Percy Hamilton – On Route to Africa

Lieutenant Percy Hamilton of 6 Innisks describes his journey to Algiers in February 1943, when he travelled along with five other officers and a full draft of reinforcements to join the Irish Brigade, who were in front line activity near to Bou Arada.

“I walked through the iron gates of Westland Row station Dublin some time about dawn on a morning in February 1943. I had been on a fortnight’s embarkation leave and was on my way back to England. My mother and father were at the station to see me off, but the regulations kept all but travellers behind the railings. I could see them from the carriage, and by leaning out of the window, I could have shouted last minute messages, but I could think of nothing. We had been through everything so many times. The train pulled out, and I leaned out and waved as long as the station was in sight

Kingstown Harbour was bleak and on arrival there, I sought shelter in the lounge.

On returning to camp near the village of Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, I found that my khaki drill, which I had ordered in London, had arrived. I had been warned by the Adjutant that I would be on a ‘tropical draft’. I went into the subject of kit with various pundits, one of whom was a ‘Poona’ type, and they had advised me to take everything that I would require. This, I found to be wrong as one can exist in an active service battalion quite well without anything extra on top of that which is obtainable, with a little stealth, from the QMS store. When I reported to the Adjutant, the first thing he told me was that I was on a different draft and not going tropical; he said I would get the allowance for the kit that I had already bought. This was 10 pounds, a little more than half the sum I had laid out, and I didn’t ever get it anyway.

I spent about a week checking the lists of drafts, and wished my own turn would come. It did.   

The draft paraded outside the orderly room in the late afternoon. All my kit was ready, and my bags had gone to the station. We wore full marching order – the last time I ever did – and I was nearly late on parade because I had lent my knife, fork and spoon – known in the army as utensils – to the mess; the mess staff tried to find them, but in the end I had to grab a set and run. I was sorry to lose my own as I had kept them during my two years service in the ranks and had branded my O/R number on them. We were taken to the station, about a mile away, in 15 cwt trucks. The Pipe Band played while we waited for the train and we left Woodhall Spa to the strain of the ‘Killaloe’. 

We had no idea where we would sail from, but as matters stood at the time, it was a pretty safe bet that we would finish in Africa. I found it impossible to get any comfort in the carriage and explored the possibilities of sleeping on the floor outside the toilet, but it was too smelly. Somewhere in the night, the train emptied considerably and I got a seat to lie on.

At Greenock, sometime early in the morning, there was a delay about getting the mens’ billets, but eventually they were put in a granary. It was a draughty place with a shaft up the middle of the whole thing. They were fed and told that they could go out, but strict orders were issued against posting letters.

The Officers then went to get some breakfast. There were five of us: Bill Bradley, the only captain, was in charge of the draft. The rest were subalterns: Ashe who was a full lieutenant, and myself, Nicholls and Furber were 2/Lts. The draft included Sgt Ford, Cpl Ayre and about thirty fusiliers.

We had a good breakfast in a transit mess. Having been asked to supply one of our own fellows as a waiter, Sgt Ford was told to pick out a fairly clean looking one as none of us knew the men. We washed and then were taken out two miles towards Gourock, to a house where we were to sleep the night if we did not go aboard. Nicholls, Furber, and myself naturally formed a trio as the others were somewhat aloof, although very friendly. We spent the morning buying all the razor blades etc that were supposed to be unobtainable in Africa. In the afternoon, we went to an ENSA show, where we saw the most unattractive females imaginable on the stage. In the evening, we walked about the town of Greenock spotting form.

Next morning, we were warned to be ready for transport to take us to the docks. It materialised eventually in the shape of an ancient double deck bus, with outside stairs. All buses are difficult to enter in full marching order, carrying a rifle; so it must have been the aim of whoever sent a double decker to double the difficulty. He succeeded.

We all got aboard at last. I reckoned I was lucky. I got the top step on the stairs and was ready to bail out if anything happened. We drove straight to the dock at Greenock and after handing over our British identity card. I had given my unused clothing ration cards to Bradley’s fiancee, who had come to see him off – which was entirely against regulations. We went aboard a lighter and then boarded our ship. We sailed within a few minutes as we were the last party to come on board.  

The ship was the MV Batory, a Polish vessel. Nicholls and myself were allotted the forward cabin on the starboard side, which was normally a single cabin but fitted with two wooden bunks instead of a bed. Furber joined us as there was even less room in the cabin he was given. The porthole looked out on the deck, which gave us air in the daytime, but at night all portholes were hermetically sealed. Furber slept on his camp bed and took up all the floor, so he had to be last into bed and first up. There was a lavatory and shower opening off the cabin and we stacked our kit in the shower, which didn’t work anyway. The food was excellent and we all sat at one table in the first sitting. It was not a friendly crowd on board, and I never spoke to the officer in the next cabin the whole time.

There were numerous high ranking dignitaries of the Army Chaplain’s department. One Lt Col Padre continually carried a pair of binoculars of the periscope type, known as ‘donkey’s ears’ – God knows what he was looking at. The only amusement we had was to watch the ship’s signallers putting up bunting, and wondering what it all meant. Usually it was only a change of course: the convoy was always zig zagging and we used to speculate on which signal was zig and which was zag. There were a large number of brass huts aboard too. Of course, Algiers was getting pretty safe by now.

The voyage all together took eleven days, and we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar, and put in at Oran for a night, proceeding at midday along the coast and reached Algiers after breakfast on the next day.”


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