It was a peaceful life. And most of our time was spent doing maintenance work on the tanks. I was busier than most because the C.O. (Commanding Officer), had discovered I was not only a professional painter but, glory be, a Sign writer as well! So, during the months we were out of action I was fully employed re-spraying all 'B' Squadron's tanks with camouflage paint, (green and brown over light and dark sand colours) so we guessed we were going to Italy. Despite a rumour that a troopship had been seen off Algiers with L. & B.H. (Lothians and Border Horse) on the funnel and it would be taking us all on leave to England. That was the wildest of many rumours going around, and we believed them because we wanted to! After the tanks had been sprayed I had to re-paint all the signs, e.g. 4A, in a blue square on the turret of the officer in command of 4 Troop 'B' Squadron. A yellow wheat sheaf was the regimental emblem, a mailed fist, (white on black) 6th Division, and the numbers, 56, the Brigade sign. There was also a red, white and red rectangle on the side of the hull which we always smeared with mud before going into action because we believed the Germans used to sight their guns on it. Last, and most important, was a huge white star in a white circle painted on the engine covers which, it was hoped, would be seen by American pilots and so prevent them bombing us. I did have a stencil I made myself for the mailed fist but all the others had to be done by hand. No brushes were provided, (typical of the Army) so I had to make my own. This was done by scrounging a shaving brush from the Q.M.S. (Quarter masters store), "lassoing" a small bunch of bristles, cutting them off at the base and then attaching it to a suitable stick. Primitive, but the results were excellent. It was a good life. Parade in the mornings, maintenance until lunch, rest, read or write home in the afternoon. Several days a week a truck drove to the coast with a full load of men who enjoyed a refreshing swim in the warm Mediterranean. We all stripped naked, quite unselfconscious.
You will know from previous stories what armourments our Sherman tanks were equipped with. Ours were the first which arrived in Algiers from the U.S.A. Early in '43 and which our division received before the final battle at Medjes-el-Bab in Tunisia. Later Shermans had increasingly powerful guns such as long-barreled 75mm's and even 105mm howitzers, but ours were the original basic versions. German Panther and Tiger tanks had heavier Armour and better guns but we had the advantage of much greater numbers, speed (30mph) and maneuverability. We had a 75mm gun which fired H.E., A.P. And smoke shells. There was a Browning ·303machine gun co-axially mounted with the 75mm, either could be fired by the gunner using the same sight. Another Browning was mounted in front of the co-driver which could be fired at targets ahead. A Thomson ·45sub machine gun was carried in the turret and could be used by the crew commander. I do not think it was generally known that every crew member was issued with a revolver, usually a Smith and Wesson ·38, which he wore in a holster on a belt whenever he was in action. It was a short range and inaccurate weapon and, as far as I know, never used in battle. We were never told why we were given this gun but it was generally accepted and believed that it was because if we were trapped in a blazing tank, the hatches jammed and no way of escape we could use it on ourselves to avoid a hideous and agonizing death.
True or not, it was a comforting thought.
The months went by, the days were getting cooler and then came the rains, heavy and continuous day after day. The bottom of the wadi was soon churned up into liquid mud by the trucks bringing supplies until, eventually, it became impassable. That's when the Sergeant Major had his bright idea. As soon as the rain stopped we would build a road! Not the Squadron Sergeant Major of course, but the slave labour gangs (us!), that he would organise and give orders to! Groups of men were sent out in trucks to bring back large rocks which were laid by other gangs to form the bed of the road. Other unfortunate 'slaves' were given sledge hammers to break rocks into smaller pieces to lay on the bed, and finally, cement was brought in and spread over the rocks to form a quite magnificent road. It is almost certainly there to this day, more than sixty years later, and has probably been made good use of by local Arabs. In March our peaceful existence came to an end and the regiment embarked for transport to Napoli. From there we were taken to a village, Bagno a Ripoli, behind the front line, to join the immense build-up of men and arms ready for the final breakthrough at Monte Cassino.