Behind the Lines

A World War II Soldier’s Diary of the Desert War

My Father’s Illustration of the War in the Western Desert 1940/41
© Chrissie 2021

Recently, there have been several articles on the major engagements in World War II, and it occurred to me that some Puffins might be interested in learning about the behind the scenes support of our front line troops by those servicemen left behind the lines.

When War was declared, my late father was two months short of his 20th birthday.  Although he was in a protected occupation, working on the railways, he volunteered and was enlisted in to the Royal Engineers in Derby in February 1940.

I knew nothing about his World War II experience until I had to clear the house my parents had lived in for 45 years, when I found a photograph album and his diaries for 1941 and parts of 1942 and 1944.  I know from the photographs that his first posting was in Norway, and, from my late mother’s diary, that he went there on 9th April 1940, but by 15th June he was home on leave and stationed at Donnington. At some point between then and November, my parents got engaged and he was posted to Abbassia Garrison, near Cairo.  He was part of Movement Control, which was a 24 hour barge, ship and, mainly, rail operation to supply the Front and receive the wounded and prisoners of war.

I have reproduced my father’s own words, excluding reference to letters to and from home, which he wrote every day, and received regularly.  I have also excluded entries in Pitman’s shorthand, which I do not understand, but suspect from the context are mainly of a personal nature.  I have translated entries in French and initialised people’s names.  I apologise in advance for any errors I may have made in transcribing my father’s words, which, I am sure, those of you “in the know” will lose no time in correcting.  I also apologise for the quality of the illustrations, which I guess are older than all of us.

The diary opens on 19th November 1940, a week after my father’s 21st birthday, and shortly after he had arrived in Egypt.

November 1940.

19th. Not feeling very well today. “Farz” during the morning (appears to be used to mean “on duty at an area on or near the base”, which, unfortunately, I haven’t been able to identify) – 1 pullover: 2 pair socks.  Argument during the afternoon re Germany and England.  I am beginning to think that there is a large pro-German element in the British Army. Went to pictures with J – “Calling Dr Kildare”.  No Air Raid.  Collected developed photos.

20th.  Air Raid 03.30 – 05.00.  Bomb dropped far too near to be comfortable.  No planes brought down. Casualties unknown.  Capt. S has applied to HQ for another stripe for us.

21st.  Nothing of importance.  Got my second stripe as predicted.  Wonder how long it will be for the third.

22nd.  Farz during morning.  Friday afternoon walked round Sharia El Burka (market).

23rd.  Farz Marshalling Yard during morning.  Afternoon work as usual – nothing sensational.  Night pictures with J – “Fee Fatties of 1939”.

24th.  Farz in morning.  Afternoon Pyramids with R and J.  Took several photos with camera.  Climbed on to Sphynx, but had great difficulty in getting back again.  Pictures at night.

25th.  Farz all day.

26th.  Work at night: nothing of importance.  No Air Raid – Musso must be occupied elsewhere.

27th.  Farz during the morning.  Traffic very light.  I’ve got a hunch I shan’t be here much longer.  I hope it’s true.  Pictures at night with J.  Picture – no good.

28th.  (Long entry in French addressed to my mother).

29th. Working in the morning.  At 6 pm, we were paid 95 piastres more (Egyptian currency – fraction of Egyptian £).

30th.  Farz during the morning.  Afternoon billiards with S: beat him 300-190.  Work during night – everything straightforward.  No Air Raid.

December 1940.

1st.  Farz during morning.  Afternoon stayed in barracks, spent about 2 hours in French conversation with J.  6.30 pm went to Garrison Church. 8 pm Concert in Sergeants’ Mess.  Everyone drunk but myself and J.  Gave “Sam and his Musket” monologue.

2nd.  Farz during morning.  Afternoon work very slack.  Night went to pictures with J.  Picture no good.  Tomorrow I give up work at Farz.

3rd. Started work in the Office.  The Egyptians in the office are very lazy.  If they don’t do any more work, I will have to send them to Captain S.

4th. Work; buns and tea 2 piastries.  Afternoon completed traffic figures.  After work fetched laundry – one pair of socks missing.  Night pictures George Raft in “I stole a Million” – very good.

5th. Nothing of importance during the morning.  12 noon Air Raid, but Raiders were driven off, very little damage.  Night finished requisitions very early.  Afterwards, played table tennis until 10 pm.

6th. Greeks captured Santi Quaranta (Albania).

 7th. Worked during the morning.  Nothing of importance during the day.

8th. Worked until 2 pm.  Slept during the afternoon.  Night went to party given by Mrs D.  Didn’t have much fun – the old routine beer drinking and singing.  I don’t think I shall go again.

9th. Work during the morning.  Started new system of dealing with Received Wagons.  Afternoon news of British advance in the Western Desert.  It seems unlikely that Italians will hold out much longer.

10th. Got paid for my second stripe.  This will mean making out new allotment form.  Further news of Greek advances in Albania.  The Italians are obviously cracking.  All leave to Western Desert stopped.  It looks as if we are really going to start fighting.

