Irish Brigade

The story of the 38th (Irish) Brigade in the Second World War

Charles Ward – Transfer to SOE

“At the end of hostilities in Tunisia, we had a time of relaxation and on the touchline at a football match our CO found me and said he had received a communication which meant he had to ask me, as I had earlier been accepted to be trained as a pilot, if I was prepared now to volunteer as a glider pilot. I had no hesitation in saying I would much rather have an engine to rely on as a pilot. It was also suggested I be given a Field Commission but felt it prudent not to accept as the German snipers were taking a heavy toll of officers in the area.

We subsequently did a training exercise which entailed quite a long march, followed by a mock attack practising house clearing, then a march back to base. I got a knock on the knee during this which aggravated an old injury I had earlier sustained playing football which left me with a swollen knee and a pronounced limp. On the march back, the CO, going by in his vehicle spotted this and stopped to ask what the trouble was. He ordered me onto a truck and said I must report sick on arrival at base.

This eventually resulted in concentrated treatment of hot and cold compresses, which didn’t do very much for the situation so I attended a medical assessment panel and was regarded A2 on 23rd July 1943. I was sent back to a transit camp at Philippeville, which was a very boring time – no reading matter, and walking anywhere was impossible, just eating and sleeping.

After some time, I was transferred to the transit camp near Algiers – back to where I had first set foot in North Africa. But still the same routine until, one day, I espied on the notice board an announcement that an educational unit would be coming to the camp and requesting volunteers to undergo tests with the object of finding suitable work for them. Mine was the first name on the list.

We spent a morning doing maths and English papers. During the assessment of these in the afternoon there was a mechanical aptitude test. Then an interview to discuss which kind of employment would be suitable. I had previously applied for employment as a compositor on the Stars and Stripes newspaper which we had heard was to be started in Algiers so suggested this as a possibility. The officer didn’t hold out much hope of that materialising and suggested I would make a good cipher operator. I welcomed this and waited patiently for the outcome.

A week or so later, I was called into the office where I was given a moving order for six people. Quickly scanning through to see where we were going I couldn’t find a destination so returned to the office only to be told we were to be picked up by truck. When the truck arrived I asked the driver where we were going. Much to my surprise the answer was ‘I’m not allowed to tell you.’

I wondered what I had let myself in for and was even more puzzled when we arrived at a camp gate with armed guards and everything enclosed in barbed wire. On entering the camp I was even more surprised to find it occupied by Army, Navy, Air Force, civilians and girls (members of the FANY, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry). There were also a number of other nationalities.

This was Massingham, a wireless station sending and receiving messages to and from agents dropped into southern France and Italy. It consisted of a number of  holiday villas right on the beach of the Mediterranean. As all the villas were fully occupied we were directed to a tent as our accommodation.

We then embarked on our training as cipher operators. This meant serious concentration working on squared paper doing double transposition. One mistake and the message wound up gibberish. Once up to the required standard, we were then assigned to a team, alongside FANY coders and wireless operators working in shifts to cover 24 hours. If we ran out of current wireless traffic we then tackled the indecipherable messages.

My only meeting with Colonel Gubbins was a surprise. On duty one evening, the telephone went and on answering a voice said come down to Villa No  (I don’t remember the number) and collect a message for London. I replied that I would send someone down immediately. Back came a rather impatient ‘You’ll come yourself’ and the caller rang off. Somewhat aggrieved I hastened down fully intending to have words with this man, only to discover it was Colonel Gubbins, I didn’t even know he was in the camp.”



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