Voices in the Desert II




Intelligence Officer on Rommel’s Staff

One of my favourite Rommel stories is when in the port of Tripoli in February–March 1941, Rommel told my friend Lieutenant Hundt, an engineer, ‘Here you can build me a hundred and fifty tanks.’ The man looked stupefied and Rommel told him, ‘Don’t you have timber here in the harbour and canvas of sails to make a hundred and fifty covers for Volkswagens? So you can give me a hundred and fifty tanks.’ Those ‘tanks’ misled the British in the first campaign.


Italian Army

One day I stood on the road near the sergeant of panzers and I ask him, ‘Tell me the truth – how many working panzers you have now still?’ And he said, ‘This morning we report seven but the truth is,’ he whispered in my ear, ‘we have sixteen – but if Rommel knows that, he attacks immediately.’


Rommel was much loved by the Italian simple soldiers because he cared more about them than anybody else in the desert and they called him ‘Santo Rommel’, I have heard them say this. Rommel himself once said they have other than military virtues and he liked the Italians because they admired and saluted him very nicely, whereas the Germans were not so ready to do this as the Italians. I think that Rommel’s criticism of some Italian leaders was also decisive for this Italian esteem, the esteem of the simple soldier towards this German general.


During the meantime when we had denuded the desert, Rommel had landed in Tripoli, not very strong, but in accordance with his character dashed forward eastwards with the very meagre resources he had there. And absolute chaos reigned, our forces started tumbling back towards Tobruk and we were getting no news in Cairo whatsoever. Wavell sent for me and said, ‘Will you go up with my personal liaison officer and try to find out what is happening and see O’Connor and persuade him to hold Tobruk?’ I found an Australian division in absolute state of exhaustion and all lying around the place in Tobruk, had several days without sleep and I couldn’t find O’Connor. After many hours I found Brigadier Harding who was absolutely magnificent; exhausted, he was holding the fort and he behaved in a simply amazing and wonderful way. He said certainly they would try and hold Tobruk.


Wavell’s decision to hold Tobruk at the time of that retreat was the greatest single factor in enabling him to hold Rommel at the Egyptian frontier and the great risk created by the intervention in Greece was overcome.


It was a great shock to be captured. I never thought it would ever happen to me – very conceited, perhaps – but it was miles behind our own front and by a sheer bit of bad luck we drove into the one bit of desert in which the Germans had sent around a reconnaissance group and we went bang into the middle of them.


I was following behind O’Connor and Philip Neame when they got captured and I found myself with no general at all and joined forces with General Moorshead who was commanding the Australian division and together we tried to sort things out, but it was pretty chaotic. At the same time we sent out search and rescue parties to see if we could find out what had happened to O’Connor and Neame and the people who were with them, but it took us a little time to sort things out, and it wasn’t until Wavell came up and came into Tobruk and brought with him General Lavarack, another Australian and two Staff Officers, and sorted the whole thing out and left General Lavarack in command, and we really got the situation under control again.


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