The New Chairman Roy Quinton in conversation with the Editor
Roy was born on 23rd May 1923 and at 18 answered his call-up in December 1941 reporting to London Road Morden TA Barracks. The Inspecting Officers assigned him to the Royal Artillery and he eventually received orders to proceed to Bulford Barracks on Salisbury Plain. On completion of his Basic Training was posted to 406 Battalion Royal Artillery at Oakhampton in Devon. The regiment was then relocated to Barracks located in Piddlehinton near Dorchester.
In January 1943 at about 3 in the morning, they were awakened and told to pack up their things and board the waiting lorries and they were subsequently transported to Dorchester Railway Station. Ordered to board a waiting train whose lights were almost blacked out they travelled to Lime Street Station Liverpool. They were then ordered to board the Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt a Dutch vessel that had previously been a liner connecting Holland with her then East Indian Colony (now Indonesia). The Ball Room had been transformed into a dormitory area, with hundreds of hammocks suspended from the ceiling. The journey to Algiers took about 11 days as due to the presence of German U-boats the ship went up and down the Spanish Coast in avoidance manoeuvres.
They landed in Algiers and were marched to the Race course (a sea of tents!) where they spent the night. In the morning, they were marched back to the dockside and boarded a much smaller vessel which took them to the eastern seaport of Bone. Known as the ‘Death Run’ as the route was infested with U-boats and the ships involved were frequently attacked by Axis aircraft. They were battened down in the hold whilst they were subjected to just such an attack. With the air rapidly deteriorating and the fear of suffocation some of the men, including Roy, broke the battens and forced themselves upon deck. Roy took cover under a lifeboat from where he saw machine gun bullets striking along the length of the deck between the lifeboat where he had taken cover and the deck cabins. Exhausted Roy fell asleep where he lay being woken by the bright morning sun light. It was shortly after he awoke when the vessel arrived in Bone, where they were disembarked and marched into the surrounding desert area until they reached an encampment, where they stayed for a few days, awaiting the arrival of their Field Guns, limbers-(quads)- and ammunition. Travelling again by lorries they made their way from Algeria to the other French Colony of Tunisia. It was night when they eventually arrived at the ‘Front’ near Medges el Bab and Beja, where the sky was lit up by the flashes from the artillery positions. They supported the French Foreign Legion, as its infantry successfully attacked enemy forces at Kairouen and later British Infantry successfully attacking German positions on Longstop Hill and Banana Ridge.
They continued supporting the British troops in various locations right up to the 13th May 1943, when the German and Italian armies finally surrendered at Tunis.
Hunkering down for a couple of weeks just outside Tunis, after which they were subsequently ordered to make their way back to Algeria crossing the Atlas Mountain range on the way. Up in the mountains Roy’s motor bike broke down three times and it was thanks to an American Negro Battalion’s troop carrier, which stopped to pick up Roy and his bike that he was almost certainly saved from freezing to death in the Mountains during the night. None of his own regiments’ trucks had bothered to stop and pick him up when he had hailed them! The very kind Black Americans dropped Roy off at the assembly point at Bou Arada.
The regiment was subsequently billeted in the desert area around the town of Setif for several months, during which time the invasion of Sicily had taken place on 10th July 1943. The Regiment was not called back into action until late October 1943, when they landed at Taranto in Italy. There the Regiments’ 25 pounders were replaced by American 5.5-gun Howitzers, which enabled them to fire over the top of the Appennine mountains and hit enemy positions on the lower slopes, something the 25 pounders could not do. They were then directed northwest towards the Sangro River battlefield but, the river already having been successfully crossed they were sent to rest in the village of Torito near Bari. After two weeks, they were ordered to proceed westwards to the Cassino Battlefield. Ordered to remove their 8th Army flashes and sew on the American 5th Army flashes, they gave supporting fire to our infantry during all four of the Cassino battles between January and May 1944. Roy remembers being in an OP located a thousand feet up in the town of Minturno, where our Artillery OP Officer directed battery fire over the Garigliano river onto almost impregnable German positions. He remembers they were supporting the American 34th and 36th Infantry divisions who were cut to pieces in a gallant attempt to carry out General Mark Clark’s ridiculous orders. It was following the extremely successful efforts of the Polish 2nd Corps and the French Expeditionary Corps between 17th and 18th May 1944 that the Germans finally abandoned their Cassino positions and Roy’s regiment joined the northward march to Rome. They got as far as Tivoli when they were told by the Americans to re-join the 8th Army: Mark Clark wanted all the glory, as usual.
After re-joining the 8th Army the regiment (part of the 2nd AGRA) proceeded in the general direction of the Region of Umbria, finally reaching the city of Perugia on 23rd June 1944. It was here that their guns had to be sent into a REME workshop to be recalibrated following the wear and tear they had suffered during the Battle of Cassino. Wagon lines of the 406 Battery were told to encamp about 150 yards from the Railway Station of Frontevegge Perugia next to a block of flats. It was here that Roy heard a Piano being played. He had not touched the keys for a couple of years, so with his friend they located the flat where the piano was being played. Without going into further details Roy was about to meet his future wife Irene, her father being the freight manager at the Railway Station.
