P.G.21 Chieti, Abruzzo, Italy.

Aug 25th, 2012

[Wilfred’s first letter of 1943 comes from a Prisoner of War camp in Abruzzo called Chieti. It is a Camp for Officers, but as Officers, under the Geneva convention, were not required to work some privates were sent as orderlies. As Wilfred’s letters unfold it becomes clear that he has a job as an orderly – Admin.]

20 th January 1943.

My Dear Harvie,

By chance I hear more from you than anyone else and I am very glad to get your letters. Every week I write to someone in the family so that you might have continuous news of me: but if you do not hear for a while do not worry for there are bound to be delays of mail under wartime conditions. I am quite well and have learned in the Army how necessary it is to look first after number one (or perhaps I knew that before). Several of your letters have come in reverse order to that of writing, but the latest, written Dec. 16 th was a quick one. I shall be very grateful indeed for the 1,000 cigarettes you have so kindly ordered for me, these being the most precious things in our prison camp existence. I have had no private parcels yet, but I am expecting the first of these to arrive any day. At Christmas and New Year we each had a Red Cross Parcel (containing, among other things, real butter) and my Christmas Dinner made me pleasantly sick.

It is cold here now – ice on the ground but no snow. The days are often dry and sunny, without wind, as we are sheltered by a ring of snow covered mountains.( Oh! the wind that blows over the desert all winter!) Should it be wet it is also warmer: and when you get this the winter will be far spent.

With best wishes always.

Wilfred

Tags:

The Fly Trap.

May 8th, 2012

Capt. G Tattersall

C/o C.R.E. 7th Armoured Division M.E.F

19th June 1943

What a lovely little badger hair shaving brush it is. This was a pleasant surprise and it arrived with  the 14 “unreadable” books I asked for. Consequently I had an exquisite shave this morning – good brushes lather the soap so well. I have made a bookcase out of a petrol tin and the books enliven my M.I. room tent. I hope they will enliven my mind too. I am balanced between busy and being lazy and laziness wins. It certainly did today.  I felt irritable all morning and slept this afternoon and after a mug of tea faced the world more cheerfully. This letter is written in pencil, I hope it is readable when you get it. The flies are increasing and I inspect with glee my fly trap daily. It is quite successful, and next to it is a fly-poison trap and the two work in perfect unison.

Cheerio – Gilbert.

Tags:

Security seals my lips.

May 8th, 2012

Capt. G Tattersall

C/o C.R.E. 7th Armoured Division M.E.F.

5th June 1943.

Dear Harvie,

I received your letter card of 20th May. I am now not sure what I have written to you about the recent campaign but now it is all over. Th last bit was exciting and gratifying and indeed for some of the time I was in front of the tank M.O. who drove about in an armoured car whilst I sat in a Morris Truck 15cwt. somewhat decrepit, and with about 15,000 miles to its credit. It could not get up one hill because it was too slippery, though it managed it the next morning. I had a front seat view. fortunately there was no real opposition except for a few stray shells which injured some of the Sappers and terrified me.

Now all is silence. Security seals my lips. the lid is tight on. Plenty of rumours but no substance. I can only tell you that I am busy with red tape. I have been spinning a web of it myself. I even gave the sick parade a lecture on malingering today. I have been giving lectures and tub thumping day after day, banging on about Hygiene, Tropical diseases, Malaria and giving lessons on First aid. Sometimes I quite surprise myself really – I don’t do as badly as I thought I would being naturally reticent. The First Aid is not St. Johns  Ambulance standard as I only have two 3/4 hour periods for this and consequently restrict myself to “How to deal with a Wounded Man”. The Sappers usually have to do this themselves and in many instances have done it very well. Camp Hygiene is another of my problems. I have been given a lovely tent as a Medical Inspection Room. Outside I have built a model “Desert Rose” or urinal, and a soak away pit for washing water and chemicals. My orderly, who is an excellent fellow, did most of the work however.

I got a slip of paper from the Assistant Director of Medical Services (my boss) today asking me if |I would like a three month period at a base Hospital. I said “YES” but qualified this by saying I would like three months at the Army “Looney Bin”: that is No. 41 General Hospital for Neurotics and Psychotics.

[Gilbert has expressed an interest in this before here and I assume his previous base Hospital No 42 was nearby in El Bhalla. This Hospital must be set up to deal with what was then known as shell shock – admin]

Do not assume that I will be snatched away from the Divisional Sappers and sent to a base Hospital however. Usually these notes they sent round get lost under a pile of papers or get neutralized by administrative chaos in some way or another. I understand that perfectly well. There is so much I have to get done and only about half of it actually gets done.

