Aircrew survived 11-day desert trek to safety

Name: Mick Ey
Date: 1941-1944
Unit: 14 Squadron, 454 Squadron RAAF
Location: Middle East

Mick Ey could regard himself as extremely lucky while flying in the Middle East. After all, it's not many people who can say they were involved in five crashes and still lived to tell the tale.

Mick was a navigator and bomb aimer with No. 454 Squadron RAAF. He flew in Blenheims and Baltimores operating over the Western Desert from October 1941 until his return to Australia in November 1944.

Mick told his son, Tony Ey, about one of the crashes, which involved him and his mates in an 11-day trek through the desert before they were rescued.

"It was in the Middle East during March 1942 and as a crew we had just joined 14 Squadron after completing our time in the Operational Training Unit in Kenya," Mick Ey said. "I was the Navigator/Bomb Aimer, Pommy Mills the Pilot, and Johnny Hunt was the Wireless Operator/Air Gunner.

"On March 16 we took off on a 'Squadron Do' in our old Mk. IV Bristol Blenheim. These were twin-engined bombers and our registration number was V 5446. There were nine Blenheims in the formation and we had to fly out across the Libyan desert and into Tripoli to have a crack at a target up there.

"As Pommy recalled: 'Coming back from a bombing raid west of Benghazi we were sailing along for home when our starboard engine began to pack up. We were only a thousand feet at the time. The port engine wasn't giving full power either, so we were done. I kept the aircraft going without any oil pressure at all, and gave the 'duff' engine an extra burst now and again to regain a bit of height.'

"We had been flying over German ground troops earlier so we could have copped a stray bullet, although of course we will never know. We knew we had to keep well down into the desert to the south, well away from the German garrisons along the coast.

"We decided to jettison as much as we could, as Blenheims were notorious for flying like a brick on one engine and we wanted to get as far as we could. We dumped our bomb load and that helped a bit although we were losing height all the time. We discussed our options as we knew we were definitely going down. The choice was a wheels down landing, or wheels up and belly it in. We all agreed to try a wheels down as the old Blenheim was a pretty slow old bird. When the engine finally seized after about twenty minutes, Pommy feathered the prop.

'There was nothing to do except get down as quickly as possible. I turned back into wind on the one engine and decided to do a wheels down landing in case she went up in flames. The country was full of rock shelves and I hadn't had time to pick or choose a suitable spot to bring her down'. As we steadily lost altitude Pommy said, 'Alright, this is it' and we all knew there was only going to be one bite of the cherry - either we made it or we didn't. 'I steered clear of the worst rocks and we came to a standstill with the tail wheel broken off and the prop tips bent as we went over a bit of an escarpment.'

"As it happened we couldn't have struck a worse place to land. It was all rocky outcrops, rough as the devil, anyway Pommy did a great job, no doubt about that. He touched her down while trying to heave the aeroplane over the worst of the rocky areas. She banged and bounced and finally she was on the ground for good and as we skidded along, the tail wheel and one of the main wheels was torn off, so one wing was low and this caused her to eventually ground loop. When we came to a halt, the high wing came to rest alongside a large rock outcrop about 6 or 7 feet high so all we had to do was walk along the wing and step off onto the top of this rock. It was an absolute miracle how Pommy managed to land on such rocky ground without injury to any of us.

"Being in enemy territory it was useless to wait besides our aircraft, so we decided to walk. We immediately took stock of what we had. We had a water bottle each, a first aid kit, a tin of peaches and a packet of Army ration biscuits.

"I removed the aircraft's P6 compass from the pilot's position, ripped a small canvas bag from the inside skin of the aircraft, stripped some shroud line from one of the parachutes and made a little bag to hold the compass. With the shrouds looped around my neck, I could then carry it on my chest. So away we went. We walked for about 4 hours and stopped for our first night at the base of a fairly steep sandhill. It rained that night and hell it got cold too. We shivered all night but it wasn't a normal shiver, our whole bodies quivered with the cold. It was the only night it did rain. Later on we came to pray for rain but nothing happened.

"The next morning we got started pretty early because we couldn't sleep much and headed off on a compass course of 045°. The idea was that we wanted to bypass Tobruk as 'Gerry' still controlled it. We had estimated that we were about 180-200 miles [290km-320km] inland.

"We walked all day with the occasional spell when we would have a nibble of a biscuit and a bit of water. We knew we had to ration it all out. Our water bottles had corks in them so we decided to ram the corks home in the necks of the bottles so that we couldn't get them out. Each bottle had a pin on a chain and with this we forced a small hole in the cork. To get any water we had to blow through this hole to slightly pressurise the bottle so that when we tipped the bottle up, the pressure forced a few drops of water out. We knew that those few drops were all we could afford to have."

