|"Don't leave me Sarge"|
"Keep 'em moving"
The next few months were spent carrying out various exercises against Poles, Home guard and other regiments. The training suddenly took to being what can only be described as serious stuff. We were run over by Tanks, Dive bombed, and practised advancing under live fire. In October/November 1941 there must have been orders given because everything speeded up, and we were issued with tropical kit. We were all thinking the worst, that is, Japs and Jungle, as the Japanese had were rapidly swallowing up the Far East.
In early January 1942, we set sail aboard the troop ship ‘P&O Strathmore’, sailing from Gourock, as reinforcements for 2nd Camerons fighting in Tobruk. We did not have much of an escort as the Strathmore could do 32 knots and was, supposedly, too fast for any submarine attack. I was only too willing to believe that, as I couldn’t swim and never did learn. I had a terrible fear of drowning.
P&O ship Strathmore
Training en-route consisted of P.T., Boxing and weapon training. We reached Freetown early February. Two weeks later we docked at Capetown and next day we were marched through the town and we had our first shore leave, revelling in the fact that there was no Black out in force, lights blazing from everywhere. We didn’t much understand, nor care for the way in which the blacks were treated. From Capetown we sailed for Durban and the Pipes and Drums played us into Durban harbour with the Highland Cradlesong, a tune that has remained one of my favourites. The ‘lady in white’ serenaded us when we docked. Apparently this lady sang to all the troop ships when they docked at Durban.
We now knew we were heading for Egypt. We disembarked at Port Tewfik, and went by train to El Quassassin and on to Tahag camp, which was a tent city about forty miles from Cairo. There was a large oil refinery, owned by Shell close by. I, along with everyone else, went down with Gippy Tummy and Sand Fly fever. I was hospitalised for two weeks, in Alexandria, and towards the end of the second week, when I was nearing recovery, I caught an Arab going through my gear, I chased the little bastard but lost him in the crowds.
Training continued to get us accustomed to desert conditions and we soon moved to Mena camp, near Cairo, within sight of the great Pyramid at Giza. By the time we were fighting fit, Tobruk had fallen to Rommel and his Afrika Korps, on June 2nd 1942. The 2nd Battalion defying orders to surrender, only doing so when ammunition had run out.
We were held in reserve until 5th Camerons arrived in Egypt in early August 1942.
On 12th September 1942, 51st Highland Division moved up into the desert battle area. We had about six weeks of intensive training thrown at us, so we knew something big was on the not too distant horizon. On 21st October we were about 2 miles behind the line and received our first taste of real shelling, on this day there was one fatality, the first battle casualty suffered by 5th Battalion. I think he was a private with H.Q. Company.
After dark, on 23rd October 1942, some 600 plus guns opened fire, heralding the attack by the 8th Army at El Alamein. That was the first time that the majority of us had experienced the sight and sound of a huge barrage. It was amazing that there was anyone left to shoot back at us, given the amount of shells that our artillery had fired. All I can remember is the noise and dust and screams and, our ever-faithful Pipes. The group that I was with acted as a cover for the engineers making vehicle gaps through the enemy minefield. The Engineers had to dispense with using their metal detectors, they started probing with Bayonets, because the detectors kept registering all the shell fragments and pieces of shrapnel. I think they were glad to get down nearer the ground, making a smaller target. The next day we were withdrawn to where we had started from, and held in reserve. We had taken quite a lot of casualties, a high proportion being officers and N.C.Os: Two or three days later we received a large draft of replacements, including ten officers. We then took over a sector of the line from the 9th Australian division for three days; a continuous armoured battle seemed to be all around us and casualties, particularly from air burst shells, were beginning to get all too regular. We were relieved at night to take part in a Brigade operation called "Supercharge", designed to be the final "break-in" prior to the Armour going in force into the open behind the enemy lines.
At 0100 hours, Monday 2nd November we advanced behind our barrage 4000 yards to our objective, which proved to be amongst the enemy armour. The head count on 3rd November revealed, that of the ten replacement officers who joined us six days earlier, only one had come through unscathed. So ended my and 5th Camerons part in the battle of El Alamein.
ACROSS THE DESERT
Over the next four months we seemed to be constantly on the move, to places such as Mersa Matruh, Sidi Barrani, Halfaya Pass, Capuzzo, Sidi Razegh and El Adem, arriving in Acroma in late November. It was here that two 2nd Battalion Camerons were reunited with the 5th Camerons. After being captured in Tobruk, they had managed to dodge being transported to Italy, as prisoners of war, and were eventually released in Benghazi by the 11th Hussars. Whilst at Acroma we were able to visit the Tobruk battlefield until 28th November, when we set off, in desert formation for Agedabia, which we reached on 1st December. On 2nd December we moved forward to Mersa Brega, taking over from the 7th Armoured Division. It was here that I knew for sure that I killed another human being. I had obviously been firing at the enemy but how successful I had been was open to question. Up until now they had been distant targets, impersonal not even human, just targets. When we came into contact with the Germans, this guy just leapt up in front of me, aiming straight at me, I can still picture him to this day, a short stocky guy with glasses. It was a case of him or me and I will never forget that look of shear terror and astonishment on his face as he fell, when my bullet hit him. I dropped down and wept, not sure if I was feeling more sorry for him or for myself. It was not a very pleasant time, but that was to be the last time that I felt those particular emotions. It was far more difficult having to deal with seeing your mates maimed and killed, especially if they happened to be beside you when they copped it. It would get a lot easier to kill. I would get to the point where I wanted to kill. I was to change from a onetime, church going Choirboy, to being a total animal.
