Albert Martin was a stalwart of the 2nd Rifle Brigade, fighting through most of the Desert Campaign. He was also a lovely fellow and very bright and perceptive too. He wrote a memoir, largely based on the diary he kept throughout his time in North Africa, called Hellfire Tonight, which is a particularly vivid account of what it was like being an infantryman in the desert war.
AM: For many, many years after the war there were so many people involved in the war who had dramatic stories to tell including the people at home, you know the bombing and so on that it was, just didn’t rate as a conversation piece. All the bloody sailors. I mean my own brothers, one in the air force, another one in Normandy. Everyone was involved. But now time’s gone by and people like us are gradually dying off which leaves a few people left and now people are gradually starting to take an interest in what happened 50, 60, 70 years ago. How long it will last is another matter.
JH: Think how many people are still interested in the First World War.
AM: Including me. I find it fascinating. Largely because my father was in the First War. He was taken prisoner (Western Front). He landed on his feet actually because he finished up as an orderly in a prison hospital which meant that he had that little bit extra rations than everybody else so he was able to survive alright. But if you want hair-raising stories, you want to talk to the people who worked at Dunkirk and Calais. Some of my old comrades there and stories that they could tell really are hair-raising. And without being too insulting it really showed our so-called French allies up in a strange peculiar light. The way they were hob-knobbing with the Germans and doing all sorts of things to ingratiate themselves with the Germans at the British soldiers’ expense.
JH: a lot of people I know after Dunkirk, almost a sense of relief: we’re better off without France.
AM: You won’t find many old soldiers, particularly those who were associated with the fighting in Europe too sympathetic with the French and the German philosophy about Europe, I can assure you of that. Because they know the two people. They know they can’t be trusted.
JH: Can you remember before the war happened? You were called up in August weren’t you, or you joined in august?
AM: No, I think it was January or February 1940 I went in.
JH: But can you remember before the war broke out, can you remember thinking there is going to be a war, or were you too young to really bother thinking about it?
AM: I remember that very clearly. How excited we all were. Because you have to project to people in my station living in the east end of London with hardly any prospects at all really. It was the same old humdrum existence apart from little adventures we created ourselves. There wasn’t an awful lot to look forward to. Very solid class structure which inhibited any significant movement and there was no great future at all for us there. You could see the future stretching out almost like your father’s future with you know humdrum existence. So, the war was a massive diversion for people like me. It really was. We didn’t sort of shy away from it. We sort of, not exactly, welcomed it and we didn’t exactly welcome going into the forces but we didn’t resist it and we didn’t avoid it at all.
JH: I got the impression that you quite enjoyed the training of it.
AM: I did. I found it, it seems so silly now to say it but I found it a very stimulating and enjoyable experience. Including all the nasty stuff you know, the fighting and the dangers and so on because strangely enough, bearing in mind all the time that you’re only about 20, 21, you know, I personally didn’t feel any fear or concern at all. It was most peculiar. Until – and I remember this very clearly – March 1943. That’s the very, very first time I felt any fear, any apprehension.
JH: That’s quite a way off.
AM: almost two and a half years where you just took it as it came.
JH: Presumably, did you find that you thought I can see that people are getting killed but it’s not going to happen to me?
AM: That’s right. But you didn’t think that. You just didn’t think it.
JH: You just carried on each day as it went?
AM: Yes. And if you went on the patrol you had a little bit of the collywobbles when you first went out, the first one or two and then you found that the pleasure and relief when you got back from the patrol was so overwhelming you just didn’t exactly look forward to the next one but it removed any apprehension you may have felt at the beginning. Most strange.
JH: Would you say the adrenalin starts pumping – I guess it’s exciting in a way?
AM: It is exciting, yes. And one of the sensations – I’ll just go back to the night patrols that we did – is that everything is in such sharp focus. It’s unbelievable. You can never experience it again in the current situation but all your senses are so sharp when you’re walking along in the middle of the night and you know that the enemy could be 500 yards away, could be 2,000 yards away but you know he’s up there somewhere but you don’t quite know where. So consequently, any little shadow, a bush, or it could be anything, a cloud going over the moon, cast a shadow. You’re on the TB straight away and you’re watching and everything’s sharp and focused. You’re listening and aware of every little noise, if there is a noise. There shouldn’t be a noise. But if there’s a noise you’re very much aware of it.
JH: Do you think that was – you obviously don’t think that was a unique experience to you?
AM: I don’t know. I wouldn’t like to say that. They varied. Some were macho with it and they couldn’t get out there quick enough and others would do almost anything to avoid going out. It varies from man to man or person to person.
JH: I wanted to talk to you about life out in the desert. I wondered what you can remember about actually the day-to-day living. What it was like sleeping under the stars and in the sand, picking off scorpions and so on? Is it something you just get used to?
AM: You do get used to it, yes. I made the point, at least I tried to make the point in the book that if you fight the desert, you’re certainly on a loser. You’ve got to go along with the desert. Once you’ve cottoned onto that life’s a lot easier for you. You don’t get excited that it’s too hot. You creep under a lorry or something, find a bit of shade, and at night time it used to get perishing cold, mainly because of comparison between the day time heat and night time coolness and the dew and so on. You learned all sorts of tricks to keep yourself secure at night. You had a ground sheet which you managed to lash round you to avoid getting things inside the ground sheet.
JH: What was the ground sheet. Was it like a kind of tarpaulin or something?
AM: No, it’s almost like a PVC material. It’s a rubberised canvas I think but it comes through like a PVC sheeting and it had holes round the edges so you could sort of wrap it round you, lace yourself in as it were. And you learned very quickly to scoop out a little hole for your hip. So, you lie on your side and scoop out a hole for your hip. The difficult bit was a pillow because you had no pillows of-course. You had nothing like that. You just had a blanket. So, you had to improvise a pillow which tended to be your gas mask holder perched on top of your steel helmet or something like that. But anything to prop it up to create a pillow. And in my case, we operated initially in sections of say six people, ++ a small lorry, and you tended to sort of lie alongside the lorry at night time. But you slept all right because you never had a long period of sleep and so every time you bellied down for the night you were ready to drop off.
JH: Typically, you’d get three or four hours would you a night?
