5. The British Counterattack: Evacuation from Benghazi

"Rumours were very strong regarding the advance of our forces. This time there seemed to be good reasons to believe their authenticity."

Turn of the Tide

With due credit to the Italians, even though they were responsible for the welfare of their prisoners-of-war, they must still have been appalled at the conditions in which the POWs in Benghazi were being held .

Early on, food was desperately short and some of it consisted of captured British Army rations. But by the end of October, 1942, a better camp had been constructed and more than 4,000 men were moved into the new quarters just a half-mile away. Even though it was close by, the half-mile walk taxed the feeble strength of men in their weakened condition, all suffering from malnutrition.

The improvements were short-lived, however. With the Allies counterattacking from the east, Benghazi had again come under attack. Rather than risk thousands of prisoners being returned to active combat, the authorities moved them well behind the German lines, to Tripoli.

Tripoli, too, was acknowledged to be only a transit camp. The Americans were pushing from the west in Tunisia, while the British were advancing from the east on Benghazi. If the Allies eventually managed to meet up, it would be the end of German presence in North Africa.  The obvious solution: the prisoners would be moved by ship to Italy.

British soldier accepts German tank surrender at El Alamain, 1942
Public domain (Crown Copyright expired)
Abandoned German airfield, Benghazi 1943
Public domain

Above: German tank commander surrenders to British soldiers at second battle of El Alamein, 1942.

British soldier surveys abandoned German airfield at Benghazi, 1943.

Change of Quarters

The moves predicted began to take place on the 20th October. We were told that the whole camp was to be cleared and that we must be prepared to move at 7 o'clock that morning. Accordingly we took down the tents, packed up our few belongings and sat down to wait.

While waiting, I found it interesting to note the accumulation of articles in each man's possession. Some had blackened tins for cooking food and for boiling their coffee. Others carried portable fireplaces, German water containers, bundles of firewood, the heads of shovels and pick-axes, iron bars of various dimensions, steel helmets converted into stew pans or wash bowls and much other impedimenta.

sinking of Italian supply ship off Tripoli 1942
Public domain.

As the British counterattacked in North Africa late in 1942, Italian shipping in the Mediterranean came under increasing attack.

Above: Italian supply vessel Pietro Querini, part of a convoy headed to Tripoli, sinks off of Tunisia after being torpedoed by the British submarine HMS Union.

They were dressed in many cases in home-made regalia. Italian ground sheets had been transformed into shirts and trousers. The tails of shirts and pieces of puttees now took the place of hats. Blankets had been utilized in making tunics and shoes. I marveled at the constructive genius of many of these men. About a week previously we had had an exhibition of arts and handicrafts. I had been amazed to see some of the fine workmanship, much of it performed with no other tools than a razor blade or clasp knife, as it must be remembered that we had been searched and deprived of any tools when we were captured.

I had seen a crucifix with the figure of the Lord upon it, carved from a piece of wood and polished with a mixture of brown boot polish and ghee. There were other crucifixes and rosaries cut from pieces of glass which had once been part of an aeroplane windscreen. These were beautifully finished and polished tin boxes, their lids stamped with "Benghazi P.O.W. Camp" and the date. There were mess tins with lids made from biscuit tins, models in baked clay, sketches and paintings and many other things. As I thought of these things my heart was sad. Man who was naturally constructive, was now bent on wholesale destruction.

British Brodie helmet
Public domain

Above: The British Brodie helmet. For POWs who still had their helmet but wouldn't need it again, it made a useful mess dish.

We sat by our kit all that morning and most of the afternoon and then were informed that the move was postponed until the following day. By now we were more used to the Italians' ways, so resignedly unpacked our kit and re-erected our tents. The next morning we actually did commence to move. We were marched, or at least herded in straggling groups of fifty, through the gate complete with goods and chattels. In our weak condition, never had a half-mile walk seemed so far. Fortunately we were able to have frequent rests on the way while waiting for other groups to catch us up.

We found the new camp much more pleasantly situated than the one we had vacated. The ground was level and of soft sand. Apparently it had been cultivated by the Arabs before war had ravaged the country. For a number of days following our transfer to this camp, men could be seen on their hands and knees searching for lentils which had been grown there at some period. They would spend hours picking them up one by one; the reward of their labours resulting in a few dessert spoonfuls.

The first thing which happened to us on our arrival was that we were searched. Knives and tools of all description were confiscated. It was amazing to see the wheelbarrow loads of stuff which the men had managed to smuggle into the previous camp. Even in this search, many were able to retain tools etc. concealed on their persons.

