Dick Bowery was in the 31st Field Artillery of the 4th Indian Division, and saw action in North Africa and Italy.
When did you join the army?
1937. My first posting was to a field brigade, we used to be brigades then, not regiments and I was trained as a driver; drove a pair of horses but I got fed up with that. Because of my behaviour, I got posted to a heavy brigade in Plymouth which I didn’t like at all because I was fireman on a traction engine, so I volunteered to go abroad. I went to Cairo in the 31st field brigade. I was brought up in India. My father left the army as a staff sergeant in ARTIFSA (?), the artillery. We lost our mother in India you see and you weren’t allowed to stay in the army if you had children, so he had to leave the army and we came back to England. I was born at Bulford Camp and we went to India shortly after.
Stationed all over?
Well, my father was stationed on the North West Frontier.
Was he Indian Army?
Everyone who was stationed in India at that time was Indian Army. Officers were seconded to the Indian Army. If you served in India, you came under the Indian Army and it was a vast army; 365,000 in India alone. We still suffered from the supercilious thing where Indians weren’t allowed to be gunners although did eventually form mountain brigades with British officers and Indian other ranks. But in the main they were infantry and cavalry and IOR’s. Guns of any significance, like the medium and field, were all British.
When you joined up, did you join up deliberately the RA?
I ran away from home because my father re-married and I couldn’t stand my step mother. How old were you?
Between you and me – nearly 16, and I joined as a man. I gave a false age. In those days, you didn’t have to produce a birth certificate – it was age as declared on enlistment.
You chose to join the artillery.
Yes because as a lad, I could ride and in India I witnessed the life of the infantry man and I didn’t like what I saw. The gunner’s life was a bit better.
So when did you get to Egypt?
January 1938 and I stayed abroad on that posting til I came home at the end of April 44.
So in 1939, that was when the 31st joined the 4th Indian division?
Yes, we were part of the Cairo Infantry Brigade – British Troops Egypt and the 4th Indian Division arrived in the Middle East having amongst other things, dumped off one or 2 infantry units and also the main thing that concerned us was that they dropped off the 28th field brigade and arrived in the delta minus one third of their field artillery and the 7th armoured brigade was in the process of going up to divisional status and it was far more important in those days that the infantry divisions had their crack compliment of artillery than an armoured division. So the 4th Indian Division were made up with their three regiments of artillery – 1st regiment, 25th regiment and 31st field regiment.
What guns were you using in 1939?
In the 1938 crisis, the 4th field artillery units were equipped with the 18 pounder as was the 31st field regiment. On arrival in the Middle East, the 31st field were equipped with the 18/25 pounder, which was the old 18 pounder on a mark 5 P carriage re-tubed to 25 pounder. The other 2 regiments, the 1st and 25th, they had the mark one 25 pounder which was very similar to the one you know from the pictures, with certain different modifications. It had no muddle brake. The 31st, my regiment, didn’t get the mark 2 25 pounder til we returned, we had a field campaign in the Spring of 41.
How many 25 pounders do you get to a regiment.
There was a big overhaul of the regiment in 1938. They did away with the word brigade and we became a regiment and before the war you had three 4 gun batteries. Normally in the field, you had one gun battery, like I was in 119 battery, and we were a gun battery. 116 and 118 batteries were equipped with a 4.5 Howitzer and it wasn’t until 1938, the end of 38, that we were all equipped with the same equipment and from the 4 gun batteries we came on to the war establishment of 2 troops each of 6 guns in each battery. Twelve 25 pounders to a battery and 3 batteries to a regiment. 36 guns in the regiment, an enormous increase in fire power.
You mentioned Shelford Bidwell. How did you know him?
After the war, I went on a gunnery staff course and became an ACIG, assistant instructor in gunnery at Larkhill and I did a short time there and was posted to the British Military mission in Greece to train mountain gunners because I had had a bit of experience with that in Egypt. It turned out I was the only one who knew anything about the 37 Howitzer in PAC. When that ended I asked if I could go on a master gunner’s course and having done that I had 2 sub districts, the Clyde Fire Command and Number One SDRA at Teignmouth Castle. When ack ack command and coastal command closed down, all us master gunners, who were the most senior warrant officers in the British Army, were offered leave the army or return to duty – i.e go back to a medium or field regiment. I didn’t fancy leaving the army because it would have meant going out on a modified pension, so I chose to go back to duty. I was posted to the 58 medium regiment as a master gunner, but of course you don’t have master gunner’s in field regiments or medium regiments and found myself the most senior warrant officer in the BAOR, and became RSM of 58 medium commanded by Ginger Bidwell. But as an ACIG, I was the gunnery instructor on both his gunnery staff course and the CRA and I was the assistant instructor.
