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Dr Bobby Headley interview: Wartime in Tripoli

You used the sun for navigation?

So here were are. We’ve taken a huge great sweep, missing out all this area which had to be left out because there were all these land mines. By going miles south you got away from it. Because although it was desert here it was just rather rocky and hard going. We managed to do a complete swoop round here and came back out there without having hit the shore anywhere. Which I think we did quite well. You had to work with a thing called a sun compass which worked with the sun. One of the advantages of being in the desert, unless there was the sandstorm which there often is, is that you can use the sun as a compass. I remember when they took me to headquarters because I was going to join one of these units, all of our chaps who came back from the retreat they all could use a sun compass. We worked our way with sun compasses all the way to here which is quite a long way. Interesting bit of coastline here with some lovely places. Wonderful Roman remains here – Leptis Magna, Sobrata -  wonderful places.               

Weapons were not only used to kill people?

Anyhow, we eventually got to Tripoli. What a party that was! The Germans by this time were up here somewhere. You’ve got to realise that providing you don’t tread on a mine, you have about five or six hundred miles of good bathing. We used to take a trip, making sure there weren’t any mines on the shore, they could all swim. They used to go swimming with hand grenades which they would drop in the water, would kill the fish which would float about and they would eat the fish afterwards. People even do that now I believe. The fish suffered quite badly from hand grenades, avoiding the other swimmers of course. There are all sorts of oases here that we didn’t go to. They are habitable to some extent. There was a thing called the Long Range Desert which used to go miles around the [?] and come up and get the lines of communication of the enemy, come up 1000 miles. Travel overland by night and get there. That was the real hero crowd, they were the LRDG. They all had this marvellous equipment. Nothing to do with medicine and I think they only a few first aid teams. If they got hurt they just died, I suppose.

Tell us about the horror of bed bugs.

So we get to Tripoli, a wonderful place, nice harbour. We had to march past Churchill, came out. Mind you, Churchill came out here and saw us all here too. So we had a march past along the prom of Tripoli which was quite good and we set up shop in a huge great barracks there which was full of bed bugs. In the middle of the place were two rows of coat hangers. The coat hangers were there and there, the beds were like that. We lined all of our patients up in this place instead of being sold around. Outside there were ditches… get out of the fire. We found that all the patients were getting bitten like mad and we discovered finally that the bed bugs were living on a board behind the coat hangers. Bed bugs are quite big things. They hide during the day but then come out and give the patients a pretty nasty bite. There’s a rhyme: “The dragonfly has wings of gold, the firefly wings of flame, the bed bug has no wings at all but gets there just the same.” So when we did away with all these coat hangers and boards we got rid of the bed bugs. They didn’t have much to hang on, anyway.