- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Roy Middleton
- Location of story:
- UK, France, North Africa, Italy
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 November 2003
The thought of becoming entangled with the local Civil Defence organisation for the duration of the war did not appeal, so following the Munich crisis of 1938, myself, Eric Simmons (Punch) and Geoff Cornford offered our services to the Territorial Army. As the army was only too pleased to accept any old Tom, Dick or Harry we were duly signed on (with the minimum of fuss) by the London Divisional Royal Engineers at their Duke of York’s Headquarters, Chelsea. This momentous event occurred on 6th October 1938 and we were assigned to 221st Field Company for initial training. This consisted of a weekly parade lasting about three hours on a Tuesday evening, which involved some arms drill and square-bashing. After a few weeks of this, when it was realised that I had some driving experience (especially on a Dust Lorry!), I was transferred to the Motor Transport Section and the fun began! At this time the MT Section consisted of two or three CDF Morris Commercial 6-wheeled, 30 cwt, winch trucks and a similar amount of Morris Commercial 15 cwt trucks. These were put to use on Tuesday evenings circulating round Battersea Park and occasionally round the West End assessing the diverse talents of hopeful drivers.
In the spring of 1939 the unit would descend on Penton Hook Island, on the river near Staines, where a hutted camp existed for weekend exercises. This was more popular for the adjoining pub, The Swan, than for its exercises! In addition to these week-end frolics we attended a long week-end training exercise over Easter at Brompton Barracks, Chatham, our first introduction to Regular Army life. For the first fortnight in August the unit descended on Swingate (overlooking Dover Harbour) for the annual training camp. It rained most of the time and as we were employed digging tunnels through the chalk cliffs, life was not too pleasant. After the first week an SOS was received from the London Scottish who were camped at Beaulieu in the New Forest. Their camp was flooded out and they urgently required duck-boards. The whole Unit was employed in the non-stop production of these articles and the MT section set off in convoys to deliver them to the sinking Scots.
I well remember shepherding one of these convoys, a night-time adventure, mounted on a 500cc BSA. On the return trip the following night I nodded off to sleep and ended up in a hedge! Finished the trip in the back of a lorry. Strangely enough the convoy was halted for a time at the bottom of Oxted High Street, outside The Wheatsheaf pub, but as it was around 4.00am I was unable to call home for a drink! This camp proved to be our last parade as Territorials for, on September 1st 1939, we were mobilised into the Regular Army.
So, on this fateful Friday, we ‘Three Musketeers’ said a fond farewell to the Council Offices at around mid-day and proceeded, courtesy of Geoff Cornford’s old Morris Ten, to Merstham where the car was left with Geoff’s uncle. We then trained to Victoria and the Duke of York’s HQ and a state of chaos. Eventually we were marched round to the Guard’s depot at Chelsea barracks and issued with Lee Enfield rifles and then on to a large empty house in Cadogan square which had been taken over as temporary billets.
The following morning, no doubt to the delight of the upmarket residents of the Square, we were marched to Chelsea pier and embarked on a Thames pleasure boat for a trip up-river to Hampton Court, followed by a further march to the (now defunct) Hurst Park Racecourse. We were uncomfortably installed in the refreshment rooms situated beneath the main grandstand. Sleeping on the tiled floor without bedding was not to be recommended! On Sunday morning, the 3rd September, a kit inspection was ordered and everyone duly laid out their belongings in the prescribed manner on the concrete forecourt in front of the grandstand. Very shortly after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast that we were now at war, the air raid warning sirens sounded.
This caused a minor panic in the officer ranks who feared that the neat lines of kit would attract the full fury of the Luftwaffe! Everyone was hustled back to the refreshment rooms, (leaving the offending kits outside, of course), where we were ordered to keep our heads down below the refreshment counters! One over-excited (or scared) junior officer went so far as to draw his pistol (probably unloaded!) to enforce the order. When it eventually became clear that there was to be no air raid (a false alarm) the war was allowed to proceed in peace!
That same afternoon I was ordered to proceed with all haste to the War Office in Whitehall with an urgent dispatch. So, mounted on a trusty BSA, off I duly roared. After presenting the envelope to the bored reception clerk I was somewhat shattered to find, after he had nonchalantly ripped it open, to discover it was only a receipt for some stores! Meanwhile the Company was busy taking delivery of stores and transport to bring it onto a war footing. I was presented with a lance-corporal’s stripe and, even more importantly, a brand new 350cc Ariel ‘Red Hunter’ motor-cycle complete with sprung rear wheel and upswept exhaust pipes! This came about because there was a chronic shortage of military transport and we went round to the local showrooms and commandeered vehicles. This magnificent machine was a perk for the Section MT/NCO!
