Military

The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry (RWY) in Syria. Operation Exporter June 1941.

on Thursday, 04 June 2020. Posted in Military

Lt Col Stephen Keoghane

In 1941, Syria like Iraq and Persia was under German influence, and garrisoned by the hated Vichy French. The strategic concern at the time, was that Syria could be utilised by the Axis forces to mount attacks on Egypt. The RWY less one squadron was part of the 4th Cavalry Brigade and with the Household Cavalry and the Warwickshire Yeomanry were given the objective of the ancient and ruined city of Palmyra, one hundred miles from the Iraq border.


The Temple of Bel, Palmyra

On 2I June 1941 the CO Lt Colonel Williams led the advance which was joined by a company of the Arab Legion, reaching Juffa, fifty miles inside Syria where a lone French aircraft escaped to warn the main Vichy garrisons at Homs and Palmyra. Arriving at the outskirts of Palmyra at 11 a.m. the CO briefed his squadrons overlooking the ruined city and the objective of Yellow Ridge the most prominent landmark occupied by dug in French machine guns. With no air support or artillery, numerous foot patrols were sent forward but progress was painfully slow against such a well-prepared enemy. Sheltering in slit trenches and suffering in the intense heat for twelve days, the Regiment’s vehicles were systematically destroyed. These relentless Vichy bombing attacks that followed from the air were difficult to counter with rifles and old Hotchkiss machine guns. Lt M. St J.V. Gibbs distinguished himself assaulting the hills but had to withdraw due to a combination of exhaustion and overwhelming opposition.

Trooper Ken Batt, in an interview with the author in 2018 recalled his orders from Sergeant Bannister ‘get up that hill and if you see anyone in front of you, shoot them.’ Lieutenant Kenneth Mcllwraith, a Canadian born liaison officer, was tasked to take a French prisoner back to Brigade HQ but his car was attacked and he and his batman were taken prisoner on 2 June by a French patrol. He was handed over to a French Foreign Legion officer and flown 145 km to Homs in an ancient biplane whose Gallic pilot was far more concerned with the cases of wine he was transferring than the welfare of his prisoners. From Homs he was flown to Greece and then onwards to Salonika. The conditions in which he and other British prisoners were held in a dockside warehouse were appalling but after five days he was moved to a passenger ship. Following the armistice between the British and Vichy forces on 14 July, Mcllwraith was transported through Germany to Toulon in southern France, again in horrific conditions and finally by sea to Beirut and Cairo. He re-joined the Regiment but missed the battle of El Alamein due to jaundice and desert sores, the crewman who replaced him was killed in the battle. Mcllwraith was clearly traumatised by these experiences because he rarely spoke about them after the war. Returning to the battle unfolding in Syria, by 26 June, the daily bombing and strafing had reduced as the RAF stepped up activity against the French airfields. Water was now rationed to a gallon a day but thankfully artillery support had arrived to turn the tide. Further attacks by RWY patrols and soldiers from the Essex Regiment were made on the prominent ridge overlooking the town and repeatedly repulsed but on 3 July the enemy garrison finally surrendered. By 29 June 1941, both A and C Squadrons could only muster seventy-eight fit men.

Soldiers of the RWY

Somerset de Chair in his book The Golden Carpet described the air bombardment of the RWY:

South of Palmyra bluff John Morrison of the Wilts, who was to join me in Parliament a year later, told me he had seventeen vehicles under his command on the first morning and only four left including the water wagon, the next day; the rest were destroyed by air attack.

The regimental war diary records the whole of A Echelon destroyed by machine gunfire from the air. Following the fall of Palmyra, the Regiment prepared for an attack on Homms but the Syrian armistice intervened and the yeomen trekked northwards to Aleppo where the 4th Cavalry Brigade was concentrating. They bivouacked in olive groves north east of the town, where shade following the incessant heat and glare of the desert sun was most welcome, as was the abundance of fresh fruit after a diet made up of bully beef and biscuits for two months. The yeomen were allowed into Aleppo in the evening which was full of French soldiers, an odd sight as the French Foreign Legion had previously been the despised enemy at Palmyra.

Lt Col Stephen Keoghane is the author of Primus in Armis: An illustrated history of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, published in May 2020 by Fonthill Media. The author served as Regimental Medical Officer for 22 years.

