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15 October 2014
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Bill Sanderson's Wartime Experiences -Part 4 - 40 Commando

by Bill Sanderson (junior)

Contributed by 
Bill Sanderson (junior)
People in story: 
William Herbert Sanderson
Location of story: 
The Mediterranean
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A3855774
Contributed on: 
03 April 2005

I was drafted to a shore station: HMS Nile with Don Sly and a couple of others and my job there was DSB (Duty Signal Boat). There were three of us, two on duty each day with one off. In ‘Alex’ there are two harbours: the inner and the outer. We did three trips a day, one day you’d do the inner, the next the outer.
We would get the official mail for the ships that were in the harbour and take it to them in either a motor boat or a steam pinnace. I did that for about six months.

There was only one thing out of the ordinary that happened there. It was a farce really. One night, about eleven o’ clock we were all turned in when the sergeant came in and said “Everybody out, belt and bayonet, there’s trouble in the town.” We turned out and he said “Bring your entrenching tool handles.” There were about twenty-five or thirty of us and we waited while there was a conflab between the NCOs and a Naval Officer. Eventually the sergeant came back and told us to get our rifles. We then got into a three-ton truck and were taken down to the docks.

We disembarked. We were told that there were a number of Greek ships in the harbour, a couple of warships and a merchant ship. King Farouk’s palace was being used by the Greek navy. There were different factions: communists, royalists, Enosists and one group had stormed the yacht club. We were the nearest troops. So there we were belt and bayonet, rifle but no ammunition. We marched along the pier and we had to go over this bridge. We’d had to stop a couple of times whilst the officers had their ‘conflab’. At the bridge the officer said: “Can’t you make them sound like there are more of you?” “How do we do that?” “Fix your bayonets and, as you go over the bridge, bang on the butt of your rifles with you other hand to make the bayonets rattle and stamp your feet as if there’s a lot of you.” So there we were, banging and stamping with the bayonets rattling. I was getting a bit worried by then, my bayonet was rattling without me having to bang it. We got to the club and the officer said: “Surround it!” So we spread out, very sparsely around it waiting for what I do not know. We were there for two or three hours hearing an occasional burst of Sten gun or machine gun fire. Then dawn came and we were reinforced with some more marines, unlike us, these ones had rifles, machine guns and ammunition. The Greeks in the club surrendered in the end and there was a great pile of guns and arms. If they’d known, only one of them could have seen all of us off.

I was getting fed up of being in harbour. One day I saw a notice that read ‘Volunteers required for special duties of a hazardous nature’. John Perry and I thought we’d have that, so we put our names down, shortly after we were taken off to a transit camp. They took away most of our gear so we were down to one little kitbag. Don stayed on in Alex. There were thirty-one of us volunteers. We went to Cairo and we were going to fly to Italy. We all went outside Shepherd’s Hotel where there was a weighing machine and we all had to be weighed with our kit. We were told that twenty-nine would fly that night and the other two would follow on. Me and this other bloke, Dyson, were left behind. We were in a hotel in Cairo. We’d collected all the spare ‘ackers’ from the others. We had two or three days waiting. Eventually we got a flight, in a Dakota. It was my first time in a plane. We flew first to ‘the Marble Arch’ a staging post in the desert. The next stop was Malta where we were allowed in the sergeants’ mess for a meal and a couple of beers, which was great because we had no money at that point.

We landed in Bari, in Italy. It was afternoon. We had no actual papers (orders) and we didn’t know which Commando we were going to. The Naval officer checked out where we were supposed to go. He told us that we were going up near Monopoli and that there was a truck going that way. Dyson taught me how to play ‘crib’ while we were waiting. The driver of the truck dropped us on a ridge pointed and told us the camp was over there somewhere. We reported to the orderly in guardroom. “Where the hell have you been, we expected you three days ago!” We were put in S troop. The others had been put in different troops. S troop was heavy weapons, three-inch mortars and Vickers machine guns, support troop. We were only there three weeks when we were taken back to Bari and shipped off to Malta. We called in at Syracuse on the way back and I remember swimming in the harbour. There was a sunken ship and we swam down to see if there was anything we could salvage.

