- Contributed by
- Ritchie/March Family
- People in story:
- Dennis March
- Location of story:
- Europe and Africa
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 14 July 2003
Being the ramblings of Private/Lance Corporal Dennis March serving with the Leicester Regiment and Seaforth Highlanders.
The Leicester Regiment was an Holding Battalion and the Seaforth Regiment the 6th Morayshire Battalion.
The Battalion was part of the 17th Infantry Brigade of the 5th “Y” Division.
Early in 1939 I had to register with the Militia. This was a conscription of men over the age of twenty to be called into the Services for training, similar to that of the Territorial Army, due to the threat of war with Germany. At the time I was in the “32nd Leicester Boy Scouts” and, although there were many of us from the group who had to register, as far as I can recall, I was the only one actually called up.
War was declared against Germany in September 1939 and I received my “call-up” papers in October of the same year with the instructions to report to Ulverscroft Road Training Hall for a medical examination. I had recently changed my occupation from being a Junior Clerk with the L.N.E. Railway to the shoe industry and an old soldier told me that, when I was asked my civilian occupation by the Recruiting Officer, I should state I was a Clerk. My resulting medical examination confirmed I had a body, a head, two legs, two arms, my height was 5ft. 1in., my weight as 7 stones 5lbs. and declared me A1 “fit for anything”. On stating to the Recruiting Officer that I was a Clerk he told me that, owing to my lack of inches, I would serve with the Railway Department of the “Royal Engineers” - encouraging news, much better than the dreaded Infantry!
However, on 15th November I was instructed to report to the Glen Parva Barracks of the “Leicester Regiment” with the warning ‘failure to report would mean imprisonment’. Along with this instruction I received a postal order for 2/6d. to cover travelling expenses. The father of my work-mate, Ted Gumley, had a car and kindly arranged to pick me up at the Granby Halls in Leicester and duly delivered us both to the Barracks at Wigston. On our arrival we were assembled in a room where we were documented. Here Ted and I were separated. After taking particulars of my religion, home address and next of kin, I was told from that moment on I was 4860481 Private March Dennis.
A party of us was then marched to a dismal-looking building called “Hindoustan Block”. The Platoon, as we were now called, consisted of about thirty men. We were on the first floor of the building in a room completely bare except for beds lined up on each side. This was our first introduction to a barrack room. There was a small toilet come washroom at one end for us to wash and shave, far from adequate for the number of men billeted.
After bed allocation, we were told to parade outside to collect our biscuits, as we had not eaten for some time - food at last! This was an early introduction into army jargon when we discovered that the biscuits numbered three, and were in fact our mattresses along with three blankets for our beds.
To the command “get fell in”, we were called out of the barrack room to “fall in”, our first drill order. We were formed in three ranks and marched to the store again to be issued with other items of equipment, amongst them: a knife, fork, spoon, tin plate and a tin basin. My first army meal was poor by comparison with home cooking, sign of things to come. It was unceremoniously dumped on the tin plate and issued along with sweet and custard. The basin was duly filled with a hot drink, proving impossible to drink since the metal rim burnt your lips. Consequently the first thing every conscript purchased was an enamel mug.
The uniform came in dribs and drabs, enough blouses and trousers issued for the entire Platoon, with a system of swapping around until each had a near fit. For quite some time we had to wear our own shoes and overcoats. We were issued with a rifle, now that we were soldiers, a Lee Enfield .303, stored since the 1914 - 1918 War. Each rifle came packed in grease and dust and took hours to clean and ensure it was in working order. Initially issued for the purpose of drills.
We were all introduced to the finer arts of the “army drill”, starting with the rudiments of marching and saluting, important if you were to collect pay, as we were soon to discover. Pay parade required you to march down the room to the pay table, salute the Officer behind the desk, receive your pay, take one step back, salute, about turn and march off. All that for one shilling a day, or so we thought. However, upon checking, the first packet contained the princely sum of 3/6d. The travel allowance had been deducted. To add insult to injury, the following week a shilling was deducted for barrack room damage caused by the previous intake.
Drill and Training
Drill continued along with training in the art of firing our Lee Enfield .303s at Kibworth Firing Range. I was detailed with the role of “look out” to stop anyone straying onto the range. Snow was on the ground and it was bitterly cold. A previous “look out” had left matches behind allowing me the luxury of a fire. Later I was visited by an Officer and a Sergeant who, on seeing the fire, retorted “What’s all this then?” Before I could answer the Officer commented “I think it is called using one’s initiative.”
We spent hours learning how to assemble the Bren Gun, a light machine gun. Training was carried out with a blindfold so that we could change the barrel in the dark. Our Commanding Officer, pleased with our rate of progress, informed us that weekend passes were imminent on completion of training. Training usually finished at 5.30 p.m. on weekdays and 12.30 p.m. on Saturdays. Those not on duty were allowed to apply for a 48 hour pass. Passes which were granted were always issued later by our dear Sergeant; at 4.30 p.m. after he had finished his afternoon nap. This happened nearly every week making it impossible for the lads living further afield to get home and back on time. We planned our revenge, some suggestions being over ambitious with the risk of serious trouble. An older member of the Platoon advised patience as something would crop up. The opportunity arrived at the end of our time at Glen Parva with the competition for the best-drilled Platoon and Platoon Sergeants would bet amongst themselves that theirs was the best. Our ensuing drill, with a few well-planned mistakes, ensured sweet revenge.
Just after Christmas 1939 I received a weekend pass. However, on reaching home I was so ill with influenza my mother had to call the family doctor who declared me unfit to travel for a further 48 hours. On my return to barracks I was still ill so I was admitted into hospital for further treatment. My discharge from the hospital was accompanied with instructions to make my way to Blaby where a factory was being used as a billet. I remained there for only a few hours before being transported to Brentwood Road Drill Hall in Leicester to attend a course on signalling. There I was to meet my friend Ted Gumley again who was already on the same course.
Brentwood Road was a specialist training school for signalling, driving and anti-aircraft tuition. The signal room had previously been the .22 rifle range. Our barrack room here contained beds which consisted of three planks of wood on two trestles and a palliasse filled with straw, surprisingly quite comfortable. Sergeant Cherry was in charge, a great improvement on our last one.
Training was hard mentally, learning both the phonetic alphabet and to send and receive messages in Morse code. Most evenings were free with Saturday finishing early enough for me to get home and return before midnight. I found a good place to park my bike at the school. As there were no church parades, those wishing to attend church services were allowed out after breakfast on Sundays and I took advantage of this privilege.
A Corporal Instructor told me that for a packet of cigarettes he would disarrange my bed so that no-one would notice that I had not spent the night there. He said that I would be able to use my bike (my secret had been discovered).
Later on in our training we learned how to use a lamp for signalling which involved a lamp and a battery. A tripod was fixed onto my bike and we went to Victoria Park for about an hour’s training. This exercise excused us from doing gate duties. It was a strange experience whilst learning the code as you had to look at something and automatically spell it out in dots and dashes.
Our training was now over and we were Infantry Signallers which enabled us to wear a badge of crossed signalling flags on our sleeves.
