After the Dunkirk evacuation J.H. Prince volunteered for the 1st Armoured Division. He and the troops under his command were eventually sent to the Middle East. Prince was involved in desert combat against the Nazi forces led by Rommel. He was eventually captured and transported to Campo Prigioneri de Guerra about 50 miles north of Rome. He escaped during the Italian Armistice against the wishes of the senior British officer in the P.O.W camp. He describes his life “on the run” in the Italian mountains. He spent one month with an Italian family but has to move on due to lack of food. He gradually made his way to the Allied line and was able to walk back into Allied held territory.
He was de-briefed and sent back home for rest and rehabilitation. He was then posted to the 53rd Driver Training Regiment as an instructor in driving and maintenance where was the only member of staff who had been “abroad”.
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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‘A Stroll in the Apennines’ (Good Maps)
Driver Training Reg in Arbroath, After Dunkirk volunteered to go to 1st Armoured Div. Had to straighten out his Troop. Sailed for M.E. [Middle East] on the Franconia. Shared a cabin. Passed Cape Town but stopped at Durban then Tewfik and up into the desert. Was involved in several ‘flaps’ around Msus then into the LINE from Tobruk down to Bir Hacheim. Then involved in the Cauldron around and near Knightsbridge. Got back to Tobruk but captured there.
Shipped – within a week – to Italy. Spat at and jeered by the population of Brindisi (Many POWs have this recollection of Brindisi – but not elsewhere.) Then on to Capua and then to Camp 54 Fara—in—Sabina. The Italians pierced all tins when parcel issued. (To prevent hoarding against escape) They heard BBC news.
When Armistice came the S.B.O [Senior British Officer] insisted that no man could leave the camp. Prince and two South Africans got away. Italians warned them to avoid Tivoli. S.Africans made for Rome. Prince went on south by himself. JHP often worked with the Italians who helped him as he moved down. Germans and young fascists often rounded up Italians for work – on defences. After crossing Liri river made his way over the Aurunci Mountains south and west of Cassino. At Spigno stayed with Mario Vento and two sons Vittorio and Antonio and family who were themselves hiding with their livestock away from home. After a month he had to move on as the family was running out of food. Met an ex Sergeant of the Italian Army also trying to reach south – Carmello Battaglia. They went on together. They found the German soldiers helped them by making a lot of noise when they were moving through woods or the countryside so they could hear them coming.
They got to a much destroyed and deserted village of Castleforte. He mingled with the Italians and the Germans in the front line presumed he was another Italian civilian so together with Carmello they made their way towards the Garigliano while shells from the allied lines were going over to attack Cassino to the north east. On their way down to the river they passed Germans digging trenches and then paid 250 lire to be ferried across the river into Allied held territory to be greeted after a bit by a soldier ‘It’s just another couple of eyties, sarge.’ His reply quickly produced mugs of tea.
After giving information of the area they had passed through and assuring the British Army that Carmello should be released to continue his journey home was sent to Naples and getting by mistake into No. 2 Transit Camp was nearly sent forward again but instead sent to No. POW Camp. Shipped to Tunis and and after a 4 day train ride to Algiers sailed for England. He joined a training unit in which he was the only member of staff who had been ‘abroad !’.
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A Stroll in the Apennines
There is an old army saying….. “never volunteer for anything”. In retrospect it proved, in my case to be true.
I started the war as a Lance Sergeant Instructor in the 53rd Driver Training Regiment R.A. [Royal Artillery] I was given a squad of 32 raw recruits and 3 months in which to teach them marching and rifle drill, map reading, weapon training, driving and maintenance on vehicles up to AEC Matadors.
At the end of three months, I delivered them to the Regiment to which they were posted, passed them on in front of their C.O. [Commanding Officer] and proceeded on 7 days furlough. Then back to my own unit and new squad. I recall my wife and young baby Brian were with me and she used to walk Brian along the cliff tops, and with me drilling my men on the esplanade. Every night when I arrived back home, I was told what a rotten swine I was for the way I shouted at the men I was drilling. She was not broken in as an army wife at that time.
After some months, the regiment was moved from Arbroath to Draghorn Barracks in Edinburgh. The same training was carried out but, we were able to teach more intensively on the driving side as we had a large city with trams in which to take the pupils. I had it made, peace time soldiers in wartime. The whole war could have been spent as an instructor, Remember? “never volunteer for anything”.
Dunkirk had left us with almost nothing in men or materials and there was the fear of possible German invasion, also I was doing a very essential and important job. On early morning parade one day, the R.S.M. [Regimental Sergeant Major] called for volunteers for combat duties. Out of 90 permanent staff, I was the only one to take a pace to the front. In less time that it would take to sing the “Gunners Lament” I was posted to the 1st Armoured Division Support Group. An Armoured Division is equivalent to a German Panzer Division, and consists of 3 tank regiments, 3 infantry battalions, a support group and soft or supply vehicles. The support group consists of one regiment of light anti-aircraft guns (Bofors), 1 regiment of 2 pounder anti-tank guns on portees, and a regiment of 25 pounder gun howitzers.
The division was stationed in Surrey in an area around Guildford. My regiment, the 43/61st L.A.A. [Light Anti-Aircraft] was billeted near Godalming. On arrival, I was met by the Battery Sergeant-Major with instructions to report to the Battery Office at 9.00 am the following day. At 9.00 am the next day I reported and was marched in to see the Battery Commander. He drew a rather grim picture, the regiment was the City of London Yeomanry (The Roughriders), a territorial regiment which has lost all their equipment and a lot of men at Dunkirk. They had been made up to strength with National Servicemen. The City of London lads were operators in the City stock exchange etc., whilst the N.S. men were, by and large, the “Andy Capp” type. As the city boys had all the N.C.O’s [Non-Commissioned Officer] it follows the others were having a rough time, in a nutshell – a bloody shambles. The O.C. [Officer Commanding] had made a request for leavening of regular army senior N.C.O’s [Non-Commissioned Officer] to sort out the chaos, hence the presence of myself and 6 other senior ranks.
