Source: Keith Douglas, Alamein to Zem Zem. London: Faber and Faber, 1992 (reprint).
About this book and author: Alamein to Zem Zem was published in 1946 and is among the best war memoirs. Keith Douglas was well regarded as a poet in England. He joined the Nottinghamshire Sherwood Ranger Yeomanry in June 1941 when the Yeomanry were still mounted cavalry. The Notts Yeo, equipped with tanks, joined the Eighth Army for the North African campaign. This excerpt takes place after the battle of El Alamein as the British drove for Mersa Matruh. [See map of Western Desert in column at lower left.]
Alamein to Zem Zem was published posthumously: Douglas landed on Gold beach on D-Day with the Notts Yeomanry and was killed three days at Tilly sur Seulles.
Keith Douglas in the Western Desert.
Map of the Western Desert (from History of the Second World War: Grand Strategy: Volume IV. London: HMSO, 1972.
Orders came soon afterwards to rally on a track about six miles back and we moved back at full speed. Here we found the whole Brigade drawing up in column, ready to move on Mersa Matruh and cut off the retreating enemy. A Stuka raid on the rear of the column made a great deal of noise but caused no casualties. We leaguered at sundown in three long rows of squadrons, long enough to brew up and replenish with petrol, oil, water, and ammunition. The scheme was that we should move all night in three columns, nose to tail. But it was a pitch dark night; and though we afterwards did move at night a much greater distance and under almost worse conditions, at this stage of the battle we had not enough experience to do it: after messing about half the night and moving about a mile we gave up, dosed down wirelesses except for one set per regiment and, posting guards, the Brigade slept. By first light we were on the move, our own Crusaders slipping out to the front and flanks of the Brigade. I now had a full troop of three tanks. Edward back in a Crusader, travelled in front of the column with Andrew, who had materialized from somewhere or other, and a new officer known already as 'The Professor', going into action in a Crusader for the first time. Tom, the R.H.A. O.P. and my own troop lay echeloned out along the length of the Brigade's right flank. The country was flat and we kept up a good speed. The flanking Crusaders moving at times more than 30 miles an hour. We had hardly got under way when Tom flew off at a tangent, throwing up billows of dust, after three Italian lorries full of troops. He captured two and was disarming them as I caught him up. The third was getting away but we were recalled by Piccadilly Jim [the Colonel], who was a little amused and much in sympathy with our ardour. 'You'd better let that one go to ground,' he said. 'We'll soon find it again.' And we did. The Crusaders, like enough to hounds, raced across the plain, bellies to the ground, and put up small parties of the enemy every few minutes. Gun crews frantically trying to get their guns and vehicles away, infantry surrendering, lorry drivers—all Italians—driving themselves and their comrades to meet us and surrender. The first of these Italian lorry convoys had driven into our leaguer the night before, eight ten-tonners, crammed with men, with an armoured car of the 11th at the nose and another at the tail of the column. We continued to move across the plain at top speed, and in high glee, elated with all the excitement of the hunt. At these times the Crusader is at its best. The low chassis and long sloping lines give a spectator the impression of a speedboat; the driver and gunner in the turret sway slightly like a speedboat's crew, as they cross the undulating waves of ground.
