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Bob and Felix left Fremantle on the Queen Elizabeth on 1 July 1941, with 40 new ground-crew being posted to 3SQN. They arrived in Egypt five weeks later, then moved north by train to join 3SQN at Rayak, Syria on 7 August 1941.
There was a glorious 3-month lull while the Squadron rested at Rayak following their recent Syrian victory, but soon enough they were back in the Egyptian desert, attacking Rommel in Operation Crusader.
They then bore Rommel’s counter-attacks: the Battle of Gazala, The Battle of the Cauldron and the long retreat to Alamein (where three gigantic battles raged one after the other).
- Then finally the Squadron's long successful advance from November 1942, west to Tunisia.
Bob, Felix and their original group were posted back from 3 Squadron on 29 March 1943, and travelled by truck and tramp-steamer to Alexandria and then on to Port Suez.
They finally left Africa on 15 June 1943, on HMT Nieuw Amsterdam - direct to Fremantle, arriving on 1 July. Bob finished his RAAF service in Australia as a Corporal, his last day being 5 October 1945.
Bob passed away on Friday 25 August 2017. He had been very frail for a long time, but also quite resilient. However, over his last fortnight or so, Bob suffered with a chest problem that he just couldn't beat…
In memory of Bob, his family have sent in the following illustrated stories regarding his Desert service with No.3 Squadron:
“...One time, myself and Bob Blackley were detailed to dig a latrine. I really don't know why, because we were never on the one airstrip for too long, before we had to move further up the line.
The hole we dug would have been covered with what was known as a “thunder box”. It had five holes in it, so that five gents could use it as a toilet. (Someone to talk to!)
This latrine was 10 feet long and we were down more than 6 feet deep when we heard lots of traffic movement, with trucks and planes revving their engines. We kept digging, Bob at one end and me at the other, until curiosity got the better of me.
I stood on my shovel and took a look out… Because suddenly things had gone very quiet...
Bob GRAY and Bob BLACKLEY sitting in a trench.
(Dug for cover from Axis bombing and strafing.)
- Lo and behold, there wasn't anything left! All the tents had gone, all the planes had gone, all the trucks had gone and all the airmen had gone.
And there's Bob and me, all alone! There had been a Retreat! (The Germans had broken the line and were coming!)
Luck was with us, though, as we were picked up by the last truck coming from another Squadron. - Had he not stopped for us, Bob and I would have ended up in some Stalag in Germany, or worse!”
“...After the Army halted the Germans, we went forwards towards Benghazi. While in Benghazi I discovered two little piglets; starving. They were all ribs, the NZ'ers had shot their mother for food.
Being an animal lover, I felt pity for them. I managed to get an old tea-chest, which I carried them in for months. The tea-chest was their shelter, sunk halfway into the ground so they wouldn't get any bomb blast from German bombs (mainly at night). The enemy dropped parachute flares of hundreds of candlepower over our area - so bright we used to read newspapers. - The pigs thought it was daytime, and out they came, grunting for food.
Bob and his mate Max in Tunisia,
washing the squealing piglet “Bobbie”.
The poor little fellows had a sad end; when we were at the end of our two years of the African Campaign, we were posted back to Australia. I asked a Squadron chap if he would care for the little pigs and he said he would. After we had left for Aussie, this 'gent' sold them to the Officers’ Mess and they were killed soon after. Fresh meat was not on our menu, but I'll bet the officers enjoyed the feast!”
“In mid-April 1943 we were sent down to a rickety old wharf, to board a rusty old tramp steam-ship that was heading east. It needed a good paint job.
- Its name was ‘Neuralia’ and it had about 1,200 Italian prisoners aboard. We were put on guard duty. The POWs were right below the waterline and we were instructed to keep them down if we were torpedoed. (And of course we would die too!)
The prisoners had not eaten for seven days. One of them could speak a little English and he asked me if I could get some biscuits or food from the Canteen. We were forbidden to do this, but having a lot of Italian friends in Kalgoorlie, I felt sorry for them and took the risk and bought a large armful of biscuits from the Canteen. The biscuits lasted just a few minutes; I've never seen food go so fast in my life.
The chap that asked me to get the food was so grateful that he took off the ring he was wearing and gave it to me. - I still wear the ring today.
It’s stamped ‘Addis Ababa’. - This soldier had bought the ring when he was one of Mussolini's soldiers that fought against the Abyssinians. Addis Ababa was their capital city.”
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