Royal Warwickshire Regiment (Young Soldiers’ Battalion)
I joined the Army on the 19th August 1941. I was 17 years & 11 months old. At the Recruiting Office I passed my Medical, took the oath and received King George’s Silver Shilling. I was then given a Railway Warrant and sent down to the New Forest to join the Battalion, training under canvas.
I was issued with my uniform, webbing, boots and a rifle etc. and allotted to one of the Bell Tents. Of the 8 other young soldiers, 3 were straight from Borstal but included Robin Winter and Colin Wilson, as well as a young mortician! He kept us amused in the evening with stories of coffins without bottoms for future re-use, coffins too small for the body and many other practices.
Apart from the daily routine of drills & more drills, and route marches, we spent our evenings picking up fag ends, sitting around the tent, teasing out the tobacco, rolling it in brown loo paper and passing it from mouth to mouth.
After our final 25-mile route march with full kit and rifles, we ended doing the assault course. Having completed our summer training under canvas, we marched off to Fort Brockhurst near Gosport. It was built for the Napoleonic Invasion, which luckily did not happen. It consisted of a large Parade Ground with a cookhouse, Mess Halls, NAAFI canteen for ‘char & wads’, all surrounded by barrack rooms dug into the perimeter battlements. Each barrack room had a door and small window at one end and a fireplace at the other. Our Corporal in Charge had the advantage of being by the window. By morning the atmosphere would be difficult to imagine, as there was no ventilation. Our Corporal also had the great idea of softening his boots by using them as a urinal!
I think this was of the coldest winters of the war and we would crowd around the fire trying to keep warm whilst toasting slices of bread gleaned from the Mess with occasional lump of cheese gleaned from the Officer’s Mess.
Our day consisted of more drills, fatigues such as cleaning out the loos, potato bashing, and guard & fire duties. Guard duties required a lot of hard work: firstly, the night before, you would turn your trousers inside out, apply damp soap down the creases, carefully lay the trousers under the biscuit bedding and hopefully the next morning, had a smart set of trousers with a razor-sharp crease. Hours would be spent cleaning the brasses, ‘Blanco-ing’ the webbing and polishing our boots (so that they were good enough to see your face in), not forgetting to polish the studs under your boots as these were also sometimes inspected. As for your Lee Enfield rifle, you were ordered to treat it as you would your wife! On Parade, your Corporal, then your Regimental Sergeant Major and finally the Duty Officer inspected you. You breathed a sigh of relief if you ‘passed muster’.
For a short time we were sent to guard the perimeter of the airfield of HMS Dryad, waiting for a German Invasion, which thankfully never happened. Sitting outside the perimeter in tents, we were envious of the Naval personnel, living the life-of-Larry and actually having two eggs for breakfast while we had Spam.
In early spring, we marched to Fort Southwick overlooking Portsmouth Harbour with the same daily routine. Every time we had a new Commanding Officer he seemed to have a different idea as to the colour of our webbing. This meant that we had to scrub off all the old Blanco on belts, sidearms etc. and buy a different shade of green. We came to the conclusion that they had shares in Blanco Company!
I was eventually made an Acting Unpaid Lance Corporal and, in due course, recommended for pre-Officer Cadet Training Unit at Blackdown together with Robin Winter. He was a great friend and enjoyed climbing. He would manage to climb round the Barrack Room walls without touching the floor.
Our daily life was regulated by bugle calls. The only one that we all remembered was ‘Come to the cookhouse boys’ twice.
Pre-OCTU at Blackdown.
Before reporting for duty, I went on leave and stayed with my family in Charterhouse Square. One day my father took me to the Naval & Military Club in Pall Mall (once the home of Nell Gwynne) for lunch. Wearing my battle dress, I sat down to a table with my father, 3 Generals, a Rear Admiral and the Commissioner of Police. They were all very indulgent to this young soldier and inquired about life at the bottom of the pile.
At Blackdown life was even more hectic. Not only the bullshit, driving instruction, gunnery & wireless, which included learning the Morse code. Commandant Inspection required all beds and equipment to be carefully aligned, blankets folded in a special way and equipment laid out in a special way. We had a small patch of grass and without a mower; we crawled along 9 abreast, cutting off each blade with our knives. Finally before the inspection we would polish the wood-block floor until it glowed. Woe betide anyone who made mark on the floor before we stood to our beds. We had a final Passing Out Parade before being sent on leave. The punishment for failure was to be RTU-ed (returned to unit).
Once again I was sent back on leave, unfortunately falling ill with mumps. On recovering, I was posted to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, only a stone’s throw from Frimley where I was born 18 years before when my father was at the Staff College.
Royal Military College, Sandhurst.
