Soldiers Stories `Life with the Durhams in their Words`
This section contains the stories of Regimental and battalion life by those who experienced it first hand.These are not my words nor those of any author or historian they are the words of men who were there!
Stories added to date;-
Sgt Charles Eagles 9th DLI
Pte Bill Charles 11th DLI
Sgt Patrick Arnold 1st DLI
published extracts from the Northern Echo 2008
If I remember rightly it was quite breezy on June 1 and 2,1944 There was quite a bit of horsing around, with grown men acting like kids, lots of high pitched laughter that didn't seem real-it was all to cover up our nervousness. We’d been told the invasion was imminent and had rushed off to pack our kits and write our last letters home. I was in the 9th Battalion of the Durham light Infantry, although I originally come from Newcastle –under-Lyme, in Staffordshire.
It’s a long story, in 1943.aged 18,I joined the Commandos, but I fell down a cliff while training in Scotland and was sent to hospital. When I recovered, the adjutant asked me where I came from, I said Newcastle, thinking there was only one, and they sent me home to another one-Newcastle upon Tyne. So instead of joining my local regiment, The North Staffordshire’s, I ended up in my new local regiment, The DLI. I was posted down to the 9th Battalion’s training camp at Saffron Walden, in Essex, on February 12th.
We spent a couple of months building up our fitness-on one occasion-in conjunction with some yanks, we covered 105miles in six days wearing Army kit, heavy boots and carrying our rifles. We started at Boston in Lincolnshire and ended in Hull and in between managed to `capture` five villages! I had gone on an explosives course to learn how to deal with mines and booby traps and to earn 6d a day extra. It meant I was in S Company “Does S stand for stupid Sir?” I asked Lieutenant Jack Williams, tongue-in cheek, No it Bloody doesn’t he roared back “Its Superior, Special and its Elite” I liked Jack Williams; He was a miner from Brandon, County Durham. And like me a keen boxer, I would go to hell and back with him, which was a good thing because as it turned out, he took me there and I carried him back! Because I was in S Company I had to carry a large pack containing detonators, gun cotton, fuse cotton, rope, string and a pair of wire cutters. All in all I had about 100lbs on my back, which with hindsight was a ridiculous amount to try and carry. We were then crammed onto an American ship, like Sardines, with just enough room to lie down, at this point we were keen to get on and fight. Yet the weather wouldn’t let us. We were told that because of it, the invasion was postponed and we would have to stick it out on board for another day.
Little gambling schools formed all over and we took turns to go on deck for fresh air. Some men wanted to talk, others just played cards, some oiled their rifles, and others sat poker faced-they were the ones that had already been in action. One soldier was on the brink of tears, repeatedly opening his wallet and looking at his pictures of his wife and children. The heat in the hold was dreadful and the smell was awful, the rations were boring and the lads were getting grumpy.
Then on the evening of the 5th June Lieutenant Williams came down and excitedly told us the invasion was on and that we would be sailing that night. He gave us instructions. Landmarks to recognise and told us to put on our waders that came up to our necks! About an hour before we were due to land. The lads cheered up, at last something was happening. In fact it was an amazing turnaround, the men were keyed up and raring to go, the American sailors were cracking jokes and a cheer went up as we set off. Inside the hold to me the sea seemed deadly quiet, it was an echo of us, calm on the outside but with deep unfathomable feelings on the inside.
There was a quiet buzz of conversation, and louder murmurs from the gambling schools A few tried to get some shuteye but every now and again someone would step over you to visit the toilets on deck. I went up on deck and was amazed at what I saw; Thousands of boats of all descriptions had amassed around us-but all I could see in the moonlight were silhouettes, Hundreds, Thousands of ghostly vessels all sailing in the same direction. As I scrambled back down I thought to myself “If we get a direct hit, we wont have a cat in hells chance of getting out of the hold I offered up a silent prayer to my guardian angel. Because I never knew my father. I developed a close relationship with the man my mother worked for. He built me a little truck, for me to push around delivering things, and when he died .I like to believe he came back to look after me. I crossed my fingers and thought, “Look after your little friend, Tom Kerry”
Part 2 Landing on D-Day
IT would have been about 9am or 9.30am, but time didn't matter any more. It was D-Day. Overhead, we could hear the drone of the heavy bombers. From beside us came the rumble of heavy gunfire from the battleships and cruisers. In the hold of the American ship, I was feeling very queasy. Sweat was standing on my forehead and I thought I was going to be sick. My nausea was caused by the rough swell of the sea mixed with the terrible smell of the hundreds of bodies - members, like me, of the 9th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry - that had been crammed in the airless hold for days. The temperature had been rising constantly, and now I was so tempted to rip off my oilskin and my waders because the heat was unbearable. And my nausea was caused by the apprehension of what was to come. But then the magic words were roared at us: "Move it, men." I can still remember the smell of the fresh air as we hit the open deck - it was wonderful! My queasiness left me and I felt tip-top. I wasn't scared, just excited. The lads were in great form, drinking in the cool fresh air and joking as only Geordies can.
The NCOs bellowed, but it didn't matter. We moved like a well-oiled machine as we had practised everything so often. The skies that morning were misty and the seas were full of thousands of boats of all descriptions. From that distance, we could see the shore and a few puffs of smoke, which were followed a few seconds later by a heavy shudder. As we drew closer to the beaches, all hell let loose. The noise was deafening as the shells from the battleships pounded enemy positions a couple of miles inland. When we were a couple of hundred yards from shore, we scrambled over the side of our ship, down rope-ladders, ran over another ship and were packed, shoulder-to-shoulder like sardines, into an LCI (Landing Craft for Infantry).
Lt Jack Williams gave me a grin as big as a Cheshire cat. "This is it, laddie," he said. I could see wrecked vehicles littering the shallow waters and the beach. To the left, tanks, complete with flails, were clearing a path through the mines. Odd puffs of mortars erupted in the sand. Groups of men made their way, snakelike, off the beach. It seemed surprisingly organised. And the noise was horrendous. I came to with a jerk as the LCI grounded. The magic words again: "Move it, men.” We surged forward and out of the corner of my eye I saw one of our leading lads disappear from view. Then I stepped out, and I dropped under the cold water. My hand slipped down to my belt automatically and my backpack was away. I felt a strong grip on my tunic as I found my feet on Gold Beach, and Lt Williams hauled me up with a big grin: "Take it easy, laddie." We scrambled ashore, scrabbling out of our horrible waders, only to be told to grab a folding Para troop bike. We formed up in our various sections and drifted off the beach, pushing our bikes through the barbed wire on to a small track and eventually into a narrow countryside road. What a comical sight for any German observer we must have been, like Fred Karno`s army! The order to mount bikes was given, and we wobbled all over the place, packs and rifles rolling drunkenly around our backs as we tried to pedal for the first time since childhood.
It was a truly hysterical sight, these wobbly invaders claiming their first couple of hundred yards of enemy territory. But then a shell dropped somewhere among us. We were showered with debris and dived into ditches. It brought us back with a crack, and that was how our D-Day went; slow progress across difficult terrain, and every time we relaxed, a loud crack of sudden sniper fire woke us up. Occasional tanks passed through us going forward; a few German prisoners walked the other way, hands above their heads or clasped behind their necks, going backwards. But we moved forward on foot - our silly, wobbly bikes were quite literally ditched in that ditch by the side of the road.
Part 3 Mines and Booby Traps
I'LL never forget my first mine. It was the day after D-Day, somewhere on a side road not far from Bayeux. It was a Teller mine, big and nasty. I was in S Company attached to the 9th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, and clearing mines was my expertise - I had gone on a course and was paid 6d a day extra for the privilege! After landing on D-Day, we'd spent a nervy night at the foot of our slit trench. Every time I nodded off I was quickly brought to by the stuttering of sten guns and shouting, be it English or German, which was too close for comfort.
D-Day+1 broke with Typhoons - US planes - overhead, dropping bombs on the enemy in the next field 100 yards away. There were snipers everywhere, picking us off, slowing us down, although, eventually, I would come to have my day with one of them. There were also mines and booby traps. Everywhere. I remember delousing that first Teller, prodding around it, feeling underneath it, with sweat running down my forehead and burning into my eyes. My voice trembled as I shouted to the lads closest to me: "Move back and lie down.” I removed the detonator and lifted the mine clear. Job done. My legs were jelly - it hadn't been anything like that difficult in training.
I did another three that day, two were armed and one was not, and the days after were very demanding. It's funny, it doesn't matter how many mines you lift, and it doesn't get any easier. But you do get wilier and more experienced. You only make one mistake, and that is your last. A few days after my first Teller, Lieutenant Jack Williams, the commander of S Company, sent me and six men to clear a large farmhouse that some officer wanted for his headquarters. I had somehow, aged nineteen-and-a-half, become a sergeant. I was in charge. I carefully explored the hallway of the house and found a couple of small charges, one of which was coupled to three or four Teller mines. I realised then that this was going to be a tricky job. I left a private to stand watch over them, and went into the large kitchen. A corporal grinned at me. "What do you think of this, Sarge?" he asked. He had about half-a-dozen anti-personnel mines in the middle of the floor.
Then I got a call from another room. Woody - Corporal Wood whose first name I never knew - had also piled up some mines in the middle of the floor. I was now extremely worried. "Outside everybody," I shouted. "We need to talk this one over.” I collected them together in the farmyard, and as the lads lit up their cigarettes a dull thud came from within the building. Woody and I rushed inside and found the corporal lying against the wall, disembowelled. We dragged him outside, by which time he was as black as coal. I was shaking all over. I went back into the hallway, coupled a detonator with a short lead, yelled at the lads to get down, jumped into a ditch beside them, and waited for what seemed like an eternity. Wallop! What an implosion! When the dust cleared, there were just four walls of this substantial farmhouse left standing. We lay there, five grey faces just staring at each other, the dead corporal in front of us. No one laughed.
Lt Williams appeared. "What the bloody hell's happened here?" he screamed. I pointed to the twisted body at my feet, and tears ran down my cheeks. The most difficult part of this sorry experience was going over the body to recover the dead soldier's papers and identification so they could be sent home to his parents. As I did it, I couldn't help thinking about how they would feel when they received this awful last package from the front. At dawn next morning, Lt Williams, a grand chap from Brandon, County Durham, came over and sat with his feet dangling in my trench, drinking my tea. "How are you?" he asked. "Oh fine," I said. "Uncle Tom Kerry talked me through it all last night.” Who the hell is Tom Kerry?" he asked.” Just my guardian angel," I replied, grinning."Hmm," he said, and left me. We each had our own ways of making it through
Part 4 Saving Lieutenant Williams
THE cornfield was triangular, and we were to advance through it towards the apex where there was a wood that we had to capture. It was June 14, 1944, eight days after D-Day and the worst day of my war.
The old stone white church of Lingèvres was on our right along with A Company; to our left was B Company as the field fell away slightly down to a tree-lined beck. I was in the middle in one of two personnel carriers - vehicles that had been detailed to act as bodyguards for Colonel Humphrey Woods. He was the commanding officer of the 9th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, and was in a third carrier to our right. He was 28, a popular CO from Hertfordshire, decorated with a Distinguished Service Order and a Military Cross from his time in the desert.
From behind us, our 25-pounder guns opened up and directed a sustained barrage at the wood; overhead roared the US Typhoon planes, each releasing two bombs and ten rockets, straddling and plastering the wood. It literally danced in front of the eyes, and it was impossible - absolutely impossible - that anything could have survived within it. Then there was silence, about seven or so minutes of it, as the Durham Light Infantry pushed through the field towards the wood. The men were well spread out, rifles at port position (ready in front of them like on the end sequence of Dad's Army), wading through the waist-high corn. It was a First World War advance.
