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- Gerard Dominic Wilson
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- 19 January 2005
Memories of a 2nd World War Infantryman
My father was born in 1918, just a few months before the end of the ‘Great War’. He was the youngest of five brothers from a working class, Catholic family that lived near the centre of Liverpool. Descended from Scottish and Irish migrants who had settled on Merseyside during the 19th century, the brothers tended to favour robust pastimes, especially boxing, at which several of them excelled. In 1918 the oldest brother was in a cavalry regiment on the western front. He returned unscathed and later moved to America where he died in his twenties. By the time my father left school when he was fourteen, another brother had died and the family was thus much reduced.
As the 2nd World War approached, dad was in fairly settled employment as a clerk, but he was also in the T.A. with the Liverpool Scottish, and was West Lancashire army boxing champion at his weight. When the declaration of war came in September 1939, he immediately volunteered for enlistment in the regular army and was recruited to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders with whom he trained. Early in 1940 it seemed likely that they would be posted abroad for active service. Father proposed to mother, who had been going out with him since they had met at their local parish amateur dramatic society in Liverpool. They were married in May by special licence in the south of England and the next day his company left by train on their way to an unknown destination. Waving goodbye to him at the village station, my mother was not greatly consoled when an older woman, observing their farewell, told her that she had been in the same situation at that station in 1916 and that she had never seen her husband again. It wasn’t the most promising of omens.
My father was amongst the British troops that disembarked in northern Norway, close to the arctic circle. They were sent to oppose the sudden German invasion that had overrun most of the south. They were moved into a defensive position that gave opportunity to become acquainted with local farmers who provided them with milk. On one occasion two of them offered dad one of their special drinks, warm blood, drained freshly from the neck of one of their cows before they bound up the wound. He politely declined, though they finished their cups with relish.
There was little or nothing in the way of specialist equipment or support for the British contingent in Norway and as German army and air units drew near, the decision was made to withdraw the expeditionary force as quickly as possible. Against a background of defensive engagements, burning buildings and Lutwaffe attacks, soldiers were rowed out to a destroyer for evacuation. As he scrambled up the netting at the side of the vessel , a sailor reaching down to help dad greeted him with his name, Gerry. In one of war’s curious coincidences, the sailor was a former secondary classmate. They hadn’t met in seven years and after sailing back to Scotland they were not to meet again.
Much of the regiment’s basic materiel, including spare uniforms, had been abandoned in Norway and an informal photograph of dad’s platoon taken shortly after their return shows a fairly motley, if cheerful, group of young men. Much later, in the mid fifties, my father went along the twenty or so faces in the snap, talking about them individually, saying what he knew about their military careers. It registered with me that very few reached the end of 1945 in one piece. Had any of them had any realistic notion of their prospects in 1940?
Britain: 1940 - 1942
Later in 1940 my father volunteered to join the Commando force that was being created in response to the numerous military setbacks that had happened since the start of the war. He trained in Scotland, close to Spean Bridge.
During this time, in May 1941, my older brother was born in Northumberland, which was where my mother and some of her sisters and their children had been evacuated to avoid the worst of the blitz. My grandmother had joined them when the family house in Liverpool was badly damaged by a bomb that killed a neighbour. Despite the dangers of German bombing, Northumberland was not greatly to their liking and several members of the family, including mum, returned to Liverpool in the middle of 1941. My father was granted leave to visit them from the comparative safety of the Highlands. He was, sometimes, a chancer and he tried to extend his leave by claiming that there had been a transport delay. It didn’t wash and the army took a very dim view of such things at that stage of the war. On his return he was put on a charge and sent back to his unit via the ‘glasshouse‘. He hardly spoke of this in later years.
Having dealt with the matter, the army didn’t seem to bear any grudges and must have had a reasonable opinion of my father’s abilities. By the time he was posted to join the 8th Army in 1942, he was a sergeant in the 51st Highland Division. During his wartime years in England he had frequently been involved in providing entertainment for various gatherings, military and civilian. Two of his brothers in law were at least reasonable pianists and dad considered himself something of a singer. Together they did ’acts’ and sketches that my mother said had got them a tentative offer from Ensa. There wasn’t to be much singing in the desert.
