‘I think we must have been following Bn HQ planes, I remember being briefed to jump when the CO jumped. After a very long take-off run, we were grossly overloaded, we eventually staggered into the air and formed up in some kind of order. After a flight of nearly three hours, by now very low indeed, I saw the CO jump, so I jumped followed by my No 1 Platoon. I landed softly, and was at once aware of silence with no small-arms or shell-fire – we had landed unopposed, and as this was my first operation I was heartened by the ease of the whole thing.
‘A’ Company formed up, and moved to a defensive position roughly north of the dropping zone. I do not think we had any casualties, although I heard someone had bought it with a Roman Candle (a parachute which failed to open fully). After a few hours a Humber light armoured car of the Derbyshire Yeomanry drove up and went through us, returning later to report a road block ahead.
We moved off towards a place called Oudna, with ‘A’ Company bringing up the rear of the Battalion. By morning we were in position at a place called Prise de L’Eau, a well. On the way we had collected a somewhat motley selection of mules, horses and carts in order to carry ammunition and stores. This extraordinary group of men and animals was described by L/Cpl Berryman, an old Middlesex Regiment regular soldier, as ‘looking like a f-ing travelling circus rather than a Parachute Battalion!’, and he wasn’t far wrong!
That afternoon Major ‘Dicky’ Ashford [Officer Commanding A-Company] gave out his orders, which boiled down to having a look at Oudna airfield and if possible occupying it. Anyway, we moved off with 2 Platoon on the left under Lieutenant ‘Slapsey’ Brayley, No 1 Platoon, mine, on the right with Company HQ slightly to the rear and 3 Platoon in reserve at the rear. I ordered 1 Section on the right, 2 Section on the left with Platoon HQ in the centre and 3 Section in reserve at the rear – all to keep well spread out in a kind of box formation and to head in the direction of Oudna station, plainly visible with white buildings. I recall the Company 2 i/c, Captain Keith Mountford, saying at Ashford’s order group that “the British Army could not fight a war without a red-roofed house – without that they couldn’t indicate any target, but here was Oudna station complete with a red-roofed reference point”! After about fifteen minutes the sound of machine-gun fire, very fast and certainly not our Brens, was heard and we all instinctively fell to the ground in the prone position. I was desperately trying to remember the crack/thump of bullets taught to me at my Small Arms School, Bisley course, but I simply couldn’t and as a result had no idea where the fire was coming from or if it was directly pointed at us. After a few minutes I thought it reasonably safe to continue, so shouted the order to move on, and this we did. No 2 Section, however, was too far left, and I had some difficulty in getting them back on line. There was still a good deal of noise, chiefly small-arms fire with the occasional crump of a mortar bomb or shell. On the way 2 Section assaulted a small Arab dwelling, which they thought might shelter the enemy machine-gun – it didn’t.
We were still making reasonable progress towards the station, but I had lost sight and control of No 1 Section to the right. Sergeant Forsyth, my Platoon Sergeant, was making sure No 3 Section remained with us. As Platoon HQ approached this tiny station I was looking beyond for any aircraft posted on the strip – there were none. The station seemed unoccupied, so Sergeant Forsyth and my batman, Private Fletcher, and myself took possession. I then realized that none of the Sections had shown up, but then 2 Section turned up on the left and I called them over. I was delighted to have this additional strength, and set about preparing defensive positions around the station buildings. Later some men of No 3 Section arrived.
I was rather pleased with the little operation, despite the fact that we were a section and a half down. I think all of us had been very scared, but at least we had got to the objective. As far as I knew, we hadn’t killed any enemy or even seen them! We had certainly fired our weapons, but all at rather dubious targets. I went out on to what was laughingly called an airstrip; there were no aircraft on it, but a few abandoned 50-gallon oil drums, which suggested some previous aircraft activity. Strangely, there were tyre tracks, but these I assumed were made by vehicles and not taxi-ing aircraft. We were out of touch with Company HQ and there was no sign of 2 or 3 Platoons. Incidentally, the stationmaster was found in one of the buildings, and he told me that enemy armour was in the vicinity. He was a French speaking Arab who I sent packing which on reflection wasn’t a very clever thing to do.
While we were preparing possible tank ambush sites we heard the sinister sound of engines and there, to the left across the airstrip, were three or four tanks and an armoured car about a mile away. The armoured car approached us, running parallel to the railway. Our only anti-tank weapon was the Gammon bomb, and that was only good at very close range. I ordered everyone to take maximum cover, and at the same time was trying to think what I must do if the bloody thing stopped close to us. Luckily it didn’t, and drove by about fifty yards in front of us. If the occupants saw us they didn’t react, but I suspect they did not even see us. It was huge, with eight wheels and festooned with wireless masts. I think it was a command car, and it drove merrily on towards Tunis.
