- Contributed by
- Colin D Moon
- People in story:
- Harold H Moon
- Location of story:
- North Africa
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 11 November 2003
Stay with me, God. The night is dark,
the night is cold. My little spark
of courage dies. The night is long.
Be with me, God, and make me strong.
The smokeroom of the troopship, S.S. Cuba, was crowded with the soldiers of the Black Watch Regiment, seated at small tables playing cards, or lolling on the floor against the walls reading books. The air was filthy with blue cigarette and pipe smoke, which hung around the low central lamp, almost screening it from view. The entire ship’s personnel seemed to be crammed in this small space. The soldiers were wearing as little as possible. Most favoured, a pair of short pants and a singlet, with a handkerchief round the neck to mop up the sweat as it streamed down the face and back of the neck.
Outside, the decks were deserted. Smoking was forbidden there. A burning cigarette could be seen for miles in the pitch blackness of the night. German submarines were on the prowl, seeking for such a target as this, the Highland Division in convoy in the Atlantic. All that could be heard on the deserted decks was the peaceful swish-swish of the water against the sides if the boat, while an occasional glimpse was caught of a sister troopship as she loomed out of the dark, momentarily off her course.
I lay stretched out on the smokeroom floor, my lifebelt acting as a head-rest, reading a book, a mystery it was, and trying to get a breath of the clearer air near the deck.
A white-jacketed steward came through the doorway and, at the sight of him, I hurriedly scrambled to my feet. This was what I’d been waiting for. He pinned a sheet of notepaper to a panel at the left side of the doorway and hurriedly moved out the way of the mad scramble that followed.
I was pushed almost flat against the wall as chairs were thrown back and a mob of soldiers surged forward behind me. I raised my head and read the notice, which, was in reality the night’s news-bulletin taken from the radio. Each evening it was posted there, for this was the only means of telling the whole ship what was happening on the war fronts.
The notice read ----
B.B.C. NEWS BULLETIN - JULY I2 1942
“In a battle ranging over hundred of miles of desert, “the Eight Army --- now under the direct command of General Auchinleck — is striving to check Rommel’s gravely-menacing thrust into Egypt.
Late last night a field correspondent said a strong enemy column had passed El Daba, coastal point 30 miles east of Fuka and about 100 miles from Alexandria.
El Duba is the last big aerodrome on the coast before Alexandria.
The Germans are pushing steadily into the bottle shaped area between the Mediterranean and the quattara depression.”
When I’d finished reading, I didn’t know what to think. The news was definitely bad. I knew we were bound for either Egypt or India, for we had been issued with tropical kit before leaving England. But, how would this news affect things?
“Well we won’t see Egypt now anyway!” shouted one lad.
“Don’t be so sure!” came the answer.
“This Afrika Korps is going some,” remarked another soldier. “They must be hot-stuff. I hope we don’t meet them.”
“Well, there’s buggar-all we can do about it right now!” chimed in another. “So let’s get back to our cards. There’s a big kitty to be won.”
As the crowd slowly drifted back to the tables, I returned to my old spot on the floor, and picked up my book once more. But the printed words in it meant nothing to me now. I couldn’t concentrate. My thoughts were with the news bulletin. When were we going to get the better of these damned Nazis? We hadn’t had a real victory yet. All the news that we were getting from the war-front these days was bad. But for me, the situation was now entirely different. Previously, I had been thousands of miles away from the war. And, now I was heading straight towards it!
“Maybe they’ll send us to India,” was the only consoling thought that entered my head. “There’s certainly no point in taking us to a country that’s liable to be occupied by the enemy within the next couple of days.”
By the next day, however the news improved and soon we were told that Rommel had definitely been halted at a place called El Alamien, some forty-five miles from Alexandria. The Eight Army was now in control … for the moment at least.
On the twelfth of August we landed in Egypt.
It was dark when we arrived at our camping place, and we were all so dead-tired that we just stretched out on the sand and fell asleep.
As I lay down there, with the black star fill sky as my blanket, I heaved a sigh of relief. I was on the land again! The days that had moved monotonously into weeks aboard the troopship, had been charged with an electric atmosphere. Every minute of every day had held the palpable threat of disaster, for U-boats were prowling the Atlantic in their hungry packs, and the fear of a watery grave constantly haunted us. How often I had climbed into my hammock at night and imagined the horrible scene in the crowded deck-rooms should a torpedo suddenly have hit our ship as we had lain asleep. We were billeted so close together, that if one man set his hammock swinging, he set the whole lot going, like a field of corn in a high wind. We would have stood little chance, so tightly packed together as we were.
Now these suspenseful nights were at an end. Tonight I could go to sleep, secure in the knowledge that tomorrow morning I would still be in the same spot, with no rude awakening from a torpedo. I turned on my side and idly let the sand sift through my opened fingers, thankful, ever so thankful, to be off that floating tin coffin.
Sleep did not come easily, as I was eager to see what type of place we were billeted in and, consequently, I awakened not long after the break of dawn. As I sat up and looked around, I could see there were fairly large tents quite close. Obviously they were intended for us, but, in the darkness of the night, we had no bothered to find them.
The place we were situated was called Kassassin, but why they even bothered to give it a name was beyond my understanding. Apart from the tents, it consisted of a Naafi canteen and a makeshift cinema. A Shafto’s Cinema was as near an Odeon, as a nissen hut is to a palace. And all of this in the middle of nowhere. Just sand, sand, and sand, stretching in all directions, only broken to the south-east by a road that seem to go nowhere as it wound away in the hazy heat like a black tortuous snake. I looked for some sign of vegetation, but green was a colour omitted from Kassassin’s paintbox.
“Bags of life here,” one lad grunted. “We’re going to have a swell time, I can see that. And some wise guy said the East was glamorous!”
We all shared sentiments such as these, for never in our previous two and one half years service had we been placed in such a desolate location.
Of course, our commanders were not interested whether or not we had a good time. We were here become accustomed to the country and its climate. There was definitely a war on in Egypt, and we were here to play our part.
Before we had even enough time to properly air our grouses, our training began, in a heat that taxed even the strength of the country’s burnoose inhabitants, with their mournful wails of “Baksheesh” and “Shoeshine, George.” Man, we were put through the mill!
The first few days were absolute Hell … a destination I was certain could never be any hotter that this bloody place. I sweated and boiled in atmospheric conditions that I’d never dreamed existed. Thankfully, no parades were attempted in the afternoon. At that time the sun was absolutely merciless as it streamed down out of an incredibly clear sapphire sky. The heat shimmered in visible waves on the burning sand, and literally roasted alive any unfortunate crazy enough to disrespect its awesome power.
Then, in the evenings, when the sun had disappeared in the west, in all its Eastern glory, the air grew so icy that our teeth chattered and goose pimples appeared all over our flesh. There was no gradual change of temperature. One minute it was burning hot, the next it was freezing cold, as if an insulated lid had been suddenly clamped over a boiling cauldron, completely shutting out the heat.
Not many days after we had been at Kassassin, this cauldron seemed to boil over. That was the day the dreaded Kahmseen dropped like a blanket. I shall always remember my first experience of this terror from the interior wastes of Africa. The air came from the desert far inland, not from the Mediterranean as it usually did. Blistering not air, with minute particles of sand floating in their millions, floated through the sky, shutting out the perpetual blue, and turning the heavens into a mass of grey.
The first time it hit me, I felt as if someone had placed a smothering pillow over my face. It was almost impossible to breathe. I felt the red-hot air going up my nostrils and making me choke as it reached back of my throat. Huge sand-spouts wended their way from the earth to the sky in darkening wavy pillars, and when I saw them coming, I hurriedly dived out of their path. On one occasion I was too late, and was caught in a whirling column of sand, which torched me like the blast from a furnace, making me gasp frantically for breath.
In the evenings during Khamsen, it was torture trying to get to sleep. I’d lie naked as the day I was born, with only a blanket below me to keep the sand off my body, and close my eyes, firmly determined to get some sleep. I’d sweat and sweat, the liquid oozing from the pores of my body like a slowly-pressed sponge and running in rivulets down the side of my stomach. Eventually, I’d manage to drop off for a few hours, only to awaken at dawn to find myself in a pool of my own perspiration, and so exhausted that I’d feel as if I hadn’t slept in years.
Once this terrible Khamseen arrived, I soon learned that it was certain to last for at least three days. That was the minimum. That then was the country that my comrades and myself encountered and, consequently, our first battle was not against the Germans but against Mother Nature.
A few days of sand swirling through tents, hitting our faces and bodies, and sticking to every nook and cranny, it was little wonder that dysentery set in, in its worst form. We just couldn’t avoid it. Sand was everywhere. It blew in our food and we ate it with bully beef, stew, wretched sweet potatoes, melons, or whatever was on the menu. The flies, too, lent their dirty, disease-ridden feet and gobbling filthy mouths to the daily misery. These were not like the flies back home which disappeared when you aimed a blow at them. These merely got out of the way when the blow fell and returned next second as if to attest their total disdain for the human race.
It was a contest at meal-time, you versus the flies, with the nasty fluttering creatures winning nine times out of ten. I used to take a newspaper with me to every meal, to place over the top of my mug of tea while I ate the rest of the repast. Then I’d prepare myself for the battle ahead. With one hand, I would quickly snatch the newspaper away, while, with the other, I practically threw my mug to my mouth. In all, the swift motion took me about a second --- but the insects took only half second --- and before a single drop of the tea got over my throat, my mug was rimmed with buzzing flies. How then could dysentery be prevented in stomachs not yet acclimatised to the desert hazards?
Soon I had joined the other lands in their daily dashes to the latrines, which had become the busiest place in Egypt. Some of the chaps got the dysentery very badly and on one occasion, while we were on parade, I saw one poor unfortunate break the ranks, without an as much as by-your-leave from the officer in charge, a court-martial offence at any ordinary time. But this was no ordinary time and, besides dysentery was one of the very few things that paid no attention to rank, officers suffering as badly as the private soldiers. It took such a strong hold that several of the chaps during the afternoon siestas, used to have a bicycle parked outside their tents, in case of a sudden call to the latrines two hundred yards away.
So it went on, this horrible hardening process. Route marches were instituted, a few miles to start with, then gradually increasing in length until we were doing twenty miles. On these marches, I became accustomed to the solitude of the desert, with its lack of shelter from the scalding rays of the sun. An unfriendly place, with nothing but burning sand in which I sank up to the ankles, nothing, that is, except in front of me, the monotonous bouncing back of the soldier marching ahead. I’d done countless route marches in ‘Blighty,’ but never one half so fatiguing as these we did in the desert.
These marches were the cause of one of the saddest incidents that ever befell our Division. One of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders while out foot-slogging it with the rest of his company, had had his bowels gripped by the dreaded dysentery and could not carry on. He had fallen out and been told to make his own way back to camp. That evening he had not returned.
Search parties were organised to go out and seek him the next morning. He was found all right, only five minutes’ walk away from the nearest camp, as black as a cinder. Sheer torture in his bowels, and tiredness caused by the route march, had sapped his strength and made him lie down for a breather. He had, however, fallen asleep through exhaustion. The burning afternoon sun had done the rest. While he had slept he had roasted him alive, just as a piece of bread is toasted black if left too long in front of a fire. The hateful country had claimed its first victim in the Highland Division.
Then came the preparation, obviously for a tilt at Rommel and his much-boasted Afrika Korps. Every week our battalion was sent out to attack a certain sandy ridge, which, so rumour said, was a replica of the ridge we would assault on the night. We assailed it in daylight, then in the darkness, first as a battalion, then as a brigade and later as a division. As a final rehearsal, we were to use our own artillery, in the same manner as it would be used in the real offensive.
By this time, we knew the stunt off by heart. We knew where to go and how best to get there, in the shortest possible time. So, it was little wonder that we treated this dress rehearsal in a carefree nonchalant manner.
One night, there was the usual walk up to our start line, which was marked by white tape. Then we advanced towards our objective, our artillery, twenty-five pounders, plunking their shells down a good bit ahead of us, supposedly at the positions of the enemy. There was no thought of any danger. We were in company formation and gaily marching along as if at a Sunday school picnic. I was chaffing away with the chap nearest me when it happened. A loud whoosing noise sounded overhead, and the burst of a shell lit up the ground less than 500 yards in front of us. I paid little attention, for rumour had it that our gunners were using dummy shells, a silly rumour if one knew exactly what happens when a dummy shell lands. But then we didn’t know the difference between a dummy shell and a cricket bat. For men about to go into action, we were amazingly ignorant.
I continued joking with the lad next to me, despite the fact that I could see these shell-bursts moving slowly down towards us. The first one had landed at five hundred yards’ distance, the second at four hundred yards, the third at three hundred, and crump! One had landed amongst the company only two hundred yards ahead.
There were instant cries of agony that sobered me out of this Sunday school attitude, and our company commander immediately yelled to us to get down. We lost no time in lying flat, for if these shells continued dropping shorter, our company would get a basin-full. It was a tense few minutes as we lay there, fully expecting to hear the whistle of another shell heading for us.
I heard shouts from ahead and a motor car lights were switched on, turning darkness into daylight. I could hear the voice of General Wimberley our Divisional Commander, as he hurriedly sent back by wireless a message to the gunners to cease-fire. I hoped his message would reach the artillery before another salvo of lethal lead was thrown at us. Five minutes passed. Nothing happened. Wimberley had been in time.
We had six men killed that night, including Major Wilmott, our second-in-command, and so far we hadn’t seen any real action!
As we sat in our trucks waiting to be conveyed back to camp, I could not help noticing the strained, despondent looks on the lads’ faces. How different this was from the training we had had in Britain. Here, lives did not seem half so valuable as at home. It was somehow ridiculously easy to meet death in this desert. The lads criticised unmercifully the gunners, saying it was all their fault, although deep down they knew that it was just one of these things that unfortunately has a habit of happening, especially in warfare.
Men being killed did not stop the daily training for the battle ahead. It wasn’t long before we took over a section of the Eight Army’s front line at El Alamien. It was quiet, however, and gave me no taste of what was to come, and coming soon too, I felt sure of that!
Over two months had passed now since we had arrived in Egypt, for it was now October, 22 and I was congratulating myself on the finest camping site so far, when we were moved to the coast with its refreshing sea breeze. That day, however, came the announcement that we all knew had to come, but which we had all been dreading. The whole battalion was put on parade, and before we were actually told, I knew what was to happen. The big attack was about to come off. I was right, our C.O., Colonel Roper-Caldbeck, gave us the news.
“Tomorrow night, October, 23, we go into action against the Afrika Korps.”
He painted a rosy picture to us, of how superior in tanks, aircraft and men we were, and how Rommel was believed to be short of petrol. We had a new Commander, a General Montgomery, who had been put in charge of the Eight Army, with General Alexander in command of all the armed forces in the desert. These two men were confident of victory, our C.O., said, and that was half the battle won. However, we were as inexperienced as Spitfire pilots in submarines. Ninety per cent of us had never been in action before.
But “Monty” --- we dubbed him that right away --- thought we were just the men for the job, because he had chosen us as one of the divisions that were to knock a hole in Rommel’s minefield for our armour to go through. Yes, that was the plan! Monty was to forget all previous desert tactics of armour first, infantry later, and instead was to put the infantry in the lead, with the tanks following up to exploit the breakthrough.
“How nice of Monty,” I thought! “Must he think of this plan, when its our first go at the enemy?” “Couldn’t he have waited until we had been initiated into the horrors of war before trying this new idea?” I would have felt a bloody site more confident with tanks leading us, giving us a bit of protection from the enemy fire.
Later in the day came blow number two that affected me more than news of the offensive. I was summoned to battalion H.Q. and there the Signal Master informed me that I was to be transferred to his platoon for the big attack. I was dazed I couldn’t believe my ears. This was terrible. I knew the rudiments of signalling, how to send Morse messages by telephone, how to lay cables, how to make joints in wire, et cetera, but when it came to the modern conception of signalling, wireless, why I didn’t even know how to send or receive a message. I had never been given the necessary training. I felt helpless and out of place. Why, oh, why did this have to happen to me? And at the last minute too!
I felt as if the whole world were against me as I protested strongly to the Signal Master. I’d much rather have been in there with the infantry men with whom I had trained for the past two years — A Company -- with their bayonets fixed on the ends of their rifles, getting at the guts of the enemy. I was no hero, but right now I felt like a square peg in round hole. A signaller is a man trained to know all about getting into communication with each company, battalion, brigade and division, and keeping these lines of communication open. Men’s lives depended on this, because, if one company or division does not know what the other is doing, then a whole attack would turn out to be a shambles. Yet, here was me, one who knew next to nothing of the job, lumbered.
Needless to say, my protests to the Signal Master made not the slightest impression, and it was with heavy heart that I went back to A Company to pick up my kit. I was exceedingly downcast as I said goodbye to all my very best mates.
Fortunately, I was not given much time to mope around, for as soon as I arrived at my new company, I was told to get ready to move. The whole battalion was to enter the front line, the same part in which we had already had an uneventful stay, and the move was to take place under the cover of darkness. There we were to stay until the next evening, the 23rd, when Monty’s big offensive was to be launched.
Thus that evening found us in main defences, which before then, had been manned by one brigade. Shortly after midnight that sector of the front line contained our entire division. The enemy, however, did not know that. What was more, he was not to get to know, because every precaution had been taken to keep our presence a secret. Extra slit trenched had been dug for us and we were ordered to get into them, two men to each hole.
As another soldier and myself made our way to the dug-out detailed to us, I observed that each trench was covered with a sheet of corrugated iron, that had been camouflaged to look like the rest of the desert by sand having been strewn on it.
We jumped down in our hole and pulled the corrugated iron along over our heads. We had been told to stick down our holes for the next twenty hours and under no circumstances to show ourselves. This was in case enemy aircraft should come over in daylight on a reconnaissance flight and take picture that would reveal the fact that a whole division was now in a sector that normally contained only one brigade. Such information would give the game away, and Rommel would immediately realise that an attack was impending.
It was with a felling of uncertainty, something like waiting in a dentist’s chair for one’s first tooth to be pulled, wondering if it would be as sore as most people said, that I said goodbye to the moon, stars and sky. As I sat there in the darkness, questions kept popping into my mind, which by brain answered in every ugly manner, as I though of the morrow. I couldn’t speak to my trench-mate as my mind was so full of disquieting thoughts. Sleep at last lent a soothing hand, and my fears of the morrow were bludgeoned by fatigue.
I awakened next morning, cramped and sore, to find, seeping through the little spaces where the corrugated iron did not meet flush with the sand, faint rays of light. Dawn was breaking. In a few hours the vicious heat would start and the agony of our confinement would really begin. We had our meals with us — in tins. Cold bacon, bully beef and biscuits were on the menu, and these things had to satisfy us until darkness fell. We were then to get a hot meal before going into action.
The agony was almost unbearable as I sat there with my back straight against the wall of the trench. I couldn't move, for to do so would have meant disturbing my companion, because our legs lay on the top of each other in the centre the trench. The heat came, the perspiration came, the grumpiness came, the urge to move about came, and finally the worst blow of all — the necessity of satisfying nature’s requirements. It just had to come, for no one can prevent it for any length of time.
“What am I gonna do?” I asked my pal, as I told him what I needed to do. “I certainly can’t go up on top. Orders forbid it.”
“Use your steel helmet!” was his reply. “You certainly can’t do it in here!”
I realised that his was the only solution. I took the steel helmet off my head. Then, by doing all sorts of contortionist feats, I managed to ease myself. Next came the difficult part — getting rid of the liquid. With one hand gingerly holding the unwieldy helmet so that it did not spill. I raised myself up the wall of the trench by wriggling my back to and fro, and with the other hand eased the corrugated iron roof along about one foot. With an upward flick of the wrist and a slight tilt of the helmet, the contents splattered to the ground to be quickly absorbed by the burning sand. Back I pulled the roof, the operation completed. I placed by helmet down at the foot of the trench and, after a few angry remarks from my trench-mate for disturbing him, I at last settled down to resume the agony where I had left it off. Often I thought of the poor unfortunates of the Black Hole of Calcutta, and sympathised with them.
Aches and pains all over, and the grim foreboding of that night once again returned to my mind. Why couldn't these hideous thoughts stay away? The ruminating was getting me down. What I needed then was something to cheer me up, but my mate — and I expect every other soldier in the battalion — was also thinking his own thoughts of this evening’s attack. How then could we be cheery to each other? So the hours slowly passed, each one bringing nearer something, that I did not actually fear, but something that made me nervous and jumpy. I hoped I’d be all right during the battle, not from the injury point of view, but that I wouldn’t prove myself a coward.
Our tempers were really becoming frayed as the long thin rays of light jabbing into our trench disappeared. Darkness had fallen, our hours of agony were at an end. Shouts from up above told me that the order had been given to come out on top. I needed no second bidding. Along slid the roof of our “cage” with one huge heave and I scrambled to my feet, resting my elbows on the edge of the trench and gulping down mighty mouthfuls of fresh air.
I got up out of my “black hole”, stretched my cramped legs, and heard the shout that grub was up. I hurriedly grabbed my dixies out of my small pack. I felt famished and was looking forward to my last hot meal before the offensive. We had been promised the best feed that the quartermaster could possibly obtain for us. “Sort of being fed the fatted calf before the slaughter,” I thought.
I joined the grub queue and minutes later received the marvellous last supper we had been promised — McConnachie stew, stuff we’d been getting almost non-stop since our arrival in Egypt! If this was the quartermaster’s idea of a slap-up feed, Heaven help us at the front line where fire was forbidden. I felt like ladling my share of the stew over the “quartie’s” head, but was too hungry for that.
Back I went to my dugout and there a sergeant gave me what was meant to be my ration of rum. No sooner had I raised the bottle to my lips than the sergeant snatched it away from me.
“Christ, that’s enough!” he growled. “This has got to go round the whole platoon.”
The disgusting point about the whole affair was that the bottle had been handed down through the ranks, starting with the officers, then the C.S.M.’s and Sergeants, and next the corporals and lance-jacks, with the result that, when we poor soldiers got our taste, there was practically none of the rum left. I know that I scarcely felt the fire from the liquid as it reached my stomach, so small was my share.
The big moment was near and soon we got the order to “buckle on our armour for the fray.” Mine consisted of a wireless set, which rested on my back by means of straps over my shoulders. Three men worked this set. The one on my left carried the static battery used for giving the wireless power, while the soldier on my right operated the set, sending or receiving messages as the occasion demanded — or rather that was the idea, although it didn’t quite work out that way.
At nine o’clock, with a full moon shimmering down out of the starry sky, we set out. At last we reached our start line, which had already been marked out with pieces of white tape that shone up in the darkness like phosphorescent lights. From here the offensive was to be launched. We lay down, waiting for our artillery to open up.
It was then that I started thinking again and this time, my thoughts took me home I remembered my wife and all the swell times we had had together in our short married life. We had sampled married bliss for only six months before I had been called up. It had been Heaven. I remembered the night she had cried in my arms. She had wanted desperately to have a child but I had refused, because I had been afraid that I might be killed in action, and she would be left with a child as a sort of millstone round her neck. I had not wanted that. I remembered the doctor telling me confidentially that if she was to have a child, she must have it quickly, or an internal complaint from which she suffered would become so bad, it would necessitate an operation that would forbid her from ever having a child. Consequently I wondered if I had done right. Should I have granted her request? Would I come safely through this battle ahead? If I did, would I get home in time to give her a baby? Or would I go through life without a child of my own? The future days would prove me right or wrong. I was ever so glad that she did not know I was going into action that night, or she would never have got any sleep.
As I lay there on the sand, I quietly said a prayer, asking God to see me safely through the coming battles. I had never been much of a church-goer before the war, and am not even yet, and I suppose it was unfair of me to ask a favours from a God whom I did not worship wholeheartedly, but then what a confident feeling I had after that little prayer. It somehow put me at ease.
Quietness reigned on the eerie scene. Although I couldn’t see them, I knew that all around me were my pals, lying down on the sand with their rifles in their hands and, although their bayonets were fixed, there was no glimmer from them in the moon’s rays. All bayonets had been blackened over a petrol fire two day’s previously, so that the moon shining on then would not give away the presence of the advancing men to the enemy.
The officer in charge of us was humming away merrily to himself and I knew then that he had had more than his share of the rum, for, as a rule, he was as cheerful as s corpse at a party. Now he looked anxiously at his luminous wrist-watch.
“Twenty-two minutes to ten! Won’t be long now!” he whispered, and continued his mumbling irritating warbling.
The wireless on my back was biting harshly into my shoulder blades, and I turned over on my back to rest the set on the sand, thus taking the weight off my tired shoulders. It was as I turned that all Hell seemed to be let loose. The sand beneath me quivered and, overhead, express trains seemed to be whoosing through the air.
I looked back and there, on the horizon, vivid red gun flashed stabbed the sky. In, out! In, out! For miles they stretched in either direction, the shells bursting from the guns in a warm arc of light. Our barrage had opened up. It was frightening, coming so suddenly after the eerie silence. Never had I heard or seen anything like this. I could actually feel the noise being conveyed in waves beneath the ground, which was moving every so slightly up and down.
“I wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end of that lot,” I muttered to myself, as I pictured all these shells pounding the enemy lines.
Suddenly came a command from our officer.
“On your feet!” he shouted, and to right, left and in front of me, I could see dim shapes scrambling up.
“Well, this is it,” I murmured to myself. My initiation into war was about to begin. The offensive had started. We were going in!
“Advance!” came the next command. “Play, piper, play!”
High over the crashing sound of bursting shells came a new note — the skirl of the bagpipes and, to the tune of HI’elan’ Laddie, the drive that was to throw the Axis out of Africa forever began at an ordinary walking pace.
I was like a dog on a lead, straining to break into a run, for this snail’s pace, I imagined, was an invitation to the enemy to align his guns on us. But officers’ voices shouting “Steady” kept me at this walking gait. Repeatedly came warnings to keep well dispersed. No two men were to stay near eacy other escept in dire necessity, as our case demanded.
As soon as the first murderous volley our guns landed in the enemy lines, they knew that something big was won. They had felt our artillery barrages before, but never such a one as Monty sent over that night — 800 gunes with only 23 yards between each one. They could hardly miss on a front so narrow.
I could hear the shells in a never-ending stream whoosing through the air, and occasionally I ducked as I imagined that one was dropping short. In reality, they were a great distance above my head.
Verey lights of all hues were soaring high into the air from the German front lines, as they sought to get a picture of what was happening ahead of them, they gave me the impression of spluttering gas mantles being lowered slowly to the ground. Thanks to these lights, I too, had a better view of the scene now being enacted.
Ahead of me, like shadows of death flitting across No-Man’s-Land, I could see our troops, thousands of them, with one thought uppermost in their minds — their basic training — kill or be killed!
The enemy was hitting back now as our drive continued. I heard screams of pain above the roar of battle, as several of our men fell victims to German shells and mortars, which were now trying to lay a curtain of death across our advance. The ear-shattering screams of wounded and dying momentarily drowned the skirl of the pipes which were forever urging us on and on.
From the enemy lines, I could see long ghostly-white lines of tracer bullets, stomach-high, as they sped through the chilly air seeking victims. The din was terrific, with both sides belting away with everything they’d got. And still the defiant skirl of the bagpipes kept us going.
Periodic stops by our officer, whose cheerless humming was getting on the nerves of everybody who heard him, were causing us to get excited. He had to stop to be certain of his compas bearings, so that they would lead us straight to our objective, but we didn’t like lying out in the open with absolutely no shelter while enemy shells were continually thudding around us. The death itch was on.
“Let’s go to Hell at ‘em! What the bloody blazes are we stopping for? For Christ’s sake, get cracking!”
The officer paid no attention whatsoever. We would much sooner have got at the guts of the men who were behind the guns and mortars that were killing our mates, than lie here as a sort of sitting target. It was stupid of us, for the German certainly could not see us at this distance anymore that we could see them.
Meantime, despite frantic attempts by the operator of the wireless set I was carrying to get into contact with the other companies in the battalion, not a cheep came back in answer to his calls.
In addition, the man on my left who was carrying the heavy static battery seemed always to move in a different direction to the wireless operator and myself, with the result that the battery plug which fed the set was being repeatedly pulled out of its socket, thus cutting off the power. After this had happened several times, causing bad tempered oaths to pour from all three of us, we got into the habit if sticking together like Siamese triplets, although still we could not get contact with the other companies.
Then came the first tragedy as far as we were concerned. As we lay close together on the ground during one of the numerous stops for compas bearings, the high-pitched shee of a shell came charging at me through the babel of sounds. It seemed to be rushing straight at me, its frightening whee getting lunder and lunder as each second passed. I put my head down as close as I could to the ground. I could feel my legs twitching convulsively in anticipation of a direct hit. It seemed like an eternity before the shell landed. My heart was thumping madly and, as my blood seemed to reach boiling point, there was a horrible crump behind me.
I waited fearfully, fully expecting a jagged lump of shrapnel to tear a way into my body. None came. Instead I was greeted by an ear-splitting cry of pain from my left. I turned over on my side to look at the man who had been carrying the static battery. He was obviously in terrible agony.
“The dirty lousy bastards!” he moaned, rocking backwards and forwards, holding, with pained expression, one of his arms. I could see the blood oozing between the fingers of the hand he held over the wound.
I gaped stupefied at the man. “That might have been me,” my stupid brain though, and once more it began its loathsome leering in an attempt to shatter my rapidly-crumbling moral.
I fought desperately to meat my brain at its own game, but it was hopeless. Fear seemed to have gained the upper hand, for I felt like panicking. Four words, however, from the gloom ahead brought me to my senses.
“On your feet!” came the order. “Advance!”
I licked my dried-up lips and scrambled thankfully to my feet. I was glad to get away from my injured comrade, not so much because of the danger but because of the crazy thoughts his injured presence had put into my head.
Leaving one of our mates wounded on the battlefield may sound a callous thing to do, but our orders before the offensive had started had been “No fit man shall stay by a wounded comrade. The stretcher bearers are following to pick up all injured personnel.” This, of course, was perfectly understandable, for if one man stopped to attend every injured soldier, then double our men would be out of action and the attack would loose most of its sting.
In dazed fashion, I stumbled forward, this time carrying the static battery as well as the wireless set. This sudden cry of anguish so near to me and the sight of the wounded lad had unnerved me. I had had my first real glimpse of war and it was every bit as horrible as my dad had told me before coming abroad.
I kept thinking of all my friends in the battalion with whom I had spent over two years in close contact — I’d had them for breakfast, dinner, tea; they’d stood by me in troublous times, they’d lent me money, I’d lent them money — ho were they facing tonight in this ghastly hell in earth? We were putting in an attack in battalion formation but, in reality, each single man was fighting his own battle out there against death.
The entire sky in front of me was lit up just like day by enemy verey lights, their beauty wasted in this cauldron of war, as they soared in colourful arcs to the sky, reached their zenith, and came spluttering gradually to the ground. Shells were bursting all around now, sending black spumes of sand high into the air, while machine guns chattered incessantly. Far away ahead of me, I could see the crimson glow of an enemy gun as a shell burst from its muzzle to send deadly shrapnel into our ranks.
All the time, that fearsome barrage of Monty’s guns kept up its chant of death, creeping steadily lower as it crumbled to powder first the enemy gunline, then dropped to his front line, and later to his outposts.
On, on I went, praying that our objective was near, so that I could obtain the shelter of a dug-out. Still the piper played and still came the steadying influence of the officers as they warned us: “Slow up a bit! You’re going too fast!”
Then I heard it again — a shell coming towards me! I knew it was to land closeby, but what could I do, with absolutely no cover in this unfriendly desert waste? There was only one means of self-preservation — get down flat and hope for the best. Before I had had time to do even that, the shell landed behind me. The blast hit me in the back and I was knocked flat on my face as if by an unseen hand. Shrapnel showered down on my steel helmet, making my head reel. Fortunately its force was expended on its downward flight.
With shaking hands, I put my helmet on straight. I sat up. Next second I heard an anguished cry. There, less that a yard away, was my wireless operator, his teeth clenched with pain. I could see no sign of any wound, but knew that he’d been hit somewhere.
“What’s up?” I asked fearfully.
“My leg’s buggared!” he groaned, buting his lips desperately. “Go on! Move on! Don’t stop! I’ll be picked up!”
My stomach by this time was doing rapid revolutions and I strove desperately to stop the stew I'’ had for supper from coming up. This was terrible. Much to close. Two of my pals wounded within yards of me. Perhaps the next shell? Oh, brain stop thinking these horrible things!
I had the wind up properly now. I was scared. Yes, in a blue funk. Next minute I did something I regret even today. Panic seized me. With frenzied hands, I unstrapped the wireless off my back. I flung it to one side and dashed forward. I had only gone a few yards when I saw a rifle lying on the sand. It has obviously been left there by some wounded soldier. I picked it up and forward I went behind the piper, that rifle giving me a sense of security that a thousand wireless sets could never have done.
I had no idea of how much further we had to go. All I knew was that this was gruesome and every whee of a shell made me wince in expectation of a direct hit.
Then above the crashing crescendo of numerous noises, I heard a voice yell out “Halt” and I recognised it as that of our C.O. I heard a match splutter close to me, and a coloured rocket was lit. It was meant to have been aimed high into the air, but it fell over on to the sand and sped clean through my outstretched legs.
“Another!” came the command, and this time the rocket soared into the air, leaving a trail of coloured light behind it. This, I concluded, was the signal that we had gained our objective.
“Dig in!” was the next order. “And prepare for a counter-attack in the morning!”
