Written for his children, J.A. Comyn’s book “Episodes” covers the first 30 years of his life. Born into a military family, he reminisces sentimentally about the hunting, riding and fishing of his early adulthood. He joined the army in 1933 and was soon employed as a regular officer serving in Egypt.
Although the section on his capture does not begin until page 80 the background information he provides is instructive regarding the primitiveness of the military equipment and the speed of introduction of new concepts like radio. His military experience caused him to be close to the decision makers of the time.
He was captured in the first advance and taken first to Sulmona. During the next four years and two months he was confined in three P.O.W camps in Italy and three in Germany. At the Armistice leaving Fontanellato he unluckily chose to accompany his friends rather than his superior officer Mainwaring / Manwaring , he almost reached the British lines when he was recaptured and taken to Germany where he saw out the rest of the war.
His descriptions of the POW camps are very vivid particularly the last months suffering hunger and fear of both the Gestapo and of the Allied Air force attacks. Note there is a discrepancy in the story between the name Blanchard and Blanchaert. The two spellings are used interchangeably.
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.
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[title page and added by hand] J.A. COMYN (sent by widow)
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‘EPISODES’ by J.A. COMYN, (Sent by his widow Elizabeth Comyn Jan 2001) A well told story of a regular officer serving mostly in Egypt, with frequent leaves back to England. Tells of very naive excursions into the Egyptian desert that slowly learnt its ways and led to some of the early successes when war came. Comments on early flying to Egypt with Imperial Airways. 1939 Takes part in and then completes survey of the Alamein area, proving that the Quattara depression could not be crossed and that the Ruweisat Ridge was of vital importance. Witnessed slow conversion to tanks and their slow improvements. Captured in first advance and taken back with some of the ladies of the Italian brothel.At Naples sees the Germans waiting to embark for Africa. At Fontanellato he becomes ‘kind of Staff Officer’ to Brigadier Hugh Manwaring though stating clearly that Hugo de Burgh is the S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] He shows how, under de Burgh’s orders, Manwaring goes out with Interpreter to reconnoitre hiding place and then leads the first party out. 16 move off and then divide up onto different farms but food etc organised by an Italian previously restaurateur in Soho. JC finally takes the usual route south and east to come above Florence with Donald Astley Cooper. They left chits of thanks with the Italians. Encouraged by a girl they take a train from Todi to Terni. Then after walking over many hills come to Villavallelonga where there is snow and POWs ‘on the run’ of many nationalities – including Indian. They get some four miles behind the lines. Hidden in a hut they are found by chance by Germans. In their travels they are put in a Camp (primitive) near Spoleto. The officers all agree that a very dark skinned senior Indian officer should be their S.B.O,[Senior Barrack Officer?] but Germans will not accept it. Taken to Germany in cattle trucks, hole cut in floor found. In Camp at Brunswick. Also tells of a fellow prisoner Douglas Berneville Clye, bigamist, deserter, petty thief and con-man. (A daughter has been in touch with the Trust trying to find anyone who might remember her father, whom she recognised for what he was.
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Written and typeset by John Andrew Comyn © Anno 1994
This Edition Anno 2000
Errata. Throughout the book for the possessive case of (it) read (its) not (it’s)!
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I originally intended to write down, for my sons and grandchildren, a few ‘episodes’ of the first thirty years of my life which might interest them, or at least amuse them by depicting bygone ways of life. But I found it difficult to write episodes without a background, so this little book has come closer than I contemplated to being an autobiography of those years, without, I hope, becoming too prolix. I have left the title unchanged, for lack of a better.
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|5||Cairo and Alexandria||31|
|6||Soldiering and Travel||40|
|9||Prisoner in Italy||74|
|11||A Long Walk||97|
|12||The Last Lap||106|
|13||Italy to Czechoslovakia||114|
|14||Brunswick and Home||125|
|The Middle East||22/23|
|The Western Desert||52/53|
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Chapter One. Early Days
When I was born, in Dublin on 28th August 1915, the landings in Suvla Bay had just ended in failure, heralding the close of the luckless Gallipoli Campaign. In France, where my father was a Captain on the staff of the Ulster Division, the battle of Loos was soon to begin. My first home, complete with Nannie and nurserymaid, was a pleasant house which my mother had rented on the shores of Galway Bay. In 1917 my father was posted to the War Office, and we (by then my sister Betty had been born) joined him in London. Young though I was, I have a distinct memory of that sea crossing, lights dimmed and people speaking in hushed voices, an atmosphere of fear. Many years later I was told that this was because the crew suspected that we were being pursued by a German submarine. I remember also, in our rented house in Addison Road near Olympia, being taken down to the cellar during Zeppelin air raids. In 1917 food was very short, due to submarine sinkings, and in general life can have been far from pleasant for my mother with her two young children. Before long we were back in Galway.
In 1920 we joined my father at the Staff College, Camberley, for a short time, before he was posted to Singapore. By now the family had been increased by the arrival of my brother Victor. Again we occupied rented houses, first at Bexhill and then near Godalming. Within a couple of years we were back at the Staff College where my father had become an Instructor. There we lived in a large bungalow in the grounds, complete with Nannie (May, the nurserymaid, had gone by then), cook, maid and soldier servant. My parents did a great deal of entertaining and had many of our cousins to stay. The bungalow was always full of young people and the sound of the piano and the gramophone.
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I spent several happy years there growing up, being taken out on a leading rein with the Staff College Drag, fishing with breadpaste on the Staff College lake, and, wonder of wonders, enjoying drives in the first family car. Until then our only means of transport had been a pony and trap in which our competent Nannie frequently took us children for drives, in spite of Joey’s habit of shying at every manhole in the road.
The car was a 14hp open tourer, made by the Standard Company. It had a canvas hood which could be erected in wet weather, with talc windows inserted into slots in the doors. There were no windscreen wipers, no indicators, and the footbrake only operated on the rear wheels. My mother (very advanced for those days) had, before she was married, owned a bullnose Morris two seater with a dickey, so was fully competent to master the Standard. I remember her writing from Ireland to announce that she had reached the incredible speed of 47mph on the Holyhead road.
In 1924 I was sent to prep school at Ladycross, Seaford. It was one of the only two Catholic prep schools which then existed, having been founded in the eighties by Alfred Roper, who still ran the school when I went there. Mr Roper was a patriarchal figure who claimed descent from Margaret Roper, daughter of St. Thomas More. The school was patronized by the old English Catholic families, Dormers, Rochfords, Stonors, Throckmortons, Charltons, with a leavening of humbler stock and some foreigners. There was an Anchorena from the Argentine, a Larios from Spain, a Van Cutsem and a Borchegrave.
My abiding memories of Ladycross are of the weekly administration of senna pods, and the daily early morning Mass. Mass was not compulsory on three of the weekdays, but if one stayed in bed there were black looks from the Matron. Clothes were important at Ladycross, as they were throughout my early life, smart brown suits and Eton collars for daily wear, gleaming white flannels and red blazers for cricket and sports.
While I was at Ladycross my father, a Connaught Ranger until that corps was disbanded in 1922, was posted to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers in Edinburgh. We went to live at Murrayfield, near the famous rugger ground. My uncle Dan Comyn was a selector for the Ireland XV and at Murrayfield we entertained him and many of that famous side, among them ‘Horsy’ Brown, Mark Sugden, George Stephenson and other celebrated Irish caps of the past. I remember, too, an evening of great
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pomp and solemnity when the venerable Field Marshal Earl Haig came to dinner from his home at Bemersyde.
In 1926 there was the General Strike, a time when the country came nearer to revolution than at any other period in which I have lived. The trams in Edinburgh had their windows covered in wire netting to foil throwers of missiles, no trains were running, and we scarcely left home. As there were no trains I could not get back to Seaford for ten days after term had begun, which was a great joy. When I did go, on one of the first trains to travel through to London, I remember seeing miles of stationary steam locomotives around places like Newcastle. These had not yet come back into service.
Towards the end of 1926 my father was appointed to command the K.O.S.B, under orders for Hong Kong. Off went all the family on the six weeks sea passage, except me. I did not again see my parents, or Betty and Victor, for the best part of three years. I was fortunate in being left with dear Aunts and Uncles, the Mahonys, first at Chesham Bois and then at Drayton Gardens in London; and the Kings, in Bath and, in the summer, at Chagford, Devon. In the ‘Comyn Memoir’ I composed in 1992 I described how fortunate I had been in Uncles and Aunts, on both sides of the Irish Sea, so I will not here expatiate further on those ties of my youth, happy though they were. Suffice it to say that from those Uncles I obtained an early introduction to riding and fishing for which I will always be grateful.
During this period I moved on from Ladycross to Wellington, and in 1929 travelled to Paris with my aunt Lily Mahony to meet my family in that city, a very exciting experience at the age of fourteen. The family had returned from Hong Kong by sea to Venice, and thence overland by train.
My first years at Wellington were marked by endless fagging, and by being beaten by prefects for trivial offences. The fagging system operated on a simple principle. A prefect would shout ‘boy’ from the end of the long Lynedoch dormitory. There would be a stampede to get to him, and the last to arrive would be entrusted with the chore, whether it was to make toast for his tea, go on a message to another part of College or tidy up his locker in the games changing rooms. I had a problem with fallen arches, incurred in a hundred yards sprint at Ladycross. As a result I was frequently the last to arrive in the rush, and suffered accordingly. It was
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highly exasperating, when oneself enjoying a cup of cocoa and a doughnut bought at ‘Grubbies’, to be diverted onto such errands.
Another torment at Wellington was the compulsory deep cold bath, into which one had to slip, and get out as quickly as possible, first thing every morning of term winter and summer, whatever the weather. That was followed by forty minutes classroom work before breakfast, another imposition. I did not mind the weekly Officers’ Training Corps parades, a cause of complaint to many. Indeed I greatly enjoyed one O.T.C Field Day. Company Commanders rode horses, and I was appointed Mounted Orderly to mine, who was also my Tutor (Housemaster). Most of the day, when not employed on carrying messages and orders, I was able to look down with lofty amusement on my friends struggling across the sandy wastes of Tweseldown carrying their rifles and heavy packs. But the best was to come. My Tutor was not a good horseman and when struggling to remount after some pause in events he fell right over the horse’s neck and lost his reins. His horse went off, with me in pursuit. I was in no hurry to catch it, because I was enjoying the gallop too much. Eventually I had to bring it back.
Wellington was a good school, and later I came to enjoy my time there as privileges increased and when, even as a humble dormitory prefect, I acquired disciplinary powers which enabled me to inflict the same indignities which I had experienced a few years before. However what I most enjoyed in those adolescent years were the holidays.
Soon after returning from Hong Kong my parents had gone off again. This time it was to Cairo, my father having been promoted to full Colonel on the Staff of Headquarters, British Troops Egypt. It was easy for us children to join our parents in Egypt in the winter, and for my mother, and usually my father as well, to join us in England in the the summer.
On three occasions we travelled to Cairo for the Christmas holidays. There was a variety of means. The first year it was by a steamship on which we embarked at Southampton together with a number of other teenagers similarly bound to Malta or Egypt. An important feature of this and subsequent trips was the social life aboard, and the friends we made.
On this first occasion, after a stormy crossing of the Bay of Biscay, it was a thrill to see the Rock of Gibraltar, bathed in sunlight, and to call at Malta, where the magnificent Mediterranean Fleet of those days lay
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proudly at anchor with awnings spread and officers in dazzling white uniforms. On board we had the wife of Sir Harry Luke, the Lieutenant Governor, who asked us ashore to see Government House and other sights.
Arriving at Alexandria before dawn was another thrill. I stayed up all night to get the first glimpse of the lights along the low coast of Egypt after ten days at sea. The ship slowed, and I watched as the pilot’s cutter came alongside, brilliantly illuminated under the ship’s arc lights. At the harbour, thronged with beggars and hucksters, our parents met us with their car and whisked us off to Cairo through the Delta, on the clay roads of that time, while it was still only half light. As the sun came up the sights and sounds of that strange new world were unforgettable, the palm trees, the wells and irrigation windlasses, the fellahin at work with their camels and donkeys, all little changed from Biblical days. Flying is a boon, but deprives the traveller of many experiences incidental to the old ways of travel.
Cairo was a revelation. After the murk of England in December we were in a world of permanent sunshine and dry, invigorating air. Our first stay was a short one, but Egypt had much to offer on this and later visits. At the Gezira Sporting Club we could swim, and native boys waited to field our tennis balls on the beautifully maintained sand courts. At Abbassia the King’s Dragoon Guards offered us riding lessons in military style. There were duck shooting expeditions and picnics in the Fayoum, visits to the Pyramids and the Sphinx. My parents had made many friends in Cairo and there was a busy social life. Britain was then, and had been for many years, the predominant Power in Egypt and the Sudan. Our surroundings were privileged, and I recall the sense of pride as the High Commissioner swept through Cairo in his Rolls Royce, preceded by Egyptian police motor cycle outriders, through roads all closed at his approach.
However the long voyage from Southampton and back took a big slice out of our holidays. In two of the following winters we went by train to Marseilles, waking up to the fragrances and sunlight of the Midi. There we embarked on a P&O liner, which cut the total journey to seven days each way. These were magnificent ships, with a long tradition, the stewards being mainly excellent Goanese. One ship on which we sailed,
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the ‘Rawalpindi’, was to go down heroically as an armed merchant cruiser in the war to come.
In between our visits to Cairo there were two Christmas holidays which the whole family, plus friends and relations, spent in Switzerland. My parents travelled from Cairo to Engelberg, where we joined them by train from England, an uncomfortable journey sitting up all night second class. Skiing had not then achieved its present popularity. Most of the guests at the ‘Grand Hotel and Kurhaus’ where we stayed spent their time executing beautiful figure skating on the expansive rink, or waltzing on skates accompanied by the music of the hotel orchestra.
There were times when the family skied together, not always with great success. My father, introduced to the sport at the age of fifty-four, found it necessary to retain a Swiss boy on permanent hire to help him up when he fell down. My mother, and Victor and Betty, both then quite young, proceeded at a rather leisurely pace. Usually I and my friend Charlie Mackie, of my age, skied on our own. Dressed in riding breeches, stockings, leather boots, a tweed coat and woolly cap, we donned the long wooden skis of the day, secured by primitive toe and heel straps, and ascended the funicular railway which led to the ski slopes, then frequented only by a handful of enthusiasts. Alpine downhill skiing was in its infancy and there was no ski school. We had to pick up what we could from guides. The only turns were the awkward Telemark, used in deep snow, involving getting one ski in front of the other, and the Christiana, a type of stem turn, both importations from Norway, where skiing had started. Indeed it is doubtful whether today’s parallel turns and ‘wedeln’ would have been possible on the barely trodden pistes we knew.
Later we graduated to more sophisticated skiing, and skiing clothes. On one occasion we accompanied two older friends, both good skiiers, on a several thousand feet ascent of the north side of Engelberg, where there was no funicular. We climbed, with seal skins attached to the bottom of our skis to prevent backsliding, all the morning, quite an exhausting performance. In the afternoon, after beer and sandwiches at the top, we were glad to ski peacefully, on virgin snow, down the long descent to the village.
Every evening Charlie and I would return, tired but happy, to bath and change into dinner jackets (I owned one from the age of fifteen) in order
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to attend the nightly dinner dance in the Hotel. Sometimes, instead, we would make up a party to trail along the dark snow covered roads in a procession of toboggans drawn by a horse. These were good holidays, but the best of all, perhaps, were the summer holidays at Chagford. For five successive years my parents rented a farmhouse about a mile along a narrow lane from the village. The farmer’s wife and daughter did the cooking and housekeeping. We hired ponies, and in some years kept them on the farm and looked after them ourselves. It was blissful to ride up narrow bridleways and bracken covered downs from the farm, and further, on up to Dartmoor.
We all three rode and had a number of friends who had ponies, Mollie Holmes, daughter of the Rector of Chagford, himself a keen horseman and fly-fisher, Susan Baxter, whose parents owned delightful old Holystreet Manor, Anne Royle, who has remained a friend to this day, and many others. We used to meet and form large parties to ride the Moor. This was not without some perils of fog and bog, and anxious parents usually appointed me to lead the group, with map and compass. As I grew older I fancied myself as a budding Cavalry Officer, my troop behind me. Very often, at the end of such a ride, we would clatter into the Square at Chagford (there were few cars to be seen there sixty years ago) and devour scones filled with Devonshire cream and strawberry jam, fetched from Mrs Rose at the baker’s shop.
Riding was not the only diversion, there were tennis parties and picnics, and fishing for peal (sea trout) on dark evenings among the rocks of the River Teign, then not tamed by the construction of the Fernworthy Reservoir. As to other evening pursuits, although television had recently been invented most of us had never heard of it, and were far from realizing that within our lifetimes it would enslave the entire world. To ‘tune in’ to the radio was a novelty to many, although I had experimented with a crystal set and graduated to a ‘portable’ wireless, my pride and joy. This was the size of, and resembled, a suitcase. Operated by four valves glowing red it had the aerial and loudspeaker in the lid and ran off a battery, which was just as well, because there was no electricity at the farm. Lacking so many modern means of entertainment we often spent evenings singing around the piano in the lamplight. Both my father and
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Betty played well, and my mother had a beautiful voice, properly trained in her youth. I could, as it was then termed, ‘strum’, a bit. Sometimes up to a dozen of family and friends, would gather for such evenings, and very delightful and often romantic they were. I can still hear, mentally, the strains of that old favourite “At seventeen he fell in love quite madly, with eyes of deepest blue”, and, again in the mind, see the shy glances exchanged around the piano.
It was at that age of seventeen that I obtained a driving licence. There was then no test required, and I have never had to take one since, but I had been well instructed by my mother. Henceforward I could drive girl friends in and out of Chagford, and even on occasions to the cinema in Exeter.
In 1933, having attained my eighteenth year, I left Wellington. I cannot say it was with great regret. Nonetheless I valued the education I had received there, and the friends I had made, who could have been far more numerous except for the prevailing ethic that friendship with a boy from another House or Dormitory was a matter of grave suspicion. I had achieved little distinction, except perhaps as the winner of the Prince Consort’s History Prize. I received this on Speech Day from the hands of Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, then aged eighty three, son of the Prince Consort. At the time I did not consider, as I have since, that when aged six Prince Arthur had accompanied his mother, Queen Victoria, at the laying of the foundation stone of Wellington College in 1856. Nor did I reflect that I was shaking hands with a godson of the great Duke of Wellington, victor of Waterloo. But with the passage of time such links with the past have acquired a fascination, at least for me.
There had been little discussion as what should happen after Wellington. I always knew that my father wished me to go into the Army, and in those days a Father’s wishes on such a matter were fairly conclusive. The Master of Wellington, Malim, wanted me to go to Cambridge. I suggested that I might join Shell Oil. I had a friend who intended to do so, and painted a rosy picture, which turned out to be no exaggeration, of a future in that great enterprise. My father was prepared. “I have been thinking” he said “that in view of your passion for horses I might be able to give you a sufficient allowance to enable you to join a Cavalry Regiment”.
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He won. In November 1933 I took the Army Exam. After the Exam I had to attend an interview at Burlington House with some worthy old gentlemen, civil servants and retired warriors. This presented little difficulty. However the medical examination that followed was nearly a disaster. I was declared to suffer from flat feet. I persuaded the medical board that as I was going into the Cavalry such a defect was of no consequence. To my relief this was agreed. I had passed third in the Army Exam (candidates from Wellington had taken three out of the first four places). This entitled me to a Prize Cadetship. However my father declined to take advantage of the remission of the fees then payable at Sandhurst which this made possible, preferring that the concession should be offered to the son of a war widow, of which there were at that time all too many. There was then no such thing as a ‘gap’ year. I left Wellington in December 1933 and was enrolled as a Gentleman Cadet at the Royal Military College in January 1934.
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Chapter Two. Gentleman Cadet
I had been at Sandhurst for only five minutes, and was still dressed in civilian clothes, when in the wide stone flagged passage of the Old Building I met Sergeant Major Giddings. “What do you think you are doing, Sir, slouching around the Royal Military College like that? This is the way you walk here”. And the Sergeant Major proceeded to demonstrate. Giddings was a Grenadier Guardsman, Company Sergeant Major of my Company, a Warrant Officer Class 2. I threw my shoulders back, swung my arms, and eventually gained his approval. There followed an admonitory talk as to the relationship between the Warrant Officers of the staff and the Gentlemen Cadets. “You say Sir, to me, Sir, and I say Sir, to you. Sir, do you understand. Sir?”
Giddings was a wonderful man, typical of staff of all ranks at Sandhurst. The criterion was excellence, whether at drill, physical training, riding or in the lecture halls. Drill was hard at first and to achieve the necessary standard of polished boots, shining brass, gleaming rifles, scabbards and bayonets involved hours of toil in the evenings. But I enjoyed the evolutions on the vast parade ground in front of the Old Building, with the Adjutant Major Norman Gwatkin, also a Guardsman, resplendent on his white horse, fearful to behold. Life has few pleasures greater than marching, in disciplined array, to a Band.
Alongside 5 Company would march Giddings with his pace stick, muttering, and occasionally screaming “Take that Gentleman’s name”, to be followed by a yell of “Got him, Sir” from the Staff Sergeant marching behind. We all knew Giddings had a softer side. I shall never forget an incident at the end of my first term. We had just failed to win the Juniors’ Drill Competition.
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At the end of term Concert I saw Giddings weeping quietly into his beer, miserable at our failure.
My great delight was Riding School, then a basic part of the course in which all Cadets had to qualify. I had done more riding than most of my contemporaries and soon found myself in the top ride, often taken by the Riding Master himself. The Riding Master was Captain Ronald Findlay of the Royal Scots Greys, and a more elegant Cavalry Officer it would be impossible to conceive. He rode only his own horses, handsome greys, of which he had six. He was tall and slim, always beautifully turned out, soft Cavalry cap displaying the thistle badge of the Greys, shining field boots, equally highly polished crossbelt and well cut breeches with the grips pipeclayed bright yellow.
In my Intermediate Term I was selected to be a member of the R.M.C Riding Team in the competition against the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. Accompanied by Ronald Findlay we travelled to the Equitation School at Weedon, Northamptonshire. I enjoyed my stay at Weedon, then the mecca of all Cavalry officers because of the course it provided in higher equitation and the opportunities of hunting with the Quorn and the Pytchley. The R.M.C won the competition. As a member of the team I was awarded a Blue, entitling me to adorn the red and white stripes of my Sandhurst blazer with blue edgings. I was unlikely to obtain a Blue in any other sport. Owing to my flat feet I was in request for little except boxing, where skill was less highly rated than sheer endurance. My free time was mostly devoted to the horse. We could hire hacks from livery stables in Sandhurst village or in Camberley and horses for hunting from the Army. It was not long before I was out with the Garth hounds and the Staff College Drag. At the end of my first hunting season my Father decided that I might have my own hunter for the next year, to be stabled at livery in Camberley.
It was April 1934. I proceeded, accompanied by my uncle Nicholas, my father’s eldest brother, to Goff’s Sales in Dublin. With his assistance I bought, against stiff competition, a little (15.2 hands) black mare called Polly Anne. She was young, broken only the previous October and then regularly hunted with the Meath. My Father had set a limit of fifty guineas, but I had to pay sixty to get her, a sum equivalent to over two thousand pounds in today’s money.
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It was arranged that she should spend the summer at grass at Ballinderry in County Galway, my father’s childhood home. Next day I went to see her off in the railway horsebox. To my dismay she seemed uneasy, at times kicking the sides. I decided (I am afraid my motives were mixed) that she could not travel alone. There and then, in a city suit, without toothbrush or pyjamas, I jumped into the empty groom’s compartment, which had a window looking into the box, and set off with Polly Anne. At Woodlawn station William, the groom from Ballinderry, was waiting to meet the mare, having been driven there in a pony trap by my cousin Maureen. Great was Maureen’s surprise when she found she had a passenger to drive home.
Next day I was up early. Polly Anne was saddled, and I set off on a ride around the Ballinderry parkland (I fear that this was one motive for having travelled down with her). It was an exhilarating experience. I wrote to my father in Cairo thanking him for his generous present and recording “I had a really fast gallop around the park. She went like the wind, beautifully smooth and shooting her legs out in front I do not think I have been faster on a horse. Yet when I had got round I had only to say ‘steady’ and feel on the reins and she stopped in a few yards”. I told him how I had jumped her over some bars the height of a gate into the garden park near the tennis court and out again over the stonefaced ha ha, or sunk fence, into the main park. I reported “I jumped the bars at a canter, and she cleared them by inches, landing well out. She hesitated a bit at the edge of the sunk fence, but never refused. She is very nice looking and an absolute darling both in and out of the stable”. My panegyric was not misplaced. Polly Anne carried me well for the next two hunting seasons, and never, as far as I can remember, gave me a fall.
That summer my father retired from the Army. He spent most of the winter of 1934/5 hunting with the Galway Blazers. He and my mother based themselves at Ballinderry. I had to leave Polly Anne at Camberley but joined my parents for the Christmas holidays and had some unforgettable days on hirelings in that wonderful hunting country, where fields never numbered more than forty and it was easy to keep close to hounds. Another advantage, for a young man, was the continual jumping, mainly over stone walls, as Irish farmers did not go in for gates, they
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preferred to pull down a bit of wall to give entrance to their cattle, and then build up the gap.
Of a day I particularly remember Edmond Mahony has written, in his book, ‘The Galway Blazers’, “One of the best hunts I ever had with the Blazers took place on Christmas Eve in the year 1934 from the Meet at Knockbrack. Hounds found quickly in the hazels behind the house and were soon away across the Belleville-Monivea road. Keeping Roundfield gorse on their right they drove at top speed as if for Knockroe Hill; but half a mile short of it bore righthanded, and killed the fox in the open near Ryehill, in forty three minutes without a check. This hunt took place over the very cream of the country. The Point was four and a half miles, but hounds covered six”. This was indeed an epic day and I shall always be grateful for the advice I received from Tommy Kelly, the vet, who rode up beside me soon after hounds started running “Keep your powther dry, young man, this is going to be a grand hunt”. How well he knew the country, and the line the fox was taking. Without his sage counsel I might have asked my hireling for too much and not been in at the end of a very fast forty three minutes. That evening I drove back to Ballinderry with my father through the dark countryside where usually there was not a light to be seen. But it was Christmas Eve, and as was then the custom every cottage had a lighted candle in its uncurtained window to welcome the newborn Child. These little specks of light were visible from afar. They crowned a very special day.
There were other good hunts those holidays. At the end of the Knockbrack hunt I had received the mask from the Joint Master and huntsman. Major Bowes Daly, probably because at nineteen I was the youngest member of the field to be there at the death. That mask, mounted and inscribed, was long a treasured possession but eventually mouldered and was thrown out. Women have no feeling for such memorabilia once they decay. However I still possess a silver plated ring attached to a holder of the same material from which once hung a brush, also long decayed and gone. The holder is inscribed ‘Galway Blazers, Jan 10th 1935’. Alas, I cannot recall the particulars of that hunt.
At the end of those Christmas holidays I went back to the R.M.C for my last term. Life for a ‘Senior’ was fairly easy. The College servants
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were permitted to clean uniform and accoutrements for seniors, and did so for a small consideration. Leave for an evening in London was readily granted. But there were problems. One was that Gentlemen Cadets were not allowed to own cars, even if affordable. Getting back in time after a late evening meant a chauffeur driven hire car from Godfrey Davis. On one occasion the chauffeur asked me if he might do the trip as fast as possible. On the very next day the new nationwide speed limits, 30 mph through built up areas, were being introduced. He wanted a last opportunity to see how quickly he could drive from the West End to the R.M.C. I made no objection, and we did the trip in 38 minutes, which I think would be good going today, even with the M3.
Another problem was clothes. To take a girl out in London in those days meant evening dress, that is to say, tail coat, starched white shirtfront and collar, semi-starched white waistcoat and white bow tie carefully secured with the smallest possible knot. Pearl or sapphire buttons for shirt and waistcoat, cuff links matching or gold, completed this detestable outfit. I say detestable because it was so time consuming to don, because the boiled shirt inhibited freedom of movement, and because a strenuous old fashioned waltz would result in the stiff white collar melting. At Hunt Balls we carried spares.
A further problem was money. I am amazed how well I seem to have managed in London. My first forays were to the old Trocadero restaurant at the Piccadilly end of Shaftesbury Avenue. Later I graduated to the Cafe de Paris in Coventry Street. Here there was a spacious balcony, where one could dine without wearing evening dress. From this balcony wide, double, blue green stairs curved down to the main dining and dance floor, framing Lew Stone’s Band at their foot. Here evening dress was de rigueur. The descent of this double stairway provided a wonderful entry for the ladies. As they swished down in the long evening dresses of the day they were the cynosure of all eyes at the tables below. Supper was excellent. The “Mousse de Homard Sauce Americaine” and the “Filet de Sole Armagnac” were memorable. There was a cabaret at midnight. Supper, dancing and the cabaret cost one guinea per head, exclusive of wine. Sometimes supper at the Cafe de Paris might be followed by a visit to the Florida, a night club which did not survive the War.
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The problems of travel, clothes and money meant that visits to London, however delightful, were few and far between. Camberley, accessible by bicycle, had to provide most amusements, such as dining in style at the Duke of York Hotel with my friend Kenneth Watt, then dwelling over large cigars and glasses of port and finishing the evening at the neighbouring cinema. There were wonderful teas, after hunting, at the Wayside Cafe in Yorktown, bacon and eggs and sausages galore.
Faithful Polly Anne behaved magnificently with the Garth and the Drag through the early months of 1935. Then came the summer, with the June Ball, at which my cousin Maureen from Ballinderry was my partner, and finally the Passing Out Parade. On that occasion I found myself looking the Prince of Wales, later, briefly King Edward VIII, straight in the eyes and realizing how small he was. Sandhurst was over, I had passed out fifth.
At the R.M.C I had made what was to be a lifelong friendship with Henry Huth. He and I decided to hire a small car and set out for the Continent. We were equipped with a bivouac tent and sleeping bags as we did not intend to spend money on hotels. There were then no car ferries. Our Wolsley Hornet was lifted into the ship’s hold at Dover by a crane, and disembarked at Ostend in similar fashion. From Ostend we drove at a snail’s pace over the rough cobbled road that then led to Brussels. Thereafter, through Germany, the roads improved, but the omnipresent German soldiers on motor bikes and sidecars and the antics of tough looking Nazis in civilian attire but wearing swastika armbands, often cruising around in crowded lorries, created a sinister impression. Halfway through one night, in the depths of a forest, the flap of the tent was roughly parted, and a powerful torch surveyed us, presumably that of a forest guard or Nazi stormtrooper. We were glad to get into beautiful Austria, then still independent of Hitler.