I was informed that I was to take over “B” troop. A month or so previous, the rank of Troop Sergeant-Major had been abolished, so I took over the troop with the title of “Troop Sergeant”. A troop was composed of 4 Bofors L.A.A. [Light Anti-Aircraft] guns (40 mm) with generators and predictors and a towing vehicle called a “quad”, these were each commanded by a Sergeant. Then there was H.Q. [Head Quarters] section which was comprised of drivers for supply, cooks, clerks and odds and sods. That was my command under a Captain and a Lieutenant. I had been given one month to lick them into shape. A Lance Sergeant was running the troop at the time and I instructed him to carry on whilst I nosed around. I watched the first early morning parade, uniforms were filthy, boots unpolished, hair unkempt and whiskers very noticeable.
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Drill was below standard and discipline bad. I inspected the cook-house – two old regular soldiers who knew all the angles. The barracks floors were crusted with dried mud, the beds were unmade and dirty kit was slung around everywhere. A visit to the gun park showed the guns in the dirty condition. The vehicle park was an untidy collection of badly maintained, dirty vehicles. My last visit was to the office, where an inspection of duty rosters showed that the Roughrider boys were doing no squads or pickets whilst the N.S. lads were doing one every other night. The following day I attended early morning parade and informed the acting Troop Sergeant that I was taking over and to fall in with his section. Standing the parade at ease I proceeded to shock them rigid.
For 14 days they were all confined to camp with 2 parades in the evening to be called at any time, and God help any absentees. For 14 days, all guards and pickets were to be supplies by the City of London personnel only. During the day, gunners were to be on gun drill in the mornings, and cleaning the guns in the afternoons. The drivers, less those on duty with their vehicles, which I rotated, would start on task 1 through to task 16, this would mean a complete service in a fortnight. In addition, all vehicles would be washed, guy rope white ‘blancoed’, wheel splitting nuts painted red, stud nuts painted white. I would give 50 Players to the driver of the best vehicle. Fitters to supervise, cooks would do no duties other than cook and clean but, I wanted their whites like the driven snow, and to be able to see my face in the cooking utensils. From 6.00 pm until 10.00 pm everyone would scrub the barracks, get the creases out of uniforms and press them, polish boots, ‘blanco’ webbing and polish the brass, clean rifles and on rising in the morning, their blankets and top kits would be displayed as per Training Depot. 2 check parades were called every evening and 2 absentees were given a further week’s confinement to camp. Gradually order began to emerge and I knew I was getting there when I overheard a gunner speaking to his mate who had been in hospital, he said “We’ve got a new Troop Sergeant and he is a right pigs b…….!”
At the end of the 14 days, I paraded the troop with rifles for the Captain. Rifles were spotless, hair trimmed, boots shining, uniforms smart and they sprang to attention. Vehicles and guns were immaculate, and now, each barrack appointed an orderly so the huts looked Army, also, they had begun to be proud and walked like soldiers. I then began to issue weekend passes, and suddenly I was not such a pigs so and so as they thought. The O.C. [Officer Commanding] was very pleased with the troop and I got a week’s leave.
On my return, the battery went to St. Agnes in Cornwall to a practice camp where we fired live ammo at a sleeve which was towed by a plane. On the way down to St. Agnes we stayed for the night in the village near Exeter. “B” troop were billeted in the village school and the cooks started dinner. They started up the petrol cooker inside the school, set it on fire and burned it to the ground. The village kids loved us for that.
On our return, we (1st Armoured Division) were given the defence of South Coast area, along with the Canadian 1st Division, we spent a month or two swanning around Southern Counties fighting mock battles. Then we received orders to move to Wootten Bassett in Wiltshire.
Wootten Bassett was a staging area for overseas and we were kept busy getting equipment up to war establishment.
All our transport was driven to Chilwell Ordnance Depot. New vehicles were drawn, and driven up to Glasgow for shipping. We were issued with tropical kit and entrained for Liverpool, where we boarded the 26,000 ton Cunard Liner “Franconia”, divisional H.Q. [Head Quarters] were also aboard. The ship had not been converted to troopship, she still had a full peacetime crew aboard and I was to enjoy a 3 months voyage which today would cost £2,500.
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Another Sergeant and myself were allocated a cabin with bath and a steward. The following day, I was instructed to contact a Seaman Devine and take over the 3.7 inch A.A. [Anti Aircraft] gun mounted on the stern plus twin Lewis guns mounted 3 Port side land, 3 starboard side. I found Seaman Devine on the boat deck, fusing rockers and he told me to see him later so, I went down to the promenade deck below. No sooner had I got to the bottom of the companion way, than there was a series of loud explosions and a large bulge appeared in the steel deck over my head. I ran back up to the boat deck to find Devine had disappeared and another seaman was lying around, dead or injured. One was dragging himself along with a leg severed.
Laying alongside was a destroyer with her guns manned. On the forewell deck, a squad of R.Es [Royal Engineers] had been doing P.T. [Physical Training] and a rocket had dropped among them – they were lying all over the place, seems that to fuse a rocket, the nose cap had to be given 11/2 turns. During transit the one being fused had turned and the 11/2 put on by Devine detonated it, it dropped amongst the others and the whole lot went up. One of the crew said to me “we shall have a safe voyage – something happens before each trip and we never have any trouble” Sailors superstition ? Maybe, but we had a marvellous voyage.
The Sergeants Mess was the first class lounge, and we ate in one of the first class dining saloons. At 7.00 am, our steward woke us with tea, biscuits and an orange. Breakfast at 8.00 am – silver service served by stewards, consisting of porridge with cream, prunes, egg, sausage, bacon and kidney, toast and marmalade, coffee or tea. Lunch at 1.00 pm consisted of ‘consomme’, porterhouse steak with mushrooms and chips, sweet course and coffee. Tea and fruit cake served in the Mess at 4.00 pm. Dinner at 7.30 pm was something else, a sideboard was loaded with roast beef, roast lamb, turkey and pork, soup, cod mornay, main course – your choice of meat with creamed and roast potatoes and 2 veg, this was followed by a sweet, fruit, cheese and biscuits and coffee. That was a typical days menu for the whole voyage.
The Mess opened at lunchtime, and in the evenings with South African Lager at 4 old pence a pint and spirits at 6 old pence for a double. My only duties were to check my guns periodically throughout the day.
We were shadowed for weeks by Focke Wolf Condors which, no doubt, were communicating with U boats. They never came within range. The convoy was about 50 ships and was escorted by the battleships, Prince of Wales and Renown. We also had a small carrier, the Eagle which often put a Walrus carrying a depth charge up. The Walrus would drop her depth charge and land. We had no ships attacked and the convoy proceeded to the Gold Coast, where we anchored for 2 days. On again to Cape Town where half the convoy dropped anchor for re-fuelling etc.
