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Lumping Cargo for Rommel.

Extracts from Snow Campbell's 1941 Prisoner-of-War Diary:

"The following facts were written in my first diary before I was captured.  Unfortunately this diary was taken from me by the Gestapo men when I was in the camp at Tripoli."  - Snow Campbell.

SPOILS OF WAR

While waiting for the Italians to be chased out of Cyrenaica, we had a lot of spare time on our hands so we had an interesting time looking over the places where the Italians had been.  They had been playing at being soldiers, miles of telephone wires across the desert and into the side of a wadi [dry river channel].  The cliff-side seemed normal enough but caves were cleverly camouflaged by canvas covers painted to fit in with the cliff face.  We also found much equipment and a prized tin of oatmeal.  (I wouldn't like to meet up with any of the men who had to suffer eating it, after my culinary efforts.)  The desert was strewn with empty petrol cans as the army advanced after the Italians.  The captured tanks, trucks and other vehicles had painted on them in large letters "W.O.P." which meant: War Office Possessions.

ROMMEL ATTACKS

Our Squadron was moving up slowly behind the retreating Italian army.  When they were driven past Adjadabia, we set up our base in the Italian civil drome there.  We operated there until the Germans' advance to Tobruk in April 1941.  - We hadn't any knowledge of the German entry into Africa and neither did anyone else at the time.

Our pilots were doing reconnaissance work and were the first to locate the advancing convoy of Germans.  Our Squadron Leader flew over them and they waved to him, and, thinking they were possibly Free French, he circled back and was met with a hail of bullets.  He was not injured but the plane had its share of holes and even his battery was hit.  I sent these details back to our base in Derna with recommendations of what action was needed as directed by the S/Leader, who reported that a great mass of tanks and other vehicles were coming towards El Agheila.

All messages had to be sent in a cipher and before plain language could be used, the operator had to get a signature from the officer.  This he gave, as it was urgent.  The next day I received a message from our main base at Derna to the effect that enemy bombers with high explosive and incendiary bombs accompanied by fighters were expected at 1100.  This message had been given also to 3 Squadron RAAF fighters operating at Benghazi about 80 miles behind us.  By 1100 they were up in the sun near our location waiting and having flown about 80 miles.  I received a further message from the same source with an altered time to be 1200.  Over came two Messerschmitts at about 1145 and they were met by the fighters above.  One was shot down and landed near the edge of the drome.  The other one hurried away.  By this time, their petrol would be running out as the fighters had been waiting so long for the Germans to arrive so they had to return to Benghazi.  It appeared they had done their job.

At 1150 the bombers came over and let a few sticks go but only a few small buildings and a petrol supply left by the Italians was hit.  Quite a lot of flame, smoke and dust filled the air.  The RAAF fighters who had just left, after shooting down one plane, could see all this smoke but could not do anything about it as they were short of petrol and had to return to their base, except one who risked coming back and landing as he didn't have enough fuel to get him home.  During the evening, we listened to the German news service read by Lord Haw Haw, who mentioned the very successful raid on Adgedabia and listed the losses inflicted there.

This raid preceded the German advance and we had to leave this spot to make our way back to Derna.  Our radio communications were made from a large radio van complete with aerial and a charging plant for the batteries. 

ART21152
Wireless tender, Libya.  One of the communication sections of No.3 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force.
Three men off duty warm themselves in the winter sun, the fourth, with headphones, keeps contact with Headquarters. 
Accommodation for the men is seen at the side of the van.  In the background is the mobile battery-charging truck, Antelat, Libya. 
Artist: Frank Norton.  AWM ART21152

So we joined the popular activity of retreating which was so much in evidence at the time and, instead of going along the usual coast road, we pushed into the desert track to Antelat, Msus, Mourer, Barce and on to Derna along the main coast road where our main Squadron was stationed.

The battery-charging system had broken down and we had to jack up a wheel of our Fiat car and belt-drive a generator to do the charging.  Although not the best, it did build up the batteries slightly.  Eric Canning was the brain behind this idea.  Eric was a man you would always want to be on your side, especially when in trouble.

This was April 4th 1941.  We stopped near Antelat to charge the batteries before heading to Msus about 50 miles north east by north where a halt was called.  The personnel involved were the usual staff of a small advanced party.  Towards the evening I received instructions to send a message to Derna where our S/Leader had flown and was expected to return to us the next morning.  The content of the message was:

!Do not return as the landing strip will be in enemy's hands!

