A Sapper goes to War

October 24, 2015

My mum has just celebrated her 80th birthday. Part of the celebrations included a party for friends and family, some of whom, sadly, couldn’t make it. On of those was my Godfather, my ‘Uncle’ Cyril, who is 95 and, as much as he would have loved to come,  is wheelchair-bound and the journey would have just been too much for him.

His daughter, Margaret, sent this lovely picture of them all celebrating his 95th birthday.

Margaret also sent me a copy of a piece written by my Uncle Cyril a short while back. He was in the Royal Engineers (the sappers) during the war, and below is his account of his time as a sapper. It is a beautifully clear, vivid, and moving tale and I am very grateful to Cyril and Margaret for allowing me to reproduce it here. I hope you enjoy it.

A SAPPER GOES TO WAR

In 1942 I was stationed in Tullibody, Clackmananshire, Scotland. In August we commenced a programme of intensive training, being called out in the night to go on a forced route march, building bridges at double time and everything else that sappers do. At the same time we were packing stores and writing on the boxes “Not wanted on Voyage”. “Hello” we thought, “are we going abroad?” Nobody knew anything, not even the friends of the friends that worked in Company Office where all our inside information came from.

The next rumour was everybody to have seven days home leave and all leave to be finished before the second week in October. I was one of the last to go on leave and on the last day of my leave I said to my parents “Mum, Dad, I am going overseas”. My Dad said “I know that lad”. Of course he knew, he was an old soldier and recognised the signs, the sudden leave, the insignias on my arms, the things I was saying. Sure enough all leave finished before the second week in October and then for security reasons we were confined to billets; no telephone calls or posting of letters.

The 26th October the order “All kit to be packed and stacked outside Company Office before 12 noon”. This is it, we are going abroad but where to doesn’t anybody know? That night, after dark, we marched down to the railway station where we boarded a train with dim lights and drawn blinds. After an hour or so of travel, we arrived at Gourock on the Clyde. A railway porter told me that there were lots of ships anchored out there and that Americans had been boarding them all day. It was that dark I couldn’t see a thing. We boarded a boat at a small jetty and were ferried out into the black Clyde. We came up against a huge wall of black steel with a little door in the side and a ladder running down to the water, a troop ship to be sure. Then a voice “up the ladder lads as quick as you can, chop chop”. It was easy up the ladder, just like going upstairs, a hand rail on each side, no problem. Down a dimly lit corridor, down a staircase into a brightly lit deck with rows of hammocks hanging from the ceiling. Another voice “choose yourself a hammock lads and keep it for the remainder of the voyage”. I chose one at the far side of the deck up against the bulkhead.

That morning, the 27th October, I went on deck and was awestruck. I was on a cruise liner named the SS Cathy belonging to the South Africa Line. She had been converted to a troop ship and was the biggest ship I had ever seen. She was huge.

After a couple of days at sea, I worked out that my hammock was just below the water line and I thought that if a torpedo was to strike the ship, it would hit right where I was sleeping. I need not have worried though because escorting that convoy of 33 ships was 51 warships of the Royal Navy. More than one warship per merchantman. What U-Boat would dare to attack such a formidable ring of steel?

As an ex-Scout, it wasn’t difficult for me to work out in which direction we were heading. SW America. Why? Two days sailing from America we were joined with an American convoy of troopships and their equipment and did an about turn and headed west towards Europe, definitely Second Front, I assumed.

There was a brass plaque on the bulkhead and the wording read “Four times round this deck equals a quarter of a mile”. We shared the deck with a Battalion of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders and every day they marched round and round that deck to the skirl of the pipes. I maintain that those Highlanders marched all the way to North Africa.

After 10 days at sea we were assembled on deck to be told where we were heading. North Africa, capture Algiers, Tunis, deny Rommel supply ports and take the pressure off Malta. We were ecstatic!

Early morning 10th November, after 15 days at sea, we were cruising up the Mediterranean when there was a shout. “Hey look there’s Algiers.” Very slowly the ship began to tip to starboard. “My God we are going to capsize.” 5000 troops tried to get to the rails to look at Algiers. The Captain on the bridge shouted through the ship’s speaker system “you men down there get to the other side of the ship”. Some idiot shouted an obscenity to him and everybody laughed, so the Captain sounded the air raid alarm, which meant everybody below decks. As the troops dispersed below decks the ship slowly righted herself. I breathed a big sigh of relief!

The Yanks landed at Oran, the British at Algiers, except our ship. We sailed through the night to a small town named Bougie, off Bougie Bay. Here we came within range of the Luftwaffe based in Sicily, who soon gave us their unwelcome attention. The Infantry were the first to go ashore and as we waited our turn to be called forward, we could hear the bombs dropping around the ship and the ships Bofor Gun pounding away on the stern.

