My Fathers War Time Service. By Terry Wait



Ernest Albert George Wait

My Fathers War Time Service.

By Terry Wait

Introduction

I hold few memories of Dad because I was only 6 years old when he passed away, I remember the sadness and heartbreak it caused in our family, it affected everyone, my elder brothers Peter and Nigel, my late sister Marion and of course our Mum, who I have been told was never the same after.

I remember him with affection when he came home from work with chocolate for Nigel and me, I also remember him working with Peter, coming home with the lorry, sometimes with a tractor on the back. I can recall him taking me to Jupps Café in Horsham where we would sit at big bench tables eating breakfast. I have vague memories of the big holiday when he took us to Europe.

At home in the front room there was a photograph of him in his soldier’s uniform hanging on the wall, that was my Dad, and this memory has inspired me to do this research for all my children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces and of course my brothers Peter and Nigel.

I was told he served in Africa and as a child I told all my mates he won the Battle of El Alamein, but of course that was not quite so.  But like thousands of others in his generation their lives were interrupted by war and they spent many years of their lives serving their country in the services.  An army consists of soldiers but although they all know how to hold and fire a gun. armies need all trades supporting and keeping the troops moving, civilian trades like butchers, plumbers, dentists, and doctors etc. were essential to keeping the army on the move. Dad served in the WW2 conflict and served from 1940 until 1946. During this research I have gone through his Service records and referenced these with War Diaries for his units at the National Archives.

This is the story of his Army service.

Dad volunteered for Army service in February 1940 at the age of 23, having passed his medical in Brighton he was given his service number T163878.  Posted to 535 Petrol Company, Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) in March 1940 and ranked as a Driver, he was based in Herne Bay and Halstead Kent.

Training

On arrival at the barracks, he would have certainly been shown to his bed in a hut which would have housed about 20 other soldiers – at the barracks there would have been a mess where they would eat their meals. Food was very basic, an example of a meal would be re-constituted potato, boiled tasteless haricot beans and a piece of tough stringy meat.  On their first night, after dinner the soldiers would have been marched back to their hut to sleep on a hard camp bed with a pillow filled with straw and three army blankets.

Reveille was at 6a.m (bugle call waking soldiers) followed by a wash and shave. Later that day they were issued with two Battle Dress Uniforms, an overcoat, respirator, rifle, bayonet, denims, two pairs of boots and all paraphernalia required for soldiering.

Every day after that was busy, never having a minute to them selves from reveille until lights out at 10p.m. Continual rifle drill, physical training, Bren gun training and marching at a very fast pace at all times.

Basic training lasted for 6 weeks, however military training never ceased throughout his service period and is regularly documented in the war diaries, prior to each campaign this would intensify.

As a driver his training would also have included an introduction to lorries and trucks, later on in his service he took TT’s (trade tests) to qualifying to drive bull dozers, tractors, road rollers, graders, and cranes.

Living in the army huts was very basic with little heating (usually a small stove to heat the entire hut), the winter of 1940 was the coldest for 45 years with temperatures in Kent as low as -20, even the edges of the sea froze. To get extra warmth in the hut Dad would drain some diesel from a lorry and put on the stove for extra warmth. My brother Peter remembers Dad saying that one of the soldiers put petrol on the fire instead of diesel (petrol ignites far quicker than diesel) and this resulted in fireball exploding from the stove!!

The RASC was responsible for transporting supplies, anything from fuel, ammunition to medical supplies, in dads’ case we know he was involved in building sea defences in Kent. Being the closest to the continent Kent was vulnerable to attack by German forces so defences were key, it is important to remember that during 1940 the Nazi invasion plans were becoming a reality and the majority of the air battles during the Battle of Britain were fought in the skies over Kent.

His service records for 1940 and 1941 show his leave dates with entries of ‘leave granted with RA (ration allowance)’.

On one of these leave dates in 1940 he would marry Mum at Horsham Parish church although there was no time for a honeymoon as he had to report to his unit the next morning.

The bridal group photographed outside Horsham Parish Church on Monday after the wedding of Driver E. A. G. Wait and Miss E. L. Cooper. From left to right in the group are : Mrs. J. Wait, Mr. E. Moore, bridegroom, bridge, Mr. J. Cooper, Mr. J. Wait, Mr. L, Cooper, and Miss E. Cooper.-(“West Sussex County Times” photograph).

