Some Experiences in North Africa and Subsequently in an Italian Hospital
I was commissioned into the Royal Ulster Rifles in March 1940 and, after serving in Northern Ireland was posted to the 2nd Bn London Irish Rifles in August 1941. I was soon made to feel at home in the Battalion there. They were a grand lot but, unfortunately, many have by now gone.
After the usual false alarms, we eventually embarked in Scotland in November 1942, for an unknown destination. On our first day at sea, we were told by our Brigadier that we were bound for North Africa, where the British and Americans had just made the initial landings. We had an entirely uneventful voyage and on the 11th day, we steamed into Algiers. We spent a few days outside the city in a very wet field, waiting for a train to take up to Bougie and here all our preconceived ideas about the African climate went by the board. When the train eventually arrived, it was found to consist almost entirely of cattle trucks. However, they succeeded in transporting us, albeit inconsiderable discomfort, to Bougie, about two hundred miles east. On arrival there, we found our transport had been safely landed with everything intact. We spent three days getting organised and then off we started for the front. This was a most interesting trip through some wonderful country, on perfect roads. The expected air attacks did not materialise to the extent we had expected and on the third day we arrived at a place called Teboursouk, where we were told we were within ten miles of the Germans. About a week was sent where, which was devoid of incident except under explanatory patrols, which discovered nothing and then we moved again to positons on the hills on the east of the Goubellat plain. Here from our Ops, we could plainly see the Germans walking about in the various farms they had occupied, sometimes only about 1.500 yards distant. A number of night raids were carried out on these farms but in every case, the birds were found to have flown.
I will pass onto 3rd January 1943, the day I received my orders for the operation from which I did not return. We knew we were opposed by German paratroops and it was thought that their headquarters was situated in a certain area about ten miles behind the German front positions. I was to take an NCO and six men and find my way to the area by night, lie up the next day in cover, discover where the enemy headquarters were, wait for darkness that night and then go in and do as much damage as we could. I don’t mind admitting that I didn’t like the sound of it in the very least. I naturally picked the six toughest chaps (including Sheriff and Silverman) in the Coy and a very good sergeant (Silverman). Having blacked our faces and loaded up with as many grenades as we could comfortably carry, off we went. The first part went according to plan and we reached the spot we had chosen for a hide-out. With no excitement other than having to lie very low, on two occasions when numerically stronger German patrols passed within a few yards of us. We were strongly tempted to have a go at them as they would have been a siting target but “orders is orders” so on we had to go.
Very soon after daybreak, it became apparent that a group of farm buildings about two hundred yards away was our objective, as numerous cars and motor cycles were seen to arrive and depart at quite frequent intervals. Towards evening, we say three whacking great tanks with what seemed very wide tracks ambling up to the farm and although we didn’t know what they were at the time, I have been told since that these were the first Tiger tanks seen in the campaign. When darkness fell, off we started in pouring rain, feeling far from heroic. We had to cross a number of wadis on our way and I had the misfortune to fall into quite a deep one but suffered no ill effects than a severe shaking.
Our plan was, of course, to try and get the sentries and then carry on with the good work. We got up to the entrance, a sort of courtyard, three of us on each side and two behind guarding our rear. Visibility at this stage was limited to about five yards, so heavy was the rain. We could hear the two sentries talking at the other side of the courtyard and could see their cigarette ends glowing. We made several attempt to attract their attention and at last one of the cigarette ends started to move towards us. When the figure behind the cigarette end came into view, for a moment, I felt almost sorry for him as he had both hand in his pocket and his gun slung over his shoulder. I hoped he would go to the sergeant’s side of the roadway but unfortunately he came straight for me. So when he was about a yard away, I nudged the rifleman beside me and as we had rehearsed it previously that day, we both went for a different place. He didn’t make a sound and as dead when we put him down. We now waited for his pal, whom we hoped we could dispose of equally easily. After a few shouts for his pal, his cigarette started to move towards us. When he came into view, we saw he had his gun at the ready but still we felt quite confident of disposing of him.
Then the accident happened!
