Where were you born and brought up?
I was born at Hindon; moved to Fonthill when I was 4 and then Berwick St Leonard and was brought up there. Had a marvellous youth because there were only 9 houses and 20 unmarried young lads in those 9 houses, so there were plenty of chaps for cricket and football and anything. And we had 4 tennis courts in the park and it was half a crown a year to belong to that. I had one sister and 4 brothers. My father and my grandfather worked on the land. My great grandfather was drowned in Fonthill in 1841 in a flood. I went to the village school and then got a scholarship to Bishop Wordsworth school but as my father was a farm worker with 6 children, there was no chance of me going there but I think I’ve educated myself all the same. I was in the Guards during the war.
How did you get to join the Coldstream Guards?
We had a choice of either going in the artillery, and my 2 brothers went in the artillery and I thought I’ll go in the Guards. I regretted it for a bit at Caterham which was bloody awful really.
Were you called up or did you volunteer?
I was called up.
Before that had you been working on the farm?
Yes; so went into the Coldstreams and the Duke of Devonshire was at Caterham the same time as I was and I got to know him later on. He was out in Italy with me. He said the 8 weeks he spent at Caterham were the worst 8 weeks of his life. He said Sandhurst was a doddle after that. ?? in Perbright in 1941 and we joined another battalion at Harrow; the 6th battalion which went out to North Africa and we went out as reinforcements. Landed at Algiers and took part in the campaign and then we did the ?? Lampedusa.
Were you still 6th battalion at this point?
No; this was the 2nd in Africa. The 6th battalion was more or less a home battalion for the rest. The Lampedusa was great fun because when we went there we were in a circle of about 8 or 9 battle ships and there were all shelling as they went round in a circle and we were in the middle. Finally there were white flags in the harbour and we went in and took over. After that I went back to Africa. The 3rd battalion was in Italy having a rough time; had a lot of casualties so anyone who could be spared from 2nd battalion had to go on and I was one who went. I was signals then. But when I got there, signals were full up, so we had to go back to ordinary duty.
Were you a sergeant by this time?
No, still a guardsman and I wanted to get back to signals. They kept offering me corporal but I wouldn’t have it and then I went on a patrol.
Can you remember when you got to Italy?
Reading about a patrol……while at Rio Nero, I went on a night patrol to a village 2 miles away, in the hills in no-man’s-land. We were men from various sections under a sergeant called Cowley with myself as second in command. The sergeant and I had been taken to a vantage point during the afternoon and shown the best route to get there which was down a valley, at the bottom of which ran a small stream, which after it rained hard became a torrent and over the years had cut a deep gulley and on the south side was a path we were to follow until we came to a line of shrubs that looked like the remains of an old hedge. This we should follow and it would take us up to the village. Our objective was to find out if the Germans used the place or sent patrols there and if possible to ambush them. When it started to get dark, we set out with the sergeant leading the way, the 6 other men, and then myself bringing up the rear; the normal place for a second in command. Down the valley we went, passed a farmhouse where the farmer and his family wished us a rather nervous Buena Note, till with it getting darker every minute, we came to the line of the shrubs and to my surprise, went straight on passed. I sent a message up the line of men telling him he’d gone wrong and after a while, the patrol stopped and the sergeant came back to me and said “Look Harris, I’m in charge of this bloody patrol and when I want your advice, I’ll ask for it.” I said “That’s ok with me then sergeant” and on we went again and on and on, for more than half a mile we continued, til I began to think we’d soon be in German controlled territory and I was feeling pleased that I was at the back of the patrol rather than in front when we started to slow down and soon we were bumping into one another as the front men stopped. Then I heard the sergeant come back whispering “Harris? Where’s Harris?” and I said “Here sergeant!” And then the sergeant said “I’m lost!” to which I replied “You’ve been lost a bloody long time sergeant!” He then asked me if I knew where we were and I said I did, and then could I lead them back to the village. Again, I said yes. He suggested that the best thing to do was for everybody to about turn and I could lead the way and he could bring up the rear. So that’s what we did and I retraced our steps back up the gulley til I came to the line of bushes and turned left and followed them for more than a mile, when a village dog started barking and we knew we were getting near our objective. The sergeant now took over again as we entered the village, which as far as we could see contained about 40 cottages, 20 on each side of a narrow street. Did I say street? Actually it was a stony track, rough and untarred, as was the case in most country villages. Then the sergeant hammered on the door of the first house we came to and it was opened by a frightened looking man and who can blame him for that. He enquired if we were Tedesco and when we said “No, Inglesi” he purported to be pleased, although it made no difference to him I suppose whether we were German or English for we were both foreigners fighting in his country. We questioned him as to whether Germans were in the village and he said no, but they did send patrols there usually later in the night. With that we left and carried on up the street which after quarter of a mile or so turned into a path which swung left passed a flat piece of ground which may have been a football pitch and then went on down the other side of the hill. It had been fairly light as we’d made our way up to the village while (?) once we had got out of the bushes into the open, but now it started to get really dark, so we lay in a circle on the ground on the football pitch, all looking outwards and waited events and we didn’t have long to wait. Suddenly there was a bang and a flash and a Very light was burning high above us in the sky. We all lay flat on the ground with our faces covered, as your white face shows up most in that situation and waited for the light to go out, expecting