WWII Memories of Frank Dennis Gent

ex-trooper Eric Beal's memories

Eric served in the same regiment as me and I am still in contact with him. Not many of us old comrades left now! He kindly shared  some of his memories of WWII with me, and is happy to share them with you too.

Trooper Eric Beale outside the Coliseum, Rome. 1945, Just out of action. Thin and hungry!

April 1942

After several months training at Catterick Camp in Yorkshire I, and several hundred comrades were sent to Bovington, Dorset, in the south of England, the H.Q. of the Royal Armoured Corps. After a few weeks we were put on a special troop train and overnight rushed up to Scotland, non-stop. On arriving at Greenock on the River Clyde, we were put on a boat and taken out to a big liner anchored in the river.

The ship had been converted into a Troopship and, we were told, was taking 7,000 reinforcements plus transport, armourment and food. We were ordered to take off our army boots and wear P.T. shoes because of the slippery gangways and main decks. Also, possibley, because of the damage that could have been caused by steel-shod boots!

For four days we were anchored in the middle of the river while we watched boats ferrying more troops and materials to our own ship and to others.

In the early hours of the next morning, we heard a very load noise as the anchor was pulled up. There was a gale blowing and the wind was howling through the mast and cables and was very unnerving at first. We progressed along the river for several hours and then sailed out into the open sea.

Shortly, on the Port side, we could see the north coast of Ireland and the wind was getting stronger! As we got further out into the ocean, it was getting really nasty, with a capital N!

The waves were coming over the bow of the ship which shuddered violently and the stern lifted out of the water with screws spinning everywhere in the air. It was so rough that ropes had to be fixed all along the deck in a zig-zag pattern so we could get ourselves along without falling over!

There were seven large troopships in the convoy and the battleship 'Malaya' was next to us with a ring of destroyers and corvettes surrounding it. Everybody on board, except the crew, were being violently sick! It looked like a large, puce green curtain floating in the wind! I was sick on the first day only, and after that was O.K. except for a headache which lasted for four days. After five days the wind dropped at last and then the voyage was much more pleasant.

Ten days after we set sail, we arrived in Oran, North Africa, and then on to Algiers where we disembarked. Transport was in short supply so we had to march right round the bay of Algiers to a place called La Perouse. This march took us eight hours! From 4pm until after midnight.

I was sent to a Tank Delivery Squadron and after several months ended up in the 2nd Lothian and Border Horse regiment. By this time the war in North Africa was over. I was ordered to join H.Q. troop at first, but later transferred to 3 Troop, which is were I met Frank Gent.

'Fitz', Sgt. Fitzsimmons, the tank commander, asked me my name and told me to make myself at home in the bivvy. (Bivouac)

I sat down and as I put my hands down into the sand beside me, found to my amazement, a large, gold ring! I asked 'Fritz' if he knew who it belonged to. Well, he could not believe his eyes! It seems this ring was given to Fitz for good luck by his grandmother and he and all the crew had been searching for it with no result. It seems I had sat down in the very place 'Fitz' usually sat, and where he had lost the ring. It certainly was very lucky! He said that I was going to bring him and his crew good luck. Well, I dont know about that but we did all come through the war with not a scratch between us. Yes, that was lucky!

 

 

eisenkappel, austria june 1945

After the war in Italy was over, we were sent to a village called Eisenkappel and we changed our tanks for Staghound armoured cars. Our duties were to patrol the Austrian/Yugoslavia border as the Yugoslav partisans, now roaming freely in armed bands, were crossing the border and raiding Austrian villages.

We took command of the local Police Station and sent the police home, confiscating their pistols and all arms. Next we searched the houses for weapons, (shotguns and rifles), and all local farms for arms of any kind. We were also told not to fraternise with the local people as they were considered to be the enemy, (a mistake, I think). But in spite of this we did make friends with them and visited their homes.

The village boasted a large swimming pool which had a mountain stream running through it, controlled by a lock gate at each end. We had only been there two days when 'Lugi', (no idea how or why he got that nickname!), our Sergeant Major, detailed myslef and Doug Phillips, my swimming mate, with two others to clean out the ool. It had not bbeen used for years and the walls and floor were thick with green scum. Two elderly firemen broght their small fire engine and connected two hoses up from the small river so we could blast the scum off the pool walls and floor. They laughed their heads off watching us slipping and slithering and repeatedly spraying each other with the water. After we had cleaned all the scum off we opened the lock gate at the end of the pool to let the slimy water out, and then, after closing the gate, opened the gate at the opposite end to allow the pool to start filling with clean, icy cold water.

Then, I did something silly! I did a jack-knife dive off the springboard before the pool had a chance to fill up completely, and hit my head on the bottom. I really did see stars and a flash of lightening too! I came up to the surface and clung to the side of the pool with blood trickling down my face. Two of the lads lifted me out, but I was alright. They had not seen me dive in and were wondering what on earth I had been doing!

