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The Coleraine Battery - Battery Administration 

1939 - 1945


Introduction

The Early Years

The Move

Egypt

Western Desert

France and Belgium

Netherlands and Germany

Italy

Battery Administration

Battery Roll Call

Closing Notes

Home


 

Introduction  The effectiveness of any fighting unit is determined by the competence of its supporting units. The fighting unit must reach the battle field fully trained, equipped and supported. In this section I will discuss the daily routines as well as the support units that kept the Battery operational for their six years of war. The following sections will be grouped under the umbrella of Battery Administration. This includes.

 Discipline    -  Rank Structure  Catering   -   Pay    -   Training    -  Accommodation   -  Transport   -  Maintenance   -   Medical Cover    -  Hygiene   -   Dress   -   Security    -   Sport    -   Welfare    -  Religion   -     Enemy Munitions - Mail

Discipline  "Army discipline was out of the question for us during the war. The odd time we were marched in on some stupid little charge.  The Battery was a family affair. A Gun Crew of sometimes nine men always worked closely together. Within that nine, one was a Sergeant, one was a Bombardier. We each had a specific job to do and the whole crew suffered if we did not give it our best shot. Everybody knew each other and if there was anyone in the shit or sick, we all mucked in to help the individual out of their problem.

I always had my card marked for misdemeanours in my early years in the army. For example, I was reported absent one day because I used to leave the Ardennes to visit my future wife who lived in the Nijmegan area." Spanky McGowan (2004)

 

Rank  Structure

Gunner
Lance Bombardier
Bombardier
Sergeant
QM Sergeant
WOII (Sgt Major)
WOI (RSM)

Catering  "When you were in camp, you just paraded with your knife, fork, spoon and mug. We were well catered for in camp. When we were out on patrol, we had to cook for ourselves.  Occasionally a field bakery would appear. That was the only time we saw fresh bread. The staple diet most times consisted of corned beef, hard tack biscuits, baked beans and tins of McConacheys. This was similar to Irish Stew. It had potatoes, parsnips and carrots. When some salt and a bit of curry powder were added to these tins it tasted good. The ingenuity of the Battery cooks turned these staple foods into an interesting meal.

For our last six months in the desert we were issued with Compo Rations. One pack lasted one man seven days or seven men for one day. These rations contained everything you needed, such as toilet paper, tin openers and tinned food". Spanky McGowan (2004)

"In the Western Desert we lived on tinned food. This included fruit, jam, pudding, McConacheys Stew, bacon, beans and New Zealand butter.  We also had dehydrated vegetables, hard tack biscuits, tea and sugar. We did not have a regular supply of bread unless we were in a camp area or a bakery van visited our Troop.

For 90% of the time we were in the Western Desert our main meal consisted of  bully beef and hard tack biscuits. The biscuits had to be soaked in water overnight before they were soft enough to eat.

The dehydrated vegetables on offer included leeks, cabbage, potatoes and carrots. Again these had to be soaked overnight in water. Bully beef was then thrown in to make a stew. Sometimes we used a 25 pounder shell casing with a handle attached to pound the biscuits into a powder. The powder was then added to the stew. On most days you could look forward to a plate of bully beef stew in the evening to fill you up.

At times we were offered tinned bacon. This was not the best of food. The bacon had been cut into a long strip, rolled up in paper and then put into a tin. The paper always stuck to the bacon and both had to be cooked together. Only then could the paper be picked off the bacon.

When we were on Railway Defence in the Western Desert, we had an unofficial  but superior choice of foodstuff.

In 1940 we were carrying out AA duties on the Suez Canal. The Royal Navy mine sweepers would explode and Germane mines the day  after the Egyptian soldiers had located them being dropped. When these mines were located and exploded, there were plenty of fish killed. We had petrol cans cut in half, filled with boiling water. After gutting the fish we boiled them for a few minutes. The fish were lifted out on to a plate, cut in half  and then smothered in a wad of butter. We were issued with big tins of Australian butter at that time, it was high quality. 