The object of our journey, to the extent that it had an object, was to attend the Salzburg Festival. We spent a week in that delightful town, living very cheaply in an unfurnished room, sleeping in our sleeping bags and cooking sausages on a Primus stove. I enjoyed the Mozart operas, but Henry was not so keen, and we turned our attention to die Bierstuben, where the bands and lusty community singing, to the accompaniment of large beer mugs banging on the wooden tables, provided entertainment
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worthy of the Festival. We soon found ourselves on most amicable terms with pleasant Austrians, and sang and banged our mugs with the best of them.
From Salzburg we headed back to Innsbruck and then decided to take the great new road over the Brenner Pass into Italy. Near the summit we stopped to camp for the night, and were almost immediately called on by a couple of New Zealanders who were making a grand tour of Europe and were camped just ahead of us. They were better equipped than we were, and insisted that we should have our evening meal with them. An excellent dinner they gave us, grilled steak and such luxuries, while we talked through the night, high up in the Alps.
Next day we were in the Trentino. To our amazement every road was jammed with units of the Italian Army, some far from friendly. We had not realized how tense the international situation had become. Italy was intent on invading Abyssinia, and the League of Nations, led by Britain, was threatening her with sanctions, possibly even war.
With relief we made our way from Merano back into Austria via St. Anton and thence into Switzerland. At Geneva a meeting of the Council of the League was in session. My cousin Marjorie King was attached to the British delegation, headed by Anthony Eden. She obtained for us seats for a meeting of the Council. There we watched a bitter encounter between Count Grandi of Italy, Pierre Laval of France and Anthony Eden, at the end of which the Italian delegation walked out in dudgeon. The invasion of Abyssinia followed soon after, then the Spanish Civil War and Hitler’s aggressions leading up to the invasion of Poland in 1939. That evening in Geneva we may have witnessed the end of the League of Nations, the break-up of the common front of England, France, and Italy which had begun to form against Hitler, and the beginning of all the evils which the world was to endure during the next ten years.
At the end of these travels, on 29th August 1935, Henry and I, together with another friend. Jack Pringle, were commissioned into the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars. That Regiment being stationed in Cairo Henry and I were ordered to report for attachment to the 16th/5th Lancers at the Cavalry Barracks, York. On our return from Austria we had decided to buy, in partnership, a little open 8hp car and in this we set off together up what was then called the Great North Road.
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Chapter Three. Apprenticeship
The day that I arrived at the Cavalry Barracks, York, I was informed that the Lord Mayor and the Chief Constable were to be the guests of the Mess that evening. My mess kit had been sent direct from the London tailors and appeared to be complete. But alas! the glossy Wellington boots with their box spurs, worn under mess overalls, had not arrived. A kind friend in the 16th/5th came to my rescue with the loan of a pair of the rather heavy footgear used for Orderly Officer duties, but my memory of a brilliant evening, my first as an officer, still remains clouded by that misadventure. The food and wine were of course excellent and I admired the mess kit worn by the 16th/5th, shell-jackets fastened at the neck, open at the front with richly ornamented waistcoats showing below, a great improvement, I considered, on the boiled shirts and black bow ties, most unmilitary Victorian innovations, worn with the mess kit of my own Regiment.
I was soon hard at work in Riding School and at Stables. I was spared Recruits Drill where the old lance drill was inculcated, a strange survival of the Lancer tradition not expected of an attached Hussar. I was given nominal command of a Troop and rode proudly at the head of my cavalcade on exercise through the streets of York and out into the country. I attended punctiliously at Stables, anxious to acquire all the arts of horse management expected of a Cavalry Officer, correct feeding, watering and grooming, early diagnosis of ailments, good shoeing practice and vigilant supervision of the young Troopers to whom the welfare of the horses was confided. I attended veterinary operations.
Then the blow fell. Italy had invaded Abyssinia, and massed large forces in Libya. An invasion of Egypt seemed possible. Practically
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overnight my Regiment, in Cairo, was deprived of its horses and ordered to train in Ford cars armed with machine guns. The last Mounted Parade was held on Armistice Day 1935. My friends in the 16th/5th were full of sympathy, but one could detect a secret glee that the blow had not fallen on them – as yet! My dreams of a horsed Cavalry life, perhaps even attending the course at Weedon, were at an end. Almost immediately Henry and I were sent from York to attend a Mechanization Course run by the Royal Army Service Corps at Aldershot, which at that time I considered an indignity of the first order. Fortunately, I spent my time there as the guest of the Scots Greys, so was able to ride their horses and attend their Riding School, presided over by that great horseman, Joe Dudgeon.
I had one or two friends in the Greys, particularly Alastair Macduff, grandson of H.R.H The Duke of Connaught. Alastair had been in my Company at the R.M.C. He was utterly delightful and completely ineffective, only getting through Sandhurst by the efforts of friends who took turns to make sure that he got up in the morning and assisted in cleaning his kit. I suppose being Earl of Macduff also helped. At Aldershot I found that he had lost his driving licence for some misdemeanour and was pathetically dependent on old friends (the Greys were somewhat wary of him) for transport. He had a passion for fish and chips and I sometimes enabled him to indulge this craving. I enjoyed Alastair’s company, while sometimes marvelling that in the incongruous surroundings of a fish and chip shop I should be so familiarly consorting with a first cousin once removed of the King (George V) and a great grandson of Queen Victoria. Alastair dreaded the occasional summons to his formidable old Grandfather at Bagshot Park, on which occasions the ducal limousine would arrive to collect him. He died young, during the coming War, but not before he had succeeded as Duke of Connaught and Strathearn.
The Mechanization Course consisted mainly of dismantling a lorry engine and putting it together again, quite a good grounding in the mysteries of internal combustion. In December, at the end of the course, again with Henry, I was posted to the Small Arms School at Hythe, Kent, where for the first time I was sure of free weekends in between bouts of activity on the ranges. I began to think about hunting. Ken Watt had been
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unable to finish the course at Sandhurst because of asthma. He was now at Trinity College, Cambridge and hunting with the Fitzwilliam.
Ken had remained a close friend, and earlier that year I had stayed with him fishing and shooting in the wilds of Sutherland. On that occasion the long journey home by train had been enlivened at Perth, where I offered the engine driver ten shillings to allow me to travel as far as Edinburgh in his cab. It was quite an experience to watch the fireman strenuously shoving coals into the flaming recesses of the fire box, while the driver stood at the side, with his hands on the controls and his eyes scanning the line ahead, or what he could see of it from the slit which provided some vision along the side of the boiler casing in front of him. The rear of the cab, where I stood, was completely open to the coal tender, with the result that while the front of my body was fiercely warm from the fire my back was nearly frozen. Over the Forth Bridge we trundled at four miles an hour, a rule enforced, the driver told me, ever since the Tay Bridge disaster many years before. At Edinburgh I returned to my carriage, to be greeted with some alarm by my fellow passengers. I had not realized that I was covered in soot from head to foot.
I now got in touch with Ken and at his urging sent Polly Anne up to the livery where he kept his hunter, at the George Inn, Kimbolton, an old fashioned hostelry with a stable yard behind. Nearly every Friday evening for the next three months I motored up to Cambridge, where Ken put me up in lodgings he had acquired in Clements Lane. On Saturday mornings we would set off in his powerful Ford V8 two seater, our horses usually being brought on to the Meet for us, although we would always hack home. The Fitzwilliam was then a private pack, and Army officers were not only welcomed but excused paying a cap. We had some great days, after which we would arrive back at the George, usually in the dark, and describe the sport to the landlord, George Long, while consuming quantities of bacon and eggs in a cosy sitting room lit by oil lamps, with old hunting prints on the walls. The Fitzwilliam country was heavy to ride, with a great deal of plough, and took a lot out of my little mare, nevertheless she performed brilliantly.
Back at Cambridge in the evening we would consume yet another meal in Ken’s lodgings, prepared by his housekeeper, and then sally forth on the town. Our favourite diversion was the cinema, our favourite film, still
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a classic, although made before the introduction of colour, ‘Top Hat’, with the tap dancing of the nimble Fred Astaire and his partner, the delectable Ginger Rogers.
There were occasional skirmishes with the Proctor’s ‘bulldogs’. It was then a rule, which Ken made a point of disobeying, that undergraduates should wear gowns after dark. Thus we were constantly challenged by the ‘bulldogs’. The tactic was that I should run rather slowly in one direction, while the future Chairman of Tattersalls ran rather fast in the other. The ‘bulldogs’ would frequently follow me, catch up, and demand my name and College. The recollection of the confusion into which my reply would throw these excellent men still causes me some embarrassment.
Although this was the usual pattern of weekends, sometimes after hunting with Ken I would drive down the same evening to stay with Henry Huth at his parents’ home near Dorchester. There I would be hospitably received and play squash with my host, Major Percy Huth, who hunted with the Cattistock and played far better squash than I in spite of a gammy knee, the result of a wound in the Boer War. Henry and I often rode with three extremely pretty girls, the daughters of a neighbour. Commander Val Wyndham Quin. All three were to be lifelong friends of Henry, and I saw something of two of them in later life. But by then they were far removed from my social sphere. One was the Marchioness of Salisbury, one Lady Egremont, married to the owner of Petworth, and the third the wife of Lord Roderick Pratt, younger son of the Marquess of Camden.
On Sunday night Henry and I would drive back to Hythe, Henry glad to have some use of the car, which we were still sharing, although I fear I unduly monopolized it. In one weekend to drive from Kent to Cambridge, from Cambridge to Dorset, and from Dorset back to Kent, in the relatively primitive cars of the period, seems now to have been a major feat. But at the time I do not remember any inconvenience except at times from fog. Traffic then, particularly in the winter, was unbelievably light by present day standards.
That the Fitzwilliam was a private pack proved to be some disadvantage. Lord Fitzwilliam died before the season was over and as a token of respect his hounds ceased to meet. We had to turn to the Oakley, an even heavier country, and further to go. However we began to receive
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invitations from Ken’s uncle, Sam Watt, to hunt with the Cottesmore. Sam Watt lived in a large country house called Gunthorpe, near Oakham, with sixteen hunters in his stables. He and his wife hunted, as also did his two daughters, one of marriageable age, extremely pretty. At Gunthorpe there were constant house parties, and the luxury of servants to clean one’s black silk top hat, red coat, white breeches, black boots with mahogany tops, white leather knee straps and spurs. These excellent valets would also lay out a change into dinner jacket for the evening.
Sadly, Uncle Sam never offered the loan of any of his sixteen hunters; I suppose he could not spare them with his large family, all hunting mad. We had to rely on hirelings, which had the advantage that they knew the Cottesmore country, then I suppose at its prime, a kingdom of grass and challenging fences blissfully free from wire but with strong binders and reputed to be more hairy than those of the neighbouring Quorn and Belvoir. The Master, who hunted hounds himself, was the then renowned Chattie Hilton Green.
Fields were enormous, on the day after the Hunt Ball there were four hundred out. With so many it was hard to know what was happening. I remember jumping a rather blind place and clanging stirrups with a gentleman jumping the opposite way, both of us believing we were on the line hounds were taking. At that time officers could have three months leave in the year. As well as that, winter was devoted to ‘individual’ training, mainly conducted by the NCOs, so that in those months officers were not in great demand with their Regiments. Thus many based their hunters in Leicestershire for the whole season, and we met plenty of friends out with the Cottesmore.
Meanwhile I gained proficiency at Hythe in the military arts of rifle and revolver shooting, range drill and management of the butt parties which hoisted the targets and signalled the fall of shot. I also took the opportunity of taking the flying lessons available at neighbouring Lympne. In a Moth, that wonderful biplane, I learnt to fly ‘straight and level’ and do some simple turns. But at the end of March 1936, before I could graduate to the eight hours solo flying which was all that was then needed to obtain a pilot’s licence, came the long awaited embarkation orders to join the Regiment in Egypt.
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Chapter Four. Palestine
The sailing of a troopship was a festive occasion. Bands played on shore and on the ship. Crowds of relations and well-wishers lined the quay. Generals in red tabs were there to bid the troops farewell. As sailing time approached those on board would hurl hundreds of paper streamers to their loved ones on land.
The symbolism of the parting of these streamers as the ship drew clear, the Bands playing ‘Auld Lang Syne’, would reduce many to tears.
The troopship on which Henry and I left from Southampton was almost entirely filled with a Battalion of the Grenadier Guards commanded by ‘Boy’ Browning, afterwards famous at Arnhem. Then he was not as famous as his wife, also aboard, Daphne du Maurier, whose ‘Jamaica Inn’ had just been published and had achieved instant success. Officers were comfortable enough, even second lieutenants sharing four berth cabins. As no 8th Hussar drafts were aboard I was spared daily inspection of the mens’ accommodation, but I know they were far from comfortable, sleeping in hammocks, sometimes a hundred to a mess deck.
For officers mess kit was mandatory every evening, the Band played, there was dancing with the wives on board and with the young female relations accompanying many of them. There was bridge and, in the daytime, deck quoits. I spent one evening in the Guards Sergeants’ Mess watching enormous men drinking huge quantities of beer in a competition as to who could consume the most in a specified time. The days passed agreeably and it did not seem long before we rounded the Rock of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean sunshine and, a week later, anchored at Port Said.
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THE MIDDLE EAST
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[map of the Middle East bordering the Mediterranean]
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The Regiment had not wasted time in learning its new role. In January R.H.Q and two squadrons had been sent up from Cairo to Mersa Matruh on the Mediterranean coast 150 miles west of Alexandria. There they formed part of a small force prepared to repel the Italians in case of war, although Mussolini’s hands seemed full in Abyssinia. To Mersa Matruh I, Henry and Jack Pringle proceeded. We were each attached to a Troop. The Troop consisted of some sixteen men and four vehicles. Three of these vehicles, carrying four men each, had been large Ford V8 open touring cars before the back seats were removed to convert them into ‘pick-ups’. The fourth vehicle, somewhat heavier, carried spare food, ammunition, petrol and blankets. The pick-ups each carried a Vickers light machine gun and their crews were armed with rifles and the old Cavalry bandoliers.
Equipped with broad tyres and powerful engines these Ford V8s were ideal for traversing the desert. One squadron had already made a reconnaissance to the Siwa oasis, 200 miles across the desert to the southwest of Mersa Matruh.
During the next few years I got to know Mersa Matruh well. It was a small village on the desert coast boasting one hotel, set on the fringe of a very beautiful, almost landlocked, bay where it was a delight to swim in the clear greenish blue water and lie on the beach of dazzling white coral sand. However on this occasion my stay was short. By the end of April the Regiment was back in Cairo.
However we were soon off again. Four weeks after returning from Mersa Matruh the Regiment was ordered to Palestine, where the Arab population had declared a General Strike and were attacking Jewish colonies. It was the first of the many conflicts which were to disturb that country up to, and after, the inauguration of the State of Israel in 1948. Prepared for active service we set off in our V8 cars, with accompanying supply lorries, down the road to Suez and over the Canal at the Kubri ferry. The first night we bivouacked without lights on the eastern bank of the Canal, and it was intriguing to see great liners moving slowly by, quite close, their decks brilliantly lit, bands playing and passengers in evening dress dancing, a marked contrast to our warlike dispositions.
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Next day we crossed the Sinai desert and arrived at the frontier of Palestine, where we were welcomed by two armoured cars of the RAF. Up to that time there were few troops in Palestine, the authorities having relied largely on the Palestine Police, backed by the RAF, to keep order. From the frontier we moved by Beersheba to Jerusalem, where a tented camp had been prepared for us.
We were to spend nearly five months in Palestine, and see most of the southern half of the country, in which we at first constituted the only military presence. Immediately I loved Palestine, its exhilarating dry air, so different from the stuffy heat of the summer in Cairo, its historical associations, the contrast of hill and plain. I even came to like its inhabitants, both Arab and Jew. In a bookshop within the ancient walls of Jerusalem I bought George Adam Smith’s ‘Historical Geography of the Holy Land’ and armed with this and Wavell’s ‘The Palestine Campaign’ I found something of interest wherever we went.
During all the time we were in Palestine I commanded a Troop. I had many experiences during those months, but will recount only a few.
Soon after our arrival it was decided to detach one squadron to Gaza and one to Beersheba, and to rotate our three squadrons between Jerusalem and these locations every two or three weeks. This provided plenty of variety. The ‘General Strike’ had become a minor insurrection. At Jerusalem the main problem was the cutting of the telephone wires to Nablus which occurred every night. One of our tasks was to protect the repair parties which went out at dawn each day. On one such occasion I found the road blocked with boulders ahead of my Troop and we came under fire from a hillside on one flank. My men were fast out of their pick-ups and into the ditch but I had to get them back to fetch the machine guns, after which our attackers swiftly vanished. From a scrappy diary that I kept at the time I see that it was on Thursday September 10th 1936. The entry reads “was fired on at Kilo 46 and replied with all guns dismounted. Saw three of the Arabs but do not think I got any. Fired 85 rounds. Two bombs around the next corner”.
These ‘bombs’ were a nuisance. They were old British 18 pounder shells abandoned in dumps after the First War, dug out by the Arabs, armed with detonators and buried in the sandy roads or on railway lines.
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They did us a good deal of damage. There is another entry in my diary, for September 16th, ‘Two cars blown up, went out with ambulance’.
It was not all dawn patrols. We had plenty of time to visit the sights of Jerusalem, the Wailing Wall, the Mount of Olives, and I took a party to see the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem. There were other pleasures. My diary recounts that on the evening of the day when there was so much shooting at Kilo 46 I dined comfortably with friends at the King David Hotel, as we frequently did. Some years later the King David was to be destroyed, with heavy British casualties, by Irgun, the terrorist group led by Menachem Begin, later Prime Minister of Israel.
An operation which I did not enjoy took place in the Judean Hills. The whole Regiment was concentrated and employed for two days and a night to surround a large group of villages while the Palestine Police searched them for armed men and the Royal Engineers blew up some houses, the normal penalty for bad behaviour. Some wretched Arabs tried to escape through our cordon and were shot, although not by my troopers. In the middle of all this I was approached by a distraught Englishwoman who told me that she was a schoolmistress in one of the villages, had lived there for years, that the inhabitants were mainly peaceable Christian Arabs, and that she would not have believed it possible that soldiers of her own race could behave as we were doing. I must admit that she had my sympathy.
But not all Arabs were peaceful. One night while I was going around the sentries at Jerusalem firing broke out nearby and I took a patrol out to investigate. According to my diary “found nothing. Later learnt that a Jewish doctor had been shot a few hundred yards from where I went. His head completely blown off at 4 yards range”. I remember that incident rather well because when returning to the camp in the dark I failed to shout the correct codewords and my patrol nearly got wiped out by nervous sentries excited by all the noise.
Between Jerusalem and Gaza we had constantly to patrol the Jewish colonies in the plain. These were being raided at night, the Arabs taking particular delight in destroying orange groves. One of the joys of Palestine was that there was usually no Squadron Leader around, it was a matter of Troop patrols, with complete independence and discretion left to the Troop Leader. I enjoyed heading my small command through the
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curfew darkened countryside. In the Jewish settlements we would often put up a hare in an orange grove and there would be a fusillade, partly to obtain some fresh meat and partly to intimidate any Arabs that might be lurking aroxmd. In the morning the settlers would give us a substantial breakfast. Their colonies were a model of civilization as compared with the poor and agriculturally unproductive Arab lands around them. The Jews had irrigation, herds of Friesian cows managed on the most modern lines, maize, oranges, gardens, trees. On our departure they would load us with fresh fruit, vegetables and butter.
Gaza was a road and rail centre, and possessed an airfield, near which was sited our camp. Every day an Imperial Airways or KLM airliner would land, carrying oilmen to Persia or VIPs to India. In the Squadron Mess we sometimes had brief visits from distinguished travellers passing through. One such was General Brooke, later Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke. There was a detachment of Palestine Police on the airfield, tough men, many of them at one time ‘Black and Tans’, the feared police auxiliaries during the troubles of 1920/21 in Ireland. I remember seeing an Arab crawling from one of their posts and discovering that he had been bastinadoed, a torture inflicted by caning the soles of the feet, in order to gain information.
At Gaza we were responsible for safeguarding the surrounding roads, telegraph wires and the vital railway line which connected Cairo with Jerusalem. The train from Cairo would arrive at the Palestine frontier at dawn. During the previous night we would patrol the line, trying to make sure that it was clear of the bombs which were frequently planted both on the line and on the road which ran alongside. Sometimes we ran into the malefactors actually at work and there was an exchange of fire. We were assisted, in the Gaza area, by a searchlight mounted on Ali Muntar, the ridge which had been so fiercely defended by the Turks in the First War. Firing a Verey light would bring down the beam. As the searchlight dazzled both sides it was only of limited help. There were two villages on the route of the railway line, Rafah and Khan Yunis. Although then small, these villages, with Gaza, under the name of the ‘Gaza Strip’, have since, with an enormously increased population, caused much trouble to the State of Israel. Going through Khan Yunis at night was a trying experience because of the semi naked
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village lunatic who was permanently chained to a tree and fed by passers by. He would emit the most unearthly yells at our approach, all the more horrendous because of the silence of the curfewed village. It was a relief, at dawn, to meet the train and escort it to Gaza.
A rather lengthy extract from a letter I wrote home on 31st August 1936 may give a flavour of the time. “My birthday coincided with two days trouble at Gaza such as we hadn’t had for weeks. At midnight on August 27th/28th (when I became 21!) you might have seen me take my troop out to patrol the railway, until 6am. When going through Gaza I found our water pumping engine had been blown up, though not damaged very much, and I spent some time investigating that and pulling all the people near out of bed. Nothing happened on the line and I came into breakfast soon after six. I went to bed and slept till teatime. At 9am the railway line was blown up. Later a bomb exploded in the municipality. A bomb also exploded on the Mayor’s doorstep. As a result when I woke up everybody was teed up, extra patrols were going out, and a party was going after dark to arrest two leading citizens of Gaza and send them to Sarafand concentration camp. I saw I would have to give up any idea of a little birthday champagne! A few of us dined in the Mess and then sounds of battle were heard from the town and Charlie Duff, Threlfall and myself went out to a hill near Ali Muntar where the whole of Gaza was spread out before us in the light of the searchlight – just like Aldershot Tattoo! Guy Lowther, lying up on the railway line, had seen a party of about eight armed Arabs coming to blow up the line. A running fight of about two miles up the line followed. We couldn’t see figures but we could follow the engagement by the Verey lights and an occasional flash. Guy fired about 70 rounds and the Arabs a little less. He thinks he got one of them, but he wasn’t picked up, and the rest got away”.
That wasn’t the end of the disturbances that night. It was discovered that all the international telephone and telegraph wires had been cut further down the line. This time the Squadron Leader took a patrol out and had his offhind tyre blown off by a bomb in the track. “He was awfully angry” I recounted. At 4.30am I was again out on patrol. An eventful 21st Birthday and sequel.
But at Gaza, again, it was not all work. The Palestine Police lent us horses, and sometimes we played polo against the Police on the airfield.
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We could ride down to the sea, and along the sands to Ascalon, with its Greek pillars embedded in the cliff. We could bathe. Gaza was surrounded with cactus hedges, which made a wonderful jumping course, few horses would drop a leg on them. The village elders were anxious to propitiate us, and there was an Arab feast in our honour, a huge platter of lamb and rice which we ate with our fingers, seated on the floor, our Arab hosts feeding delicacies such as lamb’s eyes directly into our mouths. After us it was the turn of the village women, and as we left I saw the children fighting with the dogs for the remnants of the feast.
At Beersheba life was quieter. But there we were pestered by Bedouin who would open fire at night on the school building where our troopers were billeted and on the Station Master’s house where the officers lived. The Station Master’s house had a flat roof surrounded by stone balustrades which provided a useful rest for a light machine gun. At night it was not uncommon for us to be up there in our pyjamas replying with fire to an enemy attack. Yet by day everything was curiously different. The country was quiet and I would often ride by myself to an Arab village, would be received by the Muktar with a ceremonial cup of coffee, and would practice my elementary Arabic for half an hour before riding home.
From Beersheba I and my Troop did one arduous trip down the un-roaded and rocky escarpments which led to the south end of the Dead Sea, a distance of some hundred miles through apparently empty desert. Our role was to comfort the employees of a Jewish company which was exploiting potash deposits at the end of that saline lake. The heat down there, well below sea level, was unbelievable and on our arrival we gratefully drank quantities of iced beer provided by the management. Their supplies all came by boat down the Dead Sea and we were the first vehicles ever to reach them.
On 11th October the Arab Committee declared an end to the insurrection and on 11th November we arrived back in Cairo. It was as well, because the weather was turning wet and cold and a longer stay would have been uncomfortable. As it was I left with pleasant memories of my time in Palestine. The Regiment had suffered no fatal casualties. A few men had been wounded. We all received the Near East General
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Service Medal, with the clasp ‘Palestine’. The Commanding Officer and five others, of whom I was not one, were Mentioned in Despatches.
Almost immediately after our return I was given home leave. In the spring of 1936 my parents had bought a pleasant country house, Deans Grove, just north of Wimborne in Dorset, complete with stabling, two cottages and twenty acres of grassland divided into three paddocks. The house had needed extensive modernization, during which time the family lived in the good sized cottage opposite the front gate.
Deans Grove comfortably held my parents, Betty, Victor, our old Nannie, who had returned to the family after years of absence, a cook and two maids. In the stable cottage there was a rather cantankerous groom gardener, in charge of two hunters, belonging respectively to my father and Betty. I lost no time in appropriating these and had many good days with the Portman. At that time Polly Anne was believed to be in foal, and was out to grass, so I was unable to hunt her. I spent much time in clearing overgrown thickets, made many new friends in Dorset, and revelled in the fact that at last the family had a settled home in the country.
During this leave I again visited the Cafe de Paris and there had a curious experience, in December 1936. The Abdication Crisis was at its height. Charles, the head waiter, came round each table, inviting us behind a screen, where a wireless set (as we then called a radio) was functioning. We heard King Edward VIII make his farewell speech to the nation. He sounded heartbroken, and it was a sad moment for all of us. Sad, too was the end of the Cafe de Paris. During the war it was destroyed by a direct hit from a bomb when full of merrymaking officers on leave and their friends.
One morning early in January 1937 I left again for Egypt, for the first time travelling partly by air. The initial stage was to Paris, departing from Croydon Airport in a Handley Page Hannibal, a biplane with four propellers, a type of aircraft which had been in service with Imperial Airways for some years. It held twenty four passengers and had a top speed of 100 mph. Air passengers were then treated as VIPs. The seating
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was similar to a Pullman car, with tables laid for lunch in front of each comfortable armchair. The flight to Paris took some three hours, plenty of time to enjoy the excellent meal which was provided. At that time it was not possible to go on from Paris by air because in response to sanctions Mussolini had forbidden Imperial Airways to overfly Italy. So there had to be a long train journey to Brindisi, where I transferred to an Imperial Airways seaplane for the remainder of the journey, via Athens, to Cairo, and rejoined the Regiment in their quarters at Abbassia.
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Chapter Five. Cairo and Alexandria
Abbassia, on the north eastern fringe of Cairo, abutting the desert which stretches away to Suez, was a large garrison. It held the Headquarters of the Cairo Cavalry Brigade and two of its units, the 7th Hussars and 8th Hussars. Also stationed in Abbassia were the 1st Brigade Royal Horse Artillery, the 6th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment, the 2nd Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers and various supporting services. In spite of this profusion of military units Abbassia was a pleasant station, spacious, well treed, with a number of married quarters surrounded by gardens, and some shops. The 8th Hussars were in Main Barracks. The Officers’ Mess of the Regiment was a few hundred yards away, between the Barracks and the Garrison Stable Lines. The Mess was a large old building with thick walls, cool in summer, supposed at one time to have held the Harem of a bygone Pasha. In front was an enclosed forecourt and at the rear a delightful walled garden of some extent. I had a spacious ground floor room with French windows opening on to the garden. My quarters were gradually embellished with a second-hand sofa, armchairs and a piano.
From January 1937 Abbassia was to form the background of my life for the next three, nearly four, years. However during that period I was hardly ever in Cairo for more than a few months at a time. I will defer until the next Chapter some description of my many absences. In this I will attempt only to describe the general course of garrison, sporting and social life in Cairo, and, in the summer, Alexandria, when absences on leave or Courses in England, or on manoeuvres in the desert, or on travels in Palestine, Syria and Jordan, did not interrupt the tenor of what the reader may consider to have been a delightful existence, and indeed was.
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Duties at Abbassia were not onerous. In winter I would be awoken at 7am by my Egyptian manservant, ‘Mac’. My polo ponies would be waiting by the gate at the back of the mess garden. I would select one for an early morning ride out of the garrison into the ochre coloured Mokattam Hills and send the others off to exercise. I wore an old tweed coat and leather chaps for the ride, and on my return would change into uniform, assisted by Mac. There was no battledress then, in uniform we still wore well cut service dress with brightly polished buttons and badges, breeches and fieldboots. Breakfast was in the Mess about 9am, then over to the Squadron Office in Main Barracks to discover my duties for the morning.
For a young officer these varied greatly. Some days the Regimental Sergeant Major would instruct us in Cavalry footdrill and Guard Mounting procedure. The ritual of Riding School, conducted by the erstwhile Rough Riding Sergeant Major, was scrupulously observed in spite of mechanization. Otherwise we would be despatched to the Stable Lines, now occupied by our Ford V8s, to oversee maintenance of the vehicles. There might be a Musketry course in progress, or the weekly debugging of the barrack rooms, or a map reading exercise. Sometimes it would be attendance at the Commanding Officer’s Orders, maybe to give evidence in a disciplinary hearing.
Every ten days or so I would be Orderly Officer. This was a serious 24 hour stint, involving responsibility for anything untoward in the Barracks, inspection of the mens’ meals, mounting the Guard, ‘turning out’ the Guard at some time in the night and then going around the sentries in the Barracks and the Stable Lines.