I think it was in March 1940 when I received my first move with the Signal Platoon to Crewe Hall in Cheshire. I continued my training there but most of the time was spent with one group of men laying out a telephone cable whilst, about 100 yards behind, another group reeled it in. I had not been at Crewe long when I was sent to Burton with three other men to man a telephone exchange. We were the advance party for the Holding Battalion which was due to be sent there.
The telephone exchange was in the Masonic Hall and the caretaker was employed at a nearby Ordnance Depot. He was on an early shift and he asked the night duty exchange operator to give him a call in the morning (which was usually done with a cup of tea provided by him). There was quite a good quantity of food there which supplemented our rations from the Staffordshire Regiment billeted in a brewery in Burton. The rest of the Battalion moved from Crewe Hall to Burton and then came another move. Six or eight of us were sent on an advanced signalling course at Alton Towers near Cheadle in Staffordshire (Alton Towers was later gutted by fire and is now a Pleasure Park).
The advanced training was in the form of signalling Morse code by flags (semaphore). It was now May and the weather was good. We were working in pairs - two to each station and we had a good idea of what messages would be taken between each station so we had an easy time there. I spent my 21st birthday at Alton Towers and I remember sharing a cake which my mother had sent to me with the squirrels that came onto the windowsills each morning.
At the end of the course we returned to Burton but were only there for a few weeks when another move came to a disused hosiery factory at Burbage in Leicestershire. This was a real dump and we knew that something was about to happen as road blocks had been set up on the approaches to the village and no-one was allowed a pass. We all had Dunkirk in mind. The billet was filthy and one of the main jobs was to clear stagnant water from the tanks which had been used for dyeing. Everyone seemed to have cuts on their hands and a call went out for anyone with experience in first aid. By this time I was aware that it was fatal to volunteer for anything in the Army, but I decided anything was better than the boring jobs we were doing so I filled the roll of First Aid Attendant. There was a civilian doctor looking after us and my job was to prepare those who had dressings for the doctor to inspect the wounds and do the necessary bandaging afterwards. For those who had reported sick I had to go to the doctor’s surgery and collect any medication and administer it to the patients.
Very soon there came another move. I think we might have left from Hinckley Railway Station arriving at London Road Station in Leicester. We had to march to the Great Central Station by way of Belvoir Street and people were cheering and handing out cigarettes to us. Before embarking on the train I met a Railway Police Detective who knew me and he told me that he knew our destination and would inform my parents later. Just after the train left Leicester, the railway guard recognized me and told me that, as no-one would be getting off the train during the journey, he could tell me that we were going to Aberdeen in Scotland. On arrival at Aberdeen we were taken to a tented camp at Turrif. The date was 15th June 1940 and from there I was transferred to The 6th Battalion, The Seaforth Highlanders (Ross-shire Buffs, Duke of Albany’s Morayshire Battalion). We were allocated our tents and were feeling miserable and hungry when, all of a sudden, a 7lb. tin of jam and two loaves of bread were thrown into the tent. A rogue soldier in our tent had acquired them from somewhere but no questions were asked and the evidence quickly disappeared.
The 6th Battalion had received heavy losses in defending a line in France and after Dunkirk had to be re-enforced, this was done by sending men from the Leicesters, Northants and Lincolns holding Battalions. After a few days they had formed us into various Companies; I finished up in “C” Company. I was called to the tent that had been set up as the Company office and told that I would be the Company Clerk. I did not like the idea of being separated from my friends in the Signal Platoon but I had no choice. When I saw the typewriter on the table I immediately said I couldn’t type and the reply was you will have plenty of time to learn how to use it! My first job was to make out the Company roll in alphabetical order. I did not know then how many hundreds of times I would have to do this.
We were called on parade one day so that the N.C.O.’s could recognize the men and match them to their names. Standing next to me was a man named George Guess. When the Corporal asked him his name he rightly replied Guess (but more in the tone if a question than answer) The Corporal (Cpl. King) was in the process of taking him to the Guard Room when I intervened and told him that his name was indeed Guess.
We learned that there might be a possible parachute landing in Northern Scotland and it was our role to defend any invasion. We moved down to Doune in Perthshire which was again a tented camp. From here we did many exercises in the field; being taken to various places in buses and from there it would be on foot for many miles. The practice in the Infantry was to march for 50 minutes and rest for 10 minutes. It was on one of these rest periods that I spotted a deer. One of the Officers borrowed a rifle and shot it and then had it collected and sent to the Officers’ Mess. It was later discovered that it was not a wild deer but part of a private herd. I expect it had to be paid for from the Officers’ Mess Fund.
I had made great friends with two of the Scots lads, John Cameron, the Company Storeman and Swakkie Sutherland , the Company Runner, and we went everywhere together and were dubbed ‘The Three Musketeers’. John had an Aunt at nearby Stirling and whenever possible on Saturdays all three of us had an invitation to visit her. First we would have a good meal and then, in turn, have a bath. John’s cousin used to take us to the cinema and we would return home for supper and then return to Camp. On more than one occasion we had to walk quite a long way having missed the last bus back to Doune. Whilst at Doune, the weather changed and it started to snow. We were given the opportunity to sleep in the castle, but one night was enough as it was just like trying to sleep in a refrigerator. At the end of October 1940 we boarded buses which took us to Haydock Park Racecourse. We arrived in the middle of the night and were allocated our new quarters which were horse stables with a bail of straw thrown in, but we managed to get some sleep. We did more training in the area and the people in nearby Ashton in Makerfield were very kind to us. It was in Ashton that I met my future wife, Peggy.
One of our duties whilst stationed there was to do fire watching at Liverpool. Liverpool was subjected to heavy air raids and we were stationed in high buildings in order to spot fires and report the location to the fire brigade.
It was getting near to Christmas and people in Ashton started asking if we had anywhere to go on Christmas Day. I had been booked in at Peggy’s home in Bamfurlong, so we did alright that year having received a good meal at Camp and then another later.
On 27th January we moved to Marbury Hall near Northwich where one of my duties was to accompany leave parties to the railway station and to change a warrant into tickets for their travel. We were officially meant to travel from Warrington but discovered that by going to Wigan, the men travelling to Scotland could catch an earlier train which gave them nearly an extra day at home. The truck driver and I were well looked after for this service. I remember that on one occasion we were going through Newton-le-Willows when I asked the driver to stop so that I could relieve myself, I couldn’t open the door of the truck as it was up against a tree - the driver had thought he had been following a road marking but had actually been following the kerbstone.
At this time it was thought that Hitler might secure a footing in Southern Ireland (Eire) and spread to the North (Ulster) where he could springboard to Northern England which was less heavily defended than in the South. The 5th Division was sent to Northern Ireland to counteract this move and, on 5th April 1941, we left Marbury Hall and went to Stranraer in Scotland in order to sail to Larne in Ireland. We were sent to Crome Castle near the small town of Lisnaskea which was right on the border of the two countries near the shores of Loch Erne. We were billeted in Nisson Huts and they were quite comfortable. We did plenty of training there and many long route marches. We had to do a march of 100 miles in five days which doesn’t seem too hard until you realize the amount of equipment we had to carry and then it was very arduous. Our Company Commander hit upon the best idea, we did thirty miles in the first day and then eased off gradually.
