- Contributed by
- Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper
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- 17 November 2003
It was the beginning of what was to be the last battle of the North Africa Campaign. Unfortunately, the American 2nd Corps, under command of General George S Patton, had been badly mauled by an under strength 10th Panzer Division. This had allowed the two other Panzer Divisions, the 15th and 21st, to escape, and so this final battle had to be fought.
On the approach march toward Medjez el Bab, the composite force of both the 1st Army and 8th Army was under the command of Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks. Horrocks had distinguished himself with the blitz attack around the Mareth Line in order to capture El Hamma.
St Peter’s Crossing
There was a slight problem: an enormous wadi had to be bridged. The enemy artillery had registered this feature, and the engineers building the Bailey bridge were falling like snowflakes. Consequently, the wadi then acquired the nickname St Peter's Crossing.
A very plummy English voice was heard asking, ‘Why does this Tunisian wadi carry an English name?’
The response, in a heavy Irish brogue, was succinct: ‘If you try crossing there today you're sure to meet St Peter!’
As history now records, Tunis fell within 36 hours. The campaign finished at Cape Bon five days later, when the Afrika Korps turned around, and all quarter of a million of them surrendered.
Encamped near Bone
When the battlefield was cleared of much of the debris of war, the 21st British Tank Brigade was ordered to proceed to the area around Bone, now Annaba in Algeria. There they were to set up camp and await reinforcements and further orders. This was done, and in very short order a camp sprung up on a hill some 32km (20 miles) south of Bone.
It was all very regimented with paths laid out and the stones lining the paths all properly white washed. Flagpoles were erected, and notice boards appeared. The tank park was set up surrounded with barbed wire and empty cans containing a few stones, which would rattle when disturbed. This was a warning device to alert the guards in case anyone wanted to make off with a 40-ton Churchill tank.
The small city of Bone was quite attractive. The war had bypassed her wide tree-lined boulevards and street cafes, where the speciality was fried egg on a bun washed down by the interminable muscatel. Bone boasted a cinema, where we endured many a brigade lecture without nodding off. It was also where Wee Wully Fenn, from Glasgow, learnt not to place a Cadbury's dairy-milk bar in his KD uniform shirt while watching Mutiny on the Bounty for the seventh time.
The Salerno Mutineers
It was also in Bone that the so-called Salerno Mutineers were incarcerated while awaiting ‘trial’ at Phillipville [sic] further along the coast. This story has finally been told to the eternal shame of all those who took part in that appalling charade of British Army justice. Three sergeants were condemned to death. All the rest of the 190-odd who remained were given very long sentences, for an incident that should never have happened. It was only by good fortune that the Adjutant General, General Adams, was visiting Algeria and that the sentences were commuted.
Nevertheless, the men had the records follow them to their new units, and life became unbearable for them. Most ended up deserting into the hills of Italy. They were stripped of all medals, honours and service records, and a general pardon is still awaited for them.
Living in luxury
But, in any case, back to our new camp. Each troop had three eight-man tents, which was quite luxurious in as much as only five men per tank slept there. Ditches were dug to the usual depth of 15cm (6 inches) all around to carry off the rain.
Rain, we were advised, was a very seldom occurrence. These ditches were modified immediately after the first rainstorm to a depth of 60cm (24 inches) all around. While duck boards magically appeared in case anyone got lost in the ditches.
Stuck in the mud
The rains were the subject of much speculation with the Sahara desert not a million miles away. It was felt the heavy rain could be channelled down there to its everlasting benefit.
The rain was not to our benefit. The fact that we were running the tanks up and down the hills all day long did not improve the situation. A 40-ton tank creates a great deal of mud, which, in turn, has to be cleaned from all working parts.
Our squadron area was well laid out. We were complemented by a succession of new regimental COs, to a ratio of a new one every six weeks, although why we were never told. One CO was big on communications, so it was wireless training ad nauseam. Another was big on maintenance, so the tanks were run constantly. Yet another was big on discipline, so it was blanco and more blanco.
Our showcase latrine
One feature that invariably came up for a gold star was our latrine. It was a work of art, built by a journeyman carpenter, my gunner Harry Gray. The pit itself was a standard 2.4m long x1.8m deep x 0.6m wide (8ft x 6ft x 2ft) but capped by a raised platform with four cut-outs, complete with lids. The whole wooden superstructure had been hand sanded so that the medical staff should not be bothered extracting splinters from its users’ nether regions.
The latrine was situated some 100m (100 yards) from the main tent lines and faced south toward the majestic Atlas Mountains. It was a joy to sit and ruminate, with three colleagues, first thing on a frosty morning, or to feel the warming glow of the sirocco, blowing in from the vast Sahara away to the south.
‘Camel Legs Bailey’
Sport was a big item. A soccer pitch was very soon laid out. It doubled as a camel grazing ground so had to be cleared of camels before we could play.
Unfortunately, in the course of one camel clearing, a young camel was hit by a stone. The camel told her mother, who became irate and chased the first soccer player she saw. This just happened to be our tank driver, Charley Bailey from Keithley, Yorkshire, who was called ‘Camel Legs Bailey’ ever after.
Half a bottle of cherry brandy
We had many visitors from adjoining units, such as the 1st Parachute Division, 4th Infantry Division, 6th Armed Division and Marines. It was a marine officer who prevailed upon our troop leader to allow him to drive a tank as, apparently, he knew all about it.
He was fine on the flat, and until he decided to go into a small wadi — the wrong way — and overturn the damned tank. We were hard at work trying to put it back on its tracks when the squadron leader heard about it … so a general rollicking all round was in order.
It was to this camp that Frank Alison, the friend with whom I had joined the army, turned up in a fit of homesickness with half a bottle of cherry brandy. He proceeded to get pie-eyed and finally passed out. He had to be carried back to his lines at C squadron.
Here, too, news was brought from RHQ that Corporal ‘Ginger’ Robert’s wife had been killed during an air raid on London.
The heart of the camp
The cookhouse was the centre of all interest. Squadron concerts were held frequently in the adjoining mess tent. The concerts’ two stars were Briggs 1.5m (5'1") and Thirkel 1.8m (6'2"). They were both from the Halifax area and invariably first up on stage to give us their rendition of ‘Gert and Daisy’.
They also spent a great deal of time in the cookhouse doing very menial tasks. Mention of the cookhouse leads me to a most unfortunate situation, which arose through no fault of its staff.
In the mire
It was decreed from on high, in the army kitchens of the UK, that we were to enjoy the delights of a new development — dehydrated meat. Its main benefit had been that of conserving space in Merchant Navy ships. This allowed them to store more ammunition and guns on the sea passage from home.
We were therefore to be served a sufficient quantity of dehydrated meat, which it was, true enough, and also apparently enjoyed — at least, the orderly officer heard no complaints. But then he was a very big, burly, South African international rugby player, who never did get many complaints — one Major Christopher Newton-Thompson, MC, who died in May 2002.
Later that evening, when the sun was wending its way towards Morocco, it was noticed that our showcase latrine was quite busy. Very soon busy became a veritable stampede with most trying to get there in time, and many who didn't. It wasn’t too pleasant in the morning, when it was very noticeable. According to the general consensus, this was the result of the dehydrated meat dinner. Everyone suffered its effects, which quickly cleared.
At that time the senior NCOs and officers dined later in the day, as only gentlemen should, and thus they were all unaware of the problems attending the dehydrated meat. It was much later, therefore, that the senior NCOs felt the need to visit the facilities, which had been very busy until their visit.
The result of so much use was that the main supporting beam gave way with a mighty crack. The Squadron Sergeant Major, along with the Squadron Quartermaster Sergeant, the Squadron Sergeant Cook and the Squadron Sergeant Mechanic/Fitter of A Squadron, 145th Regiment RAC of the 21st Tank Brigade, British 1st Army, landed, as they say, in the mire.
It was extremely difficult to keep a straight face for some time after that incident. Meanwhile, no dehydrated meat was ever served again.
Malaria pits and poison parties
Mosquitoes and malaria were a big problem in that area, and so very strict measures were taken to control them. We had already lost one driver, Albert Fairclough, from Yorkshire. He was sent back to England as incurable, having had constant malaria over some nine months.
The main control was to mix up one shovel full of Paris Green arsenic with 50 shovels full of sand, mix well and spread over all the pools of water within half a mile of the camp. When the anopheles mosquito larvae finally came up for air, this poison was sucked in, and it was goodbye to yet another mosquito before it could take flight.
A promissory note from Churchill
One poison party was supervised by a corporal, not the brightest star in the firmament, who confused the instructions. Thus, when the villagers’ cattle came to drink, they keeled over ... dead! Naturally, the buzzards came to clean up the environment — they also keeled over ... dead. Now the North African vulture is a gourmet meal for many villagers, and so we had a local hospital full of very sick villagers.
It was understood by many that a promissory note was handed over to the headman of the village. The note had been signed — on the spot — by one Winston S Churchill. It was just as well that we were on our way to the real war in Italy.
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