REMINISCENCES OF AN OLD "DESERT RAT"
This first appeared in issue #2 of 'History Notes', compiled by the late Phillip Bruce. It is reproduced here on Gwulo by kind permission of Mr Bruce's family.
By Dan Waters
"I'll show you a place called the desert,
It's the land where the fighting was done,
Twas there fell my poor Scottish comrade,
He was shot by an old Eytie (Italian) gun."
First verse of Eighth Army ballad Sung to the tune "Red River Valley."
Celebrations for the first few Christmases after World War Two in Hong Kong were low key. Europeans went to Stanley and other places, on pilgrimages to visit war graves, to mark the anniversary of the fall of the colony in 1941. But people soon forget, although throughout the 1950s there was still a strong spirit of camaraderie among those Europeans who had been in prison camp together such as only those who have faced death and suffered privation as a group can ever fully appreciate.
This resulted in my being told, rather unkindly, shortly after I joined the Hong Kong Government in 1954, that there were two types of expatriates. As an old colleague put it: "There are those who have been 'in the bag' (prison camp) in the colony, and those who haven't. And even if you served in another theatre of war, that doesn't really count!"
But whether one saw action in Hong Kong or elsewhere there must have been similarities, although one sometimes wonders whether it serves any useful purpose in recalling experiences. One can be accused of Jingoism, glorifying war and being arrogant. Moreover, as a person's arteries harden, recollections beyond 15 or so years are not always as precise as he or she imagines, although the longest and toughest route marches always provide the most enduring memories.
World War Two was, by far, the largest mass-training exercise ever conducted. For many, education in 'Civy Street' stopped and we volunteered or were called to the colours. We started three months' basic training as boys and finished it as men. Some adjusted to the spit and polish, bad language, bullying, noncommissioned officers and roughing it better than others. It was a different world.
My first Christmas in the army, in 1941, was spent at Wallingford, on the banks of the River Thames, where we slept in bell tents, without duckboards, with snow and slush on the ground. Ablutions were done outside in icy water.
Then, in August 1942, four of us were posted from 249 to 221 Field Company, Royal Engineers, to help make the unit up to strength to go East. Some looked forward to it but one sapper, who was being held in the guardroom on an "absent without leave" charge, shot himself in the foot to avoid embarkation. We had no idea when or where we were going.
Eventually, after going to bed at normal "lights out", we were woken up by "reveille" at half past midnight. The well-kept secret was out. Although it was in the wee hours, the locals had heard the bugle call and many were at windows or in front gardens to see us march in full kit to the railway station. After a long, slow, wartime train ride in the black-out to Liverpool, we were played out to sea by the bagpipes of the London Irish to the strains of "Over The Sea To Sky". A large number never came back.
The troopship Orduna was built as a liner, prior to World War One, for about 800 passengers. Just before "the push" at El Alamein, in 1942, it was necessary to get many troops out East. There were said to be 3,300 of us aboard. We sailed in convoy with naval protection well to the west to try to avoid German U-boats. Drinking water was on tap for two hours every day, when we queued to fill our one-quart size water bottles at the few faucets available. We washed in sea water using so-called salt-water soap which refused to lather. Because of the shortage of bunks and hammocks we slept wherever there was space, usually on the floor.
In fine weather this meant up on the decks, although these were hosed down at five o’clock in the morning without warning.
It was the first time I had seen the Southern Cross. The day was taken up with boat drill, physical training and lectures, such as those about the sun compass and survival in the desert.
We were told the tale of the four troopers whose tank "brewed-up" (was destroyed)in the "bluey" (desert) in battle, and they were faced with a 40-mile trek without food and water. One died on the way; the second died in field hospital after reaching base; the third was discharged seven days later; and the last was on parade after reaching his own unit.
Because of crowded conditions on the Orduna tempers sometimes became frayed and fist fights broke out. It was said that bromide was put in the tea to dampen libido.
Owing to the German and Italian navies we could not sail through the Mediterranean. We saw some survivors in a lifeboat whose ship had been sunk, and we "buried" one of our shipmates at sea who had died of sun-stroke. If anyone fell overboard the convoy would not stop to pick him up because of the danger from U-boats. Our first port of call was Freetown, in Sierra Leone.
