The Battle of Gazala









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On 26th May Axis forces began Operation Venice, an advance that would last for nearly four weeks and ultimately lead to the capture of the port of Tobruk. The Battle of Gazala was fought across the desert to the west of the port with Rommel driving the Allied forces back from Libya into Egypt. Through his letters and the occasional telegram Jim tried to reassure Pip as best he could, even lightening the mood when he felt able to. He conceded that she probably had a better idea overall of what was happening than he did.

Just before the first attack Jim commented on the monotony of his life and later regretted his wish for action. And were the rumours of tighter censorship a hint that the ‘balloon' was indeed about to go up’?

Western Desert, 20 May 1942

“By the way – as per Army Style six pence per day I ‘paid’ to you has been chopped off your allowance and now comes to me – being made up to you by the Army. In actuality I now receive 3/6d per week more pay with I expect a subsequent reduction in the cheque from Sir Thomas St. Net result – you have 3/6d a week less to live on – I have 3/6d per week more to live on. As I haven’t by now the faintest idea what my income is considering War Bonuses, Increments, Income Tax, and innumerable alterations in Army Pay and Allowances I’m afraid I must leave it to you…”

“I wonder how D.J. is progressing? I’ve had little mail this last six weeks – everyone is in the same boat – I don’t know what has happened to it all but there must be a hefty load somewhere. I wonder how you like being all alone again after Gwen and Jess have gone – surely the monotonous daily round must get on your nerves a little? It does out here although we have ‘company’  and at times one wishes the balloon would go up again just as a relief. Not that I often feel that way inclined!”

Western Desert, 25 May 1942

“It is rumoured here that censorship regulations are to be tightened up considerably from our end anyway – I’ll have nothing to say at all shortly. Perhaps before anything drastic is done I had better hint to you that I’m in the Army. I sincerely hope that the infantile card as brilliantly conceived in the last war doesn’t recommence – you know:


I am








I am













in the clink



Cross out that which does not apply



Anything added will lead to this card’s destruction





“I suppose Blighty is now in the heyday of Spring. The olfactory organs so seldom exercised here would have a Field Day at home. Very occasionally whilst on the move here we have charged through light vegetation – the smell as it is crushed under the wheels hits one hard – in Blighty it would go unnoticed. The Moors, the Lakes, I wonder when we’ll see them again Pip mine and if you will ever appreciate what it will mean to me again after this desolation?”

Jim wrote only two letters during the next four weeks and promised a cable that he later confessed he hadn’t managed to send. That and his description of his indifferent accommodation and reference to ‘belting about the Desert’ hint at the Battle that was being waged. It is worth showing for the second time a photograph and its caption that also appear with an earlier letter about the delivery of a new truck.



"The silly grins are intentional but Jerry removed them two or three days later by shoving us all over Egypt. The topee was never worn nor the tin hat.

Love Jim

May 25th '42

Jerry blew the front off 10.30 am 28th with 500lb bomb."


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It was during the night of 26/27 May that German forces under Rommel finally advanced through the desert to the south of the Allied forces and attempted to surround them. The Regimental History reports that on the 28th 'C' Squadron "received a welcome 'B' echelon packet under Sergeant-Major Plumley." Supply packets consisted of "supply vehicles with fuel and ammunition, spare crews to replace casualties, a hot meal packed in hay boxes, and anything else the tanks might have called for." Jim wrote: "28th May as part of this packet I was Stuka hit and my ammo truck knocked out. I was towed into 150 Box and my ammo unloaded. The fitters worked on my truck mainly on the radiator which had a huge hole in it. Much ammo damaged but never exploded or I would not be here! (Cooks made a mug of tea especially for me!)"

The Regimental History again: "The highest praise must be accorded the drivers of the lorries,... who drove their dangerous loads of ammunition and diesel steadily on, regardless of the obvious consequences of a hit by enemy shell-fire", to which Jim added "Seldom recognised by tank crews."

150 Brigade Box was a fortified area between two 20-mile long minefields stretching from the coast at Gazala south into the desert. After continuous enemy pressure the situation became desperate: "our artillery was down to its last forty rounds of ammunition; water was so scarce that it was being drained from the disabled tanks and shared with the infantry; and everyone was exhausted." Jim wrote "May 30th. We were ordered to evacuate our empty trucks. My damaged one was just a runner and I brought out a mixture of men into Tobruk."

Western Desert, 7 June 1942

“By the time this arrives you should have had a Cable to say that to date I’m still whole and comparatively hearty – which is at least something to be cheerful about. Jerry as you know is up to his favourite pastime of endeavouring to make life as uncertain as possible for the maximum number of people with rather indifferent success on the whole. Just before the shemozzle broke out I received letter cards from you dated 5th and 14th May – very good travelling indeed.”

