Second World War 1939 - 1945
530 Coast Defence Regiment were called out for eight or nine days during 1938 for the Munich crisis but were then stood down again. At 11 o'clock on the 22nd of August 1939 they were again called out and ordered to report to their respective gun sites, the same night they were stood down again and told to go home. They were finally called out on the 25th of August for the duration of the war. Being artillery there was no guarantee that any one person would remain with his own unit; as many men were continually being posted to different units where their particular skills were, most needed, this meant that many of the old Riflemen were posted out to different Royal Artillery units and men from other units were posted in. Some of the original members of 530 Coast Regiment went to the Island of St. Helena, in the southern Atlantic Ocean, two or three were posted to Iceland to join another newly formed battery, some went to Egypt, some of them going to Tobruk and others still further east where they were to take part in the battles for the Imphal Road.
When the regiment took over their duties at the Island Forts the battery from Newport went to Bouldner, Cowes and Freshwater batteries took over the Old and New Needles forts whilst Ryde, Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor did Cliff End, Fort Albert, Hurst Castle and part of Fort Warden. Due to the continuous draftings and postings, at the time of Dunkirk there were only fifteen men left to man the two Needles forts and they were having to work forty eight hours on duty and twenty four off. To make the forts look as if they were fully manned, pieces of scaffold pipe were rigged up to look like anti-aircraft guns, these 'guns' were crewed by tailors dummies. The same deceptive ruse was used at Cliff End as well.
Sergeant Arthur Bannister recalled that he was on duty at the Needles on the night of the heavy air-raids on Cowes when one of his men called him up top, there were two lines of flare markers right across the channel to the Island and then off away to the east towards Portsmouth. Apparently two aircraft had come in and laid these flares as markers for the main bomber force which came in and hit Cowes at 11 o'clock, they returned for a second knock at about 1 o'clock in the morning. This night action by the Luftwaffe was the heaviest raid on the Island throughout the war.
One Sunday morning Sgt. Bannister was having his breakfast when an enemy aircraft flew low up the channel, over the gun site and down to machine gun the Needles lighthouse. Shortly afterwards he came back again, repeating his previous performance but this time shooting up Yarmouth harbour. When, a short time later, a further aircraft was seen, appearing to be doing the same thing, one of the gunners on the site opened up on it with a machine gun. Sgt. Bannister rushed up top and immediately ordered the gunner to cease fire as he had seen that this aircraft was in fact a Spitfire. Two days later the battery received a rocket from above, it transpired that the over zealous gunner had hit the Spitfire. A court of inquiry was later held and the gunner in question was complimented on his vigilance and the pilot of the aircraft received a severe reprimand for flying over a fortified area.
It would appear that during the Second World War, one of the main sources of amusement to the men at the Island Forts, were the antics of one Major O'Brian. On one occasion Major O'Brian had spotted a large white dog running round one of the gun sites, he immediately demanded to know who owned the animal and without waiting for an answer he shouted: "Get that bloody dog camouflaged ! ! ! "On another occasion the battery at Cliff End were doing a shoot for the Navy when an air raid started, everyone on the site, with the exception, of Major O'Brian, got down on the site out of the way, he strolled up and down the catwalk behind the guns shouting out the range and bearing of the enemy aircraft. One of the Naval gunners mates asked what the hell he was doing up there and then shouted out: "Shut your bloody mouth and get down out of it you ruddy fool." At this Major O'Brian literally flew down off the catwalk demanding to know who had shouted at him, all the answer he received was a deathly silence for several minutes then the occasional snigger from the dark corners of the battery.
At the Needles Forts the regular pastime of the men not on duty was to play football on the cliff top, the balls for this were provided by the P.R.I., but after losing half a dozen or so over the edge the P.R.I. decided that it was becoming too expensive a pastime for them.
During the last few months of 1939 the 189th Heavy Battery was stationed at Bouldner near Yarmouth, at the beginning of 1940 they were split up, half of them going to Canvey Island. Shortly after the split the Royal Navy took over the duties at Bouldner and the remainder of the battery moved to the New Needles post. While at the Needles they suffered many hectic nights when enemy minelaying aircraft came over and, after dropping their mines they would machine-gun the batteries positions. A large number of bombs were also dropped but fortunately most of them landed in the sea N.vhere they did no damage at all. When a new battery was formed to take over from the Royal Navy at Bouldner again several of the old battery were posted back there again. One of these old hands was Sergeant Bob Lawn and we continue the story from his personal diary.
"I was sent to the new battery at Bouldner as P.A.D. instructor on the 3rd of September, Bouldner had changed quite a bit, new buildings had been erected and the quarters generally were very good. I shared a bunk with Lance Sergeants Scrivener and Bannister. The new lads were of quite a good type and thoroughly interested in their work. The Sergeant Major, B.S.M. Tracey, was one of the old school, he was a grand fellow to work with and was much respected by the battery. All of us sergeants had no excuse for late rising, promptly at a quarter to six each morning he would stamp up the passage outside our bunks and hand us our morning' gun fire.'It was not the usual first brew from the cookhouse, it came from the officers mess.