Mounting the Guard, accompanied by the Orderly Sergeant and a Trumpeter, was a particularly worrying performance. Not only did the Orderly Officer have to be himself impeccably dressed but there was an element of competition in the turnout of the men on parade. By tradition, the smartest was to be excused guard that night and to become Commanding Officer’s Orderly next day. This was a matter of enormous prestige, not only to the Trooper concerned but to all his Squadron, many of whom would be hanging out of the barrack room windows watching events. It was the responsibility of the Orderly Officer to decide who
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should be the fortunate Trooper. On one occasion, being quite unable to find any difference at all in the standard of those on parade, I had to consult the Orderly Sergeant. “Make them take off their jackets. Sir, and see what’s underneath”. That did the trick.
When not Orderly Officer military duties were over by lunchtime. Three days a week, polo days, Mac would have my polo boots, white breeches and a tweed coat ready to change into before lunch, and would have packed a bag containing the grey flannel suit or other attire into which I proposed to change after polo. Lunch finished, it was a matter of getting to the Gezira Sporting Club, a drive of some miles through the middle of Cairo, making one’s way amid a tumult of rickety buses, donkey carts charged with vegetables or, often, blackveiled women, and strings of polo ponies also bound for Gezira.
On non polo days we might practise with stick and ball at home or go for another ride in the desert. Very often we would join in Regimental sports. I never got on well with cricket or rugger, but I enjoyed hockey on the fast sand grounds. I am glad to see, in the Hockey notes of the Regimental Journal for 1937/8, a comment “Outside Left – Lt Comyn played some good games and we hope will be of value to the Regimental side in the future”.
The Gezira Club was one of the finest sporting clubs in the world. It was modelled on the Hurlingham Club. Laid out on ground given to the British Army by the Khedive Tewfik towards the end of the last century it covered the entire southern end of Zamalek, a large island in the Nile connected by bridges to the city on one side and to Giza and the Pyramids road on the other. The rest of Zamalek was mainly occupied by the houses and flats of Westerners. My parents had lived on Zamalek Island during their time in Cairo. The Club had three polo grounds, a race course, a number of tennis courts, a golf course, a cricket ground, squash courts, a croquet lawn, a swimming pool and a large clubhouse with restaurant. The membership was overwhelmingly British, although leading citizens of the many other nationalities resident in Cairo were admitted. Racing took place every Saturday. Polo was played three times a week in winter, the grounds flooded in turn to keep the grass growing.
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Polo was an obsession with the Regiment. Our next station after Egypt was expected to be Meerut. We cherished an ambition to win the Inter-Regimental Polo Championship in India, where so many Regiments of British and Indian Cavalry were stationed. As far back as 1933 the then Commanding Officer had arranged for 66 unbroken ponies, ‘Walers’ purchased from the famous Ashton brothers, to arrive in Cairo from Australia at the same time as the Regiment. At that time we still had extremely competent ‘rough riders’ in the ranks to help their owners ‘make’ these ponies. The Regiment had also retained troophorses which could be trained as polo ponies, and other ponies were brought out from England or sent from the Argentine. There was a ‘Polo Fund’ from which officers could borrow money to buy ponies on easy repayment terms.
In all there were over 100 polo ponies in the Regiment’s stables at Abbassia, and this was still the case even after mechanization, particularly as a benevolent Government continued, until 1939, to mitigate the pangs of this disaster by allowing Cavalry officers the maintenance at the taxpayers’ expense of the two ‘Chargers’ (now miraculously transformed into polo ponies) to which each officer had been entitled in horsed Cavalry days.
During my brief stay in Cairo before going to Palestine in 1936 I had made a start in buying ponies. I had arrived too late for an allocation of Walers but by early 1937 I had five ponies. One, ‘Wonderbar’, had been a troop horse. One was a pony, ‘Starlight’, which I bought in England, one was an Arab named ‘Farwa’, and two were Argentine ponies acquired from officers leaving the Regiment. None of them were brilliant performers except, possibly, Starlight. My light weight was an advantage in buying ponies cheaply, but a disadvantage in ‘riding off’ an opponent. The term ‘pony’ is misleading as to polo ponies. The ‘Walers’ were powerful animals standing 15.2 hands or more, bred as cow ponies in New South Wales, hence their name. My Arab, Farwa, was a delightful ride but stood little chance in an encounter with one of those. My other ponies, notably Wonderbar, would be more effective. To feed, groom and exercise my string, and to ride and lead them on the long road to the polo grounds at Gezira and back, I had two
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‘syces’. These were grave, very black, tall Sudanese, dignified in their white turbans, tunics and galabeers, speaking little English, but marvellous at their job.
The great polo championships at Gezira, the Subalterns’ Cup, the Inter-Regimental, the Open, the King’s Cup, were occasions of high drama. Seven ‘chukkas’ would be played, each lasting eight minutes, with three minutes allowed between them to change ponies. To play seven chukkas in a high class tournament every player would need four ponies, and one in reserve. The excitement was not confined to the distinguished residents and visitors seated in the stand. The syces in the pony lines, club attendants and various hangers-on would comment on every stroke and join their plaudits, or otherwise, to those of their betters. The Cup would be presented by some dignitary, the wife of the High Commissioner or of the General. Not infrequently it would be by the King of Egypt, Farouk, whose own Bodyguard played, not with great skill. Afterwards the victorious side would adjourn to the changing rooms to pass around the silver Cup, filled with champagne. Polo was played in Cairo from November to May and it was unfortunate that I was away from Cairo for the first couple of months of each of the three prewar winter seasons, a time when ponies were being got fit and handy, and polo teams formed. I was not a complete beginner as I had played some polo at Fleet when I was at Sandhurst and I soon got into some good fast polo at my first opportunity, in early 1937. I wrote home “I wish I was a little stronger in the wrist. I’m not hitting the ball too badly now and my ponies are going well, but I am slow at picking up the ball when a sudden opportunity comes at an awkward sort of angle, I don’t move the the stick quick enough”. I still have the cut down polo stick, heavily loaded with lead at the tip, which I carried for some years to strengthen my wrist. It could be useful against a burglar.
Again absent for the start of the 1938 season, I became reserve for the Subalterns on my return and frequently made up the team. The Regimental Journal commented “Comyn, who was away until the last part of the season, has improved a lot and should make a good player when he has more experience”. In 1939, after again making a late start, the verdict was “Comyn showed promise. Has had very little polo, and if only he can get some in the near future should come on well”. I thus never made the
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‘big time’ in polo at Gezira, but always immensely enjoyed the game, and perhaps never more than during the only season I had in Alexandria, in the summer of 1939, as I shall tell.
Not surprisingly, the Gezira Club was the chief rendezvous of the British community in Cairo. After polo (and sometimes a game of squash as well) an excellent tea on the Club terrace was welcome. Then it might often be a question of drinks somewhere, by previous arrangement or as the result of some meeting at Gezira, then perhaps dinner at Shepheards Hotel or the Continental, ending up, maybe, dancing at the Kit Kat. Cairo, particularly in winter, was immensely social. From my days during Christmas holidays from school, and because my parents had lived there for so long, I knew many of the resident families. There was one house, owned by a wealthy honorary Attache at the Embassy, where any member of the Regiment was welcome for drinks every Sunday evening. Out near the Pyramids, on a country estate with groves of fruit trees, dwelt an old friend of my parents, impressively named Major General Sir Charlton Spinks Pasha. He had been the last British Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Army. Lady Spinks was charming and they had three attractive daughters with whom we would ride in the General’s grounds.
In addition to the residents there were many families who came out from England to spend part of the winter in Egypt enjoying the sun. Among these there were plenty of girls who had done the season in London and were looking for fresh worlds to conquer. We young officers would do our best to entertain them, in large parties or tete-a-tete. My letters home of the period are full of descriptions of such occasions, often ending “bed at 4am”. The girls were always keen, too, to see the Sphinx by moonlight or the Dead City, then uninhabited and very eerie.
The Turf Club in the centre of Cairo, run very much like its London counterpart, provided a bar, English papers to read and dinner if required. Opera and plays by touring companies were available at the Opera House, built by Khedive Ismail in 1869 to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. On many evenings I would go back to Abbassia, for dinner or supper in the Mess. Either required another change of clothes, into
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messkit for dinner nights, or into the Regimental green suit for supper. Again, Mac would be on hand to assist, and to wind around my waist the yards of red silk cummerbund required with the white messkit usually worn in that climate. There would often be Guest Nights, when Generals or important Civilians would be entertained to dinner. On supper nights we could invite our friends. I remember one wonderful evening when Noel Coward was our guest and entertained us after supper, playing the piano and singing.
There were other pastimes, shooting pigeons or snipe in the countryside or, best of all, duck in the Fayoum. This was a large area of shallow lakes inhabited by thousands of duck. Every lake would have its shooting tenant. Those occupied by King Farouk and by the High Commissioner enjoyed special prestige. Before dawn on Sunday mornings guns would everywhere in that vast area be in their places. From the moment the first shot was fired until the shoot ended about 11am the sky would be full of duck circling around trying in vain to find undefended water on which to settle. Bags on any lake would run into hundreds. As there were few dogs the retrieving would be done by young local villagers, who would pull up their galabeers, hold the skirt in their teeth, and dash valiantly into the shallow water.
Cairo could be unpleasantly hot in summer. The day’s programme was then different. It started at 5am. To the normal military routine was added firing on the ranges in the early morning. By 11am I was able to return to the cool of the Mess, where the servants had closed the shutters to keep out the heat of the day. After lunch a siesta. Activity recommenced about 4pm. There was no polo at Gezira in the summer so nothing for it but go for a ride, practice ‘stick and balling’, play tennis, squash, or hockey.
Dinner would sometimes be in the garden, the long mess dinner table with all its furnishings and silver having been moved out by the Egyptian mess servants, supervised by the Mess Sergeant and Mess Corporal. On those occasions the Band would play softly, concealed in the shrubberies, and after dinner the Band Master would join us, ranged around the table in our white messkits and red cummerbunds, for a glass of port.
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In summer social life, too, was quite different. The English girls had gone, some home and others to find husbands in New Delhi. Many residents had departed on leave. In the cool of the evenings we made up small parties to go to the drive-in cinemas where the film could be watched out of doors without leaving the car. Or we might visit Madame Badia’s to see entrancing belly dancing, or go out to swim and dine at Mena House, just below the Pyramids. Mena House had originally been a Khedivial shooting lodge. The Empress Eugenie had stayed there when she visited Cairo for the opening of the Suez Canal. It had since been converted into a luxury hotel.
Some of us cultivated ‘summer friends’. These came from the upperclass Coptic, Greek, Turkish and Jewish families who lived in Cairo or Alexandria, many of them immensely rich. It was not easy to get to know them, and their acquaintanceship was disdained by many of my more chauvinist compatriots. But the effort was extremely worthwhile. They entertained prodigiously. I several times dined at the Muhammad Ali Club in Cairo. I have never since experienced anything like the sheer luxury of its ambience, food, wine, and the service provided by the turbaned attendants in their rich liveries. Sometimes our ‘summer friends’ gave large parties up the Nile in a chartered river boat, with a lavish supper on board and then a walk in the moonlight around the gardens of the Barrage, the first dam above Cairo, before the return journey spent dancing to the boat’s orchestra.
A favourite entertainment was a ‘fantasia’. This was a private spectacle held in a pavilion erected in the desert, near the Pyramids. After one such occasion I wrote home “we all met at Mena House for drinks. It was a lovely moonlit night in the desert. We first had an enormous meal in the tent (shamiana lined and carpeted) consisting of meat of various kinds and rice. Then the entertainment started with an Egyptian dancing girl followed by Sudanese dances, Arab music, and some extraordinarily good imitations, such as a rich blind man, a poor blind man, a desert pydog, a camel and a donkey (at which all the donkeys tethered outside the tent set up a terrible din!). Afterwards we went out to see the dancing horses. It really is a sort of high school movement, they passage and lift their feet more or less in time to the music and it was pretty to watch. They are well fitted out with red saddle trappings, ornate bits and coal
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scuttle stirrup irons. A lot of us got up on them afterwards and tried it, it was rather fun but I split my blue overalls in doing so”.
The sea breezes of Alexandria made a welcome change from Cairo summer heat. We would fly the hundred miles in the little eight seater planes operated by Misr Airways, or travel the newly opened desert road. I always stayed in a small French run hotel by the sea, which then cost seven shillings (35p) per night for bed and breakfast. There was racing on Sundays at Smouha, swimming on the beaches of Sidi Bishr, dinners at the Cecil Hotel or the Union Bar, night life at the cabarets strung along the sea edge, smelling of seaweed and deliciously cool. As in Cairo, these cabarets provided attractive young dancing partners, not uncommonly of Yugoslav origin.
But, here again, the important diversion was polo. Throughout the summer polo was played at the Alexandria Sporting Club. Many of my friends sent their ponies down for the season, and there spent weekends, playing polo on Saturdays and sometimes on Mondays as well. Keeping ponies at Alexandria, and staying in hotels, was expensive, and for this and other reasons the first, and only, season I played at Alexandria was in 1939. A letter home dated 30th July related “I have been playing in a very good team and have had terrific fun. My ponies are now just going beautifully. As a matter of fact I had decided ….I would not play in the King’s Cup which starts next Saturday but now I can’t resist going on for another fortnight even if I go completely broke”.
My team ‘Grenvilles Horse’ duly won the King’s Cup that year, beating seven other sides, and winning against the Coldstream Guards by half a goal in the final. It was the first time I had been in a tournament winning team, and it was to be the last. Within a few weeks of that victory, at the end of August 1939, tournament polo became a thing of the past.
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Chapter Six. Soldiering and Travel
The pay of my rank was nine shillings (45p) a day, and it might by now be concluded that I hardly deserved this handsome remuneration, which I may here remark was supplemented by an allowance from my father of almost twice that amount. I have mentioned soldiering in Palestine, and barrack routine, but so far little else to do with the military profession. In this Chapter I hope to remedy this omission, and also to describe some of my travels during the three years leading up to the war. Soldiering and travel accounted for many of the absences from Cairo during those years to which I referred in the last Chapter. It must be admitted that when I joined the 8th Hussars the military profession was not awarded the priority it would soon require. We aimed to be a smart Regiment, with well maintained vehicles, competently handled in the field. Our officers were ready to die in battle. But the finer points of tactics, and the new doctrines of warfare, propounded by our own military prophet, Liddell Hart, and soon to be so devastatingly employed against us by the armoured corps of Guderian and Rommel, were not part of our philosophy. The senior officers took pride in the fact that no 8th Hussar had ever been to the Staff College. One acute observer wrote of that period “It is on Gezira polo grounds that the officers of the Cavalry Brigade are tested for their military efficiency and fitness for command”. His comment, however humorously intended, contained an element of truth.
But it would be wrong to conclude that our soldiering consisted only of barrack routine in Abbassia or that our readiness for war did not greatly improve in the years leading up to 1939. ‘Individual’ training took place in Abbassia, but each spring there was the ‘Collective’ training season, when
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the Regiment would exercise as a whole in the desert. This led on to Cavalry Brigade exercises, often in combination with the Cairo Infantry Brigade. The first ‘Collective’ training’ season which I experienced was that of 1937. One exercise in which I took part was out beyond the Pyramids. We acted as Advance Guard to a Guards Battalion. We moved swiftly in our pick-ups to take up position on successive ridges, and waited for the Guards, footslogging slowly behind us in the sand. I never again saw British infantry marching on foot in the desert, although some years later I saw Italian soldiers still doing so. Archaic though such an exercise may have been we at least learned from it that riding breeches and field boots were not suitable attire for the desert, and afterwards changed to khaki drill trousers and soft suede footwear with rubber soles. There was another exercise that year of a more modern style, a trial of supply by air, an advanced concept for the time. The old Vickers Valentias, carrying petrol, water and rations, were so slow that they had to fly at fifty feet, to avoid fighter attack. The Regiment’s role was to defend advanced landing grounds in the desert, where the Valentias landed to unload their supplies.
In March 1937, taking advantage of a break in that training season, three of us, accompanied by two servants, in two cars loaded with provisions and camping equipment, set off across the Sinai desert. Our objective was Taaba, then a lonely Egyptian police post, now a highly developed tourist resort. It lies at the head of the Gulf of Akaba, where four countries met, Egypt, Palestine, Transjordan and Saudi Arabia.
The Gulf teems with fish of every kind, some of them most beautifully coloured tiny creatures which could be viewed with a glass bottomed petrol tin poked through the surface of the water. We were after bigger prey. We had brought an outboard motor, which was attached to the primitive boat owned by Radwan, a renowned local fisherman. Under Radwan’s guidance we caught, in the course of two or three days, a tunny and some barracuda and draak, the latter similar to a tunny. The tunny weighed 85lbs. My heaviest fish was a draak weighing 47lbs, foulhooked in the flank, which took me an hour and five minutes to bring
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to the gaff. One day we sent Radwan and the boat some miles down the Gulf, following ourselves by car, to Farun Island where there were the picturesque ruins of a Crusader castle. Not only that, but we found oysters growing on the rocks, and managed to eat a dozen each, although lamenting the absence of brown bread and butter, lemon and red pepper.
In the early summer of 1937 I was warned to attend a Course at the School of Signals at Catterick Camp, Yorkshire, in the autumn. In advance of this I was to be allowed almost three months home leave. Henry Huth and I had resumed partnership in a car, this time a Ford V8 two seater. Henry also hoped for leave, and we planned to drive back to England together in the V8. Unfortunately Henry’s leave was stopped for some misdemeanour. His father had come out from home and was staying in the Mess. He volunteered to accompany me instead of Henry. So Major Percy Huth and I set out with the car, in a rather seedy Turkish cargo boat, across the Mediterranean to Athens, on through the Dardanelles, pausing at Istanbul, then into the Black Sea, and landed at Constanza in Roumania, sightseeing at each port of call. From Constanza we travelled on appalling roads to Bucharest and through the mountains of Transylvania to Budapest.
Budapest was the highlight of our trip. It was at that time one of the most glamorous capitals of Europe. Along the Danube were hotel gardens, in each of which a gypsy orchestra played. Their haunting music provided a continual background as one strolled along the riverside. Vienna, by comparison, was sad and impoverished. Sitting in a cafe on the Ring we were accosted by a young woman at an adjoining table who offered to show us the sights. She told us she was a singer at the State Opera. We set off with her to see the Kahlenberg, just outside Vienna and one of its attractions. In no time our guide led us into a narrow muddy lane, and informed us that she was lost. There was a ditch on each side (it was by then dark) and in turning the car one wheel dropped in. The lady and I got out to push, and Percy Huth managed to run over her foot while extricating the car.
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We then had to locate the casualty department at the Vienna ‘Krankenhaus’ and get her admitted. The X-ray showed a broken metatarsal bone. Early next morning I woke to find a young man in my bedroom at the hotel who informed me that he was the lady’s brother and enquired rather menacingly what we intended to do about her injury. I managed to get rid of him by promising to go and see her in hospital that morning. The situation was becoming serious, because in Austria a foreigner involved in an accident had his passport confiscated until the case was heard, which might take weeks. It was therefore essential that the police should not become involved. After a hasty council of war Percy and I decided to go to see the representative of my insurance company in Vienna, who fortunately turned out to be English. To him we were able to describe exactly what had happened, and he promised that our victim would be well cared for. I went to the hospital to see the lady and placated her with some ready cash and the assurances we had received. We then set off at great speed for the German frontier, and were relieved to leave Austria behind us. I am glad to say that a year or two later a friend of mine met the same lady in a bar in Rome, and that she asked him to give me and Major Huth her kindest regards.
The remainder of the journey was uneventful and I was able to enjoy a pleasant leave at Deans Grove, with plenty of tennis parties and other jollifications, at the end of which I proceeded to the Course at the Army School of Signals.
When I had joined the Regiment communications were still as they had been in horsed days. Messages could be sent by flag, lamp or heliograph. The heliograph was a tilting mirror, mounted on a tripod, which used reflected sunlight to flash morse code signals. In clear air and with no intervening hills these could be read seventy miles away. We were also equipped with field telegraphs and cable for static use. There was then no wireless, but by 1937 it was being introduced. The Course at Catterick was the first for Cavalry officers in the use of wireless sets. These were fairly primitive affairs but enabled speech communication over two miles and Morse Code over a much greater
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distance. On the Signals Course we had to attain considerable proficiency in sending and receiving messages in morse. We learned the morse code thoroughly. To this day I sometimes find myself unconsciously tapping out morse, which I find to be reflecting some word or phrase in my mind. There were also speech procedures and the use of codenames to be learned, as well as the technicalities of tuning a wireless network. Towards the end we were training in 5cwt trucks intercommunicating at considerable distances over the grousemoors behind Catterick. A four ten concealed in the back would often secure an illegal brace of those delicious birds.
I did not spend all my time signalling. Yorkshire is well known as good hunting country, and Catterick is convenient for both the Bedale and the Zetland. As soon as I got there I went over to York, where the 15th/19th Hussars were stationed, and pleaded my sad case at Catterick, with five polo ponies eating their heads off in Cairo and nothing to ride in Yorkshire. In no time both a troophorse, a wellbred animal with the makings of a hunter, and a soldier groom were sent over to me at Catterick. I had a couple of months good hunting on that horse, which became an excellent ride. I had one day a week at the beginning of the course, more as the course went on. Towards the end I was given mounts by local friends, and extended my hunting activities into the Middleton country.
In spite of my sport with the Zetland and the Bedale I obtained an Instructor’s Certificate, not a mere Pass, at the end of the Course and on my return to Cairo at the beginning of 1938, after Christmas at home, was appointed Regimental Signals Officer. I was to hold that appointment for nearly three years.
My first task was to introduce the Signals Troop to the use of wireless. That proved no problem, but the Squadron Leaders were seemingly a little old to learn new tricks, and with them I had difficulty. At first the only sets available were one per Squadron, mounted in a truck. To speak on the wireless the Squadron Leader had to dismount from his car and move to the back of the truck. There was one Major who regarded the whole
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performance with dread. He would approach the truck and before taking over the handset remove his service cap, smooth his hair and don a pair of kid gloves which he always carried. Whether he thought the Commanding Officer was viewing him at the other end I never knew. Incidentally it was not long before every officer had a wireless in his vehicle, and the shortcomings of the conventional round service cap when wearing headphones then became evident. The Tank Corps had found this out years before, hence their adoption of the Breton ‘beret’ as official headgear. In the case of the 8th Hussars the solution was found in the green and gold sidehat. Until then never worn in uniform, only with the green supper suit which it was designed to complement, it soon ousted the service cap to become the most famous characteristic of an 8th Hussar officer in uniform.
As Signals Officer I had an independent Troop which I could train as I thought best. I was able to work up the efficiency of my signallers during the collective training season of 1938 and that summer organized a Signals camp at Alamein, a name soon to be famous. Around the bay I placed a string of posts, communicating with each other by flag, heliograph, lamp by night and wireless. Messages were sent around the circuit using all these methods. The training was good, the bathing was good, and everyone had a pleasant change from the heat of Cairo.
The Signals Officer was part of Regimental Headquarters. I became entrusted with additional responsibilities. Appointed Assistant Adjutant, I found myself much involved in the work of that department. The Adjutant liked to take three months leave in the summer, and for that period I was Acting Adjutant. I became quite an expert on Courts of Enquiry, Statements of Evidence and Courts Martial. In Courts Martial my usual role was Prosecuting Officer, but when not so engaged I found myself in demand as Defending Officer. This was normally a frustrating role, but on one occasion I secured the acquittal of a Trooper on a pure technicality. His gratitude was embarrassing because I knew he was guilty, and I told him I knew.
A further responsibility which came my way was that of Assistant Editor (in reality, executive Editor) of the Regimental Journal. It was a difficult task. To get the necessary copy from the various squadrons, departments, sports officials and clubs of the Regiment, and from the Old
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Comrades, was one problem, which I partly solved by making my own anonymous contributions. The other was publication. The Regiment had decided that it would be cheaper to have the Journal printed in Cairo rather than by Gale and Polden at Aldershot as hitherto. I found myself in the hands of Greek printers, enthusiastic but with little knowledge of English, and spent many weary evenings in old Cairo at their premises correcting proofs which contained every mistake under the sun.
Meanwhile, in April 1938, I had again been away from Cairo, doing a tour of Palestine, the Lebanon and Syria with Cuthy Goulbum, who was to command the Regiment in Normandy in 1944. We travelled in his smart Lincoln ‘roadster’ and visited Beirut, Tripoli, Damascus, Baalbek, the Krak des Chevaliers and the Cedars of Lebanon. The Lebanon and Syria were at that time of year as green as England. In the Souk at Damascus we bargained for beautiful silk carpets, stately Arab dress, and sheepskins. At the Cedars there was snow, and I was able to give Cuthy his first skiing lesson.
In the late summer of 1938 I was billed to attend the Tank Driving and Maintenance Course at Bovington, Dorset. Again I was granted preliminary home leave.
In September I spent a fortnight in France, trying to improve my knowledge of the language. I stayed at a little Chateau near Tours, with a delightful young Frenchwoman, my teacher, who was married to a Tours businessman. It was pleasant to cycle in the company of charming and intelligent French girls along the banks of the Loire or Cher to see the great Chateaux. I was invited to shoot partridges, French style, which involved a large party of guns, keepers in uniform bearing huge hunting horns and an enormous lunch washed down with cognac.
This idyll was not to last. One evening we listened on the wireless to Hitler’s raucous voice, speaking at the Sportspalast. At 3am that morning I was awakened by the sound of a police whistle outside the house. When I looked out I saw a Gendarme. It was the signal which indicated partial mobilization of the French Army. There and then my host had to report to the barracks in Tours. The Munich crisis was in full swing. I thought it best to return to England, and left on a train to Paris crowded with French
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soldiers in uniform. In London men were digging air raid trenches in the Park. By the time I reached Deans Grove Chamberlain had returned from Munich and the crisis was over.
The Armoured Corps training school at Bovington was only twenty miles from Wimborne, near enough to live at Deans Grove and go over each day. My father had given up hunting, but Betty still had a horse so I was able to attend some Portman meets. The Course was fun, because it was attended by a great number of young Cavalry officers having their first introduction to the mysteries of Tanks. We were instructed by utterly charming Tank Corps Sergeants who tolerated with infinite patience the sometimes ribald comments of their rather unwilling students. There was much social life, and many to stay, at Deans Grove, and I gave little dinner parties for my friends from Bovington. These my parents were sufficiently tactful not to attend.
In January 1939 Betty and I travelled out to Cairo together. She had been invited to stay with friends and ‘do’ the winter season. By that time, as will be seen, soldiering had become more serious, and many officers were spending a great deal of time on manoeuvres in the desert. However Betty did not seem to lack escorts, and Henry and I were able to take her up to Luxor for a few days.
On my return I had found the military scene greatly changed. Munich had revealed our danger. While I was at Bovington Major General Percy Hobart, an officer of the Royal Tank Corps who had made a close study of armoured warfare, had arrived in Cairo. His brief was to weld the Cairo Cavalry Brigade, the Horse Artillery, the 1st and 6th Tank Regiments, the K.R.R.C, Royal Signals and sundry Services into what was then called the ‘Mobile Force’. This was the genesis of the 7th Armoured Division, the ‘Desert Rats’ as they became known to history. Hobart was a born trainer of troops, and against considerable opposition from the older and more conservative officers (I regret to say, many of them Cavalrymen) soon had the new Force out in the Desert performing large scale manoeuvres around Mersa Matruh.
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Hobart was a fanatical believer in wireless, and was never happier than when wearing headphones. On one occasion I was ordered to meet him while the Regiment was performing some exercise. He bade me stay in the front of my Ford V8 and navigate while he crawled into the covered back, where he could see nothing and was in uncomfortably close contact with my wireless operator. There he remained for the duration of the exercise, headphones firmly attached, listening to the Regimental wireless nets. I had never met a General like that before, and admired him greatly. I cannot say that this admiration was universal. For one thing, ‘Hobo’ had a habit, which did not endear him to all, of requiring officers to come back to Abbassia after polo to attend lectures on armoured tactics.
Given the General’s dedication to wireless my role became more than ever relevant. In the Regiment wireless was now available down to troop level, but my signallers were by this time well trained and I could leave their supervision to the Signals Sergeant. On exercises in March 1939 I alternated with the Adjutant on the ‘Rear Link’, that is, the Regiment’s wireless contact with Brigade HQ. I liked this position because I could listen in on the whole of the Brigade wireless net and hear what other formations were doing.
The General’s other obsession was with desert navigation, and certainly for the purposes of his wide ranging manoeuvres accurate reporting of positions and precise movement of formations were of the utmost importance. He often likened the desert to a sea, and his units to fleets moving thereon. The simile was not unjustified. The Western Desert of Egypt, like the sea, has few physical obstacles to movement. Again like the sea, the Desert, although by no means entirely flat, has virtually none of those features which aid map-reading in many lands, such as prominent hills, church spires, rivers and roads.
Curiously, we were indebted either to the Romans or to Islam for some features that did exist. The Romans had dug deep stone lined and covered water reservoirs, known as Birs, and the spoil from those ancient works, still heaped up around them, were valuable landmarks, visible from afar. Islam supplied the tombs of Sheikhs, rocky mounds decorated with sticks bearing rags constantly renewed by the Bedouin. Useful though such features were, in practice we had to rely, again like ships at sea, almost entirely on navigation by compass and dead reckoning
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and hope that some convenient Bir or Sheik’s tomb would be near enough to our destination to confirm that our course and distance had been correct. The prismatic compasses of those days were highly sensitive to the magnetic fields of cars and tanks. To obtain a correct bearing it was necessary to get clear of vehicles. This meant dismounting, running like a hare for twenty yards (other vehicles would be moving up behind), taking a bearing and rushing back. This we had to do on night marches. But by day we could usually employ the sun compass, an invention attributed to an officer, Evans Lombe, of my own Regiment, who died in 1994 aged over one hundred. The sun compass consisted of a rotatable brass plate, inscribed with the 360 degrees of a circle. Like a sundial, it had a gnomon, a slim rod which cast a shadow. Knowing the time, it was possible with the help of tables to set the brass plate to a bearing, although it needed some adjustment with the motion of the sun. As it was independent of magnetic fields it could be used on the move.
I had acquired some small reputation in the Regiment for desert navigation and occasionally found myself Brigade Navigating Officer on Hobart’s exercises. My car bearing a large black flag, I would precede a formation, mainly of tanks, for thirty miles or more, extremely concerned by my responsibility. It was immensely satisfying to make a correct ‘landfall’. Navigating presented its most worrying problems at night, when after ordering a halt, presuming that the force had reached its destination, one would have to wait until first light to confirm this by reference to some Bir or other landmark.
