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The Life of a Desert Rat Part 2

by gloinf

Contributed by 
People in story: 
William E Alford
Location of story: 
London, North Africa, Italy, Austria, France, Luxemburg,
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
15 July 2005

July 6th 1942

This story was submitted to the Peoples War site by Jas from Global Information Centre Eastbourne and has been added to the website on behalf of Mr Alford with his permission and he fully understands the site’s terms and conditions

6th April, went to dentist, 2 fillings and 1 out. Not a lot of work coming in, the lorries aren’t too busy at the moment. Time to relax a little more in Tripoli. Cleaned bivi out, found a couple of Scorpions under the groundsheet!

24th April, my birthday, I had to do a decoke job on one of the Bedfords. On to Bizerta and Tunis to meet up with 1st Army, we were the 7th Army Division.

13th May Thanksgiving Service.

June 20th started the long trek back to base in Egypt. First day 162 miles. Picked up with 4th Indian Brigade a great Ghurkha Regiment. I was in hospital with one later in Casino, Italy and he showed me all the little knives they carry inside their hats.

The Germans tie their laces differently to us Brits and when they go out on night patrol, they approach from behind, feel their laces and up and slit their throats. Apparently they don’t carry rifles when on night patrol.

The next morning up at 4.00 am for another 127 miles with three breakdowns on the way and various stops for trucks getting stuck in the sand. Plenty of digging and sand tracks to get a grip. Rajah brought us tea in bed for another early start and another 160 miles.

Took a couple of days off for a swim and get a few repairs done on the trucks. Next day we got as far as Benghazi and had an evening’s entertainment. Next day rough terrain and a couple of passes. We had to go up and over, boiled over a few times with excessive heat and finished up doing 116 miles. Another day of rest for repairs and then next stop Tobruk where we had a lovely swim in the harbour.

We are now at the beginning of July. Next day through Sallam (Hell Fire) Pass. A bit different to when we were coming the other way (now peaceful). One of the trucks had blown a head gasket so another day’s delay. Next day we reached Mersa Matru where we managed to see a film.

8th July we reached El Alamein and dropped our Indian friends off. Now only 26 miles from Alexandria which we reached next day and had a very pleasant time there for a whole day. Next day through Cairo to Tahaq and back with the rest of the company and also back with all the bullshit which we were allowed to forget all the time we were engaged in combat.

Now the end of July and given £30 to go on leave in Cairo for 7 days. Had a wonderful time after which, reality. On the 14th August I see I was on a charge for having surplus kit got 6 days pay stopped. Can’t think what I did to deserve that. Probably an Italian Beretta and German Luga Pistol I had captured!

2nd August I had a photo taken by the Pyramids at Mena with Jack on a horse and Jim and I standing. Part of our week’s holiday. A few days later we are on the move again an early start, 4.00 am, going through the Sinia through Haifa and parked outside about 8 miles. We went for a beer in the evening and coming home in the dark fell down a slip trench! Next we went though Beirut on to Larakia where we could have a swim. Had Typhus jab.

Now up in the mountains near the Turkish border, now into September and working on wrecks where drivers have been going over the edge on these mountain passes. Now ready to move on again, 3.30 am, got a spider’s bite from under my groundsheet. Next stop Homs and a long drive next day through the Sinia Desert, had two breakdowns. Drove all night next into Palestine, Egypt and Esmailia and Fayed Guiefa. Started on another wreck next day, not much time for sleep. Had another Typhus jab and fired Bren gun on range. Results 69 from 90, top score in the company. Now into October and having some Bren lectures and more firing on range.

26th — another week’s leave in Cairo. Stayed at the Atlantic Hotel and went swimming at Heliopolis and got a lift to Alex for a film. Arrived back at Fayad with a cold and back to work and another 2 teeth filled.

10th December, filled in form for transfer to Army Air Corps and posting to Gilder Pilot Regiment. I had an interview for gliders on the 14th but was told I was doing too good a job where I was so I didn’t get the chance to fly a glider plane.

Early May — on the rifle range I got a top score of 38 from 45.

