Alf Davies served in the 1st Royal Tank Regiment throughout much of the North African campaign.
I was born in Liverpool. Went to elementary school. My mother had a wholesale fruit business and my father was a seafarer. My father joined the army on 1 August 1914. He said to me one day there’s a war coming, this was in May 1939. At that time I was 19 working as a commercial news journalist. I was just coming up to that and the next step was to become a journalist. There was a regiment being formed in the City, a Welsh regiment and my grandparents came from Anglesey. My dad was proud of his Welsh background, so I wrote in and joined up. Got the Kings Shilling and pledged my duty to the King. I thought I’d have a fortnight’s camp. We went to a barracks and the NCO’s were picked from the Boys Brigade because they knew how to march. In 1939 I got called up and we were stationed at Crosby. We moved into houses which hadn’t been lived in since 1928 – cotton brokers houses. I knew most of the cotton brokers because that’s where I was working as a commercial news man. There were 10 of us to a bedroom with 2 blankets on the floor. A local caterer used to produce the food until we started our own cookhouse. There was one chap, a plumber, he said do you fancy helping me with the plumbing? I said yes but one day he was sent on a course and I was up in the loft in this old house repairing a leak. This corporal who was in the same room as me, he said you’re on fire picket. I said I can’t come Sir. He said You’ll have to. I said I can’t, I’m mending this leak. He went away and came back with the Sergeant Major and they put me under close arrest for disobeying an order and I got 14 days CB. That turned me against them. That was in December and then I volunteered to go to Egypt. It was January by the time we went. We went by train back down to Liverpool, then to London and Southampton. Then by boat to Le Havre. As we went into Le Havre there was fellows from the Maginot shouting at us to get active service. We went down to Marseilles and got the Derbyshire. Then by train to Cairo to Abyssia barracks. They were originally a French barracks or Turkish barracks, full of bugs, biting bugs. We had iron beds and tins of Players which we filled with paraffin and stand their legs in the paraffin. Then in the weather we had mosquito nets and we’d spread them but the bugs got wise to that and they’d run up the wall and drop down on you.
Presumably you hadn’t been abroad before?
This was all a new experience for you?
How did you find the journey? It must’ve taken you ages.
It took 2 days to get down through France.
Did you find that interesting?
Oh yes. There 6 to a compartment and at night there were 2 on the seats, 2 on the floor and 2 on the racks!. This train would go bang, bang, bang, like that, and the 2 on the rack would come tumbling down. In Cairo, we’d get up at 6am and go for breakfast and we were waited on by Arabs. We could have what we wanted. Bacon and eggs. All you took was a cup, knife, fork and spoon and as you went in to the dining room, there was a vat of tea and one of coffee. We went on parade and after that we usually went to the tool (I think?!?) pool and then we’d have a NAAFI break at 10.30, cup of tea. Then we’d finish at 12.30. Then it was cricket, football…..I was playing in a cricket match one day when a Colonel came up and said â€œOh Davies, would you care to play at Gazira? I said â€œI haven’t any whites Sir. He said â€œDon’t you worry about that, I’ll get you some whites. But if they ask who you are just say Alfred. So I went along and all the officers and their wives would say Hello, what’s your name? and I said â€œAlfred. And they’d say â€œHello, Alfred old boy! I played at slip and I took a catch, very high and there was this call â€œBy Jove Alfred, we passed a hat round for that! I played football, cricket, hockey and this went on til June 10, and that’s when it ended because we were mobilised. We had light tanks, Mark 4B’s and A9’s. I’ll show you a picture…..This was the Crusader. The original one was the A9 which had 2 turrets, one here and one on the other side. When we were in action the first time, the turret went over the top of that and the tank got hit and he had to kill himself because he couldn’t get out. Then we had the A10’s and they eliminated one of them. All they had was the top turret. There were 4 in there. The driver, the gunner, the wireless operator and the tank commander at the back. We had a squadron leader called Terry Mitford. There were 4 squadrons in a regiment, 15 to a squadron, 15 on tanks, 15 to a squadron, 6 HQ. Terry Mitford was a cousin of Unity Mitford, there was Lascelles, Colonel Brown and….this captain said to us â€œYou horrible people…he looked down on territorials…
But you weren’t a territorial were you?
Oh yeah, when I joined up. I said â€œWhat do you mean horrible people? You’ve got brains in this battalion. He didn’t like that. I said These people had to join the army because they had no alternatives. We’ve got a police inspector, a dentist….that goes with officer. He said â€œWhat do you mean? I said â€œIf you didn’t make it in the city, you had two alternatives, the clergy or the army. He went berserk. Before the war I used to do a lot of cycling and a lot of camping…anyway we went up into the dessert and we started patrolling the wire. The wire was the Burma (??) line. The Italians had come down about 50 miles, down into the dessert. The wire was about 5 yards wide and 8 feet high. We broke into the wire and it was numbered in sections. We did skirmish patrols. We used to watch the bombers – the Valencia bomber used to have the bombs strung underneath. They used to come over every Saturday morning as a skirmish until one day they said they’re going to attack. So we broke at about 5 o’clock and slowly advanced and they came and opened fire – there were candles everywhere. I didn’t like it. But I had no alternative but to open fire. We advanced up to Sidi Barrani and patrolled for days until they said we were going into an attack. That was the original 30,000. Of that 30,000 there was an Indian division and an Australian division, so you could more or less take 10,000 off and you were left with 20,000. Can you imagine how many of those are left now? In November they said an attack was coming. We were a light tank division and we had to go and cut them off and then the heavies went in with the Matilda. Matilda was the Queen of the dessert. She had 4 inches of solid armour plated steel and no shell could go through it. An attack came at Bardia, in fact we were outside Bardia at Christmas. We had corned beef, biscuits and water for Christmas dinner. Couldn’t even have tea or coffee because of the chlorine in the water.
So you didn’t make tea or coffee?
No because of the chlorine. You just had to drink the water. Then we had a bit of a Christmas dinner after we’d captured Badia.
How did you find those first bits of action that you saw?
You were scared every time. I was a driver and a gunner. I shied away from
responsibility but as a gunner you could always relieve your feelings, you were banging away at them – many I time I looked across at an officer and he’d be shaking. The way the inside of a tank works is like this – I sat like this then there was a horse shoe and you put it onto your shoulder and the machine gun came up to your face with a pad on it and the telescope came to your eye and down below were two pistol grips one for the machine gun, one for the gun and to your left was a wheel. You twisted the pistol grip and it came round automatically. When you came to a target, you’d hear something like â€œTarget, 600 yards, 10 o’clock from the tank commander. He’s either got his head stuck out the top or he’s looking through the periscope. They’d put the shell up and he’d tap me on the leg to tell me that the shell was in and I’d say â€œFire! The gun would go up in the air then back down again. You never hit first time. You’d probably drop about 30 yards short and he’s watching this and I’m watching this and he’d say â€œLeft half a degree, up 30 yards.
It was purely a visual judgement?
Yes. We had two pound shells.
Presumably the gun recoils…
And flies back above your head?
No, up in the air….we only had 2 pound shells and you couldn’t take on a group. You could take on a tank because it could pierce, but with a gun it would just go through the shield and not do any damage and it wasn’t until 1942 that they brought out explosives. At Tobruk we went around to the side and cut them off and the Australians went in….
Did your squadron commander would give you a briefing would he?
No, the tank commander would go and see the CO and he’d come back and we’d gather round and he’d tell us what was going to happen. I was on a light tank, on the fringes….