We entered a different world; we were now Officer Cadets and allocated our own room, shared a manservant to do all the chores that we had been forced to do. A cup of tea in the morning, beds made, brasses & boots polished etc. However we still had Drill & marching on the vast Parade Ground.
We were formed into a troop of 30 with 8 Rhodesian volunteers all slightly older than the rest of us but first class chaps. We were introduced to our Troop Sergeant who lectured us on our responsibilities and, at the end, suggested that if we ‘looked after him, he would look after us’ and we would find him in the Saloon Bar at the Duke of York’s in Camberley. Although I suppose we were willing to accept the idea, our Colonial friends objected, so we seemed to do many more air-raid duties & guards than the other troop (who included Lord Harewood and, I found out many years later, David Asdell of Swanage Sailing Club who had lost a leg at the D-Day Landing).
Our mornings started with drill & inspection with our Troop Sergeant. The only difference was that on inspection we were told, ‘Haircut’, ‘Sir!’ ‘Shoulders back’, ‘Sir!’ ‘Feet together’, ‘Sir!’ and after we had marched around the parade ground, told that we were ‘like a lot of pregnant women, gentlemen!’
Now that we had learnt to drive tanks and been to the Firing Range the object was now to be able to command troops. We had lectures on Man Management, map reading, tactical exercises (T.W.T.S i.e. without troops) where we were taken to some vantage point in the country and had to decide how best to attack or defend a given position. At the end of the exercise the instructor would produce the School Solution, which we did not necessarily agree with.
We enjoyed the Wireless Wing exercises under the command of Colonel Freddy Wellsford (who I met later after the War as he was a pre-war member of the Inns on Court Regiment which I joined in 1948). We were sent out in P.U. trucks with a 19-set wireless and usually driven by a member of the ATS. Sometimes, if we were lucky, we got out of range of the Command Headquarters and ended up in a car park behind a pub! Wireless communication in those days was very inefficient. We would spend a long time tuning the group of sets to an agreed frequency. I am sure the enemy listening posts did not take long to pinpoint our location and to recognize the voices of the operators and, in due course, identify the force on the field of battle.
Although we quite enjoyed the challenge of the Assault Course with its water hazards, mud, barbed wire, walls and ropes, and being shot at by the Staff, physical training was a different matter. Somehow the instructors in their black ski trousers and red & black jumpers seemed to enjoy torturing we cadets using ropes, ladders, wall bars, spring boards, & wooden horses which were designed to raise a sweat and lower our morale.
During the Evacuation from Dunkirk, it was found that a number of officers had never ridden a motorbike which might have saved one or two from being captured, we were therefore given lessons on how to ride, and, having learnt before I joined the Army, I had great fun in the countryside and woods around the College.
On one occasion I could not understand why my bike was so difficult to ride. I stopped and the instructor noted that all the nuts on the front fork suspension had been tightened up solid so that there was no spring. A lesson that the Army never learnt was not to allow a soldier to pretend he was a mechanic! At the end of every exercise we were ordered to do our daily maintenance. It might be acceptable on a bike as long as the rider knew what he was doing but later on when I commanded a troop of tanks or armoured cars the driver would often open the bonnet or hatch, peer inside at the engine, sometimes with the wrong tool examine for instance the fuel filter and, after reassembling it, lose the vital washer which would cause untold damage. The filter was probably clean in the first place.
It is hard to believe that some officer cadets had not even learnt to ride a bicycle so in the evening they had to be given special instruction as to how to ride an Army bike. Drill: hands on handlebars, raise left leg, mount saddle, feet on pedals, push forward … and hope for the best!
We no longer had a NAAFI for char & wads, but we had the FGS (Fancy Goods Shop) for tea and cakes and Toll Mache beer, in glass bottles with a marble fixed in the neck to keep it under pressure, instead.
We were each required to be Officer of the Day commanding a troop of 6 Covenanter tanks and ordered to proceed to Chobham Common. After receiving the necessary instructions of the enemy position, we were prepared to go to battle. I led my troop behind the ridge, extended my arm 4 times to bring them into line abreast, and rode up to a Turret Down Position to observe the enemy on the other side of the valley. I gave the order to Charge over the brow of the hill and across the valley to spike the enemy guns (Balaclava). Being very gallant, I raced ahead and drove straight into a bog!! I can remember seeing the Permanent Staff Driver bailing out the stinking water with a cigarette tin. I spent the rest of the day watching the tank being slowly winched out of the mire. My final report added,” This cadet has no eye for country”!
We had to decide which regiment we wanted to join. After my experience with the tank, I opted for an armoured car regiment! Unlike some cadets, we had family connections with Cavalry Regiments (my father was an Infantry soldier in the South Wales Borderers). However, I was introduced to a Major Ricardo of the 8th Royal Irish Hussars who were, at that time, in the 8th Army in the desert serving under General Montgomery. I was accepted and commissioned to the 8th Hussars.
