Percy Hamilton – Guelma in Algeria and Hammamet in Tunisia May 1943

Lieutenant Percy Hamilton describes 6 Innisks’ move back to Guelma in Algeria at the end of May 1943. Whilst being out of the front line, his role as the battalion’s Intelligence Officer (IO) was naturally much less onerous as rest and additional training for both veterans and newly arrived men continued both at Guelma and after their move back to Hammamet, to the south of Tunis, in July.

“Rumours start as usual before anything happens. We were to move soon, it was pretty obvious. We were bound for all sorts of places, but we hoped to be sent somewhere on the coast as it was getting to the end of May and good bathing weather and some of us liked an occasional swim.

Finally the plan was divulged or we were ‘put in the picture’, as they say. The brigade was to move to a place called Guelma about fifty miles south of Bone. It was 350 miles from Tunis and we were to spend two days on the way. We had some trouble packing as the Bttn as a whole and individually had collected a vast store of “comforts” in the way of Italian tents.

As IO, I was to lead the convoy in my 15 cwt truck, complete with enough maps and route details to take us nearly to the North Pole, if necessary. These turned out unnecessary as the route was marked and there were CMPs at every junction. The convoy had the usual serial number chalked on the front of each truck so they knew where we were going.

We formed up as a convoy and waited for the time to go. I was given the ok by the 2.i.c., John McCann, and started slowly down the side road leading to the main Tunis road. I say I started slowly; I thought at the time it was, but that was the first time I had led a convoy and I didn’t know much about it. I have led a good many convoys since and know that it is necessary to keep the speed down to 5 mph for the first five miles with a big convoy, and then work up gradually. The last vehicle of a convoy is usually going twice as fast as the leader. On the second day, I got a rocket from the Adjutant for going at 35mph; I said I hadn’t gone over 25 as I had been watching the speedometer and anyway I knew the difference between 25 and 35 and said so; the CO came up then, but I still stuck to my argument until he told me to shut up. There were no comments from any of the drivers except requests for more speed.

It was an uninteresting trip: we skirted Tunis and headed north west until we came to the coast and then most of the way was near to the sea.

The pioneers had gone ahead to prepare the staging area where we were to stop the night.  It was a large field and a track leading away down the valley; some of the companies were down the valley and Bttn HQ was near the entrance. We got a hot meal cooked as we only had sandwiches in the middle of the day.

In the morning, we had an early breakfast and waited for our turn to move. We watched a couple of other units passing and then pulled out on to the road. It was a winding road and we went up along the side of a hill; I could still see our vehicles pulling out of the field when we were a long way up the hill.

I travelled most of the way standing up. The 15 cwt had a canvas hood over the cab so we rolled back the left half; it was very hot weather and the only way to keep cool was to keep one’s head over the top. Besides, it was easier to watch the trucks behind that way. My driver was a fellow called Bennett.

We were getting near to Guelma, where we were to stop and a guide on the road side shouted that we had another two miles to go; after two miles, another optimist met us with the same statement. After a bit further, we were turned off the road in to a wilderness – the site of the camp.

On the left of the road, there were several groups of pleasant looking trees; on the right, where we turned, there were a few bushes and then a mile of burnt grass stretching away to a bare hill. There was a water pipe running across the area on the surface!

We gradually got organised: the men sleeping in bivvys, company offices in tents, and the orderly room in the office truck.

The mess was in the same Italian marquee and the officers mostly had tents of the semi bell type made of several pieces buttoned together. I had a bivvy, which I raised in the air so that it was the same height off the ground as my camp bed; this pretty well did away with privacy, but let the wind blow through: privacy doesn’t amount to much if you are dripping with sweat.

Amongst the trees opposite, there was an ancient Roman swimming bath. It was about 40 feet across with an island in the middle, and was fed by a warm spring. We used to bathe there, although it got pretty thick after everyone churned up the mud. It was not much relief from the heat, but pleasant in the evening when it was cooler or in the early morning. The bath was part of the Roman Heliopolis.

