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15 October 2014
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Thomas Emyr Davies - 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment - My Story (Part 6 of 13 - North Africa Campaign IV)

by Thomas Emyr Davies

Contributed by 
Thomas Emyr Davies
People in story: 
Thomas Emyr Davies (Tom Davies) ; William (Bill) Wilson ; Paddy McCormack ; Frank Garlick
Location of story: 
Brecon; Hereford; Tatton Park and Ringway Aerodrome; North Africa; Sicily; Grimsthorpe Castle; Arnhem; Stalag IV B Muhlberg, Germany
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
16 January 2005

Thomas Emyr (Tom) Davies, aged 21, on joining up with the South Wales Borderers in 1939

Our brigade, which in its first three months of action, had been awarded eight D.S.O.s, fifteen M.C.s, nine D.C.M.s, twenty-two M.M.s, three Croix de Guerres and one Legion d’Honeur, was soon to be joined by the rest of the airborne division which had come from England in preparation for the next stage of the Mediterranean Campaign. For this purpose, and for security reasons, we moved back to the Mascara area in Algeria. The positions in Tunisia had by now become pretty well-established.

The journey back was quite an enjoyable experience taking a few days by rail. The novelty of it all and the free-and-easy nature of travelling by rail, unburdened of the cares of war, put us all in excellent spirits and the right frame of mind to appreciate to the full the wonderful scenery of Tunisia and Algeria.

We passed high, craggy peaks surrounding a huge valley which shouldered its way for many miles, narrowing and twisting through the Atlas mountains and crossed ravines, bridged by huge viaducts, as the train nosed its way through mountain passes and tunnels out into the beautiful wide stretches of cultivated areas of orange and tangerine groves, vineyards and other delicious fruit gardens.

Often, Arab horsemen would gallop on their magnificent steeds alongside the train, which did not travel very fast because of the number of wagons. They waved and yelled excitedly and gesticulated wildly. We could not make much sense of what they were trying to say but we gave them the old thumbs up sign. One or two of the lads who were not too choosy with their remarks, shouted back at them and it was just as well they could not understand us either. Their actions seemed friendly enough as they waved and rode off again.

The beautiful moonlit nights and jewelled skies of North Africa made quite an impression on me. Everything appeared so clear and clean. What a grand sight, late in the evening, to see the fire buckets - buckets filled with earth and petrol which we used for cooking purposes - hanging out alongside all the wagons. They gloved at night as far as one could see appearing like some fiery dragon edging its way around the hillsides. It was often remarked humorously that anyone wanting to respond to the dictates of nature had ample time to jump off and catch up with the train again by crossing over to the next hill.

As the days went by and we got nearer to Mascara, it became increasingly warmer as we passed through stretches of desert wasteland and barren peaks with great patches of giant cacti and scrub falling into a kind of grotesque pattern.

Soon we arrived at Mascara Plain to be treated with suspicion and hostility by the local French inhabitants but after a while their attitude changed a little, and they treated us with much indifference, showing interest only where money or material gain was involved.

Soon the training programme for the invasion of Sicily began and it was back to work with a vengeance for all concerned. We found the climate a great deal warmer than in Tunisia which made the marches a sheer hell of sweat and dust. Parachute-jumping was also greatly affected by the more rarefied atmosphere, making the rate of descent increase considerably resulting in more than the usual number of minor casualties on landing.

It was on manœuvres here that I experienced my first mishap whilst parachute jumping. As the ground rushed towards me, I failed to tuck in my chin far enough on landing and my head hit the hard dusty ground with a resounding thud. A terrific flash of light crossed my eyes and then a wave of blackness engulfed me. I must have been unconscious for a couple of minutes before I heard a voice coming to me from a great distance “Taffy! Are you alright?”. As I came to, the handsome features of Paddy McCormack came into focus. His head was a mass of ringlets which had a habit of sticking out from the side of his helmet when he perspired. Then, I drifted back into darkness, consciousness lapping and receding in waves. I suffered slight concussion for a couple of days and was excused from duties but within a week was feeling my old self again.

Invasions were rehearsed. With the possibility of the attack on Sicily being launched at night, we went through routines for getting the companies organised quickly on the dropping zone after a night drop. Each company command carried in the belt of his harness a lamp that would give off a particular colour signifying the company to which he belonged. This enabled the men of his company to form up and move into the positions for which they were briefed, in the shortest possible time.

Arms and ammunition were packed into our kitbags which were specially-designed for this job. They were strapped to the leg in much the same way as a cricketer would put on pads for batting. Attached to this kitbag was a long length of strong, nylon rope which was capable of standing up to great stress and strain. This was fixed to the jumping harness on which there was a steel release ring which, when pulled, allowed the kitbag to drop the length of the rope, swinging like a pendulum, so that it did not impede the parachutist as he landed. This method of carrying arms and ammunition did away with the use of many of the containers that used to be dropped by parachutes, thus eliminating to a great extent the danger of them getting caught up with the men’s parachutes during a drop.

Sirocco winds were prevalent in these parts. One could see them coming from a long way off like a great swirling column of dust. On one occasion, a sirocco roared through the camp lines whisking a few tents, including the company office, into the air. All the documentation of records and charge sheets spiralled into the blue sky, much to the delight of the boys who let out a roar of approval.

