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Coleraine Man in the Scots Guards

by iemensa

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Archive List > British Army

Contributed by 
iemensa
People in story: 
Norman Irwin
Location of story: 
Salerno, Italy
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A8999996
Contributed on: 
31 January 2006

Norman Irwin, war veteran

Siwa was an oasis. There was a lot of oases in the desert.

Quatarra depression was the great sand sea that ran from El Alamein, south for 200 miles. It was too boggy to cross and too far to get around.
There was an escarpment, I don’t think it was too steep.

It was called a salt marsh because there were salt deposits when it dried out.

I was transferred into the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, which became the REME.

[Bomb disposal?]
No, engineering. I was at El Kabir. Huge, huge base. A workshop in El Kabir, I was there until the end of 41. Making modifications to 6-pdr guns.
They came looking for someone who could join a front-line regiment in the western desert. There were 2 of us, me and a chap named Smith. We tossed a coin to see who would go. I won the toss. I had to go at 2.30am to get my medical exam. I didn’t give a damn, but I was off to join the war again. And I spent the rest of the war in the Guards Brigade.

[Were you in tanks?]
It was a rifle brigade, we had bren-gun carriers.
I was in 2nd battalion Scots Guards.

The native troops we had were Swazis. These Swazis were in the desert. The Germans complained to the Geneva Convention about their use. It was the manner in which they were used.

We used to go into what they called Laager. All the hard-skins around he outside, all the soft-skins in the middle. That’s how we took-aboard our ammo. The Germans done exactly the same thing, no different. And of course you slept on the ground. There was no other place to sleep but the ground, unless you had a suitable vehicle.

They took the Swazis, they got them naked, they went into the Laagers and cut the Germans’ throats when they were sleeping. It was very effective. They were terrified, afraid to go to sleep. The Germans complained that it was against the Geneva convention, the use of these troops in that form.

They were fully-trained soldiers, mind you, with all the weapons. But they carried their chief with them, and he was a wee old man. They carried him with them!

They used to do war-dances for us, with ostrich-feathers and asekais. It was amazing. They were the only native troops that I ever saw.

[Swaziland is in South Africa. Were these troops in the SADF?]
South Africans. One of them commanded them.

I don’t think any of them were ever captured. It was only the garrison troops were captured at Tobruk. Whatever was in the main garrison of Tobruk.

They also captured 27k tons of petrol and hundreds of thousands of tons of ammo. Auchinleck had stored it up for the big offensive, but wasn’t able to used it.

We had a Polish brigade and a Free French Brigade at Gazala.
We formed a series of boxes at Gazala. The Guards were in a box called Knightsbridge. We were attacked by the 24th Panzers. And they got the Free French box, Bir Hacheim.

They fought well. But then they had a lot of honour to uphold. France fell in 1940. There was good incentive for them.

[Did you meet the Foreign Legion?]
When we got into Tunisia the French General, Leclerc, came up from Chad and brought the Senegalese troops with him and joined us. In Tunisia, across the border.
They may well have been with him, but I didn’t see him.

The Western desert lent itself to a lot of irregular ops. That sort of war.

The sea was that side. This was open-ended. It was 1k miles to Chad.

[weren’t there irregular ops in Italy?]
In the mountains it was Partisans and support of partisans.
All the Italians that we met at Salerno, we made contact with partisans. They all knew.
They said “We sat all night waiting for you.”
Kesselring knew we were coming in.

[No such thing as a military secret?]
It was the same in Africa.
The Senussi were very proud people they used to beat their chest and say “We Senussi.”
They were spying for the Germans and spying for us. They were very arrogant people.
The desert wasn’t trackless to them, just to us. But if you took them to a city they wouldn’t have known where they were.

We captured 28k Italians. We captured a brothel. Mobile brothel to the officers.

[Were the women in it interned?]
They whisked them away.
That was before Gazala.
It was a big caravan thing. I can’t remember how many were in it.

[What about the Americans?]
They were useless!
They came across the Kasserine Pass, that was the famous one. They tried to take it, and they lost it. They tried to take it again, and they lost it again.

