Abu Sueir, 14th July 1942

Tony Payne - Pilot
37 Squadron

The Winged Boot emblem of
the Late Arrivals Club*

“Now then, Bill, don’t do anything foolish tonight”, admonished the CO at the end of briefing. Sound advice, particularly as this was the last trip of his tour. However, the omens were unfavourable right from take-off. For much of the long climb en route to Tobruk rich mixture was in use to counteract overheating engines.

We would rue this before the night was out. Then, nearing the target, billowing cumulus largely obscured the admittedly featureless ground so that the coastline, our main pinpoint, eluded us, while there was no guidance from flak bursts. There followed a protracted search, but to no avail. Eventually a fast deteriorating fuel state obliged a highly frustrated captain of aircraft to break off and head for home.

Some of our bomb-load we steered eastwards for the distant delta. Airborne for close on six and a half hours fuel gauge readings were fast approaching zero. After what seemed like a lifetime – it was my first extended operation – faint pinpoints of light far ahead just below a fast developing horizon, intrigued us. Slowly they resolved themselves into a group of camp fires. Thereupon, with just about dry tanks and trusting we were over friendly territory, Bill decided on a landing.

Against all the odds the touchdown was near perfect and we taxied towards the signs of life. Two of the crew dropped down between the idling props and set off to parley. Their return was hotfoot. The strangers were nomads and, much more to the point, it seemed we were at least 650 miles behind enemy lines, the actual distance dependent on Rommel’s rate of advance.

Now what? Bill showed his true mettle: he would take off … his voice tailed away. Then – any volunteers to go along? By this time “night was at odds with morning”, slightly to misquote the bard. As a result the state of the ‘runway-in-use’ could be assessed. There were no takers. Without more ado emergency rations and water bottles were rapidly unshipped and Bill opened up heading towards the dawn.

With no fuel load and a crew of one he stood a good chance of at least becoming airborne. Then, at the point of unsticking, his port tyre fouled a boulder and he came to an undignified halt, pirouetting in a huge dustcloud on his port wingtip. There followed a backbreaking struggle to offload the precious fresh water tank, a vital lifeline. This was quite irrational really as it weighed in excess of 100 pounds. However, nil desperandum two Irving jackets were lashed together and off we set, four porters gripping a sleeve apiece, the precious burden grounding at intervals.

Our first objective was to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and the conspicuous remains of [Vickers Wellington IC] DV485. By 10 a.m. we had succeeded in losing it below the horizon, though by now the water tank, still half full, had long since been abandoned. A quite merciless sun now compelled a search for shade. A wrecked lorry, one of many, served our purpose and we crouched gratefully in its shelter, though first checking the radiator for water. No luck.

Breakfast was now taken, a shared tin of tomato juice and small portions of the dry biscuit ration, while away to the north a swarm of Ju 87 dive bombers formed up over what we guessed was the airfield at Fuka. That spelt trouble for someone. Breakfast was enlivened by the appearance of a patrol vehicle, but providentially it passed about 200 yards away heading, so we estimated, in the direction of the Siwa oasis. The high summer’s day overfilled every hour as we crouched, discussing tactics. Plainly we must only walk by night, resting during the heat of the day, distances covered governed by the stamina of the weakest.

Our garb, suited to the night sky, was an embarrassment by day: Irving jacket, battle-dress trousers, khaki shirt and fur-lined boots, though the Irvings were welcome at night. The boots, lacking detachable tops at that time, were modified by slitting down the front and peeling down round the ankles. Water was to be rationed to one bottle among the six of us per day: when it ran out we could head north for the coastal road and give ourselves up.

Thursday night saw some serious walking under a brilliant canopy of stars. The rough going was hard on the ankles, thought the terrain was level. Occasionally the baying of coyotes gave an eerie twist to the chilling silence; we rested hourly, boots off and feet raised, army fashion. Around midnight complete exhaustion compelled a halt and we settled down to await the dawn.

Friday. The same again with, we hoped, at least fifty miles behind us.

Saturday again saw an early start in search of the day’s shelter, but this time we stumbled on a moral-boosting sight – a line of shacks, another nomadic settlement. The greeting was friendly enough, but their spokesman cautioned us to keep well away until dusk when he would direct us to the next stop along the route. It appeared that they had been machined-gunned by Me 109s the day before and suffered casualties; they could well be back today.

From the air the row of shacks could possibly be taken for a mobile patrol of the Long Range Desert Group, known to be active in the area. Our request for water was turned down; their needs just then doubtless were even greater than ours. During that day we were concerned to realise that the gunfire first detected on Thursday seemed to be just as far off. Was Rommel still advancing?