We took prisoner twenty engineers under a rather arrogant young lieutenant, who chased them into ranks and shouted commands at them before saluting pompously. They had all smashed their rifles. I suppose he did it all very correctly. We searched them and collected some cameras, badges and letters; in half an hour or so 'B' echelon lorries came up to take them back. We set out to find the rest of the column which had moved on out of sight. As we flew across the ground, eyes still skinned for bodies of the enemy ready to surrender, all the anxiety of the previous days of battle gave way to the exhilarating sensations of sport. Suddenly we came upon a veritable house, standing in its own patch of green, shaded by trees. We neared this, the first indication that we were approaching the railway and the coast road, very gingerly. But it was quite deserted. We were now in a valley, without a sight of the columns, or of a single vehicle. All I knew was the column's general direction and centre line, which lay on our left, and that one of our lorry columns which we had seen earlier in the distance was moving parallel to us, between us and the sea. Evan became sullen and jumpy, and began to mutter that we had gone too far and that we should find 88s all round us. I told him to keep his hand on the Besa; but he replied sulkily that he hadn't had a chance to clean it since he took over the tank, and that it was jammed. This was true; these tanks had only caught up the column as it was moving off. As we reached the far side of the valley we saw two men running across our front. They seemed to vanish into the earth. All this time we could hear the radio conversation of the rest of the regiment; chiefly, as usual, the voices of the Crusader squadron, who were doing all the work at the moment. I heard Piccadilly Jim telling the Crusaders leading the column to wheel right towards the railway. We could not see the railway yet, but I ran up the northern side of the valley towards the sea. As we reached the top of the valley we could see a long stream of lorries, mostly Chevrolet 3-tonners and 15 cwts., moving nose to tail along beside the railway line below us. I thought they were probably the column which had been travelling to our right, and anyway, seeing no guns among them, I ignored Evan's protests and we slithered down the slope to meet them. What a haul it would have been if they had been Germans, I thought.
We came down beside one of the trucks and moved at the column's speed, about 10 miles an hour, our right track about a yard from the lorry's wing. I looked into the cab, the driver was a German. I saw him a second or two earlier than he saw me. My driver, of course, who was driving blind, by my directions, continued stolidly alongside the lorry. The German glanced casually sideways at us, and away again. Then a terrible thought struck him. All this was comically visible on his face. He looked sideways again, seemed to confirm his worst fears and swerved violently into the railway embankment, jumping out before the truck stopped moving. Men came piling out of the back in colossal confusion. We halted and waited for them to surrender. But our appearance had been too sudden. They were in a panic. The crew of the lorry behind them could not make out what they were doing. Their conversation translated roughly into 'What the hell are you doing?' 'A tank! A tank! English tank?' 'Where?' (unanswered). The other crew became infected. They all fled up the bank towards the sea. This was disconcerting; I felt very annoyed and shouted after them insults and invitations to return in a mixture of English and German. But they would not. I suppose we could have killed a good many of them as they ran, with my revolver and our tommy gun. But this seemed a futile thing to do. They were surrounded and had no rations, and like a few other fighting soldiers I lack the true ferocity of Battle School Instructors and armchair critics. Besides, the whole situation was too ridiculous to attempt to introduce a serious note. We backed the tank and threw a hand grenade or two at one of the lorries without much effect. Then we blazed off at it with the six-pounder at a range of about 20 yards, but appeared to have missed. When we went closer I saw there were three holes as clean as a whistle through the dashboard and engine. In the end we dismounted and tommy-gunned the engines of the three lorries which had halted. The rear vehicles of the column had turned and made off back down the line. Those in front had driven sedately on unaware of what was happening behind them. While they were doing this I had launched frantic wireless messages into the casual conversations still audible from the regiment, begging someone to come and help bag the rest of the lorries. But Edward was talking to his gunner or driver or otherwise distracted and never heard one of my four messages. At last Tom answered: 'Nuts three I heard you. But we can't do anything about it at the moment. We're going to be busy. Destroy what you can and rejoin. Over.' I acknowledged this as the last of the runners were gaining the far crest. After destroying the three vehicles I seized a couple of blankets, of which we were short, from one of the lorries and a kitbag from a pile of them in the back of another, and turned after the tail of the column. But at this moment the microphone went dead and, being still lost, with the consciousness that petrol was running low, I took no notice of two other German vehicles which passed me, and they ignored me; we drove past each other at a distance of about 50 yards. As we crossed the railway line a man who had been hiding the other side of the embankment sprang up and ran across it. Evan fired the tommy gun at him, which was a senseless thing to do. Anyway, he missed him.
