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Two Wars -Part One

by lawrencedonkin

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Lawrence Donkin
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05 May 2005

One day I came home from work, and my Aunt (I called her Mam) said “there is a letter for you Laurie, “On His Majesty’s Service” It was not the Tax Man, but the Army and it was certainly going to tax my powers of endurance over the next year or so. You can include the German Army in that, and the Italians!
My call up papers informed me that I had to report for a medical at the Y.M.C.A at Toward Road Sunderland. I was passed ‘A1’ and told I would be posted shortly.
I informed the manager at work where I was working on Spitfire and Hurricane propellers , that I was called up to the Colours, he said I need not go as he could have me deferred as it was important work I was doing. I now had a decision to make-to continue working or to join the armed services. After a week I received my posting to the 16thBattalion D.L.I at Folkestone, I spoke to the manager at work and told him I was going. He just shook his head, and said “well it’s up to you”. I was just over 24years old.
We travelled to Folkestone by troop train, Newcastle and Sunderland lads, and when we arrived we were billeted at a large school. The next day we were lined up in our “civvies” and the sergeant called us to attention. He came up behind me and said “What were you in Civvy Street, a butler?”- As my arms were crooked up a bit. I said “no sergeant, I was a joiner”. “You’re a joiner alright; you have joined the Army, get those arms straight”.
After a while, he told us to line up out side a doorway and told us we would be receiving our T.A.B’s One of the Lads said “I hope they’re not Woodbines. Sarge, they’re a bit strong for me”. The sergeant said “What you’re going to get, you will be excused duty for 48 hours”.
It was in fact a T.A.B. inoculation against overseas diseases.

Over the next week or so we were kitted out with our two piece suits, battle dress and blouse, long johns kit bag etc. Rifle and 18” bayonet. Our battalion consisted of four companies A, B, C and D. and I were in C Company.
The day came when we were posted to a village in Sussex, named Winchelsea, near Rye Harbour on the South coast near Hastings.

Two Decisions

In 1939 The Rt. Honourable Neville Chamberlain, our Prime Minister, announced over the radio that Britain was at war with Germany whose Dictator was the Rt. Dis-Honourable Herr Hitler.
Direction of labour was brought in and for the next two years I was directed to various essential war work. Assembling wooden huts. In I.C. I. At Morecombe Bay and Militia Camp at Ripon. Fitting extra accommodation below decks on mine sweepers at Maryport in Cumberland and a very important job at West Hartlepool
At John Bottomley’s, which entailed making Spitfire propeller blades from laminated Australian plywood. We shaped these with templates, spirit level, spoke shave and small planes. The blade was fit into a boss on the bench and worked in sections. As c

We were given twelve weeks intensive training, route marches, arms drill, night fighting, unarmed combat, trotting without a stop for ten miles in two hours-officers and men alike.(Montgomery’s orders). So from coming into the army on 08 01 42 I was granted ten days leave and Annie and I became engaged to be married. And after that I went back for more of the same training.
On my next leave July 4th American Independence Day. 1942 my fiancée Annie and I were married.
On November 8th the invasion of French North Africa was launched called “Operation Torch”. It was the greatest amphibious operation in history at that time, involving American and British forces 500 ships and 100,000 men.
They landed in Algiers, Morocco and Casablanca- the aim being to trap the German army in Tunisia. The British 1st Army was commanded by Brigadier General Kenneth Anderson and General Eisenhower was Supreme Commander. The Eighth Army was advancing from El-Alemain under General Montgomery who attacked the Africa Corp under Rommel and was advancing to the Mareth Line, so the Germans were in a vice from which they could not escape. The reason I have brought these facts before you is that I was to be involved in the events in North Africa. Our Battalion was given embarkation leave in December and when we returned we prepared to go to our embarkation port which was Southampton.

Two Thousand Miles

Our transports arrived at Camberley and we marched to the quayside at Southampton, as only the D. L. I. Can (120stepsto the minute) and lined up in full battle order as King George V1 had come to see us off, The lads from Newcastle were proud of the fact that they were named after him and some said it was rumoured that he had been heard singing “the Blaydon Races” in his bath, but I take that with a pinch of salt!
After his inspection, we embarked on the Empress of Australia, one of four liners to take us on our journey. It was Christmas Day 1942. We had an escort of destroyers and when were nearing Gibraltar, where we would pass through the Straits from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, we were told we were going to Algiers to reinforce the 1st British Army in it’s advance into Tunisia

After about ten days we arrived at Algiers. We were there for a week, and then our Company Commander told us we were going to the front line- a place called Sedjonane, a few kilometres from Bizerta. We entrained on carriages with slatted seats and it was a single track railway that had been secured by the American and British 1st Army, which we were part of. The journey was slow but uneventful and covered about 500 miles, passing the edge of the Sahara Desert and after a week we arrived at Sedjanane, which was a remote village occupied by Arabs.
After we detrained at dusk, we were assembled in full battle order and allotted our various positions. Our Company “C” were to relieve the Coldstream Guards who were holding a position in a railway tunnel in front of the Germans, who held all the high ground in front of Bizerta, which was our objective. A. B. and D. Companies would also dig in our flanks. At dawn we “stood to” and surveyed the ground in front of us. Tunisia is a very hilly country and the military names for the surrounding hills were” Green Hill” in front “Baldy” on the right, the railway running between to Bizerta “Sugar Loaf” and “Bowler Hat” on the left- the enemy holding this ground.
About 500 yards in front of the tunnel was one of our Bren carriers which had been knocked out by Messerschmitt cannon fire and we could see 3 or 4 bodies draped over the sides. We held this position for about 3 weeks as the Germans seemed content to hold their defensive positions for now.
When we went out to dig slit trenches for guard duty at night, they would fire 6” mortars amongst us and we would make a bee-line for the tunnel. Also we carried out night patrols into “No Mans Land”, one to the Bren carrier, but made no contact with the enemy.
About a week before the end of February, our Platoon Sergeant “Allen” informed us that the Battalion was withdrawing to meet a threat from the enemy on our left flank.
We withdrew under cover of darkness for about 4 miles to a wood. At dawn our Company Commander, Captain Jobey from South Shields, gave the order to move out of the wood to attack the enemy. Our heavy artillery put a barrage on a ridge of high ground and we could see the shells bursting along it. The whole Battalion of 4 Companies was involved as we advanced over the ridge top as the artillery barrage had lifted and our Company secured the hillside and we began to dig in. What we didn’t know, was that we were up against the elite paratroops of Herman Goering Division and they were drawing us forward to encircle us. The last food we had had was a cold stew before we cut off from rear Headquarters. We held this position for a week, with mortar attacks until our positions became untenable.