Primus in Armis: An illustrated history of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry

Tracing Your Military Ancestors Online

on Wednesday, 27 May 2020. Posted in Military

A few weeks ago Max posted two blogs listing some of the fantastic online resources available to family and local historians during the lockdown. It looks like we’ll all be waiting a little while longer for archives to start reopening, so in the meantime I thought it would be useful to highlight some more valuable sites that can help us scratch the history itch during these strange times. We often get enquiries from customers looking to find out more about a relative who served in the armed forces and given the recent VE Day celebration this seemed like a timely topic.

Trooper George Sweetman, Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry (WSA 3560/10/22)

Before we dig into some of the websites that offer access to soldiers’ records, it’s worth bearing in mind a few things. First, the sources that follow largely deal with historic records from before 1922. It is possible to get some material after that date, but soldiers’ service records after 1922 are still with the Ministry of Defence. Access to these records can be provided, for a fee, as long as the service member is no longer living - please see https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/requests-for-personal-data-and-service-records for more details.

Secondly, as with many other types of historical records the further back in time we go the sparser and less revealing the records become, and this is particularly true for ‘other ranks’ (Privates, Lance Corporals, Corporals, Sergeants and Warrant Officers). Before the First World War ‘service records’ as we would recognise them today did not exist for enlisted men, though they are more complete for officers. As such, if you are looking for soldiers serving before World War One you will very likely need to piece together information from multiple different sources, and even then, it’s likely that many of the records have not survived. Personnel records were more comprehensive after 1914, however more than two-thirds of these were destroyed by an incendiary bomb in 1940 and so the surviving papers are very incomplete.

Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry collection WSA 3560/10/22

Finally, looking at military records can be quite confusing if you don’t know which unit your relative served with, where that unit was stationed at a given time, or whether they were an enlisted soldier or an officer. Just as we recommend when taking your first steps in family history, it’s worth asking relatives what they remember and checking family documents to gather as much information as you can. A little work before you start can save you a huge headache further down the line.

With that, let’s have a look at some of the sites providing access to military records. Sadly, not all sites offer free access, but those that charge offer a free trial and I have provided a link to these trials where possible.

Most military service records are held at The National Archives, mostly but not exclusively in the War Office files. Obviously we can’t access the originals right now, and the majority of the files aren’t digitised, but at the moment any that are available electronically are free to download for as long as TNA remains closed (you will need to register with the site first). Luckily for us a lot of the War Office’s records are also available through TNA’s Digital Microfilm Project. This link will take you to the project home page which has instructions on how to access the material; to see which records are available from the War Office, scroll down until you see reference numbers beginning ‘WO’. It’s also worth searching TNA’s catalogue Discovery as some of the records are searchable by the soldier’s name, for example WO25 (registers of service) and WO374 (officers’ service files, 1898-1922). TNA also have an excellent series of guides on how and where to find information on members of the armed forces and they’re well worth a read.

Findmypast has an excellent collection of British Army Service Records transcripts and digital images which are indexed and searchable. It is a subscription service, but they’re currently offering a free 14-day trial for new members. The transcripts give a wealth of information including service number, rank, regiment and unit, birth year and birth county. The images accompanying the transcripts can give you even more information, including the soldier’s physical description, occupation, name and address of next of kin, religion and their service history.

Ancestry is, like Findmypast, a subscription service, but they also offer a free trial. Ancestry’s collection of Military Records covers everything from First World War pension records through to the Roll of Honour for seamen 1914-1945 and is well worth searching.

Some of the material on Ancestry is provided via their affiliate fold3 which hosts military records. Once again it’s a subscription service but they also offer a free trial, albeit only for seven days. The material is primarily American, but there’s a vast amount of material relating to Britain and the Commonwealth. Most useful will be the British Army Lists which contain information on officers in the regular army between 1882 and 1962, British Army WW1 Service Records, Medal Roll index cards, and British WW1 Wounded and Missing, though there are many other excellent collections on the site, all of which seem to be indexed by soldier’s name.

Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry WSA 3560/10/22

If you know that the soldier you are searching for was killed during a conflict then the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website can also be helpful. You can use its search function to find fallen soldiers, which in turn can give you information such as the soldier’s rank, service number, service branch, date of death and place of burial. If there is an inscription on the grave marker, this can be shown as well.

