- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Bob Moseley
- Location of story:
- North Africa and Italy
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 13 January 2005
“MY family and I were living at Marston Green near Birmingham when I was called up. I joined the 79th Royal Army Service Corps attached for transport to the Sherwood Foresters.
It was autumn 1941, two years since war had begun, and I was 26. I had been working for Astons butchers, Monday to Saturday for 15 shillings a week. Before that I had done a daily milk round, seven days a week, for 10s a week. I had two younger brothers George, who is buried near my home in Worcestershire, and Peter who joined the war when he came of age and was involved in the D Day Landings. My father William had served with the East Devon Regiment in the First World War.
About 10 or 12 of us local lads travelled together to Huthwaite just north of Nottingham. When we arrived we had to fill our mattresses with straw and then go down to the stores to collect our battle dress, boots included. To this day I can still recall my Army number: 10661666. Then we marched along the road to a big school where we had our tea. I had never seen such big tins of jam!
The next day we were on parade for our jabs. I can’t remember what they all were – I may never have been told – but they included TB. One chap fainted! He fell to the floor and the medics pulled him aside and left him until he came around. Meanwhile they carried on with the jabs. We thought ‘what the hell’ – we’d never seen such a thing in our lives. He could have been dead for all we knew and they just shifted him to the side and carried on! They were tough times in those days and it was a taste of what was to come.
Soon we started our training. Most days we marched, sometimes we did physical training exercises too. At this point my pay was 7s 6d a week, after I’d sent something home to Mother so that if I was killed she’d get a pension. On pay day, you had to march to where the officer was sitting, wait until your name was called, step forward, salute, take your pay, sign the book, salute again and step back. Once the money was in our hands as often as not we would head to the NAAFI for a cup of tea and a chat.
Day after day we marched and did PT. It was more interesting when we marched with our 303 rifles and finally did some target shooting. Then came the driving test; I think most of us could drive okay. I had joined as a Private but was promoted to Driver.
After about a month we were sent on a week’s leave which was very welcome. Shortly after we returned, we passed out at Huthwaite and were posted further north to Mansfield where we were billeted in a huge garage. I remember we had to march along the road to a school for our meals. A lantern was carried at the front of the line and another at the back. It was in this school that we had our first Christmas dinner away from home - in December 1941. One lad sitting at the table next to me was crying his eyes out he was that homesick.
Some time later we went to Yorkshire where we practised anti-tank shooting and shot down balloons for practice. We were there for about a fortnight, billeted in an old mill with rain coming through the roof. It rained like hell so we’d scuffle around trying to find a dry spot to sleep. We were glad to return to Huthwaite for more drilling and marching. Sometimes the tanks we used for training were near Northampton at Althorpe Park, Lord Spencer’s home and we used to go there on various exercises, occasionally at night; I clearly remember the big iron gates.
My training was interrupted not long afterwards when I had a severe nose bleed and reported sick. I was kept in an orderly room overnight and next day was sent to Peterborough Hospital with bronchial pneumonia. I was there for three or four weeks. At one point I remember being asked by a sergeant major in the next bed to turn off the radio which was on the floor. I was so weak by this time I could only crawl on my hands and knees over to it.
I was sent to Oundle in Northamptonshire to recuperate, to the most beautiful place which I believe belonged to the Rothchilds. The cook and maids were immaculately turned out in white uniforms. There was porridge on the table and you could help yourself from jugs of milk – we’d never had that before! There were about 8 or 10 of us there. We carried on with PT and other exercises to help us get fit again. And we helped look after the house, cleaning and polishing the staircase and such like.
Next we went to Luton in Bedfordshire to get fitter still. I don’t remember how fit we got but it was good fun - the WRAFs were just up the road! We used to meet them in the town but had to get back on time and report to the guard room at Luton “soberly and correctly dressed”! For weeks I went out with a young WRAF called Peggy, from Liverpool. We used to take a little rowing boat out on the River Ouse for 6d and we were always singing “The Anniversary Waltz”! I often wondered over the years what happened to her.