You always got on well with him?
Oh yes, he was what I would call a real officer. He was what we called a gentleman officer; he was a real man, a real man.
He certainly seemed to know a lot about guns
Oh Lord yes.
.and artillery and how to use itBy the end of 41, Desert Command seems to have forgotten how to fight a battle. I wonder how much you were aware at the time of the mis-use of artillerywere you always taught about concentrated fire?
Oh yes, long before the war started.
It makes you wonder how they lost it Drop (??) columns and things.
Jock Campbell as a major came to my battery and took over as battery commander. He then became second in command and for a very short while commanded 31st field regiment. He was horse artillery officer and everything had to be done at the gallop. You can’t move large formations at high speed, or you couldn’t in those days. This was his intention. You could move a couple of a guns and a couple of light tanks and a light vehicle across the desert at high speed and this is what they did. Instead of leaving the regiments concentrated with fire power they split us up into penny packets and sent them hither and thither and of course we got shot to pieces.
Did you know it was bonkers?
Oh yes, we all knew it was bonkers.
Was there a lot of grumbling between the batteries?
Oh we all grumbled but in those days the only people who were taking any notice were officers. If you read the history of the 31st you’ll see that while we were officered, we had quite a lot of decorations but at one time I was in a battery, we had one officer. When we were down in Eritrea for example, I used to live in the OP; my job was assistant command post officer but I very quickly found myself in the OP because there were no officers left.
Because they’d all been killed or wounded?
Killed or wounded yes. The same happened in the desert. When we got to Feiderville and those places, we were short of officers; our casualties were enormous. One chap, he’s still alive, Major Roy Stroud, he got a terrible bashing in 1941 and when he went, I replaced him at the OP and I was only a sergeant. We did really suffer. Our divisional casualties were really something in the gunner line.
So you were involved at Sidi Rezegh in crusader?
4th Indian was out of the line at Gazala wasn’t it?
At Gazala it was, but we were back in again shortly after. In fact my regiment, we were the divisional artillery for fire brigade in December 1941 when we got carved to pieces at Alam Hansa, for which my battery got an honour title. No, we suffered terrible casualties there.
Do you think that was through lack of concentration?
Partly lack of concentration, but you have to remember we had no reconnaissance except by vehicle or on foot; no air reconnaissance like the Germans had. We used to do a reconnaissance in force as it was called. In my experience, you’d get a regiment of artillery, a battalion of infantry and you had a reconnaissance force in our case of the Central India Horse, and you’d get a company of Bombay Sappers and you’d probe. What we actually did was we drove a wedge between a German division and an Italian division, which the Germans wouldn’t accept and turned on us nastily and beat the living daylights out of us and there were only 36 of us left in the regiment after 3 days and that was in December 1941.
And this was because you were being used as an under strength mobile column?
Yes. The mobile columns were just cut to pieces.
You’d meet the Germans or Italians and they’d have massively superior strength and presumably you had no concentrated fire and cut off from supplies.
And cut off from divisional support which was the worst part.
Not just food and drink but ammunition?
And the fire power support. When you are deployed as division you are normally following in 3 brigades and you support each other. You are all within helping distance of each other.
If you knew it was all nonsense but you couldn’t get the message through to anyone who mattered, didn’t it affect your morale?
It did, but you have to remember that up until we were destroyed in December 1941, we were a regular regiment and we did what we were told.
Yes but it must have been disheartening.
It was and we disagreed with the policy but orders is orders and you just got on with it.
It must have been a breath of fresh air when Gertie Tooker turned up; old Indian Army chap.
When you look at it, they were all Indian Army and they all went to fairly high ranks. Apart from Merrilees.was it him?
I’m not sure..
He was the man, the real man. He wouldn’t budge.
Did you get to meet Tooker?
Oh yes. I did FOO in the final stages of the war in the Western Desert, in Tunisia. Again I was forward observation officer as a sergeant with the 1st/2nd Ghurkas, Colonel Showers. He took the surrender of General Von Armin
So you saw him strutting out as well did you? It must have been an experience.
