"Soldier without a gun"
A Soldier without a Gun
by Edward Arthur Davies
The Autobiography of an Ordinary Soldier called up to serve in World War II
Arthur's filmed interview for WarGen can be found at Edward Arthur Davies.
SOLDIER WITHOUT A GUN
This is a short story of an ordinary civilian who was called up from Civvy Street to serve in World War Two.
It is dedicated to my wife Mary.
I lost my father at the age of 9; he suffered an accident at John Summers Steelworks.
From the age of about 12 years I sensed that I had to find some sort of work to do after school hours for a few pence pocket money. My school mates had a number of items that were beyond my desires, like football shoes, new suits, good shoes on their feet and most things which were taken for granted. This gave me more incentive to get these things, so by the time I was 13 years old, I managed to get a job delivering papers and selling them, after school. lf I had any papers left by 9pm at night, I would go by the gates at Courtaulds and wait for the men coming out of work.
This went on for quite a while, until I was fortunate to get another job, which was taking greengrocery out for Lodwicks. This family firm are still going with a number of shops. This job wasn't too bad as I was never hungry regarding the odd apple or pear, and the owner used to see me alright for greengroceries at the weekend for my mother. This was a heavy job. Although I had a bicycle at my disposal it was much bigger than me, with a carrier at the front and back, it was no joke pushing this full of fruit and vegetables up Mount Pleasant, Flint.
As I was getting older l was gaining confidence in myself and this led me 9n to further jobs, getting a few more extra pence per week. My next move was to Bentham, the family made some of the best ice cream in Flint. L was always fortunate to find somewhere where the work was food so I never went hungry, and whenever possible neither did my family. I worked in Wordworth the butchers, never short of a piece of beef for the weekend: also, a short time with Ellis bakery where cakes and bread was available. My job at the bakery was to make sure the horse was brushed down and its hooves cleaned. I suppose these were some of my best days while still at school.
I was now 14 years old and starting to look at things in a different light. When I left school at 14 years I was more than ever looking to Courtaulds for my next job. Before leaving school, l was given the opportunity to go to the Grammar school in Holywell, but I couldn't afford the money for my fare and other incidentals. When I look back, perhaps I should have made the effort, but money was very scarce and helping mother seemed to be the right thing to do.
Looking for a full-time job was now my priority and this meant standing by the gates of Courtaulds. There were three factories in Flint and my routine used to be waiting for bosses to come in. Aber Works was the first place,8.30 am every morning, when told there was no vacancies, the next stop was Deeside Mills by 9 o'clock, then after the same answer, Castle works. I wasn't by myself looking for work, quite a number of young lads were doing the same. There was no 'Job Centre' where we could look for work as at present, times were rough.
During this period the small jobs I had were filling the gap. Whilst looking for work at the factories there was one incident that really did get me more determined than ever to get a job.
The 'Big Boss' came to the gates at Castle Works one morning, standing there like a sergeant major and shouted, 'What do you all want?" One or two lads bigger than me shouted, "We want a job, sir." He looked us all over and he saw me, "What do you want, my lad?" I said a job, but before I finished the sentence he said, "You go home, my lad, and tell your mother to put you under the mangle." [Old fashioned wringer]
I never forgot that man. I never went near Castle Works after that, not even to sell papers.
As the weeks went by, looking for work became a routine day. Work seemed to be picking up, some of the lads I went around with found jobs. Then one morning while outside the gates of Aber Works, the 'Big Boss' came out and I was lucky enough to be picked. I think he must have taken pity on me, every morning I was there without fail.
My first job was wheeling trays from the Reeling Room to the Spinning, this turned out to be rather heavy. The truck was three times bigger than me, and when full of things it took me all my time to push it. More than once help was required when the wheels got stuck in the drain channels.
I continued on this job about six months and then was taken off to learn how to repair the Reels the girls were working on. I liked this job as I was always fiddling about, mending my old bike. It didn't take me long to get the hang of repairing the mechanical side. It was soon obvious that I must have made an impression as the Big Boss told me to take a section over.
My confidence was growing all the time; I was now fifteen and a half years of age. The department where I was working worked on a two-shift system, two till ten and six till two; as time went by I was informed that I was going to work shifts. I didn't mind as this meant more money.
The months seemed to go very quickly now. I must have grown up a little more as the dream of owning a wrist watch was in my grasp; being able to go on a bus. I had even bought a better bike with the help of the Big Boss, he heard l was paying for it weekly and gave me a shilling towards paying it off. He wasn't a bad old stick. I always remembered him for that well after I left the department to work in another part of the factory.
While working in the girls' department, l was attracted to Mary. She lived in Bagillt. It seemed strange to me, but hundreds of girls worked in this job and yet Mary seemed to stand out among the lot. I used to repair the machines, so every available chance I got I found my way around to her machine for a little chat.
It soon turned out that I was asking her for a date, she was very reluctant and at one time I nearly gave up, but the urge was there. In the end, she agreed to see me, this was the start of my courtship and I never regret it. Her father was very strict, so for quite some time I never got any further than the top of the road where she lived, which was about a hundred yards from the house. Mary had a very strict upbringing and she had to be in the house before a certain time. Although l was free and easy where it came to time, I had no father to report to; it made me think how I would have coped if l would have been in the same position. The months passed by quickly now, seeing Mary most nights when I wasn't at work. This went on for a couple of years, until we finally got engaged, leading to my call-up to the Army.
Sunday morning, March the 5th 1940, was just another day at my place of work, and about 10.30 am the foreman shouted down the alleyway where I was working, in his hand was a brown envelope which I knew was important to me, other chaps had received such envelopes. The foreman said that my mother had received the letter that morning and had given it in at the time office. Opening the letter told me all I had been expecting, my call up papers. Having been for my Medical, passed fit, it didn't take long to arrive.
At the time, my preference had been for the R. A. F., but imagine my surprise when l found out l was being called up to a R.A.M.C. Unit. I had no idea what it was, so I asked my foreman who was an old soldier from World War One. "Well lad," he said, "the Army is going to make a doctor out of you."
I just laughed and said surely it must be a mistake, I had put in for the RAF. I had lost my father when I was 9 years of age, I had no one to ask what this was all about, so the foreman's words started to have some meaning. He told me to finish what l was doing, then make my way home.
I said cheerio to the foreman, who wasn't' a bad old stick', and some of the mates I had worked with, then I made my way home, still more confused than ever about the RAMC Unit. When I returned to our small terraced house, I told my mother about the letter. She knew what it was as my father had received a similar letter in 1914. She had a little cry, but it soon passed when I started joking about this RAMS Unit and told her not to worry.
That same day, my next move was to get on as quickly as possible to see Mary, who had been working at the same factory and had finished her work the Saturday before. We had been courting steady for a number of years and were engaged at the time. I don't know what happened, but when I met her and gave her the news, it all went very quiet. Mary was that type of girl, quiet and steady. I think, with the exception of sometimes in the Army, this was one of the longest evenings I had ever spent during my courting days and when the time came to say goodnight, I couldn't find the words.
I had three days off, before being called up. Wednesday morning was the time of departure. It wasn't long before I realised that some of the lads from my home town were also on the train, going to the same place in South Wales. I wasn't too bad when we got chatting away about different topics, but Mary always seemed to be in my thoughts and on my mind. I had seen her almost every night and now l was going away, very confused, I could not concentrate on anything although plenty was going on.
It seemed ages before the train stopped and we were given a sandwich and a mug of tea. It was odd drinking out of a tin mug, but in days to come it became one of my treasured possessions.
The next stop came as a relief, as most of the lads were by now tired of being cooped up in the carriage. A voice from the railway platform screamed out, "You all get here." This was the first of many screamed voices before the night was out. It was all very strange after Civvy Street.
We bedded down for the night after all the hustle and bustle. It even came as a relief to sleep on the floor on three 'biscuit mattresses'. But sleep was very far away. My mind was going back to Mary. Where would she be and what would she be doing? | had a sleepless night although l was dead tired. The next morning, I was on my way to the Army Barracks where training was to take place to try to make soldiers of Civvy Street lads.
