GEORGE RAMSAY SERVED IN ITALY WITH THE SCOTS GAURDS
This may seem odd, but would you mind telling me a bit about where you grew up?
Basically, I grew up in Scotland on the East Coast near Arbroath in an old sandstone castle; there are pictures of it upstairs. I was number 7 of 8 of my mother’s children, although my father married her in 1917 after her first husband was killed. There were 4 sons of which I was number 3. I learnt very early that if you are small you have an advantage. They were all very tall. My eldest brother was 6’7½, my next brother was 6’4, my youngest brother was 6’5½ and I was 5’10½ and if I hit them behind the knees they had a long way to fall. We never spent Easter holidays up there, but summer and winter. We fished and shot. Snow came probably in November and in those days lasted til March. You put chains on the wheels of the cars and they stayed there til the end of March. We had a steep hill down to the house and if it was going to be dangerous, we left the cars at the top of the hill.
Did you get on with all your brothers?
Very well. I am the last one alive. The last of the Mohicans!
Then presumably you were sent away to school?
Yes, first to Summerfield St Leonards, the one near the seaside as opposed to Oxford. They thought I had Peely Walley (?) They said I had a weak heart. I didn’t, I had a murmur, but in those days that was a weak heart. Then I went to Eton and then joined the Scots Guards. I thought I’d joined the Black Watch actually because I was up in Scotland waiting to go to Sandhurst but then war came and they stopped that.
When did you finish at Eton?
1940, summer of when I was coming up to 18. You couldn’t go into the army until you were 18½.
There was absolutely no question that that was what you were always going to do?
Absolutely, since the age of 8. All the Ramsays have been Scots Guards, since the 3rd or 4th colonel of the regiment. I never had any doubt at all. That was the only thing I wanted to do. Then I nearly didn’t stay on after the war. Nobody said would I stay on so I was going to leave and then fortunately someone did say what are you going to leave for and I said because no-one’s asked me to stay on and they said don’t be such a bloody fool, of course you must stay on. So I did.
So a happy childhood?
Oh wonderful. About 37 acres of policies as they call them up in Scotland where you could shoot and fish and fire a bow and arrow and do a great many other things. I used to go to football matches on the footman’s bicyclething at the back you know?
And your eldest brothers, had they all joined up?
My eldest brother had joined. My second brother had injured his back playing rugger at Cheltenham, so he was never allowed to join anything but he helped to build Mulberry (?) harbour. My youngest brother joined just before the war. He got mutton jeffall Scots Guards.
And your father?
He actually became a Coldstreamer because of Trandy Croft (?). There was a scandal in the Scots Guards just when he was about to join so my grandfather said â€œYou can’t possibly join the Scots Guards because of this scandal, you must join a regiment nearest Scotland. So he joined the Coldstreams. When war came he said to all of them, â€œYour country’s at war. It’s your job to go and fight for it so let’s have no ruddy nonsense; you’ll all go and fight for it. So we did.
There was never any question of you becoming a Coldstreamer?
None at all.
What can you remember about training?
We went to the Guards Depot and we were what was called a brigade squad which meant we were potential officers and they formed this quite early on and we were going to train for 12 weeks but they got the dates wrong at Sandhurst. Instead of doing the 12 – 16 week course, we did the full pre-war 22 week course, but we were allowed to shoot weapons which no other recruit at the depot did which was a huge advantage when we got to Sandhurst. We knew how to do it.
Why was that?
Someone made a cock up! They were supposed to call them into Brigade squad 16 weeks before Sandhurst and they got the dates wrong so we found we had 27 weeks to do and we did 22 which was the full pre-war course.
Plenty of drill, plenty of crawling about and so on?
Oh God yes, very active.
So was it good training?
Very good indeed. It taught you three things. It taught you to get very fit. The second thing was it taught you all about your weapons and you could do it blindfold and we stood in the dark and knew exactly what to do whether you could see it or not. And the third thing was you were taught to look after people. We were all totally dependent on one another.
How did they teach you that? Team stuff, problems to solve?
We had a trained soldier who was a Welsh Guardsman and he lived in the barracks with you and taught you how to look after your kit and all that sort of thing. Made sure you got up and all that and then there was a platoon sergeant who was a lance sergeant who was permanently responsible for you, your weapons training, your drill, all that and then there was the camp sergeant major who looked after all the brigade squads in that company – all the platoons in that company and there was only one brigade squad and two other platoons of ordinary recruits but apart from living in a barrack room together, we did everything with everyone else. They knew there was something special about us, but you bloody soon mucked in, there was no question about it.
And the weapons you were using?
3031 (?) and Sten guns had come in by then.
Was most of the training practical or was there class room teaching as well?
It was entirely practical. Before the war they had 22 weeks and they cut the thing to 16. They wanted to make sure we knew how to operate the weapons especially in the dark and knew how to drill because drill was the essence; control was the essence of fighting any battle. You’ve got to be taught to do the things you have to do automatically, like reloading when you can get more in. In those days we didn’t have magazines. We loaded 10 rounds, 2 clips apart. Everything that needed to be done automatically we were taught to do automatically so that if you were frightened and you were frightened during the war, you still did things automatically and as it got dark, so make sure you had all your kit and that your rifle was clean. Things were taught to you so they were absolutely automatic and that is the essence of foot guard training, everything you do that has to be done, is done automatically. Whether anyone says it or not. The most important thing was collecting your kit in the dark, because if something happened in the dark, and it usually did, you went without some of your kit and you were in trouble.
