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Personal Memories of WW2 by Ronald Marson Chapter 1

by Ronald Marson

Contributed by 
Ronald Marson
People in story: 
Ronald Alfred Marson
Location of story: 
Britain, Durban, Basra, Qum, Baghdad
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A3787022
Contributed on: 
14 March 2005

Personal recollections of World War 2
By Ronald Alfred Marson, 30.04.21-19.12.04

My first contact with the armed forces was in an army recruiting office in Southampton in January 1941 when I joined up for the duration of the war. I had not intended to volunteer. We were enjoying ourselves living away from home for the first time with plenty of girls of our own age in the same situation. Three of us shared a dining table in the YMCA in Bournemouth where our office had moved to, away from the bombings in London. Arthur was besotted with the RAF, its life, its uniform and its superiority, in his view, to the army and he spent his days telling us so until Hobby and I were heartily sick of the subject. So the day Arthur went to join the RAF we slipped away to join the army, Hobby into the Royal Engineers and I into the Royal Artillery.

Basic training was spent in Bulford camp on Salisbury Plain where we practised gunnery on field artillery which must have been old in the 1914-1918 War. I remember it was quite cold and we had no hot water in the barracks. As a rather futile protest all the lads in our squad grew moustaches.

After three months we were dispersed to different regiments. I joined the 156th (Lanarkshire Yeomenry) Field Regiment R A on the Isle of Wight off the English South Coast. The Lanarkshire Yeomenry had been a cavalry regiment until 1939 when it reformed into two Field Artillery units equipped with 25-pounders. The sister regiment, the 155th, had been sent overseas and subsequently went to Singapore where in the debacle there most of the troops were either captured by the Japanese or killed. At least half of the troops in the regiment I had joined were lowland Scots, many from Glasgow. They were tough, hard drinking and easily excited with a poor opinion of the English, particularly of Southerners. But I found they were very loyal to their friends and it was not long before they were accepting me.

The regiment had taken over an area defence role on the island while it continued with training and exercises. In the early winter of 1941 the regiment left the IOW and went to firing camps at Sennybridge in Wales and at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain. And in December the regiment took up quarters on the North Yorkshire Moors in very cold weather where training was continued. In May 1942 the regiment left the billets in Yorkshire watched by many tearful feminine eyes and was transported to Glasgow.

From Glasgow we embarked on the Orient Line ship Orcades converted into a troop carrier and joined a great convoy of over 60 ships, destination unknown. After a big sweep across the Atlantic and back for a brief visit to Freetown, West Africa the convoy rounded the Cape of Good Hope and came to Harbour at Durban. Here we spent a very pleasant two weeks in an island transit camp living on fresh pineapples and other foods we had not seen for two years. We were able to visit the delights of the beautiful town of Durban and I recall a memorable swim in the Indian Ocean at Isipingo beach.

I had one very frightening experience at the camp when as a young NCO I was put in charge of the beer canteen used by hundreds of troops from all parts of the world. The frightening part came when I attempted to close the bar and the incensed drinkers started hurling their beer bottles.

We left Durban reluctantly, again destination unknown but convinced we were bound for India and possibly on to Burma. During the long voyage out from Britain the rumour had got around that India was our destination and our Battery Commander started classes in Urdu. By the time we arrived at Bombay I felt quite pleased with my progress in the language. But alas, I was never to make use of it for within 24 hours we had embarked on another ship and soon found ourselves sailing up the Persian Gulf and into the steamy heat of the Shatt-El-Arab to the port of Basra where we disembarked.

My recollection of the camp in the desert where we spent the next few days was of the terrible heat — 137 F in the shade was recorded on one occasion. Any work after 9am was impossible and we spent the rest of the day gasping in our tents. One of our gunners died of heat exhaustion. I also remember some of the troops catching a scorpion and some huge ants and putting them in a box to fight it out. The ants won.

We left Zubair camp and by train and truck travelled across the desert, first to Baghdad then Khanakin. We climbed up the long Pai-Tak Pass crossing the border into Iran and on to Kermanshah where we camped for some weeks. The camp was in a barren waste at the foot of the mountains with the snow covered Mount Demevend near the Caspian Sea in the background. Convoys of lorries passed by laden with supplies for our Russian allies. Eventually our transport and guns reached the camp and we were once again an artillery regiment. Bit by bit a whole Division, the 5th British Infantry Division, arrived in the vicinity and our regiment filled a gap left by a Field Regiment which had lost many of its troops through blackwater fever in the campaign in Madagascar.

In November 1942 the regiment moved to a camp in the desert a few miles outside the holy Moslim city of Qum with its vast golden-domed mosque and its bazaars of local craftsman. The New Year 1943 arrived and the weather became very cold. During this time the gunners of the regiment began to get to know the infantry units they were to support in future battles — the Seaforth Highlanders, the Northamptons and the Royal Scots Fusiliers. The Division had been sent to this remote highland area to defend the way to India if the Germans broke through the Caucasus.

In February 1943 the regiment left Qum for the great overland journey to the Mediterranean. At the start it was bitterly cold and the convoy had to travel over the Shah Pass in a blinding snowstorm. I recall putting chains on the wheels of our truck on the edge of a precipice while vehicles and guns slithered past dangerously close to us on the icy snow. On another occasion we stayed in a transit camp in tents with about 40 degrees of frost. We bedded down on the icy ground only to find a few hours later a stream running through the tent — the heat of our bodies having melted the ice.

We were pleased to leave Iran and reach warmer climes at Baghdad. Then across the Syrian Desert following the oil pipe line from Kirkuk to Transjordan and the Palestine coast. A night in Tel Aviv, on to Beersheeba, across the Suez Canal and finally to the School of Combined Operations near Ismailia in Egypt to learn amphibious warfare. It was on the shores of the Bitter Lakes that the regiment learnt the art of invasion from the sea.

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