It must have been pretty difficult to maintain your bearings especially in the confined space of a tank…I know you had periscopes but even so…
Well, the tank commander and the gunner would look through the hatches, there were 2 hatches and we’d look out…until the Germans started to do overhead bursts and we never wore a helmet, just our black berets. This was after the fall of Tobruk..after that we had to stay right down in the tank. The tanks were old. They’d been built in about 1928. The Mark 4B, the light tank, was just a bren gun carrier with a turret on the top. To knock out a German tank we had to get within 600 yards.
Were you aware fighting the Italians in 1940 that the equipment was pretty worn out? Did you just accept what you had?
Well against the Italians we knew we were superior. When you hit our tank it drilled a hole and went through the tank that fast that the hole went on fire. When you hit it in **?, it splatted. We called it shit iron. They had a light tank, 2 man tanks and someone hit the turret and it split in half and there was daylight.
Just to go back a bit…when you were doing your initial training, how was it decided if you were going to be a gunner or a driver…
I never fired a rifle in England, never fired a shot. We were issued with pick handles first of all, then when we were issued with rifles, and were informed not to clean the barrels because they were full of grease. So I’d never sat in a tank or fired a shot. Never been on the range. There was no training.
Would you say that your training consisted of getting out there and doing it?
Oh yes. I’ve read books since which called us professional soldiers, well we were far from professionals. They liked the age of a tank crew to be between 20 and 24 because when you got older you got to thinking too much in terms of survival. Tanks were influenced to a certain extent by cavalry units. Even to this day they say â€œMount and â€œDismount. The way we used to attack was like a cavalry charge.
What sort of formations were you in?
We were about 100 yards apart…
Rows of how many?
In squadrons. The whole battalion, unless we were on the move. I was in â€œA squadron, the light squadron, the skirmishers. Then there wasB squadron – all 15 all in a row. Then we started getting knocked out.
Then what happened?
Panic! You get hit and you bail out. You’d be shouting â€œAre you hit, anything wrong? Then to get back into a tank was a very difficult thing to do. At the beginning of the war they used to let us get out, it was a gentleman’s agreement, if you were hit you got out. But after a while they started to bump us off. The colonel said it takes 6 months to train a tank man. He admitted that during Challenger, that was when we got experience. We weren’t in any big actions then and so we learnt the capabilities of the tanks and we learnt how to treat the tracks, not to have them too tight because if you had them too tight it would throw them.
Did you have a crew who looked after the tanks?
We had LAD, light aid detachment. They would be with â€œA echelon, the tank regiment which was about 5 miles back…
What was an echelon?
The supply troop. â€œA echelon covered the whole regiment. They looked after oil, petrol, water and the mechanics. The tank had 50 gallons and did one mile to the gallon, so we could only cover 50 miles. So A echelon would follow behind. The petrol came in square tins. We used to have a pick axe and you’d scoop the thing up and there was a filler and you’d put it onto the tank and start pouring it into the tank. Why it never exploded because of the sparks, I don’t know. We used to do stupid things. For cooking we had a little stove…. after a while we got wise to things and we had this 4 gallon tin. We cut the top off and a piece out of the side and then two shovelfuls of sand and pour a gallon of petrol on it. The stand back and throw a match on it. We used to get camel grass and pour petrol on it then some fellows ….??…and pull it away.
If you were in action and you run out of petrol in the heat of battle, you just had to wait until someone could get to you and fill you up?
Presumably you’re a sitting duck at times like that?
Well, it depended where you were…..we were in radio communication…that was the one thing I couldn’t do on a tank, operate the wireless. I hadn’t a clue.
You said you hadn’t been in a tank until you got to Egypt, in those 6 months between January and June, you played plenty of cricket but did you do training then?
How was it decided if you were going to be a driver or a gunner or whatever?
We did exercises and they decided from those. I couldn’t drive a car when I went out there, so I learnt to drive a tank before a car. I was good at engines…when we stopped at night we stopped in a larger. Now a larger was like this….HQ up front…A squadron here, B squadron over there and C squadron here. It was about the size of a football pitch with their guns facing outwards, all about one another. Two from each squadron would patrol with tommy guns. You took it in turns and it was best to be first or last. It only took about half an hour. We’d wait for B echelon to come along. We’d be deep in the dessert and they’d be given the map reference and they’d get the prismatic compass. Whoever was in charge of the convoy would get out of the lorry and walk 10 yards away and take a baring then look up to the star IMMEDIATELY above him because you couldn’t be looking at the prismatic compass because it would be moving, so he’d get back in the lorry and say â€œMove on that star so we’d move on that start for half an hour, then we’d stop again and he’d get out again, and so on. Well the star had moved so you’d pick another star because the only star that didn’t move is the North star…..you could miss the battalion by a 100 yards without realising it and you’d think â€œWhere the bloody hell are we! We would be waiting for a hot meal. During the day we cooked our own. If they couldn’t find us, we’d send up a toffee apple, that was one tracer shot and the chaps in the echelon would see it and come and find us. They’d ask us â€œHow much petrol? How much water? How much ammo? Then the cookhouse would come along, it was the same meal every night, potatoes and bully beef heated up. They had hay chests which was a chest with its lid packed with hay. At 3pm they’d half cook it, put it in the Dixie’s, seal it and then for 3 hours or so it would be cooking. We’d be rationed. Then they’d give us our breakfast rations, a tin of bacon between 3 tanks, some cheese and biscuits, pilchards, and that was it. You’d watch out for Bedouins and do swaps, tea for eggs, or cigarettes. I was good at cooking, the lads always wanted me to do the cooking.
Each tank would cook his own meal? And there was a crew of 4 and you stuck together?
Yes. For porridge – we didn’t have real porridge, so you got just 2 biscuits, put them in a small cooking tin and pour water on and put it under the tank and the next morning the tine would be full because the biscuits had swollen. Then I’d put some milk on and heat it up. If you eat a biscuit it swelled up inside you. And we had corned beef, frittered, fried, boiled….day after day. Corned beef is the most nutritious meat there is and you can eat it day after day. You can’t do that with Spam.
Did you ever go hungry?
Oh yes, there were times. We had NAAFI supplies and you could buy peaches and biscuits and so on. We knew when we were going into action because we were issued with a bar of chocolate, a tin of sweets and you’d see about 20 ambulances, what we called the meat wagons. Then we knew some serious action was going to take place.
Did you feel apprehensive when you saw that?
Always did. Even at Alamein. I’d been there for 4 years but the same feelings…but as soon as you start, the adrenaline takes over.
Would you say that the thinking about it before it happens is the worst bit?
Yes, definitely it was. I’ve been back 3 times and visited the graves at Alamein, but there’s thousands still in the dessert because if you were killed they buried you on the spot. They left his rifle and his helmet on. But sometimes the Arabs used to dig them to get the boots off and so on. We sometimes shot at them to try and stop them.
One thing that strikes me is that the 8th Army was well before Alamein…you were there for such a long time.
The 8th Army wasn’t formed until September 1941. Without the 7th Armoured Division, there wouldn’t have been any 8th Army.
But what I mean is that you and your regiment were there for such a long time and I wonder how you coped with it. 4 years is a very long time.
When I went out for the 50th anniversary I did wonder how I stood it out there for all that time. When we weren’t in action we spent a lot of time thinking about food. I made custard! and I bought a chicken and cooked it and I made jam roll with the biscuits. I’d get them to take the cover off the gun, I’d put the biscuits in the gun and we had a sledge hammer and we’d pound them to a powder and then I’d get the margarine and a drop off milk and make jam roll.
Where did you do that? By the tank?
Yes. We went into the dessert in June 1940. And for months, I slept and eat by that tank.
Did you never go to Alex?
I only had 2 official leaves in 2 years. Admittedly we came back to Cairo for re-fits, but I only had 2 leaves. The first one was 7 days after the Italian campaign and the second one was after Tobruk. We captured Tobruk and up through Derna to Benghazi. They said we could never go further than Benghazi because of the boulders, but we did. We went on a forced march, the 7th Armoured Div to Beda Fomm, about 20 miles west of Benghazi just before daylight, and we straddled the road. Then the civilians came out and the looks on their faces when the saw us! Because we were clergy. There’s a cathedral at Benghazi. We left them and waited for the Italian army. The battle went on for 2 days. The tanks outnumbered us but we stuck at it. Our greatest fear was running out of ammo. Then they surrendered and we thought the war was over! Then one day I got up and saw a plane going over and it was a German plane and that we the first we heard about the Germans arriving. We were sent back to Alex and a new division took over from us with no experience at all. Some of our fellows were sent to Crete as anti aircraft gunners on a ship. They got to Greece, Piraeus, and got off the ship and were told to get back on again. It has been said that if we hadn’t gone to Greece we could have hit Tripoli and then there wouldn’t have been any Alamein. Anyway, they came back and we were reformed. 2 squadrons went to Tobruk and I was in A squadron attached to 7 tanks. There 2 battalions, 1st and 7, there were 2 squadron of A and 2 of the 7th and the others were back in Egypt, and this was the first time I’d been in a Matilda. We were in a holed down position, like you dig a hole and run the tank down into it so that only the turret is showing, and there was a German 50mm anti tank gun dug in about 600 yards away and he continually hit our tank and he rounded the turret! The Germans, used the 88 in Tobruk in the May, and they went through us like butter. You only had mention 88’s and fear came into a tank man’s eyes. It hit you then afterwards you heard the report. It travelled faster than the report. We had a gun equal to the 88, it was the anti aircraft gun, same as an 88. They said it caused too much dust. Well every time a gun was fired it caused dust. We never had a gun that could take them on. The only gun that could take them on was a 25 pounder.
So neither the Matilda’s nor the Crusaders had…so if you were hit, you were toast.As soon as the Germans turned up, it can’t have been long before you realised you were up against a stiffer opponent.
The Italian gunners were very good, but their tanks weren’t. The Italians were a much softer touch. They’d give themselves up in their 100’s.
Did you ever think at any time you might not win?
We never thought we’d get beaten. I was in Tobruk in June or July 1941. HQ was in a cave in the dessert. The tanks were scattered around. The whole regiment was there. Three regiments, the 1st, 4th, and 7th and the Dragoon Guards were there. My regiment was the 1st, the oldest tank regiment in the world formed in 1916.
Was that a Welsh regiment?
No. The 46th was the Welsh regiment. We arrived in Egypt at a place called Abasia and went to the RAC depot. We were there for about 5 days and they said you for the 1st, you for the 6th and so on.
So you were a man without a regiment when you travelled from England? Just a soldier, but did you know you were going to be joining the tanks?
Oh yes. There was a chap called Brigadier Hobart. He was the one who started the 7th Armoured Division. He was an out and out tank man. The world’s best. He said â€œIf ever Egypt is going to be defended, it is here. No mention of Alamein. This is this shortest distance between the sea and the Qattara Depression. Something happened and he got the sack. Churchill came out in 1942 and somebody mentioned the Hobart Line, and Churchill said Where is he? And someone said he was a corporal in the home guard and Churchill went mad. Immediately Hobart came back, promoted to a Major General and he took over the 79th division and he was brilliant. Innovations and so on. Anyway there was this chap called General Morehead in Tobruk, of the 9th Australian Division, and without them, we would have lost Tobruk because they were the first to make the Germans retreat in the Second World War. The Germans attacked and the 9th went down into caves underneath and let the tanks go by and then popped up behind them and they had to retreat. Morehead seemed to read peoples minds. He outsmarted them all the time. He was a natural. Why wasn’t he promoted? Because he was a colonial.
Did it feel like a colonial army at the time?
I’d always known about the Aussies. I followed in my father’s footsteps. He was in the Royal Horse Artillery and went out to Egypt in 1915, he was at Gallipoli. I was all around the same places as he went. Back to Tobruk, we were having skirmishes…there was a church called St Anthony’s. As you went in there was the Virgin Mary and Christ and a plinth which was full of names and I had my name on. I went back, Gadafi invited us back and I wanted to go and see it, but they said it was a museum now and we weren’t allowed. We wanted to go and get the statue, but if anyone deserved that statue, the Aussies did. But we never got to see that. They’d made them into Mosques anyway. We broke out of Tobruk and there was a huge battle at Sidi Rezegh. There were nearly 3,000 tanks at that. Eventually, the Germans withdrew and we were sent back to Alex for a re-fit in June. We were there for about 3 weeks and were then sent up to the Pyramids. We were re-fitted with Honeys, the light tank and we had Grants.
Were all the tanks similar to drive?
They were all slightly different.
The Honeys were American weren’t they?
Yes. Petrol and the Grants had aero engines. They had two big doors at the back and there were the aero engines, 105 octane. We were sent back into the desert, arrived there in May. We had 3 American tanks with us. Their idea was send one up and 2 in support and as he ran out the other one dropped back and he’d run out of ammo. Then we were Knightsbridge in what we called the cauldron. On this particular day, we tracked him. He’d run out of petrol. We had the mine fields at the back of us and we were in the front, and we knew every place where he was. Then a sandstorm came up, and you don’t read this much in the history books, at 4pm just as we were going in to finish them off and it was impossible. The Colonel called a halt and said we’d go in first thing in the morning. As soon as it was light, we went in. We were in the Honey’s and we parted and the Grants went in front of us and they were gone, they’d moved and the next thing we knew it was a blood bath. They must have had a line of 88’s and they started slaughtering us.
You could see this happening, could you?
Yes, we were watching from a distance. And as they turned round to retreat, they were hitting them up the back and it was like miniature atom bombs. They went flying into the air. We lost 42 tanks in an hour…
That was the whole regiment wasn’t it?
Yes. The retreat started then and we thought we were heading for Tobruk but were told to head for Soluch. The 4th and the 7th tank were left there. 20,000 South Africans were there, batteries of guns…in Tobruk, to defend us. My tank had broken down and I was on a lorry and the lorries were breaking down…
You just got out of the tank and left it?
Yes. The engine was broken. Then we started a 14 day retreat. We went through Soluch to Marsa Matruh. There were about 10 of us in the lorry I was in and we stopped at about 5pm and the order came through, if by 7pm, there’s nothing come through, every man for himself. I said where we going to go? He said the Congo. We lined up just as it went dark and the column was nearly a mile long and they said Stop for nothing. If the Germans are there, just go straight through. They used to set flares at night and everything….
So you were retreating and the Germans had already come round behind you and cut you off.
Yes. They’d cut us off and we went right through, oh God! And we were saying this is the fortified line, the Hobart line, but that was called the Alamein line and we were the last to go through. We went through the mine field and went about 50 yards and the shells started coming and we couldn’t have cared less. The driver was crying and his eyes were streaming. When you’re in a tank, it’s going up and down like a battle ship, you can get sea sick in a tank. We stopped at the line and just slept and that was the Alamein Line, and that was June, July 1942. Even then we didn’t think we were beaten. We always had faith
Why is it that everyone I’ve spoken to has so little to say about Monty?
If we hadn’t have won, we would’ve shot him. We never had the equipment to stop them up to July 1942. He came out and he was given 2 armoured divisions and 300 Sherman tanks with 75mm guns. Three extra divisions came in…
How many regiments were in a division? You were with 5 other regiments in the 7th armoured division?
We had twice as many tanks as him…
Your theory is that he could hardly have failed because his equipment was so good…?
