Soldier’s diary 3rd Oct 1942-29th Dec 1943
Inspired by a short memoir written by Charles Harris, my Grandfather; a living Cornish legend.
On the 27th of March 1942 my Grandfather qualified as a paratrooper, he says that the training was ‘very tough indeed’. No man was drafted into the paras, since its formation in 1941 the regiment relied on volunteers from across the army. He completed his first jump on the morning of the 7th of October 1942; he was then served tea and Saffron cake by none other than the novelist Daphne Du Maurier. Of which he says ‘I nervously ate the cake but could not keep the cup steady enough to drink the tea’. Whether this is a reference to meeting the author or to post jump nerves I don’t know. The presence of Ms Du Maurier is not so surprising for two reasons, one she had chosen to raise her family in Cornwall – Granddad is Cornish – hence the saffron cake no doubt and two, she happened to be married to Fredrick Browning, commander of the first allied airborne army.
He goes on to say that he completed his seven jumps in ten days and duly received his wings and the now notorious red beret. Here training seems to pick up a gear as I suppose the men were being knocked into shape for what lay ahead. Granddad mentions one occasion when they were ordered to walk from Weymouth to Bulford camp in Wiltshire, that’s 60 miles, Granddad obviously thinks this is too much and decides to catch a bus! However, someone he says ‘split’ on him and he was punished, ‘I got what I deserved 7 days CB’. Some would call that cheating; others, like me, prefer to call it using one’s initiative!
On the 3rd of November 1942 Granddad lands in Algiers as part of the Allied attack on Vichy controlled North Africa, codenamed Operation Torch. Operation Torch saw the allies take control of the Mediterranean which gave them access to southern Europe. In turn the Nazis moved quickly to occupy Vichy, France.
He says that they had not been in Algiers long before an air raid started, him and his mate ‘Shirley Temple’ from Bristol dived into a ‘pit’ for cover. After the ‘all clear’ sounded they had difficulty getting out, the sides were cast in smooth cement! Later they were told that the pit had been emptied of snakes’ only days before; luck it seems also played a part in Granddad’s survival!
‘Algiers’ he says ‘was full of spies’, so in an effort to confuse the enemy the officers prepared their men for battle three or four times a day, ‘or’ as Granddad points out ‘even worse, two or three times a night’! They were ordered to march to the aerodrome at ‘mansion Carree’, this they were told would break the morale of the Germans; ‘it certainly broke ours’ writes Granddad cynically.
Before the men marched to the aerodrome for the last time they were given the chance to go to church, here the ‘padre’ counts 120 soldiers and wonders openly how many would come back. A prophetic remark, if not a little macabre, as the mission these men were about to embark upon suffered a great loss. It became a regiment battle honor; 16 officers and 250 men lost their lives.
Granddad’s Company was among the men sent to destroy Oudna airfield in Tunisia, a disastrous mission that went terribly wrong due to lack of information and decent intelligence. Under General Frost’s command they flew out of Algiers on 29th November in American Dakota Aircraft, granddad had trained in Whitley bombers. In a Whitely the aperture is underneath the plane, you simply drop through the bottom but in a Dakota you jump out of a doorway on the side of the fuselage. He says ‘In a Dakota you had to just lean out, I couldn’t bring myself to do this so I sat on the ‘doorstep’, raised myself with my arms and out I would go’. He notes, with the clarity of hindsight no doubt, that the door was next to the tail of the plane and he was lucky not to have taken his head off!
Frost improvised a day time drop near Depienne and the 40 Dakotas descended to an altitude of 600ft above the Atlas Mountains. ‘We dropped onto the highest peak of the Atlas mountains, 8ooft, the mountains sheared up on one side but the dropping side was clear open fields of corn stubble’. Here, it’s worth pointing out, at that altitude in late November its bitter cold; although Granddad never mentions It, the temperature must have been a major factor. A drop of 600ft is very low indeed, the average distance for parachutist – excluding base jumping – is between three and six thousand feet these days! 600ft is nothing, by the time you have thanked god that your parachute has opened the ground is rushing towards you at an exhilarating and no doubt alarming speed!