Oh yes, all the soldiers lined up – thousands of them. It was a wondrous experience.
And a sense of relief?
Well yes, but let’s be honest about it; apart from December 41 we really enjoyed the war! There was none of that WW1 nonsense, mud and slush. It was nice and warm. You went hungry and thirsty at times but by and large we didn’t have a bad war, not like they had in the Far East, or on the European Continent. Italy was a bloody awful mess. We landed in Italy in shorts and putties.
You went right through did you til 44?
We finished up in the Cape Pom (?) Peninsula in North Africa then drove all the way back to Cairo. There we re-equipped, were considerably reinforced and embarked on a ship and landed in Tarranto which I think was about 5 days after the initial landing on the Italian main land. The division went in. We went up the east side of Italy til just before Casino when the Americans were stopped in their tracks and we were pushed in.
You came back in 44 did you?
That’s right. The victory at Casino was performed by the Poles not the British but the British Indian Army supplied the fire support for that attack by the Poles; the Poles were fantastic. Amazingly enough I was having a cup of coffee in the Kardoma in Nottingham, oh after I came out of the service, in about 1977 sometime and this chap came up and sat down and said in foreign English, â€œI know you and I said â€œI’m sorry but I don’t recall you and he said â€œNo you wouldn’t – the last time I saw you, you were manning an OP, supporting us in Casino!
End of Number one
.must have followed me and got the number of the car and traced me and a few weeks later I received a package which contained a Casino veterans medal issued by the Polish Army and the little solid gold lapel badge of the Casino Phoenix, which was incredible. It must have been him.
So you left Italy immediately after Casino?
Yes, April 44. Directly Casino finished something called Python One was introduced and you got that and returned to the UK. So I returned, had a month’s leave and started all over again. I didn’t go abroad again til I went to Greece.
To go back to the desert, the 4th Indian division was in the Canal Zone during the Gazala battles, re-training and re-equipping?
Re-equipping after the Eritrean do, you see.
So after December 41 debacle – do you remember when you went back into line. Would it have been July? The first battle of Alamein?
They were in defensive positions in Alamein when we re-joined.
Was it during a lull?
Yes, there was no fighting going on.
Can you remember the battle of Alamein?
Oh yes, very much so.
Presumably you were part of that barrage that opened at 9.40.
Yes that’s right. I was on a gun right throughout that period and my most vivid memory was preparing the ammunition, masses of it.
What does that involve?
Un-boxing it; 25 pounds of ammunition comes in 4 boxes shell, ? boxes cartridges, so you had 3 boxes to get 8 rounds.
What was the speed of fire?
You just got on with it. As fast as aimed rounds could be fired. You’re talking between 8 and 11 rounds a minute out of a 25 pounder with a gun detachment of 5 men and believe me we started off in great coast because it was night and very cold in the desert and finished up stripped to the waist. And this takes some swallowing but in the darkness towards the end of the barrage the gun barrels were glowing from the heat, and we actually wore guns out.
Do you get covered in smoke and grit and bits?
Oh yes and you stink of cordite. There were 2 propellants used on the 25 pounder; one was single-based, nitro glycerine, and one was double-based, nitro glycerine and nitro cellulose. The cordite, which is a single-based propellant, comes in sticks, but the 3 charges on the 25 pounder, red, white and blue bags, it’s very easy to ignite and discharge, but once they brought in the double-based propellant, it’s very unstable so it came in little pieces about an inch long, but that’s very difficult to ignite all the lot in one go. They brought in the long primer which gave you central ignition on the cartridge and it produced loads and loads of smoke, terrible stuff really. But the smell of the cordite and the double-based propellant goes into your clothes and body; it doesn’t physically hurt you but you smell of cordite for days after. You’re using it for hours on end during battle and you live in a cloud of this.
No mask or anything?
No mask, no ear protection, nothing.
It must have given you sore throats?
Were you all a bit hoarse by the following day?
Yes but you get used to it.
It must have been a relief to use the 25 pounders in a concentrated barrage as they were meant to be used?
That’s right. Once Montgomery arrived on the scene, things improved an awful lot.
You all thought highly of him?
Not so much highly of him; I never saw the man. What the common soldier admired about Montgomery was this. His predecessors were ordered to do so and so and come what may they did it even though they were under equipped they went and had a go and normally they lost. Montgomery refused to move until a) he was ready and b) the army was in a fit state to go, i.e. they had enough armour, tanks, ammunition etc.