We were under canvas in Malta. It was hot, getting on for summer. We did some training there, getting used to the Vickers and a bit of speed marching. All this stuff about commandos and specialised training, they might have done it in Britain, but those of us from the fleet had nothing really.

We went on a liberty ship back to Italy, a cargo ship. We were in the hold on these wooden tiers. It was reminiscent of a slave ship. There was no galley. We cooked on our field kitchens on the deck.

Getting on for October (1944) we were told we were going on an operation. We went on an LSI (Landing Ship Infantry). When we were on board we were told we were going to Albania. I’d only just about heard of Albania. I’d no idea where it was. Our job was to block the escape route of the Germans coming out of Greece at Sarandē. We were going to land at five o’clock in the morning. They issued us with 24 hour emergency packs. I thought this is it, this is what it’s all about. I was a bit apprehensive. I didn’t know really what to expect. We arrived at ‘Sugar’ beach. It was an unopposed landing. We walked up the beach and were told to move up, keeping between the tapes that marked the area that had been cleared of mines. It was a rocky beach overlooked by steep cliffs with thorns and brush that tore your hands to pieces. It was awkward trying to climb whilst carrying a two gallon can of water in one hand, your rifle in the other and your pack on your back with a belt of ammunition slung across your shoulder.

It started to rain and rained for nine days. About the third day we were detailed off to unload a landing craft putting stores onto the beach. It was miserable work as it was sheeting down with rain. We got finished after dark. Pat and I found a cave just off the beach, not really a cave, more of a depression, a hole really, but cosy enough once we had pulled our capes across the top to form a roof. We’d just got settled when we heard Johnny Wisdom, our Lieutenant, calling: “Sanderson, Patterson!” We debated whether to say anything. It might’ve been another landing craft to unload. In the end we called out to him and he came over to our ‘cave’. He’d brought us some cigarettes, a pack of twenty, and some matches. We managed to drop the matches early on and chain smoked the rest of the cigarettes rather than wait for more matches the next day.

We were up and down these mountains. We had casualties from trench feet and exposure. Then, when it stopped raining, we were short of water. After we’d been there about five days I was feeling a bit groggy so I went to see the ‘quack’ and he put me on ‘light duties’ and I wondered how I could manage that in a heavy weapons troop. By this time I was carrying the barrel of the gun which was heavier still.

On the ninth of October, exactly a year after the bombing of HMS Carlisle, the attack was due. As we moved up to our jumping off point, I just couldn’t go any further and I collapsed. They left me on top of this mountain with some water and emergency rations. The next morning, drifting in and out of consciousness, I heard the noise of the attack. The day after that they brought a stretcher up for me and took me down to the beach into an aid tent. I was a bit delirious by then so I’m not sure about this, but I thought there was a German doctor in the tent. For some reason he had some bottles of beer and wouldn’t let me have any. I was annoyed about this as it didn’t seem right. I was put onto a landing craft and then a hospital train and was taken to hospital in Brindisi. I had malaria. I lot of chaps came down with it. I hadn’t realised how rife it was then in Italy. I lost a lot of weight. We were put on a special diet: American tinned chicken and jelly and custard — queer stuff. I got up one day and the Sister told me to get back into bed again. I was in about a fortnight.

I was discharged and had to make my own way back. I flagged a truck down and got back to camp. Only the rear party was there. By this time my troop and the others had crossed from Sarandē to Corfu, which was only about eight miles from the coast. I went sick again as soon as I got back. I had a boil on my backside that I’d been too embarrassed to tell them about at the hospital. As soon as I went to see the doc he told me I’d have to go back to hospital. This time I was sent to Taranto where I had an operation to remove it. By the time I got back to camp the troop had returned from Corfu full of stories about the wonderful reception they’d had from the locals as the liberators of the island. There had been some casualties at Sarandē. In the mortar section, two blokes were killed and one lost his leg from mines. But none from the Vickers section.

Either before or after Christmas, we were sent back to Corfu because there was ‘civil unrest’ and fighting between rival factions. We went as ‘aid to the civil power’, distributing food and helping to keep trouble down. At one point the heavy weapons troop was stationed in ‘Merlin Villa’ which belonged to the Royce family, just outside Corfu town. There were just a couple of corporals and the men. The sergeants and the officers were based in the town.

