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To War With The Bays: 31 - Green Tanks

After a mad dash across North African, Jack Merewood and his companions prepare to go into battle on the Mareth Line.

To read earlier chapters of Jack's wartime story please click on To War With The Bays in the menu on this page.

The first day we didn't go far, staying near Tmimi; the next day we covered 166 miles. The country was becoming greener, a welcome change from the drabness of the desert, but it was extremely cold as we rode on the transporters. We moved south of the coast road, bypassing Derna, and stopped for the night eighty miles from the coastal town of Barce.

Next day we headed down Barce Pass, then Tocra Pass, and south into the desert country again; then west through Benghazi and south along the coast.

After crossing the desolate salt flats west of El Agheila, we came into greener countryside again, and more populated. We bought or bartered eggs and tomatoes from the Arabs, and fried them for breakfast with the tinned bacon we already had. We'd run out of bread, so it was back to biscuits.

One day our transporter sank into the soft sand and we had to unload the tank to get it out. Another day, 26 February:

'Travelled well till 3 p.m. when we had to stop burst two tyres .. . Am now writing sitting at the roadside waiting for them to be mended. The sea is a grand sight across the road, well-named the 'blue Med' ... Well, tyres are worse than we thought, had to pull off road.

27th: Stayed in same place all night and now it's 11 a.m. and we're still here! The transporter drivers went about 8 a.m. to get new tyres and aren't back yet. Had bacon for breakfast and now Buck, Harold and I have just come back from a bathe in the sea. Water rather cold but enjoyed it. Very hot day, and flies are terrible. Finally moved off about 1 p.m., but after only 25 miles broke down again. This time the tyres caught fire!'

We had more trouble with that transporter because there were a further two punctures next day.

The weather was cool at night but very hot during the day. In the evening the mosquitoes took over from the flies. Between them they made life very uncomfortable, although we had regular inoculations and were also issued with anti-malaria tablets, and chlorine tablets to put in the water. They didn't improve the taste, but no doubt kept us reasonably healthy.

The transporters reeled off the miles along the good coast road. Because of our tyre problem we had to be up extra early, but soon caught up with the rest of the Regiment. We watched the big white kilometre stones, simply a number after the name of the next place -Nufilia 150, Nufilia 100, 50, 10. Nufilia 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Nufilia 0. But we never did see Nufilia.

At Sirte the scenery changed completely - trees, date palms and more towns and villages. The weather was hot and we were enjoying the ride. But we weren't moving fast enough.

On 1 March we were told to be ready to move at 3 a.m. the next day. We actually left at 4 a.m. and travelled till 11.30 p.m. We were in bed by midnight, but up again at 2.30 a.m., moving off at 3 and travelling all day. The next day we were allowed to sleep in till 8.30 a.m.

At last we knew the reason for the mad rush. There was heavy fighting at the Mareth Line in Tunisia, about 150 miles west of Tripoli, and a counter-attack was expected from the Germans as they desperately fought to hold their positions. This was the heaviest fighting since El Alamein. The 8th Armoured Brigade were going into action and we handed over our tanks to them. (We kept our tent.)

Next day we moved by truck to a few miles short of Tripoli and learnt that we would be here at least for a few days and would be re-equipped with new tanks. We immediately pitched our tent in a pleasant area of trees and grass.

The whole Regiment was around us, the cookhouse was set up, and we no longer had to make our own meals. We were near the sea too, so were able to go swimming. And we got some mail. I had twenty-three letters!

The Regiment ran lorries into Tripoli for the next two days. Ronnie and I started 'walking the town'. 'Perhaps it was OK in peacetime but now there's very little there and everything is dear. Had coffee and cakes, ice-cream and sweets, that's all we could get to eat except dates and peanuts ...'

Next day some of us, including Nobby and Colin, were sent to workshops where our new tanks were waiting. We found they were painted dark green instead of the usual sandy colour. The rest of the squadron moved over to join us, so we never went back to collect our tent, which was quite a blow.

We spent a day cleaning the guns and giving the tanks a good going over, then next morning filled up with petrol and ammunition before loading onto transporters. We were away by 4 p.m., travelling all night, and at 7 a.m. passed through Ben Gardane on the Libyan-Tunisian border. We had travelled hundreds of miles in a westerly direction, but once in Tunisia, still following the coast, we headed north.

Next morning the transporters left us. We went out and fired the guns, then moved on and came to a halt just before dark on top of a hill, from where there was a wonderful view. There was a glorious sunset, followed by a lovely moonlit night.

On the coast was the town of Gabes. There were mountains about fifteen miles due west of the town, stretching to the west and gradually petering out. The area between the sea and the mountains was known as the 'Gabes Gap'. Nearby was the town of Mareth, and it was here that the Germans had dug in and were holding the Mareth Line. Although our Air Force was bombing the German positions repeatedly, the ground forces were making no progress.

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