North Africa: 1942-1943
0n the troopship that took them to Egypt it was made clear to all ranks that they must avoid serious sunburn or face disciplinary charges. After disembarkation, whilst lining up on the quayside, local traders started to sell the troops various bottled drinks, which all seemed desirable in the summer heat. A senior and obviously experienced officer suddenly appeared who went along the ranks breaking all the bottles before they could be used. He explained in no uncertain terms that such drinks were almost certain to give them dysentery and must not be consumed.
There was a short period of acclimatisation and further training before moving up towards the front. My father managed to retain a photograph from that time, taken when he and a comrade visited a city - probably Cairo. It shows two young, smart, healthy soldiers wearing tartan berets standing in front of a small fountain. He told me his companion’s name, which I have long forgotten, but not the fact that two weeks later his friend had both of his legs blown off by a mine during the fighting at El Alamein. It was the largest and longest single battle in which dad took part and casualties were heavy, despite the victory. In the six months that followed Alamein, the 51st Highland Division played a leading role in chasing the withdrawing Axis army through Egypt and along North Africa. At regular intervals, the retreating forces would dig in and seek to check their pursuers. The engagements which followed were never on the scale of Alamein but for the units involved the actions could be very bloody. The Germans were formidable night patrollers and to counter these activities the Highlanders had to send frequent small patrols out into unoccupied ground. It was dangerous work and dad tried to improve his chances by strapping two Italian biretta pistols to his thighs, which he could easily reach when crawling around. In an emergency, it would have taken too long to reach and use the rifle being carried on his back. When counter attacks or enemy artillery fire seemed likely, advancing troops would usually try to dig in quickly. The Germans often left mines and booby traps to welcome those who occupied their former ground. On one occasion, my father was rapidly digging a trench when there was an explosion which for a moment he thought had blinded him. Fortunately, it was only a temporary effect, caused by a small mine that had probably been triggered by the weight of sand and soil he was throwing forward with his spade. Many soldiers, including my father, contracted malaria: quite seriously in his case since he was sent back to a field hospital for a time.
In a regiment and division with a considerable reputation, a lot was expected from commissioned and non-commissioned officers. At the start of the campaign my father had been enormously impressed by the courage and sang-froid of some officers who would stroll calmly in the open under heavy, direct fire, often with just a swagger stick, much as though they were taking a turn around a park. However, as the army advanced casualties mounted and the infantry began to run out of officers. At some point between Egypt and Tunisia, dad was put in charge of his platoon, a situation that carried on into the Sicilian campaign. At the age of twenty-four he was getting to be something of an old soldier, especially compared to many of the teenage lads who had landed with him in Egypt. Their numbers were diminishing too. There was one particularly savage battle that he mentioned by name, Wadi Akirit. He started the engagement with about thirty soldiers and finished with only eleven fit for immediate duty.
Despite this kind of attrition, he believed that most of his comrades had considerable respect for the military skills and determination of their German enemies. He found the depth of loathing and animosity towards all things German that he encountered at home in Britain surprising, in comparison with the attitude of those who were doing the front line fighting. When checking the possessions of the dead and captured enemy, the family photographs and letters revealed people who seemed much the same as British soldiers, with children who would never see their fathers again and mothers who had looked their last on their sons. I was surprised to learn from my father that soldiers were not always trying to kill each other. In the front line, close to the enemy, when an attack didn’t seem imminent , it was customary for both sides to fire short, random bursts in the general direction of the opposition to let them know you were still there. If they became careless or adventurous and showed themselves, there was an obligation to shoot them. Whether this kind of code survived the greater intensity of war on the European mainland, my father didn’t know. Having said this, dad thought the attitude of some Germans was different from that of most allied soldiers. In 1943 one German prisoner said to him that only the British and Germans really knew how to fight and that the Italians and Americans should stay out of the action and ‘let us get on with it.’ He seemed to regard war as being akin to sport.
Amongst the allied soldiers for whom my father had a very high opinion were the Australians and the Ghurkhas. Once when sent to relieve a unit of the latter from a tour of duty at the front, the Ghurkhas came out as smart as if they were marching from their barracks on parade. However, the people that father especially admired were the tank crews who were enormously courageous in their inadequate vehicles. He frequently saw them ‘brewed up’ by superior German tanks or the formidable 88’s. He saw one of these destroy three British tanks in a line , one after the other, whilst their guns were well out of range . They didn’t try to withdraw but kept going towards the enemy and almost certain destruction. After the war, there were visits from a family friend, a small, seemingly gentle man who had been a tank driver in the desert. At the end of one evening I remember dad saying to him quietly : ”You know, Rory, when you stand before the pearly gates you only have to tell St. Peter that you were in the tanks and they open up straight away.”