This had to be sent in cipher code and the batteries were at the lowest level possible and could just keep the Gen motor going, so the output was very low.  The generator would almost stop when the key was pressed down which meant that power was being taken from the batteries.  They had much difficulty in copying the message at the other end, and after dozens of repeats of words, they finally gave the: !R! - which means received and understood.  The distance and the time factor made it more difficult.

As soon as the message was received we set off for Derna over some of the roughest tracks imaginable and our radio van could not make it and fell over a cliff and all my personal belongings were lost.  I did not hear how the driver fared.

Eric and I kept going in our trusty Fiat sedan and arrived safely at Derna on April 6th.  Further activities were asked of us and we left Derna to go back along the coast road to Mourer and were followed by a truck with other personal.  After travelling for several hours, the party behind caught up with us with the news that the pass before Derna was to be blown up.  They received this information from a Lysander plane from Derna who dropped a message to that effect and to return immediately but by the time they caught up with us, it was too late; so we had to return via the desert track.

When we drove off the main road looking for this track, we met about 10 Australian soldiers about 50 yards off the road and yelled at them if this was the road to Tobruk.  They looked at us and one came nearer and said it was so.  We set off over this rough road and the doors of the car fell off, mudguards also hung loosely but the engine didn't miss a beat, it purred on regardless.  Later we were met by a jeep driven by two Red Caps [Military Police], and they said they were looking for General O'Conner who was supposed to be going this way.  We assured them that he was not on this track.

We continued on and later we saw a few trucks burning and many men were moving about, so we stopped to have a closer look.  We could see many British trucks moving to our left along the branch track to Derna, but at the same time, there were shooting matches going on between other trucks further on.

This section was the road junction to Derna off the road to Tobruk.  A soldier waved us on as if all was OK, so we advanced closer, got out of the car and went up to this officer to find out what was going on.  There were many machine guns and two-pounder guns and a collection of soldiers.  Eric thought they were Free French and was trying out his knowledge of their language.  But I observed his cap and it was a German so I exclaimed to Eric: "They're Jerries!".  So that was it.

He took Eric's prized Luger gun and said that we were prisoners and to follow the other trucks going down into the wadi.  About a mile down the wadi we were surprised to find hundreds of prisoners there on the left side of the track.  Around them was a line of rocks indicating that it was the boundary and the guards there would see that you kept within it.  On the other side of the track were many trucks and wagons and the complete unit of the 2/8th Field Ambulance from South Australia.

We asked them if they wanted any help, and after they spoke to the German in charge, we crossed the road, put on a red cross band and joined in with them, carrying wounded men, digging graves, making crosses and pulling out batteries from the trucks to light up the operating tent.  The services of the doctor were certainly used to the full.  His name was Major R.T. Binns.

More German reinforcements arrived with bigger guns and quickly mounted the hill nearby and trained them on to the Derna drome where our squadron was stationed.  From their vantage point, they could see the drome.

At dawn of the next day, 8 April 1941, one of the recco kites went out on patrol and saw the mass of vehicles below, banked and went back to spread the news.  The drome, after the shelling next morning, evacuated and left in a hurry.  They thought they were being bombed from planes but could not see any about.

After a few days, the whole unit with the patients were carted in to the Derna hospital which had been put out of action.  There were some terrible shot-up men and natives coming in and the doctor and his staff did a marvellous job.  Here I met Ted Broomhead who was a Methodist Minister in Adelaide and I got to know all the boys very well.

Bill Kelly, one of the men of the unit decided to escape and he had been watching a small rowing boat anchored near the jetty.  We went over the wall, evading the roaming Italian guard, and waded through the shallow water to the boat and we moved on.  The boat was full of water but a handy empty four gallon tin was there, so we used it for bailing-out purposes.

Before we reached the water, we had to pass over what might be called the beach which was feet thick with a seaweed which was the same colour as the army greatcoats we were wearing. The softness and the colour of the seaweed helped us to quietly pass a nearby Machinegun post.  I climbed into the boat and Bill pushed it to the end of the jetty with the water almost up to his chest, and then we slowly rowed some distance before we started bailing out the water.