Our company had not come face to face with enemy, but then we had never expected to, for we were not attacking troops. Our four infantry companies had gone ahead of us and no doubt they had come to close quarters with Germans. Tomorrow we would probably find out.
Shovels were soon echoing through the air as the metal clanged against the ground. The men were busy at the task of tunneling for themselves a refuge that would be their only home for the next few days.
Having had the wireless on my back, I carried no shovel. But, so anxious was I to find a piece of shelter, that I started digging at the sand with my bare hands. Panic is a powerful thing. Two of my fingernails were broken as I tunneled like a beaver to dig myself a trench in which I could shelter from the enemy fire.
Eventually, however, one of my mates completed his dug-out and handed me his shovel. Ten minutes later my trench was finished, the soft sand being little difficult to remove. It was only then that I regained some of my lost composure. I felt reasonably safe in the shelter of these sandy walls.
We had been told that our tanks were to pass through our lines at dawn and, sleep being impossible in the present uncertain circumstances, I anxiously kept my ears open for the sound of armour.
Curled up in the bottom of my trench, I cautiously lit a fag so that my body shielded the match, thus preventing the flame from being seen up aloft. I inhaled contentedly, the cigarettes soothing down my racing heart. I was just reaching normal again, and thinking to myself how lucky I had been to come through the attack without a scratch, when I heard a clanking noise — and it came from in front of me. I could not be our armour!
“Enemy tanks!” I thought. “This’ll be the counter-attack.”
I rose to my feet, gripping my rifle tightly. My finger wound itself round the trigger as I peered forward into the gloom.
“Well, here goes!” I muttered.
My fear, however, was unfounded. Now I could make out what was advancing towards me. It was three dirty Italians, hauling an anti-tank gun, while behind them game a Tommy, with a hugh grin all over his face. The battalion’s first prisoners were coming in, and a dazed threesome they were, in their baggy, plus-four type of grey-green trousers.
“Get moving, spaghetti-bashers!” snapped the Tommy, waving his bayoneted rifle dangerously close to the seat of one of the Italian’s pants. Soon they had vanished into the darkness behind me.
Just before dawn came a terrific clanking from my rear and, looking back I could see the silhouettes of our tanks advancing. I joined lustily in the cheering which broke out at the thought of these mighty steel juggernauts being set loose amongst the enemy. But we were all to curse our own armour before 24 hours had passed!
I love a game, I love a fight
I hate the dark, I love the light
I love my child, I love my wife
I am no coward, I love life
Slowly the dawn came and, with its first light, I was able to survey the scene all around me. Heads were popping up out of the dug-outs on either side of me, heads that looked positively fearsome, covered as they were with sand sweated into the face and the hair uncombable and sticking up in lumps of grit.
While digging last night, we had been instructed to make our trenches well away from each other, but, as I gazed around, they seemed perilously close together. In some cases, they were less that three yards apart. Darkness had drawn us together like a magnet.
Looking further back, perhaps half-a-mile away, I could see a solid wall of armour — our tanks — light chasers, Churchills, Lees, grants and the latest addition that was to wreak havoc among the Panzers — the Sherman with its six-inch gun.
All this armour was clustered in a group, like sardines in a tin, and I wondered why they didn’t burst forward to raid the Axis positions. They formed a gunner’s dream of a target. He just couldn’t miss. What was more, with us being dug so near to the ranks, we were bound to get some of the shells thrown at them.
On looking to my front, I soon guessed at the reason for them remaining behind. About 800 yards’ ahead a series of stakes, with barbed wire attached to them, suggested a minefield that had been guarding the enemy’s front-line positions. My guess was right, too. The armour was waiting for the sappers to clear a lane through the expanse of sand, for it was littered with mines, each capable of tearing the tracks off any tank, before they would proceed.
I was amazed at the lack of landmarks in what had been the enemy’s front-line. There were no concrete emplacements or pillboxes, just a sea of sand like any other part of the dreadful desert. Here and there were occasional clumps of hardy gorse, but otherwise it was boringly flat.
Already I could see the men around me at work, cleaning the clinging sand from rifles and Bren guns. Several lads had brought their balmorals out of their small packs and put them on their heads, to ease the ache caused by their steel helmets.
The C.O. had a mug out and I could see him standing up in his trench about to shave with water taken from his water bottle. That was all each man had one bottle full of water — and with this, he was meant to wash, shave, clean his teeth, and slake his thirst for one whole day.
I was the worst off anyone in the battalion, for all my kit had been put in the wireless operator'’ back, and he was now in hospital. Here I was with no food (we had been given 48 hours' rations to carry with us, as the cook’s wagon could not be expected to come up until the line became more stabilised, no shaving kit or water, and what was most important of all, my stock of fags had been in my pack. I had exactly two cigarettes, with the band name of “V’s”, in a packet in my pocket. These cigarettes were horrible. Made in India and commonly called “coffin nails”, they had an aroma and a taste of a camel’s stables. We were given 50 weekly as a free ration and the most that could be said of them was that they enable us to go through the motions of inhaling and exhaling. That then was my predicament — no food and only two evil-smelling fags to last me three days!
A s I watched our Commanding Officer putting the lather on his face I saw our Signal Master go up to him and start a conversation. Something was in the wind. Their gaze turned on me.
“Where is your wireless set” the Signal Master barked.
I told him, and the barrage of angry words that greeted me was worse than the one Monty’s guns had set up. He was blazing mad.
“…………You deserve to be shot!” the Signal Master concluded.
Nice guy I thought to myself, and a nice Army where wireless sets are considered more important then men’s lives. Then I got to thinking, well after all, it was a silly thing to have done — many men might have been killed owing to lace of inter-company communication, if any of the sets had worked.
I felt fiendishly guilty standing there in my trench, for all my pals had overhead the conversation. I wondered if they would think any the less of me for my action. I didn’t mind a ticking off from an officer, but I would have hated my comrades calling me a coward.
Next minute, to show his disapproval, the Signal Master got his own back.
“I want you to lay a line to A Company,” he said. “Take Thomson with you.”
Thomson was a young Dundee fellow, tall and thin, with a slight stoop.
I asked where A Company lay and was informed that it was in front of B Company who were just ahead of us. Three drums of cable were sufficient for the operation, the Signal Master announced.
So off “Spud” (all Thomson seem to get that nickname in the army) and myself trudged with our equipment. The usual sun blistered down out of the usual cloudless sky and I felt, thirsty and hungry.
We reached B Company and there we halted to get our bearings. I stared eagerly ahead for a long time, but I could see no sign of A Company. Neither could Spud. All we could see was sand which stretched for miles to the head-hazed horizon.
I contacted B Company Commander, asked his if he had any idea where A Company lay, but he could give me no help at all.
“In front of us,” he said. “That’s all I know.”
Listening, I could hear from ahead, the sharp rat-tat-tat of a German sniper letting fly with machine-gun. As I had no inclination to run unnecessarily into him by laying the cable in the wrong direction, I decided to phone back to the Signal Master and explain my difficulty.
I did this and was immediately greeted by the words “What, you only at B Company!” He then as much as informed me that I was the most stupid buggar in the British Army and that he would be up in a few minutes to give me the direction to A Company.
Soon he came up to where Spud and I were seated on the ground. He looked scornfully at me, then lay flat on his stomach. For a few minutes he goggled through his binoculars, Pudding them down, he turned to me.
“They are straight in front!” he growled. “Now get cracking! Head in that direction!”
He pointed straight ahead, as if the object were as big as a barn door two feet away, and looked at me as much as to say I was blind. I thought perhaps I had made a mistake. I had another keen scan of the countryside in front of me, but still there was no sign of civilisation.
Wearily I picked up my tackle, gave a signal to Spud, and we started to lay the cable in the direction the Signal Master had indicated.
I had moved about 300 yards when the drone of aeroplane engines made me look up. There, silhouetted against the blue sky were eighteen Baltimores, twin-engined aircraft. They were my first sight of the Desert Eighteens, which were to become a byeword among the men of the Eight Army for the formation — that of a V — and flew close together in threes. At all times of the day, just like buses keeping to a timetable these eighteen planes were to go over the axis positions, pounding, pounding, pounding, never letting up for a slong as the weather permitted.
Over they came in close- packed formation, and I cheered them on.
“Go on!” I yelled. “Knock Hell out of ‘em!”
Suddenly I saw their bomb bays open. My throat dried. I hadn’t expected this, for they seemed very close to our front line. What were they aiming at? Then I saw white objects falling from the bellies of the kites. Their bombs had been unleashed. Like a flash, I dropped flat. I did not feel too comfortable, and as I hugged the ground, I noted that it was hard and stony her, capable of sending shrapnel flying long distances.
As the first bomb thudded into the earth, I knew by the sound that it had landed a good bit away. There was no danger to me after all. The crump of more bombs landing continued for several seconds, and only then the last explosition had died away, did I turn and look skywards. The Desert Eighteen by now had done a right- about turn and were heading back for their bases. About half a mile away to my right, clouds of smoke and sand rose to the sky. No doubt the planes had intended to bomb an enemy target, but this time they were well off, because I knew that no Germans could possibly be over on my right, for they would have been surrounded by our men.
Up I got to my feet, realising that, in this ferocious fight for life, it was not only enemy fire I had to be careful of, but also my own. I must have my wits about me the whole time. It was a true saying “He who dives last dies first.”
I continued laying the cable, with occasional sniper bullets zipping away at me. I had no feeling of being in any danger. Spud, too, was totally unconcerned by the enemy fire. We were still the inexperience soldiers and bad shooting more than anything else protected us from the sniper's bullets. If we had had any sense, we would probably have bent double and so reduced the enemy’s target. But this precaution never entered my head at the time.
As we went on and on, I still could not discern any sign of movement ahead. Soon I became worried, for our cable was almost finished.
I was bending down taking a kink out of piece of wire when, all of a sudden, I heard a commotion from my left. I turned, and there I discovered a long stream of enemy prisoners being shepherded through the minefield. I thought little of it until I saw the soldier urging them on. There was no mistaking that squat, well-built lad with the pug nose and cauliflower ear. It was Johnnie Turnbull of A Company! He had been a professional boxer before joining up. Always laughing and joking, Johnnie was one of the best know and best liked men in the battalion. I gazed stupefield for a minute at Johnnie. He had come down through the minefield, so A Company must obviously been on the other side of it! We had laid our cable in the wrong direction!
When we recovered from the shock, Spud and I cursed that Signal Master for pudding us on the wring trail. We used every adjective and noun in the soldiers vocabulary. God knows where we would have ended up if we had continued in the direction the Signal Master had given us — probably in the German lines. Our work so far had all been for nothing and it was nearing mid-day, according to the height of the sun in the sky.
Dis-spirited, I tried to rewind the cable we had already laid out back on to the drums, but it was hopeless, for we had not brought the winding machine with us. The cable became twisted and knotted until I lost my temper and decided that the best thing to do was to pull the unwound stuff along behind us.
We changed direction and were soon passing through the minefield, laying the cable as we went along. I saw several metal containers on the ground as we advanced. They were like curling stones without the handles, and for smoother going, I purposely avoided them. I didn’t know then that they were mines and, in any case, I doubt if they would have gone off if I had trodden on them. They were anti-tank mines and needed strong pressure before they would explode. Just the same I would have hated to have tried standing on them.
Completely obvious to any threat to our safety, Spud and I reached the opposite end of the minefield. It was then that we met L/C Jeffreys and his team, out laying a line to D. Company, which, we he told me, was just ahead of A Company.
“Jeff” as we called him, was a Fifer, who appeared to be a little older than the rest of the lads in the battalion. Nothing every perturbed him and he was dependable. He may have appeared slow, but his slowness was merely a camouflage for thoroughness. Give him something to do and he’d do it expertly, even although he took a few minutes longer than other people.
Jeff had several lads with him to help, and Spud and I decided to join his squad. One line, we came to the conclusion, would do for both companies, as they were only 500 yards’ apart.
I was seated on the ground, making a join in the cable when one of the linesmen shouted “Look, a skipper!”
Sure enough, about half a mile away, I could see a German, rifle in hand, lying flat on his stomach, and pinging away at us. Probably the same guy who had been aiming at Spud and I. Fortunately on this occasion also, his bullets went wide. I was amazed at the nerve of the German. There were five of us, yet he was prepared to fight it out with us.
Two of the linesmen got their rifles to their shoulders and replied in the skipper’s own language. The German after that decided to keep his head down and stop firing. One of our lads was all for going out to track him down, but he was informed by Jeff that his job at the present moment to lay a line, not go hunging Germans.
On we went, reeling out the cable and we were at last greeted by shouts from some of the lads from A Company. As the cable was bared and fitted to the small field telephone, we talked away to the lads in the company, eager for information regarding their experiences of the night before.
I spotted by very best pat in the battalion — Dave Whitelaw, standing up in his trench, a hugh grin on his round moon face. Dave was another Fifer. He came from Wemyss. He was a broad well-built lad, about five feet ten, with red, fat face and bodgy hands, while his legs were slightly bandy. He was a rough-and-ready chap, used to hard work, and very fond of sport, especially football. He excelled in the battalion team between the sticks, diving this way and that to affect stylish graceful clearances despit his bulky build. Dave had only one fault, and a very minor one. He was apt to say and do childish things, but for all that he was a plain a million. I liked him as if he were my own brother.
I walked over to his dug-out and stood there looking down at him.
“How you doing, Dave?” I asked.
A frown clouded Dave’s face as he suddenly remembered something. Reaching up with one of this mighted hands he pulled me roughly down into the trench beside him. I though he’s gone off his rocker.
“What the bloody hell’s wrong with you, man?” I growled, as I sat up in the trench, fingering the elbow of my right arm, which had been bruised during my collapse into the dug-out.
“D’you want killed?” snapped my pal. “There’s snipers out there!”
Soon we were chatting away. Already I had noted that A Company had not gained their objective without a scarp. I had seen enemy dead lying around the trenches up aloft, suggesting that they had resisted to the end. Dave proudly showed me his bayonet. Looking closely, I could see red marks on it.
“That’s German blood!” said Dave. “One cool buggar of a German kept popping away at us with his machine-gun, and when we came near, he put his hands up in surrender. What a bloody optimist he was, after wounding several of our lads! He tried to make a getaway, but my bayonet stopped him. You should have heard him scream.” A gleam of delight came into Dave’s eyes. “It was lovely! I had a bit of a job getting my bayonet out of him again.”
I felt horrified. Yet this was what we had been trained to do. Dave had merely been doing his duty. But how I wished that he hadn’t described the killing in the callous way he did. Soon, however, the gleeful lust of blood left Dave’s eyes, and he turned to me with a chuckle.
“I’m platoon commander now, so watch your step, or I’ll put you on a charge!” he said, with a put-on Oxford accent.
“How come?” I asked, for Dave was only a lance-corporal.
“All the other N.C.O’s and our officer were wounded,” Dave replied. “Pearson our liutenant, was hit in the leg, I believe. Remember Sergeant Smart from Montrose?”
Immediately Dave said the name, my mind went back to training days in Blighty. Tom Smart, a farmer lad with the typical Aberdeenshire accent, had been our instructor. He kept beating into our brains the fact that all Germans should be killed and that we should all be rarin’ to tear the guts out of the enemy. Real bloodthirsty he had been, especially at bayonet practice, when he went at the dummy figures as if he were made, shouting epithets all the time at these make-believe enemies calling them bastards and the like. We used to shake our heads and mutter to ourselves that Tom would get all he was asking for and soon enough. A guy just can’t go on hating and hating like Tom did without coming to grief. Consequently I was very anxious to hear what had happened to him.
“Well,” continued Dave. “He didn’t get much change of getting hit hate out on the enemy. They got him first. He was hit in the leg.”
I could not help feeling sorry for Tom Smart. He was a well-liked chap, in spit of his lust to kill the enemy.
“Govie’s missing,” continued my pal.
That was Corporal M’Govern, another Fifer. Fortunately he turned up later.
“Lance-Corporal Taylor was killed. We think he stood on a mine. And he was such quiet lad,” ruminated Dave. Just as quickly a smile appeared on his face, “You won’t get your boots cobbled for a while. I hope they’re in good condition. Sandy Priest, the cobbler get one of his eyes knocked out.”
I shuddered at this bit of news and I was annoyed at Dave for trying to make fun out of seriousness. Inured legs did not seem too bad for me, but the thought of having an eye knocked out sent shivers up and down my spine. Gosh, how terrible it would be to become blinded! I recalled telling the wife before I left blighty that if as a result of war injuries, I should become permanently disabled, I would not return to her. My wife had called it “mock heroics,” but I meant every word I said. She was young and I had no intention of her being tied down to a blind or totally disabled husband.
That was all the news that Dave was able to give me at present, for a shout from Jeff told me that he had got contact with A Company. The first part of our task had been completed. Now for the line between A and D Companies.
Unfortunately our cable had finished. All we had left to get to D Company, who were about half-a mile ahead, was a piece of twisted wire, the result of my gathering in the stuff which had been laid in the wrong direction on the day.
By this time, it was well on in the afternoon, between two and three o’clock, and we all felt dead-beat and in need of food and sleep.
Jeff, who, as lance-corporal, was in charge of the line party decided to go back to Battalion H.Q. for more cable, while another soldier and myself stayed to try to untangle the twisted wire.
Off went Jeff, on what was to earn for him the Military Medal, while we stayed at A Company, taking the knots out of the cable until it had its proper shape again.
Five minutes had barely passed when two enemy shells whizzed over our heads. This was rapidly followed by a small barrage, and I turned to wee where the shells were landing. They were thumping into the minefield, the through this barrage of enemy fire was a company of the Seaforth Highlanders! The German had seen them moving forward and were doing their best to stop them.
Forward the Seaforths moved in broad daylight. In darkness you had a chance, but during the day it looked like suicide.
I felt sorry for these men. At the same time, my pal and I had our own safety to think about. We decided to get into a trench. I saw one empty on our left. It had been used by the Germans at one time. Two dead enemy soldiers were lying flat on their backs a few yards away, hundreds of flies having a feast of the clotted blood that festooned their faces.
We dived into the trench. Nearer advanced the Seaforths, and every now and again, I popped my head up, to see how they were coming along. As they approached, the Germans dropped their artillery shorter. Soon these shells would be landing all around us!
I got the length of asking myself the stupid question, “What will happen if a shell lands in our trench?” when an advancing Seaforth jumped into our dug-out on top of us.
“Sorry, mates!” he said, tilting his helmet back and wiping the sweat from his forehead. “This is a f----- do and a half!”
So saying, he nimbly leapt up from the trench and continued on his way. We were left alone again, and despite the fact that the shells still crashed around our trench, we proceeded to unwind the twisted cable, although our hands were not so steady as usual.
It was approaching dusk when L/C Jeffreys returned with two more drums of cable. He had gone down through the minefield while shells had been falling and had returned under fire. As he came nearer to our trench, he gave us a shout to lend a hand.
Up we got and fixed the line from A to D Company, with no cessation in the enemy fire. Our job was now ended. We could get out of this hellspot at last.
Back we started and the obvious way to return to Battalion H.Q. was to follow the cable we had laid. It was pitch black now and I was glad I had this guide to lead me back. I would have hated to have got lost in No-Man’s Land in the darkness.
I let the cable slide through my fingers as I followed its course. Then I came to a break. It had been cause by the blast of none of the shells. We patched it up and resumed our trek. Ten yards ahead, there was another break. This, too, we patched up. By the time a third and fourth break was discovered, we were properly rattled. Four breaks in less than a hundred yards of cable.
“Buggar these shells!” I groaned.
We moved on and, after about fifty yards, the cable I was following slipped through my hand. Another blinking break! I got down on hands and knees, but although I groped around in a five-yard circle, I failed to find the missing end. The other lads joined in the search. Still no luck. The cable had completely disappeared. Blast must have sent one end flying a great distance.
“What a bleedin’ do!” someone remarked angrily. “Ten hours laying a cable, an empty stomach, and the line’s fuller o’ holes than a sponge.”
There was only one thing to do. Give up the search for the cable and chance to luck that our sense of direction upon by all of us and we set out. There were six anxious hearts as the minutes ticked by and still there was no sign of any of the battalion trenches.
“We should have reached B Company by now,” one lad growled, while another disagreed.
I had come to the inevitable conclusion that we had lost our way when a voice out of the darkness ahead made me jump.
”Halt! Who goes there?” it shouted.
I breathed a sigh of relief. It was a British voice anyway. It proved to be one of B Company, and ten minutes later we reached Battalion H.Q.
While Jeff reported the broken wire to the Signal Master, I dropped thankfully into my trench and stretched myself out for a well-deserved sleep. I was still famishing, but had nothing to ease the gnawing pangs in my stomach, and did not feel like disturbing the slumbers of any of the other lads to get myself some eatables. I dropped off to sleep.
I imagined I was dreaming when I heard the Signal Master’s voice shouting, “I want you to lay a line to A Company!” A rude prod on the shoulder, however, soon told me this was reality. On top of the trench I made out the figure of the Signal Master.
“Hurry up!” he snapped. “We’re going to lay that line again!”
I felt like telling him to go jump in the lake, but the Army is the place where most of your thoughts, for obvious reasons, must lie dormant. Looking at it now, I realise how necessary it was to have contact with all the companies of the battalion, for each was to have contact with all the companies of the battalion, for each was on its own and anything could happen to it. The only possible link we had with them in that light on that particular night. I knew it was not the Signal Master’s fault that we had to lay another line. He had probably got a ticking-off from the Commanding Officer and told to re-lay the line. Still, the Signal Master did not have to pick on the same line party, which had been on the job for ten hours during the day. Other men in the Signal Platoon had had a rest while we had been out working.
Moaning and groaning, we trudged off in the direction of A Company, with the Signal Master this time in charge of the operation. I heard the whine of enemy bombers and the swishing sound of our own artillery barrage all the night, but I was too damned tired to bother.
At last we finished in the early hours of the morning and back I went to my sandy bed. No sooner had I got into a comfortable position then I dropped into a sleep that would have defied all the artillery in creation to awaken me. For three solid hours, despite the whee of shells passing over my trench as they sped on their way to the enemy lines and the non-stop droning of enemy aeroplanes, I heard not a sound.
I was awakened half an hour before dawn’s first light and took part in the battalion stand-to. Twice a day this occurred, in the early morning and as dusk was falling, with every man standing on guard in his trench and watching, for if the Germans attacked, then was the times they would most likely choose. All the weeks we served in the front line, this happened without fail.
This morning I waited and watched, and slowly I could see the sun rising in the east, just like a darkening shutter being pulled up the sky to reveal the light.
As daylight made things visible, so our half-hour’s vigil ended. Another day had started in the front line. What would it produce?
Some of the lads were already up on top, stretching their weary limbs, and anxious to get as much time as possible out of their dug-outs before the enemy started his after-breakfast shelling. Others were standing up in their trenches, shaving themselves, then washing in an attempt to rinse some of the sand off their faces. The remainder were cleaning their rifles, a daily task because of the swirling sand.
As I out up my hand to brush away a fly, the jagged ends of my beard reminded me that I, too, needed a shave. One of my mates lent me his razor, shaving kit and mug, and soon I had begun to get rid of my three days’ growth. This, in itself, was an amazing accomplishment.
First of all I lathered the soap on to my beard and the first downward sweep of my razor was made. This I cleaned out into the mug and the next part of the shaving process continued. So I went on, always cleaning the razor inside the mug, until the top of the water was rimmed with soap suds, through which was scattered the little black hairs from my beard.
Next came the washing of my face. I placed the soap in the palm of one of my hands, cupped a little water into it and lathered vigorously for a few minutes. Satisfied that most of the dirt was off, I emptied a little more water on my hands until the lather was all off. After this, I repeated the lathering process and rubbed the soap on to my face. This was cleaned off with the rest of the water. After I had dried myself, I felt wonderfully refreshed, but the towel looked like an advertisement for “Somebody’s mother isn’t using Persil,” and I felt sure that there were tidemark on my neck.
I handed back the borrowed equipment, then picked up my rifle to clean it. The sun was just beginning to take the chill out of the air when a shout “Stukas” went up. I’d heard a lot about these German dive-bombers and most of it was terrifying. I’d heard how they had caused havoc on the Eight Army’s columns of transport during the retreat back to El Alamien and of the frightening whistling noise they made in their power dives.
I turned to the point indicated in the sky and there, like a brood of avenging eagles, was a batch of Stukas. There was no mistaking them. I’d seen countless photographs of them. What annoyed me was the fact that there was nothing I could do to combat them. So I stayed where I was hoped for the best.
Every Bofor gun in the area opened up and, in the distance, I could see the A.A. men swiveling their guns round at record-breaking speed and raising the barrels to point towards the raiders as they raced across the sky. Black puffs of smoke as the shells burst hung suspended in the air for a minute like balls of soot, before the wind drifted them apart.
On came the Stukas, scorning our gunners’ fire. They screamed down through the shells, the whine of their engines becoming more like a wailing banshee as they nose-dived ever lower. Now I could distinctly see the black crosses on their wings as the sun glinted on them. The lads up on top had all scrambled madly into their trenches and now I could see some of them with their rifles pointed skywards, belting away, reloading, then firing again. They had little hope of causing damage to the diving Stukas. They merely wanted something to do, something to keep their nerves from giving was during this excitement.
How I wishes that I, too, had some ammunition. Firing a rifle would have made the Stukas seem less terrifying, but just standing waiting helplessly for the bombs to drop was giving fear its chance to run riot. I got down in my trench, as close to the bottom as I could, head downwards, and waited for what I imagined was to be at the end.
Crump! Crump! Crump! The bombs were landing all around, and I shuddered convulsively as each hit the ground. For two or three minutes the crashing inferno continued and, as suddenly as it had begun, quietness reigned again. The raid was over.
With my heart still beating like an over worked piston rod, I ventured to get to my feet and see what damage had been caused by this sudden sharp attack. As I looked about me, I realised what the Stukas had been after --- our armour. Several tanks were aflame, ugly black fumes flaring upwards, while their crews, or any men handy, were striving to extinguish the fires by throwing sand on them.
Cries of pain were coming from Brigade H.Q., which was just behind our positions — between us and the tanks --- and I could see stretcher bearers, distinguishable by their Cross armbands, rushing to the rescue of the wounded.
Soon everything had seemingly returned to normal, with the lads doing the tasks they had been busy at before they had been interrupted. I knew, however, that it would be a few minutes yet before this, out first Stuka raid, was completely dismissed from the minds of the men.
Minutes later, the first-air men passed my trench, their stretches occupied, with blankets pulled over the faces of the men lying on them. Other lads, a trifle more fortunate, were being shepherded into the first-aid post, with blood trickling from wounds in various parts of their bodies. Some of the members of Brigade H.Q. had foolishly placed pieces of corrugated iron over their dug-outs, and a bomb from a Stuka had landed on one. Some men had been killed outright, while others had been impaled by the razor-edged iron as the bomb had ripped it to pieces ribbons.
This news decided our C.O. There and then he made up his mind that we would have to disperse our trenches a good deal more. He ordered new positions to be dug about 800 yards in front and slightly to our left.
The Signal Platoon got the job. I left my battle dress jacket and a pullover my wife had given me before leaving Blightly on the heaped-up sand at one side of my trench, as I joined the six other lads who had been detailed to dig the new positions.
Our instructions were to make a new Signal H.Q. --- a square hole about two yards in length and one yard in depth. I reckoned it would easy digging, for our previous position had all been sand and very easy to turn over. What a shock I got. When we arrived at the intended spot, and tried the ground with our shovels, we discovered it was sheer rock. Pick and shovel would have to be used very energetically on it.
I got my shirt off and commenced the task. After a couple of hours of sweat and hard work, we had got down twelve inches. I stopped for a breathe and a smoke, and watched a Spitfire that was streaming on its way behind our lines. I turned to get on with my job again when one of the lads gave a yell:
“Look out! More Stukas!”
He was right. Coming out of the sun they were, a favourite trick of theirs, for the sun blinded our gunners with its glare and they were unable to aim properly. As the Stukas reached dead above us, their bombs began to fall. I could see the “white eggs” dropping and I made a hurried dive flat. I heard one lad shout in fury “The dirty, lousy bastards!” and, as I looked round, there he was standing up, vehemently shaking his fist at the screaming Stukas.
“For f----sake, get down, you silly buggar!” another lad yelled, and pulled the upright soldier forcibly down beside him.
I grovelled closer to the ground, but felt as if I were in a field with the gate wide open, for we were only a foot down. I was sure my bottom was sticking up above ground level.
I remember saying to myself, “I hope these guys were right when they told us that a bomb dropped straight above you falls about half a mile away.” Now, unfortunately, was my chance of finding out.
With terrific crumps, the bombs battered into the ground, sending shrapnel thudding around us like hailstones against a windowpane. But none of us was injured.
I got up now that I thought the danger was over and, looking back through the smoke-filled air, I saw that the Germans had been after out tanks again. How we cursed these steel monsters and wished that they would move clear away from our positions.
As it was now getting dark, we headed back for Battalion H.Q. our job three-quarters finished.
On arriving there, the first thing I did was to make for my “abode”. Before reaching it, I stopped short. The sand above my trench had been flattened and one side of the dug-out had caved in. In addition, my pull-over and battledress were missing from the spot where I had left them.
I saw them a few yards away. I picked up my pull-over and gaped. It was riddle like a pepper port. The blast from the falling bombs had knocked holes in it, holes that an outside moth would have been proud of. As I stood staring at my pullover, one of my mates said, “It could have been worse. You could have been inside it!”
I chuckled at the grim thought, then made up my mind to keep the pullover as a souvenir of action in the front line.
As I laboured on my trench, getting it ship-shape again, I heard a cry for stretcher-bearers. Looking up, I saw a Sergeant of B Company being led into our positions by a Tommy. The Sergeant had a glassy expression in his eyes and seemed in a daze. I looked closely to see if he had any wound, but not a spot of blood did I notice. I wondered what had happened to him.
I asked the Tommy accompanying him, and he gave me the lowdown. The Sergeant had been in his trench on the appearance of the Stukas, and as he lay staring up at them --- a foolish thing to do --- they had unleashed their bombs straight above him. He had forgotten the advice that we had all been given that bombs dropped directly overhead will never harm you. He had just lain there, mouth wide open, gaping at the missiles hurtling down seemingly on top of him. The strain had been too much. The shock of seeing these bombs coming towards him had paralysed him in some way. He could not speak a word now. I had often heard of a person being struck dumb, but never until now I had seen it happen. I was seeing war in all its grim horrors. I realised that not only were shells, bombs and bullets capable of harming the body but also that strangest of elements --- fear.
That night I was put out on a special job. I was given a lamp, used for sending Morse messages during the night, and told that a patrol from D Company was to reconnoitre the enemy’s front line positions. If they gained any special information, they would send me a message. I was told the necessary code names, given so that one company can recognise the other, and sent off about a mile ahead to a position favourable for receiving any message by lamp.
It was a sort of No-Man’s Land between our companies and I knew this was to be a grim ordeal for me. There was no shelter, no hole in the ground. I fixed my lamp, then settled down to my eerie virgil. I waited patiently, my eyes striving into the gloom, in the direction from which the message would come. It became colder and colder, and I shivered in the bitting, bitter night air that only the desert can produce. Determinedly I fought back the urge to sleep. My eyes started to smart with the continual peering into the blackness of the night. The hours passed slowly. Occasionally I got to my feet and walked about to keep the rheumaticky pains away from my limbs. But never once did I shift my gaze from the given direction.
Wearily I waited for the dawn to appear, getting more anxious as each hour passed and there was still no sign of a message. I had failed to do my job properly when I had thrown away my wireless set, and I wanted desperately to make certain that I did not fail again.
Dawn came and still I had had no luck. Maybe I had done something wrong again? I racked my brains, going over all the instructions I had been given, but could not make out where I had gone wrong.
I picked up my kit and headed back for Battalion H.Q., disappointed at not having received a message but, at the same time, thankful that my night’s watch was at an end.
I picked up my kit was about 200 yards from my trench and I could see the lads pottering about doing various jobs when a whee from behind told me that an enemy shell was coming. I did not know whether to get down quickly or run for my trench. I finally decided on the latter. I raced forward for my life. At every second I expected to hear a shattering explosion as the shell burst, and to feel jagged shrapnel gouging into my skin, but I reached my trench without this happening.
My heart was pounding unmercifully at the close call I had had and it was a few seconds before I got my wind back sufficiently to pop my head up out of my dug-out. I was greeted by my mates who were all laughing uproariously.
“What happened?” I asked, still panting with exertion.
“If you’d seen it, you would have died laughing,: came the reply. “That shell was a dud. It hit the ground and started bouncing after you. You just beat it, for when it was due to hit you, its next bounce took it off at an angle. It wasn’t half funny to see it tearing after you, with you just one step ahead of it!”
I forced a smile, although I was feeling anything but happy about the whole incident. Still a little nervy, I got up out of my trench and reported to the Signal Master that I had received no message. I was expecting another ticking-off, but instead he said it was all right. He had got the necessary message over the phone from D Company early in the morning.
That day saw a transformation in the scene ahead of us. Long lanes of white tape through the minefields gave me the clue that the sappers had been busy the previous night, clearing a path for the tanks.
Soon our armour started clanking forward on their way through the safe channel. I saw two tanks being blown up at the same moment, as they swerved a little off the clearance line on to the dangerous edges. Flames soon spurted from the juggernauts and could see men scrambling out of the turrets to safety.
I heaved a sigh of relief as the tanks at last got clear of the field of death and swirled forward, in clouds of sand, to battle with the enemy panzers.
