It's 1942 Sollum, Egyptian-Libyan Border

November 13th, 1942: Sollum, Egyptian-Libyan border

It was an auspicious day in the RAF signals truck which had just ascended the pass into Libya. This wasn’t because the Afrika Korps of Erwin Rommel were on the retreat out of Egypt, although they were. It was a Red-Letter Day in this Desert Air Force truck because it was John Adamson’s 21st Birthday.

The consequences of El Alamein were profound. What transport and petrol that was available on the battlefield had been taken by the German survivors. Their Italian allies were abandoned to become prisoners of war. The Germans were now in retreat, heading west for Tobruk, stopping only to boobytrap and mine the sole coastal road. 

“Now you are old enough to vote Jack, you are old enough to make a brew. What do you say lads?”

 George and Reg noisily assented whilst John Adamson grinned back at the driver.

“Fair enough Phil. This place is as good as any other. Take her off the tarmac when you like. And nowhere too obvious for Jerry. They like a landmine those boys.”

A hundred yards further on and a suitable spot presented itself. A couple of burnt out small Italian tanks provided evidence two days before of the New Zealand Division which had stormed Halfaya Pass, captured 600 Italians and was now moving on Tobruk. Somewhere to the south-west, the 7th Armoured Division were endeavouring to cut off the rear-guard of the Afrika Korps. This RAF  signals truck was headed for an air-strip south of Tobruk, where advance ground crew elements of 285 (Reconnaissance) Wing would rendezvous with their Spitfires which were tracking Rommel’s retreat. For now, the four signallers were having their first halt in five hours. It was John Adamson’s turn to make the brew-up in a cut-off jerrycan. 

Sitting with his back to a rock, John reflected on the past nine months which had catapulted him from RAF Turnhouse, outside Edinburgh, to the Western Desert of Egypt, and now into Libya.

Monday, 16th February 1942 was a cold day on the Firth of Clyde. Sleet showers scudded across the water from Kintyre to Ayrshire. The Clyde section of Convoy WS16 was seven liners and four storeships. One of those liners was the 15,000-ton S.S. Volendam of the Holland America Line, built at Harland & Wolff Ltd in Govan in 1922. John Adamson and a large draft of RAF ground-crew bound for Egypt were queasily finding their sea-legs below decks. The Volendam had been hit by two torpedoes early in the war, but survived, and had been re-fitted at Birkenhead to carry troops in below decks, with few partitions, which had four tier bunks. Off Islay, the convoy was joined by a further seven liners and three storeships which had sailed from Liverpool. The fourteen transports carried 45,000 troops, broken down into drafts and reinforcement details, rather than whole divisions which happened on some convoys. All John Adamson could see down the length of the main deck of the Volendam was RAF blue. Hundreds of men. The ground-crews would be re-united with their air-crews in Egypt as these flew their aircraft from Britain via Gibraltar and Malta. John and his signaller comrades had been assigned to RAF Headquarters, Middle-East.

Concerns about the safety of the convoy from the threat posed by the German battle-ships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, at Brest, brought a heavy escort of warships. There were the carriers Formidable and Eagle, the cruisers Newcastle and Hermione and two destroyer flotillas. In the event a fast passage was made to Freetown in Sierra Leone which was reached on 1 March. Much to Adamson’s disgust none of the RAF boys were allowed ashore. The convoy re-fuelled and re-supplied with food and water, and on 6 March sailed for South Africa. This time, John was more fortunate. He and his pals got to see something of Durban for three glorious days, and mightily impressed he was. No war-time black-outs in this city. There was plenty of food, and the welcome given to the RAF lads by the Jewish Club was outstanding. In South Africa, many of the troops were re-directed from the Middle East to India. Rangoon had fallen to the Japanese on 8 March, so when the convoy separated off Madagascar, only three liners headed for the Red Sea. One of these was the Volendam. She arrived in Suez on 11 April 1942. John was now in the Desert Air Force. 

Arrival in Cairo, and attendance at Middle-East Signal School (RAF), passed in a blur. Obligatory visits to the Pyramids left remarkably little impression. More fixed in his memory was arrival at RAF HQ at Burg El Arab on 28th June, with its air strips, tented headquarters and proximity to a decent swimming beach. Not that there was much swimming happening for the first six weeks. This was desperate backs-to-the-wall stuff as the 8th Army stood at bay, just thirty miles from Alexandria. A ‘flap’ was very definitely on. This first battle of El-Alamein effectively saved the British in the Middle East and it was a close-run thing. The Gazala position in Libya had collapsed on 21st June and ten days later the British Empire (Australian, Indian, New Zealanders, and South Africans as well as British) troops were fighting a grim defensive battle at El Alamein four hundred miles to the east. John Adamson was assigned to an air reconnaissance squadron and worked without meaningful sleep for ten days, At the end of this, the British line had held. Rommel tried again to envelope the British line between 30th August and 5th September in the Battle of Alam Halfa. However the new Allied leader, Bernard Montgomery proved to be a stubborn opponent. The last great Axis offensive of the North African campaign failed. By this time, John had got his knees brown even if he was loath to go bare-chested like his mates. With a shock of red hair and very white skin this would have been asking for trouble. 