Finally, the websites of regimental museums can also provide a wealth of information. For example, The Wardrobe (The Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum) has a comprehensive history of the regiments related to Wiltshire, and also offers excerpts from unit War Diaries (which give an indication of what a unit was doing on a given day). These can be invaluable for getting a flavour of the actions soldiers took part in during a conflict.

Tom Plant

Community History Advisor

The Story of the Birkenhead

on Monday, 27 April 2020. Posted in Military

I’d like to share with you a fascinating story that enfolded in the Local Studies Library recently. It begins with an email sent by a kind gentleman from Ontario, Canada, last year who had a book he felt might be of interest to Wiltshire Local Studies in terms of its local connection. He wished to donate the item to the library if we were agreeable, and we most certainly were!

The book was entitled ‘The Story of the “Birkenhead”: A Record of British Heroism in Two Parts’ by A. Christopher Addison. It included an illustration of a shipwreck on the front cover and was published in 1902. Inside was a handwritten dedication:

“Lady Madeleine Tonge
With Catn Bond Sheltons .x.
Kind regards
25th Decm 1903”

A modern biro note underneath, made by Raymond Antony Addington (6th Viscount Sidmouth) contained the words:
X one of the survivors.

The Story of the Birkenhead by Addison, 1902

 

Time to investigate further…


Captain Bond Shelton was the son of a large landed proprietor in County Armagh, who also held property in Wiltshire, and who had first-hand knowledge of this story. The objective of Addison’s book was to ‘tell the truth, the whole truth, about the Birkenhead which has long been neglected’. The event itself had occurred some time ago, with a magazine article covering the events, but it did not give the all the facts or circumstances, or the testimony of the survivors. Addison wanted to fill that gap and introduce the reader to those ‘gallant men who survived 50 years after the disaster, so that, within the covers of this book, he may make their personal acquaintance and come to know and understand both them and their story’. At this point in time, the event remained a national legacy ‘of which we are all proud!’ but I had never heard of the story; I don’t know about you…


So, what did happen?

In January 1852 Britain was at war with the Kaffirs in South Africa, and reinforcements were being sent out to aid Sir Harry Smith at the Cape of Good Hope.


The Birkenhead was a ‘fine paddle-wheel steamer’, reported to be one of the best of her type in the Royal Navy, being used as a troop ship. She set out from Cork and called at Queenstown, leaving on 7 January. On board were men from the 2nd Queens Foot, the 6th Regiment, 12th (Royal) Lancers, 12th Regiment, 43rd Light Infantry, 45th Regiment, 60th Rifles (2nd Battalion), 73rd Regiment, 7th Regiment, 91st Regiment, plus staff and 56 women and children, totalling 551 souls on board.


They reached Simon’s Bay on 3 February with three women having died of child birth and one of consumption. Three children were born. 35 women and children disembarked here, plus some sick troops with the voyage resuming on 25 February. The troops were in high spirits; the weather was favourable.
By midnight the Commander and Master were below deck and look-outs were on duty. At two o’clock disaster struck. ‘Suddenly, and without the least warning of the presence of such a danger, she crashed on the rocks and there remained.’ She was ‘hopelessly doomed’ and water was rushing in through the torn hull. Many troops drowned in their berths; others hurried up on deck. Sixty men were told to go to the chain pumps and another sixty to haul on the tackles of the paddle boat boxes. The ‘terror stricken’ women and children had been collected under the awning. It is noted that the men faced the situation bravely and rockets were fired but no help was at hand.


Only three small boats could be lowered; the large boat at the centre of the ship could not be retrieved at all. The men found rotten tackle. Pins and bolts had rusted from sheer neglect. As a gig of the starboard side was being lowered one of the ropes broke and the boat was swamped, drowning most of the men who were aboard her.


The women and children were saved, but with much difficulty, as the ship was rolling heavily. Women with babies embraced their husbands for the last time. The horses were brought on deck and thrown overboard to give them a chance, the men risking their lives in the process.


Lieutenant Girardot called for all hands to go aft. She ship was sinking by the head, and was breaking apart in the middle. When the stern reached high into the air, the Commander called out, “All those that can swim, jump overboard, and make for the boats,” a short distance away. Captain Wright and Lieutenant Girardot begged the men not to do this; the boats would be swamped. In response, the men ‘almost to a man “stood fast”.’ To ‘their honour’, not more than three jumped. The ship went down with those on board struggling in the water.


