"Victory Troops"

Canadians on the Mediterranean front take a lot of things in their stride . . . including heat, flies, malaria, dysentery and dirt

WALLACE REYBURN Montreal Standard Staff Correspondent,JOHN CLARE September 15 1943

"Victory Troops"

Canadians on the Mediterranean front take a lot of things in their stride . . . including heat, flies, malaria, dysentery and dirt

WALLACE REYBURN Montreal Standard Staff Correspondent,JOHN CLARE September 15 1943

ALGIERS—(By Cable): After going to all the trouble of getting accustomed to rain, the damp English climate, black-outs and English money, Canadians now find that they’ve entered a subtropical theatre of war. They’ve had to start all over again now and get themselves used to heat, flies, mosquitoes, dysentery, red wine and other problems.

The Canadians, whom the English refer to as “Victory Troops,” find the heat here is terrific and the locals say jokingly that they chose the wrong time of the year to visit this part of the world—“the season” here is October to January. But it is dry heat, so much so that after washing your hands it is only necessary to hold them in the sun for a few seconds and they are dry. And, although the sun beats down relentlessly from the blue sky all day long, it is blessedly cool after sundown.

The troops wear “KD smalls” khaki drill. It consists of shorts, slacks and a two-way shirt which comes almost to the knees and can be worn either inside the trousers or outside, a style known as the “maternity jacket.” As for the Air Force the boys get a wide variety of flying clothes. It’s too hot for leather flying jackets these nights but a bit too cool for just a shirt, so most of the crews compromise with a khaki battle jacket and slacks although many of them fly in the shorts they have worn around the camp all day.

It is impossible to keep clean here because the dust immediately collects on perspiration. We do our own laundry. So as to save wear and tear on the shirt neckbands most troops wear a handkerchief around the neck and although it gets dirty it is simpler to wash than the whole shirt. This may be the origin of the cowboy’s neckerchief.

When evening comes it is essential to wear slacks because of the mosquitoes. All troops have been exhaustively told the problems of mosquitoes and malaria. Quinine is used for those who’ve contracted malaria and for fliers. The remainder take Mepachrine. Other precautions against malaria are nets and mosquito cream which is smeared on the exposed parts of the body. The troops were smearing on the cream when one man was heard to remark, “Golly, I always bawled out my wife for smearing on vanishing cream instead of coming to bed but I never thought I would be doing it myself.” The mosquito net is erected over the sleeping bag but after frantic efforts to get it erected properly you usually find a half dozen mosquitoes inside waiting for you. This phase of the campaign is too long a story to go into here. It needs an article to itself.

Hand in glove with the mosquitoes are flies which are the most persistent customers ever encountered. Up with the larks they set to work pestering you before you are awake and don’t let up until nightfall. Taking their cue from Britain’s night bombers supplemented by American day bombing, the mosquitoes and flies have worked out a round-the-clock campaign. The flies steadfastly refuse to be shooed and will park resolutely on the body and even pursue food as it goes into the mouth.

As anti-fly propaganda the Canadians paint signs on walls and the sides of buildings in big letters such as, “Flies improve with killing” and “Praise the Lord and pass the fly swatter.” The danger of flies is that they are carriers of dysentery. This malady comes on you quickly and unexpectedly with no warning whatsoever.

Absolutely harmless compared with the flies but so big that their prairie cousins look like victims of malnutrition are the grasshoppers. Crickets in the evenings set up an ear-piercing noise which sounds to all intents and purposes like an entire Canadian Army using electric razors at once.

Canucks Shave Heads

THE sand varies from brown dirt mixed with twigs to fine white dust. It penetrates everywhere, and as the troops travel the roads dust wafts into the vehicles, so they tie wetted handkerchiefs across their noses and mouths. “It tastes like southern Saskatchewan and looks like a suburb of hell,” commented one soldier. Taking it philosophically troops sing their own theme songs, “Little Sirocco” and “Mohammed Done Told Me.”

Many mothers wouldn’t know their own sons because many of the boys have their hair cut close and their heads shaved. They do this because it is easier to keep clean and also a doctor has quicker access if they suffer a head wound. “When they see us coming,” grinned one of these shorn lads, “the Jerries must think Canada is releasing all her jailbirds to take part in the Sicilian campaign.”

When one visits a Canadian bombing squadron in North Africa the airdrome, set in the centre of a treeless waste, appears to be a seaplane base. A mirage makes the big Wellington bombers look as if they were floating on a lake. With the temperature at 102 deg. in the shade and the wind blowing across the sand it was like taking a peek into a blast furnace. The Canadians here took part in the strategic bombing of Sicily and Italy. They live, eat and sleep in their tents in the sand, and in the officers’ mess the steward pours out iced water as if it were champagne.

It’s not much like the lush fields of Yorkshire where the dew was heavy in the thick grass by the time the “Wimpeys” came back from their night’s work over Germany. That was where many of these boys had done their operational flying before coming to North Africa. Many of the crews who made Italy unhappy those nights started their bomber careers in the European theatre of war. Some of them have done whole tours of duty up and down the length of the Reich. Many of them know the flak of Essen and Hamburg and have done the long haul to Berlin itself.

