John Charles Milton

This post is about my Great Uncle, John Charles Milton, and particularly his time during World War II in the Italian Campaign.  I’ve relied on information from John himself, or his sister (my Granny), as well as letters, postcards and photographs – the vast majority of the following scanned pictures were in fact from John.  I’ve also used primary sources and official records including John’s full MOD record of his time in the army, as well as the official history of the 113th Field Regiment during WW2.

Unfortunately John died in 2015 before I wrote this post, and so its impossible to verify some elements of his story, and in truth, John’s memory of some of these events was fading in his last years and occasionally contradicts the accounts of official records.  So I have made a best attempt to understand it all – if in doubt, I have followed official records.

 

John Charles Milton

John Charles Milton was born on 30th January 1918 at no. 13, St Ronan’s Avenue, Redland, Bristol to Lewis Milton and Helen ‘Nell’ Milton.

When John was about three or four, the family moved to 44 Charlton Park, Keynsham.

The family would spend their summers visiting Lewis’ parents (Charles and Marry Milton) at ‘Pear Tree Cottage’ in Downside near Bristol.  Lewis and Nell would rent ‘Holly Tree Cottage’ in Downside.  Lewis would walk to Backwell station every day to travel into Bristol to work at Gardiners.  John is pictured in his pram at Downside.

The below picture is of John on his Uncle Gladstone’s motorcycle.

 

School and Cricket

John first attended Culverhay School in Keynsham, although apparently, his mother didn’t feel it was tough enough for him, and sought alternative arrangements.  He was moved to St Anne’s School in Bristol, run by the Headmaster, George Maunder – whose younger sister, Ethel was coincidentally married to William Avon Lamb, father of John’s future brother in law, my Grandfather!  John travelled to Bristol on the train every day to attend St Anne’s.

He told stories of his time there, particularly of one strict teacher nicknamed ‘Knobbler’ Coles, who was very free with his use of the cane!

John (on the right) during his school years, with a friend.

In 1930, when John was twelve, he attended Cotham Grammar School in Bristol, he must have passed the exams, and his father paid the school fees.  He continued to travel daily to Bristol on the train.  Interestingly, Cotham Grammer was originally the Merchant Venturers School – which his father had attended some years before.

John was a obsessive cricketer (above playing with a piece of wood and a barrel for stumps), playing for Keynsham Cricket Club from an early age, in this undated photo (below) he is second from the left on the back row.

In 1934, John left Cotham at the age of sixteen.  He wrote to every Bank and Insurance company in Bristol for employment without success and without even getting an acknowledgement.  His mother turned to John’s Uncle, Bob Price (married to John’s Aunt Margaret) who worked as a cashier at Distillers Yeast Company in Cheese Lane, Bristol.

This is a picture of the family before the war – with Lewis and Nell, and Granny and John.

The following picture is of John wearing a rather natty Keynsham Cricket Club blazer (he kept this until his death in 2015).

 

Distillers before the War

John and his Uncle Bob were both keen cricketers, and Bob managed to get John employment working for him at Distillers, and for a time, Bob was John’s boss.  After a period, John transferred into Distillers Spirit Store Department.

 

Territorial Army – West Somerset Yeomanry

During early 1938, Distillers, being aware of the deteriorating situation in Europe, made a statement to all employees, that anyone wishing to join the Territorial Army would not suffer any loss of pay or position – that they would be able to return to Distillers after any war.

John joined the Territorial Army, on 30th April 1939 – signing up as a ‘Gunner’ (the most lowly rank) to the ‘West Somerset Yeomanry’, specifically, 373 (W.S.Y.) Field Battery of the Royal Regiment of Artillery – part of the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC), with its HQ in Taunton.  He joined up in Keynsham town, with three friends – who all survived the war.  [One of these was called ‘Les’ (Leslie) and we also have a letter from him to John’s sister Mary, my Granny.]  They had no uniforms, but were each provided with boots and a ‘fore-and-aft’ cap.  Until they were provided with their own uniforms, they were given an extra shilling a day for wearing their own clothes.

[The West Somerset Yeomanry was a Territorial Regiment that served in the Second World War as two Field Regiments of the Royal Artillery – the 55th (Wessex) and the 112th (Wessex) Field Regiments.]

The following pictures are John’s, at the R.A. Practice Camp 2 at Okehampton where he was training, and show the camp, various gun tractors – tracked vehicles pulling field guns and bren gun carriers, along with field guns in action.  Some of the pieces are clearly obsolete models (with carriage wheels), which would only have been used for training, although there are more modern guns (with smaller inflated rubber tyres).

One of them is a photo postcard to his sister (my Granny), dated 31st May 1939 – he talks of it being very hot, he had sun burn, and of training on the moor.  Interestingly, this is before war was declared – it’s hard to date the other pictures, since they could have been when he returned for Okehampton for basic training after war as declared.

We know from his military record that on 1st July 1939, John also attended 15 days of military and artillery training exercises, at the ‘Annual Camp’ with the West Somerset Yeomanry.  This date coincides with his transfer from 373 to 374 Battery based in Shepton Mallet.

Second World War – 55th (Wessex) Field Regiment, R.A. – West Somerset Yeomanry

John was at home in Keynsham with the dog, as the situation in Europe deteriorated and war became likely – his parents were in Hereford seeing John’s sister, Mary, and her husband, also John (my Granny and Grandpa).  On the 31st August he had orders to report to Shepton Mallet, the HQ of 374 Battery, West Somerset Yeomanry, as soon as possible as hostilities were imminent.

He spent some days in Shepton Mallet, based near the gaol, before his unit was sent to Hatherleigh in Devon for basic training at No 2 Practice Camp, R.A., Okehampton (see pictures above).  So its likely some of the pictures above are of this period, he was here in May from his earlier postcard home and possibly also in July for ‘annual camp’, so this would have been a return visit to complete his training and make the unit active.

The following picture postcard to his mother is of Hatherleigh, dated 17th October 1939 – he talks of getting an extra weeks worth of ‘Xmas leave‘ and that he would be home ‘next Friday‘.

This doesn’t correspond to his record which states he was first in Hatherleigh between 28th December 1939 and 29th January 1940.

 

The above pictures are undated, but since he’s not got any stripes (from being an NCO), and he isn’t wearing a cadet’s uniform, I think its safe to assume these are pictures are from the time of his basic training.  He is outside bell/tipi style tents, which we know were at Okehampton camp.

John told us of a funny story about his training, one day his gun crew had ‘dug’ their gun into the slope of a side of the hill – you needed to make sure they were in a pit to control recoil.  When they were ready, they fired their gun, only to realize that they hadn’t dug it in deep enough, as it recoiled out of the gun pit, and rolled and bounced off down the hill – with them all chasing after it!

The 1939 Military Training Act called for basic training of six months duration – John thought he was trained for only 3-4 months, but this doesn’t seem to fit with the information that we can infer.  I would estimate that he didn’t finish training until March 1940 – we know this included several weeks Christmas leave.

55th (Wessex) Field Regiment, RA – Training

55th (Wessex) Field Regiment, served on the Home Front for most of the war, initially as part of 45th Infantry Division.  It was composed of two batteries; 373 (West Somerset Yeomanry) from Taunton, and 374 (West Somerset Yeomanry) from Shepton Mallet.  A third battery (439) was formed at Barnsley on 15th November 1940.

In June 1942, the Regiment was transferred to the Guards Armoured Division, entering the North West Europe campaign after D-Day in June 1944 on D-Day plus 21.  And ended the war in Germany.

We know that the 55th Field Regiment was organised into two 12 gun batteries, and in 1940 it was reorganised into three 8 gun batteries to take into account of the lessons from the BEF – where 2 batteries had failed to fully support the 3 battalions of Infantry in an Infantry Brigade.

John would have been one of the gunners, and then would have been promoted to ultimately command one of the eight guns in 374 Battery.

The following photo shows John as a private, its been annotated as April 1940.  If this is the case, then it’s logical to assume it was taken after he completed basic training.

The photo below is undated and its location is unknown, but John is still a private, so it would have been around the same period as the above photo.

John was promoted to L/Bdr or Lance Bombardier on 6th April 1940.

[In the Honourable Artillery Company, a Lance Corporal wears two Chevrons (apparently because Queen Victoria didn’t like seeing just one).]

After completing training, John was told his unit would be going to France and arrangements were even made for a special train to Newhaven before embarkation to Cherbourg on the Continent.  Events in France, with the retreat from Dunkirk and then subsequent total evacuation from France, overtook them and they never sailed.

