Chapter 4: The Campaign in North Africa

Discussion in 'North Irish Horse' started by Gerry Chester, Jul 24, 2006.

  1. Gerry Chester

    Gerry Chester WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    The North Irish Horse - By Gerry Chester

    Landing On Foreign Soil

    On Monday, 1st February 1943, we said "Goodbye" to the Duchess who had transported us safely to Africa's shore. While waiting to disembark, everyone lined the ship's rail to gaze upon the capital of Algeria, looking deceptively beautiful under clear skies, however, we were not to be billeted within its boundaries. By midday the Regiment was ashore and, when formed up into Squadrons, commenced what proved to be a long march to our quarters for the night. For the first few miles the sights and scenes about us kept spirits high but, as darkness fell, our journey seemed to be never ending. Seventeen miles had to be under our boots before arriving at our destination, a storage house for wine vats. Without food and with but one blanket everyone settled down, to attempt to sleep, on bare stone floors that became increasingly cold as the night wore on. Thus we spent the first day as part of 1st Army commanded by General (later Sir) Kenneth Anderson.

    After a rather restless night, we had fortunately breakfasted well before hearing some bad news for 'B' Squadron. The cargo ship into which our tanks had been loaded in Cardiff, had been damaged sufficiently, during the storm through which we had recently sailed, to necessitate its return to the UK. This meant that we would not be sailing with the rest of the Regiment to Phillipeville (now Skikda), some 230 miles to the east, where the other cargo ships would be docking.

    Fortunately, a ship carrying spare tanks, ammunition, et cetera, although damaged by the storm, was able to reach Algiers safely where its skipper prudently decided to dock rather than to sail further eastwards . Assisted by drivers from A and C Squadrons, covered with tarpaulins, our "Artillery Pieces" were unloaded and driven into a large warehouse, which soon became a hive of activity, as the Churchill tanks were prepared for war.
    On 4th February 'B' Squadron, with SSM Docksey in charge, was left to its own devices. Major Rew, Captain Russell and Troop Leaders had embarked, with the rest of the Regiment, on HMS Queen Emma for a voyage east upon the blue waters of the Mediterranean. It is a matter of conjecture whether any on board knew that she had been converted to a troopship, at Harland & Wolff's yards, in Belfast.

    When our American Allies kindly gave us access to a neighbouring warehouse it proved to be a cornucopia. Due to the storm, several hundred boxes containing tinned fruits had been broken en voyage - we were told we could help ourselves! Soon every spare space on the tanks was filled with tins of peaches, pears, etc!

    The first three tanks made ready were allocated to HQF Troop and the next three to 1 Troop. As news had come that there had been a major German break-through at the Kasserine Pass, it was decided to send these six immediately eastwards, leaving the remainder to follow later.

    With the tanks on war-flats crews boarded two cars labelled 6 chevaux, 20 hommes, one troop in each. We now meet up again with Trooper Gordon Young who had the habit of walking in his sleep. As the cars were open in each side the concern was that he may fall out. SSM Docksey came up with the solution. Young would sleep in a corner, being penned in by the SSM at his side with someone else at his foot. The SSM, as the reader may remember, being rather portly, expressed the hope that he wouldn't roll over in his sleep to perhaps crush Young "to his death."

    Into Action

    After a stop and go journey, three days later we arrived at Phillipeville (now Skikda). There the tanks were loaded on transporters, destined for El Kef (now al Käf), to join up with Major Rew as part of a defence force should the Germans capture Thala and then advance northwards.

    Fortunately the break-through did not occur, so, after enduring a couple of day's dive bombing, we harboured in a nearby cork forest. While there an American water truck pulled in right next to our tank. In exchange for directions to Constantine, (now Qacantina), Algeria, the driver gave us a couple of the much coveted enamel-lined jerricans, which we placed on the tank's rear deck to substantially increase our water carrying capacity.

    Two days later, in the early evening, the order came to make haste to Beja, (now Bäjah), some 80 kilometres to the north-east, to face an imminent enemy attack. After an extremely difficult journey over hilly and winding roads, made more so by heavy rainfall, seven tanks, on their tracks, managed to reach Beja, just after dawn, to join up with several of A Squadron's which had arrived from the north a few hours earlier. These tanks went into immediate action, B Squadron's Captain (then Lt) Hern's Churchill being the very first tank to knock out a German Tiger PzKw VI. Sadly, 'A' Squadron OC, Major Ketchell, had his tank knocked out killing both the operator, Sgt Walters and the gunner Trooper Nursey. On receiving this news shockwaves hit us all - no longer were we playing War Games!

    The powers-that-be back home were so impressed, on learning that our tanks had marched fifty miles or so to then go into immediate action, that posters, recognising the feat, were displayed in RTR Training Regiments, Churchill Regiments and other military installations throughout the UK. The poster showed a picture of a Churchill tank, under the heading, "We call this maintenance," together with an account as to why the accolade was justified. Our CO, Lt Colonel David Dawney, received many messages of congratulation from theatre commanders and authorities in the UK.

