- Contributed by
- Barbara Chapman
- People in story:
- Thomas Hartley Mawson
- Location of story:
- North Africa, Italy and Germany
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 09 July 2003
Tunis 15th May 1943 three days after the fighting finished.Tom Mawson and Wireless Operator, Lesley Rundal who went through most of the battles with him.
Edited and condensed by his daughter Barbara for the BBC Web Site.
SETTING THE SCENE - EARLY EDUCATION AND WORK.
The youngest son of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Mawson, I was born at Whitley Head, Steeton, near Keighley in Yorkshire in the year 1914. My parents had a small grocery and sweet shop in the house, which my mother ran whilst my father traded around the villages with a pony and trap selling butter, eggs and tinned food.I had four older brothers and a younger sister.
I was five years old when I started school and I can remember being taken there by my brother Charlie who was six years older. He took me to the infant school and told me he would come back for me at dinnertime. He then went on his way to what we referred to as the big school. In the second class at this school the teacher taught us to add up and take away by using wooden squares and also the letters of the alphabet. The next class was the top class of the Infant school and the teacher was much sterner and we had to be quick with everything.
Another year soon passed and I was ready to go to the same school as my brother Charlie, this was the big school with Standards one to eight. After doing writing, reading, arithmetic and drawing in Miss Mitchell’s class I moved into Standard 2. The teacher’s name was Miss Wade and the lessons were the same except harder. By now I am 13 years old and moving into the Head Master’s class. I thought I would be having a hard time but it turned out better than I expected. I worked out of textbooks and the Head Master would mark my books once a week.
We played football and were taken to play matches against Sutton and Ingrow. I played Right Full Back because I was tall.
I am now approaching 14 years and time to say ‘Goodbye’ to my class and teachers and start a job.
My eldest brother, Fred, got me a job at Steeton Bobbin Mill and the Monday after leaving school I started work at 7-0’clock. My two eldest brothers had skilled jobs at the Bobbin Mill and on my first day at work I went in with them and was taken to a long room, which was Mr. Longbottom’s room.
My first task was to take small squares of wood, which had a hole down the centre, to lads who were working on them. Later I was asked to do the same job as these boys. We had to sit over a plank of wood about 6 ft long and on the end was a spindle spinning round, driven by a belt from shafting up above. We had to push the wood squares on to a cutting bit. My wage was 21 shillings and 6 pence a week and at the end of six weeks my wage was supposed to go up to 23 shillings and 11 pence. When the six weeks were ended my wage wasn’t increased so my brother told me to see the manager and enquire about it, which I did. After about half an hour in the office the manager said “I’m sorry lad, they tell me in the office that all lads have to work for 21/6d from now on.” So my brother told me to go back to the manager and give my notice to finish, so I did. Another lad started at the same job after me who was six weeks younger than myself and he was paid 23/11d as soon as he started!!
That was the end of my working at the Bobbin Mill.
On the Monday morning I set off looking for another job and found one at Woodrow’s weaving sheds at Crosshills. They set me on straight away, After working in the Piece room for some months, the manager came to me again bringing a young man with him, all dressed up in a posh suit. He told me to teach the young man all the jobs I had been doing. I couldn’t see that this was a good move for me but I had to do it. At the end of two weeks the manager again came to me and said,’ I want you to finish this weekend until you are sent for, go to the office and they will pay you up’. This was a sly move as the young man was a relation of the boss and they never sent for me again. I was just short of 16 years old.
This was the year 1930 and I was now without work
I always longed to be a joiner and cabinetmaker but there were no jobs. So I stayed at home helping my mother and father with the business and smallholding and cutting hair to earn a little bit of money.
We used to keep 600 hens, geese and ducks, two pigs and a pony and my job was to get up early in the morning to feed them and get the pony ready for my Dad to go on his rounds. At this time my mother was very busy looking after the shop and baking plain, currant and brown teacakes. She had regular orders for these and my brother Charlie had to deliver them, carrying them in a big basket, to her customers.
When I was about 16 I saw an advertisement in the paper that a young man had a piano accordion for sale. I had already taught myself to play the mouth organ and a concertina so I bought it. Some of my old school pals had formed a mouth organ and accordion band and had played at a few dances. They asked me if I would like to join them, which I did, and from then on we had engagements every Saturday evening, playing for dances. We earned ten shillings each and if we had travelled a way from home, we would get the taxi fare as well.
Well I had to have other work to do and always being handy with my hands with woodworking tools I set about making chicken huts. We acquired the timber and I made a few of these huts, six feet long and four feet wide with a pointed ridge roof and slatted floor for the chicken droppings to go through. These were called — night arks — made from weatherboards with two handles, one at each end to lift the arks onto a fresh site. I made a few of these and sold them to different farmers at a profit, which made our arks cost less. I also fit out a hut with cages and reared and sold guinea pigs.
Our next-door neighbour had a motor cycle with a sidecar and whenever he was tinkering about maintaining the engine I was helping and learning. The man also drove the corn mill wagon, taking cattle food out to the farms. I went with him and he would let me take hold of the steering wheel and drive the wagon. This is how I learned to drive.
My eldest brother was married and living at Addingham and his wife worked for a man who had a clothing shop. This man had a brother who was a cobbler also working in Addingham. After discussion with him we found that he would be prepared to teach me cobbling if I would go over in the evenings from 5-30 to 9-0’clock, but he couldn’t pay me any wages. So I bought a bicycle and went over to Addingham four or five nights a week for three years. I did this as well as looking after the smallholding and playing in the band at the weekends.
My Mother’s brother was a clog maker and had a shop in Skipton, my mother wrote to him and asked if he would teach me how to make clogs. He also said he couldn’t afford to pay me a wage but he would teach me if I could go over a couple of afternoons a week. So I did this, finishing at 4-0’clock, two afternoons a week for two years. At the end of my two years my Uncle gave me all the patterns for the clogs he made so I could cut out my own clog uppers.
So now I am ready to start business on my own as a Boot and Shoe Repairer and Clog Maker.
During my father’s journeys around the villages with his pony and trap, he found out that there could be an opening in the village of Cononley for the trade, so I went along there to have a look round. I noticed a little empty cottage and was told the house belonged to two elderly ladies. So I went and had a word with them and told them that I was looking for somewhere to start a cobbling business, and could I rent the old house. The ladies agreed and the deal was made.
Back at home I made a counter and drawers and had my tools and everything taken on to the old house. Looking in the newspaper I saw a Sewing machine for sale, so my mother lent me the money and I bought it, I also bought a treadle finishing machine and I had both these machines taken to the old house.
So now I am all set up to start my business and the work started coming in. I was soon able to pay back my mother for the loan on the sewing machine as well as paying her my board each week and by the end of the year I had £100 to call my own.
During the second year the business was going well so I bought a sole-stitching machine, paying cash for it followed by a motorcycle to get to work on.
During the years 1936 to 1939 I courted, married, bought a new house and my daughter was born in August.
A month later World War Two began and it wasn’t long before I received my call-up papers for the Army. I applied for postponement because of business responsibility and I got three months. I did this twice more and got three months each time, giving me nine months altogether. But duty called and before the end of the nine-month I had to make arrangements to close my shop and store my equipment. My call-up papers arrived and my railways warrant and my address was to be the Camp at Penny Pot Lane, Harrogate.
The date I had to set off was 16th January 1941; the day Mary my wife’s aunt was being buried. She had been like a second mother to me and yet I could not attend her funeral as it was at 10-30 am and I had to leave at 8-30am. It was one of the worst days in my life, having to leave my wife Mary and our little daughter.
CHAPTER TWO — PREPARING FOR SERVICE.
I arrived at Harrogate railway station and was picked up by a man with a 15 cwt. truck who took me to the training camp.
The next morning we, the raw recruits, were called out on to the barrack square and taken to the army store and given all our army kit including physical training kit, shorts and vest. We were told to go and put on the physical training kit and return to the square and at that time there were three inches of snow on the ground. I had never had a P.T. outfit on since I left school so along with the others we stood there shivering. The sergeant told us to form up into pairs, about 20 of us, and he ran us off the camp and down the road towards Harrogate in all the slushy snow,a fine start to my army experience. We ran all the way down and back up to the camp, had a wash down and returned to the Barrack square in our battle dress and were given marching and rifle drill. Every day we had different things to do, gunnery and motor transport lessons, along with being on guard at nights. We got 7shillings and 6 pence a week for this.
I was at Harrogate for six months and I used to slip home without leave. Each time I came home I had to walk two miles to the Blubberhouse road from the camp, and then hitch a lift to Skipton. When I returned I had to go by bus and then walk three miles back to camp from Harrogate.
