Herbert Price, taken in England in early 1942 before embarkation for North Africa
- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Herbert Price
- Location of story:
- North Africa and Italy
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 16 March 2005
This is the story told to me by my father, Herbert Price. He was born on 22nd June 1922 in the village of Chase Terrace in south Staffordshire. At the age of three he had a bad case of measles and lost one eye as a result. When he left school at the age of 14 he was unable to get any job where he was required to pass a medical, so he could not follow his father and brother into work at the local colliery. He got work instead as a window cleaner. When the war started he first became a member of the local Home Guard and on 23rd October 1941, at the age of 19, he received his call up papers for the army. His army number was 292813. The army medical assessed him as A4 for physical fitness and he was given the option of being a cook or working in stores. He chose to be a cook and joined the Royal Army Service Corps.
He did his basic military training at Bulford on Salisbury Plain. After this he was included in a draft of men for the Far East and went to Woking to await embarkation. He stayed there until May 1942, when there was a change of plan and he was put in a draft of men for Egypt. They sailed from Glasgow on the SS Oraanje, a former New Zealand banana boat, in July 1942. This was Herbert’s first time out of the country and he and many others were very seasick at first. They stopped off at Freetown in Liberia for three days, and then at Cape Town for three days. Herbert was really impressed with the spectacular views of Table Mountain as they came into the harbour. They finally arrived in Port Suez on 18th September 1942.
They were sent to the Canal Zone. The El Alamein campaign was starting and Herbert might have been sent into that zone, but he caught diptheria. There was a big epidemic of this among the forces in North Africa at the time, where medical casualties were almost as big a problem as military ones. Herbert was in hospital until Christmas Eve of 1942. He spent Christmas day at a convalescent camp by the Suez Canal, at a place where there was a railway crossing on a swing bridge across the canal. He was then sent to recuperate at El Arish. In February 1943 he was sent back to the Canal Zone. There he responded to a notice asking for people with regimental cook experience to go on a course and join the newly formed Army Catering Corps. Six weeks later he was posted to a Royal Engineers’ work company and went all over Egypt with them.
In June 1943 he was sent to El Amariya, a place just outside Alexandria used as a forming place for troops who were being sent into the desert. Three weeks later he was put on a boat for Syracuse in Sicily. Almost as soon as he got there he contracted enteric fever and was evacuated on the SS Llandovery Castle to Tripoli in Libya, where he spent a month in hospital. After recovering, he was in a big camp outside Tripoli where men were forming to be sent on to Salerno. There was a roll call of all the cooks in the camp — there were 40 of them. They were called on to provide a feeding station for men so that they could have a last meal before they embarked for Salerno. They had no kitchen equipment so they went to the dump and found some 45 gallon oil drums which they split in half using wire-cutters and chisels. They steamed the half drums clean and set up their kitchen by arranging the drums in a row on a raised platform. The platform was made using old petrol cans filled with sand. They poured diesel oil and water under the drums and lit it to provide fire for cooking — this gave out lots of heat and smoke. The meal they cooked using this makeshift equipment was a stew made with fresh Argentinian beef (the first fresh meat Herbert had seen since leaving England) and tinned vegetables. For afters they made a rice pudding. Each man also had a pint of tea. The tea was made in six gallon containers to which tea, water and sugar were added and kept warm. Evaporated milk was added as it was poured for each man. The feeding station fed a constant stream of hundreds of men over the days. The cooks started their day at 5 o’clock in the morning and worked steadily throughout the day. They served officers and men alike.
After this, Herbert was sent to a transit camp in Tripoli and from there he embarked in an LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) for Syracuse again. Conditions were very cramped and the voyage took three days. Once in Sicily and then Italy, Herbert moved to various camps where the unit always wanted to keep him, as cooks were much in demand. He went to Taranto and then Bari. In September 1943 in Bari he was assigned as cook to the Allied Military Government. This was the military unit responsible for taking over the government of Italian towns on the Allies’ progress through Italy and its OC was future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Shortly after this Herbert went down with jaundice and was sent back to Sicily to recover. Once better, he spent a month in the Sergeants’ Mess in Nola, just outside Naples, with a good view of Vesuvius. Back with the Allied Military Government, after the fall of Cassino, he was put in a lorry and taken to Rome, where he arrived on 7th June 1944, 3 days after the Allies had liberated the city. He was billeted at a hotel near Rome’s Stazione Centrale called the Albergo Genova.
In July 1944 he was sent to work at the Villa Gemma in Fregene. Fregene lies about 30 kilometres from Rome, on the coast. It was set in cool pine woods and many rich Romans had had holiday villas there before the war, which now lay empty. The Villa Gemma had been set up as a rest house for other ranks on their days off. The commanding officer at the Villa Gemma was Captain Scully. Herbert has fond memories of Captain Scully as a kind and decent officer. It was said that the worst punishment the Captain could give a man who had misbehaved was to assign him to another unit. Captain Scully gathered up spare stores in a lorry and drove into the Italian countryside exchanging the stores for live turkeys. One of Herbert’s duties at the Villa Gemma was to feed and look after the turkeys until Christmas when they were shared out between all the local units for their Christmas dinner.
Herbert got friendly with the local Italians. He had been learning Italian on his progress up from Sicily and now his language skills were much in demand from British soldiers who had Italian girlfriends. He enjoyed going to impromptu local dances in the empty villas where all that was needed were a few candles and a man with an accordion. One day when visiting some of his Italian friends in the village he saw a young woman leaving her house and said to her neighbour Maria that she was a good looking girl. Maria replied that Anna Checchini was due to be married in a few months. Not long afterwards, Herbert heard that Anna had broken off her engagement and he saw his chance. He was introduced to Anna, they started seeing each other and fell in love. After six months, Herbert applied to Captain Scully for permission to marry Anna. The Captain said he would give his permission, but army rules said that Herbert would have to be assigned to another duty away from Fregene, to provide a cooling off period. Herbert was sent back to Rome to work in a Sergeants’ Mess. But it was not far enough. Once a week on his day off, Herbert would borrow a bicycle from the NAAFI bicycle pool and bike the 30 kilometres to Fregene to spend a few hours with Anna. Eventually Captain Scully gave Herbert a wedding date — 11th May 1946. They were married at the only Church of England church in Rome - All Saints Church near the Spanish Steps. Anna’s priest had reluctantly given her permission to marry outside the Catholic church. Nearly fifty-nine years later, they are still together and Herbert says it was the best day’s work he ever did.
They honeymooned in Aquila for a week and then Anna was quartered in the Albergo Imperiale on the Via Veneto in Rome. In June 1946 Herbert was sent back to England by train. He arranged, at a cost of £25 — an enormous sum for him at the time - for the RAF to fly Anna over to England shortly afterwards. Herbert was demobbed in York on 4th October 1946. Back in Staffordshire, he eventually got a job with the National Coal Board, for whom he worked for thirty-seven years. He and Anna have a son and two daughters and six grandchildren.
All our lives my sister, brother and I have heard these and many other tales of our parents’ wartime experiences and we are pleased to be able to record them and share them in this way.
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