Army Life in WW 2
Carl A. L. Craemer
I listened to General Smuts’ speech on the radio to the South African nation on the evening of 6 September 1939. Our army would be a voluntary army and no-one would be conscripted. Our duty would be to protect the borders at Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and prevent a break-through by the Italian forces to Kenya, Rhodesia and South Africa.
Although I had made my mind up to enlist, my parents were against it as they belonged to the National Party. I could have gone without their permission being of age, but I wanted their blessing as once up north, I knew that I might never see them again.
Our nation was divided. Some people were for war, others preferred to stay neutral and yet others like my family were entirely against it. They could not understand why South Africa should help Britain win a war after all the suffering they had endured at the hands of the Khakis (British troops) during the Anglo-Boer War. They could not forget nor forgive and who could blame them?
For eight months I tried to understand my parents’ feelings but felt called to go and do my duty nevertheless. On 20 May 1940, I told my boss that I was enlisting in the army and found him to be most understanding. He gave me ₤5.00 (five Rand) as a gift and promised that he would pay a contribution of ₤2.10 (five Rand) to my parents on behalf of my war effort and for the duration of the war or until such time that I was able to return to his employment at Walton Gray.
I called in at the Drill Hall, Twist Street, Johannesburg to find a long queue of men seated on the benches in the passage all waiting to enlist. After a long wait, it was finally my turn to fill in the form I was given. It took quite a while due to all the red tape. I was subsequently sent for an eye test – the same test being given in dim and bright lighting. After this came a medical check up during which I was made to strip off all my clothing, weighed, my height taken and my chest measured with a tape on full expansion on exhale. Yet another medic with stethoscope around his neck stood waiting to examine me. He knocked my chest with his fingers while I repeated the words ninety-nine over a few times. He listened to my heart and finally telling me to get dressed, went off to his desk to complete my papers. After placing my medical certificate in a sealed enveloped to give to the recruiting sergeant, the medic joked “If you want to change your mind, now’s the time!” I wasn’t going to change my mind though. I was determined to help do my bit to put Hitler in his place and proudly handed the certificate over to the sergeant, waiting for the result which was A.1. I signed the attestation form and took the oath “So help me God”. The sergeant told me that I was now:
- Private Craemer
- No 62325
- Attached to 3rd Battalion, Field Force Brigade.
My army pay was one shilling (10 cents) per day and as I had to use my own shoes until army boots became available, I would receive an extra 6 pence (five cents) per day for the wear and tear of my shoes. Part of my salary would be paid directly to my mother for safekeeping. I received a Pay Book with a space in it for my last Will & Testament, which I had to complete, plus a free rail ticket and a meal voucher and told before I was dismissed, that I had to be on the train to Ladysmith, Natal that same evening.
I returned home to 35 Hanover Street Mayfair to say goodbye to my family and arranged with my mother that the salary she would receive on my behalf be paid directly into my savings account and trustingly, I gave her my Post Office Savings Book. Then it was time to go. I left urging my brothers to follow my example and Lou did just that. He also ended up in Ladysmith, as an army barber, having served his apprenticeship in this trade already, but Pickie my twin did not feel the same way as we did and preferred to stay home.
Johannesburg Station was crowded with people seeing their loved ones off to their new adventure. There was laughter and tear by the girlfriends and mothers but sad to say not one of my family members took the trouble to come and say goodbye or see me on my way to war. We were eight chaps in the compartment, fitted out with six bunks for six men only so we took turns sleeping through the night. We became good friends later and seven of them, including Jan Peens even went up North with me and we fought side by side.
The other chap turned out to be an epileptic and was discharged after our arrival at Ladysmith the next day. He was most upset as he had sold all his belonging and pleaded for any kind of job in the army. All he wanted to do was “his bit for his country”, but there was no allowances made for him and he had no option but to return home.
On 21 May 1940 at 10 am we reached Ladysmith after having used our meal vouchers for breakfast on the train. We were then transported from Ladysmith Station by lorries to our camp, where the officers were already installed and waiting for us.
After inspection and going through yet another medical examination, we were taken to our khaki-coloured tents. Fifteen recruits were allocated to one tent and we were instructed that the bottom flap must be rolled up at all times and that our feet had to face the centre pole, even when sleeping.
We subsequently reported to the large marquee tent of the quarter-master store to receive our kits and taught to pack them in proper order. My kit consisted of:
- 2 blankets
- 2 pairs of socks
- 1 khaki-coloured boiler suit with orange lapels (this suit was to serve as our uniform and worn with a leather belt)
- 1 helmet
- 1 valet razor with 6 blades
- 1 double Dixie
- 1 spoon
- 1 knife
- 1 fork
- 1 galvanised mug.
No boots, pelisses or rifles were issued to us at this stage. At the exit of the quarter-master marquee there was a big notice which read “If it fits, return it”.
Meal time arrived and we queued up, but instead of accepting just the food we preferred, we went the whole hog from soup to vegetables to dessert and it was all placed in one Dixie. The resultant mess meant that most of the men threw the food away but I was too hungry and closed my eyes and ate it as quickly as possible. We learned a valuable lesson that day as we had to use our second Dixie for coffee since we had left behind our mugs as well.
