- Contributed by
- People in story:
- James Palmer
- Background to story:
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- Contributed on:
- 20 November 2003
The Militia Boys
The following chronicles are the memories and experiences of my half brother, James Palmer. He was twenty-five years older than me; so, to me he was always my uncle Jim. I have taken his book, enhanced it with some photographs and re-typed it for the sake of preserving it for any future generations that may be interested. From hereon, all the words are his, and I claim no credit whatsoever.
This is the autobiography, memories and impressions of a boy born in 1918, in a poor area of a large Lancashire city. His childhood and early youth were spent unawares of the awful poverty and depravation of the hungry thirties, which were colored by the specter of mass unemployment, social degradation, and abject misery. The clouds of war had been building up since 1935, the Spanish civil war being a mere prelude to the holocaust of 1939.
On his 21st birthday in July 1939, his passport to manhood was to be conscripted into the armed forces, among the newly recruited militia. There he became a “Militia Boy”. For six years, these militia boys served in every theatre of war. From Narvic to Dunkirk, in the deserts of North Africa, in Sicily, Burma, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Iraq, Syria, Crete, Italy, and Germany. They were even there to witness the final degradation of human life in the charnel houses of the concentration camps of Europe.
This story is dedicated to all those militia boys who were unfortunate to be born at the wrong time. Who gave up six years of their manhood, in the hope that the world would become a better place to live in!
Childhood and youth
I remember that my childhood was a happy one until I reached the age of twelve. It was then I stepped over the threshold of make believe and fantasy to realize that life was not all a bed of roses and carefree days. My mother died and I began to reproach myself for being so unthinking and complacent. For years Mam had suffered, but her suffering had gone unnoticed by me in my round of play and enjoyment. It had become a habit to me, only to go home when I was hungry or tired. It never entered my head that Mam would be worrying where she was going to get our next meal from. The fact that Dad wasn’t working (like so many others at that time) had no significance to me. I was always sure of my Saturday 2d (2 old pence) and Mam was always able to find a sweet or two if I asked.
It is only now that I can see the struggle it was, to keep my two brothers and I from looking like most of the other ragamuffins in our district. The thirties were lean years for the folk of Hulme. It seemed that only the numerous alehouses were busy. Mam and Dad didn’t drink, not only because they preferred to spend what money they had on rent, food, and clothes, but they tried to set an example to my brothers and I.
Hulme was a wild place on Saturday nights, the drunken brawls a source of great excitement to me. I was scared, yet unable to run when the fists started flying. The tinkling of broken glass was a signal to my friends and I, who would be playing marbles outside “Mrs. Wringing Machine’s Shop” that someone had been thrown out of the “Royal Hunt”. Why they ever put glass in pub doors, I could never understand, it must have been very expensive! On second thoughts, it did provide a job for someone on Sunday mornings.
There was always entertainment to be found in the streets of Hulme. My favorite game was to follow the lamplighter at a distance of about one street. Then, as he turned the corner, I would monkey up the posts and turn out the lights. This was a champion game, until one day, the lamplighters mate followed me and caught me up the third post. I didn’t think much of his sense of humor, and his hands and his language were both a bit strong for a little boy.
Jackson Street was a blaze of lights on Friday nights; it was always cheerful and bustling. I don’t think much money was being spent, but I remember you could get a bag of stale cokes for a penny, and a piece of parkin for make weight, at the bakers near Dale Street. I would often wonder why Mam left it till 9 o’clock on Saturday night, before going to the butchers for the Sunday joint. It wasn’t until later that I found out, the butcher almost gave his stock away before he closed for the weekend.
Political unrest was all around, but I was too young to understand. Everything was a game to me. I was a happy child, protected by a loving Mum and guided by a wise Dad. The black shirt riots at the Hulme Town Hall were the greatest thing I had known. And the police charge of Stretford Road was a memory I kept for many years. I was not concerned as to the reasons for such things. Child like innocence is a thing never to be forgotten!
The unemployed of Hulme had other ideas about the world being a good place to live in. they had suffered a world war in the hope that at least they would have enough food to eat. All they had were weeks of boredom and futility, watching their loved ones with empty bellies and shoes without soles. It was a hard life with all hope gone. They would have given their souls for a wage packet to take home each week. What was the good of a club at the engineering works in Mulbury Street? They didn’t want to play cards or ping pong, but at least it was somewhere for them to go and keep warm and dry.
I must have been about eleven when I started thinking about Mam and Dad. On one occasion, I thought I would get Dad some tobacco, I knew he enjoyed his pipe, but it had been lying stone cold on the mantelshelf for some days. I decided to collect “dimps” from wherever I could find them, take the paper off, then pack the tobacco in a tin. It looked all right to me when I gave it to Dad, so I couldn’t understand why he cried.
Our Dad was great fun and quite active. He didn’t seem at all like the other boys dads. He used to take us all to the park for a game of cricket. Many is the time he would amble off to the park, with twelve or twenty nippers romping along at his side. Sometimes we would make it a running sword fight all the way to the park gates. I don’t think it did the wickets any good, but it was great fun. My middle brother Leason was the one who always spoiled the game by picking up the wickets when he was out. Dad tactfully arranged that he should bat last, so solving the problem. After the game, Dad would lead us all home like the Pied Piper.
Manchester City was Dads team. Every Saturday he was at the match. I found out when I was older, he went in the ground for free, when they opened the gates to let out the plutocrats who could afford the “bob” to watch the whole game.
I knew Dad was proud when I began to do well at football at school. When I told him I had been picked for the school team, he gave me a pair of second hand boots and a blue jersey. The boots were a bit big, but I didn’t care, and being second hand they me look as if I was quite an old stager. It was months later; I found that Dad had pawned his best suit to get money for my kit.
It was about this time that Mam died. For weeks, she had been lying in bed in the parlor, because the doctor had forbidden her to climb the stairs. Each night I would sit with her for a while. Until my fidgeting got on Dads nerves, and he sent me out to play. Sometimes I would come back home and creep into the parlor quietly. Dad would be sat at the bedside talking gently to Mam. I remember feeling very sad. I never thought anything would change. I told myself, that when the warm weather came with the spring, Mam and Dad would be taking us to Moberly for weekends again. And in September, we would once more go picking blackberries near Marple. Dad was worried, I could see. Sometimes I would catch him unawares and there would be tears in his eyes. I was only a child, but I knew something awful was about to happen.
It did happen, all too quickly. One day, as I returned from school, Dad met me at the door and sent me hurrying for Doctor Daly on Stretford Road. Neighbors were rushing in and out of the house, and everyone was talking in whispers. The doctor came and spoke gently to Dad. He sank into a chair and sobbed. For a child, there is nothing more frightening than seeing a grown man crying. His sobs seemed to draw life itself from me. I cried too, but I didn’t know why. Then he took me on his knee and asked me to be a good lad. Together we went into the parlor and sat by Mams side. She was small, and looked so tired. Her breathing seemed so very loud to me. Dad held her hand, and I moistened her lips with a feather dipped in an eggcup of brandy. I was frightened, as I had never felt fear before. I knew that soon, there would be no more Mam to look after me.
I was afraid I was being punished for being cheeky and not doing as I was told. Mam was crying and weakly holding her arms forward. I fell with my head on the blanket, and sobbed. Dad took me by the shoulders and led me out of the room, where Mrs. Owen, one of our neighbors was waiting in the lobby. Mrs. Owen was a kindly old soul, she had three daughters. One of them, Nelly, was about my age and was my sweetheart, but that was no comfort to me now. Together with Nelly, I was taken into the living room and given an apple. I didn’t eat it!
Everyone seemed to be rushing about, and I heard them say they wanted ice. It seemed funny to me that they wanted ice at a time like this, I couldn’t understand why! Dad asked me to go to the tripe shop on Stretford road, and see if Mr. Roscoe would give me some ice off the tripe slab. I knew where to get ice from, and Mr. Roscoe’s was not the best bet. Off I dashed, glad to be out of the house where everyone was crying, and something awful was about to happen.
Down Mulbury Street, straight into the loading bay of the L H D my fleeting carried me. The dairy was a favorite playground of mine. Especially in the summer, when my reward for helping get the horses across the road and into their stables, was a piece of ice to suck. When I asked for some ice, the men told me to buzz off, but the words they used were bad ones. They were a rough lot in the dairy, but when I persisted the doctor had sent me because my Mam was ill, their inherent good nature came to the fore, an d a block of ice about 9 inches square was thrust into my hands.
When I got home, it was too late. Mam didn’t need the ice now! I was too frightened to cry. All I could think of was the fact I hadn’t gone to Sunday school the previous week, and that was why my Mam was dead. The ice in the saucer was slowly melting, and a pool of water was forming on the kitchen table.
From then on, I grew up and no longer thought I was a child. The days of my childhood had vanished like the moon behind a cloud. The magic of a game of marbles by the light of a shop window no longer appealed to me. All I wanted was to be left alone with my thoughts. Things were different now; Dad had lost his gaiety and good humor. He was terribly lonely; his heart was broken. I shall never know how dear Mam had been to him, but I can guess. It is when people love you, and then leave you that your conscience troubles you, as mine did at that time. I had never purposely given my Mam trouble, but some of the things I had done must have caused her endless worry. It was too late to make amends and the thoughts of what I might have done to make her happy, weighed heavily on my soul. These thoughts were centered on how I could atone for my fancied shortcomings. The idea of getting Dad some money was the only solution I could envisage. With this idea in mind, I went to the local newsagent and asked for a job as a paperboy. Dad was hurt when I told him I had the job, and immediately went round to the shop to cancel the arrangement. I couldn’t understand his reasoning when he said my homework from school was more important than the few coppers I would get from the paper round. It is only now that I realize how wise he was, and what sacrifices he made to keep me at school after the age of fourteen.
Summer faded to autumn, and with the shortening of the days, my home became a lonely place. No longer did we have magic shows in the kitchen, with the oven door pulled over the fire to shield the light. Mam’s presence was felt at every turn, the house was sad as only death can make it! Dad and I were very close, but I don’t remember my brothers being around much. I don’t think they felt as Dad and I did, or perhaps they were made of sterner stuff! It was easy for Dad and I to talk, and although we never mentioned Mam, we both knew She was in our thoughts. We grew up easy together; knowing there was a bond between us, a bond not even age would break. We were a comfort to each other; we both knew the need for solace.
At about this time, I joined the Boys Brigade, and found all the interests a lad of twelve could wish for. Every night there was something to do. Club, billiards, table tennis, gym, even honest to goodness rough and tumbles. Our Church was not just a Sunday Church; the doors were open every night from 6 o’clock. The Zion on Stretford Road became a second home to me, so after doing my homework, Dad always knew where I was going. All my pals were members there, and we all found complete contentment in all our activities. Dad had never been a religious man, but he was a good man. He never insisted I went to Sunday school, or Church. He never needed to, I went quite willingly. Not because I believed everything I was told, but because all my friends went. There was no point in losing my friends by not going.
The religion instilled in me was not the pomp and ceremony of sacred services, but the honest down to earth friendship of a group of lads who would do anything for each other. One doesn’t need to be a churchgoer to lead a decent life. I would rather a man never went to church, than go each Sunday and forget decent principles for the other six days of the week.
Dad came along some Sundays, but I think it was a sense of loneliness that led him into the pews. He didn’t have many friends; I think he found it a little hard to mix with folk. Mam had been his companion and he was lost without her. I must have been hard for him to adjust, and for months he wandered about aimlessly from morning to night.
Unemployment was still rife, so the only work he could get was compiling electoral registers and Christmas post jobs. No one wanted a clerk aged 45. I always told people, my Dad was a clerk, I didn’t elaborate by saying he was a clerk without a job!
Both my brothers were in the Boys Brigade as well as me, so every Whit week; we would go off to camp in Wales. This was the highlight of my year; it would have broken my heart if I couldn’t have gone. The Captain of the brigade knew Dad, so arranged for him to go to camp as a civilian orderly. His wage for the week was only about £1, but it was a holiday for him, and he looked forward each year to our week in Wales. Eventually Dad started going for two weeks, being put in charge of the advanced party that erected the tents, and generally organized the camp sight. For those two weeks, he was a happy man, and that made me happy.
After our weeks holiday, on the Friday night before we broke camp on the Saturday. We would arrange a midnight feast in our tents. Everyone would put a few coppers in the kitty, and we would buy sticky buns, lemonade, sardines, and fruit. Sometimes we would buy tinned fruit, but we could never find a tin opener,
Tinned fruit isn’t much good if you have to open the tin by bashing it with a tent mallet! So this type of refreshment soon lost its appeal. It was a break for me when Dad was on the camp sight; it meant I could scrounge some slab cake from the officer’s mess to augment our feast. I think everyone knew what was going on, but a blind eye was turned.
Yes, the Boys Brigade helped me in those days. I even started to take a pride in my appearance. Each Sunday morning, smartly dressed, with haversack neatly folded, belt buckle shining, I would scramble to Church Parade. The pillbox on my head at a jaunty angle made me feel proud. It also pleased Dad.
When I was selected for the battalion football team, Dad could hardly contain his pleasure. For my first match, the team had to travel to Oldham. My fare was paid by the brigade, but if Dad wanted to come, he would have to find his own. I wished he could come with me to the match, but money was scarce, and I knew he couldn’t raise the fare. In any case something had cropped up, and he had to go out early that Saturday morning, which made me a little disappointed.
We arrived at the ground at about 2 o’clock, it seemed to me to have taken a long time to get there. I had never played this far from home before. I was thrilled. It made me feel like I was a real footballer. I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that Dad wouldn’t be there to see me play, so my spirits were a little low. I had the feeling I was going to have a poor game, and these premonitions usually came true. When I trotted out of the dressing room to take my place between the posts, Dad was there amongst the spectators. It had been a long walk to Oldham, but he had made it on time.
Growing up wasn’t painful for me, and I was never really troubled by illness. I didn’t grow tall, and I never became a big lad, but I was always full of vitality. I remember starting to look twice at the little girls, and flirting with the local lasses, nothing serious, but quite enjoyable. My first calf love was a pretty girl named Frances, who used to go to dancing classes. She belonged to a troupe called, Tilley’s, appearing with regular monotony at the Hulme Hippodrome every pantomime season. I was attracted by her legs, but she was a flirty little devil, and had me on a string for weeks.
I think she preferred a lad named Jack Montgomery. He was bigger than me, and not a member of our gang. I began to really hate the sight of my rival for Frances Fitz’s affections. The climax of this feud came when Montgomery challenged me to a fight. Everyone thought I was going to get a pasting. There was no backing out now, and in any case, I had never shirked a fight in my life!
These scraps were well organized. We both had to choose a second. Then a place was agreed. Lookouts were posted around the area to warn us when the cops turned up. The rules were simple, no holds barred, no kicking, keep away from the eyes, and fight till one of you gives up. Or the contest was ended by the approach of some misguided citizen who couldn’t stand the sight of bloody noses. The need of seconds was always a mystery to me!
We rendezvoused on Dale Street, at the corner of Clopton Street, behind the Hulme Town Hall. My pal Mac acted as my second. Montgomery had chosen a lad named Woodward. Mac wanted to make the fight a foursome because Woodward had turned renegade, and left our gang.
The fight was scheduled to start at 7pm.Frances had told all her girl pals that the two of us were fighting for her favors. She was a conceited little bitch, just wanting to see blood spilt for her sake. The lookouts were posted at the corner of Dale Street, Clopton Street, and Trafford Street, and the fight began. For two hours we slogged away, only getting a rest when one of us was on the floor. My nose spouted claret very quickly, so I decided the best tactic was to get in at close quarters. Montgomery was a big lad, but he smoked. A fact I was relying on to slow him down.
He was sick, I was sick, the little girls ran home to tell their mums of the slaughter. We reeled around and swapped blows until we could hardly stand. Neither of us would give in, but we both knew it was a draw well before it finished.
“Why the hell doesn’t he chuck it!” I thought. “Can’t he see I want the fight to finish?” I think we were both pleased when the cops pounced and dramatically ended the scrap. (The lookouts had long since abandoned their posts) We both considered we had won the fight, and strange to say, we both lost interest in Frances Fitz. I think she was a very disappointed lady after all!
On thinking over these things, I realize how many lads become good friends after a fight such as this. Respect for a good scrapper led to many a good time in later years. Such is growing up!
Just around the corner from our house was a little sweet shop, owned by a widow called Mrs. Barraclough. We used this shop as our gang-meeting place, and it became a regular haunt for us. Mrs. Barra was a good old stick who sold us hot lemon drinks in the winter, and generally listened to our troubles. She seemed to enjoy being part of our schemes and assignations with the local girls. If ever we had a message to leave for someone, we could leave it with Ma.
Every evening after club, we would go round to Ma’s for hot drinks. The girls would be waiting there for us and many a good time was had. Ma was very strict about our behavior, and soon put us in our place if we became unruly. No fighting or swearing, and she soon pulled us up if we started to spend more than she knew we could afford. I’m sure she never made any money in that little shop, but I think she was happy to have our company.
She would always smile when one of the lads paired off with one of the girls, and I’m sure she gave the lasses some good advice when we weren’t there. Everyone trusted Ma with their secrets; we knew they were safe with her. She even allowed us tick for the odd fag, but would limit our slate account to a shilling a week. I can only remember one lad who didn’t pay his slate, and he left the gang soon after.
We were all growing up rapidly, and one by one we started going steady with one or other of the girls. In my case, I was madly in love with a girl called Murial. I was loathed to leave the gang, so as a compromise, I persuaded her to join us at Ma’s for hot drinks each night.
The time came for me to leave school and although I had been very happy there, I was glad to be a workingman. There wasn’t a lot of choice on the jobs front, so my first position was that of office boy in a local garage. I wasn’t too keen on this post, so on occasions, I would go fishing instead of going to work. It was as a result of one of these unauthorized absences that I was given my cards.
My next job was with a shipping firm, this I found more congenial. Each day I had to go over to the docks to pay duties, and arrange clearance of goods through customs. I wasn’t tied to my desk, so much to my shame; I occasionally fiddled the stamp book. I wasn’t on a good wage, but I to make people think I had a good job.
Murial and I were courting strong, and locally she was known as my girl. I even took her home for tea. Dad made a cake, and put clean cushion covers on the chairs. I was drifting away from the gang, and Ma Barra’ smiled indulgently. Reading was a great pastime for me, with the books I read varied in their contents. H E bates “Tale of Country Life” appealed, and the stark “Condemnation of Capitalism” by Upton Sinclair gripped my imagination. Guy de Maupassant and Rebelais even found their way into my hands. Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” made me laugh at its coarseness. Dickens seemed to give the message of social injustice, which made me think in an immature way about politics. Even in my adolescence, I sensed a general unease. The Spanish Civil War, and The International Brigade were both subjects of profound thinking for me.
Mussolini was strutting the strides like a bald headed bantam cock with jackboots. I remember for the first time hearing the word “Sanctions”. Time was running quickly towards the holocaust of 1939, so when I registered for military service with the First Militia, I knew my childhood was finished forever.
Munich had scared everyone, and a spirit of urgent preparation was prevalent everywhere. Everyone knew that the balloon was about top go up, so it was no surprise when, on my twenty-first birthday. I received my call up papers with my birthday cards. They were lying on the doormat along with the silver paper “Keys of the Door”. I was not amused by this particular twist of fate! Believing that war was a waste of time, I debated whether to become a conscientious objector. But I either didn’t have the guts or I had read too many poems by Kipling. In any case, the war hadn’t started yet, and perhaps it never would!
I was instructed to report to the 13th tank regiment at Warminster in Wiltshire on the 15th of July 1939. It was with mixed feelings that I sat on the platform bench awaiting the train. Dad and Murial had come along to see me off, both of them looked terribly upset. I felt both excitement and anxiety. I didn’t really want to go off to war, but was quite pleased to be one of the first to go. The Militia Men had been the main topic in the newspapers for the past few days. So there was a certain sense of adventure among the other conscripts. According to my papers, I was only going for six months, so I was expecting to be home for Christmas.
I remember taking out a fag and lighting it, Dad looked at me a little surprised and asked how long I had been smoking. It dawned on me; I hadn’t smoked in front of him before. He got up and walked away. Returning a few minutes later with a packet of Woodbines. When he thrust them into my pocket, I realized he had accepted me as being grown up.
The train puffed into the station, and we walked slowly through the turnstile. The moment of parting was almost here. Dads was upset, not only because I was going to off war, but also he was reliving the same feelings he had some twenty years previously when he stood on the same platform and boarded a train to some other benighted army barracks prior to his posting to France, and military service on the Somme in the Great War.
Murial was in tears, cling to my arm. I remember Dad turning away as she kissed me. It was all very dramatic, with the lump in my throat preventing me from saying much. I remember a woman crying as she said goodbye to a young lad about my age. I was thinking, My Mam would have been crying as well if she had been there.
The train seemed to wait and wait at the platform; I wished it would get a move on, so the painful parting could be over and done with. So it was with some relief that I scrambled on board and watched the platform fall away. Dad had his arm around Murial, who was sobbing unashamedly. I watched until the bend in the line cut them off from my sight. I was on my way to God knows where or what!
There were two other young lads in the compartment, but none of us spoke, we just stared out of the window. Our thoughts were probably all the same. No felt like talking, we were too busy with our own notions.
The train left the grimy center of Manchester and the view through the window turned to green fields and farmland. The dark haired lad in the corner was the first to break the silence with the blunt observation that we were all in the same boat! I took a liking to him from that moment, but didn’t realize what the two of would be going through together. His name was Joe, and he lived in Ancoats. He had been a trolley boy with Manchester Corporation. He told us he was going to join to join the tank corps at Warminster. He was also hoping to be home for Christmas, and when he got back, corporation had promised to train him as a bus driver. The other lad was very quiet, and seemed a little shy. He soon picked up though when the Tank Corps was mentioned. He was going there too. It was good not to be alone, and soon the fags were being passed around.
None of us knew where Warminster was, but we decided we had six months to find it. We concluded the army wouldn’t be missing much if we never got there. We all decided to ask if we could be kept together, and a friendship was soon established.
The journey was along one, so we all slept for a spell as the conversation dried up. We didn’t know what to expect at the end of the journey, we were feeling rather grown up and masterful, trying to hide our fears behind a cloak of “couldn’t care less”. The quiet lad was called George; he was a van driver from Liverpool. He, like me had brothers, and didn’t like his job. None of us were married, but we all had girls.
CIVVY TO SOLDIER
Things started to happen quickly when we did eventually arrive at Warminster. The station was dark and lonely, and not very big. No sooner had we tumbled from the train, when a couple of cheery blokes pounced on us and asked us if we were for the tanks. I had always associated the word “Tank” with a large water container. It seemed funny to be asked if I was for the “Tanks”. All I could picture was a sheep being dipped in a “Tank”.
Before we could collect our thoughts, we were bundled into the back of a 15cwt truck, bouncing along a country lane, being driven by a man who swore with every other word he used. He had one adjective for everything, and used it with complete disregard to its grammatical correctness. The chap who sat in the front passenger seat was a sergeant; he looked bored to death with the whole proceedings. I suspect he was trying to portray an air of aloofness in order to impress us new boys.
When we did arrive at camp, our reception was quite pleasant, and contrary to my expectations, did not comprise a number of bell tents in a field. It was all new, a barrack block, and a series of wooden huts, all surrounding a square of tarmac. The first thing we had was a good hot meal, I was very favourably impressed. Nothing else seemed to matter, as long as we were well fed and given some warm blankets for the night.
A young, ginger haired Irish lad was detailed to take us to one of the huts, and there we were allocated our beds. Ginger said he fancied a drink, so he showed us where the canteen was, told us we could buy beer there and said he would have a pint. He was going to look after us, so we had nothing to worry about, so he said. His eloquence was pleasing, so after about half an hour, we knew who all our instructors were, who were the good lads, who were the bastards, and who were the “Teek ai”. I knew what he meant by a bastard, but for the life of me I didn’t know what a “Teek ai” was.
It took a few days for me to get accustomed to “squadies” language! I discovered the “Tanks” had just returned from India, and were all “Oonkey Walla’s”, using Hindustani to emphasise their meanings.
In charge of our hut was a corporal named Jock. (I never did know his last name) but he did become quite a pal of mine. It appears, the regulars had been given the job of training us Militia Boys, and had been told to behave like gentlemen. On the assumption that we were all gentlemen ourselves! There was to be no bullying, and any discipline was to be kept to a minimum. It looked like a cushy set up to me and my first thoughts were, it wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
Our beds were quite comfortable, and our meals, good and ample. We were even asked if we wanted any more Plum Duff. The corporal gave us a little lecture, which was where I first heard the phrase “You play ball with me, and I’ll play ball with you”
Next morning, we were going to get our kit and meet our commanding officer. The only thing left to do now was turn in for the night. Everyone was dog-tired, and I thought I would sleep like a log. How wrong I was!
The corporal turned out the lights when the bugle sounded. But instead of dropping off to sleep, my mind was filled with all the days’ events. My farewell to Murial and Dad. The train journey. Everything had happened so fast. It was hard to take in; I was really in the army now!
George was in the next bed to me, and with the dark, he seemed to want to talk more than he had all day. He chattered on and on, then someone at the other end of the room started to tell jokes. The noise started as a low mumble, then slowly developed into pandemonium. The corporal, who was sleeping at the far end of the room, shouted to us to quell the noise, but no one took any notice. What a position he must have felt himself to be in. He had been told, the militia lads were only youngsters, and had to be treated like gentlemen. Yet here he was, in a barrack room full of shouting, undisciplined hoodlums. At, last he could stand it no longer, and his army training asserted itself.
Never before had I heard such a blast. The very walls shook as his voice went up to full volume. He told us what he was going to do if we didn’t shut up. All his good intentions of treating us with kid gloves were shattered. We had pushed him too far, and deserved all we were going to get. From now on, when he said do something, we were to do it. Or else! Or else we would wish we were bloody well dead.
I was cringing under my blanket, when one bright spark cockily shouted for the corporal to “Get stuffed”. That did it. Before I realised what was happening. The corporal was out of his bed and the ill advised recruit was on the floor with his bed upturned on top of him. I don’t know whether he was just surprised, or if he was stricken with fear. But he seemed to allow himself to be picked up and pinned against the wall without resisting.
Holding him against the door with his left hand, the corporal asked in a low voice. “Did you say something?” The poor lad seemed to hang there, wobbling at the knees and trying his best to bluff his way out of the tricky situation. Then, it happened. I don’t think the blow travelled more than six inches, but it went straight to the chin. For the first time in my life, I saw a man knocked out cold. He slithered down the door and lay flat out on the floor. The corporal picked up a fire bucket and poured the icy contents over him.
We were all stunned into silence, and I think a little frightened. Two lads near the door climbed out of bed and helped the poor scouser to his feet. The corporal turned round, and with a frightful bellow, gave us to understand, the next man to move out of bed, would find himself in a hospital bed for a month. We all believed what he said; so poor Liverpool was left dripping wet on the floor.
The corporal climbed back into bed and, in a hushed voice that echoed all round the silent hut said. “Now lads, lets get some bloody sleep!” To us all, that was an order we were only too anxious to obey. There was no more noise from the militia lads that night, but I’m sure I heard the odd chuckle coming from the direction of the corporal’s bed
I lay there in the darkness, but sleep wouldn’t come, what with the excitement of the mini mutiny and all. I couldn’t help thinking about poor Liverpool lying there soaking wet. None of us dared to move, we were even afraid of coughing or snoring. Later, when the corporal thought we were all asleep, I heard him get out of bed and creep over to the crumpled body. I was amazed at what I heard. He was apologising to the lad as he helped him back into bed. “I didn’t mean to hurt you lad, but shouldn’t have said that! You’ll be all right in the morning. Now come on try and get some sleep.” I couldn’t believe my ears. How could anyone have such a two-sided character? Here he was, as kind and gentle as the lad’s own mother, yet ten minutes before, he had poleaxe him without a qualm.
About two o’clock in the morning, I was awakened by drunken singing in the distance. As the voices came nearer, I began to recognise some of the words. The song was about a troop ship leaving Bombay, with the chorus ending —“Cheer up me lads !!!! em all.” This song seemed to always be around whenever I met the lads from the tank corps, and it always brought back memories of my first night in the army.
Suddenly the door burst open and amid loud shouts, curses, and ribald ditties. Two bodies tottered into the hut.
The hut was in uproar; the first two beds near the door were upended with a clatter and a thump. Us poor militia lads were more frightened than surprised, being firmly convinced we had been sent to a madhouse. The poor corporal was once again out of his bed, and with two other regulars, flung themselves on the intruders. Everything went crazy. Men were struggling on the floor. Fire buckets emptied on fighting figures. No one switched on the lights, so the darkness made everything seem worse. The militia lads tried to get out of the way, but only made matters worse by getting in the road. Fists were flying and everyone was thumping everyone else. There was cursing and swearing coming from all directions, but above all the noise was a little man telling us all to “Cheer up me lads !!!! em all”
The voice was coming from a little man in the corner of the hut, his shirt hanging out of his trousers, and one sleeve torn completely off. His arms were covered in tattoos, daggers, bleeding hearts, and good luck symbols. He was taking very little interest in the proceedings, other than to tell Taffy to “bash his bloody head in”. I could see Taffy, but I couldn’t see whose head he was supposed to bash in. Eventually, Taffy was thrown out of the window, and told, if he even poked as much as his nose in our hut again, he would be !!!!ingwell murdered, or worse.
We were all wondering what was going to happen next. The corporal put us right. “The next one to make a sound would follow Taffy out of the window”. I’d had enough for one day, and curled up in my blanket. All the noise subsided, and I fell into a fitful slumber. Thus, finally my first day in the army ended.
The next day, I was awakened by the clatter of mop buckets. On opening my eyes, I saw three of the regular lads cleaning up the mess from the previous night. No one seemed to be worrying about us all lying in our beds, so I just stayed there and wondered what the next move would be. It was only 6.30am but the sun was shining brightly. In spite of the fact that I had had only 4hrs sleep, I felt quite chirpy.
The corporal was still in his bed, so his minions took the opportunity to tell us the set up. Washed and on parade outside the hut by 07.15, then marched over to the mess for
breakfast. All this marching in squads to wherever, was one of the things that really irked me.
Later, when we returned from breakfast, the Irish lad had taken his bed to pieces and arranged his blankets and mattress in a perfect mathematical pyramid, all tightly bound in a blanket. This we were told was the way we were to make our beds each morning. For the next half hour, we all tried to copy Paddy’s example. Some of our efforts made the corporal turn green. Though not with envy.
First parade was 08.30 hrs, and from the minute the corporal called the roll, we were on the move. First stop, the orderly room, where our documents were made out. Then the medical officer looked us over and asked us to “cough”. Then a wicked looking specimen with sadistic tendencies leered at us as he jabbed us with a needle and syringe. Finally, a young officer welcomed us into the army. It appeared by the officer’s remarks, that the army really needed us, which was contrary to my first impressions. Which were, the regulars could manage very well without us, and were not particularly pleased to be acting as our nursemaids.
By lunchtime, we were all a little bewildered. We had been issued with two books, one brown, the other buff coloured. We were told we had to guard them with our lives, value them more than our virginity. They were our pay books. If we were told once, we were told a hundred times” we were in the army now”. And the little brass disc that hung around our necks with our number on it, was all the proof we needed
After lunch, we were marched over to the quartermasters store to get our kit and equipment. I soon discovered the difference between the two. Kit was anything we could wear, whereas equipment was only for polishing, blancoeing, and arranging neatly on our beds each Saturday morning. For some reason, both sets required about five of our signatures. I don’t know if the quartermaster thought we were going to loose any of it, but he did tell us, in a very menacing tone, what fate would befall us if anything was missing at his next inspection. To sit cleaning brasses, and blancoeing webbing was good for the soul it appeared. It also taught us pride in our appearance and kept idle hands from mischief. I remember thinking at the time. Surely we had been called into the army for more important reasons, but for now, the general air about the camp, was that of easygoing complacency.
