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.

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