First parade was at seven when the bombadiers took the gunners on physical training of some sort or another. The sergeants had to go for a stroll with the B.S.M., sometimes across country inspecting the rabbit wires. Smoking on these jaunts was forbidden, the B.S.M. was a non-smoker. After a trip through the woods highly polished boots took on quite a muddy hue, so, breakfast over we had quite a rush round to clean up again. Nine o'clock was manning parade, fatigue parade and then the days duties began in earnest.
At the end of October I went to Gosport on a Searchlight course, this lasted for three weeks and was very interesting, we had quite a fair amount of excitement, to get to our lessons we had a three mile march across some pretty open country and twice during our stay we had to scatter as enemy planes came down to machine-gun the roads. On my return from the course I assisted B.S.M. Woods on the searchlights and giving lectures as well as continuing my P.A.D. The searchlights were very interesting although we did not get a great deal of practical work. About twice a week on stand to in the early morning we carried out very extensive work with the lights. The job I was doing was 'electric light officer,' this entailed assisting the duty gunnery officer by interpreting his orders for the switchmen on the lights. The Defence Electric Light personnel, although members of the battery and subject to battery discipline, held their own manning and other parades.
Maintenance parades were held each morning and manning parades an hour before dusk each evening. This ensured the men always being on night duty, although it was possible to get a certain amount of sleep by a system of reliefs. One searchlight operator was locked in each emplacement all night, the emplacements being some distance in front of the battery. At Bouldner the emplacements had been built on `blue slipper,' in consequence of which they were gradually slipping down the cliff. This was not brought to light until we had received numerous complaints from the operators that somebody was throwing stones at the emplacements. Several nights, on receiving telephone messages from the operators about this, B.S.M. Woods and myself prowled around but could detect no person in the vicinity, so we spent a night in the emplacements and sure enough, about midnight small rumblings and creakings started. This confirmed our suspicions that the emplacements were gradually slipping, the sound always came during the period of the high tide. No doubt these noises did appear very startling to our operators. On January the 1st, 1941 a new battery took over from us and we left Bouldner the following morning on ten days embarkation leave, after our leave we were to report to Southend and we had been told that we were headed for a somewhat warmer place!!
During the middle of March we received our orders and we left for Glasgow. It was quite a scramble getting on board ship, we had been alloted the 'Empress of Canada.' The ships had no water laid on: at that time so the sergeants mess refreshments were whisky that night. We spent a week on board before we sailed, a week in which to get acquainted with the ship and our travelling companions. On a cold dull grey dawn in early March 1941 the convoy steamed steadily into the North Atlantic. Huge green waves broke over the bows of our new home as we rose from our restless slumbers and made our way unsteadily on deck. So, 202 Battery became yet another contingent of Isle of Wight Artillerymen to leave the shores of 'Blighty' for a front line station.
During the trip the men of the battery were to man the six-inch gun mounted on the stern, this was nowhere near so ` spick and span 'as the ones they had; left behind at Bouldner, but by the end of the trip they had done their best to, remedy matters on this score. The 'convoy suffered regular 'U' boat scares as it passed the western coast of Africa, especially off Dakar. The first port of call was Freetown in Sierra Leone, here the convoy was to remain for four days before sailing again and heading for Cape Town.
After a five day wait in Cape Town they again set sail, this time the battery found that it was two men short, it turned out that they had not deliberately deserted but had simply missed the boat. To try and keep out of trouble the two men had enlisted in the South African Engineers where they remained for some time before the truth came out. As the ship continued on a northerly course up the eastern coast of Africa the troops were treated to the delights of 'Crossing the Line' ceremony when King Neptune and his associates did the necessary rituals. The Empress of Canada reached her destination at Port Tewfic in the Red Sea. Here the troops disembarked and the Islanders headed northwards to their first camp at Beni Yusef, passing through Cairo on their way. Once again the men of the Rifles were on the soil of Egypt, where, twenty two years earlier their gallant predecessors had seen the last of their action in the Great War. Their next move was to Amirya near Alexandria, during their spell here one enemy bomber started carrying out indescriminate raids almost every night, they managed to do very little damage. Then came the orders for the battery to move to Tobruk, a skeleton detachment of forty men packed up their kit and under the command of Lt. Colonel Dockerill they boarded the Australian destroyer 'HMAS Voyager' in Alexandria harbour. The following morning the ship slipped her moorings and slid quietly out into the Mediterranean. The trip passed uneventfully and as dusk started to fall they approached the North African coast near Bardia, from here on the Voyager slowed right down as the coastline from here to Derna was the hideout of many German 'U' boats. Just after midnight they crept into Tobruk harbour past the scuttled hulk of the Italian cruiser the San Giorgo. Unloading rapidly took place and the destroyer promptly left for the return trip to Alexandria.