11th. Further news about advances in the Western Desert.  Italian L of C (Line of Communication) cut between Sidi Barrani and Tobruk.  Looks like the beginning of the end for Musso.  6 pm British troops occupied Sidi Barrani – 30,000 Italians taken prisoner.  4 ambulance train casualties: 2 special supply sent to feed prisoners.

My father’s illustration of Abbassia Garrison 1941
© Chrissie 2021

12th. More Italian prisoners taken and large number of guns and ammunition.  British push continuing westwards.  4 trainloads of prisoners arrived in Cairo today.

13th. Sollum captured together with 3 more Italian generals and many prisoners.  Special Order of the Day issued, congratulating Allied Troops.

14th. Latest reports say that at least 70,000 prisoners have been taken.  Together with killed and wounded, this means that half the Italian army have been lost.  Italy must crumble.

15th. Mopping up operations in WD.  Today 3 more train loads of prisoners arrived in Cairo.  From the number of ambulance trains received, I estimate our losses at 2000.

16th. Sollum and Fort Capuzzo captured together with 3000 prisoners.  Italian equipment captured must be terrific: trainloads of equipment continually from WD.

17th. Bardia almost surrounded.  If we succeed in taking this place, it will mean that the whole Advance GHQ will be cut off.

18th. Bardia completely surrounded.  This means the end of Musso.  I suppose Italy will be occupied by German troops.  The war is at last developing in our favour.

19th. More prisoners of war brought in.  Still more ambulance trains.  Moved our quarters out of Barracks.

20th. Still more P.O.W. trains.  PM gives total killed as 74 and 148 wounded.  From accounts at the front, this could be multiplied by more than ten.  Bardia still holding out.

21st. Another 900 prisoners rounded up in W.D..  This brings total to something amounting to 40,000.  Our navy carried out a very heavy bombardment of Valona (Albania).  Bardia still holding out – 3rd day of siege.

22nd. Letter from L.  He says it is still very hot in Sudan.  It is not very hot here.  We shall soon have to change into khaki once more.  Bardia still holding out.

23rd.  In to khaki again today.  Issued with service dress.  Quite a change from usual style.  Bardia still holding out.  Hope they soon give in – or else!

24th. Christmas Eve.  Entirely different from last Christmas Eve.  Night went to Slade Club and drowned my sorrows in approved custom.  Reinforcements sent to Sudan – estimate big push there very soon.

25th. Christmas Day.  Ham and eggs for breakfast.  Turkey and plum pudding for dinner.  After so much, I had to go to bed early during the evening.  Bardia still holding out.

26th. Work during morning.  Went to zoo with J during afternoon.  Took several photos with camera.  I hope they come out OK.

27th. (Entry about missing my mother.)

 28th. Huge supplies of munitions and guns being sent down to Sudan together with 10,000 troops.  I prophesy a very big push in that region before much longer.

29th. Spent morning in bed.  First day in bed for 10 months.  After work went for walk in French quarter of Cairo.  Had supper of egg and chips.  Another shipment to Sudan.

30th. Big new convoy of troops arrived including reinforcements for M.C. (Movement Control).

31st.  Went in to observation hospital with violent pains in my chest.  I’ve never felt so bad in my whole life.  I can’t imagine what it can be.  Still I suppose the “lads” up on the W.D. must be suffering more than me.  I mustn’t grumble.

January 1941.

 1st.  Pains continued throughout the day.  So bad during the afternoon I had to have injections in the back.  If these continue much longer I think I shall pass out.  Temperature of 104 in the afternoon.  Dr thinks it is pneumonia.

2nd.  Pain completely gone and temperature at normal.  It is nothing short of a miracle.  I can only explain it by prayer.  Discharged from the hospital as fit for work.

3rd.  New draught started work.  Bardia defences penetrated by Australian forces.  Bremen heavily bombed by RAF.

4th.  Australian forces made big advance on Bardia.  8,000 prisoners and much material taken.

My father posing by the Sphynx
© Chrissie 2021
The staff of Abbassia Movement Control (my father on the extreme right)
© Chrissie 2021

5th.  Nothing of importance.  Work in morning and afternoon.  Night slight pain again in back.

6th. Bardia captured by Aussies.  Over 26,000 prisoners taken.  Advance troops threatening Tobruk.  Before long we shall have the Italians out of Africa.  Pain again – went to MO – diagnosed lumbago.

7th.  Prisoners began to arrive again in trains, 1000 at a time.  They seem to me to have lost all hope and faith – nothing to look forward to and just to accept life as it comes.  They are not a fighting nation; it is a great pity they ever had to fight.  More guns and tanks and another division of men to Khartoum, including C in C (Commander in Chief).  I anticipate action there very shortly.  Went to pictures – no good.

8th. Australians captured Aerodrome 30 miles south of Tobruk.  More prisoners arrived from Western Desert; 2 extra Ambulance trains.  I estimate our casualties at 500.

