Rest and renewed training

“We moved back into the Atlas Mountains to Guelma through which we had passed months before. Here we encamped in proper tents. Letters from home were the main comfort and I was kept abreast of the news. My other comfort was reading my multum in parva, the anthology of verse I always carried with my missal in my small kit.

I wrote often to a variety of people. I was unable to tell anyone where I was. My mother had her first clue when I asked for Mass to be said for my dead friends, but I unexpectedly met a relation while I was in Tunis. A motor cyclist jumped off his machine and ran to me. He took off his crash helmet and I recognised him as my cousin Mike Hanlon. He was a sergeant in the reconnaissance regiment of the 46th Division which had joined the 1st Army in March. He realised that we had both experienced a rough time and was overjoyed to see me intact. During rest periods, I initiated company concerts which were camp fires at which the men drank NAAFI beer to which was added hot grog made from rum that I had ‘fiddled’ from the rations made more palatable with sugar and hot water. The officers and NCOs attended. Rifleman Swift kept things moving. He composed songs and parodies which included in their verses impolite references to officers and others in our formation. One verse in the favourite parody was aimed at me and went like this: ‘If Rosie did his deed and gave the chaps a ******* feed etc’. The men would get gloriously drunk and be put to bed by the officers and NCOs. The concerts lifted morale and blunted the memory. They provided temporary relief. Swift, our master of ceremonies during our sing-a-longs, died fighting in Italy in November. 

After our move east, we bivouacked in a field outside Sousse on the coast south of Tunis while we waited for our next task. The weather was beautiful and we slept on the ground. I used a company stretcher for comfort. After a heavy night at the mess, I rolled into my stretcher after removing my boots and shorts. The next morning, I drew on my shorts and immediately felt an excruciating pain in my buttocks. I jumped up, pulled off my shorts and shook them. Out jumped a large scorpion. I jumped on it and killed it. The pain by now was intense. I called the transport corporal and asked him to drive me to the medical officer. I could not sit on the seat of the jeep, so lay on my stomach. I was taken straight into Doc Samuels who lanced the sting and put in some antiseptic crystals. He uttered some comforting words like: ‘You won’t die but you’ll be very sore for a few days.’ The week following, we had many O groups where Major Lofting invited all to squat on the grass: ‘Except the colour sergeant, who prefers to stand.’ 

One sunny day, the battalion was paraded on the beach in company formation. We were to be inspected. A jeep drove up and, standing in its front, was the small but commanding figure of General Montgomery. The jeep halted some way away and Monty remained standing. Beckoning us with his hands, he said in his slightly shrill voice: ‘Gather round chaps.’ Bemused, we encircled his jeep. ‘Take your caubeens off. That’s better, I can see what you look like. Where do the best soldiers come from?’ There were many replies but the majority shouted Ireland. ‘That’s right, Ireland!. What part?’. ‘Derry’ was the reply from some. ‘You’re right.’ He then gave us a pep talk about us invading Sicily and ‘…meeting your old friends, the Hermann Goering Regiment.’ He obviously was cognisant with our brushes with that formation. He drove off to deafening cheers. Without doubt, he was a master of public relations and morale building. 

I then made a new acquaintance that was to last the rest of the war. A morose corporal with white stripes and wearing an ACC badge reported to me. He said: ‘I am to be your corporal cook.’ I asked him his name. ‘James Sadler,’ he replied. He told me that he had been in charge of the divisional headquarters’ mess where he had cooked for officers up to general. Mystified, I asked him why he had been posted to a rifle company. He explained that he had been engaged in a long-running duel with the divisional catering officer. The culmination was when the officer discovered grit had penetrated the divisional commander’s food during a Sirocco. Sadler’s punishment was to be sent to the point of most danger: the front line.

James had been a chef for the GWR’s excellent restaurant car service and had been the chef at the 48th divisional mess in France in 1939 and 1940. He had fed a French president and other notables. Jim and I were to become intimates and firm friends. He was the finest infantry cook in the British Army. He soon wore his caubeen with pride. Invariably, all attached personnel would ask permission to wear our badge and headdress. The Sirocco was very troublesome and the cooks had problems keeping food covered when high winds blew over equipment in their open-air kitchens. The canopies of the assembled motor vehicles, often securely tied down, would fly away in the wind. Jim coped and showed what he could do with army rations for a company of over 100 men. I could not eat with the men. I had to take food at the sergeants’ mess and often looked with envy at the men’s portions.

One thing was sacrosanct in Sadler’s running of the company kitchen: there must be no interference with the men’s rations. That included no extra cups of tea for anyone. I broke the rule once when I gave one to a priest who had fasted from midnight. When there was a change in company commander, I had to explain why there would be no ‘Just a cup of tea for the company commander.’ As a result of Jim’s efforts, E Company was well-fed and watered with four pints of tea each day. Meals of roast meat with Yorkshire pudding were common. Morale was lifted. The company commander boasted that he had the best-fed company in the army. I basked in the respect of both officers and men for declaring that rations were sacrosanct.

I used every wile to maximise and ‘wangle’ extras for my boys. But there was still a war to fight. We would be soon shaking the sand of Africa off our feet for good and returning to Europe, but not England.”


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