The traders from the South soon started trading with us and on Saturdays a mobile baker used to sell all manner of goodies like potato cakes and buns. We had a new Sergeant Major by the name of Lunn, known throughout as “Nutty Lunn”. He used to make a Private up to Lance Corporal and then, before the man had time to sew on his stripes, he would demote him again.
I should have mentioned the equipment we were encumbered with on the route marches. In our pouches we carried fifty rounds of ammunition and two loaded Bren Gun magazines and, in addition, we had to carry our rifles. Each section had to carry a Bren Gun and a tripod between them (the tripod was used to convert the gun for anti-aircraft firing).
It was in Ireland that we were introduced to the Thompson Machine Gun (Tommy Gun). We were instructed to adopt an aggressive attitude whilst firing them, using more or less a crouching position. When I fired my gun the chap standing near to me must have been bending too low because he received most of my spent cartridges down the back of his neck.
There was not a great deal of off-duty amusement but we did manage to get to Enniskellen to visit the cinema. We did many silly things to lighten our lives, one of them was to ridicule one of the Officers, his name was Sykes-McLean. If we saw him approaching we would split up to each side of the road and salute him, he would then salute in turn using both hands. I had two leaves to England during my stay and I was able to bring some food to supplement my rations.
We left Ireland in January 1942 and arrived at Whyteleafe near Croydon and from there we prepared for embarkation overseas. I received my leave and, on returning to Whyteleafe, I realized that I could manage to get my wife Peggy, whom I had recently married, accommodated in the area. We spent two weeks together and, whilst I was on duty, Peggy was employed sewing a McKenzie Tartan Patch onto the Pith Helmets for the whole Company (this was, of course, without payment). Before leaving Whyteleafe we were taken by trucks to somewhere out in the wilds, had to line up each side of a road and stood there for hours. We were being inspected by King George VI .
We left Whyteleafe on 18th March 1942 for the journey to Liverpool where H.M.T. Oronsay awaited our arrival. We went on board ship whilst a convoy was emerging and sailed out of Liverpool on 22nd March 1942 to join the convoy North of Ireland to start our long sea voyage.
We had said our goodbyes to England and home and unfortunately for some it would be the last they would see of it.
Our sea journey took us above Ireland well to the West. Conditions on the ship were terrible, we were well into the holds which served as our mess deck, sleeping quarters and recreation and, owing to strict black-out regulations, the portholes had been made secure and were closed even in the daytime. As we went further South the heat became unbearable. Our sleeping arrangements were that of a hammock suspended over the tables and the increased heat made sleep practically impossible. After many strong complaints a number of men were allowed to sleep on the open deck but during the night many more sneaked up and found places to hide. Training was very limited being mostly on weapon training, P.T. and route marches around the deck in our plimsolls. To break the monotony deck sports were arranged and on one occasion we had a tug-o’-war. Company H.Q. stood little chance of winning as I was anchor man and somehow I had managed to pass the rope around me and, at the same time, one of the deck supports. We did not yield an inch and it was some time before the opposition realized what was happening.
On 6th April we arrived at Freetown in Sierra Leone (The White Man’s Grave). The ship was anchored in the bay for five days whilst fresh water was obtained and we were entertained by the native boys who came out in there little boats (bum boats). They would dive into the sea to retrieve money thrown from the ship and later older natives came out to sell fruit but we were not allowed to buy it.
We left Freetown on 11th April and the Convoy was split in two; the smaller Convoy, which included us, was destined for Durban, whilst the other part went to Cape Town. We reached Durban on 22nd April and, as we docked, a lady sang Scottish songs to us. We learned that she welcomed every troop ship which arrived at Durban in this way and, after the war, a statue was erected in the town to her memory. We had been told that our final destination was to be Rangoon from Colombo but were instructed not to divulge this information to anyone. The civilians of Durban, however, did not ask for information, they told us that we were bound for Madagascar.
The Three Musketeers managed to get shore-leave together and went to the Y.M.C.A. where we had to pay a shilling in our money. First we had a bath then, we went to a swimming bath and finally we had a meal, we could hardly believe our eyes at the food and fresh fruit they had prepared for us. The second leave we had was different in that we were met by a family who looked after us for the day.
We started training to leave the ship in small boats called L.C.I.’s - Landing Craft Infantry. It was wonderful to see the town lit up at night after the black-out in England. We travelled into town via rickshaws through the slum area into the City. The drivers soon realized that they could make more money on the return journey at night and overcharged the normal fare. To overcome this we devised a counter action, at a given signal we would all jump from the rickshaw together, leaving the driver suspended in the air between the shafts. Whilst in Durban we went on many route marches to prepare ourselves for the gruelling marches that we would encounter in Madagascar or would it be Rangoon? There was a “march past” before the Mayor of Durban before we left on April 28th and The White Lady was on the docks again to sing us farewell.
They sailed from home across the sea
To gain a smashing victory
Past Freetown and its lovely bay
Past Durban and its life so gay.
At last to Madagascar’s shore
The lads arrive, hard times before.
On the sixth of May at break of day
The Seaforths’ land in sheltered bay,
They rest awhile then march ahead
No-one could guess where that road led.
Up hill, down dale, twenty weary miles,
Yet march they did with gallant smiles,
From heaven’s height that blazing sun
Shone down upon them, everyone.
Each Highlander out here a stranger
March to face their foe and danger.
O’er eighteen miles with scarce a stop
The lads trudge on but never drop.
A few hours rest and on they go
To action, danger, against their foe.
At 8 p.m. that lovely day, they met their
Foe, a foe at bay.
Machine guns spat, the shells came o’er,
They halter there seconds, no more.
Then Caber Fiedh rang through the air
And on they charge with bayonets bare,
Some fell, never to rise again,
The rest drive on, avenging men,
So soon it’s over, the foe have fled
The ground is littered with the dead.
Seaforth and French lay peaceful there
Never again to breathe earth’s air.
It was a deed of great renown,
Theirs is a lasting crown.
So to Assaye we add a name,
To give the Seaforths further fame.
Antisirane charge of glory,
Another page in Scotland’s story.
Seaforths who died, your fame will live,
We, who remain, our all will give,
Your sacrifice was not in vain,
We’ll carry on with might and main
To make this world a better place
Where men of every creed and race
Will live as friends and wars will cease
And your sons will live in lasting peace.
Written by Danny Cunningham (Seaforth Highlander), 1942
Extract from 5th Divisional Infantry Division History
By March 1942, India and Ceylon were threatened by the Japanese Army moving northwards through Burma and also by Japanese aircraft and submarines operating against the main supply route to the Middle East and Burma which lay around the Cape. Allied Convoys used the shelter of the Mozambique Channel to the east coast of Africa, but this lane would be closed to them if the Vichy French Garrison was to permit Japanese raiders to operate from bases in Madagascar, the third largest island in the world, and particularly from its main deep water harbour at Diego Suarez.
Part of the 5th Division was to take the port. It was essential that the enemy have no suspicion of the intention to invade Madagascar so a cover plan of an invasion of Rangoon from Colombo had been circulated.
We were told for the first time on May 2nd that our actual destination would be Madagascar. I had been detailed to be in charge of the Company bicycle (B.S.A.) but my thought of riding in style would soon be quashed.