I slipped home many times and made the journey without any trouble but one time the weather turned rough and it started snowing and again there was three inches on the ground, so I decided to return an hour earlier than usual. Mary had made some jam so she gave me a pot to take back to camp. I put the jar in my pocket and went for the bus and got as far as Shipley Branch where I had to get another bus for Harrogate. By this time the snow was getting deeper and no bus came so I set off walking as a man had told me that the busses couldn’t get up out of Bradford. I kept to the left hand side of the road and kept looking back and after about five miles I looked back and could see some dim lights. I could see that it was a bus so I shone my torch towards the driver. He slowed down and shouted from his window for me to jump on if I could but he couldn’t stop. I ran for it and jumped on, what a relief not to have to walk the whole way. From Harrogate bus station I used to take a short cut down a snicket but tonight the snow was packed hard on the path and was very slippery. My feet shot from under me and down I went on to the jar of jam!! The glass broke and I had to tip the jar and jam out of my pocket on to the ground. I had three miles to walk from here to the camp, where I slipped in through the sergeants quarters and out at the back into our own area, to avoid going through our main gates.
After getting into my barrack room to my bed I took off my greatcoat and what a mess it was with the jam. I went to the wash place and cleaned the coat and pocket. I dried the coat on the heating pipes. I was up all night getting the coat clean but I was on parade the next morning and no one ever knew.
Now I have come to the end of my time at Harrogate and have to move on. We were taken to Harrogate station and put on a train for Burton-on-Trent where we were marched to a Brewery. We were shown to a long attic room above this brewery in which there were ugly make shift beds, just oblong wooden frames with sacking nailed across, with just dark grey blankets. The beds at Harrogate were iron and we had two sheets. Now we were getting to the rough stuff.
We didn’t have any marching drill at this place but were told to go down to the railway goods yard and empty coal trucks, putting the coal into 1cwt bags. We did this job for three months, five days a week. We were given denim work clothes but it was a dirty job and I got really fed up with it and the town.
One evening I saw a notice asking if anyone would like to join the Military Police and if so to hand in their name at the office. So I thought well here goes, it can’t be worse than emptying coal trucks, and handed in my name.
The next morning I was called out on parade and told to report to the Medical Officer and then back to the Battery office where they gave me another railway warrant to travel to Chillton Foleate, near Hungerford.
When I got there and reported to the office, I just put my kit down and an officer took me to a three-ton wagon and asked me to drive it. He sat in the passenger seat and took me around the town and back to camp. That confirmed I could drive. I was given another rail warrant to go back home for ten days embarkation leave. This meant I would be going overseas to some place or other because the unit I had been posted to were already packed up ready to move. This Unit was the H.A.C a London regiment — The Honourable Artillery Company.
After my embarkation leave, I returned to the unit and was put in charge of a four wheel drive vehicle called a gun quad, used for towing guns, ammunition and limbers, it had a wire rope and winch gear. I had to drive all the way back up to Liverpool in convoy to get onto a ship. This ship was named “ The Samaria”.
When the troops were all on board, we numbered 3,500 plus the ships crew. We set sail from Liverpool on my 27th birthday the 28th September 1941. It would be 3 years and 9 months before I returned to these shores and saw my wife and daughter again.
CHAPTER THREE — SEA VOYAGE.
We sailed round the North of Ireland where we joined the rest of our convoy, 23 ships, 5 corvetts and two battle ships. We sailed away out into the Atlantic, changing direction every seven minutes during the hours of daylight and sailing in a straight line during the night. The crew told us the reason for this was to avoid a torpedo attack from any submarine. It took a submarine eight minutes to line up to a ship to fire and by that time the ship would have changed course, only the end of the ship would be seen, thus making it harder to hit.
We sailed very close to the Azores, most likely because of navel protection and air cover for the convoy. After many days at sea, our convoy sailed towards the African coast.
Back home, shortly after I sailed, Mary had a visit from a soldier seeking accommodation for his wife and child whilst he was billeted in St. Thomas’s Hall at Sutton with his unit. So Mary let the wife and daughter stay with her in the house for a short time until the soldier was moved and then they went back home.
Shortly after this, another man, Mr. Dunlop and his wife and child, called seeking a place to live for the duration of the war. He was a manager at the ammunition factory in Steeton called the ‘Dump’. So Mary let him have our house, fully furnished to rent and the family lived there for the duration. Mary and Barbara went to live with Mary’s mother and dad, at Sutton Mill and Mary went back to work as a weaver at T. & M Bairstow’s worsted manufacturers, and Barbara started nursery school.
The ship docked first of all in Freetown harbour and it was sure good to see land again. The young native boys were sailing round our ship’s sides in canoes and shouting for us to throw in ‘Glasgow tanners’. When the troops threw in the coppers, the lads would dive in the water and catch them before they reached the bottom. Because all the troops were watching this performance the ship listed to that side, by 45 degrees, because we were short of water ballast and I thought we were going to go over. The ship’s claxons went off and that meant we all had to go to boat stations. As soon as we were all in our places, the ship straightened up. Then the troops went to look over the other side of the ship and it rolled again and again the claxons went off and we had to go to boat stations. Eventually the ship had its water replenished and all was well.
We stayed in Freetown harbour for three days taking on food and water supplies and then set sail again out of sight of land heading for South Africa. We went past Cape Town and Port Elizabeth and dropped anchor outside the Port of Durban where we stayed all night. It was a terrible night. The ship again was short of water ballast and a very strong gale was blowing, causing the ship to lean over at a very bad angle. I was sure glad to see morning come and see us moving into Durban harbour We were told at this port that we could disembark but had to return to the ship by 10-30 p.m. I had made friends with a Scottish lad called George Allen, so he and I went on shore. We were walking along the pavement when a car pulled up and a man asked us if we were doing anything in particular and when we said ‘No’, he asked if we would like to go to his house and have a meal with him and his wife. So we agreed and he took us up the hillside to his very large home and introduced us to his wife, and twin daughters and their black servant. This man was called Mr. Gore and he asked where we were from and was very interested to hear that I was from Yorkshire, as he came from Sheffield and now had his own Estate Agents business.
He asked the two of us if we would like a run out to view the country whilst his wife was preparing the meal, so off we went to a place he called, the view of a thousand hills, including the table mountain.
Just outside his door at his home was a large tree with large green fruit as big as a coconut. I asked what they were and was told they were Pawpaw and Mrs. Gore said she would get one to finish off our meal. So after our run out we had a lovely meal and finished off with Pawpaw, which was skinned and peach coloured, and filled with cream, it was lovely, tasting between a banana and a peach. We stayed chatting at their home until about 10-00p.m., and then Mr. Gore ran us back to the ship.
The next day George and I had a look round the town of Durban and went to a café for a meal. It was a nice clean town and at night with all the lights lit, it looked good.
We sailed from Durban the next day and on through the Mozambique Channel between Madagascar and the main land. When we got out into the Indian Ocean our convoy was steaming along in three lines and the battle ship the Prince of Wales, came between our lines of ships. The ships band was playing military marches and it sounded lovely and looked beautiful. But about a week later while we were still sailing the news came through that the Japanese had sunk the Prince of Wales.
On our way north up the Indian Ocean, we were told that one of the ships in our convoy was leaving us. This was the Georgic and was a new ship on its maiden voyage, and it could go much faster than the rest of the convoy as we could only sail at the fastest speed of the slowest vessel. So Georgic waved us goodbye and on its way it went.
We sailed along at a steady speed and eventually arrived in the Port of Aden, South Yemen. We picked up more water and food and the next day sailed up the Red Sea. Our next stop was at Port Sudan and no one was allowed to go off the ship, and we were forbidden to bathe in the sea. We soon understood why! The sea was infested with big sharks. We only stopped in Port Sudan for one day, and then we were on our final sail to our destination, Port Suez.
As we came into the quayside the troops were all packed up with our kit and we ran off the ship very quickly. It was no wonder, because when we looked across the bay there was the ship the Georgic, beached on the sand burnt out and just a great big hulk of red rust — it had been bombed.
The troops were packed into 3-ton trucks and rushed off to Cairo, the capital of Egypt, where we occupied the Al marsen barracks. We were here for a few days and while I was there, I was asked, with some others, to go back to Port Suez to pick up trucks and guns. We were taken down in 3-ton trucks and given a truck or other vehicle to bring back to Cairo.
About a week later we had got all our equipment together and sorted out into our troops and batteries, three batteries to the regiment, and now we were ready to move up the desert to meet the enemy.
