Frank Priestley’s writing offers memories of Second World War

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Frank Priestley served in the British Army from 1940-1946

Frank Priestley served in the British Army from 1940-1946

Frank Priestley, who passed away in Victoria at the age of 95 earlier this year, emigrated to Creston from Bolton, England, in 1964. He was accompanied by his wife, Connie, and children, Joanna (Wilson) and Alan. A third child, Janice, was born in Creston. Frank served in the British Army from 1940-46. The Advance is grateful to Joanna Wilson for providing her father’s memoirs, By the Barrack Gate, parts of which are excerpted here to acknowledge Remembrance Day:

 

My thoughts in writing this — some of my memoirs of my small involvement in the “Hitler War” — is to record and share with the reader some highlights as I recall them. In latter years memory plays tricks on me, such as only remembering the good times and forgetting the bad times, which most servicemen can equate with.

In the 1930s most of us, I think, had never travelled more than 50 miles from home base before enlisting. Military service provided to us more or less immature boys and girls some excitement and adventure, who not in their wildest dreams thought possible.

 

Induction to the Forces — Circa January 1940

First of all, the medical examination. I feel sure the doctors had orders to pass us for service if we could breathe in and breathe out and cough at the right moment (which we called the short arm inspection). I guess one had to be nearly dead not be accepted at that time. I did not know anyone that failed the medical. Anyway, I was given an A1 rating.

Next, an officer asked me my trade. I replied, “Grocery, sir.”

“Right-oh. I will put you in the stars.”

Later I found out he meant “stores”. (After all, the possibility of stellar flight was the furthest from our thoughts at that time!)

 

Chilwell Basic Training Depot — Nottingham

All servicemen went first of all to basic military training, so we commenced what we call “squad bashing”, considered essential for good order and discipline. We were sequestered in groups of 30 or 80 forces and drilled by a sergeant of the regular force, who pretended (I think) that we were all dumb skulls of the worst order. We endured endless marching up and down. Eventually, we were given our WWI trust Lee-Enfield rifle, after which we did all the various maneuvers required, such as slope arms, order arms, port arms, etc. At the end of 30 days came “pay parade”, which for military discipline at that time entailed the following procedure: two steps forward, then smartly salute the pay officer, pick up the meager few shillings (seven, as I recall), then two steps backwards, about turn, all this under the watchful eye of the sergeant major. If he did not like the way you did this he made us repeat the maneuvers until he was satisfied.

Then to the rifle range, shooting with live ammo at a target at various distances. It was hoped one could get a bull’s eye, or at least a “magpie”. I recall one of our so-called barrack room lawyers exhorted us not to do too well, or we could be transferred to the infantry as a sharpshooter. So after the 30 days we were considered somewhat proficient and sent off to an Ordinance Training Depot at Tidworth, Hampshire. Tidworth was strictly a military town in the middle of Salisbury Plain, with little or no social amenities for young soldiers, so at the time we became, as we called it, browned off (meaning bored to death).

Life took quite a turn when we received a red alert in September 1940. Apparently an invasion of Britain was imminent at any moment. We received orders to be confined to barracks and to carry our rifles and gas masks at all times. I was placed on a promontory overlooking a place called Perham Downs, considered to be a prime landing area for enemy airborne troops.

An officer approached me and said, “How is your field of fire, soldier?”

I replied, “Very good, sir.”

“Right-oh,” he replied. “Carry on.” I looked around and I appeared to be quite alone.

In retrospect, I say thank God that Hitler considered it was not the time to invade Britain. When you think of it, we would have been ill prepared for this. Maybe Hitler and his gang wanted first of all for our Fighter Command and Royal Navy to be neutralized. Anyway, it gave Britain some time to reorganize and strengthen our defenses, as the Dunkirk evacuation a few weeks earlier had scattered troops all over Britain, so it gave precious time to eventually form mighty armies.

 

El Alamein Battle — November 1942

Ten British and Commonwealth divisions faced the enemy positions, mostly untried as yet in combat. We had approximately 1,000 tanks to Rommel’s 600, overpowering superiority and aircraft manpower and we had much shorter supply lines than the enemy, with our backs to the Nile Delta supply base.

The main problem for us was that Rommel’s defenses were protected in depth by five miles of minefields, which Rommel called Devil’s Garden. It included much barbed wire and fields of murderous crossfire. There was no room for any flanking maneuvers, owing to what is called the Quattara Depression, so the frontal defenses had to be broken before our tanks could break through. It took twelve days of bitter fighting before the German and Italian defenses were eventually broken. The Eighth Army had 13,000 casualties in the battle. The enemy had apparent losses of 75,000 men, 1,000 guns and 500 tanks, which included the 1,500-mile retreat to Tunisia. But then the Rommel (the cagy Desert Fox) was caught between the Eighth Army and Eisenhower’s Fifth Army landing from Algiers. A resounding defeat was inflicted on its enemy forces and then Italy was, to all intents and purposes, out of the war, too.

You can imagine the horrendous job. Our sappers had to clear two paths through the enemy minefields so that the tanks could go through, quite often under intense shellfire and with confusion, what with all the noise, smoke and dust from our own 800-plus flights overhead. Teams of sappers worked in some sort of unison, some panning for Teller mines (some three to four inches below the sand) and others taping the path wide enough for our tanks to go through. Our mine detectors were often wireless, so it proved more expedient to dig down for them with a bayonet.

First we made sure there were no tripwires beneath — lift them out and turn the slot on top to “safety” (an English penny did the job okay). Defused, they were then picked up by other sappers later.

 

In his more than five years of service, Frank served as far south as South Africa and spent much time in both North Africa and Europe. When he was finally discharged and returned home — after a lengthy delay because married men had priority — he returned home to his family:

Back home I didn’t exactly get a hero’s welcome. At that time I had two teenage sisters at home. I recall taking a bath and, in my excitement maybe, I forgot to clean the ring! My sisters scolded me for years. Even now I kid them about this. I said, there I was after six years or so of undergoing “shot and shell” and this was all the welcome home I got. Also, in my absence the girls decided (I don’t blame them for this) that my little bedroom at the back of the house was made into a bathhouse room.

So consequently I had to sleep with Dad for a while. This arrangement was not much to my liking, or my Dad’s, so I was glad to find a lovely 20-year-old, Constance Dickenson. After a few months of engagement we got married in 1947. We were fortunate in getting a nice house quickly.

We decided later in 1954 to go to Canada. We haven’t regretted our life here.

—BY FRANK PRIESTLEY