Pilgrimage to Tobruk, Sixty years after

History - EY History

The party arrived in Cairo in the early hours of an April day in 2001. We were met at the Airport by our Libyan guides and friends, led by Achmed Khalifa. He had with him two assistants and a Benghazi medical officer, provided free of charge. Our party was led by Lady Avril Randell, daughter of a Desert Rat. A girl of much warmth and feeling as well, having considerable energy and organising ability. We also had a Regular Army bugler, loaned by the Royal Green Jackets. To complete the whole party, we were joined in Cairo by two ladies from the other side of the world – an Aussie daughter and a Maori sister of the fallen. A few hours later we set off along the Desert road beyond Mena. This is not as old soldiers may remember it. There are excellent tarmac dual carriageways, lined with massive advertisement billboards and many small settlements. As one goes on, there are a growing number of little towns or resorts on the seaward side. Mersa Matruh is a clean and pleasant city and the Arabs there are not like the remembered ‘wogs’ of Cairo. They are a quiet and dignified people. One can walk in the crowded streets there and feel one is among friends.

Once you are beyond Sidi Barrani, the memories return. Except that there is now a proper road, the desert is just as it was when we first went there as young men; emptiness, with the Libyan Escarpment beginning to edge in from the South. However, before this, we had spent the night at a resort near El Alamein and visited the great cemetery next morning. Eleven thousand nine hundred and forty five Allied soldiers are remembered here in this beautiful, quiet place. Gazing beyond the Cross of Sacrifice to the South, there is nothing except the great Bluey, stretching on and on. As it should be. Among the Yeomanry graves here is that of Gunner Fleming, of Paisley. There is nothing special about Wee Flemming except that he was the last Yeoman to die in the Desert. He was killed during the final salvo of shells that fell on the Battery position.

The wretched village of Sollum lies just below the Libyan Escarpment. There is nothing here except a little sea fishing. The main reason for the existence of Sollum (the name means ‘Ladder’), is the proximity of the frontier and an Egyptian Army post. There is a small Allied cemetery here, seldom visited but it contains nearly two thousand of our dead. There is a g which this cemetery stands is the perpetual gift of the people of Egypt in memory of the men of the Allied Forces who fell and are honoured here”. There are four Yeomen buried here and one of these is Gunner Bayliss of Brentwood. Paul was terribly wounded, early in 1942. Our Medical Officer got to him just before he died and trying to make light of his condition, said, “What is your problem this time, Bayliss?” The dying man replied, “Just a touch of the rheumatics, Sir”. The word, “Sir” was the last word he uttered, ever.

Leaving Sollum, the coach now took us up the long winding road and onto the Libyan Plateau, 800 feet above. Within two hours we had been passed through the two Customs Posts and were in Libya. We now became aware that this was a special occasion. The coach was halted by a large marquee. The veterans descended and walked along a long line of local dignitaries, shaking hands with each and again and again hearing the words, “Welcome, welcome”. One noticed not only the shaking of hands but the warm and friendly eyes. We were then invited into the marquee, where we all sat down and were served with soft, sweet drinks. There were speeches of welcome, including one by a Government Minister, to which Achmed Khalifa and Lady Avril responded. After a photography session, we went on our way. During this, the third afternoon we reached Tobruk and checked in at a 4-star hotel near the Harbour. It was all very different from our first visit, some years ago. Then, the hotel was full of secret policemen, posing as businessmen and tourists. This time there was a large party of Dutch tourists and no policemen – apparently.

Also joining us here were the British Ambassador, Mr. Dalton and his wife, with Highland piper in full costume. Michael Palin was also there with a large BBC TV crew. They were working on a TV series, probably to be called ‘Project Sahara’ which will be shown in the autumn of 2002. They had detoured from their tour of North African countries to be with us in Tobruk. We also met Brigadier Suliman Mahmmoud, the man at present responsible for the security of Eastern Libya. He was obviously a hard man, like the Minister who met us at the frontier. These two men were courteous but very different from the ordinary, warm people. During our stay in Tobruk, we visited Sidi Rezegh and the site of the battle of Knightsbridge, or Gazala, out in the Desert. We also made private pilgrimages to the German mausoleum, a grim, gothic fortress where some 8000 names are listed, and to our cemeteries of Tobruk (3400) and Knightsbridge/Acroma (3500). One always feels that Acroma is more tragic, as these men fell in a battle that was lost. Our dead at Acroma and Tobruk are cared for by Hadji Mohammed a most caring man and the son of the original custodian. The Hadji is a gentle man; he calls our dead, in Arabic, “My boys.”

One day we had a walk around the town, seeing friendly faces and no following police. The town is still in a rather neglected and untidy state. We visited the old Garrison Church, St. Anthony’s, now and a Museum and paid our respects at the Mosque. The day of the main ceremonies was dark and cloudy, with a high wind and occasional spatters of rain but all went well. The TV crews treated the occasion, and us, with respect. The wail of the bagpipes and the clear calls of the bugle made the remembrance most moving and here were tears mingled with the raindrops. Our bugler must have been the first British soldier in Libya for many years. To avoid giving offense he only wore his uniform in the actual cemeteries and by the jetty for the final parading of the Rat’s banner. He was described on the visa as “Musician.”

The final ceremony was held on the jetty, at sunset, watched gravely by a large party of the Dutch tourists. Again there was the emotional wail of the pipes and ‘The Last Post’. Two great poppy wreaths were cast into the sea, one for the Army and one for the Navy. The tide was going out and they drifted steadily away over the darkening water. The following message, addressed to Lady Avril, was read out: “Buckingham Palace, April 2001. Please convey to the British Rat’s of Tobruk assembled together for the memorial service on Tobruk beach, to mark the 60th anniversary of the siege of Tobruk, my very best wishes for a most memorable occasion. Elizabeth R.” Then the banner of Rat’s of Tobruk was paraded for the very last time. It will be laid up in a chapel in Staffordshire. A dozen or so old men, who had once been young and strong, marched past the British Ambassador. Finally came the order from our senior officer, “Rat’s of Tobruk, Desert Rats, to your duties, Dismiss” and it was over. One of the Dutch tourists said later, “We did not understand all that was said or what you were doing, but we were all most moved by it.” The following day, as the coach drove eastwards, back towards the frontier, one remembered a song the old Regulars used to sing, after the first fighting in 1940; the last verse was: “And when we are back in old England, when this war is over and won, remember the lads left behind us under the Libyan sun.”

By Steve Dawson

Extract EYA Journal 2002