On the 5th September we were sent home on 24 hour embarkation leave. Luckily one of our junior officers, 2nd Lt Lubbock, lived in Westerham and delivered me home and collected me the following day. By this time the chaos had started to get organised and we had begun to sort out friend from foe in the ranks. Punch Simmons had left us and been transferred to 501 Field Coy. I was installed as 2 section MT NCO and Geoff Cornford was i/c Mail and First Aid in the HQ Section and, as he fancied himself as a cornet player, was also the bugler! Having brought his cornet along with him he would occasionally treat (?) the troops to a rendering of ‘Whispering’ - at full blast! As a point of interest - ‘Christopher Robin’ Milne, son of A.A. Milne was a junior officer in the Unit at this time.
Friendships started to form, some of which have lasted for the past 50 odd years, e.g. Dennis Sutton, Alick Stovell and Basil Clarkson - the ‘solid backbone’ of the MT section! Among the few who could read a map and knew their starting handles from their ‘diffs’, we were all, more or less, on the same wavelength and shared a similar sense of humour.
After about ten days of activity, we were all moved on to a hutted camp in Aldershot where the vehicles were loaded and prepared for embarkation and on the 18th September the Company embarked at Southampton in the evening. The following morning we awoke in Cherbourg and spent a few agonising hours watching the vehicles being unloaded by derricks on to the dockside. We eventually moved off in convoy, shattering the peaceful Normandy countryside, and headed south to a village near Laval. This turned out to be a night of shame for me - I failed to mount a guard on the Section vehicles and lost my lance-corporal’s stripes for my trouble! This sobering event failed to have much impact on the eventual outcome of the war and certainly failed to prevent 221 Coy surging across France until we came to rest in the Lens area. We eventually settled down in a small, one-horse village called Neuvrille, roughly half-way between Arras and Douai. This charming (!) place had two estaminets, a main street, probably a church (can’t remember it) and a disused brewery which was taken over as a vehicle park and billets. It also boasted a disused corner shop which was taken over as a sergeant’s mess. As there were only about three or four sergeants I was invited to join the ‘Big-Shots’. (My stripe had been re-instated by this time!). The company sappers at this time were constructing a Field Hospital for 1st Corps, to whom we were now attached. The area generally was most unattractive; miles of flat agricultural land which rapidly turned to mud as the weather was extremely wet. We got the odd half-day leave in Douai and Arras - similar to a wet Wednesday in Edenbridge!
Christmas 1939 was spent in the old brewery - the outstanding memory of which was helping to peel a massive mountain of potatoes! However, I received a Christmas bonus on boxing day by being sent home on 7 days leave. Shortly after returning to the unit we moved up nearer to the Belgian frontier to a village some ten miles south of Lille, Cappelle-en-Pevelle, where we were billeted in a hay-loft over a cow shed! Quite apart from the odours, the old roof tiles were unlined and when it snowed our beds, (piles of straw and hay!), were well covered. By this time the coldest winter for many years had arrived in Northern Europe and in order to sleep relatively warm, it was a case of donning all available clothing, including greatcoats. It also meant that, in order to prevent the transport from freezing up, the engines had to be run for ten minutes in every hour. An additional job for the night guards! (No anti-freeze available in those days). Another ‘bonus’ was the water supply for washing - this was a hand operated pump in the cow-yard which raised a coloured liquid from some unknown underground source!
Having completed the hospital job the Company was put to work constructing re-inforced concrete pill boxes along the frontier, which in view of forth-coming events, was rather a wasted effort. We did however get a change of venue for our half-day leaves - the city of Lille. Much the same as Douai and Arras, only larger. Early in 1940 we moved down to Sailly-le-Sec on the Somme for a bridging course which was a welcome change. Myself and another NCO, whose name escapes me, were billeted in a lovely old cottage with a charming old lady who treated us like long-lost sons. She gave us a large bedroom with feather-bed mattress and hot water for washing - sheer luxury. Unfortunately we only managed to endure this for about ten days and back to the cow-shed we went. Shortly after this the gods smiled on me again and I was despatched to the school of Military Engineering at Chatham for a Motor Transport course. I cannot remember how long this lasted but it took in the Easter period and I got 7 days leave after the course. My only recollections of the course are 1) Attending a cinema show in Chatham - the film was ‘How Green Was My Valley’, starring Emlyn Williams and 2) Driving a very large mobile Coles Crane, mounted on a 6 wheeled Crossley chassis in convoy to Bodiam castle and back. A stunning blow to Hitler’s war hopes!
After my leave, I returned to my beloved cow-shed in the first week of May 1940, just in time to be greeted by the Nazi invasion of Holland and Belgium on the 10th. The first inkling of the troubles to come was the distant sound of A.A. fire and bombs, well before dawn on the 10th May and by mid-day we were loaded up and on our way to save the world from Nazism! The convoy crossed the border at Tournai and headed towards Brussels. We came to rest at Nederbrakel, where we stayed for a day or two filling in bomb craters to keep the road open. Refugees had started to pour westwards which caused additional problems - nothing compared to the problems we were shortly to face. As it sank in to the Powers-That-Be that all was not well, we were hustled up to the town of Halle, just west of Brussels, where a bridge over the canal was prepared for demolition. We sat around with orders to await the last of the Infantry rear guard. When they had passed over, the bridge was to be blown. No rear guard appeared and apparently somebody decided it was time to move and pushed the button. I had just started my trusty Ariel and turned my back on the bridge when the blast hit me in the back and that Ariel broke all 350cc acceleration records!
