Life in the Desert









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Towards the end of 1941 Jim's letters described further the life and boredom of the desert and only hinted at his involvement in the activities of the war with censor approved comments such as "Our scurryings hither and thither are just about finished for a while and we have at last rejoined the battalion." (1 Jan 1942) In fact he expressed more concern for Pip in Liverpool when bombing began again than he did for his own safety. "I hear there have been one or two more air raids on the old city - I hope that everything is still OK there - this life certainly teaches one the virtues of patience - of a necessity."


Desert tracks

Desert tracks

Western Desert, 23 October 1941

"I tried the Primus the other day and after considerable difficulty persuaded it to work on Diesel Oil. I immediately had to put it out to attend to Willy's wants. Willy or Capt. Williamson is our boss (not big chief boss of the 44th but our particular boss) and a very good man indeed. He appeared just as I was gloating over my success and was peeling an onion or two to fry. He could (and many would) have said (a) Who gave permission to pinch Diesel? (b) Where did I pinch the onions? (c) Where did I pinch the margarine? and the biscuits? and the beans? (d) Who gave me permission to cook meals when I should be working? (e) Didn't I know it was illegal to burn a naked flame in a truck or for that matter within 10 yards of one? Instead he just grinned and said "I'm sorry but I want to check your load." Four days later I threw away the onions and started again..."

He explained how he acquired the margarine.

"When driving one day in convoy I observed a tin shoot from a 15 cwt truck in front of me as it went over a particularly large boulder. I stopped of course and retrieved the same as I drew level. The usual procedure in such an emergency is to run frantically round the truck and gaze earnestly beneath it or perhaps kick a tyre to convince any watching Big Bang that one suspected something wrong and was justified in stopping the convoy. If one stops we all stop. Then one climbs in (+ tin) and proceeds merrily - it was margarine."

Surprisingly, pets were cultivated occasionally.

"My second driver Frank Ringrose - a new one - is busy looking for a corpse - the earthly remains of one Bardolph - a mouse. We found him - where he came from no one knows - he hopped rather like a rabbit - had a pink nose and expressive large eyes - he lived on biscuits and cheese. He used to creep under Jock's blankets at night and sleep against his leg. He has vanished believed killed when I had to load up hurriedly the other day..."

The Regimental History has a few things to say about becoming accustomed to the unfamiliar conditions of desert life. "At first the water seemed almost undrinkable, being heavily chlorinated, but we became used to it, although many went down with 'gyppy tummy', a mild form of dysentery. The weather was very hot and the fine sand was everywhere, but the worst burden was the fly, which seemed much more pertinacious than the English fly and made the nose and mouth its chief target."

Jim underlined "mild" and wrote "I got it when I came back from S.A. I didn't find it at all mild!". He also added: "I suppose getting 'gyppo guts' could be said to have saved my life - when I returned from S.A. I was put on a tank in C squadron. When I went sick I was sent to hospital. While there 'my' tank was lost in its first action - all crew killed including my 'stand in'."

This happened at Sidi Resegh, about 25 miles from Tobruk, on 25 November during Operation "Crusader". The Regimental History reports that on the same day "Capt. Williamson now took over command of 'C' Squadron", presumably after casualties amongst the officers. ('Willy', referred to earlier, was soon to be promoted to major.)

Jim contracted his "mild dose of dysentery" in October and spent several weeks in hospital at Tel el Kebir, not returning to his Unit until late November.

Hospital visit 1941

There were to be no more entries on Jim's service record until June 1943.

Western Desert, 2 November 1941

"It is very pleasant to sleep in a bed wiv' springs and sheets and a pillow but it's not so nice existing on a dysentery diet..."

Whilst in hospital he met someone he knew from University days.

"You should know him - he was the first to call you a fuzzy-haired brunette - in the Union one dance night - Sammy Hall or should I say Major Hall R.A.M.C. He looks just the same as when I saw him last which must be five or six years ago."

(In the margin of the Regimental History Jim wrote about this coincidence and added "We had a great discussion about 'desert sores' and their cause which as far as I know was never solved." )

In the letter he referred to his son's first official engagement.

"I really enjoyed your last letter - somehow the descriptive bits were very vivid especially about D.J. and his christening - he sounds lusty enough at all events and you appear to be enjoying yourself with him - for the which I am truly grateful."

Christmas Airgraph from 1941

Well before Christmas Jim sent off a seasonal Airgraph to Pip and D.J. These appear to have taken about three weeks to be delivered so, hopefully, November 7th was early enough.

The Airgraph process began as a message on a form which was then photographed. With 1600 messages on 100 ft. of film they were easily transported back to England where they could be printed out, put into envelopes and sent to the recipients.

The message reads: "Here's wishing us both a Happier New Year. My love is with you and little D.J. - always."



After he returned to the Unit he wrote an Air Mail Letter Card which came as close as the censor would allow to announcing what he was up to.

Western Desert, 27 November 1941

"I suppose you know what is going on here far better than I do - we get no news of any kind about what is happening elsewhere... We are living practically exclusively on bully and biscuits with an odd pilchard thrown in - however it could be a lot worse. Jerry is getting a bit of his own medicine for a change... It gets quite chilly here at night - in fact damn' cold and sleeping in the open has little to recommend it... With a four or five days' old beard and nil washes I look positively vicious... this isn't bad campaigning country as far as weather is concerned - one can at least rely on being dry most of the time...I'll write as often as I can but it may be a bit irregular for a while. Always remember No News is Good."

Living conditions at this time are illustrated below, although the photograph was probably taken later.

Western Desert, 4 December 1941


Bivvy tent

"Fred and I are sharing a bivvy tent at the moment - dimensions 6 x 2½ x 4 ft - as he is as big as me the result is rather a crush - in fact we excavate a hole first and stretch the tent over the top."

On the reverse of the picture Jim wrote the following.

"Home sweet home. Note chunks of limestone. It took us 2 days sweated labour to dig this 'ole."


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