The War Memoirs of Capt. Alec James Barthorpe
THE WAR YEARS.
1939 to 1946
War was officially declared at 11 am and 3rd September 1939 and on that day, and at that time Teddy and Peter Hicks and I were sitting with Mr. HICKS, their Father, in their house indulging in our favourite pastime-drinking beer! Peter, Teddy and I had a week-end pass from the Drill Hall, so Mr. Hicks had invited us around to have a beer and listen to the Prime Minister's important announcement. Within a few minutes of the end of the announcement, the Air Raid siren sounded, but we all decided that it was just as safe staying where we were as going outside, so we carried on drinking beer. We were 3 of the 5 who had signed up in the Territorial Army to be together if hostilities broke out. On our return to the Drill Hall, we were informed that the Regiment was being formed and our Battery was being integrated with the Surrey Yeomanry, so that we would become the SURREY AND SUSSEX YEOMANRY, then the Regiment was off to France with the B.E.F., and would be equipped with all the available guns limbers and transport we possessed at the Drill Hall and further equipment would be issued to us in due course. We would also be moving into the Hove County Cricket Ground immediately, where all this equipment would be assembled. All ranks were billeted in private houses in the vicinity of the ground and days full of activity passed quickly assembling all the equipment and transport for the newly formed Regiment. Then out of the blue, came the bombshell for me. No soldier under 19 yrs of age would be allowed to go to France with the B.E.F., but would remain behind to form our second battery. I did everything I could think of to get back to the unit, I even volunteered as a batman - but all to no avail, so when the Battery moved off I stayed behind and helped to form and train men for : 389th Battery,of the 144th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery (Surrey and Sussex Yeomanry).
By the end of September our First Line Battery had moved out to an assembly camp and was on it's way to France. The handful of us who stayed behind cleaned up the County Ground and prepared it for our reinforcements of National Servicemen to arrive for training. We were coming into winter now and the days were getting colder, snow started falling in November of 1939 which made our guard duties on the main gate most unpleasant. However by then the National Servicemen had arrived and training had started in earnest. I was a driver, and I was most surprised at the number of men who were unable to drive and were much older than me. I thus became a Driving Instructor with 3 other men who had been with me at the Drill Hall. Between the 4 of us we taught the new recruits how to drive as well as how to tow a limber and gun in safety. We were a field artillery unit and were to be equipped with the new 25 pdr. gun/how, so drivers would be driving a large Quad, behind which would be an ammunition limber and then a 25 pdr. gun so the man had to be competent driver in any terrain. Eventually the day finally arrived when we had to collect our equipment from the main Ordnance Depot. Quads, limbers, guns light and heavy trucks, etc., etc., and the Regiment itself was moved to a larger camp area at DURSLEY in Gloucestershire, to undergo a period of intensive training with our new equipment especially our guns. It also included a trip to Okehampton in Devon, which was the Artillery firing range, to calibrate all the guns as well as getting practice in firing them. At the time, there were only 2 Regiments in the Army equipped with new 25Pdr. guns, the Kent Yeomanry and ourselves, so both units had to become operational as soon as possible.
We had virtually completed our training when the B.E.F. became embroiled in the Dunkirk retreat and were forced to evacuate the mainland of Europe in a hurry. At that time we had just received orders to prepare too embark for France and had started greasing the guns and ammunition for embarkation at Southampton. This was cancelled preparetoy and the order countermanded, we now had to clean the guns ready for action and ready to move on 2 hrs notice. In addition we were instructed to prepare to receive a large number of evacuated soldiers from France, take possession of any arms they had brought with them, feed them and issue them with new uniforms if necessary. These were busy days for us, but eventually the flood of soldiers ended, as they were posted off by the Army and our Regiment was moved into tented accommodation near AYLESBURY, between London and Southampton. As we were now considered to be fully equipped and trained, and were still on 2 hrs notice, we were on stand-by in case of any German invasion attempt along the South Coast, between Southampton and Eastbourne, the Kent Yeomanry had the same role as us from Eastbourne to the mouth of the Thames.
This position lasted for the rest of the summer and through the Battle of Britain until October 1940, when we were stood down and told that we would be granted 48 hr embarkation leave, prior to our departure for overseas service. I phoned Mum and arranged to meet her in Southampton for the day, as the time allowed was so short. I met her train and we spent a lovely day together, before seeing her off in late afternoon for her return trip to Brighton. Little did I know that I was not to see Mum, or any of the family, for the next four and a half years.
The Regiment left by road for embarkation at Liverpool and we were encamped under canvas on Aintree Racecourse. We were advised that a convoy was being assembled, and we would be joining it as soon as a converted passenger ship became available for us. A short while before the convoy was due to sail the 'Royal Mail Line' ship "HIGHLAND BRIGADE", an old coal burning ship, arrived from South America with a load of export meat both frozen and tinned, for the British market. This ship was commandeered by the Army for us, but due to the shortage of time we were ordered to assist in the unloading of this ship, before the loading of our own arms and equipment as well as men and material could be carried out. So each day after that we were all loaded into trucks and taken down to the docks where we assisted the dockers in their work, for which, as a result of numerous air raids on Liverpool and Birkenhead docks, they were receiving danger pay over and above their wages, whilst we received nothing extra despite doing most of the work!
The unloading was very urgent if we were not to miss the convoy, and the dockers, making full use of the number of troops avavailable worked to a very good plan. They organised two gang planks from ship to shore, one at the front end and one at the rear end of the ship. The system was simple and very effective, alongside the front gangplank they stocked cases of foodstuffs to be loaded, so we grabbed a case of food carried it on to the ship and were directed to where to dump it then we grabbed a side of beef, or whatever there was to unload, and dumped that on the keyside near the rear gangplank for the dockers to carry away. The ship was eventually unloaded and we drivers then brought all our equipment of trucks guns, limbers, ammunition etc. to the dockside to be loaded in the usual manner. Despite this, we were only half loaded when the rest of the convoy was ready to sail. The Commodore decided that the convoy could not wait and that they would sail on schedule, in order to rendezvous with the naval escort off the northern tip of Ireland for their journey though the Atlantic to the African West Coast, and we would have to catch them up.
1940 TO 1944
Needless to say by the time we sailed we were too far behind the main convoy to catch them up before the rendezvous over the northern tip of Ireland, so our Captain, ex Royal Navy and submarine commander in W.W.1 recalled for war duty in 1939, decided to continue the chase at full speed. The HIGHLAND BRIGADE was equipped as were all armed merchantmen with a 6" naval gun in rear, manned by members if the Royal Marines, so the Regiment erected 4 Bren Guns on tripods for Anti Aircraft defence, which were manned by our machine gunners 24 hrs a day. We also supplied men for 8 look-out duty posts against possible 'U' Boat attack to assist the crew.
For the first few days the sea was rough and the wind strong and cold, causing the ship to pitch and roll quite a bit, which was most uncomfortable as my troop had been bherson deck, where we slept on paliasses, but fortufortunately part of the deck was enclosed and we were protected from the elements. It rained most of the time and this was mixed with the sea spray thrown up by the ship and the wind so we had to keep the windows and doors closed. I was surprised at the number of men, especially National Servicemen, who had never been on board ship or had never even ventured far beyond the perimeters of their own towns and villages. So it was not surprising to see the meal queues shorter and shorter to almost nothing as the bad weather dragged on. I considered myself lucky to have managed to overcome my queasiness I felt in the beginning, but after we had passed the northern tip of Ireland I felt much better and was one of four of us who could eat regularly in our 'mess', which was incidentally, situated over the back screws just short of the 6" gun. The food was good and, of course as much as you wanted, but at times you had to hang on to your plate! After about 4 days at sea when the waves abated and the wind lost a bit of strength it became much more pleasant as we all started to relax. All guards and look-outs, however, were kept on the alert and we received the news that we were turning south-west towards West Africa, the BISMARK had been sunk by the Royal Navy off the Irish coast but a long way south-east of us.
It was about this time that I happened to be passing way through our sleeping quarters, when there was a shout, the ship rolled over to a dangerous angle and I was thrown towards the open side window. I dropped my lifebelt from my hand and saved myself with only my head going through the window staring straight down into the sea which at the angle the ship was now, below me. It was then that I heard the siren blaring off for life boat stations. I grabbed my lifebelt, ran to my boat station where I found all the other men assembling, no one knew what had happened but speculation was ripe. After about 30 minutes we were stood down and ordered to stay alert. It later transpired that the naval look-out had spotted a submarine periscope out to sea and had yelled to the Captain who was on the bridge as usual. The Captain immediatly ordered the helmsman to turn the ship hard and fast and the engine room to full speed ahead, and that was when I careered towards the open window. The 'U' Boat fired 2 torpedoes at our back side, and here all credit to the Captain, he managed to avoid them by watching and steering a path between them. We maintained our full speed for about 1 hour or so before we resumed our proper course.
We never did catch up with the convoy but we headed for FREETOWN and a few days later entered the sheltered harbour. The whole convoy was there, having arrived the day before, and as we passed the boom at the entrance every ship in that harbour blew it's hooter in greeting. Apparently LORD HAW HAW, the British traitor broadcasting for the Germans, had included in his broadcast a few days before that the troopship s.s. HIGHLAND BRIGADE carrying a fully equipped artillery unit, the 144th Field Regt., had been sunk in the Atlantic by a German 'U' Boat, there were no survivors. Then a few days later we roll into FREETOWN as large as life!! (It was not until I finally returned to England in 1945, that I found out that my Mother and indeed the whole family did not know about this incident.)
I loved the trip from Freetown to CAPE TOWN, much warmer weather, lovely calm seas with flying fish visible every night flying off the bow wave of the ship. I was struck with the luminosity of the white water created by the ship passing through the calm sea of the South Atlantic Ocean. For the first time we were travelling in convoy and our escort was a cruiser which was heading for repairs or everhaul at Simonstown. It was full moon for most of the way and the nights were balmy, the days were sunny and hot and although we had been warned that the African sun was fierce and sunbathing not recomended for lenghy periods, some of us did get burnt but no one reported unfit for duty due to sunburn.
We finally sailed into CAPE TOWN in the afternoon with the sun shining and the majestic beauty of TABLE MOUNTAIN in the background, it was a really wonderful sight. That night we spent a long time looking at the lights of Cape Town as most of us had not seen any lit up city for over a year.
The next morning we were assembled on deck and informed that we would be allowed into Cape Town from 1000 hrs, and as we were the only ship in the convoy berthed alongside the dock, for coaling purposes, we could return when we wished, on condition, we were back on board by 2200 hrs.
Two of my friends, Doug and Peter, and I then left the ship as soon as we could and once out of the dock gates headed for the town to 'see the sights'. We stopped to enquire from a pedestrian on which sights were nearby and where we could go to swim in the sea. He informed us that South Africans did not swim near Cape Town in October as it was too cold for them, but suggested we went to Muizemberg by train and directed us to the railway station where we caught the electric train to Muizemberg which was free to servicemen in uniform. The sea was cold but invigorating and I found it to be about the same temperature as the English Channel off Brighton Beach, but much rougher and with a powerful under current. I thoroughly enjoyed my first swim in the Atlantic and came out fresh and ready to see all the sights. Doug and Peter also enjoyed their swim but I remained with the impression that they did not appeciate the strong waves of the Atlantic as compared to the smaller ones they were used to. We then returned to Cape Town and were walking aimlessly along looking for a coffee shop, for a bite to eat, when we were hailed by two young girls in a car asking us if we wanted a lift. They asked us if we were from the convoy, which had pulled in the night before, and could they show us the sights of Cape Town, to which we readily agreed. They first suggested that we caught the cableway to the top of Table Mountain, which was free to servicemen in uniform, but they would wait for our return in the car park as they had been up many times and furthermore they would have to pay the full fare and being University Students they could not afford. We offered to pay their fare for them but they adamently refused, so off we went on the cableway. We had an aerial view of Cape Town stretched out down the lower slopes of Table Mountain to the harbour and Table Bay where the whole convoy lay at anchor, except our ship slongside the warf still taking on coal. It was a bit windy when we pulled in to the landing dock at the top and the guard, travelling in the cable car, had to check the sway before we could come in, but we took no notice and started our walk around and visit to the shop. We had barely been there about 10 minutes or so when a siren sounded, and thinking it was the signal for the down car leaving we ignored it. As the car was about to leave the guard re-opened the door and shouted "DON'T YOU BOYS WANT TO GO DOWN?" being the nearest to the car I replied "NO THANKS WE'LL CATCH THE NEXT ONE" back came the ominous warning "THIS IS THE LAST ONE, UNLESS YOU WANT TO STAY UP HERE TONIGHT" you've never in your life seen three soldiers move so fast to scramble on to that cable car before it moved off!! We got down safely and joined the girls who were still waiting in the car for us, quite surprised that we were back so soon. Anyway they took us on a tour of the City and surroundings especially the University grounds and buildings where they were both students, as well as Rhodes Memorial and many other places, finally ending up at the drivers house to meet their parents, and have drinks and dinner. Both parents were charming people and we enjoyed their company, conversation, friendliness and, of course, their hospitality. Unfortunatly time came for us to return to the ship and our host drove us back to the docks in his new Chevrolet Sedan.
