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My Life in the RAOC During the War 1939-1945 Chapter 4

by philipchurchill

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Larry Jackson
Location of story: 
North Africa, France
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
18 February 2005

Chapter 4.
In which I take part in the Invasion of North Africa.

On the following day we saw the last of the land disappearing in the distance and we settled down to the routine of ship's life. We hoped it was going to be a pleasant trip, but we were doomed to disappointment. With the dawning of the following day the sky became overcast and the waves turned to huge rollers. By mid-day the storm had hit us full blast and most of the lads were very ill, poor devils. I must be a born sailor, for I felt fit as a fiddle all the way and consequently I managed quite well on all the spare rations. For three days the storm blew and the ship rolled, pitched, bounced and did everything except fly. God, what a trip. Finally the sun broke through and the journey became much more peaceful.

Then came the briefing of our Force. We were bound for the North African invasion. After the briefing I went up on deck and looked at the tremendous force of ships around us. They stretched over the horizon in every direction. I almost felt sorry for any opposing force that might try to stop this armada.

Many people sneer at the Intelligence Corps, but their part in the African "do" was an amazing piece of work. No detail was missed and consequently we went through the invasion without a hitch.

One night quite a flap went through the ship. Lights could be seen on both Port and Starboard. We were going through the Straits of Gibraltar, which appeared on the port side in quite a ghostly light in the small hours of the morning. Quietly it glided past and faded into the distance as the whole force slid through, unseen I hoped.

For the next few days and nights we steamed silently along until one evening we had the order "Kits packed and to assembly stations". At last we had arrived on Sunday, the 8th November 1942. The first wave of boats was away by 01.00 hours and at our beach head very little action took place. At 07.00 hours it was our turn; up on deck and down over the scramble nets into Invasion Landing Craft and so on to the beaches. As it was quite a way and quite peaceful we had a chance to look around and what an agreeable sight met our eyes. A golden strip of beach, now studded with men and equipment, was backed by the
brilliant orange and green of the orange and tangerines plantations, interspersed by white houses with bright red roofs, while far away in
the distance towered the Atlas Mountains. To cap it all was the amazing
blue of the African sky. All told it was a beautiful sight after a couple of weeks of endless sea. When we made the beach we disembarked in almost leisurely fashion. Equipment and men were filing onto the beach, with jeeps and lorries of all descriptions. One in particular is worthy of note, that being the wood driven Wog Wagon. On its side was a massive boiler which was periodically stoked up with blocks of wood and the whole affair belched smoke and sparks as it went along.

As the invasion was going smoothly our job was collecting Mae Wests. What a job for a fully qualified Ammunition Section! Most of our section was sent on to our rendezvous at Hydra on the outskirts of Algiers. I stayed behind with 8 blokes to look after the kit and I was told that directly the kit was loaded we were to start marching to a certain map reference.

It was quite an experience to start marching in the evening, knowing we had about 16 miles to do in a strange and maybe hostile country and with night coming on. The march was quite uneventful and we arrived at the Map Ref. in the early hours of the morning only to find the place quite deserted and everyone wrapped in the arms of Morpheus. We wandered around for a while until we came across a couple of sleepy Gendarmes. It must have been mighty funny to watch a
British Sergeant and a French Gendarme trying to converse in their different languages, but with my limited knowledge of French and much hand waving I managed to ask if there were any British or American troop in the town. There were - British too. The Gendarme took us to them. No, it wasn't any of our fellows, but we were invited to stay with them until someone turned up. We woke fairly early, about 9 a.m. if I remember rightly, and had our breakfast out of what was left of our 48 hour ration, not much I'll admit. Dinnertime arrived and still no one had come to find us so we ate the last of the ration. Teatime came, still nobody, no tea either. We turned in and went to sleep, feeling very cheesed off. The following morning we managed to scrounge a drop of tea and a few biscuits from the lads we were billeted with. Then during the morning our Dispatch Rider turned up. Were we glad to see him? Apparently the remainder of the unit had been working non-stop since they arrived at the depot site and had had no time to come for us. About an hour later our Captain turned up with the wagon to collect us. On arrival I found, much to my surprise, that quite a large depot had
been formed and the lads were happily settled down to a rather mucky
sort of life, but with quite good rations. That dinnertime we had a
double portion and, believe me, it went down well.

On the 12th November, just four days after we landed. Jerry paid us his first visit. Why he didn't come before is still a mystery to me. That evening we heard the old familiar wail of the air raid siren and a few minutes later the fireworks started.

The days and nights went by and we were kept pretty busy with issues of ammo at all hours. On top of that we were confined to the depot area. Finally we were allowed out until 7 p.m. so we operated a half day off system to let the lads see Algiers. At last my turn came, so my pal and I hitched it to the town.

