(Salvation Army paper with the admonitions:
Remember the loved ones far away and write them a message of cheer today – at the top and PLEASE WROTE ON BOTH SIDES at the bottom)
Pte Max Hickman
2/33rd Battalion AIF Abroad
13th May 1941
Your very cheery and interesting letter of the 21st April came up today along with one from youngster written on then 20th which also made good reading – earlier in the week I had three boat mail letters written about the middle of March – one from you and two from May and they too were very newsy and interesting. I am not surprised that young Geoff Hodgman is over here although I haven’t seen him in fact I’ve seen very few Tasmanians apart from those in the unit. I suppose he’s in the eighth battery and just where they are now I’ve no idea – nearly all the chaps I seem to meet are Queenslanders – the 25th and 26th Battalions are around here somewhere I believe – they’re both entirely Queensland battalions now – I’m on loan to a machine gun battalion at present and they’re nearly all Queenslanders too – a fine crowd of fellows.
Your proposed trip to Queensland certainly sounds interesting Mother. I hope you and Dad will be able to make it. It’s rather a proposition having no one you can depend on to look after things but if there’s a way out at all, don’t miss it because it’ll do you both the world of good.
I’m glad you got the little souvenirs from Durban and liked them. It’s a pity some of the other things didn’t make the grade too however we can’t be worried about them now. That letter that the lass at Durban wrote certainly contained some news didn’t it – she knew a lot more about us than we do. I suppose for that matter you also know more about us than we do. The only news we get is from the Australian papers and by the time we get them the news is old. Every day now new rumours are floating about where they originate goodness knows but they certainly come from somewhere. I remember when we were on the Nea Hellas coming out two of the mess orderlies decided to start a rumour. From a very modest beginning at the midday mess it assumed colossal proportions by tea time and was even made the subject of bets and spirited arguments and I suppose the other rumours start and grow in the same way so now when a rumour floats in we hold a sort of Grand Council to debate its feasibility before accepting the whole or part of the story or dismissing the lot entirely. The best papers we get are the Truth, Man and The Bulletin.
Last night under cover of dark the mate and I scrounged nearly a gallon of water and decided to lairize a bit and have a bath in half of it and to use the other half for making tea or coffee. There’s a primus here and in various ways we’ve acquired a quantity of tea and sugar and tinned milk and one chap had some coffee and milk sent in a parcel. To the first of these events – having a bath – we applied the term ‘Lairizing in Libya’ and to the second having coffee and herrings for supper we named Luxury in Libya. Whilest bathing in our quart of water in which we subsequently washed our shirts, shorts, towel and sox to save sending them to the laundry, Ray related the story of the most embarrassing occasion of his young life when he was taken to hospital with measles and had to submit to the indignity of being undressed by a nurse.
It’s really amusing to contrast our present position with that of six months ago when we were in barracks in England where it was a heinous crime not to shave and where Battalion and company parades were held with monotonous regularity and if one chose not to see an officer twenty or thirty yards away he’d hear the RSM bellow – “Learn to salute soldier or else” – the ‘or else’ had quite a definite meaning too or the more gentle but no less authoritative voice of the adjutant requiring you to take your hand out of your pocket, not to lean on that wall or to do that button up or something – one needed about fifteen pairs of eyes to keep out of trouble. Then too the spit and polish of the barrack room itself where there was a place for everything and everything had to be in its place or you copped extra guards or piquets – at one stage I looked like becoming a permanent guards-man – so much has the scene changed that today we clean our boots if we’ve got nugget to clean them – in fact one of my boots is at present done up with string. There’s no doubt that the barrack room training was good experience for the man in the street especially as England judges the troops by ceremonial turnout and we would put on guards and shows equal to the permanent Tommy units.
Well Mother writeable news is damned scarce so I’m afraid I’ll have to cut this epistle short with love to you, Dad, May & Anne and best regards to Laurie and the boys.
PS Will you send me some of those blue air mail tickets to put on the envelopes.
