A DESERT RAT'S STORY
We edged our way up, a few skirmishes on the way, and then
swung West towards the heel on the Adriatic side. Then the real war started
again as the Germans were there in full force and we came under attack from
field guns and heavy tanks. Gradually we beat them back until we came to a
large port named Bari. Whilst there, an enormous explosion came from the harbour
which we later learned was from an ammunition ship. We moved on to Trani and
found the enemy dug in and the town protected by anti-tank guns and road blocks.
Hearing the sound of gunfire we held back a little but then discovered that
it came from some Italian troops firing on the retreating Germans. They now
thought the Squadron came to reinforce them!
We crossed the River Ofanto and then were ordered to head for Foggia and its airport. Major Gosling sent me ahead with my troop to reconnoitre. I was in the lead car, a Dingo, with Trooper Thompson as my driver. Thompson was a rather dour Yorkshire man who had recently come to my troop and so far had seen very little action. Behind me were my three Daimler armoured cars. Slowly I edged forward around a copse and could see fields ahead and, three hundred yards away, dense vegetation. I called a halt and looking through binoculars saw movement from some bushes. Gradually the muzzle of a huge gun emerged. It seemed ages before the tank to which it was attached appeared. It was a Tiger tank with a massive 88mm gun. I yelled down my mike for all to get back. As Thompson swung our car around I saw the first shell crash, missing the first car behind me by about twenty yards. The second and third cars also made it, but by now I reckoned the gunner had the range spot on.
I knew that the next one would hit us slap bang and just before we reached that spot I saw a small path alongside a stream, and yelled out to Thompson to swing left. We got about twenty yards when to my horror the path narrowed, causing us to slow down. At that moment we were hit, the shell getting us just below my legs, taking off the lower part of the car. Then the whole car seemed to rise in the air. The noise was horrific. My driver was in a state of shock. I had to grab his shoulder and pull him out of his seat and punch him hard in the face to get him moving. We jumped out and as we did, machine guns opened fire as we ran towards a small hut. Another large shell came over and hit the hut just before we arrived, and we could hear another hitting our car. Crouching, we listened for the tank to arrive. It wasn’t until darkness fell that we realised we were safe. We were bitten all over by mosquitoes. I had to get back to the rest of the Squadron. After an hour of crawling through shrubs, I heard voices from the darkness. It had been over ten hours by the time a search party found us, a dozen lads mostly from my troop. I gave a yell to them and a few minutes later we were back among A Squadron and started the trek back.
Desert Rats Logo
On arriving at Major Gosling’s car, he asked where we were hit and whether I had disconnected the radio and altered the frequency. Having told him we had not a second to spare or think of doing such a thing, he ordered me back to do so. I took some men and went back to do the job. At the same time we rescued all our gear, so it was not all a bad thing. I fully expected to have a small break then, possibly on the ration wagon or some other soft skin vehicle. Nothing doing, a Daimler was waiting for me with my old crew. As ever, it was the old cavalry method again -make a man get mounted quickly after a bad fall from a horse. I learnt later that the whole regiment heard over the air that I was missing and Commanding Officer Colonel Pepys instructed our Squadron Leader to send out search parties to get us back. He had known me as a Trooper when I was eighteen years old. Trooper Thompson’s nerves were shattered. He was sent back to the ration wagon way in the rear and never allowed on an armoured car again.
After another day we were back in action, pushing our way well forward and knocking out several German armoured cars. Then we were instructed to take a few days’ break and get some maintenance done our cars and a rest for ourselves as we had been in action day after day since we landed on the mainland of Italy.
After a few days, we were given the shattering news that we were going back to England. Most of us thought that our task was to keep on in the advance up to the top of Italy, which would have taken another year. Our feelings could not be described. Many of the regulars had left home base in 1938 and during the war years had very few letters from home. It would be a great shock to many families when they got the message that we were back. First we had to make the dangerous sea journey, although it was now safer after our increased cover from the Royal Navy, who had wrested control of the Mediterranean from the Germans.
GOING HOME IN 1944
There were no problems on the journey home. Happily the U Boats
were not having it all their own way now. We all wondered what home would
be like after all those years away. In our imagination we thought of a country
badly battered from constant bombing and were very apprehensive. The journey
did not take as long as the previous one in 1940 and was a lot more comfortable.
We still slept in hammocks though, and as all our officers had been in action
and knew their troops well, there was no bullshit. One morning I woke up and
could not hear the throbbing of the engines. Looking out of a porthole I saw
green fields and hills -a beautiful sight. We had arrived in Gourock in Scotland.
Clutching our kitbags we disembarked and got on a train that took us to Castle
Eden in County Durham, a mining town, where we got ready for leave. We were
kitted out with new gear. The clothes we wore were two years old and unwashed.
Like many others, the overcoat I had been given was far too large and I had
to pull the belt in several inches to get a fairly decent fit, but we were
all very happy to get something clean.
The shock came later when we arrived in London at the beginning of our leave. Everyone we saw was so smartly dressed -American and Polish soldiers with tailored uniforms, row upon row of medals all earned without getting into any dangerous action, and civilians wearing bowler hats and carrying briefcases, everything was so normal! We had been living in filth for years and now stood there in shock in our baggy drab uniforms, feeling somehow out of place and embarrassed with our rather scruffy appearance.
All that starvation and filth we had been living in was in stark contrast to what we now saw. I did not realise that apart from the awful bombing and the shortage of food which was rationed, life still had to go on more or less in a normal manner. Banks had to open, office workers were still needed. But we all were shattered to see the enormous number of American and Polish troops so clean and healthy looking compared to us shabby looking Desert Rats with our ill fitting gear. I thought back to all my friends who had been killed. Why had we been kept away so long when surely others could have done there share?
