A Soldier's Story
An Autobiography by John Smith
"My dad used to tell me stories of what he experienced during the second world war. I often heard it said he never came back the same man. He was called up again in 1951 and appealed as a conscientious objector. He sought references from his WW2 commanding officers and although they disagreed with his position, to a man they praised his efforts during that war and supported him. He won the appeal. He made notes of his life in the army (and his early life in Lochwinnoch) and I turned those into a book I published and circulated to the family. His recollection of the Second World war is contained below and poems he wrote during that time are presented in a separate page in this section of the website."
Life In The Army
I was called up for the war effort on 12th. September, 1940. When I became a member of the Armed Forces my life changed beyond recognition. From doing a regular job with predictable hours, I was now called upon to do any number of different tasks in places I had barely even heard of. My training took me to many regions of Scotland and England that I had never seen before and, once on active Service, to countries far from home. I started to keep a diary guessing I would have plenty to write about. I was not far wrong as the events recounted herein testify. All the events are authentic but may not be chronologically correct.
Just before I was called up I was fitting blackout blinds at Ryeside Mills, Dalry. It turned out to be my last civilian job because when it finished I was paid off. I now had to sign on at what is now called the Job Centre but back then was known as the “broo”. Within a week I was called up for the army - not even an interview! At the same time two local lads, John Fulton and John Jameson were called up. We were all cabinetmakers who had served our apprenticeships at Joseph Johnstone Viewfield Works at Lochwinnoch. My two chums were lucky to come home, but John Fulton's brother Robert was killed in the invasion of France.
I had to report to Pinewood Camp in Elgin for training. The date was 12th. September, 1940. My two chums went to different units. When I finished my training in Elgin I was posted to 214 Field Company Royal Engineers in Shrewsbury. Discipline, which maintains mutual respect, was kept in a humane way. For instance, one day during Rifle inspection a sapper presented his rifle to the Officer who looked down the barrel, then looked at the sapper and said, “Aren't you lucky its me who’s looking down the barrel this morning?”. In a few months these lighter moments would be a lifetime away. Needless to say, that sapper took the hint.
The river Severn which runs through Shrewsbury was where we were taught how to work with all kinds of pontoons. These are flat bottomed boats used to support bridges. They came in various shapes according to the weight to be supported. Some looked like kippers and with the sides folded out they became rowing boats. They were designed to carry anything from a tank to a foot soldier.
The ability to cross a river is vital to any army in a conflict situation. Building bridges was a core element of the training in the Royal Corps of Engineers. You could always rely on the enemy to blow up bridges and other crossing points as he retreated. Sometimes one wished the politicians were as skilled at bridge-building.
Florence 8th Feb 1945 aged 26
In the Army you never know when you will be on the move again nor where you will be going next. Our next address was back in Scotland, a small village in Perthshire called Alyth. An olde worlde style village with its trout stream running parallel to the High Street, where time seemed to stand still.
I was on picket duty one night wearing the official dress of bayonet and scabbard. My job was to see that no soldier got into trouble during his leisure hours. I made my way towards the canteen where men and women of the services spent their leisure time. On entering the canteen I saw this vision in jodhpurs, the uniform of the women's timber corps. I forgot I was supposed to keep out of trouble as well!
I immediately forgot my duty and like a knight of old asked if this fair maiden needed a strong arm to lean upon and refreshment to quench her thirst. Fifty years on we are still drinking tea, but the teapot is getting awfully heavy.
Isa's camp was four miles away and we walked it more or less every night, in bright moonlight. With the trees each side of the road silhouetted against the sky, a more peaceful scene would have been hard to find. Whilst the squirrels danced among the treetops enjoying life, I was conscious that we soldiers faced losing ours.
Never in one place for too long, the Company moved - this time to Johnstone. As luck would have it, this was a town just some seven miles from my home village of Lochwinnoch and next to Elderslie, the birth place of William Wallace who led the Scots’ rebellion against Edward I in the late thirteenth century.
We soldiers were billeted in a disused factory at Walkingshaw Street whilst our officers were in the “Bird In The Hand” hotel. On a vacant lot in Walkingshaw Street we did a lot of drill and marching. We also had the pleasure of marching to Paisley baths in Storey Street. After all this exercise many of us were ready for a swim - though some were not so keen. However, opting out was not an option and to make sure that every man had been in the water, the Sergeant felt his underwear. Defaulters were thrown in!
Our longest route march was from Gleniffer Braes just South of Paisley to Maybole in the next County, which was Ayrshire. It took us two days sleeping out rough; on one particular night in the fields there was a heavy dew which made it a very miserable experience. Our Commanding Officer, Major Cornforth, walked along with us and also spent the night in the field. Compared to us young soldiers he was an old man but one who we respected. He was very proud of the 214 Field Company with its glorious past and was confident of its future. He was a man and an Officer who led by example.
Our baggage party met us next morning with food rations. Water was not required. All this was part of a large manoeuvre with tanks and infantry. We proceeded to meet our objective - Maybole.
Another exercise was in Pollock estate, Glasgow. We had to construct a rope and pole bridge across the river Cart. Our Sergeant had every confidence in this bridge and did the honours by trying it first. He was halfway across when it began to shake and he hit the water doing the breast stroke in six inches of water. It was like a scene from an early silent movie!
The next part of our training was more technical and was carried out at Dundonald Army Camp in Ayrshire. This time we were being taught everything you might want to know about bangalore torpedoes. They consisted of nine feet of scaffolding pole filled with explosives capped at the front end and with a 10 second delay detonator at the other. These torpedoes were pushed into uncoiled lengths of barbed wire in order to clear a path through. They were very effective in this role.
Another method of clearing barbed wire was to use a rolled-up carpet at the front of a tank. When the tank reached the wire it would release the carpet, covering the barbed wire. This ensured that the treads of the tank were not entwined in the wire and the tank could move on unimpeded.
