- Contributed by
- CSV Solent
- People in story:
- Bill Clarke
- Location of story:
- North Africa, Scicily, the UK and France
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 July 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by John on behalf of Bill Clarke and has been added to the site with his permission. Bill fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
Talk with Bill CLARKE — 11 Jun 05
Bill was visiting us from the USA on a Parish Visit. I discovered that he had been involved in WW2 and gathered some of his memories. He had got an engineering degree before the start of the war and had a commission in the US 2nd Field Artillery. He was stationed @ Fort SILL in Oklahoma for three months at the ‘School of Fire ’or ‘the 90 Day Wonders’ as he called it! It was here that he decided he might even become a regular officer especially as it meant that he would then be able to select the unit he would join.
He chose the US Regular Army 9th Infantry Division, was sent to the 9th US Infantry Division Artillery and first assigned to the 34th Field Artillery Battalion as a forward observer. The division was already on its way to the port of embarkation and he joined it about 15 Sep 1942 in Fort Bragg, California. They embarked @ Fort Dix, New Jersey, and he was with the 34th Field Artillery as a forward observer under Lt Col C Westmoreland. (Westmoreland was later Supreme Commander in Vietnam and was ‘one of the best soldiers he had ever served under — he was a ‘mean bitch’ as well’.)
He was then made ‘Survey & Recon’ Officer, ‘assistant S-Z’ because he had an engineering degree & ‘Land Surveyors Instruments’ as he had done surveying at school. At this point he was embarked in a ship and sailed for North Africa as part of Operation Torch. Some landings had already been made by the time he got there - north of Casablanca and at Algiers. From Casablanca the Infantry Regiments were scattered around Algeria and Morocco.
The divisions 3 infantry regiments had landed at far distant points as Reinforced Combat Teams — that is, an infantry regiment with its regularly supporting 105mm. howitzer battalion. Early in 1943 the four battalions of the Division Artillery were pulled together in an Algerian resort villa in Tlemscen. Within about 12 hours, and with no idea where our infantry was, we were ordered to force march to Tunisia. We went about three days and nights, about 750 miles. The weather was so bad that we were getting carburettor ice in some of the vehicles. We took turns lying down on the fenders of every ¾-ton Dodge truck squirting new gasoline into the air intake!
How long were you in N Africa?.
I was in N Africa from July 43 for about 7 months after which we sailed for Sicily in July 44 from Bizerta, Tunisia. There was a major operation going on in Tunisia with a thrust into the rear of the Africa Corps from the rear as well as from north and west. The main effort was from west to east to Tunisia but the Tunisia campaign ended at Bizerta. Next two months spent back in Algeria, south of Sidi Bel Abis (south of Oran) the traditional home of the French Foreign Legion — this was very interesting with the barracks and all the Foreign Legion ‘heroes’, French Russians etc.! They re-equipped the French Foreign Legion with US style outfits and US rifles, mortars etc.
They then route marched to Bizerta in preparation for the Sicilian landings. The Luftwaffe found them in Bizerta harbour, although at that time he was out in the fields so he was OK! It was noticed that the Luftwaffe were trying to ‘preserve’ as many aircraft as possible. He saw the last operational Stuka get shot down in 1943 — by a 50-calibre gun mounted on the back of a pick-up truck!
They also managed to shoot down a British spitfire! The pilot parachuted to safety and is reputed to have said ‘I say, you Yanks are jolly quick on the trigger!’
They landed at La Carra virtually unopposed but when they moved up the road they met some fairly stiff opposition from some of Mussolini’s Blackshirts. Many Sicilians had been in the USA working on the railroads. Bill had worked on the Della la Wacko railroad and met three Sicilians who had worked on the railroads and then come home to Italy.
They moved on through Sicily towards Palermo. The artillery was not being seriously employed as they then moved on towards Messina but, before they got there, the shooting stopped. Then they came across some troops who gave the ‘piece sign’ these turned out to be Canadians from the 1st Canadian Division. They then found themselves on a shoulder of the north coast of Sicily with an Artillery Command Post by the beach near Mount Etna; they also found pecan nuts growing nearby!
Their CO - General Erwin - had been relieved at the end of the African Campaign and Gen ‘Hooks’ Howell took over. He built a pavilion and, as he was a bridge player, he used to beat the junior officers by cheating! Bill loved Erwin but said the ‘that son of a bitch was a b……d)! September & October were very warm and it was possible to walk down to the beach for a bathe. All was fine until ‘someone’ sank a submarine and then anyone who swam would come out of the water covered in oil! At this point they were standing by to go into Italy after the landings at Casino (?)
