Memories of an Octogenarian
By Lionel Sole
(Abridged by Bob Sheldon)
This article was originally published in the December 2005 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
Introduction: Lionel is descended from Edward Sole (1798-1890) of Woodnesborough in East Kent. He has written a very detailed set of memoirs for the benefit of his family and future generations, which regrettably have needed drastic editing for the Journal, but hopefully the result does justice to Lionel’s account of his long and eventful life.
Part III. The War Years: 1939-42
On Thursday, 24 August I was 'called up' for the duration of the emergency. Towards the end of the afternoon a message was received from the local Drill Hall ordering all 'Terriers' to report by 6pm and later that evening the 235 Battery (one of three batteries forming the 89th heavy Anti-aircraft Regiment) left Margate in a convoy of coaches. Four hours later I was standing in a field of 'stubble' at Bredhurst, a village near Chatham, and then until the early hours of the next morning, we strove to bring the four guns in to action. With this achieved, and there being no overnight accommodation, the men slept where they could. I chose a haystack. Next morning we woke to find that there would be no breakfast until provisions were bought at local shops!
During that first full day of mobilisation the guns and instruments were checked for efficiency and the Battery was ready for war. Whether we would have been a match for the German Luftwaffe is doubtful, for the guns were of WWI vintage.
After the declaration of war on Sunday, 3 September the officers and men settled down to what became a boring routine: a constant watch for enemy planes which did not come. However, there was a brief moment during the morning of the second day when a flight of RAF Hurricane fighters flew over our site. No warning of this had been received and neighbouring guns fired on these friendly planes. Fortunately no damage was done.
At Bredhurst living conditions were primitive and though improvements were made conditions were never more than basic. Water was a major problem and keeping oneself clean was very difficult. We must have been a very smelly lot!
After six weeks the Battery was transferred to the Midlands, the other two batteries remaining in Kent. Having arrived at Wednesfield, near Wolverhampton, we found that we were to sleep in bell tents and that the cold water ablutions were in the middle of a field. It was October and very cold!
By Christmas 1939 there were many who thought that the war would 'fizzle out', for after four months no major conflict had occurred between British and German land or air forces. To buoy that optimism there was no great shortage of food, for rationing was at its early stages and a large mound of Christmas food parcels received from some wealthy parents ensured that we enjoyed a feast.
As the New Year began the weather continued to deteriorate, and I was transferred to the driving pool. The driving conditions caused by the heavy falls of snow and compacted ice were atrocious and at night these problems were compounded by the blackout restrictions. The Battery was transferred to Bedworth, between Coventry and Nuneaton. I remained a member of the driving pool, driving officers to various destinations and delivering rations to other gun sites, etc.
Towards the end of February the battery returned to Kent, being posted to a barracks in the Medway area. There the days were filled with much 'square bashing' from which I escaped, being retained as a driver. But my time as a regular driver soon came to an end when I was sent to Brigade HQ at Fort Luton. At Fort Luton I retain memories of the days spent providing a 24-hour guard. During one memorable moonlight night one of our members, being on guard, heard a disturbing noise and adopted the standard procedure, shouting 'Who goes there?' several times. Getting no response he opened fire. Silence followed and later it was found that a cow had been the intruder. The soldier's name was Moon!
The end of April, and just prior to the start of the ‘shooting war’, I returned to the ‘Left Wing’ of the battery which was then stationed at Allhallows, a village facing the Thames estuary, the ‘Right Wing’ being positioned a short distance away. Together, we formed part of the defence of London and the oil refineries on the Isle of Grain.
At Allhallows and elsewhere we witnessed during the Battle of Britain the daily ‘dog fights’ between the RAF and Luftwaffe fighter planes. We also saw many of the large flights of German bombers en route to London, some of which our guns engaged with varying degrees of success. Surprisingly, the civilians living in the area appeared to carry on with their lives as normal.
At the time of Dunkirk there was speculation as to what part the Battery might play in the event of German invasion and it was soon made known that we would be a mobile unit capable of rapid deployment. In preparation we were ordered to pack our kit and remain fully dressed at all times. This was followed by the arrival of a large fleet of vehicles; coaches for the NCOs and men; heavy-duty lorries to pull the guns; and a motley assortment of other commandeered vehicles, including, bakers’, butchers’ and builders’ vans. In the event we did not become a mobile unit and Allhallows remained our base until November, though there were several occasions when we were deployed elsewhere, including Gravesend, Dartford, Scotland and Biggin Hill. It was as at Sutton-at-Hone, near Dartford, that I was to receive one of my greatest shocks of the war.