Diary – May 6 – 13
Assuming Dad’s diary records the realities of his experience, it’s not surprising he searched for alternative topics for his letters! His writing also reduces dramatically in size, in the middle of this week :
Tuesday 6th May
Sandstorm all day accompanied by hot winds like the fringe of a bush fire. Cleaned guns and stayed in pit all day – wrote to Mother and youngster – Tucker light on – crook tea (bad water)
Wednesday 7th May
Early picket 4-6. Cleaned gun pit, organised blitz on bugs. RR & self get 70 – Went for swim in afternoon – walked back weak for want of tucker – Meals crook again – 20 lbs of meat to do 105 men two meals – wish some parcels would come. Early night picket – quite a lot of Jerry planes moving East – searchlights unable to pick them up.
Thursday 8th May
Three letters – one from Mother, two from May all very interesting – written middle of March – another go at bugs – hundreds of them. Went down 7th Div Engineers camp – had a yarn with some of them – said they had been christened Benghazi Greyhounds because of speed with which they left Benghazi – got a couple of petrol tins.
Friday 9th May
Another sandstorm. Members 2/2 Machine Guns attached to C Coy 23rd Batt for administration purposes. Tucker still light on. Caveman existence – living in small concrete cell, killing bugs & sucking cigarettes, discussing any and every topic short of the war of which we have absolutely no news – crawling out into the sandstorm and hellfire heat to get a few spoonfuls of stew and sand and a drop of tea & sand then crawling back till its time to crawl out again – What a bad b. a man must have been to deserve this punishment. Rumour has it that we’ll be here eight months – rather fancy our dust will be part of the sandstorm by that time.
Cleaned guns and pit. Went for swim. Received two letters – Youngster 20th April, Mother 21st. Had a bottle of Resch’s from Machine Gunners – tried to write to Mother – stumped for news.
Sunday 11th May [size of script reduced considerably – see photo]
Very pleasant day. Sleep in till 9am. Breakfast in bed – lie back and smoked, read Truth. The Army getting more like home every day. Wrote Mother, went for swim – lovely drop of water. Read Hells doorway (?) & to bed.
Definite blitz on bugs. Splashed petrol on walls & floor – shifted all our gear and applied a match. The whole dump ablaze – burned hair – arms & legs – dived out of small hole. Blitz a definite success – celebrated with a bottle of Pilsener. Some Jerry planes over – ac ac busy. Swim in afternoon. Early to bed.
Tuesday 13th May
Breakfast in bed – cheese & onion sandwich & tea. Sand storm – stayed in pit all day.
Blitz on Bugs
Illustration from the article Battle of the Plagues (AWM publication Active Service 1941)
Reminiscing many years later about the events of May 12th, Dad wrote :
We took up defensive positions in dug-outs and pill-boxes. A Queensland chap named Ray Ross and I were assigned to a concrete pill box overlooking a wide valley. The pill box was constructed in such a way as to merge with the landscape. It was about two metres square or perhaps a little more than that and had a small barred window in the front that provided a wide field of fire. There was a Vickers machine gun and somewhat more than twenty thousand rounds of ammunition. Whilst there was room for Ray and me and the gun and ammunition, there wasn’t room for the thousands of fleas and bugs that had taken up residence in the pores of the concrete. Fleas and bugs were partiuclarly prevalent at Mersa Matruh. A member of the forces wrote a poem entitled ‘My Flea-Bound Dug-out in Matruh’.
I decided to do something about it. I went to an engineer’s depot and obtained a tin of petrol. Back at the pill box we shook our blankets and clothing and other gear well and removed them from the pill box, then carried the boxes of ammo out along a narrow trench that was the entrance to the Pill box. I then spread the petrol generously around the floor and walls. Then we moved to the entrance and lit a match. In an instant the place was a mass of flames. Ray crawled out along the trench and I followed him. We waited for some time hoping that the ammo would not explode and when satisfied that it was safe to return, did so. From then on we had no trouble with fleas or bugs. In fact, the only damage sustained by our ill starred action was the singe-ing of the hair on our arms and legs.