4. Capture: Benghazi Concentration Camp

"Latrines were merely shallow trenches without covers. This gave free access to the flies, and dysentery was rampant....Rations allowed were one bottle of water, a four hundred gramme loaf of dark bread, and one tin of meat per man every day....I was aghast at the prospects of a lengthy stay."


After the battle at Mersa Matruh, everything changed for Sgt. Robert Otterson and the 7,000 soldiers who had been captured that day. It would be almost three long years before the war's end would bring liberation not only for millions of civilians from the ravages and misery of war, but for hundreds of thousands of prisoners of all nationalities. Many would never return home.

From this point, the narrative is mostly from Robert Otterson's own words, as recorded by pencil in a journal made from scraps of Italian paper and sewn together with string. The journal survives today.

Other surviving journals and accounts from the same prison camps at Benghazi tell a consistent story. The Italian military authorities were overwhelmed by the thousands of prisoners the Germans had handed over to them, and it took weeks before a semblance of organization became evident. With starvation rations and no sewerage, dysentery was rampant. And there was always uncertainty about the future - or even if there would be a future. All of the men lost weight and began to look thin, many emaciated. All were subject to blackouts.

For the first five weeks after his capture, however, Robert Otterson was not at Benghazi. After being picked up off the battle field, then lying for a day with a bleeding and badly crushed leg in the searing desert sun, he was treated briefly at a field dressing station, then conveyed by barge to an Italian hospital at Tobruk, which had also fallen to the Germans. A few days later he was conveyed by ambulance to a field hospital in Derna, 200 miles to the west, to recover from his wounds.  In that five weeks, he had plenty of time to think. 

His personal journal at this point is notable for the change in tone from the letters he had written home before his capture. Lying on his back, far from home and with no foreseeable end in sight, his thoughts turned to his faith. One particular event appears to have been pivotal. A conversation is going on between other wounded soldiers in beds near his. One of the men says he doesn't believe in God. Later that night, it is found that his dressing had come loose and he had bled to death.

Always a religious man, Robert Otterson was deeply affected by this incident. With time to think, and still having his pocket bible, he begins to re-evaluate his personal commitment to what he sees as his religious duty. Today, we would describe his language as born-again Christian or evangelical. Those unfamiliar with religious experience may find some of his observations difficult to understand, or even see a touch of self-righteousness. But that would be ungenerous and would miss the point. Sgt. Otterson is at the point of a profound transformation. As we observe him alone with his thoughts, we witness him shift from preoccupation with himself and his situation, to seeing deprivation around him as an opportunity to help others gain or strengthen their own religious faith. When shortly afterwards he moves into the Benghazi camp, other experiences quickly solidify these thoughts into permanent change. That change would not only sustain him for the next three years of captivity, but would influence the rest of his short life. 

Postcard picture of Derna 1942
Public domain by virtue of date (1942)
POW camp 116, Benghazi, Libya, 1942
National Library of New Zealand - see caption

Above, top to bottom:

  • Contemporary postcard image of Derna, Libya, where Robert Otterson lay in a field hospital for five weeks in 1942.
  • Prisoners in the camps at Benghazi. Various accounts of these camps have been left by the men incarcerated there. Sgt. Robert Otterson never mentions the number of his camp, but from his description it appears it was similar if not identical to Camp 116. When prisoners were moved to Italy just before Benghazi was recaptured by British forces, one observer noted that the men were "not just thin, they were skeletal."

[Photo credit (used with permission): Dixon, H R, active 1942. Six prisoners of war from camp 116 in Benghazi, Libya. New Zealand. Department of Internal Affairs. War History Branch: Photographs relating to World War 1914-1918, World War 1939-1945, occupation of Japan, Korean War, and Malayan Emergency. Ref: DA-10602. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23193288].


After the battle: Derna hospital

From the personal journal of Robert Otterson

MY EYES OPENED WEARILY on scene three of what appeared to my tired brain and pain-wracked body to be the continuation of a particularly unpleasant nightmare. They alighted on a long gnome-like head and face completely devoid of hair and then descended to the torso to which it was fixed. The man was stripped to the waist. Tiny globules of perspiration stood out on his skin, or formed rivulets which glistened in the light of the oil lamp. The flickering lights caused his shadow to dance grotesquely on the sides of the marquee under which I lay.