“So D.J. has been introduced to his maternal grandparent – I’m waiting very interestedly to hear the result of the interview – one thing is certain – DJ got the best of it n’est-ce pas?”

“Yesterday we had a thunderstorm and a cloudburst consisting of hailstones about ½ inch in diameter- it lasted about 10 minutes in a constant temp. of about 100 degrees in the shade – and then we talk of freak British weather. Everything was naturally soaked including my bed and I had the dubious pleasure of sleeping in a quagmire in wet blankets – c’est la guerre!”

“Where the devil does Thomas get the petrol from to run CKC? I thought all supplies were stopped for such purposes nowadays – wouldn’t I just love a run to Southport and over Wirral again.”

“Fred has just taken the old bus with a bathing party to the beach. Sounds queer doesn’t it? - with a war on and everything – it isn’t really but of course I can’t give any details. I may say that yesterday was my first decent ‘bath’ since January last.”

This would have been while they were in Tobruk and the beach was conveniently close. Jim recalled that "When in Tobruk Fred met an acquaintance of his now in the Navy. He had a bottle of gin which we decided to 'destroy'. As a result I became quite brave and took my tommy gun out to do Rommel myself, but changed my mind!"

Western Desert, 15 June 1942

“As you can see by the date I’m still alive and kicking albeit rather feebly on this day of Grace 15th June. All previous complaints re the disadvantages of a monotonous existence are hereby cancelled. Me for monotony every time from now on. There is really very little I can say that is allowable. At present I occupy with sundry others a small squarish hole about 18 inches deep with a rickety contraption of ‘waterproof’ sheeting over the top arranged to allow the maximum of air with the minimum of sunshine – the ‘walls’ when touched cascade dust and small stones down the neck or into the ears and eyes – we are grossly overcrowded and a minor dust storm has been blowing this last two days.”

“We have done our fair share of belting about the Desert and for the moment are fairly quiescent – for how long nobody knows…”

“I haven’t the slightest doubt that you know far more about what is going on than we do ourselves as we know precisely nothing.”

“… Blighty is apparently swarming with blokes itching to get a crack at Jerry – let ‘em all come – there’s bags of room and opportunity – satisfaction of a super-saturated type is guaranteed. Am I becoming cynical? I’m sorry darling  - this letter isn’t exactly of the cheerful hail-fellow-well-met type but I suspect you will understand… I’ll do my best to see that D.J. is never called upon in a like capacity.”

Between the dates of the previous two letters the British forces were ordered to evacuate Tobruk. The Regimental History reports that "they left Tobruk for the frontier late on the last afternoon that the road was open." and Jim commented that "We were about the last out!". He also described the journey: "I had a man sitting on the wing to pour water now and then into my 'repaired' radiator and a man on the roof to watch for unfriendly aircraft - or nasties of any kind. A bang on the top was to be a warning to hop it and it happened once when he nearly fell off! We hopped it in all directions!"

The photograph below shows the truck, named "Aristotle", and its passengers having a break during the retreat to Sidi Bishr nearly 400 miles away, on the outskirts of Alexandria.


Aristotle the lorry

There are two captions in different ink on the back. Was the first allowed by the censor and the second added later?

"Aristitle and her passengers at the foot of Hellfire Pass during the retreat from Tobruk June '42, Pip, With all my love, Jim"

"A truly democratic army - the group contains a sgt. major, a sgt, a cook ,a batman, the batt. barber and sundry drivers, gunner and w/operators. Survivors of 'C' Squadron more or less wiped out June 2nd '42"

After the action Jim was able to offer some reassurance to Pip. There are several hints at a change of scenery and a safer location.

Western Desert, 27 June 1942

“… I’m still in the land of the living and I think I may say well out of range of any immediate trouble – for once.”

Pip had sent some money which Jim suspected would not have survived the recent action.

“… it may turn up of course – I hope it does because we are now in a position to spend money for once and a few quid would be very handy.”

“The weather at the moment is quite pleasant not half as hot as this time last year or else I’m more inured to the same – admittedly twenty or thirty miles inland can make and does make a great difference in the temperature – also it varies considerably from East to West I don’t quite understand why.”

About the local insects he wrote:

“… they’re voracious beasts… they gave me a good hammering the first night we arrived – they raise lumps like big boils. It’s grand to see a bit of greenery again and hear a few birds…”

“No doubt you’ve done a bit of worrying the last three or four weeks – well everything has turned out O.K. for me at any rate.”

“Never mind – my next birthday should see this business just about sewn up as neatly as may be. Perhaps that sounds optimistic especially as we’ve had our pants kicked out here but the tendencies count more than the episodes in this affair and Jerry didn’t get it all his own way by a long chalk…”

“Cheerio sweetheart keep the chin up and keep smiling – that’s another lot we’ve got through. With all the love of Your Jim.”

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