The men are spotted by a German patrol but as yet unchallenged they continue on their course. Men of C company are left to help the wounded – and there were plenty – and to gather up chutes and equipment. These men of C Company embark on their own story but Granddad must have stayed with the main task force as they departed for Oudna. Ill equipped the men make their way by foot, through the night, in freezing conditions and reach Oudna by the following morning. Their brief is to blow up and destroy ‘alleged’ grounded aircraft that could cause a problem to the allied effort.
Oddly in Granddads account they managed to blow up their target, in the official documents and accounts of others there was nothing there to blow up! The entire operation was in fact pointless and ended in a high number of casualties. Historically renowned for putting good men in unnecessary danger and for the bravery and courage of those that made it back. It’s possible that my Grandfather was ‘led’ to believe in the success of the operation for the sake of morale; in all the confusion that followed I’m sure that wasn’t hard to achieve. It’s also possible that, as probably the only living witness to the events, he’s correct?
As Frost and his men circle the airdrome they are ambushed by the German Armored Panzer division, also by air from a number of Messerschmitt and several Stuka bombers. The men are divided and confused but soon take control of the situation. Frost retreats to higher ground and sustains artillery bombardment from the Nazis but eventually persuades them to withdrawal.
The Official story is that there were no fatalities suffered during the initial attack at Oudna due to the excellent camouflage of the British soldiers. Granddad on the other hand says ‘we had a great loss, some taken prisoner, some killed, some 27 injured by landing on Cactus plants’. Later when Frost retreats to higher ground and a more favourable position, it’s reported that one of the captured men is sent to Frost with an ultimatum Frost chooses to ignore. Granddad himself gets close enough to a Panzer officer to ‘give him a good talking to’, saying they were ‘over run’ and reports ‘he condemned us to death, saying that he would ring for an ambulance to collect the dead, I told him fancy condemning a man to death when he still has a riffle in his hands, no more was heard of him after that’.
At this point in Granddads account he seems to be under extreme duress; the men were cold, hungry, tired from marching and shell shocked in a foreign land. Granddad apparently starts to leap from rock to rock, saying that the terrain was similar to that of St Breward, St Breward being a village near camelford in Cornwall. He’s called over by a Captain Vernon, who asked him where he’s going, ‘home sir’ replies Granddad. After a telling off Captain Vernon gives coordinates to a place called ‘Medjez El-bab’ and says, ‘look to the east at 18.45 tonight and you will see a bright star, follow that star’. Medjez el bab is the allied front line in Tunisia some 80 miles away.
There seems to be confusion on both sides now, the British were expecting the sixth armoured division to show up, but learnt later that this was never going to happen. When – according to Granddad – ‘one of our chaps’ was caught by the Germans he said ‘we thought you were the sixth’. The German Panza taking heed then opened fire on an Italian tank regiment causing chaos all round.
By now the Paras had retreated through the night and found sanctuary at a farm willing to feed and water them. In Granddad’s words ‘We started to escape following the star until early the next morning when we found the farmhouse and hid. Everyone was pleased to have water to wash with and we even washed our cloths and put them on the line to dry’.
According to Granddad washing their clothes proved to be a folly because later that morning a German officer arrives at the farm, the farmer say’s nothing of their whereabouts and the officer leaves. ‘But he must have seen the washing on the line because at 2pm planes started to circle the farm’. In truth the farmer in question on seeing his home overrun with paras, is believed to have run immediately to an enemy outpost on the other side of the hill and brought the Germans. Anyhow the men, now beyond exhaustion, were faced with yet another battle. First they were subjected to successive mortar attacks, followed by advancing machinegun fire, but as the Germans closed in they were met with well aimed riffle fire. ‘We lost five men in the first sortie, bringing our number down to 115 men’ writes Granddad. The Germans at first believed there to be only 50 men at the farmhouse and underestimated their fire power, even so the battle went on all day. Granddad remembers a German officer shouting for his men to fix bayonets; this can only suggest very close combat. ‘So we fixed bayonets too, at the same time the German officer came charging right at us, bayonet fixed, his men right behind him, he got shot at this point. His men stopped and remained where they were until dark’.
