Friday, 25 October 2019

A Sapper’s War - 12 Fld Coy RCE History, Part 1 Oct 1943

A Sapper's War: A Note on Blog and Book 

This series of blogs, entitled "A Sapper's War" follows some units of the Royal Canadian Engineers in World War 2, primarily the 12th Field Company, which was my father's unit. The main sources are the unit War Diary, Daily Orders, official military histories, and The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers Volume 2.  I will also include some personal accounts of his, when this is appropriate to the history.

The blogs will mostly relate to their time in Italy, from Oct 1943 to Jan 1945, though it will ultimately be extended to the later events in Northwestern Europe and the earlier events in the U.K..  They will be put together in book form eventually, but until that time the blogs will be available for interested readers on this "Dodecahedron Books" blog site. I encourage anyone who in interested to read the blogs, and buy the book when it comes available. 
Naturally, I am claiming copyright, though you can make "fair use" of content, of course, if you are writing about similar times and events. 

Though the overall history of the war will be noted, as context, the text mainly relates to the experiences of the 12th Field Company, as indicated in their War Diary and related orders, and other documents.  If you want a more general history of the war, there are many other sources to more completely fill in those details.

There will be a fair bit of focus on what might be called "social history", in addition to the sometimes routine, sometimes harrowing military activities of a group of Allied sappers in the Italian Theatre of WW2.  The daily orders and company War Diary often provide an interesting window into this day-to-day world that the strictly military military lacks.  

Though this account is based is a Canadian engineer company, it is likely that British, other Commonwealth and American sappers would have lived through similar experiences at this time, so families and interested parties from those nations might also find it interesting. 

I will fill in links to the blog series below, as they are posted.


A Sapper’s War

12th Field Company Royal Canadian Engineers (RCE) Nov 1943 to Feb 1945

Part 1 - November 1943

Copyright Dale Olausen and Dodecahedron Books, October 2019

What follows is a review of the history of the 12th Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers, during the time that my father served with them during World War 2.  His army records give Oct 19, 1943 as the date that he joined this unit.  And, indeed, the unit’s war diaries confirm that, showing that he was assigned to the 3rd platoon of that company in October 1943.

The primary source of this document is the 12th Field Company War Diaries, with some material from The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 2 as well as various official histories by the Department of National Defence.  Personal accounts of my father’s or mother’s stories are also included, where appropriate.

I have given summaries of what is in the War Diary from the various months, which are themselves rather terse, as they are a summation of the activities of some 250 or so men.  Family stories and personal historical accounts rarely have much of a counterpart in the War Diaries, though they sometimes touch on events that seem similar to what one might have heard in veterans’ personal accounts.

I will add other items from the material associated with the War Diaries (e.g. orders and other communications) where I find them of interest.  Those can be for personal/family reasons, or to give a general understanding of the times.  Some matters become recurring cultural themes, which don’t usually get a lot of play in official histories, but these seem all the more interesting to me, for that very reason.

 October 1943

General Introduction

As near as can be determined from the records, my father was “struck off strength” (SOS) from the Engineer Reinforcement Unit (ERU) and “taken on strength” (TOS) with the 12th Field Company RCE (12 Fld Coy), on October 19, 1943.  He was then posted to the 3rd Platoon.  So, since our narrative takes the form of following the fortunes of this particular sapper, as a way to gain insight into the experiences of the Engineers in general, we will focus on the activities of 12 Fld Coy from this particular month onwards.  At times I will note the actions of 3 Platoon in particular.

These were very eventful times for the Company, and for the Canadian Army in general.  This was the month that the 12th Field Company learned that they would be going into action, leaving the United Kingdom for the Mediterranean Theatre, to be landed in Sicily.

The allied armies had invaded Sicily in July of that year, and dislodged the Germans and Italian armies from that island in the course of six weeks or so of heavy fighting.  After the Germans had crossed the Straits of Messina to the mainland of Italy, the Allies followed and were slowly beginning to work their way north, with 8th Army (British and Commonwealth) on the eastern, Adriatic side, and 5th Army (United States) along the western side of Italy.  This was the “soft underbelly of Hitler’s Europe” theory, but it was to prove to be anything but soft.

Eventually, 12 Fld Coy, along with the other Canadian troops in Italy, would be transferred to Northwestern Europe, to join back up with the main body of the army, which had landed at Normandy in June 1944.  But, as it turned out, that was far off in the future.

