As Archie and his shipmates walked towards the camp with the three Arab tribesmen to meet the Chief, they were no doubt fervently hoping that they had encountered a tribe of Arabs friendly to the Allied cause.
As the camp was only about a mile inland, they were soon ushered into the presence of the tribal chief, who spoke briefly with the three men who had brought them in. The three sailors were relieved when the chief turned his attention to them and conveyed in friendly tones, in broken English, that they were among friends. He also indicated that he understood their predicament –they had been making big boom sounds and swimming motions –and that his group would shelter them from capture by German or Italian forces.
The chief, whose name was Mahmoud, then arranged for them to have a bit of a wash. After that, each of them was able to discard freezing, oil-sodden clothes for the comfort and warmth of some Italian Army gear: a pair of trousers (like pyjamas with a cord around the waist and the bottom of the legs), a pullover and an Army overcoat. They assumed that those items were probably found or stolen by the Arabs after the Italian retreat in 1940.
While some women emptied the tent next door, they were given some boiled eggs, Arab bread and a couple of small cups of thick, black, sweet coffee followed by a few cigarettes. They now felt greatly refreshed and relieved to have been saved from certain capture by the enemy and the prospect of becoming prisoners-of-war for the duration of the conflict. The chief handed them three blankets and a mat. They then retired to the next tent to sleep.
They woke up just before dark and were able to observe that the camp lay in a flat valley, which led up to an escarpment some few hundred feet high. There were nine tents scattered in lots of three. Their tent was alongside a small hill, which formed one side of the valley.
They became the centre of attention for everyone in the camp. Archie estimated that the group consisted of about twenty-five to thirty Arabs, including the chief and his several wives. There were some children, but there did not appear to be any little ones. The camp was primitive, although there was no evidence of squalor. Generally, the environment seemed to be very neat and tidy.
During these observations, they became aware of the rumbling sound of vehicles on the escarpment where they had previously seen gun flashes.. They decided to take a look, hoping that Allied forces might be nearby. So, off they went up the gully towards the escarpment. When the Arabs saw what they were doing, the whole camp –men, women and children- came running up behind them yelling, GERMAN! GERMAN! and pleading with them not to keep going. They quickly decided not to run the risk of encountering German troops and hurriedly retreated to their tent. As Archie later recalled…
If they were Germans up there and they grabbed us, I guess they would want to know where we came by our Italian outfits and that would spell trouble for all…It was pretty obvious that we were in enemy territory (and that) we could be taken prisoner if we did not play our cards right. The other thing we had to think about was getting those friendly Arabs into trouble if the Germans found them hiding us. And so began our sojourn with those nomadic Cenussi (friendly) Arabs and we would see what tomorrow brought forth.
By the time all had settled down again, the night had crept upon them and the immediate past events began to fade as exhaustion took over, so they prepared themselves for sleep. Their sleeping arrangements, however, were far from comfortable: they slept in their pants and pullovers on mats on the ground: no floor covering in the tent and overcoats as pillows. They bunked down together, three in a row with blankets. Their restlessness was heightened by the knowledge that they were in strange surroundings, in enemy-held territory. All these factors combined to make them wary and apprehensive. After a night of less than fitful sleep, daylight invaded their space and, struggling from their makeshift “beds”, they decided to take a look outside.
Their tent flaps faced a small hill, which was almost devoid of vegetation. A few chooks and goats were fossicking around. There were also a few camels wandering between the other tents. There was no evidence of any toilet facilities, so the men, not wanting to be seen in their Italian outfits, wrapped themselves in blankets in order to appear as much like Arabs as possible; at least from a distance, anyway. Then they set off up the hill to find the toilets. After that they sorted out washing arrangements with the help of some women who supplied them with a jam tin full of hot water and some bits of rag s to wipe their hands and faces.
They then organized someone to go down to the abandoned whaler and bring back the case of beef and a tin of biscuits. The food from the whaler together with Arab bread and coffee was to be their breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next seven days..
Time passed ever so slowly. Their main diet of bully beef and biscuits cut out after one week and they went on to full Arab fare, with the occasional tin of German stew thrown in.. They could still hear the noise of gunfire and the rumbling of vehicles way off on the escarpment. They figured that there was an enemy camp somewhere nearby, but did not know exactly where. Their movements were restricted to the tent and just outside it, except for going to the toilet.
Their hopes were kept alive, though, because the Chief and some of the other men kept telling them that they would eventually be rescued. They were really kind and friendly “hosts”. The women used to bring their meals to them every day and they began to develop a warm affection for them all. They didn’t like the food all that much though.
Archie recalls , with a touch of amusement, an incident that put him off at least one meal:
One day they brought in some sort of hot and spicy muck in a large wooden bowl. We would have attempted to eat it, except that I remembered seeing the camp dogs eating out of that bowl the previous day. We stayed hungry!
There were certain aspects of their stay with that tribe combined with some anxious moments and events that, in different ways enlivened their situation.. However, at other times the days dragged along and thoughts of better times gave them moments of wistful, wishful thinking:
OH! To get back to Alexandria and visit our favourite eating places and water holes the good feeds and fun we had enjoyed even in Port Sudan down in the Red Sea when we were escorting convoys with our mates on the dear old Parramatta or on one of the sidewalk eating places on a lovely warm evening ordering chicken chips peas eggs and tomatoes and drinking heaps of cold beer what a life it was!
Yet, here they were now, looking like nothing on earth, dirty, hungry, no fags, no decent water, let alone a nice cold beer, sitting outside their tent waiting for the day to wear on so they could go to sleep.
The full details of their experience as “guests” of Chief Mahmoud and his tribe of friendly Arabs should be told as another story, so let us cut to 12th December, 1941….
Here’s Archie’s account of what happened:
On the morning of December 12 it was cloudy with showers and we sat around our fire wondering what the day would bring forth, when we heard a low-flying aircraft close by.. Down he came through the low cloud and into our view. We looked up, hoping it might be “one of ours”. To our disappointment it carried the big black crosses of Luftwaffe. It was well known to us as a German Junkers 88, twin-engine bomber.
Shortly afterwards, there seemed to be some activity among the Arabs. There was a great deal of talking among the whole gang of them. The Chief came to our tent and said “English” and waves his hand towards the escarpment.
TO BE CONCLUDED in Part 8
(c)Patrick Talty 2004