CHAPTER FOUR —EL ALAMEIN.
Before we moved off from Cairo I was told to take some new cans from a large stack. We had been issued with two 4 gallon cans and I picked up four more 2 gallon cans and filled them all with water and stored them in my gun quad. Later on, up the desert when we had to retreat, being pushed back by the Germans, this water came in very useful.
We were told we would have to do Truck cooking. This was something new that we had not been told about. It meant that the men who were on my vehicle had to cook their own meals. We were issued with one week’s rations, once a week and we had to work out what we could eat each day. We were supplied with margarine, jam, bacon, milk, tea and sometimes tins of fruit and not forgetting biscuits and bully beef.
We had to work out the meals for ourselves; counting out how many biscuits we could allow for each meal and also how to cook, for we had no stove. We used petrol poured on to sand in a box, this would burn up to one hour.
Off we went in column of route up the coast road, which was a tarmac road on our way to Alexandria. We were allowed to go into the town and have a look round, so me and another lad called Joe Goldman set off. A man with a rickshaw came along shouting ‘Exhibish’. So we both got in the rickshaw and the Egyptian peddled us around to some sort of building and told us to go in. Inside there were scantily clad dancing girls jigging about! We didn’t stay long! Then we had to walk the way back to our unit, but we had seen the town
The good hard coast road ended on the boarder of Egypt and Lybia and there was a small village called Sollum. After this village the road was just sand and stones and it wound up a very steep hillside. The name of the pass was Halfaya Pass but the troops called it Hell Fire Pass. When we reached the top the desert was fairly flat with firm sand so the going was good. After travelling about 15 or 20 miles we came to Tobruk. This town was deep down in the bottom of three parts of a basin with very high cliffs all around. We took up our positions about twelve miles out in the desert where our chaps had to dig gun pits, so the guns were down in the ground with the barrels just peeping over the top, and over the gun pits were scrim nets to disguise the pits from the air. By now the enemy were flying over.
Just in front of us was a small air strip about three miles away and we could fire and cover the ground up to 12 miles. Our fighter aircraft was using this airstrip and we found ourselves supporting three tank units, the Bays, Lancers and Hussars, who were away out in front. They had American Honey tanks with 37mm small gun and Crusader tanks. These tanks were useless against the German tanks because our tanks had 2 lb armour piercing shells and the Germans were shooting 4 lb shells. Our tanks didn’t stand much chance; I saw many of our tanks knocked out where the German shells had gone straight through them. I even put my eye to a hole and looked through.
We were now in the “Knightsbridge Box”, why it was given this name I will never know. As far as I could see there was no bridge and no box! Just more and more desert.
As a driver, when we reached our destination my job was usually finished, but I had to cook the meals. At a quiet spell in the shooting, I was asked to go back to Tobruk for some goodies for the troops. An N.C.O. went with me to a great big corrugated building and when I went inside my eyes boggled.
There were tons and tons of everything in the food line. There were tins of meat, fruit, sausages, sweets, and chocolate also soap, razor blades, wine, spirits and beer. The N.C.O had a list of things he wanted and I bought a few tins of fruit and cream, which I later shared with my friends. I always had plenty of money in my pocket because I used to do some hair cutting. I had learned how to cut hair and had a set of clippers and scissors. As there was no way for the lads to have their hair cut, they came to me and paid me in British Military money.
While we were at the front taking part in the “Knightsbridge Box” our tank units were re-equipped with new tanks. They were much bigger than ours, American General Grant tanks with a 37mm gun in the turret and 75mm in the base of the tank.
We were soon ready for battle with these new tanks out in front, looking up a sloping hillside. We could see the tanks set off and we, the 25 lb guns were in support. As soon as the tanks reached the top of the hill they went up in balls of fire one after another. We lost many of these tanks, but we pressed forward with our guns in support and the infantry out in front.
As nightfall came, we found we had gone through one of our own minefields and were on the German side and the German’s were attacking. We had to travel up the side of our own minefield in the black dark till we came to a very rough craggy hillside. It took us all night getting through on to our own side.
The next morning, when daylight came we found we were being shot at on open sights. I was driving a 3-ton truck and saw shells dropping behind us. I drove down a hillside into a gully, which I am sure saved us. Eventually we did press forward past Beda Fomm and Agedabia and on to Benghazi, where there were some docks, but as far as I could see, a lot of ships were smashed about and the docks looked no good to us!
Then we got new orders. The Germans had pulled back beyond a little place called Sirte and we were chosen to go out on what was called a ‘Jock column’. We went out into the desert a few miles, up past the German lines. For a few days our guns were in action shooting towards the road in an effort to stop the German supplies going along the road. We were never shot at, but after about four days Rommel sent 23 fighter-bombers over us to sort us out. We had two anti aircraft guns with us for air protection but the aircraft soon bombed them out. Then the aircraft had it all their own way.
I was driving a gun quad and two limbers or ammunition holders, so what I did, I jumped out and ran about 70 yards away from my vehicle and flattened out on the soft sand. I was pushing the sand away with my hands and bringing my feet up and pushing the sand away with my feet. I had managed to make a little trench when down came one small bomb and dropped about 10 yards from me. It made a hole about 10 feet deep but I didn’t get a scratch. The sand was so soft that the blast from the bomb missed me completely. I was very lucky as 11 of our lads were killed and some of our vehicles were burnt out.
That evening we were given orders to move back under our own steam, under cover of darkness. My Sergeant told me to drop the two limbers from the gun quad and hitch on the back a 25 lb gun, I also had to carry four extra men, so now instead of having five men in my vehicle, I had to take nine. This is when the extra water came in useful. We travelled through the night out into the desert, travelling by compass, as there were no roads. We got into a desert bog a few yards, and my vehicle went down to the underside. I could not reverse to get out, so this is where my winch gear came in useful. We hammered land pins, 3 ft metal rods, into the firm ground. We then hooked the wire rope on to the pins and I pulled the vehicle back out of the bog.
Later that night when it was pitch dark, we could see a flashing light away to our left, but nothing else. When dawn came we could then see that it was a gun quad like my own and we gradually drew together. They were out of one of our other batteries. When we first started out up the desert we had three batteries called A, B and E batteries. I was in B Battery and C troop. The other vehicle had five men in it but they had nothing hitched on the back, so they had lost everything.
After motoring many miles together, not seeing anyone else, we came to a place in the desert that looked like a dried up river bed with a banking on each side about 30 feet high and on our side of this river bed were a few hills and gullies. Down in one of these gullies were seven 3-ton trucks, all belonging to the Royal Army Service Corp. This was our first stop since leaving the desert bog so we decided to have our breakfast. As the lads got the fire going to make tea etc. I and two other lads decided to have a look around these 3-ton trucks. We found a stack of rifles all piled up together, so this proved to us that some of our troops had been taken prisoner. In one of the trucks were four cans of petrol, so we filled up our vehicles and had three cans to spare.
Then we got a surprise. One of the lads had walked up the ridge and looked over the top. He came back to tell us that there was an Italian gun battery with their guns pointing in the direction which we wanted to travel. We thought about taking our gun and pointing it over the hill, but we only had five rounds of armour piercing shells, so we decided that two or three of the lads should walk up to the ridge and let the Ities see them and their rifles, and this paid off. The Italian gun unit hitched their guns and went along down the dried up riverbed, round a corner and out of sight. So our group hitched up and moved over the ridge across the riverbed and over the other side and got on our way. When we were about three miles away from this place, we looked back and the Italians were shelling the position we had left with high explosive shells.
We motored on our way for some miles, not seeing anyone until we spotted a small vehicle coming towards us. It came up to us and turned out to be an Indian Officer. He asked us if we had any ammunition so we told him what we had, which was only five rounds of armour piercing shells, so he said ’Follow me’. So we followed the officer in his 15cwt truck for a few miles then we could see there was a tank battle going on to our left. So I said ‘It’s absolutely crazy to take nine men into a tank battle with a soft vehicle and five rounds of ammunition’. So I shot down one of these gullies and lost this Indian officer and on our way we went.
We got round past the tank battle back on to our own side and we travelled so far that we found we had come to Divisional Headquarters. Here they had big tents put up and looked as if they were sitting pretty! So my Sergeant went into one of these big tents and after a short while he returned with tears rolling down his face. He had been told in the tent that we were running away. I said that I wished it had been them out there and then it would have been another story.