There are a number of sources for the story, from official histories to popular history books, to personal stories, as told by father and mother to children, or “family lore” as it may be called.  At this remove of time, it is hard to judge the truth value of any one source.  As well, the sources focus on different aspects of history, from the very general histories of the war, to the more particular history of the Engineers, to the personal reminisces of a person involved in the action, as remembered and interpreted by someone of the next generation.  It is, of course,  up to the reader to judge accordingly. 
A primary source is a document known as “The War Diary”, which is a day by day account of the primary activities of a given unit, as recorded by personnel in the headquarters staff of that unit, and signed off by the commander of the unit.  As such, it is an official record, though the writers often brought a bit of their own character into the document.  Naturally, as a relatively brief document it can’t hope to capture the complexity of the individual stories of 250 or so men, so the family lore generally has no corresponding entry in the War Diary, though there are sometimes tantalizing hints and near-verifications of these personal accounts.


12 Field Company War Diary

Following is a condensation of the 12 Fld Coy War Diary notes for October 1943. 

Oct 1 to 4 – Southern Coast of England

The company was on the southern coast of England, where it had been sent in September for a “scheme” that was to take place.  That is a sort of small-scale war game or military exercise.  Although much of the concern about a German invasion of the U.K. had dissipated since the Battle of Britain, there were still many defensive installations being built and maintained, especially in southern England.  This was a typical job for sappers (Canadian and British) during the 1939-1943 period, before the campaigns in Italy and Northwestern Europe really got going, later in the war.

The unit worked on various aspects of the scheme – a command and observation post for the generals to watch the exercise, road clearance to and from the site, work on a “pill box” (a fortified concrete gun emplacement) and mine detection.  3rd Platoon mainly worked on road clearance, a non-glamourous but important task in any larger scale military operation.

During this period a mine detector expert joined the unit to demonstrate some new equipment, that was meant to detect more deeply buried mines.  It seemed to be effective at that job.  Presumably he was a civilian “boffin” (a technical or scientific expert) as he was referred to in the war diary as Mr. Butterworth, rather than being given a military designation.

The exercise was not without its dangers.  About two weeks earlier, a sapper (Spr. Fry) had been killed while working on the mine clearance job, under the direction of Lt. Macinnes.  An inquiry chalked that up to “misadventure”.  Also, the navy was practicing live firing nearby, which complicated the job, as shells were sometimes landing in the area.

Work was also slowed by trouble with obtaining petrol, which was often in short supply, partly due to the sinking of merchant ships by German submarines (U-boats).

Oct 5 to 7 – Southern Coast of England

The company continued with works related to the scheme.  Navy firing nearby complicated matters, with shells landing close by the gun emplacement that 2nd Platoon was working on.  However, heavy seas soon developed, so the navy took a short break, which allowed work on the gun emplacement to go forth, for a while, though the firing started up again soon enough.

General Crerar, one of the top Canadian Army generals, made a surprise visit to the site, after circling the job in his plane several times.  He was satisfied with the work.  The Chief Engineer (Col Cunningham) also visited, along with fellow officers from H.Q. Corps.  In addition, a large load of cement came, along with about 100 sappers from 18 Fld Coy RCE, who commenced wiring operations (barbed wire, not electrical), so the scheme was beginning to come together.

Oct 8 to 11 – Southern Coast of England

The navy took another break from firing, so work went ahead with all possible speed.

The sound of numerous explosions indicated that pipe charges were being successfully cleared from the beach.  However, shots from the rear portion of the range were sometimes landing uncomfortably close to 3rd Platoon, so “the boys hit the dirt when they heard anything whistling around”.

However, there was another accident.  Sapper McMullen was accidentally shot in the foot, by Corporal Boychuk, who was examining a revolver. 

1 Platoon had finished the concrete work on the Observation Post, and 2 Platoon did likewise on the pillbox, so they got a break while the concrete set.  3 Platoon also had a chance to knock off early, as they had been working without a break for ten days. 

The Corps Commander, General Crerar, visited again, to observe an artillery shoot.  He checked out the Observation Post, and was pleased with the result.  Some other brass from the Royal Engineers visited as well.

Oct 12 to 14 – Southern Coast of England

The work was nearing completion, with much of the heavy construction equipment being removed from the site by a unit of M.E. Coy (Mechanical Equipment Company).  Unfortunately, one of the sappers from that company (Spr Light) was hurt, being crushed between the power shovel counterweight and the frame.  It wasn’t immediately clear how bad the injury was, but he was taken to the hospital.

