'other ranks' memories of 43 Squadron
1942- 1945 [sixty years later]
Jack Tench and I were posted to 43 Sqn. from 535 Sqn. Sep.16
1942. We had come from Canada in March '42 after having taken the AI radar
course at Clinton. Jack & I had spent a few 48s in London, where a
meeting place for Canadians was The Beaver club, and they would arrange
tours. One place we visited was the Salvation Army and they gave us turtleneck
sweaters -- the dress code on 535 was lax and we had been wearing them.
Shortly after we arrived at 43 a parade was called, and as we were dismissed
by WO Prior, he said, "I want to see the two Canadians back here in 5 minutes,
properly dressed," and so we met WO Prior. He was an OK guy, his bark was
worse than his bite.
We were shown around the squadron, stopped at a workshop
and sat around there talking. One fellow sat on a workbench with one leg
over his other knee, his pant leg up near the top of his socks. As we talked
he kept fiddling with a long slender screwdriver, tapping his leg with
it, made one nervous that he was going to injure himself. Suddenly he struck
the handle with his other hand, driving it completely through his leg so
the tip showed on the other side, sickening!. A great show, well staged,
we didn't know that he had an artificial one.
Then there was Corporal Bugg. I slept in the bed next
to him. The beds were those two-piece ones that came apart in the middle
so during the day they could be shortened. The mattress was three cushions
that stacked up with blankets on top. Every night, having made up his bed
earlier, he would come in late -- possibly from the wet canteen -- after
the rest of us were in bed. When he sat on his bed it would collapse and
he seemed to think that I was the culprit and would mutter comments on
my ancestors. I pretended to be asleep, but I would hear snickering around
me. This went on for several nights. That is the way it seemed to go, even
when times got tough some one would come up with a wisecrack and there
would be laughter.
43 Squadron was preparing to go overseas so we did route
marches, rifle firing, threw grenades, were issued a tropical kit and sent
on embarkation leave. On Oct. 31 we loaded onto a troopship and left the
Clyde on Nov. 1, 1942 -- destination unknown to us. There were lots of
rumours about where we were going, Burma being the hottest one. What I
thought was odd was that every morning when I got above decks the sun would
be on a different side, like we were going in circles.
Finally on Nov. 9 we were told that a landing had been
made at Algiers and we would be the next convoy to land. We went through
the Straits of Gibraltar at night, there were lights on the Spanish coast,
Gibraltar was in darkness but the shape of the rock could be seen against
the sky. On our right we could see the lights of Tangiers. At one time
in the Med., our destroyer escort did some running around but there was
no trouble, and then on the morning of Nov. 12 we were heading in to Algiers.
We passed by a body in the water. The white buildings of Algiers looked
clean, much cleaner than it actually was. Funny how when approaching land,
the land looks so much higher and when approaching a large body of water,
it looks higher.
We disembarked with all our kit except our kitbags. We
had our Sten guns with 8 magazines, 25 rounds in each. Led by our adjutant,
Flt Lt de Pledge we marched the twelve miles to Maison
Blanche airfield. We stopped by a wall one time for a break and a French
woman picking oranges threw some to us. Our loaded trucks were going by
us, this time was the only time we marched, from then on we loaded the
trucks and climbed on too. We arrived at Maison Blanche with quite a few
stragglers, we had been told to conserve our water but we found cool water
at a hangar where we stopped. WO Prior took a couple of us to check out
some offices on a mezzanine, and when we came to a locked door, he drew
his pistol and shot the lock off, I thought, 'Hey, this is the real thing!’
The cooks stayed at that hangar for awhile on the north
side of the airfield, and we moved around to the east side where Jim Hillis
and I slept in the back of a hangar in a part that we had taken for a shop.
That night there was some air activity and the spent ack-ack landing on
the tin roof was noisy. I awoke next morning with a headache and realised
that batteries were being charged under the bench that I had slept on.
I had not experienced any bombing yet so thought "these guys are old hands,
I'll see what they do". Some were digging holes. The next night we slept
in the same spot but I didn't sleep on the bench. Jim said, "Let's get
to sleep before the bombing starts," so I went along with his way.