The Jerry tanks were belching away at our oncoming armour and I could hear the spat-spat of their anti-tank guns like thunderclaps in the distance.
During this bombardment, a shout for stretcher-bearers came from our right, from the direction of our anti-tank guns. It later transpired that one of our lads had been standing up shaving, using a jutting-out piece of his six-pounder gun as a rest for his mirror. He had been standing up in the familiar attitude, left hand up stretching the skin, while his right had been busy wielding the razor.
An enemy anti-tank shell had sheared his right arm off at the elbow, leaving him gaping blanky at the stump, wondering what had happened, for no blood had appeared for several seconds. So back he went to hospital, finished with front-line action for good.
By this time we had all become used to the spatter of Spandaus, the whine of 88 millimetre shells, and the screaming dives of the Stukas, and were moving about quite freely.
A German sniper up front, as I have already mentioned, was giving the lads of A Company a bit trouble, and one sergeant from the Middlesex Regiment, who were our machine-gunners, had paid a visit to our front-line positions, in an attempt to get some information regarding the sniper’s whereabouts.
He had been leaning over one of the trenches talking to a lad in A Company, when there came the spit of a rifle from somewhere ahead, and the sergeant fell into the trench. He was dead before he hit the bottom and when they turned him over, they saw a clean round bullet hole right between his eyes.
This was too much. It was decided to send a patrol out to trail the sniper to his lair. An officer and two men got the job, but couldn’t get near the German’s hide-out, mortar shells driving them back.
By this time, the Middlesex machine-gunners had been told what they’d get the “slinking bastard,” and after that, kept a keen look-out through binoculars in the general direction of the sniper’s lair.
That same afternoon one gun crew spotted him, as he was crawling into his hide-out, which consisted of a barrel lying on its side. Quickly the skipper of the gun crew gave the direction and approximate distance. With grim, bitter looks on their faces, the machine-gunners opened up. I saw them behind their gun, faces tense, as they pressed the buttons and the first bullets sped towards their target.
One whole belt of ammunition was aimed at that barrel. Then the gunners called a halt, the expressions on their faces seeming to say “Now try and get out of that, you dirty German swine!”
There was no more trouble from that Jerry. Later a patrol went out and discovered the German, riddle with uncountable bullets, while around him were his sniping weapons --- a box of grenades, a small mortar, a sniper’s rifle, a Spandau and binoculars --- a small army in himself.
Later that day we changed our Signal H.Q., no, not to the new positions we had already dug. That would have been too easy. Instead we were put in the Centre of the minefield. There we sweated as we dug again, our back getting blacker and blacker under the gruelling sun.
It was then that I picked up a small pack with all the necessary accoutrements inside --- shaving kit, towel, soap, dixies, mug, etc. It had obviously belonged to some unfortunate chap who had been wounded. He had just left it lying there, I presume, to ease his aching body. I felt a bit squeamish at first as I picked it up, but soon got over that.
Later I picked up a Lee Enfield rifle I discovered lying on the ground, a rifle that had a bullet groove etched near the sling. I conjectured as to what had happened to the soldier who had previously carried it. I even held it as the man would have done in action and came to the conclusion that the bullet must have ricochetted off the rifle into the soldier’s stomach. I hope, for the owner’s sake that that was not what happened.
I kept that rifle, for the one I had was a P.I4, an ancient clumsy thing that only held five rounds of ammunition.
Every evening as dusk fell, fatigue parties were chosen to go back to Rear H.Q. for the next day’s rations for each platoon, also for the mail. The reason for choosing dusk was obvious. The chuck wagon was not seen then by enemy look-outs and neither was the congregation of people gathered round it, clamouring for their rations.
Mail was coming up regularly now, and that was really what kept our spirits up. Eating and sleeping in a trench all day long, having to keep your boots continually on your feet, with the sun and flies making you uncomfortable and sweaty, was wearisome business, and letters from home helped greatly to relieve the monotony.
It seemed strange to me to sit back here in my trench, reading a letter from my wife 2.000 miles away, with shells, bombs, mortars and bullets whizzing intermittently over my head, with always the chance that my name might have been printed on them. I was lucky though. Many of the lads would not be able now to read their wives’ mail. Corpses cannot read!
It was easy for me to picture my wife. If it was six o’clock in the evening, I would say to myself, “She’ll just be home from work and sitting down to tea.” So it would go on. I would know my wife’s daily movements so well that I could almost say for a certainty “She’ll be such-and-such a place at this particular hour.”
Bur somehow or other I couldn’t imagine for one minute, my wife or any of the lads’ wife, conjuring up what we were doing or where at a certain time of the day, in fact, at any time of the day.
Did they at home really realise what we were going through? The communiques these days from the Western Desert did not give them much idea, with their belying simplicity. “Further gains were made on the coast. Patrol active.” Sounds easy, matter-of-fact, with no sense of danger whatsoever, but lives were being lost in these small actions, more men actually in a percentage than when a mass of soldiers attacked.
Did they at home realise the stifling heat, the dirty sweating soldiers --- not their fault, for you can’t have a bath in a mug of water --- the lives that were being lost daily, the monotonous regularity of bully beef and biscuits for meals, the lack of sleep that appeared in the red-rimmed eyes of all the soldiers, the need for a chance of clothing, the salty sweat from our bodies leaving white streaks down the front and backs of our shirts? Did they realise that our feet felt like lead, that our socks were stinking with sweat, which had become caked, making them slip about inside our heavy boots?
But to get back to the present day. This evening 9 am writing about, I was put on the fatigue party and went back for rations. Soon I was returning to my trench, loaded up with tins of foodstuffs. To get to our positions, however, it was necessary to duck between the barbed wire round the minefield. Somehow I became entangled and felt the wire tearing at the back of my right leg. I thought nothing of it at the time, just a scratch and not worth bothering about. But these tears were to prove awkward later.
The days passed slowly, with the usual incidents that make war what it is. Chaps were being killed, others were being wounded. It wouldn’t be was without that happening. A debate had been going on among us as to the merits of our steel helmets. Some said it was no good, that it was just a hindrance, especially in running, for, in action, the strap went round the back of the head, with the result that the helmet bounced up and down and, as often as not, fell off. The reason why we did not put the strap under the chin was that if we were hit by blast, we stood a good chance of having our heads cut off.
One day there was a heavy mortaring of B Company and after it had finished, I saw a Tommy running back to the first-aid post. Sticking out from the top of his helmet was a jagged lump shrapnel.
He took his steel helmet off and the shrapnel clattered to the ground. From his head oozed a tiny trickle of blood. This rather proved the argument we had been having, because if the chap had not had his helmet on, that shrapnel would have pierced his brain. As it was, he was only slightly wounded.
So it went on, day after day, with Stuka raids, shelling, mortaring, etc., and gradually things became quieter as our gunline moved up right behind us.
We were all beginning to grumble a bit at being kept so long in the line, and many were the questions asked “When are we to be relieved? When are we getting a rest? Aren’t there any more infantry divisions in this blinking army?” We were getting jumpy at this daily gamble with death, going to sleep at nights, wondering if tomorrow would dawn for us. We were of the opinion that you can dodge some of the shells some of the time, but you can'’ dodge all of the shells all of time.
After the eight day, we were told the joyful news --- we were to be relieved by the South Africans. Afficers and N.C.O.’s went about mad, and a hurried cleaning up of our positions began. War or no war, we were told, we must have cleanliness. Can’t let another division see you’re a dirty lot. So we started scavenging in the middle of the desert, picking up pieces of paper and burying empty tins, with the nearest habitation in Alexandria about 50 miles away! Discipline in its vilest form! We were all blazing mad at the ridiculousness of the order, but the fact that we were said to be going away form the battlefield helped to soften the blow.
That night, under cover of darkness, the switch-over took place, and off we went in trucks to what we believed was to be a well-earned long rest. We were disappointed. We were rushed over to Tel El Eisa on the coast, to support the Australians who had hemmed in three Italian divisions with their backs to the sea.
So it began all over again. The Signal Platoon was worked off its feet, that evening, lying lines to all the companies. When that was done, we had to dig our own trenches.
It was early morning when I lay down to sleep. We had been paired off into teams of two men to attend as each company’s line and, if anything happened to the cable, our job was to go out and mend it, no matter what hour it was.
I had just dropped off to sleep when a shout went up “B Company line party wanted.” That was another chap and myself. The communication between the Signal Office and B Company had gone dead.
Off we went, dead bet, along the cable leading to B Company, with the sky occasionally lit up by parachute flares dropped from German bombers as they sought a target.
At last we came to the break in the line. A I5cwt. Truck bound for B company had followed our cable and struck a mine. It was a mass of twisted steel and the blast had ripped our cable.
Hurriedly we got our tools out, made the joining, and put adhesive tape round it. Then we set out on the road back to our trench.
We had gone only 50 yards when I heard the noise of a German bomber overhead. Then came the “whee” of a dropping bomb. In a flash, I had dropped flat on my stomach on the hard ground. Only just in time. There was a crump in front of me and a hail of rock and shrapnel came bursting in a cloud on top of me, but not breaking the skin. I got shakily to my feet.
“You all right?” I asked my mate, as he, too, scrambled up.
“Yes,” came the reply. “Jerry must have plenty of bombs if he can chuck ‘em at two swaddies. Let’s have a shuftie to see what he was aiming at!”
We continued down the cable. Less than a hundred yards away, we found the crater made by the bomb, and the wire torn again. What the aircraft had been aiming at puzzled us, for there was absolutely nothing within half a mile of the crater.
We cursed that German plane as we again repaired the cable. The job complete, we went back to our trench, to resume our interrupted slumber. The sun was beating down on me when I awakened.
By this time, the scratches on the back of my leg had become desert sores and were very painful. In addition, they were in an awkward position for healing. I was given treatment at the first-aid post, but lying about in the sand all day was not conducive to rapid healing. The grit kept seeping through the bandage into the wounds and they just wouldn't heal properly.
Our position now was not much different from the previous one, except that we had a desert track on our left. Up it, at all times of the day, streamed an endless supply of trucks, laden with all sorts of war material.
Occasionally the Germans would shell the track, which was a mass of churned-up sand, and I liked to watch when that happened. It was a grand sight, although the drivers of the machines did not appreciate it. The shell-bursts sent the sand swirling high, completely hiding a vehicle for a few seconds and I would think it had been hit. But it would appear again, belting merrily along as it outpaced the giant cloud.
All drivers, however, did not escape running the gauntlet, and I saw several being hit. Their wreckage was hurriedly pulled off the track, so that they would not interrupt the transport as it went through to supply the front-line troops. Ambulance, however, seemed to hear a charmed life, for although they, too, sped backwards and forwards along the track, never once did I see one hit.
This shelling continued day in day out, never bothering us much because we were well off the track. But our D Company positions were right behind us, with some of their trenches just by the side of the track. One afternoon a shell came over and I knew by its sound that it was to land in D Company lines. I followed its flight with my eyes, then horror of horrors, I saw a group of our men right in its path. I gazed fascinated. Next second there was the usual crump as the shell landed, to be followed almost instantaneously by another explosion, a hundred times more forcible. The German shell had hit D Company’s ammunition dump and it and the men on top were blown skyhigh. A C.S.M. and three pipers lost their lives. Only one body was found --- that of a man who did not have a wound mark on him. Blast alone had killed him. The others had completely vanished.
My brother—in-law, L/C David Forbes, and Pte Vallance, who comprised the Signal team attached to D Company, were the nearest to the tragedy. They were in their trench when the dump exploded practically above them.
The blast lashed their trench and, when Dave had recovered from the shock and put his spectacles on again, it was to find the “Canny Man” --- that was our nickname for Bill Vallance, because nothing ever upset the Glaswegian --- seated opposite him, with the lapels clean blown off his shirt. Otherwise he was unharmed.
So the days passed. There was little to do now. All the signal lines were working smoothly and we had practically the whole day to ourselves to do whatever we fancied.
Often I used to sit and merely think. Most times it was of home. Other times I used to dream of the spit and polish we had gone through during our training in Blighty. I shuddered to think what our depot R.S.M> would have said if he had seen us now. I chuckled at some of the things that used to happen to us back in Britain --- confined not having our balmorals on at the correct angle, a ticking-off for shaving the previous night and not in the morning, the daily scrubbing of equipment and the polishing of bayonet scabbards. Now we were like tramps and nobody could do anything about it.
What amused me most was all the training we had done in Blighty. For about two years we had been trained to assail huge mountains in the bitter cold of the north of Scotland, yet they had posted us to a country as flat as a pancake and as hot as hell!
I remembered all the marching on the barrack square and the ceremonial guards, then I thought of the time that had been wasted during our training days. Most of the lads at present hacking away at the Afrika Korps had fired their rifles no more that half a dozen times.
In all my two years’ training in Britain I had been on the range no more than six times. How could I possibly know how my rifle fired --- low, high, right or left, with only half a dozen attempts? And your life depended on you hitting the other guy before he hit you. In training days we had been told “Your rifle is your best friend,” yet we were not allowed to cultivate its friendship, except by sloping or ordering arms. Like going out with a girl without speaking to her! The old excuse of “Not enough time” did not apply to our division, for we had spent over two years in Britain! So I dreamed on ………..
This present inactivity at Tel El Eisa led to grousing among the lads and soon everyone in that the Aussies had received the surrender of the three Italian divisions and that our armour was exploiting the breakthrough. A decision was expected soon in the battle, and after three days at Tel Al Eisa, we were taken out of the line for a rest.
I had visions of a bath, a long peaceful sleep, time to write home and no fear of German shells.
Once more I was disappointed. We left on foot and marched on and on in the blackness of the night. Eventually we lost contact with the other companies and, as we were dead beat, we decided to get down to it where we were.
It was a grand sleep, free from the fear of death, and next morning we awakened to find that we were actually beside the rest of the battalion. If we had marched on during the night, we would most probably have ended up in Cairo.
Hurried preparations were made to make ourselves more comfortable for that night, but late that morning came the bad news that we were to go into the line again --- to another new position further south.
That evening we got on transport and travellled many miles. Well back from the front line we debussed and walked the rest of the way.
Soon we met the battalion we were relieving and they seemed glad to get out of the positions.
Nothing much could be done in the darkness. I could see nothing but I could smell plenty. The sickly odour of dead bodies filled the air. I’d smelled it before, but never so heavily as here.
I dug in and waited for the dawn. It came, and right away I saw the reason for the smell of death. In front of my trench was one of our Bren carriers. It had received a direct hit from a German shell and was now a blackened charred mass. As I looked closer, I could see hanging from its side, two British soldiers, burned to cinders and left there to rot in the hatesome heat.
In addition there were lifeless bodies of the enemy in various strong points that had been overrun by our troops. The flies, scenting a feast, were out in force, humming above the corpses with their scavenging tactics. Altogether the place positively reeked of death.
Burial parties were sent out to cover up the dead men and, to some extent, the fly menace was put down.
Again I was sent out to lay a line, to B Company, and this time I was on my own. I passed scenes of bitter battle. Dead bodies of Italian soldiers littered the trenches, which were full of scattered papers, photographs, maps and letters.
Idly I picked up a coloured postcard. It showed the heads of a pair of lovers enclosed in a heart. Most of the postcards were of this type, showing sweethearts in amorous poses. They had been sent by the soldiers girl-friends in Italy. How stupid war is. These men had womenfolk back home, too, who loved them and wanted desperately to have them back. The trouble was that the Italians did not quite know what they were fighting for --- we did.
Then I picked up a snapshot that really made me wince. It showed a child of no more than four years of age, held in its father'’ arms, while, what I took to be its mother, was in the background. I felt a lump come to my throat. This child would not see its daddy again.
Quickly, however, I brushed aside this sentimentality. Thousand of British kids would not see their fathers again either and these Italians had been responsible for their deaths. I continued on my way.
I reached B Company safely and fixed up their cable, connecting them through to Battalion H.Q. I stayed here for a short time, putting the bandage on the back of my leg in place, and conversing with some of the lads.
Suddenly a flight of Stukas appeared, streaking across the sky. As I looked to see what they were heading for, I noticed a cluster of our tanks and armoured cars over on my left. I decided to stay and watch.
Then, just as the German planes appeared over their target, a grand sight met my eyes. Half a dozen Hurricanes came belting along from the opposite direction to give battle. Next minute a glorious series of dog-fights took place, with the Stukas jettisoning their bombs anywhere, as they tried to make a getaway.
A few of them escaped but I saw five crash to the ground, with black smoke trailing from them. What a grand sight it is to see the enemy being killed before your eyes. It satisfies, for a time, that thirst for blood that every soldier in the front line has. I went back to Battalion H.Q. feeling highly elated.
Things were quiet in this new position of ours, at least as quiet as anywhere we had been so far, and that night I again slept well.
Next day we were told that the Gordons were to put in a dusk attack to get rid of a few snipers’ posts, and that they would be passing through us. I knew what that meant. A shelling for us.
Sure enough, we got a deluge of shells as the Gordons advanced with their Bren Carriers for support, but this soon died down as the men disappeared in the gloom ahead of me. Soon all was peaceful.
I got down to sleep again. I was well away, dreaming blissfully, when I was awakened by a clanking noise. I looked up and nearly had a fit. The tracks of a Bren carrier were passing over my trench, barely a foot from my head. I fearfully wondered if the dug-out would stand up to the weight. If it didn’t, then I’d be buried alive be sand.
It was with a sigh of relief that I saw the tracks safely negotiate my trench. Angrily I stood up and shouted to the driver of the Bren carrier at the pitch of my voice: "“or God'’ sake, watch where you're going!"
I saw the driver look round as if he’d seen a ghost, and with a “Sorry, mate” he vanished back down the line. He was one of the Gordons and was on his way back for rations.
Next morning we were moved back once more to Tel El Eisa and there we stayed uneventfully until the great news came: “Jerry’s on the run! He’s licked!”
On the morning of November 4 --- 12 days after the battle had been started --- the Eight Army Commander himself issued the glad tidings.
“The present battle,” he said, “has no lasted twelve days, during which all troops have fought so magnificently that the enemy is being worn down.
“He has just reached breaking point and he is trying to get away. The RAF is taking heavy toll of his columns moving west on the main coast road …
“I call on all troops to keep up the pressure and not relax for one moment. We have the chance of putting the whole Panzer Army in the bag and we will do so.
“I congratulate all troops on what has been achieved … Complete victory is almost in sight.”
Complete victory! What a thought! Perhaps then I could get home? Home to my wife! Away from the fear of shells and bombs! A real bed to sleep in! Plenty of baths and changes of clothing! Can you wonder that I was buoyed up at this thrilling announcement by Monty?
But the was in Africa was not at an end yet, or near it for that matter. Mother Nature was to take a hand in events and I was to curse what, on countless occasion, I had prayed for tho keep the files away --- RAIN.
Life with its change of mood and shade,
I want to live. I’m not afraid.
But me and mine are hard to part ---
Oh, unknown God, Lift up my heart.
ON TO EL AGHEILA!
That day, November 4, the pursuit of Rommel’s battered forces began. We were put on trucks and took the winding sandy track to the main coast road.
As we bumped along, I could feel the air becoming fresher and fresher, a welcome relief after the stink and squalor of the battlefield. Then, in the distance, I saw the black line, signifying that here was the tar macadam road, with behind it the blue Mediterranean, its waves gently lapping on to the beach in a cascade of rippling white foam. It was as if I had been in prison for years and at last been released to see Nature’s beauties again.
Soon we hit the main road and there an amazing sight met my eyes. We had joined on to a convoy of Eight Army vehicles, which stretched even further than the eye could see, and in these vehicles were men with their tails definitely up. No longer was the Eight Army dis-spirited. They had scored a tremendous victory over the enemy, and I could see on every man’s face, the indomitable determination that this time they would not come back. No matter what happened now, Rommel was doomed, for he had to contend with an army consisting of men who were oozing with confidence.
I gazed at the stupendous sight of all this Eight Army transport, bumper to bumper, with scarcely a yard between each truck. There was no thought of dispersion, for overhead, zooming along at ridiculously low levels, were Hurricanes and Spitfires. I could see the pilots quite plainly as they whizzed past down the line to return a few seconds later up the way, protecting this mass of moving transport.
Coming down on the opposite side of the road to us were hundreds of Axis vehicles of all types, packed tight with German and Italian prisoners, some loads guarded by only single Military Policeman, others with no escort, only too glad to get away from the ceaseless pounding of their own lines to the safety of the barbed wire cages.
Others prisoners less fortunate than their friends were walking on the sandy verge off the road in twos, threes and fours, in a twisting serpent of a crowd, and I could not help but notice that they were a dirty dejected lot.
Jeers and catcalls came from our lads as the prisoners passed. A few of the enemy looked up and smiled, but others, realising by the tone of our voice roughly what we were saying, completely ignored us.
On November 5 we reached Al Daba landing grounds, only to find the RAF Regiment already there. What was more, they gave us an instance of the phenomenal rapidity with which they advanced their bases, for these landing grounds were in operation within a few hours of their arrival.
Here we stayed for several days and made up for the loss of sleep and the dirty conditions we had suffered during the twelve-day battle at El Alamien. How grand it was to take off our boots and trousers at nights again.
At the same time, the spit and polish came to the fore. Scrubbed belts for our ranks had been sadly depleted during the battle of Alamien. These men were better prepared than us for the “bull” that was going on.
We even had drill on ground that was like a switchback and this led to all sorts of wild rumours. The truth, however, was that the Corps Commander was to visit the battalion and address it.
That day he came we were all lined up in threes and he walked in and out of the ranks, stopping occasionally and asking several men, “What did you do at Alamien?” But, as he picked the smartest men on parade to put this question to and they were naturally all the reinforcement, with their new spotless kit issued at the Depot.” At last the inspection was over, and, after an address in which he praised the battalion, in the same way as I expect he praise all the battalion and said that each was the finest in the Division, he left.
By this time my desert sores were bothering me a lot and it was agony to walk. I found the best way for me to get along was to keep my bed leg straight and hirple along like a cripple. Despite this obvious handicap, I was put on parade after parade.
Then came a C.O.’s parade, marching, drill and all the rest and I was limping along so much that I was putting everybody off step. When the parade was dismissed, the C.O. called me over, asked what was wrong, and on being informed, he told me that I would be excused all parades until my leg was better.
I told the Signal Master who didn’t appear to like it one bit, but unfortunately for me, there was nothing he could do about it.
I was made platoon cook, and the only thing I had done previously in that line was boil water. If my wife could only have seen me then. However, I was game and was soon busy cutting up tins, to boil, stew or whatever was necessary, according to the rations that were issued. I soon learned, and becoming more courageous, I even started making flapjacks and doughboys for the lads. What was more, none of them went sick as a result of my efforts.
Soon we were shifted further on again, this time to Fuka. The fine weather continued and the chances looked good of destroying Rommel's army completely, for our armour was rapidly closing the gap between it and the fleeing Afrika Korps. The RAF, too, was taking heavy toll of the enemy columns.
Heavy rain started to fall on November 6---a had piece of luck. Men strained to get their vehicle out of the quagmire, but it was hopeless. Our armour became bogged and even the RAF could not bomb, owing to bad visibility. By the time the weather cleared on November 8, the enemy had made good use of his respite. He had evacuated Mersa Matruh and gathered together his shattered columns of transport.
It was there that we were moved to next --- and we had to walk it, a distance of roughly 45 miles over sand and more sand. It was a three-day hike that taxed our strength to the limit.
The sand came up over my ankles, got in my mouth, making it dry, stuck in my hair and on my body, and the weight of my small pack on my back became unbearable. The sweat lay in rivulets where my shirt met my shorts, while drops of perspiration falling between my legs, chaffed my skin and set up a wicked redness, forcing me to walk with a spliced gait.
Our orders had been not to drink any water from our bottles, but so agonising was the thirst that most of the lads, during our ten-minute halt every hour, were having a sip on the sly.
There was nothing on the landscape except an occasional wandering Arab, or a crashed plane to relieve the monotony.
I remember the terrific row there was on the second morning of this miserable march. Our officers had told us shave in the water from our bottles. As this meant we would be left with absolutely nothing to slake our thirst during the route march, a hullaballoo started, with the officers being told exactly what we thought of this order. We liked to be clean and tidy, but if it meant doing without a shave or doing without drinking water, we choose the former.
For three days we footslogged it and at last reached the welcome Mediterranean. The M.O was kept busy for over a week, trying to patch up blistered feet, and fortunately baths in the clear blue sea, changes of clothing and rest helped him more than any of his ointments.
Every time we were scheduled to stay over a day at a certain place we were given our bivouacs to put up. Two men had to sleep in each one, and as it was a bit of a crush, many ingenious ideas were thought up to make more room.
I found that by far the best idea was first of all to dig a trench big enough to hold two people lying flat on their backs. Idea of the trench was two-fold ---- if Jerry bombers came over at nights, I didn’t have to get out of my bed to seek the refuge of a dug-out, and secondly, it allowed me to sit up comfortably, an impossible feat on the flat ground, for my head always hit the top of the tent.
Next move was to place a blanket round the hole thus made, so that no sand cluttered up the inside of my tent. Then, by leaving a ledge on either side, covered by the same blanket, I had a place to put my boots and kit. Over all this was erected the bivvy with its two short poles at either end with the canvas pegged down at each side, so that the affair formed the top half of a diamond. The bed was hard, but the body was harder and sleep came easily after my spell in the line.
Later, I picked up another idea. I half-filled a small ………….. petrol, knocked a hole in the lid of the tin, and through the hole placed a piece of string, leading down into the petrol. This made quite a handy lamp for reading or writing at nights, or more often than not, for a gambling school, with pound notes being wagered as is they were tanners. When we didn’t know if the next day would dawn for us, and with nothing whatever to buy, we just didn’t give a damn much we lost ---- or won. Money was a thing of the past, valueless.
Nowadays all the news we got about the African campaign came from the wireless ---- here we were, in pursuit and didn’t even know what was happening 100 miles ahead of us. We had to be told by someone 2,000 miles away in the B.B.C. Daft, it seemed to us, but it was a fact nevertheless.
Anyway one particular day came, November 8, with the announcement that the First Army and the Americans had landed in North Africa, under a guy called Eisenhower --- an American. “Never heard of him,” we all said, but the thought that the Allies had landed at Rommel’s back and we had already been told that Rommel’s army had already been broken, painted a rosy picture for us. Home for Christmas, some of the fellows thought. Others even hinted that the First Army would reach Tripoli before us. That got us, you know, the competitive spirit. We determined to get there first.
One point that annoyed most of us later was the fact that General Eisenhower, an unknown, as far as we were concerned, had been appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in North Africa, which meant that our hero, General Alexander, had been relegated, as it were, by a man who meant nothing in our sweet lives. General Alexander had at least proved himself in battle, but this Eisenhower guy, well, who was he? It was obvious to us that it was merely a move to keep the American home front quiet.
We were not left long in Mersa Matruh. Soon we boarded trucks again, along the battered, pot-holed coast road, and that evening we went up the pass at Sollum, with its twining road that makes the Devil'’ Elbow in Scotland look like an autobahn.
It was pitch black and, at first, lights were not allowed on the lorries, but to get a convoy up that pass, even with the headlights on, takes some doing, because of the acute bends, so orders came to switch on the headlights. Up that dangerous road we travelled. My heart was in my mouth, as our truck jerked round bends and I looked over the side to see an ugly drop of several hundred feet below me. Up, up we went, then at last reached the plateau at the top.
A fairly-like sight met my eyes as I looked back. Climbing up the pass were what appeared to be several pairs of cat’s eyes, the headlamps of the trucks, all at different angles and at different places, while on my left, lying snug at the bottom, I could see the moon gleaming faintly on the still waters of Sollum Bay.
We were now heading for the front line at El Agheila the furthest the Eight Army had ever reached in any offensive, and a recognised strongpoint of enemy resistance. It was a natural defensive box, with steep-sided wadis, or dried-up river beds, forming grand tank obstacles in front and rear, with its left resting on the sea and a sheer cliff face, climbable only by infantry guarding the southern flank between the wadis.
On the way, we had the job of clearing an enemy airfield for our own planes to land on, the enemy having strewn boulders on the runaways in an attempt to hinder our advance.
Another day I was awakened by a terrific clatter near me and on getting out of my tent, I saw the crew of a 3.7 anti-aircraft gun in action against German reconnaisance planes. They didn’t hit any of them.
Eventually we neared our front-line positions --- at Mersa Brega right on the coast road. As we breasted the rise, I saw a notice by the wayside saying, “ The enemy can see you. Remember your dispersion.” We all got off the truck in a hurry.
We reached our position and as usual we dug in. It was a fairly quiet sector, with occasional shells lobbing over during the day, just to remind us that there was a war on. In reply, our guns thudded away from behind the ridge at my back. In front of me was a big rocky hill with beyond that the barbed wire covering the German positions. On my right, very distinct to me, and less that half a mile away, was the Mediterranean, the only clean thing so far in this filthy war.
In the evenings it was so quiet that the chuck wagon came right up to our front line with a prepared meal, so we had a hot feed once a day. The lads were like gluttons and it was a race to see who could finish first, because occasionally there was some food left over after giving each man one helping.
The reason why we were not taking the offensive immediately was clear to me. Our supply problem, or rather the Eight Army supply problem, was becoming increasingly difficult and a halt had to be made to store up material for an offensive. We were still dependent on road transport for the greater part of our needs, because our main bases were in Egypt about 750 miles away.
We certainly had two ports, Benghasi and Tobruk, but these had suffered such a pounding from our bombers that it would take some time for the sappers to clear the wreckstrewn harbours.
Seeing that it was quiet and knowing that we were likely to stay here for a few days, I decided to make my trench into a sort of haven-de-luxe. Careful digging and I had a perfect dug-out, with a sheet of corrugated iron over the top, to keep off the rain. Thus I had several nights’ good sleep.
One day we got the news that a whole platoon of A Company was to attack the enemy line at night and bring back a prisoner to give us information. This was no patrol, but a foray in force. I could imagine these lads keyed up all that day, joking and laughing with each other, to hide their true feelings of fear, and I was anxious to know how they would fare.
Evening came and as the hours passed and darkness fell, I kept my ears open. Soon I heard the rattle of Bren guns from away in front of me from the direction of the enemy front line. Evidently A Company had entered Rommel’s stronghold. I pictured men being shot and a hideous hand-to-hand struggle taking place. I wondered how many of our men would get back unscathed.
Naturally I was worried, but I had to wait until the next day before any news came. I discovered that our platoon had cut the wires protecting Jerry’s front-line position and had gone right in to the defensive posts. They had created Merry Hell there, shooting off Bren guns prisoner, for the simple reason that there was not a German soldier in any of the dug-outs. The enemy seemed to have flown or had retreated before our night attack.
There was unusual activity that day and I guessed that it had something to do with the information that we were to take over the enemy’s positions that night. It was believed that Rommel had taken to his heels.
My job that night was to lay cable from Brigade H.Q., our present position, to the new position. The Signal Master told us how much cable to take and soon we joined the whole battalion who were lying down behind the rocky ridge that overlooked the enemy’s positions, waiting for the order to advance.
As darkness fell, the move forward began. I trudged up the rocky ridge to its summit and scrambled down its slope to the soft sand below, with the lap-lap of the Mediterranean close on my right, giving a macabre effect to the scene. No-one knew exactly what we were to meet in there German positions, consequently my nerves were keyed up owing to the lack of enemy fire, which it was quite possible might open up at any minute and mow us down.
Fortunately I was better off than the infantrymen for I had a job to do that occupied most of my attention, but the poor infantryman, rifle in hand, had plenty of time to think of all the terrible things that might happen to him should he meet the enemy.
I reeled out the cable, as I moved over the soft sand, joining it together when one drum had ended. To my dismay, before we had reached our objective, I found we had not enough wire to complete the job. It was not my fault, for I had taken all the cable I had been ordered to carry.
The Signal Master ordered two of the linesmen to go back to Brigade H.Q. for more cable and to complete the job, while another signaler and myself toiled on with the battalion. The advance could not be halted because a signal line had stopped short of the target.
I trudged on through the blackness and after another half-mile, we reached our positions without meeting any resistance.
Automatically we dug in, just like robots, and we were told to be prepared for a counter-attack next morning. We didn’t know what to make of it --- two or three nights ago, one of our patrols was meant to have met the enemy out there in the No-Man’s-Land we had just passed, and some of our lads, who were later court-martialled for cowardice, had fled for their lives into our lines, leaving their injured officer to the mercy of the Germans. Yet last night A Company had met nobody. Naturally we were all jumpy and wanted some definite information.
I was busy digging a Signal H.Q. when I heard the Signal Master talking to the Commanding Officer. I thought little of it until the Signal Master called out to me.
“I want you to go back with a telephone to where we left that bare cable. Get in touch with Brigade and sent them this message.”
He handed me a form.
“Stay at that phone and if any message comes, bring it back immediately. Don’t leave that phone until the cable has been completed. Get that?”
I got it all right, that is all except one thing. Who was to look after the phone if I had to run back here with a message? So I asked for a man to accompany me. This was begrudgingly granted.
Off we two trekked, back the way we had come, and looking for a cable that could have been anywhere within a radius of a mile. All we knew was that it had been laid near the bank bordering the softly lapping sea.
We got that line, more by sheer luck than anything else, and while I dug a trench for we two, my mate connected up with Brigade H/Q.
Then he discovered that he couldn’t read the message in the dark and we had no torch with us. I tried two matches, our free issue, made in India, small things almost the size of Swan Vestas, with “Safety Match” written on the box. They were so safe that four out of five wouldn’t light. When they did light, it was only momentarily, before spluttering and dying out. Something had to be done.