There was a railway running parallel to the canal. On the night the mine was planted, a train had stopped just beside our Gun Post. Three of the Gun Crew went out and inspected the train.  The wagons were covered with canvas. These wagons were loaded with cases of South African beer. We managed to carry two of these cases between the three of us.  The canal water kept the beer cool." Robin Martin (2004)

"When we were first supplied with dehydrated cabbage the cook put a complete block into a Dixie. The cabbage kept swelling up and he had to transfer the stuff to more Dixies." Norman Irwin (2004)

Cook Jim Leighton  Mousey Warke and Harold Milford unloading rations

S Leslie & Bobby McDonald Cooking for Nine

Johnston Robinson 1940

 

Fruit Sellers - Suez Oil Refinery 1941

C Walsh   R McDonald  ***   W Patterson    T Barr   C Connell

Fruit Sellers - Suez Oil Refinery 1941

J Brogan    T Henry    H Milford

"We would buy fresh fruit from the Egyptian tradesmen when the opportunity arose. The baskets they used to carry their fresh fruit were made from 'Banana Bamboo', the same material used on our beds". Spanky McGowan (2004) "These traders also sold us Hen's eggs. They were always hard boiled". Norman Irwin (2004)

Hugh McCandless and the Banana Bamboo Basket

Water  "The drinking water came in a three ton tanker. It was picked up the main water points and taken to each troop. Charlie Burke was responsible for delivering Y Troop their water ration. That was usually one and a half gallons, per man, per day...perhaps, there were days when it never arrived". Spanky McGowan (2004)

"Water was precious. We washed once a week by using a bowl that held one pint of water. You would scrub yourself down with a shaving brush. By the time you reached your waist the water had dried on your body.

"We were at Davison's Pass and needed water. I had to go to the Jerabub Oasis in the South. It was a difficult 40 mile journey down to Jerabub. We had to wait our turn, fill up with water and then return to Davison's Pass. When I got back to my sleeping area I was told that my bed and blankets had been burnt. The ground we were sleeping on was very rocky. One of the boys saw a snake going into the rocks. He threw petrol in the general direction of the snake, put a match to it and burnt my bedding" Willie Norris (2004)

"Because the German mining activities took place at night, the canal was a quiet spot during the day. Harry Campbell and Abbie Simpson were strong swimmers. They would swim across the canal during the day. I was not as good a swimmer and only ever managed to get three quarters of the way across. There was always the danger of being run down by the Royal Navy motor torpedo boats. They raced up and down the canal at 45 miles an hour." Willie Norris (2004)

"The Germans dropped a mine close to one of the canal gun pits. When the mine was detonated the enormous crater made an excellent diving pool for the gun crews." Norman Irwin (2004)

 

Jim Brogan Tom Dyas Robin Martin 1940

Tom Shaw  B McDonald

Shaving Off April 1941

 

T Barr from Glasgow (and Macfin) and J Brogan from Lancs

Capuzzo May 1942

Petrol Tins  "The petrol was issued in four petrol tins strapped together. Each tin held, or was supposed to hold four gallons. A cannery for this job had been built at Port Siad. It was run by a man called Proctor who later worked with me in my home town, Coleraine. The tins were of an inferior quality and sometimes 50% of the contents had leaked out before they reached you. The petrol tins were used for bathing in, carrying water or even cooking in." Norman Irwin (2004)

Wine  "We developed a taste for Chianti during our spell on Jock Patrols. Any time we shot up an Italian road party or took over an Italian location there was always a good supply of Chianti. That is why we always celebrate the Battle of El Alamein or toast at the reunions with a couple of bottles of Chianti." Spanky McGowan (2004)

Pay   "All soldiers would send money home. We had to do it so that whenever you were killed in action or in an accident, the people you were supporting would receive a war pension. If you did not send money home in the form of an allotment and were KIA, your immediate family would not receive a pension.

