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15 October 2014
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Royal Army Veterinary Corps at War.

by agecon4dor

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Contributed by 
agecon4dor
People in story: 
Jack Edwards.
Location of story: 
Palestine, Egypt, and England and Germany.
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A4370852
Contributed on: 
06 July 2005

Captain Jack Edwards RAVC.

This story was submitted to the People’s War web site by a volunteer on behalf of Jack Edwards and has been added to the site with his permission. He fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

This is the continuation of Jack Edwards’ WW2 Peoples War Story started under the Title ‘The Leicestershire Yeomanry goes to War’, and covers the remainder of his time in Palestine, a move to Egypt, his return to England before going to Germany until the end of the War. The story continues ……..

So I was RTU’d, not to No. 4 Remount Squadron but to No. 1 Veterinary Hospital at Sarafand. I was a Sergeant and a ‘spare file’. No one knew what to do with me until I was posted to Jerusalem to help out in the ADV and RS Office. I lived in Allenby Barracks and ‘worked’ in the Headquarters at the King David Hotel (the wing that was later blown up by Jewish activists). Life was more normal then and the Garrison fielded quite a strong cricket eleven. I played a few games without making an impression.

One memory is receiving a cablegram from GHQ Cairo asking for a progress report on twenty five camels. My statistical return for that week had slipped a column. Opposite the King David Hotel was the Jerusalem YMCA, a palatial building with its own swimming pool and a carillon tower, which rang out at even tide with such classics as “On Ilkley Moor B’tat”. Visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of all Nations, the Wailing Wall, the Mosque of Omar, the Via de la Rosa and Pilate’s House (the start of the Stations of the Cross) reminded me of A S Moron’s “In the Steps of the Master”. More realistic was the sight of thousands of silver plaques adorning the walls of the basement of Pilate’s House, now a Carmelite Monastery, to commemorate the visit of American Tourists whose names were inscribed for all to see. My interest was an excavation in the wall running alongside the road about six feet below the present level, showing two deep ruts made by carts or chariot wheels a thousand years before. This and the Garden of Gethsemene were real to me although it is difficult today to imagine the isolation and loneliness of the place. My time was up at King David and I returned to the Veterinary Hospital, not a true Vet, rather more an ‘outsider’.

The Sergeant in Charge of Veterinary Corps Records at GHQ Second Echelon Cairo had asked to move back to a regular unit, therefore I was conveniently despatched to replace him. This time the journey was by lorry, all the way to Abbassia on the outskirts of Cairo. The Corps had a detachment a distance away from Second Echelon which housed a great sprawl of buildings dating from the Napoleonic era. A S Sgt was in charge with a batch of horses and a staff of a dozen men. I had my trust camp bed, which I had brought all the way from Derby and established myself in my predecessor’s room, which meant I unofficially enjoyed near perfect freedom. There was one other RAVC Corporal who did all the typing after I had checked and corrected all the Part I and Part II Orders sent in by RAVC Units. It was not an onerous job so I was given the Army Physical Training Corps and the Small Arms Unit Records to deal with.

There was an ATS Section manned by two English Sergeants plus a contingent of locally recruited ATS Other Ranks. One Sergeant was Margaret May Canfield, with whom I became friendly. The courtship progressed apace. Then Meg, as she was affectionately known, was promoted to Warrant Officer (WOII) and posted to GHQ MEF as Chief Clerk to the Director of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering based in the Semaramis Hotel on the bank of the Nile. In the meantime I had received quite undeserved promotion to Staff Sergeant — again fate. Our romance continued, often at the expense of my duties, commuting between Abbassia and Cairo. We then had to obtain permission to marry and were wed in Cairo Cathedral on 30th January 1943. The honeymoon was spent in Alexandria at a very posh hotel on the sea front. Married life in Cairo did not last that long, but we did manage another short holiday at Ismalia before Meg had news that her mother was terminally ill. She was flown home on compassionate leave. I saw her off in a Short Sunderland flying boat which landed in Poole Harbour. Later she applied and was allowed to leave what had become the WRAC (Woman’s Royal Army Corps). I soldiered on in Cairo, now living in barracks and doing guard duty once again. One of the Veterinary Corps’ main sporting activities was to attend the Cairo Race meetings to take swabs from the horses’ moths and report on those that had been doped. Owners of such horses forfeited any prize money, but bookmakers still paid out on ‘first past the post’ principle. What was staggering was to see a jockey (any jockey) standing in his stirrups, hauling his mount back to avoid passing the post first. It didn’t seem to matter to the locals. Very much a way of life in Egypt.