22 weeks of that and then Sandhurst?
Yes. Sandhurst was roughly 6 months. We passed out in July 42 and I went straight to second camp(?). You did time at ? there was a training battalion there, and I was made to become a signals officer so I went to Catterick.
How was that selection made?
You were new. I think. I don’t know. I mean it was literally, you, you and you. We need 2 signals officers. Would anyone like to do it? Right. Off to Catterick.
You didn’t have any objections? You thought it would be interesting?
I was quite used to that sort of thing. I’d learnt semaphore as a boy scout. I was one of the first two at Eton.
I can see that the army life would have suited you with your background of hunting, shooting and fishing. Lots of outdoor activities, boy scouts..
It was the most natural thing in the world from my point of view.
You enjoyed the training?
Yeah. Bloody tough though, but I was used to tough. In Scotland we used to break the ice on the bowl of water when we got up in the morning to wash and you bloody well washed too! It was very cold in the house and the central heating hardly ever worked and half the time the electricity didn’t work because we damned up the water to make our own electricity. So we were quite used to privations. You wore an overcoat to go between the drawing room and the dining room.
Was it quite a formal upbringing? Did you have to dress for dinner?
Oh God yes. And what’s more.you were allowed to be 10 minutes late for breakfast. If you were 11 minutes late you went to bed 10 minutes early. 12 minutes late, 20 minutes early you know. So you weren’t late for breakfast. We’d be out fishing or shooting before breakfast and a bell was run 20 minutes before so you hauled in your line and got cracking. And you had to be properly dressed. But it wasn’t draconian. It was sharp, exact discipline. You knew exactly where you stood. Unfortunately nowadays they don’t get that.
So up to Catterick. How long was that course?
8 weeks I think. There were 2 of us.
What did it actually entail?
Communications in the battalion consisted of wireless, lamp if you were in India, but we never used it, but we were trained on it. Morse code which was the fundamental basis for signals. It was quite interesting because the BBC broadcast the international news in Morse code at 18 words a minute and I got up to 24 words a minute, so I could read the news. You needed a pencil and paper. I doubt if I could read 8 words a minute now. Like anything you had to keep practising. You had wireless sets you could carry and in the armoured divisions, wireless sets mounted in the vehicle. Everything depended on looking after the wireless set. Making sure it was properly netted. Everything was done by hand. There were no chips you stuffed in that got you automatically through. I wish there had been. If there was a hill in the way you probably couldn’t hear and you had to get to the top of the hill, which could be difficult because often you got to the top of one hill and there was another one in front. Very often, if there was a battle going on in front, the commanding officer and myself and the intelligence officer would try to get to where you could see. You didn’t go immediately behind them because if they were being shelled you’d get the ? so you went to one side to try to see what was happening, providing it was daylight of course.
Then from Catterick?
After Catterick the fourth battalion in the Guards armoured division.
When you get to the training battalion is that when you start commanding?
Yes you start commanding a platoon. But they were all recruits. You were training recruits as well as yourself. Then I was sent to be trained to be a signals officer so when I finished that I went to the forth town to take over from a very experienced chap who was then sent to second town because the chap in the second town had been killed.
I imagine that experienced signals officers were much in demand.
Presumably you had to know how to take wirelesses apart?
To some extent. There were bits that if they broke you just put a new bit in.
So it wasn’t a question of stripping them down and starting again?
No. There were all sorts of gags. In Malaya after the war, I was asked if I would be signals officer in the battalion in Malaya, taking over from a chap who wasn’t very good. There were major problems. If you’re in the jungle and you try and signal it just doesn’t work. And I produced the horizontal aerial and worked out.I did a cut link aerial and worked it out, it went up, hit the head ? and came down where you wanted it to be. I was the first one to do it. God knows why. Any signals officer would’ve been taught it. They just never thought about using it. You needed a clearing, so fine, find a clearing and then you can communicate.
So when did you realise that you were heading off to war?
At the end of 1943 when the first battle of Camino with the second battalion and Anzio, took tremendous tolls in both battalions and the decision was taken to disband the forth town Scots Guards in the Guards Armoured Division and the 3rd Irish Guards came and took over from them and we were sent out in two huge drafts.
Went out by ship?
Yes. Went out by ship, through the Mediterranean and landed at Naples because the front line was on the Garrigiano (??) 70 miles north of Naples and you landed on a ? lying on its side. We had an interesting time because when we got there, I think the Italians were having quite a lot of civilian trouble. People started to throw stones at us so I formed a line, fixed bayonets, loaded 5 rounds, advanced and went straight at them and they scattered. Someone said â€œI thought they were meant to be on our side now. I said â€œIf someone’s throwing stones at me, I don’t consider them to be on my side.
And that was your decision to do that?
Entirely. I was in charge of the draft. We broke the draft up. My draft went out in January. Some of them went out in November.
How many in a draft?
About 250. There were Coldsteamers and Scots Guards.
How aware were you back in England of what was going on in the war?
Oh there were no secrets in the Regiment. I had a half brother in a town in Italy and he came back wounded after Salerno. I had another brother who was with David Stirling in the SAS and he died in the SAS in the desert in ’43. I went out in January. It was interesting because most of my signals platoon from 4th battalion went with me. A few went to the ? but most came with me. We could read lamp so we knew what was going on in the convoy and everyone was signalling because there were German submarines around and I was sent for by the captain and he said I understand you’re a signals officer. Can you read lamp? I said Oh yes, I do it all the time. So he said â€œRight, I want all your signallers who can read lamp, we were all were made to sign an oath saying we wouldn’t tell anyone what we read and we were put on watch up on deck. It was great fun. It was deadly below deck. Then you’d hear a frightful bang when a mile or so away some wretched ship got torpedoed.
