Voices from the air, p.4

Voices from the Air, page 4


Voices from the Air

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  Cecil set up camp in a cave in the side of a wadi (a ravine or valley) along the coast from Bardia. He wrote to the ABC: ‘I am in a dugout in a wadi a mile or so from Sollum. Mr Wilmot and I have been within 9 miles of Bardia and that means a few miles only, 3 or 4, from the enemy’s outposts . . . we spent Christmas night and half that Boxing Day in a small hole in the plateau near the front line but all was quiet.’25 The unit had been trying to record the sound of an Italian air raid and had been waiting unsuccessfully for three days down by the jetty at Sollum harbour when they were caught in the middle of a raid while returning to their camp.

  We had come from the top of the escarpment down the long steep wandering road into Sollum & turned into our wadi when the Itis’ Flying Circus appeared. Five bombers and thirty-one fighters. Bombs were dropped on the road we had just left. AA guns fired & six of our fighters appeared. A dogfight & our gear all packed up in the truck!!! We have been depressed ever since.26

  Wilmot wrote his stories in the cave at Sollum, below the escarpment and the nearby plateau. The landscape of the plateau where the Australian soldiers were camped was dead flat. ‘There’s not a tree, not a really distinguishable feature to guide you – it’s just like being at sea – nothing breaks the line of your vision across it, except the curvature of the earth.’27 In the biting cold, Wilmot shared meals of bully beef around the camp fires and his report described the conditions and the mood of the Australian soldiers before their first battle.

  They’ve trenched small dugouts about seven feet long and five feet wide with a bank of earth and stones around them. In these they are pretty safe against anything but a direct hit and they are protected from the wind, which is unpleasant by day and bitterly cold by night. If you can get down below ground level, you can keep fairly warm, but on the flat it cuts through greatcoat and balaclava like a rapier . . . It’s not easy waiting around in the dust and cold – waiting for something to happen – spending their days and nights in shallow dugouts – unable to show a light or even have a fire at night. But they are taking it well – they grumble as usual . . . they’re confident without being cocky – they’re hard and they’ve got more than a year’s solid training behind them. They know that they may have a fairly tough job ahead, but they are ready for it.28

  To his great frustration, Wilmot was ordered to Palestine by General Blamey to record a speech by the visiting Minister for the Army, Percy Spender, and was not there for the beginning of the attack on Bardia on the morning of 3 January 1941. Cecil and MacFarlane were on the plateau in the early hours before dawn to record the sounds of the opening barrage. It was cold and clear, and the stars were bright in the sky when they looked for a location to set up the recording turntable and gear. They needed light to see by when operating the cutting stylus on the record, and in the blackout conditions of the battlefield they found a protected spot in an old Roman cistern, about ten feet deep, and lowered the gear into the hole by rope. Cecil then climbed out to await the opening shots.

  I stood on top of a mound and searching, gazing around for movement, either of tanks, guns, troop carriers or any vehicle that might suggest preparation for advance, to catch a glimpse of a light that might be a gunner making a final observation but all was still and quiet . . . It was 5.30 am, a pause of some seconds and then many guns belched forth long tongues of vivid flame . . . Guns from behind and others to my right and still more further left belched forth their charges till a semi-circle of flashes rent the horizon and the air was filled with the bark of the near guns with those in the distance merging into one long continuous roar.29

  The news of the Australian capture of Bardia was reported on ABC radio on 4 January.30 Wilmot raced back from Palestine and arrived after the fall of the town but in time for the last day of fighting, and to speak to officers and soldiers for his account of the three-day battle against the entrenched Italian defences of pill boxes, concrete trenches, minefields and artillery along the 27-kilometre Bardia perimeter.