to be fired on by some German patrol who had heard us arrive and were about to welcome us. A Very light burns for about half a minute I should think but believe me at a time like that when you are expecting the worst, it seems to hang there for half an hour before finally going out and when this one did, there was dead silence for a few minutes. We had not been fired on and I was puzzled by it all until I was told that it must have been sent up by one of our own patrol. Apparently he’d been given this pistol with a red light in and told it was to be fired only in the case of a dire emergency to summon help if we got into deep trouble. How it was possible in the sort of situation we were in lying on the ground quietly waiting for a German patrol, for a man to suddenly point it up in the air and pull the trigger is beyond me. Who it was and why he did it, I never found out and it wasn’t the time or place for recriminations. We were all from different sections and the night patrol is not the best vehicle for making new acquaintances. For ¾ of an hour after the Very pistol episode, we lay quietly on the ground listening and all the time it was getting darker and darker. Then I heard a stone rattle some way off and although no-one else had heard it, I was sure I was not mistaken. I found out that I, no doubt like hundreds of others who were used to getting about in the dark, as we did in the 20’s and 30’s, and had our senses sharpened so we could see and hear things that town bred men failed to notice, and so after a few more minutes came another rattle that everyone heard. By now it was pitch dark and after a whispered conversation, it was agreed that we couldn’t possibly see them and we’d lie still and let them pass. In my position, I was facing, no more than 10 feet from the path that was raised up about a foot above the flat area. I still recall the feeling of tension as the patrol approached, wondering if the clot who’d fired the Very pistol had another trick up his sleeve. The Germans were better equipped for patrols than we were as they had rubber soled boots and could move much quieter than we could in our hob nails, and the ones who were now coming towards us were no strangers to this place either for they were going at a good pace without any hesitating or stumbling; the path being a bit lighter in colour than the grass would have helped them too. They were a well disciplined bunch of men because you could hardly hear their footsteps as they passed. The loudest noise they made was the bumping of weapons against their sides as they marched. It was like a ghost patrol going by but in no way did they show that they had any idea that we were close by which in a way was lucky for everybody because if someone had started firing or throwing grenades, it would have been impossible to know who was fighting who. We might easily have been killing our own men as the Germans. Soon the dogs in the village started barking and we knew that by enquiring among the villagers they would soon know there was an English patrol about. After a council of war, it was decided to fan out; half on one side of the path and half on the other, facing the village so that if the Germans came back that way, we’d have a better chance of hitting them. Although it was still cloudy, the moon had come up and the light was much improved. The sergeant and myself had Tommy guns; one man had a bren gun and the others had rifles so we reckoned we could wipe out the Germans before they knew what hit them; the sergeant giving orders that no-one should fire before him and when he fired, everyone had to open up. So we lay there and waited and waited until the night was slipping away and it became obvious that the Germans were too sly to fall into our trap and as dawn approached we thought it time to pack up and go home. Lining up on the path ready to march, I was amazed to find the sergeant starting to lead us towards the village and after asking him where the hell he was going, I said “Where do you think the Germans are if they are still around? They’ll be down the road waiting for us in the same way as we’ve been waiting for them. We should give the village a wide berth on our way back.” He agreed with this and we made our detour and got back to camp without any trouble to find that no-one had seen our red Very light, or if they had, had taken no notice of it. A couple of days later, I was marched in before Major Creighton, our CC and once more, he asked me to become a corporal. Again I refused, repeating that I had told him before that I wanted to get back to the Signal platoon and if I took the tapes I thought it would spoil my chances. He said it wouldn’t; I could go back as a corporal just as well as a guardsman. Then leaning forwards he said that if I was going to lead patrols then I might as well get paid for it and in any case, wasn’t it better to be in front leading a section than to have some bloody fool who didn’t know what he was doing and get the whole section killed by his stupidity! Obviously, someone had split on the sergeant and the major had got to hear about it because I can’t see the sergeant outing this in his report. Weighing up what the major had said, I could see it made sense and sewed the chevrons on my sleeve that evening……….within about 6 weeks, I was a sergeant, because of casualties and that.
Were you at Cassino?
On the edge of Cassino; the 2nd battalion was in Cassino. We were at Tufor (?) just outside. We saw the bombing – when they bombed the Monastery.
Can you remember the final attack on Cassino when the line gave way and you….
We were out of the line at that point. We were in a little village up in the hills, near a nunnery. We heard they’d gone and we had to catch up. We went through Cassino after it was captured. After that we were in the fighting nearly all the time I was out there.
You can remember seeing all the towns destroyed?
Oh yes they were in a terrible state. Rome they’d agreed not to bomb or shell that, which was a good thing. We were in Castegliani I think when we had an order that we were to go straight to Florence. No stopping; the wounded had to be left beside the road for somebody to pick up. I thought it was a load of rubbish and it turned out to be a load of rubbish too. Every road, every hill – the Germans could defend it easily. Rivers and hills and mountains – easy to defend and not easy to cross. We had tanks but there was a lot of places they couldn’t cross. I didn’t like tanks very close to me because they attracted the fire and very often, you got the fire that was meant for the tanks.
