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'Memories of Past Years' CHAPTER 5

by Barbara Chapman

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Archive List > British Army

Contributed by 
Barbara Chapman
People in story: 
Thomas Hartley Mawson
Location of story: 
North Africa Italy Germany
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
16 September 2005

Tom and friends with German Flag


After a few days in the barracks in Cairo, I was re-issued with kit and sent back to my unit. When I rejoined them they were in the battle line at El Alamein.

I was given an armoured car to drive weighing 16 ton with ¾ inch thick steel plating. My Unit had been re-equipped with self-propelled guns mounted on a tank chassis and were much bigger guns. They were American 105mm firing 35 lb shells, so now we were more like a tank unit. My officer was Lt.Henderson G.P.O. Acting Bombardier and also two wireless operators.
The second day that I was back with my unit, when nightfall came, the barrage opened up and went on all night. It was absolutely fantastic!
When daylight came my officer and I were standing in front of my armoured car when an armour piercing shell struck the ground three feet in front of us. If that had been an explosive shell we would both have been dead.
That morning I saw waves of our bombers come over and drop their bombs on the Germans. I saw four or five bombers shot down and it was a terrific sight to see.
Later in the afternoon we prepared to move. I was now driving the Command Post vehicle and we moved through one of our own mine fields. The Royal Engineers had lifted mines and put wide white tape in lines and we had to drive between these lines. Once we were through the minefields we were in the German lines. When we stopped, quite a few shells clomped down near us and the shrapnel spattered against the sides of my armoured car, but we were all inside and took no fault. Only a direct hit would have finished us.
Soon after this, things seemed to go quiet and when we looked out, our infantrymen were marching prisoners back into our lines, there were thousands of them!
After getting through the battle lines at El Alamein and the noise of war seemed to have passed our guns and my armoured car were right in the middle of the German front line and all the German and Italian soldiers had been taken prisoner.
I noticed a dugout and without thinking that the Germans might have booby-trapped the place, I went down a flight of steps cut out of the hard sand. At the bottom was an oblong room about 10ft long and 6 or 7 feet wide. At each end of the room were places cut out of the sand about 2 ft high, each with a bed in place. In the middle of the room was a table and neatly folded on it were two German Swastika flags, two or three German telescopic rifles and boxes of ammunition.
I noticed that one of the beds was an English Officer’s bed; they must have captured it during our previous retreat. I took out the blankets, rolled up the bed and took the rifles and ammunition and the two flags. I had the bed for the rest of the four years I was in the Middle East. I used the two flags for sheets in my bed, but I will refer to these two flags later on. I believe now that this dug out was Rommel’s office.