I thought of an idea. I hurriedly lit a fag and puffed strongly at it, holding the gleaming end close to the printed words on the message form the Signal Master had given me.
By puffing and causing a red glow, the letters could be seen. I quickly scanned the message, passing on a few words at a time to my mate, who, in turn, passed them on to Brigade H.Q. It took some time this way, and my lungs, through continually inhaling, felt raw, but eventually we had done our job.
The message was trivial, merely to say that we had taken up our positions and were ready for a counter-attack.
There we two sat, in the trench, in the suspenseful darkness, with every noise making us believe that an enemy patrol was approaching. The lapping of the waves on the nearby beach did not make things any better, for, at times, it sounded like a man made noise.
It was an comfortable half hour we spent there, with the knowledge that none of our mates was within range to help us should trouble arise.
Suddenly, from the direction of Brigade H.Q., I heard a clanking noise. What could it be? I poked my head over the top of the trench.
There, trundling a sort of two-wheeled barrow, were a couple of signalers, reeling out cable. We gave then a shout. They were from Brigade H.Q. and had come to lay the line to Battalion H.Q.
We got out of the trench, unfixed the phone, then jointed the cable, and trudged along with the barrow.
It was tough going. The barrow had not been made for travellling over soft sand. It stuck in the drifts and had to be hauled out bodily. Two of us went in front, pulling it along, one behind pushing and the other reeling out the cable.
After four or five stops we eventually reached our positions. The cable had been laid.
There was no sleep for any of us that night, and dawn came with an expectant air. But the counter-attack never materialised. As I gazed around, I heard several pops from a sandy hillock on my left, and I wondered what had cause them. I wasn’t left long in doubt, for casualties started coming in to the first-aid post.
The area was littered with anti-personnel mines, small cylinders which were buried underground, leaving three prongs barely visible above the shifting sand.
As soon as the prongs were stood on, the cylinders bounced chest-high into the air, burst, and spread hundreds of small steel balls in all directions, with such force that they made a tearing gash in the body, not a clean wound such as that made by a rifle bullet.
It went on all day, men being killed and wounded with these deadly missiles, against which the infantry had no effective weapon. The amazing thing was that two of our companies had gone clean through an unmarked minefield the previous evening and had not suffered one casualty. Yet, in broad daylight, our men were being blown up in tens.
We suffered many dead and wounded during the next few days and the safest thing to do was not to walk about.
This, of course, was hardly possible, but it was galling to think that valuable lives were being lost every day and the enemy had not fired a single shot!
Rommel had got off his mark all right — there was no doubt about it, but he had left these positions so thickly sown with mines that it would take several days before the pursuit could begin again.
Two occasions strike chords in my memory and illustrate just how stumped the sappers were as to where the mines were laid. Usually there is some system as regards sowing mines, in squares or oblongs. But this was different.
I was sent out on a line party to a forward position. I laid the cable in a sort of swerve, keeping to a rough track used by vehicles before me, and on completing my task, I decided to take a short cut back to camp.
I breasted a small hill, and there, in front of me, to my astonishment, were our sappers, industriously prodding the sand with their bayonets looking for mines. I had landed in what the sappers suspected was a minefield and had walked a good distance through it! I was naturally a little upset, and after that, allowed the sappers to go on ahead of me, so that I followed the safe trail that they had left.
The other incident happened the next day. Cpl. Richardson, a tall English lad of “A” Company, along with Middleton, one of his boson pals, was prowling around the Italian dug-outs, looking for loot and any odd bits of wood that would serve as props for a shelter, when suddenly he gave a shout, “Get on your face! I’v stood on a mine.”
His companion hurriedly obeyed orders. Next minute there was a blinding flash, and ball bearings splattered all around.
Cpl. Richardson was wounded in the eyes, but his prompt warning to his pal had undoubtedly saved his life, for Middleton was not touched. It was feared that Richardson would lose his eyesight, but fortunately that was not the case and he rejoined the battalion later. So the days passed with always another man becoming a victim of this land of mines.
By this time I was thoroughly browned off with the Signal Platoon. I was not a good signaler and my heart was with the lads of A Company, each of whom I knew very well, certainly much better than any of the signalers.
I decided to ask for a shift back to my old Company, and to my surprise, this was granted. Probably the Signal Master was glad to get rid of me, because I had been continually nagging at him that I was not a signaler and knew nothing about wireless.
Back I went to A Company and was put in No. 8 Platoon, which was in charge of Lt. Cathro. “Boy” we used to call him, he was so young in comparison to some of his soldiers. He was a round-faced, well-built chap from Dundee, and the only small fault any of the lads found with him, was that he was not a “mucker-in”. By that, I mead he was a man who seemed ill at ease with tough-spoken yorkshire, Lancashire and Scottish lads. He could very seldom be drawn into a conversation with any of them.
Our Company Commander was Captain Jock McKinney, a ranker, who knew the army and its moaning, grousing inmates from top to bottom. We were glad of it too, for he was always trying to do little things for his company. We appreciated this a lot and “Jock” knew it. Consequently, he got the best out of his men. He was a Fifer, I believe, with white hair, cigarette-stained moustache, and a figure that seemed to have been poured into uniform.
Soon I was amongst all my old mates. Johnnie Horner, the ex-professional boxer, I have already mentioned. He was as tough as they’re made, but would never lift his hand unless under great provocation. No blowhard, he was one of the nicest lads I’ve ever met. He had been doing well as a professional boxer before being called up and had a long string of successes to his career. He had actually been billed at one arena to meet Peter Kane, who later became bantamweight champion of Britain, but the bout for some reason had never taken place. This was, of course, before Peter Kane had reached the championship class.
Then there was Dave Brown, my special pal, whom I have already spoken about — as kind-hearted as a mother to her only child. There was McGovern, another Fifer; Middleton, Allan, Speards, Jones, Hassell, the cook, and many others.
I shared a sleeping bunk with Spears, who was an English lad and there we used to lie, in our shallow trench, about a foot deep, blankets over our bodies and starting up at the starry sky.
It was getting near Christmas now, and I wondered if we would be in pursuit of the enemy again on the 25th. It was a rotten thought, but a possible one. Fortunately, however, we were told that we would be staying at Mersa Brega over Christmas and that we would get a real festive dinner, with pork, plum duff and a bottle of beer each.
Harry Hassett made a gorgeous spread that evening and we all did ourselves well. The marvelous things that lad could make with the minimum of rations and utensils for cooking them in!
That evening we had another treat — an open-air cinema show. It was eerie to look at the screen with its background of sky and stars, with insects fluttering in the ray sent out by the projector and the sound of people talking in the distance. Still it was as event.
As I went to sleep that night, I could not help thinking of what the folks back home were doing at the present moment. Christmas used to be such a gay festival, but now the war had stopped that. Still, maybe next year I would be able to spend it with my wife.
I was awakened the next morning by feeling cold. Something was drooling down my face. I opened my eyes and discovered it was raining and that the trench was half full of water. We were lying in a pool. The blankets, too, were soaked and my hair was matted with wet sand. Evidently it had been raining a good while, but Harry Hassett’s rich feeding had cause me to sleep right through it all.
I awakened Spears then got up and dried myself before the cookhouse fire.
It cleared up in the morning and, in the beating sun, our blankets soon dried.
Besides, it did not really matter, for that morning we moved. Marble Arch was our goal.
Our lorries sped forward and on we travelled in the grueling heat. There were the usual ten-minute stops every hour, with the difference, this time, that we were warned not to go off the road. The verges had not been cleared of mines and the tar macadam was the only place of safety.
Soon we passed an airfield a good bit inland, with wrecks of German planes piled up on one side. It was Marble Arch’ drome. Already it was in operation by the R.A.F., and Dakotas at low altitudes, were ploughing backwards and forwards, bringing up supplies to keep the Eight Army going. With monotonous regularity, they skimmed over the drome, landed, minutes later took off again and returned to Egypt for more supplies.
We passed through a giant archway on the main road. It was, in reality, a monument of white stone, but a monument that I believed to be grossly out of place on this road that stretched for hundreds of miles. With no sign of buildings anywhere from Italy and erected here to mark the borders of Mussolini’s Tripolitania.
At the top was a statue of a reclining Italian warrior, a much better-looking specimen than most of the Wops I had seen. If it had had a stench of garlic coming out of its mouth and spaghetti dripping from either hand, it would have represented more of the Italian’s I had met so far. But this guy on the statue must have lived in the days when men were men and Italians were super-men.
Only point about the herculean figure was that now he looked like an advertisement for some woman’s magazine, because soldiers had climbed on top of the monument and painted a Brassiere and panties on the statue. In addition, there were a few scribblings to show what Tommy thought of Musso and of anything that stank of him. Probably the scribblings are still there, although, no doubt, the brassiere and panties have been erased.
We camped just outside Marble Arch and here, for a few days, we were taught how to detect mines and also to make them ineffective. Our casualties at Mersa Brega had shown a flaw in our training.
New Year was approaching and it appeared as if it was going to be a rather dull one. Our Captain, Jock McInney, however, pepped us up when he came back one day from a walk with a couple of sheep for our New Year Dinner. He had bought them off some wandering Arab.
We were told of the progress of the War — how Rommel appeared to be dug in at Wadi Zemzem near Buerat.
That was to be our next destination. Came the time to move and for the next two days we travelled by lorry.
The second day we halted and dug in. During that evening we could hear the German bombers over an aerodrome a good few miles off, giving it a passing, in a bid to stop us using it as a base.
Next morning we got on our trucks, ready to take up our front line positions at Wadi Zemzem.
Our convoy was halted on the desert track which later led on to the main coast road, and we just waited, wondering what had caused the hold-up.
I had been put as second driver in the company ammunition truck, a fifteen hundredweight, which was loaded at the back with rifle ammunition, sticky bombs, grenades etc., all these things necessary to kill the enemy, and as I stood by the side of the truck, talking to McLean, my driver, and our look-out man, whose job it was to sit on the back of the truck to see that the vehicle behind was following all right, I had a feeling that something was going to happen to me — a premonition of danger.
Away back I could see German Messerschmitts raiding the airfield I mentioned previously. Our ack-ack were putting up a good show but without much success.
Eventually we heard what the hold-up had been. Our brigadier, T.M. Gennie, had been out in front reconnoitring positions for us to take up, when his jeep had hit a mine. His driver had been killed and the Brigadier had been wounded in the arm.
When the convoy did get cracking, we chugged merrily along at no more than fifteen miles an hour over the bumpy ground, always keeping our safety margin of fifty yards from the truck in front.
There was no sign on any danger when, from out of nowhere, came a terrific crackling from behind us and bullets came tearing through the steel canopy over our heads. They whizzed all around. My driver gave a howl. The truck stopped dead. I felt a searing pain in my right thigh and I looked out of my side window. There, cheekily flying at no more than 100 feet, was the thing that had done the damage — a Messerschmitt, which had dropped its bomb on the distant airfield, then come around to strafe the convoy. Unfortunately, he had chosen our truck as a target. It was all over in a few seconds.
I opened the door and got out, hirpling, for the pain was shooting agonisingly through my thigh. I got round to my driver’s door. He, too, had obviously tried to get out. He was lying full stretch on the ground groaning, his leg a mass of blood.
The truck behind us stopped and its occupants came to our assistance. Dennis Kidney, a Dundee man, who later became our C.S.M., came dashing up and rapidly rendered first-aid to McLean, who looked in a bad way.
I remembered the chap on the back of the truck, the look-out man. What had happened to him? I looked up. He was lying back, obviously incapable of moving, his lips twitching as if he were trying to speak.
Two men from the next truck climbed up and lifted the Tommy down. His face was ashen grey, the face of death, blood oozing from his stomach. He had had a gutsful of the Messerschmitt’s bullets!
An ambulance soon came up an McLean and the look-out man were put aboard.
During the interval, I had been examining our truck and discovered that the canopy where our heads had rested, was riddle with bullets. How they had escaped our heads stumped me!
My legs was giving me pain, but not badly enough to go back to hospital. Instead, I was put on another lorry, and as we were speeding towards the front line, I suddenly realised my luck. I had been travelling on our ammunition truck which had been strafed, yet, for some remarkable reason, it had hot blown up! I was indeed lucky to be in one piece.
As soon as we arrived at Wadi Zemzem, I was ordered to go to the M.O. and, as I sat in his ambulance, I took off my gaiter. To my surprise, a broken bullet fell to the floor. This was what had cause the injury. It must have richochetted off the dashboard and hit my leg, because, on my examination, the wound proved to be a groove and not a hole.
But the M.O. was taking no chances of a piece of metal being left in the wound. Despite the fact that I showed him the bullet, and explain that it had never entered my leg, I was sent to the Casualty Clearing Station.
I went from Clearing Station to Clearance Station, back in ambulance along the long weary road I had just come, occasionally staying a few days at one place and being given sulphonomide tablets to take, to prevent infection from setting in the wound.
One night, as we lay on our stretches in the large tent marked with a red cross on the outside, rumours came seeping through that Monty was to attack tomorrow. The moon would be full then, and as soon as that happened, the Tommies started calling it “Monty’s Moon”. It was a favourite of the Eight Army Commander, to attack during this particular night. The Highland Division was to take the coast road and the New Zealanders to come through with a left hook via the desert — objective, in both cases, Tripoli. That was what the rumours said.
Still further and further back they sent me until at last I reached Agedabia, six hundred miles from the front line. There I was put in a tent and told that I was practically all right again as the wound was healing well.
The tent was packed with two long lines of beds, the trestle type, with all types of wounded men there, but none of them particularly serious.
One day, a batch of new patients came into the tent and among them was a Luftwaffe officer and his observer. They were just like any ordinary couple, the pilot tall, fair-haired and good-looking, the observer smaller and more squat.
Then came an amazing insight into the thoughts of the British soldiers.
In next to no time, a big crowd of Tommies, every one of whom had been battling ferociously against the Nazies recently and calling them every filthy name under the sun, were clustered around the German’s beds, asking them all sorts of question. The smiles and conversation was going freely. They were like old pals instead of enemies.
The pilot explained how he had been brought down. He had been in the habit of going over our front line at Wadi Zemzem, photographing our positions, in the early mornings. This particular morning, a Spitfire had been lying in wait for him, sending his plane crashing to the ground with a burst of machine gun fire. The pilot and observer had escaped death by balling out over our line, where they had been picked up by our men, slightly injured during their landing. The Tommies were laughing heartily at the German’s gutteral description of the battle between the German plane and the Spitfire, when, in came a Medical Orderly, who had never been anywhere near the front line, and certainly never seen any fighting. He had blankets, eating utensils etc., for the Germans.
At sight of the huge crowd of British Tommies making a fuss of the Luftwaffe men, a scowl appeared on his face and he thres the kit savagely down on the bed.
“That’s your kit!” he snarled at the Germans. Then he turned to the British soldiers. “You should have more sense. These guys were killing your mates a day ago!” So saying, he turned and walked out of the tent, followed by catcalls such as “Go and get stuffed!” from the wounded British Tommies.
I never knew how this wordy battle ensued, for I was shifter next morning, but I was left wondering who had been right -—the Tommies or the Medical Orderly.
You stilled the waters at Dunkirk,
And saved your servants. All your work
Is wonderful, dear God. You strode
Before us down that dreadful road.
TRIPOLI — BOUND
Next morning I was put on a lorry along with four other chaps who had recovered from their war wounds, and dropped at the nearest depot where units collected their rations. There we were all told to make our own way back to our units. Just like that it happened. Here we were, eight hundred miles from our regiments, which somehow we had to reach.
At this food dump, numerous vehicles called from about a fifty-mile radius, to pick up supplies, and we popped on one heading up the coast.
By inter-changing of lorries we made good headway. Soon we had passed all the familiar places and had reached Buerat again. One the way, we heard all sorts of rumours. Some lads said Tripoli had fallen, others said it hadn’t, and I didn’t know who to believe.
The most encouraging sight I saw from the road, was a convoy of British cargo ships, shepherded by battle cruisers, edging along the Mediterranean coast in the general direction of Tripoli, which meant that some seaport had fallen.
I plodded on my hitch-hike way, and for the first time in my weary trek, I reached civilisation again, at least, it was civilisation in comparison to what I had encountered on the 1,400 mile journey from Alamein with its ceaseless expanse of sand.
Just off the main road, now and again, were houses of the bungalow type, covered with whitewash that glistened boldly in the sun’s rays, while grain in the fields and green vegetation was all around.
White flags of surrender fluttered from the windows of the buildings, which were really farm cottages. I noticed that they were completely untouched, suggesting that there had not been much of a fight during the Eight Army advance. It was grand up here, like coming out into the open after being trapped in a hole in the ground. The air was fresher and the countryside more colourful.
Then we reached Crispi, the first town I had seen that had not been touched by the war.
Italian and Jewish girls walking about gave me quite a kick, for they were the first white women I had come across, since I had landed in Egypt. Their gaily-coloured dresses, their jet-black wavy hair, their olive-like skins and buxom figures were pleasing to the eye after the monotonous worlds of “men only” that I had been living in for over twelve weeks.
We liked the place so well, that the Sergeant in charge of us decided to stay a couple of days.
We soon had billets fixed, an empty house with a large grate in the kitchen, and in next to no time a huge fire was blazing. Saucepans, frying pans and kettles we soon made out of empty petrol tins found lying around, and half an hour later we were seated down to a slap-up meal.
It was in the middle of our repast that a young Italian boy came into the house carrying a basket of eggs. Real white eggs, something I had not seen since before Alamien. By bartering some jam we soon had the eggs frittering in the pan.
Only one thing was needed now, a bath, and I would be on top of the world. My clothes were wet with sweat and grimy with sand, because of my journey on the backs of trucks, making me feel as gritty as a flea doing a sand dance.
Then, one of our lads, who had gone for a walk in the grounds at the back of our abode, came running in excitedly.
“Come and see what I’ve found!” he exclaimed.
I dashed out along with the others, and there, in a grove of trees, was a pool, or rather a small reservoir, used for irrigating the dry soil of the orchard we were in. It was about five yards square.
The good clean water flower non-stop into the reservoir, and out through a pipe a t the side, with always about three feet left in the pool. The water looked deliciously cool as I gaped at it, with the sweat oozing from my body.
Next minute, there was a mad scramble, as shirts, pants and socks were discarded, five loud splashes as our bodies hit the water, and soon, all that should be seen was bare feet, bare behinds, and bare chests, as we frolicked in the freshening water. It was heavenly.
That night, I slept on the hard tiled floor which is a feature of all Italian houses in Africa, for coolness during the heat of the day I suppose. I was used to roughing it, however, and awakened next morning feeling fitter than I had done for a long time.
I still had a bandage on my wound, but this was merely to keep the sand from interfering, and now I took it off for good.
We had a walk around the village, which was off the main road where we were staying, but, seeing a couple of officers, we decided, that to be on the safe side and to stop them from asking any awkward questions, we would be better back “home”. We had done nothing wrong mark you. We had covered the 1,000 odd miles in record time — six days — and when you consider that you’ve got to keep changing from one truck to another, it was good going. Besides, we felt that we were entitled to this rest. There was no time limit put on how long a soldier must take to get back to his unit after leaving hospital, if the unit is in the front line, but we did not take advantage of this consession.
Next morning we got on the move again, this time on a huge tank transporter, and soon we had entered Misurata and further on, Homs, two small towns before Tripoli.
Just outside Homs I knew there had been a bit of a battle, for, on the coast to my right, there was a large mountain, just like the rock on which Edinburgh castle stands, with a deep anti-tank ditch in front of it. It looked a though defensive position to crack, but really, as I discovered later, it had not been.
As we moved on, I noticed that the road near this fortification had been blown up and lately filled in by rubble to allow traffic to surmount it.
A little further on I came across a battery of German guns, with long barrels pointing skywards. Another spot where a scrap had taken place?
Tripoli had fallen, there was no doubt about it, for traffic on the road was very light. Forward we belted, and on January 25th I was careering along the main road, with its tree-lined edges, leading into the Centre of Tripoli — Tripoli, the furthest the Eight Army had ever come, with an important seaport to supply us, in our grasp.
I found it a quaint city, with storeyed buildings, all of which were whitewashed and had flat roofs. The streets were the same as any street in our cities, but the shops were small and most of them were in alcoves between pillars, thus you could shop without the sun beating down on your head. The houses had shuttered windows and balconies running round the outside.
Its harbour, with its Spanish Mole, which had been given a terrific hammering by our bombers, was littered with the wrecks of Italian sea-going craft, the most prominent of which was a hospital ship. Some of the ships had been sunk by our bombers, while others had been scuttled by the Germans to make it more difficult for us to unload materials.
The buildings close by the waterfront were mostly a shambles, but, as you came up from the promenade, nearer the Centre of the town, a magnificent building, a cathedral in a sort of ready-brick, struck up proudly to the sky, completely untouched even by shrapnel.
Occasionally the monotonous regularity of the flat-topped buildings was relieved by minarets, with their towers stretching up to a pin-point in the sky and their little platform round the top, from which the Muezzin called the Mohammedans to prayer at various hours the day.
As I travelled the Via Costanzo Ciano, which led from Homs to the Centre of Tripoli, several broken-down buildings and twisted girders showed where our naval shells had bombarded the town, but they were few, most of the damage being at the river-side.
I noticed that all the windows of houses were shutters, which covered all windows, anxious eyes were peering out, wondering when these “vile Britishers” were going to murder the menfolk and rape the women. Jerry had spread nasty stories about us.
I reached the Centre of the city, the Piazza D’Italia, with its fountain in the Centre and its streets branching off, one of which led to the castle on the waterfront. There a pipe band was playing — one from our Division — and they were strutting up and down, with highly-polished boots and belts so white that they made the surrounding glittering buildings look shabby. The men had their kilts on, each with all its pleats in all its glory.
Somehow, these men did not look like conquerors, now that the spit and polish had started to impress the inhabits, who were more numerous in this part of Tripoli. Most were Jews or Arabs and they clapped their hands to the tune of the pipes.
A ceremonial guard had been mounted outside the castle, from which fluttered a Union Jack. The sentry was spick and span as an entry for a dog show and as immovable as a rock, as he stood there with fixed bayonet. A giant H.D. had been painted on a wall beside the castle. There H.D.’s had followed us since Alamien, on signpots, petol tins, buildings etc., sort of showing the trail we had blazed, and had earned for us the nickname of H. for Highland, D. for Decorators.
I found my battalion in the Benito Mussolini school, up one of the narrow side-streets leading off the Piazza D’Italia. The Italian soldiers had used it as a billet before us, for it was littered with their equipment and it was filthy. The lavatories were choked, windows broken, tins and bits of paper lying about, rude drawings on walls.
Naturally, the first thing I did was look round for my pal, Dave Brown, and right glad I was to see him, and know that he was still uninjured. I asked him for details of the battle for Tripoli and he told me that the battalion had been stopped by snipers at “Edinburgg Rock”, the name given by the soldiers to the hill outside Homs, but after an attack the next morning had discovered that Jerry had flown. The Seaforths, he said, had had a bit of a fight with a German gun battery — the derelict weapons I had seen outside Homs.
The school which was serving as our billets, had all been thoroughly washed out and disinfected, but next day, I had joined all the other men in body-scratching — the place was alive with lice!
I soon found that the spit and polish had begun again. New battledress was issued, and even new hackles. Belts were scrubbed till they were chalky white.
As dusk fell, on my first evening there, our light anti-aircraft guns round the harbour opened up and I heard the drone of enemy planes. From behind me came the thump of our heavies and our building shook like a rat in a terrier’s jaws.
From our two-storey high window I had a lovely view. Hundreds of Bofors had been lined up round the promenade, and their lines of fire were all criss-crossed in such a fashion, that they formed a cone, which made it suicide for planes to dive low, in an attempt to place their bombs.
These coloured balls sped into the air, each one seemingly chasing the one in front but failing to catch it, criss-crossing and making beautiful patterns, as they thundered out their song of death. The din was terrific.
Searchlights were now operating. Soon three beams of lights focussed on a certain point in the sky. There, above me, was what looked like a moth, battering itself against an electric light bulb. The searchlight operators had a German plane in their net!
The heavies opened up at this, the only visible target, and black puffs of exploding shells could be seen all around the plane. But somehow that pilot eluded these fingers of light and reached the safety of the black sky.
To my right there was a sudden belch of flame, and out of the sky screamed a wounded plane in its death throes. I cheered like mad right until the plane hit the ground with a colossal thump and a tongue of flame lit the entire town. The others then sheered off, dropping their bombs at random, without hitting anything of note.
Next morning I was put to unloading the ship at the docks. They could not get into the harbour, because the Germans had sunk craft across the only opening between the moles, thus blocking the entrance.
Divers were busy at work, trying to force a clearance, but, in the meantime, flat lighters had been brought into play, and these skimmed over the top of the sunken vessels, to the British boats, waiting at anchorage outside the harbour.
The lighters returned with stores. Our job was to unlo0ad them and pack them up on the prom, ready to transport to the various dumps all aroung Tripoli. Speed was the keynote, for already Monty was preparing to attack the Mareth Line, where the enemy was now known to be standing. Rommel was to get no rest, just as our unfortunate Army had got none in France in 1940. Monty was determined to trap him somewhere in North Africa, and when he was hemmed in, there would be no Dunkirk for him. All his men would be in the bag.
We worked in shifts, and the sight of all that good food we were unloading was too much for the lads who had been fed on bully beef, biscuits and stew for months now.
Tinned fruit was a great temptation and soldiers could be seen, suddenly stooping, tearing a strip of wood off a box and stuffing a two pound tin of pears down their battledress.
They would take it in turns to move away to shelter at one side, where they opened and devoured the contents of the tins in a flash. The officers, who were acting as overseers for the unloading, knew what was going on and they, too, joined in the looting.
However, empty fruit tins lying about gave the game away and C.M.P.’s, with the power to search everybody, were put on guard.
The British Tommy, being what he is, soon found ways and means of beating this blockade. A lorry brought our supper up at ten p.m. when we were on night shift, and this particular evening, to allay suspicion, one of our officers came up seated beside the driver.
There was a lot palaver before the truck was allowed to enter the gates, but as soon as the M.P. saw the officers everything went swimmingly. The truck stopped beside the lighters we were unloading and immediately another M.P. came up to see what was going on. He, too, saw the officer and said, “Sorry Sir,” and while the officer kept him in conversation, a few of the lads tossed crate after crate of food into the murky blackness of the truck. There was fruit, pickles, jam and cheese, and we had visions of a gorgeous tuck-in for “A” Company for all that week.
The truck soon made off again back to our billets and we resumed our loading.
Food was not the only thing that suffered severely at our hands, Fags, too, were looted, and thousands of them went astray during unloading.
Sometimes we were unlucky and it was a lighter of petrol or ammo that came in. Needless to say, these took a longer time to unload than a food lighter. Our heart just wasn’t in the job on these occasions.
Then one bight we discovered another dodge to beat the M.P.’s. There were usually two of them, one watching us work and one at the dock gates leading to the street. So when our ten-minute, hourly break came, we pretended that we were going across the road for a drink of water and secreted our tins of fruit, which were hidden down our battledress jackets, in the bushes at the side of the road along which we had to march to get back to the billets.
That night we were in clover. One of the lads had found a crate of rum and soon it was getting big licks. We hit on an idea to get it past the M.P.’s. We emptied our water bottles of their usual contents and filled them with the liquor.
One of the lads almost gave the game away. He got as tight as a drum halfway through the proceedings and tottered up to the M.P. in threatening attitude, for no reason at all. Before the M.P. could turn, however, and see him, two of his pals had made up to him, linked arms with him, and gone up the road, half carrying the drunkard between them. He never appeared again for duty that night! They took him right back to billets.
As we marched off duty that early morning, past the M.P. on the gate, our one thought was to get that tinned stuff we had hidden round the corner, in the bushes where the policeman could not see us.
We neared the spot. Suddenly where there had been the regular marching of men’s feet, there was a scuffling noise as the whole platoon scrambled to the bushes for their spoils.
The Platoon Commander turned at the noise and wondered where his men had gone. One minute there had been a body of marching men, the next they had vanished. He looked to his right, to see them all groping about in the bushes and stuffing tins down their battledress blouses. There was Hell to pay, and he told us that we were all for Company Office the next morning.
Instead of that, next day, Jock McKinney, our Company Commander, congratulated our platoon and the Lieutenant in charge, on our record at unloading lighters the previous night. He had been phoned by the Harbourmaster and complimented personally for the speed of our unloading. We had a chuckle, and I felt sure that our Lieutenant must have had a good laugh at the incident, too.
The days passed with very little respite for us and the lice were causing me to scratch myself silly. I’d wash and scrub daily, but the wretched creatures still clung to me. One thing that amazed me was that, although we were in the city of Tripoli, before I could go out for a walk, I had to get a pass.
I used to roam around, mostly for the purpose of collecting fresh air. Two cinemas had been opened, “The Miramare Theatre” and the “Union Cinema”. The shows were free, but to get in them it was necessary to queue up for about an hour before the time. This knocked the goodness out of the treat.
Townspeople, by this time, were venturing out into the street, and soon, flashily dressed Italian girls, escorted by their menfolk, were walking along the Piazzas. It was a treat to watch them. Light frocks were the order of the day, for the heat was stifling, no hats were worn, or stocking, and any chap who dared to whistle at a passing senorita was rewarded with a freezing stare. The Italian didn’t like us in their city.
A fraternisation ban had been imposed by General Montgomery — on mixing with the Italians — you could go out with a Jewess, or an Arab if you wished.
The funny thing was that the brothels in Tripoli were taken over by the military, and most of the girls inside them were Italian! Only a few weeks ago, these same women had been entertaining the Afrika Korps, now they were lying with the British Tommies.
Of course, they were not interested in the person, but with his money, and the girl who could go through the most men in a day’s work obtained the greatest amount of cash.
Everything was done in Army style. Queues were formed by the Military Police outside each door, and, as all the pensiones were in the same square, the streets were thronged with suntanned Tommies. There was class distinction even in these brothels. There were special ones for the officers, the sergeants and the other ranks.
I remember one day walking along the main street, Corso Italo Balbo, in the boiling hot sun, with one of my pals. The heat of the sun and the presence of white women were getting him down. He was like a dog after a bitch in heat. Every girl he passed he spoke to, but was greeted with icy stares, which should have cooled his ardour.
There was one thought uppermost in his mind — to get a woman! We turned off the main street, and an Italian lady sitting on a bench in a small public garden, was too much for him. He calmly strolled over and optimistically sat down beside her.
I don’t know how he manage it, but soon he rejoined me on my seat and informed me that the woman’s husband was in the Italian Army. How he obtained this bit of news beat me, for he couldn’t speak a word of Italian and she couldn’t talk English. He said he had done it by sign language.
“There’s nothing doing there,” he said. “Come on, I must find these brothels.”
He was all on edge with frustration and the first Italian man he met, he asked him in his Arabic — cum — sign language, where the brothels were. The Italian pointed down the street and sure enough, about 500 yards further down, was a mob of milling soldiers.
“Come on, let’s go!” he said. I refrained however. The urge hadn’t got me and besides, I had a wife at home. He was single and had nothing to lose.
I told him I would meet him on one of the seats in the public garden after he had finished, and bursting into a run, he vanished in a cloud of dust, his face lit up in expectation.
About an hour later he returned, his face flushed but more contented, and proceeded in soldier language, to give me a full account of what had happened.
According to him, “The dame was a smasher,” with a figure like Venus, and looks that would have put Cleopatra in the shade, and all for five bob! I pretended to take it all in and kept plugging him with questions, for I was interested in how these brothels worked.
He informed me that there were six girls in the house, with an old madame in charge. She collected his money at the foot of the stairs and gave him a small disc, thereupon he mounted the stairs to find at the top, a small table, at which was seated an R.A.M.C. orderly. He issued my pal with a preventative and a small packet that contained cotton wool and a tube of ointment. He was also given a small chit with his name, number etc., on it, and as he showed it to me I noticed that it had at the top, “This card should be handed to your Medical Officer in case of V.D.”
At the top of the stairs were six rooms, the doors of which were all shut, and there my friend waited. The doors opened at various intervals, and a sweating soldier came out, doing up his pants, while his bed-mate of a few second ago, stood at the entrance to the door, showing off all her charm and trying to induce another customer in. The girls, said my pal, were all in various stages of undress. Most preferred just a short shift that came to their belly button, thus revealing the lower half of their bodies, while others, less brazen, had on brassieres and panties. One girl in particular, the one my friend had, had walked out to the customers with nothing on at all! The sight had been too much for him. He had grabbed her and hurried into the room, shutting the door behind him. When he left the room, after his short enjoyment, he retired to a toilet in the house, where he applied the ointment in the tube he had been given, following the instruction on the packet.
I listened to his flowery description of all the grisly details regarding his bed fun, and there was no doubt that he had enjoyed himself, for he was now prancing about like a two-ear-old.
God knows how many men of the Eight Army these girls in the brothels satisfied in their short time, but the amount must have run into many hundreds, probably thousands. What an occupation!
One day, the “lads for their lust” got a shook. There had been bombers over the previous night and one bomb had landed in the brothel area. This had been a trifle too much for the girls and they had fled to the safety of the country. After a day’s absence they came back to their old haunts.
I heard many stories about these prostitutes, who were of all races. According to accounts, several of them had been pressed into service by the Germans. Either that or death! How true this was is difficult for me to judge, for never once was I in conversation with any of the girls. They were rumours, no doubt, that managed to get the whores some sympathy and some extra tips from the kind-hearted soldiers.