The unit moved to Dumfriesshire for a few more weeks of training. We were located on the Hoddam Castle Estate through which the River Annan flows. This estate was similar to the Pollock Estate in Glasgow. This time an officer and a sergeant were going to show us how to cross a river using a rope and a dingy. This proved to be a failure but worthy of a scene in a Buster Keaton movie. The river was in spate and the boat was pushed away from under their feet. They were unceremoniously drenched and we could only smile as we helped them out of the river and went back to camp.
Next stop was Arbroath to get some training on how to repel enemy planes using twin Bren guns mounted on a small truck. The target was a banner towed behind a plane. I wondered how that pilot felt with a lot of tracer bullets coming at him from a bunch of trainees. I did not give the pilot much thought when my turn came round because the guns jammed. I never did get to fire the Bren guns.
The rifle range was a bit of a lark. The lads in the butts ran a betting school between them on who would have the highest score. The scam was to put a pencil through the bulls eye of any missed targets. My own score was 10 out of 10 and to this day I don’t know if I was firing pencils or bullets.
On returning to the Company billet we were told they had been recalled back to Alyth. Another surprise awaited three of us. The corporal, sapper and myself were to go on ten days’ leave. It was a pleasure to go home and see all the family and friends again and to hear all their news and to give them mine. Even ten days seemed a brief moment when the leave came to an end.
While we were away the Company had been kited out with explosives and other gear, including rope-soled shoes, and had already left on a secret mission. The camp was deserted, except for one officer who was instructed to take us to join the Company at an undisclosed destination. It turned out to be the Isle of Wight - in fact a holiday camp in Cowes!
An officer, a corporal, myself and another sapper embarked on the ship the “Queen Emma.” We were the only ones on the boat and were convinced we were going on a raid. The ship sailed up and down the Channel doing practice runs and going ashore testing defences in preparation for when we got to France.
Onshore the nightingales were in full song. It was a lovely sound and a contrast to what we were doing and thinking, the anxiety of what lay before us. During this time the Germans stepped up their bombing campaign against Cowes. This led the top brass to change their mind about the raid. They suspected the Germans had knowledge of our plans so it was postponed till a later date.
The mission had been to find out about the radar the Germans used and whether it was more advanced than ours. If it was, we had to bring back parts for our boffins to study. Our expert on radar who was going on the mission was an R.A.F. Officer and under no circumstances was he to be taken prisoner. He was to be shot. A harsh fate for a very courageous man.
Our earlier anxiety was wasted, not only because the raid was cancelled but we turned out to be the advanced party as well as the baggage party. As the baggage party for the raiding party we were to go to Hastings to prepare for their return. Although the raid did not happen those on the raid got 10 days leave while those on the baggage party did not. We went back to Alyth to continue our training.
As usual we had another route march. This time from Alyth to Coupar Angus stopping for 10 minutes rest in a churchyard near Kittens. This epitaph caught my eye.
Stop and think as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so you must be
Prepare yourself for eternity.
Few more profound words can have been written, especially for those facing a bloody war raging on land and water and in the air. The inevitable came upon us. When we finished our route march and arrived back at camp we were told orders had come through for us to leave Alyth for active service abroad. The date was late 1942.
Active Duty Overseas
The Company had to embark from the port of Greenock on the Clyde. Our destination was Algiers in North Africa. We travelled by train to Greenock passing through Elderslie, a village only 8 miles from home. The Good Book says, “Yield not to temptation,” but I was sorely tempted to jump off. Discipline and duty won the day despite every mile taking me further from home and into the unknown.
The sleeping accommodation on board ship was hammocks. They were slung everywhere like so many crescent moons and they were very uncomfortable. Soon that was the least of our bother. The weather turned very nasty with huge waves breaking over the ships in the convoy. The lifeboats were separated from their davits, getting holed in the process. Inside the ship pots, pans dishes and cutlery slid along the long tables and the floor. The place was a shambles but nothing could be done till the storm subsided.
Some men were ill throughout the whole voyage. When the storm abated the Captain called for all carpenters to report to him to help his own carpenters repair the damage to the lifeboats. This was done with red lead and canvas. I'm not sure which ship I travelled on. My memory tells me the name was something like “Arcadia.” Inquiries with the Guildhall Library in London identified 11 merchant ships used for troop-carrying to Algeria around the time I sailed. None bore the name “Arcadia” but the library said the list supplied was not exhaustive and their records were not complete. A lot of ships were lost en route to North Africa and I suspect it was the very bad weather which increased the chances of the convoy of ships I was on making the journey without mishap. Some of the ships which sailed to North Africa around the time I did are listed in the table below.
Narkunda - lost 14 November 1942 after delivering troops to Algeria.
Mooltan - trooping service (no details of routes) throughout WWII and survived to 1954.
Maloja II - as Mooltan
Cathay II - lost 11 November 1942 after delivering troops to Algeria
Ranchi - troopship March 1943 onwards (no details of routes) and survived to 1953
Viceroy of India - Torpedoed 11 November 1942 off Oran, Algeria while on trooping duty
Strathaird - as Mooltan, survived to 1961
Strathmore I - as Mooltan, survived to 1963
Stratheden - as Mooltan, survived to 1964
Strathallan - torpedoed off Oran 21 December 1942 while delivering troops from Glasgow to Algeria
Ettrick - built as a troopship in 1938 - torpedoed off Gibraltar 15 November 1942
After docking in Algiers our first night was spent in a racecourse. I was on guard duty and the sergeant major said to me:-
“Smith! remember you are not playing at soldiers any more, you are a soldier now. Be alert at all times, challenge anyone who approaches.”
Words of wisdom from one who knew what he was talking about.
On 2nd February 1943 we moved from Beja to a farm outside Medjez-el-bab, a very important place in terms of the Second World War. It was the cross-roads of several main routes in North Africa and it was strategically important to have it under our control. My first night was entirely spent laying a minefield at Medjez railway station. The enemy dropped Very lights over the hills four miles away. On the 3rd. I heard the Germans shoot up our transport on the Medjez-el-bab road destroying one lorry.