We were told we would be rejoining B.E. battery, so that meant they had made one battery out of two. We were given directions to travel and on we went towards Agedabia. We could see we were going into the fighting area. As we went along we noticed armoured cars coming back towards us and one of these pulled up and an officer popped his head out of the top and asked us where we were going. So we told him we were looking for B.E. battery. The officer told us to turn round and go back as the Germans were coming our way with tanks. So round we turned and I put my foot down on the accelerator and went as fast as I possibly could. We could hear the shells dropping and bursting behind us. It sure was a close shave, but I went down into a dip and we were out of sight of the German tanks.
From this point on we were retreating back towards Tobruk and three times we were ordered to drop our gun and wait for the tanks coming over the crest. While we were doing this all our soft vehicles were moving back. Anyway no tanks came over the ridge so we did not have to fire. Then, as we moved back we found our B.E. battery and were put into the same gun pits out in the desert in our prepared positions.
By now the enemy must have been consolidating their gains, because it was quite quiet for a few days but we had to put up a few barrages of shellfire. A few days later we were given the order to pull out of the gun pits and move back. I remember that the gunners had got their guns hooked up when we saw seven or eight fighter-bombers heading towards us. At first we thought they were going for the soft vehicles, but they turned around and headed straight for us. I dived under my vehicle between the back wheels and the bombs came down. It was all over in a few minutes. I came from under my vehicle and saw another truck about 50 or 60 yards from mine had taken a direct hit and was on fire and shells were exploding and flying in all directions.
My first thought was to get my truck away from this one, so I had a quick look around my own and found a large hole in the petrol tank, I could see the petrol and was amazed that it also had not caught fire. So I got in and it started at the first touch and I drove away about 200 yards and stopped. When I got out I found I was covered in blood all down my shirt and my leg. At that moment an ambulance crew rushed up to me and ordered me into the ambulance. After picking up some more chaps until the ambulance was full, we were rushed off back to Tobruk, down to the dockside and into a very large cave. The cave was lit with electric lights and fit up with many beds. I was ordered into bed and a doctor looked at my wounds. I was told I had a piece of shrapnel in my thigh but they couldn’t remove it at this field hospital. But they cleaned up the cut on my head and put a bandage round and told me I would be going on a hospital ship at first light in the morning. It was during this raid that my former friend George Allen was killed.
When morning came the cave was emptied of troops and we were all taken and put on the ship the Llandovery Castle, and we set sail down the Mediterranean to Alexandria. From the ship we were put on a train and taken to No. 1 Field Hospital along the side of the Suez Canal in Ismalia.
I was treated in hospital for six weeks but my leg soon healed and before I left there, I had a swim in the Suez Canal.
I was moved from the hospital and put on a train to the boarder of Israel to convalesce for six weeks. I was billeted on the beach in long huts with palm trees all around and these were loaded with dates. Whilst I was there we were taken out on one or two trips in a 3-ton truck.
At the end of the six weeks I was again put on a train back to Cairo, this was the second time I had been in this city.
I had to give all my particulars, name, number and unit to an officer who then told me that I had been reported Killed in Action. So I was told to send a telegram home, free of charge, to let them know I was O.K. Mary had already had a telegram reporting me missing and a letter of condolence from the King, but I had written home in the meantime and Mary knew I was alive.
After a few days in the barracks in Cairo, I was re-issued with kit and sent back to my unit. When I rejoined them they were in the battle line at El Alamein.
I was given an armoured car to drive weighing 16 ton with ¾ inch thick steel plating. My Unit had been re-equipped with self-propelled guns mounted on a tank chassis and were much bigger guns. They were American 105mm firing 35 lb shells, so now we were more like a tank unit. My officer was Lt.Henderson G.P.O. Acting Bombardier and also two wireless operators.
The second day that I was back with my unit, when nightfall came, the barrage opened up and went on all night. It was absolutely fantastic!
When daylight came my officer and I were standing in front of my armoured car when an armour piercing shell struck the ground three feet in front of us. If that had been an explosive shell we would both have been dead.
That morning I saw waves of our bombers come over and drop their bombs on the Germans. I saw four or five bombers shot down and it was a terrific sight to see.
Later in the afternoon we prepared to move. I was now driving the Command Post vehicle and we moved through one of our own mine fields. The Royal Engineers had lifted mines and put wide white tape in lines and we had to drive between these lines. Once we were through the minefields we were in the German lines. When we stopped, quite a few shells clomped down near us and the shrapnel spattered against the sides of my armoured car, but we were all inside and took no fault. Only a direct hit would have finished us.
Soon after this, things seemed to go quiet and when we looked out, our infantrymen were marching prisoners back into our lines, there were thousands of them!
After getting through the battle lines at El Alamein and the noise of war seemed to have passed our guns and my armoured car were right in the middle of the German front line and all the German and Italian soldiers had been taken prisoner.
I noticed a dugout and without thinking that the Germans might have booby-trapped the place, I went down a flight of steps cut out of the hard sand. At the bottom was an oblong room about 10ft long and 6 or 7 feet wide. At each end of the room were places cut out of the sand about 2 ft high, each with a bed in place. In the middle of the room was a table and neatly folded on it were two German Swastika flags, two or three German telescopic rifles and boxes of ammunition.
I noticed that one of the beds was an English Officer’s bed; they must have captured it during our previous retreat. I took out the blankets, rolled up the bed and took the rifles and ammunition and the two flags. I had the bed for the rest of the four years I was in the Middle East. I used the two flags for sheets in my bed, but I will refer to these two flags later on. I believe now that this dug out was Rommel’s office.
So now the Germans were on the run as fast as they could, with our armoured cars and Infantry after them, so we have a long ride back up the desert in pursuit.
In Tobruck, my Captain, Robin Smith our observation officer, wanted to return to the place where we were bombed to see whether our men had been buried. When we had been in action Robin Smith had been out five or six miles in front sending radio messages and ranges for the guns, back to us. He and Second Lt.Henderson, my gun position officer and two wireless operators got in my armoured car and we went out into the desert to our old gun positions, where we noticed our lads had been buried and pieces of wood had been hammered into the ground with their identity discs and tin hats on top of the wood.
After looking around the area Capt. Smith, who was supposed to know the area, said, “Drive on Mawson”, so we went about 100 yards and ‘Bang’, up we went on one of our own mines. It blew off my offside front wheel and folded the wheel rim up like a banana skin. I thought ‘That’s a fitting piece of work, after looking for our dead’ but fortunately no one was killed but Lt. Henderson had a sprained ankle when the mine blew up the floor and trapped his foot under a girder which ran the full length of the armoured car.
The chaps walked back up my wheel tracks to the top of the rise and saw a vehicle travelling in our direction so they waved furiously and caught their attention. We were in luck as they were just the men for the job, they were Royal Engineers and they came over and lifted all the mines around my vehicle. When the R.E’s left us they took my two officers and one wireless operator with them and I was left with one wireless operator, so we were always in contact with our unit. Lesley Rundal and I were stuck there all night and in the morning a big scammel, or transport vehicle came for us. They put a towrope on to my vehicle and pulled me out of the minefield on the same tracks as we went in. They pulled the vehicle on to a tank transporter and tied it on and the sergeant in charge pulled a cover over the scammel.
I could see a land mine about 300 yards away and the big pile of mines were 100 yards distant from the single mine. I just wanted to try out my German telescopic rifle so I took a shot at the single mine and hit it. As it exploded, instantly the big pile of mines also went up with a terrific explosion. The Sergeant felt the blast and jumped off the scammel in shock and I got a real dressing down for my action. I hadn’t expected the pile of mines to go up. Fortunately no one was hurt.
We were taken to the Army repair depot West of Tobruk where Les and I had to wait two days for our vehicle to be repaired. Les was in touch with our unit by radio so we set off again round the high cliff top above Tobruk, which is down at sea level. When we got round to the East side of Tobruk we could look down on the quayside in the bottom. Just at that moment while we were enjoying the view we heard aircraft coming. We both lay down on the ground and as we watched they came straight for Tobruk and dived so low we expected them to crash. They dropped their bombs and pulled out of their dive and skirted up close to the cliff side and away. We couldn’t see the damage they had done for smoke and steam and the harbour was blotted out.
We now got on our way for a good few miles and rejoined our Unit at Agedabia.
The Unit moved off the next day round the coast road to what the troops had christened ‘Dirty Sirty’ because of the many booby traps, which the Germans had left in this village. We were warned not to go near for our own safety, so we skirted around the village and moved miles up the coast towards Misurata, where we found we were back in touch with the enemy. Now we are faced with the fortified Mareth line. It had taken us some weeks to get to this place, which was much the same as all the rest of the desert.