Enemy bombers continued to pay visits to the city. If they did not come in the early hours of darkness, it was a clinch that they would come just as dawn was creeping in. in this way, I presume, they expected our gunners not to be on the alert. They were doomed to disappointment, however, for such was the ferocity of the anti-aircraft barrage that not one bomb fell during February in the dock area. And all the while, the steady build-up of arms and ammunition went on, in preparation for the cracking of the Mareth Line.
One day, we were all put on parade, and the C.O. went through the ranks, choosing the tallest chaps for special parades. I wondered why. It soon leaked out — some important personage was coming to Tripoli. The lads who had been chosen were at it day and night, scrubbing and polishing equipment, and being dekked out with kilts, for a big procession that was to take place. Sherman tanks lined up along the sides of the main street and a saluting base erected near the castle told me that the time was near.
The Arab told me who was coming — our Prime Minister — Mr. Churchill. How they got their information was nobodies business but, on several occasions later, if I wanted to know anything about something big that was coming off, all I had to do was ask an Arab. He’d tell me, and truthfully, too. Their accuracy was astounding.
February third was the day of the big parade. I was not in it for I was a wee fellow, and only the biggest, manliest-looking chaps had been chosen. All houses along Corso Italo Balbo, the main street of the procession, were ordered to have their shutters closed, and Military Police were posted on the rooftops with Tommy-guns, to make sure that no grenades or sniping was aimed at Mr. Churchill. It was an inspiring sight, with sections of every unit taking part. There were Scotsmen, Englishmen, New Zealanders, Basutos, South Africans, all in that parade, marching past the saluting base.
One of my proudest possessions to-day is an original photograph of the Highland Division passing the saluting base. Mr. Churchill is seen in air Force uniform, taking the salute. It was here that he gave a speech to the troops in which he said:-
“In the words of the old hymn, you have ‘nightly pitched your moving tents a day’s march nearer home”.
Naturally this set the rumours going that we were homeward bound, a stupid rumour, when the truth was realised, for the enemy’s strongest position in Africa — the Mareth Line — had yet to be cracked. Soldiers, however, will clutch at any straw, until that straw, through distortion, becomes a haystack.
So far, the Highland Division and the New Zealanders, had been the only two Division that had taken part in all the battles from El Alamien to Tripoli, and every Jock reminded everybody else of the fact, complaining that we were due a long spell of rest.
When we began to get reinforcements, our hopes of not taking part in battle again faded. Some said that this was the fault of the Divisional Commander, General Wimberly, although he had to take his orders from higher-ups, just as we had to take ours from him. A skit was performed by some of the lads in billet one night. The scene was a make-believe conference being held by Monty and the officers in charge of all the Divisions of the Eight Army. This is how the conference went, as performed by two of our lads.
Monty — “I want a Division to assault the Mareth Line.”
Wimberly, jumping to his feet — “My Division will do it, sir!”
Monty — “I want a Division to work round the flank of the Mareth Line to take it from the rear.”
Wimberly, jumping up — “My Division will do it, sir!”
Monty — “I want a Division to go home.”
Wimberly, jumping up — “My Division does not want to go home. They’re not happy unless they’re fighting.”
Monty — “I want a Division to land by sea to outflank the Mareth Line.”
Wimberly, jumping up — “My Division will do it, sir!”
Monty, losing temper — “Sit down you fool! It’s one Division you’ve got, not four!”
None of the conversation was true, of course. It was all innocent fun, but the actions of the impersonators of General Wimberly and Monty had me in fits. It showed what the lads thought of repeatedly going into action. Some blamed it on the past glorious fighting record of the Highland Division, saying that we were being forced to keep up its reputation for the sake of history books.
The thought of going back into the line made me feel nervous, for, as any soldier will testify, a wounded man going back into action is more jumpy than anyone else. Probably the thought of “Look what I got last time. I wonder what will happen now?” was the reason. It just can’t be avoided. If man were a machine with no thinking capabilities then how much easier wars would be dreading of getting to close grips with the enemy, and no grousing at things that irritated you.
We were taken out of Tripoli proper and put in an orchard about twenty kilometres outside the town. By this time, the lice were just unbearable. Everybody had them, even the officers and something had to be done.
We were ordered to boil all our clothes, but even this was not successful, for our blankets were full of the lacherous beasts. They stuck in the seams of our underpants and shirts, laying their eggs and multiplying daily.
A delousing machine came to our camp and we were paraded with all our clothes and blankets. We stripped and our clothes and blankets were all shoved in the fumigator. After a few minutes, the door was opened and our togs chucked out. We put them on, and so we were deloused. At least, that was what they said. Later, we were to find out differently, and in the worst possible place, the front line!
We were alone and hope had fled,
We loved our country and our dead,
And could not shame them, so we stayed
The course, and were not much afraid.
THE MARETH LINE
When we left Tripoli for good on our way to the front line, we did the journey on foot. For three solid days we footslogged it, sometimes in the desert, sometimes on the hard coast road, and by the time we reached a place where we were to rest all the following day, I felt that my stay in Tripoli had been wasted. I had the feelings of a boxer who gets knocked to the canvas for a count of eight, gets to his feet refreshed, only to be knocked out stone cold with his opponent’s next punch.
After this day’s lounging about, we were put on trucks and taken up to Beni Gardane, the first outpost in the Mareth Line and the border of Tunisia. The road became worse, the pot-holes more frequent, and I was jolted about from side to side of the truck like a loose lid on a steaming kettle.
Ahead of us I saw high hills, the highest I had seen so far in my travels. They formed a horseshoe shape, as they towered bluntly to the sky. We were nearing the mighty Mareth Line. We pitched tents, first in one position, then in another, until I was fed up knocking my guts in digging trenches, each of which was vacated after a few hours. We were moved about from place to place like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that didn’t seem to fit in anywhere.
Then at last we became settled. In the blackness of the night, we moved into the front line at a place called Medenine.
We took over from an English Regiment. In the dark, we did not know where the trenches had been dug and knew nothing of the lay-out of the land, with the result that we had to be led to the dug-outs like blind men, with the English soldiers holding on to our arms and guiding us forward.
I remembered the words of one Englishman as he bade us farewell. “Keep your nuts down during daylight!” he warned. He was greeted by disdainful and sarcastic shouts of “This aint the first time we’ve been in the front line you know!”
We had cause to remember that bloke’s warning when daylight came. I popped my head up over my trench to get a dekko at our new positions and I was pleased to see some green vegetation around me, which meant water closeby. On my right was a deep wadi, and in front of me a hill, while separating the platoon from the wadi was a field of maize which was swinging backwards and forwards in the gentle breeze.
A shout from Platoon H.Q. told us to come and get our rations for that day. We had this dangerous move made to perfection. You just couldn’t get up and walk over, in case the enemy should see you. One man from each trench would get up and crawl over on hands and knees to Platoon H.Q., making certain that no two men were at the grub Centre at the same time.
We had accomplished this task successfully many times previously with less cover to hide us. From our trenches, it was difficult for us closeby to see a man move up for his rations, so what chance had the enemy of catching sight of us? Our previous experience in the line had made us expert stalkers, moving rapidly from cover to cover, like Red Indian trackers, and where no cover was available, we took advantage of every sandy fold in the ground.
This time, despite all the usual precautions, an enemy look-out, posted on the high hill in front of us, must have seen our men creeping over the ground, for a heavy gun opened up and shells thudded around us for about five minutes. As the sand and smoke cleared from the air, giving the enemy look-out man another clear view from his vantage point, he saw no movement whatsoever. Like true desert rats, we had gone to earth, and there we stayed till darkness fell once again, and we could move about freely.
As dusk crept over us, the chuck wagon came up to the lines. I heard its engine screaming miles away over the deathly quiet air, and wondered why the enemy, too, could not hear it. The noise became louder and louder. The granting of brakes and the bouncing of cooking utensils battering up and down on the floor, told me that the truck had arrived with my sustenance. I got my dixies out of my pack and soon a hundred hungry soldiers and myself were lined up, with the waft of hot stew in our nostrils. The grub was eaten with heartiness, because during the day, all we had to eat was biscuits and raw cold bully beef that was like hot-potch after coming out of its sun-battered covering.
Then back I went to rest in my dug-out. Every four hours a sentry came up to my trench to tell me that it was my turn on guard. This consisted of me standing up in my trench, with eyes glaring into the inky blackness all around, eyes that became heavy with fatigue, eyes that were just as determined to close as I was to see that they stayed open. Every moving bush, every swaying ear of maize, every sound made me alert, but not once did the noises materialise into human beings. Always at the back of my mind, urging me to keep awake, was the thought that if I fell asleep and the enemy raided our positions and killed my mates, I would be responsible. The fact that they would kill me, too, never entered my head.
After a few more days of hiding in our holes, with the sun slashing down at us and the flies causing as untold agonies, as we were forced to lie there without moving for fourteen hours out of twenty-four, our Company Commander decided to shift our positions — to the wadi.
We moved by night to a peach of a position the deep wadi on out right, which had once been the course of a stream, but which had long since dried up. There we dug in, in the sides of the small cliffs, where even a shell landing above us would have had little effect, because we had a good twelve feet of sand over our heads. Here, too, we could walk about in perfect freedom at any hour of the day, for the sides of the wadi hid us from view of the enemy.
We made up for lost sleep in the few days that we stayed there, for we felt as safe as houses in our under-ground hideouts.
We knew it couldn’t last long, however, and one night we got a hurried order to move out — and back the way! Everybody was exited and I wondered what was wrong. We were used to quick moves, but always forward, never back along the main road. After walking for several miles, we left the road and were told to halt. We just dropped down where we stood and, for the first time in months, went to sleep without the shelter of a trench. The daylight came, to find us all lying stretched on top of the ground just off the main road. In front of us were high hills, while behind us there were mountains, the highest in the vicinity.
We were immediately pushed 500 yards ahead and ordered to dig our positions on the back side of a mound. All around was a sense of speed and urgency. We dug our holes, and only then were we let into a secret. The Germans were preparing to attack . A French major, so rumours said, which was due on March 6, five days hence.
We went back to our holes in thoughtful mood. Our company occupied the back side of this mound and interspersed among us were 6 inch anti-tank guns, whose muggles were directed at the main road about 500 yards behind us, along which the Panzers were likely to pour. To our right was a large hill, acting as a look-out post for our gunners. At the foot of it were three of our infantry companies.
Across on the opposite side of the road were the Argyllo, while further back was another battalion of the Black Watch. Well behind us was our heavy artillery, indistinguishable except when they fired and the smoke and fire from their muggles betrayed their presence.
I felt very confident as I looked around I felt strong in this position and satisfied that we could hurl back the whole Afrika Korps if necessary.
We were reserve company of the battalion and our role was that of counter-attack. If any other company or battalion lost ground, we were to be thrown in to re-take it. For a couple of days officers timed us in our counter-attack role. We had to leap from our trenches when a whistle blew and make a wild dash for C. Company lines, about three quarters of a mile away. Eventually the officers were satisfied with the time we had taken. They didn’t think it could be improved upon.
Reports came in daily of our Air Force having seen the enemy lining up for the attack and gradually moving closer to our positions.
Battalion H.Q., who were on the front of the hill, that is, over the top out of sight from us, were in full view of the enemy, and one morning when a work party was chosen to dig a Signal H.Q., the Germans saw them at work and opened up with their artillery. All we heard was the crump of a shell, then about twenty infantrymen raced for their lives round the side of the hill towards our positions. A shell had landed in the middle of them, but fortunately, no-one had been hurt. It taught us one thing, however, that the enemy could see hurt. It taught us one thing, however, that the enemy could see Battalion H.Q., so all digging on the face of the hill was abandoned until darkness fell. That night the positions were dug and completed.
It was early the next morning when we saw a jeep approaching our front line. It was flying a pennant and we immediately recognised it as belonging to a certain big-wig, whom we all knew well. He shouted out the question, “Where is your Battalion H.Q.?” We told him, adding that it was under observation and that no transport was allowed to go near.
Whether he did not hear us or just ignored us we did not know but, in a flash, his jeep had vanished round the side of the hill in a cloud of dust.
I waited expectantly for the whistle of a shell I felt sure was bound to come. And it did! Crump! I heard it crashing on the other side of the hill where Battalion H.Q. was situated, and I looked at Dave Brown, my trench-mate. “Well, he asked for it!” Dave said.
Five minutes passed before the jeep returned through our lines and vanished round a bend in the road behind us. I thought they had got away with it after all. A few minutes later I discovered that the occupants of the jeep had escaped all right, but several of Battalion H.Q. had not been so fortunate.
Stretcher bearers came dashing up and headed for Battalion H.Q. Soon they returned past out trenches, with bodies on their stretchers, bodies that were now lifeless.
I got the story later from one of the eye-witnesses. Our men had been roving about the palm trees beside their positions, doing their morning toilet, quite hidden from the enemy’s ever-watching eyes, when this big-wig had raced up in his jeep, sending up clouds of dust as an advertisement of his arrival.
One of our officers, seeing the big pot’s pennant flying and always being a believer in the fact that discipline should be carried out no matter where you are, immediately gave the order which brought all the men standing stiffly to attention. Then he raised his hand to his balmoral in salute to the big-wig.
A second later a loud whee filled the air and a shell landed smack in the middle of this disciplinary madness. The enemy had, of course, seen the dust, and perhaps the jeep as well. A message had been sent back to his gunners, and in less time than it takes to write the incident, our Battalion H.Q. had become a death trap.
There were hurried dives for slit trenches, but it was too late, for certain of the men had already died, not with their boots clean, as the Guards are alleged to have done, but standing stiffly to attention. Two especially, I remember, who met their deaths that day. Jimmy Young, a tall Dundee lad, and Wee McBain, a young Glasgow fellow, never cut out to be a soldier inasmuch as marching and drill were concerned, for he always seemed to be out of step, but conscientious and one of the best. Both belonged to the Signal Platoon, who were getting more than their fair share of casualties.
We talked it over as we lay in our trenches. Dave left the big-wig without a name for his thoughtlessness and I heartily agreed with him. We were sadly ruminating the loss of these two Signal lads, when, in the distance, we heard six pops, a sure sign that mortar bombs were coming over.
We edged further down our trench — because one thing about mortars — there is no warning whistle as to where they are to land, as there is with shells or bombs. They just hit the earth and the crashing noise as they explode is the first indication you have of where they are aimed.
Crash! Crash! Crash! The noises seemed to be getting closer. Then came one terrific explosion, which seemed on top of us. A surge of blast swept into the trench, hitting me in the face with a hot wave. It was with a feeling or relief that I heard the other two mortar bombs land a good distance away from us.
The coast was now clear and I cautiously inched my head op over the top of our trench to see where the extra-specially near bomb had landed. Not five yards away from our trench was a hole in the ground, scarred by black explosive, with jagged rocks broken in minute pieces. We had certainly had a close shave.
As I gaped at Dave and he gaped back at me, he suddenly exclaimed, “Look at your small pack!”
It was on the edge of the trench, for there was no room for it inside our dug-out. As I looked at it, I saw in the front, a jagged tear, about the size of a fist. A piece of shrapnel had torn right through it. I opened my pack and took out my mess-tins, which were right behind the tear. There, clean through the closed tins was another jagged hole, only slightly smaller that the one in the front of the pack. I examined further and in the back of my pack was another hole. The piece of shrapnel had blasted its way clean through the front, torn a gap through the mess-tins and out through the back of my pack.
“Phew!” I gasped. “Thank God that wasn’t on my back!”
I held it up for all in the surrounding trenches to see, and laughing remarks slightly eased the tension of the recent bombardment.
The days passed with occasional shelling and we knew that the tempo was beginning to heat up when Stukas started raiding our gun-line. We saw battles between the enemy planes and our anti-aircraft guns quite clearly, without being in any danger ourselves.
One evening, the Stukas came over just before dusk and our ack-ack guns opened up. Back puffs of smoke hit the sky all around the planes and we gave a running commentary to the ack-ack gunners, who obviously couldn’t hear us, advising them to fire right or left whichever was necessary for a direct hit.
Then I saw an amazing sight. A Stuka was racing along, when suddenly it stopped, as if a giant hand had gripped it from behind. A puff of smoke, however, told me that the gunners had registered a hit. I cheered like mad. There was another Stuka following close behind the one that had been halted in its stride, and before the wrecked plane had fallen, the one following it had crashed into its tail. The heavens were lit up by the collision as the petrol tanks of both Stukas went up in flames. Bits and pieces fell flaring to earth. Some lucky gunner had scored two hits with one shot!
The other Stukas dropped their eggs and bolted hell-for-leather back to the security of their own lines. We wondered why there were no Spitfires of Hurricanes flying around to protect the gunners as they had always done in the past, and later I learned the reason. We had certainly captured the drome at Medenine, but the Germans had it under shell-fire, thus neutralising its use.
That evening, just after the raid, our platoon was called to a conference by our commander, Lt. Cathro.
“I want volunteers to go out on patrol tonight,” he said. “So-and-so has already volunteered, but I need another nine men. Hands up those who want to volunteer.”
You’ve read countless gallant stories of how everyone’s hands went up and so many had to be refused, weeping bitterly of the fact. Frankly, I don’t believe them true. There’s enough danger in battle day after day, for ordinary thinking men to put their heads in a noose voluntarily. Oh yes, one man had volunteered! He was from Company H.Q. and was always volunteering for patrols. We knew that one day he would get what he was asking for. He got it all right on a patrol a month later — he stood on a mine and was blown to shreds.
But to get back to this particular day. Everybody looked first at everybody else, then ashamedly at the ground, but no-one raised a hand.
“Very well then,” snapped Cathro, and I did not envy him his task. “The patrol must take place. If nobody will volunteer, I must chose the men myself.”
He started picking the men, and I had an uneasy feeling that I was going to play some part in this patrol. His eyes roved along the line, picking out chaps here and there, and eventually they stopped at me.
“You’ll be the pacemaker!” he said.
I knew what that meant. We would be told that we had to go out on certain distance into No-Man’s Land, and it was my job to see that we went no more and no less than the allotted number of yards. It was an important job and, at any other time, I would have got quite a kick out of being chosen for such a responsible task. But being hit by a Messerchmitt had not done anything to help what little courage I had had previously. My pal, Dave, loyal as they make them, immediately argued that I had a wife at home, he had none, and could he take my place. Cathro said, “No.” Probably didn’t trust Dave’s counting of the yards, I thought, but I was glad of Dave’s offer. It’s grand to know you have a pal as loyal as this by your side.
Darkness had fallen and we were due to start out at ten p.m. Before that there were hurried preparations. Each man in the patrol was fitted out with rubber-soled boots, desert boots they were called, so as to make as little noise as possible on the rubbly ground. No steel helmets were worn, because, they too, caused a noise when they moved. Slings were taken off rifles, for these might jingle. All paybooks, photographs etc., all means of identification belonging to the chosen patrol were left behind, so as to give the enemy no clue as to what regiment we were.
We were ready at the appointed time — ten men and the officer. All the lads were loaded to the teeth with weapons handy for close-in fighting — grenades, revolvers and Tommy guns — but it was impossible for me to carry anything, because of the need for concentration on my task. I had been given a long piece of black bootlace, and as I counted each hundred paces, I had to put a knot on the lace. Then, in the darkness, by running a hand over the knots, I would know just how many paces we had taken. Sounded simple, but it wasn’t.
“you must be exact!” Cathro said. “One hundred yards too far might lead us all into trouble.”
We were given all the dope then. Briefly, it was that the enemy was expected to attack the Eight Army the next morning and was expected to move up that night, ready to launch the offensive in the early hours. Our job was to go out 6,000 yards into No-Man's Land, and by doing so, we were expected to clash with the Afrika Korps. As soon as we met them, we were to fire a Verey light straight up into the air, thus signifying that the Germans were preparing to attack and also giving their position to our own troops. It was a grand idea, for our battalion would be warned in time to be on their toes for the German drive. Everything had been thought of down to the minutest detail, everything, that is, except how we were to escape. We were to act as cheese for the mice and I, for one, never expected to come back from this, my first patrol.
If we didn’t meet the enemy on the way, our orders were to lie down and wait out there in No-Man’s Land, until an hour before daylight, because, some time during the next ten hours, the Germans were expected to move up.
It was a glum patrol who went out just after darkness fell. I had left my paybook, photos and money with all my pal, and I could have sworn there was a lump in Dave's throat, as he said, “Best of luck!” to me.
We moved towards our own front lines and were met at the perimeter by a private who was part of a platoon placed out forward in a strongpoint, 300 yards ahead of our main positions. Between our main defences and this platoon was a minefield and it was this private’s job to see that we got through it in safety.
Hi did his job properly and soon we were talking to his platoon who were deeply entrenched away out in the blue on their own.
Then Cathro gave our patrol the order to get into position. We lined up in a V shape, thus covering every side except our rear. It was very improbable that the enemy would appear from there. I was up in front, close beside Cathro, to tell him at various intervals, how far we had gone.
He pulled his compass from his pocket, looked at it, took his bearings, and the patrol had begun.
Someone started coughing after only a few paces had been covered, and we were immediately told to get down flat. A whispered instruction was given to the culprit to stop coughing or he would give the patrol’s presence away. A cough, however, is not an easy thing to control. You can put your hand to your mouth, stop breathing, do countless things, but that tickle in your throat will come to the surface and make you cough whether you want to or not.
The knots were increasing on my lace as I put up each hundred paces. Cathro was making it difficult, not intentionally, of course, by stopping every so many yards and making us get down so that he could get his bearings. There I lay, saying to myself, “Sixty-nine, sixty-nine, sixty-nine, sixty-nine, sixty-nine, “ or whatever the number was, and you can bet your bottom dollar it was no easy number to remember, like forty or fifty. It was difficult to concentrate way out there, lying on your stomach, listening, listening, with every little sound bringing tenseness to everybody.
We had faith in Cathro. Every so often he would ask how far we had gone, I’d move my hands up the lace, count the knots and pass on the desired information.
On we moved, slowly, but carefully, with periodic stops to get the lay of the land, listen for any sound of the enemy and get compass bearings. Ahead of us, in the distance, we could hear German trucks with their engines racing and we knew that we were getting neared the enemy.
Again came a spasm of coughing which brought a “For ----- sake’s, shut up!” from one nervous bloke. By this time the culprit was browned off at the continual shushing and words of advice from us.
“Shut your f ---- mouths!”
“Do you think that I want to be killed any more than you do ! If I could stop coughing, I'd gladly .…………!”
This irate outburst, which was no whisper, out in the middle of No-Man’s Land, caused Cathro to whisper hurriedly to us to keep quiet.
I knew we were getting near our objective now, for I had fifty-eight knots in my lace, 5,800 paces, only 200 to go. I passed the news on to Cathro.
“Are you quite sure?” he asked.
“Certain,” I replied.
“Well, I don’t think you’re right. Six thousand paces should land us on a small mound, according to the map.”
“The map must be wrong then, either that or your compass,” I whispered.
On we went another two hundred paces and I said we’d gone far enough. Cathro ordered us to get down and form a square on the ground, so that we had eyes covering every side.
Then he told the chap who had volunteered for the patrol to accompany him forward a bit. He was going to spy out the land ahead.
We could still hear the noises of the enemy trucks in front of us, but how far ahead they were we did not know. In the desolation of the desert, sounds carry for miles.
While Cathro and the soldier went on ahead, we formed our square, with a yard or two between each man. We had visions of Cathro and his companion moving into trouble, but ten minutes later they returned unharmed.
“No sign of anybody,: Cathro whispered, as he lay down beside me. “But you were right. This must be a mound we’re lying on, because on the map there’s a wadi five hundred yards ahead. We’ve just seen that wadi!”
He whispered instruction to the patrol to keep a keen look-out, and we settled down to a five-hour wait in the cold of the desert. It was a rotten task, for every so often you wanted to get to your feet and move about to keep your circulation going. That was forbidden. It was too dangerous. We just had to keep our aches and pains.
We were all dead beat, for we had not had a decent sleep for over a week, and consequently, it was a job to keep awake. The night air was chilling and only way to forget it was to sleep, sleep, sleep. But you mustn’t sleep. At any minute the Germans might come forward and the battalion way back was depending on your wakefulness. Keep awake! Keep awake! Keep awake!
All of a sudden I gave a start. Someone had clutched my leg and was shaking it. I had visions of a German patrol. But, no, it was Cathro. I had dozen over and he must have realised it, for the shaking had roused me. I didn’t know how long I had slept, but I made certain that I was wide awake for the rest of the tedious wait. It was an eerie, nerve-wracking vigil that we kept, with eyes and ears strained to the utmost, to catch or see the slightest sound or figure.
We saw nothing and gave sighs of relief when Cathro told us that we would now start back for the battalion. Dawn would be in an hour. We had taken two hours to reach this spot, but that had been with countless stops on the way. On the “home” journey, however, there would be no halts. We could easily reach our own lines in the hour before daylight.
We got to our feet and the joyful trek home began. So I was still alive, I thought. Tomorrow would dawn for me. I thanked the Germans for not advancing that night.
At each hundred yards, I unravelled another knot, and slowly the bunches on the lace became less and less.
Eventually I warned Cathro that we had only two to go. Soon these, too, were unknotted and Cathro told us to halt. Something was wrong! We knew it, for we should now have reached that forward platoon of the battalion, the one before the minefield.
We gave a shout, for now there was no fear of meeting the enemy. Our voices echoed eerily from the surrounding hills without any reply. We did not quite know what to do, whether to go left, right of head straight forward. Perhaps Cathro had taken the wrong compass bearings? Perhaps I had counted wrongly?
We scanned the surroundings. Ahead of us we could see the silhouette of the hill in front of our main positions, but how far away was it? Distance in the dark is very difficult to determine.
We had no intention of standing there like lost sheep, waiting for the dawn light to break and for the enemy gunners to see us. The patrol split up into twos and they went in various direction seeking the elusive platoon. Things were getting desperate now, for we could see the dawn beginning to lift its shutters in the sky.
Then relief of reliefs! An answering hail came from away to our left with the warning —
“For God’s sake, don’t move! You’re in a minefield. I’ll send a man to lead you in !”
Our hearts almost stopped beating. We had been the slightest bit out in our compass bearings, with the result that we had gone too far to the left. For ten minutes we had been wandering round our own minefield and hadn’t known it. We stopped in our tracks as if hypnotised to the spot.
Soon, by shouting our positions, we were all lead by the private into a bunch, and once he had gathered us all together we wended our way through the minefield, back to our own main defences and safety. We reached our company just as dawn broke and the sun rose, in a blaze of beauty.
Dave was there in my trench and right pleased he was to see me. He was like the ever-faithful cocker spaniel. He treated me like a man just back from the dead and was so overjoyed that he even made my breakfast for me. “I’m glad these won’t have to be sent to your wife,” he smiled, as he handed me back my belongings. He was no more glad than I was!
Dear God, that nightmare road! And then
That sea! We got there ………We were men,
My eyes were blind, my feet were torn,
My soul sang like a bird at dawn.
As a result of our patrol, it was not believed in high circles, that the enemy would attack that day. We wished he’d hurry up and put us out of this suspense. We felt like spiders waiting for the fly to come along and enter our web. We were oozing with confidence, certain that we could shatter any attempt that Rommel made to crack our lines.
There was the usual spasmodic shell-fire during the day, and it was in the middle of this that I saw a soldier sauntering up from our gun-line, which was the target the enemy artillery was seeking. His head was bare and his steel helmet was slung over his arm. As the figure came nearer, we could make out that it was Jimmy Keiller, a Dundee chap, who, at the start of the war, had been studying to be a minister. Small, bespectacled, unassuming, he was only a lance-corporal and had taken on the job of battalion padre when Capt. Rev. McKechnie had been wounded in the leg at El Alamien.
Jimmy walked unconcernedly up to our trenches and, disdaining all shelter, he stood up aloft and informed us that he was going to hold a short church service at Platoon H.Q. Shells were still failing but Jimmy paid not the slightest attention to them.
We all got up out of our trenches and gathered round Platoon H.Q.’s position. Four men stood up in each trench, and although there was still plenty of room for Jimmy, he said he could conduct the service better from on top. With his helmet still dangling over his arm, he began the service as if he had been in a proper pulpit instead of a war-torn battlefield. Hymns were sung and prayers read in the strangest surroundings I have ever been in. Shells were whizzing over our heads and crashing to earth as our voices were wafted over the air. It seemed unreal. The service ended, Jimmy sauntered off on his way to the next platoon to carry on the good work. What a man! Never have I seen anybody with such a complete disregard for personal safety.
Nothing else happened that day, beyond the fact that we were warned that next morning, March 6th, the enemy would definitely move against our positions, and that we were still the counter-attack company.
An hour before dawn, the following morning, we were all standing to in our trenches, waiting and watching with rifles loaded and bayonets fixed, trying to shake off the cold that had cramped our weary bodies.
Dave and I were talking to each other when, over it came from the German lines — a heavier barrage than usual and we knew that the enemy was putting on his attack. His shells were aimed at our gun line and also at the road, 500 yards behind us. Consequently we were not under direct fire and there was no need for us to bend down in our dug-outs. We watched the shells thudding to earth and exploding.
We waited for the enemy to appear, our rifles at the ready and a lust to kill in our veins. Our own guns opened up and also our mortars. Still there was no sign of the enemy, although we knew that they were attacking some part of our front line.
During the day we were given reports of the progress of the battle, which, although we actually could not see it, waged on in all its fury. Rommel’s Panzers had advanced against the New Zealanders and the Guards Brigade on our left flank. It was a suicide move that was defeated without our armour being called into action. Panzers were engaged by our carefully-concealed anti-tank guns at point-blank range hopelessly beaten, the Guards alone accounting for fifteen German tanks.
Further to our right and nearer the coast, the enemy infantry had been chased back in a semi-rout. In no place was there a penetration of our lines.
Late in the afternoon, just as we were congratulating ourselves on the fact that our company would not be called into action, there came the toot of a whistle from our Company Commander. It was the signal that we had to put on our equipment for a counter-attack. We wondered what part of the line had given way.
In a few hurried sentences we were told. The Queen’s Regiment, on a hill about half a mile ahead of us, had been forced off their positions by enemy infantry, and we had to regain the objective. We were to receive the support of artillery and three Bren carriers.
Before we knew where we were, we were advancing up the slope of the hill, on top of which our artillery was banging down a murderous barrage. Our Bren carriers foraged around in front of us, belting away with their machine-guns, while lines of enemy fire getting dark now as we reached three quarters way up our objective.
One of our guns was firing dangerously close to us on our right, and, as we were ordered to lie flat, there came a shattering crump nearby and we were splattered with flying shrapnel. I felt one piece crash down on the ball of my left leg with a dull aching pain, but as it was on its downward flight it had lost most of its tearing capabilities. I heard Jock McKinney giving the signaller orders to send back a message for the artillery to cease fire. The hill had been retaken and we had not suffered one casualty!
Jock went ahead with his company runner, Jones, to spy our land. They ran into a spot of trouble, because later, Jones was put forward for a decoration, for saving his Company Commander from the enemy. What exactly happened no-one really knows, except Jock and the lad Jones, who later received both the M.M. and the D.C.M.
In any case, Jock came back, and one f our platoons was ordered to stay in this position until relieved by the Queen’s again, while he took the other platoons back to Battalion H.Q. So we stayed there and immediately began to dig in.
This was hurriedly stopped, however, because, on the sheer rock, sparks flew as picks came in contact with it, and the din was deafening. Frightened in case our positions would be given away, we received orders to stop digging.
We were given a password and told to stay awake all night. To make matters worse, rain began to fall and we shivered like rats, unable to smoke, unable to speak except in a whisper, unable to get any shelter such as that provided by the walls of the trench, and battling the urge to fall asleep.
Dave and I were, as usual, beside each other, keeping a keen look-out, and quietness reigned on the pitch-black scene.
Suddenly I heard a shout, “Halt, who goes there?” and Dave leapt forward with a bayonet fixed. He had seen something in the inky blackness of the night. I turned in his direction and saw him with his bayonet pressed in the stomach of a white-coated figure, who answered “Friend!”
“Password!” snapped Dave.
“I don’t know it!” was the reply “But, look here, I’m a Captain in the Queen’s.”
“I don’t give a damn supposing you’re Monty himself. You don’t know the password and that’s enough for me! Get your bloody hands up and get moving!”
Despite all the man’s pleading, Dave turned him round, forced his bayonet in the man’s back, told him to keep his hands up, and shepherded him back to Cathro who interrogated him.
The man was indeed a Captain in the Queen’s and was looking for some of his men who had gone amissing, but Dave had taken no chances. He came back to me as pleased as punch.
“That’ll larn the bugger!” he said. “I bet he doesn’t forget the password in a hurry again.”
Our vigil continued, getting worse and worse, as the cold seeped through our bones, and the rain through our clothes. Still there was no sign of the Queen’s to relieve us. Something had gone wrong somewhere and we were the ones who were suffering.
Early next morning we were called back to Battalion H.Q. and thankful we were for a mug of warm tea.
Rommel’s attack, we were told, had fizzled out. A rumour went the rounds that the Argylls on the opposite side of the road had been attacked yesterday by the elite of the enemy infantry, the 90th Light Division, and lost a bit of ground. Word had been sent back to their Battalion H.Q., and cooks, runners, clerks etc., had all taken up arms and counter-attacked. They had chased the enemy for his life, and the 90th Light had fled, leaving equipment strewn all over the battlefield.
