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Reg Pfeiffer on the Chaos of Retreat...


In mid-1942 we were back-pedaling quite rapidly from Antelat, being chased by a Panzer division which seemed to be doing just about as it liked, which was not surprising when one considered the disparity between the German tanks and the sardine-cans our side had.  Our Army was pretty disorganized and no-one seemed to know where any units were, let alone trying to operate them as a coherent fighting force.

3 Squadron was instructed to retire (retreat?) to another strip some 50-odd miles east, as enemy tanks were not far away.  Then came an order to do a sweep to get some information so a few of us were told to take off, get the information and land at the new strip where the Squadron would be.  Those concerned were Lou Spence, Butch Furness and I together with, I think, Lance Threlkeld and Vic Curtis, but I am not sure of the last two.

When we landed there was not a soul within miles of the strip so we dispersed the aircraft and sat down to await the Squadron's arrival.  When dusk arrived all by itself, it looked even money as to whether our next contact would be with our side or theirs.  We were not equipped for night flying and doubted that there was any field within range that was so equipped, so the only choice was to sit tight and wait for first light in the morning.

We found what had been a circular gun emplacement of sandbags about eight feet in diameter and four feet or so high so we huddled together under cockpit covers to keep out the cold wind whilst listening for tanks or other unwelcome sounds.  Suddenly Lou Spence said he had a carton of canned beer in his aircraft, so he was immediately directed to go and get it.  Then it was found no-one had a knife or any tool which could possibly be used as a can opener.  

Undaunted, Butch produced his .38 Smith & Wesson and proceeded to shoot a hole diagonally through the top and side of the can.  To hell with lead poisoning! - We cleaned up all the beer and probably would have taken on the Panzer Division had it showed up.

(The Germans could not have been very far away, because we learned from the Squadron the next day that their orders had been changed because it was feared the tanks would over-run that strip very soon. There was no way they could contact us as the TR11B radios fitted to our aircraft had a very limited range even when air-to-air and from the ground they were hopeless.)

To illustrate just how disorganized an Army can get during a retreat, very many weeks after the above (by which time we were carrying bombs) an Army Colonel briefed us before a sortie.  He informed us that whilst they were not sure of the positions of all units, nevertheless they could give us a definite bomb line which he marked on the map.  Anything west of that bomb line need not be identified as it would be enemy... so hit it.

We found a column of armoured cars parked in a rather pretty little oval in a wadi.  It was a long way west of the bomb line but I sent my No.2 down to try to identify them but they were dirty and could not be recognised.  Some pilots reported seeing shots fired at us so we bombed and strafed which certainly did not do them any good.  Can you imagine how we felt when later the Army informed us we had attacked an Indian armoured unit!

Here endeth the reminiscing.

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