    Next morning, as the rain had stopped, the rest of us had a much easier daylight journey on transporters. Nearing Beja, we were met by Major Rew who ordered us to prepare for immediate action as the German Army was attempting another break-through, at a place later called Hunt's Gap. Off the transporters came the tanks, then the precious tins of fruit and kitbags containing our personal gear were unloaded alongside the road. We were told would be collected by a lorry from B Echelon, however, before this was accomplished the local inhabitants had made off with virtually everything.
    We now meet up again with Trooper Bill Wheatley who had joined the Regiment in July of the previous year. Bill, some weeks before our departure from England, had all his teeth removed. Just before setting sail he was provided with a set of false ones being admonished to let his gums harden before attempting to wear them. Wouldn't you know, some Arab inherited them! For the rest of us, whenever the need arose, any request to our amiable SQMS Burke (from Rhodesia), when accompanied with the statement "I lost it at Beja", was always met. However, the SQMS could do nothing for Bill Wheatley, he had to wait until war's end!

    [​IMG]As tanks of 'A' and 'B' Squadrons, together with the infantry of the 8th Bn Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, managed to beat off furious attacks by German Panzers over a period of several days, the danger of a break-through was averted. Consequently, both Squadrons took up defensive positions near Ksar Mezouar railway station. Bangor, crewed by Roy Burns (commander), Dick Hayward (driver), Gordon Young (co-driver), Alan Hughes (gunner) and myself (operator) had been ignominiously banished to the rear, because its turret was stuck facing aft. With the approach of enemy tanks, Sergeant Burns ordered me to go on foot to look for the REME people, supposedly located at the station, to ask them to effect repairs to the turret's traversing gear. However, the REME crew was not to be found and coming under machine-gun fire (hitting the station wall, fortunately well above my head) one very frightened trooper made a dash for safety within the confines of an ineffective but well-armoured Churchill tank.

    It was while in this defensive position that the Squadron suffered a most serious loss on 4th March 1943, the death by mortar fire of our beloved leader, Major "Johnnie" Rew. His "booming" voice silenced forever he, together with nine others of the NIH who gave their days for our tomorrows, is buried in Medjez-el-Bab War Cemetery Tunisia. Making a sad day even more so was the news that Lt. Ballantyne, of 'C' Squadon, and his crew were missing and presumed to be Prisoners of War. Command of 'B' Squadron and Ballyrashane (4th Churchill to carry the name) was now taken up by A/Major Gordon P. Russell.

    On a less sad note, but first a few words of explanation. For rations we were issued "Compo Boxes" (of which, more anon) designed to last a crew for three days. Water, even if it was boiled first, could not be drunk without the adding of chlorine tablets. Consequently, it made the brewing of a good cup of tea, from the tea/dried milk/sugar mixture impossible. Salvation came with water from the wells in Beja, so pure that it did not need chlorinating. How grateful we were that the Wehrmacht had failed in their attempt to capture the town! As the news spread, a constant stream of water trucks came to Beja from all over northern Tunisia.

    How effective was the defence of the approaches to Beja is emphasised in the records of Schwere Panzer Abteilungen which state that the sPzAbt.501 (Heavy Tank Battalion) lost so many tanks at Hunt's Gap that it ceased to be an effective fighting force.
    While in the UK the Regiment had the great good fortune of having Capt Elwyn M.Hughes, from [​IMG] Wales, appointed as Padre. In addition to performing his spiritual duties the Padre freely joined in secular activities with one-and-all. Many a tale he would tell, his favourite being the story of Ferdinand the Bull. On the Sunday, 14th March we nearly lost both the Padre and his driver, when his car was strafed by an enemy aircraft, while on his way to conduct a service with the troops of C Squadron. Later, the same day, he conducted a Memorial Service for Major J.Rew. For more on our beloved Padre please see a letter that I received.

    About a week later, Sgt Burns gave up command of Bangor, to Captain Randolph S. Churchill son of the Prime Minister. For the two days he was with us, while blending in well with crew activities, the Captain steadfastly, albeit graciously, declined to share Compo Box fare with us. However, when asked what it was like to grow up having such a famous man for a father, he was kind enough to tell us several stories of his boyhood years.

    Next to assume command of our tank was Captain R.Bowring who had just returned to the Regiment after a temporary absence. During the brief time that our new skipper was with us, he proved to be one of the most interesting people that I was to meet while with the NIH.

    The Captain had a great singing voice, often time entertaining us while he was sitting on top of the turret. On finding out that I was from Wallasey, with a great interest in ships, we sat and talked for perhaps an hour. Not only was his father a one-time Lord Mayor of Liverpool but was also head of C.T.Bowring & Co. Ltd. Many a time I had seen their [​IMG] ships, the tanker Regent among them, sailing on the River Mersey bound for a refinery near to Ellesmere Port. He told me that he was pleased to be serving with an Irish Regiment, particularly as the Bowring Shipping Line had adopted the flag of St. Patrick to be that of their house.

    Unfortunately, a few days later while on his way to a strategy meeting, he was injured when his transport overturned after it had gone off the road. The Captain recovered but, as he was posted to A Squadron, the chance for another conversation never came to pass.