Beside me was Lieutenant Jack Williams who was the one I looked up to. He was born in Brandon, County Durham, and now lived in Spennymoor where his father was a miner. In fact, his father had been in the DLI during the First World War. He'd been gassed at Ypres and had lost a leg. Suddenly, about 500 yards up the cornfield, all hell broke loose. A German tank in the left side of the wood opened up without warning, followed by another to the right. Withering Spandau (machine gun) fire shot across the cornfield. The gunfire was so intense that it cut the corn like a scythe, and men were falling with it, left, right and centre of me. It was a First World War massacre. I jumped out of my personnel carrier and ran alongside it. Jack asked me what I was doing. I wasn't sure; I just felt uneasy. He followed me out, and a minute or so later the carriers were hit by mortar fire. Our driver, a young ginger-headed lad who I think was Private Arthur Mortimer, was in a terrible state. Dead. Killed instantly.
6208208 Private Arthur Mortimer, 'S' Coy. 9th. Bn. Durham L.I. Pte A. Mortimer served at Dunkirk, battle of El Alamain and the invasion of Sicily, before landing in Normandy. He was a trained LMG [Bren] gunner and a Carrier driver He was the son of George Thomas Mortimer and Sophie Mortimer,of We ran over to the second carrier and pulled a corporal clear. He was screaming in agony because his leg and arm had been blown off. There were dead and dying all around us, and gruesome screams filled the air, competing with dreadful sound of gunfire. Jack screamed at me "this way" and he dashed over to Col Woods' carrier. The Colonel looked towards Jack and shouted an order at him. Jack then turned and starting running towards me. As he came closer, he started to stagger in slow motion, getting lower and lower in the corn until he sprawled at my feet, blood pouring from his thighs. "Take a look, Eagles," he gasped. "If they've shot my balls off, shoot me." I pretended to look and said: "You're okay." Somehow, I managed to get him up and across my shoulders and - how, I'll never understand - I carried him 50 yards - maybe 150 yards, I don't know - across the field until I spotted a medic. I dropped Jack at his feet like a sack. As the medic began to attend to his injuries, Jack managed to say to me: "I'm okay, laddie. Get yourself back." Then he passed out. This, though, was just the start of his extraordinary escape. When they got him back to a mobile surgical hospital, they found that he had received a gunshot wound to the right hip. A bullet had passed through his left shinbone and another had hit him just above his left knee, shattering about an inch-and-a-half of bone. So serious were his injuries, that they decided to amputate his left leg - the same fate as had befallen his father in the First World War. They completed the paperwork and he was moved to a surgeon's table. But then the field hospital was flooded with casualties demanding immediate attention. Jack's wounds were dressed and he was forgotten about, eventually ending up back in Spennymoor with both his legs intact. His medical records, though, said otherwise, and he had a hell of a job when he came to rejoin his unit, persuading them that this two-legged man standing before them was the one-legged chap that the paperwork told them to expect. For me, though, I had to fulfil what I believed would be Jack's last request, and I ran - through the gunfire - to Col Woods
Killed in action on 14th June 1944, Aged 28
He is buried in plot XV.H.10 Bayeux War Cemetery
6208208 Private Arthur Mortimer, 'S' Coy. 9th. Bn. Durham L.I.
Pte A. Mortimer served at Dunkirk, battle of El Alamain and the invasion of Sicily, before landing in Normandy.
He was a trained LMG [Bren] gunner and a Carrier driver
He was the son of George Thomas Mortimer and Sophie Mortimer,of
We ran over to the second carrier and pulled a corporal clear. He was screaming in agony because his leg and arm had been blown off. There were dead and dying all around us, and gruesome screams filled the air, competing with dreadful sound of gunfire. Jack screamed at me "this way" and he dashed over to Col Woods' carrier. The Colonel looked towards Jack and shouted an order at him. Jack then turned and starting running towards me. As he came closer, he started to stagger in slow motion, getting lower and lower in the corn until he sprawled at my feet, blood pouring from his thighs. "Take a look, Eagles," he gasped. "If they've shot my balls off, shoot me." I pretended to look and said: "You're okay."
Somehow, I managed to get him up and across my shoulders and - how, I'll never understand - I carried him 50 yards - maybe 150 yards, I don't know - across the field until I spotted a medic. I dropped Jack at his feet like a sack. As the medic began to attend to his injuries, Jack managed to say to me: "I'm okay, laddie. Get yourself back." Then he passed out. This, though, was just the start of his extraordinary escape. When they got him back to a mobile surgical hospital, they found that he had received a gunshot wound to the right hip. A bullet had passed through his left shinbone and another had hit him just above his left knee, shattering about an inch-and-a-half of bone. So serious were his injuries, that they decided to amputate his left leg - the same fate as had befallen his father in the First World War. They completed the paperwork and he was moved to a surgeon's table. But then the field hospital was flooded with casualties demanding immediate attention. Jack's wounds were dressed and he was forgotten about, eventually ending up back in Spennymoor with both his legs intact. His medical records, though, said otherwise, and he had a hell of a job when he came to rejoin his unit, persuading them that this two-legged man standing before them was the one-legged chap that the paperwork told them to expect. For me, though, I had to fulfil what I believed would be Jack's last request, and I ran - through the gunfire - to Col Woods
Part 5 Death of the Colonel
WHEN I dropped Lieutenant Jack Williams at the medic's feet, he managed to say to me: "I'm okay laddie. Get yourself back." Then he passed out.So I went back to rejoin the Battle of Lingèvres, fought by the 9th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry against what turned out to be the Panzer Lehr Division, probably the best equipped division in the entire Wehrmacht. And back to Colonel Humphrey Woods, the commanding officer, who we'd been detailed to bodyguard until our carrier had been blown apart by a mortar.It was June 14, 1944; eight days after D-Day, and the Durham’s were being mown down all around me. It was a First World War-style advance, and it was a First World War style-massacre. Bodies were lying everywhere as I made my way back to my section. Some men pleaded silently as they lay helpless and in pain - these awful sights and sounds have never left me. What remained of my section had re-grouped in the apex of the cornfield, Col Woods, a popular CO decorated with a Distinguished Service Order and a Military Cross, was in charge. Following his orders, we scrambled through a hedgerow and spotted the turret of a Tiger tank trying to hide in a copse.
Grave of Colonel Woods
We scattered, throwing ourselves behind anything. Except the colonel. He stood still, taking in the situation and then issuing an order: "Get that tank!"I couldn't believe it. I may even have laughed. It was an impossible task. It would have been sheer suicide. It is one thing to be brave; quite another to be foolish.But then it happened. Some mortar shells landed between us and I threw myself into undergrowth. When I looked again, I saw the colonel was down. He spoke his last words: "Surely they haven't hit me!” They had indeed. And how. He was virtually cut in half. He was 28. I stood up. The dust had settled. The Tiger tank had gone. Things were quiet. But what a sight. I don't have the words to describe the horror, to describe the dreadful, ghastly, gruesome scene. Bodies were scattered everywhere, one or two of them gently moaning. I noticed a handful of Durham’s - I recognised only one of them, Corporal "Woody" Wood - alive. They were sitting, filthy, by a trackside. "That Tiger's got a nasty spit," said one. “It wasn't the Tiger," I said. "It was too close. Those were mortars." We moved down the track about 50 yards towards a farmhouse and spotted five or six of our lads lying as if they were observing ahead. Woody crept over to them. He soon came running back, panting as he gabbled: "They're all dead, sarge." In 90 minutes, in a battle beneath the ancient stone white church of Lingévres, the 9th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry had lost its commanding officer and 31 of its men. At the aid posts and in the field hospitals there lay another 248 wounded. It seemed as if just four of us had survived. We lay - shell-shocked - trying to figure out what the hell we should do next. Then I heard a little, polite, cough. "Ahem. Ahem." It was a German major, with a dozen or so German soldier, standing almost on top of me.
Part 6 Surrender
"Throw down your weapons. You are surrounded," he said in perfect English. We didn't argue. They didn't search us but took us on an amiable amble a mile or so to their camp. Their officer, who'd been educated at either Cambridge or Oxford before the war, asked which of us was senior rank.I produced my sergeant's stripes from my pocket. Normandy, with its close fields and tight hedgerows, was perfect sniper territory and they deliberately targeted officers with binoculars round their necks and stripes on their arms. He laughed. "You must be the youngest sergeant in the British Army." I was nineteen-and-a-half. Later, the major offered me, with apologies, a mug of revolting coffee, and said they couldn't send us back because they had no transport and Red Cross vehicles were being strafed by the Americans.
We got chatting, passing around sweets and tobacco. It was funny, considering that a few hours earlier we had been employing the most vicious weaponry in our desperation to kill each other. Half-a-dozen Typhoon planes roared overhead, dropping their usual load of two bombs and ten rockets each. The major reminisced about the delights of Scotch whisky and English pubs. At dusk, we lay in a ditch with warm mugs of coffee, surrounded by our new German friends and slowly dozing off. Catnapping, stirred by the slightest noise, had become a way of life. At times I thought it was a dream and I'd soon wake up.
We awoke the next morning, June 15, 1944, and it was bright and sunny. More Typhoons flew overhead. We could hear the Germans' artillery fire as they tried to bring our planes down; then we heard our planes drop our bombs on their lines. A plume of thick, black smoke rose in the distance. It was probably a German stronghold near the town of Tilly-sur-Seulles. It was all very alarming.The German major beckoned me over. He'd been out during the night on a recce. "Things are grim," he said in his well-spoken English. "We are cut off. There is no way we can take or send you to Germany." A weak smile passed over his face. "In fact," he said, "I'd like to suggest that we surrender to you."
My face must have been a picture as he said he was speaking on behalf of the three platoons in his charge, dug into those woods. That's about 100 men surrendering to the four of us. The tables were turned. But now it was my problem to get my prisoners back behind my lines.If 100 Germans approached out of nowhere, after yesterday's massacre at Lingèvres, our boys were bound to become jumpy. And, if we led the Germans in, did we really trust our enemies behind us? "They could bloody shoot us in the backs when we get down the road," whispered Corporal "Woody" Wood. The German major and I separated to our corners to work out how we could safely undertake what would probably be the most harrowing journey of our lives
Part 7 100 Enemy Prisoners surrender to Four of us!
I still wasn't too happy with the plan, and the German major - politely spoken with an English education - read my mind. "Perhaps if I give you my pistol," he said in his perfect English, "that would show my intentions are honourable." As he handed it over, I think we all found this surrender rather embarrassing. I tucked the pistol between my belt and tunic top (how I wish I had kept it, but I later swapped it with a Canadian for some cigarettes - and I've never smoked), and he held out his hand.After 60 years, I cannot recall precisely what he said, but it was something like: "I wish you luck that you may come through this conflict unharmed."
With that, in formation, we set off down a track to a minor road and headed for the nearest village. It was probably only half-a-mile, but it seemed like ten. It was a harrowing journey, me side-by-side with a German major and sporadic firing in the distance.We came to a crossroads where the British were dug in. I could see them in their slit trench, a light machine gun resting on top of it and pointing straight at us. My heart was pounding as they spotted us and lined up their Bren guns on us.We continued walking steadily, no sudden movements, but hoping against hope that they'd spot our light-coloured flag - it was supposed to be a white flag of surrender but all we could find between us was a dirty vest. "Hold your fire," I bellowed. "Make way for the Durham’s. "A thick Scottish voice yelled back: "You could be bloody Germans." Woody fired back: "Don't be so bloody daft, Jock."
"Get an officer down here now," I shouted, getting more and more concerned as these lads were rather wild-eyed and may well have discovered a bottle of the local tipple, Calvados. Fortunately, a lieutenant appeared. I told him our story and the German major confirmed it. It was agreed that Woody and I would return with four men and bring back the rest of the Panzer men. Before I left, I walked over to the major and said: "I am sure you will be treated with respect for the way you have treated my men." I unashamedly gave him a salute out of utter respect. As I walked passed the Panzer corporal, I squeezed his arm and nodded. "Good luck," I said. He smiled.
We retraced our steps and were astonished to find the Panzer Lehr men, three platoons of Germany's crack troops, ready assembled. God! When I saw how many there were, I nearly died. I hadn't even got a rifle - and neither had Woody. He led this long line of 100 or so Germans towards captivity and I brought up the rear. Everything went like clockwork. Most seemed pleased that it was all over for them and they were still alive.The whole operation took one-and-a-half hours. We reached the British lines and stopped, and our prisoners just carried on walking into captivity. It was extraordinary. As they disappeared, Woody and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. Four members of the 9th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, without a rifle or even a knife or fork between them, had taken prisoner 100 armed Germans?