All the time this German attack had been developing, Monty had been piling up men and munitions for his crack at the Mareth Line. The 50th Northumbrian and the 4th Indian Division had now reached the line and was ready for the attack.
Next day we swopped positions with the 7th Black Watch, who were across the main road and further back from us, the reserve battalion of the brigade.
As we marched off in single file, our progress was suddenly halted by Stukas raiding our gun-line. As the bomb crumped down we went down on our knees. We were in no real danger unless the Stukas chose to come down low and strafe us.
They didn’t, so we continued on our way and the change-over was satisfactorily carried out. We had landed on much flatter ground and here we thought we would get a rest. How wrong we were. Every so often, empty planes would chase across our lines, over the road, and crash their bombs down on our gunners, who were parallel to us but half a mile away.
We weren’t long in our new positions and some of the lads had gone for fresh water from a well, when Messerschmitts came flashing over. Thud! One of them dropped its bomb close to the well and two of the men leaning over the parapet had been wounded with shrapnel. Despite this danger, however, next day saw card schools being started, with the stakes at a pound a time. I used to pop over to the trench occupied by Jimmy Allan and his pal Jones, and there we sat on top playing rummy. There was nothing else to do. Anything to stop the boredom.
In the Centre of the platoon’s positions, a small fire had been built in a large trench and the cook had our dinner on the boil.
Suddenly, we heard it — whoosh! A louder sound that the usual shell and we knew it was coming near us. There was a hurried dive for the trench and in we scrambled, on top of each other, the cards fluttering from our hands.
Crump! It landed down on our right, about three hundred yards away from the fire! Then came another shell and up our heads bobbed after it had landed, to discover the whole two hundred yards from the fire. Came another, one hundred yards from the fire. Another closer still and we had visions of our cookhouse being blown sky-high and the cook as well. Just then, from the direction of the cook-house, came the cry “Grub’s up!”
The meal was ready, and shells or no shells, “Cooky”, was not to let it burn.
Cathro shouted out orders from the inside of his trench.
“Two at a time! Go and get your food.”
So, in between the shellbursts, a pair of figures could be seen doing the hundred yards dash for their grub. Waiting for another lull in the firing, they would regain their trenches again, being passed on the way by another two fellows with their empty dixies in their hands.
In this manner we were all fed without a single casualty. Dusk came creeping down. Darkness once more brought its pleasing lay-off from enemy guns and bombs.
Jock McKinney came up that evening to see if we had had any casualties. He had seen, from Company H.Q., the shells bursting in our lines and was relieved when informed that no-one had been hurt. He had brought an artillery officer with him and on being told that a dud shell had landed nearby, they started searching for it. They found it and the artillery man turned to Jock.
“It must have come from a big mobile gun. We’ll get him tomorrow.”
Somehow, he had been able to reckon out, from the size of the shell and its position in the ground, the distance and from which direction it had come.
Before he went back to Company H.Q., Jock gave us final instructions on how we were to behave next day.
“Probably you’ll shelled tomorrow at the same time. The enemy can’t see you during the first part of the day with the sun behind your backs, but once it gets behind him he can make you out. So just carry on as you did today. Don’t worry. We’ll get him tomorrow.”
With this bit of cheer, intended to warm our hearts, we went to sleep that night, wondering if things would turn out as planned on the morrow.
So it was with a feeling of expectancy that we awakened in the morning. Although we had the usual visit from hit-and-run Messerschitts, nothing else out of the ordinary happened, and lunch passed uneventfully.
It was getting near the danger time again. I could sense it, for lads were drifting back to the shelter of trenches, rummy schools up aloft had been abandoned, and even the barber had given up his stance on top, to seek the safety of his ever-faithful hole in ground.
As the sun was sinking in its gorgeous streaky rays of orange colour against the darkening sky, I looked around our positions. Not a soul was in sight. All that could be seen was the flickering red flames from the cook’s fire.
“It’s near the time, Dave,” I said to my trenchmate. “They’ll be coming any minute now.”
Dave didn’t answer. I had noticed that he was quieter these days. He wouldn’t talk much and he seemed to live in a world of his own. I could sense a welling-up of emotions inside of him, a welling-up of fear of the unknown, which, every time he was left alone to think about it, became worse and worse. I felt, as sure as fate, that if he was not taken out of the line soon and given a long rest, this welling-up inside of him would come to the surface and he would do something crazy.
He was a big strapping lad, but, although he had been a “killer” at El Alamien, the novelty had worn off. He had learned, through seeing his mates killed and wounded, that the enemy could kill, too, and continual thinking of all the things that might happen to him, was slowly driving him melancholy.
At the present moment he had his trousers off and was in his underclothes. His trousers were on his knees, inside-out, and a continual crack as he killed a louse between his fingers, suggested that he had got them bad. For over half an hour he had been searching the seams of his trousers for the insects and nail, and clamping the other thumb nail down on top of it, he would crush the louse to death. I was feeling a little itchy, too, but not half as bad as Dave.
As I sat watching him do his louse-cracking act across from me, I heard a shell coming. He heard it, too, and we followed what we thought was its flight with out eyes, as the whee became louder and louder. Over our heads it passed. Then, crump! It had landed behind us and on our left. The mobile gun had opened up again, just as it had done yesterday!
Suddenly, from behind the hill on our right, came five cracks like thunder, one after another. Our Long Toms or 5.5’s, had replied to the enemy guns, and they kept up the bombardment for two or three minutes. Silence came again. We waited, expecting the German mobile gun to batter away again, but no more shells were thrown at us. Whether the enemy gun was hit or not, I cannot say, but I do know that from that day, it never fired at us again.
We had been in the front line for over three weeks now and reckoned that it was about time we were relieved, so that we could get a good wash and a decent sleep. We were lousy, dirty, and our boots felt as if they were glued to our feet. For three long weary weeks we had never had them off. Our socks must be smelling terribly.
One morning came the news that we were being taken out of the line for a day’s rest and there were smiles all round. But when our platoon commander, Cathro, was called to the conference with the Company Commander, we knew that something was wrong.
Back he came with the bad tidings. The rest of the battalion was to bet a rest, while our platoon, and ours only, was to get the job of occupying a “keep” far forward in No-Man’s Land. A “keep” is merely a strongpoint, well ahead of the main defences, and its job is to keep in communication by wireless with the Division behind them, and let them know if the enemy is up to any tricks.
“The Guards were in this keep before us,” said Cathro. “One night they all disappeared and it’s said that they were captured by the enemy, so we must keep wide awake.”
This last remark of Cathro’s put the tin lid on the matter. We appeared to be in for a hot time, while the rest of the battalion had a break! Our spirits sank to zero. We were mad, but nothing could be done about it, except the usual petty grousing which is a soldier’s privilege.
Before we moved off, we got a few reinforcement who had just arrived from the depot way back in Egypt. Cpl. Richardson was one of them. He was the chap who had been wounded about the eyes by the anti-personnel mine at Mersa Brega, and we were pleased to see that he was looking all right again. Physically he was fit, but although Richardson never showed any signs of fear, he had a premonition of death. He used to tell us that he was uncomfortable and wondered of he had done the right thing in volunteering to come back so quickly to his unit. He really had the same feeling that I had had before I had been wounded by the Messerschmitt — a feeling that something was going to happen to him. How right he was!
Our move to the “keep” was done in the greying light of dusk and we reached it without incident. It was a small lush place with greenery all around, thus signifying that fresh water was at hand. In daylight we would be sheltered from enemy vision for three were plenty of trees.
Trenches had already been dug and we felt like soldiers wearing dead men’s clothes as we slithered into the holes in the ground. These trenches, so we had been told, had held big, strapping, Guards a short while ago and overnight they had all vanished without a trace. You can bet that Cathro did not have to tell us twice to keep our eyes peeled that night. Daylight arrived to find us all bleary-eyed, but elated in the knowledge that we were still alive.
Fortunately this no-sleep agony soon ended. Next day we were called back to rejoin the battalion, who had again moved to a different place. This time it was in the middle of nowhere, just one of these positions with no land-marks to remind you of it. By the look of things we were not to stay there long either.
We were told that tomorrow night, March 16th, a brigade of Guards was to put in an attack on Horseshoe Hill, a German stronghold on the upper course of the Wadi Zeuss, which ran in front of the Mareth Line and served the enemy as an anti-tank ditch. We wondered if this was part of the main attack to crack the Mareth Line and we also wondered what part we were to play in the final breaching of this stronghold.
An artillery barrage next evening was the signal that the Guards were on the attack, and we waited expectantly for word of how they fared.
In the morning we were told. The Guards had taken their objective all right after suffering heavy casualties, but all efforts to bring up support in the shape of anti-tank guns, artillery etc., resulted in the vehicle running into a minefield. The Guards had then been forced to make a partial withdrawal, suffering severe gaps in their ranks from German machine-gun and artillery fire.
We met these luckless Guards less than twenty-four hours later, for we were moved up to form the right flank of the positions they had gained.
We arrived at our new posts after an eerie route march, with Spandaus spattering in the distance and flares of enemy planes fluttering to the ground.
As we stood on our little hillocks of sand and looked around, dimly in front of us we could see a jagged cut in the ground, snaking away to the left and right and vanishing from our sight round bends. It was the Wadi Zeuss. An ideal position for dug-outs, I thought.
Jock McKinney decided otherwise. He ordered us to dig in on top of the mounds, about three hundred yards from the wadi and overlooking it. It was hard rock up there and, as we strained ourselves to cut deeper with our picks, there was a crackle of machine-gun fire and a line of bullets came whigging towards us. We could hear them distinctly as they pinged off chunks of rock and ricochetted, with whines that gradually died down as the bullets lost speed. The bullets were dangerously near and, for protection, we fell flat on our faces. The crackling stopped and up we got again, to recommence our digging. A few minutes later, the same crackling broke out and more bullets sped in our direction. It was uncanny, for it was pitch black and a person could see no more than three hundred yards ahead. This meant that a German was within — but even that was unthinkable!
Up we got again, only once more to hit the earth. Soon this enemy machine-gunner had us bobbing up and down like Jack-in-the-box!
Jock McKinney, at that moment, turned up, heard about the German machine-gun and saw that if this ducking for shelter continued, it would take us a long time to dig our holes. So he made us shift to a spot ten yards away and off the mound, on the level ground. He pooh-poohed the idea that the Germans had seen us, declaring that the enemy was probably firing on a fixed line and at certain intervals of time. Jock, as usual, was right.
Anyway, we dug our trenches in safety, with the machine-gun now firing high over our heads.
Dawn was sending its chinky rays from the east when we had finished our dug-outs. In the light we got the correct lay of the land. Eight platoon had the right flank to guard, while seven platoon was in the rear, in a secluded spot below the mound which separated us from the wadi. Nine platoon was on top of a hillock on the left flank, with the entire company overlooking this twisting wadi, which had dried up many moons ago, leaving rocky earth and sparse vegetation in its bottom.
That day a patrol was sent out to locate the remnants of the Guards, believed to be up the wadi, about half a mile away. I was on that patrol. We moved forward along the wadi, with the high banks on our right screening us from the enemy. Ahead of us the wadi took a sharp turn to the left. We had to leave it and wend our way through a field towards a greenish bit of land straight ahead. Here was danger of enemy snipers spotting us, so we used every scrap of cover available and doubled where there was none.
We came in sight of the Guards, tall, strong men, but the sparkle now had gone from their eyes, and their hunched shoulders and dis-spirited look told of the suffering they had gone through on that ill-fated attack two nights ago.
Two of the battalion had had grevious casualties, while the other, making up the Brigade, had come through fairly well, but only because it had been held in reserve on the night of the attack. I spoke to a few of the men and got some of the sad story from them. They told me that straggles were still coming back into their lines. Stretcher bearers, for two days now, had been sent out wearing the white armbands and red crosses that showed who they were, to recover the bodies of the wounded, but the enemy would not let them come near their wounded comrades. They kept stretcher bearers at bay with shells and bullets, so these men had to leave their wounded comrades to their fate, a slow lingering death through lack of medical attention.
Little wonder then that this remnant band, which had once been the crack Brigade of the British Army, was now so cowed. We felt sorry for these men, but knew that some day, somewhere, they would avenge their fallen comrades. In the present battle, however, they would not be able to take another active part, their ranks were so sadly thinned out.
The days that passed were pleasant ones for us. We had plenty of spare time and, except at night, when Spandaus chattered, we were not disturbed by enemy fire.
We got our shirts off in the early morning and they stayed off until the sun sank in a crimson ball of flame in the west. Our backs became as black as cinders, for we never stayed in our trenches now it was so safe. We stayed up on top and played cards for money that was worthless to us at the present time, but would be quite a sum when, and if, the winner got out of the present battle.
We were filthy. Water was rationed and we could not get a proper bath. Lice were still sticking to the seams of our clothes and we wondered when we would be taken back for a rest. This was by far the longest we had ever been in the line. Over thirty days, and there seemed no prospect of being relieved, for things were pepping up for Monty’s attack on the Mareth Line.
Poor Dave was getting more sullen every day. I had great difficulty in getting into my trench when I wanted, owing to Dave’s big sprawling figure. The least thing and he snarled like a bear with a sore head, as if I’d no right to come into my own trench.
He made a forlorn figure as he came up to the cookhouse for breakfast. While we all stayed out on top, ready to start our game of cards, poor Dave, his dixies in his hand, would stumble dejectedly back to his trench and get into it. There he would stay, and the same performance occurred at every meal. It was terrible to se the former devil-may-care, husky, likeable lad struck like this. Occasionally we would see him standing up in his trench, some article of clothing in his hands, searching for the ever-itching lice.
Things were hotting-up all right. We knew that, for the Desert Eighteens had started bombing the enemy strongpoints. All in close-packed formation, these Bostons would cross our lines and run into heavy ack-ack fire from enemy batteries. Black puffs of exploding A.A. shells would burst over, below, behind, in front and even in the Centre of them, but the Bostons would plod right through unwaveringly, and drop their lethal load. How seldom they were hit! We would see the bombs dropping, and the planes turning and heading back home, while we counted them to see that they were all present.
The sight of these Eighteens going over at regular intervals just like a Tube train service, made us feel grand. They were softening the Mareth Line for the impending attack.
One afternoon they came over as ususal, eighteen of them, high up in the sky, punching their way through the enemy A.A. fire. They dropped their eggs and turned to head back to their bases.
Suddenly one of them was hit and it spiralled to earth in swirling flames. A parachute fluttered out of its belly as the wrecked plane screamed to earth. The doomed aircraft was heading for our positions. Down! Down it came, the scream growing in fury, and we watched, absolutely thunderstruck. A terrific crash rent the air and a column of smoke and flame showed us that the plane had landed in the wadi, three hundred yards to our right. We made a hurried dash for the spot, hoping that we’d be able to help the rest of the trapped crew, but, as we got to two hundred yards, we heard pops in the distance and enemy mortar bombs thudded round the plane. The Germans were determined not to let us rescue the airmen, and held us at bay with their circle of bomb fire. It was callous and uncalled for, because, even if we had reached the wrecked plane, it is probable that we would have found the crew dead after their impact with the earth.
We were forced to watch helplessly as that plane burned to a cinder, with epithets bursting from our lips at this inhuman act by the Germans.
That evening we were told the great news. The 50th Northumbrian Division, the T.T. men, were to make a frontal assault on the Mareth Line, while a New Zealand Division was already working around Rommel’s night, trying to outflank the mighty fortifications, by blazing a trail through a part of the desert that was considered impassable. The way we were told the news did not put too much hope on this outflanking attack, faith being centred on the frontal assault on the Mareth Line.
We went to our trenches that night, glad in the knowledge that, anyway, we had not been chosen to lead the assault. We had done our duty by holding the line so long.
Darkness delved down and planes roared backwards and forwards, high overhead. Then suddenly from away in the distance, was the sound of a shell coming towards us, and such a sound as we had never heard before. It was immense, whoosing through the air and getting louder and louder and louder as it came nearer. Many shells we had heard before, but never one so terrifying as this. The whole earth trembled as the mighty lump of steel crashed into the ground, a good two hundred yards up the wadi. Then came another and another, till we felt like screaming, as our eardrums threatened to burst. A ghastly pall of black smoke curled through the air as if a blanket had been dropped between the sky and the earth, while the stench of cordite filled our nostrils.
The mysterious mammoth shells had us on edge all night, but fortunately only three were dropped.
We were eager for dawn to break for two reasons — we were anxious to find out where these outsize shells had landed and we wanted details of how the 50th Division’s attack had gone. Had they pierced the Mareth Line?
After breakfast we were put on the daily patrol to the Guards Brigade and it was then that I saw where the mighty shells of last night had hit the ground. The first crater we saw was three hundred yards up the wadi, a gigantic hole about fifteen feet across and with blackened edges on its lip. Jagged lumps of shrapnel lay all around and I idly picked up what appeared to be the base of the shell. It was only a quarter of a circle and I idly sketched out on the ground, with a piece of stick, a circle, by turning the quarter piece I had round and drawing its outline. When it was completed it was almost a foot across. All I could do was compare it in my mind with the small base of a twenty-five pounder shell, which I knew well, and the comparison was staggering. This shell must have been from an outside gun, and must have required several men to lift it.
We continued further up the wadi and found the other two craters, just as huge as the one we had passed. We were thankful, at any rate, for one thing — that Jock McKinney had not made our positions in the wadi. Probably he had realised that the enemy would have the wadi’s distance well-taped off. That day was the last we experienced in close proximity with the Guards, for once more we were shifted.
That night, like shadows, we were taken out of our positions and were told that we were going back, out of the front line. There were cheers, but as we got on our way, we discovered that we had to walk all the distance, and that wasn’t so good.
Walking by daylight in this country, as I have already described, is agony, and I imagined that, in the cool of the evening, it would be much easiest. Now I discovered otherwise after the first ten miles had been covered, I was utterly exhausted, and although the sand in this area was not as soft as we had walked on previously, the agony of marching on and on with stars in the sky the only visible things, became most monotonous, as did the utter silence, which was only occasionally broken by the cries of “When the bloody hell are we stopping?” The periodic breaks were anything but restful, for the sweat, running down my body rivulets when walking, suddenly became chillingly cold in the icy night air.
It was with a thankful heart that, after passing a battery of our own Long Toms and walking for half an hour, we were told to dig in. My kit came off my aching shoulders and I thankfully lit a cigarette, inhaling and exhaling the smoke with a contentment difficult to describe.
Then came the usual new position programme — dig in fast. We took stock of our surroundings and noticed a wadi, much wider than the one we had just left, with our transport in its bottom.
I had only been digging a few minutes when I heard the drone of an enemy plane. It seemed to be coming up the wadi, and, although I could not see it, I guessed, according to the loudness of its engines, that it was flying pretty low.
Suddenly darts of fire came from the sky and lines of tracer bullets came zipping out of the blackness, aimed at something in the wadi, probably the reflection of a windscreen in the moonlight. The aircraft came on, its machine-gun bursting forth every few minutes. He came over to where we were busy digging in and started his strafing again. I got down flat and hoped for the best. One thing, I had a bit of warning as to where his murderous bullets were going, for they came from the machine-gun like a phosphorescent arrow diving through the air. As soon as the first two left the machine, I knew whether to dive right, left or stay where I was to be safe. Everything was deathly quiet, except for the spasmodic machine-gun bursts, until, suddenly, a man’s scream pierced the air. The drone of the aeroplane’s engine was becoming fainter and fainter, and soon the black shadow in the sky had gone. Excitement broke out and men’s voices could be heard shouting to each other. Then came the boom of the battery of 5.5’s half a mile in front of us, as they battered away at the Mareth Line again, after their halt while the enemy was overhead. The glow from their belching guns would have given their positions away to the aircraft.
It was not until the next day that we heard that the man who had screamed had had his eye knocked out.
After breakfast we got the news that the 50th Division had pierced the Mareth Line. They had taken all their objectives in their first attack. We were pleased, for that meant we would not be called upon until the breakthrough took place, and the pursuit of Rommel’s forces began. We wanted desperately for this battle to finish quickly, for we had been over a month in the front line now, a month daring death daily, with our clothes sticking to our backs and our bodies filthy with sandy grime. How badly we needed taking away for a short while from all the sights and sounds of war.
We fondly imagined that considering the 50th Division had penetrated the Mareth Line, that, at last, we would get a long rest.
It wasn’t as easy as that. Later in the day came the worst news that we had ever received so far. The Germans had retaken all their lost ground and it was impossible to help our infantrymen by getting armour or anti-tanks over the Wadi Ziggaou, which served as a sort of dry moat in front of the enemy strongholds. The Engineers had tried, but in vain, to span the Wadi by bridges and it was much too deep for any modern war contrivance to scale the walls.
The Germans had forced our men back to the wadi and here they lay, coming under merciless bombardment from everything the enemy had to throw at them. The wadi made an excellent target, for it was a perfect landmark to bomb or mortar, and our men suffered Hell!
We just couldn’t believe that this cruel blow had hit us. We had been so confident. That confidence had now received a set-back, and Monty’s brilliance, that day, fell in our estimation.
A Brigade of our Division had been thrown into the breach, but they had not accomplished any satisfactory result. It was armour, not men, that was needed up front to protect the infantrymen from the non-stop pounding of the enemy guns.
We were told that we were to go up to the front line to take over from what was left of the 50th Division.
The job was so urgent that we were immediately put on trucks, and in darkness, moved to the front line. We were halted for a good few minutes, because ahead of us, an enemy plane had dropped a flare, seeking a target to hit. This night bombing upset us. During the day, when we could see the enemy planes, we could stand a basinful of bombing, but in pitch blackness, with only the droning of the engines to guide us it was most upsetting. No knowledge of where the bombs were to land. Once again it went to prove that fear of something you can’t see can cause nervous strain. Poor Dave sat through it all, his thoughts to himself, not saying a word to anyone, as careless banter flew around the truck.
At last we continued on our way and were surprised to see trucks and tanks wheeling past us, going in the opposite direction. What was on? It looked bad to us — like a retreat. We seemed to be the only men going towards the front line.
We reached our debussing point, and jumped down from the trucks, while all the time, our artillery, far behind us, was belting away at the enemy lines.
As we picked our equipment off the ground where we had thrown it, the empty truck reversed and then made to join the other wagons lined up, tail to front, behind us.
I straightened up, after picking up my shovel. It was then that something hit me a terrific smack on the head. I felt a tearing pain just over my left eye. I was dazed and fell to the ground. Shouts of pain and anger came from my mates.
A call went up to the driver of the truck to halt, and it was a few seconds before the order was heard above the din of bursting shells, guns going off, truck engines and men’s voices. Eventually he brought his truck to a grinding standstill and I realised by the conversation that followed, what had happened. The truck had backed and, in the dark, the driver had not noticed behind him, a minefield marked by stakes and breast-high barbed wire.
The barbed wire had caught on his tailboard in some fashion and as he had moved forward again, he had pulled stakes and barbed wire with him. It was just head high and extremely taut, and we had been right in the trailing wire’s path. Some chaps had been knocked off their feet, while others, more fortunate, had been able to duck before the wire struck them. It was just like a reaper with a scythe, cutting through grass. One minute there had been a whole platoon standing up, and next they were all flat on the ground.
Blood was belching from the wound over my eye and my head felt as if at had been hit by one of the stakes. I looked so badly hurt that the Company Commander decided to leave me to be picked up by an ambulance, while the company went forward to their positions.
There I was, left on my own, my head in a whirl, and I wearily sat down. I’d often heard of chaps being left hanging on the wire, but never had I thought it would happen to me!
As I sat there waiting for an ambulance, more trucks came up, and unloaded their occupants --- Argylls. Our whole brigade was going into the line. They clattered down from the vehicle. All of a sudden a single rifle shot crackled out from the direction of one truckload of Argylls.
Later one of the Argylls spoke to me and informed me that it looked as if “So-and-so” had tried to get a Blighty by shooting himself in the hand. “It was a serious accusation to make, for any rifle can go off accidentally, but the speaker seemed very adamant about what had occurred. Anyway this wounded Argylls was left with me.
I was wearying for the ambulance to turn up, for my head was reeling and I wanted desperately to sleep. It was half-an-hour before it came to a stop beside us and we were wheeled off to the casualty clearing station.
I shall never forget this C.C.S., for most of it was underground. Admittedly it was within shellfire of the enemy, but it was clearly marked with red crosses on all the tents and with a big red cross flag stretched out on the ground for the enemy bombers to see. What was the reason for it being underground? Didn’t the enemy respect these red crosses?
After I had had my wound dressed and discovered that it was merely a nasty cut, which would take some time to heal, I was given the reason for the hospital being below the ground.
One day a British artillery officer in an observation post had sent back by telephone a target for our gunners to aim at and the 25-pounders had obligingly opened up. But as the observer gazed through his binoculars, he saw a German ambulance, clearly marked, dashing up into the target area. He had hurriedly phoned through to stop the barrage but had been too late. The first salvo had already been fired and one of the shells had hit the ambulance, sending it skyhigh. The scene had, of course, been witnessed by the enemy, and as a retaliatory measure, that same afternoon, a German plane had strafed the tents of this British casualty clearing station I was now in, causing a few casualties. Thereupon it had been decided to built dug-outs to shelter the doctors and the patients.
I wasn’t left long in this C.C.S. When daylight came. I was put in an ambulance and my long trek back down the line began, until at last I reached Tripoli. For the second time I had been knocked out of action. I was put in a general hospital there and it was a treat to see a bed with clean sheets and blankets on it after the filth of the front line. Here was where I would make up for lost sleep.
They put me on a diet of sulphonomide tablets, just to make certain that no poison would set in my wound, and in a few days, after proper sleep, baths and cooked food, I was as right as rain, and anxious to return to my unit. It’s funny thing that despite all the roughing it and the daily dangers of death that most hospital patients wounded in action are keen to rejoin their regiments in the front line. The though of being put in another unit amongst has a lot to do with it.
I used to lend a hand in the hospital kitchen cleaning up. I also helped to tidy up the wards, making myself generally useful, and the dear old matron, believing that she was doing me a favour by not sending me back to the “horrible front line”, had wangled with the ward doctor for me to stay on a lot longer than was necessary according to the progress of my wound.
I did not discover this for a few days and I found it out by accident. I was in a small ward on my own, away from the main ward with its 20-odd patients, and at the beginning, the doctor had paid me a visit every day on his rounds. For the last three days, however, although I had been in my room at the hour when the M.O. had come round, he had not visited me.
This went on for quite a few more days and I was getting properly browned off acting as servant to all the other patients, so I decided to ask the matron what was wrong. She then told me how she had tried to keep me in the hospital because I was so helpful, but if I wanted away she would tell the M.O. the next morning. She seemed surprised at me telling her that I was anxious to get back to my unit.
Meanwhile the news came through that General Freyberg’s New Zealanders, the Kiwis we called them, had forced a way through the desert round Rommels right flank and had caught the enemy napping at El Hamma, with the result that, to avoid encirclement, he had been forced to flee from the Mareth Line to Wadi Akarit, another natural defensive position several miles ahead.
Without giving the enemy any respite, Monty had immediately assaulted the Wadi Akarit and thousands of the enemy had been captured. The remainder had turned and fled. Gabes and Sfax, two French towns on the coast, had fallen and we had linked with the Americans for the first time. Latest news was that we had captured Enfidaville, where the enemy was entrenched in the mountains.
That then was where my battalion was situated when I started on my long journey to rejoin them. Several days’ travelling brought me to the Mareth Line and on I moved to Sfax. The desert was being left behind now and everywhere were signs of civilisation, with crops in the fields, green trees, houses, and people. Through Sfax and past Sousse I travelled, the latter looking like a graveyard after its terrific hammering by the American Air Force.
We were nearing Kairouan, the holy city, which had been left in flames by the retreating enemy, when sauntering towards us were three Americans, dressed in elegant uniforms with smashing creases just where they ought to be, and dangling cameras from their hands.
They stopped us and asked, “Any Lugers or Berettis? We’ll give you five pounds for them.”
We were astounded. Souvenir-hunters on the search for enemy revolvers! The Yanks told us that they had just come out of the front line and were on a week-end pass. We almost collapsed. A week-end pass in this horrible cauldron of war. Why, it was unheard of! What surprised us most was the American infantrymen asking for souvenirs of enemy pistols which they could have obtained themselves if they had been near the Germans. These three Yanks sickened us and there would have been a free fight there and then, if the sergeant in charge of us had not pulled us away and the Yanks had moved fearfully off.
“What the hell do you think this bloody was is, a picnic?” yelled one of our lads after the Americans, and he echoed the sentiments of all of us.
There were many harsh words said then about the Americans in general and of how they had done nothing of note since arriving in North Africa.
It was unfair of us to say these things, but these Yanks had infuriated us. However, we got the reason for the Americans not making any impression on the German front line, when we reached Enfidaville and saw the type of country the Yanks and our First Army had been fighting in ever since their landing last November.
Towering high into the sky were mighty, jagged peaks. Hundreds of feet high and of solid rock, they presented a formidable barrier to attacking infantrymen. Anyone advancing up these peaks came under the observation of enemy machine-gunners at the summit and they mowed our men down like flies. They just couldn’t help hitting their target, for a snail’s pace was all you could muster up these slippery, sheer mountains.
I found my battalion out of the line resting and was astonished to find that Captain Taylor, a Perthshire man, was now in charge of A Company. I wondered what had happened to Jock McKinney.
First thing I did was to search around for Dave Brown, but there was no sign of my Fife pal. I feared the worst, imagining that Dave had been hit during the Mareth Line or Wadi Akarit battles. The lads told me the story of what had happened since I was last with them. Jock McKinney had been wounded in leg, Johnnie Horner, the boxer, had been shot through the head and killed; Richardson, the chap who had been wondering if he had done the right thing by rejoining the battalion, had been mortally wounded, and all at Wadi Akarit. Several others had been injured.
Then they had come to Enfidaville and had been posted high in the mountains, which had come under shellfire quite often. The lads had been astounded one day, when, during one of these periodic bombardments, Dave Brown had jumped out his trench and gone screaming back the line to Company H.Q. His nerves, as I’d previously suspected, had given way. He had been sent back to the rear lines for a few days’ rest to recover from his trouble and that was where he was at present.
I had just arrived in time for the Division’s big move --- they were heading for some place in Algeria. We weren’t needed any longer in this final battle of North Africa, the concluding phases of which were to be fought from the First Army front, not the Eight Army’s as the enemy imagined. Already several of the Eight Army’s divisions had been transferred to this front, leaving only a skeleton force to hang on at Enfidaville.
Thus, before the battle had ended in Tunis, we were taken far away from the fighting. It looked as if it was too good to be true --- and it was, as we later found out!
I know that Death is but a door
I knew what we were fighting for:
Peace for the kids, our brothers freed
A kinder world, a cleaner breed
PREPARING FOR INVASION
Then came one of the most pleasant journeys we had ever experienced ---- from Enfidaville, through the Atlas Mountains, to Didjelli a small seaport in Algeria. It was an awe-inspiring sight as our transport wended its way along rough desert tracks well inland, while overhead, a procession of R.A.F. and American planes droned through the sky with their bomb bays loaded, heading in the direction of the Germans cooped up in Tunisia. It was like a bus service in the sky. One flight would pass overhead and still another. Poor old Jerry was getting his first Dunkirk, only with the difference that our naval craft were keeping an ever-watchful eye to see that no fleet would come across from Europe to Tunisia to take off the battered and beaten Afrika Korps. Sympathy dies in battle and our defeat in France in 1940 was being repaid remorselessly.
With stops every evening for well-cooked meals and with the knowledge that we were moving further and further away from the front line, our spirits were high.
Soon came a marvellous sight as we hit the Mediterranean on the Algerian coast and travelled along the main road, as it wound round the stupendous mountains. We had heard during our roaming that the French Foreign Legion had made this road and, as we lapped up the scenery, we marvelled at their engineering feat. In places the road went trough tunnels, cut clean through the solid rock, like holes made in dough by the rim of a cup. At other parts, bridges spanned gurgling rivers on their way to the sea.
We marvelled at the breath-taking spectacles as we wended our way warily through these grottos or tunnels, with the moisture dripping from near to the sparkling blue sea and only a small wall on the left to prevent our truck from dropping hundreds of feet down into the Mediterranean. The lads used to get a kick out of shrieking and cat-calling on going through the grottos, so that their voices rolled eerily around roof and walls, before fading slowly to silence.
Occasionally we passed small French towns and here we were given the first real welcome since our arrival in North Africa. The French people cheered and waved to us, unrestrained stuff, quite different from the cowed, surly expressions on the faces of the Italians in Tripolitania. Of course, we were liberators here, not conquerors.
The spirits of these French folk were rising with every Allied victory, while those of the Italians had reached a low level through repeated defeats. It was grand to be cheered, and we felt then that after all, every bitter moment in action amid the hardship of the desert, had been worth while. Sometimes we stopped at small villages and were given wine by the grateful French people. Everyone knew that complete victory was in sight and everybody was buoyed up with that knowledge.
We fondly imagined that our task for the rest of the war was ended and that we would get home. We felt that we had done more than our share in the North African offensive. Since Alamien, we, along with the New Zealanders, had been the only divisions that had been non-stop in the line. We had suffered heavy casualties and had been reinforced four times --- once at El Daba, once at Tripoli, once at Medenine, and also at Enfidaville, yet still we were below fighting strength.
So we neared our new abode and, as we stopped by the wayside, a French boy gave us its description. “It’s a ghost town at nights. It gets bombed to blazes.”