They had their peaches that night with some of the broken biscuits, which were also strictly rationed. Over the first two days and nights, they made good progress and covered some 40 miles [65km]. It wasn't until the third day that they began to realise the seriousness of their position and wondered what their families were thinking, as by now they would have been posted as 'missing'.

"The worst part up until then was our flying boots which were wool lined," Mick recalled. "Our feet just slopped around in them and they played merry hell with our feet. We still had some parachute cord so we tied this around our boots to try and keep the boots tight on our feet. We just seemed to walk and walk. Some nights we would walk until about 8 or 9 o'clock until we found somewhere to camp.

"There were no trees, just a little bit of bush called camelthorn and we'd try and find a little bit of a ridge to dig a bit of a hole and fill it with this camelthorn," he said. "We'd lie on that but it used to get that bloody cold, your teeth would chatter because we only had a pair of trousers and a shirt each; nothing else.

"What we used to do was toss to see who would be in the middle first, and we'd all face the same way so that we could fit in, and we'd stay like that until we got stiff and then righto, over we'd go. The bloke in the middle would get on the outside so we each had a turn being reasonably warm, but some nights were so bloody cold that by about midnight or 1 o'clock in the morning we'd say, 'Come on let's get cracking'.

"The compass was luminous so we'd walk a bit at night and towards daylight we'd have a bit of a camp again because we knew we'd be walking all day; and that's how it went on. During the day it was bloody hot but at night it was as cold as charity. The compass only weighed about 6 or 7 pounds but it seemed like a half a tonne after a while. I had a permanent kink in my neck. On the fourth day we hit a stony plain. You could glimpse the horizon but nothing else - and we kept on seeing mirages. By the fifth day we were out of water.

"One night we came on a depression and there had been rain there recently. It was a natural catchment area and there was quite a crop of lucerne growing. Maybe the Italians had planted it. We camped in this patch for the night and it gave us some shelter from the bitterly cold night wind. We were out of water but we found a tortoise. It was bad luck for him because he got knocked on the head. We had no means of cooking so we ate it raw and drank the blood. It was fluid. In the morning we pulled the lucerne between our lips to get the dew. We buried our feet in some moist sand to relieve the pain from our blisters.

"Another night we found a British Red Cross pickup that had been knocked out. It was like a utility with a canvas top and had a large red cross on either side. Anyway, that night we decided that we were going to camp in this vehicle. After scratching around inside I found a roll of cotton wool and a tube of Gentian Violet. Our feet were so bad that I said to my mates that I couldn't go any further unless I pricked my blisters and got rid of some of the fluid, even at the risk of them turning septic. So that's what we did and we smeared this Gentian Violet all over our feet, and that eased the pain. That was one of the good nights we had even though there was one hell of a dust storm. Of course next morning when we started to walk, our feet gave us 'what-o'.

"One day we spotted some knocked out vehicles, so we walked over to them and we were all scouting around to see what was what. The one I was looking at was an Indian Bren Gun carrier and unfortunately its battery was whacked, otherwise I reckon I could have got it started. Anyway there was nothing I could do about it.

"Pommy came over and asked what I'd found. I said 'Well firstly, there's a 4 gallon tin of Indian curry and it'll burn your insides out, but it's something to eat. I've tried it, and bloody hell it's hot. Another thing, this radiator's got a lot of water in it'."

They found some empty Gerry cans and drained the water into them till they ended up with two cans about three quarters full. It taste too good but it was water and it saved their bacon.

"We were determined that we wouldn't part with those Gerry cans for anything, so we carried them for about four days I think it was. One bloke in the middle would carry both cans with one either side holding the can as well. When the bloke in the middle was buggered, we would change over.

"But I was stuck with that ruddy compass around my neck all the time. It kept us on course and we were right on track when we got picked up. We were aiming for the coast road east of Tobruk and if we knew if we made it, we had a good chance of running into our own troops.

"Once we saw a Gerry patrol of three or four vehicles and as we were in a pretty bad way at that stage, we didn't give a bugger who picked us up. We tried to attract their attention but they just sailed by. Probably thought we were bloody wogs.

In a newspaper interview, Pommy described events.

"The mental strain was worse than anything. You don't realise how vivid your imagination can be. In the evening we could see our bar in the mess and all the boys around it. Our eyes began to go to, after about four or five days, and everything became blurred as a result of the glare and sand."

One day they came across some canisters lying around on the ground.

"We were pretty fuzzed up by this time; not exactly thinking clearly," Mick said. "These things looked like big thermos flasks and I thought, 'What the hell's this', so I picked one up and had a look at it. It must have been intuition but I thought, 'Hell'. I let it roll off my hand onto the ground as I realised that we had walked right into a bloody German minefield. We quickly backtracked until we were sure we were clear of it.

