- Contributed by
- Andrew Lobb
- People in story:
- George Wells
- Location of story:
- The Italian Campaign 1941- 1946
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 12 June 2003
This is the story written by my Uncle George. He lived from 1911 - 1996. During the 1980's he was pursuaded by his children to write down his war memoirs. These took the form of handwritten exercise books. On and off, over a period of 3 years, I have deciphered and transfered these onto computer. His story is one similar to that shared by many. A peace loving man called to war. This is a straight forward account of his time in the R.A.M.C.. In it his main loves of football and opera shine through along side many anecdotes of his time in the Army.
I have taken the liberty of calling it 'Duration'. I hope you enjoy reading it. I have taken as much care as possible to ensure the accuracy of its contents especially place names.
JAN 16th 1941
After the usual medical examination and passing A.1 I expected to be recruited to the P.B.I. but found myself posted to the R.A.M.C. at Becket's Park Leeds where I arrived on the 16th Jan.
I left Phyllis with Mary aged four and Brian aged eleven months and wondering how she would cope. After the air raids during the previous November I hoped that there would not be any more. After being at Leeds a day or two we were sorted out and put into companies and I found myself in a squad in B Company under Sgt. Burton. There were the usual drills and lectures. Every Saturday morning there was everyone on parade hoping not to get charged for some minor offence or other. They seemed to love looking for trivial things.
They were a good crowd in the squad.
During our training there was an air raid on Leeds. Some of us were on duty at the time fire piquet etc. H.E.'s were dropped in Becket's Park and some incendiaries fell and one or two fell on the officers mess which were put out and I remember shrapnel falling. One or two fires were started in Leeds and some of the lads were sent out to help.
Among the characters with us was a fellow named Stirrer who had started out to be a monk. Quite soon his life changed to wine, women and song. I was to hear of him a couple of years later.
Whilst we were there Sgt. Burton found a girlfriend who came to sing to us a song called 'Johnny Pedlar'. She became a well-known singer and in later years appeared on her own television series.
I found it off and rather debasing to find what the odd one or two would do to get out of the army. One character, a Private Hill, who was said to be a dispenser in civil life, constantly got drunk, lost his kit and never washed or cleaned his gear. Eventually he got his ticket. But in his profession he must have been intelligent enough to know better.
Later the Germans dropped incendiaries on the moors and set them alight, probably for guidance at night and we were sent to put them out, mostly by digging trenches. We took it in turns to sleep an hour or so on the moors.
In the squad we had a fellow named Roberts who was a Quaker and a conscientious objector, but I was taken by the way he stood up for his principles. Time passed and many were posted. It was said that Sgt. Starling went and was lost torpedoed. Later at the end of August there was a big clear out and only seven of us who originally joined at the same time remained.
I remember them all going on parade in the early hours of the morning and during the roll call two were taken out, one was Private Hill who had got his discharge and the other a fellow named Frank who had come from Walsall. I was pleased for him because he was not a fit man.
Shortly afterwards a man came back, he had gone sick on the boat and was sent back, and he had found out where they were going, they went to Singapore and went straight into captivity. Only God knows what happened to them.
Later on I was to be luckier still but it was more than thirty years on before I found out.
From Leeds I was posted to Catterick which was all regimental and bull. I went along with Bill Curtis who later transferred to the Military Police.
I was put on nights and amongst others I had to look after Lance Bombardier Rutherford. He was a dispatch rider and had injured his knee in a fall, septicaemia set in and he had to have his leg amputated and his condition was desperate. One night I found the stump haemorrhaging and I fetched Sister Dallas who was on duty and she fetched the M.O. who had him sent to the operating theatre.
For a long time he was in a bad way. Smoking was not allowed and he begged to be allowed to do so. Taking the risk because I thought it would help him I kept the window open. We were accused of smoking but of course denied it. After a while he improved and went into the main ward and was doing well by the time I left. During this spell a German plane was shot down near to South Shields and the pilot brought in. He was put in a side ward under guard, two men provided by the Signals and an R.A.M.C. orderly. When the R.A.M.C. Sgt. Major was making his rounds one night he found all four playing cards. The guards were put under arrest and replaced and the orderly was also charged.
I had to look after a man who had syphilitic meningitis. When I took him a letter one day he was trying to read it upside down, so I asked him to let me read it to him. It was from his brother, but as I read it I could see it made no impression. After giving him an enema one day he threatened me with violence. When the night orderly came on duty I told him to be careful of him. During the night he got violent and had to be sedated.
He had served in Egypt before the war and it was there the trouble started. He was serving in the Duke of Wellington Regt. I don't suppose that he lived long afterwards.
The V.D. part of the hospital was called by the nurses "The College" where M and B was extensively used. Penicillin came later when I was in Italy. This part of the hospital I did not work in but my mate Bill Curtis had to go there. Just after this he joined the Military Police. He said "You will have to call me a ----- now like the rest." Another man who was a patient at the College was a well-known soccer player, an international. He was asked to play for the R.A.M.C. in a special match. He refused unless he could be discharged before the end of his treatment, this was refused.
Amongst the R.A.M.C. crowd there was a burly jovial fellow. I knew him as Alf, he had played full back for the ill fated Accrington Stanley, the first British club to fold up after the war.
Came Christmas a mistake was made to the delight of many, by a mix up between the Sgt. Major and the C.O., each ordered a barrel of beer when only one should have been ordered, a good time was had by all. But the N.C.O. who came off duty to find a bike, was not amused and the language was blue.
It was said that the hospital as it was then, had been built during the First World War by German prisoners and was built in spider formation.
Just before Christmas I had three days leave after being on nights. When I got back Phyllis' mother had died and I was not able to attend the funeral. It was a hard time because sometimes she could not always afford the bus fares.
When I got back to Catterick I had a spell on my own ward with an infected arm. There was some mickey taking by some patients who were still there when I got back. We had a fellow brought in late one night, after leaving the station he fell down an embankment into the River Swale, he soon got over it, it was mostly exposure.
From Catterick I was posted to Shrewsbury, this proved to be a hard journey in wartime conditions, changing from one crowded train to another, mostly standing up and loaded with kit.
Arriving at Copthorne near Shrewsbury, I found six or seven newly built wards. These are still in use with the new hospital built on the opposite side of the road. Here we looked across to the Wrekin.
They were a good crowd there and everyone got on well. Most of the officers were medical men with one or two on stores and administration.
The C.O. was Lt. Col. Shields, a typical Arthur Lowe Dad's Army character, fussy and pompous. There was also Capt. Mansi, a well liked man and Lt. Webberly, brother to the Capt. of that ilk at Leeds who was over stores and equipment, a quiet, unassuming type. Turning back to Capt. Webberly at Leeds I remember one occasion during a kit inspection one man was found to be wearing civilian underclothes, socks and braces. Webberly turned to the Sgt. Major and said "Take this man into Leeds and buy him a top hat and walking stick, he does not want to be a soldier, he wants to be a gentleman."
Further to this he was asked why he was not wearing identity discs. After being told he had left them in his kit, Webberly roared "and who is going to identify your poor dead and mangled body when it is found on the battlefield?" There he had a point as I was to discover later in Italy.
One ward was used by company for sleeping quarters. We had double bunks with three biscuits each which along with the blankets and kit were laid out each day in order.
Amongst the fellows was man of Italian origin named Siccondolphi who played at the Coconut Grove in London. He came back on one occasion with a badly scratched face. It seemed he had a jealous wife.
There was an M.I room divided up by a thin wooden partition, one side for men and one side the A.T.s This proved to be an embarrassment for the girls and after some complaints the Brigadier A.T.S. Western Command came and after she had inspected, things were changed.
During this time I volunteered for the Field Hygiene side of the Corps. But in the meantime a volunteer was asked for to take on the task of a digging for victory job around the hospitals. I was asked to take it on. It was ploughed for me and some help given and we had fair results except where hampered with builders subsoil. It was a job I enjoyed doing. We got rid of the ensuing rubbish, also weeds etc. and kept the fire under control by way of stacking turf over it. Of course no fires were allowed to burn at night. Most mornings first thing I used to get a potato out of the cookhouse, put it in a tin, bung it in the fire and by cocoa time about eleven it was ready. Sometime later Lt. Col. Shields called me into his office and told me he had a home posting for me to the Wessex Field Ambulance, but he said he wanted me to stay as long as possible because I was doing well.
Had it been a War Office posting I would have to have gone, and so I stayed on for a while. It was some thirty years after when watching a television programme about the Burma Campaign I found that the Japanese had killed all of the Wessex Field Ambulance including patients and nurses. So it was a let off.
It was a pleasant spot to be in but I knew it would not be for long. There were two Jews in the company. Rosenberg, who was a charming and witty character, well educated and amusing. The other was a fellow named Rose who seemed to come from a poor background and appeared to live in a world of brick and concrete. When I told him that we had a large garden to attend to he said very wistfully, "that's nice." We had two dispensers who also did laboratory work and one took a chalet in a nearby village and did not get a sleeping out pass.
One afternoon it was put on orders that everyone was forbidden sleeping out passes. Since he had left the hospital to go to his chalet we put our heads together and it was decided I would borrow a bicycle and go to the village, find him and get him back.
Also we had a Sgt. Woods who had been an army boxing champion in India, he was as thick as two short planks. We often used to tell him what to do, even fetching tea for us from the cookhouse, until one day the penny dropped and he pointed to his stripes and said "What do you think these are for?" We could have told him long before. He was quite furious when he realised he had been made a fool of.
A charming cultured lady who volunteered for the F.A.N.Y.s drove vehicles to and from the hospitals. One day a dispatch rider came with mail and to collect more from the hospital. As he left in a hurry he had not fastened his bag and everything blew over the nearby fields. Fortunately everything was retrieved.
At last my posting came through for my Field Hygiene course. It was a long hard journey, crowded trains and tiring with all my kit, standing for hours.
When I arrived I went to Keyes Barracks and of course being Aldershot, much more regimental. Everything had to be spot on, especially barrack room spit and polish. I arrived before Christmas and the course lasted until March. It was very interesting and one had to learn about the carriers of disease mosquitoes, flies, bugs, sandflies, snakes, rats, waterborne diseases etc.
There was a model ground on which all sorts of things were shown to meet all eventualities, cooking, the disposal of waste in all sorts of climates from the desert, the far east to Siberia. Some looked Heath Robinson but they all worked. One was called the Russian Pit and was for the disinfestation of lice.
After Christmas which was rather dull, I remember being fortunate to wangle a pint of beer from the Sgt's Mess, we continued our training. There were numerous lectures and those that were on entomology were conducted by Major Maerney Hughes, he had been an artillery officer during the First World War and between the wars he had become a leading entomologist.
His penchant for levity, sometimes coarse, did not meet with the approval of some N.C.O.'s who thought it was bad for discipline. Nevertheless he put it all over very well, some of his comments on lice, bugs and rats were very amusing.
Once when he was talking about rats, I remember him saying "you have never seen rats until you have seen rats that have fed on the dead." No doubt from his memories of the First World War. Later I was to recall that saying.
There were also larger than life models of most insects we lectured on and they were perfect in every detail. The man who made them was only a private. Also there was a comical but workable one, a flytrap. When a fly landed on a small platform a hood came down and caught it.
We had, of course, to go to church parade every Sunday and we had the same padre and the same sermon each Sunday. I think he based it on the idea that he had a new contingent each week, oblivious to the fact that some of us were there for six weeks or so. It got boring by repetition but I suppose it saved him time and trouble.
During the time I was there the first thousand bomber raid took place over Germany. I remember them passing over. Many years after I found out there was a young Leicester man who was killed in this raid. This started a chain of events in the family culminating in attempted murder and the suicide, a most tragic family.
Continuing the lectures by Maerney Hughes we had all the vitamins to learn and in his own inimitable style he introduced them in bawdy rhyme which he thought would encourage remembrance. It was near to here that Hess had been brought some time before. I remember being told that there were three rings of sentries and each ring had its own password.
During this time the famous Phyllis Dixie appeared at the theatre, the original stripper. Also, whilst I was there, I saw the tiny motorbike that was probably the prototype for D-Day. There were also one or two good musicians, one I believe was a leading violinist for the B.B.C. Another fellow had made a name for himself as a singer in a dance band. I remember that at Leeds we had Michael Florre who had his own dance band, was travelling either to or from Harrogate and was killed in a crash.
There were tests to pass and then came the kitting out to go abroad. The tailor came to a parade to fit our uniforms. Then we were given 14 days leave. This was on March 23rd 1943. I went home but it was a worry wondering how much longer it would go on. Countless times I heard the expression "Roll on bloody duration." We managed to get to a dance at the De Montford Hall. This we enjoyed. It was our last for three years. I also went to a boxing promotion in aid of the Fire Service. Maybe it was at the Granby Halls. I gave the programme a year or so back to the Old Boxers Association. I went back and said goodbye to Phyllis, Mary, Brian and my dad at the London Rd. Station.
When we arrived back at Aldershot we found that we were kitted out for both tropical and temperate climates. It seemed to be a way of using us to get the gear overseas, two kits to carry seemed a bit much. Finally, we left for Bristol about the middle of April passing Bath on the way damaged by the so called Baedeker raids and on to Bristol, also very badly damaged.
We went aboard the Highland Monarch. There was also the Highland Princess and I believe another of the Highland class. They were refrigerator ships which after we changed ships at Durban, went to the Argentine for meat. When we set sail there was tight security and only one person waved us off, a lone W.R.E.N. at the end of the pier.
We proceeded up the Irish Sea gathering other ships and escorts as we went and by the time we were out into the Atlantic I reckon there were about thirty vessels including some of the wartime Liberty ships. There was a strong escort, two cruisers, several destroyers and frigates including Dutch and Free French. It was a long journey necessitating a detour owing to the fact that the Straits and the Suez Canal were not then available to us and also to keep our distance from the submarine menace.
The time passed away with bingo, lifeboard drills, impromptu concerts and boxing. Our Sgt. Foster led all the bawdy songs. At night we watched the phosphorescence in the wake of the ship and the stars as they gradually changed to their tropical formation. By day later on we saw the flying fish, the dolphins and the sharks, not a very comforting sight when one thought about the possibility of being torpedoed.
At last we reached Freetown in Sierra Leone now renamed of course. Out came the locals in small boats carrying fruit which we were not allowed to buy because of the risk of infection. The ships hoses were turned on them. One old boy got his son diving into the harbour for money thrown in by the soldiers. Whilst we were there a ship was towed in and it sank in the harbour, we presumed it had been torpedoed. The flotsam and jetsam washed up and down the harbour by the tides. We were not allowed ashore but I think some officers were.
After about a couple of days revictualling we left. As we left a cruiser went out firing as if to give notice to the enemy if they were around. Later, I noticed in the distance depth charges being put down. As the weather grew hotter it became unbearable, mainly at night because of the overcrowded conditions. Men slept in hammocks, on tables, under tables leaving just enough room for passage. After another day or so there was a burial at sea of an officer. This took place on another ship but we saw the coffin slide from under its canopy the union jack and our ship slowed momentarily and went on.
We had a fellow named Haddock and a big jaw boned Scot from the Gorbals and neither liked the other. Haddock was quite small. One day the Scot hit him as his back was turned. He then said to me "Did I do wrong Geordie?" I said "Of course you did." I got on fairly well with him but I was wary of him.
Eventually we arrived at Cape Town. We did not go ashore, spent the time enjoying the views, Table Mountain etc. At midday when we had had our soup a fellow came on deck with his dixie half full of soup. In it were the remains of half a large cockroach. "Look at this -----" he said and went to the ship's side to fetch up. Others joined him. I kept it down, I decided I could not afford to go hungry. I said "What's a little extra meat between friends." We had some E.N.S.A. artistes on board and I remember a man with a good baritone voice giving a rendering of Bless this House adapting the words to the situation. He sang Bless this Ship and Funnels Tall.
Rounding the Cape we arrived at Durban. Our passage round the Cape was good belying its reputation for a rough passage. As we went ashore we were greeted in song by the famous Lady in White (opera diva Perla Gibbs). She wore a red rose and she sang as was her custom to every convoy that arrived. She sang Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory.
The first thing we bought when going ashore was fruit. This we had been short of for weeks, in fact before we started our voyage. We noticed the segregation of the white and the coloured including Indian population. We did not know where to go and we went into a place where we thought there would be some entertainment but it turned out to be sleazy. A white woman sat at a piano and a large Zulu was pawing her so off we went, making our way back to the ship.
Next day we went on parade, it was May 24th, Empire Day and we all marched through Durban. The same evening we went to a dance at the Town Hall there. This had been wrecked pretty well when two convoys got there previously, one Australian and one American. They got fighting in the Town Hall and wrecked the joint.
For the final part of the journey by sea we boarded an old Dutch tub called the Bergensfiord alive with cockroaches. Some of the fellows settled down on the deck and suddenly one fellow yelled. A rat had jumped onto his face and on jumping off had scratched his face. It was said a couple of drunks were drowned falling off the quay on their way back. Setting off again later passing Ceylon now Sri Lanka (this seems very unlikely — the far side of the Indian Ocean — Magadascar perhaps or Mauritius). Finding somewhere to sleep in comfort was difficult, it was very hot and overcrowded and the night brought out the cockroaches.
One night there was squall and our company clerk had hung his tunic on a hook. Overboard it went along with his pay book and his money. I remember him well, he was a bachelor and a gentle, whimsical man who hardly every swore. At last we reached the Gulf of Aden and stopped at Aden but never went ashore. The crew put out shark nets and went swimming, lucky devils, it was very hot. Whilst we were there a funeral took place and we could hear the wailing. There were camels as well.
Luckily I had all my kit, it had been dumped in a huge circular cage on the Highland Princess and with all kits looking identical and the ensuing scramble for kits in the change over at Durban, many got the wrong ones or lost kits which they would have to pay for.
Leaving Aden we went along the Red Sea to our final destination Port Tewfik. I found the Red Sea and its surroundings most fascinating, the underwater growths, corals and fish a wonderful sight, sharks followed the ships for offal. The heavens at night so different from the Northern hemisphere, the distinctive Southern Cross etc. When we disembarked at Tewfik we were thankful to get back on terra firma. Then we boarded a train leaving the doors open to get some air. We were attacked by showers of stones, thrown no doubt by Arabs. Hurriedly we slammed the doors shut and continued our journey in the stifling heat. After all you can't be popular with everyone.
Later we opened them and sang and joked our way to our next destination, Quassasin which was a holding camp. Staying there for a few days was not without incident. Our C.O. Major Macaubrey, was robbed whilst sleeping in the officers section, his wallet was taken from under his pillow whilst he slept, no doubt by the Arabs. He then decided to move in with us. At night we could hear the chilling howling of the desert dogs.
Our next move was to Suez where we took over hygiene duties. There was plenty to do what with bugs, mosquitoes and flies etc. On one occasion whilst out disinfesting the clothing and bedding of some of the black recruits I told one Negro to take his pants to put them in the disinfestor. I inspected them and showed him the lice in them, he ran away crying like a child.
An ugly incident happened one day in Suez when one of the drivers was taking the C.O. to a conference. The driver knocked down an Arab carrying a bag of flour. The C.O. and the driver were covered in flour and a hostile crowd gathered. The military police came and one said to the driver, "You should have kept going you stupid bugger." I thought this to be callous, but thinking of the hostile crowd it made sense. However, it was all sorted out.
Writing about the police reminds me of a visit to their H.Q. where they had used iron tubes to make supports for beds, nothing could have been worse as the bugs thought they were fine to breed in. They were full of them. Also two military police were charged with bathing in the Sweet Water Canal because of the serious risk of Bilharzia Disease.
We paid a visit to the School of Medicine and Hygiene in Cairo. It was highly interesting and somewhat repulsive. There were all sorts of bits and pieces in preservation also specimens, male and female, showing stages of the progress of V.D., syphilis in various stages of advance. One day a sandstorm swept over and we had to take cover. I was amazed to see the litter and papers it had picked up swirling at the top of a huge funnel, possibly 100ft. high.
Whilst we were there we went on a trip to Ismalia and the lakes. There were ships there that had been bottled up there for a long time and I believe King Farouk's yacht was there. As Farouk was not very popular the lads used to sing a bawdy ditty about him. At this time at Ismalia the Arabs were selling a lot of leatherware and I bought a handbag and sent it to Phyllis. Also there was some jewellery on sale and most of us thought it was cheap stuff, but we found out afterwards there had been a big jewellery raid in Cairo and it turned out that it was worth quite a bit.
Back at Suez we all got very sun-tanned and managed plenty of swimming. There was a raft offshore left by the R.E.'s and we made good use of it. One day sharks were spotted and though they were quite a way off we made it for shore. I found that being on duty at night keeping watch rather restful, miles of sand, barren hills and the Southern Cross overhead and a light across the other side flashing at intervals.
Things were not so good with our small section, a Cpt. Macarthy was a loud mouth abrasive type. Things came to a head one afternoon with several involved including myself and after telling him what I thought about him I determined to put in for a posting in writing on the next mornings parade. It was accepted and I awaited events.
There were some nice chaps amongst them. Two, Hutchinson, a Geordie and Bill Stapleton who was from Bletchley were nice chaps, they signed my paybook will, of course we all had to make one. Later I was offered promotion and a posting across the Gulf to a place called Moses Wells, Palestine as it was then. It was not a War Office posting and I did not want to stay in the Middle East, besides there was always the possibility of being posted to the Far east arena. If I had accepted it I have no doubt I would have had a leave later to Jerusalem. Naturally I would have liked the opportunity but I refused it.
I seemed to be losing my hair so when I was in Cairo I went to a chemists and asked for coconut oil and he gave it to me in a wine bottle. I was stopped by the military police who thought I might be intending to use it as an offensive weapon. When I told them what it was they took a sniff and were satisfied.
At Suez we had an Arab helper by the name of Mohammed. One day I noticed he had a large painful abscess on his face. I treated it for him and got it cleared up. When I eventually left he wept and tore at his clothing. Whilst I was at Suez the time came when I received a War Office posting to the 1st. Brit. Arm. Division in North Africa. Hostilities had ceased. We started to get ready and whilst we were waiting we went to a concert in an American camp nearby and on stage there was a famous American comedian, Jack Benny and an actress by the name of Anna Lee. She was a redhead and I remember a drunken American soldier trying to get on the stage to her.
But suddenly we were all electrified by the announcement that Italy had capitulated. The cheers must have been heard for miles. This was I believe Sept. 8th 1943. We left and went by train to Cairo and stayed in barracks at the Heliopolis. Of course we visited the Sphinx and the Pyramids. Our driver went with us and was promptly charged on his return by the M.P.s for leaving his vehicle unattended. We also visited the mosque.
The local transport was quite something, there seemed to be more people outside the trains hanging on them than there were inside. Some of the scenes there still seemed Biblical especially the waterwheel.
We went by lorries from Cairo to Alexandria where we embarked for Tripoli. Here we found ourselves in an enormous transit camp. There was a motley array of men and habitation. Some of the shelters from the sun were in some cases like a gypsy encampment, it looked nomadic.
There were checks for deserters particularly at meal times, when pay books were demanded for checking. We were not there long. I remember we passed away the time on the beach discussing the war, sport, politics etc. and we also found some pomegranates to eat.
After this we set sail for Tunis and went into a transit camp. We were allowed out and sent into the town and had some wine, perhaps a little too much. As soon as we got back I went straight into a tent and slept on the ground and on waking in the early hours feeling perishingly cold, soon got my blanket round me.
Then we were put on another ship and went on the Phillipville where we went into another transit camp in some woods which the lads called "Cork Forest". The bark of the trees was used for the manufacture of corks and other uses. We were forbidden to use it because we were told the French would not be amused. As it was so readily acceptable we used it. This of course was then French Colonial North Africa.
At the time we disembarked we had a Sgt. in charge who was inclined to be too regimental. He ordered two or three chaps to carry his kit. They refused and he asked us all in turn, some refused others did not. We resented doing something he was capable of doing himself. But I knew as did others that one should obey and then complain after. The trouble was that he charged us all irrespectively. We were all charged and brought up before the camp R.S.M. who had a strong Worcestershire accent. He said that he took a dim view of the incident and confined us to camp. But it passed over.
During our stay there a hospital ship came in and we had to go and off load it. I remember a Canadian airman who had lost his leg. He was due to receive more attention and his leg, or what was left of it, positively stank. He groaned in pain at each movement. About this time there was a victory celebration, a large ring was formed, free beer issued and a bonfire.
After it was off loaded I went into the dock area which was out of bounds and I found a gents hairdressers, I wanted one badly. When he had finished he told me the cost, his wife chimed in and put the price up, his daughter put a higher price on it. So I threw down the price the old boy asked, and beat it back to camp with the others.
We left Phillipville for Bizerta on a hospital ship, and were warned that only a few at a time would be allowed on deck, because the Germans might think the Geneva Convention was being breached by the carrying of troops. The Sgt. who seemed eager to get his own back on us over the previous incident in N.Africa ordered us to polish our buttons. So a Jew named Rose went to the C.O. in charge of the R.A.M.C. in transit and complained that shining buttons on deck could be a danger. He agreed and the Sgt. was reprimanded. We were pleased when we lost him altogether.
When we got to Birerta we found it deserted of population, a few stray dogs and armed patrols to stop looters. There were ruins and smashed sewers, it seemed quite eerie. Then we went by train to our destination around Algiers. At one point we met up with Americans going the other way. We chatted, exchanged views about the war and we also exchanged rations, we wanted a change from bully beef and they wanted it.
The nights were cold and I remember in railway sidings near to Carthage when I woke up next morning my knee was stiff. One evening towards sunset we were going up an incline, the ground fell away either side and it seemed we were climbing into the sky. It was a magnificent sight.
Making tea was quite a business on this trip. The engine driver got fed up with requests for water. One day whilst we were waiting we lit a fire at the side of the track, but before the water was boiled the train started. Not to be denied on went the bricks we had found, the fire was thrown in between, the water boiled, we made our tea. By this time we were in a tunnel and the floor of the van was on fire. Everyone urinated on it and we emerged from the tunnel, stinking but not thirsty.
Finally we got to Maison Blanc which was an airport. Nearby we found the sea bathing excellent. After a while we got to Algiers and I was picked up and taken to my new unit the 69th Field Hygiene Section at Boufarik, we were at a brickworks. It was now October 1943. I was now with the 1st Brit. Arm. Div. This was to be a long stay until the following May. But there was plenty of incident.
My new C.O. was a Major Macdougal, he was a surgeon, an officer and a gentleman. The unit had seen action with the 1st Brit. Arm. Div. in the desert campaign, had some men captured by the Germans and all except one was recaptured by a Guards platoon. The odd man it found afterwards was put on a German ship which was torpedoed by the Navy and so the unfortunate man was lost. They also had a small dog taken from Italian slit trenches called Whisky. The Div. H.P. not far away also had a large dog called Charlie.
We had Sgt. Bridger who was in his father's building business at Guildford, Staff Sgt. Llewelyn, Cpt. Crawford, a dour sour Scot and Eddie, both were school teachers in civil life. Amongst the lower ranks was Rick Ellis a bricklayer from Cambridge, always game for a laugh. Others were Nobby Clark, a Londoner, a staunch Tottenham fan, Spriggs, a tinsmith from Birmingham. Also there was Bidwell who was a stockbroker, very aloof. He seemed to think he was unfortunate to be cast into company beneath him. He and Spriggs hated each other and were always arguing. Then there was Gaskin a real boisterous character, all wine, women and song. The drivers were R.A.S.C. There was Frank Stoner with whom I became friendly and Reggie Jones an awkward customer at times.
Our cook was from the Army Catering Corps, his name was Sid. He was a good cook. He was ex. Borstal and as time went on we found that he had not changed his spots. Also attached to us was a small Anti-Malarial Section mainly for rations. A Sgt. was in charge named Tom, he was given the job after being invalided out of original unit. He had about four men with him and along with Italian P.O.W.'s they went out inspecting pools, water courses improving ditches. The Italians also found eels in the process which they used to supplement their meagre rations. There was also another young character, Snowy, a driver who was from Worksop.
Soon after I arrived I was issued with the usual khaki uniform, it being colder, to replace the khaki drill. The weather did not bother us it being mild by comparison with the English winter. There was plenty to do because the division being static for some time meant that a good standard of hygiene had to be maintained. The Military Police were found wanting in this respect and were reported to D.M.S. Soon afterwards one of our drivers was booked for speeding by the Provost who was at the rear of his lorry, a clear case of tit for tat.
It was decided to hold a cross country race and sixteen entries were submitted. Our team was composed of entries from the 1st Light Field Ambulance and myself as the only entrant from the Hygiene section. A corporal who had taken part in Scottish games took us in hand. When he took us to see the course I wished I had not entered. There were some steep hills to cover and it looked pretty testing.
Just before the race there was an outbreak of food poisoning in the Div. This kept both the Field Ambulance and our Hygiene Section at full stretch. The Ambulance submitting blood, wine and other samples to the laboratory in Algiers and the Hygiene inspectors collecting food samples, meat tinned food etc. from all over the area. This meant loss of sleep for some of the entrants for the race. However, we did our best. The Signals won it, after all they had an entrant named Eales who had taken part in the 1938 Olympics. We managed sixth place out of sixteen so we did not do so bad.
Down the road nearer to Boufarik were the "Bays" who were raided by the Arabs, but were in time to catch them. They took off all their clothes and chased them into the village naked. However, the Arabs went back another night better prepared. I was told they greased their bodies and stealthily took uniforms, money and pay books. One thought that the French were going to have their problems when it was all over.
At times, Gaskin, Nobby Clark, Snowy, Dossie, Busty Briggs and Sid used to go out boozing and to places of ill-repute. Eventually they all got overdrawn on their pay and the C.O. put a stop to it. Gaskin got himself into trouble with a form of V.D. This so annoyed the C.O. he refused to promote Gaskin when he was due for it.
We did guards at the brickyard. One night I heard a movement, rushed forward to investigate, fell over with the lantern and roused everybody. My name was mud, but it could have been Arabs on the prowl.
Well, Sid did an excellent job with what rations he had, he was a great cook. Came the day when his Borstal days reasserted themselves, he stole a watch off Frank Gurner. Sid was of course, suspect, and he was under survey. He was caught red handed with it and he was charged. When he went for his court martial I was one of the escort. He got six weeks glasshouse and was transferred to another Field Ambulance in 46 Division whose sign was an oak tree. We were to meet him later under different circumstances.
Our sign was a charging rhino on a black background. There had been a victory parade to celebrate the end of the desert and North African campaign and new shoulder insignia were ordered from home. When they arrived it was found that the rhino had a curly tail, it looked like a pig. This annoyed the top brass, who ordered that the offending tail must be blacked out for the parade by any means possible. This was done by ink and shoe polish. For this we were nicknamed the Pregnant Pigs.
Because we were in the Algiers area so long and saw a lot of E.N.S.A. shows put on at a place we called Crystal Palace, because it had so much glass in its construction, some called us the E.N.S.A. Division. At a large cinema in Algiers, I believe it was called the Majestic, a boxing tournament was put on. The place was packed, most of the bouts were won by Americans who seemed to get plenty of time to train.
When we travelled back to billets after a night out one could see groups of Arabs sitting by the roadside. I reckoned it was woe betide the late straggler on foot. One night we had been to a late night out in Boufarik. Snowy was drunk and not far from the brickworks he went and stood in a stream and called himself "Sanders of the River" after the lead part in the film of that name. I believe that Paul Robeson took the part, but he was no Paul Robeson and urged him to come out. It was getting late and George became regimental and ordered him to be charged. At last he decided to get out.
Whilst I was there I was surprised to find an Anglican church and I was able to attend on two or three Sundays. Also at Boufarik there was a Salvation Army Red Shield canteen. They had managed to get together some old chairs, newspapers and magazines and it was to have somewhere to rest and have a cup of tea.
There were stacks of oranges in the area, the groves were full of unpicked oranges which were unable to be exported but you were not popular if you tried to pick them. I remember seeing an Arab with a very fierce Alsatian and knowing it was a rabid area I would not take any chances.
It was proposed to take a party to Carthage and a petrol allowance was made for it for educational purposes but all the N.C.O.'s made the trip on their motor bikes and the petrol allowance was adjudged to have been used, which meant that the unfortunate lower ranks could not go on a lorry. Even Hannibal must have heard the bad language. I would have loved to have gone, but was then told, "this ain't a bloody Cook's tour, there's a bloody war on."
The routine inspections carried on, water, diseases, incubation periods were checked out on infectious ones. Checking back was vital, where it was caught and disinfesting went on as routine. Some N.C.O.'s were fully qualified Public Health Inspectors and were also qualified to carry out meat and food inspections.
Once we went out on manoeuvres. Our own C.O. did not go with us. Lt. Jennings of the Malarial Section took charge. His idea of reveille was to go around the tents firing his revolver, "barmy sod," the lads called him. When he had a leave he took his gear and had it in the desert, thought he was Lawrence of Arabia.
Our C.O. was called out to a place some miles away to see a woman who had collapsed. It turned out that she was a prostitute at a brothel. When he came back he was outraged that he had been called out to do this. He was very much a gentleman.
There were the usual rumours flying around and the Intelligence Corps kept an eye on things. A rumour was put out by them to see how it developed. It was that Spain had come into the war and we were going to Morocco. There was a meeting held by them and men were told "you are like a lot of bloody old women. We put the rumour out and within 48 hours we had got it back." Also they said they had sent out a man to various units and not one sentry had checked him out properly. In his pay book his description said he was 12 feet tall, had pink eyes and had received no pay for months, so things were tightened up.
Time went on and near to Christmas we had an inter Divisional darts tournament and we drew against the Military Police. Amongst those taking part was the ill-fated Sgt. Street, a big auburn haired man well over six feet tall. We lost but I think tall fellows always seem to have advantage.
Then came Christmas and on Christmas Eve they managed to get some drink and the cook did his best with his limited lot. We finished up dancing with each other. Doug Gordon had a bright idea. He said "I am going to pee in Rick's boots," which he duly did. Next morning he found he had made a mistake and done it in his own.
There was the story that when they were in the desert Rick had a longing for a roly poly pud like mother used to make. They had all the ingredients, currants and raisons. It was made by Sid but the problem arose, no pudding cloth. Rick offered his pants, clean I hope. His offer was accepted.
About this time whilst we were static, courses were run for various things and we had two or three men billeted on us who were on cookery courses. One night one of them got dreaming and started reciting some of the recipes in his sleep. At the time nobody thought it was funny and he was told to shut up.
On Christmas night we went to 'Crystal Palace' in Algiers. Whilst we were queuing one of the K.R.R.'s was parading an Italian prisoner of war and he was saying to him, "Come on Tony show them how you can speaka da English". He came out with a mouthful of bad language. So much for their tuition. However, we got seated and the K.R.R.'s started a pastime of drinking bottles of wine to the calls of the day, someone pretending to play the bugle, all went well until cookhouse was called and the man whose turn it was almost choked in his haste to put the bottleful away before it finished. The concert got underway amidst cheering and jeering. Then Nat Gonella appeared receiving much applause and making eyes at the French girls in the front row. Later a British Sgt. brought his girlfriend who was an American W.A.V.E. She was drunk and announced she would sing. Cheers she sang and I only have eyes for you, and My Melancholy Baby. She was hanging on to the piano in case it fell down. I wondered how Phyllis, Mary and Brian were at this time.
After Christmas things got moving. Some of the Div. were getting ready for Italy. We moved from the brickyard to take over where the 1st Light Field Ambulance had been at a farm called Quatre Chemin. Here, we slept in a windowless barn. At night by the light of lamp one could watch the progress of a rat along a large beam, it's tail silhouetted on the opposite wall as it went on its way. There were some cottages on one side of the farmyard and some on the other, with an artisan well in the centre. It was a large structure with its windmill at the top.
Also, there was another large barn containing rations and spare gear left by the Field Ambulance. Some time later we went to the assembly area and there were the Anti-tanks, the Bays, K.R.R.'s and others. Just before this time Vesuvius had erupted and it was shown on the film news.
In one of the cottages were a middle-aged French couple who had a young attractive daughter. One of the drivers, a Scottish lad with the Malarial Section fell for her. She was strictly chaperoned and the romance thrived and they were engaged. Her parents were all for it because they feared what might happen after the war if the Arabs took over. We wished them well and hoped they would marry after the war. She had a tiny sister. I believe her name was Marcet. She was very popular and I have a photo of Harry Wilkinson carrying her.
We were now into 1944. One day Frankie and myself went into Algiers and we met two R.A.F. men who had said they had just watched a lady get out of a large car in front of a hotel. Seeing them looking at her legs she said huskily, "Do you like them boys?" It was Marlene Detriech. We thought that Algiers was interesting. One night we went to the Opera to see The Barber of Seville. They were French artistes and the lady taking the lead had a wonderful voice. Her name was Ida Donnedue. Her male lead was very tall with his voice Robeson-like in his boots.
We did the usual guards and I remember listening to the howling of a pack of wild dogs and wondering what I would do if they appeared. Going back to the Christmas period it seemed that the Navy were unable to accommodate all their men for the festive season and the Division was asked to take as many men as they could according to their ration strength. Being a small section we were only able to accept two. They were nice chaps and enjoyed their stay with us. Later, we were to learn that one of them had volunteered for Motor Torpedo Boats and had been killed.
When we went to Algiers one day, we saw in the bay two French battleships. One was the Cardinal Richlieu, the other I forget, maybe the Prince Leopold. We were also invited to look at the equipment for filtering sea water into fresh water in a minesweeper in the bay. Since water was part of our job it was regarded as interesting to us.
Whilst we were in the city one day we took the chance to send home some mixed dried fruit, a limited amount was allowed. I wished I had been able to send fresh fruit as well. Some drank too much of the local wine and it was alleged that the cheap stuff acquired a certain amount of lead in its making. One man was found drunk under his lorry and was eating dirt. It was said that he was certified insane.
On another occasion we met a Frenchman. He had taken part in the First World War. He wept as he told us of a break in the roof by Arabs at his home. He lived alone, but he had a daughter nearby. We cheered him up and he was pleased to see us. We spent odd days in Blida. In the main street were orange trees which we saw full of fruit and later in the spring, in blossom. There was a French military presence and sometimes if we lingered in the particular area too long we were caught by the band playing three national anthems one after the other and we had to stand to attention through the lot.
The Division ran a club at Blida called the Rhino Club where one could get tea and wads etc. One afternoon we called in and whilst we were there some K.R.R.'s came in, mostly drunk. They were going to Italy the next day. One sat in chair and he had long hair, quite a few had. He was out for the count. One of his mates said, "I will soon wake the sod up." He took his hair, lifted his face up and poured a mug of tea over it. We thought there would be some trouble but the M.P.'s got them back. It was their last fling before they went. Some of them had been away from home for years.
One night it was decided to put extra guard on the barn were 1st Light Field Ambulance had left their stores. There had been some pilfering. Whoever was responsible for them were slow in taking them away. The resident schoolteacher and her Arab boyfriend were suspected. She was also suspected as being Vichy. There were Cpt. Gaskin, myself and Snowy who being R.A.S.C. was the only one with a rifle. We hid in the deeper shadows. George said to Snowy, "Wait until you hear the door open and then challenge." Later we heard it open and Snowy shouted, "Who goes there?" and then we heard a woman's footsteps running away. George shouted to Snowy to put one over her head. Snowy struggled with the bolt. George took the rifle off him and as the cottage door opened showing the light within George fired over it into the roof shouting, "Take that you French bitch". No more rations were pinched.
Then we had a typhus outbreak amongst the Bays as they were preparing to go to Italy. Everything was done according to the book. We took the disinfestors, spraying equipment. The Miliary Police were there to see that the Dirty side and the Clean side were strictly kept apart. Any man who did not keep to his proper side would be charged and would have to go through it again. There were mobile showers brought in and we disinfested the uniforms, bedding, sprayed beds, equipment, barrack rooms etc. All this time we found it extremely hot as we were dressed in a completely enclosed white overalls from head to foot. We were glad to get that one over. One day we were taken to Chria 5000 ft. up. Above the snowline there were some chalets and we did some snowballing. I remember seeing a lorry overturned as it made its ascent.
There was a chance of promotion for Gaskin but as I have mentioned he was refused. He had been around with a Frenchwoman who kept a wine establishment in Boufarik and caught chaucre. According to George the woman wore a necklace of silver English coins starting from a crown piece then a half crown either side, then florins, shillings, sixpences and threepenny bits. He said she was quite proud of her necklace.
At Div. H.Q. they were proud of their dog mascot Charlie. He had been through the campaign with them. When Eighth Army ribbons were handed out, the lads insisted Charlie had one put on his collar. The French teacher had a small white curly dog who she called the French equivalent of Douglas. He was a lap dog. It was decided by George and company to get their own back over the stolen rations so they coaxed him into a large patch of mud and water along with another dog and left them to play. There were screams of rage as she came along and saw him filthy and bedraggled instead of white and curly.
At last we were moving and were on our way to an assembly area called Faret de Ferdinand. The flora and fauna of the area was very interesting and beautiful. One day when we were allowed to go into Algiers there was a plague of locusts which passed on and on for hours. As we went into Algiers everyone was keeping them on the move by banging pots and pans, dustbin lids etc. I reflected that being wartime their breeding grounds maybe were not so strictly controlled as hitherto. Also, I thought how bad they must have been when they were completely uncontrolled. One fellow was stupid enough to be enticed into the Casbah. We found out later he had been stripped, his pay book taken (which was the worst offence). He got back in time for embarkation and he was dealt with. Finally we boarded a Canadian Pacific liner and set off for Italy.
High up on deck were Oerlikons which had to be manned and George and Frankie were two who had to go aloft at intervals. Some ships had barrage balloons also as a precaution against enemy aircraft. I remember during a thunderstorm seeing Pantaleria silhouetted against the sky by lightning. At last we landed at Taranto. The first sight we saw were ships of the Italian fleet which had been sunk by the famous Swordfish attack from Malta.
It was now May 1944. One the day we arrived we marched some way along the road and encamped overnight. When we got everything sorted out Frankie said, "There is an open air film show some way off." I said I was tired and would stay. Several went and when they came back Frank's face was badly scratched. It seemed that the Germans knew of our arrival and decided to do something about it. Bombs were dropped and Frank dived into some bushes for cover. Next day we walked into Taranto to look at the sunken Italian warships. There was a longish promenade with some shelters. We were soon surrounded by the usual local spivs wanting to buy fags., food, clothing etc. In return there were the usual doubtful offers. There were the usual pornographic postcards on offer.
The next day we moved to Altamura where we were established at a pseudo castle-like mansion. It was surrounded by high walls. It was the home of a Senator who was no longer in residence. There was a custodian and his wife and a couple of dogs. As the weather was warm we put the mess tables in the garden. We soon made contact with the locals and two brothers became firm friends. One was about twelve. His name was Pacuale. The other was about fourteen, his name was Primo. One day Primo got a bit cheeky and Gaskin held him by the ankles over a pool of water. He was a strong as a horse and Primo got the idea he had to behave himself.
About this time the battle for Cassino had finished and there was a need for extra transport and Frank and Reg Jones went there in their lorries. They took Primo. When they came back Primo was shattered by seeing the unburied dead around Cassino.
Nearby us were the villages of Matera and Grivina. At Altamura we found the Cathedral still showing the scars of an earthquake which happened some six centuries before. Inside was a nativity scene. The small figures depicting the nativity were in stone and the lacelike dresses were all carved out of stone. They were exquisite. Most of the people seemed poor. One day I was asked to dinner by a man who said he was the mayor of the village. I remember he remonstrated me for not eating as much as his bambino.
One day Eddie the Welsh Corporal suggested we went to Bari to see Italian Opera to see Madam Butterfly. There were S/Sgt. Saunders, Frank, Doug Gordon and myself. The singing was good and it was a most enjoyable performance. The usual crowd of Gaskin, Nobby, Titch and Briggs went on the usual boozing rounds and other places. Later we went to another Opera House there to see Cavalier Rusticana.
Some ships had been torpedoed here in the harbour and later it was said we were eating rations fetched up by the divers. We had to go with the C.O. for a few days to Caserta where he attended a conference. In the party was the C.O., Eddie Senior, his batman and myself. We went across country passing through Ariano Benevenuto, S. Maria.
Rumour had it that the British and Americans were to change over. We had maps which indicated where the sights would be and our job was to vet the suitability of them from the hygiene point of view, malaria, water etc.
It was also said to be a complete bluff to the enemy. As nothing came of it, it seemed to be true. Whilst we were waiting around for the C.O. we went to the Bay of Naples and Vesuvius. The Bay looked as beautiful as it was said to be and the volcano looked like the remains of a huge bonfire, impressive nevertheless.
Also we went to Pompei, this turned out to be a huge disappointment. No sooner had we parked we were surrounded by spivs and as we found out the local ladri (ladro Italian for thief, plural ladri, thieves) were present. The idea was to distract our attention showing us photographs of girls and wanting to buy food, fags, clothing etc. Whilst our attention was distracted ropes were cut holding the canvas top. I turned and saw a fellow grabbing our rations, tucking as much as possible inside his shirt and pockets. Like a dog having its bone pinched I was after him and I was catching up on him when he started to jettison some of his loot. When I got near enough I swung one at him but missed. Fortunately, we got most of it back. More serious was the fact that we had our maps with us and we would have been in real trouble if they had been stolen. We both agreed reluctantly that although we were outside the very entrance to Pompeii, we dared not leave the vehicle. So I never saw the place and never have since.
Somewhere along the way in Southern Italy we stopped at a church called Quo Vadis. I believe someone said it was a station of St. Peter whilst on his way to Rome. I and some others would like to have viewed it but were reminded, "There's no time for that. There's a bloody war on."
During our stay at Altamura Busty Briggs had got friendly with a young Italian girl and wrote to her using the local post. This was a crime for security reasons. He was charged and the army in its wisdom transferred him to another unit. The fat fool proclaimed his undying love and said come what may he would marry her afterwards. I wonder if he did or did he have time to reflect. He weighed about fourteen stones and when in drink used to puff himself up and look positively fearsome.
One night when he and a few more had been to the girl's house, Busty was belligerent and when they got near to the mess tables in the garden, Bill Brydon the carpenter walloped him, knocking him clean over the table. I turned in trying to sleep. Busty came in bawling like a kid and was maudlin drunk. Then Nobby came to him and said, "If you don't shut up I will bring little Titch to wallop you." After this further humiliation he went to sleep.
Some of us were sent on leave to Bari. We did quite a lot of bathing and were interested watching an Italian with a snorkel hunting for squid in the rocks. The famous international footballer Raich Carter was at this camp. Soon we were moving again and we went first to S. Severo and encamped nearby for the night. It was decided they would all like some vino and myself and Harry Wilkinson went into S. Severo to fetch it. When we found the place we wanted we noticed the out of bounds sign, the cartwheel as we called it. Wondering why it was banned we hung around for a time. Then we noticed the Military Police coming out of the place next door and some half naked girls came to the window. So we guessed when they banned one place they would naturally ban the other. Waiting until they had gone we got our wine and went back.
After this we went to the coast to Atanora and stayed there a day or so. During our stay I noted the local lads throwing hand grenades into the sea. In addition to using nets the results were meagre. By now D. Day had gone. I remember Flying Fortresses that day going north to bomb the railyards and other targets.
Then we were on our way to Foligno via the rivers Potenza and Chienti. The town was full of tanks and other armoured vehicles. Whilst looking around I saw an R.E. sign and I knew by the number it was the company with Jock MacFarlane, Stan Oldford, Maurice Rowlett and Jack Smith. I had worked with them all but only Jack was there. It seemed that the others had gone to Assis on a bridging assignment. So myself, Jack and Frank found somewhere for a drink and a chat. This was a nice diversion finding old friends so far from home.
Because of diversions for various reasons, bridges down, damage to roads, the most important routes had priority. There being up and down routes, the less important traffic gave way and there was some lateral movement as we made our way across country until such time as our division was to take part. Some of course, had already been committed.
About this time occurred as the Italians called it, (L'notte del Fuoco), "The night of the fires" as the Germans burnt, pillaged and destroyed as they went. We passed burnt farms and houses on our way. Railways had also been sabotaged, most likely by the partisans. I remember passing through pretty villages. In one the millstream rushing on by the mill.
Back we went to the coast to Porto Recanati. Here we stayed on the beach. Nearby were Poles who had a mobile brothel. Here we stayed for about two or three days. I went with Eddie one day to Iese. He, I believe at the time, wanted tickets for an Opera at Iese. When we got to Recanati we found the bridge over the river was down so we made a detour. This was the place where Gigli lived. The Opera proved to be well worth seeing with some fine singing. I remember the lead singer's name was De Falci.
Then orders were nailed on a tree, those to be L.O.B. meaning Left on the Battlefield on one list and those to go forward on another. Several of those who had taken part in the desert campaign remained behind. One day we stood on the roadside cheering on the tanks of the Division as they rumbled forward. The night before we moved forward I shared a tent with Norman Godfrey. He had a dry sense of humour. We put a candle in a margarine tin. It had a slot in it to show the light and we tried to read. Suddenly Norman said, "Listen, I can hear the guns." As we listened I could hear the steady pounding of the guns. He said, "We shall be there tomorrow." We put out the candle. We could hear the sea lapping the shore and we went to sleep.
Next day we started out. It was to be a slow journey, the road was rough. There was an alarm. We smelt something burning and amidst the cursing we found an old rag burning on the exhaust. The roads were full of military traffic and as we forded a stream near Fano we hit an overhanging tree which bent one of the canvas supports. It was dusk by the time we pulled up in a field along with a company of R.E.M.E. to whom we were attached. We chucked out our blankets and got to sleep.
The R.E.M.E. company's job was to recover tanks and tracked vehicles on the battlefield. Our job was to clean them out before they tackled the job. To familiarise us with tanks we were given a ride in one round a field. Sometime before we were told a man had his hand severed when the cover came down.
One day when using the tailboard as a table I had just put some marmalade on my bread. As I turned to talk, taking a bite at the same time, I was stung on my lower gum by a wasp. Had it been in my throat I reckon it would have been curtains for me.
When we went forward to do something or other, the first vehicle we saw was an ambulance run by an American organisation. I believe it was called the Friends Ambulance. The windscreen was broken and the sides had bullet holes in it. Lower down the road a lorry, upside-down, spanned a small stream. Whilst we were near Faro Sgt. Street of the Military Police was on point duty when the Germans, using a self propelled gun brought it forward and dropped one on the cross-roads killing him. We were saddened by the loss of this fine-looking man.
One evening two R.E.M.E. personnel brought their recovery tank in for an engine change. This had a crane and a dummy gun. It looked the real thing but it had no breech. Whilst this was being done they joined us for a mug of tea and a bully beef sandwich. They were both married and we chatted about the war, sport, politics etc. When the engine change was effected they set off to recover two tanks that had been knocked out. They were spotted by the enemy who opened fire, killing them both.
Next morning the brother-in-law of one of them was asked by the C.O. if he wished him to write to his sister or would he prefer to write himself. He said he would write himself.
It is difficult now 1984, to put things in the right chronological order. I will write about as many events as I can recall. We were doing our usual duties as regards water infestation etc. and we were moving frequently. It was now the end of August 1944.
On one occasion we were issued with a large piece of bully beef, but owing to the fact we were moving so often the cook was unable to do anything about it. Eventually we buried it. We must have been watched because as we moved we saw two Italians digging it up. I thought good luck to them. I remembered that one Italian told me some had not had meat for a couple of years.
As we moved forward at one point Spitfires zigzagged in front of us and we came across two or three sites where there were temporary graves. Most of these seemed to be fallen of the Hampshire's. There were some empty graves left just in case they were needed. One chap looked at them and shouted, "The next gentleman please."
At one point a lot of us rushed to an elevated spot and watched fighter planes strafing. One evening as it was getting dusk the road was crowded nose to tail when a R.E.M.E. recovery lorry broke down. Nothing could be done with it at that time so it was pushed over the side of the road down a steep incline littering the ground with tools and equipment. The waste of war. But nothing was allowed to hold up the advance. If the German air force had been anything like up to strength at that time it would have caused devastation on the crowded roads.
At one stage we looked down on to a river. Because the military were using the roads civilians were using the track alongside the river. Suddenly there was an outcry. A farm cart pulled by oxen had stopped. One of the bullocks had stood on a mine. Later one evening we stood waiting for traffic to move. We looked down on the plain which lay towards the Adriatic and watched an artillery duel. It was fascinating watching the gun flashes. At one point there was a premature burst and I was reminded of my late Uncle Sid who was killed in the First World War also by a premature burst. My poor Aunt Elizabeth was left expecting his child which, sadly, died in infancy.
Also, we passed through a town which I think was called Pian dicastello to a feature called Monte fiore where we watched gunners putting down coloured markers. We were now well into the Gothic Line. From there we went towards S. Clemente which had not been taken at the time. We were on the side of a hill having accomplished our task. We were talking to some K.R.R.'s and one said, "We went into the village yesterday and the Germans had put out white flags but when we appeared they opened fire and used bazookas." Our C.O. said, "Well, you know what to do next time to the bastards." One of the K.R.R's said, "What do you reckon happened last night? One bloke slept in front of a half track. Next morning the driver got in and drove over him. Fancy sleeping there, the stupid sod." I thought once more, life is cheap.
On the other side of the road was a cottage. At the side of it was a large gun which had liaison with an Auster aircraft for direction. The asides between the members of the aircraft and the gunners were amusing. We could hear the intercom. The spotter shouted at one stage, "You have missed by a mile you stupid ----." The occupants of the cottage seemed to be carrying on oblivious, fetching water etc.
Leaving the area to find somewhere to sleep in peace, we hoped, we took to the road. We decided to cross a bridge but were refused by a miliary policeman who directed us to a road left of the bridge which was under fire. We could see the shells dropping. As we carried on I saw the sign of the Welsh Regiment. They were in the 46th Division. I knew that Charlie Adams was with them but we were unable to stop. Ships that pass in the night I thought. I think he would have been alive then, it was early September.
We found a house under construction and almost completed but found it almost full of Indian soldiery. So we pulled on to the grass verge and put up a canvas at the side of the lorry. Some of us slept in the lorry. Jack and myself slept under the canvas or tried to. Unknown to us a battery was nearby. It opened fire. This continued until the early hours of the morning so we thought, well, O.K., sleep time. No sooner had we settled down it poured with rain, so we gave up. We were getting wet.
We thought that possibly the Germans were putting in a counter attack on S. Clemente. I believe after this we went to Cattolica where we stayed for a short time. Then we went back via Marciano.
At one village where there were houses ruined by shelling there had been some looting. There were household effects, linen, clothing etc. strewn along the streets. Some women stood talking and one indicated a friend and said, "She is expecting her baby any moment." The woman concerned said, "I will go to my house." I felt apprehensive for her. She came back weeping shortly after and said, "My house is all down. I have nowhere to go." However the other woman comforted her and took her away.
We went on and at a place in the countryside we were trying to find somewhere to sleep. It was dark and there had been some action hereabouts. The area was littered, some letters lying around, some tin hats, one with a scalp in it. Some of the area had been fouled. Not far away we saw some vehicles blazing. We thought they were tanks and shuddered at the fate of those poor devils who may not have got out. When a tank caught fire, only seconds remained. I thought of the fellows we had cheered on their way at Port Recanati, remembering the words of the First World War song 'See them pass by'.
We slept in the hedgerow. Locals pointed to a large house saying "Fascisti. Knock that one down" which they did. The next day we came to a cross-roads where a Tiger tank and Sherman had been advancing towards each other, then let fly at each other. The Tiger had its tracks blown off and the Sherman had had an armour piercing shell through its turret. I thought of the carnage it must have caused inside the tank as it ricocheted round inside the tank.
Apart from our usual duties, we were now attached to R.E.M.E. to deal with such things as the disposal of the bodies and the cleaning of the tanks so that R.E.M.E. could repair them if it were possible. Going along a road we got to Aroce and went into a field to stay the night. We were near a farmhouse. We slept in the open, but were awakened by a downpour. I took my blanket and slept under a lorry but was awakened again finding my blanket and legs wet. The rain had run from a tool box under the lorry caused by it tilting.
Next morning some of us stood helping the farmer with his maize whilst Bill got the grub ready. He was never a happy soul and was having a good moan. We guessed it was to be spam wedges. As Gaskin said at time, "We shall all soon be bloody spam happy." Suddenly a Tiger tank came over the ridge. We thought we are either going to get bumped off or we shall be prisoners of war for the duration. However, it turned out to be a captured one and the driver laughed as he passed by to a torrent of bad language.
After breakfast we pulled out onto the highway to recommence our journey. After going only a few yards we saw three crosses to our left at the roadside. Little did I know that one of the graves was that of Charlie Adams, Phyllis' bridesmaid's brother. At the time I did not know of his death. This news came from home. When in Rome later I met a fellow who was in the Welsh Regiment. He had taken part in that particular action with Charlie and he described it to me in detail.
The patrol had gone out with intercom which had broken down. They were trapped. He said "I ran like hell for some bushes which broke their fire and got away." Charlie was a fine young fellow aged 23.
Eventually we arrived at S. Savino, the scene of bitter fighting. The old part of the village was walled and there had been a clock over a gateway. It was smashed and there were piles of bricks, broken rifles, some covered in blood. There was blood and gouts of congealed blood. It was raining steadily and the blood was being washed away down the village street. Inside the walls was a narrow main street, off it were narrow alleys each side. In the alleys were Spandau's set up for crossfire as the enemy entered the main street.
Here we had to wait for some time because the road was jammed with traffic moving up. If the German air force had survived in strength it would have been havoc. We found a room in an empty house and waited. Nearby in a wall an unexploded shell had buried itself. As we waited some women and children came. It was their home from which they had fled towards S. Marino. The men folk were following on with some of the goods and chattels. When they arrived their reunions were heartrending, typically Latin.
Overrunning my story, somewhat previously we had split up into two sections to bury German dead around Coriano and Clemente. One section worked clockwise round the area and the other anti-clockwise. Well Gaskin and company went into a church. Inside were three or four Germans. They had pushed off the top of a vault and stood in it using it as a strong point to cover the entrances. But someone had crept in somehow and lobbed a grenade in. Gaskin said, "Put them all in the vault and put the top back on, save us a lot of trouble." Possibly they may be there to this day, undetected and unknown.
Near a pond they found a headless body. They had with them two German P.O.W.'s, one a Sgt. Major. George ordered them to dig a grave. When it was ready he said, "Put the body in." When this was done he said, "What about his head?" The Sgt. Major picked up the head by its hair and threw it in to the grave. It landed between the legs. George said, "That's not where it goes." So the Sgt. Major picked it up and put it on the shoulders of the corpse.
In a house in Coriano they found two Germans dead but propped up against the chimney breast near to the window. They were holding hands as if one had gripped his mate saying, "Here they come." On a stretcher in another room was a German officer, with the tourniquet time written on his forehead but he was dead. As we went on our way round we found bodies near a farm. They were big men. Near to one was his Fieldbook similar to our Active Service Edition of the New Testament. In it was a prayer for Mine Fuhrer, a contradictory thing like many more one was to encounter later.
As we left S. Savino we moved downhill towards the river. I believe it was the Marano. We were held up again. Refugees came by, moving back to their homes and still it rained. I recall seeing a girl and boy about the age of my own two children. They looked up with sad, solemn faces. I thought, well at least my own two are not having to put up with this.
On the left hand side of the road were some villas. A man arrived back and stood at his gate. Then came two very old people, man and wife. He had a walking stick and she wore Victorian like dress with a long skirt. The road was liquid mud as she trudged through it her skirt was wet through to her knees. The man at the gate as he saw this raised his hands to the skies and called "Madonna, O Madonna." I shed a few tears myself.
We finished up by the river. It was late in the afternoon, the area was a sea of mud. Deciding to brew some tea we made a fire in an old tin. The light was fading and the S. Major in charge looking apprehensively at a gap in the hills across the river said, "Make haste and get that bloody fire out. If you don't I will put my bloody foot in it." Fortunately it boiled and we got our char. Then the S. Major issued us with a lot of rum. I slept that night on an earthen shelf in a German ammunition dugout.
There were rumours that the Bays had lost a number of tanks to an undiscovered 88mm gun, the gun that was said to dominate the battlefield. They were doubly unfortunate because in the Desert owing to undiscovered mines they had also lost many tanks.
The next day we crossed the river. For some reason or other we lost the other half of our party. I think they returned to our own section ( stayed behind). About this time we met an Italian family on the road. They were asking for food. One said "Is it true that you English are so rich you do not have to work?" Another said, "Is it true that you have seven meals a day?" Communist propaganda no doubt. Some will believe anything.
Later, we reached our destination. There were some tanks out of action seemingly bogged down by track trouble. It was just before dusk. We could see S. Marino over to our left. We pulled up across the road to spend the night. As we stood looking over the darkened countryside we saw a couple of chandeliers swinging across the sky. Someone said, "It's the R.A.F. trying to spot German guns." I was a fool, I had seen them before back home but I could not recall at the time. For the first time for a long time I stripped off and slept in the open in my blanket. It was towards the end of September and getting a bit chilly. The idea was to get to work on the tanks in the morning.
Suddenly, we were awakened by shelling and a Corporal in the R.E.M.E. shouted, "Take cover." Before turning in I had taken note of slit trenches nearby and made for them. I dropped in and was joined by another chap who moaned he had not got his tin hat. "Hang your bloody luck." I said, "I can't find my trousers." After a while we had another call. "Come on. We are moving. The vehicles up front are being hit by shrapnel." There was a quick move and some gear, including Harry Wilkinson's motor bike were left to be picked up next day. I remember we went uphill from here and when we stopped I chucked down my groundsheet and blanket and tried to sleep. Something was going on, searchlights were being used and hell let loose.
Next day we went back to recover the gear we had left behind. We were stopped again by people asking for food. One girl about eighteen and absolutely filthy asked for food. I think she was with a band of gypsies and looked the Hungarian type. Not quite so glamorous as seen on stage and screen.
