Summary of Charles Simpson, 1944-1946
The third and final part of Charles Simpson’s story begins with an evocative description through the eyes of an ex-PoW whose escape journey is over and who has the chance to see Italy as a tourist before being repatriated to the UK.
He landed in Scotland, moved around for training and describes the experiences and travels during his leave after the death of his father, including the buzz bombs and V2s falling on London. He volunteered for service in the Middle East and this story ends with his short stop in Italy before proceeding to Greece.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
[digital page 1]
Portici. Naples. April 1944
The villa in which we were billeted stood on the shore of the bay. The water lapped quietly on the black beach and the palms in the unkempt garden rustled in the faint breeze. In front the traffic rumbled ceaselessly. To the east rose the symmetrical peak of Vesuvius from which drifted a long streamer of smoke. Sluggish lava, briefly gleaming as it slid down the slope towards us, left a grey trail of destruction in the greenery that spread elsewhere. The white walls of farms and villages speckled the slopes, some helplessly in the path of the fiery river. At night it gleamed and the head of the stream could be seen sliding ever closer towards us, like the hot metal from a tapped furnace. Plans for the evacuation of the villa were made.
Eventually the flow stopped and some of us took the opportunity of going up to have a close look. We found its head lodged half way down a village street. Here some giant had tumbled a crumbling, grey heap of ash about 12 feet high into the roadway. Houses disappeared into it. We climbed to the top, but found it so hot to the feet that we made haste down again.
We also visited Pompeii. With the volcano still smoking and its ash grinding underfoot, it felt quite eerie. In addition, I recalled that my Dad had been here in his sailing days and I was reminded of the souvenirs he had brought home which so intrigued me when I was a boy.
I took a personal trip to Herculaneum, which was underground, having been covered in the past by a thick crust of hot mud and gravel. Some part of the ancient city had been excavated and much of it stood higher than the ruins in Pompeii, making it seem as though people still lived behind the stone walls. Indeed, many of their possessions had been preserved in situ adding to the weird feeling. To me, however, the most striking thing was the sea wall, in construction like any other today, but about 2 miles inland from the sea.
I paid 2 visits to the Grand Theatre, once to see La Bohème sung in Italian and the second time to see The American Army show with Irvin Berlin. He sang a few of his songs and looked pretty old even then.
Eventually we were mustered and taken off to embark for home in a troop ship. To board it we had to cross the keel of a sunken ship by the quay. Alas, under American control, all military or naval units were ‘dry’. Gone was the luxury of my outward passage, for a cabin that once housed a single subaltern was now constrained to hold 6 officers piled in bunks.
We passed Gibraltar in the dark and next day, as I stood on the deck in the sunshine, I noticed a pink coloured cloud in the sky low on the northern horizon. I took a closer look through my binoculars. First to come into view was a freighter with only its upper works showing above the horizon sailing along in company with us. It demonstrated clearly the curvature of the earth. Ahead and beyond the vessel the cloud broke into a storm of fluttering pink petals and I realised that I was looking at a huge flock of flamingos.
[digital page 2]
The sunshine turned to low, grey clouds, the wind freshened, the sea rose, down came the rain and we were in the storm lashed Bay of Biscay.
Under grey, ragged clouds and with frothing waves making the ships of the convoy reel like drunken men, the corvettes were tossed about, half out of the water. In the darkness we entered the Clyde to awaken to a sunny dawn in which pale faced workmen came aboard after we moored at Gourock.
We were mustered with full kit for landing, whereupon, to our astonishment, a military band struck up to welcome us ashore. We were more impressed, however, by the fresh, round faces of a group of ATS girls who marched past.
‘Brass hats’ received us on the quay and, quite bewildered by such unusual attention, we were taken off to Glasgow, where we sat down to a reception lunch with a bottle of beer each and speeches of welcome from the platform. In the evening a group of us were entertained by two professional singers, a lady and a gentleman, whose names have long escaped me, but who sang ballads to the accompaniment of a piano until the small hours. They had an enraptured audience and so enjoyed themselves that they seemed content to sing until dawn.
Next day I was on my way home with my ration book – a welcome addition to the larder, for my allowances was greater than that of the civilian population.
On leave it was the usual return to previous scenes. All the fellows I had known were in the forces and most of the girls I had known were now married with children. I visited Dad at his works in Wallsend and I think he was pleased and proud, though, as usual, he said little.
At home he showed me the gap in the next street where a landmine had destroyed 4 houses and told me how Connie had extinguished a fire bomb on our doorstep by shovelling snow on it. Mum warned me, privately, that Dad had a blood clot and might be stricken at any time. He looked pale and drawn so I sat him in his armchair and painted him in watercolours. He would never have a photograph taken and all we had of him were a few amateur snapshots.
By now I was sporting a Campaign Medal, but was far outshone by the American troops in town who already had chestfuls.
Leave over, I was sent to a secluded country house in the Home Counties, where other PoWs were being collected. Psychologists went to work on us to see if we were sane enough to be sent back into action. It seemed a perverse decision to select sane men for a job that only a lunatic would welcome.
When passed physically and mentally fit, we were assembled and then asked about the future recruitment of officers. At this time potential recruits had to serve 6 months in the ranks before officer training and we were asked whether we thought this a desirable measure, to which we all answered ‘yes’, to the dismay of the Staff, who obviously expected a different answer.
Posted to Larkhill on Salisbury Plain we retrained and it was here I received news of Dad’s death. Given compassionate leave, I returned home for his funeral, for which I was very glad, as we had grown closer as I matured.
[digital page 3]
The next stop was Redesdale in the Border country, where we trained and did a shoot. By now I was able to tackle a shoot with aplomb. The harsh and barren dale was so boggy that the only gun positions that were available were made of hard standings, so there was little choice when deploying. Bumping over the rough and soggy ground on a motorbike was no fun either.