I remember complaining to a member of the crew because I had seen a large rat walking along a beam. "That’s a good sign," he replied. "Rats always leave a ship that is going to sink at its last port of call." After one month aboard, and shortly after a nasty storm, we saw Table Mountain. There in Cape Town we were feted for 10 days by the local population.
Just as the Orduna was due to sail again a handful of soldiers walked down the gangway on to the quay to protest against the conditions and the food, much of which had gone bad. The remainder of us were instructed to "fall in" and the roll was called. We sailed without the 20 or so mutineers who were marched off to the "glasshouse" (military prison). We never saw them again.
Meanwhile, I pondered the words: "Those with the biggest crime records make the best wartime soldiers."
Part of our unit went on to India, but my section sailed for Port Taufiq, in Egypt, where we boarded a train made up of cattle trucks. Every time it stopped in the desert soldiers would run to the engine to draw off hot water from the boiler to make tea. We eventually arrived at Tell el Kebir, then the largest military base in the world.
After two weeks we picked up new transport and supplies and drove in convoy to Iraq. The ship on which our own transport was loaded had been sunk on its way out from England and one member of our company, who was travelling with it, had his hair turn grey within a period of 10 days while he was in an open lifeboat.
The small things in life often provide pleasant, lasting, memories and I recall stopping, on the first night of the journey to Iraq, at a small canteen on the east side of the Sinai Desert. There, I am not sure why, extra beer was available. Teetotaller Monty (General Montgomery) had cut our ration to one bottle a week. One soldier with a fine voice sang 'Pagliacci'.
We eventually arrived at Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, where the 56 London Division, with its black cat insignia, was based. The troops that had left us in Cape Town, and had gone on via India, had already arrived. We slept in the desert in tents, with our rifles chained, through the trigger guards, to our waists. Dates (the palm tree sort) were easily obtainable, and petrol was cheaper than water. To spite one Lieutenant named Dickenson, who had a mania about (what he thought was) long hair, every man in my section had his clipped completely off. A cleverly-worded "advertisement" for "Dickidodger" hair tonic' also appeared on the company notice board! But in the desert you did not see a woman for months on end and, with water in short supply, it was more hygienic with no hair. We were trained to go without water and water bottles were inspected at the end of an exercise to make sure we had not drunk any.
Manoeuvres took place in the desert as well as at Ruwandiz, further north, in the snow of the mountains approaching the border with Turkey. Wild game was plentiful there in what is part of Kurdistan.
In the spring of 1943 the "Black Cat Division" embarked on the longest approach march in military history, crossing seven deserts. We set off from Kirkuk, in convoy, with chuggles (canvas water bags) tied to the front of the vehicles. These provided cool drinking water. We covered between 200 and 300 miles a day with one day off a week for maintenance. It was cold at night and hot by day, with very low humidity, and the air had to be let out of tyres in the middle of the day to prevent excessive expansion.
A regular ritual was to stop at the side of the road to make tea in the desert. This was done on a "Benghazi fire", namely half a four-gallon, "flimsy", petrol can with sand soaked with petrol inside. In some fires, just petrol was burned without the sand. A second tin, containing water, was then placed on top of the Benghazi. A small piece of wood was floated on the water because it was believed this would collect smoke. The tea was added to the galloping water at just the right moment. You had to be an expert! Everyone had his own enamel mug and "Sergeant Major Tea" was a special brew containing extra milk and sugar. Tea making was something to look forward to, in a world of few pleasures, where you could gather around the pot and have a chat. No doubt soldiers everywhere, including in Hong Kong, all had their own rituals in one form or another. In our case the saying was: "When in doubt brew up!"
After crossing the seven deserts, at the end of our approach march, we went into action close to Enfidaville in Tunisia. I had often wondered what it would be like to be under fire and I remember thinking to myself: "This is it!" As Churchill is supposed to have said: "The most exhilarating thing in life is to be shot at without success!" With experience, you get to recognise the different noises made by the various types of shells and mortars. In World War One, shell holes were quite deep and soldiers used, apparently, to take cover in them. In World War Two shells had improved, so that explosions mostly took place above ground. Shell holes were shallow. You could not shelter in them. We drove at night in pitch darkness, without lights, and the flash of a gun was useful to lighten your path so you could see your way clear, for a short distance at least.
