Surviving alone in the desert
28th January 1942: As the front line in North Africa moves back and forth one man found the means to survive alone - the remarkable story of Lawrence Mallet
In the desert war British forces were again being pushed back by Rommel. They had taken the Libyan port of Benghazi on Christmas Day but the Germans retook it on the 28th January. With the front line ebbing backwards and forwards like this it was not unusual for men to find themselves overtaken by the enemy and taken prisoner, only to be released in a counter thrust.
In the wide expanses of the desert it was possible for groups of men or even individuals to evade capture for some time. They did so in the hope that their own forces would catch up with them or that they could find their way back to their lines somehow.
There were some individuals who took this to extremes. Lawrence Mallet1 had been serving in the Royal Horse Artillery since 1933 - so was a professional soldier of the peacetime army. He had been captured outside Tobruk in May 1941. He managed to escape when the column of vehicles that his group of POWs was being transported in was attacked by planes.
He found himself alone in the middle of nowhere in the Libyan desert, deep in enemy territory. He soon made a home in a cave - living not far from the main transport route near the coast - and he discovered he had a ready supply of food to keep him going. It was not until January 1942 that he put himself in peril.
I used to lay up all day but go out all night looting. At first I went only a short distance to see what I could find but soon I got bolder and made sorties out to the main road, where the convoys were going through to the front line. I used to prowl until I had found an Eyetie, or Jerry lorry parked for the night.
Usually the crew would be asleep in a dugout yards away. I used to climb into the back and throw out anything I could lay my hands on. I acquired, in this manner, everything that a man could wish for. I had matches and cigars, newpapers, gelignite, beans, a beautiful little Eyetie Breda sub-machine gun and ammo to match, blankets and a petrol camping stove, even chocolate and biscuits.
I did get shot at a few times but shooting at something in the dark desert is like firing with no eyes.
‘One night I climbed into the rear of a wagon, and trod on the face of a Jerry who was sound asleep there. I left hurriedly amidst a burst of rifle fire, but the shots were wasted on the desert air.’
One night I climbed into the rear of a wagon, and trod on the face of a Jerry who was sound asleep there. I left hurriedly amidst a burst of rifle fire, but the shots were wasted on the desert air.
I then started jumping lorries; I would hide near the road, let them go past, and thenjump in the back. After a quick inspection ofthe contents I would throw out anything I fancied before jumping out and following the tracks back to my loot. After a time the Jerries realised there was someone in the district, and I heard patrols out at night.
I often heard their footsteps on the rocks at night and once I had just returned to my cave when I heard boots on rocks. I sat in my cave with my eye glued to a little pinhole in the wall, smoking an Eyetie cigar, as I watched a little procession of 12 Eyeties stagger past. My water supply was still holding out.
I started to collect explosives. I had a large supply of Italian grenades which had a rubber tag on the side. If this tag was pulled off they would explode when dropped.
So I conceived the brilliant idea of putting a few prepared grenades on the chassis of lorries I looted before I left. Quite a few of the drivers must have got a real kick when they drove off in the morning after spending a night in the district.
Then I went one better: I stole a load of electrical detonators and started fixing them to the spark plugs of parked lorries during the night. I figured that when the driver started up in the morning the detonator, snugly embedded in a nice large stick of gelignite, would really start the day with a bang. I returned later, on several occasions to observe the result of my labour and found the results quite impressive.
I had been searching the coast for a boat, hoping to make a sail and return to Alexandria, but had no luck; then fate took a hand. One morning I sat outside my cave sunbathing and three Arabs suddenly came round a corner of the rock. I had no chance to hide and knew the game was up but smiled and told them in bad Italian that I was a German on coastguard duty.
They hurried off and as soon as they were out of sight I grabbed a sack of food and my little Breda [Italian submachine gun he had acquired] and went off in the other direction. I knew they would be back with the Jerries before long. I hid up again two miles off and saw several patrols during the day not to mention a spotter aircraft that kept zooming along the coast.
Nightfall came and I was off. Going by the stars I tramped eastwards all night and many nights after that. I was carrying a little grub, my gun and my original two gallon can of water. I knew there were frequent wells on the road where I could fill my can. Food was no problem as it was dumped everywhere.
‘My boots however fell to pieces. Fortunately I found a dead Eyetie in the desert. He was really ripe and I had to hold my breath while I took off his boots. One boot came off easily...’
My boots however fell to pieces. Fortunately I found a dead Eyetie in the desert. He was really ripe and I had to hold my breath while I took off his boots. One boot came off easily. The other one came away with his foot still in it and I had to pull it out, bone at a time, but they were good boots, nearly new and I was grateful to him.
I dumped my gun as it was getting very heavy. My boots rubbed my bare heels and raised a large blister. I laid up for a few days in the hope that it would heal but it got worse and the flies would not leave it alone. I had to push on and as my foot was swollen I dumped one boot and wrapped my foot in an old sack. So I kept going and then one morning I inspected my foot and saw some maggots crawling about in it.
There was also a blue streak going up my leg. I knew that if I did not get some treatment for it soon, it would be my lot. So I turned north for the sea. I found a deserted wadi, with ripe prickly pears, fig trees and water. I laid up there for a while, living on fruit, dead fish and winkles that I picked off the rocks and boiled. I bathed my foot in hot salt water and it gradually returned to normal.
Not a soul came near me during this time - I could have been on the moon. Several times I heard the roar of half-track vehicles in the distance and at night often saw flashes out to sea, so I assumed there was a battle going on somewhere.
This account appears in the collection: War's Long Shadow: 69 Months of the Second World War