At dusk we saw large fires to the left, I wrongly assumed it might be ‘Slapsey’ Bayley with 2 Platoon or even ‘C’ Company, who had been on our left when we started out. When it was fully dark we moved towards the fires, only to be fired on by something much bigger than small-arms; someone said they saw a tank, and that may well be so – anyway it set off a firework display that both helped and hindered our ignominious withdrawal back towards the station. By now it was pitch-black, and we bumped into a previously unseen French Police Post. Very scaring, but they were helpful and offered us shelter for the night. This I refused, because I had in mind the need to get close to the protection of the hills in order to return to our previous battalion position at Prise de L’Eau. I had previously taken a back bearing from the station to where I thought we had come from, so I knew that if we went on that bearing we would end up somewhere near our original position. So off we set, but it soon became obvious to me that the men were done up, and that rest was essential for all of us. I addition I did not wish to bump into any other posts, be they French, German or our own FDL’s; we had had enough for one night. So we leaguered up in the scrub where we were. It was devilish cold, and I doubt if any of us got much rest – our cotton jumping smocks giving little or no warmth.
We set off before dawn and made for the shelter of the hills, and at first light could clearly see our old Prise de L’Eau position with various small figures moving round. These I prayed would be our own men, and ordered my chaps to display prominently our yellow identification silk [scarves]. Much to my relief the first recognisable chap was the tall elegant figure of ‘Popoff’, alias Lieutenant Peter Naoumoff of Bruneval fame and of ‘B’ Company. ‘And where have you bloody heroes been?’ he said, closely followed by more pertinent comments from his men. Without the glimmer of a smile, Private Fletcher replied: ‘Tunis’. I think each one of us was very chuffed and secretly a little proud to have this ribald welcome.
Back within the heart of our own Battalion and Company we felt safe and secure, and after a shave and clean up felt 100% better. Various other men of 2 and 3 Sections rejoined, so we were again about twenty five strong. I was sent for by the C.O. and reported the result of our occupation of the station and airfield. I was rash enough to say that if we had wheels we could have reached Tunis. The C.O. was complimentary and made no mention of absence. Back at ‘A’ Company, ‘Dicky’ Ashford said we should have done it on foot, but Keith Mountford reminisced on the joys and advantages of having Battalion transport and what we could do with a few trucks right now.
We extended the ‘A’ Company positions to the left of the Prise de L’Eau well, with 1 Platoon furthest right. Enemy armour and tanks moved towards the well, and attempted to come round behind us. We could clearly hear the revving of tank motors as they ascended the hill – a most frightening sound – and from my forward slope position the first thing I saw was the swinging radio mast, then the turret and finally the whole vehicle painted a sand yellow colour with a large black cross on the turret. ‘If it comes closer we’ll have a go with the Gammons’, I said, but thankfully it turned off to the right along the line of the hill. We could hear its mate coming up the hill after it, so Fletcher and I jumped up and ran up and over the brow of the hill. To run on these scrub-covered hills was difficult enough, but when also high parachute boots and those awful gaiters were included it was very nearly impossible. Somehow we did it, and lay down and waited, but no tank appeared; it must have followed the other one, as if to make the final act of this battle, some ME-109’s attacked the enemy instead of us. I very much doubt if the pilots even saw us, because our parachute smocks made excellent camouflage. Prior to the aircraft attack, Fletcher was very badly wounded by shell-fire. We carried him down to ‘Doc’ Gordon’s Regimental Aid Post (RAP). I think he died later that night.
We moved out when darkness came, the signal being a call by the CO on his hunting horn. I was told we would make for Medjez El Bab, where 1st Army troops were said to be. This proved to be a most difficult march over appallingly tough hill country, and later on flat sandy plough land. 1 Platoon was leading, with both the OC and myself using compasses. Sergeant Forsyth was being a tower of strength by encouraging the exhausted men to make even greater efforts.
Just about dawn we came to a farm run by French settlers, where we watered from the farm well. Then what was left of the Company was put in a large straw-filled barn where we slept. We were informed by the French owners that a German motor-cycle combination was coming up the farm road. ‘Dicky’ Ashford ordered the men to hide under the straw, while he and I and some NCO’s with Stens cocked, waited. We had no intention of allowing these three Germans to leave the farm alive should they approach the barn. Strangely, they did not dismount from their machine, and spoke at length to the French family. The anxious and nervous tension was only defused when they simply started up and left, apparently satisfied that all was well. I can clearly remember these three German soldiers, and I believe the one on the pillion seat to have been Hans Teske, a man many of us now know well. I have reason to believe that he actually saw some black boots sticking out of the straw, but that he somehow forgot to mention this to his colleagues! If this is so, he was just as frightened as those of us looking at him. We then heard that the CO and the rest of the Battalion were at another farm nearby, and we set off to join them; this farm was named El Fedja.
