Unseen WW2 battlefield letters from North Africa

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This is an excerpt from a letter written by my grandfather S/Sgt Norman Peterson on 11th Jan 1941.

Dear Auntie Marie, (he always wrote to her the truth and sent happy versions to his wife)

“…I travelled by truck to a place called Ikingi Maryut where I caught a train at 2 in the morning to Marsa Matruh…but I couldn’t get a seat for drunks and others asleep on the floor all coming back from Cairo from leave. So I thought “bugger this” I’m not going to sleep in the cold on an observation platform so I walked the length of the train & eventually gate crashed the postal van, occupied by a real lime house cockney who told me, “Ee laad, ye carnt room in ‘ere.” I said “Like _______ I can’t!” So I unrolled my swag, took off my boots and slept on the mail bags…I soon made good friends with the Tommies who were a good crowd but were mystified by the way I rolled my own cigarettes. Apparently only the poorest classes roll their own!…

…Matruh is a very pretty place with wide tree lined avenues….but I wouldn’t give 2 bob for it now as it has been bashed and bombed into an unrecognizable rubble…while I was here I saw a gallant piece of action by two Tommies. A train was at the station full of stores and ammunition when two Italian bombers came over and commenced to lay their eggs around the place. The Tommies jumped into the cab and it was a thrill to see puffs of smoke from the engine as it slowly drew away from the station out of danger…

…I was here for two days when the word came through that our forces were pushing westward and I was sent to a post between Sidi Barrani and Matruh and did the wounded roll in. I worked on the wounded prisoners and saw some ghastly sights, One Libyan had a shrapnel wound under the left shoulder blade that had ricocheted on the bone and come out near the collarbone. The whole wound was crawling with maggots (which really isn’t so bad as they eat the putrified tissues)…

…We were here for 3 days…I was sent to the 3/3rd English 7th Ambulance. I went through the battlefield of Sidi Barrani and the quantity of material would truly astound you. Tanks, motorcycles, lorries and cars just for the taking. I had a motorbike and when she ran out of juice dropped it and picked up another….I picked up my first souvenir – an Iti tin hat – once owned by a field ambulance man. These lids are very rare…

…anyway to cut my own story short…I saw a grisly sight, a Savoia 79, a tri motored bomber had been shot down and the pilot had tried to pancake down but when he hit the petrol tank exploded thus incinerating the occupants. The pilot was a charred skeleton, both legs snapped like dry twigs, The foregunner was in two pieces, sheared in halves from the waist, the top part in an attitude of prayer though both hands were missing. The heat must have been terrific as the motors were fused together in a solid mass. The rear gunner was sprawled in his compartment, not so badly charred, his fingers stiffened in rigor mortis on the keys of the bomb rack and bullet holes in his Adam’s apple and temple. I took the builder’s nameplate as a souvenir…If I only had my camera I’d make a fortune but of course it is stowed away in Alex….

…Along the roads were truckload after truckload of prisoners who didn’t seem very dejected…however some who were told to dig slit trenches broke down and cried…the position was rather embarrassing until an interpreter told them they weren’t digging their own graves…they broke out in huge smiles and dug like hell…

…I was in a quandary as to where my own unit was…I attached myself to a section of Royal Tank Corps who had told me they saw an Australian Field Ambulance near Sollium. I spent three days with this crowd and spent a night at an Air Force refueling dump with beers and cheers and told them some bullshit about Australia…I at last found my unit to be greeted with the news A company was in Libya. Incidentally up to this time I had had neither a wash or shave and looked a fright from 9 Dec to 22nd Dec…”

 

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