Didjelli was a small town with a harbour, inside which, we could see moored along the quays, several L.C.I.’s — Landing Craft Infatry is the proper service term for them — frail craft, about forty feet long, which were being used a good deal for invasion purpose, because they could be built quickly by the Americans and because they could run up close to land and, with ramps laid on either side, men could jump ashore in the minimum of time.
All the shops were closed that afternoon as we visited the town, after being shown to our camping ground. There was a canteen, but it shut before dark and there was a picture house, which opened only in the afternoon.
The reason we soon found out. The buildings close to the sea’s edge had been bombed unmercifully and were now shattered wrecks. A column of civilians, some on bikes, others pushing handcrafts etc., heading out of the town for the open spaces of the country, just before dusk began to fall, suggested that they were in the habit of doing this. We asked what was wrong and were given the answer that the people were going away on their nightly trek to the hills before darkness fell and the bombers came over. So the French boy had been right!
We turned to go back to our billets before the light completely faded. We walked through the streets and noticed that the city certainly had a ghostlike appearance. Not a civilian was in sight — only soldiers — and a quietness that made our heavy boots clatter eerily on the pavements, had descended on Didjelli.
At the back of the town, which nestled in a hollow, was a large hill dotted with trees, and here, in tents, we had been billeted. It looked a good spot, and for safety’s sake we had put our tents over holes in the ground, just in case the bombers should come over while we lay asleep.
But before we got to our beds that night, just as soon as darkness had fallen, a siren sounded, and seconds later enemy planes were over our heads. A barrage of fire met the planes, mostly from the ack-ack guns of the ships in the harbour, and try as he did, the enemy could not pierce this circle of death.
Unfortunately, he tried damned hard and dropped his bombs just out of the cone formed by the ack-ack guns! We were just outside the line of fire and we heard one plane diving overhead. Crump! Crump! Crump! His bombs had landed, not with too much sound for the earth was soft. They had not come near us. We were on the face of the hill. But the poor lads on the summit had received that load. It landed smack amongst them and those soldiers were killed outright, one of them being lifted clean off the ground by blast and his skull crashed into pulp against a tree.
The shrapnel showered through the trees, brushing against the leaves like rain on a drum and falling harmlessly to the ground. We looked at each other. What a grand holiday this was going to be for us, if we couldn’t get to sleep at night for visits from these raiders!
It was not until next day that we saw the craters made by these bombs. They were huge, because of the soft earth and about ten feet deep. For some unknown reason, our platoon was shifted to this position. Every time we looked at these giant holes, we remembered our killed comrades and it was an uneasy time for us, going to bed with these craters as companions.
We were told the reason for our coming to this place. We were to have special training for invasion, but as to where we were to invade, we were not let into the secret. We had once again been chosen as one of the leading divisions in the asssault. It sounded all right — for writers of Regimental History and Scottish newspapers with headlines “Hihglanders lead assault on Europe” — but to us poor lads who had to do the invading, it somehow lost its appeal. We had never been in an invasion before and we didn’t relish the thought of standing in a boat, especially a frail craft like an L.C.I., while shells from the shore were flung at us. We didn’t mind being under fire so long as we were on the ground, but the idea of a shell hitting our boat while we were all aboard, with no chance to escape except into the water, made us shiver.
After the conference had ended and the officers had disappeared, the chaps gathered round, and many were the suggestions as to the country we were to invade — Sardinia, Pantelleria, the South of France, or Italy? We started giving to each other the reasons why such-and-such a place had to be invaded before the other, as if we were army commanders who knew all the strategy of war.
Our training started the next day and for a week we were put on and off these L.C.I.’s. We were timed as to our speed in disembarking, an important matter when reaching the enemy shore. There were two companies to each boat and they were positioned in the bowels of the ship, in various sections which contained beds that folded up to make the maximum of floor space. Still there was not much space to move about and the lads were so placed that the ones nearest the door of the ladderway up to the deck, were to be the leading men in the disembarkation. Everyone had his own position so that there would be no hurried dive, with men scrambling and jostling past each other, thus causing precious waited minutes. One man went up the ladderway at a time, and once at the top, the platoon split up into their battle formations, one portion going along to the front of the ship to starboard, the other to port. There they waited till the two gangways were lowered from the bow of the ship. Then the men, as soon as the gangways touched solid earth, would scramble down them on to terra firma, and form up perhaps a hundred yards away. The movements were all done by buzzers, connected from the deck to the hold down below, where we were. A certain signal signified, “Get your kit on,” another meant “Prepare to disembark”, and the last, “Disembark”.
After less than a week we could get on and off the ships in record time, but still we were kept at the monotonous task. Every morning we went through this humdrum procedure, while In the afternoon all we did was race down to the beach in P.T. kit and wallow in the Mediterranean. In the evenings there was absolutely nothing to do --- except wait for the nightly visit of the bombers.
One day we were put on parade and Capt. Taylor, our Company Commander, said to us:
“Anyone who wants to go to the hills at nights and sleep can do so. But you are all used to night bombing by now and I don’t think any of you wants to go. Hands up anyone who does.”
No hands went up and I suppose Capt. Taylor was saying to himself “What a grand company I’ve got. I’m proud of them.” Little did he know that a good many of the lads were already taking their sleeping kit every night to the hills about a couple of miles away and returning next morning before reveille. There they had peace to sleep, with the knowledge that the enemy certainly would not drop his bombs two miles off the target.
The best bit of news we received was that the enemy had surrendered in Tunisia. In the grim battle for possession of the North African shores, he had lost 304,000 men. Dunkirk had been doubly avenged!
Naturally we were all expecting a bit of leave after our non-stop fighting from El Alamien. We had been at it from October and now it was mid-May --- eight weary months without a halt from fighting.
One day it was announced that furloughs were to be started a three days’ holiday to Constantine, a jewel of a city set high in the mountains of Algeria, a city untouched by war, where French ladies in their stylish clothes strutted around the parks listening to the band, where beer was on draught, and where there were plenty of picture houses. However, as time was short, so the big-wigs said, only certain lads would get this leave --- those who had been in every battle and come through unscathed. Those who had been wounded and sent back to hospital were out of luck. After all, so the big-wigs said, wounded men like myself had had a break from the front line.
We didn’t mind the lads who had taken part in every action getting leave first, but so many of the men had been wounded at some time or other that most of the battalion would thus be denied a furlough. Besides we thought this training a sheer waste time. We sold do it now practically with our eyes closed, and it was the same thing day after day. Yet they couldn’t give us leave because time for training was short! What a laugh, with whole afternoons wasted in swimming and lazing about the Mediterranean!
We were annoyed and not many days passed before absenteeism throughout the whole division began to put in an appearance. The lads weren’t getting their leave, so they were taking it. After three of four days’ holiday they came back to their battalions and took their punishment. They felt that they were entitled to this break and orders certainly weren’t to stop them getting it.
We had one full day’s holiday a week, and on these days each company was allowed a truck to take the lads to some big town with some life in it, in most cases Constantine or Phillippeville, a seaport, about 200 miles to the east.
Unfortunately the places were too far away and time was so short to get to them. We would start in the early morning, take about five hours to get there, which meant that if you left at eight, you arrived at one, and had to be ready for the return journey at half-past five. Four-and-a-half hours to enjoy yourself. A meal and a visit to a cinema and your time was up. Yet these lads were rarin’ to let themselves go and have a good time away from the irksome Army life.
One particular morning that I remember well, my two latest pals, Andy Frail, a ginger-haired Dundee fellow, Willie Sutherland, a crack sprinter from St. Andrews, and myself were on a truck heading for Phillippeville for our first visit to the place. It was a grand journey with scenery unsurpassed anywhere in Africa, as the road snaked up, down and round the towering Atlas mountains. However, jogging up and down in a bumping Army truck is not conducive to admiring scenery, and we did not appreciate the grandeur.
Eventually we arrived at Phillippeville and the officer in charge, LT. Cathro, told us to meet him at this same spot at five o’clock for the return journey. It was now past one o’clock which, meant that we had roughly four hours to enjoy ourselves. We wandered around the town, admiring the pretty French girls, the tall buildings, and well-stocked shops. We tired of this and entered a bar. There we had a few drinks. Slightly merrier, we went on the hunt for a restaurant. Try as we did, we couldn’t find a suitable shop, most of them having no foodstuffs to sell to troops. As we were going down one street, we suddenly say a chap wearing a red hackle in his balmoral, our regimental badge, darting furtively into a bar. We followed him and discovered that it was Middleton, one of our mates who had been absent without leave for four days now.
“Gosh, I almost ran into Cathro a while ago!” he said. “I didn’t know you lads were coming to town today.”
He told us he was having a swell time. We asked if he knew if a shop where we could get something to eat, but he said he didn’t know of any. We left him and continued our search.
As we were coming up a narrow sidestreet, with its towering buildings on either side, we came to what had once been a small shop and stood gazing idly into it. The owner had given up the business a long time ago and we were naturally surprised at seeing only a flower in a pot in a huge shop window.
The woman in the adjoining house, an elderly grey-haired lady asked us in French what we wanted. I knew a bit of the language and replied haltingly that we were hungry and we couldn't find a place where we could eat. She said that the shops weren't allowed to sell soldiers food. So that was that.
As we walked away, she called on us to wait. She vanished indoors and minutes later, out she came with a small table and planked it on the pavement. Then she produced a tin of sardines and some bread.
“That’s all I can offer you,” she said. We were extremely grateful for we’d had nothing to eat since seven in the morning and it was now half-past four by Bill Sutherland’s watch.
We must have presented and odd sight, the three of us seated there on the woman’s doorstep, with the table in front on the pavement, munching away at sardine sandwiches. People passed us with smiles on their lips, which suggested that they thought we were off our rockers, the tenement facing us and as we followed his line of vision, we saw that he had been talking to a charming French girl, about 20, with sparkling black eyes and a lovely figure. She was standing on a balcony outside the window on the top flat and she was smiling and replying to Bill, who was indeed a good-looking chap, with a flair for the women. Next minute, she pointed to the door at the foot of the stairs, as much as saying, “I’ll see you down there.”
We were thunderstruck. We had often seen Bill’s charm work, but never at such a distance and so quickly as this.
“That’s how it’s done,” said Bill with a smile, and a hopeful look in his eye. “I’ll be seeing you.”
He walked across the road to the door of the tenement. A few seconds later, the door opened and Bill disappeared.
Andy and I gaped at each other.
“How does he do it?” Andy asked.
Bill was not long away, for soon the door opened and he came strutting towards us, with a bottle of wine in his hand.
“She’s a nice girl,” he said. “She asked me if I wanted a bottle of wine to wash down the bread. Gosh, I wish I were staying here. I wouldn’t mind a date with her. She owns barber’s shop just round the corner.”
“We’d better watch our time,” said Andy, and Bill looked at his watch.
“Quarter to five,” he declared. “We’ll scoff this bottle of wine and then get cracking. We’ve plenty of time. The truck’s just round that corner. A couple of minutes will get us there.”
At five to five by Bill’s watch, we thanked the old lady, and, with Bill waving goodbye to the girl he had just met, we went for our truck. As we reached the square, we looked for the vehicle, but it wasn’t in sight. Andy clutched my arm.
“Look at the time!” he exclaimed, pointing to a big clock over a shop. “It’s half-past five!”
Andy and I looked at Bill, with murder in our eyes. Again our pal looked at his watch. Then he turned a mournful face towards us.
“Either my ticker’s wrong or that clock is!” he said.
We were all in a dither and we stopped several people, enquiring the time from each. Our dismay increased when they all replied, “Half-past five.” We had missed our truck! It had gone off without us!
We debated what to do, for vehicles on that mountain road back to Didjelli were very scarce and we had two hundred miles to go before nightfall to be in billets at the time stated on our passes.
We saw a naval establishment nearby and after a long discussion, we decided to go in there, show the officer in charge the time on Bill’s watch and explain our difficulty. The officer was extremely helpful and he immediately wrote a note to our C.O., giving all the details of how we had missed the truck. We felt good deal more happy about the situation now. But once outside we got to thinking the matter over. We realised that our tale was as old as the Army itself. Surely the first Tommy in the British Army who had been late had spun the same tale of his watch being wrong. The C.O. would never believe us!
“Well, we may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb,” my pals said. “we’ll stay here for a few days, have the holiday we’re entitled to, then make our way back to billets.”
It was a unanimous decision and our first thought was, somewhere to sleep. By going to an army unit and explaining that we had been left behind and were to return to Didjelli the next day, we were given accommodation.
In the morning we hurriedly left this strange unit, before anymore awkward questions were asked. Up to mid-day we wandered around the town sightseeing and eventually ended up in the barber’s shop which Bill’s girl friend owned. While Andy and I had a shave, Bill and the girl ogled at each other over the pay desk.
The first night we went to a concert held in a hall close to the waterfront, and here, people from the audience were asked to give a turn on the stage, with cigarettes as prizes for their efforts. We were not too well-off financially and short of fags so we goaded Andy, who was a violinist in the Black Watch dance band, into having a go. After much persuasion he agreed and, although he started off shakily he was warmly applauded at the finish. Thus he got the much needed cigarettes.
On our third day’s holiday, sleeping at a different army unit each night, Bill declared that he was getting cheesed off with his girl, with whom he was making little progress in the direction he was thinking of and that he was wanting to visit Constantine. We pleaded with him to stay, but no, Bill’s mind was made up. Off he went, leaving us two on our own.
By this time it was becoming a strain for us, dodging M.P.’s and officers, and Andy and I decided to have one glorious drunken beano then go home. We went into a pub and there we met up with several other soldiers. One was a Scotsman and he was so pleased at seeing us that he bought us drinks and, despite our protests, continually kept us supplied with them.
When the bar closed, Andy was feeling a little under the weather and I had to help him up the street. For some unaccountable reason, our steps led us to the barber’s shop. I knew that we couldn’t stagger about the streets much longer without the M.P.’s picking us up, so I decided to take Andy to the barber’s and give him a shampoo, in an effort to sober him up. However, when I reached the shop and peeped through the baige curtain the inside was full of customers. It would never do to take Andy in there just now. Bill’s girl friend had spied me peeping through the curtain and next minute she came out to see what was wrong. At this time Andy was seated on the step leading up from the pavement into the shop, with his head between his knees. Suddenly, round the corner came a Military Policeman motor bike and when he saw Andy lolling on the step, he stopped his machine.
“What’s wrong with him?” he asked.
“Oh,” I said, thinking quickly, “The shop’s full and there’s no room inside. He’s merely waiting his turn to get a haircut.”
The pretty French girl then piped up to agree with me and the M.P., satisfied more by the lady'’ smile than by the excuse, continued on his was. There was only one thing for it now. We must get Andy away from prying eyes, so we took him inside and propped him up in a barber’s chair. The girl herself gave him a shampoo and sent one of her assistants out for black coffee. After half an hour Andy had sobered somewhat, at least enough to walk straight and know what he was doing. But we could not go back to Didjelli with him in that state. We had to find a bed for the night and it was then that I thought of the old woman who had given us the food on our first day in the town. We approached her home and we told her we were stuck for somewhere to sleep. She was most sympathetic and the upshot was that she went to her diused shop next door, fussed around moving this and that, until at last she had placed two tables together. She produced a spare mattress and several blankets, and with a smile of satisfaction, she put the mattress on top of the tables. Then she asked if this makeshift bed would satisfy us.
As far as we were concerned, it was heaven, and after she had informed us that she would give us a knock to awaken us the next morning, she went back to her house.
Andy being in the state he was, we decided to get down to it right away. Soon we were fast asleep.
At eight o’clock there came a knock on the door and the sound of the old lady’s voice. We replied, then began to get dressed. Five minutes later we were in her house having a wash and a clean-up. When we re-entered the main room, she had the table laid and insisted on giving us breakfast. It was grand to be treated like this and we appreciated it. We had a confab, Andy and I, over the breakfast table, regarding going back to our unit, and we came to the conclusion that we would stay in Phillippeville only one more night and then take the road for Didjelli early the next morning.
After our meal, we decided to get out of the French woman’s way, telling her we would be back that evening to sleep in the shop again, if it was all right with her. She was most friendly and if we’d desired, we could have slept for the rest of the war on her premises.
How near we came to not going back and thanking the French woman for her hospitality! As we walked along the street we made for the next village, for we reckoned that by keeping away from the Centre of the town, we would then doing the M.P.’s.
We strolled along the waterfront till at last we came to this fishing village. Here we ambled around. All of sudden we saw a captain, a padre, coming towards us. We wondered whether to make a run for it, but we thought this would look suspicious, so we just waited for him to reach us.
“Hello, lads,” the padre said amicably. “What division are you in?”
We told him the truth. It was pointless doing otherwise for our H.D badges were on our shirts sleeves. We fully expected his next question to be “What are you doing here?” but instead he smiled.
“I used to be with a Scotch division myself --- the 52nd Lowland Division. A fine bunch of lads.”
He yattered on. I looked at Andy, Andy looked at me, and our relief showed on our faces. So we weren’t to be locked up after all.
The firmly convinced us though. We felt like hunted criminals now, and we knew that if a soldier gives himself up instead of the M.P.’s catching him and handling him over to his unit, then his sentence is lighter.
Next day we were definitely going back to Didjelli!
I’m but the son my mother bore,
A simple man and nothing more.
But --- God of strength and gentleness
Be please to make me nothing less.
LANDING IN SICILY
Early in the morning we were on the long, lonely road leading back to our unit, hopeful that we would get a lift. We trudged for about three miles and were picked up by an American truck. This took us half-way to our destination. Out we had to get in the middle of nowhere, for the truck branched off in the opposite direction from our camp. There we were on that deserted road, with no sign of traffic in either direction, and with 70-odd miles still to cover.
For half an hour we footslogged it, our spirits sinking at each step. A lift seemed out of the question. Then behind us we heard the clanking of a heavy vehicle. We looked back and saw a huge tank transporter chugging up the hill.
As it drew level with us, it stopped and we could see that it bore the H.D. sign. Of all the luck! It was one of our own transport, heading back for Didjelli! The driver told us that he had had trouble with his engine and that the rest of the convoy he had been travelling with had left him, to make his own time back. What a lucky break for us!
We clambered abroad. The tank transporter was slow, but we knew that it would get us to Didjelli some time that day so we were happy.
Darkness was falling when our driver reached his destination, about four miles from our camp. As we tramped along the road, we could see in the distance that the L.C.I.’s were still in the harbour, while a Liberty Ship was riding at anchor outside. The Division had not moved while we had been away, so we would not be termed deserters!
As soon as we arrived in billets, we were put in “prison”, a barbed-off section of ground, watched over by regimental police. There was no hardship attached to it — we got our meals the same as everybody else, and there was no bullying. A few other chaps were inside for absence. They were awaiting trial and I noticed that one of them was Middleton, the lad who had nearly run into Cathro in Pillippeville.
Next morning we were up before company office and the usual patter started.
Capt. Taylor, the Company Commander — “Well, anything to say?”
Me and Andy — “No, nothing.”
Company Commander — “Very well. I can’t punish you for five days absence. It’s beyond my jurisdiction. The C.O. will do that. Battalion orderly room at five o’clock.”
At battalion orderly room, the usual “bull” was carried out, as the prisoners lined up, the evidence, (others soldier) behind them, and the R.S.M. bawling and shouting unnecessarily, as if we were goats being led to the slaughter.
My turn came and with a rapid left, right, left, right, left, right and a halt, I was facing the Commanding Officer.
“You are charge with being absent without leave from such-and-such a time. Anything to say?” he asked.
I remained quiet, and the C.O. turned to Capt. Taylor.
“How has this man’s work been lately?” he asked, as if that had anything to do with the crime committed. Imagine a murderer getting away with his crime, just because he had been a good citizen previously.
“I’m afraid he’s been a trifle backward of late,” Capt. Taylor replied.
I hardly heard the C.O.’s sentence of “To be deprived of your rank and five day’s pay stopped,” for I was blaging mad. I had been called “backward”, which, in my interpretation, meant dull or stupid, and it grated on me, for I prided myself in having had a good education and being quite clever, especially when I knew that Capt. Taylor, whom I late came to like like a brother, was, before the war, nothing more than a carpenter. At least, that was what one of the chaps said who had worked beside him in Perthshire.
I was so annoyed that me, a journalist, had been called backward by a carpenter, that I did not stop to consider the fact that, well it says a lot for an ordinary working chap to get to the rank of captain through sheer ability.
I had lost all sense of proportion, I was so mad, and as soon as I was released from “prison”, ten minutes after orderly room, and sent back to my company, I immediately sat down and wrote a letter to my wife.
I told her I had lost my stripe and what the Company Commander had said regarding my work. The letter was full of venom, the pent-up rage inside me coming through my pen on to paper.
I handed the letter to our platoon commander, Lt. Cathro, for censoring and thought no more about it.
Next morning I was called before the Company Commander, and although, no doubt, Captain Taylor was wild, he kept his anger under control.
“I’m sorry, I can’t censor this letter,” he said, handing me back the air mail letter card I had written, severely criticising him.
“Why?” I asked. “There’s no information vital to the enemy in it, is there?”
But Pete, as Capt. Taylor was called by the lads, wasn’t to be drawn into any argument and he dismissed me. I knew he had done wrong by refusing to censor this letter of mine, for there were no military secret of any sort in it. I decided to get the better of him.
I took the letter to Jimmy Keiller, our padre, told him the story, and he passed it without censoring it.
I was feeling more at ease now, but Captain Taylor still had a trump card up his sleeve. Later in the afternoon he called me before him again, and informed me that he was making me his company runner. This meant that I had to stick close to the guy and run all his message, cook his food in the front line, in general be a sort of slave to him!
I flew off the handle again, but it was a waste of steam, and soon I was trotting backwards and forwards between companies with message for Pete.
The lads chaffed me unmercifully after this. “A medal-hunter, eh?” they scoffed. The joke was the previous company runner, L/C Jones, as I have already mentioned, had won both the D.C.M. and the M.M., for carrying out his job courageously in the front line. I felt anything but a medal-hunter then. I felt more like a head-hunter and it was Pete Taylor’s head I was after.
But, as the days passed, with us actually going out to sea in these L.C.I.’s and beaching on some part of the coast, thus carrying out training a stage further, my close contact with Taylor made me like him. I just couldn’t help it. I was seeing a side of Pete that I’d never seen before.
I knew that it was getting near invasion day, for we had made a night assault on an uninhabited part of the North African coastline, about five miles from Didjelli, where everything had gone perfectly, with us storming down the gangways and through the cold water which lapped above our stomachs as we waded on to the sandy beach. It looked like the last stage of on training.
Then came the final rehearsal, with the whole Division taking part. We put to sea in total darkness, and as dawn was ……… through the sky, our landing craft grated as it’s flat bottom scraped as close as possible to the land. The ramps were lowered, down we sped, though the icy cold water until our feet touched dry land. We spread out into formation on the beach, then the advance on our objective was made. Thus we ended our invasion training!
Came the day when we were told that we were moving, and we tramped down to the docks, to get abroad a big Liberty ship, which means that this was not invasion yet.
That evening we sailed under cover of darkness and we were wondering what our destination would be. Next morning we had landed at Sousse, a seaport on the east side of Tunisia. There we were whisked off in trucks a good bit inland and the final preparations for invasion took place.
The Company runners were issued with bicycles, while all the men received a tin of rations, which contained everything necessary to keep a man going for forty-eight hours — chocolate, biscuits, tea, sugar, sweets, chewing gum, etc.
We were told what we had to take with us in our packs — the rest of the stuff had to be left behind. Some lads took advantage of this by “flogging” to the wandering Arabs, all articles of unnecessary clothing, socks, vests, shirts and even blankets, for which they received good prices. You’d see a lad, suspiciously bulky beneath his shirt, skipping across the road to the orchard opposite, where he would soon be lost to view in the trees. This orchard was a regular meeting place for black market operations, and some of the lads made a mint of money.
We had been billeted in a sandy field, about three miles from the main town, and we did very little here as regards training, just lolled about, getting ourselves fully equipped.
Occasionally we had an open-air cinema show and it was here that that grand Scots comedian, Will Fyffee, paid us a visit and gave us a show.
One day we were shown arial photographs of the place we were to attack. They had been taken only a few days previously and every gun position could be seen on them, but there was not the slightest hint as to what the particular country was that had been chosen for our invasion. The photograph might have represented any lump of coastline anywhere in Europe.
Then came that day when we were marched down to the battered dock once again. This time we were put aboard L.C.I.’s We set sail and we thought the invasion had started, but no, after several hour’s sailing, we saw in the distance, an island. It was Malta with its solid grey-…….. buildings, and soon we were moored along the quays in the wreck-strewn harbour of Valetta.
The monotonous process of disembarking began again and this time, we were put in tents, on a piece of ground that was as hard as granite. That night we slept little, for we had been issued with nets for our faces and hands. It was necessary to sleep with these on for huge mosquitos, buzzing like Spitfires, attacked any part of our exposed skins. Added to this noise was the drone of Wellington bombers, which went on all nights as they flew from the aerodrome nearby, to raid enemy territory.
Next morning we had a visit from the Eight Army commander himself. We were formed up into threes and marched to Brigade H.Q., where we were lined up into a hollow square. An open car suddenly whizzed through the entrance, with, standing up in the back of it, General Montgomery. I suppose his presence was meant to thrill up and pep us up with confidence, but no-one moved. Then Monty addressed us.
“Come a bit closer,” he said, using his mater tactics to gain our confidence. “Let me look at you.”
There was a mad scramble to get round his car, not so much to see this world-famous figure, but to hear better what he was to say. He might give us some information as to where we were going.
“It’s grand to see you all so full of beans,” he began, when a soldier piped up sarcastically. “Yeah, bully beef and beans!”
Of course, this raised a laugh amongst us and a frown from the officers thereupon decided to do the same thing, in follow-my-leader fashion.
“We are now going to invade the enemy in Europe,” Monty said. “We are going to invade his land and knock the Italians right out of the war. They tell me that Italian are really decent people at heart but were badly led. My advice to you is, the only decent Italian is a dead one …”
So he went on, drooling over us with praise, saying we were the best brigade in the Division, best troops he had under him. Some soldier puffed out their chests proudly, but anyone could see that the next mob Monty visited were also the best brigade.
Monty concluded by saying, “The attack will be launched in forty-eight hours. Until then I want you to have a good time. Enjoy yourselves.”
This DID raise an enthusiastic cheer, and Monty’s visit had ended.
As we were dismissed from this parade, we took the General’s advice to heart. We started to enjoy ourselves — and our first visit was to a pub 200 yards away. There we sat, sipping up our beer, when all of sudden, strutting up to us was our R.S.M.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked. “Get back to your billets.”
After a good deal of grousing and referring to Monty’s order, we aquiesced, and there we were told that no-one would leave the camp until his pants were washed and creased, and his belt scrubbed! Monty’s orders were being flaunted right away. Creased pants and white belts and in another forty-eight hours, we would be wallowing in the filth of a battlefield.
It was late afternoon when we got out of billets. We visited the pictures. It was a treat to be again among women and men, who could speak English. A visit to a canteen later rounded off our first night.
The second day we got out earlier, and another two lads and myself decided to have a pub-craul. After all, it would be the last drink for a long time, for we were leaving the next day for God knows where.
We walked around Valetta, and as we travelled the streets close to the waterfront, we came across a small crowd of lads from our Division outside a building, just like any tenement in Britain. They were haggling with an old dame who was seated on the doorstep saying “No, no, two pounds!”
We were curious, and as we came up, girl’s heads appeared at the windows overhead. Some were quite pretty, but bore that hard look in their baggy eyes, which suggested that they were used to a tough life.
We were told what was happening. This was a brothel, not run by the military, but an unlicensed one, where girls could charge whatever they wanted, and with soldiers in the dark as to whether the women were clean or diseased. Some of the lads who had been arguing, declared that the old dame was wanting two pounds before she would let anyone into the house to lie with any of her girls.
Our chaps were furious, put the high price down to the Americans, who would pay anything for their bit of fun. Our lads just couldn’t afford it, for their wages could not compare with that of the Yanks. An old-stager, who had been billeted in Malta for a long time, informed us that things were not as they used to be, when five shillings would get you a prostitute, and ten bob the pick of them.
“Yes,” he said. “The Yanks who came only this year, have undoubtedly raised the girls standard of living.”
We passed on, leaving the lads haranguing with the old hag. As we walked along, it was a revelation. Doors would cautiously open and a loud hsst! would come to our ears. We would peer around, and there, peeping out from the doorway, would be a whore, beckoning us in. Some were horrible specimens, but then that trade does not encourage face and body for long. In several streets, especially those nearest the waterfront, this clandestine red lamp business was going on. Many soldiers were being inveigled in to part with their meagre wages, a sort of last fling before the morrow. No doubt, the thought of, well, to-morrow we may be dead, caused many of the lads, who, in their normal senses, would never have thought of lying with a woman, to enter these brothels.
A stupid sort of business this, but one very human. Why the British Army did not treat it in its proper light was a mystery. There were arguments from home about it, people saying that legalized brothels put temptation in the men away. Admittedly it did, but only to these men who wanted to be tempted! Some men feel that they just can’t do without sexual intercourse and naturally, if there are no military brothels at land, they go looking for any pick-up of a girl on the streets, not knowing if she has venereal disease.
Isn’t it better to enter a military brothel, where the girls are examined every morning by medical officers to see that they are all right, than to go round back alleys and seek what may prove to be a filthy woman? Yet the brothels in Tripoli were put out of bounds after being open only a few months. Who, or why, it was done is difficult for me to say, but soldier rumour-mongers put it down to their favourite, Lady Astor. She seemed to get the blame of anything ………… that went on.
But to return to Malta. This open selling of bodies went on and we were glad to get away from it. We visited several more pubs and, by this time, were feeling pretty cheery. We’d heard about a place called “the Gut” which was out of bounds to troops, so we decided to visit it. We just didn’t give a damn on this out last night. The Gut was reckoned to have some hot-stuff pubs in it, which was just what we wanted.
We reached the Gut. It was a narrow lane leading down a hill, with shops on either side, and every second one was a pub. Girls were at the doors trying to entice customers in. We paid a few of the pub a visit. There were bands playing inside and waitresses dashing about dishing out drinks. These girls were paid a percentage on the amount of drinks they sold to customers, so, in their crude way, they tried to be nice to you. They’d put their arms around you, peck your cheek, while you were allowed to do anything to them, except lay then over the back of a table.
In one particular pub I saw a nauseating incident. We had seen girls waving from an upper room of the pub, so we went up the inside stairs. There were three girls in here and on our arrival, they ushered us over to a settee. One of my mates has fastened on to the nicest-looking girl, with a slim figure, who seemed a cut above the others. My mate, feeling a trifle happy, was pinching her bottom and feeling the breasts with which she was amply provided. Getting bolder, he put his hand down inside the front of her dress and started fondling the bare flesh.
Suddenly the girl bounced up and, unfastening the top part of her back, she flopped out one of her breast.
“So you want to play with it?” she laughed, and as my pal gaped unbelievingly at the flipping ball of bare flesh, she came up close to him, gave her breast a squeeze with one hand, and out of her teat squirted warm milk, straight in his face. She had just had child and her breasts were full.
I was thunderstruck with this behaviour and I felt a sickening feeling in my stomach. I felt sorry for some of these girls, for a few of them had real hard-luck stories, but this was just filth in its worst form.
We had our drink then and the girl put her breast back in its rightful position, behind her frock. She had accomplished what she wanted — she had got us to buy a drink and her percentage was assured. Some more soldiers had come in and next moment she was cuddling on a sofa with another chaps, where right hand disappeared below her frock. A few second later both vanished down stairs and, although we had a few more drinks, this girl did not come back — neither did the soldier.
So we resumed our staggering way, ending up in another pub at the foot of the Gut. Here a band was playing and after sitting down at a table, one of my mates suddenly nudged me.
“Look at that!” he said, and pointed.
On the dance floor, a soldier was dancing with a civilian, a real pansy boy with a blonde hair and effeminate ways. He was an astonishingly good-looking chap, with Grecian features, but his hands and voice gave him away for what he was.
Several times later he danced with different chaps, bending his body in close to this partners in a manner that no sane woman would have dared to do without asking for trouble.
By this time we were slightly the worse for liquor, still able to walk, but just not giving a damn for anyone, and in this state we arrived back at camp.
It seemed we had just dropped off to sleep, when we were awakened. It was barely daylight and half of the lads were still slightly tipsy from yesterday’s long session.
Consequently the C.S.M. had a bit of difficulty getting us all straightened out. Then down we went to the harbour, singing and shouting like a pack of drunks.
Once on board our L.C.I., however, with the realisation that we were about to invade Europe, we soon sobered up. A wash and a cup of tea and we were all as right as rain.
It was along time before we put to sea, and this was spent in cleaning rifles and machine guns, and filling water bottles. Still we were not told where we were to invade, but we were informed that we would get the news as soon as we were out at sea.
Soon we had left Malta behind, and a grand sight we were as we streamed along, in three long lines of L.C.I.’s. We were in the Centre, which, somehow, gave us a sense of security for more L.C.I.’s wallowed dead ahead of us, giving us the idea that, anyway, we couldn’t hit a mine. The others in front of me would hit it first.
Then came the long-awaited news — we were to invade Sicily, and we were issued with pamphlets, telling us about the country and its people. Of course, everyone had known all along that we were going there, or at least, so they said, now that the news was out.
We knew that Sicily was strongly defended, and I had visions of batteries of shore guns belching away at us, with shells flying all round, and Stukas diving from the clouds, unloading their bombs on top of us. I could see myself surging through the water and racing on to the beach, immediately coming under a hail of murderous enemy machine-gun and mortar fire, as I struggled to cut through the barbed wire defences. These then were my thoughts as the little ships sailed on.