Talk of burnt lorries. I nearly set our tent on fire with a petrol burner. I had filled a tin with sand, some petrol and a wick to make a light. Instead I produced a fire. I was off like a shot. Saving the tent never entered my thoughts. My mate, sapper Mason, was either a braver person than me or more foolish. He managed to smother the flames with a blanket. The next day two other sappers lost all of their kit when their tent went on fire.
On the 5th. I gave a demonstration to officers of my Company on how to lift a minefield. I was put on guard duty that night and spent the next two days revising how to lift mines!
Enemy fighters came over each day and the ack ack were successful in driving them off.
On the 8th. I gave a demonstration to No. 2 section and in the afternoon to the C.R.E. on how to lift mines. Practice makes perfect.
We proceeded to Medjez-el-bab in Tunisia. It was here we suffered our first casualty. Our artillery was ranging on a minefield we were laying in the path of Rommel as the 8th. Army pushed towards us . We could hear the gun fire and it gave us time to throw ourselves to the ground but sapper Bates (the Professor) was slow to react and although the shell was about 50 yards away when it exploded, a piece of shrapnel severely wounded him. We pulled back and occupied a derelict village. From there we watched a French unit retreating from the ridge to our left. They were herding mules in front of them. Unfortunately they blundered into another minefield and some were killed as they trampled on the mines. The soldiers withdrew leaving the mules to their fate.
At this time we did not know if the French were for or against us but it turned out in our favour. Meanwhile some of our lads were searching the Arab huts in the village we were in for Germans. They did not find any but they did find plenty of fleas. They were covered in them. It was very unpleasant. On the other hand, at night the fire flies in North Africa gave a spectacular show.
Later that day we received orders to withdraw. An officer and myself were left behind to blow up a gun carriage that had broken down. This was done with sticky bombs which adhere to most surfaces. Our officers wore silk scarves - very frivolous you might say, given the situation we were in. Personally I felt it helped morale, a welcome lighter note. Just before we left two French soldiers appeared. One was wounded. We hoped they would get back to their unit. For some reason we did not take them back with us.
When the officer and myself got back to our unit at their new position our 25 pounders opened up on the village we had just left and reduced it to rubble to prevent the Germans from occupying it.
Jos told us on the 24th. March that the Professor has died of his wounds three days after his accident. He was a very likeable chap, well-spoken and with a nice manner. This left a cloud over the unit and reinforced our feelings of foreboding of what was to come.
We were kept busy laying our mines and showing the Hampshire Infantry how to use concertina wire as well as how to clear enemy minefields. If we needed timber and it was not easily available we would pull down houses with a bulldozer for suitable material. This was all part of our training as Royal Engineers.
The enemy planes were active but our ack ack shells drove them off with shrapnel flying everywhere. We used to try and confuse the German Air Force to enhance our cause. One of the ways in which we did this was to make dummy stores. Whenever their planes came near we would open fire and chase them away , leading them to believe that the stores were real. They would then squander valuable time and ammunition trying to destroy them. This ploy was reasonably successful. I guess the Germans could not take many chances and had to try to destroy what looked like a valuable storage depot.
On 26th. February, 1943 the Germans attacked in a pincer movement to cut off the Medjez-el-bab area. The whole area came under shell fire, leaving houses burning on either side of the road. The shells came in screeching and exploded with a vicious crack. This did nothing for our morale. On one occasion I dived into the trenches under shell fire only to discover I had lost my rifle. What a time to discover that! Luckily I found it in the morning. It had slipped off my shoulder when I was crawling in the cactus bushes towards the trenches in the torrential rain.
Meanwhile our infantry were having a hard time repulsing the enemy. Medjez-el-bab was such an important cross-roads and was to be held at all costs. The inevitable cost of such a situation was numerous casualties. The way we dealt with the loss of manpower in the thick of battle when reinforcements could not reach us was to turn our unit of R.E. into infantry. This was another ploy. The Germans had no idea they were not facing trained infantrymen. The men were under shell fire and in full view of the Germans who naturally assumed we had plenty of reinforcements. In reality the infantry was withdrawn under cover of darkness to another location where the presence of infantry was much more necessary. The infantry we substituted for was “The King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.”
We moved to Sidi Naceur as our next defensive location. I seemed to spend a lot of time in slit trenches. I remember one particular trench which was full of water and I was freezing cold despite wearing my great coat plus a blanket folded double with slits for arms and a gas cape on the top of that.
On 3rd. March Captain Denton was made up to Major and Lt. Adams was made up to Captain.
An Arab hut in full view of the enemy was used as an observation post. To reach it we made a shallow trench straight up to its front door. Once inside we dug a 3- ft trench to guard against a direct hit. From here I caught my first sight of a German soldier walking about. He was watching us as we were watching him through binoculars.
The sound of the shells got ever closer as I got down on all fours to look out of the door when what we feared most actually happened. The roof of the hut was blown off. A shell had landed at the foot of the doorstep. We were all covered in straw and all sorts of rubble. I was very lucky because the mortar had exploded only inches from my face. As I keeked out from behind the wall, looking through the doorway the mortar landed right in at the foot of the step. The step itself deflected the blast over my head and up into the roof of the building. This was a worrying development because the German now had our range so we knew that he could pound our position. For a reason I will never know that was the last shell.
The walls of the hut were made of dry stone with lots of voids in the structure. From one of these a small snake appeared and slithered off to find a more peaceful hole. In the midst of battle nature continued to go about its daily business.
Four of our tanks were returning from the battlefront and had just got into the valley when German planes started dive bombing them. We were watching this when one plane broke away from the rest and headed straight for the farmhouse we were occupying. We all dived for cover behind the stables. The plane flew over the farmhouse with guns blazing. The brick walls of the stalls had saved us from the gunfire.