The articles which had been collected were tipped outside the gate. We had to march past them into another compound and it was a simple matter for a laddie next to me to stoop down quickly and pick a pick-axe head from the heap and conceal it under his coat.

There were four compounds in this camp, each holding one thousand men. A fifth compound was utilized as an isolation pen for diphtheria suspects. The precautions taken against attempts to escape were more stringent than in the other camp. There were four fences of barbed wire about five feet high, running round the camp. Then came an alleyway along which the sentries patrolled, between a further two fences. There were watch towers at various points and the Italian and Sanussi guards had their quarters and guard room about fifty yards from the wire.  Later, flood lighting was installed and a formidable fence about eight feet high was added. Yet in spite of all these precautions, attempts to escape were still made, but to my knowledge none were successful.

"There were watch towers at various points and the Italian and Sanussi guards had their quarters and guard room about fifty yards from the wire.  Later, flood lighting was installed and a formidable fence about eight feet high was added."

I have mentioned before that the Sanussis seemed an entirely undisciplined and bloodthirsty crowd. [Editor's note: see article, previous page]. It was in this camp they committed a shocking atrocity. Two friends were standing a few yards from the wire talking, when a Sanussi sentry approached on the other side. He said something to them in his own language, which of course they failed to understand. Then flying into a rage he lifted his rifle and fired point blank at them. One of the men was hit in the throat and died very shortly afterwards.

King Idris of Libya with British officers WW2
Public domain

Idris of Libya with British staff officers. Idris was the head of the Senussi Order, allied to the British in World War 2, and later became king.

The men vowed what they would do to these Sanussis if ever they were released. It is easy to hate such people, yet ought we not rather to hate the sin and the originator of sin in man? It was for people like this Sanussi that Christ prayed, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."

We have often proved the statement that "all things work together for good to those who love God..." When we were moved into this new camp our meeting was split up, some Christian brothers going into each compound. But we saw God's hand in this also. In the previous camp He had united us until we were strengthened. Now that we had "grown in grace" He separated us in order to enlarge our field of service.

Only two barbed wire fences, about five feet apart, separated each compound.  Therefore we were able to converse with our friends across this space with perfect freedom. Thus it was that we were soon able to recommence our usual meetings, gathering against the wire in each pair of compounds. The compound in which I was confined and the one with which we combined for our meetings contained the greater proportion of Christians, so we had very good attendances.

We were three weeks in this camp during which we had knowledge of at least nine souls being saved in our two compounds alone. Three of these men call for special mention. One was in civilian life a skilled employee in a South African gold mine. He had lived a pretty wild life, gambling and drinking, until 1937 when he had a serious accident. For nine months he lay in hospital with a fractured skull. During this time God had been speaking to him. His wife was a Christian girl, and when he was finally discharged from hospital, he began to take heed to her advice. For a time he managed to lead a fairly straight life, but he was doing it in his own strength.  When war broke out and he joined the army, his good resolutions fell away and he became as bad as ever. Then he was taken prisoner and began to attend our meetings.  One evening he stayed behind and, after a talk and a prayer, said that from henceforth he would entrust his life to Christ.

Another is Jack - a boy of nineteen. He had left school at the age of 16 and joined the South African Army six months later. Since the war had begun, he had seen service in Eritrea, Abyssinia and Libya. A friend who had himself recently been brought to the Lord invited him to our meetings. I had a talk to him later and was appalled by his ignorance of the scriptures.  He didn't seem to know as much about Christianity or the Bible as a child learns at its mother's knee. One had to explain things very simply and he as simply accepted the word by faith and the great transition was completed.

The first soul to be won for the Lord in Benghazi P.O.W. camp, before my arrival there, was a young South African of German origin named Fritz -----. He used to come to me every day and confess he was filled with doubts and fears, or that he felt he was not growing in grace. One day he would be rejoicing, another day depressed. I would patiently read to him appropriate passages of scripture, dispelling his doubts, and send him away with beaming face.

Two or three days before leaving Benghazi he came to me with some more doubts. I pretended to be rather cross with him. "You know, Fritz," I said, "I have gone over these things again and again for you, and pointed out many verses from which you can receive assurance and comfort. Do you want to remain a “babe in Christ” always? It is time you left the milk stage for the meat of the Word. We may be moved from this camp any day and you may possibly find yourself as being the only Christian in the community. What are you going to do with your doubts then? You ought by now to be in a position to teach others."

