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The Sollum Incident

Retreating Italians moving from Sollum to Bardia

We had taken Sidi Barrani, a coastal town in Egypt — 30,000 British regular troops had ridden rough shod over Mussolini’s 150,000, who were boasting that they were going to sweep the British out of Egypt. The Australians took over from us and pushed on to Bardia and we were it — we had to guard thousands of Italian POWs at Sollum.

I was on guard duty one night with another bloke, as the guard was doubled at night. We could hear the sea as the waves hit the beach. We were both bored and cold, sitting in a stone enclosure called a ‘sanger’. To give the reader a mental picture of a sanger I would say it looked a lot like of stones put together, as in dry walling, except in this case the stones formed what looked like a huge water well without the rope, bucket and winder.

The sanger was about ten feet across and one had to climb onto a big stone step and jump down to get inside. Once there, one was safe from any snipers that might want to do one mischief. Only when one stood on a stone on the inside was one able to observe the landscape outside – that is, only on one side because on the other side was a sea view. However, we were there to observe and report and according to our officer ‘The Italian Gentlemen are unaware of our presence here, so don’t fire at any aircraft and try not to show yourself. We don’t want to advertise our presence here.’

That night the Italian Air Force came over and bombed the building we used as a guardroom – now we had a flat guardroom. Then one bright lad found a cave half way to the beach, so we all moved into the cave and it was dandy because now the Italians bombed at night and we were tucked away under the cliff out of harm’s way. As soon as it was daylight, we found out that the cave was a burial cave – one wall had squares on it indicating that the body was pushed in and the hole plastered over. I didn’t think much about it then, but some of those bodies could have been there before Rome was built.

We only went in the cave when there was an air raid. We would spread a blanket on the floor and play cards while listening to the bombs going off on top of the cliff and around the jetty. The jetty was never hit. Perhaps the Italians thought they could use it if they got Sollum back, so they concentrated on the few buildings that were there – about three in total that looked like mud toilets.

At two in the morning I was back in the sanger on watch with another bloke when I heard a droning in the distance and I held up my hand. The other bloke said, ‘I hear it.’ The noise stopped and the Jock with me said, ‘Och, he’s awa hame ti his bed the noo an’ guid riddance, ah jist hope his missus hez goat a heedache the nicht.’

Then I remembered that in the desert we used to hear planes at night, but because they were far away no one bothered, and when the noise left us we assumed they were gone. The crafty devils were cutting their engines and gliding over us to drop fountain pens that would explode when someone picked them up, taking off the unfortunate bloke’s hand.

Sometimes they dropped what looked like a thermos flask, which might have been jolted out of one of our officers’ PU trucks. Then some unsuspecting Jock might pick it up, thinking it could be full of Johnny Walker Whisky, which would make him very popular with his mates. He’d try to unscrew the top and it would go off, killing three or four blokes in a group.

I looked over the top of the wall and I could see the plane in the moonlight about half a mile away over the sea, where it was sowing mines. I watched as mine after mine was dropped – I could see the stark white splash as they hit the black water and I could hear a faint sound as the mine hit the sea.

When I went off-guard I reported what I had seen to the officer, who was strolling nonchalantly along the beach, and he said, ‘Jolly good, very alert, what! Very well. Cut along and get some sleep.’ I left the beach and looking back saw that the officer was walking along, whistling, without a care in the world.

The next day a tug arrived from Alexandria with three dumb barges in tow (‘dumb’ meaning without motors or sails, a vessel that had to be towed). These barges were towed just clear of the jetty, which was crowded with Italian POWs. They were taken to the barges by small boats, and finally, when the three barges were full and accompanied by some of our blokes acting as guards, the whole lot — about 350 people — started to move into deeper water. They missed the nearest mine in the water, but the first barge following the tug struck the mine, which exploded. As the holed barge sank, it dragged down the barge behind it, which in turn dragged down the remaining barge. The stunned blokes on the tug were too late cutting the rope and the tug joined the rest on the bottom of the sea as it was dragged, stern first, into the deep.

We spent the next few weeks dragging bodies from the water and it was not a pleasant job because sea creatures had been feasting on them. Nonetheless, we had to collect identity tags where possible and hand them in to the bloke who was sorting out the mess. It was a relief when we moved and let someone else have a bash at a very messy job.

As I remember it no one survived this tragedy that should never have happened. I had reported that the mines had been sown. What was the point in us standing on watch if what we reported was ignored?

By Tom Barker

2982252 Pte Barker T.O. 1st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders

WW2 People’s War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar