- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Robert Berry
- Location of story:
- London, Italy, Greece
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 24 July 2004
A Coy 6th Battalion Black Watch. Sgt. R. Berry, middle row 5th from left. Taken in Greece
I would like to tell you about my life in the war years. This story is real, no punches pulled.
I started work as a young boy of 14 earning ten shillings a week, it rose up to 12/6 a week in the 1930’s. By the time the war came I was earning 19 shillings a week at a banana factory at York Way, Kings Cross, London N1. One day the sirens went and one of our own shells fell on our factory, killing one of my mates and taking a leg off another mate. I recall it very well.
After a while I got the sack because there were no more bananas coming in to the country. There was no Social Security in those days, all I got was 19 shillings wages, you did not get holidays either, you were lucky to have a job.
I found it very hard to get a job because I was calling up age, the employers would not take you on. I left home for a while because I could not give my mother any money. I slept rough with some of my mates who were in the same boat. I got a job just before I was called up.
I was driving a big van for £1 a week, then when I got called up. I enlisted at Gloucester in the RAC. I went to Ireland, attached away from my unit, to get the camp ready for the American lads and guide them into Ireland to their new camp. They were lovely lads, I will never forget them.
I came home on leave and went out on the street when there was an air raid. I remember spending a night at my brother’s firm that went over from bananas to war work, we both worked there during the 30’s. My brother was on fire watch and we were in the shelter when the sirens went and we went outside. London seemed to be alight that night, fires everywhere. All of a sudden a bomb was whistling near us, we both made a beeline for the shelter. As we did so we got stuck in the doorway and when the bomb hit, it rocked us and the shelter. We heard the crash as it hit the front of the poppy factory next to my old firm in York Way, Kings Cross.
My brother and I rushed round there and got over the rubble, it was being used partly as an air raid shelter. We managed to get the doors open and the people inside, mostly Italians, were okay.
Another time I was walking home from a night out with some of my friends before going back off leave. I had a few beers and, bidding farewell to my friends, I set off for home up the Caledonian Road from Kings Cross. The buses had stopped because of the air raid in progress. I was full of Dutch courage, I ran and I was just past the canal bridge when the Germans dropped a UX bomb on the corner and another near the railway bridge in the Caledonian Road. My home was in Hornsey Road at the time. I thought I would never get there, dodging in and out of shop doorways, but I got there okay. I went back off leave and then we all returned to Southern England and we were told we were going to Scotland to do some more training before going abroad.
They put us on a train, travelling all the through the night. They stopped early in the morning, they took us off the trains and put us on old tramcars and off we went. On the way we spotted a big ship in the port of Liverpool, we went right inside the docks and were told to march up the gangway of the liner Capetown Castle. I can see the boy’s faces now, leaning over the rails, we were all crying. They had done the dirty on us without any leave to let our folks know.
After quite a while we sailed out from Liverpool, in convoy, all round the Bay of Biscay all cooped up like chickens, in hammocks, most of the boys being seasick. They kept dropping depth charges all day and night to keep the U-boats away as we were nearing Gibraltar Straits near Africa. When we got out there we went on to Naples. The sight of the little children begging for food broke our hearts, the poor little mites. How could the world be so cruel?
While we were in Naples, some of us had to go on a mine-laying course. It was about how to prime the mines and dig them up if we came to a minefield. Also, while we were in Naples, we were asked to give blood because there had been a lot of wounded soldiers, we would also get a pint of beer afterwards. They told me my blood group was no good, they only wanted group O. I said to them, ”What about my pint of beer?” They said, “Sorry, it’s only for them that gave blood”.
After that I went up to the front to join my regiment, the Black Watch. We went right up to Cassino to the monastery on top of the mountains, right through the lini valley. I called it ‘The Valley of Death’. The stench was terrible; there were boots with leg bones sticking out of them, animals with their heads blown off, and carnage everywhere. We were so called human beings. It made me mad to think us men could do this inhuman thing. It made me feel full of guilt, but it was either them or us.
On we went to, more or less, link up near Anzio. The Americans walked through Rome while we went to the right of the river Tiber. It would have been nice to go to Rome, but we were out of luck. We went on fighting our way up towards Arezzo on towards Florence. Them bloody mountains kept getting us bogged down because the Germans could look down on us. They always had the advantage on us by lobbing their hand grenades down on us. They were always well dug in before we got there, then when we got down on the flat ground we had to search the graveyards which were mostly blown to pieces and we had to be careful of booby trap bombs.
I remember very well when I was searching a graveyard, I went down in the vaults, I pushed the door open and nearly jumped out of my skin, for here in front of me were thousands of skulls and in front of them was a man standing fully clothed, even with his hat on. I thought he had the drop on me. When I took a closer look at him I saw that he had been shot. I don’t know if he was a partisan or traitor, but he had been stood up against the skulls. All I know is that he frightened the life out of me.
On and on we went advancing, also losing a lot of our boys. We would sometimes ride on the back of our Canadian boys tanks because sometimes we would advance quickly. When it got too hot as the shells were coming over thick, we would jump off the tanks and advance on foot through gunfire then stop and dig in if you could, or build rocks round yourself. Every time we went into the mountains, we would take village after village. All the inhabitants would come out from their dugouts and cheer us on with bottles of vino rosso. That pepped us up a bit.
On we would go, still losing a lot of our boys, which was heartbreaking. They were like myself 19, 20, 21 years of age — I was 21. It was a terrible nightmare, which I wonder how most of us got through. I sometimes thought on reflection, am I dreaming? We crossed river after river and believe me there were a lot of them. On we went then dug in again, next morning a young German came down the dirt road and gave himself up to us, we thought it might be a trap so they sent two of our platoons into a thick wood. In went the first platoon, in the distance we could see them entering then there was sudden gunfire. We could not see them. Then the next platoon was sent in. They did not come back. Then it was my platoons turn to go. We were all very frightened. Off we went, very slowly, taking every caution.
When we got into the woods they were waiting for us. They opened up with machine gun and rifle fire. Two of my mates ran to the right of us and my other mate dived into a narrow gully. My mate got hit in the side. I don’t know how bad he was lying in front of me. The sun was belting down on us, them bloody insects crawling all over us. I had bits and pieces of blast in my face, but not too bad. My mate came round,
I could not do much for him because the gully was very shallow, only just covering our backs. My mate said to me, ‘Put your hands up’. I said ‘Not bloody likely’. They would come and machine gun us to death. Where there was life there was hope. The gunfire was still going on as dusk was setting. I said to my mate, ’If we could crawl about a quarter of a mile, we might be able to make it to the dirt track where the young German came down earlier on’. My mate said he would try, we had nothing to lose.
I helped him off with his pack and webbing and I took off my own. We left our guns and ammunition so we could move more freely. We made it to the end of the gully, which seemed like hours. I said to my mate, ‘Will you make it over the top’? He said ‘Yes’. I gave him a shove to help him over, he got up and ran like a dog. He ran to the left of the road while I ran to the right. As we neared our lines I started shouting, ‘Don’t shoot’! I fell into their arms, but could not talk for quite a few hours - it was terrible trying to speak, but nothing would come out. I never did see my friend again. I don’t know if he was sent home, but I think he was alright.
After a while I got dysentry and my face was breaking out again because of the blast - also my hands. I lost a lot weight over having dysentry. I was flown over to a base hospital in Pompeii with the wounded German boys in an old Dakota plane. They bandaged my face and hands and when they thought my face was getting better, they took the bandages off and force-shaved me. It was ever so painful, but it got better in time.
When I went back up the line we weregoing out again, crossing river after river. We entered near a dangerous gap, an Officer and his men had to cross it first. Suddenly the machine guns opened up and cut the poor Officer inhalf. His men refused to follow because the same fate would have been thiers. They were arrested and put on trial at Pesaro near the Adriatic. I think, at that time of day, they got seven years hard labour. Nobody could blame them after what they had been through. I know all this was hushed up during the war. I would have done the same myself, they would all have had a certain death. I think they were released after the war with a pardon, I dearly hope so.
On we went to Forli where Mussolini came from. As we entered the town, there were bodies lying all around the square. I think the partisans shot them for being traitors in the pay of the Germans. I was put in the transport unit because I could drive. As we advanced on to Ravenna and got to the end of town, our boys were cut down.
At night, us drivers had to try and get some food to the boys. They had not eaten for a couple of days. I had a big cannister of soup on my back, also, my mates were all strapped up ready to go in. We had to keep dodging about, trying to reach the front line where our boys were. We were passing all over dead boys who were put on stretchers. In the moonlight it looked as if they were just sleeping. I will never forget my dear mates. While we were walking over all the bodies, I suddenly fell down a bloody great hole. The lid flew off the cannister of soup and the hot soup went all down my neck. My mate got his water bottle out and poured it over my neck to cool it down.
We reached our men through heavy gunfire and fed them the best we could. We had all our boys who were killed brought back to the transport base and they were wrapped up in blankets. Our Padre, who was like a real father to us, said prayers over the bodies and then we buried them. Then we had an urgent call saying we were going to palestine for a rest. They took us to the toe of Italy at Taranto and put us on a liberty boat, then told us we were going to Greece. They had tricked us yet again.
On the sea, sailing towards Greece, I felt something moving up my back. I told one of my mates and he said ’Take it easy’. He called a senior officer over and carefully, they lifted my shirt off and shook it and out fell a scorpion. They stamped on it, then inspected my back, just in case it was scratched. I was told they send you mad for 24 hours. I was all of a sweat, but I was lucky, it did not scratch me.
When we neared Greece, they put us over the side into landing crafts, ready to drive off at the port of Piraeus then up to the main Athens road where we were fighting what was called Elas. They were the guerillas who we dropped arms to for harrassing the Germans, but they turned against us because Churchill wanted to put the Royal Family back on their throne.
We were making our breakthrough to Athens where our paratroops were holding them. We opened a food kitchen for the Greeks because they were hungry. One of our tanks blew down the gates of a cognac firm for us, then we had free booze. we saved it up for the New Year which was not far off. At Christmas we had the same old food - bully beef and hardtack, then after all this we advanced into the mountains with children as young as 12 years of age firing at us. Our company was captured and taken prisoner. It was a long time before we got them back, they were filthy. They were all sent on leave.
On we went further on into the mountains. There the war was coming to a close, we reached a place near Albania called Konisa. There I was struck down with Malaria. They took me back over the mountains to the base camp. It was a terrible, bumpy journey. When I got there, I was srtripped off and bathed in cold water to keep my temperature down. Then I was given quinine - it was terrible stuff to take. I was not allowed any water to drink, it was very effective.
While I was on my back the war was over. I did not know what day it was, that is how I spent VE day. When I got back to my regiment the Black Watch was being broken up. In the meantime, I had a telegram stating my father had died. By the time I got back home he was dead and buried.
When my unit broke up I was sent to Brigade HQ and became their motor transport Sgt in Charge. Then i came up for demob. Tere was no welcome home for us, we just went back to civvy street a bit older and wiser and just melted into the crowd. What did we get out of it - just £90, nothing else. That bought me a suit, shirt odds and ends. That was it, gone. Everything was dear and bought with coupons.
Now all I can think of is my dead comrades lying out in far off lands and I pray it never happens again for our childrens sake.
Ex 8th Army Sgt. R. Berry (Deceased).
A Coy 6th Battalion Black Watch
Written by Robert (Bob) Berry in the 1970's. Submitted by his daughter Sue Cooke
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