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15 October 2014
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Extracts from the Audio Memoirs of Major LWA Lyons - The Desert - Part Two - 1943

by Rupert Lyons

Contributed by 
Rupert Lyons
Location of story: 
Iraq, Tunisia
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
08 October 2005

Drinks somewhere in the East

Soon after the Battle of Mareth, Montgomery got permission for an extra Division to be brought into the line. They were to be the 56th London Division (known as the ‘Black Cats’ because of their cap badge which featured Dick Whittington’s cat). They were then in Baghdad as part of PI Force (Persia India).

We were sent over to transport them back to the front in North African. We took with us the 1st Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment. The route to Baghdad in those days was not particularly well marked. We had to go through Palestine to Tulkarm West and then turned off into Trans Jordan as it was then called. We then went to Mafraq where we picked up the Kirkuk — Haifa oil pipeline. We made stages to correspond with the pumping stations, H5, H4, H3 and so on. Then the pipeline turned north to Kirkuk so we had to continue through the open desert. They had already surveyed a route for a road and there were plans for a road from Palestine to Baghdad, but at the time nothing had been done about it. So we crossed the desert to this place called Wadi Mohamadi and stayed there the night. Eventually we arrived in Baghdad and were stationed at Lancer Camp, which had been used by British Cavalry during the First World War. I’m afraid conditions there with the Iraqi’s were much the same as they always have been, them being amongst the worlds greatest thieves, and as was said, the only people in the world who could steal the sugar out of your tea. There was a lot of rifle stealing going on, funnily enough many of them being sold to Jews in Palestine, who were getting ready for a revolution. So we had to go back to the old tricks we used on the North West Frontier. A chain is attached to a rifle with the other end tied around a man’s midriff. A hole is cut in the ground sheet and the rifle placed inside, so that at night time the soldier is sleeping on his rifle, and it is chained too him. I moved temporarily into the Hotel Zia, which seemed better then the only other hotel the Semiramis. There was a barman at the Zia called Jesus, and he had invented a special cocktail, which became known as a “Desert Dream”. No one knew what went into it, as he always prepared them on a shelf below the counter. They looked pretty deadly, the surface having a silvery colour. They tasted pretty good and were very potent. Everyone was dead keen on getting these “Desert Dreams” from Jesus. We had a look around whilst the 56th London Division finished their preparations. Didn’t think much of Baghdad at all.

When the London crowd were ready, we set off. It was a good journey back to Africa but terribly tiring. We drove from first light, about 5 o’clock in the morning, until well after dark. When you stopped for the night you would have to go to “O” Group where orders were explained for the next day. Then you laagered for the night and were lucky to get 2 or 3 hours sleep. Most of the officers in our unit would spend the day on motorcycles, trying to marshal and control the thousand vehicles in the convoy. We eventually arrived in Palestine where we had to stop for a bit of maintenance. Many of the vehicles weren’t up to much. Then we went on again back to the delta, on to Genifa, and then Tel el Kabir, so that the vehicles could be reconditioned properly, ready for the desert. We went on again, and about 6 days later reached the front in Tunisia, at Enfidaville.

It was around about this time that I had a visit form Sergeant Bracegirdle. (He was a workshop Sergeant who was responsible for “Recovery” and whose favourite phrase was 'sling ‘er on the ‘ook'. Whenever a vehicle ran over a mine or such like he would always turn up and say 'sling ‘er on the ‘ook'.) So he came to see me and I offered him a seat. I knew what it was about. He had an Italian “popsy” in Alexandria, and of course his own “missus” back in London. He had been racked with guilt about what he should do, and it certainly wasn’t the first time he’d come to see me about it. So here he was again.
‘What’s the matter Bracegirdle, is it the popsy or the missus?’
He told me that he had been rather foolish and had written to his missus telling her about the Italian girl, and saying that it would be better if he stayed with her after the war. His missus had written back and told him not to be such a damn fool, there were their children to think about and all the rest of it.
‘What do you think? He asked.
‘I think your wife’s quite right. Your popsy may be ok now, but don’t forget, these Italian women go to seed pretty rapidly you know. Have you seen her mother?’
‘What’s she like?’
‘Well she’s terribly fat and pretty ugly too’
‘There you are. That’s how they go these Italians. Your wife will look a lot more attractive then the popsy will, in a few years time.’
‘I hadn’t thought of that’
‘Well you’ve got to think about that, and also remember that you’re going to have to go back to the UK anyhow, after the war. I advise you to go and see the popsy in the usual way, chat her up a bit, keep her happy, but don’t make any promises about marrying her or anything like that. Then write to your wife saying you’ll stick by her, and will come back to her after the war’.
So he thanked me and went off relived that someone had taken some of the burden off his shoulders, and given him an idea of what to do.