He had the Enigma…he knew what was happening. Even when we attacked, he never deviated from the road…to have met Rommel in the open desert, he would’ve slaughtered him. His tactics were far superior…
Can you remember thinking at the time that his tactics were a bit dodgy?
Well, we thought what’s this bloody fellow coming up here for? He was only small with a squeaky voice, our tank pulled his car out of the sand once..Auchinleck….he came back, repulsed them and put in an attack and he was ready and waiting to do it and when he attacked he didn’t have to leave the highway right the way up to Tunis. When we were fighting in Tobruk there were three actions going on, Tobruk, Sidi Berreq and one on the frontier. A lot of people don’t know this but there was an attack put into Tobruk before Alamein, before the battle. The SAS, about 3,000 men and involved was a cruiser and about 12 landing craft and they were slaughtered. The landing craft weren’t working and we lost those men. I am damned sure that if Auchinleck had been in charge, he would’ve held them in reserve. When we broke through we were just chasing them. Had they been held in reserve, and pushed up towards Soluq, they would’ve cut the lot off. Rommel was a past master at stopping…after we broke through at Alamein, the next action was at Benghazi, but there was nobody there…..
Auchinleck had won the first battle at Alamein and he’d beaten Rommel at Alam Halfa…
He sacked Cunningham and Christie and he chased Christie back to England and when Monty came out he promoted Christie back again. Monty hated Auchinleck because during 1928/29 his idea was to get to India because that’s how you got promoted and they only sent 30 a year and Auchinleck made it and Monty didn’t and at the start of the war he was his superior because he was in charge of southern command and he arranged to have petrol tanks floated out on chains and Montgomery took over and he scrapped the lot. And when he took over in the desert, he started shooting his mouth off and said â€œI wouldn’t have put him in charge of a children’s toffee shop and that was a dirty thing to say. But he was still superior to him as a field marshal. He was brilliant. He sacked people in the field and took over. But the best fella was O’Connor. He decided to round and cut them all off. He escaped from Italy and came back to England and took all the brunt of the Falaise Gap and Monty started niggling at him and who did he put in charge but Christie.
In the build up to El Alamein you were behind the lines stockpiling and getting ready…what tanks were you given?
Honeys and Grants. We never had a full regiment. I think we had 35 tanks.
Were you with the same crew as at the beginning?
No, no, people got sick and so on, they changed all the time….
Did you always have an officer who was the tank commander?
No, they were times when all we had was the second in command, sometimes they were corporals, NCO’s…
Were you a private at that time?
I got to corporal. I got sand fly fever and was sent to Cairo and got made up to lance corporal. I went back to the regiment and there was a sergeant major who hated me, I don’t know why..I saved his life one time. I was going back to the tank on a water wagon. There were 3 of us in the lorry and a Spitfire went zooming over us and came back down and I said Get out, he’s coming for us and we threw ourselves out and he came down and there were bullets going past my head. I couldn’t believe it and on the top of the lorry was an RAF symbol and then he must have spotted it and he zoomed away. This sergeant major told me I had to take my lance corporal down because it wasn’t given to me in the battalion. That was wrong. In Liverpool when I was put on that charge, I was just about to be made up to Corporal, and he knew and I didn’t. Someone told me later. Here’s another little story. We were at Alamein. There were 4 of us and we were told to get NAAFI supplies. I was given £75. When we got there it was dark so I suggested we went to a small hotel I put the money in the knap sack under the bed. We went out for a meal and when we got back, the money had gone. We went to SIB and they suggested we hang around for a few days to see if we could catch them. Anyway, they came looking for me, they thought I’d been thrown into clink. I went back and the major was jumping. He said I’d be court martialled. Then we went up to Beda Fomm again and the Germans had gone, so we got sent back to Tobruk for a refit and I was sitting on the floor of a tent writing a letter and the major came in and said â€œI want to apologise for thinking you stole the money. They caught the bloke who did it and he’s corroborated your story. Please accept my apology. Then we got to Tunis and the Colonel said â€œYou can’t go in today, there are snipers around. You can go in tomorrow with side arms. I went in without my side arm and RSM Coke saw me and said â€œYou’ll be court martialled for this. I went before the CO, Lord Carver. He said â€œWhat have you got to say? I said â€œNo excuse Sir. I am afraid I had too much to drink And Halliman(??) was standing at the back and I swear to this day that he whispered â€œI didn’t believe him last time, I think you should believe him this time. and Carver said â€œThis is not the time for punishment. You’ll be fined the cost of the revolver. £3.15/- Case dismissed. and Coke was livid. I was injured in Italy and I was lying on a stretcher and Coke came up to me and said â€œI see you have fallen by the wayside. and I said â€œAnd don’t you wish you with me!
On the whole did you find you got on with most of the crews.
Oh yes. Well, there was Smethurst. He said to me â€œMake my bed. I said â€œI’m not making your bed. He said â€œWho do you think you’re talking to? I said â€œI’m talking to you. The only person who has a batman in the field is the commanding officer. Make your own. And tomorrow morning sir, you fry your own breakfast. We were in action and we using the smoke gun and it’s inside the turret on the wireless op’s side. You crack it open and slot the bomb in and fire. I’d taken down the machine gun and 6 pounder and someone said Hey Reg, you’d better clean that gun and he looked down and his pal who he’d joined up with he fired the gun with the bloody bomb in it. It hit him right in the brain, splattered him, all over me. He fell on top of me dead and the other bloke was screaming. He went beserk…
This guy Smethurst?
No, the wireless operator. There was a court of enquiry, 3 officers and 1 sergeant and they asked was the order given for the gun to be unloaded and I said no. So we had another court of enquiry with just the 3 officers on it and that question wasn’t asked, so Smethurst was off the hook.
Whose fault was it?
Smethurst’s fault. As you come out of action the order should always come, unload. Mine was unloaded but the smoke gun wasn’t. He became a vicar somewhere up in Preston.
Here are some photos.. here’s Tunis…Sid Isebrook and Charlie London. Sid was Jewish. He joined just after the Italian campaign. He went through the desert, through Italy, into France and he got killed a month before the war ended.
So was this little bivouac, was that what you usually slept under? Or under the stars?
Under the stars or we had what was called a half tank. We’d attach this to here and stretch it – it was like a tarpaulin. We usually slept under the stars. We’d kick the stones away. We had a bed roll. I’d tumbled to this even in Crosby. I’d made mine into a sleeping bag. I had 4 scotch kilt pins and I folded it and pinned up the side and then I had a little pillow as well. The officers had a proper bed roll, but we didn’t.
I see from these pictures that you’re wearing trousers. Did you wear shorts at all?
Oh yes, but one thing I didn’t do and that was take my shirt off in the desert til the war was over.
Why did you have black trousers?
That’s how it was until they realised how much they showed up in the desert. Then we switched to khaki.
So Charlie London was a good mate was he?
Were you in the same tank crew?
No. He was a wireless op on another…..
So how did you become good mates with someone like Charlie who was on another crew?
I don’t know really, it just happened.
When you went to Cairo for re-fits and so on, was it still a lively place?
Did you play hard?
No. Oh I liked a drink but I used to go to the Valley of Kings and places like that. I was very interested in the museums and I stayed in the same hotel as Caernarfon did when he found Tutankhamen. The other fellows, all they thought of was booze. There’s Coke…
You just hated him didn’t you? Can you remember much about Hellfire Pass?
Tell me about the summer of ’42. What did you do between the beginning of July and Alamein?