The quartermaster was a beery old soldier, about forty years old. His chest was covered with medals and he looked worried to death. His storeman was a thick set, black haired, ape of a man. He would size everyone up, then issue them with the first thing that came off the rack. Everything was stuffed into a kit bag as we made our way round the room. By the time we got to a table at the end of the room, we all looked like walking Christmas trees. There was webbing and bits of kit festooning us and a tin hat perched on our heads.
Seated at the table was a sergeant, a huge ledger in front of him. Next to him was a young Tommy. He grabbed our kit bags, tipped the contents onto the table in a big heap. Then began the quickest cross talk act I have ever seen. The sergeant, set squarely against the table, pen poised. The lad looking as though he was ready for a sprint start. They’re off! Tooth brush, shaving brush, lather brush, knife, fork, spoon. Holdall, cap comforter, boots. Vests two, shirts two, pants two, hair brush. A pause for breath as the sergeant finished ticking off his list. As fast as he spoke, the lad was scooping up all the items and thrusting them into my kit bag. I just stood there holding
The bag open and my mouth gaping almost as wide! Socks, respirator, anti gas cape. Overcoat, overalls, emergency rations. Button sticks, beret, badge and gloves. The name of each article was repeated, then with a final gulp, and a grunt the sergeant said, “Sign here”. Bewildered and confused I signed my name, to what the sergeant said was fifty quid’s worth of gear. His parting shot was “If it doesn’t fit, swap it with someone else”.
I tumbled out of the room, and staggered towards our hut like an overloaded camel. Inside the hut was bedlam, with the short lads swapping coats with the tall ones. Fat ones almost strangling themselves as the tried to button up their battle dresses. These battle dresses were a source of interest to the regular lads as this was the first issue of the new type of army uniform. Eventually, we all got sorted out and stood there in our new gear. What a bonnie shower we looked.
Our first full day was over, so after tea, our time was our own. Most of us sat down on our beds to write letters home. By seven o’clock, the hut was a warm and cosy place. After that, it didn’t take long for us to get to know each other. Life didn’t seem so bad after all!
During the day, we had seen Taffy being marched about, between two burly camp policemen. Taffy’s mate Chalky, told us he was in clink. Chalky was going to see his mate that night, so suggested we all contributed a fag for him. I’d never come across this kind of friendship before. It was expected that whatever we had, we shared. One thing was sure, Taffy would have no fags in the “mush” but he would after Taffy went to see him tonight
With about twenty fags in his cap, Chalky trotted off to see his pal. The rest of us started discussing the previous nights rough house. Half an hour later, Chalky returned and told us the full story of the escapade that led to last night’s fracas.
At about 7.30pm, the two of them had gone into town for a quiet drink. All had gone nicely until about 9 30. Both of them had consumed a goodly amount of ale. They were feeling fine, but were starting to get hungry. A stroll down to the chip shop had brought the time close to 10 o’clock. To make sure they were well fortified for the journey home, they had staggered into an alien pub called “The Blue Boar”. One more pint was quickly sunk, but when they called for another, the landlord refused to serve them as he had already called “time”.
Taffy found this insulting so started to tell the landlord a lot of what he didn’t know about his ancestry. Being a peaceful sort of bloke, he had them both thrown out! Chalky won a moral battle though, he told the landlord, his beer was likes “pigs pee”
Leaving the pub, they staggered down the street, arm in arm. They soon realised that they were going the wrong way, so sat down on a wall outside the railway station. It was at this point that the trouble really started.
Taffy was brooding about the injustices of the world. Chalky was agreeing and said it was a “bloody shame”, and needed sorting out. With this intention, they staggered onto the station platform and cornered a porter who was cleaning an old oil lamp, close to the stationmaster’s office. The porter was a worried old soul with only one interest in life, and that was growing dahlias. He couldn’t be expected to cope with the likes of Chalky and his pal. Taffy truculently demanded to know, why was it the
Only trains that went from this bloody station, only went to bloody Glasgow, never to bloody Cardiff?
Scrambling into the stationmasters office, the porter grabbed the phone with the intention of calling the Military Police. After calling him a “Haggis Bashing Bastard”, Taffy and Chalky left the station. But before doing so, they made a parting gesture of defiance by hurling a milk churn through the booking office window.
Across the railway line, past the married quarters, they had meandered. Finally reaching the camp by cutting through the rifle range. The soft sand near the targets was very inviting, so they had rested a while with their backs to the bull’s eyes. Suddenly they felt sick, or as Chalky put it “proper poorly” They were both sick in the sand, and after surveying the horrible mess of chips, peas, and stale beer, the felt much better, and dropped off to sleep. How long they slept was not quite clear but eventually they tottered off towards the darkened huts. After numerous calls at numerous huts, where they were told very emphatically to “get to bloody hell”! They arrived back at their own hut.
It was their usual custom to drop into the first two beds near the door. Unfortunately, they had forgotten about the arrival of the militia lads. It was a bloody liberty for someone to be sleeping in the two beds near the door. That accounted for the rough treatment dished out to the two unfortunates who had chosen those two beds to sleep in.
Taffy had fallen asleep in the back of a lorry after being thrown through the window. The following morning, the sergeant major had thrown the book at him. Chalky didn’t know what he had been charged with, but he did know they had probably missed something. He reckoned Taffy had been unlucky, not because fourteen days was a severe punishment, but because he had been caught! Still, Chalky said. It would take at least fourteen days to get some more beer money together.
To be a good soldier, it had been decreed, we should be able to march up and down a parade ground with mathematical precision, and for the next two weeks, that was all we seemed to do.
The sergeant major was a grumpy old crone who’s code for living was a book called “Kings Regulations”. To him, there was only one type of soldier worth his salt, and that was one who could salute to the front with perfect timing. One two, one two, one. It seemed to me to be both stupid and childish, as well as bloody boring. But, before we could even look at a tank or handle a machine gun. We had to learn how to march across a parade ground with arms swinging to shoulder height, and our backs as stiff as broomsticks. It was most important we should lift our knees almost to our chests when turning right, or marking time. I think we looked like a bunch of puppets on a string during these enlightening sessions. After a while, it was realised that if war was declared, we would have to do more than marching around, swinging our arms, and looking stupid. Some bright lad at the war office probably saw our antics and concluded. The enemy may well have died with laughter watching us, but a machine gun handled properly would do the job a lot quicker.
By this time things were beginning to liven up. Rumours were flying round the camp like flies round a jam pot. The climax came one Sunday morning. I was on cookhouse fatigue, peeling spuds. The order came through for everyone to stop what they were doing and report to the parade ground. War had been declared! I was browned off, and went for a walk across the plains with Aggie Moss. To this day, I don’t know who finished peeling my spuds
The lights in the camp office were blazing all night. Next morning, it had been decide what we were all going to be. I was to be a gunner, though I had never even touched a gun. Aggie was to be a wireless operator, though he didn’t know a headphone from a tombstone. As for Joe, he was to be a tank driver, though he’d never even been inside the tank park.
I found it all very astonishing, but at least, I was going to be trained as a soldier and not as a ballet dancer in khaki! The days of barrack square bashing were over. For the next few days, all I did was take a machine gun to pieces, and put it back together again. The mystery of how it worked was explained to us in great detail, but all that kept me going was the thought that someday I would actually get to fire one. Here was another fallacy I had to learn about. Guns in the army were not meant to be fired, but to be taken apart, oiled, put back together again, carried around, signed out of stores, then signed back in again.
We were initiated on how a gun could stop through a mechanical fault. Or in army talk, “an immediate stoppage”. Even the un jamming of a gun was cured by numbers. Easy, pull, easy, springs, pull tap, reload, change breach block, one, two, three. For three weeks, I lived in a world of bulged cartridges, broken firing pins, twisted belts, and recoiling breach blocks. My hands were sore with bashing the handles of the Vickers, but still I hadn’t got to fire a live round. We got close to it once when we went on to the miniature range, but the practice gun was fitted out to fire lead pellets at little wooden houses in a sand pit. It was good fun, and we had a sweepstake on the result of our practice.
At last the great day came. We were each given 20 rounds of live ammo, then taken onto the gunnery range. The guns were fitted to an old tank, which had been towed into position on the range. The range itself was in a valley, on the edge of a wood, so the noise of machineguns echoed round the wooded slopes.
Most of us were carried away by our own enthusiasm, so, forgot all we had been taught about adjusting our sights after the first shots. The sergeant in charge nearly did his nut when we used all of our allotted 20 rounds in a short, merry burst that sent the pinecones scuttering to the ground. The safest people in the valley that day were the target party. I doubt if a single bullet reached within ten yards of them, and they were in dugouts underneath the targets.
The gunnery came to a sudden end. When the frantic waving of flags at the side of the hill indicated that someone was approaching the range. The lad firing the gun must have been carried away, or perhaps his head was spinning with the smell of cordite. Anyway, he couldn’t take his thumb off the firing button and we had a runaway gun!
From the end of the valley, a flash of brilliant scarlet came into view, preceded by a pack of yelping dogs. A foxhunt was in progress. The fox was racing madly towards the woods at the back of the targets. All the lads stood cheering on the little brown fox as he scrambled round a clump of ferns in a frantic attempt to elude the pack of hounds that were in hot pursuit.
The dogs were gaining, and by the time they had reached the edge of the wood, we all thought the poor fox was done for. Then fate intervened. A rabbit suddenly sprung
From the undergrowth and all the dogs turned sharp left to pursue the newcomer. As the dogs disappeared into the thicket, the scarlet men on their fancy horses could be heard whooping and swearing as they realised their quarry had escaped them
Meanwhile, the gun had stopped firing, but only because the belt had come to an end. The sound now was of all the lads laughing, especially when we saw the fox slinking away through the undergrowth. Our laughter seemed to upset the men in scarlet, who by now were arguing amongst themselves and behaving in a very ungentle manly manner towards their horses. Maybe justice had prevailed.
As a gunnery practice, it had not been very successful. On the other hand, it had been a good laugh and had done us the world of good.
It was hard to believe what little equipment we had. A reorganisation had taken place, with the second and third tanks leaving the barracks and taking most of the gear with them. That left us militia lads and a few regulars to set up a training unit with very little to train with. Tanks were none existent, so the tank drivers had to train on three-ton lorries or bren carriers. The wireless operators didn’t have a wireless between them, so they learned a lot of theory, and practised on Morse buzzers. The gunners were lucky, they did have a couple of old Vickers, but they had no ammunition.
Map reading exercises were our main source of relaxation. We looked forward to going out in a 15cwt truck, being dumped 10 or 15 miles from camp, and having to find our own way back. It was surprising how many little pubs there were in the back lanes of Wiltshire, and how easy it was to get back to Warminster by bus. Though I don’t really think that was the point of the exercise. One night, we slept in our bivouacs, made from the lorry tarpaulin. The spot we chose was Stonehenge!
I was beginning to enjoy army life, but I had to keep up the pretence and like everyone else, grumble about everything and everyone. Discipline was not too strict, and most of the regulars were decent enough. There seemed to be two types of regular soldiers. There were the best drinkers, who consumed colossal quantities of wallop at every opportunity. And there were the women chasers who had solid reputations as regimental rams.
Everyone seemed to be worried to death, especially the regimental sergeant major who had lost his opportunities to be “Master of the Bull”. Spit and polish was going by the board, and every day, we could see the R.S.M wincing with shame as he saw us going around in overalls. He did perk up a little each night at guard mounting parade. Woe betide any bloke with a dirty rifle or revolver.
My first experience of guard duty left me wondering what the hell we were supposed to be guarding. The guardroom was a small hut at the foot of a water tower, in the valley, close to the rifle range. My beat was round the base of the tower, and my instructions were to challenge anyone who approached. Needless to say, there were no bullets in my gun.
One night, the guard commander was a bag of nerves. He had found out, the orderly officer was to make a guard inspection at 01.00hrs. He had made an arrangement with one of the officer’s mess orderlies, to let him know, by buzzer, when the officer left the mess to start his rounds. I was the unfortunate one to be on my rounds at about 01.10, when I heard someone coming along the path towards me. No one is going to catch me out, I thought. “Halt”, I shouted as loud as I could. But in the darkness, my
voice seemed to go shrill and girlish, as I was stricken with a sudden nervousness. What if it wasn’t the orderly officer after all? Perhaps it was someone who was going to plant a bomb under the water tower! The idea of saboteurs had seemed ridiculous to me before, but now, I wasn’t so sure. Things like that did happen in wartime. What could I do if it was an enemy soldier? I had no ammunition in my gun! I even thought of throwing the gun at him, but then, I would probably miss. I heaved a sigh of relief when the shadowy figure answered my challenge, stating, he was Lieutenant Dodds, visiting rounds.
Lt Dodds was a sandy haired bloke of about twenty. An old school tie chap, straight from the O.C.T.U. I reckon he was just about feeling his feet. His pips laid heavy on his shoulder. He would have been happier driving a staff car as a ranker. I felt a little relieved when he approached me in a friendly manner and asked if everything was OK. “No bombs in the tank?” He asked in a forced jocular manner. I think he was wishing he was back in bed. Frankly, he seemed bored to death with the whole proceedings.
“Right trooper. Turn out the guard” he said in a bored tone. For a moment, I was mystified. My brain went dumb, and I stood there transfixed. I tried to remember what the guard commander had told us to do when instructed to “Turn out the guard”. But I was solid from the neck up. After repeating his order, my body acted instinctively. “Wait here sir” I said, “I’ll go and get them”. Doddy went rigid, even in the pale moonlight; I could see he had gone three shades whiter. He just stood there, staring at me with glassy eyes. I wondered what I had said wrong. Then he went crazy, I thought he was having a fit. All I could understand from his outburst was, he had never before in his life, heard a sentry say, he was going to leave his post to call out the guard.
His bellowing aroused the rest of the guard, who all came tumbling out of the hut in various states of undress. The guard commander was almost frenzied. Doddy then set about him, telling him what he thought of the sentries in general, and me in particular. A deathly silence then descended on the wooded glade. Doddy stomped off, after making copious notes in his book. The guard commander stood there speechless. Among us lads there was an air of expectancy, to being well and truly trampled into the mud. Suddenly an owl hooted and Aggie Moss burst out laughing. That galvanised the guard commander into action. He took refuge in his little book, taking all our names and numbers, and inviting us to a lovely little party in the company office at 9am next morning.
The rest of the night passed without incident. Both Doddy and the guard commander came up trumps in the end. They came into the guardroom before we were relieved, gave us a lecture on the duties of a sentry. Then excused our lapses by saying we were all civilians at heart, and we would none of us ever make decent soldiers.
Our training finished around Christmas, and we were all put on draft to join our regiments. Joe Rayson, Aggie and I were to report to Ringwood in Hampshire and join the 2nd Tanks. We remembered another time we had made a journey together, not knowing what to expect at the other end. It seemed a long time ago. This time we were feeling a lot more confident, and a lot older in years. Six months in the army had taught me many things. Including not to expect too much.
I was feeling fitter than I had ever done before. I also felt, if I was in the army, I had better make the best of it. Although the Militia lads had only been called up for six
months, I knew that I was in it now until the war was over. Little did I know what lay before me. Perhaps it was as well I didn’t!
The village of Ringwood, where we were billeted was very picturesque and the atmosphere amongst the lads was free and easy. The company and regimental offices were in a drapers shop. The quartermaster’s store, in the town hall. The cookhouse and dining room in the Sunday school. The regimental doctor had taken over the G Ps surgery. The cinema car park became our parade ground. “A” and “C” squadrons were billeted about ten miles away in Fordingbridge. “B” squadron were not so fortunate, they had to use a railway warehouse to sleep in.
I was allocated as a spare crew attached to the scout troop. It came as a great surprise to me to see how well equipped the tank corps was. There were tanks galore, and fifteen scout cars, all equipped with the new type of gun, the “Bren”
I was billeted with a little old lady in a cottage in the village. Although I had all my meals at the cookhouse, there was always a cup of tea waiting for me when I got back at night. I don’t remember much about the old lady, I didn’t see much of her. Sharing the billet, was a corporal, and three squadies. We were responsible for keeping our own rooms clean and tidy. Every Saturday morning the billeting officer came round to inspect us and pay the old lady her allowance.
Life at Ringwood was very pleasant, and Aggie and I used to slope off for walks into the New Forest. Discipline was very good, I think because we were treated as men, not kids. We knew by this time, certain things were not to be done. We had also learnt not to stick our noses out. The N.C Os in the regiment were completely different from the ones at the training unit. They were soldiers in the real sense. Down to earth was their way of dealing with their tanks. They were not tied by barrack regulations. It wasn’t important to have clean overalls, it was important to have a clean engine in the tank, and a clean gun. We got no interference from the officers, when we were given a job to do, we got on with it. Then again, Lord help you if the job wasn’t done properly!
For days on end I was out with the scout car, map reading. Within two months, I knew Wiltshire like the back of my hand. There was never any need to worry about being late for meals, whatever time we arrived back from exercise, the cookhouse door was always open. The least we could expect was egg and chips with currant duff to follow. I loved the set up here, and the lads were a grand lot. Occasionally we went on manoeuvres attacking the lads from Fordingbridge, or alternatively, they attacked us. Our training really started at the regiment. Our months spent at Warminster seemed to me to have been a waste of time. I learned more soldiering in a month at Ringwood than I could have learned in a year at Warminster.
Saturday nights were usually pretty lively, waking up the sleepy village with a start. It was all in good fun; and no one seemed to mind particularly. Except that is, on one occasion, when the landlord of The Three Bells took umbrage. Perhaps he had reason to, but I prefer a man who can take a joke. The Three Bells was an old pub, and had been used as a staging post in years gone by. It was set back from the road and entry was gained through an archway leading into an open courtyard. In the centre of the courtyard, the landlord had built a large cage. Inside the cage lived six brown monkeys. The monkeys were great friends of the lads, who spent many an hour, teasing them and feeding them titbits.
The Saturday night in question was fine and bright, and The Three Bells echoed to the strain of an accordion. The boys certainly brought life to the village. The locals would sit in their own corner, taking all night over their two halves. They seemed to gaze in disbelief at the rows of dead men at the tables of our lads. But generally, all was warm and cosy.
Aggie and I had gone for a stroll along the river and passed a couple of hours watching the trout swimming lazily in a pool below the bridge. We were at peace with the world and the war seemed far away. As we wandered past The Three Bells, we both had a wonderful idea! The monkeys were chattering away in their cage. Aggie posed the question, Do monkeys drink beer? “I’m not sure” I said. But it was too late, the idea in Aggies head had been planted there by the devil!
For about ten minutes, we sat next to the cage feeding the monkeys with orange peel. Then carefully, we prized open the door and stepped inside. The monkeys were very curious and came over to us. They were not at all frightened of us, so it was easy to pick up a couple each. We strolled over towards the pub door. The accordion had stopped playing, and the low mumble of conversation had taken over. Aggie kicked open the door, flung the monkeys into the taproom, and bolted, with me close at his heels.
The next day, the story had spread round the village. Aggie and I stared open mouthed with disbelief as we heard what damage those four little monkeys had done to the bar. I think some of the stories were a little exaggerated. I couldn’t see a monkey drinking four bottles of whisky, then sitting on the electric light shade with a glass of beer perched on its head like a fez!
I did believe though, they had a SMASHING time, because next morning there was an identity parade A list of damages as long as your arm was read out by the company commander. The landlord walked up and down the ranks of H Q squadron, trying to spot “Who done it” Fortunately, (for Aggie and me) all soldiers look alike in the dark. Eventually he had to agree, it may have been an interloper from “B” squadron, or even a foreigner from “A” or “C” squadrons.
It was about this time that I was given my first leave. It was good to get home and see Dad and Muriel. Things were difficult what with rationing and that. Dad had found himself a job so he let me have things pretty much as usual. The blackout in the city was much worse than it had been in Ringwood, and everyone was jumpy and nervous. There was so much to do in the short time I had, and before I knew it, I was on my way back to camp. There were many things I didn’t get sorted out, but I did find out, all the gang had been called up, and were scattered far and wide throughout England. Muriel and I got engaged, and planned to get married the following year, all being well!
On my return to Ringwood, I felt unsettled and frustrated. I had been settling down to the army routine, but the break had plunged me back to a feeling of hopelessness. The army was not for me, I had been much happier as a civvy. Nothing had happened in the last six months, making everyone feel it really was a phoney war. At this rate, it could go on for years, with nothing being resolved. The people in civvy street said it would be all over by Christmas. But as I saw it, Christmas was well gone, and it hadn’t even bloodywell started yet! “If we are going to have a war, let’s get on with it” I thought. But maybe I had been misled by seeing one tank regiment with a full
compliment of fighting vehicles. I had no conception of the strength of the enemy, and had yet to learn that a regiment of tanks could be smouldering wrecks after half an hour’s battle. “The sooner we start, the sooner we get it over with” That was the thought in my mind, and I think most of the other lads in the regiment were thinking the same. None of us knew what war was really like, and ignorance was bliss.
For the three weeks after we returned from leave, every day was hectic and full. Our exercises were bigger, and we even linked up with other Hussar units in the area. A big day came when we had to launch a mock attack on an infantry strong point. It was the first time we had worked with infantry, which made me think the climax was near.
It came with a thump one Thursday night. We were all told, we were on draft to France! We were given 48hrs leave. That took the wind right out of my sails. Being paid only 1/6d a day, I hadn’t the fare to get home. Not only that, but I had used my free travel warrant on my last leave. There was nothing I could do but send a telegram to Dad and Muriel, telling them, we were on the move and I would write to them when I got to wherever it was I was going.
Aggie and Joe were In the same boat as me, all we had between the three of us was 11/6d. We decided to draw lots, winner takes all. It seemed a shame, us all staying in Ringwood, when one of us had the chance of spending a few hours at home. The plan was, the lucky one would buy a ticket to London. From there buy a platform ticket, hop a train to Manchester, and hope he didn’t get caught.
Joe won the toss. We were in the little shop across the road from the company office when we made the draw. The shop was owned by two old ladies. We had used it ever since our arrival at Ringwood to buy all our fags.. They were two kind, cheerful old souls, and always asked if we had written home to our folks. “We must write home once a week or our Mams and Dads would worry”. They were very interested in our little draw, and when we told them what we were doing, they went into quite a flutter. They went into a huddle behind the counter mumbling between themselves, so we said cheerio and made our way to the door. “Don’t go” said one of the white haired old dears. “We want you lads to take this, to pay your fares home so you can visit your folks”. They thrust a pound note into each of our hands and made us promise not to go to France without going home first. We were touched by their kindness but protested strongly. It was to no avail, the old dears were insistent. If we wanted to treat it as a loan, we could, but we weren’t to be bothered as to when we could pay it back. It was the least they could do, and it would make them both very happy if we took it. What could we do? We could see that £3 was a cheap price for the happiness they were experiencing by making the gesture. And, we all wanted to go home before sailing.
We had never given a thought to the idea that we may be killed in France, and this may be the last time we saw our loved ones. This generous action of the old dears, made us face up to the possibility. With a lump in our throats, we took the money, mumbled a stilted thanks and left the shop. Knowing how happy the old dears were, we decided it would have been cruel to refuse their kindness.
The so-called security was none existent. Everyone in the village knew we were going to France. Some of the yokels even knew where we were going to land, and gave us the exact date. Where they got the information from, I don’t know, but it turned out to be amazingly accurate!
My leave was not very successful. Everyone seemed so miserable. I felt I was already doomed, and on my way to death! It wasn’t pleasant to be aware of the way people were looking at me with pity, I’m sure they were all more worried than I was. I hadn’t given much thought to dying, I was certainly prepared to avoid the catastrophe that everyone seemed to think was my lot. By the time I was due to catch the train back, my moral had been well and truly undermined, and the tearful departure scene from Dad and Muriel didn’t help matters, making the journey back to Ringwood a long and wearying one.
Two days after our return, we were on our way, with the whole village turning out to give us a send off. There was no doubt, we had been very popular, and made many friends. The cinema manager threw open his doors to the lads for the last week of our stay. He had also placed a couple of tea chests in the foyer, so the locals could offer their parting gifts. By the end of the second night, both chests were full to overflowing with packets of fags.
FRANCE and the BABTISM of FIRE
The tanks set off with a flurry as the steel treads exited the village, we followed in three-ton lorries. We all met up on the Wednesday morning at Southampton, embarking for France the same night. By first light, we were steaming into the harbour at Cherbourg. The third tanks were part of our brigade, but they were not as fortunate as us. They had sailed into Calais, and immediately ran into a load of trouble. They didn’t even have time to unload their tanks, before the Germans entered the city. It was a short war for them, they spent most of it in prison camps.
On arrival at Cherbourg, we boarded a train to Neuve Chattel, where we were to collect our tanks. A tale Dad had told me of the 1914 troop trains came vividly to mind, as we were herded into cattle trucks, and a seemingly endless journey began.
Everything seemed very pleasant as we sat dangling our legs out of the side of the truck, watching the green fields slide by. A card school was soon underway in the corner, getting down to the serious business of “bragging”. Everything seemed so quiet and peaceful. Country folk would wave to us as we passed the level crossings and small stations. The war seemed far away.
The illusion was shattered at about 4o’clock, all hell broke loose. Most of us were dozing, crouched up in the truck. We woke to the sound of the train whistle blowing and our own machine gun stuttering. An enemy plane had swooped down from the clouds and strafed the train. No one knew what the hell to do, we just flung ourselves on the floor in a heap. Some of the lads managed to yank a bren gun to the door and started firing wildly into the air. One or two even tried to jump off the train. Everyone was shouting and yelling, we were all so frightened, there was near panic. None of us had been under fire before, no one found the experience a pleasant one. The plane zoomed off, and we all quietened down. We were all thoroughly shaken up and a strange silence descended on the train. This was war, and we were well and truly in it.
Our journey through the fields of France became slower. Occasionally we passed through a station that had been bombed. We had never seen the effects of bombing before, it had a sobering effect on most of us. It was evening when we eventually pulled into Neuve Chattel, the bombing here had been worse than anything we had seen on the way. The station no longer existed, and the houses next to it were just bare walls and heaps of rubble. Most of the town had been flattened. Smoke was still rising from the shell of a small warehouse. Our engine driver seemed keen to dump his load and get the hell out of it. Seeing the state of the town, I didn’t blame him.
As we were tumbling out of the train, the sirens sounded, causing more panic. Out of the sun came a group of small planes. With a sickening shriek and a puddeny plumb, the bombs began to fall. A mad dash ensued. Some of us dived under the train, others threw themselves flat on their faces. Some ran, and didn’t stop running, others were too petrified to move, they just stood there looking into the sky, watching the little black blobs falling in a gentle curve to the ground. You could feel the earth around you lift as they exploded. As a farewell gesture, the planes circled the station, then came along the length of the train with their machine guns chattering. We were all truly shaken, and although our casualties amounted to only fifteen wounded, we needed no coaxing to get away from the station as quickly as we could.
Our tanks were in a wood three miles from the village, so in no time, we were scrambling up the hill on our way to collect them. Infantry were single file either side of the road. As we passed through the village, we could see that it was deserted. Every house had been pulverised. I remember seeing a blood soaked mattress hanging from a bedroom window, and on it sat a cat, calmly licking its paws. Everyone was nervy and jumpy as we plodded along, so it was with some relief when we entered a deep wood and came upon our tanks. The camouflage was simple, consisting of tree branches thrown all around the tanks and lorries. We soon found our vehicles, and I joined my pals in Scout troupe. Maps were issued as we began to load up with ammo. The activity took our minds off the things that had happened during the last few hours.
Our jumpiness returned when a whistle blew, it was a signal that an aircraft was approaching. We all scrambled under our tanks and scout cars, or tumbled into shallow holes beneath the trees. All we could do was try to make ourselves as small as possible. The planes circled round the wood, and we knew we had been spotted. Their departure only meant, they would be back later to blast us all to hell, and we knew it. God! What a state to be in! Fancy being blown to blazes on our first day in France! I was scared, and didn’t give a damn who knew it.
We spent the next hour digging slit trenches. It seemed no sooner were they finished, when we were given the order to move out. The Lieutenant in charge of our troupe gave us a brief summary of the situation. I for one wasn’t very impressed with the way things were going. It appeared, the Germans had made an attack over the whole of the northern front, and had broken through towards the Somme. Our job was to make for Abbeville, and to prevent any crossing of the river. Or at least delay their advance.
It all sounded very simple, so just before dusk, we moved off for our first action. As we left the wood, the German planes returned and blasted it to hell. We had got out just in time. All the tanks had rumbled away to the left, but I was detailed to do a reconnaissance for “A” squadron. The object of the exercise was to get to the river and observe the movements of the enemy. I had to make a report, and get the information back by midnight. It all seemed simple, just like one of the exercises we had done in the New Forest. The difference being, no mistakes, and we weren’t playing games.
There was a queer stillness as we sped along the narrow country lanes. Everyone seemed motionless in their speeding vehicles. Even the cows in the fields ceased grazing, just standing against the hedges, watching, as we passed by. It was as if the world was waiting, but didn’t know what it was waiting for!
Occasionally, we would pass groups of infantry, huddled in a roadside ditch. What a tired and weary lot they looked. They showed neither relief nor dismay as we approached, just staring dumbly as we passed. I was yet to know how tired a man could get after a few days of being hunted, or being the hunter. Your reactions become automatic, and your only spur is to keep yourself alive.
It was a beautiful evening, or so the poets would have described it. The countryside was taking on its summer robe. The grass was still green, and had not yet been withered by the hot sun. The buds of the trees were bursting forth and the smell of the good earth was in the air. The sun was dipping down behind the woods on the hills, and the sky was the colour of marmalade on a “Jollywog” jar. A faint grey spiral of smoke was ascending from the dark blotch of trees to our left, and we felt very much alone. I was busy checking the map as we sped along, making notes of our progress. Suddenly we came across a small bridge guarded by French infantry. The bridge was being wired up for demolition. I thought to myself, this did not seem to fit the situation we had been given by our platoon lieutenant. The Germans were not supposed to have crossed the Somme, yet here were the French, blowing up a bridge seven miles on our side of the river. I supposed they knew what they were doing, but I hoped they knew I was crossing over towards the Somme and I would be coming back before midnight!
As we moved down through a small farmyard, I heard the cows in the byre, groaning as only cows do. Not a soul stirred, except a grey cat that slinked behind the barn door. The farm was deserted, the windows shuttered, the doors closed tight. We pulled up behind an empty pigsty to take a look through a slit in the shutters. It was too dark to see much, but it was obvious, the farmer had left in a hurry. The cows continued to moan, and after a cautious crossing of the cobbled yard, we entered the byre. Three cows gazed at us with big brown watery eyes. I had never before thought of cow’s eyes, but now, I was moved. Never had I seen such pleading for help. Although I was city bred, I knew at once what the trouble was. Their udders were full, it was obvious they hadn’t been milked for some considerable time. Milking cows was not part of my brief, but this was an emergency. Tufty Carter, my driver, was all for pushing on, but as his map reading was about as good as my driving, he was forced to stay with me and attempt to milk the cows. There’s a knack to this pulling business, and I think the cows were beginning to wonder if it wasn’t’ less painful to be full of milk, rather than have these enthusiastic ammeters fiddling around. Our efforts were not showing much success, after half an hour, we only had about a cupful of milk. Tufty suggested we used it to make a brew
Then it happened! All bloody hell broke loose. We were flung about like chips of wood. A shell had landed near the farm door. Then, before the smoke had cleared, another landed near the barn. The crash and crump knocked us both flat amongst the straw. Flames sprung up all over the place. Another crump and the wall crashed down. Then another seemed to fill the world with flying bricks. I was too frightened to move. I prayed to God that this was the end, I didn’t want any more bombs to come. Tufty was screaming “bastards, bastards” and the world was an inferno. “Let’s get the hell out of here” screamed Tufty, and without any conscious effort, my legs obeyed, and I staggered out into the farmyard.
The roof of the farm was burning, and the barn was belching smoke. The cows would groan no more! One was on its side with its entrails spilled amongst the straw. They were a deep red and rosy pink, with long ribbons of violet coloured stuff dangling like worms between its legs.
Our scout car was undamaged. I have to say, I have never seen a scout car go from a standing start, to 20mph so quickly. Through the gate, and into the friendly dark of the lane we scuttled. We didn’t stop for about three miles, then I realised, we were lost.