Some officers, Captain Trenouth and Lt. Scott also went up to the hospital, to check on the progress of Spr. McMullen, who had been accidentally shot and Spr. Bradley, who had also been involved in an accident earlier.  It wasn’t clear how Bradley had been hurt.  There was to be an inquiry as to the incidents, so they needed to take down the sappers’ evidence.

Major Wade set out early in the morning for an urgent meeting at the C.R.E. (Commander Royal Engineers).  Lt. Place returned from another scheme (Scheme Ditto) and had some surprising news.  The company was to be ready to move by 0800 hours the following day.  The rest of the day was mainly spent preparing for the move, and by the evening the company was ready to move.

Oct 15 to 18 – Godalming, England

Early in the morning, Major Wade headed for Godalming, the next assignment.  The platoons left separately, later that morning, at staggered times.  They then settled into billets.

Word came down about a big scheme called "Ready II", which was to  simulate a move overseas in great detail.  This created a lot of organizational work for headquarters staff.  The next day, 24 hour passes were given to everyone, which nearly cleared out the camp.

After returning from leave, inoculations for typhus were given to all ranks.  The major attended a lot of meetings over this time period, and had collected “a great sheaf of bumph” (paperwork presumably). The men were issued material, to make up for deficiencies in their kit.

Several men were dropped from the unit, as they were determined to be unfit for battle, for physical or mental reasons.  It would have been about the time that my father, Martin Olausen, was assigned to 12 Fld Coy, so he must have replaced one of these men.

This was beginning to take on the appearance of something more than just a simulation, and the men were already speculating along those lines.

Oct 19 to 21 – Godalming, England

Preparations were continuing.  That included packing kit bags and  painting the unit’s name and colour bars on boxes and kit bags.  The bags were packed and shipped ahead of the men, to be stored in the ship’s hold. 

The officers had their pictures taken, and the men were issued their pay and headed out for a last night out before the move.  The war diary notes that “no doubt there will be many big heads tomorrow”. 

Unfortunately, the unit lost Lt. Macinnes to a truck accident, just as the move was ready to go.  He twisted his knee badly enough to be taken to hospital, and was replaced by Lt. Anderson from C.E.R.U. (Canadian Engineer Reinforcement Units).  Added to the mine clearing accident in late September, this was an unlucky period for him.

Oct 22 to 24 – Godalming-Guildford-Nottingham-Edinburgh-Gourock

The company finally got official notification that this was no scheme, this was the real thing.  They were to go overseas, though the ultimate location was being kept secret.

The platoons were paraded, one-by-one, and a speech was read to them, stating that they were headed for overseas duty and anyone going A.W.L. (absent without leave) would be charged with desertion.  Many officers witnessed these speeches and everyone took it extremely seriously.  As the war diary states “everybody treated it as a solemn occasion”.  The troops were also warned about security precautions (e.g. no talking about this to civilians, etc.).

Men and kit-bags moved out the next day, embarking on a train trip to reach their port of departure.  They travelled via the route Godalming-Gilford-Nottingham-Edinburgh-Gourock.  Basically, that meant up the center of England, to Edinburgh Scotland, then to Gourock Scotland, a major port where they would embark onto their ship.  The trip was recorded as uneventful, and took about 24 hours in all, with arrival at the dock in the late morning.

The company was taken on a lighter (a small shore to ship transport) called “Greetings”, to pull along the large troopship Edmund B. Alexander, which was an American vessel.  Then, it was a long wait until suppertime, which caused some grumbling.  The boys hadn’t eaten much since leaving their billets, so they were pretty hungry by now.  “Meals and mail” were always key components of morale. 

Oct 25 to 30 – On Board Ship (sailing southwest)

In the morning, there was another inoculation parade, then an “abandon ship” drill.  Both went smoothly.  The lads’ mail had come in, which improved morale.

The ship waited until it was pitch black to head off through the Firth of Clyde.  That was done, because of the U-boat peril, which remained a very real danger to shipping of all types, merchant and military.  Their destination was still unknown, though everyone on board had an opinion.

In the morning land was visible, as it was for most of the day, off the port side.  That would imply they were going past the northern coast of Ireland.  Toward evening, seas grew rougher and appetites grew correspondingly smaller.  That continued through the night, and a lot of the men and officers were rather seasick.

