Sgt Edward Handbury Tee, Bill to his friends, service number1267277, served in Unit 3201 of the Royal Air Servicing Commando. These illustrated personal recollections have a light hearted and humorous touch which belies the hazardous nature of their work. If you are unfamiliar with the work of the Royal Air Servicing Commando you may wish to visit our main Royal Air Servicing Commando page which will put Bill's story into context and, if you'd like to know more about the wider conflict he was involved in, please visit our Operation Torch web page. [Photo opposite of the author and all illustrations that follow, are courtesy of his son Bill Tee. All images will enlarge when clicked.]
This account is but a fragment of the North African Campaign but it provides an insight into the life of one Royal Air Servicing Commando as he went about his training and duties. Here is his story.
My story is primarily about the Royal Air Servicing Commando Unit No 3201 in which I served but there are incidents and references which allude to No 1 Army Commando and the 3rd Battalion of the 39th US Infantry Division who sailed with us. We departed from the River Clyde in Scotland on the 26th October 1942 on the USS Leedstown, an American steam passenger ship converted to carry 24 small landing craft, their crews, human cargoes and supplies. The Royal Navy escorted our convoy during our passage and we safely entered the Mediterranean on the 6th of November. We had great respect for Allied sailors and the pilots who flew from Gibraltar to Algiers with just enough petrol for the journey.
The end of 1941 and beginning of 1942 saw the formation of the Royal Air Force Servicing Commando units numbered 3201, 3202, 3203, etc. Each unit consisted of some 140 men and NCOs under a Flt Lt Engineering officer and an Armament Pilot Officer (PO). The men were mainly experienced fitters, riggers, armourers, electricians and wireless mechanics with the addition of a few general duties men such as a cook and a medical orderly.
The first units were built up from the six self contained refuelling and re-arming (R&R) parties deployed along the cliffs of south east England. Their purpose was to give our fighter aircraft maximum possible range across the channel into France. The R&R experience stood these men in good stead for their work with the Air Servicing Commando on active service in Africa, Italy and France.
My story is chiefly concerned with the 3201 unit under Flt Lt E Webster, OBE and Pilot Officer Pilcher-Clayton. The nucleus of this unit came from our No 6 R&R party. I recall setting out from Shoreham for an unknown destination with only a vague idea of what was in store. The word Commando was certainly not in the RAF vocabulary at that time!
When it came to the new training regime, Senior Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs), who had been closeted in the comfort of administrative work for years, found the changes more strenuous than the lower ranks.
Flight Sergeants, like the one depicted opposite, initially found the going very hard and usually ended route marches following their men instead of leading them!
However, several weeks of intensive training hardened up the weakest of them and even they became tough enough to stand the rigours of the ensuing campaign.
During this hectic period we arrived at Fairlop, near Romford in north east London, where Squadron Leader Taylor opined, 'I expect you all wonder why you are here. Well you are going to have three weeks of being toughened up!'
He was true to his word. We were highly skilled technicians in all the known trades of the RAF but, for three weeks (and more after), we neither saw nor heard our familiar old kites; spitfires, hurries, defies, not even a walrus!
Instead we became familiar with bayonets and grenades, ran miles and undertook more PT (physical training) in those three weeks than the rest of the Air Force had ever done since its birthday – at least that’s what it felt like to us!
We practised many close combat techniques including the silent disposal of sentries. A rumour circulated that we were bound for even more intensive Commando training in Scotland. All was revealed when we arrived at the No 1 Combined Training Centre (CTC) near Inveraray on Loch Fyne. It was remote, mountainous country where only the fit survived.
On completion of our training we prepared for our first encounter with the enemy abroad. We embarked on the USS Leedstown in the Clyde and settled in for the journey to North Africa. The large number aboard simply overwhelmed the facilities and queuing became a way of life. The extent of the queues, or lines as the Americans called them, had to be experienced to be believed.
There were the 'Chow Lines' for meals; 'PX Lines' for the equivalent of our NAAFI canteen and 'Ice Cream Lines'. These lines appeared to snake along from the bowels of the ship to the uppermost decks past the boat deck then up the main staircase past the officers deck then up the next flight of stairs to what had been the state room, now converted into an “other ranks” mess. It was an amazing sight!
