Percy Hamilton – To The Front

Lieutenant Percy Hamilton first impressions of Algeria were not favourable as he awaited posting to the front line. In early March 1943, he started his journey east towards Tunisia and at Souk Arras met up with a welcoming party from 6 Innisks, who took him onto the Skins’ forward positions north of Bou Arada. There he met with the battalion’s Commanding Officer Lt-Col Allen and his Second-in-Command, Major McCann, before being posted to ‘A’ Company, commanded by Major Bunch, and who were in position on the right hand side of Grandstand Ridge. Soon after, the whole battalion was moved back to near to Beja and the next few weeks was spent reorganising and resting in advance of their next period of offensive activity.

“There was no delay leaving the ship except to collect francs instead of pounds etc. Some of the lads threw pennies onto the quay to watch the urchins scramble for them.

The heavy baggage and big packs were put onto transport and all the drafts set out to march to their various camps. There was some confusion because the only way out of the docks led up a long slant – all the dock traffic and innumerable Arab carts used it and marching troops had a bad time. Our draft had to march to a transit camp called Fort De L’Eau, about eight miles away, and we found the heat extremely trying, having come straight from a February at home.

My first impressions of Africa were never altered much later on. I disliked the smell of mixed garlic and garbage; I never really cared much for the locals. The animals are wretched; the horses are small, and used three abreast if the cart is a big one. What cattle we saw were on the same scale.

We thought Fort de L’Eau a primitive sort of place. We didn’t realise at the time that it was luxurious, and as transit camps went, the staff were above most we met later. They even let us have some liquor. The accommodation was tented and situated in a pleasant cactus grove. Latrines were of the French pattern, two foot rests and a hole in the floor, each concern in a sort of loose box about breast high; we got used to these later, but at the time, they struck us as amusing.

We visited Algiers. The first and most persistent pest was the shoe shine boy. Hundreds of them, all with the same type of box: evidently someone runs a sort of chain store of them. They understand the English soldiers’ words meaning ‘to go away’, and use it themselves if one ignores them.

We spent a long time looking for somewhere to eat as it was well after midday. The other two wanted to try a local restaurant. I have always favoured British food personally but they must have wanted some French stuff. We eventually went into a large place and started looking at the menu. None of us could recognise any of the dishes, so we asked the waiter what was good. No doubt he did his best to please, but his tastes were probably different to ours as we had not noticed until half way through the meal that it was a Jewish establishment: there was a large Star of David in the glass over the door. All the courses were vegetable with various herbs and garlic and tasted pretty horrible.

After lunch, we explored the city and must have walked for miles; later we had to hitchhike back to camp and we arrived there at about tea time. The only other time we went in, we stayed too late and one fellow went into the Chief of Police and told him that we must have a permit to allow a taxi to take us out. He got the permit and we got a taxi which took us two thirds of the way before the driver started moaning about not having enough petrol to take him back. He took us the whole way in the end: of course, he had no other choice.

We left Fort de L’Eau after breakfast the morning after and marched to the train at Maison Carre Station, where there was a long wait there before the train left.

Troop trains in North Africa were all the same. On this one, there was a 3rd class passenger coach for the officers, and box cars for the troops. After some considerable travelling in both, I can say that for a journey lasting more than a day, a box car is by far the best. In a box car, one has room to lie down, whereas in a passenger coach, the seats were hard and after a day or so, one’s elbows and back become pretty sore.

We spent four days in that train. Meals happened whenever the train looked like stopping for long enough to get the water boiled; nobody seemed to suffer any ill effects from drinking water out of the engine; things got more difficult when an electric engine was put on. There were plenty of rations and as the three of us shared a compartment, we drew rations for three; it was a simple matter for two of us to draw three rations. We cooked in the carriage on an iron plate that ran down the middle of the compartment using ‘tommy cookers’. Tomatoes and bacon were our favourite along with any eggs we could buy from locals along the line. Every stop was a collecting place for Arabs of all ages and sizes. Some of the little ones were rather pathetic and the troops gave them packets of biscuits; no doubt at all that the British soldier is very soft hearted.