We took a party, some German P.O.W.'s to bury some bullocks. We also had armed Gurkas. As work was in progress I looked up and was amused to see that the Gurkas had stuffed sprigs of mint up their noses to offset the stench. Then we buried two hefty Germans by the side of the road. Fearing that they may be possibly booby trapped we let the P.O.W.'s move them. One of the Gurkas indicated they had been killed by the kukri; the base of their skulls was smashed.
We got to a place not far from a bend in the road that overlooked Rimini in the distance. There was a P.O.W. cage that had been hurriedly erected. So we looked along the road, some P.O.W.'s were being brought in. One of them was a Corporal. They were being marched down the road. They had not come far. Their escort were K.R.R's and their Sgt. Major said to two of the Germans, "Fall out and help these men." He meant us, and they helped us to bury their own dead. That night the German Corporal came to the wire to ask me to help his friend who was ill. He spoke in perfect English and seemed to be cultured and well-educated. He quoted the Geneva Convention. I said that although we were Medical Corps we were not on medical duties. The only thing I could offer him was aspirin which I gave him.
I was with Jack under canvas that night and it poured with rain. We got soaked and so did our kit. It must have been a rotten night for the Germans in the cage. Next day the Corporal came out with us again as we made up a working party, along with armed Gurka escort. He said to me you have not got Rimini yet. I replied we had and to prove it took him to the brow of the hill and pointed to Rimini.
Two large columns of smoke were rising from the town probably oil installations. He looked dejected. Later he told me he was nineteen and was going to an officers cadre the day after he was captured. He gave me a Reichstag banknote. He said "I won't need it now." I still have it. He was a nice fellow.
The W.V.S. appeared with a van and served tea and wads. I wondered how they had got so far forward. We could hear shells falling.
Later we heard they had been told off for their temerity but the tea was welcome.
That day as we looked over the sea it was one of those days when the sky and the sea seemed to merge into one and way out on the horizon a light was flashing.
At first I thought it was an aircraft but it turned out to be a warship shelling the Germans as they pulled out of Rimini.
At this time the Germans were switching some of their attention to the insurrection of the partisans central towards Bologna and over towards the Sillaro valley. After this we went back to pick up Gaskin and the others after we had left them behind. We found them living a bit rough scrounging anything that would burn to warm up their tins of grub. In the background was spiked 88mm as they retreated. We finished up outside Mallrata and one day I went with Frank Gurner taking his 15 cwt to S. Clemente to get wood for the cookhouse fire. We found a ruined furniture shop, we filled the van with smashed furniture, rafters etc. Frank found a barometer intact he said "When I get back home I am getting married. This will be just the job for my hall."
The church steeple had holes in it and as we were loading the Rev. Father passed by looking almost half demented. There were many many churches that suffered during the campaign.
"Well" Eddie thought, "We ought to have a break" and we went to Iesi to get tickets for Rigoletto. We went to Recarate, the birthplace of Gigli but could not cross the river, the bridge was down. However we got our tickets and the opera was most enjoyable.
Whilst we were near Macerata it rained heavily for two or three days and under canvas it was beginning to be a job to keep dry.
One day I thought I would walk to Loreto to view it's cathedral. There was a story about sacred bones being transported overnight from across the sea. One of those things that are unproven from the past.
I got within sight of Loreto but decided I may not have time, besides being liable to recall at any time. Watching in the opposite direction another day I saw the sign of the Welsh Regiment. It was some way off but I was put off going by being likely to move.
My idea was to go and see if I could find Charlie Adams and have a chat with him. But Charlie was dead and I did not know.
One evening an Italian family asked me for supper along with Norman. We were reluctant for we knew they had little to give. They gave us some coarse brown bread and shellfish and some wine which we enjoyed. The next day we saw the mother and daughter fishing snails off the tall grasses nearby. When we saw the brown and white shells we realised we had not eaten shellfish, instead we had eaten snails. Which goes to prove that its all in the mind. I would eat them again.
Sharing a small bevvy with Bill Brydon we noticed that Whisky the bitch was busy making a hole in the ground inside the tent.
We realised that she was going to whelp so I got some straw and put it in the hole. She took it out, made the hole deeper, chewed up the straw into smaller bits and put it back. She produced four pups. Carter killed two and gave her two back. Later Sr. Sgt. Livellan had one. Some time after he was made an officer and took over a section of his own. At this time some officers who were doctors and surgeons were moved to France.
We went into Macerata and stayed at a cinema for a while then we packed and went to Grottamare on the Adriatic Coast.
Here we stayed at Grottamare Alto at a school. The church was next door. The Rev. Father was in the house nearby with his housekeeper. Also on the hill was the ruins of a castle. Well, Gaskin visited the Rev. and his housekeeper and they got drinking together.
One evening we were treated to the sight of all three of them drunk and going arm in arm to mass. As Whisky was not used to women and that she had a pup, made her aggressive towards the housekeeper and she went for her. To our horror and amazement our C.O. Mac said she must be put down. We protested. He said if she proved to be rabid I could be in serious trouble. But I thought that she was not rabid. However Frank was given the job of shooting her. He was so upset that to make things worse he only wounded her, another shot finished her. It was most distressing.
About this time the Division was being broken up. It had taken a mauling from the enemy. A statement was issued, a copy of which I have. The First Field Ambulance that had served the Division was sent to Greece. This left us to take over medical duties. Supplies were short and we were forbidden to treat civilians.
An M.I room was installed in an empty shop in the main street of Grottamare. Basso the port of the village below fronting the sea.
There was a front shelter to the shop and there was a room which went from front to back so we partitioned part of the room with a couple of blankets so we could have a little privacy to ourselves, two of us helped Mac, Jock and myself. This Mac called his clinic.
We had various callers, sick parades, scabies and the usual innoculations. Also we had the odd V.D. case which as usual made Mac furious. I remember the place to which we sent them, No. 1 Ancona Buildings which I think was part of the railway station.
About this time some of 46 Division came along, also going to Greece. With them came their Field Ambulance and with them our old cook Sid. It was a meeting of joy because in spite of Sid's borstal tendencies he was well liked. He told us in his usual language how when they were in the field the day before Sid had prepared a meal for the lads over his field kitchen when the Germans shelled them and dropped one on Sid's field kitchen. They managed with makeshift rations, the language was unprintable.
Also Siviter who was at Leeds, the one who was to have been a monk, he was busy as usual boozing and chasing the girls. Now it was the Flesh and the Devil.
At the time they were in the field there C.O. was called out to an Italian woman about to give birth. Her husband had asked for help. He took an orderly and the baby was safely delivered. We had an Italian youth come along minus most of one hand, he had been showing off with hand grenades.
On another occasion a Lancashire lad came in late at night, he had been boozing and had fallen onto the edge of corrugated iron. We could not find the wound there was so much blood. When we found it his nose had been split down the middle. We cleaned him up and I put sutures and needles in the steriliser and went to the officers mess to get Mac, I saw Senior, his batman who fetched him. Our time was split between duties at Basso and Alto.
Several of us were given leave to Rome. Upon hearing this a nearby family in poor circumstances asked if I would take a message to relations in Rome. Thinking about Busty Briggs little episode I was a bit dubious, civilian postal facilities being out of order for obvious reasons. However I agreed. We went by lorry, there was plenty of scenery to enjoy on the way.
Finally we arrived, the boozers, George, Gaskin, Tich, Nobby Clarke and others did just that for the rest of the week.
I went with Frank and we visited St. Peters and we looked at the wonderful architecture and treasure. La Pieta held us for quite a long time. Also we went up inside the ball under the cross and through slits saw wonderful views of Rome. We visited other churches. Also we were taken round the Vatican museum by a Cooks guide. This was a wonderful collection of treasures.
I decided to make an effort to see the English church of St. George which with its red brick was very much in contrast with the Catholic Churches in Rome.
I remembered the letter I had to deliver thinking I might find myself in a Roman slum. Some parts were not particularly nice.
To my surprise I found the address was at the top of the Spanish Steps. I believe the number was 79. I believe they were flats. I knocked on the door. It was answered by an elderly lady and her daughter. I was asked to enter.
I came to the conclusion that the lady was most likely a rich aunt, there was obvious affluence. She asked me to dine and presented a nice meal. Later she asked if I would return a message to the Constantinos at Grottamare Alto. I consented. I would take the envelope sealed or unsealed? I said "You must seal it". She turned to her daughter and said "Lui e molto scrupulose?" I felt honoured at her assessment.
When we went back to Grottamare we went out to or via Frasimero and Bolsena. We took up our duties again having moved down the street to a corner place near to the esplanade where we found it more comfortable.
One night I was awakened by an explosion. I looked at Jock, when he was asleep he was as good as dead. Like McGinty's goat I had to push him, shove him, shout at him. Whilst I was doing this there was another explosion. At last he woke up, "What’s up" he said.
I said "Get your tin hat for a start then we will prepare for casualties".
After getting the steriliser ready and laying out some dressings, we went out to see what was going on. A tank rolled by and went down the esplanade. Some distance towards St. Giorgio something was blazing, it turned out to be two small ships. Out at sea an enemy vessel was firing inland. Soon the tank returned and I shouted to the tank commander "What's going on?" He replied it was a submarine that had torpedoed the ships and was making out to sea.
He said "I could have got him on target, but was refused permission to fire because of bringing enemy fire onto the village".
Some time in November I was downstairs in the school at Grottamare Alto just having washed and shaved when Norman shouted from upstairs "Come up quick." I heard an explosion and went upstairs two at a time, went across to a window overlooking the harbour at Basso just in time to see a large area of water settling along with flotsam and jetsam.
It was believed that the submarine that had been in the area previously had left behind mines, I believe four were killed in a fishing boat. A post script to this story is one year after to the day I heard on the radio that the same thing happened also with casualties.
When Christmas arrived we were invited to sing in the church. We did our best but we were no male voice chorus.
Then Mac had me before him. He said "Corporal Wilkinson is going home on L.I.A.P." (leave in advance of promotion) and offered me promotion. I refused but I should have taken it.
It meant that someone would come and take my place and I would have to join a 10th Ind. Division. At that time all the officers and N.C.O.s were one rank lower down the scale of promotion so I had to go as a private but was expected to lead parties of Indians etc. as necessary. For my temerity in refusing promotion I reckon the army was having it's own back. Before leaving them I spent Christmas Day with them, by then we had taken over a house in the village. The middle aged couple who lived there went upstairs.
By exchanging soap, fags etc. we managed to get some poultry to celebrate. The couple who lived there asked for the lower limbs and the offal from the birds, she said she could make something of them.
Next day I was off, I was sorry to go, I had now landed myself in it, I would have to put up with the consequences.
From there I went to Ancona, it was very cold and we were in a tent open at the front. I never slept, it was too cold. Next morning I went to a cattle trough to wash and shave after first taking the ice off.
Next day we went to Fano where we had to do sentry duty, I got the worst turn, the middle one. It was a store building no windows and stone floors, very cold again, no sleep.
Then we were put in a covered lorry but there did not seem to much room for us all. The S. Major in charge had us all over and each man had to sit with his kit bag between his knees and everything else was stacked on top, blanket, large pack, small pack and respirators, just room to rest your chin on, away we went to Forlimpopuli.
On the way we passed the body of an Italian on the road possibly hit by a passing lorry. Someone said "He must have got in the way" Again I thought life is cheap.
One fat jovial character R.A.S.C. said “I volunteered to drive a jeep”. These were somewhat new at the time. He said "I have always wanted to get my hands on one" He thought it was going to be great fun at the time.
Then he said "What do you think. I have got to drive a bloody stretcher jeep, getting wounded away from action for the medical corps." Someone shouted "Hang your - luck mate never volunteer for anything".
When we arrived at Forlimpopuli there was plenty of mud, we did not stay. It was here that someone indicated a factory in which it was said that glass mines were made or I should say had been made by the Germans, being undetectable to mine sweeps.
On we went to Forli where we stayed a short time. Whilst we were there the band of the K.O.S.B. played in their war time khaki kilts. The local women and girls were giggling and nudging asking the same old question, do they wear anything underneath.
We assured them they did because it was too damned cold. It was the end of December.
Next we went to Faenza which had not long been taken and we were told about partisans being found hanging from lamp posts.
In infantryman told me of house to house searches for Germans and said he picked up a gold watch as he passed though one. He probably thought all is fair in love and war. We were put in a barracks in Faenza, it had been damaged by bombing and shelling and were given the job of cleaning it up. We put bits of wood we found so we could put a fire in the fireplace in the barrack room that night. It was now New Years Eve. The place was full of troops waiting for transport to various units.
During the afternoon a group got a fifty gallon drum and made a fire in it. It was in the centre of a lofty room. The wood was taken from anything they could lay their hands on and they all stood around it.
It was the Sgt. Major in charge coming looking as if he meant business so I beat it. He marched them all down to the C.O. in charge of the transit camp. They were all debted in their pay books for the barrack room damages.
It was New Years Eve 1944 and a few of us sat by the small fire place in the large room where there were some home made bunk beds, a bit rough but much less steady after we knocked off some of the angle pieces to burn.
The Sgt. Major came round and said accusingly "Where did you get the wood from". I said "It was from the rubble outside when we were cleaning up". Well, some of it was.
We managed to sing a song or two then turned in; it was my mother's birthday. The next morning we were on parade to start us out to our various units. We did not look very presentable, everyone was beginning to look tatty. I was taken to my new unit in the business quarter of the town. We were in offices where all was locked, bolted and barred.
So I was now part of 10 Field Hygiene R.A.M.C. 10 Brigade 10 Ind Division. There were three brigades and we had a section in each.
I was with Frank Reeve, my sergeant, Sgt. Box or Bacchas as he was known to his (admis) men and Sgt. Andy Newton. Frank and Box were sanitary inspectors in civil life, Newton was a school teacher.
There was also S. Sgt. Ingram who was a time serving soldier and would finish his time at the end of hostilities.
Our C.O. was Capt. Stevens who was in charge of us on board ship from England to Egypt. As I have said everyone was down one in the Indian Army. He was a major in England. Also he had won the MC for attending and getting out wounded Gurkas after action on a hill.
Then Ingram came and said "You will sleep here tonight and move in in the morning". He said "Have you any experience of action". I replied I had been with the 1st Brit. Arm Div. "Good" he said "I thought I would mention it as it might get a bit nasty tonight". However it proved to be a quiet night.
The next day I was taken outside the town. As we passed cross-roads in the town there was a large gun sandbagged up. Out in the country we arrived at a building used as an advanced dressing station. When we arrived a fellow told me two had been killed by shelling the night before. I thought thanks for being so cheerful.
The next morning I stood watching the RAF strafing something not far away, possibly dumps. To my surprise I was taken away again to a farmhouse on the other side of town. Here were D.L.I.'s and New Zealanders. It was supposed to be a resting area. Some bloody rest said a D.L.I. We have been getting shells. The farm house had been shelled and there were two large holes in it's walls.
As soon as I arrived Frank told me he was going on leave and he went leaving me with some fifteen or so Asians from various parts of India, mixed religions, and a language problem. He had been wounded in the chest by shrapnel from a shell but not seriously. By this time I felt ill and did not eat for about three days. This I think was the beginning of a stomach ulcer from which I had to suffer for many years.
One morning a telegram arrived. It had been chasing me around for some time. I read it to find that my father died on 27 December 1944. Feeling really bad I went out and retched a quantity of green bile, after that I began to eat a little. I had always hoped that I would see my father again, because we were close and had common interests.
We shared the farmhouse with the farmer and his wife, he looked a weakling but she was a big strapping woman. Along with some D.L.I. a farmer and his wife, we shared the log fire in the big room downstairs. There was snow on the ground and a lot of water frozen over. As I looked through the holes in the walls I could see pylons lying at crazy angles and power lines down.
Fortunately I got through until Frank got back. During his absence a curious thing happened. Two mornings in succession at 2.20 a.m. each morning I was awakened by a loud authoritative voice calling my name. I awoke and looked around, went to the head of the stairs, everywhere was quiet as the grave. This was before I had the telegram, who knows, maybe I was psychic. There was liaison with the public health people on both sides. This of course was very important as anything contagious could do the army tremendous harm. Also we were always watching water supplies. There was an outbreak of scarlet fever reported at a farm not far away so off we went and we sprayed everything in the house.
I noticed that although it was a fairly modern house, space was left on the ground floor underneath the bedrooms for cattle to be kept at night. They said it also helped to warm the bedrooms in winter. Also I thought to beget scarlet fever. Our Brigade Major, Prideock by name, a martinet if ever there was and as unpopular, demanded that our men should collect him firewood. Well Frank was a staunch Methodist but some situations made him lose his cool. "Just him" said Frank. "No matter about anyone else as long as that bastard gets his comfort". One day they went out and brought back a telegraph pole when Joe Prideock saw it he went off the deep end, it should have stayed put said the great man, "Telegraph poles are important for communications". "Sod him," said Frank and a rude suggestion as to where the pole ought be.
From there we went on to another farm. This proved to be deep in mud. I remember seeing a fellow walking along the cart ruts in water suddenly he had fallen into a pothole and was past his knees in water.
From this place we went to be working parties out near Piduera and towards the River Senio. I remember seeing dummy wooden guns arranged to deceive the enemy.
One day we went towards the River Senio and stopped at the war ruined church of S. Maria at Piduera. All that was left was the north and west walls. I went up the hill via the trenches and spoke to the infantry in a trench at the top. Conditions were bad, there was a heavy drizzle and everyone looked dismal.
On the way down the trenches, back to the church I picked up what I reckoned were the remains of a church lantern, ,possibly a wall fitting. It was surrounded by a cross. I decided to take the cross off. When I got home I had it mounted on a piece of bakelite. I gave it to Mary.
Back at the church feeling more sheltered which of course I was not, I looked around. There were some carcasses lying around. There were a pile of books, hymnals etc., this I guessed was the entrance to the church. The books were sodden. I picked one up and opened it at a passage about the sanity of man. It was in Italian but I managed to decipher it. As I looked around I did not think there was much sanity about it all.
From there I took the men down the road towards the Senio where we were supposed to bury some horses. The area however, was not taped by the Royal Engineers so I refused to let the men take the risk. On another occasion when we were out that way there were hundreds of men in the area. Suddenly accompanied by four outriders and rear riders came a man, standing up in a jeep. It was General Alexander I think, he was a wonderful man to handle a large homogeneous army in such a wonderful fashion.
History I think will make him bigger in stature. The area had been stable for months in fact notice boards had been put in position.
One day I took the men out and found one stating. "You are now under observation by the army". "Keep ten yards apart". I got them spaced and we went on.
But on the way back I lost a couple Ibrakim, and Abdul Krim, they were both trouble makers. There was a gap in a nearby embankment. I stood in the gap, I guessed they had gone into some houses nearby to see what they could find.
At last they came out and I swore at them. Time was getting on and we had more to do. They complained about me swearing at them and tried to involve the others against me. Some shelling started so I said “Get going you bastards or you will have something else to think about”. We completed our next task for the day and the light was fading so I gathered them together to go back. Three had gone making their own way back unbeknown to me. I was furious, it was too late and too risky to look for them. When we got back Frank said "Don't worry I saw the sods come back without permission". They were charged and given extra tasks.
Sometimes for punishment their belts were taken from them leaving them to hold up their trousers all day. Damned uncomfortable I would say. We left this area slowly and on the way stayed near to Firenzuola. It seemed we would have to lay in the mud for the night by the roadside. But some of us found a haybarn. There was to be no smoking. However, there was a Gurka who was unusual to say the least being a Gurka in discipline was very unusual. He was employed mainly on odd jobs. He started smoking and was promptly thrown out and we had a good nights rest.
We went on across country seeing now and then the odd one, two or three lonely graves, passing woods near to Castel del Rio. The woods showed indications of shelling, plenty of torn branches.
On we went to Sassoleone. There was a row of houses or what was left of them on a shoulder of ground. The road was liquid mud and we spent some time shovelling it down the hillside.
The action started in this area late September and early October. Later on I decided to find out exactly what happened, and in 1983 I obtained a book in Italian called “Italia Resistenza” by Roberto Battaglia. This was from the Goldsmith Library and had been at Reading University. After quite some time I managed to translate the relevant parts to the area we had reached.
SEPTEMBER AND OCTOBER 1944
TRANSLATED FROM ITALIA RESISTENZA BY ROBERTO BATTAGLIA
The time had arrived in the region of Emiliano Romagna to Modena and the sea.
In the battle the aim was to effect a rapid advance to the escarpment immediate to the Gothic Line. In conjunction with the allied air force in the salient east where the 18 Garibaldi were spread to liberate the country and bring democracy to the province of Modena where all would make contact.
In the country central in the direction of Bologna was a concentration of partisans pledged to liberate the zone and facilitate with a good foray and clear the way to the capital of Emilia.
On the 11th September the date of the attack, the allies, coinciding with a violent attack with the hope of expelling the Germans from the position by Monte Pianaccio held by the 16 Garibaldi Brigade. The attack was repelled bloodily and the first phase was intense and hard and the formation of the Bolognses always engaged in the front of the battle in the September which was soon to culminate. On 27th - 28th September where the fate of the army of M. Battaglia and of the Ca di Gizzo was the first great victory, an episode of bravery and misfortune and hard sacrifice but equal and was most confused.
This is the story of Monte Battaglia, part of the circle of operations conducted by the 16th in the Bolognses appernines to dislodge the enemy on M. Carnevala and also first to arrive with the allies.
Yes we distinguish that other episodes as important for the locality and to thwart the enemy on the way to Bologna and an attempt by the enemy to reconquest. In one place an obstinate attack was mounted on the night of 27th without care of loss and exploiting the advantages of the levian.
Finding that attack after attack fought with grenades swept away the enemy and put them to flight.
In a new attack on 28th, seeing the resistance, the partisans side by side with the Americans took the position.
This episode was perhaps the best in the campaign in Italy. The final victory was realistic for the community and the sacrifices of the combatants. The Ca di Gizzo insurrection also on the plain in conjunction with the allies and partisans was also a diversion.
Whilst the 62 Garibaldi Brigade during the engagement at Casone di Romagna a strong party of German S.S. parachutes encircled and severed a company of the 16th and routed them in the Alto del Silearo. The attack was conducted by surprise at night helped by the hurricane of fire which isolated a small party from the larger force of the partisans.
Below was the sign of solidarity, the constant element of the Resistance Emiliana, the beginning of a bloody episode which concluded here to the limit of extreme sacrifice.
The night passed slowly illuminated by the fire from the Germans which assisted the reinforcements. Whilst in the houses we had the first dead and wounded. At the first light of dawn the Germans discovered the best way was to use mortars against the houses and bring the roofs down on the besieged. This enabled them to climb the rubble and shoot and kill the others through the open windows.
The final arrival of help was too weak to help the situation, whilst the other squad remained but was routed by the military.
The assailants attacked the long shoulder on which the houses stood, whilst in the houses were many victims.
(This describes the village of Sassoleone where we stayed in the ruins of the houses Jan to mid April 1945)
By this movement some escaped and the dying were left to their fate and the few others continued to fire at the hated enemy.
By this time with many fallen the living decided on a general sortie.
The first sally to go was a group of partisans who smashed through the line of adversaries to bring succour to the Command of the 62nd Brigade at the church. The door was barred by the enemy and the partisans improvised a breakthrough but were encircled by the enemy and it only remained for the wounded to be helped by a student of medicine Gianni Palmerieri who when asked to assist in the burial of the dead, he replied “Dead or not I, a man of medicine, cannot possibly abandon the wounded”. When the Germans entered the houses they found him in his place of duty where in the tragic silence after the misadventure and the furious fight and interrupted only by the groans of the dying. All those killed and wounded were taken away by medical men of the partisans. After many weeks corpses were still to be found in the woods.
This ends the translation of the events in the Sillaro Valley and the surrounding area at the end of September to the beginning of October 1944.
The village which was under attack, though not referred to by name, was without doubt Sassoleone. Just above was the farmstead of Cuviola. Then two hills almost equal divided by a cleft hence the nickname by the troops of Twin Tits. Higher up was Gesso and to the right Monte del Tomba. Gesso fell to the Americans on October 13th and Monte del Tomba on the 16th.
The area became fairly static and was taken over from the Americans by 78 (Battleaxe) Division and eventually by the 10th Indian Division in which I was serving.
After the Gothic Line action finished, order went forth that owing to the weather, shortage of ammunition, operations would cease on a vast scale. Ammunition would be conserved and territory maintained ready for our next move.
When we eventually arrived at the village only the bells of the church stood by the roadside. It was said the R.E.s used the ruin and rubble of the church for roadmaking.
Translated from the Storie Della Resistanza Italiani in which he terms it a tragic page in the Resistance
The S.S. killed 560 civilians women and children at Santa Anna Stezzema in Luchesia on 12th August. In a valley in the Apperines at Valla on the 19th August 107 innocent victims were made hostage and transported to a place at Luchesia, 50 were implicated.
On the 24th August the same Brigade distressed Vinea and numerous villages in the Commune of Tirizzaro. On the 15th September there was a massacre at Trigido by shooting at the place, 108 victims at the concentration camp at Mozzano, Lucca.
On 16th September executions at Bargola at the same time in the province of Apuanice.
At a point north east a move in the direction of the Vical Emelice which after a brief respite conducted a cycle of executions in Marzabatto 29th - 30th September to the 1st October.
On the 12th August a massacre at St. Anna where Don Giuseppe was in my parish, more than 2,000 fell. Many were made homeless as was seen by the fires in the valley.
At 4.30 confronted by the violence which was conducted at the church by fifty S.S. who shot on near the mitre and killed three or four children in a group in the church and five more in the passage. This was in the afternoon after their success in the valley. A woman came and met me and said “Don Guiseppe, Don Guiseppe, they have killed all, ask the Commandent of the S.S. for authority to bury the dead.” The day after during the morning in the valley with three others we were sensitive to the stench of the brutal carnage.
At the house of the miller at St. Anna we found the first dead, four children lying on the ground and in the house the owner was also dead.
In another house a group were beheaded, there were 22. Nearby ground was excavated for burial.
At Veccareccia from inside a house we found bones, tibia, heads, scapula and in another house we found a group of 17. When we arrived we buried them. We met at the front of another house where we found a pile of bones and freshly dug earth.
There were 31 at La Calla and we commenced to bury the dead.
Also there was an honoured family killed, the family were tenants by the sea at Tacci which had a room canonised to St. Anna. There were more, all dead, the wife, nine children and a grand daughter of no more 15 years and a baby no more than 8 months old.
Of the family of Battistine of 11 only 1 remained, a son who was taken away prisoner.
Massacre at Valla. One person was rescued and escaped massacre, Clara Ceatine and a child of 9 on the day we arrived.
At 3.00 p.m. the child saw a terrifying vision that summer afternoon which it would retain all it’s life, the sight of the military picking the dead from the flesh.
The Germans went into the house and took the young ones and shot them in the kitchen. But before that they demanded photographs of them because they accused them of taking part in the revolt on the mountain. Surprised by the shooting we hid below in the vines and near to where mother and baby and my two brothers who were without guilt, a soldier passed by the dead to see if any moved, but they were no more.
When we all went to the house we were very thirsty and went into the kitchen for a drink. But only when I returned I found my parents had stayed in the vicinity and having stayed until night was come they were saved.
Many were killed on 24th August at de Venea, 29 women were found decapitated nude and semi nude. Many more were killed on 25th, 26th and 27th, Massacre di Bergiola. Some killed and burnt.
Of great interest was the disposition of the commander of the partisans Alfredo Giannardi noted by the name of ‘Nico’.
He commanded the formation of the C.N.L. and attested one day on Monte Borgiona and he came to the carnage at Bergiola with a detachment of his brigade. The first person he saw in the village was a girl who had her breast slashed by the S.S. The girl who, not withstanding went immediately to the school which had been set on fire. Two partisans named Geannardi went amongst the ruin and smoke and rescued and dragged from the flames two brothers. They were saved and the girl, from the ruin of the building. We continued to hear the laments and invocations of women prisoners in the flames, but by this time we were powerless to do anything for them.
We buried one of the twelve Germans who were captured by the formation which had been ravaged by the company of Lieutenant Fischer commanded at that time by Rader who was called by the people of the zone “The Butcher”.
Massacre di Marzabatto. Two regiments of the S.S. Hitler returned and encircled the zone about the river Reno. In the parish of Casaglia people were in church in prayer. The Germans went in and took three aged persons for non obedience and added the ultimatum that they would kill in the sacred place.
In all 147, fifty who were children were taken to the cemetery by the military, 28 families were exterminated completely. The only one saved was a baby, a small child of six did not want to go to the place of the tragedy crying “I want to be with my dead mamma” and a little later killed by grenades, amongst them 24 children, two were sisters. In the region of Carpiano 49 unhappy people amongst them 24 women and 19 children closed in a group and sang to the military, this saved a teacher and two children.
Another 103 victims were taken away in a short time dislodged house by house.
The S.S. took a baby and threw it in the flames and cut off the mother’s breasts and played havoc with the dead. The “March of Death” came to one of superstition to Silvano Bonetti because it left the trace of blood over all the women, the old and the children to whom the way of death had come.
The ravage was repeated in the locality of Ava were 81 were massacred and others nearby, 48 men and 2 priests all were killed and consigned to the flames.
On the 5th October there was more mourning as 28 more were shot on this day.
On the ? September in the Commune of Marzabotta there were lamented 1,830 dead amongst them five priests.
But they had not finished. On the 18th October another six citizens were killed.
The author records that 46,000 were killed in the course of the insurrection, 21,000 maimed and invalided in the fight for their national territory and that it should not go unrecorded or forgotten.
After writing of the events in the early and late autumn of 1944, I take up the story of our arrival at Sassoleone. There was a small village square amidst the ruins. Nearby was a large anti tank gun mounted on tracks. What had been a village store was wrecked and also flooded into which grain, food, all sorts of things were rotted and fermenting, the stench was awful. One of our tasks was to do something about it. All we had was buckets and a small handpump, this made little difference, but we did our best. As I have mentioned nothing was left of the church except the bells.
Nearby was a cemetery which looked as if it had been recently filled, no doubt due to the events of the previous October.
There were some walled vaults, some had been damaged, a girl lay in one dressed in black and she also had on black shoes. The body did not seem to show any deterioration, quite a nice looking girl, I wondered if she too was a victim of the events of October.
Also there was an ‘ossario’ (a common vault) there was a hole in its wall and looking in one could see the piles of skulls and bones. There were some old blankets so I guess that soldiers had sheltered there from the shelling, the ground around well cratered.
In the row of houses on the shoulder a ‘spalla’ of ground referred to in the translation we found old rooms good enough for shelter.
The room we found was quite good, most of the roofs were caved in due to the German mortars.
For a while we could look through one window every morning early and see a battery of guns brought to a forward slope and fire during the morning, the flashes and the dust rolling forward creating quite a spectacle.
Below us near the river were the 25 pounders of the Leicestershire Yeomanry. Further up the row of houses was our mess, it was literally just that. It had suffered damage and the upper room, over stables, had an interesting floor of tiles which was giving way round the edges. To avoid falling through one had to keep to the centre as much as possible. Over to our left overlooked by an O.P. on a hill was an enemy salient.
Going uphill away from the village was a ford over the Sessetello, going down in the village and turning right in the direction of Loiano was a ford of the Sillaro.
There were odd civilians around and some farming was being attended to as best they could. We settled in and became friendly with an R.E. Sgt. over at the R.E. Indian Section.
Above the village was Arviola a large farmstead, it was manned and sentries posted. Just above that was two hills of similar proportions with a cleavage between and was promptly named “Twin Tits”. Beyond that was Gesso ridge on which was left the ruins of a church and school and at the top of the ridge behind the church the scene of fierce action between German and American troops, a never to be forgotten night.
To the right of Gesso was Monte del Tombe and beyond Imola.
We found plenty to do, one day myself and Sgt. Reeves went to the O.P. on the hill. One of the men had picked up something contagious and we had to endeavour to trace back through the incubation period where he had been when he first contracted it.
After getting all the details the Sgt. in charge there said to Frank “Go out the bottom end of the dug out, put your bloody heads down and run like hell.” This we did and on getting to the lower slope we almost ran over four German dead, all on their backs, the upper two half buried by earth brought down by shellfire.
Then Frank took a party forward, there had been complaints about water being fouled and rats. When he arrived where the infantry were he found a well had been used by Americans who had been there before, as a latrine. They had also buried enough rations, Frank said to have kept our small crowd going for a couple of weeks. He sealed the well and the food was reburied.
The Brigadier had covered the area which was fairly static, it was overlooked by the enemy higher up the valley. Indeed when we first arrived a smoke screen had been put up higher up the valley. However, it seemed that Brigadier thought that the infantry needed the area cleaning up, there were many bodies and carcasses around and with the advent of warmer weather it was not going to be very pleasant.
One night we were ordered to do some burying in D.L.I. lines. After my experiences with the 1st Brit. Amoured Div. on the Gothic line I suggested spraying the carcasses and bodies with a mixture of coal, tar and diesel oil. But owing to the terrain after this one job we did not use it again. However on this occasion we had mules and muleteers, the oil, the diesel and ropes etc. and started off in the dark. A lot was done under cover of darkness for obvious reasons.
Descending into the valley of the Sassetello we made our way forward following the stream, passing Gesso on our right. We got the job done and returned.
Next day Frank said the coal tar had leaked on to the hide of one of the donkeys and it had gone sick he said. I felt sorry for the animal. We had to think of something more practical and a litter made out of sacks and ropes was made to move bodies.
The regiments in the area were the Loyals D.L.I., Northumberland Fusiliers, Leics. Yeomanry, Jadper Sirdars, Gerwalis and Gurkas.
As far as the dead were concerned we only had to bury German dead. The Americans buried their own.
One night we went near to Gesso to get rid of two large oxen. We excavated and disposed of them. Underneath one I found an Italian pen knife the blade of peculiar shape, I still have it. On the way back we passed Gurkas manning a mortar which they were firing. We got passed quietly in case the enemy were in the mood for slinging them back.
Whilst we were in the area pass words changed three times. The first was “Cannon Balls” the second “Players Please” and the last “Motor Bike”.
One day we went out in a different direction a little apprehensive about mines, since we did not know the area. “Bring back a souvenir”, chimed Taffy as we went, he had a mania for collecting weapons, mines etc. He used to amuse himself finding out how they worked, putting the weapons in order and firing them. We joked “We will bring you back a couple of 25 pounders, how’s that?”. On the way we found the leg of an American blown off above the knee complete with boot and sock and lower part of the trousers. Later we found an American rifle, it was a lovely piece of work, wind gauges sights and all. We took the rifle to Taffy who was as pleased as punch. He cleaned it up and spent some time firing what ammunition there was through a window over looking a chosen target across the Sassotello.
It had not been overlooked for long that the room we had was not too bad. Officers coveted it and we were turfed out to the next house.
All that was left of it was a pile of rubble under which was a basement room. This we took over, rats and all. There was no door so we cut a sack down each side and hung it up to cover the doorway. The officers said “Frank get a hardship allowance, trust those bastards to do that.” It was like a prison cell with a barred window a piece of metal fused at the back to stop the rubble coming through, at night the rats clawed on it.
The rest of the section the Indians we fixed up in a ground floor room next door, the place was almost as badly damaged but it was a large room. On another night’s assignment we took a party across the large minefield. As we entered it there was a wayside Madonna at the foot of which were two signs one in English and one in Italian. On one the skull and crossbones and the words Keep Out on the other Attentione Minazonato.
We passed on our left a muleteer and his mule lying in the minefield. It was a large minefield, it looked as if it had been ploughed prior to the German attack and was thus ideal for sowing mines. The R.E.’s had made a very narrow path and left tapes either side. We had to visit and clean up the area occupied by the Northumberland Fusiliers. It was on Monte del Tombe. It was very dark, there were some carcasses and a couple of Germans. I looked over to my right to a wood and a couple of machine gunners stood at their posts in the leafless wood. Two of the Indians started smoking, true, they got together and put a cape round their heads, but still it was a stupid thing to do. I wanted Frank to charge them and wheel them in when we got back but it was too easy. We could have been in jeopardy over this silly act. I think it was Ibrakim and Abdul Krim who were the culprits and there was more trouble with them at a later stage.
I found one corpse, no legs, we dug a small grave when someone shouted his legs are over here. We decided to leave them owing to the fact that mines may be around. By the look of the number of feathers around I thought he had been chasing poultry and stepped on one.
On the way back we passed a small walled cemetery. After we passed safely through the minefield the men wanted to get on in front they said they were hungry and wanted their conna. So we let them go on reminding them of the password for the sentry at Arviola.
When Frank and myself arrived at Arviola we found the sentry holding them. They had forgotten the password, typical I said, but the sentry enjoyed doing it for a lark, but he was in his rights to hold them.
Another night we were returning from a tour of duty and were regarding the dead muleteers in the minefield when an officer came along and introduced himself as Major Brown. He said he was of the Northumberland Fusiliers. He chatted with us and indicated corpses laying in one or two places on the edge of the minefield. It was getting dusk and he looked around and said “Don’t be around after dark, this is a grim place.”
He said “The other day we caught the Germans changing units, the worst possible time to be caught,” he said. “We opened up on them small arms and all and let them have the lot.”
Our crowd of Indians were a mixed crowd and we had Hindus, Mohammedans, a couple of Ceylonese. There were the usual religious differences and also class differences, this made life a bit difficult at times. I will relate some of the names as far as I can remember them. Thomas and Savorimutu who said they were Christians, Baldeo Merchand, Dari Singh, Ranchi Nath, Abdul Raman, Abdul Krem, Seka Appu, Ibrakim, Santa Singh a Sikh with one eye, nicknamed Santa Klaus and Tuman.
In charge of them was the “Niak” or Corporal. He coped fairly well with them.
The most intelligent I thought was Tuman the sweeper, the lowest cast, his writing in Tamil looked perfect.
One day we were briefed by the Brigade Major, Pideock of course, to go to Gesso, a job to be done under cover of darkness.
It was arranged that Frank would go first to assess the lay of the land, then I would follow so far with the working party, leave them at Twin Tits, go on to Gesso to discuss it with Frank and the infantry, then go back to collect the men and take them back.
The Sgt. went off and before dusk I took the party along. As we went off we looked down on the twenty five pounders. Then on to Arviola, which we passed through after answering the sentries challenge then on to Twin Tits. Here I gave them all a lecture, I warned them not to go too far to the left of the hill on our left because it was under observation and no smoking and not to go to the right of the hill on our right because of the minefield. They had a reminder of that by the sight of dead mules with their heads scattered about the minefield. Looked like a lot of wireless equipment. “Taro Hidder” I warned until I come back from seeing Sgt. Sahib.
It was dusk now, to my right lay the large minefield and where the narrow path across the minefield started, was a wayside Madonna, she seemed not to be looking at the Child but down at the signs beneath, the one with the skull and crossbones and the one in Italian “Zonata Minato”.
I came to a pond in and around it were hand grenades, stick grenades and other ammo.
Nearby was a walled cemetery, I went on to my left in the gathering darkness I could see Gesso Ridge plunging down to the valley. I came to the road that would take me to the top, there was a stench of death and I went on slowly.
Suddenly the moon came from behind the clouds and silhouetted against the sky were two arches and a heap of rubble all that was left of the church.
On one of the arches shone a cross, whether it was in it’s original position or rescued from the rubble I shall never know.
I was taken aback by this dramatic sight but was soon brought back to earth by the cry of the sentry.
I looked forward and saw him with his rifle levelled at me. I gave the usual answers and password and he told me to come forward and be recognised.
We had a chat and he told me I would find Frank in what was left of the school. I had a mug of tea and talking with Frank it seemed we had to bury all the German dead on top of the hill. The American dead were to be left to be dealt with by their own.
As we stood talking a huge rat emerged from beneath the rubble, there were dead underneath. Then I remembered the saying, you have never seen rats until you have seen rats that had fed on the dead.
I went back to fetch the men as I went I decided to look in at the small wayside cemetery. Slit trenches had been dug amongst the graves. I was anxious to know what was beyond the rear wall. Putting my hands on the wall I pulled myself up and looking over I found myself looking at a bloated corpse covered with a blanket.
We went round the rear of the school and found ourselves at the top of the ridge. Here was the scene of the October action, the taking of the ridge by the Americans. As we surveyed the scene it seemed the Germans had stood to the last at the top of the ridge, a row of fallen lay in various positions in line across the top of the ridge.
One the crest of the ridge as it plunged down into the valley was a Spandau and by its side two bodies the gunner and his mate.
The Americans were scattered over a wider area and the Germans had built stone circles. Over the top of one of these circles lay a skeletal figure in uniform. All the bodies had been looted no doubt by an Italian or Italians under cover of darkness, even socks and boots had been taken.
Near to the gunner and his mate we decided to bury them. In all I think there was about 17. To assist us I had made an improvised litter out of sacks and rope.
Near to one body some odd pages of letters lay also a postcard. Later I read it, it was from an Italian girl and I remember the address. It was from a nearby village. The address on it was Signorena Lambertino, Mulino Casal, Fuimencse, Millino, meaning mill, so I guess she was the millers daughter.
There had been some snow previously, this had helped to preserve the bodies somewhat. One by one we rolled them on to the litter using spades. We had great difficulty in finding enough depth and soil owing to the rocks. I was helping to carry one body when suddenly there was a groan. I was carrying the front end. I looked round and saw his blackened face, his lips drawn back as he had died in pain. Evidently some air had still been in his lungs. Some had identity disks and other did not. One reason why so many men fallen in action get posted as missing.
It also reminded me of Capt. Webberleys somewhat caustic comments on the man at Leeds who was not wearing them.
One body was tangled in a bush and we had to stamp the branches aside to get him out. Another, a Grenadier lay with grenades round his belt. As I thought the men may cause them to be detonated by knocking them with their spades I picked them off one by one and cast them down the slope.
It was a grim task and it was very dark as we collected the disks we broke them in half, hanging one half on rifles pushed into the ground after having first removing the bolts and flinging them away. The other half went to the Red Cross. The Americans of course we left, maybe they dealt with their own after hostilities.
We made our way back in the early hours. When we got in our hovel Frank found a bottle of chianti which we shared.
Not much was said the sights we had seen did not encourage much conversation. I noticed mice flitting around the floor.
Then Frank said “Did you see him hanging over the stones?” I said “Yes” thinking of the skeletal figure in uniform.
The 25 pounders started firing the flashes lighting up the raw edges of the sacking in the doorway like tinsel. As I lay down to sleep rats scratched in the tin plate behind the window bars. I told them to clear off or words to that effect. I thumped the plate and went to sleep.
As I have mentioned we had a mixed crowd mostly Mohammadans and Hindus, these did not always harmonise and then there was the caste system, the religious differences, Ramadan thrown in to make matters worse plus the two agitators Ibrakim and Abdul Krim.
At the time of Ramadan the Mohammedans complained that the Hindus should do their share of the work because they were fasting from dawn to dusk and were too weak to work. They got the usual message “There’s a bloody war on, get on with it”.
There was also an argument, none of them should do dirty work, the lowest caste the sweepers ought to do it, since there were only two sweepers, there would not have been much done left to them. They were told to get on with it.
One day their cook had an argument with Frank about this “pyser” (pay) and Frank told him to wait until we got to H.Q. However, he went off on his own to H.Q. to sort it out himself. The C.O. saw him arrive and he was promptly charged with being AWOL. His belt was taken from him and he was given work to do which he did for three days whilst holding his trousers up.
In between times Frank did his rounds of the Brigade to see that as good as possible standards of hygiene were being kept.
As I have mentioned there were two other sections of the Brigade besides ours. Sgt. Box had one, the Indians called him “Bucchus” their name for Box, and Sgt. Andy Newton had the other.
Also in the line were the two other Indian Divisions the 8th who had been greatly weakened, their sign was three flowers on a black background, and the 4th who earned fame in the desert, their sign was the scavenger bird known to one and all as the Shitehawk.
In Box’s section there were some incidents that he preferred not to attend, he shirked danger, instead he chose to send sometimes with his working parties a sepoy, I think his name was Abdul Raman.
On one occasion he sent them to bury some cattle. The sepoy told the sweeper to put a rope around one of the animals legs so that it could be hauled into the hole that had been dug when there was an explosion, it had been booby trapped. Some were wounded including the sepoy who got the others evacuated refusing help for himself.
(This passage is obscure)
For this he was awarded the M.M. Just before I joined them Frank had a chest wound by shrapnel. He took a party out one night in the area in which nothing (?) had been taped. One man took off (?) and threw it just the other side. There was a flash but whatever it detonated it could have been faulty because of the weather. I suspected it was an (?) them up and got the job done. (There seems to be a lot missing here. Swept areas/paths were normally taped; here one man took something and threw it the other side of the tape and detonated a mine.)
On one occasion we were getting rid of some carcases. I think they were mules. It was hard work. It was a nearby bomb crater which was being used to bury them.
Ibrakin and Dari Singh sat looking at us with an empty pipe in his mouth, up to his old game again watching everyone else working. I said “Get off your arse you idle sod.” They were filling in. I went cautiously along the road to where it opened out slightly but not knowing the area I came back.
We went to a ruined farm to tidy up it as near to the minefield and we came to the end of Monte Del Tombe. Late in the afternoon and the party not showing much enthusiasm and I was cursing them to get on with it when I heard and saw the explosions of mortars falling near the end of the ridge. They did not need much urging on after that.
Next morning we heard that six Baluchistanis had been killed.
The same night we were sent out again, this time to Monte del Tombe. There were to be two parties, Frank taking one and myself the other. We were briefed and had our respective tasks allocated to us.
We went as usual via Arviola and the hills and took the path through the minefield. The path began near the wayside Madonna, it was dark and no moon so we went along with caution. Someone told us that a little further along was a farm and in a minefield nearby lay the bodies of a boy and girl.
It was said that just before the action started the boy was playing with a ball which went into the minefield. He was killed. I believe he was about eight years old. His sister went to help him, she too was killed, she was said to be about twelve. I am glad that I did not see that.
The large minefield we passed through seemed to have been ploughed in the early autumn and was ideal for the sewing of mines.
We turned to our left and ascended the ridge past a small walled cemetery and on to an O.P. held by the Leicestershire Yeomenry.
It was sandbagged and we went in and chatted with the men there.
It was Saturday night and although they were not supposed to be listening to outside broadcasts they had got the English soccer results coming through and I remember that Leicester had beaten Northampton 2 - 1. The days of makeshift teams and guest appearances, this cheered me up somewhat.
The N.C.O in charge told me that due to German harassment they had had to pull back to their present position.
He said “The other week, I believe it was on a Sunday, we could see the Germans on parade in the square “Imaola” and we got it back to the guns. You should have seen the sods scatter.”
I came out of their dugout to gather my party together when I fell over some mounds. I got up cursing and when I had had a good look round I realised that I had fallen over the graves of the men who had been killed by mortars the afternoon previously.
In the meantime Frank had taken his party further along the ridge. We found we had to dispose of some mules. I went a little further down the ridge to have a look round. There was a marked grave, I believe he was of the Coldstream Guards.
As I stood I could hear a faint sound but could not quite figure it out. Suddenly I realised that at my feet was a body. The faint sound I could hear was the decomposing of the body.
Then whilst I was contemplating this horror, a Verey light shot up lighting up the area, it was eerie as it flickered over the silent battlefield. I thought now what the hell is going to happen. The working party stood gaping, I shouted to them to get down and stay down.
As the light flickered out I noticed they had done their task, so I decided to take them away and join Frank further along the ridge.
We came to a bowl like depression. I started to take them across it, as we got to the bottom before ascending I heard a challenge, looking up I found looking at a black face, he was a Havildar with a patrol.
It was a dicey moment because he seemed excited and I could not understand what he was saying. I thought “I hope this bugger is not trigger happy”. So I gave the password, that did not work and then I gave him unit, brigade and division, and he was satisfied. It was very dark and probably this confused him.
It turned out afterwards that troops in the area had not been notified of our coming. We went back through the minefield and back to our cellar.
There was one incident I remember after we had left the Northumberland Fusiliers, just as we were about to start back through the minefield. Frank said “Let’s climb these rocks and look over.” As we looked the first rays of dawn were striking the tops of the highest buildings in Imola, they wreathed in mist.
I went with Frank to a village behind the line. I think it was either Piancaldoli or Pezzolo. We saw the 25 pounder being towed around. I noticed a young woman in a smart two piece. I realised it had been made out of American Army blankets. She had found some red cloth for the cuffs and collar. It looked quite good.
Then a convoy of Americans came along, some were drunk and one in a jeep offered me a bottle. I took a swig and wished them luck. I think they were going to Castel S. Pietro.
Sometime later we saw artillery action over there, a lot of airbursts showering down.
One morning as I was writing a letter to Phyllis I heard mortars. I went out and noticed a jeep at the C.P. overlooking the salient and was just starting to go down the hill. The mortars fell nearer and nearer, but it got out of range.
Then I took a working party out and worked our way round a height passing a farm on our left where a little earlier mules had been kept, then taken over by D.L.I. who had then moved on.
The height was under observation and on it were camouflage screens, so we took a lower route along by the stream where we saw a Messerschmidt which had been shot down.
As we made our way back steadily I realised that the men had started to go up the hill. I had told them not to go that way but to take the lower path, which kept them from being seen. They were always in a hurry to get their conna (meal) and were always ready to dive in front. I swore at them. Then I realised they were like the Grand Old Duke of York’s mob by then, neither halfway up or down.
As I ran up to them there was the sound of mortars to our right. I shouted to the stragglers and got them over the top of the hill. I remember poor old Thomas trying to keep up with the younger ones. “Come on you old sod” I said. He was a grand chap, helped to keep the others in check.
After a briefing one afternoon Frank came back with a map. He said “We have got to get rid of a small herd of cattle, we have decided that it will be best done by two parties, one tonight and the other tomorrow night. It is within range of the Spandaus so we shall have to be as quiet as possible.”
So Frank decided to go first and leave me to the second night. Taffy offered to go with Frank, he was nothing to do with us but he wanted to go just for the excitement if any. To get there the ford over the Sillaro had to be crossed.
One of the things Taffy wanted to go for was to see if he could find discarded rifles or any weapons laying around. He would take them to bits and get them working again.
He said that all three of us would have a drink together before we go. He had managed to get a bottle of gin which we split between us. The admis had a lecture “Now then you sods no smoking and keep bloody quiet,” and off they went. “See you in the morning” said Frank, “We shall have to be back before first light.”
I went off to sleep. The next thing I knew was Taffy shaking me, my eyes felt like sacks, it was the damned gin.
“Come on” they said “How about a brew.” I managed a mug of tea. We had a chat before turning in, it seemed that they had completed the job, so I did not have to go.
Well Taff was a nice fellow in many, but I do remember when N.A.A.F.I. rations came along and there was some beer.
He was handing the rations out to his men and taking the cash, when his Sepoy said “I want a bottle of beer.” Sahib and Taff said “Oh no you can’t have one because after all you are only a black man.”
As it was nothing to do with me I could not venture to say anything.
When taking a party out one day I noticed that a battery of Howitzers had been set up at one point and I noticed the huge shells and thought of the damage they wreake.
The next day I was out again with the men, the weather was warmer and tiring. We came upon a little dell and decided to rest.
Unbeknown to me we had chosen to sit right under the Howitzers, they were out of sight owing to the nature of the ground and bushes etc. Suddenly they fired, I could understand how one could be shell-shocked. I was no longer half asleep and it was a long time before my nerves were settled.
We were told to take the disinfestors to Castel del Rio as some outfit or other was lousy. Arriving there we got organised and got the job done, it was late when we finished, it was dusk. So Frank said “I am going with the admis to sleep in the castle” It was more or less just a tower.
I did not fancy sleeping with a crowd of sweating bodies. Nearby was a row of empty cottages whose inhabitants had fled, the area at the rear was untidy with heaps of rubbish. As I walked across the area I noticed rats and I was so close that I could see the little yellow slits of their eyes beneath their hooded lids. Thinking nothing of it I went blithely on to the cottage I had chosen, they were all, of course, devoid of contents.
I settled down to sleep. After about an hour I was awakened by the screeching and scurrying of rats. There must have been hundreds of them in the area. I realised my mistake. I could not walk through that lot. So I had to keep awake in case I had to ward them off. I stuck it out until morning. I came out feeling tired and thinking that at least our cellar at Sassoleone had not so many. We returned and on the way stopped to go into a chestnut grove hoping to find some fallen ones to roast. “Cheboli arrosta” as the Italians called them when roasted. But there was none to be found. They had long since gone. It was a hungry time for many.
At dusk one day I went out hearing firing and called to Frank and we saw a lot of firing from the salient which lit up the darkness. Afterwards we found the salient had been pinched out, things were moving at last it seemed.
One evening the admis decided to entertain themselves by chanting and beating on old tins. They were entitled to their fun, but I could not stand the racket so I walked down to what had been the village square, turned left down a bridle road and sat on a bank by the roadside and I thought how much longer is going to be duration.
As I looked across to enemy lines I could see machine guns firing and the long lines of the tracers.
I thought what a pretty and peaceful village it must have been before it had been so devastated by war. On a wall in the village square appeared a list and photographs of people wanted for spying. I think there were nine, amongst them two women. Later I heard that one woman had been picked up between the lines by the Sikhs, her fate before she was handed over if true is unmentionable.
One did not know what was happening elsewhere and of course there were stacks of rumours. We did hear about Popski in action behind German lines, this was true. I believe he was finally badly wounded near Ravenna.
We used to warn the Indians about climbing forward slopes owing to the danger of mines. They laughed and said the Indian government had many more men.
“I know that,” shouted Frank losing his temper, “You are a lot of bloody jungly wallas, the bloody Indian Government pick you off trees.” I felt that Frank’s career as a good Methodist was in jeopardy.
We were getting towards the end of our stay in the area. It was decided to send us to dispose of the mule and body in the minefield, a Gurka R.E. was sent with us also, with a minesweeper.
Just above the spot on the ridge was a tank and further along to the left another, both were manned. The Gurka cleared an area and taped it, sufficient for us to work in.
The body turned out to be an American, it looked as if he had received a throat wound caused by a mine, a piece of his jaw was protruding. We tried to find his identity disc which they wore on a ball chain, it was difficult to find in the putrid flesh. When we found it we could not get it away. I had an idea, I called to the tank crew for pliers, they threw a pair down just about three yards short of the tape. I thought I will go and get it, it looked innocuous, but then I thought better of it and looked round to see the Gurka just going, I called “Johnny get me those pliers”. He swept the small area between the tape and the pliers and fetched out three ?38 mines and two S. mines, it would have been fatal had I gone.
Some separate research has been done on these mines. The S mine is readily verifiable but it is difficult to trace the ?38 (as written). If it is the TM35 or the TM38 then it is an anti-tank mine — these were normally laid with anti-personnel mines interspersed among them together with booby traps too.
During 1945 — 1946 (i.e. after the war) it is estimated that 3 million mines were cleared in Italy with 1,100 casualties among the de-miners (i.e. mine clearers) but none killed.
The weather was changing now and was becoming warm and springlike.
Then one morning the great Joe arrived early as disdainful as ever and took Frank to one side and said “There is another job for you, it will be the last,” so I guessed we would soon be moving.
It was left to me to take a party up the valley to a point opposite Gesso where a battery of guns had been set up. There were some carcasses around and it seemed the gunners could not stand the competition, we got rid of them.
One of the gunners said “Things are moving. An attack went in at S. Pietro and Jerry is over there,” he indicated with a sweep of his hand where the enemy lines were.
Then he pointed up to Gesso and said “There’s German and American dead up there.” I said “I know about that one,” recalling the gruesome task we had.
I returned and I could hear bombers roaming over. I saw many of them, it was the big bomber raid over the Senio, the hills rolled with sound as the bombs went in.
An Italian farmer passed by, he looked up and I said “This is the beginning of the end.” He said “No no it is not true.”
Early one morning we heard a lone German plane over the area, there was no mistaking the sound. Then we were told we were moving, we packed and moved early next morning. As we moved off several Italians started to take everything that was left. I noticed that corrugated iron was a prime target. No doubt to effect temporary repairs to the roofs of their ruined homes.
I remember across the road from where we were was what seemed to be a man made cave I think the Germans had dug it out to store ammunition. It would most likely have made someone a temporary home.
As we pulled out from the village we saw a long procession of vehicles loaded with Italians possibly partisans and civilians coming along the road to take over. They were cheering, shouting vivas and waving flags. I thought “It’s alright for you, but we have the rest of the way to go,” as was often reported “bloody duration”.
We went on our way along the winding roads in the hills, we lost sight of the Gesso but later it reappeared, then again and once again. At the last sighting I noticed it’s white slopes hence it’s name Gesso (chalk). It was strange that I had only noticed the whiteness from a distance.
The scenes there and around were unforgettable. We passed Brisighella on our left and came down to the plains. As we went along I noticed the poppies in the fields, the emblem of the fallen, a poignant reminder.
Eventually we paused near Lugo, a church steeple, something after the style of the Church of the Martyrs, had been blown by the retreating Germans.
It had obviously been a useful O.P. to them and they meant denying us the same privilege. Offertory boxes had already been put out and some of us donated our small contributions. The weather was good and we stayed for the night a mile or two further on.
Then on to S. Patrizio where we stopped again. There were many troops encamped here. We had trouble between Ibrakim and the Niak It seemed that Ibrakim was late at times for his conna (meal) so Frank told the Niak as per army rules to give him his usual full meal, if late to put him on charge. However the next time it happened the Niak saw to it that only a derisory small portion was put on his plate. Soon there was a fierce argument between the two, this led to a fight.
I said “Leave them Frank, let them get it out their systems.” Blood started flowing and we parted them and Frank charged them both.
The man responsible for dealing with it was the Brigade Orderly Officer, B.O.W.O. nick named the Bow Wow.
Next morning they were marched in front of him. Frank and myself gave evidence, Ibrahim was given field punishment and the Niak was referred to our own C.O., later he was demoted. Later we saw the other one doing his stint digging slit trenches.
We went out doing our work, Frank carrying out his inspections.
One day I took some men. There had been some action near a farm, also with us was a young German prisoner. He could not have been more than seventeen. There were a couple of bodies in a wet ditch, the weather being warm, the stench was horrible. I sent a couple of men to get a door from the ruins of the farmhouse, placing the bodies on it and turning them into the graves we had dug.
The young P.O.W. staggered back as we did so saying “Mutter, Mutter.” I thought that’s where you ought to be with your mother. I felt sorry for him, he was so young.
Late one night some of us were out in the open discussing events. Suddenly a woman appeared weeping. She said “Will there be anymore shelling and shrapnel tonight?” “seedgi” she called it. We played down her fears but as I glanced towards the horizon I saw two separate red patches gradually enlarging and becoming orange. Someone said “I wouldn’t like to be the poor sods in those bunkers”. Some had been dug into the banks of the Felice I thought that flame-throwers or flammenwerfers as the Germans called them terrible weapons.
The woman said that English infantry had been in her house searching for Germans and one had taken her purse. I thought that was bad and gave her some Allied currency out of what little I had. The next day the Brig Major called a briefing meeting. Actually it was early evening. Frank was unable to be there as he had to go to our own H.Q. so I was delegated.
True to form Joe was his usual disdainful self. Giving some briefings he suddenly asked for Sgt. Reeve. I replied I was standing in for him. Demanding why, I told him the circumstances. When he realised that I was only a buckshee private there was a moments silence, then he said scathingly “I don’t have privates at my briefings”, pausing for a moment for it to sink in. Then condescendingly, “You may stay”. Obviously he had no choice.
He then said “You will contact Major Champion at crossroads where the R.E.s have taken over an enclosure. I thought “What, in the dark, what a life”.
Then he had a change of mind and said imperiously “You had better not take a three tonner, take a 15 cwt. vehicle instead, a large vehicle will be far to conspicuous to the enemy. I was there this morning, it was under shell fire.”
Audible sniggers at the very idea of the great Joe exposing himself to the enemy. He was most unpopular both with men and officers.
Then he said “You will go to the Map Room (a converted three tonner) and get a map from Lt. Crossly-White.” He was known to the lads as Mr Ghastly Sight. He once said “I know they call me but I can be a bastard when I like.”
The driver and vehicle were quickly provided. The driver said he came from Loughboro’. I said “Well I only live a few miles away,” so we had something in common.
I went to the Map Room and told Crossly-White what I required, he replied “All the maps are out. I will draw you a sketch”. Like many more I hated home made ones and I wondered how it would all turn out.
We loaded up, the driver said “When I get on the road I am going to put my bloody foot down, I want to get back for some shut eye.” I thought “Don’t we all.”
He agreed about the map and he said “He’s got the bugger wrong”. However we observed the first indication on the map, to turn right but also to ask directions as soon as possible convinced it was wrong. A little further on we came upon Gurkas and asked their officer the way. He said “You have come the wrong way, you should have turned left”. So much for the Map Officer’s instructions.
So we turned back and further along turned to the right and I found the area familiar as we had been around a day or so before.
The driver did put his foot down a little later, we hit something and I thought we were going to over turn. He righted the vehicle and pulled up. We got out and found we had hit a small shell hole.
I said “I will check up the admis in the back”. They said they were “bote tick i”(?) so we carried on.
We arrived at T junction and there was a military police section. I asked the officer directions for the R.E. compound, he said take this right turn to the cross roads and you will see it.
When I got back to the vehicle there was a loud banging and shouts from the rear. I investigated and found that Abdul Krim had passed out. When we hit the shell hole he had banged his head on the iron stay carrying the canvas. I opened his eyelids, delayed concussion, I reckoned. Now what, I thought this would happen.
Remembering something of the area I reckoned there was an A.D.S. (Advanced Dressing Station) somewhere near to our right. I detailed two men, told them where to go. “Get a stretcher and come back straight away and get bloody moving, gillo, gillo, gillo”.
