Articles tagged with: Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry

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

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.

A week in the Archives…starting with a Full English

on Tuesday, 27 May 2014. Posted in Archives

When I am asked to write a blog I try to find an interesting or curious subject to write about and as I was thinking about this I started to reflect on the variety of activities that happen within the Archives & Local Studies Service. So I thought I would share this with our blog readers.


Though strictly at the end of last week, my week began on Saturday with an event held by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) at the History Centre to promote the Full English project, which has seen the digitisation of 19 archive collections or 80,000 pages of manuscript, involving volunteers around the world, and including the Alfred Williams collection of folk songs held at the History Centre. The Full English was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund with a £585,400 grant, but as the EFDSS Library Director, Malcolm Taylor OBE, told the audience, the original project was conceived in a pub! It makes the digitised archives available to the whole world and has even inspired the formation of a folk-super group of the same name who won at the BBC 2 Folk Awards.

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