The call up was welt behind and training was in full swing. The days passed by rather quickly now, there wasn't much time to lie around thinking, as something was on the move all the time. Since arriving at Llanium Barrack South Wales a different world had emerged from Civvy Street, life in the army took over. Haircuts twice a week, cleaning boots until you could see your face in them, all very new but acceptable. The main activity here was squad drill and lectures. When my foreman in work had told me they were going to make a doctor out of me he wasn't far wrong. But the important part of the day when the sergeant would shout out our name for letters from home. It was a strange feeling when no letter arrived; I used to think all sorts of things. This state of mind was to happen very often during the coming years.
After teaching us how to march and salute, we were ready for our next move. We were told to pack our kit and get ready to move out. Packing of kit was part of the training so it didn't take long to do that, also the moving out came easy as we had practiced this a number of times. Onto the truck, we went down to Neyland, a small station that served this particular area. Another train journey, but this time it was much longer. The next twenty-four hours was hectic, rumours were rife. First, we were told Ireland, then Norway, and the Far East, it was all very confusing.
We appeared to be going north; some of us thought it might be Southampton where convoys were leaving for various destinations. After about an hour on the train, we stopped. The Salvation Army handed out tea and biscuits; they did a great job during the war years. During the train journey, I was looking out for. signs of where we were heading, but most of the time it was dark. Movement of troops seemed to be done during the dark hours"
At last we arrived at our destination, Stranraer in Scotland; this surprised most of the lads who were with me. We had no idea where this place was or what part of Scotland.
After arriving, the bellowing voice of the sergeant let us know that we were still in the Army. I was still a bit stiff after sleeping on the roof rack in the carriage. A cup of tea again and a sandwich and off down to the docks, where a boat was waiting to take us. We still had no idea where we were going. We made our way onto the ship and it wasn't long before we sailed. I had never been on a ship this big, the nearest was the Mersey ferry - Birkenhead to Liverpool.
It didn't take long to get to our destination, a place named Larne; this appeared to be the shortest way from Scotland to Ireland. After all the speculation, most of the lads couldn't understand this, as the fighting was taking place in France. Down the gangway onto another truck, away we go, heading Dromore in County Down. I'd never heard of it, but it was soon to become very familiar.
My First Casualty in the RAMC
It was here that training started in real earnest. Remembering the words of the foreman, he wasn't far wrong when he said that they were going to make a doctor out of me. Day after day Medical classes dealing with all aspects of the body, first aid, rout marches, fire piquet, guard duty. I still wondered why I never had a gun to drill with, but being in the Medical Corp, fire arms were not part of the training. It was all very strange being a soldier with no gun.
We were split up into companies. I was placed in B Corp, where we had intensive training, but still no gun. During my training, it became very clear what my job in the Army was all about and what my role would be in any future action.
It was during this period at Dromore that l was involved with my first 'casualty'. Where we were billeted, which was an 'Orange Hall', a small bridge went over the river and it was here, while making my way back to the billet that I came across one very elderly man who had slipped on the pebbled bridge. He was cut very badly over the top of his eye with blood all over his face. Here was where my First Aid came into use.
Inside my Army trousers was sown a first field dressing which was only to be used in action in the field. After a few words with the man, I managed to sit him up against the bridge, cut my dressing out of my trousers and patch him up and got him on his way. He thanked me for helping him and asked me where I was staying, I mentioned the Orange Hall. After making sure he was all right, I made my way back.
It was during our daily morning inspection that the Sergeant Major noticed my field dressing was missing. He asked me where it was and I told him I had used it on the old man. He called the Corporal and said, "Put this man on a charge." I got seven days CB (confined to barracks) and was made to clean all the football kit of the Company Team which I played for. The field dressing was replaced; I never used it again until I was wounded in the desert.
A short time later the old man came looking for me, to thank me once again.
Letters were passing between me and Mary. A few months later Mary and I were married in the village of Bagillt. I had three days leave but they were the happiest of my life. I got my leg pulled more than ever. I was feeling very homesick and longing to be back with Mary.
A short time after going back from leave l was taken ill with Sinus. I couldn't understand this, as at the time l was at my peak of physical fitness. I was sent off to hospital and after the operation I was sent home on sick leave. While l was home, I received a telegram to report back to Leeds. At the time, I thought that my Unit had moved to Leeds, but it turned out that this wasn't so. I reported to the Orderly Room and I was told that l was to be placed on a draft for an overseas posting. This came as a shock to me. I was again sent home on Embarkation Leave for overseas duty.
After some tears and farewells l was on my way back to Leeds and resigned to be on my way overseas. After about two weeks orders came to move out, and once again I was on my way by train. I finally arrived at a Scottish port. No time was wasted; we went straight from the train onto the ship. Tired and weary I kipped down.
From there onwards I kept a diary, even though it was not allowed. I managed to keep it safe from prying eyes. The following are extracts from the diary over a ten-week sea voyage. These are true incidents which cropped up time and time again and are imprinted on my mind.
The voyage began:
Monday 28th July 1941 -1st week
- We arrived aboard the SS Volendam, a Dutch ship of 15,000 Tons. We were very busy most of the day, getting settled down. I spent most of the night on deck, watching different types of ships entering and leaving port. I met a man from Flint, renewed some old times. He was attached to this ship being in the Navy.
Tuesday 29th July
- I woke up feeling refreshed after a good night's sleep. I had a pretty easy day, detailed to wash up a few plates after dinner and spent most of the time on deck. Saw some lovely scenery off the Scottish coast. Food was pretty good all through the day. Got to bed at 9.30pm (wrote a letter).
Wednesday 30th July
- Up at 5.45 am, breakfast at 7am, got on deck at 9.30 am. Spent an hour on life boat drill, washed a few pots, spent an hour in the sun, had a good dinner, spent another hour in the sun, on deck. It started to rain, went below deck, had tea, still raining. We were given an apple along with our tea. I got to my bed/ hammock, at 9pm.
Thursday 31st July
- I wrote the last letter before leaving. I had a very easy day. Some lads aboard the ship formed a dance band. Feeling fed up, bed 9pm.
Friday 1st August
- Up at 5.45am. My 24th birthday made it a very easy day. I did a lot of fishing at night, borrowed the line from one of the sailors. Very good dinner but no birthday cards! I went to bed early, managed to get a better hammock.
Saturday 2nd August
- Everything set for sailing; we left port at 6am. Waving and cheering by the people of the Scottish town, Greenock. We spent the first night's sleep at sea. Boxing ring made on board, some good fights a night. I felt fed up.
Sunday 3rd August
- Feeling a bit giddy with the rocking of the ship, dozens of the lads were sea-sick. We lost sight of land. A Church service was held aboard ship. It was very cold on deck. On the whole, it was a pretty easy day, early bed.
Monday 4th Aug
- I woke up feeling dizzy, most of the lads sick, they were lying all over the place. A German submarine was sighted during Sunday night; our destroyer escorts dropped depth charges. No evidence of it being destroyed. No more trouble during Monday. The sea was very rough and tossed the ship like a cork. We were somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.
Tues 5th Aug
- This was a very exciting day. It was very foggy most of the time and it was only possible to see a few yards. We learned that during the early hours of the morning there had been a collision with another ship in the convoy and that the damaged ship had left the convoy to make for another port. I spent most of the day on deck.
Wednesday 6th Aug
- This proved to be another foggy day, spent the best part of the day below deck. I washed a few plates up. Went to bed early, fed up. I was thinking of Mary.
Thursday 7th August
- We woke up to find a storm raging. I couldn't walk on the deck without going from side to side of the ship. Most of the lads were sea sick again. It left me with a headache, otherwise I had not been sick up to now. The sixth day at sea and we were still in the Atlantic Ocean.
Friday 8th August
- This was another day to remember. The morning brought us into good weather and very calm sea. There was a submarine on our track. The whole convoy was twisting and turning all ways. I could hear one of our destroyers dropping depth charges and one of our planes was on the job as well. I never did get to know if the submarine was sunk.
Saturday 9th August
- This was one of the nicest days I have spent on the ship up to the present. Calm seas and blue skies, it was too warm for khaki, changed into P/T kit. We sighted one of the islands off the Azores, circled the island then made our way out to sea again. The order came to change into Tropical Kit if it suited us. I went to bed early.
Sunday 1Oth August
- This was an uneventful day. The sea was very calm, made me think about home and my wife. We had a service on board. I spent the best part of the day lying about on deck.