We arrived at Souk Arras early one morning and were supplied with enough transport to lift the baggage the four miles or so to the transit camp at Zourouria, but the draft had to walk. I was the lucky one whose job it was to take the baggage on, so I rode in a truck. Whereas the camp at Fort de L’Eau was good, this place was the opposite. Nobody seemed to be in charge of the place. There were other officers staying there, but they would not part with any food; we went to the ration stores and drew our own bully and biscuits and ate them in our tent. I afterwards discovered that these officers to be the type who, having proved useless in the line, were being sent back to a good base job. There was a CSM there, who tried to persuade us that it was not advisable to take our beds and boxes any further forward. We did not take his advice, and there was reason to believe that many of the beds that were left there were never seen again by their rightful owners.

While at Zourouria, we hitch hiked into Souk Arras and paid a visit to a field cashier to get some money; we had run very short on the last night in Algiers and spent the rest buying eggs on the train. Bradley and Ashe had plenty, but they were unwilling to lend us any although they knew us to be broke, and we did not press the subject. We also went to a cinema. I think we were the only patrons apart from a few other officers, who arrived in the middle of the show. The picture was in French and as none of us had any idea of what was going on, we left before the end. It was dark by the time we got a lift back on the back of an American truck loaded with oil drums. It had started to rain and the drums were all sliding about; on top of that, add a dozen hair pin bends and you can gather the sort of nightmare trip it was.

The following day, the same CSM came into the tent before any of us were up and detailed all of us except Furber for the draft. Furber was very upset as he didn’t fancy staying in that place alone; he arrived with the battalion a few days after us, got a job at ‘B’ Echelon with the MT, got his foot under a truck wheel and we never saw him again. The rest of us left by trains accompanied this time by Major Maxwell; the troops were the same lads as before.

The chief excitement on this part of the trip was that we were to pass a stretch of line called Messerschmidt valley. The road and railway ran side by side for some distance and it was a bad spot for air attacks. The road was said to be lined with shot up vehicles. The train stopped for some reason on this particular stretch and I looked around for the wreckage, but I could not see any.

We left the train at Souk el Arba, where we were to be picked up by transport. The train had left us at about four in the afternoon, and we hung about until midnight waiting for the trucks. They took us to ‘C’ Echelon where the officers gave us a very good dinner and enough of their whiskey ration to keep the cold out. Then we got into the trucks again. I went to sleep and didn’t wake up until dawn; then I dozed in fits until I found the driver and myself both asleep at the same time and the convoy out of sight. Luckily, it had halted just around the corner

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.

In the morning at ‘stand to’, I inquired where the platoon sergeant was, as I was unable to recognise him from our meeting the night before. After we went round the positions together and he pointed out the section commanders, we went into his dugout, where there was some tea ready. There was just room for the two of us and Cpl Swarbrook, who had been acting platoon sergeant. We had to keep our legs tucked up, as there was just room to sit up straight. The chief difficulty was that the entrance was only wide enough to get inside sideways; thus one had to stoop double and turn sideways at the same time: this takes practice. I don’t remember what we talked about, except one part about anti louse powder. This army issue known as AL 63 was a necessity in a position where baths were infrequent and was used by all. Cpl Swarbrook had had the misfortune to misunderstand the use of it when the first lot arrived; instead of putting it on the seams of his clothes as it is usually used, he used it on his body, including his privates and had a deuce of a time when he began to sweat.

I had breakfast with Bunch in Coy HQ: my first compo meal. Compo rations are made up of boxes containing rations for fourteen men for one day. Everything is canned. There are biscuits, chocolate, bacon or sausages, meat and vegetables ready to be heated or steak and kidney pudding, also duff of some kind and seven cigarettes each. The tea is already mixed with sugar and powdered milk; the last thing to be packed and first out is a supply of Army Form 000, a necessary addition when there are no newspapers. Also included are butter and jam. After breakfast, I returned to the platoon area, where I was surprised to see nobody about, as they were all in their dugouts, so I went into Robinson’s dugout  and we chatted for hours. Later, he showed me the ammo dump and where a piece of shrapnel had hit a box, but luckily it had not set off the grenades inside.

