We were members of the Raiding Support Regiment (the RSR). As its name implies we were formed to–Raid and Support. Raid and support guerrilla bands in the countries occupied by the enemy. Individuals from the Foreign Office having been given His Majesty’s Commission had been working in various Balkan countries since the war began. Now, 1943, with it becoming evident that the tide of war was turning former allies of Nazi Germany were showing signs that they wished to get off that particular ‘band-wagon’ so as people finally decided on their true allies, resistance began to hot up. S.O.E., in its wisdom, decided that it would be good idea to foster this by importing trained troops. Troops already trained on the more sophisticated weapons of war. Because they had to simply rely on native muleteers to transport their meagre gear, and who, of course, performed this task quite efficiently, they assumed that, what would become a mule-train of some eighty or ninety animals could move about the hinterland as freely and as easily as their group of two or three.
The hinterland in this case, meant a journey of some days, over, at first hills, then mountains, sometimes above the snow line, the troops still in Tropical Kit! Yes, we were trained in our skills, whether it is gunnery, Infantry tactics, Machine guns, a wide spectrum of military skills were collected at our base in Palestine in the winter of 1943. There was perpetrated the first and fundamental mistake. We were asked which battery we would like to serve.
The Regiment was made up of Five Batteries, ‘A’ Battery were equipped with .303″ Heavy Vickers machine guns and Spandau’s; ‘B’ with 3″ Mortars; ‘C’ Battery with .5″ Browning M/g’s; ‘D’ Battery with 47/32 mm Anti-tank Guns; And ‘E’ Battery with 75 mm Howitzers.
So the advantage of having fully trained troops was wantonly thrown away at the outset, for you had people who, fed up with their old weapons opted for these new novelty jobs. So before even starting to train us on guerrilla war we had to be trained on these new weapons first. My mates, instead of being ‘posted’ to ‘E’ Battery, that is the 75 mm Howitzers, where their skills would be fully utilized, picturing the little bombs of the mortar comparing it with the 84 lb ammo they were used to handling, opted for ‘B’ Battery. There were two teams in our Section, the others were Essex lads (infantry), and so having some experience on mortars, albeit the little two inch ones, so for them, it wasn’t to bad. But us Artillery blokes had to get used to an entirely different method of hitting the target. Which basically consisted of virtually smothering it.
With Christmas behind us we were at first tied up with getting fit enough to march long distances, once again the infantry boys came out on top, for us gunners hadn’t stepped outside our gun-pits for months. Our leg muscles virtually atrophied! Then there was our ‘Jumps’ Yes, we may have to parachute into our operational zone so off to Ramat David we went for a fortnight, those who succeeded in completing the required seven, including a night jump, passed their test and received the enormous increase of two shillings a day in their pay.
Then more training, up to the snow in Lebanon this time we had to learn to Ski!! No such luck for my section. It appeared that Tito of Yugoslavia needed a conference with the British Military Mission to sort out how Yugoslavia would be run when the Germans withdrew, so Col. Churchill (no relation!) was delegated to sort things out with him. The Island of Vis, just one of the hundreds which made up the island chain of Dalamatia, was a sort of H.Q., and we were already occupying it (though the Germans occupied all the rest). There, special guards were needed and we were given this somewhat doubtful honour. So in January we were off first of all boarding the S.S. Princess Catherine at Suez, then off up the Suez Canal to Malta, Bari in Southern Italy, then to our temporary base at Mollfetta. Having got ‘ tooled up’, we sailed off in a LCT landing on the island of Vis. Our mortar position had not been mapped out for us, so we stayed at the Fish Factory for a few days during which we had the interesting task of guarding German prisoners that had been captured by the Commandos during their recent raid on HVAR. This was a much bigger island (one which I was to visit on holiday in 1994!)
There was a mystery. One of the Germans was heard saying that they knew that the raid was coming off. How? Was the question that needed an answer? The Germans would not talk freely, after many tricks had been tried and failed to elicit the required information the Commandos decided on tougher tactics. The prisoner who had talked was isolated from his pals in a cell of the old building in which they were kept; it was our job to take him at intervals up to the room used for interrogation. These intervals were spaced oddly. Sometimes we’d take him up only to bring him, after a few words, straight down again. He’d then go off to sleep, from which we’d wake him a few minutes later telling him that he couldn’t expect to sleep all day. As he was in total darkness he had no way of knowing what time it was. After a few days of this he finally told us that his informant was his Yugoslav girl friend. She was taken out and shot. The end for him wasn’t much different as during the air raid mentioned above the house in which the prisoners were kept was destroyed. A few days later we were sent to our action site further inland.