But all good things come to an end and too soon we were on our way to a holding company in Guildford, Surrey. From here we were given 14 days leave and I went home and helped Dad with the mowing and hay making. That was around July 1942.
Not long afterwards we were sent to the First British Infantry Division in Dereham, Norfolk. We were collected at the station and taken to HQ Unit ASC 79th Army Service School where we reported to Major Williams who was in charge of the company. Some time later we went to East Bilney in Norfolk which was a lovely place in parkland. I remember the clerk in the office there was called Garland and was nick-named “Judy”! And the butcher in the army stores would give us a cut of meat if we were going on leave which was wonderful. Meat was very scarce at that time so to arrive home with a cut was very welcome indeed.
Our next posting was to Scotland and we ended up in Kilmarnock attached to the 1st British Infantry Division there. I remember we did a lot of anti-tank shooting and often ended up to our knees in mud. Our platoon captain was a man called Sutton who I believe was one of the Brylcreme family.
We returned to Huthwaite for a time and then headed back to Scotland. It seemed no time before we were loaded on to a train and were travelling through Glasgow to the Clyde. The train was locked so no one could get off. We joined another holding company, this time on board HMS Empire Pride. It was autumn 1942 and we were about to head for North Africa to join General Montgomery’s 8th Army. We were about 10 days on board and went up to the galley for our meals; I remember there were little ledges so things didn’t slip off the tables. And we slept in hammocks for the first time – terrible!
Then one morning we set sail and had our first experience of rough seas. We were upside down, people were sick; one of my pals, George Holtom, said he hoped the ship would sink he was feeling so bad! We were bound for Algeria and I believe there were about 1000 of us on board. An encounter with U boats along the way soon took our minds off sea-sickness.
We arrived at Algiers and the Italians [who remained in the war until September 1943] tried to bomb us. We had a Bren-gun and fired back. I remember trying to walk down the very steep, swaying gang plank laden with my kit bag and water bottles. There were two military policemen half way down to steady us as we disembarked. We went into a huge building next morning and there were peas and bacon for breakfast – a good do!
Soon we were lined up, maybe 20 of us I’m not sure, and we had to march 16 miles to our camp with Major Williams and his second in command, Stiles Allen, in charge. One minute it was very hot, the next it poured with rain. We had some rough billets I can tell you with very rough sleeping. I remember huge wine vats in one building. We used our kit bags for pillows and had a blanket and our top coats and not much else to keep us warm at night. The Major said these would be the best conditions we would get from now on!
We headed east towards Tunis and encountered our first fighting along the way. We walked usually and sometimes were carried in transporters. From Tunis we went to a small island called Pantelleria in the Mediterranean. But it was overrun with Italians and two of our dispatch riders were killed when one of the landing craft went into a mine. So we returned to Tunis. While we were there, I remember a tug of war being organised by Sergeant Beasley to pass the time until we received further orders. All the various regiments pitted their strength against each other and it was good fun. I remember Corporal Jock Woodrow drinking too much arak and next morning he was still drunk. The orderly officer was coming to check our quarters and everything had to be spick and span. Woodrow was in no state to be seen so we hid him under the camouflage nets until the inspection was over!
These were amusing moments which alleviated difficult times. The US invasion of North Africa started while we were there. By the following March 1943, the 8th Army began to break through in Tunisia and the Germans started to retreat. By May the Allies had taken Tunisia and both German and Italian troops in North Africa surrendered. In September 1943 the Italians left the war but the Germans fought on and in Italy occupied Rome.
It was at the end of September that we were taken to the dockside and put aboard Yankee boats on which we travelled steerage through very rough seas to Naples. What a shock we got. The people there were starving. It was terrible - men, women and children desperate for any food they could get. We were billeted in stores and if there was a scrap of food leftover, these poor people would beg us for it and grab it. “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, here, over here”, they would cry. While we were in Naples, Mt. Vesuvius erupted. It was amazing to see the smoke and flames. And of course we didn’t know how bad it might get and if the lava might pour down the mountainside towards us. Fortunately we had already left before we had time to find out.