We, that is No 1 Platoon, were given the task of defending the northern part of the farm perimeter, which consisted of a big cactus hedge interspersed with stone walls enclosing an olive orchard. By this time I was greatly concerned about the shortage of ammunition; despite economy we had wasted a large number of rounds by firing at too great a range. I asked [the Company 2 i/c], Keith Mountford, if he could arrange some re-supply, but he said we were all in the same boat.
I was quietly answering a call of nature just behind the hedge a short distance from my Platoon HQ, and idly looking at the ridge about three hundred yards away, when I noticed a couple of dots moving along the skyline. Someone was looking at me, or more likely the Battalion position. I quickly finished my toilet and rejoined my Platoon HQ, only to find Keith, who said we would pull out as soon as it was dark. I quickly explained what I had seen, and together we studied the ridge through our glasses; by now there were several dots, easily identified as helmets – but who were they? Keith said hopefully ‘Maybe they are Yanks’. They were Germans all right, and soon the mortars started, followed by MG’s. Before Keith left to return to Company HQ he once again made us smile, and so helped to lessen the tension and fear. ‘You know, Dennis,’ he said, ‘you are probably unique – you must be one of the very few British officers to be caught with his trousers down in the face of the enemy!’ and left. Shortly after this we killed half a dozen Germans within fifty yards of our perimeter, but even then I had a job to stop the men firing. A little later we scuppered a more determined attack in the same way, but this time the effect was more deadly and the control much tighter. By now the light was beginning to fade, and various farm buildings were on fire; most of them had straw roofs. By dark the fires gave off a ghostly light which, combined with the smoke, made accurate shooting virtually impossible, and this was very worrying because we could hear Germans very close. Keith again arrived, to tell me we were moving out when it became dark, and that the signal to move would again be made by the CO sounding the ‘gone away’ on his [hunting] horn. We were to withdraw through the farm and move out south-eastwards. I walked along the cactus hedge with Keith towards Company HQ. We heard German voices on the other side; pistols were useless, and in [any] case it was nearly dark, so after a frenzied debate decided to use our Mills grenades. In the approved fashion we hurled two grenades each over the fence in the direction of the voices. They burst with satisfying crumps, and this was followed by cries of pain. Keith and I got up from our prone positions. ‘Good evening to you Mr Rendell’, he said, and disappeared. I returned to Platoon HQ and briefed the NCO’s on the plan.
Soon after dark, mortar and machine-gun fire increased, but the machine-guns appeared to be firing on fixed lines over the farm and the mortar bombs seemed to be doing little damage. We heard the CO’s [hunting] horn, and as I slowly crawled from Platoon HQ I heard the whine of mortar bombs falling very close. My sole recollection is of a ghastly smell of sulphur just like school chemistry experiments. At some time I felt someone pulling my belt, and it was light. A German soldier in what appeared to be a pair of overalls was trying to remove my pistol from its holster, and I tried to help him – I couldn’t; my hands were too cold and I was shivering. My right leg was wet, and my large pocket para trousers were torn. The man pulled me to my feet, and I was dumped gently but firmly into a motor-cycle sidecar and taken to what I thought was an RAP. There was no noise, and no firing. I was eventually joined by some members of ‘B’ Company and some Sappers. ‘For you the war is over’, they said, and I was a prisoner of war, at any rate for a time – but then, that’s another story.'
Dennis was treated for his wounds and then flown to Italy where he was sent to a POW camp. During the very confused situation that emerged from the Italian surrender, in September 1943, Dennis and other officers made good their escape. Instead of making his way straight back to the Allied lines Dennis decided to help with the escape line and organisation around the Rome area:
‘At the time November 1943, together with other Allied escaped POW’s I was running a small organisation to assist escaped and released Allied POW’s living in the mountains, villages and towns of Sulmona in Central Italy. I was in touch with a larger outfit based in the Vatican City, Rome.