At one of the briefings all the N.C.O.’s were issued with a condom, better known then as a ‘french letter’, you can imagine the repartee which followed. We were then told that after the synchronizing of our watches they were to be sealed in the issue to make the watches waterproof whilst landing. The invasion of Madagascar would be the first large scale amphibious assault since that of the Dardanelles twenty seven years earlier.
We approached Madagascar on 4th May for landing the following day but, owing to a very rough sea, we were not concentrated until 1 a.m. on the 6th.
It was at this point we were introduced to 24 hour pack Compo Rations which we later discovered were far from appetizing. As far as I can remember there was a bar of dark chocolate, hard biscuits, a tin of luncheon meat, a mixture of tea, milk and sugar and a tablet which was supposed to heat up the water to brew up, which never actually happened; the result was a milky liquid with the tea leaves floating on the top.
We had been told that we could expect shallow water on leaving the assault boats but, owing to the previous night’s rough sea, I found myself up to my chest in very cold water pushing my trusty B.S.A. The job of the Seaforths was to clean up Pill boxes bristling with machine guns and 75mm field guns about 600 yards off the start line.
We had to march eighteen miles along a dirt road and, apart from the heat, we were subjected to about every insect on the Island. By now I had collected all manner of equipment on my bike from my mates and pushing the bike (not riding) was very hard work. Long after the war I attended a gathering in Scotland where I met one of my old comrades who said “the last time I saw you was in Madagascar pushing a mobile Christmas tree.”
We came to a river where the bridge was still intact but the water was shallow and everyone just waded through to cool down. We came near to our objective only to find a defended anti-tank ditch of which we had not been warned. All surplus equipment was dumped and a bayonet charge followed and enemy resistance petered out. We reached our objective, a place called ANTSIRANE. One hundred and sixty five men (myself included) completed the march and took part in the attack on ANTSIRANE at 20.30 hrs. on 6th May. The Battalion lost two Officers, nine other ranks were killed and twenty were wounded.
On May 8th the Battalion formed a “Guard of Honour” for the surrendering French troops. We formed up on each side of the road whilst they marched past - they seemed to be fully armed. The Colonial troops seemed to be very happy but the French Officers, most of them mounted on horses, seemed to be otherwise. We took over the former French positions and on May 9th we marched another eight miles to ANJEMINA on the Orange Peninsula where we were stationed in the hills. There was a concrete building which served as the Company Office and quarters for the Officers. We had by now received tents to live in. We now had a new enemy to face, Amophiles Mosquito causing Malaria. We had a daily dose of quinine which made your teeth black and your mouth completely dry. This was later changed to Mepacrine tablets which were much better. We had visits from scorpions and, before you put on your boots in the morning, you had to be sure that they had not used them for their sleeping quarters. We had a pet Chameleon and used to catch flies with which to feed it. There were strict orders to try and prevent mosquito bites and, at dusk, everyone had to wear long trousers and let down shirt sleeves.
There was little to do in the evenings if you were not on duty and on one occasion we devised a Pipe Band with the Company piper and would-be drummers beating empty biscuit tins; the noise did not go down too well with the Officers.
We had to “stand to” each morning at dawn which was the time that the enemy were supposed to strike. The morning after our band ‘do’, when we “stood down” the 2nd in command had a rifle inspection. He found that everyone had a dirty rifle and we were all put on a charge. We tried to explain that we had not had sufficient time to clean our rifles coming off “stand to” but we were told that there had been sufficient time during that period. We were later up for Company orders and I received an admonishment, the men received extra fatigues. I asked for an interview with the Company Commander and asked him if it was in order to clean your rifle during “stand to”. He told me not to be foolish as how could you fire at the enemy with a pull through (a cleaning device) down the barrel? I said it was just a problem that I wanted clearing up. The Sergeant Major, who had been present at the interview, told me that he admired my action but said that the Officer concerned would be reprimanded for his action but also that I had made a ‘friend for life’.
One of the punishments metered out to the offenders was to instruct them to change into different dress and equipment. On one occasion they were instructed to don shorts but this was soon put down owing to the dress regulations after dusk. Another one in which I was involved, was to visit other Companies and receive a receipt on arrival. It was intended to take up a lengthy period but, being an ex-Signaller, I just picked up the telephone line that had been laid and we made sure that we had a good rest before reporting back to our Headquarters.
One of the men in the Company discovered a huge barrel of wine but at the tasting ceremony we found it tasted so vile it would have made a good paint stripper. However, one or two of the Glasgow boys could not resist the temptation and got drunk. The punishment they received was to push the barrel up to the top of the hill and push it into the valley below. I expect there was no vegetation there for a few years.
During our stay a Japanese two-man submarine entered the harbour where the shipping had moored. They sunk a tanker and holed the Ramillese. The two Japanese men came ashore expecting to be picked up by a Japanese Sea Plane but instead there was a section of British Commandos waiting for them. The Ramillese safely returned to Durban but was out of commission for several months.
We left Madagascar on 11th June on the H.M.T. Karanja which would take us to India. Whilst on board we had a daily issue of rum and in the evening a drink of lime. I used to save the rum and add it to the lime, which made a pleasant drink.
Extract from 5th Division History
The role of the 5th Division in Bihar was to repel any Japanese invasion of the north coast of India or through the Assam jungle. The special task was to defend the valuable Tata steel works at Jamshedpur.
We arrived at Bombay on 21st June but did not dock until the 25th. We were allowed ashore but, at that time, Bombay was not a good place to live; there were beggars everywhere. They carried a straw mat with them and in the evening they would sleep anywhere there was a little shelter because, although it was very hot during the day, it became very cold at night. They would sleep in shop doorways and the platforms at the railway station were full of sleeping bodies. We left Bombay on 27th June and, as we left, young lads ran along the rail tracks shouting Backshees Sahib and, at every stop on the long journey ahead, we were met with this cry, not only by boys but men and women.
We travelled in a third class compartment which consisted of a wooden seat on each side of the carriage which extended from one end to the other, then there was a toilet at one end (which was just a hole in the floor) and a large tin jug of water to clean up. The seating arrangements suited us because at night we would take turns sleeping either on the floor or the seat. At first the train was pulled by a modern electric engine but after the first main stop we changed to a steam-driven locomotive. We stopped at many stations but the arrangements made for meals was very good. We reached a place called Raipur where there was a canteen run by white people. Whilst we awaited our turn for a mug of tea, the helpers distributed biscuits, cigarettes and magazines among the carriages. We were about an hour’s journey from Calcutta but later left the main line for a one track line to Suisa and to our final destination by rail - Barkakhana which was close to Ranchi in the State of Bihar. There was then a forty-mile truck journey to a village called Barhambe. We had left Bombay on 27th June to arrive in Barhambe on July 2nd.
We were billeted in tents but since we were in the monsoon period the floor would have been a sea of mud. A load of bricks were dumped at each tent and it was our chore to lay them but we discovered that we could now pay for these labours and for one rupee (1s. 6d - 7.5 pence) two men did the job for us. We met another enemy there, the white ants which eat through everything. We had been issued with a bed consisting of a wooden frame and a lattice of woven grass but we put our kit bags on the bed during the first day and found that the ants had eaten through the canvas. We had to be issued with a tin chest to keep our kit in and for me to keep all the paperwork for the Office.
An enterprising local set up a canteen where, in the evening, you could get something to eat quite cheaply, the only thing on offer was egg and chips and he would crack about half a dozen eggs at a time.