Looking back from the distance of 60 years, I now see that in the course of those one-and-a-half hours we had become veterans ourselves; me at the ripe old age of nineteen-and-a-half, Woody a more mature 28.I would never be the same man again. I had matured, and I walked tall
Part 8 Drink!
A CARRIER pulled up and a Captain Phillips dropped in on us. "We have found a distillery," he said. "Would you give it the once over, Eagles?" S Company of the 9th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry was back in business. After the massacre at Lingévres five days earlier on June 14, 1944, and the capture of the 100 German prisoners, the survivors were re-united and the battalion reformed. S Company was the specialist booby trap clearance team, and this distillery was clearly a job for the big boys. Corporal "Woody" Wood and I dashed over to Hottot, a village about a mile from Lingévres. The distillery was marked off by yellow ribbon and ten soldiers stood guard - it was clearly an important find!
We did a quick recce outside, checked a cart - an obvious place for a booby trap - and crept inside. The smell of spirits nearly choked us. There was rack upon rack of them, all around the walls and up to the ceiling and stacked in the middle: brandy, liquors and Calvados, the local firewater.The downstairs was clear and I volunteered to do the upstairs, telling Woody to give the lads outside a couple of bottles each so that they wouldn't see him loading the carrier. I don't drink, never have, but I knew I'd find others who'd be appreciative.
The upstairs was tidy and clear, although I was a bit suspicious of a set of steps left lying at an awkward angle. They were clean, and I gave the building the Okay, saluted Capt Phillips and jumped with undue haste into the carrier. I had to squeeze myself in between the cases such was the bounty.” You’re spoiling yourself, Woody," I said.Back at our platoon, we were treated like conquering heroes. "Down in one lads - any bets?" said Bill Hart from Hartlepool. He picked up a bottle of Calvados - Normandy's famous apple brandy - and removed the cork and did indeed down it in one. With a big grin on his face he collapsed flat on his back.It was then that I realised what a grave mistake I had made. I checked the lines and found the men giggling away to themselves like a naughty class of schoolgirls. Bill Hart was in such a state - both ends - that he smelt worse than any dead body I had encountered.
As night drew in, shadowy figures flitted around in the dusk, whispering about directions to the stash and then clanking away gleefully into the gloom. Soon, the trenches were full of gentle snores. Suddenly, there was a movement in front of me. I held my breath. There was sporadic firing in the distance and I was facing the entire German army with only a trench full of drunken soldiers for company.But it was our lieutenant who lurched into view, unsteady on his feet, but desperately trying to hold it together. He blurted out: "I think I'm a bit pissed, the sergeant." And I gently led him back to his own trench. It was a long night. And a long next three days. Bill Hart was still unconscious. He'd gone a dreadful colour and he smelt terrible. We covered him in a blanket and threw him in the back of a carrier, but I knew that if he was discovered he would - we would, and me definitely would - be in trouble. Drunk on the front line was a court martial offence. “The worst they could do is shoot him," said a barrack room lawyer. "Given the state he's in, it'd probably be a blessing."
For the first time since Lingévres, I thought about my old Lieutenant Jack Williams from Spennymoor. I'd carried him off the battlefield with blood pouring out of his thigh. I wondered if he was still alive, and I wondered what he would do in this situation. I even called upon my guardian angel, my old family friend from when I was a boy. "Hope you look after me now, Tom Kerry," I prayed.And despite the smell coming from the back of the carrier, in the chaos of war no officer came to investigate. Bill was unconscious in there for three or four days until we eventually managed to rouse him with a bucket of cold water over his head. We wrapped him up in some warm blankets until we could scrounge some clean clothing for him.
It was over a week before he could rejoin the fray, and when he did he apologised profusely for his behaviour. He swore that he would never touch a drink again in his life; we swore that if we ever saw him with a bottle in his hand, we would kill him
Final Part;-Blown up!
JULY 22, 1944, was just an ordinary, routine day in Normandy. D-Day was a month-and-a-half behind the Durham Light Infantry, and we were beginning to make forward progress into France.
For S Company of the 9th Battalion - the specialist company in mine clearance - the job was an ordinary, routine job. There were some mines on a minor road junction. They didn't take too long to clear and we were in good form as we threw our bits back in to the personnel carrier to return to base. I stood next to the driver, and the other two members of my crew sat in the back. The driver reversed into the field. As he pulled away, there was a hell of a bang - the loudest noise I've ever heard. Then I felt as if I was flying, and it was only when I came to a couple of seconds later that I realised that I was 15ft from where I should have been. And I was caught in the lower branches of a tree.
I tumbled to the ground and rushed over to the wreckage of the carrier. The driver was lying half out of it. His legs were blown off, and he was already black. The other two lads were on the ground in grotesque positions. They were black, too. It was a shattering scene. I panicked. They had to hold me down. I was yelling blue murder. I had to get those mines cleared before they blew up anyone else. I broke away. I dashed down a road to get help. A sergeant and an officer rugby-tackled me to bring me to a halt, and dragged me off to a first-aid post. It was then that I realised I was injured. In fact, I saw that I was covered in blood. The medics cut off my boots and I looked down and could see my legs and ankles were terribly swollen. They gave me some sweet tea to calm me down . . .
And the next I remember is a week or so later being carried on a stretcher off a boat, probably into Eastbourne. My legs were black and swollen; the base of my back wasn't too good either, and there was still some shrapnel lodged in my thumb, which was refusing to heal. The doctors were talking about amputating it but decided instead to give a new antiseptic cream a try. It was penicillin, and I still have five digits on my right hand. Sedated, I was transferred to Dryburn Hospital, in Durham City. They thought it was near my hometown, but I come from near Newcastle-under-Lyme and not Newcastle-upon-Tyne! Never mind. My mam back in Staffordshire was very excited that I was alive because, a couple of weeks earlier, she'd received a letter saying, "missing presumed dead”. Convalescents like myself were kitted out in hospital blues with a red tie and, once our daily treatments were over, we were allowed into the city and further a field.
Everywhere we went we were treated like heroes. We travelled for free and we drank for free. The "local" for the convalescents of Dryburn was Valente's coffee bar and there I met lass called Irene. She came from Meadowfield, near Brandon, but was working away in Coventry manufacturing aircraft parts, coming home on leave for a few days at a time. I was in Dryburn for three months and then discharged, the doctor telling me that because of what the blast compression damage had done to my ankles, knees and lower back, I'd be in a wheelchair by the time I was 40. I'm 79 now and still on my own two feet - but I must admit it is becoming an increasingly painful struggle.
Still, though, I must not grumble. I am alive - and I still thank my guardian angel, old Uncle Tom Kerry, for that. Especially as in the 45 days between us landing on Gold Beach on D-Day and me being blown up on that ordinary, routine job, 74 men had passed through my platoon. That's 74 men either killed or wounded or just missing. I recently returned, for the first time, to Normandy and stood in front of the grave of my best mate, Private Lew Turner, in Bayeux Cemetery. He was a Durham who was killed at Lingévres on June 14. He was only 21. Such a young lad. Such a horrible death. He'd practically had no life.
Pte Lew Turner The Durham Light Infantry
I've had 60 years more, married Irene, had a couple of children and grandchildren, lived in Canada for a couple of years, and set up my own photographic business - Charles Eagles and Son, with branches in Sunderland and Durham. Even when Irene died in 1982, I was fortunate to find Lyn whom I married in 1991.But them, young lads like Lew? They'd never even lived. It was a waste of lives. Yet a couple of years ago, I got a letter from one of the Germans who'd been at Lingévres. He was probably six months younger than me, and he'd been a loader on one of the Tiger tanks in the woods - one of the two tanks that had caused so much carnage amongst us Durham’s. In 90 minutes that day, we'd suffered 248 casualties of which 32 were dead, including the commanding officer and, of course, Lew. The German was clearly very upset even after all those years, and he was writing asking for forgiveness. He sounded absolutely thrilled when I wrote back saying I bore him no animosity whatsoever for what he'd done to me and my mates. But how could I say anything else? Because while he was so successfully killing the Durham’s in that small cornfield, myself and the rest of Durham’s were desperately trying to kill him,
Pte Bill Charles 11th DLI Part 1 `Called up and beating the censor`
Bill Charles came home from the brickyard where he worked, he planned to get cleaned up ,go to the "First House" picture show in Newcastle with his girl, Jane. after this, they would stop off in Birtley, either to catch the "Second House", at the Plaza or Apollo Cinema, or simply go for a drink at the William IV public house. As he walked through the door, Bill`s mother told him that a man was wandering the streets with a pack of "Blue Envelopes" in his hand, and seemed to be delivering them only to certain houses. Bill Charles who was a member of the Territorial Army, knew just what those `Blue Envelopes` were it was 1939 and the war was coming ,these were Bill`s "Call Up" papers, he was to be mobilized to fight .
Bill Charles, after speaking with his father and neighbour who also in the "Terriers" decided to set out for the Drill Hall. On the way a man came along on a bicycle, and shouted that they had to go straight to the drill hall, but under his breath, he told all and sundry to call at the William first. So this was the way Birtley prepared for War. Straight to the pub, it does the heart good to know that in her hour of need, the Geordie, was his unflappable self. getting his priorities in order, . Eventually, after a few pints had been consumed, Bill and the rest of the lads made their way up Harras Bank to the drill hall, there they found their officers, and those NCO’s that had not been to the William. They were told that if they lived near they could go home, and report next morning. Not many stayed. You can only imagine what was said at Bill`s home that night, his Father giving advice no doubt, as he had been to war in 1914, his Mother quietly supportive but like every other Mother fearful of the future. War had still not been declared , so officially Bill Charles and the other Territorials were "Embodied" which meant that their service started before those conscripted, As day dawns, uniforms are put on, equipment checked, and just like a camp at Brancepeth, off they went, back to the drill hall for orders. First order was the moving of the Company into the Masonic Hall, and this time no-one goes home. . The Masonic hall became Bills billet for the next few days with guards etc to be done. Bill Charles recalled how he watched for enemy paratroopers landing in Black’s Field. He was very conscientious in this task, but did enquire that if he used his "couple of bullets" could he then go home. After that he spent the nights keeping the cows from falling into the slit trenches they had dug, and being alert to any strangers wandering around. After the Masonic Hall Bill was off to Sunderland, where after a run in with an Officer they were sent back to Birtley. A real move was now imminent so again a farewell drink at the William, Bill and his comrades climbed into buses, and were away, Bill Charles later recalled "You could have sailed a ship down Harras Bank with all them tears." Of course, the move was top secret, and the censor would let no hint of where they were going leak out. This does not however allow for Geordie cunning, and it was soon known to all back home in Birtley that the lads had arrived somewhere in Oxfordshire. Pigeons are in the blood up here and more than one man had seen the benefits of taking his prize bird along and letting it go when they reached their destination!
War had still not been declared , so officially Bill Charles and the other Territorials were "Embodied" which meant that their service started before those conscripted, As day dawns, uniforms are put on, equipment checked, and just like a camp at Brancepeth, off they went, back to the drill hall for orders. First order was the moving of the Company into the Masonic Hall, and this time no-one goes home. . The Masonic hall became Bills billet for the next few days with guards etc to be done. Bill Charles recalled how he watched for enemy paratroopers landing in Black’s Field. He was very conscientious in this task, but did enquire that if he used his "couple of bullets" could he then go home. After that he spent the nights keeping the cows from falling into the slit trenches they had dug, and being alert to any strangers wandering around.
After the Masonic Hall Bill was off to Sunderland, where after a run in with an Officer they were sent back to Birtley.
A real move was now imminent so again a farewell drink at the William, Bill and his comrades climbed into buses, and were away, Bill Charles later recalled "You could have sailed a ship down Harras Bank with all them tears."
