Diary of a Derbyshire Yeoman

Introduction

On the 10th November 1942, the 1st Derbyshire Yeomanry Regiment sailed from the UK for North Africa.

My 19 year old father (Dennis Dawson) was one of them. He had enlisted at Catterick on 23rd April 1942. His Army Pay Book shows his Army Number as 7958147.

Apart from a couple of short periods of leave, he did not return to his home city of Nottingham until late in 1946. When he did return, his parents had moved from 15 Melbourne Road in Lady Bay to the Manning Baths on Hawthorne Street in the Meadows.

1940 – Dennis Dawson in his Home Guard uniform at 15 Melbourne Road.

My father died in 2014 at the age of 91.

He was not one those war veterans who never spoke about the war, nor was he one to keep referring to those times. He would mention things when asked to. He was, thankfully someone who kept the documents, photographs and diaries that are gathered over the years.

His personal diaries for 1944 and 1946 have survived. I don’t know whether he kept one between 1942 and 1943, but if he did, they have gone for good.

He also kept postcards that he purchased from the places he visited. This was something my grandfather had also done during the Great War. He had also served in the Middle East and Mesopotamia up to 1922. I suppose, with cameras and photography not so readily available, it was a way of remembering the places visited.

This article is a combination of documents that my father kept, with some text taken from the 1st Derbyshire Yeomanry Scrapbook 1939-47. The scrapbook was published using personal accounts of the officers who served in this period.

This is my father’s account. He had the rank of Private.

Dennis did not keep a diary for the North Africa campaign. It was against the rules, as were photographs.

There are however a few photographs. This one is from 1942 at the Transit Camp – Algiers Racecourse. He’s the man in the middle

Dennis was a decent artist.

Here is the Christmas card that he sent to his mother.

His name is bottom right.

These cards were converted to microfiche and then printed again back in England. This was to save on weight in transporting them.

During the North Africa Campaign, he also sent postcards to his sister.

26 March 1943 Dear Betty, please send me a snake charmers flute so that I can charm these giant pythons that are surrounding my tent. Cheerio Dennis

April 1943Dear Betty

For the past two days it has rained and we are flooded out so much that one night one of my pals fell out of bed and nearly got drowned.

We also have 330 yards to swim for our breakfast.

Dennis

Both Algeria and Tunisia were French speaking countries. The postcard of the boy is translated as ‘Ali, the little beggar, counts his takings’.

The regiment went into action as a complete unit for the first time in December 1942, at Medjez-el-Bab. From then, they were continually in action until the end of the war. The strain of continuous battle in those first 5 months was rewarded though, when the opportunity to take Tunis came. The Derbyshire Yeomanry were there, leading from the front, along with the 11th Hussars.

The famous battle in May 1943 saw the complete destruction of German Forces in North Africa.

The regiment stayed in North Africa for the rest of 1943, assisting in other operations. As the war progressed, their services would be required elsewhere.

The Regiment Move To Italy

On March 14th 1944, 14 officers and 410 other ranks under command of Major E Baring, arrived in Naples in the south west of Italy. This was part of the war in the south of Europe. The regiment moved to Piedemonte d’Alife the following day. This was a small town about 30 miles south of Cassino. The whole regiment had gathered there by 27th March.

My father kept a diary at this point. In it, he refers to the enemy as either ‘he’ or ‘Gerries’.

The following are selected entries that he made in a small ‘Boots the Chemists’ diary for 1944.

When they sailed from the port of Bone in Algeria, it would appear that they did not know their destination.

11th March – Destroyed my tin shack.

12th March – Embarked from BONE for?

13th March – Rather bad swell – many sick.

This birthday card to his mother was sent in early 1944.

It must have been drawn whilst Dennis was in North Africa.

It is a drawing of the ‘tin shack’ that had been his home during his time in Algeria and Tunisia.

It is not known why this photograph was taken or who the US soldier is.