We lived in Nissen huts and went on exercises regularly, although the weather was often miserable.
I remember going on leave at the end of the course and travelling in the bus down Redesdale with the rain pouring down and the fields so sodden that the grain in the stocks was sprouting. The Haymarket in Newcastle-upon-Tyne was a dismal scene with the rain sweeping the pavements and splashing inches high.
The next posting was to Wrexham in Wales, where a mass of gunner officers was collected awaiting drafts to units.
I volunteered for the Middle East again to get back into the sunshine and possibly into Italy where I might have an opportunity of visiting my Italian friends. Quite quickly I was sent off to the ‘shop’ at Woolwich in London. This was the supreme Depot of the Artillery and I was interested to see inside it.
We were billeted in empty houses surrounding the parade ground, but messed in the main building. An immense, polished table was flanked by leather club chairs and the walls were covered with portraits of past gunners of repute. ATS girls waited upon us and I was reminded of the elegant arrangements at Larkhill at the beginning of the war. Unfortunately, the food was far below that standard.
At this time London was being bombarded by flying (buzz) bombs and by V2 rockets. The former droned overhead, flying quite low and were harmless until the engine cut out and they fell to earth. The latter arrived before the boom of their approach was heard. Both were aimed at dockland, where we were, and explosions continued by day and night.
Our duties were negligible. After breakfast we paraded for roll call and the names of those on draft were called out. Those selected were documented and packed off; the remainder were dismissed and ran off to catch the train to the city.
I went to a matinee performance of Richard III with Lawrence Olivier and Ralph Richardson. Fascinating.
One evening I was telephoning Brighton without success, but got talking to the telephonist, who had a very pleasant voice. We arranged to meet in the evening and she took me to some very interesting pubs I would otherwise never have discovered. All the time the sky was being lit up with the explosions of rocket and bomb.
London was boarded up and sandbagged. Soldiers of every nation crowded the streets, Americans being the most dominant. They were an unusual lot, for they lounged about on doorsteps, or sat on the kerb in a wholly relaxed, but unmilitary manner while the Military Police in white helmets, strolled about in pairs with their truncheons swinging from their hips.
[digital page 4]
Weekends were, as far as I remember, free from parades, for I was able to spend a weekend with Aunt Adie in Putney. As Dorothy, her daughter, was at boarding school she was able to put me up. She treated me with every attention and Uncle John, who liked his beer, took me to some of his favourite haunts to sample the wares. He was an engineer and physicist, and while we strolled told me of efforts being made to cause nuclear fission, which apparently led to a chain reaction of unknown powerful effect. This was the first hint I had of the Atomic bomb.
On Sunday lunchtime we were in the restaurant on the ground floor of the flats when a ‘doodlebug’ or flying bomb droned over. We could see it through the plate glass of the entrance. The diners, without a word, rose to their feet, walked over to the stairs, walls and pillars and crouched behind such shelter as they could find. The engine cut out. Silence followed and then the roar of the explosion in the neighbourhood. The diners then quietly resumed their seats and continued with the meal. Somehow, they preserved their dignity.
The following weekend I rang Aunt Maisie in Hove to see if I could pay her a visit. Pat, my cousin, was the only one at home, but she invited me to stay over for the night. Shortly after my arrival Uncle Bram, in uniform despite his artificial leg, arrived as cheerful as a bear with honey and he and Maisie made me most welcome.
As soon as I returned to the ‘shop’ I found I was on a draft to the Middle East as I had hoped, and by the late afternoon of November 9th 1945 we were ferried out to the waiting transport ship at anchor off Newport.
Sky and sea were leaden and a chill easterly wind searched through the open entry port as the ship rode the slight swell. Conditions on board were even more austere than before, for we found ourselves in the hold and sleeping on tiered bunks. We messed there, served by Indian stewards.
We butted our way north through the Irish Sea against rain and wind to assemble in convoy in the Clyde. A day or two in the restless Atlantic took us to the trade winds off Spain, where the sun shone from a sky speckled with little white clouds and on to a deep blue sea with matching white flecks of foam on its waves. Off came our battledress and we basked once more in the warm sunshine.
We disembarked at the same quay in Naples and walked over the same ship’s bottom to reach the shore. Trucks took us up the hills to a tented transit camp among the pines. The city lay spread beneath us and Vesuvius still trailed a thin tail of smoke.
The following day we were all parcelled off into our various arms and we gunners climbed into a truck and set of southwards to the Artillery base at Eboli. Here among the olive groves, we found a tented camp with marquees for mess hall and administration. In the centre of the dusty parade ground, mounted on a concrete slab, stood the ‘standard gun’ to which all the guns of the army were calibrated. Heard of but seldom seen, I bowed in homage.
The next day we went for an interview with the Commandant, whom I found to be the IG (Instructor of Gunnery) who had been in charge at Catterick when I was under training. He had my service record before him and when he had recognised our earlier contact, said “You will no doubt want to be sent to a first-class unit.” I agreed.
[digital page 5]
“I’ll send you to 31st in 4th Indian Division.”
So, while others languished for months at Eboli, within 3 days I was off to Taranto in southern Italy en route for Greece.
The 4th Indian Division had been heavily engaged at Casino and were meant to return to Egypt for a rest, but civil war had broken out in Greece the moment the Germans had left and 11 Brigade were ordered to take over Athens, while 7 Brigade, to which we belonged, were to sort things out in Salonika in northern Greece.
11 Brigade had casualties on landing, but the appearance of the tough little Gurkhas soon settled matters and some sort of civilian government was established. Sectarian violence, with atrocities on both sides, continued for months afterwards and we could not tell friend from foe as they were all in civilian dress. Northern Ireland must represent the situation.