Saturday, 13 December 2014

Ken Moses - North Africa 1941

 On 12 November 1940 the men were back at Kantara East - the area where they had left the ship from Australia ten months earlier. They crossed the Suez Canal by punt and then travelled by train to Burg-el-Arab via Ismalia, Zag-a-zig and Alexandria. There was an air raid at Alexandria when they arrived at Burg-el-Arab and the search lights and the barrage of the A A guns could be seen ten miles away. They set up camp and once again began training including compass work and direction finding. They were camped out in the desert but at 4 am towards the end of November there was unexpected torrential rain and the camp was flooded. However it was not long before the terrain had returned to dust.

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
Events in the next three months were to take members of the 2/4 Battalion through the deserts of North Africa  to Benghazi and then back to Alexandria as British and Australian soldiers were engaged in forcing the Italians from North Africa.
On 30 December a convoy of New Zealand transports arrived at the camp and the next day the 2/4th Battalion, as part of the Australian contingent, was on its way west to Mersa Matruh, a settlement that had been destroyed in earlier fighting. On New Year's Day they travelled 130 miles to Salum through wind eroded desert. Their destination was outside 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.

Despite the discomfits experienced by the soldiers they could rely on men, such as those in this photo, who staffed the field kitchen accompanying the troops.

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

On 18 January the unit moved into position on the outskirts of Tobruk. On 21 January the battle took place. White Over Green provides details of the battle but, in short, the objective of the battalion was to secure the foot of the escarpment north of Badia Road, including the Italian Eastern Sector Headquarters, approximately five and a half miles inside the Italian perimeter. Once again large number of Italians surrendered and were taken prisoner. By the next day the Allies had taken the city.

White over Green
A famous photograph from this time is the 'hat up the flag-pole'. Apparently there are many versions of the story but the gist is that the troops found a flagpole without a flag so a digger's hat was tied to the rope and raised.

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 2/4th Battalion was the first battalion to enter Benghazi. On 7 February members of B Company formed the ceremonial guard for the formal surrender of the city to the Allies. The battallion officially entered the city the next day and settled down to regular garrison duties for the next two weeks. They moved into the Berks Barracks. Canteen services were organised, clothes were washed and some replaced, fresh food was available and mobile baths were brought in allowing the men to be clean again. On 10 February a Battalion Parade was held where Colonel Dougherty congratulated the men on their behaviour and achievements during the campaign. The next Day another Battalion Parade was held in honour of a visit of the Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies. They were also visited by General Blamey and General Mackay.

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."

On 26 February the battalion left Benghazi to return towards Tobruk. In the sand they encountered thermos bombs (bombs similar in size to a thermos flask dropped by the Italians around Tobruk) that needed to be cleared. Arriving at Tobruk at the beginning of March they carried out garrison duties until March 15 when they were once again on the move to Mersa where they were issued with new kitbags, clothing and equipment including new Thompson sub- machine guns and Smith and Wesson pistols. Respirators were checked and they were issued with new anti-gas equipment. The next stop was Ikingi Maryut, outside Alexandria where they collected pay and leave passes. The final Battalion Parade in North Africa was held on 31 March. Then it was off to Greece for the 2/4th Battalion.

1 comment:

  1. Oh oh, don't tell me, let me guess what happened in Greece!