The others including Franconia carried on to Durban where we had a marvellous 10 days. The people used to drive to the docks in their cars, select 2 or 3 soldiers and proceeded to give them the time of their lives. Pubs were open from 9.00 am to 11.00 pm with lager at 4 pence.
We had said goodbye to the Renown and Prince of Wales at Cape Town, they went to Singapore, where they were sunk by the Japs, with great loss of lives.
At the termination of our 10 days in Durban we proceeded up the East Coast of Africa and arrived at Tewfik in Egypt, where we entrained to a large camp a few miles west of Cairo. There, to our amazement, we were re-united with our guns and vehicles. We spent a week or so checking equipment, gun drill etc, and then the order came to move. Petrol, rations and water were drawn and we set off into the “blue” which the desert army called the desert. The desert is a very strange place – you either love it or you hate it.
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[Hand drawn map of North Africa which is not to scale. Major towns and ports are shown along with some railway tracks. It also shows where the Germans attacked and the escape route that J.H. Prince took.]
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It is a huge area – limitless with no roads except for one right on the coast. There are no trees and no people except for the nomads with their camels. The surface can vary from sand and camel scrub, to rocks, to salt flats, which were white and cracked. There were escarpments up which tracks were built to take vehicles. Wadis in which we used to hide our vehicles and south the Sahara – a sea of sand with huge dunes which was almost impossible to vehicles. Our long range desert group however moved around in that area. It was stripped to the waist hot in the daytime, and overcoat cold in the night. No roads and no signposts meant that we had to navigate by compass, and as a magnetic compass was affected by metal i.e., guns, tanks and vehicles, we used a sun compass mounted on a front wings. A degree error could mean miles off course, for instance, if I had to take a convoy 20 miles to a “meet point” to pick up water, petrol ammo etc., an error in compass reading would result in my not ever seeing the “meet point”.
Our food ration now was army biscuits, tinned jam, bully beef and perhaps – cheese, plenty of tea and sugar and tinned milk. Water was often rationed to 2 pints per man and he had to brew his tea, shave and wash, and save some for vehicle radiators. Also, it tasted very strongly of salt. We never had bread or fresh meat, and occasionally received vitamin C to make up for lack of fruit and vegetables. Strangely, we were all as fit as fleas. When no fighting was in progress, a beautiful silence enveloped the desert – it was another world and I loved it.
We were taking part in what the army had called the “Benghazi Stakes”. A battle would be fought and the German Africa Corps would retreat to Benghazi which meant he had a port for re-supply and we had to carry ours hundreds of miles. The Africa Corps would then build up and attack, pushing us back to Egypt – the supply situation was then reversed. These battles cost both sides hundreds of tanks, and vehicles destroyed so a building up period was necessary before, the army first ready, attacked. I walked around the battlefield at Side Rezegh and there were masses of burned out tanks – the charred remains of the crews in many of them in addition to lorries and guns. Hastily buried soldiers with, in some cases, their knees sticking out of the sand covered with huge green meat flies. To eat a biscuit anywhere in the desert, one had to waft ones hand over it right to one’s mouth or one had a mouthful of these flies. During that particular action, the German tanks advanced to within a few hundred yards of H.Q, [Head Quarters] and Brigadier “Jock” Campbell R.A manned two 25 pounders with H.Q. [Head Quarters] personnel and fought them off. Later in the battle – standing up in a 15 cwt [Hundred Weight] with two flags, he led a charge by tanks at German tanks and captured the landing ground, for this action, he won the V.C. [Victoria Cross] He was returning from Cairo where he had been presented with his V.C. [Victoria Cross] when his car went over the cliff at Halfaya Pass and he was killed. A character – he was said to have been talking to some of his staff with one arm resting on the tailboard of the truck, when the A.P. [Armour Piercing] shell passed between his arm and body. Without flinching, he said “if I had closed my bloody arm quick enough, I would have caught that”. I met him once when I was changing a rear wheel on a 3 tonner, absorbed in the job, a voice behind me said “will that take very long sergeant?” looking up I saw this Brigadier and replied “fifteen minutes or so sir”. He said “I’d make it a bit quicker sergeant, Gerry is about 10 minutes down the track”. He drove off and I broke the record for a wheel change.
1st Armoured were moving up to Agedabia – we were to relieve the 7th Armoured Division, who had pushed the German Africa Corps back to Benghazi. My troop complete with “B” troop echelon vehicles moved into the Wadi Faragh which was a sand sea. All the guns were bogged down and we were using winches to pull them out. We were caught with our pants down because we could not drop the guns into action, and Gerry chose that time to attack us from the air.
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We were subjected to about 10 minutes of strafing and bombing by Messersmitt 110 and Stukas. All we could fire back with, were rifles and Bren guns. We had one lorry set on fire, but no casualties. We got the guns free and by this time the Germans had pushed an armoured column along the escarpment, towards Msus and we were in great trouble and in danger of being cut off. Many of our tanks had been abandoned and many were quickly moving back – there was panic. I think there were two reasons for this:
(a) 1st Armoured were totally inexperienced in desert warfare.
(b) Our tanks were “honeys” which carried a 2 pounder gun.
Our anti-tank guns were 2 pounders, and the Bofors carried Armour Piercing shells, also 2 pounders. At 500 yards, these 2 pounders bounced off the enemy tanks and so we ran. One of my guns had 2 flats from the air raid, I was given orders to bring this gun along, and away they went, leaving me with a gun detachment and a crippled gun which would not tow because of sand and flat tyres. Also I was towing with a 3 tonner instead of a 4 wheel drive tractor. The lorry quickly began to boil and then we came under fire from enemy artillery. We were out-ranged and the choice was, get killed or taken prisoner, or make my gun useless and scarper. I ordered the crew to remove the gun barrel and put it in the lorry and do as much damage as possible to the gun. I have been bitterly ashamed ever since because the gun is an artilleryman’s colours and he should only leave it when he is dead. So like the rest we ran, I estimated that, by this time, the enemy had reached Msus and we were probably cut off, so I turned South into the desert proper. I then picked up 22 infantry-men without Officers or N.C.O’s [Non-commissioned Officers] and drove on, navigating on sun compass by day and the stars by night. I lost all track of time. We came across an old abandoned fort, and near it a 3 tonner in running order, full of petrol and water, which I commandeered. Who says there is no God?
