- Contributed by
- laurie roberts
- People in story:
- Laurence Charles Roberts
- Location of story:
- Italy, North Africa, Ceylon
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 14 July 2005
In March 1941, after just two days' embarkation leave, I was on the boat going somewhere
overseas. A crew member of the Mersey ferry taking us from Birkenhead to the Liverpool
landing stage, who told us exactly where the troopship was going, solved the mystery.
Liverpool was getting the bombing at this time but fog meant that no raid took place on the
night we were anchored in the river before sailing the following morning. A great convoy
assembled somewhere off west Wales and got under way making for the Atlantic Ocean
where U-boats were waiting for us. There were ships as far as the eye could see with the
battleships Nelson and Warspite in the centre and a number of destroyers just visible on
the horizon. It was reassuring, but no one got undressed for the first few days.
Life on a troopship can be quite boring; endlessly looking over the rails at whatever state
the sea is in, or in warmer waters the occasional shoal of porpoise or flying fish. Freetown
was our first port of call, only a brief one and no shore leave, but my first sight of
"overseas". Half the convoy bypassed Cape Town with a good view of Table Mountain as
we made our way to Durban.
South Africa - Durban
Arriving on a Friday morning, we were greeted at the dock entrance by the "Lady in White"
Dame Perla Gibson, a well known international opera singer who stood on the quayside,
dressed all in white, singing patriotic songs, as the ship entered the harbour. She did this
for all British warships, troopships and hospital ships entering Durban harbour. Her
welcome was very moving and symbolic of the pre-war South African national fervour.
Durban was full of surprises and very welcoming. Free Services canteens in the city
supplied many items not seen in Britain since the beginning of the war. Lever Bros.
supplied buses to take people into the city and back, but by waiting on the main road
outside the docks one could hitch a lift to the beach. This happened to a group I was with.
We were invited to join the family for a beach picnic, then taken to a house outside Durban
for a drink and then dinner at another place and finally taken back to the ship at midnight -
quite a day! Another day it was a Sports and Fete day with everything free of charge.
North Africa - Egypt
Monday morning we set sail for Port Suez at the southern end of the Suez Canal. Just as
we arrived, the great liners Queens Mary and Elizabeth came out of a melee of ships on
their way to Australia with Italian prisoners-of-war on board.
After disembarking it was a rail journey northward to the Mediterranean coast of Egypt to
the transit camp of Aboukir near Alexandria. By now it was mid May 1941 and my first
taste of foreign soil and it was mostly sand. It was also the start of many months under
canvas. A short stay and then back by rail to the capital Cairo for another short stay.
I was put on a watch at RAF HQ in the posh part of Cairo, for the first time working highspeed
telegraphy circuits. I remember a sun spot blackout lasting for a couple of days,
when no W/T communication was possible-quite a serious situation.
Next, I was sent to RAF Station Helwan, 10 miles south of Cairo, and there we formed
No.6 Heavy Mobile W/T Unit, which was to be my unit for the next four years.
We met up with the C.O. Flt/Lt H.E.Pierce, the Sgt. I/C was "Lofty" Drennen, an Irishman
and survivor of No 3 Mobile Unit that was sent to Norway and captured by the enemy.
No's 1 & 2 Mobile Units went to France in 1939 and were set up in railway carriages.
Hence we were known as the Blue Trains (colour of French railways at the time).
No's 4 & 5 were in the Middle East but we were the first High-Speed automatic Morse unit.
I was put I/C stores and went to various depots in Egypt to get bits and pieces needed to
get the unit up to operational standard.
Another Corporal and myself were the only operating staff until a draft of newly trained
operators arrived from the U.K. Enough to make up four watches of about 8 per watch.
Our first job was to train them in auto high speed Morse. They were then reclassified as
Wireless Operator Morse Slip Readers or W/OP/MSR. and raring to go.
But our first move, in September 1941, only took us as far as Helmieh which was about 10
miles the other side of Cairo and not operational at that time. The plus side was that we
could enjoy a visit to Cairo with all sorts of entertainment on offer!
As with most service units the main recreation was football and at this stage a team was
formed with me as "manager" (not good enough to play) arranging games with other
service units in the locality. Sometimes it meant an extra special tea if we were away at a
big camp. I kept the job throughout my time with the unit.
Our first operational job was to help out at a permanent Wireless Station (Suez Road)
nearby to give the operators some experience. Next we had to do experimental reception
tests in an area where there were plans to build a big permanent wireless station, later
known as Telecommunications Middle East (TME).