Each tent had two boys in attendance to bring a cup of tea in the morning, clean our kit and do all the normal chores that would have been carried out by the soldiers and all for about two rupees each.
Training continued with many route marches to get used to the heat, an assault course had been make and there was a pit dug for us to throw dummy hand grenades. The unpleasant part was that it was nearly always filled with water.
The Officer commanding the Company (Major Waylen) was sent on a course and command was taken over by the 2nd In Command, Captain McKenzie (my friend). One of his first tasks was to inform me that he was returning me to duty without letting me know the reason for his decision. However he did not know that I was a trained Signaller and, on receiving the news, I went to the Signals Officer, Captain W. Smith who in civilian life kept a toy shop in Elgin and was known by all as “Toy Willie”. I explained what had happened and he asked me if I was any good at football, I said I was only fair at the game but was a good 100 yards runner. I was accepted and I did not see my friend when I returned to “C” Company to collect my kit but I don’t suppose he was very pleased when he received the news.
There were no signs of the Japanese attempting to invade India.
We left Barhambe for Barkakhana on 8th September and on the 9th resumed our train journey and arrived back at Bombay on 12th September. We embarked on H.M.T. Eastern Prince and started our journey to The Middle East on 13th September.
The Middle East
Extract 5th Division History
Some years before the war, Hitler dreamed and prepared for his invasion of the Middle East. He sent German Engineers to improve and build new Persian railways. He encouraged Rascid Ali in Iraq to plan a revolt against the British. He carried out his revolt too soon and before German troops could come to his aid the British troops had put down the rising and captured Baghdad. The tenth Army was reinforced and based at Basra. The Germans were already to the North above Persia between the Black and the Caspian Seas. A small British force from Khanaquin captured Kermanshah in Persia, the Persians decided the Germans were too far away to be of any help and they surrendered. It was necessary to reinforce the troops in Persia and Iraq and the 5th Division was sent in for that purpose.
We saw land on 18th September and on the 20th we landed at Basra. We went by train to our destination at Zubair Transit Camp near Shai which was supposed to be a “rest camp”. The heat was 110-130 degrees in the shade and the flies were everywhere. When we collected our meals we had to cover the food with something and eat our meal under our mosquito nets. Whilst there, we had to take a spoonful of salt to replace that lost from our bodies through excessive heat.
We were not sorry to leave on 4th October for our next journey to Kermanshah. We crossed the Paitec Pass and had to change from our K.D. Tropical Kit into Battle Dress owing to the cold. During my stay at Kermanshah I was told to report to the Signal Office where many of my friends were gathered and was there to be ‘informed that my wife had given birth to our son, Brian, on 6th October’. There were many bottles of beer to wet the baby’s head. We left Kermanshah at the end of October for a place called Qum where we first saw the Golden Domed Mosque. Snow was on the ground and it was bitterly cold, in order to try to gain some heat we dug a pit about 4 feet deep, the size of a tent and pitched the tent over it. The cooks had to make the same arrangements for the cookhouse and the heat for cooking the meals was unique - they had a barrel of oil and a barrel of water. The water carried the oil down a trough into a pit where the oil was ignited. On collecting your meals it looked like the Africa rifles had taken over the cooking. We all must have been well oiled and I don’t think anyone was in need of laxatives.
The Battalion had to supply many guards for Brigade and Division and on one occasion Headquarters Company had to supply the Quarter Guard. I was detailed from the Signal Platoon to be one of the members. All my mates in the tent took a part of my equipment for cleaning and on the Guard Mounting where the snow had been cleared. I was carried there so that I did not soil my boots. I did not do a guard, I was made “stick man” which meant that I was Orderly Room Runner for the day and had to sleep in the Orderly Room overnight. We clubbed together and bought a Primus Stove and were able to make a brew in the evening and cooked scrambled eggs - eggs were plentiful there.
We were on constant 12 hours’ notice to move to Tehran where there was disorder. Finally, on 9th December, we moved to Tehran having been told that it was to quell rioting through shortage of bread but there was more to it than that; it was to show strength to the strong pro-German factor there. When we approached the outskirts of the town the tarpaulin covers of the trucks were raised and we all stood at each side of the trucks with fixed bayonets. We set up camp outside the Race Course and we had a good view of Mount Demavand. It was so cold at night, if you were on guard duty you were issued with pick-axe shafts because your rifles froze up. We had sheepskin jackets to wear during the day (fleece inside) and at night long sheepskin coats called poshteens.
Whilst at Tehran I had to act as guard at the back of a three ton truck which was taking supplies and petrol for the party left at Qum. During the journey the driver and his mate decided to change over duties without stopping the truck and we finished up in a ditch. With the thought of petrol on board I crawled through a small gap and my face was covered in blood. When we reached Qum I went to the Field Ambulance where they cleaned me up and discovered I only had a cut to the lobe of my ear. I had to be issued with a new Battle Dress Blouse. At a Court of Inquiry later I just said that I did not know the cause of the accident and was too intent on my own safety to notice anything further. The driver and his mate concocted a story that they had been forced off the road by a vehicle travelling in the opposite direction and they got away with it.
We returned to Qum early in January and at one time took part in an undercover operation. We went near to Isfahan and disconnected some telephone wires to the General’s house in a nearby barracks and parked the truck to make it seem like an accident. Meanwhile a Platoon of “B” Company under the command of Lt. Robertson surrounded the house where the General, who had been causing trouble, was taking tea. He was removed by road to an airfield and flown out of Persia with Lt. Robertson as escort. We reconnected the wires and our little part was completed.
We left Qum in February 1943 and travelled to Lancer Camp near Baghdad. The Battalion left for Kabrit for training but I was left in the rear party at Lancer Camp. The food was very good there and I was given the role of Rear Party Clerk which consisted of duty rosters and pay. The rear party joined up at Quatana about ten miles from Damascus. It was there that they found the Signal Platoon was over strength and I was back with “C” Company; this time in a Platoon. There was a big Glasgow lad in the section called Tom Fisher and when it came to my turn to carry the Bren Gun tripod he would take it from me saying I was too wee for that job.
There were two Signallers attached to each Rifle Company and they had a cumbersome 18 wireless set. At Damascus each Company was issued with a 38 set, a very small compact one, which had to be operated by someone to take or receive orders for the Company Commander. I was back in Company H.Q. and had a pass into Damascus and saw the street called Straight, as mentioned in the Bible, but as there were no guides I did not learn much about it.
We left Quatana at the end of May for El Shatt and embarked in the Gulf of Aqaba where we did exercises for leaving the ship into assault boats (Landing Craft Infantry). Scaling down the side of the ship using rope nets was very scary but the return journey was much worse. We left Port Said on 5th July and whilst out at sea were given a little booklet called Soldiers Guide to Sicily.
9th July: tomorrow was the day, 48 hours’ rations packed in our haversacks and kit all ready. We had received instructions about our kit, our greatcoats, shirt and shorts were placed in sandbags to be returned later. In addition to our assault respirators and rifle we had to carry in our pack: 1 pair of boots, 1 pair of shorts, 1 blanket, 1 housewife (mending kit), 1 pair of socks with flashes and gaiters and a towel and in our haversacks: 48 hours’ emergency rations, mosquito veil, holdall with shaving kit, mosquito cream, towel, soap, laces, cardigan, balmoral, water-purifying tablets and 1 pair of socks. We had our ammunition pouches with ammunition and we were wearing full uniform and steel helmets. We were ready at midnight on that night and zero hour was 3 a.m.
