Dr Bobby Headley interview: Wartime in Tunisia

You moved on to French territory at Tunisia?

Anyway, we had a frightful time for a little while there, it was really quite something. We soon had a lot of patients. The colonel was a man with an eye to the chance. He realised there was a wine [?] up the road. So he sent out a 200-gallon water truck which we filled it up with 200 gallons of red wine at the Italians’ expense which gave us several parties, rather too many I think. But we survived it and got away without doing any harm to anyone. It was quite fun. We didn’t have any more chances. We had about a month there I think, probably. Then on we go, we press on here. I actually had a job in one of these French Foreign Legion forts. Ben Gade. We ran a casualty station there. I remember I helped run that one. I think I got a medal for that. I was in charge of this Foreign Legion place run by the French. We had gone into Tunisia. Mind you, there were quite heavy casualties getting along here. The Germans put up stiff resistance all the way up here.

Unfortunately at this time things were getting a bit hot in Europe and we never got any publicity although we lost a lot of people. So Ben Gade, we were there for a bit. That was our first place. Then there was a place called Djerba. You could walk out to Djerba island. People go and live there nowadays, they love it.  They have nudist camps and things. We set up shop in Gabes, Sfax and then just outside Tunis. Each one of those had a defence wadi and a lot of casualties. It took a long time to get to Tunis. Quite an amazing thing. The first time we came and landed here, we joined up around here. We all got together. The Germans were literally imprisoned. The 1st Army had very little experience, a bit fresher than we were. All this lot had been in the desert for years. But they were delighted. Tunis was a lovely city, a Roman city with Bizerta.

We finally finished up and ran a party. Sousse was our last main place here. I remember Sousse had rather a nice hospital when we finally took over. The nuns were all doing the work. They were giving the anaesthetics and I said you can’t do this kind of thing. Dropping on the ether like this. The patients used to be put in their place with their arms stretched out, straps round their arms, straps across their chests, straps across their heads, straps across their legs so they couldn’t really move. Then the nuns would start pouring on the ether and they didn’t really give the wretched customer a chance to get under before they were hacking away. We gave them a lesson in how to give an anaesthetic but we hadn’t any equipment to give them really. Mind you, all these places had been equipped by the British in the end.

What about the enemy prisoners of war?

Anyhow, Tunisia was quite an interesting place. A place with a million olive trees. Nothing but olive trees as far as the eye could see. Nothing but the crashing of olive nuts being cracked until finally we decided we had better come back. Into this little corner here were half a million German prisoners of war, all of whom had to be got out. Shipped or marched, all driven back. Taken back and then shipped out to all parts – India, Australia and everywhere. They couldn’t be returned to Germany, obviously. We did have some exchange of Italians here, some of whom had been captured in this area here at one time but we lost them too during the firing. We had an exchange of high ups from Italy to Egypt. Otherwise once you were in the blooming bag you were in it until the war was over. It was quite restful except that you had to work   

You drove an ambulance?          

So then we said “Right ho. We’re coming back.” So back we go overland. I drove a truck some of the way. I drove an ambulance. If you drove an ambulance it was quite a good idea because you could sleep in it at night because it would be empty. So we drove all our vehicles all the way back here to Alexandria. You can see how far that is. That’s 400 miles. You didn’t have any casualties, you didn’t blow yourself up. I was here in the spring and I’ve never seen such wonderful spring flowers because it gets a bit of rainfall here. The flowers are absolutely fantastic. A mass of desert flowers. You can’t believe it - and the smell! What a wonderful thing to see but only for a short period. In fact on a boat out here, we were sailing along here and we were covered by a complete mass of butterflies which had hatched out. They were flying over. The whole ship was covered in them. You’ve never seen anything like it. I’m, rather keen on butterflies and love to see them.