In that pre war period the Desert was a pleasant place to be. However hot the sun there was usually a breeze from the Mediterranean and the chance of a swim in the lovely blue-green sea I have earlier described. In winter and spring there was often rainfall along the coast which, for a short time at least, brought forth a profusion of wild flowers and an occasional plot of barley, sown by Bedouin. Further inland the scene was more typically desert, but still marked by patches of scrubby vegetation. There were many gazelle, and sometimes here too Bedouin were encountered, herding small flocks of sheep. Yet further inland the desert proper began, part good gravel going, part soft sandhills on which the best of drivers could get bogged down. For this eventuality each pick-up carried spades, strips of canvas and metal channels. Over the stretches of
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gravel there was always a thin cover of sand which our tyres dispersed, leaving tracks which never disappeared. In some places we could still see the narrow tyre marks of Rolls Royce armoured cars led by the Duke of Westminster on desert reconnaissances in the First War, twenty five years before. In the early morning, and at sunset, the lights and colours on this seemingly endless desert landscape, varying from golden yellow to shades of ochre and pink, made an unforgettable impression. In those early days the desert was quiet and serene, with a complete absence of flies. While peace prevailed we were usually accompanied by an Officers’ Mess lorry, commanded by the Mess Corporal and staffed by a cook and waiters from the Mess in Abbassia. The latter, Cairo born and bred, viewed the Desert with the utmost horror. Whenever practicable this lorry would join us in the evening and spread its awnings. We then had a comfortable meal with a table and chairs. After dinner it was agreeable to smoke a cigar (at that time I smoked nothing but the occasional cigar) and watch the Desert sunset. Later, when the war began, such luxuries were no more. Worst of all, as the Desert began to be invaded by supply dumps and by an increasing number of troops, staying longer, flies began everywhere to swarm, covering one’s face and hands to the extent that it was almost impossible to eat except inside a net.
In April 1939 Betty and I travelled by Lloyd Triestino steamer to Genoa and thence home by train. I had another few weeks home leave, seeing Deans Grove for what proved to be the last time for six years. In May I left again for Cairo.
Since my first flight in 1937 I had on one other occasion travelled by the Imperial Airways seaplane, homeward, to Brindisi. This flight was eventful. After leaving Athens the Captain soon turned back, explaining that with the prevailing wind force he had not enough power to fly over the mountains of Corinth. We had to resume the journey at dawn next day, first circling around Athens harbour firing Verey lights to test the wind speed and direction.
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But by 1939 travel by air had much advanced. Imperial Airways had introduced its new fleet of large four engined flying boats, and in one of these I travelled back to Cairo that May. Mussolini had withdrawn his veto on overflying Italy so the journey was by air all the way. I was thrilled by the experience, and wrote an account of it to my father. He, without reference to me, had this account published in a periodical of the day, ‘Our Empire’, and I duly received a cheque for Two Guineas. Over fifty years have passed since then, and with the enormous improvements subsequently made in air travel I hope that it may be of interest to enlarge on that journey.
In the Thirties it was decided that the ideal way to link our Dominions and Colonies by air, without the delay and expense involved in building aerodromes, was to use flying boats. Everywhere in the Empire there were lakes or harbours on which they could land. Two years previously the boat on which I travelled, the ‘Cambria’, had made a 20,000 miles survey flight of the Empire routes in preparation for the new services. She had also flown the Atlantic five times, once in the record time of 10 hours 37 minutes West to East. These flights had demonstrated the great benefits which could be obtained from this mode of transport, for instance in speeding Empire postal services.
I wrote “these new flying boats are so well proportioned that seeing them on the water, although they look fairly large, gives no idea of how big they are inside. The wing span is 114 feet, practically the length of two cricket pitches, and a double decker bus can stand under the wing when the boat is in dry dock”. There followed a description of the layout of the upper and lower decks, the latter including a mooring compartment, mail room, baggage hold and passenger compartments “nearly twice the width of a train, with a high ceiling, and reclining armchairs for sixteen passengers, although thirty could easily be carried”. There was a small table in front of each chair and a promenade along one side where one could stroll and look out. There was certainly no question of feeling ‘cooped up’ in those days, and to quote my account further “the steward overwhelms you with offers of rugs, footstools, smelling salts, cottonwool, papers, barley sugar and eau-de-cologne”. The food was good, sausages and bacon and mushrooms for breakfast, and vegetable soup, lobster mayonnaise, sweetbreads and poire helene for lunch.
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On that trip we took off from Southampton at 5am and landed at Lake Marrignanne, near Marseilles, at five minutes past nine. Landing was exciting, the boat would level off, skimming the surface at 85mph, and then subside with a slight thud, the windows blanketed with spray as it lost speed in the water. At each stop it was refuelled, and a launch came alongside to take passengers to the shore to have a cup of tea or a drink. At 12.30pm we landed on Lake Bracciano, near Rome, after overflying Corsica. We stopped again at Brindisi, but ran into a difficulty when trying to land in the harbour at the Piraeus. The wind was in the wrong quarter, and we had to come down in a small bay twenty miles away from Athens. Nevertheless we arrived at the luxurious Grande Bretagne Hotel by 8pm and after a good dinner bedded down.
It was to be a short night. By 5.15am we had got back to the bay and were in the air again. We had a particularly beautiful flight across the Aegean. These planes were not pressurised and normally flew at only 5000 feet, so there were wonderful views of the Greek islands, every little house on them visible.
After landing for fuel beside the Imperial Airways yacht in Crete we reached Alexandria at 9.45am. Here there was engine trouble, and it was not until 1.50pm that we landed on the Nile north of Gezira. Even so, the whole trip from Southampton to Cairo had taken only just over thirty hours, a miracle for that era.
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THE WESTERN DESERT
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[line map of The Western Desert from Derna to Alexandria and Cairo]
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Chapter Seven. War
When I got back to Cairo in May 1939 the Regiment had just returned from a six weeks stint in the Desert following Italy’s invasion of Albania on 7th April. War clouds were thickening. In June the Colonel returned from leave and assembled the officers to tell us that from all he had learned in London war was inevitable and we must prepare accordingly. On 23rd August the pact between Russia and Germany was signed. On 25th August the Regiment left for Mersa Matruh.
One of our car Squadrons had now been converted to very primitive two man light tanks. The tanks travelled by rail, and the rest of the Regiment by road, stopping for the night at Alamein. It was an unpleasant journey, because although war had not yet been declared we were ordered to wear eyeshields, carry gas masks and plaster our vehicles with litmus pads to warn of a gas attack. The Italians were alleged to have used gas in Abyssinia. At Mersa Matruh we heard of the invasion of Poland on 1st September. Two days later, almost with relief, we learned that we were at war with Germany.
By now the whole of the Mobile Force was in the Desert, waiting to see whether Italy would join in. She didn’t, at that time, and General Hobart took the opportunity of further exercises, even more far ranging, around Mersa Matruh, by then designated a Fortress, garrisoned by an Infantry Brigade. Again I was on the Rear Link, or sometimes Navigating Officer, and found these exercises extremely interesting, although the mix of car and tank Squadrons presented problems for the Regiment. These manoeuvres were given added impact by the prospect of facing a real foe, and I have often thought, since, that I know of no other case when the
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British Army has carried out extensive exercises, in peacetime, on ground over which it was later to fight.
However these manoeuvres were to be the downfall of General Hobart. A crusty man, he had made enemies among the Higher Command and was now accused of exceeding, in these exercises, the permitted ‘track mileage’ i.e the distance tanks could move without needing new tracks, a commodity in short supply. This became a pretext for his dismissal. I was one of those who wished him goodbye and good luck at his HQ in the Desert at the end of November. The Mobile Force he had so ably formed and trained, by now renamed the Mobile Division, was on 16th February 1940 to be renamed again, the 7th Armoured Division.
As I have written so much of General Hobart I would like to record that I was not his only admirer. Another was Winston Churchill. Hobart retired and become a Corporal in the Home Guard. A year later he was recalled to the Service at Churchill’s prompting and Winston was writing to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff: “I was very much pleased when you told me you proposed to give an Armoured Division to Major General Hobart. I think very highly of this officer and I am not at all impressed by the prejudice against him in certain quarters. Such prejudices attach frequently to persons of strong personality and original views. In this case General Hobart’s original views have been only too tragically borne out… this is a time to try officers of force and vision”. In spite of Winston’s advocacy Hobart was never promoted beyond command of the 79th Armoured Division, the specialist Division of tanks armed with rotor flails and various other devices for clearing minefields and obstacles. This he directed with distinction in the Normandy landings and later.
By the end of 1939 Italy had still not entered the war and we were brought back from the Desert. I spent that Christmas with friends at Assuan. Each morning Arab horses would be waiting for us before the hotel, and on these we would ride to see the sights. One day we rode to the Dam and embarked on a barge rowed by six black Nubians in white turbans and robes. They sang all the way to our objective, the temples of
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Philae, today moved to a new site following the building of the High Dam. I regret to say that each song of our stately oarsmen was followed by the invocation ‘Hip, Hip, Hooray, Tank oo very much, Pasha’, a not very subtle request for baksheesh.
In Cairo, at Helmieh, no longer in our own Barracks and Mess, we were rather sadly completing the exchange of our nimble Ford V8s for light tanks. These were a slight improvement on those we had previously owned, being Vickers Mark VI, cast offs from the 7th Hussars, who were receiving a newer model. They were very lightly armoured, and for armament carried only two machine guns, one a Vickers .50 and the other a .303. The crew was three, the tank commander in the turret, the gunner/wireless operator just below and to the left of him, with a separate hatch, and the driver in front. One of the great defects of these small tanks was that the track links were connected by light metal pins which frequently fractured on hard desert going, with the result that the tank shed its track and perforce came to a halt.
It took some months to finish this conversion and my hands were full. With a wireless in every tank there were additional wireless operators to train and new ‘nets’ to organize. Regimental HQ to Squadrons, and Squadrons down to individual tanks. Everything was in short supply, even wireless aerials were unobtainable. We had to make do with wire run up broomsticks. It was decided that henceforward my position in operations should be in the Colonel’s tank, taking the seat of the gunner/wireless operator and from this position able to exercise control of Regimental command links. While we remained at Helmieh there were other duties, I had more Court Martial work, and was put in charge of running the Mess.
Cairo social life resumed during those early months of 1940, the period known as the ‘phoney war’, although sadly without the girls from England. However we received more hospitality than ever from residents and ‘summer friends’. We even played desultory polo on such ponies as were left, most had by now either been sold to civilians or put down.
At Easter 1940 Henry Huth and I travelled by train to Transjordan to stay with a brother officer, Wingate Charlton, serving with the
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Transjordan Frontier Force. At Haifa we had to change on to a branch of the Hejaz railway, built by the Turks before the First War to provide a link between Istanbul and Medina. This was the line which had been so often attacked by Lawrence of Arabia. It was narrow gauge, and was advertised to have only third class carriages. We saw the train on the evening before we were to travel, and the carriages were so filthy that we complained to the Station Master. Next morning we found that a first class carriage, the only one owned by the line, as the Station Master explained, had been attached to the train for our exclusive use.
We found Wingate comfortably installed in a charming house at Irbid, a village on the Syrian border standing in country which at that time of year looked not unlike Salisbury Plain. On Easter Sunday Wingate and Henry, both Protestants, accompanied me to Mass, to the dismay of an English lady missionary in the village who ran the only Protestant chapel in the whole of the Transjordan. The Mass was in Latin, and therefore familiar to me, with the Gospel read in Arabic. I was impressed by the distinctive Arab wail which the congregation introduced into the singing of the Credo and the Gloria. I noticed that the men removed their headropes, but kept on the ‘kafla’, or headshawl, for church. They sat apart from the women, as in many Catholic churches in Europe.
On Easter Monday there were callers, a notable accompanied by his brother. The contrast between them was extraordinary. The notable was a dignified Sheikh, dressed in very fine Arab costume. He had been a prisoner of the Turks, and knew Lawrence. He only spoke Arabic. His brother wore a seedy western suit, and spoke perfect American. He had worked for 26 years as a machinist at the Ford factory in Detroit. During our stay at Irbid we went to Tiberias, and to Jerash with its magnificent Graeco/Roman ruins. We were royally entertained at Amman, the HQ of the Frontier Force, by another brother officer serving there, now General Sir John Hackett.
In May the Regiment, on its new establishment, started training in the desert near Cairo. Most of the 4th Indian Division had now arrived in Egypt and was encamped near the Pyramids. Many of its native soldiers
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had never seen a tank, and we did some exercises with one of their Brigades to accustom them to this unfamiliar weapon.
As 1940 wore on gloom had descended. Letters from home were censored and took increasingly long to arrive. At first they were cheerful enough, Betty was working as a VAD [Voluntary Aid Detachment], Victor had registered for National Service, my father had acquired a sow, which already had a litter, my mother now had two flocks of hens. But then came the failure in Norway, and covert references to friends who were missing. I heard that my father had joined the Local Defence Volunteers, soon to be renamed the Home Guard, of which he was later to command a Battalion. By June those letters brought news of Betty nursing Dunkirk casualties, and of bombs around Wimborne.
At the Gezira Club there was a large war map. We watched with incredulity the flags moving west as the Germans broke through to Amiens and Abbeville. In Egypt we felt far away from the fighting and frustrated by our inability to help the British Expeditionary Force in France. We began to fear for the morale of our soldiers, there had been indications that due to inaction and the reverses we had suffered in Norway and in France this was being affected.
With Italy’s entry into the war on June 10th 1940, just anticipating the fall of France, we found that such fears were groundless. The prospect of action made spirits soar. The Regiment’s conversion to tanks had still not been quite completed. Most of the 7th Armoured Division was then already at Mersa Matruh, and on the declaration of war some units at once moved forward to the frontier wire, the obstacle running miles south into the Desert which the Italians had erected to contain their Senussi subjects. This was quickly breached and notable successes against the enemy on their own territory had been achieved by the 11th Hussars and the 7th Hussars. At last, on 17th July, the Regiment reached the frontier, with orders to take over from the 7th. The Colonel, the Adjutant and I went ahead, to accompany patrols of the 7th Hussars in order to familiarize ourselves with the terrain. It was my first glimpse of the enemy. Through field glasses we could see, far
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away, lorries on the the road between Fort Capuzzo and Bardia, dodging the shells which the RHA Troop in support of us would occasionally throw at them. There were tall ladders shimmering in the haze, Italian artillery observation posts. I still have a scrap of paper handed to me by a 7th Hussar officer that day which I kept as a memento of my first sight of the enemy. On it is written in pencil “I can observe four or five vehicles on a bearing from my position of 47 degrees and at a distance of 6 or 7 miles moving in a direction from East to West. Probably more, they are moving behind the ridge”.
The Regiment’s role, as had been that of the 7th Hussars, was to keep the Bardia-Capuzzo road under observation, so that our Gunners could harass the enemy supply vehicles, and to send patrols of Squadron strength far into enemy territory to make a show of activity and persuade the Italians that we were in greater force than we actually were.
My day started long before dawn, in the cold and clammy interior of the Colonel’s tank, making sure that all the wireless operators were ‘netted’ on the frequencies to be used that day, these being constantly changed to make interception difficult. I spent most of my time in that tank, and the Colonel seldom entered it, preferring to use his staff car. The staff car had no wireless, and on several occasions I had an appeal from a Squadron Leader for orders in some emergency, only to find I could not contact the Colonel. I had to give the best advice I could conceive.
At RHQ I was not usually involved in patrolling but sometimes the whole Regiment would be thus employed. On July 23rd we had an exciting action against a force of anti-tank guns, light tanks and lorries which had formed up on the Capuzzo road. We scored some hits on the lorries before the enemy withdrew, but ourselves had one tank damaged and a Trooper wounded.
On the same day a Gloster Gladiator was shot down, and we saw the pilot bale out. The Colonel and I went off to rescue him in our tank. I have never seen a man more surprised at our arrival. The liaison between the RAF and the Army was then such that he had no idea that there were British troops anywhere near, and when he had seen our green sidecaps, so similar to some Italian headgear, he had resigned himself to captivity. We restored his morale with some whiskey from a stock always carried in
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a box secured to the side of our tank. Of that occasion I wrote home “It really is a sporting sort of war here at the moment. The pilot we rescued waved to the fellow who had shot him down as he was coming down in his parachute, and the other chap dived past him and waved back”. It may be remarked that throughout the war in the desert a certain chivalry was observed between the opposing sides. Rommel, later, was renowned for this.
There was a further Regimental action on 5th August, on quite an extensive scale, but this time it was we who eventually had to withdraw, as the Italians for the first time used medium tanks against us. M11s with 37mm guns. We retired through a screen of Bofors 37mm anti-tank guns of D Battery, RHA, and I much admired those gunners, equipped only with the ‘portee’ trucks of the day, carrying no protective armour. In this action we lost two tanks, one man killed and two presumed prisoners of war. On 14th August the Regiment was relieved and ordered to retire to Bir Kenayis, about thirty miles south west of Mersa Matruh, to refit.
While the Regiment was there I was temporarily detached, with orders to accompany the Brigadier, Hugh Russell, on a reconnaissance. It was already becoming clear that we might some day have to stand and fight at Alamein. At Alamein the desert narrows to a distance of thirty five miles between the sea and the Quattara Depression, which is a vast salt marsh five hundred feet below sea level, virtually impassable to vehicles. These thirty five miles thus form a defensive position with impregnable flanks, as was to be shown in our hour of need in 1942.
The Brigadier had been ordered to report on the features of the terrain south of Alamein and their defensive possibilities. I wrote home “we had four very pleasant and interesting days, much better than sitting about with the flies pestering one. There was one other officer and we had a few cars etc. Hugh was charming, we used to have long arguments in the evenings (marvellous moonlit nights, perfectly still, sitting out in the open after dinner) about everything from Socialism, the French Army & Lord Milne, to skiing, fishing and ‘after the war'”.
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On our return I was sent back to Alamein to complete the reconnaissance. This time I was in charge, with under command a newly joined officer, Frank Charles, fourteen men, four cars and a lorry. In five days we did a comprehensive examination of the area, which proved to be far from flat desert. It contained a number of features, such as the Ruweisat Ridge, the tactical importance of which would one day be demonstrated. One of my tasks was to investigate the practicability of light vehicles traversing the salt marsh. We descended through the rocky cliffs bordering the Quattara Depression, and made the trial. It was nearly disastrous as after travelling a few hundred yards along the edge of the salt marsh the test car got bogged down and proved most difficult to extricate.
That night we spent down in the Depression, under an overhanging limestone cliff. The soldiers lit a fire and moved and sat around it, casting great shadows on the cliff behind. They looked, I wrote home, “a real pirate crew (unshaven and pretty dirty). Frank Charles said it was like ‘Treasure Island'”. There were lots of gazelle to shoot, and we all enjoyed the break from routine. I hope my report of this reconnaissance was of use to General Montgomery, just under two years later, when thousands of Britons, Germans and Italians were to die on the ground we had driven over so light heartedly. Before then Frank Charles was to be killed, at Sidi Rezegh in 1941.
I then returned to the Regiment at Bir Kenayis, and for a time things were quiet. But on 17th September the Italian 10th Army under the command of Marshal Graziani, renowned for his victories in Abyssinia in 1935/36, started a slow advance, much harassed by our small covering force, into Egyptian territory.
After moving sixty miles the Italians stopped, still far west of Matruh, and fortified their positions. With wide intervals between them these stretched from Sidi Barrani, a little fishing settlement on the Mediterranean coast, to the escarpment known as the Sofafi ridge, thirty miles of previously empty desert to the south. These fortified camps, surrounded by stone sangars and tank ditches, and furnished with huts and
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underground shelters, were manned by five divisions, mixed Italian and Libyan, with a total strength of 60,000 men.
In October it was decided that the most isolated of these camps, Maktila, situated on the coast three miles east of Sidi Barani, should be attacked and destroyed. The 2nd Cameron Highlanders and the 8th Hussars had been chosen to carry out the operation. It was to be a night attack. I cannot believe that this plan ever had any chance of success. It was ludicrous to expect such a small force, operating by night over ground hardly reconnoitred, and with no previous rehearsal of the infantry/tank cooperation required, to break into defences by now fully complete with anti tank ditches and minefields.
And so it proved. After an approach march of fifty miles we joined the Cameron Highlanders and at lam on the 23rd October the attack began. Immediately all hell broke loose. The Italians were obviously waiting for us, and opened fire with every gun and machine gun they possessed. The sky was bright with tracer, flares, star shells and verey lights. The Camerons tried to press home their attack, but were very inadequately supported by our tanks, which had run into minefields. Within a couple of hours it was all over, and we were busy picking up stray Cameron Highlanders who had got separated in the dark. We had three of them riding on the Colonel’s tank, my mount throughout the operation. Fortunately we suffered no casualties in this harebrained affair and returned safely to Bir Kenayis. I wrote home “we had a nice little bye day last week, didn’t kill many foxes, but the show would have made the Fourth of June celebrations green with envy!” I doubt if the censor was deceived by such argot, but he let it pass. I have since read that this was the first planned night attack using tanks by any Army. Lessons must have been learned, because such operations became commonplace later in the war.
Back at Bir Kenayis the weather turned cold and wet. It looked as though we would spend the winter there. The Regiment made itself as comfortable as possible. From bomb damaged houses in Mersa Matruh we fetched timber and corrugated iron to build makeshift shelters. I was still running the Mess, and made expeditions to Matruh to buy eggs, chickens and vegetables to supplement our rations. The hucksters there were a rascally lot. It took me some time to learn that what appeared to be
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a plump chicken would not remain so for long, having been inflated by means of a straw inserted in its backside. During that month of November I was once more briefly away from the Regiment. The 3rd Hussars, fresh out from England, had joined our Brigade. For a few days I was attached to them, in theory to inculcate desert lore. I very much doubt if I impressed them, dressed as I was in the shirt, jersey or leather waistcoat, slacks and suede boots which had become the usual uniform of us old Desert lags, whereas they were still clad according to Regulations in the battledress, web belts, heavy leather boots and other accoutrements they had worn at Tidworth. The contrast was amusing. I might not have been so amused if I had known that within a few weeks that Regiment would have ten officers and men killed (including the Commanding Officer), thirteen wounded and thirteen tanks destroyed.
During my reconnaissance of the Alamein area I had enjoyed the experience of command which had not come my way since Palestine in 1936. I had been Signals Officer for nearly three years. There was now another officer who had been on a Signals course and was qualified to take over from me. I began to feel restive at RHQ, envying the more active role played by my young Troop Leader friends whenever we made contact with the enemy.
There were other factors. In late 1938 the then Commanding Officer, with whom my relations had been of the warmest, had departed to command the 2nd Cavalry Brigade, in Palestine. His replacement, who had served for a quarter of a century without leaving the Regiment, was not of the same calibre. Moreover he took the view, shared at that time by many Cavalry officers, that an Eighth Hussar should stay with his Regiment and leave other military employments to lesser breeds. In spite of this both my contemporaries, Jack Pringle and Henry Huth, had departed, Jack, pleading penury, to the King’s African Rifles in Nigeria, Henry, defiantly, to join some Arab Levies that were being raised near Cairo. I may say that both came back to the Regiment later. Jack to be captured at Sidi Rezegh in 1941 and Henry to command a Squadron with
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extreme distinction from early 1942 to the end of the war. I knew that after the Alamein reconnaissance Hugh Russell had asked for me as Brigade Intelligence Officer, and that when a branch of the Catterick Signals School had been set up at Haifa, I had been asked for there as an Instructor, with promotion to (temporary) Captain. The Colonel had refused both applications. Although happy to stay with the Regiment I did not want to spend the rest of the war in his tank.
At the end of November I was granted a week’s leave to Cairo. Before departing I asked the Adjutant to prevail on the Colonel to let me become a Troop Leader. In Cairo I stayed with friends, part of the time at Dar-el-Sahara, the lovely country house of the Spinks family. Ironically, I spent some time helping Lady Spinks and her daughters make up food parcels for our Prisoners of War. I had been commissioned to buy a private car for the Desert Mess and found a Ford V8 pick-up in excellent condition which had previously belonged to the Aly Khan. I loaded it to the hilt with 500 eggs, tinned milk, sausages, fresh fruit and vegetables and at the end of the week set off to rejoin the Regiment. For companion I had one of our Squadron Quartermaster Sergeants also returning from leave. An Irishman, he proved good company. At the age of 16 he had been in arms in the Easter Rebellion in Dublin, and had been captured by British forces. Later he had commanded an armoured car in one of Michael Collins Free State columns fighting de Valera’s Republicans. He was now an excellent SQMS with long service in the Regiment and presumably entirely loyal to His Majesty.
We found Bir Kenayis empty. The Regiment had moved west, but we were not long in catching up. The Adjutant told me that he had persuaded the Colonel to approve my application. I had been posted as second in command to what we still quaintly called a Sabre Squadron, pending the return from leave of the proper incumbent.
At this point the Desert, so long almost the sole preserve of the 7th Armoured Division, suddenly filled with troops. There were British and Indian soldiers of the 4th Indian Division mounted in lorries, strange looking infantry tanks, field gun Batteries and columns of transport
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carrying petrol and ammunition, all moving west, mainly by night. We were doing the same. We were told it was all part of a big Exercise. In fact our experience at Maktila had borne fruit. It was commonly thought that the Italians had been warned of that attack by their many agents in Cairo. This time security was tight. This was no Exercise. No one below the rank of Brigadier was told of the plans for Operation Compass, as it was to be called, until the evening of 8th December, when we learned that battle was to be joined on the very next day.
On the same evening I was taking over a Troop, the Squadron 2 i/c [Second in command] having returned. It could not have been a worse moment for a change, and had it been known a little earlier that action was imminent I doubt if it could have happened just then. There is an old Army adage ‘never volunteer’. The truth of this saying was soon to be borne in on me. I had little time to get to know my Troop but I remember the driver of my tank asking me “Are you a married man. Sir?”. My reply must have been satisfactory, because he told me “We don’t like married men in this tank”. The Regiment moved on west during that night of 8th December and by dawn was in position at Bir Enba, in the wide gap between the Italian camps of Nibeiwa and Sofafi.
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[map of the area next to the Mediterranean from Sidi Barrani to Masten Bagush showing the advance of the 4th Indian Division and the 7th Armoured Division on the night of 7th December]
The Opening Moves
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[map of the area around Sidi Barrani showing the progress of the 4th Indian Division and the 7th Armoured Division and the presence of 3 warships]
The Break Through
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Chapter Eight. Operation Compass
Thus it was that on the morning of 9th December 1940, at the age of twenty five, I was commanding a Troop of three light tanks of the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars, of the 7th Armoured Division, near Bir Enba in the Western Desert of Egypt.That day the Regiment was not engaged and I was a fascinated observer of the first phase of Lieutenant General O’Connor’s surprise attack on the Italian positions, planned as a five day ‘raid’ but resulting in the first British victory of the war and ending, two months later, in the destruction not only of the 65,000 men then facing us, but of all the Italian forces in Libya, in total around 200,000 men. Our own Western Desert Force numbered about 35,000. I watched as the 4th Indian Division, supported by slow but heavily armoured tanks, the ‘Matildas’ of 7th Royal Tank Regiment, broke into the centre of the Italian positions, the fortified camps named Nibeiwa and Tummar, and overwhelmed them. That evening the 8th Hussars concentrated in leaguer with much jubilation.
Next morning, 10th December, the Regiment was ordered to move towards the Sofafi ridge, to the south. We had orders to reconnoitre the positions at Rabia and Sofafi held by part of the Italian 63rd Division. These positions lay on the long escarpment which ran back towards the coast at Sollum. The advance was to be led by the Squadron to which I belonged, commanded by Captain C.E.R. Duff. Before we had covered much distance I was summoned to the Squadron Leader and informed that my troop was to be sent forward to carry out a close reconnaissance of the Italian camp at Rabia. I was to ascertain whether it was still held by the enemy or whether they had withdrawn during the night as was suspected.
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I had not led my Troop far when we were enveloped in one of the violent sand storms not unusual in the desert. In spite of this some shells fell around us which made me believe that, although I could still not see any sign of the enemy, our movement was observed. At the same time one of my three tanks broke down, and soon afterwards another shed a track, as so often happened because of our faulty trackpins. I had to leave this tank crew to replace the track and follow. Not long afterwards the sandstorm suddenly lifted, and in front of me, slightly higher, at a distance of about one thousand yards, I saw a long line of stone sangars, behind which lorries and guns could be faintly discerned.
I came to a halt, and one of the tanks I had left came up behind me. In spite of the shells which had fallen earlier there was no sign that we had been spotted by the enemy. I was able to put up my field glasses and observe. There was no doubt that the Rabia position was still occupied in force. My immediate object was to wireless this information to Charlie Duff. Now came calamity. When I tried to do this my gunner/wireless operator, Trooper Powell, informed me that he could not contact Squadron Headquarters, although he was in communication with the tank behind me, which could. I had no alternative but to relay my message through the tank behind. How garbled it became in transmission I shall never know, but the relayed reply was surprising, and indeed impossible of execution, “Count number of men and guns”.
With hindsight, Charlie Duff must have thought I was observing a column on the move, the enemy withdrawal which had been expected. It might indeed have been possible, in that case, to provide useful information of the nature required. Maybe, with more experience of Troop leading, and had my communications been better, I might have queried the order. However, telling the other tank to remain where it was, I moved forward to get a better view of the enemy. We still seemed to be unobserved and I was able to get quite close and have another look, which did not reveal much more, because of the barrier to visibility posed by the stone wall defences. Then we were seen, and bullets and anti tank projectiles began cutting up the sand all around. On the intercom I told the driver, Trooper Bishop, to get out as quick as possible, zigzagging. For a couple of minutes I thought this tactic was succeeding. Then an anti tank shell slammed into the side of the tank, just
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forward of me in the commander’s turret, dead in line with the driver’s position below and in front of me. The tank came to a halt, smoke coming from the engine compartment.
My turret had been open throughout, as otherwise it was impossible to observe, but the hatch of the gunner/wireless operator beside me was closed. I wrenched it open, and found Trooper Powell struggling to get out, but unable to do so. I shall never know how I found the physical strength to lug him vertically off his seat, through the hatch, on to the deck of the tank, and thence to the ground. As soon as I got him down I realized why he had been unable to move. The whole of his right leg was missing, and his thigh a bloody mess. By an extraordinary chance the blast and splinter from the shell had travelled from the engine compartment up the opening which connected with the gunner’s seat and yet I, nearer to the point of impact, had entirely escaped injury.
