Private George Gordon Hammond
Unit : "A" Company, 4th Parachute Battalion, 2nd Parachute Brigade
Army No. : 14318821
George Hammond was born in Edinburgh on the 27th April 1924. He joined the Royal Armoured Corps on the 5th November 1942, and on volunteering for the Airborne Forces completed Parachute Course No.70 at RAF Ringway, 28th June to the 9th July 1943. Posted to the 4th Parachute Battalion, he served in North Africa, Italy, France, Greece and Palestine. The following is an extract from a private book which he wrote for his family, and has been contributed by his son, Jason Hammond.
From Tanks to Paras
Usually, I paid little attention to notices on the Bulletin Board. I figured if there was something I needed to know I would find out soon enough from my buddies or the troop NCO's. For some strange reason, one day on impulse I decided to scan the board and there among the BS and orders was a notice saying volunteers were needed by the Airborne Division for paratroopers and an interview team would arrive in the near future. I recall not believing it at first... perhaps some wise guys were putting us on? I checked with the Orderly Room... yes, it was genuine so I signed up for the interview. When I told my buddies they stared at me as if I were mad, or was betraying the jolly old regiment of the Royal Armoured Corps! But I figured that out of the mob in the training depot there would be a lot signing up and I hoped I had signed up early enough before the list was cut off. On the day of the interview, just 12 of us showed up!
The interview team was a mix of about two officers, two sergeants and two or three corporals, all in maroon berets. With so few of us, they gave us their full attention and made it clear we had better measure up or bye bye! On one test one sergeant said I did not run fast enough. Still puffing from my first effort, I insisted I had, and could run even faster a second time. He said "Let's see you do it" and I did! He and some of the other team guys were grinning when he hit the stop watch as I damn near collapsed. After a bunch of physical, oral and written tests, we were told to report back later the same day, and when we did we learned two guys were out, and the rest of us were only a tentative acceptance pending our passing a bunch more tests when we got to their training base a few days later. They did not waste time... a few days later we were on our way north again to Derbyshire. The base was very close to Hardwick Hall, one of Britain's famous and ancient historical mansions, off limits.
As we arrived, so did other guys from other areas. We must have been quite a sight with our different regimental hats etcetera. But no time to even think when all hell broke loose! Out of nowhere came this giant of a Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) screaming at all of us in a thick Scots brogue that he would "nae have sacks o'shit" cluttering up "his" camp and to fall in (line up) smartly or to "bloodywell gae back from where ye came"... and he was not kidding, as we learned! RSM's in British regiments are gods, and often command far more respect than a commanding officer. This guy was indeed king of the mountain. (We nicknamed him "Sacks O'Shit"... behind his big back).
He proceeded to outline his expectations of us, and what we could expect of him (in no uncertain manner) and said that from early morning hours to after dinner hours, all trainees had to move "at the double" (run) wherever they were going either singly or with others. Any failing that could expect to be RTU'd (Returned to their unit) in "double quick time". Then we were broken up into units, each filling a Quonset hut, and in the tender care of our sergeant instructors.
From then on, life was an intensive whirlwind! Loads of physical training like I had never had before, psychological, psychiatric and medical tests for the first few weeks, then on to more intense physical training, hand to hand combat, learning to jump off heights the "right" way and to hit the ground with one shoulder (after feet first of course!) and roll out, simulating a parachute landing. Then weapons training, learning to strip a rifle and machine gun down, then reassembling them both within so many minutes... then doing the same BLINDFOLDED, again in so many minutes. The idea being if you had gun problems in the dark, you had better know how to take care of them without a light! Then, we did the same with a couple of German weapons... the idea being you ready to use any weapon at any time. This was all done with great intensity, but often relieved with humour... like a guy letting a rifle return spring fly into the air and he had to search alone for it while the rest of us got on with our tests under the eagle eyes of the instructors. With their handy dandy stop watches.
To ease any boredom we may have had with all this, there were days, rain or shine, we were invited for a little walkies... like twenty miles up hill and down dale in full battle order including weapons. Every hour or so a brief halt for five or ten minutes then march on. A couple of times, one or two could not make the distance. They were picked up by truck and the next day they were headed back to their units. I guess the instructors knew what they were doing because it made the rest of us that much more determined.
For variety, we had several sessions of learning how to use fighting knives... scared the heck out of me (and some others) and I hoped we would never get that close to the enemy! Then there were days when we learned to use toggle ropes to scale cliff faced walls and to rapell. The toggle was a neat idea. Each of us had one which was a rope about two inches or a bit less thick and about five feet long. At one end was a loop and at the other end a wooden toggle or handle. Three or more guys could pool toggle ropes and fit them very quickly together, and you had one longer rope. Put six or eight together and you could go places fast. Very strong ropes, easily worn around the waist or shoulder... great for fun too, swinging like tarzan from a tree!