    Early Sunday morning, 28th March Bangor, her turret repaired, was in action supporting infantry to clear Djebel Abiod of the enemy, during which time I received an insult to my tender persona. While spotting for enemy targets a sniper shattered the binoculars which I was using. Fortunately, other than several cuts on the face and some embedded fragments in the arms, no serious damage was done. Roy expertly removed the debris then, to staunch the flow of blood, he liberally painted face and arms with one of the Army's cure-alls - Gentian Violet. Deapite Roy's ministrations, a few days later, I awoke drenched in sweat and with painful lumps in my armpits. Despite having faithfully taken the daily dose of Mepacrine tablets I was sure that I was suffering from an attack of malaria, however, after the MO had examined me he said it was not so but hospitalisation was necessary. Cpl Billy Cleghorne, of his Medical Group, then took me to the hospital in Beja where, following tests, the diagnosis was some form of poisoning.

    Taking an Enforced Rest

    During the stay in hospital, while Sulfa drugs were taking care of things, I was able to enjoy some good food and, most particularly, cups of freshly brewed tea! After five days of treatment, although there was still a small lump in my left armpit, I was discharged for further treatment, as an outpatient, at a hospital that had been established in a Seminary located at Thibar some distance to the west.
    I took up "residence" with B Echelon which was laagered in an olive grove about a kilometre from the Seminary. The weather was perfect and, with nothing else to do but stroll to the Seminary for twice-daily treatment, time passed leisurely enough.

    With many patients to attend to, the British staff were much helped by several of the Fathers who had some medical experience. On the third or fourth day I was treated by a Father who, when I told him I was in an Irish Regiment, offered to take me on a tour as he had been born and bred in what was then Queen's County, Ireland. Later I spent a couple of fascinating hours in the Father's company. Regrettably I cannot remember his name.

    At the appointed time we first sat and talked for perhaps an hour during which time I learnt, although the majority of the Fathers were from France, that a few of his fellow brethren were from the UK. He told me that the Seminary had been founded in 1895 as an agricultural college by priests known as the Peres Blancs (White Fathers), a missionary society which worked throughout French Africa. In addition to promoting Christianity the Fathers' principle task was teaching both agricultural and viniculture skills. On seeing the many local inhabitants busily tending the nearby tidy vineyards and fields, obviously the lessons had been well learned!

    An enjoyable visit concluded after being taken into the cool spacious cellars of the building to view the many vats, grape presses et cetera. While most of the wines produced were either of the red or white varieties, there were a small number of casks in which fortified wines were aging. (Today the Fathers have long gone but, thanks to their efforts, the winery continues in full production and has become a Tunisian tourist attraction.)

    Thanking the Father for his kindness, I then leisurely strolled back to the echelon, where the relating of my experience was to have a quite hilarious consequence.

    On hearing my tale, Capt. Finch-Noyes and a fellow officer, both of whom were receiving treatment at the Seminary, decided to investigate the possibility of buying some wine for their personal consumption. An hour or so later, two somewhat chastened officers returned to regale one and all with the story of their failed purchasing expedition.

    On arriving at the Seminary they had approached a well-bearded Father who happened to hail from Dumfries. On hearing their request he drew himself to his formidable height then thundered:
    "The answer is NO! In the first place, the sale of wine is forbidden to patients. In the second place, it is Sunday and, in the third place, we do not have any. Good day to you!"

    As Capt. Finch-Noyes was able to relate the story in a quite authentic Scottish brogue it was all the more funny for the telling.

    During my stay there was quite a lot of enemy air activity over the area where the Regiment was located. Consequently, when a lone German aircraft flew over the Echelon, it was decided to make a move which was done after dark. The chosen place was what was thought to be another olive grove some half-kilometre further west. Transport was camouflaged and slit-trenches dug in case of any air attack. In the early morning everyone was awakened to the sounds of the "wailing and gnashing of teeth" - the Echelon had taken up residence in an Arab cemetery!
    A day before the end of my stay, we heard the sad news that Capt. Duncan A. Leslie, OC REME, had been killed during a bombing raid on the LAD Workshops. Two of his team being wounded at the same time one of who had made the repairs to Bangor's turret.

    Return to Duty

    Back with the Squadron, laagered near Oued Zarga, it seemed that everyone wanted to relate their experiences during the past few weeks. Obviously, contrary to what we had heard at the Echelon, the air attacks had been much more sustained. At first I could not believe that a German aircraft had been shot down by one of the Churchills. Equally so was the driver of Ballyrashane-4, Harry Jenkins, tale of Luftwaffe pilot landing by parachute almost on top of his tank. Belief came to these and other stories on seeing the two 30mm shells that were fused into Bangor's port side.

    Two of B Squadron's personnel had been hurt while under attack from the Luftwaffe. Both incidents were the result of a once-in-a-million happenstance. Driver "Paddy" Hember had his right arm broken when a shell had hit exactly on the tip of one of the conical bolts, affixing the appliqué armour, propelling it into the driver's compartment As usual, when fighting in the mountains, the 6-pdrs were loaded with HE. By chance, a shell from an attacking Messerschmidt went right up the gun's barrel, causing it to fire - the operator (his name eludes me) suffered a broken left shoulder when he was in the way of its recoil.

    The next day several REME personnel arrived to T&A (Test & Adjust) the Squadron's guns which had been much used over the past few weeks. During this effort a most bizarre accident occurred when it came to the turn of one tank which, as were the others, was parked under one of the many scrubby trees in the laager area.