He had Alexander to thank for that; Alex was watching his back. Did you ever see Alex?
Yes, once in Italy. We were stood to at about 4.30am at Lanciano and this jeep arrived and out of it got this apparition! He was in a British warm, staff cap, the coat was open and he wore a Sam Brown belt, breeches and field boots. I looked at him, I knew he was an officer of course, saluted, realised who he was and he asked me my name and unit and said â€œInform your gun position officer that you’ve been visited by Lord Alexander. No rank, just Lord Alexander and when I told my GPO he didn’t believe me!
Did you think highly of him?
Oh very much so.
He was an impressive man to look out and he exuded confidence and he visited the troops in the battle line. Like Tooker you see, he exuded confidence; you couldn’t help but have confidence in him.
What was it about him?
For example, you’d be a company of infantry – I only knew the company because I was an FOO with them, and all of a sudden the divisional commander would be there..How’s it going sergeant? â€œNot too bad Sir. â€œYou’re from 31st Field Division? â€œYes Sir, 105 119 battery (as we’d then become), â€œAny ammunition problems? â€œNo Sir. â€œRight, ok. And that was it.
Why do think Tooker hasn’t been given greater credit?
I think if you look at the hierarchy of Indian Army officers, the top men.
Of which Auchinleck was the.
Auchinleck was one yes, and they were the brilliant shine in the Far East Army, 14th army because the 14th army was basically the Indian Army but the Middle East Army was the British Army and although the 8th Army in its early days was basically a colonial army, there was a bit of British there but not much. The only real British there was the 7th armoured division, but the rest was all colonial and it wasn’t until Montgomery took over that we had this predominance of British Army units.
Why did that hinder Tooker?
Because they were looked down on; they hadn’t got the same standing. It wasn’t that they weren’t efficient or didn’t make good generals but I don’t think they were ever given the opportunity.
Tooker’s always quick to point out that Monty was refused by the Indian Army and certainly he wasn’t very quick to use the 4th Indian Division in the front line. He waited til Marath
Yes, til we hit the Djebel and we were the only mountain division there.
What happened at Wadi Akarit was absolutely brilliant.
It was hard work though.
Where were you at Akarit?
I was a sergeant in charge of a gun. My claim to fame at Akarit was that theit was an unsupported attack but eventually we had to give support and we needed the information before the battle started. I was sent down into the wadi to record 8 targets 3 days before the battle started, the 3 April.
Was it you alone?
It was me and 5 soldiers, gunners, a quad and a gun.
What is a quad?
A gun tower.
And a 25 pounder?
Yes and a limber with ammunition in it. I was given the grid reference and as I approached it, it was being plastered with enemy artillery fire. I thought God, I’ll never get through this lot and one of the men said â€œWhere are we going serge? and I told him and he said â€œThis is the end then. I said â€œIt looks like it, but you never know your luck. When I was about 200 yards from the grid reference, all shooting stopped, I went to where I had to go and did a quick resection to establish that I was where I should have been..
What’s a resection?
Finding your position on the ground. You take a couple of bearings to a couple of points and cross them on your map
So it’s basically reconnaissance?
Yes. I brought the gun into action. Recorded the 8 targets I was told to record.
Would they have been machine gun posts or what?
Well you’d look at your map and spot the high ground by the contours being close together and knew it would be occupied by the enemy.
So you were right down in the wadi?
So you’ve got this beautiful ? in front of you to protect you?
You’re hidden from.
Not from their observers but the infantry couldn’t touch you.
One sole gun?
Did you have any difficulty getting into the wadi?
None, and none getting out.
Because some parts are incredibly difficult, cliff-like..
No, no problems. I then went back to the gun position and handed my gun data over to the GPO
What is gun data?
Line, range and angle of sight. The bearing from the gun to the target; the range at which I shot at and the angle of sight which is the difference between the height of the target and the gun. You hand that to the GPO and he passes that information to the battery command post officer who plots that on the artillery board and from that he creates a window on tracing paper and passes it out to the other batteries and from that they could calculate the line range and angle of sight from their guns to the targets.
Presumably you’re aware of the controversy around the Wadi Akarit battle; why didn’t 30 corps or 10 corps, whichever it was, push through.
Well, we were pulled back weren’t we; out.