My most vivid and warmest memory of this stage in my career was of the great bunch of guys I was with. All shapes and sizes, rich and poor, from many different areas of the nation, all eager to be a success in this tough course. Often at night we were too damned tired to think of going anywhere but to the mess hall for dinner, then to the nearby canteen to sit around and sip beer (Shandy!) and chew the fat. Most of the time I just listened and I wish now I had tapes of many of those times. Some of the men were so funny our sides ached from laughter or we had serious sessions with guys telling us what life had been like in their hometowns. Some nights three or four of us would get together and walk about three miles to the nearest town, a coal mining town named North Wingfield. We would have a drink in a pub, then headed for the local townhall which organized dances a couple of nights a week. We would stand around by the walls shifting from one foot to another until someone plucked up courage to ask one of the local girls to dance, then the rest of us would do the same... I think I was usually the last one to ask, after I had wiped my hot hands a few times! I was no great dancer anyway, but then I found some of the dancers were not so great either, but they were very nice people. Then my buddies and I would begin our three miles trek back to camp, sometimes on the way stopping in a miners' canteen for a cup of tea or raiding some poor bugger's apple orchard. Wonderful apples!
Then we learned how to control a parachute on the ground in windy conditions. We all enjoyed that... but prayed we would never have to handle a real jump in high winds. (Some of us were lucky later on, some were not.) But, at that time we were concentrating on now, the future could take care of itself. In fact, we were taught to think of the now, to get it right. Then we had to swim across a small lake fully clothed... a new and scary experience, but all part of the preparation for any eventuality. Then, after a solid briefing, we undertook an "exercise" which simulated battle conditions, using live ammunition! The "enemy" knew what to do... we just hoped and prayed we did too! I can still see that day! Crawling on our stomachs under barbed wire with the crack and snap of machine gun bullets over head and explosives (simulating mines and mortar shells) going off nearby. Then, we had to swim a damned lake, all the time with hell breaking loose. Several guys starred in this, handing their weapons to their buddies when they reached too deep water, and swimming across with toggle ropes trailing behind to other guys. They made it, secured the toggle ropes to trees or fences then the rest of us made it across by hand over hand on the ropes (deep breath and VERY speedy hand over hand when under water briefly). Then, heads down and on stomachs again, more live ammo and explosives until we finally got over the last obstacle. While all this had been going on, Old Sacks O'Shit had been standing high on a hill with some other guys and told us we were "nae so bad, though he had seen much room for improvement... would we like to do it again?" No takers!
A special note here about Old SOS. He had the scar of a bullet wound in his forearm, and legend had it he had five more such scars in other parts of his body, received when he was a member of the Combined Operations raid in Dieppe on the coast of France... (some bastards somewhere had blabbed because the krauts were expecting them, and the raid was a disaster). Old SOS was one of the lucky few to make it back. Some soul also spread the story they were not German bullets in him!! Charming!
Finally, the day came when we were trucked over to the RAF airfield at Ringway to stay as their "guests" while we did more simulated jump training in the hangars, getting closer to the day of actually jumping. I can still see that day as if it were yesterday... a beautiful calm and clear bright early summer evening when we were trucked into the nearby countryside and unloaded near a couple of big trucks. One truck carried parachutes, from which we were each handed a free sample. Then we were split into groups of five, and once more went through the drill of fitting on our 'chutes. Then, complete with 'chutes, we walked over to wait near another truck which was to be the source of our very first jump. Other groups of five waited too, and we all watched as others ahead of us moved closer to the truck, which was fitted out with an enormous cable windlass from which was suspended a barrage balloon (about the size of a dirigible though smaller than the Goodyear blimp) and beneath that a basket specially made to carry five learners plus an RAF instructor and fitted out with an overhead steel bar over a big hole in the floor. We each hooked up our static lines (webbed pelting protruding from 'chute pack) to the steel bar, then moved to numbered positions sitting close to the hole. Before we did this, I recall standing and looking over the side as the balloon rose, and seeing a flock of sheep diminishing in size as we went further aloft... oh Lordy, what am I doing here? Meanwhile, the RAF instructor (equal to a captain) was chatting away cheerily, saying the balloon would stop climbing at around 600 feet, and how lucky we were to have such "mahvallous wethah" and how much he just LOVED jumping.
Then, the BIG MOMENT. He called "Action Stations Number One" and the first customer swung around in a sitting position to where he was perched on the edge of that gaping hole. And, as instructed, not looking down but up into the face of the instructor who was standing the other side of the hole, but holding onto the steel bar... who then yelled "GO!" and Number One, with his hands on the floor alongside his butt, pushed himself off and down he disappeared into the hole. This action and the brief moment later action of his static line taughtening (and pulling his 'chute out) caused the basket to bump around, scaring me even more. Then more "Action Station" calls and the basket bumping until there was just me and the instructor left. Oh gawd! With a big grin, he yelled "Action Stations Number Five" and around I swung my legs over the hole with my eyes on his... no way was I going to look down! Then he yelled "GO!" and away I went into the unknown! Yikes! I heard the wind rushing round my ears and tugging on my clothes then, before I could figure anything out, there was a tug at my shoulders and suddenly I was swinging in the breeze. I looked up and there was my beautiful open 'chute. I looked down and there was the seemingly gently approaching earth, a bunch of earlier jumpers either gathering up their 'chutes or marching off the Drop Zone, and some nut running across the field yelling something through a megaphone. Then I realised he was yelling to me to position my legs properly for the landing and looking closer I noticed the ground coming up faster than I thought! Whatever, I did something right and landed well with my feet first and a roll over on my shoulder, my chute spilling a few yards from my head so all I had to do was roll over again onto my tummy, stand up and collapse my chute, then roll it up and go back to the truck. Where I met the instructor who had jumped after me! Never did learn how he beat me to the truck! But, as pre-arranged we all drew chutes again and back up again for another jump!
