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"NINE DAYS ABSENT"

Escape Report by: SERGEANT-PILOT NORM CALDWELL

MEC0369
Kairouan, Tunisia. c. 19 April 1943.  Pilot Norm Caldwell of No. 3 Squadron, RAAF
climbing into his Curtiss P40 Kittyhawk aircraft.  [AWM MEC0369
]

1st Day: 14 Jan 1943

I was leading a section of six aircraft as close cover to 18 bombers.  My instructions were to try and keep immediately above and slightly ahead of the formation in an endeavour to ward off expected frontal attacks.

I had great difficulty in keeping up with them, and did not get into position until we were crossing the coast and heading west.  Soon afterwards, enemy aircraft were reported above and below the formation.

The first attacks were made on the bombers shortly after we had received some heavy A/A, probably from the Tauorga area.  I was concentrating my attention forward, and did not see the first two attacks, although top-cover reported A/C coming down.

As the first 109 pulled up, I was able to follow it and get in a good burst from 300 yards.  I got back into position again in time to get a similar shot at a second 109.  If I had damaged either of these A/C the bombers would have reported it, as I was immediately above them, two to three thousand feet.

After the second burst I found myself slightly behind the formation and trying to catch up, weaving violently.

I saw a Kittyhawk right up my tail, so straightened up in an endeavour to get back to them.

Immediately I did so a cannon shell exploded near the nose of the kite and glycol started to pour out.  I took violent evasive action and headed in a southerly direction.  In the violent weaving which followed I lost all sense of my position.

Just before I crash-landed I passed over a small Arab Village.  Through endeavouring to get my wheels down, I just missed a small patch of clear ground, and had to carry on until my motor packed up over very bad country, consisting of sandhills about 10 feet high.

Just before hitting I was able to turn off my petrol.  I hit my head somewhere in the cockpit and was knocked unconscious, probably for 10 to 15 minutes as my head had stopped bleeding when I awoke and the blood was beginning to congeal.

After I got out of the aircraft I wandered around for a few minutes collecting my senses and then got the medical kit out and dressed my wound.  I tried to get the compass out but had some trouble with the screws, and, as I was in a bit of pain, I gave it up as a bad job and set off in an easterly direction.

I had the spare water bottle and rations and took one Benzedrine pill and commenced taking the sulph. pills according to directions.

I walked steadily east, with frequent rest pauses, until what I judged to be about midnight, when I found a clump of trees and camped for the night.  About three miles west was a cluster of four searchlights where some of our A/C were dropping flares and from which a good deal of A/A came up.  I thought that this was Gheddahis.

During the night there was a great deal of what I took to be shelling on, and, from observing the flashes and waiting on the explosion, I calculated this to be 15 miles east of me.

 

2nd Day: 15 Jan 1943

I lay in my bush all the next day and, during the afternoon several 109s were strafing north of me.  I was not certain whether they were strafing the road or practice shooting, as it turned out, it must have been the latter.

I had been thinking things over during the day and decided that, as the ration position was O.K. and I had nearly a full bottle, that I would remain where I was for a day or two until the water position got worse, and then head north for the road.

Several staff cars crossed the desert several miles away during the day, and towards night I saw fires from a camp about 3 miles away, so I decided to investigate.  I got to within 300 yards of the place - it turned out to be a convoy and did not look friendly, so I retraced my steps again.  I could not find my trees again, and feeling OK, I made the fatal mistake of trying to walk home.

In the first couple of hours I passed two camps which I decided were not friendly.  Then I crossed a deep wadi - presumably Zemzem - and walked along this in an endeavour to find water, but did not have any luck, so, after going south for several miles I headed east again, passing through two large deserted camp sites.

After walking for several hours I came across a deserted tank (German), and a little further on what looked like two bodies, although I did not feel disposed to investigate closely.  By this time, however, I was confident that the Hun had retreated or I had walked through his lines.

All night a road 7 or 8 miles to the north of me was being bombed and I thought it probable that it was the last of the enemy stuff going out.

Some time later, some flares and bombs were dropped about 3 miles south of me, so I decided to investigate.  I walked for some time and did not find any sign of life. Although I passed through a cluster of small trees several acres in extent and there were dozens of places like underground tanks cemented over.  I could not see any opening in them and presumed that it was a cemetery of some description.

After I decided that I had missed the place where the bombing took place, I headed east once more. I was pretty fagged out by now, and took the last of my tablets without much effect.  About an hour or so after the moon went down I came to another camp and saw a jeep and one of our 3-ton trucks.

There was a chap sleeping in the back of it and I woke him up, being sure that I had been rescued.  When I found that he could not speak English, I immediately thought to myself, "Ha! Free French."

