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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Memories

MEMORIES OF WARTIME SERVICE


ERNEST MURGATROYD

Ernest Murgatroyd

I was called up and enlisted on 5th September 1940 at the age of 21 years after being exempt for one year to finish my apprenticeship at Bagleyís Glassworks as a fitter and turner.

I had to journey to Woolwich barracks for training, the longest distance I had ever travelled up that time Ė Hull and Withernsea being my usual destination.

Everything was fine until I arrived in London and made my way to the underground to take the tube train to Woolwich. I was baffled as to which line I wanted and where I had to change. I must have spent a couple of hours riding the tube trains asking directions and getting things wrong before finally noticing the routes printed above the windows on the sides of the carriage.

Training consisted of marching, arms drill, PT, rifle practice and hand grenade throwing. Aire raids were a frequent occurrence and we had to wear steel helmets on the parade ground. The corps I was enlisted into due to my apprenticeship was the RAOC Royal Army Ordnance Corps.

After a few months training I was posted to an RAOC command at Forthside depot in Stirling, Scotland. I wasnít at the depot very long before being posted with a squad of lads to do a job in Darvel in Ayrshire unloading rocket projectors coming from factories to be stored in local now disused lace factories and warehouses to be distributed later to different locations.

We were allocated to civilian billets in Newmilnes, which was great as it meant no more parades etc. An officer visited us once a week to keep check on us and bring us our pay which was two shillings a day for a seven day week. I donít remember how long we had been at Darvel in Ayrshire, I think it would have been two or three months when we were ordered to go to Motherwell. I never got there, the officer turned up one day and told a couple of us we were to go on two weeks embarkation leave so a posting abroad was on the cards. I wondered what Charlotte would say. I hadnít told anyone Iíd found myself a girlfriend Ė I had never had a girlfriend back home. However, I didnít get the chance to let her know as we were transported back to Sterling and then home on embarkation leave.

I decided to write to Charlotte and she received my letter and informed me that she was coming to Knottingley to see me before I left. I learned later that she lost her job and had to go into munitions in Chorley. Anyway, she and my mother saw me off at Leeds railway station as I started my journey to Greenock and a boat for somewhere abroad. A journey by sea, we would be travelling in convoy with other ships to where we didnít know, though we had a good idea. Things just happened in the army and you had no control over anything. You had to followed orders. There was no how, why or wherefores - you just did it.

Our ship being used as a troopship was a P&O liner the Strathaird. We were on the open sea with no sight of land anywhere. We must have set sail early morning and our sleeping arrangement was just a palliase and a couple of blankets below decks. Anyone caught short during the night had to step carefully over sleeping lads to reach a toilet but we slept quite well. We joined the convoy and headed into the Atlantic.

Seasickness meant a quick dash to the toilet though they told us we would get our sea legs after a few days. I soon discovered what a cruise was like as far as leisure and sailing is concerned though we had little or no entertainment just reading or laying about on deck or writing letters. It was quite pleasant standing at the shipís rail watching for fish. The shipís canteen was now open but there was such a queue. We waited to see if the queue would go down a bit but it never did. If you wanted anything at all you had to join the queue. The days passed leisurely but we did have guard duty or rather fire picket to make sure no one smoked on deck during the hours of darkness.

There were one or two scares as the Royal Navy escort ships sped along the convoy on their watchful patrol for enemy submarines. It was a comfort to just see them there. Finally we heard that we would be putting into port in a few days at Capetown, South Africa and we could get a couple of days shore leave. We had been sailing for five or six weeks.

It was good to catch sight of land Ė and there it was Table Mountain. I had heard of it and now I could see it - a flat topped mountain. That brought both good news and bad. I only got one day ashore as I was on fire picket the second day. After sailing all that time one day ashore was nothing! It was good to get ashore but the day passed far too quickly. I didnít see much and we would be back at sea in no time Ė just my luck.

The sea had been really rough since we left Capetown but it was to be expected as we went round the Cape of Good Hope. It has a reputation of being stormy only one particular morning at breakfast three of four of the lads sitting near the end of the table finished up in the aisle with the sudden tilt of the ship. The mess deck had long tables down both sides of the deck with an aisle down the middle. We sat on long forms which were fastened to the deck as were the tables so with a sudden pitch of the ship if you were not quick enough to grab the edge of the table you slid down the form and finished up in a heap in the aisle Ė breakfast and all.