By June 1942, the front line was being pushed back to El Alamein and there was a threat
to Cairo. No.6 HM W/T Unit was sent to Ramleh in Palestine to establish communication
with the U.K. If the enemy got as far as Cairo we had to keep watch so that continuous
communication was maintained with the U.K. It didn't happen, so we could relax and
spend an odd afternoon on the beach at Tel Aviv or a bit of sightseeing in Jerusalem.
All the Watch were off for a week and we hitchhiked to Beirut and then to Damascus
getting a lift in an old lorry and, going up steep roads. Over the mountains it had a
tendency to stop, so we were told to keep putting a supply of large stones etc. under the
back wheels of the lorry to stop it rolling back. Our return was via Nazareth to Ramleh. It
had been a welcome break; the first leave for 18 months. Now it was back to Cairo TME.
At this stage I was promoted to Sergeant and I/C the operational side of the unit.
By now the big battle of El Alamein was under way. The Eighth Army artillery barrage at El
Alamein in October 1942 being the start. We were on our way up from TME to the Western
Desert and had to wait about 30 miles west of Alexandria before we could proceed to our
first stop - El Adem, near Tobruk. Before El Adem, we ran into a two-day sandstorm worse
than fog because the sand got in everywhere.
On the way to Benghazi I was travelling in a Crossley 3-ton truck and our unit had got too
far ahead. We were up with the 51st Highland Division reinforcing the front line. Going
down a very steep escarpment the driver lost control of the vehicle. It hit a roadblock and
turned on its side (the driver had jumped out and was crushed to death underneath). I
was in the front passenger seat and shot out through the open roof and landed on the
road. Fortunately, I was uninjured but didn't remember anything until I came round at a
Casualty Clearing Station in an ambulance with the poor dead driver on the stretcher
underneath. The Crossley was towing a wireless station trailer with four men inside.
Miraculously the trailer remained upright on the edge of the sheer drop down the
escarpment. This happened at Bardia, which was only about 50 miles from Benghazi.
At last we were at Benghazi and were fully operational for the first time. It was November
1942, very wet and cold at night, not a bit like Egypt. Communication was good, we had
the high-speed channel for traffic (messages) from Advance Air Headquarters Western
Desert to the main headquarters in Cairo. This was mostly "Y" traffic destined for the
Bletchley Park (Station X) outstation near Cairo. We also had normal W/T channels
working different RAF units in the area. It was good to be active and useful.
Benghazi showed signs of the three years of war - a lot of buildings damaged and shipping
sunk in the harbour. We were near the airfield at Benina, about 3 miles from the town.
Once again the opportunity arose to start a football team and I got a fixture with an Army
unit down the road. Unfortunately, there was an old German ammunition depot near the
football field, which exploded. I was refereeing and wanted to stop the game because of
the shrapnel flying all over the place, but the players wanted to carry on. There was no
extra time played that day! There was an Army Shower Unit in Benghazi so once a week
we were taken into town and had a shower, a great luxury!
Christmas, 1942 was our first on the move. Apparently the Storeman had to put in for extra
Christmas rations and beer way back in October while we were at TME, Cairo. Christmas
Eve came and our special rations hadn't arrived so the cook had his eye on every
aeroplane arriving at Benina. Eventually, taking a truck over to the airfield, we got our
Christmas dinner and a bottle of beer, but it might not have been the one that was ordered!
1943 was an eventful year. Normally all messages that we handled for W/T transmission
rd th were in code (5 letter Typex code), but on the 23 January the 8 Army unexpectedly
marched into Tripoli, and we received a plain language message saying "Tripoli is ours.
Return to base" We had to transmit this to aircraft flying overhead on their way to bomb
Tripoli. Apparently it worked.
We then had a quiet period before moving again in May to Tripoli itself. On the way we
passed "Marble Arch", a replica of the London one, built way out in the desert by local
labour under Italian supervision. Our destination was the airfield at Castle Benito way
outside Tripoli itself but our CO had other ideas. Being at the head of the convoy he took
us right into Tripoli on a sightseeing detour before coming back out and on the road to
C.Benito. Because we were in transit this stop was for one night only but we soon found
out we were in wine drinking country. A vehicle was despatched to find the source and
return with a big metal tank of the stuff, no name or even type, only red and strong. Soon
it was being drank by the mug full. Not knowing the strength of the wine, a lot of the
personnel were soon drunk with bodies all over the place. I still don't know how we got
through that night. There was a main road between the airfield and us and men were
stretched out on this. A great wine introduction night was had by all!