  All round the perimeter, except in the south, the attacker had to advance against these defences over the open plateau for at least 1000 yards, without a shred of cover . . . even before the barrage started our troops had moved up in the darkness to within 1000 yards of the wire in the west. When it did start there was a concentration in this area on the wire and the first posts we intended to attack. Under cover of this artillery fire our troops crept forward – the barrage lifted and our engineers blew a gap in the wire and let the infantry in . . . Because of the covering fire provided by the tanks and their own Bren Guns these forces were able to get right up to these forts – attack them from the rear and charge them with bayonets and hand grenades. In two hours these troops advanced four miles and took every objective. The key to this advance was speed and the fact that not even machine gun or shellfire checked our advance. The men weren’t reckless, they were just determined to get there . . .31

  In the mopping up of the last Italian resistance Wilmot also saw some of the fighting – probably his first experience of battle – and he then made his way into the town. ‘When we drove into Bardia early on Sunday morning we were greeted by three Diggers racing triumphantly down the main street on captured Italian horses. One of them looked magnificent on a huge white charger and wearing a general’s cap and uniform and a pair of terrific silver spurs.’32 Australian troops had played the key role in the battle, which also involved British artillery, armour and naval and air bombardments. One hundred and thirty soldiers of the 6th Division had been killed for the taking of the town and the capture of 40,000 Italian prisoners.33 Wilmot’s broadcasts were authoritative accounts of the first morale-boosting victory for the Australian forces, but his own eye-witness descriptions of later battles would add immeasurably to the impact of his reports.

  Covering the battlefield required constant travel between units in the daytime, and the greater risks of driving at night across the desert: ‘finding the way back to headquarters, continually getting lost and with no lights whatever, always the danger of dropping into a deep shell hole, trench or down a wadi, to safeguard against which one member would often walk in front, muffled up to the eyes to protect himself against the bitter cold of the Libyan winter night.’34

  Cecil and Wilmot were travelling around 250 kilometres a day when Cecil wrote to the ABC: ‘We badly need another vehicle. The roads are appalling and the distances great. Instead of us being able to halve the time by CW going one direction and myself another to collect information we must go together.’35

  Wilmot despaired of the arrangement that shackled him to Cecil and wasted so much time but his work rate was prolific: in the four days after Bardia he gathered material, and wrote and recorded four 15-minute talks for the ABC and one 8-minute and three 4-minute talks for the BBC.

  I used to chase material all day – type nearly all night and then record in the early morning. The units from which I had to get my material were scattered over a 15-mile front connected only by rough tracks – because I am an official correspondent I am obliged to be scrupulously careful in my facts – consequently I had to check and counter check.36

  If Anything Should Happen – Tobruk

  Just over a fortnight after Bardia, the Allied forces were ready to attack Tobruk, the harbour fortress next in the westwards string of coastal Italian strongholds. Wilmot was contemplating the risks ahead of him as he wrote to his parents from outside the Tobruk perimeter.

  Our troops are attacking Tobruk tomorrow – I am going in with them as close up as I can get – that’s my job – I can only speak of what they go through if I go through it with them as much as I can. If anything should happen – don’t reproach me – we all knew that if I did this job properly I would have to take the risks of an ordinary soldier. My conscience wouldn’t be clear if I did less than that – I am doing that and I hope that by doing so I am doing my part in this war. God bless you all and keep you as he has kept us all these many years – I have no regrets.’37

battle, when it came, was one of the most stirring days Wilmot had ever experienced. It was a still night with a bright moon in the early hours of 22 January when he drove around the Australian lines outside Tobruk: ‘occasionally a short burst of machine-gun fire or the roar of an odd gun reminded me that I was at the front and from time to time I could hear the rumble of motor lorries and tanks which were moving up to the assembly areas behind the start line.’38 Most troops were still asleep but meals were being prepared and by four o’clock RAF bombers were attacking the town and Italian antiaircraft fire was lighting up the night sky. The recording unit was set up in a gully near the British artillery positions when the main barrage began just before six. ‘There was a doomsday thunder and lightning – the whole rim of the horizon flashed as guns roared and then came the sound of the explosions in Tobruk. They rumbled across the plain and were amplified by the hills south of the town until even the ground around us seemed to shake.’39

