- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Edward Thomson MBE
- Location of story:
- North Africa, Italy and Austria
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 02 November 2005
On the 7th January 1941 at the age of 29, Eddie joined the Royal Armoured Corps at Aberdeen. He passed out grade 1 fitness. He was then sent for 6 weeks basic training at Catterick Camp in Yorkshire and assigned to work as a driver mechanic as he had been used to driving vehicles in civilian life. On 13th June 1941 he was put aboard a troop ship at Newport in Wales to a destination unknown to them at the time. In fact they sailed across the Atlantic and down the US seaboard to keep as far as possible from the German U Boats. They then sailed back across the Atlantic and round the Cape of Good Hope and up to Durban on the East Coast of South Africa. After a short break there they sailed up the Red Sea to Port Shiffig in Egypt. The whole journey took eight weeks.
August saw them stationed at Abysia barracks in Cairo and he was transferred to the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars which were part of the 7th Armoured Division famously known as the Desert Rats. His duties included driving bren gun carriers and lorries to and from bases with supplies and troops. In October he set off up the desert driving a Cruiser tank and encountered the Germans on 18th November 1941 at the battle of Sidi Rezegh near Tobruk. Eddie was later transferred to drive an American Honey tank up and down the desert until Christmas. They started off with 54 tanks and ended up with 12, the others were victims of German and Italian gunfire.
Christmas and New Year he spent in the barracks and in January 1942 he was posted to Benisuef near the Pyramids where they stayed until April, then his Regiment and their tanks were loaded onto a train and were sent on a two day journey up the desert to Bir Hakeim in the Libyan Desert. On the 27th May their position was attacked by the Germans from the south, this completely surprised the British as they were expecting an attack from the west. The Battle of Gazala had begun. Trooper Thomson's tank had fired every one of its 150 shells and his tank was now was being pounded by the much superior 88mm guns of the Germans.
Eddie's job was to keep his tank facing the shells as the front armour was thick enough to deflect them. Eventually however, the tank slewed to one side allowing two 88mm armour piercing shells to come in through the side of Eddie's tank narrowly missing him but killing the gun loader, Stephen Hoare, behind him. The poor soldier, who was in his very first battle, fell stone dead in a heap under trooper Thomson's seat. Trooper Thomson received shrapnel wounds to his nose and bleeding badly he and his surviving crew men clambered out of their burning vehicle to be captured at gunpoint by German soldiers. After 48 hours without food they were handed over to the Italians to be marched off to a prison camp.
The prisoner column, however, came under attack from Allied aircraft and in the confusion that followed when everyone took cover, trooper Thomson and two other soldiers managed to escape by hiding in a ditch then setting off back towards their own lines in the darkness. For several days they wandered through the desert living off rations which they found in burned out tanks. At one point they came across two German soldiers going in the opposite direction, but as each party had no weapons they just wished each other well and carried on until they rejoined their respective Regiments.
On June 12th the Regiment was transported to Alamein where they picked up brand new Grant Tanks off the train and they headed for Marsa Matruh in Egypt. At this time Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's all conquering Africa Corps was sweeping eastwards towards Cairo and Eddie Thomson's tanks were in the way! The group of 20 British tanks was attacked and surrounded on three sides by Germans and, with the sea behind them, they were in a trap. After two days of anxious waiting Eddie and his fellow Hussars were commanded to break out at 11 o'clock at night with every tank on its own. The Grants got on OK for about an hour then shells hit two of his comrades' tanks nearby. Driving with his periscope up, Eddie ran his tank over a mine which blew the tracks off. Everyone got out and walked through the mine field only to be picked up by a German patrol three days later. The prisoners were told their war was over.
They were taken to camps in Tobruk, Darnah and Benghazi where they were held until the beginning of November 1942. This was Eddie's lowest point as no Red Cross parcels were reaching them and his body was covered in fleas and lice; he thought he would never see Cuminestown again. At this point neither did his wife Mabel who had just received a telegram, for the second time, stating he was "missing believed prisoner". On the 1st November they were put into the hold of a ship which sailed to Rome via Naples. They arrived on 18th November and by this time Eddie's weight was down to 9 stones. They were put in prison camps PG54 and PG57 where they were held for 6 weeks. Red Cross parcels began to arrive but by this time Eddie had jaundice. November 1942 they were loaded onto a train bound for the Lombardi Plain in North Italy and he spent 4 months in hospital, other prisoners included Australians, US, New Zealanders and Indians. They stayed there until Italy surrendered in 1943.
The Germans took over the prisoners and loaded them, 50 men per wagon, onto a goods train which ran through the Brenner Pass up into Austria where they were placed in a new camp called Stalag 18A. Eddie ended up in hospital again this time with dermatitis and in November 1943 he fell out of a railway wagon near Claganforth and broke his leg, the Germans did not put it in plaster so it did not set properly and he was in hospital until April 1944. He then was sent to a paper factory but became sick again and was transferred to a camp near Vienna. The camp next to them held Russian prisoners and much to Eddie's horror the poor Russians were treated worse than animals by the Germans. The Russians died in their hundreds ravaged by disease and starvation, their wretched bodies were dumped in lime pits day after day.