The next day we were told at assembly that we would be allowed ashore at 0900 hrs but as the convoy was sailing that afternoon we would have to be back on board by 1300 hrs. Doug, Peter and I decided, rather than stay on board, to go for a walk around the town just to kill time. When we got to the dock gates we saw a line of cars drawn up at the gate waiting to come into the docks and driven by the ladies of the town. We were walking passed them when one of these ladies called us over to her car, asked us where we were going and could she take us there. We thanked her but told her we had to be back on board early and had only been allowed out to buy essential things we might need. I noted that she had a chauffeur and she sat on the back seat with a large basket on the floor in front of her. She stated that usually information concerning the arrival of any convoy was notified to the ladies of Cape Town, who in turn would arrive at the dock gates complete with picnic baskets. They would then collect a number of soldiers each, from the convoy personnel, and take them out for a picnic at one of the scenic spots around the City, but not having received this advanced information they had arrived late and there was little time left. She was particularly annoyed as she had brought with her in the basket sufficient food and beer for about 4 men and as she was dertermined not to take it back home again she invited the three of us to sit in the back of the car, have a chat and eat and drink as much as we liked (or could) from the contents of her basket. We needed no second bidding but sat in the car with her and got stuck in to the lovely cold meats, chicken and salads as well as bottles of CASTLE beer. I found her to be a most interresting, charming, well travelled and informed person, and a good hostess as she never let the conversation lapse for any lengh of time but made sure that we had plenty to eat and drink. Time passed all too quickly and it was soon time for us to leave, full of lovely food and bottles of beer in our pockets which she forced us to take. By the time we got away we had to make a run for the gang plank and I noted we were the last to get on board, as the Duty Sgt. took the names of those following us.
We sailed that evening and by the next morning we were well out to sea at the mercy of the infamous cape rollers. Our escort was now reduced to a cruiser and we were told that it would be a non-stop run to Port Tewfik, which was the port for Suez in Egypt. The only dangerous part of the journey would be once we had passed Kenya and into waters off Italian Somaliland around the Horn of Africa off Abyssinia and Eritrea, there we could expect enemy attacks from the air. However despite these warnings and extra vigilance no attacks occurred and we had a safe journey to Port Tewfik where we disembarked and were put into tents nearby to await our equipment, guns and transport to be unloaded. This was done during the night and all next day, after which the whole Regiment moved off by road to ALMAZA, the Royal Artillery Base Depot on the outskirts of CAIRO. Once there all guns and transport were repainted for action in the Western Desert, which took about ten days to complete, then to our utter amazement we received orders to return to Port Tufik for re-embarkation to the Sudan.
ABYSSINIA and ERITREA : 1940 - 1941
We landed at PORT SUDAN and from there proceeded by railway flat cars to KASSALA to join the 5th (Indian) Division on the Eritrean front. The Regiment was split, my Battery the 389th (Sussex) Battery proceeded to GERDAREF and our sister battery the 390th (Surrey) Battery remained on the Kassala front and joined Gazelle Force, a highly mobile unit formed specifically to harass the enemy as they retreated. They were later to become involved in the only known cavalry charge of W.W.2 when 60 Italian Colonial cavalry, who had been trapped by the rapid advance of Gazelle Force, suddenly charged them from the rear. The guns were immediatly swung into action and the gunners fired over "open sights" at the charging cavalry, assisted of course by every man in the unit who could use a firearm. The enemy fled leaving 24 dead and 16 wounded on the field.
On arrival at Gerdaref we were immediatly despatched to relieve the 25th Field Regt. who were holding the line at GALLABAT, which at this time was the only Sudanese town occupied by the Italians. The equipment of the 25th Field Regt. was old, badly worn, and in urgent need of replacement, as they were all the old 18 pounders of 1912 vintage, ex W.W.1, and pretty well worn out. Our arrival to relieve them with our new 25 pdrs., which these regulars had never seen but only read about, caused quite a stir, and they were dying to see us fire them in action. We were told by these men that they had dug 2 gun positions, one a forward position just in rear of the infantry to bring the targets well to the rear within range of their worn out guns, and the one we were in, the rear position, where they could fire on the enemy. Within half an hour of taking over we obliged them, and they were astounded to find that we could shell from their REAR position targets which were out of range to them from their FORWARD position!
The countryside here was very dry, just before the rainy season, fairly bushy with plenty of trees so our camouflage nets were extensively used. We had no air support to speak of so CAPRONI bombers paid us frequent visits. We soon realised that, although the Italians knew the area we were in, they could not pin-point the gun emplacements. One day a few Caproni aircraft flew over to give us, as we thought, our usual morning visit, but they had cunningly missed all the gun sites and bombed the surrounding bush, then we saw smoke and immediatly realised that we had a bush fire on our hands, which had been started by the Italians dropping incendiaries on the bush setting it alight, and was now being blown by the wind straight towards the gun-sites. However in the center of the gun position slightly to the rear and heavily camouflaged was our ammunition dump for the guns with all our reserve stock, if the fire ever got to it, the resulting explosion could cause heavier casulties in both men and material than the Italian army facing us could cause in months of fighting. All available men who could be spared, and I was one of them, were issued with shovels and sent to the scene of the fire to stamp it out, which we managed to do within a few hours. Thank goodness the Caproni bombers left us alone.
A few weeks later, this was about the end of January 1941 our Infantry reported that, as a result of a noticeable lack of enemy movement or activity, patrols had been sent out and reported that the enemy had vacated Gallabat village and appeared to have retreated in the direction of LAKE TANA, about 60 - 80 miles away. A mobile composite unit was quickly formed, consisting of a company of Infantry, a troop of Artillery, for which my troop "B" Troop was selected, and despatched immediatly in pursuit. We eventually caught up with their rear-guard after about 15 miles at top speed, which was not that fast in that bush country, wheeled the guns into action, but after firing a few rounds the enemy retreated. We only chased them for about another 5 - 10 miles before catching up with them again, wheeled into action but only fired off a very few siting shots when we were ordered to cease fire and stand by. A short while later we were stood down and as it was now getting dark, we were to prepare to spend the night in our present positions but to be ready to go into action at any time. The next morning we were advised that the enemy had indeed made good his escape towards LAKE TANA, and we were to return to the Battery position at Gallabat, and then to proceed at all speed to KEREN, where the Italians were making a stand to block our way to the only pass through the mountain range to the high plateau above, and the Capital ASMARA. All our probing attacks ,so far, had been repulsed.
It took us a few days to reach KEREN as we had to go via KASSALA, but on arrival we took up our positions in a sandy valley which was very wide at the mouth, where we came in, but narrowed down as we approached the mountain range ahead and ending at the foot of the pass. What we did not know at the time was that the gun positions we were occupying in the sandy valley were situated in the centre of the area the Italian Artillery had used as a firing range before the war! According to information received, the 4th Indian Division had arrived sometime before in their advance from Kassala but had been halted at this spot. Despite patrols being carried out to the north and south of our position, this was the only pass from the low land to the high plateau a few thousand feet above, where the main Italian supply base lay, the town of KEREN. The pass was narrow and winding, both the road and railway line had been hewn out of the rocky face of this narrow gorge, which was overlooked by Fort DOLOGORODOC, Mount SANCHIL, BRIGG's PEAK and a few other strong points held in strengh by the Italians. In order to break through these massive defences the 5th Indian Division was called to assist, and that included us.
The battle of Keren is better described in the official books of W.W.2, so I will not even attempt to do so, but I will try and describe what occurred in our particular area especially on our gun and to me, in particular.
We were deployed in a very sandy area which in a way was to our advantage, as despite the frequent shelling we underwent by enemy artillery, the shrapnel was smothered by the sandy soil which saved casualties and on one occasion saved my life. We ate and slept within 10 metres of the gun, which was essential in action, and on this occasion we were awakened at first light with a request for defensive fire on a pre-selected target. We started firing at the usual rate of 1 round per minute. This was very soon increased to 2 per minute and then almost immediatly to the emergency call of gunfire (as fast as you can). This applied to all our 4 guns in the troop. After about 2 hrs firing No 3 gun on our left (we were No 2) ceased firing, and as there had been no order and we had been shelled during this operation, our No 1 enquired the reason. It appeared the recoil system on the gun had leaked oil, rendering the gun unserviceable. As we were running low on ammunition the Sgt. on No 2 gun suggested that we send over some men to fetch some of his. I was sent with 3 others to fetch some. (I must mention here that although I was a driver, when we were in action in a static position, I assisted on the guns.) We did several trips to No 2 and back, carrying either a box of 4 shells or one of 8 cartridge cases. As I started back on my last trip carrying a box of 8 cartridge cases, the enemy started shelling our position. I was about half way back so to turn back was as dangerous and going on, so I just kept going. I was walking through a particular sandy patch over a low dune when a shell landed literally no more than 2 metres from my feet but at the foot of the dune. This probably saved my life as I was covered in sand and bits of grass and swearing at the enemy gunners, but unhurt by shrapnel. I was told afterwards that when my friends saw me disappear into a cloud of sand they called me to see if I was alright, but once they heard me swearing they knew I was untouched - thanks to the sand!
The weather was hot and dry and there was no rain, so the P.B.I. (Poor Bloody Infantry) suffered badly from thirst during their attempts at taking or storming the heights above them. The Italian defence system was based on Fort Dologorodoc, so to force our way through this pass we had to take the high ground, and as the enemy had blown both the road and the railwy line in several places, the road had to be repaired by the Indian Sappers and Miners, as we advanced, to allow our tanks to get behind enemy lines. The Fort was eventually taken by the Mahrattas of the 5th Indian Division and the Weat Yorkshire Regt. with the support of our 25 pdr guns on about the 3rd day of the battle, which lasted about about 10 days. We (my battery) established an Observation Post inside the Fort as soon as it was captured and helped to repel the counter attack launched by the Italians. All supplies for the troops defending the fort had to be humped up the mountain side on foot. I went on a couple of these supply hikes in the searing heat of summer and found it to be very thirsty work, especially when I was carrying a 2 gal. can of water for our O.P. party. By the time I got to them I could have drunk and whole 2 gall. myself - all I had was 2 pints in my water bottle! Eventually of course the tanks broke through and the enemy was forced to retreat towards ASMARA, the Capital of Eritrea. A follow-up force was quickly organised by the 5th Indian Division, and our Battery was ordered to take part in the pursuit, chasing the enemy to Asmara and possibly beyond. We were soon packed up and having loaded all the ammunition into the limber we hitched up the guns and off we went with "A" troop leading, followed by "B", and "C" bringing up the rear. We were the first artillery regiment to move through the pass to Asmara, and we did not stop until we were pulled off the road about half way to Asmara and told to get into position as the enemy was about to make a last ditch stand. We got the guns off loaded and ready to fire, but the order was countermanded as the enemy had abandoned their positions and left hurriedly. We stayed in our positions, and bedded down for the night. Early next morning, before dawn we were once again on the move in pursuit of the retreating Italians. We entered ASMARA shortly before lunch and were quartered in the grounds of the Marina Radio station, now temporarily out of action. I was quite surprised to see the civilian population come out and parade freely in the town, both whites and blacks, cheering us in.