The rifle companies did some training in the mornings and a series of lectures was started for officers in the afternoons: this was the height of bloody mindedness as they took place at 1530hrs; if one went to bed, the chances were that one went to sleep and missed the lecture, and it was too hot to read or write letters. I tried writing one afternoon but my hand dripped so much sweat on the paper, I had to give up. There was often a wind blowing in the afternoon and once, a whirlwind crossed the camp, but the wind was hot so it made things worse.

I used to spend the mornings in the orderly room and did a lot of work for the Adjutant, till I got a rocket from the CO for not getting out more with the section, so subsequently I used to take them out in the truck on alleged map reading expeditions.

Waterloo Day being an occasion for celebration in the Regiment, a sports meeting was laid on. A bevy of nurses from one of the hospitals was imported and the usual events were run. There was a relay race on push bikes starting with the company runner and working through every rank finishing with the company commander. The afternoon finished with an officers v sergeants football match. The sergeants arrived on the field from the wood amid a barrage of smoke grenades. The officers put Lt McVie, who was about 4 foot 6 inches, in goal and produced goal posts in proportion. When the officers approached the other goal, they were met by a shower of water from flit sprays. After half time, and the whiskey being passed around, the officers brought on reinforcements and it wasn’t long before the field was crowded. As usual in these games, nobody in particular won.

After ten, the nurses departed, and the fun really started.

The Brigadier came to visit us after dinner and it wasn’t long before those, who were still capable, were dancing ‘The Waves of Torey’ in the tent. This was difficult because of the poles.

There were various comings and goings to/from the sergeants’ mess. I finished the night or, rather, the morning somewhere about two o’clock in the sergeants’ mess singing ‘Kevin Barry’ with a few survivors.

The next day, being a Saturday, there was a Bttn shooting competition laid on. I was shooting with some of the Intelligence Section and a couple of batmen for one of the HQ Coy teams. We arrived at the 30 yards range on time and found it was too dark to shoot. We had to wait half an hour. Several of our men weren’t feeling too strong after the night before, and I swear that my target was going round in circles, so was the rifle, and it was difficult to make them revolve the same way! We put up a rotten score, but for some reason, nobody bettered it and we won that part. Other teams were shooting on the open range and there were prizes for the winners.

There were a few concerts or sing songs laid on by Ronnie Ablett. I had to sing at one, an unusual feat for an officer as they would rarely perform.

The pioneers excelled themselves at latrine building: the men had an enormous place, and the officers had an eight seater; we thought this a bit excessive till several fellows got mild dysentery at the same time and there were none too many seats.

Col Grazebrook decided to have all officers tested in driving, so instead of the afternoon lecture, we were turned over to the MT sergeants. They took us two at a time in 15 cwts, and made us drive up the road, turn and come back. I was one of the last so when we both had our turn, we decided to take a trip to Guelma, six miles away.

In the evening, we took all the motor bikes out and we all had to ride around a trick course; I found it quite easy enough having had plenty of practice recently. Some fell off. We never heard the results of either test, nor did we get any training.

Then an Officers’ Club opened in Guelma and there were a few parties there. We could get fairly decent grub there, mostly army food ‘Frenchified’; also some good wines. We sometimes had lunch there too.

Rumours of a move were growing and John Norman had completed the ‘History of the Bttn in North Africa’ and wanted paper to get it printed on. He decided to send me to the Stationary Office at Constantine, which he reckoned was about 40 miles away. He couldn’t give me a truck as they might have to pack up soon, but said I could go on an M/C. The Intelligence bike wasn’t going too well but was calculated to get me there and back. I was to get him as much paper as I could and he gave me an indent.

I set off early the next morning and it didn’t take me long to see from the milestones that I had over 70 miles to go each way! It was a lovely sunny day and it was a good road, just the ruts and a vibration that didn’t seem to matter much. I had a haversack ration with me so I wasn’t worried. I reached the outskirts of the town and found the office easily and there was a very decent fellow, so I asked him if I could have more than the indent and he gave me four times. I got him to help me tie it on the back of the bike as it was a very heavy parcel.