No-one had told me or the Section drivers where we were heading for and by the time we got on to the main road most of the transport had been swallowed up in the confusion caused by the retreating troops and refugees. By this time light was failing and I was left with two 30cwt trucks and a 15cwt. One of which had the Section’s rations on board! We plodded on, trying to guess which way the mob had gone - we guessed wrong and eventually ended up in a farm-yard where we settled down for the night. The following day it was decided to conserve fuel so the lorries stayed put and I scoured the surrounding area on my bike to try and locate the Unit. One more night at the farm and the following morning a search party from the Unit located us and took us back to the fold. The rest of the section were most pleased to see us, or rather their rations! I got a roasting from the Section Officer for getting lost - of course.
Rumour had got around that we were to fall back on Dunkirk and the next few days were extremely chaotic. We seemed to be forever crawling along packed roads and snatching odd hours of sleep in woods, watching dive bombers attacking roads, bridges and convoys. I remember, one night, we were parked up in an old fort on a hill overlooking the town of Armentières and watching the dive bombers knocking hell out of it. There were some humorous moments that helped us along, one in particular stands out. One of the characters in the Section was a wild Irishman, one Paddy Powers, and one day when rations were very thin on the ground, we pulled in to a deserted village - except for the deserted farm animals. some of the cows were milked to ease their suffering, but Paddy decided he needed more than milk and espying a large pig he whips out a machete and proceeds to chase the squealing animal half-way round the village. To roars of encouragement he finally caught it and the section enjoyed a memorable meal that night! Within sight of Dunkirk orders were given for the destruction of vehicles and stores. This task was carried out with heavy hearts - to wilfully smash up perfectly good vehicles with sledge hammers etc., went against the grain. Especially as so many hours had been put in to maintain them in a road worthy condition. However, two or three trucks (and my Ariel) were saved and used to carry the sick and war-weary to the docks.
By this time it was more or less every man for himself as communication with Authority had broken down. Rumours went around that we were to be embarked the following morning (the 27th, I believe), so a small party of us sat around on some sandy wasteland at the dockside listening to a small portable radio. How this came into our possession, I know not! To our surprise, with a loud whistle, a bomb landed on the inoffensive radio, pushed it down into the sand and exploded. Luckily the sand absorbed the explosion and not one of us got hurt! As night was drawing on we were told to move on through the town, which was by now well alight and still being bombed, and make for the sand dunes to the north of the harbour. I had by now bid a fond farewell to the trusty Ariel and handed it over to a sergeant in the RASC who was destined to stay put for a while - I hope it brought him luck!
The walk to the beach was not without incident as the Luftwaffe had taken a violent dislike to our presence and vented their spleen with some gentle bombing and strafing. However, I duly arrived with a small group of about half-a-dozen assorted drivers and sappers and we made ourselves reasonably comfortable in a hewn-out dugout in the sand dunes. We snatched the odd forty winks, but spent most of the night watching the fireworks over the town and harbour and the flames and massive black clouds of smoke from the burning oil storage tanks. Whilst on this theme, I might mention that shortly after the radio bombing incident, a ship laden with ammunition, tied up in an adjoining dock, received a direct hit and went up with an almighty ‘Bang!’. Once more our luck held out - no casualties.
Come the dawn and the only sign of shipping we could see was a distant Destroyer hovering about outside the harbour entrance. Odd groups of troops started wandering about the beach searching for food or amusement. One or two dispatch riders had got hold of a couple of motor bikes and enjoyed some sand racing until our Luftwaffe friends put a stop to that! A young officer, (Unit unknown), had dug himself into an adjoining fox-hole and drunk himself into a stupor from a large cask of rum - probably lifted from the Quartermasters’s stores. Having finished it off he proceeded to draw his revolver and threatened to shoot one and all. He eventually collapsed into a drunken slumber and was relieved of his gun - he’s probably still there!
By mid-afternoon a couple of Destroyers had anchored some three quarters of a mile off-shore. This was somewhat encouraging but, as yet, no beach control organisation had been set up. So once more it was every man for himself and one clever lad in or group (I believe it was Jack Birch) had been on ‘recce’ and found a small dinghy (apparently ownerless!), it was seized upon with great relish. It had no oars and the bung was missing from the bilge - this was soon bunged up and the boat launched. This nearly caused a disaster as most of the BEF attempted to board her and very nearly pushed it to the bottom. At this time Baron von Richthofen and his mates decided to take a hand and spray some lead around. This had the effect of producing a massive display from the Navy who turned all their Oerlikon and POM-POM guns on them. It also scattered the raiders attempting to hijack ‘our’ boat - which allowed us to paddle with make-shift bits of wood and rifle butts to HMS Javelin. We were hauled aboard, ushered below to a small cabin and served with large mugs of tea and unlimited sandwiches, which were most welcome as we’d forgotten our last meal.