ASMARA was a pleasant and attractive town, the largest we had come accross since we had left Egypt. The town was built on the high plateau, which was the centre core of Eritrea, and was about the height of Johannesburg, 5500 ft above sea level, the weather being very similar. We remainwed there several days and took the opportunity to clean up and prepare our equipment for further action. It was not long in coming as within a week of arrival we were ordered once again to move next morning to MASSAWA, the coastal port where the enemy had dug in and preparing to make a stand. Massawa was the only Eritrean port and was therefore strategically important to us as it was connected to Asmara by road, by rail and by overhead cableway. The distance by road was 67 miles and it descendewd 5000 ft the last 5 miles being at sea level. It took us 8 hrs to tow the guns down and later 2 days to bring them back!
As soon as we arrived the guns were moved into positions ready for action. We were to support the Free French Foreign Legionnaires who had been part of BRIGG's FORCE, a composite group of British, Free French and Indian troops as well as Sudan Defence Force, had advanced down the coastal strip from Port Sudan to Massawa against an enemy who occasionally offered stiff resistance. The next morning we opened up with a barrage on the enemy positions in the town and the infantry moved in when we lifted it. A few hours of fighting, and the enemy surrendered and the town was ours. The next day some friends and I managed to get permission to borrow one of the light trucks and go for a look into the town, or what was left of it. The town was quite small but most of the houses were damaged by shellfire, the harbour was full of wrecked ships. We were told that there were 67 wrecks of all types in the harbour. The day was boiling hot so the three of us stripped off and dived into the sea and had a lovely swim. The Red Sea at that point was quite warm, rather like taking a lookwarm bath. When I eventually got out I found that I was sweating with exertion whilst swimming in the sea water! We returned to our gun position and eventually returned to ASMARA, taking 2 days for the tow back up the steep mountain slopes of the tarmac road. We were parked again at the MARINA Radio station in the town, and remained there for a about 10 days or so cleaning and checking our equipment, as well as salvaging enemy guns which had been put out of action in the fighting outside ASMARA.
The enemy meanwhile had retreated helter skelter southwards towards ADDIS ABABA but had stopped and taken up a very strong defensive position inside, and around, a prepared strong point at a mountain site called AMBA ALAGI, this was to be the Duke of Aeosta's last stand before the South African forces, moving up very rapidly from the south completely surrounded him and the remains of his army. Our forces had already taken up positions on the northern side and our Regiment was ordered south to reinforce them. This strong position prepared by the Italians had gun platforms dug into the mountain side from which the guns could be wheeled out from connecting tunnels dug into the mountain at right angles to any possible line of attack. As soon as we fired back they would simply wheel the guns into the tunnels where they would be prefectly safe. As these guns were a nuissance to us, and causing unnecessary casualties, our Regiment registered the site of each gun platform within our range and treated each one as a regimental target. We must have done some destructive firing because after only a few days the firing from these guns was definitly reduced. It was about this time that I started feeling sick as if I had a bout of flue, all I wanted to do was lie down. The M.O. sent me back to the rear first aid dressing station at Regimental Headquarters for tests. It turned out that I had a bout of Yellow Jaundice, by this time my skin had turned yellow, my urine was the colour of Old Ale and I had a permanent splitting headache. I was sent for treatment to the base Hospital in Asmara where I remained until after the surrender at Amba Alagi, wnen I was returned to the Regiment which was once again stationerd in the Radio Station in Asmara. We remained there for a few weeks during which we were mostly engaged in salvaging enemy equipment. In about June 1941 we received orders to move back to Egypt for duties in the Western Desert Campaign.
In June 1941, our troops had crushed the Italian Army and had advanced as far as El AGHELA on the extreme south of the Gulf of Sirte, which was to be the limit of their advance westwards. The Italians had received reinforcements and were about to make a stand, and reports had been received in Cairo that the Germans had landed strong reinforcements under General ERWIN ROMMEL to assist their allies, comprising the 90th Light Motorised Division, and the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions. This was indeed bad news as our forces had been reduced considerably by having to send troops to defend GREECE as well as CRETE, coupled with the fact that most of our tank force had suffered severely during the rapid advance through the desert and were badly in need of maintainance and repairs. We desperatly needed reinforcements ourselves and on their way from U.K. was the British 1st Armoured Division, reputed to be the best trained and equipped Armoured Division in the Army. It was lucky that there was a lull in the fighting at this time, which enabled both armies to regroup and reform their available forces for future action.
Having landed at Port TUFIK we were ordered to proceed towards ALEXANDRIA, by-passing CAIRO and then turning west along the tarmac road to Mersa Matruh. At a small railway siding not far from this turn-off we went off the road going south into the desert for about 20 - 30 miles and then stopped. Our Battery Commander called us together and told us that orders had been received that we had to build a defensive position at this spot which would eventually become part of a defense line stretching from the MEDITERRANEAN SEA to the impassable sand sea to the south of us which was known at the QUATTARA DEPRESSION. The name of the railway siding where we had turned off was called ALAMEIN !!
Fortunatly we only spent about 2 weeks or so digging these gun emplacements when we received further orders from G.H.Q. Cairo. We were ordered to dump all our equipment there, only take with us our own private property and kit, which we had to carry with us including rifle and 50 rds of ammunition slung round or necks, wear our takkies and sling our boots around our necks by the boot laces and proceed by truck to Alexandria harbour where we would embark. Destination was not mentioned. So you can imagine the speculation and guess work going on amoungst the troops, with each on trying to out-do the other, it was good fun and helped to pass the time.
TOBRUK to ALAMEIN
1941 to 1942
We duly all arrived by transport in Alexandria and pulled up at the docks at about 1700hrs. Alongside the dock was a destroyer of the Royal Australian Navy called H.M.A.S. NIZAM which we boarded carrying all our kit and were told to squat down on the deck, which we did. It was July so the weather was hot and the nights were balmy although the wind could be quite cold. We sailed before dark and were told by the Australian crew that we were headed for TOBRUK, to relieve the Australians who had been there since the siege began in April, and were now being removed for R.& R. at the special request of the Australian Govt. We would be taking over their guns and equipment and they would come back with just their private kit. The idea was to arrive in Tobruk at about midnight, so that most of the run would be made in the dark of night, as we were within range of Axis bombers for most of the way and Axis submarines were present in the Mediterranean. We would be landed either at the docks or on one of the wrecks in the harbour, after which the destroyer would load up with Australian troops for the return trip to Alexandria, We would then be collected by lighters, if we were on a wreck. As the harbour was the Axis bombers favourite target we were asked to be quick off so the ship did not waste time before commencing her homeward journey with her load of Aussies. The journey itself was nice, quiet and free of bombs or torpedoes, and we were landed on a wreck to await the lighter which arrived after daylight and took us to the harbour. At the harbour we were taken by truck to the Australian gun position we were to take over. The Australians themselves were as good a bunch of guys as you could wish for, they were friendly and cooperative and full of stories of Tobruk from April to date. I do not remember the particulars of their unit but they were all Melbourne men and although we remained together for only a week or so waiting for the next convoy to arrive we were very sorry to see them go.
Tobruk itself was open and very sandy I do not remember seeing greenery anywhere near our position. The focal point was the harbour and everything revolved around it, including the bombs. There seemed to be no shortage of drinking water but this had all come from the sea water which had filtered through the sand into pockets similar to artisian wells, so tasted slightly salty, which affected all hot drinks like tea and coffee. It was an acquired taste which you would spit out when when you had the first sip, but after a time you got used to it and eventually, like me, you might even get to like it. The harbour itself was fairly large and shaped rather like an egg, with the north and south sides being protected by high cliffs, the east side was the narrow entrance and the west side being the way out towards DERNA and beyond. On the northern side between the cliffs and the harbour lay the town itself stretching westwards alongside the water to the end where the intersection of the road from DERNA met the road from BARDIA, to the east of Tobruk. Inside the harbour were more than 50 wrecks resting on the bottom but most of the superstructures above the waterline, they were dwarfed by the wreck of the Italian battleship SAN GEORGIO which had been bombed/shelled and sunk at her anchorage just inside the entrance. I never did find out how it was sunk as the army claimed their artillery had shelled it and the air force stated it was their bombing, anyway the mighty ship was sunk when Tobruk was taken by the Australians in Gen. WAVELL's advance in 1940/41, so either story could be right!
The guns we had taken over from the Australians were old pieces made in about 1912 - 1916, similar to the ones being fired in Sudan when we had first gone into action at Gallabat, and were badly worn out, however they were still useable so we fired them although never at maximum range. As far as I could gather all our troops were firing different types of guns, a lot of them Italian. We were firing 18pdrs. A Troop were using Italian 105 mm, C Troop were using Italian 75 mm, and I was told that E troop was firing Italian 110 mm and D Troop 18 pdrs like us. Air raids during the early days we were there was quite light but nearly always on the harbour and town areas. The Aussies had left us with very nice dug-in gun positions and sangers to live in which were all about 5 ft deep by about 4 ft wide with, of course, a raised portion left as a bed.
During the early days in Tobruk I was detached from the guns and posted to the specialist section as their driver/relief number, and my job, which I enjoyed doing was keeping communications between our Observation Post Officer with the Infantry Unit we were supporting, and our own troop gun position. The O.P. Officer and his assistant were changed every 3 days or so and I was to organise all supplies and changes by driving the relief up to the post and the relieved members back to the gun position. The time of the change was dependant on the ground situation at the time, as the guns could be called into action any minute and also day or night, and the truck was to be parked at the O.P. position at all times, so I virtually lived there with the infantry. During my slack periods I used to help the O.P. Assistant as I had been through the course and just needed some practical experience, and instruction. Meanwhile the infantry had been changed and the Polish Brigade had taken over the position. I am sure the enemy found out about this, or maybe the Poles were more aggressive than the Aussies because the activity on this particular part of the front seemed to increase for a while. I was always up early and one morning I was up and careful where to move as usual when I heard a plane above us and saw a 109 F which appeared to be on a recce mission, I watched it swoop down very low and deliberatly fly only a few feet up right along the infantry position. The Poles by this time were stirring and started firing at the aircraft with rifles and other firearms but they had been taken by surprise and their aim was bad. The machine passed about 200 yds away from me over the infantry, and I clearly saw the pilot having a good look at the layout of our position, so I gave him the usual army greeting. It was not long after this when our position got 'stonked' hard by the enemy, and I was very pleased to have such a secure sanger. Mark you this was what had happened, but I think that it was in retaliation by the pilot for my giving him the good old 'two's up' salute as he flew past that morning! It was shortly after this when the Poles were reinforced by the arrival of their artillery men who took over our position and guns, so we were moved to a new position nearer the centre of the line. We left all our guns and equipment behind for the Poles and took over the ones already on site which had been left for us by the previous Australian troop. Our new position was about 6 kms along the El ADAM road from the instersection with the BARDIA road, and the site of the prisonner-of-war enclosure. The infantry we were supporting were the Australian 2/13th Battalion of the 2nd. A.I.F. who had been due to embark and return to Alexandria aboard the last convoy, but they had been attacked on the way losing 1 ship and crippling another, so the convoy had turned back, and the Australians waiting on the docks were returned to their original position in the line which happened to be in from of us - how could we be so lucky ?
The Australians warned us that this sector was the favourite ground for tank attacks by the Afrika Corps so warned us to be prepared at all times. In front and to the left of the infantry position was an old Italian built observation point, consisting of a large wooden seat on a high pole dug into the ground, from which a good distant view of the no-man's land in front of us could be maintained - ideal place from which to spot an enemy tank attack,and connected by field telephone to the Artillery O.P. Yes, you've guessed it, I was detailed with one of the infantrymen to go down and to take it in turn to sit in the seat and observe. I have never felt so vulnerable or so alone in my life, I felt as if every member of the Afika Corps opposite was looking at me and I expected to be shelled at any moment. However the afternoon dragged on, the favourite time for attack came, evening finally came and went and no attack took place. Eventually we were recalled and I never did that duty again - they found that I was always otherwise occupied when I was called! Eventually I was put back on the guns as the O.P. was changed in our new position and we were quite frequently called upon for defensive fire to assist the infantry. We of course became very friendly and they thought the world us for the good and fast reply to their calls for gunnery support. We, on the other hand, felt perfectly safe knowing they were in front of us and we could sleep safely at night, nobody could infiltrate these boys. On several occasions the enemy shelled the area we were in, to silence our guns if possible, as we were apparently being a thorn in his side, but he could never pin-point our exact position. One of the men on the gun with me and I could not get on as he kept on picking on me for my religious beliefs and he was a non believer, he jeered at the Church, he jeered at religion in general and mine in particular and this had gone on for a long time but had never come to fisticuffs as the Sergeant had threatened to let me have a go at him in the ring if he did not cool it, which he did and he was a bit smaller than me. Anyway on this particular day we were not firing at the time and we were all resting in the main sanger, which was at the gun site and used when we were standing by ready for action, when suddenly down came the shells all around us big ones and smaller ones, shaking the ground and causing the sanger roof to shake covering us with pebbles and dust. We all heard a big shell explode very close to us which really shook the sanger badly covering us with a cloud of dust and stones, then I heard another big thump and saw the end of the sanger roof colapse, but no explosion. I happened at this precise moment to look over at my antagonist and he, at the same moment looked at me. In that split second I knew he was praying, and in his eyes I could tell that he knew that I knew he was praying, and smiled at me. From that day onwards he stopped his baiting and jeering and we got on much better. After the shelling died down I went outside to see what the thump was and found that a large 110 mm shell had landed partly on the end of our roof but had failed to explode, it was dud. Truly Almighty God was watching over us that day.
