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Field of Fire
By Jack Swaab
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Jack Swaab
All rights reserved.
20 December 1942–19 May 1943
Just as Alamein was, in Churchill's words, 'the end of the beginning', so in its own small way was it the end of my beginning to learn to be a soldier.
Exercises in England gave way to fatigue and fighting over hundreds of arid miles; well-fed army life to dry tack, vitamin pills and a couple of mugs of water a day; and a bed in Britain replaced by a cold bed of sand under starlit desert nights. We marched westward. Lessons were gradually learned: earning the respect of your soldiers; coping with blood and loss; the acid tests of self-control (or at least the pretence of it) and leadership under fire.
The Axis army finally crumbled and surrendered in Tunisia. The Highland Division was, although we didn't yet know it, destined to cross a storm-swept Mediterranean Sea, and win a hard-fought battle for Sicily. The end of my beginning had taught me pride and confidence in my Division.
And a little in myself.
20 DECEMBER 1942
The course yesterday included a rather Diehard Colonel on 'Traditions-Regimental', and an indignant but fluent Czech on The Hun. The latter was very good though nothing he said was new to me. Unfortunately however a good many of our officers don't read very much and still have the idea that the Germans are good chaps. My fear is that when we've won the war we shall allow some militarist to take over and let the Germans give in while they are, so to speak, intact. Then we shall have another war before 1980. 1980 – what years it seems away. Yet I remember getting my Tiger Tim's Annual for 1926 (I particularly remember the cover for that year – very black and yellow it seems in my memory) and writing down nineteen thirties and forties and thinking how impossibly remote they seemed.
We have to give ten minute lectures. I have chosen as my subject 'An urgent draft is required ...' As it's just about 6 months since it was, the subject and tone of the lecture should speak for itself. I am about to prepare it.
I have just finished rather a good Diary-narrative called The Road to Bordeaux by two Englishmen who enlisted in the French ambulance service. It's quite astonishing the way the French people panicked – though in view of the way the post services and news broke down perhaps not so very. I still can't believe the British would have cluttered up the roads and allowed such complete chaos to reign, all the same. I'm sure the army would have taken over; though one is inclined to forget that our own army had a good many shortcomings in 1940.
Went to tea with the W.A.A.F.s yesterday. They were all there except Annette (on duty) also D., Owen Lowless, and two chaps from the Niew Amsterdam. One we always called Miniver because he looks a bit like 'Viv' in the film. Real name Minchin, and not so stand-offish as he looks; the other Ian Shaw, who is one of those subalterns you always think of as being nicknamed Toby and holding a mug of beer. Rather cheerful. They are both in the 1st Surrey Regt. I am not going on the church parade 'The Brigadier likes all officers to attend' (nor is Frank Neary; as the little attendance role is apparently not presented at the porch, it shouldn't matter). Later: Gave the lecturette. The Brigadier, criticising later, said 'Humour shouldn't be attempted unless you can get away with it. Now Lt. Swaab kept us in fits of laughter; I should think he'd always be able to make the men laugh; a very good lecture.' I only quote at such length because it wasn't as funny as all that, though it has a few rather shrewd cracks.
I rather like lecturing and find words come to me easily enough and only make out a few headings to guide me. Today we had Air V.-Marshall Lloyd of Malta, a dry, quiet, and effective speaker. Course ends at one o'clock tomorrow and it really has been rather interesting and enjoyable.
Back in Almaza with the worst cold in the head, of all things, I think I've had. As I rarely get such things, I suppose that's not much to go on. Anyway, combined with a complete lack of any mail it's put me in a depressed and irritable frame of mind. Back here my main source of annoyance apart from the lack of mail is the complete lack of any sign of a posting. So much so that I really think I shall go after all to P.R. with a view to landing this job as a front line reporter, which certainly for me has many advantages. Anything's better than this demoralising sitting around and waiting for something which never does seem to happen. I've just written a rather inadequate letter to B. I wish she were here; she's just the person I want to see tonight. Drew a princely £12 from the field cashier today, which has actually got to last rather a long time. Gordon Sudworth, and Jackie Cleughs, two squadron leaders from England and Durban whom you'll find mentioned in Diary I are here in Cairo. D. has seen them, and I certainly must.
I'm afraid Xmas here is going to be, besides being unusually nostalgic, unusually dull. However this is one of those statements I'm always inclined to make – particularly when depressed – and which may prove entirely wrong.