On the right of the grim apparition who had first met my gaze was another more ordinary looking man, clothed in white overalls.

Scene one had taken place about thirty miles south east of Mersa Matruh, in the desert. We had been encircled by the enemy and were attempting to fight our way out. After experiencing an inferno of shells and bullets during which the flames from burning vehicles illuminated the bodies of dead and wounded sprawled on the sand, I received the coup-de-grâce.

I had been riding on the running board of the vehicle in order to direct the driver to avoid boulders and other obstacles, when something seemed to clutch at the flapping tail of my greatcoat. This was followed immediately by a terrific crash. The truck swerved violently, and I was flung to the ground. A moment later I felt an intense pain in both of my legs as the rear wheel passed over them, grinding the flesh among the rocks and sand. I remember German stretcher bearers arriving shortly afterwards and carrying me into a wadi filled with wounded. My legs were roughly dressed, and I spent six long hours before the dawn listening to the battle raging on the escarpment above me.

Scene two was seared on my memory by a burning June sun, under which I lay for the remainder of that day without any shade, and tormented by a myriad flies attracted by the smell of blood.

As the sun was setting I had been conveyed by ambulance over tortuous country to the advance dressing station, where these episodes began to resolve themselves into the nightmare referred to at the commencement of my story. My stretcher was laid on a table and with head slightly raised I took stock of my surroundings.

The half-naked gnome in the foreground snapped a guttural command to his assistant, who commenced to remove the dressings from my legs.

This was completed without ceremony or sentiment, after which the wounds were cleaned by the gnome, who redressed them and injected me savagely with anti-tetanus serum.

The next four days were spent in an adjoining marquee, from which I saw one after another of my comrades being carried to their last resting place.

Until I left this dressing station for Tobruk, I had not thought much upon the fact that I was a prisoner of war. Now that I was to put a few hundred miles between myself and my friends, the helplessness of my situation was forced upon me.

We were conveyed to Tobruk by barges, but my stay in the Italian hospital there was of short duration. Twenty-four hours later, I was on my way by ambulance to Derna, about 200 miles to the west.

During my five weeks’ stay in Derna hospital, which again was merely a marquee, certain episodes were stamped indelibly upon my memory, both pleasant and unpleasant. Among the latter was the combat with fleas, lice and flies with which the place was infested, and which the Italians made no attempt to control. Dysentery was prevalent. 
The food was mediocre and consisted of a small loaf of dark bread and two bowls of boiled macaroni per day. Occasionally, the macaroni was supplemented with dried potatoes, cabbage, beans or meat. We also received an issue of cigarettes averaging three per day.
It was in Derna hospital, however, that my thoughts began to turn once more towards the things of God and Eternity. One day I heard two patients arguing on some religious topic, and one of them was heard to proclaim loudly that he didn’t believe there was a God. A few hours later an orderly noticed him lying strangely quiet and still, and on examining him, found that he was dead. A dressing had worked loose and he had bled to death.
Bardia Bill artillery, WW 2
Public domain (copyright expired).
Map of Axis territory 1942
Public domain


  • Italian coastal gun emplacement at Bardia, dubbed by the British “Bardia Bill.” A copy of this photograph was included by Robert Otterson in his wartime log book.
  • Map of the world in 1942, showing the nations occupied by the Axis powers. With America now in the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, this was the high watermark for the Japanese Empire.

Meanwhile, the battle for North Africa, with its key strategic Mediterranean ports, see-sawed between German and British advances. At this point in Robert Otterson's narrative, the Germans had pushed from the west to take Benghazi and Tobruk, but their advance would finally be turned back at El Alamein.

Elsewhere, in the same month that Rommel's forces took Tobruk, the Germans were locked in another desperate struggle. A year after their invasion of the Soviet Union and initial, spectacular advances, the tables had turned and the Germans were being pushed back along vast stretches of the Eastern front.

"A few hours later, an orderly found that he was dead. A dressing had worked loose and he had bled to death." 

Someone mentioned what had been among his last words, and my conscience pricked me as I realized that I had not tried to warn him of the judgment to come, or of a salvation to be obtained. I had come to know of these things seven years before, when I had accepted Christ as my personal Saviour, but since the outbreak of war my love had grown cold, and my zeal in His service diminished.