Movement of dad’s units during 1940 cannot be confirmed as records show place as ‘field’ so it could be anywhere in United Kingdom. Although during 1940 dad was posted to Newark, Nottinghamshire. Later in 1940 mum moved to nearby Lincoln where on the December 22nd gave birth to my sister Marion. Dad was back in Kent in 1941, his records show he was admitted to Birchington Hospital, Kent where he had all his teeth removed and replaced with dentures (12/5/41 to 22/5/41).

1942

Change of Regiments.

In November1941 dad’s unit was attached to No1 Mechanical Equipment Company Royal Engineers and records show he was officially posted to Newark. On the February 7th, 1942 dad was moved from the RASC to the Corps of Royal Engineers (RE) where his rank changed from Driver to Sapper.

Sapper, also called pioneer or combat engineer, is a combatant or soldier who performs a variety of military engineering duties such as breaching fortifications, demolitions, bridge-building, laying, or clearing minefields, preparing field defences, as well as working on road and airfield construction and repair.

Dad was posted to 863 Mechanical Equipment Company (ME). ME companies used heavy mechanical equipment like Bulldozers, Tractors, Graders, Rollers etc and all the necessary lorries and trailers used to move this equipment to where it was needed. It is known that during the years ahead dad would be building airfield runways so it is likely his unit would be training for this.

War Diaries of the unit in February and March show sections of the Company working in Newark, Newcastle and Scotland, the only significant entry was of a lorry and trailer crashing in snow and ice near Perth Scotland. Military training is regular and noted within records, weekly football matches also recorded, teams playing other regiments. One other entry worth a mention is the Scottish Police arrived at dad’s unit to arrest a soldier on charge of bigamy!

Mobilisation

The War Diaries for 863 company from April to September show movement and gathering of equipment, then on 1st August unit commander received orders for preparation moves for mobilisation and the majority of the unit moved to Gateshead. On the August 5th soldiers received inoculations and vaccinations.

Throughout August training became more frequent, and on the August 31st were shown ‘The Next of Kin’ film.  Early in September orders are received to camouflage equipment (desertistaion), two training films were shown to the soldiers, the first ‘Combined Operations’ and the second ‘Care of Tyres’

The films Next of Kin and Combined Operations are available on U Tube.

Military training continued to increase in frequency and soldiers were briefed on mobilisation and the role of their unit, a unit dance was held in Gateshead on October 22nd, the records show that it was a cold evening.

Embarkation and Passage

On the November 24th1942 the units moved out en route for embarkation at Greenock docks. They arrived at docks at 1200 on the 25th and were boarded onto MV Winchester Castle. The units stayed aboard this ship until November 27th when they were transferred to SS Stratheden. There were 4714 troops on board, the ship set sail at 23:00 as part of convoy KMF4. A convoy of 51 ships bound for Algiers, North Africa as part of Operation Torch.  The SS Strathallan, a sister ship of SS Stratheden was torpedoed on the next convoy to Algeria as it passed through Gibraltar. They tried to save the ship, but it eventually capsized and sank.

War Diaries do not refer to the days at sea, brother Peter recalls dad saying when they crossed the Bay of Biscay the seas were rough, many men suffered sea sickness, but others like dad rejoiced in this as they had double rations of egg and bacon for breakfast. Life onboard ship was quite boring with nothing to do except be scared of being sunk either by air attack or submarine, among the convoy were 21 Royal Navy escort ships who would be protecting troopships from U Boat attack with frequent use of depth charges.

SS Stratheden

1943 North Africa

They arrived at Algiers at 10:00 on the December 6th and were housed in billets at Le Hamez, on December 10th they travelled in convoy to Le Kroub. Diaries mention they camped at farms en route.

Dad was part of the British 1st Army group working with US troops to take control of Algeria and Tunisia (Operation Torch) from the West of North Africa meeting the British 8th Army coming from the East. Part of the plan was to ensure there was adequate allied air cover and the building of airstrips was vital, we know as an engineer dad was involved in airfield construction, War Diaries for dad’s platoon refer to airstrips at Canrobert, and Oulmen. Bone (Rabah Bitat) airfield is also mentioned however this was used by the Germans prior to its capture. It was unlikely to have been built by the British although it may have needed substantial repair due to air raids.