After this meal I fell asleep and awoke some hours later alongside the Western Dock at Dover, where we were loaded on a train and despatched to Aldershot. Apart from a short break for tea and buns, served at Paddock Wood station, I slept for the whole journey. On arrival at Aldershot we were installed in a temporary tented camp where I remember crawling on to trestle table and falling asleep again. Eventually came back to earth on Sunday morning the 1st of June. Joined a queue at a phone box and got through to home and reported my safe arrival.
The Battle of Britain
After a day or two of sorting out, we stragglers were dispatched to Newark in Nottinghamshire to join our Unit, 221 Field Coy, which was being reformed there. There was a glorious heat-wave going on and very little to do, apart from swimming and boating on the river Trent and sampling the local brews, for we had very few arms or equipment, let alone transport. Managed to get a short leave at home, which was more than welcome, then back to Newark where the Company was gradually being re-equipped with old (First World War) American rifles and an assortment of old trucks i.e. furniture vans and flat-bodied lorries commandeered from civilian sources. Guaranteed to put the wind up any invading force! We were shortly sent off to Boston, Lincolnshire, to construct defences around The Wash. This did not last long and we assembled a rag-tag convoy and moved South to Sheldwich, near Faversham in Kent, for a short time. The Section was detached to carry out beach mine-laying in Sandwich Bay and were located in a large house at Monkton, near Manston Aerodrome. At this time the Battle of Britain was in full swing and it was fascinating to watch the white inter-woven condensation trails forming in the sky as the dog-fights progressed. After a bombing raid on Manston, the Unit was called in to help clear up and assist in removing a Spitfire from the roof of a hangar where it had been blown.
One night there was a panic stand-to and alert as it was expected that the German invasion was imminent and I recall doing a sentry spell before dawn and gazing sea-wards wondering just what to do, should the Hun appear! (Luckily he didn’t). Having scared Hitler away and secured the safety of the worthy inhabitants of South East Kent, Section 2 retreated to the outskirts of Maidstone, (i.e. Penenden Heath and The Bull pub), and within shouting distance of Company headquarters which had been established in Aylesford Friary - the incumbent Brothers having left for more peaceful climes. We spent a lot of the winter here and, apart from other probably quite unnecessary work, the company erected a Hamilton bridge over the Medway, adjacent to the old narrow stone Aylesford bridge. This bridge was still in use well after the war ended. At this time the ordnance depot who supplied spare parts for our transport was located in Reigate and this ensured frequent motorcycle trips via Oxted, with refreshment stops at The Bell!
In November, the Company became a Unit of the re-named 56 (London) Division RE. and adopted the Black Cat as the Divisional sign. To celebrate (?) this event a large scale exercise was undertaken in January 1941. This involved night-time convoys and the building of a bridge over the river at Cuckmere Haven in sleet and snow at around one o’clock in the morning. Shortly after, we moved to Sandling Park, a large Georgian estate at Hythe. Now overshadowed by the Channel Tunnel Terminal. The sappers were enjoying themselves preparing for the demolition of bridges over the Royal Military Canal on Romney Marsh, whilst we, in the Transport Section, sorted out our new vehicles - left hand drive Dodge 4X4 3 tonners and Chevrolet 15cwt trucks - and inventing urgent journeys to London for visits to families etc.! The new Divisional Commander, (one Bernard Montgomery - then unknown), was proving unpopular as, being a fitness freak himself, he had decreed early morning PT for all and sundry. However, the novelty soon wore off. Apart from this, Hythe proved quite a popular place, if only for a café which supplied great egg and chips!
In the summer of ’41 we moved to the Hawkhurst area and spent some time in a hutted camp at Sandhurst (Kent), just a very short step from The Greyhound pub, which was well enjoyed. Whilst at this location quite a lot of spare time was spent on trips to Tunbridge Wells - especially The Swan on the Pantiles. Mary would appear on her New Imperial and take me on the pillion to the odd get-together with other colleagues and their wives and girl-friends at this hostelry. We also took part in a combined exercise with the Home Guard, well up to ‘Dad's Army’ standard, which entailed yours truly riding his motor-cycle into an ambush of ‘Captain Mainwaring’s best’ who were lurking behind a hedge. When they ‘shot’ me I had to gracefully fall off and play dead!
In late Autumn the Division moved to East Anglia and 221 Company were billeted at Woolverstone Hall near Ipswich, a large mansion in park land on the south bank of the river Orwell. We stayed here all winter, exercising and preparing for overseas duty. It was from here that Mary and I managed to fix our marriage on 6th December. (We were actually married in Reigate Registry Office - not at Woolverstone). Mary occasionally got leave from her ATS Unit and would come up to Ipswich and stay with a motherly old widow, Mrs Markham, in a cottage adjoining Woolverstone Hall. Other wives would also descend on the area and jolly times were had by one and all until, in June, we received our marching orders for overseas and moved to Sible Hedingham in Essex for kitting-out and loading stores and equipment on the transport for shipping. The latter work was wasted because the ship carrying the transport was torpedoed and we arrived in Egypt without transport.