I left the Cathy as I boarded her, through the little door in the side, down the ladder into a ship’s lifeboat and away to the shore. I heard a terrific explosion and looked back to see the Cathy enveloped in a big cloud of black smoke. She had received a direct hit which blew off the stern. How many were killed, I never knew. When I got to the shore, I looked for the Cathy. She had settled on the seabed with just her funnel and part of her superstructure sticking out of the water. All our kit went down with her. All we possessed was our equipment, weapons and a blanket.

After a day and night guarding an unused airfield, our transport arrived from Algiers and we began our advance to Tunis. At this time, the Germans were pouring troops into Tunis and advancing towards us. We met up in the extreme end of the Atlas Mountains, where both sides dug in and harassed each other. We made camp about 2 miles behind the Infantry and after a couple of days, it rained. We had no shelter, no buildings, no trees, no walls, nothing but cactus bush. At night we put our ground sheets on the ground for a bed and covered ourselves with the blanket. Sleep was impossible. This went on for several days with no chance of drying ones blanket. What misery.

After 2 weeks we received 2 man bivouacs. What luxury to crawl into a bivvy wet through and then put on wet clobber in the morning!

At this time, the enemy was entrenched on a high hill overlooking our positions. He could see every move we made; that is if we dared to move because any movement invited a hail of fire. At the foot of this hill ran a Wadi that snaked along the valley just like a World War 1 trench. One morning at dawn, a battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment attacked this hill. Supporting the West Kents was my platoon of Sappers. Our primary task was to neutralise any minefields. So far we had not encountered any, so we split up into pairs to do individual searches. I must mention it was raining heavens hard. We were soaked and slipped and slithered all over the place with the mud.

I and another Sapper were detailed to reconnoitre as far as possible along the top of the Wadi, which we proceeded to do. We hadn’t gone very far when the enemy started to bombard us with his trench mortars. As these bombs came sailing through the air, they made a terrifying screaming noise, that put the fear of death in you and they were exploding the whole length of the Wadi. Without hesitation, my friend and I jumped down into the Wadi and crouched down with our backs to the bank, silently praying that we would not be hit. In an attempt to calm our nerves we each lit a cigarette. Whilst puffing at my cig’., I contemplated my position. I thought, I’m wet, cold, hungry, tired and more than a little afraid and a long way from home. I couldn’t be more miserable. As these thoughts were passing through my head, my mate gave me a gentle nudge and calmly said “don’t look now but there’s a German down that Wadi watching us”. Without looking up I said “ignore him, he’ll go away”. After a slight pause he said “Cyril I’m serious. There’s a German down that Wadi watching us”. This time I looked up and about 5 yards away the Wadi bent to the left. Stood in the bend was a German and with his big steel helmet and his long grey coat he looked about ten feet tall and the rain was just streaming off his helmet, as it was off mine. My mate didn’t have to spell it out that he expected me to deal with the situation! So I got up clutching my rifle in both hands and walked right up to him. I said “now then Fritz, what’s your game?” He just looked at me and pointed around the corner. I looked round the corner and saw several of our stretcher bearers doing what I was doing, sheltering from the mortar fire. They told me that the German was a prisoner and had volunteered to help bring in the wounded, which I considered was very brave when he could have gone back down the line to safety.

Several days later we were told to pack up everything, as we were moving out. We moved out after dark and travelled for about twenty miles under cover of darkness to a small town named Beja. We dumped our kit in a building that resembled a committee room and re-boarded our trucks. After half an hours travelling, we arrived at a quarry where we loaded the trucks with stone. We were going road-making for the Artillery. After another half hour, the truck stopped just as dawn was breaking. There were eight of us on top of the stones, all sleeping or dozing. Next our Corporal banged on one side of the truck and shouted “everybody out”. No-one moved, we were too sleepy. Something urged me to get out of the truck, which I did. I went around to the front to speak to the driver, who said “how are you Cyril?” I replied “very tired”. I then stood in front of the engine, placed my arm on the radiator and rested my head on my arm. Instantly, I felt a blow on my head that I can only describe as being hit with a sledgehammer. I awoke and found I was lying in the road. “What am I doing here? I don’t remember going to sleep in the road”. I slowly got to my knees, looked around and saw that the truck was a smoking ruin with stone and bodies lying all around it. The driver was slumped over the steering wheel dead. Five of my friends were dead too. So badly injured they were unrecognisable. ”What has happened?” I asked myself. “It wasn’t a bomb. I didn’t hear any aircraft. It wasn’t a shell because I don’t think we are quite in the battle area. What was it?”