So now the Germans were on the run as fast as they could, with our armoured cars and Infantry after them, so we have a long ride back up the desert in pursuit.
In Tobruck, my Captain, Robin Smith our observation officer, wanted to return to the place where we were bombed to see whether our men had been buried. When we had been in action Robin Smith had been out five or six miles in front sending radio messages and ranges for the guns, back to us. He and Second Lt.Henderson, my gun position officer and two wireless operators got in my armoured car and we went out into the desert to our old gun positions, where we noticed our lads had been buried and pieces of wood had been hammered into the ground with their identity discs and tin hats on top of the wood.
After looking around the area Capt. Smith, who was supposed to know the area, said, “Drive on Mawson”, so we went about 100 yards and ‘Bang’, up we went on one of our own mines. It blew off my offside front wheel and folded the wheel rim up like a banana skin. I thought ‘That’s a fitting piece of work, after looking for our dead’ but fortunately no one was killed but Lt. Henderson had a sprained ankle when the mine blew up the floor and trapped his foot under a girder which ran the full length of the armoured car.
The chaps walked back up my wheel tracks to the top of the rise and saw a vehicle travelling in our direction so they waved furiously and caught their attention. We were in luck as they were just the men for the job, they were Royal Engineers and they came over and lifted all the mines around my vehicle. When the R.E’s left us they took my two officers and one wireless operator with them and I was left with one wireless operator, so we were always in contact with our unit. Lesley Rundal and I were stuck there all night and in the morning a big scammel, or transport vehicle came for us. They put a towrope on to my vehicle and pulled me out of the minefield on the same tracks as we went in. They pulled the vehicle on to a tank transporter and tied it on and the sergeant in charge pulled a cover over the scammel.
I could see a land mine about 300 yards away and the big pile of mines were 100 yards distant from the single mine. I just wanted to try out my German telescopic rifle so I took a shot at the single mine and hit it. As it exploded, instantly the big pile of mines also went up with a terrific explosion. The Sergeant felt the blast and jumped off the scammel in shock and I got a real dressing down for my action. I hadn’t expected the pile of mines to go up. Fortunately no one was hurt.
We were taken to the Army repair depot West of Tobruk where Les and I had to wait two days for our vehicle to be repaired. Les was in touch with our unit by radio so we set off again round the high cliff top above Tobruk, which is down at sea level. When we got round to the East side of Tobruk we could look down on the quayside in the bottom. Just at that moment while we were enjoying the view we heard aircraft coming. We both lay down on the ground and as we watched they came straight for Tobruk and dived so low we expected them to crash. They dropped their bombs and pulled out of their dive and skirted up close to the cliff side and away. We couldn’t see the damage they had done for smoke and steam and the harbour was blotted out.
We now got on our way for a good few miles and rejoined our Unit at Agedabia.
The Unit moved off the next day round the coast road to what the troops had christened ‘Dirty Sirty’ because of the many booby traps, which the Germans had left in this village. We were warned not to go near for our own safety, so we skirted around the village and moved miles up the coast towards Misurata, where we found we were back in touch with the enemy. Now we are faced with the fortified Mareth line. It had taken us some weeks to get to this place, which was much the same as all the rest of the desert.
Now we had our Eighth Armoured Division all ready for the attack. It was decided that we would go out into the desert under the cover of darkness and be off the end of the Mareth Line where the rough cliffs ran out and we could get around. So when daylight came we found ourselves shooting round the back of the Mareth Line. While we were there it came over on the radio that two enemy aircraft were flying towards us. So the tanks and everyone who had firearms were at the ready and we could see the planes coming. Across the gully from where we were, stood some of our tanks and they were shooting in our direction while we were shooting in theirs, a very dangerous position. When the first plane came opposite us we could see that it was one of our own Spitfires followed by a German fighter plane. But it was too late. It seemed to me later after the incident that most people shot at our own plane because the German fighter peeled away and flew back but before the Spitfire was out of sight, I saw the pilot come out of his plane feet first and his parachute never opened. His plane crashed further on and went up in a column of smoke.
That evening we moved forward behind the Mareth Line and the place we stopped for the night was in a little valley not very far from Tripoli airfield. While we were there five German bombers were coming in to land and everyone seemed to open fire with anything that would shoot. Because the planes were flying in very low, not much higher than 60 ft, they all crashed on to the airfield on fire.
The next morning we captured the airfield and moved past Tripoli. I never saw the place because soon we were moving past Zuara into Tunisia, past Medenine, Gabes, La Sklura and Sfax. The Germans appeared to be going as fast as they could in retreat.
In Tunisia, wide of Sousse, we went into a very large yard with our guns in close formation where we stayed the night. In this yard an area was covered with orange blossom and what a beautiful smell! Here there was a perfume factory where they distilled the flowers in vats and put the perfume into large barrels.
A day or two later we pressed on towards Tunis and were told that we were going to support the First Army. Whilst we were moving forward I noticed my brother in law Edward’s Divisional Sign, the Mailed Fist, so I wondered whether I would see him.
The Germans had moved down Cape Bon, a pointed spit of land, hoping to escape across to Sicily. They tried to slow us down by placing 88mm guns here and there, but our firepower was too much for them. One gun I saw was knocked out with its gun barrel burst and the German was dead in a slit trench beside the gun, it must have had a direct hit.
That was the end of the war in North Africa. So then I knew there would be no more shells coming at us and I could go and look for my brother-in-law Edward.

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