Of course, the move was top secret, and the censor would let no hint of where they were going leak out. This does not however allow for Geordie cunning, and it was soon known to all back home in Birtley that the lads had arrived somewhere in Oxfordshire. Pigeons are in the blood up here and more than one man had seen the benefits of taking his prize bird along and letting it go when they reached their destination!
Pte Bill Charles Part 2 `Icelandic Tragedy`
Bill Charles trained as a carrier driver whether this was before or after the 11th DLI moving to Iceland is unknown .The old soldiers kept Bill right as he was waiting to board The Antonia at Liverpool Dock, Bill was not a bit sea-sick, even though the ship was bobbing around like a cork, he was told to focus onto something steady on the inside of the ship which he did only a momentary lapse when he looked at a swaying rope did the unwelcome feeling of nausea come upon him but was overcome as he once again switched his gaze to his `steady` object..
Bill had talked at length with the to old timers, who had told him of their experiences of troopships, hot sweaty, no room., so Bill and a couple of pals decided to ‘volunteer for the guns" They were selected and given a post, fairly high up on the superstructure, but were given hearty meals and shared a real cabin. They were called to action a few times but never fired a shot in anger . Bill Charles berthing Card for the `ANTONIA` 21st October 1940
Bill Charles berthing Card for the `ANTONIA` 21st October 1940
The job they had in Iceland was to help construct and guard the airfield at Reykjavik, and also watch the coastline for Germans landing. Iceland was a way-point on the U.S-U.K supply route, so Germans were often in the vicinity. Bill recalled an incident when a couple of Kittyhawks, [P’40’s] were sent up to chase off a “bandit” Bill had a perfect view of the pilot of one plane as he rushed out still eating a sandwich and was still chewing it as he took off, after a while, they landed, but no-one said if they had “bagged Jerry” Bill Charles recalled to his son Jim of the time he took a shot at the Bismarck as it sailed past his guard position, he swore he hit it too! He also told of the hot Icelandic springs, the volcanic rock,and the people of that land, The saddest tale from Iceland was a real tragedy Three men were in their hut when the fourth came in from sentry duty. As the sentry walked in, he bashed the door shut with the butt of the Bren gun he was carrying. There was a round “up the spout” and the shock fired it. The round went through one man, killing him instantly, hit a second man sitting reading a letter from home, went through him, ricocheted off the stove and hit the third man. Whether the other two were killed Bill has ommitted from his story, but Bill and two mates were tasked with the clean up, as the Fourth man was taken away, a broken shell of a man, never to be seen again by his squad. Bill Charles always had mixed feelings about this , True it was negligence, the fourth man should have ensured his weapon was empty before entering the hut, and he should never have banged the door shut with the butt of a weapon. but still Bill felt sorry for the young lad responsible for causing such an accident, that lad knew what he had done and these were his mates also.Bill and his mates were given a week off after the clean up, but recalled they couldn’t sleep for ages after that.
Bill Charles recalled to his son Jim of the time he took a shot at the Bismarck as it sailed past his guard position, he swore he hit it too! He also told of the hot Icelandic springs, the volcanic rock,and the people of that land, The saddest tale from Iceland was a real tragedy Three men were in their hut when the fourth came in from sentry duty. As the sentry walked in, he bashed the door shut with the butt of the Bren gun he was carrying. There was a round “up the spout” and the shock fired it. The round went through one man, killing him instantly, hit a second man sitting reading a letter from home, went through him, ricocheted off the stove and hit the third man. Whether the other two were killed Bill has ommitted from his story, but Bill and two mates were tasked with the clean up, as the Fourth man was taken away, a broken shell of a man, never to be seen again by his squad. Bill Charles always had mixed feelings about this , True it was negligence, the fourth man should have ensured his weapon was empty before entering the hut, and he should never have banged the door shut with the butt of a weapon. but still Bill felt sorry for the young lad responsible for causing such an accident, that lad knew what he had done and these were his mates also.Bill and his mates were given a week off after the clean up, but recalled they couldn’t sleep for ages after that.
The saddest tale from Iceland was a real tragedy Three men were in their hut when the fourth came in from sentry duty. As the sentry walked in, he bashed the door shut with the butt of the Bren gun he was carrying. There was a round “up the spout” and the shock fired it. The round went through one man, killing him instantly, hit a second man sitting reading a letter from home, went through him, ricocheted off the stove and hit the third man. Whether the other two were killed Bill has ommitted from his story, but Bill and two mates were tasked with the clean up, as the Fourth man was taken away, a broken shell of a man, never to be seen again by his squad. Bill Charles always had mixed feelings about this , True it was negligence, the fourth man should have ensured his weapon was empty before entering the hut, and he should never have banged the door shut with the butt of a weapon. but still Bill felt sorry for the young lad responsible for causing such an accident, that lad knew what he had done and these were his mates also.Bill and his mates were given a week off after the clean up, but recalled they couldn’t sleep for ages after that.
Pte Bill Charles Part 3 `Home on Leave and a New Role!`
After about eighteen months or so, Iceland Force, 11th DLI was setting off homeward again. This time the ship was the “Sibisky" a fairly nice liner, and once again Bill was on the guns. He recalled the Skipper shouting over the tannoy,” Will those who are not sick, please help those that are as cook has laid on some bacon sandwiches in the galley for those that would like some. Get them while they’re hot”
As they were pulling back into Liverpool, a supercilious Officer type was doing his best “Customs” man routine, only a certain amount of cigarettes were allowed back into the country per man, and if you exceeded this allowance, you were smuggling, and would be dealt with severely. Now, one young lad who didn’t smoke, had saved all his ration of “tabs” while in Iceland, because his dad and uncles were smokers, and he was going to give them as a present. The Officer got wind of this, and told the lad he was confiscating the whole lot! Of course, the Officer confiscated them straight into his own bulging Kitbag, anyhow, when they were disembarking, this officer “slipped” on the gangplank and dropped his kitbag into the Mersey, a great cheer went up, and he lost the lot. Justice was served. Coming home on leave, Bill went to the front door of 15 Surrey Terrace, Barley Mow, Birtley, and his dog Rebel, an Alsatian, went crackers, he just said, “quiet lad” and Bills dad shouted, “Is that you, our Billy?” Bill replied it was, and he was let in as if he’d just been to the pub, and not away overseas for the past18 months. Bills son ,Jim,has an idea that it was when they came back from Iceland, to prepare for the invasion that Bill began his “carrier training”. On parade one morning, the RSM asked in his usual quiet nice soft voice if anyone could drive. Bill thought ”this could be better than walking, “ so he said he’d driven Dumpers at the brickyard…”OK says the RSM get in, and move that carrier…” Bill jumped in, was told where the starter, first gear, clutch and brake was, then he jerks and stutters about five feet, stalls the carrier, and is selected as a carrier driver! Mortar Carrier Platoon. S company. [S is for Support] Training seemed to be a lark for Bill, he learned maintenance, track tightening and replacing, how to drive in the dark, with no light but a tiny pinprick, given off the carrier in front, this was the “Diff light” affixed to the differential, and shining straight down to the road under the carrier. Following this light almost cost him his “cushy job” as a driver, he was following another carrier near Thetford, Norfolk, along the country lanes. Now Bill, was a drinking man, and a piano player of some talent, he knew where the pubs were in this part of the land, and as soon as he crossed a stone bridge, and saw the carrier in front turn right, he was sure he should have turned left, as the road did, Bill hesitated, he was sure there was a pub just beside the bridge, and then he heard the crash. The other carrier, turning right, crashed straight through the lounge doors of the pub. Bills son was not told what was said to the other driver, but his Dad,Bill,, was congratulated on his night-driving and recollection of the area. As he told me, “If there was no Pub, I would have been right up his arse going in that doorway.”
Coming home on leave, Bill went to the front door of 15 Surrey Terrace, Barley Mow, Birtley, and his dog Rebel, an Alsatian, went crackers, he just said, “quiet lad” and Bills dad shouted, “Is that you, our Billy?” Bill replied it was, and he was let in as if he’d just been to the pub, and not away overseas for the past18 months.
Bills son ,Jim,has an idea that it was when they came back from Iceland, to prepare for the invasion that Bill began his “carrier training”. On parade one morning, the RSM asked in his usual quiet nice soft voice if anyone could drive. Bill thought ”this could be better than walking, “ so he said he’d driven Dumpers at the brickyard…”OK says the RSM get in, and move that carrier…” Bill jumped in, was told where the starter, first gear, clutch and brake was, then he jerks and stutters about five feet, stalls the carrier, and is selected as a carrier driver! Mortar Carrier Platoon. S company. [S is for Support] Training seemed to be a lark for Bill, he learned maintenance, track tightening and replacing, how to drive in the dark, with no light but a tiny pinprick, given off the carrier in front, this was the “Diff light” affixed to the differential, and shining straight down to the road under the carrier. Following this light almost cost him his “cushy job” as a driver, he was following another carrier near Thetford, Norfolk, along the country lanes. Now Bill, was a drinking man, and a piano player of some talent, he knew where the pubs were in this part of the land, and as soon as he crossed a stone bridge, and saw the carrier in front turn right, he was sure he should have turned left, as the road did, Bill hesitated, he was sure there was a pub just beside the bridge, and then he heard the crash. The other carrier, turning right, crashed straight through the lounge doors of the pub. Bills son was not told what was said to the other driver, but his Dad,Bill,, was congratulated on his night-driving and recollection of the area. As he told me, “If there was no Pub, I would have been right up his arse going in that doorway.”
Training seemed to be a lark for Bill, he learned maintenance, track tightening and replacing, how to drive in the dark, with no light but a tiny pinprick, given off the carrier in front, this was the “Diff light” affixed to the differential, and shining straight down to the road under the carrier. Following this light almost cost him his “cushy job” as a driver, he was following another carrier near Thetford, Norfolk, along the country lanes. Now Bill, was a drinking man, and a piano player of some talent, he knew where the pubs were in this part of the land, and as soon as he crossed a stone bridge, and saw the carrier in front turn right, he was sure he should have turned left, as the road did, Bill hesitated, he was sure there was a pub just beside the bridge, and then he heard the crash. The other carrier, turning right, crashed straight through the lounge doors of the pub. Bills son was not told what was said to the other driver, but his Dad,Bill,, was congratulated on his night-driving and recollection of the area. As he told me, “If there was no Pub, I would have been right up his arse going in that doorway.”
Pte Bill Charles Part 4 ` David Niven owes me Ten shillings!`
These were times when Americans seemed everywhere, and fights between the Durhams and the Yanks were not uncommon, although there were some lighter sides, Bill saw Clark Gable walking down a street in Newmarket, and swears he saw Jimmy Stewart too. These were two Yanks who Bill was glad to have over here.
David Niven pictured with men of the Durham Light Infantry
Another celebrity Bill had dealings with was David Niven. Niven had been in the area, and was invited to a "Shoot" on the estate of Ronald Tree . So the shout went out for beaters to assist on the shoot, Bill Charles and some mates, including Bob Scott, went out to do it for a few bob ,his beer and some sandwiches at lunchtime. When lunch came, Bob Scott or "Scotty" as he was known was asking dad if he should ask Niven for an autograph, Bill as was mentioned before had been a great film fan, and said he should. As they ate their lunch, Niven was walking nearby with Merle Oberon, the actress. "Ow Scotty!" Dad shouted, "Now’s yer chance" Niven came across to them both, said "hello" and Scotty asked for his autograph, David Niven asked if he was "Scotty" Bob said yes, and he got an autograph signed "To one Scotty from another, David Niven." Niven had played the part of Lt. Doug Scott in the movie, DAWN PATROL which was a remake made in 1938, with Errol Flynn.Merle Oberon also signed for Bob.Bill the movie goer,and Film fan didn’t ask, and ultimately didn’t get. But he swore David Niven owed him ten shillings for beer that night. His son Jim wrote to Niven to ask, but got no reply.