The death of this man without God brought to my remembrance the words written in the third chapter of Ezekiel: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman unto the House of Israel…When I say to the wicked Thou shalt surely die…and thou givest him not warning, and the same wicked man die in his iniquity…his blood will I require at thy hand.”  As one who had been enlightened I felt a great responsibility towards those around me who, either through ignorance or indifference, were without God and without hope in the world. My Bible had been stolen with the rest of my kit during the first two days of my captivity. But I still had my pocket testament which I began to read daily.
Life in Benghazi Prison Camp
On the eleventh of August I was moved to Benghazi concentration camp. This was supposed to be merely a transit camp where prisoners would stay not longer than fourteen days, before shipment to Italy. As it happened, I spent exactly three months there, and some had been there for seven weeks before my arrival.
By this time my legs, though still a trifle stiff and numb in places, had healed up, as by a miracle, no bones had been broken. I felt rather weak in my body, however, owing to my long stay in hospital and lack of really nourishing food.
My first view of the camp and when I understood the conditions under which the prisoners were living discouraged me to such an extent that I doubted my ability to endure it for longer than a fortnight. In thinking this I had left out God, with whom all things are possible.
Benghazi P.O.W. camp was situated near a salt marsh just outside the town. It consisted of a few acres of sand and rock which sloped upwards from the marsh. The camp was divided into four pens separated from each other by barbed wire entanglements. At strategic points outside the camp were watch towers and machine gun posts. Sentries patrolled outside the wire at night and both sides during the day. All these things coupled with the knowledge that our troops were approximately six hundred miles away made escape a difficult proposition to contemplate and more difficult to attempt.

At the date of my arrival, each pen enclosed approximately eight thousand men, two of them for white troops and the other two for South African blacks and Indians. There were a few hundred blacks in the pen where I was confined, but they were moved after a few days.

Conditions had improved to a certain extent since the arrival of the first prisoners, but there was still much to be desired in the way of organization and administration.

At first, latrines had been merely shallow trenches without covers. This gave free access to the flies and dysentery was rampant. Medical supplies were scarce, and though the British and South African doctors laboured valiantly, sickness and desert sores were on the increase.

Rations allowed were one bottle of water, a four hundred gramme loaf of dark bread, and one tin of meat per man every day. The loaves often varied in size from a man’s fist to the regulation size. Occasionally, half a spoonful of ersatz coffee and the same amount of sugar was issued.

After seven weeks certain improvements were noticeable. Seats and covers for the latrines were being constructed, and the resultant number of dysentery patients who slept by them was reduced. A small quantity of medical supplies was delivered once a week, and though the amount was entirely inadequate, it gave a check to disease and sores. The ration of water was doubled, and the issue properly organized. Once or twice a week, there was a hot meal of boiled rice and beans. On these days the ration of meat was halved, but the bulk of the hot meal, and the full stomach it gave, more than made up for the loss in meat. Five cigarettes per man were issued every two days, with occasional lapses of memory by the Italians.

Such were the conditions which prevailed on the eleventh of August 1942. So one cannot wonder that I was aghast at the prospects of a lengthy stay.

On my arrival, which was at about five o’clock in the evening, I and the five other men who had accompanied me were immediately surrounded by the inmates of the pen and besieged with questions concerning the progress of the war. We gave them all the authentic news gleaned up to date, and they went away very crestfallen when they heard that our main forces were as far back as El Alamein. I understood from others that their hopes had been buoyed up by rumours that our forces had retaken Tobruk.

Two thirds of the white prisoners were South Africans, as a regiment of South Africans had been released by our forces when they captured Benghazi on Christmas Day 1941. Their compatriots, at present prisoners, were hoping for history to repeat itself. I was to learn later that their spirits rose or fell barometrically according to rumours received from various doubtful sources.

My number, rank and name were taken by a British R.S.M., after which I was given an Italian ground sheet and allotted to a group designated “X” Group. This comprised some twenty-odd men who were new arrivals or had been discharged from hospital.  The remainder of the camp was split up into groups of fifty, each group being in command of a senior N.C.O. He was responsible for the collection and re-distribution of rations for his group. He also received daily orders from the camp R.S.M., including the latest rumours or information, which he also passed on to his group. That night I slept under the stars wrapped in my ground sheet, as a tent had not yet been allotted to me. The tents destined to be our homes for many weeks were constructed from two or more of these ground sheets, the number of sheets varying with the number of occupants desirous of living together.