We rowed until dawn, came ashore and stayed in a cave let into the cliffs.  We ate a bit of food, which Bill had provided, and slept.  Then we had to mend the hole in the boat, make a mast out of a stretcher rail and a ground sheet, and arrange a rudder by tying an oar to the end of the boat.  All these bits and pieces were collected at the hospital by Bill who was also an experienced sailor.  We decided to stay there for the day and leave at night, but the winds were not in our favour so we stayed in the cave for another day and did a bit of swimming in the clear water.

The next night was OK and we sailed along until just about dawn, landed, and prepared to stay the day there.  We didn't know where we were, except that land was near.  When dawn broke, we were dismayed to find that we were very near the lighthouse at Bomba.  We packed up quickly and moved on to a small piece of rocky land a few hundred yards out to sea and laid low in what appeared to be some kind of a disused grave.  Covered by a ground sheet, we waited until darkness before our next move which was to get to Tobruk.

We knew that Tobruk was surrounded by the Germans and could be entered from the sea only.  On the 4th night we set sail again heading east and guided by the stars. During the night a big storm blew up with waves up to six feet at times.  We had to grimly fight with the rudder to keep on course.  One used the rudder and the other kept bailing, changing places frequently.  Gradually the storm abated and the sun was coming up, so we could see the coast and later men running over the sands and swimming.  The boat just drifted shorewards in the shallow water and the swimmers waded out to us - not Australians but Germans!  We had landed three miles behind the German lines.

We could see the familiar tower at Tobruk.  We were taken to the officers.  Names etc were taken, but we didn't tell them that we had escaped but that we had been working our way from Benghazi.  He could not believe we could have passed through the German and Italian lines.  We said it was no trouble to us.  He wasn't convinced at all and wanted to know what ship we were on.

Bill and I were separated here and I was flown to Tripoli by the Luftwaffe as I was RAAF.  Sent to Derna drome and while waiting for a plane, Hitler himself with all his doting followers arrived on an inspection of the glorious fighters for the cause.  He pointed to me and it was explained to him how I came to be there.  He didn't burst into tears.

I arrived in Tripoli about the 16th or 17th of April 1941. 

Thurs 7 May 1941...

We all crowded into a small building, hot, dirty and hungry after our stay in Sabrather, where we stayed for about two weeks.  Everything is in a shambles and disorder.  The future not too bright but we expect to sent over to Italy and we will be pleased to get away from the dust and heat.

Working parties arranged.  German trucks come and men taken out to work.  I go to the docks.  Heavy job carrying shells and boxes.  Germans hurrying everybody to work harder.  Our bodies are very brown and a German soldier believes we are a dark race.  That we were from Australia supported his belief.  One man rolled his shorts down to show that we were white.

In the coming months, we worked at petrol dumps handling 44 gallon drums and jerry-cans by the thousands.  Also in ammunition dumps.  The better place was the food stores.  Here in the food store we managed by devious ways to acquire quite a lot of good food.  The guards were always on the alert, but we did very well in the circumstances.  It was a constant battle with the guards.  We had to eat it on the spot as we couldn't bring it back with us to the camp.  We would empty our water bottles and fill them with sugar or any other similar foods.

When the German trucks arrived, it could be at any hour - and mostly 4 to 6 am, there would be a rush to get into the truck going to the food store and little enthusiasm for the harder jobs.  Later, the Germans took the whole camp over and used it as a working camp for the benefit of their cause.  They soon organised the truck situation by forming ten squads of 30 men, which alternated between the various work places.

Later, we met up with the men from the 2/8 Field Ambulance with whom we worked in the desert and in the Derna hospital.  It was like meeting lost brothers again.  Despite their position as medical men, they had to work just as hard as the others.  Many protests were made to the Officer in Charge and we drew his attention to the requirements of the Geneva Convention relating to medical people.  They have to be treated differently and not as prisoners of war and had to be repatriated home.  They scoffed at the suggestion and even tried to quieten the objectors.

It did not seem that we were to be sent to Italy.  We accepted our fate that we would be working for the Germans until the end of the war.  We had to grin and bear it, and make the most of our position.  We always put on a cheerful manner as if we were happy, the boys sang and joked as they worked; to such an extent, that they forbade us to sing while moving around in the trucks.  The guards could not understand our carefree attitudes.  My own thoughts were that we were prisoners and had failed in our mission, and this was the punishment we deserved.  It helped a lot.