Life in North Africa was not easy, the heat and frequent strafing by enemy aircraft being just two of the perils. Peter recalls dad explaining when they were attacked by enemy aircraft their best cover was to lie underneath vehicles especially trailers with floors made of thick wooden planks. On one occasion he recalled that whilst being machine gunned from aircraft, they were lying underneath a trailer when a fellow soldier called Tiny was attacked by a large colony of ants and the irritation was too much to bear and he ran out of the cover trying to get the ants out of his clothing, fortunately Tiny lived to see another day.

Another story dad passed on to Peter, whilst driving equipment through the North African mountains they were prone to have Arabs jump on the back of the lorries to try and steal equipment. On one such occasion, dad was driving with a fellow soldier as a passenger, they heard a commotion on the back and the fellow soldier quickly climbed onto the back with a machine gun and fired at the chap, they saw him jump off and hobble away. On arrival at their destination there was blood everywhere so the chap must have been hit.

Above: Dad in North Africa 1943


Above:
  Constructing Airstrips

Above: Algiers 1942

Above: LST Ships being loaded with vehicles Sousse Docks Tunisia 1943

1943 Sicily

Movements between January and July 1943 are not supported by War Diaries however its almost certain that they would have been working on airfields (see previous map) and then preparation to move out of Africa into Sicily. The records pick up again on 1st July when they are based at Masakin Tunisia and preparing to move to Sousse on the Northern coast. The next 4 days Military Training is recorded to have taken place and on July 7th all vehicles were being waterproofed. On the 8th instructions were received to move to an assembly area in preparation for invasion of Sicily.

Above: Extract from 13 ME Platoon War Diary on the 9th July 1943 to prepare vehicles for Seabourne Invasion

*Waterproofing vehicles was vital, all electrics were sealed with AWC, a kind of asbestos clay, also all air intakes were extended so engines did not draw in water. Saltwater not only shorts electric circuits but is also a cause corrosion.

On the July 9th news was received in the platoon that Operation Husky had commenced, and the assault of Sicily had begun, the invasion was to last until 17th July.

Dads’ unit had finished waterproofing vehicles on the July 10th and were assembled at Charlton Camp Sousse ready to board landing crafts.

They received orders to embark on the LST 403 (Landing Ship Tank) on the 13th July, vehicles and men boarded, and the ship left Sousse Docks at23:30.

They arrived at Augusta Sicily on the July 15th at 18:30, dad is known to have driven a Matador truck off the ship and onto the beachhead, the lorry dropped into the sea and found grip on the sand and drove onto the land.

Above: AEC Matador 4WD Lorry

Note: Mum told me he named his Lorry ‘Marion 2’ after his daughter Marion

Above: View coming off a Landing Craft on to the beach in Sicily. This is how Dad would have driven his Matador into the sea and into Sicily.

Entries for the 15th show 13 ME Platoon set up bivouac camp which was little more than sleeping outside with little cover, it is known that the men in dad’s unit spent much time in these sorts of camps under olive groves often using lorries and equipment for shelter and sleep. Diaries continue to say that camp in Syracuse is being established.

For the next few days, the platoon repaired bomb craters, repairing docks, and transporting supplies inland from docks. It is noted in diaries on July 31st that the unit has limited equipment, much was still in Bone, Algeria, North Africa.

Diary entries for August show lots of soldiers in 13 Platoon are being hospitalised, records show the Captain reported living conditions were not ideal.

The soldiers were living in bivouac camps in Olive Groves in the height of the Italian summer, mosquito bites were a common problem.

Dad was admitted to 5GH (5th Canadian General Hospital) on August 4th with Malaria  then posted to 7 convalescence depot on the August 9th  during his convalescence period dad took Trade Tests to qualify for all Mechanical Equipment (B11), re-joining his unit on the  September18th.

Above: Report compiled by Captain Reid.

Mainland Italy 1943

On October 31ST, the unit boarded LCT 617(Landing Craft Tank) and sailed from Syracuse bound for Taranto, Italian mainland.

War Diaries of November 1943 document that the crossing was far from easy, the ship was heavily loaded with soldiers, vehicles, and machines and soon after leaving port they encountered bad weather. One of the ships engines developed trouble and soon soldiers were feeling the effects of the bad weather (sea sickness).

