Sergeant Gordon Johnston Walker
Unit : Public Relations Team, Army Film and Photographic Unit
Sergeant Gordon "Jock" Walker was a film cameraman attached to the Public Relations Team, of mixed journalists and Army Film and Photographic Unit personnel, which accompanied the 1st Airborne Division to Arnhem. He was a trained member of the Parachute Regiment and had participated in the Invasion of Sicily in 1943. What follows is his wartime story.
The thunderclouds of war were gathering fast. Preparations for mobilisation were now being carried out and masses of stores began arriving. After Poland was invaded we were mobilised and shortly after, on the 3rd September 1939, war was declared. Quite truthfully, I was quite happy about it; a small war to round off a few years of soldiering would be ‘just the job’ in my opinion, and, after about a week or so, we embarked for France with the British Expeditionary Force without a care, and, thank goodness, without fore-boding of what was to come and where I would go in the next six years.
We arrived at Cherbourg after an uneventful crossing and my first impression of it was gloomy; French soldiers on guard at the docks were unshaven, leaning against walls with their hands in their pockets, and, horror of horrors, their rifles leaning negligently against the aforesaid walls. There was a general air of ‘laissez faire’ about the whole place and it stank with an unwholesome, decaying, fishy smell. We were glad to leave there. By degrees we travelled north on the infamous French troop trains, with the label "Forty Men or Eight Horses in each truck." (I don’t know who were the worst off, the men or the horses) and by our own transport, stopping here and there for a day or two, in various small French towns.
At one town, where we stayed over, they laid on a ceremony to welcome ‘les Tommies’, which was very nice of them, but before it took place our C.O. lined us all up and explained just what was going to happen and added, with a stony look at us, “At the end of the Ceremony the Mayor will kiss me on both cheeks to cement the French-English ‘Entente Cordiale’ - if there is even the suggestion of a snigger from you when this happens, woe betide the lot of you; under-stood?" I don’t know why he looked at me and the rest of the boozing school, when he said this; we really liked him too much to embarrass his good self; anybody else we might have, but not him - he was No.1.
Eventually we reached our destination, which was outside Lille, which is practically a border-town with Belgium and there we set up shop and stayed until the invasion of Belgium and Holland the following May. Older readers may recall what a fearful winter 1939-1940 was. Conditions were pretty bad, as we had been living in open barns and such like. Eventually the local people were asked to each take in a soldier or two, just for sleeping; the Army would feed us and, of course, they would be paid for their trouble. By this time most of us had got our feet ‘under the table’ somewhere in the village, it was amazing just how many families, whose husbands and brothers had been called up into the French forces, required a man about the house. The language was no barrier: a few gestures and a shout or two and everybody more or less under-stood everybody else.
We set about trying to make a Unit that would not only work in a static position, but also be efficient whilst on the move from location to location, which, after all, in a mobile war, was absolutely necessary. Not that we showed any sign of being mobile during the long period of the ‘phoney’ war and consequently we drifted into a semblance of barrack life once more, with alternate Saturday and Sunday trips to either Douai or Lille. For us Douai was the most popular, I don’t know why; perhaps the cafes in the Rue de Pippan were more pleasant than their opposite numbers in Rue A.B.C. in Lille; these two streets were fascinating; in Douai the girls were knickerless, but with tops, whilst in Lille they were topless but fully knickered. Strange people, the French, but very likeable. I wonder how many grey-haired old Grandads, when telling of their ‘derring do’s’ in the B.E.F. ever mentioned, even in passing, the many hours spent in the cafes. We also visited the public baths for our weekly scrub, we were a clean lot of boys.
The winter dragged on, and then Norway was invaded and, whilst feeling sorry for the troops engaged there, we were pleased that it wasn’t us, and carried on with our barrack-like life, which was to end so dramatically, and with fearful consequences for the B.E.F. During May the Germans attacked the Low Countries which was where the much vaunted Maginot Line ended, and at Sedan where the other end of it was. The Germans didn’t bother with the Line itself, why attack frontally when you can go around? And around they came and, of course, what resulted is now history. When the ‘balloon went up’ (a current phrase meaning that the action had started) we were ordered to advance into Belgium and were hailed as conquering heroes, with many flowers and kisses (on the retreat we were reviled and shot at!) and, by stages, made our way north towards the Albert Canal but due to the enemy’s superior strength, our lads were very hard pushed to hold them and we turned around and withdrew back to France.
At that time we didn’t know what was happening and the thought of the enemy getting the upper hand didn’t occur to any of us, that is until we received our first blast of the hot breath of Mars in the shape of the JU 87: the German dive bomber. We were just passing through the town of Ath when it was attacked by dozens of JU 87s with high explosive and incendiary bombs. The town was full of refugees, and troops on the move, and it was sheer murder. How our little convoy ever got through that town unscathed will always be a mystery to me. Our collective Guardian Angels must have spread their wings over us, because the death and destruction around us was fearful: buildings crashing down; people wounded and dead horses screaming and, above it all, the hellish whine of the dive-bombers as they carried out their tactics of mass execution and disruption, then fire on top of all this with the inevitable toll of more death and confusion.
We cleared the town somehow, without a single casualty, and turned south into France proper and then west, the same destruction preceding us all the way. At some village or another we stopped and set up shop again, and I was sent to contact our own H.Q. I managed to find them O.K. let them know where we were and returned - to find nobody there! Consternation! My map was checked and re-checked, and this was where I had been sent from. All I could find now was a few aerial masts and wires. They had obviously cut their aerials and departed at high-speed - but to where? At first I was angry and disappointed that not even one truck had waited behind for me, and then the realisation came that something very untoward must have caused the sudden vanishing act, and that was probably German troops in the vicinity. The thought shook me a bit - me, against the Germans! If caught, would they shoot me or torture me for information? Remember, I was a very naive soldier in those days; however, whilst indulging myself in a bit of self-pity, I could hear a clanking sound and thereupon ran into one of the out-buildings to hide. The noise grew louder and, peering out through a grimy window, I saw an enemy tank coming along the road. I was petrified with fear, and nearly shit myself, but that Angel, Bless Him, was still around, and the tank clanked on and disappeared.
Sitting down to get my cool back, a cigarette was lighted and I tried to think it out. It boiled down to this: fact one - my Unit had gone; fact two - an enemy tank had just gone past; conclusion - my Unit must have had word that some of the enemy were loose behind our lines and so they had beat it out of that location before they were put in the bag. Well, all calm and collected now that I wasn’t going to be subjected to mayhem, in fact tending to be a bit bigheaded, ‘Oh yes, the tank passed right by me, probably lost." Lost that was it; the tank was a sole effort, no troops, nothing, he must have been lost. So, out came the map, the road he was on noted, and I decided to take a different one and go back to our H.Q.
The site of H.Q. was found without anything happening but they too were gone, just some stores lying about to mark the spot where they had been, plus a 4 gallon can of petrol. The Norton got filled up and I continued to head west and eventually arrived at what turned out to be 1st Corps H.Q. Looking for someone to report to, I saw a CSM, identified myself and told him that I was a ‘stray’ -my Unit had disappeared. Without ceremony, he rushed me to the Intelligence Officer, who requested a repeat of my story, which he got, but in the middle of it he asked me where my Unit was in peacetime. He was told, with some bewilderment, that it was in Aldershot.
"What’s the name of the road it is in?"
"Where are the Married Quarters?" He was told. "All right, carry on with your story." When the bit about the tank came out, he had me point out, on the map, where it had passed the farmhouse, and the direction in which it was travelling.
"Have you seen it since, or any others?" And was told ‘NO’. Then, very kindly, he told me that he had to make sure that I wasn’t an enemy soldier, masquerading as a ‘Tommy’ as, apparently, the area was full of them, that was why he had asked me those apparently irrelevant questions, and that I was fortunate not to have been shot-up by the tank, as some had been given roving commissions to infiltrate and cause as much havoc as possible. He then ordered the CSM to take me away for some food and drink.
When thinking about it whilst eating and drinking my tea it dawned on me that yours truly hadn’t eaten for over a day. B****y war! I thought - this definitely isn’t in the Rule Book. After my lovely meal (bread, margarine, cold ‘bully’ and tea), the Sergeant Major took me to the perimeter, placed me behind a wall, opened a box of hand grenades and told me that if any Germans came along, throw them at the motherless sons of so-and-so. I was shattered, to say the least, never in my six years of soldiering had I ever seen a grenade, never mind known what to do with it, other than biting it first and then throwing it at the enemy (this being the whole of my war-like knowledge, gleaned from the ‘movies’). As I wrote earlier, Infantry were for fighting, Signals were for signalling and never the twain would swap jobs. This was our pre-war training - an extension of the 1914-1918 style of war.
I didn’t know, then, that you had to remove the base-plate and check if there was a fuse inside, complete with detonator and, if not, to fuse it from the supply in the grenade box. If the enemy had come then I might as well have flung stones at them for all the good an un-fused grenade would do. However we got the order to move and I promptly severed all relations with 1st Corps and went off on my own again to try to find my own Unit, heading north-west as that appeared to be where everybody else was going and, on the way, picked up one of our blokes, who told me that his wagon had broken down and the rest had been told to keep going, so he got on the pillion and we went off again.
The weather was nice, which meant that there was plenty of aircraft about, theirs I may hasten to add, not ours, and the pillion passenger was doubly welcome as he could watch out for hostile aircraft, who just might be tempted to have a go at us. That period of time was like a mad Big Game Hunt, where everything that moved was shot-up and, of course, this included the endless column of refugees, who were a sitting duck to the Master Race. The mayhem these planes caused to the poor refugees was frightful and sick making; with bodies, legs, arms and blood everywhere. Every few miles we would come across these tragedies, with the additional pathos of dead and wounded animals lying about. I couldn’t keep count of the number of wounded cows and horses my mate and I put out of their misery but it was a losing battle, as we couldn’t use up all our ammunition in case we needed it. Although, come to think of it, a pistol wouldn’t have been much use against a tank or an aeroplane!
