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WW2 - People's War

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Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper
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Tom Canning
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27 January 2004


Our training had finally been completed with the 61st Training regt. R.A.C. at Streatlam Camp,Barnard Castle and boredom was becoming settled in as we waited for our postings.We enjoyed a number of embarkation leaves which had the effect of unsettling my father,a veteran of the Great War, who had obviously never had such luxury during his service in France and Gallipoli.

One day on the scene strides a commanding figure named Major John Pine-Coffin M.C. who regaled us with tales of derring do and finishing off his lecture by asking for volunteers for a "Special Job". Being fairly bored with repeating lectures on how paint dries,four of us volunteered and were wafted down to Oxford University where, for four days, we were 'looked' at by various boffins in their search for the perfect solidiers for this "Special Job" without actually telling us what the job was but having to sign the Ofiicial Secrets Act, in case we ever found out ! Part of this search included throwing us out of a tethered balloon anchored at 500 feet from the ground,fortunately whilst wearing a parachute !

Obviously two of us failed as we returned to Barnard Castle with the knowledge that the "Special Job" had to do with wireless communications to Cairo from, of all places - Yugoslavia. This was with Brigadier McLean's Mission to Tito. During a visit to Rome much later in the war I bumped into Bob Cross, one of the accepted "volunteers" who was in hospital blues and minus a leg, who claimed that he was one of the lucky ones who only lost a leg !

The boredom at 'Barney' continued and one fine day a notice appeared on squadron orders that volunteers were required to become Officers and Gentlemen, naturally we six of the running team volunteered and training began at once very soon both Bill and I were rejected. In my case the little fat major, who was obviously a lawyer asked me if I could spell the word reconnaisance..... I thought that there had to be quite a number of n's and a' and e' in that word but too late -- I heard the little fat major say to the Brigadier that I would not quite make it and the Brigadier grumped his accord ! The answer he was looking for, of course, was a 'yes' or 'no' !

Some things are sent to protect us as Ken,Jimmy and Freddie became Infantry Officers and were killed in Burma, Bill was killed at the Gothic Line in Italy and Rex finished up as a Major with quite a tale to tell when I met him again at Barnard Castle in 1947 awaiting de-mobilisation.

He was sent out to Italy with a small draft to his Battalion who were already in action at MonteCassino and suffering terrible casualties, on landing his six months 'probation' was completed and he became a full Lieutenant. On reaching the Battalion his Colonel told him to sit down in his office and just answer the phone ! The casualties were stiil climbing and he was promoted Captain in the morning.Two days later the Brigadier called and asked the state of the Battalion which was only two officers, Rex and the Colonel, and seven n.c.o's and other ranks. Rex was promoted to Major and after a whole week in Italy was once again on a troopship bound for the U.K. with the regimental Colours and the remnants of the Battalion ! He never left the U.K. again !

Then it was time to board the Franconia at Liverpool for the cruise to Greenock to pick up the Convoy and set off for parts unknown.... possibly to somewhere peaceful which was an optimistic view of life !

We finally arrived at Algiers where we lay off admiring the city in the distance, until the wind changed and we had our first taste - or rather- smell of the Orient ! It was not good. On disembarking next morning we found it strange that the Infantry in the form of the 6th battalion Black Watch had transport laid on for their journey to their transit camp at Maison Carree some six miles from the City whereas we Tank men had to march the ten miles to our camp at Cap Matifou !

On arriving at the camp we were pleasantly informed that a dinner had been prepared if we would be so kind and get it while it was warm ! It can only be left to the imagination of how a dinner consisting of a bully beef stew surrounded by most of the flies in Africa in 90 degree heat can be termed pleasant !

Somehow we had picked up a stranger to us in the form of a husky type of Welshman called MacDonald who was something of a mystery, but did have a line of healed machine gun bullets all up the right side of his body. He somewhat reluctantly admitted to having being wounded at a place called Lofoten ! He was a very quiet man who didn't say a lot except that "something" should be done about the food ! One afternnon he disappeared to turn up later, in a hurry,with great plates of good food which was gobbled down and all the utensils cleaned ond disposed of with little fuss that the other people in the adjoining tents were unaware of our feast.

Very soon there was hell to pay with inspections all over the place and each tent turned out - over - underneath and all around it to find the dinners of the Officers Mess !

Some time later we were "Invited" to stand guard at the docks in Algiers, whcih was a pain in the rear but someone had to do it. Once again MacDonald disappeared very convieniently missing his turn at guarding some frieghters in case someone made off with them. He returned much later with the news that he had been curious as to what we were guarding and so went walkabout in some of the ships, and had come across many new uniforms of which he had helped himself to three in case someone else wanted one ? There were no takers as we had new kits issued prior to boarding.
The guard was stood down at dawn and we had to be inspected inside half an hour which gave us time to clean up and MacDonald decided to wear his new uniform.
In the gloom of the guardhouse he dressed very carefully in his new uniform, and as the sun came up we paraded to find that MacDonald stood out like a sore thumb !
Instead of wearing the British Brown/Kahki, MacDonald was dressed in the Green/Khaki of the Canadian Army.