My drawing shows this part of one of the 'Ice Cream Lines'. You could easily wait for three hours, moving along a few places every now and then, sometimes to get within sight of the canteen doors just as supplies ran out for the day.
A friend of the lucky fellow round the corner at the bottom of the stairs delivered an ice cream to him while he waits in the queue for his own turn to come. Others are leaning over the banisters of the upper stairs, cracking jokes with those below or falling asleep as they wait. The one at the very top is just going into the canteen door, perhaps the last to be served. While the fellow on the extreme bottom left, with his magazine, feels lucky to be next to turn the corner because there are lots more behind him right down the corridor.
Preparations for our imminent landing were ongoing right up to the last few days before the invasion including the fitting of gun mountings to assault craft. Good preparations would ensure the smoothest possible disembarkation into the LCAs (Landing Craft Assault) which would be lowered into the water on davits much like lifeboats today.
The sailor shown opposite is plaiting a huge rope fender designed to keep the LCAs safe from damage as they manoeuvred alongside their larger mother craft, particularly during rough weather.
The roll of the tall-sided mother ships caused problems for the men descending the scramble nets to the LCAs below. At one moment the net would swing clear of the ship’s side by some six to eight feet only to swing back again to the ship's hull, with considerable force, a moment later as the mother ship rolled in the swell.
Not much more than an hour or so after the Army Commandos and Royal Navy had landed, achieving complete surprise, it was our turn to scramble down the nets to reach the LCAs below. We accompanied the first wave of American infantry. Our particular beach was at Ain Taya, the starting point of a 10 mile route to the French airfield at Maison Blanche.
No 1 Army Commando had done a perfect job but not without the loss of some officers and men. The enemy guns at Cape Mattafou were silent as our craft raced in towards the shore. To our right the Navy were subduing resistance in the harbour of Algiers which was fast falling to our forces.
We glanced back at the old Leedstown shrouded in the greyness of the early dawn a few miles off shore. She looked like a mother hen with her brood of LCAs tucked in under her quarters only to pop out again when loaded for their five mile journey to the landing beaches. There would be many such trips before all the men, supplies and equipment were safely ashore. Little did we know that we'd never see the Leedstown again. She had been our home and security for three weeks, nursing us when we were sick, feeding us when hungry and rocking us to sleep when tired. I remember an American soldier, who was less appreciative, remark, 'Say, I’m sure glad to get off that God damn ship'. Neither he, nor any of us, knew that she would be hit by an aerial torpedo, bombed and finally sunk by submarine U 331 before the day was out. Sadly, of the 163 on board 59 were killed.
We drew into the airfield at Souk-el-Arba on Saturday evening and settled down to make provision for the night. Some wiser members of our party dug silt trenches to drop into in case of enemy attack. Two squadrons of spitfires had landed and a third was expected the following day. Supplies of high octane fuel had been delivered by road or rail and was dumped under a screen of trees and along ditches not far from where the aircraft were parked. The night passed quietly except for the noise of lorries bringing in additional supplies of fuel.
Dawn came with feverish activity as we prepared the technical gear for the fuelling, servicing, repair and maintenance of the aircraft. We were to maintain a 24 hour fighter patrol over the front line every odd hour with the even hour provided by No. 3202 unit under Flt Lt Weedon from Bone. They had moved up from Maison Blanche via Dijelli by road and then by assault craft. By this time the Germans were well aware of the operation and 3202 were attacked by enemy aircraft before their assault craft landed.
Back at Maison Blanche the cooks were preparing our Sunday dinner of tinned meat and vegetables. Our attention was taken by approaching aircraft which we assumed was our third squadron of spitfires. They were approaching at a fair height when the leading aircraft turned and dived towards our position. We sustained considerable damage from the cannons, machine guns and bombs from 13 German fighter bombers.
Incendiary bullets set the petrol dumps on fire which immediately erupted into an inferno belching out thick black smoke. An avenue of Eucalyptus trees burst into flames while cartridges popped and cannon shells exploded in the intense heat. Our tranquil setting was instantly transformed into a cacophony of sound, chaos and destruction. One of our lorries was riddled through with bullets yet the driver escaped with a small skin wound on his forehead. Lucky fellow. Several of our spitfires, parked on the airfield, were rendered unserviceable and one was completely gutted. It lay, rather forlornly, as a charred mass with a twisted propeller drooping in front.