We had been told that no cameras were allowed and had to be returned home but while dressing, shouts of “I’ll give you ₤5.00 for your suit” or “Ten shillings for your camera” could be heard and if these bargains had not taken place, I would not have been as fortunate as I was to be able to have some memorable shots to take home.
The second day in camp began bright and early. Roll call sounded out at five a.m. and physical training took place in the fresh open air in our underpants and vests (if you were fortunate enough to possess these items of clothing). A break for a quick wash and breakfast, then onto the parade ground we went for drilling until one p.m. Lunch was then handed out and at 2 pm we had to be back on the parade ground until five pm and supper time.
After dinner, we were free and if you had enough energy left, you were permitted to go into the town of Ladysmith but had to be back before lights out at 10 pm. Most of us were too tired and foot sore with our bodies stiff from the hard training to want to go to town. My drilling experience up to then had been six months in school cadets and peace-time drill in the Transvaal Scottish for the past two years, sometimes having to travel all the way from Nylstroom to Johannesburg for these parades twice a month.
As soon as our boots and warm coats arrived, we were taken on long marches, starting early in the morning and arriving back at base camp late at night. Sometimes we covered as many as thirty miles in one day and our feet would be blistered and sore, our legs and bodies aching. It was hard going to prepare us for battle, but also a dream come true as almost every country’s son dreams of becoming a soldier one day and I enjoyed the discipline and was soon on good terms with the officers.
At the end of July 1940 and in the middle of winter, the 3rd Battalion was split into two sections and I was transferred to the 2nd Battalion under the command of Lieutenant MG Eloff. Here I soon made friends with three chaps who went with Jan Peens and myself. They were:
- Jimmy Bezuidenhout
- Henry Martin; and
- Tommy Nelson.
We got into many scrapes together, but remained firm pals.
One Saturday morning in August we went out on a 30-mile march. I wasn’t feeling well and found it quite a struggle to keep up with the unit but these chaps helped me back and somehow I made it with their encouragement. On arrival at base camp I went to bed and the next day was admitted to hospital. My new pals kept me in smokes and visited me daily for the entire week I was there.
My brother Lou was married by this time and we managed to get a weekend pass together and went home. At church on the Sunday morning the apostolic priest noticed us but did not greet us. He went into the pulpit and to our great embarrassment, the priest condemned us for being in the army and we were asked to leave his church. And so it was that Lou, his wife Winnie and I left as quietly and as unobtrusively as we could. I swore that I would never set foot in any church again ever. How I kept my cool, I just do not know.
On my return to camp, I was told by Sergeant Gouws that I had to go on a course in handling mortars. I was quite interested and did well on this course but after four days, I decided I wanted a break and went AWOL on a Monday morning. Even though I was prepared with enough money ₤5.10 for a ticket, I couldn’t show my face at the Railway Station in uniform. I contacted my brother Lou and he lent me some civvies as we were the same size and off I went to purchase my ticket and get on the train. There were no problems except that I had to share a compartment with a sergeant and another officer, but they weren’t suspicious of me and I somehow made it to Johannesburg.
I stayed home and visit friends and family for a week before deciding to return to camp. On arrival, I first went to Lou to return his civvies and visited with him and his wife Winnie until late afternoon, reaching camp at 8.30 p.m. to be put under close arrest by Sgt Major Engelbrecht and thrown into jail where I had a really good time even though I was locked up with guards around the prison.
This prison time lasted two days and two nights before I was brought in front of Captain Belford. He was extremely disgruntled with me and sent me onto Major Wessels, second in charge of our battalion. I tried to tell him my story, but he was not at all impressed and gave me a sentence of seven days Detention Barracks, plus I forfeited eight days pay for the time I was AWOL. The date was 23 August 1940. I was forced to report every hour on the hour and drill for an hour each evening. I did this only once then devised a plan to work in the kitchen instead. Before I knew it, we received order to move to Carolina in the Transvaal and so I avoided my punishment altogether.
It was bitterly cold in Carolina. To keep warm we had to help the farmers plough their fields. We were spanned like oxen, but with a wooden crossbar in front of us instead of a yoke. We had a choice of having this bar in front of us to pull or behind us to drag the plough along. In Camp Carolina, I behaved myself and really tried my best except for one instance when I pinched some freshly laid farm eggs for my friends and I and almost got into trouble again.
We were granted a weekend pass and I was able to go home and see my family again but had hardly returned to Carolina on the Monday morning and whilst busy with gun practice, the order came for us to go on Embarkation Leave and to report back to Pietermaritzburg on 25 September 1940.
The 24 September 1940 is a day I will never forget. It was one of my worst days in the army and self-inflicted at that. On arrival at Pietermaritzburg Camp, I decided to go AWOL again at the first opportunity and so I went off with some friends, but planned to go only for one day. We got stone-drunk and the next day I was back in camp with a terrible headache. I spent the entire day without eating, very hung-over. My dentures were missing and my friends went looking for them, eventually the sergeant found them between two branches in a tree.
