CQMS O’Sullivan in Algiers, 22nd November 1942

“We entered Algiers Harbour and berthed at the quay without tugs.

 (NA 181) General view of Allied-occupied Algiers taken from the Royal Navy transport ship HMT Orion, 23 November 1942. Copyright: © IWM.

It was Thursday 22 November 1942 and a beautiful morning. The sun shone brightly. We speedily disembarked, and the great liner pulled away. On the quay was a great stack of kitbags which we would not see for months. Some would be permanently mislaid.

While we were waiting, we were attacked by aircraft which were chased by some of ours. Bombs were dropped but not on us. We were formed up in companies in full marching order with a blanket on top of our other equipment. All the men also carried two filled bren magazines or a case of three two-inch mortar bombs. I carried two cases of maps of the whole of Algeria and Tunisia in large and small scale. The officers carried almost as much as the men.

Led by our sensible commanding officer, who wore only skeleton equipment of belt and shoulder straps, we climbed out of Algiers in thick service dress carrying everything in the hot midday sun. The pipers carried only their pipes. The first mile out of Algiers was a steady climb up a road that wound in a semi circle. Gradually men collapsed from heat and exhaustion. At first, stretcher bearers went to attend to them. Eventually, we left them where they fell.

My load increased. At one time, I was carrying a bren gun and a two-inch mortar but I had farmed out the case of maps. We finally arrived at an open space which was large enough for the whole battalion. We were told to take off our equipment and make ourselves comfortable.

Stragglers appeared and joined us. We were allowed to open our emergency rations and have a meal, but were warned that it would have to last the full 48 hours. A water tanker appeared. We filled our bottles and brewed up in our mess tins. There was no twilight and, suddenly, the light went, although it was early evening, probably about 6pm. As soon as the sun had gone, the cold set in. We were allowed no lights and no fires. Putting on every scrap of clothing, including our greatcoats and anti-gas capes, we huddled together and tried to sleep. It was said the commanding officer went around begging for a share of a blanket. Canvas buckets had been left which the men used to wash and shave the following morning.

After eating a breakfast from their packs of biscuit, margarine, jam and potted meat, they washed it down with a powdered tea mixture brewed up in their mess tins. The battalion was paraded by companies, inspected and then led by the pipers on a route march wearing skeleton equipment but carrying all weapons. The only persons excused were the sick and the strong picket left to guard the mounds of equipment. We marched in a great circle, returning to the camp after about two hours. 

In the early afternoon, transport arrived with the quartermaster and regimental quartermaster in charge. Colour sergeants reported with fatigue parties and were issued their first 14 men packs of composition (compo) rations. E company strength was about 116. I drew nine boxes and was told I owed two rations. Going back to the company, I distributed the packs. This was awkward because each platoon’s strength was not divisible by 14, being about 32 men. The juggling of ration numbers was to become a nightmare, particularly when a whole box of rations was deducted as owings. The next meal was cooked, somehow, on a platoon basis. Two-man sand bivouac tents were erected in lines on the flat ground.