Just before Christmas we reached El Aghelia and camped by the sea and rested for about twenty days. When I say "rest", I mean we were out of the line because we spent most of our time training for our next battle, together with drill and detailed inspections: We held football matches and games of all descriptions on the salt flats. On 9th January we moved forward to Buerat and, on 16th January we moved in desert formation through the Buerat positions as advanced guard to the Division. As I recall it was an unpleasant day because Jerry had several guns on the high ground and could see every movement, consequently we were shelled all bloody day but, remarkably, our casualties were relatively light.
The following day we reached Misurta. The Battalion then spent several days filling in a roadblock, but on the 24th January we drove into Tripoli, which had been captured the day before, exactly three months after the battle of Alamein.
The Battalion remained in Tripoli for about three weeks. It was a treat for us to be able to get fresh fruit, meat and vegetables: but the best thing was fresh eggs! We used to dry our used tea leaves and put them back in the tin and cover them with some fresh leaves, and then go and haggle with the Arabs to swap the tea for fresh eggs.
The highlight of our time in Tripoli was undoubtedly the march past by the 51st Highland Division, with the inspection and salute taken by Winston Churchill. The sound of the pipes and drums stirring the blood of all who were there, enough to bring a tear to any mans eye.
On 17th February we left Tripoli en-route for Mareth. We marched 12 miles the first day along a railway track and, a further 12 miles on each of the next two days. The next two days we had the luxury of being transported by truck until we reached Medenine. We were moved forward into a Wadi and we could see the main Mareth position about 5 or 6 miles away. Between our position and Mareth was a sandy plain broken by sand hills, wadis, and desert scrub. One of the wadis was an anti tank obstacle which had been artificially extended by the Germans. We went in on a night attack, which turned out to be total chaos, as, the next wadi we went into was like a bog, and most of the vehicles got stuck fast. We managed to get everything under cover by first light but it was not what you would expect to find in your average desert. Two nights later we were back in our original position but all the moving about we had been doing obviously upset somebody as we were shelled and mortared fairly regularly over the next few days.
On 22nd March we were ordered into the anti tank ditch at Mareth. On arrival at the ditch we struggled to get everybody in the space available. When we did get in Jerry put up star shells and turned night into day which made it impossible for us to move out. About this time our own guns opened up, destined for the Jerry positions, but, someone had got his sums wrong, and our shells fell in our immediate vicinity. Almost immediately, our shells were joined by German shells, and we were caught between two fires, packed like sardines in the ditch. Heavy casualties seemed inevitable but when the shelling stopped, just before dawn, we all managed to get forward to our objectives. I remember, our platoon leader, a small guy but a tough little bugger, as he climbed out of the ditch, a shell landed and blew him back into it. Seconds later he was back out and was leading us to our objective when he was knocked to the ground again, by another shell, which killed a couple of guys next to him. He got up again and had us all dug in before daylight. We suffered intermittent shelling until about half way through that day, so we were shelled for very nearly 24 hours. We eventually withdrew to behind the ditch later that day, ready to evacuate the position; a smoke screen was laid down which was to cover our withdrawal, which it did, but it also provoked the German artillery to lay defensive fire on the ditch again. Needless to say we were glad to get out of there.
Anti - Tank ditch at Mareth, North Africa
Obviously there were other regiments doing their thing in the greater scheme of things and eventually a patrol was sent out to investigate. It reported back that the enemy had scarpered. We were ordered out in hot pursuit, through the minefield and the anti-tank ditch, but we could not catch up. We chased for two days until we reached the Gabes area, about the same time as the New Zealanders. We stayed in the Gabes area for a couple of days for a rest and did some bathing. About this time I was issued with a new kilt and, as it turned out, everyone else in the battalion got one as well. It was rumoured that the 5th Camerons were the only Highland regiment to have a kilt for every man in the battalion, right through to the end of the war. We were not supposed to carry our kilts, but we hid them away in ammunition boxes, in trucks and jeeps, anywhere we could get away with. Were we proud or what.!!