Tufty slammed on the brakes as we lurched into a wooded copse. The darkness seemed solid, and when he cut the engine, the bubbling of a nearby stream seemed
eyrie and metallic. All was still, I felt cold and numb. Only people who have felt real fear will know how we felt. We were both crouched in the front seat of the scout car, covered in straw. Tuftys face was ashen, beneath the black of the smoke we had ran through. Our hands wouldn’t stop trembling. I felt sick, my legs seemed heavy and no longer a part of the rest of my body. A cold sweat streamed down my face and back. I couldn’t think of anything but the scream of the shells as they hit the farm, the bombing of the railway station, and the machine-gunning of the train. All these were terrifying memories, but the worst of all was the horrible swishing noise the shells made just before they landed. I had never imagined anything as awful. My eyes were stinging, then, I realised I was crying. A low moan came from my right, it was Tufty sobbing in terror. I never thought men could openly cry like this, but we were both petrified. I remember feeling no shame for my tears.
We sat there for a while, neither moving nor speaking, each lost in the fear of our experience. Maybe our minds were trying to work out what we were going to do next. We just sat and stared at the darkness that crushed in on us. Slowly Tufty began to speak. At first he was incoherent, just a low mumble. Then the words took shape as he began to curse and swear, working up to a frenzied torrent. I began to laugh. Not the laugh of an amused individual, more of that of some poor demented soul. It must have sounded terrible in the darkness, but it relieved the tension inside me. “You’ve left the bloody brew can” roared Tufty. “Why the hell did you have to try to be a bloody nursemaid to those cows?” It was all my fault! So I was getting the bloody lot. Tufty was really letting himself go, with me benefiting from the full blast of his army vocabulary.
I was beginning to feel much better, with a warm glow coming back to my stomach. It never dawned on me, just how lucky we had been. In fact the whole episode began to take on a different aspect. We were both beginning to think we were a couple of bloody heroes. We lit a fag, and settled down in the gloom of the car. The glow from our fags as we took big draws, cast an orange hue on the windscreen. After a while we both started to relax, I took the map on my knee, trying to figure out where we were.
My mind began to function once more. According to the map, the stream on our left led to the river Somme. It was about two miles along a path, through the copse. Using my torch to show Tufty, I traced our proposed route.
Tufty started the engine, and cautiously we advanced through the briars. They seemed to cling to us like green spiky fingers as we crawled along. I sat there alert and ridged, while Tufty seemed to part of the steering wheel. We didn’t speak, but were both aware of every bump and jolt in the narrow track.
Our own infantry suddenly appeared from holes in the ground. Within seconds, they were all around us. Tufty pulled to a lurching stop as a bren gun was thrust inches from our faces. All I could see at the other end of the gun that was pointing at me was, a blackened face encased in a wooden helmet.
The river was just down a slope, with the infantry scattered all along the copse, watching and waiting. Rumour had it that something had gone on, and enemy tracked vehicles were suspected of moving up along the bank. As yet no attempt had been made to cross the river.
Occasionally tracers could be seen traversing the sky, and the stuttering of machine guns heard. We left the scout car facing the way we had come, scrambled through
some blackberry bushes, to a shallow slit trench, where we could look down on the river. To our left, we could hear the low hum of a battery, and the mumbo jumbo of a message being transmitted. The atmosphere was tense, so it was with some relief when we got our orders to return to “A” squadron and submit our report. We started back on our journey. Leaving the place where everyone expected something awful to happen! My eyes ached, I was so tired but I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I was physically worn out, but so many things were happening so quickly. My mind was jumping from one fear to the next. Every possible consequence to every possible action or decision I made. It was all I could do to keep my mind on the driving.
It was turned midnight when we linked up with “A” squadron in a small wooded valley. We could just about make out huddled shapes curled up beside the tanks. The crews were blissfully unaware of what was in store for them the following morning. Not being able to see into the future, is one of Gods greatest blessings.
Beneath a huge oak tree, a feint green light escaped from the cupola of a tank. Inside the tank was a tired corporal, doing his listening watch by the dim light of a wireless set. A tank sheet had been erected around a small truck, within which, the squadron commander was studying a large coloured map. The map was covered in chinagraph pencil marks, indicating God knows what. When I gave in my report, the commander set about updating his plans. Tufty and I decided, planning was for other folk, we had done our job, all we wanted to do now was lie down and get some sleep. I felt like a balloon. After handing in my report, it was as if all the air had been let out of me. We curled up on the ground, next to our car and dropped off into a deep sleep.
When we woke, it was to the muffled sound of general activity. Men were rolling up their blankets and loading up the tanks. Groups of men were stood around, gulping down mugs of hot sweet tea and munching biscuits and corned beef sandwiches. One by one, the tank engines roared into life. Soon the whole valley was vibrating to the throb of these steel monsters. All of them seemed to be straining at the leash. Our roll was to act as liaison between the squadron and battalion H.Q. We were soon beside “Able one” receiving our last minute instructions. There was a subdued excitement about, and I was aware of many a churning stomach. This was to be our first action, and it all seemed a far cry from the day we sat on the train as “The First Militia”.
The sky was the colour of mushrooms as we set off towards the river. Speaking was a waste of time, it was all drowned out by the noise of the engines and the clatter of the tracks. Each tank went forward in its turn and slowly we crept towards the riverbank, leaving the wooded valley behind. Rifle shots were becoming more frequent as we neared the river, and the chattering of machine guns, less spasmodic. Guns to our rear began to open up, setting our teeth on edge as they swished over our heads. We could see the puffs of smoke as they landed, then a few seconds later, there was the “crump”. Some movement was observed to our left front, so our tanks let fly a few rounds of two pounders, though I don’t think any of them hit the target.
The squadron were now in line abreast, almost alongside the river. We had stopped in front of a slight rise in the ground, giving us some protection. We could see the enemy tanks on the opposite bank. Then suddenly the fields on the far side of the river seemed to be full of men scrambling towards us. The enemy were making their attempted crossing to the accompaniment of a terrific salvo of guns. Our squadron went to the top of the rise in order to get full fire of the offensive.
What happened next is confused. It all happened so quickly, and what happened stunned us all.
As we topped the rise, anti tank guns hit us from the right flank. Four of our tanks were ablaze before we had gone ten yards. We were sitting ducks! It was sheer murder. The whole squadron was in the open, all we could do was fire away as fast as we could. All around was the smell of cordite, and the dust was rising in clouds. The noise was unbelievable, and through the noise could be heard the screaming and crying of dying men.
Tufty roared our scout car up to the squadron commander, who was franticly trying to rally the tanks. But engines had stalled, tracks had been lost, and some tanks were blazing. Men were struggling to climb out of their burning tanks. Some of the lads were stuck, half in and half out of the cupolas. I could see some men huddled beside their tanks, holding torn arms and legs, and screaming for help. I saw some men running amongst the trees, with their cloths burning like torches.. shells were whining and clumping all around, the air was full of smoke and shrapnel. Men were dragging their pals through the mud, away from the burning tanks, and the smell of burning flesh was catching my throat. Tanks that had been hit were being abandoned. Men were scrambling about in the bushes looking for shelter, but there was none to be had!
There was nowhere to escape to,. As I crouched in the cab of the scout car, I could hear the ping of bullets, and the clatter of shrapnel. “God”, I thought, “This is the end!” But Tufty kept his foot down, until mercifully, we reached the end of the valley. Here we found the infantry well and truly dug in and prepared for an attack. We limped over to the rendezvous area, feeling well and truly whipped in our first action.
Our casualties that day were, over twenty killed, and twenty-three injured. Of the twenty-five Militia lads who joined the squadron with me, only four were left unharmed. It seemed we had all grown older since first light this morning, but it was still only 08.30am. In three hours, we had received our baptism of fire and destruction. We all felt sick and numb.
In the shelter of the wood we waited, longing to get away from the area, but not knowing which way to go. There was no way of finding out what was happening, or which way was clear. In ones, and twos, men were returning through the undergrowth, some blindly crashing through the brambles and thicket. All of them looking like scared rabbits. Whether quietly, or noisily, each one was white with fear.
Crouching amongst the ferns, we lay sweating and choking. Not a word was spoken. The roar of engines told us that what remained of our tanks were retreating down the valley. Slowly one by one the lads began tottering in the direction of the wood. Suddenly, one of our lads, Nick Burns, scrambled into the back of the scout car. Then, without a word, he tumbled into the front seats. Tufty wrenched him away from the steering wheel, and still Nick didn’t say a word. He just looked at us with glazed eyes. His lips were hanging loose, and blood was trickling from the corner of his mouth. His overalls were warm and wet near his left hip. Then we noticed a pool of blood beginning to form on the floor of the car.
Sickened I plunged a field dressing into a gaping hole just below Nicks left buttock. The effect was only to soak up the blood like a sponge. Tufty started up the engine, while I hung on to Nick. We bumped and bounced our way to the refuge of the wood. As we arrived at the first aid post, infantry stretcher bearers were ready to take the
injured away. Tenderly they lifted Nick down. By this time he had lost consciousness, which was a blessing. He could feel no pain now.
As our tanks moved away to the south, three-ton lorries arrived to take our wounded to the echelon area. No one really knew what was happening. What we did know, was that we weren’t being pursued. The enemy were content that we had been pulverised.
We followed the convoy along the road through the wood, then along a rough cart track, skirting a low hill to the south. In about half an hour we reached a small coppice where the forward echelon was established. Thankfully, we parked our scout car beneath a low elderberry tree. Men were franticly digging slit trenches. Others were sitting behind bren guns, pointing them in the direction from where we had just come
We filled up with petrol, and within half an hour, the echelon moved out to join the rest of the battalion some ten miles to the south.. As we travelled along the narrow lanes, each mile lightened our load. As the distance between us and the river increased, we became more relaxed. It was such a relief when the sound of guns lessened, and the singing of the birds in the trees took over. With nerves relaxed, and fags glowing, it wasn’t long before we were talking again, even laughing. I must say though, the laughter was a little forced.
The leaguer was waiting to receive us, and the cook had prepared a thick bully stew. We hadn’t given food much thought since this morning, but now we were feeling hungry and thirsty. The bully stew with ground hard biscuits was more than satisfying. After straightening up the scout car, checking the petrol and oil, topping up the ammo. We curled up beneath the vehicle, and dropped off into a deep sleep.
It must have been about nine o’clock when we were woke by Lt Mike. He wanted our scout car to take the major to battalion HQ. Time meant nothing to us, but it must have been about nine as it was beginning to get dark. Most of the lads were lying around the trucks. Others were passing the time digging their slit trenches just a little deeper. No one was talking much, even the cook lorry was packed and ready to go. One small group were playing cards, others were making a quick brew. There was no news of what was going on, all we knew was, there were only seventeen tanks left in the battalion. These seventeen had been formed into a composite squadron and sent as infantry support to the river.
The expected breakthrough by the Germans had not happened. But rumours were, advance patrols had been seen about six miles up the road. From the woods, we could just glimpse the road, and the lads said they had seen a steady stream of civilians moving south all day. Nearly half our lads were in slit trenches at the edge of the wood, doing watch. Tufty and I were detailed to take over a point near a little bridge over a small stream.
Huddled down in a slit trench behind a small bush, we had a good view over a sloping field alongside the stream. After checking our bren, and making ourselves as comfortable as possible, we covered ourselves with our gas capes and waited.
It was dark now, and I remember seeing the glowworms in the bushes. After about an hour, the sky began to glow red. This was followed by the rumble and crump of a barrage. We guessed it was somewhere near Abbeville that was being shelled, but it’s
difficult to judge distances at night. The sky was occasionally lit up by vary lights, followed inevitably by the rumble and crump as the artillery found its target.
We crouched down in our trench, watching the firework display, feeling very little emotion. It was all happening a good way off, and we weren’t on the receiving end. It didn’t seem possible, that after just one days fighting, we were able to watch a scene of such mayhem without feeling any emotion.
It was only this morning that Ginger Blythe had climbed into his tank, wearing one of his girlfriends stockings round his neck like a scarf. His girlfriend wouldn’t have to send him any more letters, telling him to behave himself. Ginger was dead now! Young Stan, from Scarborough. A cornet player in the Salvation Army, would blow his cornet no more. Shy young Stan, who was brought up on very puritanical lines, and couldn’t understand half the jokes we made. It must have been hard for him, finding himself among such a rough bunch of soldiers. He certainly didn’t approve of our attitude towards wine or women. No one disliked Stan, and I think he was beginning to warm to us despite all our faults. We were all astonished when he became a really good gunner. He said it was because his eyesight wasn’t impaired by booze or riotous living. It was a pity the Germans had a better gun than he had. They hit him before he could range his sights. Stalky Whitelaw, Judge Watson, Sam Doyle, and Taff Evans, were all lying somewhere near the river, or maybe still smouldering in their burned out tanks. I didn’t know whether to thank God for MY good fortune, or curse the fact I had been born in time to be in the Militia!
The sky was being lit up more frequently now. From the north, we could see lines of tracer bullets slowly reaching in our direction. Things were hotting up and I was beginning to feel cold and clammy. “Please God, don’t let us have any more today”!
A movement from behind, scared us both. Taffy spun round with his bren gun at the ready. Luckily he hadn’t released the safety catch, or we would have been a cook’s assistant short. Willy Wild had come to tell us to get back to Leaguer, as we were moving out right away. I wasn’t about to ask where we were going as I felt the wood was about to become a very unhealthy place to be. The vehicles were already on the move when we got back to leaguer. So we found our scout car and fell in behind the convoy. No lights, no smoking, no talking, was the order as we sped along the lane.
As we passed, we could see bunches of French soldiers huddled in the ditches. The French had been sent in to take over the sector, as we went back to be re-equipped.
As we reached the main road, we encountered lines of refugees heading south. This was the first time I had seen people fleeing from their homes, carrying all their belongings. Later on these trickles became a flood, with the roads becoming impassable.
As dawn broke, we could see the poor souls sitting on bundles at the side of the road. There were young children with blankets round their shoulders, and old folk pushing all their worldly goods in perambulators. Motorcars with mattresses on the roof were stuck in ditches, as harassed women haggled and scolded their children. The children all thought it was a joke to be going for a walk at five o’clock in the morning. Later on the refugees became more confused and desperate as their journeys became more and more hopeless.
At about six o’clock, the whole thing came to a stop as the road became jammed. After half an hour without moving, our convoy turned off the road and made its way down a lane on the left. The lane was shaded by trees and followed the upward curve of the hillside. For a while, we were able to make good progress.
Then it happened, and all we could do was watch. Out of the clouds came a shrieking scream, as four planes streaked over the blocked crossroads. From our position amongst the shady trees of the lane, it was like looking down on the stage of a theatre. The long lines of refugees scattered into roadside ditches, leaving the road strewn with abandoned bundles. Some just stood there, looking up to the skies. For a while, it seemed the world was standing still, waiting for the awful moment when the carnage would begin. A dull thud, and a cloud of smoke covered the crossroad. Then, with an awful scream and chatter, the planes strafed the road.
Men, women, and children crumpled. Vehicles burst into flames. Even from a distance, we could hear the screams and moans of the wounded. Our horror turned to hate. This wasn’t war, this was bloody murder! We now knew, there were going to be no rules in this holocaust.
There was nothing we could do but move on. By noon we had reached the small village where we were to re-organise and re-equip. The whole place had a derelict air about it, most of the villagers had left for Rouen. There was waste paper and old rags lying in the roadway. Doors and windows were battened shut. There were just one or two old people sitting on doorsteps or leaning against walls. Our reception was hostile, and the air of depression became infectious.
HQ was set up our in a small farmyard. We were kept busy, so we had no time to brood over recent events. Sentries were posted and vehicles checked. Spare crews were formed into infantry sections. Others were sent to Le Mans to collect fresh tanks. Ammunition was collected and dumps made. Supply echelons were set up and between all these chores, we got a few hours sleep. By evening, we had more or less sorted ourselves out. Some of the lads managed to round up a few chickens, these ended up in the dixie. The stables were converted into scout troupe HQ and the rest of the tanks had rejoined the Battalion.
The next morning, we were sent on a recognisance mission, but there seemed to be nothing going on. Our line appeared to be static, just south of Abbeville. The infantry were establishing a solid front with the help of the French. At 11am, we had a visit from the Luftwaffe. But they inflicted no damage. The rest of the day, we spent digging slit trenches and making sure we could get into them in one second flat. By 10pm we were all physically tired, so were grateful for the chance to curl up in the straw of the stables, and sleep the sleep of the exhausted.
Two days later, our new tanks arrived. Only ten, not the thirty we were expecting. We were grateful for anything, and were soon organised into a fighting unit. The tempo in the yard increased, so we knew we were getting ready for action again. This time, it was rumoured, we going to attempt to take Abbeville. As evening approached, the fighting force moved north once more. It was a horrible feeling to be moving towards the river again. The memories of our last visit clouded my thoughts. Perhaps this time it won’t be so bad. Perhaps it will be all over quickly and we will be able to relax. I didn’t doubt for a moment that I would be OK the following day. It never entered my head that I may be wounded. I wasn’t particularly scared for the future, my mind was only concerned with the present.
The night was dark as the column moved noisily and erratically along the straight dirt track. Through the woodlands and undergrowth, we could see flashes and flames spurting from the tanks exhausts. The roar of the engines, and the crunching of the tracks was deafening. Tank commanders stood with their heads out of the cupolas, radio headphones clamped over their berets. The dull green light from the wireless sets, cast a weird ghostly glow around them. The staccato chatter of the crackling wireless sets was mingled with the throb and crunch of the tank engines. The air was stifled with petrol and oil fumes.
Our progress was slow due to the numerous stops and starts. Not much was being said by any of us. Gunners were shuffling around, checking gun belts and ammunition racks. When the chance arose, they would practice traversing their guns in small arcs, chasing an imaginary enemy. The frequent stops gave us the opportunity to poke our heads out of the smelly, oily, and murky inside of the tanks, and gulp in some fresh air. There wasn’t much to see except dark trees and thick hedgerows. As the sky began to lighten in the east, we could make out, the ditches alongside the road were full of French infantry. It was a pathetic sight to see men so weary and listless, crouching in the mud, and completely exhausted. They made no sound, just stared at us with blackened faces and red watery eyes. Waiting, waiting, waiting, for what we didn’t know. We did know that something was wrong, so it came as no surprise when all the tanks left the track and dispersed into a deep wood. There were frantic comings and goings of dispatch riders to the command tank. Then, we knew the attack on Abbeville was off!
As dawn broke, the tanks were under the trees and the crews all brewing up, the news was broken to us. The Germans had by-passed the Magino line, leaving all our guns facing the wrong way. The French were making a tactical retreat. The German Panzers were on a Blitzkrieg, and we were in danger of being surrounded.
By now, we could see lines of demoralised French infantry stumbling along the edge of the woods. Engineers were laying telephone lines along the edge of the track. Ammunition dumps were being prepared for demolition. More slit trenches being dug and machine guns set up within fifty yards of our leaguer. Panic was the word, and it was soon apparent, our roll was to act as rearguard to the French. So allowing them to re-group and fight another day.
The artillery came thundering through our lines, like bats out of hell. They then began digging gun emplacements as support for the French infantry. Frantic orders came through to us, we had to move out straight away and get over to the west, on a ridge, overlooking a small farmhouse, about a mile away.
With a crash and a thundering, the tanks rumbled away through the wood, crushing the undergrowth and small trees as they went. We broke the cover of the wood, and found ourselves in the open fields, heading for the ridge. It seemed, as soon as we were in open country, the enemy were ready for us. The shells whined, crashed, crunched , and screamed all around us. Christ, we had been caught again. We didn’t know what was hitting us. The enemy artillery were firing at us from far away. There was no sign of the dreadful Panzers. German armoured troop carriers were dropping off small groups of little grey men, but they were digging in. they were making no effort to advance. The French infantry were firing at the little grey men. When the artillery arrived to support the infantry, they were firing over our heads. Piggy in the middle was the name of the game for us.
It soon became apparent, our roll was that of a roving gun, answering calls for heavy support when things got hot and hectic for the infantry boys. Still there was no sign of the German armoured units. The day progressed into a shoot and duck operation.
When evening came, we withdrew to re-fuel and replenish our ammunition. The infantry had received some support, and had established a reasonable line of defence. The expected blitz of the Panzers had not materialised, and there had been a total lack of activity from the Luftwafe. For two days, this situation of poised aggression and dogged defence continued. Then the news filtered through. The German push had taken place in the northeast. Calais had been captured. The Belgian army had collapsed when the Maginot line was bypassed. Now, the Germans were blitzcrieging along the Channel coast and threatening Cherbourg. The entire B.E.F (British Expeditionary Force) with the exception of a few small units, had been literally driven into the sea, from the sand dunes of Dunkirk. The entire British army was stranded on the beaches, with nowhere to go but the sea. We, were stranded in the middle. Surrounded on three sides. We couldn’t move north, east, or west. our position was hopeless! We were ordered to move south, and get the hell out of it.
We made for Rouen, travelling all night along country lanes in strict blackout. All the roads were clogged with refugees, some in their carts, and some on foot. Like lemmings, the whole population seemed to be fleeing, with no idea where they were going to.
Cars with mattresses on the roofs, were abandoned at the side of the road, having run out of petrol. Clothing and household effects had been dumped, and most of the ditches were full of frightened people. Some areas we passed had been strafed. Leaving a scene of total devastation. Burnt out cars, overturned carts, and bundles of blood soaked clothing. There were small groups of civilians digging shallow graves for their relatives, killed by the bombing and strafing. Dante’s inferno could be no more horrific than this!
We reached Rouen in the early hours of the morning, just as dawn was breaking. It was all strangely silent, and seemingly deserted. Planes came over once more as we rumbled through the square in front of the Cathedral. Once again, we were bombed and strafed with bullets. A few French tanks had been abandoned on the bridge on the outskirts of town. All the populace were in their cellars.
We stopped about twenty miles south of Rouen, the village as I recall was called Catanai. There we met the regimental supply column. Our tanks were worn out, so we had ditched most of them on our dash south. Amazingly though, our casualties had been minimal during the last five days, but we were all exhausted and fatigued.
Before we abandoned any of the tanks, we had to smash the breechblocks in their guns, to prevent the enemy using them. Then every man was issued with a rifle or a bren gun, in addition to the revolver we carried normally. We were then told to keep our respirator, gas cape, ground sheet, one blanket, our personal arms, and as much ammunition as we could carry. It was obvious we were going to be travelling light. We were bundled into three-ton lorries and just before we left, all the other vehicles, including the light tanks, were blown up with hand grenades. As dusk fell, we moved out. I remember, just before the sun set, gazing over a field of newly sprouting corn, sprinkled with red poppies. It made me think of remembrance day, the two minutes silence, and red poppies in everyone’s lapels
A case of tinned corned beef was thrown into each of the three tonners, all our water bottles were filled from the village pump, then our final instructions were issued. Strict convoy discipline, strict blackout, space between vehicles no more than ten yards, no talking except in whispers, all lorries to be sheeted down, everyone to keep their heads down and hope for the best.
We were on the move just after midnight, where to, no one knew. Some said we were going to Spain, others said the French Riviera. All anyone knew for certain was, we were heading south.
Through the night we travelled, not knowing what or where we were passing. As dawn broke, we entered a little village with a name like Lavel. There was a hospital on the outskirts, and we were sickened at the sight of wounded men in the light blue jackets and trousers of the French army, leaning on walls and attempting to thumb lifts. We couldn’t stop until we were well clear of the place, but I do remember praying that these lads were given humane treatment as P O Ws, as this was inevitably what was to be their fate.
Squadron HQ had retained one radio, so at noon we halted and the C.O set it up to have a confab with some high ranking officer. We took the opportunity to make a corned beef stew, which we tucked into with some hard tack biscuits. When he had finished on the wireless, the C.O gave us the news from Dunkirk. It seems every boat in Britain had struggled across the Channel and brought back the B E F from the beeches. The evacuation was now complete. No more troops could be got out of France! The rest of us were being abandoned to whatever fate had in store.
We were all numbed and bewildered, but at least we knew where we stood. All we could was wait to be picked up by the Germans, and then spend the rest of the war in a P.O.W camp. I felt, at least it was all over for us and we were still in one piece.
At about 8o’clock we were told to mount up once more. We were moving off again, to who knows where this time. At least we weren’t going to sit down and wait for the final roll call. As we drove off into the night, the mood was of resignation, what will be will be. Dawn came, and still we kept moving. The day was fine and sunny, so we were able to relax a little. Most of us had grabbed a few hours sleep, curled up on the lorry floor. As the sunset, we realised we were travelling towards it, which meant we were going in a northeasterly direction. The column came to a halt in a narrow lane, and we were told to dismount. The sight that met us brought horror to everyone.
The verges of the lane were littered with burnt out vehicles. Other equipment was piled high in great dumps, still smouldering. Tracked vehicles were on their sides, trucks had their radiators smashed and their tyres slashed. Engines had had their oil drained off, and run until they seized solid. The superstructure had been burned out, the whole scene was one of devastation. Clothing, kit bags, camp beds, webbing equipment, smashed rifles, boxes of ammunition, water tanks, stretchers, tin hats, cases of corned beef, petrol cans, map cases, jeeps, bren carriers, mortars, hand grenades, ambulances, even a N A F F I van, all had been destroyed and dumped.
We were only about two miles by road from Brest, and from there, we were told it MIGHT be possible to get a boat across the channel
We were instructed to get some sleep, but be prepared to move off at a moments notice. No noise, no lights were a must.
By this time, I had attached myself to the signals section, and with them, I found a dry spot alongside an overturned three tonner. Being so tired, we all fell swiftly into a deep sleep. It was a cold night so we were awake in the early hours. All was quiet and eyrie in the darkness. Then to our shock and horror, we discovered everyone else had gone, leaving us behind. We scrambled up, grabbed our bits and pieces, and followed the trail of carnage and destruction. The sky began to brighten in a pre dawn glow, and the birds started their dawn chorus. As we topped the rise and looked down on Brest, I noticed wild strawberries growing in the hedgerows.
The streets were deserted, but as we got closer to the harbour, we could see a small steamer chugging out to sea. There was another boat against the jetty, so we jogged along the quayside, laughing and shouting deliriously. “Oh God, don’t go without us. Hang on, can’t you see us coming?”
As we stumbled along, we heard the planes, and the spasmodic anti aircraft fire from a warehouse roof. The planes flew over very low, and strafed the harbour. We heard the stutter and pinging as the bullets struck a wall and the quayside. All this we could see and hear as we dove between two large drums. I didn’t pray to God this time, I screamed at him.
The boat at the quayside was crammed with Canadian Infantry. It was listing badly. A mountain of a man from the Scots Guards was screaming at the troops to get over to the other side of the boat, to right the list. We , scrambled up the gangplank just as they were pulling it up. We just made it, collapsing in a heap beside one of the life rafts. The boat moved slowly away from the quayside. Then, I noticed the name on one of the lifeboats, “The Lady of Mann”. One of the Isle of Mann ferries, all the way from Liverpool. I lay laughing hysterically as I thought of the very boat that took us all on our camping holidays with the Boys Brigade, Coming all this way to take us out of Brest. Fate had been friendly on this occasion! My laughter was mingling with the tears running down my grimy cheeks.
We were only about a hundred yards from shore when the planes returned with a vengeance. This time bombs were dropped, one or more of them landing very close. The boat rocked and plunged as the explosion washed over the deck. We were almost drowned by the deluge of water. A machine gun started spluttering, then another from the front of the ship joined in. At the same time, all the troops on deck were blasting away with their rifles and Bren guns. The ship was bristling with small arms fire. That and the intervention of a solitary Spitfire, sent the enemy scurrying away. The Spitfire had come swooping out of the clouds, its mission to escort us out of the harbour. The last we saw of it was in hot pursuit of the enemy.
The upper deck was no place to be at that time, so I crawled down a small ladder to a lower deck. This deck was crammed with soldiers piled on top of one another in a solid heap. I stumbled over all the bodies making my way to the far end of the deck. There I found a small galley, squeezed through the doorway and collapsed inside.
The galley was only about four foot square, and manned by a fat little cook. He was sweating profusely and swearing at everything and everyone. He appeared a little flustered, which I suppose was understandable. There was a pan of stew on the boil, and when I told him, I was from Manchester, he thrust a bowl full at me and said “Get that down yer lad, and I’ll wake you when we get home”. The warmth of the galley and the hot stew was too much for me. I was fast asleep with the bowl on my lap before I had had time to finish it.
I woke with a start as the ship lurched to the side. Everyone on the lower deck was scrambling to the side to look through the portholes. “It’s Portsmouth”, “It’s Plymouth”, “it’s Brixham”. I didn’t know or care where we were as long as it was England. In fact, it was Plymouth. The date was 21st June 1940, and a miracle had happened. We had made it home from France, fifteen days after Dunkirk beech had been finally evacuated!
ENGLAND UNDER INVASION
The quayside was crowded with people, cheering, shouting, and waving frantically. Everyone on board was laughing, crying and singing. Cigarettes were being thrown by the handful onto the boat. Above all the noise, a loudspeaker was bellowing to everyone to keep calm, or the boat was going to tip up. Everyone being on one side, was causing it list badly, making it difficult for the crew to attach the mooring ropes. The engines had stopped, but a hooter was blasting away. For what, I don’t know.
At last, the ship was tight against the quayside. Straight away, some of the lads scrambled over the side, they were staggering and their words of exhilaration were by and large incoherent. There were some soldiers and sailors on the quayside who helped them over the rails, until, at last a gangplank was secured. The loud speaker blurted out once more. “No one to leave the ship, except by the gang plank”! eventually the chaos abated.
We lined up on the deck, and slowly filed down the gangplank, and onto the quay. There was a definite sense of urgency from the people waiting to greet us. They seemed convinced, we were all wounded, and insisted each and every one of us was carried ashore
As we stepped off the gangplank, we were asked our name, rank, number, and regiment. Then we were led to a large warehouse, where we were told to wait for things to be sorted out. We all slumped on the floor in small groups, then, the Salvation Army moved in!. Gallons of hot tea, corned beef sandwiches, even rock buns, all this and more, was thrust into our hands. Cigarettes were scattered around like confetti. There were medical orderlies and nurses, running around with stretchers. Ambulances were arriving by the dozen. The wounded were being looked after and whisked away as fast as the ambulances could be loaded. There were ladies scuttling around with note pads, getting us all to send telegrams to our loved ones. Then there were more cigarettes and chocolate bars. About now, a reaction set in with the lads, and the noise subsided as most of us made ourselves comfortable. Sitting with our backs to the wall, we drank our tea, and smoked our fags. There wasn’t much being said, we were all just relishing the moment, and wondering what was going to happen next!
Meanwhile, a group of officers were questioning us about what we had seen. “When did you last see your unit?” “Was anyone you know left behind?” “Have you still got your A B 64?” “Are you sure you don’t need medical attention?”
As order was gradually restored, trucks started to arrive to take us back to our individual H Q’s. It got to be quite late, and only a few of us remained in the warehouse. We kept asking, what was going on. All we got were vague answers, such as “Someone is coming for you!” As evening approached, a 30cwt truck drove up, and a voice bellowed in my direction. “Where the hell have you been?” It was my H Q Sgt major.
I had just about ran out of patience by then. In fact, I had decided I was going to buzz off and find my own way home. “No one was interested in me any more, I had been written off as useless.” “Where the hell did the Sergeant major think I’d been. Did he think I’d been sunbathing on the Riviera?” He was the one who had left us stranded outside Brest. As far as I was concerned, he could get stuffed. I’d had enough. Here was me thinking I was some sort of hero. Yet, he seemed to think I was just a bloody fool who got himself lost somewhere in France
We were trundled into a truck once more, and off we went into the night, not knowing where we were going. I seem to be spending most of my life riding around in trucks nowadays. And it was always the same, a mystery tour, the biggest mystery being, where were we going to end up. I suppose someone; somewhere was working it all out like a giant chess game. “And the next move is, send trouper P to map reference 215 537. This time we were on our way to Guildford, so next morning, that was exactly where we arrived.