The Question of the Senussi

Robert Otterson's references to the Senussi guards and their character are puzzling. His criticisms of the Senussi here and on a later page are consistent with bitter and scathing reports from other prisoners at Benghazi.

The following is an extract from an article by Karen Horn, The Historical Association of South Africa, Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, University of Pretoria:

"None of the accounts by POWs reveal any vestige of goodwill between the Senussi and the prisoners. In his memoirs, L.G. Tupper of the Kaffrarian Rifles, [said] "they would shoot for the slightest provocation. I remember one chap who showed them the 'V' for victory sign and was shot". This description probably reflects most POWs feelings towards these people. Rosmarin described the Senussi guards at Benghazi as "raw desert natives" whose behaviour only increased the tension between the captives and captors. Mortlock's description of them goes one step further as he dehumanises them by comparing them to animals who "endeavoured to make their wishes known by bashing you about with a rifle butt. I believe there were cases of prisoners being shot by these creatures. Furthermore, if they noticed watches, fountain pens etc, these were immediately ripped off. It was indeed a lucky thing for the Senussis that none of the prisoners whom they handled were in the victorious Eighth Army advance in the latter part of 1942."

However, caution may be warranted in describing the tribal origin of the sadistic guards at Benghazi. Senussi history is complex. While the Senussi had fought the British in Egypt in World War 1, they were strongly opposed to the presence of the Italians in North Africa and so supported the British in World War 2. A 2018 Wikipedia entry on the history of the Senussi includes this sentence:

"During World War II, the Senussi tribes led by King Idris formally allied themselves with the British Eighth Army in North Africa against Nazi German and Fascist Italian forces. Ultimately, the Senussi proved decisive in the British defeat of both Italy and Germany in North Africa in 1943. In fact, the Senussi led the resistance and Italians closed Senussi khanqahs, arrested sheikhs, and confiscated mosques and their land. Libyans fought the Italians until 1943, with 250-300,000 of them dying in the process."

Possibly the Allied POWs at Benghazi had come to regard and mistakenly refer to all local Arab guards as Senussi, reflecting the dominant religious influence in the area. Or, could the guards have been renegade elements, or could "raw desert natives" indicate nomadic Bedouin tribesmen? Whatever the explanation, the prisoners' descriptions of the tribal origins of their guards is in question.

Below: King Idris, Senussi leader, inspecting Libyan Arab Force troops with British staff officers.

The night was disturbed by the firing of shots by Senussi sentries and the howling of dogs in a nearby Senussi encampment. Whenever I look back to these days, the prisoner of war camp will always be associated with these two evils which were a nightly performance.

I believe that one of the reasons for the firing was to awake their comrades for their tour of duty. But the shots were far too frequent for this reason only. There seemed to be no discipline to control the firing whenever they felt inclined to do so. Usually blank rounds, with a particularly vicious report were used, but occasionally we heard the whine or bullets dangerously close to our heads. As dawn broke, more friendly sounds came to my ears. The he-haw, he-haw, he-haw-aw-aw of an ass echoed over the still morning air. From the encampment a cock crowed, and a camel emitted a sorrowful moan.

I lay listening to these sounds for a while, and pondering over the problem of how I should pass away the daylight hours, and then the bugle blew for the issue of rations.

That day I was posted to another group in order to complete its numbers, and I felt that my experiences as a P.O.W. were only just beginning.

Crown and Anchor game
From the website https://eightygames.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/20131024-122007.jpg

Above:  Crown and Anchor was a gambling game, based on luck, made popular by British sailors, usually played with three dice and a cloth or board.
Below:  Cigarettes were the universal  currency in wartime prison camps. Popular brands, then and for years after the war, often reflected armed forces, especially the navy - Player's Navy Cut, Senior Service and Capstan.

Also: South African POW cartoon of the time.

Composite photograph of brabnds of cigarette packets
Image by Michael Otterson

I spent most of that first day on an unofficial tour of inspection in the camp. There was much to be learned, and also to absorb the interest. As for the men themselves, they were tanned a dark brown by the sun, and the majority looked healthy enough except for a certain leanness in the face, and unsteadiness in their walk. Many were heavily bearded, having lost their razors when captured. The white prisoners were not employed in any capacity by the Italians, but squads of blacks were taken out on daily fatigues. These were given a little extra rations.

