Mersa El Brega
Tripoli Libya – March 1941
Rolf marched through the streets with the thousands of soldiers of the Deutsches Africa Korps. He looked down the marching line and felt a rush of excitement and pride. He saluted the task force commander, General Italo Garibaldi, and Lieutenant-General Erwin Rommel who led the German force. The Generals were standing on a raised platform casually saluting the units as they passed. Behind Rolf, the rumble of tanks echoed off the buildings that lined the road with the stink of fuel wafting into the air. He thought no one could defeat these fighting men and machines and the locals would be impressed by the show of strength.
The marching column reached the outskirts of Tripoli where they halted and fell out. Rolf walked back towards the city to watch the tanks and artillery rumble past. ‘Don't go too far,' said Corporal Otto Ruprecht. He was in charge of the section that included Rolf and a machine gun. ‘We have to travel today.'
Later that day, the heat of the North African desert made conditions stifling in the back of the truck. Rolf sweated as the dust clouded behind them. The men sitting with him were huddled into tight groups as they tried to keep the choking dust out of their lungs. They were thankful for the canvas cover because it kept them out of the direct blazing sun and stopped some of the dust from entering.
Rolf was attached to the infantry as part of a four-man machine gun crew. ‘Is this it Otto? Action. I'm sick of travelling and doing nothing.'
‘I bet you shit yourself. I hope you brought a change of pants. Stick your pants in your jackboots so the shit won't run down your legs.'
‘Won't be able to smell it over your pong.'
Otto slapped Rolf playfully on the head. ‘We are going to kick the Englander out of Mersa el Brega,' he said.
The condition of the dust on the new MG-34 machine gun bothered Rolf because it would be his job to clean it. Luckily, the ammunition was still in boxes otherwise he would have to clean every round before the gunners could use the shells. Many of the soldiers in the truck were leaning back smoking or trying to sleep. The fine dust in the truck covered everything and gave the khaki clad men the look of ghosts except where some of them licked their lips, which gave the impression of white clowns.
It was a relief when darkness came. Outside the full moon hung in the western sky. The troops were allowed to exercise their legs while the convoy refuelled. ‘You'd better clean the gun,' said Otto to Rolf. ‘This time it's for real we should be there in about an hour.' Rolf nodded. He climbed back into the truck and broke out his cleaning tools. He had been taught how to work in the dark by feel, and he felt the pressure of making sure the weapon was ready. Their lives would depend on it.
The soldiers climbed back into the truck. They stopped about half a mile from Mersa el Brega; Otto and the number two gunner picked up the gun and loaded it with ammunition that had been prepared by Rolf. Then Otto's section jumped from the truck and ran.
They stopped after running for a mile in the moonlight. Their chests were heaving as they sucked air into their lungs. The darkened town could be seen reflecting in the moonlight and they were close enough to shoot anyone moving around the streets. The country was flat and only small stunted bushes grew in the desert landscape. Although their chests were still heaving, they set about digging and heaping dirt so they would have protection from the British guns. When Otto was satisfied he told Rolf and the number three man to rest. The two gunners set up the gun. Rolf brought up the shells and arranged them ready for use. They waited.
The sun showed its red ball on the horizon and started its slow ascent dragging the reluctant daylight with it as if it knew it was rising on a killing field. The grey sky slowly turned to blue and Rolf watched British soldiers tentatively moving in the town. Still they waited.
At 0800, artillery crashed into action with an earth-shaking snarl. Rolf jumped as the first German artillery shell screamed overhead and landed on a building in the town causing it to leave a large dusty hole where there was once a house. Salvo after salvo followed leaving Mersa el Brega a series of brown holes and an angry pall of red dust rising towards the heavens. Stuka dive-bombers climbed towards the top of the sky, paused, and plummeted like diving hawks screaming in elemental fury at the town. Rolf jammed his hands over his ears, as the smell of the exploding shells wafted back to his position. The barrage caused the British to run through the rubble-strewn streets desperately searching for cover.
German machine guns began chattering like angry woodpeckers. Desperate enemy soldiers were scrambling to find shelter from searching bullets and pirouetting like drunken ballet dancers when shot. The rattling guns continued sweeping the township with deadly fire.
But, the British weren't finished, and their artillery sounding like distant trumpeting elephants sent shells searching out the attacking Germans. Mortars bombs sought out the German machine guns. Rolf ducked as a mortar exploded fifty metres away sending dirt raining down on the gun section. Otto looked up from his gun and yelled, ‘Missed,' and then started firing again. Rolf stayed as low as he could but with the amount of ammunition Otto was using he was continually bringing up more shells.
Otto stopped firing. ‘Time to go,' he said.
‘Where?' asked Rolf.
‘There,' said Otto pointing to a small raised hill about four hundred metres away. Rolf could see why they would be better in the new position, they had a better and closer view of the town, and there were no mortars landing near the hill.
They ran through the smoke and occasional mortars like crazy clowns in a circus. Enemy machine guns were trying to pinpoint them but by the time the British had the range, they were on the other side of the hill from the town. Rolf's back began to itch where he was expecting bullets to crash into his body, and even though he had to carry the ammunition fear made him outdistance the others.
They dug into the hill like frenzied rabbits. Otto pushed the ugly snout of the MG34 over the edge, and the gun started spitting bullets at the town.
From the new position, Rolf could see the 5th Panzer Regiment moving forward. British twenty-five pounder field guns were lobbing shells close to the three lead tanks. There was a sudden roaring noise followed by a vicious frightening hiss and one of the metal monsters rose in the air and exploded in blinding flashes and grinding steel. Men ran from the tanks – some were on fire and seemed to have sprouted yellow and blue licking wings-- and collapsed charred in a blackened heap. There was another grinding flash and another tank was hit and then another. The other tanks withdrew leaving the battlefield a series of blackened metal and littered with overcooked bodies like a failed Sunday roast. A great white smoke ring floated into the sky passing carrion birds sensing easy pickings.
Rolf felt his throat gag and he was sick at the back of the dugout. He looked with disgust at the birds now settling around the bodies, ripping hunks of softened flesh and gorging on the feast. Gunfire from the other side of Mersa el Brega, forced him to extract his eyes from the ghastly birds.
The Kanpfgruppe, a mixed force of armour and infantry were almost into the town. In minutes German soldiers were in the streets, armoured vehicles were destroying buildings and the British were fighting back. Smoke and dust rose into the air and it was hard to see what was happening. For an hour, it was a mess of squealing tanks, gunfire, and erupting buildings all hard to see. Rolf knew they had won when a bedraggled group of enemy vehicles scrambled along via Balbia (coast road) towards the town of Agedabia. Next day the last elements of the force surrendered.
Rolf's elation at victory in his first battle was tempered when he saw the reality of war. The first dead soldier he saw was a British machine gunner, his entails were snaking along the ground. More bodies were laid in the dirt and some of them were German. They lay with their limbs in misshapen positions, their eyes, and their mouths open like some unseen giant had crushed them. The blackened soldiers with much of their flesh removed showing white bones were the most distressing. Rolf was able to stop his stomach from heaving this time but he tasted bile and knew he would see many more bloodied, mutilated, foul-smelling corpses of previously vital living human beings. He could only hope that one of those gruesome, lifeless things on the ground would not be him.
The British evacuated Agedabia before Rolf and the machine gunners arrived. The Germans took the town and Rommel established his headquarters in one of the larger houses.
After another dusty trip, Rolf and crew took up a position on the outskirts of Tobruk. At Easter, the German Artillery started and was answered by Australian Artillery.