That night was very much like the previous one. Next day, I was detailed to go as a company representative on an advance party as the Bttn was to move out next day. They had been on this hill so long that everyone was glad to be leaving it at last. I packed what kit I had, which was not very much and tramped to the RAP. This was about a mile and just after I left the company, the rain came down like a deluge. It ran down my neck and off the corners of the groundsheet I was wearing as a cape, my legs were soaked and I felt miserable. I reached the RAP and waited there. There was a burner going, cooking some meal so I stood near it and got a bit dry. There were some graves around the back of the house and we went round to see them. The other representatives had arrived too and we were all told that the move was off. The rain had so bogged things that the transport could never get to the company areas to pick up the kit. We all returned to our companies. My trench was full of water so I had to move to another.

Next day, the advance parties were called again, so I had to tramp down to the RAP. This time, the trucks came and we moved off. I don’t know the name of the place where the lying up area was; we arrived there about two in the afternoon and were given our company areas. This was the first time I had recced parking space for a company, so I went into it in great detail, to ensure that I knew where each truck would go and which way it would face. Also, of course, areas for the platoons. Then we hung around as the Bttn was not due to arrive until the early morning. When we got word they were on the way, we went down the road to meet them. Each rep was to pick up the first truck of his own company. When ‘A’ Coy came along, Bunch was in front of the leading vehicle, which was a TCV. I prepared to stand on the side as we had not far to go, but he insisted I should get inside and sit on his knee as there was only one seat; my head kept bumping the roof and it was very hard to see. When we got to the side road that we had to go up, there was a chap with a torch waving us in; he asked what company we were and said something to Bunch. When the company reached the farm below the area, the troops got out of the TCVs and marched the rest of the way. Everything was all right, and I sorted out the platoons into the areas that I had picked, and Bunch was pleased enough. The company vehicles arrived after the troops and I got them parked successfully too.

Next evening, the whole Bttn moved on. It was nearly getting dark when we left and at that time, no lights were used on vehicles because of enemy aircraft, so it was a slow move. We finally de-bussed and then had to march about two miles to a gully where we were to spend over a week. Two things happened during that march. First, Sgt Robinson was removed without warning to go home on a job as an instructor, and second, I engaged a batman, a lad called Diggle, who had been the platoon anti-tank rifle man. He was glad to get rid of that job and he looked after me for over a month. He seemed to have a knack of being first in the food lines and always had my meal ready before the other officers of the company.

The gully, which I mentioned, was a broad one and the companies were spread out along it for some distance. At every time that a unit laid up anywhere in North Africa, it used a gully. They soon came to be given names; this one afterwards was called ‘Melody Gully’, because of the number of sing songs we had there.

‘A’ Coy were located near the way into the gully. There was a slant down, and then a large flat port on which the trucks were parked, then the slant continued down to the stream, across which the men lived in bivouacs. The officers slept in bivvys near the trucks, and used to collect to feed in the back of the truck that Major Bunch used to sleep in. We could all fit in except one of us, so the last to arrive had to stand and eat off the tail board. There was at that time in the company, Major Bunch, Lieut Basil Hewitt, Lieut George Stevens and myself. Tony Clarke was there for a few days and I shared a bivvy with him. We dug it down about two feet, which gave us a lot more room, but made it hard to keep the rain and mud out. He then got a job at division. The aforesaid truck was parked nose into the bank and commanded an excellent view of the company latrines. Sam Bunch had a wooden tin whistle, which he used to play. He caused great amusement to some soldiers, who saw him playing it by blowing through his nose instead of his mouth.

There was a sing song nearly every evening, organised by Captain Ronnie Ablett, and the music was supplied by the Pioneer Officer, Chips Burton, on a clarinet or uke. It was here that I first saw and heard the Bttn character Sketch McGrath with his poem, said to have been written by himself, about manoeuvres in Hong Kong etc. Sgt Riggett used to sing ‘Trees’ and a corporal used to shout himself hoarse imitating Hitler.

Down in the gully, about half a mile away, there was a rifle range. There were shooting matches, pool bulls etc every day and in the evening’s officers v sergeants, or stake matches.

