THE LIFE OF A P.B.I. MAN – WORLD WAR II
4th Btn. The Royal Sussex Regt. August 1937 – May 1946.
So much has been written about the war by Brigadiers and Generals, that it is sometimes forgotten that it is the infantry, in the past, that has had ultimately to win all the battles and wars. The Infantryman not only takes the active part of fighting, but, when he is finished, he then has nothing better to sleep on than a muddy slit trench, returning on guard for half of the night, and, when not patrolling, he stands for hours at dawn each day awaiting an attack, which rarely came.
His burden is not only the tedious job of patrolling, but the constant mental strain of waiting for the attack. He is faced with danger every moment of every day, and the thought of death lurks in the back of his mind. He sees he comrades being eliminated one by one, and sees no release from the constant torment until his regiment is withdrawn from the forward area, therefore, there is an immeasurable gap between the infantrymen in battle and all the other soldiers. The infantryman is proud of his regiment, and of being in the infantry. I was one of those men, and this is a short story of my life between the years of 1939 – 1945, The Second World War.
I joined the Royal Sussex Regt. Territorial Army, August 1937, 17 years of age. Our head quarters was in a tin hut in Morton road, East Grinstead (West Sussex). On August 26th we were called up to serve in the army, War was declared Sunday 3rd of September 1939. After four months training in England we were transported to France during the month of January 1940. We marched for five days across France and Belgium covering 119 miles, sleeping in barns and cow sheds. After a short time we had our first taste of war, facing the guns of the “Hun” (the Germans) which continued until May 1940 when we requested to withdraw to a better (and safer) position, from Mont De Cat to DePanne both in Belgium, 32 miles from the coastline. DePanne was the next town to Dunkirk, France. DePanne at this time was under heavy fire from the “Hun” artillery and bombs whilst Dunkirk, only a few miles away, was a mass of flames.
May 31st, myself and seven other men decided to row out into the channel, we were picked up by a British fishing boat who were sweeping for mines, they took us to Ramsgate. At this point only half of the 4th Battalion returned, the ones who hadn’t returned were either taken prisoner or were killed. I was one of the lucky ones as I only had a small wound on my face and on my right hand, from a piece of shrapnel.
The Battalion were reformed with new men and we returned to the south coast to defend our country. In May 1942 we sailed in a large convoy aboard a ship called The John McAndrew, an ex-meat ship. A person on board said don’t worry the enemy can’t sink this ship, we soon found out why, we were never in the water long enough, one minute we were looking down the funnel of the ship alongside us and the next minute we were looking at her bottom at the same time she was rolling from side to side. There were fourteen hundred men aboard and so we were incredibly cramped. We sailed for the south Atlantic to go if needed to Australia, India, Persia or Egypt. Tobruk fell into German hands and so the 44th division was directed to Suez in July 1942 which joined the 8th Army, the Desert Rats, just in time for Rommel’s threat to the Delta. The Royal Sussex went back to the war of Alan El Haifa, in which the regiment put up a very good fight but still lost a few men. After this the 133 Royal Sussex Brigade 2nd, 4th and 5th Battalions were then ready to be re-equipped and on the 29th September 1942 joined the 10th Armoured division. On the night of October 23rd 1942 the great battle of El Alamein began. We the Royal Sussex were in reserve to go into battle where ever the need arose. On the 27th October 1942 we were ordered to go and capture a place called Woodcock. A lot easier said than done, after some incredibly hard fighting we arrived and received notice that the 10th Tanks were arriving first thing in the morning, they never arrived. On the way through we captured 200 prisoners (Germans and Italians) not forgetting five 88mm guns. By then the 4th Battalion had advanced two miles into the enemy lines to find Woodcock. See plan page.
The men were ordered to “dig in”, the ground was rock hard therefore the anti-tank guns were above ground, only three 6 pounder anti-tank guns were able to find their way forward, I was on one of them. When daylight arrived we found ourselves surrounded by German tanks. We fired about six shots and were hit four times by the German guns. Three of the men were killed and two were wounded, I was hit in the back and knocked out for a short time, when I came to someone was standing over me, he said that the War was over, I said “Thank God” then I realised he was a German with a gun – I was a prisoner of war. All three of the six pounders were picked off in the first half an hour by the German tank gunners, we lost a lot of good men in that battle. The 4th Battalion was never reformed again. One famous soldier of the dessert army wrote “I witnessed this battle at El Alamein with the 133 Brigade”, and, he said, “the fighting qualities of the Royal Sussex Regiment, their courage, loyalty, guts and devotion to duty under hellish conditions were things they and the people of Sussex could be proud of.” Ask the Germans!
I was reported missing. My mother received a card from the Vatican City six months later to say I was still alive and in hospital in Italy. We sailed from Tunisia in Italian ships, Friday 13th of November 1942, shut in the hold. The ship after us was sunk by R.A.F bombs (we were told by the Italians) all on board were lost. We were lucky, or were we?
Hospital in Caserta.