I went into a town yesterday and bought four pairs of socks, two pairs of flannelette pyjamas, a brush shirt (K.D),  two sheets somewhat stained with rust, a side cap, a hairbrush and a pair of goggles. Luxury!

I also had afternoon tea out of a cup instead of an enamelled mug and several cherry brandies. Things are looking up. The streets were lined with Azalea trees in full bloom. We are beside the sea and it is beautifully clear and cool. [That sounds like Homs – admin]

Cheerio – Gilbert

Tags:

A barrel of beer.

May 7th, 2012

16th May 1943.

We are not in Tunis now and life goes on pretty much the same. [I think they may have moved to Homs but I am not sure about the dates – admin.]  The authorities will now be stirring me up, I should think, to lecture, to train medical orderlies, and to render more frequent ‘returns’ of the sick, as well as doing regular inspection of cook houses etc.  Again the fruits of victory. The flies are on the increase. I purloined a mosquito net from a captured hospital and this is useful for draping over the back of my truck. Life is very pleasant. N.A.A.F.I. stores have had more regular deliveries lately and the “Mess  Secretary” has managed to buy a 50 litre barrel of beer ( about 10 gallons). he has to pay £5 for the barrel and about £2 for the beer, but beer thirsty officers do not mind this and I expect we shall have a hangover!

Cheerio –  Gilbert,

Tags:

Unfortunately the Sappers came under shell fire.

May 7th, 2012

Capt. G Tattersall

C/o C.R.E. 7th Armoured Division M.E.F.

14th May 1943

Dear Harvie,

To you the news is stale, to me it is stale also. The 7th Armoured Division and some other elements of the 8th Army took Tunis. The 1st Army disentangled itself from the camouflage nets and followed us in. The excitement in Tunis was tremendous. With other trucks that went in we were cheered, flowers were thrown at us, women ran after the trucks with glasses of wine. Little boxes of home-made bon-bons were given. Bearded Frenchmen insisted on kissing us.  “Vive la France, Vive LAngleterre, Vive Le Hintieme Armee”.

It is an embarrassing experience to stand up in the back of a truck and return salutations that seem to know no bounds in reserve or decorum. That first day we received no real benefit from Tunis. No Café’s were open, there was no food to supply restaurants and the sale of wine was forbidden to the military. No shops open and Hotels were apparently dead and all but devoid of staff. Just enthusiastic crowds. We were better off in our olive grove a few miles away. We managed to buy a few bottles of Tunisian wine despite the restrictions. In fact by the third day the entire personnel of the 7th Armoured Division, and no doubt some of the 1st Army as well, were dead drunk. They were a sight for sore eyes! It was treated indulgently  of course – the men must have some relief after so staggering a series of victories which have lead us from Alexandria to Tunis in six months.

For the first time during the whole trip I formed, for the final two days campaign towards Tunis, a forward mobile regimental aid post for the Sappers. Just behind the forward advance. It was a curious experience to watch the infantry go into an engagement and come out again, and to see tanks go into battle. It is a moot point if the Tank M.O. or myself were further to the front. We kept eyeing one another occasionally.

Unfortunately the Sappers came under shell fire. It is good for me to get used to this – I was terrified. As luck had it there were only two Sapper casualties, but even so the fear made me nearly forget what little surgery I know. Fortunately a splint and a shell dressing were enough. It was good luck for us all that there was no opposition to speak of – we can’t think why the 1st Army could not have done what we did.

I have never seen so many prisoners before in all my life. They did not seem unhappy. I am glad they gave in rather than trying to evacuate themselves from Cape Bon. I hate to think of the slaughter there. I also had an incident all to myself. Two tank officers told me that a German Medical Officer and orderlies were in a small Hospital, so I went there. The German Officer came out and with dramatic instinct put his arms over his head in an attitude of surrender, which made me feel a bit foolish as neither he nor I were armed and he was much bigger than me! Besides under the Geneva convention he is a colleague rather than a prisoner. I had the loot of the Hospital all to myself but foolishly was content with six pairs of scissors, four pairs of forceps, an aluminium bowl, a mosquito net and a few bandages. I am cursing myself now. I should have selected a few ointments and tried to find their supplies of Zinc Oxide Strapping which is more valuable than gold, and a tent would have been a blessing now that we live in North Africa in days of peace. PEACE: think of it! we cannot be rushed into another campaign for at least 3 months. Or so we think. Where do we go from here? Further from England than at present I guess. Probably back to where we came from six months ago.