Now we had our Eighth Armoured Division all ready for the attack. It was decided that we would go out into the desert under the cover of darkness and be off the end of the Mareth Line where the rough cliffs ran out and we could get around. So when daylight came we found ourselves shooting round the back of the Mareth Line. While we were there it came over on the radio that two enemy aircraft were flying towards us. So the tanks and everyone who had firearms were at the ready and we could see the planes coming. Across the gully from where we were, stood some of our tanks and they were shooting in our direction while we were shooting in theirs, a very dangerous position. When the first plane came opposite us we could see that it was one of our own Spitfires followed by a German fighter plane. But it was too late. It seemed to me later after the incident that most people shot at our own plane because the German fighter peeled away and flew back but before the Spitfire was out of sight, I saw the pilot come out of his plane feet first and his parachute never opened. His plane crashed further on and went up in a column of smoke.
That evening we moved forward behind the Mareth Line and the place we stopped for the night was in a little valley not very far from Tripoli airfield. While we were there five German bombers were coming in to land and everyone seemed to open fire with anything that would shoot. Because the planes were flying in very low, not much higher than 60 ft, they all crashed on to the airfield on fire.
The next morning we captured the airfield and moved past Tripoli. I never saw the place because soon we were moving past Zuara into Tunisia, past Medenine, Gabes, La Sklura and Sfax. The Germans appeared to be going as fast as they could in retreat.
In Tunisia, wide of Sousse, we went into a very large yard with our guns in close formation where we stayed the night. In this yard an area was covered with orange blossom and what a beautiful smell! Here there was a perfume factory where they distilled the flowers in vats and put the perfume into large barrels.
A day or two later we pressed on towards Tunis and were told that we were going to support the First Army. Whilst we were moving forward I noticed my brother in law Edward’s Divisional Sign, the Mailed Fist, so I wondered whether I would see him.
The Germans had moved down Cape Bon, a pointed spit of land, hoping to escape across to Sicily. They tried to slow us down by placing 88mm guns here and there, but our firepower was too much for them. One gun I saw was knocked out with its gun barrel burst and the German was dead in a slit trench beside the gun, it must have had a direct hit.
That was the end of the war in North Africa. So then I knew there would be no more shells coming at us and I could go and look for my brother-in-law Edward.
This photo was taken in Tunis, 3 days after the fighting finished, with the Wireless Operator, Lesley Rundal, who went through most of the battles with me. Taken 15th May 1943.(The original document has photographs)
CHAPTER FIVE — A BRIEF RE-UNION THEN SICILY.
Where we finished fighting, on the opposite side of the road from our unit, there was a long building with a flight of steps up the side of it. I noticed that the door was open and decided to take a look. I just got up about five steps when there was a very loud explosion so I turned back down. I just got to the bottom of the steps when an infantry soldier met me and asked what was going on up there. I told him that I didn’t know, as I hadn’t got up to the door. The soldier told me to come back with him so I followed him to the top of the steps and looked in the door. Down a passage way there were six doors and smoke was coming out of a room at the bottom left hand side of this passage. The infantryman told me to stand back as he butted each door open on his way down the passage until he came to the room from which the smoke was coming. Then he called me to come and look. What a sight!! A British soldier was laid on the floor with both his hands blown off and his face smashed in and a big hole in his chest. He had lifted the lid of a type of bedding box, which had been booby-trapped. That taught me to stay away from any buildings.
We had captured a German motorbike so I asked my officer if I could borrow it and have a run out to try and find my brother in law, Edward. So he said I could take the afternoon off and I went back to Tunis, where I found the head quarters for the First Army in a building, which they had occupied and I made enquiries about Edward’s unit. I was told that he was out on Cape Bon about twelve miles away. So I went back along the road looking for army signs and found the place. Turning off the main road, only about 50 yards, I rode into where their vehicles were parked and asked for Ted Dickinson and was told that he was down the slope near the sea. So I walked down and Edward and his friend Don Rushton were there basking in the sunshine. We were so glad to see each other and had a good long chat together. I told him where I was staying which was only three miles further down the road on the same side of the beach.
After about a week in our position by the seaside on Cape Bon, we had orders that we were going to have a victory parade in Tunis. So many of our chaps had to clean up ready for a march through the town. We were taken in 3 ton trucks to the East side of the town and had to march towards the West, through crowds of people standing on the pavements and looking out of their windows and waving. After the parade the trucks took us back to our unit on the beach.
We moved off the next day to a wooded area just outside Constantine in Algeria. We stayed here for a few days and I was able to go into the town for a look round. One thing that took my attention was that the local people were often seen walking along the road eating cherries out of a paper like we would eat fish and chips, but they never seemed to spit out the stones. They must have swallowed them.
The next journey we had was the most spectacular one I had seen. We went down the deepest ravine I had ever been down. The river was in the bottom, 700 ft down and looking up the cliff sides was about 1000 ft. At road height the ravine from one side to the other was between 60 and 100 yards wide and the road was cut through the rock with openings through which we could see up or down. The ravine was 30 miles long and ran out on the sea front. About half way down the gorge the two sides were only 45 yards apart and the road crossed over on to the other side at this point. There were trees and bushes growing out of the sides of the gorge both above and below the road. We ran out on to the sea beach on the Eastern side of the river and the land was quite flat. We pulled into this area and put up tents and we had central cooking for a change, as this was the first time since we had left Egypt.
We were on this site for a few weeks, where we had a good rest and cleaned all our equipment including guns and vehicles, ready for our next move.
Our next task was to be the Invasion of Sicily.
We left Djidjelh on the 8th July 1943 and made our way back to Sfax where we were put on landing craft ships. Each ship could hold four 62-ton guns and one 16 ton armoured car, just one troop to a ship. We had to go on in reverse order so I had to drive my vehicle on to the ship first, with the self propelled guns following. When we were all aboard the ramp was pulled up and we sailed into the bay and anchored until the rest were loaded. When on these, ships we were only about six feet above the water.
We set sail on the 9th July and sailed all night. Just before dawn on the 10th July we were close to the beach off the most southern tip of Sicily. The landing craft were rammed stern first on to the beach and the ramps lowered. Our guns moved off one at a time and me and my party waited to move off. Looking across to our right we could see a lighthouse in the very dim light about 250 or 300 yards away.
As each gun ran off, the ship lifted higher in the water so by the time it was my turn to leave, the ship had drifted back off the beach. When I drove off the ramp my front end went down into the sea and we fell off. The water came over the vehicle and over the visor, but I just kept my foot down on the accelerator and the vehicle, being waterproof, to my relief, rode up on to the beach. As we got on to land and dawn was just breaking, someone at the top of the lighthouse opened up with a machine gun and spattered bullets all around us. We all sat tight in the armoured car and my officer ordered the radio operator to contact two warships out at sea and tell them we were being fired on from the top of this lighthouse. Within minutes salvoes of heavy shells were landed on the lighthouse and the top was demolished, and the ground shook like jelly. We were covered by the massive firepower of the Warships HMS Howe and HMS King George V. Anyway that finished the machine-gunning so we moved forward on to land and set up our guns. Along with the rest of our battery on other parts of the beach we had 24 guns followed by our support vehicles.
We were supporting a Canadian Infantry Division and we stayed about a mile inland from the beach for a day with our guns set up and firing where they were required. We could fire 14 miles from where we were. The next day we moved forward, setting up in many places.
We got the news that our chaps had captured Siracuse, a seaport up the coast to our right, which meant that ships could bring in equipment needed for the forces.
As we moved forward we came up against a rough rocky hillside but our infantry had cleared it of the enemy. We were in columns of route and the white dust went up in clouds. The track went past several orange groves and in some places the trees were overhanging the road. As we passed, one or two of our lads pulled some of the fruit from the branches but they were Saville oranges and were very bitter, so they soon threw them away.
Beyond this rocky hillside was open country with trees and gullies and roads. We had our guns set up 60 yards apart, all connected up to my command post armoured car, when the order came from the infantry that they were bogged down. They were facing a long sloping hillside and the enemy were dug in and had our chaps covered by small arms fire, so they were asking if we could do something for them.
We always had our O.P; Observation officer out in front with the infantry, so he ordered us to put a lifting barrage down, but instead of shells bursting on the ground, we had to shoot air burst shells. These shells were timed to explode over the target 15 or 20 ft above the ground. We started at the bottom of the hillside lifting 15 to 20 yards each shot until we had covered the area. The Canadians walked over the hill and found the enemy dead in they’re slit trenches and congratulated us for removing the enemy.
