“Oh, by the way. Apart from all you have told me, do you know the Morse Code?” he [the recruitment officer] enquired disarmingly.
My ego, totting up a notch or two, was my undoing; warning signals in my brain were neither clear nor loud. The headlines about the Western Desert hadn’t been too good of late and I wondered, passingly, if they wanted someone to rectify the dismal situation.
“Yes I know the Morse Code”, I said, coming out of my reverie, I understand single needle telegraphy where the dot was a musical one, high pitch, and the dash lower tone.
That single sentence fixed me for the duration. He must have known that the Royal Artillery was short of signallers.
The very first time I handled my potential weapon for an early demise, a 500cc B.S.A. motor bike it pulled me over. We were not synchronised with each other and the sheer weight of the machine was too much for a puny, aging, pen-pusher like me.
Came the day when I did throw my leg over the petrol tank, adjusted my crash helmet and, with five others, emerged from the M.T. yard to starting point of the Kirkthorpe circuit which was opposite to Kirkthorpe church. The “line of march”, so the speak was, two experienced ones at the front, the instructor (Bombadier Bob Thornton, a nice guy) in the middle and novices front and rear. So we set off. Approaching Heath Common the Instructor signalled for a U-turn and with that signal proved that I had been day-dreaming when the classroom lecture had been on “Clutches, motor-cycles, soldiers for the use of”.
In a moment of mental aberration, fool that I was instead of easing out the clutch slowly I released it straight out. I shot forward out of control and in a panic found that I was in a ditch running alongside the hedgerow.
I hadn’t the slightest notion of what to do but the first telegraph poles had a ready answer. Wham. Hooray for crash helmets, I escaped with severe concussion; could have been a lot worse.
On October 13th, we moved to Khatatba. Not being in the know I did not know whether the three Batteries, 300, 310 and 456 had made the move to the north, to the east or two the west as the latrine orderlies, the usual harbingers of Regimental Intelligence and secrets, were strangely silent. It was a certainty that we had not gone south as that was away from Rommel. We had a gut feeling that we were going towards Action Stations. To a spot where, with the rest of the 8th Army we were going to put Rommel’s nose out of joint for the last time and keep him away from his objectives, Cairo and Alexandria.
We knew we were not in that godforsaken hole just to write home to say the weather was glorious, we were enjoying the sunshine and that we were acquiring a nice tan; which of course we were; a leathery one.
Life at Khatatba was pretty well the same as at El Tahag. Water was rationed so it became routine to shave and then, with the aid of a small piece of sponge in and out of the mug have a body wash down: classified as a bath. So a new man was made.
When the “Stand To” order was passed down the line we knew that Phase 1 of Monty’s plan to hit Rommel for six was imminent.
Three minutes later, at 21.40 hours, on the roared order of “Fire” a belch of fury erupted from barrels of the massed guns, hub to hub. The earth trembled and it felt that Armageddon was upon us. All hell was let loose.
The flashing guns, winking along the horizon of a moonlit night, as far as the eye could see heralded 20 minutes of deafening chaos.
“God help those Germans,” I thought in an unpatriotic but humane moment. “They won’t survive this lot.”
The Italian Littorio Division had surrendered, having lost all heart in losing battles on their old colonial territory. They wanted to get back to their homes inn [sic] Tuscany, Lombardy and Lazio.
As we had fired our guns in the area, we must have had a hand in persuading them to pack it in; even if their homes could only be reached via a POW camp.
In the half-light, it [a column of Italian POWs] was a wonderful sight. Roused up and getting ready for the next move; an understandable frame of mind considering we were in a fluid battle area, we were cheered by the announcement that we deserved a dip in the Med. Bathing parties would be arranged.
What cheered us up a lot more was the subtle hint not in Battery Orders, and I emphasise this that we could have a walk round the surrendered vehicles and the blind eye treatment would apply.
With the sun pouring down it must have been 100 degrees at least (my guess) the throwback from the white sand put a blindfold over my eyes.
The dip in the placid waters of the Med worked wonders but the thought of what might be over the tailboards at the Itie vehicles, lined up in columns, was an exciting prospect.
The news was passed round that silk pyjamas had been located. Evidently the higher ups in the Littorio Division didn’t sleep in coarse shirts made of hessian, as we did. The British one had a dual purpose; wear it night and day. Or vice versa.
The possibility of acquiring watches or cameras was thought expectancy, but acquisitions would, be sifted, as they arose, and dealt with on their merits. It passed down that a Sergeant from Edward Troop had seen bundles of Lira notes, in trunks, in what appeared to be the Divisional Paymaster’s truck; and rejected them. Churchill hadn’t made up his mind about the underbelly of Europe. On our regimental convoying … we hadn’t seen any shop windows; so what good were Italian lira notes?
he nearest we got to a giddy spending spree was when the NAAFI rations appeared on one of their spasmodic visits. Even then, the items available were utilitarian, like tooth paste. The titillating articles, like extra beer, were usually in short supply, and paying for the allocation didn’t make much of a dent in your paybook credit.
I must have been off my rocker when I decided that my personal aim would be to discover extra food rations for the truck. My reasoning for this was two-fold.Being vehicle cook my reckoning was that a full belly took precedence over a buckshee watch, camera or other material goods we had learned to live without. A fully belly would be a rare asset in a world of few compensations. I felt I ought to do something about it. We had a stingy quartermaster. He never gave a half if he could get away with a quarter …
I staggered back to the leaguer area, 15 minutes late, with a knee sagging heavy sandbag full of tinned veg, and greasy meat. More fat than lean. Tedeschi style.
So an appointment was made for me to have an interview with the troop commander, from whom I got a dressing down for being AWOL for 15 minutes, and given 2 days fatigues … we had heard we were moving, so the fatigues were theoretical.
On November 13th on the way back to Cairo after a roadside brew up, we tuned in the radio for the English news and heard the church bells pealing out, echoing … our victory at El Alamein.
The sweet peal of the bells coming from the sand dusted wireless set in the back of George Freddy [the truck] brought back memories of the Scottish Glens, the Yorkshire dales and the Cotswolds to the hearts of the desert rats of the 78th Field Regiment lining the road in convoy order.
“Did you hear the order, “Prepare to move on”? We hope its westward”.
It wasn’t, it was eastward.
We travelled the 300 miles back to Cairo along the coast road and arrived at Cowley Camp in November.
Only to be told our recall was a mistake.
On the downhill exit road, about two miles from Castel d’Aino we passed a sad reminder of the loss of a good friend from the signallers fraternity of Charlie Troop. Arthur Wheeler, while on line maintenance, had been hit by shrapnel while sheltering by the side of a deserted house.
Buried by the roadside, his grave was marked by a cross made with two slats from a wooden box; a temporary improvisation which in its spontaneous sincerity on its lonely site gave poignancy to the loss of a good bloke.