Were you in quite a big convoy then? Supplies, food and all that.
It was still pretty risky with all those U boats around.
Oh God yes. When you set out from England, you were at risk.
Did you have feelings of apprehension?
Well, it was exciting. A big adventure.
Your family were presumably used to seeing their sons go off to battle? No tearful farewells or anything like that?
Oh God no, no nonsense like that.
Can you remember the ship you were on? Just a troop ship was it?
Yes. It was the Empire Trooper.
Did you get a cabin to yourself?
Good God no. You were all just huggamugga. Below decks in hammocks. There was no real distinction between officers and other ranks because there wasn’t room.
I know the Americans were very shocked to find there was plenty of booze on British ships because they weren’t allowed it on American ships.
There was nothing as far as we were concerned.
I am trying to think how long it must have taken. A good week I suppose.
I don’t remember. About 8 days I suppose. Across Biscay. Through the Straits. About 3 days in the Mediterranean.
Did you ever see U boats?
No. We saw destroyers dropping depth charges.
So, where from Naples?
Well, the Infantry Recruit Training Depot. The IRTD. Where all the reserves went to first.
Was it a makeshift camp?
It was tented but it had been there for some time. As the front advanced, so it moved up behind it.
Was that in Naples?
It was further South. Train from Naples. When the train arrived it was full of Wops and my instructions were to get on that train so I got hold of the guard and said â€œGet them off. He didn’t understand, so I drew my revolver and said â€œGet them off! They came off very fast! We got on and when we got to the IRTD, a message had got through and the CO said â€œI understand you had a bit of trouble getting on the train? I said â€œYes and he said â€œYou’ve got to try to remember that they are supposed to be on our side. I said â€œWell, if he won’t get them off the train and I’ve got to get on it. He said â€œI know. You’ll learn.
You must have been getting some mixed signals from your allies.
Well being stoned..
No soft throwing.did you ever get to the bottom of why they were doing it?
I gathered there was permanent trouble round the docks. You have to remember that the Italians had been Fascists for some years and I suppose there were some who thought that Mussolini was a good guy.
There weren’t that many who were really enthusiastic about the war though.
If you fired a couple of shots, they’d run like rabbits. As we found out in Abyssinia.
So from south of Naples to.?
I went up to the second battalion with quite a lot of my signallers and there I found desert wallahs and these chaps had been mostly in the desert since 1938 and it was strange because they’d lost a lot of their discipline. They were very experienced fighting men but the automatic discipline and respect had been worn away and unfortunately the signal sergeant was killed about a fortnight after I arrived. He was a very nice man, very helpful and you had a lot to learn about what you do and don’t do in a battle situation.
Was there a sense of apprehension about getting up to the front line?
No. You had to run the gauntlet because the Germans could see the road leading up to our front line.
You were from a military background. So many of your family had been involved. You’d been to Sandhurst. Survived the troop ship, got to Naples, was there a sense of – this is it! Or did you just feel here I am, I’ve got to get on with it?
My problem was here I am and there were a lot of chaps who’d been out there a long time and thought they knew everything but they clearly didn’t. I had to get across that I knew what I was talking about and that I could actually do it better than they could. Get their respect. The fact that I had a few 4th battalion with me helped. There was a general disrespect for people who’d come out green and this was brought home really before we came out of the line the American 88th division had just arrived out and they’d never fired a shot and they were to take over from us. Some of there chaps would be beside our section for a few days to learn what it was all about and the day came when their gunners took over from our gunners and a DF was called down, there was a German patrol coming in and they hot the trees over our heads because they hadn’t got the range right. The general was terribly upset. He flew in by helicopter
You’ve got to train them haven’t you?
You were talking about the problems of discipline. Did you feel you had to get that right? You sort of said I can see you’ve had a great deal of experience but things have got to change around here?
You didn’t do it quite like that. When you saw a chap making a balls up with a wireless you’d say â€œHang on, let me help you and he’d see that you knew exactly how to do it. You’d say I think you’re doing a little too much of that. These sets are very temperamental. And if someone shows how to do something better than you can do it, that’s great because you what to be able to communicate. If someone’s attacking you, you want to call for gunfire fast. And communication was bloody awful. You were alright if you were up on top but if you were half way up and someone was the other side of the hill it’s very difficult.
In those first few weeks you managed
In the first few weeks, you were feeling your way and the Company Commandersand the chap I was replacing had got too old for the job. He was a stockbroker who had joined up, he must have been about 15 years older than me so he was about 35 and it was high time they got him out of there but the company commanders resented it because he’d been through the desert and desert communications are dead simple, but he knew my brother and he’d been wounded at Salerno so that was an advantage.
The experience in the desert was completely different to the experience in Italy, because of the terrain for a start
Oh they didn’t know how to adjust to it. Salerno wasn’t a disaster by any means but some hard lessons were leant there like taking cover, not being on the top of a hill and things like that.
How soon did you see actionstraight away?
Yes, but as a signals officer you aren’t in the frontline you’re at battalion HQ so my total experience of the shooting war was very limited. My chaps used to get killed sometimes and then you’d have to replace them..