Back to normal that Monday, orders came for us to move out. We knew then that we were on our way up North and I would be driving a truck at the end of our train journey.
On 2 October 1940, our troop-train (along with others) left Pietermaritzburg Station with all sorts of slogans written on the sides of the coaches such as “Here come the Springboks!” and “Be careful Mussolini!” The Band of the Permanent Force played farewell to us as the trains slowly pulled out of the railway station and we leaned out of our windows to listen and the further we went the softer the music became, until all was silent. We were on our way to try and squeeze out the Italians from Abyssinia, all the thousands that were already laying in wait for us.
Before that, however, we stopped at Germiston station and were allowed to disembark. Much to my great surprise I met up with my girlfriend Jo’s sister Nelie who had come to see her cousin off on another train. Our whereabouts were supposed to be a great secret, yet at every station we passed, we found crowds singing and cheering us on our way, except at Koster where the Ossewabrandwag shouted abuse and insults at us. They did not get us down – we simply shouted back with our Springbok war cries in return.
At the railway stations where we were allowed to leave the train we found tea and cake waiting and at Mafeking on the border of South Africa, we even danced with the kind ladies who had brought us tea and cake before saying tearful goodbyes and amongst singing, we were on our way.
Crossing the Limpopo River, we entered Southern-Rhodesia and bush country. At Bulawayo Railway Station we were once again greeted with VIP treatment which was a good boost for our morale.
It never crossed my mind that one day I would live in Southern-Rhodesia with Jo and our children.
At Wankie Railway Station, it was as hot as hell but we still enjoyed the greetings and the tea even though I am sure the devil himself would have flown from the heat unless he was tied down. The perspiration was pouring off our bodies and the water too hot to drink. From hereon, the scenery changed to bush and lots of wild animals. The journey and the heat became tedious until we crossed the Zambezi River where the train driver stopped the train in the centre of the bridge so that we could have a good view of the mighty Victoria Falls. It was a sight so spectacular that none of us could get it out of our minds as we entered Northern Rhodesia, then Broken Hill which was the end of the line for us. Here we were loaded onto lorries and transported to a camp. The heat was still unbearable. Water was plentiful but so hot one could make coffee using it without needing to boil it.
Twenty men were allocated to one tent and the head lice were marching in their own army! We began shaving one another’s heads right away but when only one side of my own hair was shaved, I was called away by the sergeant for duties and only late that night was the rest of my hair shaven off.
The following night we prepared our army vehicles for the journey to Nairobi and loaded petrol until late. We were so tired that we ended up sleeping in the vehicles, too tired to trek back to our tents.
The 8th October 1940 we started to move out in our grey and green vehicle convoys on our long, long trek up north. Up to now everything had seemed like an adventure and fun, but now hunger, thirst and exhaustion became our partners over 1,482 miles with no roads. Day after day we travelled across planes and thick bush alive with wild animals. We kept guard on stops so some could sleep and while all was quiet and I was on guard duty I would be filled with such longing to see my folks again that I could hardly bear it.
One night when the convoy had stopped and it was my turn to sleep my mates woke me. One was holding a skull into which he had placed a piece of candle and lit it, giving the skull a red face all afire. I gave out a loud yell, jumped off the truck and ran into the desert screaming “Ghost! Ghost!” When my pals eventually caught me I was beside myself with fright and they had to hit me hard on the jaw to silence me and get me back under control.
Food was scarce and we went without food and coffee for many days until we found some friendly natives on our route and bartered with them. What weird things we ate that day, we will never know but it kept the hunger pains in our stomachs at bay.
On 20 October 1940, our convoy finally reached Nairobi. We were hoping for a long-earned rest but rest is an unknown luxury to a soldier in time of war and we had to carry on with our duties, regardless of the fact that we were exhausted.
On 24 October 1940 we reached the port of Mombasa and joined up with the rest of our battalion who had in the meantime arrived by boat from the Union of South Africa. It was great to see my old pals again. I was also overjoyed to receive no less than fourteen letters from home, as up to this time I had not received news from anyone. Sad to say one of these letters was a farewell one. At Gilgil we were allowed one day’s rest, but being irritable at the time I soon found myself in trouble again and received five days DB and had to spend it working in the kitchen. All that happened here is long forgotten and after a while orders came to move out and this time, it was to meet the enemy.
We travelled over stones, through bush and across desert and the Springboks left their tracks where no truck had ever travelled before, closer to the enemy who had been waiting for us for a long time. Rains brought relief from the heat but with each mile we travelled we became more and more soaked and were hardly ever dry. We slept in the mud under wet blankets in our wet clothes. Tents were something of the past and we had only the skies above for a roof at night.
Our vehicles became stuck in the mud and after endless pushing and struggling; we managed to reach Marsabit, the biggest natural reserve in the world. North Marsabit stands on the Kenyan Plateau 1000 metres above the Chalbi Desert plains on the North African road to Ethiopia. The thick bush there was crawling with wild animals but that did not prevent us from building huts for ourselves from tree branches as shelter and it was here at Marsabit that we spent Christmas 1940. For Christmas, we each received a gift of ten shillings and half a bottle of beer.