AM: That’s right, three or four hours. Maybe five hours.
JH: Chance for a catnap during the day at all?
AM: Very difficult, mainly because of the flies. Very difficult to sleep during the day I must say. The deal was that you – because we were mobile all the way through, we were always operating deep in the desert which meant that we sort of lay up at night time at a certain spot.
JH: So, you weren’t coast hopping, you were quite a way?
AM: We were seldom on the coastal area. We were always operating well inland.
JH: Still plenty of flies inland then?
AM: Oh yes, Oh yes. No question about that. They got all over the place. This is a diversion for a moment, I’ve got some bits and pieces that I separated upstairs. Shall I bring them down? and the idea, of course, you rolled that up in your sleeve or rolled it up in your sock so if you were taken prisoner you stood a chance of finding your way back.
JH: It’s like a handkerchief isn’t it?
AM: Very, very detailed, isn’t it?
JH: So, you learn how to map read from the sky – you get your compass bearing from the sun and stars so in theory if you get separated in the middle of the desert you would be able to find your way back?
AM: That was the idea in theory. That was the practice too. And they were issued to most of the officers and senior NCOs who went on patrols.
JH: The detail is amazing, and to do it double sided as well. Presumably pilots would probably have these as well?
AM: I should think they would be issued to pilots as well, yes.
JH: and do you think if you were stopping for a week in one spot and you were going to pitch a tent, would you dig a hole in the ground to sleep?
AM: I’m not sure you’d need a tent anyway to start with. You don’t really need a tent. If you sleep on the ground, you’d certainly dig a little hole where your hip goes.
JH: But nothing more than that, you wouldn’t dig yourself a little trench to lie in?
AM: No, no. This is one of my diaries that started it all off. I don’t know if you can read it.
JH: Were you writing that with a fountain pen?
AM: Initially, yes, but then pen runs out after a while and the ink goes all solid. So, this one’s all in pencil you see.
JH: Were you keeping this as much for something to do or were you consciously thinking I want to remember what’s going on here?
AM: a bit of both really. It gave me an interest in trying to remember what was happening. People had their own devices.
JH: Have you been back to Cairo?
AM: Oh yes. That’s what started it all running actually. That was the site of the last battle I took part in, a place called Gebbels. We went to the site of that battle to see what it was like.
JH: Was it as you remembered?
AM: I hadn’t been to the top of it because we were down the bottom getting shot. They had German observation posts at the top and they were sending messages back to the artillery to shell us all the time and then we had about three or four attempts to storm it and they were all at night time though so we never really saw it clearly in the daylight until this holiday. And then I went up there for the first time and it was almost an impossible place to take. Because the last bit of the hill had a great big, eight or ten-foot-high sort of escarpment that there was no way of getting up there to attack the positions that the Germans were in. So that was the killer. That last little bit.
JH: Do you still go to reunions?
AM: I do now and again, yes. The last big one I went to was the Alamein reunion and there was about fifty of us that turned up to that. When they talk about the battle of Alamein, most of the breakthrough came from that area but before the main battle there was another one down there where the Germans made a massive attack, beginning of October, came down this way to a place called ++. So, they attacked us right round the south there. And that was the key battle really, rather than the main battle at Alamein.
JH: Did you have a camera when you were out there?
AM: I did have a camera, a very old crude box camera and I took a load of pictures which would have been absolutely worth their weight in gold now if I had it but I had a roll of film, couple of rolls of films which I passed over to somebody who was being sent home and the last I heard his ship was sunk and that was the end of my films. I never saw them again.
JH: I see you’ve gone back to a black watchstrap then?
AM: Did you get the message there, did you? There was a great distinction between the newcomers and the old out there for a while. The newcomers, as soon as they could they wanted to get into the mode of the old ones and that was one of the little things. That’s the thing that’s tied round you when you get wounded. Don’t take no notice of the bloodstains will you! and they’re supposed to write down on the outside what’s wrong with you and what they’ve done to you and they passed them on to the next stage down the line.
JH: Reads: ‘Gunshot, left arm, left knee, right shoulder.’ You were in quite a bad way weren’t you?
AM: Not really, no I wasn’t. It sounds bad but it wasn’t as bad as all that. I was lucky, very, very lucky.
JH: I thought if you got shot in the middle of the desert, it’s going to take a little while for you to be seen and have bullets taken out and that sort of thing. Lots of flies around. How do you stop getting infected? You made the point that just a scratch on the knee turns into a bad festering sore?
AM: The wounds were wrapped up straight away weren’t they. Whatever was available. Because you all had a first aid dressing with you so if yours wasn’t adequate other people would give you their first aid dressings. But the medical people were never, never too far away.
JH: I’m amazed you had the presence of mind to hang onto that.
AM: I don’t really know why I’ve still got it. The saddest thing of course is whatever you hear, there’s one thing that’s on the squaddies mind when he’s in a combat situation, that is to get as much loot as he can of whatever form and the form varies according to the circumstances, you’re in. So, in the depths of the desert your priority is to get food and water but if you’re along the coastal road you’re looking for something a bit more commercial such as binoculars and watches and compasses and medals and swords and that sort of things.
JH: Did you just take them off prisoners and dead soldiers?
AM: No compunctions. Just take them, yes. And also, off people you see lying about. And off vehicles as well that you shoot up. But your priority varies according to the circumstances. It may be water you’re after or petrol for instance and another occasion it could be other things. You tended and I was no different from anybody else having a nice little cachet of good quality loot which was highly commercial, highly marketable, and you collected that over a long period of time and unfortunately on two occasions I lost all the stuff I’d collected. The first occasion is when I had a back pack full of all sorts of lovely things like Lugers and so on and when I got hit and I was just evacuated and that was the end of my pack. Whoever had that I just don’t know. And the second occasion is when I’d collected another load, and this was up in Tunis when I left the battalion, I left my unit and I had to go back to the base when I was made an instructor and I’m not kidding, a truck, a jeep came for me in my position, and I’d been shelled for three or four days prior to that, and as the jeep moved away, I’d got about 100 yards when I realized that another pack was on the lorry on the ++ and with all the loot in it. And then I put it to you, I turned around, there’s all the ruddy shells dropping all around there, so what would you do? Just leave it, there wouldn’t you? Which is what I did. So that’s two lots I lost.