I think this was harder for all of us (except the instructor) because we now had a better idea of what to expect and scared ourselves more. But, we did it. Just as we were beginning to feel great about ourselves etcetera, we were reminded those two jumps were just the beginning in ideal conditions and from a stationary balloon. We had SIX MORE jumps to make, all from airplanes, and at least one if not two of them at NIGHT! We needed a total of eight jumps to qualify, and if we refused to jump at any time... even on the last jump... we would be sent back to our parent unit. Tanks? Not bloody likely! On the other hand, you were reminded that if you completed your eight jumps, you were in solid... and if you refused to jump at any time after, it was an automatic court martial with at least 30 days in the slammer, loss of any rank you may have, loss of pay and being shipped back to your old unit.
I believe it was around this time that I heard from a guy I had known at recruit (boot) camp who informed me Fred had received an honorable discharge from the service and was back with his old buddies happily dredging the canals of the English countryside! The crafty bugger had fooled them all... I guess they all gave up in absolute frustration and despair! I recall it seemed amusing... Fred had the last laugh anyway.
Our first 'plane jump was from a Brit Wellington bomber converted for the job... a big round hole in the floor where the bomb bay was normally located. About 16 or 18 of us were loaded into it, sitting on the floor, with our chute static lines hooked to a cable. Off we went, with no view or idea of where. Then we were given a few minutes advance warning to get ready and all eyes were glued to a light panel, and we were all inching forward as the red light came on for "ready" then a few seconds later the green light for "GO" and we followed one another, swinging our legs out over the bomb bay hole, and pushing off... I think an added scare was seeing the glare of daylight coming up through the hole. We had been taught (for the balloon and plane drops) that once you pushed off you grabbed for sides of your legs so you would have less body parts to get caught up in the chute as it opened or perhaps the plane body... a very cheerful thought. I vaguely remember being whipped away from the plane by the slipstream, snap and tug of my chute opening then seeing a bunch of others in chutes, all of us floating down to the DZ (Drop Zone). That first plane drop was from about 1200 feet just to get acquainted. The rest would be from 900 to 1000 feet, the idea being for both planes and jumpers to be exposed in the air a minimum amount of time in case of enemy fire or other reasons. In actual combat zones, drop height over the DZ would depend on local situation, but never less than 600 feet which would be too risky allowing for each 'chutist being loaded with full battle order and having weapons ready pronto... those of us with Tommy Guns, Sten Guns, other machine guns had guns in padded bags attached to a leg, and once your 'chute opened you released a handy grip which dropped the padded weapon to about 15 or 20 feet below you suspended from a line attached to the seat of your 'chute harness. The line length thus allowed for the gun to hit the deck a bit before you did, thus no or little risk of getting tangled up in it, but very close to you for quick use.
Anyway, a lower drop height also helped for more accuracy in hitting the DZ... at least that is what they told us then. Ha ha! Well, we made the plane jumps during the daylight OK though some of us got banged up a bit on the last one due to the wind being quite a bit higher than forecast. Some guys landed up in hospital. I landed really hard on sloping ground which threw me back off my feet hard onto my butt. I lay there unable to move with a sick feeling something was wrong, then a captain in charge of training came over and asked if I needed help or to get the medics? That gave me the willpower to get up on my knees, released my 'chute, snarl at him something about not needing any bloody help (which brought a big smile on his face) and off I staggered to catch up with my mates. I had added incentive... if you were hospitalized, even for just a few days, you missed completing your jumps, had to have a bunch of physicals, then join a later "class" for completing your jumps. No way!
The next day I could barely crawl out of my bunk, I was so stiff and sore, then some of my mates commented on the gray, yellow and green bruises on my butt and lower back. Oh gawd! We were due to make that night drop that night! Fortunately, we had an easy day, so I spent time between hot showers and my bunk. When the time came I stuffed some of my clothes as extra padding around my butt and back, all caught together nicely by my camouflage jacket, then my jumping smock and over the lot my chute. Since we were all pulled and pushed into the bomber as part of normal routine, that helped me a lot, and soon after hooking up my static line, I was sitting on the floor in line with my fellow fools. Apart from being scared, I hated the smell of the aircraft (one guy "Neck" Lewis, was always sick in the air... very inspiring!).