Monday 11th August
- The sun was now starting to get very hot. L found the shaded place on the ship, more to my liking. I slept out on the open deck, a very lovely night. I was amazed to find the water around us was glistening. I found out afterwards that this part of the ocean contained a lot of phosphorescence.
Tuesday 12th August
- Nothing unusual happened today. The order came to wear 'Topies'. We were now passing along the African coast. Very Hot. L went to a concert at night given by the 18th General Hospital.
Wednesday 13th August
- The weather was extremely hot. Orders were given for everyone to sleep on deck. The afternoon provided plenty of excitement, mainly boxing, on the whole a good day.
Thursday 14th August - 3d Week
- We sighted one of our Sunderland flying boats. We're now somewhere around the African coast. Very Hot
- We saw a shoal of Flying Fish, these fish have to be seen to be believed. Porpoise were also seen. The convoy is in a dangerous area. Darkness 6.45.
Friday 15th August
- Today brought fresh hope of being in port as birds were seen circling around the ship. Today was one of the hottest days yet. I have never lost so much sweat in all my life.
- A good day on the whole, but feeling fed up at night, missing my wife more than ever. No sign of land. Darkness at 6.35.
Saturday 16th August - 4th week
- A pretty exciting day. A professional boxing match was staged between a Dutchman and an Englishman. The Englishman won. Mosquito cream issued. Very near the first port of call, although it could not be seen. There was a slight fall of rain. We saw plenty of big fish, but couldn't make out what they were. No land seen yet. Still feeling home-sick. Darkness 6.30.
Sunday 17th August
- This is a day I shall always remember. We arrived in the port of Freetown on the coast of Africa, made port at noon. Natives appeared on the scene in very small canoes. Pennies were thrown into the water; the natives were like fish in the water, finding everything that was thrown in. We passed a British Hospital Ship. No 'black out' but houses on the coast lit up, this seemed strange after such a long time in darkness. Some lovely scenery, reminded me of the coast of Scotland. We're about 8000 miles from Glasgow. Although all this excitement, the night brought me the thought of my wife and home.
Monday 18th August
- It rained all day, spent the best part of the time below deck. I bought a mango from one of the natives (this fruit is like an orange). Boxing al night between the lads. Pay Parade.
Tuesday 19th August
- It rained all day long. The natives provided most of the sport diving for pennies and selling all kinds of fruit. Two bottles of lemonade issued.
Wednesday 20th/25th (lost five days record)
- I spent some of the time drawing a map of the approximate rout taken.
Tues 26th August
- A complete change in the weather, it has gone cold again. There was a concert below at night, also boxing later on. According to orders, Cape Town was the next port of call.
- Put the clocks on 1 hour.
Wednesday 27th August
- Weather continues to be rough, but sports were held on deck in the afternoon. Community singing below at night.
Thursday 28th August
- We had a few lectures in the morning, P/T. Still cold. Dance band below deck at night. I wrote a letter. My name was put down to sing in a concert at night, but it didn't come off. Fifth week at sea.
Friday 29th August
- The weather still very rough and colder; changed back into battledress. We're not very far away from the Cape.
Saturday 30th August
- Good day on the whole, sea very rough. There was a concert below deck at night. I saw the first bird since leaving Freetown - good sign.
Sunday 31st August
- Church service in the morning. Very easy day. The weather is still very rough.
Monday September 1st
- Good sign of land, birds flying over the ship. Boxing at night on the lower deck.
Tuesday September 2nd
- We sighted land. Now in the 'Bay' the sea is very rough. We got into port at night. Cape Town was all lit up, beautiful place, the scenery is lovely.
Wednesday September 3rd
- We were taken from the ship by small boats. We went for a small rout march in the morning; spent all afternoon in the Town. This place appears to be built on American style.
Thursday September 4th
- We had another march around the sea front; it was very tough and tiring. I went to the pictures at night and saw the film 'Blockade'. No rationing, anything could be bought.
Friday September 5th
- My turn for guard duty - it seemed strange to do a guard duty without a gun. There was a rumour that this was the last day ashore, however, I couldn't go with being on guard. I sent a letter home by Air Mail but was not allowed to put a note in. Fed up, thinking of home and Mary.
Saturday September 6th
- We left port at 10am, out into open sea by dinner time, very rough. There was nothing to do all day. Birds were still with us. I could see the last of Cape Town by the outline of Table Mountain. Bed early at night.
Sunday September 7th
- We sighted land again. Saw a lot of sea birds, these particular birds had one of the biggest wing spans that I had ever seen. The sea very rough.
Monday September 8th
- Still in sight of land, but it seems very far away. We must have been sailing up the side of the coast. New boxing ring made for the ship. I wrote a letter.
Tuesday September 9th
- We entered the port of Durban, South Africa. There were many ships in port. We saw one of France's Liners El? France going out of Durban lit up. I was impressed by the skyscrapers at Durban. We were not allowed off the ship. One of the crew was buried at sea, a very emotional sight.
Wednesday September 10th
- The ship sailed out of port only to drop anchor just outside the harbour. The sea was very calm. We watched a beautiful sunset.
September 11th to 16th Diary entries lost.
Wednesday September 17th
- This was a day of boxing when most of the finals took place; watches were given as prizes. The hottest day yet, we couldn't walk on deck in bare feet, it was too hot. We were issued with lime juice morning and night; very calm sea.
Thursday September 18th
- Very quiet day, I spent most of it keeping in the shade out of sun, which by now was scorching hot. We're somewhere around Tanganyika.
Friday September 19th
- The weather was extremely hot; in the shade was the best place to be. It was a very quiet day on the whole. I wrote a letter home to my wife. Feeling fed up.
Saturday September 20th
- I spent a short time on deck during the day. There was a sing-song in the canteen during the evening. I wrote a letter, feeling very miserable. It was very hot.
Sunday September 21st
- I went to a church service in the morning. The weather getting intensely hot, I spent most of the day below deck. Lime juice still being issued. I went to bed early. We're nearing land.
Monday September 22nd - 9th week
- Sighted the Socotra Island, just off the coast of the Gulf of Aden, entered the Gulf. The sun was blazing. We sighted two or three birds.
Tuesday September 23rd
We entered Aden. I was much surprised by the place, there was hardly a bit of green to be seen anywhere. This place is supposed to be the hottest place on earth, impossible to keep cool, sweating even in the shade. I was glad when night came to cool everywhere down.
Wednesday September 24th.
- We left Aden at approximately 4pm, I wasn't sorry to leave, the heat was intense. We were not allowed on the deck but I saw one of our Hospital ships through the port hole - The Vita.
Thursday September 25th
- We entered into the Red Sea, very calm. We saw a number of small islands. Some kind of big fish followed the ship for most part of the evening. Ice water issued, lime stopped. The heat is terrific.
Friday September 26th
- A sad day again, one of the ship's crew died. He was buried at sea, the coffin draped with the Union Jack and Dutch flag. He was buried at sunset.
Saturday September 27th
- I packed my kit bag and got everything ready for disembarking. There was boxing in the evening, last of the finals. This was the last day on the SS Volendam, and was I glad to get off.
This is the end of my memories of the sea voyage.
I arrived at Port Tewfi and made my way along with the rest of the draft to a place called Abassia. This was to be the start of our desert training. It wasn't long before I again became part of a Field Ambulance Unit. Time passed with writing letters and acclimatising to desert conditions.
Word passed around that we were on our way up the Blue [a term used for going into the desert proper].
Up to that time my little bit of First Aid had been put into use in Northern Ireland, where my casualty was an old man who had fallen going over a stony bridge and had cut his eye. I remember that all right because l was put on a charge for using my first field dressing which was only to be used when in action. Looking after the football kit for a week was my punishment, making sure it was clean and tidy.
After leaving Abbasia, we became an operational unit. We made our way along the desert road. This was a new experience for me and the part I was to play soon began to take shape.
Our first stop was a little village named Ikinge, surrounded by a few green trees. What struck me about the place was that every building and house had its own windmill within sight and 'water' pumped from an artisan well. We didn't stop here long as things were moving very fast up the Blue.
As a small unit, we were now getting a few casualties coming in by ambulance, mostly chaps who had 'Sand Fly Fever', or burns from brewing up on the side of the road. They would fill half a petrol tin with sand and pour petrol on to it to boil water; burns were frequent from this method.