By this time the tank had burst into flames, with the smoke blowing away from the enemy position. Their fire had stopped and I thought that under cover of the smoke there was just a chance that we might make our way back to my supporting tank. But I had to drag poor Powell and progress was slow. I asked him how he felt, and got the astonishing answer that he was all right except for a pain in his right toe.
We were not to escape. I was suddenly confronted with a semi circle of Italian soldiers, about a platoon in all. Their rifles were pointed on us, and some held up grenades. I still had my revolver, and half drew it, lying on the ground beside Powell. Thankfully, they did not shoot. I thought better of resistance, and raised my hands.
I shall always hold the officer in charge of those soldiers in esteem. First, because he did not give the order to fire, for which he might have had some excuse, more importantly, for what followed. I pointed to the burning tank and indicated that there was a man inside who might be saved if we could open the driver’s hatch. Amazingly, he came with me as close as we could get to the tank. But with the flames it was impossible to get near enough to free the hatch. It was anyway likely that it was locked from inside, assuming the most merciful case, that Bishop had been killed by the shell.
At this moment the officer suddenly became aware of my second tank, observing the scene from a distance. I do not know whether it had moved
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closer. At any rate all thought of further dallying was abandoned and I was hustled off among the soldiers to the camp from which they had emerged to surround us. Powell died that night in the Italian camp hospital. I was deeply moved by his death, and that of the driver, Bishop, whose parents had been killed just two weeks before in the German air raid on Coventry, and who did not like married men in his tank. These men had been with me for less than two days but already I knew them as typical uncomplaining 8th Hussar tank crew, anxious only to do their duty.
In the Regimental History there is an account of this little action, composed without reference to me. It says “The sandstorm was so thick that the troop had to go in very close indeed, to make certain of details. One tank broke down and one broke a track pin so Comyn went in alone. The storm lifted and he found himself right under the enemy guns. In a few minutes he received a direct hit which killed his driver and blew him straight out of the turret, knocking him unconscious. The two other tanks managed to withdraw, but Comyn was taken prisoner”. How often do we find that published accounts of events of which we have personal knowledge go somewhat astray!
I have no complaint about the treatment I received after my capture. The Italian Army did not gain military renown in the last war, although their Artillery and picked units such as the Ariete Armoured Division fought well. However I found that Italian officers had an admirable code of civilized behaviour between enemies, at least at that stage of the war. I have already described an example of chivalrous conduct by one officer, and this trait may explain some of the bizarre experiences I will now recount.
I was escorted the short distance to the fortified camp at Rabia, where I could see a motley array of guns, lorries and untidy looking soldiers, but no tanks. From there I was hurried in a staff car to the main headquarters
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at Sofafi. Immediately on arrival I was surrounded by guards and searched by an officer. From a pocket of my battledress he produced a piece of paper. I knew at once what it was. When Signals Officer I had a list of codenames, and had forgotten to destroy it when I took over my Troop. I seized the paper out of his hands and began to chew it. A moment later I found myself on the desert sand, under a heap of bodies, with dirty hands trying to extract the paper from my mouth. What they got can hardly have been legible.
I was not badly hurt, but emerged covered in cuts and scratches and was at once taken to a medical post where an English speaking medical officer dressed my injuries. “Signor Tenente”, he gravely announced, “You have behaved exactly as an Italian officer would have behaved in the same circumstances”. After this handsome demonstration of comradeship in arms he proceeded to chat to me in a most friendly way until I was summoned to return for interrogation.
I again met the officer who had searched me. He appeared to bear no ill will, and did not press me when I refused to answer any of his questions, except to give my name, rank and number. Among other enquiries he was anxious to establish the identity of ‘George’ and ‘Tim’. This showed Italian competence at wireless interception. I knew exactly who George and Tim were, friends of mine, officers in a sister regiment, who were clearly using their Christian names in wireless conversations, which was against regulations. It was not difficult to deny knowledge of ‘George’ and ‘Tim’ but in view of this line of questioning I was glad I had tried to destroy my code list.
By the end of this interview it was getting dark. I was taken to a cave on the side of the escarpment, from which I had an excellent view of the fires at Sidi Barrani, on the coast some twenty five miles north, captured that afternoon by the 16th Infantry Brigade and Matilda tanks. There was a table and chair in the cave, and armed guards were posted at the entrance. Then, to my intense surprise, waiters arrived from the officers’ mess bearing table linen, cutlery and a complete service of dinner. After a leisurely meal I was again moved, this time to a stone hut equipped with a bunk. There was a short delay while a soldier was sent on an errand. He reappeared with an impeccably clean pair of white shorts. I
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understood the officer in charge to explain that as no pillowslip was available the shorts would have to do instead.
I now had time to think about my situation, and my thoughts were far from pleasant. In the First War, which had in general been trench warfare, it had been rare for officers to become prisoners. I had not yet realized that this war was going to be different, a mobile affair in which small, or even large, detachments were to find themselves surrounded and incapable of further combat. Within two years many officers I knew, both in my Regiment and in others, were to join me ‘in the bag’. Even the General who had led us to this victory, later knighted. Sir Richard O’Connor, was to find himself a Prisoner of War within four months of my capture, together with General Neame V.C and other senior officers.
In spite of these gloomy thoughts I know that I slept, because at 3am I was roughly aroused by four Carabinieri Reali, the Royal Carabiniers, a picked force dating from Napoleonic times which serves Italy both as civil and military police. It was still dark, and I was required to get into a covered captured British 5cwt truck. On doing so I was amazed to feel the presence of soft bodies and to hear low expressions of feminine petulance at my intrusion and that of the four Carabinieri who followed. It was obvious that the withdrawal from Sofafi had begun and I was to be evacuated in company with the ladies of the garrison brothel, an institution unknown to British troops in the desert but apparently indispensable to the Italians. I may say that during the next two days I received endless kindnesses from these ladies. They seemed to regard me as a brother in misfortune, and it was they who first taught me some Italian. After a short while, we could communicate sufficiently to exchange dire threats against Mussolini whom they regarded as the author of the war and of their present unhappy situation.
Unhappy it certainly was. We moved just before dawn. Outside the truck I could see columns of men stumbling along. There appeared to be little motor transport available and I realized that I and my ladies were privileged in that respect. However it was a qualified privilege. As soon as it became light the column was attacked by our fighter planes which concentrated their fire on the vehicles. These attacks continued off and on throughout the day and were indeed very frightening. On one occasion
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bullets tore through the canvas roof of the truck and the cries of ‘Mamma Mia’ were deafening. At this stage I had every hope that our way would be blocked by tanks of the 8th Hussars whose original remit included an attempt to prevent if possible the escape of the Sofafi garrisons. I did consider how in that event I could escape from the truck before being discovered by friends in my present ludicrous situation. Anyway it was not to be. Following the failure of my mission the Regiment had returned whence it came, and then moved north.
The columns with which I was moving were bound for Sollum, some forty miles west along the escarpment. By the evening of the first day we had covered, by my estimation, barely a third of that distance. As dark fell we were released from the truck. All day there had been nothing to eat or drink and even now only some very welcome water was available. We settled down on the sand under the edge of the escarpment, I and my four Carabinieri. It was a sleepless night. We were well above the coastal plain and the fires we could see in that direction looked tantalizingly near. I sought an opportunity to sidle down the rocky slope below me and run towards them. But one at least of the policemen was always watching me, and at dawn our march resumed. That day our truck left the marching infantry and travelled rather faster. At nightfall we reached some base where there was a confused mass of large Fiat lorries. Into one of these I and my guards were transferred, together with a horde of soldiers who proceeded to consume tins of ‘carne’, similar to our bully beef, which I was very glad to share. During the night we ground our way through the sand into Sollum, an Egyptian frontier post and harbour captured by the Italians in September.
There I was lodged in the police lock-up, an unprepossessing cell with no window, only a grating over the door to admit some light and air. At dawn a British bombing raid began. My situation was unpleasant. I felt caught like a rat in a trap. I shall always be grateful to the Italian officer who came to release me, and took me to join his fellows in an air raid shelter. My abiding memory of that group is of their abysmal gloom. Two days later Sollum was retaken, and I suspect that many of them became prisoners themselves.
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From Sollum I was moved to Tobruk where I spent a week in more or less solitary confinement. But I was well fed and my stay was enlivened by an Italian officer who lent me a paperback by Edgar Wallace in an Italian translation. I read this three times from cover to cover. At the end of the third reading I began to understand, by their sheer repetition, many of the words. My scanty knowledge of Latin, acquired at prep school, also helped. I was allowed a small outside area for exercise, where I used to meet the only other detainee, a bearded and gowned Senussi chieftain. He assured me (I had some knowledge of Arabic) that his sovereign, King Idris, would return to the throne of Libya, of which he had been deprived by the Italians. This in fact happened, if only briefly, at the end of the war.
I was glad to leave Tobruk, in a light van driven by a jolly Italian Major, who insisted that my guards should travel in the back, and I in the front. It transpired that he had served alongside Lord Cavan’s army in northern Italy during the First War. Every now and then he insisted that he and I should sing in chorus ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’. We passed through the pleasant countryside of the Gebel, long settled by colonizing Italian farmers, and at Dema he made me join him in coffee and a glass of wine in a bistro. I was sorry when we reached Benghazi and I had to say goodbye to my friendly escort.
After a miserable Christmas there I was moved across the Sirte desert to Homs, about 70 miles east of Tripoli, where for the first time I joined other British officer prisoners, a Wing Commander shot down on a bombing raid, an Australian who had mistakenly driven into Sollum before it was retaken, and another RAF officer the circumstances of whose capture I cannot recall. We four spent quite a pleasant few weeks at Homs, the sun shone and we were well fed on pasta and wine (the Italian army ration always included a measure of rather dubious red wine, which was a great comfort). We had a visit from the Bishop of Tripoli, and I acquired an Italian dictionary and two English books, ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce and a Dickens.
After the victories in Cyrenaica there was no Italian army left between us and General O’Connor’s vanguard at Agheila. The Germans had not yet landed at Tripoli. Both we and our Italian guards expected that at any moment the armoured cars of the 11th Hussars would cross the Sirte
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desert to our rescue. It was not to be. Churchill had diverted the British effort to Greece and the advance of the Western Desert Force had been halted.
In mid February we found ourselves in Tripoli, embarking on a passenger steamer for Italy. The ship was the ‘Conte Rosso’, of the Lloyd Triestino line, which in peacetime provided a service between Genoa and Alexandria much patronized by British officers going on leave. Not long before, I had travelled on a sister ship, the ‘Conte Verde’.
On the ‘Conte Rosso’ I had further bizarre experiences. On boarding we were met by stewards who insisted that we should be treated in the manner to which British officers were, as they knew, accustomed. We were given a comfortable cabin, and our Carabinieri escort was directed to stay in the passage well out of our way. Then the shipboard menu was brought to us, replete with luxuries we had not seen for months, among them delicious white bread and excellent coffee. Our meals were served in the cabin. When the ship sailed we were allowed on deck, and were soon chatting with attractive young Italian wives evacuated from Tripoli. Unfortunately the Carabinieri put an end to this fraternization by moving, not us, but the Italian civilians, away from that portion of the deck on which we had elected to promenade.
All in all it was a pleasant voyage, unmolested, although we thought it might be, by a British submarine. Arriving at Naples we awoke to reality. On the docks were rows of German soldiers polishing their boots, the vanguard of Rommel’s Afrika Korps which was to inflict such disasters on our hitherto victorious Western Desert Force.
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Chapter Nine. Prisoner in Italy
From Naples we were taken by overnight train to Prisoner of War Camp No 41 near Sulmona, a small town in the Abruzzi mountains seventy miles east of Rome, arriving there in the middle of February. We were given seats in compartments, very different to the cattle trucks in which I was later to travel on rail journeys in Italy and in Germany. “In the morning” I wrote home “we were well up in the mountains, masses of snow and people skiing. This is a nice place surrounded by snow capped mountains. It is marvellous to see the greenery and the streams after months of sand, and the rain after months of sun”.
Sulmona was a regular P.O.W camp, a series of brick hutments straggling down the hillside above the little town. I was delighted to find there a friend, Tommy Pitman of the 11th Hussars, who had been captured while on a desert reconnaissance behind the enemy lines in August 1940. The previous September I had written in a letter home “the Italians dropped a message from Tommy Pitman to say he was safe and well, decent of them and very good news. They are very good like that, long may it last”.
The Sulmona camp then contained about fifty officer P.O.Ws, the majority naval. There were Swordfish pilots, casualties of the successful attack on Taranto harbour in November 1940, the crew of a destroyer sunk during the evacuation of Greece, other crew from a submarine which had come up at night in the Straits of Messina to recharge batteries and been surprised and captured by Italian surface craft. There were some Australian officers, casualties of O’Connor’s sieges of Bardia and Tobruk. Before long we were to be joined by several British officers captured in
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Rommel’s lightning advance into Cyrenaica in early April. Three of these, Nigel Strutt, Anthony Simkins and Pat Gibson, were to become firm friends. Not far away was a fine house in which were lodged a galaxy of British senior officers, including General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart VC, Lieut. General Sir Philip Neame VC, Lieut. General Sir Richard O’Connor and Air Vice Marshal Boyd. With these we had occasional contact.
My first anxiety after arrival at Sulmona was to get news from home. The last letter I had received had been posted in October. I had written several times from Homs after my capture, but had no idea whether my letters had arrived, and indeed whether my family knew that I was a prisoner, and where. It was not until the end of March that I heard from Deans Grove. I am not sure whether it was then, or later, that I learned how the news of my fate had reached the family. I had been captured on 10th December. Everybody in England had read of the fighting in the Desert and our great victory. It must have been a shock when on 23rd December a telegram arrived at Deans Grove:
“Regret to inform you of report received from Middle East that Lt J A Comyn 8th Hussars was reported missing on 11th December 1940 further particulars will be forwarded as soon as received.
Under Secretary of State for War”
My Mother, many years afterwards, told me of that unhappy Christmas for the family, not knowing what had happened, and naturally fearing the worst. However on 1st January 1941 another telegram arrived from the War Office, this time confirming that I was a Prisoner of War. And on 8th January a cable came from General Spinks in Cairo: “Information received from captured Italian padre Jack prisoner in good health have written him through Red Cross”.
Other news followed. Gerald Kilkelly, of the Regiment, was a Galwayman, always known as ‘Smash’. Although considerably older than me he had been an ally, and to a large extent my polo mentor. He had hunted with the Galway Blazers and was a friend of my Uncle Dan
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Comyn, then Hunt Secretary. On December 27th he wrote a long letter to Dan about the events of 10th December. He told him “his vehicle got a direct hit and caught fire. The other two vehicles managed to get back all right. Two days afterwards the Italian camp was captured and a priest at the dressing station told us that the driver of Jack’s vehicle was killed, his operator had died and that he himself had buried him while Jack was untouched and well, and that he had looked after him…. we were all very gloomy for the two days as we thought he had been killed and we could not afford to lose permanently such an excellent officer in every way…. I would be greatly pleased if you would let his family know these details. How are the Blazers. I wish I could be having a dash with them now… next time you are in the Galway Club ask Coe to give you a double Irish and I will pay it back apres la guerre.”
Coe was the old steward at the Galway Club. Sadly ‘Smash’ never lived to have another day with the Blazers or to pay for the double whiskey. A Prisoner of War from 1942 he eventually joined me in Germany and was killed during a daylight raid by the US Air Force, as I shall relate.
I have no recollection of the Italian Padre’s ministrations, but shall always be grateful for the account he gave to Gerald Kilkelly, and also to others, of the circumstances of my capture because it must have been a great relief to my parents to have definite news so soon. It was not long before other letters followed, characteristically a long one from Henry Huth, and as my own accounts of what had happened began to arrive the family were left in no doubt, at least as to my wellbeing. Many years later I heard that when Ryman, the Deans Grove gardener, was told the news his only comment was “well, ‘eel get no medals”.
During the next four years and two months I was to be confined in three P.O.W camps in Italy and three in Germany. It would be tedious to describe each in detail. Many books have been written about life in P.O.W camps and in the following chapters I will record only my more memorable experiences. Conditions varied greatly. There were to be good times and bad. But there were certain common features of prisoner of war
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life. In describing these I would like to dispel any impression there may be that it was something akin to confinement in Dartmoor, or Dachau.
The regime in P.O.W camps was in general regulated by the Geneva Convention of which most European countries, although not the Soviet Union, were signatories. This laid down detailed rules for the treatment of Prisoners of War, their application to be monitored by a Protecting Power, in our case Switzerland. In each camp a Senior Officer from the detainees was appointed, recognized by the Detaining Power, and endowed with authority to obtain interviews with the Camp Commandant in order to represent grievances, or complaints of breaches of the Convention. Service ranks were recognized by both sides. For example an Italian or German Lieutenant would, on the many rollcalls that took place, salute the Senior British Officer present, and it behoved us junior officers to salute enemy Captains or above should we encounter them officially. This provision was much resented by our wartime officers, who would do their best to evade it. It was accepted more willingly by the regulars. In Italy, particularly, rank was an obsession. In every Italian camp for officers, although this was not the case in Germany, British other ranks were detailed to act as orderlies, cleaning our quarters and cooking for us. This was sometimes embarrassing, especially in one camp, where the orderlies were South African. Members of the Johannesburg Police, as many of these had been, were not accustomed to menial tasks. However they undertook them cheerfully and probably found conditions better than in other ranks’ camps.
To make life tolerable we had also the benefit of that great institution, recognized by nearly all the warring nations, the International Red Cross. Through the Red Cross we were sent from Geneva books, gramophone records, clothes, cigarettes and, above all, food. Food was our dominant preoccupation. The amount and quality of this varied greatly, often because of local conditions. There was hardly ever enough to satisfy young appetites. The Red Cross food parcels, containing dried egg, spam, butter, sugar, tea or coffee, and biscuits, loomed very large in our lives and any interruption in their deliveries, which were intended to be one per P.O.W per week, was cause for gloom.
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A curious feature of P.O.W life in Italy, although not in Germany, was that by a prewar agreement between the British and Italian governments Prisoner of War officers were credited in Italy with a proportion of their English pay entitlement. On the other hand they were debited with the cost of their food and sundry expenses in the camps. This had one unfortunate result. In Italy it was often possible to buy unrationed, probably black market, food to supplement the exiguous fare otherwise available. But for junior officers this was seldom practicable because we had not enough money. We watched with disbelief the amounts consumed by our Lieutenant Colonels and Majors and hoped for an invitation to tea, which we sometimes received.
We had one other benefactor, a branch of the War Office named MI9. Through this channel we received maps, miniature compasses, local currency, dyes for staining clothing, forged identity documents and, occasionally, coded messages or orders. How this was achieved I prefer not to expound, in case the services of MI9 should ever again be required.
It was amazing how free a life within the camps we led by virtue of the protection of the Convention, the efforts of the Red Cross and, in Italy, visits from emissaries of the Vatican. Our behaviour was hardly as appreciative as the Detaining Power might have expected. We frequently made life awkward for our captors. Dumb insolence was widely practised, and was good for our morale. Sometimes this was carried rather far, with potentially dangerous consequences. I shall later relate one instance, in Germany. But our attempted defiance of the enemy mainly consisted of plans for escape. This was a major concern of all Regular and many wartime officers. It not only helped pass the time but provided a sense of duty fulfilled. Further, in the case of most plans, it supplied the satisfaction of cooperation with others in a common objective, a satisfaction not easy to attain in our restricted surroundings. I shall have more to relate about escape plans. But they were seldom successful, and on their discovery there had to be an interval of some months for the purpose of lulling the enemy into a false sense of security’ as the saying went.
‘Lulling’ took the form of an intense programme of academic studies. There was nothing artificial about this. One of the wealths of P.O.W existence was the number of experts drawn from civilian life, temporarily
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commissioned for the war, who were available to impart their knowledge to othiers. There were barristers and solicitors, schoolmasters, farmers, mining engineers (these mainly from South Africa), stockbrokers, artists and representatives of nearly every discipline. Technical books could be obtained, after some delay, from the Red Cross or, as was sometimes allowed, direct from relatives at home.
Regular classes were organized in many subjects. After my somewhat narrow upbringing, first at public school and then at Sandhurst, I revelled at this access to information on so many matters of which I was ignorant. My first priority was to learn some Italian, which would be useful if I ever escaped. At Sulmona I spent many hours reading Dante with Pat Gibson, since created a Life Peer after being Chairman both of the Arts Council and of the National Trust. I studied law with Anthony Simkins, later Deputy Director of MI5, and even passed the first part of the Bar Exam while ‘in the bag’. I read Agriculture with Nigel Strutt, later knighted for his services to that industry. All have remained friends, which highhghts another important facet of P.O.W experience, the opportunity of meeting people who might otherwise never have come one’s way. I have mentioned the subsequent achievements of these particular friends to show how judiciously I chose my company.
Escape plans and the pursuit of knowledge did not comprise the whole of life. Many played bridge every waking hour. The red wine of which we received an allocation led to convivial gatherings at which any subject on earth might be discussed. In Italian camps it was possible to hire a piano and buy instruments, which resulted in groups being formed to provide music for concerts or stage shows. At first progress was slow, but by the end of my time as a prisoner in Italy I had built up a dance band consisting of two trumpets, three saxophones, one clarinet, two violins, double bass, guitar and drums, with myself at the piano. My piano playing was atrocious, but no one dared supplant me because it was recognized that I had organized this chaotic collection of musicians and that it might fall apart without me.
In concluding this general description of P.O.W life, in Italy at least, I would stress that no time had been set for our release. Every turn in the war led to hopes of an end to our situation. We were young, we were healthy, we were hopeful, we were making friends. Much of the time we
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were enjoying life. We might have suffered far worse fates than being prisoners of war in Europe. Sadly, there were many who did.
When summer came life at Sulmona was varied by escorted walks in the surrounding countryside, which were a great joy. I began to receive an increasing number of letters and parcels now my whereabouts were known. The Spinks family were particularly kind. Towards the end of the year (1941) there were the great tank battles in the Desert, around Sidi Rezegh, and I was joined at Sulmona by Dick Cripps, who had commanded the Regiment in those encounters, and by another senior officer. Bob How. From them I learned of the casualties the 8th Hussars had suffered. Of officers alone, four had been killed, three badly wounded, and five were ‘in the bag’. Dick Cripps told me that he seen the graves of both my tank crew, and also my burnt out tank, and he and Bob were able to tell me all that had happened to my friends in the year since I had been captured. It was ironic that Dick had sent me a food parcel shortly before these battles. On its arrival we shared it. Grieved though I was at the losses the Regiment had suffered it was some balm to my pride that I was no longer the only 8th Hussar officer P.O.W.
At Sulmona too I became involved, for the first and last time, in digging a tunnel. A shaft some six feet deep had been sunk through the floor of a large room used for meetings, lectures and concerts. The entrance to this shaft had been concealed with a lid made to match its dusty surroundings. At its foot a tunnel was being excavated in the direction of the outer world. It was only just high and wide enough for a man to lie flat, and was lighted, thanks to some technical expert among us, by an electric bulb. Fresh air was blown to the tunnel face by a bellows which fed a flexible pipe made from the round tins for fifty cigarettes then in common use, joined with strips of cloth. One man lay at the face, excavating soil which he pushed back between his legs. A second behind him drew this to the bottom of the shaft. A third, in the intervals of working the bellows, loaded the soil into a basket to be drawn up by those above. At intervals a mining engineer would inspect the works and decide whether the roof needed propping. I have
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never experienced such an agony of claustrophobia as I did when engaged at that tunnel face, or in any underground role. The worst moments were when an Italian officer or soldier was observed approaching the area. Then the electric light would go out, the air pump would stop, and the lid of the shaft would shut down with a thud. It would be opened up again as soon as possible, but the delay might be a few minutes or half an hour. This tunnel survived a concert when the Italian Commandant and some of his officers were seated nearly on top of the shaft lid, but it was eventually discovered. Thereafter I helped with other tunnels as one of the look-out men or with soil disposal but I never again volunteered to work underground.
After a year at Sulmona we were moved to Mont Albo, a mediaeval castle in the foothills of the Appenines north of Genoa. By this time my Italian had advanced and the SBO (Senior British Officer) appointed me to liaise with the Italian officer who administered the complicated accounting system arising out of the agreement for paying P.O.W officers which I have earlier described. The real purpose of my appointment was to gain information, and in this I was rather successful. When no one was around in his office the Italian Lieutenant, by calling a businessman, very antifascist and heartily sick of the war, would tell me practically anything I wanted to know. His chief concern was to discover whether any of my friends might do business with him when the conflict was over. I was able to take into the camp much information, including the first news of the American landings in North Africa.
At Mont Albo I had been joined by more friends from the Regiment, Guy Lowther, Pat de Clermont and Charlie Hedley. Although we were rather confined within the walls of the castle there were beautiful views in every direction. Here, too, we enjoyed some walks, in a countryside of olive groves and vineyards. Rightly or wrongly we agreed at Mont Albo to give our parole for these walks so were escorted only by a solitary Italian soldier as we ambled along in brilliant sunshine, fortified by a bottle or two of wine. Pleasant, too, were the evening gatherings in a great, practically underground room in the castle, its walls decorated with
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trompe l’oeil scenes by one of our talented artists, Mark Ogilvie Grant. The purpose of these gatherings was to consume our pooled rations of red wine, mulled, to make it more drinkable, by dropping a red hot horse shoe in the barrel in which it arrived. The gabble at these meetings rivalled any London cocktail party.
The SBO at Mont Albo, Francis Lowsley Williams, was a Catholic. At Christmas 1942 he obtained permission from the Italian Commandant for Catholics in the camp to attend Midnight Mass in the tiny village church. There, together with the villagers, and officers and soldiers of the camp garrison, the little church so crowded that there was barely standing room, we celebrated the birth of Christ, and sang familiar carols. It was a moving experience, in the middle of a conflict that by now reached from the Pacific, through China and Russia to Africa and the Atlantic, to find oneself engaged with enemies in a common act of worship. It seemed, if only for an hour, to transcend earthly dissensions.
It has to be admitted that escaping fever was singularly absent at Mont Albo. The tide of battle seemed to be turning. Alamein had been fought and won. The Germans had lost Stalingrad. The Allies were in possession of most of North Africa. It seemed impossible to escape from the castle and we began to think that in any case the war would soon be over.
In this we were mistaken. But the Italians, too, seem to have been impressed by the course the war was taking. In early 1943 they moved us to a new camp with far superior accommodation. We thought, maybe rightly, that this was designed to improve relations with the probable victors. At any rate the new camp, close to Fontanellato, in the plain between Piacenza and Parma, just east of the great Via Emilia that leads from Milan to the Adriatic, was a fine stone building with marble staircases. It bore the romantic name of Fonte d’Amore and had been built just before the war for the purpose of an Orphanage by nuns who still lived nearby and did our laundry. It was far bigger than our two previous camps, holding some five hundred officers. There was an exercise field available by day. It was undoubtedly the most pleasant P.O.W camp I ever encountered.
Several published books contain descriptions of the Fontanellato camp. A particularly amusing one is by Eric Newby, a fellow prisoner there, in ‘Love and War in the Apennines’. So I will not go into details of our life at
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Fontanellato, suffice it to say that it was very much like the life I have described in other camps, but on a bigger scale. I missed Nigel Strutt, who had been repatriated when we left Mont Albo because of his wounds. But there were compensations. Within a couple of months I was receiving his letters giving, in a code we had agreed before his departure, the latest war news. Moreover, he had lunch with my parents in London and was able to tell them how I fared.
Escaping attempts were more frequent at Fontanellato. One was successful, and the escapees reached Switzerland. There was the inevitable tunnel, in which my part was minor. However I made a small attempt of my own. I have mentioned that in Italy we were able to receive parcels from home. Many of these contained cardigans, corduroy trousers, scarves, shirts and other items of civilian wear. Rather belatedly the Italians awoke to the danger these presented in the field of escaping. At Fontanellato they were confiscated and stored in a building just outside the camp wire, on the road, and meticulously accounted for by our captors, a receipt being given for every item either taken away or intercepted in the post. I again achieved a liaison job, being authorized by the Italians to accompany the quartermaster sergeant in charge of the store to this building about twice a week to help him with the English paperwork required. It was soon obvious that this presented an ideal opportunity for escape. The building had two rooms. The windows looking on to the road were not locked or barred. There was ample civilian clothing to hand to do a quick change. The only problem was the sergeant, who was constantly near me. I consulted the SBO who told the Italians that I could not manage the job by myself, I needed an assistant. Securing a close friend, Hugh Hope, in this capacity I collected as much chocolate as I could conceal under my battledress, was found a map, a miniature compass and some Italian lire from the source I have mentioned, and in general was provided with enough facilities, I hoped, to get me to Switzerland.
When all was ready Hugh and I arranged to go over to the store with the sergeant. Hugh’s role was to engage this quite talkative individual in conversation in one room, while I was busy in the other. I had already earmarked certain items of suitable clothing in the store, had made a paper hat, similar to those much worn by Italian building workers, and had my
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eye on a hammer which was lying around. It was early afternoon of a summer’s day, a time when many Italians would be engaged in the siesta.
At an opportune moment, when Hugh had engaged the Sergeant’s attention, I did a quick change into civilian wear, rubbed my face and clothes with dust from the concrete floor, put on my paper hat, picked up the hammer and got out of the window on to the road. It was only a few feet to the ground. I looked around. There seemed to be nobody about. I had to walk along this road, past the front of the camp, with its wire fence and sentry towers, to get clear. All went well until the road veered away towards the village of Fontanellato. Suddenly a man in uniform stepped from behind a tree in front of me. I knew him well, he was the Brigadiere (a rank roughly equivalent to Sergeant) of the Carabinieri detachment which supplemented the camp guards. “Dove andate?” he addressed me. Alas, my Italian was not good enough to maintain any pretence of being a building worker, certainly in face of a member of the Carabinieri Reali, one of the best police forces in Europe.