So the problem with getting up on top of the hills and so on, it was your job to send people up, to say right you get up there and establish..
Yes. I had some very experienced signallers from the 4th battalion but if the line was blown out, and it frequently was from the static position by shelling, and if the line went roughly speaking at the roof it had to be mended and the line party would get bomb happy and one day in November 44, the line had been blown out 4 times that day and the lance sergeant (??) who was in charge of the line came to me and said â€œSir, they’re just bomb happy so I said â€œCome on then, we’ll go so I took another Lance Sergeant (??) and we mended the line and suddenly before I set out I said to my servant â€œWhere’s my beret? and he said â€œIt was dirty, so I washed it he was a wonderful cockney. I said â€œWhat am I supposed to do now? He said â€œYou’ll have to wear yer tin ’at I never wore a steel helmet ever and I put this thing on because it was pissing with rain and I didn’t hear the shell. Everyone else was lying flat suddenly and there was a loud bang and my arm went wheeee..so that was me out of it.
You were in a bad way were you?
Not really. My arm was smashed from here to here but the trouble was it went poisonous. I wasn’t declared fit until January 47. They were going to cut my arm off at one stage. I was lying in the hospital in Rome and the ward had been told I would come back without my arm and I wasn’t told this. They were all standing in the corner. There was a gynaecologist who was the chief surgeon, Mrs Stimpson who was the sister of the American secretary of state who was a doctor and had come over to help the RMC and another chap and the anaesthetist. I said â€œFor Christ sake make up your minds and they said â€œGod, he’s awake so they came over and he said â€œLook don’t you worry the two most important things are intact, the nerve and the artery so we’re going to have a jolly good try at saving it So they did and I was put on Penicillin 4 hourly night and day and the sister on the ward said â€œLook I’m going to give you a tip. If you have it all over the place, you’ll be like a ruddy pin cushion and every bit of you will hurt. If you have it in one muscle it’ll be jolly sore for a couple of days but after that you won’t feel it. And she was right. They put it from there to there and in the night and after 4 days it never even woke me. They did through my pyjamas and it never even woke me! It was a very good tip. In those days it was a bloody great syringe-full.
What was the hospital like?
Oh marvellous it was the general hospital in Rome. Very civilised. Eventually I was allowed out if I was accompanied by a doctor or a nurse. The town major was a Scots major who said he’d send a jeep for me. And the chap in the bed next to me was a doctor, so he said â€œI’ll go with you! so I had my doctor and we went all over the place. We went to the opera. We had a wonderful time. I couldn’t get up of course, I had to be pulled up all the time.
Can you describe coming off the mountain after you’d been wounded?
Well, the first aiders weren’t very good. I’d been trained in first aid and they hadn’t got any splints..
Where was the mountain?
Monte termini (??) just south of Rimini.
What was the overall situation at that time with regards to your sector?
We were fighting our way up through the mountains.
Were you up against one of the better German..
They were very good let’s be quite clear about that. Nearly all SS and they were fighting a very good fight and when I’d been hit there was a first aid post and we were on a mountain track. We walked back
You still had to walk?
Oh yes. I carried my arm and they sort of carried me, arms round my waist. We got to the first aid post and there was a chap there and he didn’t know what to do. So I said â€œBreak up that wooden box. You’ve got to make a splint. So I directed them to put the splint on me and they bandaged it up. Then we went in the jeep and that was agony and every time we went over a bump it hurt. We got down and I still had hold of my arm and the doctor hadn’t got any anaesthetic. So he said â€œI’m going to give you a drink! and I said â€œGreat! and he filled a tumbler half full of brandy and told me to knock it back and wait half an hour because it would be less painful. He said â€œWho put the splint on? They’ve made quite a good job. I said â€œOnly because I told them what to do! He said â€œThis is bound to hurt a bit The important thing was that the bone was stretched out as far possible, so I did that and he put the splint on.
How badly was it broken?
Oh smashed to bits. How the artery or the nerve weren’t I don’t know. They were intact and that’s what saved the arm. So he put that on and I went to another place and it got poisoned and the matron there curiously enough was called Ramsay. They were going to send me down to Assisi and she told them that if they moved me, I’d die, so they didn’t until about a week later when the poison had sorted itself out a bit. Then monks carried me down to Assisi and they put me on a hospital train, stretchers you know. Then we got to an American hospital and I remember vividly being met by an American nurse and she said â€œDo you smoke? â€œYes I said and she lit a cigarette and put it in my mouth which was great. First cigarette I’d had since I’d been wounded. I remember feeling terribly worried because they were going to operate because of the arm being thoroughly poisoned and I was worried that I’d lose my watch and things like that and she had tight hold of my hand and said â€œDon’t worry, you give it to me and I’ll give it back to you when you’re back in bed so I released it and fortunately she did, and there I stayed for about 4 or 5 weeks and then I went to Rome where they did the real operating on me and sorted me out and finally I went back to Naples and onto a hospital ship and back home and that was January 45.
Then more recuperation at home?
Oh yes. It kept breaking down and bits of bone broke lose and it got poisoned again.
There’s still shrapnel in there. I set off the airport thing every time I go through!
Can we just go back again. Can you remember the progress going through Italy?
Well, the first major thing was the amalgamation of the 2 battalions and that happened while Vesuvius was erupting which was quite interesting!
You saw all that going on then?