The rest of the Battalion had sailed into Plymouth twelve hours before “The Lady of Mann” They had been on the boat we saw leaving Brest as we tottered along the quayside. That all seemed about a hundred years ago! The rest of our lads were already settled in at the tented camp, so there were cheers and catcalls when we tumbled out of the truck. The signals lads found their mates, and I went to report to my troop in the orderly room
There wasn’t much happening, we just had to wait for our further instructions, and in the meantime get re-kitted. There was much grumbling and complaining amongst the lads, but generally the feeling was one of relief. We had to admit; we were bloody lucky to get out of France in one piece. The latest rumor was, we were all being sent on seven days leave while things got sorted out
Every night, we had to go on anti parachute patrol. During the day, we slept, or queued outside the quartermaster’s stores for new clothing and equipment. (We had brought very little back from France, only the clothes we stood up in.) During the day, groups of civilians came to the camp to learn how to use rifles and bren guns. We hadn’t a lot of equipment, but what we had, we had to share. These visitors were known as the L D V (Local Defense Volunteers) they were all civilians with daytime jobs, but in their spare time they acted as all sorts of civil defense crew. Everyone was on edge about fifth columnists and parachute invasions.
Defense boxes were constructed everywhere. One of our duties was to go out and take down signposts, supposedly to confuse the enemy if ever they managed to cross the Channel. On other occasions, we would go out and set up observation posts. The general opinion was, we were definitely going to be invaded! Plans had been formulated for the mass evacuation of children and the construction of a massive coastal defense line. Wherever we went, we had to carry our gas masks. Civil defense units were recruited from the civilian population. Air raid precaution was also of paramount importance. Slit trenches were being dug everywhere, and air raid shelters sprung up like mushrooms in everyone’s back garden. Huge water tanks appeared in all the towns and villages, to ensure supplies in case the enemy dropped incendiary bombs.
We were told that our leave had been sanctioned, half the battalion to go the first week, the other half the second week. Everyone wanted week one, but it was decided for us, tank crews first week, echelons week two. It was with a great feeling of relief that we left the camp with our rail warrants safely in our pockets. We had also been given some back pay. It was the first money we had received in over a month. To be honest though, we hadn’t really noticed. Everywhere we went, someone would be happy to buy us a pint and offer us fags.
The journey home was a bit of a nightmare, with the London blackout being absolutely dreadful. There were guns sighted on every street corner, on rooftops, in gardens, and in the parks. Huge air raid shelters were in every street, and there were sandbag walls against all the windows. Shops were boarded up and offices manned with firewatchers every night. The tube stations had been converted into huge dormitories, with people permanently living on the station platforms. Children had by and large been evacuated to country areas, and civil defense posts had been set up in
every street and road. I was glad to get out of London, it made me nervous.
We travelled overnight, with the trains like everywhere else, being blacked out. All we had in the railway coaches was a feint blue light. The trains were packed with people on the move, so there was no chance of getting a seat. We had to stand in the corridor, or if we were lucky, we managed to get into the toilet and have a sit down
It was about 2A M when we arrived in Manchester. As we walked down London Road station approach, a lady told us there was some food and a bed waiting for us at the corner of Piccadilly. There was a cellar that had been taken over by the YMCA We were thankful for their kindness and the chance to rest up until the trams started running. Joe, the lad I had travelled up with, and I, flopped on the bunk beds. The old dears who were running the place, promised to wake us when the first tram of the day put in an appearance. True to their word, we were wakened at about half passed six. Then we made the run in for the home stretch. It was good to travel down Oxford Road, turn right at All Saints, then down Stretford Road to Jackson Street. Hulme was a scruffy place but to me it was paradise!
Dad was asleep downstairs on the sofa when I arrived, but my dog Taffy must have heard me coming. He was going mad in the lobby, scratching the front door before I had even knocked at the door. He was a lovely dog. Dad had brought him back from Wales, the year Mam had died. Although he was now quite old, he was still very lively, and my best pal.
There was a tearful scene, with Dad crying and Taffy running around like a mad thing, licking my face and nearly knocking me down in his frenzy. Dad got the frying pan out, and in no time I was tucking into egg and bacon. Before I had finished the meal, we had all the neighbours knocking at the door with packets of cigarettes. People are not like that nowadays, I don’t know if poverty breeds this sense of comradeship and friendship or not, but I suspect that people had better standards during those years of despair and tragedy.
Dad was working now, but at eight o’clock he went to tell them he wouldn’t be going in that day. He seemed such a proud man. I was touched by his obvious love and affection.
After breakfast, Dad told me, Muriel had been along to see him most days, asking for news. She was working for a clothing firm in Grovsner Street. I took Taffy and went to see her at the factory. Our reunion was hectic. All the girls came out of the sewing room; it was pretty wild until we escaped into Grovsner Street.
I had one important thing to do, and asked Muriel to come along with me for support. One of the lads who had been with me at Warminster, had been killed on that first Sunday morning at Abbeville. Although he had been in “A” squadron, I had promised I would go to see his parents if anything happened to him. He lived near Alexander Park, so off we went. It was very hard for me, telling them what had happened to their son. They were a lovely couple, and very grateful I had gone to see them. I couldn’t help feeling, I had done the wrong thing, and left with the impression that they thought it was unfair that their son had died, and I had got off scot-free
The rest of the week, Muriel and I spent going around and seeing people. Everyone was so kind, but each day I got more depressed. I didn’t want to go back. As the days slipped by, my depression deepened. There was no answer to it; I could see no future for me. People tried to console me by saying that I had done my share. It was someone else’s turn now. They said my part was over and done with, but I knew it hadn’t really begun. All my palls from Ma Barracloughs had been called up to the army, navy, or air force. Steve had been drowned after being torpedoed somewhere in the Atlantic. There was no good news. Everyone had some tragedy to tell you about.
Dad lent me some money to buy a cheap engagement ring for Muriel. We each had our photograph taken at a studio in Oxford Road. Our resolve was to get married the following year, all being well. Muriel’s parents and family were against our engagement. I had never been made welcome at her home but I wasn’t worried. Muriel was the only one I cared about
My weeks leave ended, and there was a repeat of the scenes at the railway station as when I first set out to report to Warminster. Tears, promises, hugs, kisses, and embraces. Then a final wave of the hand, followed by a feeling of deep depression and emptiness. Life was pretty bloody horrid. The future seemed unthinkable.
Back at the camp, things had become more orderly. We were being equipped slowly, with groups of us being sent along to collect new tanks and scout cars. Air activity was increasing and huge groups of enemy planes were sighted daily. They were on their way to bomb London and other cities in the north. Guildford had been bombed so we always seemed to be on air raid alert. Slit trenches were deepened and more ack ack guns mounted. Our lads were continuously on air raid duties and anti gas drills were a daily occurrence.
The whole of the south coast was festooned with barbed wire and anti tank defences. Gun emplacements were everywhere, with pillboxes manned day and night. New bofar guns were popping up everywhere, in every conceivable position. The open fields were scattered with all manner of obstacles to hinder any possible enemy landing from the air. We were all expecting an invasion, and the bombing of the south coast towns was an obvious softening up process. Rumours were rife that invasion barges had been assembled at Calais, but had been destroyed by the R A F. Some said that another invasion fleet had been destroyed off the east coast, and that hundreds of dead Germans had been washed ashore north of Lincolnshire.
July was over now, and at the beginning of August, orders came through, we were going overseas again. No one knew where to, but we were given 72 hrs leave. We all had to sign an official document, stating we were under embarkation order for an unknown destination. Any failure to return to camp on the termination of our leave would be treated as desertion. I sent a telegram to Muriel, saying simply “Coming home on leave- we will get married when I arrive!”
On Saturday I drew my leave pass, some pay, and made my way to London and home. It was Sunday morning when I got into Manchester. Muriel was waiting with Dad. They couldn’t believe that I was going abroad again, not even knowing, to where. My main concern was to fix our marriage. But there was one major snag. Muriel wasn’t yet 21, so we had to get her parents permission. That afternoon we went round to see her mother. It was with great reluctance that permission was given. (She considered I had nothing to offer her daughter, so the marriage was certainly not approved by her family)
First thing Monday morning, my eldest brother Derrick and his wife Clara, agreed that Muriel could stay with them after the marriage. The reason being, Muriel had been told by her parents, if she married me, she would have to leave home, and I would have to take on full responsibility for her.
Our next job was to get a special licence. Having got it, we had to go and see the minister at Muriel’s parish Church of St Crispins. He was very kind, and his wife agreed to be one of our whiteness’.
The marriage took place at 2,0’clock on Tuesday. Dad, Derrick and Clara took the tramcar up Princess Road to the church. No wedding dress, no bridesmaids, no wedding cars, no organ playing or bells ringing. It was not the wedding I knew Muriel wanted, but I didn’t know how long I was going to be away, or even if I would be coming back.
Everyone cried before the ceremony. The vicar took us into the vestry and gave us a good talking to about the sanctity of marriage and our responsibilities towards each other. He wished us well and gave us his blessing. After the ceremony, we went back to my brothers, where Clara had arranged a nice tea. After which the five of us went to the Tatton cinema in Gatley. No one from Muriel’s family attended the wedding; they completely ignored the whole event.
I was due back at camp by 6 o’clock, on the morning of Wednesday the 14th of August. I had to catch a train out of London Road station at 11.30pm on Tuesday. At 10 o’clock that night, just as we were returning from the cinema, the air raid sirens screamed their wail of hate. Many bombs were dropped on Manchester, so we had to spend the night in the air raid shelter at the bottom of my brother’s garden. At least it was a wedding night with a difference!
At 6 o’clock the next morning, Muriel and Dad came with me to the station. This parting was the worst of all. I was feeling, no one expected me to come back this time. It seemed to me that I was pushing my luck a little to expect my good fortune to continue. I met Joe again as the train pulled out of the station and we both slept all the way to London. A quick change of trains, then on to our final destination. It was just after 5 PM on the 14th of August that we arrived back in camp. No excuses, we were both A W O L. Charged and remanded for C O’s orders.
The following day, we moved out, and after what seemed like an endless journey, we found ourselves in Liverpool of all places. If we had known where we were going, I could have got there from Manchester well before my leave pass expired. The whole set up was bloody unjust.
Two ships were waiting for us, one to carry the tanks, and the other to take the crews. The tanks were being loaded as we trooped aboard the “Duchess of Bedford”. This transatlantic liner had been used to evacuate children to Canada and had been fitted with hundreds of bunks and hammocks. The dining room was still being used as a troops mess deck. The cooler for the prisoners was in the bowels of the ship. For two days we lay at anchor in Liverpool bay while the convoy was assembled. The 7th Hussars joined us to make the 7th Armoured Brigade. Later we became known as “The Desert Rats”.
We set sail, escorted by a number of destroyers. These had been sent from America under lease and lend agreements. The C O began to consider the cases of all those under arrest and charged with being A W O L. The first thing they asked me as I was marched in was, did I wish to take the C O’s punishment, or did I want a court martial?
I thought, “what a load of bull”. Asking me, did I want to be court martialed for being eleven hours adrift? I said that I would take the C Os punishment, thinking it would only be seven days on jankers. He asked me, had I anything to say for myself. I thought he would be sympathetic if I told him how I had got married and missed the train. He did say he understood, and even offered his congratulations. He completely floored me though when he said he had no alternative but to give me twenty-eight days field punishment. Christ, it was more than people got for being adrift for a month! And having to be picked up by the M Ps.
I was well and truly shaken, and completely dazed when they marched me off to the cooler in the bowels of the ship. To add insult to injury, Joe was found not guilty, he told the C O there was an air raid on Manchester and all trains out had been cancelled until it was over. It was exactly the same for me, but I hadn’t thought to mention the fact.
The convoy set sail, accompanied by a wail of hooters and sirens, and the long weary journey commenced. There were eight of us in the cooler, and before long I began to feel claustrophobic in the confined space. We knew we were below the water line because there were no portholes. I had this dreadful feeling that should an attack be made, the first torpedo would come crashing through the hull. And if I were lying on my bunk, it would be just level with my head.
For the first two days we were only allowed out of the cooler for an hour a day for exercise. The rest of the time we were cooped up like battery hens. After that, it was decided we could spend our time helping in the dining room. We were each allocated four mess tables to look after. It was a good job for us. All we had to do was take trays to the galley and collect meals for our tables. We would line up with a large tray and report “Table number twenty three, twelve men” The cooks would then pile twelve meals onto the tray, and tick them off on a large blackboard. “Table twenty three served.” It was great when I went up for pudding, because I was on good terms with the cook, he didn’t tick my table off the time I went up for the duff. I then told the lads on my tables, that as a special favour, and at great risk to myself, I could get them a second helping of duff for 3d a go. A couple of bottles of beer from the canteen kept the cook happy.
In normal circumstance, doing field punishment meant being chained to a gun carriage wheel. But nowadays, things are a bit more humane. Apart from being confined to the cooler, we had our pay stopped. This was the biggest indignity of all. The lads however rallied round with fags and empty beer bottles, which I stored under my bunk. One morning, the officer of the day came along to inspect the cooler. He was a young sub lieut in charge of the scout troop, and went by the name of Micklem. He was a nice young lad, straight from officer training college. When he found the fifteen empty beer bottles under my bunk, he had a fit. But at least he sat down on the edge of my bunk and listened to what I had to say. I explained to him, that while in the mush, I didn’t get any pay. The lads in the scout troop brought their empty beer bottles down because they were worth 2d each when I returned them to the canteen. And that was my only source of income, for cigs and the essentials of life. Lieutenant Micklem was duly impressed with my account of the “Esprit de Coeur” in the scout troop. He said he had learned something, so was going to turn a blind eye to the bottles as long as I kept them neat and hidden out of the way. An hour later his batman came down to the cooler with a ten bob note and a message from the lieutenant saying “Good luck”. He was a good sport. I was really upset some months later when I learned he had both his legs blown off at Sidi Rezheig!
We had been sailing for about a week by this time, and had passed the Bay of Biscay. It was there we found out why the crew called our ship “The Rolling Duchess”. She plunged and rolled to an alarming degree. We were all sick as dogs for days and days on end. Some days, only half the lads turned up for their meals. Causing my income on second duffs to be seriously effected.
When the seas were calm, it was good to go up on deck for a little while and watch the escort destroyers flashing signals to each other. Or to stand for hours at the stern and watch the wake falling behind us. We were taking a zigzag course, never steaming straight ahead. A group of porpoise’s followed the ship for days, jumping right out of the water at the prow of the ship. At one stage, we had a submarine scare, but the sub surfaced and blew a fountain of water into the air. It was a whale!! Each day we had muster parade and lifeboat drill. Most of the time, the lads passed the time playing cards or Housey Housey. We had been sailing for about ten days before we got the news our destination was Egypt. We couldn’t go through the Mediterranean; we had to take the long route round The Horn of Africa. It would take much longer, but there was no alternative. Everyone was warned about lying too long in the sun, and if anyone reported sick with sunburn, they would be charged with self-inflicted injury. I didn’t get much chance of sunbathing. My periods of free time were very limited with being in the mush. Some of the lads though, took their bedding rolls on deck and slept there instead of down below on the mess deck. It was much cooler!
To pass the time along, we were given map reading exercises to do, and talks about conditions in the African desert. Huge sums of money were won and lost on the lad’s favourite game of “brag”. Even I O Us were accepted for losses incurred at the card tables. Boredom inevitably set in on such a long voyage, every day was the same, except that the sun got hotter and we got browner
It took over seven weeks to sail round Africa, with just one stop at Durban for refuelling and replenishing of water. Even then, we weren’t allowed ashore and our journey continued up the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal to Port Said. When we arrived at last, we were glad to say farewell to the Rolling Duchess!
THE DESERT RATS AND THE DESERT FOX
When we disembarked, we were taken in trucks to a camp in the Canal Zone. It lay somewhere between Quantara and Ismailia, close to the Sweetwater Canal. There we found tented accommodation, and settled down to get ourselves organised. Our tanks and scout cars arrived after a couple of days. Then, we were briefed as to what we would be doing. Firstly, any future operations would be far different to those we had encountered in France. Conditions and the environment would determine tactics, and we would have to learn by experience. It was going to be a mobile and distinctly fast moving type of affair. A definite “Seek and find” situation. But first we must get to know all we could, about the desert terrain. Forget the picture postcard image of sand dunes with camels etched in black against the setting sun. Or waving palms and Beau Geste Forts. These things were for tourists and pyramid sightseers. We were not going on a “Cook’s” tour. The desert was a horrible, lonely place. Most of the desert is barren rocks, with nothing but small clumps of camel grass. There are huge sand dunes scattered about, and there are areas as flat as a billiard table. These flat bits are known as salt flats. There are folds in the rocky terrain with little steep valleys. These are known as “Wadis”. It was very hot during the day but often icy cold at night. Once we got into the “Blue”, our vehicles were to be our homes. We had seen the last of barracks, and from now on, we were to follow the example of the nomadic Bedouins and sleep beneath the stars. We were told of the dangers of malaria, sand fly, and stomach upsets. Our water bottles were always to be kept full, and where possible, all the water we drank was to come from the water wagon. This was the only way we could be sure it had been sterilised.
Every man was issued with a supply of sterilising tablets which we HAD to use. Mosquitoes carried malaria, so we would not only be fighting the Italians, We would also be attacked by flies, scorpions, desert sores, dysentery, heat exhaustion and sun stroke. There may even be times we would have to go without water and have to suck pebbles.
It all seemed like a nightmare, but we all thought it couldn’t be as bad as they were making out. They didn’t mention the hot winds and the sandstorms. We found out about those little disturbances later. All of us had to have anti this, anti that, inoculations and injections,
Whilst waiting final instructions for our move into the desert, we were initiated into the intricacies of desert navigation. There would be no roads but we might find some ancient camel trails. That meant all our navigation would be by compass bearings. It would be like sailing across the ocean, THEY said. All the time, we would have to rely on knowing where true north was. Reading a map would have to be like reading a book. The system was complex until you mastered the technique. Basically, what we had to do was, first find out exactly where you were on the map, then set down your map, correctly aligned north south. Having done that, lay your compass on the map, drew a line from your starting position to the point you were heading for. Then, with a protractor, you could plot out how many degrees you had to deviate from north, and THAT was your bearing. Once your bearing was determined, you then had to line up your vehicle along that bearing and proceed in a straight line, checking with your compass all the time. It was essential to equate the distance along the bearing to the mileometer in your vehicle. The final analysis being, Know your exact starting point. Identify your destination. Plot the exact bearing from the compass. Measure the distance to travel along the map, and then, hopefully you would finish up where you wanted to be. In practice, we learned that it was best for the leading tank or vehicle to do all the navigating, and the rest of us to follow the leader.
All the vehicles, had a sun compass fitted to them. This was an ingenious contraption made from a piece of aluminium, marked with all the points of the compass in a circle. In the centre of the circle was a thin metal rod sticking up vertically. The contraption was fitted to the front of the vehicle, then the shadow of the metal rod was lined up with the bearing on which you wanted to travel. As the sun moved across the sky, the shadow moved round the metal plate with the bearing. So all we had to do was steer to left or right to get the shadow to fall back on the bearing required. Although the sun moved across the sky, the magnetic bearing remained constant. There were occasions when you would have no compass or sun compass to guide you. There was one gem of knowledge passed on to us that I’m sure saved many lives. If you pointed the little finger of your watch at the sun, then divided the distance between the little hand on and the figure twelve. You have a line running north south. At least, if you know where north is, you’re not completely lost.
Survival would often depend on our knowing this technique of desert navigation. What seemed so complicated at first, with practice made us more confident.
One final instruction was given, and that was, we must not bathe or drink from the Sweetwater Canal. It is infested with little worms called “bilarhzia”. They had a nasty habit of boring into your body, and causing havoc. If you were unfortunate enough to be infected, you would need at least nine needle injections in your tummy. Our initiation into medical hazards of the desert, and Egypt in general was concluded with a strict warning of amorous association with Egyptian “bints”. V D was a cert, so don’t get involved.
Having been given all this information, we waited for our movement order. I was summoned to the orderly room and informed, I would not be going with the rest of the battalion. I was being sent to Cairo for a course on coding and ciphering. Then joining the unit later after completion of the course. In a way, I was a little disappointed, but the idea of a month in Cairo had a certain appeal.
The next day, I was taken to Cairo in a 15cwt truck, and reported to the training depot at Abbassia Barracks. The barracks were three or four miles outside Cairo and were being used as a training depot, a leave centre, and a transit depot. The whole place was a hive of activity., with much coming and going of troops from the different units. As for the barracks themselves, they were made of dark grey stone, about three stories high, with veranda’s running the full length of each floor. The sleeping quarters were large with each room having about thirty iron or wooden beds. Each bed had three square mattresses and two blankets piled neatly at the head, and next to it a small locker.
All the occupants were either in transit or attending courses. There were infantry, artillery, R.A.S.C , signals, tank corps, hussars, cavalry, and engineers. It was certainly a mixed bag of the army of the Nile. Most of the lads had been in Egypt for some considerable time and certainly seemed to know their way around. I chummed up with a group of lads from the rifle brigade. They told me what it was like on the “Blue”, and all about Mersa Matruh., “The wire”.
The wire was the physical boundary between Egypt and Libya, and comprised a stretch of barbed wire about 25 yards wide. Stretching from Sollumin in the north, to the Siwa Oasis in the south. This seemed to be the focal point of all currant activity. The rifle brigade were equipped with bren carriers, and tracked vehicles
The Italians had been joined by Libyan troops, and until now our roll had been to prevent them from entering Egypt. Initially, there seemed to be no serious threat of a break through, as neither side had made more than spasmodic sorties, testing each other’s strength.
However, as time went on, activity increased. So we had to prepare to push Granziani and his troops well clear of the wire, and well back from Solum.
Apart from information on the military front, I was given a run down on the situation in Cairo. It was essential to know where the best cafes were, and what areas to avoid. There was one notorious part of town, “Shara Wogel El Birka”. This was where the military controlled houses of ill repute were located. At Ezbekiah Gardens, in the city of Cairo, there was a good NAAFI, and the brown tram, which ran from the gates of Abbassia would take me straight to Kasrah el Nil.
The area of the citadel was out of bounds to us, but here was to be found a place known as the “Dead City”, or “The City of the Dead”. It was easy to get to the pyramids by taking a “Garry” to Mene. (A Garry was a horse drawn carriage) You could always get one outside Ezbekiah Gardens).
I was given a strict order not to sleep in the barrack rooms, but to move my bed out onto the veranda. The barrack room walls were crawling with bed bugs and at night were literally alive with a mass of stinking vermin. I would get four cigarette tins, fill them with creosote, and stand the bed legs inside these four cans. This would stop the bugs climbing into the mattress.
Every Friday was debugging day. We had to draw blow lamps from the stores and literally burn the walls of the dormitories to kill millions of bugs. I hadn’t really noticed before, but now I could smell bed bugs and sweat in all of the dormitories. I could now understand why everyone slept out on the verandas.
As well as the bed bugs, the whole building was a mass of flies so we were each issued with a mosquito net to drape round our beds. I was also given a small lizard by the lads from the rifle brigade. I was assured he would be quite happy to live on my bed and catch any flies that penetrated the mosquito net. All in all it was a very friendly set up and I was looking forward to my four week stay in Cairo.
The next day, I started my course and the first thing I had to do was to improve my receiving of Morse. I wasn’t much good at it, and was never able to build up a good speed. The next step was to study coding systems, these were certainly very complex. Messages were received in mumbo jumbo and had to be converted from a specific code into intelligent information. We had to memorise the code and systems of conversion. I thought I would never cope. Eventually it all clicked into place and I didn’t do so badly.
Each day we worked at the codes and ciphers until about four o’clock, then we were free to do whatever we wanted. There were no parades, and no bull. So each afternoon I wrote letters home. In the evening I either went to the barrack cinema or the NAAFI, but usually I went with the lads into Cairo.
The crowded streets of Cairo intrigued me and I spent hours wandering around the bazaars and open fronted shops. The back streets were out of bounds, as were the native quarters. The area of Ezbekiah was full of eastern mystery. There was a permanent smell of burnt charcoal, roast nuts, incense and horse urine. It was very noisy, and the continual blare of eastern music, mingled with the clip clop of the Garry horses. Everyone seemed in a great hurry during the evening, but in the early afternoon, shutters were drawn in all the shops. With most people curling up on the pavements and going to sleep. Only “Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun!”
One day, I took a trip to Mene to see the Cheops Pyramids. The Garry dropped me at the Mene house hotel, where I was immediately pounced upon by Arabs wanting to give me a private tour of the ruins. First stop was the Sphinx. Here I was told how Napoleon had blasted half the head off with a cannon ball. The pyramids themselves were very impressive, constructed with huge blocks of stone about six feet high, six feet deep and about eight feet in length. The best way to get to the top was to take the right hand edge and clamber up stone by stone. At the top, was a flat area about twenty feet square. The apex had been eroded away over thousands of years. It seemed, every tourist that reached the top had recorded his presence by chiselling his name, and the date of his visit. I was lucky enough to find the name “T Palmer” on the rock slab. So all I had to was alter the T to a J, scratch October 1940 beneath. That saved me a lot of trouble and effort.
The camel drivers were touting for business and Arab photographers were in abundance, wanting to take souvenir snaps of us all. It didn’t matter where, on a camel, on the Sphinx or on the pyramids.
Although I had been warned of the dangers of riding on a camel, and how bad tempered they were, I was persuaded to take a short ride. At least I thought it was only going to be a short trip round Cheops. Instead the camel bolted, leaving me clinging on for dear life. Away into the blue I went, leaving the camel driver cursing and shouting. There was nothing I could do but cling on, and hope for the best. For what seemed an eternity, I clung on. Frightened and bruised, bumped and battered, but somehow still stuck to the saddle. At last the camel slowed to a trot, as it arrived at the Step pyramids of Memphis.
The camel driver came thundering up on another camel and demanded an extra 20 piastres, before he would let me go back to Cheops on my own bad tempered “ship of the desert”. He led the way and lassoed his camel to mine. It was all very exciting, but convinced me that camel riding was no fun at all!
When the course ended, I was ready to join my squadron again, but that wasn’t going to be easy. I had to be picked up by the RASC, then follow the lines of communication through the supply columns. It was a case of being picked up, dropped off, then waiting for transport to get me further forward towards our own echelons.
I left Abbassia in a three ton lorry, together with about fifteen other lads, all going to join their own units. After travelling through Cairo, we were soon on the coast road travelling west. The landscape was rocky and desolate. There was a continuous stream of vehicles moving along the rough track that ran parallel to the road. We could see convoys moving across the desert, leaving clouds of dust in their wake. Although we were on the coast road, supposedly a good road, our lorry bumped and swayed as we ate up the miles.
Huge dumps and supply points could be seen scattered across the desert and there seemed to be much coming and going. All day we travelled, occasionally stopping for a brew, or and to allow the engine to cool off. When we did stop, we hadn’t to stray far from the lorry. We had seen infantry and bren carriers, all going in a westerly direction. Occasionally we saw groups of tanks dispersed with camouflage nets draped over them.
It was evening when we arrived at a large supply camp south of Fuka. The dump was well dispersed and covered a large area as an anti air raid precaution. We were dropped off the lorry, given a case of rations and a small petrol cooker. Then told to wait, and we would picked up the following day by another supply truck.
Our lorry drove off, but the RASC corporeal remained with us in order to hand us over the next day. He told us we had better dig slit trenches before we bedded down for the night. Supply dumps were often targets of bombing raids, especially at dusk and dawn. The infantry lads had small trenching spades, so it wasn’t long before we were digging away making little fox holes. The ground was rocky and hard so we could only make our holes about a foot deep, but we considered that was deep enough. It was getting dark by the time we finished, so we curled up in our little holes and tried to get some sleep. This was our first night in the open desert and it became quite cold.
The silence and stillness seemed to press down the darkness, making the stars seem exceptionally bright. To the west, there was a red glow in the sky and I felt lonely and lost, and very sorry for myself. None of us could sleep but we didn’t talk much either. Every so often I could see the light of a match and the feint red glow from the draw on a cigarette, coming from one of the other little holes in the ground near me.
There was a low hum in the sky that got louder and louder, telling us that planes were on patrol. We didn’t know if they were ours or the enemies, so we just held our breath and kept out heads down. The night was cold and by the time first light appeared in the east. we were all cramped and stiff. The corporal told us to get the brew on, so we warmed a tin of Soya sausages in the water before we mashed the tea. This was the time of day when we could expect a visit from the Italian planes, so we kept close to our slit trenches. Some of us toddled off a little way into the blue with a spade, to feed the desert roses. I was glad we had changed into thick battle dress before we left Cairo, it was decidedly nippy in the early morning air. There was nothing to do but sit around until we were picked up. We sat watching different vehicles coming and going from the dump. We were about three hundred yards away, when we saw one stop to ask directions from a man loading a truck with petrol cans. It then came towards us. This was our taxi!
We were soon loaded up and making our way once more to the coast road and Mersa Matruh. After a while though, we cut off the track and headed into the desert. The terrain was much rockier here with some high rocks and deep wadies. The driver told us that this was the Quatara Depression, and it stretched far down to the south.
We pulled up about lunch time at a small ammunition dump. Again we were told we would have to stay there until the next day, when other vehicles would be arriving to collect us and take us to our units. It wasn’t long before one lorry did arrive and took away eight of the infantry lads from the rifle brigade. There was no knowing when the rest of us were going to be collected so we prepared a bully stew and had a brew.
The RASC lads in charge of the dump came over and asked us if we would give them a hand while we were waiting. Having nothing else to do, and in order to pass the time, we agreed. They gave us some boxes of .303 ammunition and some cases of machine gun belts, and asked us to load the belts. We had to bang the bullets into the belts, then fold the belts in a certain way, then fit them into the little narrow boxes. For the rest of the day, we sat there banging bullets into belts, and belts into boxes, until we were surrounded by a wall of narrow metal boxes full of machine gun belts.
The RASC lads brewed up for us, and conjured up some tins of fruit, some tins of bacon, and some hard tack biscuits. We had a good feed, then remembered, we had not dug our slit holes for the night. So that became our next job. That night we curled up tired but more relaxed. During the night we saw flashes in the sky and heard low clumps and crumps. The action was much nearer now, but it was still a long way off. The following morning, we were picked up and taken to brigade H Q, somewhere well south of Mersa. From there I was quickly taken to my own unit, and joined my mates in the scout troop.
I was brought up to date with all the goings on. It seemed that the Italians had occupied Sidi Barani, and small groups of them had infiltrated to the south of Mersa Matruh. There had been little action, so our unit had been mostly engaged on reccy patrols and occasional skirmishes with small groups of Italian reccy tanks and motorised infantry. In the past few days though, things had become a little more hectic, and there was feeling that soon we were going to make a move.
Our new tanks were A13 cruisers which were a great improvement on the old light tanks we had had in France. They were quicker and much more mobile. The lads liked them and they had better guns. The tanks were leaguered up about a mile away, all camouflaged with netting and nice deep slit trenches dug about ten yards from each one. They were well dispersed and the crews were each doing their own cooking. Every day the supply trucks came up with food, ammo, petrol, and water from the rear echelon. All in all things were very uneventful.
I had pretty well lost all track of the date, but it must have been at the beginning of December that we were given our orders. The attack was on. Grazaini had gone far enough. He had to be pushed back to Sollum and Tobruk. For two days we pummelled away at the Italian and Libyan troops, holed up in their little desert outposts. Gradually with support from Australian and Indian troops, Sidi Barani and Sollum were recaptured. We rumbled and crashed up rocky wadis and across salt flats, fighting running battles with light Italian M14 tanks. It was much more open fighting than we had experienced in France. But the dust, oily petrol smell, the smoke, the cordite fumes and the screech of shells and the crump of the guns, were as before. At least in this present situation we knew what we were chasing and shooting at. It was more of them against us. It was a straight forward affair, hit them or they would hit you.
The Italians had established pockets of defence all over the area. Small forts, or small enclosures made of stone, were heavily manned with artillery , including heavy machine guns and anti tank guns. Their tanks were usually behind these defence points and only came forward when we attacked the outposts. We often found that as we advanced, we would run into forward patrols of infantry carriers or light reccy tanks. If we attacked these, we would be drawn into the line of fire from their outposts and artillery. Actions became much quicker and more decisive. A quick thrust forward, a couple of hours of crashing and banging, thumping and clumping, screeching and thundering. Then the smoke swirled away and we all sorted ourselves out again.