That evening Frosts men make their getaway, it’s been said that the Germans didn’t like to fight at night which is rather amusing; anyhow this is how Granddad remembers it. ‘Our Major Frost said “when night falls I will sound my hunting horn and that will signal every man, jack for himself”. Some historians’ report that Frost and his men snuck away undetected in the cover of darkness. Seems a little unlikely to me besides Granddad says that on the sound of the hunting horn they charged straight though the enemy line. ‘It was very dark and we were tired, hungry and very tetchy’ he says. Granddad in all this confusion explains that he mistakenly gets into line with a group of German soldiers, ‘their helmets looked similar to ours’ he points out. It’s when an officer orders his men to turn right that Granddad gets suspicious. The soldier next to him in line punches Granddad on the arm to get him to move, ‘I said “you bastard that hurt” and swung him a very heavy punch, he didn’t say a thing’. It’s at this point that Captain Vernon turns up and Granddad compromises him into giving away the password ‘peanuts’ by demanding ‘halt who goes there friend or foe’? When it’s established that it’s his commanding officer Granddad say’s to him ‘these are bloody Germans sir’ to which Vernon replies ‘of course they are you fool, and you’ve caused me to give away the password’.
They get though the German lines and march on though the night, by now they must have been dog-tired and hungry. He remembers coming across a damp patch in the sand and being told by a Major Riddler to sterilize it and eat it, later Shirley Temple teases him that it was in fact a decomposed camel; truth is it probably was. ‘It made me feel quite ill and I was sick, to Temple it was a great joke’. Seems Temple was getting on Granddads nerves with his constant jokes. The next day they see smoke rising from a kiln nearby and wait patiently while the farmer bakes them some bread. Only when the bread finally arrives Temple teases Granddad that it’s full of lice, he couldn’t bring himself to eat it despite his hunger.
After this Granddad breaks away from Temple and is now alone until he comes across yet another farm and decides to ask for help. It becomes apparent that he’s not the first Soldier to drop by and the farmer begrudgingly and swiftly hides him in a wagon house under an old tarpaulin. ‘There were holes I could see out, I wasn’t there long before a German SS officer came along on a motorbike. I thought this was my lot. I heard the Frenchman tell the officer to look in the wagon house! Nearby there was an Orange box and on it a hen was laying her eggs, the Officer came in, lifted her up and put all the eggs in his pocket, not satisfied with the amount he then put his fingers up her behind and pulled out another egg’. The Officer left with three sections of men all on motorbikes, a narrow escape indeed. Soon afterwards ‘our gang’ came along and he warned them about the German troops.
The men decided to keep off the beaten track but by doing so they strayed into ‘the American sector’ and were promptly met by 6 Sherman tanks. Granddad says that the yanks used some awful language but after chatting to Captain Vernon they were taken the last 10 miles of their 80mile trek to Medjez El-bab’ by tank.
What happens next, I find astonishing, bearing in mind that while Granddads account of what happened keeps well back from the obvious horrors of war. Not once does he complain about the fatigue and stress these men were under, or that he must have witnessed good men, friends even, die during that mission. To read his original account there’s a lot of humour, a suggestion of just bumbling along on his part, just scratching though, no claim to heroics ever; but he never complains. This is war for king and country, for family and loved ones back home, but above all, this is duty. Duty and obedience are powerful forces and in the last paragraph of Granddads account we get a taste of just how powerful that is.
Once these poor men had fought their way back to allied lines, tired no doubt beyond comprehension they found the ‘North Hants’ holding the line. Their numbers had dropped from 1000 men to just 123 and they needed help. Captain Vernon let them have three men, one of which was my Granddad, its Christmas Eve. ‘I jumped into the trench with them; they shouted and screamed, I had the impact of an atomic bomb, I didn’t show it but I was as scared as they were’. Granddad is left on the front line for the rest of the day but the following morning Captain Vernon returns shouting ‘come on Chas’ and tells the North Hants men that he’d probably be back.
So after all he’d been through to get back to the ‘front’, he’s immediately thrown back into battle. He follows orders and complies, after all the lads in the trench needed help. He would do his best despite the fact that he was not trained infantry but Special Forces designed to operate behind enemy lines. Anyhow I think Our Captain Vernon may have had a sleepless night in his comfortable bed and it was his conscience that led him back to get his men. Good job too.
‘We got well away from the front line and Brigadier Browning was waiting for us. He gave us each a tin of bully beef, he was a great chap and we all liked him. He said he was flying home for Christmas; he took our names and addresses and wrote to my parents. ‘I have seen your boy today; he is safe but tired, foot sore and weary after action behind enemy lines’.