The next evening Eric Boutell, Jim and I walked down the
road a few miles where we had seen a bar on the way in and drank wine with
the locals. When we got back to the main gate a raid was just starting
so we went across the road into a vineyard near a Bofors gun. The Germans
dropped parachute flares that seemed to light up the whole area. It seemed
that they flew around waiting for ack-ack to ease off, then in a shallow
dive make a run across the field. They were dropping bombs in a stick of
four. We had picked a poor spot, one run was directly for us, one, two,
three, each one getting closer, for a split second it looked like there
was no future there, but the fourth landed past us very close and I was
bouncing in the air. We were OK, we had been told to keep our heads off
the ground so we didn't get concussion.
When the raid was over we started picking our way back
to the airfield by the light of one flare that was still up there, picking
our way because we had heard two bombs that had stopped whistling on the
way down so we knew that they had dropped canisters of spikes or anti personnel
bombs that opened on the way down to scatter. The spikes were made of sheet
metal with four points so that whatever way they fell there was always
one point up, they stood about three inches high for puncturing tires.
The AP were cans with spring loaded ends and sides so they would spring
up when tripped. The bomb disposal squad had collected some that had failed
We had our tents set up in front of some hangars for a
while but as the American bombers started arriving we were moved to a field
at the back of the airfield. We still came across the airfield to use the
washrooms in the hangar. One morning we saw that a bomb had fallen midway
between three aircraft, which had burned the crew of one. The crew of a
B17 had apparently slept in it, and now they were removing chunks of burned
bodies, and a US officer was digging around one with his fingers looking
for dog tags.
Then the rains came and our field where we were camped
turned into a lake. After it had rained for some time, the wind got up
and blew down a lot of the tents whose stakes pulled out of the soft mud.
Our tent held but the water started coming in, when it reached Jim and
I we took our blankets and went looking for a better spot. The cooks had
a mobile kitchen set up in the field, and Jim found a spot on some crates
under the trailer. I stretched out on a serving table -- I was in the rain
but I wasn't lying in water. Our tent was by a creek, so the next day we
cut a lot of canes that grew there and piled them in the tent to raise
us over the mud.
One day, while we were in that spot, we heard shouting
coming from a nearby field. When we went to check it out we saw a French
armed guard with a whip, driving a number of prisoners, political prisoners,
someone said, across the field in line abreast on the run, seeding grain
by hand. Some of the tents were so buried in the mud that they were unsalvageable
and we were moved to a farmyard where there was a large wine storage building,
a drive through building with concrete vats on each side. They were about
ten feet high by about eight feet square, and the tops were solid concrete
with manholes in each vat. There was room on top for us to sleep with our
heads against the wall and still room for people to walk past our feet.
Some also slept in the passageway. This is where we stayed for the rest
of the time that we were at Maison Blanche. Now the two flights went on
24-hour shifts, 24 on the airfield and 24 hours off. If it was a quiet
night on the airfield we slept, if it wasn't, we didn't.
A Beaufighter landed at dusk one evening
to be refuelled. Our fuel at that time was in four-gallon square tin cans,
two cans in a waxed cardboard box. We all pitched in, formed a line to
open the cans with our Swiss army knives, some on the wings to pass the
cans to, hurrying to get it done before bomber time. We were glad to hear
the next day that they shot down five bombers that night. It seemed a backward
way to be handling fuel, there were dumps of it scattered around the airfield,
but I remember one night when a dump was hit and burning, helping to move
cases from one end while the crash tender dumped foam on the other and
the fire was put out and the dump was saved.
WO Prior took some of us at the beginning of one raid
to load fuel on a truck, go down the road on the north side of the field
and light dummy fires. We dumped a pile and he would light it, we made
three fires and drove on - - and came to a dead end and had to go back
past the fires but luckily the bombers had by then gone home.
I sprained an ankle one night during a raid. It was on
our twenty-four hours off the airfield. We heard the siren at the airfield
and ran outside to watch. There was a curb around the manholes in the top
of the vats and I slipped off one of them. The bombers were making their
runs directly overhead and we could hear a clang when they opened the bomb
doors. There was a good fireworks display when we weren't on the target.