I then turned East and got in amongst the escarpments and wadis where driving was absolute hell. All desert vehicles had a round hole in the roof where N.C.O’s [Non-Comissioned Officers] usually sat watching for aircraft or whatever. I was sitting thus and breasting a rise when I spotted movement in front. I stopped the driver and crawled up to the side of a 30 ft drop and down below were a mass of enemy tanks and infantry. They hadn’t seen me so I returned to the lorry, got up to my roof observation when I spotted a column of vehicles crossing my front, about a mile away. I put my binoculars onto it and recognised it, a German, the same time as they recognised us. Turning swiftly, my 2 lorries went down the escarpment and at the bottom of it I ordered a sharp left turn eastwards, this was fortunate because we hadn’t gone half a mile down when a salvo of shells dropped where we would have been had we not changed course, and that was good gunnery.
The days passed without further incidents so I decided to turn North at night, by the North star. At first light we saw a mass of vehicles and could not identify them. I had a word with the lads and told them it was up to them. If it was the enemy, we were prisoners – if not, we were home and dry. They elected to go in and we drove into 8th Army H.Q. [Head Quarters] They had plenty of fresh beef and bread. I had a word with the Quartermaster and found my battery was at Mersa Matruh, so off I went to Mersa with a side of beef and a load of bread.
There was an enquiry as to the circumstances in which I abandoned the gun and I was absolved. We spent a couple of weeks at Mersa re-equipping, servicing the vehicles etc. I was in my tent one morning doing my office work when a V formation of geese flew over, as I went outside to look, every man in my troop opened up with rifles and one with a Bren. The adjutant came tearing down in a jeep – “Who fired the Bren?” he said. No answer. He then threatened to demote me to a gunner. Still no answer. He then ordered field service marching order – that is full packs and rifles, he then ordered me to give them one hour drill, morning and evening in soft sand. After a day or so of this he again asked “Who fired the Bren?” and a young Lance Bombardier named Donovan stepped forward. He lost his stripe and no leave for 6 months. We got no leave anyhow.
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A week later, we were moving up again and spent a couple of weeks at A.A. [Anti-Aircraft] defence 8th army H.Q. [Head Quarters] One evening, I was in the sergeants mess when a flight of geese flew over. The first man out of his caravan was the General firing a Tommy gun. How’s that for “don’t do as I do, do as I say”. At this point, it is necessary to use dates, and although they are reasonably accurate, allowance must be made for the passage of 42 years.
Our Generals Auchinleck and Ritchie had built up a line of strongly defended localities or, as we called them, boxes, stretching from Acroma on the coast, south of Bir Hacheim linked together by a vast minefield. In this line were the South Africans on the coast. On their left British 50th Division, Indian Brigades, each with their supporting artillery. These were backed by 1st Armoured Division, 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades. Bir Hacheim was manned by the “Free French” including the French Foreign Legion. My battery moved into Knightsbridge with the 200 [unsure of number] Guards Brigade.
From mid February 1942 until the end of March, there was a lull excepting for our “Jock” columns. These columns were so named because they were invented by the bold Brigadier “Jock” Campbell. They were small mobile columns consisting of a company of infantry and a troop each of 25 pounders, Bofors and anti-tank guns. They used to get behind the enemy lines, shoot up his transport and working parties and then hide up, camouflaged in a wadi, or go like hell for base.
My troop was detailed for such a column under the Command of a Guards Major. We moved out at dark on a given compass bearing and after travelling some 5 miles, we ran headlong into a German Laager. Both sides at night “laagered” for protection. Soft vehicles inside a square with tanks outside and patrolling sentries. They opened fire on us and there was chaos. My troop commander dismounted and went to the back of his pickup to issue orders and took a machine gun burst in the throat.
The order came from the darkness “every man for himself”. The guns were still hooked up so, they wheeled round and took off and we reached our lines intact. Many of the guards who had ‘de-bussed’ were coming back in two’s and three’s for days afterwards.
At this time, Malta was down to about 7 days supplies so a convoy left Alexandria to Malta through very dangerous waters. General Ritchie formed a large mobile force consisting of a Brigade of infantry, a regiment of 25 pounders, a regiment of Bofors and one of A.T. [Anti-Tank] guns to create a diversion. They attacked Mechili landing ground 50 miles inside enemy territory. The guns shot up the planes on the ground and the infantry raged through the tents in which the staff were sleeping, shooting and grenading. They then formed up to return and were given the order to disperse – in other words, plenty of space between each other. When daylight came, they were subjected to hours of mass air attack. The diversions succeeded because it drew the enemies planes from the sea and most of the convoy to Malta got through. One of the gunners told me afterwards that he saw a 25 pounder complete with ?umber and tractor blown up in the air about 20 feet by a bomb.
We were then informed by our intelligence that the enemy would mount an attack on the 26th May 1942. They did just this. At dark, the attack began with the French at Bir Hacheim whilst the ‘Trieste’ Division attempted to force a gap through the minefields on Frigh El Alid Heights below the South. Africans. On the 2nd day armour from the 21st panzer Division struck the south by Knightsbridge to strike at the rear of the Gazala line. They met head-on the tanks of the 1st Armoured Division. 1st Armoured Division were by then equipped with the American General Grant tanks which carried a 75 mm gun and was nearer a match for the German mark IV. A terrible tank against tank battle ensued at Knightsbridge which the Germans christened the ‘HEXONKESSEL’ or the “witches cauldron”.
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Meanwhile, the 15th Panzer division wheeled in rear of the Gazala line to head for Tobruk and were met by the British 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades with Grants. From there on in I hadn’t a clue as to what was happening anywhere, except in the Cauldron. It would seem that General Ritchie counter-attacked and lost 4 regiments of Field Artillery, and Indian Brigade, the motor battalion of an armoured brigade, a large number of tanks and numerous casualties on other units.
The Frenchmen at Bir Hacheim fought magnificently and held out until June 10th, when they were ordered to withdraw. Rommel had beaten us and a withdrawal began, my battery being ordered into Tobruk. At this point, I should mention that the Grant tank was at a disadvantage in as much as, although it had a 75 mm gun, it could elevate and depress, but could not traverse. Later, it was superseded by the General Sherman.