Having moved back into barracks at Abbassia I lost touch with my former RAVC colleagues and wasn’t sorry when my overseas service made me eligible for posting home, known by its initials as LILOP. So I shook the dust of Cairo off my feet and embarked with some hundreds more on the SS STRATHERN, a huge 35,000 ton liner, bringing back the 14th Army troops from India. The very first meal we had on board, believe it or not was kippers! The journey through the Med was smooth but the following wind caused a perpetual rise and fall like being on a non stop lift. One night I refused to move and lay on the deck until the next morning when sailors with hosepipes and gallons of seawater hastened my retreat. With three others we started playing bridge. Being very rusty and short of experience, my tally when we reached Liverpool was showing a loss of a few thousand points. We sailed through the Bay of Biscay without any upset and up St. Georges Channel. Off Anglesey we met the roughest part of the trip, but we were seasoned travellers, no harm was done.
Off the ship, at Liverpool, on to a train, change at Sheffield carrying two kit bags full of gear and odds and ends picked up whilst abroad, and on to the RAVC Depot at Doncaster.

The Sergeants Mess was a three-storey house outside the grounds. Being a Staff Sergeant gave one considerable advantages, not that I ever felt that I had earned or deserved them. A spacious bedroom shared with another Sergeant, a coal fire with a huge container of coal. Mess Waiters and Cooks — it was a life of Riley. To find me a job, I was put in charge of Welfare; a task, which chiefly consisted of supporting a Corporal and four others who formed the Regimental Dance Band — a pianist, a drummer, a saxophone player, a trumpet player and a double base. I tried to play until my hand became raw slapping the strings. I also had a go on the drums but my lack of skill tended to spoil the rhythm and dancers were not impressed. After a spell of disembarkation leave where I was reunited with Meg and my parents it was back to the Depot to help organise a Grand Dance and who should turn up but my former Commanding Officer. It was the third time our paths had crossed and now I was senior enough to talk to him and remind him of our previous encounters, at Rufford Abbey, at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and now Doncaster. Unbeknown to me there was great activity in the offing to form a number of new Sections to go to Germany to deal with the great influx of horses previously used for German Military Transport. I was called in by the CO and offered a Quartermaster’s commission as Adjutant to No. 1 Remount Conducting Section. Rather than accept the post I telephoned my wife and explained if I did not accept I would be posted as a Staff Sergeant to HQ in Hanover. That settled it and off I dashed to good old Moss Bros in London to get kitted out. With two pips on each shoulder I returned to the Depot taking many by surprise. What had I done to deserve this good fortune? I think, simply by being in the right place at the right time. I was now ensconced in the Officer’s Mess in a private house in Doncaster, but not for long. The task placed upon the us necessitated the setting up of six Remount Conducting Sections to go to Germany and deal with the thousands of horses that had been used for war transport. So with our jeep and three 3-ton trucks, we made for Dover to embark on an American LST. Landing at Calais with our vehicles, the CO in the jeep with the green flag and me in the last truck with the blue flag made our way through Belgium and Holland and the Black Forest. We passed through Niemegan and saw the evidence of the airborne landings, smashed gliders everywhere. Through the Black Forest,crossing the River Weser by pontoon bridge, to Hamlin, on through Luneberg Heath and the remnants of a German Army and on to Hamburg.

At one overnight camp off the roadside near Hamlin, a RAMC Major joined us and enquired whether we knew we were near a former Concentration Camp. “No”, we replied and he advised us to remedy the situation. Accordingly the following morning a party of us followed directions and found ourselves at Belsen Concentration Camp. With three companions I entered the camp through a now open gate to see an area of earth the size of a football pitch surrounded by heavy wire fences, outlined by very modern blocks of red brick barracks silhouetted amongst a thick belt of fir trees. The first soldiers who had entered the area; they had used flame throwers to burn off the waste, debris, huts and any likely contamination after moving any survivors into the German Barracks. The ground had been opened up to bury the hundreds and hundreds of corpses in a number of trenches topped by mounds of earth like potato clamps, each with a hand-written placard to the effect that x hundreds of bodies were buried here. The survivors we saw lying in snowy white sheets in beds formerly occupied by German guards scarcely raised a ripple on the covers. An emaciated skeleton does not do full justice to the description. Words failed me. How could this have been allowed to happen? The brutality and degradation was etched on each face, the eyes so sunk that could only be seen by standing over a body and looking down. If this was Christianity I could no longer accept it. Speaking to survivors each with their number tattooed on their wrists brought tears to my eyes. I really felt in turn saddened, angry, vengeful and glad myself to be alive. This unexpected experience has had a lsting effect on my life and unless I encounter a situation as Paul did on the road to Damascus, I will remain agnostic.