It was thought one night that we might be hit by paratroops,
or it could have been an exercise, but Jim Hillis and I spent the night
with our Sten guns at the end of the runway near the administration buildings
and hospital. Off to the side of the end of the runway work was being done
to make a pad, earth had been removed and the hole filled with rocks. It
was a very calm night; there was ack-ack over the harbour at Algiers about
ten air miles away. We heard a single aircraft coming over from that direction
and then overhead we heard a flapping noise. Jim said, "That's a landmine."
We quickly moved enough rocks so that we were below ground level before
it hit, it seemed to take quite a while to come down. In the morning at
the end of our shift we went to see where it hit. The hospital was badly
damaged; there were a lot of pieces of silk and shroud lines. I took some,
the silk for a scarf and the line for my identity disks, the line was easier
on my neck than what I had, then the truck was there to pick us up. We
didn't know then that our Medical orderly had been standing in front of
the hospital and had been decapitated. If we had known that he was there
we could have shouted to him to get down, he might have survived. He had
bandaged my ankle when I sprained it.
An Arab would come on the airfield selling oranges --
good oranges and cheap -- so we ate a lot of them. One of the fellows got
a parcel from home and there was an orange in it. It seemed a shame; they
must have been very scarce in Britain. In one of the parcels that I got
from home my mother had sent a jar of canned chicken but the jar had been
broken, didn't smell too good.
I mentioned with one of my pictures that a bomb had fallen
close to the tent where I slept. That night I was standing in front of
the tent listening to aircraft coming in from a dusk patrol, then it sounded
like one was doing a go around, but a German bomber had followed them in,
circled the airfield, came up the east side and dumped his load on the
road that followed the fence line. I never heard one like that one, no
whistling just a roaring, rushing sound. My hat was two steps away on a
crate inside the tent but no time to get it. I don't remember a shot being
fired at it.
We got in to Algiers quite often except when Darlan was
assassinated, then it was out of bounds for a week or so. One time we saw
a troop of French Foreign Legion ride by on their white horses.
When we left Maison Blanche in the spring, we in the advance
party were flown ahead in a DC3 to near a place called Jemmapes, a runway
built by the sappers, there is a picture of that place.
We made several stops on
our way to Tunis; the next spot was at a place where there was a steep
hill back of the camp. The wireless people had an antenna on the top; it
was too steep for a Jeep to climb, so an Arab was hired with his donkey
to haul supplies to the top. I think it was at that spot where we heard
an explosion; the Germans had blown up a rail line and mined one crater,
when the crater was being filled, it blew and there were casualties. A
little later WO Prior called to us who were the closest to hurry and carry
a stretcher with a blanket-covered person back to our camp. When we got
there we pulled back the blanket, there had been no rush, the body was
I seem to remember one of these places was called Djebel
Abiod. There were Roman baths near one of our stops and we went there a
few times and also swam off the rocks there. That was the first time that
I had swum in salt water and was surprised at the difference in buoyancy.
At our last stop before Tunis truckloads of German POWs were going by heading
west with one British soldier with a rifle sitting on the cab facing backwards.
Our last stop in North Africa was at Sfax; we must have
been getting close to the Sahara because we were getting sand in our food.
We were there for a few days, waiting for an LST to take us to Malta. I
remember going to sleep one night on the warm sand and waking up cold later
and being surprised at how quickly it had cooled off. We were getting a
forces program beamed at us (in English) from Germany, that was the first
time we heard Lillie Marlene who was so popular with the Allied forces.
Later when we were in Southern France on our way up to
Lyons we stopped at a town one night and some of us drank at a bar with
some locals and members of the Maquis. As the evening progressed there
was singing -- I knew most of the words of La Marseilles at one
time. When one of our group started singing Lillie Marlene the French
wanted no part of that, they had heard it enough. One night at Sfax the
German singer said, "I'm going to dedicate my next song to you boys ready
to leave North Africa," and she sang How Deep is the Ocean.
We had an uneventful trip to Malta and were there until
the Sicily landing while our pilots did sweeps, then back onto an LST to
Sicily. We had expected to be bombed on Malta, it had been bombed so much
but it had been quiet. On our way to Sicily that night we looked back and
saw ack-ack, Malta was being bombed again. We landed near Pachino and drove
on very dusty roads to an airfield that had recently been taken by paratroops.
We spent the first night under some large trees, there
was a little air activity that night, a lot of ack-ack but nothing falling
close except for a lot of spent ack-ack, so some of us took cover lying
beside a large wooden crate. Then someone said, "There's a bomb in this
crate!" Someone else said, "If we get a direct hit, what's the difference?”