‘Pat’ was my mate there, Patterson . He’d been a butcher. His father had owned a butcher’s shop in Ely in Cardiff. I’d been a butcher’s lad. We decided to go and see if we could get some fresh meat to supplement our rations. We took a driver and corporal Griffiths in a jeep into the hills. We came across this shepherd and we bargained with him for a sheep or a lamb. He got my shirt, some cigarettes and some emergency chocolate in return for a lamb. It was a black lamb with a white face. We got it back to the villa but then had to decide who was going to kill it. I didn’t want to do it and neither did ‘Pat’. In the end we decided it was too small and we adopted it as a mascot. We called it Larry, polished its hooves and took it on parade with us every morning with a blue ribbon around its neck. In the end it would answer to its name. We could hear it clattering across the wooden floors in the villa. As we were preparing to go back to Italy we sent men out foraging for grass for Larry. We packed him in with the grass in a case that we tied into a jeep and hid it before we boarded the landing craft. We got him safely back to Italy where we were quartered in a school in a little village called Turi. The troops were in different classrooms. We’d tied Larry up in a store shed outside. The next morning he’d gone. We sent out men in all the section’s twelve jeeps looking for him. Stopping and calling out “Larry, Larry!” but we assume he ended up on some Italian family’s dinner plate.

There was an accident when some men were putting the fuses into hand grenades and one pulled the pin out of a grenade by mistake. He tried to throw it out of the window but it was covered with netting and the grenade bounced back into the room. A couple of blokes were killed in the explosion. There was a gaol in the village and we’d march down there for a bath. The prisoners were there in their uniforms that looked like pyjamas. One offered to give me a bath. I said: “I’ll manage myself, thanks very much!” They were all after soap and anything they could scrounge.

At one point we were being moved in cattle trucks (twelve horses or forty men). The train was constantly starting and stopping. If you could get off and brew up, we would. There was this bloke Lenahan, we’d stopped a couple of times and when it was light, we looked in his place and all there was there was his boots. “Where the hell’s Lenahan gone?” I said “I don’t know, he must’ve hopped off during the night.” He came back about three or four days later. I asked him where he’d been and he told me he sleep-walked. He must’ve got up in the middle of the night, got off the truck and wandered off, fast asleep and the train had gone and left him. He said, and I’m not sure how true this is, because he did romance a bit, that the MPs picked him up thinking he was a parachutist. He said “D’you think I’d come down on a parachute without any boots on?”

We got sent up to ‘the line’. It wasn’t as I imagined it from books and films of the Great War. It wasn’t like that at all. We just went up this lane, to a farmhouse and into a field where there was a big mound. There was a dugout in the mound that looked out over the valley with a machine gun emplacement inside it. We were taking over from the army. I asked if this was ‘the line’. One of the army chaps pointed across the valley and said the Germans were over there. I couldn’t see anything. They showed us our line of fire and then they were off. It was a bit claustrophobic. It was like climbing into an igloo made of earth with just enough room for two of you inside. There was a trench that went back to the farmhouse.

At night we had to do an hour’s ‘stag’ on the top of the mound, in a little slit trench with a Tommy gun. It was a bit weird. There were things you’d hear in the middle of the night and you’d wonder whether to call out. You imagine all sorts of things might be happening and an hour seems like all night. One time I heard a ‘whoooom crash!’ and mortar rounds started exploding close by. The slit trench didn’t seem big enough as I crouched down as low as I could. At night we would take the guns out to where the officer had reconnoitred during the day. We’d put a wet blanket on two sticks in front of the gun and fire maybe six or seven boxes of ammunition off at the aiming point before packing it up quick and running back. We’d just blaze away. We didn’t know what we were firing at. One time they started firing back at us. I saw light coming towards us and didn’t realise at first that it was tracer rounds. We stopped firing, but the officer shouted at us to continue, because the Germans might realise they’d found a target if our shooting stopped. That was exciting. We were there about a week or ten days at a time.

We had some time in a rest camp in Salerno. All the different wings were different seaside resorts. I was in Scarborough wing. Another time we went to Rome and saw the sights — the Vatican, the Coliseum.

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