17th May — all ready to board ship ‘Orian’ at Port Said for transport to Taranto, 5th British Corp, to Italy. I was the only one chosen to go with a company to Italy, the rest of our workshops went back to England ready for the next big invasion on ‘D’ Day. Anyhow I said my goodbyes and set off on a new venture. We pulled into Taranto on 27th May and stayed at 168 transit camp and caught the train the next day and had to sleep on the floor. We went passed Mt Vesuvius and marched to camp at Nola. We had ceremonial guard drill in the morning, had the next day in Naples then off through the vineyards to new pastures green.

Now into June and travelling up the west coast towards Rome. Lots of repair work to do on staff cars, lorries and bikes. Out on various detachments where needed. The mail caught up with me at last, 24 letters waiting.

29th June, had to go sick having lots of problems with haemorrhoids due probably through having to crawl under lorries in the snow. I was sent to 58 General Hospital and had an operation and was then shifted to 7CCS for the night before being moved to 2nd General Hospital at Casirta.

I did lots of reading whilst in incapacitated and left the 2nd General Hospital for 3rd Transit Camp. By the 13th July I was fit enough for a trip into Naples for a film and a week later borrowed some swimming trunks from an Italian sailor to go swimming at a delightful place a short train journey from Naples, a place called Torregaveta. I met a very nice young woman called Anna and had my first kiss for over 2 years. I had a photo taken by ‘Life’ Magazine.

Now 27th July, took Anna to the cinema and swimming again and said our goodbyes and I was off again fully fit and crossing Italy to Ancuna on the east coast up through Rimini on to Forli where we set up camp.

Now November and lots of rain, everything got soaked. My bivouac was blown down and I slept in the stores lorry that I drove. Lots of work on engine changes and lots of breakdowns that have to be towed in to workshops. One of our sergeants chopped the top of his finger off whilst lowering an engine into place.

Now into December and snowing quite heavily, 7” deep by the end of the month which makes work very difficult. Anyhow we are now into January 1945 and it is still snowing and still plenty of work. Lots of mail coming and I am writing lots back to England in every spare minute. I have been playing football in between snow.

February comes and goes without a move and still a steady flow of vehicle inspections and work.

March 1st — leave. I got a lift to Rimini and caught the train from there to Rome and slept on the floor. I arrived at 6.30 am and went to the rest camp and had breakfast and then found a billet and had a lovely hot bath and then got ready for the town. The first thing was to have a good meal and photographs taken. I saw a few films and before you knew it it’s on the train back to Rimini and Forli.

By the 16th March I was told I was being made a Lance Corporal (not before time), now a Guard Commander — no more Guards. It was still the same amount of work. I had a T.A.B. and Tetanus jab. My vehicle was a bit sick so I gave it an overhaul ready for the next move which was to Imola. A very sad thing happened here.

The Italian communists ‘Black Brigade’ committed a terrible thing here by murdering 16 of their fellow Italians for collaborating with the British. I got there at the time when they were all being lifted out of a well. Not a pretty sight.

I hadn’t had much trouble from Jerrys for some time but they decided to strafe our workshop today but there were no casualties! The next three days were spent moving to new locations.

24th April — another birthday I am now 25. It’s been 5 long years but I am still alive, not like tens of thousands that have perished.

May 8th — we hear that the war has officially finished at midnight. We are on the move again! This time it is a long trip, the first stage 54 miles to Pedova and then 110 miles to Udine skirting Venice. I am able to sleep out now, much warmer. Saying that, by the end of the month there is rain and hail.

I am having problems with haemorrhoids again and started to bleed. It was a Specialist who said if it happens again then Hospital.

At the end of May we are moving up into Austria near Klagenfurt and camped next to a river supplying water for a flour mill. Now the end of May and the weather is good. I had a swim in the river and an 8 mile walk along the river.

There is a steady flow of work and inspections. I swim most days when it is not raining and another 15 mile walk along the river.

V.E. Day 10th July. I played football, had a few beers and swam in the river in the evening. I had a date with a girl called Herte and started German lessons. That didn’t last long!

Getting kit ready for Blighty leave. After 4 years overseas duty one gets what is called L.I.A.P. (Leave in Addition to Python), Python being demob. I started leave, left Klagenfurt for Villach and on to Innsbruck through Vim in Germany and Mainz to Sedan in France and Luxemburg, then the next day all the way to Calais.

The weather too rough in the Channel and we had to wait another day. We left at 10.00 am and arrived in London at 3.00 pm and home by 6.00 pm to Pinner in Middlesex. My parents and family were pleased to see me.