The weekly allotment deducted from your pay usually worked out at 70% of one days pay. This amount varied according to your wages. A Lance Corporal was paid Seven Shillings per day, a bombardier was paid Eight Shillings a day and a Sergeant was paid ten shillings a day. The Army pay was at a lower rate than civilian tradesman's pay. For example, a sergeant's pay was only 50% of a tradesman's pay. Despite that situation, we were fed clothed and accommodated for free.

When you went on leave, you had your leave pay in advance and a Ration Allowance.

The money piled up when you were out on patrol. If you were out for thirty days, you were thirty days pay in credit. We had three good pay clerks in Battery HQ. These were Jackie Wallace, Jim Montgomery and Fred Smyth". (A)

Climate  "In Egypt the temperature was high, usually about 95 degrees. At night it was very cold, usually about Zero. In the coldest months from October to January we were issued with a Rum Ration. We were also issued with hooded and lined Duffle Coats to keep us warm at night". (A)

Accommodation   "In Egypt we were housed in marquee tents during rest or training periods. These tents housed twenty people. They were made up with two skins. The outer skin stopped the heat from roasting you. There was a space between the skins that allowed the air to circulate and reduce the temperature. The beds used in the marquees were made from 'Banana Bamboo'. The strips of bamboo were very flimsy but strong enough to support us. As with all the accommodation in Egypt, the Banana Bamboo beds were infested with bed bugs as big as your thumb nail. The beds had to be taken outside once a month and paraffin poured through it to kill off the bed bugs". Norman Irwin (2004)

"At Derna Camp in Egypt, we were issued with Bivouacs. This was an one metre A frame tent that accommodated two men. Once we started patrolling and moving about the desert as individual Troops, we had three ton Canadian Chevrolets. These carried the spare barrel, ammo, maintenance kits, stove, cooking materials as well as our individual kit and bedding.  On these occasions,  we slept on the ground. The most comfortable arrangement was to cut a trench and put our bed roll down. If you could get anything soft to line the trench, you used it". Spanky McGowan (2004)

Egypt 1940

 

Bedding   "Bed Biscuits were at each base you went to. We used these hard, thin mattresses in Scotland, Egypt and Europe. They were either laid on a bed or used as a ground mat when on patrol. We were also issued with a ground sheet, three blankets and a pair of pyjamas. At no time did we ever have sheets for our beds. When not required, the bed biscuits were rolled up and the blankets were folded up and secured in the ground sheet". Spanky McGowan (2004)

Health and Hygiene  "The biggest curse in Egypt was called 'Desert Sores'. Our diets contained very little fresh fruit and vegetables. The mainstays of our diet were tinned corned beef, hard tack biscuits and tinned Irish Stew. When you did knock or bruise yourself it would finish up as a large ulcerated sore. Some people died from this condition. Major George Lapsley never had sores. When the fresh rations came up he had a habit of getting a good stock of onions. An onion dipped in a bit of salt or sugar appeared to reduce the chance of getting sores.

Skin Infection Libya 1941

At one stage of the war I went down with Sand Fly Fever. This looked similar to Malaria". Spankey McGowan (2004)

"Willie Norris nearly died from diphtheria. I was quarantined twice for diphtheria and once for smallpox. My return trip to England from my last posting to Naples was very eventful. First of all, when we boarded the Capetown Castle the British Army ensured all our Small Arms and Ammunition were transferred to the ship's armoury and placed under armed guard. The Americans retained their weapons and ammunition for the return to England. During the journey they managed to shoot two of their own. On one occasion a British destroyer came alongside and transferred some plasma in order to keep one of the wounded men alive.

On the same journey, one of the Americans came down with smallpox. The whole ship's compliment and all the passengers had to be inoculated. There were five Coldstream Guards in front of me being inoculated and each one of them winched as the needle was jabbed in. This was because the same needle was being used on all of us, it must have been getting blunt. Anyway, before it came to my turn, the doctor administering the jabs fainted." Norman Irwin (2004)

Toilet Facilities  "In order to reduce the incidence of disease, there were stringent rules to follow on using the toilet. When we were in camp, latrines in the form of wooden boxes over a trench were used. On patrol, we had to dig a hole, use it and then apply chemical powders before covering it up. The golden rule was "If you are going on a daily crouch, take a spade". Spanky McGowan (2004)

 

W Simpson  and J Henry - May 1942

Dress  The first items of uniform issued to the Battery personnel included overalls, belt and field service cap. (page 23 Doherty 1988) After this initial issue, the Battery personnel were issued with the old issue Service Dress. They did not wear Battle Dress or berets until they were preparing for the Normandy landings.