The chap behind me, apparently wanting a better view, leaned over and in so doing overbalanced, causing the most frightful commotion. The German immediately opened up and by sheer bad luck, for he couldn’t see us, got me through the right leg with his first burst, fracturing it in two places. My sergeant immediately got him with his Tommy gun. But now, of course, the whole place was in an uproar. Feeling far from happy, as by now my leg had folded up on me, I had to tell the sergeant to make tracks for home, with the information of the place and to his credit, with a very bad grace, he departed. I was now feeling very angry, my beautiful plans having miscarried so badly and as the courtyard seemed full of shouting Germans, the opportunity seemed too good to miss as I just poked my Tommy gun round the corner and let them have the four magazines I had with me. I also had two grenades, which I lobbed over a low barn and judging by the yells, they were not wasted.
Having no more ammunition left, I lay back as I fondly imagined, to be picked up. Quite a time elapsed and then I heard footsteps approaching from my rear. Fiver Germans came into view and to my consternation one of them raised his gun and let fly at me as I lay on the ground. Here, I had the most amazing luck, as although he fired a burst of nine, I only received three of them in the left leg, which apart from severing a few nerves, did no great damage. I gave tongue in no uncertain manner, whereupon they came forward, picked me up and carried me into the courtyard, where there was considerable commotion going on with their own casualties. I felt that my reception may not be too good: I must in all honesty say that my treatment could not have been better. My wounds were dressed, I was given hot coffee and cigarettes and later on a sedative to ease the pain. I had a long talk with the German colonel who spoke remarkably good English and who gave me a dissertation on the tragedy that England and Germany were at war. When ambulance eventually arrived to take us to Tunis, about fifteen miles away, he came and wished me a speedy recovery. I don’t want to be accused being pro-German. I am very much the reverse but I am merely giving an account of how they treated me and their treatment certainly gave me no cause for complaint.
On arrival in Tunis, after a very uncomfortable trip, partly over mountain tracks, we found an Allied air raid in full swing. I was brought to a French hospital taken over by the Germans, given an anaesthetic, and my leg set by a German doctor. The nurses were all remarkably pretty French girls. They seemed to take it in turns to come and tell me not to worry that my friends would soon be here (Tunis). This, I also believed, and was not unduly worried about being a prisoner as I felt I should be back in Allied hands very soon. It was, therefore, a very rude shock indeed when I was awakened at 6 o’clock the following morning and told that I was being flown immediately to Italy. This was apparently the “preferential” treatment accorded to officers. Shortly before I departed, a German officer came into my room and addressed me in most fluent and colloquial English. Upon my expressing surprise at this, he informed me that he had lived in England for eleven years until the spring of 1939. He then informed me that he was an Intelligence Officer sent to interrogate me but that the thing was rather ridiculous as there was nothing I could tell him that he didn’t already know. When I cast doubts on this, he proceeded to satisfy them in no uncertain manner even informing me that I was Irish. How he found this out, I knew not. He named my Brigade, its three regiments and the names of their CO and then took out a map and showed the positions the battalions were at present occupying. He told me also that so good was the German Intelligence Service, that within an hour of the arrival of a convoy at any port in North Africa, the German High Command was in possession of the names of the units landed, their senior officers, numbers of men and armament.
Soon after this, I was brought in an ambulance to Tunis airport. This was a most depressing place as both the sky and the ground seemed alive with German aircraft. To my great discomfort, I was put in to a very ancient JU 52, with about fifteen wounded Germans. I immediately thought of all the stories I had heard about the Spitfires shooting thee things down in dozens and I prayed very hard that there would be no Spitfires about that day. Fortunately, my prayer was answered and, after a three hour trip, we landed at Reggio Calabria, which although I didn’t know at the time, was to be my home for the next eight months. Immediately on arrival at Reggio. I was separated from the Germans a and brought to an Italian Hospital on the outskirts of the city, where I found myself in a very mixed collection of about forty other Allied wounded: Scottish, English, American, French and even one Arab.