When we boarded it was black night, with wartime "blackout" of all lighting. Shielded flashlights and car lights. Only essential lights on airfield and runway lights only when needed. Our DZ was to be as near real as possible, colored flares smoke to guide us around the perimeters, period. Well, off we went with some weird lighting inside the bomber reflecting off our burnt cork blackened faces... like a bunch of very quiet zombies. I could see the outline of the guys ahead of me and each time I moved a bit, my butt let me know! As usual, I was praying to God for a safe deal for all of us... after all, who knows more about flying than the good Lord and angels? By the time it came for me to go out of that hole, I was praying to ALL Gods! Red Light, Green, GO! And out I went, into the slipstream and darkness, then my chute opened and I could see below fuzzy green-blue and orange-yellow lights of the flares. Those RAF boys dropped us right on the button. As the planes departed, it became silent, then bit by bit sounds from below as we neared earth. I hunched myself into as much a ball as I could and prayed. I still cannot believe my good fortune. One of the softest landings I ever made, with a perfect roll. The Power of Prayer or just Dumb Luck? I believe the former.
We left our chutes on the deck, took off on a night ground "battle exercise" then, stiff and sore, climbed aboard a truck and back to base... never so relieved, and happy it was over. Unlike American paratroopers, we never packed our own chutes which was done for us by the RAF. At the training camp, members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF's) did that very responsible chore. But then again unlike the American troops, we did not have a reserve chute either. Hats off to the WAAF!
After that night jump, back to our base feeling ten feet tall... we had made it all the way through many weeks and weeks of hard slogging, sore butt and all! We celebrated in the RAF canteen... beer for most, Shandy for me. Then, I fell into bed, passed into a deep sleep, and next I knew was the RAF playing wake up music over the intercom. Those guys lived in style.
A brief "passing out" ceremony for us being given our wings to go along with our red berets. Then a pass for two weeks leave with the caution to use it well, because it would be a long time before we got another... then onto the train for London with many of my buddies. A drink at the London rail station, then each to our separate ways. We must have had some mind reading because someone suggested we all meet at a certain pub about ten days later, which we did. Just about all of us had the same view... bored, little to do, ready to go back to base and let's see what happens. Yes, maybe we were young and stupid but there is just something special about service times and my buddies. Anyway, we newborn paratroopers were soon back to camp, full of rumours as usual about our future. One sure thing we did learn was the training jumps to get wings had been cut from eight to six... the official reason it no longer necessary for eight, but the unofficial reason being training was being more intensified, speeded up, to get more volunteers and to build up the size of the Parachute Regiment into more than just one division. Why? Somebody had big plans for us... after all, a fortune had been spent on training us, have to justify it. Our fearless leader, Major General "Boy" Browning was a real eager beaver who had been one of the originators of the Parachute Regiment formed only AFTER Britain was at war due to pre-war idiots believing such a thing was "far fetched", "not practical" and "really, old boy, nothing will be able to stand up to our superior forces"! This despite the fact Germany had flaunted its large force of well-trained paratroopers in pre-war "exercises" with much publicity and propaganda?
Only after Britain went to war and got its ass well and truly kicked by the krauts did anybody listen to Browning and friends and give the go-ahead. Of course, changes had to be made at the top both politically and militarily, thank God. That helped a great deal. [I] even had a personal conversation with General Browning! One day several groups of us were out on field exercises, covered in the usual mud and grime. A small observation plane buzzed us, then landed in a nearby field. Two guys jumped out and were met by a bunch of our officers who had scampered over to it. Then the group headed our way where we were all laying in the mud supposedly aiming our weapons at a fictitious enemy. I was laying down by a huge oak tree, hugging close to it with my rifle aimed at the "enemy". Next I knew, a voice was asking me "Do you have a good field of fire (view) from that position"? I turned my head and looked up at this tall dark and rugged man fitted out like a tailor's dummy... red beret, beautifully pressed dress tunic with highly polished Sam Browne belt and holster, off-white riding britches, and black riding boots gleaming with high polish. The MAN himself! I managed to stutter "Yes sir" to which he responded "Are you sure"? I said "Yes sir, I am" thinking he would go away. Next I knew, he was crouched down behind me, trying to line up on my view. Then he knelt beside me... those beautiful boots and britches in the mud... said he thought I could improve my firing position a bit and what did I think of the training, did I have any suggestions for improvements? I think I just gaped! A lowly trooper having a friendly chat in the mud with a two star general! I stammered something about having learned a lot, could not think of any suggestions, to which he scrambled to his feet and took off, with the Uriah Heaps tagging along behind him... one of them came back, wanted to know my name and what had we discussed. O FAME AT LAST! Naturally, everybody else wanted to know what was said, and what stands out in my mind was one of my buddies saying "Yes, but those britches and boots in all that mud! Glad I am not his batman (orderly) having to clean that lot up". We learned later that this was a totally unexpected visit by Browning, who was noted for doing things without notice or change of uniform, to keep people "honed to a sharp edge". We also learned he was also volunteering "his" paratroopers for any and all crazy jobs... he could hardly wait. Another of the "Death or Glory" boys who love wars... "great fun", opportunities for rapid promotions, medals etcetera.