Going for Tobruk near El Adem, a roving enemy shot the back tyres off the fitters breakdown truck, which had to be abandoned. Then another column cut across our front, we nipped the two rear vehicles off – pointed a Tommy gun at them and we got ourselves two trucks and four prisoners, a Corporal who was a dyed in the wool tough guy, and three privates about 18 years old, who thought we were going to shoot them and were crying for their ‘mutters’.
The battery drove into Tobruk whilst I carried on to H.Q. [Head Quarters] where the prisoners were handed over to the Military Police. The battery had to be supplied with rations, water and ammo, so I tossed a coin with “Badgie” Owen, the Quarter Master Sergeant for who should take up the convoy. I lost the toss. As I neared the perimeter of Tobruk, I met some S. Africans coming away, they told me not to go in, as Tobruk was finished. I ought to have listened, but, in I went and the enemy started the attack. I never got near the battery, because, after a battle in which a large part of the artillery was destroyed, General Klopper, a S. African in charge of the defence of Tobruk, surrendered the town and with it 27,000 troops, including me. I wasn’t even consulted. So I drove my lorries over the cliff into the sea by putting them in gear, wedging down the accelerator and bailing out, thereby depriving the enemy of some booty. Hundreds of us sat in a large cave and waited to be rounded up. In shorts with no kit, we were rounded up and formed into columns, to be marched away.
IN THE BAG
We were marched into the centre of Tobruk and sat for two days in baking heat, without food or water, to await transport. Along with about 25 others I was put in a 3 tonner to Derna. The following day a fleet of Italian trucks with trailers took us to Benghazi. Outside Benghazi, we halted and German soldiers took great delight in telling Tobruk “kaput, Egypt kaput”, and then got annoyed when we said “1944 Germany kaput!”.
Here we had our first meal for 4 days, it consisted of two hard tack biscuits, a tin of what the Germans called “Alte Mann” (old man) – gristly chunks of beef in a watery gravy. Three days later, we were marched to the docks and put aboard a small Italian cargo boat, it is fortunate that none of our submarines were around, or this tale would not be written.
We sailed at night and continued next day and night to dock at Brindisi on the Adriatic coast in the early morning. After disembarking, we received another meal, and were marched through the streets of Brindisi, with the locals spitting and jeering at us, to the station. Here we were put on a train, 40 men to a cattle truck plus a guard, this train carried us to a large P.O.W. camp at Capua. We then had our first insight of what was to be our existence in the unforeseeable future. Our daily ration of food was 200 grammes of black bread – that is a large cob, a piece of cheese weighing about 1 oz and in the evening, a mess tin of soup made from turnip tops and rice. That diet never varied the whole of my time in captivity.
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Two months later, the weather was beginning to turn and we were still in shorts, a batch of about 1,000 were counted off and marched to another cattle truck train. We travelled for two days, as we kept getting stopped to allow German troop trains through, and eventually arrived at a station – name unknown, to de-train. From there we were marched for two days in pouring rain to Campo Prigioneri de Guerra ‘numero cinquante quatro’ (P.O.W. camp no:54). This was situated about 50 miles north east of Rome in the foothills.
It was the usual P.O.W. camp, enclosed by a 10 foot wire fence with sentry towers all round and machine guns. There, all resemblance ends. Instead of wooden huts there were big marquees, in these were double tier bunks to accommodate 100 men. Each had a straw filled pillow and pillowcase, plus 2 thin blankets. In a very short time everyone had selected his bunk and settled in. In the morning, everyone paraded for a head count – this often took hours, because the Italians could never seem to make the count tally. We then drew the bread and cheese ration. To speed things up, the senior N.C.O. [Non-Commissioned Officer] drew for the whole tent, then one man from each 2 bunks draw 4 rations. When you have seen men fight over the size of a piece of cheese, then you have seen HUNGER.
For the rest of the day we had to organise something to stop us going banana’s. Some did P.T. [Physical Training] some were learning Italian, I took a class on the workings of a motor vehicle and so on. We were all offered work outside and we all refused, as it would contribute to the war effort. In the evenings came the rice soup. Had it not been for the Red Cross we would have starved.
Red Cross parcels were supposed to be issued one per man per week. It never, ever happened. We had one between four, and the Italians pierced everything to ensure they were not stored for escape. We had three sorts, British, Canadian and Argentine, these contained tea, coffee, soap, cigarettes, all sorts of tinned meat, puddings, etc. A brisk barter trade started up. S. Africans who like coffee, swapping far tea, cigarettes for soap, one tin of meat for another. A favourite caper was to carefully open a packet of tea – brew the tea and dry the tea leaves in the sun, these were then returned to the packets, sealed with condensed milk, and swapped for cigarettes with the sentries. They must have wondered why we trade such a fuss about tea.
It was now getting mighty cold, and I had a large ulcer on my foot, so I had to walk on a wooden sole fastened with webbing. There was a medical room with no medicine, and by that time the ground was mud. There was no latrines as such, so our body functions were very public. A hole 12ft deep by 12ft square was dug, over this, a board with about 16 square holes cut in it, was placed and at any given time every hole was occupied. Many men had dysentery. When the hole overflowed, it was covered with soil and a fresh one dug. Often after rain, it flowed down the hill, and the Huns used to make us walk through it to be counted.
We had access to the B.B.C. bulletins (secretly) and the day we kicked the Germans out of Africa, the whole camp started singing “there’ll always be an England”, this infuriated a pretty little Italian Lieutenant, who wore a sky blue uniform with gold braid, boots and spurs. He stormed into the compound with six sentries shouting “Basta, Basta”, and not looking where he was going, he walked over a filled latrine and sank up to his neck in liquid dysentery. Two sentries held out their rifles and hauled him out – “Phewee”. All the lads started singing “Oh, Oh, Antonio” as he squelched away.
Christmas came and I correct myself, we did get one parcel per man, and made pigs of ourselves. It was bitterly cold and we had no heating, just wrapping ourselves in our blankets to keep warm. The New Year came and week succeeded week with the same wearying daily routine. One poor devil flipped his lid one day and tried to scale the fence. The sentries shot and killed him.