Having spent a few days in our first billet which, as I told in Part one was a fish factory, previously used to process the thousands of Anchovies with which the Adriatic was blessed. We then moved further inland opposite, I learned later the cave where Tito held his HQ. The island, unlike the others on the eastern side of the Adriatic, was just a small hump sticking up out of the sea, and was the only one occupied by us, the rest were in German hands. We were now camped on the side of a valley down which the icy wind screamed. It was 6.30am, as I got out of my Pup tent. We had erected it against the stone wall of a vine terrace. Winter in the Adriatic. Sunny Yugoslavia? My turn to be ‘Cook for the Day’. Huh! Now ‘Eats!’ The question was what! We had no cooks! They had been left behind, so we had to see to that ourselves. Come to think of it there was no back-up at all. Wherever we went in the past there had always been the basics laid out. Ablutions, toilets, cookhouse, all manned by permanent staff. The first of the new Raiding Support Regiment in the field, one section of 3″ Mortars, one of Vickers machine guns and one of ‘5″ Browning’s .This was not what we had been formed to do, but typical of the amateurs in the SOE. They needed guards for this conference and we had been elected, even if it meant cutting short our real training (for which we were going to pay very dearly later on). Here there was nothing, just a bare hillside out of which we were expected to hack all these amenities and live and fight off any hordes of enemy parachutist’s troops that just happened to drop in to see us at any time.
Let us step back and for a moment note the background here. The modern S.A.S. is made up of specially selected troops who have been hardened and trained to fever pitch. Equipped with all that they could possibly need in the field. Anybody that did not come up to the exacting standards set is rejected as not being able to make the grade. We had no such standards to meet. There was no bench-mark against which we could be judged fit or unfit to carry out the role allotted to us. If we ‘fell by the wayside’ as many did, it was a firing squad by the enemy or if they felt in a good mood a stay at a Stalag! A bright prospect – I don’t think! The standards for the modern SAS were founded and have grown from these foundations. Just ordinary blokes, volunteers from the Eighth Army. Now that the Desert War had ended, many felt as if they were un-employed, so when the chance came along to relieve that boredom they took it. It was we, who had to ‘learn on the job, failure or success – live or die – these were the reality, a reality remembered with pride today by the SAS regiments. We started the war by improvisation and so it continued.
We were a part of the Central Mediterranean Forces and so we occasionally got American rations if not, we foraged for what we could find, which was very little. Our gifts from Uncle Sam came in cardboard boxes packed for so many men for so many days. It consisted of a variety of eatables from tinned fruit to sausages, that is, Soya links) dehydrated vegetables, boiled sweets, little packets of salt and pepper, fags and even toilet paper (a rare treat – use your imagination on that). So we decided that the best way of seeing after ourselves was for each to be ‘the cook for the day’. On the strict understanding that whatever was served up there’d be NO complaints!! This arrangement could lead to one main problem which was that by the end of the week all that weeks ‘goodies’ had been used up so the one who cooked at the end of the week had the job of trying to put something on the table; for the rest of the lads for that day. Not an easy task! For the first few days we lived like lords but at the end of the week it was short commons indeed.
Come the day, (yes! at the end of the week) it was my turn to stagger from my tent at 6.30hrs and start cooking. My first task was to check through the rations that were left before I got breakfast ready. I was astounded to say the least at what was left to my culinary skills. As I peered into the box in which the rations were kept, my heart sank. I had to make up three meals for the day! How, I wondered could I make anything out of that? What was I going to fill those rumbling bellies with? Slowly I raked through the tins and packets; it did not help either to find that some of the tins and packets had no labels on!! Hmm!! Lets see, that’s tinned bacon and; ah- ha! Soya links. Blocks of burgoo (army porridge) good stuff and made with condensed milk. What’s that? I wondered with alarm as I gazed at some rather unappetising grey – green stuff! Oh not to worry I signed with relief it was only dehydrated cabbage – who knows I hopefully thought it might be good! There were also dehydrated potatoes and onions. Yes I was pleased it was enough for a stew for mid-day, good. But what about breakfast? Well, the tin of bacon should be O.K. I opened it up! Cor! What’s that grey stuff in there? Oh, well, lets get the fire going first. To do this I had to build up two rows of stones about a foot apart and about three feet high, long end open to the wind, which was coming down the valley where we had our camp. I put in the broken up pieces of vine roots poured over some petrol and covered the stones with some of the empty ration tins which we’d flattened out, put a match to it and we have our stove.
