On the 18th January 1943 the 56th Heavy Regiment, Royal Artillery, arrived in Algiers to join the British First Army in the drive east. Rommel’s forces were moving west, being pushed along by the Eighth Army.
They were sent to the Football stadium for the first night. Amongst them was a private soldier keeping a diary like no other:
All the action was around a Field kitchen. Several queues all converged on one point where a cook, with a handle-bar moustache, and of all things a monocle, was doling out. He once had a glass eye that shot out when he sneezed and fell in the porridge so he wore the monocle as a sort of optical condom.
He doled out something into my mess tin. “What is it?” I asked. “Irish Stew,” he said, “Then”, I replied, “Irish Stew in the name of the Law.”
It was a vast concrete arena. We queued for an hour. When that had passed we queued for blankets. Next, find somewhere to sleep, like a football stadium in North Africa. We dossed down on the terraces. After ship`s hammocks it was murder. If only, if only I had a grand piano. I could have slept in that.
Twenty two year old Gunner Milligan, 954024, had arrived on active service. War memoirs would never be the same again. His first full day in Algeria was the 19th January:
Gradually the sun came up. There was no way of stopping it. It rose from the east like an iridescent gold Napoleon. It filled the dawn sky with swathes of pink, orange and flame. Breakfast was Bully Beef and hard tack. I washed and shaved under a tap, icy cold. Still, it was good for the complexion. “Gunners! Stay lovely for your Commanding Officer with Algerian Football Stadium water!”.
I stood at the gates watching people in the streets. I made friends with two little French kids on their way to school, a girl and a boy and gave them two English pennies. In exchange they gave me an empty match box with a camel label on the top. I shall always remember their faces.
A gentle voice behind me. “Where the bleedin’ ‘ell you bin?” It was Jordy Dawson. “Come on, we’re off to the docks.” And so we were.
Arriving there we checked that all D Battery kit bags were on board our lorries, then drove off. The direction was east along the coast road to Jean Bart. We sat with our legs dangling over the tail-board.
Whenever we passed French colonials, some of them gave us to understand that our presence in the dark continent was not wanted by a simple explicative gesture from the waist down.
We passed through dusty scrub-like countryside with the sea to our left. In little batches we passed Arabs with camels or donkeys, children begging or selling Tangerines and eggs. The cactus fruit was all ripe, pillar box red. I hadn’t seen any since I was a boy in India.
The road curved gradually and the land gradient rose slightly and revealed to us a grand view of the Bay of Algiers. Rich blue, with morning sunshine tinselling the waves. Our driver ‘Hooter Price’ (so called because of a magnificent large nose shaped like a Pennant. When he swam on his back, people shouted ‘Sharks`) was singing ‘I’ll be seeing you’ as we jostled along the dusty road.
It was twenty-six miles to our destination, with the mysterious name “X Camp,” situated just half a mile inland at Cap Matifou. X Camp was proving an embarrassment to Army Command. It was built to house German prisoners of war.
Somehow we hadn`t managed to get any, so, to give it the appearance of being a success, 56 Heavy Regiment were marched in and told that this was, for the time being, “home.” When D Battery heard this, it was understandable when roll call was made the first morning: “Gunner Devine?” “Ya wol!” “Gunner Spencer?” “Ya!” “Gunner Maunders7” “Ya wol!”