One afternoon soldiers under eighteen were transferred by lorry from our camp to one at Dover and I took the opportunity to make a quick visit to my home in Canterbury by persuading the driver to include me among the party. What I found upon arrival I could not have anticipated, for my home was in ruins, only the front wall of the building remaining. I was in a state of shock from the fear that my parents and brother Desmond were either dead or injured. Fortunately this was not so, as was quickly confirmed when I went to a neighbour's house and was greeted by my mother who told me that she and Desmond were in the house when it was bombed and had escaped unhurt. Unfortunately, during the raid our immediate neighbour, a Mr. Sanders, was killed, and his wife seriously injured.
The day following this experience, not having heard from Lily or her family for more than a week, I went to London and saw at first hand what the Blitz meant for Londoners. Having first visited my girlfriend’s home I waited at a bus stop for her to arrive from her place of work in Oxford Street. I waited for a very long time and when she did arrive it was to find that she had travelled in the back of a coal merchant's lorry. There had been a bombing 'incident' during which Lily had narrowly escaped injury.
Shortly after this incident we moved to Butlin's Holiday Camp at Clacton. This was to be our last station before overseas service. At Clacton we received an issue of tropical wear, including a topi, a firm indication that we were destined for a warm climate. Leave passes were issued for four days, together with instructions that we were not to mention the issue of tropical kit, and more importantly, that we were to be back precisely on time. For me those four days passed very quickly, days spent in London and Canterbury, where Lily and I stayed with my parents who had been re-housed following the loss of their home a few months earlier. It was there that Lily and I became engaged.
It was a slow train journey north from Clacton to Glasgow docks and to the boat that was to take us overseas. The name: City of Canterbury.
At Clydebank, after a long and tiring journey from Clacton, during which we had slept little and had little food or drink, we looked forward to having breakfast. But this was not to be and it was not until the evening that we received our first meal.
While we waited on the quayside prior to boarding we listened to the workmen still working on the ship converting it to wartime use. As I remember, the ship was one of the Ellerman City Line which sailed to and from India and the Far East. The ships were capable of carrying mixed cargo and up to about two hundred passengers. On that December day 800-1000 British soldiers were to be embarked and there was speculation as to how we would be accommodated. Later we found that we were to occupy one of two holds and that in each of the holds there would be about 370 men, 80 more than the number displayed at the entrance to the forward hold to which I was directed. In this crowded space we ate our meals and slept, either in hammocks, on a mess table, or on the deck.
We left Glasgow on the 15th December and once we had left the relative safety of the River Clyde and had reached the open sea our convoy was sailing in dangerous waters. Although it seemed unlikely that Christmas would be marked by a big celebration we looked forward to a day with a difference. Well, it was certainly different, for on Christmas morning the convoy came under attack!
Shortly after breakfast the sound of gunfire was heard. The sea had moderated but visibility was poor and there was no sign of enemy ships, but a minute or so later huge flashes were seen in the distance on the port side, followed shortly afterwards by loud thumps as exploding shells fell nearby. The action did not last long, possibly half-an-hour, following which we returned to making the most of Christmas Day, and when we were eventually permitted to go back on deck we found that we were sailing alone, apart from an escorting destroyer.
On New Year’s Day we were said to be line with the Canary Islands. Though our final destination was still not known this news, plus the fact that the weather was becoming warmer, indicated that we were on course for South Africa. Five days later we anchored at Freetown for three days before continuing our voyage.
To keep fully occupied on board was difficult. As a consequence men stood around talking, sunbathed, joined a card school, or read the few books which were available. I did the same but I also filled a niche as a hairdresser. My short-lived career in this area started as a result of a few of my closest colleagues requiring a 'trim' and being unable to persuade the only known professional to oblige. My first 'efforts' were probably awful but my friends were kind and soon I was in great demand. I could have made a small fortune but instead made only a nominal charge.