 

We enjoyed our stay in Eisenkappel and after several weeks I was detailed for Guard Duty one day. Six men for twelve hours. Two hours on, four hours off. We were to guard the armoured cars in the derelict station yard and Corporal Jones was guard commander. Upon reaching the Guard Room I found I had forgotten a spare magazine for my 'Tommy', (Thomson sub-machine gun). The corporal said to me, 'You'd better go back to the billet and get it but make it snappy in case the Orderly Officer comes round'.

Coming back I heard a rifle shot from the end of the main street where our H.Q. Guard was. A Yugoslav from over the border cam running down the main street towards me. for a moment I did not know what to do, then I suddenly made up my mind. Being pretty quick on my feet, I dashed out across the path, then turning quickly, gave him a hefty shoulder charge which caused him to stagger across the road. He lurched into the greengrocer's steel roller shutters with his back and then slid down on his arse! I raced across to him and threatened him with the only thing I had in my hand, my spare magazine! Just then, Lugi and the Quartermaster also came racing up but no thanks were forthcoming......all I got was from Lugi was 'Damn you Beal, I intended to trip him up with my stick'.............But I got there first!!  

milanino

After about three months in Austria the regiment was sent to Milano. I don't think they knew what to do with us because we were Territorial's and not regular army. I don't know where the other squadrons were billeted but 'B' squadron were lucky, and we 'took over' and occupied several fine houses and villas in a cul-de-sac in Milanino, a very nice, high-class district abut 10 miles from Milano. There wasn't any furniture in the houses but this did not bother us as we were used to sleeping on the ground anyway.

We had some great and happy times there. Our main duties were to patrol the surrounding areas in Northern Italy. This was called 'showing the flag' to let undesirable aliens, ?fascists, etc., know that there were British Troops about if there was any trouble. We never did have any. In Milanino discipline was not strict and most days after morning parade, and some vehicle maintenance, we could do as we liked. We often travelled on the trams into the city centre and I also remember that we invariably gave up our seats to any ladies or girls, especially the girls!!

As a wireless operator I could tune in to the squadron's 'Net' at certain times of the day. I used to tune in to the BBC and American Forces Networks and all the crew wore headphones, so we could listen to the latest news and music.

On patrol, we used to stop on the side of the road for a brew and something to eat. Patrols lasted ten days and it was a pleasant life style, peaceful and quiet, after the noisy and bitter fighting which had ended in the May. We would put up a 'bivvy' at the side of the Staghound in the evenings, and dangle a headset down inside of it. With the volume turned to maximum we could all listen to a programme before going to sleep in our blankets.

Back at our base in Milanino life went on as usual, maintenance, gun cleaning, refresher courses, guard duties, fatigues, etc., etc,.

Once again, when I was on a twelve hour Prowler Guard I was involved in an incident. This time two of the guards were outside on sentry duty when Charlie McCleod came rushing over shouting that one of the Cossacks soldiers was shooting holes in the ceiling with one of our sub machine guns! (The two Cossacks were deserters from the Russian Army and our Officer's had taken them in, along with their five horses, which they used to enjoy riding in their spare time). We do not know where or how this 'mental case' had managed to get hold of one of our guns!

We all rushed over to the house where he was billeted and as soon as he saw us with our guns at the ready, he dropped his and put his hands up. We locked him up in one of the small storerooms for the night and in the morning transported him in a 15cwt truck to a mental home in Milano.

The asylum consisted of a collection of large buildings in the form of a quadrangle, which included a huge lawn in the middle. We drove straight through the main gates into the quadrangle and there it was, a nut house in the raw! There were cells all round the buildings and each one had a small window with bars, through which the poor souls poked their shaven heads. There were a number of inmates wandering about in long, grey nightshirts and we presumed that these could be the safe and harmless ones? (How things have changed since then and for the better!)

 

Anyway, a kindly keeper in a uniform came and put his arms around our prisoner's shoulders and led him gently away. Frankie Sharrat said to me, 'Come on, let's get out of here before I go round the bend myself'!

And someone remarked that we would indeed have been a lot safer if we'd been in there during the war! 

An AFTERTHOUGHT......

I can't remember when but it was sometime during the latter part of the campaign in Italy. lugi mailed me and Doug Phillips and told us to 'volunteer' to go with an officer and one of the Cossacks (see 'Milanino story'), to a farm up in the mountains somewhere and to take our Tommy guns with us. The farm had a row of stables where horses were kept.

On arriving there we were told to stand in the stable yard with our Tommy guns ready and to wait there while the officer, (cannot remember his name), and the Cossacks went over to speak to the farmer and his wife. the farmer looked uneasy and wary but went to one of the stables and led out a hourse, a tall hunter.

The Cossock immediately threw a rope bridle, which he had made, over the horse's head then sprang up onto it's back and rode it back to the camp.

I think this may have been considered the 'spoils of war'!

ERIC BEAL

EX-TROOPER

LOTHIAN AND BORDER HORSE

2010

the hotel

This was the third time I got involved in an incident whilst on guard and this time it was completely of my own making!