The company left Liverpool in August on board the SS Orduna, a decrepit and run-down old liner of the Pacific Steam Navigation company, formerly on the South America run. This mechanical marvel was shared with, among others, the London Irish Rifles plus their pipe band. We joined up with a large convoy of some 25 ships and destroyer escorts in the Firth of Clyde and set sail, complete with tropical kit and pith helmets and no idea of our destination. Accommodation on board was not luxurious; sixteen men to a mess; that is one table and benches with hooks above to hang sixteen hammocks. Plus, of course, ones kit-bags etc., which also had to be stored in the area. Meals were collected by Mess orderlies, appointed daily by the NCO i/c Mess (in this case - me), from the galley and dished out at the table. This simple task usually led to strong words and veiled threats, but all was soon forgotten - until the next meal!
There was little to do, apart from life-boat drill, PT., lectures, bingo and sleeping on deck - when we sailed into warmer climes. The first four weeks were spent zig-zagging across the Atlantic until we made landfall at Freetown on the West African coast, where we spent the days sweating in the steamy heat and swearing at the natives trying to sell us their goods from their boats alongside. Two weeks later saw us in Cape Town where the company split up and the sappers went on to Bombay whilst, after two or three days enjoying the hospitality of Cape Towners, the transport personnel went off to Port Tewfik at the southern end of the Suez Canal. Going ashore at Cape Town was like entering another world - bananas, unseen since 1939, were consumed by the ton, as also were the other foods. A memorable interlude.
A further two weeks of sweating it out on the Orduna introduced us to the delights (?) of Egypt. We were transported by train to Quassassin to be installed in a very large tented camp in the desert.
Our company transport having been sunk off the west coast of Africa, we had to hang around until new vehicles were allotted to us. Apart from the usual Morris, Bedford, and Ford 15cwt trucks, we were introduced to White scout cars (armoured vehicles) and 3 ton 4X4 Karrier trucks. I was issued with a 350cc Matchless, a pleasant change from the side-valve BSAs and Nortons.
At the end of November, the Unit transport joined a 400 vehicle convoy from Suez to Kirkuk in Iraq. We travelled through Palestine (as it then was) and Jordan into Iraq, following the desert oil pipe-line to Baghdad. The journey through Palestine was remembered mostly for the plentiful supply of oranges lifted from orange groves as we passed through; every conceivable container was loaded! We settled under canvas at Kirkuk, a large oil-refinery city, some 150 miles north of Baghdad, where we were re-united with our sappers after their detour to India. Most of our time was spent training and on exercises, including a scheme up in the mountains at Rawanduz Gorge on the Iranian border in the area occupied by the Kurdish tribe. Beautiful country but not ideal for camping in the snow. One particular exercise involved bridging the Zab river at night. The night in question consisted of a cloudburst and the mother of all thunderstorms. I was sheltering in the cab of a lorry when an Infantry officer knocked on the window, I opened it up and was amazed to be greeted by a Captain Partridge from Limpsfield whom I had last seen in the air raid precautions organisation in Oxted before the war!
In March we retraced our steps westwards over the deserts to Egypt. The journey back over the high ground to the Jordan valley was most unpleasant, sleet and snow most of the time and being on a bike was not appreciated, especially at the night stops, most of which were spent rolled up in a ground sheet under the tailboard of a compressor truck. After a short stop in Egypt for some maintenance and some re-equipping, we pushed on along the North African coast road via Libya and what was Tripolitania to catch up with the Eighth Army, who by now had cornered Rommel and Co. in Tunisia. This journey from Kirkuk, of approximately 3,200 miles in four weeks, was reckoned to be the longest approach march in history and it is reported that every vehicle that left Kirkuk eventually arrived under its own power, a tribute to the hard-worked fitters. Our division (56th London) relieved the 50th Division and we moved up to Enfidaville, South of Tunis, for our first taste of action since the Dunkirk debacle. We were camping on a plain overlooked by foothills conveniently occupied by German artillery who took great pleasure in lobbing the odd shell in our direction, one of which caused our first casualty, an unfortunate sapper who was minding his own business in the latrines - he was killed by a shell splinter. A couple of nights before the end of hostilities, the Company was called upon to support an Infantry attack on a German position and sadly we lost driver Ted Hailstone whose scout car was hit by a shell.
Whilst this was going on I was attempting to keep in touch with another scout car carrying the Section Officer. I was mounted on my trusty Matchless, the ground resembled a scrambles course and was being used as a target by irate German 88mm gunners and the inevitable happened, I landed upside-down in a muddy crater. By the time I’d hauled the bike out and got it started the scout car had disappeared; I knew not where and cared even less. It was definitely four wheel drive country - not designed for WD type 350cc Matchlesses! As darkness was rapidly falling I made my way back to the transport assembly area and spent the night with the drivers in their shallow dug-out until the sappers returned in the morning. On the 12th May 1943 the German North African forces surrendered and it was very pleasant to see columns of German and Italian POWs struggling along the roads. Just prior to the surrender our section had completed building a box-girder bridge on the main road to Tunis to enable the Eighth Army to link up with the First Army - a landmark in the North African campaign!