Off they went, found the A.D.S., returned with the stretcher, we put him on and off they went leaving us fuming at the delay.
They returned and off we went again. Reaching the crossroads we found the compound, no doubt it had been used previously by the Germans. After a scout round there was no Major Champion or no-one else. I said to the driver “We don’t want to be hanging around all bloody night. Let’s go straight on and see if we can find what it’s all about.”
As we went on the sound of shelling got nearer and nearer. I said “I reckon we are on the wrong track. We had better go back and try the compound again.” When we got there I saw someone in the compound. It was very dark. I said, “I am looking for Major Champion”. He said “I am Major Champion”. I gave him the details and he said “You should not have gone straight on, you should have turned right at these crossroads”.
Further on he said “You will have to divert and go round a bloody big bomb crater and then you will arrive at the canal.”
On we went, eventually coming to the bomb crater. It was a big one and it was a very rough ride round it and we got back on the road. When we arrived at the canal the bridge had been blown, the girders were at crazy angles into mid-stream. The R.E.s had already stacked Bailey parts ready. There were some dead cattle on the left of the embankment. I got the men to commence to bury them. Some of them objected when they noticed a bare patch of soil, saying it looked as if mines had been sown. I jumped on the offending patch to prove it was OK. I hoped, I thought afterwards, I took a chance there. But as so often happened, sometimes you were scared and at other times you didn’t give a damn.
From somewhere they had got a bottle or two of beer and became noisy and argumentative, I said “Shut your bloody noise and get on with it.” I started to cross the Felice canal via the girders taking Savarimutu and another with me. We passed an officer who was crossing the other way on another girder. He looked up wearily and tired and said “It’s all bloody yours.”
When we reached the other side of the canal we went on the embankment. I looked around and I saw the entrance to a bunker via a trench, it was quite dark.
Then I saw a body, at first I though he was British, but on closer inspection I noticed the Nazi insignia on his freshly laundered shirt He was I would say eighteen or nineteen, handsome lad, his clothing was very clean, his blond hair was back, it was not even ruffled. There was no sign of a wound, and he wore no identification.
As I was pondering what to do, suddenly there was a “Shssh”. I looked to the bottom of the embankment and saw a Havildar in his greatcoat and his bundhook over his shoulder. My first thought was “You must be damned hot in that coat.” It was a warm night.
He put his finger to his lips and pointed saying in a whisper, “listening post”. I guessed we were near the enemy, but not that near. We could hear shelling further away to our left. It seemed the end was in sight.
The dead man still seemed warm and his mouth was open. I decided to put him in the trench leading to the bunker. Savarimutu and his mate wanted to go in the bunker. I refused to let them go in case of booby traps. I wanted to get back as soon as possible.
As the body was lifted, Savarimutu gasped and pointed to his own legs. They were covered in blood. The man had received a severe wound in his back. We put him in the trench and filled it in. Afterwards I found a couple of pieces of wood making a rough cross marking him with a pencil I had as Unknown, then made our way back across the canal. Also we found some horses and tried to bury them but the water table was so high we could not get down far, so we put as much earth on top of them as possible to keep the flies from breeding.
It was after midnight when we got back. I thought about the young German and the many who had died. He was so near to survival, only a couple of days to go.
Next day we all set off and crossed the Felice by the Bailey bridge. The R.E.s must have worked hard on it after we left.
As we passed the Felice I looked back to see if I could see the cross I had put there the night before but it was out of sight.
We stopped now and then going probably by the way of Mazzolara, Minerbio, Baricella, Atedo, Pegola, Malalbergo and Mirabello.
As we went, Gurkas riding on the top of tanks passed us, dropping off, flushing out the enemy and then being leapfrogged by other tanks and so on. They were in good spirits and we cheered each other as we passed on the way.
Once we stopped and there were two huge oxen that the Germans had killed. In a sack nearby were the hearts, liver, kidneys etc., they had no time to take them away. I guessed they were really retreating fast now.
There were some trenches near to and in one I found some anti louse powder, acraflavine tablets and a book entitled Werkmester Bethold Cramp, it was in German of course. A year or so after the war I gave it to Henry Widdowson who was studying German at Alderman Newtons School. He told me it was about a factory foreman engaged in trade union activities.
For an hour or so we stopped at what must have been the village hall. The Germans had left music on the piano stand and we were interested in the music. It seemed they had been singing songs and had to leave in a hurry.
There was another short stay at a farm and our drivers had pulled on to a large patch of grass. The farmer’s daughter objected to this saying the grass was “medicina per l mucca” I suppose she meant food for the cattle.
We finally finished up at a village near the River Po.
After we had settled down Frank said “Let’s go to the Map Room.” It was no longer sacrosant, it was open to viewing and as we looked at the huge dents in the German lines we knew it was all over. Some Italians came along and a woman told us of the fate of Mussolini and his mistress. Hung upside down in Milan, he was cut down, bullets shot into his body by a woman who had lost her sons whilst another woman urinated on him.
Nearby there were some abandoned vehicles, a half track reconnaissance stood in a farmyard, the farmer said there was no petrol in the tank, they were short on fuel and short on bridges to cross the Po, there were none.
That night we slept in our small bivvy which Frank and myself shared. It was a beautiful moonlit night and two nightingales were singing one against the other.
Well it was romantic alright, but when I looked at Frank snoring away, showing his partly bald head. I thought it spoilt the occasion. Nevertheless it was a wonderful experience.
It was May 2nd 1945 the end of the war in Italy. I can’t remember exactly how we travelled there but we went by train but I think we went via Serigallico and then across country to Terri and on to Rome.
As we were going slowly into Rome another train full of German prisoners passed us. It was like two opposing football factions although they were not so exuberant for obvious reasons.
We went to the leave camp which was quite good, there was Frank Reeve, Andrew Newton and myself. One day an ex Cooks guide took us around the Vatican Museum. I was astonished at it’s riches. On another evening we went to the football stadium to see a representative English eleven play and I remember the late lamented Frank Swift astonishing many by picking up the “old leather ball” with one hand.
Another day we were taken by a novice for the priesthood. I reckoned he must have been training for the Olympic Games judging by the pace he set. We went into St. Peter of the Chains, S. Maria and S. Giovanni and other churches in record time, he even pushed in front of people in prayer.
One morning Andy Newton arrived back at the leave camp about 2 a.m., said Frank “Where the hell have you been until now.” He said arguing with a woman outside the Coliseum about the Virgin Birth. Said Frank “A likely bloody story.”
We arrived in Rome on a Saturday and on Sunday evening, I am fairly sure it was Sunday, sirens sounded and this heralded the end of the war in Europe. Then later at the leave camp listening to Churchill’s speech I remember sitting in the Piazza Esedria and in spite of wartime conditions it was quite a colourful sight with people sitting around the fountain, the uniforms of various nationalities and most of the women around seemed to bring some colour.
Visiting St. Peters once more I marvelled at it’s vastness and proportions and went up to the orbit under the cross on the dome where I saw most magnificent views over Rome.
It was customary at that time for the Pope to give audience to the soldiers every morning. I waited outside with the rest undecided but when they all moved off to go in Swiss Guards and all I decided at the last minute not to go.
One day I visited the Pantheon, surely the most preserved Roman building. There was a font into which water trickled, a well dressed couple in their thirties passed me, each touched the water and then each other’s hands. I took it to be a blessing on their marriage. On one evening I stood outside the Opera House. Gigli was to sing but I could not afford to go in. In the street a woman called “Povera Italia” I thought, “So am I.”
One morning outside the leave camp I met a Sgt. in the Leicesters. I asked about young Ernie Bruce who worked alongside me until he went singing and laughing to the last. The Sgt. Said he was killed crossing the Garigliano.
Later on I met a fellow who was in the Welsh Regiment. I knew by then that Charlie Adams had been killed. I asked if he knew him. To my surprise he said he was a survivor of the incident and he described what happened, how the intercom had broken down and they were trapped. He said “I ran like bloody hell for some bushes ( I remember there were very few) this broke their aim” he said “and I got away”.
This confirmed that I had seen his temporary grave and with the details I had from his sister, she or rather his mother, had received from his C.O. I shall never forget the three crosses on the hill and the name of the place was Croce.
One morning we went to the Palazzio Venetia to see a collection of old masters including Holbein’s Henry the VIII and it was a wonderful experience to see them all.
We started back by train stopping at Ferni for a while where there was much bargaining for all sorts of things between the Italians and the soldiers.
Later we passed over a wide estuary, all the parapet walls had gone and we went over seemingly along in space, eerie.
Later, waiting to change transport we found that while Russians had passed before us, they had left all sorts of things papers etc. stuffed under bushes by the railway station, possibly to avoid incrimination when they got back to Russia. In retrospect I shudder to think of their fate, when I recollect the devils bargain over their follow compatriots in England, struck between Churchill and Stalin.
When we arrived back the Division was ordered to go to Venizia Guila, Tito was after his pound of flesh. I thought “Here we go again.”
Just before we arrived there two Sikhs were killed in a wood. Well the war was over, now there was the aftermath until demob.
1945 May 14th to January 5th 1946
We made our journey from the Po to Venizia Guila in one day which considering the chaos left by diversions for various reasons, bomb craters, demolished bridges, one way traffic and other obstacles, we did very well.
When we crossed the Po we did so over a long pontoon Bailey bridge. It had been built by South African R.E.s and they had erected a large sign proclaiming their success. They had a right to be well proud of it. On the sign were the words in large letters THIS BRIDGE TOOK A LOT OF BLOODY BUILING WATCH YOUR SPACING. 10 YDS APART. This no doubt to avoid buckling.
As we journeyed on taking in the scenery as we passed I noted time and again how the Germans had planned strong points en route.
If they could have crossed the Po in strength the war would have gone on much longer. Sometimes a fallen tree would have behind it a gun emplacement or trenches and there were tank traps.
A lot of this work was by the Todt organisers employing civilians or conjunction with their army paying a small wage plus a food ration. As we travelled amongst the hills we found many burnt out and shot up German vehicles by the side of the woods, no doubt by Allied aircraft. When we arrived in the area the first man to go was Paddy Walls, he was Southern Irish and he had been with Sgt. Box’s section. His departure was no great loss, he was not popular because when in drink it was no sooner a word than a blow.
The short time we were together caused some confusion with the Indians, his name being Walls and mine Wells. They always found the W hard to pronounce.
Much to the annoyance of Frank, Abdul Krim had returned after his concussion, he hoped he would have been posted away.
Also we had S/Sgt. Ingram back and instead he was over stores and discipline.
We moved on and encamped next to a First World War cemetery. It was a pathetic sight, overgrown with weeds and long grass, the gravestones recording mostly five in a grave, were of reinforced concrete, some had weathered and broken hanging on the reinforcing. Many were from the professions (78) but monotonously the word Ignotto, Ignotto, Ignotto, appeared, Unknown, Unknown, Unknown. I thought what a waste of life and talent.
Then we went and encamped near some woods. No sooner we were settled then we were subjected to a severe thunderstorm peculiar to the region. When it was daylight I walked around. Here still were trenches from the First World War. Still recognisable were helmets ration tins, paper thin from rust. Also in the area were shell craters and in some instances unexploded shells of the same period.
That night Frank said “There is an open air film show up the road”. We went and of all things it was Jack the Ripper, something more cheerful would have been appreciated.
There was some tension in the area at this time, what with the two Sikhs being killed and there was inclined to be some trouble with the Communists. In Uaine at a demo a woman struck a Gurkha across the face in retaliation, he knocked her to the ground.
There was also a demo in a village and I was told the D.L.I. were stationed in attics overlooking the village street.
One morning I went to a water point and was confronted by a Yugoslav girl, we were on the Italian side of the border of course, she demanded “What are you doing in my country”. Seeking a soft answer I said I had been sent there and had to do my duty. This seemed to mollify her and all was well. Then I met an Italian who almost tearfully said “Tito wants his border along the Tagliemento.” I doubted if he would be conceded as much.
Another cause of tension was a bridge, the Yugoslavo or the Jugs as we nicknamed them had put a sentry one side so we put one on the other. They put cases of ammo on their side, we put some on ours, they put more and finally we put a big stack.
But things simmered down and a football match was arranged between the Jugs and D.L.I. It ended in a 1 - 1 draw and it was a very good game. I noted that women in uniform carried revolvers. Perhaps it was as well it was a sporting game. During this time I found I was in some credit, what little it was. With being tied up for several months keeping up with the action I had drawn no money so I sent home a sum to Phyllis. It would help out. There was nothing at all to spare on soldiers pay with two children.
We got to work on various things amongst other things, we went on anti-malarial work. Even spraying pools caused by shells from World War 1 and there were some unexploded ones. Also we sprayed water in anti tank ditches the Germans had prepared.
For anti fly spraying we had been sent D.D.T., this was new at the time and was sent in small sacks and was in small rubbery lumps. Perhaps it was on trial, I have often wondered since if it was safe to use, no goggles, face mask or gloves. It was effective alright, flies simply dropped off the walls after being sprayed. There was to be a victory celebration by all the Division. It was held in a large depression and floodlit.
It was a good nights entertainment. One particular episode stood out. The Gurkas had been sitting waiting for their turn and when the lights were out they crossed over loose stones to the centre of the arena without a sound. I was astonished to see them in the centre and realised how silently they could move and I remembered the big Germans who had been killed with the Kukir on Coriana. Then 56 London Division whose shoulder insignia was a black cat, organised an open air opera employing Italian artistes, they put on La Boheme. It was an excellent show and hundreds turned up. This was put on in the evening, there being no backcloths, nature provided that in a most dramatic way.
As I sat looking at the stage I could see the long winding Tagliemento to my left, the moon was shining and in the background were black clouds. At the height of the drama it thundered and lightened the moon still shone overhead, a few spots of rain were carried in the wind and no more. It thundered and lightened again.
Poor Mimi’s hand might have been frozen but it did not get wet.
We were near the river Vipacco and many were bathing, British and Indian. I went in quite a lot as I always enjoyed swimming.
Then we were notified that four men had died, two British and two Indian, it was Weils disease carried by rats.
There was no more bathing, the out of bounds sign, the cartwheel was erected.
Our next job was to try and trace it’s source. We put traps along the banks to try to catch live ones for the laboratory in Trieste. Many were stolen by civilians but I finally got one specimen that proved negative.
One morning there was some excitement at the station at Ranziano, many civilians we going on a train to the market at Llulyana, some were sitting on flat open trucks. I think it was their first trip in years.
Living in the village was a young woman who was deaf and almost mute. It seemed that just after World War 1 just as an ammunition dump was due to be blown up she toddled out of the house and wandered too near it. The blast left her permanently deaf and almost mute.
One day she was describing with her hands how one of the gentry from the castle near to Montespuno had visited her on horseback. This was all described perfectly with her hands. The castle had been damaged during the war. Another order came to get rid of the carcasses of horses that had been washed ashore at Sistiana after action in the Med. earlier.
The driver took the men in a three tonner, I followed in a 15 cwt. driven by a Gurka.
On the way he drove too fast and seemed to be in danger of losing control. In what little Urdu I knew I asked him to slow down. On either side of the road was a drop of between twelve and twenty feet, he was really worried and scared, he was not the only one. I sat tight and said no more, not wanting to worry him more and hoped for the best. Eventually he slowed and got control.
On arriving at the beach we found the carcasses of few horses. I got the men collecting brushwood and odd timbers lying about and burnt them. We disposed of them in remarkably quick time.
We went to the coast at times bathing at Duino, Sistiana and Trieste.
Also we had a leave for a few days at Grado. This was an excellent place for bathing. One day I saw a gambling school on the sands between British, American and New Zealanders. I believe the game was called ‘shoot’ and a New Zealander called out, “Nobody in this school under a fiver”. They must have had plenty to stake at that level. I suppose it was all loot money. There were often working parties to be taken out. The country round about was wild and scenic. Some of the villagers had suffered damage and the castle at Montespino was damaged by shell fire. We used to travel through the villages of Ranziano, Montespino, Comeno, Opacchiasella and to S. Daniele near to the Yugoslav border.
Sometimes we saw the metallic strips scattered on the ground, dropped to blind enemy radar. Then came the General Election back home which caused plenty of argument and we were allowed to vote by proxy.
There was a one day visit to Venice. Frank and myself went. There were a lot of service men there, British, Poles, Americans etc.
Two of the largest hotels had been taken over, one for the Americans called the Roosevelt and the other by the British called the Churchill.
We had a long walk around the causeways and bridges and of course St. Marks where we stayed for quite a while going up to the roof as well. As we walked along the front there were tents down on the beach. Some girls were using them, cashing on the worlds oldest profession.
Everyone seemed to be in high spirits, no doubt highly relieved that it was all over.
A boat came alongside the quay, and someone on it was playing a piano accordion, the mood was infectious.
After we arrived back we were out on detachment when one day Frank said “Auchinleck is coming and we have to line the route for him, so we have to do a bit of bull to get ourselves and the admis looking presentable”.
After all that we lined the route with an equal number each side of the road. We waited for a long time, it was hot. Then a car came along and Frank brought us all to attention. The occupant of the car turned out to be a Yugo General. His outfit was Ruritanian to say the least. He was so pleased thinking it all solely for him. After this episode there was a lot of bad language and we packed it in. We never did see the “Auk”.
Then we had a keep fit order and all, we expected to enter into events on the airfield near to Gorigia. I did a couple of laps round the airfield and then chucked it, it was too hot.
Then for a few days I was sent on detachment to an Indian Field Ambulance, two incidents are worth recalling.
One day an Italian woman came to me and said she wanted to see the doctor. I asked what for but she would not say, so I thought well it’s a woman’s problem. I referred her to the Sgt. who was British. The Sgt. took her in, the doctor was Indian. She said her husband had left her because she could not have a baby. Upon hearing this the Sgt. made a suggestion, his offer was refused. The doctor told her she was too fat and gave her some pills.
The other incident involved an unusual tussle between the Mohammadens and the Hindus. Sometimes goats were delivered on the hoof to be killed after. But in this case only one was delivered and so they fell out over it. It started because of the way each killed its animal according to religion.
Their C.O. the doctor said “Kill it and split it between you.” Both refused. Then he said “Well one of you have it this time and the other can have the next one.” They would not agree to this either.
By this time the C.O. was fed up with the whole business, so he said “Tether it to a tree and I will sleep on the problem and sort it out tomorrow.”
During the night either by accident or design, I suspected the latter, it was run over by a vehicle. When their C.O. saw it he thought the problem solved, so he offered it to them all. As it had not been killed according to the rules of either religions neither would accept it. Their C.O., now thoroughly fed up with the whole affair, shouted “Well now get the bugger buried,” and went off swearing.
I went with Frank one day on some upper slopes where we passed through vines to go to a water inspection. When talking to the man who was in charge he told us the grapes were grown to be picked after the first frost to give the wine its own peculiar taste.
There was some wonderful scenery hereabouts. At one time we stayed and had our mess in a schoolroom near to Ranziano.
Not far away was a cottage, it was empty and looked a nice place. I was curious about it. We went in and in one room was a concrete lined hole into a tunnel which went quite a long way from the cottage to the edge of the airfield and came up into a prepared gun position. There was quite a lot of work around these parts done by the Todt organisation. There was a soccer match at the Stadium at Trieste, one side was 13 Corps and I forget the name of the other team. I noticed the name Charlie Adams in the 13 Corps team and he was down as being on Leicester City’s books. In the near future I was to see him in Leicester’s team at the Cup Final at Wembley. There was wire netting around the pitch at Trieste. I remember thinking “That’s something we shall not have back home,” but unfortunately it has arrived. It proved to be a good game. Near to where we were was a large school, fairly modern. We were told that it was to be taken over by Brigade H.Q. and we had to take men to clean it up.
When we arrived we found the whole school had been robbed of all its windows, doors, wiring, electrical fittings, everything portable had gone, leaving it just a shell.
People nearby said it was King Peter’s men who brought a train to take it all away. Judging by the numerous heaps of cherry stones on the basement floor they had been there when the cherries were in season and the little heaps of stones represented the final natural process. Having got it all tidied up, we found after that the Americans were to take it over, causing more bad language.
The roads around were sometimes torturous, some of the cliff hugging variety and so up and down routes were organised.
When we were at Opacchiasella we had to take on a drainage job diverting foul water, so we sent a party there day by day. Frank was elsewhere and I had to stay put so we trusted them to get on with it.
One day when they came back Ibrakim came and said in a wheedling manner would I go with them next day because they thought (meaning the Mohammedans) the work was too dirty for them.
I could see the old chestnut again, them versus the Hindus, the cunning duo were at it again, Ibrakim and Abdul Krim.
So to ensure the work would be done I went, but when I arrived I found, as I expected it was just a put up job and so I said “The work is the same for you all, get on with it.” On my way to inspect the work an awkward incident happened. We were hugging the right hand side of the road on the down route, there was a sheer drop on the other. We were taking a bend slowly when a jeep came round the corner and collided with us.