  Wilmot covered most of the battlefield in the course of the day. He observed the artillery barrage, then by dawn he was with the troops in the eastern sector ‘still putting up strong fire with mortars and machine-guns to keep the Italians occupied’. He went with a transport column through the wire on the frontline and came upon an Italian post just as it was being smoked out of concrete dugouts. He drove on to other posts captured by the Australians and as he moved northwards bombers overhead were fired on by Italian anti-aircraft guns and he passed long lines of marching prisoners. From a hill in the afternoon he watched as Australian infantry attacked two enemy positions and at the end of the day he was with the most advanced troops close to the town of Tobruk itself: ‘already the Italians were burning their petrol dumps and blowing up their ammunition and all night long fires blazed and the flash and roar of explosions told of more sabotage. The battle for Tobruk was as good as over and as we went back to our dug-out in the dark we had to edge our way past thousands of prisoners who seemed to be pleased that it was.’40 The following morning in Australia the BBC radio news opened with the plain statement – ‘Tobruk has fallen.’41

  Being close to the frontline and the fighting gave Wilmot first-hand knowledge of the battle and the terrain. It also imposed greater risks. At Tobruk, his fears before the battle seemed to be grounded in part on his acceptance of the unavoidable lottery of the battlefield, where anything could happen, and on his determination to place himself as close as possible to the action. In the end, Wilmot had to accompany Lawrence Cecil in search of the best spot to record the opening barrage, which prevented him from going in with the first troops.

  In Tobruk they set up base in a stone-walled enclosure just over a metre high and about 3 metres square, with a roof made up of their tent and Italian blankets to block any light from leaking out at night. Here they recorded Wilmot’s despatches. As a broadcast correspondent, Wilmot found his task was more complicated than a print journalist’s.

  The pressman has a big advantage over the broadcaster . . . he doesn’t have to carry round the same amount of gear . . . he can thrash off a story in cablese and that’s that . . . but the broadcaster has to take his gear with him . . . has to write a finished script . . . rehearse it . . . and then get up early next morning and record . . . pack and move on. It’s a much bigger job and there’s also this – a censor can cut a piece out of a censored message . . . and it won’t spoil it . . . the correspondent needn’t worry so much about the censor – even if a bit is cut out it won’t matter . . . but a record once cut can’t be censored easily . . . I have therefore to comb every sentence for possible infringements . . . because even though in relay to the BBC offending parts can be cut out, the cuts destroy the continuity.42

  The logistics of delivering stories also tried the endurance, patience and organisational skills of the Field Unit. To despatch the recordings from Libya and the Western Desert, a member of the Field Unit would drive up to 800 kilometres to Cairo, and then back again – taking them away for several days at a time – but at Tobruk they found an alternative.

  . . . the RAF came to our rescue and one of the communications flight planes carried the records from their forward aerodrome to Cairo, thereby solving a considerable part of the problem. But of course the records had still to be brought from the frontline to the Drome, often rattling and bumping across desert country and over roads that would test the most skilful drivers.43

  Breaks Like This – Derna

  At the beginning of February 1941, Wilmot and MacFarlane were on the road to Derna, camping first in an inn that had been turned into a field hospital, and then in a mosque. At night, Wilmot typed his scripts for the BBC by the light of a hurricane lamp in their truck, with his typewriter balanced on his knees. The Italians abandoned Derna, and Wilmot and MacFarlane left their car where the road had been blown and walked the last two miles into town with Australian engineers, just a couple of hours after the first infantry. Chester observed:

  Right through the town we found things strangely intact. The Italians had set alight the barracks and the ordnance store, but the power station and the flour mill were all ready to start operations at once. I saw one house bolted and shuttered with blinds drawn just as if the owner had gone off for a week’s holiday . . . There is barely a sign of warfare in this Lotusland town.44

  Wilmot gathered the story of the attack on the heights that commanded the town and wrote his reports. Paper for scripts and letters was in short supply through much of the war. As a result, correspondents scrounged whatever paper they could, and one of Wilmot’s Derna scripts was typed on the back of letterhead from a local Italian maritime agent. Italian battlefields would sometimes be littered with paper left by the fleeing troops and Wilmot noted later in his report on the battle at Beda Fomm that British troops there were scavenging among millions of pieces of paper.