Everything went well boarding the landing craft but we had not proceeded far when we heard a cry for help coming from the sea. We had come near to an air-borne soldier who had landed off target, we picked him up but he took off his kit and this caused confusion as all of our kit had previously been laid out very carefully so that we knew where everything was. We reached the beach but instead of the few inches of water we were expecting we were up to our chests in it. I gathered my kit together only to find that in the dark I had picked up some of the air-borne soldier’s kit and left my wireless behind which meant I had to go back again into the cold water to retrieve it from the landing craft.
There was a barbed-wire fence on the beach but this was soon demolished with an explosive charge called a “bangalor torpedo”. As we scaled a stile we noticed a metallic ring when we landed and, when light came, we found that we were landing on German Teller Mines but I expect that the Italians who laid them were more scared of them than us because they had not put the fuses in. I was standing taking orders from The Company Commander (Major Waylen) when he was shot through the head from a machine gun burst and died immediately. Our objective was to capture Cassibile and to advance to Syracuse. We took Cassibile and Syracuse had already been taken so we made for Augusta which was taken by us and the R.S.F.’s We came under shell fire prior to taking Augusta and a shell landed on “C” Company Headquarters, I was completely covered in earth but not injured; the lad who had taken over the duties of Company Clerk (Jack Cowie) was killed. We reached the Lentini Plain where we had to dig in but by now the German resistance was petering out and we finally arrived at Misterbianco and stayed there for four weeks. Misterbianco was on the slopes of Mount Etna. During our stay there the Company Sergeant Major, who had no Clerk to help him sort out duties, asked me to give him a hand. Whilst doing this, Captain McKenzie, now the Company Commander, asked me what I was doing in the Office, the Sergeant Major explained and the Officer asked me to leave the tent and said he thought it was time to bury the hatchet and would I become his Clerk again, which I readily accepted.
On 25th August there was a Seaforth Reunion at Catania where RETREAT was played by the bands of the 2nd, 5th, 6th and the Seaforths Canada.
On 2nd September we moved to Catania for a full-scale invasion of mainland Italy composed of British and Canadian troops. We landed at Catona, south of San Goivanni on 3rd September, the fourth anniversary of the declaration of war by Britain. Later we took two Italian soldiers prisoner and I had to take them to Battalion Headquarters but by the time I got there, there were about twenty others who had joined them coming from the houses where they had been hiding. We moved up the coast and reached a place called Rosarno where we learned that the Italians had surrendered unconditionally, but the Germans were determined to stay.
On 9th September the U.S. 5th Army landed at Salerno and we reached Vibo Valentia and Nicastro on the 11th when we had to advance to pin down the enemy on the south side of the Salerno bridgehead. We reached Picerno near to Potenza by 23rd September and the Division had travelled 250 miles in twenty days. We had now reached the mountainous country and the weather got worse by the day. We finally reached Potenza on 1st October, the weather became worse and we were given a rum ration to add a little warmth to our bodies. We were now advancing to the North towards the East coast whilst the troops who landed at Salerno were advancing on the West coast. Food and ammunition had to be brought to us by mules, our objectives were described as points and we reached St. Elena. We had a rest period at Macchiagodena from 3rd to 26th November and we left then for Montenero. We had received in our rations some dehydrated mutton but when our cook prepared it, it looked like a green dye. During the night he confiscated a cow that he had seen earlier in the day, he managed to get it to where we were billeted in darkness but when morning came he discovered that it was just skin and bones and had to return it from whence it came. We returned to Macchiagodna. We were held by the Germans on the other side of the River Sangro, Montgomery ordered a heavy barrage to soften things and we crossed the River Sangro on 11th December by a three-decker, single span Bailey Bridge erected by the Royal Engineers. We advanced to Lanciano on the East coast and we took over civilian houses and offices. Our transport had by this time reached us and it was arranged head to tail all around the town square. It had only been there for a day or so when we were visited by a flight of German Stukka bombers. My army pal was working in the stores’ truck and he received twenty wounds and had to be transported to England for treatment.
We moved to a farmhouse out of the town and we had to make a decision as we had been told that we would definitely be out of the line for Christmas but no promises for the New Year, we decided to opt for Christmas dinner where the Officers serve the troops with their dinner. As it happened we were still out of the line for New Year and I remember we were told that there would be no celebrations. During the evening I produced a card game called Lexicon, the forerunner of Scrabble. We had been playing for a while when the Sergeant Major (Bunney Ramsey) said blow this (or words to that effect) it’s Hogmanay and we are celebrating! He produced a bottle of whiskey and the battle commenced. A little while later we could hear the Officers in the same building doing likewise.
Whilst there I was visited by my civilian pal Johnnie Cooper, now a Sergeant in the R.E.M.E. who took me to wine and dine at their H.Q. having received permission from my Commanding Officer. We left Lanciano on 4th January via San Severo and Benevento to the North of Mandragoni.
We were to cross the River Garigliano and were under the command of general Mark Clark of the 5th American Army and, whereas Montgomery always laid down an heavy Artillery bombardment to soften things up for the Infantry, Mark Clark had different ideas.
Extract from the 2nd World War (Winston Churchill)
On Kesselring’s advice, Hitler ordered his troops to fight as far South in Italy as possible. The line selected, the so-called “Winterstelling Line”, ran behind the River Sangoon on the Adriatic side across the mountainous spur of Italy to the mouth of the River Garigliano on the West. The natural features of the Country, the steep mountains and the swift rivers, made the position several miles in depth immensely strong. After a year of almost continuous retreat in Africa, Sicily and Italy, the German troops were glad to turn and fight.
Extract 5th Division History
There was to be no barrage, our troops were to cross the river in darkness, in landing craft, without warning and take the enemy by surprise. The Garigliano was to be crossed between Casteluccia and the sea.
The Brigade of the German 94th Infantry Division was holding the ground around Minturno and Castleforte with active posts down the river line.
5th Division on the left was to assault Minturno and Tufo and cross the river in silence. To ensure security was maintained, any pre-battle preparation in the assembly area had to be carried out at night by troops moved from the base gun positions. The first phase of the attack took place at 9 p.m. on 17th January before the moon had risen. 2nd R.S.F. were to cross the mouth of the river in D.U.K.W.S. (pronounced Ducks). 6th Seaforth were to cross in assault boats, which were collapsible canvas boats and were to be rowed by the 2nd Northants. When the Battalion reached the assault area they were attacked by machine gun fire, mortar and artillery shells. I was told by someone to take cover near to a railway embankment, it was Sergeant Dusty Miller. Shortly after this he stopped talking and I found that he had been hit by shrapnel and had been killed. We were eventually ferried across the river and were met with further machine gun fire, mortars and mine fields. There were many casualties, my old Sergeant Major, Ian Phillips who had been promoted to R.S.M. and had taken a commission to Captain, had his leg blown off by a mine. He had taken two German prisoners who, on seeing his plight, attempted to overpower him but he shot them both with a small Italian revolver which he had. We managed to get a foothold on the enemy side of the river when a German Tiger Tank came into view. I had taken cover with a Captain Rogers who told me to lie low as he thought that they had only spotted him. I did not need telling twice and did a disappearing trick but Captain Rogers was taken prisoner. The Battalion received very heavy losses but after re-grouping carried on further and reached our objective at a place called Tufo. I remember we had to take up a position in a cemetery, we were being mortared and some of the shells which landed stirred up some unpleasant sights.