He listened very meekly and went off rather crestfallen. Two days later he introduced a young man to us, who was a member of his own company and a boxer. Fritz told us that this man had just accepted Christ as his Saviour. So the first one to be saved had the privilege of leading the last one to Christ in that camp.

I have dwelt chiefly upon the work in which I assisted, but I do not wish to minimize the sterling work put in by the padres. At the first camp they held morning and evening services every day. They also held preparation classes for confirmation applicants and religious instructional classes. Besides this, they visited the sick in the camp hospitals and the hospitals outside the camp.

When we moved to the new camp, one of the padres was sent to Italy, so the services had to be reduced in number. The remaining Church of England padre divided his time among the four compounds and held services when he could. I shall never forget one of the most simple and beautiful communion services I attended was administered at a Free Church service by this padre. There were about a dozen applicants for confirmation and it really did my heart good to hear them promise to commit their lives to Christ and to try with His help to carry out His teachings.

The elements of the sacrament consisted of bread and water, no wine being obtainable. These were presented in an army mess tin, and an enamel mug. But never have I experienced a feeling of greater blessing as I received those symbols of the body and blood of Christ by faith in my heart.

By the time we moved into the new camp, most of the men had discovered ways of occupying their time. Some were learning languages, others practiced handicraft.  There were lectures given on a variety of subjects in a central part of the camp. Other men gave lectures to their groups or tent mates. Literature of all kinds was devoured avidly, and books were almost worth their weight in cigarettes. Seldom were they put up for sale, however. The happy owners usually exchanged them with each other. Many times during the day the cry "Book to swap" resounded throughout the camp.

A new business was started in our compound one day. In an open space appeared a large placard on which was sketched three balls. Above was the proprietor's name and business - Pawnbroker.... The currency obtained for pledged articles was, of course, cigarettes. A fixed interest was extorted and the articles had to be redeemed within twenty-four hours of the next cigarette issue. Unredeemed articles were sold by the pawnbroker.

At about the beginning of November, rumours were very strong regarding the advance of our forces. This time there seemed to be good reasons to believe their authenticity. Some prisoners had been brought in who said they had been captured at Sidi Barrani. They added that a big tank battle was in progress in that area.

Benghazi Harbor, November 1942, after RAF raid.
Origin unknown. Believed to be public domain by virtue of date, 1942.

Above: Benghazi Harbor, November 1942 after a bombing raid by the British Royal Air Force.

On the fourth and sixth of November the R.A.F. paid a visit with the largest number of planes we had yet seen over Benghazi. They dropped their bombs in the harbour area sinking a number of ships and inflicting further damage on land. We saw a huge column of dense black smoke mingled with flame rise above the trees surrounding our camp. Later we heard that it was an oil tanker which had been hit.

At last we were informed that all prisoners were being moved to Tripoli. We began to conjecture as to whether we would go by road or by sea. But as we saw the amount of transport proceeding Tripoli-ward, it became fairly obvious that the Germans and Italians needed all the transport they could get for their stores and equipment. Thus it was that on the eleventh of November we had sudden orders to pack up as we were marching to the docks. The usual collection of junk was hung around our persons except that we left behind our cooking pots, fireplaces and most of the water containers. It was a long and weary three miles walk to the docks and we were a very tired crowd when at last we arrived.

The Italian cargo ship which we boarded was of about 10,000 tons. She was the Monreale of Genoa. The crew were Italians, but the gunners were Germans. As we arrived on board some of the men were herded into a hold, but I managed to get a space on top of a hatch-cover. Here we were huddled together with hardly room to stretch our legs. However, we made the best of it by getting out our tin of bully and half loaf of bread for the last meal before dark. The ship sailed about an hour after sunset. Our last view of Benghazi harbour was an oil tanker enveloped in flames down to water level, and spewing out clouds of black smoke. I thanked God that night for a calm sea and fine weather. We should have been in a sorry plight had it rained.

Stuart tanks proceed along the waterfront in Benghazi, November 1942.
Part of War Office official collection. Capt. Flack, No 1 Army Film Photographic Unit
Local children are given a ride on a Bren gun carrier in Benghazi, November 1942.
Part of War Office official collection, Sgt. Chetwyn, No 1 Army Film Photographic Unit

Top: British armored vehicles control Benghazi, November 1942.
Above:  Local children pile onto a British Bren gun carrier to welcome liberating troops.