There was no accommodation on board, so the soldiers improvised rigging up a kitchen between two tractors on the deck and used the cabs of vehicles to provide shelter and sleeping quarters. Ships crew shared some of their quarters and the use of the mess deck. Dad would not have, that was officers only.

Heavy rain continued throughout the night, but everyone managed to keep themselves and their kit dry. During the night, another ship had tried to assist by towing the poorly ship however the tow rope broke twice and it was decided to postpone any further attempts until daybreak.

At dawn, the seas were calmer, tow ropes were successfully attached, and soldiers ate ‘heartily’ at breakfast. As the day progressed the Italian mainland become clearer, and they anchored in Taranto outer harbour at 19:30 on the November 2nd. The journey had taken over 54 hours!!

During the remainder of November, the Platoon was employed on various tasks around Taranto with bulldozers, excavators, and cranes, clearing roads, moving large petrol tanks and road building. Others worked on repairing Taranto docks which had been bombarded earlier in the year by allied forces whilst destroying the Italian Fleet.

Above: Landing Ship Tank (LST) arriving in Taranto Harbour, Italy full of Army Lorries.

Above: Extract from dads Platoon’s War Diaries 1st November ‘at sea’ documenting the difficult crossing from Sicily into mainland Italy

Above: LCT (Landing Craft Tank) This type of craft was used to not only tanks but also heavy machinery.

This was the type of craft Dad travelled from Sicily to Italy, they were flat bottomed so did not handle easily in rough seas.

The dotted line shows the route from Syracuse to Taranto, the sailing took longer than expected due to bad weather and engine failure on ship.

Above: Bulldozer landing from an LCT

During November Tank Transporters of the unit moved large fuel tanks from Taranto to Foggia (Foggia was renowned as a key allied airfield). Great difficulty was had moving these round small Italian roads and although they managed to get within 80km of airfield the operation was abandon due to overhead power cables making the route impassable to such large vehicles. A picture of an Albion Tank Transported is shown below.

When you consider the size of the Vehicles with the size of the small Italian roads, you can understand why they encountered problems. They did try to move the fuel tanks with AEC Matadors and 20T trailers, but these too had difficulty.

In the picture above an AEC Matador towing a large field gun descends a narrow winding road in Sicily between July and September 1943.

During December work continued at Docks, one Sapper sent to Brindisi to work on airfield, diaries do not mention name of Sapper. Work building a new Arsenal commences.

Early in January 1944 orders were received to move the HQ  of the Unit to Brindisi, however the orders were cancelled the next day, and all heavy equipment ordered to be moved to Grottaglie, an existing Italian airfield. The existing runways there needed to be extended to allow US heavy Bombers to operate from there, The engineering work started on arrival.

The War Diaries report that Scrapers were not working correctly – the type of soil was blamed together with stiff scrapers as the cause of the problem. More equipment was to be collected from Port Jasper (neither the records nor the internet can identify the location of Port Jasper).

Above: Men of the RAF Regiment arrive at Grottaglie airfield 1944

January continued to be a busy month, more sappers moved to Brindisi airfield and work at Grottaglie airfield progressed well, all soldiers receive Typhus inoculations, machinery being moved all around southern Italy.

Albion Tank Transporter has two cracked cylinder heads.

Work being completed on surrounding roads (Taranto) and a Rescue section is allocated in case of damage after air raids. One sapper is taken to 135 platoons and interviewed for not taking promotion to lance corporal, he returns to unit.

On January 26th authority is made to award Africa Star (medal for campaign in North Africa)

On February 1st a D8 bulldozer and scraper fell 30ft into a septic tank at Grottaglie, the driver managed to jump clear. Further investigation identified that there was only 1ft of earth covering the tank, the bulldozer and scraper sank under water, they were dug out and soon to service again.

A 3 Ton Austin lorry was involved in accident in Taranto, Polish workers supplying manual labour doubts were raised as to whether they could operate Mechanical Equipment. D8 donkey engine at Brindisi needed replacing, it was replaced by 135 ME company the next day.