On one occasion we were clearing German anti-personnel land mines in a wadi (a watercourse but usually dry) and I was bringing more "pins" to the two sappers who were "de-lousing" them. They assured me that the strip of ground between the two white canvas marking tapes had been cleared and it was safe to walk. Obviously, they had missed one because the next thing I knew there was an explosion and I was hit in the back and groin by pieces of the case. There was blood. For a spilt second I thought I would die. Then I realised I had got away with it and God had been good to me.
The preliminary explosion should have blown the mine up to a height of about four and a half feet, when a second more powerful explosion would have sent 360 steel ball-bearings in all directions. These could be lethal for up to 100 yards. In my case the first explosion was too strong, and the second one took place above my head. As they took me away to a field hospital I heard an officer who had been standing on a bridge say: "One of those damn little ball bearings hit me in the chest." He died later. A few others were wounded. My injuries were superficial. The shrapnel was left inside me. There were more seriously wounded to attend to.
A few days later three of us in a "White" scout car drove over and exploded a German "Teller" anti-vehicle mine. The car was a complete wreck. We were in a minefield and we de-loused a few as we crawled carefully out. The only injuries we received were the effects of the blast, and what saved us was that it was an armoured car and we had put sandbags on the floor in case of such an eventuality.
Tunis fell on May 7, 1943, and the war in Africa ended.
Somehow I value my Africa Star and ribbon, with the wide red central stripe on a yellow background (blood on sand we used to say), and Eighth Army clasp, more than my other war medals. There was something about the desert. It was a "cleaner" more gentlemanly war. No women and children were involved. During that campaign some in our company acquitted themselves well. Others, like the old sergeant who led his patrol from the back were considered to have let the side down.
My brigade then moved to Tripoli where we slept in bivouacs.
I had not been inside a building for about 10 months. One of our pastimes was swimming, and one could see hundreds of stark-naked soldiers along the beaches of North Africa. While one of our brigades took part in the invasion of Sicily, we trained and waited. Our diet was largely tinned bully beef, often with hard army biscuits. There was little in the way of fruit or vegetables although sometimes we had melon. Because of our deficient diet most of us had desert sores on our legs (we wore shorts) and arms. Few escaped. There was little entertainment and, unlike the Italians, there were no mobile brothels although one had once been captured by the Eighth Army. While at Tripoli, we also did invasion training by going out to sea in landing craft and coming in to dash up beaches under mock fire. I used to carry a Bangalore Torpedo to blow a gap in barbed wire.
Eventually, the day came. I was aboard LCT 321 (Landing Craft Transport). It took five days to sail from Tripoli to Salerno.
The invasion was no longer a secret, and there was a German air raid on the way over. Italy, so it was said, had capitulated. We landed at six o'clock in the morning (the first wave had gone in at four o'clock) and we were shelled and bombed all the way up the beach. The (Black Cat) 56 London Division together with 46 (Oak Tree Insignia) Division formed part of the American Fifth Army. We made some progress on the first day but our sergeant and several others were killed, many by mortars, and it was a few days before we could retrieve some bodies.
We were bombed and shelled regularly. It was touch and go on the beach-head. There was a danger that we should be pushed into the sea. Although as sappers our main tasks were lifting and laying mines, and crossing rivers and building bridges, often under fire, at Salerno my Field Company went into the line as infantry.
On one occasion we were shelled by our own gunners, with 25-pounders, who set their sights incorrectly.
Many things happen in the heat of battle, like the two Germans near the tobacco factory who showed the white flag and later shot the British guardsmen who came to take them prisoners. The culprits were drowned in a horse trough. A few soldiers in the British army on patrol, so it was said, came back with human ears on their belts in order to win bets. I did not see them but it was probably true. Sometimes, in the heat of battle, you do not see your enemies as human beings. After hostilities ended, when I was in charge of the transport of two German prisoner-of-war companies, I began to see things differently.
Many soldiers seemed to have a premonition of death. Charlie Draper had been telling us, even when we were at Tripoli, that he would be killed. We tried to get him to laugh it off. But at Salerno, a shell came over with Charlie's number on it. He died in hospital two days later.
