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Alan Moorehead: 5 February 1943
NO.1 DEMOLITION SQDN., P.P.A.
EXTRACT FROM SCOTTISH DAILY EXPRESS dated Friday, March 5, 1943.
HOW THE DESERT ARMIES MET - PATROLS JOIN UP IN MARETH OASIS.
This despatch describing the meeting of patrols of the First & Eigth Armies was released last night. It was written in the desert on February 5.
From ALAN MOORHEAD : In the Sahara.
Outposts of the First & Eigth Armies have made contact in this oasis hard by the Mareth Line. Only a handful of us are here, and we are at this moment being enveloped from the North by the oncoming German troops, but still the junction has been made and may be the beginning of a combined thrust of the two armies that are eventually going to throw the Axis out of Africa.
For two days my party of four people with two jeeps have been travelling deep into the Sahara from Northern Tunisia. We had only vague directions to go on and no maps worth looking at.
At First Army HQ we were told that advance patrols of the Eigth Army were pushing up through the desert, into the neighbourhood of the Mareth Line, so we made for this oasis.
We travelled fast through a country of wheatfields and green mountains, that got drier and flater as we went along.
Then we came to a strange region where the floor of the desert breacks into great, bronze red cliffs and gullies, and for mile after mile along the winding earth track there was no sign of life, but for stray Bedouins with their black goats scrambling through the rocks.
Unexpectedly villages of date palms and snow white huts bobbed up out of the plain and village children ran up excitedly to shout and wave as the jeeps went through.
Once troops of camels stampeded at the noise of our motors, and women in a caravan hid in a sand dune until we went by.
This is a country where German patrols come out in the night, and occasionally parachutists are dropped to lay charges on raods and bridges and gather information as they tramp back into the Axis lines.
Two Americans with us tested their Garand rifles on empty bully beef tins in the dried up valley, and as far as possible we kept watch upon the twisted road ahead.
When an army the size of Rommels suddenly breaks loose into this empty space no one can tell how far it has spread., and the French outposts in villages gave only contradictory and puzzling information.
From one or two burnt out French lorries on the roads, we knew at least that the enemy was somewhere about, for the vehicles had been blown up by land mines not fighter bullets.
But there were Messerschmitts above, too. Once we ran for ditches as they swooped on an isolated French airfield and railway station, and then for hours through the morning we were travelling under two vasts vapour trails that shewed where two machines had cut across low clouds earlier in the day.
At one tiny wayside railway station we found two lank American Engineers. They had drifted in 'to clear the tracks' and as they sat there in the sunshine of the village street eating dried figs with a crowd of Arabs around them they had no botion of where they were or where the enemy was, they only knew they had to 'clear the tracks'.
After that we saw no soldiers of any sort and no traffic beyond cammels, until in the late afternoon we bumped into an oasis where a host of date palms, stands on the edge of a salt lake.
You can expect anything in the desert except modern hotels. There is on here, a big two story that rises out of the patterned brick hovels of the rest of the village.
And in the hotel was a bearded young Fighting French Parachutists, he was the first of the men of the Eigth Army that we saw. He knew nothing of Vichy or any other politics, he was as unpolitical as the wind, ad a s clean. He had fought his way here through the desert, and he was only interested in fighting the Germans.
Aboard one of our jeeps he led us through the village to a group of white mud huts among the palms, and there we found four British lads who are outriders of Montgomery's Army that is chasing Rommel into Tunisia.
I have had no [better?] story to write of this than that of these four men, their mere appearance is enough. All four are bearded, grown because the men never had a chance or the time to shave. They had no clothes other than the tattered battledress they wear, because the rest of their kit has been shot up by Germans. They have no socks and their walnut coloured feet are shod with native sandels. They have been living on one tin of sardines per man per day.
SCOT IN PARTY
Two are slightly wounded - Dick Ramsey and Ron Davis, both New Zealanders. The other two are Cliff Hough of Liverpool, and Eddie Sturrock, from Ayr. All of them belong to a patrol which has been scouring the desert to the south.
And now they are here - waiting to go out on another job. They travelled in jeeps and trucks and they steered by compass into an unknown area. They lived behind the enemy lines, as indeed we are at this moment or will be by tomorrow.
The radio set bumping about in the back of a jeep was their only contact with the outside world. At the Tunisian border some of their party struck straight into the Mareth Line.
In the hills beyond to the north, the hills that link the coast with the slat lakes, they saw much movement of enemy vehicles. It looked as though Rommel was preparing at least for rearguard action there.
It was while they were gathering this vital news, that the first misfortune overtook the party.
While recce of the Mareth Line was on, the bulk of the party sayed atta rallying point deep in the desert to the south - these men make sorties and rendezvous in the desert with about the same precision and confidence as a [London?] stockbroker will make appointments in Glasgow or Edinburgh.
Someone - possible a German agent with a radio gave away their position. Without even pausing to make sure of the identity of their target, two German Messerschmitts swept on the little group of British vehicles and burnt them to sand.
Thats when two New Zealanders were hit. When you lose your vehicle in the desert it is like a ship sinking under you at sea.
The party salvaged what it could from the wreckage, When the others from the Mareth Line joined them the wounded were loaded aboard jeeps. The rests, about 25 in all were left to walk.
As I write, they are still walking, but search parties have gone out and they will be safe before this gets into print.
The walkers have been on the journey for five days, following in the tracks of the jeeps carrying the wounded.
By night they had slipped round enemy outposts and patrols.
None of this country is yet safe. The Nazis have been everywhere with money, propaganda, and promises since long before the war.
From Tunis south they have honeycombed the land with agents. They were working in this oasis while we were landing in Algeria. Most of the influential Arabs in every village were approached. The Italians are mostly treated as a joke by the Arabs, but not the Germans.
The Nazis persued a farsighted policy of seizing food, clothing and general supplies from the French residents and giving them to the natives, so they achieved the double result of weakening the French and make[ing?] the Arabs Pro-Nazis.
Fanastic atrocities where committed. The 13-yearold son of the proprietress of this hotal was taken off to Germany, as a hostage. Shopkeepers and Farmers who hid their goods from Nazi raiding parties were shot out of hand.
All areas through which I have passed have been denuded of cattle, and even seed for potatoe and wheat crops has been taken away.
It is in this bitter, hungry and complicated region that the First and Eigth Armies are getting together. Everynight the Nazis are sending out patrols to delay this junction and distress the local people.
Everyday 'Scare Raids' go on. The raod bridge a few minutes outside this oasis was mined the other night. As I was talking to these boys today, two Mseereschmitts swept low over the village, machine gunning the yard and the peasants who sat huddled and terrified with their camels and donkeys in the open bazaar.
This they do every other day. When Rommel leaves Tunisia he will try to leave as much of it as possible in ruins and the people in a state of fear.
We are very much mixed up with the enemy here. The Germans are sitting watching, sending out patrols, and for all I know on the move.
These lads I met today are guerrillas. There place is in the unknown area behind the enemy lines, and soon there wont be any areas like it.
"Are jobs are almost finished here" they said. "Maybe they will use us somewhere else, they say there is a lot of desert in China".
They meant it, too.