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[Hand drawn map of region of Italy where J.H Prince was a P.O.W. It also shows the route that J.H Prince took during his escape as well as showing various German lines of defence.]
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Summer had come and gone and then an Italian informed us that the British and American armies had landed at Salerno and Naples on 3rd September. The camp was in an uproar and several of the nastier sentries disappeared. Italy’s General Badoflio [I think this should be spelt Badoglio] had asked for a separate armistice. We were paraded by the Senior Warrant Officer (British) and informed that a message had been passed through the Italians to all camps, that all P.O.W. were to sit tight and await the arrival of our troops. He put a picket of his own on the gate to ensure this order was obeyed.
Two South. Africans and myself decided we were not having any and to disobey the order. It turned out to be a correct decision because the following day there were German sentries on the gate (I learned this later) and the whole camp were shipped off to Poland.
By that time the three of us were away. On the South side of the camp were wash benches and this was earmarked for proper toilets in due course. The Italians had dug out a ditch and laid pipes from the camp, down to a river – about half a mile.
We went under the wire, slipped into the ditch and more or less crawled to the river bank. There we orientated ourselves and started to walk due south. Eventually, after about three days we were approaching the outskirts of Tivoli, when an Italian spoke to us. They always asked the same questions. “Who are you?” and “Where do you come from?” Of course by this time I could understand and speak quite a bit of the language. When told him we were escaped prisoners, he was genuinely concerned and said “nonandare via Tivoli – molti Fasciste e molti Tedeschi.” Don’t go through Tivoli – there are many Blackshirts and Germans.
We were well hidden in the rocks so we held a council. The outcome was the S. Africans decided to go for Rome and the Vatican and wait in the Vatican for our troops. British hating General Mark Clark – American V Army had said he would be in Rome by 25th September 1942. He was still fighting on the beach then and it was, I think, July 1943 before he entered Rome – 10 months after the Naples landing. We would have had some wait.
I decided to go it alone, I decided to stay in the mountains because, all the German traffic was on the highways 6 and 7. There was no purpose at this time in them going into the mountains and they didn’t build their C line until I was long gone. So, I by-passed Tivoli and made for the ?Ibruini Mountains. It was up and down work, and up was bloody cold with the snow. On the lower slopes I came across isolated peasants houses, and always got the same old questions.
The Italians are a sentimental race and when I said I was a British escapee, the women used to wring their hands saying “Oh poor man” and give me a meal of cheese, spaghetti with a bottle of wine. However, they were scared out of their wits to have me around so, filling my pockets with dried figs and putting a 2 litre flask of wine in my hands, they pointed me at the next farm, house or village. Two visits like this in a day, and 4 litres of wine under my belt, I would have taken the German army bare-handed. It was at one of these places, I swapped my uniform for a thin sports jacket, and a pair of slacks. I think the reason so much sympathy was shown towards me was because many of these people had sons who were prisoners in England.
I had lost all sense of time – like Felix, I just kept on walking, sleeping in shepherds huts by night – even once in a pig sty with no pigs. I gave Frosinine a wide birth because it is on Highway 6 and enemy transport was thick going into the Cassino and Gustav line area. All this trudging over the Apennines was not devoid of incident – sometimes dangerous, sometimes delightful, and sometimes even funny. Like the day I stood on the heights looking into a valley, through which [next line is missing from the original]
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One day, I was helping a peasant to harrow a piece of land using a mule. His little vineyard lay down below, at the bottom of the hill. Five lorries full of Germans pulled into the vineyard and started preparing a meal, they were not greatly interested in us, so we carried on. They were amused at me shouting to the mule “Oh-h-h Mussolini – stupido”. They thought the mule was called Mussolini and I was calling it stupid. They finished their meal and left.
I often did a little work to repay the Italians for their kindness and food. It must be remembered, if they were caught they would have been shot. One day, I arrived in a hill-top village when there was a fiesta, they had posted boys and girls about 12 years old, as look-outs. I was made very welcome as usual, and a bottle stuck in my hand. Singing and dancing was going great, when one of the look-outs shouted “Tedeschi” (Germans) . Coming up the road were three lorries, at once the old women and men busied themselves with some work or other. The young men and girls ran into the bushes and rocks, me in the lead by a mile. I squirmed under some rocks covered by undergrowth. The three lorries stopped in the village square and three German sergeants got out with 40 teenage Italians in black-shirt uniforms, armed with sub-machine guns. They were the “Battalione de Morte” (Battalion of death). These were illegitimate children raised in state institutions with a military education. They were murderous little thugs. They paraded all the old people and children in the square, searched the houses and apparently wanted to know where the young men were. Then they moved into the countryside, I heard one or two bursts of fire and my heart was in my mouth. However, I remained undiscovered because, I think, many of the young men and women gave themselves up. They were taken away as slave labour to work on the German defences. I moved on.
I then came to a river, the Liri, I think, and was surprised to find a boat ferrying people both ways. I paid 100 lire and was across. This brought me to a road linking two highways. Again, I had to lay low up until dark before crossing and although there was plenty of cover, I was out of the mountains. I had to get back into them quickly. I could see then in the distance and once again I had to cross highway 6 – again in the dark. I don’t know how far I walked and it was days of cautious progress before I got back into the mountains. These were the Ausoni Mountains. I passed through villages, perhaps staying the night and this had its advantages. Many of the villages were now listening in to the B.B.C. and I was able to learn that our troops were now fighting towards the Garagliano river and Cassino which was now on my left, some distance away.
I moved on into the Arunci Mountains and one morning, I came across an Italian with a small flock of sheep. When I identified myself he said “you must come and see my father”, he walked me to the house which had a large barn, [two words are obscured] a very good man – Mario Vento and I will never forget him or his family. He lived in the village of Spigno where he had his own little protestant church and community. Afraid of German activity, he had moved his family to the hills. He had spent 17 years in Argentina working on the railways, and spoke quite good English. With him was his two sons Vittorio and Antonio, his wife Maria, and daughter Maria whose husband was a prisoner of war in Yorkshire. There was also a brother-in-law whose only English was all dirty swear-words, which he used constantly to impress me. They took me to their bosom, and for a month I lived as one of the family. During this time, it rained without stopping, but I was dry and fed. I was also able to wash my underclothes for the first time since leaving the camp. I must have “ponged” something awful. At the end of the month Mario tearfully told me they
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had no food left, and I would have to move on. He assembled the whole family and said a prayer for my safety in what lay ahead. He pressed 250 lire into my hand and the whole family, crying their eyes out, kissed me good-bye. With the lump in my throat, I left. Mario had forced on me a decision I ought to have made myself. The sort of unselfish action he displayed, I have never met in this country, he was a man who practices his religion – a true Christian.