By now it was obvious to all prisoners that the War would end soon and after the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans knew it was only a matter of time before their surrender. In the meantime however, Eddie's guards sensed that the Russians were advancing quickly towards their camp and in order to avoid both themselves and their prisoners falling into the hands of the Russians they were marched west towards Innsbruk. This journey took 2 weeks and involved sleeping under hedges and in ditches. One morning the prisoners woke up to find that their guards had fled and that afternoon the American Troops walked in to liberate them. The German surrender finally happened on 8th May 1945. Eddie was able to fly back to Britain in a Dakota aircraft where he was put on home leave and received all his back pay. He was finally demobbed from the Army on 14th February 1946.
It always puzzled me that Dad has never once had a desire to go and visit Africa or Europe for that matter to see the places that were so much part of his life during the war. It was not until he was over 80 years old that I was able to sit him down and ask if he could tell me as much as he could remember about his war. You will have read the tale he told in such detail to realise his amazing powers of recall. How could he be so matter of fact about being nearly killed by two shells coming in through the side of his tank and killing his friend? I also asked him if he was ever scared when in battle. He replied that he and his soldier mates were so busy firing back and protecting themselves that they did not have time to be afraid. Soldiers like Eddie were in and out of battles and skirmishes for months if not years and at the end of the war they were expected to go back to civilian life and just get on with things. There were no counselling services or post traumatic stress syndrome recognised in those days.
Another landmark in Eddie's life came on Sunday 14th November 1999, which was his 90th birthday. This time the family planned another party for him at the same venue as his 60th Wedding Anniversary party. My wife Lynn and I wanted to do something really special to mark his birthday. As we reviewed his life we thought about his time as a tank driver during the war and it was then that Lynn came up with the brilliant idea of having a tank collect him and take him from his house to the party venue.
At first we thought this would be impossible, but after a few phone calls, we made contact with Warrant Officer Bob McKenzie of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards based in Edinburgh. Now Bob was by an amazing co-incidence a native of Turriff and could identify immediately with Eddie Thomson and the place where he lived. Not only that but he was a modern day Desert Rat as he had served in the 1st Gulf War in a tank regiment. When we explained what we wanted he saw an immediate opportunity to not only give an original Desert Rat the surprise of his life but to gain some useful publicity for his own Regiment as it was to be at the next Turriff Show on a recruiting drive.
Before long the whole event was arranged and on the day before his birthday a small reconnaissance tracked vehicle, just like a small tank complete with gun, travelled north from Edinburgh to Cuminestown on an army low loader. On the morning of his birthday Eddie was told his taxi was about to arrive to take him to the hotel. As it was Remembrance Sunday and as he was a staunch member of the Royal British Legion I persuaded him to wear all of his medals. He stood at the front door of Cumrye getting more and more agitated as he awaited the arrival of his taxi. Just as he was about to give me a rebuke for the delay he suddenly heard this rumbling engine noise coming down the lane towards him. When he looked up the look of astonishment on his face was a sight to behold. As the tank approached he shouted, "I can drive one of those!"
The vehicle stopped feet away from him and from it jumped WO McKenzie with a picture of a young uniformed man held in front of him. "Are you Trooper Thomson number 7931694?"
"Yes," said Dad and with that WO McKenzie continued "You are under arrest as you have been AWOL since 1945!" Both men laughed loudly and with no more ado Eddie Trooper Thomson was lifted onto the tank and dropped down the pop hole in the gun turret and the lumbering machine set off down the street to the hotel. All the guests were told that something special was to appear outside the large windows of the reception room. They could hardly believe their eyes when our hero appeared in front of them proudly perched on top of the tank which rolled to a halt with the gun pointed directly at them!
Eddie was presented with a Desert Rat badge with the message "From the modern Desert Rats to an original Desert Rat with best wishes on his 90th birthday". The press got hold of the story and had a great time reporting the incident. The tank driver, Lance Corporal Weir, was also the Regimental Piper and in true military fashion Eddie was piped into the hall and the whole party was treated to a performance of piping as if it could have been any Officers' Mess. As a special treat for the younger guests, they were each given the chance to stand in the turret and be taken for a really exciting ride up and down the neighbouring field. The traffic on the road next to the field stopped in amazement as the machine did its manoeuvres at high speed; it could travel at 50 miles an hour in reverse! A truly memorable day for Eddie was marked by a truly memorable event.
On the 27th of March 2004 Eddie Thomson died peacefully at the age of 94; he was worn out and ready to go to be with his wife and daughter who died suddenly in 1959 at the age of 19. His sons knew he was near the end of his life on this earth. They had spent a lot of time at his bedside during the previous two days. The Reverend James Cook blessed him and, in the presence of sons, said a wonderful prayer for him on the day before he died.
His funeral service in the Church at Cuminestown was attended by close to 400 people. A piper played as he was carried to the graveside by two of his bowling friends and two church elders. As everyone stood round the grave after he was lowered by his sons, grandsons and nephews, eight members of the Royal British Legion sprinkled poppies on his coffin and the piper Bill Hepburn played the haunting tune Highland Cathedral. The whole scene was truly magical on that cold grey Scottish afternoon.
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