I didnít fancy it but I had to take my turn on fore picket. It had been stormy all day and weíd spent the day below decks. The picket I was taking over from was clutching the bulkhead rail a few yards from the stairs and thatís as far as I was going. It wasnít safe to leave the rail of the bulkhead anyway, what we were doing out there at all I donít know.

The ship was rolling and pitching in heavy seas, one minute we were in the trough of a massive wave and the sky disappeared and in its place was a great wall of water Ė it was very scary. Then on the next wave, the ship rose and shuddered from stem to stern. I believed that to be because, rising with a wave the ships screws have much less water to churn and the power causes the shuddering and vibration of the ship, I hoped that was so anyway. With my hour up and my picket duty over it was time to find my place below deck and turn in again.

We had been sailing for about six weeks and we knew our destination was Egypt and that the weather was going to be hot. We were to disembark at Alexandria but after that we didnít know.

Dressed in our tropical uniform, khaki shirt, shorts, puttees and a topee, also a forage cap, we were bound for a place called Tal al Kebir just outside Cairo which was the base workshops of the armed forces in Egypt. Our living accommodation was Bell Tents and beds with an iron frame, wired base and straw palliasse but they looked quite good with a mosquito net hanging over each of them. We soon discovered we certainly needed the nets though mosquitoís somehow got inside and had a good feed off you during the night and we had to take mepacrine tablets each day to guard against malaria.

We had our meals in a canteen building with just long tables and forms. It was very hot inside for the first few weeks and at mealtimes we sat with sweat running down our face and dripping off our chin. We gradually got used to the heat and it wasnít so bad. I wasnít long at base workshops before I was posted to an Ack Ack unit in the desert with the eighth army. The unit was the 27th Ack Ack Regiment and I was to join the mobile workshops and take charge of a machinery wagon. There was about fourteen of us going to different units and we were travelling on the tail end of three ton wagons filled with equipment for the setting up of a transit camp somewhere in the desert. We didnít know what to expect but we were literally dumped off the wagons in what they called a wadi Ė a long shallow depression in the desert with soft sand underfoot and a few tufts of a sort of dry grass. Most of the desert we had traversed up to that point had been of hard compact sand. Was this our transit camp then? What do we do here in the middle of nowhere? We unloaded the wagons and erected the tents one of which was the supply tent for the food and water and petrol to be stored in. We were told to look after ourselves until someone from our unit came to pick us up.

Our personal equipment was stored in our kit bag and included a change of clothes, two blankets, a water bottle for drinking water, personal dixie which comprised two oblong steel boxes with folding handles and with one fitted into the other they were just long enough to take a knife fork and spoon. We also had an enamel mug and finally some shaving equipment.

There were about fourteen of us and two of the lads had been in this situation before Ė one was a Corporal so he was in charge. All we had to do now was wait and looking after ourselves was mainly concerned with providing meals, each of us making our own.

Tea was communal and made in a large dixie over the unique desert stove. An empty petrol tin which was about fourteen inches square and fourteen inches deep, had the top cut off and it was filled to about three quarters with sand and soaked through with petrol before being set alight.

Any food to heat up was done in our personal dixie, it was canned soup, stews mainly and bully beef, from now on we will get nothing - fresh biscuits instead of bread. The biscuits were a large thick kind of water biscuit.

After a couple of days, drivers from different units started to come for their new recruits. I was called for after about four days. The camp of the 21st Light Ack Ack workshop was situated in a wadi like I had just left only much larger. Wagons were spaced around the campsite with bivouac a tent for two personnel scattered around the camp. A bivouac is a small triangular tent with just a short twelve-inch wall. With it pitched on top of the sand you had just enough room to crawl in to make your bed; a blanket doubled to lay on and one for cover and that was it. The ideal way was to dig down about three-feet making an oblong hole about six feet long and four feet wide and pitch the bivouac over the top. If you dug a couple of steps at one end you had a reasonable bit of living space where you could sit up and move around a little. Bed was again the doubled blanket on the sand floor and a blanket for cover. I found it a little better to make a little hollow for my hip. The depth was a safety factor, which I subsequently found out. Little did I know that I would be digging living spaces on the desert coastline of North Africa between Egypt and Tripolitania for the following three years.