The next few days were spent on minefield clearance and the Section was allotted an ex-Italian lorry, a SPA, to help in this work. On Monday 17th May, (my mother’s birthday), we had an open air film show - Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth in ‘You’ll Never Get Rich’. In the next few days we managed to get in some very welcome swimming at Gabes and on 26th May we came to rest at a site on the outskirts of Tripoli. We settled down to a period of maintenance and repair work on the vehicles plus the odd spot of leave in Tripoli; a waste of time - stinking hole!
On June 13th my right leg stiffened up and by the 16th I was unable to get up. I was rolled out of my tent onto a stretcher and dumped at the Casualty Clearing Station where I was diagnosed as suffering from sciatica! After a week in the No. XI General Hospital I was embarked on HM Hospital ship Aba.
So, it was a fond farewell to 221 Field Coy and my many good friends and colleagues. None of us knew what our future destinations would be or if we would ever be re-united. After a pleasant cruise along the Mediterranean Sea to Alexandria, the sick and weary were transferred to a hospital train and transported to No. 1 General Hospital, a tented affair on the banks of the Suez canal at El Ballah near Ismailia. The next three weeks were spent reading, receiving radiant heat treatment, attending the hospital cinema and NAAFI canteen and strolling along the banks of the canal. I was then discharged to the No.2 Convalescent Depot further up the canal, arriving on my 28th birthday! The routine was much the same as in the hospital except that for ‘heat treatment’ read PT.
I must have seen most of Hollywood’s output of films plus a personal appearance of Nöel Coward during my stay at the Convalescent Depot which came to an end on the 11th September - practically eight weeks ‘holiday’! No wonder the war lasted so long! A train ride to Ismailia saw me installed in the Royal Engineer’s Depot at Moascar. Here I learnt that 221 Coy had landed at Salerno and had a rough time; also met up with former members of the Company, who had returned to the Depot for various reasons. I also blotted my copybook by failing to salute the Colonel i/c of the Depot who sneakily crept up behind me on his horse whilst I was walking over sandy ground chatting to a pal - awarded two extra guard duties! As the NCO i/c Discipline was an old colleague I got off with only one extra. I was posted to the MT wing and spent the time working on assorted motorcycles and lorries and assisting the MT instructors and carrying out assorted driving missions around the area. After a couple of weeks of this I applied for a driver/operator’s course (i.e. radio operator) which proved very interesting and lasted for two months.
At the beginning of October, Basil Clarkson arrived at the Depot and we managed to spend a great deal of time together; off duty trips into Ismailia for meals at The Blue Kettle café etc. We also managed a week-end and a seven day leave together in Cairo which broke the monotony of Garrison life. We would get occasional news of 221 Coy, still plodding on in Italy, and of the deaths of several of the old TA boys which made me realise that life at the Depot could be worse! My driver/operator’s course finished at the end of November and I managed to grab another seven day leave in Cairo. Coming out of the Diana cinema one evening, I met Cliff Wood, a former colleague from Godstone Council, who was serving in the RAF at Heliopolis - a small world! Back to Instructional Wing at Moascar and heel-kicking until Christmas day, when (my diary reveals), I feasted on two eggs, bacon and jam for breakfast and an excellent dinner in the NAAFI, slept all afternoon and saw Abbott and Costello in ‘Rio Rita’ at the cinema and bed at 10pm! Left Moascar, on a draft for Italy, on December 30th for Alexandria and shipment to Brindisi (or was it Taranto?) to rejoin the Eighth Army.
A Letter Home
This is an extract from a letter written to my mother, on 16th May 1943, from a camp near Enfidaville, Tunisia
Now that the campaign out here has finished we can tell a few of our escapades of the last few months, and believe me they are many. To start at the beginning — myself and all the drivers of the company left the main body at Cape Town and went to Port Suez. The rest went to India, but that is another story. And thence to a large camp near Ismailia in Egypt. We stayed there about 2 weeks collecting our transport etc. and on November 11th started on our great trek. Our route lay across the desert to Palestine, through miles of Orange and Grapefruit groves (where we gathered as many fruits as we could carry). We crossed the Jordan and wound our way up the very beautiful Trans-Jordan valley into TransJordania and plunged into the mighty Syrian desert, which is truly amazing. There is very little sand, just miles and miles of black lava rocks and boulders. A very sinister sight. There is a wonderful road all the way over except for about 100 miles. We spent one day at Habbaniyah aerodrome, which was famous for its siege in the Iraqi rising of 1941 and had a bathe in the lake there. Then on to Baghdad and further north to Kirkuk, where we stayed until March..
