Memories of Don Gay, army #6096618
Before I get down to it, let me say that this is a very condensed version, to go through the whole six years would probably take more time than I have left even if I could remember it all.
It began early in May 1940. I had just finished breakfast on the fated morning and my mother handed me a buff envelope marked at the top, O.H.M.S. I knew immediately what it was, as I had attended a medical board a few weeks previously and was declared A1. Having said that, if I had turned up in a wheelchair, they would probably have oiled my wheels and still marked me A1. Things were a bit desperate, gun fodder wise, in front one bloke turned up wearing a borrowed truss. When asked how long he had worn a truss, he said 10 years, the doctor said he would be joining the Camel Corps. The man protested to no avail, he would have no trouble riding a camel. Enough of this banter, on with war.
In side HMS. envelope was a travel warrant to an infantry training camp at Devices, and my first weeks wages, in advance, 5/-. Out of this 5/-, by the way, each week they deducted 6d for cleaning material, Blanco, Brasso etc. and 6d for barrack room damages. This was before any damage was done, mind you
So at the appointed hour, I toddled of to Roundway Camp, Devices, with my civvy gas mask round my neck, and clutching a little attache case, containing all my worldly goods. On arrival, myself and about fifty other s in the same boat, shambled through the main gate at the camp, and were immediately stopped dead by a stenorious voice, accusing us of marching like a bunch of ruptures tramps, the voice belonged to an individual by the name of Tasker R.S.M. who himself told us, would play Mother for the next 3 month. I don't know about Mother, but I don't think he had a father, he just happened. We ere then put into groups of 30 which roughly made up a platoon, and each allotted a bed space in nissan huts, those things with a half round roof made of corrugated iron, the beds were provided with a fibre mattress and three blankets, but no sheets. They were not provided until after I had been de mobbed, more of this later.
The first few days were spent at the M.O. the dentist, and the Q.M. stores, the latter insisted we would not get a uniform to fit better if we went to Burton. Training started in ernest the second week and we were subjected to a programme of marching, P.T., weapon training, field crafts, map reading, etc. Between each session, we were generously allowed 5 mins. to go back to billets and either change clothes or fetch the appropriate gear for the next round. This went on for about 6 weeks. By this time most of us were fit enough to go out on weekends, to be fair, Sunday was your own day,after you had blancoed your equipment, cleaned your brasses, your rifle, your boots, scrubbed the hut, dune your laundry, and made sure you were fighting fit to start again on Monday.
By this time we were going out of the camp playing soldiers around the countryside, quite pleasant in a bizarre sort of way, it being the month of June. I had made a few good mates by this time, the most lasting was of course Doug Keen, and we remained friends until his death in 1961. In July (1940) we were posted out to regular regiments, and Doug along with myself and a few dozen others went to the Queens Royal Regt., whose barracks were at Guildford, of course we were fully trained infantry men by this time, or so we were told. We settled down to await our fate, all the while drilling and marching and getting up to all the bullshit imaginable, like whitewashing the past. After about 2 months at Guildford, we were paraded on morning, and enquires were made as to who among us could drive, and had any mechanical experience. HA'HA' thought I, no more foot slogging for Donald, so Doug and I jumped forward quickly before there was a change of plan. Anyway it transpired that this very posh artillery mob called The Honourable Artillery Company were short of men, owing to the fact that their numbers were depleted by supplying men to train as officers. Within a few days a jubilant mob left Guildord Barracks and traveled to join thier new unit to start training again as drivers and gunners etc. The new location was about 20 miles from Guilford, and 5 miles from Dorking, a big country estate, with huge mansion set in about 50 acres of land. This was Wooton House, near a village called Wooton Hatch, and at night a very spooky place. In fact it was about a half mile walk from the lodge to the house apart from us troops, there were only a few senior staff belonging to the owners living there. We rarely saw them, they were below stairs somewhere. The grounds at surrounding the house were thickly wooded, and set among the trees at varying distances were stone statues, and until we got used to them, our patrolling the grounds at night was quite hair raising, but kept us on our toes.