For us, the war was getting even more serious now. We were on course for the invasion of Anzio although we didn’t know it at the time. We thought we were going north to help out at Monte Cassino, one of the war’s bloodiest and most controversial battles which lasted four months. Instead we travelled from Naples to Anzio by sea and were put ashore in landing crafts on January 22nd 1944. Our arrival was unopposed and we hung around for three days waiting for the Yankees to arrive and to receive our orders. During that time, the Germans learned of our arrival, regrouped, even moved troops from France to Italy. It was a costly three days for the Allies and a terrible few months lay ahead for us all.
By the time the Yankees arrived, the Germans had appeared too and we were fighting all the time to prevent them from pushing us back into the sea. We had some heavy ordnance, the largest being two 240mm [10.9 inch] howitzers but the beachhead was under siege. There were only four miles between the sea and the Germans so you could say we were well and truly trapped, the meat in the sandwich.
The wounded were cared for by Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps; I remember seeing the nurses and the big red cross over their large tent, a marquee really, which was dug into the ground to make it less likely to be hit by schrapnel. One of our wagons was taking 200 men or more daily from the various companies – the Gordon Highlanders, the Grenadier Guards, the Irish Guards, the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry to name but a few - to the graveyard. By 1st February there were 5,500 casualties and there was worse fighting to come. When the 1st Division landed at Anzio it was about 18,000 strong; within 3 weeks this division alone was down to about 6000. I believe the Irish guards were reduced to about 270.
There was a big German gun which we knew as Anzio Annie which would appear out of a tunnel and blast away before retreating back under cover. I think it was the RAF who eventually found it and bombed it. We hung on and hung on until eventually the Germans retreated a little and we started the slow move towards Rome.
On one occasion I remember some Yankees landing next to us. That night the Germans came and dropped butterfly bombs. We saw them but fortunately they didn’t touch us. A mate and I crept into some bushes for safety. We were inching along the coast road towards Rome at the time and had to use our machetes to dig trenches by the road for cover. At one point we were in a trench and the sides fell in. George Holtom and I used a parachute to stem the water and mud so we’d have some shelter. Another mate Willie Wilcox went missing at this point and we were saying “Where’s Willie, where is Willie”? And there he was fast asleep in a dug-out with the sides falling in on him. We moved on and took cover at a farm where all the animals had been killed except for a sick cow. She was shot too and I remember the Yankees saying they would have her calf for tea.
The Germans kept up the fight – trying to push us back while we tried to force them to retreat. At one point we took a pick-up and a spade and drove towards them with the aim of digging in for safety and fighting them. We dug a trench and I could feel the water starting to come in so I went back to a farm and found an empty jerry can and some wood to patch up the trench and stem the flow so we could use it and be dry. It helped but I still thought I’d lose my feet from frostbite. It’s no wonder some people compared this part of the war with the trench fighting in WW1.
To make matters worse, many of our supply boats were being sunk at the time. So Yankee DUKWs, amphibious trucks, came to the rescue, fetching supplies and ammunition in convoys from the ships moored out at sea and collecting the wounded. On one occasion we were fetching rations and petrol and the Germans came all the way down to us shooting. I remember running into the ditch and the Yankee beside me got shrapnel in his rear. Two aeroplanes were shooting everywhere. One shell went right through the cab of a truck and the driver jumped out and ran over to join us in the ditch. The other soldier, Jock Woodrow, hadn’t time to jump out so threw himself across the seat for protection. Sadly, later, when Anzio had been reduced to rubble and the battle there was all but over, Woodrow and Lance Corporal Joe Weir from our division were killed by schrapnel as they walked in the town.
One of our early victories was taking The Factory at Aprilia towards the end of January. Later of course the Germans won it back until it was re-captured by the Yanks.