The Birkenhead took 25 minutes to sink. Even if the men could reach the shore, it was covered in ‘deadly kelpweed’. The men also knew that sharks patrolled the waters. Some of the men managed to cling to flotsam, and Cornet Bond of the 12th Lancers was able to swim to the shore with the help of his lifebelt. Five horses also managed to swim to safety. Captain Wright, of the 91st was among those who made it to shore, afterwards doing great deeds to help is fellow-survivors. Lieutenant Giardot also survived.


Cornet Bond, later to become Captain Bond-Shelton, worked hard with his Lancers after the ship became stricken. They helped get the horses above deck and Cornet Bond risked his own life to carry up two young children from the saloon cabin when they’d been left behind in the panic. Amazingly, when Cornet managed to struggle ashore, his horse was one of those who’d made it too and was ‘standing on the beach to welcome him!’


The Lioness schooner came to the assistance of some fifty men who had initially clung to the mast; some of these had not managed to maintain their grip due to the cold and exhaustion. The first two boats were also rescued by the schooner, but the third went adrift, finally reaching Port D’Urban with exhausted men. Of those on board the Birkenhead, only 193 were saved. 445 lives were lost.


The event became known as the originator for the “women and children first” code of conduct.


Captain Bond-Shelton’s artistic representation of the loss of the Birkenhead came from his recollection of events. The picture was shown in 1890 and 1891 at the Military and Naval Exhibitions in London where the Captain, of the Royal Lancers, gained diplomas for his work.

Loss of the 'Birkenhead', 26 February 1852 RMG ©Royal Museum Greenwich, ref: PY0930


The Duke of Wellington gave tribute to the men of the Birkenhead, paid at the annual banquet of the Royal Academy at rooms in Trafalgar Square on 1 May 1852.


The author, Addison, notes with regret that only the services of Captain Wright, the last surviving senior officer, were officially recognised with a promotion, the C. B. and a small service pension. Captain Wright was indeed deserving, but so too were the ‘other surviving officers’ (and I’d suggest probably the ratings too).


A ‘Relief Fund’ was set up to support the families of those who had perished. Beneficiaries included Miss F. Salmond, the eldest child of the Commander of the Birkenhead, who was nominated for admission into the Royal Naval Female School.


The ‘Birkenhead Monument’, a memorial to honour those who perished was erected in the colonnade at Chelsea Hospital.


If you would like to discover more about the steamer, statements from the survivors (including Captain Bond-Shelton), the events of the court-martial of the Naval survivors, the ‘popular’ version of the story and the later lives of the surviving officers, please feel free to take a look at the book which can be found at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, ref LAT.922.


We now know more of this terrible tragedy but must still go full-circle. Lady Tonge (born in Scotland in 1859) was the wife of Francis H. Tonge of Highway near Calne, and Captain Ralph MacGeough Bond-Shelton (1832-1916) had an estate 20 miles away at Water Eaton in Latton. The family connection may have been naval.

The Water Eaton estate accounts of Capt RM Bond Shelton, 1877-1905 held at WSHC (Ref: 374/250)

Contents of the estate book, 1878 including the rent of a farm and cottage, and the bill for building a new veranda, 1878

The depositor of our book also had another amazing donation to offer us; the India General Service Medal of Louis Charles Henry Tonge. It appears that Louis was aboard HMS Inconstant in 1838 and moved to HMS Excellent in 1840. He became a Lieutenant RN in 1845. The Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre is an archive and library, unable to accept these kinds of items but the medal has received a warm welcome and a safe home at the Calne Heritage Centre where it will be well cared for.


As for Captain Bond-Shelton, he was buried in the crypt of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh, after his death in 1916. The Belfast Evening Telegraph printed his obituary on Monday, 13 March, as ‘The last of [a] heroic band’.

The Lord Primate’s funeral address contained these words:


"Surely no other words were needed before they committed the body to the grave, earth to earth, ashes to ashes; but to-day they might well make an exception for a few minutes from the general rule, for they were about to lay in its last resting-place the body of a man who has helped to lay the foundation stones of our Empire, for Captain Bond-Shelton was the last survivor of that most gallant band whose deeds had helped to make England great, and whose daring lay at the basis of our national character and conduct. Did he say national character? The present Provost of Trinity College, who knew Germany better than most men, told him a few days ago that for many long years the story of the wreck of the Birkenhead was read in Germany to the cadets of the army and navy before they left college.”

