Chapter 6: Snubbed by an American. Pummeling Rommel. Facing a Gurkha
As of Sept 16, 1942 the rest of the squadron joined the advanced cadre at Mariut, a suburb of Alexandria, Egypt. With the RAF supplying guidance, our pilots learned formation and combat tactics and were deemed ready to take on the Luftwaffe.
One day a strange small aircraft landed and it piqued our curiosity because we had never seen anything like it. It was a Fiesler Storch, a single engine light plane which could land and take- off utilizing a small runway.
In fact, the Germans used it to drop off and pick up their agents in enemy territory. Two men exited it, and walked towards our “operations” building and that of the RAF. When they approached, we all recognized one of them; it was Wendell Willkie, who at that time was running for President of the USA.
Wendell Willkie fails to impress us
President Roosevelt had loaned him a B-24 Liberator 4-Engine Bomber so he could travel around the world as his emissary. He had referred to the trip as part of his “One World” philosophy. Our armament officer, a young lieutenant, ran forward with his arm outstretched to shake Mr.Willkie’s hand, but the latter merely ignored him, turned away, and entered the RAF’s “Operations” Building.
The lieutenant was dumbstruck and just stood there not believing what had just happened. Here we are, the only Americans in this theater of war, with the stars and stripes flying from the mast on our building, and Mr.Willkie snubbed us, and walked toward the building with the Union Jack instead. The British officer that accompanied Mr.Willkie was Vice Air Marshall Tedder of the RAF.
It was during our stay at Mariut that the “Desert Fox”, Field Marshall Irwin Rommel sent an armored column, in an end-run attempt to sever the Suez Canal. This would have been a catastrophe for the British 8th Army, as it would have cut off all assistance from Britain’s colonies in the Far East, such as India. We were instructed by the RAF to dive bomb and strafe the column, and we mounted a full-scale attack on it. We sent flights of 4 planes for three days, from dawn to dusk, with devastating results.
Thousands of Afrika Korps destroyed
Our P-40-As carried a 500 pound bomb, 6 x 120 mm Rockets, and 8 x 50 Caliber Machine guns. At night, the 4-Engine Bombers stationed at Moquebila, Palestine harried the German column, giving them no respite from air attack. After 3 days the RAF sent a light observation plane there to take pictures, and we were told that whatever was left of the column had turned back to the German lines. The pictures showed a trail of broken and burned-out tanks, armored cars and other vehicles. At that time we could not know that this was the last time the Africa Corps would mount an attack of such magnitude. Our superior airpower made such attacks unfeasible.
Another interesting sidelight of our stay at Mariut was an encounter I had with two Gurkha Soldiers, while I and another American were on guard duty. You see we were advised by the RAF to mount 2-man patrols. This occurred at night, there were no lights, and I noticed a small swarthy man wearing a turban carrying a rifle, walking near one of the British Wellington Bombers.
Thinking I would play a trick on him, I sneaked up behind him, and just touched his back with the tip of the bayonet on my rifle. He turned his head slowly and smiled at me, because just at that moment I felt the tip of a bayonet touching my own back! It was his partner, protecting him. They invited me and my partner to their trailer and we visited with them, learning a great deal about them.
When we asked why Gurkhas were held in such high esteem by military men around the world, they explained that Moslems believe the only way they can enter heaven is if they die while in battle. They said that Gurkhas come from the high Himalayan Mountains of India where life is very harsh, with little chance to earn a decent living.
Therefore many Gurkhas turn to soldiering, and make a career of it. Thus when they retire and return home, given the low level of income of the area people, they are considered “well to do”! When I asked to see the curved knife in their belts, it was handed to me and I found it to be quite ornate.
When I returned the knife he nicked his hand with it and then returned it to his belt. When I asked why, he said it was a symbolic gesture, in lieu of actually killing someone with it, and that he had to draw blood with it before sheathing it! From my own experience, I came to understand that the reputation of the Gurkha soldier, not withstanding their small stature, was one that they had earned. I felt that if I were to embark upon a really hazardous mission and could choose only one soldier to accompany me, it would be a Gurkha !
So ends Chapter 6 of my wartime memoirs.