At this time last year I told you about Mum’s family’s experiences in the First World War, so this year I’ll tell you about what happened to them in the Second World War, starting with Mum’s dad, who I called Grandpa Graham.
He grew up in a tiny hamlet in a beautiful part of the Llynfi valley in South Wales and left school at 14 to work in his grandfather’s coal-mine.
He didn’t like being underground, however, and, as soon as he was 17, he learned to drive the coal lorry and took over the deliveries from his cousin who hated driving.
If the world had stayed at peace, Grandpa Graham would probably have stayed in South Wales for the rest of his life. But, in the September after his 19th birthday, the Second World War started and in the September after that, Grandpa Graham was conscripted into the Army.
It’s hard to believe now, but at that time not many people could drive and even fewer had driven anything bigger than a family car. This meant that Grandpa Graham had a skill that was instantly useful to the Army and so he was drafted into the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) as a driver.
After basic training in Matlock, Derbyshire, Grandpa Graham and the rest of his group were sent to Morley, near Leeds, arriving there on December 17th 1940. On the way, they were joined by a similar group who’d done their basic training in Sheffield and together they formed the basis of what would eventually be called 143 Company RASC (Tank Transporter).
During their three months in Morley, they used a sports ground as a parade ground. Those who couldn’t drive already were quickly taught how to do so, while preparations were made for them to go overseas. No one said where they were going, but as they were issued with tropical gear – including pith helmets as worn in the First World War – everyone had a good idea of what their destination was.
They left Morley on March 17th 1941 for Gourock on the river Clyde and nine days later set sail on the s.s. Strathaird, a 20,000-ton luxury liner which had been converted into a troop-carrier. Unfortunately, as a result of being part of a big convoy sailing in the darkness, the Strathaird and another ship collided and the damage was bad enough for the Strathaird to have to return to Gourock for repairs.
Many of the men on board were then deployed to Liverpool on fire-watching duties until late April when they returned to Gourock and on the 26th of that month set sail once more on the Strathaird.
This time the journey passed without incident. There was a five-day stop at Freetown, Liberia, a brief stop at Cape Town, four days in Durban, another brief stop at Port Sudan, and a final stop at Port Tawfik, Egypt, where the men disembarked on June 15th – seven weeks after they’d set sail. For someone who’d previously been no further than Oxford overland and whose longest journey over water had been across the river Severn on the Beachley to Aust ferry, Grandpa Graham was turning into a Big Adventurer – and there was much more to come, though some of it would be far from pleasant.
For the first few weeks in Egypt, however, Grandpa Graham and the men who’d sailed out there with him seemed to have very little to do other than routine Army stuff, including lots of marching up and down in the heat of the sun. Then in September they were tasked with moving a section of the 5th Indian Division from Burg el Arab on the edge of the Western Desert to Kirkuk in Iraq, using every three-ton Bedford truck the company possessed. This was a round-trip of 2400 miles/3840 kilometres and one of the longest the RASC had undertaken up to that point.
From the start they made friends with the Indians they were transporting, drinking their sweet, syrupy tea and sharing the chapattis that were baked fresh every day. Mum thinks they might also have first eaten curry at this time as Grandpa Graham liked it occasionally long after he’d left the Army.
The journey took them over the Suez Canal, across the Sinai Desert, then in to what was then Palestine, with its lovely orange groves, and limes and lemons, figs and apricots growing by the roadside. The Jordan Valley came next, followed by a steep climb up the eight-mile Muz-Muz Pass and eventually into Iraq, where they passed through Baghdad before reaching Kirkuk on the afternoon of September 9th, 13 days after they set out.
After a couple of days’ rest, the empty vehicles set off back to Egypt, arriving back at their headquarters on September 24th. For three more weeks, they endured routine army life with no particular purpose. Then in October the news broke – they were going to become a tank transporter unit, which I’ll tell you more about in my next post.
Grandpa Graham standing up in the middle.
Follow my next blog: 60. LEST WE FORGET – GRANDPA GRAHAM’S WAR – PART II