JH: Would you have collected that stuff to barter for other stuff?
AM: Largely for bartering.
JH: Who with, other troops on the road, Cairo?
AM: The biggest fall guys for that were the Americans. They would pay any, any price for a Luger. I’m not kidding. But then there was always a market for compasses and what have you in Cairo. Mainly with the base people who would never move from the base and they collected presumably more than I did in the end.
JH: Did you ever keep any of the stuff you collected out there?
AM: I brought home with me a revolver, a Colt 45, Compass that I used to use, several things but I gave them away.
JH: To get back to the flies and things, eating must have been very difficult, what do you do, eat in one hand?
AM: I’ve still got the scars. That’s one of them up there. And you just never get rid of them.
JH: What starts as a small abrasion, turns into a big…
AM: However tiny it is, you almost don’t even know you’ve got a tiny little nick and in no time the flies are out and they cluster round it in a great big heap and you’re driven to distraction and you’ve got, I think it was called thalidomide or something you put on it, they had some powder you used to put on it and eventually it got so bad that they just couldn’t operate any longer. They were running the risk of blood poisoning and all sorts of nasty things happening so they had to go back for a few days.
JH: How did you actually eat?
AM: You’d have a towel or shirt draped over your head and you ate in that fashion and when you had a mug of tea, your hand was always over the mug of tea to stop the flies getting at it. Oh yes, that was a puzzle that was, how to avoid them. And after a while perhaps you’d move to another location and for about an hour, two hours, totally clear of flies. But I can assure you that within about two hours they’d find you, they’d appear. It is amazing.
JH: I read somewhere of people getting an old kerosene can and collecting the flies together and burning them.
AM: I never saw that.
JH: At night when it was very cold, did you dig out your trench coat or did you not bother carrying around your trench coat.
AM: No, the coat was always on the truck. What would happen at night-time now? If the lorry had a tarpaulin when it was allocated to you initially, it wouldn’t be used any more but it would be kept on the lorry and at night time that would be laid down by the side of the lorry and on that you would put your ground sheet and your blanket folded up two or three times because the trick was to stop the cold coming through the ground. It wasn’t the cold coming down, you lost your body heat through the ground not through the top so you put the thickness of your blanket underneath you and leaving a little bit to go on top and then the gas cape and then perhaps if it was cold you’d put your great coat on the top of that. And your boots in there as well. That’s about all you took off. You never took anything else off. And in the morning the first thing you did was bang your boots in case there was anything inside them, which invariably there was.
JH: What happened if you got stung by a scorpion?
AM: Not a lot. You’d go to the MO which was perhaps about half a mile away and he would put a dressing on it but otherwise you’d get a bit of a headache, later on you’d start sweating a little bit. All being well it’d just pass off after another six hours, seven hours, eight hours.
JH: You got sand fly fever, didn’t you?
AM: I got sand fly fever but I didn’t know it was sand fly fever initially. It just knocked you out and it was discovered it was sand fly fever and I think I got that from Sidi Barrani when it was occupied by the Italians and it was a filthy dump and I think I collected it there.
H: What did you do when you did your number ones and number twos, you went off and squatted in the desert, you didn’t go and dig latrines?
AM: If you was mobile as we were most of the time, no, you just went out, wandered over there with a shovel and the desert was full of little shrub things, camel humps we called them, so you just went over there and you’d see people dotted about and that was it. If you were in a place for several days and you knew you were going to be there for several days, you’d make some temporary arrangements.
JH: So again, it’s all depending on the circumstances, you’d plan accordingly.
AM: That’s right, but you couldn’t depend on being static for more than a short period. If it happened that way well and good, you made arrangements to fit the circumstances.
JH: Pretty mobile campaign wasn’t it.
AM: Very mobile, yes, very mobile.
JH: One of the fighter pilots I spoke to who was in the desert said one of the big difference between fighting in the desert and say fighting in the Battle of Britain was that at least at the end of the day in the Battle of Britain, however tired you were, however bad it had been, you could go to the pub. When you flew in you could see the fields, you could see the smoke rising from chimneys and you knew you were at home. He said one of the problems of the desert was it was very hard to get excited about what you were fighting for when you were fighting on such a great big lump of sand. There was nothing to do in the evening etc. That was the first combat theatre you’d gone to so in a way that was all you’d known, but did you find it hard motivating yourself at any point or was it just enough that you were British, you were out there with your mates, member of the rifle brigade, was that enough to motivate you?
AM: It was, yes. I don’t know about motivation, whether that’s the right word but certainly I find the whole concept acceptable. It was appropriate to me at that stage in my life, at that age. just right. Because you were fit all the time, no distractions whatsoever if you know what I mean and it was fine: good healthy life.
JH: When there wasn’t much action going on, in the evening, still patrols going out, but when you’ve got time to yourself, what would you do? Would there be lots of banter?
AM: I had a book which I must have read three or four times which was called Hagi Baba of Isbahan. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it but I recommend it. It’s all about an urchin who lives in Turkey and I found that a fascinating book. I read that, I used to carry that around and read it and I also had a book of I can’t believe it myself now, I had a book of poems, Kipling’s poems that used to satisfy me a fair bit. I also used to write loads and loads of letters. But if it was dark at night and none of these things was available, if it was near enough, you’d go across to the company HQ area to the wireless pickup van and the bloke after a lot of careful delicate manoeuvring would pick up the world service of the BBC and you’d hear the English voice telling us all about what we’re doing and where we’d been. And that was nice.
JH: Did you ever sit around having chat with your mates?
AM: all the time, yes.
JH: I guess you talk about what you were doing?
AM: Not really, no. One of the most interesting topics of conversation I recall, bearing in mind that I was joining a regular army battalion and I was in the first batch of conscripts that had joined them. So all these fellows that we were associating with had been all round the flipping world but mainly in India, mainly in the North West Frontier, the Khyber Pass and the hair-raising stories that they would tell us about their manoeuvres up in the Khyber Pass. That kept me going for a long, long time.
JH: I guess if you join the army in the 1930s, the one thing you would expect to get is overseas posting and one of the postings you’d expect to get was India at that time.
