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A Lancashire Lad Goes to War: Chapter 7

by Kenneth Ashton Brooke

Contributed by 
Kenneth Ashton Brooke
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09 December 2005

Commando Training

At the 09:00 parade on the third day, about 10 of us were told to report to a sergeant. Norman was left behind, but we gathered in a hut and were informed that we had been selected to train as Officer Commandos. We were issued with the white 'flash' for our caps to show that we were Officer Cadets. The rest of the day was spent with the sergeant explaining what was going to happen from the following morning.

At dawn for the next two weeks we reported for parade with full kit and then had to run along logs, crawl under barbed wire and climb over walls or trenches. The latter entailed climbing onto the shoulders of one person while being pulled up by someone lying on top of the wall, and on one occasion with live ammunition from a Bren Gun being fired just over our heads. On all the exercises the sergeant yelled at us and called us unpleasant things, throwing firecrackers at us - just making life very difficult for us. They were pretty grinding days. Then we came to unarmed combat, learning how to take out a sentry quickly by knowing the vulnerable parts of the body and its nerve endings. We had to practise disarming a man advancing towards us with a rifle and bayonet; the sergeant would throw the rifle to one of us, saying "Stick it in me!" Much as we would have liked to stick it in his loud mouth, we could not be too aggressive and actually ram the bayonet in him, so he was always able to take the rifle from us. Then one day, a rather well-spoken and well-educated but unassuming lad waited until the sergeant almost had hold of the lad’s rifle saying his usual command, “Stick me with the bayonet!” The lad waited until the sergeant had almost got hold of his rifle and then he swing the rifle round quickly and hit him hard on the side of his face with the butt of the rifle. He laid him out flat, resulting in cheers all round! We had to get a stretcher to take him to hospital, as he had a broken jaw bone. Thankfully we never saw him again: a much pleasanter sergeant took over our training. It was very, very hard, particularly when we had to train in soft sand, but at least there was no one constantly yelling aggressive abuse at us.

Towards the end of the course I discovered that a truck was going up the desert to Mersa Matruh with supplies. One of our officers, a Lieutenant Boult, was also in the camp; I found him and told him that I wanted a pass for Norman Pearson and me to rejoin the 4th Durham Survey. He was not for going himself and could not understand why we wanted to leave the peace and comfort of the camp and return to the sand, flies and uncertainty of life with worse food. Nevertheless, we got our passes and I contacted the driver of the truck who agreed to take us.

I informed the Officer in Charge that I was leaving and returning to my regiment. We set off squashed in with the provisions in a 3-ton truck. I cannot remember how long it took us to get to Mersa Matruh but I do remember that at least a couple of times we brewed up with some of our rations and slept alongside the truck. We eventually arrived, but the site was empty except for bell tents (only some of which were occupied), a cookhouse and a guard tent. We checked in and stored our kit in an empty bell tent. When we went to bed we wondered about the dark brown streaks on the tent wall. In the morning we found out, through having been bitten all over: on the tent wall were dozens of small round black bugs about the size of a grape pip and so full with our blood that they could hardly move. Obviously we set about making more brown stains by flattening them. The bites itched like fury but they did not last very long and the 8th Army song “In my louse-bound, bug-bound dug-out in Matruh; with the door made of Hessian and the window of four by two” was certainly very accurate!

I made contact with a driver who was going to Tobruk and willing to take us with him. We only stayed in Mersa Matruh for a couple of days, but that was enough - any longer and we would have had half of our blood sucked out! The trip took several days in the same way as before. We stayed in Tobruk for two or three days and I found a small coaster that was going to Tripoli. There were already 6 soldiers on board, so we just made up his full complement of passengers. We were more or less confined to the dining room: at night we slept in hammocks over the tables, fastened with hooks to each side of the room, so it was pretty small.

The crewmembers were Laskars who spoke very little English, but we got along well with them. My only complaint was that tea was sweetened with molasses, as there was no sugar on board, and this gave it a very strange and sweet taste. We drank it just the same as we had got used to drinking and tasting all sorts of strange stuff. Apart from that the food was great. The coaster kept close to the shore, as it had no defences. On the second day out we ran into a terrific storm. Being a small boat, it stood on its end and rolled over both ways like being at the fun fair: this carried on for most of the day. One of the waves smashed some of the glass on the bridge. I was all right, but two or three of the soldiers were rather poorly. I ate all of my meals even though they were cold, as the cook could not use the galley because the rolling of the boat made it impossible to light the coals in the cooking stove.

During the night, the storm blew itself out and we were in calm waters again. I think we took three days to reach Tripoli, where we reported in to the sergeant at the transit camp. We were allotted a tent for sleeping and then we went to the cookhouse for some good English food and decent tea. I don't think we were there long, perhaps a couple of days, before I found a lorry travelling to the front. It was an open truck loaded almost to the top of its sides with 5.5" shells. The driver and his mate said that we could travel with them, but we would have to ride sitting or lying on the shells. It was a rather uncomfortable, slow and bumpy journey as Norman and I only had one blanket each to soften the jolts. The truck travelled along the coast road that was full of holes caused by our bombers when they had attacked the German vehicles during their retreat.

After the first day we knew that we were approaching the front, because the noise of the guns was getting louder. In the late afternoon we were dropped off and the driver told us the approximate direction of our comrades. We did not have very far to walk before we arrived back at the forward units of' S' Troop. There followed much hand-shaking and many questions about Cairo and our journey back to the unit. As darkness would arrive within the hour, I was given the job of cooking the evening meal. There was not much choice regarding what to cook: the provisions consisted of a few tins of bully beef, some flour, dehydrated onion and potato, and some fat from a tin of bacon used a couple of days earlier. I transformed those ingredients into rissoles, which were gratefully received. Of course, when you have been in the desert for a time, especially in the forward areas, any food tastes good.

It was rather noisy; our guns and those of the enemy were fairly active, which meant that headquarters would be busy and the following day I would be back on duty. I needed to return to a routine. That first night I sat in a dugout and caught up with everyone's news and stories. My parents had given me a gold signet ring for my 21st birthday, and I had a habit of playing with it while I was talking. That evening I went to play with my ring as normal but was shocked to find that it was not there. I remembered having it while cooking the rissoles so it was lost in the hour between dinner and talking in the dugout. Everyone had a good look around in the morning, but to no avail. Unfortunately, the sand where we were was very soft and anything dropped on it sank more or less straight away. I felt very troubled about losing the ring.

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