But after the success of the 4th Indian Division, this hole had been blown, and the big debate is why didn’t 10 corps, I think it was, go through the gap and encircle the Axis army
Well, you’d have to ask Mr Montgomery that
He wasn’t anywhere near the battlefield and they took a hell of a long time to do and by the time they went through on the morning of the 7th, the Axis army had scarpered.
I was never in a position to..
But were you aware of this gap?
Oh yes we were aware of it.
Were people saying why the hell aren’t we going through?
Oh yes, we knew, and we knew we weren’t going through and we couldn’t understand why.
You didn’t see any return fire or a sudden troop of Tigers or anything?
No. We were pulled out and did the famous left hook thing, building roads as we went and by the time we completed what we thought was going to be the encirclement, he’d gone. We caught up with him at Cape Bon.
Were you involved at Fiederville?
Yes, I got wounded there.
No, I got several pieces of shrapnel but I got away with it. It cut the top of my head. I went to the dressing station and got fixed up and then backin fact got sent to the OP there because we’d suffered such heavy officer casualties. I handed over to my number 2 a Welshman, and went off to the OP.
It was a costly exercise Fiederville.
It was very costly.
Then you were switched over to join the 1st Army and did that drive up to Tunis?
That’s right. Towards the end of the campaign up there, again we suffered heavy casualties and my last job was as FOO 1st/2nd Ghurkas under Colonel Showers.
You knew the end was nigh in Africa?
Oh yes, for example there were no German aeroplanes. British planes were flying over like clouds of flies, whereas in the early days we didn’t know what a British plane was.
Did you come across the Americans in Tunisia?
Yes. 5 brigade, our brigade, attacked a feature..
So you were 5 brigade within the 4th Indian division?
Yes, but the artillery units did interchange. We were part and parcel of 5 brigade, the 31st. We took this objective and handed over to an American unit
Well after yes. By next morning the Germans had counter attacked and re-taken it. The brigade then went in again and re-took it and handed over to the Americans again and blow me down, in 24 hours they’d been driven off it. The 3rd time our brigade went in and took and when the Americans came to relieve us, Tooker said â€œNO!, No more! and we were given some American rations, some tinned chicken. We all said it was because we’d done the job for them.
Why do you think they were doing wrong? Were they just too green?
Well, when you take an objective, once you get on it you dig in like hell; you consolidate; you get your guns fixed right for defensive fire; your infantry go to ground and dig in like hell; they set up their heavy weapons platoons; you consolidate. The Americans never did anything like that.
What did they do?
They just sat there where they were and the first defensive fire came down from the other side and they were in the open; terrible casualties.
Total lack of training.
Yes lack of training and know how. And when it was meal times, their meals were brought up beautifully cooked and the enemy could see that and let fly. Whereas we went into battle on dry rations and it wasn’t until the day’s fighting was over, you’d be relieved and go off for a bit of a rest and hot food.
Did you ever talk to any Americans in Africa about it?
No. I met one after the war at the Grand Canyon. When I told him what unit I was in, he wouldn’t discuss the matter any further! Wouldn’t have any more to do with me!
It was tough up til the end?
Oh yes. It didn’t just peter out. When we were in Eritrea, one hour the Italians and their coloured troops were there and the next hour they’d gone; it was like pulling a switch.
I’d like to get hold of this book on the 31st.
A lot of libraries have it.
You didn’t keep a diary?
No, it was absolutely forbidden. It’s called 31st Field Regiment RA – A Record by Owen N Roberts. ISBN 0952354705.
When you were attached to 1st/2nd Ghurkas, was that just for Wadi Akarit?
No – in 1942 it was decided that the battalions were very exposed to tank attack and had got nothing to defend themselves with. There were 2 pounders in portee (??) which were manned by Royal Horse Artillery units but there was still no battalion anti tank weapon so as there was a surfeit of 25 pounders, they stripped them of anything appertaining to indirect fire. So basically you had a gun with a telescopic sight. I don’t know how far this went, but certainly in the 4th Indian, as regards the 1st/2nd Ghurkas and the 2nd/3rd Gahwallies, they were trained.I went off with another sergeant, Smith, and we trained the heavy weapons platoon of each battalion in the use of the 25 pounder in the anti tank role. When we came out of training and went back up the desert, for 12 weeks I think it was, I stayed with number 5 platoon of this particular battalion. It was commanded by Captain McGregor. I stayed with mine for 9, or maybe it was 12 weeks, while they did their thing as an anti tank unit and they were very successful but the trouble was it was too big a piece of equipment in a front line unit. You can imagine in a defensive position, a damn great 25 pounder sticking up. So it was done away with and replaced by a 6 pounder. But it was all good fun while it lasted.