AM: Certainly, at that time, oh yes.
JH: Did you ever think I’d like to go out to India?
AM: Certainly. Because you heard â€“ mind you I suppose you only got the nice bits of it, when they paid two annas a day for somebody to clean their boots – but I would listen to all the stories about the route marches, walking 50 miles a day in the blazing hot sun, and you’d have the Colonel on his horse. just like the old Rudyard Kipling stories of years ago. And that used to keep me going very well. But we used to do a lot of writing, you know, the letter writing, to all sorts of people. It just came out and that was it. So, the odd book we would read. I never saw anybody playing chess or anything to mentally demanding I must say. You’d think chess would be a popular game but I never saw anybody playing chess. And every now and again we’d get a supply sent up from the NAAFI which invariably included perhaps two or three bottles of beer per man and that was an occasion for a really nice – you’d sit and talk all night, knowing jolly well that come the morning you’d have a lovely steaming hot breakfast of biscuit b[?] which we were familiar with.
JH: Bully beef. That is basically corned beef is it?
AM: Oh yes, it is corned beef. A very versatile dish if I may say so too.
JH: Do you ever eat it now?
AM: Of-course I do. Not in the way we used to do. Mind you we became experts as to the origin of the corned beef and certain places of origin it was either good nice lean meat in it or it was horrible fatty stuff.
JH: How could you tell?
AM: From the marks on the tin. They had a little indication. Argentinean corned beef was good.
JH: So where was bad?
AM: I can’t remember now but I know we used to be a bit discerning on that. You couldn’t do anything about it.
JH: I read somewhere that had the tea ration not come through for whatever reason…
AM: Pack up and go home! Oh yes.
JH: He was saying it didn’t matter what it tasted like as long as it came. Because the water came in petrol cans, the tea tasted of petrol. Is that the case?
AM: There’s a massive variety of tastes with your tea depending on your circumstances so that it ranged from a water supply that had come up and had been in the tank for umpteen days and when we got it, it was thick with rust but you just – or you got your own water from perhaps a well in the desert and it was impregnated with something or other and tasted a bit oily. You seldom got a good fresh tea tasting tea. It tended to be contaminated in one form or another but that made not a scrap of difference. By the time you’d put your condensed milk in it and your sugar. Nice sweet tea. It did vary tremendously.
JH: What about Cairo? What can you remember?
AM: I think it’s a lot worse now than it was at that time. At that time, you could come to terms with it. You could, there was trams running out from the town out to the pyramids and so on and there was a gap between Cairo town itself and the pyramids which there isn’t any longer. There’s a massive great highway of high-rise buildings and so on. So seething mass of people, but Cairo to a squaddie meant cinemas.
JH: Would you get Hollywood films there?
AM: Oh yes. We got westernised films. There were two or three places in Cairo. There was a place called Music for all was one, there was a YMCA, two or three places like that that the ladies in Cairo set up and organized and run and so on and they were little oases as it were, the most civilized atmosphere. So, we’d tend to go there. There was a whole load of fairly crummy hotels, which were adequate for us, but you wouldn’t look at now. And the other thing was you invariably had chicken and chips and Stella beer and perhaps you would then go into one of these so-called nightclubs because there was music and…
JH: Nightclubs then was sort of tables around and then a stage?
AM: I’ll explain to you. I remember perhaps two. One called the Badia nightclub and if you can imagine someone purloining a whole load of brown army lino and the whole floor was covered in brown army lino, that’s to start with. And a lot of trestle tables down the side which became an impromptu bar, but made no difference because they had all sorts of garish lights all over the place and you couldn’t see that. You saw this glow of lights and the noise, the dimness, so it was nice but tended to get out of hand a bit at about midnight. Stuff being cooked all over the place. What shook me when I first went back was one of the places we used to go to a fair bit was Esbiquir Gardens which was like a big road junction with a garden in the centre and in the middle of that little garden was an asphalt area which was used as a roller-skating rink and we used to spend some time there, a fair bit of time there. That’s just about there now but in a much-reduced form because there are all these flipping great roads, motorways – you can just about find it. But it’s just a fraction of the size it was.
JH: So not hanging out in Shepherds all the time?
AM: No, we weren’t allowed in Shepherds.
JH: Were you not? Officers only? Quite a strict hierarchy.
AM: Very strict indeed. Very strict.
JH: Dare I ask, brothels?
AM: I never entertained them. They were so filthy. I had a look at them but god help us. It’s just not on. Really is. Some people enjoyed them.
JH: What can you remember about the hospital you were in?
AM: When I had the sand fly fever I finished up in a nice hospital in Alexandria. Big building and gardens and so on. That was very nice. The other one was in; I think it was called Tel Aqqaqir and that was a tented hospital. And that was very, very good. But what I remember more than anything was a very, very tough matron who would come around and frighten the life out of everybody. I’m not kidding. They were in tents and we had proper beds, long tents with wooden duck boards. Looked after us ever so well, good treatment. And I remember when I went in there and the chap took me off to be x-rayed because I said well don’t worry about the shoulder because there was nothing, I just got nicked across there, but he said we’ll just have a look to be on the safe side. But he knew what I didn’t know was that there was an entry wound there but no exit wound. But he took an x-ray and found there was a bullet lodged in the muscle in the shoulder there so they took that out as well and wrapped it round my wrist. That was one of the little souvenirs that I lost I’m afraid in Tunis and I nearly had a bullet to show you.
JH: The hierarchy, did it extend in hospitals as well? Were officers put in another ward?
AM: Oh yes, very much so. I don’t know where the officers were but there were certainly none that I associated with there. I think they were in the same area but in a different location. But the officers tended, as soon as they were fit and able to travel, they tended to be sent down to Durban, strangely enough, to complete their treatment in Durban. We didn’t.
JH: They were given homes to convalesce in Alexandria and Cairo and stuff.
AM: Yes. Well I was sent to convalesce in a place called El Ariff which is in Palestine now, no I think it’s Egypt still, right up on the border. That was a tented place of-course.
JH: Some people were put up in private houses in Cairo.