Then they were stood down and he went to Palermo and, after the usual P & V stuff and checking gas masks etc, they boarded a ship 11 Nov 1943 (Armistice Day). It was a ‘makeshift’ transport on which they had two meals a day. The cabin had 6/7 other junior officers and there was a saloon right next door with ‘wings’ before colours and the only sound was aero-engines of the ‘Red Baron’ diving down on them!
United Kingdom to Omaha Beach
They sailed west from Sicily, not stopping as they passed Gibraltar, although they did see lights as they went through the Straight of Gibraltar, until they reached and landed at Liverpool. However they did have movies all the way! Having landed they got a train and travelled overnight down to Barton Stacey via Winchester — it was at night again. The next day was the next to, or last, Thursday of November and was Thanksgiving Day.
They were now under Col WC Westmoreland, the youngest Major General in the US Army, and, in addition to 4 x 105 and 1 x 155 Artillery Battalions, there were some 1917 variant Snider guns — these were boreshot weapons and you couldn’t fire more than 1100yds with them! They got the M1 & M55 weapons later! They had a practice shoot with these under their Master Gunner at Sennibridge. They put in firm control data and the 155 guns should have had a range of @ 20,000 yds. However, having given the ‘fire’ command, and with the other guns following with their rounds, and with the response ‘No1 on the way’ and knowing the time of flight they looked for the first ‘burst’ or the ‘lost over’ or ‘lost short’ shout. In reality the shells had gone over the ‘limit line’ of the range and caused a passing UK despatch rider to jump for his life! The shells also killed a steer or cow. It was discovered that the Chief of Section on No 1 gun had put in the ‘gunner’s quadrant’ the wrong way round so that when using it the range had registered as 630 instead of 360 yards! (The Chief of Section is the Sergeant in charge who reads the ‘gunner quadrant’ whilst the gunner is a Corporal).
On 7th March they went from London to Stranrair via Belfast and onto a railway to go to Newcastle in County Down. They were put up at the Tymore Castle where the owner had been the ‘skipper’ of a destroyer who was renown for continuously getting his ships sunk from underneath him! He has memories of aircraft, torpedoes and the ‘Wavy Navy’, and two cute little children aged about 7 or 8 with a little dog. The Sleave Donnal Hotel was the place to have tea, and it was here that they carried out a heavy training programme of firing onto the artillery down. He also remembers that the local Parish Priest was a bit of a ‘problem’ as he objected to finding durex packages!
On VE Day itself the Division moved to Belfast and started loading onto ships - once on board they weren’t allowed ashore. One guy had made his girl friend pregnant and went to marry her. Bill Clarke was one of the officers and drove the husband to be to the wedding in a Daimler Benz — this meant driving a car with the wheel on the wrong side, also he hadn’t driven for two years. So with the wheel on the wrong side, an MP and the Bridegroom he then had to find the church. He got there and then back to the ship where it then sailed. The harbour was all under the control of the WRNS who ‘ran a tight ship’ but as the US Army ship sailed past the WRNS lady controller shouted ‘Good Luck Boys’.
Off Omaha Red Beach they found that the ‘front’ was about 2000 yards from the water’s edge and beside the Control Point and forward observers there were a stack of German bodies. The people were registering the casualties were black troops of the US Army. Gen Eddie had been Cdr. 9th Division but was invalided at this point because of high blood pressure, and relieved by Mjr General Stafford Leroy IRWIN (who had been in the Class of 16 @ the Academy — the same as Eisenhower.)
They relieved the 2nd Infantry Division and had an UK Division on the right or left flank and ‘squeezed them out onto a narrow front’. It was here that they all learned about ‘hedge cutters’ which were wires stretched across the roads at neck height. Consequently they fitted bits of angle iron to the jeeps etc and sheer prows and on the Sherman tanks were fitted with a ‘plough shear’ to cut through hedging. This was leading up to the tactical manoeuvring prior to the St Lo offensive prior to breaking out of the Caraton Peninsula at Omaha Red and other beaches.
The first concentrated break out was at St Lo with the 5th Div leading the attack; the sky was full of B17s bombing the hell out of that place in very close formation. The Germans were encircled at the Valais gap although some got a way and went down the coast to Mon St Michael.
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