Before being commissioned, we were sent to our regimental tailors, each Regiment being very proud of its own tradition and therefore although all uniforms are khaki in colour, there was a subtle difference in material, shade and design including brass buttons, badges, caps etc. My new regiment had a very distinctive side hat of bright green with gold braiding (not unlike the one worn by General Franco but without the gold tassle). Prince Philip was recently seen wearing the cap when he visited Iraq as Colonel-in-Chief of the Amalgamated Royal Hussars. Rogers of Germaine Street fit me out; my cap came from Herbert Johnson in Bond Street and shoes from Trickers.
The evening before our Passing Out Parade we were treated to a formal dinner in the Mess. In high spirits, we decided to raid the new intake of cadets in the Old Building. This was not a great idea as they had somehow got wind of our intentions and we had to make a hasty retreat in disarray. I managed to take refuge in one of the cadet bedrooms, lock the door and climb out of the window and drop to the ground, forgetting the fact that there was a basement below. Luckily I had friends who helped me and, the next day, I managed the Passing Out Parade with some difficulty. I have suffered ever since with weak ankles.
The Passing Out Parade was attended by the whole College and drilled by Regimental Sergeant Major Brand who was the most senior NCO in the Army. He had a great presence and a voice that could halt a squad of soldiers a quarter of a mile away. At the end of the Parade, taken by the general, the Adjutant rode up the steps of the Old Building on his white charger into the Main Hall. We were then dismissed, changed into our new uniform, reunited with our proud parents and sent on Embarkation Leave.
The tide was slowly turning, we were advancing in the Middle East, Rommel was retreating, the US First Army was landing and the Germans had started their retreat from Moscow & Stalingrad. As a result there was little threat of an invasion across the Channel. Although we had blackout & rationing, and there was still the threat of occasional air raids, London had its attraction to a newly commissioned officer, and walking through the West End was a great experience. My green & gold side hat caused quite a comment. Some thought I could be either Polish or Czech. We had two favourite nightclubs: the Coconut Grove in Regent Street and the Milroy in Bond Street. There was always a Hostess to entertain us and to dance with until they were called away to do their cabaret. At the end of an enjoyable evening and giving them champagne (fake!) they suggested breakfast at 1 o’clock in the morning, not forgetting a carnation from the flower girl. All we got was a peck on the cheek; life was very innocent in those far off days. Asking one of the ladies why she was a hostess, she told me that she was paying towards her brother’s school fees at Eton.
At the end of my leave, instead of being sent out to my Regiment, I was posted to the Lancashire Fusiliers because of a shortage of shipping to the Middle East.
The Lancashire Fusiliers.
The Regiment was stationed in Wellbank Abbey, seat of the Duke of Portland. I was placed in charge of 3 Churchill tanks; unfortunately, at no time did I manage to get more than one on the road at any one time, as the others would be in the L.A.D. being dealt with by the fitters.
Being only temporarily posted to the Regiment, the Colonel thought I was expendable. One day, King Peter of Yugoslavia inspected the Regiment and, to liven up the visit, I was detailed to take my tank to the far end of the field as target practice so that the rest of the Squadron could fire 2-inch smoke mortars and varied pistols & projectiles in my direction. One hit the top of the track, skidding into the turret ring. We were unable to rotate the turret, and this small projectile not only disabled the tank, but the fitters were unable to mend the ring as the whole of the turret had to be lifted out of tank …it was a write-off!
One of the hazards for the tank, or, in particular, the armoured-car driver was that it was difficult to get into their driving seat and, if the turret was not rotated in a certain position, impossible to get out of as there was no alternative means of escape.
The Regiment celebrated the Battle of Minden under the Duke of Marlborough in the Seven Years War. We had a regimental parade in the morning, and in the evening, a dinner. After toasting the King, we were each handed a red rose, told to eat it, stalk and all, and washed down with a glass of champagne.
For some unknown reason we were moved to Thorsby Hall in Sherwood Forest and given Crusader Tanks which were much more reliable, and I was able to train my troops with all 3 tanks at last.
On Saturday evenings, we were invited to take sherry with Lord & Lady Manvers, and their daughter, in the Great Hall. One day I managed to persuade their daughter to drive a tank, which she thoroughly enjoyed, speeding over the family estate. My wife, Felicity and I visited Thorsby Hall many years later to find Lady Manvers in the kiosk selling tickets to visitors, her husband having died and her daughter now married to a doctor in London.
The Personnel Department at the War Office must by now have realized their mistake as the 8th Hussars were equipped with armoured cars in the desert and I was being trained in a Tank Regiment. So I was once again posted to the Manchester Regiment who were equipped with Humber armoured cars.