I was taken to a hospital in Caserta, Italy, which was where I stayed for the following 12 weeks along with the lice and bugs. I was suffering a back injury and my legs were partially paralysed. When I got there a lot of the men had diphtheria and it was not many days before it got to me; I was very ill for a long time. The beds were just two foot apart, the night shirts the Italians gave us to wear were full of lice eggs in the seams. When the warm eggs hatched they gave you hell, then the big bed bugs dropped from the walls on to you as you lay there. I think they liked British blood! The man in the next bed to me, a South African, was in great pain. He had a piece of shrapnel in the cheek of his backside and it was all the colours of the rainbow. A young Italian doctor (we thought he was) and a nurse came and turned him on his front. They put a pillow under him so his back side was sticking up. No gloves, no anaesthetic, with a large knife they made a large incision. The poor man screamed and passed out. Puss and blood shot out like a fountain all over the bed and floor. The stench was terrible. The doctor took a pair of forceps and probed the wound and came out with a piece of shrapnel. He then walked down the ward with it in full view of all the patients. I think he was very proud of his operation. The nurse packed the wound with little pieces of white rag. Two days later the man died in great pain.
From the hospital we, the prisoner of war, were sent to a P.O.W camp in the north of Italy (Camp 70). I was there until the Italians packed in the war. Then we broke camp and made for the hills. There were four men in my party, we lived on grapes and other fruit and anything we could pinch from the Italians. After five or six days of freedom we ran into a German patrol, so we were again prisoners of war. We were bundled into trains, 50 to each goods wagon. 6 days we spent in these wagons only being allowed to leave for a short time each day. Our train was transported to Leipzig, Germany at precisely the same point that the R.A.F began bombing the town which was far enough away for us to not be directly effected. These bombs were the first of many. In the morning we volunteered to go into the town and pull the bodies out of the bombed houses. The Germans thought that we were mad “Englanders” but I think they appreciated it. The following day we were shipped back on the trains and carted off to Stalag IVB then out to a working camp (The Herman Gering Works) The camp was very close to the works and the Germans still thought that they were still going to win the war (some hope!). In this camp our jobs varied from planting trees and shrubs to unloading coal trucks. This was the point that the Italians threw in the towel and so the Germans were fighting alone. As the new prisoners arrived, replacing the ones that had been killed or bombed, we received news about the war and sometimes news from back home.
IN A PRISIONER OF WAR CAMP
It was still dark when the armed German stampeded through the hut shouting “Rouse – Rouse” (Hurry – Hurry). You learnt to move incredibly fast out of your bunk otherwise you soon get a prick of a bayonet or a German jackboot in your ribs. This ritual of being hurried out of the hut in the freezing cold for early morning roll-call became a way of life for someone in this prisoner of war camp. The German who carried out this roll-call were nick named Goons. These Goons counted, recounted and then rechecked again, sometimes roll- call would last for hours, once we were finally dismissed all the men would totter back to their hut, sick to death with the cold, looking forward to the only privilege allowed in the camp, a ration of mint tea or acorn coffee. Four men would bring in a dustbin full of this liquid into the hut which would provide each man with one tin measure (a measure would be about the size of an army tin mug). It was a very odd mixture of what we think to be made out of chopped twig leaves, flavoured with mint, no milk or sugar! We existed on a ration of just two cups daily. Our food consisted of 350 grams of black potato bread and a litre of a watery muck they called cabbage or mangled soup. At the weekends the Germans gave us a piece of fish cheese, this fish cheese was coated with a thick white slime that tasted vile. Another type of food that was rationed to us was turnip or mangle jam, only one spoonful, and a piece of wurst, made of raw meat. The size of this wurst and cheese was about the size of an oxo cube, this wurst had to heated before eating, camp doctors orders, as it was infested with tape worm germs. After an air raid we would have larger pieces of meat, you may think what you like but it was good to eat.
We slept in wooden four tier bunks on straw stacks which were full of lice so you could never sleep exceptionally well. There were sixty men in the hut in which I was staying, therefore there was just enough room in the centre of the hut so that you could walk around, if you didn’t mind steeping over the men who were brewing a cup of red-cross tea. The red-cross parcels we received saved many peoples lives in the camps; if the Germans were in a good mood we might get one parcel a week between two men rather than between four. Of course if they felt like it all the parcels were cancelled which did happen quite regularly after air raids. The raids became worse towards the end of 1944 and still worse into 1945. The Yanks by day, the R.A.F by night and occasionally the Russians dropped as well. As my camp was just outside the Herman Goring Works, where the Germans were extracting oil from coal, this made us a prime target for bombers.
