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The Lighter Side of War - CHAPTER 18a: Sousse by the Sea - July 1943

by actiondesksheffield

Contributed by 
actiondesksheffield
People in story: 
Reg Reid, Driver-mechanic Harold Rumsey-Williams, Cheeseborough
Location of story: 
Sousse
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A4283912
Contributed on: 
27 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

By
Don Alexander

CHAPTER 18a: Sousse by the Sea - July 1943

Beaches of find sand, turquoise sea, the Pearl of the Sahel. The war damage of 1943 long since built over, and grandiose white tourist hotels built, strung along the coast to the north of the city.

That's how it is in the 21st century. Back in the 20th century in July 1943 the lads were glad to leave their bivouacs in the Holy City and head for the coast. They were billeted in abandoned police barracks in the old city with its fascinating history. It was early July 1943 and the invasion of Sicily, agreed by Rooseveldt and Churchill in Casablanca, was about to be launched. 133 Company didn't know when, or even if, they would follow the infantry and artillery into this new theatre of war.

Driver-mechanic Harold Rumsey-Williams of Potters Bar had a keen love of history, which rubbed off on the other lads. And what a history had the old city of Sousse, now `snided' with British and Commonwealth troops!

It was founded by Phoenicians in the 9th century B.C. and entered the sphere of influence of Carthage in the 4th century B.C. (Carthage is now a suburb of Tunis). During the second Punic - Roman war Hannibal used Sousse as his base - yes, the man himself, Hannibal who famously led his troops and elephants over the Alps to surprise the Romans.

He was beaten in Sousse in 202 BC and during the 3rd Punic - Roman war Sousse switched allegiance to Rome, avoiding destruction and gaining the status of free town and the Latin name of Hadrumetum. A resounding name!

Unfortunately with the victory of Caesar over Pompeii just down the coast Sousse found itself on the wrong side and Caesar imposed heavy taxes. Under the Roman Diocletian (AD 284-305) Sousse became the capital of the new province of Byzacium and was home to a flourishing Christian community, hence the catacombs containing up to 15,000 tombs.
Under the Vandals it was renamed Hunericopolis, and under the Byzantines Justianopolis.
The Arabs invaded in the 7th century and destroyed it but it eventually prospered again as the port for Kairouan. Muslim armies invading Sicily embarked from Sousse. In the 12th century the Normans, who had conquered Sicily in 1066 AD - the very year they conquered England - invaded North Africa and took Sousse.

All fascinating stuff. The invading Normans in the 12th century, the Spanish in the 16th and the French in the 19th however didn't destroy the medieval Medina in Sousse. Its old walls were first built in 859 AD and contained a Kasbah, a Grand Mosque, a Great Mosque, the Ribat Fort built in the 9th century against marauding Christians, and Souqs -including Souq el Reba, specialising in fabrics and, in 1943, thanks to Butch, in army blankets.

A lot of the blankets needed in the cold corn mill in winter at Blida, and still in winter at Constantine in the mountains when they slept in the backs of their lorries, and at Medjez in the foothills, and even when bivouacked at Kairouan, were now superfluous to requirements and were stacked in a lorry for disposal. Butch thought the best means of disposal would be Sousse market so, on a day off duty, he drove there, stacked some on a chair brought from the barracks, and started haggling happily with the locals. Sales were brisk and when the pile on the chair had gone he replenished it from the lorry nearby. He thought of home, selling pottery on Bakewell market with his father. After Sousse, selling on Sheffield or Bakewell markets would be a doddle.

He thought of Hathersage, near Sheffield, in the Peak, final resting place of Little John, he of Sherwood Forest fame, once home of a needle industry to rival Redditch's, home of the Eyre family, source of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Why did he think of Hathersage? Why the train of thought? Because a bloke, briefly spotted through hanging fabrics browsing on a nearby stall, looked like Captain Craig, the Hathersage bloke in the 39th Ack-Ack RASC in 1939, when they were supplying guns and searchlight units from their Newark base. It's funny how an Arabic face with dark colouring and a little smile on his face could look so much like a British face like Craigy's. "Christ, it is Craigy's with a sun tan, tha's done it now Reidy!" Butch kept his eyes on an old Arab fingering one of the blankets, not daring to look directly at Captain Craig, who passed by, still with a slight smile on his face.
Phew! Carry on selling! Carry on selling!