Went into Cairo this morning with D. to do some shopping. Our shopping included a large, and elaborately iced Xmas cake for the W.A.A.F.s. You see some very repulsive sights in Cairo where poverty and riches are so closely linked. My cold is bloody awful and I've been feeling lousy. Still no mail; it's been held up somewhere. D. and King are explaining in some detail exactly what performances they could give with the female supplied at the moment. King discussing the N.A. says 'That fucking boat, I was fucking glad to see the end of the fucking thing', the same epithet being ubiquitously used in each case. As he was supplied with 1/6 of a cabin, even more lavishly endowed with bed bugs than our tent, I can sympathise with him. There is nothing doing here, and no sign of a posting. It is even rumoured that no more postings to the desert will take place, but this seems unlikely.
By candle: Two diverse letters today. One from Val in S.A. Long and chatty but I had the feeling she felt she had to fill space so that she could know she'd written me a long letter. Consequently it made rather dull reading.
Second from Jock Cochrane, my quondam B.C. in 132. A very pleasant note, in which he promises to rope me in if possible. He's with the 51st Highland Div. somewhere west of Agheila now. I'd rather like to join him; can't make up my mind whether to go for this reporting or not. I think I'll wait till after Xmas to decide as I'm feeling absolutely bloody with this cold anyway at the minute. No letter from home, B., or Pam. There seems to be a general hold-up so I'm not alone in this, but it certainly has an effect on morale; the first thingpeople mention is lack of mail. It'll be too bad if nothing turns up for Xmas. The last para. of yesterday proved a correct surmise, as 'Big' Anthony, Bob Root, and two others have got postings for after Xmas.
I wish I could join them. It's a pity all my pals are in the A/T on this draft. I've been missing B. particularly much during the past two days. Perhaps the full moon is responsible ... Wrote home and to Pam and sent via England a long letter to the family in Long Island.
So at last, suddenly, it came. My posting, I mean, which arrived just in time to catch me with all my stuff at the laundry, where it's likely as far as l can see, to stay till after I've gone. Bloody hell. Strange coincidence – I am going to Jock Cochrane's very Regiment (127) and thus to the Highland Division. As a posting this might be a lot worse, but not so good, we have to leave early on Boxing Day morning. One thinks wistfully of Boxing Days of the past ... I shall miss D. very much. Tonight we're going to a party with the W.A.A.F.s, which, truth to tell, I'd give much to miss, as I'm feeling bloody with my cold and very depressed to boot. I am going after all with Nob Sutton though I doubt if we'll be in the same Battery. Outside it is a cold, dark night with the moon not yet up and searchlights all round the horizon.
And now it is ending, this rather miserable, rather nostalgic Xmas Day. It has been a terrible rush. I nearly went mad when the B.Q.M.S of the Unit Kit Store refused to accept my tin box – saved from the rubbish heap – on the grounds that it was 'govt. property'. Some men love the letter of the law. I had to go out and buy a suitcase, which D. is very kindly having painted up for me and will hand in. In the afternoon all the officers in the mess listened to the King's speech. We all stood bolt upright for the National anthem, and it was all vaguely impressive. We go out at 0630 tomorrow morning. I have a batch of men to look after. It means getting up very early, before it's light. D. (who is going on a gas course to Palestine next week) has given me a damn nice torch. I've met two old friends. Gordon Sudworth at the party last night which I left just before midnight, and Mike Liddle who was with me from the first day I joined till the day we both received our commissions.
Last night a grotesque and interesting picture was provided by the men (drunk and cheerful) lurching into camp, singing like tipsy shadows as they rolled off to bed. Tonight, on the eve of leaving for the front, I have been a prey to many memories and longings. Perhaps this is a feeling common to most soldiers on such occasions. I expect Mom and Dad were feeling a little sad with the family scattered all over the earth. I can picture them sitting listening to the radio just as all of us were, this afternoon. I could go to my unit feeling fitter. This cold is still bad. Most people seem to have had it; it must be some climatic freak. So far this evening is very sober here with officers sitting looking pensive and listening to 'Cinderella' on the radio. Xmas dinner is in about half an hour. So I close for now.