All through the siege of Tobruk the destroyers were only allowed about half an hour to unload as they had to be well clear of Bardia before dawn. Life in the besieged garrison at Tobruk was, at times quite hair-raising and the following description again comes from the diary of Bob Lawn; 'After a hectic ten minutes unloading my stores from the lighter, during which time I was well and truly ticked off by a captain in charge of the docks, for bringing stationery into Tobruk. I had hoped for a little rest and a smoke in the lorry which was conveying me to our new position this proved not to be possible, Bardia Bill opened up on the harbour area and the driver pushed his foot hard down on the accelerator and zig-zagged his way across the open country, trying to visualise the position of the next shell burst and so forestall it. Some of the shells were far too close for comfort, one landed a few yards behind fhe rear wheels, the tyres were punctured and we were smothered in sandy debris. We cleared the harbour area and eventually bumped our way into Fort Marina, our new home!! Bardia Bill continued to shell the harbour entrance, they had evidently spotted the gallant little minesweeper creeping to her daytime moorings. The crew of this ship always had a hectic time, by day they were continually divebombed and at night Bardia Bill kept up a constant search for them. Sleep was out of the question, during the day we took over the guns, later, I as acting quartermaster, took over the ammunition and stores from the Lt. Q.M. of the unit we were relieving. All day long enemy raiders carried out isolated bombing raids, the lads manned the L.M.G.s and put in some good work. In the early evening I was taking over some stores from No. 2 magazine as one of these raiders came diving in, the bombs came screaming down and we all fell flat on the ground, one burst some considerable distance in front of us and I received a gash on the back of the knee from a piece of shrapnel. Not a lot to worry about although 1 had to walk stiff legged for about a month to allow it to heal.
The next day in the cold grey light of dawn we were all awakened by the resounding cracks, as Bardia Bill's shells burst over the harbour. We opened up with one gun, it was impossible to use two owing to the angle of blast and the situation of the O.P. Numerically Bardia were stronger than we were, we watched the gun flashes, at least four to our one. As we settled down to this, our first real action, the enemy's guns swung round as they tried to locate us. After about an hour of spasmodic action the enemy gunners got tired of playing, so silence reigned supreme for -- how long?? We had been told by the relieved unit that Bardia Bill could not possibly reach us, the nearest they could get to us was an old incinerator two or three kilometres away. This proved entirely false as we found out to our cost some time later. Three quarters of an hour later the divebombers arrived and for the rest of the day we had intermittent dive bombing raids, their nearest airfield was at El Adem, just a few miles away. Water supplies were always short in Tobruk as in the rest of the Western Desert, what little there was was salty and brackish and was usually obtained from very old wells, later when we were relieved a water pipeline was constructed from Alexandria to Tobruk. The normal ration of water was one gallon per head per day for all purposes, often, in fact, we received far less than this. True to the English tradition all of us loved a good cup of tea, it was impossible to make drinkable tea with Tobruk water so we constructed our own distillery. Sea water was boiled in an old forty gallon oil drum, the resulting steam passing through a series of pipes conected to an old car radiator which was cooled by being immersed in a barrel of cold sea water, the resulting distilled water being run off into fourgallon containers. By operating the distillery from daylight to dark it was possible for all the men of the battery to have three pints of good tea a day. Distilling water was a filthy and monotonous job so it was by a system of trial and error that we found the best men for the job. By the time our stay in Tobruk was brought to its unfortunate climax we had so perfected our distillery that we were able to utilise the issue of water for washing purposes only.
Tobruk in Summer was extremely hot and fly plagued by day but the cool of the evening was perfect and the nights could have been silent and splendid under the bright dome of stars, but, when the big, round, almost day bright moon was at its height and on the wane Tobruk was sheer hell with its bombing, minelaying and shelling. In Winter the days were usually bright but the nights were bitterly cold and sometimes we had torrential rains which turned the whole place into quagmire through which the truck drivers used to flounder and curse. The chief torment of all was the dust storms which blew with monotonous regularity, more perhaps during the khamsin period in the Spring, the hot wind coming over the Sahara from the south with enough strength to rip down a tent. The intensity of these dust storms was that of a London fog at its worst, in which every particle was grit. Under the pall of a desert dust storm the whole area darkened into half-night, even up to twenty miles out to sea. Drivers could not see the bonnets of their vehicles, men in the same dug out could barely discern each other and everyone felt difficulty in breathing as the sand blocked the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and pores of. the skin. Ordinary illnesses were rare, we had our quota of accidents and a fair amount of sand fever and more than our share of desert sores, these were any small cuts which festered after the sand had been driven into them.
The first week passed very quickly with various actions and I had quite a hectic time taking over the stores. The main stores were kept in a large tunnel having numerous rooms leading off it at the sides. At one time the tunnel passed right under the gun positions, rather like a large horseshoe, but the vacating Italians had attempted to blow it up, they were only partially successful, having blown up the centre portions leaving both entrances clear. No doubt this was due to the centre or ammunition store going off prematurely and so nullifying or extinguishing the charges placed at the entrances. Salvaging in the tunnel proved interesting and a paying proposition, Italian guns, ammunition and equipment proved very useful. By the end of the first week the advance party had settled in, the men living in low rock built sangers or in the caves. There was no top soil, just bed rock, so if one wanted a new home they just collected enough rocks and built themselves a sanger, after the fashion of an eskimo's igloo. On our second Sunday in Tobruk we were treated to a special air display by the enemy. We liked to think that this was a reprisal for our very good marksmanship againt Bardia Bill. Bill opened up on us at about nine o'clock in the morning and kept it up until just before ten, we replied, perhaps a little cockily, rather like a small boy cock snooping behind the teachers back. Bill could not get our range and all their shells fell short. At ten o'clock things had gone quiet when out of the blue sky a dive bombing formation of over thirty aircraft, we had this raid all to ourselves as they were trying for our gun positions.
