Desert Conditions and Dust Storms

 

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Over the next few months Jim's letters continued to feature more problems of desert living including the changing weather conditions he experienced as the seasons progressed. At this time he was moving about rather frequently, although he could only refer to this in a roundabout way, for example saying that a bunch of mail has just caught up with him. Each letter began with an update on recent arrivals so that Pip would know which of her letters had not yet been delivered. Remarkably, there seem to have been few total failures in either direction but sometimes the delay was considerable. By January Jim was reunited with Fred Stannier, assigned as second driver for his lorry.

Inside the lorry

On the back of this photograph probably dating from 1943 Jim has written:

"Home sweet home for 2 years.

The inside of a well-kept Tech Store truck - unloaded!"

Western Desert, 1 January 1942

"The weather is still deteriorating and we usually have rain at night – however we have acquired the art of keeping dry although we sleep in the open and don’t fare so badly. For the last three days we have been living like Lords – at least comparatively speaking – bread, potatoes fresh meat etc. is quite a change from bully stew and biscuits. I received a bunch of mail about 10 days ago much to my surprise and although a large chunk is missing between Sept 17 and early Nov. at least I have news now up to Nov 25th."

 

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"Christmas day we spent in a little wadi somewhere in the W.D. and although rations were the usual we did manage some extra fags and the boss managed to present each one of us with a Present which I for one did not expect. Quite a comfortable day on the whole – nice and lazy and undisturbed by unfriendly acts."

Jim began to wonder if he was being “spared the harrowing details” of life in Liverpool when he read letters from home.

Western Desert, 7 January 1942

"… when News is so uniformly good from Home (as it has been) one naturally begins to wonder. Knowing Mother’s state of health for instance it will be the first six months for years during which she has been constantly well! Rather a coincidence n’est-ce pas?"

He enjoyed Pip’s accounts of everyday things that he missed so much and wished he had similar descriptions to write about.

"One doesn’t miss the city or the theatre or the car or pleasure or leisure – nor work of course but just the little things which normally pass unnoticed."

Lorries in the desert

"Life out here varies not a jot from day to day in its essentials. It consists of looking after a lorry, driving it when necessary eating when possible, sleeping and doing guards."

"Perhaps the Puzzle of the Cat will interest you. Driving one day in echelon miles from anywhere I passed a Cat – a large cat lying under some scrub sunning itself. It was like a small leopard and was profoundly disinterested in the lorry which passed not 10 ft. from it. Does one find leopards or any feline in deserts? ...it definitely was a cat – yellow with brown spots as big as a shilling."

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It sounds like a cheetah from this description and if so it would have been a rare sighting. They are thought to be nearly extinct now in the Western Desert.

The missing letters arrived and Jim reported an injury that may have prompted his arthritis in later years.

Western Desert, 14 January 1942

"Woman Dear,
I’m sorry I haven’t written for a week but I’ve been away from the Squadron for 4 or 5 days on a job which believe me was all work and no play. However when I got back there was a nice little pile of Mail waiting for me. Letters ranged from Sept 27th to Nov 7th (with gaps)."

"Three days ago whilst performing a gymnastic feat off a lorry I succeeded in dislocating my ankle (right or near side). It wasn’t serious and went back easily but I have discovered all the disadvantages of having only one and a half legs in this kind of life."

After reporting the arrival of more long overdue mail, Jim told a supposedly true story. He then commented on supply, movements and the promise of leave. He also appeared to refer to family losses from bomb damage in Liverpool but the details are not known.

Western Desert, 18 January 1942

"An Italian Officer of the Alpenieri or however it is spelt was captured complete with the big hat and feather. His remarks by way of excuse apparently for giving in rather easily were – No snow, no ‘ills, no skis and zis ‘at. Imposseeble!”

"Fred and I have just finished off a large tin of peaches – we have done well for tinned tit-bits lately…  the cigarette state is also very satisfactory."

"We are – by the way – on the move again and it is four days since I started this letter. I add bits as time permits but the present wagon needs lots of time.... The running on our side was more or less local and due to the inevitable mix-up - at the beginning of things both sides got all meshed up like a jigsaw puzzle and rolling joyfully into the other bloke’s camp became the rage. Both sides were upset at this so the practice died out."

"Dad seems to have taken his losses very well indeed. I suppose it’s part of the price we must pay but it is very hard on an old man to see something he has laboured on for forty or fifty years go west in a night or two."

"This letter is now about 8 or 9 days old… According to the scanty news we get Mr Rommel is attempting a comeback. I doubt if he’ll get far."

Actually Rommel would lead a major offensive later in the Spring.

Brewing up

On the reverse of the photograph Jim wrote:

"Brewing up!

The fearsome weapon I'm wielding is a machete used to chop our way through the luxuriant undergrowth seen in the background!"

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"Frederick S. is “brewing up” on a fire of scrub which emits an odour of camel dung – the smell is a vile one but it is the only burnable material we have. It also emits waves of pungent smoke."

"Presto! I have just been informed that I go on leave tomorrow – heigh for the fleshpots awhile… 3 days to get there, 5 days there and 3 back."

Just before Jim’s leave, he was caught in a dust storm that he described in an airmail letter written to Pip during his leave.

Western Desert, 2 February 1942

"It was the great-grandfather of storms. The atmosphere for 4hrs before the low level storm broke was a brilliant orange and no shadows were cast. There must have been a layer of sand and dust high up between the sun and the earth. Then the low one burst on us – it was impossible to open the eyes or mouth – the wagon canvas split from top to bottom and it was impossible to see the road. Langford drove us for over 40 miles through it L.O.K. how and then the carburettor packed up in spite of Air Cleaners, etc. Next morning it took us 2½ hrs to get her going again – even the distributor was bunged up and we couldn’t get a spark to the plugs. I don’t want another like it. It lasted about 14 hrs altogether."

Then a similar experience after his leave.

Western Desert, 1 March 1942

"The weather at the moment is lousy – dust storm after dust storm day after day – equinoctial disturbances I suppose. A few days ago I went out alone to a place about 20 miles distant. I should have been back for lunch but actually rolled in about 9 pm. in 2nd gear. I couldn’t even see the lorry’s nose and drove for miles hanging out of the cab to catch occasional glimpses of the track – faint at the best of times. Then I conked out altogether and was 3 hrs (spent in brewing tea) before I got a tow behind a tank. New distributor points managed to get me back in 2nd but it took me all the next day to get the bus firing again properly – c’est la guerre. As I write the wind is rocking the bus and I can’t see 20 yards in any direction. The wind comes from all over the compass – always bringing sand and dust."

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