"We hadn't had anything to eat for several days and we had run out of water. Things were getting tough. We were now on our last legs and had given up all hope of getting back alive.

"On the tenth day I spotted something in the distance but I couldn't make out what it was, so I said to Pommy and Johnny, 'Let's deviate and go over and see what that is. There might be something to eat'. So we altered course and when we got over there, we found a truck which had been a tanker of some sort. It had been knocked out and was sitting in a deep depression, and down in this depression it looked as though troops had recently been camped there. We were looking for water and thought that there may be a well there, so down we went.

"We found three holes in the ground which we thought might contain water. Pommy went to one and I went poking around one of the others. When I got to this particular hole, I found a length of telephone wire which was tied to an old kerosene bucket so I picked up the bucket and sang out to Pommy, 'Hey come here, look at this, there's water in the bucket'.

"There was a rock hole which we couldn't see into, but we knew there must be water in it. I said 'Thank God, we've found some water'. I dropped the bucket down the hole and pulled up about a half a bucket of the best water you've ever tasted in your life. It was crystal clear so we all had a real good slug, and that perked us up quite a bit.

"Johnny then said, 'Come over here', and he showed us an area where there had been a lot of troops. It looked like there had been a bit of a fight as there were a lot of empty cartridges and little trenches where someone had obviously dug in. We decided to stay the night there and it occurred to me that the bucket must have been used that morning, as the evaporation rate out there was quite high, and there had been water in the bucket.

"I said, 'Someone is not very far away, so we'd better keep an eye open'. Anyway, Johnny walked over to have a good look at the tanker and wedged between the tank and the step which ran around the outside he found a round tin. The label had gone and Johnny was belting it with rocks trying to get it out. He reckoned there was probably something to eat in it. Johnny finally got it out and brought it over to us.

In the meantime, Pommy and I had been scouting around and we rounded up all the little bits of camelthorn that we could find as we intended to have a fire that night. Pommy said there were a lot of cigarette butts there so I said, 'Round them up because I have a packet of papers and two matches'. So we picked them all up, knocked the ash off, broke them up and we had enough for a smoke each.

"Then Johnny turned up with his tin and it was a tin of rice of all things. I thought 'Jesus, we'll eat this up tonight' as we had plenty of water, providing we could get the fire going. So I got to work and finally we had a fire going. With only two matches I couldn't take any chances.

"We filled our bucket with water and were watching it heating up when all of a sudden we heard a noise. We looked up and at the top of the little escarpment there was an armoured car with its bloody guns trained down on us. I said to Pommy, 'What the hell are they?' and then we realised they were ours. They were Pommies.

"We sang out and waved. Down the side of the escarpment there was something like a goat track and it led into the hollow. Anyway, down this track came this armoured car, then a second, and then a third one appeared on top with its guns pointed at us. The first car stopped about 50 yards away but kept its gun turret pointed directly at us.

"I could see an officer standing in the turret so I called out 'Thank Christ, you're the best sight we've seen' and we heard him say, 'They're bloody Australians'. It turned out that they used to come in and water there every few days and they knew that Gerry also used it.

"I asked 'Were you here this morning?' and they said 'No, not today'. I replied 'Well Gerry was, there was still water in that tin, so we picked the right blokes'. The bloke in charge said 'We'll get the hell out of here now. We don't want to get caught in here'. So they filled up their water tanks and one of us went to each car, and then we took off. The name of the well was 'Bir-Tengeddar'. I'll never forget it.

"We got well away somewhere out in the desert and the Sergeant said, 'We'll camp here for the night'. They split up and each car camped about a quarter of a mile apart as they would never group. It presented too large a target.

"Anyway, these jokers said, 'Right, we're just about due to go back and we're short on rations but we've got some powdered eggs here' and that sounded like a banquet to us, so they cooked up these powdered eggs and we had army ration biscuits and had a great feed. But gee we were crook after, it bloody near killed us. Our stomachs were obviously in shocking condition."

It was the evening of March 26, and they had been in the desert for 11 days and had walked for about 140 miles [225 km]. They were made as comfortable as possible and had a good night's sleep for the first time in 11 days.

"The following day we headed back towards their advance base, and that consisted of only a few vehicles in a bit of a waddy," Mick said. "The next afternoon they told us that they had organised a ride for us back to their main base on three of their supply trucks the following afternoon.

"On that day, just after lunch, we heard an aircraft approaching and next thing an old three-engined Italian Savoia came over the top of us. They must have been the biggest dopes in the world because they were flying at about 300 feet [90m] and the whole crew were looking down at us. One of the Sergeants in the Armoured cars had replaced his standard issue Browning .303 with a Breda, an Italian gun and a damned good one; about a 50 calibre which packed a hell of a wallop.