The air was made hideous by the screech of falling bombs, the wicked crack of cannon shells, the whine of tracers from the L.M.G.s and the thumping of the ack-ack shells. I was in the O.P. at the time and a quarter of an hour later, as acting quartermaster, I made a tour of inspection to assess the damage to stores. All the watertanks were perforated and our precious water supply was drying into the ground, numerous cookhouse containers were like colanders, two stone latrines had completely vanished, no trace was ever found of these, every where was a shambles. The next two hours were quite hectic as we rushed around, found another water tank and fetched a fresh supply of water from the water point. Dinner was not delayed by the raid, it was never late in those days, it was the usual bully beef and biscuits.
Every night the destroyers were running Colonel Dockerill and myself used to go down to the harbour, hoping to find that the rest of the battery had arrived. By this time all us of were on. our beam ends for smokes, cigarettes were unobtainabie except for the weekly ration of fifty, so it was in the nature of a gasper scrounging forage as well. Frequently we were lucky and shared the spoils. I remember one particular night when the colonel got hold of some Players No. 3, what a marvellous smoke we had then. As a last resort, we tacked some of the Italian cigars that were laying around, gosh they seemed to burn us from mouth to stomach, but even they were useful as nerve steadiers from time to time. There came one horrible blank night, two destroyers were scheduled, none arrived, we returned to Fort Marina wondering just what had happened.
However, a week later, on a Sunday night about midnight, I was on my own at the dockside when Sergeant Hutchinson and five gunners arrived. They gave us the news, the battery had been on the ill-fated 'Waterhen' which had been divebombed at sea. None of the bombs actually hit the destroyer but two of the near misses sprung some of her plates so badly that she broke her back. Owing to the calm and cool way the commander and crew, handled the situation, her sister ship was able to get along side and take every body off safely, they were taken back to Mersa Matruh to refit. Two nights later the rest of the battery arrived and great was the rejoicing in our camp. We had smokes in plenty for the next week, R.S.M. Hayward of the unit we had relieved, himself an Isle of Wighter, had met some of the boys in Mersa Matruh and had given them the lowdown on the,smoke situation in Tobruk, in consequence they all brought as many as they could buy.
During the course of the following week 206 Battery arrived and by reshuffleing the two batteries the Tobruk Regiment of the Royal Artillery was formed. 202 Battery were stationed at Fort Marina with the head-quarters staff manning 14.9mm Skod-Werke guns plus the usual light ack-ack equipment. 206 Battery were down at the harbour entrance manning British Naval four inch guns, various light Italian guns and the search-lights. 432 was a new battery that was formed and manned searchlights, three pounders and later twelve pounders. By amalgamating two batteries and forrning a three battery regiment we were left slightly weak in numbers and it was quite a considerable time before we received any reinforcements. For the next two months we were in action daily against Bardia Bill, often from two in the morning and intermittently throughout the day until dusk. This was besides divebombing and mine laying raids by enemy aircraft. Another of our duties was the manning of the mine spotting posts, luckily we managed to lose this job in the end and so gain a few of our chaps back as reinforcements. As acting quartermaster we had many amusing incidents, one I particularly remember concerned small arms ammunition. At this time we were using a considerable quantity of 303 or our four lewis guns, one hodgkiss and two vickers and our stocks of small arms ammo was running low, below twenty thousand rounds, so off I went to the ammo dump for supplies, complete with empty containers. Imagine my surprise and amusement on being told that besides the empty containers I also had to produce the empty cartridge cases, this, to use an Isle of Wight saying, fair flummoxed me, how to return and produce several thousand cases when they were buried in the dust and sand all over the site had me beaten for a moment. However, everything worked out well, on the way back I spotted a real heap of discarded cartridge cases lying just off the road before we entered Tobruk and giving Charlie Little, my assistant, a nudge, they were soon in the truck. Back at the fort we counted out a thousand, weighed them, then weighed and boxed the rest. After a good scout around on the sites where we found plenty of others we returned to the ammo dump and came away with ten thousand rounds more than our original legitimate order allowed. After that incident we were never short of .303 again. We also received at that time quite a number of consignments of comforts from the Aussies, the 9th Australian Division. The comforts consisted of socks, chocolate, boiled sweets, chewing gum, golden syrup, cigarettes, tobacco, cigarette papers, biscuits, cakes, playing cards, note paper and envelopes. The comforts were purchased in Egypt from money sent from Australia. The Australian L.A.D. officer whose section was attached to us gave B.S.M. Macfarlane a bombed out Fiat, after this had been over-hauled and stripped, myself and the B.S.M. had a super racing model in which we used to take stores to the battery.
