by D D Brown
Firstly, veterans of the desert campaign may recall the firmly held belief that German troops received special training in hot-houses before being drafted to North Africa and that, consequently, they arrived superbly acclimatised to the desert conditions. Willi's first comment on gazing at the bleak landscape which is the desert, says it all - 'How can one exist in this place?' Secondly, after reading Willi's graphic account of the awesome destruction visited upon them by the Desert Air Force, those who thought that we had suffered as a result of the actions of the Luftwaffe will realise that, by comparison, we had enjoyed an almost idyllic existence. By the time of the battle of Alam Halfa, the Desert Air Force had, of course, received considerable reinforcement and enjoyed a preponderance in men and machines.
This then is Willi Gräser's story of the battle, retold at the age of 85 years.
'I was one of a group of English-speaking German soldiers sent to Bucharest to form a signal company after having received special training in the interception or monitoring of enemy wireless traffic and after having completed a familiarisation course relating to the British forces in the Middle East and North Africa. We arrived in Athens in May 1941, from whence we monitored the battle for Crete and the campaigns in North Africa.
In the days before the widespread use of sophisticated electronic devices, this "interception" basically comprised the monitoring of the spoken word, in code or in clear, and the interception of morse code signals. In the early days, information derived in this manner, particularly indiscreet talk in clear, provided our unit with valuable details regarding the size and movement of British formations. Later, when British Intelligence became aware of the extent of our activities, stricter discipline was observed in wireless traffic and, as a result, there was a marked reduction in the availability of news.'
'An important function of the interception process was the locating of the enemy's sending and receiving stations. For this purpose, a direction-finding facility with a range of over 1 000 km, was introduced. When an enemy wireless message continued long enough to be passed on to this facility, the latter would tune in to the same frequency and, by directing their aerials, obtain a compass reading. This data was reported to the main intercepting station in Athens - two readings gave a point, three a triangle, and a fourth confirmed the readings.'
'My relatively comfortable existence in Athens was fated to end; on 9/10 July 1942, a fellow signalling company at Alamein suffered a disaster when it was overrun by the 9th Australian Division. As a result, at very short notice, I found myself in a Ju52 with other reinforcements, bound for the North African desert - our ultimate destination being the area east of Mersa Matruh, about 1,5 km south of the coastal road.'
'My first impression as I gazed upon this stark, forbidding landscape was - "How can one exist in this place?" The days were very hot and the nights very cold, and the shortage of food, the brackish water and the millions of flies soon took their toll.'
'At the end of July 1942, I was transferred to a divisional headquarters near the Quattara Depression, amid rumours that we were preparing to outflank the southernmost Allied defensive box in the Alamein line.'
[Here, Willi Gräser is obviously referring to Rommel's final bid to break through to Cairo, which became known as the Battle of Alam Haifa, which was launched on the night of 30/31 August 1942.]
'One evening the order came to move. It was pitch black and one had to follow a glimmer of light in front, which appeared to be someone who knew where he was going. Then, in the blackness, the way was also marked by a few small lights which glowed in cut-out biscuit tins ("Hindenburg lights"). The night passed by with stops and starts and in the early morning the view of the massed traffic was terrifying - there was hardly room to move.'
'With the sunrise, the air attacks commenced. While Rommel had ordered that everyone should take cover against these attacks, there was no cover - everywhere there was flat, pebbly desert. In an effort to secure some cover, I used my hands to scrape together the sand that had accumulated around the little desert bushes. It was horrible - we faced the sun and only became aware of the attack when the bombs exploded amongst us. This was war and I was in the middle of it, helpless and unprotected.'
'It was a relief when the mass of vehicles started to move again after each attack, for anything was better than being a sitting target. Worse was to come and soon the vehicles became concentrated in narrow lanes, one-way roads through the mine-fields which were marked out with tape. At the end of these lanes, there was an explosion of vehicles and tanks as they raced to get into the open desert and away from the relentless bombing.'
'During the day, another troop of our company came by. I asked where they were positioned and took the relevant compass reading. Little did I realise that this knowledge would indirectly save my life later that night.'
'Nightfall came and, after listening to Lili Marlene, we settled down (we thought) to sleep. There was a full moon and it was not long before bombers dropped beautiful "christmas trees" to add to the illumination. What a splendid and romantic fireworks display it would have been, had I not feared for my life. With the natural and artificial light, the bombers could not miss their targets. I lay in my shallow fox-hole with my blanket over my head. For the next few hours, everything around me shook. Dust filtered through the blanket.'
'At about midnight, the bombing ceased momentarily and my four companions and I, alive but very frightened, examined our vehicle. It had been riddled with bomb splinters and was a wreck, so we were no longer mobile. Our first thought was to get away from there so, remembering the compass reading, I volunteered to find the other troop and ask them to pick us up.
'I set off across the wadi floor and soon felt like a target again as the bombing resumed. With the full moon, the bombers hardly needed a candle light to see the tanks and vehicles spread out over the valley. Every few minutes I flattened myself on the ground and tried to crawl into the hard earth.'
'After many hours I reached the other side of the wadi but could not locate the troop. I therefore took a reverse reading on my compass and returned to our camp. What a sight met my eyes! Everything that had been parked there was destroyed. There were burning vehicles everywhere. Eventually I located our vehicle, now thoroughly burnt-out, and wondered where my comrades were.'
'The slope on which we had parked had changed its shape, as though a land-slide had occurred. I did not realise what had happened until I located my fox-hole, which was filled with sand. I searched for the other fox- holes, and my worst fears were confirmed. My four companions were dead, not from wounds but from bomb blasts. Checking for any signs of life, I found that they were cold and must have died in the attacks soon after my departure.'
'I cannot tell now what I felt then. I remember that I collected the contents of their pockets and the halves of their identity discs, and went to look for the liaison officer. I reported what had happened and was ordered to return to my company.' [Willi finally managed to rejoin his unit and arrived just in time to cancel a notification to his family of his death in action. Shortly thereafter, he received the news that most soldiers on both sides always dreamed of - he would be home for Christmas.]
'On 23 October 1942, the enemy artillery bombardment started and the order was given to prepare to move. On 29 October, the retreat started during the night and, with frequent stops and starts, we eventually assembled off the Via Balbia at El Agheila on 17 November 1942. There, after experiencing a great deal of difficulty, another man and I received orders for our return to Athens. Our papers being in order, we hitched and sky-hiked from Tripoli via Trapani in Sicily, Naples and Brindisi, and arrived in Athens in time to embark on a home-bound train. I finally arrived home to spend Christmas with my family in Berlin.'
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