    About 100 yards away was a Churchill with its guns aimed directly at Major Russell's Humber Car in which he was sitting eating a meal. When a crew member climbed into the turret, to remove the HE shell in the 6-pdr, the gun suddenly fired. By sheer good luck the shell exploded when it hit the branches of the tree, however, the car was peppered with shrapnel. Fortunately Major Russell wasn't hit but a piece of shrapnel actually landed on his plate. I cannot recall his exact words but, on stepping out of the car, he nonchanlantly handed the plate to his very worried driver/batman saying that it was more than he could chew.

    The Key to Victory

    A day or so later, on the 23rd, the assault on the Longstop Hill massif began in which, with Sgt. Burns once more in command, Bangor took part. B Squadron's objective for the first day was to assist in the capture of Djebel Chaibine, a preliminary to the main assault. Three days later, Djebel Rhar was finally captured. Two tanks of HQF Troop, the OC's and mine, were stopped short when we came up [​IMG] against a small cliff, near the summit, but Troops 1 and 4, with infantry of the Royal East Kents (the Buffs) managed to reach the top and the battle was over. As this victory had a significant impact on the future of the Churchill tank, this addendum The Battle for Longstop Hill may well be of interest with its photograph of the HQF and 4 Troop Churchills approaching the summit.

    The death of L/Corporal William C. Jamieson was the Regiment's only loss of life during four days of furious fighting. It was not as a result of enemy action, rather he was killed on the final day when a bolt of "dry" lighting hit the turret of his tank. The other two in the turret were burned, fortunately, both the driver and co-driver escaped unharmed. The Medjez-el-Bab War Cemetery is the L/Corporal's final resting place.
    Three days later tanks of B Squadron took up positions, between Banana Ridge and the tree-lined road across the mouth of Medjerda Valley, awaiting orders to prise open the direct road to Tunis. Looking to the north it was more than obvious, without first capturing Longstop Hill, no such offensive could have been possible.

    Wrapping Things Up - Operation Vulcan

    While waiting for the orders to go there are two amusing stories to mention, (not quite salubrious in nature), although the latter was not seen to be so when it occurred.

    Among the contents of the previously mentioned Compo Boxes were forty-two sheets of toilet paper, or just three sheets per man - as the wags would have it "One up, one down and one to polish." In one box delivered to Bangor we were short-changed which motivated "Tich" Young to complain to SSM Docksey that there were only two sheets per man. The SSM, never one to be short of an appropriate phrase, replied "Not to worry Trooper Young. Just one up, one down and cut out the bull."

    Some thirty or so yards to the west of the tanks a latrine had been dug. Alongside of it was a sign proclaiming the site to be the "Most fertile spot in Tunisia" while a few hundred yards further west the Royal Artillery had located several batteries of 25pdrs. On the eve of the attack the guns opened up with a sustained barrage which of course was right over our heads. While it was going on one of the guns misfired and the shell, fortunately a dud, landed in close proximity of the latrine to the utter consternation of one using the facility at the time. (A not dissimilar situation happened during the last winter of the war in Italy but more of that anon.)

    [​IMG] Shortly before first light, when the barrage lifted, the order came to advance eastwards. On the second day B and 'C' Squadrons, assisting King's Shropshire Light Infantry sucessfully captured their objective, El Bathan. It was near there that I saw my first dead German. It was a shock as, like airmen, tank crews rarely saw those upon whom they heaped death and destruction.

    With the capture by the Americans of Bizerte and of Tunis by First Army (while escape to the south was blocked by the [​IMG] Eighth Army) only a few days remained before the Wehrmacht and their Italian allies surrendered. When the long war in Africa was finally over, Mussolini's quest for a "New Empire" had come to naught! In action for just ten weeks, Churchill tanks of the North Irish Horse, while making a significant contribution to the victory both in defence and offence, had either destroyed, damaged or captured much enemy matériel. For pictures and details see German Military Equipment.

    Four or five days later, for its part in a Victory Parade in Tunis. B Squadron's tanks were lined up opposite the viewing stand so we had a good view of the high-ranking officers (British, American and French) headed by General Eisenhower taking the Salute. We were disappointed that General (later Field Marshall) Montgomery was not among them. At the conclusion of the Parade, the local French populace was permitted to wander freely around the vehicles which had lined the route. We had much fun wowing the Mademoiselles by showing them the two, as yet unremoved, 30mm shells protruding from the side of Bangor, "Le char Churchill, tres formidable!"

    Last Days in Tunisia

    [​IMG] For six weeks the Regiment was harboured at Hamman Lif, a small town on the southern shore of the Golfe de Tunis at the base of Cap Bon. Viewing this mountainous peninsula we gave thanks that it had not become a redoubt into which the Afrika Korps could have withdrawn as was earlier feared. The probable reason being the absence of roads to the small villages on the thirty-mile long cape one of which can be seen in the picture.

    The large numbers of abandoned German and Italian vehicles, everywhere to be found, became a hunting-ground for each tank crew seeking personal transportation. Dick Hayward and I came across a beautiful Bugatti Open Tourer only to find, on opening the bonnet, the distributor cap to be non-existent. After searching in vain for the cap we eventually settled for Lancia diesel powered open-deck lorry which Dick, being the expert mechanic he was, fine-tuned the engine. The fun the crew of Bangor had, swanning around Northern Tunisia, was not lessened when later we discovered that "our" Bugatti had been salvaged by another tank crew.