Next highlight I can recall (remember, all this happened more than 50 years ago!) was all of us toting our gear up the gangway of a troopship at Liverpool Docks, bound for parts unknown. It was all very hush hush. With Britain fighting in North Africa, Burma and other parts of the Far East, it was anybody's guess, and we had not been issued with any different equipment or clothing so no clue there. But let me recall some of the joys of that luxury cruise. The ship, as we later learned, had been a pre-war passenger-freighter, so no big problem to convert the cargo holds into troop space. We were herded down, down, down into former hold space now fitted out with hammocks and long tables, the latter being fixed to the decks for obvious reasons. Everybody falling over each other, scrambling to get situated. No air conditioning, such fresh air as there was was drawn in through funnels on the decks. No portholes or windows. Latrines and showers always busy... though showers were restricted to certain times to conserve water supplies... so you can imagine that along with body odor, there was always a delicate fragrance wafting up the gangways!
Each of us was given a life jacket, and assigned to certain gangways for emergency and other times exits to the decks, and to certain tables for meals and briefings. And specific boat stations on deck for emergency use... like if the ship was bombed or torpedoed! Specific times and places on deck for physical fitness drills and weapons cleaning and drills. Certain times we were NOT allowed on deck too. And no smoking on deck at night... even the glow of cigarettes can be seen for great distances by U-Boats look-outs.
Soon we were sailing along, everybody settling in. Then there was this strange rolling motion and lurching, causing a slowdown in activities... then groaning and moaning and people lurching to the latrines. Noise and stench unforgettable... a romantic cruise serenaded by violet cookie whoopers and poopers! It was during this joyful period that it was my turn to go to the galley to collect the dinner meal for our table. I'll never forget it! As I neared the galley, a strange, awful odor hit my nostrils. I stood in line and collected a metal tray covered with a metal lid, something slopping around inside. Then a supply of bread was placed on top and off I went. I staggered along with the roll of the ship and the stench from the meal tray back to my buddies and eased the lot on the table. Somebody removed the lid and there was a steaming mess of TRIPE AND ONIONS! Shouts and curses! The sight and smell of cow's offal and stewed onions, along with sweaty bodies and rolling seas fast emptied that table! All of us would have paid money to get our hands on the bastard responsible for that kind of meal. Bad enough at the best of times, but to troops being shipped out was something else...
Another memory... all too often the ship played music over the sound system... ALWAYS the same piece! "Anchor's Aweigh". Seems the Merchant Navy had a strange sense of humor. Every so often we would get "life boat drill" at all hours... I guess just to keep us amused? Sometimes rain and cold, but at least fresh air. Once in a while, we would see another ship in the distance, sometimes more and we assumed we were part of a convoy. Nobody told us... all very secret. I guess somebody was afraid we would phone our friends in Berlin and say "Wish you were here"! I don't know how long we were on that ship. We played cards, traded books, every once in a while a fight would break out. Finally, the day came when somebody said the weather was much more sunny and warmer we could hardly wait our time to go on deck. It went on like that for some days, I think, until the day a sailor told us land was in sight. A big bolt for the gangway until a mob was on deck looking in the distance at the outline of land. Then some fool over the loudspeaker ordered us all below decks. Nobody moved. Then somebody, maybe the same person, up on the bridge repeated the order with an "immediately", to which a voice in the crowd yelled back "You go first mate" and again nobody moved. Somebody on bridge must have got the message since we were left alone for a while. Then officers and sergeant mingled and used the old kid gloves "Come along lads, let's get below" which worked. Even then nobody told us where we were... we wasted time asking!
Oh Joy! Oh Rapture! At a briefing session down below decks we were finally informed we were nearing Algiers! When we would be landing etcetera. I recall a hot sunny morning of getting off that ship and happily stretching my legs on land. A fat lot we saw of the city! Hustled aboard trucks and away into the barren boonies to a staging camp of big tents, holes-in-ground latrines, limited water supplies (trucked in) and... finally... being issued with tropical clothing of ill-fitting shirts, shorts and slacks. Lots of lectures on the perils of North Africa like malaria, dirt, scorpions, snakes, all things to make you feel at home! The krauts had been kicked out of Algeria about six months or so earlier and were getting wiped out so fast that we arrived at the tail end of the war in North Africa. We wondered why we were there? Why had our government spent all that money on that luxury cruise for us? We would soon find out!
But first, a treat! We were all trucked back to Algiers and given the day to explore. Just like that! Free to roam but no idea of where to go etc. Then somebody remembered Algiers is/was famous for its Casbah... visions of all the wonders as seen in the Charles Boyer movie around that time. Off we went in threes and fours (safety in numbers) wandering through streets which, I recall, showed strong French influence in its buildings and well-designed boulevards... some things the French were very good at in their former colonies.