He had them all training, jumping around and that. But us fellows, we were given 3 days leave. We were alongside the tank one day and we’d had some bread issued and we had ammunition boxes and I’d dropped the knife down the side of one box and another fellow came over and dropped another (loaf??) down and it hit the knife and spun it up in the air and caught me on the mouth. I had to have 3 stitches in it.
Were you involved in Alam Halfa?
Yes. The Welsh regiment came out…we were on an escarpment overlooking…the finest armoured regiment in the world and they went into action and they ran into a minefield. They had 102 tanks and they lost 86 of them. Slaughtered they were. Alam Halfa…we dug a hole…we were told not to move. He said wait for them to go on five or six miles then take on the lorries and the supplies and we wiped the lorries out and they started retreating. We knocked out 35 of them. We knocked out one our crew.
When you hit a tank, what happens?
You see a flash.
Do you go â€œYes!
Well that’s the funny thing…
What’s the speed of firing?
About every 3 minutes. You see there are about 100 shells around you on racks and he’s pulling them out and as it’s fired, the breech drops down and there’s like a clip at the side and the shell has got a rim and the rim hits the clip and the breech comes back again. Then you’re ready for another one.
And then there’s the cordite, acrid smelling…it must have got pretty smelly down there didn’t it?
At Alam Halfa, they wouldn’t bury the bodies for about 3 or 4 days and there were thousands of flies, bloody flies everywhere. The hottest I’ve ever been was at Battleaxe when we first went in with Mathilda. 120 degrees. I never did it but you could fry an egg because you could burn yourself. You couldn’t put your hand …you grabbed the gun to get on the tank normally. We had a rabbit once and we were fooling about with this rabbit and someone said the CO’s coming…up the breech and as he came along the bloody rabbit stuck his head out of the gun. He said â€œYou having rabbit stew tonight then? and he laughed, that was Carver.
But inside the tank it must’ve got really smelly. You must’ve been drenched in sweat.
Well water was that short in Tobruk and the desert we washed our gear in petrol. Lovely and clean then we lay out all day in the sun and the smell wore off. We stopped wearing underclothes…we wore them in the winter but not in the summer, just shirt and shorts because it was so difficult to wash them. But in the winter it was bloody cold and we had long johns and a vest, a shirt, battle dress, pullover and an overcoat, then a leather jerkin and a balaclava. In the morning, any water was frozen. But the mornings were magnificent. A golden glow, then deep red, and it was like a mirage and many a time we fired at camels thinking they were tanks….we played football. In Tobruk..this fella, a desert rat, got a shell and was trying to hammer a nail into it. We scattered but we pulled him off in the end…
What else did you do? Write letters home?
Yes and play cards.
What about the Crusader magazine. Did that come round?
Yes. In Tripoli Montgomery opened the brothels, there were loads of them. I went out a virgin and I came back. The first day we ever went this bloke took us into a room and they were all shapes and sizes, you know, the weapons and it put the fear of God into me. I was on guard and this fella went out I said Where are you going? â€œTo the brothel. and he was given a french letter and when he came back he was given a tube of ointment a piece of toilet paper and he had to squeeze it all round and wrap the toilet paper round. Because if you caught a dose and you didn’t report it, you lost your wages and your wife…self inflicted injury. But that’s all some of thought about…sex and the brothels.
There must have been a lot of talk about girls…in between periods of action there must have been periods of extreme boredom…
You’d always be cleaning the tank and the guns…we’d talk about food. I remember the first meal when we got back to Alex after being in Tobruk for 5 months. Stuffed tomatoes and battered onion rings for starters, then filet steak, chips, egg and peas. You can just imagine how that felt after 6 months of bully beef and biscuits.
Did you not make tea out of chlorinated water?
Only just one time when they put too much chlorine in the water and you put the milk in and it curdled. Tea was how we won the war! Believe it or not, we’d been racing through the desert, 50 tanks, and the Stukas had come over…I never saw a tank get hit with a bomb. Along side yes. I never got knocked out of a tank. The nearest was that Spitfire. Robbo from Liverpool, I’ll always remember him..there was no rank in the desert…five bullets, they missed me but Robbo got shot right between the shoulder blades, 30mm and I rolled down the side. Later on after we took Tunis, we went to Cairo to pick up regimental stuff, and there was the same lorry with a notice on saying â€œSafety First – don’t be a fool like this
How did you deal with mates and people you knew being killed?
I think you just felt glad it wasn’t you. There were 2,000 reinforcements in our regiment. I got injured, it was a freak, I still get a pension for it now. We went through a stream and I was standing on the outside of the tank and a shell came and it blew me off the tank and the doctor said normally when you fall you put your arm out like that, but you didn’t. What had happened was I’d hit the water that hard, it had burst my eardrum and the pain was that bad. I was sent back to the hospital ship and taken back to Tripoli. They said you’re not A1 anymore, base duties only, you’ll never be in another tank again. I was sent to what they called a 155 transit camp and I was walking across the parade ground and there were 15,000 there and I heard â€œHey Dave … and this chap I knew said What you doing here and I said â€œNothing, just been sent here. He said come to the office and work with me. Well, he was a quarter master and asked me to take English money and give out scrip ? money. The fellows used to queue for breakfast then after breakfast they’d queue again….and that’s the place where they sentenced 3 fellows to death….they’d been in hospital and they were from the 51st, and the 7th armoured and 51st armoured divisions were being sent home and these 3 were told that they had to join an active unit and they refused and they sentenced them to death.
Did they kill them?
No. I had an argument with Sam Bradshaw. If I had been them, I would have refused. I would’ve wanted to join my regiment. They’d been there for all that time and they just wanted to go home. No medals…their medals were stripped off them and Sam Bradshaw agreed with it. He was a funny bugger Sam. He always made out he was with the 40th then I found out that he was a regular soldier. He said he got injured at Sidi, now another fellow from the 6th, said he was in charge of an ammunition block, there were 8 of them and we got dive bombed and Sam wasn’t one of them. Then we were with an American and he said he’d knocked out 5 tanks. I said you would’ve won a bloody medal for that. Then he said he went to the tank pool and got 3 Honeys…there weren’t any tanks anywhere left. He said he followed the retreat and ran out of petrol just before Alamein
How many tanks do you think you managed to get in that desert?
I was in 9…Matilda, Honey, Grant, Lee and the Sherman.
And how many tanks do you think you hit?
You never did know…we didn’t put it on the side…!
No I know….when you hit a tank, the chances were you were going to be killing all the people inside. Did that ever bother you?
You didn’t think about it…it was just a tank.
You had 2 older brothers didn’t you?
Yes and a sister. Bob was in the Marines and the other was in the service corps. One was 9 years older and the other 4 years older. Bob came out of the Marines…he was only in for 2 years and went home and I was still out here.
Was your sister older than you?
Yes. She was brilliant.
So you had a happy childhood?
Oh yes. My father was chief steward on the Cunard main liners. He served Mary Pickford, Lord Beaverbrook…he was the only one…he’d say I want Mr Davies. He gave him a pair of chamois leather gloves….he was a bit of a gambler mind. My mother had her own business…all my mother’s family were in the fruit trade. My mother used to go down to the docks to the fruit exchange on the horse and cart. We used to live right by the market in the middle of town, then one day the market was hit and all the front of our house was blown away. My father sent her to the Isle of Man in 1942 She didn’t want to be in the business any more when she came back. I was de-mobbed in 46 and went back and I knew there was no job because all the markets are closed so I thought I’d apply for my mother’s old licence and they turned me down because it had been allowed to lapse from 42 to 46. I joined the biggest firm in the Northwest as a salesman and retired in 1984 as manager. Now I’d never had no girl ….When we came back from the desert we were sent to Barnards Castle to be checked for VD. I sent my family a telegram telling them what time my train would be in and my father, my sister, my niece, and Margaret….my sister had told this girl Margaret that I was coming back, and I eventually married her…..the day I was going abroad she wouldn’t….she and I were both Catholic, I was an altar boy for about 10 years, and she said she wasn’t going to miss the Children of Mary (??) and I’m not going to miss it tonight…and that was it, I walked off. But we got together and were married in May 1945. Anyway….we got divorced. In those days you had to wait 3 years… Sorry Jamie, I can’t make the next bit out, I think he’s telling you the name of his 2nd wife…..we had 2 daughters and a son. One is a head teacher, the other is on the executive staff of the blood transfusion service and my son’s a ?? and my wife died 26 years ago. I got friendly with my daughter’s mother in law and she looks after me every weekend, brings food and cooks, and cleans and irons and such like….