Let me say before I describe the conditions were like in an Italian hospital as a prisoner that I would like the experienced to be regarded, not as entirely my own, but as those undergone by many other Allied wounded, who had the misfortune to find themselves in hospitals in the most southerly part of Italy. Straight away, I would say that at no time did we suffer any ill treatment from the Italians; they were kind enough in as far as it lay in their power to be kind, but the trouble was that they had very little to be kind with. The Germans had stripped them of everything of value or usefulness, the chief things that concerned us being food and medical supplies. There were no anaesthetics in our hospital ! The Italian attitude to the Germans was one of intense hatred and even when I arrived there in January 1943, they were asking wen the Allies were coming to liberate them.
There were only three Allied officers in the hospital; an Englishman and an American, a Frenchman – all very nice fellows. At first, we had a small room to ourselves, a fair amount of peace and quiet but this, unfortunately, ended when the air raids began. For the first four months, during which time I was in bed, things were quiet, the only variation in the general monotony being the departure every morning of large fleets of German transport planes for Africa and their return the same evening. Food, or the lack of it, was our ever present thought. Our daily menu without variation was: breakfast, a cup of warm goat’s milk; dinner, a cup of macaroni and water and a small piece of inferior meat; tea, a cup of rice water. Bread rations for twenty four hours was two small rolls of dark bread. As a result of the lack of nourishment, it made the healing of wounds most difficult. In addition, a number of patients died from pure starvation. My own case was a fair average. When I went there, I weighed 12 stone 10 lbs. When I left, I was 8 stones 7 lbs. We were under constant guard, although not one of us would have been fit enough to escape had we wanted – those who were able to sit outside had one hour per day in the sun.
On 30th April, leaflets were dropped on Reggio by American planes announcing that it would be bombed on 6th May at 1130am and that, while the targets would all be military objectives, it would be advisable for all civilians to clear out. This was treated as mere Allied propaganda and no notice was taken of it. At 1330 to the minute on 6th May, the Fortresses and Liberators arrived. They stayed only three quarters of an hour but it was quite long enough. The civilian casualties, when computed some time afterwards, came to more than 1,700 killed and 3,000 wounded. Conditions in the hospital after this were, of course, beyond description and the poor prisoners were forgotten to the extent of getting nothing at all to eat for three days. On the fourth, we kicked up such a row that they gave us something but from that day onward we had very much to tend for ourselves. Raids continued by day and night with increasing regularity for the next three months. Tremendous damage was done to the town, the harbour and military objectives in the vicinity but as far as out hospital was concerned, although we had many uncomfortably close shaves and all our windows were broken, we never got a direct hit.
On 12th July came the great news that Sicily had been invaded and our hopes soared. For the ensuing seven weeks, we were alternatively in the heights and the depths, between hoping for release and fear of being moved north. In view of the latter contingency, we had made arrangements for a getaway in a boat to Sicily, if necessary, for those fit enough to attempt it and I believe it had a very good chance of success. Fortunately it was never needed.
On the fateful 3rd September, the artillery baggage covering the invasion fleet across the Straits of Messina began at 445am and lasted, without a seconds break, till 530am. We heard afterwards that there had been more than six hundred guns lined up on the far side as well as three battleships in the Straits. It was a most shattering experience to be at the wrong end of it, but our luck still held and we all escaped serious injury. We were, of course, terrified, but the thought of what must be coming at the end of it was a great help. At last, about 6am, we saw the mall assault craft heading out of the smoke and our long period of waiting was over.
There is little more to tell. There was no resistance to the landing and troops were passing the hospital within two hours. The joy of seeing and speaking to our own people is impossible to describe. We got away to Sicily the next day, from Catania to Tunis by air the following day and thence by hospital train to Algiers, where we separated. I was operated on in a British General Hospital in surroundings of the greatest luxury (I even had Guinness for my lunch) and after a seven weeks stay there, left by hospital ship for England.
After a week of the finest feeding that I’ve ever had in my life, a very thankful, though somewhat emaciated rifleman stepped shore once more in England, a year to the day from having left for overseas service.