We are now (it is 1700 hours) at a transit camp near Alex. Very bleak and windswept but there are hot – they were never hot – showers, a YMCA for the men, and quite a passable mess with a radio. Got up at 5am to a chilly, windy morning with a dying moon. Felt envious as I bade goodbye to the other 3, warm in bed for several hours. After a lukewarm breakfast, the train, and a somewhat desultory journey here. We had two quite pleasant Anzacs in our compartment (Bob Root and 'Big' Arthur and I comprised 'we') who'd been out here 2½ and 3½ years respectively. Also I met Jock Cochrane's battery captain – one Arbuthnot, a very nice chap who promised to see the Colonel and try and wangle me into the Bty. I hope Jock won't feel I'm trying to take any advantage; I don't think he will, as he always was v. nice to me, and said he'd try and get me in if a chance occurred. We may move on tomorrow morning to Tobruk (in cattle trucks the informed say) but this is not definite. The 92 men I share with Stewart Hampton are a rather scruffy looking bunch and some are definitely inclined to be bolshy. It was a tedious job shepherding them here without knowing their names, particularly as we only had 2 sergeants and only one of those is useful; one Lawson – a rather tough specimen who looks like Wally Patch but does at least give orders not to make suggestions. But hell, when you think of it, what a Boxing Day; we certainly do undergo some strange and miserable experiences for England. Moreover, should I survive this war I shall never regret those experiences. The different moods and discomforts one undergoes teach one to value the small comforts of life so infinitely more. I believe my regiment to be is right up front, so I'll certainly go into everything without much of a preamble. In a way I'm glad; also slightly afraid of being afraid. Last night I had a bloody good Xmas dinner of traditional make up and completed by some excellent Xmas pudding and brandy cream. But I went to bed early and after talking for a few minutes went to sleep. I slept badly and woke up a number of times before 5 when I arose. At 6 a bugle sounded reveille over the still camp and I stood and looked at the wild sky and the wind blew gusty and cold ... we were leaving indeed.
Still in camp. I think we shall leave tomorrow, and by boat seems a good bet as all I.R.S. have been warned to have canvas shoes ready. I think I shall remember much of my military service by a series of rather dreary transit camps, which have a character all of their own. About a mile from this one is a large belt of very green trees. It's surprising how much more you appreciate them out here; I suppose it's the contrast to the waste of stony desert. Last night, without my bed (for I haven't brought mine tho' quite a number of officers have) it was quite hard on the torso, but I had a pretty good night's sleep and quite a long one as I was asleep by half past nine and didn't get up till 7.30. Officers here spend nearly all day mooching round the mess, reading, playing cards, darts, or ping pong with the usual rush on the bar whenever it opens – tho' the place is reasonably sober. There is also a radio which plays from morning till night – just now rather appropriately in the presence of so many Highland Div. officers 'Loch Lomond' with Deanna Durban singing it. She has a rich and somehow youthful voice which I like very much. One officer (Black Watch) turns to another (Gordons) and says 'Remember this time George!' George does. We have occupied Sirte, the 1st Army is 12 miles from Tunis, and the Russians are crashing on in the middle Don. Often in these bleak places – and how much bleaker they may be soon – I daydream of pleasant places and people with whom I'd like to be. I recall whole stretches of conversation ... Is it foolish I wonder, this nostalgic attempt to recapture the past, and plan the future we none of us can see; should one live in the present? I never could. Today I realised with great surprise that it is Sunday – I'd never have guessed. Incidentally I managed to get the laundry I mentioned on 24 Dec. after all. At breakfast today I had the smallest egg I've ever seen – I can't think what could have laid it. Perhaps this place etc. is best summed up by an officer sitting just behind me: 'Each place you go to is just a shade worse than the last; it's an old army rule.' He may be right.
We are going at 6 tomorrow by ship (cattle boat?). Today has been spent in the usual desultory way. The 'ping – pong' of the table tennis has become rather irritating but otherwise we are all fairly contented – or should I say resigned? I managed to scrounge a couple of EverReady batteries from the Q stores this morning, which gives me a reserve of 6 batteries. I feel rather dull as very little has occurred anyway, I'll close for the moment.