The rear gunner is in his initial issue dress... overalls and service cap...............................Battle Dress and Service Dress

Field Service Marching Order was the mode of dress and equipment carried by all infantrymen on active service. It was only used in Egypt when you had something to celebrate.

"Even in battle we did not make much use of the tin helmet. It would have cooked your head after two minutes in the blazing sun." Norman Irwin (2004)

 

Field Service Marching Order

"Puttees were more preferred  than the anklets. The puttees were a close and flexible fit around your ankles and boot tops. This prevented the sand from entering your boots," Spankey McGowan (2004)

Sammy Leslie & Willie Patterson in Walking Out Dress

Vehicle Security " When we 'laagered up' for any period at all, we always dug out a banking to protect the vehicle engine. We built it up with stones and sand. That way, if we were strafed, no shrapnel or rounds would damage the engine" Robin Martin (2004)

Leave  "Leave was a rare privilege in the Battery. Usually on movement between different theatres of operation, you might be allowed leave. In Egypt there were a few occasions when two day leave passes were granted to one third of each Troop. The leave was taken in either Cairo or Alexandria". (A) 

First Aid   When we were in the Jock Columns, at least one trained soldier had to be available to carry out first aid. Alan Thompson and myself attended a five week Basic First Aid course at the 25th General Hospital in Cairo. Andy McGowan (2004)

Sport  Other than shooting Germans...The Battery had a good football team. Some of them were in their home town football clubs.

Fred Smythe   Jackie Wallace   Joe Dunseith  Tom Kennedy

 Port Fouad  Egypt on Christmas  Day 1940

 

Sgt T Morrison   Alex Morrison  W Richardson   J Wallace   H Stockman   J McAfee    A Thompson

Turkington  J Kelso  S Gault  Billy Corscadden  W Kennedy Sammy Rutherford

Port Fouad Egypt on Christmas Day 1940 - Troops vs The Officers

Tom Henry Bob McDonald 1941

 

Welfare   Today you hear about the modern soldier off on a Cook's Tour of The Falklands or Iraq. When they come home they need special treatment for stress. I do not recall anybody in the Battery suffering from stress or getting combat exhaustion after five years of war. It did not seem to register. It was there, I know, but you did not bring it home with you. Shearer got word in the desert that his brother died when HMS Hood exploded and sank. That was it, you were told the bad news and had to cope on your own". Spanky McGowan (2004)

When Jim Leighton's younger brother was killed in his home town in a traffic accident, Jim was informed. There was no leave or time out to grieve or bury your kin. John Leighton (2004)

Religion  "We did hold a Sunday Service. The Battery padre was Lance Bombardier Willie McKee. Just a religious man from Tobermore." Spanky McGowan (2004)

The Willie T. McKee  J.P. Story

Willie T McKee was born in 1914. He joined the Battery in 1939 at the age of 25. Like his father, he was a qualified Master Butcher and throughout  his war service he was primarily employed as a cook in Z Troop. He carried out this duty  alongside Walter Richardson from Tobermore. Willie managed to break the monotony of the tinned bully beef and McConaghie's Stew with the occasional goat he had bartered from the desert tribesmen.

Willie really excelled himself as a salesman for one of Z Troop's Christmas Dinner in the Western Desert. He stockpiled the dry tea issues and just before Christmas he approached the Arab farmers for a spot of bartering. There he was successful in exchanging the dry tea supply for 5 lambs. Z Troop gunners had a great Christmas Dinner of lamb chops with all the trimmings served up to them by the Troop NCO's.

