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To War With The Bays: 27 - At the Foot of Hell-Fire Pass

...As we moved forward the desert was a scene of destruction and desolation - burned out trucks and tanks, dead German and Italian soldiers, guns and equipment strewn everywhere. Then came hundreds of soldiers, mostly Italians, streaming across the desert shouting and waving their arms. We moved through them urging them past us for the infantry to collect and put in POW camps...

Jack Merewood tells of days of combat in the North African desert.

After a short respite, during which the Regiment was reorganised and reinforced, at 1 a.m. on 2 November we were under way, travelling all night. The choking dust was so thick it was impossible to see more than a yard or two ó and was responsible for our having an accident.

Our tank hit the one in front, and the one behind ran into us. Though there was little damage to the tank, Colin was knocked unconscious, and Nobby had a bad cut on the head. The fitters' truck came up, the tank was left where it was, and we were all taken four miles back to 'B' Echelon (the area where the trucks etc. were) so that Nobby and Colin could have medical attention. The M.O. also said they needed a rest.

We were sent a new tank commander, Lieutenant Dallas, and a driver, from 'B' Squadron, and were told to stay where we were the remainder of the night. We'd go back to the tank later.

After just a couple of hours' sleep we were ready to move, but I wasn't feeling too good and Lieutenant Dallas sent for the M.O. who decided that I needed a rest as well, so another gunner was sent in my place. Jimmy Turner and Bob Buckland were also there on the sick list.

I had a welcome rest, but a brief one. Next day I was on the move with the fitters' truck, following the tanks. We caught them up and I was back in my old seat alongside the 75 mm.

Meanwhile the enemy were still fighting but on the retreat, being harassed all the way. As we moved forward the desert was a scene of destruction and desolation - burned out trucks and tanks, dead German and Italian soldiers, guns and equipment strewn everywhere. Then came hundreds of soldiers, mostly Italians, streaming across the desert shouting and waving their arms. We moved through them urging them past us for the infantry to collect and put in POW camps.

The German supply lines had been stretched to the limit. Now they were short of vehicles, and as they retreated they just left the Italians behind.

We had little rest when it was dark, for enemy aircraft flew over and dropped bombs and flares all night long. Rockets were going up - another firework display, but though the bombs dropped near we escaped being hit.

We pushed on, the Germans fighting a rearguard action. From time to time we ran into pockets of resistance, one German anti-tank gun holding us up for half a day. They were a brave crew, but eventually the artillery silenced them. Another tank in our squadron was hit and all the turret crew killed, but except for occasional skirmishes we were now moving west. The advance was gaining momentum, and the enemy were retreating so fast that we lost touch with them. Thousands of troops besides ourselves were pushing forward and some were soon many miles ahead.

When we had to move quickly or a long way, we loaded the tanks on to transporters, and this we proceeded to do now. The transporters were similar to those one sees today carrying six or eight motor cars, only these were big heavy vehicles and it was one tank on one transporter, each with its own drivers.

At the back there were two short ramps on hinges so that they could be dropped down easily. To load the tank, one man stood on the transporter and guided the tank driver up the ramps by shaking either his right or left fist to indicate which tiller bar to pull. The tank then slowly climbed the ramps, like some advancing monster. The front would go so high that the driver went out of sight, and then as it reached the point where it overbalanced, it came crashing down to be guided forward until completely on the transporter.

Once a tank driven by Jimmy Turner was guided wrongly and fell off the transporter. Jimmy was very lucky to escape injury.

My diary for 13 November says:'... Got news on the wireless ... everything seems to be going OK. Still moving up coast road where there are plenty of lorries, guns etc. burnt and destroyed. Passed lorry-loads of prisoners. Going all day with just a few minutes' halt here and there.'

That night we slept on the transporter at the foot of Halfya Pass (renamed by the army 'Hell-Fire'). This was a notorious pass, very narrow and steep, near the border between Egypt and Libya, so steep that we had to take the tanks off the transporters to climb it.

My diary: 'What a climb. What an experience!' However, we made it and next morning: 'Up at 6 a.m. and moved off soon after ... transporters left, so now travelling along coast road under our own steam. Bypassed bridge which had been blown up, saw biggest gun I've ever seen. Whew ó what a monster! Bardia ó that beautiful view we saw about six months ago. Very slow progress, thousands of vehicles on the road, can see them in front for miles ...'

The weather turned cold now and it poured with rain, making life very uncomfortable as we made our way west. We had been bypassed by New Zealand units who were to carry on the chase, so now the fighting was far ahead of us. We listened to its progress on the wireless and a cheer went up when we heard that Tobruk had fallen.

On 17 November we were heading for Tmimi when to our surprise we were told we were going to hand over our tanks to the 22nd Armoured Brigade. They came and took all but three so that next day most of us travelled by lorry. My diary says: 'Buck and I rode on a lorry carrying diesel oil.'

Next day we went through Gazala where our Air Force were making good use of the airfield. There were dozens of destroyed German aeroplanes on the ground. Passing a German cemetery, on through what was left of Tmimi, finally reaching our destination, just another stretch of desert about twenty miles south of the coastal town of Derna, some ninety miles west of Tobruk. We were told we would be there for about three weeks and were to be equipped with new tanks.

Later, we learned that out of 600 tanks the Germans had at El Alamein they had lost 450. 20,000 soldiers had been killed and 30,000 taken prisoner. Our losses had amounted to about eight per cent.

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