As we topped the next rise we saw below us our own twenty-five- pounders and several other vehicles of our column dispersed straddling the railway line. The enemy vehicles must have run into some part of the column. There was a small station there—Galal Station, the name written on a tin plate—and there we halted while I called up Tom to find out where the squadron was. We sorted out the kitbag and an impressive first-aid set which Evan had found, full of bright scissors and instruments. I found clean underclothes, a dark khaki cotton shirt, and trousers of the same colour, apparently brand new, made of very rough cloth and quite well cut, with sloping pockets and a belt sewn in the waist. There was even a metal ring to hang a watch on, with a small pocket for the watch underneath it. I took these clothes and a khaki high-necked jersey, and gave Evan the rest to divide with the driver. They were more interested in badges, combs, razors, hair-cream, etc., which were all there.
We set off to find some petrol, and while we were filling up heard the battle begin on the air. Several tanks reporting targets, and the Artillery observation officers promising their fire. There seemed to be a great many enemy tanks. The twenty-five-pounders began to fire over the hill in front, and we heard the tanks reporting direct hits of their own guns. Suddenly the voice of some tank N.C.O. who had switched to the A set by mistake, and thought he was still on Internal Communication, broke into the messages, shouting, almost screaming. 'Bloody good shot! You've 'it 'im. You've 'it the bugger. Go on Lofty, give 'im another. Go on. 'It 'im again' . . . rising to a crescendo. Then the inevitable angry voices of other stations: 'Get on I/C.' 'Bloody well GET ON I/C and look to your BLOODY procedure' (Piccadilly Jim).
Obviously this was a new kind of action; the voices of the participants seemed like those of boys in a shooting gallery. We poured petrol in as fast as it would go, slopping it over the top of the big tin funnel in our excitement and spilling it down the sides of the tank. But long before we had finished filling up someone's voice in the earphones said: 'They're surrendering'. And we arrived to find the battle of Galal Station over. The regiment had accounted for twenty-seven tanks. A long row of derelict Italian M 13s stood by the railway line, some blazing, others apparently undamaged. From one of these I took a small Biretta automatic and its ammunition, as I passed the derelicts to take up my position watching the sea, which I had not seen since leaving Alexandria.
During the afternoon I washed, shaved, and dressed in my new shirt and trousers and the high-necked jersey, tying a blue German handkerchief with a red stripe in it round my neck. Except for beret and boots, the enemy had clothed me completely—and on my belt hung my new Biretta and the Luger I had taken in my first action. When I had completed my toilet, feeling hugely pleased with myself in my brand-new clothes, I walked down to the railway line, leaving a look-out in the top of the tank, to see if I could get another Biretta for Raoul, who would by now be in hospital in Alex or Cairo.
I approached a brand-new-painted M 13, with no sign of any damage, from which the crew had apparently fled at the sight of their comrades' discomfiture. There was a promising cask and a sack on the outside of the tank, which we opened. But the cask only contained water, and the sack nothing but little round tins with a smelly Italian kind of bully beef in them. So I climbed on to the turret—the small side doors which stood open on most of the other tanks were closed. I prepared to lower myself through the top. It was dark in the turret, and I leant over the manhole first, trying to accustom my eyes to the darkness and to see if there were any Birettas on the side shelves inside. A faint sweet smell came up to me which reminded me of the dead horse I once saw cut up for our instruction at the Equitation School.
Gradually the objects in the turret became visible: the crew of the tank—for, I believe, these tanks did not hold more than two—were, so to speak, distributed round the turret. At first it was difficult to work out how the limbs were arranged. They lay in a clumsy embrace, their white faces whiter, as those of dead men in the desert always were, for the light powdering of dust on them. One with a six-inch hole in his head, the whole skull smashed in behind the remains of an ear—the other covered with his own and his friend's blood, held up by the blue steel mechanism of a machine-gun, his legs twisting among the dully gleaming gear levers. About them clung that impenetrable silence I have mentioned before, by which I think the dead compel our reverence. I got a Biretta from another tank on the other side of the railway line.