Were you aware of the debate about the 3.7 inch anti aircraft gun and why it wasn’t used like the 88mm?
My father was on the design team of that platform so I know a little bit about it. It was nowhere near strong enough to fire with the gun, the barrel, horizontal.
In what respect?
It was too weak, the platform.
Would it have snapped or broken? What did the 88mm have that the 3.7 didn’t?
The 88mm was an ack ack gun the same as the 3.7 was, but it was designed with a secondary role. It had a very strong platform. The 3.7 on the other hand was purely an ack ack gun and its platform was completely unstable when it was fired with a horizontal barrel.
Because of the recoil?
If it’s horizontal the recoil’s going to be backwards whereas if it’s pointing up in the sky the recoil’s going into the ground.
There’s much more recoil when the barrel’s horizontal.
The recuperation system comprises 2 pieces, the recuperator and the buffer..
Could it not have been reinforced?
It probably could but you know what the British are like. We don’t do things like that do we?
.Could have mounted 3.7 on wheels and I’ve never understood why it wasn’t done. After Alamein, how much firing was there?
Oh there was quite a lot of fighting you know. All the time you were at it. I doubt we went 48 hours without firing at the enemy and engaging pockets of resistance.
So it would be a case of hurry along the desert road, stop, fire at the enemy, pack up and carry on..
That’s right and engage pockets of resistance. The Germans didn’t just pack in at Alamein and run and stop at Wadi Akarit.
But then you were being used in a proper field artillery role, not in an anti tank role. Were you ever used in an anti tank role again?
No, we were always prepared for it, but it was only in the early days.
Going back to your childhood, when were you born at Bulford Camp?
The 22 April 1921.
When did you go to India?
1926 and I came back in 1935.
Did you enjoy it out there?
Oh very much so. We lived in a compound and we had 9 servants and my father was a sergeant. My mother had an Ayah to look after my younger brother and sister. I of course was off to boarding school. We were very much the Raj. We were â€œup and of course the officer class were much more up than we were! Our head bearer was a chap called Asharaf Khan and he wielded the whip in the compound. The only thing my mother did was supervise the cooking. At boarding school I had a â€œboy for 4 annas (?) a month. I still meet Indians here in Nottingham who say they never had it so good either.
Was there much of a culture clash, with food and such?
No, none at all.
They had to have a whole different ration set up to feed the Indian Army.
That’s right and I think that was Montgomery’s main objection to them because it created a two line supply system. Their meat was delivered on the hoof; it was live. Goat invariably.
They’re all Hindus aren’t they Ghurkas?
Yes, although in the division we had a whole motley collection, Punjabi, jats, maracas (????).
You could communicate alright though?
Oh yes, even though you can’t speak the language, you very quickly set up a system. The Indian Army set up a system whereby the Indian soldier wrote in English and they used to teach them to write Indian words using English letters, so even if you couldn’t speak you could write.
Did you have British rations or did you end up eating chapattis?
Oh we had British rations but we’d get rice and a certain element from the Indian unit.
And developed a taste for it?
Oh yes. I still cook curries but I have to cook them in the green house! I can’t cook them in the house!
How did you pass the time in the desert when you were able to relax? Did you play cards or write letters?
We slept most of the time because you have to remember the infantry go into battle; they’re in a week or a fortnight, then they come out and are relieved and so it goes on. So an infantry unit in an infantry division is committed to battle maybe once every 3 weeks. The gunner is there all the time; he has to support all the infantry all the time, so they don’t get the rest the infantry man gets. Although let’s be honest, the infantry man works a damn sight harder and is under much more strain when he is committed than the gunner.
Yes, presumably you’re in the field artillery role, you’re back, behind, and don’t get to see that many German or Italian soldiers?
You’re joking? The object of the exercise is called close support. You get the artillery up as close as you can to the infantry so that you can reach beyond the front and not only clobber the enemy attacking your infantry that you’re in support of, but also clobber their blokes further back.
I know you suffered badly in December 41 but did you suffer heavily when you went back in July 42?
Oh yes. If you get that book we mentioned, there’s a role of honour in there.
Did you lose close friends?