‘The Birkenhead Drill’ by Paul Curtis, 2020

The artist Paul Curtis completed his latest work on 25 February 2020, a mural entitled ‘The Birkenhead Drill’ after the term coined by Rudyard Kipling in an 1893 poem to describe the courageous behaviour of those on board the HMS Birkenhead as it sank in 1852. The mural has been painted onto the side of Gallagher’s Traditional Pub in Birkenhead, Merseyside, which contains lots of naval and military memorabilia. The mural pays tribute to a time when Birkenhead was at the heart of the shipbuilding industry.

Julie Davis
County Local Studies Librarian
Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre

On reflection… the legacy of First World War commemorations in Wiltshire

on Wednesday, 09 January 2019. Posted in Events, History Centre, Military

One hundred years ago people and politicians around the globe were contemplating a new world order following more than four years of war. In Britain, January 1919 and the following months were marked by strikes, civil unrest and military mutinies. The flu pandemic continued its deathly march. The month also saw the beginning of the Paris Peace Conference which lasted into the summer concluding with five treaties formally ending the war – including the Versailles Treaty signed 28 June – and the formation of the League of Nations.

As a nation we have spent the last four years commemorating the centenary of the First World War (FWW). A hundred years on from this cataclysmic event and we are living with its legacy – with regional conflicts that have their origins in the war; with advances in medicine (reconstructive surgery, improved anaesthesia); with the music, art, literature and poetry produced during and after the war; with universal suffrage; and with a landscape shaped by war.

But what of the legacy of these commemorations? What will future generations find when they delve into early 21st century archives and history books, looking for evidence of how we remembered? Without doubt they will find an amazing amount of new, high quality research that has changed our understanding of the Great War. But have the commemorations reflected this changed narrative or have they reinforced the myths and iconography associated with First World War and which are embedded in our collective memory? Some historians are asking whether the last four years have been a lost opportunity.

From a personal point of view it feels as though much of the national commemoration did focus on traditional themes and symbols such as the mud and blood of the western front, the experience of the war poets, the silhouetted soldier. There have been some stunning artistic responses to the centenary, commissioned by 14-18 Now, including Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, Jeremy Deller’s We’re Here Because We’re Here, Danny Boyle’s Pages in the Sea and film-maker Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old.

14-18 Now

But these have also drawn criticism. 14-18 Now estimates that 35 million people engaged with their commissioned events, but historians Professors Maggie Andrews, of the University of Worcester, and Sarah Lloyd, of the University of Hertfordshire, question whether people critically engaged or merely encountered them. Were these national events, exhibitions and installations sufficiently challenging of historical myths?

There has been much work on myth-busting over the past four years but it can be tough going up against advertising executives and picture editors who are not historians. An enduring myth, reinforced by TV adverts and wrongly credited photographs, is that the Christmas Truce of 1914 happened throughout the western front and that football matches were organised between German and British troops. Neither is an accurate picture of what happened. (Check out Dan Snow’s mythbusting articles for the BBC.)

At a regional and local level, however, I feel very positive about the projects and events that have taken place. Over the last four years much of my work as an education officer has focused on researching Wiltshire’s role in the First World War and passing on that learning to others, especially primary school teachers and pupils keen to make the most of the local history study that is part of their curriculum.

Forest and Sandridge Melksham Remembers

Another aspect of my work has been supporting other organisations in delivering the educational side of their FWW projects. My colleagues in archives and local studies have also been busy acquiring new collections and publications that support the study of the Great War.

WW1 Local Studies publications at WSHC

The number and range of FWW projects in Wiltshire has been impressive and sadly I cannot list all of them, but a good place to start is the History Centre’s own Wiltshire at War – Community Stories project.

Lord Lansdowne’s Peace Letter of November 1917

on Wednesday, 27 December 2017. Posted in Military

Guest blog by John Boaler - originally published in the Wiltshire Local History Forum Newsletter

2017 marks the centenary of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres. After catastrophic losses at Verdun and the Somme, it is hard to comprehend how the politicians and generals at the time were again willing to expend the lives hundreds of thousands of soldiers in another such assault on the Western Front.