Had 8 very refreshing hours sleep before I rose at 0415 this morning under a diminutive but bright moon. The wind was blowing steadily from the SE and it was very cold. Breakfast was lukewarm and scarce as usual so we were not unduly fortified when we marched off to the 40 odd cattle trucks which comprised one train. This, after much squeaking and shunting set off at 0715. The wheels acted in a most octagonal fashion. We reached Alexandria docks at about 0900 and are now on board (and at sea) the Princess Kathleen, a comfortably suburban little steamer of about 6,000 tons, once the pride and joy of the C.P.R. The men – poor buggers – are as usual uncomfortably crowded; we have two-berth cabins – small it is true but unexpectedly comfortable (i.e. bed, running water) – I share no. 336 with 'Nob' Sutton. I am missing, perhaps expectedly, D. most at this juncture. The O.C. Tps. gave the officers a little pep talk ending with the rather amusing sentiment: 'I want everybody to get rid of the holiday spirit now and remember we're getting back to business.' A fine looking Major he is, in the Gordon Highlanders.
Alexandria is a city whose waterfront made me want to explore it more closely. As we left, we saw the 5 or 6 heavy cruisers of the now mutilated French fleet, lying at anchor. They were a fine but rather depressing spectacle. I am sitting in the lounge where most people are sitting about reading or playing Bridge. I am glad I'm not playing because I want to be alone with my rather sad thoughts. Now as it seems on the verge of battle, I can think of so many things I want to live for that I am surprised I sometimes feel indifferent about my fate. The sea is calm, and flanked by Destroyers we are steaming towards the sunset and Benghazi. I think much of B. and every now and again I take out the little St Christopher she gave '... to J.S. from B.B....' What a torment of memory those few letters evoke; I remember her tears in that early morning when I left her, the warmth of her arms around my neck, and that cold ride back in the jolting taxi an hour before dawn. I miss Pam too, but less poignantly because perhaps I know that should I be killed she will recover fairly quickly because our intimacy was new and had not gone deep enough to give us that inter-dependence and co-happiness I found with B. (Again with Sheila who was my lover for a year her mind never reached out and interwove with mine.)
Excerpted from Field of Fire by Jack Swaab. Copyright © 2013 Jack Swaab. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Maps,
Note on the Text,
Part One: 20 December 1942–19 May 1943,
Part Two: 5 July–26 November 1943,
Part Three: 26 May 1944–14 February 1945,
Part Four: 15 February–21 August 1945,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This barely edited publication of the authors wartime diaries offers a very good view of the kinds of day-to-day, hum-drum things that keep soldiers going and gets their attention. At times Swaab seems vaguely aware of the enormity of the events in which he is involved, but generally he seems more concerned about how many cigarettes he has, what brand they are, how much mail has arrived, fleas, issue of alcohol rations, and petty office politics within his battery. In that regard he is much like Colonel Cathcart in "Catch-22", ever alert for Black Eyes and Feathers In His Cap. I was hoping that more information about details of the author's job would come through, a'la George Blackburn in "The Guns of War." Things like details on the mechanics of artillery fire and control from a man who did it in action for the better part of 2 years, but somewhat-unfortunately Swaab stuck mainly to the details of his life when writing his diaries. There is an interesting passage in the days immediately before 6th June 1944, with his unit tucked up in a pre-embarkation compound in London. The glorious weather gives way to storms and high winds - an event the significance of which Swaab could have no idea, but in retrospect provides a fascinating real-life perspective on Group Captain Stagg's concurrent intellectual trial. During the section on Swaab's experiences in Tunisia and Sicily I had the somewhat surreal experience of finding myself reading this book and Spike Milligans memoirs of Tunisia and Salerno at the same time. The contrast between Milligan's lunacy and hilarity and Swaab's matter of fact recitation of each days ups and downs is amusing in it's own right. Unfortunately some of the diary has either been lost or omitted. Certainly the first diary has been lost to history, so the authors experiences from enlistment up till just before he joins a regiment on operations is only occasionally hinted at in relation to other events. But there are also gaps between the end of the Tunisian campaign and the start of the Sicilian, and between when the regiment arrives back in England in late 1943 and a few days before D-Day. Personally, I would have been interested in the amount and kinds of training that he carried out in the build-up to OVERLORD. The reason for this gap isn't stated - it could well be that he simply didn't keep his diary during this period. Overall the diaries present a rather unflattering glimpse of a junior officer in the second half of World War II, and details of the life he led. Nevertheless, if you take a reasonable background knowledge of the events in which Swaab was involved, you should find this a rewarding read.