Most of the prisoners were from the English armies, about 50 Australians and a few big happy chaps from the Sudan.  I don't know how they came to be there.  At times many more men arrived, but it seemed they were culled out and only the fittest were kept for working purposes.  We had so many grim hours of working hard, long hours, little food and of poor quality.

Those who fell out were sent away and only the fit men were kept on.

Ted Broomhead, the Minister from South Australia, played an important part in helping the men by keeping the religious services going, but he did not come out to work with us but stayed in the camp doing lighter duties in keeping with his calling and worked in the so-called canteen, which was like the pub without beer.  He also organized concerts, divine services and lectures and he had a great flair for story-telling.  Yes, Ted certainly made a great impression.

So the months dragged on.  Work, more work, less and less food, always being forced to hurry.  Little sympathy offered or understood by the guards except the elder men and those who had come back from the front lines and the transport drivers.  Many amusing situations created by the prisoners at the expense of the guards.  Many of the guards also joined in with the pilfering of food - especially the chocolate - and we had caught them at it.

We were able to glean the war news from transport drivers and the manner of the guards.  Things are not the best with their cause.  Some openly claimed that the Allies would win the war.  When the Germans first came to help the Italians, they were chasing the British out of Cyrenaica; the Italians almost worshiped them and it was noticed that the Italian drivers of their huge diesel trucks would move over to let German trucks and cars pass them.  Many other similar gestures were noted.

When they only got as far as Tobruk and seemed to have come to a standstill, there was a big change.  The drivers would look straight ahead without noticing the oncoming German vehicles and the Germans had to move over.

Actually the Italians in the past had got further than that.  The Italians would indicate their dislike for the Germans, by saying "Germans non bono" and run their hand across their throats indicating the obvious throat cutting action.  They really hated the Germans for their efficiency and arrogance, whereas the Germans ridiculed the Italians as stupid hopeless soldiers.  There certainly was great dislike between them.  Some of the Germans would say England and Germany are close friends enforcing their remarks by showing their index fingers.  This is Germany with left forefinger, and the right forefinger was England and then they would bring the fingers together as uniting nations.

 

MORE ABOUT TRIPOLI ... 1941

Most of the men were captured wearing shirts and shorts.  The rough work soon played havoc with them, and had to be replaced with clothes more serviceable.  They were issued with well-worn German soldiers' clothes, which had been worn by men who have been killed.  I was given an officer's uniform complete with the appropriate epaulettes.  It was in very good condition and fitted me well.  I had to voluntarily remove these indications of rank, because as I moved around the various dumps I was saluted by many German soldiers, many who had been lounging around and they jumped up hurriedly and saluted me.  I could have walked out of the dump without a challenge.

We were standing by a stack of ammunition with a German sergeant and a smart dispatch rider on a motor bike and side car stopped, dismounted and came up to us, and straight to me and gave me the most brilliant salute possible.  I realized what an embarrassing situation could arise so I quickly looked over my shoulder as if the salute was meant for somebody behind me.  Explanations followed, but the sergeant in charge had a good laugh about it; after the rider left I then took of the epaulettes and joined the ranks.

The natives here had little love for the Italians but hated the Germans.  They were ill-treated physically, beaten with sticks, kicked and punched and also their movements restricted in their own country.  I have seen this happen so many times.

Many amusing situations arose at the food stores.  To list them all would be a full story but it was a battle of wits between the guards and the men, in some cases a few guards found that if you can't beat them, join in with them.  If you appeared to be working, you were not noticed.  "Paddles" Law, a Sydney man, is an example.  A truck of tinned fruit was being unloaded into one of the stores and men were carrying the cases on their shoulders so Paddles joined in, picked up a case and started to walk towards the door but continued on to the next door which led into the storage of flour where we were working.  The fruit was great.

Later on, a German officer had some complaint and he laid the law down to Paddles in no uncertain manner.  Paddles could not get a word in, so he simply kept replying with the usual word for, "yes sir".  When it was all over, we asked him what the officer said - to which he replied "I haven't a clue".

We make light of the situations, but it was no picnic.  Most of the time we had to work up to 20 hours per day, in all weathers and with very little food.  The war situation was such that the Germans forced us to work and they had 300 slaves to do it for them.  We bore up with it but many were unable to cope and were sent away.

 

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