Within a few minutes I was ushered into the office of the Camp Commandant. This was Colonello Vicedomini, an elderly officer recalled from retirement. He was of the old school, a perfect gentleman, liked by all. Sadly, he met his end in Germany, deported there after the events of the coming autumn. The Brigadiere told him that I was Tenente Comyn, caught while trying to escape. I was still in my disguise, and at first the Colonel refused to believe that it was me. When convinced, his consternation was amazing. “But, Tenente Comyn”, he exclaimed, “my sentries on the wire might have shot you – and then what would your Mother have said?”. As I had not expected this question I was uncertain how to reply, but his concern touched me, and I received with equanimity the statutory sentence of 28 days solitary confinement which he awarded.
The plans for the Orphanage had not made provision for solitary confinement cells, usual in other camps. I was placed in a large single room on the ground floor and a guard was mounted at the door. I was allowed out for exercise once a day, and my meals were brought to me. I had books and magazines, and with the connivance of some of the guards received visits from friends who brought little luxuries to solace me for the failure of my attempt. After living for so long in dormitories with
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many others the peace and quiet of my single quarter was heaven. I do not think I spent a more delightful four weeks in the whole of my captivity.
On my release I found myself the object of unwelcome attention from the Italian camp security officer and interpreter, Capitano Camino. Camino was an extremely smart and rather charming officer who had an English wife, was reputed to have had an English mother, had spent much of his life in England, and unlike most Italians perpetually smoked a pipe. He spoke perfect English and constantly engaged me in conversation, often on political matters (Mussolini had by then fallen, as will be told). The one disciplinary action he took was to debar me from the escorted walks outside the camp which I had previously enjoyed. As we were not to remain much longer at Fontanellato this mattered little.
Fontanellato is the only POW camp I have ever revisited. My wife Elizabeth and I went there some years ago and were courteously shown around by the Nuns, now firmly re-established in their rightful domain. We trod the marble stairs that I remembered, and agreed that it been quite a palatial residence for Prisoners of War.
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Chapter Ten. Armistice
It may be remembered that in early September 1943 the Italian Government under Marshal Badoglio suddenly announced that an Armistice had been agreed with the Allies. The events leading to this momentous declaration had been closely followed at Fontanellato. British and American forces had landed in Sicily on 10th July. I remember an awed camp guard, who looked in on one of my band practises that evening, telling us that the sea was ‘black with ships all the way from Africa to Italy’. From then on most Italians wished only for an end to the war. But it was not until 25th July that Mussolini was overthrown and arrested, and even then the new government under Badoglio declared that the war would continue. Secretly the Marshal was negotiating with the Allies for peace terms, while terrified that these approaches would become known to the Germans.
That summer our morale in the camp had been high. One reason was the good news of Allied successes. Another was the arrival of Lt. Col Hugh Mainwaring, one of General Montgomery’s key staff officers, captured through some misadventure during the German retreat after Alamein. Hugh Mainwaring had been a regular 10th Hussar who had retired to become a stockbroker and been recalled to the Army in 1939. When he arrived he professed himself horrified at our idleness and immediately ordered all Regular officers to attend his lectures on the latest developments in the military art, based mainly on Montgomery’s successful theories and tactics. He organized the whole camp into a Battalion, with Companies and Company Commanders, daily situation reports and proper discipline. In all this he was ably supported by the SBO, Colonel de Burgh.
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The Germans had not been deceived as to the likely course of events after the fall of Mussolini. Throughout August their Divisions poured over the Brenner Pass. On one occasion a large unit marched past our camp, singing loudly as only German soldiers can, clearly out to intimidate us. We yelled back, and one could almost feel the hackles rising on both sides of the wire. I was impressed by the bearing of these soldiers, and by their horse transport, all the leather of saddles and traces clearly brand new. On 17th August Sicily fell. Large formations of American bombers began to fly over the camp, heading north.
On 21st August I wrote to Deans Grove “we’ll go fishing in the autumn, there’s no doubt it’s tending that way”. I did not know that this was to be the last letter I would write home for four months, during which time my family were to have no idea where I was.
On 3rd September the Allies landed at Reggio Calabria, the toe of Italy. About 8pm on the evening of 8th September the great news came. Over camp loudspeakers we heard Badoglio himself, announcing that hostilities had ended between Italy and the Allies, but that the Italian Army was to resist attack from ‘any other direction’, a term which could only be interpreted as referring to their late comrades, the Germans.
There was an outburst of jubilation, shared by the guards on the perimeter wire. Almost immediately the latter deserted their posts and vanished, amid cries of ‘a casa’, i.e let’s go home. Our reaction was the same, we wished only to escape from the camp and take our chance in the surrounding countryside. But there was a problem. All SBOs had received a coded message from London instructing them that in the event of an armistice they were to ensure that British prisoners of war should remain in their camps until further orders. In most camps these instructions were scrupulously obeyed, with the result that within a day or two their inmates were surrounded by the Germans and moved swiftly to the Reich. As one of them later told me bitterly: “The SBO told us to keep cool, calm and collected. We kept cool and calm and were duly collected”.
In our camp we were more fortunate. We had the same instructions but they were interpreted sensibly. The Italian officers of the camp guard stayed on and the SBO and Hugh Mainwaring immediately went into conference with Colonello Vicedomini and his staff. We knew that there were German troops at Parma, about twenty miles south down the Via
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Emilia. The Italians agreed to send out officer patrols to detect any German movement towards us. They also agreed to cut a large gap in the wire on the exercise field so that the camp could be quickly evacuated if necessary. We went to bed that night in a fever of anticipation, putting together such food, clothing and oddments as we could conveniently carry.
The next morning we were addressed by the SBO and informed of the latest news, the War Office instructions, and the plans hatched with the Italians. We heard of the Allied landing at Salerno, forty miles south of Naples. Otherwise the morning passed tensely but quietly. But hardly had we sat down to an enormous lunch prepared from our reserve of Red Cross parcels than an Italian bugle sounded, the signal that the Germans were on their way towards us. All was ready. We left our uneaten meal, formed up on the exercise field in companies, and marched through the gap in the wire. In this military formation, dressed in battledress, on a sweltering hot afternoon, we proceeded across country, guided by Hugh Mainwaring and Capitano Camino, the smart English speaking officer I mentioned in the last Chapter. He and Hugh Mainwaring had been out that morning to reconnoitre a concealment area should the Germans appear. We reached this after a two hours march disturbed only by a solitary low flying German plane. It was a long ravine, with wooded banks on either side, bordered by fields of maize. Along these banks our companies were dispersed. As twilight fell Italian peasants began to appear, offering us civilian clothes, bread and fruit. We all had Lire, and gave them some in return, but they were not out for money. Outposts were organized and the night passed peacefully except for the noise of German transport on the Via Emilia, two miles west of us.
Next morning a cartload of boiled potatoes appeared, sent by Camino. He brought news that the Germans had arrived at the camp soon after our departure, eaten our lunch, arrested Colonel Vicedomini and looted all the belongings we had left behind. Colonel de Burgh and Hugh Mainwaring had anxious consultations, in which I took part because Hugh had enlisted me as a kind of staff officer, together with a Captain Blanchard. Blanchard was a native of Alexandria, and spoke perfect Italian. The SBO considered that he had obeyed the War Office orders, in that he had so far
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kept us all together. But it was clearly impossible to continue feeding 500 of us in the ravine, and the Germans might at any moment discover where we were. However we remained a second day, and during it orders were prepared and distributed to companies for dispersal that evening. Hugh Mainwaring decided that he would move with Blanchard. He gave me the awkward choice of accompanying him or rejoining the rest of the officers of the 8th Hussars, of which there was a party along the ravine, united with other close friends. I was sorely tempted to stay with Hugh, partly because, almost uniquely, he had a map. However I had studied this carefully while with him, and had much of it in my head. The good old Regimental spirit prevailed, and I elected to join my friends.
It was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made. Within a few days, aided by Blanchard’s fluent Italian, Hugh and he succeeded in boarding a train for Naples.
During those first days after the Armistice Italy was in chaos. Trains ran, but the Germans were too busy to check documents, and the Italians showed themselves to be on the side of the Allies and anxious to help ex-prisoners of war. Hugh and Blanchard reached Naples quite quickly and were concealed and fed until the Americans entered the city at the end of September, three weeks after the Salerno landing.
However the die was cast. I joined my friends and we decided to make up a group of sixteen, all Cavalry and Greenjackets, for the break out that evening. Our plan was to move west, across the Via Emilia, into the foothills of the Apennines, and there await events. There were constant reports that the Allies intended to make a further landing, this time near La Spezia, only some sixty miles south of us. It was argued that if we could keep away from German lines of communication, and from towns, until the landing took place we were certain to link up with the Allies. Many months later we learned that these reports, emanating from the BBC, were put out to deceive the Germans. They certainly deceived us.
At dusk we started, and as we moved through the neighbouring farms more Italians emerged from the shadows offering clothes and help. I was still in battledress, but decided the time had come to change into civilian clothes and accepted their offer, keeping only my battledress jacket in a knapsack I carried. The penalty for being caught behind enemy lines in
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civilian disguise, and with no evidence of identity, could be execution as a spy.
It was dark by the time we reached the main railway line, running from Milan to Bologna and continuing down the east coast of Italy. Just on the far side of it ran the Via Emilia, following the same route. There was little traffic on the railway, but the Via Emilia was thronged with German transport. Moreover, the road ran between high wire fences. We had to wait for an hour before the traffic seemed to die down, and then made a run for it, across the railway line and then the road. The railway line was easy to negotiate, and the first of the wire fences presented no great difficulty. But as we crossed the highway the dim lights of yet another German convoy were seen approaching and it became a mad dash to get across the second fence. For a moment I was caught up by my haversack, but freed it, and fell into the field on the far side, to lie flat on my face while the column rolled by.
It was a relief to be in open country again. At first we moved through fields cultivated with wheat, vines and tomatoes. It was a warm night and we slaked our thirst by seizing great clusters of grapes, sucking the juice out of most of them, and throwing the rest away. The tomatoes too, great big square Italian ones, were ripe and refreshing. Before long the ground began to ascend, and we found ourselves moving through less hospitable hilly country, dotted with little copses. I believe we walked sixteen miles that night, determined to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and the Germans. At about 4am one of the party began to complain of foot soreness, and we judged it safe to stop, and lie up in a small wood, apparently on top of a hill and therefore likely to provide good observation when day broke.
At first light we could see a small farmhouse and farm buildings only about a hundred feet below. I was selected to do a reconnaissance, my Italian believed to be better than that of my companions. Stealthily I descended, and soon reached the farmyard. Gentle sounds were coming through the open doors of the cow byre. I walked in, and confronted the farmer, seated milking. There was the warm smell of the cows, and of hay and straw. It was a miraculous moment, in the half light of that cool fresh dawn, to find myself free and in touch again with normal human existence.
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The farmer showed no surprise at the intrusion, and listened patiently as I did my best to describe the provenance and situation of my party. As soon as he had finished milking he filled a pail with milk, and another with hot water for my footsore friend, and carried them up with me to the wood. It was an early example of the generous help we were to receive from Italians during the next two and a half months.
When day fully dawned we moved a short distance to a bigger wood, offering more cover. But the word had got around, and we were soon visited by some Italian army deserters, who entreated us to equip ourselves with the small red hand grenades they brought. Knowing that these unpredictable weapons, the ‘diavoli rossi’ used by the Italian Army, were far more dangerous to the bearer than to any enemy we declined. More importantly, these young men told us that we would shortly be visited by an English millionaire.
That morning passed pleasantly in the wood. The sun shone through the leaves, there were wild flowers and fungi, and above all there was the wonderful sensation of wandering with impunity along grassy tracks through the trees. Towards noon Signor Palumbo, the ‘English millionaire’, arrived, and greeted us cheerily in faultless cockney. It transpired that he had spent over twenty years running a restaurant in Soho, and if not to our eyes an English millionaire was certainly so to his neighbours, even though his million was in Lire.
This was providential. During the next five weeks our whole existence revolved around Signor Palumbo. In Italy at that time the ownership and farming of land was based on the ‘mezzadria’ system, by which the landowner (Padrone) provided the capital and the farmer (Contadino) worked the farm. No rent was paid, the produce of the land being divided equally between the Padrone and the contadino. Traditional estates had always been run this way, but the system also provided an investment opportunity for those who had made good. Signor Palumbo was a Padrone, owning several scattered farms. To these he proceeded to distribute us, approximately four to each farm. It had anyway become obvious that sixteen could not stay together. Such a number made the party too conspicuous, besides difficult to feed. Four of us, 8th Hussars, formed a group and were guided to the farm of La Trinita, the home of Ernesto Regalo. La Trinita stood high up on the
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south flank of the valley of the little Torrente Stirone, a ‘torrente’ being a stream in winter, dry in summer. Ernesto Regalo, aged about forty, had a wife and young twin daughters. Above his little holding was woodland and below the steading the land dropped gently towards the Stirone, beside which ran a country road down the valley.
Our 8th Hussar party at La Trinita consisted, in order of seniority, of Captain Pat de Clermont, myself (newly promoted Captain, on 29th August), Lt.Charlie Hedley and 2/Lt.Donald Astley Cooper. Seniority was important, because it was bred in us to adhere to the decisions of the senior officer present, even in these unusual circumstances. Pat de Clermont I had known for some time before the war. Essentially a kind and generous character, he was renowned in the Regiment for a sardonic wit and as a ‘bon viveur’.
When I first knew Charlie Hedley he was the very efficient Orderly Room Sergeant Major, a post akin to Chief Clerk to the Commanding Officer and Adjutant. In this capacity he had given me endless help on the occasions when I had been Acting Adjutant. He had eventually been promoted to Regimental Sergeant Major and at the beginning of the war to Lieut. Quartermaster. By that time Charlie had served for some twenty years in the Regiment and was thus much older than the rest of us. It had indeed been Charlie who had got footsore on our night march. He was a little Lancashire man, extremely able, of great but modest charm and possessing a wonderful sense of humour. Charlie became one of my greatest friends, both during and after the war, by which time he had attained the rank of Major Quartermaster. Donald Astley Cooper had only joined the Regiment in May 1940 but I had got to know him well at Fontanellato, where he had played the clarinet in my band. A shy but charming young man, a great athlete, I was desolated when he was killed in the Korean War in January 1951.
At La Trinita we slept in the barn, the sweet smelling hay pleasant to the senses in those warm September nights, and came into the farmhouse for meals and to spend the evening. The Regalo family could not have been kinder hosts. Each morning the Signora would make fresh pasta,
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ladling out the flour from a wooden chest on to the kitchen table, mixing and kneading it, and then cutting it into strips, ‘tagliatelle’. The pasta would be cooked in the huge cauldron which hung permanently above the wood fire in the large open hearth. At the side of the hearth stood a small iron stand above a little fire of glowing charcoal. On this the sauce would be cooked, using tomatoes, onions and snippets of liver or bacon. Inset deep into the thick stone wall beside the hearth was a large oven, closed with an iron door. This would be filled with a mass of twigs which would be lit, allowed to burn until the interior of the oven was hot, and then raked out. Into the oven would go freshly kneaded loaves, or sometimes a rabbit or a chicken. In the evenings our pasta would be washed down with the Regalos’ own red wine, only just made and tasting abominably of the sulphur with which the vines had been sprayed.
Like all the contadini we met later the Regalos were then far from well off for food, and four extra mouths would have sorely strained their resources if it had not been for Signor Palumbo, our Lady Bountiful. Every now and then he would send up to the farm a horse and cart carrying flour, salami, ham, cheese and wine and sometimes a chicken. His generosity was amazing, and I am glad that I was able to visit him after the war and repay a little of it. On that occasion he told me that during the war he had always anticipated catastrophe and had laid in stocks of food. He had even hidden quantities of grain in the walls of his house.
We seemed to be in no danger from the Germans. From the farm there was an excellent view of the little road down the valley, and we could soon vanish into the woods above us when a car was seen, as occasionally happened, usually Germans looking for fresh fruit and vegetables or wine. But there was a risk, feared by Ernesto, that our presence might be betrayed by a ‘spia’, ie. a local with Fascist or German sympathies. By day we exposed ourselves as little as possible. Such diversions as we could arrange occurred after dark. Hugh Hope, who had helped me with my escape attempt at Fontanellato, was at a farm only half a mile away, together with Derek Hornby, another 60th Rifleman, and we frequently met. At Birla, a tiny village just up the valley, there was a widow with English connections who once or twice entertained us to an excellent evening meal in her cosy cottage.
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Palumbo put us in touch with neighbours of his, Manlio Carloni and his wife, a charming young couple who lived in a modern flat just outside the little town of Fidenza. They would sometimes ask us to stay, two at a time. This was quite an adventure. Fidenza lay some six miles down the little Torrente Stirone. We would set off after dark, not using the road but walking down the dry river bed. Nearing Fidenza there would be a whistle from bushes on the bank and Manlio would appear, to lead us to his home. There we enjoyed the luxury of a hot bath, excellent food and comfortable beds. All next day we would remain indoors, keeping quiet in response to Manlio’s warnings that the inhabitants of the flat below were ‘Fascisti’. After dark we would return, by the same route, to La Trinita. Some years later I visited Manlio and his wife and was amused to receive the same injunction not to speak too loud, this time because the people below were ‘Communisti’. I suspect that both warnings derived from nothing more than Italian love of intrigue.
One evening we were summoned to a secret meeting in a stone hut high in the woods. There we found a small party of young men all dressed in what appeared to be cowboy kit. It transpired that they were members of the dance band of a smart hotel in the spa town of Salso Maggiore, not far away. The object of the meeting was to set up a partisan group. There was a lot of talk, wine and laughter, but little was achieved except agreement for a further meeting. We turned up on the appointed evening, but they did not appear, and we never saw them again.
It was with the Regalos that I first realized how severely deficient was my Italian, obtained only from books, because I had had little opportunity of conversation. An added difficulty was that the peasants spoke only in dialect. I was later to find that the dialect varied considerably in every region, practically every valley, of Italy. Instead of ‘andiamo a casa’ (let us go home) Ernesto would say ‘andoom a ca’. And for ‘vino’ he would use the French word ‘vin’. In spite of this he and I got on well and I was impressed by how hard he worked. We sometimes think of Italians as lazy people but everywhere in north and central Italy the contadini were up at 4am to start the day.
Ernesto had his little relaxations. One afternoon he beckoned to me to follow him up into the woods. He was carrying a spade, nothing unusual, because there were no privies on Italian farms, all had to be returned to
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the land. When we stopped he dug a hole and extracted a large flagon of genuine Chianti. We spent the whole afternoon there. As he explained to me, he had sometimes to get away from the family. Ernesto also possessed a ready wit. On one occasion he was requisitioned by the local Mayor to accompany a party of German officers who wanted to shoot. A hare was wounded, and Ernesto sent to find it. He found it, but instead of delivering it to the Germans hid it in a ditch. That evening we ate delicious hare stew. It was only when we had finished that Ernesto told us how he had obtained it. “There you are”, he ended, “that is typical of this war. The German shoots the hare, the Italian steals it, and the English eat it”.
Weeks went by, and it was now mid-October. There had been no further talk of a landing in the north of Italy, and clearly both the Allied armies were heavily involved with the Germans south of Rome. We talked of getting to Switzerland, but we knew that the Swiss were interning escapees. Wengen was not a bad place to be interned, on parole and free to ski (as many found), but internment meant taking no further part in the war. A journey through occupied France to neutral Spain might be feasible, alternatively a junction with Tito in Yugoslavia. But we now knew that we could get help from the Italians, and my inclination was to move south in the hopes of getting through to our own Armies fighting there.
Pat de Clermont did not share my view. He thought we were well off where we were and should wait further. This was awkward, as he was the Senior Officer. I sounded out Donald Astley Cooper. He was of my opinion. One evening there was a somewhat acrimonious meeting at which Pat eventually agreed to our departure. Charlie Hedley later took me aside. “I think you are right, Jarck (as he always pronounced my name) and I would love to come with you. But I might slow you up, and anyway someone must stay with Pat”. So he did. In fairness to Pat’s judgement, he and Charlie stayed put all that winter, and in the spring moved south to near Florence. After the fall of Rome in June 1944 they were freed by the oncoming Allies, and got home long before me.
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Donald and I set off southward up through the woods behind the farm. We had a map of Italy, torn from a school atlas, somewhat lacking in detail. For the first mile Ernesto guided us. “Pian’, piano” he kept saying, if you try to go this pace you will never get over the mountains”. Then we parted. I saw him once again, ten years ago. La Trinita was by then an abandoned ruin, like so many hill farms in Italy. Ernesto and his wife, both much aged, had a small modern house, with a patch of vineyard, in Birla. He opened a bottle of wine, and we talked. One of the twins was married, the other a nurse in Swansea. He told me that they had looked after many other escapees after my departure. I had an uncomfortable feeling that of me he had little recollection, although he clearly remembered Hugh Hope, who had been to see him soon after the war.
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[Map of Italy and surrounding countries indicating the approximate Allied Front in December 1944 and the route of Comyn’s “long walk”]
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Chapter Eleven. A Long Walk
During the next six weeks Donald Astley Cooper and I walked down a great part of Italy. Our route was along the north east flank of the Apennines to just north of Florence, thence across to the head waters of the Tiber near Sansepulcro. We descended the Tiber valley to Todi, passing between Perugia and Assisi. Then we left the Tiber and moved southeast into the Sabine Hills east of Rome, and on into the mountainous Abruzzi region. Our walk ended within six miles of Alfedena, on the Sangro river, where the Allied Armies had ceased their advance and apparently settled down for the winter. From our start point north of Parma to the end of our walk in the mountains of the Abruzzi is 300 miles as the crow flies. By the route we took we covered much more, all on foot except for thirty miles by train. Throughout those six weeks we depended on the contadini for food and shelter, except for a few days, of which I shall tell, spent with a padrone. Only on two occasions were we refused the hospitality of those peasants’ sometimes poverty stricken homes. We had a few Lire, but money was never offered and never requested. We would leave a note, asking the prospective victors to recognize how much our hosts had done for us, and I believe many of these notes were honoured when Allied Military Government eventually arrived.
Every evening we would approach some lonely farmhouse, declare who we were, and ask to be received. There would be a family kitchen/living room, similar to that of Ernesto Regalo. The cauldron would hang over the fire, and we would sit down to the evening meal of pasta or polenta and home produced wine, very much as we had experienced at La Trinita. Food was not plentiful and we heard many
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complaints of the quality of the wartime grey flour and of the difficulty of getting salt. All salt in Italy came from Sicily, then occupied by the Allies. It is surprising how much its complete absence affects the taste of food. Always the family, often very cut off from the outside world, would enquire eagerly as to where we had come from and ask for news of the war. Then the talk would turn to other topics, a favourite being the advantage of having married priests, which they understood to be the case in the Anglican Church. Where this was asked there was usually some hint of misconduct by their own. All too often the subject was the fate of their sons, far away with the Italian divisions in Russia, prisoners of war in Britain or Canada, or just missing. Many mothers told us they trusted in the Lord that if they looked after us someone would look after their own son. It must not be thought that my Italian, learned from books, was always equal to these conversations. For one thing, as I have already remarked, every valley seemed to have its dialect, sometimes very different from the pure Tuscan tongue. But we managed somehow.
There was one occasion when my Italian failed me badly. By mid-October, when we started our journey, the weather had turned very cold by night. After supper we would always ask to sleep in the warmth of the cowshed, although we were often offered beds. By now the death penalty had been decreed for anyone harbouring ex-prisoners of war. In view of this danger to our hosts we hoped that if surprised in the byre we could vow that the farmer had no knowledge of our presence on his farm. On this occasion, during a convivial evening, beds were pressed on us. I carefully explained the reason for refusing and insisted that we should sleep in the cowbyre. An hour later we were escorted there, and found all the family’s finest pillows, linen and blankets laid out on the stone floor behind the cows’ tails. I fear that my Italian had not been good enough that evening, and that our hosts must have concluded, from what I said, only that English preferences were somewhat eccentric.
The Italians do not go in much for breakfast, but we usually got some bread and milk. In the poorer valleys there was no milk, only ersatz coffee made from roasted acorns, or some sweet wine, Lacrimae Christi (tears of Christ) being a favourite. It was remarkable how much better milk for breakfast sustained us on our daily walk than wine or ersatz coffee. We
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were invariably given a hunk of bread to carry with us, which we would wash down with some water from a spring at midday. Sometimes we would find olives to eat with our bread, a mixture I can recommend.
I shall recount some only of the incidents of our walk south. The first stretch, of about 130 miles southeast down the Appennines, was hard work. Those mountains, along the sides of which we were moving at some 2000 to 3000 feet, but which rise to 7000 feet in places, are intersected by the valleys of streams and rivers, each of which meant a steep climb down followed by an equally steep climb up. Mostly we were in wild open country, but the valleys were often treed or covered in scrub, involving much hard labour pushing through thickets. In the more considerable of these valleys, such as that of the Taro, ran railway lines or main roads which, often guarded or patrolled, needed careful reconnaissance. On one occasion, on a high mountain pass through which runs the old main road and the railway from Bologna to Florence, we had to walk a short distance along the road in order to cross it. There was a thick fog, and we were suddenly overtaken by a German lorry. The Germans stopped, and we feared the worst. But it was only to tell us they were lost, and ask where they were. Barely knowing any Italian, they were quite satisfied with my replies in that language and drove on. We got off that road as quickly as we could.
Northeast of Florence we found ourselves in dense chestnut forests where it was impossible to move except along tracks or country roads. On one of those roads we suddenly saw before us a man who appeared to be in uniform and armed. In a flash Donald turned round and plucked my arm to do the same. We retraced our steps, and I am afraid I was hissing at Donald rude words to the effect that he would undoubtedly get us shot in the back. However nothing happened, the man we saw was probably some forest gamekeeper.
We left that road as soon as we could and penetrated the woods. It was getting dark, and there seemed little prospect of finding a friendly farmhouse for the night. However we had not gone far when we came on a charcoal burners’ encampment, a few men living in shelters made of
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branches and tending great mounds of burning charcoal, fed from felled chestnut trees. They received us cordially, and we spent the night in one of their shelters, sustained only by chestnuts boiled in a great pot over their fire. They appeared to have no other food, but we were grateful for what we got. There was one other guest, a wandering French seaman, and, conversing in a medley of languages, we spent an entertaining evening in that forest.
Moving southeast, we were before long in more populated countryside around the sources of the Arno. Here our progress was much assisted by the ‘mulattiere’, ancient mule tracks, only a few feet wide and bordered by stone walls, which until recent times provided the sole method of communication between the hillside hamlets. Our immediate goal was the Monastery of La Verna, the Franciscan foundation on the site of which St. Francis had received the Stigmata in 1224. All our contadini hosts told us that there we would receive help from the monks. And we did.
The monastery stands at 1500 ft and was visible from afar as we gradually ascended to it up mule tracks from a wide valley to its north. Although from that side it looked lonely and remote, indeed unchanged since the Middle Ages, we found when we got there that on its south side, up to which ran a road, it was a hive of activity, thronged with escapees, deserters, and refugees from the bombing of Rome. The monks were doing their best to meet the many demands on them. At the Foresteria (guest house) we were greeted, and told that the monks would give us a meal, but that we could not stay the night. Apparently the Germans knew all about their hospitality, but when the monks pleaded that it was a rule of their Order, ordained by St. Francis himself, that assistance should never be denied to any supplicant, they had agreed to turn a blind eye provided that no one spent the night at the Monastery. We were brought into the dining room of the Foresteria and given an excellent meal of stew and cabbage, in company with many others.
Some months previously my mother, presciently, had sent me a pair of stout leather walking boots. These had stood me in good stead but after weeks of hard wear urgently needed new soles. Shoe leather was then almost unprocurable in Italy. I asked our host whether there was any possibility of having my boots repaired, and in no time a cobbler monk appeared, took them away and brought them back rejuvenated. Then we
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had another stroke of luck. Leaving the Monastery by the road to the south we found a multitude of parked cars, owned by well off Romans who had fled to this refuge to avoid the bombing (in fact, although the Allies bombed the outskirts, where the railway lines and other communications ran, they never bombed the centre of Rome). Among this crowd of Romans we got into conversation with a pleasant lady to whom we told our adventures. When we parted she made us a present of a motoring map of Italy on quite a large scale. This was invaluable. The page torn from a school atlas with which we had set out was so lacking in detail as to be almost useless. From now on we always knew where we were and could make a choice of routes. We left La Verna full of gratitude to St. Francis.
We must have still been under his protection when that same evening, trudging along a mule track in the hills, we entered a hamlet. In retrospect it is extraordinary how primitive these little hamlets were in those days. No mopeds, no cars, no wireless sets, no newspapers, seldom a road communicating with the outside world. They can then have changed very little since mediaeval times, but were to do so rapidly in the twenty years after the war.
We had an ecstatic reception in this little place. There were no young men there whatever, all dispersed by the war. The girls, some very pretty, organized a dance for us, to the music of an old man with a violin. They besought us to settle down with them, they badly needed help on the land, and assured us we would be quite safe, there were no Germans around and there was no road by which they could approach. I rather think that between the dances on that pleasant evening we half agreed to their proposals.
In the morning our heads were cooler. We left the hamlet, offered a glass of wine at every door we passed. We told the girls we were leaving them for the day, to reflect on their invitation, and might be back in the evening. A mile from the hamlet, but still in view of it, we sat down in a dry water course. “Well”, I said. I found that Donald was quite keen to stay. So indeed was I. I had to summon my reserves of pomposity, recalling that I was the Senior Officer present. “Donald”, I said, “I believe it is our duty to rejoin our forces as soon as possible, and not dally with those delightful girls”. Dear Donald at once agreed, and we resumed our
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journey. I sometimes wish we had stayed, as perhaps St. Francis had intended. We would probably have been quite safe there until the following summer, when the Allies reached that area. On our way south we came across more than one British soldier who had settled down in this sort of way. I have heard that some of them, possibly wanted for offences at home, or unhappily married, are there to this day.
Once we had reached the Tiber valley the walking became easier. Along it were large farms, dedicated mainly to growing tobacco. There were great barns in which the leaf hung to dry. The farmers would give us dried leaves to cut up and roll into cigarettes with the aid of newspaper, highly illegal because tobacco was a State monopoly. We were here much more closely in touch with the world, and one evening had a shock. After supper at the farm where we were lodging a car drove into the farmyard. Out of it got two men, one a German in uniform, the other an Italian dressed in Fascist style. Our host hustled us upstairs. We stared out of the window, wondering whether we could climb down and get away. The car, an open Volkswagen of the jeep type, stood in the yard. Could we start it, and drive off? While we were thus ruminating our host appeared in the bedroom. “Everything is all right. The Fascist is a cousin of ours who has brought the German to see us. Our cousin will do you no harm. The German has had plenty of wine, and will not know you from Italians. Come down and join the party”. We did not accept this kind invitation and were glad to see the Volkswagen depart soon afterwards.