So we stayed. We stayed under those trees for several nights, but since
we were at the edge of a bomb dump we moved out into a field of grapes
and slept between the rows. The grapes were ripe then.
We had been issued with mosquito nets and two hoops that
we could stick into the ground to hold them. We had also been issued with
half a two-man pup tent each that would also serve as a ground sheet; the
weather was dry so we just slept under the nets. They were white, so they
showed up well at night. We acquired a large battery-operated console radio
and set that up amongst us. At night we would gather around it and listen
to the BBC for the latest news that we were making, the forces program,
and the songs of Vera Lynn. When that was over there would be silence for
a while, then someone would start singing and others would join in, not
loud drinking songs, but quiet songs of lonesome men thinking of home.
(I have written more of this spot, with my pictures.)
When the larger aircraft came we moved back to a landing
strip near Pachino, we were near the beach where we had landed. Trucks
would take us to there at times. One day I had a day off so took a book,
went on the morning truck and stayed for the day. During the day nature
called and I headed back into some sand dunes, [the beach was deserted]
but before I got very far I saw a tank mine sticking out of the sand so
went no further. That evening as I got on a truck that was going back to
camp, a man leading a horse, that was pulling a cart with a woman and child
on it went by, heading into the dunes. Before we left there was a boom
and the man and horse were killed.
One evening as we were lined up for supper, an ME 109
flew past at tree top level, we all scattered, the ack-ack guns opened
up, we were on a rise where we could see the airstrip, a Spit took off
and got on the tail of the 109 -- and waggled his wings. The 109 was one
from the last airfield, flown by one of our pilots. The two aircraft landed
safely, the 109 landed on one wheel, the other had hung up, but the pilot
held it there until it had slowed down.
Our next move as the war in Sicily ended
was to the north coast of Sicily near Messina. The airstrip was very near
the beach. We slept on the slopes of Mount Etna on one night of our move.
We swam there a few times, near the airstrip -- there was quite an undertow
when the waves were high. None of the local population came near. I walked
down the beach one day, up ahead was a sign, but I could see nothing on
it. As I went past it I looked back and read 'Achtung Minen' so I followed
my tracks back.
We crated our equipment again and stamped D+3 on it. I
don't remember our trip to Salerno, but on the morning of D+3 when we went
above decks we were in the harbour at Salerno waiting for our turn to land.
There was quite a bit of action An American amphibious craft called a DUKW
was unloading cargo from one ship, and when it reached shore it drove inland
with its load. A cruiser or a battleship was moving around the harbour,
firing inland. We were seeing splashes in the water but none were close.
When enemy aircraft came over we were sent below.
Then it was our turn to land. our trucks had been waterproofed
to go through four feet of water but we were able to drive onto the beach.
As we drove off we spotted one of our pilots walking on the beach, he had
made a forced landing on or near the beach, he had got wet, his clothes
were stained yellow from the marker dye they carried to make them more
visible to air sea rescue.
Ours was the last truck of our group to come off the LST.
As we came to an intersection we were held up by the MPs to let more urgent
traffic by so we got separated from the rest. We turned left at a crossroad
but didn't get far before we came to a 'MASH’ style first aid post -- end
of the road so went back and found another road leading inland. We saw
hangars ahead but before we had gone far, a soldier in the ditch said that
the Germans were still there.
On our third try we were successful. We came to a row
of twenty-five pounders along the road, firing across our newly constructed
airstrip. At the end of the runway was a grove of walnut trees and that
was where we found the rest of our group. We were to wait there a week
or more before our aircraft came. We dug individual slit trenches about
a foot deep to sleep in. The first night was the noisiest with bombing
and shelling and the sound of tanks running around. One of our fellows
talked to the twenty-five pounder gunners the next morning and was told
that they had had their range down to a thousand yards.