Most of the time in Iraq was spent on manoeuvres etc. We met the rest of the Company from India here. Once again we hit the trail and returned to Egypt over the same route. This time the weather was terrible — snow and hail and rain all the way to Palestine. After about three days in Egypt we set forth once more for an unknown destination, but we very soon guessed where we were going. We hit the coast road to Libya and passed through Alegmein, Mersa Matruh, Sidi Barrani, Hellfire Pass, Fort Cappuzzo, Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi, El Agheila and Tripoli. It was a grand ride. Wrecked tanks and trucks etc. littered the road the whole way. We were most surprised at Cyrenaica, instead of sand the country was very like England. Apparently this green belt stretched about 20 miles inland from the coast. Spent 3 or 4 days near Tripoli and had one half day in the town. Most disappointing, though, all the shops were closed, nothing to eat or drink and thousands of troops.
We then set forth to join the 8th Army and eventually arrived between Sousse and Enfidaville. The whole journey from Kirkuk to Enfidaville is about 3,400 miles and took us 3 weeks to do. It is reckoned to be the longest run a unit of the British army has ever made, so we felt pretty bucked.We then went into action on the Enfidaville front until the enemy finally packed up on the afternoon of 12th May. We were then on the spot when the 1st Army joined up with us on the coast road between Enfidaville and Bon Ficha and this Company had the honour of building a bridge to join the two armies. It was a great day I can tell you, and what a relief. I cannot possibly describe the terrific bombardment that our gunners gave the Huns. It was a continual roar day and night for over a week. We were camped on the plain south of Enfidaville and he was tucked away in the hills about 2 miles of, laughing at us. But we had the last laugh after all. It was a grand sight when the prisoners came rolling in — some walking, some driving their own trucks and some on ‘bikes’. The work for the Sappers still goes on though, for he left plenty of minefields and booby traps to be cleared.
We’ve been promised 24 hours leave in Tunis in a few days. Hope it is better than Tripoli, though. Happily our casualties have not been very heavy, it must be the lucky ‘Black Cats’. I have learned one thing, anyway, and that is to use a pick and shovel and dig a deep hole in double quick time. All the time we were fighting we only saw one Jerry plane over here; but the sky is full of ours and the Yanks all day long. A very pleasing sight. Anyway we are a lot nearer home so let’s hope it won’t be long before we come steaming back to Southampton.
I expect Adrian will know that Peter Farrer (his friend’s son from Banstead) had a nasty accident. His truck ran over a mine in one of our ‘stunts’ and caught fire, burning him pretty badly. His driver was killed, poor chap. There is a rumour that we are getting some BEER sent up. It must be hell in Burma, the flies and mosquitoes are bad enough here.
I hear that the bells are allowed to ring again on Sundays; it must be quite like old times. We have no official wireless but we have one or two wireless cars in our unit and they manage to tune into the News sometimes. We get a daily paper of sorts- The Tripoli Times printed by the army people. Rations are very good, bully beef, fresh meat, tinned bacon and sausages and fresh bread every day (even in action) and it’s WHITE BREAD.
The voyage over to Italy, in a worn-out passenger/cargo vessel, was made reasonably comfortable because I volunteered for duty in the galley checking the issuing of meals. This entitled me to my own very small cabin, tucked away in the bowels of the ship, but relatively peaceful. On arrival at the Transit Camp I was assigned to the HQ Company of 1210 GHQ Troops RE, a new formation attached to 5 Corps. The first few weeks were spent in muddy locations overlooking the Sangro river waiting for the Canadians to push the Germans off the opposite bank, which, in due course, they did and the northward advance began. We duly arrived in a small remote hill-side village, Torino di Sangro, I think it was called. We were holed up here for several weeks and I was given the job of organising a W/T Operator’s course and setting up a wireless network with the three Field Companies attached (107, 754 and 562 Companies). I was also allotted a Norton in order to visit the various sites, which made life more amenable. One day was brightened up by the arrival of Geoff Cornford, who, since I had left 221 Company had got himself a Commission. He paid one or two subsequent visits and on one occasion gave me a lift in his 15cwt truck to Rome for a short leave. This was rather a hectic scramble over the snow-covered Apennines! On 5th June we celebrated the liberation of Rome, unfortunately this event was overshadowed the following day by the Invasion of Normandy! So, the ‘D Day Dodgers’, as the Eighth Army were called by some, lost out in the Glory Stakes!
We were soon on the move, travelling up the Adriatic coast in short stages and enjoying some excellent bathing on the way. A short break in the Bay of Naples was much appreciated; visits to Pompeii and a drive along the fantastic cliff road to Sorrento and Amalfi are well remembered highlights. In the late summer I had a seven day leave in Rome and on this occasion I spent most of the time with Eric (Punch) Simmons who was a warrant officer stationed in a Royal Engineer’s stores depot in the city. I also managed to find 221 Coy who were resting up in nearby Tivoli. Spent a few happy hours with some of the old gang - Dennis Sutton, Alick Stovell and Basil Clarkson, among others. They had had a pretty rough time and I realised how lucky I had been contracting sciatica!