Do you ever think about the war?
It wasn’t until I retired in 1984 that I got involved in the 8th Army because I never had the time. I used to do all the books…
You must have seen an awful lot of action out there….
Can you remember Alamein starting? The barrage and all that? You must have known something big was a foot didn’t you?
The first night we heard the barrage going on all night…it was deafening. we stopped the tank and this column came out of the desert with the Colonel at the front with a walking stick and a Tam o’ Shanter …these fellows had been in the line for 7 days….we were down south down towards the depression. It wasn’t until just the night before…that was the dummy tanks…they made tanks look like lorries and lorries look like tanks to make out that there were a lot more. The night before the break we were sent up north, then they broke through…
At what point were you actively involved in the battle?
From the beginning. There was no battle until the break out.
So the barrage started, then they had to break out through the mine field…
That lasted 10 days…Monty was panicking….we went along the road for about 4 miles and the idea was to swing them round back towards the minefield and cut off his retreat and then knock the tanks out.
You were in a Honey at that time?
Yes. He couldn’t rely on anyone to chase the Germans because no-one had been in the desert and there was the 7th armoured division who went all the way up to ? again.
So you were in the spearhead division?
We used to call it swanning…swanning around.
Did you lose many tanks in that?
2 or 3 that’s all. Then the next big one was in Mareth. On the verge of going into Tunisia. We were on a hill and the 51st put in a frontal attack and were repulsed and they were lobbing 210mm at us.
Had you noticed by this stage that all the equipment and supplies had improved considerably?
Oh yes. The planes. He brought out the hard tracks…it wasn’t until the Americans came in that things changed…..there’s a story I want to tell you. When I was 8 I said to my dad, â€œHey dad, when did we win the war? He said 1917. Then when we were in Tobruk, my dad’s words came back to me and I cried, and I said â€œYes dad, we’re going to win the war. The Americans were in the war.
Do you remember meeting up with any Americans in Tunisia?
Yes. One day the Colonel told us to go and scavenge. We were outside Tunis then and we came across this regiment and said â€œWe’re from the 8th Army, can you fix us up with a meal? â€œCertainly they said and when we’d finished we came out and there were about 15,000 German prisoners and I thought that it was about time I had a watch, so I went in amongst all these Germans til I found a watch I liked and when I got back I was showing the guys and an American captain came up and asked me where I got the watch and I said â€œAlamein he said â€œyou deserve it then. The next minute this German prisoner came up with the American captain and the captain said â€œI don’t want to strain the relationship between the British and American forces and he pulled out his revolver and said Give back the watch.
So did you collect much booty along the way?
Cameras. I had 3 of them. But you weren’t allowed to take photos in case you were captured. It was illegal. I did get a watch off an Italian. The watch I took off the Italian was an Omega. A hand came out of this lorry as I was walking along, he took the watch off and give it to me. Somewhere in Tunisia the tank broke down and we were left and the Colonel came on and said â€œWhere are you? Can’t make out next few words. There was an American camp just opposite and I walked over and we had on the tank a box of brand new German bayonets still in the cellophane and this American said â€œHey bud, what you got to trade? I thought he’d give us some cigarettes for the bayonets but then this other fellow came running up and said â€œWhat you got to trade? I said â€œI’ve only got this watch. So he said â€œCome on, I’ll trade you. So he gave me 2000 ?, a watch, 3 cartons of Chesterfields and a pair of American boots. All for a watch.
So did you like the Americans?
We didn’t have the money
It strikes me that the 8th Army had amazing experience garnered over several years in the desert and the Americans had all the kit but no experience. The 8th Army had all the experience but none of the kit.
We were in the tank one day not far from Sfax, and a plane came and we were just stood there by the tank, and there were 20,000You’re only a pin pricksorry Jamie can’t make sense of next few words. The first bombing raid I was ever involved in was when the Italian came over and attacked us, these Italian bombers came right over us like that and at the time I thought that bombs just came straight down. But they go in a big arc, I couldn’t get back in the tank fast enough but they dropped about 5 miles away. They go in an arc.
The countryside in Tunisia must have been very different to the desert.
It wasn’t until we got to Durna, Benghazi, and we came across this ?? and he had his family with him and we gave him a couple of tins of corned beef and he couldn’t get over it. He thought we were going to shoot them. We went into this farm and there was like a pit with rabbit holes and we were there with our revolvers waiting for these rabbits to come out so we could shoot them.
What happened if you were in a tank in the middle of a battle and you needed to
You just had to try and wait but lots of fellows, if you were at the coast they’d run into the sea.
With the half gallon of water you were given a day
Half a gallon? Sometimes it was a pint
You weren’t allowed beards though were you..
You could always tell 8th Army because we wouldn’t entertain army issue khaki. We went into Cairo and bought shorts and slacks, always perfect, but they were always in long shorts and terrible shirts. When we were in Cairo we had the Dhobi Wallahs. I’ll show you the uniform. There we are. That was all brass buttons. When I was on guard and I put that on, 2 fellows would hook their hands underneath me and carry me down the stairs so that I didn’t get creases in the uniform before we went on guard. Then there’s a bit about the revolver procedure which is a bit difficult to follow
So you had your own kit made up when you were in Cairo. You could wear what you like pretty much as long as it was .
Yes. we bought our own kit.
What about shaving though?
I didn’t shave until I was 22. We had a sponge and about every 3rd day we’d get a cup of water, shave first and sponge ourselves down.
So you only cleaned yourselves up about every 3rd day.
Yes because we couldn’t afford the water.
And when you were in the Lagers and you needed a crap, you’d just dig a hole..
Yes, you just went out with a shovel. And that’s another thing if that happened when you’re in battle, the Germans would shoot at you, so you’d do it and run like hell, and we did it to them too.
Would you try to kill them?
No. Just frighten them you know. We always looked on the desert war as a clean war because being in the tanks we used to overrun the Red Cross and going in there they treated our fellows the same way so that’s how we got very friendly with the Germans. About 15 years ago we started going over there and we went out there for a reunion and there was a General Grant, cracking bloke he was from the Africa Corps. We went to this reunion and when we got there, there was like this shed affair, like a hangar and thee was alike a curtain across and there were about 25 of us, and they pulled the curtain back and there was 2000 Germans there, and as we went in they all stood up and clapped, clapped us all in. Then we saw them again 5 years later and we presented him with a tank and a scroll. Here you can have one of the scrolls. And he gave me a pair of cufflinks. There was an article in the German papers about the war and a letter and we wrote a letter saying that they were only doing their duty, the same as us, and it was published. The President of Germany sent for us to go over to Berlin and we went to the garden of remembrance, and there was German police and German troops everywhere. We went to a florist and got a wreath and there were about 10 ambassador wreaths lined up. The next day we went to the dome, it’s a bit like St Pauls. A cathedral with all chandeliers and everything. And someone said â€œThey are all talking about you! We’ve been to 4 reunions. Carl Heinz, we’ve been to his house, and this year in March, Jack Carney and me and Sam and Margaret his wife, and we went and stayed with him for the 50th anniversary. We knew his wife had cancer so we said we’d stay in pension just down the road
Alf Davies Part 2
You mentioned a man who had to kill himself.