AM: I’ve never heard that happening to other ranks. Officers, it was incredible the difference in the attitude and the freedom of movement of officers and other ranks. It really was. They had masses of contacts in Cairo and contacts were then handed round to one another and they were accommodated in all sorts of nice buildings and went to nice restaurants and so on, but that didn’t happen in other ranks. No resentment, I can assure you. Because that’s the sort of environment that you expected at that time. Wouldn’t happen now I don’t expect but that’s how it was. We had no complaints.
JH: When it came to losing mates and things, it must have been hard to deal with but…
AM: It wasn’t hard at all. It happened. You turned your back on it. Really. The only thing is that after a while, and I’m only going by my own experience, but the penny drops and you think flipping hell, when is it going to be down to me, down to my turn. When that happens, that’s when your attitude changes, you become a little bit more cautious. In my case it didn’t happen till quite a long time afterwards. But eventually you get to a point where you think well sooner or later the law of averages it’s going to be me. Which meant that when I was wounded at Sid I Rezeg, it was a bit of relief in a way because that was it, it had happened, and there I was, not too badly hurt. So, I was quite, not happy, but a bit relieved that it had happened, because I knew it would happen sooner or later.
JH: Opening sentence in the book that by the time I was 21 I had seen enough bodies to last a lifetime, it must have been quite shocking?
AM: No, it wasn’t at all. It’s not a question of getting used to it, you just shut your mind off it. You walk by. You’ve got to otherwise you’d have the screaming Arabs. It’s incredible. The one thing that really shook me up was this must have been March 1943; we were travelling towards the final leg of the campaign and I’m not sure where we were going from or to but it was in Tunis and we were driving along. At that time I had a truck and I was six pound of gun towed behind me and there was six people on that truck: me, the driver and four people in the back of the truck and all of a sudden, we were going down the track, all the vehicles one behind the other and suddenly we spotted these, about nine 109s coming along behind us. And when that happens you scarper; believe me you scarper. And you could see all the bullets coming out, and we all jumped off the truck and ran as fast as we could away from the truck because that’s what they were after. And of the six, four were killed. That just left me and the driver. Now that shook me up because one minute there were six of us there and the next minute there’s two of us. And I must admit that the chap I was with, the driver, we stayed there until the medical people looked after the fellows who were hit, and there was absolutely nothing we could do and we lost our nerve for a moment and we drove off the track, the driver and I, and we drove into the – I don’t know if it was orange groves or – into these little trees – lime or cherries, something like that, a little orchard affair. And we stayed there for about 36 hours because we were so – our nerves had gone for that moment. And we’d had enough. Both of us had had enough then. But then that gradually subsided. We were a bundle of nerves for about 36 hours. In the end we decided we’d better go back and find them now and we did, we travelled on for about 30 miles, found where the battalion were, went back to where I should be with my Company and so on and all the others, and obviously they knew that we were missing somewhere and the Sergeant-Major came across. And the next minute, without asking too many questions about the other four, walked round the gun, asked “How’s the gun, is the gun alright?”. All he was concerned with was whether the gun was still functioning or whether it had been damaged. That’s all he was concerned with. The fact that he was suddenly four people short didn’t seem to have any difference.
JH: It’s a long time to be out in those conditions in frontline action.
AM: By the terms these days it is but it was a war. If you know a fighter pilot who was in North Africa, I recommend him a really marvellous job. If you happen to come across a pilot of a Lysander aircraft it’s a really super job there. Very comforting sight for the squaddies.
JH: I’ve got this guy who was out there and they started doing night fighter stuff in Hurricanes, late 1942, and the idea was to go along the coast, shoot up anything in the ports etc. He was a flight commander and his CO kept going off, and he came back with all these stories.
AM: One of the problems for them was that whereas people like me didn’t expect anything different, they did expect something different. They had been used to different things and a better living standard and whatever but we didn’t. It was no great loss for us.
JH: Can you remember, were you aware of what else was going on in the war at the time? In terms of the book I’m doing on Malta, their offensive role was quite crucial to what was going on in North Africa. Were you aware of that?
AM: We certainly were, yes. We were very sensitive to what was going on, as far as we could get the information, in the Balkans, in Malta, in the Mediterranean, India, Burma and so on.
JH: You knew how crucial it was to hold Malta?
AM: ah, I’m not sure if we were sensitive to the importance of Malta but we certainly knew what was happening in Malta. About its tactical role I’m not sure about that. And particularly the activities of the navy. A lot of respect for the navy I can assure you. Especially the runs up to Tobruk, when we were holed up in Tobruk for some time. They did a fantastic job.
There were four of us went out and our job was to go to – in fact, I’ve still got the map reference number – go to a particular point to observe the movements of the concentration of the Axis forces in a certain location – we knew they were there and we had reports of their concentration there but we didn’t, couldn’t identify exactly who was there. There was an officer, there was me â€“ I think I was a corporal at the time â€“ there was a signaller, there was a driver and the four of us went off in a Jeep and we had to stop about a mile or so from this point that we had to observe from and at that point the driver of the Jeep turned the Jeep round and he went off which left three of us. The signaller who took up a position on the reverse slope of the hill and the officer and I went forward to observe and to try to count the number of tanks and vehicles and so on. And we stayed there – we had to get there before it got light in the morning and stay there all day until it got dark in the evening. And I’m not kidding we were both lying on this slope here, just looking over the top as it were, the officer’s just over there and I’m here and in about an hour the officer falls asleep. So, I had to throw stones to try and wake him up. Ruddy squadrons scuttling about. And we had to stay there all day without moving because if we’d moved we might have given our position away, and at night time pull back and we were picked up round the bottom of the slope by the ++ of the LRBG which came out to come and find us to pick us up and take us away. All day in the scorching heat and they gave us some water and it was like iced champagne it was so beautiful. And again, I didn’t push this one but one of the specialist jobs that we used to do was go right behind the enemy lines as it were and attack their supply columns. And we were getting very good at that. And we did that on one occasion and we went to – the whole lot was burning and all the crew were scarpered and we went up to an armoured personnel carrier and the first thing you do is see what’s there. And we found I don’t know whether it was the divisional payroll or the impressed account or whatever I found a ruddy great box full of money. And it was all in French francs. 500, 1,000-franc notes and we got all this money, shared it out amongst us. Loads and loads of money we had. But a little while later the order came through that the only franc notes that could be accepted were Bank of France and these notes were Bank of Algiers, I think it was and all that lot were rendered valueless.