On the 9th May 1940, the Germans invaded the Netherlands.  The situation in France was clearly irredeemable by 23rd May when Lord Gort ordered a retreat of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) into the beach-heads.   And by the 4th June the Dunkirk evacuations had been completed and the Germans had driven the British out of Northern France.

The 2nd BEF made up of the 1st British Armoured Division (already in France) and elements of the 52 (Lowland) Division (in the middle of being sent to France), along with a re-equipped 3rd Infantry Division (recently evacuated from Dunkirk and now reorganising in the UK).  It was cut off in central France and around the ports of Cherbourg and La Havre.

Since the 3rd Division lost all its heavy equipment at Dunkirk, it was being re-equipped and any shortfalls were being made up with units available in the UK.  Artillery Regiments were being assigned to the Division to get it back to full strength.  I strongly suspect that the 55th (Wessex) Field Regiment, R.A. was earmarked to replace one of the 3rd’s original Artillery Regiments that had left all its heavy equipment at Dunkirk.

I suspect the decision not to send the 55th (West Somerset Yoemanry) to France was made on or about the 14th June 1940, which was the date that Lieutenant-General Alan Brooke was able to prevent the rest of the 52nd (Lowland) Division from being sent on the hopeless mission to France.

By 25th June the British had performed a second evacuation of all remaining troops from BEF2 still in France, through the ports of Cherbourg, St Nazaire and La Havre.  On the 18 June 1940 Cherbourg was captured by the Germans.

It seems that John had a lucky escape when the Generals accepted the futility of sending further troops to France.

 

55th (Wessex) Field Regiment, RA – ‘Home Forces’ at Romney Marsh

John was promoted to full Bdr or Bombardier on the 6th July 1940

Due to the threat of invasion, John’s regiment were assigned to ‘Home Forces’ on anti-invasion defence, attached to 135th Infantry Brigade.  The regiment was woefully short of equipment – all British army modern heavy equipment having been sent to France with the BEF, and most of it lost in the subsequent evacuation from Dunkirk.

The regiment (attached to 45th Infantry Division) was ordered to Woodchurch near Romney Marsh, on 16th July 1940.  This location, in the narrows of the English Channel, was considered the most likely invasion target.  Had the German’s carried out ‘Operation Sealion’ (their English Channel and south coast invasion plan) as they had planned, then John would have been on the front line.

The 55th Field Regiment war diary for this period states that by May 1940, the regiment had only half a dozen guns on its strength, but was fully equipped by September 1940 with five different types/models/calibers of gun including British, French and American 75mm guns, 4.5 inch howitzers, and 18 pdrs.  These were all obsolete pre-WW1 models, dating from between 1898 and 1908.  They were not particularly powerful or mobile, and the regiment was effectively ‘static’, lacking gun towing equipment, which was well-known to be a very dangerous tactic for artillery in the new age of air-ground attack.

John signed letters from ‘W’ battery (of 374), the regimental war diary seems to imply that ‘W’ was in E Troop, and was at this time equipped with QF 4.5 inch howitzers (pictured below – Imperial War Museum).  These guns had come into service in 1908 and had served throughout WW1.  We know that John later went onto 25 pdr. guns as the Royal Artillery re-equipped, but also that he trained on earlier models like the 75mm gun – as seen in pictures from his training in 1939.

One troop of 374 Battery (D Troop) was full-strength with four modern 25 pdrs. and 6 field tractors (4 towing a gun and ammunition limber/trailer, 2 towing two trailers each) to make them fully mobile.  Tractors/transport for the regimental 75mm guns and Howitzers was not due to be delivered until September 1940.

The regimental guns were dispersed between 3000m and 5000m from the coastline, over a wide area around Romney Marsh.  All the potential landing beaches (targeting 100m below high water mark) and likely German invasion routes and key landscape features, were mapped fully with known coordinates.  In the event of invasion, this would have allowed all the regimental guns within range to concentrate fire on any point on the ground.   The 18 pdr. guns were designated in an anti-tank role, and were positioned to target enemy tanks on the coastal road.

The regiment spent its time digging gun emplacements, mapping and calculating firing solutions for each gun and battery.  The also undertook regular live-fire exercises, for example, on 25th September 1940, D Troop fired 38 rounds onto one practice beach.

An account from a gunner in “C Troop’ 373 Battery (‘We remember the battle of Britain’, Frank & Joan Shaw) details an eye-witness account of this time.  It talks of being posted to St. Mary in the Marsh – their Observation Point (OP) was at Pope’s Hotel, and talks of digging gun pits at the bottom of people’s gardens whilst they awaited the arrival of guns!  It talks of filling endless numbers of sandbags – the sandy beaches being handy for more material – the impression is that the officers kept the men busy.

The guns, when they arrived, turned out to be American 75’s (75mm), and the ammunition was boxed and marked ‘American Expeditionary Forces, France, 1917’!  According the the account, the guns looked ‘pre-Boer War’ and the gun sights were not the British ‘Dial’ sights they had been trained with, but older, less accurate sights.

The gunners apparently watched the Battle of Britain from their positions – seeing regular dog fights as the German formations flew directly over them and back towards London, and the account talks of the men meeting Czech and American Eagle Pilots (whose Squadrons were based nearby) in the local pubs.  The gun crews had Lewis guns as air-defence, and used to fire at German aircraft that came low enough to engage.  The fire-glow from the nightly bombing of distant London increased the anger of the regiments troops ‘every time we saw a bomber crash or one of their Me109 or Me110 fighters come spiralling down to earth we cheered and cheered and cheered’. (‘We remember the battle of Britain’, Frank & Joan Shaw).

The account talks of endless guard duties – and that the troops were like ‘walking zombies’ because they were on constant alert for invasion.  In August 1940, the men were issued with Canadian ‘Ross’ rifles (manufactured up until 1918 but withdrawn from active service in 1916 because of maintenance issues) for personal defence and practiced extensively with them at rifle ranges at Hythe.  The troops would supplement their meagre rations by foraging in the local countryside (and local farms) – many of the men had worked the land and knew how to find food.   Apparently, the new Canadian rifles were put to good use on lone sheep that the gunners came across, which mysteriously ended up ‘in their cooking pots’ since their sergeant had been a butcher.

John was promoted to Lance Sergeant on 15th November 1940.  A Lance Sergeant – a unique rank of the Honourable Artillery Company and only a few other units of the British Army, was a Corporal who was undertaking the duties of a Sergeant – which would have meant commanding one of the  eight guns in his battery.  The Lance Sergeant wore three stripes like a sergeant, but his chevrons would have been white, whilst a full Sergeant would have had Gold chevrons.

John and his regiment stayed at Romney Marsh until the threat of invasion receded with the change to winter conditions in the channel during November 1940.

55th (Wessex) Field Regiment, RA – ‘Home Forces’ at Barnsley

The 55th (Wessex) Field Regiment, RA, transferred to Barnsley in Yorkshire, where a third battery (439) was formed in the regiment on 15th November 1940.  John’s Battery, 374, arrived in Barnsley on 22nd November 1940.

On the 11th December 1940, John sent a letter to Mary, John’s sister (my granny), from Barnsley confirming all these details and also incidentally, that he was a member of the West Somerset Yeomanry.  He named himself “L/Sergeant Milton (903078)“.  And his address was given as “‘W’ Bty (Battery), W.S.Y. (West Somerset Yeomanry), RA (Royal Artillery), Barnsley, Yorkshire”.

He writes because my Auntie Susan had been born – his first niece, and says: “There is last one more thing as we don’t get baby’s every day I think something ought to be done to mark the occasion so will you tap my salary (if they still pay it) for a quid of so (not less than a quid) and get yourself or the baby something’.  He also asks if his brother in law ‘Was John home or will he come later?”.  A quid was a large amount of money at the time, but it also somewhat confirms that Distillers were still paying him, or that John was at least expecting to be paid.

John’s friend ‘Les’, wrote to John’s sister, Mary (my Granny) on 15th December, also to congratulate her about the birth.  He was also in “W.” Bty (W. S. Y.) R. A. – and one of the friends who joined up with John.  He writes of “the cursed raiding of old Hitler’, and ‘some of your nearby neighbours were burnt out‘ in air raids on Keynsham.

On 22nd January 1941, John was promoted to full Sergeant.

55th (Wessex) Field Regiment, RA – ‘Home Forces’ in Essex area

The regiment were transferred to what looks like ‘Prestwood'(?) on 24th February 1941.

On 19th June 1941, John was promoted to Staff Sergeant.