John had just about finished his tea, and it would soon be time to get back in the bone-shaking signals truck. Just one more recent event popped into his mind. It was late September in the NAAFI Canteen at Burg El Arab.

“Here Jackie-Boy! I’d ken that mass of red hair onywhere. Fancy twa Dunfermline boys meeting in the ---------- desert.”

“Davie Baird. Frae Ha’beath. Who let the army in here?” Smiles and vigorous handshakes all round. “What brings you here, Davie? Is that a Black Watch badge on your bunnet?”

“Ah’m wi’ the 7th Black Watch. Just sent o’er to borrow some radio pairts for oor signals section. Guid to see ye, Jackie”.

John wondered what had happened to Davie and his pals in the great 2nd Battle of El Alamein. Had they made it through? The whole sky had lit up for hours on the evening of 23rd October with a thousand-gun barrage – just three weeks ago. He and the rest of the RAF HQ had watched it from their airstrip. All the intelligence work was done. It was now down to the courage of the infantry and the armoured divisions behind them. More than ten miles away. Was it possible that he heard the Pipers as they led Davie and his pals into battle? Must be imagination, as he thought of the Black Watch advancing with scrim cotton St Andrew’s crosses on their back packs. It was vital that nobody lost the man in front in the dark and wandered off the swept routeways through the German minefields. Follow the white diagonals of Scotland. The final objective of 7 Black Watch was ‘Kirkcaldy’  to the north of Miteiriya Ridge. Was Davie alive or dead?

Just at that moment, John Adamson was brought back from his day-dreams.

“Don’t move an inch,” John heard. It was said in Phil’s County Durham accent. 

John’s stomach knotted. Don’t tell me that I’m sitting on a German land-mine. And on my 21st Birthday too.

Just at that a heavy RAF boot crashed down. A fair-sized scorpion had scuttled out from under the rock against which John was sitting. It was crushed dead despite its armoured carapace.

“Close one John. If it had stung you on yer bum, you were on your own there, canny lad.”


1. The photograph of John making the tea on his 21st Birthday survives. It has a written note on the rear that says “21st Birthday. Sollum.” The truck seems to be a conventional one rather than the metal sided signals vehicle that is seen in other photographs. At other times, and particularly in Italy, John Adamson was one of a three-man crew of an RAF armoured car, which was loaded with signal equipment for staying in touch with the single seat Spitfires of 285 Wing, and then relaying the information back to the Royal Artillery and RAF HQ.

2. The story of the voyage to Egypt is drawn partly from stories he told me, partly from his RAF records which show the dates that he left the UK and arrived in Egypt, and partly from the excellent book by Archie Munro, “The Winston Specials: troopships via the Cape 1940-43”. Only one of the three troopships went from the Clyde to the Red Sea via Durban, and this was the Dutch ship S.S. Volendam. She was built for 1900 passengers in three classes but when she was re-fitted as a troopship, the capacity went up to over 3,000. All the internal partitions were removed and the bunk beds were four beds tall (with straps to stop people being pitched out when the sea was rough). John was very impressed with Durban as a city. The Jewish Club was placed at the disposal of the Allied forces which were being moved in great numbers around the Cape of Good Hope. Over 2 million members of the Services made use of it during the years 1940-45.

3. When John arrived in Egypt the reconnaissance squadrons in the Desert Air Force were directly under the control of RAF HQ. In September 1942, 285 Wing was formed to take control of two photographic flights and three tactical reconnaissance squadrons. John Adamson stays with 285 Wing  in their signals section right to the end of the war. This meant all the way from Cairo to the Alps. He was based at the Burg El Arab aerodrome from June to November 1942, This is about 15 miles west of Alexandria. Today it is the main airport for the city. The front line was a further ten miles westward. 

4. The 51st Highland Division landed in Suez in mid-August having been transported round the Cape of Good Hope by Convoy WS20. Among the battalions was 7 Black Watch, which was the Fife territorial battalion. It had a good representation of men from Dunfermline. It was in 154 Brigade which attacked on the left flank of the Division. Its objectives were code-named ‘Inverness’, ‘Dundee’ and ‘Kirkcaldy’. The 2nd New Zealand Division was south of the Highlanders and alongside the Black Watch, whilst the 9th Australian Division attacked north of the Highland Division.

6. John Adamson detested scorpions which were all too common in the desert.  

Troop ship: S S 'Volendam'

John Adamson and three other RAF signallers at RAF HQ, Egypt 1942.

'The Two Types': very popular cartoon in British Forces Newspaper, North Africa

John Adamson's 21st Birthday: brewing tea in a 'Jerry Can' 13 November 1942 on Egypt/Libya border at Sollum.

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