This was taken in Naples on 14th March 1944.

14th March – Capri on our left, Docked at Naples. 8 mile march.

15th March – Transit Camp. Poverty stricken natives.

16th March – Arrived at the regimental camp.

17th March – Viewed ALIFE! Much Damage.

18th March – Usual Advance. Party Fatigues – Decent Weather.

19th March – Attempted to climb the northern ridge.

20th March – Salvaging party.

The following period was part of a concentrated preparation for the Spring Offensive.

Exercises were held to ensure the co-operation of the infantry and tanks. Several visits to Cassino were undertaken. The sight of the monastery being attacked by our troops was a taste of what was in store for them.

2nd April – Hitch Hiked to Piedmonte once again for eatables.

3rd April – Vehicles arrive. Maintenance.

4th April – Bullshit comes with a crash.

5th April – Wireless again.

6th April – ‘Five Graves to Cairo’.

7th April – Pay Parade 800 Lire.

Three officers from the regiment were detailed for duties in the advanced area.

The Regiment was put on 12 hours’ notice to move up on May 10th.

When the allied forces had reached this area (in the previous autumn of 1943), it was clear that if progress was to made towards Rome, that Cassino and its monastery must be taken.

A number of attacks were launched against it, but the tenacity of the defenders and the natural strength of its position withstood these attempts. One of the attacks included heavy air support and both the town and the monastery were reduced to ruins.

It finally fell in May 1944 in the offensive that broke the Gustav line and ended in the capture of Rome.

The Liri Valley below Cassino was protected by the River Rapido, a perfect obstacle for the tanks. Some bridgeheads had been secured but the advance was very slow due to the strength of the German defence.

C’ Squadron were tasked with attacking a German strong-point. They were unaided by infantry.

Leading the attack with Sherman tanks, their commander Eager Brundell was killed instantly by a sniper. Despite this and several tanks being hit by bazookas, ‘C’ Squadron prevailed.

Cassino itself was reduced to a heap of ruins and craters. The area remained infested with mines and booby traps. The devastation to this historic site was a monument to the destruction which war can bring about.

My father’s diary continued:

14th May – Reached Rapido Gustav Line.

15th May – Moving Up?

16th May – Battle of the Orchard. Casualties including Squadron Leader. Air Raid.

17th May – Day out – Much washing of whites.

18th May – Bills Tank Bogged. Narrow Miss by 50mm A/T Gun. Tank gun damaged. Mortared before dark. Very little sleep.

19th May – My Honey in Infantry support – Loads of bullets and bangs – Two tanks knocked out – two prisoners one wounded – one sniper surrendered.

The following is an extract from the Derby Evening Telegraph, after the Battle of Monte Cassino:

By May 20th the Yeomanry had advanced along Highway 6 to a position south of Aquino. As part of the British spearhead during these operations, the regiment continued to press forward despite stiffening enemy resistance, and crossed the Melfa on May 25th.

23rd May – Move up across Melfa to Route 6.

24th May – Move into position for assault on ARC.

25th May – Enemy Retires during night – Reach crossroads at ARC 10.30am – Terrific shelling – Slight wound in leg – Tank Overturns.

Many bitter rear-guard actions were fought during this advance, but the Derbyshire Yeomanry could not be halted.

They continued over the slopes of Monte Orio, and helped in the capture of Col Dragone and El Cici on May 25th.

My father’s diary continued. It included a useful entry to remind him where he was on D-Day.

5th June – Rest near ACUTO – Night march – No sleep.

6th June – Swim in bomb crater – ! ALLIES INVADE EUROPE! “Bon” – 3 Miles off Rome.

The Yeomanry now made its way up Highway 4, north-east of Rome, beside the waters of the Tiber. They met severe enemy opposition on June 8th at Monte Rotondo.

10th June – Very unpleasant shelling

11th June – Tellers play havoc – 3 tracks destroyed

12th June – Close Shelling east of the Tiber- I reverse on to box mine fortunately

13th June – Take over 4 Bakers Honey – Lofty goes bomb happy!