The Italian army was not highly rated but some of their units would put up a hard fight. Towards the end of the North African campaign, dad’s troop was attacking some Italian defended pillboxes that were inflicting casualties on the Highlanders. At the last moment, just as their defences were about to be overwhelmed the enemy in one ‘box’ tried to surrender. The nearest attackers would not accept their attempt and threw in grenades. Only one defender survived and he was gravely wounded. He was in great pain, wanting a priest and needing a doctor; neither was possible. He spoke about his family and my father felt sorry for him and the situation. Dad tried to explain that he was also a Catholic and stayed with him to offer some comfort through the night until he died.
Another incident that stayed on my father’s mind involved an Arab family that asked to see him when they were behind the lines. Usually, there would be a complaint about soldiers using dried out tea when trading for eggs or such like. This request was different because the man brought his small daughter, about seven years old, into the tent with him. Communication was difficult and he motioned to his daughter to raise the hem of her garment. She had a very large piece of shrapnel embedded in one leg below the knee. Dad was amazed that she was showing no sign of pain, especially as it wasn’t a recent wound. He made arrangements for her to be taken to a field hospital but never heard what happened.
When Tunisia had been secured and the Axis forces expelled from Africa, Winston Churchill was present at a victory parade in which my father took part, wearing a newly provided uniform that was promptly reclaimed by the army when the parade was over. Still, it had looked good on the newsreel.
My father was seldom slow at going forward and about this time he approached his C.O. with a request that he be considered for a field commission. He reasoned that he had been doing the job for quite a time. The C.O. told him that he would make a recommendation when the Sicily campaign had been concluded.
The landing craft that deposited dad’s unit near a Sicilian beach had stopped well short of the waterline. Fortunately, opposition was very slight as they waded ashore. However, a soldier on a neighbouring vessel, particularly diminutive in stature, drowned under the weight of his equipment as he tried to reach the beach. Further inland serious fighting began and my father heard a rumour that allied soldiers had executed an Italian woman who had been giving away British positions to enemy artillery.
Advancing towards Catania, on the east of the island, a large scale night assault to capture an airfield at Gerbini was ordered. The Germans mounted a very determined defence and casualties amongst the Highlanders were heavy. Amongst them was my father. Whilst attacking some pillboxes, an explosion immediately in front of him (almost certainly a hand grenade) inflicted terrible injuries and he was left for dead on the battlefield. When he regained consciousness it was still dark and he was aware of an intense pain across his chest. He tried to remove some of his equipment but found it was impossible. Sensing something wrong with his hands, he held them up against the moon and saw that they had been mostly blown away. This wasn’t the most serious of his injuries. He crawled towards where he thought the British lines were situated and was fortunate to be seen before he lost consciousness again.
In England my mother received a telegram informing her that dad had been wounded and this was followed by a letter from the regimental padre which implied that her husband was unlikely to survive. That he did was down to the skill of the military surgeons, the availability of penicillin and his underlying fitness and determination. There was another factor. Curiously, in 1956, when the Suez crisis was in the headlines, I made some remark about Egypt and he told me that the blood for the transfusions that had saved his life in Sicily had been donated by Egyptians attending their military training school in Cairo. He made the point that his survival and my existence might well have been down to Nasser. It gave me pause for thought. No matter, in July 1943 he had many months in military hospitals and years of medical treatment ahead of him but his active war was now over.
My father’s injuries were numerous, highly disfiguring and a source of physical pain for the rest of his life. The most serious was the damage to his lungs where shrapnel had penetrated. He had a drainage tube located his back for so many months during hospitalisation that when it was eventually removed a permanent, large fissure remained that only closed somewhere between his ribs. On the front of his body large areas of flesh and muscle had been blown off his legs and chest. He was left with a thumb and a digit on each hand and one of his arms was stripped of skin and flesh between the hand and elbow to such an degree that the wound never really healed. For the remainder of his life shrapnel regularly worked its way to the surface of his body and would be squeezed out.