My older sister Mary was living in Uckfield on their farm so I arranged for my girlfriend of 4 years, who I had written to religiously all through the War, to meet me there but when I met her I was no longer in love with her (funny old world isn’t it!).

I must have come back very unsettled not knowing what I did want. It was just as well we didn’t marry before I went abroad.

Anyhow on with the rest of the holiday which was nearly all over already. You would think after 4 years they would give you a little more than 3 weeks at home. The journey took 7 days each way out of the holiday. Too late to whinge about it 60 years on! I did get made up to full Corporal when I got back though!

8th October — getting ready to move out on a detachment on my own. I had a very nice house with a swimming pool fed from the hot springs in the mountains. It was lovely swimming with the snow on the ground all around you. I enjoyed my stay there but it was hard work. I did get back to the NAAFI quite a bit though at Villach. There were plenty of dances and parties not forgetting skiing up in the mountains.

The war was over now! I got recalled back to the main workshop, the weather very cold now, deep snow and coming up to Christmas 1946. Not a lot happened; we now have a dozen German vehicle mechanics sent to help out on the work.

I must admit they were jolly good at the job considering they hadn’t worked on our lorries before. They were camped in a field next to ours which had a horse in it when they arrived. I think it finished up in their stew pot.

The end of January and there’s word going round that I am getting demobbed soon on ‘B’ release a ‘reserved occupation’. It’s true, I handed all surplus kit in and was ready for the off. I said all my goodbyes and spent the rest of my time with a very dear friend Jean who was a CPL cook at the NAAFI in Villach.

We had many happy hours together in a purely platonic relationship. She used to have meals sent up to me in her own private quarters and we had lots of fun at the various dances and dinners we held there. I never did see her again after that last goodbye. Friendships come and go in war time. I always seem to be moving on to something else.

I departed next morning after sleeping in an armchair all night. It is now 7th February 1946 and I left Villach by train for 2 days and 1 night finishing up in Calais at 4.30 am for breakfast and a good sleep. The crossing was cancelled for another day and I eventually left on the 12th.

On arrival at Dover I had another long train trip via Cannon Street, Euston and up north via Rugby and Crewe to Beeson Castle - more documentation. We moved out again on the 15th, this time to Oldham via Manchester where we got our civvies a kit consisting of a suit, a Trilby hat and a few other things — I can’t remember.

Then all the way back to London and out to Middlesex arriving home at midnight and talked until 5.30 in the morning. I went visiting old friends next and went the following day to see my younger sister Sheila who I hadn’t seem for over 5 years, my older sister Mary was there as well.

Lovely to all be reunited after such a long time. We all had lots of stories to relate. It is here on the 19th February that my war diaries seem to finish, but lots more to tell from here on!

I have now found papers re-instating me at my pre war employer dated 18th November 1946. I can’t think what I was up to from February to November, probably enjoying myself! I don’t think I enjoyed myself very much at my job because I find more papers to the effect that I handed in my resignation on 1st January 1948.

It was during that year that I bumped into my childhood sweetheart. It seemed to be love at first sight all over again. She had been married to a Canadian pilot for a very short time who had been shot down and killed. I am sure that meeting up with me again after all those years helped to heal the pain. It didn’t take us long to realise that we should get married on the 23rd August 1947.

We had very little money in those days of rationing. I had to borrow coupons to buy a new suit to get married in and our furniture was ‘utility’, a lot of which was made out of any old wood you could get hold of. We did eventually get a flat through a friend of mine who was in the business, a split up of a big house in Ladbroke Grove, London adjacent to Hyde Park.

Apparently the house was owned and lived in by Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth’s heiress. We lived there whilst we were both still working hard to make both ends meet. Times were still very hard and there was still rationing but we were all in the same boat so just got on with life and hoped for better times to come.

I was realizing about this time that I wasn’t particularly enamoured with the job I was doing and my brother in law who was a designer and draughtsman with Strand Electrical said they needed someone in their hire department who was good with their hands to repair things that had been hired out to theatres i.e. furniture and chandeliers etc. I was their man so handed in my notice on the 2nd January 1948 and started work the next week.

It was much more enjoyable and I was my own boss, something I was always meant to be! My wife was still doing her office job and not wanting to have children, a pity because I would have loved to have a family.

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