We remained in Marsabit for two months, enjoying the lovely sunsets and clear hot days when it did not rain. We had a sense of rest and some time to relax a bit but often the silence seemed unreal and even now when I think of it, I can still remember that silence.
On 2nd February 1941 we met the enemy whilst travelling. I was having one of my bad migraines and lying in the back of the truck, half dozing, half trying to cope with the pain and aware of every bump and the shaking of the vehicle when suddenly one of the chaps shouted “Carl! You’re still sleeping and the enemy is firing at us!” The truck stopped and we jumped off.
- I was No 1 on our Mortar
- No 2 was W Johnson (from Mossel Bay)
- No 3 Oogies van Staden
- No 4 Tommy Welsh.
The others were:
- Van der Linde (from Kimberley)
- Van Niekerk (from Oudsthoorn)
- Claasens; and
- Another whose name I cannot remember.
As No 1, I soon had a suitable place for my weapon and had it assembled and ready with my men. I reported to my officer “Ready for Action!” and awaited further orders, while we were under heavy enemy fire. I received an order for swift firing with highly explosive bombs and again repeated “Ready for Action!” I received the distance 1,100 paces and once more repeated “No 1 Ready for Action!” while we waited with the sun blazing down on us.
Two minutes before 4 pm, my 2nd was also ready and at exactly 4 pm the order “FIRE!” finally came. I fired my first bomb, but it fell short. The second one hit its target and I started….vomiting!
At a distance of 1,200 paces I let off 30 bombs in a matter of one minute. Then I climbed onto a boulder and fired “out of the fist” for twenty minutes. Slowly a white flag was raised in the Fort, some men were sent in and ensuring it was safe, called us over. What did we find? Death and destruction beyond our worst nightmares.
Out of 500 natives and three white, only 20 natives and one white man were still alive. We had lost two men of our own and three had been wounded. Later we had to shoot another five of the natives who had joined up with us only two days previously as they turned out to be spies.
We dug graves and buried some of the dead that day and the rest, the day after. And so it was that our first encounter in action ended at Gorai, and our introduction to the ugly reality of war. We stayed there for a few more days doing patrols at night, and then moved onwards to Mega, a very strong fort in the mountains which the enemy thought could only be attacked from one side, but we proved them to be wrong.
We reached Mega on a Saturday, moved closer and camped near a mountain. We had received a message that the enemy had fled, so we made huge bonfires and laughed and sang songs until it was time to turn in for the night, sleeping like logs.
Early Sunday morning, Lt Eloff came speeding into the camp, told us that he had been at an outpost with B Company and that they had been attacked and he was the only survivor (which turned out to be a lie). Within five minutes our trucks were ready and moving out. We were so upset and angry to think of such a huge loss of men and set about to chase the enemy when the order came to return to Mega as it was still crawling with the enemy.
On Monday morning, Col Engelbrecht asked us “Are you Springboks?” and we all shouted together “Yes Sir!” He told us to follow him and prove it. Up the mountain we went, under heavy machine and cannon fire and in the pouring rain, climbing from boulder to boulder the Springboks intrepidly went. We climbed higher and higher until we reached the top, sopping wet and after two days of heavy climbing. We now opened fire for the first time. Soon a white flag appeared and a second victory for the FFB. After clearing up, we camped at the foot of the mountain, wet and hungry but very proud indeed to be Springboks!
As it was the rainy season, we had hardly any supplies from behind our lines as it was too difficult for the trucks to get through. There was little food and worst of all, no cigarettes! Cigarettes we could not remain without so I paid five shillings for a single smoke. Money was plentiful but nowhere to spend it. After resting for a week, we had to move on. There was a war to be won and the men could not sit idly by. Before leaving this spot, however, we were taught to develop precision-firing to a fine art and learned new ways of establishing observation posts close to targets. In the desert mirages often confused gunners and other soldiers.
We now travelled on a man-made road towards the Fort of Mojale in Ethiopia, which was another well-equipped fort. We travelled without food or water, sometimes the water in the desert would be too brackish to drink and we would go without. We arrived late at night and discovered that the enemy had manned the outposts and must have seen us coming, warning the occupants of the Fort because they had fled in a hurry and left all their supplies behind in their haste to get away. At last, we were able to fill our bellies again!
From the Fort of Mojale, we slowly worked our way back to Mombasa, Kenya amongst talk of being sent home. Again, it was tough going with trucks getting bogged down in the mud, but the thought of going home gave us the encouragement we needed to continue.
We arrived at Nanyuki in Kenya to see Europeans and running trains again. We were given injections against tropical diseases and issued with new clothing. We were very excited at the idea of new clothes because we felt this was a sure sign of the rumours being correct. We received the following:
- 1 pair boots
- 2 pairs socks
- 1 pair putties
- 1 khaki uniform
- 1 hard flat camouflage helmet
- 1 .303 gun; and
- 50 rounds of ammunition
After a week, we were put on a train to Mombasa which took two days to get there and from there were immediately transported to the SS Dunera, a 16,000 ton ship and at 6 pm on 3 March 1941, we put out to sea for an unknown destination.