Fate had the answer to this in the shape of an officer we came across, all on his own, and he waved us down. This was at the top of a rise in the road and he said that he required our transport, and gave us a ‘Boyes Anti-Tank’ rifle, with the instructions to secrete ourselves there and, if any enemy tanks were to come along, told to stop them with the afore-said weapon. The naivety shone through again and I let him have the motorcycle. He told us not to go away he had to get some more troops and bring them back to this position, and off he went, leaving two ‘mugs’ behind. Like hell he came back and it slowly dawned on us that we had been ‘conned’ - he never had had any intention of coming back, all he wanted was transport but we noted the direction that he had taken. From where we stood we could see Dunkirk, with Ostend far to our right, and he had headed that way, which is the place we would have gone to, as Dunkirk was well and truly on fire, but Ostend appeared to be quiet. Little did we know that the reason Ostend was quiet was that the Belgians had surrendered to the Germans.
Doesn’t Fate work in a peculiar fashion? If we hadn’t given up our transport to that (unmentionable) officer we would have gone to Ostend to possible death or, at the best, capture. Instead, after rendering the Boyes rifle un-serviceable (you may raise your eyebrows at that - destroying a weapon? Criminal), but not so, the bastard had omitted to give us any ammunition for it, and we, stupidly, hadn’t noticed its absence. We set off in the other direction, towards poor, ill-fated Dunkirk. By this time I was in a fearful rage and I cursed that sod, the Germans, the Army, which hadn’t taught us how to fight - in fact, I must have put the ‘wind-up’ my mate, who disappeared later on!
When we came across some infantrymen who were setting-up a defensive position well outside of Dunkirk; I decided to throw in my lot with them and my mate went on to join some other waifs and strays, because that is just about all we were. However, the new found mates welcomed me and showed me how to operate a Bren gun and to prime and throw grenades. So far, so good. At last I didn’t feel so utterly helpless and was much happier in my mind. My euphoria only lasted about a day, as the usual thing happened - we were shot-up by an enemy fighter and that decimated the group quite a bit. All that happened to me was that the heel on my boot was shot off and, happily for me, nothing else. I think there was four of us got away, once again without weapons except for my pistol, the rest were cut to pieces, caught fair and square in the open. It is strange the way you adjust to a way of life; three weeks before we had been living the life of Old Reilly, and now, in a dirty, hungry state, this was regarded as normal. The only thing I was never short of was cigarettes, they were easier to get than food and water.
Miracle of Miracles! My unit had been found; we had reached a sort of collecting point, and there they were, nobody missing and nobody hurt. Was I glad to see them! And they, on their part, had thought I was either in the bag (Prisoner of War) or dead, but they were disabused on that thought by my appearance: dirty, hungry, footsore (have you ever tried walking without a heel on your boot?) and weary, Lord, how weary. Anyway some food and a rest and we were ready for the ‘off’ - but where was off?
We got a briefing, in which we were told that the Belgians had surrendered, the French Army had collapsed (memories of that lot we saw at Cherbourg!) and that only Calais and Dunkirk were in our possession. The enemy was all around us but couldn’t use their tanks, as the ground behind Dunkirk had been flooded and our only way out was by the Channel. It now depended on the Navy being able to get us away. We were stunned! Our Army beaten? Surely not, but it was true and that night we got a truck, put all our blokes in it, and I drove it to the dunes at Dunkirk without mishap. The troops debarked and under the direction of the Military Police I drove the vehicle to a huge parking spot, full of vehicles, guns, horses (all of whom were shot to deny them to the Germans) and later the guns were ‘spiked’ and the vehicles set on fire, also to deny them to the enemy, and I rejoined my mates who had been waiting for me.
We started trudging through the dunes, soft; dry, shifting sand, which was very tiring to walk on. Two steps forward, one slide back was the pattern and there were thousands of soldiers; British, French, Belgian, also some civilians, all heading for the beach, like a mass of lemmings, rushing to their doom. As we trudged along a voice called out, "Is that you, Jock?" It was a young soldier whom I had befriended in Aldershot and he told me he had married in France and had managed to get his wife as far as Dunkirk, but had been separated from her there and was in a heart-broken mood. "What will happen to her, will I ever see her again? She can't speak English so she won't be able to say that she is a soldier's wife, and if the Germans get hold of her they will kill her." and so on until he was nearly hysterical. Poor lad, he wasn't bothered about himself, just about his young wife. I made soothing noises and told him that all would be well but he wouldn't be consoled and suddenly said that he was going to find her, and disappeared. What happened to him and her I don't know, as we've never met since. Did he find her? Were they killed or did they get to England, singly or together? Just a tiny drop in the ocean of tragedies that happened at that time, made worse to me because he was a friend.
We eventually reached the place in the dunes where we were to stay until it was our turn to join the huge queues for the mass of boats that were streaming across the Channel. It was like sitting in a cinema, watching a war movie; all the action was taking place in front of us. To our left was the Mole, where the destroyers and larger ships were coming in to take off, in the main, stretcher cases and walking wounded. It was a never-ending stream as the Mole was subject to intense bombardment, both by shell and bomb; aircraft constantly harried the ships tied-up there and they fired back in retaliation, the noise was unbelievable, and terrible casualties were suffered by both ships and men. I vowed not to go near that particular hellhole. In front, and to our right, great queues of men stretched from in the water back to the dunes and every so often they would be subject to high-level bombing and long-range shelling, which took its toll only too often. Dear God, I thought, how the dickens will we ever get away from this lot alive? It seemed impossible, but 330,000 personnel were to be evacuated by June 1st; no wonder it was called the 'miracle of Dunkirk.’
It was May 29th when we arrived at the dunes and it was June 1st when I managed to get away. We were all split up some to go to that queue, some to this; units didn't matter any more - only people. During these four days there wasn't any food or water available so we'd take it in turns to go scrounging into Dunkirk, to see if the town would yield anything as we were very hungry and thirsty indeed. The town was like nothing on earth; fires everywhere, bombs and shells banging off, masonry tumbling down, dead and wounded all over the place. We were frightened out of our wits, but hunger and thirst is a great provider and, having come this far, we were determined to find something. Mainly cafes were quickly searched and yielded a scant couple of bottles of terrible wine (water was no good as it would be contaminated and things were bad enough without getting a dose of the shits into the bargain). Food seemed non-existent, not really surprising as other people had been there before us, so there was only one thing left - the dustbins. We searched them and found bits of this and bits of that, most of it green mouldy but we collected everything that looked remotely edible and took it back to our mates. A succulent feast indeed when we had cut the peculiar looking pieces off and eaten the rest, washed down by whatever was in the bottles. We found new hope. It is indeed wonderful what a bit of food will do for a hungry man.
The Navy were conducting the evacuation and I will take my hat off to the officers, standing in the water up to their waists, ordering the men forward to the boats, telling the rest to stay - a sight as firm as the Rock of Gibraltar; exhorting, cajoling, encouraging- and not a thought for their personal safety; they were magnificent. By the time the 1st June had arrived my place was near the head of the queue and the boat out there was hit and sunk. My heart also sank, but out of no-where came a lifeboat and some of us got aboard it and were ferried to a Dutch coal-barge.
The sailors who manned the boats and also the barge were Dutch and Newfoundlanders and, when we were full up, we sailed for England. The panorama was fantastic; scores of little, medium and large boats were out there waiting for the troops to be ferried out; it was a brilliant morning, and then the second miracle happened - a big haze settled over the sea for no reason at all, and the dive-bombers couldn't see their prey; so we got away without being bombed or machine-gunned. Mugs of£ tea and 'bully' beef sandwiches were handed out to us and we gratefully devoured them, then I slept until we reached safety in the form of the seaside town of Ramsgate, where we disembarked. Reflecting, later on, about the carnage and destruction we had been through, it seemed as though I had sat through a long war-movie, remembering in the main the incidents that made one laugh, or think; like the chap who found a tin bath (such as people use who haven't got a bathroom) carrying it down to the water and getting into it and paddling it with his hands, towards the waiting boats, wearing only a pair of shorts - and of all things, his tin hat! He made it, too. Another chap was swimming out to the boats, towing a line with him, the idea being to make a lifeline from beach to boat. He made it as well, but unfortunately too many people scrambled for the line and it parted under the sheer weight of numbers. Or the Naval Officers, immaculate from the waist upwards (the rest of them was in the sea) calmly directing troops with a wave of their walking sticks. Truly, without them, it would have been a bigger shambles than it was.
When we were disembarked, we were plied with tea and sandwiches by the local voluntary helpers and the thing that struck me most of all was the silence. Nobody spoke above a whisper and it was as if our reception committee were shocked at what they were seeing. My clothes were only a pair of trousers and a complete coating of stinking brown fuel oil from the sea. Most of the men were in a similar state of undress, with only a blanket round them; all surplus clothes were cast away on the Dunkirk side as they would inhibit you in the water, especially if the boat was hit. The people of Ramsgate were kindness itself, and probably full of pity for the tattered remnants of the keen young men who had left these shores only a few short months ago to sort out the 'nasties' but who, indeed, had themselves received the shitty end of the stick, and certainly showed it. But the spirit wasn’t broken, just a feeling of sullen resentfulness with our leaders, who had failed to tell us just how powerful the Wehrmacht was. These people, whose job it was to train their service-men, had seen it all happen in Abyssinia and Spain and Norway had known of the ruthlessness of total war, yet our airmen were delivering leaflets instead of bombs and the Army was strictly divided into the fighters and the Corps troops, just as it was in the debacle of 1914-18. Don't they ever learn? Were we never going to get beyond fixed lines and wars of attrition? Well, we did, from the Desert onwards, when we had younger, bolder leaders who weren’t frightened to divide and conquer, to outflank, to make the enemy fight on your terms, not his! After all, the Romans laid down the rules two thousand years ago and they were pretty successful.