The next morning dawned bright and fair and our gastric juices were stimulated by the sight of fresh loaves of bread, salad, cheese and a jug of steaming coffee being carried to the German gunners whose post was a few yards from us. I am sorry to say that some of the men allowed their hunger to bring their fleshly lusts to the fore. A few of them crowded around the companionway and hungrily watched the Germans eating. I will say this about those Germans: they were as generous as it was possible to be under those circumstances. When they had finished breakfast, they flung about two and a half loaves to the men, who grabbed for them ravenously. Some of the Italian crew also gave away food to the men who hung around waiting for anything that was going.

There was a young R.A.F. sergeant in my group known as "Blondie." He was skilled in sketching natural scenes and portraits. As he sat on the hatch cover he sketched the gunners at their post. One young German  approached to see what he was doing and was highly delighted when he was given the finished product.  He got Blondie to sign it and in return gave him two loaves of bread, a lump of cheese and a tin of sausage meat.

Postcard of Tripoli 1940s.
Public domain postcard.

Above: Tripoli, postcard view.

About thirty hours after leaving Benghazi, somewhere near midnight we dropped anchor outside Tripoli harbour. The following morning we were aroused at dawn and told to prepare to move. Easing my cramped limbs, I bethought myself of the remains of an Italian biscuit in my pocket, and about two spoonfuls of sugar in my haversack so, having softened the biscuit with water and covered it with sugar, I ate my breakfast. By the time I had finished, the anchor had been raised and the ship was nearing the quaysides of Tripoli.

We threaded our way through a crowded harbour.  Despite the number of merchantmen present, however, there seemed to be very little loading or unloading activity in progress. I watched three big black Italian sea planes, each significantly loaded with passengers, skim along the harbour and then rising like gigantic birds, fly off toward the north.

The sun rose and glittered on the white domes and minarets of the town. It looked very picturesque and entirely Eastern in its setting. From where I stood it seemed to be a fair sized town, the biggest I had seen in North Africa. A motor road, lined with palm trees, ran parallel to the sea. There seemed to be very little traffic on it. Besides the mosques, one of the most prominent buildings was what I took to be a big Italian military barracks. It overlooked the harbour and I remember thinking what a pleasant view the soldiers would have from the shady verandas.

As we drew alongside the quay, our sightseeing came to an end. We were shouted at, pushed and shoved into alleyways ready to disembark. Just before this commenced there was a hitch in the proceedings.  Someone had lifted a board from one of the hatchways and discovered a huge crate of sweets.

Looking upon them as spoils of war, he immediately began to confiscate all he could carry. Other men who had been looking on also began to share the loot, filling pockets, sacks, etc. until they were all gone.  Soon dozens of men could be seen chewing and scattering sweet papers around the deck. Unfortunately, this was noticed by one of the crew and resulted in everyone being searched before leaving the ship. I should think only a very small proportion was recovered, however.

Transport was waiting to carry us to our new destination which, we understood, was seven kilometres away. Our view of the scenery en route was very limited owing to being crowded into covered lorries. What we could see from the rear of the truck was more inviting countryside than we had experienced for some months. There were lots of trees and fields of crops and vineyards. Even our prison compounds had their quota of trees, both inside and out.

A surprise awaited us on our arrival. As we entered the gate each man was issued with an Italian mess tin and two blankets.  Shortly afterwards we received a hot meal of rice and beans. In the evening we were issued with a pint of thin and very clear soup, a loaf of bread slightly smaller than the Benghazi loaf and about two cubic inches of cold boiled beef. This, with the addition of half a pint of black coffee every morning, was to constitute our daily menu while we remained in Tripoli, so we were told. We weighed up the advantages and disadvantages of this diet compared with that of Benghazi. A meal of rice every day was an asset we had experienced for only a short period in Benghazi. The soup warmed us up at night but was almost entirely devoid of nourishment. The only visible vegetable matter was a few pieces of onion. Of meat, there was not a vestige. The two cubic inches of meat when cut up small made one or two tasty sandwiches, but we felt that they by no means equaled the half tin of "bully" to which we had been accustomed. After the first few days we discovered that the evening meal was always served so late that it had to be eaten in the dark.

"Some men were too weak to walk around the compound, and all of us, except the administrative staff, were very lean. It was pitiful to watch how avidly we ate our food, lingering over the last few mouthfuls, loath to stop eating.  The tins from which we ate were scraped clean of every crumb of bread or grain of rice. Not a particle of food was wasted. All of us were subject to frequent blackouts."

As was natural, we soon began to compare our life in Tripoli P.O.W. camp with that of Benghazi. While our new camp was more pleasantly situated, it had certain disadvantages. Sanitary arrangements were not so good and there was a consequent increase in dysentery.