I recall every so often seeing big signs saying "Out of Bounds" "Off Limits" with no idea of why. Spoil Sports at work? Finally, we all entered the Casbah... a rabbit warren of narrow streets of strange smells, scruffy Arabs, tiny shops, mobs of little kids. Then whispered invitations to visit somebody's sister... a Princess. What? All four of us? No... one of us. Urgent tugging on our sleeves... "Piss Off" was the standard British reply, equal to our "Get Lost" or "Beat it". As one wag said you go alone and risk getting VD or bonked on the head or worse for your money. And a kindly reminder... VD in our unit meant a court martial, time in the slammer, and being kicked out to any other unit offering a lousy future. Later, back on the trucks going back to camp, all sorts of stories circulating about great adventure, wild sex shows, to the extent many of us wondered if we had been in the same Casbah.
Just to make sure we did not get too comfortable in the staging camp, bright and early one hot morning, complete with all our duffel bags (kit bags for Brits) and other gear, we were loaded onto a freight train. Each freight wagon being marked on each side in French "8 Chevaux ou Vingt Hommes" "8 horses or 20 men". Such a charming distinction!
We were finally briefed... we would be on several days journey across North African Algeria to next country east, Tunisia. That train trip was sure an experience. Stop and Go for a few miles, then more of the same. Every so often we would stop out in the middle of nowhere of rocks, sand, dirt, dust and scrub, and whether it was night or day, Arabs always appeared with their hands out, or wanting to trade for tea, cigarettes, chocolate or even uniforms. Yet we rarely saw a village or town to know where they had sprung from! Stinking hot during the day, very cold at night, water tightly rationed. Meals, such as they were, were hit and miss. Mostly out of tin cans, cold... I think we did have one hot meal fixed by the cooks gang at the side of the track 'cos I dimly recall having my first camel ride at that time, and what a noisy, smelly animal it was.
I also recall hearing about the first American forces having landed months earlier in Morocco, then later easily moved into next country Algeria without meeting any Germans until they were in the Kasserine Pass in the mountains on the border into Tunisia where they ran into a heavily armored German force. This was where the USA forces, young and green, fresh out from home, were badly mauled. But, as always, they learned fast... it was the krauts who soon discovered that!
Anyway, we finally arrived in Tunisia... saw plenty of kraut... [ENDS]
I loved Rome. It was warm to hot and sunny seems like every day. From camp at Ostia, it was easy to hitch rides on service trucks at most hours into Rome. We had been issued fresh shirts, shorts and trousers of light khaki color and we felt good wearing our maroon berets (they were never really "red"... that came from the Germans calling us Rote Teuffel... Red Devils) among guys from other Allied Forces touring Rome.
Brings to mind one time Rocky, Smudger and I were strolling along in Rome when a bunch of US service women were unloading off a truck on the sidewalk ahead of us. As we came up to them, some just stopped and stared at us and one in a loud voice said "Aren't they cute?"! We were not sure what "cute" meant but we felt like ducks out of water and kept on walking! Our faces matching our berets! Smudger fuming about "silly cows".
What never ceased to amaze me about Rome was, despite all the rationing and hardships of war on the civilians, you could find places selling "eggszah chipz" (fried egg and french fries) anytime. And the three of us stuffed our faces! I love eggs! They had been rationed in Britain for years, I think it was two* per person per week. Hell, in Rome I ate that and more in one sitting. * (It was one a week!).
Seeing the Colosseum and Roman Forum was a big deal for me too. Rocky and Smudger thought they were OK but figured we had seen enough ruins in our previous travels, including bombed London... where were all the beautiful signorinas? Ha! Back at camp, posters and dire warnings of VD, reminders the krauts had been there for years, and Allied troops now by the thousands of all colors served to frustrate. Biggest laugh one day as we roamed around Rome was to turn the corner and there facing us was a Salvation Army Canteen! Complete with little old ladies and gents behind the counter serving tea etc. I think the Salvation Army followed us wherever we went from the time we were drafted. From canteens and clubs in town to mobile canteens in very risky zones. Rain or shine, always a smile and a cheery word, hot tea or cocoa and buns. I could write a lot about them, they were true lifesavers, and I'll always include them on my Christmas list.
You know I love most opera music (not all!). Rome was a big treat for me. I saw and heard some of my favourites at the Rome Opera House... always crowds of Allied troops enjoying the performances.
Well, all good things come to an end. Rome had been taken on June 4 1944 and two days later, June 6, it was D Day in Normandy. For weeks we had been hearing about it, and the krauts also still fighting but being pushed back north in Italy. Soon we were back at camp, going on long cross country "exercises" to get us all fine tuned, then some C 47 jumps all leading up to our taking a night flight from Rome and across the sea to the South of France.
Although this happened more than 50 years ago, I can still recall some of the highlights as if it were last week. We had been briefed that our brigade and some units of the US 82nd. Airborne Division would be dropped in adjoining areas, and our units' objective was the town of Le Muy... happily located some miles inland from the sea, and south of a bigger city called Draguignan. And, though there were German forces who had long been in France, many of the units had been moved out either to the east to Italy or to the north to Normandy. Chances were good it would be a quick very successful invasion. Always good to know!