14th June – Harboured near Narni

15th June – Pass through MELIA! – Ford the Tiber – Walk out to the village

16th June – Huge night drive – no sleep

17th June – Still moving up – Hillside O.P – (Rain) – Certainly seeing Italy!

18th June – Liberate CASTILIOGNE – Bags of Vin-o – BAMBINA

My father obtained this postcard as they reached Perugia. He noted on it:

Notice the Fontana Bevignate on the right protected from bombs.

Vincere or Victory is painted in white.

They were our enemy at the time!

In and around Perugia, the regiment were under command of The Guards Brigade. During the following week, they were used to support the infantry as they made their way forward, northwards into the hills.

20th June – In again beyond Perugia – Stonking!

Stonking is the military terms for heavy artillery bombardment.

23rd June – First troop beyond MARCO – Dead civilian

24th June – Beyond MARCO – By Jove – Much stonking – Valley of Death – Sleep and stonking is the order of the day – up early

25th June – Valley of Death again – More Stonking

26th June – Day In – Unfruitful look for Signorina

6th July – Road recce near Castiglione Ferontina

7th July – Recce 3 miles from Arezzo

8th July – Out near the guns – Hills from Feriontina to Arezzo occupied by Gerry infantry

10th July – Bathed in Lago Trasimeno – Visited Cortona

11th July – Encore bathe – physical maintenance – Living on the land – Much admiring of the female form – unfortunately only from distance.

18th July – Arezzo taken – town under shellfire – U1 Leaflets

19th July – Near stonking – Contradictory reports on how we lost 4 dog crew missing.

20th July – Night harbour much too near stonking

22nd July – Moving farther forward – One unidentified member of 4 dog killed by mortar – no news of other 4

24th July – East of the Arno – winkled out some infantry – quite

25th July – Engine Trouble – Hoping to get out for rest

26th July – L.A.D

No further entries are made in this diary.

In October, the diary starts again, this time using a small notepad. This allows the entries to be more detailed.

Oct 22nd – Became rivals in the pack mule business. Two Gerries in O.P on Mt Della Serra made a hurried retreat leaving all equipment behind. We occupied the hill by 4.30 and commenced to dig trenches in the most silly places! Aching in every bone and nose running like water works.

Oct 23rd – Cold has now reached its climax and if I don’t die tonight during sleep I should be rid of it inside three days. My aged bones are still aching. Fortunately we are not walking today!

Oct 24th – As you can see I didn’t die last night – but I am still in a sorry state. Rations are better than usual – apparently we are getting priority as Infantry! Blanket roll arrived!

Oct 25th – Unfortunately our turn out today and although we had a long wet night in a silly little trench, my cold didn’t worry me. Spent all next day drying clothes and toasting feet in front of a huge fire. The occupants of this particular farmhouse were rather unlucky today because we numbered too many for the one fire. And after all we were wet not they. We spent quite an amusing day admiring the seductive forms of the Signoretti’s. “Too bad we aren’t Cativer simili Tedeschi.”

Oct 27th – Returned back to Bocini innocently thinking for a rest. Rather a cheesing off day, raining, and bridge being washed away caused us to carry the darned stuff relay fashion getting very wet in the process!

Oct 28th – Whipped away en-bloc through Portico to Rocca which was now under enemy shellfire. After dark we moved to positions in the right of the valley some 1 ½ miles outside the town. Digging in, in various positions commanding the road and our front. During the day we hid in the farmhouse because we were under observation by Gerry on the opposite heights. Poor food and no room for sleep are the only grouses.

Oct 29th – Nothing much to report during the day although we did have a brief clash at 2 o’clock the following morning. Shots were exchanged, neither side being injured, result no more sleep that night.