I set off out of the yard and although the weight of the paper was upsetting the balance of the bike, I thought I would have a look at the town and possibly get some lunch at the Officers’ Club. I had not gone far on cobblestones when the cargo shifted so when I got it straight, I decided to leave the sightseeing and head for camp. The vibration of the road kept breaking the string and I lost count of how many times I tied that parcel on before I got back. There was nowhere I could get any more string as the road ran straight beside the railway and there was no sign of life most of the way, except the crossing keepers’ houses. I was in the middle of a long opens stretch when a sudden thunderstorm broke, so I pulled up at the next house and got the crossing keeper to help me lift the bike and paper into a shed at the end. I had to wait about half an hour for the rain to stop. I eventually reached camp at about eight in the evening and was very thankful to be back.

The officers’ kit, which had been left at various places was sent for. Most of it was at Bone, but mine had been left at Algiers with the rest of the draft. It all arrived safely and we felt a lot better with our good clothes.

My second ‘Pip’, which was due on 1st May, had not materialised. It was normally automatic at that time after six months, providing one didn’t put up a ‘black’ and is backdated to the appropriate date when it does come, so I was not very worried about it. One of the others in the same boat kept bothering people about his, but didn’t get it in the end; mine came through all right. I had to take the #Pips’ off my greatcoat to make up my service dress; the pundits at home never thought to advise us to bring spares.

I also went on my first Intelligence course along with the rest of the ‘I’ section, and was held by Brigade at Guelma.

On the higher level, the main event that happened was the introduction of the new ‘War Establishment’. We also got jeeps for the first time and the Divisional Heavy Support Group, The Kensingtons joined us. These things all had to be sorted out and we had conferences and experiments with ‘O’ Group and ‘R’ Group etc. We laid on a demonstration at one of these in which I, as an officer, was to enter on a motor cycle. I entered all right but the Adjutant got in front of me and I fell down a bank to the amusement of the audience.

The rumour of another move came true and we learnt we were to move to a placed called Hammamet, about 20 miles south of Tunis. We moved back by a different route with the same sort of convoy. the staging area was a dreadful flat field with only a few thistles growing in it and a kind of orchard at the end, which was immediately placed ‘out of bounds’ and equally immediately raided by the lads. The field was covered with dust and it seemed hardly worth putting our tents up, till a heavy shower turned the place into mud and we put up enough to crowd into.

During the second day’s journey, I noticed the truck zig sagging a lot and when I looked at the driver, I could see that he was having trouble with his eyes so we executed a change over and I drove the rest of the way. The glare off the road had been bad and I had lent him my peaked hat previously, but it didn’t fit very well.

The area at Hammamet was in an orange grove. Pleasant enough, but the ground was soft sand, which got into everything. There were some clumps of cactus and two or three houses also in the area. The main Tunis – Sousse road ran along the side of the camp but there was a thick cactus hedge in between so it didn’t matter much except for noise of the traffic

These houses, as opposed to huts we were so familiar with, were quite substantial affairs. The main building was about 25 feet long and 8 feet across, with one door and a couple of small windows; the roof was vaulted and fairly high. There were lean to sheds at the ends and an enclosure for the camels. The houses were all white washed inside and out. And we thought for a bit that they might have been intended for places for worship, but there were too many of them.

Nearly every house had a camel. They were used to draw water out of the wells, which must have been 50m feet deep. The contrivance for raising the water was a spherical bucket with a hole in the top and a leather hose from the bottom. When the camel walked away from the well, the bucket was raised full, on a rope and pully, and on reaching a certain height, the hose was released and the water discharged into a concrete tank, whence it was led by a series of canals in the sand to irrigate the trees. The camel in the nearest house had a young one and used to roar like a lion.