They find this new life strange and in many ways difficult. But the guys who have toured the Ruhr through the flak and prowling night fighters aren’t going to let sand and sun and sweat get them down and they are adjusting themselves to the new kind of air war they are fighting.

At first they found it hard to get their sleep, for night bomber crews get to bed about dawn, and not long after the sun comes up the flies go to work. There aren’t the same comforts they had at those big bomber stations in the north of England. For instance there is no local pub to rally around in when the squadron stays home for a night. There are no leaves to London or Edinburgh or that place in the country. There are a lot of things that are different but one thing remains the same. That is the job to be done, and these Royal Canadian Air Force boys are getting on with it just the way they did “back home” —funny how these lads keep saying back home when they mean England. They have been operating for some time out here—long enough to size up the situation and the differences between operations here and in England.

Misses Big Fires

LET Squadron Leader Wier Klassen, D.F.C., Lilac, Sask., who returned from a tour of operations over Germany, tell what he sees as the essential difference between bombing in this part of the world and in Europe. “There is not so much flak perhaps. At least you haven’t got the intense concentration here that you have in the Ruhr. At the same time raids are not usually in the same proportion as they are in the big shows over the ‘happy valley.’ But they can give you personal attention here and make it pretty hot for you. Another thing is you miss the big fires that our bombers used to start in the Ruhr,” Klassen said, recalling the 1,000 aircraft over Cologne.

The aircrews aren’t the only ones who have to get used to new and trying conditions. In the hot sun the ground crews were bombing up and checking and rechecking the aircraft that carried the deadly freight consigned to Italy. Out on the line where the hulking Wellingtons stand, faithful old dobbins of bomber command, the sun makes wrenches and screwdrivers hot as freshly heated rivets. Sitting on the wing of an aircraft the heat scorches through khaki drill shorts and gives the boys who are working on the kites a hot seat that is no joke. It’s tough working in that sun. But the serviceability has been remarkably high out here where you might expect a bit of manana to creep in their philosophy with the rising temperature.

Even the cooks have to do a bit of getting used to the desert life. Field kitchens have to be set up and those boy scout tricks that they had almost forgotten are coming in handy once more. Living in a country that seems to be a succession of jackrabbit pastures has its compensations. Eggs are plentiful. So is fruit. There are lemons now, and melons and even watermelon. Soon there will be oranges, and grapes are starting to make their appearance at the messes.

There is plenty of water although it may smack a bit of unfragrant chlorine. There are even showers fed by ice cold water from a spring.

Bombed Sicily Ports

WHEN Sicily was invaded the fliers were as keyed up as if they had been in the landing barges themselves. News of the progress of the land fighting was eagerly sought. The boys knew the fighting area well as they had taken part in the softening up raids on the island on the eve of the invasion.

During the early stages of the invasion the squadrons shuttled nightly across to Sicily bombing and blasting targets in the path of their comrades-in-arms on the ground. These fliers attacked Naples and the big airfield near the City of Capodichino. They bombed Reggio and San Giovanni, mainland terminal of the ferry service that runs from Messina in Sicily to Italy. They bombed anything and everything that would make things easier for the boys sweating it out in the olive groves of Sicily.

As the boys in the United States Air Forces say they are sweating it out here and doing a good job of it. General Doolittle, chief of the heavy bombers, told them so the other day. That’s the Jimmie Doolittle who led a formation of bombers to Tokyo. He knows good bombing when he sees it.

It would seem that heat and other bugbears would have Canadians grumbling but they have been so enthusiastic over at last coming to grips with the enemy that they are taking everything in their stride.

A group of Canadian nurses whose personnel was drawn from the Toronto district found themselves parked in a camp on the desert slopes of a mountainside. At mealtimes they lined up with mess tins alongside the men as bully beef was given out and shared the daily rush to fill water bottles as the water cart made only one visit daily. Sleeping under mosquito nets in Nissen huts and looking, to misdirected dispatch riders, like an unexpected view of an eastern harem, these nurses were roughing it as well as any soldier.

As the wounded returned from Sicily Canadians here besieged them to hear news of the fighting and they had some exciting and amusing stories to tell. Such as the story they tell of Private “Coffee” Caughtry, London, Ont., who at the point of his tommy gun surprised and captured a group of Germans in a cave and marched them into captivity to find afterward that the tommy gun had jammed and was useless.

A Vancouver lieutenant told how happy the Italians in Sicily were to be taken prisoner and said the only two unhappy Italians he saw were two who had been put to work digging slit trenches. Not understanding English they thought they were going to be shot and were digging their own graves. They dug with tears streaming down their faces until the arrival of an interpreter who explained what the holes in the ground were for.