A prisoner-of-war postcard by 'JJF', 01/1945. (By courtesy, SANMMH).

I strolled across to where a crowd had gathered around a man elevated on a water can, and found an auction in progress. The articles put up for auction were many and varied. There were pieces of clothing and equipment, blankets, toilet necessities, salt, dried rice and beans, bundles of wood, and a multitude of other things.

The currency used was either Egyptian piastres or cigarettes. 1 lb. tins of jam were being sold for 50 piastres, the equivalent of ten shillings in English money. A one-pound tin of jam plus an issue loaf was sold for the equivalent of ₤1 English money, while eight small eggs went for the same price. I stayed for a while and watched other articles going at similar exhorbitant prices, before moving to another sideshow.

Here I found a man sitting on the sand with a blanket spread in front of him, on which were laid out packets of cigarettes. I learned that these were being almost given away for the "trifling" price of twenty for one pound.

In another corner, men were grouped around a crown and anchor board, on which they were gambling money and cigarettes. Nearby were two other gambling schools with their attendant crowd. One group was throwing coins, while the other was taking part in the game of “House” or “Lotto.”

Many of the articles for sale or auction, especially the food, were obtained by bartering with the sentries, or had been procured by doubtful means by the blacks whilst on fatigues.

I continued my tour with the verse from Genesis running through my mind: “God saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every thought and imagination of his heart was only evil continually.”

were others engaged in more constructive pastimes. Some were busy making ovens and fireplaces from clay, making or repairing clothes with patches from blankets and ground sheets, preparing their meat and bread for the next meal, or carving objects from wood and tin.

It would be as well at this point to describe the various methods used to disguise the never changing “bully” and bread, before consuming it. Not that it was unpalatable in its uncooked state. On the contrary it was very tasty, but we longed for something different. 

One of the methods used to satisfy this longing was the Benghazi stodge. The recipe for preparing this delectable dish was as follows. The bread was crumbled and mixed in a tin with the meat. Water was added until a thin gruel effect was obtained, after which it was boiled until it thickened and the water had been absorbed. Porridge was made by boiling bread crumbs in a similar manner and adding salt or sugar.

If one preferred hard food to stodges, the Benghazi pie was recommended. To make this it was necessary to scoop the center from half a loaf. The soft crumbs were then mixed with the meat into a stiff paste, which was heated over the fire. The hollow crust was prepared next by toasting the inside. This was quickly performed either by placing glowing wood embers inside and blowing on them, or if one didn’t mind the taste of smoke, placing the crust over the flames and allowing them to lick the inside. When both were heated and toasted, the paste was pressed back into the crust and it was ready for consumption.This pie was sometimes prepared in a similar manner, but steamed in an oven instead of toasted.

Other dishes were slices of toasted bread and meat, bread fried in the meat gravy and fat, and beef steak puddings. The latter dish was prepared by lining a meat tin with a paste of bread crumbs, filling it with meat, placing a crust of paste on top, replacing the lid, and then boiling or roasting it as required.

Those men who were fortunate in being able to procure other ingredients could give wider scope to their culinary efforts. In this respect I once procured a small lemon. This I grated up, skin included, and with a few days sugar ration, turned out a very creditable lemon pudding.

There was a disinfesting machine in the camp which was very useful for cooking under. Occasionally I would make a pie from a complete loaf of bread and a whole tin of meat, and bake it under the fire of the machine. But this entailed fasting the rest of the day. These pies were made in a mess tin in a similar manner to the smaller beef steak pies, but were cooked crisp and brown. Usually, half a loaf of bread and half a tin of meat were used for each meal, giving two meals a day. Some men made three meals from their rations, others only one.

Besides giving a change to the palate, the preparation of these dishes whiled away the time. In another part of the camp, men were bartering cigarettes and clothing across the wire with the blacks. In exchange, they were receiving firewood, mealy-meal flour, onions and rice. When I saw men parting with their clothing for cigarettes and food, it made me wonder how they would fare if we were still in captivity when the cold weather arrived.

This buying and selling of clothing  was stopped a few weeks later, owing to many men complaining of having had their kit stolen. Camp police were established, and drastic action was taken against thieves who were caught. Some had their rations stopped for a few days; others were handed over to the Italians for punishment. Before this bartering was stopped, however, I was able to buy a woolen pullover for thirty cigarettes.