The Sergeant-Major felt that this was very interesting and so invited MacDonald to accompany him to the Orderly Office for a little discussion ! That was the last we saw of MacDonald.

It was a funny war at times !

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - First sight of Algiers

Posted on: 28 January 2004 by Ron Goldstein

Keep them coming Tom!
What particulary rang bells with me was the fact that you also registered the smell of Africa reaching out to our ship. I went back to my own album and re-print the entry below.

23rd April 1943

Some memories in life stick more than others, and one such memory was my first sight and smell of Africa. As soon as I could get up on deck after docking I was hit by the immense bright light of the sun hitting the whitewashed houses along the coastal strip. This, when coupled with the green of the hills, the blue of the sea and sky and the completely alien smell drifting out from the land, was something completely outside my experience and was a fitting start to my wartime overseas experience.

Thanks for this story.... you tell it better than I do

Best wishes



Message 2 - First sight of Algiers

Posted on: 28 January 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper


You are a born raconteur (says lover of long words). I learn something everytime from you, as well as invariably (another big word) making me smile.

Yet again, well done!

I'm sure you too will read this. I got your album photos. A superb collection! Bit puzzled though, who is the handsome young lad in them?

All the very best to you both,



Message 3 - First sight of Algiers

Posted on: 28 January 2004 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Peter & Ron,

once again I thank you for your kinds words although at first I thought Peter was swearing at me with those big words !

Regarding the smell - from five miles out of Algiers - I was reminded of this when I read the story "Front Line" by Greg xyz who was recounting his primary service and he described his sleeping 'biscuits' as being made from Dehydrated Monkey Muck. This story is a hoot and particularly some of the situations he found himself in during his service with 9th Batt RTR - he finally joined your 4th Armed Bde at Padua after the German thing finished, Ron - give it a read !


Message 4 - First sight of Algiers

Posted on: 29 January 2004 by Ron Goldstein

You're quite right Tom, The Front Line is a cracking tale so thanks for pointing me towards it.
Tell me, have you ever been back to the places we 'visited' during WW2?
I was tempted a few times during my 55 years of married bliss but I always thought it might have been a tad selfish. The exception has been Italy where Nita (that's she who must be obeyed) and I have often been to for holidays. Last year we went to back to Florence for a second visit and just for a giggle I took with me copies of army passes for Day Leaves to both Florence and Sienna, both dated 1944. When the young lady usher in the Palazzo Vechio in Florence asked to see my entrance ticket I gave her the pass instead.I can reccomend it to any one who wants to see what a 'double-take' looks like!

Glad you got the photos OK, there's plenty more where they came from but I'll wait until the website allows us to upload them on the un-suspecting public.

Regards to both of you



Message 5 - First sight of Algiers

Posted on: 29 January 2004 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Thought you would like the "Front Line" it's quite the story !

Have been back to Italy many times but not to the areas of the contretemps although last year we spent five days in Orvieto and surrounding towns, this was after a safari in South Africa, which was fabulous ! Daughter has a half share in a 10 bedroom Villa at Lago Trasemeno. She often blames me for the bomb damage - I keep telling her it was the 6th Armed Div and 9th Armed Bde plus the South Africans !

In 1980 went back to Vienna on the way through to Oberammergau and went all through the Schoenbrunn Palace where we held the Tattoo in 1946 - then in '81 put the car on a train at Boulogne to Milan - drove to Venice stopping here and there - up to Villach - Klagenfurt - Sankt Veit - Strassburg - Friesach - Knittelfeld - Leoben - then on to Vienna - back via Oberammergau again - Ulm - Munich - Franfurt - Cologne - Brussels - Zeebrugge and home ! It was quite the trip. We spent a lot of the 90's touring Portugal and later Switzerland, when Veronica DID the Holy Land, Jordan et al.
In 2000 we had planned a trip to Rome - Cassino - all the way up the coast to Rimini - finishing up at Lake Como where our daughter was to meet us for a long week-end( she lives in London) - but Veronica slipped.fell and broke her tib & fib just above the ankle outside the Church of Many Graces at Nettuno - flew back to London next day - operated on spent a week in hospital at Hillington - then back to Daughters apartment for two weeks and finally back to Canada. It was also quite the trip ! These events I have written about for my own collection. This year I'm trying to get to Riccione to catch up with the cemetery where many of the lads are to say farewell as time is marching on !We have been very fortunate to be able to travel so much, and have the health to sustain.

Best regards

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