Ribblesdale Road is a mile long. I got out at the wrong end and had to lug my way to No. 1 clutching my kitbag. My family expected me as I sent a telegram from Scotland the previous day letting them know that I was in the U.K. I knocked on the door and in a second or two it opened and there stood Mum and Viv. It was an emotional meeting. I realised that I had changed so much - my face was deeply lined, I had a moustache, and I must have looked at least thirty years old, standing there in an oversized coat. Viv ran down the passageway crying. She was only four and knew me only from photographs taken when I was seventeen, but she did get used to me after a day or so.
I was thrilled to see Gran, Mum’s mother was now living with them. She looked after Viv during the day. A plump soft hearted woman, she would take the Daily Mirror to her bedroom and cried when reading the misfortunes of Belinda Blue Eyes in the comic strip section.
Dad came home that evening and we spent hours giving each other our news. Dad was in the Air Raid Wardens, Kitty in the Women’s Air Force, Syd in the Royal Navy, and Mum was a cook in a training depot in Wandsworth. Aunt Lil was living just down the road. On learning that Syd was berthed at Portsmouth, I made arrangements to go and see him the following day. Dad in the meantime had asked two of his sisters and their husbands to come around in the evening. I took the train to Portsmouth and as we drew in I saw Syd, a big burly Matelot, at the time my equal in weight and size. He was standing on the platform with his pals smiling away. We had a few hours together and then I started back home in a thick fog. In those days of coal fires and belching smoke from factories, we had real pea soupers. The journey took several hours instead of two. I got out of the train at Tooting Broadway and, clutching the railing of the houses, dragged myself along and finally arrived at No. at ten o’clock, five hours late and the visitors ready to go home.
One of them, Dad’s brother-in-law, had brought his banjo. He was a gaunt looking man with a chest problem. He smoked herbal cigarettes to relieve some of the pain and the poor chap coughed continuously. We spoke for just a few minutes and then they left. I never saw any of them again which was rather sad as they had made a big effort to come and see me. Kitty was not allowed leave when I first returned, but she did manage a weekend visit later on.
I went to the Streatham Locarno for a dance and got another shock, the floor was huge and packed out, uniforms and civilians with the latter outnumbering the troops. It all seemed so strange though I don’t know what I expected. Walking home an Air Raid warning sounded and I went down the tube station and found whole families living down there. I learnt that they had been doing that since the first bomb raid and coping very well. The Locarno was another matter, living a normal life for a few hours at a time. The bombing still went on until the war ended, and with more ferocious weaponry. Bombing us on the desert seemed fair enough, but smashing bombs on packed cities was another matter. The East End of London, where our poorest lived, was practically wiped out.
My three weeks’ leave went in a flash and then it was back to Castle Eden and Easington Colliery. They had very little trouble with bombers. Miners had a hard life. Their occupation was reserved and they were not required to enter the services. Many sought relief from underground working and managed to enter the Army or the other services and take their chances above ground. They were wonderful, hospitable people. They had so very little but still shared with us. Despite rationing, I was several times invited for tea and a big spread was always laid. They were so kind and helpful, even the Canadians who had been based there prior to us had a whale of a time, as did we. We were very sorry to leave after two months.
Our new destination was Hothfield Barracks near Ashford in Kent to get ready for invasion of Europe. We had to be trained in seaborne landings with our armoured cars. Now we entered a world totally different from Castle Eden, one that has lingered in many of our memories these last sixty years or so. Even now I think back to the contrast of the mining town we had left and the different culture we were about to experience.
Hothfield Barracks are situated a few miles out from Ashford. The whole area is quite pleasant, with plenty of grass and woodland surrounding the camp. Just on the edge was a local pub where the landlord was a cricket fanatic. He refused to serve anyone he did not like, primarily based on their appearance, and once barred, they never got in again. This was tough on the locals and they were very careful what they said. A short distance away was a combined village store and Post Office where a very attractive young girl aged about eighteen years worked. She became the object of the attention of a large number of the troops stationed nearby, the majority of whom were single.
Lofty Clayton, quite a brainy, pleasant chap all of six feet three inches in height and beanpole thin, became the favoured man and he married the girl. At the time Clayton was a full corporal in rank, but a few weeks after the wedding he promptly reverted to Trooper rank. He said that as he now had a wife, he had better take care of himself and he reckoned that his chances of staying alive were better as an ordinary soldier without any responsibilities. In fact he did survive the war. When visiting the area in 1954, I met his mother-in-law in the same shop who said that Clayton and his wife were living in another part of Kent.
Ashford is a very ordinary town which seemed to have escaped a lot of the damage other towns had endured and, as a consequence, did not show any of the warmth and friendliness of Londoners and the other towns who had suffered a great deal. We found the residents to be very aloof with the influx of a British regiment. The reason soon became apparent. The American forces were in a luxurious camp nearby. They were very well paid and wore beautifully cut uniforms with rows of medals (we were told for passing various examinations). They were an exciting addition to the town and the extra flow of money was welcomed. While we were slogging away on the desert starving most of the time, troops who had seen no action were living like kings and in complete safety but I can’t say I blame them.
It seemed as though no one had any idea of the privations the Royals and others had suffered during the preceding years. Life went on as usual, dances took place, pubs were busy and the sun shone. A certain amount of snobbishness prevailed with the locals to most of us who had gone through a very hard time for several years. We simply could not understand why we seemed to be resented by many of the comfortably off. This did not apply to the local girls though.
Many members of the Sherwood Foresters came to replace those we had lost during the last campaigns and once our regiment was up to full strength, hard training took place. The armaments were better and the cars and guns were heavier. For several weeks we trained getting down ramps and how to camouflage vehicles and make them waterproof.