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15 October 2014
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Vesuvius Rest Camp

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

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Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
W E Harper Major Jockney
Location of story: 
Vesuvius, Italy
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A4548530
Contributed on: 
26 July 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by a volunteer at Dorking Library and has been added to the website on behalf of W E Harper with his permission and he fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

N.B. There was a report about the incident in “The Southern Reporter” a Scottish Border newspaper end of April/early May 1944.

My unit was conveyed to the above location on the morning of 24th March 1944. On arrival we were addressed by a Colonel who welcomed us as the first occupants of Vesuvius rest Camp, and explained that the camp, literally miles from any civilian inhabitants, was specifically sited to ensure that all troops there would get the rest that they decided we needed. We would have preferred a few bars, but supplies of beer and cigarettes arrived later that morning so we had to sit around and make the best of a bad job. One plus point, the view over the bay of Naples was fantastic.

We were put into tents rather high up on the volcano and we thought that the dense clouds of smoke from the summit was normal.

In the late afternoon the sky darkened ominously and what appeared to be a severe thunderstorm developing was the beginning of the eruption of Vesuvius. The ground was shaking and the deafening explosions were followed by enormous dense clouds of smoke which seemed to envelope the camp.

As this developed a shower of dust fell all around and gradually as the eruption continued, the powder became small stones and all sorts of debris which was red hot and soon set some of the tents alight. After a while things quietened down.

Our O.C. Major Jockney was in Torre Annunziata arranging for entertainment and none of the junior officers would make a decision to abandon the camp. Most of the men took off and made for a large village Boscotrecase at the foot of Vesuvius. Our O.C. eventually arrived and as it was rather quiet decided to stay as there were still a few tents not entirely destroyed.

Vesuvius had other ideas and further eruptions developed and it was obvious that those of us left would have to leave at the next quiet period.

The whole top of the mountain was alight and after dark was an awesome sight. We were petrified as this was an entirely new experience and we did not know if the earth would open up beneath us.

We eventually got out to Boscotrecase and amazingly there were no major casualties and no arms were lost or destroyed but for the remainder of the war as the CQMS I was able to give the reason “LOST IN VESUVIUS ERUPTION” when requesting replacement stores.

So Vesuvius Rest Camp was operational for less than 24 hours and we were the only Unit fortunate(?) enough to enjoy its facilities.

My Unit was 140 Company Pioneer Corps. I joined them in Ireland in 1940 where we stayed until the beginning of 1942. On return after 3 weeks leave all other Ranks over 30 and not A1 fit were transferred and replaced by young reinforcements. Then up to Loch Fyne in Scotland for Commando training and on completion we were absorbed into 48 Beach Group.

We then went to North Africa, Malta and then landed with the 51st Highland Division in Sicily at Cape Passero. Our next landing was at Vibo Valentia in Italy the day before Salermo. It was intended to draw the Germans away from Salermo, it succeeded beautifully, so much so that the road before the seaside town was lined with the 29th Panzer Grenadiers who had camped there overnight, they had a field day. Our journey from there took in Anzio, Vesuvius through Italy into Austria, we were in Graz until I left for demob in June 1946.

I was one of the younger ones in the Unit and have recently celebrated my 84th birthday. It would be great if any of my comrades would make contact.

Postscript
The recent television programme “Pompeii” was excellently realistic with one small exception, one of the characters picked up a few fragments that had fallen from the sky and remarked “how light they were” — they would have been much too hot to handle.

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