To get back to Ramsgate; we entrained there (the un-wounded, that is- the casualties were taken off to hospital PDQ) for a reception centre where we were to give our numbers, rank, name and Unit so that we could be forwarded to where our base depots - in my case, Catterick, and from there to where the unit was re-forming- Trowbridge. From there I was promoted to another unit going overseas once more. My mates thought this was hilarious - but as I pointed out to them, it was Wellington who said want a real soldier I'll go to the Guard-Room for him.' Well I qualified. I was informed then that a recommendation for the Military Medal had been made on my behalf. I'm still waiting to receive it.
It was Llandudno where my new Unit was forming and when I arrived to take them over, it was no real surprise to find that I was the only regular NCO there! Thirty-men, from eighteen to thirty-seven years of age, who had either volunteered or been called-up, and it was to be my job to train them and take them to Egypt. They were a good bunch and keen to get on with the job of winning the war, and so, by November, 1940, we made the journey north-wards to Liverpool to embark on the second stage of the macabre presentation called 'war.'
I'll never forget that trip from the railway station to the dock where our ship was; it was about 6 a.m. and the usual vicious night-bombing had taken place and as we were marching through Dockland, the inhabitants were coming out of doors to greet us and cheer us on. "Look at the poor b******s going to fight, never see them again" and such-like remarks, guaranteed not to raise the spirits. Then one of them spotted a milk float, rushed over to it, grabbed a crate of milk and started to give it away to the troops. The other inhabitants followed suit and before you could say 'scouse' the float was empty and the milkman was dancing up and down with rage, and the troops were having an enjoyable time, drinking it on the march. The last memory of that area was one of the huge females chasing after a small boy, certainly no more than five years old and shouting, “Come back, you little b*****d, if you don't come back by 10 o'clock to-night, you thieving s*d, you’ll be locked out." No wonder the Liverpudlians have a name for being hard!
We embarked on the 'Duchess of- " something, a Canadian Pacific ship, and sailed off, the same day that Coventry was ‘blitzed’. We weren't told of this until we were well on our journey as they reckoned that the knowledge of this terrible bombing would make our morale very low, so we were sailing away from where the action was, to comparative safety. I wonder in view of the events to happen, what Joker thought that one up?
The ship was a dream! None of the rubbish about sleeping in hammocks in the hold or fetching your own food. No, it was cabins for all, the troops sleeping six or so to a cabin, depending on size and, as I was in charge of a troop-deck, my reward was a beautiful cabin, which I shared with another NCO. The food was out of this world as the ship had been stocked up in Canada and we still had the civilian crew and stewards who served us in the dining room. Not for us the 'bully' stew or rissoles but instead the sole meuniere, chicken and the civilised dishes. In the first three days my eating resembled that of a big pig, as most of the troops were seasick and couldn't eat. Oh well, one man's meat is another's fish-food!
We arrived without hindrance at Lagos, ten ships sailing in convoy, and took aboard fresh water and some stores. We were all constantly dripping with sweat, without any effort on our part and we wondered how anybody could work and exert themselves in such an extremely hot, humid atmosphere. I understood that, in the early days of colonisation, the West Coast of Africa was known as the White Man's Grave due to the numerous deaths of Europeans there because of malaria and yellow-fever and many other horrible diseases.
By sheer coincidence I discovered that all my former Unit were on one of the other ships in the convoy; it was called the 'Andes' and we were to be re-united later in South Africa. Apart from the heat and the humidity, the thing about Lagos that I remember was that when the docks were washed down at night, the water seemed to be on fire, due to some luminous thing in the water, no doubt, but the effect was of scintillating jewels, pouring out of the hoses in a never-ending stream.
We left Lagos and continued on our way down the West African coast, still having a marvellous, 'beery' time aboard ship, and, by the Grace of God, without interference from the enemy, and so we sailed, day after day, night after night, until one day, after about a month at sea, a South African Air Force bomber flew over us and immediately the scuttlebutt was rife as to our destination. To cut a long story short, the convoy split in two shortly after this visit, and five ships went to Cape Town, five ships to Durban, and, what is more, tied up at the dock alongside one another. We stayed there for four days and had two alternate days ashore, half aboard the ship and half ashore. At one time, my mates and self were fortunate enough to be off at the same time so that you can imagine that we had a right Royal time.
Everybody was paid a small sum of money each time they went ashore so there was money to spend, which, apart from buying your first drinks, wasn't needed at all, as the South African civilians were more than generous to the troops visiting their country; their homes were open to us, they took us on tours in their cars, with all meals thrown-in, and in fact nobody could have been kinder and more generous than these people were to us, particularly as their Country had a very pro-German movement whose extreme members wore little beards and called themselves what sounded like the 'Ossvar Brandweg.' I've probably got the spelling all wrong but please bear with me; anyway, some of these brave gents beat up a couple of Tommies, which was a very stupid thing to do, because the blokes in retaliation, gathered up some of these gentry and PLUCKED out their beards with their fingers! After that there were no more incidents.
Our short holiday was over; we were once again on our way, up the eastern side of Africa on the Indian Ocean, to the Red Sea and eventually into the Suez Canal, sailing the full length and tying up at Port Said. And what was the first thing we saw there? A ruddy great red flag with the huge Swastika in the middle, the German National Flag! To say that our plus was nonned was putting it mildly; apparently, as Egypt was not at war with Germany, they still allowed an Embassy to flourish and in, of all places, Port Said, where they had a grand-stand view of everything we were bringing to Egypt. It was closed later, but when one considers that at that time Hitler was driving down the Balkans to Greece, where we had sent an Expeditionary Force, they must have known in advance every tank, rifle and soldier which was likely to oppose them. I felt very bitter about this as I lost a lot of mates in that disaster; surely if diplomatic pressure couldn’t have closed the Embassy, a well-placed bomb could have; sometimes I think the British carry ‘being British’ too far.
However, as we said ‘cheerio’ to our shipboard mates we were de-barked and entrained for our various units, the end of a trip that had taken seven weeks to complete. Our destination was a suburb of Cairo called Maadi, linked to the capital by a very good diesel train, something like the London Underground; trust the Signals to pick a handy spot for their Base Depot, a sort of Catterick in Egypt. This was the first time I ever saw any A.T.S. and they were in a barbed-wire compound in the centre of the Camp, patrolled by a 24-hour guard. Speculation was rife as to whether the wire and guard were to keep the troops out or the A.T.S. in. Personally I wasn’t bothered either way as there was the more important job of tasting the gyppo beer, to wit, Pyramid and Stella, which were a kind of chemical lager, but if one drank enough, did its job O.K. After a short while at Maadi we were moved to where the Pyramids were - Mena, and this was our first taste of what the Desert was all about.
Mind you, Mena was a properly organised Military tented and hutted town and conditions there bore no relation to life in an active service unit in the fighting part of the desert, known to the troops, when posted there, as ‘going up the Blue.’ About this time we were hearing rumours of ‘specialist’ units being formed, such as ‘Layforce’, a Commando unit, ‘Pop-ski’s Private Army’ (PPA), ‘The Special Air Service’ (SAS) and a Parachute Brigade. It was then I made a decision to get into one of these units as this was what I really wanted, to get with the action, in this totally new style of warfare.
By this time I was a Vehicle Mechanic, a bit higher up the social and pay scale and this was nearly to be my undoing, as every time I applied to get into one of these units I was told that mechanics were the salt of the earth (sic) and couldn’t be replaced. What a load of bull. Admittedly we were a mobile army and without mechanics it would soon have ground to a halt, but all the mechanics weren’t asking to be moved, they were quite happy doing their job with the Brigade and had no desire to get anywhere nearer the sharp end of the fighting; quite right too, the Para isn’t everybody’s idea of fun, as it is a very dodgy job, and you have to want to be part of it, otherwise somebody who is depending on you might get his lot and that wouldn’t do.
But I digress. Mena Camp was literally at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, and many other lesser pyramids were there too, plus the odd Sphinx, and naturally we visited them on our days off. To our surprise, the sides of the Pyramid were not smooth but were of massive blocks of stone, each layer starting about two or three feet in from the layer underneath, so that it resembled a great stone stair-case. The steps were each about a metre high and we had to hoist ourselves up to the next step and so on; this we did until we reached the top, where there was a flag-pole and this too was in turn climbed and, at the top of the pole, the view was magnificent. The Nile Delta was laid out like a map and you could see for miles and miles. The height of it all was around 700 feet and it was one hell of a climb. It was a good job we were half cut or it would never have been attempted.
That night we went out on the town and had a good evening on the Nile house-boats; these house-boats were really floating clubs and Dance halls and one could have a really raucous evening, watching the belly dancers and drinking. I remember one particularly exotic dancer who was being cheered and clapped by the mixed audience of Aussies, Kiwi’s and a few gyppos; well, at the end of her dance she jumped straight on to the lap of a massive ‘digger’ - his chair collapsed and he and the bint crashed onto the floor with a mixture of arms and legs, beads and tassels. The table overturned, beer was spilt and the inevitable happened -there was a massive punch-up, just like one of the western brawls. We got out p.d.q. before the Military Police arrived, and eventually found ourselves on the road to Mena. A little later, as we were waiting for a tram-car, a fat object of a gyppo came ‘riding by on a poor little donkey;
"Look at that great fat slob on that poor little moke" said someone.