After a while we left Tufo and re-crossed the Garigliano by a bridge at Damiano Ridge. We were not very happy when we got to the other side, we passed members of the American 88th Division who were singing and had the lights on their vehicles, seemingly they had just landed and were to take over our positions.
We travelled to Pozzuoli, North of Naples, encamped in an area known as the Crater. From there we were given a few days’ leave spent in Naples where King Emanuel’s Palace had been taken over as a rest house for troops. The food was not too great but we could get a drink which was Vermouth which did not go down too well as the weather was very warm.
When I returned from my rest spell I was greeted by the fact that we now had a new Company Commander and a new Sergeant Major. The Officer was Major Lowe, a daredevil type of man and Sergeant King, the most notorious N.C.O. in the Battalion, had been made up to Sergeant Major and was posted to “C” Company. I was greeted by the Sergeant Major who informed me that he knew “sweet F.A.” about office work and arranging duties and it was my job to put him right. He promised to compensate me whenever possible with the odd bottle of whiskey.
On 5th March we embarked on a ship to take us to Anzio but I slipped on the steel deck and, on trying to save myself, injured my right arm. When we arrived at the beach-head I reported to the M.I. Room but was referred to the American Field Hospital nearby. They found that there was no breakage but I had pulled the tendons of the arm. They put my arm in a sling and was told that it would be alright with resting. On returning to the Company some of us had a good laugh at the troops we were relieving as they had been having a bad time in what was likened to the 1914-18 War in trenches dug into the wady. Our new Company storeman was named Browett Spray, our new C.Q.M.S. was Hamish Mcintosh, a very excitable person who was trying to find some stores and started to shout Spray, Spray, Spray. The Army warning for a liquid gas attack was to shout ‘Spray’ and this was interpreted as the warning and the poor blokes were diving for cover and trying to put on their anti-gas capes.
The Battalion had taken over a position called The Lobster’s Claw and it was there that Major Lowe was killed. As I had my arm in a sling I was kept at “B” Echelon on the beach. At night the C.Q.M.S. and I had to take it in turn to lead a party of men carrying supplies of food, water and ammunition to the forward troops. A clearing had been made in a mine field marked with tape but it was not a pleasant job for any of us because the slightest sound carried for miles and the enemy were only yards from us.
We had repeated requests from the Officers to locate Major Lowe’s mortar box in the dump that had been made and we eventually found it only to discover that the ammunition therein was in the form of bottles! We never reported this finding but we had a little Dutch courage when we did our nightly duty.
Our defence on the beach was dug-outs in the sand with any material we could find to make a roof covered with sandbags. If we had received a hit from the enemy aircraft we would have had our graves already dug for us.
On 19th March the Seaforths 2nd R.S.F. and 9th Commandos made a combined effort to simulate a more serious threat to distract attention and clear up the Fortress Area. The Seaforth attack, the only position which was to be retained after getting there, failed to get right home. On 21st March the 6th Seaforths handed over to 1st Yorks. and Lancs. but on the 31st there was a fierce attack against the 2nd R.S.F. and one of their Companies was scattered but help came from a Company of 6th Seaforths who restored the position. Also on 31st March, British and American troops broke out from the bridgehead to advance on Rome. Despite the fact that it was a combined Allied operation, it was the U.S. 88th Division first into Rome. Even after Rome fell only a few members of the 5th Division were allowed into Rome.
I was one of the lucky ones and managed to see the Coliseum and St. Peters at the Vatican. A party of us went into a café for wine, the waiter produced some cheap vino, but when we proffered food, cigarettes and chocolate in exchange for a better quality, we were soon drinking champagne which had been well kept from discovery by the Germans.
We pulled out for refit to Pignatora and on July 3rd embarked on the Durban Castle at Taranto, almost a year after we landed at Sicily.
During my stay in Italy I managed to visit Pompeii and see all that there was to see including the murals at the side of the baths behind the curtains and also those that were very explicit on the walls of the brothels. I also managed to get malaria!
Return to The Middle East
We left Taranto on 4th July and, as there were German Aircraft and submarines in the Mediterranean, we sailed down the coast of Italy well in sight of land all the time. On July 8th we had two scares: enemy aircraft came over in the morning probably on reconnaissance duty, and at night there was a sort of a submarine in the area and our Convoy changed course quickly towards the African coast while our escort dropped depth charges. Later that day we arrived at Port Said. We left there the next day by train passing through Ismmaili and arrived at Helwan near Cairo. We had a day’s leave in Cairo but we were warned to be careful with our valuables because the thieves could remove your watch from your wrist without you knowing it and the place was generally dirty.
Our next camp was at Gaza but we were not there very long before we journeyed to Jdeide near Baalbek where we stayed awaiting reinforcements for the personnel we had lost in Italy. From here I was sent on a Pay Duties Course in Jerusalem. The Pay Corps was billeted in a building that had been a small hotel. I arrived on a Friday and the course commenced the following Monday. I could not believe it when I arrived and was shown to my room as it contained a real bed with sheets and blankets and the food was that of hotel class. On the Saturday I was able to join a party who were doing a tour of Jerusalem which included all the well known places: The Stations of the Cross, Garden of Gethsemane, The Wailing Wall and many other places I cannot recall. At the end of the course there was an examination which I passed Q1 (the highest grade) and on returning to the Battalion I spent a fortnight going round the Companies checking the men’s pay books.
We went into the country to a firing range and one of the men found a baby donkey which had been abandoned by its mother, probably frightened by the gun fire. The baby donkey was taken back to camp, christened Smoky, and became the Regimental mascot. It had a blanket with the Regimental Cap Badge worked on it and used to be brought on parade. It was often taken on trips along with the men in a 3-ton truck. I often wondered what became of Smoky when we left The Middle East. I had two short leaves to Haifa during my stay at Jdeide and, although we were billeted in tents and the cooking was done by Army cooks, the food was of a better standard and feeling free for a few days was a good tonic.
There had been an arrangement made for men who had served four years abroad to be given leave in the U.K., this was called Python Leave. There were not many who qualified for this and a further scheme was made for men with three years’ service abroad called L.I.A.P. (leave in addition to Python). I had to make a nominal roll of men who qualified for this but not in alphabetical order. The Company Commander then gave each name a number; I don’t know what number I had been given, The Guard Commander was called into the Office and was asked to give a number at random. The Officer informed me that my luck was in on that day and I was to go on a month’s leave home. Strangely enough a similar arrangement had been carried out in the Officers’ Mess and O.C. (Major McKenzie) had also been lucky. The leave party (one from each Company) left for Port Said and went aboard the troop ship Dunera but we did not leave the port as rumours went around that the Battalion was on the move again and that we would be recalled. However, we did eventually set sail for the U.K. Food and conditions aboard ship were very bad but with the hopes of getting home there was not much complaining. One Leicester lad (Joe Reibaldi) was seasick all the time but dare not report sick so, what duties he was given, were done between us. When we finally arrived at Liverpool docks we were given refreshments by the Women’s Voluntary Society and the newspaper that they gave us seemed to be full of Merchant Seamen being prosecuted for selling food on the Black market (that was where our rations were going). We spent the night in empty civilian houses at Crosby near Liverpool and then our leave started from 21st February to 28th March 1945.