The whole farmyard was riddled with holes and shaken with the impact of the bullets and shells. All this fighting got me thinking of home - Mother and Isa and all the family. Short, sweet thoughts of love and hope.
On 23rd. April 1943 we drew back to a farmhouse and the French farmer came over to one of our officers saying he had seen the Germans laying mines along the path to the dry toilets. An officer picked a subsection (not ours) to go and lift them. I objected as our subsection was next on the rota and should have been chosen to do the task - not the one picked. In making this protest I was not demonstrating any enthusiasm to risk having my head blown off - in fact quite the opposite. I knew that the next chore could have been a night duty and it was common knowledge that activities carried out under cover of darkness usually meant significantly more danger, such as working at the front line. That was what I was hoping to avoid.
In the event I was overruled and the lads from the other subsection went in with a metal detector and proceeded down the path to clear the mines. There was an explosion as one of the mines went off. I ran forward to help but was stopped in my tracks by the Sergeant Major from 237 Company who shouted to me :-
“Where are you going?”
I replied “To help.”
He said “Get back!”
Little did he know that those few words probably saved my life. I stopped as our driver ran past me. Then the second mine went off spraying 500 ball bearings. Together with the victims of the first mine, seven men were killed and the rest badly wounded. Sapper Ashby was one of the badly wounded. He managed to stagger out of the minefield with his two arms limp at his side and blood dripping from his finger tips. The Sergeant Major was himself killed, as was our driver.
My friend Chady was also one of the ones killed. He was known to my parents as we used to visit them together when we were stationed at Johnstone. Mother kept asking for Chady's welfare but sadly I could not tell her. The Company moved to an olive grove the next day where we got the news that Corporal Cottrel had died as well.
Between our various jobs we had to unload the stores necessary to construct a Bailey Bridge. It was a very big job with 3 treble panels, rollers for the bottom and a 170-ft unsupported span, which was the biggest bridge in North Africa at the time. While we were making the bridge two enemy planes flew over nose-to-tail, engines screaming, just missing a collision with the bridge. They failed to open fire yet they were in a strafing formation My guess is that they had run out of ammunition. Another lucky escape!
We had to make roads in support of the Infantry to enable them to get supplies of ammunition through and to allow them to get the wounded out. We were hampered by numerous small streams. Our lorries were forever getting stuck in the mud so it was decided to ford them using 40 gallon steel drums. These were made into pipes by blowing the top and bottom off them and placing 3 or 4 in a line. The same number were placed abreast and the whole assembly was secured by using a bulldozer to cover them with rubble. This made an effective road crossing for small rivers. It was raining heavily on the first morning that we put them to the test but they bore up well.
There was an offensive with an artillery bombardment going in later that night and it was decided that they needed supporting so we were moved to a detachment of 237 Company R.E. to help. One man was killed and another wounded. The fighting French were successfully defending Charuk for the moment. Our guns were putting up a smoke screen over a German held hill called Longstop so that our tanks could advance.
We could see French mule trains being used to carry supplies in the valley in front of us. They were being shot at mercilessly.
On 25th April 1943 I joined the anti malaria squad to examine Arab children with our Medical Officer for symptoms of malaria. We found that 7 out of 12 had malarial parasites. We also searched for stagnant pools to kill mosquito larvae. This was done by pouring oil onto the water where the larvae would hatch. The oil created a seal which prevented oxygen getting through. I went to church later that morning to ask for forgiveness not for pouring oil on troubled water but into the drinking water of the local people, regardless of their loud and vociferous protests. Our actions caused them great concern but I had to remind myself that
getting rid of the mosquito was priority No. 1 for us because of the number of fighting men that could be lost to the effects of malaria.
The final push to reach Tunis from Medjez-el-bab took place on the morning of 6th. May 1943. All vehicles were in convoy. Halfway there we stopped at a farm the Germans had retreated from the night before. On 8th. May the infantry and ourselves were given the task of searching the houses for booby traps and Germans. We had no opposition.
What a welcome we got as we marched through the streets of Tunis. Everybody was cheering and waving flags and throwing roses at us. I had never seen people so happy. Talking to an American lady she told us that our advanced unit had entered Tunis at 5 o'clock the day before we arrived and everyone had been praying for us to come. We slept that night in an olive grove outside Tunis. This was the end of the African Core.
During the afternoon we blasted rock to make slit trenches for the infantry to hold their positions . On the 12th. I got paid for the first time since arriving in North Africa. While on anti malaria work on the 15th. I spoke with an Italian family. The old mother said that she had a son in prison in Britain. I assured her that her son would be alright. She gave us a loaf of bread she had just baked. German propaganda had told her how bad the British were and she was therefore apprehensive for her son. The thought had never before crossed my mind that I was being portrayed as an inhumane oppressor. In wartime I guess both sides propound their own version of reality. Who was it that said “History is written by the victor.” Ne’er a truer word was spoken.
After successfully taking North Africa back from the Germans the next move was to Sicily. We landed on the beach in landing craft and were the second wave of men and supplies. The objective was to consolidate the Beach Head and then move inland. The Germans put up very stiff resistance defending every village as we moved forward. We shelled them every night and day with the result that civilian casualties were high; old and young - it made no difference to a shell.
The town in which the Germans were dug-in took a battering from bombs and shells (mortar bombs). My subsection had to report to the Infantry Commander. We were going to take the town at first light and my thoughts became:-
“Is this it? “
After we took a town or village there was never any shortage of volunteers to search the wine bars. The lads deserved it. A lot of their mates never reached this far and they gave their lives for free. Why not the wine bars for free?
