human ant were slim. Knowing it was nigh impossible, I gave it a try, if only to prove to myself whether or not the American magazines' fantastic war paintings "executed under fire" were grossly exaggerated or true. Perhaps some artists could stay out in the open and paint, impervious to bombs and bullets. As for myself, I can convey only a post mortem impression of myself dropping everything and running across open ground to dive into a slit trench next to the ambulance.
A sense of both reality and unreality surrounded me; I was assailed with nightmarish sounds as though I were caught inside a belfry gone berserk. At the same time it seemed that the haunting eyes of ravens called Folke-Wolfs stared down at me as they dropped their eggs and intoned, "Nevermore."
I wasn't scared, I was petrified. I peeked out of my trench to survey the results of the few bombs that had dropped near by, and spotted Wee Wee beneath the ambulance with the chickens who were clucking away. It was the first and last time I tried to paint such a scene. Self-preservation comes first.