At the end of the day he pocketed a nice wad of Tunisian bank notes. It crossed his mind he could pay for drinks for the whole platoon, but quickly dismissed the idea. He shunned the demon drink , or tried to most of the time. He'd once seen a lad from Worskhops, blind drunk, headbutting a stone wall to show how tough he was.

Wheeler, ever helpful, joked that Butch could pay for the whole platoon to have sex with Ack Ack Annie.

The forward troops had moved on to victory, abandoning an ack-ack post near Sousse - abandoned, that is, except for a solitary Arab prostitute, christened Ack Ack Annie by the lads. She must have had some custom to stay the pace, though she was said to have a face like a sergeant major's! Her fellow workers in what is called in these enlightened days `the sex industry' had moved on along with the troops, whether German, British, Indian, American, French or whatever.

Wheeler's remark was prompted by his foray to the ack ack site with Petty when lust overcame their common sense. They drove up in an officer's jeep, had their wicked way with Annie, then offered to pay her with two tins of corned beef. She took these and hurled them in quick succession through their windscreen!

The money docked off their pay to repair this would have paid for several sessions with her. Butch didn't smoke either and sold his ration, determined that his only vice would be making money and at the army's expense! He said to himself, "I'm going to get through this bloody war and keep these good friends" (in `A' platoon) but no booze, fags, loose women, no disease.

With these virtuous thoughts he fell asleep to the rhythm of `A' platoon's snores in the police barracks, and woke up with an abscess on his left arm. Fate had dealt him a little blow, but being lucky Butch Reid, he used this little setback to gain a little advantage. He came out of the Medical Unit, left arm in a sling and, being excused driving and maintenance duties, walked in to Sousse's walled Medina, the fascinating old town teeming with life and history. He strolled along and a French family strolled alongside him so far as this was possible in the narrow streets. Butch bade them `bonjour', the family, Maman, Papa, un flls, une jeune fille, were keen to be friendly with this young Tommy, obviously battle hardened and wounded in the recent battle. "Tommy, bataille?" the father asked, with a nod of the head towards Butch's arm in the sling. "Cartouche?" "Oui," Butch replied.

He didn't know the word cartouche but he knew bataille. He saw the young daughter's bosom swell at the thought of what the handsome young Briton had been through, at least that's what he thought she thought!

Advice in the Services booklet on France and its colonies issued to the troops: `Address French and French Arabians as Monsieur, Madame, Mademoiselle, not just, “Oi you!”
Then Butch's knowledge of French phrases picked up from the same booklet burst forth! "Voulez vous promenader avec moi, mademoiselle?"

She agreed with a demure smile and he led her to the market for a tea, she asking him questions in French with the occasional English word, he replying in English, with the occasional French word, guessing what she had said. She was lovely, the way she moved was so graceful, the way she pursed her lips as she spoke, her startling blue eyes as she leaned towards him, elbows on the table, and the stream of French as she addressed her brother who was glowering a few yards away.

He was acting as her chaperone and she eventually excused herself, gave Butch a `thank you and goodbye' kiss and was gone. "Well," he reasoned, "she's only a young lass, can't be more than seventeen or eighteen and I'm a mature twenty-four year old. I'd be cradle-snatching." She was sweet though.

Sousse: Butch joins workshops platoon, mends lorries and sells tea. Captain Mascoid. B & C Platoons invade Sicily.

Captain Mascoid, in charge of Workshops, had Butch transferred from being `A' platoon's fitter to working with the team of mechanics in Workshops platoon. Essentially the platoon fitter did running repairs on detail, that is, by the roadside wherever needed, and checked over the lorries at the base every four weeks. Workshops theoretically were established at a fixed base - in this case, the former police barracks at Sousse - and did major repairs of vehicles brought in by the two break-down lorries. Each lorry in 133 Company would have a major check every four weeks, engine, gear box, back axle, brakes etc. All the Austin pick-ups, jeeps and even Despatch Riders' motor bikes had these regular checks.

Mascoid, ex-ranker, was a bit of a lad, a bit of a rogue, the lads' hero now that Errington had gone. He insisted on good work but would overlook the minor `fiddle job'. Butch's army records from DR in Newark to mechanic in Sousse preceded him and it's a moot point whether Mascoid wanted him in Workshops because he admired his work, admired his cheek, or just wanted to keep an eye on him!