What did you think was a safe distance from a tank?
About 30 or 40 yards I should think.
Do you think – I thought that was very interesting what you said about country bred people being able to hear better than city bred people. As a boy you spent all your time out of doors, and at night. Did you ever do any…..
I wasn’t going to say that! But tracking…rabbits and so on?
Oh yes; we might have had a little torch but that would have been the only thing we’d have. You get out of night and your eyes get used to it; very seldom is it pitch dark, as they call it. When there’s no cloud cover, the stars are bright enough to give you enough light.
Do you think that being closer to nature helped you as a soldier?
Oh yes, certainly it did.
Were you a pretty good shot?
I was excellent; I had an air gun as a boy that I used to shoot rats and things with. At Purbright every week, about 200 men would go on the ranges and fire; bren guns and rifles. The following week, the ones who’d fired the best had their name on a black board on the square and my name was there for the rifle and had I not been in the Signals I would have gone for a sniper’s course. My eyesight was really good. When I went in the Army, they examined my eyes and the chap said I had remarkable eyesight. When I came out of the Army 6 years later, another chap said exactly the same thing.
How did you come to be in the Signals?
You could please yourself. This was the Coldstream Guards Signals, not the Signals. You could go into the bren gun or the mortar platoon or be a signaller; it was completely up to you. The Signals that was supposed to be the intelligence of the battalion.
When you got your call up papers, were you told to go and present yourself somewhere?
Yes, Caterham; they gave me a railway warrant and off I went.
So before you’d even joined the Army, someone had chosen you either to go in the Artillery or the Coldstream Guards?
You could choose. I wanted to get into the RAF; that was my favourite. My brother got in, because he was 4 years younger than me I suppose. After I was at Caterham and at Purbright, I volunteered to go up for an interview at Euston House, London, and first of all it was rear gunners they wanted and then, if you’d been in the Army a certain length of time, they wouldn’t take you out, but you could go in as an observer/navigator. I went up and was one of about 50 or 60 others. Only 4 of us had to stop behind for interview; the others weren’t good enough I suppose. I went in and there were a couple of RAF officers. One of them said “You’ve got us baffled. You’ve got 85% on intelligence; 90% on general knowledge but your maths is terrible! You can’t do simple equations! Can’t you do maths?” I said “I was never taught it. All I went to was a village school.” “Didn’t you pass a scholarship” I said “Yes, I passed it, but my father was only a farm worker and he couldn’t afford to send me.” “What a bloody waste!” he said, “Go out and buy yourself a book called Teach Yourself Mathematics and you’ll find it’s easy enough. Come back in a couple of months and I think you’ll find we accept you.” But by that time I’d got to Purbright and had got used to a lot of mates and that and then when the 6th battalion was formed, my name was on there but crossed out. I asked why and they said “You’re going in the RAF unless you cancel it.” I scratched it out then.
So at Caterham you were doing your basic training?
Yes; previous to my squad, they had a normal peacetime period there of 4 months but mine was the first squad who went back because they didn’t think they were going to invade; that the worst of it was gone. This was in November. So they went back to the 16 weeks and I was there for 16 weeks. Then I had a Christmas leave; December 1940.
Can you remember the Battle of Britain and people being worried about that?
Did you ever see aeroplanes coming over head?
Tons of them; great squadrons of Germans going to Bristol and that.
Apparently some German planes and a couple of Hurricanes crashed near Shaftesbury.
A Heinkel came down near Sedghill and we went down to see it. A Spitfire brought it down I think.
So you used to see the com trails in the sky?
Oh yes; at Caterham I used to watch the fighting going on up there. There was an aerodrome just the other side of us at Henley.
It must have been difficult for a little village community like this – you mentioned there were 20 lads about the same age – presumably most of them went off to war?
12 of the 20 were in the services. That was out 5 of the 9 houses because some houses didn’t have lads. Life’s never fair is it because the only one killed was an only son. Billy Burke (?) never came back and his father never got over it.
Did your father have Land Girls down here?
Oh yes, there were Land Girls before I went in the Army. Out of those 20 there are only 3 still alive and one of them married a Land Girl.
How old were you in 1940?
I was born 08/08/1916, so 24.
Did you ever think you’d make it to 90?
No, I didn’t.
(African campaign stuff here for a bit)
Did you have much to do with the Americans?
Not a lot, no. When the Yankees were taking the Italian prisoners off in Oran, they were kicking them and shouting at them, and that wasn’t on.
What did you think of Alexander?
Thought he was a good chap.
Did you ever see him?
Yes; I’ve got a photograph – we did his guard of honour at Trieste. We went down to Casserta all nicely polished up and came back in cattle trucks.
As a countryman, you must have felt for the Italians seeing all these villages destroyed?
Oh yes; we got on well with the Italians.
So there wasn’t much looting of Italian food and so on?
No; we used to dig up some potatoes. There was one woman, she was a Fascist and she came out and said “No – my potatoes!”
Can you remember fighting on Lake Bolseno and Lake Trasimeno?
Well, you forget – we went through so many little villages. We went to Siena; Padua.
You were attached to the American 5th Army weren’t you?
You went up the centre. Were you at Casteglioni?