But the one senior politician did speak up against this military ‘strategy’, calling for a negotiated peace, was Lord Lansdowne (1845–1927), the fifth Marquess and a great-grandson of Lord Shelburne, one of George III's prime ministers.

He had succeeded his father, upon his sudden death in 1866, taking his seat on the Liberal benches in the House of Lords. Lansdowne was appointed a junior whip in Gladstone's first government (1869); was promoted to Under-Secretary for War three years later; and was made Under-Secretary for India at the start of Gladstone's second government (1880). However his opposition to the Irish Land Act soon caused him to resign from the Liberal Party.

In 1883 he was appointed Governor-general of Canada; and from 1888 to 1894 was Viceroy of India. Back in London he was made War Secretary (1895-1900) and then Foreign Secretary (1900 – 1905). He was Leader of the Unionist peers from 1903- 1916.

The First World War

Lord Lansdowne was a member of the Shadow Cabinet in 1914 and strongly supported the decision for war in August. Though Lansdowne's second son was killed in France in October he remained committed to the war. In May 1915 he took office as minister without portfolio in Asquith's coalition, and in Government he supported conscription.

He began to have doubts about the capacity of the allies to score a decisive victory after the disastrous Somme offensive of June 1916. Asquith as Prime Minister invited his cabinet colleagues to submit their views on the course of the war. Lansdowne concluded that while there was no question of defeat, outright victory was unlikely. He argued for a restatement of war aims that might open the way to a negotiated settlement. But Asquith was about to be replaced by Lloyd George, and Lansdowne left office at the same time.

Soldiers carrying a wounded man over the muddy ground at Passchendaele, 1917

Letter to The Daily Telegraph

In 1917, as deaths quickly mounted in the Battle of Passchendaele, Lansdowne again put the case for a negotiated peace. This time he went public, with a letter printed in the Daily Telegraph on 29 November 1917. His views were well known in senior government circles yet had made no impact. The letter caused a sensation:

"We are not going to lose this war, but its prolongation will spell ruin for the civilised world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it...We do not desire the annihilation of Germany as a great power ... We do not seek to impose upon her people any form of government other than that of their own choice... We have no desire to deny Germany her place among the great commercial communities of the world.”

He was strongly denounced by the Northcliffe press (then publishers of the Daily Mail & Daily Mirror) and ostracised by the Unionist leadership. But his move attracted a lot of support. He received a large mailbag of which ‘The prevailing note is, “you have had the courage to say what we have been thinking for ever so long”’, he told his daughter.

President Wilson's ‘fourteen points’ were widely seen to be on Lansdowne lines, and he pressed on with further letters in March and July, supplemented by Lord’s speeches, calling for a careful restatement of war aims.

Christmas Behind the Wire

on Saturday, 16 December 2017. Posted in Archives, Military

George Sweetman’s Diaries, 1942-1945 (3560/10/22/2)

When we think of the Second World War, we often think of the Home Front or the front lines, Dunkirk and D-Day. It’s much less often that we think of those who spent their time behind enemy lines as prisoners of war. As I was looking through the archive catalogue recently I came across an entry for Trooper George Sweetman, of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, whose diary recounts his time as a PoW. As we get close to Christmas and begin to think of spending time with our family and friends, I thought about what life must have been like for men like George at this time of year as prisoners of a hostile nation so far from home. George’s diary gives us a fascinating insight into the lives and emotions of captured British soldiers, how their morale ebbed and flowed with the course of the war, and how important Christmas was to their wellbeing.

On 2 November 1942 George’s unit went into action in North Africa, as part of Operation Supercharge, part of the Second Battle of El Alamein. The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, operating within the 9th Armoured Brigade, lost a large number of tanks during the action, partly as a result of a counterattack led by the 21st Panzer Division. In his diary, George recorded the action: “Went into action at dawn. B Sqd. first in, one shot up A.T.G [anti-tank guns], lorries & tanks, & then Jerries’ main armoured force came & a big fight started”, and his unit took heavy casualties.“We lost B Sqd., lost all our tanks, we got wiped out.” George was taken Prisoner of War (PoW) during this action, and was to spend the rest of the war in a PoW camp.
 