His regiment appears to have had a short posting to Colchester between 21st and 26th July 1941.  Before moving to Clacton, where they were based from December 1941, until April 1942.  John appears to have spent much of the first half of 1942 undertaking various courses all over the England and also in Wales.

He was undertaking an ‘arty’ or Anti-Aircraft training course at Larkhill in Wiltshire, during February 1942.

During June, his regiment were posted to Frinton (on Sea), on the coast near Clacton and not far from Colchester.  According to contemporary accounts, the Regimental HQ was at Great Bentley, which is geographically right between Frinton, Clacton and Colchester.

In April 1942 and later in June 1942, he was at Rhyl in North Wales, latterly undertaking a ‘Unit Instructors Course’.  He obtained a mark of 244/300 and the remarks from his training are that he was,

“An intelligent man who put a great deal of effort into the work and did well in the examination.  He will be a good instructor with a little more knowledge and experience.”

The following picture of him is dated August 1942, and of him with his No. 1. Field Equipment Course – this is not on his official record.  He is third from the left on the front row, and is wearing the chevrons of a Sergeant.

His official military record paints a picture is of a man going out of his way to do course after course to better himself.

One day, his Lieutenant-Colonel (at the time, Lt. Col. R.D. Bolton) sent for John, to inform him that he had been selected for Pre-OT (Officer Training).  John said that this conversation came out of the blue, but I think that is typically self-effacing of him – he was clearly a talented soldier who was well thought of by his superiors.  And he was clearly an obvious candidate to go for training to become an officer – not that John would ever have admitted this.

 

On 3rd October 1942, John was transferred from 55th Field Regiment RA, to 148th (Independent) Training Brigade, at Wrotham Camp in Kent (only converted from an Infantry Brigade on 25th July 1942).  This training unit was responsible for pre-OCU training of all OCTU  candidates for the Army.

Pre-OCTU training took several weeks to complete, John completed his course successfully on 31st October 1942.  The aim of pre-OCTU was to weed out those who were not suitable for the extensive six months Officer Training regime.  Only those candidates likely to make the grade were then passed on to an OCTU.

 

Officer Training with 121 OCTU (Alton Towers)

John passed his pre-OCTU training with 148 Training Bde. on 31st October 1942, and was transferred to 121 OCTU on the same date.  This unit had moved from Aldershot to Alton (on the site of the modern Alton Towers).  This was formed from 11 HAC or the 11th Honourable Artillery Company.

He then spent roughly six months training at the OCTU at Alton Towers until 27th March 1943.

The following picture of of John’s training company (unknown) at 121 OCTU, he is on the back row in the middle, wearing his cadet cap with white band.

The following picture postcard from John is of Alton Towers – the house itself had been requisitioned for the OCTU and was used for accommodation and administration/training rooms, and the grounds and lake were used for practical training.

We don’t know much about his time at Alton Towers, although we do have contemporary reports from others who were there.  There was also a MG OCTU at Alton – training Machine Gun Officers.

OCTU for all Artillery cadets started with a series of tests on Trigonometry and Gunnery – this was the start of a process of weeding out those unsuitable – they would be RTU or Returned To Unit.

All Cadets, whether MG or Artillery would start with a posting to an Infantry company for the first month, focussing on physical fitness and Infantry tactics:

“For the first month the cadets were trained exclusively as infantry, to bring all cadets up to the required standard and to thin out those who were faint hearted. They practiced jungle training up and down the rhododendron covered slopes, did a night river crossing and cleared a minefield at night. The main assault course was laid out in the Deer Park, seen here many years later as a caravan park. Drill and physical training were part of every day. A feature of physical training was the morning run down the steps walk, to the bottom of the hill, and back again.” (Mr Whitehouse – MG OCTU)

Each OCTU would then go on to work on the specifics of its branch of the Army; Artillery Cadets would spend the next five months training to command Artillery.  A detailed account by one R.A. Taylor, is recorded on this website  http://altontowersmemories.net/page19.htm.

This first hand report describes a strict regime of vigorous training, including physical training on the assault course and runs around the estate, drilling, gun drill and gunnery.  As well as the technical side of things with lectures on Trigonometry (to work out direction and elevation of your guns to hit a specific target from your location), Tactics (Battery dispersion) etc. along with many examinations to prove you understood it all.

Weekend leave seems to have been very limited, and Cadets were barred from many of the local pubs in and around and the nearby town of Uttoxeter – this was the reserve of the staff of the OCTU!

On passing out at completion of OCTU course, John was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery (RA).

In the Supplement to the London Gazette, 30th April, 1943, it states that on 27th March 1943 “The undermentioned Cadets to be 2nd Lts;-

“John Charles MILTON (268761)”

From ‘the Army List’, John (Milton, J. C.) became a 2nd Lieutenant on 27/3/1943, which matches the London Gazette entry.

 

180th and 96th Field Regiment’s RA – Training Regiment’s

According to John he was then sent to a ‘training regiment’ for further instruction, and to await transfer to an Artillery Regiment.

His military record states that he was transferred to 180th Field Regiment, RA after his commission.

The following undated photo is of a QF 25-pounder – this is the sort of gun that John trained with.

The 25 pounder could fire 6-8 rounds per minute up to a range of 13,400 yards or over seven miles.  It could fire anti tank rounds, but was mainly used to fire High Explosive or H.E. rounds at troop concentrations or specific targets in support of Infantry and Tanks.  Each gun had a crew of 6 men: 1 – gun commander (a sergeant), 2 – breech operator – rammed the shell, 3 – layer, 4 – loader, 5 – ammunition, 6 – ammunition ‘coverer’ – 2nd in command of the gun and responsible for ammunition preparation and shell fuze.

 

North Africa – B.N.A.F (British North Africa Force) 

John was initially only told that he was to be sent somewhere overseas – the clue as to where he might be being sent was apparently from the type of uniform issued.  Tropical kit, meant he was heading to the Far East to fight the Japanese, whilst Khaki Kit, meant that he was heading to the European theatre.  John received Khaki – so he would be heading to North Africa and ultimately Italy.  The picture below shows John wearing Mediterranean kit, so it would be from late 1943.

 

In early September 1943, John was posted to 96th Regiment RA in Alford Lincolnshire.  He was given given two weeks embarkation leave, which he spent at home in Keynsham.  And then on the 13th September 1943, he was formally discharged from the Regiment with orders to go to North Africa embarking at Liverpool.

John travelled to Liverpool by train and boarded the 15,434 ton Holland-American Line converted troopship, SS Volendam.  She was a Dutch passenger ship, converted and used to ferry troops to North Africa/Sicily throughout 1942 and 1943.

She left Liverpool on the Sep 15, 1943 and travelled independently to join convoy KMF.24, which had departed from the Clyde on the same day.  The completed convoy then travelled to North Africa with the ultimate destination of Alexandria in Egypt.

The picture below, is of the SS Volendam prior to being converted to a troopship.  As he was going up the gangway, he was apparently pulled aside by a senior ship’s officer, to be told that as he was Royal Artillery, he was wanted as an anti-aircraft (AA) gun gunner on the journey.  John apparently insisted that he was a field gunner, used to 25 pounder guns, and not qualified with AA guns.  As far as the ship’s officer was concerned, if he could fire a field gun, then he could fire an AA gun at an aircraft.  He was put in charge of an AA ‘Bofors’ gun on the right hand side of the ship’s bridge (visible in the picture below) for the duration of the 10 day journey from Liverpool to Philippeville (renamed Skikda in 1962) in Algeria.

Convoy KMF.24 is detailed on the following site:

http://www.convoyweb.org.uk/kmf/index.html?kmf.php?convoy=24!~kmfmain

She contained 13 troop and transport ships, along with 15 escort vessels.  The records show only one ship states that she held 4082 troops, but we know that the whole convoy could have had around 10,000 troops – the SS Volendam alone could carry 2000 passengers as a civilian liner and would have fitted many more troops.

All these troops would be earmarked for the invasion of mainland Italy.

A detail of the full convoy is as followed.