When things quietened down enough we carried on with our push towards Rome. At one point, ambulances were trying to get through a wood to reach the injured. But they could only move at night in cover of darkness so we helped the Royal Engineers build a road to ease their way. We would load up during the day and then take the stone at night – it was hard work because even the cab lights were kept off. I was taking a load of stone to help out, when a shell fell nearby. It split the wagon and I got shrapnel in my boots. It almost cut through the leather but I wasn’t injured which was really lucky. But the shells landed all around us. As we left, one of the Military Police scratched Piccadilly Circus on a sign and left it behind as a marker.
Field Marshall Lord Alexander of Tunis was in charge of us then and in a little pep talk at Anzio said to us: “What we have, we hold.” And we did. I remember the officer in charge of the Sherwood Foresters, a skinny man covered in boils, went to move off in one of the jeeps and it had a flat tyre – but off they went anyway. With the Germans around you didn’t hang about. We kept on the move too and I remember in one village there were 25 pounder allied guns which the 67th Artillery would fire by order. I can remember the smell of those guns to this day.
Eventually the Germans slowed their advance. We had gone 8 or 9 days without washing or shaving so another regiment came to relieve us and we returned to camp for a time. We were just north of Anzio but out of the front line. There was a unit of Ghurkas nearby and the lads said these guys used to go in for an attack soundlessly and chillingly effectively with their knives sharpened on a nearby stone bridge. I watched them sharpening those knives.
At last we reached Rome. I remember we were on the side of the road by the River Tiber on a Sunday afternoon when a 15 cwt truck came trundling along and told us that Rome had been declared an open city, the Germans had finally retreated. One of the soldiers on the truck was a lad I recognised from home, Henry Lee, and he thought I was my brother – “Hi there Pete,” he yelled before carrying on - I bumped into him again in Palestine! A little later I was working the field wireless and I picked up a message telling our troops in France to keep off the roads. It was June 1944 and we found out later that D Day had started. And that’s where my brother Pete was at that very moment with the 6th Battalion North Staffordshire’s.
From Rome we carried on fighting our way north towards Florence which we reached in early August. I remember collaborators were being shot at night and it took a week to secure the northern part of the city. While we were there, I got a letter from my mother. Lord Haw Haw had read out Pete’s name as one of the missing.
In fact he had been taken prisoner near Paris while trying to cross the River Seine. Twice he and a Canadian soldier managed to escape while being taken from stalag to stalag. Apparently when they transferred the prisoners of war, the old or ailing prisoners were shot on the spot, there and then, if they couldn’t keep up. The first time Peter tried to escape they hid in a dug-out and later heard a voice calling “Come out, come out”. When Peter put his head out, it was into the barrel of a gun and they were re-captured. But the second time, they got lucky and took refuge at a farm where some Czechs hid them up in a loft until the Yankees arrived. He now lives not far from me at Stanford Bridge. His son, also called Peter, lives across the road from me here in Eastham with his wife Jan and their children Wayne and Tracy.
After we secured Florence, we moved to the mountains, high into the snow line of the Apennines where it was freezing and very rough. Up here we needed mules to lug the ammunition. I can’t remember exactly where we were when we heard that Winston Churchill was coming through. Somewhere along the way we went through Borgo San Lorenzo so it may have been there. Sure enough he drove past in a yellow motor with a full police escort but some time later we heard he was returning, probably because it was so dangerous. We all lined up to watch and cheer. Along came the yellow car again and there he was smoking a big cigar and giving us a V for victory sign!
I remember a very strange incident in the mountains around that time. We came upon the spread-eagled body of an American soldier on a bank. Below him we discovered an open grave with a German soldier in it. He was not a big chap and his teeth were clenched in a grimace. In his hands he clutched a little book, a prayer book perhaps or a diary. We did not dare touch him in case he was booby-trapped. But when we came off patrol in the evenings and passed by the grave, his teeth seemed whiter than white, almost luminous. We called him Silent Jimmy.
