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15 October 2014
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Thomas Emyr Davies - 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment - My Story (Part 4 of 13 - North Africa Campaign II)

by Thomas Emyr Davies

Contributed by 
Thomas Emyr Davies
People in story: 
Thomas Emyr Davies (Tom Davies) ; William (Bill) Wilson
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

One night, our company were to carry out a night raid on an Italian encampment which was about ten miles away on the other side of an adjoining valley. After following a winding trail alongside a narrow-gauge railway which meant first going through some sparsely populated and uninteresting piece of ground, our object was to surprise the Italians when the majority of them would be asleep. As we moved stealthily through the valley on a beautiful moonlit night, the stillness of the air was broken only by the distant chorus of giant bullfrogs croaking somewhere to our flank, which grew progressively louder as we approached, rising to a crescendo and then fading away again in the distance as we plodded quietly on. For every mile of the journey my three inch mortar equipment seemed to double in weight. Each bomb-carrier carried six bombs of ten pounds each which fitted into a type of harness that went across the shoulders like a waistcoat, whilst the gun crew carried two bombs and a part of the gun each. When we got within a quarter of a mile or so from the enemy camp, we left the path alongside the railway line and laboriously worked our way up the steep slope onto the hillside, moving quietly forward to a vantage point overlooking the encampment.

We lost no time in getting organised. Soon, every man was in his position with all the guns set up, mounted for action and ready for the attack. Rocket flares zoomed into the night sky and for a brief moment seemed to hang in mid-air bathing the camp below in a crimson glow. This was the moment we had been waiting for. The signal to “Fire!” was given and mortar shells rained down on the huts which housed the unsuspecting sleeping Italian troops.

Bill shouted across, “I don’t like the idea of this Dai. It seems like taking an unfair advantage!”

I did not get involved in any argument about ‘all’s fair in love and war’ but I think it helped considerably in easing the tension that we had built up waiting for the fireworks to start. Pandemonium had broken loose as the cries and screams of terror rent the sky. Men ran here and there half-dressed, some only in their underwear. As they came out of the huts, they ran straight into the stream of machine gun and rifle fire, which had been lined up for this purpose.

More flares added light to the subject, the strange glow giving a theatrical effect to the whole scene of confusion. We, the spectators in our privileged position up in the gallery, were comparatively unmoved emotionally by the look of unrealism about it all. The Italians themselves helped unwittingly in their own destruction by switching on lights in many of the huts. Fires broke out leaving the camp a blazing inferno. Some of the Italians, after getting over the initial shock, let blast in the general direction of our positions but this was mostly ineffective fire and of no great concentration at all.

We had just received orders to dismantle our three-inch mortars and prepare to withdraw, when a tumultuous explosion occurred to the right of our gun positions, giving a blinding flash, sending lumps of earth, branches and fragments of rock whistling through the air above our heads. We learned later that a detonator had been accidentally ignited setting off a stack of mines, killing a dozen or so members of a small detachment of Royal Engineers and wounding a number of others hit by flying shrapnel from the terrible blast.

The accident marred what would otherwise have been viewed from our point as a completely successful operation. We clambered down the rocky slopes carrying some of the more seriously wounded to the railway track in the valley below, where we commandeered a small manually-operated truck used by the railway workers for maintenance work along the line. This served ideally as an ambulance for taking back the badly wounded to our positions.

After a couple of hours of the long weary trudge back, the first sight of daylight came, giving rise to a warm grumbling wind which seemed to be urging us to hurry along. The faces of the lads were pale and drawn in the light of the early morning sky, emphasised by the triangle of coloured silk material which we wore around our throats as a means of identifying ourselves to any allied aircraft that might swoop down upon us. This we would do by holding out the loose ends in front so that the material could be spotted by the aircraft above.

Suddenly, from over the hills, as if crystallised in the early morning light, appeared two black-crossed fighter planes, sweeping their way along the railway track. Their cannon blazed away spitting out hot lead as we raced for our lives to the shelter of a dip in the side of the track. The deafening roar of the aircraft gradually faded as they disappeared over the hills allowing us to breathe freely again. We figured that they probably had a more important assignment than us to deal with that morning. By some miracle the wounded had not suffered any further injury. The German pilots were probably more interested in us, the moving targets diving for cover in the ditches.

By the beginning of January 1943, the brigade was taken back to rest at Boufarik, a village near Algiers. Our battalion put up at the farm of St. Charles. It was situated in a beautiful setting of tangerine groves with lovely blossoms giving splashes of bright colour and the outline of a range of purple hills fading away in the background.

At the farm there were huge vats where the wines were fermented and it was not unusual to see one of the boys, after coming home the worse for drink late at night, with his mouth stuck under the tap at the base of one of the vats. Bill, Joe and I used to go down to Algiers and explore the dimly lit cafés and bars. Sampling the various wines, which could be bought cheaply, we would sit sheltering in the shade of the palms in the big squares adjoining the boulevards which were lined with colourful orange trees. Beneath these trees, Arabs sold glasses of iced lemonade, their cries of “Cool Johnnie, Cool!” sounding above the tinkling of ice cubes as the vendor shook his jug at the appearance of another prospective customer. One could not help but notice the varying shades of sun tan on the bodies of service personnel and others who had come to Algiers for a rest period as they stretched out cross-shaped like victims on the beaches in the noon day sun.