This little band in Sulmona had been told, amongst scenes of great excitement, that a travelling fair was to visit the town for a few days beginning the 21st November. Apparently this was an annual visit combined with a market and a couple of Saints days. Our Italian helpers and friends assured us that it was a great occasion, a splendid party and that we would certainly enjoy it. It would be based on the town square and everyone for miles around would come to celebrate and take part in the dancing, eating and drinking, a rare treat in this period of wartime shortages and restrictions. We were urged to join in this bonanza and enjoy all the fun of the fair. Much to our surprise by noon on 22nd November several stalls and roundabouts, swings and even a dodgem rink had been assembled whilst parked in between were the showmen’s caravans. It was quite astounding. Where had they come from? Where on earth did they get the fuel to move these fairground machines? How could this be done in wartime? Done it was and that evening from about 16.00 hours onwards we heard amplified music and noise coming from the square.
The music sounded gay and attractive and so I strolled that way. It was very cold and light snow was falling and I entered the square with maximum caution. I consoled myself by saying I was simply making a recce and remembered the time honoured truth that time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted. It certainly paid dividends that evening. It was great fun and I enjoyed the jostling and happy crowds, among them many German servicemen. I was attracted to a kind of rifle range. It seemed that if the customer hit a target about twenty yards away with the .22 air rifle provided, a flash light photograph was taken of him and anyone else who happened to be standing near him in the butts area. This stall also much fascinated various German troops and I was much impressed by their keenness to hand over their money and their rather poor efforts to set off the flash.
When I returned to my billet I was conscious of the lack of noise, it was now 18.00 hours and the show had closed down in order to be ready for the 19.00 hours curfew. It was not wise to be in the square area after curfew, for from there were mounted the patrols of German troops and the dreaded and very fascist Italian African Police, a hangover of Italy’s once African empire. Those chaps were to be avoided at all costs. The silence was uncanny and so I called on one of our safe houses to let my comrades know the result of my recce.
Over a vino or two I explained the set up to them and as a result it was decided that six of us would visit the fair the next evening. Over more vino we discussed the sheer impossibility of this fun fair, the downright cheek of it. Here in Sulmona, less than 100 miles from the front line where great and bloody actions were continually taking place. Yet here was a full grown fair working about three hours from mid-afternoon until six p.m. The whole thing was beyond belief! We later found out that the third day they quickly packed up and moved North at a sharpish pace. Very sensible!
The next day, 23rd November 1943, Lieutenant. Gilbert smith (4 R.T.R.), Lieutenant. Henri Pagonne (Free French Foreign Legion), Lieutenant. El Dukate (U.S.A.A.C.), Corporal. Joe Polack and myself entered the square from different directions. We slowly gravitated to the photographic rifle range where as on the previous evening German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe servicemen were trying their luck. They were singularly out of luck or incredibly bad shots, maybe both for the camera seldom flashed. Two Luftwaffe chaps made such a hash of it I could stand it no longer. I took off my mac and my hat, threw them to the ground and grabbed a rifle. Ramming a round up the breach I aimed and fired. A satisfying clang followed by a flash announced success.
I think we were all more than a little shaken, both Germans and POW’s but while waiting for the film to be processed, Gil Smith sensibly whispered in my ear, “enough success for one night marksman, come on let’s get off while the going’s good!” Having got the film, that’s just what we did leaving Joe to tell the stall holder in his perfect Italian that the Germans would pay. We certainly had a good laugh at their expense on the way to our billets, and I confess to feeling somewhat smug. Safely home we celebrated, but wondered if the showman had been tipped off that we were escaped POW’s and were making things difficult for their late feared and despised Allies. We will never know.
I have visited among fairs since, both on the continent and in the USA, but have never come across a similar stall. Many years later, when stationed in Germany I had copies made of two photographs. A friend of mine, a Luftwaffe officer, arranged for copies of them to be sent to all Luftwaffe Old Comrades Association branches in Western Germany in the hope of tracing the two German airmen. Despite knowing the location and exact date and time we had no success. A great pity!
Maybe they did not survive the war or possibly they lived in Eastern Germany where no Old Comrades organisations of the Third Reich were allowed.
Dennis relates how he ‘missed’ the Battle of Arnhem:
‘I was made a POW, having been wounded in the OUDNA – DEPIENNE battles, and escaped from a POW Camp in Italy in September 1943. I took rather a long time to get home, but eventually made it via Rome in July 1944. I was in touch with the CO, John Frost, while on leave and he asked me to return to the Bn at once. I thought I deserved my full leave of six weeks, so did not rejoin until September 27th, some ten days after the Bn’s departure. I think I was very lucky not to go as my great friend, Lieutenant. C. Boiteaux-Buchanan, MC who also escaped from Italy and reached home before me, was killed in action at Arnhem on 20th September 1944.’