- Contributed by
- Mike Emm
- People in story:
- Walter (Wal) Emm
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 February 2004
My Dad, Walter (Wal) Emm, served with the 10th Field Ambulance in Tunisia, Italy and Greece. He was called up in 1941, his papers arriving on Mum's birthday, 5th March. After training he was granted embarkation leave over Christmas 1942, but he only told Mum he was going abroad on the last evening.
He landed in Algiers in February 1943 as part of the British 4th Division. As I understand the story they had taken over a farm cottage at Medgez-el-Bab as either a Field Hospital or a Casualty Clearing Station. Only one of Dad's letters has survived and I will allow the following extract to relate the next turn of events.
"We were captured by German Paratroops at 2.30 one morning and I lost everything I had exept the photos and the clothes I stood in, but I was thankful it was no worse than that. There were 10 of us including Nick Carter, Ernie Webster and Sgt Sullivan. Besides us there were 4 officers, but after a few days they were separated from us and we haven't seen them since. After two days we were passed over to the Italians, and we thought we were booked for Italy. However, it's a long story and it will keep until some future date. It's an experience that I don't want to go through again, and for the time being anyway I want to forget it."
That "experience" took place on board an Italian POW ship which came under attack by Allied aircraft causing damage to the bows and below the waterline. As a result the Captain grounded the ship about 800 yards from the beach at La Coulette, some way along the coast from Tunis. That night the Italians fled the ship, together with all the lifeboats, leaving one man as sentry over the hold. As soon as they departed he surrendered - you have to feel sorry for him! This left about 700 prisoners on board, one of whom is Les Birch who I am deeply indebted to for taking the time to write to me with an account of this event. Indeed there are several members of both the 1st Army and Italy Star Associations who have kindly written to me detailing the progress of the 10th Brigade at this time and later on.
What were these men to do without boats, very little food and water, and stranded about a half mile from shore? The next day they were again subjected to air attacks from American Kittyhawks firing 20mm cannon and decided to lie low the best they could. When I received the letter from Les I had trouble sleeping the first night thinking about my Dad in such a situation. Imagining 20mm cannon shells thudding into the side of the ship. Nick Carter, who was only 18 then, was with him and Dad used to recall how Nick buried his head between Dad's knees during the attacks. Nick never forgot Dad and would always visit him when in London. Sadly I lost touch with Nick after Dad died in 1975 and do not know if he is still alive.
On the second night a raft was made from deck planking and old casks and those fit enough were detailed to swim to shore with it. On the third morning they braced themselves again for air attacks and it appears the Americans did not disappoint them. They had exhibited a number of Red Crosses on white backgrounds but these were ignored. Later an RAF Officer in battledress returned on a launch with a Union Jack which was hoisted to the masthead. He brought news that the RAF had been informed of their plight but was not sure whether the Americans had received the message. Apparently the words had hardly left his mouth when Kittyhawks again strafed the ship with cannon shells.
Finally the attacks did cease and they were all taken off and brought ashore. My father was sent to a rest camp in Ismalia for a while and then to the French Colonial Hospital at Setif to work. Later his unit was at Monte Cassino for several months before continuing through Italy until VE Day.
It appears that modern day accounts of "friendly fire" are nothing new. I am extremely grateful that he survived as I was not born until 1951! Mum never liked him talking about the army in later years which was a shame as there are many things I would have liked to ask him and when I was of an age to take more interest, and we could have talked, he had died.
I hope we never forget the sacrifices my parents' generation made. It cost my parents four precious years of prime married life, it cost so many more their lives. My brother was 3 when he last saw Dad, and 7 when he came home. In his words "this strange man entered our lives". It made some relationships extremely difficult after the war, and while Dad never lived to see my children, he did live to see me grow up and be very happily married.
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