Some tanks would inevitably have been hit. Some would have lost their tracks and been pummelled by the enemy anti tank guns and artillery. During these battles, there was the constant chatter of machine guns and the fluorescent arcs of tracer bullets. Then all would be still before the infantry went forward and mopped up. It was only then we became aware of the ache in our legs, and the burning in our eyes. And the feeling of nausea that enveloped us
One of our H Q tanks had got its traversing gear jammed and could not swing it’s gun. It had been going straight towards an anti tank gun well, sited in a gun pit. Without deviating right or left, the driver had stormed straight at the gun. Although the gunner had him right in its sights, the tank driver continued forward, and crushed the lot.
The Libyan and Italian troops didn’t put up much resistance once we had over run their guns and put their armour to flight, or put them out of action. Collecting the prisoners was a bit of a problem though, there were so many of them!
The outposts and dug outs were crammed with all sorts of things. Apart from empty shell cases and smashed machine guns, there were thousands of packets of cigarettes and small bottles of Vichy water. In some there were bottles of perfume and boxes of contraceptives. Lewd photographs littered the floors. One souvenir we all wanted was one of the small bayonets the Itie infantry carried. These were very useful. Another thing we hunted for was the small camouflage sleeping bags. They were really ground sheets that could be made into small tents. These were definitely worth having. The cigarettes though were made with a horrible dark tobacco and if I remember correctly were called “Tres Stellas”.
With the capture of Tobruk, the army of Grazaini had been driven out of Egypt and we were now on Libyan soil, on their way to Gazala and Derna. We had suffered many casualties and our numbers down to only 18 tanks. The Australians were pushing their way along the coast road, passed Derna on the way to Benghazi. Instead of us making for the coast to join up with the Aussies, we cut deep into the desert and made for Agedabia, about a hundred miles due south of Benghazi. It was a forced march of about a hundred and fifty miles across the desert with a very depleted tank force. The whole of the battalion had combined to make one composite squadron of about sixteen tanks in all. I was allocated to the command troop and the journey commenced.
Deep into the desert we slowly thundered, it was a very lonely place. The tanks had to be coaxed along, and so did we, being weary, tired and exhausted. Only men who have experienced a dreadful long desert journey, could realise how tired and
exhausted the human frame can become. The dust and dirt clings to your skin, your eyes become red and bloodshot, your head aches and your limbs become stiff. Your mind would wander and your eyes watered and closed ,as you crouched in the smell of oil, petrol and cordite fumes. After a while, we became like zombies. Doing things automatically and reacting to events without knowing why. I think that our minds went blank as we drove on, stopping every so often to check our bearings from trig points on the map.
The desert is a god forsaken land! Petrol and ammunition lorries followed behind us, and each night we tumbled out of our tanks to re-fuel and cool the engines. What a relief it was to breathe some fresh air. After about two hours though, we were off again. Travelling as far as we could in a south westerly direction, before first light.
Our radios told us that Benghazi had been taken by the Australians. On the same day, we reached Beda Fomm. I thought was the 1st of February,. In fact it was the 7th but time had meant nothing to us for the last week.
The road south from Benghazi followed the coast and continued westward towards Mersa Brega and El Agheila, about five hundred miles to the west of Tripoli. We leaguered up behind a small hill which we called “the pimple”. Looking down onto the Benghazi/ Tripoli road, we couldn’t believe our eyes. The whole of Grazianis army was retreating from Benghazi. As far as the eye could see, there were columns of trucks, tanks, field guns, troop carriers, artillery and armoured cars. God! They were sitting ducks!
By this time, we only had 14 tanks left, so everything went mad. The ammunition lorries were called up and every tank took on as much ammo as it could carry. Petrol was topped up and we prepared to attack. Italian light tanks were at each side of the column, like destroyers escorting a convoy. We came round the pimple and hit the road. Straight alongside the column we crashed, firing as we went and as fast as we could. Trucks burst into flames and within minutes the road was blocked with blazing lorries. The Italians were in complete panic. With men jumping out of their trucks and firing blindly at anything. Machine guns spluttered and we could hear the pinging of bullets hitting the side of our tank. The air inside was filled with smoke and cordite, all the gunners were firing as fast as they could load. There was no need to select targets, every shot was a hit!
Anti tank guns were manhandled out of their column and were fired at us at point blank range. Men were throwing hand grenades at us as we screamed along the convoy. The Italian tanks were scattered all around us firing away, but in absolute panic. They were even hitting their own lorries, on some occasions, even their own tanks.
The dust was so thick, we couldn’t see more than a couple of yards. Everything was burning and there were the horrible sounds of screaming and dyeing. Tanks were blazing and the ammunition inside was exploding as they were hit. Some of our tanks were also hit with the crews scrambling out of the blaze and dashing to the shelter of the rocks.
The air was full of the whine of bullets as hot metal shrapnel came raining down. Smoke was swirling around and the sound of explosions rent the air. The noise was unbelievable.
Two or three of our tanks pulled out to replenish ammo from behind the pimple. When they returned, it was as if they were stricken with a blood lust. The whole operation was over in less than two hours, after that there was nothing left to hit.
All the convoy was burning, all their tanks had been hit or abandoned. What was left of the Italian troops, were lying down at the side of the road waving white flags. The wounded were crying, screaming and dying. It was sickening! For two hours we had gone berserk, shooting, killing and burning. Now we were dazed, confused and sickened.
Slowly, we returned to the pimple. Meanwhile, the Italian medics and ambulances attempted to sort out the mess and collected their wounded. Our casualties had been minimal. Just a few shrapnel wounds, metal splash, gunshot wounds and burns. To this day, I know that the carnage forever scars the minds of all those tank crews involved.
The next day, we went to recover what Italian tanks we could. There was smell of burning flesh amid the smouldering ruins. Men were hanging half out of their cupolas. Their legs were blackened, and dropped off when we pulled the bodies free. Heaps of gooey black stuff was inside some of the tanks. These heaps were the remains of human beings. It was a sight I shall never forget, and I know that my soul will be damned for having been a part of it! Graves were being dug by the Italian survivors, but no one said much. Tears were trickling down many a face and both sides were mumbling that they were sorry it had happened.
We sat amid the carnage and gave fags to the Italians. The war was over for them. All they could do was just waiting patiently to be taken away. It had been a victory for us, but if that was victory, I didn’t want any more of it. I was stunned by the atrocity of war and bloodshed. I had experienced the ultimate degradation of human life!
Back at the leaguer, the Sixth Tanks came to take over from us, equipping themselves with the remaining Italian tanks. More infantry arrived and established a line to the west of El Agheila.
We withdrew to lick our wounds and let others sort out the mess. Although we had finally defeated Granziani, I felt it was a pyrrhic victory. I was morally sick and subdued. There was no elation in me, and certainly no pride, only depression and guilt.
There was talk of pushing on to Tripoli, but things were going badly in Greece. The Australian support division was withdrawn, and sent there to stop the rot. To add to this set back, the Germans had arrived in Tripoli, With Rommel in command of the whole of the Axis North African Forces. The Italian army had almost ceased to exist, our enemy now was not Graziani, but Rommel.
Without more support, it was impossible for us to push west to Tripoli, so within a few weeks the Germans were starting to push east towards El Agheila. Before the trouble started, we were pulled out and returned to Egypt for a refit. Our base was about four miles outside Alexandra at a place called Sidi Bishr. Two days after arriving there, I went sick with sand fly fever and serabia of the skin. (This is caused by your skin drying out, and by dirt, dust, and sweat.) I was sent to a field hospital near Alex. There I remained for three weeks.
On returning to my unit, I found that we were being re-equipped, and we were all more or less given a convalescent rest. Most days we did nothing but laze around, bathe in the sea or spend our time in Alex. I liked Alex, although the awful smell from the tannery at Mex seemed to envelope the town. However the sea breeze was cool and salty. You could even imagine you were in a semi tropical Blackpool. The docks were all bustle with ships continually unloading vehicles, tanks, bren carriers, field guns, and endless convoys of troops.
Nearly every day there were air raids on the harbour. From a beach about a mile away, we used to lie in the sand hills, watching the masses of anti aircraft guns blasting away at the enemy planes. There were anti aircraft guns everywhere, and to add to their reception, the planes were met with a murderous fire from the ships and destroyers in the harbour. Bombs were dropped, hitting the harbour many times, but we also saw planes shot down and crashing into the sea.
Alex was a sailor’s city, with matelots everywhere. There was a large navy club called the “Fleet club”. This was one of our favourite places. Colossal games of “Housey Housey” were played, with prizes of over 1000 Piastres. There were plenty of cheap fags and lager. All in all, we made some good friends among the navy lads.
Another popular area was La Rue Des Soeurs. The girls there preferred the sailors to us the desert rats. One night the area was severely bombed, and eight members of the Seventh Hussars were killed when a “house of joy” was hit.
Things were going badly in the desert, Rommel had advanced from El Agehlia through Mersa Brega, Mecheli and Benghazi. He had then made his way along the coast to Tobruk. Tobruk had been held, so he had encircled it and kept it under siege. He had then pressed on to Sollum and Halfaya Pass, there he had dug in near Fort Capuzzo. The British were preparing for an attack, building up their forces at Mersa Matruh and on a line westward towards Sidi Barani. It was the beginning of May when we went back into the desert. The time of the Kamseen Winds. The heat was so terrific, you could fry an egg on the front of the tank.
We moved into position south of Barani and waited. The build up was fantastic, I have never seen so many tanks and armoured vehicles in all my life. I don’t know how many armoured units were mustering but the desert was crawling with troops, and all the guns were pointing westwards.
On May the 15th, we attacked Sollum and Fort Capuzzo, but we could only hold on to it for a couple of days before retiring back to the area south of Barani. Tobruk was still being held. Romell could not budge the British and Indian troops from the garrison. However, we could not burst out of Tobruk and attack his rear at either Halfaya Pass or Sollum.
Three weeks later we were ready for our next attack on Capuzzo. One thrust was to be made from the coast, directed at Sollum. We were to attack the fort at Capuzzo itself, and if possible break Rommels strangle hold on Halfaya Pass to the west of Sollum.
We started off at first light on the morning of June the 15th. There was a sandstorm blowing from the direction of Siwa. Tank crews normally tied their bedding rolls and camouflage nets to the back of the tanks when on the move, but previous experience had taught us that red hot shrapnel splinters could easily set them alight. A tank could become a mass of flames without being actually hit.
Before we moved off, supply echelons collected our bedding rolls and nets. We wouldn’t be getting any sleep for some time, and we certainly didn’t expect to be stopping anywhere long enough to need the cammy nets.
As we approached Capuzzo from the south east, we were met with a fierce anti tank barrage, pinning us down, until our mobile artillery plastered their anti tank guns.
The attack proceeded slowly with the enemy fire very intense. A number of our tanks were hit and for a while we were fighting blind in the dust of the sandstorm. It was frightening to find yourself almost face to face with a light German tank as it loomed out of the dust and smoke. It was the one that got in the first shot that was the lucky one.
All day long we milled around firing and shooting, advancing and withdrawing. Still we didn’t break through to Capuzzo. Smoke was everywhere, the crashing and crunching, roaring and grinding, thumping and clumping, screeching and whining, pinging and screaming. All this was the background to the explosions going on all around us.
White hot shrapnel showered down on us, peppering the outside of the tanks. Inside, men were sweating, groaning, swearing, screaming and jabbering with fear.
We had not as yet been in contact with the heavy German panzers, but we realised these were being held in reserve until we had been worn down by the light tanks and anti tank guns. Suddenly we saw the panzers moving across our front in a south easterly direction towards Sidi Omar. We were being trapped! The advance on Sollum was being contained by Romell, so we were ordered to turn away from Capuzzo and head south east and try to stop the panzers at Sidi Omar. They were too quick for us, moving south of Sidi Omar, then turning directly east towards Sidi Sulieman. We were being cut off. Unless we could get to Sidi Sulieman first, we would be unable to maintain contact with our forces trying to push westwards towards Tobruk and Sollum
We made a mad dash towards Sidi Sulieman. Then as we crashed through the wire, we were strafed by our own planes who mistook us for panzers. By this time the battle was lost. Romell still held Halfaya Pass. Sollum and Tobruk were still under siege. We withdrew to lick our wounds, while Romell repaired his defences at
Halfaya and settled down to await our next move.
We were saved from pursuit by Romell because of an outstanding turn of events in Europe. Hitler had launched his attack, “Barbarossa”, against Russia. So Romell had to sit and wait, with no chance of getting any reinforcements for some time. His bad luck was our good fortune. Allowing us to extricate ourselves and regroup south of Mersa Matruh, in the Barrini area.
The next four months was a period of consolidation for both sides. Tobruk was still held by the British, a thorn in Romell’s rear. His lines of communication were stretched to the limit all the way back to Benghazi and Tripoli. He had to consolidate his defences at Halfaya and Sollum, and at the same time, try to get rid of this thorn in his rear. At this time, Wavell was relieved of his command and Auchinleck took over.
It was suspected that Romell was planning an intensive attack on Tobruk in the middle of November. Rumour was, Auckinlech had other ideas and was building up massive supply dumps between Mersa Matruh and Sidi Barani. At the same time he was constructing a formidable defence line to the north of the Quatara Depression at El Alamein, about 40miles from Alexandra. In case the Germans did break through in strength and make for Alexandra and the Nile.
The main problem with desert warfare is the maintenance of supply’s, and maintaining radio contact with the fighting forces. Time and time again, the fighting elements of both armies had made advances of up to 100miles in a quick push. Then had to withdraw immediately because their lines of communication had become too stretched. Another salient problem both armies had to contend with, was the desert terrain. There were few areas that could be made into defence zones, so throughout the whole of the campaign, these had to be centred around such places as El Agheila in the west, Jebel Akhdar in the Benghazi area, Gazala, Tobruk, Halfaya Pass, Sollum, the Quatara Depression, and later on El Alamein.
The months of July, August, September and October were months of reparation and re-equipping. The main problem for each side was the desert itself. Days of hot dusty winds, millions of fly’s, boredom, and “Desert Depression”. (The Bedouins have a saying. “If the Kamseen blows for ten days, you are entitled to murder your wife!”)
At times there was a feeling of awful loneliness. Men became moody, irritable, and “loners”. To break the monotony, we organised gazelle hunts. Going out in open jeeps to hunt the occasional herd of these Bambi like creatures. Gazelle steaks were quite nice!
Some of the lads organised “Scorpion fights” and bet money they didn’t have, on the results of these contests. The contests were arranged by catching two scorpions from under the rocks (being careful not to get stung). Then making a circle of petrol in the sand. The scorpions were then carefully placed within the circle. After lighting the petrol, they were made to fight to the death. We also hunted for little jerboas, making pets of these little desert rats.
It was on the 17th of November that we began our attack. The main force pushing up the coast from Barani towards Sollum and Halfaya. There was fierce resistance at Sollum. The 7th armoured brigade moved south towards Sidi Rezehig, south of Tobruk. The New Zealanders pushed on towards Tobruk, having bypassed Sollum and Halfaya Pass. In the south, the South Africans attacked the Italian Arise and Folgere divisions. The main thrust was made by the 7th armoured brigade, in the hope that the Tobruk garrison would break out and move south to the El Adem area.
The night before we moved off, there had been a fierce rainstorm, flooding the landing field at Fuka, so our aircraft could not get off the ground to give us support.
As we rumbled on towards the Sidi Rezhieg area, we came under very heavy fire from the German 88mm guns and some smaller anti tank guns. The screeching, rumbling and grinding of gun fire reached a crescendo. Smoke shells were landing all around us, confusing our sense of direction. The light panzers came out to meet us. Tracer shells streaked towards us, and the fire power became more concentrated. We could see the guns far away to our right. There would be a puff of smoke, a screeching wail, a cracking explosion, and the sound of whirling white hot shrapnel raining down as the ground shook. Black smoke was pouring from tanks to our left and right, and the incessant chatter of machine guns was all around. Tracer shells were arching through the air, and mortar shells plonking in front of, and behind us. Everyone was firing at everything that moved in front of them. We stopped and started, veered to the left, veered to the right. Crashed, bumped, and crunched into the inferno of blazing tanks. The screaming of dying men, thick black smoke, and the pungent smell of burning flesh was all around. Tank crews scrambled out of burning tanks, just as the tanks exploded with a thundering crack. We were all of a jumble, German tanks alongside our light cruisers. Infantry firing and throwing grenades at anything that moved towards them. And all the time our artillery firing salvo after salvo over our heads. (The area was known later as “The Cauldron.” And rightly so).
Everything was boiling up into a massive area of explosions. There was the crumping of shells, the screeching of tank tracks, there was fire, there were screams, the whine of engines, and the pathetic moans of terror. We could see very little, and the inside of the tank was full of smoke and fumes. Empty shell cases were rattling around, and the guns were firing as fast as they could. The breach blocks were red hot. We could hear the pinging of bullets against the hull. Then there would be a tremendous thud as we lurched over after a near miss. It seemed that the noise itself would blast us to Kingdome come! Then as quickly as it started, there was a deathly silence. Tank engines stopped leaving only a chilling quietness as the smoke swirled away. We had gone right through “The Cauldron”. We were in the open with only about twelve tanks intact. There was a small waddie to our left, so we moved towards it in order to hold up for a while. As we approached, we came face to face with four light Italian tanks. They had come up from the Arête area to the south.
The confrontation made the Italians panic. They tore away to the right, straight into a German minefield. We watched as they realised where their panic had taken them. Like big slow black bugs, they swerved left, right, left, right, seeking a way out of the minefield. With a shattering roar and a thump, one by one each tank was blown to eternity.
For two more days, we crashed and clumped at the German armour and anti tank guns. With the only let up when we withdrew for refuelling and restocking of ammo. Even this was done under heavy shell fire.
There was still no sign of the troops breaking out of Tobruk, and the New Zealanders to the north were meeting fierce resistance.
The South Africans in the south had at last forced the Italian Divisions to retreat in a north westerly direction towards Gazala. Most of the fighting was now concentrated in the Sidi Rezheig and El Adam sectors. The German infantry at El Adam were fanatical, their resistance was unbelievable. The whole area was now a graveyard of burnt out tanks. Black plumes of smoke were rising everywhere from these funeral pyres
We were exhausted, tired and weary, but no longer were we frightened. There was nothing worse that we could experience. We had seen all the horrors of tank battles and there couldn’t be anything more horrible than that for us to witness. We had in fact become immune from it all. Just as the German infantry had endured their holocaust so often, and deadened their minds and bodies with Benzedrine tablets. No longer did we feel pangs of conscious when we fired our guns and watched the explosion as an enemy tank became a mass of flames. We had all experienced the whole gamut of emotions. Now our only thought was for our own survival. There were only two kinds of soldiers in my mind. The quick and the dead! When we blasted off our guns, and destroyed another enemy tank. My only thought was, “that one will not fire at us again.”
After milling around for about four days, at last news came through. The New Zealanders had entered Tobruk. Allowing the garrison to break out and head for the Sidi Rezheig area. Then the main German Panzer force, stationed to the west of Tobruk. Pushed down south towards Sidi Omar, then turned eastwards towards Sidi Sulieman and the Wire. Their obvious objective was to annihilate the 7th armoured brigade which had regrouped south of Capuzzo. We had been badly mauled but were still capable of some positive action.
My mind flew back to the previous June and our action at Capuzzo, Sidi Omar and Sidi Sulieman. We were now having a repeat performance, but this time we were up against Romell
Back eastward we dashed, crashing through the wire just south of Sollum. At the same time Romell’s panzers crashed through just north of Fort Magdalene. Romell then turned northwards and tried to cut the New Zealanders lines of supply. For over a week, Romell pummelled away but the New Zealanders resisted and the occupation of Tobruk was accomplished.
The panzer force was , by this time down to a few dozen tanks. The British tanks and armoured units had also been mauled and bruised, but we were getting replacements and our supply lines were secure. It was not so with Romells Panzers. He was sixty miles from his own forces, and well inside our territory. There was very little in the way of replacements coming his way, and very little in the way of supplies either. In fact the Desert Fox had lost the battle!
In the first week of December he withdrew what was left of his forces, fell back towards the south, then wheeled round to Gazala.
The German forces had withdrawn from Tobruk and joined the remnants of the Italian Arête divisions to form a defensive line to the west. The focal point being at Gazala. That left the Germans at Halfaya and Sollum surrounded by the British.
We remained just west of the wire, while the rest of the British and New Zealand forces swept on to Gazala and through to Benghazi. On Christmas eve 1941, Benghazi was again taken by the allies. The Germans retreated to Agabedia and Beda Fomm. It was almost a year to the day since we had defeated Granzianis Italian army at the Beda Fomm pimple, now everything was back to square one.
We moved east, passing Sidi Barani and Fuka. On reaching Mersa Matruh we were told that we were being withdrawn from the desert. Our brigade was being replaced by new tank units. For about a week, we hung around, cleaning ourselves up, having baths and generally relaxing. Masses of troops were on the move, heading westwards. We wished them luck. Our desert campaign was over! (Another Bedouin saying is: “He who drinks of the waters of the Nile, will return to the Nile!”) Later on this proved to be correct.
When we got to Ismaillia in the canal zone, rumours were spreading like wildfire. Some said we were going home, others that we were going to India. The rumour I liked the best was, we were going to Australia to set up a tank training regiment, for the Australian armoured corps. We didn’t really know what we were going to do, but I certainly didn’t think we were going home.
Everything happened very quickly. A couple of days after receiving our new tanks, we embarked from Port Said in the merchant navy vessel, the “Ascanius”. Steamed down the Suez Canal, and turned left into the Red Sea, and set a course for India. Then they broke the news! Good God, we were going to Java. We had not given much thought to the war in the Far East, we had been more occupied with the desert campaign. We soon learned though that things were not as they should be east of Suez!
Our first stop was Colombo, just east of Ceylon. From here I managed to get a telegram home to Muriel, but I couldn’t say where we were going. It was perhaps as well that I didn’t. Things were happening so fast in that part of the world. Singapore had fallen and Java had been taken by the Japs. A quick change of plan was made and we steamed off at a fair rate of knots, destination Burma. We landed in Rangoon at the beginning of February 1942.
BURMA and THE ROAD TO MANDALEY
The scene as we entered the delta of the Irrawady river was sombre and foreboding. The docks at Rangoon were deserted with few ships to be seen. The cranes and derricks were sticking up into the sky, motionless. All the dockside warehouses were closed and locked. There were a few Indian soldiers moving around, and one or two trucks were collecting stocks from s quayside dumps. Things were obviously not as we had expected.
The Battalion quickly disembarked, left the dockyard and marched to a deserted barracks about two miles out of town. Tank crews and drivers had to be left at the docks to unload the vehicles. All the dock labour had fled!
We soon learned that the army in Burma was virtually none existent. With only the 17th Indian Division, and a few Burma rifles left. Both these formations were totally unequipped for jungle warfare. The 17th Indian Division had only been trained in desert warfare techniques. We were in the same boat, but at least we had brought some tanks to add to our fire power in the war against the Japs.
The Japanese had completely overrun Malaysia, then penetrated into Burma from the east. They were being held very loosely at the Blin river, to the north of the river Sittang. The area was a combination of dense jungle and rubber estates. The quick moving Japs had infiltrated in force, pushing the 17th Indian division back towards Rangoon. The quick thrusts the Japanese made through the jungle, had completely out manoeuvred the British forces. Making the line we held on the Blin river very insecure.
We soon discovered the Japanese were masters at jungle fighting, and didn’t bother about their lines of communication being stretched. They simply pusher ahead in small groups, relying on short sharp attacks, consolidated for a short time, then pushed along the thick jungle trails to outflank any British resistance. The British were never allowed to choose their own battlefields. Everything happens so fast in this type of warfare. The 17th Indian division were stretched across such a vast area, they were unable to concentrate any of their forces.
There was only one bridge over the river Sittang, and although we had control of it, it was under constant air attack from the Japanese. This bridge was the only access for the 17th Indian Division on the line of the Blin river. This and the Sittang river were the only defences to Rangoon. We had managed to establish a defence line to the north of the bridge, in order to keep the Sittang river between Rangoon and the Japs.
The situation was desperate, and was made worse by the fact that we were stranded at Rangoon docks having to unload our own tanks. While all this was going on, the battalion were being organised into infantry sections. It was obvious that every man in the unit was going to have to be an individual fighting force. There were going to be no rear line troops in this campaign. The pity was, we had arrived too late!
In the middle of February, the defence of the Blin river collapsed. Forcing the 17th Indian division to fall back towards the northern bridgehead at the bridge over the Sittang. We had moved our troops to the southern bank of the river, near the town of Peg. It was expected the Japs would make an airborne drop, in an attempt to capture the bridge from its southern end, so cutting off our northern bridgehead. The position was hopeless, nearly all of the 17th division were cut off, stranded between the Blin river and the bridgehead at Sittang. If the bridge were to be captured by the Japanese, there would be nothing to stop them pouring into Rangoon. A decision was made to blow the bridge and attempt to hold the line to the south of the Sittang. This meant the 17th division would have to be abandoned. Unless of course the Japanese encirclement of the northern bridgehead could be broken.
Then the final calamity occurred! As the 17th division were fighting their way back to the Sittang, they were cruelly bombed and blasted by our own planes. Although it was a mistake, it ended any hope of them getting back across the bridge and breaking through the Japanese lines. On the morning of 23rd February. There was no alternative but to blast the bridge sky high and leave them stranded on the northern bank of the Sittang.
Then an amazing thing happened. The Japs had no way of crossing the wide Sittang river now the bridge had gone. So they broke off the engagement around the northern bridgehead. Moved ten miles upriver in order to build a new bridge. Allowing them to press on to Rangoon from the east. This action was an unbelievable stroke of luck, resulting in a large number of the 17th division swimming across the river to the south bank. They had obviously had to abandon their equipment, but we did have a few thousand more men. Most of them though were nearly naked and none of them had rifles.
The situation was desperate, we knew that Rangoon couldn’t be held, so would have to be evacuated. The remains of the army of Burma had to retreat northwards towards India and Assam. It was not going to be a tactical withdrawal, but a full scale retreat. No lines of supply, we would have to live off the land.
There was no way we could establish a defence line, we had to move fast. The docks and warehouses at Rangoon, and all the port facilities, had to be blown sky high. Nothing could be left. We would have to take what supplies we could from the store sheds. Every available man was rushed to the docks to help with the loading. Tins of fruit, rice, bottles of mineral water, none perishable food, ammunition, clothing, petrol, crates of tinned milk, mepacrin tablets, medical supplies, cigarettes, cans of beer, chocolate, sweets, flour, knives, ropes, spare tyres, oil, blankets. We took anything we thought we might need. All available transport was loaded with supplies, and each man filled a stocking with rice. We also took an extra gas cape each to use as a tent.
Then we began the demolition. Everything that stood up, had to be knocked down. All the food in the stores that we couldn’t carry, had to be destroyed. Any surplus vehicles had to be burned, and artillery shells dumped in the river.
The whole of Rangoon was blazing as we moved out. We drove towards the Prome road, heading north towards Mandaley. Passing as we left, the Swegden Pagoda glistening in the sun.
Meanwhile, the Japs had moved from the east of Rangoon towards Pegu. Our tanks had moved towards them in an attempt to keep them away from the Prom road, as this was the only way out of Rangoon.
It was at this point we hit trouble, and had our first skirmish with the Japanese infantry.
Around Pegu we were confronted by pockets of Japs who had infiltrated through the lines. Very quickly, we came under devastating mortar and heavy machine gun fire. You couldn’t see the little yellow men in the dense jungle undergrowth. This was no place for tank warfare!
The Japs broke off the engagement, and veered north west towards the Prom road. The retreating column evacuating from Rangoon was held up about twenty miles away, when the Japs hit the road at a place we called the “Red Track” It was in the area of a rubber plantation. They crossed the Prome road and set up a road block to protect their flank. They were moving westwards towards the Arakan and Irrawadi river. Their intention, to capture Rangoon from the west, not from the east as we had expected.
Again our luck held as we rushed from the Pegu area in an attempt to try and clear the road block. For two days, we were all stranded at the “Red Track”, with vehicles blocking the road. All the troops at each side of the column, dug in infantry fashion while the tanks blasted away at the area of the road block.
After the second night, the tanks crashed through and the road to the north was open again. The Japanese by then had wheeled to the left, and entered Rangoon from the west, which now put them behind us. There was no going back, the pattern of our action had been established. It was going to be road blocks at the front, and covering action from the rear. The jungle was so dense, there was no way we could operate off the road. This was going to be a real jungle campaign so our tanks were only going to be of limited use. We were now basically infantry troops with no supply lines. The outlook for us was bleak, but there was one glimmer of hope, the Chinese army of Chiang Kai Shek had engaged the Japanese in Northern Burma, near Lashio.
It was decided, we would be better not to remain in one large column, but to split into smaller groups, each moving northwards independently. There would be less chance of being attacked from the north while Chiang Kai Shek was operating in Yunnan. Although this meant our retreating army would be more spread out. It also meant the Japs moving towards the Prome Road, would have to disperse their forces in order to cover a larger area.
As long as our transport was able to operate, the sick and wounded could be ferried northwards to the leading first aid posts. From there, for a while anyway, we could evacuate causalities from both Meiktila and Mandaley by plane towards India.
Our plan of retreat, was to move northwards as quickly as possible. The column pushed forward both day and night, with advanced patrols of infantry taking up the vanguard. When these advanced patrols met Japanese pockets of resistance, the column would have to hold up until the infantry broke the stranglehold. A number of our tanks were allocated to each of the columns, and employed to clear the roads and support the infantry.
Slowly we moved north to Prome, keeping in touch with the forward patrols and columns. A pattern developed, the leading columns would push along at a reasonable pace, then, inevitably they would meet a Jap road block. There would then be a pile up of transport. The Japs would attack the column with hand grenades, mortars, and small arms fire from the flanks. The infantry would set up defence posts at the side of the road. Fierce fighting would continue for a while, then the Japs would disappear into the jungle. Meanwhile the tanks and armoured cars would come rushing to the area of the skirmish. While all this was happening, the remaining columns would be held up and have to pull off the road. Then the rear and centre columns would be attacked.
We moved by day and night, whenever we were able. When we did stop to rest, it was only for a few hours. Even then we had to take up defensive patrols of the leaguer areas. Some of the Ghurkhas and West York’s had joined our group now. And even though we had no real infantry training, they soon had us organised into a reasonably efficient foot patrol.
As time went by, we became more and more tired, weary, and jumpy. All we wanted to do, was curl up and sleep, but we were afraid to do so. There were many minor casualties. Gun shot wounds, mortar splinters etc. We called these “the walking wounded”. A few bandages or the odd sling, these were minor problems. The more seriously wounded were rushed up north to the field ambulances in the vanguard. From there, a few planes were able to evacuate them to safety.
The tinned meat and general stores we had taken from Rangoon were nearly all gone by now, so we had to eat whatever we could find. Foraging parties would venture a short distance from the road and make their way into deserted villages. There they would try to round up an odd stray chicken that had been abandoned. One day, the party came back with the full carcass of a bullock. They had found it bogged down in a jungle swamp. Lucky for us, not so lucky for the bullock.
We could always find bananas growing wild, and in some of the empty villages we found stores of crystallised ginger that had been made into Palm Toddy. The Ghurkha lads even tried to introduce us to grilled snake! It was a long time before I was able to stomach that particular delicacy.
Nearly all the village we came across were deserted, apart from a few old men and the Pongees. Pongees were Buddhist Priests. Dressed in yellow robes and with shaven heads, they always carried begging bowls with them. At dawn each day, they would go round the villages seeking their daily food.
Each village had it’s own little wooden shrine, with a small Buddha on a shelf and a begging bowl at it’s feet. Within these shrines we could always find a few handfuls of rice and a jam jar with some jungle orchids. Although the rice was an offering to Buddha, we decided our need was greater than his, and hoped he would forgive us for taking it.