In the evening we closed into night leaguer, facing westwards again. Tom was in high spirits; he and Ken Tinker had found an Italian hospital, and their tanks were loaded inside and out with crates of cherries, Macedonian cigarettes, cigars and wine; some straw-jacketed Italian Chianti issue, some champagne, and a bottle or two of brandy, even some Liebfraumilch. We shared out the plunder with the immemorial glee of conquerors, and beneath
lay down to dream of victory.
The next day, of course, was an anticlimax. We turned west again and made for Fuka, on the last lap to Mersa, from which the appearance of the enemy tanks at Galal had distracted us. Everyone kept his eyes skinned more for loot than for prisoners, and in dismounting to examine the contents of a stranded lorry I lost my Luger, which fell out of my pocket unnoticed. Later in the morning I saw a crate full of Chianti bottles lying in an infantry weapon pit and was for telling my driver to stop and collecting them. But before I could speak he had run clean over them. There was an almighty explosion and the tank lumbered on.
Evan and the driver emerged and jumped to the ground, the driver shouting 'She won't steer'. He had left the clutch in and I jumped down with them, ran round the tank and saw that the track and skirting were blown off one side and she was rolling on the great wheels, from which the solid rubber tyres were blown to shreds, while the sprocket and the other track drove her. In spite of wild protestations from Evan and the driver, Skelton, who had quite lost their senses for the moment, and imagined that to enter the tank was to court death (though if they had been outside it they would have been already dead)—I got in again and switched off the engine. Some sort of light anti-tank gun began firing at us very inaccurately. The shot kicked up the dust short of us, and as I ran about looking at the damage and back to the big blackened hole where the inviting box of Chianti bottles had been, I was dimly aware of them getting on to us for line and making a huge correction for range with their next shot, which flew well over our heads. I called up Edward and explained what had happened. 'O.K.,' he said. 'Change on to another of your children; can you see what that is firing at you? Over.' 'Nuts three. No. It's solid shot of some kind. Off.' Another tank came up, we flung my kit on it and caught up with the others, who were still advancing.
The gun did not fire again, but we saw vehicles escaping along the top of a kind of sand cliff in front of us. We were switched on to a southerly course by the Brigadier, and climbed on to the plateau, after stalking carefully up on vehicle after vehicle, only to find them burnt-out derelicts. Fuka aerodrome had been evacuated, nothing of any use to us remained, and soon afterwards we crossed the coast road near another landing ground, where the wreckage of a Spitfire lay among that of several Italian and German fighters. There were one or two very well-dressed Italian officers waiting for us, who proved to be the vanguard of that long, straggling column of defeated Italians and Germans which found its own way down to the cage at Fuka. That evening it rained for the first time since the beginning of the battle.
The first downpour took us by surprise and washed most of the victorious feeling out of us. The landing ground became a marsh, and we dried our clothes on the exhaust, garment by garment, and battened ourselves into the turret, where we sat throughout a miserable afternoon, eating wet biscuits and cheese. In the evening I was sent down the road to Brigade in a Marmon Harrington Armoured Car which had been found at Galal. On the way down the dark road we came upon six Germans plodding along by themselves. I sat them on the outside of the car and very reluctantly got out and sat outside with them in the rain. They were dejected and said they had had nothing to eat for two days. I gave them some tins of bully which I had put in my pocket from my tank's ration box, and some sodden pieces of biscuit. We plunged off the road according to our directions, to find Brigade, but were pixy-led by a number of distracting lights and would have spent the night in a weapon pit into which we fell and got stuck, but for the opportune appearance of a stray tank, which obligingly pulled us out. The jerk of being hauled clear threw all the prisoners on the ground, and one of them lost his kitbag, to which he had been clinging as something saved from the wreck. He asked permission to look for it, in a hopeless tone of voice; the tank crew were indignant when I helped him find it and roared off into the murk again.
It was difficult to get rid of the prisoners, but I was determined to find them some food and blankets, because the few people in the regiment who had been taken prisoner and recaptured during the first days at Alamein had been well treated by the Germans. Eventually I dumped them on a guard in the Brigade area whose sergeant had been a prisoner of the Germans for two months and was also well disposed to them.