Pte Bill Charles (Right) with two comrades
Bill could play piano, and got a lot of drinks bought, and could pass these on to his mates and could recount many such enjoyable times
Pte Bill Charles Part 5 `New Role New Beginning`
Being a big lad, and a bit tough, Bill and Bob Ford [or Elliot.] as Corporal in charge, would get the job of delivering or returning wrong doers to either Bairlinnie Prison, Glasgow, Colchester Glasshouse, or back to camp.
Bill knew they could have been seriously injured, if not worse when they were taking one particular squaddie to Glasgow, just before the Prison, an Officer stopped them and asked where they were going, and wanted to talk to the prisoner, after a few minutes he walked off, and they continued on their way to the prison. Almost at the gate, the prisoner turned and told them that if he had wanted, the so called“Officer” would have called out more men, to free him, but as Bill and Bob had been pretty decent to him, he told the `officer` that he was prepared to do his time, and with that the `Officer` walked away. It appeared there was a group of deserters in that area, and they tended to help out any soldier heading for Bairlinne. On another occasion Bill recalls escorting a young lad whose wife had been cheating on him but he begged for one night at home to sort out his trouble. It was his wife having an affair that had sent him AWOL. Bob and Bill gave him his one night, and they got home too he was at the station the next morning, ready to take his punishment, he had sorted his trouble, his wife and her “boyfriend” were quite surprised when the young lad walked in, he gave the man a hiding, and walked out again. Not all was sweetness and light, a particularly nasty tempered soldier in their barracks was always drunk and picking fights, Bill told his son that justice was served one night because as this guy weaved his way home after drinking all night, he tripped, and drowned in two inches of muddy water in a ditch. The “easy life” as Bill termed it was coming to an end though, and the Home Posting was almost a memory, for now it was time to waterproof the carriers, head for the docks, load the landing craft and head for France, D-Day was just recently passed and on D+ 6 Bill invaded France. He landed at Arromanches, took a look at the Bayeux Tapestry, then wended his way through the Villers Bocage, where the fighting was rough, through the hedgerow country until a couple of months later, he was told to pull into that field, have a cup of tea, and when he drove out, he was in the 9th Battalion Cameronian Scottish Rifles, 15TH Scottish Brigade….but that is another story My thanks to Bills son Jim Charles for both Photographs and information Bill Charles (Bare headed) `Somewhere in Europe`
On another occasion Bill recalls escorting a young lad whose wife had been cheating on him but he begged for one night at home to sort out his trouble. It was his wife having an affair that had sent him AWOL. Bob and Bill gave him his one night, and they got home too he was at the station the next morning, ready to take his punishment, he had sorted his trouble, his wife and her “boyfriend” were quite surprised when the young lad walked in, he gave the man a hiding, and walked out again. Not all was sweetness and light, a particularly nasty tempered soldier in their barracks was always drunk and picking fights, Bill told his son that justice was served one night because as this guy weaved his way home after drinking all night, he tripped, and drowned in two inches of muddy water in a ditch. The “easy life” as Bill termed it was coming to an end though, and the Home Posting was almost a memory, for now it was time to waterproof the carriers, head for the docks, load the landing craft and head for France, D-Day was just recently passed and on D+ 6 Bill invaded France. He landed at Arromanches, took a look at the Bayeux Tapestry, then wended his way through the Villers Bocage, where the fighting was rough, through the hedgerow country until a couple of months later, he was told to pull into that field, have a cup of tea, and when he drove out, he was in the 9th Battalion Cameronian Scottish Rifles, 15TH Scottish Brigade….but that is another story My thanks to Bills son Jim Charles for both Photographs and information Bill Charles (Bare headed) `Somewhere in Europe`
Not all was sweetness and light, a particularly nasty tempered soldier in their barracks was always drunk and picking fights, Bill told his son that justice was served one night because as this guy weaved his way home after drinking all night, he tripped, and drowned in two inches of muddy water in a ditch.
The “easy life” as Bill termed it was coming to an end though, and the Home Posting was almost a memory, for now it was time to waterproof the carriers, head for the docks, load the landing craft and head for France, D-Day was just recently passed and on D+ 6 Bill invaded France.
He landed at Arromanches, took a look at the Bayeux Tapestry, then wended his way through the Villers Bocage, where the fighting was rough, through the hedgerow country until a couple of months later, he was told to pull into that field, have a cup of tea, and when he drove out, he was in the 9th Battalion Cameronian Scottish Rifles, 15TH Scottish Brigade….but that is another story My thanks to Bills son Jim Charles for both Photographs and information
Bill Charles (Bare headed) `Somewhere in Europe`
Sgt Patrick Arnold 1st DLI Part 1 `Travelling First Class! Not Really!`
After many rumours, it became a reality when everyone was "fitted out" with a new, different uniform. A much thinner, lighter khaki drill with shirt and shorts and complete with a topee, or pith helmet, worn in hot climates. Then it was published that the Battalion would sail for Shanghai and China, from Southampton on the troopship "Dilwara" of 8,000 tons, at an early date. It was soon realised that "life on the ocean wave" was full of "ups and downs" because the Dilwara decks with plenty of stairs to climb up and down, and especially with the rough sea in the Bay of Biscay, there were more ups and downs on the waves!
After passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, it was just plain sailing in the Mediterranean Sea, so we settled down to a more routine life. The first thing to learn on board ship is the allocated lifeboat and assembly point for the Captain's Rounds. Everyone is issued with a life jacket to be worn whenever the alarm is sounded. Then to know your mess deck, where you dined, slept, and used as living quarters. Movement was restricted to "ducking under" swinging hammocks everywhere. Food was carried in containers from the galley to the mess deck, and "shared out", and then everyone washed their own utensils.
All firearms were locked away in the ship's armoury, and heavy boots were not allowed to be worn anywhere on deck, it was sandshoes at all times. Reveille was quite early, and everyone had to do physical exercises before breakfast. It was a rush to clean up, shave and get ready for training sessions. There was a lot of weapon training, signal work and lectures on all aspects. After dinner, there could be more physical training or deck tennis and other games. After tea, we were given free time, when one could get a book from the ship's library, and find a spot on the deck to lie reading and sunbathing. The ship's purser would open the shop where one could buy cigarettes and other requirements including draught beer.
Pastimes were very common to all, sunbathing on the main deck, playing card games in groups whenever possible. In the evenings the ship's crew would organize the Crown and Anchor Board, and the regular flutter, forecasting the ship's daily mileage, tote betting. The period would start on a time — say midday to midday of the next day — and the distance covered would be noted and the winner would be shown on a blackboard each day. This would vary between 350 miles and 400 miles in the 24 hours. For a stake of 6 pence, the winning prize would be about £20, which was a small fortune!
After seven days without seeing any land, we reached Port Said, Egypt, and there we entered the Suez Canal, to continue a very slow trip for 100 miles to reach the other end — Port Suez. The heat was terrible and unbearable when we entered the Red Sea for a four-day voyage, calling in a Port Sudan before reaching Aden. It seemed to get hotter and hotter, of course, we were so near to the equator. We then sailed into the Indian Ocean for a weeklong voyage across to Bombay. It was so hot that any free time was spent looking over the side of the ship watching the flying fish, which is less frightening than watching the sharks following the ship in the Red Sea!
Leaving Bombay we sailed down the coast to the southern tip of India, then around to Colombo in Ceylon. Here it was soon realized it was a very busy fuelling and calling port for all British shipping. Then we crossed over to Singapore, where we stretched our legs with a Flag March around the area, showing the Union Jack. The heat was very hot and humid, and sultry, which made it so difficult to sleep below decks in the hammock. In every port of call the natives in their small boats, or sampans, or even on the dockside, are trying to sell you their wares.
Singapore was no exception and it was pineapples, coconuts and other fruit, which were all very cheap. It was here that I heard a really black-faced native shouting up "Hi Johnny, 'am come frae Glasgow," which was very funny, especially when he had a mop of red hair!
Leaving Singapore to continue further eastwards, we never saw land again for more than a week and after a long stretch, and as we were nearing Hong Kong, we experienced some of the worst weather. We were caught up in a typhoon and no one escaped seasickness. The mountainous waves "tossed" the Dilwara about like a toy, and we passed at lest two big ships thrown onto the rocks of the China Coast.
Sgt Patrick Arnold Part 2 `Sixpence in my pocket ... Arrival in China`
After a short stay, we left Hong Kong to sail on to Shanghai and after six weeks, we arrived at our destination. We docked at the "Bund", and then marched from the Dilwara into the City Centre. Rea Ching, the race course, was where we rested and we were able to buy from the N.A.A.F.I. van. I remember I only had a sixpenny piece, but I was able to get three cups of tea and then Players cigarettes and a handful of change. This was "cash" which was valueless to us, but used by the coolies. We then marched up to Yo Yuen Road schools (about three miles) for temporary accommodation. After a short stay, the Seaforth Highlanders moved out of the Great Western Road Barracks, and we moved in and took over the duties and responsibilities: guard duty on all the important buildings (British), and regular patrols.
Apart from the regular duties, we had our sector of the perimeter of the City to man and patrol. Shanghai was a very large international city, very densely populated. The French were the only nation with a concession and America, Britain, Italy and others had interests in the international settlement to be protected
The main task was to stop the hordes of Chinese refugees from entering an already overcrowded city to get away from the Japanese who were controlling the surrounding countryside. This involved patrolling the perimeter on our sector, between Jessfield Park and P. Post, which was about six miles. This was barb-wired fenced against the Chinese, who were really "dying to get in for protection". Post was at the centre of this, so therefore, the headquarters on the main body of the guard. The wire was patrolled for the full twenty-four hours/day. The Tour of Duty of the perimeter would last at least a week.
In between perimeter duties and guard duties, in and around the barracks, there was never a dull moment. Whatever leisure time we had there was plenty of sport at all levels. Football and cricket were organized and very competitive, with all nationalities, military and civilian. The grounds were very good, and on the racecourse, there were at least four cricket grounds. The Municipal Police, the Civilian Shanghai Cricket Club, The Parsee Cricket Club and The Combined Services, each had one. I enjoyed the cricket and, even though there was no time for practice, we had plenty of games. I played for the Battalion Team, with at least three games every week, and also selected for many a representative side. Football season was very limited to a short period due to the hot weather, and Britain's No. 1 amateur football team, The Corinthians, came to Shanghai in 1938 and played a representative side.
Life in Shanghai was totally different to any we expected or imagined. The weather was so very hot and humid and almost unbearable at times. During the rainy season (month of June), we had heavy rainfalls, which caused flooding to over a foot deep in the settlement. The perimeter posts were also under water, but within a fortnight the water subsided, leaving a lot of cleaning-up before everything was back to normal.
The people are so different with poverty everywhere. With the overcrowding, there were so many sleeping and dying on the pavements. It was soon realized that when a Chinese smiled, it was a sign of fear!
The most common way of travelling around was by rickshaw, which was by far the cheapest, and seeing a rickshaw coolie always running with a passenger, it was easy to understand why a rickshaw coolie died before he was 30 years old. A funeral was just the opposite to at home in Britain because the mourners were all dressed in white. They were led by a very noisy and lively band to the cemetery, where no graves were dug, but the coffin was laid on the ground with a few stones around. The weirdest thing I have ever seen, was when, on patrol one moonlit night, and just about ten yards in from was a very big silvery snake coming out of a coffin. Without hesitation, I very quickly decided that discretion was the better part of valour. In the barracks, we lived in wooden huts, about twenty men to a hut. Government issued mosquito nets were essential at all times. They hung down from above the bed and then "rolled up" into a ball during the day. In the evening when you were reading or writing, you lowered the net, tucking it in under the bed, before getting onto the bed, to feel safe from the mosquitoes, which could be seen on the outside of the net.
Nearly everyone contracted to be shaven by the Indian barber early morning, costing a small sum weekly. At first it was startling to open your eyes and see a native leaning over you with a big open razor and lather brush! Daily routine started with reveille at 6 a.m. and on parade at 6.30 a.m. for physical exercises. Breakfast before 8 a.m. and on parade by 8.30 a.m. All parades and training finished by 12 noon, with no parades on an afternoon, as the weather was so hot — only mad dogs and Englishmen would venture out at midday!