Despite all this and the malarial fever that returned from time to time, he remained energetic and tried, in the later 1940s, to start several small businesses with some partners. They didn’t succeed sufficiently and in the 1950s he became the M.D. of a small cold storage company in Liverpool. He was active in other directions. For a time he fronted the Blesma (British limbless ex service men’s association) organisation on Merseyside and he ran boxing classes for parish teenagers. He attended some Alamein reunions, at one of them he met his former C.O. whose war had ended in Italy when he ‘lost’ his arm. Father was a considerable reader, enjoying good authors such as Hemingway, Maugham and Waugh. For a time he took a great interest in fine art, taking lessons in drawing and studying the old masters. He also enjoyed socialising , going to sporting events and, on occasion, was given to smoking and drinking more than was probably good for him. He went through phases of trying to keep fit and following what would now be called health fads but most exercise was impossible for him and whenever he tried swimming people found it difficult not to stare at his mutilated body. Only years later did it register with me why we had usually gone out of our way to find secluded beaches when on holiday and why he had taken us to open air pools on some very unseasonable days.
At the end of April 1959 he suddenly collapsed at work with a stroke and was dead within twenty four hours. The War Office decided that his premature death at forty was unconnected with his wounds and his disability pension died with him. One of the arguments deployed related to the early death of two of his older brothers: he was just from a family that died young. This could not be readily refuted until 1988 when his remaining brother, the last of his family, died…. aged ninety years.
For many years after father’s death life was very difficult for our family of five children. It was especially hard for mother and also for my two youngest sisters who, as pre-school infants in 1959, were never to really know or remember what it was to have a father but were to experience poverty instead.
Regarding education as important, dad would have been pleased to see all of his children attend grammar school and in course of time, as children grew older, life became somewhat easier for my mother. Her death on 23rd July 2003 was almost exactly sixty years to the day after my father fell wounded one warm and very violent Sicilian night.
The foregoing is a collection of numerous anecdotes that, as a curious child, I extracted from my father and mother over a number of years in the 1950s. They have been arranged in chronological order in an attempt to give them some coherence. I have not consulted any regimental histories though, with my abiding interest in W.W.2, I have read a great many books on that subject over many years.
My father was one of a comparatively small number of young men who were at the very front of dangerous operations for a substantial time. It has been calculated that in major land engagements throughout the war, the infantry were likely to sustain seventy-five per cent of total army casualties. However, the infantry units constituted only about a quarter of army personnel. Given the ferocious efficiency of the German military machine during six years of intense warfare, it was merely a matter of time before an infantryman who was in action as early as 1940 became a casualty of some sort. In a sense my father had been lucky to survive at all. The father of a school friend who survived a tour of missions as rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber could probably count himself even more fortunate. As it happened, he also failed to attain a normal lifespan. The real casualty figures of that major war were much higher than the numbers recorded in 1945.
A former comrade came to the church for my father’s funeral. He was a large man who had been a Lancashire miner in the 1930’s and was a Station Master for British Rail in 1959. His presence and conduct was later remarked upon by several people. He sobbed loudly and uncontrollably for the entire service. I could recall meeting him once some years before and I was a little surprised, as a young teenager, that this tough looking, ostensibly dignified man could not compose himself. It was a few days later that my mother, I think, told me his story. He had been a sergeant in the same platoon as dad, arriving in Egypt on the same boat and they had campaigned along North Africa together and into Sicily, with a rapidly diminishing number of ’original’ soldiers. He had fought on into Italy with the platoon and in 1944 they were part of the 51st Highland Division that were moved back to England for the D Day invasion. They were regarded, perhaps no longer accurately, as being crack troops. After a few weeks of Normandy, he and one other soldier were the only two left still unscathed and active from the original platoon that had disembarked in Egypt in 1942. His fellow ’survivor’ was an old soldier aged about twenty. Whilst advancing across a Norman field , a shell or mortar round came over and blew the younger lad to pieces, right beside him. He went partly mad for a time and was withdrawn from action. I suppose that like many others he never made a full recovery. My recollection was that the only time I had ever seen my father become emotional was one New Year’s Eve when he remembered the young Scottish lads that he had left dead in the desert.
Many decades after these events, having reached an age much greater than my father ever attained, I could find myself thinking about him without any warning or obvious stimulus. When contemplating the enormous sacrifice of health, well-being and life that he and many thousands of similarly ordinary people willingly made, I have to confess that, for a moment or two at least, my eyes did not always remain entirely dry. Sunt lacrimae rerum.
G. J. WILSON
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