How well I remember it. A long uneventful night flight in very dimmed interior lights, then being told we were nearing the French coast. Still a calm flight and clear starry night. Then a bit bumpy and occasional flashes in the distant air like tracers, then we were all standing with 'chutes hooked to the line. We jumped on the exact given time at 0505 hours (five minutes after 5 a.m.) the morning of August 15 1944. No problems, twists or turns in my jump and I quickly pulled the release ring on the Tommy-gun padded case on my right leg. The gun dropped on the line to hang about 12 to 15 feet below me.
Then I recall how quiet it was. No noises of aircraft. And while it was dark, it was light enough to see outlines on the approaching ground. I vividly recall moving sideways to my left across power lines by the side of a road and then, being hunched in the hopefully correct position, hitting the ground with a thump and rolling over with the 'chute over me. I think I got to my knees, pulled the 'chute away from me, turned and hit the release disk on my 'chute harness and pulled by tommy-gun over. Once out of the 'chute, I realised I was in a vineyard. But, not another soul could I see or hear! Scary! Where was I? Where were the other guys? I unzipped and tossed my jumping smock (used to cover all the pouches and other gear on your body over your camouflage jacket) hid my 'chute and ran to the side of the road. Not a soul in sight or hearing! Then I heard the sound of a truck and had the sense (or good luck?) to crouch down, and in the half light see a German truck zoom by! I soon came across a dry culvert under the road and stayed in there until it got light. Then I looked around me... nothing but empty road and vineyards. Nobody! Not even a farmhouse!
I glanced up and saw the power lines and it dawned on me how close I had been to being killed! My Tommy-gun line could have caught in those wires, pulling me smack hard down on them, or on the road. Or I could have hit the wires anyway and that would have been it! This thinking, plus not seeing any of my buddies or their 'chutes, gave me the creeps!
I kept walking by the side of the road, ready to duck. Then a voice called "Over here" and I saw a guy I knew poking his head out of a dry ditch. Dick Morrison... not one of my normal friends, but right then... a long lost buddy in that wilderness! We both asked the same questions... where was everybody else, and where in the hell were we? Where also was Le Muy and where were the krauts? Every once in a while a fighter plane... US Thunderbolt of Lightning... would fly over, and once in a while we would hear a fighter plane firing a brief burst at something in the distance! But who or what?
We must have been walking a few miles until we came to an old stone marker pointing to the city of Draguignan... about 15 miles further on! Which means we had been dropped about 18 miles from our objective! It was sunny and hot and no place to be without more friends. We trudged on, every so often ducking off the road as a kraut truck or trucks tore by... don't know whether they were rushing to greet us, or running away! The two of us were not about to enquire! We met nobody that day, and that first night we both holed up in a dry ditch with plenty of overhanging cover. Taking about the Twilight Zone!
The next day, more trudging along until we saw a lone farmhouse again without a soul in sight. We sneaked up on it until we were in trees about fifty yards away across from the front door which had a cloth hanging over it to shield the heat from the sun. Dick had lost his machine gun in the drop, but still had a .45 pistol. He suggested he cover me with my Tommy gun while I went up to the door and checked it out since I also had a .45 plus my trusty little 7.2mm Beretta pistol in my camouflaged jacket. Being stupid, I agreed and was halfway there, sneaking through bushes when I realised what a crafty bastard dear Dick was! I pushed on, got to the door, did not hear a sound so I pulled the door cloth back and found the door wide open and staring into the room where a man in khaki uniform with his back toward me was busy lighting his pipe! I stepped in with my pistol aimed at him and he turned around and almost choked on his pipe in surprise. I saw immediately he had the Stars and Stripes arm band (as we had the Union Jack on ours) and the glint of a silver bar on his collar... a bloody Yank!
A blond haired guy named Bill in the US Artillery... he also had been dropped miles from his objective and again, had seen nobody until he met me and then Dick. We figured the French farmers knew of the parachute drops and the krauts running around, and had taken off to avoid being caught in the middle. We all rested up the rest of that day, then moved off that night in the hope of linking up with our guys. We passed a few more empty farm houses, not a soul around. Really weird.
Next morning, we headed up hills for higher ground to give us a better view ahead. Then we heard the barking of dogs and krauts hollering in the distance... and we took off into even higher ground at a very hasty pace. The barking went on and the shouting went on for some time, and the three of us were scrambling and sweating like crazy. And then Dick suddenly stopped us and said the noise seemed to be going away from us. O Happy Day! He was right! But we kept on moving just in case he was wrong, and eventually we heard nothing more. We never figured out whether they were after us or somebody else, but we sure as hell did not hang around long enough to find out!
That night we came across another small and empty farm house and checked it out for food or wine. Nothing! But, good water so that was a blessing. Each of us had been issued with "iron rations"... dehydrated stuff of various kinds for several days. So we dined in style at leisure at the farm house table, then decided we were too damn tired to worry any more about dogs or krauts. We took turns of two sleeping one on watch and made it through the night. Next morning we scouted the area and Bill spotted through his field glasses what he said was a big house higher in the hills amidst forest land. He was right... I took a look and saw a very charming chateau with a high tower which would be very useful for observation of the area... always assuming no krauts living in it!