Days seemed to fly by now. Writing a letter when possible, mostly Air Mail one sheet.
Breaking camp was a nightmare, sometimes twice in a day. We would rig all of our equipment up and after an hour we would be taking it down again.
We were moving very quickly now, sometimes at night, which was a bit tricky without light, but it’s surprising how drivers got used to it. By the way, these drivers were RASC Royal Army Service Corp. It still seemed strange to me that drivers had guns and we had stretchers.
We passed a place called Mersa Matru. This place at the time was the end of the railway running up the coast from Alexandria and Cairo. Most of our supplies came up on the railway.
Desert names became familiar as time went by: names like ‘Hell Fire Pass', 'Sidi Barrani' ,Tobruk,, Mersa Matru, Derna, El Adam. Through all of these places, casualties were being received in and sent back to RAMC CCS. Real battle casualties were now being brought in and sent back to the rear.
This was the first advance up the desert which took our unit to a small hospital in Derna, a small town on the coast of the Mediterranean. Fighting was going on the other side of nearby Benghazi. Word had come through that a new German Commander had arrived and that the Germans were regrouping the other side of Benghazi. Things were quiet enough where we were stationed; we had taken over an old building and had set up an A.D.S. [Advanced Dressing Station]. Normal duties were being carried out, mostly dealing with casualties which were still coming in from forward positions.
Derna itself was at the bottom on an escarpment and the only way to get to it was down a winding road leading from the main Desert road. Just a small section of our Unit was operating in the building; the remaining part of the Unit was at a place called Salome which was another small village further down the Desert road. Work was being carried out normally, when there was a signal saying that Jerry had broken through our lines. We were told to get out as quickly as possible, leave everything, just get away. This meant going up the winding road leading out of Derna and making our way back to the main Desert road. I was detailed to get into a car along with five others. We didn't want telling twice. Leave everything, just get out was the order.
The German artillery must have been getting very close as shells were dropping near to the road. lt was obvious what was happening, they were trying to cut the road to the main coast road thereby cutting the main entry to Derna. Word had passed that Jerry was only a couple of miles away and that their tanks had broken through. Our driver was putting his foot down but so were a lot of other people who had been given the same order to get out. When we reached the top of the escarpment, panic stations was the scene. Lorries, cars and all sorts of transport were going as fast as possible. As well as driving down the main road, trucks and lorries were also driving on the side of the road on the sand.
We had only gone a mile or so from the escarpment when German planes came over, 109s Stukas bombing the convoys. The driver stopped the car just in time, a bomb landed about twenty yards away, but luckily it landed on the soft part of the sand near the road. A few bits of shrapnel went flying past; a few pieces hit the car but didn't do any damage to the running of it. I hurt my left leg and hobbled back into the car with blood coming from the cut I received. My mate said, "That could have been worse, Taffy." I made no comment, l was glad l was in one piece. I used my first field dressing to bandage it up and off we went non-stop down the desert road, passing places which a few weeks before we had passed through, hoping no 109s dive-bombed us.
We went back quicker than we came up, passing all the places that we'd gone through a short time before. As we were racing back as fast as we could go, we saw jeeps camouflaged as tanks with rubber guns swaying as they passed us going in the opposite direction. Afterwards I learnt that they were decoys and were frequently used in the desert. Talk was that Jerry had broken through our lines and was making his way to Alexandria. Rommel had taken charge of the Desert Army and he turned out to be a different General altogether than his predecessor.
After a hectic journey back down the desert road with little sleep and very little to eat, we arrived at Ikinge. This was a very small village way out in the desert and our operating area until the push back up after El Alamein. We heard later on that part of our company had been taken prisoners. That was a near miss for me thanks to the RASC driver who got us out.
Over the next few months things were quiet enough where we were. Consolidating seems to have been the norm, anyway, that's how it appeared to us. After re-equipping, things began to move again. lwent for a short time with the Indian Field Ambulance. They looked after me very well, handing out chapattis, their favourite food, and very milky tea. After feeding on tins of maconicies and stewed tea, this was a change.
When I returned to my Unit, l found that the field ambulance was part of the 4th Indian division who had put up a hell of a fight near Benghazi.
Ikinge was a small village, way out in the desert. As a small Medical Unit having just escaped from being prisoners of war, we found this place very peaceful after the last forty-eight hours which had been one mad rush to escape from Jerry. This place seemed miles away from the action although things were moving very fast a few miles away. But we had plenty of time on our hands, at least for a short time.
The desert can be a very lonely place at times like this. Thinking of home, wondering what was happening, it always crossed my mind what Mary was doing. At the time, she was working in a steel plant, John Summers and Sons. News was very scarce. Although I was writing as often as I could, letters from home were very scarce, this seemed to be the same for all the lads. I often wondered what happened to the letters, when they did arrive they used to come in bundles. This was the one thing that everyone looked forward to. It was surprising how morale was lifted.
During this short spell of quietness, it's surprising what people got up to.
My mate, John White, was a very religious sort of person and he didn't care very much about being in the Army but we had a job to do and we did it to the best as we could under tough conditions. During this short period before the push, I found John skinning a lizard which had half of the skin coming away from the body. This mate of mine had more patience than anyone I have known, it must have been two hours before he had removed all the skin off the lizard. It's surprising what men got up to at times like this.
The Fly Catcher
In the desert, we spent two and a half years living in and out of holes, sometimes in a small tent. It could be a very lonely place, especially when things were quiet, which wasn't very often, and these conditions were accepted as part of everyday life. Eating and drinking was sometimes very difficult. Sand storms with a karisine wind blowing sand everywhere, living under extreme conditions tried your patience. I often wondered how the Bedouin managed; they were brought up under those conditions and took it for granted. There were times when we came across these people and they bartered with eggs and various other items.
One of the things we had to deal with was flies, they were everywhere, especially when a dugout had been occupied by Italians or Germans who had left food in the holes. It was almost impossible to drink tea out of your tin mug, the flies got around the rim and you had to put your hand over the top of your mug to drink. Various creepy crawlies were everywhere but there was one that earned its weight in gold, the Chameleon. These were found where there was a small area of greener patches. I managed to catch one of these and kept it in a cigarette tin.
When no holes were available, I used to put up a small tent made up of two parts of a canvas sheet. This may be hard to believe, but proved to be very successful. We put a line across the two poles holding tent up, and during the time we spent in the tent we did have a little peace from the flies. The Chameleon was placed on the line and saw off all the flies. Whenever we found ourselves in these conditions, we used this method to catch flies. I had this Chameleon for quite some time, until it finally disappeared one night.
The Unexpected Guest
During my two and a half years stay in the Western Desert we learned to preserve water as much as possible, this was vital. The Water Tank used to come up and supply us with our ration of water. This was rationed out; filling our water bottles was the main thing. This may sound strange, but every night the water bottle was placed in a hole by where you slept. This did help to keep it cool.
It was known that ferocious creepy crawlers were around at night and mosquito nets were always used. One night I placed my bottle in the hole and I settled down for the night. On waking up the next morning after a peaceful night, I went to get a drink from my water bottle, but there on the cork was a scorpion. I woke up quicker than I normally did. I soon got rid of it as they could give you a nasty pinch. After this episode, I always covered my bottle up at night. This was my unexpected guest and one l would always remember wherever l went. My mate, John White, was quite happy about the incident, he loved to see and watch most things that moved in the Desert.
Things were hotting up as days went by. New Units had arrived, one Division was the 513t Highland. It was always noticeable that the new lads' knees were white. Most of the lads who had gone up in the first push were as brown as berries.
This can be seen on some of the photos which were taken. "Get your knees brown" was a familiar saying, but it didn't go down very well, especially with some of the Jocks. Word went around that we were going to get a trip into Cairo, and sure enough I was included.
When I was at school, my favourite subject used to be Geography, but little did I think that I would be seeing some of the things I used to read about. The first was a trip to the Pyramids. It's only after seeing these and actually been inside that makes you wonder about the size, and the effort which must have been made to build such a huge building without modern techniques. Another trip was to Alexandria, the main part of Egypt.
