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To War With The Bays: 45 - Cold Metal

...We were in this area for over a fortnight, once out on a regimental scheme 'fighting' other regiments, on another occasion travelling 100 miles south as far as Bou Saada on the edge of the Sahara Desert. There had been a time when we couldn't touch the tanks because they were so hot, now we could hardly bear to touch them because they were so cold!...

The Bays go on exercises in the North African mountains.

To read earlier chapters of Jack Merewood's vivid account of his wartime experiences please click on To War With The Bays in the menu on this page.

Two days after Dave's conference we were briefed on the latest plans. We were to go up into the mountains, then carry out manoeuvres in the rough terrain the other side. We would be there at least a fortnight, then come back to our farm for a week or so before moving on. We weren't told where we would be moving to, though Blue Light Archer had it on the best authority that it would be Fez in Morocco.

We packed up our kit and loaded the tanks on to transporters. As we headed for the mountains, it started to snow heavily. We carried on through the mountains, the snow now thick on the ground. After travelling about eighty miles the transporters left us about a mile from the town of Aumale, which to our disappointment was immediately put out of bounds. We were to be here three days, then use the surrounding area for the next couple of weeks or so as a base, going out on schemes and practising fighting in the sort of hilly country we might encounter in Italy.

We cleared the ground as best we could and put up our bivouacs. In an effort to keep warm we lit petrol fires inside but these were very smoky. We stayed where we were for a day when a few of the Echelon people joined us.

On a hill across the road was a farmhouse. I walked up there and found the occupant to be a very pleasant old lady. She was French, invited me in, gave me a glass of wine, and we talked a while.

When I left she gave me six eggs. Having nothing better to do the rest of the day, a group of us were in our bivvy playing cards when a fair-haired little French boy appeared in the doorway, clearly excited to have found all these soldiers here.

Being the only one who could speak French I asked his name. He said it was Yves, he was eleven years old, and lived on a farm just down the road towards Aumale. He stayed a while, very interested in the card-playing, then said he'd better be going home, and left.

There was more snow in the night, and next morning it was bitterly cold. We moved off at 10 a.m. taking our bivvies with us, though they were difficult to dismantle as the ropes were frozen. We drove over a 3,000-foot mountain pass, then dropped down to lower but very rough country, negotiating an often dangerously narrow road with numerous 'S' bends. After various exercises we spent the night near Sidi Aissa then returned to our base next day.

Titch' Hughes was sent back to Chebli for some equipment as well as some wine. He brought back two letters for me, one from Marie and one from her sister Suzanne. They both said they hoped we wouldn't be away long and looked forward to seeing us back at the farm soon.

We were in this area for over a fortnight, once out on a regimental scheme 'fighting' other regiments, on another occasion travelling 100 miles south as far as Bou Saada on the edge of the Sahara Desert. There had been a time when we couldn't touch the tanks because they were so hot, now we could hardly bear to touch them because they were so cold!

My diary of 29 February, 1944: 'Out on regimental scheme all day ... bitterly cold wind. After tea had kick-about with football. Wrote to Lucienne. Fried eggs for supper ... strong rumour that we're going home.'

At this time Lucienne was my most prolific correspondent. I had letters from her every few days, and answered them straight away. She was learning English at school, and when she wrote in French I'd answer in English, she'd then reply in English and I'd answer in French. This English/French correspondence continued for months, and consequently her English and my French benefited accordingly.

Reveille was usually about 7 a.m. but once it was decided we'd have an early start. My diary for 3 March: 'Reveille at 3 a.m. Oh what a time to get up - bitterly cold. Moved on and stopped by wadi and watched the sun come up. After a while had breakfast, and it was certainly welcome. Finally came back about 10 a.m. On maintenance for about an hour.'

After these manoeuvres we always returned to an area near Aumale. Then on 11 March three trucks were laid on to take some of us back for a weekend 'leave' at our farm. We arrived to great rejoicing from all our friends; it was like coming home. Having left our frying pan with the tank, I borrowed one from the house to fry breakfast.

We managed trips to Algiers and Blida, and on Sunday Bachir and Marie couldn't wait to have one of our afternoon sessions. Marie said she had given up working, because her employers expected too much of her.

Our leave was over all too soon, and it was back to the tanks and the mountains and more manoeuvres. Ted Wanless went sick. 14 March: 'As Ted has gone into hospital I now have to take over his tank. Would rather stay on our tank and do gunner than commander on another tank. Still it can't be altered.'

We camped by the side of the narrow road. About 200 yards away, towards Aumale, was a bridge over a stream with big trees growing on either side of it. The bridge was on a very bad bend, and one day a tank missed the corner, crashed through the bridge and landed upside down in the trees. It was a long drop but the trees broke the fall. The crew, although bruised and very shaken, escaped serious injury, but it took several hours, with chains and ropes and other tanks pulling, to recover the tank.

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