We took off by the side of the road in the direction of the hilltop chateau, and as we rounded a tree-lined bend we came across a kraut armored wagon laying sideways in a ditch with doors wide open and loads of paper and bags strewn around it. Not a soul in sight. We very timidly and extra carefully looked it over, fearful of a trap or booby traps to blow us to heck. So we had a good look at what was left of its contents... it had been carrying lots of records and apparently lots of money because we found some of it... German Occupation Francs and some French paper money. We each stuffed a bunch of it away for checking out later. We could not figure out what had happened. No bodies, no blood, no signs of fighting or explosive to blow it off the road. No weapons in it either.
So off we went hugging the roadside, stopping every so often to scout the area through field glasses for signs of life. Once in a while an empty farm house. No animals, no people. (Before we left Italy, our briefers told us the air force would be dropping leaflets over the France invasion area and beyond, informing the people that American and British paratroopers would be dropping to liberate them from the Germans, and to give us every assistance. Maybe that's why we didn't see anybody... they sure as heck were not around to help us!)
Finally, we were in the hills and through the forest to the grounds of the chateau. Not a sound or soul in sight. We circled it and a fat civilian came out of a side door totally unaware of us. Morrison softly called out "bonjour monsieur" and the guy turned and nearly dropped his teeth when he saw us. He started to gabble and Morrison calmed him down in good French. No there were no Germans here, just he and his wife and his mother. And we should not stay... we would be much safer in the hills! Charming! Welcome to France! Thanks for dropping in! We told Fatso we would be staying, and I think he was unhappily persuaded by my Tommy gun pointing in his direction. Tsk!
We entered and gave the place a quick once over, including his wife and old mom, both haughty and pissed off with the intrusion. A well furnished place, with a roof tower which was perfect as an observation post over the valley. And, we figured krauts had been there... Dick and I had been around long enough to be able to sense a faint odor of Germans. Don't know whether it was their food, uniforms or what.
We all gathered in their large stone floored kitchen. No hospitality offered to the "liberators" such as wine or even water. After a while, it came out! Up until a few days previous the krauts had used their tower as an observation place with an excellent view of the valley and beyond. They were afraid of the krauts coming back and finding us there and wiping us and the French family out... so would we please move on? Charming. No way! Like it or lump it, we were staying. We warned Fatso no sneaking off and to cooperate with us. Then the old woman started griping in French and German. She shut us fast when I asked her... in my best schoolboy German... where he had learned German?
We guys took turns in the observation tower... no great results. The second morning after our arrival I decided to take a bath and float around in a large fountain fronting the house. All very quiet, sunny and warm... luxury. Then, I climbed out and found myself facing a bunch of American soldiers, all with their guns pointing at me! I think I blurted out "Where the bloody hell did you come from" and somebody replied "he don't sound like no kraut" and I replied "I hope not... and there's two more like me in the house". It was an advance US army patrol, and after seeing our uniforms etc all was well. They had not met with much resistance since they had arrived in France and were happy to have us tag along with them that day until we met up with a heavier unit who provided us Limeys with a ride on a civilian truck to a main staging area where we got another ride toward the coast looking for our unit. Along the way, we ran into pockets of krauts coming out of the forests with their hands over their heads. At one point we had to intervene and stop a bunch of Maquis (French underground fighters) from attempting to slaughter a bunch of krauts who wanted to quit. Fortunately, at the very critical point, a truck loaded with guys from our unit came along, spotted us, stopped... and the Maquis found themselves outnumbered and sent on their way. The Germans were delighted to be our guests!
Back with our unit, all kinds of stories... seems just a small number landed in the right area, the rest scattered all over. Same had happened to a lot of the Americans. We never did learn what really happened. Some of us concluded the air crews had either goofed on navigation, or planes had lost formation and dropped their loads anyway... which would explain how quiet it was when I landed (no noise of planes overhead) and not meeting more guys... we were all scattered.
Before we knew it, we were on another luxury cruise, this time on a US Liberty ship from France back to Italy. Highlights were great weather, hot fresh bread from the ship's bakery (a real treat!) and again... more rumours we were going home! What a bloody joke that was. Once again, somebody had other plans for us.
Anyway, they hustled us off that luxury cruise from France onto our very own freight train for a deluxe ride across Italy from the west coast to the east coast. Eventually we arrived at Foggia... a big airfield nearby in constant use with bombers, fighters and our C47 friends. And we had thought that after France they would surely ship us home... surely they did not need us back in Italy? They didn't... they sent us to Greece instead!
Hammond was promoted to Lance-Corporal on the 25th September 1945, and two weeks later accompanied the 2nd Parachute Brigade to Palestine, becoming a Sergeant on the 6th March 1946. Returning to the UK at the end of the year, he was released from the Army on the 14th May 1947.
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