We cut sticks and draped our ground sheets over our sleeping
trenches with a stick holding each corner up to keep the dew off. I woke
one night, I had been sleeping on my back and felt something crawling between
my shoulder blades, and it felt like a three-foot snake. I was able to
grab it through my shirt and off it came -- it was just a small six-inch
lizard looking for a warm spot. Another night we had a little rain and
when I awoke in the morning my ground sheet was full of water and I could
see that there was no way that I could get out without dumping it all onto
We watched P38s bombing the airfield that we had almost
got to -- coming in, in shallow dives. One time two or more squadrons of
B25s came over in close formation and seemed to drop all of their bombs
at once. I saw a flight of P38s high overhead one time, flying in a circle
with a German fighter after them, nothing came down.
Not far away there was a large barn and through the open
loft windows we could see tobacco leaves hung to dry. Some of the fellows
got some and rolled them into cigars but I never tried them.
A B17 made an emergency landing on our strip one day and
while they were fixing their problem we talked to some of the crew. They
asked about the dust and smoke and noise coming from a spot further down
the shore, and we told them that the Germans were shelling that headland.
Boy, they said, "We wouldn't want your job." We said, "Well, we wouldn't
want your job either."
One of the large walnut trees had been knocked down and
the walnuts were ripening so we ate some of them. When we left that spot
we took a sandbag full with us. The beachhead was pushed inland enough
so that our aircraft could come. We still stayed at our same spot and in
the morning after we had eaten we would walk down to our tent workshop
that was beside the runway, halfway down. At the end of the runway, by
the walnut trees, a strip had been cleared to make an ELL. Inside the ELL
was a field hospital.
At the school in Naples one night we were eating some
of the nuts. We were breaking them by hitting them on the stone floor with
the butt of our sten guns. Sometimes they would scatter. Then someone found
that by holding two of them in our fist we could break them by squeezing
The night that some of us stood for awhile under the arch
in the hallway while bombs were falling nearby, someone more learned was
talking, in the dark, about arches. He mentioned about how strong they
were, which was reassuring. With the end of a stone wall on either side,
he said, the wedge shaped rocks were placed from either side on a form.
Then when the keystone was put in place, it was self-supporting. Next day
I had a good look at it and there in the middle was the keystone, the shape
of our Manitoba map.
As I walked past Matt Graham's spot one
morning on my way to our workshop tent he said, "Wait and I'll walk with
you," so I was standing at the end of his slit trench and beside a walnut
tree. We heard an aircraft diving but there were low scattered cumulus
clouds and we could see nothing Then it appeared around a cloud diving
at us. Someone yelled, "It's a Jerry!" For a split second I thought, 'if
he's going to strafe I should stand behind this walnut tree, but if it's
a bomb only, get down.' I dropped into Matt's trench with Matt a close
second. I heard a lot of remarks about uninvited guests for a long time
after that. Matt, his friend Bill and I had done a pub-crawl down Straight
Street in Valetta when we were in Malta. The bomb landed near the field
hospital and there were casualties there, but none of our crew was hit,
although most were still in the area.
Jim Hillis and I were in our tent workshop one time when
all the ack-ack in the area opened up and it got quite noisy. There was
a shallow ditch along the edge of the field we were in, about fifty yards
away, and we had planned on going there if prudent. Jim was looking for
his helmet and I was waiting for him when I heard a different noise and
hit the deck, taking Jim with me. In the tent we had a makeshift workbench
in the middle and packing cases, some of them empty, along both low sides.
The raid was soon over; it had been a hit and run. The bomb had landed
nearby on the runway and the rigger and fitter from one aircraft had been
hit but they survived.
Then someone said " there's a hole in your tent" I looked
and there was a hole in one side near the bottom. I said " that must be
an old one because Jim and I were lying right there inside”. We looked
and sure enough a piece of shrapnel had come through the tent, through
an empty packing case, bounced off our workbench, through some more cases
and we found the piece still in the tent. It was a rivet holding two pieces
of jagged metal together. That was the different noise that I had heard
as it came in past my ankle before we went down. Sometimes, I guess, it's
good to be late.
As the front moved back we moved to another 'custom made'
airstrip, and then the rains came and a lot of the Spits were stuck in
the mud. I recall helping to push them out, rocking the wingtips. When
we were ordered to move from that spot, it was a matter of holding them
back while the pilot revved it up. I can still see a Spit clawing at the
sky at about a forty-five degree angle with the tail wheel on or very near
the ground, and making it. (Well, OK, maybe less than 45.)
~ Lloyd (Slim) Snell
March 25 2002