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The Lighter Side of War - CHAPTER 14: Blida, Algeria. A Dear John letter Lieutenant Baker replaces Errington

by actiondesksheffield

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Reg Reid, Ruth Hawes, Ron Gregory, Johnny O'Toole, Billy Grills, Manny Smith, Major Dodds, Lieutenant Errington, Lieutenant Baker, Sergeant Allen here and Corporals Greenholgh, King, Mulchinok, `Rice' Cheeseborough
Location of story: 
Blida, Algeria
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
24 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 author's permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

The Lighter Side of War

Don Alexander

CHAPTER 14: Blida, Algeria. A Dear John letter Lieutenant Baker replaces Errington

They marched because virtually all their lorries were still on the high seas on cargo vessels, or it was even possible that they were still in Glasgow. Just a couple of lorries and a couple of Austin pick-ups were with them on the Strathmore.

At Blida they were billeted in a flour mill, built by the French. There were big vats with concrete platforms on high - the floor below was concrete. It was cold, very cold even with three blankets on the concrete, three on top plus greatcoat. One HQ lad, billeted on one of the high platforms, made a quick return to Blighty - on a stretcher. He had stepped back to make his bed, fell over the edge of the platform on to the concrete floor ten feet below and broke his back.

Then a lad from another unit got killed walking on the wrong side of the road. The Citroen didn't stop. Most of the lads had never been abroad before and didn't realise or had forgotten that Johnny foreigner drives on, the wrong side of the road! As drivers, they had been told, though, and had been given a little manual on service overseas:
`Remember when you walk off the ship down the gangplank it is you, not the man on the quayside, who is the foreigner'.

One lad with a broken back and one killed; troubles come in threes, would a letter Butch received be the third? No. It was only a `Dear John' letter from `Girly' Ruth Hawes. He wasn't upset, in fact he burst out laughing. Other lads were heartbroken when they got theirs. One took to drink, said he had nothing to live for, was never sober, and even later when driving in convoys was slumped at the wheel, his mate guiding it for him.

Girly Ruth Hawes confirmed that she was in love with the RAF lad they had met on the train from Sheffield. Despite his laughter, Butch did feel a wave of hatred for the `Brylcreem boy' and the RAF in general. They were issued with sheets for their beds like bloody puffs! And what's more they'd got mobile showers! Mobile bloody showers - he'd seen them on their lorries. What a load of puffs!

Perhaps the RAF Regiment wouldn't have agreed with him, and no one in 133 Company grumbled when the army was also issued with mobile showers several months later.
He was a bit rankled by the thought that Ruth had his £100, plus suit in his suitcase plus the revolver and 500 rounds he had posted to her, but he didn't make a meal of worrying about it. Just a mental note to retrieve them when he next called at High Wycombe.

Butch made use of the opportunity to take stock of his life, where to go, what to do after demob. The pondering took place as he lay on his three blankets, under three more blankets and a greatcoat, on the cold concrete floor.

Life would be his oyster. He could return to Sheffield, Ron Gregory, good natured lasses, the Derbyshire hills. Ron might have turned posh having been an officer, but he'd soon knock that out of him.

He could go to Stoke, catch up with his mam. Jobs had been offered him by the two Jocks, servicing tractors and machinery on their respective farms in the Lowlands. Johnny O'Toole offered him the job of servicing lorries in the market garden business he was hoping to build up, and Billy Grills suggested he service tractors and other vehicles at his family farm in Devon. This job prospect had the added bonus of salmon fishing rights along a stretch of river. Finally Manny Smith had offered to employ him in the family's Billingsgate wholesale fish market business, servicing lorries. So with these thoughts and a final "Christ, it's cold on this floor!" he got some kip.

Troubles did come in threes. Major Dodds got Lieutenant Errington, the man they liked and respected and would follow through thick and thin, transferred to another unit. The Major, he of the gloves and polished cane and mincing gait, put Lieutenant Baker in charge of A platoon. It was assumed the change was because Errington got on too well with the lads.
Lieutenant Errington had certainly been unconventional. Too much so for the army. For instance, if any in the platoon got in trouble and were punished by Major Dodds with, say, four days confined to barracks, Errington would let them take their punishment piecemeal - say a day here, two days there, another day there - at times of their choosing. He called it `CB' on hire-purchase.

Once some of the platoon were on jankers while others had gone out to a cinema. The ones confined to barracks were having so much fun he ordered them to get off to the cinema too as a punishment.