I met my comrades to be for these three years at roll call the following morning and was then shown the machinery wagons I was to work in. It was equipped with a lathe, drill, valve grinder, emery wheel for sharpening tools and a battery charging unit for the electricians to keep the vehicles batteries charged at all times. The Bofor ack ack guns of the 27th had the job of guarding the railhead and vital supplies brought from base by train. My job was to make spares needed mainly for transport. A regular thing was bushes and steel pins for holding the leaf springs to the chassis of a vehicle. The rough terrain with no roads played havoc on the suspension. Broken studs had to be drilled and extracted, petrol unions had to be turned, these spares were hard to get and awkward to make. Repair was a full time job and it kept us out of the firing line except for air raids on the railhead and supplies. You just had to lie in your dug out home and hope for the best. The wagons were camouflaged with netting so were difficult to spot from high above. The Stucka dive-bombers were the worst. They made a terrific noise in their dive. You just counted the explosions hoping they were going away from you and not coming towards you. I had a scary night in one raid. I was on guard duty patrolling camp and enemy planes were buzzing around looking for targets with bombs exploding in the distance. Suddenly I realised our camp was beginning to get lit up. A parachute flare was descending right above camp, the flare dangling below the parachute was a bundle of four long sticks of inflammable material and was burning very fiercely lighting up the whole camp. Luckily it landed on a clear patch of sand in the middle of camp. I had to get it out quickly and I tried shovelling sand on it but as fast as I could get a shovel of sand on it, it was blown off again with the fierceness of the flames. I needed help and got it. The corporal of the guard joined me and together we put the flare out.

The buzz of the planes grew fainter signalling the end of the raid. Sadly, among the gun crews there were casualties. This was my early days with the eighth army and I was to see and join the eighth in full retreat almost two years later.

An urgent call was sent out for a turner and machinery wagon from the First Ack Ack regiment somewhere up front. I was informed that I was to go. There would be a driver, myself and a navigator using map references and compass. The machine wagon was stocked with supplies, of petrol, water and tinned food. I believe at the time our camp was inland from Tobruck at a place called El Adem. It was the end of the railway line. The journey was very tiresome, hot and uncomfortable travelling by day and resting at night. We slept under the stars around the wagon. I think we had travelled three or four days seeing just one person Ė an Arab and his camel. We had just made camp on the evening of the fourth day when out of nowhere we had visitors. We had seen no-one and then suddenly they were there. They were South Africans and members of a LRDG long-range desert group. We were advised not to move the next day. We got an inkling that things were not going too well. We were up early next morning, breakfast packed and ready for the trail but decided to do as advised.

Looking into the distance in the direction we would have been heading there was signs of a dust cloud. We watched and waited as the cloud expanded into lines and columns of vehicles heading past us in the direction we had just come from. It was the retreat of an army; the eighth army.

We noticed our Regiment, the First Ack Ack, and a staff car left the column and pulled over towards us and slowed down. We were told we would be supplied with petrol and water and told to join the column and stay till further orders and so we began the journey back. As we moved slowly away we could hear the artillery of the eighth Army rearguard action. It was a long weary drive back and as we neared our Regiment we were ordered to return to our unit as the First Ack Ack Regiment would be re-equipped from base workshops.

Mail from home was very slow getting through, it was some months later before I learned that my mother had died of cancer. My girlfriend Charlotte had to leave working in the munitions after being taken ill with pneumonia and almost losing her life. At one stage her parents were sent for. She gradually recovered thank goodness though suffering from a weakened lung. From her letters she told me she was thinking of joining the NAAFI.

In the weeks after rejoining our unit we had to keep pulling back as the whole army was pushed out of Liberia and into Egypt. We finished up at Alamein. Alamein was a great area for defence and Rommelís African Corps was brought to a halt. I guess its now a race to re-arm and the Eighth Army had the edge with their supply lines being so short. We were as busy as we had ever been with repairs and we looked like being there for some considerable time.

In the short time we had been stationed around Alamein, I heard that Charlotte had been posted to Egypt and was in Alexandria serving in the NAAFI. We were able to communicate easier and after a week or two decided if possible that we would get married. Leave on active service was very rare I had only a few days in the two and a half years since joining the 27th Ack Ack Regiment. First I had to get permission from my Commanding Officer to marry. I got his consent and the NAAFI authorities arranged everything with Charlotte. We were to be married on 3rd June 1944 in the garrison church at Mustaphe Barracks, Alexandria by the Army Chaplain, Reverend Armstrong.

My friend Bob, a lad from Dodsworth, Barnsley, had promised to be my best man. We were granted seven days leave and travelled to Alexandria in the back of a supply wagon. I managed to see Charlotte on the second of June. It was a wonderful meeting. We had parted in 1941 and here we were in 1944. We didnít have very long together as Charlotte had to be in NAAFI quarters at a certain time and the rules were not to be broken.