Oh yes, fascinating it knocked houses down. But having amalgamated the 2 battalions, you know, you were getting to know each other, like forming a battalion, everyone knew what their job was but they didn’t know the other chap – who was going to command this platoon, who that platoon. I was lucky, I was just signals but I knew – some of my old 4th battalion came back with the 1st battalion and we were then re-designated as 1st battalion.
And the reason for the amalgamation?
Because they were sending all these old sweats home and a good thing too. A lot of them were just bomb happy.
When was that?
Still south of Rome at that stage?
Yeah. Then we were put into the 6th South African Armoured Division because they’d lost their name very badly at Tobruk. They’d surrendered and we’d fought our way out and they wanted to give them a shot in the arm so they put the Guards brigade in and I was the only one who’d been in an armoured brigade except for my signals and Guy Taylor had taken over command of the battalion and he said â€œI want you to come with me to division head quarters and meet all the officers and brigade commanders and to my horror he said to the divisional commander â€œI think the signals programme and diagrams that you’ve got for division could be greatly improved. I’ve brought my regimental signals officer with me, he was in the Guards Armoured Division in England. I’d like you to hear how they did it there. So General Poole said â€œAlright. Yes. If you think it can be improved, let’s hear it. And so I said in front of all these high ranking officers â€œIt’s very simple really. When it’s an armoured battle, the armoured wireless net controls and the infantry listen in but never speak unless they’re spoken to. When it’s an infantry battle, infantry battle controls and the armoured listening, they had their own net of course, but never speak unless they’re spoken to. They all thought about it and then said â€œThat makes a hell of a lot of sense. Why don’t we try it? I said â€œWe used it the 18 months I was in the Guards Armoured Division and it worked like a charm. So the entire divisional signals system was changed. We had one or two interesting little moments in the battle when the commanding officer of the armoured regiment came in on the net and was told to shut up by me. And the squadron commander who was sitting by me said â€œGreat! Do you know who that is? and I said â€œNo. I don’t give a bugger! He said â€œThat’s my commanding officer1 He then appeared and said â€œI’m sorry, I shouldn’t have been on the net. It worked very well. We had the Pretorian regiment and they were brilliant because they were all Rhodesian. Almost every officer was a Rhodesian.
And why did that make them so good?
Because they were Brits. They weren’t South Africans. But we had trouble with anti-tank people in M 10’s. They were Yardies (??) as they called them. We were in the battle and the Germans were along a railway line and they had 88mm guns poking over the line all under cover, great big tracks and we needed tanks to sort it out. And the M 10’s had heavy anti tank guns so Freddie Wade, our squadron commander ordered them up but they wouldn’t come. So he got one of the 2 commanders and said â€œGo and fetch them if they don’t come, open fire on them and they came. Once they got up there, they started the battle and they were great.
You got on with the Rhodesians well?
Oh frightfully well.
And personally with the South Africans?
I didn’t meet anybody really. I knew some of the troop commanders. Basically the squadron commander was with us down at head quarters, we worked together hand in glove. When it was his battle, his net was in charge and I was listening watch on it but beside him in the tank. He used to command from the top of a Honey tank which had no turret and when we were fighting the battle, we’d still be in the Honey tank but it was my battle and he’d be listening in. They were amazingly good. There was one battle we were in and we were on a mountain track with a bloody great mountain on our right and we wanted to get a gun up there and they said that’s ok, we’ll take a tank up there and it was just the width of a tank and he got it up there but couldn’t get it back down Had to abandon it, but it was wonderful. We had the tank up there shooting down on them which was just what we wanted.
So right from the word go, you were conscious of the fact that you were up against a pretty good fighting force?
There was an SS regiment; I can’t remember what the number was. They committed an atrocity which I’d found. There were about 37 old men and old women and 3 small babes in arms shot through the head with a pistol into a ditch. The Partisans, the Italians, had shot or killed a German sentry and so they decided to take a reprisal, and it was all reported officially and the word went round the brigade and about 5 days later we had an armoured battle against them and the tanks ??? on the trenches and I reckon we killed 80% of them. That was the only time I think I saw them really lose their temper. No mercy while the battle was on although after the battle, they took prisoners, but they were shown no quarter at all in the battle.. Mind you, we didn’t expect the Germans to show us any quarter. They were very cocky and some of them were only 17.
Did you have much to do with prisoners?
They came through us. Harry Keith was our intelligence officer and he would question them to find things out. Most of them would talk quite openly because they were convinced they were going to win.
They still thought they’d claw their way back through Italy?
Oh yes. There were 2 boys on a machine gun who were holding us up because they had a jolly position overlooking the road and they were eventually killed but they were 16 or 17 and just fought til the last man. They were amazing.
Just so confident?
Yes. Amazing. We were the poor relations let’s be quite clear. Our air cover was virtually nil. The Germans didn’t have any aircraft, so that wasn’t a danger. They had bombers but no fighter planes harassing us. But we didn’t have air cover. If we’d had air cover we could have gone more quickly but that wasn’t our role. Our role was to hold down German divisions in Italy so they couldn’t go back to a second front.
And did you know that at the time?
Oh yes. We knew it was our role.
At the same time you were also pushing ahead?
Oh yes but we had to keep the pressure on to hold them. When we got to the Gothic Line that was quite difficult. We did eventually break through but they fought very well, very hard.
How much time off did you get?
Not much. It dependedif you were in a battle, after that battle, someone else would go through you and carry on and you’d have maybe a couple of days off in reserve. But sometimes you were pulled out of the line. Sometimes people were sent on leave for 5 or 6 days to Naples to a sort of camp there. I got one lot of leave during that year.