The Shoe-shine Boy in these places was certainly a person of some importance with a really professional touch to his work. His kit box consisted of a choice of brushes and polishing cloths, the polish being mixed with gasoline to bring up a glossy surface from deep within the leather. The importance attached to having one’s shoes shined seemed to be an obsession with so many people.

In the sophisticated ‘joints’, half-naked Arab girls could be seen dancing to the sensuous rhythm of weird, almost barbaric, tunes of the wailing instruments, accompanied by the jingling of coin bracelets which adorned their dusky arms and ankles as they moved and swayed around, leaving behind them the mingled scent of flowers and sweaty flesh.

There were many brothels in Algiers, kept by some ‘Madame Something-or-Other’ who paid the girls who worked for her on a commission basis by the number of clients they ‘entertained’ in their ‘labour of love’. These places were kept under close scrutiny by the military police and other authorities and raided from time to time.

Another place of great interest was the Kasbah, the notorious Arab quarter of the city, which was a refuge for thieves, tricksters and many other shady characters wanting to escape the long arm of the law. It was a maze of narrow foul-smelling streets and intricate patterns of alleyways with their little arched doorways leading into a labyrinth of passages and tiled courtyards which often led again into seemingly endless alleys not much wider than the full span of a man’s arms. It was rumoured that a Coldstream Guardsman had been found castrated with his testicles stuffed into his mouth but how true this was we never did find out. Troops were advised never to go unaccompanied through these parts as many Arabs were believed to be pro-German.

During this period of respite at the farm, we often sat around talking in our bunker in the stone cellar which housed the huge fermenting vats. Among the topics of conversation which arose was the question of religion and whether one believed in God and if so what was one’s conception of God. Little Taffy Williams, a dark, quiet and serious chap argued that man’s purpose on Earth, if carried out as it was meant to be, was to express God in his own way of life and that the reason why all this wounding and killing was allowed to go on between peoples and nations was because God has given men the freedom of choice to choose between good and evil and if there was any divine intervention in any way by a supreme power, whenever it was thought necessary, by an action brought about by man’s folly, man would be reduced to an automaton or robot.

However, we were soon to be awakened from our reveries and brought back with a jolt to cold reality as we heard the orders that the brigade was to go back to Tunisia to reinforce the line where the enemy had broken through.

This time we were to go by sea as far as Bone. It was a pleasant little cruise in the commando ship, HMS Beatrix. We were then taken by troop-carrying vehicles to our positions in the line, where we were to spend the next few months as infantry. By this time, the brigade was getting back nearly to full strength again as we had been joined by reinforcements from home and many of the less seriously wounded had recovered and rejoined, fit and ready for action.

The more serious casualties had been had been operated on in the field by Lieutenant Robb and his doctors and orderlies of the 6th Parachute Field Ambulance who dropped on every action with the fighting troops and distinguished themselves as men of skill and courage, surpassed by none. Lieutenant Robb himself, having injured his knee on the parachute drop at Souk el-Arba, managed to conceal the fact and carried on his work leading his surgical team performing one hundred and sixty-two operations in the field with only one patient dying in their hands.

On one occasion, when we were holding positions in the hills in the Medjez el-Bab section, I was acting as look-out from the roof of an old farmhouse, which the company was using as headquarters. As I watched, a group of about six unescorted Blenheim bombers returning from a bombing raid on Bizerta flew overhead. Suddenly, a pack of Messerschmitts appeared from out of the clouds and attacked the low-flying bombers from above. What a sense of dismay and helplessness I felt as the fighters opened up and flashes came from behind the Blenheims’ engines. Flames and black smoke spewed out from them as they were mercilessly shot down, each of them in turn leaving a trail of black smoke as they crashed into the surrounding hills and exploded. One rear gunner continued firing as his aircraft ploughed into the mountain, his incendiary shells clearly visible in the evening sky. There was no hope of surviving the flaming holocaust which left nothing but a mass of debris.

Another farm which many of the lads of the 1st Battalion will remember was ‘Coxon’s Farm’, so-called as the attack on it was made by the company led by Major Coxon, a large, bald-headed, broad-shouldered man, who seemed to revel in the skirmishes we were having and loved every minute of it. It appears that, after capturing the farm which was held previously by the Germans, after some heavy fighting, the company had killed and eaten a pig. Their horror can only be imagined when they noticed later that the pigs were fattening themselves up on the corpses of the dead Jerries which lay about the yard. Many others had been dead for days in a huge water storage tank, floating on the surface, their bodies grotesquely bloated, blown up like balloons and almost comical in a macabre sort of way.

Many a night, whilst standing shivering on guard duty against the stone walls of the farm outhouses, our only companions the fat and repulsive rats, silhouetted in the clear night sky as they crawled along the rough walls, I gave a shudder as a slight feeling of nausea passed over me. I would feel thankful for the sight of Bill Wilson, who invariably did guard duty at the same time as me, standing at the far end of the yard, just a dark shadow with no visible personality, like myself, wishing away the hours, envious of our mates inside the barns stretched out luxuriously on the rough stone floors with the warmth of a blanket.

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