"There was no prospect of seeing my wife and children, home and friends for months or even years, possibly not at all. I had only sufficient food to keep me alive, and not sufficient clothing to keep me warm at night. A verse of scripture came to me: 'We came into the world with nothing, and it is certain we can carry nothing out with us.'”

All my worldly possessions were a haversack containing two towels, a razor, hairbrush and comb, a tin plate and mug, a clasp knife with tin opener, and a few miscellaneous articles of little value. I was dressed in Khaki shirts and shorts, and possessed one pair of boots and socks. While the weather continued warm, I went about bare-footed, like the majority of the men.

Another profitable but more honest business being carried on was hair dressing. About a dozen men of this trade were lined up, each with the necessary implements, and a water can for the customer to sit on. The charge for a haircut was one cigarette.

The ration tents and quarters for the camp administrative staff, known as the “Kremlin,” were situated in the center of the camp, in a wired off compound. Those who could get a job in the Kremlin were counted fortunate, as it meant an extra hot meal, and other little extras.

Towards the end of my tour I met three men of my section who had been captured at the same time as myself. They supplied me with further items of information. In answer to my queries, they told me that religious services were held in the camp at various times during the day. There were two Church of England padres in the camp, and one Roman Catholic padre. The former officiated at morning and evening services daily, and the latter held matins and masses on certain days throughout the week. Besides these official services, undenominational meetings were also held every evening.

On the third evening after my arrival in the camp, I was walking around the compound for exercise, when I was attracted by the sound of very cheerful singing over in one corner. I strolled over and found a dozen or so men grouped in a circle singing CSSM choruses lustily. I stayed and added my voice to the volume if not to the harmony. Afterwards, one of the men gave a simple talk on the scriptures and the service was closed with a hymn and prayer.

This incident marked a change in my life, and in my attitude towards captivity. As I lay in bed, I began to realize that God had spared my life, and brought me to this camp for a purpose. All around me were men with more spare time at their disposal than they had ever had or perhaps ever would have during their lives. They had plenty of time to think of things which before seldom caused them a moment’s thought. Satan would soon find work for idle hands to do, as was proved by the amount of thieving prevalent.

Why had God spared my life? Again the question came to me, and I pondered over it allowing the Holy Spirit of God to do His work of revelation in my heart.

I realized now why my love had grown cold, and my zeal diminished. Was it not because I had failed in not surrendering myself and my all fully and completely to the Lord! Yes, I had surrendered my past and my present, but I had retained the future. I had been afraid that God’s will would interfere in my ambitions for prosperity and happiness. Now I saw with startling clearness the meaning of those words in the hymn, “Not a mite would I withhold.” I had been striving for an earthly goal rather than a heavenly; I had thought more about the treasures I possessed on earth, rather than seeking to lay up treasure in heaven. God in His long suffering and mercy had let me go on, and then at a blow had shorn me of all those things which I held dear. There was no prospect of seeing my wife and children, home and friends for months or even years, possibly not at all. I had only sufficient food to keep me alive, and not sufficient clothing to keep me warm at night. A verse of scripture came to me: “We came into the world with nothing, and it is certain we can carry nothing out with us.” Truly, this was as near living to the brink of death as ever we would, until we actually were called to leave this life.

What then was God’s purpose in stripping me of all the amenities of life? The reasons I believe were firstly, that I might realize the instability of my worldly possessions. Though all I treasured might be taken from me, I could still live, and possessed certain things of which man could not deprive me. Secondly, many around me were in a similar state, but lacked the peace and comfort which could be derived from God’s Word. I believed it to be His will that I should devote my captivity in seeking to serve Him by enlightening men regarding the blessings he was ready and eager to bestow on all who would accept.

God did not want to take anything from us which could give happiness. “No good thing will he withhold from them that love Him and keep His commandments.” Did not Christ say that He came to give us life, and to give it more abundantly? Yet men were seeking their own petty pleasures, nibbling at crumbs when God offered the whole cake. “Prove me now…” He said through Malachi “and see if I will not open the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.” But there was a condition to which men were often blind, “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven, and all these things will be added unto you.” I, in common with others, had been seeking to mould God’s will to mine. Before I went to sleep that night I surrendered myself and my future wholly and unconditionally to the Lord, and prayed that I might be a humble instrument in His service from that day onwards.