No sooner were we at sea when I became ill but I didn’t care as long as I was going home. Two days later on my 25th birthday I was still ill. After six days at sea, we were told that we were not going home as we had imagined and in fact we had to get our weapons ready.
On 5 March 1941, we reached the Port of Berbera in French Somalia, just before Djibouti. The heat was awful and caused some of the men to faint. Perspiration ran down our legs in streams, flies the size of bees crawled over us. The flies seemed to be everywhere, especially attracted to the corners of our mouths, eyes and noses. Later we learnt that they were the cause of terrible desert ulcers. The harbour of the Port of Berbera was so badly damaged that the ship couldn’t berth. We remained just out of Port for two weeks after which we were placed on trucks and headed for Hargeysa where the heat was more bearable.
We arrived at Hargeysa in the pouring rain and made camp under some huge trees, falling asleep quickly after our long trip. Our sleep did not last very long as we were awoken by the barking of wild dogs and the howling of wolves. We soon learnt to ignore the sounds and sleep through it all. Here we received fresh meat and vegetables for the first time since leaving the Union of South Africa and enjoyed it very much indeed.
While out on patrol one day, we found some natives gagged and bound with their arms behind and under their backs, lying on the ground facing the sky. Their legs and private parts had been forced around tree trunks and fastened by the ankles. They were in such a terrible state and had so many stab wounds that we had no option but to shoot them to relieve them from their terrible misery. We were able to save one, however, who told us that it was the work of Mussolini’s forces.
Soon after this incident, my pal Jan Peens and two other scouts went out and Jan was captured. We immediately began searching for him as he was very depressed at the time having recently had news of his twenty-three year old only sister’s death. When we found Jan, he had been stripped of his clothes and with his arms and legs bound, his private parts tied onto an overhanging branch with his body facing upwards. We released him and carried him back to camp half unconscious and he confirmed later that it was the work of Mussolini’s forces. Jan Peens was transferred to hospital for treatment but he never got over this shock and after the war; was declared unfit for work and died at an early age, a nervous wreck aged way beyond his years.
This was the centre where all prisoners had to pass through so we were kept very busy guarding and transporting them. Once they were all gone, we also left for Berbera. So far we had been very fortunate in that since we left the Union of South Africa we had not met up with any winter weather.
On 1st June 1941 we were once again put through the practice of going in fishing boats to our ship – this time the S.A. Salween, a very dirty boat with green, slimy water on the decks and the food inedible it stank so much.
We arrived in Port Suez on 6 June 1941 where we again boarded a train without any delay to Amaya. When we arrived we found that the Australians had already prepared a large camp for us and that night we celebrated along with them. We spent a week in Amaya with these kind troops and made many friends. I was restless and wanted to go into the city of Alexandria which was not far off, but all passes had been cancelled. This did not prevent me from going anyway and I persuaded two of my pals to accompany me. We left early while our soldiers were still asleep and had a wonderful day returning the following night without being missed.
Here we learnt that in big cities like Alexandria and Cairo, special air balloons were sent very high up into the sky with the bottoms tied with steel ropes to the ground. When enemy planes nose-dived, their aircraft became entangled in the ropes and brought down. In Amaya, we also listened to the Muslim crier in the temple who started each day at midday and all life would come to a stand-still until he stopped.
Back onto the road again towards Mersa Mutruh, through the arid desert, on and on we went until we arrived by late afternoon and soon had our camp set up. We were instructed to dig trenches right away, but we were too lax, as we had done this routinely so many times before and never needed them. We went to sleep after having a couple of warm beers. We had hardly put our heads down to sleep when we heard the sound of enemy aircraft approaching. We jumped up and wanted to start digging the trenches right away but it was too late, the bombs were already raining down on us. After the aircraft had left and by the time the sun came up the next morning all the trenches were ready. We would certainly need them as every night thereafter the bombs fell from early evening until sunrise without fail and there was no sleep for us. We had many narrow escapes, only through the mercy of God.
Mersa Mutruh was a small oasis which Egyptian pashas and a few foreign colonies in Egypt sent their families. Hillier’s Hotel was made up of low white walls under a flat roof which under different circumstances, would have been a wonderful place to holiday as it stood on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Here there were also a few shops, the Governor’s Cottage, a mosque, church and railway statin. Artesian water was drawn from well and the water here was sweet and pure. A few date palms, grass and saltbush stood in the hot soil.
After we had been at Mersa Mutruh for two months I fell ill and was taken to hospital for two weeks. While I was in hospital, our battalion moved on. They covered over two hundred miles of barren desert, through sandstorms with sand getting into their food, haversacks and even into their rifles, jamming the breeches. These extreme sandstorms are called Khamseems. They blow at any time of the year and at any time. A Khamseem must be the worst windstorm on earth for they pick up surface sand which blows thickly across hundreds of miles of desert, gathering momentum as they go. The dusty clouds they form take on a yellow hue. The sand gets into everything, vehicles, the cracks of closed windows, artillery, down throats, up noses and into eyes causing you to choke and unable to see. Ear crevices and hair is not immune to the horrors of the Khamseem, which causes the hair to mat and eyes to fill with grit, which was uncomfortable, weepy and painful. Eye goggles were a necessity. Sand even managed to find its way into water bottles and soldiers had to drink warm, gritty water while they wondered if and when a Khamseem would ever end.