A Trip into the Unknown Part of the Western Desert
While at Ikinge, our Unit received a signal that a soldier had been located somewhere near 'Swan Oasis'; a spotter plane had sent the message. It appeared that he had been located in the area where SAS troops were operating. According to the message he had been seen waving his hands. We were given a reference point and told to go and bring him in. I was detailed to go. I didn't relish this as we had been pushed back from Derna by Jerry and the situation was very fragile. I was told to collect some medical supplies in case they were needed and join a RASC Corporal who was to drive a four-wheel drive Jeep.
The Corporal who had been detailed was studying his map and said to me it was off the main track to Swan Oasis. Oil barrels were the only means of following the tracks to certain places in this part of the desert. After having something to eat, we made our way very slowly along the Oil Barrel track. Just off this track was the Quatria Depression or what was known as the Sea of Sand. No vehicle of any kind could move in this particular area. It was well documented on the map. This was one of the reasons why the Eighth Army had made a stand at El Alamein.
After about an hour and half the Corporal studied his map again, we had now moved away from the Oil Barrel track into the unknown. Mirages were now showing up in front of us, this was very confusing, as we were looking for a man. After a while of checking and re-checking the reference point, sure enough we saw in the distance something different to a mirage waving, getting closer sure enough the man was located to our relief. To our surprise he turned out to be an Indian. He was in pretty bad shape, but seemed relieved when he saw that we were British. I checked him over and he seemed to be alright. He had a drink of water and some biscuits and soon recovered. At this point we got him in the Jeep and made our way back, the Corporal checking his map every few miles, this was unknown territory. While the Corporal concentrated on his driving, I was trying to make conversation with the Indian Soldier. I didn't get much sense out of him all the time he was in the truck. In the meantime, the Corporal was edging his way to the Oil Barrels. Once on the track we progressed much quicker and after a couple of hours driving we reached Ikinge. I was glad to get back after spending hours in the unknown part of the Western Desert.
We handed him over to our superiors for interrogation, our part had been completed and we returned to normal duties. We never did get to know how he came to be in that part of the desert but if the plane hadn't seen him, I'm afraid he would have died.
After a short time going back for Medical Supplies and bringing our small unit up to strength, we were ready to move again. Things were moving fast and sure enough, word came through to move. Normally when we stopped we set up our clearing station RAP, but this time nothing was done. We were in convoy, just waiting. It wasn't long before the waiting was over. The sky was suddenly lit up with flashes and at this time we must have been very close to El Alemain, but we didn't know. Then the noise started. Tanks were on the move, everything seemed to move at once.
The battle of El Alamein had started and once again it was a mad rush lack up the Desert again, passing familiar places and burnt out tanks and vehicles. We were part of the 8th Army under Montgomery. A breakthrough had been made. There seemed to be no end to moving, all through the night and the next day; travelling back through places we had seen twice before, familiar names like Mersa -Matru, Hell-Fire Pass, Bardia and numerous others.
We stopped after what seemed a never-ending journey. We had arrived at an aerodrome just outside Benghazi called Benina.
We were receiving casualties from actions which were a few miles from Tripoli. As casualties came in, everyone was busy, seeing to the wounded. All sorts were coming in, and our job was to make them as comfortable as possible. It was at Benina that I was instructed to take about forty Indians down to Cairo, to an airfield named El Wyn. I had been in a few sticky situations but after this one, it seemed child's play.
It came as a surprise when the Sergeant came to me and said that I had to take some casualties down to Cairo. This was going to be a hell of a journey, near enough 1000 miles. I got myself ready to go. The Sergeant fixed me up with some medical supplies and said, "Jump into the Jeep, I will take you to the airfield." This came out of the blue, 'airfield'. We got to Benina Airfield and went to this odd-looking plane. The Sergeant said, "That's the plane you are going down to Cairo with."
I thought no way is that plane going to fly. The plane was an old Bombay type used for all sorts of jobs. This one had all the seats removed to make way for stretchers. After receiving instructions for my journey, I made my way onto the plane. Imagine my surprise when I stepped into the plane and in front of me lay stretchers with wounded lads, mostly Indians who had been fighting a few miles up the desert.
When the old plane started up, it was shaking all over. I thought how the hell is this going to take off?
Anyway, all doors were closed and we started to move. I had never been in a plane; this was my first experience of one, but under very strange conditions. After a few minutes going along the runway, it took off. It was a very strange feeling, going up in the air. I had never been in this situation before. it seemed weird.
The journey was to be a memorable trip. After we got airborne, the old plane hugged along the coast, it couldn't have been any more than 1000 to 2000 feet up. I was hoping that none of Jerry's 109 fighter planes was knocking around; he would have been able to see us off, but the old RAF had seen them off. Anyway, l soon settled down looking after lads as much as possible.
After what seemed to be a lifetime in the air, the pilot said that we were near our destination, Cairo. It was going dark. I didn't fancy being in the plane during the dark hours. While I was looking out through the port hole, I noticed what appeared to be flames coming out from the engine. I went up to the pilot area and said, "l think one of the engines is on fire." He just laughed at me and said, "Don't worry, they're exhaust fumes". Was I relieved, as I had no parachute. "We won't be long now," he said. And sure enough, we began to go down on to an airfield. It wasn't quite dark, so l was relieved. We landed quite safely. The doors were opened and there on the tarmac was a fleet of ambulances. All of the stretchers were removed from the plane.
I was wondering what was going to happen to me when I heard a voice shouting, “Are you with these lads?" I said, "Yes." "Well come down then and get into the Jeep." I was glad to get off as I thought I would have to stay aboard for the return journey. I said to the Sergeant, “Where are we going?" He said, "To a general hospital outside Cairo, a military one."
After about fifteen minutes in the Jeep we arrived at the hospital. I must have looked a real mess. I hadn't shaved for days; my hair was full of sand and my battle dress was a bit tatty.
"Now lad," said the sergeant, "There's a bath in there, get into it. There's plenty of soap and water to get that sand out of your hair. Throw all of your clobber [Army slang for clothes] off and we'll fix you up with some new clothes."
After a good bath and clean clothes, I felt a lot better. It had been weeks since I had removed my clothes. This was the other side of the RAMC. Not bad, eh? After a good meal, I settled down for the night on one of the hospital beds. It was like being in heaven.
The next morning, the sergeant told me that I would be flying back to Benina in the afternoon. The luxury life lasted twenty-four hours, then away to the airfield. I was looking for the old Bombay that I had flown down on, but there was no sign of it. Instead, there gleaming on the tarmac was a beautiful Lockheed Hudson. I was told to get on this plane; along with what appeared to me were quite a few VIPs. I found my seat, got hold of a book and away we went. This was a different flight and only took half the time to get back. That was my second plane flight and the last until l got back to Civvy Street.
The advance was moving very fast now. We didn't stop very long at Benina, but there was one incident that happened while we were at Benina. We had dug a hole about four feet down and put a bevy tent up. The chap who was with me had a glass eye and false teeth, and when possible, he used to remove them before bedding down for the night. Some say it doesn't rain in the desert, but this part does get some heavy showers. This particular night, it rained very hard and although we had dug channels along the side of the tent to let the water flow away, this didn't happen this particular night. The rain came down in torrents and at about three o'clock in the morning the two sides of the tent caved in bringing all of the sand down on top of us.
The chap with me used his mug for holding his teeth; we also used a cigarette tin with paraffin in and a bootlace for a light. Up we got, covered in sand and soaking wet, these conditions were part of your life as a soldier. 'No complaints.' So, it was accepted. We were told to get into a bigger tent for the rest of the night. The next morning, Bill my mate and I went to where our little tent was. He started to dig out the sand and retrieved his teeth etc.
On the move again, this time across open desert, no roads just tracks.
Xmas day dinner - tin of Bully and some hard biscuits; that's one Xmas I won't forget. After a mad drive, we arrived at Tripoli. This was a beautiful place after what I had seen of the Western desert. The 51st Highland Division had beaten us to it. Their sign HD was painted everywhere. This was the end of the chase as far as our unit was concerned. Jerry was pulling out of Africa altogether; the landings in North Africa had taken place.
The Western Desert was well behind us now and we were in Libya where preparations were being made to invade Sicily. I didn't relish this. I thought our job had been completed. As a Unit, we were attached to a Malta Brigade, 231, which was to make a landing on the mainland of Sicily. This was an independent brigade made up of Hampshire, Dorset and Devon regiments.
