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Sahara

Day 80: Tobruk

Tobruk, Libya 
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The standard of the Desert Rats of Tobruk is paraded at the Acroma-Knightsbridge Cemetery.
Michael Palin - SaharaA busy day ahead for the vets. Already, groups are gathering in the lobby. In one of them is a Maori woman who lost her brother at Tobruk. Twenty Maoris were killed here, she says.

'For what?' She spreads her arms. 'Senseless. We've tried to come to terms with it. We cry, then we laugh.'

Martyn, a New Zealander a little younger than myself, is here to try to find the grave of his uncle, Owen Gatman of the New Zealand Division. He and eleven others were killed when the Panzers overran their position. Their grave has never been found. Rex has now moved on from searching files and archives to searching the desert with a pick and a sledgehammer. Though he says he found 'a couple of promising mounds', the hard ground has yielded no secrets so far. But he won't give up.

Stephen Dawson of The Royal Horse Artillery, who served throughout the siege, is eighty-nine, tall and thin, with sunken El Greco cheeks. Part of the agreement with the Libyans is that uniforms should not be worn at the reunion, so Stephen is dressed for the day ahead in a bobble hat, a windcheater and trousers a little too short. Slung across his chest is an old bag, webbing blancoed and frayed, which he carried throughout the war.

'I was completely technically incompetent,' he observes cheerfully, 'so I was put on signals.'

The desert held no terrors for him.

'I'm an agoraphiliac. I loved it.'

A bagpiper, kilted and sporranned, walks behind him, causing Libyan heads to turn, and the young bugler, a boy from the Royal Green Jackets and the only one here who's actually still in the army, looks around, pursing his lips nervously. I reckon he's at least sixty-five years younger than the rest of the soldiers.
Tobruk, Libya 
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With Ray Ellis in the cemetery - all ranks and nationalities have exactly the same size gravestones.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 80
  • Country/sea: Libya
  • Place: Tobruk
  • Book page no: 212

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