The next day, the men who were up to it took part in some P.T. (physical training) and small arms training.  The seas improved over the next day or two, and the men’s spirits picked up accordingly, with more men participating in the training exercises.

Oct 31 – On Board Ship (sailing southwest)

It was another nice day, with the ship riding nicely.  There was a church service, followed by a message from General Crerar.  Summing up, that read: "1 Corps to be reformed and fighting ahead".  The men were quiet for the rest of the day, thinking about the implications of that, I suppose.

Department of Defence Historical Documents and Miscellaneous Sources

1 – The Scheme – Exercise Pirate, the Sappers’ Role

Here’s a bit more about the scheme that the company was working on, before being shipped out to the Mediterranean.  It turns out that it was a pretty important exercise, as these were basically practice runs for the D-Day Normandy landings.  So, though 12 Fld Coy missed the D-Day landings (being heavily engaged around Monte Casino, the Liri Valley and Rome at about that time), it could be said that they had an important role in its development and suffered casualties in the process.

As an aside, I have to admit, that when I first saw the location “Studland” (an area along the south coast of England where the scheme was located), I just assumed that was a code word for some other location.  Studland seems like too perfect to be true, as a name for the location of a military exercise, but there it is.

This is from “The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 2” (page 184), an excellent resource for anyone wanting to learn about sappers during WW2. 
“For the rest, on 6th September 1943, the 12th Field Company moved to Studland, Dorset, (between Swanage and Bournemouth) to construct a stretch of coastal defences similar to those then existing across the Channel – its last job before departing for Sicily.  One platoon from the 6th Field Company and two from the 18th joined the work.  The defences were required for the forthcoming Exercises Pirate – full-scale practice assault landings at the divisional level.”

2 – Exercise Pirate – Preparations for D-Day

 And here is some further detail, highlighting the combined arms aspect of the exercise.  It is from the website Operations and Codenames of WWII, which is also a very interesting resource:

“The formation selected for the first full-scale test of the newly developed tactics was Major General R. F. L. Keller’s Canadian 3rd Division in co-operation with the ships of Force ‘J’ and the aircraft of the RAF’s Nos 11 and 83 Groups. The trial’s object was ‘to exercise the forces of all three Services in their functions during a major combined operation’, and the plan included embarkation, assault against a heavily defended beach, the work of the ‘Turn Round Control’ organisation that controlled shipping during the build-up phase, and the rapid construction of an airfield in the bridgehead.

Particularly vital was the fire plan for the assault, which was the subject of a detailed memorandum by Lieutenant General H. D. G. Crerar, commanding the Canadian 1st Army. Crerar sent the plan to Keller on 30 August, and the plan included most of the elements that had emerged from the operations and studies of the last few months: naval bombardment (destroyer gunfire, supplemented by rocket fire and 'Hedgerows' during the final approach, and close support craft carrying tanks which beached in the first wave to engage the beach defences), air bombardment (attacks by medium and light bombers before the landings, plus cannon and rocket attacks by fighters), and a ‘beach barrage’ by two field regiments of army artillery firing from tank landing craft.”

2 – The Decision to Send More Troops to the Mediterranean

Canadian troops had been sent to the Italian theatre in June 1943, to take part in the invasion of Sicily.  There was a lot of support for this from some quarters, as Canada had been in the war for nearly 4 years at that time, without the army seeing much action.  On the other hand, there was the strong conviction that the war would be won through an invasion of Northwestern Europe, and a Mediterranean operation would rob forces from that operation, when it came.

The invasion of Sicily was reasonably successful, and it was followed up by an invasion of the Italian mainland, across the Straits of Messina.  The decision was then made to reinforce this strategy, and thus Operation Timberwolf was born.

Below are some passages from official DND historical documents:

“General McNaughton announced that arrangements had been made for the Canadian Army to ship to the Mediterranean Theatre sufficient troops to make up a balanced corps in the Midd1e East which should include 1 Cdn Inf Div, 5 Cdn Armd Div, 1 Cdn Armoured Brigade less motor battalion, and one A.G.R.A. (Army Group Royal Artillery) consisting of one field and three medium regiments, hospitals to scale and rear echelon units as required.”
“To the Canadians still in England the chance to go to a theatre of active operations was a pleasant prospect after years of inactivity. To staff officers and commanders it was an opportunity to prove their ability under the actual arbitrament of war instead of the always unsatisfactory decisions of umpires. Even to the unfortunates immured in  the reinforcement units, it was a helpful sign that their long incarceration might someday end, and to at least a few of them it promised a short holiday in the form of dispatch as rear parties to settle final arrangements of unit equipment and accommodation.”