The exchange rate then was about ten Shanghai yen to the British pound and 100 cents to a yen. There were no coins, just 10 cent, 20 cent and 50 cent notes.
Sgt Patrick Arnold Part 3 ` North to Tientsin Floods and Tragedy`
It was sometime in September, 1938 when we were informed of the move further north to Tientsin, which was then the furthest outpost of the British Empire. There we were to protect British interests in coal mining, shipping belonging to Jardine & Matheson, and provide the British Embassy at nearby Peking with a guard of two Companies. We embarked on the troopship "Lancashire" and after three days and about one thousand miles, we docked at the quayside in Tientsin, some twelve thousand miles and over six weeks' journey by sea from England. Local time was seven hours ahead of Britain. It was near the Russian and Manchurian border and letters to home were addressed via Siberia and travelled overland by train, taking two weeks to reach England.
Nearby was Shankaikwan, where the Great Wall of China meets the sea. Here was a contrast to Shanghai, the weather was just extremes. The winter was long and very cold, much colder than in Britain, and the summer quite hot, but dry, unlike Shanghai. There was no need for mosquito nets. Here we found everything on a smaller scale to Shanghai, it was so much smaller (about the size of Newcastle), and apart from the British concession, there were the French, the Japanese and the Italian concessions.
The Battalion moved into the barracks and soon settled down to guards and other duties. Winter clothing for guard duty was the heavy regular uniform with heavy overcoat and gloves. Worn over this, a big sheepskin coat, sheepskin bootees and gloves with head-dress to match. (5)
The barracks were really good. The quarters were quite roomy in single storey buildings. There was a cinema and a swimming pool, and also tennis courts. Routine was the usual reveille, really early, and "outside on parade" for physical exercise before 6.30 a.m., then breakfast by 8 a.m. and on parade at 9 a.m. This involved on the parade ground, on weapon training and signal training. All parades finished by dinner and afternoon was all sport. Cricket in summer and the swimming pool, and in the winter football, rugby or hockey.
The tennis courts were flooded and next morning we had a good ice skating rink! Sport was played at all levels, Platoons, Company and Battalion, and the competition was very keen. There were many representative games, and I was often selected both at football and cricket. Games with the ailny, navy, the police or the civilian teams, were of a high standard, and always attracted plenty of Chinese spectators. Any spare time, after all duties, was spent in the barrack room playing Chinese dominoes, called Mah Jong and this became very popular and often played non-stop over the weekend. The most popular spot was, of course, the wet canteen from 6 to 10 p.m. As in Shanghai, we were flooded, but in Tientsin, it was much worse. It started one evening about 8 p.m. and by 11 p.m. we all had to move on to the roof of the buildings. At daybreak all we could see was water everywhere, and for breakfast one had to swim across to the cinema/cookhouse, which was the highest point. It was up to four feet everywhere and soon we were busy salvaging stores and equipment. The navy, with their rowing boats, was soon transferring everyone down town — about five miles through the town — to big warehouses.
My Officer Lieutenant May, instructed me to salvage all the signal equipment as I was storeman at the time. With my great friend, Grimstead, we both went around all offices where equipment, electric fans, telephones etc. were being used. Then tragedy struck and it was terrible that poor Grimstead, while retrieving a fan, was electrocuted in the orderly room, which was flooded with water and the electricity was still on. We soon hailed a naval boat to attend and take him away. Within a few days, I went with Lieutenant May to attend his sea burial, as it was impossible to bury him on land. We used a small Chinese tugboat for the burial party of the Padre, Lieutenant May and myself, with three naval ranks. As we went slowly down to the mouth of the harbour, the Japanese hailed us to stop, but we ignored this and went on to have the burial service. When this was done, we turned and set off for the naval ship a few miles back up the river. As we approached where the Japanese were they made a blockade and forced us into the side. My Officer asked me to get on top of the cabin and signal, using semaphore, to the naval ship. My efforts were short lasting, when a Japanese knocked me off with his rifle, and despite the approaches by the Padre, we were held prisoners for a few hours before we were allowed to continue back to the naval ship.
Pat Arnold pictured above holding the `oar` for their makeshift raft in the flooded barracks
Life in the warehouse was just a "make do". Just sleeping on the floor and living out of kit bags. The depth of the water remained quite a while and I was detailed to assist an attachment of the Royal Corps of Signals. They operated a generator providing electricity to maintain communications with other stations in the Far East. I will always remember the signal and declaration of war received via Singapore, this was 6p.m. (which was 11 a.m. England) on Sunday, September 3rd, 1939. The watery conditions did not lower the spirits of the lads and that night, every boat and sampan was used to get to Bai. Then returning at 10 o'clock, it was fun going "Japanese hunting" and upturning their boats in three feet of water. Normally the most common way of travelling around was by rickshaw, mainly because it was the cheapest and also the most convenient, as they were always on hand, waiting. It was not too uncommon to see one of the lads with too much to drink, running up the road to barracks pulling the rickshaw with the coolie sitting inside.
The currency of Tientsin was similar to Shanghai except the rate of exchange was much lower as the value of a yen was often about 0 pence and altered nearly every other day.
There was a sports reporter of the local newspaper who had been out there over twenty five years. He always came looking for me for sports news. He used to often relate to me how, when he first took the job, the rate was about five shillings per yen and he could afford to mix with the best, even brigadiers, and now he could hardly buy a drink.
Sgt Patrick Arnold Part 4 `War Declared ! General Wavells Desert Army`
Within a short time — a matter of a few weeks — the Battalion boarded the "Lancashire" troop ship and sailed from Tientsin, and within about a week, we were back to Hong Kong to disembark at Kowloon and settle down under canvas. After a short spell of nearby hill climbing and general fitness training, we were "kitted out" for the Middle East, and embarked for the return' to Egypt. Down through the South China Seas, on to Singapore, then on to Ceylon. It was great to see the navy assembled on Colombo, Ceylon, the aircraft carrier "Eagle" and the battleship the "Prince of Wales", together with lots of other warships. After fuelling we crossed the Indian Ocean to Aden and then into the Red Sea and soon we reached Port Suez again, to disembark there. It was a much quicker voyage on our return, but not quite as pleasant. Travelling in the blackout is never enjoyable, but on board ship it is most unpleasant, not even the smallest chink of light is allowed. Every porthole is locked, all passageways and doors are covered in case the position of the ship is seen by enemy ships or raiders, or even submarines, and noise is restricted.
Leaving Port Suez by lorry convoy, we reached Moascar after about fifty miles. Here we found the billets were quite good and soon we regained our land legs.
After more hard training, we were ready for action. We were then properly equipped for desert warfare, and all surplus kit, including our most treasured possessions, were locked in our kit boxes and put into storage for the duration. We were soon on the move up to the "Front Line" at Mersa Matruh and joined Lord Wavell's 8th Army.
After travelling mile after mile through bleak and desert land, we then received our "baptism of fire". As we reached Mersa Matruh, some Italian planes roared overhead and, after bombing, then swooped down machine gunning everywhere and all we could do was scatter and try to find what little cover there was. When we were able, it was soon realised that Mersa Matruh was very small, just a few wooden huts. It had a small railhead, a mosque and an airfield, which was only an area of levelled sand, and very little used. It was about six miles forward. The Battalion Headquarters occupied the area in the huts, and the four Companies moved into the forward areas, which included the airstrip — altogether, an area of approximately four by eight miles near the coastline, with about 1,000 men in total. Our Company of near 200 men moved forward to the front line very near the airstrip and soon the Italian planes were overhead bombing and machine gunning. Without any support or protection we had the task of "setting out" wood tables and forms to appear like our planes on the ground. After the "all clear" we had to rush out and position the wooden forms, or dummy planes, again before the Italian spotter planes would be overhead taking photographs of the supposed "damage". We soon realized the need for "slit trenches", and we were digging everywhere and preparing defences as quickly as possible despite the terrific heat.
One of the first fatal casualty incidents was when a bomb dropped amongst a group of our M.T. drivers and killed all of them, one of which was Raymond Hall of New Kyo, Co. Durham.
We soon dug a network of trenches and gun positions to satisfy our needs, and communications were maintained by field telephones. All movements had to be made by slit trench. After dark nobody was allowed above ground except patrols. The Italian lines were on a nearby ridge about five hundred yards away to the front. Water was very strictly rationed and the Battalion water truck came around every other day. The Company supply truck came around with the daily food rations of corned beef stew and a few boiled, unpeeled potatoes, but after, it was only field rations of corned beef and dry biscuits. Sometimes there was an issue of cigarettes, "V" Victory, which were terrible, but acceptable. At times, bathing parties were arranged for a dip in the sea near headquarters, but this was only possible for any spare men, which was very seldom. It was wonderful to get into the sea and with the use of seawater soap, trying to get lather for a good bath, and then try to wash some socks, or other clothing.
After a few months, we were relieved and went back to Sharriff Quay at Port Said to guard the oil tanks at the entrance to Suez Canal. I was sent on to Palestine on a six month training course. When I reached the Redoubt Camp at Nathanya, which was on the coast near Tel-a-Viv, I found myself with another forty people from different regiments and different countries, including Australian and New Zealanders. After the lectures we did a lot of manoeuvres, which I enjoyed, as there were orange groves nearby. I have never eaten so many oranges and watermelons as I did there. They handle and transport oranges and lemons like we handle coal at home. Railway trucks load everywhere.
The Aussies liked their surfmg and would carry their shelves from the huts to the nearby beach and just lie and enjoy themselves riding the waves. On a Saturday it was possible to go by bus to Jerusalem for the weekend. It took about two hours and we would stay at the Rockefeller Y.M.C.A. just outside the City. With the help of a guide, one was able to see many of the places mentioned in The Bible. The "Western Wall" or "Wailing Wall", which was most sacred to the Jews who went there to pray, and also the "Shofar", a ram's horn, was traditionally blown to mark the end of the feast on the Day of Atonement, the most solemn day in the Jewish religious calendar, or any other equally important occasion. The Garden of Gethsemane was just behind on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. Then near David' Gate, on nearby Mount Calvary, there are churches of different national religious beliefs, with the Greek Orthodox Church claiming to have their shrine on the exact spot of the crucifixion. There is such a lot to see in Jerusalem, but it seems to be too commercialised as many religious bodies were pestering to sell various items.
At the end of the course period, I rejoined the Battalion again at El-Te-Hag, which is quite near to Cairo. Within a short while we were on the way back up the Western Desert again. This time we passed through Mersa Matruh and as part of the 22nd Guards Brigade, we were to attack the Italian positions. We were told that the only way back to England was forward through the Eyeties. The Eyeties formed very little resistance and were surrendering in their hundreds. It was a little embarrassing at times because it meant handing them back to support units and then back to base, whilst we had to keep up with the tanks and support them.
The main difficulty was a couple of sandstorms, which slowed down the "push", especially when our guns would hardly fire. After travelling some ninety miles, we reached Sidi Baranni (only a few huts), just before the Christmas of 1940. Here we stopped to handle the Eyetie prisoners, who numbered about four thousand. These were herded into a square block in a wadi, quite near to the sea, and they were quite content if they were allowed to go into the sea at times. The Battalion was given the task of salvaging the battle area, which meant searching the area looking for mine fields and dugouts, collecting the wounded and the dead, and collecting all guns, rifles and grenades etc. taking them to a central dump. It was at Sid Barami where the S.S. Sollum, about six or seven thousand tonnes, was shipwrecked. That night we could hardly snatch any sleep for the sound of bombing and gunfire just out to sea. At daybreak we realized that the ship had been attacked by planes and about four hundred Eyetie prisoners had panicked and all lost their lives. We had to search for bodies on the rocks around the area, putting limbs and pieces into sacks. The ship was beached onto nearby rocks.
We were soon on the move again and went forward, passed Bug Bug until we reached Sollum, which was the Egyptian/Libyan border. Sollum was on a plateau and a five hundred feet escarpment down to the sea. On the top there were Egyptian vacated barracks (wooden huts) but the main military interest was the road up. This was of great importance to any movement of vehicles. This road was known as Halfya Pass, or commonly called "Hell Fire Pass" by the troops.