Willie was also a very Christian person and was responsible for conducting the Sunday Service for the Battery when the situation permitted it. On one occasion he preached a 20 minute sermon that had the battle hardened Battery personnel spellbound. At one stage of the Desert War, he constructed a makeshift shelter and called it 'The Benghazi Gospel Hall'.

Willie 1945

After the war, Willie returned to his home town of Maghera and like all his comrades went straight into employment. He ran the family business and had two shops and a home in Maghera. In 1949 he married Ruth McKillen. She was the eldest daughter of the late Pastor George McKillen. The Pastor ministered in Tobermore Baptist Church until his early death in 1930. Willie and Ruth went on to have three daughters, Hazel, Iris and Lorna; their sons were George and David.

The inside page of Willie McKee's Holy Bible. It was autographed by Field Marshal Montgomery during a private meeting he had with 6th LAA Battery Old Comrades Association. This was on the occasion of the Battle of El Alamein Re-union in the Festival Hall, London in October 1967. At that time the Field Marshall was 80 years of age.

Willie was not only gifted with business acumen, he also had a strong social conscience. This was expressed in his Christian convictions and his service to the community he happened to be in. During the war years through Egypt, France, The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany he displayed a steadfastness and caring that endeared him to his comrades-in-arms. Back home in Maghera, his love for his fellow man and infective enthusiasm helped him to resolve many domestic  and community problems. His wise counsel was invariably accepted and serious problems were often avoided at a time when his beloved province was torn apart by sectarian and political strife. How do you measure social conscience? Consider the institutions that Willie McKee belonged to and strongly influenced throughout his Christian life.

  • Justice of The Peace

  • Deacon - Church Sectary - Sunday School Teacher - Elder at Tobermore Baptist Church

  • Foundation Member of 1st Tobermore Boys Brigade Company

  • Poppy Day and Remembrance Day Service Organiser in Upperlands

  • Committee Member of Irish Alliance of Christian Worker's Union in Maghera

  • Member of Royal Black Preceptory No. 1138 in Maghera

  • Worshipful Master Sons of William LOL No. 209 in Maghera

  • District Master Castledawson District LOL No. 1

Annual Remembrance Day Parade - 1984 - Willie is at his bedroom window

Willie's wife Ruth died on January 20 1983. Almost two years later, in November 1984, Willie was very ill and unable to attend the annual Remembrance Day Parade. On that particular week he was at his home in Maghera. Willie sat at his bedroom window to listen to the distant parade. Maj. Clarke re-routed the parade that day and halted it outside Willie's house. The Coleraine Old Boys Silver Band, many of whom were his former Desert comrades, played him a tune and then gave him 'Three Cheers' before moving off again. Willie died one month later on December 9, 1984.

 

 

 

Enemy Munitions

The Italian Breda  The Battery made use of the captured Italian 20mm Breda guns for escorting road convoys, Camp Guard  and protecting the Alexandria - Mersa Matruh railway.

 

 

Railway Protection

The Captured German Fieseler Storch by Willie Norris

This story illustrates the tight control of captured ordnance and equipment exercised on the Western Desert. The redistribution and use of such items was the responsibility of groupings higher up the ladder than Batteries. For example 6 LAA Battery was  issued with captured Italian Breda Guns (20mm). These items  were used in the AA protection of road convoys and the trains used to transport troops and equipment to Tobruk.

"I was stationed in Troop HQ at Kilo 38. This was the code name for the Gazala Line near Tobruk.  This was on the 29th May 1942. My job at that time was driver to Lt. P. The day before, a  German plane had landed beside the railway line that was used to transport the troops to Tobruk. The landing  area was covered by Sgt. Hamill's troop. The pilot alighted and blew up a section of the track. He then proceeded to shoot at the troop convoys moving along the nearby road into Tobruk. At this time the pilot had a problem, the ground was too rough for him to take off again. As far as I know, the pilot made off on foot. Sgt. Hamill stopped the plane's engine.