On another occasion in the same position, I was assisting on No.1 gun as usual, and we had just ceased firing in support of the infantry when we were shelled by the enemy guns. We could not leave the guns as we had not been'stood down' by the Gun Position Officer so we just knelt down for cover behind the shield. The shelling did not last long but one of the last shells to explode burst between our gun and No 2 about 20 yds away to our left, throwing up and cloud of dust and stones. I was nearest to No 2 so I shouted "ARE YOU ALRIGHT" but there was no reply, so as the shelling had virtually stopped I dashed over towards No 2, and as I approached the men rose up from their crouched position and signalled and shouted that all was fine, nobody hurt. I was about to turn round when the shelling started again so I looked around quickly for cover and saw a sanger entrance on my left about 5 yds from the gunpit, so without even thinking I dived into it (like diving into a swimming pool) fortunatly it was empty. When the shelling died down I tried to get out, but found I could not because my shoulders were too wide. The builder had used an old window frame, knocked out the glass and supports and used the empty frame as his doorway, and try as I might I could not get through it. Eventually I had to be dug out by the men on No.2 amid much laughter and ribald
Life just carried on in TOBRUK with the occasional air raid and shelling but no serious attempt by the enemy to take the Port itself. Our information was that Gen. Sir Claude AUCHINLECH, ex Indian Army had now taken over as G.O.C. and was preparing to launch a new offensive in the very near future. The oppressive heat of the summer was now giving way to the cooler autumn weather, and, as winter officially started in November we knew from past experience that it was also the time that offensives were started. True to form Operation 'CRUSADER' was launched from the wire, by the 8th Army, the new name for the Western Desert Force, in early November 1941, with the object of relieving TOBRUK and destroying as much of the enemy as possible on the way. However everything did not go quite according to plan from the beginning and some of our units suffered heavy casualties as a result. The main strong points were by-passed to be mopped up later. Despite the build up of our tank strengh we found that our tanks were still outgunned by the German Marks 3 and 4 tanks with 75 mm guns against our smaller 2 pdr. and it was not until the arrival of the General GRANT tank in 1942, and the Gen. SHERMAN later the same year that we were able to match the Germans fire power. In the meantime we just had to struggle on with what we had. This was also the main reason for the heavy casualties suffered by the South Africans at SIDI RESEGH, just about 20 miles outside the TOBRUK perimeter. Our troops besieged in TOBRUK launched a massive attack and broke our towards the advancing 8th Army, but with our limited resources were not as effective as was planned, however we did our best with what we had. My troop had only 2x30 cwt trucks with which to move our guns, and both these trucks were clapped out so we were incapable of any motion!
It was not long before the enemy retreated westwards as a result of the constant pressure from the 8th Army troops who swept past us in hot pursuit. Officially TOBRUK had been relieved. We received orders to pull all our guns out of our present position and take them to the R.E.M.E. Dump in Tobruk for return to Cairo. We would be re-equipped with new 25 pdr guns as soon as these arrived. Accordingly, being now regarded as a senior gunner and there being no N.C.O. available, I was detailed to take the guns down one by one to the R.E.M.E. Dump as per instructions received. I was given a detail of 6 men under me for this job. It was quite enjoyable and better than hanging around cleaning up the site. Our Australian Infantry meanwhile had received orders to return to their Division In the delta, and we were all sorry to see them go. The job itself took about 2 days to complete due to the state of the truck I was using, and during the return journey on the last day a funny incident occurred. During the siege we had relied entirely for all our supplies on the convoys and the slower lighters so there had been no chance of purchasing any extra luxuries like chocolates, cigarettes, cool drinks etc. etc. let alone sample them. So it was a complete surprise for us to see, parked longside the road, a fairly large truck with the name N.A.A.F.I. stamped on it. I immediatly stopped the truck alonside it and got out to see the person in charge, I was closely followed by my men grouped around me. He turned out to be a Sgt. so I asked him to open up as we wanted to make some purchases. He astounded us all by stating that he was unable to open up for us as he could only sell his goods to the 'FIGHTING MEN 'not to men in base jobs! It took me all my time to stop my men from assaulting him there and then. After I told him who we were and what we had done, he had the grace to apologise to us and opened up right away, mark you, I had explained to him that if he did not open up, I would not be responsible for the behavour of my men or the state of his truck by the time we had finished with it. So we made our purchases and left, I think much to his relief!!
We eventually received all out equipment and we were ordered to proceed at all speed to BENGHAZI. The 8th Army meanwhile had pushed the enemy back to EL AGHEILA, at the southern end of the GULF of SIRTE, the furthest point of our advance on both previous occasions, and then had stopped, in a holding position, to re-group and await reinforcements. This gave the enemy time to do the same, and their lines of communication were very much shorter than ours thus also giving him the advantage, of which he made full use. Once again the Germans under Gen. ROMMEL were ready first, and once again they attacked and caught our troops napping, forcing us to retreat in a hurry back the way we had come. Gen.AUCHINLECK had appointed Gen. RITCHIE in charge of the 8th Army, and nobody I spoke to had ever heard of this gentleman before, but we were soon to find out that he was the most useless General in the Brit. Army. Meanwhile we had barely started out for Benghazi when the orders were countermanded as BENGHAZI was to be evacuated, so we were ordered to proceed immediatly to BARCE, a small township about half-way to Banghazi but still on the plateau and not down the escarpment near the coast. Our orders were to defend the southern road through the DJEBEL ACHDAR, the high plateau which stretched back from our destination at Barce towards DERNA on the coast.
When we finally arrived at BARCE we were put into gun positions on both sides of the road itself. My troop "B" troop was to the north of the road together with "A" troop and "C" and "D" troops were on the south side. I do not know where "E" and "F" troops were. We dug in and waited for the enemy to arrive. The infantry we were supporting was a company of the CAMERON HIGHLANDERS and they were holding a position on a ridge well ahead of us. In front of them was a higher ridge, which was plainly visible from our gun position, and which was to prove invaluable in the coming battle, as the Camerons had dug in, of course, on our side of their lower ridge. The sound of transport heralded the arrival of the enemy advance guard and we heard the sound of small arms fire as the Cameron forward lines of defence engaged them. We received news from the Camerons the enemy was debussing to attack, it was about this time that we opened fire on the debussing Germans, catching them by surprise. We then received information that the enemy had retreated slightly to reform for an attack, so we increased our range slightly and shelled their assembly position. Then the impossible happened, the Germans, for some unknown reason, started charging up the slope to come over the far crest in a bayonnet charge, on to the Cameron lines. Our guns were ordered to fire on open sights, and to aim about 20 yds below the crest of the forward ridge, which our gunners did just as the enemy appeared over the ridge. Now a 25 pdr shell has a lethal range with shrapnel of 35 yds forward and 10 yds in rear, so the germans sustained many casualties before they ever got near the Cameron lines, where machine guns and finally the Cameron with fixed bayonnets were waiting for them. Needless to say, all attacks were repulsed with heavy casualties until they finally called it a day and retreated back to their defence positions for the night. The next day we held them but information was received that they had called for armour support and the armour was going around our position to the south where we had no troops in order to attack us from the rear, their usual method, so we pulled out that night and abandoned our position. We then travelled through the night and part of the next day together with our infantry for protection, and engaging the enemy when he got too near, until we finally arrived at GAZALA, where we joined up with the rest of our troops and tried to make a stand. However, the so-called line was a plan on paper but on the ground it was a series of, so called, strong points with desert in between them, which had proved to be death traps before and were considered stupid by the troops, in view of their vulnerability to Panzer attacks. Fortunatly the "Upper Brass" must have at long last realised this and decided to make a better defensive line based on Tobruk defences on the coast to Bir Hacheim in the south about 50 miles away. Our Regiment was ordered to dig defensive positions at BIR EL HAMAT, about 15 miles north of Bir Hacheim. We eventually arrived there and dug in. Meanwhile the Germans had extended their lines of communication to such an extent that they were forced to stop and regroup, so there was a lull in the fighting for the time being.
We all knew that this lull was only temporary and that sooner or later one side would be strong enough to launch another offensive. We had been informed that large reinforcements were on their way to us from U.K. but until they arrived and more equipment and armour was sent we would be in no position to launch any kind of attack, we would simply have to harass the enemy as much as possible with what we had available. For this reason it was decided to send out "JOCK" columns, on harassing raids. These consited of a Battery of artillery protected by a Company of Infantry and supported by a Battery of A.A. Bofors guns, an anti-tank Battery with supply and Medical units. The hitting power was, of course, the Artillery 25 pdrs. The idea was to infiltrate behind enemy lines, which was quite simple and easy, and then turn north and look for some enemy target to destroy, if enemy armour was encountered we would not engage unless threatened, but would look for softer targets, like supply depots or columns, and once we had hit them we would disengage and dissappear. The enemy countered this form of harassment with STUKA attacks from the air, when he located us. Our battery was selected for the first raiding column with the Camarons as our infantry. It was good fun and we found several targets we engaged with mixed results. We were pasted by the STUKAS on several occasions and I well remember once when I was returning to the gun position with a load of ammunition in my truck when I saw the planes arriving in formation to bomb our guns which were firing at a German supply column we had surprised. I stopped the truck and watched the bombing hoping that my truck would pass unnoticed by the pilots bombing the guns, as it reminded me a lot of TOBRUK during the siege when in several occasions I was one of the targets. Eventually the Stukas finished and flew off, and I drove to the gun Position to find that there had been minimal damage and no guns hit, although the men had been shaken up a little bit. Despite the reputation it had, the Stuka was a most innacurate weapon.
No long after this, we were informed that the 50th Northumbrian Division would relieve us in Bir El HAMAT and we would be out for a rest somewhere in the Delta. We had now been in continuous action for about 9 months and were ready for a rest, so there was great excitement in the ranks! We left there and drove, in stages, towards Palestine accross the Suez canal and then were ordered to proceed to IRAQ, to HABBANIYAH air base near BAGHDAD. We crossed the JORDAN River between the SEA of GALILEE and the DEAD SEA after by-passing JERUSALEM on the southern side, then headed eastwards through JORDAN eventually following the oil pipe line accross the sandy desert waste to Baghdad. It took us a few days to get to our destination, but night accommodation was easy we just pulled off the road a short distance and slept on the sand alongside the trucks. A point worth mentioning was that petrol points from Palestine onwards differed from all the others I had ever seen in the Army. Refuelling points consisted of taps (like garden taps) no petrol pumps, in rows 2-3 metres apart and attached to the nozzle of each tap was a lengh of hose about 1 metre or so long. So you drove the truck alonside the tap and stuck the hose into the tank and just turned the tap on. When the tank was full and the petrol started pouring out, you just turned the tap off. Don't forget we were in OIL country.
HABBANIYA was a wonderful sight, a lovely green oasis in the middle of an ocean of desert, it was entirely occupied by the R.A.F. who had been there for several years and had established married quarters, Officers and Men's Messes and various canteens, clubs, etc. etc. A large area of land had been laid out alongside to accommodate passing, non-Air Force personnel. It was there that we camped in luxury - under canvas tents! We were only to stay there for about 3 weeks but during those 3 weeks I was sent on an official journey from Baghdad to KIRKUK then on to MOSUL and back to BAGHDAD, a boring trip but I was interrested in seeing the main oil well towns of Irak. I also managed with some of the other men to spend a day sight-seeing in Baghdad. I don't remember too much of the town because time was limited, but we did find "BULLSHIT ALLEY" (Army name) a rather narrow street, filled on both sides with tinsmiths hammering away making ash trays, candle holders, etc. with bits of tin. I lifted one of the bits of tin in use and found it was part of our non-returnable petrol tins, used in the desert to supply us with fuel for the trucks, marked Shell, B.P. Pratts, or whatever!