Oct 30th – Managed to scrape a little sleep on one of the civvies beds and did an all-night trench guard. Shots and shelling on hill opposite, enemy mortaring near his own position. Our signalman dies by shellfire!

Oct 31st – Good food and a little sleep in half way house. Learnt we were returning to Dicamano that night. Returned to Rocca with mules no shell fire.

Lt-Col Walker wrote in the Scrapbook:

As infantrymen in the hills beyond the San Benedetto Pass, the prospects of a winter in Florence sounded almost too good to be true.  We were given the village of Settignano. A, B and C Squadrons were in different villas here up the hill and well above the mist line, which is such a feature of Florence during the winter months.

Nov 5th – New quarter at a well to do villa outside Florence, arrived here during the night. Weather cold but dry.

Nov 21st – Left the Castella for the line, having been told that we were on a stretcher bearing job. Billeting some ten miles from ‘Castella Del Rio’. Dry weather and fire in billet made our stay reasonably pleasant.

Nov 25th – Reluctantly dragged away to an A.D.S somewhere in the area of the rear guns. Learned that all these tales of bags of grub and hot sweet tea are a myth. Tomorrow we move!

Nov 26th – At dusk we move up on foot carrying small kit and one blanket. We arrived at our respective posts without any shelling although rain made the going pretty hard. The post incidentally was a strengthened cellar underneath the rubble of a destroyed house.

Nov 27th – Today we spent undercover although visibility was very poor managing a wash and improving the fire. Three tanks, our own can be seen disabled by shellfire not 20 yards away from the house. Also two six-pounder anti-tank guns behind the house and Gerry ammo on the ceiling above.

Nov 28th – Today the mist cleared and we were able to have a decent look at our unusual position. We could see 3 post 200 yards away, sheltering behind a large knoll – not 10 yards a heavy mortar section. Also we could see a Vickers heavy machine gun position 100 yards to our front. That afternoon he laid a stonk in the area of 182 posts causing us to wish we had never been born. One hit was scored on 1 post injuring two of the boys slightly and sending the rest home happy! Told we would be relieved the following night.

Nov 29th – Everyone was touchy today, the slightest whine of a shell broke up any conversation. Hopes are high for being relieved tonight – I have my doubts! Two walking casualties came in just before the relief arrived, their first go in the line, bad luck!

“FONTANELICE”

Once again we learn that stretcher bearing is the order of the day. The house we are in is not one hundred yards from a Bailey Bridge and during the night he centred his stonk on us. One direct hit on the roof injuring four and one just outside riddling the scout car and also killing a cow, or rather wounding it rather badly necessitating the Ities to finish it off by cutting its throat. It’s surprising how close a shell can land without it having your name on it!

The village Fontanelice is the last we hold before Toscagnano – still in enemy hands. And to reach the various posts we disembark and turn left in the village and continue down the lane until we reach the pontoon foot bridge crossing the river. Then the walk is a matter of climbing a range of hills travelling parallel with the enemy line. Not so strange as it may seem, the enemy shells the village whenever there is troop movement and usually at night having no observation caused us all to remark on the accuracy of his shell timing. Since then one woman was detained and was found to be a spy – they say she also gave 13 names of her accomplices. So now this village has been evacuated of civilians.

No further entries were recorded in the notebook

Lt-Col Walker continues:

It is difficult to express one’s thoughts before a campaign as, unfortunately we are not all made alike. There is a lot of truth in the old adage, ‘One’s an meat is another man’s poison. I know that when we left Florence after a very comfortable winter, I could not have viewed the prospects of another campaign with more misgivings, in spite of the chances that it would really be the last one.

The three weeks we spent at Pesaro brought us down to realities once again.

The intention of the 8th army was to destroy the enemy south of the River Po, not more than 50 miles away from our existing front-line. It did not appear it would be a long campaign. Therefore it was with a fairly light heart that we moved from Pesaro to Cesena, which was to be the Divisional Concentration Area.