From July onwards Tobruk was shelled from the south, unfortunately we were unable to turn our guns far enough to reply. This southern enemy gun became known to the lads as 'Sunny South Sam' after the pre-war Southern Railway Posters. it was also during July that the enemy began to get the jitters, Australian and Indian night patrols into their lines so got them down that they started using searchlights, sweeping to and fro over no mans land. This did not worry the lads, they still brought in their nightly quota of prisoners. One day I had an exceptionally warm reception on the Derna Road. I was on my way to the 9th Australian Divisional Headquarters in a dilapidated and slow Bedford truck driven by Driver Tortolans when we got caught in a dive bombing raid on some ack-ack batteries and an old Italian ammunition dump. We seemed to be in the centre of a very hot spot, we could not move forwards, backwards or sideways, bombs were dropping all around and the old truck was behaving just like a bucking bronco. The raid lasted about ten minutes and after sorting ourselves out and getting rid of broken glass from the windscreen we continued on our way to the accompaniment. of bursting ammunition. On our return journey past the dump we just went hell for leather as the heavy stuff had become involved and pieces were flying off in all directions.
Days passed very quickly for us, we had no time to be bored, we were often more than tired, our guns were in action almost daily. On top of this every available moment that we could spare was spent in salvaging ammunition from the tunnel. Quite a considerable amount of ammunition used by an Australian battery that was engaged in shelling El. Adem was salvaged from this source. We also salvaged two diesel engines which we installed for making our own electric light, good Pirelli cable also came from the tunnel and was used across the harbour. Our hearts were gladdened one Sunday morning in August when we saw a large raid of Maryland bombers on Bardia Bill. This was a welcome sight, as up to this time the R.A.F. had been conspicuous by its absence, this raid proved to be the return of 'the brylcream boys' as after,that Sunday their sorties in our area became more frequent. The raid seemed to have been successful as Bardia did not get into action again for over a week, this gave us a good breathing space. The name 'Desert Rats' will, I think, always remind all of us who were in Tobruk of the real rats which infested the place. They were like miniature kangaroos, long hind legs, short forelegs, a tuft of hair at the tip of the tail and they could sit upright for long periods, and when alarmed they would leap away just like a kangaroo. My fellows tamed quite a few of these rats and very intelligent pets they made, in fact they made admirable air raid warnings, long before the enemy plane could be heard they would run about squeaking and getting very excited. Later, when I became B.S.M. all the pet rats came to know me and would stay in the sangers whilst I was inspecting them, but if the orderly officer came round with me not one rat would be seen.
During September Bardia Bill gradually eased off shelling us, although we did have one hectic Saturday when he had a plane out spotting for him. The shells landed all over the battery, one was a direct hit on a lorry that the artificers had just got going, another landed on the roof of the tunnel and rocks fell everywhere whilst a third landed on the wireless sanger. fortunately none serious. As a result of the raids it was impossible to get some of the stores needed for everyday use. The ordnance stores were dotted about all over the area and they did not bother to try and find things, they simply returned your indent marked 'Not Available.' All of our fellows washed and shaved in sea water owing to the scarcity of well water, and so salt water soap was an absolute necessity. After two indents had been returned as none available, I decided to collect our own soap. Being strictly illegal and a punishable offence I could not take the officers into my confidence, so with a party of four, I set out just after midnight and crossed the wire boundary into the no mans land of the ordnance depot. Luck was with us, within half an hour we were back with enough soap to last us some considerable time. These trips became rather in the nature of a habit with us, Marden used to inform me of all indents returned, I spied out the land and arranged private delivery later that night. I will say in our favour that we did not touch any article that had not been indented for and not once were we caught by either our own or the ordnance officers.
The third week in September B.S.M. Macfarlane was posted to 206 Battery, and from then until the end of the month Bardia Bill's efforts became very feeble. For over a week nine out of ten of his shells failed to explode on landing, this must have given the German Master Gunner and his staff some worrying moments and quite a few headaches. As a result of this we only fired ten rounds during the month of September and I was given the job of getting an area cleared of tunnel debris and rubbish. It covered quite a considerable area and when completed the following June provided the enemy aircraft with a dumping ground for bombs as we found out to our cost. Night after night during October stores of all description arrived, all of us in the Garrison could sense the quickening tempo, something was about to happen, we were ready for it.
Nightly we prayed for the gallant men who were risking their lives by manning the ships and lighters that were bringing up the tanks and stores. The majority of the Australians were relieved during this month and we came under the R.A.S.C. for food supplies. There was a considerable tightening up on rations and we began to feel the pinch. There was a very impressive sight one morning as a three hundred plus high level and dive bombing formation of enemy aircraft came over, we could hear the bombing and it seemed as if thousands of tons of bombs were dropping but the amusing part was the fact that all the bombs landed in the enemy lines and in no mans land, not one landed on our troops.
Two or three days later we experienced our first and last rain, and what rain. I have heard the Isle of Wight saying of rain coming down in bucketfulls, but for two days it seemed to come down in bath fulls instead, and what a mess. Everybody flooded out of their sangers and mud knee deep everywhere. I seemed to be walking through a stream on my billet inspection that morning, it certainly dampened everybody outside as well as inside. It took only two days to dry up, and then for a week afterwards magnificent flowers seemed to grow out of the rocks everywhere. I personally counted two hundred different species. A week of hot sun was enough, they withered away and all was sand and rocks once more. Not long after this we had a stand to, enemy transport planes attempted to land. They were not successful, they were brought down.