Thin Lines On Map

TRAVELLING with a troop convoy to Tunis is an experience one is not likely to forget in a hurry. The thin lines on a map across the top of North Africa give no indication of the teeming traffic encountered on these main highways linking such places as Oran, Algiers, Tunis and Sousse. They are alive with assorted vehicles bringing up reinforcements and supplies and these two-lane highways are like Canadian city streets during the rush hour.

It was a tiring trip until the convoy reached Béja where the troops perked up at seeing the first signs of the North African battles. Béja is a small spot on the map and was the farthest point the Germans pushed back the First Army after the first approach to Tunis. The town bore the battered remains of German artillery shelling and from Béja on there were striking evidences of battles. The party came upon burned-out vehicles upside down on the side of the road, and battered tiger tanks, and passed war graves where British, Italian and Germans were buried side by side. From time to time the roadway was pockmarked where cannon shells had exploded as fighter planes strafed convoys. Countless salvage dumps stored high with ammunition, vehicles and German water cans were seen. Dispatch riders would stop and pick up souvenirs and hand them up to the troops in the trucks as the convoy progressed.

Sees Bombing Results

ON THE outskirts of Tunis the troops came upon the airdrome whose hangars were flattened to the ground and in a vacant field there was a vast array of destroyed German and Italian transport planes — a monument to the futile efforts of the Axis to reinforce Tunis.

As one enters Tunis the road skirts the docks. This was a fine opportunity of seeing the results of Allied bombing. One got a vivid picture of its accuracy and effectiveness. The Tunis docks were a mass of rubble, twisted girders and flattened storehouses. Yet as one gets up into the centre of the city one sees no such damage except for the odd buildings knocked about during the street fighting. There is a distinct demarcation line between the totally blitzed docks and the main part of the city.

There are no air-raid shelters in Tunis as one knew them in England. Tunis was built on what was once a lake so it is impossible to construct underground shelters. The only protection from bombs was a series of slit trenches dug among the shade trees on the central boulevard of beautiful Avenue de Jules Ferry, the main street of Tunis.

The Germans started occupying Tunis a day or two after the Allies landed in North Africa and were here for exactly six months. But there is practically no outward sign of the German occupation, which was a surprise to the Canadians visiting their first city liberated from the Germans. The day after the Allied occupation the provost companies had done the rounds of the city removing all German signs and notices.

But talking to local people one was able to get a picture of what it was like when the Germans were here. On all sides it was said that the Germans’ behavior was absolutely correct except toward the Jews whom they treated abominably. A Maltese bookshop proprietor said, “I am a British subject but I am forced to admit that though the Germans bought up everything in the shops they paid for it.” Then he added dryly, “Of course the money they used was absolutely worthless. It was spurious Banque de France paper money which they printed themselves right in Tunis. Nevertheless the Germans were correct at all times in their own fashion.”

The manager of Tunis’ best hotel told of the Germans departing hurriedly and taking their bedroom keys with them. “But,” he said, “knowing their thoroughness I am sure they are now making arrangements to have the keys returned to me through Geneva.”

Algerian Black Market

BUT if the Germans attempted to make every outward show of correctness not so the Italians. The population of Tunisia is three million of which two million are Arabs and the remainder assorted French, Italian and others. Although the French govern Tunisia as a protectorate the French are in a minority compared with the Italians. When the Germans arrived the Italians saw a chance to prove Italy’s claim to the country.

Two Arab schoolboys of better-class families said they wished the Canadians had come last year. When asked why, they answered, “Because we studied Canada in geography last year and you Canadians would have been a wonderful help to us in the examinations.” When asked what country they were studying this year they said Europe—the whole of Europe—which struck the troops rather as a compliment to Canada to have one whole year to herself while all European countries had only a single year shared among themselves.

Though these boys were 100% pro-Allies the bulk of the Arabs preferred the Germans. The Nazis launched a bombardment of propaganda on the Arabs and made them all sorts of promises of power which they never intended to fulfill. The other reason was that while the Germans were here the Arabs were able to conduct a lucrative black market. Issued with rations of such things as sugar and soap for neither of which they have any need the Arabs sold them to the Tunisians at fantastic prices. Now the British are here rationing is worked out much more equitably and the abundance of the necessities of life means not such a wide market for blacketeers.

But the Tunisian beggars have already learned to cadge cigarettes from Canadians. They even know the names of the popular brands and don’t ask for just any cigarette but demand their favorite smokes.

They’re far from home these Canadians and they feel it—probably far more so than they did in Great Britain. But the mail is moving along pretty well and they’re getting used to the new life. The Army is on its mettle and after the months of extensive training in Great Britain is fit to tackle any obstacle.

As for the Air Force it is a strange experience for one who has seen some of these same boys taking off from the fields of England to watch them filing into a tent in North Africa to tell the story of their night’s work. There seemed to be a break in time and space somewhere and then the scene lost its strangeness for there was something familiar and recognizable in their faces. Something that would always be there no matter how much they got around this man’s war. They were grinning under the sweat and the airdrome dust. They were grinning the same big cocky grins that were at once a cry of joy on being home and a challenge to the next time they went out into the night.

They may be sent to a lot of funny places but these lads don’t change.