Switching back to the Adriatic, after our rest period around Naples, we continued to make slow progress up the coast via Ancona, Pesaro and Rimini where we turned inland on the road to Bologna. We came to rest for a couple of weeks at a beautiful hill-top house surrounded by lawns and gardens complete with peacocks. This was the residence of the brother-in-law of Gracie Fields (the entertainer and singer). The place had recently been used by the Germans as an officer’s mess and the owner and his family were living in the cellars and seemed overjoyed to see us - bringing out the vermouth bottles to prove it! By now I had been provided with a Bedford 3 ton truck on which had been built a caravan body fitted out as a Wireless Control Office. This was a very pleasant home-from-home as I could keep all my kit in the cab and sleep in the office surrounded by my wireless sets. It was also more comfortable and warmer than the Norton as the winter months approached. With the onset of Winter both sides settled down to await a Spring Offensive and we settled in to a large town-house, with internal courtyard, adjacent to the main square in Forli. This was reasonably warm and comfortable but also within reach of enemy gunfire and they managed to disturb our sleep most nights with the odd shell. The last Christmas of the war was celebrated here and quite a good feast was provided including turkey, pork and yorkshire pudding etc. plus an excellent pantomime in the local theatre, taken over by ENSA (the Forces Entertainment Organisation) for the purpose.
The first couple of months of 1945 were taken up with training, maintenance work and preparation for an advance when conditions were favourable. At this time we were supporting the Free Polish Division, a pretty slap-happy bunch of warriors who caused some comment because they employed female drivers for their transport - unusual in those days and in that situation! Unhappily they were to receive massive casualties at the hands of the US Air Corps who, no doubt mistakenly, dropped several tons of bombs on them instead of the enemy.
The long-awaited Spring Offensive began in early April 1945, which entailed much hard work for the sappers who had the unenviable task of bridging the many rivers and marshes encountered in this area, to say nothing of clearing the many minefields around the German defensive positions. Happily the ‘Goodies’ soon overwhelmed the ‘Baddies’ and our little band of ‘Merry Men’ up-anchored and followed the triumphant 56th Division, with 221 Company to Venice and beyond. In fact we came to rest at a small town, Portoguaro, on the road to Trieste, which we shared with a battalion of Gurkhas. In the course of this advance we had to cross the river Po on a pontoon bridge some 400 feet long, a queer sensation behind the wheel of a top-heavy Bedford Wireless truck! The Italian campaign came to an end on May 2nd; I was sitting in the back of the Colonel’s Jeep, manning his radio, listening to the announcement by Winston Churchill in Parliament, when I heard the confirmation of the end of the war in Europe on 8th May. At the time we were perched on a sand bank in the middle of a river, in order to get a clear signal, and quite by chance picked up the BBC! That night we celebrated with a drink or two in the company of a couple of tipsy ‘Johnny Gurkhas’.
We soon got our marching orders and set forth for Austria by way of Udine and the Dolomites, which were occupied by roving bands of Italian ‘patriots’, very communistically inclined, and with an evident dislike of Allied troops who they took pot-shots at with great delight. The Italian border was reached at Tarvisio and we took over an Italian State Railway holiday and rest centre for a couple of weeks. This was a pleasant stop-over but did not match our next hide-out, a delightful Gasthouse and farm in the hills near Villach. The pine-covered slopes rose up behind the site to the Yugoslavia border - complete ‘Sound of Music’ country and only needed Julie Andrews to complete the picture! We were billeted in the main house, a typical Austrian holiday hotel, and the owner and his family welcomed us with open arms. As they had recently been occupied by the Russian forces this was probably understandable. Having little else to occupy us, apart from sight- seeing and swimming, we set to and helped the farmer gather in his harvest. After five or six weeks of this hard labour we moved on to Graz, a large city near the Hungarian border, where we were located in a large orchard on the outskirts of the town. We seemed not to serve any useful purpose here and the ‘Powers-That-Be’, seemingly coming to the same conclusion, started sending batches of long-serving personnel back to the UK for four weeks leave. The lucky ones were assembled at Villach Transit Camp from whence they were dispatched in convoys of 3 ton lorries to Calais with night stops at transit camps at Innsbruck, Ulm, Mainz and Sedan.
I landed at Folkestone at the end of August, just three years after leaving Liverpool, and re-embarked for the return journey on the 24th September. By the time I’d rejoined my unit at Graz, demobilisation had commenced and Units were being broken up. After a farewell dinner party for 1210 GHQ Troops on the 11th October, I was transferred to 6th Field Squadron RE where I pottered about in the HQ office for three weeks before being sent back to Aldershot for ‘demob’ on the 25th November 1945. This journey was slightly more comfortable than the last as it was carried out by train from Milan, through Switzerland to Calais. After collecting my civvy suit and pork-pie hat, donated by a grateful government, a train journey from Guildford to Redhill on a railway pass and my warrior days were over. A joyful reunion with Mary was carried out at Redhill station where she met me in the family Ford (FPJ 113).
A memorable six years - some dark periods, which are soon forgotten, but many worthwhile experiences shared with good friends and, on the whole, I'm glad I did not miss out by staying with the ARP mob!
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