Before we went our Unit had to remove the old TT sign 50th Division from our battledress and sew on a Maltese cross. The Cross was the new sign of the 231 Malta Brigade which was working independently. This didn't go down very well with the lads as we were part of the Eighth Army, 50th Division.
We reached our embarkation point and made our way to a ship, an L.S.I. (Landing Ship Infantry). There were only about ten of us from the 200 Field Ambulance on this ship, the rest of the Unit were on other ships taking part in the invasion. Soon we were sailing towards Sicily. We were not by ourselves; a huge armada appeared to be on the move. Destroyers and ships of all kinds suddenly appeared.
It was on this particular crossing that one of our lads went berserk. Letters from home were handed out before we made the landing and while at sea. This lad, having read his letter ran onto the deck, shouting and crying. Some of the lads belonging to the Infantry ran after him. It was only after he settled down that the truth dawned on us, he had received a letter telling him that his girlfriend had gone off with an American soldier. It took us a long time to calm him down. After this incident, all went quiet.
It was a strange feeling, we didn't know what to expect. A small jetty appeared and this was our landing area. We made our way off without any casualties - this seemed to be too good to be true. Anyway, we made our way inland and joined up with the remainder of our company (B). In the distance, the noise of gunfire could be heard.
No lights were visible, the order came down to get ready to disembark, everyone was as quiet as mice, and the tension was building up. Then the order came, onto the deck and down the ramp into the water. The Navy lads had done a good job, they had taken us right in and we waded ashore with the water just up to our knees. All seemed very eerie, then flares went up and all hell was let loose. I had learned from past experience to keep my head well down. Tanks were going in on our left, and the artillery lads were working overtime on the guns. We had made our way off without any casualties which seemed to be too good to be true. We made our way inland to join up with the rest of B company.
This was the first of three D. Day landings which was to be my lot in the future. We encountered very little opposition as we made our way inland. When it became light we could see where we had landed, it was a very small village around a jetty. There was no time to take in the view as we were moving very fast.
There were no casualties at the time and all was going well, this seemed to be too easy. It wasn't long though before the first 88 Melimster shell found us, that was the start. But as it came light, the RAF lads were giving Jerry hell, always in front of us and on the side of us. It was a great morale booster, gave everyone confidence, clearing the way.
We set up a small ADS to receive casualties, but it wasn't long before we were on the move again. It appeared that we were moving through the mountains. We passed through a village called Ragusa then on to Caltagirone. We stopped at various stages to receive casualties, then on again. We seemed to be on the move all the time. Jerry was pulling out of Sicily fast. The next stop was a place called Raddusa, another village perched high in the mountains. This didn't turn out to be too healthy a place to be as Jerry was dropping his famous 88 shells all over the place. It was on a hill in this area where we had moved during the night that our small unit took a direct hit. We had stopped and were going to spend the night there, what was left of it.
Whenever we stopped anywhere I always made a habit of looking for a hole to lie and sleep in whenever I was off duty, this was automatic after the Desert, where there was nowhere to take cover. Anyway, having about two hours sleep, dawn was breaking you could hear the odd sound of guns in the distance, but this was normal, you'd sort of grown up with the sound of shells passing overhead, gunfire. A Second Lieutenant had been attached to our Unit straight from England; he had not been in the desert so we looked upon him as a rooky. Down in my hole, I was passing the time away looking at a paper, when there was one terrific bang. Jerry must have had a bird's eye view of our small Medical Section on the side of the hill. The three-ton lorry which carried our supplies went up in flames and some of the lads were screaming and shouting. A Corporal fell on top of me in the hole and said, "Taffo, I have been hit.” I said, "Get the hell off the top of me." I went to push him off and my hand was covered in blood. I could see right away that he had been badly wounded in the back. Having lifted him off he lay by the side of me. There was panic all around the area; most of our group had been wounded, some very badly. We tended to some of the lads, and another section who had witnessed our casualties came to help. With the truck on fire, the smell of cordite all over the place, and six of our small group wounded, we quickly moved off the hill and hasted a retreat to somewhere a bit safer. Jerry must have had a bird's eye view, but I don't think he was aware that we were a Medical Unit. He could have knocked us off a number of times in some of the positions we found ourselves.
We left the area as quickly as we had arrived and made our way to our main B Section. I heard the next day that the corporal had died and this was very upsetting as he was a good chap. He told me in quieter times that he was a chemist in Civvy Street, and hoped to be starting his own business up when the b... war was over. Four other lads had also died. The direct hit had caught the lads who had decided to sleep in the lorry. The other five who had been wounded had been sent back, but I didn't see any of them again. This was very sad as we were a small group who had been together right through the desert campaign. Our little group was relieved and spent a few days out of harm's way. This was another one of those near misses for me to remember. Getting into that hole had saved me from being a casualty.
With the unit made up to strength again, off we went to another small village. Here we took over a small building and dealt with casualties, Italians, Germans and our own lads, they all got the same treatment. By now Jerry was getting across the Messina straits to Italy. It seemed certain now that Sicily had been taken over. There was just one more incident before we finally settled down.
A small unit of Canadians were fighting in a graveyard; one of their sergeants had been wounded on the knee. We couldn't send a Jeep as it was off the road and he had been placed in a farmyard. I had been instructed to bring him in, along with three other lads, a stretcher and medical kit. While on our way we had to pass over open country, and to this day I am sure Jerry could have seen the four of us off without any trouble. After about half an hour we got to the farm, we got a shock when we saw what we had to carry, he must have been six foot two. Anyway, after checking him and making sure he was comfortable, we strapped him onto the stretcher; his feet were dangling over the side. It must have looked funny to anyone watching, but it wasn't very funny to us. We made our way over two miles of rough terrain. After about an hour of carrying him we arrived back at the ADS, put him down and fell down ourselves exhausted. I will always remember what he said; he was cheerful, although he had half his kneecap shot away. "you lads deserve a medal," he said.
This was the last bit of action before settling down in Tormina. This was a beautiful place perched high up in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean and Mount Etna in the distance.
This particular place was a tourist place in peacetime. Things were quiet enough in our sector, keeping fit was the main theme and a trip up Mount Etna was a surprise. This was something I never dreamed of seeing, an active volcano.
An RASC lorry arrived and about 20 of us were instructed to get on. We made our way towards the volcano and stopped at a building, an observatory where they checked various movement of the volcano, approximately 1000 feet below the base. We made our way to the top; this was part of the exercises to keep fit. Once at the top we were looking into the centre, the sulphur fumes coming up from the inside of it was eerie. We didn't stay long and we went down quicker than we went up. I put Mary's name in the visitor's book in the Observatory. In school, I had read about volcanoes, but I never thought for one moment that I would ever see one and look into the mouth of what I would term as a 'Gentle Giant'.
Other places where l found room to write Mary's name was Marble Arch in Libya; the Pyramids in Egypt. This was a weakness of mine. If ever I went back that way again I am sure the name would still be where I had cut it out.
The rest didn't last very long before we were once again on the move, this time again onto and LCI. By now, LCI meant another landing somewhere. It wasn't long before we were briefed and found out that our destination was the mainland of Italy. This landing was to be a special one, about 40 miles behind the Jerry line. I didn't relish this one, but it is surprising how one copes with this type of situation. This was to be another landing in the dark and we were informed that the brigade had to hold out for 48 hours.
The Navy again did a good job and put us right in on the tip of what appeared to be a small jetty. We made our way ashore and slowly but cautiously inland. No opposition was encountered at first but as we moved further inland a few shells started to fall. At this time Jerry was pulling out very fast inland, and I think this was the reason we were saved from getting a real pasting. A few casualties were coming in, but not what we had expected. That was a relief.
The 231 Brigade, having held out for the required time, was relieved and returned back to the place where we had landed two nights before for a rest. Things were moving very fast in Italy.
Instructions were again received to get ready for another trip by sea. This seemed strange as Jerry was pulling out everywhere. Orders were given to get into the trucks and away to board another ship in the dark again. I was saying to myself third time must be unlucky. I had had some narrow escapes and couldn't help thinking that I could be unlucky a third time. Anyway, we make our way to the ship, wondering where next, but this ship was no LCI, it was a beautiful destroyer. Things were different on this ship, everything was spic and span.