JH: Can you remember what your daily water ration was and did you have to use that for everything? In the photo you all look pretty presentable really.
AM: There were times when you just couldn’t do anything about it. You just had no time to do anything. But when you could the first thing was to smarten yourself up, clean yourself up.
JH: So, you’d always keep a little bit of your water for shaving…
AM: It would tend to be dry shaving most of the time and when you were washing, you never put water on you, it was just a flannel or a piece of rag or a bit of towelling or something. The big problem was trying to keep your hair clean and that was virtually impossible. Never had any water for washing your hair. It gets to a point where it just doesn’t get any worse. But the water ration itself, it varied. First of all, we always had an emergency supply on the vehicle. We always had perhaps a gallon in reserve. And we had a bottle. We tended not to carry the bottle. We never carried anything. If you’re going on patrol you might have a bottle with you then in case you were caught but otherwise you wouldn’t carry anything. But the water supply, sometimes you got none at all. Then perhaps you might get two pints a man. So, if there was a section of say six people you got 12 pints of water and the priority for that was tea. And anything left over you cleaned your teeth or dipped a rag in it and tried to clean yourself. You never used water for washing clothes for instance. That was also done in petrol. Cooking was always done in petrol.
JH: What happened to you at the end of the North Africa campaign?
AM: On the last day of the campaign when the Germans evacuated from the Cap Bon peninsula and the rest of them surrendered, I was sent back to the base depot to become an instructor and I was an instructor on the six pounder anti-tank guns and most of the people who came through the school were Australians and South Africans and we trained a lot of those up.
JH: and the rest of the rifle brigade went on to Italy…
AM: Well they first of all went on to Alexandria and while they were there the Greek navy revolted or something and they got stroppy and the battalion had to get called out with armed weapons to curb the Greek navy which they did. And they went there for some months actually and eventually went across to Italy. But in the meantime the battalion, by which time was well under strength, so it had to be built up to strength, and there was a lot of people in the battalion who’d been out away from home since about 1935, 1936, they were sent home, including the fellow who had my films who I never saw again and then the rest went to Italy. And it was at night time and the vehicles as we did were lined up round the edge of where they were all sleeping including a gun tower with a gun behind it and there was a chap next to me, in fact his name was Smith, and we both had Sten guns at the time and we went up to this vehicle because by then the firing had just about started and there were flares going up, cascades and so on, and this fellow next to me, Smith, was putting burst after burst after burst into the cabin of the vehicle: “Get out! Get out!” getting angrier and angrier. And all the time he was shouting he was pulling the trigger and the poor fellows in there were riddled with bloody bullets, there was two of them sitting in there, dead as a bloody doornail on the first burst. That was the occasion, when that was all over and done with, and we caused total chaos, and we had to scarper back to where we’d left the vehicles and I never did find my vehicle because we all had to separate and we had to go through in+ fire which was crossfire from all sorts of gun positions and we had to run bent over double almost as fast as we could and as long as we could and in the end we just had no idea as to where we were. And me and another fellow just sat there until it got daylight and we started walking and walking and walking and, in the end, we were picked up by a Seventh Hussars armoured car and they were over there and we were here. We were looking at them. They were obviously looking at us, trying to work out whether we were friend or foe and, in the end, I stood up and waved and they waved back and they came and picked us up. So, a whole lot of little incidents of that nature.
ALBERT MARTIN PART II
JH: I remember when we last met, you were saying about how, you know, one of the great things about loot is you could then barter with the Americans at the end of it. I was going to ask what you remember; can you remember first coming into contact with them?
AM: Yes. That was in Tunisia. Despite what you read or say, I’ve never, never, never came across an American in the North Africa side, apart from Tunisia.
JH: Was that after the Mareth Line?
AM: Yes, yeah after the Mareth Line. They, it was unbelievable, they couldn’t understand that we were an army, we were the Eighth Army, all scruffy and everything, wearing all sorts of strange gear, and anything we had, anything we had that related to the enemy, whatever it was, they would have paid anything for it. And they did, you know, we were flogging all sorts of things to them.
JH: You still had a bit of loot left then?
AM: Oh yes, yeah.
JH: I remember you lost one bag, didn’t you?
AM: Oh, I lost two lots of accumulated loot. Once when I was wounded, but that was the last thing on your mind, and the second time when I was called back to the base to be an instructor and I just, I had it in a separate back pack, all the good stuff accumulated, you know, and I looked back and this very insensitive mortar and shell fire and I thought, blow that, and I left it, I turned my back on it. So that’s 2 lots. But in the between time, I’d flogged off bits and pieces, here and there.
JH: So, you sold a fair bit to the Americans did you?
AM: Oh yeah, oh yeah, they were buying. They liked pistols, you know, Luger’s and that sort of thing, compasses, and any of our equipment they would buy, you know, anything that we had.
Well, you must have thought they looked amazingly well equipped, didn’t you?
Oh yeah, it was another world. Yeah, and whatever, if we had happened to say, well, how are you for cigarettes, they’d start giving you loads of cigarettes, that sort of thing. You can’t fault them, they were very, very generous.
JH: Did you have an opinion about them before, was there a kind of rumour about the Americans, before you actually met them. I mean was the perception that they were not as good soldiers? Or was it just the generals?
AM: There was certain antagonism towards them, because of the stories we were getting from England. So, they weren’t exactly our best of friends, before we’d even come across them. So, there was a certain antipathy towards them, because of the feedback we were getting. Which was, you know, loads of money, and all that sort of thing, flashy uniforms and all the equipment and so on. And so therefore that sort of irritated us a fair bit. But there wasn’t, absolutely critical, you know, an attitude towards them, because the acid test was how they’d perform. Our first experience of those, in battle, was at the Kasserine. And that wasn’t at all favourable.
JH: And, of course, in the Eighth Army, you kept pretty separate from the First Army, didn’t you?