So on I went and was getting into “Indian” territory. The scattered farm houses were now all empty, the occupants all moved out by the Germans. Around each house were two or three dead dogs, shot by the Germans. I always approached these places with extreme caution, and one day I saw an Italian creeping around and scared him half to death, when I spoke to him from behind. He was ex-sergeant of the Italian Artillery who was trying to get back to Reggio Calabria on the foot of Italy, and which was now occupied by the British 8th Army. Our aim being the same, we joined forces – having an Italian sidekick was an advantage. He was named Carmello Battaglia. We came to a river – don’t know the name. It was racing along owing to recent rains and we had to cross. Fortunately, it was fordable but it came up to our waists, and we had to struggle to remain on our feet. On the other bank, we found four telephone lines running South. To an artilleryman, these meant field telephone communications from observation posts to gun positions or H.Q. [Head Quarters] I cut these by bashing between two rocks and threw one end into the river. It would take a while to rejoin that little lot.
On quite a few occasions, we had to hide in dense undergrowth from two or three enemy soldiers, who always gave us ample warning of their approach by the noise they made. North of the village (deserted) called Castelforte we came across two houses side by side. After carefully spying out the layout, we entered the first to find it occupied by six ex-Italian soldiers, all trying to get home. I didn’t speak, and Carmello introduced me as a Yugoslav so, I thenceforth spoke in my pigeon Italian, until one day, one of them, out of the blue asked if I was trying for Naples. “Yes” I said in English “Ah” said the Italian “tu Inglese” and they made a right fuss of me, calling me from that moment on Giovanni (Johnny). I used to go into the loft at night because German mule trains carrying supplies to the front used the track passing the house. However, thinking the house was empty, they never came in, until one day. We were all sitting round the table drinking vino – I was at the head of the table, facing the open door, when a huge German carrying a sub-machine gun filled the doorway, “Jesu Cliristo, uno “Fedescho” I said (Jesus Christ a German). He looked around at the assembly and went out. Quick as a flash the boys hauled a huge sideboard aside and revealed a square hole and a ladder into the cellar, and whispered “Subido Giovanni”. Down I went and they pulled the sideboard back into position. The cellar was an Alladin’s cave, full of wine, beans, figs, grain and household linen. I opened a bottle and sat on a case. The German had meanwhile returned with a mate. The boys gave them wine, and I could hear the Germans going round the Italians – “Why aren’t you in the army, what are you doing here?” I would have been a goner if I had been up there, an Italian with a blonde beard? After a while, they left but we always posted a lookout after that. A day or so later, Carmello said they were going into Castelforte to scout for food, and did I want to go along. I had a feeling, and told him no, I would sit on the mountainside until they returned.
The American “heavies” were shelling Casino town from South-West of the Gariglano, and these were whistling overhead when I was approached by a well-educated Italian who, it turned out, was a doctor. He said it was disgraceful, shelling a town with women and children in it. I replied that there were also Germans in it, if they go, the shelling would cease. He was beside himself with rage, and in the usual excitable Italian way, went on and on until I asked him if he remembered the Italian Air Force joining the Germans in bombing London. “Were there not women and children in London, and was that not disgraceful?” I thought it best to beat it, before he turned me in. Carmello and the others returned from Castelforte and he said
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it was a good job I did not go with them, as there was a company of S.S. [Schutzstaffel] there, and they demanded to see their papers. The S.S. [Schutzstaffel] were killers and had I gone, I’d have been shot on the spot. It was then I began to have faith in Mario Vento’s prayers, and said one for myself. Carmello and I had had a discussion and decided to make the final push. I got rid of my beard and we walked towards the front lines. Apart from sporadic shelling, there was no fighting in progress – the enemy was still building his defences. We arrived at the top of mule track leading down to the Gariglano which was the front line. Somewhere on the other side was the Allied armies.
Along one side of the track was a row of houses, and Germans were busy digging trenches alongside. We had no choice and leaving it to Carmello to bid them a cheery “Bon giorno”, which they ignored, we walked down the track. We passed a Panzer Grenadier Sergeant walking up the track, he ignored us, it was unbelievable, and there we were on the river bank. It was flowing very fast and more unbelievable still, there was a boat with a boatman ferrying people across – on the front line? We paid him 250 lire and we were across and more important, we were free.
There was a sign in German saying mines with the skull and crossbones. There was no sign of a British soldier, and I wondered who was minding the shop. The mud was knee deep, and we squelched through this for a good half hour, and then saw a house. It was occupied by the Hampshire’s, with a lovely, lovely Bren gun sticking out of the upstairs window. One of the soldiers said “It’s just another couple of eyties sarge”. His eyes popped when I said “Don’t be so bloody sure mate, I might be a Jerry in civvies”. Within minutes I had a mug of tea – real honest to goodness, stand your spoon up in it, British army tea, and a packet of fags. It was a moment to savour.
I was interrogated by the Company Commander who immediately took steps to watch the Jerry. Then we were taken to the Colonel – another mug of tea, more fags, and joy of joys, a bully beef sandwich. More questions and then we were jeeped to Brigade H.Q. [Head Quarters] There the General wanted to know what units the Germans had in the line. He took me into a caravan and one wall was covered with air photos, making up a composite picture. He pointed out the track we had walked down, and asked me if the houses were occupied by enemy troops. I replied in the affirmative, and he picked up a phone, gave an order and handing me a pair of binoculars said “watch”. Within 10 minutes a squadron of Mustangs flew over, peeled off and plastered those houses. I thought, that will teach you to ignore me, you square-headed sods. I did not forget to say a little prayer of thanksgiving. I then went to the mobile bath unit, had a haircut and a hot bath. I was issued new underwear, socks, boots, and a new uniform, complete with badges of rank. Poor old Carmello was slapped in a pen, and after an hour of pleading for him, and vouching for him, he was released to make his way home. I stayed the night and the next day was given a pass to take me past the M.Ps. [Military Police] I was told to make my own way to Naples, and report to No.2 camp.