The briefing at dusk was very much to the point. “Follow that star for 30 kilometres.” Taking our leave we departed, wrestling with our misgivings. The indicated star was prominent enough, but how to measure the distance? Three miles per hour for six hours was the best estimate; good visibility next morning might save the day.

Sunday dawned crystal clear but indicating no sign of life in any direction. Nearby was a cairn, perhaps marking the final resting place of some tank crew; one of us clambered to its summit for a better view, but to no avail. Possible options were being discussed when, right on cue, the gods smiled. A sharp eye had picked out faint wisps of bluish smoke climbing apparently straight out of the ground no distance away. Mirage or no mirage, six bemused bodies made haste towards it. A hundred paces or so and there, sheltering in the folds of a sizeable wadi, was another encampment, surely our intended objective.

Descending on the nearest habitation its owner came forward to meet us. Handshakes all round as we were invited inside. Crouching down we squeezed into a space no more than ten foot square, formed on three sides by a wall of sandbags and open to the air on the fourth. We joined the lady of the house industriously grinding grain, destined to become hubsi, a local delicacy.

Her husband was a fervent anglophile; a short time previously he had worked for some New Zealanders camped nearby. As our story unfolded he emphasised this fact by announcing that he and his brother, who lived next door, would escort us to safety. Our astonishment was only equalled by a strong feeling of gratitude. Later a sandbag was untied and six pairs of brand new socks were handed over.

Now that water was available the custodian of the last of our full bottles confessed that, during the previous night he had had a kind of brainstorm as a result of which he had drained the contents. Today’s meeting could not have been more timely.

At sunset our host’s brother arrived accompanied by, astonishingly, a donkey. This was loaded up with provisions contained in the aforementioned sacks. One of these was opened at the first stop; it was full of dates and a portion was demolished with relish. They featured on the breakfast menu too, and lost some of their allure as the daylight revealed them to be the abode of active maggots.

From the outset our escorts set a brisk pace; they intended to cover 25 miles a night for the next four nights, and we headed roughly southeast making for the Qattara depression. This extensive saltmarsh would not support tracked vehicles so the opposing lines ended north of its rim. The distance from El Alamein on the coast to the depression was 26 miles; Montgomery took advantage of this fact. How on earth our guides were so well acquainted with the disposal of the opposing armies we failed to discover .

By now the unaccustomed exertion was taking its toll so that the rests were more frequent and lasted longer. During the last two days of the trek the long-suffering donkey was prevailed upon to carry a human burden besides its admittedly reducing load. Failing a miracle I am certain we would never have made it to safety without the assistance of our friends. It soon became clear that they knew every inch of this part of the Western desert; for example, each night the final halt was at a pre-determined place offering some shelter.

And yet, what right had we, complete strangers, intruders even, to such chivalry, not to mention risk to life and limb? Witness the fact that each morning, briefly rested, the pair set off to reconnoitre the route for the following night, returning each evening to report on the whereabouts of ‘plenty Germans’.

Thursday morning saw a change in the routine. The whole party moved off on the last lap; a three hour trek saw us gazing down into the depression. There followed an ungainly scrambling descent to what had once been the beach of an inland sea. Now the going was easier, though the heat was overpowering as we formatted on our long-suffering beast of burden. Into view around mid-afternoon came a patrol consisting of two open trucks. With some trepidation we plodded on; there was a sense of relief when we were near enough to see that their crews wore unmistakable British tin hats.

Greetings all round as we were helped aboard to set off at a pace in keeping with that of the donkey in our original direction, presently to zigzag our way uphill to the desert proper. Our new companions belonged to the Seventh Armoured Division, at that time holding the southern flank. It was already dark when we reached headquarters.

The final chapter is soon told. On arrival our guides were ushered off to a remote part of the outfit to be loaded up with all the provisions they could transport including, so we gathered, flour, tea, tobacco, onions and sugar.

Undoubtedly this was well received; it was a modest token for the great effort made on our behalf. The alternative, a modest cash offering from his Imperial Majesty, would have been quite useless in their situation. This is not to say that the proposition was not made on that Sunday morning.

One final thought: was it just coincidence, that meeting of ours in the Qattara Depression; and who might the brothers have met when reconnoitring – and why were they secreted away as soon as we reached 7th Armoured HQ? Is it possible that we had the good fortune to stumble across a desert escaping organisation?

I believe we did.

Tony died at the age of 90 in June 2012.

Links & Notes

* Tony was a member of the Late Arrivals Club, "in as much as he, when obliged to abandon his Aircraft, on the ground, or in the Air, as a result of unfriendly action by the enemy, succeeded in returning to his Squadron, on foot or by other means, long after his Estimated Time of Arrival.
This member is permitted to wear the Emblem of the Winged Boot on the left breast of his Flying Suit."

Qattara Depression Map

page last updated 23 June 2012: ACA Surrey Branch 2010