As we descended lower down the Tiber we had to decide whether we would follow it into Rome. There were reports, well founded as we learned after the war, that the Vatican was clandestinely helping ex-POWS, the money for their support both within the Vatican and elsewhere in and around Rome being provided by the British Minister to the Vatican, Sir D’Arcy Osborne. Had we then known the extent of this organization, later known as the ‘Rome Line’, we might well have been tempted to entrust ourselves to it. At that time there seemed every prospect that the Allies would enter Rome at least by the spring (in fact it was June before they got there). However we decided to press on and at Todi left the river and turned south.
We then had a new experience. We always felt that the Italian girls had far more ‘go’ than the men. Putting up just outside Todi we were
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persuaded by our host’s daughter that there was no danger in travelling by train to Terni, thirty miles south. She often did this journey, and knew that there were no document checks on the line. She would take us to the station at Todi and buy our tickets for us. So this gallant girl did. Donald and I sat silently on the train. At one station we saw Germans on the platform. However nothing happened, and we arrived safely at Terni. From Terni we had not far to walk into the Sabine Hills.
It was now well on in November and the weather had turned bitterly cold and wet. Within a few days, at our present rate of progress, we should be nearing the battle zone. All we knew was that the Eighth Army under Montgomery was moving slowly up the east coast towards Pescara and that the Fifth Army, commanded by the American General, Mark Clark, was moving towards Rome. To make any plan to get through to our own side we needed up to date information of the positions which had been reached by the two Allied Armies. Such information could best be obtained from the wireless, and in particular from the BBC Overseas Service.
At the next farm where we found food and shelter we enquired whether any neighbour might have a wireless. “Certainly”, said the contadino, “the Padrone has one at the big house. I will take you up there after supper”. We had always avoided the big houses, because we feared that their owners might be afraid of the servants betraying them if they helped us. The contadino dismissed all such anxieties in the case of his Padrone, and after dark took us to the mansion, not far away. At the house we were escorted up some dark backstairs. A door was opened, and we found ourselves in a large well lit room full of fine pictures and furniture. A fire was blazing in the wide hearth and a round table with a white cloth, wine glasses and the remains of supper stood in front of it. In armchairs near the table were sitting a heavily built well dressed man and a very pretty, elegant woman. I could not believe my eyes. Latterly we had been living very rough. It was cold even in the cowbarns at night and we often had to shelter in caves and woods by day to avoid persistent heavy rain. Here, suddenly, was a scene of comfort, indeed luxury, such as I had not encountered for years.
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We were in the house of Signor Pietro Falconi, a large landowner. Signor Falconi stood up at our entrance and approached. He spoke quite good English and his first words were “May I please see your hands?”. After examining them he announced “Ah, officers, I see. You are welcome”. I had not before known that in Italy, at that time, the hands of an other rank were invariably recognizable, because they were calloused from long hours in the fields. I presume Signor Falconi thought that the same test would apply in the British Army. Once our officer status had been established we were overwhelmed with kindness, both by Signor Falconi and the lady (who was not his wife). He would not hear of us returning to sleep at the farm, and sent a message down to the contadino saying he could go home.
We spent three nights at the Villa Falconi. It was an extraordinary existence. The night after our arrival Pietro gave a large cocktail party for his friends, many of them very sophisticated Romans, to meet us. By day we would ride with him on wellbred horses over his estate, oblivious of the fact that on a hill only a quarter of a mile away there was a German post. He seemed to have no fear of the Germans, or indeed of anyone else, professing himself a Republican despite the prejudices of his class in favour of the King, whom he despised for having allowed Mussolini to gain such power.
It may be that we were courting danger at the Villa Falconi, but Pietro inspired such confidence that the thought never occurred to us. After the war he wrote to my parents and I must quote some of his letter:
“In November 1943 Captain J.A. Comyn, 8th Hussars, British Army, was my welcome guest at my villa in Ginestra Sabina.
As, among the hundreds of Allied escaped prisoners I had the pleasure of sheltering, the Captain was especially welcome leaving a pleasant memory of his stay it was agreed that I was to send news to his family as soon as it was possible to do so …. I sincerely hope the Captain has ….returned safe and sound …for my part the only information I can give you about the Captain is that concerning the few days I passed in his company, during which he enjoyed excellent health; he was in good spirits, so much so that we even went riding and had dancing in the evening, all this
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with the dangerous vicinity of German troops … the same may be said of the Lieutenant who was with him”.
I was glad to acknowledge this letter in person when I got home, and thank Pietro for all he had done, but sadly never saw him again.
During those few days at Villa Falconi we had ample access to the wireless news. Montgomery seemed to have become bogged down in front of fiercely defended German positions on the River Sangro, and General Clark was held up at Cassino. We debated with Pietro as to what we should do. In his opinion the Germans were too thick on the ground on the coastal plains for us to get through there, and we should stick to the central mountain range if we wanted to go on south. But he considered that our best course was to stay with him until the Allies reached Rome. He could not keep us in his house indefinitely, but could arrange for us to stay with each of his contadini in turn.
Again we had a difficult choice to make, and again we decided to move on. Pietro gave us a splendid farewell lunch, his own lamb with mayonnaise made from his own eggs and olive oil, his own wine, his own grapes to follow. We parted sadly, Pietro waving us on our way. We were not again to enjoy such pleasant company, food, wine and comfortable beds until the war was over.
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Chapter Twelve. The Last Lap
At Villa Falconi we had obtained comprehensive news of the war and were aware that the advance of the Eighth Army, the Army we were anxious to rejoin, appeared to have come to a halt in face of strong German resistance along the River Sangro, between a small town named Alfedena in the mountains and the Adriatic sea south of Pescara. To the west the American Fifth Army was similarly stalled in front of Cassino. Alfedena lay at the southern end of the Abruzzi mountains, about seventy miles distant from the Rieti area where Villa Falconi was situated.
It was now past mid November and snow had come on the hills. As we trudged southeast into increasingly high and arid regions we suffered much from cold and wet, clothed as we were in thin civilian suits. One day we were traversing a stony plain fit only for sheepwalk when we were caught in a violent storm of wind and rain which drenched us. At the same time we saw a small boy tending a flock who, when he saw us, ran quickly towards a village, huddled in a hollow, which we had already marked as possible shelter. We were not entirely happy about having our approach thus advertised but nevertheless pushed on there.
When we reached the first house it appeared that our fears might not be groundless. A door opened and we were dragged inside, cloths being thrown over our faces. It took a moment or two to realise that the cloths were hot towels, and that we were being welcomed by the mother of the boy we had seen. She was horrified at our state and in no time we found ourselves attired in British battledress while our wet clothes were being dried. The battledress had been left with her by two soldiers she had helped and sent on their way clad as civilians. We slept in beds in her
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house that night, so overwhelmed by her kindness that we broke the rule we had made never to do this.
Skirting the great plain of Avezzano, where we crossed the strategically important road from Rome to Pescara, a dangerous area because of the military airfields and other German installations, we found ourselves before long in a valley which led up to a small village named Villavallelonga, where the road into the Abruzzi mountains in that direction ended. All day we had seen planes, mostly Allied, weaving high above us and heard distant gunfire. At Villavallelonga we were on the fringe of the battle zone and were warned that ahead of us all Italians had been turned out of their farms and villages, so we could expect no further food or shelter. Villavallelonga lies at about three thousand feet and the scene there was extraordinary. The village, covered in snow, was thronged with escapers. There were British, dressed in an astonishing variety of civilian clothes. There were Sikhs, still in uniform because for religious reasons they had to retain their turbans and thus saw no point in civilian wear. There were Yugoslavs, reminders of the ruthless guerilla war in Croatia, there were Chinese who had been running a laundry in Rome and had been evicted by the Germans on the grounds that China was an enemy of the Axis.
The most interesting group was a party of officers of the Granatieri di Sardegna, Italian Guards Officers, trying to join the Royal Army in the South. They were smartly dressed in uniform with mountaineering boots and had a donkey to carry their gear. They invited Donald and me to join them, apparently impressed by the fact that I appeared able to communicate with the villagers while they, proud aristocrats from Piedmont, alleged incomprehension of the vulgar local patois. They briefed us on what lay ahead. In peacetime the area we had to cross was known as the Abruzzo National Park. There were youth hostels in the mountains and the trees on the tracks to these were carved with numbers to guide the walker. One of these routes led in the direction we wanted. We were tempted to join their party, partly because they claimed to know the way and partly because we were impressed by the donkey. However they seemed reluctant to start, and in the end we left without them.
The inhabitants of Villavallelonga were busy killing all their sheep because they feared that the Germans would requisition them, and in any
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case were likely soon to compel evacuation of the village. As they killed the sheep they boiled them, and found a ready market for the mutton among the crowd of refugees. At last our carefully hoarded Lire came in handy, and we each bought a quantity of cold mutton and stuffed it in our knapsacks. We also managed to find some sacking to bind around our legs, our thin trousers affording little protection in the snow.
I did not like the feel of that village. Its atmosphere was reminiscent of a small Alpine ski resort. Old friends were meeting and exchanging accounts of their experiences, groups were singing or playing accordions, there was much trafficking with the villagers, all in broad daylight. It seemed to me that the Germans must be aware of all this activity, and that we should be off. Sure enough, Villavallelonga was bombed two days after we left.
Very early on 28th November we started on what we knew must be our final trek, as we could expect no further food or shelter from our contadino friends. As the crow flies we had about twenty miles to cover through the mountains to our own forces around Alfedena on the Sangro river. It was a fine morning and we made good progress first up the valley south of Villavallelonga and then across snow covered hills rising to about four thousand feet, the path being clearly marked by the tracks of others who had been that way. Indeed we were not alone. Every now and then we saw fellow escapees on the same or parallel routes, the Sikhs in their battle dress and Army overcoats being particularly visible. We rather envied their overcoats.
There were less welcome sights, at one stage the plain footprints in the snow of a bear. There were few signs of any inhabitants, the Germans seemed to have effectively banished them, but that afternoon we were suddenly accosted by an Italian. He offered me a pistol. “You will need this” he said. I explained that should we encounter Germans we were already sufficiently at risk, in our civilian clothes, of being shot as spies, and that the addition of a pistol would certainly seal our fate. “But it is not the Germans who will get you”, he replied, “it’s the wolves”. Even this startling prospect did not induce us to accept the pistol, but it was true, as I later discovered, that Italian nature lovers had induced their Government to favour the preservation of the few bears and wolves remaining in the Abruzzi mountains, and I believe that is still the case today.
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Once over these hills we descended to a high valley in which lies the little village of Pescasseroli and from there moved parallel to a minor road which leads, ever higher, to the hamlet of Opi. Along this road there was a constant stream of German transport. By the time we reached Opi darkness had fallen. There we had to cross the road in order to continue southeast into the mountains. Choosing our moment, in between German traffic, we hurried over. When I got to the other side there was no sign of Donald. The darkness was now intense. My heart sank. We had travelled so far together and the thought of being separated on this last lap was unbearable. There seemed to be nobody around except the passing lorries and trucks. I took a risk and yelled Donald’s name into the darkness. To my great relief he appeared beside me a few moments later.
We had now covered some twelve miles since leaving Villavallelonga in the morning. Near Opi we found with difficulty the path the Italian officers had described, and started up it through dense forest. Again, there were signs that others had passed that way, and by striking matches it was possible to read the marks cut into trees of which we had been told. But these were few, and hard to see. Besides, it was dangerous to light matches with Germans possibly around. Before long we had to give up looking for these marks and just follow the lower ground, which seemed comparatively clear of trees and was probably the route of the track. After some time we saw a glimmer of light. Approaching carefully we found that against a cliff of rock a large shelter of branches had been built from which the light came. Drawing closer, we heard Italian voices, and emboldened ourselves to pull aside the rough screen and enter. Inside there were about twenty Italian civilians, some of them lying on spartan beds made of branches and twigs, others sitting on the ground eating and talking. There was a small charcoal fire. A dead silence fell at our appearance. These were refugees from some neighbouring village and their leader said that the Germans knew this shelter in the woods and that their patrols constantly visited it. If they found ex POWS being harboured there all would be in trouble. We pleaded that we were cold and hungry and only wanted to warm ourselves a little and go on our way. Eventually we were allowed to stay for half an hour. We did warm ourselves, and eat some of our mutton, but when the agreed half hour was up the leader politely asked us to depart.
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The rest of that dark night is painful to remember. We stumbled on through snow some two feet thick, uncertain of our way. We sat down in the snow every now and then to have a rest but this chilled us so much that after a few minutes we had to get up and go on. In the middle of the night we heard voices ahead. We had half expected to encounter a German patrol so were not surprised. We hid behind some trees and listened carefully. After a few minutes I came to the conclusion that the voices were not on the move, and the language was neither German nor Italian. Slowly we crept forward. Soon we could discern three figures sitting in the snow. At our stealthy approach one jumped up in alarm, the other two remained seated. They were Indian soldiers. We told them who we were. A grey bearded Sikh wailed ” Sahib, we are lost, we are tired, we are hungry, we are cold, we are waiting for death in this place”. Nothing I said would induce him to move. I just got the response “Sahib, it is no good. I am too old, too weary, too far from home. I shall wait here till death comes”. The others were mute, perhaps did not know English, and we had no alternative but to leave all three sitting there in the snow and stumble on.
That was a long night, but the grey light of dawn eventually came, and the first weak rays of the sun fell on icy peaks all around, two of them, as I have since established, over 7000 feet. At our level, probably some four to five thousand feet, we were still in a grey misty gloom. We had no idea where we were, and there seemed no way out through the mountains which appeared to hem us in. In adding that we were dead tired after twenty four hours on our feet, chilled and wet from the snow, disappointed in our hopes of finding ourselves in a recognizable location, I try only to extenuate our fault in the next decision we made.
As the light grew we saw, not far below us, a stone hut, probably the summer home of some shepherd, with smoke coming from its chimney. As we watched a figure, plainly a British soldier, came out, collected some firewood and went in again. I am afraid that our powers of judgement deserted us. We well knew that we were in the German forward area, perhaps only four miles from our own troops, and although we had not seen any of the enemy they could not be far away. Yet we were so tempted by the evidence of a fire and a compatriot that we cautiously approached the hut and entered.
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There were three men inside, two of them British soldiers, the third of some other nationality. They told us that they had been there all night and there had been no sign of Germans around. Reassured, we gratefully took off our wet boots and socks, pulled up our trousers, took off our knapsacks and sat down by the fire.
We had not been there long when, to our intense surprise, in walked the Indians we had left in the snow. “Sahibs”, the old Sikh said, “you gave us fresh courage, since it became light we have followed your tracks, and now we depend on you to lead us through the German lines”. This awoke me to my responsibilities, now enlarged. I said we must all move on.
It was too late. The first soldier we had seen had gone out again to collect more logs. Suddenly we heard the rattle of automatic fire. We heard a shout “Look out, the Jerries are coming” and the soldier vanished, climbing up into the forest. The two other men dashed out of the door, the Indians fatalistically remaining where they were. I murmured to Donald “We won’t go out there without our boots on, it would be madness”.
I had noticed that the hut had another room, probably a storeroom, into which a doorway gave access from the back of the room we were in. With our boots and socks in our hands we crept into this dark, empty and apparently windowless chamber and hid together in a corner. The noise of firing went on, and it was hard to believe that any of the three fugitives could still be alive. But before long the firing ceased and we could German voices outside the hut, interrogating the three men and the Indians. This questioning went on for some time. Then we heard the Germans come into the hut, and in the door opening of our hiding place appeared a man in Fascist uniform, accompanying them. He stood there without coming further, lit a match, and looked around. I shall never know whether he saw us in the corner, he could hardly have missed us. Yet we heard him go out and report “Niente” (nothing). We held our breath, it seemed that our attempt at evasion might succeed.
In the meantime, as we afterwards learned, the Germans had been inspecting the fire and the odds and ends left lying around it. In our hurry we had left there our civilian hats and our knapsacks, a fatal error. Our soldier friend tried to claim them as his own, but the Germans were not convinced that anybody would need three hats or three knapsacks, and the search resumed. There was some delay, perhaps they were again
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searching the woods. Then, quite unexpectedly, we heard the thud of an axe. It was aimed at a window opening of our hiding place which we had not seen because it had been boarded up. As the boards gave way a large, round, bespectacled German face looked through the opening. He immediately saw us. “Raus” (out) was all he said.
I will not try to describe the misery of that moment, the end of our long journey and attempt to get through the lies. The Germans fell us all in outside the hut and under their guard we began to walk. The Feldwebel in charge was a huge man, in excellent spirits after his success, and disposed to be friendly. He told me that his patrol belonged to the Edelweiss Division, front line troops (always more sympathetic to prisoners of war than those in the rear). His party had been on a routine patrol checking military cables which, unobserved by us, ran along the ground over the mountains. He had seen the smoke and decided to investigate.
For hours we proceeded under his direction down tracks leading out of the mountains. That march seemed endless. By the time we reached our destination we had been on our feet for thirty six hours since the previous morning, with hardly a respite. We had covered probably twenty five miles or more in that time, always in snow. We had now lost the stimulus of possible success to urge us on. Donald and I were both exhausted. I was suffering from a pulled Achilles tendon. Towards the end I experienced, for the first and I hope the last time, hallucinations. My mind appeared entirely separated from the mechanical movement of my legs, and before my eyes I seemed to see a succession of scenes, something like watching a cinema film.
It was evening before we arrived at a POW ‘cage’, a wired compound with some huts, and sank on to the straw with which they were floored, too tired even to appreciate the bowl of soup and hunk of bread offered to us by the Germans.
I end this Chapter with some reflections on our tactics since our escape from Fontanellato. It had there been the received wisdom that once out of the camp we should make for the hills and thereafter avoid all towns,
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major roads and railways. With hindsight I do not this was the best course of action.
Certainly, immediately after the Armistice of September 9th, there was such confusion all over Italy that it would have been possible to move swiftly south by train, as was shown by Hugh Mainwaring and Blanchard. But, failing this, I believe that if we could have begged, borrowed or stolen bicycles and travelled carefully down Italy on minor roads, passing only through small towns, we might have done better than by climbing up and down hills and mountains on foot as we did. No one notices bicyclists, they glide by noiselessly and are gone before their presence has been mentally registered. And on a road or in a small town a stranger is not so remarkable as in open, sparsely inhabited countryside.
The other question is whether it was wise, when we had reached the battle zone, to attempt to cross to our own lines through the mountains instead of on the coastal plain. The thinking here was that the opposing Armies had few troops in the mountains, the concentrations being on the plain on both sides of the central range, where the movement of modem mechanized forces was practicable. Clearly, the more troops on the ground the more difficult to work through them. But there were then no continuous trench lines, and sometimes quite large gaps between units. A great danger in these gaps, however, was minefields and these caused many casualties to those who tried that way.
This question must remain open. Our experiences in the mountains did not endear us to that route but it was perfectly practicable. A week or two before we tried to get through my friend Hugh Hope, mentioned earlier, had, travelling alone, taken a similar course to ours and walked into Alfedena without encountering either a German or British patrol. His first sight of our troops in that little town was of a British soldier sitting in a barber’s shop having his hair cut.
It is estimated that on September 9th 1943 there were 80,000 Allied Prisoners of War in Italy. The vast majority were transported to Germany, but 4000 got to Switzerland, 6,500 passed through the Allied lines in the South, 5,000 were still at large in the North at the end of the War, 2,000 were eventually posted as missing. Of the latter, there were probably many who had settled in an Italian village, but many more who had perished on a glacier in the mountains or on a minefield in the plain.
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Chapter Thirteen. Italy to Czechoslovakia
After our recapture we, together with other escapees who had been rounded up, were moved quickly out of the battle zone and installed in a former Italian Army barracks at Frosinone, between Cassino and Rome. It was bitterly cold there and we burned wooden barrack tables, cupboards and chairs to keep warm. The Germans watched approvingly as we destroyed the property of their erstwhile allies. Before long we moved again, further north. We were packed into lorries and at one point, during a halt, a German officer came to the back of the truck in which I was travelling and addressed us in good English. His theme was that we might think the Allies were winning the war, but it would be a hollow victory. The Russians would impose Communism on the whole of Europe and the Americans would deprive Britain of her Empire. There was still time to come to terms with Germany and present a united front to the Russian menace. We found this little speech heartening as evidence of lowered German morale. However for me it did arouse, for the first time, some misgivings as to what the brave new world to which we looked forward after the war would really be like. Even so I could not then envisage that the present war would be followed by over forty years of Cold War.
We arrived at a primitive hutted camp near Spoleto where we spent Christmas 1943. That feast was marred by a quarrel with the camp authorities. We had agreed among ourselves that the Senior British Officer should be a Major, a King’s Commissioned Officer of the Indian Army. He was, I think, a Mahratta, certainly of an extremely dark complexion, but an Old Etonian and completely anglicized, a charming man with longer service than any British officer present.
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The Germans could neither understand nor accept our decision and the usual relationship between the Camp Commandant and the SBO was suspended. As a result we forfeited extra rations, cigarettes and wine which the Germans alleged they had intended to provide for Christmas. However we stuck to our guns. Many years later Anthony Simkins, attending a course at the Imperial Defence College, found that a fellow student was the same Indian officer, now a Major General in the postpartition Indian Army. To Anthony he expressed high appreciation of the stance we took at that time.
Then came the first of the several long train journeys in wooden cattle trucks which I was to experience. We were issued with a substantial length of German sausage and a hunk of bread as basic rations for a journey which we were told might last three days. There were forty of us in each truck. The floor was sparsely littered with straw, and there was just about room for all to lie down. The ventilation slits which ran high up along each sidewall provided some daylight and fresh air but were secured with barbed wire. A cut down tar barrel served for sanitary purposes. At the end of each truck was an exterior perch from which an armed German sentry could look along the roof. In order to intimidate us these invisible guards would indulge in frequent bursts of small arms fire.
One of my companions had managed to retain a jackknife. The train left in daylight and by two o’clock next morning, somewhere near Florence, we had cut a hole in the floor of our truck and were standing by to disembark through it, one by one, next time the train slowed, as it frequently did. But on this occasion instead of slowing it suddenly came to a halt. We could hear patrols moving along the train. In no time a torch flashed under our truck and the hole was revealed. Much shouting ensued, as always happened on great occasions in the German Army, and we were made to descend. Repairs were effected, and we were deprived of our boots and braces before we were allowed to proceed.
It was a cold and uncomfortable journey, as were to be others of that nature, but I do not wish to exaggerate their hardships. We were not crammed in as were the wretched Jews of whom one heard later. We sang and chatted and the mere sensation of being on the move gave hope of new possibilities of escape or at least of reaching a regular Prisoner of War Camp, unlike the verminous dumps we had experienced in Italy
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since our recapture. In one or two stations we were permitted to leave the cattle wagons and were given soup and warm drinks by quite friendly German girls in uniform. At dusk on the third evening of our journey we arrived at Moosberg, a small town thirty nules from Munich.
It was only a short trudge to Stammlager VII A. We halted outside a massive double gateway festooned with barbed wire and surmounted by a wooden arch. This bore a roughly carved frieze depicting wounded and dejected soldiers. Above it was the inscription ‘Parcere subjectis’. High fences and sentry towers ran into the gloom on every hand. I cannot remember a more miserable sensation than I experienced that dark December evening, standing in the snow, shivering in my thin civilian clothes, staring at that huge sinister fortress. It was my first perception of the evil that was Nazi Germany. Less than thirty miles away, although I did not know it at the time, was a similar hideous construction named Dachau.
Stammlager VII A held, I believe, thirty thousand prisoners. A broad road led through the camp, off which were hutments for the various nationalities, each within its own wired enclosure. There were Greeks, Italians and Yugoslavs but the majority were French and Russian. Many of the French has been there since 1940 and by now the Germans had delegated to them the internal administration of the whole complex. They maintained active contacts with France, often being allowed home on leave, and thrived on bribery and blackmarketeering. The Russians, on the other hand, not being given any protection by the Geneva Convention, and considered by the Germans as sub-human, lived in a most deplorable state of squalor and semi starvation. Fortunately, for us this was only another transit camp. We British officers, augmented by the arrival of most of the officers of three battalions just captured at Leros, and numbering about two hundred, lived in our own compound sleeping in wooden bunks, three tiers high with a ground plan of four bunks, making twelve bunks in a unit. Conditions were primitive and crowded but there was a woodburning stove in the hut and the camp had the priceless amenity of a central
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bathhouse equipped with showers. Delousing treatment was also provided there and of this we were all in dire need. I will not enlarge on the subject of lice, but they are highly uncomfortable companions.
We were also issued with new uniforms. The Germans had a stock of these, captured French, Polish and Yugoslav. I found myself clad in the uniform of the Royal Yugoslav Army, a much warmer attire than the well worn civilian clothes I discarded. A perhaps even greater comfort was our first issue, since capture by the Germans, of Red Cross parcels.
Some of us had just established contact with the French, with a view to arranging our escape to France assisted by the Communist railwaymen operating in both countries, a matter the French said was easily arranged provided the money was right, when after less than three weeks in that camp we had orders to move. Lined up at the main gate we saw alongside us a column of wretched Russian prisoners, famished, dressed and shod in rags. We were now flush with Red Cross cigarettes and asked the Hauptman in charge whether we might make a collection for the Russians. Rather surprisingly, he agreed. Contributions were thrown into a blanket and four of us, carrying the blanket at each comer, advanced towards the long Russian file, intending to allow them a few each. It was not to be. As soon as they saw us coming the whole lot broke ranks and rushed towards us. I found myself sprawling in the mud with Russians on top of me and the precious cigarettes being trampled and destroyed. Then Alsatian dogs cleared the horde and I saw some Russians lying near by, trapped by the leg. The Hauptman had taken the appropriate action in the circumstances.
That was my last sight of Moosberg but I have an abiding memory of those wretched, almost animal, Russians and that evil camp. I did not then know that at that time there were millions undergoing worse treatment than prevailed at Moosberg, most of whom were facing terrible deaths. We British and American prisoners of war moved through Nazi Germany and German occupied territory as privileged beings, and for that should always be grateful. I still shudder at the name of Moosberg.
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It was now the end of January 1944. We had another dreary journey in cattle trucks, on this occasion to last four days. In one respect conditions were better as each truck had a stove. There was another difference, two German guards travelled with us in each wagon, which was convenient in one respect, as they were just as anxious to keep warm as we were and at every stop begged, borrowed or stole fuel. We moved very slowly with occasional halts through what appeared to be an endless sequence of snow covered birch forests, finally arriving at Marisch Trubau, in Czechoslovakia, some hundred miles east of Prague, near the Polish border.
Oflag VIII F, Marisch Trubau, was a proper POW camp containing some 2000 British and Indian Officers. It was a substantial stone building with brick annexes and a football ground. It had formerly been the Czech Army Cadet School. On arrival we were issued with new battledress to replace the various Ruritanian uniforms we had received at Moosberg and underwent a medical examination. I was found to have contracted bronchitis during my travels and was despatched to the excellent infirmary, staffed by British doctors. On discharge I found myself reunited with many friends both from previous camps and from the Regiment, the latter numbering no less than eleven, not all of whom I knew because they had joined after my capture. In many ways Marisch Trubau was an excellent camp. It was well heated, very necessary as for the next couple of months it snowed nearly every day, the windows were double glazed, and Red Cross parcels arrived regularly. We slept eight to a room, on two tiered bunks floored with wooden slats and provided with the regulation blue checked palliasses stuffed with straw, a pillow, sheets and one blanket. In fact there were few bunks which had any slats left, as they had been put into use as tunnel supports, so many of us lay suspended on webs of such string as could be procured.
There was an extensive social life. We missed the wine supplied as part of the ration in Italy but made do with a powerful brew made from sugar and raisins from Red Cross parcels, fermented with yeast. I wrote home
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that for St. Patrick’s Day I had organized a dinner attended by ninety, with ‘Smash’ Kilkelly in the chair. The menu (almost entirely supplied from Red Cross parcels) had been marmite soup, boiled salmon, fried Canadian meat roll, Christmas pudding and sardines on toast, with beer to drink and coffee to follow. The tables had been decorated, the centrepiece being an Irish Harp made from clay and painted. A string band had played.There were football matches and, with the approval of the German Commandant, lavish theatricals, the stage being made from the plywood crates in which the Canadian Red Cross parcels arrived. Tools for the construction of this and of stage props were supplied by the Germans, who were relieved to see their charges thus innocently employed. But as will be seen, we were not employed as innocently as they thought.
At the end of March I had the great joy of the first letter I had received from home for seven months, and at the same time a parcel of chocolate, razor blades and other useful items which my Mother had posted to me the previous July. On the whole existence at Trubau was very satisfactory compared with what had gone before, but it must not be thought that all our activities revolved around beer, theatricals and string bands.
It was a feature of POW life that opportunity was taken, whenever feasible, to mock or disobey our captors. In Italy we had to be careful because the Italians were capable of sudden temper, even to the extent of shooting without premeditation. The Germans had far greater self control but could be infinitely more ruthless when they so decided. I had taken part, in both countries, in scenes of insubordination all of which had passed off without serious consequences. But on one occasion at Trubau I thought we had met our match. The Germans suddenly ordered a rollcall parade at midday, in addition to the morning and evening rollcalls which we attended without protest. We refused, en masse, to appear. After several summonses and threats they marched a company of infantry into the camp, armed to the teeth with stick grenades and bayonets. This looked ugly, but still we refused to parade. We won. The confrontation ended with German officers going rather sheepishly around the rooms checking our presence individually. A midday rollcall parade was never again demanded.
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While such ‘Goon baiting’, together with theatricals, football and studies filled the lives of most in the camp there was yet another activity, of which the ramifications were known to comparatively few. While still in the Infirmary after my arrival I had a visitor. He was Jack Pringle, who, it may be remembered, had been commissioned into the 8th Hussars on the same date as Henry Huth and I. Captured at Sidi Rezegh in November 1941 he had since made six escapes, on one of which he had only just failed to reach the Swiss frontier. On three of these attempts he had been with David Stirling, who, he now told me, was also at Marisch Trubau. Lt.Col David Stirling was already renowned as the founder and first leader of the Special Air Service, the SAS. Jack said that as soon as I was better I must meet him.
