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Sahara

Day 79: Tobruk

Michael Palin - SaharaHe escaped and was on the run for nine months, hidden by Italian families. He still sees them and has written a book about his experiences, which will soon be published in Italy, though not, it seems, in the UK. Ray has a bit of a double act with another South Notts man, Harry Day. Harry was a medical orderly - 'Never a proper soldier,' Ray chips in - who has given me a booklet issued by the Ministry of Information in 1941 called Destruction of an Army. It's full of wonderful sepia photos of the Libyan campaign, as fought by decent chaps who smoked pipes a lot.

Ray nods sagely. 'It's 100 per cent propaganda from start to finish.'

He's not the only one who's written about his experiences. Frank Harrison, once of the Royal Signals, is a painter and a poet as well as an author. Partly disabled after a recent stroke, he's here with his wife. He talks almost lyrically about the appalling conditions they endured. Any guidebook I've ever read about desert survival emphasises the vital importance of drinking several litres of water a day. Frank and 25,000 others like him were expected to live, work, and, if necessary, fight on one cupful.

'And that was for everything.'

Far from complaining, Frank suggests they developed a sort of evolutionary adaptation to the conditions.

'The surprising thing was, none of us grew beards. I don't know why, but it's true. I don't think I had a day's illness in the nine months I was in Tobruk. We were fit. We were terribly fit.'
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 79
  • Country/sea: Libya
  • Place: Tobruk
  • Book page no: 211

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