- Contributed by
- People in story:
- GEORGE WESLEY THORNLEY, 'Ginger' Bennett, Dickie Jones, Danny Jones, 'Blondie' Shepherd, Freddie Hatch, 'Paddy' MacMillan
- Location of story:
- UK/EUROPE & THE MIDDLE EAST
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 25 October 2005
"This story was submitted to the People's War site by CSV/BBC Radio Nottingham on behalf of Mr George Wesley Thornley with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions"
I volunteered in November 1939 to join the RAF. My war service starting at ‘Cardington’ on 21st Feb 1940.
After several postings, I then trained as a dispatch rider and soon found myself at Liverpool Docks abroad at the ‘Strathnaver’ sailing 16th Nov. 1940 to the Middle East around the Cape, stopping at Durban for re-fuelling and stores eventually arriving in Egypt 19th Dec 1940.
I was posted to ‘Yannina’ in Greece near the Albanian border where 80 Squadron were based. Our Gladiators were kept very busy especially when the Germans decided to help the Italians, and unfortunately we were soon over run so it became necessary to make a rapid retreat from the Albanian Front to ‘Athens’.
As a Dispatch Rider, my life was very busy and dangerous, guiding the convoy of 80 Squadron vehicles across the Corinth Canal and eventually to ‘Kalamata’ to await rescue by Sunderland aircraft.
Unfortunately, the Sunderland’s were shot down so we dispersed amongst tree’s etc, and eventually ‘holed up ‘in a disused brewery yard.
It seemed we must be captured until we obtained boxes of oranges which we laid out on the brewery square ground, spelling out ‘SOS’ ‘SOS ‘HELP’.
This was observed by one of our aircraft, and rescue arrived by way of ‘HMS’ Kelly’ (Mountbatten as Captain) which came close inshore to take us aboard eventually transferring us to a Coastal Steamer the ‘SS Costa Rica’ anchored a mile or two off shore.
Unfortunately, the following day the ship was attacked by the Germans and sunk.
The destroyer ‘HMS Defender’ came along side, and with help from a sailor swinging a rope from his ship to where I was waiting on the bridge of our dying ship managed to swing across the gap of both ships to safety. Sadly many men being less successful were crushed between ships. Those saved were taken to ‘Souda Bay’ in ‘Crete’.
Three or so days later we were picked up by a local Coal Steamer ‘SS Iritira’ which took us safely to ‘Alexandria’ arriving 1st May 1941 greeted by many ladies who gave us fruit, chocolate, cigarettes, etc. We must have looked a ragged lot!
Then on to ‘Aquir’ (near Tel-Aviv) by rail in cattle trucks where the usual ‘FFI’ (Free from Infection’ examinations took place, after which we were given fresh uniforms and clothing as all our kit had been lost in our escape from Greece.
After this, my journeys took me into Palestine to ‘Rayak’ in ‘Syria.’
I recommenced my duties as dispatch rider 2nd June 1941.
After re-equipment, 80 Squadron went to ‘Haifa’ in Lebanon’, and I returned to ‘Cyprus’ aboard the ‘SS Salamau’ 20th July 1941 arriving at ‘Farnagusta Port’ to unload our transport and equipment.
The ‘HMS Hyacinth’ badly shot up after battle was there having temporary repairs, and I and three colleagues were invited abroad for a drop of ‘Navy Rum’ and cards… very enjoyable but unwise, as we travelled to ‘Nicosia’ the next day and oh, my head was bad, and it was so hot being on my motor cycle!!
I drink rum to this day toasting the Navy each time for saving us at our times of danger.
By 16th August 1941, we returned to Haifa in Lebanon, and were immediately sent to ‘Rayak’ near ‘Damascus’ to deal with the Vichy French problem.
I made several journeys to the airport at Beirut with messages, and found the roads and country, also the beaches very good.
We returned to ‘Egypt’ crossing the ‘Sinai Desert’ and camped close to the Pyramids moving onto ‘Fukka’ where our Hurricane Fighters were fitted with bomb racks.
I also took possession of a BSA Motorcycle (my first new one) where another dispatch rider named Ginger Bennett joined the Squadron, but unfortunately he crashed on 7th Dec 1941 and in Cairo Hospital for 12 days.
Our Squadron moved into ‘Western Desert’ 23rd Dec.1941 at ‘El Adem’ close to ‘Tobruk’ after a terrible journey including sand storms, poor tracks, and continual enemy action.
Then onto ‘Sidi Rezegh’ and returning to ‘Sidi Birrani ‘ 31st Jan 1942 being allowed a weeks leave at the ‘Ritz Hotel’ in Cairo…..nice to be human again, and clean!!
On returning to ‘Gambut’ 5th April 1942 where 80 Squadron were operating from, we were heavily bombed and lost two of our boys by the runway.
The enemy troops were close to our landing site, and a rapid retreat had to be made to ‘Sidi Barrini’, and then Fukka’.
With German troops close behind, a further move back to ‘Ameryiah’ was necessary.
Thankfully our Army held a line at ‘El Alamein’ enabling our Squadron to rest, and re-equip.
I was in hospital August- September with a damaged eye, returning back to my Squadron 6.9.1942.
Having passed my HVG Transport test, I was issued with a 3 ton, four wheel drive truck and on 18th Sept 1942 crossed the ‘Nile’ and ‘Sinai Desert’ towing a petrol bowser passing through ‘Tel-Aviv’ and Haifa in Lebanon, a arriving on the Syrian Border at ‘El Bassa’.
We left El Bassa 10th 1942, and drove straight through to 85 Landing Ground in Western Desert arriving 12th Oct 1942.
Our drome was bombed heavily with quite a few casualties. 80 Squadron moved just behind El Alamein lines on 22nd Oct 1942 to give better support after the break through.
We pushed onto ‘Daba’ and by 16 Nov1942 were near Tobruk and by 1st Jan 1943, 80 Squadron were operating from ‘El Adam’. Further success for our Desert Rats!!
‘Tripoli’ was captured 21st Jan 1943. Six drivers of 80 Squadron was asked to take a Convoy of supplies to Tripoli.
My good colleagues, Dickie Jones, Danny Jones, Blondie Shepherd, Freddie Hatch, Paddy Macmillan and myself were chosen, and reached Tripoli after seven days drive.
We returned to ‘Derna’ on the day the Italians surrender on 14th Nov.1943.
After moving to ‘Kabrit’ on Canal side, notification arrived that I am to leave 80 Squadron after 2 years 10 months action with them, which started in Greece.
I left 80 Squadron and my friends on 21.11.1943 arriving at the Middle East Signal School at ‘Helwan’ near Cairo.
After my last 3 years, this camp was perfect. Good food, billets, and showers which was a fitting end to my life overseas.
I Left M.E.S.S.(Middle East Signal School), and was posted home on 31st August 1944 travelling through the Mediterranean on the ‘SS Athlone Castle’ arriving at ‘Liverpool Docks’ and proceeding to 72 Base 8th Dec.1944. On to Bottesford, Leicestershire for 5 months, then to ‘Cottesmore’ until my final release 2nd Jan 1946.
With a total of almost 6 years Service, (4 years spent abroad), L count myself fortunate to have survived through trying times.
I will never forget my travels, and the education of meeting peoples of South Africa, Egypt, Greece, Libya, Lebanon, Syria, also on the Islands of Crete, and Cyprus.
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