We had an anti-tank mine shaped just like a small cigar box, powerful enough to blow the track off a tank. We carried six of these mines strapped to a board (ready-primed) at the back of the truck cab. We assumed that somebody had accidently banged one, consequently detonating the rest. What made me get out of the truck, walk around to the protection of the engine and rest my head on my arm so that my steel helmet took the full force of the blast? Only one answer. The Good Lord was watching over me. I found that I was completely deaf and dizzy. I went by ambulance, along with the two injured (one of whom was my best friend) to the advanced dressing station, where a medical officer diagnosed ruptured eardrums, concussion and lacerations. He informed me that I had to go to hospital, which I wasn’t happy about. I didn‘t think I was that bad but he explained that I could suffer secondary shock, which could be nasty and my ears could become infected. With that he slapped a “wacking” big piece of sticking plaster over each ear. Now I was deaf!

The medics lay my friend Colin McCloud on a makeshift table, where the officer took one look at him and said “my God, where do I start?” Poor Colin was just a pulp of bloody flesh. It was horrible. The officer just covered him with a blanket and had a look at my other friend, who was no better. The three of us were placed in an ambulance and whisked off to the Casualty Clearing Station, where we spent the night. The next morning the Chaplain informed me that Colin had died. This upset me greatly, in fact to the point of tears. Reg died some time later. Through the grace of God I was the only survivor of that terrible explosion.

After breakfast I, along with eleven other walking wounded, travelled 200 miles in an ambulance to hospital in Algeria. The hospital was a series of marquees set up as wards. I was examined by a medical officer, who asked what was my problem? I said “I can’t hear sir”. He replied “I should think not with this stuck on your ears” and promptly ripped off the plasters. I thought he had ripped off my ears! After examination, he told me that there was no cure for perforated eardrums. They must be kept dry and clean and they would be self-healing. Also, I should be sent back to Algiers for recuperation but if I wanted, I could stay at the hospital for three days and then re-join my unit. Re-joining my unit was music to my poor ears, so I opted for that. His reply “good man – I wish they were all like you”.

Whilst in the hospital I made friends with an American Corporal who was in the Engineer Regiment, so we had a lot in common. Six months after meeting this Corporal I was in Sicily patrolling down a country lane along with several other Sappers, when we spotted a group of soldiers coming towards us. Germans we assumed. We decided to ambush them and took up positions behind trees and in the ditches. As they drew near we could see that they were Yanks and leading them was my friend from hospital. There were handshakes all round.

The day of my discharge from hospital, I was sent to a transit camp. It was a prison camp as far as I was concerned. I was placed in a bell tent along with several strangers and I did not like that. The next morning I was sat on the ground eating my breakfast when a driver in the Service Corps approached me. He was a sight for sore eyes. He was wearing the Battle Axe on his arms. At last a friend. He asked me how long I had been in the camp. When I said “yesterday” he said that he had been there for three days and that we could be there for two weeks. That to me was a death sentence. He asked me if I would go with him to the Camp Commandant for permission to make our own way back to our Division. I agreed. The Commandant was a Major in the Royal Artillery. My new friend was the spokesman. “Please sir, can we have permission to make our own way back to our units?” “And where is your unit?” he asked of me. “Beja Sir” I said. “And what if your unit is not there?” he said. “Then Sir I’ll find it”. He knew that we didn’t know for sure where our units were but he did know that we were genuine and not potential deserters. He gave us a chit to take to the cookhouse for rations for one meal and then report back to him, which we did in double time! He gave us our discharge papers and said “off you go and good luck to both of you”. We went to the main road and headed east for Tunisia. Shortly an Army vehicle approached from behind. He was going to the railway station. What luck, we clambered aboard. A train in the station! Where is it going? I don’t believe it. Beja. LOOK OUT YOU FILTHY HUN – WOGGIE IS ON HIS WAY BACK!!!

We arrived at Beja just before nightfall. No sign of my unit or of the Division. Where are they? We saw a couple of soldiers on sentry duty outside what looked like a town hall. We asked for the Sergeant Major. He said “what is it about you Battle Axe men that you want to get back into the war”. “You are not the first to come here.” He asked when did we last eat? “Midday” we told him. He sent us to the cookhouse for a meal. Whilst eating he came and told us that a truck from our Division would collect us about 23.00.

We travelled through the night in the back of a 15cwt pickup to our Divisional Headquarters. At 06.00 my unit ration truck took me back to my platoon. Home at last. I never again saw my Service Corps friend. I pray that he survived.

Cyril Walkden
NPA 5413169
Royal Engineers

ARMY NUMBER: 2094000