The sea was not far away and there were several stretches of sand from which we could bathe. There was usually a slight swell rolling on to the sand, and the sea was nice and warm. There was an Officers’ Club of sorts at one place, but they only supplied very indifferent drink and no food.

The training area was about a mile out of camp. It consisted of a few square miles of heath, mostly covered with heather and providing a few hills. There was a river at the end of it with high banks, which we used as a rifle range. We did some Bttn exercises, two of which were endurance tests and the other was a scheme with carriers in the training area. I missed one of the endurance tests through being on the sick list and, on the carrier exercise, I got left on a wireless set in the back (the hottest part) of a carrier and nearly melted with the heat of the sun and the engine.

Most of us got 48 hours leave into Tunis, while we were there. There was a hotel, where we got rooms and quite good food. Apart from that, there was nothing to do. We visited various pavement estaminets drinking weak wine, and went to several shows. We also visited the swimming bath, which was crowded. After we got back to the Bttn, I developed a fever of some sort – I think I had a slight touch of malaria, and I suffered from it again the following winter – and I was in bed for four days.

I had my bivouac slung from the lower branches of a fig tree in such a way that I had complete privacy from the camp. I used to bump my head on the branches every time I stood up to wash or put trousers on.

At this time, we got a new 2.i.c. Major Davies and a new padre, Radice, a C of E.

We had a big parade one day on a flat piece of ground near the camp. The three Bttns were on parade separately and Montgomery inspected each in turn; we had all been warned of his method of inspecting troops: that is to make them take their hats off, so we all had our hair cut.

We spent a long time getting in straight lines and the flag was flying on a specially planted flagstaff. When Monty arrived, he was met by the CO, who he spoke to and then drove in the car right into the middle of the square and told us to gather round the car. Next thing was “take your hats off. I want to see what you look like.” He asked where the best men came on and went on bellyaching till someone said “Derry”, which he wanted all along. Then he told us we looked a good looking bunch, which to us was as good as saying “you’re off to Sicily.”

Next, after a few days, there was a meeting of all ranks from Sgt upwards in a cinema in Tunis and we were told that the 1st Army was joining the 8th. We took a very poor view of this and are, to this day, proud of the 1st on our ‘Africa Stars’.

Then there was a lecture to all officers in a specially erected pavilion on the beach, so we were not surprised when we heard we were moving to a concentration area near Sousse. This turned out to be a one day move and the day was very hot. The last part of the journey was over a maze of tracks, which crossed and twisted, some of them were old and some made recently by WD transport, and none of them accurately marked on the map. They were all inches deep in sand. Nobody was sorry to arrive in the new area, which was called ‘Betty II’.

The new area was very like the previous one, but a good deal more cramped. The tracks through the camp became covered with dust and the main road deep in it. There was a Mobile Bath Unit down the road, but it wasn’t much use going to it as one got filthy coming back.

These MBUs are worked by two or three fellows. Their apparatus consists of a scaffolding erection supporting eight shower sprays, and there are no taps so that if only one person is using the baths, all eight showers are still working. Water is drawn from nearly anywhere, in the way of a stream or pond, but in cases where there was none available, there was a canvas tank filled by a water tank. The water is heated in a boiler reminiscent of an early steam engine and pumped either by hand or motor to the shower.

One unit had a chap, who used to pump away all day with a smile on his face as if he loved doing it. The apparatus is completed by a few duckboards meant to stand on, but as the fellow before you has stood on them – with his boots on – they are probably covered with sand and/or mud, a couple of 6 foot forms, which the fellow there first puts his clothes on, and finally a tent, cunningly designed to catch every little breeze, which is pleasant in the middle of the day, but even in North Africa, it gets chilly in the evenings.

We spent a week there, during which we had a wild celebration of the Twelfth; we also had a few sing songs, which used to draw the men, as there was nothing else to do and there was usually free vino.

Sicily had been invaded so we got a large map of most of the island, and kept it marked up with the latest information as it came through. It did not look as if it would be long till we were there ourselves. 