On 3rd June Bob and I were in church in good time. Bob had sorted the ring from a pocket containing buttons, bits of string, safety pins, all the little items you kept when looking after yourself, along with sand of course. The organist was playing a hymn and suddenly changed to the wedding march and we knew Charlotte and her bridesmaid were walking up the aisle. As they drew level with us Bob literally pushed me out of the pew. With the wedding service over we were all transported to the NAAFI quarters for the reception.

Everyone enjoyed the reception, there was even a small band playing dance music. It was a far cry from our camp life but Bob and I would have to be on our way back within a few days. Our leave seemed to just disappear. Charlotte and I had three happy days together before I had to join Bob for the journey back to our unit. We had a very different journey back as we had been informed we were to be guards on an empty train. The return journey was not too bad, slower but a much smoother ride. We rode on low loaders carrying tanks. Alexandria was just 70 miles from where I was based but I didnít see Charlotte again for over a year.

We carried on with repairs to transport mostly and were not to move again for some months. We heard the Eighth Army was to get a new General, a General Montgomery. Rommelís African Corps were to be held at all costs. It was to be November before there was any decisive action. There were plenty of thrusts seeking weak points but it was the Eighth Army that made the first major strike. The barrage from our artillery was terrific at the start of the action and seemed to go on forever and after victorious battles they broke through the German lines and the retreat of the German Army began continuing all the way to Tunisia. There were fierce battles at strategic points as Rommel desperately tried to slow down and halt the Eighth Army advance but this time it was to no avail. The Americans had landed in Tunisia so the African Corp were between two armies and had nowhere to go.

With the breakthrough we received orders to pack ready for the forward advance, however, no sooner had we got started when I received a message ordering me to stay behind. Our recovery wagon had broken a front wheel spindle and had to be repaired. I would have to turn a new one. They brought me the broken spindle to obtain measurements from and a piece of axle steel off an old wagon no longer in use. The spindle had to be made of hard, tough metal. The spindle that screwed into the steering hub of the front wheel had to have a left hand square thread for strength, a flange, seating for large bearing, tapered shaft, seating for small bearing and a Whitworth thread to take the large wheelnut. It took me just over half a day to turn the spindle and I passed it over to the mechanics who reassembled the wheel. They gave me the thumbs up to let me know it was okay and we would be able to move off as soon as we were ready.

The drivers drove slowly through the battlefields of Alamein, it was always saddening. The pace speeded up once the signs of battle were left behind. We then had to catch up with our unit. The retreat of Rommelís army had been continuous and this was to be the end of the campaign. Within three months we were in Tripoli and I was not to see Egypt again. I donít remember much of the events after the end of the campaign, the machinery wagon was gone and I found myself on guard duty on the perimeter of an airfield near Tripoli. One morning we saw three fighter planes approaching and didnít know they were the enemy until they opened fire with their cannon, strafing the airfield. I guess it must have been their last sortie while on their way home. There were no more incidents after that and things became relaxed.

There was to be a victory march past Sergeants who were giving a party for the lads and that was about it. I had a surprise coming to me though. I met a lad from Knottingley by the name of Jim Pollard. He had worked at Bagleyís glassworks as I had and we spent about fifteen minutes chatting together excitedly before we had to go our separate ways.

The 27th Light Ack Ack were going home but then I received the bombshell that I couldnít go with them. I hadnít come out with them so I couldnít go home with them. I soon got my orders through, a posting to the Eleventh Armoured Brigade, destination Italy. I donít remember much about the journey to Italy except watching the coastline come into view, disembarking and assembling for the journey to the front. It was early 1945 and there I was back in battle dress after the shorts and shirt attire of the desert and didnít we need it. It was cold, rainy and muddy but it was good to see green fields again. We would be travelling northwards while the Germans were holding a line somewhere near Mount Cassino. The journey was rough and the roads were almost impassable in places. We had to have the help of winches on our recovery wagons.

We didnít know where we would be camping but it wasnít long before we found out. The wagons began pulling up around a large barn like building where we were to stay for the night. There was nothing in the building other than a large brick built oven standing in the middle of the floor. I donít know who organised the heating but there was a blazing fire going in that oven within minutes and before long the bricks were glowing red-hot. At least we were going to be warm. I think everyone slept fairly well even though it was only upon a folded blanket on a stone floor.