When he understood that I was an Australian Sgt. Pilot, he hopped out of the truck and patted me on the back and shook my hand.  By this time I had "had it" - reaction and fatigue, probably - and he half-carried me across to wake his C.O.  On the way he spoke to a couple of guards something about Sgt. Pilot.

They patted me on the back and took my revolver away.  I thought at this time that this must be a French way to guard their C.O.  They took me to their C.O., and I tried to make him understand that I was an Australian Sgt. Pilot and had been shot down and walked a long way.  He said something to them and they took me away.

 

Third Day: 16 Jan 1943

I woke up at dawn and there were two chaps waiting in a jeep to take me, as I thought, back to my squadron.  Firstly they woke up the doctor who bandaged my wound.  Then I tried to get back my revolver, but could not find it.

They drove me to H.Q. then, and I was beginning to get a bit peeved, and when they found the intelligence officer, I told him I had force-landed and walked a long way and was just getting warmed up when I suddenly realised he had a German uniform on; and, realising that I was a P.O.W., I died ten deaths in 3 minutes.

He gave me a cigarette and a drink of coffee, and then started his interrogation.  At the time I had forgotten what I had said early in the morning, and I refused to tell my squadron or to give any other answers.

Shortly after this, the officer came over from the place where I had given myself up, and then held an official investigation, taking my name, number, rank, squadron and wing, and unfortunately the only document I had on me - an envelope (no letter) addressed to my wife which I had overlooked when going through my pockets after the crash.  Incidentally, during this questioning they took my photo.  I did not know whether this was in order or not, and at this time I was beyond caring about anything except my foolishness in becoming a P.O.W.

The Lieutenant in charge of the battery (the markings of which were the figures: "5/4z" - the five contained in a red circle) spoke a little English, but beyond passing the time of day, did not speak to me very much during my stay with them.

 

Fourth Day: 17 Jan 1943

We left this camp and travelled all night, stopping about 10 o'clock a few miles south of the road on an open plain, near several abandoned stone houses.  Just after we stopped, two Hurricanes flew over, and I heard the 20 mm. in action for the first time, and couldn't get close enough to the ground.  We moved out from here early in the afternoon as there was some shelling going on south of us, and travelled off the main road most of the time.  In the evening we arrived at a small town with an open aqueduct running through it and camped for the night.

 

Fifth Day: 18 Jan 1943

The next morning we moved on again and stopped about a mile north of the road in hilly country close to the sea. I think somewhere in the neighbourhood of Homs. They settled down here, apparently expecting to be somewhat permanent.

 

Sixth Day: 19 Jan 1943

Two Hurricanes appeared in the morning from the east and turned back just before they got within range of our guns, as they got much A/A from further east.  The lieutenant told me that he had at last arranged transport for me to the prison camp, and in the afternoon the guard took me down to the road but when the truck arrived it was full, and they had no room for me - my first stroke of luck.

 

Seventh Day: 20 Jan 1943

The Hurricanes again appeared in the morning, and we again pulled out early in the afternoon, and moved about 20 miles west, pulling in south of the bitumen road and 200 yards off it.  Incidentally, although we were never bombed at night, there were planes overhead.

 

Eighth Day: 21 Jan 1943

Dive-bombed by six Kittyhawks apparently bombing M/T on the road about one mile west.  The bombs fell on the other side of a hill about 800 yards away, and I was unable to observe results, although, as I went past later in the day, there was a burnt-out truck on the side of the road.  About ten o'clock they stopped a truck going past on the road and put me on board with some Highland Division prisoners.

We travelled all day, and later in the afternoon they stopped an Italian ambulance and transferred a few wounded chaps to it.  As my head was still bandaged, I got on board too and we were taken to an Italian hospital just out of Tripoli.  I tried to look sick and got into bed but didn't bargain on them taking my clothes away.

 

Ninth Day: 22 Jan 1943

In the morning, some orderlies came in and showered us and evacuated a few patients.  Then the orderlies kept coming in with sweets and cigarettes and saying "English bon" so we decided that it was only a matter of lying quiet and waiting.

One of the orderlies gave us to understand that the Germans had left and, as the demolition had all ceased, I decided that my luck had come good.

There were still a few trucks going west along the road, but about midnight we heard some armoured cars going east and we knew our troubles were over.

MED1237
Tripolitania, Libya. 26 January 1943. An aerial view of Axis transport streaming in a long line
along the road to Zuara during the retreat from Tripoli.  
The shadows cast by the vehicles hurrying westward look like an avenue of trees beside the road.  
[AWM
MED1237]

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