I was awakened at the first streaks of dawn by the sounds of animal and bird life in the nearby encampment, and spent a time of re-consecration to the Lord. When it was sufficiently light, I read a portion of the scriptures:   “Take no thought for the morrow, saying what shall we eat, or what shall we drink, or wherewithal shall we be clothed…for your Heavenly Father knoweth you have need of all these things.” I admitted I had thought of food and clothing and had been rather anxious regarding the latter. But claiming the promises contained in these verses, I cast my burden on Him who feeds the ravens and decks the lilies of the field.

During the remainder of that day and the days which followed, time no longer dragged for me. I was fully occupied in attending the little service every evening, Bible class every afternoon, and prayer meeting every morning. Occasionally there would be a Church of England service in addition. This also took away one’s thoughts of food which normally predominated.

At our prayer meetings, we left with the Lord all our spiritual and temporal needs, and prayed that souls might be saved in the camp.  That our prayers were effectual will be seen later in this narrative.

Right: The only postcard written by Robert Otterson from Benghazi camp that has survived. Sensitive to what his wife needs to hear, it is cheerful and reassuring, but also true. The verse he adds from Matthew 6:25 reads:

"Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?"

I have already remarked that I lacked an overcoat and hat and my socks were almost worn out. Overcoats were being sold for three pounds, and I hadn't that many pence. A few days after committing these matters to the Lord, a friend came to me and gave me an overcoat. How and from where he had procured it I did not ask, sufficient to know that God had answered prayer. The next day a hat followed. The brother who supplied me with this item also asked me how I fared for socks. I had to confess that my one and only pair were pretty nearly worn out.  Without more ado he handed me a perfectly new pair of his own, waiving my objections by telling me that he still possessed another two pairs.

Postcard written by POW from Benghazi, 1942
Archive collection of Michael Otterson family
Archive collection of Michael Otterson family
Archive collection of Michael Otterson family

On another occasion I was trying to obtain shaving soap for cigarettes at the auction sale, when another Christian friend approached.  Hearing what I required, he told me to keep the cigarettes for something else, as he had a spare shaving stick which I could have.

So it was that the Christian soldiers in that camp built up a similar fellowship to that which existed in the early church:  "... and no man called ought he possessed his own." But prayer was not made for our own needs alone. We prayed for better living conditions, better rations, and for the sick men in camp.  All these prayers were answered.  Extra water was supplied for the purpose of washing our clothes. Shower baths were arranged so that every man had the opportunity of bathing daily. And a disinfester helped to keep the lice under control.

There came a period when instead of having a loaf of bread issued, we received half bread and a packet of British army biscuits. Never have army biscuits been so welcome or eaten with such gusto.  We made porridge from them, and puddings; they were put in stodges, or eaten hard.  It came to my mind how often I had grumbled in the past because of having only biscuits to eat. Now we found them much more nourishing and sustaining than the bread.

At about the same time as biscuits began to be issued, we also started to receive a hot meal of rice or pea soup every day. The rice meal contained beans, cheese, onions, dried cabbage and tomato puree. Another addition to the ration was an occasional issue of ghee, being a fat obtained from goats’ milk, and used extensively in Eastern countries. An issue amounted to only one dessert spoonful per man, but more could usually be obtained by bartering cigarettes. This fat was very useful for cooking purposes.  We fried bread and meat in it, or mixed it with the Benghazi stodges and porridge.  It could be spread on bread and eaten with salt. Another favourite way of utilising it was to whip it up with water. By this method its bulk was doubled, and when sugar was added, tasted very similar to fresh cream. Occasionally we received large Italian biscuits.  These soaked in water swelled to twice their size. After soaking and being fried in a few issues of ghee, a good substitute for Yorkshire pudding was obtained.

These changes in rations caused a marked improvement in the health of the troops. Their lethargy disappeared and many began to take exercise, whereas they had spent most of the time lying in their tents.

Prisoners of war, cut off from any reliable sources of news from the outside world, thrive on rumors. They also learn to read every sign of change and interpret them as optimistically as possible. And there was change in the air late in October, 1942. Soon there would be a move to another camp a half mile away, but with better conditions. Yet the move would be short-lived. The distant sounds of guns, and increasing raids by the Royal Air Force were signs that the British were pushing back, and the possibility of liberation was tantalizing.

It would prove to be a forlorn hope.