Cheerio – Gilbert.

Tags:

Clinging to a series of trucks from Alexandria to Tunis.

May 1st, 2012

Capt. G Tattersall

C/o C.R.E. 7th armoured Division M.E.F.

11th may 1943.

Dear Harvie

What merit accrues to me by clinging to a series of trucks from Alexandria to Tunis I do not know, but the population of Tunis seemed pleased by it. Yesterday and the day before I went into Tunis with other officers. Men, women and children threw flowers at us, brought our progress to a snails pace by thronging around the car: clapping, laughing, shouting “Vive La France” and “Vive L’Angleterre”. Boys crowded onto the trucks. Old men kissed us. Women ran after us with glasses of wine and on one occasion a box of home made Bon-bons were thrown into the truck. It was an embarrassing experience, and we could only smile sheepishly back and allow ourselves to be kissed by bearded men and repeat “Vive La France”. We shall not be comfortable in Tunis until we can go about unnoticed.

Not unnaturally the soldiers got drunk. I wonder what the endless files of prisoners thought of all this enthusiasm – they who knew the back-story and perhaps had been as unreasonably clapped and cheered in their time as well.

This is the end of the campaign. Where do we go from here? At the moment we are parked in an olive grove: fortunately a reasonable distance from the city. I suppose it will take a week to decide what to do with us. Possibly we will have to wait for an Official Parade in the City. No doubt “the eyes and ears of the world” are fast approaching in a passenger plane. What notabilities dare risk assassination amongst this heterogeneous crowd of “True Patriots”?  Tripoli was safe for Churchill because the population were kept indoors, and the streets were lined shoulder to shoulder, gun to gun and tank to tank. This patriotic population could not possibly be kept from participation as spectators in the same way, and there must be enemies amongst them.

Tunis is a fairly large French town with tree lined avenues and open cafes. It is lovely to see the aperitif habit going along as usual. Yesterday I had three in a Cafe where smartly dressed French women chatted with men in civilian clothes. It made my eyes sore to see them. You can only imagine the comments made by the soldiers. Everybody carries a tricolour about their person. Where all these flags have sprung from it is difficult to say, but every building and every post capable of bearing a French flag has one. The town itself has not suffered much damage by bombing but the docks and shipping are devastated. This gives some indication what Genoa, La Spezia, Hamburg  and other towns must be like.

So far so good: but where do we go from here? At times I feel quite unsettled and full of foreboding that must come at the thought of change. After all I am now used to this gypsy life, and have my truck well set up and organized. Change may well not be for the better, and will certainly upset the supply of letters. My books and magazines will have to turn on their heels and follow me to the ends of the earth. You must not suppose they will send me home. I wonder if Wilfred hears the news? The remnants of the enemy army are in a peninsula called Cape Bon, a very hilly, if not mountainous, promontory. I do not envy them, nor do I expect that the organizing ability of the Germans will succeed in getting many of them away from there. If I were a German I would be praying to fall into English hands.

Cheerio – Gilbert.

Tags:

Once upon a time.

May 1st, 2012

Capt G Tattersall

C/o C.R.E. 7th Armoured Division M.E.F.

28th April 1943.

Dear Harvie,

Once upon a time I was going along the road in a convoy and the convoy stopped, and the driver brought my truck to a stop in the correct manner behind the truck in front, and drew onto the verge of the road. Up came a General in a staff car and when he drew up opposite me he said “Why are you stopped here?” I replied “I have no idea Sir” He said “Well get out and find out!”. Then his car drove on trailing  clouds of sand leaving me smirking with pride and rather awed by my contact with “THE GREAT”. No further comment of course. His reply was rhetorical – he didn’t expect me to get out and find out, he simply had to give me “the hammer” (as they say) in order to make a dignified exit – a General must always have the last word as he goes off stage.

I don’t think we are going to get a rest yet. I am concerned that an attack of malaria will case problems before the summer is over. There will be shrieks of laughter however if I get it, as I am constantly reminding everyone how serious the position is and how careful they must be with their precautions. I was responsible today for having the unit I am with moved from some marshy ground but the C.R.E. wants them moved back. In this, I think, I shall win.

 

Cheerio – Gilbert

Tags:

Do you know where I am?

Apr 26th, 2012

Capt. G Tattersall

C/o  C.R.E. 7th Armoured Division.

10th March 1943.