My battalion found a big oasis called Siwa (surely the largest oasis in the world!) which was not very far from the enemy. When I was discharged from hospital on a Sunday, I joined them there the very next day, which was a Monday.
It was extremely hot at Siwa but at this huge oasis, water was plentiful. Mosquitoes stung us continually and caused malarial fever amongst our soldiers. The palm trees could be seen for miles around and there were dates in abundance. The old swimming pools were filthy, but we wasted no time in cleaning them up and putting them to good use. What bliss! In the meantime, we had to do patrols and our section was sent to an outpost called Motors-Pass. Conditions were dreadful and all one could see for miles and miles were bare desert. The hot winds stung with sand and many of the men suffered from heat exhaustion. At night we suffered tremendously with bitterly cold temperatures. Flies and mosquitoes made our lives a misery and we were more than pleased when after a month of living like this, some of us were fortunate enough to be granted leave to go to Cairo.
There were two Tommies, two Aussies and myself in our group and we had to travel back across the 200/250 mile stretch of desert, onto Mersa Matruh, in a convoy and tried to dodge German enemy aircraft on the way. We hardly closed our eyes at night. How we survived the night of our arrival at Mersa Matruh, I will never know as the bombs seemed to fall around us like rain and we had no rest at all the entire night.
On 6th October 1941 at 6 am we left by train for Cairo and on our arrival found accommodation arranged for us at a placed called “Pension Mary House”. This was a big building with rooms kept for troops on leave or recovering from the effects of war. It was run by a very kind Portuguese lady who treated us well and we had young Egyptian boys 14/15 years of age to act as our guides. Mine was called Abdul and he told me that his father was a Member of Parliament. I grew very fond of him and he wept when I left. We had a wonderful break, and I still have a photograph of Abdul holding the reins of a donkey I was sitting on, also one taken of myself and my friends in front of the Tors Hotel.
I witnessed many shocking things in Cairo. Once, whilst running for shelter and with sirens screaming, aircraft raining bombs on the town, I saw a young Egyptian girl being hit and her head completely blown off her torso, a sight I will never forget. One day Abdul took me to the lower class area and some of the things I saw there were so disgusting that I would not even put it down on paper. I learnt a lot about their idea of living and was shown Burka Street where the women sold their bodies. Abdul took me to the wax museum where I saw the ravages caused by dirty illnesses. I never forgot this sight and it certainly helped me to stay on the straight and narrow and fight temptation. At night when we returned to Pension Mary House, the Portuguese owner would offer us a cup of coffee before we turned in and it usually ended up in a very chatty half-hour or so.
When I left Cairo, I joined my unit at Mersa Matruh where they had returned after I had left them at Siwa.
We now took up positions along the coast and I was sent to yet another outpost. Up to this time I was in a supportive company but now it was decided that I should go on an intelligence course which I passed with 75% and was sent to join Headquarter Company. On 22nd November 1941, I was sent to Halfaya Pass (nicknamed during the war as ‘Hellfire Pass”, very raw but eager to learn. This pass was the most important area on the way to Tripoli at the Northern end of Libya.
It was now winter and bitterly cold. Sandstorms and rains made life very unpleasant. A very strong German force held the pass and we decided to starve them out and bomb them night and day. We did so, raining thousands of bombs on them. The earth shook with the bombardments, forcing the Germans to surrender. We spent a very cold Christmas 1941 here, just about frozen.
Just before this surrender, the Free French Army took over from us and we returned once again to Mersa Matruh on 7th January 1942, where we spent two days resting before our convoy left again. We travelled through the Halfaya Pass being under bombardment at the time from both enemy aircraft and machine guns.
Finally we reached Gazala where our troops had formed a very strong defence line and here I saw a Stuka aeroplane for the very first time. Having learnt from our prior mistakes, the first thing we did was to dig our trenches. Tents were not permitted there. After taking in positions, our Intelligence Section had a lot to do, going out on the usual night patrols, at times behind the enemy lines and we had many a narrow escape but lived to tell the tales. The sun burned down on us and we suffered from sunburn. The food and water were once again very scarce and we had to go without many times. No water for washing or shaving, so beards and stinking bodies were the order of the day. I recall removing my socks and making them stand up to much merriment. Our socks were stiff from dirt. Thirst almost drove us crazy and enemy aircraft never stopped coming. The days ran into weeks, the weeks into months and we seemed to be forever waiting to attack, or waiting for the enemy to make a move.
When we went out on patrol, we came across a crypt. It had bunk-type sections made of brick and mortar where single corpses could be placed. Since it was empty, we decided to have a rest there before moving on. I had completely forgotten that I had washed my uniform in petrol the day before due to the water shortage. I struck a match to light a cigarette and there was suddenly one big ssshhhhh…..and a huge flame. I was alight. Fortunately for me, my pals rolled me on the sandy floor and put the flames out. I received treatment for my burns at the camp hospital, was then wrapped up just like a mummy and put on an aircraft to the hospital in town for two weeks of intensive care.