Next day we were on our way to an isolated spot halfway between C.Benito and Tripoli
where we had to set up camp and get on the air. By now we were only doing "Y" traffic
and very busy at times. We were communicating with either Bletchley Park or Chicksands,
an outstation of Bletchley Park and always knew when there was to be action up at the
front (the Mareth Line) or over the water because there was a large increase in traffic for a
An interesting fact came to light only in recent years when the work at Bletchley Park was
declassified and all was revealed. A very busy period resulted in the fact that messages
intercepted by the "Y" stations in North Africa told the Allies just what ships were loading in
Italian ports and only ships with war supplies were bombed by our aircraft, as they crossed
the Med. The intercepted messages had to get to Bletchley Park to be decrypted and the
instructions sent back to North Africa for action before the situation had changed. It was,
apparently, very successful both in ensuring food etc got to the local population and the
bombing could be concentrated where it had most effect. Although not confirmed it is
believed that this action was the result of a complete Watch of Operators at Bletchley
being awarded a "Mention in Despatches". I was also the recipient of an M.I.D. but was
never told why because of security reasons. I only learnt the details in recent years and I'm
still trying to get the full facts.
Tunisia - Bizerta
On the move again after a few months, this time up the Tunisian coast nearly as far as
Hammamet (not a holiday resort in those days). At an overnight stop we learned that the
enemy in North Africa had surrendered and witnessed long columns of P.O.W.s being
marched off to the camps with a lone British "tommy" in the front and another at the rear.
Another first was an encounter with American army forces that had come from Algiers. All
smart in clean and tidy uniforms, whereas we had been on the move for over two years,
and were beginning to get a bit scruffy and short of a few replacements. They had a
mobile cinema and some goodies that we were invited to sample.
Having got the aerials up and all ready to go we were told that, because of the surrender,
we were in the wrong place. So we finished up at a place just outside Bizerta, a fort on top
of a hill overlooking the lake. The Royal Signals were operating the intercept station and
we did the W/T link to Bletchley Park. In addition to the increase in traffic when major
action was imminent, the lake would fill up with shipping and we had a bird's eye view.
Here we had to update our equipment and articulated vehicles replaced the old coaches.
The re-equipping meant we had to change the unit title from No. 6 to No.14 H.M.W/T Unit.
One night at Bizerta, it was reported that German paratroopers had landed on the hills
near us and were making for the airfield, we all had to find our rifles, get some ammo, and
patrol the hills. Fortunately it was a false alarm but there where some problem on the
airfield below us.
It was also possible for most of us to get seven days leave. We were given a tent and a
week's rations and pitched it on the beach just outside Tunis, visiting the city and the local
This all came to an end when we had orders to pack up and move to southern Italy. We
got everything aboard a LST (landing ship tank) down at the Bizerta docks and set sail for
Taranto, southern Italy
Our first stop was just north of Bari (can't remember the name) but within range to hear
the ammunition ship blow up in Bari harbour in January 1944, I think! We now followed the
same routine as North Africa, being the communications link between an Army "Y" station
and Bletchley Park. It was very busy at times with a reduced number of operators (the
married ones had been overseas three years and due for the "boat" so were sent home
while the singles did four years). To be nearer to the Army unit we were moved to a villa
near Bitonto, vacated by some local celebrity. Our first time out of tents for over two years.
By mid 1944, Rome had been taken and we all qualified to be called "D-Day dodgers" and
proud of it, but that's another story! Operational activity was enlivened by unauthorised
correspondence over the air between operators on the night watches. Names and
addresses were exchanged in plain language, of course, everything else being in code, so
pen friends were established. This had an amazing sequel. Fifty years after the event, I
attended a reunion of W/OP.MSRs in 1998 and it is customary for those attending to take
along photos etc. as memorabilia. Imagine my surprise when I saw a photo of myself in a
small group that somebody had brought in. The owner was sought out and it was an ex
WAAF who had been at the Bletchley Park end at the time we were in Italy. She was
writing to one of the group, whom I knew well. We now meet regularly at this annual
reunion with a numbers of other ex WAAF's from B.P.
The unit didn't move around much in Italy 1944, but at the end of the year, I took a small
advance party up to Recanati, on the east coast just below Rimini, to get accommodation
st and operating sites ready for the main unit coming up on the 1 January, 1945. We got
organised with accommodation in an unused accordion factory (Recanati was well known
for the instruments). The small soundproof rooms made ideal billets, but this didn't last
long as we were moved to the town museum when the factory wanted to start up again.
to be continued.........
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