Prior to the 2nd May 1945, C Squadron was ordered to push the enemy up into the hills north of Spilimbergo, which they did, capturing 1,200 prisoners.

The only other incident of note was meeting up with the world heavyweight boxing champion Primo Carnero.

He had returned to Italy after his retirement but had been imprisoned by Mussolini.

Now liberated, he came out to shake the hands of every Derby Yeomanry soldier who entered the village, including my father.

On 5th May 1945, Major General Murray issued a Special Order of The Day:

The attack by 26th Armoured Brigade and the Derbyshire Yeomanry between April 18th and 23rd, broke the German Line on a 20 mile front south of the Po, and paved the way to final victory.

Finally, the war in Europe was over.

Austria and Yugoslavia.

Towards the end of the war, ‘C’ Squadron had some encounters with the Yugoslavs.

Each case had the novel and somewhat insidious role of rescuing our ‘enemies’ from our ‘allies’. The first occasion was shortly after the fall of Udine, when Tito (the Yugoslav Communist) had wanted to annex parts of Italy including Venezia Guilia. This did not suit the British, as we wanted to use Trieste as a supply base when we reached Austria. The road between Trieste and Klagenfurt happened to pass through Venezia Guilia.

It was during this tense period that ‘C’ Squadron came across a column of Chetniks. The Chetniks had sided with the Germans and were now fleeing Tito. ‘C’ Squadron allowed them through to their safety, shortly followed by Tito’s soldiers. Tito’s men had to be slowed down, so they were ‘greeted’ and told that there was a problem. They were deliberately delayed due to the strange coincidence of two of our tanks blocking both bridges, due to mechanical problems!

Tito’s communists also has plans to annex a part of Austria named Carinthia.

This was another task for ‘C’ Squadron. To keep the peace in these regions.

‘The 1st Derbyshire Yeomanry went abroad in November 1942, was the first into Tunis and fought its way up Italy into Austria. I wrote this on the banks of a lake in Carinthia, where the water is so warm that, when you emerge you are tempted to jump back. Snow lies on the distant peaks. The national press have given the wring impression of life out here. There is much work to be done, vehicles have to be maintained and guards have to be mounted. There is a post to be manned high up in the mountains, guarding the Yugo-Slav border.’

C’ Squadron was high up the mountain side at Bad Vellach, near a road block at Seeberg Pass. This area was 5000 feet up the steep slopes, covered with pine and mountain fir. On either side were walls of brown rock, splashed with snow in the fissures. In front was Yugoslavia, a bare and rugged land. A stout barrier separated the British from the Yugoslav post. The rest of the frontier was marked by a jagged wall, which had to be patrolled at night, no easy task.

Extract from the Derbyshire Advertiser, August 31st 1945.

My father Dennis noted:

We were posted in Bad Vellach, to maintain guard on the frontier post and visit hill farms looking for German soldiers. We had a small unit of Cossack soldiers and horses at a stables with us. I would borrow my favourite, ‘Mousey’ and take him along mountain tracks.

In the New Year of 1946, ‘C’ Squadron was under the command of Major Ospalak who was stationed at the headquarters near Vicenzia in Northern Italy. This was at a place called Villa Tacchi.

Credit the Derbyshire Yeomanry Scrapbook 1939-1947

On January 19th, the Squadron left for the Middle East again.

This involved a long road journey to the southern Italian port of Taranto.

On January 25th, the regiment set sail on a flat bottomed Canadian lake boat named The Princess Kathleen. The journey took 72 hours and they arrived at Port Said in Egypt on January 28th.

Lt-Col Wall wrote about the transfer to the Middle East:

“The cold was intense for a memorable journey to Taranto. No one can forget this monstrous journey, a question in the House of Commons ensured that those that followed were better cared for. On January 25th the regiment (in great spirits in spite of every conceivable form of discomfort), embarked on a small unimpressive flat-bottomed Canadian lake boat – The Princess Kathleen – for Port Said. The next 72 hours produced incidents as revolting as they were humourous.”