When I was released by the Russians on May the 8th, 1945 ( by the Russians Women’s Infantry Battalion) there were only two chimney stacks left standing. Barn we were back on parade for work in the factory. Our job now was filling in the bomb holes of the last raid, though by that time the Yanks were back to make a few more holes and knock a few more buildings down. Seventy five of my comrades were killed and many more wounded by our own bombs, R.A.F and Yanks, but I suppose that is the price of war. For all the German’s faults they always gave the British in the camp a military funeral when possible. The poor Russians were just dumped in a pit and covered with quick lime. Our working day started with a search by the Goons before leaving camp to be in the works by 8a.m. Then gather your shovel to start work, about 10/12 men to a hole. Our “scam” to prolong the work was that some men worked above the hole and some men from within it, so as the hole was filled in from one side the men in the hole threw the soil from out the other side. By the end of the day the hole was the same size as it was before we started, if not bigger. Eventually the German twigged what was going on, then you had to duck a few rifle butts or a kick up the backside. We would then fill it in properly and start the same on the next hole. At about 12 noon we were told to sit down for half an hour and rest, rain or shine. If the Yanks were on their way we had to go very quickly into a drift mine for shelter. We didn’t mind this as it gave us more rest. We never waited for the guard, mostly old men or men wounded in the war, since everyone was in the same situation enemy or friend. The bombers did not pick you out. Back to work until 5p.m, unless there had been a bad raid then we had to work on until six or seven p.m.
We never took our clothes off to sleep or wash properly in the last few months of the war. As soon as the siren sounded we rushed out of the camp and down the drift mine. Sometimes to stop there until roll call (appel) next morning. Our working week was Monday to Saturday 8 a.m. to between 5 and 7 p.m. with a day off on Sunday one week and the next week half day Saturday and back to work Sunday at 8 a.m.
Back at the camp another search by the Goons to see if we had pinched anything from the days work in the factory but you could always fool the Hun. Then back to your hut for your main meal of the day; 300grams of potato bread; a litre of cabbage or turnip soup, and a tin of acorn coffee or mint tea. Then to bed too tired and weak to even bother to wash properly knowing that in a very short time the R.A.F would be back to knock a few more buildings down and make a few more holes to fill in.
To combat the lice the Germans shaved all the hair of our bodies – hair, arm, crutch and sprayed on a very vile smelling disinfectant, but the lice always won. They got in the seams of your clothes and in your one small blanket to lay their eggs. You had to go round the seams with a piece of lighted paper or wood until you could hear them crack. Just think, 60 men sitting on their bunks cracking lice eggs. It was like November 5th. The Germans use to say that the French worked, the Russians did little work, but that the British made work. How right they were.
One little incident with a bomb hole. There was one guard who hated the British, he said we had bombed his home town of Dresden. We called him Black Jack as he was always dressed in black leather clothes and black jack boots. He was about 60 years old. He treated us very badly, rifle butts in the back or a kick to try to make us work faster. One very wet morning he got very close to the edge of the hole and someone gave him a shove. He fell into the hole and all at once all the prisoners started to fill the hole in very quickly. The poor man was screaming as he thought he was going to be buried alive. But being British we had had our fun so we pulled him out, none the worse for it, and gave him some British cigs from our red cross parcels. He was a very different man after that. He said it was me who had pushed him and I got a week in the nick on bread and water without red cross parcel privileges. Three days later I was let out for some reason. We never found out why.
Another sabotage job we managed to engineer was with the little train that brought the waste from the coal. It was like thick black sludge and after a short time it set hard. We had to tip the trucks and the sludge would run down the embankment and then we levelled it down. After a time we had to move the railway over so it was nearer the edge. We had to put long poles under the railway line and when the German guard gave the word every man gave a shove on the pole and the line moved over a few feet. One morning the train with all the loaded trucks came along the line and stopped near us P.O.W.s of all nationalities. Someone shouted the right word and the poles were under the line in a flash. Every man put his weight on the poles and over went the line, the engine and the trucks full of sludge down the embankment. This was about two weeks before the end of the war and they never got them up again.
The next day we had all new guards, apart from Black Jack who stayed. The day we were released we found him dead outside the camp hanging from a lamp-post. We think it was the Russians but were never sure. By now the Germans were beginning to think they had lost the war, as we could hear and see the flash of the Russians guns in the distance. They were getting nearer every day.
Having been released we were with the Russian Women’s Infantry and Russian men, for a week. They told us to sit down and rest whilst they went to the next town. There was a lot of gun firing and on return they brought us food and wine which they had pinched from the Germans. This went on for a whole week. We slept in empty houses or shops taken over by the Russians, until they handed us over to the Americans. We had to take all our clothes off and put them on a big fire. We were then de-loused and given a bath in hot water! The first for a very long time. We were given American uniforms and a hot meal with real white bread and good coffee. The following day we were put on a plane (Dakota) and sent to France and the British lines. Another de-louse and bath and a good British meal. Two days later we were on a Lancaster Bomber, twenty men to a plane.
After surviving the lice and bugs, being starved, bombed, kicked, hit with a rifle butt or stabbed with a bayonet, we could still sing and laugh. These men were tough. I looked around the plane – have you ever seen twenty men crying? There were tears in every mans eyes including my own. To see those white cliffs again for the second time in the war. Fifty years on the memory is still there. Lice—bugs-bombs-Hun-wet-cold-starved. But thank God I am still alive to tell the world.
PEACE – ENGLAND – HOME.