"He is twice the size of the donkey" said another.
"I reckon it is the wrong way round," said the first, "surely a hulking great brute like that should be carrying the donkey.” We thought that this was a great idea and to cut a long story short once more, we made the gyppo dismount and, amid screeches of rage from him, pointed out the error of his ways and whilst a couple of us held him still, (he was very reluctant) the others lifted the poor wee animal onto his back and made him stagger off, carrying it into the night. We warned him not to put it down and then we disappeared towards Mena. I often wondered if the donkey was grateful.
The ‘Berka’, a place of ill repute which, no matter how much they may deny it, was well known to every soldier who served in the desert. There was a ditty that the troops used to sing about it; here is the first verse (to the tune of ‘Abide with Me.’):
There is a street in Cairo,
Full of Sin and Shame,
Shariah weg el Berka,
Is its evil name.
There is a lot more but as I don’t want the page to burn up it can keep. This Berka was, in reality, a long street of brothels, staffed by just about every nationality (female and male) under the sun. The place itself was a long street with European-type tenement buildings lining each side; each doorway was a separate brothel and was be-decked with flags of the nation they particularly wanted to attract. An Australian flag, with the legend ‘Visit Madame X’s’, painted on a large board. ‘We served your fathers in the’14-18 war, let our daughters serve the sons’; or ‘All Anzacs welcome’, ‘British is best’, ‘Welcome to the Jock’s’, ‘Forever Blighty’, ‘Cleanest house in town, drinks served afterwards’ and there would be a picture of Lord Allenby’s army, and so on. It was like taking a step into the past, with all the reminders of the ‘14-’18 war.
This place catered for every possible vice, you named it and somebody would be willing to entertain, but on this type of thing they never got any change out of the ‘Tommy.’ It is my opinion that the general type of operation was ‘in quickly, out quickly’ and back to the cafes in the more prosaic parts of Cairo, in case somebody from their hometown saw them there. The ‘diggers’ however, were a different kettle of fish; whenever they appeared all the girls used to disappear; I don’t know what they got up to but I feel that it was a case of the first one paying and the rest storming the ramparts, so to speak.
They weren’t at all popular. To get to the purpose of writing all this is because of an incident involving a Scottish soldier and a crowd of Kiwi’s; apparently the Jock was wandering around the Berka, dressed in his kilt and half-cut into the bargain. Some equally half-cut Kiwi’s were also wandering about and they spotted this lad on his own, and thought they would have a bit of ‘fun’. They pounced on him and after a short punch-up, removed his kilt, which one of the Kiwi’s put on. This, of course, was a deadly insult, not only to the lad and his regiment, but the whole Scottish race. Some other Jock’s came along and joined battle with the Kiwi’s, - some more Kiwi’s came along and joined battle against the Jocks, who, by this time, had sent for reinforcements to the cafe’s, etc. So, also, did the Kiwi’s. In no time at all the Berka was choked with British on one side and Anzacs on the other, it was absolute chaos with bodies strewn about all over the place, the Military Police trying to restore order and both sides thumping them. The girls were hanging out the windows of their various houses, exhorting one side, or the other, to greater effort and heaving the contents of various bedroom utensils down onto the assailants. It was just like an old-time siege of Notre Dame, with dozens of Quasimodo’s pouring - not boiling oil - but hot something else onto the melee. How do I know all this, you may ask yourselves? Well, as it so happened I had been visiting the Berka to see that my lads weren’t misbehaving themselves and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. The battle gradually grew less and less as the assailants slowly disappeared, taking their battered mates with them; it would not be fair to say who won but the Kiwi’s never tangled with the Jocks again.
Shortly after the incident at Berka, I was posted to a Unit in the Desert. It was an armoured Brigade and a very fine Unit indeed, and thus was my indoctrination into desert conditions. The Unit, at this time, was not in action as the Desert Rats (7th Armoured Division) had very successfully destroyed the Italian Army and had penetrated the desert almost to Tripoli, when they were withdrawn to rest and re-fit and others took their place. They were cock-a-hoop with their marvellous victory, rightly so, and nothing can ever detract from this, they were, and remained, the finest armoured fighting Division in the Western Desert. But, whilst congratulating them over a bottle or two of remedial beer, it was pointed out that they had never met the real enemy - the German Army, who, at that moment, were decimating our lads in Greece and, unknown to us, had sent an army across the Mediterranean Sea to Tripoli and were forming up, to take back what the Italians had lost.
They agreed that they hadn’t met them, but wasn’t the Desert the 7th Division’s stamping ground? The Germans had never fought a desert war and would soon be thrashed if they tried to take back any territory. So be it. Try the Afrika Corps did, and very nearly succeeded - they simply over-ran unit after unit in the forward areas, who, it is claimed, never knew there were Germans in Africa. The fact remains that the Afrika Corps left Tripoli and re-took all the territory we had won, with the exception of Tobruk, where British and Australian troops put up such a ferocious defence that the Afrika corps had to by-pass it, leaving a big thorn in the side of their supply link. The story of Tobruk has been written about, and a film was made about the months of desperate fighting that took place there but with the defenders, time and again, smashing the German attacks; the conditions there must have been dreadful, but they hung on, the only re-supply being by sea, which was a very dodgy business as the enemy controlled the Western and Northern Med. and us the Eastern part, with Alexandria our port. Obviously, the route from Alex to Tobruk was well patrolled by the enemy, in the air and on the sea.
The Afrika Corps was eventually stopped around Sollum and we, who had escaped the net, were fleeing east towards Alex as fast as we could go. The first intimation we had of the enemy, was a Stuka raid followed by very heavy shelling early in the morning; some vehicles were hit and men killed and wounded; the noise of explosions and engines being started-up was deafening, and we got word to head East with, of course, the fitters’ truck last in the line, to try to get the breakdowns and strays mended and on their way. We eventually got out of the killing zone and, apart from the odd aircraft venting its spite on us, we got safely away with surprisingly few casualties and loss of vehicles. We were halted by the Military Police and directed to our new assembly point near Halfays (Hellfire) Pass and the powers-that-be took stock and decided that the German menace was real (?) and must be stopped. They were stopped and there it ended for a while, the Afrika Corps on one side of a massive minefield and us on the other, with Tobruk sticking out like a poisoned lance in Jerry's side.
We moved further east and settled down to several months of rest, re-equipping, training and utter boredom. It had its compensations, of course, regular meals, Canteens and Sergeants Mess’ being set up, bathing in the Med. mostly without benefit of swimming-trunks as none of us possessed any. It was a hilarious sight to see brown bodies and brown legs, with white bums, rushing down to the water to disport themselves. Needless to say, women were non-existent so from the point of propriety it didn’t matter, and besides we were all agreed that swimming in the nude was far superior to wearing trunks, much more free; try it sometime and you’ll agree.
I loved the life in the Desert. It was so open, clean and warm; the usual dress was a pair of K.D. shorts, socks and boots, and perhaps a shirt if the sun was too hot, and we were a healthy, tanned lot; as one wag put it ‘all sunburned men are slightly handsome’ -there wasn’t a mosquito about but we did have pestilential flies, who worried the life out of the troops. Fly traps abounded; these were closed-mesh boxes whereby a fly could get in, attracted by a bit of food but due to the construction - and having no sense – they couldn’t get out. It never seemed to make any difference to their numbers and if you were unfortunate enough to be wounded, the injured part was soon crawling with the filthy things. The Tunisian fly, which we were to come across towards the end of the campaign, was a peculiar thing, which had the body of a fly, the nose of a mosquito and used to cause a bit of pain when it settled and drove the nasal spike into the flesh. One mate of mine who had suffered from their ministrations, used to go on his knees and pray to the Lord to make them 6-ft tall so that he could slowly strangle them; thank goodness, his prayer was never answered, otherwise we might have had flying camels too, and that would have been disastrous.
It was said that a soldier clerk had been court-martialled in Cairo over a bit of Empire-building he had arranged, by having the brilliant idea of sending out to all units that a return of flies killed every day had to be made to his office. Humour had it that the fly-count (estimated) was made daily and the return sent off to Cairo; considering the number of units in the desert, he made himself a nice little busy niche, dealing with the child of his brain, which, of course, once initiated, no one would dare to question, and would assume a totally irrelevant position in the scores of returns which had to be made by units back to Cairo. Until one officer, mystified by this constant ‘bumph’ tracked the fly return to its office and discovered that the information stayed there, with its soldier inventor, who had built up a beautiful little subterfuge, plus an 08.30 to noon working day, all week-ends off and no duties. Clever fellow, I admired him, whether true or fictional.
Whilst out of action, our living quarters were a square hole dug in the desert, covered with the top of a tent, which held several men and their gear and was a pretty fair protection against air-raids or, if you preferred it, you could sleep in the open, usually with your head against the rear wheel of a truck and your feet pointing out; the idea being that, in the event of an air-raid, the wheel would protect you. This was a good theory but once to my knowledge it came unstuck and this was the manner. We were having a small jug-up with a few bottles of beer which we had scrounged, saved up, swapped with chocolate or cigarettes from the teetotallers (yes, believe it or not, we had a few of them about), when we were joined by one of the drivers, who was very much the worse for wear as he had been drinking rum (where he got it was a mystery). However he eventually passed out, absolutely blotto and when we had finished our few ‘jars’ we decided to call it a night and go to our respective billets, or sleeping places, but what about the body?