During February, March and April works continue at airfields, two new cranes arrived at Taranto but were badly damaged, more and more equipment was being moved into Brindisi on a daily basis. Works were taken on to build railway ramps and repairs to anti-aircraft sites

A letter received from Brigadier General of US Engineer Command commending work done at Brindisi

In May the Platoon moved to Bari to be based by the airfield which needs work, dad was admitted to 98TH General Hospital (Bari) 0n June 29th where he stayed until July 10th. It cannot be confirmed why but it was probability another bout of Malaria or Fever.13 ME Platoon Royal Engineers Italy 1944, Dad is left of center with a X

Mum once told me, not in a happy tone , that dad used to comment how soft his shirts felt after the Italian women washed them in the rocks in the rivers.
Engineering works continued throughout the Platoons stay at Bari and on 18th August all work on at Taranto and Brindisi was handed over to other Mechanical Equipment Companies and the unit was told to move to Santa Maria, however orders were given to be prepared to move at 48 hours’ notice. This notice was given in early September and the unit moved to Falconara and then on to San Benedetto on the 15th of September.
On the 29th of September torrential rains destroyed two bridges on the Pescara to Ancacona road and the platoon spent two days loading and unloading a Bailey Bridge.

Above: A Bailey Bridge, designed to sit on its own pontoons however this one is being used to span a bridge that had collapsed as mentioned above.

In the photo above Engineers are using Bulldozer with gravel lifter at San Benedetto November 1944.

Dads Platoon was at San Benedetto on same date this photo was taken.

On October 19th, the Platoon war diaries reported enemy naval action off San Benedetto Harbour with Mortar, Torpedo, and tracer fire lasting for approximately 25 minutes.

On October 26th, the unit moved to Mondolfo where they worked on building an additional transit camp at No2 Transit camp although heavy rains delay progress.

During December 13ME Platoon worked on building a canal for the Power Station at Angeli and a nearby quarry, work was taken on to layout Polish War Cemetery at Loreto. Heavy rains continue to hinder progress.

January 1945 sees the unit move to Foligno; the unit used its bulldozers to clear heavy snow falls in the region.

Detachments of the Platoon were working at Passignano and Castelraimondo, details of who is working where cannot be confirmed.

Leaving Italy 1945

On the March 12th, the Platoon received orders to prepare for ‘operation Gold flake’ this was the code name given to move of the 1st Canadian Corps and the British 5th Infantry Division from Italy to Belgium. Following these orders, the unit moved to an embarkation camp just outside Pisa, the camp was named Harrods Transit Camp, where they waited until embarkation of LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) at Leghorn (Livorno).

The platoon departed Leghorn on the April 1st and they spent two days at sea arriving in Marseilles, France on the 3rd. Whilst at sea soldiers slept on deck or inside vehicles.

 Above: A painting by a Canadian soldier of the Harrods Transit Camp at Pisa, research of personal accounts at this camp identified the most popular attraction was an American Red Cross girl selling donuts!

From Marseilles they travelled in road convoy towards Belgium stopping at St Rambert, Macon, Les Laumes and Melun reaching Ypres on the April 10th where they spent the rest of the month Military training. Although engineering soldiers, emphasis was put on military training in case combat was required in the final push into Germany.

Above: The docks at Livorno Italy 1945

Ships were being loaded as part of Operation Gold Flake. Allied forces referred to Livorno as Leghorn.

I have been to this port, if only I had known.

Units disembarking at the French port of Marsailles Between February and April 60,000 troops and support personnel disembarked off US ships from Italy.

Above: 13ME Platoon’s War Diary for April 1945. The move from Italy to Belgium

Above: Road convoy from Marseilles to Ypres stopped at St Rambert, Macon, Les Laumes and Melun reaching Ypres on the April 10th.

On the May 8th the Germans surrendered and in effect WW2 in Europe was over, orders  are given on the May 24th for platoon HQ to move to Halle, Belgium where unit remained, on the July 3rd the units ceases to be under command of 361 ME company RE. The following day dad was posted to X11 list, in effect posted home, after that he was posted on agricultural until after Christmas 1945. Agricultural leave is a term used to release on pay but without benefits of full pay, Europe was now flooded with Allied soldiers many of them just arriving, some long serving members given benefit of leave although on paper they were still in service.

After sterling service in Africa, Sicily, Italy and into NW europe 13 Platoon was disbanded at the end of January 1946 and Dad is posted to 16 ME Platoon, his records indicate that he received class A release from BAOR (British Army of the Rhine) on September 22nd 1946. However it is believed he never went back into Military service in Europe and did not get as far as serving in Germany.