Over the ridge we went and on to the plain of Catania, from where we could see the volcano, mount Etna. After a few weeks, stopping in various places, moving around villages and homesteads and avoiding doing damage, as much as possible we started to close on Catania, the largest town in Sicily. We reached the outskirts of the town when the order came to cease-fire. We had beaten the enemy.
Our officers now started putting us on physical training exercises to keep us fit! We were on the top of a hill and the hillside was terraced with walls 3 ft to 4 ft high and we had to run down the hill jumping over these walls and back up again. There were almond trees all around this area and the terraced fields had been harvested of wheat, leaving stubble six to eight inches long. After one of these exercises I noticed I had scratched my leg in two places, but thought nothing of it as I had had plenty before which had healed. But in a day or two these were still inflamed and not feeling so good so I reported to the Medical Officer. I had to see him every day for hot fomentations to be applied and was put on ten C, which meant I was excused all duties.
During the next day or so we were moved nearer to Catania into an olive grove. These big bushy trees provided plenty of shade from the hot sun, and we were issued with small one-man tents, and told to put them up wherever we wanted. This didn’t turn out to be so pleasant, as there were flies as big as our house flies but with a sharp spike at the front, which they stuck into the skin like a needle and drew blood.
I put up my tent near a small fence, made myself comfortable with my officer’s bed and ground sheet and spent my time under my tent as I was excused all duties. Over the other side of the fence was a vineyard and the grapes were ripe, huge bunches of black and yellow ones. I nipped over the fence every day and took a bunch of grapes into my tent and enjoyed them while I was doing nothing.
I had treatment every day for the sores on my leg but they didn’t appear to be improving, in fact they seemed worse, one being the size of a two shilling piece and the other a bit smaller and both about ¼ inch deep. They looked bad.
Our latrine was a long pole eight feet long set on a branched fork at each end of a five foot deep trench. And did we need that! A good many of the lads took the dysentery and were queuing up to use the pole. I was very thankful that I was never affected with this awful infection.
We were three weeks in the place and during that time I had the privilege of being taken by truck up the volcano, mount Etna. We drove as far as the road went, then walked and climbed as far as we dare to go. I went up to the first crater on the side of the mountain; it appeared to be a deep basin. I didn’t venture up to the top where the smoke was coming out.
I cannot say what Catania was like as I never went in there but I noticed that the roads were not tarmac but were cut out of the lava from the volcano.
Again we were given orders to prepare to move. We packed our tents and kit and piled everything on to our vehicles. I had been excused all duties, but I helped the other lads and drove my vehicle back to the docks at Siracuse, where we were put on a dirty old French ship named the Ville de Oran and we sailed back to Algiers. While we waited in the harbour at Algiers, coming through the air were clouds of locusts and they bashed into the ship’s side and fell into the sea and the sea became absolutely covered in dead locusts. The ship moved to the quayside and we disembarked and were taken three miles outside Algiers to what appeared to be a large farm. We were shown into a large building in which there were eight concrete wine vats, four on each side with space for a tanker to reverse between. The eight vats were 12’ high and 12’ square. At the end of four vats was a flight of steps with a handrail and the same on the other side. Around the top of the vats was a railing about 3’ high.
We were all given wooden beds covered with hessian, so it looked as though we would be staying here for a while. The drivers had to go back to the docks the next day to pick up our guns and vehicles and return to our fresh billets, where we put them behind the building.
Now we were back to the ‘spit and polish’ and having to turn out on parade and guards duty every day and night. Each lot of guards were detailed for 24 hours and we had to walk round our vehicles and the buildings.
After being here for a week my leg sores were no better so the M.O. ordered me to go into No. 1 field hospital two miles outside Algiers. I was taken with my small kit and shown to a bed in the ward and made very comfortable. Here we had lady nurses dressed in smart blue and white uniforms and the doctors wore long white coats. I was given a pair of pyjamas and we had white sheets on the bed. The doctor and a Sister came to have a look at my leg and when he removed the bandages and saw the sores he pulled a face and remarked that they were ‘Nasty’. I was treated with an ointment for a few days with no improvement so about 10 days later I was told that if no cure could be found I would be flown home to England. They took a swab and sent it away for analysis and three days later got the result, which showed that I had Diphtherial Ulcers, so they would have to treat me as though I had Diphtheria. The sister and a nurse came and gave me an injection in my behind with serum and my leg went numb for a few hours, but three days later we could see a change taking place and the ulcers started to freshen up, turning from black to pink. I was on a light diet of steamed fish, mashed potatoes and white sauce, fruit and custard etc. The other lads were asking what had I done to deserve all those goodies!
I was in hospital three weeks and then returned to my unit and the unit doctor saw to my leg for a few weeks. I was still excused duty and just had to be careful not to knock my leg and eventually the leg healed
We were now put on Intensive Mountain training, going up into the hills with our guns, shooting, training us for our next landing in Italy. A few weeks before Christmas 1943 we had to prepare for our move, we were told we would be shipped from Algiers to land at Taranto in Italy.
CHAPTER SIX — ITALIAN INTERLUDE.
We were loaded on to ships and taken across the Mediterranean and had a very pleasant landing in Taranto. I had my armoured car exchanged for an American half-track, that was armour-plated vehicle with two wheels at the front and tank track at the rear. I didn’t like it as well as my old armoured car because the top was open rather like a truck but it went O.K. and it shouldn’t get stuck
The Unit moved up the Adriatic coast of Italy past Bari and Barietta in support of our usual tank brigade, the Eighth Army outfit. The tanks were away out in front and the infantry up with the tanks. We cut inland from the Adriatic facing towards Selerno and Pompeii and from our position we could see our bombers coming over and dropping their bombs on a monastery on the top of a mountain
We were now in close contact with the enemy and the tanks were out in front. We were in action with our guns in many places, shooting well in front of the tanks and we kept moving forward in short distances. One position I remember we could see some of our tanks moving forward slowly and everything appeared to the quiet, then suddenly, bang, bang, bang and three of our tanks were hit and were on fire. But the enemy gunners were soon captured, they were Germans and they had put their 88 mm gun into the cellar of a farm building and knocked a hole through the wall for the gun barrel and were covering the valley.
We then came to a hillside where we were in action helping to clear the hill of the enemy. We could see one or two German fighter aircraft keep coming over and strafing away out in front of us. Then after getting over this high ground we finally got over the hill and looking down the other side found we were in amongst fruit trees and almond trees and the hedges were hanging with grapes.
Looking across the valley to the other side we could see some of our tanks spread out and at one place there were two tanks close together with a 3 ton truck between them and the tanks were being refuelled, when down came a German fighter plane and sprayed them with bullets and all three vehicles went up in flames and were lost.
After a few days we moved across towards the Adriatic and up through Foggia and pressed on and stopped in Pescara, where we occupied a church hall. We were told we would be staying here for Christmas.
Whilst we were here I was asked to take a 15cwt truck with an officer, who was a South African, and go down to Taranto and pick up some goodies for Christmas. We had to take our kit with us, as we would be away for the night. It was nighttime when we reached Taranto so the officer suggested that we take out the rotor arm from the distributor so no one could steal our vehicle. We went into a building and found a place to sleep for the night. The following morning we were up about 7-o’clock and after washing and cleaning up the officer went into the store and got all the supplies we needed and we loaded up the vehicle. Then he said he would replace the rotor arm, so I left him to do it but when I got into the driving seat and tried the engine, it would not start. So we lifted the bonnet and found that the rotor arm had broken, so now we had to find a new one. It took about two hours to get the new part and when we got it I told the officer to let me put it in, which I did and the engine started at the first touch. So we were on our way back to our unit all the way up the coast road.
The lads were all glad to see us back and we had a good Christmas. As soon as Christmas was over off we went again up the coast road to Ancona and here we received the news that Rome had fallen.
Another occasion I had to go to Taranto with ten other men to bring back 10 new 3-ton trucks to central Italy. On our return journey we were travelling in convoy following the officer who was in front and my vehicle was the last one. The officer chose to use an old Roman road, full of pot holes, so being the last one and knowing the coast road better, I decided to slip of the old roman road and travel on the coast road. I knew where the roman road came out on to the coast road.
I came to a diversion and when I had to turn off the coast road I got on to a road that led to the sea front, so had to turn round and go back a bit to another turning. Where I turned round I noticed there were two Italian men, but never gave them another thought. I drove fast along the coast road only stopping once at some traffic lights in one town and came to the junction where I could rejoin the old road. I stopped on the roadside a few hundred yards short of the end of the roman road with the intention of waiting for the convoy coming out.
