All these memories were written by hand, by my father as and when he recalled them throughout 2009 and 2010. We have tried to put them in some sort of order but dates may overlap and incidences repeated, but we make no apology for this as they are printed as they were written, memories from over 60 years ago, but still as clear as the day they happened. Rina Gent
The fighting in North Africa ended in Cap Bon, Tunisia in May, 1943 with the surrender of the German forces there. Whilst GHQ (general headquarters), planned the next move our regiment moved to a wadi, (valley), quite near Hammamet on the coast. It was a tranquil spot, the sides covered with olive trees sloping down gently to a dried-up river bed at the bottom. The country was dry for about 11 months of the year and the wadi's carried away flood water during the torrential rains in late autumn. A large marquee was erected as a Mess, (eating area) and other tents held ovens etc., for preparing food. We were each issued with a one-man bivouac, (small tent) and we chose our own spot among the olives. This involved leveling a small area of land, erecting the bivouac over it and then digging a narrow channel round it to drain away rainwater. With a groundsheet and three blankets (2 army and one American, they were much softer!) and maybe an extra one you had managed to scrounge, it was really comfortable. Each man had his own way of making his bed. I folded my blankets until it was like a sleeping bag that I used to slide into feet first and no matter how often I turned over it retained its shape. You may wonder why we needed blankets in North Africa? It was because despite the heat of the summer days, often over 100ºF, the night's were always cold. Even so, I'll never forget the hilarity when the squadron lined up in late summer outside the Quartermaster's store. We wore khaki drill shorts and shirts and were issued with thick woollen underwear including Long John's! But, were we glad of them in mid-winter when we woke up in the mornings and everything was covered in a glittering white frost. There was a bit of excitement during our first month in the wadi when a couple of hit and run raids were made by Messerschmidt fighter bombers. They dropped flares, a few bombs each and then disappeared. As far as I know there was some damage but no casualties. After the first raid there was a roll-call and all were present and correct except one.........me! They feared the worst and a search got under way. Eventually they found me at the bottom of a slit trench close to my tent. At first they thought I was dead, then, that I was cowering there too terrified to come out. Then they realised that unbelievable though it seemed, I was fast asleep! I awoke to the sound of voices and torches shining in my face, wondering what on earth had happened! Honestly, when I was young I slept like a baby, anywhere!
Cap Bon is the North Easterly point of Tunisia, east of Tunis and north of Hammamet. It is where the German forces surrendered in May, 1943, and the fighting ended in North Africa. There were tanks everywhere, dozens of them with the crews standing around or lying down in the warm sun, enjoying a cigarette or just chatting. The battle at Medez-el-Bab was behind, we had survived and everything seemed so quiet and peaceful.
Suddenly, a motor-cycle engine was heard and to our disbelief and amazement, a German motorbike and sidecar chugged serenely into view, quite oblivious apparently that the place was crawling with Allied armour. The tank crews watched them, unable to believe their eyes as the driver and passenger in German uniform and helmets, cruised past the Shermans, seemingly unaware of the mortal danger they were in. Still the tank crews stood there, their mouths open, when suddenly it happened. A lone gunner must have still been in his turret and opened fire with his machine gun. The motorcycle swerved off the road and disappeared into a ditch. Shortly after an ambulance came up and we found the German’s had been incredibly lucky, well, one of them at least! The gunner must have aimed too low, missed the driver but raked the bottom of the sidecar with a stream of bullets, two or three of which had wounded the sidecar passenger in the buttocks. Not mortal, but decidedly painful! He was carried away face down on a stretcher and would doubtless stay that way for a couple of weeks. The driver, more than happy to be a P.O.W.
That is not quite the end of the story. Some of us strolled across to have a look at the vehicle still in the ditch. Being a sign writer I was interested in the beautifully painted coat-of-arms on the body of the sidecar, with a scroll underneath which contained the inscription,
“Semper in Excreta”
"Always in the shit"
This story concerns an incident which occurred during a bathing trip to the Med whilst we were camped in a wadi in North Africa 43/44.