I was detailed to go on a twelve hour Prowler Guard in Milanino and Jack, a comrade, and I, were to take the 10pm to midnight shift. I said to Jack that if I went on for one hour and then woke him up, then he could go on for the other hour and in that way we would both get an extra hours' sleep. Seemed like a good idea to me! So, he agreed and said ominously, as it turned out, that nothing ever happened anyway! So, I went on guard for one hour and duly woke him up when it was his turn.

I had only just got snuggled into my blankets when Lugi, the Sergeant Major walked into the Guard Room. Everyone was asleep by now, except me and I saw him pick up all the Tommy Guns (except mine), and take them out. Then he returned and shouted, 'Corporal, where is your other sentry?'

I sat up and replied, 'I am the other sentry Sir!'

'Why are you not on guard?' he demanded.

I hastily said the first thing that came into my head. That I did not feel very well. At that he replied that I would feel even worse in the morning!

'I have been in here and picked up all the guns and put them in the hall! Consider yourself under arrest Beal!'

I replied, rather unfortunately, but honestly, that he had not taken all the guns as mine was still under my bed.

At that 'Lugi' exploded!! 'Beal', he bellowed, 'You are now under CLOSE arrest!!'

What did I do? Got under my blankets and went to sleep.

 The next morning I  marched down to the Dining Hall, a converted garage, and all the boys were there eating their breakfast. When they saw me they all asked, 'What have you been up to Beal Boy?'

 

I told them I'd only been sleeping on Guard!

 

Of course all kinds of remarks and advice came flying at me, one was 'Why don't you go sick?' Well, as I had already told 'Lugi' that I did not feel well the night before, this seemed to be the best way out of this mess. Although I did know I was in the wrong!

So, I ended up in a 15cwt truck with all the other lads reporting sick, and off we went to Milano to see the M.O. (Medical Officer). He wanted to know what was wrong with me so I told him that I had come over all ill whilst on guard duty the night before. (I was in fact a picture of health!)

He said, 'Too much booze and too many women' (Which was not true!)

He told me to go 10c and to go to bed for the weekend.

They took me back to my billet. I got into bed excused of all duties and the lads were bringing me mugs of tea, books and magazines to read and really looking after me. Camaraderie at it's best! However, later in the afternoon the Squadron Runner came to me and asked if I was Trooper Beal?

'Yes', I replied.

'Squadron Leader wants to see you', he replied.

'I can't, I'm 10c and excused all duties', I replied.

'You'd better get over there or you'll be in trouble', he said.

'I already am' I replied sadly.

Anyway I got dressed and went over to Squadron Leader's office where 'Lugi' was waiting for me outside.

'Beal, keep your bloody mouth shut when you go in' he said.

I began to wonder what this was all about. I was getting really worried now. Then we were beckoned and Lugi marched me into the office, but it was not the C.O. sitting behing the desk, it was his second in command. Captain so and so, cannot remember his name. He said that the regiment was being disbanded and that there were some jobs going in Milano for those who were not due for early de-mob. He asked me would I be interested and I asked what sort of work it entailed. He replied that it would be as Reception Clerk in a hotel for married women, usually Italians who had married British Sevice men. 

Well, I nearly fell over backwards with surprise! All that worry for nothing!

Of course I agreed without hesitation. He said he would put my name down but could not guarantee anything. But, they sent for me the very next morning!

There is no doubt in my mind now that this must have been the best job in the British Army!

On arriving outside Regimental H.Q. in Milano, I met with two other trooopers and a sergeant waiting on the pavement. The sergeant told me they were waiting for the officer who was in charge to arrive. About ten minutes later a large German Mercedes Benz saloon drew up and a lieutenant from the R.A. got out to greet us saying how sorry he was for having kept us waiting. Then he said, 'Right, chaps, climb aboard', and off we went to a 70 room hotel in the centre of the city. On the way he told us he had 'acquired' the car from some German officers and intended to keep it. It turned out that he had been a hotelier in Civvy street.

We had to get all the kitchen eqipment, bedding, etc., and the the hotel staff did all the work sorting it all out. There were two cooks, two kitchen maids, five waiters and two porters and we all got on well together. I used to go down into the kitchen and have a chat with my poor Italian and they with their poor English, but me managed to understand each other and had a good laugh together.

I was given the job of collecting all the food rations for the hotel twice a week. the sergeant would phone the R.A.B.C. for a 3 ton truck and I would go to the depot to collect the rations.

I only worked two days a week, what a life!

Most of the time the hotel was empty, but sometimes we would get three coach loads of women from the Mediterranean countries who stayed for a week or so. Then they were put on a train to Calais, en route to England.

 

From here I got my demob papers which I requested as I was an agricultural worker. I had applied for 'B' release, for those in essential industries. And, so, I was leaving the Army a year earlier than I would have done.

 

The officer said to me, 'Beal, you must be bloody mad, you'll never get a job like this in Civvy Street!' But, he got a big party together for me, and all the staff and guests who were in the hotel joined in. He brought in musicians and singers. We had a good night that night and it was fitting end to my army career after four years.