You went to Naples did you?
Yes. I went with Tom Harvey. One of the company commanders who was a great chum of mine. He’d come out from 4th battalion and we went to a sort of officers retreat centre near Malfi.
So swimming in the sea and all that?
Yes and sometimes we drove into Naples. Did some shopping although there was nothing much to buy.
On the whole you felt you fared quite well, food at that sort of thing?
Yes. You got very tired if it was a long battle. After Montecatarelto which was one of our battle honours, the only time I ever saw a bayonet charge with my own eyes. We got onto the hill behind them and it was Tom Harvey’s own company. We drove the Germans off with a bayonet charge. I have to say they came back two nights later with three times the force and pushed us back but it was quite something to witness.
Did you suffer many casualties?
No in the actual attack because we took them by surprise but in the counter attack yes we lost quite a lot of men and I remember in the battle word being given, last man last round and the left flank eventually came back with 32 men and I am very glad they did. There was another chap called Freddie Hesketh another company commander who had been seriously wounded in the leg. I’d gone forward with a commanding officer to meet them coming back and direct them and we saw a glowing red circle and it was his cigar. He was sitting on the bonnet of a jeep so that it supported his leg and he was smoking a cigar. He only had a bottle of brandy and a pack of cigars in his small pack.
He never took anything else. He was amazing. He was incredibly brave.
In a battle, you must have been on the go all the time.
Yes you were. There was one that lasted 48 hours. At the end of it, we found a battered old house which we turned in to battalion HQ and somebody produced a mug of tea and the one thing in the world I wanted was this mug of tea. I went to sleep standing up with the tea in my hand and they said they had a hell of a job, they had to lift me up tip the mug up and lay me down and I have no recollection of it all. Then I slept for 12 hours. Everything had to be done at night because you might be observed in the day. Food came down at night, there were mules and jeeps with a man walking in front, no lights. I remember shaving in orange juice on one occasion because I clearly needed a shave but had no liquid apart from oranges over my head. I don’t recommend it.
Was there ever a sense of a lull after Rome was taken before the Gothic Line?
We were pulled out of the line to let the Americans through. We would’ve been the first in Rome and we were about ten miles out of Rome when the order came to pull off the road.
Were you annoyed about that?
Well, yes, but we had the last laugh because they went through and got all the cheers as they went through Rome and then went slap bang into a huge battle with the Germans the other side.
Where you aware of Mark Clarke and Alex and so on?
Oh yes. I only saw Alex once but Mark Clarke I saw on a number of occasions.
Did you see him enough or hear enough about him to form an opinion of him?
At that level, you don’t form opinions. Everyone had an opinion of the American general at Anzio because he made a balls up of it and didn’t go forward. He was scared. We could have broken out, but that’s old hat. Everyone knows that story. But Mark Clarke was an imposing man, very tall and I got a telephone set off one of his chaps. They had wonderful telephones in leather cases and I gave him an old D7’s, which was clapped out in exchange. It worked perfectly well.
Did you have any opinions of the American troops generally? Did you think they were less well trained?
We never saw American marines fighting we just had the American 88th on one side. These boys were dead green when they arrived but they learnt to fight and I’ve no reason to suppose they didn’t fight quite bravely. There was a moment when the Americans were in front of us and coming back down the road was an American 3 tonner going like bats out of hell. We had road blocks and he was stopped and he said â€œHell man, there’s Germans up there. Mercy! He’d lost his way and practically run into the German lines.
Generally speaking what was the distance between your lines and the German lines?
About 300 yards. On occasion, 200 or 300 yards when you were stationary.
You could see them moving about?
Oh yes sometimes you could in which case you would mortar them.
Did you ever have a moment in which you could relax?
Oh yes. If you were out of the line you could relax. Before Casino, we were put on the right flank to try to convince the Germans that we had armour there and were going to cross by Castro de Sanguino (???). We had a priceless night. Someone had worked out that if you beat a shovel on the side of a Bren gun carrier it sounded like a tank track from about half a mile to a mile away. We spent the whole night bringing up Bren gun carriers and then quietly taking them back and then bringing them up again and beating the sides and the Germans reported an armoured division had moved up to Castro de Sanguino and they moved a division round which was what we wanted them to do, before we broke into Casino. We didn’t know the full story til afterwards. We were told to do it and said how ridiculous. Why should we lose sleep and they said you do as you’re bloody well told and we did and it worked. It was the only time I saw one of these spoofs work. I know in the desert they had rubber tanks and things like that. They were discovered because German aircraft machine gunned the tanks and they were surprised to see them going down!
Battalion HQ was usually a requisitioned building was it?
Oh no, occasionally. If there was a static position you tried to find a building so you could spread out maps. No, a slit trench usually.
Battalion HQ was a slit trench?
Sure. Tack. Main HQ would be back with the intelligence officer and the signals officer and gunner, the FOO, or the squadron commander of the tanks. They would be up forward and the rest would be back where it was a bit safer. Second in command would be at the back of the echelon. He was never allowed to be there. When the commanding officer was killed in one battle, I had to call the second in command to take over.
Did you ever see a kettle crab?
Oh yes. We captured one. That was when we were on the Gaggliano (?). They were wonderful. They had tracks at the back and a wheel at the front. They worked like a charm. We used it for laying lines. We ran out of petrol one day and abandoned it and when we came back the Wops had stripped it and it never worked again.