I was able to let my wife know my time of arrival at Leicester and I was met by her and our son at the Midland Station. My parents had now moved and taken over an Off Licence off the Humberstone Road. I had only been home a few days when I had a relapse of malaria, but when I went to the family doctor he could not treat me and told me to report to the Military Doctor at Glen Parva and I knew that the rest of my leave would have to be spent there. The call went out from the shop and in minutes a bottle of quinine appeared and in a couple of days I had recovered. I was in town one day when I saw a man I knew from the Regiment who was on a week’s leave, the unit now being in Belgium at a village called Vlierselle. My leave finished and I rejoined the Battalion and we were stationed with a family in their farmhouse. I kept in touch with the family for some years after the war but I never kept my promise to re-visit them.
We were equipped and prepared for our last assignment for the war in Europe.
The division was concentrated in the Uelzen area of Germany.
On 20th April the Battalion attacked through the Godre Forest and were subjected to sniper fire but later, when taking prisoners, we found that the enemy were boys of about 14 years of age. On 30th April the Battalion was concentrated opposite Lauenberg on the West bank of the river Elbe and the whole Division crossed the bridge at night and on 3rd May the 6th Seaforths, along with other units, captured Lubeck.
On the 3rd we received the greatest news of the war so far - at 8.30 p.m. it was announced that the Germans in Holland, Denmark and N.W. Germany had surrendered unconditionally. Hostilities ceased at 08.00 hours on 5th May 1945.
May 6th PEACE. We could now write home without our letters being censored by Officers. We mostly used an Airgraph which was one sheet of A4 size paper which was reduced by photocopying before being posted.
On May 8th we attended the official cease-fire ceremony in the Rathaus (Town hall) in Lubeck. We were now allowed to walk free in the parks but we still had to be armed, carrying a rifle was not a good idea so most of us carried small arms confiscated from the Germans.
We left Lubeck on 19th May and travelled further East to Wismar and our next billet which was at Schwerin. This is where we spent V.E. Day but, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, it was not a celebration. Schwerin was to become part of the Russian Zone and our next move was to Magdeburg. Magdeburg had been heavily bombed and we were billeted in a school where we were told that the Russians would be taking over Magdeburg. The civilians soon learned their fate and many of them took what they could carry and moved to the West. It was here that I had tonsillitis and had to go to a small hospital which had been taken over by the British. I was only there for a few days and, on being discharged, when I told them that my unit was only just down the road, they let me go without sending me to a transit camp which was normal procedure. I was stopped before entering Magdeburg by the Military Police who told me that Rusky was now there but I managed to get back to my unit alright.
We had now travelled West ourselves to Hann Munden. Hann Munden was a lovely town Northeast of Kassel where the rivers Fulda and Werra met and “C” Company were billeted in a small Agricultural College (Frauenschule) (the women had left). It was very relaxing here after our many travels and we were able to settle down. There were of course the normal duties to perform but also free time. We had a Battalion Sports where I managed to gain points for the Company in the 100 yards race. I had a week’s leave from here and travelled via the Hook of Holland to Hull. On the ferry we were treated as passengers (not Military) and the Officers were most surprised that we were dining in the same room as them and eating the same food. We remained at Hann Munden until 29th October.
As the 5th Division was a Regular Division and the Seaforths were a Territorial Battalion we were put in suspended animation. This meant that the Battalion, as it stood, would probably go out of existence. We were transferred to the 15th Scottish Division and returned to Lubeck. I had been given leave that would have taken me home for the New Year but I swapped it with one of my pals for his Christmas period leave. On my return to Lubeck I was told not to unpack my kit as I would be returning to Bournemouth on a shorthand course.
I arrived in the U.K. before the commencement of the course so, somehow, I found myself in Leicester for the weekend. On arrival at Bournemouth I had to report to the Technical Training Group. For the staff here the war had just started and they tried to treat us like raw recruits, but most of the chaps on the course had spent years in the Army and complained about the petty things they were doing. One chap did the unthinkable and wrote a letter to the War Office.
We were billeted with civilians and our landlady was a tartar. We had a meagre breakfast and had to return for lunch which was a little better but, by the time we had marched back to The Bournemouth Municipal College, where the course was taking place, we could not concentrate. We had one day’s respite on Saturdays when we had P.T. on the sands, mostly a game of football and the instructor used to blink a blind eye when a few of us sloped off to catch a train home for the weekend. There was a church parade on Sundays but I think most of us were Moslems - there must have been about twenty chaps answering thirty names at the roll call. On one occasion, on the journey from London to Leicester, the Ticket Collector asked to see my ticket and demanded to see my pass (I had not got one). I asked him what authority he had as a civilian to ask a member of the Armed Forces a question of this nature and my cause was taken up by some civvies in the carriage and he beat a hasty retreat.
The landlady thought up a good ruse and obtained some paint and wallpaper and sought permission for us to do the decorating for her. I had made friends with a Londoner who was quite a “wide boy” and he told her that he and I were professional decorators and our union would not allow us to do this, we would offer advice but nothing else. We did not lift a brush, although the other chaps did.
The Tng Group learned of our escapades from the Bournemouth Central Station and we spotted Red Caps (Military Police) on duty there, so we had to go to Boscombe to catch the train.
At the end of the course we had about three attempts at passing in shorthand and a few of us managed about twenty words per minute or was it five minutes?
I was sent to Stobbs Camp at Hawick in Scotland for my demob. where the first person I saw was Major Ian Phillips (minus a leg) who was the Transport Officer. I managed a weekend leave and a warrant (train ticket) to Wigan. I telephoned my wife in Leicester to go home (Wigan) and met her there. From Stobbs Camp I went to Renfrew Barracks for documentation. I heard my name called and it was Captain Rogers who had been taken prisoner. He insisted that I went to the Officers’ Mess and have a drink with him. From there I finally went to Northampton for my demob. suit, ration card and my final warrant and pay from the Army.
Record of Service
· 15th November 1939 - 14th June 1940 Leicestershire Regiment
· 15th June 1940 - 1st July 1946 Seaforth Highlanders
From the 5th Division newspaper (The Globetrotter) it is estimated that the men travelled, in all, about 24,500 miles.
I suppose, on reflection, there were many good times during my service but I also lost what would have been my normal life.
I lost a lot of good comrades but, if you recall any of my ramblings, I cheated death on three occasions:
1. Whilst standing next to Major Waylen who was killed.
2. Being covered in debris near to Agusta from a shell which killed Jackie Cowie, the lad who had taken over my duties as Company Clerk.
3. At the river Garigliani whilst taking cover next to Sergeant Dusty Miller who was
killed by shrapnel from a mortar bomb.
I expect being small was being lucky.
There it is the story of my strife, Dennis March, never a hero, always a survivor.
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