We continued our journey on through bombed out Hamlin, where fire bombs had even melted the tar off the streets, then on to Neuminster on the heels of more surrendering German Armies and finally to Schonboken. No. 2 Section was ordered to set up ‘shop’ in Hamburg; whilst No. 1 Section took over Schonboken Castle and its grounds. We were preceded by the Guards Armoured Division whose shoulder flashes and ours showed a mounted white knight on a red background — the mark of 8 Corps. They had liberated all and everything that lay in their path. It was not unusual to see troops lining up for meals using gold or silver plates, arms festooned with wristwatches. Their CO very kindly presented us with a crate of wine on their departure.

The Castle had been used by the Germans as a Veterinary Experimental Establishment complete with captured Polish Stud of ‘Arab’ stallions and its attendant Polish POW staff. They had been transhipped from Poland as a complete unit. The purpose of this establishment was quite clear to cross breed the ‘Arab’ stallions with the Flemish ‘Mares’ to produce a new ride/drive breed. All attempts however appeared to have failed. The former German CO had been lost with the German 6th Army in Russia. His home had been commandeered and his wife and children forced to live in a hut in the woods. As the civilian staff had also fled, we took over the running of the estate as well. Whilst the unit took over the Schloss, the Major and I occupied the house of the former Commandant. It was arranged for the wife and children to reoccupy part of the house on the understanding that she looked after us. This became a very happy arrangement and the children became good friends.

Our task was to take in all the horses from the disbanded Austrian Units of non-combatants who had driven the supply carts and wagons as fuel shortages had compelled the Germans to rely on horse drawn vehicles. We had to raise the roofs of our 3-ton trucks to accommodate horses collected from countless horse drawn transport units. Wagons piled up in the Castle courtyard and were sold back to the local farmers by auctioning ‘off’ lots on Saturday afternoons. There were a few Racehorses, Hunters and other Blood stock, were reclaimed by their owners, after proof of ownership was presented. The remainder were taken to Hamburg and used to feed the local population. Food was desperately short in the towns so horsemeat was quite literally a lifesaver for thousands of Germans. The Polish Unit was staffed by experienced military officers and soldiers, all experts and masters in their own trades. Their pleasure was to organise and hold Gymkhanas in the Castle grounds. Collecting Guard dogs from German POW Camps was another experience.

One time there was only a wire fence that saved me from being savaged by Alsatians, Rotweilers and German Shepherds. The only people who could handle them were the ex-prisoners (Poles) themselves.

Another prearranged trip was south to Hanover to investigate the whereabouts of Veterinary equipment said ‘to be cached’ in salt mines in Silesia. Rounding a bend in the road, miles from nowhere we were halted by an American GI with his gun in the crook of his arm. We stopped at his signal “Where’s you guys going?” he asked in an unmistakable drawl. I explained only to be told that the Russians were round the next bend and shot first and asked questions later. Needless to say we returned but not quite empty handed for rummaging round a huge Field Park of assorted materials off-loaded from bombed out trains, I came across a chest of top class veterinary instruments and enough light bulbs to brighten our Schloss for years to come.

My release date came up, having stayed on for an extra six months at the Army’s request. I made my farewells, sold all the gear I didn’t need to a young Polish Officer. I was to be relieved by an old friend from the Doncaster days. We did not meet so I was unable to ask him to repay the money he borrowed in Doncaster. Early ‘leave’ trains entering the Hook of Holland on a loop line allowed one to see both ends of the train and to observe, and join in, the throwing of lunch packs of thick Army bully beef sandwiches to crowds of desperately hungry civilians lining both sides of the track. And so eventually home to Leicester and civilian life.

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