    Alas, the use of personal transport ended two weeks later when the Army Command issued orders that ALL Axis vehicles, by a certain date, had to be handed in. Taking the order literally, before the deadline, the Bugatti became a British vehicle when it was repainted, appropriately numbered and ceremoniously presented to the OC for his personal use. The car stayed with the Squadron while in Africa but I cannot recall whether it was, in fact, shipped to Italy.

    Other than trips into Tunis the most pleasurable experience was swimming in the clear waters of the Gulf. A favourite activity was diving from the stern of a badly damaged small ship aground just off-shore. On one occasion I hit the water narrowly missing a swimmer who turned out to be from my home town in England. Of course we spent much time reminiscing about old times. I was not aware that he had written home about the incident until, some month's later, my parents sent me a cutting from the local paper, The Wallasey News. Sadly, I lost the cutting and, while home on LIAP (Leave in Advance of Python) in May 1945, a visit to the paper's office to obtain a copy, unfortunately, was unsuccessful.

    There was much evidence around the area of Hamman Lif showing how well the French settlers had practised agronomy. Fields of tomatoes, water-melons and groves of fig trees, such as the one in which 'B' Squadron's tanks were harboured, being examples of how even barren land could be made to bear fruit. Several brave, but unwise souls, feasted upon the unripe fruits to fall prey to what our American Allies called Montezuma's Revenge.
    The tranquil days abruptly came to an end when the Regiment and Brigade HQ bade Tunisia farewell in the final days of June. After first loading the tanks on transporters, Bedford 3-tonners set off carrying their crews on a journey of some three-hundred miles to the west.

    Despite the early start, it was well after dark when we arrived at what was to be our "residence" for almost ten months. How splendid it was to find the Squadron Cookhouse set up with Corporal Stevenson and his crew ready to feed the hungry and tired travellers.

    Return to Algeria

    It was the First day of June 1943, when we awoke to find ourselves in a small forest, on the outskirts of the village of Ain Mokra in Algeria, about twenty miles west of Bône (now Annaba) on the north side of the Philipville (now Skikda) road. Once more the Regiment was harboured at the base of a peninsula Cap de Fer which, although much smaller than Cap Bon, is nonetheless quite spectacular in its own right. More on this cape later.

    Some hundred yards or so from the road was a shallow depression (a lake in the rainy season) approximately three-hundred yards in length by one-hundred wide. As the tanks started to arrive they were sited, by Troop, around the depression with HQF Troop at the south-western end. To the west, in a small clearing, was the Squadron Cookhouse and further west, in the trees, vehicles of B Echelon were positioned. South of the road, the trees extended for a few hundred yards before ending at the edge of a very large dried-up lake Gara'et Fzära and, a short distance to the east, is the narrow road to Ain Mokra which continues northward to Herbillon, another village near the tip of the penisula. The relevance of this somewhat detailed description of the encampment area becomes clearer as the narrative progresses.

    As the Regiment was destined to spend ten months harboured in Ain Mokra, rather than presenting this part of the narrative in a chronological order, a topical format has been chosen. In line with this decision, the first is one dear to every British soldier's heart.

    Feeding the Inner Man

    As may be recalled, when in action, NIH Tank Crews were supplied with </I>Compo Boxes</I> which were designed to care for the needs of fourteen men for one day. Although the non-edible contents were standard, the letter stenciled on the boxes determined the food content. Those lettered A, F and X were much desired as they contained tins of Spam. Box B was also a favourite as it included tins of Mulligatawny soup.

    Among the items included in the boxes were two tins each containing cigarettes. As none of Bangor's crew smoked, each of us accumulated quite a few tins the contents of which were ideal for trading purposes. One of my best trades was with a Troop Sergeant, who shall remain nameless, who swapped his monthly ration of a bottle each of Rose's Lime Juice and Orange Squash for just one tin!

    Compo boxes were issued to tank crews every three days. To make up for the fifteenth man, extra rations came from the Squadron cookhouses in various forms, including blocks of cheese, tins of curry powder, et cetera. Although each tank was equipped with a petrol fueled stove, in the field the preferred method was to use tins with holes punched in the sides and filled with sand. With the addition of petrol the slow-burning fire was ideal for cooking purposes.

    Now is an appropriate time to introduce Corporal Stevenson's trusty [​IMG] staff, Privates Jamieson, Murray and Spiers of the Army Catering Corps. Only twice, during our sojourn in Algeria, did the Corporal and his team fail to live up to the Corp's motto We Serve, admittedly through no fault of theirs. The first occasion occurred when Cpl. Stevenson introduced us to M & V (Meat and Vegetables supplied in large tins) conning one and all by saying that Irish Stew was being served. Only on one further occasion was he subject to such cries of outrage. Despite valiant efforts by his staff to dress up the dish, M & V was served with distressing regularity in all its grey and glutinous glory and, to quote Alfie Bass of the BBC's TV show Army Game, "In such small portions!"

    The feelings about M & V were not confined to just we of B Squadron. David Fallis, of 'A' Squadron and the Mustang Rover Crew, put pen to paper composing verses for publication in the Crew magazine. Davy's opus,<IGOURMET Grub< i>, is reproduced as an addendum to this narrative.