I got out of my vehicle to have a look round and I noticed that the ropes on the back were undone. I looked in the back of the truck and had a shock. I had put my big pack and my bed in the back of the truck and every thing had been undone and all the good bits were stolen. I had scented soap, chocolate bars and razor blades, towels, under clothes and my best guard boots and out of my bed had been taken the two German flags, which I had taken from the dug out in the desert. This was a big loss to me and I felt so angry I would have shot the men had I seen them.
I reported the theft to the officer and he made a note of it and when we returned to our unit I got the army kit replaced. Then I had to start and polish up my boots again.
A few weeks went by then I was asked if I would like a six day leave in Rome and I said ‘Yes’. So along with five other lads we were taken in a 3-ton truck to Rome. We were allotted rations to take with us, tins of bully beef, fish, biscuits etc., but when we got there the NAAFI had got organised, so our food problem was solved. We were taken to a building where we could sleep and so we were settled. We never noticed any damage to property in Rome and everywhere looked nice and clean. I made friends with one of the six lads and we stuck together for the six days.
One day we walked to St.Peter’s Cathedral across the very large forecourt and up the flight of steps to the door. We removed our soldier’s caps and entered the church. Looking down the church, it was very large with rows of pews down each side and on the right hand side was Christ on the cross, a statue looking so real with his wounds bleeding. Further down the church on the same side was a statue of St. Peter, seated, carved out of marble. He had a long beard and a long gown and his feet were showing. The big toe on the most prominent foot was half worn away with people kissing it.
We stood beneath the dome of the church looking up at the whispering gallery and beyond, a tremendous height! After looking all around the church we went into the museum and saw where all the previous Popes’ gowns and jewellery were on display. The floors and walls were decorated in mosaic tiles making beautiful pictures.
We climbed the stairs to the whispering gallery and walked round and looked down into the church. Following this we came to the entrance to the stair way going round the dome. It was 5 ft wide and 6 ft high built in what looked like concrete and the sheer size made us wonder how such a dome had been made. At the top of the dome was a small room and in the middle of the room was an iron ladder and at the top of the ladder was a trap doorway. We both climbed up the ladder and now we were inside the bronze ball on the top of the church. Around the ball was a seat where ten or eleven men could sit. Cut in the sides of the ball were slits nine inches long and an inch wide and spaced a few feet apart. I looked through one of the slits and could see over the top of Rome. We were about 520 ft high.
Another day we went round the Arena, a great big building, built in the shape of a circle with one side built high up and made for seating for people and when you looked down from the top, you looked on to a lawn in the bottom where sports could be performed. There were places where people could speak to a large audience from special platforms.
Then we went round the Coliseum with its great big columns standing 80 or 90 ft high built from marble blocks and again we wondered how this place had been built. We even went up Mussolini’s Power House; it was a beautiful building with stone carvings of horses and chariots with men in them.
Our six days were soon over and we returned to our Unit where they had been, in the same place for a good few weeks. Shortly my unit moved back into action with our guns firing somewhere around Forli. We were just outside a little village called Folium-Popoli and were there for a few days. We were in a field where every tree was either fruit or nut trees and there were vines and olive trees.
We had a few light shells shot in our direction, which burst around us but no damage was done and no one hurt. One of these shells came over at a very inconvenient moment one day when I was having a ‘toilet’. We had to take a shovel and dig a hole and sit over it and I had done this, near a mulberry hedge, in a secluded place, when I heard the ‘pung’ of the gun and the ‘swish’ of the shell. I did a dive to the ground with my pants still down, the shell hit the ground about 150 yards away and when I got to my feet, my bottom was bleeding. The scratch was not from the shell but from a thorn on the mulberry bush!
Our next move was into the River Po valley to Ferrara. The Germans had destroyed the road bridge over the river and Royal Engineers had put a pontoon across the river, which was half a mile wide. The pontoons were fixed together and formed almost a half circle with the flow of the water. All our guns and support vehicles went over and we pressed on up through Padua and to Treuisio.
From here I had another six days leave in Venice with one of my army friends, Joe Goldman.
We stayed in the army NAAFI that was on a small island just off the coast from the town of Venice, so each day we had to take a gondola trip into the town and back. We went to St. Mark’s Cathedral and St. Mark’s square where we had to watch out for pigeon droppings!
The NAAFI was in what had been a Casino and the carpets, curtains and furniture were all left in place. This was luxury to us and we could get up when we wanted and lounge about in the easy chairs, so we had a good rest.
When our leave was over and we returned to our unit we moved on again but this time we did not see any fighting. We went up past Udine into the hills in the North of Italy but we found no enemy so we returned to a small village called Peseriarno about 3 miles west of Udine, which was a town like Keighley. In the village we stayed in a large farm with long buildings. We were taken up a flight of stairs into a long room, which became our barracks for a few months. At the end of this room was a wire netting ceiling onto which the farmer threw mulberry leaves, which fed silk worms, which produced cocoons of silk.
I got friendly with the farmer whose name was Luigi Masson and one evening I knocked at his door and his house was all in darkness. When he opened the door and told me to come in I noticed he had a set pot fire going and out of the top of the boiler came a pipe. About 6ft away was a large glass bottle; he was making gin or some spirit.
Another night I remember I knocked on his door and he called me in to his kitchen, which was all in darkness. He put on the light and what a shock! There was a rope of cockroaches; they were running along a nick in the ceiling, down the wall corner and into a hole by the skirting board. I just said to him “You have got plenty of company” and he said “Yes, but they don’t bother us”. On the outside of the building wherever the pointing was missing, every inch was filled with cockroaches.
Mr. Masson had a large orchard, line upon line of peach trees. For two cigarettes he would let me go and fill my black beret with fruit, they were very juicy.
All our guns and vehicles were now lined up in rows out in a field and the soldiers were put on guard duty looking after them, but I managed to get away for a while. My officer came to tell me that I have been chosen to go home on leave.
CHAPTER SEVEN — TWICE HOME.
My kit was packed, ready for the journey and next morning 11 of our chaps lined up and then got into a 3-ton wagon. It was a long way from Udine down the country to Naples and it took a few hours, but we didn’t mind the discomfort because we were going home.
In Naples we boarded the Ship ‘Franconia’ which was the sister ship to the one on which I had left Liverpool three years earlier. Our first stop was Valetta on the Island of Malta we had sailed down past the volcano Stromboli and through the Straits of Messina and after leaving Malta we didn’t see any more land until we pulled in to Gibraltar harbour where we only stayed for a few hours, and then through the Straits of Gibraltar and out into the Atlantic ocean.
When we got to Liverpool it was very thick with fog and we couldn’t see a thing from the ship. We docked and were put on a train, homeward bound, me for Leeds and then to Crosshills, where I then walked down to Sutton to the house in Mill Street, Mary’s mother’s home.
Mary wasn’t there and her mother told me that she had gone up to my sister Margaret’s at Whitley Head, my old home. Margaret was due to have a baby and Mary was looking after her and had just gone down into Steeton to do some shopping. I set off back down Whitley Head to meet her and we walked back the rest of the way together. This was our first meeting for three years and nine months.
Whilst I was at home the victory in Japan was declared, but my leave soon ended and it was time for me to return to Italy. I again sailed from Liverpool and docked in Naples and returned to my unit in the small village of Peseriarno, where things were just the same as when I had left. I only had to do about three months which was spent spit and polishing and doing guard duty then I had done my four years in the Middle East.
I got re-acquainted with the Italian farmer, Mr. Masson and when I had some time off he asked if I would like to go with him to Udine to a place where he took his silkworm cocoons where they were put through a freezer to kill the worms. So I went along with him and he took six baskets full of cocoons to a little mill. He reversed his vehicle into the warehouse where some men were working and they opened a large door of the fridge and piled the baskets inside. The job was done in an hour and the cocoons were taken out again and weighed and Mr. Masson was paid from the office and we returned to the farm.
The weeks soon passed and one day my officer came and told me that I was going home at the end of my four years and I had the choice of sailing or flying from Foggia and that would mean another journey by truck to Foggia. I decided to risk flying.
We were told that we wouldn’t be coming back so to pack up our kit with what we wanted to take, so I slept in my officers bed for the last time and left it behind. The next morning ten of us said ‘Cheerio’ to the lads, waved and set off in the 3-ton truck. We were a few hours travelling to Foggia to the airport, where a bomber was waiting with three airmen. We were told that we would be sitting on planks across the empty bomb bay. I asked if there were any parachutes, as I had never flown before. He said ‘No, if they had to come down he would have to make it a beach landing but he hadn’t been confronted with a crash landing. This was a four-engine bomber and could fly on two engines or even one if necessary, so he assured us that we had nothing to worry about.
