Chapter 11: Tripoli. A General's Tirade. Towards Tunisia
Jan 21,1943 Durragh West, Libya (West of Bir Du Fan) After traveling all day on the coast road, we arrived here today.
We are now close to Tripoli (the capitol of Libya). We are now bombing around 80 miles North West of Tripoli, which is expected to fall shortly. The city and its airport Castel Benito are on fire! The last mission to report in tonight told of attacking long columns of motor transport on the roads leading out of Tripoli.
The advance from Benghazi to Tripoli
Life on the desert remained as it has been all along, with some added twists. As before, water is rationed, that is when we have it we are given one canteen full per day. That has to suffice for drinking as well as washing. How then does one wash his clothing? Why, in 100 octane aviation fuel!
You might ask, 'Is that safe'. The answer is 'No, it isn’t!' On several occasions we had to send men home, who had contracted lead poisoning from the tetra ethyl lead in the aviation fuel.
Our lack of water was caused by the wells in our airfields that had been evacuated by the Luftwaffe. In this case, when we took over the field and checked the wells, we found that they had not only been poisoned, but the Germans had dumped several Italian soldiers’ bodies in it. At some fields the Germans when retreating had dumped large quantities of salt into the well. Our Doctor had added some purifying agent into the water, and added iodine also. Can you imagine what the water tasted like? It burned! When we added canned condensed milk to the tea, the milk curdled!
We are dive-bombing and strafing German convoys without any opposition from the air. We have effectively put the Luftwaffe out of business by destroying their planes not only in the air, but on the ground.
On Jan 23rd, the British 8th Army captured Tripoli. The day was notable also when General Lewis Brereton came to our field to award the Distinguished Flying Cross to Lt. Gerald Brandon, Lt. John Gilbertson, and Lt. Thomas Williams.
Previous pilots who had received this award were Major Charles Fairlamb, Capt. William Yates, and Lt. Albert Zipser. Given the amount of such awards already earned by our pilots in just 5 months of combat, one realizes that that the 66th Squadron has done more than its share in inflicting bodily harm to the German Afrika Korps!
Operations were at a standstill on Jan 27th and a few days thereafter, due to a bad sandstorm, with strong winds. Our elation at its ending was short lived when we were subjected to heavy rain followed by extreme cold weather.
We perked up a bit on Jan 29th, when the weather cleared, and several of the men borrowed jeeps and sub machine guns, and went hunting gazelles. They returned with eight gazelle bodies, and for a few days we had fresh meat, albeit tough. After 5 months of canned Argentine corned beef, it was heavenly. There were no complaints!
Since there were no operations scheduled for a few days, this provided an opportunity to rubberneck in Tripoli, and I and two friends, Ceferino Vigil and Lou Lederman, hitched a ride there for the day. It was a normal sunny day in North Africa, the temperature high around noon being about 135 Degrees (F).
We walked around the harbor on the palm tree lined street bordering it, and we passed what appeared to be a US Army Soldier, in correct military summer uniform. We hadn’t gone more than 10 feet beyond him, when we heard a loud
outraged voice scream “attention”! So we turned around, and he marched over to us and looked us over! We were amazed to see the General’s stars on his shoulders, not having ever been that close to a general.
After scrutinizing us from head to toe, we could tell from the painful expression on his face that he was extremely dissatisfied with our appearance. The more he looked the more enraged he became. He shouted at us 'What army are you in?' We tried to explain that our squadron was separated from the rest of our group, and that we were operating in the 239 Wing of the RAF in the forward airdrome, and that as such we did not receive any US Army clothing or supplies.
And, that we had to use British Battle Dress and any other clothing we could find from retreating Italian and German Soldiers. For some reason he had difficulty in believing us, and may have thought that we were US Army deserters! He ignored our remarks, and embarked on a tirade of about 5 minutes, explaining the duties of a soldier in the US Army. As best I can remember, he said that there was no excuse for a soldier to be out of uniform regardless of the circumstances, and moreover we had committed the cardinal sin of failure to salute a commissioned officer.
When we said that our commanding officer did not want anybody to salute while we were in combat, he shrugged that off saying that Army regulations were not relaxed simply because soldiers were in a combat area. He then told us to button up our shirts and in the future, we were to dress as required by Army regulations. Whereupon he said we were dismissed, and he marched off. As soon as he left, we immediately opened our collar buttons. After all, what do Generals know about fighting a war? Everybody knows that if you want to know something, you don’t ask a General, you ask a sergeant!
Feb 9th, 1943 'A' Party (me included) moved to a more forward airdrome, Castel Benito near Tripoli. As part of the Desert Air Force, in addition to our Group (the 57th) within a ten mile area that are the 239 Wing, 244 Wing, 245 Wing, and the B-25s (Bostons), (Marylands), British Beaufighters, Spitfire and Hurricane Squadrons. All gasoline and water is brought in by Hudsons (B-34s), and DC-3 Transports, and they take out the wounded The 8th Army is now in Tunisia and we shortly will be there also.