AM: Yeah, towards the last few weeks we were actually attached to the first army. Oh, were you, so you were moved up? Yeah, the last few weeks, we were sort of put under command of the 1st army, much to our disgust. Didn’t make much difference really, but it meant that we had to associate with the, one of the guards battalions, I’m not sure which one it was, whether it was the Scots Guards, or…and we were in the same general area as those, so that was a massive culture shock.
JH: Was it?
AM: Yeah. Because those Guards have different rules. Well, they used to frighten the life out of us, because they were all properly turned out, and, regulation, you know, things, and so on. Now I leave it to other experts to decide which is the right way to, um, a fighting force, whether the discipline of the first army, properly dressed and all the protocol, whether that’s right, or whether our way was right, we were just left to do our thing and nobody worried too much about protocol.
JH: I think really, it’s the discipline on the battlefield that counts, doesn’t it?
AM: Er, the discipline on the battlefield in our case was down to the individual soldier, really, as opposed to the 1st army, where you did what the platoon commander said, or what the company commander said. We had to operate on our own devices.
JH: Why do you think that was?
AM: Why was it? It just evolved. I think that the answer there lies in the origin of the rifle brigade in 1809, or whatever it was. You know, that the rules laid down by the founder of the rifle brigade, 200 years ago. They set out at that time to generate some individual initiative and, you know, people acting under there own devices. Which was actually the system that the Germans had, you know, pretty much all the way through the army, this kind of, you know, decisions could be made right down to, you know, you get and equivalent of a German major might be given an order, but if certain circumstances change he wouldn’t have to go back to his next in line to say, what do I do know, it would be entirely his, up to him to use his initiative and make the decisions…And he was responsible if he didn’t make the right decision.
JH: I remember we talked about, and one thing you put in the book, which was this whole thing, about before the war, you were growing up in the East End, and that was the limit of your vision and you never thought you’d never get out of that, and that the army was the leveller and gave you possibilities and you broke down, sort of, well class barriers. But one thing I think is really interesting is, is the relationship between your squaddie and your N.C.O and then the officers. Because it’s very different from the American system, and they would, you know, respect for officers was presumably, if a officer told you to do something, you never think about not doing it, would you?
JH: You would think about not doing it?
AM: I must admit, I think I’ve only rejected an officer’s directions on two occasions. That was a question of survival. It was a mistake and that was it. My survival. But otherwise, you’re quite right, we would respond to what the, but the main major issue was that the officers had to earn our respect, and most of them did, I must say, most of them did, there was a period, and this is crystal clear, there was a period whenever bedding down, whenever news of battalion, and that came from Sandhurst, or whatever it was, you know, all public school. And for a while they were like a fish out of – we weren’t, but they were like a fish out of water, because all they knew was the protocol set by the, by their background training. Which cut no ice, absolutely cut no ice at all. And it usually took them, only a matter of weeks before they got the message that, that was the way to conduct yourselves if you wanted to get response from the troops.
JH: Right. So, when you talk about earning respect. How did they do that? By showing common sense? Bravery in action?
AM: If they’d have very brave, they also tended to be very foolhardy too. Because they couldn’t see danger, you know, as we could. We were highly sensitive to it. And they tended not to be.
JH: Is that because they might be new inexperienced?
AM: Either that, or because they looked upon survival in battle in a different way to, we did. I mean survival was the be all and end all. So far as we were concerned, but in their case, it was a question of, honour and duty and that sort of thing, there was a whole lot of other issues. Because there were other things in the background, they were lumbered with things that we hadn’t. We had it quite simple.
JH: How did, if, say you’re out in the Western Desert and a new officer comes in, and you’re thinking, ok, I’m not going to make any judgment yet, I’ll see how he gets on the next few days, next few weeks. What would he have to do to earn your respect?
JH: Well, if they came along and wanted you to, when he was talking to you, to stand to attention, that’s a black mark, because it was a very, very casual arrangement. If perhaps he came along and your making the food out, he would come along and help to lay the cups out and so on, that was a good mark, that was a brownie point, you know, it was a case of, we’re all in this, from out point of view, why should, we’re all in this together, we’ve all got our jobs to do, you happen to be an officer, so what, so fair enough, but at the same time, we are all human beings, all got a big stake in this situation, so, you know, don’t forget that mate. But, first of all, they’ve got to get rid of their English-type garb. The sort of, scarf around the neck, and that sort of thing, and more or less adopt our type of approach.
JH: A bit more casual?
AM: A bit more casual, a bit more laid back, a bit more flamboyant if you like, and that was all right. If they carried on, the longer they carried on with, wearing the Sam brown belt, which you never did, you know, the longer they carried on wearing that, the longer it took them to break down the barriers.
and yet it’s funny, because I was talking to chap the other day, he was a officer in the grenadier guards in the first army, and he was saying that when he first, first was a officer and first joined, you know, his company, he made the mistake of trying to be friends with all the guys in the, under his charge. And they didn’t want him to be friends, they wanted respect. And he learnt the hard way. There’s a very subtle line there between we’re all mates together and that’s how we’d prefer it too. You’re an officer, it’s down to you to tell us what to do and to lead us. We don’t want too much of that ‘we’re all in this together’ lark. It’s hard to explain – it’s very subtle.
So you don’t want them to be too high and mighty and above their station but at the same time you don’t want them to be too overly friendly.
If you come out and you have to go for a re-fit, perhaps to Mena or somewhere, it will never ever do for the officer to carry on then in that environment in the same way he would previously in the desert. He had to assume a certain protocol in the desert. So suddenly it’s much less of you all being in it together. Absolutely. I don’t know if it’s relevant or not, but there was a certain amount of resentment on the part of the Eighth Army people at the fact that the First Army poked their nose in up in the north. We objected to that most strongly. We thought, we don’t need it, we’re doing very nicely, thank you. But, of course, when you read the stuff about it now, it was a far, far, bigger operation than we realised at the time. We thought it was just as it was in earlier days, but it was nothing like that. It became a major issue.
JH: One of the other things I’m keen to get involved in was the fact that there are lots of general histories about this period of the war.
Not enough credit is given to the Navy and the air Force. They were incredible – the amount of damage they did to the supply lines.
The war of supplies was a big factor, wasn’t it?