I was posted to the Manchester Regiment, which was stationed at Otley Manor in the Yorkshire Dales. They were training with Humber armoured cars and the Yorkshire Moors was an ideal training ground. The principal of a Reconnaissance unit is to provide the eyes and ears for the Squadron so that it can pass information on to a higher authority. This meant swift movement to locate any enemy positions and, if possible, determine the type of unit, which would enable Staff to form a battle plan. This not only required a good eye for strategic positions off the map but also the ability to observe, if possible, being seen by the enemy. Our prime objective was not to engage the enemy but to probe his line and find a weak spot in his defences. Each troop had a small dismounted section and a troop carrier to make a foot patrol if the armoured car was unable to proceed further.
A good example of this was when Dicky Powle, of the Household Cavalry during the Second Front, found a bridge that the Germans had failed to demolish or defend, radioed back to Command and, as a result, the whole Division was driven over it, thus saving days in building a Bailey Bridge. He received the Military Cross as a result.
The Yorkshire Moors were ideal training ground for an armoured car regiment. There was lots of space to test our 19 wireless sets. The Northerners are very hospitable. If we stopped anywhere, there was always a little lady with a jug of hot tea for the troops (in spite of tea rationing) and, on one occasion, I was given a half crown with the instructions ‘fags for the lads’. One day I was also asked to send my dispatch rider to a factory a few miles away and he returned with his motorbike loaded with tins of chocolate granules. If we camped overnight in a village they would be sure to lay on a dance in our honour. We would turn up with the girls in their ‘Sunday Best’ sitting round the hall with their hair done in all the film-star fashions of the time and the 3-piece band thumping away. The lads having made straight for the bar would eventually have summoned up enough Dutch courage to enter the hall, and a good time would be had by all!
Returning to Otley after an exercise, travelling downhill, my driver decided to change gear in the Humber armoured car from top to reverse gear! We ended up in a ditch. After the vehicle was recovered, the Colonel instructed the fitters to remove all the pieces from the gearbox, clean them and lay out the gears, teeth etc. on a tarpaulin for the Regiment to admire and learn as a punishment. The driver was made to stand in front, humiliated.
At last I received my Embarkation Order to report to Bovington Camp by 23:59 hours on pain of being Court Marshalled if I was late. After a short home leave with my parents, they had kindly booked a dinner at the Trocadero and a show starring Patricia Burke. I was just checking my instructions when I realized I was due that very evening. We hurriedly changed our plans and, much to the disappointment of us all, I caught the late train from Waterloo to Wool in Dorset. I arrived just before midnight. The next morning I reported to the Adjutant who told me that I was the first of the Draft to arrive and it would possibly be ready to leave in another fortnight --- so much for being on time!
The Draft was eventually formed and, for some reason, I was put in charge of a mixed bag of reinforcements bound for the Middle East. Tom Muir became my Second in Command and we all entrained at Wool in order to travel to Glasgow. We travelled by night with strict blackout control, stopping at various stations to pick up detachments of troops, airmen, sailors, ATS and nurses. This meant that Tom & I had little sleep that night, being responsible for checking everyone’s documentation.
The ‘Rolling Duchess of Richmond’.
We boarded ship and were pleasantly surprised to be allocated a single cabin but with one extra bunk. This was 100% better than the troops who were bundled down below decks with hammocks swinging from the ceiling.
The British India Line assumed that, as officers, we would more likely be able to afford to travel after the War. Somehow they managed to maintain their high standards and we were treated to a 6-course meal neatly printed on embossed menu cards every evening. The other ranks however had to queue for their food! The Purser decided to give each of the men an additional present of a bottle of beer, a packet of cigarettes and a bar of chocolate. He then issued vouchers to the troops. Unfortunately, he used the surplus menu cards from the dining room with the allocation stamped on one side. All that it required was for 4 men, standing in a queue waiting for his present, to turn the card over and join the pieces together to realize how the officers were being treated! We didn’t have a mutiny, but not far off, and the senior officer on board had his work cut out to resolve the situation.
To get into the Mediterranean we had to sail well out into the Atlantic to keep away from enemy aircraft and U-boats. As a result we zigzagged a great deal, the ship was blacked out at night with no smoking on deck and we had to have a Destroyer as escort. We eventually arrived at Algiers.