Another incident I recall was when I was driving a wagon and came round the corner to find an Italian with a dray of onions pulled by two old nags which were exhausted. The man was thrashing these poor horses to try and get them up the hill. So I stopped him, checked if he knew where the Germans were first, then asked where he lived – all in pigeon Italian! I made him wait while I got my tow rope and secured it to the ring on the pole dividing the two horses. Then I got into my wagon and carefully pulled them up the hill. He was very appreciative of what I had done – though neither of us spoke each others language, we had just used sign language and a few words here and there!
On another occasion, I was trying to have a nap in some stables, in a brick manger – there were no horses there of course. Next thing my commanding officer came in – “Moseley, I can’t find my sergeant. Have you seen him; where is he? Find him for me.” So off I went with a couple of mates to search for him. We found the jeep stuck on a Bailey Bridge, a rapidly assembled temporary bridge. We eventually got the it free and some of the lads said he’d had a nurse in it with him! If so, she’d gone by the time we got there!
By this time, we’d been in action in Italy for about 16 months and the big chiefs decided we needed a break. So it was agreed to switch our Ist British Infantry Division of the Sherwood Foresters with an Infantry Division in Palestine. Off we went from the bitter cold to the welcome heat of Haifa. The Gold Star beer was great! We travelled all over – backwards and forwards from Syria to Cairo to Beirut. As usual we travelled from place to place in wagons, or on foot. It was very hot but there were plenty of oranges and melons growing by the side of the road and we would grab some whenever we could! Rations were pretty plentiful at that time.
I remember we were sent on various trips to Cairo over the Sinai Desert. On one occasion I drove a Yankee articulated truck high up into the mountains in Egypt to get materials. We would try to gauge our trips so we would be back on the Gaza Strip in time for our Friday to Monday leave!
In December 1944 Captain Page came over to me and said: “Pork for Christmas and I want you to kill them.” I said: “I can’t” and he said: “Yes you can”. So I was presented with these two pigs and I thought what are we going to do with them – we’ll light fires using olive trees for tinder, get a big drum and make a platform of bricks. So I sharpened the knife and, ignoring the unhelpful advice around me “We’ll shoot them!” etc, took a long handled weapon, a bit like a sledge hammer, and stunned them. Then I bled them, scalded them and left them hanging on a tree. They were cooked by someone else, somewhere else and the next time I saw them was on my plate for Christmas dinner!
Much of our work now involved night patrols to stop trucks and bridges being blown up by insurgents. At one point there was trouble with the French in Syria and we were sent there to police the situation.
Victory in Europe Day was declared on May 8th 1945 when war ended in Europe. But not so for us. We spent another year based in Palestine. During the 1940s the unrest in the Middle East really started to increase. Years earlier the 1937 proposal to divide Palestine among the British, Arabs and Jews had sparked a two-year Arab revolt led by the Mufti religious leader of Jerusalem. Fear of a repetition led to severe controls in immigration and an outbreak of Jewish terrorism which hardened positions on both sides with dire consequences for British authority in the area. Abraham Stern founded a gang to fight for the freedom of Israel and although he was killed by British forces in 1942, his organisation, the Stern Gang, continued. In 1944 they assassinated the Minister Resident Lord Moyne in Cairo. We were there to try and help restore order in the area. A tall order, as history has shown!
Finally, in the summer of 1946 we were de-mobbed. We took the train to Gaza Strip and then to Alexandria where we took the boat to Toulon in France. We were given little biscuits to nibble to try and prevent seasickness. Then we were taken by train across France – it took two days – to Calais. The crossing to Dover was as calm as a table. On arrival we went to HQ at Aldershot to collect our civvies, our suits in cardboard boxes and our train passes.
My train did not stop at Marston Green so we glided by and into Birmingham. I had to take the bus back. I walked home from the bus stop with pals and neighbours calling out to me as I went. Next day I was hay making with my father. Almost as if time had stood still. But not quite. The memories of those years have never left me."
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