It appeared that they had mistaken Tobruk for Derna, as it was there that they were supposed to have landed their stores. At the time it appeared to us as the beginning of an invasion. Day and night sorties became more frequent during November, more and still more prisoners were brought into Tobruk. So it went on. The tempo quickened to almost hectic proportions as the garrison helped to batter their way out. whilst our comrades on the outside smashed the German forces on their way in to link up with us. Very early in December this was accomplished Tobruk was relieved and the nine month siege was over. The men we had lived and fought with had not laid down their lives in vain. Then followed a period of clearing up and salvaging, quite an interesting diversion while it lasted. At one place maps of our area were found with all the gun positions ringed in red ink, that certainly accounted for the high number of raids we had had. During the months of respite after the siege ended most of the men were able to take leave in Alexandria and Cairo. Towards the end of April 1942 the tide of battle seemed to be turning against us with a vengance, Gazala and Knightsbridge boxes were having a hell of a time, even we were having more than our fair share. I was kept pretty busy making maps of the land defence positions, later I had to incorporate several units into our scheme and to make arrangements for other units to fall back to our positions. Iron rations were deposited in all posts and everything was kept in readiness. My rubbish dump was just about cleared and was going to be made into a local supply dump. The last of the rubbish was being burnt when, a hell of an explosion occurred, shells started bursting all over the place, we had found one of the Italian ammunition hideouts with a vengance.
Several small fires started as a result of the explosions which were fortunately got under control very quickly. Numerous non combatant troops came into Tobruk during June, we could not understand it, there was nothing for them to do. One unit, a petrol supply unit, came in with their newly painted yellow wagons and took up a position just below 206 Battery. They lost several vehicles and a number of men on the first night and more on subsequent nights. Things began to get very difficult, we could sense that all was not well, but we were more than confident, even when on that June Monday evening the road was cut by the enemy and we were, besieged once more.
At dawn on the 20th of June the enemy opened up with a heavy artillery barrage from the south-east. This was followed at half past six by a heavy bombing from stukas and high level bombers, the raids lasting over two hours. Then came the tank and infantry attack and by eleven o'clock the enemy had penetrated the perimeter and had established themselves on the Tobruk to El Adem road. Enemy tanks and lorried infantry tore through the gap and the battle raged furiously throughout the afternoon. Gradually the enemy crept closer and closer until there was hand to hand fighting even in the battle scarred streets of Tobruk.
We went into action just after five, both guns concentrated on the tanks and vehicles pouring down the El Adem road. We were in quite a hot spot, being surrounded by German artillery who were giving us all they'd got. One of our shells hit the Naafi fair and square, helping the work of demolition. By half past eight we were surrounded by tanks and artillery, the last round was fired, the flash from the piece caught the instantaneous fuse, the flame spread rapidly towards the magazine, we all thought we had had it but for some unaccountable reason it fizzled out on the magazine steps. The fuse had been fractured by the vibration, thereby the whole battery was saved. Hurriedly we dismantled and destroyed equipment and spiked the guns, then made our way down the main tunnel. All around us the triumphant German horde were singing Lili Marlene whilst we waited in the darkness for the inevitable. We kept a constant watch during the night, numerous fires were started, machine guns poured out their deathly warning as short intervals, still Lili Marlene was echoed as fresh lorried troops poured into Tobruk. Whilst the officers and N.C.O's., kept watch during the night the lads slept, a rather fitful sleep, we had no hope of getting away as we were entirely surrounded on our peninsula. Long before it was light I turned out the cooks and had breakfast on the go. This we managed to have, after a fashion, by about six o'clock, then, with the sergeants I made a hurried inspection to see that all the machine guns had been sabotaged. Just before eight o'clock went with Captain Scott-Atkinson to the officers mess to collect cigarettes to distribute to the men. Both they and we were unlucky, as we entered the door, a German officer came towards us with a tommygun and said in perfect English "Are you coming quietly or do you want persuading." There was nothing for it, we went quietly in front of him down the hill to find all the rest covered by other German troops. After speaking to the colonel the officer turned to me and said: "Oberfeldwebel, fall in the men." How I came to detest their sneering voices. So started our period of captivity that was to take us half way round Europe before we were eventually to reach the shores of the Island again.
After the fall of Tobruk, Sergeant Major Lawn was taken to be interrogated at the headquarters of Rommel's 'Afrika Corps.' During the interrogations the British prisoners of war were well treated by their German captors, Bob Lawn's own story continued; so, one party of three men travelled up to the airfields at El Adem, one German, myself and a native carrying the kit. It was a very tiring walk especially as I had been on my feet for over twenty four hours, After I had been turned into the pen it took me about half an hour to find the rest of the battery. There were over twenty thousand men there, it seemed as if there were millions. The innermost thoughts and feelings of a newly captured prisoner of war are those of despondency and despair, the mind dwells on the time, when, a few short hours ago, life seemed sweet, then, in the blackest depths, nothing seems worthwhile. This air of despair lasts for several weeks, in some cases months until he regains a new sense of proportion which carries him through the long dreary days.