It is here that I should tell you that Roy had and still has a flair for foreign languages. His French had been much improved from his time spent in North Africa. He reads and writes French without any difficulty but because he does not have many opportunities to use it his spoken French is not as good as it once was. It was because of his knowledge of French that he had been frequently used as an interpreter while he was in North Africa. Soon after he had landed in Italy he had asked his parents to send him an Italian dictionary and grammar books and he set about becoming fluent in Italian, spending every spare moment reading these books: even when hunkered down in a slit trench he would pull these books from the pocket of his battledress. ‘It helped take my mind off the dangers around me’ said Roy. He also took every opportunity he could to speak to the Italians.
He had reached a level of fluency that he sought by the time he had arrived in Perugia and it certainly helped in his courtship of his future wife! He was becoming much sought after by the Army authorities by this time, whenever interpreting skills were required. This meant that he could travel around a lot. In fact, it helped him keep in touch with his future wife when the front line had moved further north. When he had first entered the flat in Perugia, he came face to face with a very frightened family, but he soon reassured them that he meant them no harm and it all ended with Roy knocking out Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers swing music on their piano. They had good reason to worry because during the last days of the German occupation of Perugia, Roy’s future wife and the other girls in the block of flats had spent several nights on the roof of the building to avoid some drunken Germans in search of women.
During this period, their weekly NAFFI supplies were handed out just outside the doors of a huge garage housing big transport lorries. To their right, as they queued up was the high wall of the block of flats and on their left a very high wall. On the last occasion, a truck had been parked by the wall of the flats and Roy remembered that he had left his purse in their signals 15 cwt truck, asking his friend to kindly get his rations while he nipped back to get his money. The friend had moved up to take Roy’s place in the line. When Roy returned he took his place behind his friend; it was at that moment that two shells fell the other side of the of the wall on their left and another between the wall of the flats and the parked vehicle. A further shell hit the roof of the garage. The truck had protected Roy from the blast to his right and the wall to the left had withstood the blast on the left, the roof began to disintegrate and his ears went deaf. When the air cleared he found his friend lying on the ground with a huge chest wound and one or two of the others had also been badly wounded. Roy was unharmed! He says ‘If I had not had to fetch my money, and had remained standing in front of my friend, I calculated that I would have been the one to have been hit, and it would have been my head which would have been blown away. I could not restrain the tears as I tried to comfort him but he found the strength to tell me that it didn’t matter to him because that very day he had received a letter from home telling him that his wife had gone off with somebody else. He died in the ambulance taking him to the military hospital’.
As the Regiment advanced northwards to the area around Arezzo in Tuscany, our infantry had some hard fighting to do before the breakthrough towards Rimini and Imola, in the region of Reggio Emilia. As the winter closed in on Faenza, just before the last push over the River Po’ and the final German surrender, little action took place. While at Faenza he was woken at 3 a.m. in the morning during January 1945 to be told that his war was over, as he was needed as an interpreter in Viserba, a small seaside village just a couple of miles from Rimini. With the final German surrender he was sent to the Lido Island Venice to engage the civilian labour for the proposed 8th Army Rest Camp, to be established in the abandoned Italian Naval Barracks there. On completion of that job he was sent right down to the boot of Italy close to where he first landed at Taranto. Here he was to be the interpreter for the Italian Fascist Prisoners of War; men who had served in the army of Mussolini’s so-called Fascist republic in Salo near Lake Garda. As that job was coming to an end he spotted in the Camp News a recruitment notice for Personnel with linguistic skills. He applied and took an exam at Castellamare di Stabia near Naples, coming out with top marks. The work involved a certain amount of ‘hush hush’ stuff but not much. From there he was posted to Milan where he filled in for a Sergeant who had recently been sent home on compassionate leave. Roy says ‘My job there was twofold; (a) to vet Italian women in the Milan area, whom our lads wished to marry and (b) to ensure that the living conditions of former Fascist functionaries in Milan’s San Vittore jail were satisfactory. The first job I found distasteful, for it often ended in visiting the VD Clinic of the main hospital in Milan, but the second job was very interesting. It was in this role that I had the opportunity to speak to Gibolli Gigli, who had been a junior Minister in Mussolini’s last Government and whom the Chief Secondino (Chief Warder) had told me was probably the only honest one of the bunch’.
He later received orders to proceed to Rome to work for the Allied Screening Commission, a branch of AMGOT (Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories). This was in early 1946 and he loved the work since it consisted of tracing the very brave Italians who had risked their lived helping our escaped Prisoners to reach our lines.
The Army had already accepted that Roy was to marry his Italian sweetheart and to his amazement the Rome Command wrote to him telling him that it had booked a room with on-suite and all meals found for a fortnight in the Hotel Vittoria, located in the fashionable area of the Via Veneto and all at the Army’s expense! He has never heard of anybody else in the same position receiving this boon! They were married in June 1946 in Perugia and then made their way to Rome for their honeymoon. In August Roy was sent back home to the UK to be demobbed and in late September his wife was delivered to him at Victoria Station London, from whence they proceeded to their home. Roy has over the years published all the story above but this is just a short precis of his war-time experiences.
My thanks to Roy and Irene for the time and attention to detail in what is a very fascinating war time experience.