At first light we had to rise, wash and shave and get ready for an early start. There was no time to take stock of the surroundings. I did notice a large stack of sticks, which had been outside the building, were almost gone as they had been used for fuel for the oven. After a quick breakfast our convoy was on the move again and after a long tiring journey our destination was reached. We were on high ground overlooking a wide valley. Far away on the high cliff on the other side of the valley was the monastery of Monte Cassino. The valley was littered with knocked out tanks, transport and animals. It was certainly a no-go area with the Germans on one side and the allies on the other. It was stiff opposition and nobody was going anywhere.

Did I say nobody was going anywhere? I had a surprise coming to me. I heard that the Lancasterís were flying home very shortly and had arranged to take some of the lads home on leave. Names were going into a hat and as I had been away from home the longest I was to get three chances. My name came out and I was going home Ė what a feeling! I just couldnít believe it Ė twenty-eight days leave. I never thought or worried about the flying bit I was going home.

The twenty-eighth of February was to be the magic day. I donít remember much about the journey to the airfield but I do remember from getting into the plane. We were sitting on the fuselage floor of the Lancaster and I was sitting just back from where the wing was connected and there was a gap of a few inches through where I was able to see out. What a noise those four engines made on take-off and what a sensation of speed. Then with a slight rocking we were airborne. I saw the land below like a patchwork quilt. I was surprised during the flight how the plane dropped slightly and then bounced back up again but it was a very enjoyable experience. I donít remember how long we had been flying when I saw the coastline of England as we approached but a short while later we were landing. I donít recall which airfield we landed at or the procedure or journey to Knottingley but there I was back home in Knottingley.

There was a little dog in the yard, a little black and white terrier. It would belong to my young brothers, twins David and Donald who would by now be seven years old.

I had left home in 1940 and after five years what a stir I made walking in to the house, though only half of my family were home to welcome me. My younger brother Jeff was in the RAF stationed in the Shetlands, and my sister Gwen was in the NAAFI. My sister Barbara or Mary was looking after Dad and my twin brothers. My mother, whom I mentioned earlier, had died of cancer in 1942. Charlotte was still serving in the NAAFI in Egypt.

My months leave was a quiet one. I visited some of my old work mates at Bagleyís though the younger ones were in different vocations around the country, munitions etc. I donít remember much more about my leave or the journey to my port of embarkation but I was once again on a ship bound for Italy Ė my leave over. We disembarked for Monte Cassino and a transit camp and also arrived amid renewed activity on both sides. We slept fully dressed.

When in transit you belonged to anywhere the need was and wherever there was an alert on to a possible breakthrough. We were all placed on stand by the following day then allowed to proceed to our various units. I never thought it would happen but the Monastery was being bombed along with the surrounding area. Activity was increasing. The allies were slowly advancing, the German lines had collapsed and we were on the move. The retreat of the German army was ongoing but very slow as resistance was very fierce. It was not like in the desert where the retreat could be at speed to a strategic area where a renewed stand could be made. Rome had been declared an open city so hopefully it wouldnít sustain too much damage if any. We werenít that far from Rome and hoped to see a bit of the Capital of Italy on our way by.

We reached the outskirts of the capital and our route took us through part of the city. My memory of Rome is rather vague though I remember passing the Colosseum and had a few minutes inside. It was a vast arena and very impressive. I also had a couple of minutes inside a Catholic Church - one of the most beautiful places I had ever been in. We passed through Rome and continued northwards. Time did not mean anything in those days, we had no track of time and the days passed into weeks and months just disappeared. The retreat continued through the north of Italy and we finally came to a halt at some old barracks of the Italian army at Pordenone. The Germans had retreated completely out of Italy and over the Alps into Austria. It was the end of the Italian campaign.

After a short stay in the barracks we carried on over the Alps into Austria. The countryside was grand and picturesque with chalets on the hillsides - all very quiet and peaceful. There was no sign of the enemy. Our first camp was not very far from a river somewhere around Innsbruck. One of the lads produced hooks and line and it didnít take us long to find three long sticks as rods and off we went fishing. We only had time for one pleasant afternoon fishing as our regiment moved camp.

It was while we were somewhere in Austria that news broke of Germanyís surrender and for us the war was over but after returning home I was going to be posted to Germany with occupation troops until my demobilisation date. With protests from my family and friends I finished my time at Fulford Barracks, York, being demobbed on 25th June 1946.

Ernest Murgatroyd

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