During the time we were camped at Habbaniyah, we had followed the progress of the war in the western desert, our sigallers were always tuning into the news items, and realised that the situation was getting extremely serious, TOBRUK had fallen, we were rapidly losing a lot of our armour and now it looked as if our troops were fighting a very fierce rearguard action but retreating slowly towards the the frontier wire. So we were not at all surprised to receive orders to proceed at all possible speed back to the Western Desert with all our equipment ready for action. During the journey back through Palestine and Egypt the name of our final destination changed several times, the last one being ALAMEIN, where we had assisted in building a defensive position before leaving for TOBRUK about 10 months before.
We travelled fast and hard only stopping for a few hours sleep and to fill up with fuel. We finally arrived at Alamein just before dark, we were told to sleep where we were and we would be sorted out in the morning, the situation appeared to me to be a bit chaotic at the moment but we hoped for better things the next day. On the following day an Officer from the 149th Anti-Tank Regt. came to see our Regtl H.Q. with a request for reinforcements as he had lost his battery in TOBRUK and reinforcements for him from Depot were on the way but not due for another week or so, and the remains of the 149th Regt. was in position at the South Western corner of the South African defence position occupied by the remains of the 1st and 2nd S.A. Divisions on the coastal strip, and he was left with the situation of having the guns but too few men to man them. The transfer would be until the Depot reinforcements arrived, then our men would return to the Regt. I had a talk with this officer and as a reult volunteered, so I left that day, received promotion to Bombadier and was put in charge of one of the 6 pdr. guns, in the S.A. Defence system. My team was young and new to the desert, but efficient gunners. They had only arrived from U.K. a few months before, only 1 of them being with this Regt. for about 1 year, so I was by far the most experienced. The Officer was about my age and had been in the desert nearly as long as I had. He had also been on the same "JOCK" column as I had described earlier in this narrative, although we had never met then, but it formed a bond between us. So we sat and waited for the attack which we knew would come soon.
As far as I can remember it was about the middle of June 1942 when the German and Italian forces under Gen. ROMMEL attacked our positions at ALAMEIN by probing attacks at first looking for our weak spots. He must have got a very hot reception from the S.A. Troops on our sector because he started by-passing our position and did not attack head on as expected. On our left (to the south) was a large gap as the New ZEALANDERS, who should have been in that position, had been held up and had not yet arrived so the enemy drove gaily into the open gap with the idea of completely surrounding our position. Fortunatly before he could seal us up, fresh troops arrived and checked his advance long enough to give the Kiwis the time to arrive, drive him back westwards, and stabilize the line. I must say that we all breathed a sigh of relief on my gun, as we had seen the sighting for the past 2-3 nights getting further around us towards the Mediterranean sea, stop, then retreat westwards again. Once the Kiwis had established themselves next to us we felt very relieved. It transpired that the enemy had over-extended his supply lines and was running short of vital supplies especially fuel and was forced to fall back and regroup. It was a great pity that we were in no position to counter attack in strengh at that time, it could have shortened the war.
During the lull in the fighting, my Troop Commander (whose name I can not remember) had spoken to me many times about going in for a commission in the Artillery, and, if I was interrested, he would recommend me. Of course I was interrested and keen, so I left it to him. A short while later the Corps Commander of the Royal Artillery was visiting the Regiment on a tour around the area and he drew me aside and questioned me on the subject of a commission, in other words he interviewed me, and before leaving told me he would see what he could do for me, as I had been recommended to him by my Troop Commander and the Regimental Commander. It so happened that only a few days later I was severely injured in a freak accident involving a non returnable leaky can of petrol which caught fire and burnt me severely in the legs especially the right leg, both knees and both hands. I was bandaged up by our Medical Officer and sent to base Hospital in Cairo by Red Cross Train.
I was sent to a British Army Hospital on the outskirts of Cairo which was tented, dug into the sand for about 3-4 ft. The floor was concreted with a smooth finish and the surrounding walls were plastered brickwork to about the height of 4ft the tent was rectangular and had two entrance ramps one on either end, it was nice and airy and as we were now in July it made life much more pleasant. I was only in Hospital for about 3-4 weeks but in that time we all received the best of treatment from a very efficient and attentive staff. The Nursing Sisters were all members of the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service (Q.A.for short) and were most pleasant and helpful. There was a very friendly atmosphere throughout the time I was there. The nurses were members of the Palestinian A.T.S. and were of mixed nationalities, but all white and mostly jewesses. I met a most attractive French girl who had been out on Holiday when war was declared so had stayed on and joined the local A.T.S. and as she could not speak English too well spent a lot of time speaking to me in French. I loved it as, apart from practicing my french, I had one up on the rest of the boys in the tent. I can not remember her name now, but call her Minette, was attached to look after our tent so we had plenty of opportunity to talk and of course I got ragged plenty, especially by the Aussies, Kiwis and, of course, the English about our relationship. One morning Minette did not turn up for work so all the boys asked me what I had done to her the night before to prevent her coming to work, which of course I could not answere. When the Sister came in they asked her, and her reply was 'SHE'S GOT AN UPSET TUMMY.' Well that was asking for it, and I got more ribald remarks than there are grains of sand on the beach, and until the day I left I was not allowed to forget it!! On another occasion one of the Kiwis was operated on for Piles. His bed was alongside mine, so eventually he was brought back from the theatre and tucked up in his bed unconscious but under anaesthetic. Some time later he recovered conscienceness but he was still under the effects of the anaesthetic, and the Sister was in the ward changing the patients bandages. He started swearing and cursing the surgeon, saying 'This is effing sore - I'll bet the effing bastard cut the wrong effing thing' and kept repeating this until the sister blushed so much she left the room, after all she was the only female in the room and the men was laughing out loud although they felt uncomfortable for her. Amusing for us but extreme embarrassment for her, however she returned a short while later and when the men apologised for his behaviour and language, she replied that, although it was embarrassing at the time, he had no idea of what he was saying and she had heard it all before. A few days after this I was discharged from the Hospital and returned to the Base Depot in Almaza, for return to my unit. However on my arrival I was informed by the Office staff that orders had been received from G.H.Q. that I was to remain in Depot, as I was to report to O.C.T.U. for the next Officer Cadet Training Course, which commenced in September at ACRE near HAIFA in Palestine, the date to be notified later. This was now about the middle of August, so I remained in the Administration Staff of the Depot until I finally left with about 30 other aspirants for Acre, which was the Infantry O.C.T.U. for 2 months of Infantry training under the Guards.
NORTH AFRICA AND ITALY
1943 TO 1945.
The 2 months at Infantry O.C.T.U. under their training staff was hard and tough. We were all stripped of rank and called Cadets individually but Gentlemen collectively and Sir personally, and no insignas were worn, and until we passed out as Officers we wore a white band around the crown of our hats which had to be clean at all times. We were all from various Regiments in the British Army made up of men from U.K., Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, mainly, and we were all white, on the course I was on.
We were kept at it from the first early morning parade to lights out and the Canteen had very little to sell and in any case I was far too tired by evening to think of going for drinks as we also had to keep our own brasswork and leather work clean personally. About 2-3 times per week one of the training staff would enter the barracks call out a few names to report to the office immediatly. We very soon got to know those dreaded roll calls were for those considered not fit to become officers and were R.T.U.(Returned To Unit) as having failed the couse. Towards the end of the course we undertook several night exercises where we split up into smaller units and competed against one another, that was fun. In the end I was one of the lucky ones and passed out eventually in November 1942 and reported for 3 months intensive training to Base Depot Royal Artillery (B.D.R.A.) at ALMAZA, on the outskirts of CAIRO.
This was far more to my liking as I was now on home ground, back with the guns. We were put through all aspects of Gunnery including, of course, the specialist work, which I had already gone through with my old Regiment the 144th. Being prospective Officers for the Field and Anti-Tank guns, we did a lot of firing of the 25 pdr, and to a lesser extent the new 17 pdr and 6 pdr anti-tank guns. I very much enjoyed the course and eventually passed out as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery on 3rd March 1943, and given 2 weeks leave which I spent in Alexandria as I had heard that our first line, the 92nd Field Regt. (Sussex & Surrey Yeomanry) in which my best friend from banking days, and one of the original 5 of us who joined the Territorial Army just before the war, TEDDY HICKS was serving was in the 44th Division which was stationed near Alexandria. I met up with Teddy and we had a most enjoyable holiday despite the fact that he was a senior N.C.O. and I was an Officer so we had to be careful where we went due to the segregation of Officers and Men strictly enforced by the Army. Little did I think when we finally parted that I would not see Teddy again until after the war.
On my return to B.D.R.A., Cairo, I was called to the Office and informed that a post was waiting to be filled by a Junior Officer who spoke French fluently, and would I be interrested. To cut a long story short I accepted and after an interview I was given the post. Briefly it was with the Free French Brigade, under Gen, KOENIG, who had been in BIR HACHEIM and were now resting at ZUARA, near TRIPOLI on the TUNISIAN border. They were the responsability of the British Army who were to re-equip them with British equipment and we were the British Team who would be training them in the use of 25pdr guns. The team was made up of Col. Rawden HOARE, in charge, 1 Major and 1 subaltern (me) 1 Sgt. and 6 men (2 drivers, 1 signaller and 3 batmen) our transport was 1 staff car and 1x15cwt truck.
After final preparations had been completed we finally set off by road to join the Free French Brigade at ZUARA. The journey was quite uneventful and took about a week as we were in no hurry and due to the heavy fighting taking place in certain areas the our speed was reduced to a crawl. We eventually arrived and were given tents to live and sleep in for the length of our stay. Gen, KOENIG spoke no english and Col. HOARE no french, although I found out quite soon that both men understood a little of the other's language, KOENIG more so than HOARE, so I was always called upon whenever these two met, except at Officers meeting when the official French interpreter, a Russian Foreign Legion Warrant Officer, took over, thank goodness. We also found that another french speaking British Officer, a Captain, was already serving as an adviser for some time now, so the Col made full use of his services as well. The front line was not too far away now, the 8th Army was pushing the enemy back slowly but remorselessly towards CAPE BON. and had presently reached a position around GABES, and was being confronted by stiffening opposition. Meanwhile on the British 1st Army front our troops were doing quite well against the enemy and were pushing him slowly but surely towards CAPE BON from the west but were suffering a few reverses and a lot of casualties due in part by the appearance of a new German Tank called the TIGER, which was a monster to which the first army really had no answer. The American 7th Army under Gen. PATTON was proving to be a failure and a handicap on the progress eastwards. At KESSERINE PASS the Americans were surprised by an inferior force of Germans whilst refuelling their tanks and ran away abandoning the tanks and equipment. The Germans carried on with the refuelling and as the Sherman tanks were still in perfect working order they got into them and drove them down to meet the oncoming British 7th Armoured Div. also in Shermans. The British had been told to expect the Americans any time and they would have Sherman tanks with large American white stars painted on the sides and the roof of the tanks. Naturally when they saw these tanks approaching them they took them to be the American 7th Army tanks, stopped and got out of their tanks to greet their allies. You can imagine their surprise when these 'American' tanks opened fire on them and they lost several tanks, and lives, before retaliating, counter attacking and chasing them off. We held a very low opinion of the fighting qualities of American troops after that.
Meanwhile the Col. and his staff carried on with their training programmes, and I quite enjoyed being the 'general factotum' around the place. which gave me plenty of free time to myself. I met most of the French Generals in the de GAULLE Brigade, and when de GAULLE himself flew out to inspect the Brigade, I was introduced to him by Gen. KOENIG himself, who said (in french) "YOU CAN TALK TO HIM IN FRENCH - HE'LL UNDERSTAND YOU" which de GAULLE proceeded to do, and he spoke to me for a short while asking me about myself.