We arrived in Algiers in the summer of 1943. The war in North Africa had just ended and the armies were regrouping to attack Europe from both the south, through Italy, and the Second Front in France. We were sent to a Transit Camp outside Algiers. The camp must have been very difficult for a commandant to control as apart from a small permanent staff (who we suspected were on the make) troops were coming and going daily and discipline was lacking. We were particularly incensed by the standard of cooking so the 6 of us, including Tom Muir, George Atkinson-Wills and Binks Nicholson decided to do our own cooking next to our tent in an olive grove. This was very successful until one evening whilst playing cards we were alerted to the fact that our little fire had caught the nearby olive tree. Olive trees burn in a peculiar manner, from inside out i.e. it smoulders up the centre of the trunk and branches and even down into the roots, as the oil combusts and it is almost impossible to extinguish. It was still smouldering two days later when the commandant & Orderly sergeant made his weekly inspection. When asked how it had happened, we all shook our heads, however the sergeant decided that it was ‘spontaneous combustion’ and we breathed a sigh of relief.
A few days later we were sent east by train across North Africa, destination unknown. Instead of being allocated an 8-seater carriage (without corridor) we opted for a cattle truck. This turned out to be an excellent choice as we could spread our bed rolls on the floor, pile our trunks in the middle to form a table, and spent 4 days and most nights playing cards and buying extra food from the Arab children along the way. The engine pulling this motley train was about the size of an Emit replica. Every time we stopped, someone had to get out to help the driver to place sand on the track to provide a grip for the driving wheel. One advantage was that we sometimes got a kettle of hot water in which to shave. As there was no loo, the best alternative was to place each foot on a buffer and hope the train did not stop too suddenly! Although I had played reasonably good poker and ‘vingt et un’ for 3 days, on the fourth, however, my luck changed and I ended up giving Binks a cheque for £24 (two weeks’ pay).
|My 21st birthday, 19/09/44, somewhere in Italy|
We sailed on American LST to Taranto, previously the scene of a fine bombing raid by Fairy Swordfish (‘string bags’) of the Fleet Air Arm who destroyed and disabled a number of Italian warships. Entering the harbour, the American captain of the LST asked us if he could exchange his Colt 45 for a Smith & Weston 38 as he was making a collection ‘back home’. In spite of the possibility of a court marshal, I obliged as I knew that 38 ammunition was impossible to obtain whereas 45 was used in Tommy guns. Until I dropped it in the English Channel at the end of the War, I fired 100s of rounds in practice, even getting a replacement barrel from a GI, and became a reasonable shot except missing on the one occasion when it mattered.
When we disembarked, we were housed in a vast seaplane hangar and, from there, posted off to the various units. Tom went off to join the KDGs and Binks to the RTR. Without arrangement to join I was posted to 10 Corps Headquarters as a liaison officer. Although the Italian Army had surrendered the Germans had taken control of the Front and were putting up very stiff resistance. The terrain ideally suited a defensive strategy with the sea on one flank and the hills & mountains on the other running up the centre of the country and a plain in between crisscrossed by rivers.
By the time I joined 10 Corps under General Richard McCreery, Naples had been taken and the Front was on the River Volterno. As we found out, the enemy were very capable of destroying every bridge that they could find and positioning themselves well to hinder our advance. My duty as a LO was first to man the Battle Room, which consisted of 3 command vehicles placed in a U-shape with a tent over. The General and staff officers would sit in their caravans overlooking the Battle Room. There was a large-scale map occupying one wall, which Ian and I had to keep up to date so that officers waiting to see the general and his staff could inspect the map and ‘appreciate the situation’. We also had a jeep to travel in to take orders to various units at the Front and VIPs on guided tours. On one occasion I took a Russian General round the Front. I have a feeling that he could not understand why we appeared to be bogged down, as he would have sent 1000 troops across the river if he were back in Russia. I also spent 2 days with an American 4- star General Devers. I was embarrassed a few months later when he saw me in a crowd at HQ and, instead of going up to see General Mark Clarke, walked over to me, shook my hand and said ‘Hiya, Morgan’!
10 Corps was a very mixed bag of units. At various stages we had Americans, Canadians, British, New Zealanders, Poles, Indians, French Moroccans and Popski’s Private Army. It must have been a nightmare for General McCreary (‘Hop along’) to command especially as the weather was deteriorating into the wettest winter of the war and everything was bogged down with little opportunity to use tanks or armoured cars.
The road to the Front was divided into two and, on my many trips to the front we were held up by a queue of traffic while the poor MP tried to control the flow. I was particularly impressed by the Americans, who, when they took over that part of the front, their engineers formed a ramp on either side of the junction, borrowed a Bailey Bridge from us, and saved hours of frustration. They also erected a camouflage screen along a small section of road to reduce snipers’ fire.
There I met my father, who had been promoted to Brigadier and was in Italy on a fact-finding visit to the Army for the C.V.W.W. (Council of Voluntary Welfare Workers), and we spent a couple of hours together.