My father’s diary seemed to confirm this account.

Sat 19th – Completely packed to move but train driver lost his way and was said to be at ‘Milan’.

Sunday 20th – Moved by T.C.U to train. Started the great trek at 5.40pm doing steady 2 knots. Slept between seats.

Monday 21st – Meal at Bologna 2.00am. Woke for breakfast at 10.30 south of Rimini. Followed the sea. Poverty of the south.

Tuesday 22nd – Tea and biscuits only since previous evening. Beautiful countryside – but very barren. Taranto in the rain and transit camp.

Wednesday 23rd – Languishing in leaking tents – rotten food – stayed in the canteen for warmth – Local dance band very good.

Friday 25th – We march to and board The Princess Kathleen in the rain. Wind and violent rocking during night.

Saturday 26th – We march to and board The Princess Kathleen in the rain. Wind and violent rocking during night.

Sunday 27th – Seas calmed during the night. Grey sky dirty sea – swell. 15 knots.

Held my own at cards. Bought Turkish delight, sweets, fags and wallet from ships canteen.

Following the requisition by the Canadian Royal Navy the the Princess Kathleen returned to Canada but ran aground in 1952 at Lena Point in Alaska.

My father’s diary continued:

Monday 28th – Port Said during breakfast. Disembarked late afternoon by landing craft. Trained after dark to camp Suez. Boiled eggs, bananas, nuts, tea! Camp and tents.

Tuesday 29th – Natives an evil crowd. Page out of boys’ adventure book. Camped in desert – endless flat sand and pebbles. Dotted with tents and ugly brick buildings.

Sunday 3rd February – Ismailia – Tremendous lake – numerous checks – shoe shiners – good food – bought pair of shoes.

Monday 4th – Thumbed our way to Cairo – leaned a harsh lesson at the hands of native vendors and dragon guides.

Tuesday 5th – Did the inevitable – Pyramids Sphinx – Amusing guide. Streets dangerous with multifarious cars.

Wednesday 6th – Egyptian museums much too interesting for short time at our disposal. 2 o’clock train.

Sunday 10th – Trained to Alexandria.

Monday 11th – Unloaded vehicles off ship at docks. Towed back. Repairing many mechanical faults. Good canteen.

Tuesday 12th – Main party away. Still repairing. Alex still tensions.

Wednesday 13th February – Motored back to camp through sandstorm in western desert. Arrived back after dark.

There were no further entries until:

Wednesday 17th April – Motored in the early morning to Kadr-ek-Nil Barracks Cairo. Potential protection in case of revolt etc. A.T.C so near and yet so far.

Thursday 18th April – Sun very warm! Discovered the Egyptian Museum next door. Spent afternoon in the city. Billiards.

Friday 19th April – Splendid view of bridge and Nile from our balcony. Saw a little more of the museum – Must imbibe the lot before we move.

Sat 20th April – Crossed the Nile to El Alamein Club. Many small yachts playing with the breeze. Checking up on Hoskale.

Sunday 21st April – Piquet! Swam during my time off in the camp swimming pool. Water poisonous, waves high.

My father made no more entries in his diary.

On June 1st 1946, ‘C’ Squadron were required to move to Tripoli within 48 hours. This was due to the political situation having worsened. They left at 04.00 hrs and completed the 1000 mile journey on time. This deployment continued until October 4th, when the Squadron returned to Barce. Their job in Libya was complete.   

Tripoli 1946

My father’s military service finished shortly afterwards.

He returned to the UK, was demobbed, found work, travelled a bit, married, and went on to raise two children.

I am now able to tell his war-time story.

One final note. He made a number of entries in the diary, where he referred to admiring the local ladies from a distance.

It would appear that did get close to an Italian woman. This was in Iseo near Bergamo. Her name was Maria Ferlinghetti. He wrote her name in his service book and she gave him a photograph to remember her by.

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