Vessel
Pdt.
Tons
Built
Cargo
Notes
 

ALDENHAM 
 
 
 
 
ESCORT 25/09 – 29/09
 

ALMANZORA (Br)
 
15,551
1914
 
 
 

ARONDA (Br)
 
9,031
1941
 
JD EX SNF 3 FOR PT SAID
 

ATHLONE CASTLE (Br)
 
25,564
1936
 
 
 

BATTLER 
 
 
 
 
ESCORT 22/09 – 29/09
 

BERGENSFJORD (Nor)
 
11,015
1913
 
 
 

CAMERONIA (Br)
 
16,297
1920
 
CLYDE TO ALGIERS
 

CARLISLE 
 
 
 
 
ESCORT 18/09 –
 

CHIDDINGFOLD 
 
 
 
 
ESCORT 18/09 – 22/09
 

DUNNOTTAR CASTLE (Br)
 
15,007
1936
 
 
 

EGRA (Br)
 
5,108
1911
 
JD EX SNF 3 FOR PT SAID
 

EMPIRE VICEROY (Br)
 
7,803
1943
 
 
 

EVENLODE 
 
 
 
 
ESCORT 15/09 – 22/09
 

HIGHLAND PRINCESS (Br)
 
14,133
1930
 
 
 

KANARIS 
 
 
 
 
ESCORT 25/09 – 29/09
 

LLANGIBBY CASTLE (Br)
 
11,951
1929
 
THEN SUEZ TO HOLDING ANCHORAGE TO 11.10
 

MALCOLM 
 
 
 
 
ESCORT 18/09 –
 

MIAOULIS 
 
 
 
 
ESCORT 25/09 – 29/09
 

MOOLTAN (Br)
 
20,952
1923
4082 TROOPS
 
 

PELICAN 
 
 
 
 
ESCORT 15/09 – 22/09
 

REINA DEL PACIFICO (Br)
 
17,702
1931
 
 
 

ROCKWOOD 
 
 
 
 
ESCORT 25/09 – 29/09
 

ROTHER 
 
 
 
 
ESCORT 15/09 – 22/09
 

SPEY 
 
 
 
 
ESCORT 15/09 – 22/09
 

THEMISTOCLES 
 
 
 
 
ESCORT 18/09 – 22/09
 

VOLENDAM (Du)
 
15,434
1922
 
 
 

WEAR 
 
 
 
 
ESCORT 15/09 – 22/09
 

ZETLAND 
 
 
 
 
ESCORT 18/09 – 22/09

We then loose track of the SS Volendam.  She clearly leaves the convoy at Algiers, but the limited convoy records don’t show this.  We know that on the previous convoy KMF.20, the SS Volendam left Algiers on 29th July, and was escorted by at least one warship (although not officially in a convoy) to Philippeville, arriving on 2nd August 1943.

I believe that the SS Volendam did the same thing on KMF.24 – we know she arrived in Algiers on the 23rd September 1943.  I believe she then left the rest of the convoy (as she had done in August) and sailed independently to Philippeville with a small escort.  The convoy records are incomplete – I can see there are gaps – the next record shows SS Volendam in Cape Town with no idea of how she got there or when.

John’s military record shows that he disembarked at Philippeville on the 24th September 1943, the day after SS Volendam was known to be in Algiers.  This is a distance of 191 nautical miles, which at 10 knots, would take only 19 hours steaming – so this seems the most likely series of events given the dates we have.

Once in North Africa, John was attached to the B.N.A.F (British North Africa Force) theatre command, the forces responsible for the area between Algiers and Tunis, until 26th October 1943.  He was assigned to X(IV) List.  Effectively a list of unattached Officers awaiting transfer to a combat regiment/battalion – this means he was intended as a replacement for a wounded or killed Officer from a RA regiment.

It’s not clear what John did during his 5 weeks in North Africa, but it seems clear that he moved from Philipeville to Tunis, based on the change of theatre command.  From 26th October 1943 to 1st November 1943, he was attached to M.E.F. (Mediterranean Expeditionary Force) who were responsible for the theatre command between Tunis and Egypt.  On the 2nd November 1943, he was posted to 113th Field Regiment RA under the C.M.F (Central Mediterranean Force) theatre command, which covered Italy and Albania.

Incidentally whilst John was in North Africa, the ‘Army List’ records show he was promoted to Lieutenant on 27th September 1943 as a War Substantive Rank – meaning he retained his official 2nd Lieutenant Rank on official records, even though he gained War commission as a Lieutenant.

 

113th Field Regiment, RA – Italy with C.M.F (Central Mediterranean Force)

The 113th (Home Counties) had been formed in 1939, trained in Okehampton during July 1939.  It was assigned to coastal defence during the invasion risks of 1940 and 1941 in the South East of England.  In August 1942 it was attached to 56th (London) Division and embarked for Egypt via Cape Town.  The unit then motored and sailed via Basra, through Iraq to Kirkuk where they were stationed until Spring 1943.

Along with the 56th (London) Division (to which it was attached), the 113th was ordered to join the 8th Army in North Africa, fighting the Africa Corps – they drove with all their equipment from Iraq, through Palestine, Egypt and Libya before arriving in Tunisia – this was a mammoth journey in its own right.  They travelled 3000 miles in 6 weeks, and then went into action near Enfidaville (now Enfida near Sousse in Tunisia) on 27th April 1943.  After two weeks action, and a few casualties, they moved to Tripoli.

The North African Campaign ended on 13th May 1943, when the Germans and Italians surrendered.

This regiment was armed with 25 pounder field artillery guns.  John would have replaced a casualty or transferred Officer from the actions at Enfidaville – so he had to join a unit that had already been in action and then fit in and even command men who had been in action when he had not – this must have been a little daunting.

An Artillery Regiment like the 113th had the following structure (Artillery Regiment Structure):

The regiment would have had 24 x 25  pdrs, along with 42 motorcycles, 10 cars (2- and 4-seater), 9 armoured observation posts (carriers), 45 15cwt trucks (GS, personnel, water), 1 30cwt lorry, 28 3-ton lorries, and 36 Quad tractors.

John would have been a Subaltern – a junior officer.  From the courses he undertook, it seems clear he was the Troop G.P.O or Gun Positioning Officer, responsible for aiming the troop guns at specific targets (direction and elevation – to hit the correct target area and then respond to adjustments from an artillery observation post).  He would have been responsible for locating and aiming 4 x 25-pounder guns.

John joined the 113th on the 2nd November 1943, and would have followed them to Italy, and joined with them after the Salerno landings.

 

Second World War – Italy with the American 5th Army

[Using as a primary source the 113th Field Regiment, R.A. 1939-1945 Official History – John had a copy of this excellent book]

John’s new regiment was in the 56th (London) Division, part of the British X Corps under Lieutenant-General Sir Richard McCreery, itself part of the larger American ‘Fifth Army’ under Lieutenant General Mark Clark.  The Division was held in reserve for the Sicily landings, but would take an assault role in ‘Operation Avalanche’, the Salerno landings, some 50 miles south of Naples on mainland Italy.

The Regiment embarked from Tunis on the 1st September 1943 on their L.C.I.s, L.C.T.s, L.S.I.s and L.S.T.s – a combination of Landing (L) and either Craft (C) or Ship (S) and then the designation Infantry (I) or Tank (T) – the S’s being larger than the C’s, in Tripoli harbour.  They then waiting on board for four days before they left for Salerno in a staged pattern to match the speed of the various craft – so that they would all arrive together.

The 113th Regiment group sailed on the 5th September, and they joined a naval task force of 627 warships, merchant vessels and landing ships and craft sailing from various ports along the North African coast and Sicily with an aim of arriving at Salerno for landings on the 9th September.

227 and 478 Batteries of 113th Regiment landed at Salerno at 05.40 on 9th September with 228th Battery of the Regiment due to land on the 18th September.  The landing itself was successful although the ships were shelled by German artillery and dive bombed by the Luftwaffe.  The Regiment suffered some failures with gun tractors breaking down, and had difficulties moving heavy equipment over the sand.  Eventually the Regiment came into action with the guns only 300 yards from the sea, and the enemy being only 950 yards away – sending machine gun fire and direct sniper fire at them.

The 113th moved inland and assisted in the bombardment of Monte Corvino aerodrome in support of 56th (London) Division, sending out the Observation Posts (O.P.s) in light Stuart Tanks to call in artillery strikes.  The next days appear to have involved setting up the Batteries, calibrating the guns for accuracy, firing them at targets, and then moving before the Germans could detect where they were located for a counter-barrage.  The Regiment suffered casualties – all in an effort to fight off counter attacks on the beachhead from Battipaglia – which was utterly devastated.

Apparently, Malaria was also a serious problem in the south of Italy – many men suffered from fevers.

Up to the 27th September, the 113th were focussed on fighting for Mount Stella, which once captured, was a good O.P. for the Regiment.

The Regiment then moved through Mariglino – where the commander of 478 Battery was a casualty – Acera, Caserta and Santa Maria – reaching the River Volturno.  The river was crossed on the 17th October by the town of Capua and on to Montenaro.

