From author, Dr. Fred Eichelman: As we honored over Memorial and D-Day what we have rightfully labeled “The Greatest Generation” we too often think only of our American heroes. This also applies to our allies during World War 2 and particularly to the English. When my wife Carolyn and I made our first trip to England nearly thirty years ago we were hosted by two lovely sisters who toured us around the nation. Jean and Ann-Marie Flack. We had the delight of getting to know their parents, George and Marie and thoroughly enjoyed the stories George told us about his adventures during World War 2. Though not at D-Day he was very much involved in the invasion of Italy, a plan of Prime Minister Winston Churchill who believed that taking on the “soft underbelly” of the Nazi holdings would lead to the war’s end. George and I also shared a love of the music from that period like Glenn Miller and in particular Vera Lynn whose radio broadcasts and visits to British bases made her the voice of the English spirit. Only Churchill was more listened to during those years. George’s daughters encouraged him to record his story which they transcribed and shared with me. They permitted me to print a part of it for you readers as it has deep meaning for us all. George had two younger brothers Ernest and Mick, all three of whom served and survived. Here is George’s story in his own words.
It was a Sunday and we all sat around the radio as Neville Chamberlain, the prime Minister then announced that Britain was at war with Germany. Our lives were about to change as the three of us brothers were called to join the forces and we all served abroad. Little did anyone realize that the war would last six years, with so many lives being lost.
I was 20 when my call-up papers arrived in 1940. I was told to report to Milborne Port in Somerset the following week, and was supplied with a railway warrant in order to make the journey. I had to take a pair of boots, a raincoat and any personal effects.
A Sergeant gave us an insight into the Royal Artillery, their role and what we might be doing. The regiment had previously been to Dunkirk and lost many soldiers. They were reassembling at Ringwood, and we new arrivals were replacements to make the numbers up.
We then went to the Quartermasters stores and drew our kit: tin hat, gas mask, clothing, mess tins, mug and cutlery and a ‘housewife’ (small sewing kit) which we had to store in our kit bag. We all got into our uniforms. I felt very proud but somewhat self conscious in my uniform, but so did all the other rookies! We had to parcel up our civilian clothing ready to be posted back home. Unfortunately, mine got lost, and never did arrive home!
After six weeks, we had a passing out parade where we had to perform all the marches for the Colonel in charge of the regiment. We all passed with flying colors and had a meeting regarding which job within the battery we wanted to do. The choices were: gunners, signallers, cooks or office staff. After seeing the size of the shells which would need to be loaded into the guns (they were about 100lb each) and the size of the guns themselves, I decided to opt for being a signaller!
This involved learning the Morse code, dealing with field telephones and the 18 wireless and 32 wireless, which needed to be carried on your back. We were shown how to lay the telephone lines and connect the units. I found the Morse code quite easy to pick up, and have never forgotten it, despite never needing to use it in active service. I was now a fully fledged signaller!
We used to hate being on manoeuvre at the same time as tanks were being used, as they had a nasty habit of chewing up my newly laid telephone wires, especially in gateways! I would have to find where the line had been broken and repair it. There could be several lines in the same field, so to find the correct one, I had to utilise the field telephone, connect to a line and find out who was on the other end! Hopefully it was my battery!
Life was getting pretty boring – all we seemed to do was keep training and doing exercises. Everyone was getting fed up and wondering when something was going to happen.
We had been doing this when new orders came through and we had to collect all our gear and get back in the convoy trucks – we were going to North Africa! We headed for Gourock, a Scottish port, where we boarded the SS Stratheden, one of the liners which had been taken over for use as a troop ship, and set sail in October 1942. We stowed our gear on the mess decks, and I slept in a hammock at night.
We (the 1st Army) would land at Algiers, push forward through Algeria and Tunisia and link up with the 8th Army coming the other way. We sailed past the White Cliffs of Dover and wondered how long we would be away from home.
This journey took us about 3 days before we met up with the advance guard of British and American forces. Our Major Fisher told us to dig in and sit by the radio, while he went to the East Surrey’s command post. The enemy started using mortars, and one landed in the olive grove where he was and killed him. One of the Lieutenants from the battery took his place until a new Major was appointed.
We got to within 10-12 miles of Tunis when we were held up by German forces at a place called Tebourba. The Germans had dug in and made a line which we could not pass. It was now November and the weather had changed and we were bogged down for 2-3 months. The trucks and tanks could not move, so we were stationed around Medjez el Bab where we remained until the weather improved. During this time we were working with Coldstream Guards and Grenadier Guards. They were holding the lines and our guns were available to be used as support. We were also subject to occasional Stuka dive bomb attacks, but managed to hold our positions.