If the Almighty ever looked after a body of men He certainly looked after us that day. Of our unit only two were killed, half a dozen wounded and one or two suffered severe shock. The small signals unit under Flying Officer Brown, who was later killed with paratroops at Arnheim, had a higher percentage of men killed and I believe a Frenchman and some Arabs also lost their lives in the attack. But, considering the element of surprise the enemy enjoyed and the intensity of the action, casualties were very light.
The place we had chosen on the airfield for dispersal was, by now an unusable area of destruction which the boys named 'Dead Man’s Gulch.' We abandoned it for another on the opposite side of the airfield, digging in once more in readiness to service our fighter patrols.
Whether in the front line or in the rear, the lads made the best of things. There was a natural tendency to replicate the trappings of the civilised existence we enjoyed back home and the old adage that 'necessity is the mother of invention' was true in our case. The more ingenious amongst us assessed our needs and the availability of materials.
The shower facility opposite was contrived by one of the tent crews under Cpl Cooper. A large tarpaulin was fixed to vertical poles leaving the front section to open and close like a door. The fellow you see entered the cubicle dressed only in shorts. The door was closed behind him, his shorts discarded and two or three buckets of water, some soap and an old towel were made ready. At the end of the procedure the man dried himself, donned his shorts and, reinvigorated, stepped out as fresh as a daisy!
More elaborate contraptions were made by various units including piped water to the shower heads. Whilst these later developments were a big improvement, the Heath Robinson effort depicted here was humorous but very effective as the lads, who normally washed using small mess tins full of water, testified.
Commando units are usually amongst the first in and the first out. However, in the chaos of war this does not always happen and we spent longer in the front line than expected. When our time came for a period of rest and recuperation we left Souk-el-Arba to spend Christmas of 1942 in our tents under the olive trees in the hills behind Ghardimou. Meantime normal RAF service crews took over our jobs complete with bowsers, instead of four gallon petrol cans and workshops instead of pits in the ground, etc. With the enemy cleared from the area they carried on the job we had broken in.
We had a very pleasant Christmas in relative safety although we could hear bombs falling in the distance. We could also see Messerschmitts firing on targets closer to the front line. We fully appreciated the plight of those on the receiving end of this unwelcome attention and we prayed for their safety; but we had had our share of hardships and casualties under even worse conditions so we settled down to a welcome period of rest.
To add a bit of festive cheer several of the tents had 'Christmas trees' made up around the tent poles. Chickens were procured by fair means or foul and were supplemented by a wild boar brought into camp by some Arabs. After the customary period of haggling it was purchased and prepared for cooking. The rest of our Christmas fare came out of tins, including an excellent fruit cake which was a good substitute for the traditional Christmas pudding.
After two weeks our convoy set out on a 400 mile journey through the Atlas Mountains back to Blida, not far from where we landed on D Day
One of our Flight Sergeants from the time of setting foot on overseas soil, obsessed about the boat home. He was otherwise very effective at his job but he undoubtedly possessed some sort of boat gremlin. Each morning at breakfast he wagged the first finger of his left hand while revealing what his crystal had shown him during the hours of darkness. On one occasion he had seen a twin funnelled boat and predicted dates when we'd all be happily sailing homewards. Sadly, but not surprisingly, each date was crossed off the slate as it passed by.
At first we judged our seer harshly on the strength of his predictions but later could see some justification for his psychology. It reminded us that our blood, sweat and tears in this hostile, foreign environment was but a passing phase that would come to an end. Beyond that we could see that the elusive boat home would one day be a reality.
The RAF Servicing Commando and The Tactical Wing Association In 2006 the RAFSC Association joined forces with today's Tactical Supply Wing to form a new association representing a common heritage. New members are welcome.
A History of the RAF Servicing Commandos, by J P Kellett and J Davies, published by Airlife in 1989. ISBN 1-85310-051-X.
Spectacles, Testicles, Fags and Matches - the untold story of the RAF Servicing Commandos in World War Two. Written by Tom Atkinson. Published by Luath Press Ltd, Edinburgh in 2004. The author was a member of RAFSC Unit 3210.
We gratefully acknowledge that the material on which this account is based was provided by William 'Bill' Tee, the son of the author.
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