For two days we suffered the torments of the damned as, with very little food and still less water we lay down or walked about, exposed to the burning heat of the sun by day and the perishing cold by night. There was no shelter at all and the pestilent flies gave us hell of a time. For food we had twenty biscuits and a sixteen ounce tin of tomatoes between two men for the two days, water was rationed to half a pint per man for the same period. The German excuse was lack of transport but I rather fancy it was done to pull us down quickly so that we should not cause trouble. If that was the reason, it had its effect, two days of this treatment was enough for any man. Under those conditions men soon turned into the animal state and the warrant officers and sergeants had a devil of a time trying to stop pilfering and the frequent quarrels over food and water.
During the evening of the second day trucks and trailers began to arrive to convey us on the next stage of what was to be our almost never ending journey. Quite a number of us hung back, still hoping to be released by our own troops on a quick advance. The first seventy trucks were soon packed and sent off. I had about eighty men of the battery with me, all hanging behind. But we were not to have our hopes realised, the next day the prison pen was completely cleared. About four o'clock in the afternoon we were detailed to a truck and instead of one hundred men to each truck and trailer the guards made it one hundred and twenty.
What a journey!! It needed a shoehorn almost to get the last man in, and when once packed in it was impossible to move either hand or foot. It was no good to complain of cramp or shift your feet, if that had been done your space would have soon been taken up. One guard sitting on top of the hood with a machine gun was ample protection against us trying to escape, the guards did have their moods when they would loose off a few rounds over our heads just to let us know that the machine guns were in working order. The journey to Derna took eight and a half hours, it seemed like a lifetime of cramp and misery to us.
At Derna the camp guards were a mixture of German and Italian, the commandant being Italian. During our stay here we were treated to the dubious honour of a visit from Mussolini, it was on a Thursday, we could hear the gradual approach of his car by the shouting and cheering of the Italian troops. He was greeted by the prisoners in a stony silence, all hands being held up in the victory V sign. He cut short his speech to us after having some of the prisoners remarks translated to him, they were very choice! As he was leaving, stones were flung at his car and again the trigger conscious sentries opened up and later we were punished, no food for two days.
The prisoners were transported to the mainland of Italy, most of 202 Battery landing at Taranto, from here they moved on to Brindisi and on to Benevento. Whilst in Italy Bob Lawn was to lose sight of his comrades from the Island battery as he went into hospital for a while. When he recovered he was transferred from camp to camp and eventually he arrived in Austria at a little place called Kaisersteinbruck where he was held in Stammlager XVIIA. After several months in Austria Bob and his fellow prisoners had been so unco-operative with their Austrian guards and interrogators that they were transferred to a camp at Gorlitz in Upper Silesia, the journey was done by train and they had a long stop at Brno in Czechoslovakia. From here we go back to Bob's diary; " On the whole think we spent a very uncomfortable three weeks at Gorlitz, the news was our mainstay and it greatly heartened us when we knew the Russians were advancing and we were in their direct path. Then our bush telegraph brought us the news that the Germans were marching thousands of prisoners to the west. As we awoke on the morning of February the 13th we heard the sound of heavy guns firing. All through the day the guns sounded closer and closer and Stuka's were tearing overhead. Then came the news that the Russians were only twelve kilometres to the north of us. All of us thought of that long awaited freedom, but no, it was not to be, at half past five the following morning we were driven out of the compound by dogs and sentries and were lined up ready for the road. Then, in the pouring rain we commenced our forced march, we started out twelve hundred strong and when we were finally released there were less than six hundred of us, it was truly a march of the survival of the fittest and a march such as I never wish to undertake again."
The prisoners' forced march lasted to twenty eight days and they had suffered immensely both from the treatment that they received from their guards and from the weather which did its utmost to make conditions even worse. In the afternoon of the twenty eighth day they arrived at Duderstadt, their rest here lasted for nineteen days until on April the 2nd, the prisoners were warned that they were to move out again on the following morning. We were hustled out of the building and on to the roadway at five o'clock in the morning of April the 3rd, it was pouring with rain as we were counted and handed our days rations. We left at half past six and were fortunate in having a fresh set of guards, all middle aged men. We did twenty nine kilometres to the village of Bartofelde and received quite comfortable sleeping quarters in some small barns. We managed to procure a few potatoes so slept soundly during the night on full stomachs. The following morning we started early and in spite of the numerous air raid warnings when we were forced to halt we managed to march twenty seven kilometres again that day. A Polish slave labourer told us that Kassel was being shelled by the British, this set our minds on escape plans once again. We were lucky on April 5th, it was a beautiful day and we marched through some pretty wooded country. At midday a halt was made at the side of a wood, quite a number of us got off our marks, too many made the attempt. Dogs, foresters and troops rounded us up by nightfall so we had to march during the night to catch up with the column. The following day was very hard going, all hilly country, we did not even pass a small village. We did twenty kilometres before turning into a barn for the night. We rested the next day. News was bad for the Germans but unfortunately we did not know it at the time. During the afternoon we were visited by some English fellows from a working kammando, they brought us a few Red Cross parcels and cigarettes. The parcels worked out at one between ten men and ten cigarettes each.