3 - The October/November 1943 Convoy:

The troops travelled by ship, in fast convoys protected by the navy.  All convoys were subject to attack by the German U-boat fleet.  Troop carriers were first-class targets, but heavily screened by the Navy.

“Further details released at this conference disclosed that the main 'group of Canadians would move in convoy KNF 25 or KNF25A, which were scheduled to leave about 25 Oct. Space was reserved for approximately 25,000 Canadian all ranks, who were arranged 1n the following priority: H.Q: I Cdn Corps and Corps Troops, one 500-bed hospital, one 1,200-bed hospital, H.Q. 5 Cdn Armd Div, 11 Cdn Inf Bde and  advance parties for the units following on later flights. One month's reinforcements for the units embarking would be carried if possible, but not to the exclusion of the reinforcements already assigned to the convoy for I Cdn Inf Div and I Cdn Armd Bde, who were to proceed as planned. The destination of the forces was named as Sicily and the date of readiness was set at 20 Oct 43. The November and December convoys (KNF 26 and KNF 27) were to accommodate 10,000 and 4,000 respectively and any remaining troops  would be dispatched In January 1944.”
REPORT NO, 170 HISTORICAL SECTION CANADIAN MILITARY HEADQUARTERS: Operation Timberwolf: The Movement of 1 Cdn Corps to the Mediterranean, 1943. (Page 1 and Page 5)

4 - The Move Across the U.K. to Convoy Embarkation:

Below is a map of the U.K., from which you can see the general route taken from Godalming (not far from London) to Gourock (not far from Glasgow).  After leaving port, from the description of the first part of the ocean voyage, they probably went around the north coast of Ireland, then headed southwest in the direction of the Mediterranean.

5 - The Convoy and the Troopship E.B. Alexander

Attached is a photo of the troopship E.B. Alexander.  This ship began life as a German passenger ship in 1905, but was acquired and used as a U.S. troopship in both WW1 and WW2 (with major upgrades).  There’s a bit of irony there.  It was scrapped in 1957, iron, irony and all.

Some other interesting facts about the ship:

·       She was caught in Boston Harbour at the outbreak of WW1 and impounded.  When the U.S. joined the war, she was pressed into service on the side of the allies.

·       She had a severe influenza outbreak on board, while carrying troops in 1918, with 50 men dying.

·       She sank at her pier in New Jersey in 1918, but was raised and continued ferrying troops home after WW1.

·       She went back into the passenger business, but eventually returned to the troopship duties in WW2.

There is a cryptic note about the ship in Department of Defence: Report Number 170, Operation Timberwolf, though the diarist of 12 Fld Coy RCE seemed rather content with the ship in one October 31 entry (“the old ship rolling nicely very much to everyone’s pleasure”):

“Rough weather was encountered during the first few days on the North Atlantic and the usual discomforts of convoy life were experienced to a greater or less degree depending on the efficiency of the ships staffs. Comments on such administrative matters appear as appendices to the War Diaries of units and formations concerned. The most critical are those concerning the arrangements on U.S A.T. Edmund B. Alexander”.

Orders and Documents Archived with the 12 Fld Coy War Diary

The orders archived along with the War Diary contain a lot of interesting material, that gives a glimpse into the lives of the men, from the vitally important to the apparently trivial.  But it is sometimes the latter that tells us the most, of how life was for the men of the company, and those times in general.

1 – Activities Related to “The Scheme”:

Below is a list of the activities undertaken during the “scheme” (a sort of minor wargame or other exercise) that occupied the unit in the fall of 1943 in the United Kingdom, from a Progress Report, filed alongside the War Diary.

As you can see, these activities included construction of obstacles, gun positions, minefield clearance and laying of mines, bridging and road or track construction.  All of these activities were quite typical of the work that they would do later, in Italy, either with front line troops during assaults or building and maintaining infrastructure needed to move supplies to those troops.