After getting settled down, the word was passed around that we were going home. I couldn't believe it. After two and a half years in the desert, Sicily and Italy, it was true. Spirits were high and morale went up right away. Through the Med we sailed, passing through the straights of Gibraltar. It didn't take this ship very long to get us to our port for disembarkation, which turned out to be Greenock in Scotland. I don't think it would have mattered if it had been Timbuktu as long as we were back home.
In no time at all we were off the ship and onto a train. By now it was getting confused as to where we were going, nobody could tell us anything. We stopped at various stations, and then we came to a full stop at Sudbury in Suffolk. I had never heard of this place, still it didn't matter where it was; we were back in good old England and home for a good leave. I didn't know how I would find Mary after being away so long, but I soon found out. The old yearning was to be with her more than ever.
After a few weeks leave, it was back again to Sudbury, but weekend leave came around a lot more often. Suddenly it stopped and we were to go on a special parade. Bullshit was rife, clean this, clean that, everything and everybody was spic and span and lo and behold the man himself arrived - Monty. After a glowing speech and praise for what the Eighth Army had achieved, he presented the eighth Army Medal Ribbon. Soon he was off and so were we.
Although we were a Medical Unit we never dealt with any more than sick parades and Medical Inspections. This type of routine didn't last long and we were soon on our way on another train journey. I wrote a letter to Mary to say l was leaving Sudbury, but had no idea where to.
Off onto lorries again and then into a train. This journey seemed like days, cramped up and half asleep. Suddenly another voice screamed out to get your kit on and be ready to get off the train. Where the hell is this place? We had landed again in the dark, but this was at a station not a port for a change. After a conversation with one of the guards, he mentioned Inveraray, Scotland. Trucks were waiting for us and off we went to a camp, It didn't take long to bed down and get off to sleep.
After a reasonable night's sleep and a decent breakfast, it suddenly dawned on me that this wasn’t going to be a rest camp. After washing up and getting on parade, we were told what was going to happen. Invasion training was to take place to keep us fit. This was the last straw, Invasion Training; we had already done two D-Days.
We spent a fortnight in this unholy place. The scenery was beautiful but we didn't have much time to look around. One chap was rather lucky, Big Jock we called him, he only lived four miles away and he managed to slip home a few times. Training and keeping fit was the order of the day. Then as suddenly as we had come so we departed again, into lorries and on to the train and away. The train journey was worse than ever, stopping at stations on the way back for a mug of tea and sandwiches. This time our journey took us to the south of England, to a place called Beaulieu. What next? It didn't t6ke long to find out that something big was going on.
They gave us a short leave to lessen the blow, but any leave was always welcome to get home to Mary. I was missing her more than ever. I couldn't get her out of my mind, thinking where she was. At that time, she was working at Summers Steel Works and old Jerry had been active over Liverpool.
Time always seemed to fly when on leave, then back to the unit again and the old routine. The only difference this time was everything was being made waterproof. By now I was promoted to Corporal in charge of six Medics. It was my job to carry as much medical supplies as possible, including Morphia capsules.
This operation wasn't going to be a Sicily or Italy effort. After a short time making sure everything was watertight, we moved forward in convoy to our new location. Where to? The New Forest, behind barbed wire. This didn't go down very well. Some of the lads, including the Infantry, cut their way out. There were a number of charges made out after this episode. I could understand the feeling, being married. And after the desert, Sicily and Italy, to be put behind barbed wire and to be told by a Brigadier that we were going to do another D.Day landing, and as we were 'battle trained' and experienced in this type of action we were to go first. I didn't relish this, battle trained or not. This information didn't do morale any good.
During our stay in the New Forest, we spent a lot of time going in lorries to Southampton, going backwards and forwards jumping into LCA from larger boats. It was no joke with full Medical Kit, going from the deck of these larger boats down rope netting into this small boat. There were a few cases of men falling off the netting into the sea.
There was one instance when we marched through Southampton with all of our gear, people were shaking us by the hand and some were crying, wishing us the best of luck as we made our way towards the ship. I thought to myself this is it. What happened was, we sailed away in the night, went around the Isle of Wight and came back. I never found out why, but it must have been some sort of stunt to put those people off who would inform Jerry.
The real thing did arrive on the night of June the 5th.Off we sailed again in the same ship, this time we didn't return. Parties of us were gathered together and shown exactly where we were going to land. We were told to get as much sleep as possible, but this was impossible with all the movement going on around us. Although it was dark, hundreds of ships appeared to be all around us. I often wondered how they managed to avoid being hit. After what was a hectic night, the order came for us to kit up and get on deck, this was about 5 o'clock on the 6th of June. This was no exercise, it was the real thing. The order came to climb down the netting hanging from the side of the ship.
This was no picnic, going over the side with about 60 lbs of medical equipment. What a performance, hanging on with one hand and holding my kit with the other I landed in the LCA. There were about 30 lads already in this small craft, lads from the Devon Regiment, some familiar faces I had seen in Sicily and Italy. They were armed to the teeth and here I was with first field dressings, bandages and other items of medical kit.
It was a hell of a morning; the little boat was tossing about from side to side. I think we all looked a sorry sight. We were getting nearer to land and the Navy lad said, "Keep your heads down lads". He didn't have to tell us, previous experience taught us to do exactly that.
Things were hotting up as we got 'nearer to land. The battleships were shelling the coast, the RAF were also giving the area a real pasting. The rocket ships on both sides of us were making a hell of a noise; it was bedlam. Just glancing over the side, I noticed little spurts of water going up, from previous landing I knew what this was all about, machine gun bullets hitting the water just to the left of the craft.
"Get ready, lads," came the order from the Navy lad. Down the ramp went and off we went into the water, just about waist high as we waded ashore. To our left a tank had landed upside down after leaving an LCT. It must have gone into a shell hole or hit some other obstacle. There wasn't any time to see what was happening because plenty was going on in front of us. I could see another tank on fire just in front of us on the beach. The sea sickness was soon forgotten as I made my way on to the beach at the double. All hell was being let loose. Rocket ships were in action all around us. I crept up along with some of the infantry, at the back of a Flail Tank, making its way through a mine field.
I passed one of my mates who had a bullet through his neck. I had a quick look at him but there was little I could do, he must have died instantly. His name was Henry, a happy go lucky lad about my age. It was a strange feeling seeing this sort of thing but it was a regular thing and was accepted.
My orders were to get off the beach as soon as possible and this is exactly what I did. By now Jerry snipers were knocking off officers and NCOs. My ampoules of Morphine were soon used up. About four hundred yards from the beach I was attending to a sergeant who had a bullet wound in the leg, I had cut half of his trouser leg away and was doing my best to stop the bleeding with a first field dressing. I also gave him a jab of Morphia. Just as I was bending down to make him feel a little better, something hit my pack which at the time was on my back. With bedlam and confusion all around me l disregarded this and carried on attending to other lads who had been hit. It was apparent now that snipers were giving Officers and NCOs special attention, and after dealing with about twelve chaps I made my way to our assembly point. This was an old farm which had been clearly shown to us on the map.
When l was taking my pack off to start up a small dressing station, I began to remove medical supplies. To my horror, out came a tube of Vaseline that was cut completely in half; then a Kramer's cutter (used for cutting wire splinting) this was damaged; and then going further down in the pack, there it was, a high-powered rifle bullet embedded into a compressed triangular bandage, with the end all jagged after slicing through the cutters. It suddenly dawned on me then that the crack I had felt on my back while fixing the sergeant up was a sniper bullet. After taking a deep breath, a chap named White, who was already in the area said, "Taffy, that was a close shave." It was a bit too close for my liking. As I was putting the bullet that was embedded in the bandage away, White said, "Take it home for a souvenir, which I did. I often wondered who made that bandage. There's no doubt that I would have been badly wounded or even killed if it had passed through my pack.
The Two German Flags that didn't get away on D-Day June 6th 1944
We took over the farm living room and turned it into an A.D.S (Advanced Dressing Station). As we were getting our Medical Kit from our packs, White, my mate, said, “Look Taffy, look what's on the drawer," Two German flags, all neatly packed. I also came across an officer's cap; I can be seen wearing this in the photograph, holding the German flag. This photograph was taken by a war correspondent.