[I think in this letter Gilbert is trying to tell Harvie, in so many words, that he is right at the front line heading towards Tunis with the Sappers – admin]

Dear Harvie,

I have received your letter dated 10th February. You say you wonder where I am – but you know! The BBC and the Press have announced it. True, I am not in Tripoli now, that was weeks or months ago. Take my present situation. To the right of my truck is a high stone, earth and grass embankment, longer and thicker, but somewhat similar to the embankment around your garden. The back of my truck is within arms length of a rocky ledge formed by a striation of rock jutting out of a small hillside. This striation is a foot and a half thick and I can shelter under it. Today some of my patients made a flying dash to shelter under the ledge while I leapt from the tailboard of my truck to grovel in the sand in close proximity to a sergeant who was behaving in the self-same manner. I had been interviewing, at the sergeant’s request, two “Bomb Happy” Sappers when we all decided to behave in this extraordinary way. [Bomb Happy is now known as Post Traumatic Stress – admin]

A few days ago I was sitting down at a table under an olive tree, in a most delightful spot, waiting for my batman to to put my lunch before me, when a whistle occurred, the leaves of the tree rustled and 200 yards away there was a bang. A Shell! As long as I don’t tell you where I am and the address above gives little away, the new censorship rules allow me to regale you with my personal experiences. Does it matter where I am? Believe me I am safe enough: Doctors are not continuously in danger, but it takes some reasoning with myself to believe it sometimes. Yes, I am safe enough, and although not near a telegraph office I can still have telegrams sent by asking for a post office Corporal to be sent to me. It may then be 48 hours or so before he makes contact with me. But what is 48 hours when I live simply with eternity before behind and at each hand? Now do you know where I am?

Cheerio – Gilbert

Tags:

I am, ridiculously enough, a Captain.

Apr 26th, 2012

Capt. G. Tattersall

C/O C.R.E.  7th Armoured Division

M.E.F.

13th February 1943.

Dear Harvie,

Your advising me to take the opportunity of selling Ashgrove has raised the question in my mind: what are my intentions if I survive the war. The future should bring about the state control of medicine. [the NHS was founded in 1948 – admin] I am thinking of trying to obtain a Diploma in Public Health – one years work without pay. The interesting branch of medicine to my mind is psychiatry, but I doubt if I could master this, but it still interests me. A specialist in psychiatry having tea at the 42nd General Hospital said to me ” I appreciate the good notes you send with your patients: you should be a general duties doctor at our hospital”  ‘Our hospital’ being the Army loony bin in our part of the world. This was a Scot talking and I was flattered. But, of course they only take on people who have had previous experience of ‘mental’ cases, so I just politely cleared my throat. In spite of the fact that the Medical Officers seem nearly as neurotic as their patients, I would like to have experienced the peculiar atmosphere of that Hospital. I can’t think about how I came to be doing medicine in the first place: I suppose it offered some excitement in the place of ‘sweet doing nothing’ and a respectable career. Fortunately so far it has turned out well: I am, ridiculously,  a Captain, when my real forte is that of a Private, and I am paid £8 a week for doing little. Apparently the Government seems to think it worthwhile to pay this sum for a Doctor just to BE with the men. I suppose its similar to paying a Padre just to be  a Padre – BE spiritual, so it doesn’t worry me, but I would prefer to be worked hard as I was at the 42nd general.

The tone of the meditations in this letter are no doubt due to the weather. We have had several days of gales with rain splashing against the side of my truck. Such weather is miserable, but it is worse for the Sappers who have to work in it – I just watch. The rain seems to have driven customers away – I don’t think I have had more than three today, and all so minor that my orderly looked at them without bothering me.

Cheerio – Gilbert

Tags:

Clearing minefields.

Apr 22nd, 2012

When Gilbert talks about the Sappers being in the limelight he is talking about their ability and bravery in clearing mines. Here I qutoe from “The Desert Rats” by Robin Neillands – Orion Books Ltd 1991. p.181.

“The advance of the 8th Army, and of 7th Armoured Division had been greatly impeded by mines, and the Divisional History chooses this time to pay a well deserved tribute to the Sappers, the Royal Engineers, without whom any advance would have been either impossible or very costly. The Divisional Sappers, from the 4th Field Squadron RE 21st Field squadron, 143 Field Park squadron, had developed an uncanny skill in finding and disarming the Teller and ‘S’ mines sown so thickly in their path, but if skill proved slow, the Sappers were not beyond some raw courage. When the 4th Field Squadron were ordered to clear one of the Medenine minefields as quickly as possible, they lined out across it at six feet intervals and ‘beat it like a field of roots;”

Tags: