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The Lighter Side of War - CHAPTER 15a: Algeria: Blida to Constantine to Medjez el Bab Tug Wilson's diving lesson

by actiondesksheffield

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Reg Reid, Tug Wilson, Fred Alexander, Major Dodds, Tug Wilson, Brotherstone, Lieutenant Baker, Warhurst, Powell
Location of story: 
Blida, Constantine, Medjez el Bab, Algeria
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
24 June 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Reg Reid, and has been added to the site with the authors permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

The Lighter Side of War

Don Alexander

CHAPTER 15a: Algeria: Blida to Constantine to Medjez el Bab Tug Wilson's diving lesson

133 Company were on the move again, without their lorries. They couldn't wait and would have to collect them as and when they arrived in port. They were moving nearer the front - to Constantine in fact, up in the mountains, by rail from Blida. The little train chugged up steep gradients and round inclines. Butch and a few of the other lads jumped off, it was going so slowly. They were standing anyway on the train, if not sitting on uncomfortable wooden slatted seats. They jumped off and walked up the hill and beat it to the mountain resort. They got on again at the station to retrieve their kitbags and rifles.

(My father Fred Alexander travelled with the RAF Regiment in cattle trucks, on this same line to Constantine, so we can't say the RAF always got priority treatment, though the passenger trains were little different from the cattle trucks).

Constantine was bracing and cold. Fortunately the two lorries and two pickups that had landed with them from the Strathmore, had brought all the blankets that they had needed in the flour mill at Blida. It was Sod's law that as soon as they reached Constantine, news reached them of the arrival of ships carrying their lorries, so drivers were immediately packed into the two lorries and pickups, plus American trucks borrowed for the occasion, to fetch them up into the mountains. There were about fifty of their vehicles on a ship in Algiers, and a further fifty or so on a ship further back in Oran. They were mainly 3 ton lorries -about seventy-five of them - plus workshop's repair/breakdown lorries and assorted pick ups and Jeeps, as well as Austins; even a Humber car for Major Dodds.

They spent a few nights in the resort, sleeping in the back of the lorries, awaiting further movement orders. Then they were on the move again down the steep, rough mountain road to a little town called Medjez el Bab which overlooked the holy city of Kerouan and Sousse to the east and Tunis to the north east.

Butch was sitting in the cab of a Bedford 3 tonner next to driver Tug Wilson. They were at the tail end of the convoy, Butch's box of tools and boxes of army rations secured in the back.
Tug was the baby of the platoon, only seventeen years old, a recent, army trained driver. He marvelled at the mountains and the road winding ever down, replete with the hundred or so vehicles of 133 Company. He took deep breaths and shouted above the roar of the engines,
"What a wonderful sight. If only my mother could see this!!" "Ne'er mind thi mother. Keep thi eyes on'rooad."

Butch could relapse into Sheffield dialect because Tug was a Barnsley lad. His hobbies he listed as liggin' and laikin', and now driving. Ligging in bed, laiking at football and now driving the Bedford 3 tonner.

("Laikin'", Barnsley slang for playing or skiving.)

With all due respect to the army though, as we've pointed out before, army trained lads weren't as good as civvy trained. Tug had been told that civvy trained `old sods' like Brotherstone, got double the miles per gallon as he did; he took this to heart and jerked the lorry into neutral to save petrol! Butch clung to the bench as they freewheeled steeply down the rough road with its constant hair-pin bends.

Fortunately Brotherstone, driving the lorry in front of them, had seen, through his rear view mirror, Tug's lorry jerked as the lad put it into neutral, so he slowed right down until they touched bumper to bumper. After about a mile of this, Tug realised he should be in first gear. He turned to Butch,
"Why didn't tha warn me?"
"Because I wanted thee to learn summat."

Tug later thanked Brotherstone for being concerned for him and Brothers explained he was more concerned about the army rations in Tug's lorry!

Medjez-el-Bab - Butch commandeers a Mercedes.

They had now left Algeria and reached this little town in Tunisia, which was a heaving mass of military build up and activity in late 1942, early 1943. There were British, Empire and Commonwealth fighting troops there, French and American troops nearby, as well as RASC 133 Company with Butch Reid and the RAF Regiment with Fred Alexander. (Fred and the "mob" had arrived via RAF landing strips and stops at Souk Ahras, Setif, Lekef, Duvivier, Souk-elArba, Souk-el-Khemis, to Beja.)

Medjez-el-Bab remained 133's base for a few months, or was it just a few weeks? Events were moving so fast it's hard to judge sixty years later. They were billeted in an abandoned French farm which had extensive outbuildings and a huge yard for many of the lorries.

Monty's 8th Army had swept the German and Italian armies westwards and at the end of January 1943 took Tripoli, the Libyan port, that was receiving supplies for the Wehrmacht. Rommel retreated into Tunisia, establishing the "Mareth Line" at the south of the country bordering Libya, while fellow German General Von Arnin organised defensive positions around the port of Bizerta and Tunis itself, as Lieutenant Baker had suggested, they might do in his lecture. (Not such a daft lad was he!)

The headlong retreat of the axis forces led to the capture of a hundred thousand troops, German and Italian, who were shepherded into makeshift prison camps, surrounded by rolls of barbed wire. One such camp was at Medjez-el-Bab.

Thus it was that Butch was on a desert road in a pick-up, with his box of tools, repairing a lorry, when he saw a long cloud of dust approaching in the sand. His inquisitiveness turned to alarm when he made out streams of enemy troops, Italians in fact, walking in their hundreds - it must have been a whole brigade at least - a few in cars and lorries, raising a cloud of dust as they approached. Alarm turned to astonishment when he saw they had their hands raised to give themselves up.

Butch had his pistol, which he fingered nervously, then put it down and just waved them on. Then, what's this?! An old Mercedes driven by an Italian officer with higher ranking officers in the passenger seats, plumes in their hats, passed slowly by.
Private R.W. Reid put his hand up for them to stop and ordered them out, pointing towards the town, "Medjez-el-Bab - Con il piede. By foot, that way!" How are the mighty fallen? To the victor, the spoils! - it was exhilarating. He was acting on his own initiative in the absence of his immediate superior, as Lieutenant Baker had advised. He let the stream of Italians thin out, finished his repair and then left the lorry and his pick-up on the side of the desert road to go for a spin, deeper into the desert with the Merc. He swept round in a big arc, passing the odd camel train and the frequent British, French or American lorries, remembering to drive half off the road when passing.

Most of the roads were too narrow for two vehicles to pass and it was polite therefore to pass half on, half off the carriageway. Driver Warhurst ignored this unwritten rule of the desert roads and had driven in the middle of the carriageway, forcing others coming towards him off the road, until he was taught an expensive lesson by an American soldier with truck and trailer.

The Yank didn't give way until the last moment, then he lurched his Dodge truck to one side and the trailer whiplashed and crashed into Warhurst's Bedford.

This finished Warhurst's career as a driver.

Cautionary tale over, now back to Butch and the Mercedes. He drove into Medjez-el-Bab admiring the Arabic and French colonial architecture, mainly a blinding white with black velvety shadows. What with palm trees, camels, prewar French cars, Arabs in flowing robes, it was so exotic, so foreign. He's seen nowt like it! He slowed down for a team of donkeys led by a lad with a stick.

Less exotic and foreign, were six artillery officers who saw Butch, flagged him down, ordered him out, and commandeered his car.

One muttered "Bloody private".

Butch muttered "Bloody thieving artillery".

Still, he'd had it an hour or so. Easy come, easy go.

He got Brotherstone and Powell to take him from the camp to retrieve the lorry and the pick-up.


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