By John Hall Jones, as told to Gareth John Jones about ten years ago.
I was prompted to record this tale by my grandson, who was asked as a part of a school project to obtain an account of a wartime experience from a military veteran.
So it’s not surprising that my mind turned to the desert of North Africa in the Second World War. But quite why, in this year of grace 2008, I should suddenly fix on this particular story from late in 1942 and which I have seldom told, I don’t honestly know – but suddenly, in that tritest of phrases, it all comes back as though it were yesterday.
I had served as a signaler in the desert before the famous retreat to El Alemein, while posted in that role with the North Somerset Yeomanry. So on my return I was an old hand compared with most of the troops – many were new to this theatre of war, some new to the Middle East as a whole. We were camped just a few miles to the east of Alemein, and the one thing we had most in common with thousands of other men was that we had no idea what was to come next, but awaited events with mixed feelings. WE knew there would be a "push", but not when or the scale of it. I made friends with two men that I’d met only recently, both named Roy. One was a Corporal from Manchester, called Roy Tasker, and the other a “Jock” called Roy V.C. - the initials actually stood for “Victor Charles”, but were the cause of gentle ribbing because of the similarity to the “Victoria Cross”, the highest award for bravery in the British Army, also usually referred to as a “V.C.”.
With little to do but wait for the upcoming action, and with no duties to perform for a few hours, we crossed the line into a campsite belonging to an infantry regiment from the north of England.We found a group of lads gathered around a 50-gallon metal drum. A man who, in civvy life worked for the water company, had devised a means of recycling water through brick filters, issuing through a small tap at the base (“faucet” for U.S. readers, like my grandson’s classmates). It was not really clean enough to drink, but useful at least for washing. This was a blessing beyond measure in a land where a full day’s ration of water for all purposes was a single gallon, often cut to half - and even that high standard was seldom met – sometimes we had no more than a cupful each per day for all purposes. We knew too that we would be crossing into a waterless area in the coming combat. We watched and listened for a while, wondering if we could find someone with the skills to reproduce this wonder for our own comrades. Then we returned to our own lines, giving little further thought to the incident.
Roy V.C. was 31 years of age, a little over ten years older than I. In civilian life, he’d been a teacher at an infants’ school in Glasgow.(“Elementary” for U.S. readers). At night he often regaled us with tales of those little people that would have us in gales of laughter – he was quite the raconteur. He was a handsome, cheerful chap with an excellent physique and hugely proud of being a Scot. He became perhaps my closest friend.
October 23rd came and with it the famous barrage and the second battle of El Alemein. I will tell little of that day except to say that before we had time to take it all in, we were on a mad dash across the desert behind the retreating Axis forces.
I’m sure you know that the desert in North Africa is full of sand, but I doubt you appreciate all the inconveniences that this brings. There are personal ones which I don’t want to dwell upon too much, but they were only part of it. Sand gets in things – machinery, engines, fuel, eyes, food. Imagine anything that was there in the desert and then imagine what sand will do to it. Inevitably, it would do so eventually. The small detachment I was with fell victim to the sand just a few miles from Tobruk, as our transport became inoperable.
We were left behind by the main unit as we attempted to remedy this. That night saw a heavy aerial attack by the Germans, and the skies were constantly alight with anti-aircraft fire.I started “digging in”, that is to say, making a trench in which to shelter should the aerial attack come our way.
Roy Tasker and Jock watched. I urged them to follow suit, feeling that our safety was important. Tasker, however was a fatalist. “If you’re going to be killed, you’re going to be killed,” he said. “If your number’s up, there’s nothing you can do”. Roy V.C. just laughed and said he was too lazy to bother.
“So, what will you do if things get rough?” I asked.
“I’d beat you into your own trench!” he told me, laughing.
We chatted about Fate and Chance into the small hours. Despite the situation, there was a feeling of comradeship which was oddly comforting.
I was at this point determined that after the war I would return to Canada, where I had been billeted for a while after my troopship had been disabled. Perhaps it’s a false memory, but recently I recalled that one of the things which Jock said to me was that this wouldn’t happen, that I would go back to London and marry a Cockney girl. Which I did.[Editor's note: this paragraph wasn't in the original account - this is something he told me a few months before his death.]
The combination of sand and machinery proved too much for us to deal with ourselves, and so we had little to do until the motor mechanics were finished. We three wandered across the desert looking for any abandoned equipment which might be of some use. We spied in the distance the water purifier I mentioned earlier. We made our way to it, turned on the tap and were delighted to see the water flow. As we were cavorting in delight at the lucky find, we were suddenly aware of the sound of an aircraft approaching.
Looking up, we saw a German plane heading straight toward us.For a moment it looked as if something were hanging from the plane. One of the others said “Look, there’s a rope ladder hanging down”. Then I realised the truth.
“BOMB!” I shouted, and all three of us flung ourselves to the ground. Seconds later we were thrown about by the explosion. As we had come to expect, the blast caused a mini-sandstorm, and the bloody sand found another way to make life hell. As I was hurled forwards, I could see and hear nothing, which added to the terror and uncertainty.I felt myself for injuries, and all seemed well.
I heard other soldiers running to the scene to aid us.I was lifted to my feet as someone asked, “Are you O.K.?” I nodded, fairly certain that it was so, and we searched through the smoke and damned sand for the others.
Corporal Tasker was dead already, his jugular vein severed by a flying piece of shell. I could hear Jock groaning, but another soldier had already reached him, and Jock seemed more concerned for my safety than his own. “Is young Taff O.K.?” I heard him say, “Find him!”When I got to him, he was relieved to see me whole and standing, but he couldn’t get to his feet himself, and complained of a pain in his abdomen.
I stayed with him until a field ambulance eventually arrived and took us to a field hospital some miles down the desert road. I had to leave him there and return to my unit to report in.
Our forward H.Q. was already at Benghasi, as we heard the next morning, and we were to proceed there immediately.
“Sarge,” I begged, “Just let me go and see how Jock is before I go”.
“Very well,” he said gruffly, “you can have a few hours. Don’t dawdle.”
When I arrived at the tented hospital I asked after Jock, but they told me “No visitors”.
“But we’re moving forward today. I’m responsible for his equipment! Please let me talk to him.”
An officer overheard and agreed that, under the circumstances, I was to be shown in.
Triage had been applied, and Jock was in the “Nothing we can do for them” category – beyond any hope of recovery.
In the tent I was escorted to, I encountered a sight which I can never forget. I was surrounded by men in extreme pain, with the most ghastly of injuries, being attended as well as they could by a number of orderlies. One of them directed me to Roy, and standing behind him, he shook his head meaningfully. Just then Roy opened his eyes and quite clearly looked at me. He gave a half-smile and closed his eyes again.
He was still alive, but was never to open them again.
I left in a daze. I was driven back if I remember correctly, by my friend Driver Sefton. When I got back to my unit I was told that Roy had passed away while I was on my way back.
I reflected then, as I do now, on our conversation about Fate and Chance.
By the way, I buried Driver Sefton later in a cemetery in Lentini (or some such) in Sicily on the slope of the volcano.
The thing that I cannot clearly convey is the appalling conditions that we lived under in the desert. Daytime temperatures were regularly well over 100 degrees, and night times bitterly cold. The flies which grew fat and bloated on the corpses from the battle field increased in number to trillions, forcing us to eat and drink at all times under cover as they settled on food and faces alike.
Words cannot truly describe living in that desert as a soldier in that war.But one thing I know: war is a complete waste of time.