That was at the beginning, in 1940. We had these A9 tanks & they had twin turrets at the side. It was hit & he couldn’t get out so he had no alternative. The main part of the tank was on fire & there was 2 pounders all around. It was impossible to reach him.
Another thing you mentioned was that after Tobruk, the Germans started doing overhead burst. I wondered what the significance of that was.
The tank crews didn’t wear helmets then, they just kept their berets & the majority of the time, the tank commander was stood up in the turret with his binoculars on, & with binoculars he had a far greater range of vision so they started sending these overhead burst & of course that affected the infantry too.
Going back to the Gazala & Knightsbridge battles, in May 42 you were out of the line then, but presumably you knew an offensive was coming?
In April/May we were at Meena, at the pyramids, then all of a sudden we were on the move, & went up to south of Tobruk, the cauldron, & we reconnoitred & short battles, but it wasn’t until the main one took place..we had a mine field & we managed to force the Germans towards the mine field. Then during the battle they ran out of petrol. A lot of people don’t mention this, but I remember going up a like a ride. We more or less knew where a lot of their positions were but unfortunately the sand storm blew up & the divisional commander came on & said â€œstop where you are. Go into a night lager & we’ll go in tomorrow morning when the sand storm. well, that’s what we did. Next morning we went over the ridge & I was in a Honey tank at the side, the battle tanks were in the middle, and as we went over the ridge, all hell let loose. They’d broken through the mine field.
During the night?
.& replenished their petrol & the Grants, that was the first time they’d really gone into battle, & they crucified us because they swung round to retreat.now a Grant had 2 iron doors at the back & I think a Napier aero engine & the ATH (?) was hitting them up the back & blowing them to pieces.
What I can’t understand is how they were managing to hit them from behind?
We’d started to retreat & the turrets were flying everywhere. There was a ton of ammo & at that time about a 100 gallons of high octane aero petrol.
So they just blew up?
So do you think if it hadn’t been for that sand storm, you would have whipped them?
I don’t know. We never had the real fire power. We had it in the Grant but it couldn’t rotate. It wasn’t til we got the 6 pounders & the Shermans came along. We never had high explosive shells in the tank. We only had 2 pound of solid shot. If you were firing at an 88 which was our main enemy, it just went through the ? & didn’t knock it out of action whereas if an explosive had hit it, it would probably have knocked it to its side.
Yes sure.When you were travelling to the front line from Meena, presumably you went up on trucks & the tanks went on transporters did they?
The railway went through Alex to Mersa Matruh, so they’d put them on flat backs
On the train?
Yes. I remember I sat on the top & after a few weeks I regretted it. Little did I realise the debris.
So your tank was on the flat bed & you were sitting on the top? On the train?
Some of us, like me, we went up by lorry because they hadn’t reorganised the tank crews, so I sat on the top, on the lorry, & I had sores all along my lips for about a month afterwards because of the dry air hitting them.
So you’d meet your tank at Mersa & off load it
Then you did the rest of the trip by road to the Gazala line?
By road yes.
On the tank? Or on a transporter?
On the tank. Transporters hadn’t been brought into operation. It wasn’t til Alamein they really came in.
So it was a question of getting in your tank & off you go?
Yes. You had to be careful because they held 50 gallons & they did 50 miles. It was one gallon to a mile.
Did you really fill them up with those 4 gallon cans?
You just poured it in, by hand?
Yes. We had a thing we slotted into to it, like a funnel & then we poured the petrol in.
So a lorry would come up loaded with these 4 gallon cans?
Normally, there was A echelon & B echelon
And A echelon was the supply echelon?
Yes. And when we lagered in the night, 4 things would come up – petrol, ammo, water & food & they’d shout how many gallons? And they’d pass them over to us. I’m rather surprised now because we used to prize of the clip off the 4 gallon tin with a pick axe handle & I’m surprised we never had a fire with the sparks.
So you’d only be refuelled once a day?
Not necessarily. If we were in action and running short, we’d pull back & we’d go to a set point & they’d drop the petrol down & we’d re-load & move back.
So would there be a great pile of those 4 gallon cans?
A truck with A echelon. They’d only be about 5 miles back.
So where A echelon is, is a series of trucks?
About 10. The MO he was there in an armoured car, the RSM & a couple of officers & they’d be in charge of A echelon. B echelon were in charge of the food. Say 3pm, they’d pre-cook it & then seal them into hay boxes, seal them down then the heat would cook them through. There wasn’t much to cook anyway, just corned beef & new potatoes. And when you cook corned beef it went all stringy; it wasn’t pieces.
To go back to Gazala & Knightsbridge battles, I remember you said you found it quite frightening to be in the middle of a battle. It must have horrendous, noise & fire.
I was in Tobruk & when I came out the battle of Sidi Rezegh was going on. There was 1000 tanks in there. I’ve spoken to blokes who took part in that and they said with all the milling around you could fire on your own tanks. But that didn’t happen at Knightsbridge. We were pretty confident. We never thought of ourselves as having been beaten, even in the retreat. The thought never entered our mind. My tank broke down & we had to leave it & jump on a lorry, then one of the lorries would break down & they set it on fire. We said if anyone else sets one on fire, we’ll shoot them because the Jerries then knew where you were & they’d send shells over.
You must have realised in the middle of that action that you were in potential trouble?
Oh for definite.
Presumably you were thinking get the hell out quick?
Was there any sense of not panic but adrenaline surging?
In that situation, if we would have been caught unawares, like in B echelon, in soft tops & suddenly the German tanks had come up, I don’t know what the reaction would have been, whether I would have put our hands up straight away or not.
The Stuart was pretty manoeuvrable wasn’t it?
It was, & it would travel about 30 miles an hour.
And the driving mechanism was 2 levers, left & right?
And a throttle?
Do they have gears?
Yeah, that was between your knees. You slip it in gear, step on the throttle & off you go.
And you were in charge of firing as well?
It was quite a big job wasn’t it?
Oh no, the gunner..on a tank there was 4 people
On a Stuart?
Or a Crusader. There was the tank commander, the gunner, the wireless op & the driver. I could have taken over the tank in an emergency but the one thing I could never do was Morse. But as a gunner, I was one of the best. My opinion was that being the gunner was the best part because you were allowed to vent your feelings. I remember one wireless operator was terrified, he was shaking, hoping that whatever was in front of me, I’d knock it out.
If you did hit something & you could see it, did you give a whoop of joy or whatever?
Oh definitely. The gun itself was like a horseshoe with leather. You slipped your hand underneath & put your head forward & a pad came to your forehead & at the side of your face was the machine gun with a pad on the machine gun & you rested your face against the pad & your eye came to the telescope & down below were 2 pistol grips, one for the machine gun, one for the gun and the order would come â€œ11 o’clock! One round, and I’d swing round, say I was at 9 o’clock, round to 11 o’clock 600 yards, he’d probably say â€œone round, fire! & immediately I fired, the gun would go up in the air, & I’d bring it down straight away & I could see the tracer of the shell zoom forward. Invariably it would go over the top so he’d say â€œUp 20 yards half a degree! & if you did hit it & people started bailing out, you’d probably turn your machine gun on them. We didn’t in the early days; we just let them get out, but the Germans started knocking us off so the 8th army said we can’t afford to lose the crews, it takes too long to train them. Although myself, I went out to Egypt & I hadn’t even fired a rifle. We weren’t fully trained. We picked it up as we went along. I wasn’t trained to drive a tank; I learnt it as I went along.