Yes, we were with the South Africans there.
How did you get on with them?
All right, yes. Their fags were the Springbok fags. It didn’t worry me because I didn’t smoke. You sort of took over the vocabulary of whoever you were with though. When we were with the Indians, we had the chapattis; they were lovely fried in olive oil.
I should imagine Army rations get very monotonous after a while.
Oh yes; M & V – meat and veg.
Did you always get enough to eat?
No; when we were near Cassino, we were bloody starving. It amazed me because when you got behind the lines there was plenty of food, but we didn’t get it up the line – whether it was getting it up to us or what, I don’t know but I remember once, they sent us up a couple of tablespoons of flour. What the hell could you do with that? I mixed it with water and tried to eat it. It was the same stuff you used to put wallpaper on with. One patrol – a standing patrol – there was a dug out and we used to go there for 24 hours and when you came back, they’d take you out of the line and give you a good meal. A great big tin of M & V, but you could only eat half of it because our stomachs had shrunk. Then the next day you’d be thinking, how I could do with that stuff I left last night!
The weather was awful in Italy as well wasn’t it?
I can’t remember it being too bad. We were out in the open; never had tents or anything but I can’t remember it being so bad. We’d put our gas cape on and that was it.
What do you remember about Monte Sole?
Oh Monte Sole – that was bloody awful. Here’s the Guards magazine and I had a couple of letters published in there.
I’ll read it out, if I may…..Sir, reading the obituary of Brigadier C M A Mayes in your Summer 2002 edition and the remarks about his service in the Apennine Mountains in the Second World War, reminded of the time I was serving in Number Two Company, 3rd Battalion, Coldstream Guards in that area in 1944, with Major Richard Creighton as my company commander. We were sitting on Point 501, a ridge in front of and below Monte Sole, but quite separate from that accursed mountain. We lived in permanent snow and out dugouts were holes dug into the side of the mountain just below the lip of the ridge, and extended by bivvy over the entrance and most uncomfortable they were too. We were issued with sleeping bags, which under normal circumstances would have been welcome, but as we were not allowed to take our clothes or boots off, you can imagine what a mess they soon became….
Why weren’t you allowed to take your clothes and boots off?
In case the Germans attacked. We were on the front line.
…….as our boots were never dry, there were fears that we would get the complaint that the soldiers in the First World War suffered from so badly, trench feet, especially as there were rumours that the Canadians in the next sector had already had cases. To prevent any chance of us getting it, we had a routine where every morning, each section commander made his men sit on their gas capes in the snow, take off their boots and socks and dust their feet with talcum powder to dry them off, then rub their feet vigorously for 10 minutes to get the circulation. Then after another dusting with talc, put on a clean pair of socks. The powder and socks came up from our base at La Cuerca (?) each night without fail. The exercise paid off, as we had no foot trouble. Our company sergeant major was Gertie Gartside who, when I joined the Guards at Caterham, was senior drill sergeant and the terror of the depot. But as the flow of recruits dried up, most of the depot staff were sent to join the battalion overseas, and he joined us in 1944. I must say that for a man coming from years of a comparatively cushy number at the depot to the rigours of the front line, he made the change remarkably well; cool under fire and a good organiser and I came to greatly admire him. We were overlooked by the Germans on Monte Sole from October until we were relieved in February and quite a miserable time it was too. Being so much higher, the enemy could see any daylight movement we made, so everything had to be done in the dark. One of the worst jobs we took turns with was to put on all our warmest clothes and then get into a white snow suit and go and lie on our gas capes in the snow about 50 yards in front of our lines to give warning of any German patrols; a cold job and I can’t remember being relieved. I think it was an all night stint with the dawn a long time coming. In February 1945, we were relieved by the Americans and went back to Spoleto, where the 2nd and 3rd battalions were amalgamated. For Major Creighton and me, although we did not know it, it was the end of the war; the longest serving men of the old 3rd battalion were sent back to England which left me at the top of the list for LIPA which stood for Leave Italian Army Personnel I believe. Anyway, I spent April 1945 back in England, enjoying a lovely spring while the final push was going on in Italy, and the war ended there a couple of days before my leave was up. I found everything had changed in the new battalion. During the fighting I’d been in charge of a section most of the way up Italy. In no other situation did 7 men get to know and trust one another as they do after months of fighting in the front line. We all knew that we could rely on each other and that comradeship was something I’ll always treasure. Yet such were the changes in the companies and the fact that we were often spread out on the Yugoslav border and also that I spent some months as sergeant instructor in the North Italy battle school, that I never saw one of my old section again. Looking through the list of casualties after the final push, I couldn’t find the names of Wilkie, Sanderson, Goddard or Pilgrim (?) on it, so I presume they came through alive. Having only started to take Guards magazine recently, I must say it’s good value for money with lots of interesting articles ? the officers I know are in the obituary columns……the answer……Sir, in this interesting account of life in the line in Italy in the winter of 1944, Reg Harris, formerly Coldstream Guards, says that he doubts there’s anyone interested in his reminiscences. Well, I am most interested. He accurately describes life occupying Point 501, looking at the German position on Monte Sole, part of the Gothic Line which prevented our advance up to Bologna and the Po Valley. My platoon and 5th battalion Grenadiers occupied that very position, turn and turn about with 3rd battalion Coldstream. The photograph that you showed was taken by an Army photographic unit on the 31st December 1944, immediately outside my platoon HQ dugout. The soldier sitting on the jerry can is my orderly, Guardsman Wilkinson. The Americans took over from us on 15th February 1945. They arrived, most of them smoking cigars, with about 3 times the number of men that we had there and were very worried at the prospect of having to dig new positions in the hard ground. Finally, Reg Harris says he went home from Spoleto on an LIPA; actually it was LIAP – Leave in Advance of ??? (Reg talks over you), indicating a return to battalion after leave – it was for those who had served overseas for more than 4 years. They did not return to the theatre of war and achieved a home posting……Bartletts 4 ?? Milverton Taunton, Somerset TA4 1JX. Gilbert Mann (?) Guards Magazine Summer 2003…..then you had another letter did you?
