Behind The Lines: Ian Packham Retracing a World of Unrest (Interview)

Tracing his uncle’s true story across North Africa

They would rather die on their feet than live on their knees: This is what drove many of the men and women fighting in the second world war.

Decades later, one grand-nephew is setting out on a five-month journey to find out more. Ian Packham’s great uncle was conscripted into the British military In December 1940.

“I am hoping to follow his trail across North Africa, along the railway lines of Algeria and then Tunisia, behind the lines of World War Two,” Ian told us in a heads-up about his (now ongoing) trek.

His uncle left behind an album of postcards he had collected and photographs he had taken with a simple Brownie camera of the people, places, and railways he refurbished as a Royal Engineer.

Ian will attempt to retake as many as possible of these shots, “rediscovering not only his unspoken-of story but also the story of the men like him who are no longer here to tell their own astonishing tales.”

We caught up with Ian shortly before his departure for North Africa.

Pythom: Hi there, Ian! Your trek is called Behind the Lines. You plan to follow your great uncle’s trail across North Africa, along the railway lines of Algeria and then Tunisia, behind the lines of World War Two. What do you hope to find?

Ian: The main aim is to get a sense of what it must have been like for my great uncle travelling across Algeria and Tunisia (and later during the war Italy). I doubt he had ever left Britain before this posting, so it would have been a huge sea-change for him in many ways.

What triggered me to follow his steps was a photograph album he left. I hope to retake as many of his images as I can, to demonstrate how the world has changed in the intervening period (or not).

Pythom: You said that on his return, he didn’t speak of the five years he was away. Why do you think your great uncle and other soldiers in WW2 were reluctant to talk about their time out there?

Ian: Sadly, I think it was a result of the horrors they witnessed and the hardships they endured during the war. The same can also be said for those who were left behind like his wife.

Although the fact he was behind the front line repairing railways sounds like a relatively safe occupation, railways were a prime target for enemy counter-attack, and the research I’ve done has revealed that a number of men in his unit who he knew personally were killed by enemy actions of one form or other.

Pythom: He was an engineer, what’s your work/trade?

Ian: He was assigned to the Royal Engineers on conscription as a carpenter and joiner. In the life he left behind he was a coach fitter – he made the interiors of buses at a time when modern plastics didn’t exist and vehicle interiors were still mainly constructed of wood.

I studied to become a medical research scientist, but I am now a full time adventurer, award-winning writer, and motivational speaker.

Pythom: How did you come up with the idea for the trek?

Ian: The idea for Behind the Lines began to take shape when I learned of the existence of my great uncle’s photograph album from the time. I hadn’t known of its existence until my dad saw it at my grandfathers and brought it home for me to take a look at. Doing a bit of research into the places named, in it, I realised it would be possible to visit many of them and retrace my great uncle’s journey.

Pythom: You say it is the first leg of a journey that will also take in Italy, Slovenia, and his return journey to the UK via war-torn Austria, Germany and France. How long do you think the trip will take in full?

Ian: For various reasons I’ve split the expedition into two parts. The first leg of Algeria and Tunisia is planned to take just over a month. The second leg to Italy and the other countries you mention will take much longer, because my great uncle was there for so much longer (two years or there abouts), moving north through Italy for almost the entire time. This part of the journey will take about 3 months, so in total 3-4 months of travel.

Pythom: While retracing your great uncle’s footsteps, you’ll be retaking his photographs and rediscovering not only his unspoken-of story but also the story of the men like him who are no longer here to tell their own tales. Why do you feel there is a need for that?

Ian: Stories from the Second World War tend to focus, for obvious reasons, on the men of the front line, and it would be easy to forget with the rapid changes occurring every day there were thousands of people who also put their lives to one side for the war effort. For example, as well as engineers there were intelligence officers investigating the next steps in the long-term battle, and a host of logistical staff who were vital in getting food where it was needed at the right time.

Pythom: What is your own, personal biggest lesson from that war?

Ian: Doing the research that I have for this journey, I’ve realised how much of the war (and eventual victory) balanced on a knife-edge. If only a few small things had fallen differently, the lives we lead now would be very different. Had my great uncle been given slightly different commands on certain days, my family would also have looked very different.

Pythom: You have done other exciting treks in the past, can you tell us in short about them?

Ian: Among other adventures, I’ve climbed to the summit of Africa’s second highest mountain, Mount Kenya, kayaked and trekked the length of Sri Lanka’s longest river with an inflatable kayak, and walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England, but I am most known for my Encircle Africa expedition. Over 13 months I travelled through 31 nations by public transport, completing a minimum distance of 25,000 miles – or the same as circumnavigating the Earth at the equator. That journey became my first full-length travelogue Encircle Africa: Around Africa by Public Transport, and I hope Behind the Lines will form the basis of my second.

Pythom: What’s your plan now, and approach? Means of travel, timelines etc.

Ian: I have a basic route to follow, and also a simple timeline of how long I should be roughly spending in each area, but beyond that all I have is copies of the photographs I wish to take. I prefer to travel without too much pre-planning, so I’m able to adapt the journey as required.

Pythom: Biggest worry? Biggest hurdles you anticipate? Dream end to the story?

Ian: My biggest worry in planning was probably receiving an Algerian visa, since they are regarded as rather difficult to come by. Now, to be honest I can’t think of any worries. I think the biggest hurdle will be finding some of the photograph locations without any detailed information from my great uncle. The dream end to the story would be to find someone who was a child at the time who remembers the presence of my great uncle’s unit, but I suspect I will have to settle for recapturing his photographs as best I can and returning home safely as he did.

Full-time adventurer, award-winning travel (and sometime food) writer, and motivational speaker Ian Packham resides “somewhere between south London and Cambridge UK, generally.” When not writing, he spends a lot of time reading travel magazines and travel literature. One of his all-time favourites is ‘The Malay Archipelago’ by Alfred Russel Wallace. On the road he uses little tech, “but I couldn’t live without, an offline mapping app.”


Behind the Lines of World War 2: Ian Packham