Monday, April 11, 2011

Desert battle sites familiar to veteran of Libyan campaign

Peter Bunn examines a model of an American-built Sherman tank. Bunn survived three tank strikes in action during the Second World War. Globe photographs by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 11, 2011


A headline reads: Allied air strikes pound Libya.

The story could have appeared in a newspaper published today. Or 70 years ago.

Once again, war rages across the parched plains of North Africa. For a handful of surviving veterans, the place names recall distant battles — Tobruk and Tripoli, Brega and Benghazi.

Years ago, we learned of war from newsreels shown at cinemas. Today, we watch live action from the front on the Internet.

Peter Bunn, 89, squints at today’s television news broadcasts, seeing if he can spot familiar landmarks in a far-off land in which he and other Allied soldiers faced off against Germany’s Afrika Korps.

“I know every square inch of that desert,” he said. “I fought right where they’re fighting.”

Born in South London, he volunteered for the Second World War at age 19, serving with the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers. How did his war go?

“I was at the First Battle of El Alamein and then the big battle and then I went through right on to Algiers and I went on to Italy and ended the war in Austria,” he said. “I had a good run."

Only later does Mr. Bunn describe three harrowing escapes, any one of which could have left him buried beneath a grey stone in a Commonwealth war grave.

He came to Canada after the war, establishing himself here as a small general contractor specializing in renovating heritage buildings. He served for 19 years as a councillor for the municipality of Oak Bay, once making an unsuccessful run for the provincial Legislature.

The long years in office are remembered for advocating greater accessibility. He raised the issue after his wife found she could not use the public washrooms at a local beach while in a wheelchair. Entrances were eventually widened.

Now a widower, Mr. Bunn uses a motorized scooter to travel from his apartment the few blocks to the main shopping street of Oak Bay.

Seven decades ago, he joined a mechanized cavalry unit, eager to avoid the foot soldier’s burden of long marches. He was a radio operator aboard a tank, his duties including responsibility for feeding shells into the big gun.

He remembers the desert as a cruel battleground — relentless afternoon sun followed by the chill of night.

At El Alamein, he was aboard a British Crusader tank when a German artillery shell disabled one of the caterpillar tracks. In the middle of a firefight, his tank could no longer move forward, or backward, a sitting target on a moving battlefield.

(Using a fighter’s salty language, he further described the tank’s limited mobility. “Theoretically,” he explained, “we could go round and round in a circle until we disappeared up our own asses.”)

The crew was lucky the tank had not caught fire.

For supper, he opened a can of beans with a jackknife, gulped from the remaining supply of warming water. There was nothing else to do.

“You just bloody well sit there for eight hours in a tin box with the temperature well over 100 waiting to be killed.”

Under cover of night, a rescue truck hauled his disabled tank away from the front.

Bunn learned to ski after the war.
Later, in the Tunisian desert, his tank was hit again. Once again, his crew was lucky the tank did not “brew up,” the colourful description for the horrific prospect of a tank catching fire.

Later still, while fighting in Italy, his American-built Sherman tank, “a Chevy with armour,” was knocked out by enemy fire. He had survived his third direct strike with not so much as a scratch.

At war’s end, after four years inside a tank, he had the further good fortune of being assigned to a military training centre at Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, the future site of a Winter Olympics. He learned to ski, an unlikely skill for someone who spent much of his war on the shifting sands of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

He does not recognize the kind of battles being fought in the Libyan desert.

“Half the vehicles of the rebels are Toyota trucks with rocket launchers welded to the floor,” he said. “It looks so absurd to me.”

Trooper Bunn’s war resembled that of the Desert Rats later made famous by Hollywood. Today’s sequel with jerry-rigged fighting vehicles looks like a Mad Max movie.

Listen to Peter Bunn describing his war experiences for The Memory Project here.

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