    The next time that wrath fell upon the head of B Squadron's Chef Extraordinaire happened when, for some never explained reason, tea for quite some time was rationed to half a cup per day!

    Before we pass on to the next topic it must be recorded that for nearly the whole month of November eggs were served with almost every meal. A cargo ship, homeward bound from New Zealand, docked in Bône as one of its cool-chamber stowage units had ceased to function. Rather than letting well over a million eggs go to waste, every unit within miles of the port received an over-abundance of them. During this time, the local Arab populace must have wondered why the bartering with them for eggs had suddenly ceased!

    Laying Heads Down to Rest

    Having become accustomed to sleeping under the stars or in the shelter of a Churchill's lean-to tarpaulin, it came as a pleasant surprise when tents and mosquito nets were issued.

    Crews not commanded by an officer were given six-man tents, other Crews being given two two-man ones. As Bangor was now the 2/IC's tank, we were in the latter category. Being somewhat envious of the Crews in the six men tents, with their superior headroom, we decided to create a model bivouac of our own. Having decided that Dick and I should share one tent and Alan and Gordon the other, we discussed the best way to increase the headroom. Of the two possibilities, Dick and I decided to raise the tent, using longer poles, for better ventilation. The other two opted to dig a trench over which the tent would sit. This settled we then decided to pitch both tents, with the entrances facing each other, about six feet apart and, as a finishing touch, a tarpaulin was strung up for a canopy.
    Before long the Squadron had, although tented, a "village" of its own. As will be seen anon, in opting to raise our tent, Dick and I had made the wiser choice!

    Rest and Recreation

    During the months we were in Ain Mokra much attention was given to keep the Squadron occupied, not only militarily but otherwise.

    Consequently, a couple of weeks after settling in, rest camps were set up for the purpose of granting seven days leave to one and all. Of course, everyone was hoping for leave at home but this was just not possible, however, a party of thirty-one had the good fortune to be selected to escort POWs to the UK at the end of July.

    [​IMG] Just to the east of the encampment a narrow road winds its way, first through Ain Mokra then, some miles later, at Herbillon on Cap de Fer. Sitting on the edge of one of the most beautiful bays on the coast of North Africa to which it gives its name, Herbillon (now Chetaibi) is where our "special" Rest Camp was established. Although only a small village, for over two-thousand years stone from near by quarries has been shipped to places as far away as Egypt.

    Not only did this writer have the good fortune of twice spending leave at the Herbillon camp but many were the daily visits made to this delightful spot. One of the greatest joys was diving off the small jetty into waters so clear that the many colourful stones on the sea bed seemed to be just a little way down rather than the thirty or more feet they actually were.
    On one occasion, a group of us decided to hike across the peninsula to El Mersa, another small sea-side village. We hoped to find some evidence that Cap de Fer was so named because, as we had been told, it was there that the Romans had once mined iron ore. We found nothing but it proved to be a wonderful day all the same!

    Earlier we mentioned that Compo Boxes that contained tins of Spam were much sought after. One day, while enjoying a glass of the wine outside Herbillon's one and only estaminet, evidence that Grass is Greener came from the lips of an American Top-Sergeant who suddenly appeared on the scene. Waving his cigar as a salutation he wandered down to the jetty.

    Later, when he returned, we invited him to join us for a glass or two. Almost immediately he said how lucky were we Limeys to be fed on the contents of Compo Boxes. Apparently, in February, the German Army had captured their store near Tebessa so, for a couple of weeks, GIs were fed British rations which they thought "were just great!"
    As we had come to consider Herbillon as being British "property," we tentatively asked our American friend not to spread the word of its existence. Being a true Southern Gentleman, from Fort Polk, Louisiana, he told us "no sweat," apparently he was just exploring the area and he was based in Phillipeville anyway.

    "Once a Scout, always a Scout"

    So quoth Lord Baden-Powell. One day, on the notice board, appeared an invatation from Captain F.Ward (Brigade HQ) asking ex Boy Scouts to attend a meeting to determine the feasibility of forming a Rover Crew. The idea was enthusiastically received and the A.M.8 Rover Crew was established following approval from Imperial HQ in London. To the best of my knowledge the Crew was the only one, of the many Crews formed during the war, to be in a combat unit. While in Ain Mokra, the Crew met regularly at the Salvation Army facility that had been set up between the south side of the Bône/Phillipeville road and the dry lake.

    Preparing for War - 1943

    Lest it be thought that our sojourn in Algeria was nothing but fun and games, let it be known there was much to indicate otherwise and the rumour that the Regiment would be going back to the UK was soon put to rest.

    No more compelling evidence, that something was afoot, was seeing the build up with huge stocks of war matériel on both sides of the Bône/Phillipeville road. British dumps being sited on the north side and American on the south. Arabs, dressed in overalls supplied by the two armies, provided much of the labour extensively employed.

    One day, when returning from a day pass to Bône, our driver was thumbed-down by a GI. Shortly, after he had hopped in the back of the Bedford 3-tonner, we were driving past the ammo dumps. On seeing so many locals dressed in US fatigues he announced to one and all, "Just look at those Yankee Ayrabs!"