On 1st April we were moved forward, and set up camp in the gun lines of the 2nd New Zealand Division, who had already had a go at the Germans holding Wadi Akarit. In front of us was a wide plain, which was quite grassy, with various flowers growing, including poppies, it looked much like an English country scene. In the distance at the far side of the plain we could see two pieces of steep high ground, the left one being Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa and the right called Roumana. 51st Highland Division was to capture the latter and the coastal plain. 152nd Brigade, of which, 5th Camerons were a part, was ordered to capture Djebel Roumana. We had the 50th Division on our left and 5th Seaforth on our right.
On 6th April, in the early hours of the morning, we crossed our start line and our artillery opened up about a half-hour later. Our rate of advance was too slow, because the following companies started to catch us up, so we moved as close as we could to our creeping barrage, we reached Roumana just after first light with showers of sparks from shell splinters striking the rocky hillside. The Germans had left the Italians on the forward slopes and we soon sorted them out and consolidated our position on the left hand bump of Roumana as ordered.
Things then began to get decidedly unhealthy. 50th Division had not arrived on our left so the occupants there were throwing all sorts of shit at us and we came under long range heavy machine gun fire, to which, we had no means to reply. Then the German 90th Light Division began a counter attack from the right, which made the Italians get brave and hold out against us. We were getting a bit thin on the ground. Then we saw 50th Division advancing across the plain under heavy shell-fire which heartened us no end, especially as they rapidly captured their objectives and secured our left flank. Throughout the entire day we fought the 90th Light in the wadis and I lost count of the Bayonet charges we made. I always used the old, First World War type, 18-inch bayonet that I had been issued with when I first joined up. The more recent issue of what we called a pig sticker being too short for my liking and was only used when being inspected or on guard duty. As far as I was concerned the further away from my body the enemy was the better. It was purely psychological as we had been taught that only 2-inches of penetration was enough to kill. I believe that most men feared being stabbed to death.
By nightfall we had secured the position but we were shelled constantly and we did not get a hot meal that night, one of the few occasions throughout the war that we failed to get one. The next morning we found that Jerry had packed up and gone. Casualties had been heavy, at one point my company was down to about twenty to twenty five men. Apparently what we had accomplished with Brigade strength should have been carried out with Divisional strength. Reuters reporter wrote at the time; "Their assault is described by military observers as one of the greatest heroic achievements of the war."
Djebel Roumana, Wadi Akarit, North Africa. 5th Camerons were to take and hold the left hand ridge.
In late May, after moving around here and there, we ended up at Djidjelli in Algeria and began to prepare for what would turn out to be our part in the invasion of Sicily.
It had been a strange eight months; we had learnt to do our laundry by washing it in petrol, as petrol was more in abundance than water. Our clothing being bleached almost white and, dry in a matter of seconds. There were occasions when we drank water out of the radiator of a lorry, as that was the only water available. We had tried drinking the water out of the Mediterranean, which caused our lips to swell up, split and bleed, and made us sick. That was what you might call being desperate for a drink.
We discovered that the best way to cook was by means of a "Benghazi Fire". A Benghazi Fire comprised of a cut down petrol can, filled with sand, and then petrol poured into the sand, once lit, it would burn for quite some considerable time.
When we collected our food from the cookhouse truck, we soon learnt to cover our plates of food with our steel helmets or something. Unsuspecting, usually fresh personnel would be carrying their food back to their dugout or tent, when they would be dive bombed by a large bird that would take everything off the plate. Magpies had nothing on these birds.
Apart from the dust storms and the sand getting into everything the most annoying things were the incessant attacks by plagues of flies. Not just the buzzing around you, but it felt at times as though you were being eaten alive.
I also received my first wounds during the desert campaign, nothing drastic, but enough to keep me out of the fighting for a couple of days. I was wounded by shrapnel on two separate occasions in the legs; I still carry one piece in my right leg to this day.
I remember I was part of a group of Camerons attached to the 4th Indian Division for a short time. Standing on guard duty one night, a hand felt its way down over my face. I honestly thought that my life was about to be terminated by the cold steel of a knife, I was rigid with fear. Then the silence was broken by a voice in broken English saying "OK Johnny". It was a Ghurka. They had been out on a raid. I never saw them go or come back, just a hand feeling my features. I vowed never again to stand still whilst on guard duty.
Because of our habit of painting our Divisional Insignia, a large HD in prominent positions, right the way across North Africa, usually high on the sides of buildings, the Highland Division became known as the;
Djidjelli was quite pleasant being close to the sea, and the surrounding countryside was green, and in many respects European looking, with thick cork forests, high hills and deep valleys, hills which we would get to know better than we would have liked.
We were sent, in twos and threes, to any of a number of hills, to reach the top by a certain time, i.e. lunchtime. Non arrival meant no lunch. I do not think that anybody missed out on lunch. We started off carrying little or no equipment; gradually building up to full battle order, obviously getting us fit for our next task.
Next, came our turn to train with various landing craft, something I was not looking forward to as I could not swim, and still can't. Luckily though, 152nd Brigade would not be on the initial assault.
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