The jungle was a noisy place, with cricket like creatures making a humming, buzzing sound from morning to night. We would lie there hidden beneath our camouflage when on patrol. The sudden squawking and screaming of the exotic birds was often a sign for us to be on the alert. Something, or someone was moving, and our guns needed to be cocked.
On occasions, we would be crouching in the undergrowth, when suddenly, we would be disturbed by the loud cracking of fireworks. Then a voice would boom from the dense jungle “TOMMY GIVE UP! You have no chance. You are surrounded. There is
no point lying there. Give yourselves up or you will die.” They seemed to be everywhere, playing cat and mouse with us. It was both nerve wracking and demoralising.
Planes would sometimes strafe the road, then drop leaflets in their wake. The leaflets showed crude drawings of British women being raped by American soldiers. The words read “Go home and protect your loved ones.”
One day when out on patrol, we emerged into an open area near to Magwee. As we left the rough road, we noticed the tank tracks had ploughed deep furrows in the soft ground, leaving masses of peanuts exposed. We had driven through a field planted with peanuts. We filled dozens of sandbags with the nuts and took them back to the lads in the column. Peanuts, bananas, and tinned milk. It was a pretty deadly mix. No wonder we were all sick with dysentery and other stomach troubles.
It was about this time that I had an accident to add to my misery. A five gallon petrol drum toppled off a lorry as we were refuelling one of the tanks. I was the unlucky one who was underneath it, and it crushed my foot. I was unable to wear a boot and had to strap a soft slipper to my foot. My infantry roll didn’t help much, so for the rest of the journey northwards, I could only limp along. My big toe festered and my leg became swollen. There was nothing I could do but get along as best I could. It wasn’t bad when I went out in the scout car as a gunner, but during the essential foot patrols, I was bit of a dead loss.
Most of us by now were covered in jungle sores, caused by thorn scratches bleeding and festering. Dysentery and diarrhoea were rife and jungle fever hit everyone. Excessive sweating and perpetual nausea drained us physically, we were becoming a very sorry sight indeed. It was an effort to get moving after a few hours rest, and our daily mileage got less and less. We were limping along and every mile seemed longer than the last.
The humid heat of the jungle drained us, even in the shade. We all felt so tired and weary, we just wanted to curl up and be left alone. “Sod the yellow bastards” they wouldn’t leave us alone. They followed us like a swarm of bees, stinging and taunting us. We couldn’t get to grips, we knew they were just waiting for us drag ourselves into the ground.
Any vehicle that broke down had to be destroyed, but we couldn’t burn them. That would have given our position away. It was a matter of smashing the engines, slashing the tyres, and dumping carburettors and starter motors. The supplies we had brought with us had nearly all gone, so the vehicles we had left were used to carry essentials like petrol, ammunition, and our wounded. We knew that pretty soon, when our transport finally expired, we would have to leave our wounded behind. The hopes of getting to the Naga Hills were diminishing daily. There remained only one possibility, and that was to make our way to Yunnan, and join up with Chaing Kai Shek and his Chinese forces.
By now we were near to the area of the Yenangyung oil fields. As we approached the valley, we could see all the oil derricks burning like tall candles. The installation had been blown up, and there were rivers of oil all over the place.
As we moved into the field, a burning derrick toppled on top of our tank. We shuddered to a stop, and clambered through the blazing debris. Our driver was engulfed in flames, then the flames reached the fuel tank. There was a terrific explosion, and our tank was blown to Kingdome come. We lay in the undergrowth, paralysed with fright, but luckily we had all survived with only a few burns to our hands and arms.
That evening we leaguered up near to the column. The infantry had set up a defensive screen around the area. By nightfall, we knew we were in dire trouble. The Japs had surrounded us. They were in the hills overlooking the plains of Yennan-Yung, and there was no way out.
At two o’clock in the morning, after being on watch all night the padre came along, offering all of us who wished, a final communion. We all thought it was the end for us. At first light we were going to make our last stand. The Japs were preparing to come down from the surrounding hills and finish us off.
Dawn came early, and with it a shattering salvo of artillery and mortars from the hillsides. Everyone from the leaguer was rushed to form an inner circle round the vehicles. The tanks then moved into position to form an outer circle. Shells crashed and crumped, and the small arms fire from the hills reached a crescendo. Mortar shells hit the vehicles and smoke poured from stricken tanks. Stretcher-bearers scuttled around; the wounded were dragged into a makeshift first aid post located between the remains of two demolished sheds. The Gurkahs had unsheaved their Kukris. (Once unsheaved, the Kukris had to taste blood-or so they said)
Suddenly there was a lull in the Japanese advance down the hillside. Firing broke out from the north and shells started clumping away to our left, hitting the Japanese infantry. We were no longer the target. The Japs were retreating back up the hillsides, followed by other little men dressed like just like them.
The Chinese had broken through the encirclement, giving us the chance to break out of the trap. Our tanks moved in to support the Chinese, and very quickly we consolidated our position. Then wearily, we withdrew through the gap made by our Chinese rescuers.
A group of our tanks lined up with the Chinese and stayed with them for the next week or so. (Later, some of these tank crews were decorated with. “The Order of The Yellow Dragon”, by Chiang Kai Shek)
Mandaley had been evacuated and the airstrip at Mektila had been abandoned. We did though find some petrol at Mektila. Lack of petrol was becoming a problem now, so we were gradually getting rid of vehicles to conserve fuel. A few essential “soft” vehicles were retained to carry the sick and wounded, ammunition and petrol supplies. For most of us though, it was a case of foot slogging slowly and wearily through the jungle.
We were all sick and fatigued beyond endurance. Sleep was something we craved for as we stumbled along with our eyes closed and our legs dragging. Most of us had lost our equipment, apart from ammunition pouches, and rifles, or Thompson guns. Our shirts were in shreds, with many of us having no shirts at all. We carried our gas capes in a bundle around our shoulders. We still retained our stockings full of rice and our water bottles hung from our belts. Most of us had beards, making us look like jungle beasts as we mechanically plodded slowly towards the Naga Hills.
The columns had lost touch with each other, left the road and taken to jungle trails, each one making towards the Chindwin River. The tanks were still in the vanguard, but having left the road, we were not getting held up by roadblocks. We entered one small village at dawn and found two of “A” squadron’s tanks abandoned with there tracks thrown. The crews were all dead at the side of their vehicles, but they had not been killed in action. They had been brutally murdered! Their hands were tied behind their backs and they had been shot through the back of their heads. One of the crew was a corporal named Charlie. He had been born in Liverpool of Chinese parents. They hadn’t shot Charlie, but cut his head off. It was lying in a pool of blood beside his body. What a gruesome sight it was!! We buried the bodies in a communal grave.
Time became meaningless, day followed day, and night followed night. All the time our numbers were diminishing. Occasionally a man would stagger off the trail and drop off into an endless sleep in the jungle. Some of our tanks would disappear into the undergrowth and never come back. By now we had only one truck and three scout cars left. Each man carried bandoleers of ammunition, his stocking of rice, his water bottle, and his gas cape.
We were a ragged army who couldn’t have repelled a charge by a pack of cub scouts. We were finished, and the monsoons were likely to break out at any time. Unless we could get to the Chindwin before the rains came, we had no hope of reaching Assam and the Chin hills.
That night the rains started, the lightening flashed and the thunder roared. Within an hour, the trails became torrents of water. We kept moving through the night, wading through the deep rushing deluge, scrambling through the mud, and crawling through the undergrowth like drowned rats. As dawn broke, we reached the river. The water was flooding down, and the banks nearly breached.
Then the rain stopped, and we realised that if we could get across the river, the Japs wouldn’t be able to follow us. The rest of our tanks moved along side us. We drained the oil from the engines and ran them until they seized up solid. The gun breeches were smashed, the firing pins destroyed, and where possible, the gun sights smashed. Tracks were exploded from their sprockets, and the remaining soft vehicles were completely wrecked.
There was a small ferryboat at the village Kalewa. Some of us marched along the riverbank carrying the wounded on make shift stretchers, then used the ferry to cross the river. The floodwaters were getting worse, and after two journeys the ferryboat was swept away. Ropes were then slung across the river for us to cling to as we clawed our way through the flooding torrent. Some lads lost their hold and were swept away to their deaths. Some managed to reach the opposite bank, and some landed back on the wrong side of the river. The rain started again, the river heaved and the water boiled. The heavens opened and the whole world seemed to be drowning in the torrential monsoon. Lightening flashed, and thunder rolled in from the Naga Hills.
All day long we struggled at the river crossing, making new ropes when the floodwater broke our flimsy lifelines. Tree trunks were lashed together to make primitive rafts. These were launched into the river with lads clinging on in the hope of being carried to the far bank. Some of them were washed off the rafts, or plucked from the slender life ropes, and carried away by the torrent. Some were lucky and washed ashore downstream, on our side of the river. Others weren’t so lucky and landed on the wrong side of the river. At least though, they were able to clamber back to Kalewa and start again, clawing their way across the lifelines. Many were out of luck altogether and disappeared in the raging foam.
By nightfall we had done all we could and waited on the far bank for any remaining stragglers. Finally, the lifelines were cut, so there was no chance of the Japs using them to pursue us. We were safe!
We lay there in the dark, soaking wet, shivering and numb, but we had to get away from the river before dawn broke. It wasn’t long before we were once more strung out along the trail to the Naga Hills.
It was now June 1942, over four months since our fateful landing at Rangoon. We had traveled nearly eight hundred miles to the Chindwin. We had walked, staggered, stumbled and crawled along thick jungle trails. We had traveled along riverbeds, through banana groves, swamps and rubber plantations. Day and night, week after week. Some days we managed only two or three miles. Other days, we had remained pinned down in the jungle undergrowth, trying to force our way out of a Japanese ambush or fight our way through one of their roadblocks. We had been sniped at, mortared, taunted and mocked. We had eaten mangoes, breadfruit, bananas, plantains, anything we could get our hands on. Was it any wonder we all had dysentery? Sleep was a luxury we only had hazy memories of. We were completely exhausted, bruised and battered. We left Burma a beaten and demoralised fighting force. Just as when we had been evacuated from Brest almost two years ago. June was a bad month in the calendar of my mind.
As we plodded along the wooded slopes of the hilly trail, little Naga men came warily out of the rocks and undergrowth to meet us. They were all completely naked, and each carried a long blowpipe. Their friendliness was apparent as they chattered away excitedly. They immediately helped us to carry our wounded on the make shift stretchers. They jabbered away, and soon they were showing us the best trails to take. Some went ahead and returned with some scrawny chicken like creatures. These they cooked up in huge plantain leaves. They helped us make rough shelters from leaves and undergrowth. Fires were lit, and a huge bowl of soup was made from leaves, roots, and slices of a pig like animal they had brought with them. There were dozens of these little men looking after us like lost children. They sent scouts out into the hills to make sure there were no enemy soldiers following us, and by nightfall most of us were curled up in a deep sleep.
While they organised the next part of our journey, we gave some of them rifles and ammunition, and they went off to hunt for food. The next day, we started to climb a steep mountain trail, led by a dozen of the little Naga men. All the wounded on the stretchers were carried by the younger Naga boys.
For two days, we slowly followed the mountain trails towards Imphal. On the second day, we made a makeshift camp out of tree branches and gas capes. Then we waited for the return of the scouts the Naga men had sent ahead. The rain was falling steadily, and because we all had stomach troubles, we named the camp “Dysentery Hill” Towards evening, a truck came from the north guided by a little Naga man. It had come from Imphal and had brought blankets and some food for us. It was driven by a dour Scotsman and a lieutenant from one of the infantry regiments. A makeshift cookhouse was set up and soon a huge bowl of corned beef stew was bubbling away, and Dixie’s of hot tea were being brewed. Our plates were plantain leaves, our spoons were our fingers, and our mugs were cigarette tins. We were given some blankets, some of us got new shirts, and we all got cigarettes.
The rain poured down and the thunder roared, but we felt much better and curled up under our gas capes and slept the sleep of the utterly weary. Our journey was over and whatever was going to happen to us was going to be an improvement on what had happened to us over the last four months. All we could see was a brighter future, but we would have to be patient.
We hadn’t seen much evidence of refugees during our flight up the road to Mandaley, but here in the Chin Hills there were groups of them all gathering together. It was here the dreadful news was broken to us. Cholera had broken out in one of the camps, and we would not be able to move out until the extent of the plague had been determined. They didn’t want it to spread into India, so we had to stay put until things were sorted out. The wounded had been evacuated to the railhead at Dinapur, but the rest of us just had to sweat it out a few more days.
After four days we had a visit from General Alexander who thanked us for, as he put it, “saving India”. What he did say however, was, as a fighting force, we were now useless! And we would be going back to India as soon as possible for rest and recuperation. Another two days passed before the lorries came to take us to the railhead at Dinapur. From there we boarded a goods train and set off westwards to wards Deccan.
The journey was a long one, with the train stopping every hour or so so we could all tumble out and relieve our bowels at the trackside. We were all in a shocking state with diarrhea. As the train chugged across India for what seemed like days, we spent most of the time sleeping on the floor, taking very little notice of anything. We were too exhausted to care. We had been given a supply of fags and clean cloths, but these were soon soiled. We tried to get rid of our beards, but you can’t do much with one pair of nail scissors between thirty or forty men. Eventually, after what seemed like ages, we arrived at a place called Dhond in the Deccan. From there we were taken to a tented camp.
Some of the infantry lads were already there, but they moved out of their tents when we arrived and gave them to us. They bedded down in a large open hut and left us to sleep. The next day, they gave us all their NAAFI rations of beer and fags; they even brought us our meals as we slept solidly for two days. We were all given tablets and slowly our stomachs began to feel better as our bowels got back to normal. We had nothing to do but get ourselves cleaned up. At the same time, the medical orderlies stuffed us with tablets and treated our scratches and cuts.
After we had been kitted up, it was decided we could all go on fourteen days leave as soon as we were fit. We could go wherever we wanted, so we drew a pile of pay, and waited for our passes. I decided I wanted to go as far away as possible, and a glance at the map told me that Bangalore was as good a place as any. Most of the lads had decided to go to Bombay, but I didn’t fancy it.
Before leaving, we had to report to the medical officer for a final check up. Then, all being well, we were issued with our leave passes. When he saw my foot was still swollen and I had to wear slippers, he told me I couldn’t go. Not until I could get my boots on. I was devastated, and rushed back to tell my friends Fred and Aggie the score. They said there was only one thing to do, and that was to prove I could get my shoes on. They pushed and pulled at my boot, eventually getting it over my swollen toe, then gingerly they laced it up. It was bloody agony, but I had to pretend it was comfortable. With Fred and Aggie supporting me, I was almost carried to the M.Os room. They left me near the door, and I bravely marched the last few steps into his office. Every step was sheer agony. The M.O made me stamp my feet, a smile appearing on his face when he saw me trying not to wince. He did sign my pass though, after making me promise to report to the military hospital at Bangalore. He said it would need dressings while I was there. I hobbled back to my mates, and they carried me back to our tent. There they gently prized off my boots and replaced them with a pair of oversized gym shoes. The next day, I was told I could put up two stripes. I had been made acting corporal.
The journey to Bangalore was a long and tedious one, traveling south for a full two days and one night. Most of the time we slept. When the train did stop at the small railway stations on rout, we get off and strolled around the platform just to stretch our legs.
Everywhere there was hustle and bustle. India seemed so full of people, mostly in rags and dreadfully poor. Beggars were everywhere and the noise at the stations was bedlam. Everyone seemed to be on the move, and the heat was oppressive. We saw no Eastern grandeur, just abject poverty. All the time the natives were fawning “Sahib this, and Sahib that” but somehow I didn’t trust them.
We soon got the hang of this traveling lark, finding that if we got hold of the right porter, he would telegraph the next station and a hot meal would be waiting for us. Char Walla’s were everywhere, so we could get “Fruit, mangoes, eggs and bread” at every station. I was a bit wary of the mangoes, as my tummy was still a bit off. The sun blazed down all the time, making the carriage unbearably hot. We managed to organise ourselves in such a way, we had the compartment to ourselves. So once the train started moving, we took off our clothes and stretched out in just our shorts.
Down south through Hyderabad towards Mysore, through green fields and densely wooded areas, passed flooded streams and rivers we traveled. Wild buffalo were to be seen everywhere, wading belly deep in the streams and water holes. Every station we passed through seemed to have its own colony of monkeys. They were all along the station platforms, chattering and screeching in defiance of the moaning beggars and pompous railway officials.
Donkeys, humped back cows, dogs, squawking birds, baskets of snakes and the plaintive wail of flutes, all jumbled together in a noisy heap. This was my impression of India. Everyone seemed to be arguing, shouting, begging, stealing, just trying to eke out an existence. There was a perpetual smell of burning charcoal, animal dung, sweat and flies. The heat was oppressive, even the rain was warm. I didn’t like India!
On arrival in Bangalore, our first priority was to find the Y M C A, and hopefully some accommodation. We managed to hire a room with three beds and a washbasin. That was enough for us. Our next job was to scout around and see what was what.
Bangalore was a nice city with well-kept gardens and clean streets. There was a huge open area in the center called the Maiden. Here, some troops had established a camp. We were delighted to discover that these were the same troops, the West York’s, who had crossed the Chindwin with our column. In no time, we had joined them, and had an open invitation to use their canteen. There was a small mobile cinema on the camp, and the Y M C A had established an egg and chips service. All in all, we were well set up!
We had a minor set back, when we found the best service club was for officers and warrant officers only. There was only one thing for us to do. A quick trip to the Bazaar was called for. A “derzhi” (tailor) was found, and we got him to sew three stripes on each of our shirts: Having promoted ourselves, we strolled down to the Sgt’s and W Os club for a quiet pint. We had just settled down for a session when a voice bellowed at us. “What the hell do you think you lot are doing in here?” It reminded me of our Sgt Major in Plymouth, after our return from Dunkirk. This time though it was “A” squadron’s Sgt Major. Being a decent sort, he bought us all a drink, then told us to bugger off and get the stripes off our shirts. Still it was a good try, and we still had the West York’s canteen to fall back on.
Our time in Bangalore was nice and peaceful. By the end of the week and after a couple of trips to the Military Hospital for dressings, I managed to dispense with my slipper and get my shoe back on. Although I did have a nice pair of leather chapplies made by a local cobbler in the market place.
The park just outside Bangalore was a real pleasure. We spent many an hour rowing round the huge lake and sleeping in the boats under the midday sun. These were halcyon days, but all to soon they were over, and we had to return to Dhond to see what was in store for us next. Actually, nothing was happening other than we were being refitted with new Sherman tanks.
When I returned to the unit, I was told that my job in future would be corporal to the intelligence officer. This was a good number. There was nothing to do other than issue maps when we were on the move, and help the intelligence officer liaise with Brigade H Q. Then, when we returned from a maneuver, I would help him with the war diary. I would still be with the scout troop, so the set up suited me just fine.
the Holy Land
It was getting on towards the end of October, when we were ordered to proceed, fully equipped with our new Sherman tanks, to Bombay for embarkation. I was reminded of the old song the tank Corp regulars used to sing at Warminster. “A troop ship was leaving Bombay, bound for Blightys shore.” This time though, we were not bound for Blightys shore. New maps were given to me for issue, and it came as a complete surprise to find we were going to Iraq and Palestine.
Things had been going well in the North Africa campaign. The Germans had been held at Alamain. So I thought we might be going back to the desert, I certainly didn’t like the idea of Iraq. Was the second front going to be through the Balkans? There had been very little trouble in the Iraq area. Rashide Ali had attempted a coup in May 1941 but failed in his pro axis activities. If things were reaching a climax in the desert, I for one was not unhappy at the thought of not taking part. Those early days at Fort Capuzzo, Sidi Suleiman, and Sidi Omar, were still fresh in my memory.
When the news of our victory at Alamein did reach us, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was relieved that I had not been involved in the pulverisation of the Panzers. Strange to say, I had a feeling of sympathy towards the German Panzer tank crews.
The world is full of surprises, and you can imagine mine when I discovered we were going to Basra on the S S Ascanius. The same ship that had taken us to Rangoon in February 1942. The crew told us they had managed to scurry out of the harbor just before we blew up the docks. Since then, they had been sailing off the coast of Ceylon.
During the last few days of October, we steamed up the Persian Gulf to Basra and a new phase of our travels began. The Americans had landed in Tunis; German forces were retreating into Tripolitania. Stalingrad had broken the might of Barbarossa, and the Russians had mounted a counter offensive. All in all, the Germans were having a rough time
As we approached the docks at Basra, through the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates, towards the Shat El Arab. We saw masses of palm trees on the lush green banks. I could well believe that this was the biblical “Garden of Eden”. The river was crowded with dhow and dozens of other little boats shaped like inflatable rafts, all bobbing about. We learned later that these raft like craft were called “Guffa”. Reed huts lined the riverbanks with goats running around in profusion. The sun was shining brilliantly, and there was a cool breeze blowing in from the sea. It all looked very pleasant, but it was only an illusion. This was not the real Iraq.
After we landed, we moved to a camp near Schaiba. Then, we realised the green and lush riverbanks didn’t extend very far. Five miles from the river, we entered into an inhospitable and barren desert. The only fertile land was around the rivers, or the irrigation canals that ran off them. Iraq had relied on man made irrigation for thousands of years. The rainfall is insignificant, and what there is, gets carried away by the rivers before it can do any good. Ancient water wheels push water from the river along narrow ditches in the crop fields. Some of these wheels were huge and had been the lifeline to the farmers since biblical times. Agriculture was very primitive, with oxen being yoked to large grinding stones, and spending the whole of their lives walking round and round in small circles. The way of life remains virtually unchanged from that of thousands of years ago. Everywhere was hot, dry, and dusty. Although at this time of year, it was considered to be quite cool. The villages were small and comprised mainly of reed huts. There was a massive population of scrawny dogs and goats. The cattle were all thin and hungry looking.
Having settled down in our camp at Shaiba, we began to wonder what the hell we were doing in this hole. There was no war going on here, so we wondered what our roll was going to be. It took some time for us realised that we were more or less a security force. We were there to show our mighty military potential.
There had been some concern that the Germans might break through the Caucasus towards the Northern Irakian oil fields. This fear had been more or less dispelled since the failure of their offensive against the Russians, particularly the gallant resistance by the Russians in the Stalingrad battles. The feeling was, “winter was approaching, and soon the Germans would be emulating Napoleons retreat of 1812”.
After a few weeks, we were organising extensive exercises and making a quick tour of Iraq to show the Iraqis what a mighty armored force we had. Northwards we went, and although we retained our camp at Shaiba, near Baghdad, we were spending most of our time in the desert, going east, west and north. Living desert fashion, and making our leaguers each night.
We spent weeks just south of Baghdad. Each day, we would set off in convoys and small armored units to tour the villages of central Iraq. We visited some of the ancient sites, like The Arches of Cthesiphon and the ruins of Babylon. The latter were a big disappointment to me! The ruined city of Nineveh and the water wheels of Hamma and Noira were much more impressive. The towns of Samawa and Habbania were very uninteresting.
A new innovation we practiced now, was the use of tank transporters. During our early desert campaign, we found that if we had to move deep into the desert, our tanks were either worn out, or broken down before we arrived at the start of the conflict. Now the tanks were loaded onto huge flat transformers and ferried for miles towards the action. The rapid movement of the armor and the saving on wear and tear was a great advantage to our mobility and striking power.
On returning to our permanent camp, we had to prepare for a cold winter. Outside accommodation had to be a little more substantial than just tents. The winds were very strong at this time of the year, and when it rained, it poured down, with everywhere getting flooded. We made dug outs, about five foot deep and erected our tents over them. this gave us much more room! We even made fireplaces with chimneys, out of rocks and baked mud. The only fuel available to us was brushwood and camel dung.
November and December were very cold, making us all pretty miserable. Each Friday, we had to rid the camp of the stray dogs. They came in from the desert seeking food. There were great numbers of these hairy prairie dogs, so we would send out squads of men to shoot as many of them as they could find. The next week, there would be as many dogs as before to be shot. We couldn’t figure where they all came from.
There was one problem with this weekly dog kill. That was our own pet poodle “Busty”. He had been adopted by one of the tank crews and never left their side. Even when we went out on exercises, he would sit on the front of the tank, underneath the gun and bark, and bark, and bark. He would never leave his post as guardian of the tank. Now, every Thursday night, he had to be taken out of camp, into Baghdad. There he was left in the safe custody of some of the ladies at a certain café in River Street. On Friday night he would be collected and brought back home, having avoided the “Dog kill” for another week.
Baghdad was a busy place with its wide bridge over the Tigris and busy market area. To some extent, it reminded me of Cairo, with its noise and bustle, its smells, the incessant burning of charcoal fires, and the aroma of spices and incense.
The bazaar area was more like my expectations of Eastern mystery. There were hoards of beggars and lame paupers. There were silversmiths and silk shops. There were woodcarvings galore, and of course there were the ubiquitous camels and donkeys. There were open fronted cafes with the Arabs drinking aniseed and smoking Hookahs. Each afternoon, everywhere closed and all the peddlers went to sleep, just as in Cairo.
In May 1943, we were on the move again, leaving Iraq for Palestine. North Africa had been cleared of all the axis forces, but we still couldn’t figure out what the future held in store for us. For ten months, we had not fired a shot in anger, but we felt that our luck was about to run out. There must be something unpleasant planned for us! Perhaps we were going to be part of the second front that everyone was expecting to be launched in the underbelly of Europe! Was it to be “The French Riviera, Italy, or Greece?
Our journey into Palestine took us southwest across the desert, following the line of the old caravan trails. Through the Jordan Valley and the Hills of Judea. It was a terrible journey, made at the wrong time of year. The heat blasted back at us from the rocks, and for the first time in my life, I experienced heat stroke. The situation was so bad, they had to set up heat stroke centers all along the desert trails. The casualties were immense.
For days, we moved westwards into the Rift Valley of the Jordan, until we reached Allenby Bridge. Here we crossed the river just north of the Dead Sea, and headed towards Jerusalem and Jericho. We rested for a few days outside the walls of the ancient city of Jerusalem. Then we moved north, passing the Mount of Olives towards Galilee and the city of Nazareth. As we walked along the shores of Lake Galilee, and passed the small town of Bethlehem, the hillsides were steep and rugged. I was dragged back in my mind to the birth of Christendom, and other Bible stories.
For over a month, we traveled north to south through Palestine. The mountains to our left, and the Jordan valley to our right. Then we entered the eastern part of Syria, in the area of Bekka. The Bekka was a huge plane, bordered on the west by the Syrian mountains, and the Cedars of Lebanon. The area was hot dusty, bleak and barren. We made camp at the sight of the Roman ruins at Baalbek. There we settled down to a few weeks of doing nothing. The wind blew down from the north and we lived in what seemed like a perpetual dust storm. It was like the Kamseen winds of the desert. I can only liken it to the gust of hot air that hits you when you open an oven door!
It got hotter and hotter, and all we could was soak up the sun and listen to our officer’s versions of the war, including detailed accounts of the battle at Alamain. There was nothing for us to do. We felt as though we had been left there to rot like a group of useless Bedouins.
Eventually we started to go out on map reading exercises, up into the mountains to the west. One day, after boiling in the sun on the plains, we went further up the mountains than we had ever been before, up into the Cedars of Lebanon. To our surprise, we discovered a three-inch layer of snow on the upper slopes! The column stopped and we had a colossal snowball fight amongst ourselves.
A few weeks later, we moved north towards Alleppo. Our purpose, to establish “dummy” tank units in the hills near the Turkish border. Dummy tanks had been used successfully south of Alamain to confuse the enemy reconnaissance planes. They were simply three-ton lorries with cardboard superstructures and dummy guns sticking out of the front. Looking down from a few thousand feet, they could easily be mistaken for real armored vehicles. Our job was to set up leaguers of these dummy tanks, and other contraptions. So giving the impression of a heavy concentration of armored units to the north of Syria. I don’t know what we were hoping to achieve with these maneuvers. Perhaps it was to buy some time whilst we were planning the invasion of Europe. Or maybe a diversionary tactic whilst Sicily was invaded. As it was in July.
One day, while at one of these dummy units. We were visited by an unidentified aircraft. It circled round slowly, then dropped a single bomb. We watched the bomb float slowly to the ground, flung ourselves under rocks and bushes, then waited for the explosion. Nothing happened. We lay there frozen to the spot. (You must remember, this was the first time we had been under fire for nearly a year) Holding our breath, we waited and waited for the big bang that didn’t come. By the time we climbed out of our cover, the plane had disappeared. We expected to see the unexploded bomb in the middle of our leaguer, and sure enough, there it was. Next to a clump of camel scrub.
Three men were sent to get a closer look. In they went, on their stomachs each yard taken carefully and apprehensively. The rest of us were told to evacuate the leaguer as the bomb was going to be exploded by riffle fire from 200 yards. The three lads eventually reached the bomb. After a few seconds they all stood up, lit up their fags and sat on it. We couldn’t believe it, we thought they must have all gone doolally tap! We roared at them to “get back quick before the thing went off”. They just sat there laughing, eventually managing to shout back to us “The bomb is made of wood” Wooden bombs and dummy tanks, what a sense of humor! We never did find out weather the stunt was of German or Turkish origin.
During one of our exercises in the mountains north of Aleppo. The officer in charge of our troop of scout cars, called us to a halt. Then very solemnly told us to gather round while he explained our position on the map. “That there is the Turkish border, under no circumstances must we cross that line of stunted trees. Turkey is a neutral country and any violation of their neutrality will bring on serious consequences”.
We were all crowding round the map on the ground as he was explaining the situation to us. Suddenly, there was roar of engines, and four Turkish armored cars steamed in and surrounded us. We couldn’t understand what they were shouting at, but there was no mistaking the seriousness of their guns pointing at us. Slowly a Turkish officer approached us waving a heavy revolver. In broken English, he informed us, it was not Turkey on the other side of the stunted trees, but Syria. We were on the wrong side of the border!
We had to laugh at the obvious discomfort of our officer as he tried to explain his mistake by pointing at his map. Eventually, all was sorted out and the Turkish soldiers dismounted their cars, and put down their weapons. We all sat down, had a brew and exchanged fags. It was too nice a day to fall out with each other, and at least the incident had brightened our day.
I must tell you about Aleppo and the fortress on the hill. Aleppo was a very old city, dirty, and crowded with more than its fair share of beggars and vagabonds, but the bazaar and market were out of this world. The market was built into the hillside, underneath the ancient Aleppo castle. As you entered via a tunnel through the hillside, you walked into an Alladins cave of Eastern splendor. Brilliantly colored rolls of silk were draped from the high ceilings. Brassware and Alladins lamps stood row upon row. Swords, daggers, and hunting knives richly engraved and enameled were displayed in their hundreds. Bowls, vases, plates, and jugs, all beautifully colored and glazed. Shawls, carpets and rugs in wonderful patterns and colors lay piled high, together with fur cloaks and coats. Silver trinkets, plates and bowls were stacked on rough plank tables. Silken robes and dressing gowns in all the colors of the rainbow were hanging round like exotic flowers. Incense filled the air and mingled with the rich smell of fruit pilled high like horns of plenty. Exotic heady perfumes were displayed in rows of beautifully shaped gallon jars. There were mountains of grapes and walnuts. This was truly a market from “The Arabian Knights”! One could spend hours walking around the place, just soaking up the flavor of the ancient cradle of the world. I bought an old book, “The Rubiyat of Omar Khyam”. I still enjoy browsing through this gem of poetic perfection.
In August, we packed up our camp near Aleppo and went into the mountains west of Lebanon. Our ultimate destination was to be Slennffe. Here we were to be trained in, mountain warfare, demolition, mine laying, and mine detection. We made roadblocks with large oil drums, then blew them up with specially prepared fuses. We made booby traps. We hunted for mines randomly placed at the roadside, on tracks, or on bridges. We spent days out in the mountains with only a few days rations, then were left to find our way back to camp. Sometimes we were lost for days on end, but no one worried. If we went far enough to the west, we would have finished up somewhere near Beirut; providing that is, the black snakes that lived in the rocky mountain streams didn’t get us first.