What a feast we had. On April the 8th, we were just going down the hill into Halberstadt when the air raid sirens sounded. We were halted and for almost two hours were treated to the finest display of bombing we had ever seen. Over two thousand allied bombers had taken Dart in the raid and three auarters of the town was in ruins. casualties amounted to nearly forty thousand. We were billeted in small barns after a march of only eighteen kilometres. The following day we were again allowed to rest, the sentries were becoming uneasy. On April the 10th we made Wortstarhausen after marching twenty seven kilometres.
We saw some R.A.F. planes hedge hopping and chasing cattle across a field. This was to effect our menu later in the week although we did not realise it at the time. We guessed that something was happening as the people of the village were most concerned over feeding us and they dished us up quite a decent soup with our bread. As we were leaving the following morning the Burgomeister tried to persuade the officers in charge of us to let us remain in the village but we carried on and arrived at Ditfurt, fifteen kilometres away, just after ten o'clock. We were placed in a large barn, the owner of which had forgotten to lock the trap door leading into the loft above so we were soon boiling up the cattle peas and beans that we had found there. Before the farmer had realised his mistake all of us had a good fill up and were ready for the consequences.
That night more Polish labourers told us that allied troops were only thirty kilometres away, we could hardly believe it. Sleep did not come easily that night, the roads resounded with the heavy traffic passing and we did not know what to make of it. April the 12th, 1945, a memorable morning for us, the Yanks arrived at a quarter to eight, just a jeep and an armoured car. This was the day we had all been waiting for. Our feelings at this time were impossible to analyse, one and all had that choked up feeling usually associated with the sentimental scenes on the silver screen. We had no time for cattle feed but raided the dairies, bakeries and grocers. The main contingent of the Americans arrived that night, they gave us cigarettes and food and we were able to listen to the English news for the first time in comfort. A number of our sentries were bumped off that night.
These prisoners of war remained in Germany for some time before they were eventually repatriated through Belgium to England and home after several years of captivity, in some cases this had been five years.
During 1942 and 1943 detachments of men from the old 'Rifles' served in almost every possible theatre of operations. When Rangoon fell to the Japanese there was part of a battery with General Alexander's army which fought the rearguard action along the Imphal Road, back into India. After playing a very full part in the battles along the road they were sent to the ' Happy Valley' to rest and regroup, this was in the area of Shillong in Assam (North Eastern India). At this time there was a young nurse from the Island serving at the hospital in Shillong, several of the Rifles became her patients, when word reached the men in Happy Valley that an Islander was a nursing sister in the local hospital a constant stream of Isle of Wighters turned up to seek the latest news from home. It turned out that the letters home from the troops were taking a very long time to reach England, in some cases over a year, but the nursing staff's mail was going direct and reaching its destination in a few days. That young nursing sister acted as an unofficial post office and news agency for several months, she still lives on the Island and I am indebted to her for this information. The men of the Rifles then went back to join General Alexander's army, it was thanks to the men of this army that the road into India was closed to the enemy and the rapid westward advance of the Japanese was at last halted.
After the war was over the unit again reverted to its Territorial role, again changed its title and its style of duties, it was to become 428 Heavy Anti Aircraft Regiment (Princess Beatrice's I.W. Rifles) R.A. (T.A.). By this time Lord Mountbatten had taken over the duties of Honorary olonel. In the Queen's Honours List in 1953 the unit was honoured, B.O.M.S. 'Herbert was to receive the British Empire Medal in recognition of the fact that he was the longest serving member of the Territorial Army on the Active List. The following citation dated 19/1/53 and it appeared in the London Gazette of the 1st June, 1953: '2238888 Battery Quartermaster Sergeant A. Herbert. B.Q:M.S. Herbert has probably the longest service in the Territorial Army of any soldier who is still on the active list. He has served his country loyally since joining his local volunteer unit at the age of seventeen years on the 6th of January, 1914. He served continually since that date with one small break from 1944 to 1948 both as a part time volunteer in peace and a full time soldier throughout two wars.'
He was mobilised in September 1939, and served in Iceland and various parts of the United Kingdom in the rank of R.Q.M.S. On D Day and during the subsequent landings on the continent he served as Ships Sergeant Major in the S.S. Duke of Edinburgh. He was finally discharged late in 1944 for medical reasons. In this regiment he had now served while it was infantry, coastal Defence Artillery and now Anti Aircraft Artillery.
He has always given freely of his spare time to his T.A. duties and has been most conscientious in his military work and his unit's activities. Both his previous experience and example of service to his country which he has given are an encouragement to all member of his T.A. unit. B.Q.M.S. Herbert could not have done more over the long period since January 1914, to serve his country as a Territorial Army Soldier. 'The regiment was again to change its title, and, as the Isle of Wight (Princess Beatrice's) Battery, 457 Heavy Air Defence Regiment R.A. T.A. they were finally disbanded in 1967, their remnants forming a company of territorial infantry.
The Isle of Wight Rifles thus had a total history of one hundred and eight years, they had seen action in the South African War and both World Wars, a distinguished career during which there were, as far as I can trace, two Distinguished Service Orders, one Distinguished Conduct Medal, four Military Crosses, seven Military Medals and several mentions in despatches, for gallantry awarded to officers and men of the regiment.