We had to sit on the planks with our feet dangling down into the bomb bay and when we were on our way we were allowed to get up, two at a time, and go into the back of the plane into the rear gunner’s place to have a look out. The guns had been removed and round the gun pit or cockpit was a brass hand rail about 3’ 6” from the floor, so we had something to hold on to.
On one of the times that I was looking out I could see the shadow of the plane travelling over the ground and up over the mountains, so fast it made me realise the speed we were going. Then I got a bit of a scare. I just looked to one side and saw the tail fin going down and the plane tilted and I wondered what was happening until I realised the plane was turning.
We flew over Rome, across Corsica then Marseille and across France then Dunkirk and finally came in to land at Peterborough. I was watching through a little nick, as we came in to land and could see we were passing large trees at speed then the tyres screeched and we finally stopped.
The pilot asked us how we had enjoyed the flight. I thanked him and said how that the seats had been a bit hard, but I was thankful to be back in England but it had been my first flight and I thought it would be my last. And it was.
It was now evening and I was given a railway warrant for the train journey and taken by truck to the station. I got a train as far as Doncaster where I was stranded at about 1-0-clock in the morning. There wasn’t another train for Leeds until 6-o-clock so I went into a waiting room and lay on a seat until morning. I eventually got the train back to Leeds and another through to Crosshills and finally walked to Sutton.
I was only home for one month’s leave and had still to go back until my full time had finished. I enjoyed the break and it felt a burden having to go away yet again, especially as V.E. Day had been proclaimed.
I now went to London to the Woolwich Arsenal Royal Artillery Barracks. I was shown to a long upstairs room with plenty of beds but they were all empty. I was the only one in this room for the next 3 weeks and was truly fed up with the place. I had to report on the parade ground every morning at 8-0 a.m. where my name was called out. I always got well behind the crowd of soldiers because often the ones in front were detailed to do different jobs such as cleaning the toilets or wash places or sent to the cookhouse to peel spuds or wash the dirty dishes. The officers used to come out with suggestions such as could anyone ride a motor bike and then if you put up your hand you would be told to do one of the above jobs.
All the time I was there, I never went away, because I never knew when I might get called, and I was never more bored in all my army days.
One day I was called out on parade along with more chaps and told to pack my kit and return on to the barrack square. We were not told where we were going but put on to a train to Harwich. We were marched into Butlins holiday camp and were detailed two men to a chalet. I made a friend called John McKay and we were together for the rest of my army days. For three days we went for our meals either in the dining hall or the NAAFI. We were told we would be sailing about 7-30p.m on the third day so John McKay and I filled up on sausage and chips, bread and butter and tea, ready for the crossing.
We faced an eight-hour sail to the Hook of Holland so we decided to get into our hammocks and get some sleep. Two hours later we were both out of bed and vomiting our guts out hanging on to the brass handles each side of the toilet. I felt so bad I wouldn’t have cared if the ship had gone down. When we docked, we both were as right as rain and went into the NAAFI and had another meal!
After a two-hour wait we boarded a train for Belgium and went to a town called Machelen, where we would be for a week before moving on. The novelty here was the street toilets with 2’6” doors and a hole in the ground, when we used them we had to do a gymnastic manoeuvre to get in the correct position. The next day, one of the lads had the brain wave of taking a wooden box with a hole cut in the middle and placing it over hole in the toilet, and stood it on the foot pads, so he could sit down.
The trams were running everywhere so we had chance to visit Brussels and Antwerp from Machelen. At the weekend four of us including my friend went by train and truck to a Bad Nendorf just outside Hanover in Germany. It was only a small village and had been a prisoner of war camp and it was barb-wired all round with only one main gate. McKay and I were taken to the Motor Transport section where we saw the M.T. officer and N.C.O.’s.
Next day I was detailed to take a 15-cwt truck to Hanover station to pick up some parcels and on my way back I missed a turning to Bad Nendorf. I went a further 10 miles on the road and came to another village where there were some of our troops. I was directed to a turning about eight miles back, which I had missed, I never missed that turning again.
My next job was to take an officer to Celle about 35 miles the other side of Hanover. I did this journey quite a number of times during my stay there. McKay and I were living and sleeping in the bedroom of a large house; all the houses had been taken over by the Army. We ate at a central cookhouse and when we had no driving to do we just spent our time in our room where we could be found if anyone wanted us. There was a fireplace in the bedroom so we could collect coal from a coal stack and collect wood wherever we could find it either the canteen or the garage. At suppertime we were only allowed to have a cup of cocoa, so at teatime we picked up a couple of extra slices of bread and made toast on our fire to eat with our cocoa.
Two other long journeys I made from Hanover were to Luneburg, about 80 miles where my officer had to go and the other to the border of Austria to take two officers and two A.T.S.officers to a place called Bad Harzsburg. It took a day to get there and another to get back.
I had to take around a Jewish Interrogation officer who used to interview prisoners of war. One day I had to take him and an A.T.S.officer to Frankfurt and it was winter and there had been some snow. On one place on the Auto-bahn one of the bridges had been blown up and the Royal Engineers had put up a bailey bridge. I drove down a long sloping hill and could see the bridge, but didn’t expect the ice. I could not stop and I skidded up the ramp and came to stop on the middle of the bridge with the front of the vehicle about 3 feet from another vehicle coming in the opposite direction. I reversed off the bridge and let the other vehicle come over then on our way we went. The drop from the bridge was 60 or 70 feet, so I was glad the incident had been no worse.
When we arrived at Frankfurt we pulled into a U.S. army camp and the officer told me to stick around until he called me the next day, when we would be going back. A U.S. Soldier showed me where I could sleep and eat and I was well treated and had good food. After breakfast the following morning I packed my bed in my vehicle and I stood by waiting to meet my officer. When he did turn up I saluted and said ‘Good morning’ and he then asked where I had been last night, because he hadn’t been able to find me. So I told him that I had only been where I was shown to stay and suggested that he hadn’t looked so far. He then said ‘Consider yourself on a Charge’. He said he had wanted to take the car into Frankfurt that night but I told him that he had no right to do that anyway as the car was on charge to me.
On the way back after a good few miles driving, this officer told me he wanted to take over the driving. I told him he had no right to do that but he said ‘I’ll drive and that’s an order’. So he took over and when we came to a bad patch of road with some very deep potholes, he drove over it like a mad man.
We pulled in at another Army camp at dinnertime and I was told to get my dinner so I went into the Ordinary Ranks dining hall. I returned to my vehicle after my meal to wait for my officers and decided to have a look round it to check things out. I discovered that one of the rear springs was broken. I told my officer about the spring and that it had happened because of the way he had driven over the potholes, so he told me I had better drive the rest of the way.
When we got back I asked to see my M.T. officer and told him what the Jewish officer had done with my vehicle and that he had put me on a charge. He told me to forget the Charge and he would ‘Fix that chap’. I never heard any more about it.
One day when McKay and I were walking along the road in our enclosure and talking, a young officer was coming along on the other side of the road and he shouted, “Don’t you two salute officers?” So we both put our hands up to our heads. I just said to McKay “That young man has seen no war!!”
I had been out in Germany for six months and was now waiting to hear that I would be de-mobbed. I was eventually told to report to the medical officer where they tested my urine and my eyes. They fit me up with glasses and I was told to report to my own doctor when I got home.
Next day McKay and me and four or five other chaps were taken to the station in Hanover and we were soon on our way towards home. We left Hanover early in the morning and went through to Calais in France where we were put on a flat-bottomed barge with long seats, like park benches bolted on to the deck. We just sat on these seats with our kit beside us and the sea was just like a looking glass, so smooth. We landed at Dover where we went to a building to be fit up with civilian clothing, suit, shirt, tie, socks and shoes with a case to put everything in.
Now I am hoping that I am on my way for the last time to my home and finished with the army.
By this time Mary and Barbara were back in our own house,so I went straight home. It was June 1946 and so nice to be back home and the war years behind me.
There was a Home-Coming party at Mary’s mother’s at Mill Street when everyone who had been in the forces came home and my brother in law, Edward baked a cake and iced it and decorated it with badges made out of icing sugar, to represent all the regiments we had been in for the Army, Air force and Land-Army.
Here I was now at home with three month’s Army Pay and I had now to get reinstated in my business. I had been paying for a plot of land at Cononley to be reserved with the hope of putting a building on the land but I found that the land had been taken over by Skipton Council for house building. So I had to look for somewhere else to re-start in my cobbling business. The property I found had a house attached and I had to buy both and had many weeks of hard work ahead renovating the property and starting over.
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