On Patricks’s Day 1943 we got three bottles of beer between two men. I believe that most of the officers went off to Brigade, but I was not in the know, so there were only a couple of us left in the lines

Baths, which were a problem for the men, were also a problem for officers. The men were sent off to the mobile bath and got a hot shower. Officers are supposed to go at a special time, which is often inconvenient and nearly always in the late afternoon when it is getting too cold for standing round the invariably draughty bath houses. I have often since gone along with my chaps, but in ‘Melody Gully’, I had an excellent bath in a large biscuit tin, after which I put down AL 63 on my clothes because I was bothered with fleas. I believe that it does some good with fleas, although the chaps say they thrive on it.  

The new anti tank weapon, the PIAT arrived. We had instruction on it, and in the usual Army way, we learnt its weight, length, how to cock it and uncock it, how to hold and aim, but it was not possible to fire any practice shots because we had no spare ammo.

I did a summary of evidence, which pleased John Norman; this was unusual to get such a reaction so it must have been a good one. I also went to a court martial to produce two chaps’ Certified True Copies of their AF Y220. I had never seen the two fellows before and the words ‘Whom I now recognise’ came as a bit of a shock; however we got round it all right.

Another advance party was sent off and I was sent again. This time, the Bttn was moving a few miles west of Beja. We had to make a wide detour because the enemy held part of the direct route. We arrived about midday and found we were taking over from the Grenadier Guards. They were in the 6thArmoured Division and we had only just left that Division and joined the 78th Division. Bttn HQ was a farm almost overlooking the enemy lines, which were a couple of miles away; there was one of those irrigation wind pumps at the place and it was afterwards called ‘Windmill Farm’. ‘A’ Coy’s area was a shallow gully about a mile back towards Beja. The rear party of Guards was still there when I went to recce it. There was a small amount of rubbish and boxes lying about, so I collected the biggest box that I could find and the top part of the cap off a truck; these I used later to improve my dugout. I picked the area which already had the best dugout for my own platoon, and afterwards Sgt Brooks and Sgt Ford and myself worked at it until it was big enough for the three of us. When finished, it was about six feet square with one side partly undercut and was eight foot high where the cab was the roof, and a little more where we had a bivvy for the rest of the roof. There was flight of stairs into it and a big box for stores at the top of the stairs.

In the evening, about dusk, the whole advance party had to RV in Beja. We waited at a cross roads for three hours before the Bttn arrived. Someone made tea inside the truck and that warmed us up a bit. One of us had to stand outside the truck in case we would miss the convoy, and we took it in turns. David Schayek kept looking in to see how the tea was getting on, while he was on, as it was very cold outside. There was an M/C combination parked on the opposite side of the road; jeeps had not replaced them yet.

When ‘A‘ Coy arrived, I got into the first truck; it was a 15 cwt this time and had a hole in the roof for an air sentry. I had to stand up with my head and shoulders through this and it was mighty cold after the four miles or so. I got the TCVs to pull in to the left of the road so that the rest of the Bttn could pass through. The area was on the right of the road so the chaps had to cross over. I started to guide the company transport in, one at a time, but one 15 cwt did not wait and got a front wheel stuck in a slit trench. It was very dark and I fell into a slit myself. Also, don’t get misled into thinking we call them fox holes. The term is never used in any unit I have met and I believe it is only used by newspaper reporters and Americans.

Next morning, we made a plan of defence in case of emergency and got more positions dug. One of the chaps came along and said there was a rifle lying on the road and thought it was booby trapped, and would I come and look at it. I went along, but I couldn’t see how it could be booby trapped as I had been in the area since the Guards left and there had been a sentry near the spot all night. I had a good look round the rifle and peered underneath without touching it; then I stood up and pushed it with my foot. Nothing blew up so I picked it up. It was a beauty. A No 4 with a leaf back sight instead of the mass produced flip up back sight, so I kept it for myself as I only had a pistol and wanted something more. At that time, there was no allocation of tommy guns to platoon commanders.