It was a memorable meeting. A Lieutenant Colonel at twenty eight, David Stirling had the most magnetic personality I have encountered. Six foot six, of persuasive charm, his dark eyes had a compelling intensity. Many found themselves following his behests even against their better judgement. After this interview David Stirling asked me to join the secret organization he and Jack Pringle had created in the camp. His immediate staff, to which I was recruited, consisted of Jack, Anthony Simkins (my law tutor at Sulmona), and three others. This group controlled all intelligence, escaping and security activities in the camp, as well as a ‘news agency’, and was supported by a cohort of watchers, tunnelling specialists, forgers of passes, tailors, map makers, wireless experts, carpenters and linguists, all working under David’s inspiring leadership.
A full description of this impressive organization, its activities and its aims, may be found in Jack Pringle’s book, ‘Colditz Last Stop’ and in the biography of David Stirling by Alan Hoe. It is also covered in ‘For you the war is over’ by Hon. Philip Kindersley. Suffice it to say that David was aiming at a mass escape of 150 officers from the Marisch Trubau camp. We were not intended to get back to distant England. David had political connections, notably with Randolph Churchill and, through him, with Winston. He was a man of great vision and foresaw that before long
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the advancing Russians would overrun Czechoslovakia and neighbouring Poland and endeavour to oust Western influence. We escapers were to hide up in the houses of friendly Czechs as a ‘goodwill mission’, to provide them and their compatriots with confidence that the Allies would stand by Czechoslovakia should the Russians attempt to impose a Communist regime.
This was an ambitious project, and the method of escape was to be no less so. We were to surmount the high wire fence that surrounded the camp, by night, the camp lights having been fused and diversions arranged to distract the sentries. To cross the wire David was having ten bridges made from plywood, hollow structures twenty feet long by three feet in section, each to take fifteen men over the obstacle. These were being made from the crates in which the Red Cross parcels arrived, as had been the stage for the theatre. But in this case the SBO, Colonel Waddilove, had persuaded the German Commandant that there was a large number of Scottish officers in the camp who desired nothing better than to dance Highland reels. He explained that for this sprung floors were essential, and there could be no better solution than ten plywood platforms placed together, each twenty feet long by three feet in section. As the construction of these proceeded it was amusing to watch officers of prestigious Highland Regiments press-ganged into dancing on them.
A vital element in the plan was intelligence both of the general war situation and of conditions ruling in the German ‘Protectorate of Czechoslovakia’. We also needed contact with the Czech Underground to arrange ‘safe houses’ should the escape succeed. David had persuaded Colonel Waddilove to give his organization priority in all camp activities, to the dudgeon of the older Colonels, who could not understand how and why David appeared to have acquired such influence with the SBO. David was authorized, among other powers, to commandeer from the Red Cross parcels, before we received them, such quantities of coffee and cigarettes as were required to corrupt the middle-aged reservists who comprised much of the camp guards force, and the Czech workmen who often entered the camp. Much information was garnered from both these sources and it was the Czechs who procured for us the radio parts that enabled our experts to make two wireless receiving sets capable of
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receiving the BBC. Every evening the ‘news agency’ would provide for each barrack room a copy of the BBC news, verbatim and typewritten. This would be read out, precautions being taken to detect the approach of Germans. The BBC, together with the German newspapers we were permitted, kept us well informed of the course of the war.
Through some of these Czechs, too, initial contacts were made with the Czech Underground. Then, by a stroke of good fortune. Jack Pringle, while on a visit to hospital in the neighbouring town of Zwittau (later to achieve fame as the home and last factory of Oscar Schindler), managed to arrange a meeting, in the dark recesses of a Catholic Church, with an agent of the Czech Underground Army. This agent gave promises of support, much local information, and two addresses in Prague where escapers would find shelter. At this moment one of our officers was killed in an escape designed to gain intelligence. In spite of this reverse it was decided that on the basis of the information provided by the Czech Underground contact four officers should leave the camp and reach the Prague addresses, with the object of sending back information of conditions in the Protectorate and names of other Czechs who might help us if our escape succeeded.
The Germans employed Russian prisoners, escorted by German guards, to carry out menial tasks in the camp. Every detail of the dress and movements of these parties had been noted by our watchers. On 20th April the four selected officers, two in German uniform and German speaking, two in the wretched habiliments of the Russians and carrying shovels, moved towards the gate used by the working parties. I was in the secret, as not many were, and watched with inward, but concealed, excitement as, the sentries’ attention somewhat diverted by a rowdy football match laid on by David, the party was allowed through the gate after a brief interchange in German with the guard on duty.
Two were recaptured almost at once. Of the other two, named Wadeson and Mackenzie, we had no news. They had been directed to one of the Prague addresses. We were later to learn, as will be recounted in the next Chapter, that they did not survive for long.
Immediately after this escape there were signs of disarray, and many comings and goings, in the German Kommandantur. From our contacts we learned that the Gestapo believed that they had discovered plans for
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the takeover of our immediate area by the Czech Resistance. A hundred Czechs had been arrested and some shot, including the supplier of our wireless parts. This unwelcome information was followed by orders that the camp was to be immediately evacuated.
There was a hurried conclave of David’s inner circle, without Jack Pringle, who was away being interviewed by a Repatriation Commission. David asked Anthony Simkins and me to hide up in the mouth of a tunnel which had been started, and emerge to contact the Czechs after the camp had been cleared. Given the conditions in the Protectorate of which we had just learned both of us declined. Then Jack Pringle returned and David decided that he and Jack would hide. They were by now both well known to the Germans, and suspected of being the authors of our nefarious activities. There was reason to believe they were in danger of arrest, probably by night. To lessen this contingency it was arranged that while the necessary preparations were being made to stock their hiding place one of our confederates, Arthur Gilbey, should take David’s place in his barrack room and that I should take Jack’s, David and Jack moving to ours. Should Jack nevertheless be found and arrested I was to take over his responsibilities.
It was all for naught. The Germans cornered David, whose height was hard to conceal, and Jack, although he had adopted an elaborate disguise. They departed from the camp with the rest of us, David under special guard.
So ended the great escape plan. Its scale and objectives were doubtless over ambitious. It caused the death of three officers, and might have caused the deaths of many more. When it was being planned we did not know that the Germans had decided to regard mass escapes as ‘enemy uprisings’, nor did we know that after the recent great break-out through a tunnel from the RAF officers’ camp, Stalag Luft III, over forty recaptured escapers had been shot by the Gestapo, the Secret State Police who formed the core of Himmler’s SS. That the SS should have become involved was particularly alarming. In justice to the regular German Army it was against its code to shoot recaptured prisoners of war.
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A few years ago George Millar, himself a noted escaper, and author of the ‘Horned Pigeon’, wrote to me: “Jack (Pringle) was a great escaper. What a shame that at the end he came under the aegis of David Stirling with his crackpot, mass-escape, up-with-the-Stirling image. And he got dear old Waddie (Wadeson) killed”. That is one view that may be taken of David Stirling’s concept and leadership. On the other hand his inspiring ideas and example did a lot for our morale and undoubtedly his project gave the Germans considerable concern as to security in their ‘Protectorate’ of Czechoslovakia. Apart from this, our activities, and the move from Czechoslovakia, involved a number of troops, several rail movements, and the hurried equipment of a large new POW camp in Germany. Not insignificant headaches for a German staff faced with a rapidly advancing Russian foe.
David Stirling, knighted before the end of his life, Anthony Simkins, then lately retired as Deputy Director of MI5, and Jack Pringle, my fellow 8th Hussar, all lunched with us at Meadows one summer’s day some years ago. Before lunch we sat in the garden and had much to talk over. Once every year Anthony, Jack and I foregather in London, and have done so without a break for thirty years. Many bonds were forged in those days at Marisch Trubau, ill conceived though our plans may have been.
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Chapter Fourteen. Brunswick and Home
Again we were on the move, by train in cattle trucks. This time we had been handcuffed before embarking and eight armed soldiers travelled in each truck, separated from us by a grille of barbed wire. The Germans were taking no chances with such dangerous characters. However in my truck, and I believe in most of the others, we were not long inconvenienced by the handcuffs. In no time someone, I think an ex-policeman, had unlocked his and proceeded to release us all. This caused great concern among our guards. Finally we reached a compromise with them by which we replaced our handcuffs every time a German officer came, at halts, to inspect the truck, but the rest of the time we dispensed with these uncomfortable manacles.
That journey lasted two days and two nights. Our destination was Brunswick, about eighty miles west of Berlin, where a Luftwaffe barracks standing in pine trees had been hastily prepared for our reception. First impressions were not favourable. We were overcrowded and some of the buildings were bomb damaged. On one side of the camp there was an apparently unused aerodrome and on the other, as we discovered before long, an underground factory making jet engines, the latest advance, still very secret, in air engine technology. We came to the conclusion that the Germans had decided to punish us for our late activities by placing us in a position which might be the target of air attacks, as indeed proved to be the case.
At Brunswick David Stirling rebuilt his organization, although deprived of most of the maps, compasses, forged passes and German uniforms he had accumulated. These had either been abandoned in their hiding places at Trubau or been found in the extensive searches we had
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undergone when leaving. However the all important wireless sets had got through, thanks to the efforts of a devoted few who had dismantled them and hidden the parts in tins of food and in other ingenious ways. So the ‘News Agency’ service was resumed.
There was little escaping activity at Brunswick. The savage murder of the escapees from the Air Force camp, accompanied by the appearance in our own of German posters, in English, warning that ‘Escaping Is No Longer A Sport’, undoubtedly had a deterrent effect. Our clandestine activities largely concentrated on countering efforts by the Germans to introduce informers into the camp. It is surprising how the Nazis could find a few collaborators among British POWs, some motivated by strong anti-Russian and anti-Communist views but most by the prospect of reward in some form. By infiltrating these into selected camps the Germans hoped not only to gain information of our secrets but operational intelligence from careless talk by those recently captured.
At least one of these informers was detected at Brunswick. His name was Douglas Berneville Claye. Son of a retired Army Staff Sergeant who ran a pub at Harrogate, Claye was an instructor at a riding school before the war, joined the RAF when the war began, deserted, committed bigamy and became a petty thief and con man. Managing to conceal his record, he later obtained a temporary commission in the SAS and while with a patrol behind the enemy lines in the Desert was captured by the Afrika Korps. How he became a collaborator is unknown, but he certainly was one by the time he arrived at Brunswick. From the first we were suspicious of him, and in December 1944 asked the German Commandant to remove him for his own safety. In March 1945 he was seen, in the uniform of a Hauptsturmfuhrer (Captain) in the Waffen SS, by members of the tiny ‘British Free Corps’ which the Germans had managed to assemble from other renegades. After the war Claye was investigated but let go for lack of ‘untainted’ evidence. The investigators concentrated on bigger fish. John Amery (son of a Cabinet Minister) and William Joyce (‘Lord Haw Haw’) were hanged. Other renegades were imprisoned, two of them for life.
Having arrived at Brunswick at the beginning of May we spent the early summer in a fever of optimism at the march of events, watching vast fleets of US ‘Flying Fortresses’ carrying bombs to Berlin, the camp being
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directly under their flight path. They would twinkle in the summer sunshine like a great swarm of bees. Occasionally a bee would disappear, destroyed by anti aircraft fire, and one or more parachutes would slowly descend. On 6th June 1944 the ‘Canary’, as our BBC news service was now codenamed, promulgated dramatic tidings, the fall of Rome and the landings on the French coast. Operation Overlord had begun. Liberation seemed close. This was the high point of our stay at Brunswick. From then on the delay before Caen, and the failure at Arnhem, belied our hopes of early release. Meanwhile three concerns combined to render the next ten months, up to April 1945 when liberation did come, the most unpleasant of all the time I spent as a Prisoner of War. These concerns were first, fear of the Gestapo, second, air raids and third, growing hunger.
I have related that after the four man escape from Marisch Trubau we had no news of Wadeson and Mackenzie. At Brunswick, in June, their ashes were handed over to the SBO for disposal. The Germans would only say that they had been shot ‘while attempting to escape after recapture’. We later discovered that they had reached the address in Prague and found the Gestapo waiting for them. But, even though we did not then know this, the reticence which the Germans were observing as to what had happened, and the lapse of time since their escape, made us ponder. It was hard to avoid the conclusion, which proved correct, that poor Wadeson and Mackenzie had indeed fallen into the hands of the Gestapo, had been closely interrogated and probably tortured before being shot.
At the same time a contact informed us that a criminal court had sentenced David Stirling and Jack Pringle, in absentia, to death, as enemies of the Reich, and that the sentence would be executed if they further misbehaved. It is likely that this was untrue, probably a story deliberately ‘planted’ by the Germans to keep us all quiet. However there was no way of knowing the truth at the time, and when, a few weeks later, David and Jack were arrested and departed for an unspecified destination our worst fears seemed to have been realized.
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I need hardly say that these events profoundly influenced my peace of mind and that of the remaining inner members of our organization. If David and Jack were now being interrogated by the Gestapo, perhaps because of something Wadeson or Mackenzie had been compelled to tell them, it looked as if we were all, eventually, to undergo a similar ordeal. For most of the rest of our stay at Brunswick this worry, because I am not ashamed to admit it was a considerable worry, coloured our existence. It was not until after many months that we learned that David and Jack had gone straight to the top security camp at Colditz, without any Gestapo intervention on the way.
The next concern was air raids. I have recounted how in the early part of our stay at Brunswick we had seen the daylight raids on Berlin. Often, too, the sirens sounded by night. As is well known, the methods of the US Air Force and the RAF differed. The American tactics involved the leading aircraft dropping flares and bombs on what it conceived to be the target, and all the following aircraft dropping their bombs on the same area. This was fine if the leading aircraft had accurately identified the objective. The RAF preceded their attacks with ‘Pathfinders’, their crews specially trained in target identification. They operated mainly by night, the Pathfinders dropping flares suspended from miniature parachutes. As these parachutes dropped slowly down they identified the target for the main bomber force which arrived several minutes afterwards. Until late July we had revelled in the constant sound of sirens and the air raids which the Reich endured by day and by night. But when our own area became a target that pleasure evaporated. The first intimation that we had become vulnerable came late one still summer evening. A few aircraft flew high overhead and then we saw little white flares, looking like the decorations on a Christmas tree, descending slowly. Some appeared to be coming down over the camp, which was a little worrying. However we were not the target that night of the RAF bombers which arrived a few minutes later. The target was the city of Brunswick, a couple of miles away but near enough to hear the screech of the bombs and see the resulting fires before we had to take cover from the shrapnel rained down
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around us by the flak guns. During the next half hour wave after wave of RAF bombers followed the first.
A few days later came a massive daylight raid by US forces, apparently directed on the aerodrome and jet engine factory beside us. I was in an upstairs room, and the noise of the bombs falling close by, the smoke and vibration, were unnerving. Although bombs fell very near the camp we were fortunate in that none fell inside during that raid.
Until now we had disdained, when the sirens went, to use the very modern air raid shelters, of reinforced concrete with blastproof iron doors and small barred windows, which were in the basements of our barrack buildings. One reason was that we wished to show a bold front to the Germans, another that we believed, I think mistakenly, that in accordance with the Geneva Convention the location of our camp had been notified to the Allies.
But after that daylight raid most of us dashed down to the shelters as soon as the sirens went. In them we experienced further night raids on neighbouring Brunswick and then, on 24th August 1944, a day raid in which those shelters preserved many, if not most of us, from destruction. At 10.30 that morning we saw a vast formation of US bombers flying towards us and then bombs of every description, high explosive, incendiary and anti-personnel, were loosed on the camp and the surrounding area. Their target was probably the underground factory beside us. We took to the shelters where the falling heavy bombs, by that time in the war probably thousand pounders, sounded like approaching express trains. Their roar was accompanied by the whistle of the antipersonnel bombs and the incendiaries. The concrete floors shuddered under our feet. An incendiary penetrated the shelter I was in through a barred window and was extinguished with difficulty. One heavy bomb demolished the outside wall of the next door building and for a moment the noise and blast convinced us that we had suffered a direct hit. Many have undergone such terror, but in our case it was hard to bear the thought that it was our own Allies who were inflicting it on us.
When the raid ended we emerged to see a scene of devastation. A number of buildings were on fire. Others had been partly demolished. Not a pane of glass was left in any window and many of the pine trees lay on their sides. Bomb craters were everywhere. Worst of all, three British
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officers were dead, eight seriously injured and thirty slightly hurt. German casualties had also been heavy. Among our three dead was my old friend and polo mentor, Major Gerald Kilkelly, caught in the open by anti-personnel bombs. A few days later, on August 28th, his birthday and mine, I was one of a small party allowed by the Germans to bury ‘Smash’ in a graveyard in Brunswick.
After that no more bombs fell on the camp, but Brunswick remained a target. After a night raid on 14th October there was a firestorm, the fires combining to form a single pinnacle high over the city, awesome to behold. Next day scraps of scorched paper, some of them parts of hymn sheets from burned churches, fell all over the camp. That winter there were also many night raids on Berlin, and the sirens sounded as the planes approached and then passed over us. We spent long hours in the shelters, mainly by night, so scared had we been by the events of 24th August. Cold and uncomfortable though that was it did not compare too unfavourably with the condition of our living quarters, which the Germans had made little effort to repair and were now only partially, and seldom, heated.
Thus between the Gestapo and the air raids there was little joy that autumn and winter. To add to our worries there were strong rumours that Hitler had ordered Himmler to liquidate all POWs should Germany be overrun. Our frame of mind can perhaps be summarized in the words of a doggerel which circulated widely in the camp;
“Ashes to ashes and dust to dust
If the bombers don’t get you
the SS must.”
However many camp activities went on. Jack Pringle had bequeathed to me the job of ‘Escapes Officer’ in our still active organization. This role was undemanding at Brunswick where, as I have said earlier, little appetite remained for that activity. However anyone with an escape plan, and there were some, was obliged to inform me, and if I judged it feasible I had to obtain approval from the SBO. The object of this bureaucratic procedure was not to deter escapers but, in a camp with the addition of new arrivals from Arnhem and other fighting on the German frontier now holding well over two thousand officers, to ensure that one plan did not
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unknowingly conflict, in timing or method, with another. I only remember one case in which I had to act in this way, and nothing came of that attempt.
As the winter of 1944/45 wore on the third of the concerns I have mentioned, hunger, became our greatest worry. Ever since we had been in German hands the rations had been exiguous. Now food was shorter than ever, largely due to the Russian advance which had deprived the Reich of large areas of agricultural production in the east. In German camps there was no central messing, we ate in our rooms. Once a week we were issued with a loaf of ryebread, some ersatz margarine and a small amount of sugar. The bread was palatable, but it was hard to make one loaf last a week. The daily ration consisted of herb tea first thing in the morning, three boiled potatoes in their skins at midday and a helping of millet or swede soup in the evening, all brought around in tin containers. Occasionally there were some scraps of meat in the soup. As long as Red Cross parcels kept arriving to supplement this diet the food situation was tolerable. Each room appointed a cook, some very ingenious. Ours opted to give us Red Cross biscuits and butter for lunch, and to make the boiled potatoes and the millet soup, improved by the addition of small squares of Spam, into a sustaining broth for the evening. To heat this, and provide Red Cross tea and cocoa, miniature stoves were fabricated from the tins in which Red Cross tobacco arrived, and after the big air raid there was no shortage of fuel from the felled pine trees. Ours was a good cook, but lost his job when it was discovered that he was peeling the potatoes and secretly eating the peelings. After that they went in the soup.
I have often mentioned Red Cross parcels. By this time in the war these came entirely from Canada, via Sweden. Very good they were, containing large wheaten biscuits, Spam, meat roll or canned salmon, butter, sugar, raisins and tea or coffee. I have no hesitation in saying that without the food parcels supplied by the International Red Cross many of us would not have survived. But from the end of 1944, due to Allied bombing, only
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a trickle of these parcels arrived in the camp, and eventually their supply ceased altogether. We had then to exist entirely on what we could get from the Germans, and most of us experienced real hunger. This is a sensation difficult to describe, but one I would not wish to undergo again or ask any other human being to experience. Sadly, every day many do. Amazingly, even with our near starvation rations there were some in the camp who would swop a slice of bread for a cigarette. Certainly the odd cigarette still obtainable did have the effect of distending the stomach temporarily and alleviating the pangs of hunger.
That winter many of us spent most of the day lying on our bunks, increasingly weak from malnutrition, swathed in jerseys and a greatcoat and covered with the one blanket we were permitted. In this way we could at least keep reasonably warm, and we descended only occasionally, mainly for the morning and evening roll calls and when the sirens went. The days passed. At Christmas the Germans were exulting in their last, and short-lived, success, the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes. In March came great news, the Allies had crossed the Rhine. From then, too, the sun began to shine and we could sit outside enjoying its warmth penetrating our skinny frames.
On 11th April we knew that Allied forces were nearing us, advancing up the autobahn towards Berlin. That night we heard gunfire and the squeak of tank tracks not far away. At about 9am next morning a solitary US jeep arrived at the gates of the camp, and out got a Sergeant of the 125th Cavalry Squadron, American 9th Army. The camp went wild, I will not try to describe the rapture of that moment (it did not, however, prevent one officer remaining alone in his room to take this heaven-sent opportunity of consuming the remains of his comrades’ bread rations). The American sergeant and a trooper walked around the camp ordering the sentries on the wire to fall in at the main gate, and marched off the whole guard company, unprotesting, to an unknown destination. I could not help contrasting the discipline of those German soldiers with the behaviour of the Italian guards at Fontanellato under similar circumstances. Within a few hours we had further visitors, staff cars,
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jeeps, war correspondents. Best of all, K rations, cigarettes, wine, poured into the camp from the ever generous Americans.
We were on the axis of advance, towards the Elbe at Magdeburg, of the 9th US Army, but the Brunswick area was planned to be part of the British Zone of Occupation. On the heels of the Americans a detachment of four British officers, the vanguard of Allied Military Government, arrived in Brunswick. As it was obvious that such a small party could not cope with the chaos prevailing in the area the SBO was asked to provide temporary assistance from the camp. Partly because of my small efforts in the secret organization, partly because I claimed, optimistically, to speak some German, I was one of twelve officers selected for this duty. To the envy of my friends in the camp I was soon installed with Allied Military Government in the only hotel in Brunswick still standing. I had my own bedroom and access to a bathroom and to the mess, where there was a mixed and convivial party of AMG officers, war correspondents male and female and the sundry camp followers who always accompany an Army. Food and drink were plentiful.
I was initially attached to the Provost Marshal, a Yorkshireman who had been a Police Constable in Doncaster before the war. There was little policing that could be done. The whole area was milling with Russian slave workers released from the Herman Goering Steel Works, a vast complex near Brunswick. They had broken into every wine shop and bar and were nearly all drunk. One day I was approached by a pathetic Russian woman asking for food. She spoke perfect French and told me that in her youth, before the Revolution of 1917, her parents had been wealthy. I did what I could for her.
As far as possible we tried to protect German civilians from the depredations of the Russians. But the Germans were molested not only by them but by some members of our own forces. Late one night we were summoned to a farm where a girl had been raped. In the company of the farmer and his wife, as well as of the girl, I tried to elicit the circumstances, urged on by my friend from Doncaster who wanted to know more intimate details than I cared to translate, indeed they were of a nature which I was quite unable to translate. However two facts emerged. The man had been black, and had worn a green scarf around his neck.
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There were South African Army transport columns in the area. Next day I saw one of their drivers sitting on a bridge. He was black, and wore a green scarf. He was arrested and handed over to a South African Colonel. I asked what would happen to him. “He will be shot” was the answer, “we dare not let him return to South Africa now he has acquired a taste for white women”.
After some days I managed to ‘liberate’ a Mercedes open tourer and in this paid occasional visits to the camp, bearing gifts, quite a dangerous business because the perimeter was now guarded by GIs who were inclined to loose off at any stray visitor. In the camp, after the first glorious days of having plenty to eat, a mood of frustration had followed owing to lack of any news of arrangements for getting home. I was glad to have plenty to do, and comfortable quarters, although Brunswick had disadvantages. The streets, flanked by bomb damaged and burnt out buildings, were difficult to navigate, a maze of bomb craters, trailing overhead tram wires and contorted electric supply cables. One night, lost in this maze, I saw an armoured vehicle, an American ‘Tank Destroyer’, parked in front of a house. It had no apparent occupants. Climbing up on to its deck I found I could step straight through a first floor window into the house. I there found the crew, an amiable party of Negro soldiers, happily ensconced. They greeted me with enthusiasm and offered me coffee. Later I made friends with a tank crew, this time white, who had been accompanied, ever since they had entered Germany, by a German girl who travelled in the tank, did their washing and generally saw to their comfort. Every day I saw US transport columns moving east, their crews laughing and shouting, some wearing top hats, the traditional head dress of German chimney sweeps, no doubt ‘liberated’ during the column’s drive from the Ruhr.
The progress of these columns was not always without danger, as I found when one day I took a party of friends on a drive east along the autobahn towards the Elbe. Not far from Brunswick we came under fire from a wood about a kilometer off the road. The war was not yet over, and isolated German units, bypassed by the American advance, were still holding out. We did not repeat that expedition, nor was there much time for such outings. After a week with the Provost Marshal I had been assigned to the Medical Officer of Health and become involved in
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dealings with German officials over water supply, the repair of hospitals and measures to counteract typhus and dyptheria, both prevalent. I found these officials only too anxious to cooperate with their new masters, a refreshing change from my relations with Germans in the recent past.
Then, on April 30th 1945, a message came from the camp. We were all to be evacuated by air. I lost no time in saying goodbye to my friends in Allied Military Government, got into the Mercedes and drove to the aerodrome beside the camp. Here the scene was astonishing. About thirty Canadian Air Force Dakotas were formed up in several lines, taking off as fast as they were filled by the waiting ex-POWs. I abandoned the Mercedes on the airfield, secured a place in a Dakota, and a few hours later landed at Brussels. That evening we were royally entertained by charming Belgian ladies and I called on old friends in the Diplomatic Service whom I had known in Cairo.
Next day we were in the air again and landed that afternoon on a grass aerodrome which later became Gatwick Airport. I will not attempt to describe my emotions during that flight, particularly while passing high over the Channel, or the joy of landing in peaceful England, and being greeted by beaming WVS ladies with cups of tea. It was a striking contrast to the ruin and chaos we had left. Then there was a hitch. We discovered that we were meant to spend two days in a camp near the airfield, having our details checked, being ‘debriefed’, receiving new uniform, medals, a medical examination and other tiresome rituals. The charming retired Colonel in charge quickly realized that he would have a mutiny on his hands if he tried to obey his instructions from the War Office. After a quick check he had us transported to the railway station, and by midnight we were in London. There a taxi driver advised Anthony Simkins, Noel Fairhurst and me to seek accommodation in the ‘Red Shield’ hostel in Queen’s Gate, run by the Salvation Army, where we were hospitably welcomed. Anthony made a telephone call and discovered that his sister was at her flat in London. Another taxi and we three were on our way again, to that destination. We did not sleep much that night and I managed to telephone Deans Grove. It was arranged that I would be met at Bournemouth Station.
When I got out of the train I saw my Father, my Mother and my old Nannie standing expectantly in the crowd not far away. It was not until I
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went close to them that they recognized me. I had grown a small, rather scrubby, moustache, had two front teeth missing and weighed just over eight stone. My appearance had apparently changed somewhat in the six years since they had last seen me. But nothing detracted from the joy of that reunion.
Little had changed at Deans Grove. Bombs had fallen quite near, and an air raid shelter had been built in the garden. The maids of prewar had disappeared into factories but Ryman, the groom gardener, was still there, to help my father with his pigs and my mother with her hens, both valuable adjuncts to wartime catering. As well as the pigs and hens there was a cow, lodged with a neighbouring farmer, and the family spent long hours churning small quantities of priceless butter in a glass jar with a rotating paddle inside. Guests at Deans Grove were my cousin Freda Grattan Bellew and her family, refugees from Malaya where her husband Arthur was a prisoner of the Japanese. Betty was an officer in the Wrens (Womens’ Royal Naval Service) at Portland, after a busy war largely spent in courier work, taking confidential papers to distant destinations such as Rosyth in darkened and uncomfortable wartime trains. Victor was with the Royal Engineers in India, supporting the struggle against Japan, which was not to end for another three months. Ironically, because Ireland was neutral, the only member the family had lost was my cousin Reggie Comyn, of the Ballinderry family, who had volunteered to join the RAF and had been killed in action, as a Pilot Officer aged twenty three, in August 1944.
I had reached home on the second of May. Rather than listen to the continual broadcasts detailing the death throes of Hitler and of his Reich I preferred to bicycle alone in the lanes around Deans Grove, revelling in my freedom and the lushness of spring. The lanes and byroads were blissfully free from traffic, the petrol ration for private cars being only two gallons per month.
I rang up an old friend from Cairo days, Margy Spinks that was, one of the three attractive girls of Dar el Sahara with whom we used to ride in Cairo. All three remain friends of mine to this day, and all live not far away from us. Margy had several times written to me while I was a P.O.W and had even contrived to send me a piano accordion, which helped to pass many weary hours. Sadly I had had to abandon it to the
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Germans when we marched out of Fontanellato. During the war she had married Guy Threlfall of my Regiment. He had been killed in Normandy, leaving her a widow at the age of twenty three. The husband of one of her sisters, Freddie Coates, had been severely wounded at the crossing of the Rhine. I arranged to meet Margy in London, and booked a table for dinner at the Berkeley, then situated nearly opposite the Ritz, in Piccadilly.
It was a fortunate arrangement. When I reached London I found that news had come of the German surrender, and that next day would be celebrated as VE Day. If I had not previously booked there would have been no chance of dinner at the Berkeley that evening. In the foyer an exuberant crowd, mostly in uniform, celebrated the great event. In the scrum an American Colonel trod very hard on my foot. He turned and apologized. Animated by the general spirit of joie de vivre I invited him to do it again if he wished. I have always liked his reply, so typically American in character: “Gee, you are a nice guy, see you next war”.
London went mad. After dinner we went out into the Green Park, where a huge bonfire was burning, and on to join the crowds outside Buckingham Palace. Amid the celebrations I am sure that Margy and I were both thinking of the many close to us whom we had lost in the past four and a half years. Maybe we also thought how lucky we, and many of our relations and friends, had been to survive.