After three weeks we started to push inland. The cold weather came. It was no longer sunny Italy. I was glad I was not a German and had to fight on the Russian front. We slept in empty houses and farm buildings which were often rat infested. We dug slit trenches. One soldier slept under his tank on soft ground and was crushed in the night. A soldier was killed in a traffic accident close to me. I had no sense of shock. The body becomes immune.
We had no newspapers, no radio or real news, but plenty of rumours. There were no "Sundays". The day of the week meant nothing. We lived off the land, to some degree, and ate potatoes and chestnuts cooked in every conceivable way. We did our own dhobiing (Hindi for laundry), often in streams, never took a bath and could shave without a mirror. There was some looting.
But although casualties were heavy, still more troops were immobilised by malaria. I too went down. But grapes were everywhere and within 10 days of our landing in Italy all my sores had disappeared.
It has often been said that a commander's coolness under fire is just as important in winning a war as an adequate supply of weapons. One officer I remember read poetry as he walked up the side of the road leading his section into battle. We had our "mad" Major Scott. He in turn used to say: "I have all types in my company, from ex-convicts to professionals. But it's the best unit in Italy!"
War spawns new words, although many expressions which were common in the British army had been gleaned from around the world. For instance "alakeefic" (Arabic) meant "couldn't care less", and "nonshemale" stood for "not so bad." A soldier who "hadn't got his knees brown" was inexperienced. Most of us had picked up a little Arabic and quite a lot of Italian during our campaigns.
My division spent part of its time in Italy with the Fifth Army and part with the Eighth Army. battle honours included crossing the Volturno and Garigliano rivers, and Mount Camino and Monastery Hill. In the last case the cold was intense, silence was essential, and mules were used for supplies. Land mines were prevalent in Italy, especially in grass verges by the sides of roads.
When pontooning supplies across the Volturno River one of our sergeants fell asleep on his feet, because of exhaustion, and dropped into the water. A human body can only take so much! On one occasion at dawn, after we had been on the go for a prolonged period, my section found an old house. We all slept for 24 hours. Gunners on 5.5 inch artillery used to lie down beside their guns and when the other shift on duty fired them those sleeping were not disturbed. Another time, on a wet night, we were in a house which was jam-packed with soldiers. One more came who had just finished a patrol and had been on the go for a long time. Because there was no space in the house he lay down in the mud and the rain, outdoors, and went straight off to sleep.
I was wounded for a third time when we were stonked in a marketplace by a shell from a German "88". Again I was lucky.
Most of the shrapnel goes in the direction the shell is travelling. I was a few metres behind it. The 88-millimetre gun was said to be the best triple purpose (anti-tank, anti-aircraft and field piece) gun that was developed during the war.
On another occasion, my company was attached to the Gurkha brigade which had crossed kukris (fighting knives) for its insignia. It was our job to lead the Gurkhas through mine fields and two or three of our sappers were attached to their patrols when they used bird calls for signals. It was believed by some that if a Gurkha drew his kukri, even if only to clean it, that he had to draw blood, say by nicking his finger, but that is not true.
On January 22, 1944, an invasion took place by British troops at Anzio, and a beach-head was formed but little progress was made. We had a church service in a muddy field, which I found very moving, before being shipped up there. My company went into the line as infantry and I volunteered, together with two others, to be forward in an observation post. This was situated on a bank and consisted of a small L-shaped slit trench partly covered with branches, earth and sods. Our job was to call back by field telephone to say what was going on. You could only get out of the trench under the cover of darkness, although when shrapnel cut the wire of the telephone cable through we had to find the break, at night, and repair it. On one occasion a large raiding party came through, on the path a few feet away, which we thought at first was made up of "Jerrys". But later we heard them whispering and found they were British Marine Commandos. They came out two hours later with no casualties, because of the element of surprise, but we who were left up in the line had several wounded when the Boche bombarded us. Popski's Private Army, an elite, non-conventional, commando group which formed a very small part of the British Army also came through our lines on another occasion.
