Rest and recovery

“Captain Curry of the Toronto Scottish took over as E Company commander and we were moved to Stuka Farm where F Company had held the Hermann Goerring Division on 26 February. We encountered a smell similar to that on Hadj. I looked around and found a badly-interred body that was partly exposed. I discovered it was the decomposed remains of my old friend Ian Brooks who had been promoted F Company CSM after the battle for Point 286. We rolled his corpse in a blanket and tied the remains into a tidy bundle before reburying him in a marked grave. I remembered vividly his words the previous November when he read our palms: ‘If I live beyond my early 20s, I will live to an old age.’ Ian had wished me luck as he thought my chances of survival were slim. He left a young wife in Wales and a baby he had never seen.

On 15 March, we were relieved by the Duke of Wellington’s regiment and moved to a pleasant position on a hillside. There were some tents. A few reinforcements arrived from an assortment of regiments, and I interviewed each man with the company clerk Flavell. I overheard one new man say: ‘Who’s the little bloke. He seems to have a lot to say.’ Flavell replied: ‘That’s our colour sergeant. Never wears his stripes.’”

“A new RSM replaced Buff Reid. To our surprise, it was George Irish, who had been CSM of R Company when I had been its CQMS. He had remained in Scotland when we embarked and came out with reinforcements. He visited me and when he approached I stood to attention and said: ‘Good morning, Sir.’ He immediately turned on me and said: ‘I don’t like the way you said, Sir, colour sergeant.’ I was nonplussed. We had been friends a long time and had always addressed the other by nicknames. Now he was RSM, I could not presume on a former friendship. Irish was eventually replaced as RSM by Billy Girvin, the E Company CSM who had been wounded in the February fighting and probably should have had the job in the first place.

We were moved to a place we called Happy Valley which was located behind the lines in the mountains north of Tebourba. A sergeants’ mess took over a semi-ruined building. I hardly knew anyone except a few colour sergeants and some HQ types. The companies were spread across the valley and were living in camouflaged tents.

Early in our stay, I went with Percy Forde to collect the company’s rations. Coming back along the road, our way was blocked by a carrier that had lost a track. I had to get back to supervise the preparation of meals. Percy said: ‘There’s a way across the hills.’ I asked, ‘Do you know it?’ He said something like: ‘I think so.’ I was in his hands. We turned round and made our way across the hills. He stopped because a deep valley was in front of us. I alighted and was on the point of saying: ‘Go back.’ Ford got out but failed to apply the brakes. The truck slithered down the hill and turned turtle at the bottom.

The next morning, I was marched before Colonel Scott escorted by two sergeants. I believe the transport officer read the charge: ‘While on active service and in charge of an army vehicle, you allowed it to be in a hazardous situation, whereby it crashed and was destroyed’, or words to that effect. I stated my case which was that I was not a driver. Scott gave me a severe reprimand and I was marched out. Percy was punished by being returned to duty as a rifleman, which, in his case, was a sentence of death (he was killed on 5 August 1943 during the assault on German positions around Mount Etna in Sicily). I was unhappy for us both, as it had been just bad luck, although Percy had been careless. I heard that field commissions were being awarded. Sergeant of 7 Platoon Jimmy White said he and I were on the list of candidates. I immediately saw E Company commander Captain Curry and told him that if my name was on the list to remove it. Jimmy, Jack Suffolk, Jimmy Baker and Eddie Hogan MM were gazetted as subalterns. Bill Nagle was sent home for officer’s training and was commissioned to the Middlesex Regiment. Jimmy was killed leading his platoon in their first action in Italy.

At the end of March, we were told that the brigade had been transferred to the 78th Infantry Division. It included men from all over the UK and Eire and became, according to military historian General Horrockes, the finest infantry division in the British Army. Its symbol was the golden battleaxe of Stirling. We would fight in battle with tanks driven by Irish, Canadians, South Africans, Scots, Welsh and English.


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