"As this bloody old thing circled at about 300 feet, almost over the top of us, the Sergeant opened up with the Breda and I could see those slugs tearing into that aircraft, hitting at the wing root, and the next thing I could see fuel pouring out. The next minute she dived straight in. I often remember there were four blokes in that Savoia looking down on us, and three seconds later, they were all dead. Just as quick as that.

"Our rescuers turned out to be a Long Range Desert Patrol from the Royal Dragoons and luckily for us they were prowling around behind Gerry lines. Anyway, their re-supply vehicles picked us up and we finally got back to our squadron. On the way back we rode one to each truck.

"I was in the lead one and there were tracks going everywhere. My driver was scarping along and all of a sudden something sort of gelled so I said 'Hang on a minute, pull up quick'. The driver said, 'What's up Sarge?', and I said 'You won't believe it but we're in the middle of a bloody minefield'. I stood on the running board and directed him back slowly, exactly in our tracks until we got back about 100 yards and onto hard stony ground.

"Our luck was still holding. Gerry had laid thousands of mines throughout the Western Desert. Pommy and Johnny came up in their trucks and asked what was wrong. I said 'Don't go down there, it's a bloody minefield'. It had made my hair stand on end.

"When we got back to base all our gear had gone. We reckon the Pommie stores blokes had got hold of it and split it up between them. They were a mob of vultures. The Medical Officer gave us a check out and we had a bit of a blow out that night with our mob in the mess. We were told that we were going up to Cairo on a month's special sick leave and they had a vehicle which we could drive ourselves if we wanted to. The MO gave us a couple of letters to take to Cairo to make sure that we would be looked after. I was only in Cairo for about 4 days when I collapsed from Enteric Fever.

"However we all got over it and as we were eventually away from the squadron for over six weeks, we were taken off Squadron strength and posted out to new squadrons. We were posted to 55 Squadron which was another English squadron.

"That prang was on our very first raid. I had been in three earlier prangs while back in OTU2 so I said to Johnny one day, 'Jesus Johnny, we're not long for this world. The first one we do, we get whacked'. After I joined 55 squadron, I was on my sixth op when we got hit with Ack Ack and I was wounded in the right foot by shrapnel, so I was off strength again for about two months because the wound wouldn't heal.

"While I was in Cairo again on sick leave I heard that Johnny and Pommy had got split up, and one day I bumped into some mates and they said 'We've got bad news for you Mick', so I said 'What's up?'. They told me that Johnny had bought it. The CO of the squadron had wanted a gunner and he picked Johnny to go with him. They took a direct hit by a 88mm shell, right on the bloody nose. They never knew what hit them.

"I was then posted to 454 Squadron, which was a new all-Australian outfit forming up in Iraq. This squadron had Blenheims but was in the throes of changing over to Martin Baltimores. That was where I ran into Paddy Archer again, my old Pilot from OTU. He said 'Who are you flying with Mick?', and I said 'You', and he said, 'That'll do me', so we teamed up. I'd been there about four days when the adjutant approached us and said 'I've got a job for you fellas; a holiday', so we were immediately very suspicious.

"He told us that Ferry Command wanted a loan of an experienced crew to ferry an aircraft out to India, so that job took us a month. When we came back, we picked up with the squadron and went back to the Western Desert where we became fully operational again. It was a damn good squadron; they were all Australians. So that was that. I did another 12 months operational flying with Paddy on 454. When I tallied it up, Paddy and I did 87 operations together, for me a grand total of 93. It was a hell of a lot."

"Back in Australia, my mother had received the following two telegrams from the Air Board:

20 March 1942 - "Regret to inform you that your husband Sergeant Reginald Norman Ey is reported missing as result air operations in Middle East on 16th March 1942. Any further information received will be immediately conveyed to you. 12.40pm. Air Board".

4 April 1942 - "Pleased inform you that your husband Sgt. Reginald Norman Ey previously reported missing has been found safe and has returned to Unit. Your husband's aircraft made a forced landing in Libya on 16th March. He with other members of the crew travelled on foot until 26th March when they were picked up by a British patrol."

Pommy, Mick and Johnny (posthumously) were later made members of the Late Arrivals Club, membership of which was restricted to air crew who had been forced down or crashed in the Western Desert and had taken longer than 48 hours to walk to the safety of their own lines. By war's end, there were only 80-odd members of this exclusive Air Force group. The badge consists of a silver winged Flying Boot.

This trek across the Western Desert behind German lines is also described in the official RAAF publication on WWII - These Eagles. It is part of a chapter titled But the Pilot is Safe.

The information for this article was supplied by Tony Ey of Queensland
8/01/2002 10:38:00 AM

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Aircrew survived 11-day desert trek to safety, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 26 June 2024,
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