Soon afterwards I contracted jaundice and was evacuated to Naples General Hospital. Many thought that jaundice was due to the malaria pills that we were taking. While I was there it was rumoured that an American General had visited the hospital and presented a Purple Heart medal to a G.I. with V.D. presumably one of the many casualties of the ‘fleshpots’ in Naples! After I recovered I went on sick leave with another officer to Sorrento and then on to Positano in my jeep. We found a little pensione overlooking the sea and spent several pleasant days there away from the Front. I also visited San Carlo Opera House in Naples, which had been brought back to life by a determined young engineer as it has been damaged. We heard Gracie Fields singing to a packed audience and visited Vesuvius just after it had erupted.
|5 Troop D Squadron KDGs Mule Panzer Patrol, Central Italy.|
The following week I said goodbye to the staff officers and took a jeep to D Squadron of the K.D.G.’s at Castel di Sangro. I was introduced to Major Tony Delmage and told that the regiment had dismounted from their armoured cars due to the very difficult terrain and were now foot soldiers patrolling the hills east of Monte Cassino observing the movements of the enemy. He posted me to 5 Troop under the command of Peter Batt with his troupe in a defensive position just below the ridge overlooking the Sangro River living in caves which had been dug by the Polish Regiment who had previously occupied the position as the ground was too hard for the slit trenches. It was quite a change from life at H.Q. but I soon got into this new life. We were in a fairly vulnerable position as the Germans were on the other side of the river but on a higher hill and could see most of what we were up to. Luckily, for some unknown reason, they only mortared us and shelled us between 9 & 10 in the morning and never at night so we were able to organize ourselves accordingly. We would send out foot patrols to ensure that we were in contact with the enemy.
Our Technical Adjutant would occasionally appear in the evening, and, instead of going rough shooting as he would in his farm in England, he would go out with his sniper’s rifle for the odd pot shot. A troop consisted of a leader, his sergeant, two corporals and 12 troopers, who would include 4 armoured car drivers, 4 wireless/gunners and a dismounted section in a White troop carrier. Each troop would be fully independent of the other 4 troops in a squadron and usually separated from the other 3 squadrons, headquarter squadron and Echelon. D Squadron had only recently been formed from the other 3 Squadrons (A, B & C). Officers and sergeants from A, B, and C became the nucleus of D and the remainder of the troops plus those troops most recently arrived from the U.K. as reinforcements. We were the junior squadron in the regiment, most of whom had served in the desert. We therefore took a minor role in the earlier stages of the Italian Campaign, the other 3 squadrons taking the brunt of the workload. However, at this stage we played a part in supporting the flank of the regiment.
The situation on the Cassino front was very difficult in spite of fierce fighting by the British, the Americans the French, the Indians, New Zealanders and finally the Poles. Only the final country had managed to reach the top of Monte Cassino. I watched the American Air force Flying Fortresses bombing the monastery on the assumption that it was occupied by the enemy which later proved to be a mistake but it provided useful cover for them in the final defence of the monastery!
Eventually, due to the landing at Anzio and the start of the Second Front in Europe, the Germans withdrew from Cassino and the Leri Valley. We therefore left the mountains and returned to the armoured cars. As Peter Batt was in command of the troop it was suggested that I join the reconnaissance section in the White troop carrier with Corporal Chapman. We threaded our way through the bombed out town of Cassino with the added difficulty of the craters left by the Flying Fortresses.
Although the enemy had withdrawn they were masters at laying traps of mines and blowing up every bridge that they could find to slow up our advance. We therefore had to rely to a great extent on the Royal Engineers and at one stage we had a section attached to us. Even so we were also involved in removing mines.
There was a mad rush by all and sundry to get north towards Rome and so it became clogged. Luckily the Germans did not, at this stage, have a viable air force otherwise it would have been carnage. Although we camped a few miles from Rome we were allowed to visit the city on foot. No sooner had we left the lorry but we were rounded up to return to squadron as we were ordered to move forward to keep in contact with the enemy withdrawal. We moved slowly forward as they had well prepared their retreat and set up a number of lines of defence. Our instructions were to keep in touch, which meant exposing ourselves without getting too involved, and passing back information on their position and strength. This was not easy to accomplish, as the enemy would usually find a useful observation front to frustrate our advance with the addition of mines and booby traps.
On one occasion in particular the troop was held up and the support section was sent forward to determine the strength of the opposition. Being in charge, I jumped over the back wall of a garden and was confronted by two soldiers ten yards away. I am not sure who was more surprised, but in spite of all my practice with my Colt 45 I failed!! When I went to use my hand grenades, attached to my webbing belt, they had fallen off when I had taken cover behind a low mound. However, all was well as I found a small rock, which I threw, hoping that they thought it was a grenade as I quickly dived back over the wall to rejoin the section. When we returned in force, they had gone and we proceeded North towards Sessa Arunca.