I realised when, on looking at the jeep, it had two stars on. It was the Brig’s jeep. The Brig called to his Sgt. “Take all the details including the drivers number and name”.
Then, addressing me, he said “You are a British Soldier, you should have punched your driver on the nose,” I thought “What a stupid thing to say for a man in your position.” Of course I had to stand to attention and give him yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir.
When we arrived back I reported the incident to my own C.O. Capt. Stevens M.C. He said “Leave it to me, the Brig should not have been using the down route as an up one.” I heard no more of it.
Shortly after, whilst we were under canvas at the village of Opacchiasella, I received some N.A.A.F.I. rations for the Indians and myself. When I got them together I found that quite a few of them had been gambling and could only afford to buy little or nothing, so most of it had to go back. There was some half pints of Canadian ale which was very good and since the weather was so hot, I paid for it. I had a canvas bucket which kept water fairly cool and I used to fill it with water and drop a couple of bottles in so that I had a nice cool drink at the end of the day.
Further along the coast I heard there was a famous Grotto referred to as the Blue Grotto. I would like to have gone but like so many more places we had been near to, so near and yet so far away.
For a short time I was friendly with a man in the Intelligence Corps, a former school teacher. We went some walks together and noted relics of World War 1.
One evening at dusk he suggested a walk up a hill, it was a long walk to the top. On arriving there we sat down, it was dusk, we listened to the sounds of evening, the distant bark of a dog, the sound of a bell and the sleepy sound of a bird. It all seemed so peaceful after all the turmoil.
Whilst we were in the area there were two Italians, uniformed, who had been acting as interpreters for the Div. The older man of the two was out with us one day when we ran over a viper a few yards before they dropped me off. It was still alive. I despatched it with a stick hoping there were no more around as we were sleeping nearby.
The younger of the two told me how months earlier he had been with the partisans and had taken refuge in a wood. He said he saw the Gurkas engage the Germans and after running out of ammo, executed a war dance and then presented their kukris and charged.
Also I remember a tall Gurka who I often saw. Just after I arrived home I picked up a magazine in which were photographs of the Victory Parade in London. I spotted him on one photo taking part.
The area we were in at this time was very scenic, the nearest we went to the Yugoslav border was S. Danielle. Also in the area were Comeno, Montespino, Opacchiasella, Gradisca, Rifembergo, Ranziano etc.
One day I decided to go into Ranziano, at the time I was at Opacchiasella. I wanted to find some British company for a change. We had a few drinks and later in the evening an old boy was playing an accordian in the village. I decided to walk back.
It was a lonely walk back, the castle at Montespino stood high, it was moonlight and I could see the damage to it’s towers.
After a while as I walked, some officers came along roistering. I guess they had had a few, they gave me a lift.
When they dropped me off I had a little way to go. It was rugged country, the weather was hot and I noticed a fire amongst the trees and bushes in a ravine below.
I arrived back to find the camp site almost empty then suddenly one of the admis appeared. I think it was Seka Apu, he said they had all been taken to H.Q. and a couple left behind to tell me that we were to be picked up next day.
The next day we were picked up and taken to H.Q. Things were moving. Frank was to go to Greece and I was to go to another unit. We shook hands, I was sorry to see him go, he was a thoroughly good sort. He had a good job to go to when it was all over. In civil life he was a public health inspector at Watford. I was taken by a 45 cwt. vehicle to my destination which was thought to be Trento. We went by the way of Cervignano, Portagruaro, Oderzo, Treviso, Vicenza and we passed through Verona.
I remembered old Fred Taylor who I worked for before going into the Army telling me he was stationed in Northern Italy during World War 1. When in Verona he said he saw a man chasing another with a knife. I did not see anything like that when I passed through. By then I think they had packed up the Romeo and Juliet lark.
I wrote to Fred all the time I was in the army. As we passed the outskirts of Verona I noted the magnificent views of the River Adige.
Also later on our journey there was, high up on our right, a large round building and I was told it was called La Memoria de Ossario. The Memorial to the bones of the dead of the First World War.
At Trento there was a war museum containing relics of World War 1.
It was well dark when we arrived at the unit, it turned out to be the wrong one. How, I never knew because I was due at Abano Terme, which of course was miles away, near to Padova.
We slept there the night and they found us some grub.
One of the fellows there told me he had been to a dance at Bolgano. Here he said they danced with their hands on each other’s hips. It was to Bolgano that Bormans wife fled to have an operation for cancer of the uterus and later died. Next day we started on our way. Abano Terme and nearby Monte Grotto.
Here there was still some volcanic activity, hot water springs and at Monte Grotto a geyser that gushed at specific times, once or twice a year. Although whilst I was there I was not fortunate to see it.
We were billeted at a small hotel. It had sunken hot water baths from the underground springs and one had to use special soap and it was not advisable to wash one’s hair.
About this time with a little more money in credit I was able to send some home.
We were out in the country and it was rural. Here a local youth got himself into trouble by breaking and entering the units store and stole boots. He was duly charged and brought before a court which I believe consisted of Italians and British military personnel.
He was sentenced, I believe, for four months and his sister shouted abuse at the S/Sgt who gave evidence.
Because of this when on sentry I was given a rifle. This was the first time I had to do this being R.A.M.C. at the time, we were not supposed to carry arms. We had always got by doing a stick gavel in peace time and through to war we never carried arms except those who had to protect wounded and of course medic paratroopers.
They were a small unit who had seen no action and I reckoned they wanted to play at it. Since I had a touch of rheumatism in my ankles I took advantage of the warm mud baths there sitting with my legs in the mud and then going in the sunken bath inside.
At night one could see the stream that flowed along the village street steaming away. There was some Canadian beer but I could not afford much of it.
We went into Padua and sat in the square, the local carabinieri strutting about in their uniforms.
The cathedral was a must, and I remember seeing the wonderful paintings in it, some by Raphael. Whilst we were at Abano we were sent to Cortina d’ Ampezzo. A hotel there which had been used by the Germans had scores of divan beds which were infested. These we had to disinfect as best we could. We took sprays.
The journey was a long one with magnificent views and was most interesting.
We went by the way of Castelfranco, Treviso, Conegliano just before we crossed the Piave. Then passing through Vittorio Vineto, scene of an Italian victory in World War 1. It must have given them a morale booster after the earlier disaster of Caporetto. I noticed a monument to the victory as we passed through. Then on to Longarone.
As we went we passed two or three lakes including Lago d’Arace (88). We passed a conical shaped mountain with a large cross on the top. I think I remember being told there was an annual pilgrimage to the top. It was a wonderful view, something worth seeing.
We went on towards Cortina the backdrop of the mountains providing magnificent scenery. When we arrived at Cortina it was late and we were given a room and of all things, a feather bed, luxury.
Next day we got working on the beds. We did the best we could. They were looking forward to the new era of tourists.
I thought about Maceny Hughes, or should I say the late Maceny Hughes, he died during the war.
He said bugs could live for almost six months without blood. I wondered if some early tourists would be lousy or rather bug eaten.
I noticed the overhead ski lifts some way off. Also I remember seeing a large German cemetery with its black crosses. I understood that most of their dead were taken back to rear where possible. It was a sombre scene in the dusk. After a couple of days we made our way back taking in the wonderful scenery again and then back to Abano Terme.
It was now October 1945 and I was given a driver and sent to Rimini on detachment and given an area on water testing stretching from Cesena to Pesaro.
One of the pumping stations was in a square in Rimini and a young Italian had been given the job to supervise the chlorination. At this particular point in time it was said that typhoid was endemic in the area.
I went to visit him one morning and found him asleep, the whole apparatus unattended to. I don’t know if anyone in Rimini suffered but I reported him and he was replaced.
One Sunday morning when visiting the beach I found the locals having a good time pigeon shooting, clay of course.
We were billeted at a pensione next to the level crossing at Rimini and I remember the proprietor showing me some minor damage to the roof, caused by shelling.
Not far away was Coriano. I wondered if I would find Charlie Adams’ grave.
Weighing up the geography of the area and also remembering where the action was one year before, I decided it would be at Coriano Military Cemetery, otherwise it must be at Monte Seudo. The driver consented to take me, he had a camera. When we arrived we found it well laid out with its temporary wooden crosses plus the usual large one as a focal point.
After inspecting the plan I found it easily enough and the driver took a snap of me at the graveside.
I also noted the grave of Sgt. Street, the military policeman who was killed near Tano. As I stood I recalled the events of the previous August and September as I looked across to S. Marino. I sent the photo to his mother who always carried it with her. She died whilst on holiday at Skegness. It broke her heart.
One day I decided to walk over the area and I walked as far as S. Savino. The village had returned to something like normal. I walked to the end of the small walled village and recalled seeing an unexploded shell jammed in a wall.
When I got there it had gone and a man was sitting on a carsie in front of where it had landed. I thought “It’s a good job you were not sitting there at the time it landed.” As I passed Croce I recalled the three crosses there the previous September.
It was a long walk and I was late getting back. As I walked downhill from Coriano I could hear sounds of revelry. There was an open air dance in progress. By this time I was very tired.
There was a brawl one night and there was a loud banging on shutters nearby. They were waking up the medics who were on duty. I forgot about that lot thinking I was pleased not be involved. Going out on water inspections I recall a water point in the hills. The water came from springs and filled a large cistern which fed the area. In it were two or three large fish. The man in charge said he could not say how they came to be there but took pride in them as pets.
He also said it was a pity the cistern was not took to a greater depth thereby increasing the pressure and a better supply.
I was standing near the railway sidings one day when who should come up to me but S/Sgt Ingram and all the Indians. He was going home himself and was conducting them to where they had to embark for India. I was pleased to see them all and they all crowded round to say their goodbyes.
I was especially pleased to see Savarimutu, a very likeable Chaplinesque looking character with his curly hair and twinkling eyes. It seemed that Thomas had gone before. He had faked his age to get into the army again and his age by his appearance was obvious.
With the one or two exceptions such as Abdul Krim and Ibrakim they were a good crowd. They were all going home and I have wondered many times since if they all got to their homes safely after the partition of India. Of course Ingram had been a regular soldier before the war and being an older man he had got demob earlier.
By now this was a favourite topic, duration had gone, how much longer demob.
The weather was good and one day I went to Pesaro to do water inspection. Afterwards myself and the driver went to a small bay and it was nice to contemplate the scenery and the peace and quiet.
As we left the area mines were being exploded to clear a large minefield nearby.
I was told to check on barbers shops for cleanliness, there were three in the area. I passed two I thought the third one was dubious. Before we left Rimini there was a show at a cinema, but it was on stage not film. As we went in I noticed a man talking to some of the lads as they went. Later some complained to the manager they had lost wallets and pay books and I believe one had lost his watch. Later in the show he held up the articles for their owners to claim them.
During his act he had men on stage and as he talked to them he picked their watches, braces (?) and wallets.
I am pretty certain he is the same man who has appeared with Paul Daniels, a man by the name of Bora.
At last we moved, this time to Bologna. By now it was getting on the Christmas 1945 and I wondered if there would be any chance of getting home by then.
We were billeted at a school and went looking at places of interest, in fact it was a rather interesting city.
I went in a shop and got some silk stockings for Phyllis. I had also a folding umbrella. I believe I got this at Rimini. Both I purchased by barter cigs. for good. They came in handy since I did not smoke. I reckon the umbrella was the first of its style seen in Leicester, people were astonished to see it in use. They came on to the market not long after.
Came Christmas Eve and the unit had managed a small barrel of beer, as I was going that night to see Rigoletto at the Opera House there. I said “Save a drop for when I get back.”
The theatre was packed. It was a big place and there were many Polish soldiers and girls there. It was an excellent show, I think the principal part was taken by one Da Jube (?) who I had the pleasure of seeing before.
When I got back I found a few dregs in the beer barrel. I was lucky to find that much. But we managed a good meal on Christmas Day.
Next day I was told I was on the list for demob and a day or so after I was taken along with many more to an engineering factory that had been taken over for assembly. There was, of course, no workforce there and we slept on the machine shop floors. Each morning there was a parade and names of those due to commence their journey home were called out. Their first stop was Milan. I began to think my name was not on the list. However, after about three days I was called. We assembled and were taken to Bologna station. The platform was crowded and we all had our kit and accumulated.
By the time the train arrived I felt very tired. When it came there was an almighty rush to get on it and being tired I did not bother much, but when I finally got on I found every seat taken and every compartment full.
I finished up outside the smallest one on the train, the toilet, so I got on the floor to sleep or so I hoped, but I was kicked and jostled as first one and another went to the toilet.
Also I was near the joining of the two coaches and I could see the sleepers hurtling past and thinking, “I hope this lot don’t part company.”
When we arrived at Milan we were taken by trains to the main assembly area O.2.E. Here we stayed for about three days. I remember it was foggy. I fell in with a fellow also going to Leicester. I seemed to remember him as a layabout boozer in the city centre pre war but at least we had a little in common.
Whilst we were there there was a play put on at a nearby theatre. It was, by then, the much hackneyed Tondeleyo (?)
It was fairly well received after all every one was going home, who cared.
When Tondeleyo made her appearances she proved to be a well stacked girl and there were plenty of oos and ahs and wolf whistles. I remember going to see the Cathedral but I thought it huge and cold. Also I recollect the magnificent glass covered shopping arcade, well worth a visit. As we stood in the square we watched the banner headlines moving on the newspaper building opposite.
Using the local trains one found the people much more friendly than back home, but of course, the Latin temperament is so different to our own.
At last we set off for France and the port of Calais. This time I managed to get a seat but they were all wooden seats. It was a long, long journey and with so little comfort everyone got fed up.
We travelled through the night and by dawn we were at Domodossola and we stretched our legs and watched the rosy hued dawn rise over the mountains, a wonderful sight.
On we went through Switzerland taking in the beautiful scenery of the mountains and lakes. We arrived at Berne, the Swiss being neutral would not allow us off the train, but full advantage of their loud speakers to advertise their country telling us how delighted they would be to see us back on holiday.
Early next morning we had breakfast just over the border in France. We were surprised to find how good it was. It was prepared and served out by French civilians.
The state of the railways must have been bad because we seemed to crawl and stop and start again. As dusk came we saw lights in the distance, we guessed they were the lights of Paris.
Eventually we arrived in Calais where we stayed overnight.
Next morning we went on to the ferry to England. It was nice to see those white cliffs once more.
We were taken to near Guildford and stayed over night. Next morning we queued to hand over all our kit and it was checked. The Sgt asked me for my brassard which I have never used. We always thought that the enemy would shoot you first and inspect the brassard after. We were allowed to keep our uniforms and greatcoats. My greatcoat had seen plenty of wear including chucked over my blanket on cold nights. It was as if it was tailor made for me.
A man next to me said “Mine is a brand new issue. I am not keeping it,” We exchanged coats. They made a charge for keeping them, I think it was £3.
Then we proceded to a large building stocked out like a gents outfitters. Here I was provided with a civilian suit, hat, socks, also a Raglan style overcoat. We were allowed of course to keep our underwear.
These had to last me a long time, too damn long.
We set off for London and we had a little time to look round to see the damage and the bomb sites.
Also we watched the changing of the guard at the Palace. They were all in wartime khaki, it looked sombre on a winters day. I remember one poor devil who could not unfix his bayonet when the order was given, he would be in trouble. Then we caught the northbound train. As it dropped its load on route one fellow sitting next to me said “I can see a bloody big word in front of me.” I said “What is that?” He said “WORK, bloody work”.
How right he was, we had got practically nothing and I spent years working extra to try and make up for it. In fact I never did.
Worst of all there was the loss of family life. Five years is a long time to be parted. It was January 6th 1946 and for me it was all over at last.
For the single man it was an adventure, for me it was an experience that I won’t forget, but one I could have done without. There had been the comradeship, the tragedies, the macabre, the gruesome, the excitement and some almost Biblical incidents. However, I could not forget the contradictions, the crucifixion shining in the moonlight and hell beyond, corpses stuffed into a tomb, the children trudging back to their ruined homes and many, many more incidents. I suppose there is much I have forgotten and some things left out.
But after all that I suppose I am lucky to be alive.
Amongst my friends and school mates, I remember the loss of young Butcher R.A.F. shot down by our own anti aircraft guns over the Thames when returning from a leaflet raid, Charlie Adams, Phyllis’ bridesmaid’s brother, Peter Shellerd, the likeable rogue, young Ernie Bruce, also with whom I had worked. Sniffy and Frank Holyoake who I was with in gymnastics and football, Arthur Haines, who I was apprenticed with, my school friends Fred Mason, George Pratt, Ernest Hunt, Ted Graham. There must have been many others. Also there was Sgt. Street killed near Tano, the two R.E.M.E. who were killed, the sailor who was with us at Boufarik. “The world I thought was a now a lonelier place for me especially the ones I knew locally. I would miss their friendly greetings.
The D. Day Dodgers song is worth recording. I remember the seventh verse directed at Lady Astor who it seemed got sillier as she got older and her remarks about the troops in Italy were especially irritating.
Sung to the tune of Lily Marlene
We are the D. Day Dodgers out in Italy
Always drinking vino always on the spree
Eight Army skivers and the Yanks
We go to war in ties like swanks
For we are the D. Day Dogers in sunny Italy
We landed at Salerno a holiday with pay
Jerry brought the band out to cheer us on our way
Showed us the sights and gave us tea
We all sang songs, the beer was free
For we are the D. Day Dodgers, the lads that D. Day dodged.
The Vollurno and Cassino were taken in our stride
We didn’t go to fight there, we just went for the ride
Anzio and Sargro are just names
We only went to look for dames
For we are the D. Day Dodgers in sunny Italy
On our way to Florence we had a lovely time
We ran a bus to Rimini through the Gothic Line
Winter sports and the snow
Then we went bathing in the Po
For we are the D. Day Dodgers the lads that D. Day dodged.
We hope the boys in France will soon get home on leave
After six months service it’s a shame they’re not relieved
But we’ll carry on for several years
Because our wives don’t shed many tears
For we are the D. Day Dodgers the lads that D. Day dodged.
Once we had a Blue Light we were going home
Back to dear old Blighty never more to roam
Then someone whispered “In France you’ll fight”
We said “Not that we’ll just sit tight”
For we are the D. Day Dodgers, the lads that D. Day dodged.
Dear Lady Astor, you think you know a lot
Standing on a platform talking tommy rot
Dear England’s sweetheart and her pride
We think your mouth is much too wide
From the D. Day Dodgers out in sunny Italy.
Look around the hillsides through the mist and rain
See the scattered crosses some that bear no name
Heartbreak and toil, suffering gone
The lads beneath, they slumber on
They are the D. Day Dodgers, who’ll stay in Italy
For we are the D. Day Dodgers, the lads that D. Day dodged.
Part of the foreword to the book The Guerrilla Surgeon (Dr. Lindsay Rogers, New Zealand)
My dealings with the partisani in May 1945 when we snatched Trieste from Tito’s grasp were difficult to say the least of it. The Yugoslavs resented our being there and carried out operations against the civil population of Venizico Guilia (?) which were really acts of war. Short of fighting them we could not restrain the partisan’s violent ways. Indeed they behaved exactly as described by Dr. Rogers in his book. The climax at Trieste came when I was obliged to get really tough with the Yugoslav commander who was a well known Russian indoctrinated Communist. But the whole attitude of the partisani changed when they realised I knew Dr. Rogers. I confidently recommend this book as an exciting and realistic story and a valuable contribution to the history of our lives.
Bernard Treyberg Lieut. General V.C.GCMG, K.C.B., K.B.E. D.S.O.
German Grenadier 2/KG2531 Gesso
27 April Milan, Verona and Turin taken
28 April Good progress
29 April Mussolini and mistress hung
2 May Enemy surrendered
5 - 12 Leave to Rome
Ordered immediately to Venizica Giullia
Tuesday 10th April 8th Army launched an attack proceeded by a great air assault.
17th April Germans strongly resisting 5th 25th armies on the offensive
21st Bologna falls
26th Good progress near to Verona
Saw aerial bombardment and salient pinched out.
Jan 4th 1969 sent documents to R.H.M.C. History Museum. Double sided news sheet entitled Italia Combatteninte.
Two surrender leaflets in three languages.
One German Fieldbook
One Italian propaganda card
A written order signed by Major Pideock to recover straying horses
Receipt of the same acknowledged 23.1.69.
Other items to Newarke Houses Military Museum Miss Leggat.
Uncle Sydney Wells, father’s youngest brother 362817 R.G.A. killed by premature burst. Buried at Rheims 1917.
Aunt Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter shortly after - died in infancy.
As much as possible the editor has done his best to verify the correct spellings of various Italian place names. This has not always been possible. The diary itself has remained in its original form. I would also like to thank my mother and father for their invaluable help in verifying and correcting details within the diary.
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