At first when the war started in North Africa, British tanks were transported by train to the nearest railhead to where they were needed. They then had to make the rest of the journey independently. Even a Little Bear like me can see that this would be expensive in time, fuel, and wear-and-tear on the vehicles. And, as the war intensified and more and more tanks were needed, another method of getting them to the battle zone was needed.
By the autumn of 1941, experiments were being made at transporting them by road from the railheads on low-loaders, pulled by heavy trucks, and by October of that year 143 Co had found its purpose , as it was redesignated 143 Co (Tank Transporter).
At that point most of the Company was destined to operate from their new headquarters in a tented camp near Heliopolis, but in November two small groups were sent to work in the Western Desert, getting tanks and other equipment in and out of the battle zones. The first group was made up of 17 transporters, and the second had just six, each with two drivers, under the command of Lieutenant Bedford.
Grandpa Graham was part of this second group which was destined to be virtually lost in the desert for the next five months.
Practically living on their wits, they recovered and delivered equipment wherever it was most needed. Sometimes they were driving for 22 hours out of 24 – hence the need for two drivers for each transporter. And even when they had chance to stop for the night, one driver in each vehicle had always to be awake in case of an enemy attack.
They lived mainly on bully beef and biscuits, with occasional luxuries such as tinned potatoes, pickles, jam – and, if they were very lucky, a loaf of bread.
Water was strictly rationed to half a gallon/1.8 litres per man per day. This was used for making tea and making bully beef stew. It was also supposed to be used for topping up the radiators on their vehicles, but Mum says she thinks they might have used something else for this – then she wrinkled her nose, so I didn’t like to ask her what it was.
A book called “The Long Trailers” tells the story of 143 Co and has this description of the little group who were nicknamed Bedford’s Bedouins.
“Washing was out of the question; shaving was impossible. Dirty, bearded, weather-beaten, and with stained, oil-impregnated uniforms, they were as disreputable and unprepossessing a set of roughnecks as ever set foot in the Western Desert. They became inured to hardship. In all kinds of weather they slept under the stars. At night it was often so cold that they went to bed in their greatcoats and wearing cap comforters. For weeks on end they never discarded their clothes.”
Sandstorms were a constant threat, as was the chance of an attack by enemy forces by land or by air.
They were even once accidentally attacked by the RAF who mistook them for enemy vehicles. As a result, comradeships grew out of this operation that would last these men for the rest of their lives. Not only were they Bedford’s Bedouins, but also they became a true Band of Brothers, and my mum and the daughter of one of the other drivers still exchange Christmas cards all these years later.
It was March 1942 before Bedford’s Bedouins finally got back to 143 Co’s headquarters and in that time they’d managed to recover 61 tanks which would otherwise have been abandoned or fallen into enemy hands. They’d also come through it all without losing a single vehicle or man and Lieutenant Bedford was awarded the MBE for his work.
In their absence, new trucks had been delivered to the company. These were the latest American model Diamond T tractor units and Rogers trailers, which had powerful winches and special recovery gear which would make it easier to load broken-down or damaged tanks and bring them back for repair.
These were put to good use over the summer of 1942 as the war alternated between favouring the Allies and favouring the Axis forces. Then in late October there came the start of the decisive battle of El Alamein in which the Allied forces defeated the Axis ones and started to push them back out of Egypt towards Libya.
One reason why the Allies won was that they had more tanks – roughly 1000 – while the Axis forces had roughly 550. If you would like to know more about the battle, please click on the video below.
Me and Mum are proud to think that Grandpa Graham and the rest of Bedford’s Bedouins – and all the other men who were involved in the new experiment of tank transporting – helped to make this possible.
More stories of Grandpa Graham’s war coming soon!
Follow my next blog: 61. A BUSY WEEK FOR A LITTLE BEAR