A few definitions (from Wiki):

  • Casemate Post - “Casemates built in concrete were used in the Second World War to protect coastal artillery from air attack.” 
  • M.M.G. Post - “The Vickers machine gun pillbox is essentially square in plan with the forward-facing corners chamfered.” 
  • Wire – “…wire obstacles are defensive obstacles made from barbed wire, barbed tape or concertina wire. They are designed to disrupt, delay and generally slow down an attacking enemy.”
  • Anti-tank ditches – “… are ditches dug into and around fortified positions to hold up the advance of enemy tanks.”
  • O.P. - an observation post (commonly abbreviated OP), temporary or fixed, is a position from which soldiers can watch enemy movements, to warn of approaching soldiers (such as in trench warfare), or to direct artillery fire.

 Oct 1944
Works done on “Scheme” Sep and Oct 1943 by 12th Fld Coy, RCE
1 Removing Tub. Scaff North Sec.
2 Removing Tub. Scaff Middle Sec.
3 Removing Tub. Scaff South Sec.
4 Improving Tank Obstacles
5 Deepening and Lengthening A/Tk Ditch
6 Mock Tobruk Post
7 Casemate Post
8 Concreate Wall 30’ X 10’ X 6’
9 O.P. for 40 Spectators
10 Mock Bridging Obstacles
11 Mock M.M.G. Post North
12 Mock M.M.G. Post South
13 A/Tk Ditch
14 Track Construction
15 Gun Positions
16 Mock Tank Concentrations
17 Minefield Clearance
18 Mock Casemate
19 Wire
20 Dummy Minefields
General Improvement of Existing Defences

2 – The General’s Plane Goes Missing

Who knows how the G.O.C. (General Officer Commanding) lost his plane, but apparently he did.  Presumably this must have been General Crerar’s plane, since he was noted in the War Diary as visiting the company, after circling around in his plane several times.  One assumes that it was quickly located, as there are no other notices about it.

Oct 5 1943
Anyone seeing the plane of the G.O.C. which is a “Piper Cub” will report it to the Orderly Room, immediately!

3 – Navy Firing

As noted previously, the Royal Navy was an integral part of the scheme that was being prepared.  Unfortunately, there is no indication of what type of ship was doing the firing, or the size of the guns being fired, but a destroyer seems most likely, as the bigger ships were generally elsewhere. 

Oct 11 1943
All personnel are warned to stay away from the range until noon on Thursday 17 Oct 43.  Only personnel on Special Works will be allowed on the range during that time on account of the navy will be firing from now till then.

4 - Shooting Rabbits

Here’s an order regarding shooting rabbits.  I thought this was interesting, as my father had subsisted on rabbits during a long walk from Fort Vermillion, Alberta to Peace River, Alberta, as a young man, while accompanying an Englishman on a job rafting cattle up the Peace River, that included a return trip on foot.  Apparently shooting rabbits was a way for the troops to supplement their rations (off the record) while stationed in the United Kingdom.
Unfortunately, the date indicates that this was a week or so before my dad probably joined the unit, so he wouldn’t have enjoyed rabbit stew from this bit of hunting.

Oct 10, 1943
In future, the use of .303 Rifles for the use of shooting rabbits will cease.  Anyone found using their rifles for the above mentioned will be dealt with accordingly.

5 – Security for the Move Overseas

Obviously security was essential for a major move like this to be successful.  As the saying went “loose lips sink ships”.  Clearly, though, the commanding officer Major Wade wanted to reassure the men that they were trusted, and that the secrecy did not reflect a lack of confidence in them.  I suppose that my father couldn’t have told my mother about his being shipped out either (they had married shortly before this time, without the permission of the military, I might add).

Oct 22, 1943
“Orders have been received that the company (or the draft) is to be prepared to move.  You will realize that it is in the interests of yourself and your comrades, and for the safety of the shipping, the utmost secrecy must be maintained.  It is through no lack of trust that you are not being told of the date of departure or ultimate destination.  But it is only commonsense that it is easier to keep a secret when you don’t know it than when you do; and furthermore, it relieves you of the temptations to inform your relatives, even in confidence.  At the appropriate time, facilities will be given to you for sending letters home.”

6 – Lights Out in the Barracks

Barrack lights took power, that was needed for the war effort.  Also, light discipline was essential because of the danger of air raids.  The Blitz was over, but there was something called “the Baby Blitz” that was about to start up at roughly this time, which was a short-term effort by Germany to re-start the bombing campaign.  Then the V-weapon campaigns were to come in earnest, in 1944 and 1945 (these were early versions of what we now call cruise missiles and ballistic missiles).