At this stage of any advance, it is difficult for Command to determine where or if the enemy would stand and defend a given line. Later we learned that there were three defensive lines in Italy, the Adolf Hitler Line the Gothic Line and the Gustav. Between these lines of defence they used delaying tactics by blowing bridges, laying mines and booby traps, sometimes covered by a defended position.
On one of these was a cemetery on the top of a hill occupied by Germans, which we could not remove. By this time I had taken command of 5 Troop as Peter Batt had been badly wounded on a landmine. We occupied an O.P. overlooking the cemetery and a company of Indian Infantry was sent forward to flush out the enemy. They decided to attack by night by sending one company up one side of the hill and other up the other side. From our O.P. we watched the small battle raging all night, only to find at dawn that the enemy had withdrawn and, as both British Officers had been killed, they had been firing at each other … ‘friendly fire’.
On another occasion, when held up for a short time on entering a village, I went forward with the Support Section. When rounding the corner of a building, I heard the sound of a vehicle ahead. Taking precautions, I advanced only to find a 15-hundredweight truck occupied by a Roman Catholic padre who had lost his way and was inadvertently leading the advance of the division! He retired gracefully.
We moved slowly forward, encountering more booby traps and mines and even they were cleverly designed to include an additional fuse so that, when one attempted to move it, it blew up. Eventually we arrived south of Florence, only to find that all the bridges over the Arno had been destroyed, except the Pontevecchio. We eventually located a causeway up stream so that we were able to move northwards to keep contact with the enemy withdrawing, although they were still occupying parts of the city but were being slowly flushed out by Italian Partisans.
One day, driving through Florence, I was asked by an engineer to take my armoured car over the Pontevecchio as, although it was intact, the enemy had destroyed the buildings on either side, which made vehicular traffic impossible. However, they had bulldozed a way through and I was asked to cross the bridge to ensure its stability. There were small shops on either side and, on my way across I noted that most of the shutters had been blown away. I caught sight of a silver plated elephant, about a foot high, so we stopped and retrieved it as a memento. When I got to the other end of the bridge, an irate engineer officer who had also seen but had thought it to be booby-trapped confronted me. Until I gave up my armoured car, in Palestine, I had the trophy screwed to my front mudguard.
Florence was at last deemed safe and we had a Victory Parade around the Piazza del’ Duomo with the population out in force, celebrating with flowers and wine and, in my case, a small baby that was handed to me in all the excitement! I was holding him or her when we were passing the Paramount News cameras and I was worried that my Commanding Officer had seen it & thought me rather quick off the mark.
Once again we moved off in pursuit, although we did take a well-earned rest in San Sepulcro. When we returned to the front, we were once again in the hills and had to rely on foot patrols to keep in touch with the retreating enemy. On my 21st birthday, I was in charge of my troop and 4 mules with muleteers to carry our wireless set, batteries etc. and for 4 days we walked miles looking for the foe without seeing a soul. Unfortunately, one evening, I got into a minefield and Sgt. Price, my troop sergeant was killed instantly. I managed to crawl away.
I went back to Florence for a short leave and was introduced by our Italian interpreter to his family. I was entertained to dinner by his mother, the Contessa Cavazza, and, as I knew they were very short of food, I took a couple of tins of meat & veg. Having been well received with drinks, we proceeded to their magnificent dining table. The butler arrived with a large serving dish and lid, which he lifted to reveal a mountain of rice with the decanted tins on top! Although I was extremely embarrassed, my gift was very well received. When I talked to the countess after lunch, it appeared that we were billeted in her country house. She asked if it was safe for her to return as it had been taken over by the Germans. I offered to take her back in my jeep. When we got there, she asked one of my troopers to provide a pickaxe, went to the back of the house where a small wall was demolished to reveal the family silver.
On our way north we were billeted at the Cistercian Monastery at Camaldoli. One evening, we were invited by the Abbot to their evening meal. It was all very impressive as we sat in silence except for a monk reading from a lectern. The monks had been very helpful early on in the war in harbouring escaping POW’s.
We were then sent over to the east front of Ravenna in the Po valley. It was thought by the High Command that the terrain would be suitable for armoured cars, little appreciating that it was criss-crossed by small rivers with unreliable bridges. One day I was sent out with my troop on patrol. Unfortunately, as we crossed over a bridge, it collapsed. Unable to return to my squadron, we were directed to a farmstead occupied by the Italian partisans. This was quite an experience as it consisted mainly of officers of the Alpine Regiment who had their priorities right: They were living like lords, going out at night searching for the enemy and coming back laden with turkeys, chickens and the like. We lived very well for those 4 days and on the last evening they gave me a magnificent meal and the old farmer presented me with a bottle of Napoleon brandy, which we all enjoyed. There was a photo taken at the end of the meal with all the smart officers standing behind me. I only wish that I had been given a copy. We were then ordered south, back to Bari, quite a long journey, and, after 18 months in Italy we were transported to Greece.