We had taken a mine detector and started moving through the town. We got as far as the outskirts when two rifle shots rang out followed by a mighty explosion right in front of us. Jerry had left someone to blow up the road. We were all lined up in the following order:- the Infantry Officer, his N.C.O., our lance corporal and myself and, in the next row, the infantry. The debris was falling everywhere, getting nearer and nearer. The larger pieces made the ground shake when they landed. The mine detector was blown from the hands of the lance corporal. He was shaken - but weren’t we all at this point?
A culvert which went under the road came in handy as a first aid post. In the confusion of battle the next thing that happened was like a nightmare. Our gunners thought Jerry was attacking us and they opened fire on us with their 25-pounders. The shells landed perilously close to us and the culvert now came in handy as a bomb shelter as well as a first aid post. We managed to get dug-in while still getting shelled. When it abated at about noon I approached the Infantry Officer to see if he still wanted us around or whether we could go back to our unit. He told us to go back to our unit and reminded us that the road back to Bronte was covered by snipers.
One of our lads decided to chance it on his own. The rest of us decided to follow the culvert down into the valley at right angles to the road. That would take us to the valley floor. We just hoped we were going in the right direction as we found it very hard to get our bearings. With familiar landmarks now behind us it was difficult to locate places. We set out with apprehension. Houses with dark windows and open doorways were approached with caution. Did they conceal Germans with machines guns waiting till we got nearer? The situation was making the hairs stand-up on my neck -and the same dilemma occurred at every house we approached. In this state of constant tension, the journey back seemed to take forever. Another problem was the aircraft. Every time a plane flew over we dived for cover as we didn’t know whether it was British or German.
By a twist of fate the first troops we met were manning a battery of 25 pounders. This may have been the unit which shelled us by mistake at Bronte. From here we went safely back to our unit to find our pal was already back whilst we were on the verge of being posted missing.
Jerry was using 6 barrel mortars. They flew trough the air with a howl and landed with a vicious crack in a blaze of smoke and flames covering about 50 yards square or so, the bombs consisted of 1 smoke, 1 flame, 4 H.E. (high explosive). They were called moaning mines and had a very demoralising effect. A lot of our men were killed or wounded by these bombs.
Some civilians were rounded to help bury the dead. A bulldozer dug a large trench in the local cemetery and the dead were brought in a large cart, old and young alike, God knows how many. They were piled high. It reminded me of a scene from the French Revolution.
Transit Camp Ismalia
The heat around Mount Etna reflecting off the rocks was extreme. Malaria was taking a heavy toll of our troops. We were approaching a cross-roads, both medically and physically. The Germans had blown up the bridge in Bronte and we were now replacing it with a Bailey bridge. I was on duty on the bridge when I took ill with malaria. I went down with a high temperature and was sent to a first aid post. There was no room there and I was sent on to a hospital - again no room. Then I was sent to an airfield and put aboard a Red Cross plane and sent to a Cairo hospital. When I was fit enough I was discharged to Ismalia transit camp. Here I saw a memo on the notice board to the effect that any person coming in contact with the Sweetwater Canal should report sick immediately. This canal was foul.
When in camp you could go to the pictures in Cairo. The cinemas had no rooves. You could watch the stars in the sky at night as well as on the screen.
Meal times were like a scene out of a comedy. You had to use one hand to constantly wave away the flies over your plate while eating with a fork in the other. Hesitate, and your dinner was gone.
By this time my unit had reached Taranto naval base in Italy. There were three of us from the transit camp reporting back to our Company, 214 Field Company R.E.. Our C.O. Lieutenant Colonel Denton, called us together to explain that the Company had taken a terrible pounding from a German tank while they were bridging a river. The courage of the men was at a low ebb. He asked us to do more than our best to raise their morale.
The next objective was the River Sangro itself which was on the road to Rome. There was a Bailey bridge lying in the river. It had been built when the river was low on top of the shingle. After the first flood it had collapsed into the river bed. To remove it we used a bulldozer and winch wagon and then replaced it with a pontoon bridge. During this time we were being harassed by the German artillery, the shells landing mostly upstream. Fortunately we were downstream of the original bridge and the Germans had not “ranged” this new location. The pontoon bridge was a reminder of home because a manufacturer of them was a local builder, J.W. Keanie of Johnstone.
The military situation was that we were on one side of the river and the Germans on the other. On the German side was a village situated on a ridge to our left.
We decided to move forward and let an Indian Company take the village to stop our troops being exposed to enemy fire from this village. The attack went in at first light. We managed to get all our stores across the river. We accomplished that only to find the Indians had failed to take the village. Our infantry had to dig in again. We got some shelter from the shells because the ground rose sharply from the river rather like a cliff. No one blamed the Indians for not succeeding to take the village. We knew that if they couldn’t do it, no one could. During a lull I went forward to our infantry's position. I spoke to two soldiers with a Vickers machine gun in position on top of a rise looking forward to clear ground. The machine gun crew were in a slit trench and could stop any move by the enemy. A slit trench is a soldiers best friend. It’s a sort of life and death provider - life giving for the soldier in it and dishing out death for the soldiers in the line of fire from the trench.
The second attack on the village was successful. We broke out of the Sangro. With a mine detector we went forward clinging to the top of a tank. It was a very exposed position, under fire from all directions. We had secured our objective and I rejoined our Company.
Southern Italy was very poor. As we proceeded north I noticed that some people had short strips of rubber on their feet which looked like strips of motor bike tyres.
We were now advancing down Highway 6 towards Monte Casino which was a hold-up for a considerable time. We turned into a side-road and ran into trouble. Jerry had started shelling and our convoy came to a halt, hitting the deck as fast as we could. The attack happened when our convoy was half way round a bend. Being in the front section of the convoy we were in full view of Jerry. The truck I was with had explosives and all sorts of things. One shell and the lot would have gone up. Everyone on board retreated back down the road, leaving the truck to its fate but later that day I suggested to our driver that we might be able to retrieve the vehicle. The shelling had abated a bit by then and the driver agreed so back we went. We got into the seats and started the engine - instantly the shelling restarted and I had to hit the deck again. This gave me some protection but the driver was high in the cab, a very dangerous place to be. However, I started guiding him in reverse and finally got him round the bend and out of sight. Later my officer said to me:-
“Well done Smith.”
and the driver didn’t even get a mention!