  Chester had friends and acquaintances in the Australian units and among the press contingent, and he wrote to his father that he was also developing contacts among the officers and commanders.

  . . . wherever I go . . . I run into people I know and I think that there is barely a unit in the desert where I don’t know someone who can help me . . . I have spent a lot of time in the last six weeks in getting to know these people and I find it is worthwhile, and I am now in the happy position of being able to approach the leading staff officers in all Brigades in the desert and at Headquarters and I am usually told a lot. At no time have I ever found difficulty in moving round the lines – except for one occasion when I was stopped at the last minute from going out on a fighting patrol because they thought it was too dangerous . . . but ordinary facilities for news garnering have been very readily provided here and I have had a number of lucky breaks.45

  One such lucky break, and Wilmot’s own initiative, had ensured that he was the first war correspondent into Derna. The next day, following advice from a contact, he was the only correspondent with the Australians in the southern sweep against the Italians on the escarpment at Giovanni Berta, and again entered the town ahead of the press. He was making his own luck. ‘Breaks like this you only get if you have first made contacts with people who trust you enough to put you in the picture.’46

  At the camp in the wadi at Sollum, Cecil had endured more than two weeks of a severe gastric illness, but had continued working. The almost constant travel in desert conditions was now affecting Wilmot’s throat and nose, and some of his recordings were sounding nasal in tone. For weeks he seldom achieved more than four or five hours’ sleep a night. He gathered material for a story during the day, wrote it at night and then he and Bill MacFarlane recorded it early in the morning in order to catch a plane from the nearby RAF airfield. Nevertheless, he was very fit and his solid, robust physique was coping well with the rigours of reporting, though his friend Harold Austin thought that Wilmot’s technique for going to ground during a bombardment could clearly do with some improvement: ‘he says I am the best target the enemy has in the AIF . . . my posterior sticks up no matter how I flatten myse

  Wilmot was now becoming desperate at Lawrence Cecil’s decisions about the movement and recording priorities of the field unit. ‘I have complained to him about the output of the unit and told him I think the commission will be dissatisfied . . . it is my reputation that is at stake in all these talks and if the stuff doesn’t appear they’ll think I can’t turn it out.’48 Wilmot now made a point of operating separately from Cecil in the field.

  Cecil’s time was partly occupied with the administration of the field unit and its liaison with the Army, and he was still distracted by the dysfunctional relationship with Reg Boyle, the PMG engineer at the base receiving station in Gaza, who oversaw the unit’s equipment and maintenance.

  Soon after the fall of Tobruk Cecil had left Wilmot and MacFarlane and set out to ‘hitch-hike’ back to the base at Gaza for discussions with Boyle and the Army. It provided one of the few talks that Cecil wrote. ‘. . . recent experiences lead me to believe that the Middle East and particularly Palestine must be the home of hitch-hiking; that is judging by the calm assured manner in which the citizens, Jews and Arabs, expect to be conveyed about the country free of charge. They will hail any type of vehicle whatsoever, the General’s car or a private brougham, a lorry or perhaps a tank.’49

  Hitching lifts by truck, ship and train, Cecil made it to Gaza. Coming back through the Western Desert the familiar sandstorms slowed and sometimes stopped the truck convoy in which he was travelling, and three days later in Libya on the way to Benghazi his truck skidded in the rain and rolled over down an embankment. He escaped dazed and with minor cuts but nothing worse. Cecil arrived at Benghazi soon after it was captured and the next night, when Wilmot had returned from the battlefield, Cecil, Wilmot and MacFarlane had dinner at the restaurant Alberto Italia while an air raid was under way.


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