Reminiscences of Italy – Guards Magazine Spring 2006 – Sir, recently you have been printing various people’s reminiscences of the Second World War and I wonder if this is any use to you. Monte Domini was about the largest hill before Florence and the Arno and 2 platoons of Number Two Company Coldstream Guards, one of which was mine, was sent up to test the strength of the opposition. We came under heavy machine gun fire before we even started the attack and Nigel Gardner, one of the platoon commanders, was killed. The hill was steep and terraced and as we neared the top, we ran into heavy fire from the enemy dug in on the summit, and suffered a number of casualties and were forced to abandon the attack. Now, in every platoon there are men with pet ailments; bad backs; bad stomachs. In my platoon, we had a man called Quinney who was a martyr to his feet, especially during hot weather. When he got near the top of the hill, Quinney was a very lucky man as was sprayed by an enemy machine gun and one bullet had taken a lump of flesh out of his left arm and his chest and the next had missed his body and taken a lump out of his right arm at the same height. After we came down the hill, we stood in the road that had been cut into the side of the hill, with a bank on one side and a drop on the other and Quinney was leaning back against the bank looking rather shattered. By now he had had a field dressing put on his arms, but before that of course, the blood had streamed down his arms onto his shorts and stocking tops making him look a terrible mess. Just then, Major Creighton, the Company Commander, came along and asked Quinney how he was. He said he was not too bad. “Well, you’ll be alright now” said the major, “the ambulances have come up and the men are going to take you back on a stretcher.” Quinney brightened, “Thank God for that Sir” he said, “My ruddy feet are killing me!” Quinney recovered and came back to the battalion but his luck had run out and he was killed a few days before the end of the war. After Monte Domine, numbers 1, 3 and 4 Companies made a frontal attack the next day, supported by a squadron of tanks and the divisional artillery and a bloody affair it was too. They took the hill but the casualties were high and that became one of the factors which made it necessary for the 2nd and 3rd battalions to amalgamate the next spring. One more thing; the next morning after the battle, we were subjected to the heaviest bombardment I can remember, when according to our Army newspaper, the Union Jack, 600 shells fells on a few acres of ground in 10 minutes and yet because we were spread out and had plenty of time to dig in, there were very few casualties. Probably the Germans were firing their spare ammo, rather than lug it back over the Arno…….What did you find worst, shell fire or mortar?
Because you didn’t know it was coming?
Yes and again at Garigliano, that was the worst place I was in during the war because they had the Nebelwerfers there; multi-barrelled, moaning minnies. If you were anywhere near, you were lucky to get away with it, but at least you could hear them coming. With the ordinary mortars, they were on you before you knew it.
It must have been difficult digging in wasn’t it, a lot of the time?
A lot of the time it was, yes. We couldn’t often dig; we had to make sangers as they were called. You got all the stone you could; big lumps, and make a wall round you, which would stop a bullet.
That episode with the patrol after which you became a corporal and then a sergeant, can you remember when that was roughly?
Beginning of ’44 I suppose.
So most of the war in Italy, you were a sergeant? A section leader.
What do you think was the secret of leading a section of men?
Well, you either had it or you didn’t. When I was second in command I was with a chap called Corporal Cessford. (?) He was only 19 I think but he would have made a perfect peacetime soldier. He loved the swaggering and shouting and that but in war he was bloody hopeless. I would often more or less run the section and he’d say “What do you think these are on my arms?” I said “They should be on your bloody arse!” The officers used to take the mickey out of him because they knew he was bloody hopeless in war. I always remember, he said to me one day, “You’ll be a sergeant before I am.” I said “How the hell can I be? You’ve been a corporal for 12 months and I’m still a guardsman.” Nothing would turn him, and he was right. He was killed before he got sergeant. ??? there were some spangles (?) on the hill beyond and we had to go and winkle them out. Each section – there were 3 in a platoon – you took it in turns to lead. Our officer had been killed and Sergeant Thomas was the platoon commander and he shouted for Cessford to come and just as he got opposite me, spandaus went overhead and he lay on the ground and I could see he was in a terrible state. He was white a sheet and shaking like a leaf. I said “You alright Cess?” “Course I’m alright” he said, but he wasn’t; I could see how frightened he was. I went on and I heard the spandaus open up again and we used a 2 inch mortar and bren gun to winkle them out of the hill.
