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Dr Bobby Headley interview: Benghazi and Tripoli

What happened at Benghazi and Tripoli in Libya?

We eventually got together. We missed Tubruq which was a big port we held against the Germans, that changed hands about three times. It had recently fallen back to us so we managed to get through this area here which had been colonised by the Italians after the First World War, farmed for tobacco and grape growing stuff. We finished up at Benghazi. That was quite a place. We spent Christmas 42 there. Benghazi was the furthest the British army had got – just about as far as there the previous time – we never got any further than Al Ugaylah before and we were stuck there for Christmas 1942.

We were providing hospital accommodation here and we used to use Benghazi to get a few bits of goodies and things like that. After Christmas the battle resumed and I remember we had a most frightful gale took place when we were at Benghazi. One of our toilet arrangements took off with one of the ladies sitting inside it which was rather embarrassing. Unfortunately, Benghazi was full of ships and stores and everything else, including NAAFI rations and goodies for Christmas. This terrific gale came up – it really was horrible - and the outer wall which was probably damaged by the war earlier on, collapsed. The high sea got into the inner wall where all these ships were tied up. All these ships were banging against each other and half of them sank in the dock. All their contents were lost and the only salvage that took place that I can remember was diving to salvage the NAAFI stores and whisky which was available still at a reasonable price. So that was that. We did have a Christmas after all and it was the only time I have ever been in a pantomime. I have never sung since or before.

The next big battle was Tripoli. This was the number one place to get to. It had been our desire to get to Tripoli because it was not only a big city with a lovely harbour but it was a very nice part of the world. The army fought hard and got the Germans right back out of Tripoli and we were told to move forward, going well south to [?]. Wherever the Germans went they booby-trapped everything – lavatory seats, anywhere people might go up would go. The mine would go that high and then explode. If you went anywhere near and you heard a click you had to drop flat on your face as the thing would go up about four foot and then explode. If lucky, the iron would go over your head or else it would through your head. Anti-tank stuff also but on the whole human beings didn’t set off anti-tank mines. There were an awful lot of tanks. I may say the casualties at Alamein were colossal.

The hospital had to look after them?

We weren’t open. We were closed, waiting to go forward to here, you see, after the battle was over. So all these other hospitals, the big hospitals in Alexandria, could take most of the stuff. Our job here was only just to act to cover the retreat had it taken place. There was a bridge over the Suez Canal - there isn’t any more – which had a railway line over it, so as well as the traffic going over it there were trains. You could go non-stop to Jerusalem in those days. It’s never been built again because of the nastiness on the right hand of the river.

What equipment did you have?

We had a field model Boyles machine. We nearly always had some sort of anaesthetic apparatus. We always had cylinders. Interesting to relate as a side line, the Germans never had any anaesthetic apparatus. I went to their medical base in northern Italy and never found anything whatever. Whereas the orthopaedic chaps found a fantastic collection of stuff. I don’t think they had any anaesthetics. The Oxford vapouriser we used - field pattern Boyle - had four cylinders on a base and the various gases – oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide – had a vapouriser of some sort on it. We had a bit of trialling in those days with ether. We also had intravenous Penthothal, For the most part reinforcement of cylinders had to be brought up. Strange to relate we found that the Germans had much better cylinders than we had but they didn’t have anaesthetic cylinders. They had oxygen cylinders, I think devised from their use on aeroplanes and the German oxygen cylinder was about a quarter of the weight of a British one for the same volume. We went round picking up as many of them as we could. We got them refilled. They didn’t fit our anaesthetic equipment and we had to have a device made to use them. The Germans’ equipment – where they had any - was better than ours.