Between the 3rd and 11th November the Regiment was out of the line resting, and the men had a chance to visit Naples, which had been captured.

From the dates in his military record, this seems the most likely point at which John joined his new regiment.

[Note – John thought that he landed at Salerno which has caused me some confusion when comparing dates between his sometimes poor memory, and official records.  I am relying on the official records (including his official military record) even when they contradict John.]

On the 11th November, the 113th was back into the line at Conca and fighting with the elements as much as the Germans – the mud was causing havoc.  John made a point of saying how bad the roads were in Italy during the winter rain and snow – he talked of vehicles getting stuck – and that even tanks and tracked vehicles were immobilised.  It also had the effect of stopping any Combat Air Patrols (CAP), and any air attacks on the enemy, and meant that the Artillery had a lot more work to do to support the Infantry.

The history of the Regiment talks of ‘awful conditions’ in the winter at Conca, where the men had to basically find shelter where they could in the ‘sea of mud’.  Vehicles completely failed and ammunition had to be moved by hand because there were not enough mules.  During a big attack every able body was used to carry 9000 rounds of ammunition by hand in the ‘ankle deep mud’ from the ammo dumps to the gun pits, which were then fired at the enemy – apparently ‘two gunners dropped out completely from sheer exhaustion‘ at the rate of fire.

During early December, the Regiment then took part in the great Monte Camino / Monte Cassino battle, supporting attacks on the Monastery.

On Christmas Eve 1943, all the officers attended a ‘Bottle Party‘ at Regimental HQ.  And on Christmas day, a race-meeting was held complete with Tote – apparently an American camera crew took pictures of the Regiment [I wonder if they survive?].  They had a Christmas dinner of ‘Turkey, Pork, Cauliflower, Potatoes, Christmas Pudding, Mince Pies, Figs, Nuts, Oranges, and Tangerines.  This was helped down with beer and Vino‘.

On the 29th December, a Quad and gun were lost in a River, and then the Regiment moved to Lauro.  Whilst there, the Regiment was bombed by German fighter-bombers, and several men were killed.  Men of 227 Battery were buried in a collapsed building and needed digging out.

The Regiment then crossed the Garigliano River before joining in on the attacks around Salvatito Damiano.

The Anzio landings had occurred on the January 22nd 1944 and had not gone well, and 113th Regiment were warned by their C.O. on 12th February, to prepare to move to Anzio with 56th Division to support a break out from the beachhead.

On the 14th February, the Regiment moved to Naples.  The following photo would be of John’s battery in Italy.  Because of the tram systems and the buildings, this must be Naples, and the timing must be February 1944 when the whole Regiment were there with their equipment.

The above picture shows a convoy of Morris C8 Field Artillery Tractors, along with their towed 25 pounder field guns.  This was the standard equipment of the 113th Regiment, R.A.   The Morris ‘Quad’ was a 4×4, specifically designed to pull a field gun.  It could carry 6 people – basically the gun crew plus all the ammunition that they needed, and could travel 50mph with a range of 160 miles.

These are the vehicles that had made the trip from Kirkuk in Iraq to Tripoli, via Tunisia, and then fought up through Italy.  Quite a staggering achievement.

The first elements of the Regiment arrived at Anzio on 18th February, followed by 228 Battery, 478 Battery, 227 Battery and the HQ – all the troops were surprised that ‘everybody else wore tin-hats‘.  This must have been the first warning of what was to come.

John was on an American L.C.I. capable of carrying around 200 troops.  John tells us that unfortunately, more than halfway to Anzio, his L.C.I. broke down and was left by the rest of the fleet, who had to continue the landings.  For several hours, the ship’s company tried to get the engines started, and manned the Anti-Aircraft guns to wait for an expected Luftwaffe attack – this must have been terrifying for everyone on board, the ship would have been a sitting duck without power.

Fortunately, the crew managed to get the engines going again and the ship continued on its way, meeting a Destroyer returning from Anzio, which then turned around and escorted them back to the beaches.  When John arrived at Anzio, he landed and rejoined his regiment in the beach head.

[Note: Unfortunately, John mixed up his recollection of Anzio with the Salerno landings.  Records show he only landed in North Africa from the UK after the date of the Salerno landings – so we know it was impossible for him to be there, and we know from the records that he was definitely at Anzio.  I have therefore substituted Salerno with Anzio in his account.]

The Regiment spent about a month in the beachhead – the soil was not very suitable for trenches – John described how they would seek cover wherever they could.  It was described as ‘There was not an inch of the whole beach-head that could not be shelled by the German guns‘.  There was nowhere that you could get peace and quiet ‘the answer was to get into the right position as soon as possible and then to dig.  Dig for your own protection, dig for the protection of your vehicles, guns and wireless sets.  Then there was a feeling of permanence and security, but not before‘.  They not only had to contend with German artillery, but the Luftwaffe regularly bombed and strafed them – visiting the gun areas every night to bomb them.

John described to me that on one such bombing attack, he made a decision and ran and jumped into one of two slit trenches – only for the other trench to receive a direct hit, killing every man in it.

He described counter-barrages, where the German artillery would duel with the British artillery – both trying to knock the other out.  And he described coming under sniper fire – people standing next to him were killed.

And he described how they only had to ‘direct-aim’ the guns, so aim them by sight rather than by calculating direction and elevation.  German targets were so close that the guns were often horizontal – firing at targets which were in eye-sight.

On the 26th February, the gunners were involved in ‘heavy close fighting’ defending their guns with the use of small arms.  Things were so desperate that even batmen and cooks were brought up to use small arms to protect the guns.  The artillery targets were so common and frequent and the coordinates so well known that they were given codenames like ‘Tinker, Tailor, Sailor‘ to speed up fire-support.

On 11th March, 56th (London) Division was relieved, the 113th handed over equipment with haste and left as soon as they could, the whole Regiment went onto a L.S.T. and headed for Pozzuoli.  On arrival R.A.S.C. transport took the men to Naples.  Where ‘some found real beds and electric lights. Vermouth could be purchased for 50 Lire per litre, there was a cinema show, and clean clothing was issued to everyone after a hot bath‘.

We know that John was in Naples at least by 15th March 1944, he has an ‘Allied Officers Club‘ membership card which expires on this date, I would assume this was for some kind of leave after the trials of Anzio.

They then went to Rocca Piedmonte, Altimura and finally, the Regiment minus 228 Battery (which went to the island of Vis) after a route march, arrived at Taranto.  On 26th March they embarked on the SS. Cameronia for Port Said in Egypt.  The SS. Cameronia was an ‘Anchor Line’ passenger liner which had been requisitioned in 1940 as a troopship, carrying nearly 1500 troops, her picture is below:

The Cameronia left Taranto on 29th March with convoy IXF.12 (Taranto – Port Said), carrying the whole of 56th (London) Division, arriving there on the 2nd April 1944. (http://www.convoyweb.org.uk/misc/index.html?yy.php?convoy=IXF.12!~miscmain).  IXF.12 had 9 merchant and troopships with 9 escort warships.

Vessel  Flag  Tons  Built Pdt.     Cargo       Notes
ALDENHAM ESCORT 29/03 – 02/04
ANTWERP ESCORT 01/04 – 02/04
BATORY Pol 14,287 1936
BEAUFORT ESCORT 29/03 – 02/04
BELVOIR ESCORT 30/03 – 02/04
CALEDON ESCORT 29/03 – 30/03
CAMERONIA Br 16,297 1920
DERBYSHIRE Br 11,660 1935
DEVONSHIRE Br 11,275 1939
EMPIRE PRIDE Br 9,248 1941
FRANCONIA Br 20,175 1923
KRITI ESCORT 29/03 – 02/04
MAIOULIS ESCORT 29/03 – 01/04
PINDOS ESCORT 29/03 – 01/04
PRINCESS KATHLEEN Br 5,875 1925
STRATHNAVER Br 22,283 1931 2491 TROOPS
TAKLIWA Br 7,936 1924 PROBABLY WITH THIS CONVOY
URANIA ESCORT 01/04 – 02/04


Second World War – Egypt with 113th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery

113th Regiment, minus 228 Battery (on Vis) and the whole of 56th (London) Division arrived in Port Said, Egypt on 2nd April 1944 with an aim to rest – give the men leave, and re-train.  John with his unit were assigned to M.E.F. theatre command.

On disembarking, the Regiment moved firstly to Quassassin to get settled.  On Easter Monday, the first leave party was allowed to go to Cairo.