After about a week we were told that we would round the Cape of Good Hope and this led to speculation that we would enjoy a few days ashore. After an interval of seventeen days at sea without sight of land, and after a voyage of almost six weeks since leaving Glasgow, we were more than ready to get ashore at Durban. The South Africans were very generous in their welcome and we enjoyed a city which outwardly was untouched by war, apart from the warships and troopships which entered the port.
In general the Army did not interfere with our daily programme, except on one notable occasion when we marched as a regiment through the city to attend a demonstration of native dancing given in a sports ground. We were dressed in tropical kit: khaki shirt and shorts long, hose tops and puttees, and wearing our topi which was discarded when we reached Egypt, being replaced by a side hat!
On leaving Durban the ship sailed north with fewer ships in the convoy than before. Eventually we arrived at Suez. The voyage from Glasgow had taken almost nine weeks.
Early on the morning of 17 February 1941 we disembarked at Suez and boarded a train which was to take us to a transit camp. El Tahag was a huge camp, composed mainly of marquee-type tents with a lesser number of bell tents and a few wooden buildings of Army style. I was directed together with others to a tent of the usual tropical style, the roof being made of two canvases, the space between the outer and inner layers helping to keep the tent cool during hot weather, and in Egypt, particularly in the Canal Zone, it can be very hot.
The Battery was still waiting for our guns and supporting equipment and I recall guard duties, route marches in the desert and gun drills. The latter were farcical, for not having guns, predictor or height-finder, the basic essentials for an anti-aircraft unit were represented by lines drawn in the sand and the men stood in their imagined positions. I was reminded of my childhood, playing at soldiers in the fields surrounding the Kentish village where I grew up.
We had been out of action for almost five months and then suddenly things began to happen: it was announced that the first of the guns had arrived; a regimental parade was called and we were told that these guns would be passed to 234 (Ramsgate) Battery. I understand that the Ramsgate Battery was initially destined for Greece but with the position there deteriorating rapidly it was diverted to Crete. A few weeks later the German launched an attack on the island, and ultimately captured it. There were many casualties, dead and wounded, among the Allied forces, including two men who had been transferred from the 235 just before the ill-fated Ramsgate Battery left Egypt. One was John Smith, a colleague of mine at Thanet Press.
A few days after the Ramsgate Battery left I was one of a small party which visited a RAF camp in the Canal Zone for training, in particular aircraft recognition, and upon our return to El Tahag found that the Battery had left, where to we did not know.
Eventually we travelled to Alexandria by train to board a small RN patrol boat, the Fiona. We sailed at 07.00 hours, saw an aircraft carrier and other naval ships in the harbour and then joined with other ships to form a small convoy of merchantmen and naval escort. We were to pass a second night at sea and by late afternoon entered the harbour at Tobruk. The entrance was heavily mined and we arrived in bright moonlight, so we could see that both the town and harbour had come under heavy bombardment.
Safely ashore we reached our campsite and were reunited with our Battery which had travelled overland from Egypt. Early the next morning we were awakened by gunfire. The siege of Tobruk had begun.
During the first months of the siege the troops were mainly from Britain, Australia and New Zealand and were under the command of General Alan Moreshead of the 9th Australian Division. On one occasion he visited our gun site and for a few moments he spoke to me about the height-finder which we were using and our living conditions. He was very modest and had the ability to speak to men of any rank. It was the first and only time that I spoke with a high-ranking officer and I thought how he might have compared with some of our generals.
The decision to reinforce the defence of Tobruk with heavy anti-aircraft guns might have been made when our forces led by General Wavell met with greater opposition. Whatever the reason for sending the reinforcements, eight guns with crews were sent - and that was the 235 Battery. Unfortunately, the plans did not work smoothly, for the men arrived in Tobruk many days before the guns and when they arrived they were of the static type. Unlike mobile guns which can be brought immediately into action, static guns have to be set in concrete and this can take a very long time, as it did, so that it was several weeks before the Battery could make a contribution to the defence of the besieged garrison.
Shortly after our arrival I formed part of a 24-hour guard - no new experience for me, except that instead of one rifle one man, there were three men. When someone asked how this method of arming the guard was to work the reply was that in the event of imminent danger one man was to report quickly to the officer on duty, while the remaining two men were to remain at their post and that if necessary the unarmed man was to throw stones! Fortunately the occasion did not arise.