A large party of us were driven to the coast for a refreshing swim in the sea. As temperatures regularly passed 100ºF it was wonderful to strip off our clothes and rush into the cool water stark naked. Whilst splashing around, my mate, Len Sewell, pointed to a half-sunken wreck which had probably struck a mine and been beached. It was about a mile away and he suggested we swim out and look it over. We were both strong swimmers and soon reached the rusting ship and pulled ourselves up over the rails. We explored the upper deck and then went down inside. It was quite disorientating, it felt as if we were leaning at an angel of 45º when actually everything around us was leaning and only we were upright. After half an hour we jumped back into the sea and headed back to the distant beach. As we approached we noticed all our friends were out of the water with the officer standing in front of them gesticulating wildly. As we waded ashore he was livid and spluttered, “What the hell were you doing? Do you realize if you had drowned I could have been court-martialled and sent back to England!”So that was it! He wasn’t concerned about our safety, only about the possible consequences for him. He was incidentally, the superior snob in my story, “My day as a Gunner”.
A spin-off from our bathing trips was that there were always several Arab women waiting for us. They collected our khaki shirts and shorts, took them away and washed them, dried them in the hot sun and returned them to us at the end of the afternoon. How they remembered whose clothes belonged to whom I’ll never know, but they knew and nothing was ever missing. They charged very little and were grateful for the piece of soap we put in a pocket. By the way, we weren’t embarrassed by our nakedness but did hold a towel in front to spare the ladies blushes!
Another little true story which I never thought was particularly amusing, but which the rest of the squadron, at least the O.R.'s, thought was a scream. Certainly they never tired of hearing it and, inevitably, after Christmas dinner, Rabbie Burns night or similar celebrations there was a call, "Come on, Frank, tell us about your day as a Gunner". It happened when we were out of action in North Africa. Occasionally we drove out in the tanks for some shooting practice. I had been trained in England as a Radio/Operator and that was my trade when I joined the Lothians and Border Horse in Algeria. For some unknown reason our troop officer, who was a supercilious snob, and unpopular with the tank crews, decided he would like me to be his gunner. The gunner's position in the turret was cramped and uncomfortable, his only view of what was happening outside was through his periscope and when engaged with the enemy he could not move for hours. I didn't fancy it at all. My near sight was very good but my long sight was poor and I had been issued with a pair of Army Spectacles. I deliberately forgot to take them with me. Well, we drove out to the practice area and the Radio/Operator loaded the 75mm. The officer said, "Right, gunner, aim at that burned out tank". I said, "I can't see any tank, sir." "The tank just in front of that ruined farmhouse" he replied. "Which farmhouse, sir?" The officer was becoming exasperated. "The farmhouse just to the left of that wood." "Which wood, sir?" That was the last straw, "The wood half way up that effin' mountain, you blind idiot!" "Which mountain, sir?" I 'innocently' replied. My objective had been accomplished. We returned to camp without firing a shot. And I returned to my Radio/Operator job a happy man!
That last remark, "Which mountain, sir?" always brought the house down and the unpopularity of the officer no doubt had a lot to do with it.
Hammam Lif, which is one of the 2nd Lothian's battle honours, is a narrow strip of land maybe 100 yards or so, between a mountain and the sea in Tunisia. It was the last place which could be defended before it opened out into Cap Bon where the 1st Army met the 8th Army............ The Germans were supremely confident they could stop us there. Which was not surprising really. They controlled the heights and their Artillery observation Officers could bring down heavy and accurate high explosive shells within minutes of spotting any movement by our tanks. “C” Squadron decided to drive along the beach as the sand was level and firm, but had to retreat when three of their tanks were blown up on carefully concealed landmines. “A” Squadron tried to charge down the road at the foot of the mountain. It was equally disastrous as well-hidden 88mm anti-tank guns picked them off. My squadron, “B”, was then ordered to attack through the centre with some cover from cactus groves but also open stretches of land. I was the radio-operator loader in our Sherman and our driver was an unkempt, scruffy Irishman from Eire, a volunteer and the finest driver I ever knew. His lightning reflexes saved our tank and its crew on more than one occasion. This was one of them.
We had left the shelter of some cactus and were making a dash across exposed land when a heavy HE shell exploded about 30 metres in front of us. Paddy braked to a halt as another shell blew a massive crater 30 metres behind us. Paddy knew this was what is called a “bracket” and he also knew only too well where the next shell was coming in a few seconds. In the turret we were stunned and bemused by the force of the explosions, but not our driver. He slammed the gears into 1st, rammed his foot down on the accelerator and, as the engine screamed, heaved back on the right hand braking stick doing a 90º turn before releasing it as our 30 ton Sherman practically leapt forward. Sure enough, the shell exploded exactly on the place we had just left but, instead of blowing us to smithereens, the blast gave us a kick up the backside as we gratefully shot into the cover of the cactus.
Thank you Paddy, not for the first time, or the last!
Ex-Corporal Frank Dennis Gent with Paddy Scully, Perugia, 1944