What’s the technique…. (you’re both talking together, so I can’t make this bit out)….
The mortar, that frightened them to death and they ran then. Then Thomas said to me, “You know Cess has been killed?” I said “No,” and he said “Instead of stopping under the bank, he leapt up and shouted ‘Let’s get the bastards’ and they nearly cut him in half with the spandau.” He was that frightened he thought I’ll show them I am not frightened, you know. He lost his life in a stupid way.
Where was he from?
Up North – Newcastle I think. One of my section was killed Joshua Ruddock; he was a real nice chap. He’d help with anything and that made a hell of a difference. Normally in the Army, every 5th or 6th word was fuck but I never heard him swear in all the time I knew him; he was a really nice, decent chap and when he died I wrote to his mother and told her how I liked him and that. She wrote back and told me if I was up there, to call on her. I never thought I ever would, but Tony and I went up there later but I’d lost the address; shame really.
What happened to him?
We were coming back from a patrol and a stray mortar came and killed him outright; just pure bad luck.
Presumably one of the ways to have a successful section is to lead from the front; by example?
Yes and you’re one of them. I mean you’re a sergeant but you muck in and you do just the same as they do; guard duty and everything. We were 7. Some had 2 on and 2 off every night. That’s how you get so tired; you don’t get any proper sleep. But with 7, one night a week you get off and you got your head down and that was wonderful; next day you felt so much better.
Usually sections were 10 men weren’t they?
I don’t know; it was 7 in ours. Maybe we didn’t have enough men.
Can you remember – was there a sense that manpower was running out?
Oh yes, there was. That’s why the sergeant major came out because no recruits were coming up from the depot.
Were you aware that Italy had become a secondary theatre after what was going on in North West France?
No, I don’t know that we did. When we heard about the second front, we said “Bloody near time they did something!”
You weren’t ever with the 8th Army were you?
No, although it’s funny, because I had the Africa Star, everybody took it that I was in the 3rd battalion in the desert, which I wasn’t. If there were a group of you and an officer came, the senior sergeant had to call the group to attention and salute and ask for permission to carry on and because I had that – I was probably the most junior one there, but they all used to look at me to call them to attention and salute the officer simply because I had the Africa Star!
What other medals did you get?
I got 5 altogether; 1939 – 45 Star; Africa Star; Italy Star; Defence Medal and the War Medal. When I was in Africa, the ? of Tunis’s palace was at Hamon Leq (?) which we shelled to hell and took and afterwards a chap came to me and gave me some china. He’d taken it out of the palace and then we didn’t know what to do with it so I strapped it up the best I could and sent it home, but it nearly all got smashed bar 2 cups which I’ll show you.
Did you get much post from home?
Oh yes, my wife used to write.
You were married before you went?
Yes, just before.
Was it difficult leaving home and leaving your wife?
Of course it was but everyone was in the same boat.
Where were you living?
My wife lived with her mother for a while til we got a house at Hindon.
Have you been here since the war?
50 odd years; 48 I think we came here.
So your wife used to write to you?
Yes and my mother and various people.
Were they a help?
Oh yes, course they were.
Did you ever get to talk to any of the Italians you came across?
Oh yes we talked to them; you picked up a bit of Italian, enough to have a bit of a conversation.
You must have gone through a lot of farmland….
Oh yes, I remember in the summer we’d go out to battle with a Tommy gun in one hand and a bunch of grapes in the other.
Would you say you had a respect for the German soldier?
Oh certainly; they were good soldiers. The SS were bastards though. There was one incident when we stopped one night on the edge of a wood and dug in and in front of us about ¼ of a mile was a white farmhouse and I had orders to go and see if there were Germans in there when it got dark. Had to go as soon as it got dark because there was a full moon coming up later. We couldn’t find anything in the house and there was a row of loose boxes down the side with the stable doors. One of my lads beckoned to me to go and see something and there were a couple of feet sticking out from under a blanket and there were 2 Germans having a nap so I covered them with my Tommy gun and they pulled the blanket back and there was a naked woman shot through the heart a couple of times. I can’t remember feeling any disgust; you see so many dead people and that, how do you register? The next day we went across there and the door opened and a woman ran out and I asked her where she’d been the previous night and she said they’d been in the cellar. I told her she was lucky because normally if we’d noticed there was a cellar, we’d pull the lid up and sling a grenade down; that would sort out anyone who was down there. I asked her about the dead woman and she said some SS had picked her up in Rome and now we were 40 or 50 miles north of Rome, and she had told these SS blokes she was going to leave and they’d said she couldn’t and when she insisted, an officer had shot her. Then men from the village came up with a white coffin and they buried her in the local churchyard.
Did you witness any other instances of atrocities on civilians?
Not a lot; at Monte Sole ???? they shot a lot of people there.
You mentioned that you’d come across a partisan. Was that in the same area?
That was somewhere in the middle of Italy; not Monte Sole, it was after that. There were 3 or 4 of them. One of them was near where I dug my trench.
So you’d just moved into this area and thee they were, dead?