As we were likely to be hanging around for some time, although at short notice to move, it was decided to move us to a spot on the sea or as near it as possible. Our place was to be about four miles south of Sousse, on the coast road. I was told to recce a march route as the new area was about eight miles from Betty 2. I was lent the CO’s jeep and set off through a maze of tracks, which were indifferently marked on the map; I passed through two villages, which stank as usual, one of them possessed a cess pool, which was almost unbearable at close range.

The actual march took place at night and the men carried nothing but their arms and small kit. The idea was to escape marching in the heat. The CO ordered a truck to follow so as to have tea at midnight. The time to start was laid down so that we avoided clashing with the other Bttns, which were moving to the same place. We set off on time and, soon after, we came on a guide left for one of the other Bttns, who wanted us to fork right. I said we should fork left, so the CO thanked the guide and said we would fork left. The other Bttns’ IOs had also recced their routes and differed slightly from mine.

I reckoned mine was the better route; later, we caught up on the Bttn in front in spite of having had a break for tea. A sentry on a British dump halted the CO. He was quite correct, of course, but it could be distinguished in the moonlight that we were a British unit and by the time the CO had fished his identity card out, the leading company had streamed past.

This new area was about 500 yards square, and had a fair number of fig trees in it, which gave a bit of shade. The sea was only a few hundred yards away now and there was plenty of bathing, but there were lots of jelly fish and one or two fellows got stung. When possible, we used to take transport to another beach, where there were not so many jelly fish. Once, while looking for a new beach, the CO, the doctor and myself in Sam Bunch’s PU got stuck in the sand, so we drew for one of us, Ken Brown (the Doc) got it, to go back and get a jeep to tow us out. The jeep came and got stuck worse than the others, so we had to get a carrier to pull the two out.

We had a route march to keep out feet fit; this was also at night because of the heat. It was quite a long march and I was to be the guide again having been round in a jeep before. Bttn HQ led the march, which was in artillery formation; that is single file in sections on alternate sides of the road. We had just passed a smelly village, when it came to the hour, so the company, who were just passing the stink, had to stay in it for 10 minutes. There must have been a wedding on in another village as there was a crowd down a side street and sounds of singing and dancing.

During these few weeks, all preparations had been made for a quick move on what was called the ‘Light Scale’ of transport. That meant, we were cut down to the bare minimum of kit and all officers’ baggage etc was sent away. A few men, who were over the establishment, were sent to a reinforcement unit. All the vehicles had been waterproofed, which enabled them to proceed in about four feet of water, all joints being sealed and the air intake extended with piping. So altogether, there was no mistaking what was ‘on’ and it looked as if we might have to make a wet landing.

After the usual ‘stand tos’, and ‘stand downs’, which went on for a couple of days, we managed to get the information that we were to move next morning. I was to leave with the transport and Bttn HQ and the troops moved separately.

In the morning, the transport was assembled and moved off to the docks. The transport was driven on to a LST without any difficulty as the drivers had been practising on an earth slope built up to the same slant as the ramp. The only excitement was a DR, who missed the ramp and rode into the harbour, bike and all. They fished him out all right and got the bike by sending a diver down; the fitters took it to pieces and had it going again soon.

The crew on this ship – contrary to any other naval types I have met, were not in the least helpful. They let us use one table in their mess, but gave us no assistance, otherwise.

The LST (Landing Ship Tank) is a big affair. It has a flat slanted bow, which lowers to form a ramp. There is a lift near the bows which takes vehicles up to the deck, which is clear of all impediments, the bridge etc being at the stern. The vehicles are reversed on and the top deck has to be filled first, then the lift is left up and the inside is filled. All the vehicles are chained down to stop them moving, and we were told to stand by for a storm the first night, but nothing came. The ships are flat bottomed and roll like blazes.

The men’s accommodation was pretty good; they were in bunks along the sides just underneath the deck, hot as hell, of course, but the blackout made ventilation impossible. The officers were in a place near the stern, which held most of us.”

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