The desert at night, without a moon, is so dark that it is unbelievable, and, in order not to get lost, we always used to run lines from the billet to wherever we were going, so that we would find our way back again. We knew he slept beside his vehicle but hadn’t a clue as to where it was, so it was decided to put him in a slit-trench for the night and in the morning, when it was light, he could go to his own vehicle and all would be well. That night we had a visit from the Luftwaffe, he dropped only one bomb and then flew off. We often got these visits, designed to keep us awake and break our morale; the stupid Teutonic fools, little did they know the British. If they had blown up the tea warehouse and the breweries in Alex and Cairo, they would have inflicted a crushing blow to our morale, never with the odd aircraft. However the point of this absolutely true story is that the bomb smashed the wheel of one truck only and that truck was our ‘rummy’ driver’s and the wheel was the one he habitually slept against. When he saw it the next day he turned even greener than he already was with the after-effects of the rum; he swore an oath that he would never run down drink, especially rum, because if he hadn’t got steamed-up on rum his head would have been mangled with the wheel. So does the Finger of Fate point and then relent - or to put it in the language of one of the boys, “A ruddy effin miracle.”
One day, whilst down on the beach, a few of us decided to swan around a bit along the waters’ edge and we soon discovered that the sinking of ships in the Med had a bonus for we beach-combers; we came across separate cases and tins of food; rusted, without labels, but well worth investigating further, so with no more ado we summoned assistance and carried this lot back to our laager. On arrival, amidst great excitement, we had a share-out and it worked out to three tins amongst four blokes - the marvellous thing about the 8th Army was the sharing of everything: if your vehicle broke down you stayed put and, sooner or later, someone would be along and the first thing they would ask would be “have you got enough makings for a ‘brew-up?” This was a standard greeting amongst we desert-dwellers, the offer of a precious cup of tea, before enquiring what the reason was for your being there. Every, and I mean every, 8th Army vehicle had a brew tin which consisted of half a 4 gallon petrol can, with a wire attached to each side for a handle; this was always hung over the rear towing-hook and was the final thing checked when we moved off. A fire to boil the can was provided by the other half of the petrol tin, half-filled with sand and then soaked with petrol, a match applied and you had a nice, hot, long-lasting fire to cook on).
Everybody trooped off to the various hidey-holes and me and my lot were no exception and, as it so happened, we lived in a dugout with a roof over, and, being the fitting crew, had battery powered electric light - we were very ‘posh’. “Bring me one of the tins,’ said I, ‘and we’ll eat like hogs to-night.” A tin was duly produced, the ceremonial tin opener was raised and quickly stabbed into the tin, and then two things happened: first the contents of the tin blew out through the hole I had made and literally ‘geysered’ their way up to the roof, coating me at the same time; secondly the most fearful stink, stench, pong, revolting in its excrescence, filled the dug-out with me right in the middle of it! There wasn’t a sound except for the tin hissing and me gasping, and then, when the smell pervaded the dugout somebody shouted "Ho, B****y Mackerel," (a student of Amos n’ Andy, no doubt) "the effing dugout has gone gangrenous; bale-out, sharpish." They disappeared up the stairs into the fresh air and I crawled up after them, after I recovered my breath. By this time a crowd had collected, wondering no doubt what was up; something they soon discovered when I emerged, plastered with the evil-smelling contents of that thrice-damned can. I must have smelt like a polecat, a skunk and a derelict Italian toilet, all rolled into one. On my oath they chased me down to the beach and into the sea, clothes and all, accompanied by shouts of laughter and expressions of disgust and loathing as they inhaled the fearful odour that I left behind.
Well, the sea cleansed me as it does all things (except that bloody tin) and I rejoined the blokes, who only permitted this after many assurances that the smell had gone and that there was none purer than the purified. Back we went to the dugout to investigate and, if possible, to open it up, but no matter what we did it still smelt. Fortunately, as I had taken the brunt of the contents and the roof the remainder, our gear was untouched and, suitably masked, it was removed and that dug-out was never used again. I like to think that when the Afrika Corps occupied the area after they had chased us down to El Alamein that, during a counter-attack or air-raid, some of them went in there and got gassed instead!
Some time later we started a big build-up of armour, guns and troops, and shortly afterwards a big push started and this was mainly fought out as a huge tank battle at Sidi Rezigh where, although suffering heavy losses, they got Jerry on the run and once more we moved West, relieving Tobruk on the way, much to their joy. The place was a shambles and once more it made one wonder how men could possibly exist and fight in such surroundings.
So, for the second time, we advanced up the blue and, for the first time Rommel knew what it was to run but after a while the advance ran out of momentum and we settled down to the routine as before; unfortunately away from the sea this time but an awful lot nearer to Tripoli, which we all regarded as our Holy Grail. But it was not yet to be as Jerry, smarting under the hammering his almighty Panzers got from the 8th Army, started to reform, re-fit and generally get ready for another push, which would take him to Alexandria - or so he thought. It is history that his massive push succeeded, and after some fearful tank and artillery battles, he broke through our lines and made a dead-set for Alex and, once more, we were fleeing eastward (with the fitters’ truck at the end as usual).
We were harried every mile of the way, and even at night, bombed and machine-gunned as we tried for a bit of rest, re-fuelling and necessary repairs to keep the vehicles going, as none of us had the slightest desire to abandon a vehicle that Jerry might later use against us. If a truck was beyond our efforts to get going, it would have the petrol drain plug removed, the petrol allowed to drain away and an oily rag set alight and thrown on the wet sand and up it would go. It broke our hearts to do this as usually it was a minor fault, but we just didn’t have the time, as the Afrika Corps were always a bit too close. In the desert, sound carries a long way, but it isn’t possible to judge how far the noise of tank tracks have carried before you hear them, so discretion, when you are running away, is the better part of valour.
It was about this time that we came across the French Foreign Legion; or rather they came across us. They were heading east so fast that they passed us in a cloud of dust with much shouting of ‘La Boche’ and pointing backwards. Stupid bastards; what the hell did they think we were running for? To exercise our clapped-out vehicles? Much later I learned that they were our rear-guard cover but they were re-directed further on, to where all the other Foreign Legion were, a place called Bir Hakim, where by all accounts, they put up a terrific battle and stopped Jerry from turning the 8th Army flank before we were safely behind the El Alamein line. The place where the Staff had decided that the Germans would be stopped, and stopped they were, thanks be, in the main by the ‘Diggers’ and ‘Kiwis.’
We had nearly reached the El Alamein line, when my truck was bombed and received a very near miss, which put it and us out of action. The vehicle was a mess, with blood and shit everywhere, but nobody desperately hurt. We were picked up by an armoured truck and dropped off at a casualty clearing station where we were patched up and, when I woke up, I was on a hospital train heading for Palestine. The hospital was an Australian one and was very good and I was up and about in no time but no sign of my crew. Apparently there was a bigger cock-up behind our lines than in front of them, and that is saying something! All the Cairo Cowboys (probably an unjust title for those who weren’t actually in the Desert) were flapping, and it was seemingly a classic case of S.N.A.F.U (situation normal, all fouled up) and people like myself were shunted anywhere to keep Cairo clear. This I was told later, however there was me with the ‘Diggers’ and, as we were all wounded, they accepted me without any trouble. If I hadn’t been wounded and was, say, an orderly, I would have been all the Pommie Bastards that ever lived. They were a great bunch of blokes and used to fall about when I would salute their officers and call them ‘Sir.’ But I am damned if I could throwaway all my years of training and not give them the recognition their rank should get, but the officers were embarrassed when I gave them compliments, especially if any of their own troops were about, who never gave them any, but the rapport between the ‘digger’ and his officer was terrific and, when called upon to fight, did so without question and ferociously too, as the Germans had found out to their cost.
When I was getting around a bit, the inaction was boring me stiff, so, after asking the hospital Commandant if he had any un-serviceable vehicles that he would like repaired, I would be happy to do them, or anything that would improve their running ability. He was a bit taken aback and, after a bit of humming and hawing, said O.K. So the time was passed nicely and most of their transport was overhauled, including the Commandant’s motorcycle, which hadn’t run since one of the blokes had ‘acquired’ it and given it to him as a present. Aussies are like that, and soon he was riding about, as happy as a sand boy. At last it was time for me to be discharged from hospital and, by the way, it was with the Aussies that I first learnt to roll cigarettes. This was due to the fact that their tobacco ration was not in standard cigarettes but in cut tobacco form and you either learnt to roll or give up smoking, so the ‘roller’ was born and, since then, apart from a few places where it was not possible to get tobacco, I have rolled them ever since. That, and a habit of calling everyone ‘sport’ is what I inherited from our Colonial Dependents - they used to do their nuts when I called them that but all in good fun; as one ‘digger’ said; “He isn’t just a Pommie B*****d, but a Scotch Pommie B*****d.” When I left that hospital they loaded me with tobacco and other goodies. They were a rough, kind-hearted crowd and they were all due to go back to Australia as the Japanese were getting too close to their Homeland they were required and wanted to return to their own patch. I like to think that they all survived the war but as they say, ‘if your number is on it...’
Back at the Royal Signals base camp at Maadi I met up with a couple of my old mates, and was told about the death of my very best pal. I was absolutely shattered and just couldn’t believe it; me, the hard man, felt like crying - and did, a little. It was the first time that sentiment had got the better of me, who had had many pals killed and severely disabled by this time. In fact, a roll call of our old ‘boozing school’ wouldn’t have had many calling ‘Present.’ That night we went out and got tanked up; it is the best way to get a malaise out of your system. Never brood, have your moment of sadness and don’t dwell on it; think of the good times and not the bad- it works too. I vowed that whenever I was in a position to do so, the Germans would pay heavily for his life.