The flags were a prize possession at the time. I would have been shot on the spot if I had been found with the flag by the Germans. However, I did not manage to get the flag home because my kit was lost in transit. That's what l was told, along with my letters from Mary and other souvenirs.
Soon we became very busy attending to casualties. By the end of D- Day l was tired and dirty and I must have looked a real scruff. We fixed our small dressing station in the barn; this seemed to be the ideal place. It was sheltered by what looked like the side of a hill. It was just as well, for that night Jerry came over and dropped a stack of bombs on top of the hill and all the debris came down on top of us. Corrugated sheets were on the roof of the barn, there was a terrific bang, and the old barn started shaking. L thought at one time it was going to come down on top of White and myself.
[40 years later White made a pilgrimage to this place and found the old barn. but no farm. This must have been flattened after we left.]
No sleep that night, too busy, this was the second night without sleep.
We had lost quite a few lads and were making our way inland. We had been relieved and another section had taken over, also a section of infantry had settled near a farm under the hedges. Artillery fire and planes overhead gave us a reminder that fighting was still going on well ahead of us. I settled down anyway under the hedge for a kip, with small pack for a pillow that was about it, except for guard duty some of the lads were detailed for lookout just in case Jerry ran back in. All was going fine most of the lads were tired out and glad to get their heads down.
It was 10.30 and just going dark when a strange sound came from the pond at the bottom of the field. It was a strange sort of noise and as the night went on it got louder. People seem to get restless as this noise got worse and appeared to be coming up the field from the pond. It got that bad the lads couldn't get any sleep. The noise was coming from the pond and around the side thousands of frogs were making the noise, along with the dead swollen cow in the field which had been killed by our artillery fire. It was time to move, but not before the infantry lads had thrown a few hand grenades in the pond. This shut the noise up but not before we were on our way again. I didn't know that frogs made so much noise. The nick name for the French is 'Froggies’, I now know where the name's from. What a night!
On the move again, the 50th Division was in the thick of fighting. By the way, we were back in the 50th after returning from Italy, the Maltese Cross had gone, the original T/T flash had been sewn back on. We were attached to the Devons, along with the Dorsets and Hampshires. The brigade went in on Gold Beach as a spearhead.
After a few days, we found ourselves in Bocage country where all hell was being let loose. We were operating an advanced dressing station but had to move back due to heavy shelling which was hitting our area, enemy mortaring was intense. Sleep was as far away as ever, casualties kept coming in, stretchers were going backwards and forwards constantly. Quite a battle was going on; shells from our own guns were going overhead but I didn't mind as long as I could hear them.
Bayeux had been taken and we had been relieved by the 53rd Welsh Division, my old division from Northern Ireland. This was their first action for four years. At last, sleep. t got into a pig sty, filled the trough with straw and passed out. you may find this amusing but to me it was seventh heaven. So ended 48 hours of non-stop action.
Things started to improve a little, our lads were pushing their way towards Caen. It was here that I saw the first thousand bomber raid, the ‘Falaise Pochet', where most of the Jerry concentration was, appeared to be the target. It was getting a hell of a pasting. It was one mad rush after Caen towards Brussels. Our brigade stopped at a place called Rauleri sur Roulers, here we had a good rest. I was placed in a house with a family. I will always remember this place, 33 St Jerristra. The two old people couldn't do enough for me. Every Xmas over the years I used to send them a Christmas card.
It was at this place that the 200th F.A. split up. The 50th had taken a real hammering and were now going back. I was detailed to go with the Tanks Division 11th Armoured; most of my mates were going to different units. I was to string along with the Tanks now right up to the end of the war, but not without more hair-raising incidents.
went along in a fifteen hundred weight lorry with all my medical equipment, driven by an RASC driver. There seemed to be one hell of a race on, Jerry was moving back very fast. After stopping outside Brussels to allow the Belgian Brigade to free the capital, we followed through without stopping, our objective was Nijmegen. Bridge airborne division had been dropped and it was the tanks' job to link up. They had been dropped at Arnhem and Nijmegen. All through the night and day we drove on until we finally stopped just outside the town of Nijmegen. After a slight delay, we dispersed our vehicles as far as possible under cover.
The next morning the cooks were getting breakfast ready when out of the sky came Jerry's planes. Our small unit got a right pasting until the RAF came along and saw them off, but the damage was done. Two lads killed and eight wounded, including me. I was jumping about on one leg. At first, I thought my leg had been cut off, the shrapnel had taken a piece out of my knee. This was another time when my own first field dressing came to the rescue. I cut it out of my battledress, cut the leg of my trousers away, and bandaged myself. I could see my leg was in one piece, so having patched myself up the best as I could, I hobbled away to get further treatment. After a cup of tea, I was hopping around glad to know l was still in one piece. My namesake, a young lad named Davies, had been killed while in the ambulance, also our cook; it was another one of those sad days. I had seen this many times before. You seemed to accept this as each day went by.
[9th November 1944 Casualty list no 1599. Original source states “(Remaining at duty)”]
Nijmegen was a headache for a while. Jerry had broken through in the Ardennes and run riot among the Americans in that sector. Our Division was ordered to stop the advance and anyone reading about the Battle of the Bulge will know what the outcome was. The action appeared to be the last major one and a few weeks after it became one mad chase; across the Rhine, through Hamburg to Luneberg Heath where the Armistice was signed. The 11th Armoured continued the chase to Schleswig Holstein area, through Scheswic and up to Lubeck to the Danish border.
This appeared to be the end of the road, but as usual we didn't stop. We made our way back down to a small village called Fleckaby which became our last resting place. We settled down in a beautiful building, more like a castle. Having completed our operations, we started to deal with civilians and our own troops who had gone sick. I was put in charge of the M.l. room.
While at Fleckaby I was picked to play in a football team. The war had ended and this was one of the periods when you could relax and dream of going home after nearly five and a half years in the Army. It was a Wednesday morning and the three ton truck picked us up. A Polish Division had taken a section of this area over and we were going to play a team which they had picked.
We arrived at this particular place and after speaking to the guards on the gate, the Sergeant in charge of the Football team escorted us to where we were going to play. He was told that the game was off, because all the team had been drinking all night and were not fit to play. They were all drunk, celebrating the end of the war. We heard later that they had stilled their own drink from potatoes. potato wine, I had never heard of that one. That was one game of football that I didn't get to play.
After a few months in Fleckaby, I was discharged.
I arrived home at the small cottage that Mary had bought and where our first lad was born. Five and a half years in the Army had taught me a lot. It had given me confidence in myself and taught me how to look after myself. I had seen many countries but always yearned for home. Now I was to settle down, go back to Courtaulds for the next phase of my life.
When I was demobbed from the Army in 1946, l was given 6 weeks leave. After a fortnight, I received a letter from Chester Royal Infirmary, asking me if l would take up nursing as a Medical Orderly. This l declined as five and a half years were quite enough for me.
I went up to my old works at Aber to see some old friends on the fourth week and was approached by my old boss who asked if I could start work as soon as possible. So, the following week l started work. The department I went to had been placed in 'mothballs' during the war and they wanted it starting as quickly as possible.
Six months later the department was up and running and l found myself doing the mechanical work on the machines.
It was during this time that I was fixing a rattle under a machine when I noticed two pairs of shiny shoes. Unable to see who it was, I carried on doing the repairs when suddenly a voice called out, “What are you doing under there?" "What do you think I'm doing?"
This confidence came about after being in the Army. After completing the job, I wriggled my way from under the machine with oil all over my face. Lo and behold, there was the Big Boss and the Department Manager. 'ls this the man you were telling me about, Jim?" "Yes," said the Department Manager. "Right, I want you to go home." "Why? What have I done wrong?" "l want you to come to work in your best suit on Monday."
"I haven't got a best suit," was my reply, "Only a demob suit." "Well, come to work in that, and wear a collar and tie too."
This was the start of my supervisory role with Courtaulds, which lasted many years until the factories closed down.
In 1952, I was offered the chance to go to Australia, but declined due to my son who was only six at the time. But the main reason was that I had seen enough of the world to last me a lifetime.
I always look upon every day as a 'Bonus Day' after my good fortune to be alive and what I had lived through. There were many other incidents which I have not written about in this short story, but they will live with me always.