Oh yes. Here we are; Jones was the first casualty; he was in our troop. He was killed aged 20 on Tuesday 10 December 1940 and buried at the cemetery at El Alamein. We’ve got it all recorded and we’ve been back.
Did you suffer much from German air attacks?
Oh yes because of course they had air superiority and their damned Stukas used to come over and bomb hell out of us.
Did you feel frightened?
Of course you feel frightened.
Some people just don’t.
You’re scared stiff and anyone who says he’s not is telling fibs. That’s my opinion. I was frightened to death every time they came over. You would organise your 5 men on your gun; normally there were 5 men on a gun. As soon as they came over, you grabbed your rifles, loaded up and poured as much 303 ammunition in the direction of the aircraft as you could. I don’t suppose we did much good but you felt like you were hitting back.
At Wadi Akarit you must have felt very apprehensive?
Oh yes, but I had 5 soldiers with me and you can’t show it. I had 3 Welshmen in my unit, Swansea, Tonna Y Val (?) (Come to think of it, it may be Tonna Efail – if I remember my South Wales villages, although it’s 22 years since we lived around Swansea!) and Cardiff was where they were from and we all survived and Jan Carter, a farmer’s boy from Devon and when we met up after the war, they cried when they saw me. I go back now to Tonna Efail and meet the daughter of Jones, they’ve all died now, but my wife and I we’re family.
So there must have been a great bond on the gun crews?
Gun detachment please; they only have gun crews in the Royal Navy! But yes, there’s a tremendous bond. You fight together, sleep together, eat together, go on leave together.
Which presumably means that if you lose some one, it’s a big loss?
It is a big loss.
And your way of getting round itwell, I suppose you have to just put it out of your mind?
Yes, and the way I approached it, and I lost a lot of men I’ll be honest with you, was to say, â€œRight blokes, he’s gone, he’s finished, he’s dead, it’d done and dusted. We’ve got a job to do, and now let’s get on and do it for his sake as well as ours. And it worked. I was a pre-war desert soldier, so I knew a lot about the desert before I ever got into any fights which was a tremendous advantage. You see I was going to come out of the army before the war. I trained as a navigator and I was going to go and be a navigator with the Cairo to Damascus Bus Service. In those days there was a 32 wheeled bus that went between Cairo and Damascus and they needed drivers and they were all British and the pay was wonderful, but before I could take it up, the war came. I used to do a lot of the navigation across the desert and these chaps used to say â€œHow the hell do you know where you’re going? I used a solar compass before the British Army had ever heard of them.
What was it like coming across a sandstorm?
Once a sandstorm hit, you stop. You’re a fool if you try to go against it. You make yourself some sort of shelter; take all precautions like point the back end of your vehicle up hill, and sit it out. The Tribes that go across the desert, they had all these biers, wells, the Romans built them, they had steps down into them and some of them were 40 feet deep. We knew they were there because we’d been and found them before the war; it was experience and us lot who’d been out there before the war had the edge on other people.
Did you ever suffer from Sand Fly Fever or desert sores or anything like that?
No, I knew what they were but I never had them because I always had a bag of Ascorbic Acid tablets which I either bought in Cairo or scrounged off the medics. It’s a deficiency of vitamin C. The rations were rubbish rations but if you took Ascorbic Acid every day it really helped.
Did you have any contact with your father during the war?
No, when we fell out, that was it.
Probably when you were out in the Western Desert it was better not to have family worrying too much back at home?
Very much so.
You must have seen a few Dear John letters.
One bloke couldn’t read or write and I used to read the letters from his wife to him and then write back to her with him telling me what to put.
People were away from home for a very long time. An awful lot of relationships must have suffered because of it?
I don’t think it happened in those days. Titch Patterson, he was less than 26 which was the legal age to marry, but he was married, so he got no quarters and no marriage allowance. His wife was pregnant and had to live with her mother and Titch got killed in 1941. Reg, his son, was born..he contacted me from the website. I was the first person he ever met who knew his father and we’re quite close now. There was none of this compassionate leave stuff. I married in 1944. I was issuing the mail in 1941 and the wife’s brother happened to be in the same unit and he said to me â€œHave you got any mail serge? I said â€œNo, I never get any. He said â€œI’ll get my sister to write to you. And she did and when I came home in April 1944 and I married her in the October and come this October we’ll have been married 60 years.
So you had someone to write to during the war?
Well, after January 42.