We occupied the positions and then received word that Rommel had counter attacked and our 7th Armoured Division was on the retreat. My Section was given the task of protecting the artillery observations post — we would stay on the top whilst everyone else moved down to the plain below. The idea was that when the Jerry tanks and troop carriers came into sight, and when they came to a certain open spot just about one hundred yards away from us, we would open fire to bring them to a halt. The artillery officer would then signal to the guns down below, which would then fire the 25-pounder shells to knock out the tanks, or hit the troop carriers.
After a day of waiting this was done, but our gunners were missing as we watched shells bursting, so we had to make a hasty retreat over the side as Jerry armoured cars came speeding towards us. It was here that we had a good view of a warship firing on shore guns. One of our destroyers came into Sollum Bay and started to fire on the German positions on top of the Pass. The enemy replies were not near the warship, which kept moving around, and the bombardment lasted nearly thirty minutes. We didn't know how much damage was done, but Jerry evacuated the old barracks area and moved back to the nearby Fort Cappuzzo. After a few days of patrols, we were informed of the attack to be made on Fort Cappuzzo the next morning. We had our final briefing and that our Matilda Tanks would lead us into the Fort. Early next morning, 15th May, 1941 (a day to remember) we set off on the lorries for the short journey.
Sgt Patrick Arnold Part 5 `Capuzzo 15th May 1941 Day to Remember`
We were informed of the intended attack on Fort Capuzzo, some five miles northwest, which would be the next morning, 15th May. There was no preparation except to make sure all weapons were OK and ready for early morning. We slept as usual (ready dressed) on a sandy bed under the stars and I don't remember if, next morning, we had a hot drink.
It was hardly dawn when we boarded the army lorries and set off to the gap in the wire in the front of the Fort. There had been no "softening up" by the artillery fire and we only had a few tanks in support. Alas, we were soon to see that the tanks were all out of action, and in flames, due to the superior firepower of the German 88- mm guns. Our lorries kept going on through the gap until very heavy gunfire forced us to stop and everyone dismounted and quickly moved away. Without any cover we had no choice but to move forward in the direction of the Fort, at least five hundred yards away.
To reach the Fort seemed an impossible task as "all hell was let loose". Every kind of firearms were sighted on such a big target that we made. There were bullets flying, shells screaming, mortar bombs exploding all around, some like a fireball bouncing towards us. Our lads had no chance and they were falling on all sides. It was terrible, made worse when it was realized that we had no support of any kind, and our only weapons were small arms, which were useless, especially my Thompson Sub-Machine Gun, which had a very short range of fire, only useful when within a hundred yards, or house to house combat, or any other close in-fighting.
At last we reached the Fort and, looking over to our right where the heaviest fighting was taking place near the airfield, it was terrible seeing so many bodies lying everywhere. The enemy had withdrawn out of the Fort to the rear and I made to go inside when I realized the danger from booby traps and, of course, any rear guard shelling. From the start our Company was on the left of the Battalion and our Company Commander and Company Sergeant Major and myself went around on the left to the front of the fort to observe where the enemy were, and just at that, a hail of fire hit the wall we stood against. We dived to the ground and got back as quickly as we could. Then we noticed that German tanks were coming at us and, as we started to run back, I was hit in the left thigh and fell to the ground. I dragged myself to a nearby sangar for protection while tanks went past me. I must have lost consciousness through loss of blood because I was unaware of any further action.
Later I was picked up by German stretcher-bearers and taken to outside of the Fort where there were some fifteen or more severely wounded comrades. As I lay I guessed the lad nearest to me was wounded badly and I could do nothing to help him. The next thing I remember was wakening next morning and he was lying across me — dead. He must have been in terrible pain. Sometime later a German tank came and I was lifted onto the top and taken about four miles to Bardia. Here the German field medical unit was very busy and, with only a short stay, I was put on a wagon to join a convoy to go further behind the lines to an Italian field hospital. This was a long, bumpy ride and at one time we were chased by an Australian patrol from Tobruk, but, unfortunately, we avoided re-capture.
We left the road and raced over the desert and after a few hours, and lots of kilometres, we arrived at a couple of big marquees with a few Italian doctors, orderlies etc. complete with a Catholic priest. There were about fifty of our Battalion there, and it was then that I learned of the terrible losses incurred at Fort Cappuzzo, and that "D" Company had been completely annihilated, and other companies had suffered very heavy losses. In total the Battalion had lost at least over three hundred men in just a few hours.
Without any thought of treatment we were searched and any money we had was taken from us. We complained to the priest about this, but he said it would be alright and we would get Eyetie money in return, which we did not. They also took our watches and whistles and other personal effects.
There was very little done in the way of medical treatment — just first aid. The chap on the bed opposite me was moaning very badly and he struggled to lift himself a little, then he fell back and died. He had been shot in the stomach. The Eyeties asked me to read his identification disc for them. He was George Sanderson, an Australian officer shot on patrol from Tobruk. I understood he played rugby for the "All Blacks" and I well believed it because he was a very big person. It took at least six Italians to lift him from the bed to the floor.
We learned that without ambulances they were sending some wounded back to Derna by trucks so I asked to go and had to sit in the aisle of a broken down ambulance which was being towed by a water truck. This was very painful but we were told that in Derna there was an Australian medical field unit treating the wounded.
After travelling for a few hours of rocking, rolling and jerking, we were all in agony when the ambulance rolled off the road, down a big embankment, nearly killing all of us inside. The tow chain had broken. We were then put on a Jerry ammunition truck to continue the journey to Derna, which we reached about 10'clock on Sunday night, after a full day's ride. I soon realized that I owed my life to the Australian staff as gangrene was travelling to my thigh, and after much effort, they had no alternative but to amputate my left leg at the thigh. It was said that if I had had treatment earlier it would have saved amputation. I later learned that the hospital unit had been captured by Jerry — complete with full staff, but reduced to a skeleton staff and used to attend the wounded from the front lines. Major Binns, a physician, was senior in charge with Dr. Levings, the surgeon, with five others in support. Even though they did their very best under the circumstances, I had a lot of bother due to a number of haemorrhages of the main artery. The slightest movement, use of bedpan or just a cough, would cause the haemorrhage and with being so weak it meant the need for more blood. The cook (Big Sid) and his assistant, Paddy were always willing and ready to spare me whatever was needed. Despite being from the rough part of Sydney, they were the most likeable people one could ever wish to meet.
The anaesthetist, George, from Auckland, New Zealand (a schoolteacher) was another gentleman. Also there was Alf Whelan from Adelaide and Ken Day from Melbourne, the two orderlies to "do" the dressings. They did everything possible for the patients. Regardless of time of the day, they were always at hand. It was much later when I became more aware of my surroundings and happenings, that Paddy said to me that he had buried my leg in the hospital grounds at the back.
As I regained a little more strength I longed for a cigarette, which was out of question as no supplies were available. The Aussies were known for rolling and making their own cigarettes which they claimed were much better than "ready made" or "tailor made" and these chaps were no exception. If I wanted a smoke they would hand me a little tobacco with a cigarette paper and I was obliged to "roll my own". Doing this was most difficult as it was new and strange to me, also lying flat in bed, unable to raise my head, did not help or make it any easier. After a while, with more practise and determination, I managed to make them suitable enough to use.
It was on the 16th June, 1941 that I first got to know Jock Davidson, who was brought in with a badly wounded leg below the knee, which needed an amputation. He was serving with the Camerons of the 51st Scottish Division and as a result of making an attack on Jerry, had been wounded and taken prisoner of war. He was a great chap, and we became the best of pals, to be known as Jock and Pat wherever we went. Jock was a very strong character and never a sign of self-pity. He was very good-natured with a large share of sound intelligence.
There were many passed through Derna Hospital, some died and others went on to P.O.W. camps near Benghazi, but Jock and Pat remained there, unable to be moved due to lack of strength. With good nursing and Jock's influence, we both overcame our loss of limb. It was better to accept the fact, and be thankful because there were others a lot worse than ourselves. My thoughts often wandered to home and the yellow broom around the Broom's School. When the pains were bad I would grit my teeth and remember my stepbrother, Jack Harrison, who worked at the nearby Eden Colliery. His back, or spine, was broken at the age of 21 years on the 1st April, 1926 due to a fall of stone. He was paralysed from the waist downwards, but his fighting spirit kept him alive for six months, and I thought if he could do it I would try to do the same.
Sgt Patrick Arnold Part 6 `The Black Hole of Benghazi`
It was sometime in September when it was considered that we could be moved and we were both strong enough to travel. We left with goodbyes to our "Aussie friends" and started the long ride back to Benghazi with better roads and a little more comfortable ride.
Arriving at the Italian hospital we became aware of more of our troops as P.O.W. The ward was known as "The Black Hole of Benghazi" because it was crammed full with our wounded. It was a filthy place and no wonder there was a lot of dysentery. Treatment was very poor, and in ten days I only had one change of dressing to my stump, which was discharging a lot. Water was very scarce and washing and toiletries etc. were very limited. The only pleasing aspect was that our bombers came over every night and it was so uplifting to see the expression of fear in the Eyeties! We were very pleased when, without any warning, we were taken to the docks to board the Italian hospital ship "Arno" and set off for Naples, Italy. After a two-day voyage, we reached Naples and then taken to Caserta hospital, which was about twelve miles away, and which had belonged to royalty earlier, as a palace.
There was a higher standard of medical care and cleanliness, even though the food was always rice/macaroni. Treatment here was reasonable, but better if one claimed to be a Roman Catholic, which annoyed both Jock and I. We were non-sectarian on principle and when asked our religion, we both said "Greek Orthodox" which did not do us any favours. The Catholic nuns staffed the hospital to help in the war effort and I will always remember one in particular who used to scowl at both of us saying that we had killed her brother. It was here that we were given our make do crutches so we could be a little independent.
After a few weeks we were both told that we were to leave hospital and go out into prisoner of war camp. We were sent into a camp at Capua, about ten miles away. Jock and I were the only one-legged members of this camp amongst over five hundred prisoners of war, British, Australian, New Zealanders, South Africans and Indians, all under canvas. Whereas Jerry were arrogant and hard masters, the Italians were hopeless, with no organization. They believed in collective punishment, when anybody did anything wrong they would punish everybody. The fit and able people in camp were made to work, and with it being a new camp, there was plenty of digging drains, making roads etc. and the food was terrible. It had been said over and over again, "Thank the Lord for the Red Cross parcels", they were a Godsend. But I will always remember a Colonel Frisk, the American representative who organized the distribution. They were given once a month and they meant so much. They were most valuable and especially the cigarettes which were treasured, particularly in the bartering market. The Aussies refused to work on digging one day and the Eyeties stopped issuing the parcels, causing an uproar to the anger of everyone.
As war prisoners we received 11/2 lira per day (which was equivalent to 2 pence) per week for pay. This we tried to save to buy any extra food, or a little vino to drink.
The daily ration was very little — 150 grams of bread (1 small bun), 21/2 ounces of rice, or macaroni per day, so the food parcels were always welcome.
Jock and I were known to everyone as Jock and Pat and we spent our time wandering around, stopping and chatting to everyone, or playing cards — especially bridge sessions with the Aussies. I will never forget one day when, on our usual stroll on crutches, I put my crutches too near the side of a drain and the earth side collapsed and I finished up in the ditch. I knocked my stump and was placed in the camp hospital for a few days. The orderlies would come around with a drink of milk. One day one orderly was spraying the air against the flies, when another came around with the milk dish. They stopped for a chat and we were watching them, eagerly awaiting our milk ration, when behold, the fly sprayer started moving his bellows and the contents just poured into the milk, much to our disgust, even though, it was laughable.
