A Desert Rat’s Tale of Survival

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| This is the 429th story of Our Life Logs |


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times—”

O how some things never change.

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I was born at Topcroft, Norfolk, in England in 1917 at the end of the First World War. I was born into what became a large family of eleven children. As I was one of the oldest, I had new siblings on an almost yearly basis throughout my childhood and I remember the long summer holidays with them, running around the fields and helping relatives pick fruit and vegetables on the local farms. Life was happy.

My father was a builder, and my mother ran a pub and looked after all her children, or we looked after each other, really. I attended the local village school where I received a basic education. At 14 years old, I left school to go to work. It’s just how things were back then.

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I was 22 years old when the Second World War broke out. I remember how the whole family crowded around the wireless on the morning of Sunday, September 3, 1939. Two days previously the Germans had bombed Poland. Britain was preparing to defend against Germany. Hitler had threatened to launch a poisonous gas attack, and everyone had gas masks ready. The government were carrying out mass evacuation plans to protect children, and people had been building bomb shelters in their back gardens.

And then…with a calm voice, the radio announcer said that in approximately two minutes, the Prime Minister will broadcast to the nation. After that, silence.

Those two minutes felt like the longest in my life. I knew that if a war were declared, life would never be the same again. Change—in a way that no one welcomes.

At 11:15, Prime Minister Neville Chamber­lain’s voice crackled to life, his tone heavy. He said that the country was at war with Germany, as they had refused to withdraw their troops from Poland.

A grim atmosphere came with that announcement. Our daily routines became war-related. While most of the bombing was aimed at London, the whole country had to have a blackout so that the German bombers couldn’t see the towns and cities of Britain. We covered the windows, careful that there were no cracks to let the light out. We heard planes flying over regularly, and there were daily reports of bombings. Everyone feared for their lives, and the future was uncertain.

This was the beginning of survival.

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About a year later, I joined the Coldstream Guards in 1940 as guardsman, service number #2658246. My brother joined at the same time. After completing my basic training in England, I became a tank driver and was posted to the deserts in North Africa. There, we were known as “Desert Rats,” named after a species of rat called the Jerboa. And you know what, it was easy to feel like one.

We lived in trenches and tunnels, scuttling as to not be seen, constantly in fear that the enemy would spot us and lay their traps. We had weapons, of course, but weapons do not fend off the hot air or the frequent shortage of food. We braced ourselves for the sand storms that hit with little warning. I remember one particular sand storm lasted for two days. It was hard to see anything, and the cookhouse had to ring bells to summon the men. I stumbled blindly towards the source of the sound, wondering when the storm would pass.

What if it never did?

• • •

In 1942, there were rumors that the German tanks were only one mile away and that they were going to clear up. I scanned the no man’s land between them and us, but there was no sight of them. We began getting ready to defend ourselves from death. What could we do but tremble as we worked?

A few days later, I drove a tank over a sand dune in Tobruk, Libya; turns out, this was the path to the Germans. I did this when I was 25 years old. Our tank was immediately surrounded by enemy vehicles, and German soldiers captured us. During our training, we had been told only to give our rank and name if we were ever captured. I followed orders, as did the others, but we’d never been prepared for this quivering dread. Finally, they took my group to a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy.

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I had heard horror stories about the camps, but the reality was far worse. The camp housed thousands of men, many of them sickly-looking, in wooden barracks which were basic, to say the least. They had dirt floors and bunk beds that were three high. Twelve men slept in each dormitory and a small stove burned in the middle of the room, offering a bit of warmth during the cold European winters.

We were fed twice a day on meager rations of thin vegetable soup and bread. We hid tins of spam and corned beef sent from the British Red Cross and grew vegetables in the small pockets of land between the barracks. The soil quality was poor, but we were able to grow potatoes and tomatoes. Even so, everyone was constantly hungry. I remember one day a cat entered the camp; it was expecting kittens, and there was a riot because someone killed and ate it. If it had been left to have the kittens, there would have been more to eat, and we could have all had some.

The camps were well guarded, making it impossible to escape, although I did think of trying from time to time, especially during the long hours of monotonous and heavy labor. Barbed wire fences lined the perimeter of the camp and guard towers had been erected to house soldiers ready to shoot anyone who tried to get out.