I think that people who grew up in the era had this notion of “turning off the light” drilled into their heads, which they carried on in later life.  It seemed strange and excessive to people who didn’t live through the privations of wartime Britain and the terror of the air raids.

Oct 12, 1943
All lights will be turned OFF in the daytime when no one is in the room and also at night when all the occupants of the room are on pass or out etc..

7 – What they Watched (and listened to)

The mass media is always an interesting lens into the assumptions of the times and the lives of the people, soldiers and otherwise.  So, I am noting and commenting on the films that were shown to the company, when that information is included in the orders that have been archived.

Oct 12, 1943
There will be a picture show shown in the Mess Hall of No. 3 Pl. house (Fairfield Hotel) at 1800 hours 13 Oct 1943.  The name of the picture is “Presenting Lily Mars”.
This film, “Presenting Lily Mars” is generally considered to be Judy Garland’s first movie in which she played an adult-type role.  In the current era,  Judy Garland’s most memorable role was probably in The Wizard of Oz, playing the young girl Dorothy.

It is your basic “small town girl goes to Broadway to become a star” story – in other words a musical-romance-comedy.    It did ok at the box office. They dyed her naturally dark hair blonde for the movie – no doubt the boys of 12 Fld Coy were charmed by the pretty young blonde Judy Garland and the fantasy of Broadway, as they waited in Britain for the reality of war which was to soon come to them.

The choice of the name “Lily Mars” is interesting, as it so resembles the song that became the unofficial anthem of troops on all sides during WW2 – that song, of course, is “Lilly Marlene”.  Mars is the God of War, in Roman mythology.  Is this a subtle effort to link the lovesick soldier’s song to the martial spirit, for propaganda purposes?  Or just Hollywood, working an angle to get people to buy tickets to a movie?

Here are the lyrics to Lilly Marlene (Judy Garland doesn’t sing it in the movie, the picture above is just a nice still from the film).  I should note that there seems to be a lot of versions of the English lyrics on the internet, and I don’t know which is considered to be definitive.  These are lyrics associated with the notable British singer Vera Lynn, so I guess that’s probably as “official” as one can hope for.  Presumably the original German lyrics are more consistent.

Underneath the lantern
By the barrack gate
Darling I remember
The way you used to wait
'Twas there that you whispered tenderly
That you loved me
You'd always be
My Lili of the lamplight
My own Lili Marleen

Time would come for roll call
Time for us to part
Darling I'd caress you
And press you to my heart
And there ‘neath that far off lantern light
I'd hold you tight
We'd kiss good night
My Lili of the lamplight
My own Lili Marleen

Orders came for sailing
Somewhere over there
All confined to barracks
'Twas more than I could bear
I knew you were waiting in the street
I heard your feet
But could not meet
My Lili of the lamplight
My own Lili Marleen

Resting in our billet
Just behind the line
Even though we're parted
Your lips are close to mine
You wait where that lantern softly gleamed
Your sweet face seems
To haunt my dreams
My Lili of the lamplight
My own Lili Marleen
My Lili of the lamplight
My own Lili Marleen


If you are interested in history, you may also be interested in travel, whether by foot, bike, truck or car.  So, why not consider reading another book, for only 99 cents on Amazon:

On the Road with Bronco Billy, A Trucking Journal

What follows is an account of a ten day journey through western North America during a working trip, delivering lumber from Edmonton Alberta to Dallas Texas, and returning with oilfield equipment. The writer had the opportunity to accompany a friend who is a professional truck driver, which he eagerly accepted. He works as a statistician for the University of Alberta, and is therefore is generally confined to desk, chair, and computer. The chance to see the world from the cab of a truck, and be immersed in the truck driving culture was intriguing. In early May 1997 they hit the road.
Some time has passed since this journal was written and many things have changed since the late 1990’s. That renders the journey as not just a geographical one, but also a historical account, which I think only increases its interest.

We were fortunate to have an eventful trip - a mechanical breakdown, a near miss from a tornado, and a large-scale flood were among these events. But even without these turns of fate, the drama of the landscape, the close-up view of the trucking lifestyle, and the opportunity to observe the cultural habits of a wide swath of western North America would have been sufficient to fill up an interesting journal.

The travelogue is about 20,000 words, about 60 to 90 minutes of reading, at typical reading speeds.

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