During moments of relaxation when off duty in the evening, we would go down to the village which was a couple of miles away and sample some of the wines and spirits. Fortified by this warm and rather cosy method of self-anaesthesia, we became oblivious to the cares and uncertainties of war, adopting a “Why worry? Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die” philosophy on life. However, in the morning, with my head throbbing, mouth dry as a cork and breath smelling like a sewer, I would certainly feel half-dead!

It was a common sight to see three or four Arabs squatting on the floor next to a wall outside a café in their ankle length djellabahs, like monks in deep meditation. One of the boys, a little worse for the drink, squatted alongside a group of them, his glassy eyes fixed staring straight ahead, unknowingly earned great applause from those sober enough to appreciate the comedy of the situation.

The road back to camp never seemed very long as we staggered home in little groups singing away, each striking the key they could most suitably cope with. Our particular ‘gang’ was a good mixture of the home countries, with a true spirit of comradeship existing between us. Whether at home or abroad, whenever anyone wearing the red beret was in trouble, we considered it our trouble too, in true musketeer fashion.

In preparation for the forthcoming airborne attacks against the Axis forces in Sicily, the whole division moved back to Tunisia and assembled in the area around the holy city of Kairhouan, one of the sacred cities of Islam. Our brigade was stationed near Sousse on the coast where, at this stage of the proceedings, we were taking things comparatively easy. Volunteers were asked from among those who could drive to go to Tripoli for the purpose of collecting vehicles there and taking them by road to Tunis and Algiers, to be parked in readiness for loading onto the ships at the docks when required for Sicily, after the invasion had taken place. A few of the lads volunteered for this exercise whom I am sure did not have the first idea how to drive. This was evident from the way they made the vehicles buck like broncos going down the dusty trail leading out of Tripoli. By the time we arrived at Algiers, which took a few days of steady driving, they were capable drivers but I am sure at the expense of their vehicles.

There was no shortage of fruit on our journey along the coast road, parts of Tunisia being a garden of citrus fruits, vines, olives and almonds, with glimpses of beautiful, clean, white sand of the seemingly-endless beaches. The method of travel was free and easy. If one fancied some grapes it was just a matter of pulling over to the side of the road and helping oneself, as the Arabs keeping watch on the groves had such a large area to cover they could not possibly cope with everyone. We were given rendezvous points well in advance so there was no need to be unduly concerned about anyone arriving late at any particular stage for the overnight stays.

Alongside the trucks parked near a row of cactus bushes at a stopping stage we sat brewing up one evening under the beautiful starlit sky. My thoughts turned to Margaret, the pretty, dark-haired W.A.A.F. from Ringway Aerodrome, where I had gone through my parachute training. I remembered the grand times we had had and how very far away it all seemed now. Suddenly the hiss of steam which sent the coffee spluttering against the pot lid brought me back to cold reality. Sensing Bill’s eyes on me, I answered the unspoken question. He just grinned widely, saying nothing when I told him what I had been thinking about and with a grunt got up and poured the coffee. Bill was not the romantic that I was but more the man of action.

Motoring through the beautiful Algerian countryside was a truly wonderful experience with the vast orchards in the froth of blossom giving the appearance of some huge luxuriant gardens. After having seen so much of death and the ugliness of mutilated bodies ravaged by man and insects in the midst of so much life, I believe my sense of values shifted somewhat, putting into perspective the true measure of living. I gained an intense awareness of everything in creation, in God’s great gift to man. It was surprising how various landmarks in certain places when travelling along seemed to take so much longer to pass than would be imagined, the clear arid desert air making an object perhaps ten miles away appear quite close. After journeying for three or four days, we started moving into the mountainous regions where the awe-inspiring grandeur of the country was breathtakingly spectacular with its great ravines and mountain passes, spanned by huge viaducts and smoke-purple peaks, reaching upwards.

A couple of days later, we arrived at Algiers, our mission completed, with a bonus of a few days leave before we had to return to our base at Sousse.

One of our special treats back at camp was the organised bathing party. We were taken by T.C.V. down to the beach at Sousse, a journey of about twelve kilometres, where we would spend an hour or two swimming in the beautiful blue Mediterranean. An old wreck of a ship lay off the shore and we would clamber on to the deck and dive off the side into the inviting water, recovering coloured objects from the sea bed where every pebble could be seen in the crystal-clear water.

The sheer bliss of floating on one’s back under a canopy of blue with eyes half-closed feeling the warm gentle kiss of the sun on one’s face, hearing the soft murmur of the waters lapping the shore like the very beat of Mother Nature’s heart, surely must be as near as one can get to experiencing Heaven on Earth.

One afternoon, while playing about like porpoises in the water, a scruffy-looking Arab brought a camel into the sea alongside where we were bathing, obviously with the intention of washing it. We made one dash to get out as quickly as possible showering the Arab with oaths. Camels had a notorious reputation as carriers of disease. It was sheer agony hopping across to get our clothes and get dressed but the burning sands did seemed not to bother the dusky little native boys as they trudged up and down the beaches all day long selling their wares including olive oil and slices of melons. Big, easy-going Platoon Sergeant ‘Butch’ Burridge poking his head into the truck to check if we were all present before returning to camp would shout “You’re like a ruddy harmonica band in there,” as we would all be sucking away on huge slices of juicy melon.

The journey back to camp meant going part of the way across country where the roads deteriorated to vehicle tracks, caked hard by the striking sun. It was tough going and always amazing that Big Frank dozed off despite the constant shaking and jolting. Joe said “That bloke would fall asleep hanging on a clothes line with a couple of pegs stuck on his ears!”.

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