Our camp had been set up on a small plateau, nestling amongst cedar and pine trees. It was a lovely spot, with our tents in the middle, and the vehicles parked around the perimeter. At night we used to light a huge campfire and sit around for hours drinking cheap wine, and eating walnuts and dried raisins. The cookhouse could always find some surplus sausages, so we would make sandwiches with the course bread, baked in our makeshift oven.
Sat around the fire at night, surrounded by the dark woods. We would often see bright little eyes reflecting from the bushes. These were the small Syrian bears, just like dark brown teddy bears. They stood about three feet high, and when we retired to our tents, we would watch them scamper near to the fire and gobble up our bread crusts, and other leftovers. It was a lovely period, without care or worry, but we had the feeling it wouldn’t last.
We left Slennffe, moving westwards over the Syrian mountains and the Cedars of Lebanon towards the coastal region. Although we had spent over a month in the mountains, we had never completely crossed over them to the western slopes. The mountain trails were high and steep, winding their way, twisting and turning through deep chasms and gullies. To climb fifty feet, we often had to travel five miles, winding back on ourselves, zig zaging along the mountainside. The tanks made very heavy going of it, but what we didn’t realise was this was good training for things to come, when we were to face the same terrain in more trying circumstances.
Frequently the column was brought to a halt because one of the vehicles couldn’t make it round one of the sharp bends. We then spent hours nudging it round a tight corner, with steep drops only inches away from the wheels. Sometimes the track was so narrow, we had to chop down trees, or move large rocks in order to get through.
Perched high on rocky pinnacles, we encountered numerous Crusaders castles. Mostly in ruins, but still used by mountain dwellers as shelters. We often called on these mountain men to guide us. They knew the mountains so well, but sometimes they would take us down a track that was so narrow, we couldn’t get our tanks through. Then we would have to spend hours maneuvering our way out again. At night we would pull off the trail for rest and food. We didn’t care how long we were going to be stuck in the mountains. Night times were not at all chilly and those little Syrian bears were always around to keep us amused. Prowling around, watching us with great curiosity. Quite harmless and friendly, but very wary.
At last we reached the mountain summit. From here we could look westwards towards the blue Mediterranean. It was a lovely sight with the sun shining on a coastal plain lush and green. The journey down the mountain was quick and pleasant. The rocky wooded mountain terrain began to change into terraced vineyards. Grapes grew everywhere. Even the narrow road was bordered by fields of vine, heavy with bunches of small green grapes. We picked and ate them wherever we stopped. In the little village settlements, we were given sweet white wine that tasted like nectar.
Dimly, in the distance, we could see our destination, the small coastal town of Sidon, a few miles south of Beirut. On arrival, we made our camp in a field that sloped all the way down to the sea. This camp sight was the best we ever had during the whole of our travels abroad. The grass was lush and green and the olive groves were shady. The weather was beautiful, and the sea was calm, clear, and warm. For the next four or five weeks, we had the best time of our overseas service lives.
Strange to say, we were issued with special rations, and the meals the cooks dished up were out of this world. Lamb chops with green peas and sweet potatoes. Tins of lovely mixed fruit, even custard to go on it. We lived like lords, wondering what we had done to deserve it. Our sergeant cook made an ingenious oven from rocks, clay, and an old oil drum. It was oil fired by a clever drip system. There was also a cooker cylinder called a “Rypass” and for the first time for ages, we had white bread, baked in this Heath Robinson oven. All of the cooks seemed to excel themselves, even coming up with fancy cream cakes one day.
Beirut was just up the road, about 15 miles to the north. Each day, after a few hours general maintenance on the tanks, we were free to go into town for the afternoon. Some of us opted for sunbathing on the beach in the afternoon, leaving the trip into Beirut until after tea. Lorries were always available to ferry us up the coast, then bring us back each night at about eleven o’clock. It was a wonderful period of rest and convalescence.
Beirut was a marvelous city, clean and well kept, with lovely gardens and modern buildings. The harbor was spacious, and lined with palm trees. There was a submarine base, and a great naval club with its own swimming pool. We were always welcome there. The open cafés were crowded and everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Good meals were cheap, and really enjoyable. All in all, Beirut was a very pleasant place!
The market at the back of town was a bustling, colorful place. I have never seen such an abundance of luscious fresh fruit. I spent many happy hours at this “Jewel of the Mediterranean” and I shall always cherish the memories.
All good things come to an end. So late August, or was it early September. (Time had ceased to have much significance) We packed up our haven at Siddon and traveled back to Palestine along the coast road. The journey was leisurely and pleasant. There seemed to be no hurry to get to wherever it was we were going. We knew we were going back to Egypt, but we thought this may have been a staging post prior to our return to England. Our hopes were high that we were going home!
All along the coastal plain, there were orange groves and cultivated fields, with irrigation canals bringing life to the barren desert. The air was filled with the aroma of oranges, while the breeze gently swayed the palms. If we picked our own, a sandbag full of oranges cost only a shilling. This certainly was a land of milk and honey!
We passed Tel a viv and Haifa as we traveled all the way back to Egypt. When we reached Port Said, with its dull, dusty and depressing warehouses and docks. The old Bedouin saying came to mind. “He who drinks of the Nile, returns to the Nile” In our case, it had proved to be true.
Sicily was invaded in August 1943, and the invasion of Europe was imminent. To our minds, there were two alternatives for us. To be sent to Italy, or to return to England to take part in the offensive on the European mainland. Neither alternative appealed to me, but we all realised that our good fortune of the last few weeks was about to run out. Our time of playing soldiers was over.
From Port Said, we were moved to the Canal Zone, to await developments, and our fate to be decided. Our camp was near Ismallia, and for the next few months, we settled down to routine camp life again, just waiting for the word to go.
Italy was invaded from its toe, while we assumed we were being held back until our place in the European invasion was decided. We were CERTAIN we would be sent back to England, to be a part of the invasion fleet that was soon to cross the channel. We were even trained in waterproofing our tanks for beach landings from transporter ships and barges.
Everyone was resigned to our eventual fate, and very apprehensive of the future. We had been more than lucky so far. In some ways we had had a charmed existence. It was too much to expect that the next time we went into action, we would all come out Scott free again.
The invasion of Italy was progressing well for the allies. So much so, in November the Italians sued for peace. But the Germans would have none of it, taking up the defense of the Italian mainland themselves.
In March 1944, we were told, there was no place for us in the European invasion plans. We were to embark for Italy, being committed to the Italian campaign against the German army once more. I remember thinking at the time. The Italian campaign was the lesser of two evils. I had not relished being part of beachhead battles off the coast of France.
We sailed to Taranto, and as we entered the harbor, we could see the remains of the Italian fleet. Sunken and stranded in their ocean graveyard. The most bitter of our campaigns was about to begin.
TARANTO TO THE RIVER PO
The invasion of Italy had been made from Sicily in two prongs. The British army had crossed the Straights of Messina virtually unopposed, quickly capturing Taranto and Bari. The American forces had not been so lucky, meeting fierce resistance at the beachhead at Salerno. The Germans had foreseen a possible landing in that area, not only were they prepared, but were actually waiting when the American forces landed. It was nearly a month later that General Clarke’s forces broke out of their bridgehead, crossed the Volturno River, and captured Naples. To the east, the Eighth Army had easily advanced from Taranto, up the coast of the Adriatic and taken the airfield at Foggia.
The armistice that the Italians had started negotiating in 1943, was finalised in November, and the Italians became our allies. The Germans though were still in control of the Italian mainland. Which put them at war with their former allies. We were actually using some Italian troops to fight the Germans on Italian soil!
Naples was captured in October 1943, making the tip of Italy under allied control. The Germans established a defense line, from Casino in the west, to the Rapido River, then across the central Apennine Mountains to the Sangro River, and the east coast at Pescera.
It wasn’t until December that the British and the Canadians reached the town of Ortona, just south of Pescara on the Adriatic coast. The American breakout of the Salurno bridgehead had only taken them to a point just south of Casino and north of Naples. The road leading up the west coast to Rome was blocked off by the Germans, on the hinge of their defense line south of the Pontine Marshes at Casino. There had been two battles for Casino, one in January, and the other in February. On both occasions, the allies had been unsuccessful.
We landed at Taranto in March 1944 and took our place in the Adriatic sector. In no time at all, we were moving westwards towards Naples. Here we joined forces with General Clarke’s army for another attack on Casino. In the meantime, further landings were made at Anzio and Nettuna, south of Rome and north of Casino. Both these landings had got bogged down, leaving Casino, the main stumbling block to any advance in a northerly direction. Our move to the west, took us across the mountains to the Volturno River, north of Naples and east of Casino. It was here we realised, our training at Slennfee in the Syrian mountains had not been a waste of time.
The terrain was mountainous and almost impossible for tracked vehicles. All the bridges over the rivers had been demolished by the Germans. There were small pockets of resistance in all the valleys and on the craggy mountaintops. The area was easy to defend, and the German infantry were masters of the technique.
The enemy artillery was mobile and effective, making our progress slow and difficult, but there were no pitched battles as such. To us, it was like clearing one mountain pass, then finding the next one blocked by a small group of German infantry with heavy artillery support. Out tanks were pretty useless in this type of warfare, as we found it impossible to maneuver them quickly
This was infantryman’s country, and the pattern was always the same. The Germans held a line, and the British infantry pushed slowly forward. The Germans then withdrew, blew up all the bridges and laid minefields. Our tanks were then used to consolidate the infantry advances. Then, having done this, we found the Germans had pulled back a few miles and set up another defense line. These tactics meant that we were always being opposed from the mountaintops. We were the ones moving slowly forward, but the Germans in their defensive positions always had the advantage.
By May 1944, the third attack on Casino was ready. General Clark’s army had been joined by the British forces of General Alexander. There was a mixed bunch of British infantry and armored units, Poles and French forces, and seasoned veterans from the fourth Indian division. The same ones who had fought so valiantly in the desert campaigns.
The prelude to the final battle for Casino , was a thunderous pulverisation, both of the town itself and the monastery on the hill. Thousands of tons of bombs were dropped, and Casino became a mass of rubble. It was thought that no one could have survived this holocaust of saturation bombing. But the German parachutists that were holding Monastery Hill, went deep into the rocks, and came out fighting with fanatical fury.
The bombing was so intense, the rubble and craters created problems for our own armored units. They couldn’t get through to the infantry lads to support them. The Poles had crossed the Rapido River to the north of the town, and were moving towards the monastery from the Pontecorvo area. Our infantry were crawling through the town at the base of the hill. Street fighting was taking place, with enemy snipers behind every crumpled wall and in every bomb crater.
Our infantry on the slopes of Monastery Hill, were in rocky foxholes, pinned down by murderous fire from the ruins of the Benedictine Monastery. As the rains continued to fall, the area of Casino became a muddy blood bath. Tanks became stuck, and our guns couldn’t get up the mountain trails. Our lads were fighting face-to-face battles with fanatical German youths. The Gurkahs were using their knives, and the Poles were still pushing their way through the mountains between Pontecorvo and Fresinone.
The infantry on the slopes could only be supplied with ammunition by pack mules. So the trails were littered with dead donkeys, blown to Kingdome come by the bombing and shelling. There were times when the forward troops could only get their supplies of ammo by parachute drop. Alas, these drops mostly fell where our lads couldn’t reach them.
The forces attacking the Monastery had to be seen to be believed. There was even a contingent of French Goumes from Morocco. These wild men from the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, preferred to use their knives rather than guns and always had their womenfolk with them, even in battle!
Our tanks were being used as mobile gun support for the artillery. Fierce fighting was taking place along the base of the hill, and in the town. Towering above us was Monastery Hill, with the ruins perched on top, shrouded in smoke. The crash and thump of shells was incessant, and the screech and whine of mortars and flying shrapnel was a background to the crack and crackle of small arms fire. Individual fights were taking place all around the town, and everywhere was confusion and fear. Men were screaming and dying, some killed by their own allies. The whole area was a cauldron of fire, thumps, crashes and crunches. Smoke, cordite, dust and moans. There was nowhere you could go to avoid the mayhem.
The main street was being bombed from somewhere in the center of town. It took us a long time to realise, a German Tiger Tank had been bricked up inside a house. Every so often, the shuttered windows would open, an 88mm gun poked out, blasted forth, withdrew, windows closed, and everyone said. “Where the hell did that come from?”
The Gustav Line was broken when our troops crossed the Rapido River into the Lira Valley. At the same time the Poles stormed the Monastery from between Pontecorvo and Fresinine.
Around the middle of May, a dreadful silence descended. The crackle of machine guns ceased, the shells stopped falling, and the smoke swirled away.
Men lay huddled in holes in the rocks. Their faces blackened, their eyes glazed, just staring and twitching. Tank crews climbed from their tanks and slumped to the ground, red eyed and dazed. Men were sick and men were moaning. Men were sobbing and men were crying. Some men were cowering behind heaps of bricks, just staring and motionless. Mules stopped braying and laid down as if dead. The wounded started to crawl towards stretcher-bearers and first aid posts.
This was the end. It was all over, but we couldn’t believe what had happened. We were all numbed and battered. Groups of German youths were stumbling down the hill with arms raised. Casino town was full of Germans waiting to surrender. They had thrown their guns onto huge piles in the streets. For them, the war was over.
To the north, the Americans had broken out of the Anzio bridgehead. The road through the Abani Hills was open all the way to Rome. Our forces were making their way along the Appian Way, alongside the Pontine Marshes, to line up with the Anzio forces. The Germans had retreated to the north of Rome and were forming their next line of defense. Stretching from Pisa in the west, to Rimini in the east. This was to be the Gothic Line, replacing the Gustav Line that had been shattered.
Armored units poured through Casino, and battalions of infantry moved north in convoys of troop carriers. Reserve battalions relieved the troops that had fought themselves stupid on the Casino slopes. Engineer units with bulldozers ploughed the rubble to the sides of the roads, clearing the way to let the tanks get through . There were ambulances everywhere. Wounded were ferried to first aid posts. Weary men sat at the roadside, smoking and drinking tea, just watching all the activity with complete disinterest. “What was really going on in their minds?” It was a truly pyhric victory!
I had come to the conclusion that May and June were bad months of the year for me. May 1940, retreat from France. May 1941, Fort Capuzzo, Sidi Omar, and Sidi Rezheig in the desert. May 1942, retreat from Burma. Now, May 1944 the holocaust of Casino. Still I was all in one piece, so it couldn’t be all bad!
Our push up the Lira Valley was slowed down by the extensive minefields north of the Gustav Line, laid by the Germans. Also, there was the Germans second line of defense, the one they had called the Hitler Line. This was set up as a delaying tactic, and delay us, it did! It wasn’t until the end of May that the Poles who fought so valiantly at Casino, broke the deadlock and captured Piedimonte. The road to Rome was finally opened.
Rome was entered by the allies on Sunday the 4th of June, and two days later, we heard the news of the invasion of Normandy. Things were going well, and IF we had continued with our push north, the Kesserling forces wouldn’t have had time to organise their defense line from Pisa to Rimini, on the Adriatic. We could have pushed the axis to the Alps and the Italian campaign would have been over. But it wasn’t to be.
After the fall of Rome, we circled round the city to the north and came to a halt. In the meantime, a great part of General Clarke’s forces were withdrawn from the area and switched to support the invasion of southern France Thus creating a diversion from the Normandy thrust.
This same military policy had happened in February 1941, when we had Grazianis Italian army on the run at Beda Fomm. On that occasion, we could have pushed on to Tripoli, and finished the North Africa campaign there and then. As it was, the Australians were directed to Crete. Still I suppose the Italian and desert campaigns were pinning down the German forces and relieving pressure on our lads in the European theatres of war.
In late July, we moved to an area just north of Rome, for a short rest. The place was called Lido de Roma. It was hot and full of flies, but we did manage a few days leave, and the odd excursion into Rome. As we entered the city through the Arch of Constantine, the gray ruins of the forum to our left. We realised the recent action had left the city untouched.
Rome was impressive, marred only by decay and commercialism. Food was scarce and the streets hot and dusty. The magnificent palaces and churches with their beautiful fountains and gardens, mocked the dirt and squalor of the filthy back streets and poorer quarters. Beggars, pimps, prostitutes thieves, and black marketeers were everywhere. No one had ever wanted Mussolini, or so they said. And certainly no one had ever been a fascist! I thought the Italians were a slimy lot, and I personally had no time for Rome with all its corruption and vice. In my opinion, we should have left them all to their German masters.
At the end of July, we moved east towards the Adriatic coast. Here began a bitter campaign, lasting into a winter of discontent.
Our next operation took us deep into the Apennines, in the area of Spuleto and Perugia. It was wicked country, totally unsuited to tank warfare. When I talk of defense lines, such as the Gustav Line, the Hitler Line, or the Gothic Line. I would like to make the following qualifications. These German defenses were not continuous lines such as the Maginot line in France. No, the Maginot Line was a fixed line of trenches with gun emplacements, barbed wire, and pillboxes. Stretching many miles west to east. The Gustav, Gothic, and Hitler lines were in fact isolated pockets of defense on mountaintops or in ravines. They were like beads on a piece of string. The string stretching from east to west, with pivots or anchors (the beads) at main physical features along its length.
In normal warfare, a frontal attack would be made on the “Bead”, or a sideways sweep would cut off the unit from its supplies. Alternatively, an attack could be made from the rear. None of these options were possible in Italy, because of the difficult terrain. There was in effect nowhere for our armored vehicles to maneuver, so our tanks etc were of little use, except on the open plains to the east, or in the wide valleys of the rivers Po and Lira.
The Germans were at an advantage, with their supply lines to the north safe from attack. With that, and their possession of the high mountain peaks, they could observe all our movements. A few 88mm guns situated on top of a mountain, and a good observation post giving firing instructions, could keep a whole division of infantry pined down for days. One of our tanks only had to make a move, and a barrage of thunderous shells was reined down on it.
Our infantry had to fight every inch of the way up the mountain trails, then when they did storm a defense point, they invariably found, the enemy had withdrawn and established another line of defense a few miles away on the next high ridge. It was always the same. Capture the heights, then look to the north and there was another hill to fight for! With all these withdrawals and tactical retreats, the Germans must have felt just as frustrated as us. Only more so!
A small group of Germans would delay our infantry from climbing to the top of a mountain stronghold, whilst their main force would be withdrawing and setting up the next stand. They would of course leave a trail of blown bridges over the rushing mountain streams, and scatter landmines like confetti along all the possible trails.
I must mention at this stage, the dilemma of our infantry and engineers, who, having overrun the German defenses, would then push on with the hope of catching the enemy before they could settle into their new defenses.
The Germans were using a new type of landmine with a wooden case. Being made of wood, they were very difficult to detect with a normal mine detector. These mines were of the anti personal type, exploding about a foot above the ground when set off by trip wires or pressure. The almost certain result of one of these charming devices, was the victim had both his legs blown off below the knee.
Their artillery was also sophisticated in the extreme. Their 88mm guns were far superior to ours, and they also had a fiendish multi barreled mortar gun called a Nebelwerfer, which could fire up to six shells at a time.
One of the features of the Italian campaign, was the constant worry of always being under fire. We could look across the valley, see a flash of light, then hear the horrible whistle as the shell soared over our heads. Then, we would see a plume of smoke as it landed, followed by the clump and thump. This time lag always fascinated me. It was worst obviously, when one landed close by, then the air was filed with white-hot shrapnel. Hissing and whirling, and peppering us all with white metal rain. I don’t think there was one day between June and November 1944 that we weren’t under fire. Our actions were so close, we were always within range.
On our previous campaigns, we had always been able to get out of firing range, to re-equip and prepare for the next pitched battle. Here, there were no pitched battles as such, just a continuous probing forward, with quick, sharp actions lasting a couple of hours. Our concentrated attacks were resisted by fanatical German youths, who thought that to die firing a machine gun was the only way to Valhalla.
One such action was near to Perugia on the eastern slopes of the Apennines. We had been moving very slowly northwards, a few miles a day. The rain was pouring down, and the mountain streams were turning into torrents. The infantry had been moving from one hole in the ground to the next with us giving them mobile support when they were held up by enemy strong points. On two occasions, we had been requested to advance and knock out some troublesome machine gun nests. No sooner had we move in front of our infantry, than there was a terrific barrage of artillery and mortar fire. We were right in the middle of it , being rained on from a great height. This did little harm to us in our tanks, but the infantry lads in their foxholes had no protection. They screamed at us to get the hell out of it. Our help was only making matters worse. That was how things went. The infantry needed our support, but when we gave it, the poor lads in their holes were pulverised as our tanks became the enemy target.
One day, we were attacking a small mountain near Urbino. Finally, when the village was stormed by our infantry, the enemy withdrew to a cemetery on the northern slopes behind the village. The German infantry set up numerous machine guns behind the solid granite tombstones. Some of these tombstones were built like boxes, so it was behind these that their guns were sighted. It was a macabre scene. Both sides firing from the shelter of these headstones, and only 25yards apart. Mortar shells from each side were plonking and thumping. But we in the tank corps could only watch from the sidelines, unable to fire for fear of hitting our own lads. It was like watching a film. It just didn’t seem real! The crash of mortar shells, the crackle of machine gun fire, the whine of zinging bullets and the whiff of cordite, they were all there! Tombs would burst open when hit, sending human bones and complete skeletons flying through the air. Wounded men were lying among long dead human skeletons. We just stood there, watching, frozen, unbelieving that it was really happening.
I remember my thoughts at the time. I thought I was going mad! Where was it all going to end? For over four years I had been a part of the attempted destruction of a part of the human race. It seemed each day I had been shown deeper depths of human madness. Would it ever end? Would it end with me being a victim of this frenzied desire for the extinction of the human race? I felt sick of it all, and despaired of the madness of the world. At the same time, I lost all belief in the sanctity of human life.
After the battle, we found ourselves in the independent state of San Marino, with its castle on the hilltop. San Marino had its own little army. They were dressed like the toy soldiers of Italian operas. The whole of the civilian population were sheltering in a railway tunnel cut into the rocks when we arrived. The Germans had been and gone. Our tank column pulled off the mountain trail. There was a steep drop into the valley to our right. It had been raining continuously for four days, so the trail was thick with mud, and only about twenty feet wide. Water poured down the hillside, across the trail and tumbled over the edge like a waterfall. The tanks squeezed against the hillside, and stayed there until first light. Then we moved round the hill to join up with our infantry who had moved north towards Carrara.
Our supply column was situated in a valley, a few miles to the rear. It had been another long day, so we were told to get some sleep. We curled up under our vehicles and covered ourselves with our ground sheets. There was no room to stretch our legs, and we were soaking wet. So wet in fact, we wouldn’t have got much wetter if we’d have stayed outside in the rain!
At about two in the morning, we awoke with a start there was a loud rumbling noise coming from the rear of our line of tanks. The noise became a rushing, crumbling roar. In the moonlight we could just make out, the side of the mountain was sliding down towards the trail. As we watched, the last tank in the line seemed to heave and sink in the mud. Then with a rushing and slithering, the trail collapsed into the valley with a mighty roar. The tank tilted, rolled onto its side, then crashed into the valley with a deafening thump. The tanks crew were sleeping underneath, and had been crushed into the mud when it first sank into the ground. There was panic all round, and we roared off that mountain like bats out of hell.
The allies had taken Rimini on the east coast, and the Gothic line had been pierced. We were on our way to the Po valley, and the mountainous terrain was giving way to soft rolling plains. It was good to get into more open country once more.
When we got near Modena, we had to go on patrol, supporting the infantry as they pushed on towards the river Po. At one stage we had to pull back for refueling. We moved behind a small farmhouse, and went inside. There we found a small group of infantry lads resting and waiting to be taken back to the rear echelon. Their relief’s had arrived and had just taken over. There was the usual brew being made, and they were all stretched out on the floor. Fags were lit, and ammo pouches unloosened.
The room was quite large, and two of the lads had set up a machine gun at one of the windows, just in case. At the end of the room was a huge fireplace. On the mantle shelf stood a beautiful clock in marble and gilt. It looked marvelous loot, so I went over to claim it. Before I had taken two steps, the infantry lads had me on the floor in a rugby tackle. “You bloody fool! It’s booby trapped” They yelled. I immediately realised what a stupid thing I had intended doing.
The brew was about ready, when there was a scuffle at the door. With a roar and a laugh, five Gurkahs rushed into the room. They were grand lads these Gurkahs, always smiling, and in my opinion the best soldiers in the world. They were always made welcome wherever they went. One of them looked over at the clock, and before we could stop him, he strode over to the mantle shelf and picked it up. It wasn’t booby trapped after all, so he put it in his knapsack along with his other trophies of war. We roared with laughter and called him a cheeky old sod, but none of us begrudged him of his spoils.
Florence had been taken and Rimini had fallen. The Gothic Line was no more and the Germans had withdrawn to the river Po. Winter had set in and the first flakes of snow had fallen, completely covering the mountaintops. It was cold, wet, and miserable. There was mud everywhere, with the shelling continuing both night and day, but at least the enemy was far away. We were all tired, weary, and becoming increasingly depressed. There was no end in sight. There was always one more river to cross, and another hill to climb.
The weather got worse, and day-by-day we became more nervous and jumpy. There was no joy in the fact we were pushing the enemy back towards the Alps. For us there seemed no hope of getting away from the soulless battering of the German infantrymen. He didn’t know when he was beaten. And the truth was, we were completely worn out.
From the hills, we could look down into the Po valley, sprinkled with its craggy peaks. It was from here, we prepared for what we hoped was the final push!
I was at this time, working with the intelligence officer for the scout troop. Orders came through for me to take the officer in the armored car, back to brigade H Q, urgently. There was obviously some sort of flap on, but at least we were moving towards the rear echelons. Where, it would probably be a little quieter. I was hoping to get a change of clothing, and a decent nights sleep. I felt down and depressed, in one of those moods of self-pity, brought on by being tired, weary, and completely exhausted. Enhanced by weeks of nervous tension and foreboding.
On arrival at H Q, I left the officer and found the cooks lorry. There were some of my mates from the signal corps there. So I was immediately given a mug of tea and a corned beef sandwich. Rumors were rife. The lads at the rear echelon seemed to know more of what was going on than we did on the front line. The talk was, we were being pulled out as soon as we crossed over the river.
The following day when we were returning to the front line, the officer gave me the real gen. I couldn’t believe it! Orders had come through. All troops who had served three years abroad were to be sent home to England!
I was stunned. And after making a quick calculation, realised, since April 1940, when I first went to France. Apart for a short spell after Dunkirk. I had been abroad for over four years. I was eligible for repatriation under “The Python” scheme! I couldn’t believe it. There WAS a silver lining to the cloud of depression that had hovered over me for the past few weeks.
It had been estimated that at least ninety men from our unit. All those who were in the original battalion from the first days in France. Would be going home. That would mean, the whole battalion would be withdrawn. Leaving the regiment under strength until replacements arrived.
The turn of events that followed was almost unbelievable, and almost too much to take in. When we got back to the unit, the news was broken to the rest of the lads. Frantic calculations were made as to who was going and who had to stay. There was no malice from the lads who didn’t qualify, but those who did were considered “Jimmy Bastards”
After a while, lists were finalised, and tank crews reorganised. The lucky ones being withdrawn to the small village of Castle Frentano, or was it Castle St Angelo. The remaining tanks were put in reserve behind the infantry. Where, they were to wait for reinforcements to arrive. These were expected in the next few days.
In the meantime, I was sent to a castle on a hill overlooking the Po valley. My job was that of observer and spotter for the artillery. I had to take up position in the highest turret. All I had with me was a radio and a well-marked map. I would report back whenever I saw enemy gun flashes. These flashes had to be pinpointed so the artillery could put down a barrage in an attempt to keep the guns quiet.
Although the castle was well behind the front line, it was still well within artillery range., so it was shelled regularly each day. Fortunately, the walls were seven or eight feet thick. The only problem being when the enemy used shrapnel shells. Then it was peppered with red hot metal. An infantry company was resting in the dungeon, where they were quite safe. In the center was an open courtyard, with all the windows of the turrets and rooms facing inward. When a shell exploded over the castle, this inner courtyard was sprayed with white-hot chunks of shrapnel. Then everyone went to ground.
The road that led up to the castle followed the northern slope of the hill. Everything that went up to the gates was an open target for enemy gunners, and had to run the gauntlet. Whenever a truck arrived, it was like a duck shoot! They were followed right up to the gates of the castle by white puffs of smoke, as shells thumped and crashed behind them. Trying to get them before they reached the safety of the castle. Some were hit and left on the road until the next vehicle came along and pushed it over the side. The castle itself was hit regularly, but the thick walls were only scratched.
The days were long, and once more that terrible feeling descended on me. I knew that soon I would be out of it, but I had an awful premonition. Now that I had nearly reached the end of my active service, and survived some terrible experiences. The reckoning was about to come. I knew, that at the last moment, my luck would run out. One of those shells would have my name on it. I was frightened and apprehensive. I even dreaded leaving the safety of the turret to pop down to the dungeon for my food. When the shrapnel was flying, I would crouch behind the slits in the wall and pray to God to give me a little longer so I could get away from it all. (On recollection, I now realise. When things were getting unbearable, I would always be praying to God. The rest of the time, I never gave him a thought. Perhaps someone, someday will explain to me “Why”)
I was getting more nervous, jumpy, even a little paranoid. Each day I tried to find out when they were going to relieve me from my post in the castle. The fact I was safer there, than I had been for months, wouldn’t register in my depressed mind. I was still convinced I wasn’t going to make it. At last I got the message, they were sending in a relief, and I was to get ready to leave.
The rain was slashing down, when I saw a scout car coming up the hill. It had got about halfway, when the shelling started. Puffs of white smoke dotted the track in front and behind it. Each one seemed to get nearer than the last. I was riveted to my slit in the castle wall, watching it get nearer and nearer to the gate. Each thump and crash seemed to get closer. I remember I cried, I moaned, I prayed and I cursed. I couldn’t take my eyes off the helpless little car as it ran the gauntlet of fire. Shrapnel was peppering the castle walls, but I just stood there transfixed and sweating.
With a final spurt, the little car screamed into the courtyard and the shelter of the inner walls. Frenziedly, I scrambled down the turret steps clutching my machine gun and a small valise. The day before, I had found an old chest in the turret. Inside of which was a beautiful lace tablecloth. I had stuffed it into my valise as loot. I still have that memento of Castle Frentano, but it is so large, I don’t have a table big enough to use it on.
The scout car swerved round, I jumped in, my relief jumped out, all in a flash. Without stopping, the driver made for the castle archway and screamed back down the hill. No sooner had we left the security of the courtyard, the shells began to thump and clump, I screamed and shouted, raved and ranted. With my head down I prayed and cursed. “Oh God, please, just five minutes more!”
We reached the bottom of the hill and skidded to the left behind some rocks. We were safe! The shelling stopped, I laughed hysterically, while my driver, Fred, was driving one handed and lighting a couple of fags for us.
We joined the rest of boys waiting to leave. Then, that night while the village was being bombed, we moved out and drove south towards Naples and home. Our Italian campaign was over and God had taken pity on me. I was in one piece!
The journey to Naples was long and weary. The consolation being, we were going in the right direction! We followed the coast of the Adriatic as far as Foggia, then turned to the west, crossed the Apennines, approaching Naples by way of the foot of Versuvius, and the ancient city of Pompeii. We had a quick look at the ruins, then down the hill to the outskirts of town and a large transit camp in the middle of a large estate.
It was a terrible place, teeming with troops in transit. Mostly newly arrived reinforcements on their way to the front lines. There were thousands of troops here, a good percentage of them deserters from the front. No one knew who was who, it was complete chaos. To get a meal, you had to acquire a chitty from the camp office. The queue for breakfast started at 6am and continued until the food ran out. Some days you would queue until after 9, then find there was nothing left for you. If you wanted dinner, you would have to start queuing at 10am, then you’d be lucky if you got it by 2pm. As for tea, no one bothered, preferring to apply for a pass to go into Naples as soon as they had finished eating lunch.