Lieutenant Baker was the complete opposite - ex-infantry and with a keen belief in infantry training and discipline. He felt he needed to get a grip of these men; he was `bullshit baffles brains' personified. Some lads among themselves called him `a right bastard', but he couldn't browbeat them. He could lecture them though and lined them up outside the flour mill, out of the fierce sunshine thank goodness, and gave them the fruits of his military wisdom. A big map of North Africa stood on an easel.

Lieutenant Baker's lecture:

"You men are lorry drivers and mechanics. Eventually you'll be moving and sleeping in your vehicles, stopping in barracks if we can find them, or putting up tents.
We're going to move east and quickly, whether our vehicles have arrived or not."
He took hold of and used a long wooden pointer lodged on the easel.

"We are at Blida here. General Montgomery has won a brilliant victory over the Germans at El Alamein over there in Egypt, and his 8th Army, the Desert Rats, are pushing the enemy, Germans and Italians, back through Libya towards us.

Hitler continues to push supplies and troops into Tripoli, there, and they will possibly fall back to Bizerta and Tunis, here, unless we get there first.

Our allies the Americans have disembarked at Oran, there, about 300 miles behind us on the Algerian coast and at Casablanca, here, which is about 700 miles behind us in French Morocco.

Shortly we shall move to Constantine, here, in the Atlas Mountains - most probably by train. We may not get our vehicles for several days or even weeks yet. Until we do, you are infantrymen and a British Infantry platoon works like a pack of hounds - not a flock of sheep,”

Chorus of baas from the lads. Black look from Baker.

"We need to remember and practise if we can the basic infantry fieldcraft which demands physical fitness, mental alertness, mastery of weapons, knowledge of ground and, above all, discipline. Discipline is founded on the barrack square. Good drill which you may have done reluctantly at Broxmore, Dunipace and Attleborough gives you the habit of obedience and pride in your appearance and your unit. Such discipline must be carried on during situations in the field - in the desert in this case.

Under the stress of modern war, the highest standard of discipline is required of every man. I and my N.C.O's, Sergeant Allen here and Corporals Greenholgh, King and Mulchinok there, have to make it clear what you have to do in carrying out plans I get from Major Dodds. You men need to know of any plan of action and if you end up in the shit, if you get separated or if you get your vehicle and it breaks down - and Fitter Reid isn't around to repair the bloody thing - then you have to act on your own initiative, informing the rank above you as soon as you can. This is the difference between German `blind obedience' and British `intelligent obedience'. Any questions at this point?"

`Rice' Cheeseborough (yes, he was back, after they'd had the luxury of the Sergeant Cook at Dunipace House) called out,

"Yes sir. Can we sit down?"

Lieutenant Baker allowed them to sit cross-legged in the sand and went on, "If your lorry breaks down it's a sitting duck so you'd have to leave it and use ground cover - and this doesn't mean cowering in a hole out of the enemy's fare. You must use the ground as a hunter uses it - to get closer to the prey whom he is going to kill ... "

"Whom he is going to kill - nice English, sir," said Powell, precise Welsh accent as usual, adding under his breath, "if a little pe-dan-tic.”

Baker ignored this and went on,
"You have to be physically fit - under your previous lieutenant fitness lapsed - I know that you only did two thirds, if that, of the route march at Bonnybridge.”

Butch couldn't hold back:
"'A' platoon under Lieutenant Errington were acting on their initiative, sir.”
Baker replied,

"That's not initiative - that's skiving -fitness lax, discipline lax." "Morale good". - Butch again.
"Listen to my words, Reid. It might save your life one day.”

"You've said a broken down lorry is a sitting duck sir. What about poor bloody Butch then, sir, underneath it, sir, repairing it. Where does that leave him, sir?”

Apart from saying Fitter Reid's a survivor, Lieutenant Baker ignored this outburst of concern for Butch Reid by young Wheeler and went on: "Movement by night - watch and listen...
First: The ghost walk - for all night movements silence is more important than speed. Silence depends on perfect balance. Stand up. Lift the legs high to avoid long grass.”

As Lieutenant Baker lifted his leg, I regret to say that someone in `A' platoon made a farting noise - no names no pack drill, but the guilty man could have been the man from Gateshead. Pausing only to say, "Take that man's name sergeant!". Lieutenant Baker went on:
"Sweep the legs outwards in a semi-circular motion, feel gently with the toe for a foothold. Make sure that one foot is safe before the next foot moves, knees slightly bent. Always lie down when you halt at night.