Yes, in the churchyard. A chap came and said that it was his brother, the one near me, and he helped me til he broke in half and all these thousands of maggots spewed out and then he ran like hell. Maybe that was before Monte Sole.
You didn’t have much to do with the partisans?
Not a lot. I remember when we were first patrolling at Monte Catini. When we got there, the Germans had pulled back and we were the first patrol in there. They were throwing bottles of brandy at me and I said “I don’t want your brandy!” When you’re on patrol, you don’t want to be drunk. You want all your wits about you. We went up the funicular railway there and someone trod on a mine and was killed there later on. We were lucky. It rained there; absolutely poured. The river course was dry when we went up but an absolute torrent when we went back. We climbed over a tree that had fallen down, but the bren gunner dropped his bren and had to go back next day to get it.
Were mines and booby traps a big problem?
I can’t remember any great struggle with them. The engineers were laying mines behind us once and we had to go through these tapes and then we spread out in front, facing the enemy in case they came out and tried to interfere. I could hear a noise on the right and it was one of my lads snoring his bloody head off. I put the boot into him and told him I’d bloody shoot him if he fell asleep again. Next day he said “Sorry sergeant; I was just so tired I went to sleep!” One of the worst things was the tiredness; you could sleep anywhere. I’ve know people sleep walking along and falling into a ditch, sound asleep.
Were you conscious of the allied air superiority at the time?
No, I don’t think we were. I remember in Tunis seeing Yankees bomb their own tanks. You couldn’t trust the Yanks. When they came over, everybody ducked.
What did you think of them as soldiers on the ground?
Well, they were very good in the East, weren’t they? But in Africa they were very poor. They were young and had no experience.
Did you ever see Mark Clark?
No; he wasn’t much good was he?
He’s had a bit of a slating. Did you ever have much physical contact with enemy soldiers or most of the time responding to shell fire and patrols and so on?
We did the first patrol over the Arno and killed 9 Germans that night.
And that was just before Florence fell?
Yes and they had all the loot and our section was very upset that they had our loot! Watches and things. It never worried me at all. I had a bit of loot at one time – field glasses, camera – it was all taken out from my kit bag – I didn’t bother.
How did you get across the Arno that night?
Walked – it was August and the water was low and we carried our guns over our heads. Two platoons went over; the first had to do the crossing and the second had to follow up and it always puzzled me – while we were waiting to go over and the platoon went across first, they were met with gun fire and after a bit, the stretcher bearers came back with wounded men and I thought ‘God, we’re going to get it.’ But when we went over, we never saw anybody. What happened, I don’t know; they just cleared out I suppose. We went to the first house and that was empty. So I went on up the road – I was leading – then the officer in charge, David Quilter, he came up and it was lucky he did because he knew German and they challenged me in German and he could answer in German and we had time to get down and start firing, and we killed 5 there and that’s where the only chap we lost that night was killed and he was killed by his own ruddy grenade. He was kneeling beside me and threw the grenade and the river bed was dry and he didn’t throw it far enough and it rolled back down and I remember the cap whizzing past my ear, and the rest of it killed him and he’d only joined me that afternoon; came at 12 noon and was dead by 12 at night. He came because I had a chap who’d just joined us and apparently had always been deserting and I heard him say “As soon as we’ve bumped the enemy, I’ll be gone.” I said “You won’t get far; I’ll ruddy well shoot you. If you’re going, go tonight and I’ll get someone decent in your place.” He went and I got this other chap and he got killed. If I hadn’t said that, he might still be alive today. That’s war isn’t it?
Do you find yourself thinking more about the war now?
I’ve never had nightmares or anything about the war. I knew a chap, Stuart Cox, he was an officer in the tanks and he used to get terrible nightmares about the war.
When did you get home?
1946; I was at the Italian battle school as a sergeant instructor and then one day they told me I was going back to my battalion. I said “Why’s that?” He said “You’re going out of the Army soon. You can’t go out from here; you’ve got to go out from your battalion.” So I had to go and join my battalion again. So I came back home from Italy, through France and by boat to Dover and then home.
Were you glad to be getting out?
Oh yes, of course I was. My son was born while I was in Africa (?). He could run around and talk before I saw him. She used to send me photos of him.
Was there much adjusting to home life afterwards?
Then you continued working on the land again?
Yes; I was on the estate side and then eventually I became Clerk of Works. I was Clerk of Works for 20 years on the estate and it was a big one, 13,000 acres and 26 farms. Had to keep all the building in repair.
Did you enjoy that?
Yes, I used to like that. Going around the farms; I was my own boss. I really enjoyed it.
Do you remember any funny incidents in the war?
Oh yes, I remember on Lampedusa there was a huge store of Italian bombs and grenades and gelignite and we decided to go fishing with gelignite. My sergeant found a boat and rowed it and there was a corporal who was supposed to be an expert on munitions and he had sticks of gelignite in a long thing like a sausage and he used to stick a detonator in and then light the fuse and throw it out the back of boat. It would sink and then explode and the sergeant would row back and we had a net and we’d pick up the dead fish. This went on for a while until one time when for some reason, the corporal lit the fuse and dropped it in the back of the bloody boat and the sergeant, the idiot, he started rowing like bloody hell, oblivious to the fact that he was taking it along with him; he wasn’t getting away from it. This sudden surge forward nearly shot the corporal off the end of the boat, but he managed to get hold of it and toss it over the side and it exploded just as it hit the water. It drenched us!