Then I was told to report to the Parachute Training Centre at Kebritt and I was overjoyed; after eighteen months or so of repeated application and generally making a nuisance of myself it had paid off, but I had to drop a rank. So be it. The training was hard and consisted of gruelling P.T. and Route marches and falling off the backs of trucks to simulate landings (sic) and, finally, the first jump out of the side entrance of a Lockheed Hudson. With my height (about 6 feet) and bulk with the parachute, I was wedged in the opening and couldn’t move but a friendly boot in the back sent me on my way. Falling made me frightened but not for long as a crack was heard above and the parachute opened and I assumed a parachuting position, as taught, and looked around in wonder. To say that I felt ten feet tall and the cleverest bloke in the Army would be an understatement; with the hot air rising from the ground the descent was gentle and easily controlled and, after a few seconds, landed gently on the sand. I felt great, and watched a couple of trainees like myself, land and heard a stentorian voice bawling “Gather up that (xyz) parachute and bring it in, if Your Highness will condescend to join us, that is.” Hastily grabbing up the parachute and walking the few hundred yards back to base I felt so proud that it had been done. I’d made it!
Jump after jump followed and finally the coveted wings were won and I was returned, much to my disgust, back to my old Unit. It wasn’t that I’d done anything wrong, it was the Battle of El Alamein opening up and everybody who could be spared was sent to their old units and, as I didn’t belong as yet, to a Para Unit, back I went, but was told I would he re-instated as soon as possible if still in one piece -a crowd of charmers, weren’t they?
Parachutists took no part in the battle to follow but, as I discovered later, were to be saved for Sicily and Italy and I rejoined them before that in Tunisia, many months later. The blokes welcomed me back and we had a good jug-up on an evil brew sent over by the Canadians. It was very strong, almost spirituous beer, and some of the makes were Frontenac, Black Horse and many others whose names I cannot remember now. It was a long time since I had seen my mates as I had been in hospital and then had my Para training and there was great curiosity over my wings (which nobody had seen before) and many questions to answer and to ask.
A new General had appeared on the scene; General Montgomery, and he travelled around the various laagers, giving ‘pep’ talks and handing out cigarettes. As Generals were very, very remote figures to us, it didn’t mean a lot. After all, since Wavell got the push we had had more Generals than enough, but we were assured that this bloke was the one to chuck Rommel out of the Desert and with really good equipment too. The latter was true and a huge build-up began once more and, of course, the newly arrived Highway Decorators (soldier’s name for the 51st Highland Division, given to them because wherever we went, there would be a sign ‘welcome to by courtesy of the HD). Mind you, they had an axe to grind after St. Valery in France 1940 and grind it they did, they were ‘raring to go.’ By mentioning the 51st HD please do not think that other Divisions and Corps were second place, they weren’t by a long chalk. All the Units under the 8th Army banner did a wonderful job of taking on an enemy, whose Commander, Rommel, was being accorded an unhealthy admiration as an unbeatable General - but we had a better one.
The time came for us to line up at the starting points for the new offensive, and as tanks and guns were moved into position under cover of darkness, vehicles which were camouflaged as tanks, were moved into their vacated places behind the lines, so that the enemy reconnaissance planes would see no difference; clever stuff, and it worked. Then the battle opened, with the greatest artillery barrage of all time and it really hammered the enemy into the ground; prisoners being brought back were stupefied. During the barrage the Royal Engineers went in first and cleared a way through the protective minefield in front of us, and laid white tapes to guide the tanks and infantry through the safe passages. Like all the others, they were very brave men.
The barrage eventually lifted and the infantry and tanks took on the so-called invincible Wehrmacht. For ten days the battle raged and at last the enemy broke and the Master Race took off and left the poor, numbed Italians without support and without even a vehicle. They were quickly put in the bag and the great pursuit began which was to end, this time, in Tunisia, with a join-up of both 1st and 8th Armies. When my truck eventually got through the minefield and progressed westwards we saw, for the first time, the carnage of that battle. Burnt-out trucks, tanks littered the desert; arms and legs and trunks - with or without heads - were all over the place, and the smell was sickening in the extreme, especially the tanks with their incinerated crews. In one we looked in, an Italian light tank, there was only ashes and a grisly pair of hands, still grasping the steering tillers. Yeuck!
A truck, still smouldering, attracted attention from us, because it was a cookhouse truck, an open one, and the rear part was undamaged. This had to be investigated, as at the best there might be some food and water in it and, at the worst, we could get some cooking utensils for ours were in poor shape and few and far between. Whilst one of the boys ransacked the back I spotted a frying-pan on the ground under the drivers’ seat, so crawling underneath I retrieved it, but in doing so noticed something was dripping on my hand, and, thinking that it might be petrol and therefore very dangerous. I grabbed the utensil and stood up; going to brush the wet spots off my hand I realised they were blood spots, and, wondering where they had come from, gazed at the driver’s seat and noticed, for the first time, a charred corpse, shrunk down to about 2 foot tall, which was still dripping blood on to the floor and through a hole in the truck onto the sand. This was what had dripped on me. I felt nauseated, but still took the frying pan over to our own truck - our need was greater than his.
The great chase went on, and once we got so far ahead that we had to stop and lie ‘doggo’ and I’m not talking of just my own vehicle but the complete Brigade. Apparently we hadn’t got the strength to intercept the German column over to our right. We learned later that it was the 90th Light Panzer Division (an old adversary of ours) so we crept into various wadis and watched it go by, two or three miles away, probably I on the coast road which runs, more or less, the whole of North Africa. I believe our Brigade Commander was spitting blood over this happening, but there it is, in war, as in peace, some you win, some you lose.
The enemy fought various rear-guard actions in order to delay the chase and allow their main body to escape eastwards, because if we had caught them at Halfaya Pass they would have got the crunch, good and proper. As it was, no doubt the Desert Air Force was giving them some of the stick they gave us on the last run down. On and on we went, travel by day, laager up at night and close together during the dark hours for protection. At first light (about 4 o’clock in the morning) we would disperse for safety, have some tea and food and wait for the order to move off once more. Food wasn’t too great a problem but it was monotonous in the extreme. Potatoes were a long-forgotten luxury and rice was issued in lieu, and what we used to do with that was put a couple of handfuls in gallon Thermos flask and fill it up with boiling water, then seal it down.
Tins of meat and veg or Irish stew or dead something or other, would be wired onto the exhaust manifold, and at the end of the day’s travel a hot meal was ready without the trouble of cooking it. We had rice with a bar of chocolate, rice with jam in it, rice with ‘bully’ (corned beef) in it and sometimes - just rice. It truly is a miracle that we weren’t slant-eyed. For the fitters this was an ideal arrangement as every vehicle had to be declared fit to travel the next day and we were usually kept busy changing springs on the trucks, which had broken down due to the horrible terrain, we travelled over. Other repairs were usually done en route as we were the last in the convoy and were usually able to sort out the halt and the lame whilst on the move.
What did we eat for breakfast, you may ask? Eggs is the answer. Every truck worth its salt had at least one chicken in the crew; this also applied to the tanks, and the sight of a truck or tank unloading bedding rolls, food and a crate with chicken(s) in it was, to the uninitiated, a sight reminiscent of a gypsy troop, but the chickens usually delivered up the goods. Ours were fed on boiled Army ‘hard tack’ biscuits (to soften them) and tealeaves. Peculiar diet, but they thrived on it and produced the eggs. It was always one man’s job to put the chickens in their crate and load them into tank or truck; there was many a chicken that had more battle experience than their human counterparts. We also had fried bread and bacon (out of a tin, of course) one ascorbic (vitamin C) tablet and one yeast tablet. Green vegetables were non-existent and if we had had them there wasn’t enough water to cook them.
This reminds me of one time we did have vegetables of a kind that nobody had ever seen before, viz. the de- hydrated variety. Well, of all places to send that type of food) the Desert Army must surely have been the last, but of course, I expect that some chinless wonder back at Base thought; ‘Ah, de-hydrated vegetables; we will be able to load tons onto a truck saving space and supplying a need’. But they didn’t think of supplying the water as well to re-constitute the pestilential stuff. On four pints of water per day, two for the cookhouse (when there was one) and two for personal use, it didn’t leave any leeway for culinary experiments. A few blokes ate a little of it raw and, naturally, when they drank something with it, it re-constituted in their stomachs, causing them intense distress. That particular thing was hastily withdrawn and we all hoped that the person(s) who had thought that one up, would catch a particularly virulent dose of V.D. when next they had intercourse, but we did get ‘yams’ sent up to us: for the un-initiated this is a sweet potato and if you like your Murphies boiled in syrup and sugar added when on the plate, then you will love ‘yams’ but for the rest of us, with a normal British love for plain food, they were worse than the perpetual rice. Still, to be fair, if they were fried - and fried - and fried (as chips) they weren’t too bad. So how do you fancy a meal of Irish stew, with chips? We thought it was great then, the thought of it now makes me sick!
Corned beef, or ‘bully’ as it was known, wasn’t at all popular because of the regularity with which we ate it, but in many disguises; ‘bully’ fritters was the favourite, this consisted of a slice of ‘bully’ coated in batter but the flour for the batter was made from the standard issue hard-tack biscuits; they were smashed up with a hammer, rolled into powder with a beer bottle for a rolling pin, mixed with a little water, and hey presto, a batter that would end all batters. Truly it wasn’t bad at all - the fat we carried in a tin and the ratio of sand to grease in the mixture was about 70-30 in favour of the sand. The 8th Army surely ate its peck of dirt before it died, but in hot conditions you could open a tin of ‘bully’ and literally pour it onto your plate; that, and the flies that went with it, was not at all appetising.
