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Day 79: Tobruk

Michael Palin - SaharaConsidering theirs is an eight-day trip and they've already done the battle site of El Alamein earlier today, the veterans are holding up well at the supper that's been laid on for them. It could be something to do with Avril, Lady Randell, a vivacious woman with short-cropped blonde hair and unquenchable enthusiasm, who has organised many of these reunions. It could also be something to do with the fact that being together again reminds them of happy as well as hellish times.

I find myself sitting next to a smart, tweed-jacketed man called Ray Ellis, with thick white hair and a ruddy face. His regiment, the South Nottinghamshire Hussars, were trapped by the Germans in a corner of bleak desert known, ironically, as the Knightsbridge Box. They had already been in the desert for a year, without a day's leave, when, under heavy attack, they were given orders 'to fight until the last drop of ammo'. Ray it was who fired the last shot, before being captured, taken to Tripoli and put aboard a coal-carrying cargo ship bound for Italy. This journey, which he spent crammed together with all the other prisoners in a sealed hold, with one meal a day and the constant fear of being blown up by British air and sea patrols, was, he admits, more terrifying than anything he'd endured at the siege of Tobruk. On arrival, he and his colleagues, filthy and emaciated, were paraded through the streets of a small town near Naples. He was at his lowest ebb, when, out of the jeering crowd, came a young girl, who ran up to him and pressed a peach into his hand. He pauses here, not for breath but to let the emotion register, as if the peach had just that moment been handed to him. He nods gently at the memory, and goes on.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 79
  • Country/sea: Libya
  • Place: Tobruk
  • Book page no: 210

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