The following picture shows John as a Lieutenant, it’s been annotated as Cairo, 1944.  It was taken during 4 days leave to the city – he is wearing Mediterranean theatre shirt etc.  According to his military record, John had leave in Cairo between the 10th and the 13th April 1944.

Transport was arranged for the Regiment to make them mobile, and they set about organising sports and other activities to occupy the men.

On 24th April, the Regiment moved to Cowley Camp in Mena, and erected their tents and gathered stores and made themselves comfortable.  They set about putting the learning from their combat experience into further training. 228 Battery arrived from Vis on the 10th May (so we can discount John from this Battery – as he never went to Vis).

Between the 1st May 1944 and 27th May 1944, John undertook a GPO (Gun Positioning Officer) Course No 27.  This confirms that John’s role was in positioning the guns of his Battery Troop.  He would have been responsible for orienting, aiming and maintaining the Troops guns and for providing data to the Command Post of the Battery.

The Regiment took part in Empire Day celebrations at the El Alamein Club in Cairo.  And on 8th June, 478 Battery headed the procession of the official march of Middle East Forces in Cairo to celebrate the King’s birthday.

Regular leave was available for all the officers and men – with the many delights of Cairo or the coast as the preferred choices.  John talks of very welcome leave, sight seeing around the ancient sights of Egypt like the Pyramids, swimming in the warm seas and parties at the officers messes, many clubs and the exotic night life of Cairo.

The following picture is undated, but it is almost certainly of John in Egypt, enjoying the beach with some fellow officers.  We know he, along with other officers, enjoyed leave by the sea – I would assume this is the Mediterranean near Alexandria.

John had a very funny story about his leave in Cairo, he describes sitting outside a cafe one day, having a drink with a friend.  They were aware that a large wedding ceremony was in progress and being held next door to the cafe.  He describes – as he descends into laughter,  the ceremony finishing, and the bride lifting her veil, and the groom realising that she was not the woman he was expecting to have married!  With greater laughter, he describes a commotion beginning, progressing into lots of shouting and a few punches being thrown.  Which then developed into a full blown fight between the respective families – this then spilled out into the street, stopping traffic, and all around John and his friend.  The police then arrived, and started laying about everyone with big sticks to try to regain control.  Not wanting to get involved in what was developing into a small riot, John and his friend left as quickly as they could.  By the end of the story John would be in stitches as he described the events.

On 14th June, the Regiment moved to Helwan, and into huts rather than tents to continue training and using the gun ranges.

On 1st July, the Regiment was called back to active service, handed its equipment over to 156th Regiment, and made for the train station at Kafr El Elwi, and travelled to Amariya.  Day trips to Alexandria were permitted and an open air cinema was set up and NAAFI facilities made available.

On the 11th July, the Regiment moved to the docks in Alexandria.  The regiment was re-attached to C.M.F. theatre command, and John and his unit embarked on the SS Staffordshire on the 13th, and set sail back for Taranto in Italy.  The SS Staffordshire was latterly of the Bibby Line – she was British built in 1929, and 10,683 tons, so would probably have been able to carry over 1000 troops – the whole 113th Regiment would have easily fitted on board.  She is pictured below.

She left Alexandria on July 13, 1944 as part of convoy XIF.12 from Port Said to Taranto, carrying the whole of 56th (London) Division, arriving there on July 18th, 1944.  This convoy comprised 9 merchant and troop ships with six escort warships.  The history of the Regiment says that the men had the energy to put on impromptu show to entertain themselves on the journey.  It also notes that the convoy was tracked on its journey by a German recce spotting plane, which kept just out of AA range from the escort ships.

Vessel  Flag  Tons  Built Pdt.     Cargo       Notes
BANFORA Br 9,472 1914 32
BATORY Pol 14,287 1936
BRECON ESCORT 13/07 – 18/07
BRITANNIC Br 26,943 1930 22
CALPE ESCORT 13/07 – 18/07
CATTERICK ESCORT 13/07 – 18/07
CLEVELAND ESCORT 13/07 – 18/07
DILWARA Br 11,080 1936 11
DUNERA Br 11,162 1937 12
DURBAN CASTLE Br 17,388 1938 42
EMPIRE PRIDE Br 9,248 1941 31
FARNDALE ESCORT 13/07 – 18/07
LEDBURY ESCORT 13/07 – 18/07
PRINCESS KATHLEEN Br 5,875 1925 51
STAFFORDSHIRE Br 10,683 1929 21

 

Second World War – Italy with the British 8th Army

The 56th (London) Division had been reassigned to the British 8th Army under General Leese.

The SS Staffordshire arrived in Taranto on July 18th, 1944, the men were unimpressed to find no transport, and had to route march to the transit camp outside Taranto in the hot Italian summer sun.  They were there for 16 days, and focussed on drilling and small arms training – marches apparently always ended at the beach!

On 23rd July the Regiment marched to Nasri, and boarded what they describe as ‘cattle trucks‘ to make the journey by train to Monte St. Biagio, via Potenze and Salerno.  It doesn’t sound a very pleasant journey, “The 40 inhabitants of each “carriage” were awaked (if they ever slept) on the morning of the 24th by a choking atmosphere.”.  At Salerno, they got transport to Tivoli – which they arrived at on the 26th July – where they picked up the transport and guns.

On 30th July, the King visited 56th (London) Division, and the Regiment lined up to cheer him as he drove past.  227th Battery was responsible for security on this part of the road that he was using.  Apparently, the Regiment entertained the American crew of the plane carrying the King.

At this time the Batteries were all allowed leave to Rome.  Many of the Roman Catholics (John was not one) in the Regiment had an audience with the Pope, and attended a special mass at St Peters.  The rest contented themselves with visiting the Opera, the season had just started and “many visited the Quirino Opera House“.

On 5th August 1944, the Regiment C.O. warned the men that they would next assault the German ‘Gothic Line’, a series of static defences built into the mountains to the North of their positions.  The next day they moved up to Assissi on poor secondary roads to begin training and calibrating the guns.

On 17th August the Regiment moved to Tollentino, closer to the German lines.  They now focussed on camouflaging vehicles,  digging in the guns, and instigating a black-out policy to try to avoid detection by enemy aircraft.  They then moved to Sassoferato on 21st August, and Isola Difano on 25th August.

Now in support of the 4th Indian Division, and 46th Division, the Regiment went into action against the Gothic Line defences around the River Metauro.  On the 31st, the Regiment moved to Monte Calvo and went into action again – Regimental casualties were steadily mounting up.  The Regiment was next at Gemmano where a large battle – which the 8th Army Commander described as one of the ‘bloodiest battles in the history of the British Army’ – began.  The Regiment provided fire support for Infantry attacks , and a number of Regimental gunners were killed and some senior officers wounded.

On the 11th September, ‘Butterfly-bombs’ – like a modern day cluster bomb – a single bomb containing up to 100 bomblets inside which scattered when it was released from a plane, were dropped on the Regimental guns.  This bombing caused major disruption to communications, but the Regiment guns kept firing.  And in response, the Regiment moved again to San Clemente on the 15th September.   Heavy rain made all the roads impassable to the 4×4 Quads and guns, so the Regiment were stuck where they were.

By the 23rd September, the Regiment had a break, since the fighting had moved out of effective range of the guns – they had a brief rest, and reorganised for the casualties that had been suffered to gunners and officers.   With the weather improving, the Regiment moved up to the fighting again at San Archangelo – firing 8740 rounds from the guns in 24 hours.  At this time, the Regiment suffered severe counter-barrage attacks from German guns – causing deaths and casualties.  At the same time, the rain flooded the positions of 227 Battery and fires started by the German artillery destroyed much equipment and personal possessions that hadn’t been flooded – one man apparently had to jump from a burning farmhouse into a manure pile to save himself!  John made clear that that they were fighting the elements as much as the Germans.

By 9th October, the Regiment was causing significant casualties to the Germans – using what they called a ‘Hate Programme’ of counter barrage – a spotter on a high point, spotting for the flashes of the enemy guns brought down fire on multiple enemy positions – one target was accurately hit 59 times by the Regiment, and an ‘air-burst’ shell was used on a German Infantry company (+150 men) in open ground ‘two hours later the Germans will still evacuating their casualties‘.  It was brutal warfare.

On the 13th, the Regiment was out of action, and personnel were visiting the principality of San Marino.  Moving to Ronco Fredo on the 15th October, and Monte Nuovo on the 18th October, and Borailo on the 23rd.  The story was the same, the recce parties would set out to trail a path to a new area of operation as the whole front moved forwards – they would find gun positions, the guns would follow and dig in, and begin firing.  They would then move again in a few days, as the action moved out of gun range.