We stayed at this point until the offensive for Mt. Casino went in. For how long we were here I forget. We only worked at night, maintaining the roads, getting supplies for the infantry, lifting mines or building bridges across the river when necessary.
Monte Casino, which was an ancient monastery, was a strategic location. The Germans were camped inside the monastery and, as it dominated everything, in day light they could shell anything and everything that moved. The American bombers were very active as they came overhead in 18 to 36 droves - all bombs dropped at the one time. Our hearts were in our mouths, though, as we had no faith in their accuracy. This, too, seemed to go on for ages.
When they failed to subdue the Monastery, they turned their attention to the village and turned it into so much rubble and potholes that our tanks could not make any progress. The R.E. had to go in with bulldozers first and level the ground.
The front line position was supplied with ammunition and other stores by mule. The muleteer had a dangerous occupation. The supply trails were all under fire for the Germans knew their exact position from the jingling noise they made. I believe some of the Italian prisoners were muleteer’s. Italy is a very mountainous country and mules were essential. Dead mules were lying all over the place with their carcasses all blown up as they rotted. They quickly decayed in the intense heat. The smell was nauseating.
In the final push no squadron sappers were available to support their tanks so my subsection was detailed to report to the camp Tank Commander the night before.
When the attack went in visibility was nil. The earth was so dry and powdery that the tanks’ exhaust fumes created an enormous dust cloud which, combined with all the smoke from the canisters being used, made it virtually impossible to see. It was surprising we knew which way to go.
I was in the lead reconnoitre tank which had the big gun removed for better observation. This, however, put me at the mercy of snipers. The Tank Commander ordered us to create another lane through the mine field. I got out and shells were exploding all over the place. Because of the poor visibility we could not even see the burst of flame as they exploded. This did little for our morale. Our Corporal could not stand the strain and went “bomb happy” during this encounter.
Our detectors were only picking up the sounds of shrapnel. The Commander then asked me:-
“All clear sapper?”
“Yes Sir! I replied”
“Then leave a sapper to guide the tanks
through between the tapes”.
When the tanks started between the tapes two soldiers lay in the dust ahead. Should a member of the tank crew leave the safety of the tank their job was to pull them aside. We pressed on to our objective and were told later in the day that half the tanks had got through before one got its tracks blown off by a mine. This mine had been laid a little deeper than the rest so that it sounded like shrapnel. It was a clever tactic to lay some mines just a little deeper than the others - a technique we used ourselves - but it made the business of mine-clearing that much more difficult. If we had stopped to check every single sound, no minefield would ever have been totally cleared.
Once we had got the tanks through we were moved to another part of the Division and I met up with George Andrews from Lochwinnoch. He was with the 4-5 or 5-5 artillery. This heavy artillery was capable of shelling enemy positions not covered by 25 pounders. These guns would affect Jerry's morale due to the heavy shells suddenly exploding among them.
We were held up by the Germans at a canal. Their side of the bank was higher than ours and they were well dug in. Our mortars were bursting at the top of the bunker, not really reaching their target. We resorted to throwing hand grenades at one another. The R.E.’s got the job of making grenades out of bean tins; they were composed of small stones and a delayed action detonator. I can’t say they worked very well.
As an alternative we brought forward a Bofar gun which is usually used as an anti-aircraft gun. This time it was used as a field gun to suit the purpose of obliterating this bunker. The Bofar gun has an extremely high rate of fire which is interspersed with tracer shells. The shells were fed into clips, then sped on their way in a trail of fire disappearing into the bunker before the delayed action explosion.
Sweden supplied both Germany and Britain with these particular guns - and Sweden was supposed to be neutral! I suppose there is some logic to this position - both sides could do equal damage to the other whilst the arms supplier could make big profits from
sales to each country and still maintain its clean-as-a-whistle reputation for neutrality.
We were now making headway towards Rome. I was walking on one side of a railway line which was on a small embankment. I was about chest high to the level of the railway track when a sniper’s bullet hit the ground - and I hit the deck. He fired a few more rounds and I could hear the bullets pitter patter through the leaves. In all humility I kept below the level of the railway line and I retreated to whence I came, discretion being the better part of valour in this instance.
Progress was slow. On one occasion while we waited to go forward an officer came into the house we had occupied shouting for the bulldozer driver. We were going in at first light the following day but there was a problem. A ditch we needed to cross was too high on our side and our tanks would end up nose-down at the bottom of the ditch and would not be able to climb out. Our job was to reduce the height of our side of the ditch. This was not easy because of Germans on the other side. However, using the blade of the bulldozer as a shield and the fire power of the tanks to keep the Germans occupied, we managed to do the job successfully.
Company Photograph; Florence 7th Feb 1945
John Smith 2nd from left back row.
My Company was now moving towards Rome. I was sitting on top of the truck watching for fighter planes. They strafed all convoys and would come out of nowhere so vigilance was very important. In fact I was watching the sky so intently that I nearly had my head knocked off. The signal wires crossed the road every so often, held up by telegraph poles. The wire was at just the right height to catch me round the neck and throw me head over heels along the canvas of the hood of the truck. I was fortunate not to have my head sliced off like a cheese wire cutting through a chunk of Edam. The wire slipped free, but not before it burnt the skin off my neck and left bits of tar sticking to the skin. I had some photos taken showing my bandaged neck.
