- Contributed by
- Bemerton Local History Society
- People in story:
- Donald Entwistle
- Location of story:
- North Aftrica and Italy
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 22 May 2005
I was in 142 regiment Royal Armoured Corps - equipped with Churchill tanks; I sailed for North Africa from the Clyde on Boxing Day 1942 as part of a contingent being sent to reinforce the allied army which had landed in Algeria in November `42. The aim was to trap the German army which was being driver westwards by General Montgomery after the battle at El Alamein. We had to sail a long way west to avoid U boats in the Atlantic before we could turn south and move into the Mediterranean.
One night I was on watch in a terrible storm; suddenly I saw one of our Churchill tanks break its shackles and slip overboard - followed by eighteen others. Normally there are special ships to move tanks by sea but non were available in 1942 and so this time they were on deck. Millions of pounds worth of tank were lost and, of course, a complete squadron had to be re-equipped before it could join battle.
We landed in Algiers to find the Germans trying to break out in the west because of Monty`s drive from Egypt. There had been a strong attack at Kasserine Pass against American forces who had been routed, so we were rushed off hundreds of miles to the Pass. Normally tanks were transported to the battlefield, but on this occasion they drove on their own tracks, such was the urgency.
The fighting was very hard but we managed to foil the Germans` attempt to flee as the pincer movement closed in. We were later moved up north to Medjez el Baab, overlooked by Long Stop Hill which the
Germans held. It was tremendously steep - a wit said it was like driving a tank up the Matterhorn - , but eventually the North Irish Horse managed to get a tank to the top - the driver got a medal - so the Germans were driven off the hill and we were able to break out
to Tunis. I was among the first to reach the city.
On the Cape Bon peninsula my regiment was involved in the final surrender of German troops in the pincer. In the next field I saw the Commander, von Arnim, surrender to a British Brigadier.
We had, of course, to house and feed all the prisoners; they had tents and our cooks had to work very hard. After the first forty-eight hours we had little to do with them; later they were sent to camps which were run by special POW Holding Units and were eventually taken to England. Most of them, Germans, Italians and men from the occupied countries such as Hungary, were just pleased that their war was over.
For the next nine months we sat in North Africa while the move on Italy began; our tanks were too heavy for the landings at Salerno and Naples. There was a certain amount of boredom but we built little golf courses and played cricket and football and once a week we went to Bone, thirty miles away. We spent a good deal of time on exercises and training in the Sahara - we were re-equipped and needed to learn how to handle the new hardware. For example, our guns had had a range of only six hundred yards while those of the Germans were capable of firing double that distance. They had 75 and 88 mm guns while we had 6-pounders. We had to try to be very clever and use the terrain to creep up within our range. The great thing about the Churchill was its armour: the crew was much safer than the crews of the German tanks. I recall one of mine coming back from an encounter looking like a hedgehog: about twenty missiles had lodged themselves into the
armour and stuck out like huge prickles. During this dead period we got some new equipment. Half our Churchills were changed for Shermans which had a larger gun. Also, for reconnaissance, we got light Stuart tanks to replace our Bren Gun Carriers. We had to re-train on the new equipment.
Eventually we were shipped to Italy. In April 1944 the fighting was intense and very difficult because of the terrain which was very mountainous so there was little room for manoeuvre. The battle for Rome was very nasty, with the taking of Monte Cassino a particularly appalling battle. In attack after attack the New Zealanders, the Indians, two British divisions and a thousand bomber raid by the Allied Airforce were in vain; it was the valiant Poles who eventually succeeded. I was sitting in a tank in the Liri Valley, waiting and watching and I saw the white flag of surrender go up - the second highpoint of the war for me.
There is one amazing story of coincidence from this period: After the fall of Monte Cassino Army HQ felt the need to try to persuade a French contingent on one side of us that they should conform a little more closely to the plans laid down by the 8th Army. It was thought that I was the best French speaker so I was chosen to be interpreter. Off we set in a filthy night in the Appenines and eventually found Général Juin, the French commander. Three hours of nocturnal discussion took place and some sort of compromise was arrived at. Eight years after the end of the war I was teaching gunnery at Aldershot and as part of the course I used to take cadets to Lulworth, One day I was told that a senior officer wanted to come and have a look at what we were doing. A car drove up and out hopped Général Juin, by now a Field Marshall, and his ADC. I saluted and greeted Juin; his ADC stepped in to translate, whereupon Join waved him away and said, ”Ce n`est pas nécessaire; il parle français comme un français.”
With the fall of Monte Cassino we could move towards Rome but first we had to link up with the force at the Anzio beachhead, south of Rome. This force had landed the previous February well behind what was then the front line in an attempt to encircle the German army. It failed. Although it got about 12 miles inland it could advance no further and was subjected to 3 months of intense artillery fire. Now was the time to relieve them and my regiment linked up with their outposts in late May `44.
Eventually, two days before D-Day, we entered a largely undamaged Rome. The next two months were a matter of liberating Italy bit by bit. The Germans fought very hard all the way up, using the mountainous terrain to their advantage.
There is another strange coincidence attatched to this period. All the Germans had to do was to blow a crater in the road. Our column had to stop and couldn`t drive off the road because the terrain was steep and wooded. We were stopped at one such place - Palombera Sabina - in the Appenines. The artillery fire killed several men in the troop. I sent out a small party under a Corporal, on foot, to see if they could get round and do something with the German position. Minutes later there was heavy machine gun fire and the party returned, the Corporal having been badly wounded. Eventually the Engineers filled in the crater and we moved on. This was my 21st birthday - 8th June `44.
In 1956 I was on a camping holiday on the Adriatic coast of Italy. I decided to re-visit the scene of my 21st birthday battle. I found it, quite undamaged - this is a remote part of Italy. However, there was a small café/restaurant in a lay-by not far away. There was one car in the car park - a VW beetle. Inside, I found only one other customer. It was the machine gunner on the gun which had wounded our Corporal. Having been part of such an unlikely coincidence, I know I shall never win the lottery!!
But, one after the other, we liberated Assisi and Florence, Bologna and Forlì and crossed the numerous rivers until at last we got to the Po valley. We used to have to go out on foot at night to recce the ground because it was so soft and the river banks so steep.
Even amongst all the tough fighting there were moments of pleasure. For a week in Rome I had my own guide - a professor - so I was able to
enjoy all the historic sites; his payment was a packet of cigarettes. We also had entertainment of a very high class in both north Africa and Italy - Noel Coward came out to Rome with the whole original cast of Blithe Spirit, for example. I heard Gigli sing in the Rome Opera House.
Although the Italian campaign was hard, many of those who were there would readily admit to having had marvellous experiences. I am certainly glad that my lifespan sent me to Italy rather than to Passchendaele
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