On 3rd November, the Regiment moved to the River Ronco where they used Radar to detect enemy transport on the roads on the other side of the river.  They would then calculate trajectories for artillery attacks on anything moving day or night.  On the 14th, the Regiment moved up again across the River Ronco to Ospedelleto.

On the 18th November, the Regiment moved out of the line to Corredonia, and parties of men went on leave to Rome.  They focussed on repairing, and re-equipping.

On 28th November, the Regiment moved to Cesena – fighting the cold and snow, and then moved to Faenza.

On the 16th December 1944, John was made an ‘Acting’ Captain.  This meant he was a Captain in name, responsibility and pay, but that this rank could be removed again – it was only confirmed 3 months later .  It is almost certain that this promotion was to replace another officer casualty – we know that Major J. Hill and Captain  L. Gorrod-Blake were casualties on the 8th December.  And that Captain J. R. Levitt was killed in a German mortar attack the same day.

As a captain, he would have commanded a whole troop of four guns – half a Battery and all the men, including the crews of the four guns and their corresponding gun commanding sergeants, as well as a Battery Sergeant Major, Subaltern (a 2nd Lieutenant or Lieutenant) Troop Leader and Subaltern Gun Positioning Officer (a 2nd Lieutenant or Lieutenant) – who would ensure they were pointing the guns the right way!

The regiment spent Christmas in Faenza.  They made themselves as comfortable as possible, and made use of the NAAFI at Forli (which had 3 cinemas).  From their positions here they targeted and broke up enemy troop concentrations, destroyed tanks and disrupted enemy transport.  Christmas Day was spent in action – the 113th troops had to take their ‘Christmas Lunch’ in groups as and when they could.

On 29th December, the Regiment moved to Faenza where they spent New Year.  Heavy snow fell on them on New Year’s Day and the Regiment were again stuck by the weather – and remained static for January 1945 – visibility was limited for observation and Radar wouldn’t work in the snow.  A number of casualties were suffered to anti-personnel mines, and Heavy Rockets were used against the Regiment.

At the beginning of February, the whole Regiment was moved into billets in Forlo and focussed on re-calibrating all the guns for accuracy and training.

John became a Temporary Captain on 16th March 1945, the Army List details:

“Milton, J. C. (W.S./Lt. 27/9/43)

(T/Capt. 16/3/45)               27/3/43″

On 26th March 1945, John was admitted via 167th (City of London) Field Ambulance – the ambulance unit of his London Division, to 5 C.C.S (Casualty Clearing Station).  We don’t know why he needed hospital treatment – John never mentioned it, which was just typical of him – whether he was wounded or injured is unknown.

He was then transferred to the British 54th General Hospital, at Bari in Italy on 1st April 1945.  He then seems to have been transferred to Porto Recanati on the 6th April 1945 to a BRC or ‘Base Reinforcement Centre’, which I assume is come kind of R&R centre on the coast.  He was discharged on the 17th of April 1945 after over 3 weeks in hospital.

 

After he had recovered, John returned to his 113th Regiment.  They had stayed in Forli until April, when they moved back up to the line.  During the Lake Commacchio landings on the 1st April, the 113th became the first ever troops to fire a field piece of artillery while seaborne – they had worked out a way to secure them to an Landing Vehicle Tracked (L.V.T) Fantail (Buffalo) amphibious vehicle – supporting 2nd Commando Brigade in Operation Roast.

On 7th and 8th April, the Regiment supported the crossing of the River Senio, and landings in Menate – aiming to push the Germans to the north bank of the River Po.

On the 16th April, the Regiment (back together) pushed on to the River Po, crossing it on 25th April unopposed in Fantails (Buffalos) and Dukws amphibious vehicles.  The German opposition had collapsed and the Regiment now found abandoned German equipment littering all the roads.  The Germans were observed fleeing over the River Adige, northwards seeking to get home.  The war was effectively over when the Germans unofficially surrendered in Italy on the 29th April.

 

On 1st May the Regiment moved to Oriago, and everyone took leave in Venice – inter-Battery football matches were played, along with Cricket, tennis and other activities.

On the 2nd May, the German Army Group C in Italy, surrendered unconditionally to the allies and formalised the end of hostilities.  And on the 7th May Germany itself totally and unconditionally surrendered and the War in Europe was over.

 

Italy and Yugoslavia with 113th Regiment, GHQ

On the 23rd May, the 113th Regiment moved to Duttogliano (in modern day Slovenia) – as a deterrent to Yugoslav forces who under Tito’s direction were seeking to exploit the chaos of the end of the war by invading Italy and annexing it.

On the 31st May, with tensions mounting between the Yugoslavs and the British – basically they didn’t like being told to withdraw from territory in Italy they had conquered from the Germans – in response to the Yugoslav ‘allies’ occupying ‘defensive’ positions in houses covering the roads in and out of the village of Duttogliano.  The Regiment ‘deployed 25-pdrs. covering their positions over “open sights”. There the matter rested‘.  This was one of a number of documented stand-offs between the allies – as Tito (probably encouraged by the Russians) tried to negotiate annexing parts of Italy.  In the end, because of Churchill’s forceful rejection of Tito, and armed-stand-offs by the British, the Yugoslavs did stand down and withdraw.

The following picture is dated 6th June 1945, in Trieste, John is the second from the right at the back – it seems clear these are officers of 113th Regiment.  Trieste is only 5 miles from Duttogliano/Dutovlje.  He must have been relieved at surviving the war, and the end of a potential war with Yugoslavia.

On 23rd June, the Regiment moved about 10 miles to Montfalcone – once the Yugoslavs had retreated to their ‘Blue’ line of withdrawal.

The following picture is of John in Rome, dated June 1945, he is with a fellow officer, he must have had leave in Rome.  His inscription on the back (after enhancing as it’s faded) is as follows:

“Rome June 45.  Via Umberto. We had just come from the train after our all night journey. We were looking for a cup of tea.  Looks like I was going to bash the Eytie.  Clot got in photo”

There are a number of Via Umberto streets in Rome.

Granny told me that after hostilities ended, and because of a lack of military officers, John was made the temporary Military Governor and Administrator of the town of Grado, near Tieste for a short period, and given an acting-commission of Major to give him more authority with the local people.  Issues with Tito and the Yugoslav communist partisans made the military control of this narrow spit of land between Yugoslavia and the sea, critical – and military administration was one of the methods used to regain civil control and enforce Italian sovereignty.

The following picture is annotated Grado in 1945.  John is wearing the three pips of a Captain, but also had some other rank identifiers on his epaulets.  This is likely to be in June 1945.

 

In the Autumn of 1945, John posted to Naples as ADC (Aide de Camp) to the Commanding British General – this would have been General Sir Richard McCreery.  This posting lasted for about two months until the General was transferred to Vienna as General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, British Forces of Occupation in Austria – he also took a seat on the council of Austria with representatives from the militaries of America, Russia and France.  From looking at records, the General went to Austria at the end of July.

John was then posted back to his Regiment – I assume sometime around August 1945.

We don’t have a date for the following photo, but we can make assumptions that it is the end of the war – the officers are wearing medals on their battle dress – John appears to have at least three medal ribbons.  He is also wearing his Captain’s pips.  John is in the centre of the picture.  The two officers appear to be junior in rank to him, and there are two NCO’s, Corporals by rank.  Perhaps this is a group of men that John commanded in his Troop?

John would have been entitled to wear the following – and he actually appears to be wearing some of these in the above photo:

  • 1939 to 1945 Star – for completing operational service overseas (his left-most medal)
  • Italy Star – for the Italian Campaign (his middle medal)
  • 1939 to 1945 War Medal – for serving in the Second World War (his right-most medal)
  • John was probably also entitled to the Africa Star since he served there shortly before going to Italy – 1 day’s service in Africa was sufficient to be entitled it.

Over the next months, now that the fighting was over, many men from 113th were sent home – as large groups – it must have been hard for John as he was not one of these men.  On the 11th November, 113th Field Regiment, RA, was disbanded.  A Commemoration Service was held in Gradisca to those who had fallen.

John was then officially transferred to the 57th Field Regiment, RA on the 4th January 1946.  The 113th history reports that men remaining in Italy were transferred to this unit – this is confirmed by John’s discharge handbook, which was stamped by the C.O. of 57th Field Regiment on 30th May 1946, as part of his discharge process.

The following picture is dated January 1946, John is standing to the left behind the other officer.  This is an interesting picture, the man on the right is wearing an American officers uniform, and the man in the middle is wearing an RAF uniform.