Eventually the guns arrived and the Battery divided into its usual 'Left' and 'Right' wings. The 'Right' wing moved to its pre-arranged site in the harbour to assist with the installation of the guns; 'Left' wing, of which I was a member, transferred to an abandoned Italian ack-ack site on the Bardia Road, situated on a ridge overlooking the harbour. With me in the party were Doug Baker and Vic Bussey of Thanet Press and Watchet days, and Frank Rogers from Broadstairs. Again there were no sleeping quarters and while most of the men slept in the gun pits Frank and I found an instrument case shaped like a dog’s kennel of above average size and it was this which provided us with overnight accommodation.
We found that five out of six guns were serviceable but that the necessary predictor and height-finder had been destroyed by the Italians, which severely limited their use but it did mean that they could be used for creating a barrage of fire above the harbour area during the frequent daylight air raids by dive-bombers.
While we remained on the Bardia road the frequent daily raids on the harbour continued and in addition there was occasional shelling of the camp, as the following extract from my diary shows: 'I was standing alone at the time watching gun flashes (in the night sky) when all of a sudden I heard a noise similar to that of an express train rushing through the air followed by a thud as the shell burst just in front of me and others fell'.
During June my Troop transferred to a gun site prepared to receive four new 3.7" static guns, the work having been carried out by men of the Royal Engineers with some help by men of our unit. The height-finder crew, of which I was one of three, were provided with a dugout measuring approximately 11ft long x 8ft wide x 7ft high. We were each given a roughly constructed bed, but there were no mattresses. This dugout was to be our home for many months until our final withdrawal from Tobruk.
The constant day and night bombing continued using mainly Stukas, dive bombers, for daylight raids. With the garrison being without air support after the first three weeks of the siege and a German aerodrome a short distance away the enemy could launch an attack at will. On one occasion two Stukas dived upon us out of the sun, accompanied by the characteristic screaming sound caused by air passing through the ailerons. We saw one plane head on and bombs falling in a direct line towards us. As we ducked below the parapet several small bombs landed a few feet away and simultaneously a shower of stones passed over our heads. A very near miss for us and there were no casualties elsewhere. Occasionally there would be a lull in the bombing, particularly during a sandstorm. One was to last three weeks.
It was probably in September 1941 that my Troop was to incur its one and only fatality. A young soldier direct from England joined us late one afternoon. In the evening he came into the height-finder pit and spoke with us at length. Much of the conversation would have been about home, for the news of England was eagerly sought. That night we were to experience a lengthy air raid during which our guns fired several hundreds of rounds and it was when a shell exploded prematurely that the young man was killed.
Less fortunate was the Right Wing of the Battery camped closer to the harbour and a small detachment of our men staffing the radar station, for together they suffered many casualties, dead and wounded.
Throughout the siege food was in short supply as was fresh water. In addition we had little contact with the outside world except for a daily newssheet, ‘The Dinkum Oil’, compiled from radioed news received at HQ. Letters to and from home were taking thirteen weeks until the introduction of air letter forms and microfilming which reduced the time factor by 75%.
While the British public and the Allies applauded the garrison’s resistance, the German High Command, under Hitler referred to us as ‘The Rats of Tobruk’.
After many days of heavy fighting the garrison was relieved on 29 November. The siege had lasted for eight months and was the longest siege in British military history.
On the night of 5 February we left our dugout for the last time; we had been in Tobruk for ten months. Having packed our kit earlier in the day we clambered aboard a lorry to join a convoy destined for Mersa Matruh in Egypt. It was probably a couple of hours later when low-flying German planes arrived to bid us farewell, straffing the convoy. There were no casualties then or later when the planes made a second attack.
We remained at Mersa Matruh for a short while before the Battery transferred to the transit camp which we had left in April of the previous year. We were to remain there for six weeks before moving first to Port Fouad, then to Suez. Soon after our arrival I was put in charge of the canteen, a wooden structure among the many tents. Another job to add to my CV! But this job was not to last long for I late June I was ordered to report to GHQ Press, Cairo. On receiving the news I had mixed feelings, for I was loathe to leave men with whom I had served for three years and some I had known for much longer, although the prospect of being more usefully employed had a strong appeal, for the Battery had often been out of action for long periods.
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