AM: What I dug out the other day, if you’re interested, after the Alamein battle, we were involved in, there was an official enquiry set up because they knew it was going to be a significant issue, and I’ve got a copy. Whatever you’ve already read, this is official. You take that. That gives you an almost hour by hour account of our battle. Not the whole battle, but our part.
JH: When you read through this, was it as you remembered it?
AM: Oh yes. In fact, there’s a lot in there that I wasn’t aware of. The shell-fire and tanks and that sort of thing. And another thing – there’s my diaries that I kept, but there’s one missing – she’s typed out bits for the benefit of the family really.
JH: There’s June ‘42. “June 12: what a bloody night it was.” She typed out the whole lot, did she? And then you turned it into a book?
AM: It gives dates and locations and there’s no messing about. It’s the real thing. There are a few photos as well.
JH: Just to go back to this issue of the officers and other ranks – do you think the fact that officers messed in a different way and there was this social division, do you think that was, purely from a military point of view, a good thing, this separation? Or do you think it would have been better if you’d all been in it together all the way through?
AM: It’s absolutely the bedrock, I think, of British military traditions. Having said that, I think there should be a more flexible, more fluid movement between the other ranks and the officers from the point of view of promotion, bearing in mine an other rank would go into the army and the highest you could get was regimental sergeant major say and that’s the end of his career. That’s a shame I think because there’s a lot of people from sergeant corporal, sergeant major and so on who could move into the officer category without any vague loss of dignity to the office and so on and I think that’s been too rigidly applied over the years. But that’s just a personal opinion. I think the distinction between other ranks and officers has got to be upheld and has got to be respected. I think that’s absolutely vital. The English character is such that they would respond to the rules, regulations and protocol as laid down, but they won’t respond without that background of rules and regulations. If they weren’t there, then particularly these days with the character of the English changing quite rapidly, I don’t think you get the respect in the leadership and the response.
JH: When you were out there, you thought the top brass were doing a good job did you?
AM: By and large, oh yeah.
JH: Respect for Monty and Alexander and Auckinlech?
AM: Yeah. I’ve got to say that because most of the top brass let’s say from brigadier upwards had their origins in rifle units. It’s a fact of life that that’s the way the army operated. The casualties and promotions and so on were greater at infantry level, so that most of the people who finished up in senior positions started off either in the rifle brigade or? or one of the rifle units. Therefore, there was an inbuilt respect for them because they come through what we were familiar with. The only thing is that the qualities in say 1940 were different to the qualities required in say ‘42 and ‘43. The character of the war had changed and they weren’t always able to adjust. The requirements of the senior people varied from one year to the next.
JH: Of course, when you first got out to the desert it was a pretty small army. If you think of how it ballooned into this huge machine with better kit and the Shermans and so on.
AM: I think the total military strength in 1940 was about 30,000 of all types. Of that 30,000, I think on a ratio of about 1:6 I in the front line to 5 in the back area, there’s about 5 or 6,000 troops holding the battlefield. Which is nothing. That’s why it was comfortable for people like me you know? We were there when it was ours. It was our flipping desert! And that all changed in a couple of years when we were absolutely inundated by people from all over the world.
JH: Can you remember how you felt before you first went into action?
AM: Excited, there was no question of apprehension, well apprehension maybe but nothing more than that really. It was just the excitement of being there, especially in my case where we were the first conscripted drafts so most of the other fellows in the battalion had already had the experience in the Khyber Pass in India and Palestine and so on. So that experience of being under fire and you hadn’t so it was a case of how we would now be the same as them as it were. We would be blooded and have our first taste of action. The unknown factor is how would you react to it and apart from the excitement, it was â€¦. Nothing. Mind you, that changes after a few years. The most vivid memory I’ve got is a night in November 41 where I was hit for the first time and how relieved I was because you knew from the previous months that bit by bit, different people were getting injured and killed and by the law of averages you knew that sooner or later – so when it happens and it’s not serious, you think thank god, that’s over and done with. There’s a lot of relief.
JH: So that was Sidi Resegh?
AM: Yes. “Of the fighting force of my Company, only about 40 remain. Until today, we had not a single officer left and now have Major S McLeod (S possibly standing for Sinclair) after escaping from the Jerries… battle still raging, to and fro with neither side gaining and…situation hardly looks bright at all and I hope all what we’ve been and gone through has not been in vain. Even now, the noise of the tank battle reaches us and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we had to beat a hasty retreat. Can we continue our advance? I wonder. The Jerry is a hard and bitter fighter and the officers and men are such that they would not give in, if they had to. I take my hat off to Rommel. He’s a leader alright, another Campbell.
JH: Leading from the front.
AM: “The remnants of a and C Company are combined into one Company for the purpose of going on flying column work. Our intentions are to isolate the pockets of enemy resistance and smash any supply columns that try to break through to them. This should be fun and a lot safer than the bayonet attacks that we’ve been doing.”
JH: You were doing bayonet attacks?
AM: Yes and no, it was just a big show really. It never got to the point where you’d stick it in anyone. It was just to make a point.
“We’ve got an area a few miles from the wire to patrol, so that means we’re apart from the main battle and indulging in a war of our own. Sunday 7 December. We met up with the enemy today and had quite an exciting time until we scattered the column to the four winds. Our lager was attacked tonight, but we put up such a solid wall of fire that it would almost take a whole Panzer division to break through. For days now, we’ve been continually in the wire hounding the enemy out of every corner. We can usually rely on at least one skirmish each day which is very good for the… a few 109’s here.”
JH: I guess at that stage they were always a problem? Strafing you?
AM: Yeah. That’s right, they were a problem. They seemed to be very, very fast.
JH: Was it a 109 that got you wounded? It says “Strafed by 109’s during battle of…” I can’t read this bit. Was hit in arm and leg though not seriously. Arm is ok, but leg is giving me hell and won’t heal.” Did it hurt?
AM: Not really no.
JH: I suppose in the desert you have to be very careful about it going bad?
AM: You’re not up there long enough for that. They’re very good at getting you out of action and on your way.
“13 December. Spent night at CCS and had wounds dressed and had first meal for nearly 2 days. Then continued onto battalion hospital in Tobruk. Strafed twice on the way…”