Did you have any leave while you were in Italy?
Occasionally; went to Rio Nero, where I did the patrol from and went back to Bari for a few days. The chap in charge of recreations there was a footballer, used to play for England. He was a miserable sod. You’d try to get a ball to kick about; no. If you can get 2 sides to play a game, you can have a ball. He used to sit in his hut reading a book and that’s all he did. He didn’t want to be disturbed. What was his name? Curtis was it? He had all these balls in the hut hung up in nets and he wouldn’t give us one! And we were there just for a few days rest. That didn’t go down very well.
What did you think of Major Creighton?
Creighton was good; we kept in touch after the war. He came down to see me, and his wife.
Do you remember Captain Howard?
I can just remember him; didn’t have a lot to do with him.
Monte Sole was a difficult one?
Oh yes, stuck in front of that. They could see us; we couldn’t do anything in the daylight.
Did you ever launch an attack on it?
No; we were going to, on Christmas Eve, but it snowed, thank the Lord. I was back in the hospital because they thought I had malaria but I didn’t; it was just a chill. While I was there, I had some skin knocked off there and I suppose it was what you call a trench sore and the whole skin of that came off; the whole finger, but they had orders to get everyone they could get up the line because of this attack. What they did was they got some hot saline solution on lint and I had a handkerchief in my mouth to bite on, and a rail to hang on to and they wrapped this around my raw finger. But it cured it; all the skin came back again. Bloody awful pain that was. Just after that I went back up to get ready for this attack and just before we were going in, the snow came, and that was it for the winter.
Those mountains are deserted now. There was a massacre; 985 people killed and burned all the villages – San Martino, Verdico – all those places.
There was an officer killed up there. We were on a patrol one night and we were supposed to try and find them but he never was found.
Were you proud to be part of the Guards?
Oh of course I was.
They’re always seen to be part of the elite aren’t they?
After the war, did you ever make contact with any of your old section?
No; sometimes I used to go up to Old Sarum; they had a Guards thing every month up there but there was only one chap who’d been in the Guards in the war. All the rest joined after the war, but I still write to a Lieutenant Colonel. He lives at Camberley.
Do you have any photographs of you during wartime, apart from the ones in the book?
Yes………looking at photos….. there’s my wife; 64 years we were married.
Most of the time, you found you got on with most people?
Oh yes; a lot of the officers were knobs, but they were good. I’ve got nothing to say against them; got on well with them. Casenove was my platoon commander at one time and we were like brothers.
You respected him?
Yes and one called Jones; he was only about 20; best officer I ever knew; he was wonderful.
What made him so good do you think?
He had the brains and the keenness. We were on patrol one night and the afternoon before, we studied the map and to him it was like a photograph; he could see everything that was on there. We went a couple of miles and then turned left and I heard something click beside me. I went and put my hand on his shoulder and said “Did you hear that?” “Yes” he said “German patrol; we’ll go back another way.” Then a little further on he said “There’s something going on ahead and I want to see what it is. Stay here and wait til I come back.” He was gone about ¼ of an hour and then came back and we went back a different way and he said “There’s a tank and artillery repair depot; tell the artillery.” Soon after we got back, I heard the guns open up and they blew it to hell. He’d got it absolutely right. He was killed in a silly way. There was a nice villa as Company HQ; a big, strong villa and they started shelling it and Corporal Jermyn (?) was stood in the door way and he told him to come away and then he went and stood there himself and a shell came and killed him outright; silly really. Major Creighton came round and said “I’ve got bad news; Mr Jones has been killed.” I said “Oh God, we’ll never get another like him.” Such a shame he got killed in such a silly way as that. Whacky Jones we called him. He was only a little chap but he knew what to do. He never had to ask you. Often your platoon officer would ask you for advice, but he knew what to do without asking anybody.
Do you think that’s instinctive?
I suppose it is, yes.
Did you find yourself ever getting apprehensive before these patrols?
No, I didn’t worry, no.
You never thought about your own safety?
Not really, no. You knew there was a chance you’d get killed. I remember after we took Monte Catini, went back for a few days rest and the night before we were going back in, I was out with Sergeant Rawlings for a walk. He was swearing about having to go back in the bloody line. He said “It’s alright for you; you don’t mind going back in the line.” I said “What makes you think that?” He said “Well, you don’t seem to anyway.” So no, I don’t think it did bother me; I don’t know why.
That lack of fear….
Maybe it was stupidity!
I wasn’t going to say that! It must have given confidence to the other men in your section I’d have thought.
Do you think the war hardened you?
Oh yes, no doubt about that, but you got over it after a time.
It’s a self-protection thing isn’t it?
You must have dealt with a lot of dead animals before the war, so I suppose that would have helped a bit.
Yes; most villages kept a pig then and the women used to look after him and then when it came to killing him, they’d go indoors and cover their ears because they didn’t like to hear him squealing.
But it didn’t bother you doing that?
Not a bit, no.
How old were you when you left school?
14; well I left school in the July and I was 14 in the August.