Roy Quinton on the way to French North Africa and the Tunisian Campaign
In January 1942, whilst stationed at the Artillery barracks in Piddlehinton, Dorset, (with my unit, the 102nd Field Regiment RA) I found myself, together with all my comrades, ordered to sit in the huge dining room to listen to a talk by the Regimental Colonel. He disclosed that we should shortly be sent to our homes on embarkation leave, prior to overseas active service. I remember some of his discourse, when he sought to console us by saying: “some of you will fall by the wayside but others of you will eventually return home; but, in any case, I wish you all the very best of luck….AND. BY GOD YOU ARE ALL GOING to NEED IT !!!! “What a way to console us, I don’t think!!!!
We duly got our 10 days home leave and, a few days after returning to barracks, we were awakened at 3am by the BSM, shouting out, in his usual coarse manner: “hands off your cocks and on with your socks be packed and ready to leave in 15 minutes.” No time for a wash, but we were ready with big and small packs on our shoulders together with rifles and ammunition belts. Still half asleep, we were shepherded into waiting trucks which took us the few miles to Dorchester Railway Station. It was, of course, still dark but, we could perceive that a train with dimmed internal lighting, was waiting for us.
Quickly packed into the passenger carriages, just like sardines, we “dropped off” and, after a few hours journey, found ourselves being shunted out of the train, onto the platform of Lime House station, Liverpool, right by the dockside, where looming up in the air there waited the Dutch ship named the “Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt”. We shuffled up the gangway and directed to our sleeping area, the ballroom of what had been an ocean-going liner. We were assigned hammocks, which were all suspended from the ceiling of the ball room.
There then began what for me a “Dante’s “nightmare, lasting 11 days. I was constantly seasick and every morning I had to refuse the ample, well-cooked breakfast provided by our Dutch crew. I virtually starved for 11 days, the normal 5-day journey lasting for another 6 days as we moved up and down the Spanish Coast, trying to avoid Italian submarines, seeking to sink us.
Eventually we passed the Rock of Gibraltar, all lit up at night, the navy dealing with any enemy subs in the vicinity. An hour or so later, we docked in the port of Algiers, where we disembarked. Once on “Terra firma” I was racked with hunger and thirst and, ravenously, ate a meal of bully beef, cheese, and ham. When I landed, I was more like a skeleton than a normal human being.
Washing myself at a dock-side fountain, I gathered up my baggage and Rifle and ammo and joined a column of March which ended on Algiers racecourse, which was covered with tents. We were told to get a rest and we all flopped down on the straw paillasses provided for us. I, personally, completely exhausted, remembered nothing until the next morning, when the loud voices of the various Battery Sergeant Majors urged us to get up, go to the ablutions, located just outside the tent area, wash, shave and clean our teeth and, when all done, to proceed to the nearest Mess tent and partake of a breakfast of egg, sausage, baked beans and fried bread, with the alternative of either a mug of tea or coffee. At the exits from the Mess tents a notice enjoined us to return at once to our sleeping quarters and quickly prepare our packs, equipment, rifles, and ammunition, ready for a speedy departure.
We did not wait long and soon had orders to join the rapidly forming column of march. Back along the sandy tracks to the Algiers docks again, we were enjoined to board waiting French boats that plied the relatively short coastal journey from Algiers to BONE, where we were to disembark. We had not been long on our way when some kind individual informed us that that particular journey had been named the “DEATH RUN”. We soon learned why, for the journey took us the best part of a night, when, having been battened down in the hold of the ship and ordered not to divest ourselves of our uniforms (including great coats) the heat became unbearable. In no time at all, in desperation, we jointly smashed the battens and burst out on deck, finding places to sleep wherever we could. I myself, chose to sleep underneath a life boat and, about midnight, I heard a number of enemy aircraft zooming down on us and their machine guns raking the whole length of the deck between the Life boats and the walls of the deck cabins, where commissioned and non commissioned ranks had been assigned quarters for the journey. The planes shone headlights onto their targets, which were not just the decks but any other objectives they had decided to hit.
I can honestly say that I was so dog tired and worn out that I just stayed put and actually resumed my sleep as the ships’ “pom-Pom” guns took on the attacking aircraft-(eventually established to have been Italian, not German.) In the light of the next morning, I awoke to a calm sea and no sign of the attackers. It appears that Submarines- (German or Italian)-had also tried to attack our boat but had been frightened off by depth charges.
We shortly docked at BONE where, it would seem, casualties had been very light, with no reports of anyone having been killed as the result of the attack.
We disembarked and marched off to a staging area, where we remained for some days, awaiting orders pertaining to our eventual transport to the front in Tunisia, precisely in the areas of BEJA and MEDGES EL BAB. The reason for the delay was that we awaited delivery of our trucks and “25 pounder” guns. Later accounts of my 406 Battery’s activities at the front are covered in the separate articles I have written, and which have already been published in our Members Magazine and on this website.
Roy Quinton. 27th September 2020.