While in Rome I visited Pope Pius X11 because one of my best friends and his mother were devout Catholics. I decided to get a medallion blessed by the Pope and send it back to Laudy’s mother. During the audience the Pope, seated on an elaborate chair like a throne, was carried down the aisle by the Swiss Guards. As he went, the Pope blessed the people on either side of the aisle. Those who wanted memorabilia blessed held the objects up high. By the time I realised what I should have been doing, the Pope had already passed - and I still had the medallion in my pocket! I had to go back another day and rectify my mistake. The second time I succeeded in getting two medallions blessed and sent one to Mrs. Steel, Laudy’s mother. Fifty years later I gave the other one to Rose Reed, a good neighbour of mine.
During my stay in Rome I also took the chance to climb up inside the big dome of the Vatican which had slits in it from which to look out. The last twenty feet was reached by a ladder. I returned to the Vatican many years later on a holiday with my wife, my son and his family and again climbed up the large dome. However access to the last twenty feet was barred by this time.
During the advance on Rome we were held up beside a large building which was a convent or nunnery. The place was deserted so I went in, searching all the small rooms each of which contained a bed and a chest of drawers. In one of the rooms I found an alarm clock which I took away with me. However as I was going along the road I started to wonder what that Man up above might think of me stealing from nuns when death was all around every day. One’s thoughts are concentrated by the enormity of the events one is involved in. Without much more thought I took the clock back and felt much safer.
I had a similar experience at St. Peters. Inside the dome were mosaic pictures. I picked out two small squares for souvenirs but later that day I reasoned that if every visitor took two squares the picture would soon disappear. Needless to say, I went back and replaced them.
As we approached Castello de Lago the mortar and artillery shells were bouncing off the walls of the buildings. We entered the town to find one street ablaze with burning lorries. In this town we found a snooker table. We removed the green baize and cut out shamrocks to put behind our cap badges - good luck symbols for us but not such good luck for the snooker table and its owner nor for those who used it.
On the move again but this time towards the River Po and the Italian / Austrian frontier. Heavy rain caused sections of the road to slip down the mountain side. We used heavy timbers to shore up the roads.
In this area we encountered dozens of horses running loose. These were not donkeys but thoroughbreds. We finally caught one and I got onto its back holding onto its mane. I was no jockey and was getting seriously concerned, for this animal was now going into a trot beside the river. The more jauntily it trotted the further I slipped off its back. I could see flashing hooves and was beginning to anticipate a dip in the river for me. All my mates were in stitches. Eventually - inevitably - I fell off but somehow I managed to miss both hooves and the river. That was my last attempt at being a jockey - or a comedian.
Now in Austria our first task was to search all houses to flush out all deserters or others. Can you imagine yourself in the position of the women and children of each town we entered. A Company of fully armed troops would take over their village, searching their houses from top to bottom and at that precise moment in time we were considered their enemy. They were in great distress. A woman wearing some kind of uniform walked up to our officer and presented him with a small pistol. I never found out what it was all about. These people soon realised we were not going to harm them. This eased the tension considerably and they adopted a much more friendly attitude towards us. Nevertheless the Army insisted that no fraternisation was to be tolerated, but we broke this rule just a little bit.
All the attics we searched were full of all kinds of goods - fur coats, women’s dresses and overalls, flags, nazi emblems, shoes with leather hinges on the soles to make them easier to walk in. Pandora’s box was paltry compared to these attics.
The Grand Hotel in Villach had been bombed sometime before our arrival and the troops went there every day doing repairs getting the place back in order to make use of this facility. Our billet was a large house in Seabodem about 15 miles from Villach. In this area was a small factory. It manufactured the tail section of the Messershmit fighter plane. We piled all the tools from the benches in one big heap to take them away next day. Alas when we returned the tools had gone. The Austrians must have taken them.
Seaboden was also a very nice place to stay in. It had a beautiful lake. I made a boat and a friend did all the mechanical work so we had our own small private motor launch to sail in the Millstat lake.
During the winter we got hold of a pair of skates which were screwed to the soles of your shoes and, believe me, I made good use of them. One of our trucks was kited out as an engineering shop. It had everything for spot repairs but even with all these facilities I would still rather have been at home. We were allowed to send to the folks back home any presents we liked in a wooden box. I took full advantage of this and made a wooden case. In it I put a selection of clothes which I was sure were not available at home. The object was to boost the morale of all the troops here. In actual fact it amounted to little less than sanctioned looting. But that is the nature of war all over I guess, whatever the “higher” cause purported to justify the insanity. The war had now ended and foremost in our minds was getting home. I never spent time in any other unit apart from during my training. All my service was with the 214 Field Company R.E.. I knew their weaknesses as well as their strengths, which gave me confidence in myself and in them.
I came through the war unscathed physically but mentally I bear the scars to this day and will take them to my grave. In the next section you will find I became a conscientious objector. The tribunal which adjudicated upheld my claim and I was excused from further service. Although my commanding officers did not understand my actions, to a man the supported my character.
My discharge paper contained the following information.
No. 2121845 Sapper J.H.L. Smith Royal Engineers
Proceed by rail from Villach on A release to U.K. 22-6-46
No. 2121845 Sapper J.H.L. Smith Royal Engineers
94 McLelland Street 28-6-46.
Timed served in Army 12-9-40
To be discharged 5-10-46
To: Mr J Smith
94 Mc Sellor St
Release Leave Certificate
Army No. 2121845
Names Smith. John Habick Lockhart
Regiment 214 Field Company R.E.
Call up for Military Service 12-9-40
Trade on Enlistment C + J
Service trade C + J B - L
Military conduct - Exemplary
A first class tradesman who has given long and excellent service to his company both in and out of action. He is a man of inititive and character, and has made an excellent soldier. He is loyal, reliable and trustworthy, and I am sorry to lose him.
Place Austria 4-6-1946
Officer R.B. Cooper
Call Up After The War
In February 1951 I was called up again and had to report for 15 days training. The selection was based on "last out first back" and my fit of experience with the skills gap in the existing army.