Second: the cat walk Reid, you can demonstrate this. Sling your rifle across your back."
"I haven't got it sir."

"Imagine you have, man. Get down on your hands and knees and move each hand forward searching the ground carefully with the hand..."

"As if you're looking for a tanner, Butch," Brotherstone suggested helpfully. Lieutenant Baker continued: "....making sure there are no twigs or desert thorn bushes etc., then raise the knee and put it down where the hand is. Then move again. This is a very slow method but very sure and silent - like a cat.

Third: the kitten crawl."
Butch rose up, "Can somebody else do the kitten crawl sir? I'm tired." "Which just proves my point, Reid, about lack of fitness, lack of discipline." "All right, sir, I'll do it." Butch goes down on all fours again.

"Third, the kitten crawl. If the ground is covered with twigs the normal stomach crawl would make a noise. When moving very close to the enemy, perfect silence is essential and the only sure method is to keep raising the whole body off the ground on the forearms and the toes, pressing forward, lowering the body, feeling carefully with the hands each time. This is a very slow and tiring method which requires considerable practice, but it is invaluable. Accurate information at night can often only be obtained by movement very close to the enemy."

He went on to talk about camouflage - personal concealment and why you should mistrust road signs, town signs etc. because they may have been switched round by the enemy. Some of the lads had nodded off. It was too soon after landing. They had only just found their feet after 15 days on rough seas. Their lorries had not yet arrived and Lieutenant Baker's was a lecture too much. When he asked if there were any questions one lad pointed out that an eighth army friend in a letter to him had said there were just two things to learn:
Don't put your food out of your reach for the shite hawks to steal. - Shake your boots out in the morning to make sure there are no scorpions in them.
Another lad asked,
"What's the German for I surrender, sir?"

“B in B”s red socks

Using one of the lorries that came with them on the Strathmore, Butch drove two sergeants, Sergeant Allen and Sergeant `Bollocks in Brackets' to Algiers docks, checking on the vessels to see if their lorries had arrived.

The sergeants sat on the bench-like passenger seat of the lorry and `Bollocks in Brackets' nearest the window cockily put a leg out of the window - like a bloody Yank, thought Butch - and wearing red socks, to boot!

Their lorries hadn't arrived and, wandering around the dockland area, they were attracted by young Arabic women plus the occasional French girl hanging around a doorway. Obviously it was the doorway to a brothel, and eventually the lure of the female overcame them and they walked in, only to look, of course. `Red Socks' said "I've been away from the missus six months but I've never paid for it, and never will.”

The blinding sunlight outside gave way to a velvety darkness, which, when the eyes were accustomed to it, became a room in darkness except for a low light on a low table. Women sat around talking to men - mainly matelots, with a few British and American Servicemen, and every now and again a client was taken to one of the small cubicles lining the room. The wooden doors on the cubicles had a six-inch gap at the bottom, so that the huge madam in her huge armchair, could see which cubicles were in business. It reminded Butch of the cubicles at Hillsborough baths!

He went to have a word with her. She was surrounded by bunches of red Algerian roses and bottles of red Algerian wine, which were for sale if you wanted to give a girl an extra treat.
She spoke good English with a French accent, in a matter of fact way.

"You want a girl? Which one? You can't have me but there's a lovely young Arabic girl - lovely black hair - or blonde French girl, very forward. She'll put it in for you."
"No thanks. I'm engaged to be married," he lied. It seemed a bit of a sordid place - and anyway, the fear of disease overcame any lust for the women, whether they put it in for you or not.

The madam continued to chat with him and sold him a bottle of red wine. "You'll be back - see that room there? A RAF man, an Englishman who came in just to look has fallen for a girl - he's been with her all day. Can't bear to think of her with other men. You'll be back I've got nice girls. Your friend has chosen one."

Butch followed her gaze and in the cubicle next to the RAF lad, visible through the gap at the bottom of the door, were a pair of black army boots and a neatly folded pair of red socks!
As they drove back to their flour mill billets, `B in B' put a leg casually out of the cab window again, giving a foot and a red sock a bit of an airing.

"No," he reiterated, "I'd never pay for it, me." "I bet you would though, Butch."

Butch smiled to himself and said nowt as he drove on.


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