Just then I heard someone call, and on looking round saw a young Partisan girl. She was beckoning to me. Now this was a dodgy, fraternising with Yugoslav women was a very dangerous pastime, so I was very wary as I approached her. She was smiling and holding something out to me, it was a bottle, and she urged me to have a drink. Hmmm! Suspicious and suspicious! Oh! Hell! Chance it, Rosie! I took a sip. Crikey! Talk about Fire-water! I almost choked on it. She laughed and gestured to me to keep the bottle. What a bit of luck, this’ll bring tears to their eyes when I put this in their morning tea! Now! How about those ‘eats’. O.K. First, the Burgoo, then that bacon with plenty of the gippo should go down all right.
There wasn’t much for us to do after breakfast except to try and keep warm, which meant getting back in the sack. VIS, the smallest island in the Adriatic, and the only one occupied by us, we were surrounded by enemy held islands, but we were the ones doing the attacking. The Commandos were out again last night. Our job was defence of Tito’s H.Q. where he was meeting Col.Churchill for a conference as to how the offensive against the occupying Germans would go. However, that was all over my head, my worry was feeding the hundred thousand, well, not quite though it might as well be. Dinner what have I got Oh! Yes, those Soya links, generally very un-popular among the regular troops but we weren’t regular by any means, this was giving ‘off the land’ with vengeance. For instance our ‘coffee’ was toasted barley, quite an art that, for it would quickly blacken if you did keep a close eye on it. What’s that yellow stuff in the bottom of that bag? Oh! I see, Oleomargarine, in this cold it’s more like suet. So, I’ve got plenty of currants that means Spotted Dick, with some of that maize flour. Parachute silk to rap it in and that big Dixie will hold a one, just watch it to make sure it doesn’t go off the boil.
How I congratulate myself on staying helping my Mum in the kitchen as she prepared our Sunday duff. No, custard I’m afraid. Ah! Well, here they come, stretching and yawning. We can thank whoever the genius was who issued us with those new ‘Overcoats, canvas’ on the outside then a layer of water-proofing then a lining of Angola wool the same as our shirts, the wind couldn’t get through that. Quickly they gathered round the fire. Stand back a bit’ I shouted ‘That’s, if you want any breakfast!’ ‘You must be joking, Rosie, there’s nothing in that bag, I looked last night’ said one. Well, aren’t you in for a surprise then, here cop hold of this’, and I handed him a mug of ‘coffee’ liberally laced with what the girl had given me. Having taken a good gulp he came up, spluttering! ‘Blimey, Rosie, you trying to poison me ‘. Every body wondered what was going on till Jack Jelley twigged and made grab for the mug and was soon swilling it down, for he was an established drinker of the old school, everything was grist to his mill. By this time the first one was feeling the effect in his tummy, a warm glow was reaching out into his furthest parts. ‘Hey, Jack give me my mug back’, ‘O.k. here it is’ ‘You’ve emptied it!’ ‘Course I have and another one too if I get the chance. But by now the others wanted to have their share and I doled out enough for each. ‘Now, then, Breakfast, Porridge, with honey and then, fried sausages and bacon, how does that sound’ ‘Lead us too it’ they all cried. Soon I was the most popular man in the camp. But for how long for dinner had to be prepared next. I soaked some army biscuits and mixed that up with the margarine, broke up the remaining Soya links and put them in the Dixie lid covered it with the mashed up biscuit mixture. Then made another tin and put that on top of the stove and I had an oven into which it put the Soya pie, for that is what it would be. Just before it was done I’d put some if the ‘iffy’ bacon on top, that’ll form a nice crust. Soak that dehydrated cabbage and give it a little boil that should do. Now for ‘Afters’. Well, I’d already got that planned. Plum Duff, I’d scrounged plenty of sultanas or raisins, for they grew round this way now for the old Oleo Margarine, this time with some of that Maize flour, it’s not real self-raising, but that’s too much to hope for. By rights the duff should come out like lead! But beggars can’t be choosers.
The lads had cleared off on some job or other. We had been invited to a Shindig in the village to-night so they may be cleaning up their kit. Not much else to do here except wait for the Teds! Here they come again must be Dinner time (you don’t have to blow any bugles round here!).Well, the pie was done; let us hope it eats OK. Here you are, lads, shove your Dixie’s over here, I chopped out large portions of the pie then slopped in some mash and the cabbage. They were somewhat startled as, knowing the state of the ration bag, they didn’t expect much. They soon tucked in; I hope it’s not too bad (or too good either, for then I’ll get the job permanent!). I didn’t need to fear, so far there’d been no sound so far but the clashing and scraping of eating irons against Dixie. Wait till they see the Duff! As I rolled it out of the cloth I was astonished to see that the colour had come out of the parachute and the pudding was half green and half brown! Never mind they’ve eaten worse. No comments so far. So it looks as if my turn a cooking has been a success. Good old Mum, she taught me well. Little did I know of the adventures and mishaps I was to experience in the future before I was to make another.
Source: BBC WW2 People’s War Part I, Part II