 

Italy – and ‘Movement Control’ in 1946

John was officially posted to the ‘Movement Control’ command on 15th February 1946 , although according to records he had already made two trips to the channel ports by then?  This command was responsible for organising the transportation of thousands of enlisted men from the Italian-Austrian border, back to Calais for transportation to England.  He then brought back regular army personnel from the channel ports to act as an occupation force.

John tells us that he was put in charge of an electric train pulling eight carriages, with two Austrian drivers to run the train.  He was responsible for the train, but not the 400 troops that it carried on board – they were still the responsibility of their officers until they were demobilised.  Conditions on the train were bad, with overcrowding, and very little food.  Apparently, some troops would choose to abscond from the train with any Italian women they met on the outward journey.  John said it was common to come across disillusioned stragglers at all the stations along the route, and the train would then pick them up, and help them continue their journey – just a bit late.

John reckoned he made eight of these trips before finally being ordered to return to the UK himself.  It must have been very difficult for him – watching your men head off home during the Autumn, and not being allowed to go home yourself, but receiving posting after posting.  And then your final post being to repeatedly travel to Calais, ever so close to home, and then head all the way back to Italy again!

His official record only shows three of the trips, but they are probably incomplete: on 29th October 1945, he entrained for the UK under (CORSUK) CTBE, this was under the command of C.M.F. theatre command.  On 10th December 1945, he entrained for the UK also under (CORSUK)/C.M.F. command.

And on 3rd April 1946, he finally entrained for the UK, with orders to go to Aldershot, where on 4th April 1946, he was officially discharged from the army and given the honorary rank of Captain.

Without a doubt, John had a hard war – much harder than his brother-in-law, my Grandfather, who was posted to Gibraltar for much of the war – but John was also lucky in many ways.  He avoided a disaster with BEF 2, and his original unit, the 55th (Wessex) had a difficult campaign in Northern Europe with Guards Armoured Division and 43rd (Wessex) Division in the aftermath of D-Day and the battles for Normandy and Operation Market Garden.

He had a hard war in Italy with 113th – he lost close friends, sometimes right in front of him, he narrowly avoided snipers, and repeated bombing and barrages by the Germans.  HE saw some terrible things.  He went through harsh winter campaigns twice – fighting with the rain and snow and mud as much as with the Germans.  He survived the Salerno and Anzio landings – and needed a bit of luck a few times.

He didn’t talk much about the war, but when he did, it was to focus on the funny stuff that had happened, although it sometimes ended up not being very funny at all.  I always took his reticence for a sign of how hard the war had been for him.  I only read his copy of the 113th Field Regiment history after his death, and it gave me huge insight into what he’d lived through and a renewed respect for him.

 

Home and back to Distillers

After discharge, John was given a rail warrant and headed home Keynsham.  He met up with his friends – all the original three friends who had signed up with him into the West Somerset Yeomanry, also survived.

He returned to work at Distillers in 1946 – true to their word at the beginning of the emergency in 1938, they had kept his job open for the last seven years.  They had even kept on paying him for the duration of his time in the army!  My Granny, his sister, had checked that his pay had been added every month whilst he was active on military service.

After a while, John was transferred to Glasgow, as Manager of Distillers Yeast Tablet Factory.  The following adverts (from the Times) is from the late 40’s and early 50’s, highlight the Vitamin B elements of Yeast tablets – advocating it for wellbeing and vitality.

 

From Glasgow, he was transferred to Edinburgh in 1951, to work in their Costings Department – one of his first jobs was too investigate the fraud of £3000 by the Manager of the Grain Merchants.

John’s landlady (Mrs Black) in Edinburgh had a brother who lived in a flat next to the Paterson family who he became friendly with.  When Mr Paterson’s birthday came around, he had a party, and John – as an eligible bachelor – was invited.  The Paterson’s daughter, Moira, who lived in Lenzie, and who had just returned from playing golf in South Africa with the Scottish Ladies team.  She had to be persuaded by her father to come to the party to meet John, but once she and John met, romance developed.  They married on the 20th February 1953 in the church at Lenzie.

Great Auntie Moira was a Gym Teacher and a respected amateur Golfer.  She had come 2nd in the French Women’s Open in 1949 and was part of the Curtis Cup Team to take on the USA the next year – which they lost.  Two years later she was part of the first Great Britain and Ireland Curtis Cup Team to beat the USA.  In 1952 she won the Ladies British Open at Troon.  She represented Scotland against teams from France, Belgium and Australia, and she also toured South Africa.  The following photo is of Moira raising the British Open Cup in 1952.

At their wedding, John was described as an “executive of the Distillers’ Co., Ltd. of Glasgow, and a well known Scottish cricketer‘, he is also described as a ‘Clydesdale Cricketer‘; Clydesdale (Glasgow), had one of the older Cricket Clubs in Scotland, and John was a member and played for the club.

John advanced to become Deputy Chief Cashier of Distillers Co (D.C.L).  John and Moira moved to 6 Cammo Gardens in Edinburgh (where I remember going to stay with them for a week when I was quite young and first meeting them both).

John told us a funny story about his dog ‘Buster’ whilst they were living in Edinburgh.  Buster was a big Labrador dog, who used to be annoyed by a smaller dog that would pass the fence walking down the pavement barking at him – with Buster keeping pace on the other side, safe in the knowledge that Buster was trapped behind the fence and gate.  Buster would get very annoyed by this, but be unable to do anything about it.  This went on for some time, until one day, the dog started its usual practice of annoying Buster, only to get to the gate – which was open.  Buster, apparently, with great delight saw off his small enemy and chased him up the street.  Apparently, this dog never annoyed Buster again.

John took Moira back to Italy (I don’t know the date), and revisited many of the places that he had been to, during his fighting in the War.  And they enjoyed other holidays to France and Spain.  This photo is from a trip to Europe – probably Italy.

John tells us, that when his boss, the Chief Cashier was coming to his retirement, John thought that he would naturally be considered to replace him – although he was never actually approached by D.C.L.  When this man did actually retire, John just moved into the Chief Cashier’s office and started taking on his responsibilities – expecting at any moment to be told to move out.  No one ever replaced him during all his remaining years at Distillers – he effectively became Chief Cashier by default.  John is pictured in his office below.

As mentioned above, I remember visiting John and Moira during the late 1970’s – this was the first time I remember meeting them.  We stayed with them at their house in Edinburgh, and spent a week or so sight-seeing in Stirling, Edinburgh and the Scottish lowlands.  Unfortunately, John and Moira never had their own children, and they came to view my mum as the daughter they never had, and my brother and I as Grandchildren.

John retired on 31st January 1980, and he and Moira decided to move south.  I remember them coming down to stay with Granny and Grandpa, and visiting us a lot.  They went around the area looking at houses, and on selling their property in Edinburgh, decided to buy and move into “White Willows” in Theale, Wedmore in Somerset.

I remember them regularly coming to Mum and Dad’s for lunch, and then return visits back to theirs, usually with Granny and Grandpa.  John had a very firm handshake – I think he taught me the importance of an iron vice-like handshake grip.  He was funny, kind and good company – and had a lot of friends in the village of Theale.

Their house at Theale, had a very large garden (which I loved running around and exploring with my brother), and John and Moira started to cultivate it, and develop the large greenhouse – growing vast quantities of fruit and vegetables.  Far too much for them to consume on their own – their freezers would be full, and they would give their produce away to friends in Theale, and to Mum and Dad.  I used to even take veg back to university with me after visiting them.

John was obsessed by his garden, and would spend pretty much every daylight hour out in it – it was his pride and joy right up to his last years, and we suspect it was the main reason that he lived to such a great age – all the exercise and drive to keep it going and reason to get up at the crack of dawn each day.

The following picture is of John in his garden at Theale.

When he was no longer able to work his garden, he would ask my parents to help him work it, but continued to grow the vast amounts he had always done – refusing to admit the need to change.  He found it very hard to scale back.

Sadly, Moira died in 2012, after becoming ill and needing to go into a nursing home.

John continued at ‘White Willows’ with increasing help from my parents.  He remained resolutely, and fairly bloody-minded in his desire to be independent  – he was determined to stay in his home.  He would ask us to visit whenever we were ‘nearby’ and I visited as often as possible – I usually took my eldest son since John was very fond of Jack, and Jack loved running around his large garden and exploring, just as I had years before.

Illness in 2014 meant that John had to go into hospital, and then into nursing care, where we visited him as often as we could.  John always retained the hope to return home and back to his beloved garden.

John died in September 2015, in Sandford, Somerset.

 

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