At this stage I will say something about regimental formation, it may come in handy to the reader later on. The Regt. consisted of 3 Batteries of guns, A, B, and C, each battery with 8 guns, so a full compliment of 24 guns, plus battery H.Q. who looked after admin., grub, ammunition and supplies, in general and Regimental H.Q. who administered all round.
By this time we had been sorted out, Drivers, Gunners, wireless operators, all people essential to the smooth running of a fighting unit. Until such time as we were at full strength, I was given two jobs. The main job was to drive a gun towing vehicle, called a quad, this was a box like semi armoured machine, with 4 wheel drive and accommodation for the gun crews, 4 gunmen, sergeant and of course a driver. It was quite a good vehicle to drive, but the real test for the driver, was to drop the gun and ammunition trailer in the correct place and harder still, with the gun coming out of action , was the ability of the driver to reverse as close to the hitch up as possible, thereby saving the gun crew a lot of hard work pulling gun and trailer to the vehicle. This led to competition between the teams to see who could be the first to hook up and leave the gun position.
My secondary job was driver to our section officer, Lt. Peter Mills, a real gent, but it was mostly shopping expeditions, when we usually stopped for a drink. I was eventually handed over to someone else and concentrated full time on gun training. By this time I had settled in nicely, thinks were so much more easy going than the P.B.I. (poor bloody infantry) and I made some good pals among the Dukes and Lords, while waiting to go to officer training, real gentlemen most of them.
Doug Keen was in Battery H.Q. as a driver dogs body but we were billeted in the same room. It was about this time I met Banger, who was already there, and at that time was a dispatch rider, but later trained as an auto electrician. Things went along very well with nothing happening, went to Salisbury Plain for training a couple of times and before long it was Christmas. Most of us went on leave and for me it was special. I was introduced to the lady who later became my wife. Sadly, it was my last Christmas at home for five years. On returning from leave we settled in for training, and in the comming weeks, rumours were strong of a move over seas. These rumours turned to reality, and soon we were busy returning all our vehicles to an army camp at Donington Park, and preparing new equipment for forthcoming embarkation. It was pretty obvious where we were going, because all vehicles were fitted with Sandmaster tyres. Then cam a weeks embarkation leave, fond farewells all around and on the train to Liverpool. Here we were confronted by this large ship in its drab grey coat, that turned out to be an old Cunarder, built in 1928 20,000 tons sent to the scrap yard in 1938, and in 1939 was quickly repaired with bits of string and brown paper, inspected and announced seaworthy.
We boarded the ship about 3000 of us, I think, what with marines, air force bods, and nursing staff, all to be dropped or En-route, Gibraltar being the first then on to places like Aden, Durban, Sudan. Its worth a mention here, that we were in a convoy with about 50 ships, quite a big one, and we were escorted by H.M.S. Devonshire which was a cruiser, H.M.S. Repulse, later to be lost in the far east, and various other craft including destroyers and subs. Life on board was very monotonous, as you can imagine, not much room to move about especially below decks. But as we left rough water behind and out of the Irish Sea things improved a bit and we were able to go on deck where life became an endless round of bingo and cards with boat drill thrown in as a bonus.
This was a farce, because if it came to the push it would be every man for himself "sod you Jack, I'm in the jolly boat!". It was a long voyage, because at this time the Med. was closed because of boat action, so it meant we had to travel all around Africa. It took 3 months to reach our destination, which was port of Tewfik on 6th Dec. 1940.
We were greeted by an ammo. ship on fire, and exploding all over the place. It had been hit by a German bomb. We then disembarked, most of us by now sporting a tan, brought about by sunbathing up through the Red Sea. We then learned that all our fighting gear had been lost at sea, having traveled on another ship. Drivers and Gunners were hurried off to base depot, a place called Tel-el-Kebir. Here we picked up new equipment, all painted sandy colour and brand new.