We spent most of the time just looking at the sights of this wonderful place, which consisted of two quarters, the European and the well known Kasbah. After paying a visit to the Kasbah I was reminded of the old saying about the perfume of the East! Perfume did I say? A "blue pencil" stink was more like it. Every gutter was running with water and filled with garbage of every description. The veiled beauties were well and truly filthy and one could smell them a mile away. The Arab is a quaint creature with clothes of many colours, usually a cotton robe patched so many times that it is difficult to decide which was the original colour. Their trousers amused me. They consist of a type of knee britches in cotton with a deep, full, baggy seat. The reason for this, I found out, is that they think the next Allah will be born of Man, which is part of their faith. Those Arabs must be about the dirtiest human beings on earth and it was nothing to see one sitting in the gutter de-lousing himself.

But to return to the story. Having spent all the afternoon seeing the sights we went into a cafe for tea. Egg and chips was on the menu - need I say more? Afterwards we thought we would sample a spot of wine. My, my what a night! After a few glasses of some sort of wine we were as tight as lords. We had enough sense to remember that we had to be back at 7 p.m. so we set off in rather a fuddled way to make our way back to camp. We were about half way through the town when an air raid started. Did we care? No. We just told the poor old Gendarme who tried to push us into the Shelter that we weren't afraid of any Jerry planes. "Let 'em all come", said we. The Gendarme raised his arms and eyes to the heavens and went away muttering something about mad Englishmen. Well, 'tis said that drunks never come to any harm and I can believe it now for, as we leaned over a wall watching the harbour below taking the brunt of the attack, there was a shrill whine and a bit of shell casing ricocheted off the wall between us, taking a large piece of the wall with it. That shook us and, discretion being the better part of valour, we made our way rather quickly back to camp and to bed. What a hangover the following morning!

We had by this time settled down to depot life at Hydra, but one day the peace was rudely shattered by orders to move, destination unknown. The following day we boarded a train and as darkness fell Algiers faded away behind us, with an air raid in full swing. The train rattled on and on and soon we were lulled to sleep. When we awoke the following morning we found ourselves right in the wilds at a tiny wayside halt, Beni Mousu I believe it was called. We were told we could get out to stretch our legs, but not to move far from the train as it might move at any time. As it was we were there till the evening. Apparently there had been a crash further up the line and we had to wait until it was clear. We had to keep a sharp eye on our kit for there were a lot of Arabs scrounging about and those beggars would lift anything they could get their hands on. But we had a lot of fun bartering with them for oranges, dates, etc., which helped to pass the time away. At last we boarded the train again and were once more on the move. On and on rattled the train all through the night, finally arriving at Constantine, a large town way up in the heart of the Atlas Mountains. This was to be our new station.

Constantine, the inland capital of Algeria, is an amazing city with two distinct parts, the European and the Arab, built one on each side of a deep canyon.

While I was there an accident befell me. One evening I was trying to extract a cartridge from a .22 pistol that had stuck in the breach when the pistol went off and the bullet went through my hand. As there was no British hospital in town I was sent to a French one. I honestly think that this was the funniest time I spent in the whole of my Army career. Nobody at the hospital could speak English, so with my limited knowledge of schoolboy French and a lot of sign language I had great fun trying to explain what had happened. After this I had to act as interpreter to all the wounded boys, both British and American, who were brought into the hospital. The French nurses were angels in uniform. They did everything in their power to make the boys comfortable. There were some pretty bad cases amongst them and their courage was wonderful.

Later I was transferred to a British Base hospital back in Algiers, which was not so good. To put it in Army terms - too much Bull. But for all that the care and attention from all ranks was first class. It was there that we came in contact with the Army Nursing Sisters. No praise is high enough for those girls. They did a grand job of work. Soon I left the hospital, being fit and A.I. again and so to a General Base Depot.

My stay with the G.B.D. at Jean Bart was a good one for they were a great lot of fellows, who quickly made me at home.

I had one experience worthy of note and quite amusing. I palled up with one of the Sergeants. Ginger was his nick name for obvious reasons. One day we were sitting in a cafe and swapping yarns when we hit upon a place where we had both been stationed. Naturally the topic of girls cropped up and I mentioned the fact that I used to knock around with the head of the local Woolworths. Ginger sat up with a jerk. "So you're the b-— Ordinance Sergeant who pinched my girl!" he exclaimed.

Ginger and I became the best of friends and remained together for some time.

I spent most of my remaining time in Algeria disposing of German ammunition, with one incident that sticks in my memory. An American train full of ammunition was coming through Maison Carree when the axle box overheated and caught fire causing the train to explode. Boxes of ammunition were flying everywhere and we, being the ammo unit, had the job of getting shot of it. The American officer in charge was impressed and full of praise for me and for the unit. It was good to be appreciated!

In Algiers we were entertained by some great ENSA concerts, Grade Fields and Wee Georgie Wood being two of the stars I remember. I was watching a concert one evening when a voice behind me said "What are you doing here, Sergeant Jackson?" and I looked round to see one of my old pals. Jack Buttress, from Sidmouth sitting grinning at me.

Shortly after that our unit was posted to Italy. That was when I lost touch with Ginger, for I was left behind to finish the ammo disposal. I never got to Italy. Instead 1 was posted back to England, where I began a course of training in preparation for the Second Front.

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