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A Desert Rat - Plus

by Audreyswindells

Contributed by 
People in story: 
J.Harold Swindells
Location of story: 
England, Egypt, Tunisia, Italy, Austria
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
24 November 2003

A Desert Rat - Plus

The commencement of my service in the army was induced by my volunteering to join the Royal Engineers a week before my conscription papers for the Royal Marines arrived. My army life was always fairly close to the sea. I reported to the RE’s in Chatham, basic training was in Launceston, Cornwall. Being in the timber trade I was posted to a General Construction Company with a high proportion of tradesmen BUT as Southern England was being bombed daily the proportion of unexploded bombs in 1941 was mounting into thousands and the title GC Company became BD Company ie. Bomb Disposal and our job to track down, locate and eliminate (explode) these bombs. With the Company HQ variously located at Bedford, East Grinstead, Basingstoke and Southampton, our four platoons could be readily identified as all officers and men were having to paint their gaiters a bright orange colour.
Come July 1941 and the need to reinforce our overseas fronts, under 25 year old soldiers in the RE’s completing training were formed into drafts awaiting shipping space. Following a seven day leave 550 RE’s were entrained for Glasgow and embarked with 1,500 others aboard an eighteen thousand ton troopship which sailed down the Clyde past where the Queen Mary had been launched in 1935, six years before. At that time I had sailed with my aunt on a cruise to the four Northern Capitals in a sister ship of our trooper which was SS. Cameronia, Anchor Line. However, this was a very different experience. The ship was so crowded and it was so hot and uncomfortable that rather than sling a hammock below many of us chose to sleep on deck, despite thorough sea water sluicing at 6.45. Passing the Azores en route to South Africa in a convoy of over forty vessels, we stopped briefly at Sierra Leone for fresh water and during a four day stop at Durban, where we were feted, the RE’s draft was split, half the strength being sent to Singapore to be - at best - fairly soon prisoners of the Japanese; or put aboard, as I was, the Queen Mary which speedily arrived at Suez in ten days.

In the Suez Canal Zone the RE depot at Moascar, (Ismalia) soon despatched some 300 soldiers including me, to join units in constant need of reinforcements either on the battle fronts or in Companies in other parts of the Middle East. I was therefore very gratified to be posted to the RE Depot at the Delta Barrage, where the Nile is over half a mile wide with over sixty controllable sluices. However because I was still only twenty-one years old, I was moved on to join the 42nd Field Company which had been reformed after retreating from Greece and Crete and was now on the point of leaving Egypt and going north for service in Syria. Fortunately we did not take part in the Battle of Alamein although we were held in reserve and some six weeks later were doing maintenance on lines of communication in Libya.

The German armies thrust towards Baghdad was anticipated but until we could get new vehicles reissued our movement as a unit was by train in cattle trucks through Haifa in Palestine to Damascus. From Damascus we moved north of Aleppo to take the place of Australian forces who were returning home for the possible defence of their homeland. At this time we were soldiers first and engineers second. Units of the French Foreign Legion were given the option of returning home or being welcomed to join the allied forces. Over
80% of French regulars went home. Those who stayed were multi-racial and were formed into appropriate units.
Due to our tough times in 1942 the whole of the Middle East was in trepidation that the German Army would push us back to the Nile Delta and the one thing that was vital was to provide water that was absolutely pure and we went to the remote hilly parts of the Sinai desert. There were springs and rivulets in winter time where water could be trapped and in peacetime was used to irrigate the land to grow fruit and vegetables. This is where Egypt has its frontier with Palestine and is scrub-like desert. We constructed water points by channelling pipes which took the water down by gravity to tracks where retreating troops might require it. We also constructed with bulldozers 60’ high hillocks with canvas lined pond-like containers. There were at least four to six points where water could be obtained which were ten to twelve miles apart and these were constructed by 42nd Field Company.
The work was hard and we were hot and thirsty and whilst we were in construction our water trucks had to go some thirty miles into Palestine for our supply of drinking water. We were living under canvas close by and the lack of fresh food made us very susceptible to injury, and wounds all turned septic. We carried medical supplies but only for serious injury.

On other occasions we were building bridges across chasms and waddis and any road maintenance to improve the desperate state of the main tracks. Sometimes with shrapnel from airbursts flying around us.

We were also called upon to clear anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines. These were all buried in the ground often with trip wires or pull or push action to explode them. Engineers could dismantle these things if they were called upon. On occasions great courage was called for if an engineer realised he had triggered an anti-personnel mine he had to stay where he was risking losing one or both legs rather than his life if he moved off it.

Life in the desert was never comfortable and on occasions water could ooze out of the ground which quickly became lethally impure but if it could be quickly contained it could be of use.
The so very welcome post from home was liable to arrive with the rations, if you were lucky.

One day in Egypt I met a nomadic tribe of Beduins. Being of a very hospitable nature they offered me some dates which unable to offend them I took and consumed. The outcome was an attack of dysentery which reduced me from 12 and a half stone to five and a half stone.

On one occasion in Syria, when we were lucky enough to have vehicles but had been late in our movement to the selected destination for our camp, I went to sleep in darkness with limited protection against the cold night and, to my surprise, recovered consciousness in hospital, where I stayed for several days suffering from hypothermia. It was during this time that we camped in metal hutments . and I was ‘fortunate’ enough to drop and break my spectacles. This enabled me to get a pass to Beirut in order to obtain new lenses from an ophthalmic depot.

One day we drove within sight of the Sphinx and the Pyramids but they were nearly half a mile away and we never got back to see them properly.

