A New Zealand soldier describes Sollum a day after the Māori Battalion’s capture of the barracks. He recounts the event including a Māori Battalion soldier’s keenness to rejoin the fray after being injured. He describes the environment, the German cemetery guarded by New Zealand soldiers, German and Italian prisoners of war and the continuing shell fire from German forces.
I have just motored back across the desert from the little battered town of upper Sollum. It is the place which the Māoris took this morning in their first battle in this new fight in Libya. Sollum is actually in Egypt. It was the old Egyptian frontier town in peace time and I passed the battered stone boundary sign which showed Egypt on one side and Libya on the other as I drove down the road over which the Maoris had advanced. But although it’s Egyptian it has been in German hands since last April when the Nazi’s rushed through Libya at the time our backs were turned in Greece. It was a cold dusty morning bleak as the worst of winter days somewhere, say on the plains of Southland. The desert strangely enough looked this morning rather like the area between the Bluff and Invercargill as we drove over it. For here it is tufted with a low scrub that is like tussock and the wind cut through us just as only some of those winds on the Bluff road can cut. We drove in convoy the trucks in one long line, the men gripping their tommy guns and rifles and staring out the side at every vehicle in the skyline. This desert war is like a war at sea. Any dock that looms in the horizon could be an enemy craft. But then we saw the ragged shape of Fort Capuzzo ahead of us and we jolted rapidly towards it. In the shattered courtyard of the fort, smashed by three great battles that have been fought here there were New Zealandsoldiers this time instead of German, or British or Italian. They wore their grey uniform jerseys or their battle dress and they stood around in real New Zealand fashion drinking tea at the cook shop lorries. Or they slept in their trenches in the fort outskirts, or they poked around among the hulks of the German, Italian and British tanks which lie around the fort walls. At one corner at the road junction the Germans had made a cemetery. There are neat rows there of wooden crosses all with black edges and on them are the words “Fallen for the Fatherland”. Here there were a couple of New Zealand Privates on guard and they stared at the swastikas and tried to pick out the ornate German lettering. A group of elderly Italians in uniform, prisoners from a labour corps who had been working on a road nearby stared miserably from the roadside. I went on along the tarmac road towards the barracks at Sollum. At the roadside the tanks were moving back after their action. Their cooplas were open the grimy faces of the commanders stared out tensely in the direction of Halfaya Pass, the enemy still lay there. Every two or three minutes a shell would slither over and burst near the road so we gave the truck all she had till we could get into the shelter of the first building. Here the Battalion Doctor was bandaging up the arm of a big Māori private. The private kept saying “I think it’s alright eh. You let me go back to my cobber’s; I don’t want to come out with the job half done.” But the job is already done. Across the open space between this first aid post and the shattered barrack walls the Māoris were filing back already leading in lines of German prisoners. There were Italians too, some in dark green uniforms. The Germans were dressed in a hideous pale khaki with jack boots and a silly cap like the one the ATS girls used to wear in England. I looked at the faces of these men. They had almost all the hard, brutalised expression of the real Nazi type. We learnt later this was a special unit made up of men who had volunteered for service in Africa, sort of imitation Nazi foreign legion. Over the last open space where the shells were bursting I ran towards the barracks that the Māoris had captured and were now holding in the face of enemy fire. They put in their attack before dawn. In the cold black night they’d bumped over the desert in their lorries till they got to their meeting place with the tanks. And they formed up alongside the great shapes of these dark tanks looming up in there in the starlight. They started off over the open slope towards the barracks. The Germans hearing the tanks suddenly realising the attack opened fire with machine guns and anti-tank guns and mortars. The attack went steadily on. Māori soldiers, grenades or rifles with fixed bayonets in their hands worked through the strongholds in the barracks, around them clearing out each point taking prisoners pressing home their attack here and there until at full light now the key points in the town were theirs. I crawled up behind a wall where two Māoris lay trying to spot a sniper in the buildings below. Ahead of us stretched one of the most magnificent views you could see, it was the blue Mediterranean and then, just inland the great sweep of the 300 foot escarpment. The desert here is a tableland that stops short about half a mile from the coast and then drops down one sheer cliff at which the only route is Halfaya Pass.
Sound file from Radio New Zealand Sound Archives Ngā Taonga Kōrero. Any re-use of this audio is a breach of copyright. To request a copy of the recording, contact Sound Archives Ngā Taonga Kōrero. (sa-u-1203-sc).
Photograph from Alexander Turnbull Library, see larger image here.
Title: Sollum barracks at top of escarpment above Sollum Bay, Egypt, during WWII
Photographer: W Timmins
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.