    Rumours about our next destination certainly started to fly when, in the early days of September, enough Churchills arrived to re-equip two Squadrons. Also, on a Sunday, later in the month, came the word that we were shortly moving to a new theatre. As the Sicilian campaign was over we assumed it was to be to Italy, although Greece was the subject of much speculation. The rumours grew even stronger when the word trickled down that Friday 8th October was the date set for the Regiment to be prepared to move. The rumours slowly died down when the 8th came and went but were strongly re-ignited when, on Saturday, October 23rd, we were told that the Regiment had been given three days notice to move. However, move we did not, for over five more months Ain Mokra was to be our home!

    Field Training
    [​IMG][​IMG] During our stay in Algeria, only on one occasion were our tanks engaged in exercises with other units. Over a period of five days, towards the end of August, the Regiment participated in firing exercises, as part of Exercise Concord, with components of the 2nd North Staffs and 1st Loyals (North Lancashire) Regiment.

    Until the rains came Gara'et Fzära, due to its close proximity was the site for many exercises at both Troop and Squadron level, on a weekly or occasionally bi-weekly basis.

    To reach the lake it was necessary for the tanks to cross over the Phillipeville/Bône road oft-times creating somewhat lengthy traffic buildups. For vehicles travelling eastwards the crossing was quite hazardous, as to the west, the road turned rather sharply to the right. To warn drivers a large sign was erected warning that a tank crossing was just ahead. On one occasion, an American truck driver came barrelling around the corner (on the right-hand and "wrong" side of course) to come to a screeching halt just a little too late to avoid hitting a Churchill's starboard side. Fortunately, the driver was not hurt although his truck was rather the worse for wear. The placing of two additional warning signs was enough to prevent any further accidents.

    Old MacDonald's Farm

    One day, shortly after receiving the first of the three stripes I was destined to wear, an order came for me to report to Major Russell at the Squadron office. The gist of the conversation went something like this: <TABLE cellPadding=15><TBODY><TR><TD>"That Arab from whom you get the eggs, does he ever offer to sell you a chicken?"
    "Yes Sir, but they are not worth bartering for, they're much too scrawny!"
    "Well, as it looks like we will still be here by Christmas I have a job for you. Go to your Arab and barter for at least a couple-of-dozen chickens, which should be enough to give everyone a better Christmas dinner. I will arrange with the QM to let you have enough cigarettes."
    "Yes Sir, but they're so scrawny and bartering for just one would be tough enough, never mind that many."
    "I'll arrange with Corporal Stevenson to make supplies of Army biscuits available, that should fatten them up."
    "But, Sir....." "Chester, you're an NCO now so act like one, just go and get those chickens!"
    </TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>Although not understanding what my recently acquired exalted status had to do with it, orders being orders, I dutifully despatched myself to the village in search of my Arab friend. (He was still friendly despite having, some weeks earlier, been thrown into the roadside ditch. For the story see extract from the Mustang Rover Crew Magazine.)
    Finally tracking down the "chick-chuck" vendor, I made the request for the birds using my fingers to indicate how many. It should be mentioned here that, as my knowledge of Arabic was extremely limited, French was the lingua franca used for bartering purposes. With a wave of his arm and "avec moi" he took me to the Village Chief to whom my mission was explained. After a flow of Arabic and much gesticutulation, I was surprised when the Chief, in quite reasonable English, said that he only did business over coffee but, as he didn't have any, it would be necessary for me to look elsewhere. By happenstance, I had just received a parcel from home in which was a small bag of coffee, so another meeting was arranged. (Oddly enough, coffee was one of the few items not rationed during the war.)

    When the farewell ceremonies were over, my Arab friend said he would accompany me back to the camp to collect the promised coffee saying that the Chief must have it before the meeting. I had no choice but to agree because the Chief was probably well aware that dried used tea leaves had been palmed-off on the villagers in the past by some members of the soldiery. However, I hastened to inform him that yours truly was not one of the guilty parties, nor would any member of the NIH stoop so low as to perform an "acte tres méchant!"

    At the appointed time, I was greeted by a dozen or more seated around a charcoal fire upon which an iron pot of coffee was bubbling. After the ceremony of being individually introduced to each of the assembled body, a small cup of thick as treacle and very sweet coffee was served to one and all. Perhaps two hours later a deal was struck including the offer of a few ducks if "my esteemed and venerable master" so wished.

    Soon, chickens were everywhere together with the half-dozen ducks that the "venerable" Major Russell had agreed to. Having a reasonably good memory, it escapes me why I cannot recall what was the ultimate fate of the flock. My only real memories are of a chicken regularly laying an egg on the driver's seat of one of HQF Troop's tanks and, when the rains came, of ducks swimming in the Squadron's lake.

    Back to School

    Early in 1944, I was on my way to Constantine (now Qacentina) for two weeks at the 1st Army Communications School. Much of the time there was devoted to learning all that one was supposed to know about the workings of the 19 Set, at that time state-of-the-art, with which our tanks were equipped. Additional to providing intercommunication for a tank's crew, the 19 Set was actually two wirelesses in one. The A-Set, being for long-range communication at the Squadron and, on occasion, Regimental level; the B-Set with its limited range being employed for communication between the tanks of a Troop. For more detailed information see 19 Set Layout and Details. Although much of the course was devoted to the less practical matters, such as circuitry and valve function, it was one that I thoroughly enjoyed. One thing learnt and never to be forgotten was that the B-Set was a "self-excited, super-regenerative, local oscillator!"