Each day was one that I wanted to forget, but never could. My dreams were always filled with the hope of better life back home after the war had ended. I knew that all my brothers and sisters were going through a tough time as well and I looked forward to the time when we would be reunited. It was as if life itself was bribing me to keep the faith, to live another day. That’s what got me through.

For every moment that was not in labor, the prisoners would often sing together, tell stories, and play cards or sports in the evenings. Despite the exhaustion of the day, we knew we had to keep living a happy life somehow.

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After three years in prisoner-of-war camps in Italy and Germany, the camp I was living in was liberated by the Americans. They marched into the camp firing guns and were accompanied by tanks which bulldozed the fences. I had lost a lot of weight and feared what would happen if I was caught, but I took my chance and ran with many other men; we hid at local farms and ate what little food we could find. We all helped each other when we could and the Red Cross moved into the area, providing people with food and clothing.

The Germans surrendered and the Red Cross organized transport home for the soldiers. This was 1945. Finally, I had survived the war and returned home to England by train with thousands of other prisoners of war. Coming home was an exciting time, and we all received a hero’s welcome. I couldn’t wait to get home and move on with my life; I wanted to put the war behind me and create a better life for myself.

Four of my siblings and I arrived home on the same day, to be greeted by our parents and younger brothers and sisters. Our mother was shocked; she hadn’t known exactly where we were during the war. Although we had written when we could, letters didn’t always make it home, and she didn’t know whether we were all still alive. Six of us had gone to war, and five returned. Another brother was in the Royal Navy and was demobbed in New Zealand where he decided to stay. Miraculously we had all survived. It was an emotional reunion.

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There I am (top left with the mustache, of course) with two of my brothers and four of my sisters. This was taken much later than this point in the story, but we laughed just the same.

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After the war, I decided to follow a different career path. I joined the police and worked all over the place, for the first year, including London briefly. I then decided to move closer to home, to be near my family—they were what I cared for most.

I got a job with the British Transport Police in Norwich and I married my first wife, Ida, who had a small son called Bill from a previous relationship. I later decided to adopt Bill, as I had become a father figure in his life and cared for him as if he was my own. Life was good; we were all moving on with our lives and forgetting that terrible war that we had been part of. Then tragedy struck, Ida fell ill and died, leaving me to bring up Bill alone. I had help from family members, such as my sister Betty. Although she had two young children of her own, she would come over and help with the housework.

Fast forward. I continued to work as a railway policeman inside Thorpe Station, in Norwich, keeping an eye on the public as they went about their business; traveling to and from work. That’s where I met my second wife, my beloved Dorothy.

Dorothy and I got married in 1964 and settled in Attleborough, where we were together for almost 40 years. I became stepfather to Dorothy’s two daughters.

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I served with the railway police for 26 years from 1946 to 1972. I saw many changes in society during my time in the police. I hung up my uniform at the age of 55. All my life, I had been serving my country; in the army and then as a policeman.

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In my police uniform, c. 1970.

Simply put, life is never guaranteed, no matter the perseverance or determination. So why do we fight off doubt? Why do we keep pressing? When the shackles (literally) squeeze tighter and the hunger grows, why should one want to live to see tomorrow? Well, take it from an old Desert Rat, there are things in life that are worth fighting for. Find yours and hold tight.

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This is the story of Reginald “Reg” Mobbs

Reginald Mobbs, known as Reg, was born at Topcroft, Norfolk, in England in 1917. Reg was a tank driver with the Coldstream Guards during the Second World War, until being captured at Tobruk in 1942. He spent three years in prisoner-of-war camps in Italy and Germany. He survived and after returning to England, followed a different career path. After retiring, Reg kept very active, breeding dogs and birds and playing an active part in associations such as the Desert Rats Association, the British Legion, the Cold Stream Association, and several masonic lodges. He was the chairman of the Norfolk Area Desert Rats Association from 1997 until his death in 2004. He lived to be 87 and died in his own home after suffering a serious asthma attack.

In an obituary published in the Eastern Daily Press, he was described as being a great character, a very nice and sociable man and a familiar figure in Norfolk, as well as a mustachioed gentleman. This story was written in his memory.

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Reg (on the right) with another former Desert Rat at the Desert Rat Association.

 

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This story first touched our hearts on August 17th, 2019.

| Writer: Abi Latham | Editor: Colleen Walker |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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