We got to a place called Enfidaville, and Monty decided the terrain was too bad, too rocky, and there was too many people trying to advance westwards any further. He called in Alexander, his boss, the General in charge of 30 corps, Brian Horrocks. He said “You will take 7th Armoured Div, 4th Indian Div and 201st Guards Brig and go round to the US First Army. There you will attack the enemy.

That’s what he did. We pulled out of the line, left screening troops. It took us 4 and a half days to get round. We attacked on 5th May, and on 7th May I was in the centre of Tunis.
The whole thing collapsed. We did the Americans’ job for them. They don’t tell you that in the history books.

After the war in Africa finished, we captured Tunis in 6th May 1943.
The whole thing collapsed. The commanding general in Africa, Von Arnim, the group captured him. And after the great victory in North Africa, Churchill reviewed the troops. Almost every bugger reviewed the troops!

I was at the invasion of Salerno.
The invasion of Salerno was 9th Sept 1943.

Kesselring knew we were coming, he occupied the high ground. We landed on the plains of Salerno. We landed to the north of the Sali river, and the Americans landed to the south of the Sali river. We were transferred into the US 5th Army, under US General Mark Clark. Kesselring knew.
Kesselring had had enough. He couldn’t support the action. He didn’t have the men.
It eased the pressure on us, but we lost a lot of men. We lost 9k men in 9 days. We lost 5.5k, the US lost 3.5k. So you can see who was doing the fighting.

We had 530 LSTs. The one I was on had 80 bren-gun carriers on it.
There was AA cover. And we had all the Battleships — the Nelson, the Renown. The Warspite. I seen the Warspite, with the 16-in guns, close in to shore. Doing good work. But she got hit!

People think, because of the Iraq war, that guided bombs are a new thing. The Germans had guided bombs at Salerno! A DO-27, a Dornier 27, they could guide 1 from 12 miles out and as close as 3 miles. The Warspite got hit with one, and nearly sunk it. They sunk the Uganda, dozens of the LSTs were hit. They hit another one, I can’t remember the name, and the bomb didn’t explode! It went through 5 decks and out the bottom. It killed 46 sailors.
If it had gone off it would have sunk the whole ship.

The Germans were tough cookies. They had big Tiger tanks. The German 88s - it was an AA gun in fact.

And the Derry battery was at Salerno. I didn’t know that until 50 yrs later. We were so hard-pressed that they brought the AA guns in for ground defence. The 3.7s. We had 25-pdrs, 6-in howitzers and we had these 3.7s behind that. And we were in front of all this lot. The other guns weren’t too bad, but when the 3.7s fire, the muzzle-blast was unbelievably severe when you were in front of it. And we knew it was 3.7 AA guns, but I didn’t know it was Derry men!

Another thing they don’t tell you, something that irks me. At Salerno we landed to the north of the Sali river, the US landed to the south of the Sali river. Mark Clark wanted to withdraw the US troops and land them behind us! That’s well-recorded.

We were in the 18th Army Group then, and Alexander was supreme commander of the 18th Army Group. He told Clark “On no account! Stand your ground regardless!”

There you are.

The army issued their own currency in Italy. I can’t remember how far it was legal tender for, but it was issued by the army. They called it BMA money. It was pound notes and 10 shillings, but it was called BMA money. The army issued military script during the war.

You didn’t need money. You’d nothing to spend the money on.
We didn’t get paid for months on end. It was a bloody wasteland, we were being chased by the bloody panzers. We didn’t have time to buy anything!

[Did you get to Rome?]
No, I got up to Monte Casino.

The brigade had been decimated twice and reinforced twice. The new troops filled us out.
And then they decided to pull us out. The 24th brigade landed at Anzio, which is a bit more up the coast. They got totally destroyed. So they had to sort of amalgamate and bring us back home.

[RUR were at Anzio]
There was all sorts there. It’s amazing the number of regiments there, a lot of County regiments.

There were a whole lot of mistakes in that time. It’s not fair to lay them all on Clark. But the Anzio landings in particular was a fiasco. We landed on the Salerno plain under fire. At Anzio they landed unopposed. They were a week ashore before there was a bloody shot fired, and there could have been in Rome. The general was too timid. He went a certain distance, then got cold feet and pulled back. This gave the Germans time to get their armour down. And of course once they got the tanks in …

[Did you see the amphibious trucks at Salerno?]
There was plenty of Amphibians at Salerno. The first time I ever saw a dumper-truck was at Salerno. The ships came in, the dumpers drove out with boxes of ammo on them. They just dumped it in the sand and went back again for more. The Americans were well-equipped.

The only thing the yanks were good at was their convoy driving. They were v good at driving at night in convoy. They had the differentials painted white, and they had a little spotlight underneath painted white. There was no lights, you see? They cut the wires. But driving, you could see the white spot in front of you.

[The “Red Ball Express” was african-american …]
These were all black men driving these trucks.

That was fairly easy, because the RE had put a bridge up. But we got to the next river. The Americans put a rubber pontoon across. Terrifying, absolutely blooming terrifying. While we were going across …
The driver of 1 was suffering from malaria. He took a dose of malaria, he couldn’t even drive, so I had to drive it. I got to the bridge. There was a mist. An Edinburgh haar. It comes up to the waist. You can’t see the ground. That’s what it was like.
There was 2 lines of US troops. Then a gap, and then 2 other lines of US troops. But I couldn’t see the bridge. The US sergeant said “You’ll have to drive v fast. If you don’t go fast you’ll go into the river. Go!”
I couldn’t see the bloody bridge!
On the far side was these troops. So you had to aim. I was going downhill, and by the time I hit the bridge I was in 3rd gear. We were flying along.

They had plenty of butter. They had long-life milk. Like what you buy in the supermarket. They had it in half-gallon tins. We used to break into their camp and steal it. It was just like fresh milk to us. We didn’t know what it was then, of course.

We got US cigarettes. We were allowed 50 a week. 50 Camels.

In North Africa we got petrol in 4-gallon flimsies.
Squared off. 4 gallons per tin, 16 gallons to a crate. But when you got a crate it was half empty. They leaked!

Mr Proctor, he was the man that set up the canning.
He was my boss.
The Germans had the jerry-can. Oh, that was a great can.
Ours was always leaking petrol.

[With all the spilled petrol, were there any explosions?]
No, the temperature was so high it just evaporated.
We used to cook with the bottom half of them. You cut it in half, filled it with sand and poured petrol in. Stir it up and light it, it gave heat like a primus stove. I showed my children this in the sandhills, we cooked our picnic.

[what about VE day?]
Absolutely marvellous day. We came home in 44 after Casino.

We didn’t need AA guns any more. We had air superiority, you see. There was a lot of RAF ground staff, and what they done with them was they discharged them from the RAF at one table and they signed them up in the army at the next table. They had no option. The tall ones, they put them in the Guards brigade.
We were in Hoick in Scotland. They sent them up there for training. We were supposed to be the bees’ knees. We were experts in desert warfare. We were experts in mountain warfare in Italy. We were amphibious experts.

We were training these guys. Of course they were sent down after VE day.
Up in the hills they had a built a Huge bonfire in anticipation of this day. They put a 20gallon drum of diesel oil in the middle. They sprayed it with a stirrup-pump of diesel oil. Of course, you couldn’t light this thing. They got a 3-in mortar and fired an incendiary into it.

We took the Sgts mess bar up there. We used the 3-in mortar to fire star-shells and lit up the whole thing. As the evening progressed and it got into the early hours of the morning, we got inebriated. They put in a live round and seriously injured 2 men. We might have killed them! The whole town went wild, went mad.

[was nobody on a charge for it?]
The crew had disappeared. At that stage, nobody cared anyway.

They killed 9 mil people in WW1. But in WW2 they have no idea how any were killed. There are estimates from 47 mil to 55 mil.

[What about the conflicts against the Japs?]
The Battery from Belfast fought the Japs in Burma.

They had a nickname, they called them the “12-mile snipers”. They could put a shell into a railway tunnel at 12 miles. If they could see it, they could hit it. The Colonel in charge of them was Jimmy …
Slim, the Australian General commanding the Burma campaign, said of him “Jimmy never done a thing he was told, but he never got it wrong.”

The 12-mile snipers were very famous and well-documented.

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