Did you have much to do with the Italians?
They kept out of your way mainly did they?
On the whole. Most of them hid in their houses terrified. They were old women and old men. Occasionally a young child but most of the youngsters had taken to the woods. If the Germans found them, they press ganged them into the army.
When you are right up at the front line, there’s no questionyou’re in a slit trench and it’s a question of waiting until you’re sent back down the line.
Well, a lot of the time you were in your vehicle, your Honey tank. Only if you were static did you dig in. It was bloody hard to dig in because it was rock so you built up a sanger, and a sanger was stones which you built up and you slept behind a sanger. So if a shell went bang there, the stones took it first.
Oh no trouble, if you’re tired enough, it was no problem. Sometimes you were lucky, sometimes you weren’t. If there was a battle going on, you might have been trying to see what the hell was going on in daylight and dug in at night. It was just a question of fitting in with what happened.
Did it feel organised?
Oh yes. It felt tremendously organised. It was too. It had to be. Mind you, if you’re at the hub, you do get the sense it’s organised because you’re organising it. Sometimes communications were bloody awful which used to be a frightful worry. We’d send a set up to the top of a hill to act as a relay but it didn’t always work. The gunners were wonderful. Their communications were infinitely better than our and that was a damn good thing.
And why would that be so?
Everything depends on it. Their whole existence depends on being able to fire at what was required and if they can’t communicate, nothing’s any good. So if there’s a problem, they have 2 or 3 people relaying..everything is concentrated on communication and having enough ammunition. The only 2 things that matter, plus you have to know where he is, their map reading was bloody good. But they were brilliant. There was one wonderful battle where we had the whole corps artillery ..for some reason or another we always seemed to be doing it in the dark even if we’d started at dawn.
The noise must have been terrific.
Oh yes. Absolutely fanatastic. 1000 shells in 20 minutes.
Did you often find yourselves on the receiving end of German guns and mortars?
Oh yes. Not often, but yes. Heavy gunsif you’re on the first floor and you hear one coming, you wonder if it’s going to hit or not.
That must have been quite hairy.
Yes. But if you’re so tired, you just go to sleep.
You were saying that at times you did feel scared, but it seems that you were pretty well equipped to dealing with the battle and.
Youth, it’s every day you see and then someone gets killed.
How do you deal with that, friends getting killed
To start with it’s bloody difficult.
Is it. Is it something you get used to?
I think you get inured to it. You get better at it.
When you were first out there and colleagues were getting killed, or badly wounded, did you think about it a lot afterwards and feel depressed about it?
The thing that really shook me was when the commanding officer got killed.
You had to call up for the second in command yourself. You knew him well and he was your leader.
What happened to him?
Guy Turner. He was hit by a mortar bomb. He was up the left flank with Bill Vesty and the Germans started to mortar and one landed in the trench. Bill Vesty was mortally wounded and they took him back and I was coming back. Passed him coming down on a stretcher and got up there and there he was lying stone dead. That really shook me.
How long had you known him?
Ever since we’d reformed the 2 new battalions.
So that was end of April time.
Yes. And this was August. Two days with a commanding officer in war is a long time. You’re with this chap 24 hours a day.
Presumably you very quickly get to know how he thinks and how he operates so when you get a new CO you have to go through the whole process again.
Yes and he had to call aned group????
Getting in the company commanders and his hand was shaking so much I had to hold the pressure switch for him. This chap was one of his best friends but after 48 hours he’d settled down splendidly and he’s still alive today.
I suppose you had to just get on with it didn’t you? You couldn’t just sit around and wallow in it and there’s nothing like diversion to take your mind off things.
That’s right. There just wasn’t time and if you’re the professional you’ve got to make sure everything works and you haven’t got time to fuss about anything else.
You were mentioning that you’d seen dead Italians, having been shot. Did you get used to the bloodiness of war?
I think it was much more difficult if you were doing what I was doing that if you were in the front line. In the front line, you just got used to it because you saw it so often. I remember going along in a Honey tank and running over a dead body and I found that very disturbing. I don’t think I ever got used to chaps being killed in the sense that I was just waiting for the next chap, but you got used to being told who it was.
You must have seen such horrible things. I suppose you just have to learn how
to deal with it?
There were lighter moments too. Towards the end, before we got up in the mountains where I was wounded, we’d broken through the Gothic Line and were going like bats out of hell. We’d stopped and somebody said â€œJust up the road is Caserine’s NAAFI. I was doing a recce up the road and sure enough there was a warehouse and it was stacked full of champagne so I got on the wireless to my battery chap at A echelon and told him to off load the batteries onto the side of the road and send up the 3 tonner. He said, Do I understand you correctly.? I said â€œYes! So They sent up the 3 tonner and we stacked it full of champagne the springs were like that and we were driving back quite happily and up came the snow drops ???? They were going up there to safeguard it so no-one would do this. The battalion was out of line for about 4 days and I think everyone in the battalion had champagne for about 3 days. It was a real laugh, there was no danger attached to it, it was just damned funny.
You mentioned that you shaved in orange juice once. Were there many things that happened like that? If you were in an orchard, would you take the fruit and so on?