But don’t you think the best way of training for something like that is being in a battle?
Oh that’s right. It was amazing how you could acquaint yourself with the whistle of a shell – where it was going to land. The only one you couldn’t do that with was the 88, because you heard the bang & you were dead. When an 88 hit you, the report came afterwards, it was travelling faster than the report itself. I was hit by an 88 once & they only way I can describe it was like opening the doors to hell.
Your tank was hit was it?
Yes, across the front of the tank
So it sort of sheared off it did it?
When was that?
In Battle Axe, in Matilda’s for the first time, in 41 & up to that time nothing could penetrate the turret because it was 4 inches of solid steel.
So it was horrendous?
Oh yes. I’ve seen fellows who just lost their speech, they’re shaking, they were so terrified.
What was it that was so terrifying?
Fellows having their arms blown off, their heads blown off
No-one was injured in your tank?
No. I was sitting in the tank & another of our tanks was about 50 yards away & all of a sudden I saw bullets going through the driver & as I went to jump up, he lifted his arm up & over & got back in the turret. Accidentally the gunner had opened fire with the machine gun. There was one tank had a mortar gun on it and the machine gun was on the other side of the mortar gun, like over the driver & so he’d stood up & the fellow had opened fire & it had gone right through between his armpit & ripped his overall & he just put his arm down & got back in the turret. The next day believe it or not, he was standing beside the tank & there was an overshot of a German 50mm & it hit him flat in the chest. It didn’t kill him but his breasts came up like a woman. Knocked him off his feet.
Can you remember any specific incidents from the Knightsbridge battle?
Towards the end of the day, we were scattered, we were trying to find out who’d bought it..that was the expression.
So you were moving around all the time even in the middle of the battle?
That’s it with the tank regiment. You had to be told the night before what was going to happen because you might be miles away. Like we were say 20 miles in front of the main columns, what they called swanning, we’d go swanning around & we always had an officer who was working out the battalions positions all the time & the CO would come up and ask our positions & he’d know exactly where we were.
What about the tactics at the time?
These officers had the same mentality as officers in the charge of the Light Brigade.
At the time, did you recognise that those columns & boxes were not a good idea?
No. Those Germans used to fool us. They’d have half a dozen tanks come out, then retreat and we’d chase after them & suddenly the tanks would pull away & poof in front were about 3 & 88’s, & we walked into the trap time & time again.
Didn’t you ever think why don’t our commanders get wise to it?
Well, in the heat of battle you’re making up your mind in fractions of minutes whether to push on or reverse or call for assistance. Morse code, although we were taught it, you’d never use it. You didn’t have time to tap out; you had the speaker by your voice all the time. We had it so just you in the tank could hear it over you switched over so the whole regiment could hear & you could hear the reports coming through, or you could send a report. Like I was saying, that talk about the Light Brigade, someone in the morning would hum that tune & they’d race each other – â€˜Get off the air!
Just to move on, you mentioned that someone called Coke was trying to get you court martialled in Tunis. Why was that again?
I’d been wearing a side arm, but someone knocked it off. Took it off me.
So what was Coke suggesting you be court martialled for?
For the loss of my side arm. All the tank crew had them. I don’t know, I didn’t want to be on a tank; I’d rather be on B echelon because I knew what was happening in the tank crews. During the Italian campaign, I wasn’t on the tank at the time, we had a water lorry & at that time we had 16 gallon water tank tanks & we were told to go up to the battalion & supply them with water. We went up & we couldn’t find them. We found the regiment & asked them..This was when we were taking Tobruk for the first time.they said â€œYou’ve got to go back the way you came. We turned the lorry round & started to go along the track & immediately we did that.I was sitting in the middle with the driver on one side & Coke on the other..this fighter came whoosh over the top of us & we watched it go up in the air & it turned over & it was coming down & I said â€œGet out the wagon! Get out! As we got out I said â€œHe’s coming down the left hand side. Get down & we went round the back & as I said that he opened up with his machine gun. I flung myself on the floor & the bullets flashed along the floor past my head & I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t been hit; I was feeling myself all over. Fortunately none of us were hit & we dashed to one side about 20 yards away & he turned round & came back & he must have spotted the RAF sign on the top of the lorry. In the unit we’d been, they chased an ambulance & they couldn’t believe none of us had been hit. He didn’t say thanks. I was on tank crews then. I don’t know, he had something against me.
When was it the Spitfire attacked you?
In the Italian campaign, in Italy. When I got injured in Italyit burst my eardrum & I was lying on a stretcher waiting & he came by & said â€œI see you’ve fallen by the wayside, & I said â€œYes, & don’t you wish you were with me?
When was that?
I went in with Salerno.I wasn’t actually in action when it happened. I was standing on
the tank and it lurched & I fell & instead of putting my arm up I didn’t & I landed flat on the water & it burst my eardrum & they said I couldn’t be in tanks any more.
Was that before or after Casino?
About the same time. The tanks never actually took part in the battle of Casino. The regiment left before Casino took place. They took the boat in December. I wasn’t sad; I was glad I never went with them They thought they were going home & that would be that. Little did they realise they were going to spearhead the second front.
Do you remember any of the other battles – Marath, Wadi Akarit?
Oh yes. Marath – we were on a ridge in support of the 51st Highlanders.
You were holed down were you?
No, we were just sitting on the ridge & they were lobbing 210mm at us. One would come at us then we would move 20 yards, then another, & we’d move again. We were taken off the ridge & I can’t believe how people can say â€œMonty’s famous left hook! We should never..we lost a lot of casualties. Then he said we better go round. Well, we should have done that in the first place. Montgomery, the troops he brought out with him had never known defeat, never had to retreat – they though the sun shone out of his backside, but the fellows who’d been there before knew what it was like. He never fought a battle in the open part of the desert; he went along the coast from Alamein to Tunis. It may have been a mile or so inland, but he fought a coastal war. Everything was in his favour with materials & everything. I was in Tripoli & he called a conference & he asked the Americans & he was saying what he did & they stood up & walked out after a while – they hated him.
You were there when that conference was going on in March 43?
Did you go to the conference?
No. When I came out of hospital they told me I was going to stay near HQ & I became the driver to the senior chaplain Middle East Forces.
But that was before the end in Tunis?
So when were you wounded?
No, 43. In Italy.
You weren’t wounded in North Africa?
No, not a scratch & I was there from the very beginning. We used to get up at 6am, on parade, have our breakfast, go down to the tank pool, then have a NAAFI break & at 1pm it was finished. I was very sport minded & I was playing cricket one day & the Colonel came up & said â€œHow would you like to play at Gazira? Well, Gazira was the place in Cairo, Gazira Sporting Club. I said â€œI haven’t got any whites. He said â€œDon’t worry. I’ll supply those. By the way don’t tell anyone your surname, just say you’re Alfred. So I played in the match & I took a catch high up in the air and he said â€œBy jove Alfred, we’ll send a box round for that! I was having the time of my life. Those few months I thought what the bloody hell was I working for, I could have been in the army enjoying myself!
What do you remember about Wadi Akarit?
It’s vague now.
Then you went onto Sphax & Gabes.it was all very flat up round the coast there, then a bit more hilly towards Tunis.
All around Djerba was quite mountainous with precipices. We had reverse steering & I remember one tank went over a 60 foot dropped & it crashed turret down.
Can you remember Tunis itself?
We went in & we were trying to pick up a ? girl & we picked one up but her mother clung to her. I’ve got a photograph of her, her mother, Charlie, Sid & myself..she was a nice girl.