THE FIRST YANK WHO DIDN’T MEET THE BRITISH EIGHTH ARMY

By Sgt. Milton Lehman

Somewhere in Tunisia [By Radio]–If the trip hadn’t gone sour and if I had been able to find the right road, I might have been the first American to meet the British Eighth Army.

That day when all those Yanks were shaking hands, laughing and passing around flasks of Scotch and cigarettes with the Eighth Army Tommies somewhere on the road between Gabes and Gafsa, I was on of the few Joes who had absolutely nothing to do with the historic meeting. In fact, I am a little bit disgusted with the whole business.



british eighth army american fifth armyNow, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that the meeting of the Americans and the British Eighth Army wasn’t a fine thing and a good meeting, as good meetings go. Military historians will write in their books that Sgt. Joe Randall of State Center, Iowa, greeted Sgt. A.W. Acland of Maida Vale, London, with the words, “Hello, you bloody Limey,” and Acland replied, “Very glad to see you.”

The historians may also note that T/5 Ed Berg of Albany, N.Y., had the accelerator of his jeep down to the floor but couldn’t quite pass Sgt. Randall in the photo-finish of the American race to Acland’s outstretched hand. T/5 Berg’s classic remark for the history books may might have been quite different if Sgt. Randall’s armored car hadn’t gotten there first. As it turned out, T/5 Berg merely snorted: “The bastard beat me.”

While all this excitement was transpiring at the famous spot on the Gabes road, I was back in Gafsa, studying a map of the Southern Tunisian terrain, trying to figure out what happened to me during my trip to Mdilla.

I got mixed up in that trip to Mdilla because I was just as willing as the next fellow to be the first American soldier to meet the British Eighth Army. I had an inside tip that Australian armored cars were going to break through and shake hands with the Americans somewhere near that town.

So I jumped into my jeep and headed for Mdilla. I thought of several historic statements to make when I welcomed Gen. Montgomery’s boys and finally decided to say, “Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton asked me to send their greetings, and I also bring tidings from the American enlisted men. We will fight a good fight together.”

That would have made much better copy for the historians than “Hello, you bloody limey.”

However, I never found Mdilla. Furthermore, the Australian armored cars were not able to get through the German mine field in the neighborhood of Kebili that day. It was a bad break for both of us.



I did everything I could. I found a sign on the outskirts of Gafsa which read “MDILLA–14 KM” and pointed to the right, down a dirt road. I turned right and the road wasn’t so bad–for the first 200 yards. Then it became very bad in a big way. The small ruts in the road turned into great chasms which lifted the rear end of my jeep high into the air and pointed the front end down into the ground every 20 seconds or so.

It was a nice warm day with a brisk African wind that started to whip up a sandstorm and threatened to lift me out of my jeep every time we went around a curve. There was no shrubbery in sight with the possible exception of a few clumps of cactus and a bushy and lonesome burro whose master had probably forgotten to beat him for the last few days and who had come out there to get away from it all.

Every time the road met a clump of cactus it divided and became three other roads. When you are out in the middle of the desert, no road makes sense unless it goes matter-of-factly in one direction. This one went in a dozen directions, branching all over the place like a pear tree.

I took the road with the most shallow ruts and followed it until I got so hungry that I had to stop and open my C rations. I had lunch there in the middle of the desert with guts of sand blowing into the can to season my vegetable hash. A few planes circled overhead, which I hoped were friendly.

After lunch, I kept on moving, making decisions every 10 minutes about which road to take. There was no sign anywhere of the British Eighth Army. In fact there was no sign of anything except one young camel, sitting and sunning himself by the side of the road.



About 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I began to think less of the British Eighth Army and more about getting back to my bivouac. For the next hour, I let the jeep make the decisions  for itself and it did a good job, bringing me with great relief to an American command car which I followed to an area near Djebel where Lt. Robert Porter of Warren, Pa., was bivouacked with his artillery battery from the Ninth Division.

Lt. Porter, whose words I took as authority, said he hadn’t seen the British Eighth Army either. Then T/Sgt. Perry Maki of South Swansea, Mass., who used to run the 100-yard dash for Boston College, pointed out the direction to Gafsa and I started away from the battery. Being something of a pioneer by nature, I headed the jeep across the country. I came out on a road 10 yards from a familiar-looking sign which pointed toward the right and read: “MDILLA–14 KM.”

I never found the British Eighth Army. I haven’t ever seen it yet. But if Gen. Montgomery is reading this, I would advise home to do something about those roads in Southern Tunisia. Whenever I think about it, I am astonished that the good general ever managed to find his way here from the Middle East in the first place. I am sure that I never would have been able to find the way myself.



For More Reading Check Out:

An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy


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