If, by some miracle, the mobile canteens of the Salvation Army and the Church of Scotland turned up (yes, they followed us up the desert and did a wonderful job for the blokes), we would laager up for the day after a hard day’s fighting and driving, and, as often as not, the word would go round ‘the Sally Ann’s here’ or the ‘C of S.’ or both as the case might be. The much-vaunted NAAFI supplied more stores to the Afrika Corps free by leaving their places, on a run down, for them to take over, than they ever sold to the forward troops; but the two I’ve named were always there and there isn’t an 8th Army man alive who wouldn’t sing their praises, God Bless Them. If there was some flour aboard then it was ‘pancake night’ - this was just some flour and water, mixed to a mortar-like consistency (plus, of course, a little sand) and fried in the frying-pan; they were great and very filling indeed, and, followed by a hoarded bottle of beer, were manna to us.
On and on we drove, stopping for this and that rear-guard action until at last the Afrika Corps decided to make a stand of sorts at Derna and Benghazi, two nice-looking, cultivated towns, with plenty of greenery about. We laagered up at an ex-Army airfield outside Derna, called Tmimi and settled down once more to a static life whilst the build-up went on for the push that would take us to the end of the desert, namely Tripoli. Eventually the push started and off we rolled once more, through Derna and by-passing Benghazi, going across the desert, hell-bent for Tripoli, which was eventually taken without a lot of bloodshed, and we took up station at Castel Benito airport, many kilometres south in the desert. It was the hottest place I’ve ever been in, in my life; riding in an open truck was like standing in front of a blast furnace with the blast coming your way. I enquired about it later and was informed that the temperature there was second only to Death Valley in the United States, which was the highest-ever recorded in the world! No wonder we felt hot.
From here we were allowed a visit to see our fabled goal – Tripoli. It seemed a pleasant enough place; big beaches and nice buildings, with palm-tree lined streets and a reasonable climate, a lot different from the furnace we had left. By this time the enemy had vacated Tripolitania and was ensconced behind the Mareth Line, beyond the border with Tunisia and was quite determined not to be moved. Frontal assault, we were told, would be suicidal, so, with the New Zealand Division, we were going into Tunisia the back way - through the desert, then a right hook and over the mountains, guarding the rear of Tunisia. By this time we had learned of the 1st Army’s arrival in Algeria together with a force of American troops whom we were to meet up with soon, and win a battle for them, but more of that shortly.
We were detached to the New Zealand Division and the plan was to turn left, go deep into the desert, turn right behind the mountains and, at the first pass in them, turn right again and be down on the plains of Tunisia, in an attempt to make the enemy retreat before his Army was cut in two; this we did. We fell upon them in a right jumble of tanks, infantry and ordinary vehicles; even our fitters’ truck opened up with a Spandau machine-gun that we had liberated from the enemy and I like to think that we provided many a German hausfrau with a widow’s pension that day. We shouldn’t have been in amongst the melee, but desert war is like that, one day the Army would be in a position in copybook style, the next rubbing shoulders with the tanks and infantry of the opposite side. This was where we helped an American Armoured outfit, who were in dire straits, and pulled them out of trouble and secured the release of a lot of Yanks who had been taken prisoner; they were embarrassingly grateful, to us it was just a job of work, but they were eulogistic and to show their gratitude, gave us the whole of their weeks’ PX, (sort of NAAFI) goodies. A very generous race.
We didn’t capture the Afrika Corps then, as they disengaged and fled west towards Tunis and at Cap Bon we nailed them once and for all. It was a shockingly bloody battle, as it is very hilly there and they were at the top; the ground was like iron and couldn’t be dug to make slip trenches, so any Allied soldier caught there, got the chop but the result is history, and many of us had the most wonderful day of our lives, standing up on the cliffs, looking down on the Mediterranean, where the Axis troops were trying to do a mini Dunkirk. I suppose it was cruel, really, but having suffered at their hands for so long, it seemed a pleasure to watch the small boats pull away and the R.A.F. would then buzz along and sink them, or the odd 25-pounder would thump them into smithereens. Revenge is very sweet, never mind what the do-gooders say. None of them got away.
After this, it was all over bar the odd fanatics who were holding out and preferred ‘death to dishonour.’ The 8th Army, that wonderful Army, with its magnificent fighting men, being the gentlemen that they were, obliged. It was a total victory and another German myth destroyed. It was shortly after this that we met up with the 1st Army troops. This took the form of my truck being, as usual, miles behind the others, seeing a dusty column appearing in the distance, which our look-out, from his position on a settee (which we had liberated) tied on top of the vehicle, riding ‘shot-gun’ so to speak, could relax in comfort whilst travelling and at the same time spot anything that moved for miles around, due to the height from the ground - about twelve feet -complete with our Spandau on an improvised mounting. He gave the usual warning, as the enemy used our trucks as well as his own, and a vehicle detached itself from the main body to have a look at us.
It was obvious that it was a British truck as it was painted green (European colour, ours were yellowish) and beautifully clean and tidy and ours was filthy dirty, the windscreen wiped with oil and sand thrown on so that it didn’t reflect the sun, with small areas cleaned off for the driver to see where he was going, covered with ‘tatty’ camouflage and hung around with pots and pans, vehicle springs, spare tyres and all the paraphernalia of a mobile fitters’ wagon, not forgetting, of course, our settee tied on the roof and German machine-gun. The vehicle drew up about fifty yards away and we did likewise, but with the Spandau cocked. I got out, clutching my Schmeisser (sub-machine pistol) wearing the usual boots (no socks) shorts (no shirt) and beret and, like the vehicle, rather dirty. From the other truck stepped down an immaculate young officer, pale of face, long shorts, boots, ankle puttees, socks and shirt, well laundered, and a steel helmet, plus his equally clean and laundered troops. I wish a picture could have been taken then, it would have shown, more than anything how different the 8th Army was from the rest of the British Army; we were desert fighters, who had adapted to our environment and maintained a discipline that was based on respect and comradeship and not on spit and polish. The officer asked me who and what we were and I told him and he asked if the rest of the 8th Army was like us. The reply was in the affirmative and he said "My God!" Anyway, we all relaxed and put away the arms and invited him and his crew to have a brew in true Desert manner but he declined as his column was disappearing and he had to rejoin them. Before they left we cadged some tins of food from them, more to prove to our mates.
We eventually laagered up outside Tunisia; no more fighting to be done and were ordered to get ourselves and the vehicles cleaned up and made presentable to the rest of the Human Race and we were allowed a visit to Tunis. When we got there, the scene was indescribable; wine flowed, literally in the streets and, as near as dammit, everybody was well on the way to getting stoshious. This was too good to miss and, naturally, we joined in and asked where the booze was coming from and were led to a vast wine storage place, where the stuff was flowing from the smashed-open casks, and the troops - and I mean all ranks - were filling whatever they could lay their hands on, with it.
At one time I used to believe that a Ghurkha never drew his knife unless he was going to use it or sharpen it. Perish the thought. We watched in astonishment as a couple of Ghurkhas, kukri in hands, were carving holes in these huge vats to allow the wine to flow freely. Ancient Rome must have been like this, only the women were missing, more’s the pity, so no orgy in its fullest sense. My mate and I managed to get hold of a couple of discarded milk tins and with a quick wash out in wine we joined the festivities. It went on for several hours until we got wind that the Military Police were coming, so, collecting our bemused wits, we hi-tailed it back to the truck and sat in it like good boys -drinking our wine out of a jerry-can (water type) we had managed to get hold of and so back to our Camp.
Next we were told to be friendly to the inhabitants and to arrange a dance, with them invited, and as, at that time, I was able to speak passable French, having learnt it previously in France, was in much demand, going round the village, inviting people to our ‘do’ and this had a spin-off as the French sought me out to relay messages, etc. and in this way I got both my feet well and truly under many tables. It was a good life but short-lived as my expected recall to the Para came through and off I went, sorry to lose the companionship of men I had been through so many adventures with but looking forward to my chosen way of soldiering.
A period of intensive training took place, plus a couple of jumps to get back into the way of things, and, as I was now with a Para Unit, a rise in pay of 2/- per day, plus a red beret, which was a proud moment for me; the Para, in Tunisia, had literally covered themselves with glory, taking on action after action and decimating the enemy wherever they fought and it was here that they earned the title of the ‘Rote Teufel - the Red Devils’ - from the Germans, a name that they were proud to accept.
The buzz was that we were to invade Sicily and this was what happened. The briefing was that three bridges were to be secured, the Air Landing Brigade and the Commandoes would secure the two nearest the landing by sea, and the Para would secure the third one furthest away called the Primassol Bridge; the operation was called ‘Marston’ and a right shambles it turned out to be for us; the sea-borne invasion took place in the early hours of the 10th July with the glider troops and they were successful, and later also the Commandoes, and about four days later we got the message ‘Marston is on.’ I believe several airfields were used to get us all into the air, about a hundred aircraft, plus a score or so gliders, with airborne artillery. All went well until we turned towards Sicily after Malta, which was marked by - searchlights pointing towards the sky, a very eerie experience. After awhile we got close to the Sicilian coast where our troops were still being disembarked, when suddenly the shit hit the fan - we were being fired on by the Navy!