Two Days Into March

On the 1st of March there was a diversion involving 40 Commandoes who were attached to our Company. Some soldiers came towards us bearing a white flag and it was thought they may be Free French troops, and then one of the Commandoes shouted “It’s a trap, they’re Germans. He’d recognised one who had killed his mate. The Germans must have understood him for they turned and fled for cover. They may have been approaching us to ask for our surrender, i .e. the white flag, but nothing came of it. The next day, 2nd of March, just before dawn, we prepared to attack, and take the enemy head on.

One thing that has always puzzled me is that Captain Jobey and Sergeant Major Pearson shook hands with each one of us as we filed past prior to going into action.
You would expect them to lead the attack. Whether they had an escape route back to our lines and been ordered to do so, I have never found out.

Just before we started to advance Sergeant Allen came to me and said that Private Rutherford, the section Bren gunner had been wounded, his thumb having been shot off and I was to take over. I took off my webbing equipment, pouches etc. and put on the Bren gunner’s web belt and pouches —Bren magazines in the right one; two grenades in the left, and a revolver attached in a holster on the webbing belt and the Bren gun- the sergeant taking my rifle and bayonet.
It was just beginning to turn light and we began to advance in extended formation towards the enemy.
The Bren had a full magazine on and I gave it a short burst to make sure it was in working order. As we advanced across open ground, tracer bullets were floating towards us and then a sharp crack from near misses. Private Martin on my left was hit in the arm or leg, but we had to press on. The enemy fire was becoming heavier and we took cover beside a small ridge, just before some dead ground.
I went full length with the Bren, a small boulder on my left, bullets thudding into it, from what sounded like a Spandau machine gun. Lying flat out to the right of me was Sergeant Allen and Corporal Palmer and the other six of our section. As I looked down the slope of dead ground, to the shallow valley I counted five Germans setting up what looked like another Spandau, about three hundred yards ahead. Sergeant Allen told me to get them.
I already had the Bren on its tripod and lined them up through the aperture sight. The Bren magazine holds 28 bullets — we put in 27 to avoid jamming. It fires 120 rounds to the minute and splays out to make sure it gets its target. It also fires a single shot. Taking careful aim, I pressed the trigger, and nothing happened.
I took the magazine off to see what the trouble was, could see nothing wrong with it,
Depressed the bullets onto the spring to make sure it wasn’t jammed, clipped it back on and was about to take aim, when Sergeant Allen said “leave it down “ and he was getting on to his feet with his hands up.” We are prisoners” he said. The German had come on top of us from the slope below. I stood up and one of them beckoned me to come forward
And he said in good English “for you the war is over.”
He had an automatic gun trained on me and told me to take my equipment off. All I had to do was unclip my web belt and my pouches with the grenades, magazines and revolver and they all fell to the ground. The Bren was already there. If the Bren had fired, if the Bren had fired I’m sure we would have all been killed. I had about 50 cigarettes in my emergency ration tin which the German took when he searched me, but he did give me one as well. We were ordered forward to the German positions and as we came over the ridge we saw a great flat plateau before us and as far as the eye could see was the enemy advancing in sections in battle formation. We were lined up again by a small officer and searched, then ordered to carry bandoliers of ammunition Corporal Palmer protested, as it was against the Geneva Convention and he was quite right to do so, but not very wise in the circumstances. The officer stuck his Luger into his stomach and threatened to shoot him. Sergeant Allen told him to do it for now and complain at a later date. Corporal Palmer, who was well over 6ft and towered over the officer, restrained himself and picked up the bandolier and carried on. Shells from our artillery were still bursting around us and we were then given the task of picking up the dead and wounded- German and British- and carrying them on stretchers to a dug out behind their front line. The Germans on the whole treated us alright and said that they liked the British and they were going to win the war.
It was soon becoming dusk and a fire was lit and we sat round it with the German Paras, they gave us some Cadburys chocolate, a Players cigarette, and a mug of tea (from the captured stores most likely)
After this we were given the job of digging a line of graves for the dead and we put them in as they were- battle dress of the British and the camouflage uniform of the German Paras. When we were finished a German first and then a British and so on down the line we placed their steel helmets at the head of the grave- so right down the line was a German and a British helmet.

After we were finished the grave digging work, two Para’s formed us into single file and we were led through a mine field, on a pathway through it. About 3 or 4 kilometres later we were in the port of Bizerta. Four of us were put in a sort of cell ut 6” in diameter and a square patch on my trousers on the map pocket of the left leg. These would be targets if we made a break for it.

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