    At the school was a large pile of scrap timber (mainly from US Army ammo containers) presumedly being used for heating purposes. Having obtained permission to take some of the timber, I constructed what was to be my "bed" for the remainder of our sojourn in North Africa.
    Our last two days were given over to exams, both practical and written. Only too soon, transport arrived to take myself and the bed back to Ain Mokra where, several days later, I was told to report to Major Russell.
    After the command to "stand at ease" and, astonishingly, he then gestured to me to sit in one of the office camp chairs. He went on to tell me, as the report from the School proved that the one from Corporal Pell of the RTR was not a one-time thing, I was now in charge of communications and all that had been learnt had to be taught to the other Squadron operators. Before I could recover from the surprise, the OC went on to tell me that I was now part of his tank's crew, promoted to the rank of Corporal. Henceforth, until the end of hostilities, the responsibility of ensuring that all of B Squadron's wireless sets were on the same wavelength would be mine. However, first things being first, the order to set up a school was of immediate concern.

    Next day was devoted to the setting up of a facility to house the class of "students". Thanks to SQMS Burke, I was given a tent, chairs, a chalk board and a supply of notebooks. Thus equipped, the "school" was set up across the road close by the Salvation Army Canteen. Next came the task of informing Jimmy Wiggins and the other operators that they were to spend a week in my tender care. It turned out that all went well - the frequent visits to the "Sally Ann" no doubt playing a large part in helping the students to master the mysteries of self-excited local oscillators!

    On the final day of school the OC popped in, to inform one and all, that the newly acquired knowledge was about to be put to test, as it had been decided that the Squadron would be conducting a series of field communication exercises on Gara'et Fzära.

    The very next day the rains came, flooding both the big lake and our little one, giving the few remaining ducks a swimming facility. The wisdom of not digging down was proved - Alan and Gordon had their own private pond!

    Wide Open Spaces

    Early one morning towards the end of March, with the Squadron's Humber Scout Car leading the way, a convoy of assorted vehicles set off for a long drive to the south. After passing through Constantine (of recent memory) we eventually reached Batna just south of where, as darkness was falling, we harboured for the night.

    At first light, the convoy took off again to tackle the crossing of Massif de l'Aurés, the eastern edge of the Atlas Range which divides the fertile north from the barren reaches of the Grand Erg Oriental.

    By noon we had reached the small town of Beskra, on the southern outskirts, when the order came that it was time to "brew up." Pressing on towards Touggourt we eventually reached what was to be our "hotel" for our sojourn in the desert - a French Foreign Legion fort which brought back memories of Gary Cooper's sterling role in "Beau Geste."

    After two very hot days and below freezing nights, most of the party was given permission to go to enjoy whatever pleasures Beskra had to offer. However, yours truly was not included being put in charge of a guard of about a dozen troopers.

    Late in the afternoon we were surprised to see a motor cycle come roaring into the fort, the driver carrying an urgent message for Major Russell to return the party immediately to Ain Mokra. With SSM Docksey in charge, myself and half the guard were sent post haste to Beskra to round up the troops. A few hours later, in the dark, we were on the way back wondering what the "flap" was all about. On arrival, later the next day, all became known. Orders had been received for the Regiment to ready itself for a move to Italy. After ten months of waiting and wondering, no more rumours, this was for real, our stay in Africa was coming to an end.

    The last three weeks of April saw the despatch of men, tanks and vehicles to either Bone or Algiers for transportation to what Prime Minister Churchill had termed the "Soft Underbelly of Europe." B Squadron's turn came on the Sunday, the 16th, sadly we were leaving too many behind to rest forever in a foreign land.

    <TABLE bgColor=black border=1><TBODY><TR><TD><TABLE cellPadding=15 bgColor=white><TBODY><TR><TD>
    <CENTER>† "Lest We Forget" †</CENTER>
    During the peaceful and relative tranquility of our stay in Algeria, only too often were we reminded that the Grim Reaper was still about his deadly work.
    In late July we learned of the second NIH death in Europe, Major J.H.C.Crichton on May 23rd 1940 being the first. Lieutenant A.D.C.Butler, detached 3 Commando, was Killed in Action on Wednesday, 14th July, three days after the invasion of Sicily had commenced. He is buried in the Catania War Cemetery, Sicily.
    One week later, on 21st July , Trooper H.J.Wright died of wounds he had received while in action 4th March 1943. Also wounded in the same action was a fellow crew member, Corporal E.A.Harrison who died on Tuesday, 5th October. They are both buried in Bône War Cemetery, Algeria.
    We were all saddened to learn that Lieutenant Geoffrey Hutchinson had been killed in a road accident, on Monday 1st November, while on his way back to the Regiment after being hospitalised in Constantine (now Qacentina) Algeria. He is buried in Medjez-el-Bab War Cemetery, Tunisia. Later, on Sunday, 21st November, death also came to Trooper F.T.H.Leach. He too is buried in Bône War Cemetery. Thus the Grim Reaper had taken five more lives for us to mourn.

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