All this was learned later as it wasn’t possible to see anything much from a Dakota in darkness, but we could hear plenty and our Dakota got hit, which put the wind up me, vertical. The dispatcher, a Yank, (it was an American crew flying us) came back and said ‘Holy Cow, the Limeys are shooting at us; get hooked up quick and get ready to go.’ Well, by this time we were past the firing but the aircraft had been crippled and we got the order to bailout. It was pitch dark, the terrain was unknown; we didn’t know our height (this was important as we normally jumped between 400-600 feet, so as to get I down quickly and not hang about in the sky, presenting an easy target) and of course we could have been jumping into a German garrison for all we knew. However, out we went, my position in the stick was fifth, and after the ’chute opened, adopted an ‘about to hit a tree position’ as, in the circumstances it gave the best protection to my mind, and after what seemed hours a very frightened parachutist was deposited on a corn-field.
I couldn’t believe my luck, truly a parachutist should be a fatalist because if your number is on it, you’ll get it; if it isn’t you’ll survive. Terrified I laid still for a moment or two, then my training asserted itself; hit the buckle, get out of the harness quick and see what is around you, cautiously. Nothing but corn. Gather in the ‘chute and make it into a small bundle, pick up my haversack and Sten Gun and move away from the spot; about a minute later I stopped and listened - nothing, no sound, just silence except for very distant firing. So I stayed there until first light so that the view would be much better; not that I had a clue where I was, I didn’t even know if this particular terra was Sicily, but with the sun rising, and assuming it was Sicily, it would be a simple matter to orient myself and not travel in the wrong direction.
Sorting out the south, I crawled on
my hands and knees to a stand of trees on the edge of the field and on arriving
had a quick look around to see if anybody was about and saw nothing untoward, so
standing up amongst the trees to have a really good look I saw a farmhouse some
distance away and decided to take a chance and go to it, as all the area
appeared to be deserted, not even a sign of my travelling companions being
around. I don’t know what happened to them, as I’ve never seen them from
that night onwards.
Arriving, very cautiously, at the house - and a right poverty-stricken dump it was, a civilian appeared at the door with his hands up, shaking with fright. To cut a long story short he thought I was a German, due to my type of helmet, which was that worn by the Paras, but after making sure he was alone I told him, “Me Inglise, where tedeschi?”
This was their word for the Germans and, with a bit of arm- waving and pidgin English, established that they had passed the previous evening, and his family had gone to meet the British or Americans they had heard were coming along; he thought I was a German, coming back to shoot them all, so with the good news under my belt, we shared my rations and his vino and I waited for the Allied troops to show their faces, which they did later that afternoon.
I made myself known to them and was
passed back to intelligence, who interrogated me to establish my bona-fide,
which was soon done as no foreigner alive could imitate my accent for a start
and of course my knowledge of the night’s events could only be known to
somebody who was there, and I told them what the civilian had told me. Then I
was told about the shambles that the operation had become, due to the Navy not
receiving information about us and, on our part, not sending out a recognition
signal. As I understood it, only about a third of our force got to Sicily, the
rest went back to Africa with damaged aircraft, or were at the bottom of the
Once more the Gods had smiled on me, or as it was put later - the Devil looks after his own!
Back to North Africa and eventually homeward bound; it was three and-a-half years since I had left France, and a bit of water had flowed under the bridge. A short leave home to see my parents and relations and, whilst there, I met up with our local minister, a dear old theologian who lived in another world. We met in the street and the following conversation took place.
“Good evening, Doctor,” (he was a Doctor of Divinity) “remember me?”
“Yes, of course. I haven It seen you recently, have you been away?”
“I’ve just returned from North Africa, Doctor. It is three and a half years since we last met.”
“Oh yes, something to do with the war, I expect. Are we winning?” and off he tottered, muttering to himself.
Leave over, back to the unit and an awful lot of hard training, including long, fast route marches; commando training, learning new methods of sneaky killing and all the mayhem associated with being hard, very efficient, ‘first in’ troops; in fact we were so fit it was unbelievable. Voluntarily, many of us used to do a regular five miles trot before breakfast, as it kept you up to the peak and made further training that much less odious because, believe me, it was arduous and always with the terrible thought that if you didn’t measure up, you would be returned to your original unit.
There was no disgrace in this, it was simply that the Para demanded, got and retained the best. It sorted out, at the training establishment, the lads who volunteered in order to get a Red Beret and an extra 2 shillings per day jumping pay, from those who really wanted to be part of the newest, greatest band of fighting men that Britain had ever seen; and with these words I include our comrades in arms, the Commandoes, who, like us, were highly trained, dogged and resourceful men, who could be utterly relied upon not to let their mates down. I did a couple of actions with Marine Commandoes and Army ditto, but more of that later.
During a training session I had accident which put me in hospital for a spell and, on discharge, was sent to the Para Holding Battalion at Derbyshire, Clay Cross, to be exact, and it was here, whilst kicking my heels, waiting to rejoin the mob, that an offer appeared on the notice board. It simply said, “Parachutists required to volunteer as Cameramen.” Nothing more, no clues as to what it meant. So, in my usual fashion of volunteering for anything that took my fancy I applied and was interviewed by the major commanding the Army Film Unit - along with some others; waited awhile, still clueless as to what we were to do, and then six of us received our marching orders and were posted for training as photographers, Cine and Still, to, of all places, Pinewood Film Studios, Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire.
When we arrived at Slough Railway Station, the COs car and driver were waiting to take us to the Studios. V.I.P. treatment indeed, and what, we wondered, was the catch? There wasn’t one, it was just the way they did things there. It was that incredible thing in the Army, a unit of civilians wearing uniform. But all the niceties and military decorum were observed. The Officers, all in the Motion Picture or newspaper business were ‘Sir’ and the remainder were sergeants, (like myself) also from the film and newspaper business and they were a marvellous crowd who showed us a way of life that we never knew existed, and I think we also taught them something of our way of life. They asked us what we knew about photography in general and, with the exception of one bloke, the answer was in the negative. We didn’t know an ‘F’ stop from a roll of film, that’s how ignorant we were, but the Instructors were patient and taught us to a very high standard in the sixteen weeks duration of the course. We ended up making our own film, shooting 100 feet each against a script each of us had written, so that not only could we photograph but do it with continuity, writing up the ‘dope’ sheet with each shot so that a commentator or caption writer could pick up the story quite easily; all in black and white, no sound.
We were told that the reason we had been selected for training as cameramen, was that the existing cameramen, whilst able and willing to accompany any ground troops in action, hadn’t taken the parachute training course and therefore no airborne operations up to then had been photographed, so in their wisdom and to our delight, they thought it better to train seasoned paratroopers as photographers and cameramen than vice versa. Just as our training was completed we were wakened up by the continuous roar of aircraft passing overhead, there was so many of them, in wave after wave, that we reckoned that the Second Front had opened, and of course we were right and were very disappointed not to be a part of it. Shortly afterwards we said farewell to Pinewood and went to join a reception area for onward transmission to Normandy, where we met up with the other cameramen who, in the main, had seen a lot of action and were very skilled operators.
We got a good welcome and myself, and another Para (we worked in pairs) attached ourselves to the 6th Airborne Division who had done such a marvellous job of securing vital bridges, with the Commandoes, and making the way open for the sea-landing force. But it was a bit of a stalemate at that time as we were building up for the big push that was to capture Caen and, eventually, surround and destroy the German forces in France, leaving the way open to Paris, Brussels, Antwerp and into Holland.
When the time came for the push (which was to be known as the ‘Battle of Falaise Gap’) I was detached from the 6th Airborne and sent to the start line of the action, where I attached myself to a Highland regiment. My instructions were to record the build-up, the artillery barrage and the advance of the infantry and then get out, back to our own unit with the film, so that it could be flown back to England for processing, censoring and release to the news reels if they required it, with the still pictures with the names and addresses of any of the troops who were in the pictures. This was a very important part of Army Public Relations, as these pictures would be on offer to the local Press where these lads lived and thus their relations - wives, friends, etc., would know that at a given date their husband, son, etc., was all right and on many on occasion, when I was in the line with the troops they would say to me in amazement, “Are you going into action with us with your camera?” “Yes, that’s right, and if you lads fight hard enough it will be all the protection I need” and they would usually say, “Bloody Hell”
Of course we were armed, officially with a pistol, an American Colt .45 automatic, but I’ve always maintained that if you’re close enough to use a pistol you are too damned close so, having learned a thing or two in the past, I carried an American carbine, very light, very accurate, semi-automatic which I had acquired, and a pair of hand-grenades, whenever I was going to be close to the sharp end.
So, suitably booted and spurred, and wearing my red beret, this being a point of honour with the paratroops (excepting in very exceptional circumstances when a helmet was de rigeur and a beret would have been plain stupid) usually the Para fought wearing their berets. I am certain that when the Germans saw one they got the wind up because they knew what to expect if they had the temerity to clash with them. Anyway, I dutifully filmed the tanks ‘in the rear’ the artillery in front of them and, of course, the boys who would be taking the first brunt of the attack, and then it was evening, so I climbed into an armoured personnel carrier with the intention of photographing the gun flashes as they put up the initial barrage. This type of shot is very effective and when edited can produce a visual effect on the screen of one continuous ripple of fire, the flash of the guns showing up the gun itself and perhaps some of the gun team. All good stuff but what I didn’t know was that the barrage was to be a creeping one, that is, each salvo would land a bit further on than the previous one, in this case one hundred yards at a time and that the infantry were going to attack under this umbrella of fire, the theory being that when you subject your enemy to heavy bombardment he will be dazed and if the infantry, or tanks, get in amongst them quickly they can destroy them before they recover their wits, thus achieve a victory without heavy loss of life, and reach their given objective, dig in, and be ready for the enemy when he inevitably counter attacks and deny him the ground he has lost.
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