On Feb 10th a severe sandstorm struck, and for 3 days we suffered the worst sandstorm yet encountered. The wind drives the sand into everything our food, drink, mouths, and eyes. It is so bad that we have to subsist on canned 'C' rations, which are used in emergencies and when we are on the road. I sat in my tent writing a letter to my mother. When I looked back to two previous lines to see what I had written, I could not see it because it was covered with fine sand!
For six days we have had just one canteen of water daily, because the transport planes cannot fly in this sandstorm.
When the weather cleared, on Feb 23rd, my party moved out headed for Zuara, a settlement on the Libya Coast Road, a short distance from the Tunisian Border.
We took over a field at Zuara, and the first night we were bombed several times. We will soon leave for a more forward airfield at Medenine, Tunisia, and it is considered dangerous because the airfield had just been evacuated by RAF Spitfires, when the Afrika Korps successfully counterattacked.
There now follow some supplementary notes applying to this time period:
Feb 12, 1943 Durragh, Libya for the past two days we have been suffering through a terrible sandstorm (in Arabic a khamseen) this is the worst we have seen to date, with sheets of sand filling the air. There is no escape from it. You simply hunker down and keep a low profile, try to stay in your cot a lot, covered up. Even in the tent, the fine sand sifts through making your life miserable, not withstanding the two layers of canvas it must penetrate. You see we have British patent, Indian pattern tents, consisting of an outer layer of canvas a foot above an inner layer comprising the oblong tent itself. This provided a sort of thermal barrier which tended to keep the tent itself cooler during the heat of summer. The American military tents for example consist of just one layer of canvas, with a square interior. This single barrier against heat and cold resulted in its occupants suffering from heat in the summer and cold in the winter! During the past two days we have seen tents blown away leaving their occupants exposed to the elements. To keep this from happening everyone inside has to be constantly alert when the tent pegs begin to be torn from the ground by the high wind. Then you have to go out into the sand storm and drive the tent pegs back into the ground.
Feb 14, 1943 Durragh, Libya the sand storm continues unabated. This has to be the mother of all sand storms! Today we found out that the 57th fighter group is the only fighter group of the 9th Air Force in the forward area! We have had one canteen of water for 6 days, as the only liquid other than cups of tea with meals. As if this is not enough, we all got typhoid and tetanus shots and everybody has sore arms! One thing brightened up our lives, when Lts. Benedict and Charles Leaf located a damaged 3 engine Savoia Marchetti Italian bomber in a damaged hangar at Castel Benito Airport.
Castel Benito after RAF and ourselves paid our compliments to Mussolino
So Benny and several mechanics went there and got it into flying shape by scavenging parts from other damaged planes they flew it to our airfield at Durragh. They named it the Green Goose. Some of us got a chance to fly aboard it thereafter, however it was a hazardous affair because the middle of the 3 engines was worn and when they were throttled back during landing, it caught on fire and it threw oil back on the exhaust ring. This required someone to hang out of the front window and put out the fire with a CO2 cylinder (fire extinguisher) as the plane touched down on the ground.
Feb 20, 1943 : Darragh, Libya. Well, the sand storm is finally over after about 10 days. It has to be some kind of a record. Of our 25 Airplanes, only 6 are in flying condition. Fortunately the big push has been delayed for a few weeks to give us time to repair the damaged ones. The problem is that those other 19 are all running rough with little power. It seems the fine sand sifted through the canvas tarp covering the engines, and also through the tin cans covering the exhaust stacks and settled on the valve faces. So, when the storm was over and we ran the engines up, the sand melted onto the valve faces, thus preventing the valves from closing completely. The result was that the engines ran rough and there was a huge loss of compression (power). In simple terms the planes could not get of the ground! Our line chief, Master Sgt. Casey Reilly obtained valve grinding compound, and we cut down leather belts and proceeded to grind the valves by hand. While the engines did not run rough, they still did not have thee required compression and thus power. We tried to fly one plane, but it crashed trying to become airborne. As a result we had to have 19 engines flown to us via DC-3 Transports from Cairo, Egypt, and we had to replace all 19 engines in our planes. This, while in the middle of a war! Capt Llewellyn who force landed in enemy territory, is now a prisoner of war we are told.
Feb 23,1943 Darragh, Libya 'A' party (half of the squadron) moved out headed for Zuara, which is locate on the coast road a few miles from the Tunisian border. The planes will be flown there, and 'B' party will follow shortly thereafter. This move will place us within striking distance of the German front line, (about 10 kilometers).British Intelligence tells us that we are then to do fighter sweeps for a whole week, and then the 8th Army will start its push. 'A' party will then move again, to Ben Gardane, which is a road center in Tunisia. So we will have about 3 weeks of quiet before we go back to war! Meanwhile, our 3-engine Italian bomber returned from Alexandria, Egypt, carrying 4 cans of beer for everyone, which lifted our spirits for while.
The next file will begin at that point.
So ends Chapter 11 of my wartime memoirs.