Christmas Day was celebrated three days early at Burg-el-Arab due to the uncertainty of when they would need to go into battle. There were church parades at 8.30 am followed by distribution of Christmas parcels.Dinner consisted of roast goose, plum pudding, nuts and a liberal supply of drinks. Parcels from the Lord Mayor's Patriotic Fund consisted of tinned cake, fruit, cheese, razor blades and handkerchiefs. The weather was cold and windy but the troops enjoyed the day.
|Map from White over Green|
Badia which was to be the location of the first battle between 3 to 5 January. The role of the 2/4th was to 'mop up' resistance in the Wadi Muatered sector. There was little opposition. The Allies captured approximately 10,000 Italian prisoners during this battle.
A member of C company (the company Ken Moses was a member of) described the first day of battle - Moved forward under heavy shell barrage through the wire blown by the engineers, after bridging the tank trap. Saw a few of our own dead but not many. Many enemy were lying about. Approximately 10,000 prisoners were taken by us (Allied forces) after a terrific march of twenty-six miles up hill and down wadis. (White over Green page 64)
A summary of the impressions of the men after this first battle included the effectiveness and noise of the supporting artillery, the number of Italian prisoners (and their apparent lack of morale), the dust and dirt and grime of the desert, wind and freezing cold at night plus the roughness of the ground.
The campaign in the desert had only just begun and the next stop was Tobruk. A member of C Company described an incident when they were taking up their positions. The company took up its position near the 2/1st Field Regiment (men they had trained with previously). While moving through the battery lines we were greeted from all sides, and a joke passed between us for a few minutes: but smiles soon vanished as we passed under an Italian barrage, and believe it or not I have seen rabbits burrow but they were no match for C Company on that day. (White over Green page 66).
On 8 January the men gradually, and carefully, moved forward from wadi to wadi (valley or dry river bed) towards Tobruk. Later that day the British bombed the city. There was some opposition as discovered by a patrol from B Company when they reached Wadi Gudin at 11 pm and as later reported by one member of the group - mortar bombs seemed to rain down; and to make it all the more unpleasant, which ever way I moved the patrol, the mortar fire followed - quite obviously our every movement was under observation. (White over Green page 68).
For the next ten days patrols continued, primarily at night, over hard and rocky ground. Lieutenant Lindsay described the experiences faced by C Company. Our sector ran from the sea coast to a point several miles south and inland. It includes some of the most difficult terrain and impenetrable wadis. Unfortunately a very bright moon provided near daylight conditions. Movement was easily seen and the patrol soon came under enemy fire. (White over Green page 69)
|Italian prisoners of war - Tobruk|
White over Green
|White over Green|
There were two more battles faced by members of the 2/4th Battalion in North Africa - at Wadi Derna and Benghazi. Wadi Derna was distinguished by its size and was almost a mile wide at its mouth. The sides of the wadi were so steep that they descended some 700 feet in a horizontal distance of 400 yards. Movement in this area was extremely difficult, particularly at night and at times it took all night to reach the other side, especially when machine gun fire from the Italians was encountered. The Italians who had escaped Tobruk were heading towards Benghazi and fighting occurred at the wadi between 25 and 28 January until eventually the wadi was secured. The town of Derna was entered on 29 January.
The quiet life did not last long as Italian and German planes started bombing the city at night. As well as obvious damage to the area, obtaining a good night's sleep was difficult. The troops also encountered bedbugs which were reluctant to leave. As the bombing increased the troops were moved outside the city where they slept in holes dug in the ground. One soldier was not impressed to wake one morning to find a snake in his bed. Mice also had a habit pf paying a visit at night.
One incident recorded in White over Green (page 102) about this time in Benghazi concerned Ken Moses and 'Sailor' Harvey who had arranged to meet Kenneth Slessor, official war correspondent and friend of Ken's father from Smith's Weekly, at a hotel. Discovering this was an officers only venue they 'borrowed' two great coats and went inside and stayed for several hours. According to the story they confided to an elderly English captain and his friend, a lieutenant - "You know, sir, we're not really officers: we're just Australian privates." To which the English captain replied: "We're well aware of that, old boy, but we're just waiting for our bloody greatcoats."