It was here while I was recovering from my burns that my brother Lou surprised me with a visit right out of the blue. He was in a bad way, having walked many miles to see me – so dehydrated that he was also put into a bed to recover. From the hospital I was sent to Halwan for a week’s rest along with some other patients as I had still not fully recovered from my burns and shock. We were placed in cattle trucks on a goods train, but we didn’t mind as we knew that a rest was waiting for us at the end of the line.
After our recovery time was up, we were divided into sections and joined a British Regiment to guard the one-mile long bridge barrage across the Nile River. We saw plenty of buffalo at the water wheel and dust and flies plagued us non-stop, but we caught some in sieves and burnt them. We made camp in a park near the bridge. I enjoyed serving with these men and had a good time going into Cairo and other places when off duty. All good things come to an end and soon we had orders to return to the front line.
On 26 May 1942 at 3 pm the enemy began their attack and we were ready for them. From now on our lives were not worth a penny. By the end of May, we started falling back as cannon fire was opened upon us as well. Men were killed, wounded and some went berserk. My friend Oogies van Staden was also killed. As June began, the order came for us to retreat. The Germans soon discovered this and took advantage of the confusion and gave us hell. We received the short end of the stick and had to retreat all the way towards Tobruk. Before we entered Tobruk, the Germans attacked again. Thousands more were killed and many trucks caught alight. We were completely cut off but managed somehow to break through and passed through Tobruk, which was now a very dangerous place to be. We made a stand at Half-House Pass, but had to abandon it, blowing up the pass with explosives before we left.
By 21st June 1942, Rommel had captured Tobruk, 50 miles west of Alexandria. We then withdrew towards a strong and well-developed position at Elamein, the spot which became the turning point in our war effort.
By this time the enemy were mixed up with our troops and confusion reigned everywhere. Next morning we were divided into sections again. Unfortunately, I came under the command of Lt van Nierop attached to B. Co and became No 2 on a Bren-machine gun. We dug our trenches immediately and when this task was done, we had to span fences around mine-fields that night then do patrol work. The first night on patrol with this section taught me a lot as we went in behind the enemy lines. During the second night on patrol I was driving an armoured car. We had been badly shot up with cannons and lost three men but found nothing else and at daybreak were back within our lines with the command to “hit the enemy for a six right out of Africa!”
Another night whilst on patrol, I was driving an armoured vehicle behind the trucks. I pretended to lose my way and ended up in Cairo on purpose. After a few hours there, I carried on to Alexandria where we spent the night, returning to our unit the following morning just as coffee was being made – a most welcome return to duty.
On 26 July 1942, we received orders to prepare for an attack on the enemy at 6 pm. We walked and waited but could not see a thing. Then we heard the enemy talking. It was now 8.30 pm and being full-moon we had to be extra careful. Advancing closer and closer, we spotted them busy laying a mine field. Our guns and bayonets were at the ready for contact when as they saw us, I heard a shot ring out then a scream and we went into action. A red flare appeared and all hell broke loose, bombs bursting, bullets whistling by, everyone shooting. The groans of the wounded men and some of them screaming in agony were enough to drive us crazy. We expected death at any minute as we were right in the open desert with no cover at all.
Suddenly I felt something like a small stone hitting me on the back. I did not dare move, not knowing what it could be, then another stone landed close by and I looked up to see my mate Meiring who was about ten paces away from me, beckoning with his hand for water. Shouting was pointless in the midst of so much noise and chaos. I crawled on my belly like a snake towards him and after giving him a drink, crept back to my place. A strange silence fell over us for a minute or so and then I heard a piper blowing his bag-pipes in the distance. It seemed so surreal.
Suddenly I heard a shot and felt my foot go lame and a burning sensation. Again, a strange silence followed. I beckoned to my mate that I had been hit. He did not believe me at first and came across to see for himself. He helped me to the Red Cross tent where I found myself amongst many other wounded men. We were placed into ambulances and sent to Cairo to No 106 S.A.G. Hospital by train and for the first time I slept in a bed that night again. It was almost worth getting shot. I had some shrapnel in my one knee as well as the wound in my foot and it was only when the foot started becoming septic that the doctor operated and removed the bullet which was the type that had a curved point so that when it entered the flesh, it would cut its way through. It was given to me for a souvenir. The shrapnel was left intact and there it remained. Years later my children would feel it under my skin, fascinated.
In hospital, I met up with my pal Jan Peens again, still suffering from his ordeal with Mussolini’s troops.
On 2 September 1942, Rommel was defeated at Alem Halfa Ridge and he went home to Germany. Our forces remained to defend Alamein and the big battle was planned for 23 October 1942.
