Rumours and Sandstorms









(County Down)



(Documents, photos & more)

Family Trees


Contents and Site Map


Inevitably the same topics arose regularly in Jim's letters: boredom, the scenery (such as it was), commenting on Pip's family news, and of course the climate...

Western Desert, 18 April 1942

“Yesterday was one of the hottest days I remember in my experience of the desert… there was a south wind blowing which everyone found extremely enervating. It is still blowing but doesn’t seem quite so bad – of course it is early yet 10 a.m. – lots of time to warm up.”

Jim had seen a newspaper a few days before and was encouraged, if slightly sceptical, to read that aircraft production was going well.

“Old Bevan apparently estimates that our production and America’s is now nearly double that of all the Axis Powers including Japan. If true then it is definitely the writing on the wall…”

Back to the shortage of water and the temperature:

“This afternoon we are going out water hunting again – not much hope really as the Birs are all drying up now. It’s only fit for washing as a rule but as such saves the drinking water. Our issue is now one quart a day per man – not a bathful is it?”

“Last night I had my week’s beer issue or rather allowance – 1 tin of 12 oz. – about three quarters of a pint – it costs 1/1d up here – 1/6d in the civilised parts. In Blighty it would cost about 5d.”

“Late May and early June is the hottest – last year 134 degrees in the shade. Hotcha! as the U.S. Army says.”

Western Desert, 20 and 21 April 1942

“We have done a little moving since last I wrote to you – our new position actually shows a few little hills and dales – things so small and insignificant that in Blighty they would never be noticed – out here they give relief from the constant table-top flatness of the landscape.”

“Was on guard duty last night and had little sleep after 2 a.m. so am feeling a bit dozy.”

This was one of the few occasions when Jim had hinted at any kind of military action - "guard duty" and "a little moving".

"A little anecdote: yesterday whilst driving along we pulled up rather suddenly as we espied a book lying in the desert. Occasionally one picks up something good. The tile was ‘Practical Buttermaking’! We lack only the cows and the utensils – the instructions are easy to follow but I little dreamed how difficult it is to make butter! Obviously in the old days they couldn’t have made butter at all – the old farmers were suffering from delusions. It is essential nowadays to have burettes of all sizes, acidiometers, sterilisers, separators, phenospthaleen in large doses, amyl alcs, etc… No wonder the ration is 2 ozs!”

Jim reported in the next letter that he had received “a little dose of Mail” including letter cards up to April 8th which he considered good going, and two letters dated March 5th and Feb 12th. He wrote that Pip should soon be getting parcels and a photograph that he had sent home. He also admitted that his most recent letters had been written while suffering “a spasm of complete and utter fedupness”.

Western Desert, 27 April 1942

“I have described or rather underrated our type of life over and over again – it never varies or rather any variant I cannot write about because it is not In Order and would be cut out. At odd intervals, maybe days maybe weeks we move a few miles one way or another – the reasons I know not in some cases – in others I know but cannot say what they are. We live on rumours – we don’t believe them, but they give us something to talk about. If a particularly juicy rumour arises from an ‘unimpeachable source’ we look for signs of fulfilment – every little happening takes on a significance – any slight variation in our life becomes pregnant with meaning for a while – then it all dies and a new one takes its place. The funny thing is that when something does happen it is never preceded by rumour – it comes like a dive-bomber – about 5 seconds warning!”

“Frederick at the moment is lying beside me ‘learning’ German… he has attempted to translate a Jerry hymn from an old Hun hymnbook but I’m afraid his translation isn’t what was meant by the Fuehrer or whoever compiled it. When sung to the tune of ‘The Church’s One Foundation’ with correct gutterals it sounds really sinister. We are thinking of learning it parrot fashion and then if Fate (or Jerry) makes us P.O.W. we may get Gauleiters jobs at Pitcairn Island.”

The next letter, in a green ‘Active Service’ envelope, covered both sides of five pages and was written at intervals over nine days.

Five page letter

Western Desert, 27 April to 5 May 1942

“I was on Guard last night 10-12 pm, 3-4.20 am and reveille at 5.30 am so I didn’t get much sleep. The early bird stunt is because Jerry is an early bird and likes sleepy worms. Sometimes he calls early and leaves visiting cards all over the place.”

Jim responded to some of Pip’s comments in her letters to him, firstly about bathing baby son David:

“I haven’t sufficient water to make one bubble of decent size. Think of that woman o’ mine when next you gaily pour about sixty men’s water ration into a tub to wash a perfectly clean infant…”

Then about a relative “with a dicky heart”:

“I don’t think he would be much use out here… We had a Khamseen the other day – a south wind blowing apparently straight from Hell’s Gates… It sucked moisture out of one like blotting paper does ink… the old heart was thumping like an a/a barrage… According to desert lore to be caught by a Khamseen in complete lack of shade spells death to man and beast.”

He gave a vivid description of a sandstorm approaching:

“Imagine a yellow desert – flat as flat as flat – perfectly blue sky, slight SW pardon SE breeze, time 6.20 pm. At 6.20.001 pm wind changes – pssst – like that to NW – 180 deg to the mathematically minded and low on the NW horizon appears a black line. It gets thicker and thicker bigger and bigger and finally resolves itself into a wall of sand, a factual wall, slightly bulbous and bulgy about 700-1000 ft high rolling forward like a gigantic amoeba. The line of demarcation was so clear cut that one could have timed it’s impact with a stop-watch… For a second one is drowned in sand and then – well it’s just another muck-storm.”

Jim explained how he had twisted his ankle jumping off a lorry “a distance of 2ft approx..” holding a tin containing 4 gals. of engine oil. He landed in a rut and his ankle turned inwards at right-angles only saved from worse injury by his heavy boot. He touched it tentatively and “it suddenly shot back whence it came avec a ‘GLUT’ or similar noise”.

Pip had responded to Jim’s query about their car, “CKC”, and he wrote “So Thomas arrived in it with a busted starter. I’ll bet I could mend it – and as for starting handles – we’ve just made one out of a piece of piping and a burnt-out ambulance. Cor! It weren’t half in a mess, machine gunned. I wonder what happened to the poor devils inside.”

Jim finished this long letter musing over how much he had changed and how he would settle back into “the old life”. He wanted Pip to know how important she was to him:

“…I’ve lost a couple of pals – no more – but it’s the different view of values that upsets so much… the cog in the machine – the utter lack of Grace as the Bible Reader called it…”

“Your job is to keep fit and keep 16 Hilda as a going concern… It is work of National Importance to me at any rate. It is an anchor and believe me men without anchors can drift a long way…”

As the tea had run out they were drinking ready ground coffee, although some were grinding their own beans with rifle butts. The problem was what to use as a strainer.

Western Desert, 11 May 1942

“I want to use Fred’s cellular underpants (Drawers cellular Troops for the use of) he doesn't wear them anyway but he objects. To date one just sieves it through the teeth… The sugar situation is well in hand about 8lbs. and the milk… still tips the scale at 2.5 tins.”

“Winston according to his speech a couple of days ago cheerfully stretches our bombing into 1944… I hope he is mistaken… Apparently we are now to be amused with poison gas – not that it impresses me particularly – I consider its bark is worse than its bite by a long way. Admittedly arsine is amusing in its little particular habits and the fact that it is undetectable until too late adds zest to the occasion… In respirators we resemble pigs and may as well look like ‘em as well as live that way."

One wonders how Jim and Pip would have felt if they had known that Churchill was underestimating by a year.

Previous page Spacer20 Index to all letters pagesSpacer30 Next page



Top of Page