We were all billeted in tents but our gear wasn’t safe unless we left someone behind to watch over it. We arranged a rota among ourselves, ensuring the tent was never left unguarded. Half the people in the camp were either deserters or unofficial. There were no checks at all, except for the occasional swoop by the Military Police. Our group were all given chits to prove we were all bona fide, awaiting repatriation.
I mentioned earlier the corruption and vice we came across in Rome, but Rome was a Sunday School Picnic compared to Naples. The city itself was crawling with deserters from both the British and American forces. Between them they controlled everything. The cafés, the shops, the prostitutes, the pimps, even the supply of petrol. Black marketeering was rife. Army stores blankets, food, cigarettes, chocolate, even beer, were all being sold openly by these renegade mobs from both sides. It was unbelievable what was going on. There were occasional pitched battles between the two factions, and areas controlled by the two sides were openly declared.
No one was safe, we had to go around town in small groups. The Napolise had lost all their dignity, openly proffering anything for food, or money to buy food with. Even children as young as ten, were offered for sale for a few lira. There was a system of food rationing, but the ration chits were useless to the civilians. Everything was controlled by the black marketeers. In spite of all the shortages, there were still luxury goods for sale in the better shops, and the better off Napolese seemed to be living well. Earlier, there had been a typhoid epidemic. Not surprising as the whole place was filthy dirty, smelly, and the water supply was strictly limited.
When we returned to base each evening, we were made to assemble about a mile from the camp gates. Then, under a Military Police escort, we were marched in, in groups of twenty. The reason for this was to prevent us being mugged before we got back.
It was a dreadful place, so we all breathed a sigh of relief when we heard the news, we were to pack our kit and embark for England on the 23rd of November. We were on our way at last, sailing away from this town of sin and depravity. The saying goes, “See Naples and die”. As far as I’m concerned, the best view of Naples is, the one from the boat as it sails past the Isle of Capri, with the city fading away in the distance, and the smoke from Vesuvius gently floating to the sky.
A BRIEF VISIT TO ENGLAND
At the beginning of November 1944, we sailed up the river Clyde. It was cold, wet, and misty. But to me that “Scotch Mist” was beautiful. We disembarked the ship, then boarded a train to Richmond Yorkshire. From there, we were taken to Caterick Camp for sorting out. After that, it was home at last. I’d had my fill of foreign travel.
It was obvious, they had no idea what to do with us at Caterick. After showing us the barrack room and issuing us with some new kit, they left us to our own devices. We spent the next few days in the NAAFI, or, in the company office trying to get a few days leave. We were promised, we would be getting fourteen days, once things were organised.
In the meantime, we decided to draw some pay. That brought on a bit of a snag. We had to hand in our pay books “Part Two” to the office. No one in there had seen pay books like ours before. They showed Franks in France, Piastras in Egypt, Rupees in Burma and India, Fils in Iraq, Syrian Pounds in Syria, more Piastras again in Egypt, and finally Lira and Military money in Italy. It needed a computer to sort it all out. Especially as most of these countries warranted special allowances and “colonial Allowance.” It all took quite some time to get sorted out. I had sent a telegram to Muriel, to let her know I was at Catterick, so she was now beginning to get worried as to why I wasn’t home yet.
At last we were issued with our passes, and I was on my way. All the time I had been abroad, I had been sending letters home whenever I could. I had also been receiving letters regularly, keeping me informed as to what was happening back in the UK. Things hadn’t been so good for them either. The bombing had been heavy. Muriel had been drafted to do war work, making machine gun belts, and operating a metal lathe amongst other things. She had been living with my sister in law Clara, but that had had its problems. Their house in Wythenshaw had been badly damaged by a near miss bomb. The V bomb rockets had been frightening to say the least. Dad had been trapped inside the air raid shelter at Hulme Town Hall in December 1940. The day of one of Manchester’s worst blitz. My dog Taffy had gone mad and died when he was trapped in the cellar of our house in Hulme. The house had been completely destroyed. Dad had gone to work in my uncles trawler business at Fleetwood. In 1942, while I was in India, he had remarried an old friend, Hannah.
Four years away had been a long time, so I was not surprised that things were not the same as when I left. The war for civilians had not been easy. Food rationing, living in air raid shelters, fierce bombing of cities, the constant threat of invasion, and above all the parting from loved ones and fears for the future. All these thing had taken place in my mind, at the same time as I fought my way round Europe Africa, and Asia. To the civilians though, they were very real, And as part of the war as the horrific encounters between man and man in the war zones.
As I traveled home, I wondered if the war had not only changed me, but also whether it had changed Murial. I knew that I had become hard, and at times cynical. My worry was that the strain of our parting would make it difficult for us to take up where we had left off four years ago.
My fears were foundless. When Murial met me at London Road Station, I knew that all my aches and loneliness were over. There were tears once more, but this time they were tears of happiness.
There was so much to say and do. Friends to see, and so much making up of lost time. Visiting here and there. Finding out all that had happened, and where everyone had been. Who had married who, and who, sadly, would not be seen again. People wanted me to talk about my experiences, but I felt it better not to say too much. Some of my memories were too painful, I just wanted to forget. I was glad to be alive, and thankful to have come through it all safely. In retrospect, I was amazed, that after all I had been through, I remained unscathed. At least my body was in one piece, but I knew that deep in my mind some scars would always remain!
My brother Derrick was stationed in the south of England, and was able to get home for a few days. But my other brother Leason was in the Military Police, so I didn’t see much of him.
The fortnight flew by, it was the happiest of my life. It was good to just sit down quietly and talk with Murial. Just the two of us together, planning our future. The war in Europe was coming to a close, with things going well for the Allies. The war in the Far East was far away, and the Americans were keeping the Japs occupied. The fourteenth army were in Burma and gradually winning back the northern frontier. Christmas 1944 was a good time for me, and all the time the war was receding further east.
I had to return to Catterick at the end of December, but I new I would be able to get home leave most weekends. I was in a much better state of mind after my leave. Now, the only thing I had to worry about was organising my weekend passes. That didn’t pose any sort of problem, there was nothing to do at Catterick, so they were glad to get us out of the camp on Friday nights, and they didn’t want to see us again until Monday mornings. There was one occasion when they sent us to the York REME depot, to work in the stores for a few weeks. Apart from that, we spent most of our time in the NAAFI. There was some talk of us being sent to Belgium, but nothing came of it.
Catterick was near the lovely village of Richmond, with its old castle, and the river flowing serenely through the middle of town. There were many army camps in the vicinity, mostly Poles and Signal Corps, The whole area looked like a mini Aldershot.
I managed to rent a small bedroom from a woman in the village. Then I sent a wire to Murial to come and stay. I was able to get a sleeping out pass organised, and I knew that Murial would like the arrangement. The letter I sent her had specific instructions on how to get there, what trains to get, where to change, and said I would be waiting for her at Richmond station.
The train to Richmond was a local one from Northallerton, and only ran every hour or so. With only one change to be made at Northallerton, I expected Murial to arrive at Richmond by 7pm. I was early, waiting for her at 6.0’clock. When the 7.0’clock train arrived, there was no sign of Murial. I waited and waited, but when the 9.0’clock train arrived, there was still no Murial. By this time, I was really getting worried. The stationmaster took me into his office and gave me a cup of tea. We would wait till the last train came at 11.0’clock, then , if she wasn’t on that one, he promised to ring up the RTO at Northallerton. It was a long wait, and by the time the train did arrive just after 11, I was frantic with worry. Murial tumbled out of one of the carriages, clutching a small suitcase and sobbing her heart out.
I had already been along to the old lady in the village and explained the situation. She was very understanding, and agreed to wait up until the last train came in. We got to the house at about half past eleven and went straight to bed. Murial told me, how she had met this ATS girl who was also going to Richmond, and, together at Northallerton they had changed trains. Unfortunately, they had got on the wrong train and traveled none stop to Newcastle on Tyne. When they arrived at Newcastle, all they could do was wait for the next train back to Northallerton. Luckily they managed to catch the last train to Richmond.
For the next two weeks, we were together. I was even able to get out of camp each day at lunchtime, as long as I was back for roll call at 7.30 the following morning. The weather was becoming spring like, so each day, we would take a walk along the river or sit in the castle grounds on the hill. At nights, we would go to the cinema, or stay in our little room.
After a few days, Murial received a letter from the ministry of labour, saying she must report to the local office. There she was to be allocated to do war work in Richmond. That was the end of our holiday. Murial returned to Manchester, and I had to content myself with weekend passes home.
THE END OF THE ROAD
Spring was on its way, the war in Europe was coming to a close. There had been some heavy fighting at Cean. In December, the Germans had made a counter attack on the Americans through the Ardennes. The attack had been held by the allies. The British had stormed through the Falaise gap. The Rhine had been crossed at Remagen and Wessel. By March, the Canadians had advanced through Holland, all the way to the North Sea. They had captured the rocket bases, which had caused so much havoc to the towns of Southern England. In the first week of April, Munster, Osnabruk, and Minden were all captured. Hanover was also occupied.
Then, out of the blue came the news, I was being posted to Germany! All I was given was 36hours leave. I couldn’t believe it. The war was nearly over and I had to go away again. I was shattered!
We set sail from Dover, landing at Ostend. 24 hours later. From there, we were loaded onto trucks and driven in convoy towards Germany. Everything was moving so fast, we were all bewildered. We joined more convoys of vehicles, all traveling in a northeasterly direction. Armored vehicles and troop carriers were given priority on the roads, so often we would be pulled into the roadside, to allow hundreds of tanks and infantry to rush past us on their way to Osnabruk and Breman.
We had heard that the Germans had been driven back as far as Berlin. The Russians had entered the city and linked up with the Americans on the river Elbe. There had been heavy fighting at Breman and it was rumoured that German submarine crews had been captured whilst fighting as infantry. Breman was captured and the submarine bases destroyed.
We were getting news so fast, we couldn’t keep up with it. Towns and villages were being over run every day, and the German army was being destroyed hour by hour. Munich had been taken, and the German army in Italy had surrendered. Mussolini had been captured by Italian partisans. They had hung AND shot him. (Rumour had it, upside down)
We, were just being carried along in a monstrous stream of troops. Blieztcreiging our way through the roads and lanes of northern Germany. Through the ruins of Osnabruk and towards the river Wessel we went. Stopping only to allow the fighting forces to bulldoze their way through towards Hamburg and the river Elbe. By the first week in May, the whole of the German army in Denmark, and in the Netherlands, and in northern Germany, had surrendered. As far as we were concerned, we had been mere spectators. We had not even so much as fired a bren gun at the enemy.
The Russians were on the rampage. Forcing the German army to retreat rapidly from the east, in order to get away from their archenemy. No German wanted to surrender to the Russians. We learned later that they had tried to sign a separate peace treaty with the British and the Americans. Then, they suggested all three could combine to fight the Ruskies. The allies turned down the plan. Hitler killed himself in a Berlin bunker. The war was virtually over.
We entered Hamburg a few days after it had been captured. The sight that met us was horrific. The massive pulverisation of the inner city and the docks area, had completely destroyed every building. Literally, there were not two bricks standing on top of each other. The city was a rubble heap. Fires were still raging in the burnt out shells of buildings. Everywhere there were gaping holes and broken walls. There was still evidence of the “Fire Storms” that had raged through the town after the saturation bombing. Bulldozers were piling bricks at the side of what used to be streets and roads. Then, as soon as a path was cleared, the tanks would go roaring through. All this destruction brought to my mind, the town of Casino. These scenes were also reminiscent of the holocaust that happened there.
The zoo had been bombed and wild animals could be glimpsed through the ruins. A giraffe popped its head over a wall. An ostrich strutted along by the lake, quite unconcerned. An elephant had been commandeered by the engineers to help pull down unsafe buildings. The whole scene was macabre and unreal. How anyone, or anything survived after that sort of bombardment was beyond belief.
For three weeks now, we had been a part of this procession through a land completely destroyed and laid to waste. Whole villages had been burnt to the ground. Crops had been flattened, and roads blocked with rubble. Civilians sat at the roadside, their few remaining belongings in handcarts and wheelbarrows. Thousands of German soldiers sat around, waiting to b collected as prisoners. Cars and lorries had been abandoned, having run out of petrol. Anti tank guns were lying on their sides. Next to them, the German infantrymen who had upturned them as a sign of their capitulation. They just stood there, waiting to be taken away.
The armistice was signed on Luneburg Heath, coming into effect on the 8th of May 1945. The war was definitely over, and the might of the German army was cowering behind heaps of bricks and rubble.
From Hamburg, we moved southeast through the pine forest, towards Cell, south of Hanover. It was the land of Hans Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. Of fairy tales, and deep dark forests. Of German folklore, witches and warlocks, wolves and werewolves. Miles and miles of thick dark forest, and occasional clearings with quaint farmhouses, oak beamed and long slanting roofs.
There were still some snipers in the forest, and the occasional ping of bullets could be heard. Small groups of Germans were being pursued by escaped prisoners, Poles, Russians, and displaced persons. This whole area had been sprinkled with P O W camps, all of which had been over run when the prisoners were released,
We arrived at the small village of Fallinbostel on the river Aller. This was supposed to be our final destination. The intention was, to set up a reinforcement-holding unit for the Hanover area. Things didn’t work out exactly as planed. The fighting had finished, so our roll was to be that of internal security and a reinforcement camp. The day we moved into our billet in the old cavalry barracks, was the day another balloon went up. They had found what was believed to be a prison camp in the forest, and it had to be sorted out.
The next morning, we were loaded onto lorries, then wended our way along narrow tracks through the pine trees. At first, all was very quiet, although we did come across some barbed wire fences and concrete pillboxes. A little further on, we had to cross an anti tank ditch. Eventually, we arrived at the gate of a huge prison camp, bounded by high wire walls and watchtowers. Over the entrance was the name “BELSON”
We had all heard tales of concentration camps, but were a little sceptical as to whether anything so atrocious could be true. But here we were, at the gates of hell itself.
A unit of the pioneer corps were already at the camp. The first thing we had to do, was report to a decontamination point. There was a large notice outside the unit saying “Typhus, Report Here”. We were given overalls, overshoes, and facemasks, then sprayed with some sort of powder. There was a horrible smell in the air, and we were told, once we went through the gates, we would be in for a shock. The place had to be cleaned up though. All the huts had to be burnt down, and our duty was to oversee the S S Guards move the dyeing, and bury the dead.
We walked slowly through the gates. On our left was a hay cart with high trestle sides. It was full of dead, naked bodies! Dead, naked children and babies. It was horrific! The stench was wicked! Some of us vomited! All the bodies were like skeletons, with their bones protruding, stomachs bulging and their heads shaven and swollen like eggs. The eyes had sunken into their sockets and the jaws were hanging loose. More bodies were lying around, alongside the huts. We didn’t know if they were men or women, dead or alive. All were motionless, and looked like bundles of rubbish. Some wore striped trousers, others were naked. They were filthy, their complexions gray, and their shrunken bodies covered with flies.
In one part of the camp, a huge trench was being dug by a bulldozer. It was about eight feet wide, and fifty feet long. Further along, a group of S S prisoners were filing a similar trench with bodies. The bodies were being laid in rows. With some of them, rigor mortise had already set in, preventing them from being laid flat. The German prisoners were having to break the arms and legs of the corpses to get them to lay down. Layers of bodies were placed in the trenches, then the bulldozers pushed the earth over them. Before the earth covered these mass graves, drums of lime were poured over the stinking carcasses.
The wooden huts had no windows, so it took a while for our eyes to get used to the gloom when we entered. There were rows of wooden bunks on each side, almost up to the roof. Bodies lay on these bunks, naked and filthy. Some were moaning and feebly moving in spasmodic jerks. Too weak to cry out from the piles of rubbish in which they lay. The smell was awful and nauseating.
Groups of young British soldiers were slowly, tenderly moving them on to stretchers made from planks of wood, then taking them to the convoys of lorries. They were then taken to a nearby S S tank training school, one that we had converted into a crude hospital.
The S S guards were raking rubbish into big piles and burning everything they could scrape together. There were rats as big as rabbits scuttling around, some were gnawing at dead corpses lying at the side of the road. Some of the inmates were stumbling around dazed and demented. One woman was giggling to herself as she nursed a dead rat.
It was difficult at times to tell the difference between a corps and a living person. Sometimes one of the bodies in a trench would move, and would have to be rescued from the grave. Many of the bodies must have been buried alive.
The women S S guards we being held in a large hut, they were sullen and unrepenting. Among them was a tall blond beast of a woman. She, we were told was Irma Green, the mistress of the camp commandant, Kramer. Shackled in chains, she was paraded daily around the camp under heavy escort.
There was a gas chamber, and an incinerator, both choked with the charred remains of human bones. Thousands of prisoners had been held here, mostly Jews and slave labour from every European country. They had all been systematically starved and allowed to die, but not with any dignity.
After the huts were cleared of their inhabitants, some to hospital, others to the burial pits, we set fire to them with flamethrowers. Local dignitaries and officials were brought from the nearby town of Cell. They were shown the atrocities perpetrated by their Nazi masters. Then, they were made to assist with the burials in the mass graves, and to dig latrines.
Each one of the burgomasters and officials pleaded that they knew nothing of what had been going on. They said that the area had been restricted and no one had been allowed within miles of the camp. They knew there was a camp here, but no one had ever been allowed inside. They even blamed the R A F for disrupting food and medical supplies. Kramer himself admitted he couldn’t cope. He had neither food, medical supplies, or manpower to maintain the camp in a reasonable manner. He said he had been swamped. The camp was only meant to hold 3000 prisoners but towards the end, there were ten times that many. To add to the problem, food had stopped coming through. This was his excuse, but it didn’t explain the medical experimental unit, or the gas chambers or the charnel house. And how could he explain the lampshade in his office made from human skin?!
Every day for over a week, we reported to the camp. Sorting out the living from the dead, and burning the huts. There were hundreds of corpses each day to be put into the mass graves. I was sickened as I had never been sickened before. This was hell itself. Each morning my stomach turned over as I entered the camp. I couldn’t eat anything for nearly a week. Was this what the war had been all about? Had the bestiality of man played its last card. The world was mad, and Belson was the Armageddon of the universe.
Further troops were then drafted into the camp, so we returned to the reinforcement unit at Fallingbostel. I said farewell to the charnel houses and returned to a world of relative sanity. But, the memories will remain with me forever. Even today, they come bursting through my mind as I lye sweating and thrashing about in my bed, my body wracked by these dreadful nightmares.
There were many other P O W camps in the area, and as the inmates were released and flown home, they were filled with German soldiers. Each morning, we collected 50 German prisoners and brought them to our barracks. There, they were made to clean up the place, and do any other jobs that needed doing. I spent my days in charge of about 25 of these prisoners, seeing that they dug latrines, cleaned out the old stables, and generally made the place shipshape.
The same old story was repeated by all the prisoners. None of them were Nazis, they were only obeying orders. They didn’t’ want this war. They were forced to take part. (These same excuses were made at the war trials in Nuremberg many months later) Hitler had been mad, but the S S had been the real rulers. The only choice they had was to comply with the orders or be shot, or, worse still, sent to the Russian front. The best they could have hoped for if they disobeyed an order was to be sent to a concentration camp! What had been done was not their fault, they were just pawns in Hitters paranoid plans.
At last summer came, and the days warm and sunny. The mess was gradually being sorted out and some sort of order to things began to emerge. Thousands of displaced persons who had been drafted into the labour battalions of the Reich, had scattered far and wide when the Germans had capitulated. Bands of Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Estonians, Hungarians, and Czechs had formed revenge units all over the place. They had rampaged all through the Hanover and Luneberg areas. Montgomery imposed a non-fraternisation order on the British forces. No serviceman could make contact or conversation with German civilians, except on duty matters. This was alien to a lot of our lads, due to their inherent good nature.
All over the country, there was mass looting, pillaging, and rapes. Added to this were the appalling Vengeance raids” on German farms and villages. Anything German was destroyed wantonly. For no other reason than, it was German. Farms were burned, cattle slaughtered, women raped. Crops were trampled, tractors smashed and barns pulled down. All this done in a frenzied revenge for the years of captivity and hatred that had built up. The revolt against the German people exploded into uncontrolled sadism.
Our job was to organise parties of our soldiers to guard the small farms and villages, and to protect the German civilians from the savage fury of the ex prisoners and slave workers. This was internal security in the real sense.
Near to Fallingbostal, two D P camps had been set up. One for Poles, one for Russians. It was like trying to mix oil with water. The Poles hated the Russians, and the Russians hated the Poles. Pitch battles between the two became a daily occurrence. Some nights, after a we had spent the evening at the Y M C A in the village, we had to crawl back to camp along the ditches, while the two sides fired at each other over our heads. Eventually, we awoke one morning to discover, the Russians had sent a train to collect all their D Ps, so their camp was now empty. Things quietened down a little after that.
Our reinforcement unit was by now well organised. Each day more troops would arrive. Some going home on leave, others on their way to join units throughout northern Germany. I was given the job of corporal I/C reinforcement deliveries. We had ten, three ton lorries, and each day they were loaded with reinforcements and dispatched to units all over the country. The orders were, so many men to such and
such a town, map reference so and so. Some of these trips took as long as ten days, so I reckon I must have called at every town and village within a hundred mile radius of Falingbostel.
It was very pleasant driving through the forests and countryside during that warm and peaceful summer. Time was no object. It didn’t matter how long I took to make the journey. We had an open permit to pick up rations and petrol from anywhere we happened to be. We lived well, always choosing the best places to stop each night. No one was on our backs, time was our own. Especially after we had dropped off our passengers, and were making our way back.
One trip I made was to Copenhagen, I stayed there for a couple of days to have a look round. What a lovely city! Including the bronze mermaid on the rocks. I also saw the aftermath of fierce battles and the blown bridges over the rivers Rhine and Wesser. The towns of Bielefeld and Krefeld, where fierce resistance had taken place, were still heaps of rubble.
Everywhere the black market was flourishing. No one needed money. All you needed was soap, cigarettes, or chocolate. German Marks were useless. Whereas the military Mark was worth five times its face value. You could get fifteen German Marks for one cigarette. Then, if you were lucky, you could exchange the fifteen German Marks for eight Military Marks. Later on there was a clamp down on the amount of money the troops could take out of the country when they went on leave. This went some way in preventing the black market activities of some of the troops.
At the end of September, summer drew to a close, and the weather became colder. I discovered my brother Derrick had been posted to the control commission in Hamburg. There was an epidemic of tooth decay and gingavitus amongst the troops of the 21st army. Hundreds of soldiers were requiring dental treatment. Huge dental hospitals had been set up to try to cope with the problem. I discovered there was one of these speciality units in the Hamburg area. I reported to our brigade M O and told him, I had just discovered my brothers whereabouts. In no time at all, he had arranged for me to take a 30cwt truck to Hamburg, and suggested I could surely find time to visit my brother. This I did and we spent a great day together.
Winter was approaching, and after the first flurry of snow, I decided, driving around the German countryside was OK in summer, but in winter it wouldn’t be so good. The demob scheme of age and service had just been announced. My demob number worked out to be 24. That meant that shortly after Christmas 1945, I would be demobed out of the forces and into Civvy Street. It was now about ten weeks before Christmas, so I asked for an interview with the Major in charge of our unit. He was a decent bloke and offered me the post of permanent Orderly Corporal, looking after the leave roster. This seemed like a good set up to me, so I became virtually office bound. I had spent enough time rushing around. I wanted to spend my last few weeks in uniform, in as cushy a number as I could get.
The first thing I did in my new position, was to find out who were the permanent members of staff in the unit. I ascertained, there were only thirty of us. The daily ration strength of the unit was about 250. Made up of permanent staff, reinforcements passing through, and men going to, or coming from leave.
The 21st army made leave allocations according to each units ration strength. This posed something of a problem for me. Having made the leave application for the unit in September, based on the ration strength. I received a leave allocation of 30 men each month. As the reinforcements passing through the camp only stayed with us for a maximum of three days, the whole allocation would have to be taken up by the permanent staff. The simple task of listing the permanent staff, ticking off the first eight, and sending them on leave. Meant that every five weeks or so, the same ones would back on top of the leave roster.
To me this seemed too obvious a wangle to be able to get away with. So reluctantly I went and told the Major what I had worked out. Strange to say, his reaction was, if we sent the allocation back to group H Q, we would loose it altogether. So we were right to work out the leave allowance on the basis of our ration strength. My roster stood clear and sound, and all the permanent staff thought I was a genius. We were all getting ten days leave every five weeks.
My first leave was at the beginning of November, the next, the middle of December. The worse part of the journey home, was the bit across Germany to Calais. The trains were always packed and never heated. Ice formed on the inside of the carriages, and there were always long delays. The bridges over the rivers had mostly been blown up and replaced with temporary structures, so the trains had to crawl across them at a walking pace. I remember the bridges being that narrow, the carriages overhung the sides.
With winter having set in, huge blocks of ice were being swept down the rivers. On the way thumping and grinding against the bridge supports. I had visions of the whole thing collapsing, and me being plunged into the icy waters. We were all frozen solid by the time we got to Calais. The journey home in November was bad, but Decembers journey was even worse.
leave passed all too quickly and I had to start thinking about where Murial and I were going to live. My brother Derrick was to be demobed soon after me, so there wouldn’t be room for all four of us to stay in their flat. The old lady who lived in the flat below them, offered to let Murial and I have one of her bedrooms as a bed-sit. And as part payment, Murial could look after her. This seemed like a reasonable idea at the time, at least we could use it as a base from which to work. We agreed with the proposition, and Murial moved downstairs. Although Murial had made peace with her mother, I wouldn’t have dreamt of asking her for help.
At last the precise date of my release was determined, I was due for demobilisation on the 23rd of January 1946. I would be leaving my unit, and heading back to England sometime in early January. The Major sent for me and asked me to stay on for a while, but I had had enough, I couldn’t get home fast enough.
The night before I was due to leave, the lads decided to throw a big party. At the time, we were billeted in a stable. The stalls had been our own individual sleeping rooms. In the middle of the stable, we had placed long wooden tables and some pot bellied stoves. We had managed to scrounge these from somewhere. The stoves we kept roaring all day. The German prisoners were made Barrack orderlies for the evening, and their duty was to see that there was plenty of fuel for the stoves.
The party was well organised, with the cooks doing a great job. There were cakes, tins of fruit, sausages, ham, roast chicken, and barrels of wine and lager. Everyone got stoned, and we all ended up dressed up like jungle natives. Wearing the straw from round the wine bottles as grass skirts, and covering our skin with boot blacking and cocoa. The major called in about midnight, but when he saw us playing Tarzan from the rafters, he had one drink and left us to it.
Next morning, along with about ten other lads, I boarded a lorry for home. It was decked with flags and bunting, and a banner declaring. “England next stop!” We stopped off at the Y M C A to say cheerio to everyone. There we were all given a carton of fags and lots of good wishes. It really was a rousing send off!
We caught a train at Hanover, then the horrible journey to Calais began. The bridge crossings were as bad as ever. The compartments were the usual iceboxes, and the journey as slow as it had ever been. Still, this was our last journey in northern Germany, and every mile covered was a mile nearer home. The crossing from Calais was pretty rough, but I was so excited, it seemed to me to be over in a flash.
The white cliffs of Dover got nearer and nearer, and before I knew it, I was walking down the gangplank and boarding a train heading north. I was just letting myself get carried along with the crowd. The only thought on my mind was, at the end of the journey, I would be getting my ticket to Civvy Street. It seemed a long time ago that I had been called up to do six months Militia service, back in July 1939!
The train moved further and further north, I thought I was never going to get there. Across the border into Scotland we went. Leaving us all wondering what the hell was going on! All through the night we traveled. Eventually pulling into the station at Glasgow in the early hours of the morning. What the hell were we doing here? We soon found out.
After disembarking the train, we were given some breakfast, then marched through a warehouse. There we had to hand in our webbing equipment, our side arms, and all the rest of our kit. We were left with a small valise, our personal possessions and our kit bags to put it all in. Then, about mid afternoon, we were put back on the train for the return journey. The train returned the same way as it had come, moving as slowly southwards as it had coming north!
What a bloody organisation! We had been taken all the way to Glasgow, just to hand in our kit. Now we were being taken all the way back to Ashton barracks to be demobed! It seemed to me, they were loath to give me my ticket, keeping me in the army for as long as they could.
It was nearly midnight when we arrived at London Road station Manchester. A convoy of lorries were lined up, waiting to take us to Ashton barracks. We got there at about 1o’clock in the morning. Then we were told we could bed down there for the night, and get demobbed in the morning. We were blazing! Here we were in Manchester, only a short bus ride from home, and they wanted us wait another night, just because the staff had gone to bed. We played hell, and eventually the staff were routed from their slumbers. After a lot of moaning and groaning, they agreed to get us demobbed. It was a bloody shame for them having to work at night and have their peaceful sleep disturbed. Stuff em!!
In spite of the bad start, I have to admit, once they got going, the lads had the system working beautifully. First of all, we handed in our pay books, these were endorsed with the date of our demob. The books were then sent off to the paymaster. We received an advance of pay, and issued with clothing coupons, and a ration book. Then, a supply of cigarettes, chocolate, and a big cardboard box were produced. There was a large room in the warehouse, with racks full of suits and raincoats. We were all told to choose a civvy suit and a Mack each. We could keep our army great coat if we wanted. The suits weren’t bad, having been made by Burton’s. It was really a question of finding one the right size. We all paraded around like mannequins, trying on trousers and jackets. “How does this look?” “Is this too big?”
In the next room, there were counters running all along the sides. We walked from one end to the other, collecting clothing as we went a shirt, a vest, two pairs of underpants, two pairs of stockings, a nice pair of shoes, a tie, and finally, a trilby. Nothing was forced on us, we were allowed to choose everything ourselves.
By the time we had gone all round the room, our cardboard boxes were full. We stood there in our battledress while our boxes were tied up with string. When we reached the last table near the door, we were given our discharge books, duly stamped. Then we were asked, did we want a rail warrant. We were now civilians! The army didn’t want us any more.
Our pay books, we were told, would be sent to us with a gratuity from the paymaster. At the same time, we would be told how long we were going to continue to be paid. That would depend on how much leave they calculated we were entitled to. There would also be a bonus of a days leave and ration allowance, for every month we had spent abroad. In my case, I was entitled to paid leave until June 1946
The whole process of demob had taken about two hours from the time we arrived at Ashton barracks, to the time we walked out of the quartermasters shed. We were now back in Civvy Street!
If we wanted, we could have stayed overnight, there were bunks in a hut across the road.
The nightmare was over at last! I was no longer a corporal, just plain Mister, with a capital “M”
There were about ten of us who lived in the Manchester area, so we grabbed a lorry driver, and asked him to run us to London Road Station. He was a crafty sod, saying his work permit didn’t allow him to drive into Manchester that early in the morning. The offer of half a crown a man made him reconsider his position. “At great risk to himself” he thought he might be able to fix it with the transport corporal. Fix it he did, and a load of civvies piled into the back of his truck. That was my last ride in army transport.
He dumped us at London Road station. Then, after a noisy farewell on the station approach, we drifted off in twos and threes towards Piccadilly and home.
Piccadilly was deserted. Well, it was three o’clock in the morning. The warehouses in Portland Street were gaunt shells after the terrific bombing, and the whole area around Piccadilly was an open space.
A taxi was prowling round, so me and another lad from Wythenshaw flagged it down. We piled in but the driver kept muttering that Wythenshaw was a long way, and he was tired. Poor sod. He was tired! All the way up Princess Parkway he was moaning and groaning. He pulled up at Benchill, near St Luke’s Church and declared, this was as far as he was going.
He demanded £5 for the fare, which we thought was a bit thick. So while the other lad was arguing the toss with him, I let his back tyres down. We gave him £3, which we thought was fair. Then we scuttled off, leaving him cursing and swearing about “Bloody soldiers” being of doubtful parentage. The other lad went on his way, and I trudged up Brownly road towards Crossacres and home.
I was home at last, my journey was ended. A new life was before me, and with hope in my heart, but with a nagging fear for the future, I dreamt of a better life. Would this world of peace be a better place for us all. Would the last six years have taught mankind a lesson. Time only will tell. In the meantime, I have memories to cheer me, and sometimes memories to torment me, for the rest of my life.
James (Jim) Palmer
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