I think that de GAULLE must have had some influence in some way, because it was very shortly after his visit that the Brigade including ourselves was ordered to pack up, and move to the front, near ENFIDAVILLE, to assist the 8th Army in the final push for CAPE BON. I knew that all the French were eager to get back into action as they wanted to be in on the final surrender of the Afrika Corps, that is why I suspect de GAULLE had a say in this move. The Brigade moved off without much delay and we followed in our own time and choosing our own route, as our job was now temporarily on hold. However after the fighting was over and the enemy had finally surrendered at CAPE BON and the dust had settled, the Col. was instructed to disband the Unit, as the re-equipping and training of the Free French Forces which included both the forces of de GAULLE and Leclerc as well as those in North Africa who wished to enlist with them, would be undertaken by the Americans, who were to incorporate them all in the American Army as the Free French Armoured Division. But that was in the future so our services were no longer required at this time, so I returned to Base Depot in ALGIERS for a new posting.
This took some time in coming but eventually I heard that my previous Regiment the 149th Anti-Tank Regt. (who had assisted me in obtaining my Commission) were still with the 4th Indian Division and were in action at MONTE CASSINO, besieging the Monastery, but were being held up by stubborn defence from the Germans holding it. I applied to re-join my old Regt. as an Officer and was accepted by them. I arrived at Cassino towards the end of February 1944 and found that the Regt. was holding a position north of the Monastery, and was now part of the recently formed New Zealand Corps, together with the New Zealand Division and the N.Z. Armoured Brigade.
To recap on the recent fighting in this area, it appears that in Janaury 1944, American troops advancing from the south were the first allied forces to be halted by the Monastery, perched on the top of MONTE CASSINO, and overlooking the town of CASSINO. Their first frontal attack was heavily repulsed and broke down in the face of devastating fire from the German defenders. They then reformed and attacked again, this time by-passing the Monastery and Town and getting behind it. They then launched another assault from two sides, the north and south-east but in the face of the fiercest opposition, foul weather and all but impassable terrain, the American assault finally petered out on the bare hillside, where the troops clung to their hard won ground until ordered to withdraw. It was then that the N.Z. Corps took over from the Americans, and the Brit. 78th Division was held in Reserve. A new assault on the Town and the Monastery was planned for February, but it was decided to bomb the Monastery to 'soften' the defences before the main attack was launched. The American Air Force were given the task of bombing the Monastery prior to the assault. According to all reports I received from the survivors in the 4th Indian Div.(my Division), and the N.Z.Division, nothing divised by man could possibly have assisted the enemy more than the American Air Force attempt at bombing the Monastery. It was a ghastly and costly failure, as most of the bombs fell on the British Troops waiting to launch the main attack. It was estimated that at the most one third of the bombs dropped hit the target area and the rest hit the waiting troops. A N.Z. Hospital about 5 miles away was hit! [For a better description of this bombing read Cap. 23 on page 286 of FOURTH INDIAN DIVISION by Lt.Col. G.R.STEVENS. O.B.E.] This took place on 15th February and I arrived in March. The terrain was very mountainous in the area we occupied and the anti-tank guns virtually useless, so the Regt. had been temporarily issued with large 4.5 ins. mortars in place of the guns and were busily engaged mortaring the defenders in the Monastery whenever called upon. I was welcomed back into the Regt. and was put in charge of "C" Troop, normally equipped with 17 pdr guns, but now of course firing mortars. "C" Troop had been placed in a rocky position but well protected by the narrowness of the cleft which was the gun position as mortars fired with a high trajectory compared with the field gun and anti-tank gun we normally used. I had 1 Sgt. as my 2 i/c and about 26 other ranks. My command post/quarters was situated on the far end of this cleft or split in the rocks comnplete with radio and operator and a place for my bedding. The men had made a very good job of this position since their arrival on the site, and had managed to make a roof which, with the help of old ground sheets, was also rain proof, as well, of course, as a protection against flying pieces of rock and shrapnel which occured whenever we got stonked. I had only been there a few hours when I received our first stonking from the German mortars in the Monastery, unpleasant but not accurate, as they knew the area we were in but could not pin-point us. Being now March the weather was cold and wet and most unleasant but the enemy was probably worse off than we were.
Due to the inclement weather, casualties received from the bombing and to the subsequent unsuccessful assault on the Monastery after the bombing, although they had achieved partial success in fighting for the town of CASSINO, the N.Z.Corps was reduced to virtually a holding unit as the weather broke and turned very cold, wet and windy. This effectively delayed another planned assault on the Monastery this time bringing in our reserves, the 78th Division into the assault. The assault was delayed for 3 weeks whilst the weather got colder, wetter and windier, but remained in their exposed positions suffering unnecessary casualties which mounted daily. This was the situation when I arrived and despite the casualties suffered, the men on the exposed positions had to be supplied and fed and that had to be done during the hours of darkness as daylight hours brought instant death to any man who moved unnecessarily into sight. We found out later that the German troops in front of us were the paratroopers, the toughest soldiers in the German Army. Volunteers were always required to assist in the portering of supplies to those on Hangman's Hill and other exposed positions, as most of the mules used had become casualties to the enemy constantly shelling and mortering the dark positions during the night hours. I volunteered for a few of these portering duties, in between my duties at the gun position and O.P., with the approval of the Battery Commander. We got shelled occasionally but nothing serious happened, but to see the gratitude on the men's faces when we arrived with their rations was, to me, thanks enough for making the effort. Meanwhile the paratroopers launched several attacks against our men causing many casualties, but invariably broke down in the face of heavy firing from our artillery and machine guns. Eventually the whole Corps was relieved, our Regimental position was taken over by units of the 78th Division and we were pulled out of the line and returned to where our guns had been temporarily parked, near a town called BENEVENTO.
On our way to collect our equipment we camped for the night alongside the Volturno River which was high, full, and running fast. At the place where we camped the river had widened due to the heavy rains and had isolated a large tree which must have been on higher ground as it appeared to be a small island in the fast flowing water and was about 5-6 metres from the mainland, and about 20 metres in lengh. We paid no attention to it until we all heard the sound of a plane coming fast towards us down river, then I heard the sound of machine gun fire and the detonation of a small bomb, and realised it was an enemy on a hit-and-run mission and we were the target. I saw a group of 4 men behind me and shouted to them to get down. There was no truck near us so the only thing to do is lie flat on the ground, lie still and hope the pilot ignores you. The pilot did just that and having dropped his bomb upstream was passed us before dropping another beyond us downstream but still near enough to shower us with stones and dirt. It was after the plane disappeared that I heard a shout, looked around and saw that one of the men, who had been standing behind me, was now standing on the island next to the tree. The others shouted to him to return to the mainland, but try as he might he could not get back, as the current was too strong and he found he was out of his depth. So how did he originally get on to the island? He was the only man in our Regiment to have WALKED ON WATER. We eventually got him back by floating a rope to him with the help of a 2 ins. mortar and pulling him back. He never did explain how he got accross in the first place!
Having recovered our equipment, we then proceeded to a position on the east side of the line between Cassino and the Adriatic Sea, in the mountains. This was to be a holding position, as we badly needed a rest and the main force was to be concentrated around Cassino for the final assault on the Monastery, which was to take place shortly. In other words it was a stalemate on our front as neither side had the strength nor the men to attack. The weather, which was still foul, would clear up soon with the arrival of spring which would then give way to summer, when the fun would start up again.
The Battery Commander took advantage of this lull in the fighting to allow us to take a few days leave, on a roster system so we all got the same chance. I elected to go to BARI on the east coast for my few days leave and quite enjoyed myself. Whilst there I met some R.A.F. types, who were stationed on the bombers operating from the nearby airfield, at FOGGIA. I asked them if there was any chance of my getting a flight on one of their bombing raids as I had never flown before. They informed me that they were due to test one of the bombers that had just had an overhaul in 2 days time and they would take me with them as a'relief/learner gunner', with the proviso that no responsability would be accepted by the R.A.F. if any accident or injury should occur to me. I agreed and arrangements were made for my collection for the flight. However this was not to be, as I received an urgent meassage from the Regt. to report back immediatly, so I had to cancel the arrangements. This was just as well because later I found out that their plans had been changed at the last minute, and they were sent on a bombing raid on PLOESTI oilfields, from which most aircraft failed to return!!
The reason for my urgent recall was that the Regiment was moving into new positions as the enemy had retreated from his positions in front of us, due to the Allies landing at ANZIO. I was taken by the Battery Commander and shown my new position, and then left to work out the exact positions for the guns. I then returned to my quarters and decided to lead each gun myself, that evening after dark, into the position I had selected for it. So after dark I started leading No.1 gun to it's position. I walked about 15 yds ahead of the gun with the Gun Sgt. beside me. I was holding a lighted cigarette with the glowing lighted end behind my back, visible to the driver. The road I had chosen was a short tarmac road and the position was only about 5 yds off it. Being tarmacked I did not pay enough attention to the possibility of land mines in the road, as the tarmac itself looked undisturbed. I had gone about 50 yds or so and was just about to turn the bend when an almighty explosion occurred behind me, I dropped to by knees immediatly but I knew the truck had hit a mine. I was unhurt but the Sgt. fell forward on his face, moaning he had been hit, but told me to leave him and attend to the men on the truck, which I did. I found that the front nearside wheel had been blown off, and the driver had been hurled out of the truck and lay with his head in the hole and his feet on the tarmac road, he was bleeding profusely from a cut artery in his neck. I jumped into the hole and cradled the wounded driver's head on my lap, got out my handkerchief and making it into a pad put it over the wound and held it fast to stop the blood flowing, or at any rate to slow it down. Meanwhile Nos 2, 3 and 4 guns had stopped on hearing the explosion and the crews had come forward quickly to help. With their assistance the wounded were moved quickly to the regimental dressing station and from there the Sgt. and Driver were taken to Hospital, I never saw them again. The gun was unhooked and taken away and I instructed the other 3 guns to return to our lines and we would put them into their positions the following night, finally the damaged truck was unloaded and removed by the mechanics and I reported back to the Battery Commander. How I escaped unscratched whilst the Sgt., beside me, was peppered with tiny bits of shrapnel I shall never know, but I really felt Almighty God had something to do with it.
Despite the weather clearing, it was not until May that the Allied High Command launched their main and final assault on the Monastery, and after much bitter fighting and severe losses on both sides, the Poles finally entered the ruins of the Monastery on the 18th May 1944. The enemy retreated down Route 6 towards ROME with our troops hard on his heels. Fortunatly ROME was declared an OPEN CITY so was saved from any destruction which might have taken place. The fall of ROME took place shortly before the 'D'Day landings in France, which I thought was a great pity, as this great feat of arms was played down by all British and American newspapers in favour of the second front landings on French soil.
The advancing Allied Army was now divided into two fronts the American 5th Army taking over the Western section from CASSINO to the Tyrrhenian Sea and the British 8th Army the Eastern Section from CASSINO to the Adriatic Sea port of TERMOLI. In order to exert the maximum pressure on the taking of the Monastery, all the Divisions that could be spared from the 8th Army front were sent to the 5th Army to assist them, and the 8th Army was placed in a defensive role with the minimum of troops. The N.Z. Corps, including my Regt. was moved to the 8th Army side into the mountainous terrain to the east of Cassino, the French Corps of the 5th Army under Marshall JUIN, on our left, the 4th Indian Div. and then, the N.Z. Div. on our right, and beyond them the 10th Indian Div. assisted by odd units of partisans and the Italian CIL Gruppo, to the sea at Termoli. The 8th Army was to hold their position until the Monastery fell, then they would follow the enemy up Italy dealing with any pockets of resistance he might leave behind to hinder our advance. Our front was very quiet until May when the Monastery fell to the Poles and the enemy started his retreat northwards, then it was go, go, go, in pursuit with the occasional hold up when the enemy resisted, and had to be overcome, then off again to the next point of resistance. I enjoyed this part of the fighting and took every opportunity to go off in my jeep ahead of my troop, ostensively to recce new gun positions at the next resistance point, but in actual fact to see the Italian countryside. On several occasions I was the first Allied soldier into one of the many mountain villages on our route an we were always met by cheering villagers with flowers and bottles of wine which they insisted we drink with them. I was definitly one of the first jeeps to enter the independant state of SAN MARINO, which was not defended, the smallest in Italy. The Town of SAN MARINO was situated on the flat top of a mountain, which rose shear from the valley floor facing our line of advance, but dropped away on each side and rear giving easy access into the town, from those directions.