Anyhow, at Enfidaville this 56th div was to replace our own division (4th Indian), and they really were most green. This first regiment of the Royal Fusiliers (one of two regiments of fusiliers in this brigade of the 56th div) actually wanted to take over our positions in broad daylight. This was completely unheard of. (All that would happen during the day, usually, would be a reconnoitre by the guides, who would go up to the front to make notes about the route and the gun positions etc). Anyway this Colonel Wood was going to lead the advance through the “mad mile”, with myself, and another battle experienced officer of the Gordon Highlanders. (As a matter of fact the Colonels ridiculous plan was going to help the logistics for our division, since that night we were going to withdraw to join the 1st Army on another part of the front). So we started off down this road, and the Germans opened up with…oh several field regiments of 88’s (artillery). The shellfire was tremendous, absolutely incredible. Everything was knocked about and men were falling all over the place. As this Scots fellow and myself, drove up the road, we saw that two of the dispatch riders had been hit. One was lying dead on the right and the other one was on the left, badly wounded but still ok. Then looking back, to our amazement, we saw that this Colonel Wood had debussed all his men and ordered them into the “shelter” of a ditch. He didn’t seem to realise that the Germans had laid mines right up to the edge of the road, so they suffered casualties straight away, apart from the heavy shelling.

Well, I got out of our truck to have a look at the wounded rider, and I could see that he had had his stomach ripped open, and his entrails (colon and that sort of thing) were on the road.
‘Look here’ I said to him ‘I can’t stop now, ‘cause I’ll block everyone else, but I’ll come back when all have passed on to the escarpment and I’ll come back and pick you up’

When the convoy had reach the safety of the escarpment I went back to him with this Scots fellow. We discovered that the dispatch rider had crawled to the edge of the road in an effort to find cover. It was so hot that the road had become sticky and unfortunately his colon, or whatever it was, had stuck to the tarmac. As he crawled his innards had paid out behind him. We scrapped up his guts as best we could, and I wound them up and stuffed them back into the hole in his stomach. We loaded him into the back of the truck and off we went, as fast as we could, to get out of the shellfire and find the CCS (Casualty Clearing Station). We turned a corner and found the CCS. To my horror these inexperienced 56th div people had placed it right in view of the Germans, and it was being heavily shelled and was on fire. These people were running about all over the place in an absolute state of panic; the first time they had been under shellfire. Anyway they took this dispatch rider on a stretcher.
‘We can’t understand it’ one man said ‘there’s a huge red cross on the side of our tent, the Germans must be able to see it’
‘Well’ I said ‘to put a red cross on anything is just inviting German shellfire…they don’t care about the Geneva Convention you know.’
If you’ve got a CCS, you have to put it in a plain tent and well out of sight of the Germans.

Well I had to rush back to my own brigade and grab something to eat, because we had orders to move out that night to go around to Medjez-el-Bab and join the 1st Army in the push toward Tunis. This fellow came around and told us that we were allowed to use our headlights.
‘What!’ I said. ‘There aren’t any…all the wiring was taken out, so they couldn’t be used, when we entered the desert years ago’
‘Oh…well you’ll just have to drive by the moonlight then.’
So we set off, moving slowly. The trouble was that 2 other divisions were on the move as well, the 1st and the 7th Armoured Divisions, with their tank transporters smashing into our vehicles as they went along. It was absolute mayhem. There was so much damage to vehicles during the night, with their radiators having been bashed in, that many by the morning had to be on tow. Anyway we pressed on the next day and came to a depression, the road having a marshy salt lake either side. We were going along in a group when we saw a convoy approaching, travelling in the opposite direction. As they came closer we realised that they were Germans. They flashed by us and we flashed by them. There was a whole Brigade of them. They were simply doing what we were doing, moving to another part of the front. It was incredible, there was no communication waving or anything, and we just carried on to our destinations as if passing a convoy of allies.

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