As we progressed further and further into the Mediterranean, our frail craft started to bounce as the waves became higher and higher. A storm was brewing. As the ship heaved up over the waves, then came crashing down, I felt my stomach heaving at the same time. It got worse and worse, to find the lavatory full of men opening their guts up. I joined the queue. All through the night this went on, with everybody feeling miserable. Desperately I tried to prevent myself vomiting, but it was like trying to stop a raging current. I’d stretch myself out on my bunk but the heaving was still there. I’d go up on deck, but the heaving was there, too. Chaps were moaning and groaning, their faces as white as sheets with the agony that they were going through. What a night for a crossing! It couldn’t have been worse. I imagined trying to land from this tossing boat, with my stomach in such condition, and feeling so weak that a puff of wind, far less an enemy shell, could have knocked me over.
At last I fell asleep and wakened to hear the buzzer — the signal to get out kit on. We must be near the enemy shore. Wearily we obeyed, feeling like anything but invaders.
Game the second buzzer — the signal to take up positions, then the third, the signal to get out on top to battle stations. Exhausted we climbed the stairs and took up our posts at the forward port end. I made for the bicycle, with which I had been provided to run the Company Commander’s messages.
To my dismay, on going to where I had left it on deck, I discovered that the rear tyre was flat. I told Pete Taylor about it, but he insisted that I should take it ashore. So I lined up with it.
I looked around. It was not daylight yet, but the sea had now calmed, as if someone had accomplished what King Canute had tried to do — stop the waves. It was miraculous. For hours we had travelled in a storm and our ships had been ……….. about like corks, yet just as we were nearing the coast of Sicily, the storm had died down and everything was calm.
I peered ahead and dimly I could see the shape of land. It came nearer and nearer, and still things were ridiculously quiet. From the sea came the sound of our naval guns opening up and also our dreaded mortar ship, a new invention, which, by the press of a button, released hundreds of mortars at the one moment. Occasionally enemy shells burst in the air, but none near us.
The commander of the ship tried to get in close so as to give us as dry a landing as possible. The ship bottom struck rocks and back steamed the craft again to try another time. The lads shouted angrily to the commander to hurry up and put us ashore, for at any minute now, we expected the enemy batteries to open up and we didn’t want to be on this frail craft when such a thing happened.
But all the shouting in the world made no difference to this vary guy. He continued in his own manner as if there was no danger. He gave us the impression of the boss of a ferries schooners, trying to save his passengers from getting a ducking.
Irritatingly he persisted in going forward and coming back, going forward and coming back, and daylight was beginning to brighten the sky when, at last, the gangways went banging down and our lads thankfully moved off the ship.
Sailors had already waded ashore and had tied ropes from the gangplank which they, on the beach, held on to tightly, thus making a lifeline for us to hang on to. As I watched the big fellows of our platoon sink up to the chest in the water before they moved forward and at last gained the shelving beach, I was taken aback. I was a small fellow and the water would reach over my head. What was more, I had the bike to carry. I appealed to Pete Taylor, and realising that I would be underwater if I had to carry the machine, he told me to leave it.
As I walked back along the deck, I saw one of the lads. I forget his surname, but he was known as everybody as "Ernie”. He was still seemingly vomiting. The trouble was that he had nothing left to get up. He was racking the inside of his stomach, every time he felt the urge to vomit. He was doing himself terrific injury, but, as there was no doctor on board, there was nothing could be done about it. He was going to be left behind, and as soon as we had disembarked, the L.C.I. would take him back to hospital at Malta. We learned later that he died of a broken lung before he could reach hospital.
Soon it was my turn to race down the slippery gangway and I held to the life-line as my feet hit the water. Down, down I went, till the water came up to my chest. There it stopped and I heaved a sigh of relief. The water, too, worked wonders, for it wakened me out of that sick sleep I had been in and I felt the better for it.
But there were treacherous, slippery rocks all around the seabed and, as I was congratulating myself on the fact that, at least, we couldn’t get any deeper — it could only get shallower as the beach shelved up to dry land — my foot slipped on a rock and I lost my balance. If I had not had a firm hold on the life-line I would have been right under water, head and all. As I missed my footing, my grip on the rope pulled me level again and, after a little fumbling with my feet, I at last reached solid ground. It was about ten yards to the beach and plodding forward, I reached it, soaked to the skin, but glad that I was away from that boat. I had landed in one piece in Sicily!
Help me, O God, when death is near
To mock the haggard face of fear,
That when I fall, if fall I must
My soul may triumph in the dust.
THIRD TIME LUCKY?
I could hardly believe that we had invaded Europe. It seemed somehow unreal after all my imaginings of bitter opposition on the beaches, with every step forward fanatically contested by the enemy. This had been more like a landing in friendly country.
We moved forward up the beach and there, growing in the sandy soil, were luscious tomatoes. Despite repeated warnings from our officers not to eat them unless they had been skinned because of the danger of dysentery, these tomatoes were swallowed in double-quick time, coverings and all. We badly needed something to fill our empty stomachs.
We advanced about two miles but did not see any of the enemy, nor were we under any mortar, machine-gun or shell fire. Never had we imagined that an invasion of Europe would be as easy as this.
As we dug in on our objective, we heard the whee of shells from our left and right. Some other regiments were getting fire thrown at them. The Canadians, we had been told, were on our right, with the 50th Division on our left making a landing at the seaport of Syracuse.
It was now broad daylight and we looked around The Mediterranean stretched out behind us, and hundreds of ships of every size and description were unloading their precious cargoes of men and materials. All the while, the ever-watchful eyes of the Royal Navy’s battleships were there, seeing that no harm came to their convoy. It was an amaging spectacle.
High overhead, in a continuous while, were Hurricanes and Spitfires, wheeling backwards and forwards over the beach, keeping the German bombers away from the ships while they unloaded. Tanks were already ashore.
We had safely landed, and the relief felt by us as time passed with no sign of enemy opposition, was like a cold douche bringing a boxer to his senses. We were calmer now and the wisecracks were beginning to fly around again.
As we dug trenches about a mile from the beach and our picks and shovels struck the earth of Sicily, we noticed how different it was from that of North Africa. It was chalky and hard, and the air always seemed to have a film of white chalk about it. This was worse than the sand of the desert, for the sand had at least been clean. This chalky, flaky substance gave us the appearance of sun-burned ghosts. It clogged our rifles and choked up our throats, while trucks and tanks, churning forward, added to the agony by shouting up dreadful clouds of the stuff.
Our position at present showed little sign of habitation as far as the civilian angle was concerned. All I could see were little huts in gardens, just like in Britain, where gardeners keep allotments. We met one or two Sicilians, and sight of them made me wonder where the dreaded Secret Societies of Sicily drew their men. I’d heard all about the Mafia Secret Society and its band of followers, who had the whole island in fear, stealing cattle, murdering and pillaging. They had all the island in their grip, and, although Mussolini had made an attempt to suppress the society, it still fluorished. Yet, these peasant we saw were no more than country yokels who looked anything but sinister. They had vacant looks on their Faces, and were only too willing to tell us where the Italians and Germans had gone. Somehow, I couldn’t imagine a British civilian in the same position giving away information concerning the whereabouts his troops.
Perhaps it was because Sicilians objected to the Italians coming to their island, for they liked to consider themselves a different race, They treated their country as a sort of separate state, and maybe were only too willing to see the back of the Ities. Anyway they helped us with information of value and with offering us the produce of their land, such as vegetables and poultry. One farmer gave us a black pig, which we carted around with us for a few days, until the lads got so upset at seeing this tasty morsel grunting around while they are stew and bully beef daily, that Starry Hassett, a butcher by trade and our cook, slit the pigs throat. We had lovely pork chops and bacon later for a meal.
But to return to this first day of arrival. We were all famished after the emptying of our stomachs on the previous night and soon we were opening our ration tins and eating their contents. After that we felt better.
Just when we had completed our trenches, we were told to move, and the direction we took was back to the beach, only a bit more to our right. We halted no more than 500 yards from the sea. In front of us, was an orchard of olive trees, with several big tents in it, while, to the right, was a small wireless arial, which had suffered from shell-fire and was now leaning at a broken angle with the wires cut.
Slightly to our left and below us was a small anchorage with a stretch of clear, bright sand, upon which gently lapped the waters of the Mediterranean. All was bustle and activity down there, for close in to shore, as close as they could come, were hundreds of L.I.C.I.’s and L.T.C.’s with their bellies open, pouring out their supplies of guns, tanks, ammunition, food and men.
It was like an endless belt, and members of the Pioneer Corps down on the beach were working themselves to a standstill as they unloaded the ships in record time and piled up the ammo and food. Anti-aircraft guns, in a semi-circle, had been set up covering the unloading operations. Further out at sea were bigger boats, which were unable to come in close, but these, too, by means of lighters plying to and for, were being lightened of their loads.
Further out still were destroyers and cruisers, shuttling backwards and forwards, like hens looking after their chicks, occasionally opening up with their guns, sending their shells screaming over our heads, far into the enemy lines.
In the distance, beyond the three-mile limit, we saw a big ship with a red cross clearly marked on its white side. A Hospital ship was standing by, ready to receive casualties and complying with international law, was keeping well back from the fighting.
These tents in front of us in the orchard attracted our attention, and several of the lads decided to investigate. To their delight, they found that it had been an enemy quarter master store, complete with everything that a soldier needs. There were great coats, boots, socks, shirts, vests, in fact, every article if wearing apparel, while equipment, including revolvers, strewed the place. The lads rummaged around, despite repeated warnings from our officers about doing this short of thing, because several blokes had been blown sky-high In Africa, through ingeniously-placed mines attached to fountain pens, doors and wine bottles. The enemy were experts at this sort of thing. But the lads took their lives in their hands at the thought of procuring some loot.
Oh, yes, the British Army looted, too. I’ve seen a squad of Italian prisoners, perhaps thirty strong, being lined up in the Western Desert and being searched by an officer, not only for arms, but for wrist watches, pocket watches, cigarette lighters, binoculars etc. The prisoners had no option; they just had to give up the article. Later the loot was distributed around one men. In Sicily, I was houses entered and soldiers coming out with lovely silk dresses which they crammed into their packs.
The lads certainly found loot in these tents in the orchard. There were hundreds of cameras there, all of German make, and stacks of spools of film to fit them, there were dirks, flashy knives, and all types of German and Italian cigarettes.
As the men came out of the tents, they got their best prize of all — they entered the orchard and there, seated with his back towards a tree, with his head in his hands, in a stated of utter dejection, as if the end of the world had come, was a German soldier. He was over six feet tall and wore spectacles, while wings on his helmet denoted the fact that he was a parachutist. He was brought back to camp and handed over to our Intelligence Branch for questioning.
Pete Taylor put his foot down when he heard that we had been looting, and after that we got down to digging more trenches. The ground chosen was like granite and we could not get any depth. We abandoned digging and instead gathered together a few bricks from a low wall nearby and formed them into an oblong shaped like a coffin. If we couldn’t dig down, the only thing to do was build up these stones to give us protection from any shrapnel that might come our way. It was not nearly so satisfactory as a slit trench, for if blast hit your stones, then they would come rattling down on top of you and probably knock you unconcious. In the present circumstances, however, we could do nothing else.
Darkness came and soon we experienced the worst night ever. We heard enemy planes droning in our direction, and, as they approached, ever nearer, we huddled deeper down in our makeshift trenches. The aircraft were overhead now and flares were being dropped to guide the pilots to their targets — out ships unloading in the anchorage below us. Next second there was a clap like thunder and terrific barrage of shells streamed up into the air. The ships had opened up with their Oerlikons, while the gunners on land belted away with their Bofors, not so much at a specific target, for these were no searchlights to guide them by locating the bombers, but merely as covering fire for the ships. The gunners formed a sort of carpet over the ships, so that an enemy bomber had to stay high and chance to luck that his bombs scored a hit, or come low and risk certain death by flying through the barrage. I heard the scream as a plane dive, then a crump as his bombs cratered the land. Sometimes there was the screaming dive, the silence, for the bombs had hit the water. It was unnerving this lying here, with the knowledge that we were on the rim of the battle, with a very good chance of getting a stray bomb thrown at us. For ten minutes this banging, screeching, crumping went on, then it died down as suddenly as it had started and all was peaceful again. The noise of the plane receded in the distance and we were left alone, with only the irritating whine of mosquitos to remind us that we were still alive.
I got up to see the effects of the raid, and over to our right, a few miles away, others were going through the same experience as we had recently undergone. We dimly saw the ships in their anchorage there, belting their balls of death into the starry sky, at the enemy bombers who had now changed their target.
Then, in front of us, a good bit out to sea, I saw something on fire. It must be a ship, I thought, and, as I realised its position and saw the twinkling lights around its docks and portholes, I remembered something that struck me with horror. The hospital ship lay out there! This was what was a flame! We were bitter then, as we saw the flames leaping up into the air. The hospital ship had adhered to international law by staying outside the fighting zone and by having its lights on at night, showing that it was a ship of mercy, yet, some enemy plane had callously bombed it! I could picture the scene on board, with wounded men lying helpless down below deck in their beds, and being unable to move as the flames crackled around them.
From this distance, there was nothing we could do except sympathise. How often we had sympathised, but been inwardly glad at the same time that the victims had not been ourselves. Perhaps it would be our turn to meet death tonight yet, or tomorrow, or the next day.
The dice was certainly not cast in our favour. The only place of safety was away from the fighting line and our only hope, in this Division with its glorious past record, was to get a wound sufficiently serious to keep us away from the front line, but not serious enough to kill us. A name, such as the Highland Division will live on, but its component, parts, the men, what chance have they, being flung into action on every occasion? You’re bound to get it in the end. You can’t keep taunting fire without it getting the better of you.
Many’s a lad cursed the fact that he was ever put in the Highland Division. A few were proud to start with, and few were prouder still because they managed to come through it all unscathed, but how few did! It was the times in between, when death looked on and beckoned, every minute of every day when you were in action, that men wished that they had been put in another unit. Give us glory for the Division was the big wigs motto, but a mother did not want gallant reading matter, but her son back home again safe and sound.
I remember on one occasion, when I had been convalescing in Tripoli, after being wounded at Buerat, that the hospital had been visited by the Divisional Commander, who had been anxious, not to see how his men were recovering from their wounds, but how quickly they would be in action again. He didn’t pay his men a personal visit, but spent his time with the O.C. of the hospital.
Then when I was released from convalescent, I went to a Transit Camp, at the entrance to which was a notice, “ALL SCOTSMEN REPORT HERE.” Needless to say, few accepted the offer, for they knew where they would eventually end up as cannon fodde in the Highland Division. We had taken part in every big battle now since October 1942 — Alamien, Mersa Brega, Wadi Zemzem, Mareth, Wadi Akarit and now Sicily. How much longer would it go on, this being flung into the jaws of hell? No doubt the folks were proud at home, but in our minds always ran the thought, TOMORROW MAY DAWN, but on the other hand, it stood a bloody good chance of never appearing!
Sicily was a perfect example of this ruthless urging on and on, with men exhausted because of forced route marches and being thrown into action practically every evening. Luckily for several days we met none of the enemy. The birds had always flown before we went into attack.
I remember the second day we passed through Puchino, a small village, with tumble-down white cottages. Soon we had advanced though Lentini, Militello, Ragusa and other small villages, always following on the heels of the retreating enemy.
One day we actually had a whole morning and afternoon’s rest, which we thought was too good to last. In the evening the battalion was told to move. We were the reserve company and, as there was little transport, several of the vehicle were to deliver one load of men and come back to pick us up.
It was a good long time before they arrived and off we went, eventually halting at a junction of a road, where the seat of the battalion was situated. Here we were greeted with shouts of “You lucky buggar!” The story came out then. There was to be an attack that evening with the whole battalion going in, but as we were the reserve company, we moved not start till half an hour after the others, which meant the dirty work would be ended when we attacked. The objective was a little mountain, which was believed to be held by the enemy.
After a good hot meal and a cleaning of rifles, our pals went off to the attack, leaving us in a ditch to pass the half hour waiting. It was dark now, and soon we heard the familiar drone of enemy planes, going over on their nightly marauding tactics, to try to interrupt our unloading of supplies. The coast was about three miles away and we had an ideal, safe view of the bombing. We saw the ships sending up their preventative fire and saw a flash as of bombs exploding. Next minute another enemy bomber would drone over our heads, speeding towards its objective. We were in the oath of the bombers flight and consequently every aircraft passed over our heads. They came in single file and at two to three minute intervals. After the third plane had passed, we heard a different type of drone. Pete Spears, nudged me and said in an excited voice.
“That’s one of ours. It’s a Beaufighter!”
I thought he was raving, for I couldn’t believe that a chap could tell just by the drone of a plane what type it was. I certainly knew the difference between the sound of an enemy plane and ours, but, as to giving the specific make of plane, I considered it impossible.
Suddenly there was a rat-tat-tat high up in the air. I looked up. I saw a plane on fire. Pete was certainly right, inasmuch as we had anight-fighter up there, chasing the Germans. For all I knew he may have been correct saying it was a Beaufighter, but I never found out. I was too excited now to bother as I saw that enemy plane swirling down like a blarging comet. I gave a shout of glee as it crashed into the earth, sending up a shower of flame. That was one German who would bomb no more.
Another enemy plane droned overhead. A few seconds passed and there was another burst of machine-gun fire. A second German plane met its doom, and it, too, crashed to earth in a ball of fire.
Five of the Luftraffe in all we counted that night being shot out of the sky. There may have been more, for, despite our anxiety to watch this unseen battle, it was now time for us to move up as reserve company.
We followed the route taken by the rest of the battalion and soon reached a field, dotted here and there with stacked-up hay, which had just been cut and left to dry in the sun.
There, a horrible scene of carnage met my eyes. Exploding mortar shells had set these stooks on fire and their glare gave the scene a macabre effect. Men, our own men, were lying dead in various ghastly attitudes. One poor soul, pancstricken and not knowing nightly what he was doing, had sought the shelter of a haystack, but this, too had been hit and set on fire. At the same time, he had been wounded. There he had lain unable to move and had been licked up by the flames. The smell of burning flesh reeked through the air, a horrible sickly smell. As I looked at this poor, unfortunate soldier, his head reminded me of a Hallowe’en pumpkin, the inside of which has been scooped out, leaving only slots where eyes, nose and mouth should have been. I turned from the horrible sight.
We heard what had happened from the C.S.M. Battalion H.Q. had lain down in this field, waiting for our barrage of mortars to precede them before they advanced further. They were new mortars, which had never before been used in action, (4.25’s I think they were) and they were to prove a formidable weapon later. Something had gone wrong with the timing of the operation, with the result that, either Battalion H.Q. had been in the wrong place at the right time, or in the right place at the wrong time, or the gunners had opened up at the wrong time. In any case the gunners had fired their mortars straight into this field where one Battalion H.Q. lay. The men had been helpless and stunned with the suddenness of the attack. They could do nothing but lie there and hope for the best, because there was no cover of any sort near them on this rock like ground. So they had been move down through what was none other than a blunder on someone’s past. They had met none of the enemy. But the toll had been heavy just the same.
The smell of that burning man was horrible, and we quickly buried him by throwing earth over his body. The flames died down and the sickening odour was stopped. Never shall I forget that man’s face! The other dead were wrapped in blankets and collected into one area, where soon they would be given the rough and ready burial ceremony which is part of the horrors of war.
We had not yet reached our objective. We passed a small cottage with a German half-tractor car beside it. It was in perfect condition but had no petrol. Soon the voices of our other companies told us that we had reached our lines. We had come to a row of typical Sicilian farm houses, set on a hill, with a dusty farm track separating them on either side.
Here we were ordered to dig in and expect a counter-attack. I got busy on our trench — I shared one with Pete Taylor — but it was hard going. Then Pete sent me round to the various companies with messages, and when I came back, he himself was digging away hard. No sitting back for him, he did his share even although he was our Company Commander. It was round about this time that I really got to like him. While in action, he was always well out in front of his company. He scorned the steel helmet, going into battle with his balmoral as his sole head covering. This gave him a devil-may-care attitude, as if the job on hand were going to be easy.
Right next to where we were, was a small wooden hut and, naturally the lads started rummaging around it. It had been inhabited by some Italian soldiers — the whole area was proved later to be the H.Q. of an Italian Division, who had left in a hurry, leaving maps and documents which proved of great value.
It was in this position that we captured another German parachutist, a youngster of no more that eighteen, well-built, surly and with a superior air. He had been dropped from a plane only the previous night but had hurt his ankle on landing, with the result that he had been left behind in the German retreat. He was confident as Hell and said that we would soon be thrown back into the sea, so confident was he that we felt like kicking his teeth in. Later we were to meet many more of the German parachutists, all youngsters, with a fanaticism that was phenomenal. They would fight to the end, against any odds, and they bitterly contested every yard of ground. They seemed to relish dying for their fuehrer. Dressed in camouflaged, knee-length rainproofs belted around them, and in their bare heads, they looked anything but soldiers. They were more like peasants.
We weren’t left long here, and the next afternoon we were once again on the trucks to a new position. We moved about so much during our first days in Sicily that it’s difficult to keep a tag of our movements. I know we passed through Militello, with its reek of dead and dying, after the American bombers had pounded it, Ragusa, where most of the townspeople had fled to the hills, and now living an caves, safe from the bombing and shelling, and Lentini, set high in the hills, with its squalid, dirty-looking tenement type buildings.
Consequently this part of the book may be jumbled a bit, inasmuch as I may mentioning one town in its wrong sequence. Nevertheless the incidents I note certainly happened at some time when we were in Sicily.
After capturing that second German parachutist we were hurriedly sent away to the back of the line. The big-wigs had become frightened that maybe some more German parachutists would be dropped behind our front to sabotage our lines of communication. It was our job to stop this happening.
That evening we caught two Italian soldiers, trying to make a getaway through our lines, dressed in civilian clothes.
Then there was another night when we walked all through the dark hours along the hard road and didn’t stop marching till dawn was breaking the sky — roughly eight hours of footslogging with everyone moaning and threatening to fall out. The officers’ sympathies were certainly with us when we halted, to find now upon row of vehicles all lined up with their drivers beside them, waiting our feet aching and blistered, we were put into a night attack. Luckily the enemy had again flown or he might have had an easy job wiping us out, we were done in.
I remember galloping about in a Jeep with Pete Taylor, reconnoitering the enemy positions, probing to see where they were and eventually stooping in the middle of nowhere, on the side of a hill. This was to be our new position for the night.
We were the only persons in sight and we felt absolutely lost away out here with not a soul in sight. And here we had to sit until our poor mates had footslogged all the way to make up to us.
On the top of the hill, was a cottage, while down below us, in an orchard, were big, ripe tomatoes. I went up to this farm cottage and there I bought two eggs. The Sicilian, an old peasant woman, gazing stupidly at our currency as if she were being diddled. She boiled these eggs on a primitive range, and back I went to Pete, who had been spying out the land through his binoculars. He was pleased to get the hard-boiled, fresh egg and he attacked it with gusto. Then I went down to the orchard and collected a load of tomatoes, for a meal late in the day.
Soon, round the bend of the road came my weary pals, dragging their feet along as if they were made of lead. That night, however, they had a good night'’ sleep.
One day our advance was halted. Our tanks could not move further because of enemy guns. That night we put in another attack. When would these night attacks stop? It was most unnerving. We took that position against little opposition and again we were exhausted, as we dug in.
All the next morning I had a feeling that something was to happen to me, the same peculiar feeling I’d had when wounded by the Messerschemitt at Bueras, and try as I did, I couldn’t shake it off. I knew I was to be hurt, but the thing that really bothered me was, how badly?
That evening we were thrown into the attack again. Our “D” Company was to advance to a crossroads and capture it, while we were to follow through them and take the village of Gerbini, a mile further on.
As we advanced to the attack, away in the distance, high in the sky like a beacon was a glow of light — Mount Etna. It had been getting nearer every day as we advanced and now we could distincts the ……………..outline. Pete told me that our observation posts had seen the enemy as if he were moving out of the village of Gerbini, and that we would probably not meet any opposition. Suits me down to the ground, were my thoughts.
“D” Company was in front of us while we advanced along the road, and behind us, in a solid line, was our transport, ready to move up as soon as the position were taken.
We were nearing the crossroads now, and suddenly the rattle of Spandau fire filled the air. “D” Company had run into trouble with German machine-gunners, which meant that the enemy was still in the vicinity.
The hold-up was only temporary, and off “A” Company went for the village of Gerbini. We had turned at a sharp left angle at the crossroads and were walking warily along it, when suddenly a rattle of fire came from our left flank. The machine-gun was belting away at us. Down we flopped, while the platoon nearest to the fire dealt with this suicide stand by the enemy machine-gunners.
We heard the crump as a grenada landed, then the machine-gun was silent. On we advanced, with Pete well to the front. Seven Platoon was in a field on the left of the road, Company H.Q. in the Centre on the road, Eight Platoon in a field on the right, and Nine Platoon in reserve.
We came to anti-tank ditch, which showed us that the enemy had intended this for a strong point. About half a mile further on, we came to barbed wire fortifications, and by cutting the wire, the lads go through. The wireless operators and myself were slightly behind our Company Commander.
No sooner had we all got through the barbed wire, than something landed on the road in front of us and the whole area was lit up like daylight. It must have been a phosphorous bomb. Next second there was uproar as Spandau spat out their death chant and rifles crackled from our right flank. We had run into the enemy. All was shambles as everybody dropped to the ground before this murderous fire. We could see none of the enemy, but he could see us for our figures were outlined by the glare of that fiery bomb. Then came Pete’s frustrated voice, “Get out of it!” he snapped, and we knew it was every man for himself.
As I lay flat, with bullets whistling over my head, someone flashed across the road and disappeared! Then another did the same thing. I realised that there must be a ditch on the left side of the road. I decided, too, to make a dive for it. It was senseless lying out here in the open. All the time, with an occasional second in between, came that dreaded rat-tat-tat. Screams of our wounded could be heard as I scrambled to my feet. I did that ten yards dash in record time, taking a nose-dive into the trench. It was packed with men and there was just enough depth in it for us lying flat, to be safe from the enemy bullets. They splattered into the top of the right side of the ditch, barely six inches over one bodies.
Devine was there, with a shattered arm, while Rooney had got a bullet in his foot. Several others, like myself, had escaped Scot free as far. But we weren’t out of danger yet. In front of us was a cart track into a field, which broke up the continuity of the ditch, and we had to cross this before we were safe. It looked easy, but as we lay there and listened, we realised that the enemy had this five yard patch covered and was firing on a fixed line. It looked hopeless to cross this cart track, but we certainly could not stay here till daylight came, for then we would come under ceaseless, accurate fire, because the enemy could then get the proper range. But what were we to do?
Suddenly someone came careering along the ditch, not bent or crawling, but in a reckless race that made him stand on several of us in his path. To our amazement he raced along, all of him except part of his legs in view to the enemy, then to across the cart track unschated. It was Lt. Home, one of our Bren carrier officers, whose vehicle had been hit by German gunners. If he could do that sort of thing and get along with it, then so could we!
I waited for a lull in the firing, then got up to make a rush for it, all the time expecting a belt of machine-gun fire to tear my guts open. Over I sped, body half bent, lessening the target to hit, I sprawled flat into the trench. I had made it! I couldn’t believe I’d done it without injury, for, as I listened, I again heard the rapid rat-tat-tat-tat of the enemy machine-gun behind me. I could see the bullets light up and whine as they bounced up off the hard road, soaring in harmless small arcs in the sky, their velocity spent.
Considering it comparitively safe now, hidden as we were from the enemy by a line of trees, I got on to the hard road. There I saw several of the lads loping crestfallen back the way they had advanced, not knowing how far they’d have to go before they found the complete safety of our own lines. The wounded were being helped along by their mates. Sickness was in our hearts. We'd gone through Hell during the last home and got an almighty hammering. We hadn’t been prepared, an awful confession to make, but nobody had expected to be attacked that night.
There had been no detailed planning as to what each platoon had to do and where and what they had to attack. We had fully expected to walk into this village of Gerbini without a shot being fired, and there to sit on our beam end quite contentedly, waiting for the dawn to break.
As a results, this sudden, savage, well-planned ambush had mown down like skittles. We hadn’t a chance. In the pitch blackness of the night, we had no ideas as to where the enemy fire was coming from, except that it was from our right. How far or how near it was we did not know. Yes, we’d taken a bashing that night, and the enemy could well be satisfied. We felt a dejected, beaten lot as we made our way back to our lines, and our one thought was, to get far, far back to some place of safety.
We reached the anti-tank ditch I have already mentioned, and here we discovered the remnants of our company congregating in the ever-faithful protecting walls of the ditch. Here we felt safe and, as I dropped thankfully beside several of the chaps, I soothed my shattered nerves by lighting up a fag. But still my hands refused to stop shaking. I could hear from out on top, the periodic shouts for stretcher bearers as yet another wounded man hirpled into our lines.
It was as I smoked in the foot of the deep ditch, with the road on my right, that I heard six pops in the distance, like champagne corks coming out of bottles. I knew what that was — mortar bombs. There was a slithering of feet as we anxiously scraped as close as possible to the bottom of the ditch.
The enemy, of course, knew the exit distance of his own anti-tank trench, and had probably realised that we would seek its safety. First one mortar bomb landed in front of us, breaking up the top of our ditch and causing the earth to roll in on top of us. The next smacked against the road with a terrific thump. No sooner had I heard this loud bang, that a blast swept through the ditch. I felt something hit my left eye, while my helmet flew off my head.
Thinking that I had merely shut my eyes, the natural thing to do, on the crashing impact of that falling mortar bomb, I tried to open them to see what was going on. I could see all night hit a searing pain was going through my right eye as I strained it, peering into the darkness. I hurriedly closed it in a …………. But, to my horror, I discovered that I couldn’t see with the other one and it was wide open! I felt sure of that!
Fearfully I put my hand up to my left eye. I touched a sticky mass which was drooling down my cheek. Something had hit my eye and I had lost all sight with it. Stupidly I continued to fondle to smashed eye. Then I suddenly realised that the quicker I got a bandage on it the better. So, knowing that all the six mortars had now exploded, I got to my feet, groping my way across the road.
“Stretcher bearers!” I shouted, and one came running up. I didn’t see who he was for, to open my one good eye was agony. I heard him tearing my field bandage open and plastering it over my face.
“You’ll be all right,” he said. “Just sit down there till an ambulance comes up.”
I was led to a certain spot and there I sat. My senses were becoming fuddled. I was losing consciousness, and my head was reeling. More mortars were coming over, but, although I was out in the open, with no protection, I didn’t give a damn. I smiled to myself. Well, at least I was to get out of this hellish fighting, day in, day out, with its suspense of death hanging around me at every moment. It had cost me an eye, but inwardly I was glad. I would be given some jobs far from the fighting line and could, at last, be able to sleep peacefully in a bed at nights, with no fear of death.
I had lost an eye, but how many of these lads who were unwounded at the present moment, would come through uninjured as they battle on and on. They had the unknown to face, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and after this campaign in Sicily, if they were lucky enough to get through it alive, they would have the same sickening procedure to go through on some other battlefield, not knowing if the next day would dawn for them.
On, on they would go, not knowing where or when the whole ghastly business would end, just like machines, like pawns in a chess game, with not only their own lives at stake, but those of their families waiting anxiously at home, dreading the day that a War Office telegram would come and perhaps say “The War Office regrets to inform you that your son has been killed in action.” Yes, the War Office regrets, temporarily, so do the neighbours, but soon you are left on your own with that aching hole in your motherly or wifely heart, tearing at you, making you say bitter things, and wondering if it was worth the sacrifice.
And the hero, the ordinary little man, meek, law-abiding citizen, lies out there in some battlefield, weeds pushing up over his dead body, or scorpions burrowing holes below the rocks under which he lies in the desert sand, perhaps thankful that it’s all over for him, but at the same time, wondering in mind that he hasn’t got, if this will be the last holocaust. He smiles and turns over in his gory grave, thankful that, at least, he will not have to take part in any more grim campaigning. These thought passed through my mind as I lay there waiting for an ambulance to put in our appearance.
A sudden shout from Pete Taylor brought me back to my senses. I heard him ask the sergeant major — “Any more wounded?” His voice was full or remorse. Poor old Pete! His company had taken a lamping, not through any fault of his, but through bad intelligence reports.
“Rooney’s leg smashed! Devines arm’s hit. Sergeant ----- killed,” came the reply from Dennis Kidney. “Moon has an eye knocked out.”
“Good God!” wailed Pete, and again I felt myself slipping into oblivion.
I had a hazy recollection of being put on to a stretcher, which was loaded on a jeep, then I arrived at the dressing station. I felt a hand creep into mine and I heard the ever-invigorating voice of young Jimmy Keiller, our padre, say —
“Hello Harry, how are you feeling? Never mind, you’ll soon …………….. down the High Street in Dundee again as right as rain.”
“Yes,” I replied. “Minus an eye, but it was worth it to get of this bloody mess.”
A needle containing morphine jabbed into my arm and I felt myself slipping into unconsciousness. When I wakened up, it was to find myself aboard a plane, winging its way to Malta, where I was to be operated on to get the smashed eye taken out and a glass one put in its place.
As I looked back at Sicily, fast receding in the distance, I sighed contentedly, despite the loss of my left eye.
Tomorrow WOULD dawn for me!
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