Monday, 4 March 2013

The life that was..

It's with heavy heart that I must pass on the sad news of Alf's passing last night just after his favourite team, Spurs, beat his least favourite team, Arsenal. 

Rather than go into detail about those final years, months and weeks, I want you to look at the man I knew and the way I remember him.


Tuesday, 10 June 2008

When Churchill met Montgomery

As readers will have gathered, Alf is losing his memory but some of his photo's speak a thousand words.

This was taken by Alf, at the exact moment Sir Winston Churchill first shook hands with Field Marshall Montgomery after he arrived in the desert. The faces on the soldiers behind show what a moment this must have been for them all, ducking under the shadows of the wing of the plane he arrived on...

Friday, 1 February 2008

Maybe more soon

Unfortunately and sadly, Alf is now suffering from early to mid stages of demencia. I will try my best to catch some more of his stories, he has promised to find more diaries for me to post.

Some days he is totally coherent and is like he should be, other days, he is simply too forgetful to know if he has even drunk a cup of tea (normally the cup is in his hand)..

I hope to post some more soon.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Back to Blighty

The next 4 days on the ship were cruel, at night it was bitter cold. There is just enough space for us to sit down on the iron deck, but what is the use, I have on my Battle Dress and it affords me no warmth. I had to scramble about all night. There is no food or drink on board and the small latrine is of absolutely no use to 100's of men. It is your worst nightmare.

On the 5th day we sight England, it took us a long while because the German U-boats chased us off course. By 9am we anchor up in Plymouth Bay, there is no room in the docks, it was 10pm before we get any food on board. Men without units are the last to get anything, it is absolute torture watching the food dished out but a celebration knowing you are getting some soon.

Whilst munching my rations, I look around at the faces of the men. It's a sorry lot they look, some look half crazed and dead. Everyone looks relieved we are in good old England again. I make up my mind there and then that Jerry will never beat these men. They will fight 'til their last breath, just remind them of England and they will pull through. With those thoughts, I tried to sleep in a coil of rope but failed hopelessly.

Somewhere around midnight the engines start up and we are off again...Where to now? We are definitely leaving Plymouth, I wish I could see the coast, I'd feel a lot better.

Dawn finds us within site of the coast at Southampton. As before, the waifs and strays are the last to be seen to but we are now in England so who cares! I mate up with an infantry fellow and we make our way to St.Pancras train station. We had to use the Met line to get from Waterloo and we must have looked a site, we were the object of a lot of stares, but the mood we were in meant we didn't care!

We got the train to Matlock in the North of England, I meet up with some fellows from another Res Coy, the are stationed near my Coy, we then set off for a few miles march to the billets. On arriving, we meet up with the M.S.M who is a pig, after a few words from him i leave him standing, spellbound, I have been through too much to hear rubbish. I report to a Wks Corporal, he is a decent chap, he wakes the A.T.S cooks up and gets them to make me my first meal for days. He also fixes me up with sleeping quarters.

Next post - years in the desert as a rat.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

30 Away From Possible Death

We eventually managed to report to the check point but there was no information available so we had to carry on to the docks. The air raid was still on but there were enough quiet spells to allow us to move. Every time Jerry is overhead we stop to scatter, I have never seen Palestinians move so fast as they do on these occasions, they must be breaking all records for unloading a lorry.

Everywhere is deserted and I am thinking we had better get outside town until daybreak.

Later, I am firmly convinced that we came across a convoy loaded with AA ammo and Jerry was looking for it. We got back to check post and parked in the adjoining field to get some sleep.

I wake up and am surprised to find thousands of troops all around, I wonder if they were there the night before, if so, I guess we were lucky not to have got run over as there was a heavy mist and visibility was almost nil.

The sun is well up before we find out anything, our passengers are attached to the English Pioneer group. We then are told to park our wagons in another field along with many others, the R.A.F will later set fire to them. We then tag along with an R.A.S.C detachment on route to the docks. It is only 5 miles but takes the best part of 8 hours before we get near our ship.

The sun is unusually hot today and whilst struggling to march to the docks, I dumped most of my kit, keeping only my rifle, tin helmet and small kit. Feeling hungry and thirsty, managed to scrounge a tin of bully beef, whilst going through a town I riffle two bottles of lemonade from a civvy wagon. The Madame of the cafe who's wagon I riffled came out with some "froggies" and created a bit of noise, my little French is of no use so I throw her a pack of ciggies, which are scarce, and that quietens her down!

We are now alongside a ship called the Lancastria but we have got no luck, the last 30 of us will have to find another ship home, no room. Jerry pays us another visit and we manage to get to another quay and climb aboard a light Naval ship which takes us to a cargo ship in the bay. Almost ready to set off when Jerry hits the Lancastria (I was supposed to be on that). It's a lucky shot and the bomb goes straight down the funnel. Hundreds of young men are killed. we pick up the few survivors then set off for home.

(Alf didn't go into much detail, the following is information I have since found describing the scenes)

"After successfully dodging Luftwaffe bombs in the North Sea while helping with the evacuation of troops from Norway the Lancastria then took part in Operation Aerial where she was required in St Nazaire, France, to evacuate more British troops. At 04h00 on the 17 June 1940 she anchored slightly off St Nazaire at Charpentier Roads and began evacuating soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force along with some RAF men and a few civilians. There were so many people to evacuate that the afternoon arrived and the ferrying to and fro was still continuing. British Reserve Naval officers had coordinated the embarkation of evacuees with Sharpe. When the captain was asked how many troops his ship could take he replied “3,000 at a pinch”. By mid afternoon counting had ceased at 4000 and still the loading continued. There is no accurate figure for the number aboard but it is estimated that there were over 7000 people. The Lancastria was literally overflowing.

