Arriving in the Front Line.

March 13th 1943 was the first date I can remember for certain and when we arrived at ‘B’ Echelon in the morning. They were in a very thick cactus grove; cactus in that part of the country is not of the flower pot in the hall variety – it grows to twelve foot high. The plant (we can’t call it a tree) has no trunk, but each leaf grows out of the side of the previous leaf; it produces flowers about six inches long, also growing out of the sides of leaves; the flowers or fruit were covered with spines, and are eaten by the natives.

This was the place all unwanted kit was left, so after sorting out what we really needed, we left in a 15 cwt for the line. I suppose it was not very far, but the roads were bad and in the back of a truck, there is always exhaust fumes. I have often wondered how troops, continually travelling in the backs of trucks, do not get poisoned, but it took us a couple of hours. We had to wait for some time because anti tank guns were zeroing across the road.

At Bttn HQ, we were firstly given some lunch. I sat in the Pioneer Officer’s shelter as he was out. It was not a proper dug out but just two walls about two feet high built out from the bank, and a groundsheet over the top. It faced the command post, and I sat there not knowing anyone. I thought I had never seen such a funny looking crowd. Corduroy trousers were the rage, very useful during the winter when the Bttn was in the cold and wet, but at the time, I was stewed in battledress, although I cooled down considerably that night.

We were taken into the ‘Holy of Holies’ one at a time and had all our particulars taken. This was done immediately because a previous draft had arrived and been sent straight up the line without particulars being taken. Subsequently, there had been some casualties, and then nobody knew who was there. Then we were all brought in together and the CO, Lt-Col Allen, interviewed us. He did not say very much, and, in fact, I believe he never said a single word. John Norman was Adjutant and Major McCann was 2nd in Command (2.i.c.). John Kerr, I can remember, sitting in his shelter. He was a Lieutenant at the time having been commissioned for about a month.

The 2.i.c. took us up to the ‘OP’, on the way warning us about a piece of skyline, which was to be avoided, as the CO had caught an NCO walking there a few days before, and he had stripped him of his rank on the spot. There were other warnings about things to be done and things to be avoided, and various offences for which the CO would strip one on the spot; I had only one pip up and I didn’t expect to keep that long.

There was a long trench leading up to the ‘OP’ and we had to walk bent double. The place itself, when we reached it, was a circular hole about six feet deep and the same in diameter; there was an ammunition box at one side. Standing on the box, one at a time, we saw the enemy lines. I don’t know what I expected exactly, but I was disappointed. There were no Germans to be seen anyway. We spent the afternoon reading the intelligence files, which Sgt (then) O’Connor produced for us. There was no Intelligence Officer (IO). Ashe fancied the job, but didn’t get it.

After the evening meal, we were allotted to companies. I was the only one of the four going to ‘A’ Coy, and I had to go to the RAP to go up with the ration truck. A guide took me down there, which was about a mile. The rations had to wait until dark to leave, part of the road being under observation. ‘A’ Coy was on the right hand end of Grandstand. I arrived at Coy HQ in the dark and was led through a shed, through several blankets hung over doors to keep the light from showing and finally arrived in another dimly lit shed. Major Bunch was commanding the company at the time and he was sitting on a compo box behind a small table.

There were other forms flitting about but it was too dark and I was too new to this sort of thing to notice anyone in particular. Major Bunch, who I afterwards knew as Sam, was wearing a tin hat, which seemed to perch on the top of his head – it was a really good fit, but he always kept a face veil folded inside his camouflage net. He did not say very much either; I suppose nobody had very much to say after spending a winter as they had. Then he said ‘I had better show you to your platoon.’

We went out into the night and picked our way between several slit trenches; then we came to a long trench and scrambled down into it at a place where it was not very deep. I followed Bunch along for about fifty yards, stopping every now and then, while he spoke to unseen persons, who were inside trenches. I was very surprised to see such a trench system, parts of it built up with rocks and other parts cut through almost solid rock. There were deep pools in places. A figure materialised out of the darkness and was introduced as my platoon sergeant, Sgt Robinson. Then Bunch left us.

Robinson took me up to the end of the trench and pointed out the general direction of the enemy and where our wire lay, then he showed me where the various posts were, and where there was a slit trench with a roof on it that I could use, and where his dugout was. The platoon was on 50% stand to, so he suggested that I do the first four hours, and promptly disappeared into his dugout. I found a part of the trench that was more or less dry and out of the wind, and discovered a corporal there who inquired who I was. He, of course, did not know that a new officer had arrived, so I told him I was his platoon commander, and we then talked quietly.

When the time came for me to turn in, I had some difficulty finding my slit, which was outside the platoon area. It was the first time in my life that I had slept in a hole in the ground. I did not sleep very soundly, partly, I suppose, because of the discomfort, but more so because I had very little idea of Jerry’s whereabouts and habits in the patrolling line. I had no idea of how I would organise the platoon in case of an attack. I have, since that time, always had a fear of being ‘winkled out’ in my sleep so I was always careful to sleep insider the area, and near a sentry. When inside a house, I always insisted on a sentry on the door unless it was securely locked.