Two events conspired to give Butch a chance to show his enterprising nature. First, `B' and `C' platoons went on the allied invasion of Sicily launched on l0th July 1943 from the ports of Bizerta and Tunis. The fighting troops went on this day followed over the following days and weeks by ancillary troops and services such as `B' and `C' platoons.
Second, a lorry from another unit arrived, towed in by a breakdown wagon. Butch got to work underneath it while the driver asked around if anyone would sign for his load, four crates of tea for 133 Company and some of the 7th Armoured Division lads.

Butch popped out from underneath the lorry, "I'll sign," "It's got to be a sergeant."
"I am a sergeant, I just don't have stripes on this working gear. Come here!"
He took the driver's pencil and delivery note, duplicated with carbon paper, and signed it
`received in good order, Sergeant Smith'.

For Butch in Tunisia, it wasn't just Naafi tea, it was manna from Heaven. Half of 133 Company and the whole of 7th Armoured Division had gone on the invasion of Sicily. They only needed about one crate of tea now at the Police Barracks, he reasoned. He got Frej, a poor Arab lad who worked in the kitchens that he'd palled up with, to wheel a crate to `Cheeseborough's pog.'

My father, in Tunis at the same time with the RAF Regiment, liked tea extra strong, "……so you could stand your spoon up in it, Sergeant Major's tea," he called it. But the Arabs, as Butch had found out in his brief encounter with the French girl, liked theirs even stronger: neat, in small cups. They made a liqueur out of it, a pan with an extremely thick concentration of tea would be constantly bubbling away over a stove in their households.

Frej told his family and neighbours to pass the word round in their poor community that the British Army would sell them tea cheaply in the local square, at a certain date and time.

Dougie Pope and his girlfriend in England wanted to get wed, but her father and mother insisted he should have £100 saved before they would even think about giving their daughter in marriage. His lorry needed servicing and Butch chose to do it on the day of the great tea sale, assuring Dougie that he would get his £100.

So at the specified date and time the British Army arrived in the square represented by Butch and Dougie Pope, plus newly serviced lorry, one of; crates of tea, three of; cookhouse ladle for doling out of said tea, one of. Frej, Butch and Dougie stood on the back of the lorry under its protective canvas awning, faced by a very long queue of Arabs - men, women and children. Frej acted, where necessary, as interpreter.

Imagine the intense happiness all round as Frej doled out the tea into bowls, pans and proffered, cupped garments, and as Butch took their money. This was a winner: the Arabs were happy, many took their ladle-load home and came round again, and Frej was happy for his people. Only the British Army were the losers.

"Oh Christ, it's Mascoid!" Yes, the British Army in the shape of the men's champion, the Workshops captain, was heading purposefully towards them. The ex-ranker knew the wiles of the British soldier, they couldn't pull the wool over his eyes, he let things pass, but judging by his stride he wasn't going to this time.

"Reid, what are you doing with these effin' Arabs?"

"I'm parked on holy ground, sir, and they're come to pray to Allah."

"Then move your effin' lorry out of it."

"Sah!"

The captain walked briskly away shouting over his shoulder, almost as an afterthought: "And sell your effin' tea elsewhere!"

They had got through two and a half crates, and didn't want to push their luck, so rolled back the canvas, dropped the third crate off the back of the lorry and Butch and Dougie drove off. Frej stayed behind with his gift of the halffull crate and with unconcealed delight, doled out tea free to family and friends, and at a small cost to strangers.

Butch and Dougie went to the British Forces Post Office, B.F.P.O. number whatever it was, each with £300 to send home to England. The clerk was extremely suspicious. Men didn't spend much in the desert. The whole of 133 Company had only drawn £40 total in the previous month. Now here were two privates wanting to send this big amount home. To ease the clerk's mind Butch said he could have £10 of every £100 he posted for them. For weeks Dougie worried that the clerk would pocket the lot but letters came back from England thanking them for their kindness in sending such a lot of money.

Meanwhile the landing crafts containing `B' and `C' platoons and their vehicles were on their way back to Tunis having never reached the fair shores of Sicily. They were turned back at sea, upon news that the Allies had already conquered the island and they weren't needed. The lads in these platoons were probably looking forward to a nice cuppa cha when they got back to their barracks in Sousse. We are not sure whether they got one or not. They'd had their little Mediterranean cruise though, and later got the Italian campaign medal even though they never set foot on Italian soil.

Pr-BR

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