Ken Ashby's Memories of World War Two

With the Photographic Service in North Africa

By John Cheves

Photo:Ken Ashby relaxing in the desert

Ken Ashby relaxing in the desert

Photograph from WRVS Heritage Plus Archive

Photo:Ken and his friends in the Photographic Service

Ken and his friends in the Photographic Service

Photograph from WRVS Heritage Plus Archive

Photo:Action on the front-line in North Africa

Action on the front-line in North Africa

Photograph from WRVS Heritage Plus Archive

Photo:Ken's comrades with a 1000 litre barrel of wine

Ken's comrades with a 1000 litre barrel of wine

Photograph from WRVS Heritage Plus Archive

Photo:The front-line in Libya

The front-line in Libya

Photograph from WRVS Heritage Plus Archive

Photo:Christmas Day in the desert

Christmas Day in the desert

Photograph from WRVS Heritage Plus Archive

Ken Ashby spent a large part of the Second World War in North Africa serving with the Royal Airforce's photographic unit. During this time he was witness to much of the front-line action and many momentous events. As well as fulfilling his duties, Ken used his considerable photographic skills to document the lives of those serving in the desert and the events he witnessed. Ken has kindly shared his photographs with us, along with his stories.

A Darkroom in the Desert.
Ken told us of his work as a photographer during the war. He explained how difficult his working conditions were, trying to develop photographs in the desert. It was a constant battle to keep temperatures under control when developing films, and being in such an enclosed space in the heat meant his working conditions were almost unbearable. He noted with some envy that when the Americans arrived on the scene, they'd brought big refrigeration units with them, that made a photographers job much easier.

He also remembered how on more than one occasion, he'd emerge from the darkroom to find his camp deserted as all his comrades had taken cover awaiting an enemy attack, yet no one had let him know!

Ken the Desert Fox

On another occasion, Ken had been sent on an overnight mission to photograph the the enemy's gunfire in order to plot their positions on a map. Due to be picked up from his position next morning, Ken was met at dawn by a motorbike rider who warned him that the enemy was on the move and told him to dig a foxhole and hide their until the all clear was given. Ken was left there in the desert for hours, with no clue as to what he might find when he finally came out!

The 1,000 litre barrel of wine

Despite, the dangers and discomfort of life in the desert, there were some moments of relief. Ken remembered with fondness the time that his unit came across a bounty of supplies courtesy of some captured Italian soldiers. The Italians had a frozen store of quality beef and wine in their supplies. Being first on the scene, Ken's unit acquired the choicest cuts of beef along with a 1,00 litre barrel of wine. Ken remembers the wine as being of terrible quality, "too dry", however it didn't stop everyone in the unit getting drunk that night!

Ken recalled a friend visiting his unit some days later and when Ken asked him if he'd like a steak, his friend berated him for making him remember such unobtainable pleasures. Ken disappeared and when he came back with a juicy sirloin steak, his friend's eyes nearly popped out of his head.

To view more of Ken Ashby's wonderful photographs please visit this page in our archive here.

This page was added by John Cheves on 22/05/2009.

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