I drove Lt. P.  out to see the plane. At that time it was being guarded by New Zealanders. He picked up one of the machineguns and fired it off. It was a rapid fire weapon that sounded like a roar of thunder when it was fired. Lt P. put the weapon in the back of the truck and we left it at Troop HQ. 

We returned the next day to the German plane. A Gloster Gladiator pilot from Air Vice Marshall Sir Arthur Cunningham's group had left a note on the seat. It read, "To whom it may concern. Replace the gun immediately, otherwise action will be taken". We returned the gun just as the Glouster Gladiator returned to the plane with a painter. The painter painted out the German markings and added the RAF roundels. We often saw the plane being used around Kilo 38". (Willie Norris 2004)

Photo 1 Spankey McGowan mishandling a German Stick grenade. These were probably used to blow up part of the railway line.

Photo 2  John Hamill  John Hunter. They were responsible for capturing the plane and stopping the engine.

Photo 3  Billy Campbell and Mousey Warke

Photo 4  Johnny Hunter  Taffy Williams  Mousey Warke   ***  ***  John Hamill  Willie Campbell  Jim Leighton

 

 

Training  If at any time there was a quiet period, we would train. The Sergeant of the gun would take us out on patrol into 'The Blue', (The Desert). He would practice uncoupling, linking up and exercise the gun crew until he was happy with their performance." Spankey McGowan (2004)

Pets  "Sam Watt had two Banties when we were in the Western Desert. It was a job and a half to catch them every time we had to mount up and leave the area we were in.

I personally had a chameleon I had found in a desert bush. I left it in the marquee tent where the full gun crew were accommodated. There it kept down all the flies until one day it disappeared.

There were at least three dogs in each Troop. Most of these dogs were from the same bitch, all small lap dogs. Bonzo McClelland used to take his dog onto the gun with him when we were in action. It got that as soon as a dog heard a plane it ran for the gun and sat in one of the seats, looking and barking at where the plane was coming from. On many occasions it was just an enemy Recce plane. All you could see was the vapour trail, much too high for the Bofors to engage." (Anon, 2004)

Jock Adams and Patsy

 

 

 Letters Home

Gunner T Gamble 1456667

1st LAA Battery

15th Regiment RA

MEF

Just a few lines hoping to find you well as this leaves meA1 and getting along fine. I had a letter and paper from you this week and glad to see you are having a good time. I wrote to you last week my Air mail to say you could please yourself about going with Sarah or Martha but I'm hoping you don't bother. I also had a letter from Willie and he was saying he would be getting leave shortly and hope to see him then as we have arranged to meet. By the way did you never get the parcel as you should have had it long before this and you never mentioned it in any of your letters so far. It must have taken the card a long time to get home anyway I'm glad you liked it. I have not seen Davy for some time. George and Sammy seem to be having  a good time at home. You can tell Mrs. Eaton and Nancy I was asking for them and hope they are very well also everyone at home. Is Martha still there yet and what does Charlie think about it. Willie was saying he left some extra money for Dad and didn't have any word from them about getting it and it's quite a long time since he left it. Do you know if they had any word about it. Hoping to hear from you soon. Yours with lots of love. Tommy

 
 

Notes

  1. This letter discusses all those individuals who will be mentioned later and who  will also have their photos reproduced on this site.

  2. In this Airgraph from Egypt dated May 4th 1942, Tom Gamble is talking about his brother William, wondering if the extra money William posted to their father back home has arrived OK. They are both in a Light Anti Aircraft Battery, still retreating from the German Panzer Divisions.  Despite this, their greatest concern was making sure that their father is being cared for. 

  3. This letter also indicates that some gunners from The Coleraine Battery were attached to other AA units. The address reads 1st Battery and not 6th Battery. After the last battle of  El Alamein, for the last two years of the war, Tom went to Italy, France and Germany. His brother William served in Egypt and then went straight to France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany.

 

 

 


Introduction

The Early Years

The Move

Egypt

Western Desert

France and Belgium

Netherlands and Germany

Italy

Battery Administration

Battery Roll Call

Closing Notes

Home