I remained in the hospital for almost two months and it was here that I learned of Montgomery’s arrival to lead the 8th Army into battle. I was taken to be tested for my nervous condition and it was discovered that I was what they called “shell-shocked” and today is known as post-traumatic stress syndrome. I was classified down from A.1 to B.3 for three months and finally discharged on 13 September 1942. The diagnosis on my certificate read: (1) GSW left foot (2) Anxiety state. I was transferred to R.T. rest camp with Jan and the others, just waiting.
On 17 September 1942, we were sent to the Manpower Board and I pretended to be very stupid when questioned by Capt. Le Riche. He told us that the rest camp had no room for loafers and that we should be doing something. I had all my answers ready for him. To each question and suggestion I replied “I can’t” and out of sheer desperation the man said “What shall I do with you?” I responded promptly “Send me home”. I had had enough. Capt. Le Riche just laughed and told me to leave his office. On the discharge certificate issued from the Reception and Transit Office, issued on 21 September 1942, it clearly states “There is no reason why this soldier should be detained in the Middle East.”
I had been waiting for eight days and heard that a big parade would be held at 10 a.m. on 21 September 1942. I cleared off to the YMCA to avoid it and read to pass the time, had some lunch then went to visit a friend who wanted me to stay longer, but I felt it was time to return to camp. On arrival I found Jan Peens in a very agitated state. He told me that the CSM had been looking for me and I had to report to him right away. The CSM (Chief Sergeant Major?) greeted me and asked “Is your name Craemer?” When I confirmed that it was, he said “62325 get your stuff ready, you are going home tonight!” I was speechless and didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or dance with joy, but all I could do was turn and walk away without saying one word to him.
I ran and grabbed my things and my pals and I boarded the train for Suez, where we arrived on 23 September 1942 and taken to tent camps to wait yet again. During our first Sunday here we came under heavy bombardment again, but no-one was injured or killed as the bombs fell too far from us. For days we did nothing but count the ships and collected used matches in the desert to play cards, mainly poker at which I was quite good. This helped to pass the time.
Each morning a few names would be called out and the men would leave on their way home, never to be seen again. Every night the bombardments continued and we wondered whether we would ever get home as we continued to stare death in the face. My money had run out and I couldn’t buy any more beer.
I reported to the camp doctor on 10 October 1942 as I was suffering with painful eyes (from the desert flies?). I had to go for treatment three times a day. I was really frightened that I would miss my chance of going home through this annoying ailment but on 15 October 1942 – a Wednesday things started to change. At parade when roll call came, more names were called out and at last I heard the final name being called – Craemer – I was told to be ready for the next ship out the following day. I was over the moon and once again left speechless.
On 16 October 1942, we were placed on a ferry and taken to the S.A. Dunera (Selandia). We were one hundred men and only three nurses. On 17 October 1942 we set out to sea. At last we were on our way home to the Union of South Africa.
The ship called in at Aden on 21st October 1942 and left again at 9am on 22nd October. The journey home took us three weeks. The weather was perfect except for just two days of rough sea which had us tumbling all over the boat and caused sea sickness. It was a minute price to pay to be travelling home again.
We received no welcome on our arrival at Durban Docks as our whereabouts had been kept secret. On 1st November 1942, we were taken to the Snel Parade Camp where we received our pay, train tickets and some leave forms to complete. Here we learned that Rommel had returned to face Montgomery’s forces and the battle had begun. It would last for twelve days and nights and cost thousands of lives on both sides.
On a brilliant Saturday morning, we climbed onto a train headed for Johannesburg where we arrived on Sunday morning. I took a taxi directly home to Mayfair where I found all the family except two of my sisters at home to welcome me. Lou was still up North. It was overwhelming. I had been granted a month’s leave until 30th November 1942 and during this time I discovered to my disappointment that my mother had sold all my civilian clothing, furniture, radiogram (with my collection of about eighty records) and the washing machine I had struggled so hard to buy for her. My Post Office Savings Book had also been emptied. As a result I had no clothes apart from my uniform to wear and was broke, but at least I was home, alive and away from the war.
On my return to army life I was posted to various places and it was from Zonderwater that I received my first weekend pass to attend my sister Elsie’s wedding to Boet Ferreira, and met up with Jo again, who was a close friend of Elsie. We had a great time and life really began for me. Two month’s later we were engaged to be married.
I was posted to Crown Mines, Kaffirskraal and Vlakfontein and sent to Pretoria on a Gas Course, which I passed and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant after which I was posted to Potchefstroom, N.M.C. and had to train natives as truck drivers.
On 9th June 1942 I proudly attended the First Anniversary Dinner of the opening of the Sergeants Mess, No 6 Air School, Potchefstroom. I was promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant but I wanted to get back to civilian life again and applied for my discharge from the army.
On 24th July 1943 (or 1942?), I married Joey much against my mother’s wishes I might add. On the 11th February 1944 I received an honourable discharge from the army at Hector Norris Park, Johannesburg. I received no pay as it had all gone straight to my mother. But I was given four medals – the 1939-1945 Star, the Africa Star, the War Medal and the Africa Service Medal.
I re-joined my old firm of Walton Gray as a Steam Roller Driver, with my pay being seven pounds ten shillings (fifteen rand) per week.
Carl A. L. Craemer