Lieutenant David Schayek – March 1943, Part I

David Schayek served with 6 Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers during the latter part of the Tunisian campaign and then in Sicily and the first part of the advance along the Adriatic coast where, in early November 1943, he was severely wounded near San Salvo. For his actions there, Captain Schayek was awarded the Military Cross.

David Schayek dictated some of his recollections to his wife, Lilian, shortly before his death in 1999:

“The below mentioned are my salient memories of the Tunisian campaign of early 1943. There must, of course, be many incidents that I have forgotten but much has remained in my mind for the past fifty six years.”

Later that day, we docked in Algiers. We disembarked and got into trucks and were driven to a place called Fort de L’Eau, a suburb of Algeria. We went to a cafe there and, in it, we found a drunken old French gas company employee. He was delighted to see us, especially because some of us had on our sleeves the insignia of the 6th Armoured Division – a clenched mail fist. The elderly gas employee looked delighted and shouted ‘Viva la division communiste’ and held up a clenched fist.

Next morning, we were marched onto a piece of waste land and we were each given an instrument called an entrenching tool. There was a wooden handle about 18 inches long, at the end of which was a piece of iron, on the top of which was a point like a pick axe and, on the bottom, there was a flat piece like a shovel. It was a miniature pick and shovel in one tool.

The officer conducting us said that we had to learn to ‘dig or die’. He went onto say, ‘you are standing on sandy soil. In exactly 3 minutes, where you are standing is going to be raked with machine gun fire so you had better get digging fast.’ We very quickly dug ourselves shallow graves and lay down in them with no part of us protruding above the ground. Sure enough, bren guns started firing above us where we had been standing before.

Thus ended the morning’s training. Then having stayed a couple of nights at Fort de L’Eau, we came to our last day in Algeria and, in the morning, we set out to get onto a train to go towards the front line. We were going to a town called Souk Ahras, a town which dates from Roman times and was the birthplace of St Augustine. In Roman times, it was called Tagaste.

We formed up in columns of three and started to walk to the railway station. Along the side of the road, we passed a line of French youths, who were in uniforms. On their head were berets – they had green jackets and plus fours and white stockings and, at their belts, they had sheath knives. These were the Chantiers de Jeunesse meaning ‘workshops of youth’ and were Marshall Petain’s fascist boy scouts. They scowled at us. Amongst our number were several officers wearing the headdress of the London Irish Rifles known as ‘caubeens’. They were a sort of beret and were surmounted by coloured plumes. One of the French youth shouted ‘pederastes’. I shouted back in French that it was they, who looked like ‘pederastes’ in their funny get up. He scowled more, we scowled back at them, but there was no problem as they had sheath knives whilst we had revolvers!

Having got rid of these fascist boy scouts, we arrived at the railway station where a train was waiting for us. It contained compartment carriages for the officers and trucks for the soldiers marked in French, ‘40 men, 8 horses.’ The soldiers would either get inside the trucks, leaving the door open for ventilation or ride on top of the trucks ducking flat when any bridges came so they were not beheaded. When the train stopped, many of the soldiers would jump out, some to get hot water from the engine to make tea, others onto the other side of the railway track to perform their natural functions. Sometimes, the engine would give a whistle and the train would start up again and there would be soldiers running along pulling up their trousers and, occasionally, men were not able to catch up with the train. At one point, some members of the Parachute Regiment were unable to catch up so they commandeered a civilian car and raced along to the next station, where they waited for the train.

At long last, we arrived at Souk Ahras, and went into camp. The town, with its reinforcement depot, was crammed full of soldiers waiting to join the regiments at the front.  That afternoon, the Camp Commandant sent for me and told me that he wanted me to stay on at the reinforcement camp to command the ‘difficult’ Guards’ platoon. I immediately said I wanted to go up the line as quickly as possible and if there was a draft going out, I would like to be in it. The Camp Commandant said there was a draft going out the next day to the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Although I was a Royal Ulster Rifleman, I said I would like to go on that draft, and the next day, I did, indeed, leave. Souk Ahras was quite near to the front line and the railway was not running any further eastwards from there and we accordingly went into trucks to the next place, which was Souk el Arba. At this camp, we went into tents.

The next morning, the truck moved me to the headquarters of the 6th Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who were known as the ‘Skins.’ I reported to the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Allen, known as ‘Heaver’ Allen. He told me that we were part of the 38th (Irish) Brigade and the battalion had a good name and he hoped that I would live up to it. I found that the position of the battalion was on the southern part of the front. Tunisia in March suffered great down pours of rain and was quite cold and we were positioned in a sea of mud. The countryside was mountainous, each of which was covered in boulders and scrub. There was a hill nearby locally known as ‘Mortar Hill’.

I had been introduced to the acting Company Commander, who was a regular Lieutenant, called Bill Bradley, a very tall man with a big moustache, who had an American Army leather jacket with a fur collar. Bradley took me to the top of a hill telling me to lie down and to look through field glasses in a certain direction. Between some hills, there was a town at quite a distance. This, Bradley told me, was Medjez–el-Bab, which translates from Arabic as Medjez the Gate – namely, the gateway to Tunis.

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