Then the bombing began. German Dornier Do17 aeroplanes flew overhead and, being trained for shipping attacks, were both delighted and amazed to see the enormous cruise ship undefended and stationary, just waiting for their arrival! It nevertheless took the enemy planes almost 2 hours to strike the Lancastria. Four bombs hit in total, one was a bull’s eye, dropping straight down the funnel and exploding in the engine room. At 16h15, less than 20 minutes later, the Lancastria rolled onto her port side and made her way bow first to her grave on the seabed.

The crew and passengers appeared not to panic while abandoning the sinking liner and incredibly singing was heard as the ship went down (“roll out the barrel” and “there will always be an England”!) Many people perished but there were some survivors. Two lifeboats had been launched and many had jumped overboard as the boat was swallowed up. However, the constant presence of enemy aircraft made any rescue operation very difficult. Also one of the bombs had ruptured the Lancastria’s fuel tank causing fuel oil to leak everywhere. Pulling victims from the water was a very slippery affair and often unsuccessful. Nobody knows for sure how many lost his or her lives that day because nobody knows exactly how many people were on board. Estimates are that approximately 4500 or 5000 people died. Thankfully around 2500 were rescued.

Part of the reason the Lancastria’s history is not well known is that Winston Churchill felt the country’s morale could not bear the burden of such terrible news and newspapers were ordered not to print the story. Survivors were forbidden under the King’s Regulations to mention the disaster and people killed were listed as “missing in action”."

The voyage home was horrible and will be told in the next post

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

We thought we were off to Blighty

(Sorry to take so long to post this, will be regular from now)

We held up Jerry for three days with the help of the Navy who had set fire to the enormous oil reserves in the docks, this formed a handy smoke screen for us. We would have got out quicker but for a shortage of shipping. Eventually, an old coal barge takes us out of the port. The Black Watch are the last to leave. After 24 hours on the barge we docked at Cherbourg and we were disappointed, we thought we were going to Blighty. Still we raised a laugh coming out of the hold, we all look like negro minstrels!

We part from the Buffs and they embarked on a trooper bounder for home, we were put in cattle trucks and set off to Rennes. It was nine o'clock the next morning when we arrived into Rennes on what was the worst train ride I have ever experienced or hope to experience. It wasn't until six o'clock in the evening that that we were let off the train, this time covered head to toe in brick hour later we are having a shower at our previous barracks.

HQ move off for the docks at St Malo. Once again, I am left behind with seven others for troop carrying. We are now attached to the 1stRes M.T. After three days we come to the last troops to move, Palestine Pioneer Corps. I am driving a 15cwt Bedford

(To give you an idea I added the above picture, below is Alf and chum changing tyre)

The truck had a Lewis Gun mounted (see below)

My orders were to follow at the rear. A diesel wagon carry some of the Palestines is in front of me and the driver has some trouble with the engine. I stop to give a hand and eventually we reach the main road, there is no sign of the convoy. We report to Signal Corps HQ in town. They inform us they don't know the destination of the convoy and that we should go to Nantes, too vague for us. The Diesel waits on the road and I take a buggy to a Chateau being used as HQ area. After many enquiries I am told to make speed to St Nazare that night and try to get a boat as Jerry is getting near. I am also told that Rennes is in a state because Jerry gave it hell just after we left.

On arriving back to the other wagon, I found that two of the Palestinians we were carrying had been taken as 5th columnists (spies dressed in Army outfits). We wasted precious time getting them away from the Police and it is now 10.30pm before we even set off. My wagon is faster than the diesel so I had to keep dropping off to make sure the diesel kept up.

St Nazare is in sight, but things don't look good, Jerry is pasting the dock area...

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

"What a life and what a war"

News is not so good and rumours are very consistent. The D.I.D is moved to a racecourse and none too soon, it is a bit too hot in the docks. Jerry never left it alone, it is not much better at the course but at least we can disperse easier. The Stadium itself is burnt down, the local cook beat Jerry to it!

All in all things are not so good, Jerry is a bit too much for us. We have to leave and start heading off down the coast, we are going to make a stand at Fecamp. It is a lovely little village. How I wish it were peacetime..

The Sherwood Foresters and Border Regiments are taking over the town and the Buffs are on the outskirts. Jerry is one move ahead of us, we just about get settled when he opens up. There is no news from town as we are cut off in a valley, it looks very dark for us, the only road out is blocked.

All second drivers are told to go and help the infantry. As a first driver, we have to stnad by our wagons, it must be getting desperate now and we have to go also. I have a few shots but they are wild, at imaginary targets. "What a life and what a war".

All drivers with loaded lorries are recalled. I wonder what is up now? We are informed that there is a chance of getting out, an Officer has found a cart track and has great hopes of us getting away.

The wounded are loaded on top of loads, it's the best we can do for them..

Off we go! I am driving the last lorry as they cannot put any casualties in my wagon, the cart track goes under very low bridges. My wagon being the only covered wagon and last, had to watch the other wagons just scrape through the bridges, I am unfortunate, I am too high..

My nerves are more on edge than ever, I thought, why should I worry about the cover, as long as I get through the first bridge, I'll be safe. I decided to go at it flat out, there was a cracking noise but my luck is in, I made it minus the cover!

We were straffed twice before arriving at the outskirts of Le Havre. We meet up with the Black Watch preparing to meet Jerry. I wonder what happened to the rest? So far there are only about a dozen wagons. After two days about two-thirds of the battalion turn up, the remaining are posted missing..