9th.  Italians began to retreat in Sudan.  Before very long we shall be in Addis Abbaba.   Played and beat H at table tennis.  I must be improving.  J came on leave from Western Front.  Rumour we are going home soon – I hope so.

10th.  Italians retreating on Sudanese frontiers.  I don’t think it will be long before the war is over in Africa.  2 Italian Major Generals captured and set loose in Barracks.  Orders given for us to salute them.  What next!

11th.  Tobruk completely surrounded by British troops.  For the past two days supplies have been sent there.  We must anticipate an early capture.  More troop movements in Sudan.  Went to Metro and saw Laurel and Hardy – very funny.

12th. Heavy sandstorm.  Everything completely covered in sand – lavatories, washbasins, tables, chairs, food and water.  I shall be eating sand for days.

13th.  Heavy naval and air bombardment of Tobruk – more troops and ammo sent up.  I think we shall establish it as a base for an Expeditionary Force against Italy.  Went to pictures at night – “mush juice” (Possibly “Mush and Milk” 1933).

14th. Nothing of importance in morning.  Afternoon heavy attack on Mediterranean convoy by German Dive Bombers – “Illustrious” hit – 47 German bombers accounted for.

15th.   Invited to Mr H’s house to party.  Had quite a decent time.  Gave monologues, “Sam Small”, “Albert and the Lion” etc.  Had my name taken for broadcast on Forces programme.  Got to bed about 1 am.

16th.  Cruiser “Southampton” sunk by German dive bombers.  Huge sandstorm in Western Desert again.  Streets, tramcars, buses, shops, everything in Cairo absolutely covered in sand.

17th.  Another big sea and air bombardment on Tobruk – we shall take her before much longer.  Drew pay, PT 70, bought 14 stamps.  Went to pictures at night.

18th.  Italian Air Bases in Sicily and Libya heavily raided – number of Jerry planes destroyed on Western Desert, besides Italians.  Finished work at 7 pm and went straight to the Barracks.

19th.  Work in the morning.  British advance began in Abyssinia.  Won’t be too long before the Italians are out of Africa.  Night table tennis with H.  Air raid, but raiders driven off – identified as German.

20th.  Kassala evacuated by Italians.  Serious internal trouble in Abyssinia.  Large scale reinforcements sent to Tobruk area.  The Italians are hopelessly cut off.  Night played billiards in C of E Institute.  Won.

21st.  Big retreat by Italians in Eritrea.  More M.C. (Movement Control) staff moved into Sudan.  I think, however, that I am safe for the duration in Cairo.  New convoy of ships arrived.

22nd.   Armoured Division and Australian infantry penetrated defences of Tobruk.  Several thousand prisoners taken.  Night played billiards.  Bed about Midnight.

23rd.   Tobruk occupied by Empire Troops.  54,000 prisoners taken.  More work getting the b*****s back to the base I suppose.  Total now taken exceeds 140,000.  Pictures at night – “Hunchback of Notre Dame” – very good.

24th.  British Forces continued their advance beyond Tobruk  towards Bengazi.  Revolts in Abyssinian interior – patrol activity on Eritrean front.  Pay 75 PT – not enough.  Night played billiards.

25th. Advance began in Eritrea – Italian forces driven back 50 miles.  Active patrol work in Kenya and Abyssinia.

26th. Further advances in Eritrea.  600 Italian prisoners taken – heavy naval and air bombardment of Sicily.  Italians in Northern Italy began to revolt – Milan & Turin occupied by German troops – truly a bad day for the enemy.

27th.  Still further advances into Eritrea.  Over 1000 Italian prisoners taken.  General advance on all fronts – Kenya, Libya, Sudan.  Night pictures – no good.

28th.  No change in military position – more staff moved into Sudan.  I hope I don’t get down there – it’s warm enough up here.

29th.  Change over in offices – we moved into General office – complete with telephone.  It is better there.  We are further away from the eye of authority.  Air Raid sirens went – no planes sighted however.  Night pictures – “60 Glorious Years” – very good.

30th.  Further advances of British forces towards Derna, 56 miles from Tobruk.  More unrest in Abyssinia – I wonder how long the Italians will hold out against our Forces.  Played billiards at night – much more time for leisure now.

31st.  British forces conducted offences at Derna – fierce fighting going on.  Further advances in Eritrea.  More troops sent to Turkey.  We seem to break International law pretty regularly.  Still, why not?  Everyone else does.  German planes over Egypt at last.  Canal area severely bombed.  Nothing brought down – several natives killed.

This brief glimpse in to the life of an ordinary World War II soldier, charged with supplying the troops, rather than involvement in heroics at the front, illustrates how banal his daily life could be, albeit essential for ultimate victory.   In order to prevent reader boredom, I shall leave my father here some two months in to his stint in Egypt, which he fully expected to end with Allied success sometime very soon.   In the event, he would be there almost another 3 years, before being posted to Italy via Israel, returning to the UK in 1945.

My father died in 1999, just before his 80th birthday.

© Chrissie 2021