The company had to do a nightly patrol round about two miles of road in front of the positions. On the second night, Bunch decided to send me out under the instruction of Cpl Swarbrook. I wore rubber shoes as I thought they would be quieter on the road. The others, there only were four of us altogether, wore boots. Nothing happened except a partridge flew up beside us with a terrific whirr of wings and we all dived into a ditch. I found that the rubber shoes were not a success as we walked along the grass verges silently enough, and I kept falling into the ditch because the wet grass was slippery.

A few nights after, I had to take out a longer distance patrol. About a mile and a half or two miles in front, there was a road with three large farms along it. Jerry was known to send standing patrols to these sometimes, and I was about to go to one called ‘Avenue Farm’ and see whether there was anyone there. I set off at dusk taking Cpl Swarbrook and a couple of chaps, and we all had tommy guns and grenades. We went out in a sweep towards the left and worked along to the farm, parallel to the road. If there had been any Jerries there, they would have had plenty of warning of our approach as when we were a hundred yards off the farm, the dogs set up the most shocking row. There was not much cover, but there was nothing left to do but go round the place and see what was there. We sneaked round the outbuildings and then the pigs joined in the noise. There could have been a company of Germans inside the place; we would never have heard them. The dogs we found were inside a wire compound. We went down the Avenue, which gave the place its name, as far as the road and then made our way back round the other side of the farm. The stable had been hit by a shell and there was a dead horse lying outside: it, of course, smelt pretty badly. 

The moon was coming up by now so we decided it was time to clear off. We went back by a different route and I had the first experience of the almost effervescent feeling of cheerfulness that I have often felt when a dangerous job is finished. We ate the bars of chocolate, which were always supplied to patrols and were saved up out of the free issue for this purpose. Long distance patrols also got a little bottle of rum each.

I left the chaps at the end of the road leading to Bttn HQ and went to report back. John Norman was on duty and he took down all the details. He gave me a drink and seemed very glad to see me back, which surprised me as I hadn’t thought much of the job, but as he pointed out, it could have been a sticky job, had there been anyone there. When I returned to the end of the road, I found the chaps still there waiting for me so went back together.

There was a Standing Patrol to be done by a different company each night on a Bailey Bridge at a place called Oued Zarga. It was further out than the farms, but rather to the right so not any nearer Jerry. Actually, the road past the farms met the main road near the bridge. It was a platoon job and I had to go on it once. It was actually possible to take trucks to it in daylight although they could see part of the road. The whole platoon piled on to two 15 cwts and left an hour before dark. The first part we had to go slowly because the road was prepared for mines and one had to drive between the holes; it was also advisable to check up that nobody had put in few mines down for any reason. The next part was under observation so the drivers put their foot down, and it was also downhill.   

There were no positions dug near to the bridge so I deployed the platoon in three large bomb craters, then went up to the cross roads beyond the bridge to have a look round. All friendly transport was reported in except two recce cars, which came in while I was down there. Sgt Ford was now my platoon sergeant as Sgt Brooks, who had taken over from Robinson, had been sent on special patrolling and had been killed. We discussed the advisability of putting some Hawkins mines, which we had, across the road junction; we decided not to, as we would have to prime them and then un-prime them again in the morning. At some point during all this, the truck bringing our rations must have crossed the bridge and gone on. CQMS Lambert was in it and says he did not see any of our fellows; they may well have seen him and thought he knew where he was going. Anyway, just after we decided not to mine the road, he came racing in from the enemy direction, having been a couple of miles down the main road, and was glad we had put no mines down. He brought us our rations for the next day and the news that we had to stay the whole day instead of coming in at dawn. This was awkward as we had not brought any eating kit, so we had to get our haversacks sent down.

There was a line laid to the post and we had brought a telephone with us, so we were in touch with Bttn HQ. The duty officer rang up every fifteen minutes or so to check the line. We had to remain awake all night. In the morning, the Recce Corps brought a couple of scout cars to the church beyond the cross roads. I went up to see them and stayed there for a bit talking to them and got a drink of tea, and even got one officer to show us around his car.

In the evening, Ashe came down with his platoon to relieve us. He rode an M/C combination and while looking round at something, he rode the thing right into the ditch. At this point, we packed up and returned.” 


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