Papers show he was officially ‘de mobbed’ at Halifax on March 22nd 1946 , Peter remembers dad telling him that he caught trains back and got off the train at Guildford. Deciding to hitch hike home an army staff car picked him up with a driver and a senior officer. Arriving in Horsham the officer asked where dad drank and was told the Hurst Arms, the officer quickly took Dad into that pub and brought him drinks.

Dads release papers include the following comments:

A reliable and trustworthy Sapper who has had experience in

Operator Excavators and which proved  most satisfactory.

By all accounts dad was not a believer in medals and thought as them as only pieces of metal, however to complete the story they should be included, the three stars are campaign medals for each affiliated country, the defence for those who served at home and  the war medal inclusive of the war. We don’t know what happened to Dad’s medals however I have sourced genuine replacements, which I have been pleased to show family members that are interested.

Dads War Medals

Left to right: 1939-1945 Star, Africa Star with 1st Army Clasp, Italy Star,

France & Germany Star, Defence Medal, War Medal.

Dads service between 1940 and 1945 took him full circle.
Regiment Badges

Above: Royal Army Service Corps
 Above: Royal Engineers
Cooking
Records show that they had cooks from the Royal Catering Corps attached to the unit though at times they would have cooked up food themselves. The picture below gives an idea of what soldiers were eating during WW2, This would vary and may have been supplemented with whatever local produce was available.

During the Second World War tobacco become the most requested ‘comfort’ for soldiers on the front. They were given cigarettes as part of their rations. Dad was a smoker and told Peter than during his services overseas he hated the British Dock workers as they stole cigarettes from the ration packs to sell on the black market.

Vehicles
In the war diaries there are lists made at certain times of the vehicles in dads units, I have included some of them below. It is likely that there were more types including motorcycles although these were more likely restricted to dedicated riders. Within the war diaries of dads Platoon on 4th July 1945 a court enquiry is made regarding a missing motorbike!!

Above: An example of a vehicle list of which there are many kept with the War Diaries in the National Archives.

Above: An Albion Tank Transporter

Above: A Bedford MW 15 cwt Truck
Above: A Dennis AM 30 cwt Truck

Above: An Austin K5 3 ton Truck

Above: An AEC Matador Truck carries troops through an Italian town.
Above: A Scammell Pioneer Tank Transporter passing through a small Italian village watched by a mother and child
Mechanical Equipment (Some Examples).

Above: A Bucrus Shovel
Above: Autopatrol Grader
Above: D4 Bulldozer
Above: D7 Bulldozer
Above: Trailer loaded with a D4 Bulldozer.
Just a bit more
On equipment, when moving heavy machinery the best practice was to have a lorry towing a trailer like the one above and another lorry hooked up behind to act as a brake. Peter remembers dad telling him that a Sergeant ordered that a Scammell alone should pull the trailer. This resulted in the truck and the load rolling over and needing recovery, maybe that’s one of the reasons dad disliked Sergeants !
During his service in Italy dad met an Italian farmer who was using an old Rolls Royce as a pick up truck, on enquiring what he did for Rolls Royce spares he was told in pidgin English that ‘They don’t go wrong’!
Airfield Construction
Engineers employed the same basic construction techniques around the globe. After an area had been cleared of trees or other obstructions, crawler tractors towing carryalls cleared the area. Once the dirt runway had been leveled engineers laid out pierced steel planking to create an all weather runway.  Which was then rolled smooth to remove any rough spots left behind by the heavier equipment.

Well that’s it, when I started I never realised how long it would take and how many paths the research would take me down. I  wrongly believed dads service papers would tell me all: little did I know that I would need to go through archives of war diaries to establish where he was and what he was doing. Many of the records including service papers were hard to decipher either because of the handwriting or army jargon of which there was a lot.
Nevertheless the journey has been worthwhile, interesting and rewarding albeit frustrating at times.
Terry. February 2019

 My sincere Thanks to Robin Hollamby, the Italy Star Associations National Vice Chairman for his time spent editing my work and for his additional research he contributed to the story of my dads war.

1 Comment

  1. Ben

    Interesting and informative, good job

    Reply

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