It would appear that the E.L.A.S. Communists were trying to take over control of the country. Although, when C Squadron landed in Piraeus, they were shelled from ashore, we arrived without incident. We were given little information as to the state of the situation and as to who occupied which part of the city, however we were ordered to defend the airfield south of Athens. From there we made sorties north into the countryside, but found little resistance, although one other squadron did see action. Eventually we moved to Kifissia, a suburb of Athens and requisitioned a large house that had been owned by a Greek collaborator. Although it had an oil-fired boiler and no oil, we decided to try using diesel from our armoured cars. We all stood back and pressed a long starter and, by chance, it worked. For the first time in months we enjoyed central heating and hot water for baths in a very comfortable house.
One day my squadron leader, Peter Phillips, ordered me to take my troops and two armoured cars to the British Embassy. When we drove up the driveway I reported to the Ambassador, Sir Rex Leaper, who was just about to go into lunch. He invited me in to join him. When I entered the dining room a large round dining room table already included Randolph and Mary Churchill. At this stage I began to appreciate my role although no mention was made of Him. After lunch I was told to wait in the anteroom with his ADC. Suddenly we heard 3 loud bangs outside. At that moment, Churchill walked in on his way to the conference room and said to us, “It’s not an assassination!” The noise was caused by two police-motorcycles backfiring as they drove up the drive!
I spent 4 days at the Embassy and took the Prime Minister out on only one occasion when we put armoured cars in front and behind his Humber Snipe motorcar. Eventually we escorted him to the airport. However, on the way there, he obviously got fed up with us travelling at a maximum speed of 45 miles an hour and overtook us. By the time we reached the airport he was already about to fly off!
Egypt, Syria, Palestine & Lebanon.
I was then sent as officer of the advance party back to Egypt with a small troop of soldiers and told to take over a stretch of sand within sight of the Pyramids. We were issued with all the tents, ground sheets etc for the whole regiment but, unfortunately, some were stolen by the locals. However, after a short Court of Enquiry, I was not charged with dereliction of duty, as I had not been provided with sufficient men to guard the vast campsite.
When the Regiment arrived, we all enjoyed our stay in Cairo, spending a lot of time at the Gazeera Sporting Club with its lovely swimming pool and young ladies, and at the famous bar at the Shepherd’s Hotel (where Lawrence of Arabia had arrived back with his servant to inform everyone that he had captured Akaba). All this civilization soon came an end and we were sent across the Suez Canal, up through the Sinai Desert, the coast of Palestine and onto Lebanon. After a short stay in Acre we were ordered over the hills to Damascus and ended up, camped, on the racecourse.
Peter Courage and I, with my troop, were then sent south to the Djeble Druze where the locals who had been unhappy with the French masters whom we now replaced received us with open arms. They had a soft spot for the British who had protected them in previous times, when the French had tried to subdue them and they had crossed the border into Tran Jordan protected by Colonel Glubb Pasha. We were made honorary members of the Djeble Druze Cavalry Regiment and paraded on horseback at their ceremonial parade. We were entertained by the local ‘muktah’ at their feast consisting of mountains of rice with a couple of sheep on top! I was presented with the eyeball, which, for King and Country, I swallowed. After we had eaten, the remainder of the village took their places in pecking order at the large brass tray to eat. Only once they had all eaten their fill did our host solemnly sit down and eat a few mouthfuls of the remnants.
After leaving Syria we returned to Palestine, north of Lake Tiberius on a disused airfield where I was promoted captain in charge of the 75 mm gun battery, (knowing nothing about gunnery).The troop spent most of their time playing cricket at a practice net improvised out of camouflage netting.
The Higher Command then decided that the brigade would surround Tel Aviv. For some unknown reason, I was put in charge of the night march to do this by dawn so that the Infantry could enter the town and capture known members of the Stern Gang who were disrupting our occupation of Palestine. They had recently blown up the Army Headquarters at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Leading the column of vehicles during the night without lights, for secrecy, I had 3 MPs on board my armoured car, who I dropped off, one by one, at important junctions. Somehow a section of the long column took it upon themselves to take the wrong route and ended up in the middle of the town thus blowing the secrecy of the mission, which ended in disaster. Once again I was involved in a Court of Enquiry but it was decided that some other idiot had taken it into his own hands to decide the route, and so again I was exonerated.
Luckily, shortly after, I received my Demobilization papers and returned to Cairo. There I met long-term-friend, Dicky Powle, for the first time, and we travelled back to the UK by sea and train across Europe. When sailing across the Channel I dropped my Colt 45 into the water before arriving at Dover. After two months’ leave, having spent 5 years in the Army, I then enrolled at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London for the next 5 years!