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To Arms!
Desert War 1943
In which Roy arrives in Egypt, drives to northern Iraq and then back through Egypt to Tunisia to face Rommel
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At the end of November, the Unit transport joined a 400 vehicle convoy from Suez to Kirkuk in Iraq. We travelled through Palestine (as it then was) and Jordan into Iraq, following the desert oil pipe-line to Baghdad. The journey through Palestine was remembered mostly for the plentiful supply of oranges lifted from orange groves as we passed through;  every conceivable container was loaded! We settled under canvas at Kirkuk, a large oil-refinery city, some 150 miles north of Baghdad, where we were re-united with our sappers after their detour to India. Most of our time was spent training and on exercises, including a scheme up in the mountains at Rawanduz Gorge on the Iranian border in the area occupied by the Kurdish tribe. Beautiful country but not ideal for camping in the snow. One particular exercise involved bridging the Zab river at night. The night in question consisted of a cloudburst and the mother of all thunderstorms. I was sheltering in the cab of a lorry when an Infantry officer knocked on the window, I opened it up and was amazed to be greeted by a Captain Partridge from Limpsfield whom I had last seen in the air raid precautions organisation in Oxted before the war!
In March we retraced our steps westwards over the deserts to Egypt. The journey back over the high ground to the Jordan valley was most unpleasant, sleet and snow most of the time and being on a bike was not appreciated, especially at the night stops, most of which were spent rolled up in a ground sheet under the tailboard of a compressor truck. After a short stop in Egypt for some maintenance and some re-equipping, we pushed on along the North African coast road via Libya and what was Tripolitania to catch up with the Eighth Army, who by now had cornered Rommel and Co. in Tunisia. This journey from Kirkuk, of approximately 3,200 miles in four weeks, was reckoned to be the longest approach march in history and it is reported that every vehicle that left Kirkuk eventually arrived under its own power, a tribute to the hard-worked fitters. Our division (56th London) relieved the 50th Division and we moved up to Enfidaville, South of Tunis, for our first taste of action since the Dunkirk debacle. We were camping on a plain overlooked by foothills conveniently occupied by German artillery who took great pleasure in lobbing the odd shell in our direction, one of which caused our first casualty, an unfortunate sapper who was minding his own business in the latrines - he was killed by a shell splinter. A couple of nights before the end of hostilities, the Company was called upon to support an Infantry attack on a German position and sadly we lost driver Ted Hailstone whose scout car was hit by a shell.
Whilst this was going on I was attempting to keep in touch with another scout car carrying the Section Officer. I was mounted on my trusty Matchless, the ground resembled a scrambles course and was being used as a target by irate German 88mm gunners and the inevitable happened, I landed upside-down in a muddy crater. By the time I’d hauled the bike out and got it started the scout car had disappeared; I knew not where and cared even less. It was definitely four wheel drive country - not designed for WD type 350cc Matchlesses! As darkness was rapidly falling I made my way back to the transport assembly area and spent the night with the drivers in their shallow dug-out until the sappers returned in the morning. On the 12th May 1943 the German North African forces surrendered and it was very pleasant to see columns of German and Italian POWs struggling along the roads. Just prior to the surrender our section had completed building a box-girder bridge on the main road to Tunis to enable the Eighth Army to link up with the First Army - a landmark in the North African campaign!

The next few days were spent on minefield clearance and the Section was allotted an ex-Italian lorry, a SPA, to help in this work. On Monday 17th May, (my mother’s birthday), we had an open air film show - Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth in ‘You’ll Never Get Rich’. In the next few days we managed to get in some very welcome swimming at Gabes and on 26th May we came to rest at a site on the outskirts of Tripoli. We settled down to a period of maintenance and repair work on the vehicles plus the odd spot of leave in Tripoli; a waste of time - stinking hole!
On June 13th my right leg stiffened up and by the 16th I was unable to get up. I was rolled out of my tent onto a stretcher and dumped at the Casualty Clearing Station where I was diagnosed as suffering from sciatica! After a week in the No. XI General Hospital I was embarked on HM Hospital ship Aba.

So, it was a fond farewell to 221 Field Coy and my many good friends and colleagues. None of us knew what our future destinations would be or if we would ever be re-united. After a pleasant cruise along the Mediterranean Sea to Alexandria, the sick and weary were transferred to a hospital train and transported to No. 1 General Hospital, a tented affair on the banks of the Suez canal at El Ballah near Ismailia. The next three weeks were spent reading, receiving radiant heat treatment, attending the hospital cinema and NAAFI canteen and strolling along the banks of the canal. I was then discharged to the No.2 Convalescent Depot further up the canal, arriving on my 28th birthday! The routine was much the same as in the hospital except that for ‘heat treatment’ read PT.
I must have seen most of Hollywood’s output of films plus a personal appearance of Nöel Coward during my stay at the Convalescent Depot which came to an end on the 11th September - practically eight weeks ‘holiday’! No wonder the war lasted so long! A train ride to Ismailia saw me installed in the Royal Engineer’s Depot at Moascar. Here I learnt that 221 Coy had landed at Salerno and had a rough time;  also met up with former members of the Company, who had returned to the Depot for various reasons. I also blotted my copybook by failing to salute the Colonel i/c of the Depot who sneakily crept up behind me on his horse whilst I was walking over sandy ground chatting to a pal - awarded two extra guard duties! As the NCO i/c Discipline was an old colleague I got off with only one extra. I was posted to the MT wing and spent the time working on assorted motorcycles and lorries and assisting the MT instructors and carrying out assorted driving missions around the area. After a couple of weeks of this I applied for a driver/operator’s course (i.e. radio operator) which proved very interesting and lasted for two months.
At the beginning of October, Basil Clarkson arrived at the Depot and we managed to spend a great deal of time together;  off duty trips into Ismailia for meals at The Blue Kettle café etc. We also managed a week-end and a seven day leave together in Cairo which broke the monotony of Garrison life. We would get occasional news of 221 Coy, still plodding on in Italy, and of the deaths of several of the old TA boys which made me realise that life at the Depot could be worse! My driver/operator’s course finished at the end of November and I managed to grab another seven day leave in Cairo. Coming out of the Diana cinema one evening, I met Cliff Wood, a former colleague from Godstone Council, who was serving in the RAF at Heliopolis - a small world! Back to Instructional Wing at Moascar and heel-kicking until Christmas day, when (my diary reveals), I feasted on two eggs, bacon and jam for breakfast and an excellent dinner in the NAAFI, slept all afternoon and saw Abbott and Costello in ‘Rio Rita’ at the cinema and bed at 10pm! Left Moascar, on a draft for Italy, on December 30th for Alexandria and shipment to Brindisi (or was it Taranto?) to rejoin the Eighth Army.
The hospital ship Aba
A Field Hospital, Tripoli
A Letter Home
This is a letter, written by me on 16th May 1943 at a camp near Enfidaville, Tunisia. It is addressed to my mother and a copy was discovered many years after the war by a colleague who worked in admin.
You can read a transcript here:
The Radio Operator’s Course. Second from right, front row.