Thumbing a lift from some Yanks, I arrived in Naples in the late afternoon and reported to No.2 camp where I was given a tent. There was plenty of signs of the aftermath of battle, bombed railways with beat up trains, houses destroyed and burned out trams laying on their sides. After a week in the camp, the R.S.M. [Regimental Sergeant Major] sent for me and told me I was being posted up the line to a Field Regiment. “Not me sir” I said “As an escaped prisoner, my only posting would be home.” the army had started making its usual muck-ups. After some frantic enquiries, it seemed I was in No. 2 transit camp, when I should have been in No. 2 P.O.W. camp. They were decent, and supplied a jeep to take me down
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Oh boy, this was more like it. A hotel on the bay of Naples and opposite the volcano Vesuvius. It had been taken over to deal with the hundreds of liberated P.O.W. they expected. Instead there were ten escapees and we had a doctor, a padre and a host of cooks and orderlies. A bed with clean sheets, tea in bed, lovely grub, a pocket-full of lire and Naples. However, the city was full of troops on leave and apart from vino, nothing to spend money on.
I was standing on balcony overlooking the street with an American top Sergeant one day, a British band [not 100% sure] of Grenadier guards and a Battalion of American Rangers (crack troops) ? had been on a 30 mile route march in full marching order. As the Grenadiers came to the outskirts, they were given the order “March to attention”, as one man, they sloped arms, right arm swinging, [J.H. Prince has adding something here but I cannot make it out] all out of step. Sadly the top Sergeant shook his head and said “To think I trained those god dammed sons of bitches”. I was there for a week whilst my identity was confirmed with army records, and again I was on the move.
Aboard a tank landing craft on route for Tunis in N. Africa. T.L.Cs [Tank Landing Craft] are a flat bottomed boat and instead of cutting through the waves, they slap the surface – very unpleasant indeed. Arriving in Tunis, I was transported to a transit camp but here, my history was known and I was taken into the Staff Sergeant Mess, where I received the best possible. It was Christmas Day 1943, and for the first time in years, I had Scotch and beer to celebrate with, along with turkey and Xmas pudding. Three days later I was on the train for Algiers, which journey took about 4 days. Again a transit camp full of Russians, Poles and English, all due for home. We had film shows and went into Algiers, where as far as I was concerned, the booze was free. All I had to do was to go into an establishment full Yanks who had seen no action, being straight from the States. I got talking to them and described my travels. “Goddammit Joe, come over here, this guy has sure been around”, and the table was lined up with drinks for me. Many a time, they put me in a jeep and took me back to camp with them.
I was a senior N.C.O. [Non-Commissioned Officer] and one day a Russian came to me, took off his cap, and bending down said “Look Sergeant, your men he do this”. His scalp was cut to the bone where one of our lads had hit him with a bottle. He pointed the culprit out, so I had to put him on a charge. I know full well what punishment he got, would not be carried out but, the Russian was appeased.
A month here, and missed flying home because a Colonel, who had been out only three months, was going home on leave. So, I boarded a troopship called Christan Huyers, I think she was Dutch and set sail for Merry England. We docked at Liverpool, stayed the night and was sent home on 35 days furlough. We could not celebrate much because everything was strictly rationed. Pubs opened but they had no beer and even cigarettes had gone “under the counter”.
After my leave was over, I reported to transit camp in Croydon and from here, I was posted to a rehabilitation camp in Leeds. It didn’t take long to sort out my qualifications and so after a fortnight marching and rifle drill, I was posted to Whitby in Yorkshire.
To the 53rd Driver Training Regiment as an instructor in driving and maintenance, the wheel had turned full circle and many of the faces I had left to go overseas were still there. I was sent to the Artillery School of Mechanical Traction in Rhyl for a refresher course. The qualifying results were x=below average, Y=average, z=above average and D=distinguished. I passed with distinguished and went back to Whitby. I went back to the old routine of a squad of 32 to teach. We had a large hotel in which the rooms were lecture rooms with as many as 60 classes going.
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Across the road, a smaller hotel which was the Sergeants Mess and had A.T.S. [Auxiliary Territorial Service] girls waiting on in the dining room and the bar. The town car park was our vehicle park on the cliff top.
My wife and son Brian came to stay and I lived out in private digs. It was a 9 to 5 job and the invasion of France had not yet begun. My job was to train replacements and I was going to enjoy it – no more muck and bullets for me if I could help it. For a week or so, whatever I was doing, there was an officer present. I think they were satisfying themselves that my prisoner of war period had not affected me adversely. After that couple of weeks I left to carry out my training programme without hindrance.
The invasion began and after a while, medal awards were announced. This entitled me to five medal ribbons and this had a curious effect. The recruits looked at me in awe because I was the only one of the permanent staff of over a hundred officers and N.C.O’s [Non-Commissioned Officers] wearing, medal ribbons. Some officers and sergeants treated me with respect, whilst some were openly envious, and said so. Also, apart from the Colonel, I was the only regular army man in the unit. The civilian population showed an interest too, and that was free beer interest. My own Major showed his envy by trying to fault my every move, until he made the mistake of putting it in writing publicly. He should have made it confidential as it was against a senior N.C.O. [Non-Commissioned Officer] I used Kings regulations and whipped him in front of the Colonel. He was lucky to escape a Court Martial.
The war carried on to its conclusion in Europe and the Regiment was disbanded. I was posted to Tilshead on Salisbury Plains to train the nucleus of the new Dutch Army in driving and maintenance. This was something else.
None of them spoke English and all my lectures were via an interpreter. I would speak a couple of sentences and this would be interpreted and so on to the end of the lecture. When questions were invited and answered via the interpreter. A one and a half hour lecture took three hours, but they learned O.K, and passed the course, at the end of which they insisted on taking me into Salisbury on a pub crawl. The only thing wrong was that instead of drinking pints of beer, they drank half pints of neat gin.
Finally, two atom bombs knocked Japan out of the war and it was all over. I was asked to sign up for another three years – perhaps I ought to have done for my pension but I had completed 15 years, 9 of which I had served in India and the Middle East. I know I would have made R.S.M. [Regimental Sergeant Major] but I might also have gone back to India or, been caught up in the Korean war so, I opted for de-mob. I have often regretted not doing my pontoon (21 years).