After the sort out, we had a few days rest. For the first time we were able to absorb the scenery, which was not very exotic being on the edge of the desert. What struck me most of all was the strong mixture of smells, different tobacco smells, spices, fruit, wogs and of course, a sprinkling of camel dropping. The biggest surprise was the change in weather. In a short time from the Red Sea we were faced with icy winds, which would go tight through you and at the same time lift the sand into a gritty blasting storm. Needless to say that we were still in battle dress at this stage. Before moving on into the desert for real, we had lectures on do's and don'ts, dealing with the use of water, which was to become our most precious commodity. We learned to find our way by means on a device called a sun compass, all very enlightening, until the sun was blotted out by the sand. Then directions usually went like this... "Follow this line of camel dung for a half a mile, then turn left at a burnt out Wellington bomber until you come to a dead donkey, stop there and wait fro the storm blow over." Anyway on into the desert with a vengeance! By this time the fighting was several hundred miles away and we ere pushing like mad to catch up, (daft buggers) green as grass, never heard a shot fired in anger. We were slowly brought back to reality when we came upon the remains of previous battles, burnt out tanks, trucks, guns and abandoned equipment. Also the fact that each man had to exist each day on a 12 oz tin of Bully Beef, a packet of biscuits (hardboard type) a couple of spoonfuls of Fig jam and four pints of water. In fact after two weeks our lines of communication were so stretched we had to watch every crumb and although our cigarette ration was 50 a week, we were 10 weeks without any. This then was the start of our desert adventure. At this time of tobacco shortage, I recall on of our Sergeants, Ernir Knell, carved himself a pipe out of a pick shaft, and dried tea leaves to smoke in it. I learned recently that he is now on his third pacemaker, I'm not surprised.
Meanwhile, the battle had moved on and it was pretty clear that Jerry were running. In fact so fast did they go, that within a couple of weeks they had stopped and consolidated a position behind a very bad stretch of soft sand which proved to be a natural defensive line against following opposition. Everything came to a full stop. It was a good thing for all concerned, it gave us a chance to get organised again. A few days passed and Jerry seemed quite content to sit it out while waiting for reinforcements to arrive. By this time our intelligence people had been at work and by their reckoning the enemy only had about 15 tanks facing us so our jubilant top grass ordered us through the sand trap to have a go. I should mention at this point that we had no tank support. Owing to the fast pace of advance the heavy armour were some 100 miles behind and struggling to catch up with the main force. So we sallied forth, all 24 guns and a few infantry to face whatever was there. As we struggled through the soft sand cussing and sweating, I thought to myself if we have to move back quickly, it's curtains for all of us. Anyway, we took up static positions between Jerry and the sand trap. There we sat for four days, and all was quite except for a soothing German Reccy plane that came over every day to have a look.
On the morning of the fifth day we stood to action stations, and were surprised when after two loud bangs we saw what we knew to be a couple of shell bursts one side of our position, this is know in artillery circles as a bracket, which being correct would mean the next one would be in the centre of the target, the said target being us. Anyway the shells didn't land close enough to hurt anyone so we got cheeky and sent over a few of our own. This small exchange carried on for about an hour with no dire results, then we were astounded to get the order to withdraw. I say withdraw, because in the British Army you don't retreat. So we pulled up the anchor and started to move back. After the first hundred yards it was clear that we had to fight the desert as well. The going was so bad that we had to winch the guns and ammo trailers every inch of the way. Our little crew must have picked the worst spot in the whole desert. We were soon left behind, it was obviously every man for himself. In the end, the engine blew up and we abandoned ship taking just small arms and personal stuff.
Off we went on foot and by this time we could see the Jerry tanks behind us about half a mile to the rear. We were well and truly in the Eartha Kit. Luckily, our Batt. Capt. came back in his wireless tank and managed to transport us back to a position with a better chance of escape. We then learned that the intelligence report was a cock up and Jerry had at least 90 tanks! He was doing his best to obliterated us. Our little gang managed to get aboard an ammo truck with about 30 others. As we went along we threw the ammo overboard to make more room and to broaden the safety factor.
We travelled like this for about a week, stopping every 45 mins. to dive out under the tank to avoid the Jerry bombers. I say 45 mins. because you could set your watch by them. Mind you we didn't ever think that a bomb might hit the truck! Completely demoralised by this time and a dark cloud over everyone I remember thinking that this was an over rated pastime and this was our first taste of action. Still now, we hadn't any guns, perhaps we'll be sent home, (Haha). I had by this time had a chance to asses the meaning of fear, and clearly it came in varying stages. Before going into action there is a feeling not so much outright fear, but a feeling that you are afraid of being afraid when faced with something alien to you. I came to the conclusion that this was so in normal people. There are exceptions of course. Some poor bomb happy buggers can't help themselves and show their fear in various ways, sometimes affecting others who would normally not react. This is bad, but a good bout of healthy fear is a good thing. Used properly it promotes a sense of self preservation and anyone who denies fear is either a liar or an idiot. It is also said that there are no atheists in slit trenches or on rubber life rafts. I hope this explanation of fear is not too complicated, it is my own viewpoint.
