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15 October 2014
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Always on the Move

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

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Archive List > World > Italy

Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
Richard Barrass
Location of story: 
Italy, Greece and The Middle East
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
30 December 2005

I had a helluva job trying to get into the RAF. My sight wasn’t good enough but someone said that they could get me into the signals. I had to wait quite a long time before I got into the wireless section, it was then about midsummer ’41. I was at Finmere near Buckingham, opposite Stowe School, for about a year, then kicking my heels in Blackpool for about 6 weeks before being sent by ship — the ‘Orontes’ up to the Kyle of Bute to be part of a convoy being assembled at Gourrock. We sailed off Iceland, down the American seaboard where the Americans gave us cover. When we got to the Mediterranean we ran into trouble, so we were battened down below and although we didn’t really know what was happening we could hear the din up above, the running on the decks, pounding of feet, banging and thumping (shouting and gunfire?). Just before we got to Algiers the convoy was attacked, two ships were sunk, one of them had all my papers on it! NCOIC 32 Squadron Signals was already in North Africa, and I was being sent out as a replacement to join them just outside Tunis, this was just as the N African campaign was finishing.
We were off-loaded at Algiers and billeted at Fort deL’Eau, a Legionnaires camp. Lots of us contracted dysentery, the flies were dreadful! To give you an idea — the ropes on the tents would be just black with flies - the poor cooks had an awful job. We were transported in cattle wagons, written on the sides (in French) was 40 men or 8 horses. We got to base camp at Tunis, I and another man were then sent to 32 Squadron. They were just converting from hurricanes to spitfires. Then again we were kicking our heels for months. It was a dreadful autumn. Terrible. Lots of chaps went down with jaundice. Transport couldn’t get about for the army who were a bit north of us so supplies had to be brought my mule train led by muleteers called ‘goumiers’.

Sicily was invaded, then the main object of the invasion of Italy went ahead. We went into Tarranto. I caught malaria while we were there. We didn’t have mosquito nets and I woke up one day bitten from head to toe. Eventually we were transported to Salerno aerodrome ‘Monte Corvino’ to support the troops.

Then to Rouiba at Reghaia aerodrome — again to protect the supply route. Then, back to the Med. to that awful place, the bay of Naples. The Italians were such rogues even if you kept your hands in your pockets they would still find a way to pick your pockets. In Naples harbour I was to guard some of the unloading and I was in a lorry-cab as they were off-loading the transport. During this there was a raid and I was amazed that the port wasn’t plunged into darkness, but all the lights remained on. The Americans on patrol saw some pilfering by the Italians so they made them sit down and eat everything they had stolen whether it was food, or bars of soap, or boot black. Effective punishment, I thought.

We then crossed the Appenines aiming for Foggia. There were 13 aerodromes around there. We shared an aerodrome with 40 squadron and their Wellington bombers also the American B-17s who were raiding Ploesti where there were oil fields. They used to come back in tatters, they really got a caning because the raids were in daylight. We would see the medics going into the aircraft and we didn’t like to watch it really, the medics could be in there a long time before the seriously wounded were brought out. Then we moved up to Termoli, north of Foggia, the squadron used to do sorties into Yugoslavia. In summer time they used to set up a huge screen and show the film they had taken on that day’s raid. This was done with an automatic camera linked to the gun so that when the gun fired a photo was taken of the target. The film was developed when they got back. One of those occasions the film we watched was of, we thought, our chaps attacking a troop train and we could see people running from the train in all directions. And we thought: ‘Oh good — we got them’ as the train was attacked. But I have learnt in recent times that actually it was a transport of Jews from Salonika, Northern Greece, who were escaping the train, so some lucky few got away.

Then we ourselves went to Greece. When a unit is on the move, there are three stages. There is an advance party, who go ahead with supplies, etc. and get things set up. Then the main party comes along, then the rear party, to clear things up afterwards. This was taken in turns. I was in the main party at Piraeus, the port of Athens. Then we went up to the aerodrome at Kalamaki. We were taken up to Salonika by 38 squadron where we established ourselves. The Germans had only just left. The Greeks were cleaned out by the departing Germans who took everything as they left: food, transport, everything. We gave them what we could — the odd tin of bully beef, but we didn’t have much either — just essential supplies which were fuel and ammo (I had a front of a shirt and no back because we couldn’t replacements). The Germans left in such a hurry, I remember seeing, as I walked past a trench, a dead German soldier down there, just a boy, with one arm missing and his neck broken (you could see that from the way the strap on his helmet pulled it back) and there he lay. So our chaps buried him. On the airfield I saw a chap walking by who I thought was an oddly dressed American. And no wonder, because he turned out to be German. He didn’t want to be taken prisoner but asked if he could join the squad as an electrician because he had put in the perimeter lighting and could carry on doing so. But the parachutists got him and took him prisoner.

From there we pulled out and went down to Alexandria, drove across the desert, past the pyramids. After a night or two in Cairo we continued across the Sinai desert up to Northern Palestine. We had given all our lorries and all of our aeroplanes to the Yugoslavs when we left Greece. Our transport then was provided from a depot near Cairo which was all ex 8th army equipment, which had just been left and not serviced for a long time. This was our transport, which was a damn nuisance because of course it would keep breaking down on our way across the Sinai to Ramat David. This was mid-way between Nazareth and Haifa and it was wonderful there! Like being on holiday. We swam in the sea, we had Arab servants… very different from being in Greece. The other aerodrome we were at was Petah Ticqva, one of the oldest Jewish settlements.

From there, in January, 46 I came home by sea and overland. From Port Said, down between Italy and Sicily, past Stromboli, Mount Etna glowing at night, then to Toulon, then over land by train to Dieppe. I’d had enough of flies and dysentery, mosquitoes and malaria, and broken down transport, but again I had to kick my heels waiting for a calm sea before I could finally get home.

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