In that slit trench, when a sniper fired what appeared to be three signal shots you could be sure of a good stonking. Also, we frequently heard - but never saw - a heavy tracked vehicle being brought into position which was some kind of heavy gun. But the shells went way over our heads to the rear. On another occasion, a mortar landed on the edge of our trench and we could smell the cordite. They had to be close before you could smell them! Dougie White once said in that trench: "Do you ever pray?" The other sapper who was with us replied: "No. I never prayed when things were good and therefore its not fair to ask for God's help when the going is tough." We spent 10 days in that trench and never took our boots off. We were wet through most of the time yet never caught a cold. We urinated and defecated in a tin and threw it over the edge.
As we came out of the line I remember seeing a corpse that did not seem to have a mark on it. The lad was probably killed by blast. Our division was taken away from the Anzio beach-head after one month because we had suffered very heavy casualties. Our ship was even shelled as we pulled out to sea.
Whether it is in civilian life or soldiering in Hong Kong or elsewhere, the world revolves around personalities. I remember sergeants "Knocker" White and "Nobby" Hall. Knocker's ambition was to march a squad of men from Lands End to John O'Groats. Nobby was every centimetre a soldier, from the tips and elates of his highly-boned boots to the camouflage net on his "tin hat". He once challenged me to a weightlifting contest. I won!
Then there were the popular Bishop brothers who sang and played guitars. It was late in the war and, because "plastic" mines were being used by the Germans, Polish or American mine detectors were of limited use. While "rodding" for mines one blew up in the elder brother's face. Although he survived he was an absolute mess and his fiancee, shortly afterwards, gave him up.
There was Driver Dicky Burtles, who was a butcher in civilian life and used to kill the odd sheep to supplement our otherwise spartan diet. He always seemed to avoid going into action. Once his vehicle broke down. When we went to Anzio he was kept behind at base, and so on. We used to pull his leg about it. Then the first time he saw action his leg was blown off up to his hip by a shell. Most of us believed in fate. But there were limits. One "fear nothing" type in our company discovered a bicycle in an outhouse and decided to take a ride along a stretch of road which we knew to be exposed. A shell came over and killed him. Everyone said he asked for it.
When we moved into one empty farm house it was marred by the body of an infantryman close to the back door. I buried him together with one identity disc, as was the custom, and put up a makeshift cross. The other disc, together with a few personal effects, were sent back to headquarters, except for a few lira which were covered in blood. These were later used to purchase vino. We felt he would have liked it that way. This event has always stuck in my mind because the young infantryman, I found out from his possessions, came from Norwich, the city where I was born.
Today, as an old, staid, blue-nose Tory, I would see things differently regarding the blood-coated money. I have been reminded, sometimes, of my great-aunt Nell, whose son was killed in France in World War One. His blood-stained uniform was sent back to his mother in England. She kept it, unwashed, until she died. It was a little part of her son who had given his life for her country.
The end of the war came while I was in hospital with jaundice. By then, the second front had long opened in Europe and we considered ourselves the "forgotten army". The "hospital" I was in had been a school and it was the first time I had slept in a bed for almost three years. We used to laugh and say we could sleep on a clothes line. A bed took a bit of getting used to. We were not accustomed to creature comforts.
On my way back to my unit I spent a night at a transit centre. There were about 40 of us in the room and, in the wee hours, a rifle shot rang out. One soldier had put his rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger with his toe after earlier receiving a "Dear John" letter from his girl friend. Blood was spattered all over the wall. The guard came in and carried the body away. We turned over and went back to sleep. After all, there was nothing we could do. Hard and callous? Yes. But unless you became like that and learned to laugh at the horrific and death you did not survive.
The body learns to shut out unpleasant things.
Of the four of us mentioned earlier who were posted from 249 to 221 Field Company: Tom Jones, the Welsh miner, went "shell happy" or contracted "post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as it is now sometimes known. The army slang for a psychiatrist was "Trick Cyclist". Although people obviously vary, in the end something often has to go. The years of action begin to tell. Tom became a "base wallah" a term sometimes spoken by front-line soldiers, unfairly of course, with derogatory overtone. The second soldier who was posted with me had his leg blown off. The third was killed.
Apart from a few pieces of German shrapnel left in my body, the odd nightmare now and again, and a slight phobia about driving vehicles on grass (there could be land mines!), I was the only one of us four who came out reasonably intact. Sometimes we do not appreciate how fortunate we are.