The administration was not so efficient. This resulted in meals being issued at times differing between two and three hours each day.  There was not such a liberal supply of water, nor was it issued regularly until we had been there a few days.

Although I have suggested here that Benghazi had certain advantages over Tripoli camp, I do not intend to convey to the reader that the prisoners had a good time at the former place. The hardships there were very real indeed. While I have mentioned that certain items of food could be bought surreptitiously from the sentries, there were only two or three in every thousand who had any money. The remainder of us therefore had to live on the rations issued. These, at their best, were entirely insufficient to maintain the strength of the normal man. Some men were too weak to walk round the compound, and all of us, except the administrative staff, were very lean. It was pitiful to watch how avidly we ate our food, lingering over the last few mouthfuls, loath to stop eating.  The tins from which we ate were scraped clean of every crumb of bread or grain of rice. Not a particle of food was wasted. All of us were subject to frequent blackouts.

Yet, despite these conditions, I and many others thank God for the prisoner of war experience. At a testimony meeting held just before leaving Benghazi I heard man after man state publicly that he was glad - yes, glad! - that God had brought him here. All of us, even the most penurious in that camp, had learned to appreciate many things which before we had taken for granted. Which of us at home had ever felt a song of thanksgiving in our hearts when partaking of a piece of dry bread and a drink of water? Which of us in civilian life could have a daily diet of dry bread and tinned meat and at the end of five months eat it as ravenously and thankfully as at first?

"I doubt if any man who has been a prisoner of war will ever be able to refuse a beggar food, look upon the poorer members of his community without a pang of pity or even be brought to waste a crust of bread."

Below: British troops enter Tripoli, January, 1943.

British armored vehicle enters Tripoli, 1943.
Public domain.

It also made us remember how that at home we had been blessed with many good things while many around us suffered want. My thoughts go back to the time when I was a small boy. One winter's night as I was returning home, I was attracted to the brightly lit window of a sweet shop. With my face pressed against the cold glass I devoured with my eyes the sweetmeats displayed to tantalize me. I was deciding which of the wares I would like to buy if I were rich, when someone tapped me on the head. Looking up, I saw an elderly lady smiling benevolently upon me. Whether I had uttered aloud my desires, or whether she had only read my thoughts, I do not know, but pressing threepence into my hand she said: "Go and buy some," and vanished, like a fairy queen. Haven't we all seen poor people gazing enviously into well-stocked shops without the wherewithal to purchase the good things displayed? I doubt if any man who has been a prisoner of war will ever be able to refuse a beggar food, look upon the poorer members of his community without a pang of pity or even be brought to waste a crust of bread.

Our hardships were reduced very little at Tripoli. The first five days were very cold and wet.  Few of us had sufficient clothing or blankets. Many were without boots, overcoats and tunics. After we had been at Tripoli for a week, however, a blanket was issued to men without overcoats and boots were given to those who were deficient of footwear.

On our arrival at Tripoli we had been informed that our quarters were only temporary as it was purely a transit camp. In four days' time we should be on our way to Italy.  "Man proposes. God disposes." The fourth day came and went, and day after day followed without us being moved. It seemed, however, that prisoners were being shipped to Italy as quickly as possible as we oft-times saw lorry loads pass us from adjoining camps. Twice in the first week, five hundred men in our compound were warned to move, then as suddenly the order was canceled.

We found the Italian sentries better disciplined here than at Benghazi. No longer was there any indiscriminate shooting at night. The only interruption to our slumbers was the serenading by these sentries. They would sing at the tops of their voices for most of the night or else converse loudly and volubly with each other over a distance of fifty to a hundred yards. While this was annoying, one could sympathise with the poor fellows standing out there in the pouring rain. The count of prisoners was carried out daily and much more efficiently than before.

On the eighth day of our arrival, the R.A.F. paid a visit and bombed Tripoli. It was impossible for us to see or to learn the results. At dusk another raid took place and then during the night we were awakened by the most concentrated and heaviest raid we had experienced since being taken prisoner. These events and the rumours they entailed stirred up another wave of optimism regarding our release.

The following day I read in the 20th Psalm: "Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we will remember the name of the Lord our God." The words brought comfort to my heart. I felt it was grand to have a firmer foundation in which to repose my confidence than weak man. But with God, all things are possible and if He be for us, who can be against us! However, we were to learn that it was not God's will that we should be delivered from captivity yet, but that He was to deliver us from our present trials and future dangers.