You had to be bloody careful or you’d get the squitters. Particularly figs. There were a lot of figs about and of course you were hungry. When you were overlooked you had one hot meal and then you were given a tin of bully beef and packet of biscuits and if you were lucky you could brew up and if not you drank water. You had to make sure you filled the water bottles. You couldn’t afford to use it for shaving. There were booby traps occasionally, but the front line companies found them, not us. I remember coming across a minefield once and we had to get a line across and somebody had to go and I said OK. We had ropes and reckoned we could throw a rope over so that if I got to the other side they attached the line on and I’d haul it over. And then suddenly there was bang, bang, bang. Up came these mines that jump up. But prisoners had laid them and they hadn’t pulled the pins out of the bit that goes bang above ground, so I was lucky.
That must’ve been hair raising.
It was, I ran and then threw myself at the other side.
A sprint across the mine field and hope for the best? That must have been terrifying!
Somebody had to do it and I was alright. I was lucky. The mines hadn’t been armed.
What about the countryside in Italy. It’s obviously a big holiday destination now.
It wasn’t being farmed much.
Had you been abroad before the war?
Only to Belgium.
So what did you make of the countryside?
Very hilly. Some of it was rather like Scotland. There were very few animals. Dead horses and dead cattle.
The war had really ravaged it?
Absolutely. The land had been pretty well laid waste by the time we got there. There were still Italians alive, living in their hovels. We captured Castadellbrolio ???? The centre of the wine trade. We had an absolute bastard of a police sergeant. We were taken out of line and told to base ourselves on Brolio. A castle really, with a few cottages, now it’s quite a big town. The old barrone appeared and he said â€œWe should have a dinner, you have food and I have wine. We said we thought the Germans had taken all the wine. He said â€œThey got all the cheap stuff. The good stuff is 2 layers down. He lifted a paving slab and there 10 steps and then another paving slab and 10 more steps and then there it was, must’ve been about 50,000 bottles of wine. Germans never found it. There was a huge dining hall; you could’ve seated 100 people. We had bully beef and and Brolio wine and the pipe major played round the table.
When was that?
About September 44.
He was a nice chap your Barrone?
Oh yes he was. And our interpreter was Franco Zefferelliwe must have lunch..
I no longer go on parade, I’m too old.
It does seem to have this incredible pull Scotland. More so than many areas.
And it’s been running England for a long time!
Absolutely. Now you just go back to Italy. I was mentioning Alex Balby and visiting the cemeteries and he found it was different in reality to his memories. Did you find that?
Dramatically. I went to Castel de Sanglio ??? and the only thing I could recognise in the whole area was one little street. It had changed dramatically. The other placesI didn’t go to battle fields to see if I could recognise them, but I wanted to go to Castel de Sanglio, but we went to the cemeteries of the British Legion pilgrimage and there were some of the chaps I remembered. I remember their being killed but it didn’t bring back any particular thing to me. I was photographing their graves so that their relatives could have it sent to them.
Did you have any particularly close friends when you were out there during the war?
Oh yes. Some were killed, some weren’t. I told you about the 1st battalion dinner club which called itself the D Day Dodgers, they were chums I used to see once a year if not more often, but they weren’t necessarily my age. I tended to be younger than most of them.
You’d already broken through the Gothic when you got wounded?
Oh yes. We were right up in the hills, just south of Rimini.
Did you know then that you were getting close to total victory.
We didn’t know we were getting close to the actual end of the war. We knew we were pushing the Germans out of Italy and this was about the last mountain range that they could really use as a defensive line.
We had drunk Grouse since it was first produced as a regiment and we had an order for x amount each month and Matthew Gloag when war broke out said that we were going to going on getting it until supplies couldn’t be got through any more. In the desert 2SG was about the only battalion who had whisky and people used to say come on we’ll go to the Scots Guards. They’ll have whisky.
And is that still a tradition now?
Oh yes. It isn’t owned by Matthew Gloag any longer I’m afraid.
What did you think of Monty?
I saw Montgomery when he came to take over the second front and I was still in the Guards Armoured Division. I must say on the whole we were pretty much against Montgomery. We thought he was a smart Alec who wore badges on his hat and kow towed to the soldiers and not to the officers and he was coming to visit the guards parade in the Guards Armoured Division at Hunstanton. He rode up in a jeep with the commanding officer and was shouting â€œCome round. Come round (?) and nobody moved a muscle and he said to the CO,Don’t your men do what they’re told? and the CO said â€œYes Sir, but it has to come from the correct authority so he said â€œWould you mind getting your men to gather round? Fall out the officers. Sergeant Major would you mind forming the battalion around this jeep? Two minutes later it had formed around the jeep. He then talked to us for about 10 minutes.
This is in 43 before you went out?
Yes. Early 43. And when he left, 90% of us were pro Montgomery and that was a very remarkable thing to have done. He said to us I am very lucky to have the Guards Armoured Division. They’ll be very tough times but the Guards Division will get the best possible result. He never said anything like I am the great I am, just that he’d seen our qualities, and we thought this chap’s alright.
Did you ever change your opinion?
90% were turned and I was turned round.
I must say I’ve not met many people who were pro him. I really haven’t. Did you have any opinion of Alexander?
Everybody had a huge opinion of Alexander. We rarely saw him.
But you thought he was good for business?
Oh he was wonderful; he was an Irish Guards Man after all! Irish Guards were always absolutely irreproachable!
Of course. But you had trust in him that he was directing the war as best he could?
Yes. Let’s face it, he’d done quite a lot before he’d got to us. He’d made his name in India. I liked the man. He was very, very quiet.
There was an aura about him wasn’t there? He got things done with quiet
Yes. Great soldier.
Well thank you.