Much later in Tunisia, just over the Libyan border we were assembled at dusk and marched forward with the infantry ahead of us, for perhaps some three miles. As the dawn broke an enemy barrage began and we were often shelled. Some of these shells were air bursts from artillery fire but groups of up to nine whistling mortar shells could be fired simultaneously and then the air was full of flying shrapnel which created some horrific incidents. About this time we came across unescorted surrendering Italian troops advancing towards us with their arms raised, and at one stage quite close to us they were hit by their own offensive fire and two were terribly wounded. So wounded in fact that one of our officers was forced to shoot one of them, out of mercy.

As engineers we had to sweep a 9’ path through a minefield which then had to be widened to 18’ and then 27’ as quickly as possible so that the road was usable by ambulances going and coming back, without the danger of being blown up by mines. This was obviously harrowing due to the fact that we had to proceed with speed and utterly ignore diversions created by the surrendering Italian troops. After filling in an 8’ deep anti-tank ditch and compacting it to take our heavy vehicles the road was marked out by us to prevent misguided vehicles moving into possibly mined areas.

Prior to this we had a night operation which saw us standing by a wadi which was flowing with a fair volume of water, due to recent rains coming from the hills and we engineers were in the valley bottom but 100 yards to the other side of the wadi was enemy territory and enemy outposts. A British tank was stuck in the middle of the wadi with the 2’ deep water washing all around it. The crew of the tank were defending themselves from air attack by firing back at diving enemy planes on two or three occasions. Obviously we also had to take cover from the daylight air attacks and I personally hid beneath the wheels of a truck which I afterwards realised was full of explosives. Not quite the best place to take shelter. Our working party retreat in full daylight mid-morning was to be aboard this same explosive carrying vehicle that moved into full enemy vision and gradually proceeded for a third of a mile up the opposite bank protected only by the knowledge that British Infantry were ready to fire at any offensive German action. So we could have been centred in cross fire.

We were about twelve miles outside Alexandria about to go there to board ship. At night time we slept on our ground sheets with a couple of blankets. During the night a freak storm hit us of truly exceptional magnitude. The storm utterly soaked everything we possessed in two inches of rainfall. Gear was literally floating about on the rocky countryside over which the rainwater just flowed collecting in great pools which the dry earth could not absorb. Hundreds of soldiers were faced with problems and discomfort. I boarded a ship in dishevelled condition and the boat headed initially for southern Sicily passing Malta en route and calling into Syracuse and off leading a small contingent there. Then returning north easterly to Taranto where we landed and were taken via Bari on the heel of Italy. I was aiming to join the 42nd Field company from which I had been detached whilst on a radio course. Arriving in a transit camp near Bari I discovered that my Brigade had been transferred from the Eighth Army to the Fifth Army but no-one knew where the 42nd Field Company had moved to. We were sent nearly two hundred miles on to Naples by an
extremely slow train. . When I called at the Naples transit point they were able to tell me that I was within 40 miles of my destination.

We longed to leave the hot dry atmosphere of the desert but sometimes longed to be back when we had to face the rain and mud of Italy. Naples was ‘out of bounds’ but some colleagues and I we went off in the vehicle designated to us, and took a risk. It was parked in a square in Napes and the local police must have enquired of the military and been told that the vehicle was there without permission. It was therefore removed and when we returned to the square we had no transport. We had to try and get back some forty miles but we were recognised as being in the wrong place at the wrong time and also soldiers returning to Anzio had made a break for it, so the Military Police were on the look out. This was unfortunate because our tentative enquiries were met with suspicion and we had to produce our passes which were not acceptable. So I spent a week in a cell sleeping on a very hard floor in a Naples prison. I tried to exercise in the confined space but was allowed to go on the roof of the building to take advantage of a grandstand view of Vesuvius in eruption with one principal flow of red hot lava more than a mile long from the lip of its crater. Resultant visibility in the
streets of Naples was poor. I wrote to a member of my unit soon after being imprisoned and eventually my letter brought results and I thus was absent without leave for a week and was punished by having to report to the Guard Room every hour for more than a further two weeks.

We were in the Apennine mountains, north of Florence during the last winter in Italy. The severe weather saw deep snow in the higher valleys. An Italian man and his wife who had retreated southwards towards the allied armies were able to speak English and we met up with them because the farm house where they had rented space from friendly farmers was near our requisitioned billets. These were only farm ‘out buildings’ and although bitterly cold were dry. We met up with this couple and found they had no means of survival and like most of the Italian population, were nearly starving. We managed to save some of our rations and would negotiate the slippery mountain paths and lanes to take these meagre supplies to them.

The weather improved and we moved on ultimately to be greeted by rejoicing crowds as we moved towards Bologna. It was heartening to be given flowers and occasional kisses by thankful Italians and to know that before long this meant we might be returning home.

Eighteen months after arriving in Italy we crossed the border into Austria on the last days of fighting in May 1945. For us it was a case of marking time until we could be sent home, but what a beautiful area in which to wait - in normal times the holiday Lakes of Southern Austria

After returning home I amazed my family by removing my bedclothes on to the floor and it was six months before I could once again relax in a normal bed.

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

Message 1 - Dennis Bunker

Posted on: 13 January 2004 by Richard Brown

I'm trying to find out more information about my uncle Dennis Bunker (very long shot!) or about the Desert Rats generally.

Denny, as he was known to all, was with the the Royal Engineers and served in North Africa.

I have no other information about him, and records have since been lost following the recent death of my Aunt. I do understand that I'm unlikely to come across anyone who knew him, but I'd like to find out more about the Desert Rats generally, in order to honour his memory.

Message 1 - 42nd field company in Italy

Posted on: 28 March 2005 by medwaylibraries

Read your story with interest as my father was in the 42nd field company of the REs as a driver. He was badly wounded in Italy in July 1944. Do you happen to know where the company would have been at that time? Many thanks and regards, April Lambourne

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