It was about April/May 1943 when the weather improved and we were finally able to make the push forward. We started the attack on Tebourba and the Germans began to retreat. We advanced and the 8th Army was coming up along the coast towards Tunis and we squeezed the Germans onto the peninsula of Cap Bon, effectively cutting off their escape. Trapped between a mightier force, the Germans gave themselves up. We were positioned outside Tunis on an OP at Cap Bon and looked down and saw the German army surrendering. The infantry had them under control and hundreds, possibly thousands, of German soldiers came towards us marching in an orderly fashion, smiling, and obviously very relieved that the impasse was over.
“We began to push up through Italy and heard that the Italians had surrendered, but the Germans were fighting on. Our next objective was to get to Rome, which involved a battle at Anzio, a small town where we wanted to cut off the supplies to the German army. We landed at Anzio and met little opposition at the bridgehead, which had previously seen bitter fighting. We were able to capture Rome without further bloodshed. We then pushed further up into Northern Italy and over the next few months, our regiment travelled extensively through the Italian countryside, giving major gun support wherever required by other infantry and units from Canada, New Zealand, Poland, the American forces, the Ghurkas, Indians and Australians. It was one long, hard slog to get through Italy.
“Major battles were being fought in Normandy, and the forces fighting in Italy were rather unjustly labelled D-Day Dodgers because it was thought that we had had an easy job. (See Song Lyrics at end.)
“We eventually finished on the River Po in Northern Italy, where the Germans had their major defense lines. Once these had been broken, the Germans surrendered. While we were here, I had a letter from my brother Ern, who was serving with the SBS. He said he was in Rome at a rest camp and could I get to meet him? Armed with a railway warrant, I made my way to Rome. Lo and behold, we bumped into Ern! His group had billets at the camp and so Ern asked if I could stay with them. As luck would have it, there was a spare bed, so that became my home for a week!
“I returned to Bari where our orders were then to advance into Austria, and to join up with the Russian forces to stabilize the defenses. We met them at the Semmering Pass, and stabilized our positions. We stayed at a little town called Neuberg for about a month during which time we went up into the hills on patrols and stayed in a village where the villagers treated us to some ice cream made from fresh ice collected from the mountaintop. We were sent out on patrol in small groups. It was believed that Russian soldiers were taking cattle from the local farms and myself and a couple of colleagues were told to prevent this happening. I don’t know what they thought three of us could do, but we went anyway – stayed in the village and went out on evening patrols in the fields and I don’t believe they lost any more cattle while we were there!.
“After six years military service, I returned home and after a short time began working for Williams Brothers, a grocery and provisions company, at their store in Enfield town. Mick got a job at the Ministry of Pensions and Ern began a teaching course at Petersfield, Hampshire. England was safe and life returned to normal for all of us. Within a few years I was to meet and fall in love with a beautiful girl called Marie, settle down to happily married life and be blessed with two lovely daughters…but that is a story for another day.
“Now to talk about that awful title of D-Day Dodgers and how we handled it.
It is generally believed that it was Lady Astor MP who first called the men of the 8th Army who were fighting in the Italian Campaign ‘D-Day Dodgers’. But then, she was known to say many things she must have regretted. She was the one who once famously chided Winston Churchill for being drunk – to which he countered that she was ugly, and at least he would be sober in the morning!
“The fact is that the 8th Army were more than displeased to be called ‘D-Day Dodgers’, and with good reason. Since 1941, they’d had quite enough D-Day to last a lifetime during the North African and Italian campaigns: El Alamein, Tripoli, Mareth, Tunis, Sicily, Calabria, Algiers, Salerno, Anzio, and then the slog through the mountains of Italy.
“The only way to deal with this slur was to laugh, and so a song was composed to the tune of ‘Lili Marlene’, the haunting song by Marlene Dietrich. Selections are below with the last verse the most telling:
We’re the D-Day Dodgers, way off in Italy
Always on the vino, always on the spree;
Eighth Army scroungers and their tanks,
We live in Rome, among the Yanks.
We are the D-Day Dodgers, way out in Italy;(2X)
We landed in Salerno, a holiday with pay,
The Jerries brought the bands out to greet us on the way.
Showed us the sights and gave us tea,
We all sang songs, the beer was free
To welcome D-Day Dodgers to sunny Italy.
Dear Lady Astor, you think you’re mighty hot,
Standing on the platform, talking tommyrot.
You’re England’s sweetheart and her pride
We think your mouth’s too bleeding wide.
We are the D-Day Dodgers, in sunny Italy.
Look around the mountains, in the mud and rain,
You’ll find the scattered crosses, some that have no name.
Heartbreak and toil and suffering gone,
The boys beneath them slumber on.
They are the D-Day Dodgers who stay in Italy.