On one of our positions on our way north, I remember an incident which occured to me, but I can not remember where it happened. I was summoned by the Battery Commander who took me away in his jeep. He told me that he had been advised that enemy was about to make a big stand and possible counter attack and our Regt. had been given the task of protecting the left flank which bordered on a small river valley, up which the enemy was about to launch his main thrust with tanks, and my job was to take my troop of 17 pdrs. and carry out that task. He then took me to the position he wanted my troop to occupy and told me to recce out the area and select suitable gun positions and he would return for me at a set time and place. He drove off, and I set out on foot to recce the position. I studied the position from where I stood, and having decided roughly where each gun should go, I left on foot to have a closer look at each position. The position selected was alongside a vineyard with lovely fat juicy grapes on the vines ready for plucking, so it being a very warm summer afternoon I had a good sample of them. On the side were two buildings which presumably had belonged to a farm which had been abandoned, temporarily, by it's owner. I decided to check these buildings to see if I could make use of them in any way. So I approached the first one which turned out to be a cattle shed. It was most eerie entering this empty building because of the quiet, and as I had my revolver with me I drew it and entered very quietly and alert for anything, even an enemy soldier, or stray animal. However the place was empty, so having seached it I moved on to the next building some distance away. On the way over I noted a strand of wire only about 4-6 ins from the ground, and that meant anti-personnel mines, the Germans had a particularly nasty one called the "shoe" mine, which blew your foot off, so I moved on with great caution, and sure enough came accross a notice 'MINEN'. So now I moved cautiously keeping good look-out for any disturbed soil. I stepped around several of them and then entered what was the old abandoned farmhouse and it was a double storey. It was very quiet and despite having my revolver ready in my hand, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck tingling, and I had the horrible feeling that some unknown person was watching and waiting for me, it was a very scary feeling and I felt most uncomfortable. However the place was empty so I returned to our lines making a semi-circle, through the vineyards and the grapes, to the Infantry lines keeping a good look and moving with caution. I had not gone very far when I was challenged in English 'HALT WHO GOES THERE' to which I replied, and was told to advance and be recognised, which I did. I was then approached by two steel helmetted British soldiers who asked me who I was and what was I doing there at this time of the day. I told them and they would not believe me, 'WE ARE THE FORWARD DEFENCE LOCALITIES' they told me, in other words, they were the nearest troops to the enemy and I was approaching from the enemy side. They called their troop Commander and he was very suspicious, as the two buildings I told him I had searched were in his opinion enemy machine gun nests, and his troop had suffered many casualties due to these 'spandows'. He then took me to his Company Commander. On the way over he kept telling me to bend and keep my head down as he did not want me to give the position away, despite my arguing that I had just come from that position and it was unoccupied. The Company Commander also questioned me and was also distrussful of my statement, confirming what the Troop Commander had stated concerning casualties inflicted by the spandow machine guns. However I managed to prove my identity to him to his satisfaction. I was about to leave when we were stonked by enemy mortars and fired at by spandows, which the men claimed came from the two farm houses! The Troop Commander shouted to me "I TOLD YOU TO KEEP YOUR BLOODY HEAD DOWN". We never did go into those positions as the enemy abandoned his position and retreated the next day.
By the middle of August 1944, the Allies were fighting their way towards the German GOTHIC defence line, which was eventually broken after about 6 weeks of bitter fighting in the mountain areas on our front, as well as the lower areas in 5th Army front. The rains had now set in and roads were wet, muddy, dangerous, and, at times, downright impossible. My Regt. had reached a position in the mountains overlooking the PO valley, it was now towards the end of September, and we were informed to hold our positions until relieved by the 10th Indian Div. The weather was turning colder, it was wet and muddy and we were literally stuck there.
On our left were some American troops, the All Black 92nd HAARLEM DIV. a Unit in which all serving members, Officers and Men, were black. It had begun snowing at the time and it was cold. One morning we received a report that our left flank was wide open. It appeared that for some unknown reason all the black Anericans had abandoned their positions during the night and run away, heading southwards. Fortunatly our High Command moved very quickly and moved a Brigade of the 8th Indian Div., who were in Reserve position, rapidly into the empty line, at the same time getting the Divisional Artillery to shell the enemy forward troops heavily as if we were about to attack. The ruse worked and I do not think that the enemy in front of us ever knew of the true situation. The black American Troops were eventually stopped and turned back before they had gone too far, and returned to their position. I never found out why they had deserted, but the situation was rectified before it could become really serious, and I have never seen this incident published in any war book. It was suppressed by both the American and British Govts. but, it happened and I was there.
GREECE -- P. O. W. -- HOME
It was now the beginning of October 1944 when I was summoned by the Battery Commander and told to hand over my Troop to another Officer and report back to him with all my kit, I was off with a small advance party to GREECE. It appeared that the 4th Indian Div. was being sent to GREECE to Police the country, and our little party was being sent ahead to prepare for the arrival of our own Regt. which had been allocated the IONIAN Islands of CEPHALONIA and ZANTE. The party consisted of the Batt. Comm., Me, 1x signaller with No. 19 Radio, and our 2 batmen, 5 in all. I had been selected due to my knowledge of French. No one in the unit spoke Greek, but in Greece the French language is widely spoken, so I was sent out as interpreter, Intelligence Officer and A.D.C. to the Major. We boarded a L.S.T. in Taranto together with several Advance Parties from other Divisional Units and sailed for PATRAS, thus termonating my part in the Italian Campaign. From Patras we were despatched with all our kit, including a Jeep, by 'Kaike'(a greek fishing vessel), fitted with an engine and the popular means of transport in that part of the world. The vessel was very slow so it took us about 8 hrs to get to the Capital, ARGOSTOLI, on the Eastern side of a lovely inlet at the southern tip of the island.
I should explain that the Germans had retreated from the Balkans due to the advance of the Russians, and the GREEK nation had been split in two during the occupation by the Germans, the NATIONALISTS who supported the Greek Government, and the ELAS the Greek, Communist equipped, Guerrilla forces who called themselves 'ANDARTES'(Partisans). At first they were very voluble in their offers of cooperation, but thawed when it came to the crunch. The situation on the Island was very tense when we arrived, there were 1100 ELAS on the Island including their Leaders, and I found them to be most uncooperative and evasive, although they agreed to work with us they broke the agreement the day after it was made. I met up with business men opposed to the ELAS, French speaking, except for one who spoke a little English, and pro-Government and King. I enjoyed myself whilst on the Island and saw most of it in our Jeep as Patras sent us petrol in a 44 Gal. drum whenever we requested it, together with our supplies. We had by this time requisitioned a villa near the harbour as our supplies arrived on a Kaique, operated by Div. H.Q. in PATRAS, on request over our Radio. There was no currency on the island so all transactions were carried by bargaining. The Major and I travelled extensively marking out places where our troops could be of most use. We were getting more and more anxious as the arrival of the Regiment kept being delayed for various reasons and ELAS were growing bolder and more arrogant in their dealings with us. The main obstacle to the Regt.'s move was the lack of shipping, as all available craft had been sent of the South of France for their amphibious landing, and had not returned. I was also instrumental in informing Patras, by radio, whenever ELAS sent a kaique loaded with stolen property (i.e. Hospital beds and linen, mainly) to the mainland at ASTAKOS, and the time it left. Naval Motor Launches were then sent from Patras to intercept and bring them into port for confiscation by H.Q. My spy system must have been working well, and a thorn in their side, because I found out months later that this was one of the main reasons why the ELAS acted like they did. The Major often received phone calls from the Elas H.Q. requesting his presence by the General in Charge, during our stay. One morning when he was out I received an Urgent and Secret telegram from H.Q. stating briefly" YOU ARE TO DISARM ALL MEMBERS OF ELAS IMMEDIATLY." When the Major returned I showed him the telegram and said "I DON'T THINK WE RECEIVED THIS, DO YOU? He said "NO" so I destroyed it. We realised then that the situation had deteriorated badly since fighting had broken out between our troops and Elas troops in and around Patras area, and the ELAS had been badly beaten up and sent packing in full retreat towards Athens. A short while later in about the middle of December 1944, the Major received another one of his summonses from the ELAS Command and I went down to the harbour to see the KAIQUE master who was about to set sail for his return to Patras, after delivering our supplies. As I was standing on the dock talking to him I heard the sound of rifle bolts behind me and a brusque command in Greek. I turned around to see 8 Elas soldiers in a semi circle pointing their rifles at me an telling me to lift my hands up. I was unarmed, for with 1100 enemy and only 5 of us the Major and I decided that 6 rounds in a .38 pistol was not much use. The Sgt. in charge came to me and told me in broken English that I was being arrested and he was to escort me to his H.Q. I followed him to his H.Q. and walked into the room as ordered, where I saw the Major, and the rest of our detachment, who had all been caught and brought there ahead of me. The Radio Operator drew me aside and told me that he had not had the time to put the Radio out of action or advise Patras H.Q. of our predicament as he was taken by surprise. We were all informed that we were now Prisonners of War as hostilities had broken out between the ELAS and BRITISH troops in and around ATHENS and PATRAS. We were further told that we would remain there but men would be sent to our quarters to bring back our greatcoats and 1 blanket each. I asked that they also bring me back a pair of shoes or boots from my kit as the shoes I was wearing were an old and partly worn pair which would not last long if we were required to walk far. They refused. However I did get my greatcoat and a blanket, for which I was grateful as the weather at night was turning cold. I never saw the rest of my property, or kit, again.
They kept us locked in a fairly large room for the rest of the day, and towards the evening they informed us that we would be taken by Kaike to the mainland under cover of darkness. As the ELAS had stolen our radio we were unable to inform PATRAS of the situation, and there was no other means of communication. That evening as the sun was going down we were taken down to the harbour and loaded on to a Kaike which sailed almost immediatly. They put us out of sight in a cabin and placed 2 guards armed with German Schmeisers outside the locked door. One of their officers, who spoke a little english, stayed in our cabin with us for a few hours, and told us that if any one of us tried to escape or take over the boat we would all be shot, as he had six men on board and all armed. We sailed all night and next day we arrived at the small port of ASTAKOS on the Greek mainland and we were marched away northwards to a village called EMPHILOKIA, which we were told was about 4 hours walk. It turned out to be about 60 miles away and took us 3-4 days, as one of these was Christmas Day when we rested. We had 4 armed guards with us the whole time, two at the front and two at the back, and they were quite kind to us, they never 'marched' us but just told us to walk and follow the guards in front, but not to overtake them. At night the guards requisitioned sleeping quarters for us by going to houses in the village we passed through and ordering the peasants to supply us with places to sleep. This was the recognised Communist method. The peasants also had to feed us that night, and before we left in the morning. Breakfast in the morning consisted of a mug of coffee, if we were lucky. Christmas Day 1944 was spent about halfway to EMPHILOKIA, on a small farm. The farmer and his family were very good to us and insisted we join him and his family for the Christmas meal at lunch time, as they had killed a pig especially for for the occasion. These Greek peasants and farmers we came accross on the journey were very poor but very generous and eager to please, as they felt sorry for us. Anyway the meal we had that day was the best meal we had had for weeks and the only decent meal we would have until we rejoined the Regiment. We all thanked the farmer and his family for his generosity before we left next morning. We finally arrived at the village of EMPHILOKIA only to be told that we now had to walk due eastwards accross the mountains to a Monastery, which had been taken over by the ELAS, who had driven out the Greek Orthodox Church monks, and taken over the buildings as a prison. It was not too far and would take us about 2-3 hours. The walk took us two days and we crossed two ranges of mountains above the snow line before finally arriving at our final destination! At times we were walking through walls of snow 4 ft high (up to my chest), but mostly from about 18 ins thick upwards. By this time the soles of my shoes were worn through and I was walking partly on my socks, which got sopping wet each morning before I'd gone 100 yds. It was just as well I was walking on snow as the walking kept my circulation going thus preventing my feet from freezing, they were freezing cold but I never got frost-bite. I still firmly believe that Almighty God was looking after me.