Call up for Z reserve. Smith J.H.L. Sapper R.E. 2121845
for training 130 Construction Rgt. from 30-6-51 to 14-7-51
Dormet Cadre Ripon
Deveroll Barracks Ripon
Royal Engineer Record Office
NATIONAL SERVICE ( ARMED FORCES ) ACT, 1939
Application to Local Tribunal by a Person Provisionally Registered in the Register of Conscientious Objectors.
The particulars asked for below must be given by the applicant. The latest date for receipt of the application at the Divisional Office is 31st March, 1951.
Name: Smith, John Habick Lockhart
Address 94 McLellan Street, Glasgow, S.1.
I am opposed to any more slaughter of human life. I served with 214 Field Company Royal Engineers all my war service, fought with them in Africa, Sicily, Italy right through to Austria. The horrors and sufferings inflicted on human beings in this campaign appalled me.
I have witnessed the merciless bombardment by artillery and aircraft of towns and villages full of women and children; these deeds are against all Christian teaching. Bodies from these bombardments piled on top of one another being taken in carts for burial, the civilian population that survived so demoralised that troops with rifles were needed to force them to bury their dead.
I have never claimed a medal for the campaign I was in, and never shall. I consider them symbols of this slaughter of innocent people. I shudder to think I earned them.
The terrible conditions imposed on the coloured people is only breeding hatred for the peoples of the West. The answer to this problem does not mean the slaughter of millions of them, but the opposite. Give them life and hope, raise their standards of life, treat them as human beings and equals, even if it means the lowering of our standards, for the salvation of this world lies in us not only being Christians but putting it into practice, and stop acting like fiends.
I have the highest references of my character from Company and Divisional Officers, my character being exemplary.
(signed.) J.H.L. Smith.
I apply to the Tribunal on the ground that I conscientiously object:-
a) to being registered in the Military Service Register;
b) to performing military service;
c) to performing combatant duties;
and apply to the Local Tribunal to be registered accordingly.
Local Tribunal held on 11 Apr. 1951
Constitution of Tribunal - Full; Chairman & 4 members
Further evidence of the hearing,
Took oath, Cabinetmaker. Age 32.
In Royal Engineers for 6 years. During service was opposed to war, but didn't raise any objections. Said propaganda told him evil persons he was fighting didn't discover this to be so. If 14 days would bring peace he would gladly serve that period.
Objections not on political grounds and although not a church attendee, feels views are on religious grounds; opposed to killing people, in any shape or form, has seen terrible scenes and says war means soldiers on one hand, and soldiers and civilians on the other. If own home was attacked doesn't think he would do anything unless convinced man was a murderer - would not act against a soldier: admits couldn't see his wife and child slaughtered though it meant taking up arms. Fears God: saw one of our soldiers rob a dead comrade, and the robber himself was dead soon after - thinks act of God; another chap who complained about making roads to convey wounded and dead, himself died quickly: thinks the second man was probably a decent chap, but war brought him to that state. Felt coloured troops who shared in battle conditions went home to terrible circumstances and we didn't help.
ORDER OF TRIBUNAL
a) That the applicant shall, without conditions, be registered in the Register of Conscientious Objectors;
b) That the applicant should be regarded as conscientiously objecting to performing military service.
Was the recommendation of the Tribunal unanimous ? Yes.
Signature of Chairman George A. Montgomery 11th April, 1951.
Mr. J. Smith
94 McLelland Street
12th March 1951
I have received your letter, and must confess to some surprise that an old member of 214 should now hold the views that you do.
I do not doubt your sincerity, and for what it is worth I enclose a short testimonial of your character as I remember it.
With best wishes,
Colonel R.B. Denton.
P.S. Of course I remember you.
Colonel R. B. Denton., MC, TD.,
From: Colonel R. B. Denton., MC, TD.,
12. 3. 51.
To whom it may concern.
Reference J. H. L. Smith.
I remember Smith as a quiet and well behaved soldier. He served under me for four years 1942 - 45, and during that time proved himself to be loyal, and trustworthy, and as his commanding officer I found no fault with his courageousness or his discipline.
Three of his four years were spent fighting with a Division.
( R. B. Denton. )
First Letter from Major Adams
Tel No: S-O-T 84104 Drill Hall,
13 March 51
I remember of course the Smith JHL very well indeed and have great pleasure in supplying you with a reference.
I am rather surprised you have your "Z" Papers, but there seems to be quite a number like you. I fail to understand your wishing to avoid any further military service on conscientious grounds as you should realise by this time, that the only hope we have in avoiding another war, is by being militarily strong as possible, and as the regular Army is very small, this can only be done by the Territorial Army. As the Territorial Army is small, and during the hiatus before the National Service men can make up the deficit, the Government have done the only possible thing in calling up the class "Z" Reserve. That you have been called up against your wishes, is of course unfortunate, but my advice to you, for what it’s worth, is to accept your call up, with as good a grace as possible, bearing in mind that in this way, you will be playing your part in avoiding the next war.
J.F.W. Adams Major RE
jfwa/jgw Officer Cmdg 214 Fd Sqn RE (TA).
Mr J Smith
94 McClelland St
From: Major J.F.W. Adams, RE 13 March 51
214 Field Sqn RE (TA)
Drill Hall, Scotia Rd.,
To Whom It May Concern
Mr. J.H.L. Smith was well known to me as Sapper 2121845 Smith J.H.L., from late '40 until May '44. He was a very keen and hard working soldier who never shirked any duty and could always be relied on in an emergency. While he was serving in 214 Field Coy., during the time I was with them, he was never in any trouble and was a smart and efficient soldier.
Second letter from Major Adams
Tel No: S-O-T 84104 Drill Hall,
27 March 51
Many thanks for your letter received today.
If only our enemies thought the same way as you do, we would have nothing to fear.
Who isn't opposed to war, further slaughter ?, and it is only by being strong we can avoid it.
J.F.W. Adams Major RE
jfwa/jgw Offr Cmdg 214 Fd Sqn RE (TA)..