From El Alamein George was taken through Egypt to Libya and from there he and other PoWs were shipped to Greece and onwards to Italy, arriving in southern Italy on 22 November 1942. The prisoners’ journey was far from easy. The day after his capture George’s convoy was attacked by the RAF: “coming up the Mersa road from Darla we got bombed and machine gunned to hell with our own planes. Several of our mates got wounded & one got blown to bits. A hell of a day that was”. Relative to what was to come in the last years of the war conditions in the Italian camps were fairly good, though life there was apparently rather boring. The prisoners’ main complaint was about the quantity and quality of the food, which came to a head in George’s first Christmas behind the wire.

Trooper George Sweetman (3560/10/22/2)

As you might expect for men held prisoner in a foreign, enemy, country there wasn’t much in the way of a build up to Christmas in the camp. In fact even Christmas cards were a luxury: there weren’t enough available for each man to send one home, and the prisoners had to draw lots to see who would be given a card. Luckily for George he won one, and sent it home on the 8th of December. Post to and from the camps during the war was slow, and George would not receive his first letter from home until March 1943. Apart from this there do not seem to have been any Christmas activities in the camp until Christmas Eve which was, for George and the others, a disappointment: after sports in the morning and afternoon, “we had a meat meal in evening. We had a concert in our hut in the evening it was very good, finished with a blind boxing match so that ended Xmas eve, of course we missed the beer and food. Just went to bed”.

If anything, Christmas Day was an even greater disappointment. Throughout the war the Red Cross distributed parcels to PoWs containing food, tobacco and hygiene items. The parcels were meant to supplement the rations that PoWs received in the camps which were usually insufficient in terms of both calories and nutrients. The parcels often came infrequently due to the circumstances of the war, but when they did arrive they were the highlight of the men’s week. Even more than these deliveries, though, the men hoped for one particular parcel. Every year at Christmas the Red Cross delivered Christmas dinner in a parcel to the PoWs, including everything from Christmas pudding to chocolate and sweets. Unfortunately for George and the other prisoners, in December 1942 their Christmas parcel never arrived.

On Christmas Day the men woke early and made a cup of tea, allowing themselves a ration of 2 or 3 biscuits from their remaining ordinary Red Cross parcel. After finishing this the day continued much as any other, with a parade and count of the prisoners, followed by a church service at 9 o’clock and the standard lunch ration “just the same as any other day”. In his usual understated style George simply recorded in his diary “The Red Cross Xmas parcel which we expected never turned up, a great disappointment”. In the afternoon the men received a small Christmas gift from their Italian captors: one orange for each prisoner. Later, it started to rain. At 4pm the men had their ordinary hot meal, with no Christmas extras. After a “sing song” in the evening their Christmas ended. George’s diary reveals his bitter disappointment: “and so to bed hungry & that was how we spent Christmas Day 1942 in our P.O.W. camp. I thought of home, all the good food. That’s all we think about hear [sic] is food”. Morale in the camps was often low, a consequence of having little to do but sit and think, and the missing Christmas parcel crushed the men’s spirits. This continued into Boxing Day – it rained constantly, and the men were forced to sit in their huts all day, with the same standard food ration that they had on any other day. George simply recorded in his diary “and so to bed, that was Boxing Day and Christmas once again over. Wonder where we shall be next Christmas”.

Over the next week life went on as normal until, in the New Year, a rumour ran round the camp that the Christmas parcels had arrived. On Monday 3 January George recorded in his diary “the tale was true – some Xmas parcels had come in but not enough for one each, so we are keeping them till Wednesday in case some more come in … Roll on Wednesday”. By Wednesday the missing parcels had still not come in, so the men had to share one between two. George copied the contents of his parcel into his diary:

Contents of George’s Christmas 1942 Red Cross parcel (3560/10/22/3)

Quite a feast for men used to one hot meal a day, which was often a ‘soup’ of a small amount of vegetables in water; by April 1945, when George was imprisoned in Germany, it was a distant luxury. In 1943, though, the men made sure to savour their good fortune. “We had our Xmas pudding hot”, George wrote in his diary, with “jam & Nestlé’s milk after it”, with an apple given to them by the Italians to mark Epiphany. Compared to his mood on Christmas Day, George was ecstatic: “this is my happiest day since P.O.W. the best food I had … a good day”. The next day the men finished off the remainder of their Christmas parcel, eating their cake, marmalade, butter, and beef & tomato pudding.

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