When we finally arrived at the Monastery, which was built on a slope on the side of a hill and were put into 2 inter communicating rooms on the first floor, and the next day we were joined by other members of the Division who had been captured in the fighting around ATHENS and PATRAS. From them we got the latest news of the situation. It appears that ELAS troops attempted to encircle Patras but were confronted by 11 Brigade. Brig. H.C.J. HUNT then sent the 2/7th Gurkhas to infiltrate the enemy lines during the night and to attack at dawn the next morning. This is the type of fighting these troops excel at, so as soon as the Gurkhas appeared behind them early the next morning the Greek ELAS fled, and that was the end of the fighting, apart from a few other skirmishes. We were all elated by this information for up until then we had been fed by ELAS news which was all ELAS victories and sound British defeats and severe loss of tanks and equipment, which none of us really believed anyway. There were now 19 P.O.W.'s in the 2 rooms, consisting of 4 Brit. Officers, 3 Greek Royalist/Interpreter Officers, 4 Indian and 8 Brit. other ranks. The beds supplied were of the twin-bunk variety each one with a mattress stuffed with coir, I was lucky to have the 'upstairs' one, and was quite warm with my 1 blanket and greatcoat, despite the cold and snow outside. The first week or so were the worst, but after that when we had all met one another and got into a routine, the days just passed albeit somewhat slowly. We got 1 meal per day which was mostly so called 'vegetable soup', excerpt on Fridays when there was some meat, usually goat, floating around in it. However we got plenty of maize bread, which unfortunatly was an excellent laxative, so we never had any problems in that respect. The toilet was outside structure consisting of a trench, 2 m. long by 1/2 m. wide, over which they had placed a log of wood secure on either end. The idea being that you sat on the log to perform, so you must remember to take paper with you, and the whole area was surrounded with hessian to a height of 5 ft. If any of us in the room wished to go, we had to call the guard who, in turn called another guard, as our escort there and back and of course had to watch the whole proceedings. Life was really boring and we were always wondering whether the Army knew where we were. How the fighting was going on, in a) ATHENS b) PATRAS c) ITALY d) FRANCE e) BURMA and FAR EAST. I know we all lost weight but felt all the better for it.
We had now been prisonners at the Monastery for about 2-3 weeks, when one morning we saw in the distance a man riding a mule, leading about 6 other mules loaded with goods, approaching the Monastery. What intrigued us most was that this man appeared to be wearing British Uniform. It transpired that he was in fact a Greek/Australian and was qorking for U.N.R.R.A. who had received information that we were prisonners-of-war of the ELAS and had sent him with Army Compo rations to find us and deliver the rations. We took this opportunity, when he was escorted into our quarters, to give him all our name, rank and numbers, which he promised to hand into Divisional H.Q. on his return, not only to advise them for record purposes but also to advise our families what had happened to us. [It was just as well we did this, as I found out on my return home a few weeks later that my Mother and Sister, Mona, had received the usual Army telegram on Christmas Eve that I was "MISSING : BELIEVED PRISONNER-OF WAR"]. The 2 Senior British Officers of our group managed to talk the Senior ELAS Member in charge, to allow the Greek member of U.N.R.R.A. to take back with him any letters we would write and send them to our families via the Army Post. I do not know what kind of 'bullshit' was used but it worked and this was allowed providing they were short, no more than 1 page. We all did this and Mother told me that she had received my note, delivered by the Army Postal Service, which had considerably relieved her axiety. The extra rations were a Godsend, and although we knew they were stealing some from us, at least we received the lion's share for which we were truly grateful as were would have starved without them. Meanwhile the life of boredom carried on despite the cold and sometimes freezing weather, until about the middle of February 1945 when we were told to be ready to move next morning to another prison towards the coast.
We were all up at 'sparrow' next morning ready to move off, but we insisted that the all remaining Compo rations be handed to us as these belonged to the British Army and therefore to us. Once again the ruse worked and we distributed the meagre rations left, amongst the fitter ones to carry, I was handed a sand bag with my share inside which I humped on my back. Our escort consisted of 2 men leading, 2 in the middle of the column and 2 bringing up the rear, and they were all armed with German Schmeizers. The stronger walkers led the way, with the weaker ones behind them, but the lengh of the column was never allowed to exceed 100 yds even in the hilly terrain. We retraced the way we had arrived, until we broke through the hills serrounding the Monastery into the valley below where we found a large truck, marked with U.N. Insigna waiting for us on the gravel road to AGRINION. We were ordered on to the truck and were driven to the small port of MESSOLONGHI, accross the Corinth Canal from PATRAS, where we were herded into an empty school room where we spent the night, with the the guards on duty on the varandah outside. The next day our escort guards from the Monastery disappeared and were replaced by others. During the late afternoon our two Senior Officers were taken away to see the local ELAS Commander. On their return they brought us up to date with what exactly was happening. We were told that our Brigade Commander Brig. HUNT had been in touch with the local ELAS Commander, as a result of the verbal report made to him by our friend the Australian Greek, who had brought us the Army rations at the Monastery, and had demanded our release. After protracted negotiations with ELAS and at Brig. HUNT's insistance we had been brought to our present location. We were due for evacuation from Messolonghi the next day back to Patras, providing the agreement was satisfactorily settled, and the terms accepted by ELAS. We waited all next day hoping for the best, but it was not until late in the afternoon that a Kaike and a Brtish Navy Motor Launch arrived, and our guards arrived to take us down to the harbour. Brig. HUNT and a couple of his Staff Officers were standing on the mole by the entrance talking to the ELAS Commander and his Staff Officers. The M.L. was anchored in the middle of the narrow entrance to the harbour, with her front gun manned by R.N.S. personnel and trained on the 6 or so Kaikes afloat in the small harbour. A naval boat, manned by sailors, took us all aboard and after dropping the other Ranks off on the Kaike, took the Officers to the M.L. We were shown into the Officers Mess and shortly afterwards were joined by Brig HUNT and his staff. Drinks were served and it took me 3 Gins to get back to Patras, and on on arrival I was half pissed.
We were met on arrival at Patras by the Battery Commander and our Regimental Officers and after thanking Brig. HUNT and his Staff for all they had done to obtain our release, we rejoined the Regt. It was a wonderful homecoming and the men appeared genuinely glad to see us. My whole troop insisted on taking me down to the local 'grog' shop and standing me a drink. So accompanied by the Officer who had stood in for me, the whole of my troop, not on duty, and I went for this drink. The men refused to allow me to pay for a round and the drinks just kept coming, Greek wine. One of my senior N.C.O.'s told me "DON'T WORRY, SIR, DRINK UP, IF YOU GET PISSED WE'LL TAKE CARE OF YOU", and that is exactly what happened, I do not remember going back or getting into bed - but I had a hell of a sore head next day!
A few days later the Battery Commander informed us that all ex-P.O.W.'s were being sent home on leave, and as I had completed well over 4 yrs overseas service I was being posted back to Base, Royal Artillery, at Woolwich, on expiry of my P.O.W. leave. We would be transported by road to PIREUS where a Liberty Ship would take all ex-P.O.W. to NAPLES. A Troopship would then take us back to U.K. which is exactly what happened and we landed at LIVERPOOL about 2 weeks later. Passing through Customs was just a formality, and we were taken to the Railway Station where a train was leaving for LONDON some time later. I managed to phone home from a public telephone and was lucky to catch almost the whole family at home. It was wonderful to hear Mum's voice again and speaking to all of them, but as they were passing the phone around to each other all the time I never knew to whom I was talking - but it was fun! After a very comfortable trip to London, I caught the electric train to BRIGHTON and on arrival found nobody to meet me on the platform! I caught a taxi home and the front door was opened by a vary attractive teenager- too young to be PHYL or BETTY, so it must be MONA. She was 8 yrs old when I left, and was now 13 yrs old, and she had grown up and I did not recognise her immediatly. After I recovered from this surprise, my homecoming was a dream, Mum and the others had not changed to the extent that MONA had, so I was happy and thoroughly enjoyed my 2 months leave, on Double Rations, and plenty of time to enjoy myself. It was towards the end of my leave that V.E. took place on the 7th of May 1945.
I duly reported to Woolwich Barracks, the Royal Artillery Base in London on completion of my leave and was placed on duties around the barracks pending posting to another Regiment. There were always Officers around waiting for either transfers or posting so the time passed quickly, and we had plenty of free time on our hands so I was out wuite frequently. Abour 10 days after I arrived I received my posting to a Regiment stationed just outside London in ESSEX, but I can not recall the town nearby.
This made no difference because I was unhappy with this posting. The Regiment had never been out of England, thus the Officers had never been in real action, by this time I was wearing 2 medals, the War Medal and the Africa Star with 8th Army clasp, and they looked on me as a sort of freak. The R.E.M.E. Officer was also ex 8th Army and the two of us were the only ones who had been in action, so we became quite friendly and spent much of our spare time together. The crunch came when orders were received for all Officers to attend a lecture in the Hall the following night. The subject was "HOW TO BEHAVE IN ACTION " and the lecture would be given by a Junior Officer who had gone over to France on 'D'+2 and come back wounded on 'D'+4. I told my Battery Commander that I flatly refused to attend, and pointed out that I had been in action in the Western Desert and Italy for over 4 yrs, and was not prepared to listen to a young inexperienced officer tell me what to do in action after only 2 days in action himself, and during most of that time he was wounded. I was up in front of the Colonel in charge of the Regiment next day and told him the same story. He informed me that my Conduct was unbecoming and not wanted in his Regimewnt. I then told him that I was not happy in the unit anyway, and my application for transfer back to my old Regiment in Italy would be on his desk in the morning. I then left his office and was posted back to Woolwich within a couple of days awaiting transport to Italy to rejoin my old Regiment. During my time in Base on this occasion, I was not put on any duties, I do not know why because it was about 3 weeks before I joined a ship sailing with troops to Italy. We sailed from London docks, and landed in Taranto some ten days later. This time we had no escort. The troops on board were very mixed, men as well as women, from all units of the British Army and R.A.F. Some were on transfer, some coming out as reinforcements and others returning from leave, so the we were all in a holiday mood determined to enjoy the sea and sun, especially now that the European War was over. It was now July 1945.
Whilst in TARANTO I took sick and went to the Medical Officer who they diagnosed 'Diphtheria' so I was sent to the main Hospital at SALERNO, and his diagnosis proved correct, so I was ordered to lie on my back for 1 month and not move out of bed. As the Sister put it, 'blanket bath and bedpan 'for me. It was hell but I was eventually allowed up and, of course overdid it and had a relapse so I was back in bed on 'BB and BP' for a further 2 weeks. By the time I was allowed up I was very weak, and could barely stand up without assistance. The Senior Medical Officer sent me to the Recuperation Centre for 1 month. That was a real holiday with Therapy every day, good rations and plenty of free time with pleasant company. The last fortnight was the best as we were taken on several sightseeing trips in the vacinity of the Hospital, e.g. the ruins of Versuvius, the Blue Grotto, were the two best known ones. But all good things must come to an end, so I eventually had to report to Army Headquarters at CASERTA for a posting. As I had been classified as "unfit for full duty, light duty only for 6 months". I was informed that I would not be returned to my Regiment but a light duty Post would be found for me in Italy. A few days later I was offered the Post of Military Manager of the Senior Officers Transit Hotel in MILAN, the Officer at present in the post was waiting for his Demobilisation to come through and I would take over from him. This would entail a transfer to the Army Catering Corps. I accepted and went to Milan and was promoted to Capt.
On arrival in MILAN, I found that the Hotel was called THE EXCELSIOR GALLIA HOTEL, and was immediatly opposite the Central Railway Station. A month after I arrived, the Military Manager left on Demob. and I officially became the Military Manager of the Hotel. Under me I had 3 Sgts and about 12 other ranks from the Army, and in addition 1 Officer and 6 other ranks from the A.T.S. All my staff members were accommodated on the top floor of the Hotel in their own rooms. There was also the Civil Manager and his staff who ran the hotel, Th Military staff were only responsible for the booking in and out, and payment received from the military personnel accommodated at the hotel. No Civilians were allowed residence in the hotel. I am not going into detail about my stay there as Military Manager but suffice it to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my stay and took full advantage of my position to get out and see as much of the country around Milan as I possibly could. I managed to visit GENOA on several occasions, also VENICE where I spent a lovely week at the LIDO, on one occasion. I also saw around Lake COMO and did some skiing on the slopes around Lake MAGGIORE, so all in all I had a wonderful time in Northern ITALY, and was very sorry to eventually have to leave this lovely part of the world. I finally arrived home in JULY 1946, to enjoy 4 months demob leave, and during which time I would have to make up my mind what to do with my future life.