Eventually Jerry had over stretched his lines of communication and came to a halt so we slipped away and lived to fight another day. We were badly depleted in equipment by this time and sadly lost a few lads, either killed or captured. Those of us left were sent off on leave to Cairo. An episode that was one long round of booze ups and doing the sort of things most mad Englishmen do like roller skating at noon when every sensible wog had his head down. Some of the boys sought solace in the houses of ill repute, but the stink of these places from a great distance put most of the sensitive noses right off. Quite a few who went to these places regretted it very much after, especially with a bonus of no pay whilst being treated for the unmentionable ailments incurred.
Back from leave, to find the unit up to strength with a lot of white knees and pale faces, brand new equipment, fresh out of England. We made the new comers feel at home whilst we regaled them with a few horror stories from our brief but enlightening spell of action. We were soon involved in what was to become the Granddaddy of battles in the western desert. This took place at a point in the desert marked with a 40 Gallon oil drum and called Knightsbridge. The duration of the battle was 56 days nonstop and casualties were appalling as was the loss of equipment. But talk about boys becoming men, there are stories told to this day of guns being left with only two gunners to do the work of five and carrying on until the position was hopeless and overrun by the enemy. Not just once but many times this took place even to the point of a gunner and officer manning a gun just to keep it firing. Some of the guns got so hot that they just fell to pieces and gunners stood waiting to either be killed or captured, all this is what the Quad-driver sees as he waits in the wagon lines some 100 yards behind the gun position waiting for the order to go in and drag whatever remains in one piece. So there we were after all that clawing our way out of trouble. Back down the desert once more with greater casualties and loss of equipment than ever. So once again perhaps they'd send us home, (pause for another Haha).
This time we went back to the Nile Delta and base depot to await refit. When the new equipment arrived it proved to be a batch of American self-propelled gun howitzers called Priests. This was a sight for sore eyes. These weapons were mounted on what was basically a Sherman tank without a turret. They had a good deal of protection for all the crew never before experienced with the old 25 pounder field guns. So it was a new degree of training which set about with gusto. These machines had proved a great morale booster, added to the fact that the regt. was now completely armoured with all staff vehicles and ammo trucks in the shape of armoured cars. Mostly American half track vehicles and the crews of forward observation posts now had Sherman tanks instead of Bren Carriers. So here we were raring to go once more but feeling much more confident with our new equipment.
This was Alamein, and the new found confidence was boosted even higher by the arrival of a new commander by the name of Montgomery. He brought with him promises of greater things, not the least of these was the arrival of vastly increased air support in the shape of the Spitfire which had been modified to operate in the extreme temperatures without much lose of power. Until this time air support for forward positions had been non-existent.
On the night of 23 Oct., 1942 800 guns opened fire to created what was to be the biggest artillery barrage of the war. This carried on until first light and by this time the engineers had cut lanes through the minefield with the 51st Highland Div. following through led by the pipers of the Black Watch and Gordons, behind them, we came in co-operation with the tanks who we supported. At the end of the 3rd day things went so well that we were withdrawn to rest for a few days and prepare for the long chase back up the desert. That's what it became, in fact, Jerry went back so far that only the very mobile armoured car units and infantry could keep up. We were put on tank transporters and travelled on steadily up the coast road towards Tripoli. After about 300 miles or so, it was decided that we would not be needed for a while so we were allocated a patch of desert and made ourselves at home for a couple of months. This was to be a good time to seek out old mates who had been out of touch.
Unfortunatly Don Gay was unable to finish his story. His brother mentions that while Don was driving a Priest it was hit by a shell, fortunately it hit the engine but Don could feel something warm on his legs and he was sure his legs had been blown off but when they pulled him out it was only oil from the engine.