It was early December, we were transferred to Chiaveri, near Genoa, which was a long journey northwards by electric train up the west side of Italy. Here we were allocated to our various wooden huts. With some five thousand prisoners of war, we were very crowded in our bunk beds. Jock and I, being both on crutches and not able to manage, were allowed a batman, someone to help us to fetch and carry our food etc. The toilets were very difficult, squatting over a hole in the ground, so a wooden stool with a hole in the seat was made for our use. It was also very useful when we managed a shower, which was the only means of getting a bath, and even then the water was cold. The camp routine was to awaken at 7a.m. Breakfast was only one bun and a cup of coffee, black, unsweetened. Then all able bodied prisoners either went to work, road making or getting rocks from a nearby stream, until 11.30 a.m. Then it was back to work at 13.00 hours to 17.00 hours. Dinner was then served, pasta with potatoes, macaroni or rice for sweet. The Red Cross parcels, again, were very useful, when we received them they kept the morale and spirits up. I will always remember our Christmas Dinner, the only extra we got was a tangerine orange. When America came into the war there were no more food parcels delivered, as there was no one to supervise and organize the deliveries. I There was not much sport because space was very limited and so we spent most of the time inside due to the very cold conditions. There were some very interesting lectures by quite capable persons, such as a South African journalist who talked a lot about South Africa and his life style. There was also a solicitor from Edinburgh who was exceptionally good to listen to with regard to the Law.
It was much colder up north in Genoa compared with Naples. The Italian uniform issued to us gave no protection from the cold winds, and Jock and I suffered with cold hands as we padded around the camp. We were issued with one good blanket and two thinner ones for our bed, which were not good enough for the winter conditions, especially at night. The Camp committee organized regular sing-songs and were able to collect and purchase a second-hand piano for 4000 lira, an accordion for 3000 lira and drums for 2000 lira to hold weekly concert parties, which helped to overcome the conditions. There was also the escape committee, which concentrated on possible escapes, even to using the vino (dark blue drink) to dye the clothes used in escapes.
At Christmas time the Vatican took special interest in the prisoners of war and everyone was allowed a ten worded cable to our families at home, which we really appreciated.
The local Catholic priest was a regular visitor and he held a service on Sunday mornings. I attended quite regularly, with others, totalling about fifty, but after a while he started a collection, which really upset everyone (considering we only received 21/2 lira per day, hardly sufficient to buy a packet of smokes). Everyone just stopped going to church and that was the finish for me. Sometime in the middle of February, we were told about ..........repatriation.
Sgt Patrick Arnold Part 7 `Repatriation......Perhaps Tomorrow!`
The following is a full account made by Sgt Patrick Arnold to the War Correspondent Harry Zinder on the 14th April 1942 it is produced in its entirity even though events may duplicate or overlap those listed above my thanks go to Sgt Arnolds daughter Maureen and her brother Alan for this material and the photographs which illustrate it.
London April, 14, 1942
I Was A Prisoner Of War In Italy by Sergeant Patrick Arnold (Durham Light Infantry)
As told to Harry Zinder
27-year-old Pat Arnold is a British Army regular who, for the past five years, has been on active service abroad, mainly in China. He arrived in the Middle East with his regiment in January, 1941, and was in action against the Germans in May at Sollum and Capuzzo. It was at the latter spot he was wounded by machinegun fire, picked up by the Germans and taken prisoner. He was one of the first prisoners to be repatriated under the exchange agreement with the Italians and will shortly be going home, invalid out of the army.
This is the story of how he was captured and how he fared in Italy as a prisoner. He is 5' 5—, slight build, blue eyes and left leg amputated at the thigh following being wounded.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"I was in the front line at the time in May when Jerry first came down to take Fort Capuzzo. In the brush-up, I was hit by a machinegun fire in the left leg, one bullet striking an artery, and I was left on the field as the Jerries advanced. Later I was picked up by the Jerries, badly hurt. They first took me to Bardia where I stayed overnight. I didn't get any first aid or any kind of treatment, but I was told that at Derna there was an Aussie hospital unit and that I'd be taken there for treatment. The following morning I was convoyed to a point outside Tobruk which was then Jerries headquarters. There I slept overnight and the next morning I was taken to an Italian hospital just 28 miles outside Tobruk. It was a tent affair and there were thirty Durhams there at the time.
All this time I was told to wait until I got to Dema for treatment by the Aussies and I had to keep my leg bent to relieve the pain. They didn't tell me what position to hold it in, but I did the best I could to keep my nerves quiet.
When we reached this Eyetie hospital we were searched and asked if we had any money. Now just before the Capuzzo attack we'd all been paid, and all had a couple of pounds apiece in our pockets. The Eyetie doctor told us to give him all the wog money and we'd get Italian lire instead. We refused. Later the Padre came in and said it was all right for us to do so, so we were made to give up our piastres and get Eyetie money instead. They also took our watches, whistles and other personal effects.
The Eyeties were badly off for ambulances and were only transferring sitting cases. There was little water at the hospital and they weren't treating me. In spite of the pain, I forced myself to sit up and finally got put on one ambulance. If I hadn't, I don't know how long I'd have stayed at the Eyetie hospital. There were six of us in the middle of the ambulance. About halfway to Duna, we crashed and the ambulance rolled down a three-foot embankment. We were all shaken up badly and it didn't do my leg any good. We were put on a returning Jerry ammunition truck, and arrived at Derna at 20.00 hours, after a full day's ride.
The Aussie doctors immediately put me on the operating table and the Aussie captain took charge. He told me he was trying to save my stump, so he didn't operate right away. The Aussies had a pretty complete medical unit there, but they were forced to work with very little supplies, only those the Eyeties gave them. The Aussie surgeon said that if I'd had some treatment at Bardia or Tobruk, I'd have been saved amputation. Three days later, they took my leg off.
I wasn't able to travel, so I stayed at the Aussie hospital for three months. They treated me fine---as good as they could with what they had---and everybody from the Major in charge, to the orderlies---they had only a skeleton staff---did their best to help me along. After three months, I was transferred to Benghazi. The Aussies made me crutches, so I was able to get along all right. I was taken in an ambulance to Benghazi and put in a single room with 28 other allied wounded. We called the place "The Black Hole of Calcutta". It was terrible. And in the same room were dysentery cases and other patients.
During the ten days I was there, I had one dressing of my stump. I was then taken on board the Italian hospital ship "Arno" for transfer to Italy. In my ward, aboard the ship, were five British, and three Eyetie patients. We arrived in Italy, after a two day-trip without convoy or escort, on August 19th at Naples. It was a Royal Castle or something similar, which had been converted into a hospital. There were 90 allied and 3,000 Eyeties there.
There, we got our first Red Cross parcels. They were marvellous. They contained the first cigs we had had for weeks and the first decent food we had had for a long time. These parcels didn't come too regularly, but when they did, they were welcome. I'd about healed by then so I didn't need treatment, but I suppose I'd have got some treatment if I'd needed it.
After three weeks there, they decided to send me to a war prisoner's camp. I was the first amputation case to be transferred and my pal — Jock Davidson of the Cameron Highlanders — volunteered to come along with me. His foot had been amputated and we met at Derna Aussie hospital. We were both sent to Capua camp about 9 miles from Caserta. There were about 500 prisoners there of all kinds. Indians, South Africans, one or two War Correspondents and British, all of us under canvas. There were 14 in each tent, and those who were able were put to work.
As war prisoners we received 1 lire 40, per day which we tried to save so as at one time or another, we could have a little spree on vino or some extra food that could be bought. Occasionally the Yank Red Cross representative, Colonel Frisk, visited us and saw we got parcels as regular as possible.
Here we stayed until December 4th when we were transferred northwards to Ciaveri camp near Genoa. During the time we were near Naples, we heard the R.A.F. come over several times and we were warned during air raids to stay in our tents otherwise the sentries had orders to shoot. But we heard the explosions and on occasions we used to stick out our heads to see the show.
At Chiaveri we were in huts but there was little walking space and no possible recreation for able-bodied prisoners. We were simply confined to the prison area or our huts, which were small and wherein large numbers were living. Our food rations were the same as those of Italian privates and sergeants, one cup of coffee; 150 grams of bread; 2 1/2 ounces of rice or macaroni per day. Able-bodied fellows used to help us get our food and do other necessities for us, and the Red Cross parcels made it possible for us to keep up our morale, health and spirits.
Sgt Patrick Arnold above enjoying his first days of freedom prior to his move back home to England
At Chiaveri the routine was that we'd awake at 7 o'clock for our cup of coffee, and the able-bodied were then put to work, road- building in the camp and getting rocks out of a little stream nearby, which were used for the roads. At about 11.30 we'd get our day's food rations. Then they started again at 13.00 hours until about 17.00. It was all right in Naples where it was warm, but in Genoa it was cold as hell which made it difficult to work. We had no gloves and our clothing issue was pretty thin. My hands often froze to the crutches as I padded around the camp. We each had one good blanket and two very thin ones. At Chiaveri I had my first warm bath in 9 months but the Eyeties took away the wood we had so that we couldn't warm up anymore water for the baths.
At Christmas time the Pope took a special interest in us as war prisoners and we were allowed to send ten words by cable through the Vatican to our people as Christmas greetings. I don't know whether my family received the telegram but it was nice to know the Pope took so much interest in us. We had no religious services in camp except for the Roman Catholics but Italian nuns tried to take care of us. They often worked 24 hours daily trying to make us more comfortable and do little things for us. There weren't any nurses around and all the company we had apart from the nuns were the Italian sentries and orderlies, who couldn't speak English and since we couldn't speak Italian, we didn't get along at all.
Christmas Day we didn't get anything special. We had the same rations with a tangerine apiece thrown in. For some reason, no parcels arrived during Christmas week either.
South African war correspondents in the camp would lecture us several nights a week and every Sunday night, we arranged our own sing-songs for entertainment. When we'd saved enough money, we bought a small second-hand piano for 4,000 lire, a piano accordion for 3,000, drums for 2,000 and we arranged our own weekly concert parties.
Then we heard there was going to be repatriation and the International Medical Board came to inspect us. Of course I was among the first to be approved for repatriation on account of my leg. They chose 58 invalids and another 60 protected personnel (Medical Officers, Orderlies, Stretcher-bearers) and told us to report at Hacienze Hospital.
At Genoa too, the R.A.F. came over quite often and once we heard a terrific explosion when they must have hit an ammunition train or dump. Our only reading was the books and papers the Red Cross sent us, but the only news we got was through Italian newspapers translated for us which had little information about anything except Jap successes in the Far East, and Nazi and Eyetie victories in the Western Desert. Usually when anything went wrong in the camp, as far as discipline was concerned, the whole camp was punished collectively. Once they stopped our parcels for collective punishment.
On February 19th, we reported at Piacienze Hospital. We all sat on our beds dreaming of home, freedom and England. It wasn't too had generally, but we'd heard stories about other camps so we thought we'd be better off even as invalids back home.
Day after day we sat there always the word "dernani" which is Italian for tomorrow. We thought we would never get out of the hospital. When we left Chiaveri we were a month over due on cigs and parcels, and since America entered the war the Yank Colonel couldn't do anything more for us so we were feeling pretty low. At the hospital we got an issue of writing material and five cigarettes daily, or tobacco to the equivalent of five cigarettes. We'd been able to send out a couple of cards from Chiaveri but we could only write a few words on half of the card, there was a line drawn and we could not write below that line.
Below Lady Lampson chats with Sgt Arnold (Right) and other repatriated PoWs (Cairo)
Finally "demani" proved all right and we boarded an electric train for Bari. It was a two-day trip to Bari and there we boarded the hospital ship "Gradisca" on April 4th. Three days later we reached Smyrna, where a British ship awaited us. Weren't we glad to see it! It was the nicest sight we'd seen in almost a year and when we got aboard the British ship we were given a royal reception, then we were taken to Alex and finally to Cairo. Now we were waiting to go home.
We're all glad to be going home even though we're invalids, and glad to be in a free country, living a free life, speaking what we want to speak and walking in clean air. All I want now is to go back to my family and try to carry on in some job where I can be useful again. If you only tell my wife at 2, Curry's Road, Dipton, Newcastle-on-Tyne, that I'm all right, I'll be most happy.